Category Archives: Projects

The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. 

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.

 

There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.

Footnotes

About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 

 

 

 

 

 

The View from Here: Books from Spain

Welcome to the next country in  The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit Spain. Our guide is Isi who loves blogging so much she has two sites: FromIsi in English is available via this link. The Spanish site is here.

Isi describes herself as one of those persons who enjoys winding down by grabbing a hot tea and a book and finishing the day immersed in a good story.”

Given that, she says it was a natural step, once the technology was available, to create a blog to talk about books.  Her first blog was in Spanish. How did the English language version happen?  “At the age of 30,” says Isi, “I decided to resume my long abandoned English lessons I started at school and my teacher, knowing my love for books, suggested to start a book blog in English, so I could practice my writing skills by writing reviews – a book lover always has something to write about, hasn’t she? That was the best idea ever, because not only did I practice every week, improving fast and enjoying the process, but I also found a great community of book bloggers from all around the world; people who have become my friends.”

Q. What books and authors from Spain were required reading in school? Books/authors that wereconsidered classic in other words and that every child was expected to know about?  

There are many of classic books you had to know at school, including all genres (poetry, drama, etc.), which, of course, at such ages you can’t enjoy or even get to know the subtle message hidden in them that seemed to provoke that awe to Literature teachers. It didn’t help that they are still written in old Spanish, which makes the reading even harder for young lads. I also remember learning lists of authors and their books by heart, an activity that I now see as useless as reading all those classics at such ages. I guess Literature lessons are the same in schools all over the world, but in my opinion, this approach only makes students hate books.

However, there is one exception: Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the poet. I believe all teenagers have a “Bécquer period” in their lives; you fall in love for the first time, and Bécquer’s love poems begin to make sense…

To mention some other author and titles that have been translated into English, we all have read “The Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas, “The Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, “Lazarillo de Tormes”, whose author remains unknown, or “The grifter” by Francisco de Quevedo.

Q. It’s likely that anyone asked to name a Spanish author would come up with Cervantes. Or looking more to contemporary authors, they might name Javier Marías. Who are some authors we could be missing out on?

Well, let’s start with some authors who have been popular in recent years. Luz Gabás has been a best-selling author, whose first novel (Palm trees in the snow) has made it into a film, and it’s a great romance novel set in the last years of the Spanish colonialism in Africa. I particularly liked this book because I read and commented it with my grandmother, who also enjoyed it, and then we went together to watch the film. Almudena Grandes is another example of great literature I always recommend because her characters are too real, with complex stories that make you be part of them. Arturo Pérez-Reverte can be also considered a modern classic (like Javier Marías); his articles, short-stories and long novels are all well written and hooking – I particularly like his books about Captain Alatriste, but I’ve enjoyed every other piece he’s written. I’ll finish with Dolores Redondo, whose crime novels, The Baztán trilogy, have been also best-sellers and made it into films everybody talks about nowadays.

viewfromhere

Q. Which classical author from the past is your particular favourite  — and of course, why?

I couldn’t tell another than Benito Pérez-Galdós. I knew the titles of his books (because I had learned them by heart in school), but I only read one of his novels for the first time a few years ago, thanks to a fellow blogger. He wrote 46 books called “National episodes”, which are actually fictional, but include real events from our recent history, beginning with the title “Trafalgar”, that relates one of our endless conflicts with the British (I had to mention this, haha!).

Q. What can you tell us about the themes and traditions of literature in Spain?  Are there particular styles of writing or themes that are prevalent?

The most influential theme in our literature is the Spanish civil war. Like the books set in both world wars, our books set in the civil war always have something new for you to learn, and it is an issue that still divides Spanish society. To mention some of my favourite novels on the subject, I recommend “The frozen heart” by Almudena Grandes, who I mentioned above, and “In the night of time” by Antonio Muñoz Molina. However, I must warn future readers because I think you must do some research on the subject before reading these books to really benefit from them; you might get lost otherwise (after all, Spanish readers have being told about about the war by their relatives and studied it at school).

Recently there was a kind of “breakthrough” in Spanish literature with the publishing of a novel set in the Basque Country talking about ETA terrorism. The author is called Fernando Aramburu, and the title is “Patria”. It has been translated into several languages, so I guess it will be available in English soon.

Q. Who are some of the up and coming authors in Spain to whom you think we should pay more attention?

Apart from Aramburu, you absolutely have to read Víctor del Árbol. His books will be published in English this year, and you will find deeply emotional and though-provoking -but very hard- stories. Add “A million drops” to your reading list, please.

