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.


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.

Ismail Kadare


Ismail Kadare

I have recently read Ismail Kadare‘s Spiritus. It is the twenty-second of his novels that I have read and, I suspect, the most novels I have read by the same author as an adult. As a child/teenager, I undoubtedly read more Biggles novels but that was a long time ago and I very much doubt if I have read twenty-two books by the same author since. The question is why?

There are a couple of problems with Kadare. Of course, he writes in Albanian. His books are generally translated into French and then translated from the French, usually by David Bellos, author of the fascinating Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, a book about translation and meaning, with its title taken, of course, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams who…, no, this is going to end up in a never-ending Hitchhiker’s Guide type chain. What this means is that if you read him in English, you are reading a double translation and, however good a translator Bellos is, and he is a very good translator, you will lose something. However, as Salman Rushdie sensibly remarked about Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years Of Solitude), it is far better to read it in translation than not at all. Indeed, it is far better to read Kadare in double translation than not at all. I am fortunate enough to be able to read French so I can and do read Kadare in French. This has another advantage. Of the twenty-two books of his that I have read, eight have not been translated into English, I know not why, though some have been translated into other languages, for example Spiritus.


The second problem is that he has been accused of having been too cosy with the Hoxha regime. Both were born in Gjirokastër, though Hoxha was twenty-eight years older. However, it is very easy to condemn him for this. I wonder how many of us, from Western Europe and North America, would have resisted the Hoxha or other oppressive regimes. Not too many, I think. I very much doubt if I would have done it openly though I would like to think that I would have done it behind closed doors. The idea of being tortured and killed or even denied any job is not one that would have appealed to me and I can only admire those dissidents, such as Solzhenitsyn or Sakharov or, indeed, those currently opposed to Assad in Syria, and be grateful that I do not have to face what they have faced. In short, some may condemn him. I do not.


The Great Winter

A glance at my website will see that I have a fascination for the exotic and it is certainly that that attracted me to Kadare. But Kadare is not just exotic, though Albania is probably as exotic as you can get in Europe, from the Western Europe perspective. He superbly mixes in history, myth, fantasy and realism so that you are never quite sure what, from the story’s point of view, is real or not and the answer, of course, is that it is all real and none of it is real. And the legends and stories that he tells are suitably alien from the Western European tradition to make them seem more exotic than, say, other, more familiar legends of bandits such as Robin Hood or brave kings such as King Arthur. Kadare is also a superb writer. His Dimri i madh [The Great Winter] which, sadly, has not been translated into English, is, on the face of it, a conventional story about the break-up of relations between Albania and the Soviet Union. The usual interjection of legend is limited, though we do get some of the earlier history of Albania, one of Kadare’s trademarks, but the book is, nevertheless, a superb book, so well written and gripping, that it remains one of his best works yet without his usual style. But it is the legends, the otherworldliness, the outsiders, bandits, if you will, struggling, often ferociously, to remain fiercely independent that are his trademark and which appear in all of his best work.

Why is he not better known in the English-speaking world? He is, of course, fairly well known. Amazon US shows around a dozen of his books available in print, with a couple more in Kindle, while Amazon UK has one or two more. The very wonderful Canongate will be bringing out this summer The Fall of the Stone City, a translation of Darka e gabuar, only three years after the French edition, while a new edition of Doruntine came out eighteen months ago with the new title of The Ghost Rider. However, despite Canongate’s The much anticipated new novel, I doubt if The Fall of the Stone City is much anticipated by all that many people.

That Korean poet

Kadare should, in my view, be a perennial Nobel Prize candidate and, while his name does get mentioned, he is never up there in the betting with the Philip Roths and that Korean poet. Kadare is still alive and there are still a few of his fiction works available in French which I have not read, so I will top twenty-two. And one day I hope to go to Albania myself to see the rugged scenery, the bandits and the living legends for myself.

