Bloggers detrimental to literature

A guide for reviewers?

Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS and Chairman of this year’s Man Booker prize committee has said bloggers are detrimental to literature. John Self responds to Stothard much better than I can but I would still like to make a couple of points. Firstly, Stothard says There is a widespread sense in the UK, as well as America, that traditional, confident criticism, based on argument and telling people whether the book is any good, is in decline. It may be widespread in TLS circles but it is not widespread as far as I know. But, even if this were the case, does it matter? Almost invariably, I read a book review to see whether I want to read the book in question. I want to want to know what it is about, what else the author has done if it is an author unknown to me, whether the book is well-written, whether it is in a style I might enjoy and whether it is the sort of book I would enjoy. That is the sort of review I write on my website. I write that sort of review because it is what I want and, I suspect, what a lot of people want. Yes, there are other reasons for reading a review – to see if the author agrees with your assessment of the book, to learn more what the books is about, in the case of a difficult book and to be able to talk about the book without reading it. But, particularly if we have not yet read the book – and the TLS and newspapers review new books, often before they are even for sale – we probably want to see if the book is worth reading so a detailed exegesis is not necessarily what we want.

On the web but not in the TLS

Secondly, he goes on to say As much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. Self’s apposite responses is there are inessential blogs, just as there are inessential literary critics. Indeed, there are. Throughout history lit crits have recommended books that are rubbish and ignored works of genius. The advantages of bloggers are a) it is a hell of lot cheaper to start a blog than to start a newspaper or magazine. Yes, that means that there are more of them but it also means that a whole range of niche markets, undiscovered books, foreign books, hidden gems and so on are probably going to be unearthed by someone somewhere. b) it is a hell of a lot cheaper to subscribe to a lot of blogs than a lot of magazines and newspaper. I subscribe to around 250 literary blogs (including Stothard’s) in various languages. It costs me nothing beyond my broadband fee. As a result I can see a lot more than if I would if I just limited myself to print sources. I subscribe to just eight literary magazines. The TLS alone costs me £92 a year. I do read the TLS but have to go through every page to see if there is a review or article I want to read but with the blogs I just look at the article heading on my RSS news reader and can make a quick judgement as to whether I want to read further. c) because there are more of them, they cover a whole range of fascinating stuff. I have come across all sorts of interesting books on blogs that I would never have discovered in print media. Yes, I have come across quite a few in the TLS and other publications so I am glad to have both but, if I had to give up the blogs or give up my magazine subscriptions, it would be the magazines that would (reluctantly) go.

What bloggers have done – and this includes the wide range of literary bloggers – is open up possibilities to many readers. If you are interested in bodice rippers or space fiction or novels about cats, there is almost certainly a blog (or, probably, several blogs) for you and that can only be a good thing. Most people do not read the TLS because they can’t afford to or wouldn’t find it interesting or wouldn’t find their type of books in it. But, somewhere on the web, there is a blog for pretty well every reader. I can only hope that there will be many more.

Book prizes – the ultimate statement

Shalom Auslander’s novel

This article by Shalom Auslander has to be the funniest take on book prizes I have seen. His story – Harley was our dog. She is dead now. I want to get a cat. is, of course, sheer brilliance. As Auslander says it contains sadness and rage and pain and even, yes, in the very last sentence, a flicker of hope for the future. I have not come across Shalom Auslander but I shall certainly read his novel Hope in the not too distant future. He is definitely a writer to look out for.

Man Booker prize 2012

For the first (and probably last) time ever, I have managed to read all the books on Man Booker shortlist and, amazingly, read them before the winner is announced. I have not done so before because, frankly, they did not seem worthwhile. I have not, for example, read any of the books on last year’s list and, with the possible exception of the Barnes, it is highly unlikely that I will. I did manage two from the previous year and I may read one or two more (but not the winner). A quick look at previous years generally shows two-three that I have read or might yet read though the 2007 list looks pretty good.

Stella Rimington – painting by numbers?

So what was special about this year? Last year, the chief judge, Dame Stella Rimington, famously said that readability was going to be the main criterion for the long- and shortlist choice. This caused something of a furore, not least because no-one was entirely sure what readability meant. Jeanette Winterson criticised this idea much better than I could with her damning take on Rimington’s own work as painting-by-numbers. I have no idea how the judges make their choices but I have no doubt that they, probably prodded by the Man Booker staff, do feel that they have to make some concession to popular taste. But this, year, to their credit, they got a professional in to chair the judges – Sir Peter Stothard editor of the best literary review, the Times Literary Supplement. When I saw the longlist for this year I was pleasantly surprised. Naturally, I had not heard of all the authors on the list but those I had heard of (with one exception) looked interesting and a quick look at the others showed that, for once, they all looked promising.

However, what was most interesting was what was excluded. Here is a list of books that we might have expected to see on the list but did not (alphabetical order by author last name):

