The latest addition to my website is Claude Simon‘s L’Acacia (The Acacia). This is a book about war. In twelve chapters, the book jumps backwards and forwards between World War I and World War II (with a chapter to set the scene before World War I and one set in the immediate aftermath of World War I) telling the story of Simon’s father in World War I, who did not survive, and Simon himself in World War II (he did survive). We learn of the chaos surrounding the fall of France in May 1940 as well as of the wholesale slaughter of World War I. Simon gives us superbly well-written detailed descriptions of the events as seen from the eyes of the ordinary soldier, sparing us little in his descriptions.
The latest addition to my website is Chadraabalyn Lodoidamba‘s Тунгалаг Тамир [The Clear Tamir]. This is the first Mongolian novel on my site. It tells the story of Mongolia from early in the twentieth century to the unsuccessful 1932 Lama Uprising. The story is told through the eyes of two brothers – Erdene and Tömör and their families, and Itgelt, a clan chief, and his family. Things change dramatically after the Russian Revolution and Erdene becomes a committed communist, while Tömör, a Sain-Er (an outlaw), helps him. We follow the lives of these people against the background of the changes taking place in Mongolia, with the involvement of the Chinese and the Russians and the move from a nomadic, clan-based culture to a more communist one. It is a thoroughly enjoyable story and was made into a successful film in Mongolia (see poster, above left). Sadly, it has only been translated into Russian and from Russian into German but not into English.
The shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced and nearly got lost in the shuffle, as it was announced the day after Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list. Fortunately for it, there was something of a controversy, as Hilary Mantel was nominated for yet another prize for her book Bring up the Bodies. Some commentators felt that it was time to give other writers a turn but the Prize Chair, Miranda Richardson, forcibly defended the decision. I am with Miranda Richardson on this, not only because I think that she is a first-class actress but also because, if Hilary Mantel has written the best book (and there is no question that it is a brilliant novel), she should win the prize. Just because a football team has won a prize, it is not stopped from winning another. The other controversy was the same old one – why should there be a separate prize for women writers? Answer: too many of the top prizes seem to prefer men (see the Prize FAQ, first question) and, if men feel that they are done down, they can always set up their own prize. End of discussion.
Of the six books on the shortlist, I have read three – Bring up the Bodies, Zadie Smith‘s NW and Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life (not to be confused with Jill McCorkle’s book of the same name). I had not heard of Maria Semple but plan to read her Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Barbara Kingsolver is one of those writers that I have always felt that I might read but probably would never get round to but this may make me change my mind, not least as I have a copy of The Poisonwood Bible in my library. She won the Orange Prize (predecessor of this prize) in 2010. A M Homes is one of those writers on the sadly very long list of writers I really must read but have not yet got round to. In short, this is a very strong list and while Hilary Mantel must be a strong favourite, she does have some good competition.
Last week saw the issue of the very wonderful Review of Contemporary Fiction’s The Future of British Fiction, edited by Jennifer Hodgson and Patricia Waugh. It is dated Fall 2012 but actually appeared on 23 April. This is, of course, St George’s Day, St George being the patron saint of the English (but definitely not of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish). It was also World Book and Copyright Day. (No, nor did I.) It is also the day that traditionally saw the death of two famous writers, Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare, though, in fact, neither actually died on that day. Shakespeare did die on 23 April but 23 April according to the Julian calendar not according to the Gregorian calendar, which we now use, according to which he died 3 May. Cervantes died on 22 April and was buried 23 April. (As I am indulging in trivia, I can only think of one other example when two famous people died on a day which had some significance other than their death – 4 July 1826 saw the death of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the second and third US presidents, both dying on the 50th anniversary of the (non-)signing of the US Declaration of Independence (which was actually signed by most (but not all) signatories on 2 August of that year. All of this trivia has nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, Cervantes or the future of British fiction.)
Though the issue is called The Future of British Fiction, it seems to be more about a) the past; b) current non-mainstream fiction and c) English, Scottish (and, to a much lesser degree) post-colonial fiction, with the Welsh and Northern Irish barely getting a look in. Not a great deal about the future. The number starts off with an introduction by the two editors, where they tell us straightaway that this issue is not about the future of British fiction but about British contemporary fiction (sic – I would have said contemporary British fiction but maybe that’s just me). They go on to point out that innovative writing has not been seen either side of the Atlantic over the past forty years, with only a few exceptions (they name Kazuo Ishiguro and Alasdair Gray as examples). They may well be right, though I think it is not quite as simple as that. J G Ballard famously said, in 1971, Something like 5000 novels are published every year and the great majority show no advance in vocabulary, technique, style on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The great majority do not but some do. However, this raises a question I shall discuss below in relation to Stewart Home, namely so what if there has been no innovation in vocabulary, technique and style since Jane Austen?