Alejandro Palomas is one of those rare cases in which I have to recommend an author I still haven’t read, but everybody is talking about him now and I have many reasons to believe I need to read his novels: he just won a literary prize and all my fellow bloggers are in love with his work, so take him into account as well.

Q. Are there any literary prizes that help to promote Spanish writing?

Many (too many?). There are several prizes awarded by some of the most important Spanish publishing houses but we, the readers, don’t pay much attention to them because they always seem to go to very famous authors, in order to increase sells for the publishing houses. An unknown author wouldn’t sell as much, right?

Nevertheless, there are other prizes that promise a good read. One of them is the Nadal Prize (nothing related to the tennis player, lol), the one Alejandro Palomas won this year, and there is another I always consider reading, which is an award from the booksellers association.

 

A touch of the January blues?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is the least favourite of months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Sleet, rain and wind do not a happy formula make especially when combined with chilly mornings and loss of daylight around 4pm. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled to get back into a reading and blogging groove this month.

gentleman_in_moscowThe beginning of June, things looked promising. My first book of the year was a stunner -— A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was curious how Towles would manage to sustain interest in a 400+page novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy under house arrest in a plush Moscow hotel. Wouldn’t it get rather repetitive I thought? The short answer is no, absolutely not. This is a master class in how to construct a narrative. I’ll get around to posting my review shortly but in the meantime I’ll simply say that if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing something special.

After that things went downhill rapidly.

I’d agreed to review the fourth book in a crime series which pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Sadly, A Death in the Night wasn’t much more than just ok. So then I turned to Muriel Spark and her first published novel The Comforters. I chose it because it was published in 1957, the first year of my ‘reading my life’ project. Now I’d enjoyed two other novels by her: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means so I had similar expectations to be as entertained by The Comforters. Far from being entertained, I found it a struggle to get to the end and was heartily glad when I did. Clearly her kind of humour isn’t for me.

Even my audio book choices have been disappointing this month. I’ve abandoned most of them: The Untouchable by John Banville (about an esteemed art historian revealed to be a double agent); Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie Close Up (a collection of archive radio programmes about Christie). None of them held my attention.

I’ve also struggled to get enthused by blogging this month. Hence why I am way behind with reviews, many from last year even. I’m way behind also on reading posts from other bloggers even those that are my favourites. As for Twitter, well I seem to barely look at it some days. I’m just a tad tired of seeing message after message about book cover reveals…. So if you’ve not heard from me for a while, I promise it’s not because I don’t love you any more.

This fug is not anything I’ve experienced before. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. In fact I hope I can break out of the cycle tonight when I’m going to be opening a new book. In keeping with my intention to make 2018 the year of reading naked I have a completely free hand in selecting that book. There has to be something in my bookshelves that will tickle the taste buds back to life again.

 

The View from Here: Literature from Wales

viewfromhereToday in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we get to visit my home country of Wales with the help of Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, Wales. 

Honno was established in 1986 to publish the best in Welsh women’s writing. Today it publishes novels, autobiographies, memoir and short story anthologies in English as well as classics in both Welsh and English. Over the years Honno and its titles have been awarded many awards. Registered as a community co-operative, any profits made by the company is invested in the publishing programme.  Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. When not working she likes to walk in the woods, make her own clothes, grow her own food and clear up after her housemates (all seven of whom have four legs).

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Wales? 

A good starting point would be  www.gwales.com. You can browse fiction by review or the different categories. You have to dig a little deeper but the site also lists Welsh publishers, so it is worth browsing through them individually to see the broad range of titles published in Wales.

Q. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: “Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?”  They ended up with a shortlist of 23 novels (listed here). What do you think of this list – are there any surprises? Any names missing for you?

I’m not sure I agree with such a label — it would be different for every reader… I’d want to know which categories the books were being judged against before opting for one over another. Also, I haven’t read them all, so how could I judge? And out of the 23 only half a dozen were by women—  is this because male authors are better or because they are traditionally more likely to be published? I’m sure there are many many great novels by women that aren’t on the list.

Q. Are there any particular trends or themes that you find often in novels by writers from Wales?

Reinterpretations of traditional Welsh mythology, the history of Welsh emigration, and the transition from rural to industrial ways of life are themes that often crop up, both amongst the classic novels we publish and the contemporary submissions we get.

Q. Apart from Dylan Thomas, few authors from Wales seem to have made a big impact on the world stage. Why isn’t literature from Wales as well known as say Irish literature or Scottish fiction?

