Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Season's reading

Christmas reading is like summer reading. Well, in a large part of the Southern Hemisphere, of course, Christmas reading is summer reading.

But here in Europe, where we can't spend the Festive Season spread out on a beach with a great book, we still manage to steal a few more hours than usual, lying on a couch next to a cosy fire, reading something yummy. Which often turns out to be one of the heap of books we haven't read all year, saving them for the lazy days and long nights of our Christmas break.

This month, for instance, I finally got stuck in a nice thick novel I've been hearing about all year - New York Times best seller, Orange Prize for Fiction 2010 and, even better, praised by quite a few of my friends and fellow readers. I always find the small buzz created by word-of-mouth among like-minded book lovers so much more trustworthy than even the most raving literary review, don't you agree?

I think it was in May that my Johannesburg friend Elsabe first mentioned she was reading a wonderful novel set in Mexico, written by the author of The Poisonwood Bible, and dealing with real-life historical figures like Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera. A month or two later an American friend told me she was reading a marvellous story about the horror of the anti-Communist hysteria in the fifties in America. Then my friend Irma from England came to visit and, as always, brought some books along for me. Among them was this very same Mexican-American novel that I kept hearing about.

By now many of you will know I'm referring to Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna. I saved it for Christmas - and glory hallelujah, it is everything I want from a good Christmas read. Because Christmas reading, I believe, should be like Christmas food. Special, substantial but not too 'heavy', decadently enjoyable; in short, not your everyday fare. The Lacuna is special for many reasons: more than 600 pages, each of them finely crafted, telling a gripping tale set over two decades in two countries - 1930s to 1950s in Mexico and the USA - with a cast of unforgettable characters.

It is certainly not the least of Ms Kingsolver's many achievements that the fictional characters appear every bit as alive as the real-life figures. The protagonist's flighty mother and his sensible, demure secretary, Violet Brown, are the kind of people you remember long after you've met them between the pages of a book. And then there's the protagonist himself, Harrison Shepherd, a Mexican-American cook who later becomes a briefly famous author before mysteriously disappearing...

In case you haven't yet read the story, I won't spoil your pleasure by speculating about the end - but let me assure you, this is one of those that end not with a whimper, as is so often the case, but with a quite spectacular bang. Actually I'm quite envious of you if you're still planning to read it. You have a lot of pleasure to look forward to.

And now I'm returning to my next Christmas novel, which promises to be a glorious treat too: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, last year's winner of the Man Booker Prize, another lovely Big Fat Book.

I wish you all a happy Festive season and, above all, happy Festive reading!

Monday, November 29, 2010

All about Angola

In my South African youth, Angola was a fascinating, familiar, forbidden place, at once dangerously close and impossibly far.

A neighbouring country which I wasn't allowed to visit, at first because of the nebulous 'Border War' that South Africa was involved in during the seventies (when many of my white male contemporaries were secretly transported over there, whether they liked it or not, as army conscripts), and then because of the devastating civil war dragging on for three decades.

I was therefore delighted to meet Angolan author José Eduardo Agualusa a few years ago at an international writers' gathering - finally someone who could tell me about Angola from the inside - and even more delighted when I started reading his novels. The Book of Chameleons is thrillingly original with it reptilian narrator, winning the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2007 and drawing favourable comparisons with Kafka: 'Not since Gregor Samsa's metamorphosis have we had such a convincing non-human narrator,' was the conclusion of the Independent.

The next one I read, I liked even more. Creole is a historical novel about a Portuguese aristocrat and adventurer who travels through untamed Angola and colonial Brazil, meeting slaves and slave-owners and abolitionists and witch-doctors along the way, some of them 'real' and others fictional, all quite extraordinary. The most unforgettable character is the former slave-girl, Ana Olimpia Vaz de Caminha, believed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, with whom the Portuguese aristocrat falls hopelessly in love. This novel was awarded the Portuguese Grand Prize for Literature and the influential Spanish newspaper El Pais called it 'one of the most powerful and most beautiful arguments against a stereotyped vision of Africa'. High praise, indeed.

Earlier this year I met up with the author again in Lisbon - he now divides his time between Angola, Brazil and Portugal - and he was kind enough to give me his two latest novels published in English. Rainy Season, an autobiographical journalist's investigation into the disappearance of a fictional Angolan poet and historian in 1992, against the backdrop of thirty years of war, was originally published in 1996 and only translated last year by Agualusa's usual collaborator, Daniel Hahn. The Translator's Diary included at the end of the novel, consisting of a blog that Hahn kept while working on the translation, is a fascinating piece of reading in itself; enlightening to 'ordinary' readers and absolutely irresistible to anyone with an interest in translating.

After reading My Father's Wives, I told the author that this is my favourite - but I'd better add 'so far', since I seem to like each of his books a little more than the previous one. Once again it's the story of a journey, this time of a contemporary character, Laurentina, a young Portuguese woman travelling through Angola, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique, to try and find out more about a father she never knew. The father figure is a famous Angolan musician, Faustino Manso, who died leaving at least seven wives and eighteen children scattered across southern Africa, and during her journey Laurentina discovers many brothers and sisters and other family members. Or so she thinks...

There's a wonderful twist at the end that lifts the story above any accusation of macho swaggering - and some really impressive female characters. Agualusa is apparently that rare thing: an African writer with a Latin-American connection who can create strong and believable female protagonists from book to book.

No wonder an impressive real-life African woman like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the young award-winning author of Half of a Yellow Sun, recently named him as one of her favourite writers. If you love Adichie's work but don't know Agualusa yet, do get hold of one of his books. Who knows, it might just be the start of another beautiful literary friendship.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

As he lay dying...

Novels about old white men dying - and reminiscing about their dreary lives - are usually not cheerful reading. But sometimes, just sometimes, such a novel can become a transcendental literary experience.

Ever since William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying (in which the dying/dead protagonist is a woman), this fictional road has been well travelled. Of course, not all writers who try to follow in Faulkner's footsteps have his talent, so when I come across one of these as-I-lay-dying stories that really grips me, I am always relieved and grateful. Recently I was fortunate enough to read two such novels in consequence. Bliss. Pure bliss.

I knew that Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and Tinkers by Paul Harding had both won the Pulitzer Prize (Robinson in 2005 and Harding this year), but this scrap of literary knowledge didn't prepare me for the impact of the two books. Both deal with death and dying, with sin and mercy and forgiving and other moral issues, and both are brilliantly written.

Harding's protagonist, George Washington Crosby, is a retired teacher who used to tinker with antique clocks, dying of cancer and kidney failure in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, surrounded by his family. Robinson's narrator, John Ames, is an old preacher with a failing heart in the Mid-West town of Gilead, who writes a letter to his young son, knowing he will never see the child grow into an adult. Neither George Crosby nor John Ames has led an exceptionally interesting or adventurous life - and yet their stories are spell-binding.

Of the two books, I preferred Gilead. Not that Tinkers isn't an absolutely worthy read; it's just that I found Gilead more moving - although for the life of me I can't understand why it touched me so deeply. It is a 'religious' novel, in many ways, and I am not a 'religious' person, in most ways. Nowadays I mostly want to run and hide when I hear the word 'religion' because it reminds me of Tea Party zealots in the USA and their Muslim counterparts in Pakistan or Iran or elsewhere. But in this book I encountered that rare breed, a profoundly moral character, who can give unreligious souls like me renewed respect for religion.

