Continuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Japan with the help of Meredith who blogs as Dolce Bellezza. From her home in the suburbs of Chicago she keeps a close eye on Japanese fiction and hosts a Japanese fiction challenge each year to share her love of literature from this part of the world.
Let’s meet Meredith
I have been an elementary teacher for 32 years, and it is one of the great joys of my life. But, another passion of mine is the love for literature. When blogs were first coming into existence I found a few related to books, and I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Discussing books with fellow readers was such a rare thing for me, because while there are book clubs, so many of my friends and acquaintances did not want to read translated literature as I do. So, my blog has leaned more and more toward toward that genre.
Q. You are the host for a Japanese literature challenge. Why does fiction from this pat of the world appeal to you so much?
I have hosted the Japanese Literature Challenge for ten years, which surprises even me. It was most popular in its second year, during which I “met” many of the people with whom I still blog. But even today, those who love Japanese literature still look forward to the event which begins in June and ends in January. I have always held a fascination for Japan, particularly with origami which I use constantly in my class for lessons and rewards. I wanted to learn more about Japan’s authors, and through my own challenge and its participants, was able to expand my knowledge of Japanese literature.
Q. What was the first book by a Japanese author that you can recall reading and enjoying? What made it so special?
The very first book I remember reading was Kafka on The Shore by Haruki Murakami. I loved it so much, I have since read it three times. But, I do not presume to know all of what he’s saying in that, or any of his other, novels. I love that Murakami suggests, in his own words, that readers should be “wide open to possibility”. To me that means there is not just one interpretation of the life lessons he so ingeniously writes about.
Q. Authors like Huruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto have done a lot to bring Japanese writing to the attention of people around the world. What about writers from an earlier phase in the country’s history – are there some ‘classic’ works of fiction we should look at?
Some of the books that I would term classic Japanese literature are by authors such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki. I have particularly enjoyed Naomi by Tanizaki, and The House of Sleeping Beauties by Kawabata.
Q. One comment often made about Japanese fiction, is that plot development and action have often been of secondary interest to emotional issues. Has that been your experience or would you say that’s a fairly simplistic assessment?
One of the most difficult things about coming to Japanese literature, for me, was that there often wasn’t the beginning-middle-end I had come to expect from western literature. Once I could suspend my disbelief, and look at the writing more as a “slice of life”, I could enjoy the books much more. It was a necessary change of mind set for me, otherwise I felt rather lost in a Japanese novel. Unless it was a crime thriller, of course, of which the Japanese are so stupendous at writing.
Q Which contemporary Japanese authors do you think we should be paying more attention to?
I wish that I knew more about the contemporary authors outside of the crime/thriller genre. I have a great passion for the young writers of this genre, particularly Keigo Higashino and Fuminori Nakamura.
Has this whetted your appetite?
If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about Japanese literature, there is still time to join in the Japanese Literature Challenge because it runs until January. The idea is that participants would read at least one work of Japanese literature – be it classical or contemporary, mystery or thriller. See the introductory post here If you are looking for inspiration there is a recommended reading list available too.
We’re staying with the Celtic nations for the choice of our next country in The View From Here series on literature from around the world. Our featured country is Ireland and who better to give us the insight on this country’s literature than the blogger who has co-hosted Reading Ireland month for the past few years: Cathy at 746books
Let’s meet Cathy
Just over two years ago, as I went to buy yet another book, I decided to do a count and see how many unread books I had to hand – on my shelves, my iPad and my Kindle. It came to 746 and I was so shocked! I was reading around 30 books a year and worked out that if I didn’t buy any more books, it would still take me about 25 years to read all the books I had in the house! So, I set myself the challenge to not buy any more books, read all 746 and blog about it along the way.
I’ve rediscovered my love of Irish literature in particular, so I also blog about the Irish literary scene and review new books by Irish authors.
Outside of blogging, I am a mother of 5 year old twins and work in an Arts Centre in Northern Ireland so I’m kept pretty busy!
Q. Who are your favourite authors from Ireland (north and south)?
This is a really hard question, because I love so many! My favourite novelists would be Bernard McLaverty, Brian Moore, Edna O’Brien, Colum McCann and Nuala NiChonchuir, but I also love playwrights like Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh and poets like Paul Durcan and Sinead Morrissey.
