Friday, November 23, 2012

Fifty shades of holy crap

Holy crap! I promise you I did not post this picture upside-down intentionally. But now that it's done, I see that it suits the mood of this piece perfectly. This is not my usual kind of blog post, so why should it have the usual kind of picture? 

I prefer to write about books I love rather than books I don't, simply because there are so many good books I want more people to read - and so many bad books I wished less people were reading. Bad books don't need blogs to help them sell, do they? 

But every once in a while a bad little book comes along that just won't be ignored. Actually three bad little books in this case, and sorry if that sounds too much like the three little piglets in the fairy tale, but the whole publishing phenomenon of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has become something of a fairy tale. At least for the author, EL James, who was utterly unknown barely a year ago and has now sold tens of millions of books in dozens of countries. And she achieved all this with a saucy fairy tale about a virginal student princess named Anastasia who is kissed (and spanked and flogged and beaten) into sexual awakening by a powerful prince of the business world named Christian Grey.

Good for Ms James, I should say. Anyone who knows me would tell you I'm all for transforming fairy tales into more transgressive genres. My biggest problem with Fifty Shades of Grey, though, is that it's all pseudo-transgression, with endless talk about sadomasochistic practices leading to very little action on that front. Most of the erotic action is of the so-called 'normal' kind - that is if you find it normal for a very recently 'deflowered' girl to have mind-blowing orgasms at the drop of a hat while maintaining a constant dialogue with her 'inner goddess'. The worst that can be said of the sex scenes is that they tend to be described with too many unoriginal adjectives and far too many exclamation marks.

As one reviewer wrote, 'suffering through 500 pages of this heroine's inner dialogue was torturous, and not in the intended, sexy kind of way'.

Basically this is M&B with S&M - old-fashioned Mills and Boons spiced up with a bit of Sadism and Masochism - boosting all the classic ingredients of those romances: innocent heroine meets fatally attractive/powerful/rich/brilliant hero (in the case of the incredible Christian Grey, all of these adjectives apply) with a dark and difficult past; he saves her life (repeatedly, throughout the trilogy, in the case of the incredible Christian Grey) while she saves his soul; and love conquers all. You don't have to read all three books to know that Anastasia and Christian will end up getting decently married and living happily ever after. While still enjoying kinky sex, of course, just to make sure all readers get the point that nothing beats the pleasures of the conjugal bed. Or floor. Or whatever.  

OK, enough already, before I start sounding like a cynical and sexually frustrated wife. I've heard that the trilogy has added spice to the boring sex lives of many married couples, for which Ms James also deserves praise. As for me, I prefer novels that are well-written, with believable characters and situations, and sex-scenes without inner goddesses interfering all the time. And whatever else Fifty Shades of Grey is, well-written it is not. 

'Clunky prose', some reviewers call it, but clunky doesn't cover it. Cringe-inducing is more like it. Believe it or not, but this erotic heroine's favourite exclamation - and boy, does she love exclaiming! - is 'Holy cow!'. When she's feeling more daring, she uses 'Holy crap!'. When she loses it completely, she shouts 'Holy shit!' and occasionally even 'Holy fuck!'. I mean, really. 

So, good for Ms James and all her millions of female readers who dream of being dominated in bed or in life, but count me out. I certainly won't be reading the rest of the trilogy. Sometimes, as far as books and sex go, once is indeed enough.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Betting on books

If I was the gambling type, I might have made a quick buck this month with some clever literary bets. Two of my favourite novels of the past year have just been crowned with two major literary prizes. And I'm not saying this with the wisdom of hindsight; I've got my blog to prove it!

In May I posted a piece on an Afrikaans novel which impressed me so much that I simply had to share my enthusiasm with as many people as possible, even though this blog usually deals only with English books: And last week my enthusiasm was richly rewarded when Sonja Loots's Sirkusboere won the South African M-Net Prize. Well done, Ms Loots.

Even bigger and better is the Man Booker Prize which was won by Hilary Mantel - once again! - for Bring up the Bodies, about which I raved in my previous post: With this achievement Mantel becomes the first woman to win two 'Bookers' and the first author to be crowned for a novel (Wolf Hall) as well as its sequel. Brava to the marvellous Mantel.