Robinson is not what you would call a prolific author. She waited more than twenty years after her highly acclaimed debut novel, Homecoming, before publishing this second one. Perhaps the long wait produced the amazing grace of Gilead, the calm reflection, the spiritual insight, the pure wisdom. Perhaps I should stop trying to explain my reaction to this extraordinary book and simply urge you to read it - and see for yourself.

Both Gilead and Tinkers are proof that old white men dying can still be unforgettable characters in great books. Glory hallelujah.

Friday, October 8, 2010

On radio, writers and wet hair

So here I sit with unbrushed teeth and wet hair dripping on my keyboard - probably permanently damaging my computer - and it's all the fault of writers on the radio.

I was innocently listening to France Inter this morning, as I do every morning while showering, dressing, having breakfast and mentally preparing for the day, when I was jolted into a state of catatonic bliss. The studio guest was so brilliant that I couldn't take the risk of missing a single phrase by opening the tap to brush my teeth or switching on the blowdryer for my hair. It was that old Italian wizard Umberto Eco talking - in fluent French with an occasional English word thrown in when he couldn't find the exact French phrase - about languages and literature and lists, translation and interpretation, 'real' books versus e-books, classic writers versus contemporary writers, and much much more. Eco, a professor of semiotics probably most widely known for his best-selling novel The Name of the Rose, recently published a non-fiction 'dialogue' with a French writer, Jean-Claude Carrière, under the delightful title of N'espérez pas vous débarrasser des livres ('Don't hope to get rid of books').

Don't ever hope to get rid of books - or of wise and witty writers, or of the humble radio. That was my fervent wish as I listened, transfixed, to Umberto Eco. Yes, he admires internet for opening up access to information (the Holocaust, he claims, wouldn't have been possible if there had been internet), but he also fears the false information that could be spread in this democratic way. He compares his relationship to internet with his relationship to his car. The fact that he owns and drives a car doesn't mean he can't complain about his car, does it?

But he is at his brilliant best when he talks about books and reading. He regards himself as 'a young writer' - at the age of nearly eighty! - because he only started publishing at fifty. And since becoming a published author, he has preferred reading classic authors rather than his contemporaries - for fear of being influenced, he says, but then adds rather mischievously: Either he finds contemporary writing bad, worse than his own, which upsets him, or he finds it better, which also upsets him... Much less upsetting to stick to the classics.

I was so inspired that I wanted to rush off, wet hair and all, to write it all down before I forget. But as I left the bathroom, I caught the daily Revue de la Presse on the same radio station - and because the Nobel Prize for Literature had been announced yesterday, the press review was also at least partly devoted to literature.

(I have to confess, my first reaction yesterday, when I heard that Mario Vargas Llosa was the 2010 laureate, was a kind of selfish joy because here was a winner of whom I'd actually read a few books, as opposed to all those worthy Nobel winners whose books I know I should have read...)

So I hung on to listen to the press review - and was rewarded with the most magnificent quote from Vargas Llosa, published in today's edition of the newspaper Liberation. According to our latest Nobel laureate, literature expresses a different truth from historical, political or social truth; literature expresses 'a truth made up of lies'.

Three cheers for the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa, the Italian Umberto Eco and a French radio station that gave me a great start to my day. Now let me go and dry my hair and brush my teeth...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Children's Day has its day

Help! I'm suffering from serious withdrawal symptoms. I haven't read a book in two weeks and I'm in absolute agony. This is not by choice, simply the result of an impossibly hectic schedule. I'm touring through France with a TV team filming a cooking series, and the only reading I seem to manage between the long hours of travelling-cooking-eating and the short hours of sleeping is from magazines and on internet. Which doesn't really count as 'reading'- not for a book junkie like me.

A little ray of light in this bookless darkness, though, is that my friend and fellow South African author Michiel Heyns's coming-of-age novel The Children's Day has just been nominated for the Prix Femina in France. Jours d'enfance, translated by Françoise Adelstain, is one of eleven finalists in the foreign section of what has been called 'the most gracefully slim, the most distinguished, the most pleasantly courteous' of French literary prizes. Graceful and courteous, maybe, but definitely not lightweight - not with internationally renowned names such as Edna O'Brien from Ireland, Shirley Hazzard from Australia and Bernardo Carvalho from Brazil among the finalists.

The selectors could also be praised for the geographic scope of their list, with authors hailing from Ireland to Iceland, Sweden to South Corea, United States to Venezuela. The winner will be announced in November - as is customary for most of the big literary prizes in France - which gives you enough time to read The Children's Day - in its original English version, in French, or even in Afrikaans - if you haven't done so yet.

And believe me, it is a delightful read, humorous and ironic and sad and serious, set in the sixties in South Africa, in a boys' boarding school in Bloemfontein, during the dark days of Apartheid. What I loved about the book is that it deals with so much more than the rather obvious moral problems of Apartheid politics; it also shows the class differences among whites - all more or less equally rascist - and the sometimes ridiculous discrimination between 'liberal' English and 'conservative' Afrikaner.

The protagonist, Simon, is the adolescent son of an English father and an Afrikaans mother, getting the best possible education in a good English school, while Fanie is working-class Afrikaner, attending a technical school where he will be taught a practical craft and not much more. Or maybe much more than Simon - depending on how you look at things. Sexual hypocrisy turns out to be just one of the moral pitfalls of sixties South Africa.

I haven't read the other finalists' novels, so I can't judge whether Jours d'enfance should win the Prix Femina or not - but all these translated novels are already winners just for appearing on such a distinguished international list.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Key to good reading

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't feel duty-bound to read or report on the literature of South Africa just because I was born and bred down there. My taste in books is as eclectic as my taste in food - variety truly is the spice of reading, eating and life in general.


But every once in a while I come across a South African book that is so great that I have to rave about it, urge all my friends to read it, post a blog entry to spread the word. Ivan Vladislavic's Portrait with Keys is just such a book. Provocative and poetic and deeply personal yet universally appealing (to anyone looking for more than mental candyfloss, of that I'm sure), Portrait with Keys is not fiction, but to describe it simply as 'non-fiction' doesn't do it justice either.

It is 'a chain of lyrical texts' linking memoir, history and geography. With a teasing sub-title like Joburg & what-what, it is also a kind of inspired guide to the city of gold. A love letter to Johannesburg with the power to seduce even people like me who never really learnt to appreciate this particular city. If you don't know Johannesburg at all, you'll want to visit it after reading this book. If you've lived there before, you'll be laughing in recognition and longing to return.

Vladislavic looks at his hometown with wonder and humour, never shying away from the darker side - the horrific crime figures, the beggars and the poverty, the obsession with keys and locks to protect against burglary and theft - yet always spotting the absurd, the unexpected or the unexplained in his everyday surroundings. Like the little girl in a school uniform with a satchel on her back walking towards him one spring afternoon in Roberts Avenue.