Waugh and Hodgson go on to cite a British writer currently feted in academic Europhile circles (Tim Pears? Adam Thorpe? completely fictitious in order to make a point, as a former Times journalist and current Mayor of London did with a quote?) who declined their invitation to write about the new fiction in Britain (new? contemporary? future? WTF is it?). He said I didn’t know there was any. That has to be very stupid remark. Authors notoriously often do not read other current fiction but to say there is none (see Granta’s Best Young British Novelists, announced last week) is about as realistic as George Osborne’s economic policies. Note Waugh and Hodgson said new, not innovative where our academically feted author may have a point. They go on to say that postmodernism is no longer fashionable (quite true, though, for most readers, they don’t care whether a novel is pomo or not, they just want to enjoy it) and has been replaced by other -isms, often ending in realism, such as hysterical realism, dirty realism, etc. (again, this is academic talk, not the general reader.) Where they do have a very strong point is showing that, with the current government, we are heading back into the past, including in literature, when there are interesting modern authors in the UK. They go on to point out that many innovative authors in the UK are eschewing Englishness or Britishness but looking to Europe or the US for influence and writing not about Jane Austen’s provinces or the centre of London but the urban fringes.
Though they do not use the word, they do point out that the strength of the British novel in the post-war 20th century is its eccentricity and that its recent failures are because of late consumer culture and New Philistinism, as though philistinism was something that was invented by Margaret Thatcher (she may have promoted it but she certainly did not invent it). The concept of British, which most people do not seem to identify with, also seems to be a problem (but not, I think, for most readers, at least as regards what and how they read). Post-colonialism (whatever it may be – Kazuo Ishiguro is not sure) and novels as a way out of loneliness (hasn’t that always been the case? – ask, yes, Jane Austen) are more grist to their mill, while Colm Tóibin (not British) damns the English style and Zadie Smith hails two writers as the hope for avant-garde British writing – Joseph O’Neill (not British) and Tom McCarthy. And that’s it? Oh dear. And, finally, after twenty pages, on the penultimate page of the essay, they wave hauntology/psychogeography as the way to go. But isn’t that so very much last year? The writers they cite – Will Self, A L Kennedy, Iain Sinclair, Ali Smith, Scarlett Thomas, Nicola Barker and David Peace – have all been writing for at least ten years and, in some cases, more than twenty. All are over forty and two are over fifty.
Which, of course, brings me to Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. The writers mentioned above as the way to go were not on Granta’s list, of course, as they are all over forty. This list, which they could not have known, would appear a week before this issue. Zadie Smith apart, the twenty do not get a mention in this issue. While we can and, indeed, have taken issue with the Granta selection, surely, if we are looking at the future of British fiction, we should be looking at some of these writers and, in particular, the under forties? No? OK, let’s move on. The second essay is by Maureen Freely (an American, who has written experimental novels, though is best known as the translator into English of Orhan Pamuk). Freely damns creative writing courses, damns the lack of translations into English of good novels and damns what she calls the Invisible Hand of the publishing industry which sets taste and eschews experimentalism. Sadly, after the opening section, looking back, she does not mention a single novel or novelist. Paul Crosthwaite takes on novels about the financial markets, rightly damning Sebastian Faulks‘ A Week in December while praising a few others such as Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon. After an interview with Jim Crace (a very fine writer, who has a new novel out which I intend to read shortly) by Jennifer Hodgson (As a nation of readers, Brigid Brophy characterised the British as ill-at-ease and bashful about the fictiveness of their fictions, equating stories with daydreaming and daydreaming with masturbation, and believing both to be bad for the eyesight.), we move onto Katy Shaw on David Peace.
And then there is Stewart Home. He starts off by saying Humanity will not be happy until the last Man Booker Prize winner is hung by the guts of the final recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (He puts it all in upper case, just in case you didn’t get the point.) He then excoriates the likes of Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan (bourgeois hacks). These and other similar writers don’t know the first thing about how ordinary people live and they don’t know how to write while proletarians prefer to use direct language – presumably as in their favourite reading, The Sun. He does not mention any writers whom he admires, except for passing references to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin and even they get damned. There is no future for the type of bourgeois literary fiction that dominates publishing today he says, though it is not clear what there is a future for, apart from what he calls proletarian writing which, in the past, has sadly not done well. His own fiction writing is replete with graphic and gratuitous sex, which the proletariat will certainly like, and he does like to stick it to the bourgeoisie, which is certainly a very worthwhile thing to do. Indeed, his works do have a certain interest. However, Stewart, my love, I have news for you. There is room for your writing and there is also plenty of room for what you call bourgeois writing. I am very much in favour of experimental writing but let us not forget that Ulysses was published eighty-one years ago and many readers find that too innovative and few writers have produced anything more innovative and, at the same time, that people want to read, since that time. So let us leave space for the experimental, the innovative and, yes, the proletarian, while also leaving room for the bourgeois novel, which is what most people want to read.