But all this trumpet blowing is actually just a way of easing into a rather embarrassing confession. Because when it comes to the biggest literary prize of all, also announced this month, I've bombed completely. To my shame I've never read anything written by the Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize,  Mo Yan. To be perfectly honest, I didn't even know his name until last week. Although if I'd been the gambling type, I would have noticed his name on the Ladbrokes list of possible winners, with the rather high odds of 8 to 1.

Although not as high as the odds against Bob Dylan (12/1), whom I would have bet on if I was into betting. Not because I believed that he would win, but because I would have really loved it if an old rock 'n roll poet won this most respectable of all prizes. So if I had to bet on the Nobel Prize, I would certainly have lost whatever I might have made with the M-Net and the Man Booker.

Thank heavens I'm not the gambling type, after all.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bring up the books

How does she do it? How does Hilary Mantel take a tired old piece of history that everyone in the Anglo-Saxon world knows - the story of the terrible King Henry VIII with his many wives - and transform it into a thrilling literary page-turner?

And not just once. She did it with Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and seduced millions of readers all over the world. She does it again with the sequel, Bring up the Bodies, which deals with Anne Boleyn's fall from glory and Thomas Cromwell's irresistible rise and rise. And I'm willing to bet she'll do it again with the third novel in the trilogy - for which I, for one, can hardly wait.

Which brings me to the next question: How did Hilary Mantel turn me into an avid reader of historical fiction? Into someone who can't wait for a sequel? Because, just for the record, I've never been interested in historical fiction and I don't do sequels.

Alas, I can't answer any of my own questions. All I can say with certainty is that Bring up the Bodies enchants the reader from its striking first sentence ('His children are falling from the sky') to the very last few phrases: 'There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.'

What an ending! Or should I say beginning?

More questions. How does Mantel transform the infamous Cromwell into such a likeable character? And she does this, astonishingly, without hiding his greed or his hypocrisy, his cruelty or his callousness from the reader. She just somehow polishes his image, places him in context, makes the reader understand his mind. Mantel even manages to turn King Henry VIII into, well, not exactly an admirable character, but not completely despicable either. She shows him to us as a product of a specific time and a particular place, like Thomas Cromwell, so that his obsession with having a male heir to secure the safety of his realm doesn't seem quite as selfishly stupid as we thought.

Mantel brings her marvelous eye for detail to the many minor characters too. If this was a movie (as it will probably soon be), it would have a huge cast of unforgettable characters. Though none as unforgettable as Cromwell, for whose role I already have a certain broody dark-eyed British actor in mind. I wonder if you can guess who?

Something else. I read most books in paperback versions - for practical and economic reasons - but with Bring up the Bodies I was too impatient to wait for the paperback. I read Fourth Estate's beautiful hardback version with the gold-leaf cover and Anne Boleyn's 'little neck' on the endpapers. Which of course just added to the pleasure of the experience. But I have to ask myself: How did Mantel manage to make me so impatient?

I'm beginning to suspect that Ms Mantel might have some magical powers. But please don't repeat this. As you know, poor Anne Boleyn was also suspected of witchcraft, and look what happened to her. Fact is, I want this admired author to write the sequel, as soon as possible, and I really don't care if she uses sorcery or black magic to do this.

As long as she keeps writing, so we can keep reading.

Bring up more books, Hilary Mantel!  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The sense of a thin book

I am always taken aback when I hear a fellow reader declare that he/she doesn't like thick books. Isn't that as silly as saying you don't like fat friends? Just imagine how boring your life would be if all your books and all your friends were perfectly slim!

My books are my friends and, like my real living friends, I like them in all shapes and shades: thin and fat and in-between, old and young, sad and serious and funny, easy-going and difficult-to-understand... Variety really is the spice of reading and of friendship.

Different books, like different friends, correspond to different moods and needs. At home, especially in winter, I love to relax next to the fireplace with a glass of red wine and a big, fat, swirling, overwhelming novel. In summer, especially when I travel, I tend to go for small, slight books, often volumes of poetry or short stories, for obvious practical reasons. I'm not talking of e-books, of course, I'm talking of real paper books with which I can travel lightly, books I can read on a deserted beach, in a foamy bath, on the deck of a yacht, in a tent by the light of a torch or next to a ridiculously crowded swimming pool. To name but a few of the places I've found myself reading during recent summer holidays.

