Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Coe for Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring not even a mouse... Well, not quite, not yet, but the Silly Season is upon us and incurable readers like me need lots of lovely books to help us through the silliness.

At this time of the year we want our reading matter to be relatively pain-free, not necessarily 'easy', but not too complicated, dark or depressing. (It's dark enough outside if you're living in the Northern Hemisphere.) We want books that are well-written, that goes without saying, gripping and convincing, preferably with a decent dose of humour.

I got lucky and kicked off the Festive Season with a book that meets all the above requirements. Jonathan Coe's The Closed Circle  is a sequel to his hilarious portrait of adolescence in the seventies in Britain, The Rotters' Club. You don't have to read the seventies novel before the sequel - set three decades later in Blair's New Labour Britain at the beginning of the 21st century - because Coe provides a synopsis of The Rotters' Club for those who have not read it, or have read it and (in the writer's own words) 'inexplicably forgotten it'. This tongue-in-cheek phrase from the Author's Note sets the tone for a satirical and entertaining novel, 'with a disturbing undertow of menace', according to the Literary Review.

I got aquainted with The Rotters' Club during a lazy summer week on a yacht off the Croatian coast last year and found it such perfect holiday reading that I promptly posted a blog about it ( Much to my delight I can now report  that the sequel is just as enjoyable and eminently suitable for the Silly Season. 'Intensely readable', is how Ian Rankin rates it - and he should know, having written some intensely readable books himself. I have to confess I still prefer the earlier novel, but then I'm a child of the seventies. I  could identify with everything depicted in The Rotters' Club, from the punk rock to the ugly brown wallpaper.

In The Closed Circle Benjamin Trotter and his old school friends are on the brink of middle-age: married, divorced, disillusioned and angst-ridden. Coe manages to achieve the same irresistable mix of politics and sensual pleasures, satire and seriousness, as in the earlier novel - and music once again plays a prominent role.  

The Rotters' Club, after all, is also the title of an album by the cult group Hatfield and the North. And one of the three sections of The Closed Circle is called High on the Chalk, inspired by a song with the same title from the album Beet, Maize and Corn by The High Llamas. Don't feel bad if you've never heard of these groups. Even my French partner, who's a walking encyclopedia of modern music and often listens to Hatfield and the North, had to admit he doesn't know The High Llamas.   

By the way, it's through my partner that I got to know Coe's work, only after I'd moved to France, where they adore him. He seems to be one of those English authors who are perhaps even more popular in France than in some Anglo-Saxon countries. So if you're still searching for something to read while you're digesting your Christmas turkey or trifle, I can assure you that most of his novels would make pretty good festive fare for the spirit: What a Carve Up!, The House of Sleep, The Dwarves of Death...

Season's Greetings to all readers out there - and may Santa bring you at least one great book this Christmas.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Travelling space

Novels often turn out to be better guides to the soul of a place than even the best official guide books. A first-rate fiction writer can grasp the essence of a country, a city, an era in a more creative way than most travelogues. 

I realised this once again during a recent short trip to the USA when I was fortunate enough to have Jonathan Franzen's Freedom as my fictional guide.

I'd been meaning to read Freedom ever since it was published last year. Like millions of readers worldwide I'd been enchanted by Franzen's The Corrections; I'd also read his earlier novel The Twenty-Seventh City (not quite as enchanting; the author was obviously still getting into his stride) and his thought-provoking nonfiction work How to Be Alone. But there were so many other books-to-be-read on my bedside table that I kept postponing the pleasure. 

Then I found myself on the east coast of the USA with a suitcase full of unsuitable books. Yes, I'm still old-fashioned enough to carry actual books instead of an electronic reading device when I travel. The extra weight isn't really a problem. I leave the books with friends along the way once I've read them - which usually leaves me with enough space in my suitcase to buy more books. This time, though, I'd packed in a hurry, and the books were all wrong, nothing even vaguely American.

Just the excuse I needed to walk into a New York airport bookshop, where I saw Freedom on a shelf waiting for me as if we had an appointment. An hour later I was reading it with the kind of slow-burning excitement that increases with each page. I'm sure I would have enjoyed the novel even if I'd never been to the USA, but reading it while I was over there was a real treat.

