The latest addition to my website is Liam O’Flaherty‘s Famine, a harrowing account of the Great Irish Famine of the mid-1840s, which resulted in at least one million deaths and that number or more emigrating, primarily to the United States. There have been several excellent historical books on the subject and the complete failure of the British government and the landowners to do anything to mitigate the famine but O’Flaherty’s personalised account is a very powerful novel and one well worth worth reading, even if it does make for distinctly unpleasant reading, as he spares us few details. This is the third of his books to appear on my site and others will follow. He is very much a realist writer and many of his books recount fictionalised episodes of Irish history.
In my previous post on this topic, I said that I would say more in a subsequent post about my own failings in this area. However, I first want to look at other literary blogs. There are loads of wonderful literary blogs out there but I have picked a few favourite ones – you will find all but one on my list at the left and down a bit and the one not there has been mentioned in a previous blog post. However, I have decided to select only blogs written by women. (Quick mildly relevant aside. In my previous life, I worked for a large international organisation, which struggled with the issue of promoting and encouraging women and which had a large majority of men at the top. I was very much involved in this issue and my sad experience was that some women could be just as discriminatory against women as men (I had to make it to the top the hard way, why can’t they?)). This in no way implies that any of these women bloggers are the same. Choosing them is, of course, terribly unfair as they are often constrained by what is out there, I am almost certainly looking at a very limited and arbitrary subset of their output and they have no obligation whatsoever to promote women writers but, what the hell?, the blogosphere is unfair.
- Blog of a Bookslut is one of the foremost literary blogs out there and is essential reading for all interested in things literary. It is edited by Jessa Crispin. I looked at the entries for the first eleven days of December and the score (depending how you count) was about 3-2 in favour of men.
- Katy Derbyshire’s Love German Books is a superb blog on, well, German books. As she had only had four posts in December, I went back a little bit further and, limiting myself only to writers and not translators and others mentioned, the score was around 1.8-1 in favour of men, despite the fact that the first post started off mentioning seven women writers.
- Lizzy Siddal’s blog is Lizzy’s Literary Life and, in the recent period, has focussed on German books. Even counting the Brothers Grimm as one, the men led the women 3-1, though she does link to 14 German Women Writers You Shouldn’t Miss (of which, I am ashamed to say, I have only read three of the authors, though own a few of the others).
- Liza Hayden Espenschade’s Lizok’s Bookshelf is the best blog on Russian literature (at least in English). Again, focusing only on the writers of books, the score is around 3-1 in favour of men.
- Marcia Lynx Qualey has the best blog in English on Arabic literature. Her score for the period was about 3-1 in favour of men, though that presumably reflects the situation in the Arab world.
- I mentioned Ann Morgan’s A Year of the Reading the World in a previous post . She has done an excellent job of trying to track down women authors and has partially succeeded. However, her entries at least for countries beginning with A & B, show a 1.8-1 ratio in favour of men.
So, just let me repeat. I am in no way criticising these bloggers but merely pointing out the probably sad reality that male writers of literary novels are more abundant/get more attention/are deemed to be more important – choose your own argument. Let me illustrate it further. Let us take the best-known literary novelists of France, Germany and Italy of the middle of the last century, i.e. around 1930-1970, when the Victorians had died off but who have been round long enough for critics and readers to decide whether they are worthy of being included in the canon or not. I am well aware that taking canonical writers presupposes that the selection of the canon is objective when it clearly is not and almost certainly has a bias towards male writers or, at least, writers writing in what may be deemed to be a more male style (and, yes, there is a difference). Nevertheless, many of us take note of the canon, even if to reject it. So here is what I consider the canonical novelists for this period and these countries:
- France: Alain-Fournier, Bernanos, Camus, Céline, Cocteau, Colette, de Beauvoir, Duras, Gide, Giono, Malraux, Mauriac, Montherlant, Perec, Robbe-Grillet, Saint-Exupéry, Sarraute, Sartre, Tournier, Yourcenar. Fifteen men and five women. No Aragon, du Gard, Duhamel, Romains or Sagan but to include them would not alter the ratio that much. You could argue that de Beauvoir should not be included as a novelist but more for her non-fiction. (Wikipedia’s article on the novel of the 1915-1945 has no women (no Colette!) and, in its article on the post-war novel mentions only Duras and Sarraute and eight men.)