'A perfectly ordinary little girl on her way home from school. Or she would be, perfectly ordinary, I mean, if she were not wearing a diving mask and snorkel... Her eyes look out with the astounded, strained expression of a diver who has just sunk below the surface and discovered a second world. 'After passing this strange creature, he finds that his feet have turned to lead, his head become 'round and deaf'. 'She has submerged the world, and me in it. The light streams like water over everything, the grass on the verges shifts in currents of astonishment, as I press on into the deep end of the city.'

This constant transformation of the mundane into something nearly magical or achingly funny or incredibly wise, is what makes Portrait with Keys such a joy to read.

Here is Vladislavic describing the end of a lazy summer day on a stoep in Hope Street: 'We are talking, my friends and I, with our bare feet propped on the wall of the stoep, our cane chairs creaking. We have been talking and laughing for hours, putting our predicaments in their place, finding ways to balance in a tide of change...

'This is our climate. We have grown up in this air, this light, and we grasp it on the skin, where it grasps us... We will never be ourselves anywhere else. Happier, perhaps, healthier, less burdened, more secure. But we will never be closer to who we are than this.'

You can read this book - and do read it, please! - as you would any other book, from first to last page, beginning to end. Or you can read it following the Itineraries provided at the end; winding your way through all the pages dealing with Beggars and sellers, for instance, or Liars and thieves; finding your own path through Gardens or Memorials or Painted walls. There is an itinerary called Artists Book and another called Writers' Book and another and another...

You might even end up reading the book like me, first in the 'normal' order, and then, the moment you reach the last page, starting all over, this time following the author's suggested itineraries. It's always difficult to close and take leave of a good book; even more so in this case because you're leaving behind more than just a book. It's as if you have to part from a beloved city too - or rather a city you didn't realise you loved until you read this brilliant book.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An annual avalanche of fiction

It's that time of the year again in France. La rentrée, the start of the school year, is just around the corner - and with it comes the annual avalanche of new books known as la rentrée littéraire.

This frenzy of publication never fails to amaze me. Coming from a third-world country where publishers' lists of new books are counted in tens, not hundreds, I find it astonishing that French publishers can produce hundreds of fiction titles in a single month. In September 2010 there are no less than 701 novels on offer. Yes, you read correctly - 701 novels. These 700 new books do not include non-fiction or biographies, children's literature or poetry, cook books or travel books or beautiful coffee-table books. We're talking novels, only novels, nothing but novels. Now isn't that something?

And among these 700 novels, only about 200 are translated from other languages, the rest are as French as the Eiffel Tower. Well, not quite. Some are from other francophone regions in Africa, Europe and elsewhere. In fact, the best-selling French author is the Belgian Amélie Nothomb, who has been coming up with a novel each September, as regularly as clockwork, for more than a decade. Her 2010 offering, Une forme de vie (A Form of Life) has the highest print-run of all the rentrée's novels (220 000 copies), followed by the British Ken Follet's Fall of Giants (150 000 copies in France, but simultaneously published in 13 other countries) and the French enfant terrible Michel Houellebecq's La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory), which has an initial print-run of 120 000 copies.

Among the 200 odd translated novels there are some Big Names too. South African Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee's L'Eté de la vie (already published in English as Summertime) is the eagerly awaited third book in the series of 'auto-fiction' starting with Boyhood and followed by Youth. French fans of American fiction can look forward to Vice caché, the translation of Inherent Vice, a comic-noir crime thriller featuring ukulele music by that infamous Invisible Man, Thomas Pynchon, as well as works by Bret Easton Ellis (Imperial Bedrooms) and my own American favourite, Don DeLillo. Although I'd prefer to read the inimitable DeLillo's Point Omega in the original English, of course.

But the best thing about la rentrée littéraire, I've always found, is the surprise element. The unexpected and unpredictable hits by authors who are still completely unknown, but might just be, who knows, among the Big Names by the time the next fictional avalanche hits France in September 2011. Watch this space. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Those lazy hazy days of summer

Summer reading. What a lovely phrase that is, conjuring up images of swaying hammocks under shady trees, comfortable old couches on verandahs, lazing next to sparkling swimming pools. Sipping cool drinks and enjoying cool books - because summer reading should be like summer drinks: cool and light and fun rather than dark and heavy and serious.

Although light, when it comes to books, doesn't have to mean frivolous, brainless or badly written. Some of my all-time favourite books have been read during summer holidays, in a hammock or on a beach or on the deck of a boat. Many readers regard crime fiction or thrillers as perfect summer reading, others like biographies or non-fiction with a light touch. I tend to go for humorous novels with a literary undertone - or literary novels with a lot of humour. But then I tend to go for humorous literary novels in autumn, winter and spring too. A good summer read should be a good read right through the year.

Last month, while spending a sunny week on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, I managed to read four novels in five days. That's pretty much my idea of a perfect vacation. All four books were humorous and serious at the same time, but the most memorable was Jonathan Coe's The Rotter's Club. Coe's translated novels have been popular in France for at least a decade; The House of Sleep won the coveted Prix Médicis Etranger in 1998, and my French partner has read most of his books. But since it seems easier to find Coe's publications in France than in South Africa, where I buy most of my English reading matter, I haven't read him until last month. And what a delightful discovery it was!

The Rotter's Club is a richly comic coming of age tale set in 1970s Britain, featuring, among other things (quoting the jacket): 'IRA bombs, prog rock, punk rock, bad poetry, first love... prefects, detention, a few bottles of Blue Nun, lots of brown wallpaper...' You get the drift.

But it deals with much more than 'just' adolescence. The teenagers' parents and even grandparents' lives and loves are featured too, and the story is seen through the eyes of two of those erstwhile teenagers' children two decades later. It is above all a novel about the ecstacies and the agonies of the seventies. It would certainly be enjoyed by readers of all ages, but if you happen to have been young in the seventies, you might just adore it.

I grew up in seventies South Africa, which was a very different place from seventies Britain, and yet also eerily similar. In fact, reading this honest, sometimes tragic, often vividly funny account of Benjamin Trotter and his friends' struggle towards adulthood among ugly brown wallpaper, I was reminded that adolescence is always another country - no matter in which country the adolescent actually lives: Britain, South Africa, France or the dark side of the moon, like most teenagers.

And thank heavens for authors like Jonathan Coe who can lead us back to that country, laughing out loud in wonder and embarrassment, while we sip a chilly drink in a shady spot. Ah, the joys of summer reading...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lolita's creator loved soccer

And now that the noise of vuvuzelas has finally died down and Fifa 2010 has been declared a success, I am pleased to give you some feedback on Vladimir Nabokov's attitude towards soccer. Last month, on the opening day of the World Cup in South Africa, I asked the rather silly (and as it turned out, totally uninformed) question: Did Vladimir Nabokov like soccer?

The question was prompted by Pale Fire, in which the author supplied a long list of popular pastimes that he did not appreciate, including jazz music, which I still find hard to swallow.

'If anyone reading this could enlighten me, I'd be really grateful,' I added, not seriously expecting an answer.

