Saturday 19 December 2009

Vive la France! And Vivat Petronius!

"No summer sun," said W.H. Auden in one of his late poems, "will ever dismantle the global gloom / cast by the Daily Papers." Even more true today than when this was originally written in 1973.

But occasionally, amid the doom and gloom, there's also reason to smile or cheer. For example, these articles in The Guardian and The Times give me hope that the world will put up a fight against the greatest intellectual-property robbery in our history. Once again, it's the enlightened French who lead the way in organizing some sort of Résistance against the digital cowboys of our times.

And I was delighted, both for ourselves and for our translator Andrew Brown, to see two wonderful reviews of our Oneworld Classics edition of Satyricon in The Guardian and The Independent. That a book which has only survived in fragments could still find, after almost 2,000 years, so much resonance with readers and reviewers is confirmation – and do we need one in our dire days! – that true literature never dies.


PS: Read here our own blog piece on Satyricon.

Monday 14 December 2009

Rosie Alison - The Very Thought of You

Many congratulations to Rosie Alison for being longlisted for the Romantic Novel of the year award. Her debut novel, The Very Thought of You, published by Alma in June 2009, is competing with the likes of Katie Flynn, Erica James and Nicholas Sparks. Well done also to fellow independent Allison & Busby for clocking up two entries on the longlist. Alma and A&B are the only independents on the list.

The shortlist will be announced on 11th February 2010, and you can see the entire longlist of the Romantic Novel of the year award here.


Saturday 12 December 2009

Boy by James Hanley

When James Hanley died in 1985, the Times titled his obituary “Neglected Genius of the Novel”. Until recently this situation continued to persist, but since his death his works have steadily gained the posthumous recognition he deserves. As Anthony Burgess remarks in his introduction to a reprint of Hanley’s 1931 novel Boy in reference to the Times obituary, “the geniuses who are neglected are usually those who disturb, and we do not like to be disturbed”.

Hanley was not a writer endowed with a light, playful style: his language was visceral, sharp; his observation keen and uncompromising. And indeed, he had the power to disturb. In the first edition of Boy, the most risqué bits are covered with asterisks. The 1934 reprint was also deemed obscene, and then suppressed for decades. It has since been reprinted by Oneworld Classics to great critical acclaim.

Hanley clearly did not set out to shock readers for the sake of it or to enhance his reputation, but to represent reality – one that could be brutal and dehumanizing. Although he later claimed that the tragic story of Arthur Fearon – the ‘boy’ of the title – was not autobiographical, Hanley is certainly drawing upon his own experiences: his upbringing in Liverpool, where poverty and unemployment was rife; the frustration of having intelligence and ambition but no means of escape; the harshness of work at the docks and life at sea.

Arthur, a smart and sensitive boy, is forced to leave school by his desperately poor parents just before he turns thirteen. Initially sent to the docks, he cannot stand the dangerous and humiliating work there and stows aboard a ship in the hope of reaching America. Instead he is on a ship bound for Alexandria and beyond, and when discovered by the crew is put to work until they can bring him ashore. From then on, Fearon’s life follows a tragic path, until the novel reaches its fatal conclusion.

Young Fearon’s story of abuse and innocence lost in an unforgiving world is well observed and very real. Boy provides the modern reader with a non-sensational, unromantic depiction of the lives of dockhands, sailors and child-labourers. Hanley gives voice to everyday people in constrained circumstances, creating real characters who, despite their failings, are not entirely without humour. His portrayal of people who are unable to break free of their social constraints and even resent intelligence and education – thus perpetuating their misfortune onto their own children – has not lost its power to shake.

Boy – which the author once claimed to have written in ten days – lacks the polish of The Closed Harbour and other Hanley novels. However, this only adds to the force and realism of the novel, and makes it an outstanding and memorable piece of fiction.


Thursday 10 December 2009

Giulio Einaudi

One of my publishing idols and models has always been the Italian publisher Giulio Einaudi (1912–99), the founder of Giulio Einaudi Editore. I grew up on Einaudi books: I can see my well-thumbed edition of the Complete Short Stories by Chekhov, Musil’s Man without Quality, Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Proust's Recherche, Yeats’s, Keats’s, Baudelaire’s and Dylan Thomas’s poems, the Apocryphal Gospels, Ian McEwan’s novels and dozens more volumes that I first coveted, then owned and enjoyed over many readings.

What made Einaudi’s books unique was the quality of the editing, translation, typesetting, paper, binding – the whole package oozed with quality. It is unfortunate and tragically ironic that this once great brand – associated with authors such as Calvino, Pavese, Vittorini, Carlo and Primo Levi, to name but a few, and with the Italian Left – has now ended up in the clutches of the Antichrist of Culture, Berlusconi.

I am currently reading Giulio Einaudi’s memoirs, or rather Fragments of Memories (Frammenti di memoria), as the title goes. It is a lovely volume that was sent to me by my friends at Nottetempo, a wonderful publishing house founded in 2002 by Roberta Einaudi and Ginevra Bompiani. It’s around 200 pages in large typeface and generous layout – quite a refreshing change from other publishing memoirs, such as Maurice Girodias’s two-volume A Day on the Earth or John Calder’s Pursuit, a densely printed royal hardback of over six hundred pages.

It’s not that Giulio Einaudi’s life was uneventful. On the contrary – he led a very industrious (and, at times, heroic) life and had dealings with some of the greatest twentieth-century writers and thinkers. But the impression I get from this book is that he was a decent and reserved man who tried to shun hype and walk away from the limelight.

