Englishness

An English country cottage

I have just added a list of novels featuring Englishness to my site. I have been considering this for a long time but have hesitated for a number of reasons. Firstly, it smacks of jingoism and excess nationalism, which I am not too keen on. Secondly, it all looks a bit nostalgic and hearkening back to an England that probably never existed, except in the minds of novelists, while avoiding the grim reality that many people have to face, which may represent the real England more than churches, cricket matches and tea with the vicar. Thirdly, it is difficult to say that this novel represents Englishness while this other one does not. Despite all that, I have gone ahead and done it, partially (though only partially) prompted by the Olympics enthusiasm, though I am sure many people will disagree with my choices.

Slums

Like, I suppose, many people, my idea of Englishness is coloured by the standard picture postcard of England – churches, meadows, teas on the lawn, pre-Raphaelite paintings and Downton Abbey. In short, the usual stereotypes. This is not the England that most people live in and while most people do not live in slums (as in the drawing on the right), they do not live in Downton Abbey or snow-covered country cottages either. But if Englishness is middle-class dreariness, semi-detacheds, Tescos, boring office jobs, watching the football on telly while eating crisps and takeaway curries, then my list would not be very interesting. Albion magazine has a view of Englishness which both covers the traditional view but also takes a certain detached approach. Isabel Taylor, for example, in the first of the series Exploring Englishness looks at the idea of the rural myth, which informs our traditional view of Englishness (churches, cricket matches and cream teas).

Frenchness?

Nonetheless, I have done my Englishness list and will stick with it for now. What about other -nesses? French has the concept of francité, the equivalent of Frenchness. So what goes there? The stereotypes of the Eiffel Tower (at left), Napoleon, French bread, an onion seller? And which authors? The Parisians like Proust, Colette, Cocteau and Gide or the rural ones like Bosco, Giono and Mauriac, who I have yet to put on my site? Is it the nouveau roman or the more conventional novel? And, as for Deutschtum, we foreigners are probably inclined to think of German military action and the Nazis as our stereotype which, I am sure, modern Germans would not welcome. WWAD (What Would Angela (Merkel) Do)? I have no idea. She has mentioned Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) as one of her favourite books from childhood, and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as two of her favourite authors, neither very German. Apparently, when she went on holiday two years ago, she was going to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (a gift from Ulrich Wilhelm, the then Government spokesman). Apart from a certain fascination with Russia, this tells us nothing about Germanness. I would be hard put to suggest any book as representing Germanness. So I have done my Englishness list, albeit with some trepidation at wandering into the murky waters of stereotyping but I shall leave it at that and there will be no Frenchness or Germanness or anything else-ness.

Novels with a political background

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Fall of the Berlin Wall

I have just uploaded a list of Wende novels (i.e. novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989-1990). If you look at the lists of books I have created, you will see quite a few are novels with political/historical backgrounds. Clearly the Wende, as I shall now call it, was the most important event in German history since World War II and it is not surprising that it has preoccupied German writers, particularly those from the former East Germany. It does not, however, seem to have preoccupied writers from other countries, as D G Myers points out in his blog, at least as regards the USA (and I think that few other countries have bothered much with it in their literature). Interestingly enough, the events of 11 September 2001 have preoccupied both US novelists and those of other countries though it would seem to me that die Wende was more important politically than 9/11. C Max Magee, of the Millions blog stated I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel”, presumably either meaning every US novel or being just supremely arrogant about the importance of the event to the world. If 9/11 is assessed purely in terms of number of deaths, it pales with other events in recent US history. To give just one example, far more Palestinians have died (at US taxpayer expense) than were killed in 9/11. I could also mention the Korean War (which produced several novels) and the Vietnam War (which produced lots more novels), not to mention US support of dictators from Mobutu to Pinochet, from the Shah of Iran to Trujillo, few of which produced any US novels of significance, the Vietnam war excepted. However, the point of this post is not to indicate the relative importance of historical events in terms of death or destruction but how a political event influenced novelists

Aunt Sarah and the War – one of the first WW1 novels

World War I is probably the event of the past 100+ years that most influenced novelists and poets and, of course, produced many first-class novels, from all the major participant countries. These novels were not just about the conflict itself – though many dealt with the grizzly business of fighting – but also about the social and political consequences of the War, with novels such as Parade’s End, Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers), The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). World War I gave us the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the end of the beginning of the rise of the US Empire, the conversion of countries such as the UK from being primarily rural to being primarily urban, the creation of several new countries and, as many novelists have indicated, a loss of innocence, which may be more imagined than real but was still potent for these novelists. In Britain, at least, it indirectly led to Irish independence, the rise of the Labour Party and women’s suffrage.