Freedom is a huge sprawling family story set over a few decades and in many different cities (which I couldn't all visit, obviously), but a substantial part of the narrative action happens in  the two cities where I spent most of my time: New York and Washington DC.  I also visited friends in Mclean, Virginia, just across the river from DC, where the young Joey Berglund sees 'a sylvan cul-de-sac that was like a vision of where (he) wanted to live as soon as he got rich'. Previously I'd never even heard of Mclean, but now I could understand exactly what Joey meant with that 'sylvan cul-de-sac'. There is even a short scene between Joey and Jenna in a Florida airport, which I read just after I'd flown to Florida. Talk about the right book at the right time. This one was perfect.

I don't mean that it's a perfect book - such ambitious novels seldom are. There are a few pages full of rather boring background information on Walter Berglund's complicated career moves which I would have gladly skipped. But the novel has nearly 600 pages, most of them gripping, satirical and serious, extremely well-written with totally convincing characters.

Walter Berglund's wife, the sporty and pretty Patty, is so vividly drawn that I was still thinking of her days after I'd finished the book. Their egotistical son, Joey, started out as the character I would have loved to hate and ended up learning to like somewhat reluctantly. And their eternally cool, eternally selfish rock-and-roll friend, Richard Katz, well, let's just say it's easy to understand why Patty found him so irresistible.

Freedom is a big novel about big ideas - politics and ecology, the state of the planet and overpopulation, capitalism and corruption, friendship and faithfulness - but the ideas are never abstract, always carried forward in a very concrete way by the characters. And there are moments of heart-stoppingly pure and beautiful writing. Let me leave you with one of my favourite paragraphs:

She went to the bathroom and sat on the closed toilet lid, her heart racing, until she heard Richard go outside and begin handling lumber. There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken. The first minute of a workday reminds you of all the other minutes that a day consist of, and it's never a good thing to think of minutes as individuals. Only after other minutes have joined the naked, lonely first minute does the day become safely integrated in its dayness. Patty waited for this to happen before she left the bathroom.

Bon voyage, if you're travelling soon. Here's hoping you find the perfect fictional guide. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Out of the shadows of 'children's books'

'You must write for children in the same way as you write for adults, only better.'

I couldn't help thinking of this famous quote by Maxim Gorky while reading Jason Wallace's Out of Shadows, winner of the 2010 Costa Children's Book Award and shortlisted for the prestigous Carnegie Medal 2011. Especially in the light of Martin Amis's arrogant remark in a recent interview that if he had 'a serious brain injury' he might well consider writing a children's book (

Of course Amis was duly taken on by some well-known authors of children's fiction. But unfortunately his words confirmed the lingering suspicion among many readers that you have to write 'down' when you write for children. That it's somehow 'easier' to write for children or teenagers - and that these authors therefore deserve less respect than their colleagues who write for grown-ups.

From my personal experience of writing for adults and for children, I know just how wrong these assumptions can be. Yes, there is a difference between writing for children and for adults, just as there is a difference between writing poems and novels, or plays and short stories. But this does not mean that writing poems is easier than writing novels, does it?

As far as I know the Nobel Prize has never been awarded to someone who writes exclusively for children or teenagers - and we'll probably have to wait for that happy day before children's fiction finally gets the respect it deserves - but many a worthy Nobel Prize winner has also written for children. The French laureate JMG le Clezio  is a good example - and I wouldn't dare call him brain damaged.    

The test of a good children's book has always been that it could be read and enjoyed by all ages. In fact, a really good children's book should be read by all ages. Think Alice in Wonderland, The Little Prince, Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird and many, many more.

Jason Wallace's intriguing debut novel definitely passes this test - which is why I'm almost sorry that the cover mentions the Costa Children's Book Award so boldly. Some potential adult readers might be put off by the knowledge that it was actually written for teenagers. And that would be a real pity. Out of Shadows is an initiation novel about a British boy's adolescent years in an expensive private boarding school in 1980's Zimbabwe - but it is much more than just another boarding school story.  The events begin shortly after Robert Mugabe has become the first black leader of the former Rhodesia, a Prime Minister deeply detested by most of the mainly white boys at Haven School. Their privileged families - and quite a few of their teachers, almost all of them still white - share their mistrust. The 15-year-long 'bush war' has left deep scars on both sides, black and white.

But Robert Jacklin's father is an optimistic believer in liberty and equality, a dreamer who has brought his unwilling wife and son from England to start a new life in a new non-racist country. Very soon Robert, desperate to be accepted by the other boys, learns to hide and betray his father's beliefs. He is especially keen to befriend  the leader of the group, Ivan Hascott, a cunning boy willing to go to any extreme to 'save' his country from the blacks.

