Author Archives: BookerTalk
If you were asked to think of a court case involving the thorny question of censorship and fiction, what books or authors would come to mind? D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps? Or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?
Coming more up to date, how about the 1933 obscenity trial concerning James Joyce’s Ulysses or the 1961 case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which went all the way to the US Supreme Court?
No less significant, yet less well known, is the 1888 prosecution of Henry Vizetelly, the elderly head of a family publishing business in London.
His crime: publishing English language editions of some of Emile Zola’s most provocative and “vile” novels. His punishment: prison, the collapse of his health and the ruin of his business.
Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne is a fictionalised account of the history of this case. Using court and Parliamentary records, letters and newspaper reports, Horne weaves a narrative showing how Vizetelly became the target of the National Vigilance Society – a group of moral vigilantes who wanted to rid England of “vile literature”.
According to the society young girls were being led to prostitution because of cheap translated versions of books by Emile Zola. In 1888 they launched a prosecution for obscene libel against Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s British publisher.
Three titles from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series were used as evidence in the subsequent Old Bailey trial: Nana, The Soil (La Terre) and Piping Hot! (Pot Bouille). They were books, the court was told, that featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality.
Against such an attack Vizetelly’s argument about the artistic merits of these work by “a great French writer”, held no sway.
Zola’s book La Terre “is a filthy book from end to end,” the chief prosecuting counsel tells the jury. “I will not call what I am about to read literature. There can be no question of literature with regard to this garbage.”
He and his sons were ordered to cease publication and sale of the offending books. Faced with financial ruin, they tried to ‘soften’ the translations to make them more acceptable. But even that wasn’t enough – Vizetelly was hauled back into court and this time, the result was a prison sentence.
Naturally Horne devotes a large proportion of the book to the legal case but doesn’t drag her narrative down with exhaustive details of the legal arguments used in the Old Bailey trials.
Her approach is rather to focus on how the whole saga affects the people involved, particularly Vizetelly and his son Ernest who was translator of Zola’s texts. Horne takes us into the heart of the family, ‘listening in’ to their conversations and their differing views on how to respond to the accusations. Vizetelly comes across as a proud man who believes right is on his side and will not listen to his son’s voice of caution.
By the time he finishes his sentence he is a frail old man.
He is a free man but he is broken. The many weeks of poor hygiene and haphazard medical attention in insalubrious quarters have ruined him physically as surely as the court’s verdict ruined him financially.
The sections of the book that take place in France were actually more interesting than the court case. Most of these are set in Zola’s home, a very large country villa expanded to include a “Nana tower” and a “Germinal Tower” and reveal much about his process of writing.
Apparently after a daily walk he changed into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they do not cause itches and thus distract him. He knows exactly the trajectory of the book he is currently working upon , having done a preliminary plan and then his research (often that research takes him longer to complete that does the actual writing). His pace is so measured that he can predict how long each book will take him to write.
He doesn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lends any support to the Vizetelly, instead actually telling a journalist that he would be pleased if the prosecution succeeded. He would prefer, he said, that people read his books in the original French instead of being sold in “wretchedly done translations to the uneducated who cannot comprehend me.” Ouch…
Zola and the Victorians reveals a fascinating episode in British publishing history. It pitted moral outrage (and more than a dash of hypocrisy) against literary merits, a clash which continued right through to the watershed trial of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960.
Less engaging is the way in which Thorne tells the tale. The mixing of present and past tenses irritated me enormously, the reported conversations among the family seldom sounded authentic and the characters came across as one dimensional. I’m not regretting reading this book, if for no other reason than it’s given me an appetite to read those three Zola novels for myself.
Zola and the Victorians was published in hardback by Maclehose Press in 2015. American-born Eileen Horne worked as a television producer for twenty years before setting up her own production company. She now combines writing adaptations for television and radio with teaching and editing.
Since reading Zola and The Victorians I’ve heard of another book about Zola that sounds interesting: The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen. It deals with a period in 1898 when Zola fled France because of hostility around his intervention in the Dreyfus case.
Time for another episode of WWWWednesday in which I talk about the books that are on my radar.
What I’m reading now
Circe by Madeline Miller is the selection for our next book club meeting.
My knowledge of Greek mythological figures is at an embarrassingly low level so I hope that isn’t going to prove an issue. I have a copy of a guide to Greek and Roman myths close at hand if I need some help.
All I know about Circe is that she was a sorceress, the daughter of Helios and she features in Homer’s The Odyssey.
The first few pages are promising. If I get on well with this I have a copy of her earlier book The Song of Achilles yet to read.
WWWWednesday is also about…..