In the next essay, Carole Jones talks about the Scottish novel, so it is a pity that there is virtually nothing on the Welsh and Northern Irish novel. She talks a lot about James Kelman, a writer whom, I confess, I do not enjoy but also about A L Kennedy, Alan Warner and Ali Smith. Victor Sage talks about Nicola Barker, a writer I do intend to read soon, before we get on to China Miéville. I have to admit that I did not take to his kind of fantasy but this is a failing on my part, not his, as I know a lot of people do admire him.. His essay is entitled 5 to Read and it consists of five recommendations of books in the fantasy genre. Interestingly, for an essay focussed on the future, it starts with a book first published in 1914. This is Marion Fox‘s Ape’s-Face, republished in 2006 by a small Canadian publisher. I had never heard of her or of three of the others. One – called I Hips – I can find no reference to by Googling or in WorldCat so s/he (Miéville says he does not know the sex of this author) may be fictitious. The one I have heard of is William Hope Hodgson, whom I hope to read and who has been championed by Iain Sinclair, amongst others. We conclude with an essay on Cosmo-kitsch, which you can read for yourself and an article on teaching creative writing.
It is a decidedly mixed bag, which has some interesting articles but not much on the future of British fiction and barely a single reference to any younger writers (who, presumably, are the future). While they did not have the Granta list to hand, they could and should have tried to explore some of the younger writers and what they are doing, instead of writing about books published in 1914 and authors over forty. I dug out some older Future of Fiction essays to compare. In 1978, the long since defunct New Review had a State of Fiction Symposium in which they asked various authors as well as as few critics about the development of fiction in English over the past ten years and anticipated or hoped for developments in the next decade. There were some interesting comments. J G Ballard said the role of imaginative fiction becomes more and more important for survival, while Martin Amis commented I can imagine a novel that is tricksy, alienated and as writerly as those of, say Robbe-Grillet while also providing the staid satisfactions of pace, plot and humour with which we associate, say, Jane Austen. Stewart Home would not like that. Lots of other interesting comments, some of them still valid thirty-five years later. In 1992 ANQ published a forum on the future of American fiction, edited by Lance Olsen, who wrote an essay on the Michael Jacksonization of American Fiction, by which he means that everyone is playing it safe, going for the predictable and what sells. However, he does look at possible trends – cyberpunk, the graphic novel (not mentioned at all in The Review of Contemporary Fiction) and a host of other possibilities as well as a host of interesting writers. There are lots of interesting contributions from writers like Kelly Cherry, Tracy Daugherty, Janice Eidus, Robin Hemley and Jerome Klinkowitz. This was later published as a small, separate book called Surfing Tomorrow: Essays on the Future of American Fiction. I will also mention in passing a previous Review of Contemporary Fiction, the David Foster Wallace-edited forum on the Future of Fiction in 1996. This is a complex set of essays but with lots of interesting ideas (Q. Will John Updike be remembered a hundred years from now? A. John who?) and still available. I look forward to rereading it and seeing where the current British one could have done better.
Being away last week, I was able to peruse the Granta Best of Young British Novelists 4 at leisure and let others more competent than I comment on it. If you missed it, here they are: Naomi Alderman; Tahmima Anam; Ned Beauman; Jenni Fagan; Adam Foulds; Xiaolu Guo; Sarah Hall; Steven Hall; Joanna Kavenna; Benjamin Markovits; Nadifa Mohamed; Helen Oyeyemi; Ross Raisin; Sunjeev Sahota; Taiye Selasi; Kamila Shamsie; Zadie Smith; David Szalay; Adam Thirlwell; Evie Wyld. (If you want to see what they look like, The New York Times has a slideshow as does the Daily Telegraph). I have now read at least one book by all of the twenty linked above and, I must say, most of them are very fine authors. However, there have been some complaints. Firstly, are they up to it? People were not very impressed with the quality of the writers on this list, except, perhaps for Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith. They were compared unfavourably with writers on previous lists, particularly the first one, as well as with current US writers. This is probably unfair as US writers do get more publicity and it really is too early to tell for most of them. The second complaint is whether they are really British. The key criterion was that they had to hold a British passport so presumably that was checked. But quite a few of these writers were from somewhere else and quite a few do not live in the UK. This, of course, does not exclude them.
The third complaint is what was omitted. Various people made various suggestions. I have combined their suggestions and mine into the list below. A few comments. Peter Hobbs (like Kamila Shamsie, who made the list) was born in 1973. I cannot determine if he was born before or after the April cut-off date. Some of these may not be British citizens, the other key criterion. Ciarán Collins and Paul Murray are Irish, Tahmima Anam Bangladeshi and Neel Mukherjee Indian. But are they also British?