The best WWI novel

I have always thought that politically and historically World War I was more important than World War II, though I am well aware that World War II led to the creation of the Soviet Empire and other huge consequences. However, purely from the literary point of view, I do feel that WWI produced better novels than WWII. I have started a list of WWII novels but it is a long way from completion and I do not know when or even if I shall complete it. There are many other lists out there, such as World War II in Fiction. See my Historical fiction – specific periods for more (towards the bottom of the page). As the picture on the left, a bit above, shows, I consider The Underground City to be one of the best WWII novels, better than, say, The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity. However, there are several other fine WWII novels, such as Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Catch-22 and several Japanese novels such as 野火 (Fires on the Plain).

The best American Civil War novel?

A quick look at my My Lists page will show that I have something of a mild obsession with civil wars. This is certainly the case. I have traipsed over many civil war battlefields in the USA and read numerous books on the subject, fiction though mainly non-fiction, as well as studying in some detail the civil wars in Mexico, Spain, Ireland and Russia. If you twisted my arm I would say that The Fathers is my favourite American Civil War novel and I think that Mazurca para dos muertos (Mazurka for Two Dead Men) is a wonderful novel of the Spanish Civil War that deserves to be better-known. Not only is there an English translation but it is amazingly in print in the US and readily available second-hand in the UK. The fascinating thing about civil wars and the literature associated with them is that they are still being fought and written about. Any foreigner who thinks that the American or Spanish or Mexican or Irish civil wars are over is sorely mistaken. All of these civil wars still produce a stream of novels. Indeed, despite the fact the Spanish Civil War ended seventy-four years ago and, therefore, most of the participants are either dead or nearly so, it almost seems that, as a Spanish novelist, at least one civil war novel is obligatory.

What a Carve-Up!

A friend commented on my list of Thatcher novels, knowing that my views were not exactly pro-Thatcher. Many of these novels are anti-Thatcher, as she clearly attracted a visceral hatred. The picture at left shows the cover of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). The UK title comes from the title of a film mentioned in the book (as does the photo on the cover), which, of course, is a play on words, as the book is about the Thatcherite carve-up of the UK. US audiences, for some odd reason, are clearly not considered able to make this link and given an anodyne and meaningless title. This book and the brilliant Running Wild show that a novel can take a strong political view and still be a first-class book.

The film, not the book

Of course, there are many political novels not covered by these lists, from Swift, Trollope and Dickens to Orwell and the recently deceased Gore Vidal. Tim Pears has an interesting list while Christian Science Monitor starts with a writer I plan to read soon, Robert Penn Warren (I have seen the film though!). Margaret Lenta gives a South African perspective, showing that political novels are not limited to Europe and North America. I remember reading Cry the Beloved Country many years ago.

The Euro’s crashing

I don’t think that there is any doubt that the political movel will be here for sometime and, while some may infuriate us either because they are so badly written or simply do not reflect my (or your) political point of view, clearly many of the great novels of the past are political. Events like the Wende or our next favourite civil war will produce more interesting novels. I am already looking forward to the great Euro crash novel. Probably in Spanish.

The Oh No, I am not going to write a post on the Booker post


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.

Judging the Booker

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.

More about literary prizes

Paul Bailey had an interesting comment in The Guardian on literary prizes. I have commented on lit prizes before, e.g. here, and make no bones about the fact that I have not been terribly whelmed by the choices of the various panels. Bailey mentions the James Tait Black Prize and the The Somerset Maugham Awards, both of which I was aware of but had not followed for some time. I have not read any of the three shortlisted for this year’s James Tait prize, though I might read the Ali Smith sometime. None of the Somerset Maugham prizes for last year was for fiction, though my significant other did read The Romantic Moderns and very much enjoyed it. However, as Bailey points out, these prizes get little publicity, so I wonder if they had any influence, which would, in my view, be their main purpose. Looking at the winners for the past ten years of the James Tait, surely Byatt, Barry, McCarthy, McEwen, Peace, Franzen, Zadie Smith and, possibly, O’Hagan don’t need the publicity, I have never heard of Soli or Sid Smith so that did not really work. Only the Belben is an interesting choice, as she is a writer who needs more publicity, including from me. He also mentions two prizes he judged – The Betty Trask and The McKitterick Prize, both administered by the Society of Authors. Again, I have to admit that I have not heard of any of the authors. This is a pity because some of them are probably very good but they do not get the publicity that the Man Booker gets.