What I just finished reading
I’ve been making great progress with my list for 20booksofsummer (or in my case 15booksofsummer) which is taking me on a virtual holiday around the world.
I’ve had to make one substitute because the book I had chosen to take me to Finland, The Midwife by Katja Kettu, proved unreadable. I switched to another Nordic country, reading The Room by Jonas Karlsson. A highly amusing, quirky tale – I’ll post my thoughts on this in a few days.
Robert Seethaler’s novella A Whole Life has been the best of the 15booksofsummer I’ve read so far. It’s an exquisite tale about a quiet man who spends most of his life in the Austrian Alps. Andreas Egger endures hardship and tragedy but survives by changing and adapting to his new situation. This is about the most beautifully understated work of fiction I’ve read in decades.
What I’ll read next
When I finish Circe I’ll probably return to my books of summer project.
I have one more book by a European author on my list – Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallader
Then it’s across the Atlantic, stopping first in New York to take Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?
This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
It’s time I came clean about the state of my library of unread books (otherwise known as the TBR).
I warn you that this could get ugly.
What’s a TBR?
If you follow any blogs about books and reading you’ll already be familiar with this term.
But for the benefit of any newbies, TBR stands for To Be Read.
It generally means all the books lying around in your home that are unread. Some people chose to include all the books they want to read, but haven’t yet got around to acquiring.
I stick to the “owned by unread” definition for my TBR. I record all of these titles on a spreadsheet which lists when they were bought/acquired, the author’s country of origin and a category (classic, translated, crime etc). At one time my TBR included books I wanted to read but the list quickly became huge and I panicked so I now just put those into a Goodreads wishlist.
Seriously you have how many unread books!!!
I have in the region of 314 unread books at home.
It’s not an exact figure because I keep finding books in unexpected places around the house.
This is higher than the figure at the end of 2018 (for the record I got to Dec 31 with 302 books).
I was doing well until May, resisting buying too many new titles but then it all went haywire. A combination of a buying splurge, a birthday and some advance copies passed on by other bloggers – yes they are to blame! ).
What would be an ideal number?
I don’t have a target for the number of unread books I think it would be acceptable to have in my library.
I’d like to think I could make significant progress and get it down to around 270 by end of 2019 but I doubt that’s going to happen. I’m trying to exercise some restraint (you might not believe it but it’s true) by avoiding NetGalley – I know if I look I will end up clicking. That way madness lies.
I hadn’t realised I have so many non factual books on my shelves. They’re a mix of history (I have a few by Mary Beard), health related and memoirs. A lot of the books in translation are ones I acquired when I started my quest of reading more broadly around the world. I’m slowly making my way through them.
Booker Prize related 6 (two winners, 1 shortlisted and 3 longlisted)
Children’s fiction 2
Crime/thriller . 19
Non fiction . 27
Short story collections . 6
Fiction in translation . 40
Welsh authors 13
Paper dominates in my house. Though I found an electronic reader a saviour when I was travelling a lot for work, now I’m retired I don’t have to worry about lugging heavy books around with me. There are 40 books on my e reader. They’re a mixture of classics from Gutenburg , Net Galley editions and some bargains I bought from that big company named after a river.
The oldest book in my collection is …
According to my spreadsheet the book I’ve had the longest is To the Lighthouse. But that’s misleading because I bought it in 1975 and have read it twice. I think I kept it on the list because I meant to read it again at some point. It shouldn’t really be there.
Next in line is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (a Booker prize shortlisted title).
My record says I acquired it in 2010. I say “I” but actually it was a book I bought for my husband. He didn’t care for it but I rescued it from the ‘donate to charity shop’ pile. Now I’m thinking: do I still want to read this? It’s dystopian fiction which I haven’t read much of in the past but maybe this could be the book that helps get me more interested in that genre.
After that comes James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late (what an apt title for book that’s been waiting eight years for me to get around to reading). It’s on the list because it’s part of my Booker Prize project. I did actually begin reading it and then put aside. I WILL read it this year……
The newest book (s) in my collection are…
Today’s purchases were:
West by Carys Davies: a novella about early pioneers in America. I bought it for two reasons. Reason One, I loved her earlier work The Redemption of Galen Pike. Reason Two, she hails from Wales though sadly has moved home to Scotland.
Normal People by Sally Rooney. The accolades keep pouring in for this second novel by the Irish author. I’m curious whether it lives up to all those awards for which it’s been nominated.
Any review copies in that pile?
Currently I have nine review copies still to be read.
Sounds impressive doesn’t it?
Unfortunately most of these are about three years old. They were the result of getting over excited on Net Galley and not paying enough attention to the book description before putting in my request. Lesson learned. Now I only request review copies or accept them if I am very certain I’ll be able to read them in a reasonable time frame.