- Germany: Andersch, Bienek, Böll, Döblin, Graf, Grass, Jahnn, Johnson, Koeppen, Lenz, Thomas Mann, Arno Schmidt, Walser, Wolf. Thirteen men and just one woman. No Andres, Gaiser, Hesse, Heinrich Mann, Nossack, Remarque, Renn, Rinser, Seghers. Even if we added Rinser and Seghers to the total, the figures would still be grim. (Wikipedia has a far lower ratio of women writers.)
- Italy: Bacchelli, Buzzati, Calvino, Fenoglio, Gadda, Natalia Ginzburg, Lampedusa, Levi, Manganelli, Maraini, Morante, Moravia, Ortese, Pavese, Pirandello, Pratolini, Sciascia, Silone, Svevo, Vittorini, Volponi. Seventeen men and four women. (Incidentally, see the Wikipedia suggestions if you consider that I am being biassed. Not a single woman.) No Cialente (almost entirely out of print in Italy), de Céspedes (only a collection of four of her novels in print in Italy; the individual novels have long been out of print), Manzini.
It is not a pretty picture and, even if you disagree with my estimate of who should and should not be in the canon, you can see that Wikipedia’s estimate is even worse. Yes, we know that Wikipedia has a strong male bias (see also here) and it is quite likely that these articles were written by men but I find it hard to believe that any but the most ardent feminist could substantially disagree with my estimate of the canon. Yes, there might be disagreement on who should and should not be in it but I would estimate that the male-female ratio would be unlikely to alter much. I am well aware that the canon has almost certainly been determined by mainly male critics and that there has been a lot of effort in recent years by critics such as Elaine Showalter and publishers such as Virago and The Feminist Press (for more publishers of women’s writing, see the Women page on my website (scroll down)) to help bring neglected women writers into the canon. While we can only welcome these efforts, as we can see above, male writers still tend to dominate in many areas.
I got too carried way on this post so the next post (really) will deal with my failings.
I am continuing my reading of Spanish-language novels. The latest addition to my website is Andrés Neuman‘s El viajero del siglo (Traveller of the Century) though, unlike the previous two, it has been translated into English and well reviewed. Though I did enjoy it, I don’t think it quite lived up to the reputation it has, not least because much of the novel consists of interminable discussions between the main characters on a variety of topics. It is set in the early-mid nineteenth century so discussions of contemporary literature, art, politics, religion, philosophy and other topics occupy these characters. Though they do discuss these topics from a contemporary viewpoint, they also seem to, now and then, to have a twenty-first century sensibility. I also wonder if the sexual fantasies of Latin American male novelists do not sometimes get the better of them. Would a mid-nineteenth century, well-brought-up, upper middle class young German woman really jump into bed with a man the first opportunity she gets? Would she discuss the twisty penises she has seen? Similarly, would a 1990s very religious Argentinian woman, who was opposed to sex before marriage, perform oral sex on a man she had just met, as happened in the Benesdra novel? I have my doubts.
Last week, The Guardian published an article about six British women writers who had a huge influence on British publishing. The print edition had the headline The game changers on the front page of its Review section, with the sub-heading How women dominated publishing this year and, inside, the headline Doing it for themselves (a rather odd headline in my view). Of the six writers mentioned, I have only read one – Hilary Mantel, mentioned in the Guardian article for having won the Man Booker Prize for the second time. Two of the writers – EL James and Amanda Hocking – owe their success to having produced ebooks which appealed to a specific segment of the market, mommy(sic) porn and paranormal romances. J K Rowling has, of course, been around for a long time but this year produced her first adult novel that had mixed critical views but, inevitably, considerable commercial success. Julia Donaldson is famous for her children’s books, particularly the Gruffalo books. Kate Mosse, who I may well read one day, has produced several worthwhile historical novels as well as being very active in the now defunct Orange Prize and its successor.