And sometimes I stumble upon a really thin, practically perfect little novel that turns ordinary summer reading into an extraordinary experience. The Vintage paperback copy of Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending, which I read outside during a heat wave last weekend, has only 150 pages - but oh, what wonders await the reader on almost every page! 'Barnes squeezes into it not just a sense of the infinite complexity of the human heart but the damage the wrong permutations can cause when combined' - this was the praise bestowed upon him by the venerable Financial Times - to which I can only say amen.

It is a deceptively simple tale, told in an irresistibly informal style by a wistful, often ironic first-person narrator. This is the way the divorced and retired civil servant Tony Webster, calmly and quietly living out his last years, describes his relationship with his only child, Suzie:

She's thirty-three, maybe thirty-four. Yes, thirty-four. We haven't had any sort of falling-out since I sat in the front row of an oak-panelled municipal room and then did my job as a witness. I remember thinking at the time that I was signing off on her - or, more exactly, signing myself off. Duty done, one child safely seen to the temporary harbour of marriage. Now all you have to do is not get Alzheimer's and remember to leave her such money as you have. And you could try to do better than your parents by dying when the money will actually be of use to her. That'd be a start.

And further down on the same page (102) he treats us to his ironic view of his role as a grandfather:

'You can take Lucas to watch football when he's older,' she once told me. Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot on to the pitch (...) How to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you've even understood what life's about. Oh yes, I look forward to taking Lucas to the football. 

But an unexpected lawyer's letter shatters his peaceable existence and forces him to recall an almost forgotten episode from his youth. As an insecure university student, he lost his clever girlfriend to one of his best friends, the brilliant philosophy student Adrian Finn - who shortly thereafter slashed his wrists in a bath,  justifying this dramatic last act in an intricate 'suicide note' (which read more like a moral treaty) 'about the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you'.

Tony Webster, seeing himself as a prime example of a passive person merely letting life happen to him, has always regarded Adrian Finn as some sort of philosophical hero, but the surprising letter from the lawyer of the long-lost former girlfriend's family raises many more questions than it answers. The most important questions are about memory and morality, about the fallibility and subjectivity of both, and Webster has to start investigating - or re-investigating - his own past:

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but - mainly - to ourselves. (Page 95)

At this point the story Webster tells us - but, mainly, himself - becomes as gripping as a thriller, 'a whodunnit of memory and morality', as the Independent newspaper aptly called it. The concluding scenes deliver one shock after another, right up to the stunning last sentence: There is great unrest.

Hats off to Julian Barnes, who deservedly won the previous Man Booker Prize with this thin little book dealing with all the Big Themes of literature: love and hate, family and friendship, life and death. Truly a master's class in concise yet entertaining storytelling.

And now I'm off to read another small masterpiece perfectly suitable for summer: Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Maintains, set in the sweltering heat of Lisbon in the summer of 1938 ...

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

I love Paris...

Henry James is certainly not what I'd call light summer reading. But after enjoying Michiel Heyns's latest novel, Invisible Furies, I've been tempted to wade against my usual summer laziness and dip into The Ambassadors again.

As anyone who has followed Heyns's late-blooming literary career should know, he is quite the master when it comes to the work of The Master. He published his debut novel, The Children's Day, in 2002, shortly before retiring as a professor of literature at the University of Stellenbosch, and has since been making up for lost time, as it were, publishing no less than six acclaimed novels in the past decade and 'fast becoming one of South Africa's most respected novelists', according to The Sunday Independent. This year he has already received two important local literary prizes for his previous novel, Lost Ground, and seems to be finally gaining the recognition he deserves.

But to get back to James: Michiel Heyns's second novel, The Typewriter's Tale (2005), is a fictionalised biography of a period in James's life, seen through the eyes of a typist to whom The Master dictates the long, winding, complicated and often ironic sentences that make his novels rather difficult to read - not ideal for 'beach reading' - a hundred years later. But Heyns's own highly developed sense of irony turns this subject with the potential weight of a chainball into something light enough to float, never too serious or inaccessible. Henry James made, well, not exactly easy - no one would want to do that to James - but delightfuly digestible.