I wish I knew! Wales’s writers have certainly been recognised — R.S. Thomas was nominated for a Nobel Prize for instance. A degree of lingering mistrust between England and Wales could be partly to blame — however, Ireland does much better than either Wales or Scotland pro rata for population size and they too have a troubled history. Maybe hitherto they’ve had bigger characters/personalities who’ve been known for behaviour outside of their writing – Dylan Thomas is perhaps the only Welsh writer who fits into this category…

Q. How important are prizes like the Wales Book of the Year award or the Dylan Thomas prize in giving more attention to Welsh authors?

They have proved to be useful in terms of wider recognition from publishing industry in rest of UK and the world, for rights sales in particular –which improves the lot of the author who may then get an offer from bigger international publisher although less good for Welsh publisher who takes risk on an author but can’t afford to retain them on their list once they’re successful.

Q.In an article in The Bookseller magazine in 2016, a number of Welsh publishers commented on how it was getting harder to persuade mainstream media to review books and to get booksellers to stock their titles which come from Wales even if they are not necessarily about Wales   Is that something that you’re concerned about?

It definitely has been an issue for us, partly down to mainstream media paying less attention to smaller presses generally, partly that smaller presses just don’t have the budget to effectively promote their books with review copies, pre-pub events and networking and partly down to being unable to network effectively with London-based media when you are in Aberystwyth! I don’t know that being from Wales or about Wales is necessarily the issue here — it’s more that space for any book related material is increasingly limited particularly in the print media/newspapers so inevitably they are going to focus on the big names. Also lead times are getting longer, which works against publishers whose lead times are shorter, which is true of some independent presses like Honno… Contrarily space online for books is growing incrementally but is yet to be seen as creditable or reliable in the same way as the established broadsheets.

HonnoQ. When Honno was created, the intention was to increase the opportunity for Welsh women in publishing and to bring Welsh women’s literature to a wider public. Is that still a key focus for you – have you seen any changes in attitude from readers over the years? 

Absolutely it’s still a key focus! What we’d like to do is to widen our demographic to younger women in Wales and beyond —  a lot of our initial interest was from women who are now getting older and making sure that their descendants know about Honno and recognise its importance is vital. There are many more demands on young women’s time and attention than was true in the early eighties—  hence our interest in media other than print as a way of engaging younger readers.

Q Do you have a personal favourite among the authors from Wales?

Of the Welsh Women’s Classics we publish, My Mother’s House by Lily Tobias is one I particularly enjoyed. Obviously it is too difficult to choose a favourite contemporary author from among the Honno stable (without also risking the others’ wrath!) but outside of that Cynan Jones is a favourite — now receiving wide recognition but no longer published in Wales (hence my point earlier about the downside of prizes).

Intrigued? Want to know more?

  • You can find more infomation about Honno, their catalogue and authors at their website www.honno.co.uk  or via Facebook (facebook.com/honnopress)  and via Twitter @honno.  
  • To learn more about literature from Wales visit the dedicated Literature from Wales page on this blog to discover reviews of authors from Wales and lists of suggested books to read.
  • You might also want to take a look at a View from Wales post I wrote in 2016

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Human FactorThe Human Factor is a novel about a very ordinary, almost nondescript, man who makes his living in the shady world of espionage.  It’s not your typical spy novel however. Clandestine meetings, secret messages and code names are not much in evidence; nor is the plot of the usual fiendishly complex kind and there’s a distinct absence of high octave action scenes. What we get instead is a more thoughtful novel about loyalty and betrayal.

In his 1980 autobiography Ways of Escape, Graham Greene said his intent was to show to people who were more used to reading about the antics of James Bond, that there was an unromantic side to the world of intelligence .

I wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pensions, the background much like that of any other profession — whether the bank clerk or the business director — an undangerous routine, and within each character the more important private life.

And so he makes his central character a 62-year-old man who shuffles each day between his detached house in the market town of Berkhamstead and his small office in London. Maurice Castle is an officer in the Eastern and Southern Africa section of MI6 which might sound exciting but actually comes across as rather dull. It essentially involves reading and responding to the daily ‘bag’ of reports sent by various British overseas outposts. Castle is a man who likes his routine: a few inconsequential pleasantries with his assistant Davis; lunch at the same pub at the same time each day, a heavyweight novel to read on his commute home; a glass or two of J&B whisky each evening.  