His prose is terse, lucid, totally unpompous. “My interest for books,” he writes, “was driven at first by the pleasure of physical contact rather than by reading. Perhaps this is the reason why I have always taken extreme care, in my profession, in choosing the typeface, paper, printing, binding, typesetting and layout…” Hundreds of well-known authors and publishers are portrayed in finely chiselled cameos, and there’s a wealth of short but vivid publishing anecdotes.

The English publisher Sir Stanley Unwin reproaches him during an international conference in Florence for being three months late with a royalty payment. “However," he says in the next paragraph, "money was not the subject of my conversation with the old Peter Suhrkamp, publisher and friend of Bertolt Brecht. What we talked about instead was the progressive dumbing-down and depersonalization of international publishing, which is gradually turning into a huge business machine. And I didn’t talk about money with the young Klaus Wagenbach, devoted to the promotion of contemporary Italian literature in Germany; neither did I talk about money with Ledig Rowohlt, the publisher of Robert Musil… These are three publishers who love to know and “grow” their authors, whose manuscripts they read during long, sleepless nights…”


Tuesday 8 December 2009

My First Kindle

What I like about America is the warmth of the people and their sense of humour. It’s very easy to strike up a conversation or crack a joke with the man in the queue or the woman helping you at a crossroads. I have seen one entire train wagon laugh out loud at my friend’s joke the other day. If you allow me to indulge in some stereotyping, I can say that in England some people would have smirked, others mumbled “Mmm” and others, shaking their head in annoyance, would have gone back to their reading. Unless, of course, they were drunk.

At the Yale Club today I was told off by a zealous security guard before I even pulled the laptop out of my bag. “It’s against the club’s rules, Sir.” “Sorry,” I said. This I can understand – but when I picked up a card at the reception desk I was surprised to see that paper is not allowed either, “as it disrupts the other members’ peace”. So what are you supposed to do when you arrive early for your meeting – stare into the void? Whistle? Make cartwheels? The luddite in me applauded the ban of mobile phones and laptops, but do I dare disturb the universe with a few sheets of paper?

Talking of the paperless world ahead of us – I finally saw someone using one of the alleged one million Kindles sold in the US this year – but it was in the elevator of a publishing company, so I suppose it doesn’t really count, does it?


Sunday 6 December 2009

Snowed under

And the snow did come, punctual as ever, on my second day in New York. By the time I got back to my hotel in Short Hills, there were already a couple of inches of snow on the ground. The Christmas-decorated mansions in Summit, surrounded by white lawns and trees, seemed a postcard picture.

Before coming to New York, I had heard and read reports that Kindle had taken roots in America. Apparently more than a million Kindles have been sold over here, and publishers reckon that by 2015 thirty per cent of the sales will be electronic books, with futurologists predicting that mobile phones will be the tool of choice for most e-book readers.

Over the past couple of days I have used public transport and been in a few coffee shops, but did not see a single Kindle around. What I did see is lots of people watching movies from their phone or from a portable DVD-reader. But I also saw people reading traditional newspapers and magazines (not many books, admittedly!). Could it be only a little bit of hype?

I had lunch in town with Tom Lathrop, the excellent translator of our new edition of Don Quixote (to be published in May 2010) and his lovely wife Connie. He spent twenty years translating Cervantes's masterpiece, and he recently retired from his University teaching post. I asked him about the origins of his unusual family name, and he explained that the name comes from Britain, of all places – apparently his ancestor was a clergyman who left England in a bit of a hurry in the 1620s – not alone, but with a mistress.

I was surprised to learn he is not only a translator but also the publisher of over three hundred works both in English and in Spanish. He told me that he has converted all his vynils into iTunes, and showed me his iPhone with the mobile-phone version of Kindle (he also has the stand-alone version). I am always impressed and in awe with people who are more techno-savvy than I am, especially if they are from an older generation.

I wish I could grab a copy of yesterday's The Guardian: there a great review of Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday (translated by Anthea Bell and published by Pushkin Press), and a wonderful review by Jay Parini of The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy. But then, I could it read it online for free (sigh!).


Saturday 5 December 2009

From the Other Side of the Atlantic

In New York for our December sales conference, and very much looking forward to meeting a few of our translators, authors and some fellow publishers.

I love coming to NY in December: I always find either snow or bright skies, and both are a nice diversion from London's pall of gloom.

The journey was great – I was sandwiched between two kids and my seat tray was broken (for this I got a £10 Virgin voucher – ts!), with no movies or entertainment provided other than old or silly films on a tiny Panasonic DVD reader, which I kindly declined (a new experiment, they said – well, don't do it again, man!). But I didn't much care, as I spent seven of the eight hours of my flight agonizing over two lines from Pope's Epistle to Arbuthnot – "Blessed with each talent and each art to please / and born to write, converse and live with ease." Oh well – I got over the hurdle in the end.

I love talking to New York taxi drivers. They are far more interesting and varied than their London equivalent. They are from Haiti, Portorico, Italy, Cuba, Mexico, the Caribbean – even England! The one I got yesterday was from Poland. He's been here "not very long – only thirty years". He seems to have done very well: he's got his own limo and passed his car body garage to his older son, who bought a huge – "too huge" – house with a private lagoon and a motor boat a few miles from where he lives. He's got eight grandchildrens – and each of the grandchildrens are perfectly fluent both in English and Polish. He was a friend of Lech Wałęsa at the time of Solidarity, "before he got a liddle crazy in the head". I asked him my favourite question: "What do you think of Obama then?" And his replied made it obvious that the honeymoon between US citizens and the new Peace Nobel winner is over. "He not that smart," he said. "Why?" I asked, and he replied after a pause: "Because he do stupid things."