  • Martin Amis‘s Lionel Asbo. Thank God they excluded this rubbish. No, I haven’t read it but then nor have I read Fifty Shades of Grey or any of the Twilight novels and I still consider them rubbish.
  • John Banville‘s Ancient Lights. As I have mentioned on my site, I have run out of steam with Banville. Maybe others have as well.
  • Pat Barker‘s Toby’s Room. Another book by a well-known writer that was something of a disappointment.
  • Peter Carey‘s The Chemistry of Tears. I was very disappointed with this but then he might have got on the list because of his reputation.
  • Kishwar Desai’s Origins of Love. Well you have got to have an Indian on the list, haven’t you? Yes, we already have one but there are a lot more of them than us so it is likely that they will have produced at least two worthwhile novels during the year. This may be the second one but it did not make it.
  • Kirsty Gunn‘s The Big Music. A first novel but a big novel, an ambitious novel. I thought it was a failure but a magnificent failure and one worthy of consideration.
  • I J Kay – not on the list
  • I. J. Kay’s Mountains of the Moon. A first novel but it got some good reviews and looked interesting.
  • John Lanchester‘s Capital. I enjoyed this novel and it would certainly have met Dame Stella’s readability criterion. It would have made it last year but obviously the judges felt it was not literary enough for this year.
  • Ian McEwan‘s Sweet Tooth. Another novel by a big name which was a huge disappointment. Glad they did not include this one.
  • Timothy Mo’s Pure. Another writer I used to enjoy but have lost touch with. He seems to have slipped down the ladder somewhat.
  • Lawrence Norfolk‘s John Saturnall’s Feast. I have lost touch with Norfolk but this one did not seem to wow the punters.
  • Keith Ridgway‘s Hawthorn & Child. I liked his earlier novels but this one really did not work for me and, I believe, for many others.
  • Zadie Smith‘s NW. I thought that this was pretty good, even if not of the standard of White Teeth but clearly the judges did not.
  • Rose Tremain’s Merivel. I have never read Tremain so I really have nothing to say about this.
  • Alan Warner‘s The Deadman’s Pedal. Another one I haven’t read and I am not sure that I will. It had decidedly mixed reviews.

There are probably several others that I have missed but that should cover the main ones.

This year’s judges

So here is my take on this year’s list. First, a few statistics.

  • Three men and three women. Coincidence or political correctness?
  • Three independent publishers. That’s good.
  • Two former(?) junkies
  • Two first-time novelists and one second-time novelist, though all have published other stuff before.
  • One previous winner
  • Three former longlisted authors (Mantel, Self and Tan)
  • Three non-UK born authors
  • All three UK-born authors are English. Not good.
  • What does that prove? Nothing.

    It is in alphabetical order by author’s last name. Interestingly (or perhaps not), the first in alphabetical order begins with the letter L. Links to the book link to my review of the book on my website.

  • Deborah Levy: Swimming Home
    I loved this book. It was deceptively simple but brilliantly conceived and executed with what was not said as important as what was said and with undercurrents of tension and menace, which burst out at the end but not necessarily in the way we might have expected. Dreams and vision, insanity and, as Levy herself has put it, sorrow – sorrow at the loss of what might have been. You will never want to rent a villa in France after reading this.

  • Hilary Mantel: Bring up the Bodies
    It really is another excellent book from Hilary Mantel, proving, if proof were needed, that she is one of our best writers, if not the best. This was the only shortlisted book I read before the long list was announced. But she won two years ago with the previous book in the series so can she win again? I suspect not, even though this book is certainly one of the best of the year. And what will they do when the third in the series comes out?

  • Alison Moore: The Lighthouse
    This was probably the big surprise as no-one, least of all the author, expected this book to make the short list. It is a well told and well written story but, as I said in my review, I am not sure that it is Booker winning material. It seems rather 1950s in flavour, which is not necessarily a sin but, compared to the other five, which all seem pretty much of their time, this does seem less so. But then that may be its charm. Downton Abbey is not of its time and it does well and one of the judges is the star of of that series.

  • Will Self: Umbrella
    I must admit that I did not really take to this novel. It was too overtly and, in my view, unnecessarily modernist for my taste. The idea behind it – encephalitis lethargica, how it affected so many people, how it was not properly recognised and therefore not properly treated – was certainly an interesting one but the stream of consciousness, the mixing of the different voices and the disjointed fragments made it a difficult read and one that I felt was not really worth my while. But will the judges share my view? I know that some reviewers certainly do.

  • Tan Twan Eng: The Garden of Evening Mists
    Tan has written two superb books about Malaysia, of which this is the better one (the previous one was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2007). Remembering and forgetting, the war, art, colonialism, race relations – all are grist to Tan’s mill. How do we cope with someone we admire greatly but who we associate with evil deeds? This issue comes up in both his novels and he handles it superbly. This one could be a winner.

  • Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis
    Thayil does Bombay the way Bombay is not normally done in novels. Drugs are the key to novel as the title makes very clear and Burroughs is the guiding light as we follow the story of a low key narrator, a eunuch, a man who has driven from China to Bombay to escape communism, the bad boy of Indian art and the owner of a drug den, as they move from opium to heroin and struggle with the drugs and struggle with life. Not a big plot but lots of colour and lots of character.

The winner? Tan Twen Eng

Six interesting books for the judges to choose from but who will they pick? I really do not think that Hilary Mantel will get it again and so soon and for a follow-up to her previous one. I do not think that Narcopolis or The Lighthouse, excellent books though they are, are quite up to the required quality. I very much feel feel and hope that the Man Booker judges do too that Umbrella is too overblown, too self-consciously modernist and too unreadable to win. Which leaves us with Swimming Home and The Garden of Evening Mists. I marginally prefer The Garden of Evening Mists but would certainly not be disappointed if Swimming Home were to win. We will have to wait till 16 October to see if the judges agree.

Late addition:

The Guardian has all six authors talking about their books.

Jewish literature and the Soviet Union

The 20th century’s second worst mass murderer?

If you ask most people who was the greatest criminal of the twentieth century, nine times out of ten Adolf Hitler would top the list and with very good reason. Scott Manning argues that the Nazis were responsible for around 21 million deaths. I have no reason to dispute his figures. As for Stalin, it seems a bit more complicated. Manning has nearly 59 million but that is for the whole period of the Soviet Union, though it is fair to assume that Stalin was responsible for most of them but obviously not all. The Democratic Peace Blog goes for 43 million while Necrometrics quotes various figures, from 20 million up. The sad fact is that no-one really knows though it does seem highly likely that Stalin was responsible for far more deaths than Hitler. (Note that, according to Manning, China is responsible for even more deaths than Stalin, putting Hitler in third place.) How many Jews were killed by Stalin? As with the overall figures, we really do not know. It is estimated that there were around 3 million Jews in the Soviet Union before World War II. No doubt this number would have increased with Jews fleeing Hitler from Poland. We also know that the Nazis killed a large number of Jews in the areas they occupied, possibly as many as two million. In Stalin’s general purges as well as his purges against anyone who was not considered a true Russian, many Jews would have been murdered without specifically being identified as Jewish. We do know that Stalin’s attacks on what he called cosmopolitanism (a code-word for Jews), led to many thousands of Jewish deaths. However, the point of this article is not to go into detail into who killed how many. We can all agree that huge numbers of Jews and non-Jews were murdered and that, as far as monsters of the 20th century go, Stalin was at or near the top of the list.