All this is leading up to a discussion as to why women writers are so woefully underrepresented, both on my site and in book review and blog sites generally. Vida, a Women in Literary Arts site, regularly does a count on how books are reserved by and about men and women respectively in several major US and UK reviewing publications. The latest one – for 2011 – shows that in all but two cases men are ahead and, in some cases, light years ahead. Even though Danielle Pafunda tries to explain these figures somewhat, there is no doubt that the figures are not good. Of course, it is just as bad on my site. Only 21% of the books I have reviewed are by women and only 22% of the authors are women. So why is this the case? Are men better writers? Is there a male conspiracy to exclude women writers? In a previous post (scroll down), I mentioned this and hoped to improve but clearly there is long, long way to go. By the way the writers in the photo are, top row, Evelyne Accad, Elena Poniatowska, Monique Saint-Helier; in the second row, Olga Slavnikova, Elfriede Jelinek, Gisèle Hountondji, in the third row, Luisa Valenzuela , Manjushree Thapa, Anna Maria Ortese, and fourth row, Sharon Maas.
So there are some possible reasons. I suspect, as things often are, that reality is more complicated or, at least, may well be a combination of these and other issues.
- 1. We live in a male-dominated world. Yes and, in other shock news, we learn that the Pope is Catholic. You do not need Wikipedia to tell you that there are relatively few female heads of state, that men earn more than women everywhere except Tavistock, that there are still relatively few women CEOs, MPs or fewer women assistant professors at Harvard, the university where then President Larry Summers famously said women don’t do maths and science (he actually said math but I have anglicised it).
- 2. Closely related to this, Franzenfreude or men authors, particularly white men who write big books, get more attention than good women authors. There is no doubt that this is the case and why several women authors of yore had to use male pseudonyms (the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, George Sand and many others)
- 3. Women are not as good as men. This is patently rubbish as women have been writing good books for a thousand years or more. Sappho was doing it around 2600 years ago and, according to Wikipedia, she was not the only ancient Greek woman writer. Lady Murasaki wrote what some consider to be the first novel around a thousand years ago (and it is well worth reading). Aphra Behn was allegedly the first English writer to earn a full-time living from her writing (Orinooko is well worth reading). England in the nineteenth century produced Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Harriet Martineau and Frances Trollope. And the 20th and 21st century have produced any number of first-class women writers.
- 4. Women buy more books and women read more. More to the point, as least as regards my site, women read more novels, while men read more non-fiction. It has also been suggested that women read men and women writers, while men tend to prefer men writers. This is obviously an over-generalisation but probably has a kernel of truth in it. The 75 Books Every Man Should Read has just one book by a woman, while Essential books every man should read, likewise has just one book by a woman. Yes, of course, there are men who read books written by women but men are more inclined to read books by men, particularly when reading non-fiction.
- 5. The link above postulates that women have more mirror neurons than men, which makes makes them empathise more. It is a truism that this happens in real life (men are traditionally lower, often much lower, in emotional intelligence than women) but it also means that women are more interested in relationships and books about relationships. As a result, such books are often put down as chick lit, romantic fiction and so on, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Conversely, books featuring ideas, written more by men (but certainly not only by men) are deemed more worthy and get the reviews. (See below for more on this).
- 6. Related to the above, women can’t write the Great American Novel. I have a page on the Great American Novel and you will see that two out of twenty-four writers on the first list are women and two out of twenty on the second list. That does not just reflect my appalling bias. Most of these candidates come from other sources (though I share many of them). Indeed, I am fairly certain that at least two of the women, if not more, were added by me, without any influence. As Lionel Shriver (a woman, despite the name) so aptly said Great American Novel” = “doorstop of a book, usually pretentious, written by a man.. Similarly, what James Wood called hysterical realism (i.e. the big novel, with stories and sub-stories, the pursuit of vitality at all costs and where the conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, and overworked) is all men. These are the books that get the reviews. Why? Because reviewers – men and women – think it is important. Whether they are deserving of them is the matter for another debate.