Castle’s suburban life is not however as pedestrian as it seems. His wife Sarah is a black South African woman he met during his tour of duty in that country. Their son is not his though they keep up a pretence to the contrary. Castle drinks because he has a secret life as a double agent who passes on information to the Russians. It was the price he paid in return for help from a Marxist to get Sarah smuggled out of South Africa when their relationship fell foul of the South Afrian authorities. By the way, I’m not spoiling the novel by revealing this since it’s heavily signalled within the first few chapters.

Castle’s hopes of a quiet and uneventful life in the few remaining years before retirement are disrupted when suspicions begin of a leak in MI6. The head of security makes discreet inquiries; the signs point at Davis who is quickly despatched with the aid of mouldy nuts (they cause liver failure apparently). Castle of course knows the ‘evidence’ against Davis is spurious. The finger of suspicion is certain to turn in his own direction eventually but he may have time for one final act of betrayal; telling his Russian handlers about Project Remus, an alliance with America and Germany to deal with black unrest in South Africa. If he burns that bridge, there is no course open to him but to escape from England. But where will that leave Sarah and Sam?

Questions of loyalty, morality and conscience form the heart of The Human Factor.  Castle became a traitor not as a result of deeply held political convictions but out of a sense of gratitude to a former colleague, the communist who smuggled Sarah out of South Africa. Now he is forced to re-examine his motives and his loyalties. The death of Davis makes him suspicious about the morality of the institution for which he works. Project Remus makes him question whether the security service is more of a danger than the people it is supposedly fighting.

Greene is a master when it comes to portraying people confronting a moral dilemma but the character of Castle is not one of his finest. He comes across as a naive figure who thinks if his Russian controllers manage to get him out of England, that the British authorities will let his wife join him in Moscow. And yet he tells Sarah “As long as we are alive we’ll come together again. Somehow. Somewhere.” Hm, sounds like wishful thinking to me…

Castle is a sad figure but too distant a figure to fully engage our sympathy. Although we can appreciate his anxiety that the life he has enjoyed with his family is about to end, there wasn’t the depth of psychological analysis I’ve enjoyed in Greene’s earlier novels like Heart of the Matter and End of the Affair. There was one habit of Castle that did make me warm towards him a little: he reads the classics and is a frequent visitor to a delightful sounding bookshop in Soho where, during the course of the novel, he buys novels by Samuel Richardson, Anthony Trollope and Tolstoy.

It was an unusual respectable bookshop for this area of Soho, quite unlike the bookshop which faced it across the street and bore the simple sign ‘Books’ in scarlet letters. The window below the scarlet sign displayed girlie magazines which nobody was ever seen to buy — they were like a signal in an easy code long broken; they indicated the nature of private wares and interests inside. But the shop of Halliday & Son confronted the scarlet ‘Books’ with a window full of Penguins and Everyman and second-hand copies of World’s Classics.

Sadly as the novel progresses, I learned that he is not actually reading these books; just using them for codes to arrange information drops and meetings with his handler.

More interesting than Castle as a character is Colonel Daintry, an MI6 security officer faced with the task of tracking down the source of the leak. Greene shows us a painfully lonely man who is so out of touch with normal life that he’s never heard of Maltesers and doesn’t realise they wouldn’t be the appropriate gift to take for a weekend country house party. Daintry is separated from his wife, is barely in contact with his daughter, few interests outside of work and no social life. When his daughter announces her forthcoming marriage, Daintry is so devoid of friends that he resorts to inviting Castle to accompany him. Daintry is fundamentally an honest man who despite all his years in the service, still doesn’t understand how to play the system. One exchange with his senior officer, the new commander of the service, reveals the extent of his isolation:

I wish I were a chess player. Do you play chess, Daintry?’

‘No, bridge is my game.’

‘The Russians don’t play bridge, or so I understand.’

‘Is that important?’

‘We are playing games, Daintry, games, all of us. It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it. We have to keep flexible, but it’s important, naturally, to play the same game.’

‘I’m sorry, sir,’ Daintry said, ‘I don’t understand what you are talking about.’

Davis’ death horrifies him. He knows the man was killed because it would avoid further embarrasment for a service already discomforted by Philby and co. He knows too that there was but flimsy and circumstantial evidence the man was a traitor. The incident brings him to resign his post despite knowing it means  “he would exchange one loneliness for another.”  In some ways Daintry reminded me of the butler Stephens in The Remains of the Day, a man who has learned to button up his emotions for so long that he cannot admit them even to himself.

