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.
The latest additions to my website are a novel from Moldova, a first on my site, and a novel from the United Arab Emirates, the second on my site from that country. The first is Ion Druță‘s
Thani Al-Suwaidi‘s The Diesel is much stranger book. It is written by a man who is primarily a poet and is narrated by the eponymous Diesel, a man who is very much in touch with his feminine side. It is also written in a very poetical, metaphorical style which at times makes for difficult reading but is still worth the effort, as it is a short book and definitely shows a new and interesting direction for the Arabic novel. This one is available in English from the interestingly named Antibookclub. Anyone who publishes Andrei Codrescu, editor of The Exquisite Corpse, is either brilliant or seriously deranged or, probably, both.
The most recent additions to my website are two César Aira novels. I continue to be amazed by everything I read of his. Varamo (Varamo), which has been translated into English, is a novel about a low level Panamanian civil servant who goes home one evening and, though he has never written, indeed, never even read a single line of poetry, writes, without correction, one of the (fictitious) classics of Central American poetry. As this Aira, lots of other things happen in the space of a fairly short novel, involving forged money, embalming, a possible revolution, the smuggling of golf clubs, pirate publishing and the hearing of voices.
Las noches de Flores [The Nights of Flores], sadly, has yet to be published in English (though it has been translated into several other languages). It tells the story of a pizza delivery service in the Flores suburb of Buenos Aires. It starts off fairly low key, with the account of an elderly couple who work for the service, delivering on foot, as well as stories of some of the young men who work for the service. In particular, there is a kidnapping and murder of a delivery driver. Suddenly, the novel explodes, as a massive conspiracy is revealed and all hell breaks loose. This, like the other six Aira novels I have read, only confirms Aira as one of the leading novelists of the age.
The latest review on my site is Rafael Chirbes‘ La caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid]. This follows on from his La larga marcha [The Long March] but this time telling the story of a group of Spaniards, who are all connected to each other, on 19 September 1975, hours before Franco dies. The various participants have their own concerns about Franco’s imminent demise and what it will mean to them. Chirbes tells his story very well, ending it that evening, shortly before Franco actually dies. Sadly, like La larga marcha [The Long March], it has not been translated into English, though it is available in French, German, Croatian and Serbian.
Continuing my reading of novels from countries from which i have never read a novel before, here are two from Laos. The first is Oubone-lat Papet‘s Au-delà du Mékong [Beyond the Mekong], an autobiographical novel by a half-French, half-Laotian woman. She has clearly struggled with her life. She is unsure of her sexuality, having relationships with two men and two women during the course of the book, and she also has several stays in mental institutions. The fact that she has met her biological father three times in her life and has moved between France and Laos clearly has not helped her. The book was written in French and has not been translated into English.
Louang Phou‘s Les gars du 97 (The Men of 97) was either written in Lao and then translated into French and then into English or written in French and then translated into English. Though it has been translated into English, it is not easily available. It is a straightforward propaganda novel telling the story of a heroic Laotian military unit fighting against the evil Yankee aggressors. Though it is fun, with lots of tale of derring-do, it is hardly impartial, as our heroes can do no wrong and seem to be virtually impervious to US weaponry. However, it does have the advantage of being short.
My Bermudian novel (apparently it is Bermudian and not Bermudan) is Brian Burland‘s The Sailor and the Fox. Burland is probably Bermuda’s best novelist and this is his best-known work, a short but powerful novel, that was nearly made into a film, starring Sean Connery. It tells the story of a boxing match – the first championship fight between a black and white boxer in Bermuda’s history. We follow the fight through all of its rounds while also learning about the two boxers and how they came to this match. It is very brutal, as Burland spares no details, but a very well-told story and deserves to be better known.
After promising in both the first part and then second part of this topic, here is my mea culpa as to why I have so few women writers on my site. Many years ago, soon after it came out, I read Gail Godwin‘s A Mother and Two Daughters. The book, at least in the United States, had done very well both critically and commercially. A couple of women friends said that I had absolutely had to read it and, being aware that I had not read enough women writers (though not suspecting that I would be doing a website and blog on literary matters), I did read it. It really did not work for me. In fact, to be quite honest, I hated it. I tried to read Elizabeth Taylor (the British writer not the British actress. You didn’t know that the actress was British? Born in Hampstead Garden Suburb, kept British citizenship all her life.) The Guardian, in the link, may call her brilliant. Loved the actress, found the novelist, well, boring. Barbara Pym? Same thing. I just did not get it.
When I started doing my website, I made a (very long) list of the writers I wanted to include, many of whom I had already read, many whom I had not. Though I never bothered checking, it is clear, with hindsight that the majority were men. This was not a conscious decision but just that the writers I thought most interesting were mainly men. No Godwin, no Taylor, no Pym, no chicklit. Since then, of course, I have added many, many writers to the list. I do now make something of conscious effort to seek out women writers but still find that most of the writers I want to read are men. This is partially for the reason explained in the previous post , namely that most canonical novelists do tend to be men (rightly or wrongly and, yes, I know, the canon is mainly set by men). As I also showed in my previous post this (unconscious) bias is also shared by women bloggers. Quick anecdote. We had a visit from a woman friend who works for a publisher. She complained that I had too few women writers on my site and said she would send me a list of women writers I should read. She sent the name of just one writer – a man.