Vasily Grossman

It may seem almost trite to focus on a few writers when so many millions were slaughtered, both ordinary people but also people who were skilled scientists, doctors, artists and other intellectuals but, nevertheless, I intend to do so. It is prompted by my last blog post, where I commented (briefly) how the quality of Russian writing had dropped dramatically in the 20th century primarily because of Stalin and the Soviet system. There is no doubt that the loss of many Jewish writers is a factor here. It was also prompted by the post on my website about Vasily Grossman and reading about him and other Jews in the Soviet Union. Grossman was not killed in the camps (he died of stomach cancer) but his literary career was curtailed by the fact that he was Jewish, as his magnum opus was not published in the Soviet Union and, thus, not in his lifetime. Indeed, we are very fortunate that Vladimir Voinovich smuggled it out of the Soviet Union. The following, therefore, is a brief overview of some of the Jewish writers whose writing careers were curtailed by imprisonment, death and/or restrictions placed on them by the Soviet system. The Yivo Encyclopedia has been an excellent source for some of this information.

Isaac Babel
  • The best known may well be Boris Pasternak. Pasternak Jewish? Wasn’t he Russian Orthodox? Yes, he was and he even suggested that Jews should convert to Christianity but it seems that he descended from a Jewish family that assimilated.
  • The only reason that Isaac Babel (see photo left) is not on my website is because he never wrote a novel. His short stories are brilliant and Red Cavalry, in particular, is well worth reading. In 1939, he was arrested, taken to the Lubyanka and, under torture, confessed to a host of spurious charges. He was tried, condemned and executed. Had he lived, who knows what he would have written? We do know that many manuscripts of his were confiscated and they have never been found.
  • Osip Mandelstam
  • There were many great poets whose creativity was stifled by the Soviet system. One of these was Osip Mandelstam (see photo right). He wrote many fine poems. You can read some in translation here but also wrote several prose works, such as Journey to Armenia, which I can thoroughly recommend. He was arrested in May 1938, sentenced to five years in a labour camp and was never seen again. He officially died of an unspecified illness. He was married to Nadezhda, nee Khazina, who, after his death, worked hard at preserving her husband’s legacy and wrote two superb memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. (Nadezhda is the Russian word for hope.)
  • Yevgenia Ginzburg spent eighteen years in the Gulag. She was only able to write her memoir Journey into the Whirlwind after the death of Stalin and it was only published in Russia after the fall of Communism. She is the mother of the writer Vassily Aksyonov.
  • Lydia Chukovskaya
  • I am not sure whether Ilya Ehrenburg belongs here. He was certainly Jewish, along with Grossman, he was one of the main editors of The Black Book. But, though briefly arrested, he remained a loyal Stalinist and Communist propagandist and his writings now seem rather too Soviet for Western tastes. So just a brief mention.
  • I know very little about Eduard Bagritsky. He seems to have been a very fine poet, who wrote a Russian version of Till Eulenspiegel (scroll down for the actual poem in translation) and who died of an asthmatic related condition.
  • Lydia Chukovskaya (see photo left) was of Jewish descent. Her father was a famous children’s poet, himself the illegitimate son of a Jewish merchant. Lydia Chukovskaya married the Jewish physicist Matve Bronstein who was arrested and executed in 1938. She only escaped arrest as she was absent from Leningrad at the time. In later life she befriended various “enemies of the people” such as Anna Akhmatova, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. She is best known for her story Sofia Petrovna, later published as Опустелый дом (The Deserted House) though she wrote poems, memoirs and books on her relationship with Akhmatova. But there could have been more…
  • Lev Lunts
  • Leonid Kannegiser should get a brief mention. Though he was a poet, he was not published till after his death. He is best known for having assassinated the Head of Petrograd Secret Police, Moisei Uritsky, himself a Jew. Kannegiser’s work has not, as far as I can tell, been translated into English though his poems are available in Russian.
  • Valentin Parnakh may best be remembered for introducing jazz to the Soviet Union but he was a poet and translator and wrote about music and dance. He was exiled to Chistopol during the war and worked as a doorman. While there is no direct evidence that he suffered overt anti-Semitism, he clearly did not fit in with the Soviet way of doing things.
  • Lev Lunts (photo right above)is known for being part of the Serapion Brothers,a group of Soviet writers, some of whom would fall out of favour with the Soviet authorities. Lunts came from a wealthy Jewish family and started writing early on and soon had considerable success with his fiction, drama and essays. However, he gradually found his work banned and he moved to Germany, where his family had already emigrated but died the following year. His works have been collected in translation in Things in Revolt.
  • Elizaveta Polonskaya
  • Veniamin Kaverin (real name Zilber) is known for four novels though only two are available in English. He should be better known and will, sooner or later, appear on my website. While he managed to survive the Soviet system, he seemed to have retained his basic human decency as he did not attack Pasternak over Doctor Zhivago.
  • Elizaveta Polonskaya (see photo left) was also associated with the Serapion Brothers (the only woman member) but was far more focused on earning a living than on politics or writing. However, she produced several books of verse and was also a translator. She later wrote sketches, becoming a full-time journalist. She also wrote a novel (never published) and works for children. She had trouble with the Soviet authorities in the late 1950s when anti-Semitism was in full force. Little of her work is available in English but there is a study of her.
  • Cover of Sophia Dubnow-Erlich’s memoirs
  • Arkady Shteynberg was another poet who spent some years in prison but who managed to survive. Though he was a competent poet, he is best known for his translations of poetry.
  • I am including Sofia Pregel as a representative of the post-Revolution emigration. She went to Paris before going to the United States where she edited an émigré journal. She also wrote poetry herself and translated poetry. None of her work seems to be available in English
  • Sophia Dubnow-Erlich is not included as a representative émigrée just because I like the name Sophia (though I do). She was very politically active, particularly in Jewish politics in Vilna (now Vilnius). She managed to escape both the Soviets and Nazis and ended up, like Sofia Pregel, in the United States. She wrote essays, history, a biography of her father and three volumes of symbolist poetry. Her memoir Bread and Matzoth (cover of Russian text above right) and the biography of her father The Life and Work of S.M. Dubnov are available in English.