The British intelligence service isn’t shown in a very good light in this novel. They’re frankly rather inept at discovering the traitor in their midst. With only two suspects they pick the wrong man because he drinks more than he should, takes reports out of the office to read over lunch and supposedly has a clandestine meeting at the zoo (it’s with his secretary rather than a handler). The service commander takes a very relaxed view of the affair, leaving the details to his underlings so he can continue to enjoy the quiet of his country estate. It stretches our credulity but then Greene wrote this novel with the benefit of his own years of service within MI6 so there is clearly a basis of truth.

The Human Factor isn’t one of Greene’s finest works but it’s well worth reading nevertheless.

Footnotes

About the book: The Human Factor is one of Graham Greene’s later novels, first published in 1978 when the author was 74 years old.

Why I read this book: I’ve read most of the novels considered to be his best output (the so-called Catholic novels like Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and, my favourite The Heart of the Matter). I like Greene’s writing style so thought I’d make my way through his lesser known work. The Human Factor is one of the books on my Classics Club list.

Caution: Reading Roadblocks ahead

cautionI decided at the start of this year that I wouldn’t make any reading plans. I’m just hopeless at sticking to them so what’s the point? And so far I’ve been able to keep pretty much on track, just reading whatever has taken my fancy from my current bookshelves (only a few non-bookshelf exceptions like Station Eleven).

But a few cracks have developed in that game plan lately.

First, along came Cathy’s 20booksofsummer challenge which I joined last year and thought would be good to repeat. I seem to prefer short term ‘challenges’ where you can participate at different levels. This one is just three month’s duration and though it involves making a reading list, there’s no compulsion to stick to the list.  I’m now on book five from my list and not yet feeling constrained.

Then Adam at Roof Beam Reader pops up with his Austen in August event where the idea is to read Jane Austen’s works (finished or unfinished), or biographies, critique’s etc. Since this is Austen’s bicentenary year, what could be more appropriate? Besides which I have a few non-fiction books that I’ve been meaning to read for several years including What Matters in Jane Austen?: Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullen and The Real Jane Austen by Paula Bryne. And so I’m signed up for this.

The next person to test my resolve was Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza.  with her Japanese literature challenge which runs from June to January 2018. Easy this one I thought – there’s no need to make any kind of a list and most of the activity will run after 20booksofsummer is over. And so I’m signed up for this.

Still manageable I was thinking until I saw a blogger mentioned a few that I’d forgotten about like July such as Spanish Lit Month in July,  German Lit Month in November and Women in Translation Month in August. And then there is the All August/All Virago project happening in just a few months.

You can see a pattern emerging now I think?

For someone who had no plans, I seem to have acquired one which will take me into 2018. Hmm. However that’s happened, the reading journey ahead is going to get congested because I still have 10 titles remaining to complete my Booker Prize project . I’m determined to do that by end of this year.

To navigate around the bottleneck I’m going to reign back even further on my Classics Club reading . I’m way behind with that anyway – 16 books to read before the end of August if I’m to meet the ‘deadline’ of 50 books in five years which is never going to happen. I’ll also be a little more judicious about any further reading projects/challenges I join for the rest of 2017. I’ll do the ones I’ve already signed up for (20booksofsummer, Austen in August, Japan literature) but I’m going to forgo  Spanish Literature Month and decide between Women in Translation and All August/All Virago.

Wish me luck as I steer through the congestion.

 

Miss Silver’s Past by Josef Škvorecký #bookreview

Prague-Wenceslas-SquareMiss Silver’s Past by the Czech author Josef Škvorecký is a book I wish I had not read.

It started off reasonably well if not in stellar fashion, but a quarter of the way through the cracks began to show. By the half way mark they had grown to  fissures and by the end, they were canyons. Now you might wonder why, if this was so poor a novel, I didn’t abandon it long before the end. I think it was because I kept hoping it would improve. About a hundred pages from the end I realised it wouldn’t but by then I’d invested so much time in reading it, that I decided I may as well limp to the finish line.

This is a novel written from the perspective of Karel Leden who is a Comrade editor  in a state-run publishing house in Prague. Every novel, every poetry collection; every book in fact, is subject to rigorous scrutiny by an editorial board and its advisors. Any element that doesn’t fit with Party philosophy has to be deleted/rewritten no matter how strongly the author believes in their work. Weighed down by this bureaucratic restrictive regime, Leden becomes cynical and frustrated. Then into his life comes the beautiful, elusive Lenka Silver.  Leden has the hots for her and pulls many tricks to get her to reciprocate but all are to no effect; she seems more keen on Leden’s friend and his boss for reasons that don’t become apparent until the final few pages.