Book number 200 on the list is
The 200th book is in fact one of those old Net Galley review copies. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is the first in his series set in 1919 British ruled Calcutta featuring a former Scotland Yard detective. I learned today he’ll be doing an author event in a local bookshop this September so I should really try to read this before that date.
The books I most want to read
I’ve put 15 titles from my TBR onto the list for 20BooksofSummer so that’s going to be my focus for the next few months. I’d also like to get to these three books soonish.
Now you’ve been introduced to the darkest secrets of my TBR, how about pulling back the curtains on your stash of unread books?
This week I’m featuring a new novel from an author in Wales and a blog post addressing a dilemma faced by many bloggers who receive advance copies from publishers: what do you do if you don’t care for the book you’ve committed to review? We end the week with an article about self-help books
Book: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews
This is a debut novel that I saw highlighted as a book to watch out for in May by Susan at A Life in Books. It’s a coming of age novel written from the perspective of a working class girl who hopes university will be her passage to a different kind of life. It sounded so promising I ordered it via the library (amazed to find they had bought it). I didn’t realise at the time it’s told in a series of numbered fragments. I’m really hoping that device works and isn’t just style over substance.
Blogpost: I never promised you 5 stars
This was the intriguing heading on a recent blog post by Rachel at RachelRead. What do you do when you’re sent a book, asked to review it and then the book turns out to be “a stinker.” Do you, asks Rachel:
- A) Shoot yourself in the foot by being honest with your review?
- B) Get yourself blacklisted by blog tours/publicists/publishing houses?
- C) LIE?!
Find out what she thinks are the pros and cons of each approach in her post here
Article: self help books “offer a false promise, like a lotto ticket or an ad for diet pills”
There are so many self-help books around I’m surprised there isn’t a whole section devoted to them in bookshops. Some are just plain daft; others peddle the same stuff you can easily find via the Internet. Some exist just because the topic is the latest craze (do we really need instructions on how to hygge our homes??). But still people buy them.
Can they help or are they holding out false promises asks Maddie Crum in this article for LitHub.
How do you deal with the question Rachel has been wrestling with? Do you post a review on your site regardless of whether you rated the book or is your policy only to review books you enjoyed/appreciated?
Where do you stand on self help books – love them or loathe them?
Just pop your thoughts into the comments section below and let us know
This month’s Six Degrees of Separation (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) begins with Murmur by Will Eaves; a book I haven’t read. Some quick research revealed that this novel delves into the consciousness of the mathematician and and cryptologist Alan Turing during the period when he was undergoing chemical castration as punishment for gross indecency.
Turing’s pioneering work on artificial intelligence enabled the German naval code (Enigma) to be broken during World War 2, shortening the war by as much as two years and saving countless lives.
Artificial intelligence, its promises and dangers, were explored in 2001: A SpaceOdyssey by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. On a mission to Saturn the on-board computer HAL 9000 is meant to maintain the space craft and protect the astronauts but it begins to develop a will of its own. Clarke’s novel highlights problems that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.
The word odyssey has come to mean any epic journey. In Swahili such a journey is known as a safari. And that links me nicely to Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It’s an account of a journey taken when he was pushing 60, from Egypt to South Africa, taking in Uganda and Malawi, countries where he had lived and worked in his youth. What he finds are countries that are falling apart through war, famine, Aids, political chaos. He seems most incensed by the convoys of aid workers he encounters. In his eyes they’re ineffective because they’re foreigners who don’t engage with local people who actually know the country and the cultures they are seeking to help.
Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with his friend, the Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who also drew upon his experience of Africa in his own writing. A Bend in the River published in 1979 tells the story of Salim, a small shopkeeper who buys a business in a town at “a bend in the river” in an unnamed African country. Though highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was also criticised for a perceived defence of European colonialism in Africa.
It’s to a river in one of those colony-ruling countries that our journey now heads.
Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is set at an ancient inn on the Thames. On a dark midwinter’s night the regulars are engaged in their favourite entertainment, telling stories. The door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Or are there magical forces at work?
This is a novel that straddles the line between realism and the supernatural. Magical realism isn’t a genre I enjoy much which is why I struggled through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them.
The mention of children with remarkable powers takes me to the final novel in my chain.
In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who inhabits a universe parallel to our own. Raised in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, she has an uncanny ability to see past, present, and future and the truth by using a golden compass or an alethiometer. The skill enables her to fulfil an ancient prophecy that she is “destined to bring about the end of destiny” and ensure the stability of the universes.
Maybe my imagination is working overtime but maybe there is a parallel between Turing and Lyra; two people destined to be saviours of mankind.
And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end otherwise the connections might become even more ridiculous.