And now Heyns has done it again, although this time he returns to James in a more oblique way, by using The Ambasssadors - which was apparently James's favourite among his own novels - as the frame on which he weaves his modern-day take on 'dear old Paris', where 'everything, everybody shows'. (Quoting James, not Heyns.)

'You've all of you here so much visual sense,' remarks Strether, the protagonist of The Ambassadors (a mild and middle-aged American who is sent to Paris to lure his wealthy fiancée's prodigal son back home), before adding: 'There are moments when it strikes one that you haven't any other.'      

This same 'visual sense' almost overwhelms Heyns's protagonist, Christopher Turner (a mild and middle-aged South African sent to Paris to lure his wealthy best friend's prodigal son back home), who is enchanted by the Beautiful People he meets and starts questioning his own staid life and tired loyalties. Heyns cleverly places most of his Parisian characters in the fashion world - models, designers, make-up artists, agents and claqueurs (young men who are paid to look good and applaud at fashion shows) - an environment ruled by appearances even more, if that seems possible, than the rest of Paris.

You don't have to have read The Ambassadors to appreciate Heyns's  novel, but it does add to the pleasure if you can connect the dots between the story lines and the characters of the two novels. Some even share the same name, like Gloriani who is an admired artist in The Ambassadors and an admired fashion designer in Invisible Furies, and who rather reminded me of the real-life designer Armani - although of course the author might have had someone completely different in mind. As for the outrageously brash Alessandra Giovanelli with the dead designer brother, well, you don't have to be a fashion slave to remark the resemblance with a certain Donatella Versace...

But if all these fashion references make you fear a concoction as light and fluffily French as choux pastry, then you obviously haven't seen Master Heyns work his magic yet. Au contraire, Invisible Furies is actually quite a serious meditation on  beauty, superficiality and the way the eye can deceive, as well as an exploration of a theme dear to the author's heart: the tension between the homeland and the wide world out there. In Lost Ground the protagonist returns to the small Karoo dorp of his youth after living abroad for most of his life, while in Invisible Furies Christopher Turner returns to the great city of Paris for the first time in thirty years after spending all of his life in South Africa. Heyns manages all this while retaining his light and ironic touch, so that the book never becomes too heavy to read on the beach - or better still, on a park bench in Paris, if you're lucky enough to visit Paris this summer.

Because, maybe above all else, the book is an ode of love to an eternally beautiful city. If you love Paris - and who doesn't, come on, honestly? - you'll probably find the book as hard to resist as the city. Bon voyage, if you're travelling in that way. And happy reading, even if you're not.  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What a wonderful circus

Usually my blog posts are about English books - but every once in a while a book comes along that is so special I simply can't resist the temptation to spread the word, even though it has not been translated into English. Or not yet, I should say, because I really hope Afrikaans author Sonja Loots's Sirkusboere will soon be available to a much wider readership.

Sirkusboere, as you might have guessed, means 'Circus Boers' and tells the incredible-but-true story of a group of Afrikaans soldiers who, having lost the Boer War against the mighty British Empire, become part of a kind of 'freak show' in the USA. They are transported to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the World's Fair, in St Louis in 1904, where they are exhibited along with Wild West legends like Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, spectacularly painted 'Red Indians', and picturesque tribes from 'Darkest Africa'. Some of the Circus Boers, like the dour old General Piet Cronjé who surrendered to the English at the decisive battle of Paardeberg, eventually end up at the tacky amusement parks of Coney Island in New York.

Numerous novels and non-fiction books have been written about the Boer War, but astonishingly enough most South Africans are still unaware of this bizarre epilogue to the war. All hail to Loots for excavating the historical facts through years of research and turning it into a wonderfully entertaining story of human frailty and foibles. The three main characters - the flamboyant English circus owner Frank Fillis who dreams up the whole idea of 'performing' the Boer War for American audiences; the restless and ambitious younger General Ben Viljoen who grabs the chance of making money, publishing his memoirs and mixing with the rich and famous; and the already mentioned General Cronjé, rigidly religious, deeply conservative and seemingly wallowing in self-pity - are totally convincing, each with his own strengths and weaknesses. So are many of the minor characters, like Cronjé's black farm labourer and henchman Fenyang who gets dragged into the war - and the circus - completely against his will.

