Emyr Humphreys: Outside the House of Baal


The latest addition to my website is Emyr HumphreysOutside the House of Baal. This is what Humphreys calls a long novel,not only in number of words but also because it covers a long(-ish) time span, namely from the early twentieth century to the 1960s. It tells the story of two families who see many changes in Wales, cultural, economic and political. In particular, we see many of these changes through the eyes of J T. Miles, a left-wing pastor, who is a pacifist and very much concerned with the economic circumstances of his flock and endeavours to work hard to improve them, often at the expense of and to the disgust of his family. He is, of course, fighting a losing battle, as the Great Depression and later the closure of the mines leads to mass poverty and mass emigration. Indeed, the man whom he partially blames for this trend is a Welsh-speaking Welshman, Lloyd George. It is an excellent novel of Wales and deserves to be better-known. It is now back in print with the wonderful Seren Books.

Google fail

Google - April Fool smell jokes but no Mauriac
Google – April Fool smell jokes but no Mauriac

While writing up my review on François Mauriac‘s Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux), I decided to check whether Google, in its wisdom, had indexed my previous entries on Mauriac. With the language setting to English only and searching François Mauriac, I got 729 hits, with the proviso, after the last one, In order to show you the most relevant results, we have omitted some entries very similar to the 729 already displayed. I looked at every one of those hits (yes, really!) and there was no page from my website. Google has indexed my Mauriac page for, if I search François Mauriac site:themodernnovel.org, I get five hits – the author page, reviews of the first two of his novels that I reviewed (the other two have not yet made it to Google) and three other pages where François and Mauriac appear. I do get hits for my blog page which mentions and links to these pages (and which is on a different url), which is strange). If I narrow down the search to François Mauriac Le Baiser au lépreux (A Kiss for the Leper) , my website comes sixth overall (out of 235 hits), ahead of Wikipedia and ahead of my blog post on the book (which comes sixteenth), so clearly Google has not banned me.

Google's view of Mauriac
Google’s view of Mauriac

Obviously, a small site like mine should not appear top in Google rankings. But let’s look at what it is compared with other pages on Mauriac. My webpage has a brief bio, a comprehensive bibliography of his books in both French and English, references to two books about him and links to thirteen other sites about him and reviews of currently four, though then two, of his books. Here is what the top ten, according to Google, are:

  • 1. Wikipedia. Detailed bio and bibliography. Fewer links. No books about him
  • 2. Nobel Prize site. Brief bio. Works in French and separate list of works in English. His Nobel speeches.
  • 3. Britannica. Bio. No biblio. References to books about him.
  • 4. Paris Review interview
  • 5. Eternal Word Television Network interview
  • 6. IMDB page on films of his book
  • 7. Wikiquote page with seven quotes from him and his works
  • 8. biography.com bio of about 100 words plus photo plus (very) brief facts. No biblio; indeed only mention of one of his novels
  • 9. Goodreads quote page. Ten in English and one in Italian. None in French
  • 10. Amazon UK page of his books for sale on their site. I am in the UK. Presumably people from other countries would get Amazon US or another appropriate Amazon

Google also has its brief summary of Mauriac (see photo above at right).

The Bordeaux tourist office view of Mauriac
The Bordeaux tourist office view of Mauriac

This is pathetic. I hate to sound as though I am beating my own drum but… If I am searching for Mauriac (without qualification), I probably want an idea of who he is, what he did, what he wrote and so on. You will find this information (if you only read English) on the Wikipedia site, the Nobel Prize site, enotes and my site. At least I think so because, as my site does not appear in the Google listings, are there other worthwhile sites that are not appearing as well? The answer is, of course, that we do not know. The other eight sites on the first page of the Google page give scant biographical and no bibliographical information (Britannica, biography.com); quotes (Wikiquote; Goodreads) – if I wanted quotes, I would have searched for François Mauriac quotes; interviews (Paris Review and Eternal Word Television Network (whoever they may be) – if I wanted interviews, I would have searched for François Mauriac interviews; films of his books (Imdb) – if I wanted… you know the rest and books of his for sale – if had wanted to buy his books, I would have gone straight to Amazon or another book search site. This is not worrying because it is not showing my site (though that is somewhat worrying) but it is worrying because when I search for other things, be it books or how to repair my lawnmower, am I getting the best results? Answer, almost certainly: no. Why are these sites so highly rated? Well, clearly several of these are very well-known sites, with a well-established web presence and used by thousands of people a day. Even then, Google fails to give the relevant pages. Neither Wikiquote nor the Goodreads quote page should have been high on a basic search for François Mauriac. The same applies to IMDB, Paris Review and the Eternal Word Television Network. Page two, by the way, has four more Amazon links (two from the US, two from the UK), two identical bios from freedictionary.com, quotes from brainyquote.com, another page from the Nobel Prize, a bio from answers.com and a page from the Bordeaux tourist office with a brief bio and where he lived.