Bailey goes on to criticise the Man Booker and he will get no arguments from me there except, as with the others, it is always good that lesser known books get the publicity.
I have only read two of last year’s longlist and do not anticipate reading many more of them but I was glad to have heard about Yvette EdwardsA Cupboard Full of Coats, a book which I may otherwise not have noticed and which I hope others also read. It is not a great book but it is certainly a well-written and interesting first novel. Bailey was a Man Booker judge in 1982 and complains of horse-trading and bargaining, to which I can only comment, why are you surprised? Surely, there has to be a certain amount of discussion and compromise among a group of judges with varying opinions, probably all reasonably valid?


All this is relevant because next week, the Man Booker long list will be announced. As always, Michael Orthofer at Literary Saloon is on top of it and, as always, I am not. I have read three of the possible candidates – The Chemistry of Tears (which I was not impressed with), Capital, which I was quite impressed with and Bring up the Bodies which I was very impressed with but surely it is someone else’s turn? I have also read Chinaman but it is not eligible as it was published last year in the UK. I looked at the Literary Saloon links and found quite a few books I had not heard of. Of the ones I had heard of, I will read the Pat Barker, Keith Ridgway and Ian McEwan when they come out and will probably read the Norfolk and Gunn but I did not see many others I would want to read and quite a few I know that I won’t want to read (no names mentioned, Martin Amis) though I would hope that there will be one or two of the ones I have not heard of that will prove interesting. But, overall, I cannot really get excited about this or other book prizes as the winner is unlikely to be one that I would have chosen. Still, if it introduces me – and the rest of the world – to some books that might otherwise have not got the publicity they deserved, it will have some worth. As long as they don’t give it to Lionel Asbo.

Montenegro

Gospa od Škrpjela (Our Lady of the Rocks)

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.

Perast from museum balcony

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.

Budva from on high

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.

Milovan Djilas

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.

Western Sahara


The latest addition to my website is Abderrahman Budda Hamadi‘s Conchi Moya shows in her blog (link in Spanish), there have been novels by Spaniards about the country. Like many people, I imagine, I know very little about the country, only that it used to be Spanish Sahara and that, when the Spanish moved out, the Moroccans moved in. The Western Saharans resisted, through the Polisario, but the Moroccans have occupied the economically viable part of the country, behind a huge sand wall and there now seems to be a stalemate between Morocco and Western Sahara as to what the future should hold. There is not a great deal in English on the topic, though the Wikipedia articles on the country and its history are a good start. The site of ARSO – Association de soutien à un référendum libre et régulier au Sahara Occidental [Association of Support for a Free and Fair Referendum in Western Sahara] gives some information, with much in English. The UN, BBC, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch all have pages on the topic. And, just to show that I am not prejudiced (though I am), here is a pro-Moroccan site. There are also various blogs such as this one, this one and this one. There are many others in French, Spanish, Catalan and Arabic. Other English ones have not been updated for a while.

A Western Saharan jaima or tent

As I said above, I am prejudiced. I am generally in favour of groups of people seeking their independence from a dominant colonial power. (And, yes, if the Scots want to leave the UK, good luck to them.) However, if anyone reads this blog, I doubt that it will be for my political stance so I will touch briefly on the literature. Unfortunately, all the links are in Spanish so I will try and explain briefly for those who do not read Spanish. It is a Spanish woman, Conchi Moya, who has done much to promote the culture of Western Sahara and her blogs are well worth reading if you do read Spanish. Her blog on Western Saharan literature is very helpful but, even if you do not read Spanish, you will see that there is not much. The latest one is a collection of writers associated with the Gdeim Izik protest camp, called the Saharan Spring. Sadly, their spring looks to be no more successful than the other springs in the region.