Now according to the blurb,  ‘passions rise and suddenly there is a murder’. Well yes, a body is discovered and there’s a suggestion it was the result of foul play. But it doesn’t happen until we’d got to page 260 in a book of 297 pages and then the identification of the killer is rushed through in about 5 pages so hardly a pivotal moment in the narrative.

In between we get scene after scene where Leden trails after Silver like some mooning puppy dog, declaring his love repeatedly only to meet with rejection. And then there are interminable editorial discussions in the publishing house offices where the wrong decision could lead to a major contretemps. The staff thus wrestle with problems like whether it was risky to capitalise the word God since  “Marxist science had conclusively demonstrated the non-existence of a higher power, and using an uppercase G could be interpreted as a blasphemy against the founder of socialism.”  The question takes them back to a previous discussion about Uncle Tom’s Cabin which some staff members felt problematic because of its anti-Marxist religiosity.

My supervisor at once grasped the potential peril and gravity of the situation … He cut off any further discussion by proposing that we would not publish the book in its original version, but in the form of a so-called adaptation.  this work was turned over to an indigent Latin translator who adapted the work in such a masterly fashion that Uncle Tom talked like a trade-unionist and all references to the non existent deity were eliminated.

Running through Miss Silver’s Past is a debate about whether to publish a book by a young female author who had already caused problems when one of her short stories had to be removed from a magazine at the eleventh hour.  Leden recognises the author’s talent and sees it’s exactly how he had hoped to write himself. Others in the publishing house consider it pornographic and demand extensive re-writes before they will even contemplate approving it for publication.

An independent reader to whom the novel is sent for review reports back:

The novel shows signs of an uncritical acceptable of fashionable Western literary phenomena, such as a decadent interest in degenerate aspects of life, the mixing of chronological planes, emphasis on sex, alcoholism, violence and a variety of esoteric allusions. … I have no doubt that Cibulka’s novel [the author’s name] would be greeted by the snobbish circles with the greatest enthusiasm. It is therefore the duty of a socialist publisher to reject such a work and to exert an educational influence upon the author, urging her to think more deeply about the significance of her work so her future creativity would be free of modish piquancy and so that she would try to portray the whole truth about our lives — lives which certainly have their difficult moments but in which hope and good cheer predominate.

In a foreword to my edition Grahame Greene comments on this passage that it would be ‘hilariously funny’ except that the livelihood of a writer in Czechoslvakia in the 1970s did depend on the control exerted by shadowy figures who determined who – and what – got published. Which presumably means that Greene sees Miss Silver’s Past as reflection of the constraints under which Škvoreckýe himself had to operate.  But if Škvorecký intended this novel as a critique of the political system’s attitude to authors and books, it was so thinly veiled as to be meaningless. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, the plot was dull and the attempts at comic irony were so lacklustre (how The Guardian found it ‘hilarious’ I can’t imagine) they barely caused me to even smile. I did however yawn, several times.

Footnotes

 

About the book: Miss Silver’s Past was written in 1969 and was the last of Josef Škvorecký’s books to have appeared in Prague. My edition was published by Vintage in 1995, translation is by Peter Kussi

About the Author:  Josef Škvorecký was born in Bohemia, Czechoslovakia in 1924. His first two novels were banned by the censors because of its lack of socialist realism and its praise of the ‘decadent’ jazz music of the west. After the Soviet invasion of 1968 he and his wife left for Canada where he became Professor of English at the University of Toronto and was able to see his work in print.   He and his wife were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers before the fall of communism in that country. Škvorecký was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980.

In an interview with Paris Review, Škvorecký talked extensively about his work and the themes that influenced his writing.

Why I read this book: I bought this in 2015 when I was just embarking on my project to read literature from a more extensive range of countries than I had experienced to date. Škvorecký’s name came up as one of the key writers from the Czech Republic.

Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith [Review]

diary-of-a-nobody

In an age where just about anyone attracting a modicum of ‘celebrity status’ feels compelled to tell the world about their life history, it’s a delight to come across a novel which parodies such pretensions. The Diary of a Nobody was written with the deliberate intent of mocking the diaries and memoirs that proliferated in the late 1880s. George Grossmith, an actor, and his artist brother Wheedon took the view that the British reading public had surely had enough of diaries written by people who were ‘Somebodies’ and it was high time attention was given to the ‘nobodies’ of this world.  As Charles Pooter (the central character) puts it

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ’Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting. My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth.

In Charles Pooter we have a man who tries so hard to be a respectable member of the middle class but is foiled every time because of his inexhaustible ability to make a mess of a situation. So successful was this characterisation that it gave birth to two new adjectives: Pooterish and Pooteresque,  both indicating a person who takes themselves far too seriously, believing their importance or influence is far greater than it really is.