So imagine my delight when I was quickly relieved of my ignorance by a couple of readers - and one of them turned out to be the great Nabokov's only son, to whom I also referred in that post. Dmitri Nabokov informed me in no uncertain terms that his father had indeed been a life-long soccer fan. What's more, he had actively enjoyed the game by playing goalkeeper for Trinity College, Cambridge, and later for an emigré club in Berlin. Talk about facts from the horse's mouth! Not that I mean to call Dmitri Nabokov a horse. It was bad enough, in his eyes, that I called his father an opinionated old fart.

Sorry, Mister Nabokov Junior, if I hurt your feelings - but I did add that I adore your father's writing, fart or not.

And this reply made my day. I was struck, once again, by the immediacy and the accessability of internet. Like many other modest bloggers I sometimes suspect that I keep a blog mainly for my own pleasure, not really caring much whether anyone else actually reads it. Now Dmitri Nabokov's reaction has once again reminded me that these posts are indeed read, sometimes by the most surprisingly well-connected people.

So I guess I'll keep blogging a while longer. Who knows who might answer me next?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Where we meet

Among the many thrills of travelling, is the quiet pleasure of reading a story set in the place you're visiting.

A couple of years ago, for instance, my partner took one of Ian Rankin's marvellous crime novels along when we went to the Edinburgh Festival. We saw great theatre pieces and striking art exhibitions, but what made our stay really memorable, was drinking a pint or two in Inspector Rebus's favourite pubs, following his trail through the ancient streets, seeing the squares and the statues of the Scottish city through the eyes of a beloved fictional character - and the author who created him, of course.

Last year a friend visited Turkey with Orhan Pamuk's evocative masterpiece, Istanbul: Memories and the city, as her most important item of luggage. In fact, the desire to see Istanbul had sprung directly from reading the Nobel Prize winner's description of his home town, and she loved rereading the book while exploring the city. Another friend found that a first visit to Barcelona was vastly enhanced by Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, in which the Catalan capital is vividly depicted. And how can any reader discover the Egyptian city of Alexandria without being constantly reminded of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet?

There are endless examples of this very particular reading pleasure, which I also experienced again recently during a short visit to Lisbon. Until then, my main literary reference for the Portugese capital was the inimitable Fernando Pessoa, whose lonely statue can be admired among the outdoor tables of one of the most popular eating, meeting and drinking establishments in the centre of town. But as my Lisbon guide happened to be a writer, I was taken to quite a few bookshops, some even selling English books. And this is where I met John Berger's Here Is Where we Meet.

Here Is Where we Meet is a collection of inter-related autobiographical 'stories' set in various European cities, starting with a strange encounter in Lisbon and ending with a memory of this encounter. The fact that I've visited all the other cities in the book too, obviously added to my enjoyment, but that wasn't essential. What was - essential - was that I started reading about Lisbon while I was still in Lisbon, recognising the names of streets and parks; sometimes even reading about a certain square while sitting in a cafe on the same square. Or reading about Lisbon's beautiful yellow trams while actually travelling in one of them...

'It's not any place, John, it's a meeting place. There aren't many cities left with trams, are there?'

This remark comes from the author's mother, whom he unexpectantly meets in Lisbon - truly unexpectantly, since she's been dead for 15 years and has never been to Lisbon while still alive. The remarkable conversation between living son and long-dead mother sets the tone for the rest of the book, an enchanting melange of magic and realism, short story and essay, novel and autobiograhy, a unique blend of genres that John Berger has long ago made his own.

Of course Berger has always been much more than just another storyteller. In 1972 he won the Booker Prize for the novel G, but his most influential work is probably still Ways of Seeing, a long essay published in the same year which has forever changed the way we look at art and its relationship to time, place, politics and life in general.

During the course of Here Is Where we Meet the author meets other people - some alive, some dead, all fascinating characters - in other places. About two thirds through the book, a single sentence is printed in the middle of an empty page: 'The number of lives that enter our own is incalculable.' This simple phrase somehow sums up the mystery of the book; this and a sentence found on the back cover: 'No one appreciates the detail of being alive more than the dead.'

And please note, you don't have to be religious, you don't have to believe in ghosts, angels or aliens, to appreciate the sensual details and the serious intelligence of Berger's writing. The penultimate piece, The Szum and the Ching, is a breath-takingly beautiful and life-affirming story of exile and homecoming set in London, Paris and the Polish countryside. But the first piece, Lisboa, remains my favourite, part of my memories of Lisbon and its yellow trams and its Fado bars and its Santa Junta lift - in which the dead descend to earth, according to the author's dead mother.

Apart from all these reasons for loving Lisboa - the city and the story - the book also provided me with a totally convincing explanation for the existence of Fado:

'Lisboetas often talk of a feeling, a mood, which they call saudade, usually translated as nostalgia, which is incorrect. Nostalgia implies a comfort, even an indolence such as Lisboa has never enjoyed. Vienna is the capital of nostalgia. This city is still, and has always been, buffeted by too many winds to be nostalgic. Saudade, I decided... was the feeling of fury at having to hear the words too late pronounced too calmly. And Fado is its unforgettable music. Perhaps Lisboa is a special stopover for the dead, perhaps here the dead show themselves off more than in any other city.'

Remember that, next time you're in Lisbon, and don't say you weren't warned.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Did Nabokov like soccer?

What would Vladimir Nabokov have thought of the World Cup? This is the niggling question at the back of my mind on the opening day of Fifa 2010 in South Africa.

I recently read Pale Fire, see, in which he wrote:
'I loathe such things as jazz;
The white-hosed moron torturing a black
Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;
Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;
Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;
Brutes, bores...'
And the list goes on.

Does this sound like someone who'd get excited about a soccer game? No, I'm afraid this makes the great writer sound like an elitist and opinionated old fart. And just in case you think I'm making the tyical reader's mistake 'of dotting all the i's with the author's head', as Nabokov himself so succintly put it, let me remind you that he admitted, in a famous BBC TV interview in 1962, that John Shade, the fictional poet composing this list of loathing in Pale Fire, 'does borrow some of my opinions'. And to prove his point, he quoted and endorsed the above passage.

I can understand a Russian-American intellectual detesting bull-fighting or swimming pools - but jazz? How could the author who produced some of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century, loath jazz? Enough to break my jazz-loving little heart.

But apparently the wise man didn't detest all popular past-times. He was actually good enough in tennis and boxing to earn money teaching both these sports during his perambulatory young adulthood. Lolita's eponymous heroine happens to be an excellent tennis player, and a passage in the novel has been called 'the best description of tennis anywhere' in The New Yorker magazine. It starts like this: 'She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounce the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score...'

Don't you just love that 'white-lined time'?

Remember, also, that Nabokov's only child, Dmitri, became a professional racing car driver. True, these are all individual sports, not a universally popular team sport like soccer - so the jury is still out on Nabokov vs Fifa 2010. If anyone reading this could enlighten me, I'd be really grateful.

Because I adore this opinionated old fart's writing. Every time I read one of his novels, I'm overawed by what he managed to do with the English language - which was not even his mother tongue, for crying out loud! Indeed, what he called his 'private tragedy' - 'that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my rich, infinitely rich and docile Russian tongue, for a second-rate brand of English' - could probably be regarded as one of the best things that ever happened to American literature.