Q. Why did you start the Reading Ireland Month?
I had spotted a few reading months relating to Germany and Japan and just thought, why not?! March seemed like the perfect month for it and I decided to team up with my old friend and fellow blogger Niall at The Fluff is Raging to broaden the scope of the month to include posts on movies, music, TV and travel as well as books. I see it as a real celebration of all Irish culture and I love spreading the word about all the great writers that have come from this tiny island! Last year we had over 100 posts and we are hoping for even more this year!
Q. Does literature from Ireland have a particular atmosphere or style, something that maybe makes it stand out as distinctively “Irish”?
This is an interesting question that I think about it a lot. What is it about a small island like Ireland that has produced 4 Nobel Prize winners and a host of world class writers, playwrights and poets? Alongside Greek and Latin, Ireland had one of the earliest ‘languages’ Ogham which dates back to the 4th century AD. There is a great oral tradition of storytelling and myth making that carries on throughout Irish history. In ancient Irish society, the poet was revered and was second only to the chieftain and I think we still carry that reverence today. Add to that a turbulent history of invasion, immigration, famine and war and you have a fertile ground for literature to flourish in.
For me, Irish writing is lyrical and poetic, with a real sense of vitality, always with an eye to the past and to the tradition from which it has come.
Q. What books are creating a buzz in Ireland at the moment?
There is a great range of young authors making a buzz in Ireland at the moment. Writers like Colin Barrett, Danielle McLaughlin, Belinda McKeon, Rob Doyle, Anakana Schofield, Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume and Eimear McBride are all being talked about on a national level. Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Guardian First Novel Award and Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing won the 2014 Bailey’s Prize for Women.
The buzz isn’t only about writers though – there are lots of fantastic literary magazines from Ireland exploring new work, like Banshee and The Stinging Fly and Tramp Press is an exciting new publisher working to promote the voices of women in Ireland, old and new. A fabulous book to check out is Dubliners 100, published by Tramp Press where new and established writers from Ireland created a ‘cover version’ of their favourite stories from James Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s a great introduction to Irish writers you may not have heard of!
There is also a great surge in crime writing coming out of Ireland, Tana French is an obvious example of this, but writers like Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville and Jane Casey are writing very interesting Celtic Noir!
Q. Who are the authors you would consider ‘must read’ for people who wanted to deepen their knowledge of Irish literature?
This is a hard question to answer as the breadth of work there is to choose from is vast. There are the classic writers like Swift, Wilde and Stoker and the modernists like Beckett, Joyce and Yeats. I have a list of 100 Irish Novels on my blog which is a great starting point for anyone interested in Irish Literature. It is in chronological order and spans from 1729 to 2014 and really highlights the diversity and quality of Irish Literature. There were so many books I wanted to include, that I could have made the list go up to 200!
Q. Most keen readers will know of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Are there any authors you think deserve more attention?
There are a lot of women writers who deserve attention and have been in the shadows for too many years. Writers like Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen and Kate O’Brien can more than hold their own with the titans of Irish literature. There is a famous Irish Writers poster, which was very popular in Ireland and featured only male writers. Last year the Irish Times recreated the poster with only female writers and there is a real feeling that readers are starting to hear and to listen to these voices. I would recommend The Long Gaze Back which is an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers edited by Sinead Gleeson. It is a fascinating collection of work featuring writers like Maria Edgeworth, Maeve Brennan and Elizabeth Bowen alongside less well known writers like Norah Hoult.
Q. Talking of Joyce … he seems to divide readers. Where do you stand on the love him/hate him debate?
I feel like a wee bit of a fraud at this point, as I haven’t read Ulysses! I know, it’s embarrassing, but it is in the 746 so I will be reading it at some point. I have read Finnegan’s Wake and The Dead and would some down on the ‘love’ side, solely for the short story ‘The Dead’ which is a perfect short story and contains one of the most beautiful passages ever written:
‘A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, on the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’
Hope Cathy’s guest post has given you a taste for Irish authors. If you’re tempted to explore further now is a good time to join Reading Ireland Month which runs until end of March. Find out more info on the sign up page on Cathy’s blog. Follow the Facebook page here or join in the discussion on Twitter using #readireland16.
A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go.
Let’s meet Booker Talk
My real name is Karen. I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.
Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?
I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour. Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.
Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?
They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.
Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).
Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?
The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.
A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.