This should more or less cover the major Jewish writers who were victims of the Soviet system. There are, however, many more lesser known and, sadly, probably a large number who disappeared before leaving any writing behind. Thanks to Yivo Encylopedia staff, An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature: Two Centuries of Dual Identity in Prose and Poetry and similar works, we can at least remember some of the achievements of these authors. However, it should not be forgotten that Stalin wiped out entire generations of scientists, artists and writers and it is for this reason alone that the tradition of the 19th century Russian novel did not continue into the 20th century.

19th century – good; 20th century – not so good

Emily Brontë

If I had to choose the countries that produced the best novels in the 19th century, the top three countries would undoubtedly be England, Russia and France in that order. Austen, Borrow, the Brontë sisters, Butler, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Thackeray and Trollope, to name only the best, produced some of the finest novels ever written, as did Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharov, Lermontov, Tolstoy and Turgenev and Balzac, Flaubert and Stendhal. The USA did produce Hawthorne, Melville and Twain, who are just behind. My list of best 19th century novels shows what I think was the best of the 19th century. No Germans or Spaniards and only one Italian.

Jude the Obscure

But it all changed in the 20th century. Hardy’s last great novel was Jude the Obscure , published in 1895. (He did write one more novel – The Well-Beloved – published in 1897). He devoted the rest of his life – he died in 1928 – to poetry. In other words, England’s last great novelist ceased to write novels at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, his last novel was published in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and there may well be a connection between the two events. The 20th century (reminder: it started in 1901 not 1900) started, at least as far as England was concerned, with Kim and The Inheritors, not a great beginning. 1902 gave us the book form of Heart of Darkness (it had previously been published in a magazine) and Hound of the Baskervilles. Apart from a few Conrads (a dubious Englishman), we also get early Bennett, Forster, Wells, Chesterton, Ford and Hadrian The Seventh. Some interesting novels but, apart from Heart of Darkness (which was actually first published in the 19th century), there is nothing approaching greatness. The next decade brings Lawrence but also Richardson, Woolf, early Wyndham Lewis and Ford’s The Good Soldier but elsewhere we are getting Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), those three great US women writers – Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice), the very great Петербург (Petersburg), Le Grand Meaulnes, La symphonie pastorale (The Pastoral Symphony) and the first books of À la recherche du temps perdu and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and Shaw’s Pygmalion). Eliot, Yeats and Pound were also writing interesting poetry.

USA! USA!

Clearly, by now, England had slipped behind in the league table. Looking at the number of authors reviewed on my site, you can see that the USA comes first, England second, Italy third and France fourth. This does not, I feel, necessarily represent which country produced the best novels in the 20th century. I have no doubt that the USA is in first place but I am equally certain that England is not in second place. Looking at the stats for my list of best novels, we get a similar order, only with France just nudging ahead of Italy. All this leaves me in a bit of a quandary. My gut feeling has USA first, France second and then… I don’t know but I don’t think that it is England. Of course, this difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that there are countries in the list of best novels of the 20th century which would not even vaguely appear in a list of the the best 19th century novels, in particular the countries of Latin America, Africa and South and South-East Asia.

Getting back to my original problem … (The joy of doing a blog is that it allows me to wander about a bit). If anyone is reading this, I hope that they will bear with me. What happened to the English novel? Let’s deal with the easier question first. WHat happened to the Russian novel? Easy answer: Stalin and the Soviet system. I plan to deal with this in a separate post at a later date so I will not say much more about it now, except that one of the many, many faults of the Soviet system is that it killed a lot of good literature. I am sure that many learned theses have been written on why the English novel faltered. The novel itself faltered, of course, because of the rise of the cinema, then TV and now the Internet, mobile phones and other new technologies. The Death of the Novel has been discussed for years – see some links on my site homepage (scroll down) – so I won’t add to the discussion, except to quote Julian BarnesTwo famous deaths have been intermittently proclaimed for some time now: the death of God and the death of the novel. Both are exaggerated. And since God was one of the fictional impulse’s earliest and finest creations, I’ll bet on the novel – in however mutated a version – to outlast even God. Yet, people are still reading novels, even if it is Fifty Shades of Vampires.

England’s best writer of the century?

But the English novel… The Death of the Empire may well have had something to do with it. As stated above,Hardy’s The Well-Beloved was published the same year as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the apotheosis of the British Empire. It started to go downhill soon after and particularly went downhill after World War I. Yet France was battered more than England in World War I and was also losing its empire and yet produced quality fiction. France lost its aristocracy well before the 20th century but I cannot believe that the decline of the English aristocracy had much to do with the decline of the novel, not least because most of the great 19th century English novelists were definitely not aristocrats. The novel has been and remains an essentially middle-class phenomenon. The decline not just of the Empire but of Britain as a whole may well have to do something with it but wouldn’t this be mirrored in other art forms? England has never been able to compete as regards art and classical music with countries like France, Italy and Germany. And there is no doubt, at least from 1960 onwards, that Britain was one of the leaders as regards popular music. As regards drama, England’s heyday was in Elizabethan times not in Victorian times. England did also decline in the poetry field, from Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and Tennyson to… what? Betjeman and Larkin? So not much real comparison there. But decline the English novel did. If you look at the Nobel Prizes awarded (not necessarily a good proxy for excellence but it will have to do), England has had three not very good novelists (Kipling, Galsworthy and Golding), two foreigners (Canetti and Eliot), a philosopher (Russell), a statesman (Churchill), who was also a very good writer but not a novelist, a dramatist (Pinter) and one very good but not great novelist (Lessing), who was born in Persia and grew up in Rhodesia. None of them, apart from Lessing, makes my list of best English novels, let alone best world novels. (It could be argued that this reflects the quality of the Nobel Prize Committee’s choice as well as the dearth of great English novelists. Both, I think, are true.)