- 7. Women don’t do pomo. On the list in the link, there are forty-three writers. Four are women. Again, this might reflect my bias but I don’t think that women, on the whole, write post-modernist fiction as much as men. Pomo gets the reviews. Why? Because reviewers – men and women – think it is important.
- 8. Women only write books with happy endings. Or they don’t. As the link points out, women are expected to write happy books but happy books are not considered good literature. As Tolstoy put it Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему. (Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.) In other words, unhappy is more interesting. Of course, women do write books that are miserable. Just ask Emily Brontë. But I would imagine books with happy endings are more to be found written by women than men writers.
I am sure that others can come up with many more arguments. Far better commentators than I have basically summed it up as rampant sexism. Francine Prose, discussing the subject, quotes Norman Mailer as saying I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Perhaps looking to Norman as a bastion of feminism might be a mistake but he is probably not alone in that view. Jane Smiley thinks Huckleberry Finn is preferred to Uncle Tom’s Cabin because the former was written by a man and the latter by a woman. Clearly, sexism is the main reason for the undervaluing of women’s writing and it does not look like changing anytime soon, despite James, Hocking, Rowling, Mantel, Donaldson, Mosse and other women writers, like Stephenie Meyer. I will continue on this topic, particularly about my own failings, in a future post
The two latest books to appear on my website are Salvador Benesdra‘s El traductor [The Translator] and Rafael Chirbes‘ La larga marcha [The Long March]. Sadly, neither is available in English. El traductor [The Translator] was only published after Benesdra killed himself in 1996 and then only by a small publisher, with a subsidy from his family. It has been very difficult to obtain a copy and has become something of a cult novel. It has only just been republished in Argentina, though is still difficult to obtain outside Argentina. It has yet to be translated into any other language. It is to be hoped that some worthy publisher will now publish it in English, as it really is an interesting work, though it is more likely to be translated into some other language.
I seem to have been reading a lot of books published in Spanish recently – the book I am currently reading is an Argentinian novel – and I note that Chirbes is the twentieth Spanish author to appear on my website. There are many more to come. As with the Benesdra, this book has not been translated into English but has been translated into several other languages. As far as I can tell, only one of his books has been translated into English and, as you can see from the link, it was not particularly well received. This is the first of his that I have read and I shall be reading a couple more shortly but I suspect that, like all too many Spanish writers, Chirbes is going to remain largely untranslated into English and therefore unknown to the English-speaking world. However, if you do read Spanish, it is the Benesdra that I would particularly recommend – if you can get hold of a copy.
Having just done Sicilian literature, I thought that this might be a good time to turn to Italian literature as whole, not least because it is cold, wet and miserable and outside and this will remind me of sunny Italian skies. I learned Italian for one major reason – to read Dante in the original. Dante did not found Italian literature. Before him, there were poets such as St Francis of Assisi and prose works such as the Novellino But it is Dante who is the first great Italian writer. It is Dante who fixed Tuscan as the national Italian language. And it is Dante who wrote one of the great epics of world literature. The Divine Comedy is both a great religious epic, a love story and a political attack and works on all three levels. We will never know whether Dante really met Beatrice, as Henry Holiday’s painting above is pure fantasy, but it does not matter. She became the love symbol and queen of his great poem. If you don’t read Italian, you might want to try the Dorothy L Sayers (yes, the detective novelist) translation.
Dante may well have been the greatest Italian writer but he was quickly followed by other great writers. Petrarch is the second greatest Italian poet. He, too, had his Beatrice – her name was Laura de Noves. And, like Dante, he was a major influence on what is now standard Italian. The third great fourteenth century Italian writer is Giovanni Boccaccio. Though he was also a poet, Boccaccio is best known for the Decameron, a collection of one hundred assorted tales, some bawdy, some not. The tales were borrowed by many later writers, though it is believed that Boccaccio took most if not all of the tales from existing sources.