Loots's prose is beautiful, at times as playful and joyous as circus music, then again sad and sombre like a funeral dirge, with lovely sensual passages and lots of humour too.

But what struck me most of all, is how relevant the characters' anguish still seems, more than a century after the Boer War. In the new democratic South Africa there are many characters like Ben Viljoen and Piet Cronjé, middle-aged white men who lost the Apartheid war against 'terrorists' on the country's borders and are trying to get on with their lives with varying degrees of success. Ben Viljoen wanted to have nothing more to do with his homeland under a new ruler and spent the rest of his life in New Mexico; Piet Cronjé returned to his roots on his family's farm and spent his remaining years trying to justify his actions and decisions during the lost war.

And the dreaming, scheming Frank Fillis, always looking for fame and fortune, trying to make money out of war and misery, is another universal and timeless character.

If you don't know much about the Boer War and can't read Afrikaans, you'll have to keep your fingers crossed, with me, that Sirkusboere finds a translator who could do it justice. As for the rest of you, I urge you to read it in its original version. You won't be sorry - and you can quote me on that.  

Friday, March 30, 2012

Long live Danny Smiricky!

Ever since I heard of the death of Josef Skvorecky, I've wanted to post a little personal tribute to this wonderful Czech writer. It took me nearly three months, because I was up to my neck in other writing and wading through books I had to read before participating in writers' events, but now I've run out of excuses. Rather late than never.

So here goes.

Skvorecky died on 3 January this year, at the age of nearly ninety, in his adopted country of Canada, where he'd been living for more than forty years after fleeing the Soviet invasion of his homeland in 1968. He became a professor of English at the University of Toronto and started the Czech-language publishing  house, 68 Publishers, which kept Czech literature alive by publishing authors in exile or dissident writers who couldn't be published in Communist Czechoslovakia. Some of them, like Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, have become internationally famous.

Skvorecky also reached a certain level of fame and recognition, even being nominated for the Nobel Prize at one stage, but many admirers of his writing would probably agree with me that he should have been much wider known by now. Josef Skvorecky, at the same time serious and accessible, satirical and affectionate, darkly comical and richly ironic, is quite simply a superb writer. Far too many people have not yet read his 'magnum opus' (as it was praised by none other than Milan Kundera), The Engineer of Human Souls. This huge, multifaceted, tragi-farcical  novel, whose title refers to Stalin's infamous definition of a writer, was first published in English in the eighties and made an indelible impression on me when I read it in the early nineties.

It is one of those rare books I remember so clearly that I can instantly recall not only when I read it, but exactly where, in which circumstances, what the weather was like, what car I was driving and even what clothes I was wearing. A book as evocative as some odours can be. Do you know what I mean?

I was living in an old slave cottage on a wine farm near Stellenbosch, South Africa, a single mother with a baby boy, and I couldn't wait to get my son to sleep at night so I could spend a few enchanted hours with Danny Smiricky, the hero of the story. Afterwards I realised that Danny was a recurring character in Skvorecky's novels, the author's fictional alter ego, but this was the first time I met him. And it really was infatuation at first sight.

'Ït is a difficult work to summarize,' as the New York Times stated in its glowing review, 'it is a deep pleasure to read.' I find it impossible to summarize it, but Skvorecky's own subtitle gives it a go: The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love and Death. Add to these 'old themes' the love of jazz and literature, with each of the seven chapters named after a great dead author (Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad and Lovecraft), the absurdity of the dictatorships Danny Smiricky has to deal with (first Nazi, then Soviet), the emptiness of his exile in a shallow world of capitalism... In short, what you get, is what Time Magazine called 'the heartbreaking belly laugh': 'So this is what the novel has been! So this is what the novel can still be!'