Of course, there have been some fine English novelists, as, I think, my list of best English novels reflects but none of them approaches greatness. The 21st century has yet to bring anyone to the fore, though obviously that may change. And, if anyone objects, yes, I am aware that Ireland has done better and Scotland and Wales have also produced fine (though not great) novelists. So I shall continue read novels from all over the world but also novels from England and hope that, one day, there will be someone of the calibre. I look forward to reading her, whoever she may be.

What is a modern classic?

A modern classic

In a a review in the TLS, D J Taylor sort of discusses what a modern classic is. He quotes the blurb on the back of current Penguin Modern Classics – It begins with an adjectival spotter’s guide (“Contemporary . . . Provocative . . . Outrageous . . . Prophetic . . . Ground-breaking”, etc) before moving on to some diffidently expressed first principles. There is talk of such items possibly leading to “great movies”, of the breaking down of “barriers”, whether social, sexual, or, in the case of Ulysses, the “boundaries of language itself”, even of something described as “pure classic escapism”. He does not like these ideas and nor do I. For a definition of classic, Stefanie at So Many Books turns to the dictionary and comes up with A work of literature, music, or art of acknowledged quality and enduring significance or popularity. Both Stefanie and D J struggle not only with classic and with modern. Rightly or wrongly, I do not have too much difficulty with modern. I have defined modern as the period approximately (I stress approximately) from the beginning of the 20th century. You may disagree with that but it works for me. At least as far as the novel is concerned, there is a distinction between Victorian novels and twentieth century novels. It may not suddenly change on 1 January 1901 (which is when the twentieth century started) but it is starting to change a bit before that and the change accelerates after that. Some may argue that the big change comes post-World War I, which is a valid argument. Others may claim that it has not changed. In an article in the Transatlantic Review, J G Ballard said Something like 5000 novels are published every year and the great majority show no advance in vocabulary, technique, style on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. However, I think many critics would agree that the modernist movement may well have started in the 19th century but really took hold in the twentieth century. I am sticking with my view on this.

Not a classic?

Both Stefanie and D J struggle with classic. In literature, of course, the classics tend to be the works of Ancient Greece and Rome. The picture at right shows the cover the Finnish version of Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe the Egyptian but the original on which it was based was written around 1900 BC, i.e more than a thousand years before Homer. I am not sure whether it would be considered a classic nor whether Waltari’s novel (first published in 1945) would be considered a modern classic. But let’s look at music. We all know what classical means. The OED says of, relating to, or characteristic of a formal musical tradition, as distinguished from popular or folk music; spec. of or relating to formal European music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, characterized by harmony, balance, and adherence to established compositional forms. They say nothing about quality, and state that it specifically occurs in the late 18th and early 19th centuries though, of course, it can refer to music from both earlier periods and the modern era. So this does not help us. In rock music classic refers to rock music that is at least twenty years old. Again nothing about quality. This sense is not included in the OED. Classic blues can, of course, mean the older blues but, at least amongst aficionados, it means blues with female singers from an older era, such as the great Bessie Smith. None of this seems to help us much.

A modern classic

D J gets quite hot under the collar about what is and is not a modern classic. Stefanie does not know what it is. So let me try and ease their pain. Firstly, from the Penguin point of view, it is a marketing ploy. They want to flog books (that’s their job) so they think by labelling some books Modern Classics we may well buy them when we otherwise would not have done so. They are probably right. But how can we – readers, critics, reviewers, bloggers – define them, at least as regards the novel? I think that it is relatively easy.
1. It is a book first published at least twenty-twenty-five years ago
2. It is a book that has, to a certain degree, stood the test of time.
Ha ha, you counter. What do you mean by to a certain degree and stood the test of time? I mean that there are people who consider that the book still has a certain literary quality. And what are these books?

Not a modern classic?

Many of them are obvious. You will find numerous on my site. We may disagree on some of them, which is fine, and I may have omitted many that you consider a modern classic and that is also fine. Your modern classic may not be mine and vice versa. But what about Philip K Dick (see picture at right)? Or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? Or Love in a Cold Climate? I own, I think, virtually every Philip K Dick novel and would say some of them are definitely modern classics, including the one pictured here. I have not read either the Christie or Mitford and am unlikely to do so but I think they have stood the test of time, that certain people do consider them as having some quality and that they could certainly be considered modern classics. D J hums and haws about London Belongs to Me and Blaze at Noon. People in glasshouses… D J is also an author of novels, such as Secondhand Daylight which is not a modern classic though may well be one day but London and Blaze are, even if he does not think so. It is not a particularly helpful term but if we define it as I have above, it means we can accept that it is primarily a marketing term while, at the same time, perhaps pointing us to books that could be of some interest. And we can still decide for ourselves whether the book really is a modern classic.

Not the Nobel Prize

Last year’s winner Tomas Tranströmer

No, I am not going to talk about the Nobel Prize, except that I am. I was determined not to but I am essentially weak-willed. Michael Orthofer at Literary Saloon has now had a long(for him) post on it and The World Literature Forum, Fictional Woods, Goodreads and even The Game of Thrones forum have all put in their ten cents. The following speculations are entirely mine though I may well have read and been influenced by others but they are not to blame for my misjudgements.