Coming more up to date you’ll find someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.
Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.
When I decided a couple of years ago it was time to broaden my reading horizons and seek out more authors outside my usual zone of UK and USA, I didn’t realise how tough it would be to find writers from certain countries. Many blog challenges that seemed promising initially turned out to simply list books set in the country not written by a native. Many websites didn’t distinguish between fiction and non fiction or just gave the author’s name but no indication of their style or genre. If it were not for one website – Complete Review – and a small number of bloggers who are passionate about reading books in translation, I would have struggled.
If only, I mused, there was a comprehensive reference guide to authors from different parts of the world. My life would be much easier.
A fairy godmother has now granted my wish in the form of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. Orthofer is the founder, managing editor, and lead contributor to the Complete Review which operates as an aggregator site for reviews and book news. It pays particular attention to contemporary work in translation and original language from around the world.
Orthofer has now expanded that content to bring us in book format The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, a superb resource for English language readers interested in fiction from around the world. The guide is divided into profiles by region and country each of which contains a commentary on literature from that part of the world and a multitude of author names to explore from 1945 to the present day. The Guide could easily just be page after page of lists but Orthofer avoids this with his short but insightful summaries about trends in each country.
How well does he have his finger on the pulse in each of these countries? I used the section on my home country of Wales as a test. Actually I was impressed to find there was a section on literature from Wales – we’re such a small nation that we usually get overlooked or lumped in with our big neighbour England. Orthofer accurately comments that government support for the Welsh language has led to a resurgence in Welsh language writing. He gives examples of both 20th century and contemporary Welsh language writers and those writing in English (Robin Llewelyn, John Williams for example) but it was odd not to find even a mention of people who I consider to be big names from the past like Jack Jones and Gwyn Thomas. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high but I’d love to know what people from some of the countries he includes, think of his selection.
While the country profiles are a useful gateway into each location, the part of this book I enjoyed reading most was Orthofer’s introduction in which he analyses the current state of literature in translation and why so little of it exists. American and British publishers continue to show reluctance to invest in translated works, he notes. Even the university presses concentrate on very narrow slices of international literature. Despite the presence in the United States of so many foreign authors, most of them are unknown to American readers. When the American houses do go for a work in translation “… too often it is the second-rate works – the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers – that make the cut and disappoint both readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).”
In Europe, Germany’s support for translated works has led to greater exposure for Scandinavian and eastern European countries while readers in France benefit from the more generous support given to translation in that country. Orthofer sees two glimmers of brightness however. One is that other countries, most notably India and southern Africa, have made a concerted effort to translate more works from their regional languages. The second is via the determined efforts of some small and nimble publishers determined to raise the profile of great writers from all parts of the world. As Orthofer says early on in his book: “Great literature and great books know no borders.”
The Complete Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M. A Orthofer is published by Columbia University Press. Many thanks to the publishers for making this available via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. As an indicator of how much I appreciated this book, I’ve now gone and bought my own copy.
I can’t prevaricate any longer. The cobwebs are starting to settle on the brain already and if I leave it much longer I will never remember my top books from 2015.
The outstanding book of the year was almost, but not quite, the last one I read – Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize-winning novel The English Patient. It’s a beautifully written story of four damaged characters who end up in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War 2. I enjoyed reading his most recent novel The Cat’s Table a few years ago but The English Patient was in a totally different league. Now I want to dig out the film version again ..
Other favourites from the year were: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton which has to be the most gloriously produced book I’ve experienced for many years. The cover design showing a miniature of the house that features in the book, was so delightful I went in search for some info on the illustrator and came across a fascinating little video about how a design company made the house. Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac was my first experience of this author but will certainly not be my last. Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton was as moving on a re-read as it was decades ago when I opened the pages for the first time. Three discoveries came in the form of The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw and from the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar and The Redemption of Galen Pike, a tremendous short story collection by Carys Davies. I don’t usually care for short stories but Davies’ book knocks spots off all other collections I’ve read.
Were there any duds? Well yes, a few. Three were so bad I couldn’t finish them: In the Light of What we Know by Zia Haider Rahman; Between Tides by V.Y. Mudimbe and The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende.
That’s 2015 done.
What’s on the horizon for 2016?