The book on the left, for example, is the story of a teacher who used traditional wooden tablets for her teaching. You can read the first chapter (in Spanish) here. Other books are history, memoirs, poetry, stories and travel in the country. None has been translated into English (or, as far as I can determine, any other language) and, as all are published by small publishers, they are not even easy to obtain in Spanish. However, what they do show is that, despite their grim political situation the writers of Western Sahara are continuing to write and we can only hope that the conflict is soon resolved and they can start producing some full-length novels.

Other resources (all in Spanish):
Generación de la Amistad saharaui (the blurb says A group of Western Saharan poets who aim to transmit the suffering of their people, united by stories of pastoral people who lost their way pursuing their dreams behind a cloud)
Western Saharan poems
Biblioteca de los Hijos de la nube (Books published by Bubok on Western Sahara)
Mohamidi Fakala, Camino De El Aaiun (Blog of the Western Saharan writer, Mohamidi Fakala)
Tiris novia de poetas (Poems by Western Saharan writers)
Shukran magazine (a cultural magazine supporting the Western Saharan cause)
Shukran 34 (latest issue of the magazine)
Si tu supieras (a book on Western Saharan traditions. This website gives selections from the book)

Reading the World

When I first started my site, many years ago, it was not my intention to cover the world. My aim was to review (and therefore encourage others to read the books reviewed) of what I considered the most interesting novels since approximately the beginning of the twentieth century. I expected to be focusing on a wide array of novels from North and South America, Europe, South and South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand and a few from other areas such as Africa and the Middle East. I did not expect that the Great Vanuatuan novel would be of the slightest interest to me. But, as I started working on the site, I came across more and more countries that were, to my surprise, producing novels and in many cases, novels of some interest. Some were difficult to get hold of. Some were not readily available in English or, indeed, in a language I could read. However, I have now expanded my range to include as many countries as I can. At the time of writing I have reviewed books from 176 countries and have links to sites for 225 countries and more will certainly be added in the not too distant future. See my statistics page for details.

Since working on this site, I have come across a mild phenomenon (Internet meme?) which involves people reading a book from every country. Here are a few I have found:

Reading the World and his blog. An anonymous Brit who does not seem to have posted since January.
Ann Morgan is a writer, who writes, for, amongst others, The Guardian newspaper.
Världsbokbloggen (it means World Book Blog) is a Swedish blog by a blogger called Fred
En bok från världens alla länder is another Swedish blog by a blogger called Elinko
Harry Rutherford also has Reading is a way round the world
The Literary Nomad is reading her way round the world
Shoshana’s Books of the World Challenge
Around the World in 100 Books
Biblioglobal
Rob’s Round the World reading
Ceinwenn’s Global Reading Challenge
Reading Globally (A Library Thing group)
The Europe Endless Challenge (another Library Thing list – just Europe, not the world, and lots of participants)
Caribous Mom is reading the world. Her real name is Wendy and Caribou was her dog
A book for every country is just what it says or, rather, what it intends to be
The Reading Life blog has project 196, though only short stories
Reading Around the World (Paul Kron reading a work of fiction from every country)
Reading the Globe – a site from a twelve year old. Evil Facebook deleted it because she is twelve so now she has this: Reading the Globe
Around the World in 2006 books is still on letter A (and she (I am guessing she as her goodreads name is Zeborah) has skipped Andorra)
Babelio is running a book per country challenge (in French)
Avon Middle High School Library in Avon, Massachusetts did it as a school project
Various schools and libraries, particularly in the United States, have similar programmes.
Black Spring on AskMetafilter asks for suggestions
A blogger called Jimblina started but seems to have abandoned the idea
Books From Every Country On Earth also seems to have abandoned the quest
And the Plot Thickens Blog also started but she seems to have abandoned her blog as from February 2012
Sherry Chandler seemed to start doing this but does not seem to have blogged about it since and her goodreads list has only gone from eleven to thirteen
And, talking of goodreads, they have the Around the World in 100 Books list and a Read Around the World list
The Library of Congress produced lists from 1998-2002 but seems to have stopped
Bibliotravel covers this
As does Books Set in
and, for mysteries, Stop You’re Killing Me
Sites such as The Complete Review cover books from all over the world
We now have a French one
The Global Anthology is an anthology of writing from every country
Sophie Baggott is reading women writers only

I am sure that there are a lot more. I would be interested to hear of other bloggers/sites doing this, particularly if a) they have made a lot of progress and b) they have included some lesser-known countries (from the point of view of North Americans/West Europeans).