When I became aware of my failings here, I tried to expiate my sins by having a women writers page on my site, with direct links to the women writers on my site. Setting up the links for this site helped me to find out about other women writers that I was not aware of. I have created a list of the best novels written by women on my site. There are some very fine works there and, I hope, some that not everyone is familiar with and that people coming to my site might be tempted to try and read (sadly a few are not available in English). However, knowing how infrequently I add a new name to the list of women writers on my site only brings home to me how few women writers there are on the site.
I spend a certain amount of time seeking out interesting new writers, mainly though not exclusively from other websites. I do try and to find interesting women writers on these sites and certainly I sometimes succeed. But I am not going to continue apologising for failing to do so. So there is no doubt that the ratio of men to women writers on this site will remain about the same. Quality is a highly subjective matter but, for me, many of the most interesting writers are male and while I will continue to read and enjoy women writers and will continue to post women’s novels on this site, men will predominate.
Continuing my reading of novels from countries that I have not yet read a novel from, the latest addition to my website is Mukhtar Auezov‘s Абай жолы (Abai). This is a novel by one of Kazakhstan’s foremost novelists, telling the story of one of Kazakhstan’s foremost poets. It is an excellent novel, recounting not only the story of Abai the poet but also giving an excellent introduction to Kazakh customs and culture in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Abai is the son of the head of a group of nomadic tribes and his story is about how he becomes a great poet and a great leader but also how his tribe and other Kazakh tribes change with the arrival of the Russians.
From Madagascar, I have added Michèle Rakotoson‘s Le Bain des reliques [The Bath of Relics]. Sadly, this novel is not available in English translation and is even difficult to obtain in French. It really is an excellent novel, though at times somewhat harrowing, depicting the filming of a ceremony involving royal relics but also aiming to show how bad the situation is in Madagascar under the Marxist government, with famine, poverty, disease, death and decay rife throughout the country.
In last Saturday’s Guardian, Rachel Cooke had an interesting article and/interview with Adam Thorpe. I read Ulverton about a year after it first came out, when it started to get some publicity, and was very impressed with it. Firstly there are very few worthwhile novels about the English Civil War (though lots about other civil wars). Secondly, and more importantly, it was and is a very fine book, telling the story of an English village through the ages, from the Civil War to the present day. As I said in my review it is a loving portrait of the rural proletariat in England over a long period and the changes and misfortunes that they have had to suffer and is in the tradition of English rural writers, of which, sadly, there are fewer and fewer. Cooke does mention a few, though none of them is a novelist. As Cooke points out in the article, it has now become a modern classic but his subsequent novels have not fared nearly so well. Both Cooke and Thorpe are baffled by this. Cooke states They are inevitably superb … and always well-reviewed, and yet you look for his name in vain on Booker and bestseller lists alike. To me, this is as baffling as it is unfair, and I wonder how he accounts for it. Thorpe himself has no explanation and comments One can hardly say I’ve been unambitious. Cooke picks up on this and feels that, as each book is different, this may account for his lack of sales. He’s uncategorisable, and perhaps such unpredictability is simply too much for some readers.
But then she inadvertently reveals the real problem, by comparing Thorpe to Hilary Mantel. He goes on to compare, at least as regards sales, Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels to his own Hodd. Hodd, as you can see from the review in the link, is a version of the Robin Hood tale. Thorpe tells a very clever tale, demystifying Robin Hood, and, to use his own words, being fairly ambitious with his use of comments and the various characters who are similar to the characters that we know from the traditional Robin Hood legend. But, and this is the key, here, as with Ulverton and Pieces of Light, and even in Still, where he uses a stream of consciousness approach, frankly we not only do not identify with the main character, as I said in my review of Pieces of Light, we tend to find his main characters irritating or just not very sympathetic.
Compare this approach to that of Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell has not fared well in history books. He was something of the Dick Cheney of his day – devious, ruthless, committed to an ideology that was not one shared by most people (in Cromwell’s case, that of whatever it was that Henry VIII wanted), serving an unpopular master and not averse to torturing his enemies when he felt it appropriate. He was responsible for the deaths of Thomas More, later canonised, and Anne Boleyn, both of whom fared much better in the history books. Yet, when we read Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, we cannot help but feel a certain identification with Cromwell. Mantel is not interested, as Thorpe seems to be, in telling a faux history, as he does in Hodd. She is not a historian but a novelist and well aware of that. As a result she is telling the story of her character, based on a historical character, of course, but very much her own creation as well. As one of our foremost novelists, if not the foremost novelist writing in Britain today, she does it very, very well. We know that Cromwell is supporting the evil Henry VIII. We know that he has his political opponents tortured. We know that he is going to send Thomas More and Anne Boleyn to the scaffold. And, yet, we cannot but feel a grudging admiration and sympathy for him, as though his problems were ours and his course of action one we would feel bound to take or, at least, strongly consider. This is why Hilary Mantel has twice won the Booker Prize and may well win it again and why she is such a superb novelist.
Yes, Thorpe has been ambitious, not too ambitious as he and Cooke imply, as that is not necessarily a drawback. Mantel has written other novels which are not about famous historical characters and done them very well too. Think of Beyond Black where she has us thinking that spiritualists may not be the slightly deranged people that many of her readers would normally think. Thorpe, meanwhile, produces a succession of characters who, frankly, are distinctly less than appealing and he makes little attempt to have us identify with them. If, as he claims, he is a friend of Hilary Mantel, he could perhaps read her books more closely and learn from them. He is clearly a writer of talent and imagination and it would be nice if he could produce another great book.