Thursday 3 December 2009

Credit Crunch

Just back from another informative and, "to some extent" (to use one of John Calder's verbal quirks), enlightening evening at the Calder Bookshop. David Nokes was supposed to talk about Dr Johnson tonight – his absence was sorely felt, but he was warmly remembered by everyone present, including John in his introductory speech.

Tonight's talk was about John Maynard Keynes. I knew very little about him – only passing references in footnotes and diaries from members of the Bloomsbury group. His economic ideas were amazingly ahead of his time. The portrait that emerged of him was that of an incredibly smart, intelligent, altruistic and – above all – decent man.

I left with the resolution to look up his books, especially "The Economic Consequences of the Peace". And I also want to get hold of Robert Skidelsky's recently published Keynes: The Return of the Master.

Apart from the wonderful talk, it was good to see John in full form, as well as a lot of friends who attended the event. Some of them asked: "Why have you stopped writing your blog? Have you been busy? Have you got a blog block?" To which I replied: "No, I've just been trying to finish Martin Amis's Money".


Wednesday 2 December 2009

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Having recently received the finished copy of my Italian translation of The Rape of the Lock, published by Adelphi, I have found renewed inspiration and set myself a very ambitious task: translating Shakespeare Sonnets into Italian. I have been writing sonnets for years, so I am quite familiar with the form, but Shakespeare's Sonnets (if they are really his) verge on the untranslatable and offer any daring translator the highest challenge. My aim is to translate in modern Italian, without inversions and archaism, so it's even more difficult, as the English language can pack a lot of short monosyllables into a iambic pentameter, whereas Italian can fill one endecasillable with two or three words.

So far I have translated the first ten sonnets of Shakespeare's collection (there's 154 of them). The most difficult so far are the first two, perhaps because they are so well known. I have been working on the first stanza of the first and second sonnet for days and days on end. I think I'll have to give up. This is what I have done with the first sonnet:

Chi è più bello vogliamo sia fecondo,
perché non muoia di bellezza il fiore,
ma se maturo poi lascerà il mondo
ne conservi il ricordo un successore.
Invece tu, legato ai tuoi occhi ardenti,
nutri il tuo fuoco con la tua sostanza,
nemico di te stesso, ti tormenti,
crei carestia là dove c’è abbondanza.
Tu, ornamento del mondo – tu, il solo
splendente araldo della primavera,
resti sepolto dentro il tuo bocciolo,
sprechi in te l’oro della tua miniera.
Abbi pietà, o sii ingordo fino in fondo,
dando alla tomba ciò che spetta al mondo.

The second part of the sonnet is really good and flows naturally. Line 2, however, still bothers me: "di bellezza il fiore" is closer to the original, and it'd be a shame to lose "beauty's rose". But it is a bit of an unnatural inversion, so it may be replaced by something like "così che non perisca mai il suo fiore".

Anyway, thinking about Shakespeare and that world of idealized love, is certainly a nice diversion from the publishing grind!


Tuesday 1 December 2009

Books don't burn

Too much doom and gloom in the trade press and from fellow independents these days. The world is going to end soon – the publishing world that is, at least the publishing world as we know it – and there's no going back. Returning from an early Christmas party with some publishing friends, I actually feel much better and more optimistic about the future. OK, independent bookshops and book chains are going bust, but new independent bookshops are opening, and some could be the Dixon's or Waterstone's of the future.

"We are living a once-in-a-civilization revolution", I heard pronounced at an interesting digital conference recently. It may well be so, but things have always changed and evolved. Wasn't the book printed using mobile types as great a revolution towards the end of the 15th century? Wasn't the introduction of the mass-market paperback another great revolution? And the lifting of censorship? What about desktop publishing and computer-to-plate technology? What about digital publishing, and now e-books? We just need to readjust, to absorb the change and move on. The pace of change may make it trickier than in the past, but adjust we must, and adjust we will.

So I can see, ahead of us, a resurgence of independent booksellers and literary publishers. The paper book will not die out. Literature will not die. Hardbacks may even come back into fashion one day. And even if books are no longer be printed on paper – which I struggle to believe – no one can destroy all the ones that have been printed so far.

Bulgakov famously said: "Manuscripts don't burn." I would add to this: "Books don't either."


Monday 30 November 2009

My Narrative Mind

I have an interview with Joanna Howard up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about her new collection, On the Winding Stair, story openings, and how to get from one sentence to the next.

More interviews @ Writers on Writing:
I Am Not a Camera: Gary Lutz
A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler
What People Do When No One is Watching: Rachel Sherman
Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den Berg
Most Violence Is Intimate: Ben Tanzer
I'm Not Trying to Trick the Reader: Brian Evenson
Where Commas Ordinarily Go: Robert Lopez

Saturday 28 November 2009

DEAR EVERYBODY: The Innermost Feelings of Real Feeling

There is a really nice Chinese review (scroll down) of DEAR EVERYBODY at Bardon, which says, in part, that "Dear Everybody ... touches the heart of hearts ... snowflake-like letters ... exquisite ... the innermost feelings of real feeling."

Friday 20 November 2009

David Nokes RIP

I am sad to announce the passing of a friend and a great author. David Nokes, the author of many celebrated works of non-fiction, died yesterday at the age of sixty-one. I had the pleasure to work with him, publish one of his novels and spend some memorable time with him. He was an excellent man.

David's biography of Samuel Johnson has just been published by Faber and Faber to great critical acclaim, and we were planning to have a reading at the Calder Bookshop in December.