What about the other search engines? Yahoo does slightly better than Google. It has the enotes.com, kirjasto.sci.fi and answers.com pages on is first page. My review of Génitrix is No 141 and the front page of my blog No 389 (out of 546). No reference to my main page on Mauriac or any of the blog reviews. Bing is similar to Yahoo and, in fact, has my review of Génitrix at No 142 and the front page of the blog at 460. Another of my blog posts (not about Mauriac) comes way down the list. And that’s it. Duckduckgo seems more akin to Google but it has one of my blog reviews relatively high up (as it uses continuous page scrolling I cannot easily tell how far up). AskJeeves seemed to be very similar to Google. All this leads me to the conclusion, which, of course, I have known for a long time, that search enginees are not yielding the results we are really looking for. All too often when I search for an author, I get presented with sites selling his books instead of sites about him. All too often, when checking up on lawnmower repair or something similar, I get results for another product or for some service in another country. I remember in the early days of the web, when Yahoo was a site that was like a catalogue so that you could search Literature>France>Authors>Mauriac and get all the relevant sites on Mauriac (there almost certainly were very few). Those days have long since gone and are clearly impractical given the size of the web today but there must be another way. Come in, Google, your time is up. Time for a new model and a new player.

François Mauriac: Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux)


The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Thérèse Desqueyroux (Therese; later: Therese Desqueyroux). This is unusual for Mauriac, in that the heroine has committed a criminal act – she has tried to poison her husband. The books starts with her leaving the court, with her father and lawyer, as her husband has perjured herself in order to avoid any scandal in the family. On the way back home, she reflects on her life, what led her to marry and then try and poison her husband and how she is going to explain her act to him. Back home, everything is done both to punish Thérèse but, at the same time, to preserve the appearance of normality for the sake of the family . Naturally, this proves to be a very difficult task. This is one of Mauriac’s best-known novels, with two successful films made of it.

Kate Atkinson: Life After Life


The latest addition to my website is Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life. This is a wonderful novel, a sort of cross between Ken Grimwood’s Replay and the film Groundhog Day. Ursula Todd is still-born, the umbilical cord strangling her. She is immediately born again and this time the umbilical cord does not strangle her. She lives a few years before drowning and then is born again. This continues to happen. Sometimes, she lives a relatively long time, others less so. On two occasions, she has more than one death occurring on the same day but each time the events leading up to that death differ. She is unaware of what is happening but does have dream-like memories of her past lives and does learn from them. It is both a very clever story but also very well-told, as Atkinson is not just interested in the clever tricks but showing how her characters develop. And, oh yes, he’s back .

Esther Tusquets: Para no volver (Never to Return)


The latest addition to my website is Esther TusquetsPara no volver (Never to Return). This is a first-class novel by one of the leading Spanish women novelists, who sadly died last year. She seems to be relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, despite the fact that several of her books, including this one, have been translated into English. This book is about identity, particularly the identity of a woman when she is seen by the world to be subordinate to a man (her husband), but also about growing old, psychoanalysis, the role of women and Spain and how it has evolved since the Spanish Civil War. It is mainly told in the form of a substantially one way conversation between the protagonist, Elena, and her psychiatrist, for whom she has a host of nicknames, from Papa Freud to Stone Face (he barely speaks and barely reacts to her comments). A feminist work, yes, very much so, but also a work about identity and who we are.

