Category Archives: world literature
October already? What an odd Autumn this is turning out to be. Thursday afternoon I was able to sit in the garden soaking up the sun (yes it was that warm). Today I’ve been sitting wrapped in a thick sweater and waiting for the heating to kick in.
This week I bring you an article about the elements of a good story, a blog post about the importance of context in our reading and a book written by a woman who for eight years was hardly out of the media spotlight.
Book: Becoming by Michelle Obama
I rarely read autobiographies. Those by ‘celebrities’ are instant turn offs (they’re usually rushed out on the back of some recent success in a TV series or film and have little content of substance). I’d rather go for a memoir or an autobiography by someone who isn’t well known except outside their immediate circle of expertise and experience but who has an interesting story to tell.
Michelle Obama is of course extremely well known in the sense that for the eight years she was America’s First Lady she was hardly out of the public eye. I’ve always wondered how someone with her level of intelligence coped with the accepted wisdom that First Ladies are not meant to have opinions of their own. How does it feel to have every aspect of your appearance scrutinised and dissected?
Her forthcoming memoir Becoming will I hope answer some of those questions.
According to the blurb, Becoming is “a work of deep reflection and mesmerising storytelling, Michelle Obama invites readers into her world, chronicling the experiences that have shaped her-from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With unerring honesty and lively wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it-in her own words and on her own terms. Warm, wise, and revelatory, Becoming is the deeply personal reckoning of a woman of soul and substance who has steadily defied expectations – and whose story inspires us to do the same.”
The book is due out in the UK in November.
Blog Post: Frame of reference for reading
Simon at Stuck In A Book wrote recently about the experience of reading a particular book is affected by lack of knowledge about the ‘rules’ for certain genres or of the historical and social context. His example relates to his own experience of reading a novel which uses magical realism and is set during the civil war in Mozambique.
This post chimed with my experience of reading some of the books I selected for my World of Literature project. I struggled for example with The Tree of Life by Maryse Conde because I knew little about the history of Guadeloupe. The same thing happened with The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (I gave up on that one because it was too confusing). I know I could get info easily enough from the Internet but I don’t like interrupting the experience of reading the book.
How does everyone else deal with this situation? Do you just plough on and hope things fall into place? Or do you press pause, do some background reading and then come back to the novel?
Article: What makes a good story –
Talking of ‘rules’ apparently Anton Chekhov had some clear views about the elements that needed to be in place for the story to work effectively.
- Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
- Total objectivity
- Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
- Extreme brevity
- Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
I’m with him wholeheartedly on the first rule – I really don’t want to feel I am being given a lecture if I am reading fiction. Originality? Yes but not if this is just for the sake of being original and where the author is having more fun than the reader ( as in Will Self and his unpunctuated paragraphs).
But I’m not on board with his direction of extreme brevity. What about ideas that start off as a kernel but by allowing them space to blossom they end up with even deeper meaning? I don’t see a virtue in an author thinking how quickly they can get the scene or the episode wrapped up.
Here’s the article. See what you think….
And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?
For once I am not racing to get the Bookends post done before the weekend disappears. Maybe it’s the Indian summer we are currently experiencing in the UK that has stimulated my productivity?
This week I bring you an article about one woman’s bid to read 200 female writers by 2020, how to tackle the challenge of reading challenging books and a novel
Book: Ash by Alys Einin..
My book choice today comes from Honno, an independent women’s press based in Wales. This is the second novel by Alys Einon who somehow finds the time to write in between her work as an associate professor in midwifery and women’s health and a part-time lecturer for the Open University.
Ash is the story of a woman who runs away from an abusive marriage in Saudi Arabia with her four sons and infant daughter, Aisha. She finds sanctuary with a community of women at Blossom House but is always fearful that her husband will come looking for his children.
It’s a while since I read anything by Honno but this is a good opportunity to make up for lost time.
Blog Post: Unhappy experiences reading assigned books
CurlyGeek has been making good progress with a ReadHarder challenge this year but the latest requirement, to revisit a classic that she hated, has her thinking back to other unhappy experiences with classics. In her latest update she names Jane Eyre as her nemesis but also still bears scars from being made to read Crime and Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath and The Scarlet Letter.
I bet everyone has their own bête noires from their time in the education system.
Mine would be:
Comus by John Milton. Can you imagine anything more unlikely to interest a bunch of hormone-charged sixteen-year-olds than a 17th century masque in honour of chastity? I have no recollection about the plot or the characters – I simply remember it as being deadly dull.
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. This was something to do with a student and the gulf of understanding between him and his father. I had my usual difficulty with Russian novels – the way that characters seem to have more than one name, making it doubly hard to keep track of who each person is.
The Rover by Aphra Behn. This was a set text on an Open University literature course, selected I strongly suspect because it was felt there should be a recognition of women writers. Even seeing a production starring Daniel Craig (many many years before he became famous as James Bond) did nothing to increase my enjoyment of this text.
Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know that for some people, my inclusion of this novel is tantamount to heresy. Sorry everyone but I just don’t get what all the fuss is about. It’s ok but nothing more. I’ve read it three times and get the same reaction each time.
What would be on your list??
Article: 200 books by women writers
Sophie Baggott was shocked to learn that male authors account for two thirds of the translated fiction market. Three months ago she set out to change her own reading habits by embarking on a project to read 200 books by women authors from around the world by the year 2020.
Her starting point she says was ” a realisation that anglocentric and male-dominated reading habits were blinkering my worldview.”
She’s now 10% of the way to achieving her goal and has put a list together of books she has read so far, and the countries she has yet to visit. The Guardian article in which she explains her project is here. She has also created a blog where she lists the books she has read and the countries she has yet to visit. I’m going to watch this with interest because in my own world of literature project (one that is considerably more modest in scale than Sophie’s) I have struggled to find authors from some countries and I wasn’t giving myself the added hurdle of only reading female authors.
And so that’s a wrap for this episode of Bookends. Have you found anything new exciting and to read this week that might entice me?
Miss 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.
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.