Yes, he was ruthlessly opinionated, not hesitating to demolish his fellow-American literary contemporaries. He tried to read Saul Bellow's Herzog, he claimed, but it was so boring that he had to give up. And among his Russian predecessors, he confidently declared that Tolstoy was the greatest novelist and Pushkin the greatest poet - adding that this made him feel like a school master marking papers and that Dostoyevsky would probably be waiting at his office door, wanting to know why he got such poor results.

This is a fine example of Nabokov's irrepressible humour - the other important reason why his writing is so irresistible. Yes, he loved showing off and using complicated words, even inventing his own words, but his irony, wit and humour always saved him from pretentiousness. Anyway, how can any fanatic reader resist a book like Pale Fire, a marvellous mixture of poetry and prose, a campus novel hiding a detective story, a series of Russian dolls each revealing another literary genre? Pale Fire has been called 'a Jack-in-the-box, a Fabergé gem, a clockwork toy, a chess problem', and many other adjectives.

It can also be called, quite simply, a masterpiece. The second canto of the 999-line poem written by the fictional poet John Shade, around which the whole novel is constructed, begins with 10 unforgettable lines about the mystery of life and death:
'There was a time in my demented youth
When somehow I suspected that the truth
About survival after death was known
To every human being: I alone
Knew nothing, and a great conspiracy
Of books and people hid the truth from me.

There was the day when I began to doubt
Man's sanity: How could he live without
Knowing for sure what dawn, what death, what doom
Awaited conciousness beyond the tomb?'

Every time I read this, I can forgive Vladimir Nabokov absolutely anything - including his loathing of jazz - and I actually don't give a damn whether he liked soccer or not. Viva Vladimir viva!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The elegance of a French author

I might have seemed lazy during the past month, but believe me, I have a solid excuse. I was travelling to promote a new novel, spending almost every night in a different bed and rising at the crack of dawn to catch the next flight. The good news is I met some wonderful writers along the way - about whose books I'll be blogging in future.

Let me start with someone close to home (I'm now referring to my European branches rather than my African roots): the French novelist Muriel Barbery. I was asked to interview the author of the astonishingly popular The Elegance of the Hedgehog at a literary festival in South Africa. She charmed the capacity audience with her intelligence, humour and warmth - three qualities also found in abundance in her best-selling novel.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog was a word-of-mouth phenomenon in France, where it was published in 2006, topping the best-seller lists for more than six months. Over the next four years close to five million copies have been sold in about forty languages - and Madame Barbery still finds it hard to believe that she has become such a successful writer. It is a book full of 'Profound Thoughts' (as Paloma, the precocious young protagonist, calls some of her diary entries) rather than action, and it is very much driven by character rather than plot. Or perhaps by place even more than character. It is a Parisian story, set in a specific street and a specific building - 7 Rue de Grenelle - an elegant apartment block inhabited by a few wealthy families. Among these privileged people are Paloma's parents and older sister, whose meaningless lives depress Paloma so much that she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

The other protagonist, whose point of view is alternated with Paloma's, is a fifty-something widow - poor, unattractive, lonely - named Renée, the congièrge of the building. But Renée is an autodidact with a passion for literature, films, art, philosophy, and an inner life far richer than anyone else in the building. Paloma and Renée are both befriended by a new inhabitant, the mysterious Monsieur Ozu of Japanese origin, and then things start changing in their lives...

It's true that Paloma sometimes sounds just a little too clever - even for an extremely clever pre-adolescent - and that the outcome of her meeting with Renée could probably be foreseen. But don't be mistaken, this is not a silly fairytale with a happily-ever-after ending. (The ending is actually quite sad. Be warned.) No, it is an amusing and accessible story dealing with profound philosophical and metaphysical questions such as the meaning of life and the search for beauty, as all worthwhile literature should.

And if you happen to read Barbery's previous novel, The Gourmet (or The Gourmet's Feast as it is titled in the USA), which has only been translated into English after the international success of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you will be delighted to meet many of the same characters in the same building. No, Barbery is not planning a best-selling series about the inhabitants of a building. The two books could be read in any order or each on its own. It reminded me a little of the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy (Blue, White and Red), where a minor character in one film becomes the protagonist of one of the other two films.

And the cinema reference is not out of place in a novel that owes the name of one of its characters to the author's self-confessed passion for the work of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Read it, enjoy it - and then try to see at least one of Ozu's magnificent films, like Tokyo Story, Early Spring or Late Autumn.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The trouble with Big Fat Books

They say in every thick book there's a thin one trying to get out. It's probably partly true, as most clichés are. But sometimes thin books just don't do it for me.

Every once in a while (not too often)I want to get stuck in a BFB. That's a Big Fat Book, like Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, with 1474 pages of small, tight print - possibly the thickest one-volume novel I've ever read. Not that I've finished reading it. The trouble with BFBs is that it takes forever to read them... Of course, that's also the joy of BFBs.

I started reading A Suitable Boy ages ago. And I don't mean weeks or months, I mean years ago. In fact, I tackled this brick of a book not long after it was first published in 1993 - but I ran out of steam after only a couple of pages. The time wasn't right, the place wasn't right, I wasn't right for so many superfluous words. But I didn't get rid of the book. I suspected that I would get back to it some day.

Shortly before Christmas last year, while dusting my book shelves, I came across A Suitable Boy again and started (re)reading the first few pages. And this time it was a case of the right book at the right moment. Suddenly Voltaire's phrase, quoted as a motto at the start of the novel, made perfect sense: The superfluous, that very necessary thing... I couldn't stop reading.

Although I had to - several times over the next four months - because I had quite a lot of travelling to do. And the trouble with BFBs is that they don't travel well... They're too heavy to carry around in a handbag or pack in a suitcase. They're too thick to finish during a weekend - or even a week - away from home. Much more practical to travel with thin books that you can read though and get rid of along the way. Donate to friends, leave on a park bench, whatever. To make place in your suitcase to buy more books. Because real readers will always bring back books from their travels. Other people buy fridge magnets or mugs as souvenirs; we buy books. Thin ones, preferably.

So I had to leave A Suitable Boy behind when I flew to Cape Town early in January, and again when I flew to Portugal later in the same month, and again when I visited London and Cambridge in February, and again when I travelled to a writer's congress in Kimberley and a word festival in Stellenbosch in March. And each time, once I got back home, I had to speed-read through the hundreds of pages I'd already read, just to get back into the narrative flow. I began to feel like poor old Sisyphus, condemned to a neverending task. Except that this was rather a pleasurable task - otherwise I wouldn't have continued, would I?

Earlier this month I spent a weekend at a friend's home about two hours from where I live. Since I was going by car, not by plane, and was getting quite desperate to finish the damn BFB, I decided to take it with me. And then, woe is me, I forgot the book at my friend's home! Now if you leave a thin book somewhere, you can simply ask someone to pop it into a padded envelope and post it to you. But the trouble with BFBs is that they don't fit into envelopes...