An interesting list and I shall certainly read some of them over the next few months and maybe decide whether they have been unfairly omitted. Let us hope that they are not neglected because they did not make the list. Hilary Mantel did not make any of the earlier lists! Have I missed any? Let me know.
The latest addition to my website is J M Coetzee‘s The Childhood of Jesus. This book is not about the childhood of Jesus, except, perhaps, very tangentially. What it is about is the arrival of the five-year old David and the forty-five year old Simón in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country, where new arrivals seem to have forgotten everything about their previous lives and slot into fairly mundane lives, whose main excitement seems to be, at least for the men, the occasional game of football. Romance and sex are highly limited, as is quality food, most people subsisting on bread.
Not only is the title something of a mystery, so are the covers. The one above, on the left, is the UK cover and seems to have no relevance to the story at all, except, perhaps to a very minor incident in the story. The one to the right is the Australian cover and does have a bit more relevance to the story, but only towards the end. Is David, the five-year old, meant to represent the young Jesus? He is different, does not fit in, has his own language and, indeed, his own world, and is highly imaginative. As in other Coetzee novels, not all is explained. Nevertheless, this is another fine novel from Coetzee, even if not his best.
We spent the last week in Devon, on the edge of Dartmoor, including walking up to Black a Tor Copse (photo left), which we had seen in the BBC’s Secret Britain. Devon has various literary connections. Two novels that featured in the Dartmoor Information Centre were Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, partially set in the Dartmoor area (I have not read the book nor seen the film or the play so cannot comment on it) and The Hound of the Baskervilles, set on Dartmoor (I have read the book and seen the film (there are over twenty film and TV versions) but probably do not need to comment on either). The other big Devon book is Lorna Doone (read the book and seen the film), though Sense and Sensibility was set in Devon.
One famous English writer associated with Devon is Agatha Christie. She was born in Torquay but spent much of her adult life in Greenway, which we visited last week. It is a beautiful house, originally built in Tudor times and then rebuilt in the Georgian era. Agatha Christie and her husband, the archeologist, Max Mallowan bought the house in 1938 as a summer house. It has a beautiful setting, overlooking the River Dart. She set fifteen of her books in Devon and a few at Greenway.
One other writer associated with the River Dart is the poet Alice Oswald. Alice Oswald lives on the Dartington Estate in Devon. Her work has been very much influenced by the Devon landscape, particularly her wonderful poem on the River Dart, Dart.
However, my favourite Devon writer is Henry Williamson, who was born in Kent but spent much of his adult life in Devon. He is best-known for Tarka the Otter, which was set in Devon. However, my favourite work of his is the fifteen books series The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, much of which was written in Devon and some of which is set in Devon. Williamson died and is buried in Devon.
The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Le noeud de vipères (Vipers’ Tangle; later: The Knot of Vipers). It is considered one of Mauriac’s best novel, a judgement with which I wholeheartedly concur. It tells the story of a very successful lawyer, who hates his family (wife, children, their spouses and children) with a passion, and schemes to do them out of their inheritance. The story primarily consists of a letter he is writing to his wife, for her to find after his death, in which he pours out his scorn for her and their two children. He tells the story of his life and of his view of their marriage, hoping that she will realise the depth of his antipathy for her. But then life takes a strange turn. It is a first-class novel, like all Mauriac’s novels, one of gloom and misery, as the main characters are interested in property and honour alone.
The latest addition to my website is Sarah A. Al Shafei‘s Yummah, the first Bahraini novel on the site. It is more of a memoir, a tribute to her grandmother who had nine children, a husband who deserted her when she was pregnant with the ninth and various other tragedies in her life, yet managed to pull through, keep a good heart, a positive spirit and her religious faith, and survive to have numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As well as showing the life of her grandmother, al Shafei also shows how Bahrain has changed over the years. Though somewhat hagiographical, it is still a very readable novel.
Alfred A Knopf have posted a Facebook page, laughingly entitled American Men of Letters. I say laughingly as if their five American Men of Letters (they presumably mean United States) are the best they can do, God help US letters. They have done it in, to use a US expression, a half-assed way with a feeble Facebook page. They have also done it to celebrate the release of James Salter’s new book. I must confess that I have never read James Salter. Nor have many other people, if Slate is to be believed . In addition to Salter, they offer us the massively overrated penis-obsessed Philip Roth, Richard Ford (another overrated writer for men with small penises), Richard Russo, highly enjoyable, a pretty good writer but certainly not one of the great men of letters and John Cheever, another overrated writer. We may perhaps ignore the fact that these men are all very old and long since past the best, if they ever had a best. We might also ignore the fact that Knopf seems fit to honour men but ignores the many fine women writers in the United States. But these five as their greats? Norman Mailer will be turning in his grave.