The Guardian has published a list of the most borrowed book from British libraries . I have only read one (the Mantel) and have no plans to read any of the others. I must admit there are many authors on the list whom I have never heard of. Meanwhile, ABE UK has a published a list of the most searched for out of print book. I have read two of these (the McElroy and Koestler), have heard of relatively few and am unlikely to read any of the others. I suppose that this means that I am completely out of touch with what the GBP reads (GBP=Great British Public; the term come from Q D Leavis, a quote you may have come across on my homepage – After that is accomplished the next business in hand is to get on the right side of the Great British Public. And keep your eyebrows well pinned down. It is quite likely you may know it all and feel enormously sorry for the Great B. P. for not having enjoyed all your advantages. But the Great B. P. is not always impressed. Very frequently it is bored stiff. Silly and presumptuous of it, but there it is. Amuse it and cheer up. Chat to it. Bully it a little. Tickle its funny bone. Giggle with it. Confide in it. Give it, now and again, a good old cry. It loves that. But don’t, for your success’s sake, come the superior highbrow over it.) I shall not follow Q.D.s advice to the letter as I shall be happy to say that many of these books are trash. If you enjoy trash, that is fine – my musical tastes have often been criticised as such – but many of them are still trash, whatever your taste.
The latest addition to my website is Norah Lange‘s Norah Lange: 45 días y 30 marineros [45 Days and 30 Sailors], yet another Latin American novel that has not been translated into English. This is the story, based on an actual voyage Lange made, of a young woman (the real Lange was twenty-eight) travelling from Buenos Aires, alone with a male crew of thirty sailors and one male passenger. Much of the novel finds both passengers and crew drunk but there are also many sexual undertones that threaten to break out into overtones. Indeed, a considerable part of the story is how this develops and how Ingrid, the Lange character, deals with it. Lange has had something of a cult reputation in Argentina, partially because of her association with Borges (they may have been lovers at one time) but is now somewhat better known since her collected works were issued in 2005. Sadly, none of her work has been translated into English.
The latest addition to my website is Sergio de la Pava‘s A Naked Singularity. This made some best-off lists for the end of last year but not enough. The fact that it was self-published in 2008, is nearly 700 pages long and written by a US author of Colombian origin with an Italian name may have put some people off. It is actually a superb novel about an attorney in the New York City public defender system, which starts off describing, in almost Dickensian fashion, the nature of the New York justice system and then evolves into a caper novel with a social conscience. It is superbly written and I cannot recommend it too highly.
The latest addition to my website is Liam O’Flaherty‘s Land. It is another novel set against the background of Irish history, in this case the disputes between landlords and tenants in the late nineteenth century, which gave rise to the formation of the Land League. It tells the story of the local Fenian group in dispute with both the landlord and Catholic church, with the former landlord, recently returned to Ireland from France, taking the side of the Fenians rather that the landlord and the authorities. As always, O’Flaherty tells a good story, even if his love affairs are a bit clichéd.
The latest addition to my website is Rodney Graham‘s The System of Landor’s Cottage. Rodney Graham is a Canadian artist who has experimented with manipulating found texts. He has taken existing works, such as Dr. No or Freud’s work on dreams, and added to them. In this case, he has written an entire novel from Edgar Allan Poe’s last story, Landor’s Cottage, expanding it both in terms of the text and in terms of his physical addition to Mr. Landor’s cottage. It is an Arabian Nights, story-within-a-story-within-a story phantasmagoria, full of wonderful machines, strange phenomena, Oriental mysteries, love found and love failed, wicked deeds, secret clues and ciphers, plots within plots and much more. It is a wonderful read. Sadly, it has only been published in a limited edition by a Belgian publisher so it is not readily available but well worth the effort to get hold of it.