The weight of a BFB turns it into quite an unwieldy and expensive parcel. So now I have to wait until I visit my friend again, or she visits me, whichever happens first. Meanwhile I'm turning to thinner books for comfort. But I'm really, really missing my BFB.

The trouble with BFBs is that after about a thousand pages, which is more or less where I got with this one, you are totally immersed in the character's lives. No matter how many thin books you read to forget about these characters, you yearn to know what happened to them, to Mrs Rupa Mehra's determined search for 'a suitable boy' to marry her stubborn daughter Lata, and to the Kapoors and the Khans and the Chatterjis and all the others.

I have another 500 odd pages to read before I'll be finished with A Suitable Boy. Since it took me more than four months(!) to read the first thousand pages, I'll probably need at least two more months to read the rest. And the book is already falling apart. (The front cover came loose, so I started using it as a page marker.) And since I've never had to wait half a year to get to the end of a novel, I have no idea what the state of the book will be by the time I finally reach the last page. But I fear the worst.

The trouble with BFBs is that they don't travel well and that they don't fit into envelopes and that they fall apart and haunt your dreams and never offer instant gratification. But then again, the constant postponing of pleasure is just one of the many delights of a really good, really big, really fat book. Come to think of it, maybe I should try and postpone the pleasure for a few more months?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Say cheese - and buy a book

What is the connection between a small round goat's milk cheese and one of the biggest bookstores in France?

The answer lies in Banon, a lovely little village in the mountains of Provence where the eponymous cheese - wrapped in chestnut leaves and bound with raffia strings - is produced. Tourists used to travel to Banon only to taste the celebrated cheese, but about twenty years ago a former carpenter, Joël Gattefossé, opened an independent bookshop in an old mansion in the isolated village - and against all expectations it has grown into a thriving enterprise and one of the major tourist attractions of the region.

Nowadays the bookshop with the delightful name of Le Bleuet (bleuet is French for the bright blue cornflower) is open 7 days a week throughout the year, except for Christmas and New Year's Day, and book lovers flock to Banon from far and wide to 'taste' its books along with its cheese. Tens of thousands of books (mainly in French, with a small selection of mostly tourism titles in English, German and other languages) are stored on shelves reaching up to the ceiling in several rooms on several storeys. And in summer you can take a break in a peaceful tea garden if your head starts spinning from turning too many pages. A true Ali Baba's cave for greedy bibliophiles!

It was a medical doctor who'd first told me about Banon's hidden treasure cave quite a few years ago. Whenever I consulted her about any ailment or health problem in the following years, she would eagerly enquire whether I'd made my annual pilgrimage to Le Bleuet. Then we'd usually start discussing books - and I'd leave her consulting rooms feeling inexplicably better, even before taking a drop of medicine. Maybe it's not an apple a day, but a book a day that keeps the doctor away?

During the past long winter I once again found an excuse to make a detour through Banon on the way home from a friend in Manosque. On this rainy Sunday morning I was accompanied by my husband and 10-year-old daughter. Husband immediately rushed to the room with the crime fiction (his taste in this genre ranges from Ian Rankin's magnificent Rebus and Deon Meyer's fast-paced thrillers to Alexander McCall Smith's gentle and humorous No 1 Ladies' Detective series), daughter draped herself on the floor in front of the juvenile comic books (or BDs, as they're called in France, for bandes dessinées), while I wandered off to browse through the literary fiction.

One of the joys of Le Bleuet is that books don't disappear from the shelves if they don't sell within a couple of weeks, as is increasingly the case in most bookshops. Here books are allowed to stay put for months or years, patiently waiting for the right customer to come in at the right moment and lift the book off the shelf with a soft sigh of satisfaction. Sometimes even a shout of pleasure.

We spent a few blissful hours 'book tasting' and each chose two or three titles to take home with us. My selection included two novels by Marie Ndiaye, who recently became the first black woman in France to win the prestigeous Prix Goncourt for Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Powerful Women). Hopefully the powerful prize will help this woman to be more widely translated and be appreciated by Anglo-Saxon readers too. As far as I know only one of her novels, Rosie Carpe, is currently available in English.

By the time we emerged from this cave of treasures, all the other shops in the village had closed for lunch. So we couldn't buy the famous cheese. Not to take home, anyway - but we enjoyed a scrumptious lunch in a little restaurant across the street, where the choice of cheese at the end of the meal included Banon. Of course.

A great way of spending a rainy Sunday, enjoying good cheese and good books. And it gets even better in spring when you can really benefit from the fresh mountain air. Banon's annual Fête du Fromage is celebrated next month, on Sunday 16 May. Make a note of the date if you happen to be anywhere in the vicinity - and if not, visit the village whenever you get the chance. They say cheese goes with anything, don't they? Well, here's the proof that Banon definitely goes with books.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Love is in the air

After an exceptionally long and rigorous winter I'm overjoyed to spot the first tulips stubbornly pushing their yellow heads through a last patch of melting snow. Contemplating this pretty picture through my kitchen window, I raise my eyes to the clay-tile roof across the street and observe a randy pigeon frantically trying to mount all the feathered females in sight. Yes, spring is in the air.

Flowers are budding, birds are fornicating, and all around me human beings are falling in love. (I live in a house with teenagers.) And I suddenly have this irresistible urge to read love poetry. Fortunately I have the perfect book at hand: Penguin's Poems for Love, selected by Laura Barber, a brand new anthology presented to me by a poetic friend, Isobel Dixon, who has two short and potent poems included in the impressive selection.

What I really appreciate about this beautiful book - beautiful in appearance and contents - is that the poems are not arranged in the predictable chronological order. The result is that some centuries-old poems suddenly seem almost shockingly modern, while some contempory poems acquire a classic sheen. A handful of the usual suspects like Pope, Byron and, of course, Shakespeare (for how could Shakespeare not feature in any serious collection of love poetry?), are so famous that one doesn't need to see their birth dates to place them in their historical context, but a few of the lesser-known names (or lesser-known to me, at any rate) provided a pleasant surprise when I checked their birth dates in the Index at the back of the book.

Laura Barber arranged her selection in a more original way, using Elizabeth Barret Browning's evergreen sonnet How do I love thee? as a map to chart the ways of poetic love. (How do I love thee? Let me count the ways./ I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach...) Barret Browning (1806 - 1861) continues in this vein: I love thee freely... I love thee purely... I love thee with a passion... and concludes: I shall but love thee better after death. So Barber presents her chosen poems according to adjectives, with captions such as Suddenly, Secretly, Persuasively, Passionately, Brutally, Bitterly and, after Finally, also Eternally. Of course. We are dealing with love poetry, remember.

But not everything here is romantic. On the contrary, some of the poems are refreshingly cynical, humorous, even absurd. Realistic, as love has to be when it wants to survive. And when it comes to realism in love, Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 is as delightful today as it was four centuries ago: My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun.../ If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun.../And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare.

Many of the poems are sensual, sexy, lustful; others are almost unbearably tender and sad. Some of my favourites deal with older love, love that endures past youthful passion, such as Margaret Atwood's Sunset II: Sunset, now that we're finally in it/ is not what we thought. This one ends with the evocative lines: This is you on my skin somewhere/ in the form of sand.

