Adam Mars-Jones

A Mars Bar

Marianne Faithfull

Private Eye wittingly refers to him as Adam Mars Bar. Whether this is just a feeble pun on his name or some reference to the alleged Mars Bar scandal, I don’t know and I don’t really care. In any case, this week Adam Mars-Jones won the Hatchet Job prize for most scathing review, a review of Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall. I have not read By Nightfall and probably won’t. The only book of Cunningham’s that I have read – A Home at the End of the World – I was not terribly impressed with, though I have not read The Hours, his Virginia Woolf novel which got a lot of praise and was made into a successful film. Mars-Jones’ beef with Cunningham is that the novel is, to use his words, armour-plated with literary references . He claims that this makes Cunningham’s book look lost. He also does not like Cunningham’s Thoughts About Art. I am not sure that this is a valid criticism but, as I have not read the book, I cannot say now annoying it is or how much it detracts from the book. Frankly, I preferred Geoff Dyer’s review of Julian Barnes‘s A Sense of Ending which, of course, won the Man Booker Prize. I am likewise not a great fan of Barnes. I thought he peaked with Flaubert’s Parrot and, while his novels are certainly, on the whole, good, they are not great. I have not read A Sense of Ending and am not sure if I will, though it does have the advantage of being short. However, Dyer’s comments on the book – It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written: excellent in its averageness! sort of sum up Barnes’ work.

Here are the actual reviews that were short-listed:

  • Geoff Dyer on Julian Barnes’ A Sense of Ending
  • Adam Mars-Jones on Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall
  • Mary Beard on Rome by Robert Hughes (Reader, be warned. Skip the first 200 pages and start this book at chapter six; The “ancient” parts of this book are littered with howlers)
  • Camilla Long on With the Kisses of His Mouth by Monique Roffey (What she has actually produced is 480 pages of sub-Marie Claire overshare, a pointlessly explicit, infuriatingly naive and, at times, plain offputting slither through a series of — wilfully? Maliciously? — unedited sexual slurpings.)
  • Lachlan Mackinnon on Clavics by Geoffrey Hill (Writing this bad cannot earn the kind of attention Hill demands; he is wasting his time and trying to waste ours.)
  • Leo Robson on Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford (Richard Bradford considers himself the man for the job, but I doubt that anyone else will. It is neither exciting nor penetrating. It is neither coherent nor convincing. It is characterised by surreal laziness (testimonies are pasted straight on to the page) and surreal bossiness. It is full of repetition, contradictions and small, avoidable errors: Bradford seems to get things slightly wrong almost as a matter of principle. It is also full of spectacularly bad writing.)
  • Jenni Russell on Honey Money by Catherine Hakim (Honey Money, however, is an acute disappointment. It looks like a book. It has hard covers, 372 pages, chapter headings, dozens of sources and footnotes, a fat price ticket and a press release from its publishers. But looks are deceptive. There is no structured argument being worked through in its pages. Instead, bewildered readers find themselves presented with repetitious, rambling, contradictory, ill-argued assertions, without the faintest sense from the author that she has written these sentences before.)
  • David Sexton on The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy (With Carol Ann Duffy, there’s too much verbal prancing, too little that’s original being said, particularly when the poems are not personal. You end the book thinking that if this is poetry, it’s a trivial art.)

As I have read none of the books under review, I am not competent to judge whether the reviews are fair or accurate. Of course, the reviews are subjective. Somebody thought A Sense of Ending was good enough to win the Man Booker Prize, though now is not the time to get into the politics of that. However, I do welcome the manifesto of the Hatchet Job of the year, not least as there are far too many reviews giving fulsome praise to sub-standard works. There are lots of reasons for this but probably the most common is logrolling – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. People who review books are probably a very small set of people and they all know one another so do not want to offend and also want good reviews for their works. To a certain extent, bloggers get away from this and can be more brutal. Some are and some aren’t. I try to avoid books I don’t think that I will like but there are a few reviews on my site which, while not hatchet jobs are highly critical. Writers I consider overrated, such as D H Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway and John Updike are included because of their (in my view undeserved) reputations. I have written critical reviews of authors I admire. And I slammed the Philip Roth for the Nobel Prize bandwagon. But I have been reluctant to do more because I would rather spend my time reading books I like than those I don’t like and, unlike the Hatchet Job reviewers, I can choose.