Yaşar Kemal

Firstly, let me say that, as far as I can recall, I have never accurately forecasted the winner. I am probably not alone there. For years I predicted that Yaşar Kemal would win. He never did but when Orhan Pamuk won in 2006, I realised Turkey’s chances of getting another one were slim to none. I thought the French might get one but I forecasted Tournier or Butor would get it and not Le Clézio (few people predicted Le Clézio, it must be said). I should have seen Vargas Llosa but I thought that Fuentes would be a more likely Latin American choice. And, of course, I never had a clue that Tranströmer would get it. Of course, I have followed with some bemusement the fact that Adonis and Ko Un are perennial nominees. I say bemusement because I am completely unfamiliar with their work and, indeed, know no-one who has ever read them. This is not to do them down – I am sure that they are both first-class poets – it is just that they are not on most people’s radar.

Elfriede Jelinek

So I am going to try and look at this logically. I am going on the assumption – probably incorrect – that the Nobel Prize committee is going to be relatively consistent, in that if they have given the Nobel Prize to a Swedish poet recently, they are unlikely to give a Swedish writer or, indeed, any Scandinavian writer in the near future. Of course, this does not always work out. In 2004, they gave it to a German-speaking novelist and then did the same again in 2009. Günter Grass had already won it in 1999. Admittedly, Jelinek is Austrian and Müller German-Romanian but still… However, assuming they don’t break these rules again, I think we can discount the following:

  • A poet. A poet got it last year so I think that it is unlikely one will get it this year. So that leaves Adonis and Ko Un out. It also leaves Bob Dylan out, who once again is quoted at 33-1. Some commentators think linking Dylan with the Nobel prize is a travesty. I disagree. While I certainly don’t think that he should win it, I think that his lyrics are superior to the work of some writers who are perennial favourites.
  • A Scandinavian. See above.
  • A Latin American. Vargas Llosa won it deservedly two years ago. The other major candidate from Latin America would have been Carlos Fuentes and he sadly died this year.
  • A German-speaking writer. See above.
  • A French writer. See above.
  • A Turk. See above
  • A Brit. Lessing in 2007 and Pinter in 2005 means probably all Brits (and that would almost certainly include Scottish, Welsh and Irish writers, to their disgust) are out.
Maybe Thomas Pynchon

So where does that leave us? The last US writer to win was Toni Morrison in 1993, i.e. nearly twenty years ago. Of course, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury famously damned US writers but that was, frankly, somewhat silly. There are loads of possible candidates, in addition to Bob Dylan and Philip Roth. Ladbrokes has Roth and Cormac McCarthy at 16/1, Pynchon at 20/1, De Lillo, Joyce Carol Oates and E L Doctorow at 33/1, Maya Angelou at 50/1, Ursula LeGuin, William Gass and John Ashbery at 66/1 and Auster, Marge Piercy, Jonathan Littell (misspelled), Louise Glück and Franzen at 100/1. Most of those, Roth excluded, would be worthwhile winners, though Oates and Pynchon would be my choices. There are also several Canadians on the Ladbroke list, who could also be considered.

The last Indian winner

Unless you count Pamuk and Naipaul, which you might, there has not been an Asian winner since Gao Xingjian in 2000. The last Indian winner was ninety-nine years ago. Apart from Tagore, one Chinese, two Japanese and a joint Israeli pair does it for Asia. Ladbrokes has Murakami as favourite. Good choice but a bit too populist. Mo Yan is in joint second place. Adonis and Ko Un are, of course, both Asian, giving, in Ladbrokes’ view, Asians four of the top six top choices. Unless you count Chang-rae Lee, whom I would consider US, other Asians are Amos Oz, Bei Dao, Mahasweta Devi, A B Yehoshua, Azar Nafisi, Dai Sijie, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Salman Rushdie, F Sionil José, Atiq Rahimi, Elias Khoury, Shlomo Kalo and Rajendra Bhandari. The first four are, of course, all good bets but I would have thought Rushdie would be the most likely one.

Chinua Achebe

The last African winner was a white South African. The previous African winner was…a white South African. Two very fine writers and well deserving of the Prize but… The two other African winners were Soyinka and Mahfouz. Ladbrokes offers Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (also misspelled; spelling does not appear to be a strong point at Ladbrokes), Chinua Achebe, Assia Djebar, Nurridin Farah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri and Leila Aboulela. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would appear to be an interesting choice but, though he is a fine writer, his recent work had tended towards the satirical, not necessarily a vote-winner. I would consider Chinua Achebe an excellent choice and long overdue though I would add Syl Cheney-Coker to the list.

The last Australian winner

Australia has one Nobel Prize winner and the other Oceania nations none. David Malouf, Les Murray, Peter Carey, Gerald Murnane and Tim Winton are all on Ladbrokes list. Not a bad bunch but I am not sure that this is their year. No-one from New Zealand or elsewhere in the continent. Lloyd Jones might not be quite ready, though there is always Patrick Grace.

The last East European winner

Which brings us to Eastern Europe. Excluding Herta Müller, whom we should consider as primarily German as that is the language she writes in, the last Eastern European winner was Imre Kertész. A quick look at the Eastern Europeans shows that they win it just over once a decade – Wislawa Szymborska in the 1990s, Joseph Brodsky and Jaroslav Seifert in the 1980s, Singer and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, Mikhail Sholokhov and Ivo Andrić in the 1960s, Boris Pasternak in the 1950s, Ivan Bunin in the 1930s, Wladyslaw Reymont in the 1920s and Henryk Sienkiewicz in the 1900s, with only the decades of the two world wars missing. So it is time for another Eastern European. At fourth equal, Ladbrokes offers the writer with the most books reviewed on my site – Ismail Kadare. He did win the Man Booker International Prize in 2005, the first one. None of the other three winners of this prize has won the Nobel Prize but I do not think that disqualifies him. He has produced an outstanding body of work, his books are readily available in English and, particularly, in French. And he is one of my favourite living authors (though the Nobel Prize Committee may not consider that an important criterion.)