I would like to briefly discuss criteria, which do seem to differ.

1) The first criterion is what countries to include (and to exclude) and what constitutes a country. Wikipedia lists 193 UN member countries and some have chosen this as their criterion. (Some only mention 192 countries. South Sudan has joined since then.) This excludes Taiwan as well as a variety of national entities but is still ambitious. Others have chosen other criteria. Wikipedia has lots of possible criteria but one criterion that has been chosen is the Wikipedia list of sovereign states, giving 207 countries and including Taiwan, but also Palestine, Abkhazia, Kosovo, Niue and others. My criterion is simple. I have tried to include all UN members (though I have succeeded where the politicians have failed in uniting some countries, such as the two Irelands and two Koreas) as well as certain countries (in the broadest sense) where there is both a separate cultural identity (and, usually though not always, a separate regional language) as well as a separate literary culture, by which I mean they have produced their own literature separate from the dominant state to which they belong. This has been a bit arbitrary and has usually been based on what I can find, i.e. can I find links and/or novels for this culture?

2) The second criterion is genre. I am limiting myself to the literary novel as that is what my site is about. Most of the others seem to allow most genres, including poetry, drama, the short story, genre novels and various works of non-fiction (though generally excluding travel guides).


The three Andorras

3) The third criterion is author nationality. I have limited my choices to books written by nationals of the country concerned, with one exception and the reason for that exception was that the author, Robert Barclay grew up in and was writing exclusively about the Marshall Islands. (And I could not find any other novel from there.) Others have selected books about the various countries, written by authors of other nationalities. I notice that some people have chosen Peter Cameron’s Andorra for Andorra which is a bit of a cheat. Cameron is from the US but his book is about a country called Andorra but not the Andorra, as his Andorra has a seaside town, which the real Andorra certainly does not. (There is another book or, rather, a play, which does this. Max Frisch‘s Andorra is set in a but not the Andorra.)

4) Finally, there is the issue of language. I am fortunate enough to be able to read in several languages. Most of the read-the-worlders are sticking to one language (generally English) or perhaps two, which really does limit them.

As you will see from the above links, several people seemed to have started on this project and since abandoned it. If anyone has finished – e.g. read a work from all 193 UN member countries – I have found no record of such an achievement. Ann Morgan has sort of done it but they are not all novels. There are two main reasons. The first is that there are some countries, where there are no novels. Not only does the Great Vanuatuan novel referred to above not exist, as far as I can see, there is no Vanuatuan novel at all. This is hardly surprising. It has a population of around 221,000. The novel is not part of its culture. It does have a significant poet, however. This situation applies to several smaller island nations, such as Tuvalu, the Maldives, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Palau, Nauru and so on. If I am wrong, and they do have novels, I would be glad to know. The second reason is language. If you want to read a novel from certain francophone African countries, you will find it difficult to do so if you cannot read French. I am shortly going to read a novel from Chad. If there is a novel from Chad in English, I have not found it, though I have not searched diligently as I can read French. For Rwanda, some read-the-worlders have opted either for works by non-Rwandans or testimony of the horrors translated into English. This is, of course, fine by their criteria but I am reasonably certain that there is no novel written by a Rwandan translated into English. Indeed, there are very few written in French. This is one I found. But it is not just francophone Africa. Cambodia is another country where you can only read novels translated into French, though, of course, there are testimonies available in English about the killing fields. If you want to read a novel from Turkmenistan, it helps if you can read Russian but if you cannot, Berdy Kerbabaev has been translated into German but not English. I do have a collection of Turkmenian short stories from the Soviet era in English which is not too difficult to find. The same applies to some other former Soviet states. In short, I would think that it is probably impossible at the moment to read a novel in English from all 193 UN member states and probably impossible to read anything of substance from all 193.

As I never set out to read a novel from all 193 (or all the states for which I have links), this does not bother me too much. If someone does write the Great Vanuatuan Novel or, indeed, any Vanuatuan novel, I shall be happy to read it. Obtaining the novel might be difficult – I do have a copy of John Pule’s Burn My Head in Heaven but it was not easy to obtain and is not readily available. Pule, by the way, is from Niue, which is not a UN member state. Other novels have also been difficult to obtain, even from major libraries. So, in conclusion, I shall be curious to see if any of these people actually make the target and even more curious to see what they read to do so. I wish them luck. As for me, I shall be happy to get within a dozen or so.

