Kate Atkinson: Life After Life


The latest addition to my website is Kate Atkinson‘s Life After Life. This is a wonderful novel, a sort of cross between Ken Grimwood’s Replay and the film Groundhog Day. Ursula Todd is still-born, the umbilical cord strangling her. She is immediately born again and this time the umbilical cord does not strangle her. She lives a few years before drowning and then is born again. This continues to happen. Sometimes, she lives a relatively long time, others less so. On two occasions, she has more than one death occurring on the same day but each time the events leading up to that death differ. She is unaware of what is happening but does have dream-like memories of her past lives and does learn from them. It is both a very clever story but also very well-told, as Atkinson is not just interested in the clever tricks but showing how her characters develop. And, oh yes, he’s back .

Esther Tusquets: Para no volver (Never to Return)


The latest addition to my website is Esther TusquetsPara no volver (Never to Return). This is a first-class novel by one of the leading Spanish women novelists, who sadly died last year. She seems to be relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, despite the fact that several of her books, including this one, have been translated into English. This book is about identity, particularly the identity of a woman when she is seen by the world to be subordinate to a man (her husband), but also about growing old, psychoanalysis, the role of women and Spain and how it has evolved since the Spanish Civil War. It is mainly told in the form of a substantially one way conversation between the protagonist, Elena, and her psychiatrist, for whom she has a host of nicknames, from Papa Freud to Stone Face (he barely speaks and barely reacts to her comments). A feminist work, yes, very much so, but also a work about identity and who we are.

Volker Braun: Das unbesetzte Gebiet [The Unoccupied Area]


The latest addition to my website is Volker Braun‘s Das unbesetzte Gebiet [The Unoccupied Area]. It tells the story of an area of Saxony called Schwarzenberg during a six week period at the end of World War II. The German army surrendered on 8 May 1945 and Schwarzenberg awaited the imminent arrival of American or Soviet forces. Neither arrived. For six weeks, they were independent and created a sort of socialist republic which Braun clearly saw as a model, albeit an unrealisable model, for the future. The Soviets took over on 26 June 1945, ending the dream. Braun tells the story as an eyewitness account but then, in the second part of the book, adds little odd snippets – from history, from that period but also from the present day which, in some cases, are directly relevant and in others clearly not. It is certainly an interesting novel and not the first novel on the topic from Germany. Sadly , it is not available in English.

Sasha Sokolov: Школа для дураков (A School for Fools)


The latest addition to my website is Sasha Sokolov‘s Школа для дураков (A School for Fools). Sokolov did not even try to publish this novel in the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s and it was first published in Russian in the United States. It is easy to see why the Soviet Union would not allow him to publish. It is a very modernist work, more in the style of Joyce and Faulkner than that of any Soviet author. It is narrated by a young man who has psychological troubles and who is looking back two years to the time when he was in a special school. There is no linear plot but, rather, a mosaic of impressions of his life, his trouble with authority (his parents and teachers), his love of nature and his search for identity, which he often discusses with an alter ego. It is a very poetical work, whose reputation has continued in Russia and the West. Though currently out of print in English, Overlook Press will be publishing a new edition in June 2013.

Emyr Humphreys: A Toy Epic


The latest addition to my website is Emyr HumphreysA Toy Epic. It is a relatively short novel that tells the story of three boys in 1930s Wales who know one another but who come from different backgrounds. It is told through the thoughts and points of view of each of the boys as they struggle with their own particular issues, often filtered through the influence of their background and upbringing. One is from a working class family, who lives in a council house and whose father is a bus driver; one is the son of a vicar and the third is the son of farmer, from a very religious family. They end up at the same school, where all three obtained scholarships, and have mixed success at school and with the issues they face – sex, education and prospective career, parents, religion and politics. As usual with Humphreys, it is told in a somewhat poetical style and, though short, works well.

François Mauriac: Le Désert de l’amour (The Desert of Love)


The latest addition to my website is François Mauriac‘s Le Désert de l’amour (The Desert of Love). While it does have Mauriac’s trademark doom and gloom, it also has a (very slight) glimmer of hope at the end. However, before we get to the end, we learn of the desert of love in the life of Paul, a doctor, and his son Raymond. Paul is unhappy in his marriage (through no fault of his wife) and does not get on with his son, daughter and son-in-law, though does make an occasional effort to do so. He has fallen in love with Maria Cross, a widow whose young son has recently died. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Raymond, in his mid-thirties, had met this woman seventeen years previously and that she had done something to him that caused him great bitterness. He now sees her again, thinking about revenge. The novel is, to a great extent, about what happened.