The fourteenth century was the highlight of Italian literature and things seemed to fade a bit for a while, as Italian painters and musicians came to the fore. Things livened up a bit in the sixteenth century, starting with Ariosto, famous for his epic poem Orlando Furioso, about Roland (Orlando is the Italian for Roland). He was followed by Torquato Tasso, who wrote the epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). But the sixteenth century also gave us perhaps the most famous Italian writer, after Dante, Niccolò Machiavelli, author of the Il Principe (The Prince) but also of the very funny play La Mandragola (The Mandrake).
The seventeenth century saw Galileo, Monteverdi, Caravaggio, Bernini and Corelli but the writing was not up to the same standard. Things were not much better in the next century though it did produce Goldoni, best known in the English-speaking world for his play Arlecchino servitore di due padroni (Servant of Two Masters), adapted for the British stage as One Man, Two Guvnors.
The nineteenth century produced a great poet and a great novelist. The great novelist was Alessandro Manzoni, author of I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed), one of the great nineteenth novels (and on my list of Best 19th century novels) but sadly not well enough known in the English speaking world. Edgar Allen Poe liked it. It is readily available in English. The great poet was Giacomo Leopardi. His Canti are poetry at its finest, hymns to beauty and nature. My favourite is La Ginestra ((Broom) (English translation here ). The nineteenth century also produced Giovanni Verga, whom I mention in my post on Sicilian literature. Giosuè Carducci was the sixth person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and the first Italian but he really was not very good.
This is a very brief survey of Italian literature before, more or less, the beginning of the twentieth century. Italy certainly produced some of the great poets but, as for novelists, there are really only two of any note – Manzoni and Verga, mentioned above, neither of whom is particularly well known in the English-speaking world. It should be borne in mind that, till the latter part of the nineteenth century, Italy was not a unified country but controlled by various foreigners. This meant, for much of the period, there was not a unified language but various dialects of Italian, often not mutually intelligible. It is only really in the twentieth century that we can really start thinking of Italy as a unified country and, with that unification, comes a first-class literature, primarily (though not exclusively) based on the Tuscan dialect of Italian. This will be the subject of a later blog post.
I have just come back from a week in Sicily, in the shadow of Mount Etna (see photo at left) so this seemed like a good time to have a look at Sicily’s contribution to Italian literature. There are various well-known Italian writers that you might have not been aware that were, in fact, Sicilian, not least because they left Sicily at a relatively young age.
Sicily’s best-known writer, at least best-known as a Sicilian writer rather than as an Italian writer, is undoubtedly Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. He effectively only wrote one novel but it is now recognised as one of the great Italian novels and as the Great Sicilian Novel. It was also made into a superb film by Luchino Visconti. Its theme is essentially the changes in Italy that occurred in the 1860s (when Italy gained its independence).
Italy did not produce many great 19th century novelists as other European countries did but one that they did produce was the Sicilian Giovanni Verga. His novel I Malavoglia, which should be better-known in the English-speaking world (it is in print in both the UK and US), is a Balzacian family saga that is full of misery but well worth reading. Luigi Capuana is not as well-known but is another worthwhile 19th century Sicilian novelist (and poet and dramatist and critic) though very little of his work is available in English.
Luigi Pirandello is not a writer that many people associate with Sicily, not least because he spent most of his adult life outside Sicily, but he was born in Sicily. Though best known as a playwright, particularly for Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author), he did write some novels including the excellent Il fu Mattia Pascal (The late Mattia Pascal) and was and is a major influence on many writers.
Pirandello was born in Agrigento in Sicily as was the writer who may be the best-known living Italian writer in the English-speaking world, Andrea Camilleri. Camilleri writes detective novels, often using Sicilian dialect, featuring the cantankerous Sicilian detective, Inspector Montalbano. Many of these works have been translated into English and have had considerable success throughout the world.
Italy has not just produced great novelists. Five Italians have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Two of them were Sicilian and three were poets, Salvatore Quasimodo being both. Quasimodo is my favourite 20th century Italian poet, including for this short poem:
Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
trafitto da un raggio di sole:
ed e subito sera
[Everyone stands alone at the heart of the Earth
Transfixed by a ray of sun
And suddenly it is evening]
Elio Vittorini was born in Siracusa. Wandering through the streets of Siracusa last week, I came across his birth place, completely unaware that he had been born in the city (see plaque at left – the house is distinctly shabby). As with other Sicilians, then and now, he spent most of his life elsewhere in Italy. Conversazione in Sicilia (Conversation in Sicily; In Sicily; Tears and Wine) is set substantially in Sicily and is a wonderful novel.