He will be sorely missed by everybody who knew him. Our thoughts go to his family and friends on this very sad day.


Tuesday 10 November 2009

I'm Not Trying to Trick the Reader

I have an interview with Brian Evenson up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about Fugue State, irresolvable narrative, the ending of The Open Curtain, and form as it relates to the novel, the novella, and the story collection.

More interviews @ Writers on Writing:
I Am Not a Camera: Gary Lutz
A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler
What People Do When No One is Watching: Rachel Sherman
Justify Every Sentence: Laura van den Berg
Most Violence Is Intimate: Ben Tanzer

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Shape of a Box: A Video Review of Dear Everybody

At Shape of a Box, Jessie Carty gives a thoughtful video review to DEAR EVERYBODY in which she says that DEAR EVERYBODY is "a beautiful book, inside and out," among other nice things. Thank you, Jessie.

Thursday 22 October 2009

Ionesco - The Hermit

Ionesco’s anonymous narrator is a young man, an everyman, a human being. We meet him, the Hermit, at the age of thirty-five (like Dante "nel mezzo del cammin…") in the city of Paris. There he would have died of boredom and depression, if not for an unexpected inheritance that allows him the luxury of an immediate retirement from his job – a job he saw as “...lists, lists, lists.” He abandons fifteen years of living by the clock; a tedious, pre-determined existence punctuated only by drunken oblivion and failed love affairs. He is a lonely man and he is more than a trifle bored.

As he embarks on a new life – in a new apartment, with new possessions and new neighbours – he feels an initial relief at being his own man; but this period of mental calm is short-lived. Unable to overcome his need for routine and the sense of comfort it brings, he falls into a confined, unimaginative pattern of life. His loss of purpose is substituted by the bottle, and his life revolves around his meals at the local café. His isolation is given up to repetitive, intense introspection, metaphysical anxieties and obsessive fears. With the resignation that only an idealist can experience, he succumbs to a profound and debilitating pessimism about the world, believing that “If I had been less of a philosopher, I would have had a happier life”. We follow his existence over years, with time being scattered about, slowing down and speeding up, in congruence with his state of mind.

The Hermit is Ionesco’s only novel, and it embodies many of the themes that recur throughout his extensive body of work. He was greatly interested in the solitude and insignificance of human existence, and modern feelings of alienation. He also felt a sense of wonderment and anguish at the strangeness of reality, and this is splendidly expressed in the mouth of the Hermit.

This novel, with its elements of magical realism, is a fascinating insight into a tortured mind, and compels reflection on mortality, free will, alienation, idealism and the ignorance of man.


Tuesday 20 October 2009

What People Do When No One Is Watching

I have an interview with Rachel Sherman up at my interview column for The Faster Times, Writers on Writing. We talk about LIVING ROOM, the third person, a beautiful sentence, loneliness, and touching.

There's also an amazing interview with Gary Lutz there. And there's a thing where Blake Butler and I talk about acoustics. In the next few weeks, there will be interviews with Brian Evenson, Laura van den Berg, Ben Tanzer, Joanna Howard, and Robert Lopez.

Thursday 15 October 2009


Caius Petronius was a notorious dandy-figure in Nero’s court. Pronounced “arbiter of elegance” by the emperor himself, he acted as the yardstick for all matters of courtly taste. However in his writing Petronius took a double-edged attitude to upper class revelry, indulging in razor-sharp satire and farce. His satirical-erotic fragmentary work the Satyricon – soon to be published in a new translation by Andrew Brown for Oneworld Classics – gives the reader a rare chance to confront Roman life face to face, in all its fragrant, flatulent reality. The Satyricon depicts all strata of society, from the hustle-bustle of seedy small town life to the sumptuous (equally seedy) excesses of the Roman court. The protagonist Encolpius and his beautiful boy-lover Giton enjoy rambunctious adventures of mock-heroic derring-do, punctuated by sexual liaisons that would make John Wilmot blush; along the way they are assaulted by drag queens, get lost in brothels, and attend sumptuous feasts. The work is never silent, its soundtrack brimful with cacophonic eruptions of flatulence, boisterous lewd banter, street noise and squeals of delight or pain.

Unprecedented in its fidelity to the tone and texture of Petronius’s original, Andrew Brown’s translation conveys the energized colloquial chatter, and untiring bawdiness of the original. Brown uses a blend of modern colloquialism and dirty slang, patchworked with turns of phrase from French, Spanish and Italian to mimic Petronius’s own freestylings. He manages to retain the rough-and-ready nature of the original, whilst preserving its fluid free flow between prose and poetry, replicating its myriad of tones, voices, dialects, languages and accents.

Masterfully rendered by Andrew Brown, the most striking scene in the Satyricon is the description of a lavish banquet hosted by Trimalchio, a wealthy patron of the arts. Here, Petronius displays his ability to move effortlessly between biting satire on courtly pursuits and reverence for displays of lavish aestheticism. Course after course of fantastic culinary excess is interspersed with anecdotes told by the diners – tales of sexual seduction and werewolves – and recitals of hilariously appalling verse. The scene is fascinating for its surreal comedy and beauty. Cooked animals are dressed as soldiers, cakes and fruit spurt saffron at the guests, tarts are drowned in honey, a chef appears who apparently can make fish from sow and chicken from pork, a hare is decorated with wings to look like a Pegasus, a flock of thrushes fly from the belly of a roasted boar…

These moments of courtly entertainment rise above mere satire, and the dazzling descriptions are truly captivating.