Whatever mood of love you happen to be in, you'll find an appropriate poem here. You'll rediscover old flames and be titillated by new possibilities. I was overwhelmed by two poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whom I'd somehow never thought of as a 'love poet'. Too 'intelligent', I had probably presumed - as if intelligence should be separated from love! Well, now that I've read One Art, on 'the art' of losing a lover, and the heart-breakingly beautiful Breakfast Song, I look at Bishop with something like awe.

Read Breakfast Song - preferably over breakfast - and you'll see what I mean. It starts like this: My love, my saving grace,/ your eyes are awfully blue./ I kiss your funny face,/ your coffee-flavoured mouth... Then it turns to death, in the same pure and simple way, before finally returning to the saving grace of the beloved's awfully blue eyes - 'early and instant blue'.

Pure and simple joy. As is Isobel Dixon's two-line poem, Truce: You bear the hatchet./ I'll bury my heart. Poems don't have to be as lengthy and rigorous as this past winter. Sometimes they can be as instantly overwhelming as the first tulips of spring.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A woman's book?

To celebrate International Women's Day - rather late than never - I want to praise a book by a woman whose writing I've been admiring for many years.

The British novelist and Booker Prize winner AS Byatt, like most serious female writers, would probably not appreciate the label 'women's writing'. They regard themselves as writers, who happen to be women, writing for whoever wants to read them. The problem with 'women's writing', ten years into the 21st century, is still that invisible but always present prefix 'just'. Just women's writing. Implying something not quite as good as the norm, produced by the other half of the human race, which is simply called 'writing'.

At a recent writer's festival in South Africa I had to take part, once again, in the inevitable panel discussion on 'women's writing'. A male member of the audience made the provocative - but probably true - statement that a sensitive reader could correctly guess the gender of the authors of ninety percent of fictional works even if their names were not printed on the cover. This wasn't a value judgement, he stressed, just a recognition of difference. Most - but not all - female fiction authors write differently from most - but not all - male fiction authors.

And one of the notable differences, according to various audience members, was that women tended to give more detailed descriptions of the outward appearances of people and places. If this is true - and do let me know if you disagree! - AS Byatt's writing is undoubtedly more female than male. One of the joys of this 'relentlessly talky' author, as she was once called in The New York Times Book Review, is her solid command of detail even when she deals with the most slippery intellectual ideas.

The novel Possession, which won the Booker Prize in 1990, first drew my attention to this fiercely intelligent, wildly imaginative author. During the next twenty years I read quite a few of her other books and was particularly enchanted by Babel Tower and The Matisse Stories, both show-pieces of Byatt's vast knowledge of the history of art and literature.

Her latest novel, The Children's Book (shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize), provides all the delights and, I have to reluctantly admit, some of the irritations of her lush, expansive style. Once again it is a big, fat, serious book about art and literature and secrets and relationships. Once again it starts off in Victorian England, sweeping the reader along to the thrills of the Paris Exhibition in 1889 and the political turmoil in Germany at the turn of the century, through the utopian ideals of the Edwardian era, right up to the trenches and the horror of the First World War. Once again it is an 'old-fashioned' novel with a strong story line (and I mean this as a compliment) by 'an author who behaves as if James Joyce never existed - and gets away with it', as another reviewer described her.

This time the protagonist is Olive Wellwood, a successful Victorian writer of children's stories who raises a large brood of children, not all her own as it turns out, in a rambling house in the countryside. For each of her children she writes an ongoing fantasy story, a beautiful private book bound in a particular colour and kept on a special shelf. Numerous other narrative threads are woven into this intricate tapestry: a working-class boy from the potteries joins the family; a mysterious German puppeteer arrives with his puppets; the children, their cousins and their friends grow up in an enchanting storybook world, totally unprepared for the war and the darkness ahead.

I can't remember when last I read a book which thrilled and irritated me in such equal measures. It is not enough for AS Byatt to tell us about the fairy tale that Olive writes for one of her children; no, she has to show us the whole story, written in Olive's Victorian style. Remember the fake Victorian poetry in Possession? That really impressed me. But this time it isn't just the well-known writer's trick of showing rather than telling. It's more like showing off. The same goes for the puppeteer's work; we get a blow-by-blow account of each puppet show, often based on ancient fairy tales. Even for a reader like me, who adores fairy tales, it becomes too much of a good thing - which is never a good thing.

But then, the value of many really good novels, like handwoven carpets, often lies in their very imperfection. In their lack of restraint, their flashes of brilliance, forming a whole which is inexplicably greater than the sum of its uneven parts. And that has nothing to do with gender. The Children's Book is a wonderful story you won't easily forget, whether you're male or female, written by an author who happens to be a woman.

And if this makes it a woman's book, well, then so be it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The winning team

One of the more agreeable ripple effects of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, is that South Africa is suddenly all the rage, not only on sport fields but also in the field of cinema and literature.

I might not recognise soccer superstars like Beckham or Renaldo if I fell over them in the street, but I surely recognise the prolific talent in a spate of recent movies like District 9, Invictus and Disgrace, all based on South African stories.

And talking of stories: At the London Book Fair from 19 to 21 April the spotlight will fall on South African writing with authors like Antjie Krog, Marlene van Niekerk, Deon Meyer, Breyten Breytenbach and quite a few others taking part. Do keep this in mind if you live anywhere close to Britain and are interested in books from the southern tip of Africa. And if you don't yet know South African literature, well, this is the year of getting acquainted. No more excuses.

Even here in France, South African authors seem to be riding the crest of the literary wave. Three months ago Karel Schoeman was awarded the prestigeous Prize for the Best Foreign Book of 2009 (PMLE) for the French translation of his novel Hierdie lewe (see my blog post titled 'This literary life', November 2009) and last month Breyten Breytenbach won the equally impressive Max Jacobs Prize for the best foreign poetry volume of the past year for Outre-Voix/Voice Over. The poems in this bilingual French-English publication (described as 'a nomadic conversation' with his Palestinian friend and fellow poet, the late Mahmoud Darwich) was originally written in Breytenbach's mother tongue, Afrikaans.

Both these prizes have glorious histories of at least half a century, but had never before been given to a South African author. For two Afrikaans authors to win both these prizes within the space of three months is a major achievement. Quite as great as winning a Football World Cup, in my immodest opinion.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Catching the catcher(s)

It took the death of JD Saliger last week to make me realise that two of my all-time favourite books deal with catchers and catching. Actually three, if I count Don DeLilo's Underworld, which starts with an interminable baseball game, and in which a ball from this game plays a major role. So once again catching is of the essence - rather ironic for a reader like me who has never had any ball sense.

But in Underworld there are no catches or catchers in the title, as there are in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Another difference is that I read the last two books when I was very young and impressionable. Who is it who said that it is perhaps only in our youth that books can truly influence us? Before the age of twenty we are like blank pages. Even a single sentence can make a huge difference to a previously empty page. Now that my page is all messy with decades of scribblings, books don't influence me as easily or as profoundly as when I was young. Sad but true.