Brits not emotional

Bridget not emotional?
Bridget not emotional?

A recent study has concluded that US writers are more emotional than British ones, at least since around 1960 (they were about the same before). This is not a major surprise, except, perhaps, to Bridget Jones. However, what the study does not mention is what books they used, apart from the fact that they were fiction. Were they thrillers? Literary fiction? Children’s? Romance? Stephen King? J K Rowling? Stephenie Meyer? Hilary Mantel? Inevitably a US publication used the term stiff upper lip in its article on the topic. What is also not surprising is that US authors used a lot more words like independent, individual, unique, self, solitary and personal and far fewer using words like communal, team, collective, village, group and union. While this may be a terrible trait in a nation, as it means that the nation is essentially selfish (cf issues around gun control, health insurance, etc.), it does tend to produce better art, as the weird individual is generally going to be a better artist than the community-minded one. In passing, I would just mention that there is no doubt in my mind that, as a whole, the US has produced the best novels of the twentieth century.

Hilary Mantel - more cerebral?
Hilary Mantel – more cerebral?

British writing or, at least, English writing (did the study pay much attention to Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish writing?) has been certainly more devoid of passion and individualism. We did not need a study to tell us that. Writers like Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan and Graham Swift are noted more for producing cerebral writing and less for wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Even if they do describe emotions, as Mantel clearly does, they themselves do not show it, the way many US writers do. However, without knowing what books were used and the criteria for selecting those books, I think that we can say that the general conclusions of the study may well be valid and interesting, but we cannot deduce too much from it.

Luigi Malerba: Il protagonista [The Protagonist]


The latest addition to my website is Luigi Malerba‘s Il protagonista [The Protagonist]. This is a novel narrated by a penis. It is not the first novel featuring a penis by a major twentieth century Italian novelist. Alberto Moravia wrote a novel called Io e Lui, published in the US as Two: A Phallic Novel and in the UK as The Two of Us. However, this one is narrated by the penis, owned by a man known only as The Boss, who lives in a third floor flat in Rome by the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. The Boss tries his luck with women, using his radio ham hobby as a way of meeting them. Meanwhile, the penis is dissatisfied at being kept hidden away all the time and not being allowed to, as he calls it, go into the garden. It is certainly an amusing novel, with Malerba’s usual quirkiness, and confirms what most women knew, that men are controlled by their penis and use it to think with.

António Lobo Antunes: Que farei quando tudo arde? (What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?)


The latest addition to my website is António Lobo AntunesQue farei quando tudo arde? (What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire?). Like Antunes’ other works, this one is not easy. Antunes writes from the point of view of various narrators, who speak in half sentences, stream of consciousness and repetition. The story is primarily told by Paulo Antunes Lima, the son of a teacher, Judite, and a drag queen, Carlos, who gave him to another couple, who had lost their daughter through illness. Much of the story tells of the drag queen and junkie world of Lisbon, to which Carlos and Paulo belong as well of Paulo’s understandable issues with both his biological and foster parents. No-one in this story can be said to be happy but it does give a fine portrait of a fragmented, grim world, a view Antunes has of the country as a whole.

Emyr Humphreys: A Man’s Estate


The latest addition to my website is Emyr Humphreys‘s A Man’s Estate. It tells the story of a small village (and one man who has left the village when a baby) and how the activities of all of them affect all the others. Philip Elis was given up at birth by his mother to his aunt (and late father’s mistress), as his mother was so bitter about her late husband’s behaviour (mistresses, illegitimate child) that she wanted nothing to do with her newly born son. However, the farm on which his mother lives with her second husband and daughter from her first marriage is, technically, Philip’s. He needs the money so he is off to Wales to meet his mother, daughter, and stepfather for the first time. However, most of the novel concerns the inhabitants of the village and the many issues they seem to face and have faced, leading to a general crisis. It is certainly a gloomy novel, full of guilt, revenge and bitterness, but very well told.