The Great British Novel

John Lanchester's Capital

I have yet to read John Lanchester’s Capital or, indeed, any of his other books, but will probably do so in the next few weeks. However, I was intrigued by the heading to the review of his novel in the Guardian. The online edition merely said Capital by John Lanchester – review. However, the print edition said The Hunt for the Great British Novel. This raises a few points. Firstly, nowhere in Theo Tait’s review does it mention the Great British Novel, either suggesting Capital is the Great British Novel or discussing the concept. Secondly, what it does do is say if you want to read John Lanchester’s great London novel, then read Mr Phillips. I will ignore the sub’s giant leap from Tait’s suggestion of John Lanchester‘s great London novel to the Great British Novel in general but find it interesting that the assumption is that the Great British Novel may well be the Great London Novel (or vice versa). As I will shortly show, this is very much not the case. Thirdly, there is the interesting idea of the Great British Novel. The concept comes, of course, from the Great American Novel, on which I have a relatively long page on my website. The US literary world is moderately obsessed with this idea and it comes up frequently in US literary discourse, most recently after the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as well as the debate on sexism in the litcrit world. Indeed, as my page shows, there are several novels published in the US called The Great American Novel, most famously Philip Roth’s. Further down on my page, I have links to discussions of other Great…Novels but there is none relating to the Great British Novel. If you google the term, you will find a few hits, such as the Guardian’s very brief intro to the idea and a very feeble attempt to have a joint effort to write the Great British Novel, which leads to a now defunct site. But on the whole, we Brits don’t seem too keen on the concept though we have contributed to various best of lists .

A Scots Quair

So is there a Great British Novel? Firstly, we need to start with the word British. As I mentioned above, saying that the Great British Novel and the Great London Novel are synonymous is wrong not just because many great English novels were written away from and about other regions of England, the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish might be even more upset by the idea. So let’s divide the Great British Novel into the Great English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Novels. So let’s start with the Scots. For me, the Scots Quair is the easy winner, though a case could be made for Lanark as well as for Kidnapped, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Waverley (or other Scott novels). My Scotland home page has various lists with suggestions.

Under Milk Wood

Wales is trickier. The two obvious choices are not novels. The Mabinogion is definitely the Welsh classic but it is a collection of legendary tales, not a novel. Under Milk Wood is a radio drama, later made into a film but not a novel. It is, however, the 20th century Welsh classic. While there are a lot of fine Welsh novels, I cannot say that any one is the Great Welsh Novel, not least because the Welsh, like many other nationalities, have been more interested in poetry than prose, as Harri Webb’s poem shows.

Táin Bó Cúalnge

Northern Ireland is going to have to go the same route as Wales, as its great novel is not a novel but a legend, namely The Táin Bó Cúalnge (Cattle Raid at Cooley). Some (particularly the Protestants) may argue that this should be associated with the Republic of Ireland but it was very much part of the Ulster Cycle when Ulster played a major role in pre-Protestant, pre-Cromwell history. Apart from that, At Swim Two Birds might be a possibility, as O’Brien was born in what is now Northern Ireland but I am not sure that he would have wanted to be associated with what we now call Northern Ireland. There are other fine novels from Northern Ireland but probably none could be considered the Great Northern Irish Novel.

Brideshead Revisited

Mrs. Dalloway

Which brings us to England. The 20th/21st centuries are singularly lacking in Great Novels. Brideshead Revisited could possibly be a candidate, as could Mrs. Dalloway or Heart of Darkness. I would stake a claim for Crash though I am not sure many would agree. However, it is probably to the 19th century that we should turn for the Great English Novel. While Mrs. Dalloway is set in London, it is hardly a London novel. The same could be said for Crash. The other two certainly are not, set primarily in Oxford/Yorkshire (given that Brideshead is based on Castle Howard) and the Congo, respectively. The best 19th century novels are even less London novels.

Beauchamp's Career

Wuthering Heights

You can see what I consider to be the best 19th century English novels as they are in my Best 19th century novels list. Beauchamp’s Career and Vanity Fair are set partially in London and partially elsewhere. Bleak House and the Palliser novels are set in London. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, Lavengro, Middlemarch and Erewhon are not. All have claim to be the Great English Novel but I would be hard pressed to pick one as the Great English Novel.

Part of the issue with Capital is that, because of the current situation, the Great British/English Novel should be about finance and, for that reason, Capital has been put forward. Till I have read it, I will be unable to say for sure but, I suspect, it is no more worthy of the title than A Week in December, Other People’s Money and other recent financial novels. I will probably come back to this topic of the great British/English novel but let me just conclude by saying that a) it is not clear what is, if any, the Great British/English Novel and b) it is certain that, as yet, no 20th or 21st century novel can lay claim to the title.

The novels of Laos

A glance at my website will show that I am interested in reading and promoting the novels from smaller countries. I have, for example, novels from Cape Verde, Burundi, the Faroe Islands and Niue, as well as from other smaller countries. I have not visited Cape Verde, Burundi, the Faroe Islands or Niue and almost certainly will never do so. Just as I have not visited and never will visit many of the other countries on my website, though I have just counted and find that I have visited sixty-two of the countries, though, of course, that includes some duplications e.g. I have visited Catalonia and Spain.