If you watch this YouTube clip you will see the wedding of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in the film The Godfather. The church is in Sávoca, shown in my not very good photo at the right. When we returned from Sicily, everyone asked us about the Mafia (we think we saw a mafioso at the bar in Sávoca.). While The Godfather may be the best known Mafia novel/film, the best-known Italian writer on the subject is Leonardo Sciascia. He wrote extensively on the subject, particularly the connection between the Mafia and local politicians, including several excellent novels, quite a few of which have been translated into English. Danilo Dolci is a poet but best known for his anti-Mafia activities and writing.
There are many more Sicilian writers worth mentioning. Here is a short list:
- Sebastiano Addamo has not been translated into English (though there are a couple of his books in French). He was a poet and novelist, who wrote about the unpleasant side of Sicilian life.
- Giuseppe Bonaviri was a prolific poet and novelist, writing about his village and the magic of nature.
- Vitaliano Brancati, a novelist, scriptwriter and playwright, was initially a Fascist but, under the influence of other Italian writers, when he moved away from Sicily, he modified his position. Two of his novels are available in English, including this one.
- Gesualdo Bufalino was a prolific writer of novels, poetry and books on Sicily, best known for Diceria dell’Untore (UK: Plague-Spreader’s Tale; US: The Plague-Sower), a book which has been compared to Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) with its story of a man in a sanatorium suffering from TB. It is available in English and well worth reading.
- Lara Cardella attacked the old-fashioned nature of Sicilian society in her book Volevo i pantaloni, translated as Good Girls Don’t Wear Trousers (the Italian means I Wanted the Trousers – I never understand why publishers mess around with titles the way they do).
- Vincenzo Consolo‘s Il sorriso dell’ignoto marinaio (The Smile of the Unknown Mariner) is a first-class Sicilian novel which is available in English and should be better known. Like many Sicilian writers, he does not live in Sicily.
- This list is short on women writers but Maria Rosa Cutrufelli, a keen feminist, will certainly fill the gap. Two of her novels – she has also written several works of non-fiction – are available in English and are well worth reading.
- Livia De Stefani came from an old Sicilian family and, like Lampedusa, wrote her novel about changing ways, with a good bit of Mafia thrown in. It is called La vigna di uve nere and has been translated into English as The Vine of Dark Grapes. She was also an accomplished poet.
- Dacia Maraini was born in Fiesole (near Florence) of a Florentine father. However, her mother was a Sicilian princess and her best-known novel was about a Sicilian duchess, so she definitely belongs here.
There are many more Sicilian writers to explore, sadly relatively few of them available in English but I shall conclude with D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence spent some time in Taormina and allegedly Lady Chatterley was based on an English woman living in Taormina. Lawrence described Taormina as one long parade of junk shops…things dearer than ever, more faked, food tiresome as it always was. If only Etna would send down 60,000,000 tons of boiling lava over the place and cauterise it away. We stayed in Taormina and that was not our experience and Etna did not send down any lava on us. Poor Lawrence. A dismal man.
In my last post, I talked about the books I hadn’t read either because it was difficult to get hold of them or because they were not available in a language I can readily read. There used to be a dinner party game – it may well still exist – where you had to name a famous book that you had not read. People would trot out Ulysses, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, all the usual suspects. Many people are actually quite proud that they have not read any of these. I have to admit that I have read all of these and, as far as I can tell, all the standard 19th century novels in the Western Canon and beyond. I have a list on my site of the ones I like. I must admit that I have not read all the novels in Harold Bloom‘s list (Anatole France!) but I have read most of them, though I don’t think that I would agree with his list. However, were I to attend one of these dinner parties, there is only one omission I can think of that I would admit to and that is To Kill a Mockingbird. It is both popular and considered a classic but I have not read it. I have seen the film and while, it is not a bad film, it is the film that put me off reading the book. It seems so earnest and self-righteous, really not my kind of book. But I will probably read it one day. Of course, talking about books you have not read has now been sanctified.