Wednesday 14 October 2009

Dear Everybody (Or: When a Poet Writes a Novel)

There's a really thoughtful review of DEAR EVERYBODY up at The Lesser of Two Equals. It says, in part: "Kimball’s background as a poet is apparent in his ability to isolate and frame small moments of a particular character’s experience. Fine attention to detail is exercised both as an art and as a special effect ... It has a surprisingly strong dark humor for being about such a serious topic, his observations are keen and quirky, and he knows how to let imagery make a scene swell." And I liked this bit about Jonathon's suicide letters: "This writing spree has all the highs and lows of a drug binge."

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Book No. 100

Today we signed off our 100th book of the season, a special book because it's our first e-book. Strangely enough, unlike normal printed books, the e-book printers have asked for the InDesign files and the fonts, as they wanted "to make itk look as close as possible to the printed version".

Despite what you think, I haven't "printed" this e-book reluctantly – actually there was a very good vibe about it – which demonstrates that a) I am not a Luddist or a reactionary; b) that there is some pleasure even in torture.

On a slightly different matter, have you seen Madonna's latest video? It's obscene! I know I shouldn't be surprised, but it's so bad, so cringing, so uncool. You've got this fifty-odd-year-old trying to look desperately sexy and Beyoncesque, or Kyliesque . . .

I think I'll send Madonna a copy of Pirandello's book on Humour. . .


Monday 12 October 2009

Free Books!!!

Sorry I've been out of touch recently. I haven't been on a blog strike, and no, it's not because I'm still reading Martin Amis's Money, as someone has suggested (it's true that I am a slow reader, but not that slow). I have been incredibly busy with a series of exciting books, from a Catalan novel, The Invisible City, to an eighteenth-century rediscovery (Swift's The Wonderful Wonder of Wonders) to the wonderful Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy and a few other great books that will appear in the next couple of weeks. I would have liked to comment on many of the recent news – Super Thursday, Waterstone's Hub, the new Kindle, the closure of Books Etc., etc. etc. etc. – but life has gone faster than my fingers, or even my brain. I hope to catch up soon.

Today I walked back home from the office and I was almost raped by a newspaper maniac who was dispensing free copies of The Evening Standard. Piles and piles of copies were lining the walls behind him. I manage to dodge him, but there were a couple of his colleagues round the corner, and I stumbled at the last hurdle and got a free copy myself. I don't usually read The Evening Standard – maybe because I don't commute, or maybe because I think it has the information value of a medicine's information leaflet. Anyway, I did get this copy – I arrived home five minutes later and threw it in our recycle bin. Why did I do that? Because for me it had no value – I had not paid for it, so I didn't care much about it. By making something free, you devalue it – and although this populistic move has been endorsed by great celebrity quotes, I think the Russian tycoon who took over the ailing paper will live to regret this.

Have you seen all those free DVDs, CDs and even books that are given away by Sunday newspapers these days? No doubt they'll generate some more sales for the struggling papers, but who watches or listens to them? Who reads those book? Will they make any money to the record labels or book publishers? I very much doubt. Penguin has been giving away some horribly printed green classics of late – a disservice to publishing and to Penguin – and surely a waste of paper and resources.

The time is coming when the majority of people will stop going into bookshops simply because so much content – information, comment, fiction, even research – is available for free.

And when that happens, we'll all be consigned to the recycle bin of history.


Monday 5 October 2009

This Blog Will Change Your Life

Ben Tanzer has a super nice write-up, at This Blog Will Çhange Your Life, in which he calls me "the dark overlord of all things writing, film and interview" and in which he calls DEAR EVERYBODY "moving, even paralyzing"--and notes that "pain can be captured on the page both sparsely and lyrically, an achievement that is magical."

Thank you, Ben Tanzer.

Monday 28 September 2009

A Ribbon of Language: Blake Butler and Michael Kimball Talk About Acoustics

Blake Butler and I talk about acoustics--how we think about acoustics, how we use acoustics, and where we feel acoustics. We called the talk A Ribbon of Language. It originally appeared in Unsaid #4. Now it's posted in my interview column at The Faster Times, along with a Gary Lutz interview.

Thursday 17 September 2009

William S. Burroughs – The Ticket That Exploded

Alongside Ginsberg and Kerouac, William S. Burroughs was the opiate-lubricated voice of The Beat Generation. His novels depict drug addiction, wild sexual fantasies and sensational nihilistic tales of gangsters and zombies. In The Ticket That Exploded – first published in UK by John Calder in 1968 – Burroughs splices together the clichéd genres of science fiction and spy thriller with descriptions of graphic violence and explicit pornography to create a provoking, acerbic and witty comment upon the modern media age.

And yet, despite its attention to intergalactic subterfuge, neon-lit sex palaces and alien copulation, the poetic prose and fragmentary form of Burroughs’s novel, and its concern with disseminating generic cliché, seem to bear similarity to the stylistics of Joycean modernism. The Ticket That Exploded showcases Burroughs’s cut-up and fold-in technique of literary composition, which involved creating a new text by fragmenting and then splicing together multiple narratives. This was a method Burroughs also applied to audio and visual media, and indeed he hoped that his writing would have the “same effect on the reader as a lurid action photo”.

This splicing process is not limited to the structural elements of the book, but manifests in its content, which explores the limits of physicality and individuality. Burroughs uses images of violent bodily decay and sexual union to explore the
extremities of being and questions the singularity of the self in an age in which sound recordings and images can be endlessly replicated or played back, doctored and spliced. Selfhood becomes virtually non-existent in the text, where the body is itself an object to be continually disjointed, consumed and reused. The landscape of The Ticket That Exploded is also poignantly fragmented, a whirlwind of “sound and image flakes”, always on the brink of decomposing or straining apart at the seams.