The next Nobel Prize winner?

So there you have it. My pick for the next Nobel Prize for Literature. But don’t forget that I have never picked a winner. So it will probably be Adonis. Or Philip Roth. Or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Or Murakami. Or Yaşar Kemal. Or somebody else no-one guessed. One thing is for sure. Ladbrokes are not getting any of my money even at odds of 14/1 for Kadare.

Englishness

An English country cottage

I have just added a list of novels featuring Englishness to my site. I have been considering this for a long time but have hesitated for a number of reasons. Firstly, it smacks of jingoism and excess nationalism, which I am not too keen on. Secondly, it all looks a bit nostalgic and hearkening back to an England that probably never existed, except in the minds of novelists, while avoiding the grim reality that many people have to face, which may represent the real England more than churches, cricket matches and tea with the vicar. Thirdly, it is difficult to say that this novel represents Englishness while this other one does not. Despite all that, I have gone ahead and done it, partially (though only partially) prompted by the Olympics enthusiasm, though I am sure many people will disagree with my choices.

Slums

Like, I suppose, many people, my idea of Englishness is coloured by the standard picture postcard of England – churches, meadows, teas on the lawn, pre-Raphaelite paintings and Downton Abbey. In short, the usual stereotypes. This is not the England that most people live in and while most people do not live in slums (as in the drawing on the right), they do not live in Downton Abbey or snow-covered country cottages either. But if Englishness is middle-class dreariness, semi-detacheds, Tescos, boring office jobs, watching the football on telly while eating crisps and takeaway curries, then my list would not be very interesting. Albion magazine has a view of Englishness which both covers the traditional view but also takes a certain detached approach. Isabel Taylor, for example, in the first of the series Exploring Englishness looks at the idea of the rural myth, which informs our traditional view of Englishness (churches, cricket matches and cream teas).

Frenchness?

Nonetheless, I have done my Englishness list and will stick with it for now. What about other -nesses? French has the concept of francité, the equivalent of Frenchness. So what goes there? The stereotypes of the Eiffel Tower (at left), Napoleon, French bread, an onion seller? And which authors? The Parisians like Proust, Colette, Cocteau and Gide or the rural ones like Bosco, Giono and Mauriac, who I have yet to put on my site? Is it the nouveau roman or the more conventional novel? And, as for Deutschtum, we foreigners are probably inclined to think of German military action and the Nazis as our stereotype which, I am sure, modern Germans would not welcome. WWAD (What Would Angela (Merkel) Do)? I have no idea. She has mentioned Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) as one of her favourite books from childhood, and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as two of her favourite authors, neither very German. Apparently, when she went on holiday two years ago, she was going to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (a gift from Ulrich Wilhelm, the then Government spokesman). Apart from a certain fascination with Russia, this tells us nothing about Germanness. I would be hard put to suggest any book as representing Germanness. So I have done my Englishness list, albeit with some trepidation at wandering into the murky waters of stereotyping but I shall leave it at that and there will be no Frenchness or Germanness or anything else-ness.

Novels with a political background

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Fall of the Berlin Wall

I have just uploaded a list of Wende novels (i.e. novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989-1990). If you look at the lists of books I have created, you will see quite a few are novels with political/historical backgrounds. Clearly the Wende, as I shall now call it, was the most important event in German history since World War II and it is not surprising that it has preoccupied German writers, particularly those from the former East Germany. It does not, however, seem to have preoccupied writers from other countries, as D G Myers points out in his blog, at least as regards the USA (and I think that few other countries have bothered much with it in their literature). Interestingly enough, the events of 11 September 2001 have preoccupied both US novelists and those of other countries though it would seem to me that die Wende was more important politically than 9/11. C Max Magee, of the Millions blog stated I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel”, presumably either meaning every US novel or being just supremely arrogant about the importance of the event to the world. If 9/11 is assessed purely in terms of number of deaths, it pales with other events in recent US history. To give just one example, far more Palestinians have died (at US taxpayer expense) than were killed in 9/11. I could also mention the Korean War (which produced several novels) and the Vietnam War (which produced lots more novels), not to mention US support of dictators from Mobutu to Pinochet, from the Shah of Iran to Trujillo, few of which produced any US novels of significance, the Vietnam war excepted. However, the point of this post is not to indicate the relative importance of historical events in terms of death or destruction but how a political event influenced novelists

Aunt Sarah and the War – one of the first WW1 novels

World War I is probably the event of the past 100+ years that most influenced novelists and poets and, of course, produced many first-class novels, from all the major participant countries. These novels were not just about the conflict itself – though many dealt with the grizzly business of fighting – but also about the social and political consequences of the War, with novels such as Parade’s End, Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers), The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). World War I gave us the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the end of the beginning of the rise of the US Empire, the conversion of countries such as the UK from being primarily rural to being primarily urban, the creation of several new countries and, as many novelists have indicated, a loss of innocence, which may be more imagined than real but was still potent for these novelists. In Britain, at least, it indirectly led to Irish independence, the rise of the Labour Party and women’s suffrage.

The best WWI novel

I have always thought that politically and historically World War I was more important than World War II, though I am well aware that World War II led to the creation of the Soviet Empire and other huge consequences. However, purely from the literary point of view, I do feel that WWI produced better novels than WWII. I have started a list of WWII novels but it is a long way from completion and I do not know when or even if I shall complete it. There are many other lists out there, such as World War II in Fiction. See my Historical fiction – specific periods for more (towards the bottom of the page). As the picture on the left, a bit above, shows, I consider The Underground City to be one of the best WWII novels, better than, say, The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity. However, there are several other fine WWII novels, such as Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Catch-22 and several Japanese novels such as 野火 (Fires on the Plain).

The best American Civil War novel?

