Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Picture this

Pictures, you asked. Pictures you'll get. Well, actually only a few of you suggested that I might add pictures to my posts to attract people who are too lazy to read. Personally I don't think a blog on reading should try to attract people too lazy to read - but I thought I might as well offer the eager reader something besides words, words, words, as Hamlet so memorably mumbled.

To tell the truth, I've been toying with the idea of adding pictures for quite a while. We live in a visual age, after all, no use denying that. Even really serious novelists like WG Sebald had made use of photographs in their work during recent years. Not that I'm aiming for a really serious blog. The idea has always been to have fun producing it - and if I can provide a bit of enjoyment to those reading it, so much the better.

Still, I couldn't see the point of simply using publicity pictures of book covers or authors with my posts. Nor did I want to exhibit myself on my blog; that's why my official profile picture shows only one eye and a few fingers, the rest of me is comfortably hidden behind a book. But then this very same profile photo got me wondering. I asked myself how many ways one could possibly find of hiding behind books. And I started experimenting...

So today I offer you a non-view of myself (you'll have to trust me on this) behind a few of the books I've praised during the past year. A picture truly paints a thousand words, I realise once again. I also added pictures of me hiding behind other books to some of my older posts. Do have a look and let me know what you think. I'm beginning to suspect this could turn into quite an enjoyable past-time - not Hide and Seek, but Hide and Read.

I even used a picture of a young family member (or at least the arms and tongue of a young family member) with a post, The president, the professor and the police officer, from August this year, because the colour of her T-shirt and tongue went rather well with the splash of bright pink on the cover of Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty. I might use family and friends in future too, but rest assured, they'll always be anonymous behind a book. (Or next to a book or under a book or whatever.) This is still a blog about the joys of reading, not about the joys of family and friends.

Mostly, though, it will be me you'll see (or not see, preferably) with a book. If nothing else, it could at least prove that I've physically handled the book I claim to have read. Just in case you had any doubts.

Meanwhile, happy reading.

Monday, November 16, 2009

This literary life

Last week my adopted country honoured one of the great living writers of my country of birth - and not a moment too soon.

Karel Schoeman's Afrikaans novel, Hierdie lewe, was published quite a long time ago in South Africa (1993 to be exact), where it won the Hertzog Prize, the biggest cherry on the local literary cake. Although many of the author's other novels have also received important awards in South Africa, his works are not widely translated and he is not nearly as well-known internationally as his literary compatriots JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, André P Brink and nowadays even Deon Meyer. Hierdie lewe had to wait nearly two decades before it finally found a French publisher, the relatively unknown Phébus, which published Pierre-Marie Finkelstein's translation earlier this year under the title Cette Vie.

Et voilà! Within a few months the Afrikaans novel wins France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger (PMLE) 2009 - which can be directly translated as Prize for the Best Foreign Book- a highly respected literary prize with a proud 61-year history. You simply have to look at the list of previous prize-winners to realise that this is la cour des grands, as the French say, 'the playground of the big kids'.

From Nobel laureates like Gabriel García Márquez and, more recently, Orhan Pamuk (who was crowned in 2002, before he won the Nobel Prize) to many notable names from the Anglo-Saxon literary universe like Salman Rushdie, John Updike, John Fowles, Peter Carey, Philip Roth, Graham Swift and Anthony Burgess - they have all received the PMLE during the past few decades.

The list is also a fascinating mix of 'serious' and more 'popular' authors, with recent laureates like the American Nicole Krauss for The History of Love and the Spanish Carlos Ruiz Zafón for The Shadow of the Wind. And the crowned novels are translated from an impressive variety of languages. Of course the 'big' languages like German (Günter Grass and others), Spanish (Mario Vargas Llosa and others), Russian (Vassili Grossman and others) and Japanese (Yasunari Kawabata and others) are well represented, but it is a pleasant surprise to spot so many 'smaller' languages on the list: Estonian (Jaan Kross), Lituanian (Youozas Baltouchis), Polish (Bruno Shulz), Hungarian (Péter Nádas), Swedish (Per Olof Enquist)... And now, for the first time, also Afrikaans.

Hierdie lewe (This Life) presents us with an old woman on her deathbed, recalling her long and lonely life in an isolated farming community in the Roggeveld towards the end of the nineteenth century. Since this is supposed to be a personal blog, I might as well confess that it is not my personal favourite among Schoeman's books - perhaps because I read it too soon after the Australian Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm, another novel dealing with an old woman on her deathbed, which really knocked me out.

I know, I know, 'comparisons are odious', as John Donne stated, and White's magnificent novel convinced even the judges of the the Nobel Prize to crown him in 1973, but there you are. I've always preferred Schoeman's earlier 'n Ander land (Another Country), which also earned him the Hertzog Prize a decade before Hierdie lewe, and once again gives us a dying protagonist at the end of the nineteenth century. This time it is an ailing Dutchman who comes to the dry climate of the Orange Free State for health reasons. His alienation and slow acceptance of death are brilliantly depicted, and the landscape of the Free State (where Schoeman was born) is beautifully drawn.

I have to admit, though, that I find most of Schoeman's novels brilliant but too 'bloodless' for my taste, too dry and too cold for someone like me who's always searching for Roy Campbell's famous bloody horse when reading fiction. From the poem On Some South African Novelists:

You praise the firm restraint with which they write -
I'm with you there, of course:
They use the snaffle and the curb all right,
But where's the bloody horse?

