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.


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?

Books I haven’t read Part 1

Not available outside Venezuela

One of the many joys of the Internet is the ability to find out about all the many books that you have not read and, in many cases, will never be able to read. Yesterday, for example, I was looking at a post on contemporary Venezuelan literature (the post is fortunately in both English and Spanish). Guillermo Parra, author of the post, makes a telling point – there’s a big problem: Venezuelan books can’t be found outside Venezuela. They don’t circulate neither in Latin America, nor here in the US. Nor, he might have added, in Europe. I am fairly ignorant of Venezuelan literature as, I imagine, are most people outside Venezuela. I do own fifteen Venezuelan novels, of which I have read only one, which is also available in English. It was, however, written over eighty years ago. As Iván Thays states in his blog (post in Spanish only), if there is a boom in the Venezuelan novel, it is only domestic and for the same reason mentioned above – Venezuelan books do not circulate much outside Venezuela. He concludes la literatura venezolana actual es una incógnita [Contemporary Venezuelan literature is an unknown]. I checked out some of the books mentioned in the post and they are not available on Amazon (including the still not very good Spanish Amazon), other on-line Spanish booksellers, the usual book search sites or anywhere else. I could probably track them down from a Venezuelan online bookseller but when I go to the a site of the publisher of most Venezuelan novels, it refers me to a chain of bookshops that do not seem to sell books online. Even if I did find a Venezuelan bookseller online, the shipping costs would be prohibitive. Anyone who has tried to order a Spanish book from Spain through ABE or other similar site will realise that cost of shipping one book from Spain to the UK is often approaching £20. I can’t imagine that a Venezuelan bookseller would charge much less. I have visited Venezuela once – to Isla Margarita on a Caribbean cruise, for one day, but I doubt that I will ever return, though who knows? The result is that , at least as far as my site is concerned, contemporary Venezuelan literature will remain more or less, as Iván Thays puts it, una incógnita.

Not great Venezuelan literature

Of course, for me, all is not lost. I do have quite a few Venezuelan novels already and will probably be able to eventually track down some others here and there. For people unable to read Spanish, there is a limited choice. The Reading Round the World bloggers have tracked down a few in English. Caribousmom has found, how can I put this delicately?, a work which is not great literature, by a Venezuelan living in Denver (see cover at right). Anne Morgan has gone with Alberto Barrera Tyszka’s Enfermedad, translated as Sickness. She also mentions a few others in her main list, though two of those (Suniaga and Torres) are not available in English translation (though there is a Suniaga available in German) and the only Federico Vegas in English is a book about architecture. Falke, which she mentions, is not available in English. Shoshana mentions only a book about Venezuela, not by a Venezuelan. Fred does identify another Venezuelan translated into English.

Not (to be) translated

I have banged on in this blog and on my site about books that have not been translated into English. Indeed, I have a page on this topic (scroll down), with a selection of books that are on my site which I feel should be translated into English. However, there are a host of books out there which have not been translated into any language that I can read. The page above links to some suggestions, such as Finnegan’s List , the PEN list and an interesting list of untranslated Japanese books. But there are many more. In my blog post on Montenegro, I mentioned the case of Borislav Pekić and his seven-volume Zlatno runo (Golden Fleece) which has been partially translated into French (though they seemed to have stopped) but not at all into English. In my post on Luis Goytisolo’s Antagonía (also not translated into English), I mentioned the case of Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary sequence, which has been partially translated into French and is now being translated into English. I love Marcie Gray’s Arablit blog but I know that there are many books that she mentions which I shall never be able to read. She published a list of the best 105 Arabic books of the 20th century. Sadly, all too many have not been translated. Lizok’s Bookshelf is essential reading on Russian literature but all too often she mentions an interesting Russian novel which I know that I will be unlikely to ever read. I used to keep a list of books I was hoping would be translated but it depressed me so much that I got rid of it. I could list books of many countries – most of the former Soviet republics, most of South-East Asia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Portugal – where there are all too many books that have not been translated and probably never will be. But let me focus on one nearer (my) home – Ireland.