The book reads like a thriller, short chapters full of action and horror, as you watch Robert fall under Ivan's spell, being drawn deeper and deeper into an abyss of bigotry and senseless cruelty. The malicious pecking order of 'good' traditional boys' boarding schools is brilliantly depicted, the law of the jungle, the survival of the fittest. By the time Robert reaches his last school year, he has become 'one of the boys', consciously losing his British accent, using the same slang and racist terms as his chums, even joining in the sadistic 'games' they play with children from the black village.

But then Robert Mugabe visits Haven School for the official opening of a new building named after him, and Robert Jacklin realises that Ivan has been hatching a deadly serious plan all along, a fanatic final attempt to change the course of history...

Of course the reader knows that Mugabe wasn't assassinated in 1987 - that he is still in power more than thirty years later, a stubborn dictator seemingly hellbent on destroying his country - but this is not where the real tension of the story lies. Wallace concentrates on the internal tension of a teenager being torn apart by conflicting feelings of loyalty and morality and the need to belong. Out of Shadows is a story about black people and white people, but it is never told in a simplified black and white way.

On the contrary, it leaves readers - of all ages - with the distinct feeling that life remains full of grey areas. Sorry, Martin Amis, but this is certainly not the kind of story a brain injured person would write.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Me and Madam and Eve

I know. This is supposed to be a blog about books, not comic strips. But hey, Madam & Eve is not just any old comic strip. It's become something of an institution back where I come from - South Africa's most popular cartoon - and it can be bought in the form of a book at least once a year.

But the main reason I couldn't resist posting this blog, is because of the back story. My 11-year old daughter discovered Madam & Eve's Greatest Hits, published in 1998, in a beautiful old second-hand bookstore in an obscure little town near the French Pyrenees during our summer vacation. She immediately bought it, with her own pocket money, 'to improve my English' - her first languages being French and Afrikaans. Now she diligently reads a page or two each night. Her English is rapidly improving - but not nearly as fast as her grasp of South African politics.

During the past week she asked: 'Ma, what is a truth and reconciliation commission?' I had some explaining to do. The next night: 'Ma, what is affirmative action?' I explained some more. We've dealt with 'wage negotiations', 'go-slow' and 'power cuts'. And we're smiling all the way.

To those of you who don't know the 'liberal' white 'Madam' Gwen Anderson and her sassy black domestic worker Eve Sisulu, it might sound like a reactionary throw-back to the Old South Africa, but the cartoon has become an international hit precisely because it constantly undermines all the old racist stereotypes and prejudices. Madam and Eve are always trying to get the better of each other - with Eve usually winning. There are some other remarkable characters, like Madam's son Eric who brings home a black girlfriend, testing the limits of Madam's 'liberalism'; Madam's atrociously colonial mother from England who lives on a liquid diet of gin and tonic; and the wide-eyed little black girl Thandi who likes hanging out with Mother Anderson. Famous politicians like Nelson Mandela and members of the current government often make guest appearances. And whenever anything interesting happens in South African politics - which is just about every day - the cartoon strip is there to make us laugh about it.

Madam & Eve was created at the dawn of the New South Africa, in July 1992, by Stephen Francis, Harry Dugmore and Rico Schacherl, and nearly twenty years later it is still produced by Francis and Schacherl. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Francis, an American married to a South African woman, who first hit on the idea after visiting his mother-in-law and encountering the South African phenomenon of the live-in maid. With his outsider's eye he could quickly spot the comic potential of a relationship which was strangely familiar to millions of people in the country. His mother-in-law happened to be called Gwen, but any other similarities between her and Madam are apparently purely coincidental. And the rest is cartoon history...

I would like to continue, but my daughter wants to know what is 'a sangoma'. And how can a woman sell 'mielies' in the street simply by shouting at the top of her voice? I guess have some more explaining to do.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Negotiating with Margaret

Writers are like friends. With some you have intense relationships - or with their books, at any rate - for a while and then you move on. Others come and go in your life. Now you read them, now you don't. Sometimes you love them, at other times they disappoint you.

And then there are those who become a part of your life. The Canadian author Margaret Atwood is someone with whom I've always identified strongly - and not only because of her passion for the Grimm brothers' fairytales and Greek mythology.