Still, I feel unexpectedly proud that Hierdie lewe is not only the first Afrikaans novel to win the PMLE, but in fact the first South African novel on the long list. The South African Nobel laureates JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, who both write in English, have never featured among the winners. Not that I prefer Schoeman to Coetzee; in fact, Coetzee's later novels please me precisely because I'm beginning to see at least the skeleton of the bloody horse. But I do think it worth mentioning that Coetzee, in spite of his far wider international renown, has not yet conquered the jury of the PMLE.

So, yes, I am grateful that a novel in my mother tongue has finally joined this illustrious list of foreign works honoured by the finicky French. Schoeman had to wait sixteen years for the honour - but in the literary world, as in life, it is always better to arrive late than not to show up at all. Dankie, Karel Schoeman.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Out of the writer's vault

No, I haven't disappeared in cyberspace. I just went MIA (Missing In Action), busy, busy, busy writing my own book instead of writing about other people's books.

Not that I stopped reading while writing – I only stop reading to breathe and sleep – I simply took a short break from writing about reading.

Now I’m BIA (Back in Action), trying to recall the reading delights of the past few weeks. The novel that stands out in my memory, is Anne Michaels’s latest, The Winter Vault. Like many other readers, I was absolutely enchanted by her previous novel, Fugitive Pieces. This 1997 Orange Prize winner - praised by the great John Berger as ‘the most important book I have read for forty years’- tells the story of a Greek geologist (Athos) and a small Polish boy (Jakob) whose lives are transformed by the Second World War. The writing was described as ‘incandescent’ and the language as ‘electric with life’.

A hard act to follow, indeed. Besides, it is always a bit of a gamble to read a second book by an author whose first book you adored. Your expectations are so high that some form of disappointment is almost inevitable. So let me get this off my chest: The Winter Vault is an excellent book – but it didn’t thrill and exhiliarate me as Fugitive Pieces had.

Anne Michaels is a poetic, lyrical novelist, if ever there was one, a superb stylist whose language delights the ear, the eye and the heart on every page. I have to admit, though, that in this latest novel the dialogue sometimes sounded a little too stylised to me. The way her characters speak – all those lovely, long, often lyrical monologues – was simply not realistic enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief that I find vital to the enjoyment of fiction. I kept thinking, no, surely people don’t talk this way? Do they?

Still, the novel offers more than enough reading pleasure, with a narrative spanning three continents and many decades, as well as quite a few memorable characters who are all displaced, lost and searching in different ways. Michaels has a particular talent for illustrating how huge historical events shape small human lives. This time water, rather than war, causes most of the havoc. The displacement of people caused by the construction of gigantic dams, in Egypt and North America, is the thread running throughout this fictional tapestry.

If this sounds more like engineering or social history than story-telling, well, the author has evidently done an enormous amount of research, but she never loses touch with her characters, their emotions and their experiences. The Winter Vault stays a story - and therein lies its glory.

Pity about the dialogue, though.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer of music and poetry

This has truly been a summer of music and poetry - and not only because we commemorated the 40th anniversary of the famous Woodstock Festival.

Every summer I attend a few great music concerts - rock, jazz or classical - in the magnificent amphitheatres that the ancient Romans left behind in the south of France. This year I've been exceptionally fortunate in my choice and spent a couple of glorious hours in the company of Marianne Faithfull, David Byrne (of Talking Heads fame) and Leonard Cohen, among others. The problem is that all these musical excursions - together with the usual seasonal avalanche of social invitations and visitors from far and near - played havoc with my reading habits. Which is where the poetry came in.

Whenever I struggle to find time for the hefty literary novels I adore, I turn to poetry. Short and sweet. Sometimes short and bitter. Sometimes not so short at all, but still manageable if you have only half an hour's reading time while waiting in the queue for David Byrne's show. I don't know much about poetry. I just know that I love certain poems, whether I 'understand' them or not. It's a little like human relationships, I guess. Often we can't explain rationally why we love the people we love.

Suffice to say I see myself as one of those 'some people' in Wislawa Szymborska's poem Some people like poetry - which happens to be one of my favourite poems. It starts like this:

Some people -
that means not everyone.
Not even most of them, only a few.
Not counting school, where you have to,
and poets themselves,
you might end up with something like two per thousand.

Read the rest, if you don't know it yet, in Szymborska's Poems New and Collected 1957 - 1997.

I reread the Polish Szymborska this summer, along with some evergreens like the Canadian Margaret Atwood and the South African Antjie Krog. I also read some fresh young Afrikaans voices, like Carina Stander (Die vloedbos sal weer vlieg), Loftus Marais (Staan in die algemeen nader aan vensters) and Danie Marais, not related to Loftus (Al is die maan 'n misverstand). And I discovered some new poets, not new in the sense that they're young or unknown, but still marvellously new to me because I was not aware of them, although they might have been publishing for years, even decades. This is one of the advantages of not knowing much about poetry. You discover old-but-new poets all the time.

My latest discovery is Tony Hoagland, an American poet who was born in 1953, followed The Grateful Dead at some stage, and has been publishing since the eighties. Already in 2003 his collection What Narcissism Means to Me was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. So I suppose you can say he's been around.