A quick look at my My Lists page will show that I have something of a mild obsession with civil wars. This is certainly the case. I have traipsed over many civil war battlefields in the USA and read numerous books on the subject, fiction though mainly non-fiction, as well as studying in some detail the civil wars in Mexico, Spain, Ireland and Russia. If you twisted my arm I would say that The Fathers is my favourite American Civil War novel and I think that Mazurca para dos muertos (Mazurka for Two Dead Men) is a wonderful novel of the Spanish Civil War that deserves to be better-known. Not only is there an English translation but it is amazingly in print in the US and readily available second-hand in the UK. The fascinating thing about civil wars and the literature associated with them is that they are still being fought and written about. Any foreigner who thinks that the American or Spanish or Mexican or Irish civil wars are over is sorely mistaken. All of these civil wars still produce a stream of novels. Indeed, despite the fact the Spanish Civil War ended seventy-four years ago and, therefore, most of the participants are either dead or nearly so, it almost seems that, as a Spanish novelist, at least one civil war novel is obligatory.

What a Carve-Up!

A friend commented on my list of Thatcher novels, knowing that my views were not exactly pro-Thatcher. Many of these novels are anti-Thatcher, as she clearly attracted a visceral hatred. The picture at left shows the cover of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). The UK title comes from the title of a film mentioned in the book (as does the photo on the cover), which, of course, is a play on words, as the book is about the Thatcherite carve-up of the UK. US audiences, for some odd reason, are clearly not considered able to make this link and given an anodyne and meaningless title. This book and the brilliant Running Wild show that a novel can take a strong political view and still be a first-class book.

The film, not the book

Of course, there are many political novels not covered by these lists, from Swift, Trollope and Dickens to Orwell and the recently deceased Gore Vidal. Tim Pears has an interesting list while Christian Science Monitor starts with a writer I plan to read soon, Robert Penn Warren (I have seen the film though!). Margaret Lenta gives a South African perspective, showing that political novels are not limited to Europe and North America. I remember reading Cry the Beloved Country many years ago.

The Euro’s crashing

I don’t think that there is any doubt that the political movel will be here for sometime and, while some may infuriate us either because they are so badly written or simply do not reflect my (or your) political point of view, clearly many of the great novels of the past are political. Events like the Wende or our next favourite civil war will produce more interesting novels. I am already looking forward to the great Euro crash novel. Probably in Spanish.

The Oh No, I am not going to write a post on the Booker post


Right. As I said, I shall not write another post on the Man Booker Prize. Never again. Except for this one. And maybe another one. It’s like a disease. Or a drug. The Guardian has had two interesting articles on the Booker. The first, by Justine Jordan, congratulates the judges on favouring eccentricity and invention. She is, of course, right, in that most of the obvious ones have been omitted – Amis (thank you, judges), McEwan, Zadie Smith, Banville, Lanchester, Tremain, Carey, Norfolk, Alan Warner, Mo, Jacobson, Barker (Pat – Nicola is there) or J K herself. Of those omitted, I have only read the Lanchester and the Carey and liked the former but not the latter. As said in my previous post on the subject, I have not heard of many of the suggestions but, now that we have a longlist, I shall try and read one or two of them. Good on the judges for their creativity, though the downside is that, as they can’t give it to Hilary Mantel again, Will Self gets it. Mildly better than Asbo Amis but only mildly.


The other interesting Guardian article on the Booker was about bias in the Booker. Alan Bissett, who is Scottish, complains that only one Scot has ever won the Booker, that Trainspotting was pulled from the shortlist and only five other Scots have been shortlisted. He then proceeds to ruin his argument by pointing out that Scotland’s population represents 0.2% of the population of the Commonwealth but that they have had 3.6% of the shortlistees (4.4% if you count William Boyd, which I do, and Bernard MacLaverty (which I don’t)). James Kelman was the sole winner and, while I have not read his Booker Prize winning novel, I have read The Busconductor Hines, his first novel, and I thought it was dire (which is why I have not read his others). While I disagree with him about Kelman, there are several Scottish novels which should have won it, in my view. Lanark is a brilliant novel, though it was up against another brilliant novel that year – Midnight’s Children. A L Kennedy’s Paradise (winner that year was Banville‘s The Sea, which I have not read as I had got tired of Banville by then) or her Day, beaten by The Gathering which I have yet to read but will, are both superb novels. The Land Lay Still and several of Muriel Spark‘s novel would also have been worthy contenders.

Judging the Booker

Bissett goes on to mention, again undercutting his own argument, that it might not be so much a nationality thing but a class thing. The essentially middle-class judges of the Man Booker are going to choose middle-class novels. He definitely has a point there. This years’s judges consist of the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, an actor who plays the future Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, two English academics who write with erudition and clarity in learned journals (according to the Daily Telegraph) and the author of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, none of whom come across as bastions of the revolution. However, Bissett misses a key point. The novel is, essentially, a bourgeois medium. Yes, of course, there are novels written by working class writers and on working class themes but look at most lists of best literary novels and you will find that they are essentially middle class. As Rohinton Mistry succinctly put it Most fiction is about the middle class; perhaps because most writers are from the middle class.


Bissett goes on to conclude that the Man Booker prize is a reward system for the English establishment masquerading as magnamity. It should come as no surprise that the Man Booker prize for Commonwealth literature mimics the empire itself. That may be a bit strong but it is equally not completely removed from the truth. Is English literature simply better than that of the Celtic nations? Bissett asks. James Joyce‘s response is perhaps the best – And in spite of everything, Ireland remains the brain of the Kingdom. The English, judiciously practical and ponderous, furnish the over-stuffed stomach of humanity with a perfect gadget – the water closet. The Irish, condemned to express themselves in a language not their own, have stamped on it the mark of their own genius and compete for glory with the civilized nations. This is then called English literature. But the fact remains that Irish (and Scottish and Welsh) literature get only limited coverage in the English press. Ireland has its own award as, indeed, do Scotland and Wales but they do not get the coverage of the Man Booker. While it would be nice to see more Celtic nominees for the Man Booker, I suspect that Bissett may be disappointed for a long while yet.