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of this  London clerk, his wife Carrie and their feckless son Willie (who insists on being called Lupin). When the Diary begins Charles and Carrie have just moved into a six-roomed house in the Holloway district of London. The new residence is meant to signify that the Pooters are on their way up the social ladder. Charles in fact has a keen sense of his own importance and sees this move as his entry into a more refined social circle. Over the course of 15 months he records the many small pleasures, modest social occasions and acquaintances that make up his life.

The summary of the day’s entry for April 19 gives a good flavour of the Diary:

A conversation with Mr Merton on Society. Mr and Mrs James of Sutton come up. A miserable evening at the Tank Theatre. Experiments with enamel paint. I make another good joke; but Gowing and Cummings [two close friends] are unnecessarily offended. I paint the bath red, with unexpected results.

A year later Pooter is complaining about another social occasion which did not go according to plan:

Trouble with a stylographic pen. We go to a Volunteer Ball where I am let in for an expensive supper. Grossly insulted by a cabman. An odd invitation to Southend.

The Diary is a litany of mishaps and misadventures. Every time Charles gets an opportunity he thinks will enable him to shine, he makes some kind of mistake which proves socially embarrassing. He manages to tear his trousers and smear coal dust over his shirt just before going out to the Lord Mayor’s party, then in his eagerness to show he can waltz he slips bringing both he and his wife to the floor.

He fares no better at home, constantly falling over the boot scraper outside the front door and getting stitched up by tradespeople who over-charge or fail to deliver the promised goods.  An episode in which he turns his hand to some home decor was probably my favourite. Enamoured with the red enamel paint he hears about at work he gets rather carried away, painting flower pots, wash-stands and chests of drawers. Then its the turn of the coal-scuttle and the bath to get the red paint treatment. Even though readers will guess what the outcome is, his discomfiture in the bath that night is still one of those laugh aloud moments:

… imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death and should be discovered later on looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell but I remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, pefectly red all over resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East End theatre.

In amongst the humour and the humdrum details of every day life, there are times when we see Charles Pooter in a way that evokes our sympathy. Despite his social aspirations this is a man who genuinely loves his family and is deeply concerned when his son loses his job and starts running around with an undesirable bunch of people. His sense of honour and integrity is severely put to the test by his so-called friends who regularly mock him while taking advantage of his hospitality.

Though more than 100 years old, it’s surprising how contemporary some of the pre-occupations of this novel feel. Don’t most parents even today worry their children are going off course and want to step in with a bit of course correction? Haven’t we all felt the frustrations when goods get delivered late or the order is incomplete? And I bet some of you at least will have been bamboozled by technical jargon when confronted by IT engineers or motor mechanics (or is that hust me?). Isn’t there a touch of Mr Pooter in all of us?

Footnotes

About the Book: Initially Charles Pooter’s exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine between 1888 and 89. It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics – The Athenaeum declared that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”.

About the authors: The Diary of a Nobody is the sole output of  the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text.

Why I read this book: I included this in my Classics Club list  because of the extrordinary literary influence it has exerted through the decades. Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones’ Diary are just two of the works that owe a debt to the Wheedon brothers, emulating their tone and format to huge commercial success. Without The Diary of a Nobody I wonder whether we would have ever seen the spoof diaries in Private Eye that parody the Prime Minister of the day (including the unforgettable St Albion Parish News from ‘Tony Blair’ and the current  St. Theresa’s Independent State Grammar School for Girls (and Boys) from Theresa May. 

 

 

Diary comic novel,

The View from Here: Recommended Romanian authors

viewfromhere

We’re off to Romania for our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world.  Our guide is Georgina who blogs at Readers’ High Tea.

Let’s meet Georgina

Hello! My name is Georgiana and I live in Bucharest, Romania. My academic background is a blend of computer science and business studies, and at the moment I work as a management consultant. As hobbies, I enjoy travelling to places I’ve never been before and doing sports (snowboarding and squash). I’ve been interested in books since childhood, and recently this interest has materialized in a blog –  Readers’ High Tea. I created it as a cosy place where readers share thoughts about the books they read, find what book to read next, and also read about other bookish stuff like discovering nice bookstores around the world.

I am currently experimenting a lot with my reading, so I do not have particular authors I like and read a lot. Carlos Ruiz Zafón is the exception here, as his gothic style made me fall in love with his Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I read both classics and modern authors, mostly foreign ones. The most recent book I’ve read and enjoyed (a lot!) is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

Tell us about the traditions of literature in your country. Are there any particular styles or characteristics for literature from your region? Any themes or issues that you see reflected frequently?