I discovered Hoagland when another poet sent me one of Hoagland's poems - appropriately, I thought, since poets themselves seem to be the only people who really know the work of other poets - and it was such a fine example of the right poem at the right moment that I immediately fell under Hoagland's spell. I was on my way to one of this summer's musical delights, the Marianne Faithfull concert in Lyon, when the poem Are you experienced? popped up on my computer screen. It is a wonderful, nostalgic and funny description of a rock festival where 'Jimi Hendrix played Purple Haze on stage,/ scaling his guitar like a black cat/ up a high-voltage, psychedelic fence', and the poet was desperately searching for his car because 'I wanted to have something familiar/ to throw up next to'.

The haze I was in
was actually ultraviolet, the murky lavender
of the pills I had swallowed
several hundred years before,
pills that had answered so many of my questions,
they might as well have been guided tours
of miniature castles and museums,
microscopic Sistine Chapels
with room for everyone inside.

But now the poet found himself 'unable to recall the kind and colour of the car I owned', and unable to guess 'that one day this moment/ cleaned up and polished/ would itself become/ some kind of credential.'

Experience, indeed. Jimi Hendrix was one of the most brilliant victims of the excesses of the sixties. I read the poem a few hours before I watched Marianne Faithfull - surely one of the ultimate survivors of that wild decade. She's been everywhere, she's done everything, she's got the scars to prove it. Hoagland's words are a glorious post scriptum to that age of sex, drugs and rock and roll, a lament for the victims, an ode to the survivors.

Read the poem for yourself, read other poems by the same poet, read other poems by other poets. As for me, I'm going to continue reading poetry now that the days are getting shorter again. Who knows, it might even turn into a winter of music and poetry...

Monday, August 3, 2009

The president, the professor and the police officer

Once again I'm amazed at how real life can sometimes come crashing into the fiction one is reading.

I posted my first blog entry last year on the day that Barack Obama was elected President of the USA, because I realised that I was reading the perfect book at the perfect moment: The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers. And last week, as Obama had to deal with the first potentially damaging 'racial incident' of his presidency - after a prominent black professor from a New England university town had been arrested for burglary in his own home - I was reading a remarkable campus novel about black academics and their fancy homes in, yes, you guessed, a New England university town.

Zadie Smith's On Beauty , winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, would have been a joy to discover under any circumstances, but the media blitz following the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates - by a white police officer who mistook him for a burglar - added some authentic seasoning to a tasty dish of make-believe and satire.

Smith, in case you've forgotten, was seen as something of a literary Wunderkind after the success of her debut novel, White Teeth, while she was still in her early twenties. Her next book, The Autograph Man, proved that she was not simply a shooting star, and On Beauty, written before she turned thirty, confirmed that she was indeed 'the author setting the bar for her generation', as The Scotsman claimed. She was praised even more profusely in The New Statesman: 'Smith can outwrite all but a few of her contemporaries, and everyone her own age.'

After reading this wise and witty and sexy and stylish campus novel, I can only agree. Smith is an astonishingly accomplished author - not only for her age, but for any age - and On Beauty is a story with emotional substance and intellectual depth, which also happens to be very, very funny. Her characters are completely convincing three-dimensional people of various ages, races and social classes; her dialogue is always pitched perfectly, whoever is speaking; and the plot, full of unexpected twists and delightful turns, provides pure narrative pleasure.

So if you're still looking for a book to carry you through these long lazy days of summer (or long dark winter nights, if you're living on the other half of the planet), hurry up and read this one. And while you're enjoying the humorous depiction of black intellectuals and art critisism and campus politics and family relations and marital infidelity - and much, much more - do spare a thought for the real-life black intellectual who was recently invited, by the first black president of his country, to share a beer with the white police sergeant who'd arrested him.

One more proof that life outdoes even the best satirical fiction, time and again.

Monday, June 29, 2009

In praise of prizes

You might remember that in January I published a post (Local stays lekker), confessing that two of my favourite books of last year happened to be South African, nothing to do with patriotism, just pure reading pleasure. So I was thrilled earlier this month when Anne Landsman and Michiel Heyns won two of the top literary awards in the country, the M Net Prize and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, for The Rowing Lesson and Bodies Politic respectively.

Congratulations to two novelists who really deserve recognition - quite apart from the fact that I count them among my own favourites.

As all readers know, literary awards can be a frustrating business. Sometimes you hate the book being crowned, sometimes you can't understand why a wonderful book has been overlooked. Awards are the fruit of so much more than literary merit, depending on the personal tastes and moods of the judges, on politics and publishers' promotion, on timeliness and luck and sometimes even on the looks or age of the writer.

Which is why the French Prix de l'Inapercu, also recently awarded, is such a great idea. It could be translated as Prize of the Unnoticed - and it does exactly that. It notices the unnoticed, awards a deserving book that somehow got lost among the stacks of books published each year, suffering the sad fate of being ignored by critics as well as buyers. This year the winner is Dominique Conil's En espérant la guerre (Hoping for War), published by Actes Sud, which now gets a second chance to be seen in book shops, talked about on radio, reviewed by magazines - and, of course, discovered by readers.

I wonder if other countries have similar second-chance awards? Any means of informing discerning readers of good writers they might otherwise never discover, gets an enthusiastic shout of approval from me. As it is, I live in dread that somewhere out there is a really GREAT contemporary author whom I might not get to know before I die. You know what I mean?