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002) is essential reading for anyone who ever wanted to make a living from writing, a marvellous guide book with most of the ingredients of Atwood at her best. It is clever yet accessible, serious without ever becoming pretensiously heavy, always dosed with humour. Of course it shows neither the full power of her imagination - for this you have to read her fiction - nor the astonishing versatality of her work, but it is enough to leave a lesser writer like me quite overawed.

Atwood, born in Ottowa in 1939, is known mostly for her novels (winning the Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin), but she has also produced several volumes of poetry and short stories, children's books and non-fiction, TV scripts, even lyrics and librettos. In the seventies she created a cartoon character called Survivalwoman - writing and drawing everything herself, under a pseudonym - which was featured in a magazine for years. Her novels vary from well-researched historical fiction such as Alias Grace (1996) to science fiction such as The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003).

She has received honoroury degrees from famous universities like Harvard and a dozen others, her books are translated all over the world and she has become a kind of national monument in the Canadian literary landscape.

As my son would say, what's not to admire?

My personal favourites among her books (besides just about everyting already mentioned in this blog) include her 1969 debut novel, The Edible Woman (the sort of savoury title I wish I could have dreamed up myself) and Cat's Eye, a novel about youthful friendship and memory with a striking opening line ('Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space'). Oh yes, and I also loved her latest short-story collection, Moral Disorder (2006).

In fact, she seems to be one of the rare contemporary authors whose career I've followed from the first to the latest book, spanning forty fertile years of writing, without ever finding her boring or predictable. Now isn't that the stuff that life-long friendships are made of?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A third of the whole

Life is too short to finish a book you don't like. This is probably the most precious lesson I've learned in my life as a reader. With so many wonderful works out there that I yearn to read - and more being written every day - why should I waste my time with anything less than wonderful?

With 'wonderful' I don't necessarily mean literary masterpieces. I mean any well-written, well-constructed piece of writing, from a crime novel to a children's picture book, which moves me personally.

The question, of course, is when do you drop a book. How many boring pages do you have to endure before you can be sure this is as good as it gets? Because another invaluable lesson I've learned from a lifetime of reading, is that you should never give up too soon. Not all great books grab you from the first line, like Tolstoi's Anna Karenina ('Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way') or Austin's Pride and Prejudice ('It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife').

Reading is not in the first place about instant gratification. Sometimes the pleasure you get out of a book is directly related to the effort you put into in. And sometimes you have to slog through a valley of incomprehension or boredom before you reach the peaks of pleasure. For me the book that drove home this lesson, was Don DeLillo's Underworld. It starts with a loong description of a baseball game which made me abandon the book two times before I eventually managed to get past the damn game - and fell in love with the rest. To this day I regard Underworld as one of the greatest American novels of the past fifty years.

Nowadays I have the one-third rule to help me decide when to drop a book. I'm not talking about bad books, the kind you drop after a few lines without a tinge of remorse, I'm talking about supposedly good books by supposedly good authors that just don't do it for me. You know, the ones your intelligent friends or some reviewers love, but they leave you stone cold? In these cases I believe I owe it to the author to read at least a third. If it has 150 pages, I'll read 50; if it has 900, I'll keep going until page 300. If I'm not hooked by then, I know I won't get hooked at all. Then I cut my losses and run. Bye-bye, book. No-one can say I didn't try. Je ne regrette rien.

I recently applied this one-third rule to the Australian Steve Tolz's 711-page debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole. This 'riotously funny first novel is harder to ignore than a crate of puppies, twice as playful and just about as messy', according to Wall Street Journal on the jacket, which made me believe it would be perfect summer reading. Well, maybe I'm not as fond as puppies as I thought I was, but I found the playfulness and the messiness rather tiring. Still, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, so I decided to withhold my judgement until I'd read at least a third.

It tells the story of the two Dean brothers, one a criminal, the other crazy, and of the son, Jasper, that the crazy Martin Dean brought up by himself. It starts with Jasper in jail - where else would you be with such a family? - then jumps to Martin's catastrophic childhood, then back to Jasper, a sprawling epic if ever I saw one. It abounds with the kind of self-deprecating black humour that the young Woody Allen was so good at. But I have to admit, by page 237 I was still underwhelmed.

I kept going, though, mainly because I was vacationing in another city with nothing else to read. I only really got into the book in the second half, and by the end I was actually glad I'd persevered. Like when you grow to love a puppy you wanted to drown in the beginning, I suppose.