Filmed novels


I recently read and posted on my site László Krasznahorkai‘s Sátántangó (Satantango). I had heard that famed Hungarian film-maker Béla Tarr had made a film of the book, which was 450 minutes long. This is not a film for watching with the family on Sunday night as it is as unremittingly gloomy and miserable as the book. Tarr’s approach in this and other films is the long take and minimal dialogue. For example, the film starts with a long take across a very muddy field of a herd of cows in the middle distance in front of the houses of the commune. The cows stand there. One or two come forward and make their presence known to the cameraman. A bull tries to mount a heifer, not very successfully. The camera tracks across to another part of the commune where the cows now are. They do nothing till, eventually, they move off. The film carries on this way for the next seven and a half hours, with some dialogue and action (it is generally faithful to the book). However, though it is a superb film, I cannot unreservedly recommend it because of its length.

However, this gives me an opportunity to mention a few other films, concentrating on films of books on my site, so no Shakespeare, Dickens or Brontë sisters.


1. The English Patient is a fairly well-known film of a fairly well-known book. It stars one sexy man and two sexy women and is very romantic so something for all tastes. However, it is also a story about identity and changing relationships and, even if it had not been made into this film, it would have been a very worthwhile read. However, there is no doubt that the film stands out in its own right and is well worth seeing.


2. Markéta Lazarová is a superb film and a superb book but is sadly little known in the English-speaking world as the book has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Polish and Russian but not English. If you don’t read Czech or any of those other languages, you can see the film which has been released with English sub-titles. It is a love story and is a story about brigands in medieval Bohemia, with lots of action.


3. For my representative English film, I am going to choose the film of my favourite English novel of the 20th century – Crash. It is a brilliant book about sex and cars (and car accidents and celebrity) and a pretty good film. It basically sums up the twentieth century far more than the novels of the other English greats such as Woolf, Greene, Waugh, Golding and Co. I could have chosen the film version of The End of the Affair or Lord of the Flies or A Clockwork Orange or Outcast of the Islands or The Prestige or Last Orders. But I didn’t.


4. My favourite film of a Bernanos novel is Mouchette but I haven’t read the book so I will mention my second favourite film of a Bernanos novel – Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) from the book of the same name. I am not even vaguely religious but you do not have to be religious to enjoy either the film or the book, about a priest who is clearly losing his faith and struggling with this as well as health issues. I am not sure if Bernanos is much read today, at least outside France, but he should be, as he is a fine author and there were some interesting films made of his books.


5. Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) is one of the foremost novels of the second half of the twentieth century and the film of the book is one of the foremost films of this period. Grass’ take on the war as seen in Danzig, from the point of view of a boy who decides not to grow up, is absolutely brilliant and essential reading.


6. There were two films based on Solaris, a not very good US one and a brilliant Russian one, directed by the legendary Andrei Tarkovsky. if you are going to read the book, make sure you get the more recent Bill Johnston translation, translated from the Polish. The previous translation was translated from a French translation of the Polish original. And if you are watching the film, make sure that it is the Tarkovsky version and not the US version.


7. Мастер и Маргарита (The Master and Margarita) is one of the great Russian novels. It has led to several attempts to film it, most unsuccessful. There have been two TV series – a Polish one and a ten episode Russian one and it is the latter you should watch, as it is now available with English sub-titles. It is not without its critics but it was a huge success in Russia, leading to increased sales of the book. The book, of course, is essential reading.


8. Many of the US novels on my site are either unfilmable or have been filmed but not very well. William Faulkner, for example, was a Hollywood script writer. Several of his novels were made into films but, with the exception of the film version of Pylon, called The Tarnished Angels , they were generally not very good. There were two versions of An American Tragedy, the first by Josef von Sternberg, a pretty good film but not his best, and the second, called A Place in the Sun, a very free adaptation of the book, primarily, to give a bigger role to Elizabeth Taylor who, it must be said, is superb in this film. As a more realistic book than many others on this site, it was probably easier to film. George Stevens does a good job, even if he veers extensively from Dreiser’s book.