My predictions for the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize were, as predicted, wrong. I said I always got them wrong and I did. I must admit that I have never read Mo Yan, though I do own a few of his books. I am sure that he is a worthy choice and his name had been floating around for some time. I am glad that Bring Up the Bodies won. I do believe that it was the best book of the six but I didn’t think that they would give it to her again so soon and for a sequel to her previous win. Congrats to Peter “bloggers are detrimental to literature” Stothard and his Committee for their choice. As my choice invariably fails, I am now going to predict next year’s winners, knowing full well that will not win. So I confidently predict that the Nobel Prize will go to the highly overrated Philip Roth and the Man Booker to the also highly overrated Will Self and therefore condemn them to the Not-Winners category for eternity. And very deservedly so, might I say.
Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and Chairman of this year’s Man Booker prize committee has said bloggers are detrimental to literature. John Self responds to Stothard much better than I can but I would still like to make a couple of points. Firstly, Stothard says There is a widespread sense in the UK, as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline. It may be widespread in TLS circles but it is not widespread as far as I know. But, even if this were the case, does it matter? Almost invariably, I read a book review to see whether I want to read the book in question. I want to want to know what it is about, what else the author has done if it is an author unknown to me, whether the book is well-written, whether it is in a style I might enjoy and whether it is the sort of book I would enjoy. That is the sort of review I write on my website. I write that sort of review because it is what I want and, I suspect, what a lot of people want. Yes, there are other reasons for reading a review – to see if the author agrees with your assessment of the book, to learn more what the books is about, in the case of a difficult book and to be able to talk about the book without reading it. But, particularly if we have not yet read the book – and the TLS and newspapers review new books, often before they are even for sale – we probably want to see if the book is worth reading so a detailed exegesis is not necessarily what we want.
Secondly, he goes on to say As much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. Self’s apposite responses is there are inessential blogs, just as there are inessential literary critics. Indeed, there are. Throughout history lit crits have recommended books that are rubbish and ignored works of genius. The advantages of bloggers are a) it is a hell of lot cheaper to start a blog than to start a newspaper or magazine. Yes, that means that there are more of them but it also means that a whole range of niche markets, undiscovered books, foreign books, hidden gems and so on are probably going to be unearthed by someone somewhere. b) it is a hell of a lot cheaper to subscribe to a lot of blogs than a lot of magazines and newspaper. I subscribe to around 250 literary blogs (including Stothard’s) in various languages. It costs me nothing beyond my broadband fee. As a result I can see a lot more than if I would if I just limited myself to print sources. I subscribe to just eight literary magazines. The TLS alone costs me £92 a year. I do read the TLS but have to go through every page to see if there is a review or article I want to read but with the blogs I just look at the article heading on my RSS news reader and can make a quick judgement as to whether I want to read further. c) because there are more of them, they cover a whole range of fascinating stuff. I have come across all sorts of interesting books on blogs that I would never have discovered in print media. Yes, I have come across quite a few in the TLS and other publications so I am glad to have both but, if I had to give up the blogs or give up my magazine subscriptions, it would be the magazines that would (reluctantly) go.
What bloggers have done – and this includes the wide range of literary bloggers – is open up possibilities to many readers. If you are interested in bodice rippers or space fiction or novels about cats, there is almost certainly a blog (or, probably, several blogs) for you and that can only be a good thing. Most people do not read the TLS because they can’t afford to or wouldn’t find it interesting or wouldn’t find their type of books in it. But, somewhere on the web, there is a blog for pretty well every reader. I can only hope that there will be many more.
Right. As I said, I shall not write another post on the Man Booker Prize. Never again. Except for this one. And maybe another one. It’s like a disease. Or a drug. The Guardian has had two interesting articles on the Booker. The first, by Justine Jordan, congratulates the judges on favouring eccentricity and invention. She is, of course, right, in that most of the obvious ones have been omitted – Amis (thank you, judges), McEwan, Zadie Smith, Banville, Lanchester, Tremain, Carey, Norfolk, Alan Warner, Mo, Jacobson, Barker (Pat – Nicola is there) or J K herself. Of those omitted, I have only read the Lanchester and the Carey and liked the former but not the latter. As said in my previous post on the subject, I have not heard of many of the suggestions but, now that we have a longlist, I shall try and read one or two of them. Good on the judges for their creativity, though the downside is that, as they can’t give it to Hilary Mantel again, Will Self gets it. Mildly better than Asbo Amis but only mildly.