Despite all the reading challenges I’ve seen in the last few weeks (I’ve been keeping a list here and it’s upwards of 30) I’m trying really really really hard to resist temptation. I like the idea of them but the reality is that I’m really hopeless at sticking with them. The minute I feel I have to follow a list, my interest in the books drops off markedly. Even if the title was one that excited me when I bought it, the minute it gets written on a list starts to make it feel too much like a chore or a ‘to do’ list for work. Hence why I managed just 8 out of the 12 books on the TBR Challenge I joined last year. I was all ready to join a Reading Shakespeare challenge but I’ve changed my mind.
I prefer the idea of reading projects rather than challenges. They somehow sound more relaxed and I can go entirely at my own pace. I have three on the go at the moment which are steadily making progress. I’m just over the half way mark with my Classics Club project, have read 27 of the 46 Booker-prize winners and novels from 30 countries around the world as part of my World of Literature Project.
2016 is going to be all about completion.
I plan to make it a year where I finish at least one of these (the Booker prize). I may even get close to finishing the Classics Club but I won’t make that a goal because I want space to be flexible, to go with the flow of whatever takes my fancy. I also want time to dip into a few short projects – Ali’s #Woolfalong reading project is perfect since I already have 4 Woolf titles in the bookshelves. Later in the year there’ll be a Reading Ireland month and a Spanish literature month which are already tickling my fancy. The beauty of these projects is that they’re short and free of pressure to read a particular number of books or to make lists in advance.
Here’s to a year of unconstrained delight……
Continuing The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to Denmark with the help of Marit, who blogs at boegernekslabyrint and at latinamerikalitteratur (both are in Danish). Until retirement she worked at the central library of Aarhus, the second largest town in Denmark. Six months ago the lucky residents of this town got a completely new library on the waterfront.
Let’s meet Marit
My name is Marit Haugaard, and I am 65 years old. I retired in 2012 after having been a librarian for almost 40 year; the last 20 years in the fiction department of Aarhus Central Library the last 10 years involved in building up the public libraries’ online-magazine, www.litteratursiden.dk, being part of the editorial team.
I started my private blog on books and literature in February 2011, intending it to consist mainly of reviews of books I had read. However, in the summer of 2014, I started making a monthly list of what will be published in the following month, and the number of visitors immediately soared. I see my blogging activities as an extension of my former job; I always enjoyed being in the library with the readers. Working on Litteratursiden taught me that it is possible to communicate the love of literature online.
My literary taste is pretty wide, I read everything from children’s books to crime fiction to prize-winning authors, my only demand is that the books are well written/translated. I don’t often read poetry or drama, but I go a lot to the theatre. I’m not too keen on experimental or weird books, I prefer a good story.
Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Denmark?
I have just returned from the annual Copenhagen Book Fair. Unlike other years it wasn’t dominated by huge moneymaking writers with egos to match, so it was a rather relaxed affair. The big name was Carsten Jensen, who published his latest novel just before the fair, ‘Den første sten’ [The First Stone]. The author has a long standing in Danish literature, but he is now also a controversial debater being very critical towards Danish foreign politics, specially our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. His latest novel is about Danish soldiers in Afghanistan, but he insists that there is a sharp division between his roles as a fiction writer and debater.
Other authors worth mentioning this fall is Ida Jessen, who contrary to her earlier fiction takes us back 100 years to a small provincial town. Her latest novel is a small masterpiece, ‘En ny tid’ [A new Era]. Anna Grue is mostly known as a crime novelist, featuring “the bald detective” Dan Sommerdahl. She, like most Scandinavian crime writers, is extremely popular in Germany, but not translated into English – yet. However, her latest novel ‘Italiensvej’ [Italy Road] is a love story and a wonderful description of life in the late 1950s.
‘Afgrunden’ [The Abyss] by Kim Leine will probably be translated soon, as you already have the first part of his Greenlandic trilogy in English, ‘The Prophets of Eternal Fjord’. ‘Afgrunden’ is, however, a digression as it is about the lives of two Danish twins from their participation in the Finnish civil war (1918) to the Second World War.
On November 2nd, Morten Pape, published his first novel, Planen [The Estate], a week later he received the annual prize for the best first work of fiction of the year. A fast mover, who will be interesting to read.