But I'm convinced it would have been a much better novel if the author, with the help of a rigorous editor, could have deleted at least a third. If only he'd taken his own title a little more seriously. A fraction of a fraction would have been sufficient. Two thirds of the whole would have been a very satisfactory read, thank you.

Who was it who said in every fat book there's a thin one screaming to get out? I don't agree, I love some fat books, but this one could have done with a diet.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The tiger's touch

What is it with tigers and English literary prizes? I couldn't help wondering when I heard that Téa Obreht was the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011 for her debut novel The Tiger's Wife.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm not dissatisfied that a 25-year-old author won a major fiction prize for a novel not written in her mother tongue, but in a language she learnt later in life, as a refugee from the former Yugoslavia. I think it's an astonishing feat that deserves all the praise - and the prizes - the author can possibly get.

But it is the third time in a decade that a novel featuring a tiger - a real tiger or a tiger used as a metaphor - receives a coveted literary award. In 2002 Yann Martell, born in Spain and living in Canada, won the Man Booker Prize (as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Governor General Award) for the wildly imaginative Life of Pi. This tells the rather tall story of a 16-year-old boy trapped on a lifeboat somewhere in the Pacific Ocean along with a huge Royal Bengal tiger. Oh yes, also on the small boat are a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg and a female orang-utan...

Then, in 2008, the Indian writer Aravind Adiga struck the literary jackpot, winning the Man Booker for his debut novel, The White Tiger. This time not only a picture of a tiger on the cover, as with Life of Pi, but also the word tiger in the title, just to make sure the tiger's touch really works.

It has to be noted, though, that this novel is not about a real tiger. 'The White Tiger' is the nom de guerre of an entertaining criminal character called Balram Halwai, who tells his life story in a series of letters written to a Chinese politician. Don't ask. Just read it - if you haven't yet - because it turns a lot of comfortable conceptions of India and Indian-English novels inside out. I say this as a dedicated fan of Indian-English fiction and authors such as Vikram Seth, Vikram Chandra, Salman Rushdie, Anita and Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh and many many more. Adiga has a savagely angry voice of his own among all these literary greats.

And now the astonishingly young and gifted Obreht has made it a tiger's hat trick with another prize-winning work of fiction featuring a tiger on the cover, in the title and on the pages.

Moral of the story? If you're an aspiring writer, don't, please don't, write a novel featuring a tiger in the hope that you're going to get lucky. Surely the tiger trend must be nearing its end? After more than a decade of tiger fiction, wouldn't it be nice to be entertained by other fascinating feline creatures such as lions or leopards? But then again, The Leopard has been done, brilliantly, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa - and turned into an equally brilliant film by Visconti. And Henning Mankell wrote The White Lioness and C.S. Lewis gave us The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe more than fifty years ago...

So, if you absolutely have to have a wild animal in your next novel, make it an elephant or a rhinoceros or a hippopotamus. Start a new trend! It's about time that we stop this rampaging literary tiger in its tracks.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


'93 years. This is the very last stage. The end is not far away any more.' This is my own translation of the opening sentences of a little booklet that has taken France by storm during the past few months. The author is 93-year-old Stéphane Hessel, concentration camp survivor, former French Resistance fighter, diplomat and ambassador, and the publisher is a two-person outfit run from a house in the south of France by a former correspondent of Le Monde, Sylvie Crossman.

Indigène Editions usually publish rather obscure books on Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, rarely selling more than a couple of thousand copies. But Hessel's pamphlet, Indignez-vous!, has become a word-of-mouth publishing phenomenon, selling 1.5 million copies in about six months in France alone, with versions in many other languages already published or in the pipeline.

Literally translated the title would be a command, something imperative like 'get indignant' or 'get angry', but the recently published British version bears a more polite (more British?) title: Time for Outrage.

Hessel urges younger readers (and at his advanced age, just about every reader is a younger reader) to revive the ideals of wartime resistance to the Nazis by protesting against modern social and political ills such as the growing gap between the very rich and the very poor, the state of the planet, the way illegal immigrants are treated, the way the media is influenced by the rich and powerful - to name but a few causes for outrage. It ends with a heart-felt message:

'To those who will be forming the 21st century, we say with all our affection: To create is to resist. To resist is to create.'

