The latest addition to my website is Milena Ercolani‘s Figlie della luna [Daughters of the Moon]. It is not a novel but rather a collection of short stories, nominally linked by a common theme (a feminist sensibility). Given that there is not much from San Marino, it is here but it really is not very good and I am not too convinced by the feminist sensibility thing either. Of course, it is only available in Italian and I very much doubt that it will every make it into English or, indeed, any other language.
The latest addition to my website is Rafael Chirbes‘ Crematorio [The Crematorium]. Like La larga marcha [The Long March] and La caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid], this one is a portrait of Spain, this time set in the 1990s/early 2000s and shows the complete and utter corruption of the construction boom, as the fictitious town of Misent has been massively over-developed to the benefit or Rubén Bertomeu. Rubén’s brother Matías, who opposed his brother’s activities, has just died and we follow, through a stream-of-consciousness approach, the thoughts and feelings of those associated with the brothers. Chirbes gives us a wonderful picture of a thoroughly decadent and corrupt society at the height of the Spanish development boom, a boom that we know will come crashing down. Sadly, though this is a first-class novel, you will not be able to read it in English.
The latest additions to my website are two Anne Enright novels. The first is What Are You Like?, an earlier novel. Frankly, this story of two young women looking for their origins did not really work for me. I found that, while Enright’s writing is, as always, superb, the plotting was somewhat unstructured and wooly and did not awaken my interest as the two women, Maria Delahunty and Rose Cotter, just drifted around. I could not feel any great sympathy for them or, indeed, any interest in them, despite their need to know where they came from and who they were.
The Gathering, however, is a different matter. It deservedly won the Man Booker Prize, apparently unanimously, despite not being the favourite. It is a wonderful story of Veronica Hegarty, one of twelve, whose brother, Liam, eleven months her senior, has just killed himself. Why did he kill himself and what was the role of Ada, her grandmother? The complex nature of large and somewhat dysfunctional families is examined. While, as in What Are You Like?, she jumps around, you always have the feeling that she is focussed on the main issue, Liam’s death, Ada’s role and the problems of large families, unlike in What Are You Like? where the focus seems to drift away from the main issue. This is definitely a book worth reading
The latest addition to my website is Shalom Auslander‘s Hope: A Tragedy, one of the funniest books I have read in a long while. It is very politically incorrect, featuring a still alive but smelly and cantankerous Anne Frank, struggling to write a novel, a Jewish man whose fatal flaw is hope, his mother who spends her life bemoaning her fate as a Holocaust victim, despite the fact that she was born in Brooklyn in 1945 and, like all her close relatives, never went anywhere near Europe, and an arsonist. Solomon Kugel joins the list of literary Jewish heroes who struggle with life and with mothers.
I have just returned from two weeks in Burma, where I saw the biggest book in the world (see photo at left). Other sites of literary interest included the Nationa Museum where they had samples of the handwriting of many Burmese writers, including Ma Ma Lay. I only have one Burmese book on my site – Ma Ma Lay’s Mone Ywe Mahu (Not Out of Hate). I went to the Bagan Book House, the best bookshop in Burma for English language books. They had a small but impressive collection of books but they were all non-fiction – travel, history, ethnography, botany/biology, etc, including some rare out of print memoirs – but no fiction to add to my collection. There were a lot of street sellers selling books in Burmese though obviously I was not able to judge what they were selling.
While there, I read Amitav Ghosh‘s The Glass Palace, the latest addition to my website. It is set in Burma (and India and Malaya as well), and is a family saga, with the various members moving between those three countries. However, it starts with the British invasion of Burma in 1885 and ends with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest by the generals. It roundly condemns colonialism but shows that the concept is not always too simple, not least with the Burmese objecting to the Indian presence in Burma and, of course, the Japanese invasion of South-East Asia. It is well worth reading whether you know those three countries or not.
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.
Loukis Akritas‘s Νέος με καλάς συστάσεις (Young Man Seeks Position: Good References) is the latest addition to my website and the second Cypriot novel. Both of the Cypriot novels are autobiographical novels. This one is about a young man who leaves Cyprus for Athens in the 1930s but is unable to find any work and suffers considerably – hunger, leaking shoes, poor clothing – while he and many others seek work. It is well told though not particularly original. However, the scenes where he is really is desperate are excellent.
Philip Hensher writes in the Independent of Granta’s list of best young novelists . I was aware of this forthcoming list – Granta had already flagged it – but this is a good opportunity to look at the proposed list and past lists. Hensher himself made the 2003 list, something he (modestly but deservedly) mentions in his article. Indeed, I bought his Kitchen Venom (see cover at left) at that time but, to my shame, have yet to read it. As Hensher and others have pointed out, the past lists have stood up quite well.