If I take a general view of the Danish literary scene today, I should say that the women hold a very strong position. There are three generations:
- The young and upcoming: Ina Munch Christensen, Olga Ravn, Amalie Smith, Stine Pilgaard, Pernille Abd-El Dayem, Emma Elisabeth Nielsen – just to mention a few
- The established writers: Ida Jessen*, Pia Juul*, Helle Helle*, Katrine Marie Guldager*, Henriette Rostrup – and many more
- The “oldies”, but still going strong: Kirsten Thorup*, Jette Drewsen, Dorrit Willumsen* – and probably a few more
Crime fiction is a major genre in Danish literature, popular names are Jesper Stein, Elsebeth Egholm*, Sara Blædel*, Anna Grue, Michael Katz Krefeld, Jussi Adler-Olsen* – and more…. Biography is extremely popular, as is narrative non-fiction with top writers Tom Buk-Swienty* and Peter Øvig Knudsen*
Q. Out of the Danish classics what would you say is “required reading”?
There are six titles that spring to my mind, when I think of classics, books that are generally referred to, and people are expected to know.
Herman Bang (1857-1912): Tine, 1889 (Tina, 1984)
Johannes V. Jensen (1873-1950): Kongens fald, 1901 (The Fall of the King, 1933)
Martin Nexø Andersen (1869-1954): Pelle Erobreren, 1906-10 (Pelle the Conqueror, 1913-16)
Tom Kristensen (1893-1974): Hærværk, 1930 (Havoc, 1968)
Martin A. Hansen (1909-1955): Løgneren, 1950 (The Liar, 1954)
Inger Christensen (1935-2009): Alfabet (Alphabet, 2000)
Apart from Hans Christian Andersen* (1805-1875), who in Denmark is known as H.C. Andersen, you are expected to know Adam Oehlenschläger* (1779-1850), Steen Steensen Blicher (1782-1848), J.P. Jacobsen* (1847-1885), Amalie Skram* (1846-1905), Henrik Pontoppidan*(1857-1943) – and many more.
Q. Why is Nordic literature so popular now?
I suppose that the boom of Nordic or Scandinavian literature is partly owed to Nordic Noir, as it is called abroad, and made internationally known through tv-series like The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen. It followed in the wake of the Scandinavian crime fiction-wave, where Sweden is in front with Henning Mankell’s protagonist, Kurt Wallander, as the prototype. A policeman with personal problems and a social conscience. He and other Scandinavian crime writers, including very modern and European Arne Dahl, are heirs to Novel of a Crime, vol 1-10 by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, social realistic novels written as police novels. They were published 1965-75 in Swedish and widely translated.
Scandinavian literature is probably as varied as our seasons (summer nights with no sunset, autumnal melancholy, winter gloom and hopeful spring) and our very different cities and landscapes.
Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?
It is close to a national trauma, that the poet Inger Christensen did not get the Nobel Prize for literature. She had the potential and was far better than many, who received it as a political statement. And now it is too late.
Q. Differences between literature in Denmark, Norway and Sweden?
Whereas Denmark, as I stated, at the moment is very strong in the field of women authors, it is my impression that Norwegian male authors hold the fort north of the Skagerak. Everybody knows Karl Ove Knausgaard, but names like Tomas Espedal, Erlend Loe, Lars Saabye Christensen and Jan Kjærstad spring to my mind, not to forget unforgettable Jon Fosse, who won The Nordic Council Literature Prize 2015.
In Sweden I see two tendencies, one is that they seem to be stronger on immigrant literature, the other a hybrid literary genre that seems weird, but works well: a combination of traditional Swedish social realism combined with the vampire novel, the main author here is John Ajvide Lindqvist, who I believe has been translated into English.
Norwegian and Swedish bloggers may totally disagree, but that is the view from where I stand.
Q. Why don’t we see more Danish fiction available in translation?
The Scandinavian countries are small language areas, so we depend on translations to be able to read literature from other countries. It is therefore of paramount importance that we have good literary translators. Denmark has a number of good ones, but unfortunately also some bad ones, who believe that a dictionary and a six months’ stay as an au-pair abroad is enough to qualify.
To be a literary translator in Denmark, you have to be very enthusiastic, as very few can earn a living wage by translating.
Authors translated into English are marked with an asterisk*, titles with a square brackets [ ] have not been translated, the title in brackets is Marit’s translation of the Danish title.
If this has given you an enthusiasm to discover more about Danish literature, Marit recommends you take a look at Danish Literary Magazine.
