The latest addition to my website is Patrick Roegiers‘ Le Bonheur des Belges [The Happiness of the Belgians]. It is both a response to Hugo Claus‘ Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) as well as to the political and economic crisis Belgium has been facing in recent times. Belgium is the only country where I have visited every town in the country so I have a certain sympathy with and interest in the country and its plight. Roegiers gives us a roller-coaster of a ride through Belgium’s (relatively short) history, its institutions, its culture and its problems, telling his tale with great humour, happy both to mock as well as celebrate and peopling his novel with a whole host of living and dead Belgians, most of whom you have probably never have heard of. It is narrated by an eleven-year old boy who has no name and no parents, who wanders through Belgium, both geographically and chronologically (he is at the Battle of Waterloo and in World War I, for example) meeting people from Victor Hugo to Jacques Brel to Pieter Brueghel and hearing their tale and views while, in the background, Roegiers throws in his comments, witticisms and views. He is not afraid to confront problems, e.g. the Walloon-Fleming issue, and not afraid to gently mock such issues, all the while celebrating Belgium and Belgianness. It is wonderful book, full of joie de vivre. Sadly, given that language (the use of Belgian French and French vs Flemish) is of such importance, I wonder whether it will ever be translated into English. However, if you do read French, I can heartily recommend it. Bonne lecture!
The latest addition to my website is A. M. Homes‘ May We Be Forgiven, the winner of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Most people, including me, thought that Bring Up the Bodies would win and were quite surprised that this novel won. While I very much enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies, I think May We Be Forgiven is a very deserving winner. It is one of the funniest novels that I have read for a long time and very original. However, the humour is very black and is probably not to everyone’s taste though, as I have something of a warped mind, it is very much to mine. It tells the story of Harold Silver, brother of George, a successful TV executive who inadvertently kills two people in a traffic accident. This profoundly affects him and he is placed in an institution. He manages to leave it and comes home in the early hours of the morning to find his wife in bed with Harold. He smashes the lamp over his wife’s head and she dies soon afterwards. Harold is now left to bring up his nephew and niece, though his wife leaves him and he loses his job. Things can only get worse and they do. Homes has great fun mocking Harold and George but also a whole host of US institutions, people and behaviours. If you are not too sensitive to black humour, I can thoroughly recommend this book, a very deserving winner. of the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The latest addition to my website is Sulaiman Addonia‘s The Consequences of Love, the first Eritrean novel on my website. It tells the story of Naser, a young Eritrean, who has escaped from the war in that country and is now living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He is starved of female affection, till a woman in full burqa starts dropping surreptitious love notes to him. Under strict Saudi laws, it is impossible for a man and a woman to have an affair and, as the title implies, the consequences could be dire but the two of them continue this relationship, with great difficulty and a considerable amount of deceit. Meanwhile, Addonia is showing the hypocrisy of Saudi society, with rampant homosexuality, often with underage boys, drug use and other transgressions, while pretending that religious observance is something that all do. A well-told novel but not one likely to endear him to the Saudi government.
Yesterday’s news in the literary prize world, at least in the English-speaking world, was about the Women’s Fiction Prize , won not by Hilary Mantel but by A M Homes. Homes’ novels have often been controversial, particularly her novel The End of Alice, about a pedophile. She is one of those all too many writers I have not read but mean to read but, as I was expecting Mantel to win this prize (my curse on a writer – if I expect her/him to win, s/he won’t win), I had not got round to reading her but have now started May We Be Forgiven. However, another prize was announced yesterday, the Spanish Premio Príncipe de Asturias de las Letras [The Prince of Asturias Literary Prize]. It was awarded to Antonio Muñoz Molina. I have a couple of his books on my site and hope to get round to a couple more shortly, including La noche de los tiempos (The Depths of Time) (image above left), which has been translated into English. Interestingly enough, he is the first Spanish-speaking winner since Augusto Monterroso in 2000, though, before that all the prizes since the prize’s foundation in 1981 were Spanish-speaking except for Günter Grass in 1999. Muñoz Molina is a first-class writer and, given that several of his books have been translated into English, should be better known in the English-speaking world.
The latest addition to my website is Carmen Boullosa‘s Texas. The novel is about an event taking place in 1859 between a Mexican and an US sheriff in a thinly disguised version of Brownsville, Texas, leading to sides being taken by the two nationalities (with the Native Americans, slaves and former slaves and other itinerant nationalities thrown in). It is, of course, told not from the US point of view, with shifty or servile Mexicans, but from the Mexican point of view, showing a completely different viewpoint from the one we may be used to from Western films and where the bad guys are the Americans and not the Mexicans. A poor carpenter aand worse sheriff is beating up a drunken Mexican, who is urinating in public, when a well-to-do Mexican intervenes. It ends up in a standoff and then a shooting, with the sheriff mildly wounded in the leg. This leads to a whole chain of events, with a somewhat different outcome from your usual Western. As always, Boullosa tells a hilarious story, gives us a wild ride through the period and culture and, at the same time, makes her point about US hypocrisy vis-à-vis Mexico.
The Telegraph has produced a list of what it calls must-read books. The telegraph did not publish the list online (the link is to someone else who did) but, as at least one of the purposes of the list is to flog the books to the unsuspecting punter, you can also effectively view them through their online bookshop. Must-read? The article in the paper starts by telling you what they don’t mean. They don’t mean, for example, that you must read them (sic!). It is a set of suggestions, a list of books to peruse as you might glance at a menu when hungry. On dear. It gets worse. If you look at their listings in the Review section (called Where To Go, What To See), you will note that even where there are as few as four listings, each section’s compiler gets a credit. No-one gets a credit for the 500 books. That’s not surprising. If I had helped compile this list, I would not want my name on it. I am a great lover of lists of all sorts and have looked at many lists of best books and, with the possible exception of the readers’ response to the Modern Library 100 best novels, this has got to be the worse I have ever seen.
They have divided the books into twenty categories. We start off with War and History. They include novels, such as A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead and Catch 22; indeed all the novels are English or US, apart from The Good Soldier Schweik and All Quiet on the Western Front. Though the category is War and History, the novels are all war novels, so no Dickens, no Mantel (though she does appear in British classics), no any number of historical novels and, for war novels, no War and Peace, no Parade’s End, no Dr Zhivago (though he is in Romance), no Iliad (which appears under Antiquity Classics), no Stendhal, no Shakespeare. As for non-fiction we have 1066 and All That, no Macaulay, nothing on the US or English civil wars, nothing on the US War of Independence or its early history, nothing on the Russian Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, nothing on colonisation or decolonisation, nothing on Asian, African or Latin American history… So here’s the perfect video for the anonymous Telegraph compiler.
Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
Moving along to the other categories, it is not much better. Latin America includes your obvious Latin American authors but also includes Graham Greene and, aaargh!, Paulo Coelho. Surely, J K and Dan Brown cannot be far behind. American Classics includes Lionel Shriver, Anne Michaels, Hunter S Thompson, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Bonfire of the Vanities, no Pynchon, no Faulkner, no Oates and two African-American women but no African-American men – no Invisible Man, no Baldwin. Money includes Ayn Rand (the one author who is absolutely a must-not-read) and Who Moved My Cheese?, another book that is… (yes, I have. Idiot boss.) Of the Asian classics, half are Indian, one quarter Japanese, one eighth Chinese (counting Timothy Mo as half Chinese), with the Arabian Nights being the token Middle East entry. Seven of the twelve African classics are by white authors and one of the five who is not is V S Naipaul. British classics includes four writers who are definitely not British (they’re Irish), Henry James, who is generally considered American, though he did become a British citizen on his deathbed and, God help us, Jilly Cooper (and, if that is the case, why not J K?) (I am being facetious with the last remark, by the way).
Terrible list but what, I suppose, one might expect from the Daily Telegraph. Here is a line from elsewhere in the paper – British wildlife would be in a poorer state without the unique contribution of shooting. Yes, it would be alive. As for Telegraph book list compilers, I am not so sure.
The last two books I have added to my site have raised issues about nationalities, as I have defined them on my site. Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go raised issues about Selasi’s nationality. She was born in London, grew up in the United States and has a Ghanaian Father and a Nigerian mother. As with other nationalities, I have put in her in one nationality, in this case Ghana, with my reasons outlined on her homepage on my site (because she has a Ghanaian father, the title of her first novel contains the word Ghana (though the title refers to the Nigerian reaction to the Ghanaians in their country) and her surname is Ghanaian) but she herself has commented on this topic (I am so over the whole ‘where are you from?’ question. I am! I don’t know how to reply to it any more. I go to Ghana every single year to see my mum who lives there now. But even if I were to say I was from Ghana, which isn’t true, what does that mean? What matters to me is Italian, African, contemporary American, British, and Indian culture. It’s of so much more interest to me than where I’m from. I would love it if people asked me who I am rather than where I’m from.) so she will probably not be happy with my decision.
There are, of course, ways round this. By using tags, I could allocate all her nationalities to her. Indeed, on the blog post, you may have noticed that I have tagged her as both Ghanaian and Nigerian. Or, I could move away from very specific nationalities and just have a category such as African, not least because many westerners are not too concerned about the finer differences between African countries. (Just for information, the size of Europe is 3,930,000 square miles, the United States 3,794,101 square miles, North America (i.e. including the Caribbean countries and Central America) 9,540,000 square miles and the size of Africa 11,668,599 square miles.)
The most recent addition to my website is Adem Demaçi’s Gjarpinjtë e gjakut [The Snakes of the Blood], a novel from Kosovo. Kosovo happens to be the 200th nationality on my site. You will note that my definition of nationality is not necessarily the same as anyone else’s, particularly not the United Nations’. The United Nations has 193 member countries and two observer ones (the Vatican and Palestine). Kosovo, for example, is not a member. Though, as I stated in my post on Reading the World, it was not my intention to cover the world. My aim was to review (and therefore encourage others to read the books reviewed) of what I considered the most interesting novels since approximately the beginning of the twentieth century. I expected to be focusing on a wide array of novels from North and South America, Europe, South and South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand and a few from other areas such as Africa and the Middle East. I did not expect that the Great Vanuatuan novel would be of the slightest interest to me. However, it soon became apparent that there was a lot more of interest.
If you, as a literary novel reader from North America or the UK in 1960 wanted to be considered well-read in the literary novel of the 20th century, you would not have had a great deal to read. You would have read quite a few novels from the US, England and Ireland (but probably not Wales or Scotland), France and the German-speaking countries. There would, perhaps, be a few Russians but not many, the odd Eastern European, the odd Scandinavian, the odd Italian and a (very) few from the Far East. You would probably ignore the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, as the boom had not started and, anyway, unless you read these two languages, there would not be much available in English. Africa, apart from Cry, the Beloved Country, you could ignore. You might read Kazantzakis, though he did not really take off till Zorba the Greek was released in 1964. India, Canada, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand, the Arab world and Central Asia could probably be ignored. Nowadays, you would have to add all these parts of the world and while you would not have to have read 200 nationalities, it would have to be at least fifty.
It was this realisation – realisation that novels were being produced not only in Kenya and South Africa but also Chad and Guinea-Bissau, not only in India and China but also Bhutan and Laos, not only in Australia and New Zealand but also Fiji and Papua New Guinea, not only France and Spain but Brittany and Catalonia, that made me explore further. I have always been in favour of balkanisation and it is wonderful to see it in novels, where smaller, non-sovereign nations are producing their own literature. One of my favourite novels is Thomas Mann‘s Königliche Hoheit (Royal Highness) which describes a minor German principality which seems to me a lovely place to live, away from the problems of the collapse of the EU, terrorism, war and so on. I like discovering minor countries that I was not aware had a literature and I hope others can appreciate this, too, and learn about countries and territories most of us will certainly never visit. So I shall continue adding other countries – Eritrea is coming up soon – and I am sorry, Taiye Selasi, but I shall continue highlighting individual nationalities.
The latest addition to my website is Adem Demaçi‘s Gjarpinjtë e gjakut [The Snakes of the Blood], the first Kosovan novel on my website. Sadly, this novel is not available in English and, as far as I can tell, there is no Kosovan novel, available in English translation. The novel is a short one and gives the account of a blood feud between two Kosovan-Albanian families in the period just before World War I. The prime reason is that Sejdi cannot come to an agreement with Emin Malok about the marriage of his daughter to Emin Malok’s son. As a result he agrees to let his daughter marry another man’s son. Emin Malok takes this as a grievous insult to his honour and vows revenge. Mustafa, Sejdi’s eldest son, who has just returned from four years nominally fighting the Turks (though, historically, he would have been fighting the Serbs) tries hard to prevent any bloodshed, while his father hopes the matter will just blow over. But Emin Malok is determined.
Real people have been the basis for literary characters for almost as long as there have been novels. Someone has even written a book on it. More recently, we have seen more and more novelists use actual real people in their novels. Some people don’t like that. Jonathan Dee commented there is something fundamentally compromised about a type of literary work whose characters — their physical appearances, their fates, the actions by which they will be remembered — are known to us before we even open the book and Creating a character out of words and making him or her as vivid and memorable as a real person might be the hardest of the fundamental tricks a novelist has to perform. Simply adopting or impersonating an already interesting real-life character — Lee Harvey Oswald, J.P. Morgan, Amelia Earhart — cannot be considered as substantial an achievement as creating a character who enters the reader’s consciousness as a total unknown.. I really don’t mind, as it can introduce you to people you know little about (Hilary Mantel writing about Thomas Cromwell, for example), or give you another perspective on a living person or some event in his/her life where we do not necessarily know the truth. But that is not what this post is about.
Writing in The Independent, John Walsh commented on a lawsuit brought against French novelist Christine Angot for using a depiction of her lover’s ex-lover in a novel. The ex-lover – Elise Bidoit – sued on the basis that intimate details of her life, known only to those who knew her well (i.e. her ex, Angot’s current) were published and that she was recognisable. Angot has form for this. She famously wrote a book called L’inceste (not available in English but the title is not too difficult to translate) about an incestuous relationship between a young woman and her father. Was it based on fact? What did her father think of it? I have a copy and it may well appear on my site sometime soon. As author Kathryn Stockett knows you have to be careful about putting living, non-famous people in your novel. My speculation on this has been prompted by the last book I put on my site – Taiye Selasi‘s Ghana Must Go, which is substantially autobiographical (she even uses her mother’s real maiden name). In this book she kills off her father with a heart attack though her real father is still very much alive. What did he think of this? What did her twin sister think of being made male in this book? Yes, as an author, you often want to write about what you know, which means your own life, your own family and your own friends but, whatever you think of your father, killing him off? In the Walsh article linked above, he mentions that Beryl Bainbridge was tempted to kill off her mother in her book Harriet Says but resisted the temptation. A worthy example to vindictive novelists, though I can think of a few politicians I would kill off were I to be a novelist.