In an era dominated by mass media advertising, political broadcasts and pre-recorded television and radio, Burroughs believed that the process of replaying and splicing sequences of audio or written narratives would reveal a more substantial truth, liberated from the formulas of linear progression and cliché. Applying this technique to his writing was in many respects a profoundly Joycean enterprise and, as an artistic enterprise, the method creates strikingly poetic results. Despite the dislocated nature of the text, the accumulation of repeated clusters of images across the novel allow an aesthetic unity to surface amidst the chaos.


Tuesday 15 September 2009

"Who are but weasels fighting in a hole" - WB Yeats

So the long-awaited follow-up to the Da Vinci Code is about to be "released". Embargoes have been broken already by reviewers, half-price advance orders have been taken before publication – and now there's a new Brownesque twist in the story: not the usual price competition but an all-out war between retailers. The big W – and even the mighty Amazon – have been caught by surprise by the supermarkets' slashing from £18.99 to as little as £5.00. The Book Depository entered this loss-making competition and announced today that they'd be selling The Lost Symbol for just under a fiver. Obviously it didn't take Amazon long to follow suit and match that price – even retrospectively for the books already preordered… Insane. It is evident that online retailers are exposed to exactly the same dangers as high-street retailers when they try to compete with the supermarkets on discounts.

The Lost Symbol is yet another lost opportunity (for publishers and booksellers). I am pretty sure that many people would have happily paid the full price for it. But intellectual property is being degraded and devalued so much these days, in this brave new Internet world of free music, free news and – soon – free books that it will be even more of a struggle for anybody concerned (authors, publishers, journalists, bookshops, distributors etc.) to survive.

"Bring the Net Book Agreement back!" cries a voice in the desert. You think it won't work? Can it get worse than this? The fixed price is still in place in many European countries, and it could make the difference in UK, too, where publishers and retailers seem to have lost any sense of reality and are prepared to sacrifice profits and margins for that magical words – "sales" and "market share".

When we all go bust, and the majority of readers download books illegally from the Internet rather than buy them from shops, they'll realize that 100% of zero is zero.

Read here my post about Barbers' Wars.


Sunday 13 September 2009

Death of a Publisher

I think I should say a few words about the sad news of Marion Boyar’s demise, which its publisher Catheryn Kilgarriff blames on excessive discounts and the increasing polarization and conglomeration of the book trade. I hope that, in the same way as Calder Publications was rescued by Oneworld Classics in 2007, some white nights will come to the rescue of this prestigious publisher.

Penguin will republish thirty-eight of Marion Boyars’ backlist titles in their classics series, and I hope there is some young entrepreneur out there who’s prepared to take on the challenge and drive forwards the programme initiated by Marion Boyars in 1975 and valiantly continued by her daughter Catheryn since 1999.


Wednesday 9 September 2009

Dear Everybody, One of the Incredibles

Nik Perring has a category for books that he loves beyond other books, The Incredibles. I love that he has that category and I love that he added Dear Everybody to that list with books like Slaughterhouse 5 and Frankenstein. Nik says Dear Everybody "is right up there with the best I've read. Ever. It's clever, sensitive, heartbreaking, moving, funny and many, many other wonderful things." And then we did an interview where we talk about what is essential to great fiction and sympathy for those suffering from mental illness.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Claude Simon - Triptych

Triptych is, ostensibly, three short stories. In one, a young girl drowns; in another we witness an unhappy marriage; the third deals with a woman who is somehow involved in an incident at a summer seaside resort. However, although the work is divided into three, divisions do not mark separate stories or sequences, but instead divide the piece as if it were the triptych of the title – panels focusing on different parts of three stories interwoven into the same, ongoing narrative.

Simon is especially concerned with life and death, and in Triptych he explicitly links sex with death and young life with decay in a highly eroticised narrative, filled with sexual imagery and metaphors. Children play by a river, spying on furtive sex acts in a barn; an old woman kills a rabbit in an almost ritualistic manner, leaving the body on a kitchen table; a little girl strays too close to a river bank and we later see the servant girl who was meant to look after her distraught. A marriage begins to fail not long after it has begun; an older woman, no longer as influential as she once was, persuades a former acquaintance to help her through seduction.

Simon’s overall metaphor does not just employ painting, but cinema and other performance mediums. Different strands of the stories are woven together, shifting from one tableau to the next in a non-linear fashion. The story with the little girl follows several characters at different points in the same rural setting, like a detailed landscape painting or engraving; the resort story focuses almost entirely on a woman lying naked on a bed, akin to a detailed, intimate portrait, photograph or film still; the bridegroom’s stag night and what appears to be a disastrous wedding night is viewed like a series of out of sequence filmed scenes. Simon takes the metaphor further by presenting scenes as if they were unnaturally frozen celluloid images and deliberately blurs the line between the constructed cinematic image and reality, participants and spectators – for example, the circus scenes – full of heightened theatricality and ridiculousness, watched by a laughing audience in the dark, and the audience leaving from a cinema at the end. In Triptych, the novel form becomes like film, thus taking Simon’s sensibilities and style as a Nouveau Romancier further – events are seen by the mind like film inside a projector, focused on in detail, moved out of sequence like separate stills.


Thursday 3 September 2009

The Faster Times: Writers on Writing

The Faster Times has been laying down a ton of nice coverage of books and everything and I've just started an interview column there called Writers on Writing. The first interview is with Gary Lutz and it's called I Am Not a Camera. It's pretty incredible.