Which brings us back to Adam Mars-Jones. Way back when, Granta produced a list of best young British novelists. They produced another such list ten years later. (They also produced a third list but it is not relevant to my point here.) If you study the first two lists carefully, you will notice that they have one thing in common – Adam Mars-Jones. Yes, Mars-Jones was twice nominated as one of the best young British novelists. As well as being on both lists, Mars-Jones also had one other feature unique to him. In neither case was he a novelist! His first novel was published in 1993, just after the second list has been published. Why was he on both lists without having published a single novel? Potential maybe? I have no idea. His second novel was published in 2008, fifteen years after the second Granta list. It was called Pilcrow. By coincidence, I tried to read it this week. I say that I tried to read it but, unusually though not unknown for me, I had to abandon it.

A pilcrow

A cedilla

A Mars-Jones (the one on the left)

Let’s start with title. Do you know what a pilcrow is? No, nor did I. This is a pilcrow – ¶. It’s that paragraph mark thing that you see in the Bible and sometimes in older legal documents which, as he points out, is difficult to find on a computer keyboard (as it is not there). I would have called it a paragraph mark. The Shady Characters blog has three aricles on it, if you want to know more – one, two and three. The book is the first of a trilogy, with the second being called cedilla. I do know what a cedilla is (it is the squiggly thing on the c here – ç) as it is used in French and Portuguese, which I read, as well as in other languages. So Mars-Jones criticises Michael Cunningham for being too arty and using too many literary references, yet names his books after obscure punctuation marks which the average reader certainly will not have heard of. Mmmmm. But my main complaint about the book, at least the first hundred pages, is that it is boring. John Cromer has rheumatic fever. He stays in bed. He plays games with his mother. Nothing much happens. As James Woods points out in his review it is about the banalities of life, it has dull patches and it boldly refuses the everyday consolations of plot and dramatic structure. Well, I generally like plot and dramatic structure and found Pilcrow just too boring to be worth continuing. Yes, I know we are going to get into the gay man coming of age stuff which more or less worked in The Stranger’s Child but I really have not the patience to pursue it in this book. So I will read Mars-Jones’ scathing reviews but probably leave his novels alone.

Kindle issues Part 2

In a previous post, I mentioned a couple of issues I had with the Kindle. On my holiday in New Zealand, I did have one issue with the Kindle. Not everyone knows that the Kindle has a web browser. When you go to settings you won’t see anything called web browser. They call it Experimental because it is, well, experimental. The UK Kindles used to offer 3G browsing but no more. You can only browse using Wi-Fi. I took both my Viliv N5 and my Kindle to New Zealand. The latter, of course, was primarily for reading books, with the intention of using the Viliv for web browsing. Unfortunately, the Viliv uses crappy old Windows (© Microsoft) so it did at times have difficult connecting to WiFi. I then reverted to the Kindle.

Advantages of the Kindle over the Viliv:

1. It connected far more often and far easier to WiFi than the Viliv.
2. The type face was bigger.

Advantages of the Viliv over the Kindle

1. It had a keyboard. Typing with a virtual keyboard is a pain.
2. When it worked, it was faster.
3. When it worked, it did not freeze and had no difficulty with more complex websites.

General problems with the Kindle as a web browser.

1. It was slow.
2. It froze.
3. Google at times did not like it, saying that it was using an outdated version of Safari.
4. It was monochrome.
5. Difficult to move around the screen.
6. On some sites, it put an outline box over part of the screen. Only by playing around did I realise this was a zoom function.
7. The main problem was that it used a huge amount of battery and, annoyingly, seemed to temporarily hinder recharging. On more than one occasion, after using the web but having switched off WiFi, it did not recharge. On some occasions, it seemed to be recharge but the light did not change colour and the batter icon seemed to suggest it had not charged. Only by unplugging and plugging in again did the light turn green and the battery icon update.

To be fair, it is not intended as a web browser and Amazon had said it was experimental and it was a useful addition, particularly if you have no ready access to anything else. For reading email and basic stuff, it is useful. I hope that a more sophisticated, less battery-using browser will soon come.

Andrew Chubb

Fox Glacier

One the pleasures on our holiday in New Zealand was meeting lots of nice people, such as the people in the bookshops mentioned in the previous post. One other very nice person we did meet was when we visited Fox Glacier (not very good photo at right). We saw him eagerly photographing everything – plants, rocks and so on. We assumed that he was a professional photographer. However, when we started talking to him, we found that he was a pianist and composer from Australia, called Andrew Chubb. He was a charming and interesting man, who plays the piano professionally. He said that he was interested in and influenced by Philip Glass, a composer I also like. He has his own website, where you can listen to some of his own compositions (sadly not yet available commercially, though you can buy a couple of scores).
Bar Beach
On the photography front, he collaborated with photographer Allan Chawner on an exhibition for which Chawner provided the photos and Andrew the music. It is about Bar Beach, a beach near Newcastle, New South Wales (photo at right). Here are links to other videos of his playing. I am looking forward to his coming to England, if he ever does.