An occasional round up of miscellaneous bookish news you may have missed (and often I missed them too)
As predictable as the ‘Must have Christmas gifts’ and the ‘get in shape for the beach’ feature articles, newspapers have started trotting out that annual stalwart: “must read books for your holiday.”
The Sunday Times “Suitcase Essential” feature listed 100 of what they claimed were the best books for the summer. The basis for their selection wasn’t explained but we had a variety of history, biography, memoirs, and science titles plus of course a fiction list. Out of the 50 fiction titles, they singled out five as ‘top choices’
- Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend which it described as “an addictive read”
- The Green Road by Anne Enright summarised as “a heart-wrenching novel about family secrets. The newspaper is tipping it for the Booker Prize this year.
- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, described as “an exquisite nobel that feels wrenched from the author’s heart”
- Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster – considered a vivid description of small-town life. This is the only one I’ve read. I thought it was a superb study of how a recently widowed woman slowly claws her way back into some form of a life.
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – a “superb tale” according to the Sunday Times
- The Cartel by Don Winslow which is described as a superb thriller on a par with TV’s The Wire
Surprisingly given the amount of attention garnered by The Girl on the Train, this didn’t get a mention in the crime & thrillers category. It did however make the summer selection published recently by the Financial Times.
It’s interesting to see how different the two lists are in their selections. The FT selects two of the big stories from this year so far – Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins and Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in 10 years, The Buried Giant— though both are missing from the Sunday Times list. But the most significant difference is the selection of works in translation or by authors from outside the British/American camp. The Sunday Times manages just two as far as I can tell; The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara and The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Dadud, an author who seems to be creating rather a stir with his retake on Albert Camus’ L’Etranger. The Financial Times however gives us a special list of fiction in translation. The title that most caught my attention was Wolf, Wolf, by Eben Venter who provides a scathing perspective on the new South Africa. it could however be next summer by the time I get around to reading this…..
If you want to read the Financial Times list in full, click here
And this doesn’t help you fill up your bookshelves, you could always take a look at the list of upcoming new publications put together by The Millions.
Welcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we travelled to Colombia to hear from Laura Sesana about writers and the literary scene from her native country.
This time we are heading for Indonesia where we catch up with Ratih Dwi, a freelance translator who blogs at booklypurple.
Let’s meet Ruth
I’m a freelance translator, mainly doing translation on commercial romance novels for a publisher here in Indonesia. I have a penchant for contemporary Western fiction, but I’ve been trying to broaden my reading horizon and not to limit myself to a certain genre or literary works from a certain country/part of the world. So that’s what my blog site is about. It is where I put my reviews after reading books of any genre and origin. And if people tend to divide fiction into literary and popular/commercial, then they’ll also find both in my blog site.
Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Indonesia? Any particular titles or authors that are creating a buzz?
I think what is popular in my country very much follows the current trend abroad, especially in the US. So now young adult author like John Green is pretty much creating a buzz here. Though I can say that books about travel/personal journey and romance novels by Indonesian writers are also gripping most of our readers’ attention today.
Q. Who would you say some of the most prominent authors from Indonesia either now or in previous eras?
Pramoedya Ananta Toer is our most prominent author whose works were and are still very popular to this day, many people have read his books. But today’s authors like Dee (the pen-name of singer-songwriter Dewi Lestari), Tere Liye, and Leila S. Chudori have also standout positions in our literary world.
Q: Are there some novels or books that you were required to read when you were in school?
I cannot remember but I don’t think there were any. However, as far as I can recollect, they always inserted a paragraph or two from some Indonesian classics in our Bahasa Indonesia textbooks as a text sample for reading.
Q: Reading the Wikipedia page about literature from Indonesia, it shows a very rich mixture of culture. How does this reflect the way people write – do you think their approaches are different depending on whether they come from a Malay tradition for example or Sundanese?
In the past, cultural backgrounds indeed influenced the way people wrote, because their works were the reflections of their cultural upbringing and environment. The characteristics and social problems of each tribe are different and that mirrored in the characters, themes, and atmosphere presented in their writings. But I don’t think it’s still the case in our today’s contemporary literature, mostly.
Q: If there was just one book you think we should try to read to give us a good flavor of literature from your country, what would you recommend?Andrea Hirata’s Laskar Pelangi. Or any work by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
Want to Discover More Countries?