The most common themes reflected in the Romanian literature are rural life (inspiration from nature, folklore, the daily lives of peasants), social and political conditions, and the effects of the war on people’s lives (including the struggles of intellectuals during the war). Modern writers also tackle subjects as spirituality, religion, and self discovery.

What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Romanian literature? 

Romanian literature is studied in-depth during high school years, ranging from from poetry to drama and novels. When it comes to the ones considered classics, I would mention Moromeţii (The Moromete Family) by Marin Preda and Ion by Liviu Rebreanu – two novels that portrait the ordinary peasants’ life. Another one is Enigma Otiliei (Otilia’s Enigma) by George Călinescu, a novel that presents the life of people in Bucharest at the beginning of the 20th century. Maitreyi (Bengal Nights) by Mircea Eliade, one of my favourite books I’ve studies in school, depicts the writer’s love story with the Indian girl Maitreyi Devi.

Regarding poetry, Mihai Eminescu is for sure considered one of the greatest Romanian poets. Tudor Arghezi, Nichita Stanescu (he was inventing words called unwords), and Lucian Blaga are also classics studied at school.

What books and authors are very popular right now in Romania? 

The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are very popular at the moment. Also the recent Harry Potter related books (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) are quite trendy. In general, young adult books are popular, and also many self-development books (some examples: time management – Musai List by Octavian Pantis, life style – The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo)

What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Romania ? 

Unfortunately many Romanian authors are not translated in English. From the authors that are translated, I recommend Bengal Nights by Mircea Eliade, he was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. Nostalgia and Blinding by Mircea Cartarescu are also worth checking out, as Cartarescu he is an awarded contemporary writer. Another recommendation is Book of Mirrors by Eugen Chirovici, which is said to be global publishing phenomenon.

Views from Around the World

There are 16 other countries featured in the View From series with guest bloggers from Japan, France, Canada and South Africa for example. Do take a look via the View From page.

 

Interested in doing a View From guest post?

If you’d like to represent your country of birth or the place you live or the literature of a country you feel passionate about, do please get in touch.  Either send a direct message via Twitter to @BookerTalk or via the contact me form below

Classics Club spin lands on Grossmith

Diary_of_a_Nobody

Cover of first edition of The Diary of a Nobody. Creative Commons License, Wikipedia

The latest Classic Club roulette wheel has spun and landed on number 12 which for me is The Diary of a Nobody  by George Grossmith. It had to happen sometime – this poor book has been on the list for five previous spins and missed out every time. 

But now its day in the spotlight has arrived, what kind of book will I be reading?

First thing I can tell you is that it’s a comic novel, the sole output of  two brothers George and Weedon Grossmith. Both were stage entertainers – George often played the comic figure in Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Weedon was also an artist and it was his work that illustrated early copies of the text. 

The Diary of a Nobody records the daily events in the lives of a London clerk, Charles Pooter, his wife Carrie, his son Lupin, and numerous friends and acquaintances over a period of 15 months. They are a fairly ordinary family of lower middle-class status but have significant social aspirations. A lot of the humour apparently comes from Charles’ deluded sense of his own importance which is undercut by his propensity to make mistakes, many of which prove socially embarrassing.

Initially Charles’ exploits saw the light of day in a serial which appeared periodically in Punch magazine in between 1888 and 89. It was intended as a spoof that mocked the proliferation of diaries and memoirs at the time; the brothers taking the view that if Anybody could publish a diary then why couldn’t a Nobody? It wasn’t published in book form until 1892. The book had a lukewarm reception from the reading public and critics with The Athenaeum, declaring that “the book has no merit to compensate for its hopeless vulgarity, not even that of being amusing”. But by the time of the third issue in 1910 it was recognised as a classic work of humour – J B Priestley described it as “true humour…with its mixture of absurdity, irony and affection” while Evelyn Waugh considered it “the funniest book in the world”. Its tone and format have been emulated in many subsequent ‘diary’ novels from Sue Townshend’s Diary of Adrian Mole to Bridget Jones’ Diary. 

Why is the Diary of a Nobody  on my Classics Club list you might wonder? It’s certainly an unusual choice since I don’t tend to enjoy comic novels. But I happened to come across a copy, at the back of the bookcase, that seems to have been purchased sometime in the early 1990s and thought maybe it was time it got read….

 

 

 

 

%d bloggers like this: