Best books of the year

fuentes

I am not going to do a best books of the year post for the very simple reason that most of the best books I have read this year (and other years) were not published this year. Indeed, most were not published in this century. As you can see from my chronological list, I have read fourteen books published this year, an unusually high number for me and the best thee are all by women – Bring Up the Bodies, NW and In the Shadow of the Banyan. Several of the books were quite disappointing though I did quite enjoy Carlos Fuentes’ last novel (see cover at left), which won’t appear in English till next year. As for other people’s best of lists, I always turn to Large-Hearted Boy’s list. I have waded my way through several of the lists he links to, where I have found several intriguing lists, some odd choices and some books that I wonder why are included. As he limits himself to English, I was going to do a post of a few non-English lists but, inevitably, Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon beat me to it. Nevertheless, I will try and supplement his lists.

A book that made Bill Gates think
A book that made Bill Gates think

But let’s start with Bill Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates. Bill has published his list of ten books that made me think. I must confess that I have not read any of them nor am I likely to do, though my significant other read the Pinker and very much enjoyed it. There are, sadly, no novels in his list but Bill also kindly gives us a list of his reading for the year. This is also a fascinating list of worthy works. It also includes four novels and here, I am afraid, Bill somewhat lets us down. The four are: The Hunger Games, Michael Ondaatje‘s The Cat’s Cradle, which I have not read yet but probably will, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, a book I read many years ago, and which was first published in 1959 and A Catcher in the Rye, first published four years before Bill was born. Didn’t he read it in high school? Well, he read many worthy non-fiction books so he can perhaps be forgiven for not putting much effort into his novel reading.

Moving on to the foreign book lists… As Michael Orthofer points out in the post linked to above, best of lists tends to be an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. In the English-speaking world these lists all too often appear early in December when there is still time for some worthy books to appear but other nationalities do some of their lists later. So here are some other lists I have found:

French

    Lire's best foreign novel of the year
    Lire’s best foreign novel of the year

  • The respected French literary magazine Lire does not have a list on its site of the best books of the year, though it does have a list of the ten books you should read before the end of the world (this post being written three days before the world ends on 21 December). However, Nicole Volle publishes the list that appeared in Lire magazine in her blog. It is divided up into categories and there is only one book per category so there are not many novels. I do have a copy of the foreign book (Antonio Muñoz Molina‘s La noche de los tiempos, which I hope to get round to.
  • Tribune libre offers a sort of a list, with selections by Internet readers as well as by critics. Kathryn Stockett’s Help is the best foreign book
  • L’Express also likes the Muñoz Molina but likes Donald Ray Pollock’s The Devil All the Time even more
  • Not much else. Various bloggers have their lists though a few seem to like 50 nuances de Grey

German

Maria Paola Colombo's Il negativo dell’amore, an Italian favourite
Maria Paola Colombo’s Il negativo dell’amore, an Italian favourite

Italian

Portuguese

Catalans like Josep Pla
Catalans like Josep Pla

Spanish

No, not a very exciting list but I do hope Bill Gates will read more novels next year. There are a lot of good US ones, Bill.

Brunei, Cambodia and the Maldives

ratner

My current reading is novels from countries that have yet to appear on my website. Of the three I have read this past weekend, the Cambodian, Vaddey Ratner‘s In the Shadow of the Banyan, is by far the best. I came across it when doing some research for a family member who is going off to Cambodia (and who is now there). I own another Cambodian novel but it is in French, translated from the Cambodian. This novel was written in English and very good it is, too. It is a semi-autobiographical story about a girl who is seven when the novel starts. She is the descendant of a previous king. The story recounts what happens to her and her family (and many other Cambodians) when the Khmer Rouge take over. Much of it is inevitably unpleasant but Ratner writes really well and manages to show the inner strength she and her mother have which enables them to survive.

hiyala

The Brunei and Maldives novels I found thanks to Ann Morgan’s superb blog A year of reading the world. She has managed to find novels in English from all sorts of exotic places with diligent research and gentle persuasion and I doubt if I would have found these two without her efforts. The Maldives novel, Abdullah Sadiq‘s Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu, is a recounting of a traditional Maldives legend, replete with magic, dreams, violence, sex, trickery and all the other features we associate with fables. It is also available on line for free, so there is no excuse for not reading it. There are other Maldives novels but they are in Dhivehi and have not been translated into any other language and, in any case, are very difficult to obtain outside the Maldives even if you could read Dhivehi.

sun

Christopher Sun‘s book Four Kings s definitely the worst of the three. Indeed, were it not for the fact that it is the only novel in English from Brunei, it would not be here. As with the Maldives, there are other Brunei novels but only available in Malay. Sun’s novel is a not very good thriller in the The Da Vinci Code style, i.e. one involving religion. If you like that sort of thing, you may enjoy it but I cannot really recommend it unless, like me, you feel that you should have read a Brunei novel. More exotic (to me) countries to come.

Liam O’Flaherty: Famine

famine

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.

Women writers Part 2

María Luisa Bombal - one of the many neglected women writers
María Luisa Bombal – one of the many neglected women writers

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.
  • A German (actually Austrian) writer you should not miss
  • 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:

Colette - a canonical French novelist
Colette – a canonical French novelist
  • 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.

Andrés Neuman: El viajero del siglo (Traveller of the Century)

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.

Women writers – Part 1

Kate Mosse’s latest novel

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.

Larry doesn’t do feminism

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)
  • The first novel? It’s written by a woman
  • 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).
  • The Great American Novel?
  • 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.
Francine Prose – not impressed with Normal Mailer

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

Benesdra and Chirbes

The two latest books to appear on my website are Salvador Benesdra‘s El traductor [The Translator] and Rafael ChirbesLa 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.

Italian literature – the early years

Dante meets Beatrice

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.

Petrarch

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.

Ariosto (the bald man, bottom right)

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).

One Man, Two Guvnors, a 17th century Italian play

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.

A scene from the opera of I Promessi Sposi

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.

Sicilian literature

Mount Etna

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.

Il Gattopardo

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.

The first Inspector Montalbano novel

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.

Salvatore Quasimodo

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]

Plaque on house where Vittorini was born

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.

Church at Sávoca

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.
Not a junk shop

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.

Books I haven’t read Part 2

Does anyone outside France read Anatole France anymore?

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.

Herta Müller – still unread (by me)

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).

Women writers I have read

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).

A Moldovan novel to read

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?