The other interesting Guardian article on the Booker was about bias in the Booker. Alan Bissett, who is Scottish, complains that only one Scot has ever won the Booker, that Trainspotting was pulled from the shortlist and only five other Scots have been shortlisted. He then proceeds to ruin his argument by pointing out that Scotland’s population represents 0.2% of the population of the Commonwealth but that they have had 3.6% of the shortlistees (4.4% if you count William Boyd, which I do, and Bernard MacLaverty (which I don’t)). James Kelman was the sole winner and, while I have not read his Booker Prize winning novel, I have read The Busconductor Hines, his first novel, and I thought it was dire (which is why I have not read his others). While I disagree with him about Kelman, there are several Scottish novels which should have won it, in my view. Lanark is a brilliant novel, though it was up against another brilliant novel that year – Midnight’s Children. A L Kennedy’s Paradise (winner that year was Banville‘s The Sea, which I have not read as I had got tired of Banville by then) or her Day, beaten by The Gathering which I have yet to read but will, are both superb novels. The Land Lay Still and several of Muriel Spark‘s novel would also have been worthy contenders.
Bissett goes on to mention, again undercutting his own argument, that it might not be so much a nationality thing but a class thing. The essentially middle-class judges of the Man Booker are going to choose middle-class novels. He definitely has a point there. This years’s judges consist of the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, an actor who plays the future Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, two English academics who write with erudition and clarity in learned journals (according to the Daily Telegraph) and the author of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, none of whom come across as bastions of the revolution. However, Bissett misses a key point. The novel is, essentially, a bourgeois medium. Yes, of course, there are novels written by working class writers and on working class themes but look at most lists of best literary novels and you will find that they are essentially middle class. As Rohinton Mistry succinctly put it Most fiction is about the middle class; perhaps because most writers are from the middle class.
Bissett goes on to conclude that the Man Booker prize is a reward system for the English establishment masquerading as magnamity. It should come as no surprise that the Man Booker prize for Commonwealth literature mimics the empire itself. That may be a bit strong but it is equally not completely removed from the truth. Is English literature simply better than that of the Celtic nations? Bissett asks. James Joyce‘s response is perhaps the best – And in spite of everything, Ireland remains the brain of the Kingdom. The English, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget – the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilized nations. This is then called English literature. But the fact remains that Irish (and Scottish and Welsh) literature get only limited coverage in the English press. Ireland has its own award as, indeed, do Scotland and Wales but they do not get the coverage of the Man Booker. While it would be nice to see more Celtic nominees for the Man Booker, I suspect that Bissett may be disappointed for a long while yet.
Having just returned from a holiday in Montenegro, I thought that I would take the opportunity to talk briefly about Montenegrin literature. But first a quick word about Montenegro and our holiday there. The photo at left shows the Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks), visible from our bedroom window in Perast. The story goes that a fisherman found an icon on a rock there. He had no idea how it got there but clearly some divine intervention was involved. As a result, the locals decided to build a shrine to the Virgin Mary. It was only a small rock but, over a period of time, they brought rocks, stones, wrecked ships and whatever else they could find and built up the small island you can now see. On the rock is the shrine, a small church which contains a series of beautiful paintings by Tripo Kokolja.
We stayed part of the time in Perast, a beautiful little port town on the Bay of Kotor, which has now been developed for tourism but which used to be a major seafaring port, with a fleet of 100 ships and very active in warfare at sea, though they were raided by Barbary pirates when the fleet was out and the women and children left behind were taken into slavery. The museum from whose balcony the pictured at left was taken has a lot about Perast’s seafaring past.