Dante's Rime is shortlisted for the Prize for European Poetry in Translation

Apparently good news comes in bunches!

Dante's Rime has been shortlisted for the Corneliu M. Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation 2009. This prize, organized by the Poetry Society, is open to collections of texts translated from another European language into English.

Fingers crossed!

Elective Affinities and Life of Monsieur de Moliere

We are delighted to share with you a review of Elective Affinities by Goethe and The Life of Monsieur de Moliere by Bulgakov, both published in the Guardian.

The constant relevance of the masterpiece by the most popular German author is highlighted: "Controversial in its day, as it lent itself to the interpretation that love could be reduced to a chemical attraction, the novella continues to be relevant. Despite a shift in mores, contemporary readers will recognise the emotional pressures and the problems that Goethe explores through his characters and the Romantic landscape." (Please click here to read the complete review)

John Dugdale also says about The Life of Monsieur de Molière that "in its playfulness and hybridity, this book looks forward to contemporary 'faction' that fuses fiction and biography." (Please click here to read the complete review)

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Raymond Roussel - Impressions of Africa

A poet, novelist, playwright and musician – and the man who famously said, "My fame will outshine that of Victor Hugo or Napoleon" – Raymond Roussel was never a part of the official surrealist movement, but is nevertheless among the most important surrealist writers. A highly eccentric wealthy man with odd habits and a unique writing method (a formal style made unpredictable by its construction being based on homonymic puns), he was almost unanimously unpopular during his lifetime, save for the admiration of the surrealists and avant-garde. It was only in the 1950's that he began to be acknowledged as one of the originators of the nouveau roman and the ‘theatre of the absurd’, with both Eugène Ionesco and Alain Robbe-Grillet citing his influence. With the recent republication of Nouveau Roman authors such as Duras, Robbe-Grillet and Simon, as well as Roussel’s novel Locus Solus, by Oneworld Classics, the reprint of one of his best-known works, Impressions of Africa, is something to look forward to.

Impressions of Africa opens with the coronation of Talu VII, emperor of the African land of Ejur, who has just vanquished the ruler of the neighbouring land and claimed it as his own. The ceremony is witnessed by Talu’s wives, many children (including his blind daughter Sirdah) and French guests – with one of their number acting as narrator. An extraordinary and surreal gala performance ensues, in which science, theatre and African ritual are combined in a series of unbelievable events that last over the course of the night.

The narrator then reveals how this all came to be. He, bound for South America, boarded a ship in Marseilles leaving for Buenos Aires, joined by a quirky multi-talented group of fellow passengers – including the genius chemist Bex, the female-impersonating Carmichael, former ballerina Olga (accompanied by her tame elk and she-ass), a vain fireworks manufacturer, an Italian tragic actress and a travelling circus company of assorted acrobats, animals and freaks. When their ship is wrecked by a storm on the coast of Ejur, Talu demands that they remain his prisoners until he has gained ransoms for them. Whilst waiting for the ransom sums that will free them, the passengers pass the time by setting up a theatre company – the Incomparables – and prepare to present a fantastical display of their marvellous individual skills. The preparation for this is interwoven with the events that lead to Talu defeating his royal rival and arranging his coronation. Thus the circumstances that led to the miraculous and strange events in the novel’s first half – from ancestral deeds committed by Talu’s forefathers and the recent political and romantic liaisons that have recently occurred, to descriptions of how the performers prepared their acts – are explained precisely, grounded them in reality, albeit it a reality which is still strange and fantastical.

The title recalls nineteenth-century travel writing, but with a sly twist. Roussel rarely left his Paris hotel, let alone France, thus his ‘impressions’ are not based around his own exploits, or indeed on reality. They are instead ideas lifted from his imagination, resulting in an inventive, often absurd and highly surreal portrait of ‘Africa’, the unique product of Roussel’s mind.

The imagery he conjures is very detailed, which only serves to heighten their oddity. However, Roussel’s writing is precise and structured, describing objects and situations with a mathematical precision – in fact, scientific and musical terminology and concepts are frequently used, grounding the fanciful and making the logical appear magical. His keen fascination with theatre and music (he adapted his own works into plays and was himself a pianist) is also reproduced in tableaux, film stills, plays and ritualized ceremonies. Science, technology, music and theatre elaborately blended together, as seen when an advanced mechanical loom weaves a tableau onto a cloth in what is in essence a technological ‘performance’. The overall effect is of a dazzling surrealist theatrical performance, followed by the curtain being lifted to reveal the truth behind the magic tricks – but in a way that does not lessen the reader’s original reaction.

Many of his descriptions, which are deliberately surreal, provide an amusing contrast with historical narratives on Africa – from Herodotus’s giant dung beetles to more recent accounts. A scene proceeds as we would expect it for a moment, but is then followed by an amusing detail: the image of the African king being led to the place of his coronation, which would ordinarily be solemn and ceremonial, is made ridiculous and theatrical by his costume – a low-cut evening dress and flaxen wig. Once these details are finally explained (Talu, unaware that he is in ladies’ dress, is merely imitating Carmichael’s act, which he admires), we are presented with an unusual situation: the fantastic events that we saw were not entirely the work of the natives, but the westerners. The typical stance of a narrative on foreign culture, emphasizing distance and peculiarity, has been reversed. Impressions of Africa is therefore not only a reflection of the theatrical and musical arts that Roussel loved, but a work that can be subversive. It is a highly imaginative and ultimately bizarre novel that effectively conveys the author’s unique writing style and eccentric personality.