Until about two years ago, for instance, I'd never come across the name - let alone read the all too rare novels - of Marilynne Robinson, who recently won the prestigeous British Orange Prize. My ignorance might be excused by the fact that this American author published only two novels in a quarter of a century - Housekeeping in 1980 and Gilead in 2004, the first nominated for and the second winning the Pulitzer Prize - not what you would call a prolific output. Fortunately for all her fans she seems to be entering a more productive phase. Home, the novel awarded the Orange Prize, was published a mere four years after Gilead.

I haven't read Home yet, but Housekeeping was such a delightful (albeit belated) discovery that I can't wait to renew the acquaintance. When it comes to really good writing, it is always a case of rather late than never. Or as we say in Afrikaans: Agteros kom ook in die kraal. Even a lagging ox eventually gets to the kraal of literary joy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Blessed by books

Now that the year is nearing its halfway mark, I can confidently claim that 2009 is going to be a
grand cru. I'm talking books, not wines, in case you're confused.

Because readers, like wine tasters, know that the harvest differs from year to year, in quality and in quantity. Often I read for weeks, sometimes even months, without coming across a really great book. Oh, I find pleasure, of course, I always find pleasure in reading, but I yearn for something more. I want a book that grips me and shakes me, a book that thrills me and fills me with awe and admiration.

And then there are years, like this blessed one, when each month is illuminated by a brilliant book. The kind of book that stands out from the crowd, or jumps off the shelf, for the rest of the year. Maybe even for many years to come.

The thrill started in January, when I finally tackled Don DeLillo's Falling Man which I'd been threatening to read ever since its publication in 2007. It is the most magnificent writing about 'Nine Eleven' and the attacks on the Twin Towers that I've ever encountered, and it convinced me (as if I needed any convincing) that DeLillo is an awesome author. I wanted to fall down at his feet and worship him after some pages, for what he does with language and style and human relationships. I know this sounds over the top, but we all have our weaknesses, and DeLillo is one of mine.

Then, in February, I was blessed by another beautiful book: Anne Enright's The Gathering, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2007, a lyrical novel about a family gathering. The nine surviving siblings of the Hegarty clan get together in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother Liam... Dark and delightful from the first to the last page.

So far so good, I said to myself, like a falling man (with apologies to DeLillo) who still has a long way to go before he hits the ground, but surely this good luck can't last. Well, it did last, into March, when I read Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, another outstanding novel published in 2007. (Talking of grand crus, what a grand year 2007 was for readers.) On Chesil Beach is a devastating study of a single young couple on a single night in the summer of 1962; 'a short, sharp shock of a story', as it was called in The Observer, proving once again that power has nothing to do with size or length.

And still my luck didn't run out. In April, while on vacation in South Africa, I read Toni Morrison's latest masterpiece, A Mercy, which I praised in my previous posting (Of mothers and race). And in May I read another novel I probably should have read three years ago. Kiran Desai's exquisitely titled The Inheritance of Loss won the Man Booker Prize in 2006, which makes it the 'oldest' of the five memorable novels I've encountered in the first five months of 2009. One of those marvellous stories about India that I just can't resist, as I confessed in another earlier posting (Hate and hurt in Mumbai, November 2008), it deals with an uprising in the Himalayas region in 1986, and demonstrates in a quite unforgettable way how big political dramas can affect the small personal lives of ordinary people.

So far so good, I say again, still falling. I can't wait to see what the rest of the literary year holds in store for me.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Of mothers and race

Speaking of movies (as I did in my previous post), a few nights ago I saw the 1958 version of Imitation of Life, Douglas Sirk's magnificent final film, a classic tearjerker with a potent political message. They just don't do melodrama like that anymore, do they? The only contemporary director who might get away with such a sweeping and sentimental story about mothers and daughters, such strong actresses and such extravagant use of colour, is maybe Spain's Pedro Almadovar. After all, he already gave us Volver and All About My Mother.

I can't remember when last I cried so copiously during the last scene of a movie - maybe Love Story which I watched at the age of twelve with a gaggle of pre-adolescent girls all sobbing on each other's shoulder - but I defy anyone not to shed at least a single silent tear when Mahalia Jackson's powerful gospel voice rises up during the funeral service of the long-suffering black 'maid', Annie. What distinguishes the film, though, is how topical the central themes of motherhood and race - and power politics in personal relationships - still seem, more than half a century after it was made.

Just hours before I watched Imitation of Life, I'd finished reading Toni Morrison's latest novel, A Mercy, which deals with - yes, of course - motherhood and race. And power politics in personal relationships. As all Morrison's readers know, these themes are threaded through all her books, especially the beloved Beloved. It's nearly impossible not to draw a comparison between A Mercy and Beloved, since both novels tell a story of slavery, and more specifically of a black slave mother sacrificing a much-loved daughter. And although A Mercy is not as illuminatingly brilliant as Beloved, it is still a very, very good book. Remember, three years ago Beloved was declared the best American work of fiction of the past quarter century by an impressive panel of critics, writers, editors and literary figures - so most other novels would probably pale into insignificance when placed beside it.

By the way, my personal favourite for the above-mentioned title was not Beloved (1987), even though I dearly love it, but the runner-up: Don DeLillo's breathtaking Underworld (1997). The other runners-up on the list published by The New York Times, were Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (1985), and the four Rabbit novels by John Updike, published between 1960 and 1995. (For more on Updike, see From Updike to Queneau, which I wrote shortly after his death a while ago.)