As the world now knows, Mo Yan won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. I have to admit that I have not read anything by Mo Yan, though I do own a few of his books and will get round to reading him sometime. I do often find that the Nobel Prize winner is announced and I find that I have not read any of the winner’s works. I had read much of Naipaul, Doris Lessing and Vargas Llosa but I only read Coetzee, Jelinek, Le Clézio and Pamuk after they won and I still haven’t read any Herta Müller (but I will do).
One of the many problems in trying to do an all-encompassing literary website is that friends do make suggestions. I do welcome these but there are occasions when I think to myself that either I had not thought about including that writer (but should have done) or had thought about the writer but did not think him/her appropriate to include. Various female friends have made suggestions about women writers I really should read and they are quite right, as the number of women writers on my site is pitifully low (subject of a future blog post). (If you are wondering who the writers are in the photo, they are, top row, Kathy Acker and Virginia Woolf, second row, Chiew-Siah Tei and Fausta Cialente, third row, Anita Desai and Joyce Carol Oates).
The problem is that I have a huge list – and I mean a huge list – of books I haven’t read and really ought to read. These include all the obvious ones (and, by obvious ones, I mean that while they may not be obvious to British or US readers, they are obvious to readers of other countries) but also the obscurities that I think should get some exposure and, of course, those from lesser-known countries (coming up in the not too distant future, novels from Moldova, Timor-Leste, Azerbaijan and Kosovo). Of course, I browse through the web every day, looking at blogs, websites, online magazines and the like and every day I found something else I really ought to read. I moved three years ago and, at the (firm) request of my significant other (as the new house was much smaller) I got rid of around 7000 books, about half of my stock. I was left with around 7000, most of which are fiction. Since then, of course, I have added many more (far too many), not helped by the fact that I have acquired a Kindle and added ebooks as well. Determining whether I should read (or re-read) that great French novelist before that great Bolivian one is not always an easy decision. Every time I look at my library (or the database I have of all my books), I groan at the books I haven’t read and really should read but know I won’t get round to for a while, if ever. I have a sweatshirt that reads So Many Books, So Little Time (mine is blue). How true! Even writing this post is distressing and I dare not, once again, check my books to determine the hundreds, possibly thousands of books I really should now be reading. So I am now going to return to reading my fascinating Spanish novel and then I will read either the new (in English translation) Pamuk or an Argentinian novel and then… Do others have this problem?
One of the many joys of the Internet is the ability to find out about all the many books that you have not read and, in many cases, will never be able to read. Yesterday, for example, I was looking at a post on contemporary Venezuelan literature (the post is fortunately in both English and Spanish). Guillermo Parra, author of the post, makes a telling point – there’s a big problem: Venezuelan books can’t be found outside Venezuela. They don’t circulate neither in Latin America, nor here in the US. Nor, he might have added, in Europe. I am fairly ignorant of Venezuelan literature as, I imagine, are most people outside Venezuela. I do own fifteen Venezuelan novels, of which I have read only one, which is also available in English. It was, however, written over eighty years ago. As Iván Thays states in his blog (post in Spanish only), if there is a boom in the Venezuelan novel, it is only domestic and for the same reason mentioned above – Venezuelan books do not circulate much outside Venezuela. He concludes la literatura venezolana actual es una incógnita [Contemporary Venezuelan literature is an unknown]. I checked out some of the books mentioned in the post and they are not available on Amazon (including the still not very good Spanish Amazon), other on-line Spanish booksellers, the usual book search sites or anywhere else. I could probably track them down from a Venezuelan online bookseller but when I go to the a site of the publisher of most Venezuelan novels, it refers me to a chain of bookshops that do not seem to sell books online. Even if I did find a Venezuelan bookseller online, the shipping costs would be prohibitive. Anyone who has tried to order a Spanish book from Spain through ABE or other similar site will realise that cost of shipping one book from Spain to the UK is often approaching £20. I can’t imagine that a Venezuelan bookseller would charge much less. I have visited Venezuela once – to Isla Margarita on a Caribbean cruise, for one day, but I doubt that I will ever return, though who knows? The result is that , at least as far as my site is concerned, contemporary Venezuelan literature will remain more or less, as Iván Thays puts it, una incógnita.