I still wanted to say something about The Miracle Game, which was written before The Engineer of Human Souls (although the English translation came later) and where we meet a younger version of Danny Smiricky, as well as some of the other novels in which we can follow further adventures of the intrepid Danny. But I find that I've written myself into a frenzy of desire to read The Engineer of Human Souls once again. As can be seen from the tattered state of the books in the picture above, I've read both of them really thoroughly when I read them the first time, but now I want to do it again. Now.

And if I've inspired myself to read Skvorecky's magnum opus again, I can only hope I've tempted some of you to read it for the first time. Go on, you won't regret it. Josef Skvorecky may be dead, but his blacker than black humour survives, his love of jazz survives, his most beloved character survives. Long live Danny Smiricky!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Women looking for words

What a sad season this silly St Valentine's month is turning out to be, with the disappearance of two unforgettable female voices. And I'm not referring to Whitney Houston. The death of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska on 1 February and that of American lyricist Dory Previn on St Valentine's Day didn't draw nearly as much media attention, but the loss to lovers of wise and honest voices is immeasurably greater.

It might seem facetious to compare a 'serious' Nobel Prize winning poet to a more 'superficial' singer-songwriter with strong Hollywood ties, but let's leave literary snobbery aside and look at the words they left us. Both these women, both in their late eighties when they died, spent a long lifetime obsessively looking for the right word. In fact, Szymborska's very first published poem (in a daily newspaper in 1945) was titled 'Looking for a word'. And who can ever forget Previn's delectably witty song 'Yada Yada (La Scala)' about the frustration of too many words? In case you don't know it, here's an excerpt:

Let's stop talking, talking, talking, wasting precious time, 
just a lot of empty noise that isn't worth a dime,  
words of wonder, words of whether, 
should we, shouldn't we be together, yada yada yada (...)
So we sit at a restaurant table, 
discussing reasons we're unable
to commit.
That's not it...

And Szymborska, in one of her early poems from the fifties, 'Classifieds', which already contained the wit and wonder and ironic distance for which she would later become famous, stated:
I TEACH silence
in all languages
through intensive examination of:
the starry sky,
the Sinanthropus' jaw, 
the grasshopper's hop,
an infant's fingernails...

While Szymborska wrote with dry self-mocking about her profession, producing small marvels such as 'Some people like poetry', 'Evalation of an unwritten poem' and the absolutely delightful 'Poetry reading' (Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare - / it's time to start this cultural affair. / Half came inside because it started raining, / the rest are relatives. O Muse.), Previn's songs about love and longing are rawer, more gut-wrenching, but often not without humour, albeit a very black humour. An excerpt from 'Lady with the braid':
Would you care to stay till sunrise?
It's completely your decision.
It's just the night cuts through me like a knife.
So would you stay a while 
and save my life?
I don't know what made me say that,
I have this funny sense of humour,
You know I couldn't be down-hearted
if I tried.

Szymborska, as could be expected from a great poet, often wrote about death and mortality, but even when she tackled such very serious subjects, she maintained her ironic distance and her sense of wonder. One of her more recent poems from the nineties, 'Among the multitudes', ends with this sharp 'self-portrait': Fate has been kind / to me thus far. / I might never have been given / the memory of happy moments. / (...) I might have been myself minus amazement, / that is, / someone completely different.  Indeed. Wislawa Szymborska 'minus amazement' wouldn't have been Wislawa Szymborska.

Previn, perhaps more unexpectedly for someone who was 'only' a folk singer, didn't shy away from the topic of death either. In 'The new enzyme detergent demise of Ali Mcraw' she delivers the news of her own death in the following way: Mine was a Wednesday death. / One afternoon at approximately three fifteen / I gave up and died. / Nobody cried. / Mine was a bloodless death, / not grim, not gory, / more like Ali McGraw's new enzyme detergent demise / in Love Story, / neat and tidy / unlike Christ's on Friday. 

Szymborska even dared to write her own 'Epitaph' while she was still in her thirties: Here lies, old-fashioned as parentheses, / the authoress of verse. Eternal rest / was granted her by earth, although the corpse / had failed to join the avant-garde, of course. (...)

Both Previn and Szymborska wrote movingly about suicide too, Previn in a song about Mary C Brown who jumped off the letter H of the Hollywood sign because she had not become a star (and then was finally mentioned in the press, in the obituary columns), and Szymborska in 'The suicide's room' with the mournful ending: You think at least the note must tell us something. / But what if I say there was no note - / and he had so many friends, but all of us fit neatly / inside the empty envelope propped up against a cup. 