In other words the pamphlet of less than 30 pages (bound by two staples and sold for 3 euros) is full of praiseworthy sentiments, forcefully expressed, but it doesn't contain anything truly original. Or in any case not original enough to explain the astonishing sales figures. Hessel himself admits gallantly that had it been written by a younger person, it would probably not have sold nearly as well.

But then Hessel is not just any old guy preaching to the young. His entire personal history places him on a moral pedestal. Here is a real-life self-sacrificing hero in an era where such heroes have become a rare phenomenon - almost as rare as well-meaning political pamphlets becoming bestsellers. If further proof of heroism is needed, it might be mentioned that his royalties are all donated to his favourite charity causes.

Hessel also has rather unique cultural credentials. His parents, Franz Hessel and Helen Grund, inspired two of the three main characters in Henri-Pierre Roche's novel Jules et Jim, on which François Truffaut based his cult film starring a magnificent Jeanne Moreau. These autobiographical details might have something to do with the runaway success of Indignez-vous! in France, and maybe even in Germany where Hessel was born and where the German translation, Empört euch!, sold nearly 100 000 copies in a month or two.

But how does one explain the impressive sales in Spain or Italy? Or the fact that translation rights have been sold in more than twenty countries, from Croatia to Korea and from Australia to Argentinia?

Well, I guess if we'd been able to explain publishing phenomenons, we'd be able to predict them too - and then they wouldn't be phenomenons any more, they'd become simple marketing strategies. This is exactly what I love about the world of books: the marvellous unpredictability of an indignant sermon by an angry young man of 93 becoming an international hit. Outrageous, isn't it?

Friday, April 22, 2011

A day in the life of...

I just had to share this link with other incurable readers! What a wonderful idea, a day in the life of... thousands of fictional characters.

Go through the list, minute by minute, to revisit some great scenes from literature, meet up again with marvellous characters, and make stunning new aquaintances.

Of course you can also go through your personal favourite novels to find more phrases mentioning a specific time of day or night. Then why not add them to this growing list?

Have fun!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Big author, small book

Ever since I published my first novel, I've tried to keep out of the messy business of critisising other novelists. I particularly avoid reviewing fellow South African writers, because the pool is so small and the egos are so big and literary critisism often ends up being nothing more than a case of mutual back-scratching. Or reciprocal nastiness.

But praising other novelists is another matter. That's why I started this blog, to spread the Good Word of Reading, to tell other readers about books I love. When it comes to reading, I have the heart of an enthusiastic missionary rather than a strict judge.

If I don't like a book, why should I waste time writing about it? That's mostly my credo, also when blogging.

When I do agree to write a review for the traditional press, I try to choose an author I've admired in the past or a book I suspect I would like. I prefer being nice to being nasty - maybe it's as simple as that.

But nice doesn't always cut the dice. Recently a Johannesburg newspaper asked me to write a short review of Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa's latest novel - latest available in English, that is - The Bad Girl. A task I took on with pleasure because I remember enjoying Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter many years ago (the book, not the movie) and being impressed with some of Vargas Llosa's more serious works.

What a disappointment this turned out to be! Not because The Bad Girl a bad novel; no, it's a quite enjoyable little love story, but it's simply not good enough for the latest laureate of the most prestigeous literary prize on earth. I felt rather presumptious, a small author like me 'attacking' a literary giant like Vargas Llosa, but this time I simply couldn't be 'nice'.

If you read Afrikaans, you could read the original review published in Beeld earlier this week ( If not, let me sum it up: 'Of a Nobel Prize-winning author you expect more than a good yarn. You expect a deeper insight, a unique style, a personal vision of the world, something bigger than the sum of the story and the person writing the story, so that by the time you reach the last sentence you are not exactly the same person as when you started reading the first page. Great books change the reader. Unfortunately even the greatest authors cannot always produce great books.'

The Bad Girl is a small book - please note, not a thin book, at more than 400 pages - about lifelong obsessive love. Comparisons are odious, yes, yes, we all know that, but I couldn't help comparing this novel rather unfavorably to another Latin-American novel about the same subject written by another Latin-American Nobel Prize winner. I'm referring to the unforgettable Love in the Time of Cholera (the book, once again, not the movie) by Gabriel García Márquez - who used to be Vargas Llosa's friend, although apparently they haven't spoken to each other for more than 30 years. Thirty Years of Solitude? Only in South America...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A joyful reunion

Glory hallelujah! This week I unpacked the last of numerous boxes filled with books in our new house - which I can now start calling home. Because home, as any book lover knows, is not only where your heart is. It is also where your books are.