New Zealand

I haven’t posted for a while as I have been on holiday to New Zealand. See obligatory pictures of Milford Sound and a kaka bird below.

Milford Sound


The purpose of the holiday was just that – a holiday to see the beauties of New Zealand which, I must say, were well worth the very long journey. Literature definitely took second place. While many towns did seem to have bookshops, which was nice, finding New Zealand literature was trickier, as most shops stocked what you might find in any UK bookshop. The first town we went to was Nelson, in the South Island, and we visited Page and Blackmore where a nice lady recommended a few books, which I hope to get around to reading. It was not till we got to Dunedin that we found a first-class second-hand bookshop, called Scribes (their website seems to be down). It is up in the university area, near the excellent museum. The owner/manager admitted that he did not read much New Zealand literature but, nevertheless, was knowledgeable on the subject and had a good section on it, so I made a few more purchases to add to my list. In particular, I bought a couple of works by my favourite New Zealand writer, Lloyd Jones. Again, I hope to read them soon but…

One New Zealand writer I have yet to read is Janet Frame, though I own several of her books. While staying in Oamaru, we did visit her house at 56 Eden Street, a fairly ordinary house in a residential street, where she lived from the age of six with her parents and siblings, till she left Oamaru after competing secondary school. Photos of her house, typewriter and bedroom below.

Janet Frame house in Oamaru

Janet Frame's typewriter

Janet Frame's bedroom

The Sufferings of the Kurds

I have just posted to my website the first Kurdish novel I have read. Its title, which translates as Sufferings of the People explains the title of this post. Sadly, it is not available in English but only French. I own three other Kurdish novels but, again, they are not available in English, only in German. Kurdistan is one of the several nationalities on my website which is not a sovereign state. In 1976, Wildwood House published Michael Zwerin’s A Case for the Balkanization of Practically Everyone. Zwerin was primarily known as a jazz critic and musician but he did write this one interesting book, long since out of print and, I suspect, little known. It basically makes the case for small nations and that is something I am very much in favour of, hence my support of them on my site. There is a good example of such a nation in Thomas Mann’s Königliche Hoheit (Royal Highness), maybe my favourite nation in literature. The Kurds are one such nation who seemed to have lost out in the post-Soviet Union, post-Saddam Hussein, post-Arab Spring world. There are actually thousands of such nations. While the Jews, Poles and Ukrainians may have been the main victims of the Holocaust, peoples such as the Sorbians and Ruthenians (now Rusyns) pretty well got wiped out.

The Kurds in Iraq now have some sort of regional autonomy, though the Kurds are also in Iran, Syria and Turkey, and there is not much chance of those countries giving up territory to form a Kurdistan nation. All of which brings me onto Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens died earlier this week. This is not the place to praise or condemn him. Others have done both far better than I could. However, one thing I would mention is Hitchens’ support of George Bush and Tony Blair’s dirty little war in Iraq. Hitchens supported the war, one of the many reasons he has been condemned, including by me. One of his reasons, however, was his support of the Kurds. He famously had his photo taken with a group of Kurdish fighters (see below).

His support for the Kurds was universally praised , not least because, as sadly so often happens, the new bosses were not a whole lot better than the old bosses. We can argue to death whether it is better to be oppressed by your own kind or colonisers though, obviously, it is better not to be oppressed at all. Hitchens argued that the Kurds did obtain an improvement in their lot after the fall of Saddam Hussein. I am not competent to judge but I will accept that. Sadly, till they obtain full independence with a proper democratic elections, they will still have a lot to fight for. Ahmad’s book shows that the Kurds, like other smaller nations, have suffered a lot. Let’s hope that balkanisation and democratic independence comes their way soon.

End of the year lists

I frankly find end of the year lists of best books a little tiresome. Firstly, all too often, authors plug the books of their friends, other authors with the same publisher/agent or authors who plug their books. UK satirical mag Private Eye is good at poking fun at these. Secondly, many of them seem to cheer the same book. How many times do we need to be told that A Sense of Ending is the best book? Then you get the author/critic who says that the only essential book is some totally obscure book of Slovenian poetry (only available in Slovenian) which no-one has heard of, even in Slovenia, let alone in the English-speaking world. Yes, we know you are a genius. Finally, and most pertinent for me, most of the books I read in any year were not published in that year. I notice, from my website, that I seem to have read thirteen books published this year, all but one originally written in English. This is probably a record high for me.