The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page
Interested in Being Featured?
If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.
Welcome to the world of books. In the last feature in this series we were enjoying the crisp snowy conditions of Finland. Now we’re heading to a country more associated with sun than snow. We travel to Colombia to hear from Laura Sesana
Let’s meet Laura
I am originally from Bogotá, Colombia. My mother is Colombian; my father is Italian. I grew up in Bogotá and moved to the U.S. for college. I spent a year in Rome after college and returned to Colombia in my 20s to write the text for a book about our national parks, Colombia: Parques Naturales, winner of the 2007 Latino Book Award. I returned to the U.S. to get my law degree and never left!
I run two different blogs, Lasesana.com and ArbiterNews.com. Lasesana is more of a personal blog, where I write about books I’m reading, food I’m cooking and my DIY projects. Arbiter News is a collaboration with a few other writers and journalists where we focus on fact-based reporting. Because we are a smaller publication, we are less constrained by professional relationships and hopefully also free of much of the bias and spin prevalent in mainstream media. We report the facts and let our readers decide.
Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in Colombia?
Colombia is a country of avid readers with a robust publishing industry and literary culture. Brick-and-mortar bookstores and book cafés are still very popular. Colombia has an adult literacy rate of almost 94 percent and books of all kinds are very popular. Colombians read about everything, and thanks to the fact that most books are translated to Spanish very quickly, Colombians read books from all over the world. For example, Paulo Cohelo’s Adultery and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars were both among the top 10 best-selling books in Colombia in 2014.
As far as books by Colombians, the country’s drug war—especially the bloody era of the early 1990s that culminated with the death of Pablo Escobar on a rooftop in Medellín in 1993—is a prevalent topic, not just in literature, but in film and television. A memoir by Pablo Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo, published in December 2014, became an instant best seller. Another book dealing with the same topic, Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s El ruido de las cosas al caer (The Sound of Things Falling), has been at the top of Colombian best-seller lists since its publication in 2011.
Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of literature by Colombian authors?
La rebelión de las ratas (The Rats’ Rebellion), by Fernando Soto Aparicio, about an uprising of the lower social classes in a fictional town in Boyacá.
La vorágine (The abyss), by Jose Eustacio Rivera, a Colombian Heart Of Darkness set in the Amazon.
Relato de un naufrago (The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor), the first book I read by Gabriel García Márquez.
María, by Jorge Isaacs, a romantic novel considered one of the country’s literary masterpieces.
Poetry by Rafael Pombo, we all grew up with his children’s poems and they have become part of our national and Latin-American culture.
I think it is a good list, but I would have included Fernando Soto Aparicio and Jose Eustacio Rivera.
Q. Tell us about some of the themes and traditions of literature in your country?
Early Colombian literature, like the literary traditions of many former colonies, first imitated—then reacted to Spanish literature. Many of the early themes included the Spanish conquest, chronicles and religion. When Colombia gained its independence from Spain, literature reflected society’s preoccupation with government and politics.
In the 19th century, Colombian writers focused on depictions of nature and peasant life (costumbrismo), as well as criticism of government and the ruling classes.
The 20th century saw several literary movements in Colombia, including modernism, los nuevos, piedra y cielo, nadaísmo, and the boom generation.
Violence and a criticism of our society are two main themes that pop up time and again in Colombian literature. For the past two to three decades, Colombian writers have been preoccupied with the violence and horror of the Pablo Escobar years. I think that many of us who lived through that strange and crazy time in our country’s history feel like we need to talk about it, write about it, read about it, and relive it. It is cathartic for writers as well as for readers, making us realize how far we have come as a nation and as a society since the mid 1990s. There is still a lot that needs to be addressed, but nobody can deny that Colombia is a completely different place today.
Q. Is there a noticeable difference between literature from Colombia and that from your other parts of South America? Are the writers different for example from those in Brazil?
As I mentioned earlier, the uniquely bloody history of Colombia, our on-going civil war, the narco war, have all had an effect on the country’s literature that make it different from literature in other South American countries. The “narco,” has become a familiar character in Colombia’s literature, and we keep returning to examine those very difficult years through every angle possible.
However, it would be simplistic to say that Colombians are obsessed only with the gruesomeness of that era. This characterization would ignore the fact that life was still going on amid the violence and horror. People were getting married, having children, graduating from high school, falling in love for the first time.