Also not translated

The novel on the right – Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain is one of the best-known novels written in Irish. On the right, I say that it has not been translated, In fact, it has as Google books shows. However, it has not been published in English. It is a fascinating novel about a village where the dead go to some underground area and spend the time complaining about each other and their survivors, catching up on the gossip as each arrival turns up. No, I haven’t read it, though I own a copy and can read (a very little) Irish. However, I have seen the film, which is subtitled in English (and other languages) but this probably means that I am going to have make progress with my Irish studies if I am to succeed in reading the original. There are other Irish works not translated into English – Eoghan Ó Tuairisc‘s L”Attaque, Séamus Ó Grianna‘s Caisleáin Óir and Beairtle Ó Conaire’s Fonn na Fola, to mention only three. I could do the same for many other nationalities but it is too frustrating. The next post on this subject will be on books that I have not yet got round to reading.

Nobel and Man Booker prizes – 100% failure

Mo Yan

My predictions for the Man Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize were, as predicted, wrong. I said I always got them wrong and I did. I must admit that I have never read Mo Yan, though I do own a few of his books. I am sure that he is a worthy choice and his name had been floating around for some time. I am glad that Bring Up the Bodies won. I do believe that it was the best book of the six but I didn’t think that they would give it to her again so soon and for a sequel to her previous win. Congrats to Peter “bloggers are detrimental to literature” Stothard and his Committee for their choice. As my choice invariably fails, I am now going to predict next year’s winners, knowing full well that will not win. So I confidently predict that the Nobel Prize will go to the highly overrated Philip Roth and the Man Booker to the also highly overrated Will Self and therefore condemn them to the Not-Winners category for eternity. And very deservedly so, might I say.

Agony and Antagony

A book I haven’t read

Don’t you hate those cute titles for blog posts like the one I have just used? I certainly do. I read most blogs through my News Reader, which gives the title of the blog post. If it has a cutesy title like the one above I am inclined to ignore it. (I am also inclined to ignore it if it has no title, as is the case with Blog of a Bookslut but that is another story.) But i could not resist this one. About ten days ago, I was foolishly lifting some heavy stones for use in my garden and I strained something in my lower back. I say foolishly, as I have had back problems most of my adult life, so it was silly to take the chance. But I did. And now I am paying the price. As a result, I decided to relax a bit (yes, I now know that you shouldn’t relax but I did) and read a book.

Not available in English

And what better book to read than a 1100+ page Spanish novel that has not been translated into English (or any other language but Polish)? In my review of the book on my website, I have translated the Spanish Antagonía as Antagonism, the normal English word for this concept. However, the 1913 Webster had the word antagony, quoting Milton as a source, so I am justified, I feel, in using it here, even though it is not a word used anymore, as far as I am aware. My review gives my views on the book which I did enjoy, though found relatively hard going. There has been a lot about the big US novels – you will find plenty on my site- but there are plenty big European novels that don’t get the publicity, often because they are not available in English. Proust and Joyce, whom I mention in my review are, of course, well known but they are readily available in English. Georges Duhamel‘s Pasquier and Salavin novel sequences are available but are less well-known. Anton Tammsaare‘s Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice) series has been translated into French, German and Russian and (partially) into Dutch but not into English. In my post on Montenegro, I mentioned Borislav Pekić‘s His seven-volume Zlatno runo (Golden Fleece), part of which has been translated into French but none of it into English. Miklós Szentkuthy‘s Saint Orpheus’s Breviary sequence has been partially translated into French but the only first novel in the sequence has been translated into English. Miklos Bánffy‘s Transylvanian Trilogy has been translated into English – and an excellent trilogy it is – but is not too well known. These and others are sadly not well-known in the English-speaking world. To be fair, one or two big foreign novels have done well in the English-speaking world but not nearly enough.

A book I have read

As mentioned in the review, Antagonía is not an easy book to read, but then nor are many of the ones mentioned above, particularly the Joyce and Proust. However, I spent ten days reading Antagonía and got very much absorbed into it, the way I got absorbed into the Joyce, Proust, Murakami and Bolaño novels mentioned above and I think it is a pity that it has such a fine reputation in Spain but is unknown in the English-speaking world and is likely to remain so. As is the case with Pekić, Tammsaare and Szentkuthy (and many others I have not mentioned or am unaware of). I do not intend to lift many more heavy stones in order to read any other 1100 page novels. While this is certainly the longest novel I have read this year (though another one came fairly close), I am very glad to have read it and did enjoy getting into Goytisolo’s world. Meanwhile, my back is still sore but I am now going to exercise it somewhat, by walking rather than lifting, but hope to find time for some more long novels.

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.