Anyway, the day after I'd finished A Mercy and watched Imitation of Life, synchronicity struck again. I was woken by Toni Morrison's rich and dark voice on the radio next to my bed, speaking on the current affairs programme that I listen to every morning. She was in France to promote the French translation of A Mercy - and what a treat it was to hear such fierce intelligence and eloquence so early in the morning!

Wouldn't it be lovely, I thought dreamily while brushing my teeth, if one could start every day like this, listening to a thought-provoking Nobel Prize-winning author's views on love and life, rather than the usual bland statements by Nicolas Sarkozy's band of sycophantic politicians? Wouldn't it be lovely, indeed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Don't judge a book...

I don't know who coined the phrase 'Don't judge a book by its movie', but I think it's brilliant. Like most literature lovers, I'm often disappointed by screen adaptations of good books. Sometimes I'm even outraged. But every once in a while I can be surprised.

It happened again last week with The Reader, the Oscar-winning film of Bernhard Schlink's epynomous novel about post-war Germany. I watched it on a BA flight between Cape Town and London, and although an aeroplane is never the perfect place to watch any kind of movie, I thought this one at least as good, if not actually better, than the book. I shouldn't have been so surprised. I realised afterwards that the director was Stephen Daldry, responsible for the wonderful screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, one of the rare literary movies of the last couple of years which managed to please the original fans of the book nearly as much as the new fans of the movie.

The Reader, like The Hours, is a book about reading and the power of literature to change lives. Few directors, in this age of action-packed thrillers, have the courage to tackle such a 'static' subject - or the talent to turn it into a commercially successful and critically acclaimed movie. What's more, Stephen Daldry seems to have a way with actresses, like the great George Cukor of The Women fame. He led Nicole Kidman to an Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and then he did it again with Kate Winslet as the former concentration camp guard Hanna in The Reader. Part of the achievement of The Reader (the film), is that the script stays so true to the book. This is not always possible or even advisable in screen adaptations - but here it works just fine. In fact, the only bit of the film that seems irritatingly sentimental is the ending - which was not in the book, as I verified as soon as my flight landed, in a bookshop at Heathrow Airport.

I really liked both films, but if I have to choose between the two books, I won't hesitate a moment. I adored The Hours - the style, the story, the language, everything - whereas I appreciated The Reader as a marvellous story with a strong moral message, but I wasn't knocked over by the literary style or the language. Perhaps this is because I read the English translation, not the original German text. After all, we never know how much gets lost in translation if we don't have access to the primary language, do we? The Reader, I thought, was a novel written by a clever jurist with a philosophical bent. Whereas The Hours was a novel written by a born and bred novelist for born and bred novel fanatics like myself.

If you don't agree with me, do let me know. I'd also love to hear what your own all-time favourite screen adaptation of a beloved book is. My shortlist includes two magnificent movies of the Italian director Visconti: Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Giuseppe de Lampedusa's The Leopard. As well as two by Stanley Kubrick: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. Some directors are apparently born to turn great books into great films. Most, however, should rather leave well alone.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Words, words, words

A while ago I confessed in my blog that I prefer not to meet writers whose work I enjoy (Close encounters of the literary kind) - but today I have to add that it can be quite a pleasant experience when it happens the other way round. I recently met a charming American expatriate living in a neighbouring village - and then read her equally charming book, Words in a French Life (Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France).

Kristin Espinasse, who describes herself as 'a former desert rat from Phoenix', fell in love with the French language and with a Frenchman (in that order) and now has French children who correct her grammatical errors when she speaks 'their' language. (That's when they're not splitting their sides at the way she mispronounces some words.)

Of course I can identify with all of this - except for the desert rat bit - because my own children cannot, for the life of them, understand my daily struggle with the gender of French nouns. They know intuitively that 'question' is feminine (la question) and 'problem' masculine (le problème). So what is their mother's problem (masculine) with this gender business? That is the question (feminine).

But even readers without French partners, children or family-in-law would appreciate Espinasse's short and humorous 'lessons' in French living - each time built around a specific word. The book tackles these rather random but always useful words alphabetically. For instance, under d you would find words like déguster, dent and douche (savour, tooth and shower), clarified by three separate anecdotes about wine tasting, the tooth fairy and a catastrophic bathroom experience in a French hotel. Each chapter starts with a word (like goût), provides its English meaning and pronounciation (goo - noun, masculine - taste), tells a little story, and concludes with everyday or idiomatic expressions (such as prendre goût a quelque chose = to take a liking to something).

Great stuff, whether you want to polish your own French, learn a few basic words - or have no desire to speak French but simply enjoy reading about life in the slow lane of the French countryside. As many people apparently do, because this book is the result of an astonishingly successful blog,, that Espinasse has been keeping for seven years. Consistently, at least three times a week, with the kind of enthusiam and self-discipline that more occasional bloggers like myself can only admire, never copy. She started it as a little newsletter about the trials and tribulations of settling in a foreign country and struggling with a foreign language - soon attracting thousands of dedicated followers - and eventually published some of these anecdotes in book form herself. Her popularity just kept growing, until finally she was approached by American publishers Simon & Schuster, which led to the publication of Words in a French Life, in 2007.

She must be an example to millions of bloggers. has by now become much more than a hobby, rather an almost full-time occupation, a way of earning a living while working from home, and at the same time keeping in contact with Francophiles all over the world.