Here is the first (1983) list: William Boyd, Adam Mars-Jones, Julian Barnes, Pat Barker, Clive Sinclair, Buchi Emecheta, A N Wilson, Ursula Bentley, Christopher Priest, Maggie Gee, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Shiva Naipaul (died 1985), Kazuo Ishiguro, Philip Norman, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain, Lisa St Aubin de Teran, Alan Judd, Salman Rushdie. Of those, Barnes, Barker, Emecheta, Priest, McEwan, Amis, Naipaul, Ishiguro, Swift, Tremain and Rushdie have all gone onto fame and, perhaps, fortune. Adam Mars-Jones appeared not only on this list but on the next one. By the time of the second one, he still had not written a novel. He has gone on to write three more novels. I have read one and I thought it was dire. But he is a good critic. Clive Sinclair looked interesting – I thought Bedbugs wasn’t bad – but it never seemed to happen for him and he faded away. A N Wilson is very well known as a critic and historian and less so as a novelist. I have to admit that I have never read Ursula Bentley, who wrote black comedies. All of her books are out of print and she sadly died in 2004. I did read a couple of Maggie Gee’s early books. Though she has continued to write and publish, she seems to have slipped out of the public eye somewhat. I am not sure why. I was surprised to find Philip Norman on this list. For me, he will be remembered as the biographer of various pop stars but he apparently wrote seven novels, all long since out of print. I do have a copy of Lisa St Aubin de Terán’s Keepers of the House but I have not read it and probably will not. She is known but not to the degree of others on the list. Alan Judd is also still writing. Short of Glory is great fun but not great literature. He now seems to write more popular fiction.
Here is the second (1993) list: Helen Simpson, Alan Hollinghurst, Tibor Fischer, Lawrence Norfolk, Adam Lively, Philip Kerr, Will Self, Adam Mars-Jones, Candia McWilliam, Ben Okri, Louis de Bernieres, Esther Freud, Iain Banks, A L Kennedy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Caryl Phillips, Anne Billson, Nicholas Shakespeare, Jeanette Winterson. I have actually read books by all of these writers and there are some very good one: Hollinghurst, Norfolk, Okri, de Bernieres, Banks, Kennedy, Phillips, Shakespeare and Winterson. Helen Simpson has not written much and mainly stories, which is probably why she is not particularly well-known. Tibor Fischer’s Under the Frog was an excellent work but, like other authors before him never really followed up with a comparable work. Adam Lively was the same. His Sing the Body Electric was a fascinating piece of work but he never wrote another novel. Candia McWilliam had serious health problems, which meant that her novel writing career ended some time ago, though she started off well enough. As the daughter of Lucian and great-granddaughter of Sigmund, Esther Freud had the right genes. She also started off well but seems to have faded away. Anne Billson is more of a horror writer so perhaps should not have been on this list.
I think the jury is still out on much of the third list: Sarah Waters, Monica Ali, Andrew O’Hagan, Dan Rhodes, Rachel Seiffert, Toby Litt, Rachel Cusk, Alan Warner, Nicola Barker, David Mitchell, Susan Elderkin, Stephen Gill, Peter Ho Davies, A. L. Kennedy, Ben Rice, David Peace, Hari Kunzru, Philip Hensher, Robert McLiam Wilson, Zadie Smith, Adam Thirlwell. I must confess that I have not read or even heard of any of the novels of Andrew O’Hagan, Dan Rhodes, Rachel Seiffert, Susan Elderkin, Stephen Gill (who is primarily a photographer), Peter Ho Davies or Ben Rice. This undoubtedly reflects my ignorance but, I suspect, I am not alone in this. Waters, Ali, Litt, Cusk, Warner, Barker, Mitchell, Kennedy (again), Peace, Kunzru, Hensher, Wilson, Smith and Thirwell have all gone on to some success.
There were a few interesting comments on this list. The TLS tried to guess in advance who would be on it. They got some right but, of the ones they did not get right, I think only Trezza Azzopardi, Niall Griffiths and Andrew Miller have had any real fame. The British Council also had a go at responding to the 2003 list. They also had Niall Griffiths and also had quite an interesting list. The Observer anticipated the list. They guessed quite well but, like everyone else, also liked Niall Griffiths, whom the actual list did not include. Kate Kellaway in the Guardian discusses the forthcoming 2003 list with others and, like a couple of the ones mentioned above, they like Gwendoline Riley who did not make the list and Dan Rhodes and Alan Warner, who did.
So onto this year’s list. Hensher has some interesting ideas. I must say that I have heard of all of his top ten, though only read Zadie Smith, Sarah Hall and Paul Murray. However, I have only heard of a couple of the second ten, though it is interesting to see that Gwendoline Riley is there, though I don’t think she really lived up to the promise of Cold Water. His list seems excellent to me, though I think he might have considered Yvette Edwards, Adam Roberts and Caryl Lewis. I shall look forward to seeing this year’s list, which will doubtless have a few surprises and a few writers who will go onto fame and fortune.