Or maybe it's not so sad. Maybe I should rejoice that as a young and naive reader I was influenced by books as great as Catch-22 and The Catcher in the Rye. These novels gave me an emotional compass which I used to steer the rest of my reading life. They showed me that 'good' doesn't have to mean 'difficult', and that a serious story about a serious subject can be really entertaining and - sometimes - also really funny.

The only consolation, when a beloved author dies, is that he lives on through his books, often even acquiring a whole new readership immediately after his death. There are apparently two great career moves for a writer who wants to sell more books: one is to give in to Hollywood, the other is to give in to death. During the past week my adolescent son and his friends were frequently confronted with JD Salinger's name - not on the arts pages of newspapers, but on the front page. Or, more appropiately for their age group, on internet and on their mobile phones, as hard news. Some of these young people even started wondering about the meaning of a title as catchy as The Catcher in the Rye. What is 'a rye', one of my son's friends wanted to know. Honestly.

Which sent me back to my pale yellow Penguin version of this classic coming of age novel published nearly 60 years ago. In Chapter 22 Holden Caulfield, one of the most unforgettable adolescent characters ever created in fiction, talks to his sister Phoebe about what he wants to do in life.

'You know that song "If a body catch a body comin' through the rye"? I'd like - '
'It's "If a body meet a body coming through the rye"!' old Phoebe said. 'It's a poem. By Robert Burns.'
'I know it's a poem by Robert Burns.'
She was right, though. It is 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'. I didn't know it then, though.
'I thought it was "If a body catch a body",' I said. 'Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy.'

There you are, I said to my son's friend. 'Do yourself a favour and read the rest.' This single passage was enough to remind me why I had loved the book when I'd been my son's age - and why I still loved it when I reread it fifteen years later. (Now another fifteen years have passed, so I guess I'm ready to read it again.) Salinger had an ear for dialogue that simply jumped off the page. The amazing thing is, it still does, half a century later.

Im memory of Salinger I also looked up Robert Burns' poem, Comin Thro' the Rye. The Scottish farmer Burns, known as 'the ploughman's poet', wrote this in 1782, and it remains an enchanting ballad of sensual liberty.

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?

Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro' the glen,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need the warl' ken?

Do yourself a favour and read the rest at:

Salinger was in the unique position, among important post-World War 2 writers, of 'dying' fifty years before his actual death at the age of 91 last week. Ever since he went into hiding in Cornish, New Hampshire, he was as good as dead to the literary world. His last book was published in 1963 and his last work to appear in print was a story (Hapworth 16,1924)in the June 19 1965 issue of The New Yorker. But his few books never stopped selling; The Catcher in the Rye alone has sold more than sixty-five million copies, at an annual rate of about 250 000 copies. These are the kind of sales figures most living writers can only dream of achieving, perhaps for a year or two. To sell like this, consistently, for half a century, is truly extraordinary. And now that the author is officially dead, the sales will no doubt increase.

There is also the possibility of posthumous publication. In a rare press interview in 1974 he told The New York Times, 'There is a marvelous peace in not publishing... I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.'

The burning question, of course, is what the writer did with whatever he wrote during the last fifty years. Maybe he destroyed everything. Maybe he wrote the same phrase over and over. But maybe, just maybe, we'll soon be able to read another great story from The Catcher.

No phony goddam crap - to use three of Holden Caulfield's favourite words.

Now that would really be something, wouldn't it?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On borrowing books

Like almost all passionate readers I prefer to own the books I really love. But since my budget has never been big enough to satisfy my hunger for new books, I often have to opt for the practicality of borrowing books.

Ah, borrowing books - a beautiful but dangerous road if ever there was one. Whenever I borrow a book from a friend, I risk falling into one of two treacherous traps. Either I love the book so much that I can't bear to live without it ever again. In which case I absolutely have to buy my own copy as soon as possible. Preferably even before I return the borrowed book. So much for stretching my budget by borrowing books.

Or, even worse, I enjoy the book so much that I can't possibly return it to its owner because anyone can see that it has been thoroughly enjoyed: caressed; carried around; opened and closed numerous times in numerous places; collecting small scars, slight stains, even faint odours along the way. In which case I simply have to buy a new copy for the old owner. And keep this slightly tattered one for myself. So much for stretching my budget...

Not that I mind the tattered look. I believe books take on a secret life of their own as they are read and reread and borrowed and swopped and sold and shared. To me reading is not an abstract intellectual or emotional experience, but a physical, sensual adventure in which the look and feel and even the smell of the book offer as much delight as the words and wisdom it contains.

Therefore I prefer not to borrow books in a pristine condition. It's a little like sleeping with a virgin, I imagine. One doesn't want to spoil the pleasure by feeling guilty afterwards. No - rather lend me a book that has obviously been loved by someone before me.

Every once in a while, though, I fall for a 'virginal' book on someone else's shelf, a book that the owner has not had the time or inclination to read, and then I start perusing, perhaps even reading a few pages, and before I know it, I'm hooked. I have to - absolutely, immediately, urgently - read this book.

This happened again quite recently, while spending a few nights in a friend's guest room. Temptingly close to my bed was an immaculate copy of John Updike's Due Considerations (2007), a collection of essays, criticism and short pieces about absolutely anything under the sun. This sixth - and sadly, final - volume of Updike's non-fiction prose was published eight years after More Matter, which in turn followed eight years after Odd Jobs. When the author died exactly a year ago, I posted a blog entry about his influential fiction(January 2009). This time I want to praise his non-fiction.

Due Considerations is a big, fat book of more than 700 pages - the index alone covers 30 pages! - a fine example of the variety and depth of Updike's interests and passions. 'Assembled here are pieces on...Shakespeare, Henry James, Hemingway, Albrecht Dürer, a baseball star, sex in literature, poker, undergraduate life and plenty about the New Yorker', as the Literary Review stated - and then we haven't mentioned the brilliant pieces on cars, Coco Chanel, a visit to China and many, many more. Updike has an opinion about everything, it seems, but he delivers it with such unfailing good humor, fierce intelligence and flashy style that it doesn't matter whether you agree with him or not. As the Sunday Times claimed, these pages 'don't only pay handsome tribute to the pleasures of reading. They abundantly provide them.'

What more could any enthusiastic reader ask from any book about reading (among other things)?

It also happens to be the perfect bedside companion - or guest-room book - because you can dip into it at leisure and find something delectable on almost every page, close it when you grow sleepy, read another page on a totally different subject when you wake up. This is how I started reading it in my friend's home, simply hoping for a few nights' entertainment, but I soon wanted more...

So when my friend kindly offered to lend it to me, I took it home and devoured it from cover to cover - and realised a little too late that the book wasn't looking quite as immaculate as when I first laid my eyes on it. (And to be honest, by this time I couldn't bear the thought of parting with a book that had provided me with so much reading pleasure.) I was obliged to find another copy for my friend - and quickly too.

Thank heaven for internet book shops. Now my friend has her new virgin copy to read, if she ever gets around to reading it, and I'm thrilled to have the frequently fondled familiar old copy next to my own bed. Together with heaps of other books I recently read or still want to read, tomorrow, next week, next month.

To all the readers out there, may 2010 be filled with fabulous books - bought, begged or borrowed - and enough spare hours to enjoy all of them.