Many of us came of age in that era, and despite it being a terrible time in our country, it was paradoxically also a very happy time. Most of us have wonderful, happy memories of those years alongside the horrible ones, and I think that the juxtaposition of these opposing feelings about a time and a place in our past makes for some pretty powerful literature.
Q.Do you have a favourite author?
At the risk of sounding cliché, my favorite Colombian authors are Gabriel García Márquez and the poet Rafael Pombo.
My favorite authors overall have to be John Irving and Stephen King.
You can connect with Laura via her blog or Twitter, Pinterest accounts:
- Lasesana: http://lasesana.com/
- Arbiter News: http://arbiternews.com/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/lasesana @lasesana
- Our Awesome Pinterest Book Board: https://www.pinterest.com/lasesana/books-to-read-reviews-and-recommendations/
Want to Discover More Countries?
The View from Here series features guest articles on the literature of many countries including India, Sri Lanka, Canada. For the complete list, visit the View from Here page
Interested in Being Featured?
If you’d like to do a guest post to represent your country, please leave a comment with info on how to contact you.
A few years ago I got into a rather intense discussion along the lines of whether there is any association between the currency used by a country and their population’s feeling of national pride and identity. It was prompted by comments from someone in the British government who was arguing vehemently in favour of Britain keeping the pound sterling as its national currency. Part of the politician’s argument seemed to be that if Britain adopted the Euro, like other members of the European Community, it would lose a critical element of what makes Britain special. It was an argument that held no merit for my three dinner companions, all of whom came from countries which had already ‘lost’ the peseta and the franc in favour of the Euro.
If currency doesn’t define a person’s identity and affiliation to a country, what about language? New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani suggests that without our language, we have no roots and no memory. Don’t be misled by the title, this isn’t a turgid academic study about a fringe language, but an intelligently written novel by a linguist working for the European Community.
The story is quite a simple one. It begins with the discovery of a badly-beaten man on a quayside in Trieste during World War 2. Though he recovers consciousness he has no memory and no language and nothing to identify himself except for the name tag of “SAMPO KARJALAINEN” sewn inside the seaman’s jacket which suggests he is of Finnish origin. A passing military doctor Petri Friari, resolves to re-aquaint the mystery man with the language of his homeland as a way of restoring his memory and rebuilding his life. Petri tells his patient:
The merest breath is enough if there is still any fire at all beneath the ashes…. You will have to work hard. Finnish is the language in which you were brought up, the language of the lullaby that sent you to sleep each night. Apart from studying it you must learn to love it. think of each word as though it was a magic charm which might open a door to memory. Say each word aloud as though it were a prayer…
Sampo recovers sufficiently to be repatriated to a hospital in his supposed home in Helsinki. There with the aid of another doctor, a pastor who believes in the restorative power of Finnish myths and legends and a Red Cross nurse, he tries to find himself once again. It’s not an easy task. Finnish apparently is a fiendishly difficult language “thorny but delicate.”
…the Finnish sentence is like a cocoon, impenetrable, closed in on itself; here meaning ripens slowly and when, when ripe flies off, bright and elusive … whin foreigners listen to a Finn speaking they always have the sense that something is flying out of his moth, the words fan out and lightly close in again; they hover in the air and then dissolve. It is pointless to try and capture them, because their meaning is in their flight…
Sampo meets the challenge head on, diligently applying himself to his lessons everyday but though his vocabulary and understanding improves, his knowledge of his identity remains elusive.
I had a distinct suspicion that I was running headlong down the wrong road. In the innermost recesses of my unconscious I was plagued by the feeling that, within my brain, another brain was beating, buried alive.
This is a novel about alienation, about isolation, how we relate to our pasts, to our cultural traditions and to our mother tongue. It has an overwhelming sense of sadness, the feeling that no matter how much we try, it’s impossible to find the way back. It’s a book that makes you think and to appreciate the value of the language we heard from our first moments on earth and that we use every day without giving it a second thought.
A wonderful novel, that was considered a masterpiece when it was published in Marani’s native Italian. It’s taken more than 10 years to become available in English but well worth the wait.
New Finnish Grammar, by Diego Marani. Translator: Judith Landry. Published by Dedalus Books
Marani worked as a linguist for the European Commission. In addition to his writing he created Europanto, a mock international language.