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
reading women writers worldwide
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.

The philosophical novel

I have come across two lists recently on this subject. If you have visited my site, you will know that I am a glutton for lists. Two new lists relating to philosophy and the novel have recently appeared. The first is about whether it is still possible to write philosophical novels while the second is about top 10 philosophers’ novels. I have never heard of either author. Seán McGrady has a blog, which seems to be mainly verse, and published a book, of which I have never heard. Jennie Erdal has, apparently, been the ghostwriter of Naim Atallah, of Quartet Books and has written a memoir and, more recently, a “novel of philosophy” (i.e. it is about philosophers) which was presumably why she was asked to write this article.


According to his article, McGrady’s novel, his main character steals five pounds from his sister’s purse and then, I quote, His crime opens up a new way of looking at the world, and of acting in it, so his feet gradually find solidity in another mental milieu that better suits his questioning consciousness. I have no idea what that means but I cannot see how stealing five pounds would lead to all that. McGrady goes on to say that his character has religious doubt and is edging inescapably toward an ethical and ontological response; to resist a powerful milieu and affirm a new way. What I think that means is that his character is rejecting the culture of his background and looking for a new way of life, the theme of many novels that have never been called philosophical. McGrady does not define philosophers’ novels (novels about philosophers? novels read by philosophers? novels that have a philosophical basis?) but these “novels” range from Thus Spake Zarathustra to the Marquis de Sade’s favourite bit of porn to Iris Murdoch. I have read seven of the books he mentions, though, in a few cases, quite a long time ago. Thus Spake Zarathustra is not a novel by any stretch of the imagination. My review of Essays in Love by Alain de Botton, one of the first reviews I wrote for this site if I remember rightly, points out that the book is not really about love or philosophy but Alain de Botton and his sex life, not an engaging topic. I also commented that you will probably get more insight into love from Cosmopolitan. As for Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), my review states that it is just a murder mystery. It is a very clever murder mystery and full of much learning, highly derivative, very intellectual, witty, superbly written, owing a lot to Eco’s interest in semiotics and an excellent introduction to medieval reasoning (seasoned with semiotic analysis). L’Etranger (UK: The Outsider; US: The Stranger) is famous for the acte gratuit of Meursault but also for showing the ennui, Weltschmerz and world-weariness of its main character and of us. In other words, it does have a philosophical basis, in that its main characters acts according to the existentialist philosophy of its author but, again, lots of 20th century novels do, including those by authors who have never heard of existentialism. In short, I am not entirely clear about what McGrady means by a philosophers’ novel.

Moving along to Jennie Erdal, we learn that she feels that philosophy and the novel are completely separate. The novel is about the the actuality of people’s lives (Harry Potter? The Twilight series? All of science fiction and other genre novels?), philosophy is not. However, she backtracks a bit, saying that there is something called the philosophical novel and that the fiction of Dostoevsky exemplifies what we have come to know as “the philosophical novel”. I am not sure if that is the case. Dostoevsky certainly deals with moral dilemmas. So does Harry Potter. Does that make them philosophical novels? She goes on to say that Iris Murdoch is still the author that people most frequently associate with the philosophical novel. Really? I associate Iris Murdoch with rather ponderous middlebrow novels that I read in my teens. Murdoch was a philosopher by profession, as well as a novelist, but that does not make her novels philosophers’ (or philosophical) novels. I think that there is a confusion here about novels that feature philosophers, novels written by philosophers and philosophical novels. But what is the philosophic novel? I have always held the view, doubtless expounded many times by others, that the serious, literary novel (and many less serious, less literary novels) are merely philosophy written in the form of fiction, as the human brain is much more able to comprehend a concept when given in examples, than it is able to understand the basic concept. Even supermarket trash fiction can deal with moral dilemmas, while many works of serious fiction deal with a variety of philosophical conundrums, without labouring under the stigma of being called philosophical novels. Or, to put it another way, most novels are philosophical novels. If McGrady’s and Erdal’s novels are self-consciously philosophical novels, I probably won’t read them but would encourage others do so. As for me, I shall carry on reading what I am reading, blissfully unaware as to whether they are or are not philosophical novels.

Hacked

Last week this blog was hacked, not once but twice. While writing my previous post, I noticed that everything was very, very slow, yet everything else on my computer was fine. When I went to look at the blog itself, it redirected to a Russian female body builder site. Interestingly enough, though the url was clear, I got a 404 error, so they couldn’t even redirect properly. I ran the Exploit Scanner and found that I had been hacked by the Base64 hack. I cleaned it out and then did many of the things you are meant to do to harden and secure WordPress. The next day it was back. I am on Dreamhost and many users, particularly newbies, blamed Dreamhost. However, it is fairly clear that Dreamhost is not to blame. The terms of service make it clear that it is your responsibility as site administrator to watch out for hacks and the like. Most (though not all) of the sites affected were WordPress sites but it is also clear that WordPress was not to blame as WordPress itself is free of security leaks. It seems also clear that the problem lies with plug-ins, themes and other user uploads. It is this that I cleared out, removing all themes that I was not using as well as several of the plug-ins and other junk. Since then, though I check daily, I have had no problems. So if you go to someone’s blog or WordPress site and you are directed to a Russian porn site, they have been hacked and you should let them know. If you run a WordPress site, check, troubleshoot, where necessary, repair and harden.

The English Eccentric

Edith Sitwell

The English have something of a reputation for being eccentric. Dame Edith Sitwell famously wrote a book on the topic and there seems to be a more modern one as well. There is also an interesting anthology of eccentrics, which links them with villains, which, of course, they sometimes are. Eccentricity is by no means limited to the English, particularly where writers are concerned. The French, for example, have Proust with his long lie-in writing his novel or Céline with his Nazism or, indeed, more recently, Houellebecq and his strange and often impetuous behaviour. But, in this post, I want to discuss one English eccentric.

Frederick Rolfe

I first read Hadrian VII many years ago but have just reread it for my website. It was written by a man who was christened Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, though he used many pseudonyms during his life, most famously Baron Corvo, allegedly given to him when he was supported by the Duchess Sforza-Cesarini. His father’s family had manufactured pianos at one time but, by the time young Rolfe was born, business had gone down and they were now merely agents for the manufacturer. Rolfe attended school till he was fourteen but then left, not least because he did not fit in. He became a teacher but when, at the age of twenty-six, he converted to Roman Catholicism, he felt that he had a vocation as a priest and enrolled in a seminary. He did not fit in there so he went to a seminary in Rome. He was expelled from there because he also did not fit in. It has been suggested by Pamela Hansford-Johnson, in her introduction to the excellent collection of biographical essays on Rolfe, edited by Cecil Woolf called New Quests for Corvo, that he wanted less to be priest than to be Pope. Hadrian VII, of course, confirms this.

Poster for dramatisation of Hadrian VII

Like his fictional pope, Rolfe finally had to earn his living first by painting and then by writing. Much of his work is about the attacks he thought others had made on him and his literary attempts to redress these. One of many is his attack on Father Beauclerk over the painting of banners. This and other slights will appear in Hadrian VII. These were not his only themes. He was gay and homoeroticism certainly appears in his work. Premature burial also appeared in several of his works. Rolfe spent the last years of his life in Venice, where he died, aged fifty-five. He never made much of a living from either his painting or his writing, and lived, to a great extent, by scrounging off friends. After his death, his reputation diminished but, in more recent years, his reputation has risen, not least because he is an excellent writer and, though his work is certainly eccentric, his eccentricity adds to the the fascination of works such as Hadrian VII.