Having said all that, of course, I do enjoy a sneak look at what the authors and other pundits are recommending, partially to agree, partially to sneer. I like the idea of combined lists. Fimoculous used to do lists of lists and not just for books but apparently has had enough. This year, the novelist Ivan Thays, in his wonderful blog Moleskine, gives a list of lists, mostly taken, as he states, from that other wonderful blog The Literary Saloon. It is an interesting bunch, though I have come across a few other interesting ones, which I looked at but did not note. Maybe I will try such a compilation next year. But then maybe I won’t. The sad thing is that, this year, as far as I can tell, there has not been any great novel published, though there may have been one we failed to notice and only become aware of in a year or two. Which is why I tend to ignore best of lists. As for the books on the lists, I have found that new books by the tried and tested authors have been sadly lacking. But I have probably not yet read the worthwhile ones and won’t do so for a few years.

Christa Wolf

Christa Wolf died yesterday.  You can find links to obituaries in both English and German on the Christa Wolf page on my website. She came in for a lot of criticism, firstly because it was discovered that she had worked as a Stasi informer and secondly because she had opposed German reunification. However, it is too easy to sit comfortably in the West (and, yes I do mean both the general political sense of the West, as well as West Germany) and criticise her. Let us not forget, as a teenager, her family fled the advancing Soviet army (she was born in what was then Germany but is now Poland). Moreover, though she did work for the Stasi, she soon withdrew. According to this article (in German), she prepared just three reports, all of them generally positive. The Stasi, not unsurprisingly, criticised her reporting for Zurückhaltung und überbetonte Vorsicht (restraint and excessive caution). Thereafter, she herself was under surveillance. As for her opposition to reunification, shared by other writers, she (and the others) felt that there should be a true social democracy in Germany and West Germany certainly was not it (nor, of course, was East Germany). She hoped, probably very naively, that East Germany, after the fall of Communism, could become a true social democracy. It is highly doubtful whether this could ever have happened but there is no doubt that her fear of capitalism and its consequences seem to have been borne out in recent months.

There continues to be criticism of Wolf and, as she is reassessed after her death, there will undoubtedly be more. I would argue that it is not really justified and that she should be remembered for writing three first-class novels – Der geteilte Himmel (Divided Heaven), Nachdenken über Christa T. (The Quest for Christa T)and Kassandra (Cassandra), all of which have been translated into English.

Speaking in tongues

I was reading my favourite Italian literary review, L’Indice, the other day. L’Indice contains reviews of new and recent books and articles, a bit like the Times Literary Supplement or the New York Review of Books.  One thing that struck me was that a significant number of the reviews had English words in the text. These were not English words as used in Italian but straightforward English words. Most of them were not translated. For example, one review quoted extensively from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with no translation into Italian, though the poem has been translated into Italian. Can you imagine a review in an English-language publication quoting from La Ginestra in the original Italian without translation?

I am certainly not pointing out anything original here in saying that even educated readers from the US, UK, Australia and other anglophone countries do not have a good grounding in foreign languages.  Yes, they know the words they have seen in ads (e.g. Fahrvergnügen), the words in the news (e.g. bunga-bunga, though it probably is not of Italian origin ) and, of course, the standard foreigns words that have crept into English (e.g. fait accompli).  Many Brits will have a basic grounding in French while some US nationals will have a basic grounding in Spanish but, on the whole, it is no secret that most of us do not really bother with foreign languages.  The reasons are obvious.  Everyone speaks English (they don’t but we like to think either that they do or ought to do so).  Stuff we need to read is generally available in English and, if it is not, we probably do not need to read it.  Your average educated Swede, for example, knows full well that s/he will have to learn English to read much of what s/he wants to read. And when we go on holiday or even meet them in our own country, if we shout at them loudly, they will generally get the message, even if they don’t speak English.

There is an apocryphal BBC weather report which allegedly stated “Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off”. Despite our somewhat reluctant membership of the EU, we still do not really feel ourselves part of Europe, as recent rumblings over the Euro crisis have shown. The US is even more isolationist, as the Tea Party has shown, despite the fact most of them come, originally, from somewhere else. In short, all too often, we feel that we can do without them damn furriners and their nasty habits, their nasty religions, their nasty food and their terrorism. Yes, of course, other nationalities have been as jingoistic but probably less so, at least in recent years, when it comes to linguistic jingoism.