As a result I do spend some time poking around the web and various publications, trying to find out what novels have been written in these countries and, in particular, what are available in Western European languages that I can read. Part of the problem is that the novel is primarily a Western tradition, with one theory being that it was invented by Samuel Richardson with his Pamela. This is, of course, false. Not only were there other English candidates, there were numerous other candidates from elsewhere. Margaret Anne Doody‘s seminal The True History of the Novel is essential reading on the subject and highly recommended.

Chariton's Callirhoe (Loeb)

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Chariton’s Callirhoe is the first novel she discusses (you can read it here) and there are several other Ancient Greek novels, e.g. this collection. But obviously we could make a claim for the much earlier Epic of Gilgamesh and other Eastern epics. Which brings me back to the issue at hand, namely the fact that the novel is primarily a Western tradition. One of the reasons many countries do not have many novels to read is that their culture did not produce novels but focused rather on poetry, myths/fables and tales. When looking for novels from many of these countries, I easily find examples of poetry, fables and tales but far fewer novels.

The White Nightjar

Which brings me to Laos. Yes, we have finally got here, albeit by a somewhat tortuous route. This link, for example, clearly shows that Laos does have modern novelists but, as far as I can determine, they have not been translated into any Western European language. Anatole-Roger Peltier, for example, has translated classic Lao works into French and English (see The White Nightjar above) but not modern literature. Outhine Bounyavong may well be Laos’ best-known writer but only a collection of his stories has been published in English. When the Sky Turns Upside Down is a collection of stories by two Lao sisters. There is a Thai bookshop selling Lao books but they tend to be books about the history and culture of Laos written by foreigners. The same applies to Monument Books. In short, as far as I can determine, there is no modern Lao novel available in a Western European language. If this is incorrect, I would be grateful for any further information. I look forward to some enterprising publisher taking up the mantle and publishing a Lao novel in a Western European language.


The latest review on my website is of Sarah Quigley‘s The Conductor, set in Leningrad during the siege of that city by the Germans. Though I did not mention it in my review there was one minor annoyance with the book. The characters used plays on words in English which would not work in Russian. For example, Karl Eliasberg states that he is a conductor (as in orchestral conductor) but the lady he is speaking to thinks he means bus conductor. However, in Russian, an orchestral conductor is дирижер, while a bus conductor is кондуктор. A minor point but mildly annoying (to me, at least).

Anna Akhmatova

Amber Room

The blurb on the back points out rightly, that many of the cultural elite left Leningrad during the siege. This is certainly the case, particularly as regards musicians but two did stay behind, at least initially – Olga Bergholz and Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova was born near Odessa but grew up in Tsarkoye Selo, about fifteen miles from St. Petersburg, home of an imperial palace, the Catherine Palace, famous for its Amber Room (which may have been destroyed or stolen by either the Germans or the Soviets but has since been restored). She lived in St Petersburg but was hounded by the authorities. Her first husband was shot and her second husband died in the gulag. Her son spent many years in the gulag but did survive. Her poetry was censored and, for many years, only circulated in samizdat. She is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest poets and certainly Russia’s greatest woman poet.

But Akhmatova is not the only writer associated with St. Petersburg. Though born in Moscow, Dostoyevsky spent much of his adult life in St. Petersburg, at least when not in exile. There are a couple of novels on my site which feature Dostoevsky and St. Petersburg – Leonid Tsypkin‘s Лето в Бадене (Summer in Baden-Baden) and J M Coetzee‘s The Master of Petersburg. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Mayakovsky, Blok, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Zamyatin and Nabokov are just some of the writers associated with St. Petersburg (Petrograd, Leningrad).

The Bronze Horseman

However, my favourite and the one who, for me, typifies St. Petersburg, is Andrei Bely and his novel Петербург (Petersburg). This novel which, amazingly enough, has been translated four times into English, has as its main characters a city (St. Petersburg) and a bronze statue – the Bronze Horseman and the poem written about it. If you have ever been to St. Petersburg, you will know that the photo does not and cannot do justice to the magnificence of Falconet’s statue, set by the River Neva. Bely’s novel is, in my view, one of the great novels of the twentieth century and is on my list of the ten best Russian novels of the century and would be top if I did my lists in numerical order. It is also on my list of the best novels of the century and while it would not be top, it would certainly be high up.

There are a few other novels on my site where St. Petersburg appears – Angela Carter‘s Nights at the Circus, David Mitchell‘s Ghostwritten, Kathy Acker‘s Don Quixote as well as Sarah Quigley‘s The Conductor, all, of course, very different novels. I haven’t read Metro Stop Dostoevsky but it had good reviews and seems to sum up St. Petersburg well from the point of view of an outsider.