All our other boxes and belongings have been unpacked weeks ago, but the books required special attention. If you have a huge amount of books, you need to arrange them according to some system - alphabetically, fiction distinguished from non-fiction, whatever works for you - otherwise you'll never be able to find the book you want when you want it. My books are now not only alphabetically arranged, but also according to languages (French, Afrikaans/Dutch and English), with fiction separated from non-fiction, poetry and plays separated from novels, and non-fiction subdivided into travel, history, philosophy, literature studies, dictionaries and grammar books, etc. The food and cook books are on a special shelf in our new kitchen (where else?), while the 'coffee-table books' are not on a coffee table (because we don't have enough coffee tables for our collection) but all over the house, in the bedrooms, next to the toilet, on the staircase...

For the first time in years I can find any book I need within a minute.

The problem is that I don't live alone in this house, nor am I the only reader, and the other inhabitants (i.e. husband and children) are already messing up my beautiful system. As I don't see any solution, short of forbidding anyone else in the house to touch a book - rather counterproductive for a wife and mother trying to encourage reading,isn't it? - I suspect that by the time I post my next blog, I'll once again be searching all over the house whenever I want any specific book.

But I won't have been wasting my time unpacking and arranging my books so carefully. It wasn't a chore, it was more like a joyful reunion of a long ago school class. I found novels I didn't even know I had, and others I'd been missing for years, and still others I'd loved long ago and want to read again to see if the same passion can be rekindled.

Among the tempting group of old flames are Don DeLillo's marvellous comic novel White Noise and Robertson Davies's The Rebel Angels. Among those that went missing years ago and have now unexpectedly turned up all battered and dusty, are most of John Irving's earlier novels, including the unforgettable The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire and A Prayer for Owen Meany. But the loveliest surprise of all was the treasure I didn't know I owned, for instance the classic French novel by Madame de La Fayette, La Princesse de Clèves. I actually wanted to buy this very first modern novel, written more than 300 years ago, because it is one of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's pet hates (for a bit background, read 'Nicolas Sarkozy, murderer of princess of Clèves': and has recently been turned into two interesting French movies about contemporary teenagers, La Belle Personne and the documentary Nous, les princesses de Clèves , proving once again that good literature never really dates.

Now I can't wait to start reading all the 'new', refound and rediscovered books in my new home. Happy reading to you too.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Reading vs writing (and renovating)

I'm going to have to take a break from this blog for a while, because I need to start working on a new novel. Not that I'm not one of those authors who stop reading while they're writing. I don't even stop reading while I'm brushing my teeth. I'm always astonished when I hear authors say they don't read for lack of time or fear of contagion by another author's style or whatever reason they manage to find.

How can a writer not read? If you don't read books, surely you still read newspapers, magazines, internet articles, cornflake boxes, grafitti on the back of public toilet doors? And couldn't all these words, words, words also influence your style? So why not rather read a good book? Or even better, read various brilliant books by various brilliant authors, so your style won't be influenced by a single one but might benefit from general exposure to brilliance!

So rest assured, I'll keep reading - but I know I'll have even less time than usual to write about what I'm reading. Because my second reason for begging some time out is that I'm in the process of moving out of an old house into another old house which needs a lot of TLC - that coy phrase property agents love to use when they actually mean you'll be driven to despair, divorce or a nervous breakdown by the challenges of the renovating process. For the past two months all my weekends and free time have been devoted to this task - which is why I haven't finished Hilary Mantel's magnificent Wolf Hall, started before Christmas already - and I think I can safely say that this unsatisfactory situation will continue for quite a while.

But oh, the comfort a good book can give while you're busy with mind-numbing menial jobs like scrubbing shreds of old wallpaper off damp walls! My hands may be cleaning and sanding a wooden floor in France, but my mind is constantly engaged by Henri VIII's glittering court in sixteenth century England. Thank you, Hilary Mantel, thank you. I'm reading the novel about Thomas Cromwell's amazing rise to power ever so slowly, not only because I lack the time to tackle the more than 600 pages in any other way, but because it is turning out to be a very commendable cure for the home-renovating blues.

Meanwhile, if you're following this blog, wish me luck - and don't stop reading. I promise you I won't.