We also visited Budva (see left), Kotor, Herceg-Novi, Sveti Stefan, the old capital of Cetinje and Kolašin and the splendid national park Biogradska Gora, one of the oldest in Europe and very unspoilt. A lovely holiday and one I would recommend with one proviso, the drivers who are dangerous and think nothing of overtaking at 70 mph on hairpin bends. Most people I have mentioned Montenegro to have only a limited idea as to where it is (despite it twice drawing with England in the European Nations Cup qualifiers). Nevertheless, it has a long and distinguished history and was the only part of that region to resist the Ottomans, who eventually gave up trying to conquer Montenegro. (Tennyson even wrote a poem about it.) I discovered it by reading the essential Vanished Kingdoms of Europe by Norman Davies, where there is a chapter on the Kingdom of the Black Mountain, i.e. Montenegro between 1910 and 1918. (This book, by the way, is without a doubt my favourite book of the last year or so and everyone should read it. Even if you are professional historian, you will learn a lot.)
But I wanted to talk about the Montenegrin novel. I only have only one Montenegrin novel on my website, a book that is sadly out of print. Indeed, to buy it in English will cost you £121.23 from Amazon UK, $177.78 from Amazon US and $149.99 from abebooks. It is in print in Spanish and, though out of print in French, readily available at not too great a price and available for €19 on Amazon Germany. Sorry for my usual rant about availability of books translated into English. Though he has written several other books, this is the only one translated into English though, of course, several others are available in French and one other in German. Ho hum.
If you are not aware of the very wonderful Istros Books, you should be. They are publishing new works by Eastern European authors, including two Montenegrin authors – Andrej Nikolaidis and Ognjen Spahić. I shall certainly get round to Nikolaidis’ The Coming and Spahić’s Hansen’s Children sometime soon. You can read an except from a Nikolaidis novel in English here and a Spahić story in English here. There are other new Montenegrin novelists. The Economist mentions three – Nikolaidis, Spahić and Balša Brković. Neither he nor his father, also a writer, have been published in English but one of his father’s novels (see photo above) has been translated into German and I will get to it eventually. Jevrem Brković was a strong supporter of Montenegrin independence from Serbia. The Economist does mention one other writer – Igor Luksic, whose day job is Prime Minister of Montenegro. His literary work has not been published in English but you can read his blog in English though it is about politics, not literature. I would be interested in reading Dragana Kršenković Brković. She is primarily a playwright (see examples in English here and here) but has written a novel (link in Montenegrin) called Izgubljeni pečat which means The Lost Seal.
There are some other older Montenegrin writers who were, of course, known as Yugoslavian writers but who are from Montenegro. Milovan Đilas (mainly known as Milovan Djilas in the West) is probably Montenegro’s best-known writer and many of his books were translated into English. However, nearly all of these were non-fiction, often criticising his former Communist comrades. He did write several novels but only one, translated as Under the Colours, has been translated into English. It is a historical novel about Montenegro’s struggle for freedom. Mirko Kovač is another writer who has not been translated into English but has been translated into Dutch, French, German, Italian, Swedish and most of the Slavonic languages. Miodrag Bulatović has been translated into English and I have copies of all three. Though all out of print they are not too difficult to obtain.
Borislav Pekić was a totally original novelist. Four of his novels have been translated into English, though only two are still in print. Sadly, his most interesting work has not. His seven-volume Zlatno runo (it means Golden Fleece) has not been translated into English. The first three volumes have been translated into French but the last one appeared in 2004 and, despite the promise of the fourth, it has yet to appear. I am still hoping that it (and the remaining three) will appear. Mihailo Lalić‘s Lelejska gora has been translated as The Wailing Mountain, though it is long since out of print. If you read Montenegrin, you can read it online. It may be a small country but it still has made its contribution to world literature.