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...