I could go on singing the praises of these two artists, separately and together, but I'm hoping that by now you're tempted to rediscover them for yourself. And if you don't know them yet, believe me, you're in for a treat. Since they both wrote a poem/song with the evocative title of 'Going home', I'll end by quoting Previn one last time: Going home is such a ride. Isn't going home a long and lonely ride? Let's hope they're both finally home.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Building books with bricks of language

Novels often touch us deeply for two very different reasons. Either they talk to us about our own lives, teach us about the times we live in, help us understand  how to live our lives now. Or they tell us about other lives, other communities, other countries, teaching us how other people live their lives, helping us understand the universality of some of our deepest values.

For me Monica Ali's Brick Lane falls into the second category. When this debut novel was published in 2003 it was one of the first Post-Nine Eleven stories told from a Muslim viewpoint - and, even more remarkably, a distinctly female Muslim viewpoint - to become an international best seller. Ali's name appeared on Granta's famous list of 20 Best Young British Novelists Under 40 even before publication, on the strength of  the manuscript alone, causing a lot of hype in the media and some controversy among 'Bangla Brits' who felt that Ali's portrayal of the immigrant Bengali community around Brick Lane in London's East End was not always sympathetic enough.

Ali herself was apparently astonished that so many people wanted to read 'a book about a Bangladeshi housewife'.

The housewife in question is Nazneen, born in 1967 in Bangladesh (then known as East Pakistan), who arrives in London as a simple village girl at the age of 18 to become the wife of a much older man, Chanu, whom she has never met before. The marriage was arranged by her family, of course, and Nazneen submits to her fate, as always. Only much later in the novel, when she is already in her thirties and raising two pre-adolescent daughters, she becomes infatuated with Karim, a young Muslim activist, and questions Fate for the first time.

Meanwhile, back in Bangladesh, her younger sister Hasina's hazardous life seems like a warning of what might happen to women who don't submit to their fate. Hasina runs away from home at an early age to marry a man she loves rather than one chosen by her family, then runs away from the husband when he starts beating her and finds herself a job in a factory. She loses her job because of malicious rumours caused by her beauty and her independent spirit, gets raped and abused by an older man whom she regards as a father figure, falls lower and lower until she eventually becomes a full-time prostitute. Compared to Hasina's miserable existence, Nazneen's occasional unhappiness and longing for freedom appear almost insignificant.

The reader gets to know Hasina only through the letters she sends her sister in London, charming letters written in a quaint broken English, which presented this particular reader with a problem. Obviously Hasina wouldn't write to her sister in English, which none of the two can speak at the beginning of the novel. She would write in Bengali and would probably make a lot of spelling mistakes because she has a very basic education, but she wouldn't use this twisted and totally ungrammatical language found in the letters. So the reader has to assume that the amusing broken English is the author's attempt to convey Hasina's spelling mistakes - but then, why not simply use 'normal' English with spelling mistakes?

The more I thought about this, the more I realised these letters are a very good illustration of the difficulty facing any author who wants to write about a specific community speaking a specific language, but wants the story to be read by a much wider audience in an international language. The silly English in Hasina's letters probably delighted millions of readers who never paused to ask themselves WHY Hasina couldn't speak her own mother tongue?

I really enjoyed the rest of the book - even though the last scene was more suitable for a superficial Hollywood movie like Mamma Mia than a subtle novel - but the way the author handled the problems of language posed by these letters left me distinctly dissatisfied. I still believe Brick Lane is an enlightening novel which deserves to be read by a wide audience, but I would have liked it so much more if I didn't get the feeling that Monica Ali underestimated her readers' intelligence when she decided to write Hasina's letters in this amusing and probably crowd-pleasing broken English.      

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Best (unread) books of 2012

By this time we've probably all seen quite a few of those 'Best of 2011' literary lists published in the press and on internet. At this stage most of them only make us feel guilty and/or lazy for not having read enough during the past twelve months. Or not having read discriminatingly enough. For somehow managing to miss what other - more informed -  readers regard as Must Reads.