And, maybe most surprising of all, she's as entertaining and modest in real life as on the pages of her book, as I can testify after having enjoyed coffee with her twice. And that really impresses me.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One man's perversity...

Sometimes writing a blog feels a little like undressing in front of a one-way window. You don't know who's watching, so you have to pretend you're alone, otherwise you become all embarrassed.

That's why it's always great when readers react. Thanks to everyone who has been sending comments, suggesting must-read authors or books, or providing links to other sites. Sometimes friends or acquaintances prefer to send emails to my personal address, often in Afrikaans or French, rather than 'public statements' to this site. Fine with me, as long as we can keep talking, in whatever language, about books and bookish things.

Earlier this week, for instance, Karin from Stellenbosch sent a link to a New York Times piece about Jonathan Littell's novel, The Kindly Ones, finally on sale in English. Some of you might remember that in November last year I wrote about Littell and other authors who achieve literary glory in a second or even third language (Choosing the other tongue), and concluded that I'd rather wait for the English translation of Les Bienveillantes. Well, I still haven't read the translation (it has nearly a thousand pages, have mercy), but I did read what the New York Times had to say about the book:

Since the link is available for only a few days, I'll sum it up for you. The narrator of this 'divisive French novel' (according to the caption) is 'a remorseless former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage and most likely kills his mother and stepfather.' While some American and British critics are hailing the book as a masterpiece and its author as a genius, others are calling it perverse, pretensious, odious, disgusting and vile.

What fascinates me, is that I can't recall any French reviews - or any of my French friends who read the novel - going on about incest or sodomy-by-sausage or any other juicy bits of perversity. Surely there must have been differences of opinion over here too, but the mainstream reviews that I read were mostly ravingly positive. The book was also awarded France's most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, and as far as I know the jury of this prize is regarded as rather conservative.

Or is this just conservative by French standards?

I do remember my friend Pierre-Luc saying that it was hard to read the details of some of the atrocities commited by the SS, and that the narrator was not exactly a charming character, but I thought that was the whole point of the book. The former SS officer is, after all, unrepentant. Just a few nights ago I happened to watch a television documentary about the horrendous massacre of most of the inhabitants of an Italian village during the Second World War - and all the Nazi officers and soldiers involved, except one, refused to admit any guilt or remorse. They had simply been doing their duty, according to them. Just like Littell's fictional officer, I suppose.

Besides, many literary masterpieces have been called vile, disgusting, perverse and worse when they were first published. I don't yet know if I would find The Kindly Ones a masterpiece, but I do know that I am more curious than ever to read it. Meanwhile I'm wondering if French readers and reviewers are simply less easily shocked than those in England or the United States. Or perhaps one has become so used to 'perversity' in French literature that one doesn't notice it any more? Or perhaps the French concept of 'perversity' differs quite dramatically from the Anglo-Saxon one?

Or maybe this has nothing to do with nationalities. It might be just another example in a long list of books that have proven that one man's perversity is almost always another man's pleasure. So please let me know if you've read it - in whatever language - and whether you found it delightful, disturbing or disgusting.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Close encounters of the literary kind

I don't like meeting writers whose work I admire. Novelists in flesh and blood are nearly never as exciting as their words on paper would lead one to believe. Which figures, I suppose. If you were enjoying a really exciting life, you would hardly have the time to write exciting novels, would you?

My experience of famous novelists - rather limited, granted - has also taught me that they are rarely as likeable as their books. Less amusing, less entertaining, less intelligent even. I know Milan Kundera (whom I haven't met) said a novel should always be more intelligent than the author who wrote it. But still, I can't help feeling a little pang of disappointment each time the person doesn't quite measure up to my high expectations.

So maybe it's a good thing that I live in an unsophisticated village in the French campagne, rather than in a cosmopolitan city like Paris, London or New York where famous authors pass through all the time to promote their books and meet their readers. Here I have far less opportunity for disappointment, I tell myself. And yet, every once in a while a really famous writer ventures to the countryside of Provence - not to enjoy a glamorous holiday among fields of lavender, but to actually work. Not to write, either, but to perform that most difficult of all writers' tasks, the promotion tour. (I'm not being ironic; as a small-time writer myself I know how emotionally and physically exhausting these tours can be. Most authors would prefer the solitary daily struggle with words to the frantic 'socialising' with journalists and sycophants.)

Recently it was Salman Rushdie's turn to visit my intellectual outpost. Well, no, he didn't visit my village. He's not that desperate to sell books. I still had to drive for nearly two hours to see him in Aix-en-Provence, where he was the guest of honour at an annual book festival - which happened to coincide with a promotion tour for the French translation of his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence. But he is one of the few living writers of whom I've read every single novel - some with enormous pleasure - except for his debut work, Grimus. I simply had to undertake that two-hour drive to meet the man behind the books.

Besides, meeting Rushdie will always have an almost mythical allure, due to the horrendous fatwa which forced him to live in hiding for so many years. He still seems to attract controversy, whatever he does, wherever he goes. When he received a knighthood from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II in 2007, a Pakistani government minister promptly declared that this knighthood justified the Islamic world's practise of suicide bombing.