Volker Braun: Das unbesetzte Gebiet [The Unoccupied Area]


The latest addition to my website is Volker Braun‘s Das unbesetzte Gebiet [The Unoccupied Area]. It tells the story of an area of Saxony called Schwarzenberg during a six week period at the end of World War II. The German army surrendered on 8 May 1945 and Schwarzenberg awaited the imminent arrival of American or Soviet forces. Neither arrived. For six weeks, they were independent and created a sort of socialist republic which Braun clearly saw as a model, albeit an unrealisable model, for the future. The Soviets took over on 26 June 1945, ending the dream. Braun tells the story as an eyewitness account but then, in the second part of the book, adds little odd snippets – from history, from that period but also from the present day which, in some cases, are directly relevant and in others clearly not. It is certainly an interesting novel and not the first novel on the topic from Germany. Sadly , it is not available in English.

Sasha Sokolov: Школа для дураков (A School for Fools)


The latest addition to my website is Sasha Sokolov‘s Школа для дураков (A School for Fools). Sokolov did not even try to publish this novel in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s and it was first published in Russian in the United States. It is easy to see why the Soviet Union would not allow him to publish. It is a very modernist work, more in the style of Joyce and Faulkner than that of any Soviet author. It is narrated by a young man who has psychological troubles and who is looking back two years to the time when he was in a special school. There is no linear plot but, rather, a mosaic of impressions of his life, his trouble with authority (his parents and teachers), his love of nature and his search for identity, which he often discusses with an alter ego. It is a very poetical work, whose reputation has continued in Russia and the West. Though currently out of print in English, Overlook Press will be publishing a new edition in June 2013.

Emyr Humphreys: A Toy Epic


The latest addition to my website is Emyr HumphreysA Toy Epic. It is a relatively short novel that tells the story of three boys in 1930s Wales who know one another but who come from different backgrounds. It is told through the thoughts and points of view of each of the boys as they struggle with their own particular issues, often filtered through the influence of their background and upbringing. One is from a working class family, who lives in a council house and whose father is a bus driver; one is the son of a vicar and the third is the son of farmer, from a very religious family. They end up at the same school, where all three obtained scholarships, and have mixed success at school and with the issues they face – sex, education and prospective career, parents, religion and politics. As usual with Humphreys, it is told in a somewhat poetical style and, though short, works well.

François Mauriac: Le Désert de l’amour (The Desert of Love)


The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Le Désert de l’amour (The Desert of Love). While it does have Mauriac’s trademark doom and gloom, it also has a (very slight) glimmer of hope at the end. However, before we get to the end, we learn of the desert of love in the life of Paul, a doctor, and his son Raymond. Paul is unhappy in his marriage (through no fault of his wife) and does not get on with his son, daughter and son-in-law, though does make an occasional effort to do so. He has fallen in love with Maria Cross, a widow whose young son has recently died. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Raymond, in his mid-thirties, had met this woman seventeen years previously and that she had done something to him that caused him great bitterness. He now sees her again, thinking about revenge. The novel is, to a great extent, about what happened.

Brits not emotional

Bridget not emotional?
Bridget not emotional?

A recent study has concluded that US writers are more emotional than British ones, at least since around 1960 (they were about the same before). This is not a major surprise, except, perhaps, to Bridget Jones. However, what the study does not mention is what books they used, apart from the fact that they were fiction. Were they thrillers? Literary fiction? Children’s? Romance? Stephen King? J K Rowling? Stephenie Meyer? Hilary Mantel? Inevitably a US publication used the term stiff upper lip in its article on the topic. What is also not surprising is that US authors used a lot more words like independent, individual, unique, self, solitary and personal and far fewer using words like communal, team, collective, village, group and union. While this may be a terrible trait in a nation, as it means that the nation is essentially selfish (cf issues around gun control, health insurance, etc.), it does tend to produce better art, as the weird individual is generally going to be a better artist than the community-minded one. In passing, I would just mention that there is no doubt in my mind that, as a whole, the US has produced the best novels of the twentieth century.

Hilary Mantel - more cerebral?
Hilary Mantel – more cerebral?

British writing or, at least, English writing (did the study pay much attention to Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish writing?) has been certainly more devoid of passion and individualism. We did not need a study to tell us that. Writers like Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift are noted more for producing cerebral writing and less for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Even if they do describe emotions, as Mantel clearly does, they themselves do not show it, the way many US writers do. However, without knowing what books were used and the criteria for selecting those books, I think that we can say that the general conclusions of the study may well be valid and interesting, but we cannot deduce too much from it.