All this is leading to an issue I have noted while doing my website, namely that there are many books that have been written in a lesser known language and have not been translated into English, though they have been translated into other languages. This is doubly unfortunate. Firstly you would assume that the largest audience for most books is English, not just because of the large number of native English speakers but also because many others might read the book in English translation if they could not read it in the original and it was not translated into their own language. Secondly English speakers are far less likely to read books in the original language than some other nationalities, who are more likely to have learned not only English but also another language. How often will you see a book written in another language and not available in English reviewed or even discussed in a UK or US literary mag? Yes, the TLS, to their credit, occasionally does so but I cannot think of many other examples, except, perhaps abstruse academic publications. Looking at the current fiction best-sellers, IQ84 has creeped into the top ten NYT list but it is the only non-US book to do so. In the UK, it is all British and Americans. However, looking at Western Europe, US (and, occasionally, UK) books seem to be found on equal footing with the local works. And most of them, of course, use the English word best-seller.

Anyway, enough ranting. There are not enough books translated into English, usually because of cultural reasons towards other languages/cultures and not just because of the ineptitude/reluctance of the publishers, and not enough people learn foreign languages well enough to read other books in foreign languages. I shall almost certainly come back to this topic.

The Canon – Part Deux

Following on from my previous comments on the canon, I would like to say a few words in favour of the canon.

1) The stunningly obvious reason is that it does help us, if we are fairly ignorant of literary offerings, to see what is generally considered great and good. I consider myself fairly well read but I certainly found a lot of interest in Bloom’s The Western Canon. I am unlikely to ever read some of the Greek and Roman writers that he mentions; I have never read (and am unlikely to do so) the poetry of the likes of John Skelton, Fulke Greville, Thomas Campion and Thomas Traherne. I am aware of most (but certainly not all) the others and have at least dipped into many of them. I have a few gripes – why no Prus, for example and there are many gaps in what he calls the Chaotic Age (i.e. the modern period) And if Arabic and India are to be included there, why no Arabian Nights and Ocean of Story? And if Arabic, India and Africa are deemed to be part of the Western Canon, why are China and Japan not?  However, these are quibbles, as everyone will have their views on what should or should not be included.  The result is that we have list, however imperfect, of what many consider the best books in the Western tradition, though with all the provisos mentioned in my previous comments on the canon.

2) Are there rules for writing a novel? Somerset Maugham famously said There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. Actually, he is not quite right. While there may be relatively few rules (prose fiction of a certain length), there are numerous conventions, involving plot(s), character and character development, milieu, beginning and ending, style and so on. I shall not discuss these, as there are so many and there is considerable disagreement as to what they are. On this site, for example, we have novels that are too short, which are not strictly fiction, which have multiple, separate plots, which have few characters, with little development and which are frankly not novels as Somerset Maugham or others would consider novels. However, those that do break the rules/conventions – obvious examples include Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Georges Perec, though there are many more on this site – have had to learn the rules before they broke them. I am sure that there are some novelists who have written wonderfully experimental novels without knowing much about the novel but I cannot think of them. If we look at the canon, we can have, at least, an idea of what the accepted (accepted by (often white male) academics, of course) rules and conventions are. I would think anyone whose novel reading is limited to Finnegans Wake and other radically experimental novels would be missing a lot of what the novel has to offer.

3) It could be argued and, indeed, has been argued that having a canon excludes many excellent novels that, for various reasons, have been excluded from it. This is certainly true. The temptation for students or others limiting themselves to the canon is only to read those novels in the canon and to ignore those not in it. While I agree that this is certainly a danger, I would think that it is less of one than it used to be, not least because with the Internet, it is so easy to find other sources to guide one’s reading, not least of which is my site!  However, this works the other way.  However awful The Random House Modern Library Board’s selection of the 100 best novels (left-hand column), it is much better than the Readers’ List (right-hand column) which has four novels by the spectacularly awful Ayn Rand in the top ten and three by the equally spectacularly awful L Ron Hubbard in the top eleven.  It would be hoped that the canon compilers (academics) would have enough taste to exclude Rand and Hubbard, even if they do exclude many worthy novels.


So am I trying to establish a canon with my site? God forbid.  What I am trying to do is to say that we do have a canon and it has some uses and I have included many of what would be considered the 20th/21st century canon on the site (and others will follow – it is far from complete) but that the standard canon is missing many, many works, even some by DWMs, and that I will try to suggest works that should be considered.  Over-ambitious?  Absolutely but I hope that some people somewhere will find books on here that they were not aware of and read them. The more people read the non-canonical works that should be in the canon, the more likely that they will be added to the canon.