My partner suggested that I take all my copies of Rushdie's novels along and request him to sign the whole lot. 'While you have the chance.' I was convinced he would refuse because it would take too much time - and even if he was kind enough to agree, his publisher or bookseller might be more bloody-minded. These people often insist that high-profile authors sign only their latest novel, or those bought at the event, to increase sales figures. Finally I stuffed about six novels in a bag - not enough to hold up a queue behind me for too long - and decided I would buy the latest novel at the book festival and, when asking him to sign it for me, casually mention that I've read all his others novels... and brought some of them along... right here in this bag under my arm... and would he mind...?

So there I was, travelling to Aix with mixed feelings, excited about the prospect of encountering such a controversial figure while mentally preparing myself for yet another disappointment.

It turned out to be a delightful day. It was fun watching a documentary film about Rushdie in the presence of Rushdie and his family, stimulating to hear him speak about his life and his work, fascinating to see his interaction with an enchanted French audience. He even spoke a little French to them. I also listened to the French translator of The Enchantress of Florence talking about the challenges of translating such a novel, and to a well-known French actor reading excerpts from the translation. I bumped - literally bumped - into Rushdie's young son and ex-wife in the cafeteria. Talk about close encounters.

But the highlight was when he signed my books. Yes, all of them. With a smile. Maybe he was just relieved to hear someone speaking English among all these French fans. But I was so ready for a refusal that I was rather flabbergasted when I met no resistance. Like shouldering open a supposedly stuck door and then landing on your face when it opens with the greatest of ease.

As a result I've had to adjust my harsh opinion of the aloofness of internationally famous writers. And since I'm living out here in the sticks, it will probably be quite a while before my next encounter with an author quite as famous as Salman Rushdie. So, for the time being, until the next disapointment, that is, I can say that I really don't mind meeting writers whose work I admire.

Friday, January 30, 2009

From Updike to Queneau - and back again?

It seemed appropriate to write something about John Updike this week, but while I was still planning the perfect angle, I was side-tracked by an email from my friend H who is also a reading writer - or a writing reader - like me. It was simply entitled Updike is dead and consisted of a single line, a link to the writer's obituary in the New York Times:

I read the tribute and was rather amused by the fact that judges of Britain's infamous Bad Sex in Fiction Prize had recently 'honoured' Updike for 'lifetime achievement'. Of course I knew that whatever I wrote about Updike would contain some reference to his sexual, well, not activity - unless one can call writing about sex a sexual activity? - but at least to the way he brought suburban sex to mainstream literature with a novel like Couples in the sixties. I read Couples more than a decade after it had first appeared, when I was finally old enough to appreciate it, and frankly, I found quite a lot to appreciate.

Thanks for the link, I replied to H's email. Wanted to scribble something about him in my blog. It's true that his sex scenes sometimes sounded ridiculous - as most sex scenes taken out of context? - but I have to admit that 'Couples' (especially the sex) made a huge impression on me in my youthful innocence.

I don't know him all that well, H replied, but his short stories are fantastic. His literary essays too. He wrote a beautiful essay, 'Getting the words out', drawing a link between his stuttering and his writing. My partner was also mad about 'Couples'. Have you read Colim Toibin's 'The Master' (about Henry James)? Definitely my book of the past 12 months. Now I also want to read Michiel Heyns and Lodge's books about him. I also read Perec's 'A Void' (originally 'La Disparition' in French). Normally intellectual pyrotechnics don't impress me - but fuck if you can combine intellect with a heart it makes for a great read. It's also extremely funny, a man who gets blown up (assassination) when he has sex with one of those huge sea lion-type things you get in Florida and Mocambique. But I don't think it's everyone's cup of tea.

Then of course I had to respond: It's fascinating to read all 3 those Henry James books in a short space of time. 'The Master' is probably the most 'literary', but do have a look at what Lodge does with exactly the same material. Exactly the same episode from the life of James! Michiel's book uses another angle and an imaginary typist, for me the most 'enjoyable' of the 3, or the most imaginative anyway, would love to hear what you think. And 'La Disparition' I've been wanting to read in French for yeeeears, but I just don't get there... You know how it goes. I remember a long time ago I read in Time Magazine what an enormous task the English translation was. It might be even more difficult in English than in French to write a phrase without an e. You can't even use 'the'??? In French at least you have 'le' AND 'la', so as long as you stick to feminine nouns, you're more or less OK. My partner is mad about Perec and his buddies who did all those wonderful style exercises...

Who are Perec's buddies and are they translated in English? my friend H wanted to know. I discovered him with a detour via Granta - the list of all the food he ate in one year - and then of course I read 'Life A User's Manual'. It's one of those books - like James Joyce's 'Ulysses' - which was supposed to be a total wank but turned out to be total magic for me. Right book at the right time???

So I asked my partner about Perec's buddies and promptly answered H: Raymond Queneau is the most well-known of the group, in France anyway. They called themselves Oulipo, acronym for Oeuvre Litteraire Potentiel or Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle or something like that. Queneau's 'Exercises in Style' must surely be translated in English. I quickly googled his name and found some interesting English entries, for instance on the site He wrote 99 short 'stories' about exactly the same incident (or non-incident), a guy on a bus who looks at another passenger and finds something wrong with the button on his jacket, if I remember correctly. My son had to read the book about 2 years ago as a set work in French high school, and he wasn't what I would call ecstatic about it, but I found it magnificent. The kind of thing any potential writer should try as finger exercises...