Enough already.

I'm compiling another kind of list to start the new year. Not the Best Books I've read in 2011 (many of which I've already praised in this blog anyway), but the Best Books I plan to read in 2012. Of course you never know if you're going to love a book, even if your best friend or the most brilliant literary critics or a million other people adored it, so it's quite daring to make a list of best unread books. But then, what the heck. Even readers sometimes want to live dangerously.

The books on my list are either already in my possession (some af them have been lying around the house for months, taunting me with their seductive covers, begging me to make time for them) or have been on my literary shopping list for a while because of great reviews, word of mouth or personal preferences.
Roberto Bolano's 2666: This brick of a book (my copy has nearly 900 pages) is actually 5 books in one, published posthumously after the brilliant Chilean writer's death in 2003 at the age of fifty. The novel revolves around the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa, a place where horrifying crimes are committed, and has become an international sensation. The motto - 'An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom' (Charles Baudelaire) - sets the tone.  I've actually read more than 200 pages and arrived at the third 'book' (The Part About Fate) without encountering too much horror, but I'm anticipating it in the next part (The Part About the Crimes)...

José Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis: The Portuguese author is probably best known among English-speaking readers for his more recent novel, Blindness, but I've been drawn to this one (published in Portuguese in 1984 and in English nearly a decade later) because the Ricardo Reis of the title is one of the many heteronyms of the celebrated poet Fernando Pessoa. And because I love the city of Lisbon - which I'll be visiting early in the year - and one of my erudite friends proposed that I take this novel along as a fascinating guide book.

Keith Richards' Life: Because variety is the spice of life, no pun intended, and because a few of my old rock 'n roll friends raved about this entertaining autobiography by a Rolling Stone who did everything in excess and lived to tell the tale. Although he tells it with the help of  'contributor' James Fox, his own voice apparently comes through clearly enough to please his many fans and maybe even earn him some new ones. 

Patti Smith's Just Kids: Not just another rocker's memoir, but then, Patti Smith is not just another rocker. Since I couldn't get a ticket for one of her concerts in France last year, I decided that this version of her early life and her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, which won a National Book Award in the USA in 2010, would be a perfectly acceptable consolation prize. 'The most enchantingly evocative memoir of funky-but-chic New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s,' as it has been called in the New York Times.

Ewan McEwan's Solar: Because I have yet to encounter a piece of writing by this British author that I don't like. And when I heard that his latest novel, along with all the expected pleasures of McEwan's prose, unexpectedly offered a healthy dose of humour too, I was sold. Unlike The Guardian's critic who wrote: 'I was not expecting to like it. It is billed as his first foray into comedy, and we can only wonder about a man who waits until his seventh decade before he cracks his first joke.' Well, yes, I have to admit that's true, but the critic ended up loving it, calling it one of McEwan's 'best achievements'. And he has achieved quite a lot in his seventy jokeless years, hasn't he?

Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies: No, I haven't read any glowing reviews of this novel, nor have I heard trusted friends raving about it, for the simple reason that it hasn't been published yet. But it's the sequel to Mantel's marvellous Wolf Hall - which would be on my list of Best Books read in 2011, had I drawn up such a list - and that, frankly, is reason enough for me to add it to this list. Wolf Hall is a so-called 'genre novel' that managed to seduce people like me who don't usually fall for historical novels, winning the 2009 Man Booker Prize along its triumphant way.  

Bring Up the Bodies, with its blood-curdling title, to be published later this year, will focus on Anne Boleyn's downfall, while the third novel in Mantel's Tudor trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, will continue Thomas Cromwell's story up to his execution in 1540. If history could have been taught in such a thrilling way in school, I would probably have been a more enthusiastic reader of historical novels by now. On the other hand, as one reviewer stated, to call this simply a historical novel would be like calling Moby Dick a novel about fishing.    

My list goes on, but I'll end here, because I have to leave space for all the books I don't yet know about that are bound to blow me away in 2012. One of the many pleasures of reading, after all, is the surprise factor. Not knowing the end of the story. Not even knowing which stories you'll want to know the end of.   

May 2012 be filled with fabulous reading and a few lovely surprises for all of us.