9. Gjenerali i ushtërisë së vdekur (The General of the Dead Army) was Ismail Kadare‘s first novel and the first of his books translated into English. The story – about an Italian general who is sent to Albania to recover the bodies of the Italian war dead and, in particular, of one heroic Italian colonel, who turns out to be a murderous thug – is clearly aimed not just at the Italians (and Germans) but also at the Communist reverence for war dead at the expense of the living. The film is not an Albanian one but an Italian one, with an all-star cast of Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée and Michel Piccoli. Mastroianni and Piccoli are brilliant but, as with other films of books, it does not necessarily come across as well on celluloid as it does on paper but it is still worth seeing.


10. Sarraounia is the only book I have read from Niger and the film version of the book is the only only film I have seen from Niger. Though the film is not entirely faithful to the book, it certainly is as regards its intent – to show the legend of Queen Sarraounia and how she resisted the French colonialists. The book, sadly, is not available in English translation. Fortunately, the film, which is in Dioula, Peul and French, is available with English subtitles.

Hesperus Press – Uncover a Classic competition

Hesperus Press publishes an interesting and quirky selection of writings, both fiction and non-fiction. They are now having an Uncover a Classic Competition which basically means they are asking the public to submit the name of an out-of-print book that should be brought back into print. Obviously the book must have been published in English but I wonder how they will cope with the many entries where, though the book is out of print, the copyright is still held by someone else. I could submit any of the books on my Neglected books/authors page but some if nor all of them are almost certainly still under copyright. You are only allowed one entry so I am hesitating what to submit. However, it is a very worthwhile exercise and I look forward to seeing the results.

Novelists in Spanish

When I first started doing this site, many years ago, one of the many gaps in my education that I found was a knowledge of Spanish and Latin-American literature. Even though I read Spanish and was reading novels in Spanish, my knowledge was generally limited to the novelists of the Latin American Boom and a few classic Spanish authors, like Cervantes (portrait left), Lope de Vega and Lorca. I knew little about modern Spanish novelists nor much about non-Boom Latin American writers. I am fairly sure that most anglophone readers were in the same situation. I have since discovered that a) Latin American literature existed before the Boom and has continued to exist after it (see my site for some of them); b) that there are a large number of very worthwhile Spanish novelists (see my site for some of them). Thinking about this was prompted by my recent reading and review of Carmen Boullosa‘s El complot de los románticos [The Romantics’ Plot]. The book is about a group called The Parnassus, which consists of dead writers. Boullosa makes the point that Hispanic writers tend to be very much ignored in the English-speaking world.

My highly opinionated view is that many of the best novels of the twentieth century came out of the United States. This can be seen by the fact that the country with the most books reviewed on my site is, by far, the United States. However, I feel that this is changing and that the more interesting writing is now coming from Latin America and Spain. In her book, Boullosa laments the fact that a writer like Elena Garro (photo at right) has been almost completely ignored in the English-speaking world (including on this site, though that will change). She also makes a pitch for Jorge Ibargüengoitia, another writer who has been ignored in the English-speaking world (and on this site). While we are talking about Mexican writers, I would also make a plea for Hécto Camín and, of course, for Boullosa herself (photo below left). I am glad to see that I have thirteen writers on my Mexico page, though there should be (and will be) many more. Boullosa includes a bewildering array of Latin-American and Spanish writers in her book, including Borges, Bolaño, Estela Canto, Victoria Ocampo, Paco Urondo, Haroldo Conti, Bioy Casares, Ángel Rama, Marta Traba (wittily commenting that the latter two and Jorge Ibargüengoitia did not come by plane (all died in plane crashes)) and many others.

Writers such as Max Aub, Juan Benet, Camilo José Cela, Miguel Delibes, Carmen Martín Gaite, Juan Goytisolo, Almudena Grandes, Ana María Matute, Eduardo Mendoza (photo at right), Antonio Muñoz Molina, Carlos Rojas, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Esther Tusquets and Enrique Vila-Matas are virtually unknown in the English-speaking world and, in many cases, very few of their works have been translated into English. Carmen Boullosa definitely had a point about the neglect of Spanish and Latin American writers by the English-speaking world and it is hoped that it will soon be redressed, as it is realised that so much fine literature is coming out of that part of the world, but I am not counting on it.