Of course, for me, all is not lost. I do have quite a few Venezuelan novels already and will probably be able to eventually track down some others here and there. For people unable to read Spanish, there is a limited choice. The Reading Round the World bloggers have tracked down a few in English. Caribousmom has found, how can I put this delicately?, a work which is not great literature, by a Venezuelan living in Denver (see cover at right). Anne Morgan has gone with Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s Enfermedad, translated as Sickness. She also mentions a few others in her main list, though two of those (Suniaga and Torres) are not available in English translation (though there is a Suniaga available in German) and the only Federico Vegas in English is a book about architecture. Falke, which she mentions, is not available in English. Shoshana mentions only a book about Venezuela, not by a Venezuelan. Fred does identify another Venezuelan translated into English.
I have banged on in this blog and on my site about books that have not been translated into English. Indeed, I have a page on this topic (scroll down), with a selection of books that are on my site which I feel should be translated into English. However, there are a host of books out there which have not been translated into any language that I can read. The page above links to some suggestions, such as Finnegan’s List , the PEN list and an interesting list of untranslated Japanese books. But there are many more. In my blog post on Montenegro, I mentioned the case of Borislav Pekić and his seven-volume Zlatno runo (Golden Fleece) which has been partially translated into French (though they seemed to have stopped) but not at all into English. In my post on Luis Goytisolo’s Antagonía (also not translated into English), I mentioned the case of Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary sequence, which has been partially translated into French and is now being translated into English. I love Marcie Gray’s Arablit blog but I know that there are many books that she mentions which I shall never be able to read. She published a list of the best 105 Arabic books of the 20th century. Sadly, all too many have not been translated. Lizok’s Bookshelf is essential reading on Russian literature but all too often she mentions an interesting Russian novel which I know that I will be unlikely to ever read. I used to keep a list of books I was hoping would be translated but it depressed me so much that I got rid of it. I could list books of many countries – most of the former Soviet republics, most of South-East Asia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Portugal – where there are all too many books that have not been translated and probably never will be. But let me focus on one nearer (my) home – Ireland.
The novel on the right – Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain is one of the best-known novels written in Irish. On the right, I say that it has not been translated, In fact, it has as Google books shows. However, it has not been published in English. It is a fascinating novel about a village where the dead go to some underground area and spend the time complaining about each other and their survivors, catching up on the gossip as each arrival turns up. No, I haven’t read it, though I own a copy and can read (a very little) Irish. However, I have seen the film, which is subtitled in English (and other languages) but this probably means that I am going to have make progress with my Irish studies if I am to succeed in reading the original. There are other Irish works not translated into English – Eoghan Ó Tuairisc‘s L”Attaque, Séamus Ó Grianna‘s Caisleáin Óir and Beairtle Ó Conaire’s Fonn na Fola, to mention only three. I could do the same for many other nationalities but it is too frustrating. The next post on this subject will be on books that I have not yet got round to reading.
My predictions for the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize were, as predicted, wrong. I said I always got them wrong and I did. I must admit that I have never read Mo Yan, though I do own a few of his books. I am sure that he is a worthy choice and his name had been floating around for some time. I am glad that Bring Up the Bodies won. I do believe that it was the best book of the six but I didn’t think that they would give it to her again so soon and for a sequel to her previous win. Congrats to Peter “bloggers are detrimental to literature” Stothard and his Committee for their choice. As my choice invariably fails, I am now going to predict next year’s winners, knowing full well that will not win. So I confidently predict that the Nobel Prize will go to the highly overrated Philip Roth and the Man Booker to the also highly overrated Will Self and therefore condemn them to the Not-Winners category for eternity. And very deservedly so, might I say.