As you can see, by now H and I had quite an entertaining literary roadtrip going, meandering away from Updike, taking a shortcut through Henry James, detouring around Perec and Queneau, with no final destination in mind. This is part of the joy of reading, I realised once again. It is always seen as such a solitary act, but the moment you put two enthusiastic readers together, you can be sure there will be a joint voyage to some unknown destination. Which is why, instead of writing just another boring tribute to a dead writer, I decided I'd rather invite you along for the ride by sharing these emails with you.

Who knows, if we keep going, we might even get back to Updike?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Local stays lekker

My patriotism doesn't necessarily extend to my bookshelf. What I mean is that I don't feel morally bound to praise South African books just because I was born in South Africa. So when I say that three of the best books I read during the past year are by authors born in South Africa, please believe me, it is an ode to pleasure rather than an act of patriotism.

I am delighted to realise that local can still be so lekker. For those of you who don't understand lekker, it is the South African version of fabulous, genial, prima, wunderbar... All of these adjectives, in whatever language, apply to Anne Landsman's novel The Rowing Lesson. It is a thing of beauty from beginning to end.

A woman, pregnant with her first child, is summoned from her home in New York to her dying father's hospital bed in Cape Town. From these sad and simple facts Landsman constructs a tale that is anything but simple and, though sad, never sentimental. On the contrary, quite a few passages are laugh-aloud funny, a rare feat in any book.

Landsman's 'language of fire and passion', as Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee calls it, is spiced with Afrikaans, Hebrew and medical terms, producing a truly original new voice. The medical terminology makes perfect sense, not only because of the hospital setting, but also because the dying father has been a small-town doctor for decades. Harold Klein, once dedicated caregiver to a whole community, now needs to be taken care of as he lies in a coma, slowly slipping away from those who love him. The only way his daughter can still 'communicate' with him, is by meditating on his life - remembering, reliving, inventing it.

Thus the whole story becomes an act of imagination, brilliantly exposing the force and the fragility of a father-daughter relationship. It is also, perhaps above all, a book about memory - the many layers, the rich textures, the contradictions of memory.

Anne Landsman was a discovery to me, since I hadn't read anything else she'd written. Breyten Breytenbach, on the other hand, is a famous Afrikaans poet whose work I've been admiring for decades. His latest book, A Veil of Footsteps (Memoir of a Nomadic Fictional Character, as the subtitle has it), is neither poetry nor written in Afrikaans, but still a great read. Here too, as in Landsman's story, memory plays a pivotal role:

This should be kept in mind as I write Breyten Wordfool's black book of impressions. One must not let go of the memories; maggots and grubs are always needed to transform that which has been lived.

As always with Breytenbach, the borders between 'fact' and fiction, 'reality' and imagination, acting and dreaming, are deliberately and delightfully hazy. As nearly always, there is an undercurrent of anger - 'the sort of rage that produces great literature', according to The Washington Post Book World. And this time there are pictures too: simple black-and-white photographs used in much the same way as the melancholic German author WG Sebald had done in books like Austerlitz and The Emigrants. The photographs are supposed to confirm the 'reality' of what is written, but somehow they also convey a sense of alienation, an ambiguous process that seems particularly appropriate in such an undefinable literary work as this.

The third author in my trio of reading pleasure is Michiel Heyns, who only started publishing at retirement age, but is fortunately making up in productivity for all the years that we've been deprived of his talents. He has managed to publish no less than four books in six years, each in a different register, predictable only in its unpredictability, yet always retaining a stylish and ironic voice.

His latest offering, Bodies Politic, does in a way resemble its immediate predecessor, The Typewriter's Tale, in that it is also a historical novel fictionalising the lives of famous figures. In the previous book the famous figure was the English-American writer Henry James, seen through the eyes of his typist. This time we get to know Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, all of them passionate suffragettes and political activists, and the much lesser known younger brother, Harry, who died at the early age of 21.

It is only as I write this that I realise that once again I am describing a book dealing with a death bed, fragile family relationships, and memory - this time the often contradicting memories of three old women looking back at a young man's death many years earlier. What I love most about Bodies Politic, though, is its thoroughly convincing depiction of the personal price often paid for political victory.

Oh yes, and I also admire the fact that an author born and bred and still living in South Africa doesn't feel compelled to write only 'South African stories' - whatever that might be. Heyns spreads his literary wings to fly to other places, other people, other times. As a reader I am only too grateful to be able to fly along.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pinter of the pregnant pause

Just a short note to end the festive season's blog-fasting. In my previous entry I humbly confessed that I, like millions of other enthusiastic readers, don't know the work or even the names of many of the Nobel Prize for Literature laureates of the last century. Harold Pinter, who passed away on Christmas Eve, was one of those I did know and admire, for his political passion as much as for his powerful plays.

I saw some of these plays on stage or as screen adaptations, and as a drama student I actually read some of them too, which is more than many people can say about the work of well-known modern playwrights. In many of the tributes after his death, he was praised as 'one of the most influential' and imitated playwrights of his age'. After having seen plays like the brilliant Betrayal I can only agree. No one else could use the pregnant pause on stage in quite the same devastating way. In Pinter's work, what was not said always sounded more important than what was actually said.

Therefore the most apt -and witty - tribute I came across, was a letter published in the International Herald Tribune last week. A reader suggested that Harold Pinter's death should be commemorated by a minute of silence - followed by a pause.