Thursday 27 August 2009

Raymond Queneau - The Sunday of Life

Raymond Queneau was a writer with a great understanding of language and its possibilities. His ability to employ everyday speech, including its rhythms, colloquialisms, obscenities and puns, resulted in deeply humorous and imaginative works, which often centred around his entertaining manipulation of language and narrative, as in Exercises in Style and the Flight of Icarus, both recently republished by Oneworld Classics. He was also a keen and witty social observer and portrayer of character, which is demonstrated in his 1952 work, The Sunday of Life.

When middle-aged shop-owner Julia Segovia stubbornly decides that she’s going to marry the handsome, if exceedingly young, soldier who walks past her premises each day, her sister and brother-in-law are aghast – more out of fear for their daughter’s inheritance than the probable success of the marriage. With no firm ideas concerning his future upon finishing his service (having never been promoted beyond the lowly rank of private), the ambivalent and somewhat simple Valentin Brû willingly goes along with her scheme.

Thereafter we follow the next four years of Brû’s life, as he contends with disgruntled in-laws, a ‘monstrous’ cook, numerous eccentric locals, his vulgar and cunning wife, a shifty career in fortune-telling, the approaching threat of war with Germany, and the mysteries of Parisian public transport. Brû’s eternally optimistic personality and complete lack of malice means that he responds positively and with naive charm to the most negative of circumstances – but his overt simplicity hides from most his special insight into people’s lives and future events. Even the outbreak of war does not weary his spirits.

With a cast of eccentric characters, amusing incidents and a remarkably positive outlook, especially when one considers the period in which the novel is set, The Sunday of Life is both intelligent and highly accessible: featuring Queneau’s imaginative and playful use of language, sly wit and delight in the absurdity of people and situations.


Tuesday 25 August 2009

Yves Navarre – Cronus' Children

The late French writer Yves Navarre was prolific throughout the 1970s, producing a number of novels and works of drama. Critically acclaimed and much discussed during his lifetime, he is probably now best remembered for the novels A Share of Time, Sweet Tooth and Cronus’ Children. His career was halted for some time when he suffered a stroke in 1984. After returning to France from a few years spent in Montreal, he developed depression and committed suicide in 1994, cutting short a period of greater creative output. He had been awarded the Academie Francais Prize in recognition of his body of work only two years earlier.

Navarre was born in Condom in 1940. In 1971 his first novel, Lady Black, was published. In addition to various dramatic works, he wrote numerous novels, including Les Loukoums (1973), Le Petit Galopin de nos corps (1977) and Portrait de Julien devant la fenêtre (1979). The latter two novels both involved love affairs between male characters, a subject that Navarre, himself a homosexual man, frequently explored in his work, in addition to associated issues, such as AIDS (the focus of his 1992 novel, Ce sont amis que vent emporte). Instead of resorting to sensationalist sexuality, Navarre often emphasised sensuality and psychological elements in his portrayal of relationships. Cronus’ Children, for which he won the 1980 Prix Goncourt (under its original French title Le jardin d’acclimation), is not only an impressive work in its own right, but serves as an excellent introduction to Navarre’s preferred subject matter and literary techniques.

The novel focuses on the Prouillan family and their acquaintances, who are unable to escape the influence of the father, Henri – the murderous ‘Cronus’ of the English title. They share a common guilt regarding the lobotomy that the youngest brother, Bertrand, was given in an attempt to rid him of his homosexuality. The operation instead leaves an imaginative, academically successful young man a cripple, ostensibly put out of sight and out of mind when taken from Paris to the family’s country residence. The day of Bertrand’s fortieth birthday is also the twentieth anniversary of the return from his disastrous operation, the crucial moment in which his siblings, horrified by their father’s actions and guilt-ridden by their previous unwitting complicity, left the family house in Paris for good.

Over the course of this day and the following morning, every one touched by that event – the father, children, old servant, their aunt, and the family who care for Bertrand – becomes the centre of focus. Far-flung and in vastly different circumstances, the upsets that occur to each of them on this fateful anniversary lead them to meditate on past and present, revealing the different layers of these characters and their very human weaknesses and emotions. From these multiple different pieces, a complex, even tragic portrait of a family emerges, which makes one ask just how much we are the product of our family, and whether it is ever possible to break those early connections. A cleverly structured novel, full of detail, strong imagery and insight, it is a highly accomplished work.


Saturday 22 August 2009

Robert Pinget - The Inquisitory

An inquisitor is questioning an old man, the former caretaker in a wealthy household, about the recent and sudden departure of the house’s residents. The answers he gives can be evasive and defensive, ranging from detailed observations to vague remarks, leaving one unsure as to whether he is telling the truth or not. The insight that the old servant provides regarding the habits and lives of that household and the inhabitants of the surrounding towns reveals details that can be mundane, surprising or unnerving. As the novel progresses, suspicious, even sinister details begin to build up, possibly incriminating his former employers, their acquaintances and his colleagues. As the elderly man becomes more overtly defensive and conveniently forgetful, the inquisitor ruthlessly questions him over the smallest details.

The novel has an unusual style, reflecting the nature of the dialogue between the two men and the characterization of the elderly man as rambling and over-observant in some respects, but seemingly forgetful and prone to digression. Despite the style, it is well structured, creating a net of suspicious circumstances and possible accusations, leading the two men into confrontation over the old man's recall of the events – is he deliberately trying to mislead the inquisitor, and why?

Pinget is clearly intrigued by the nature of truth and memory, a theme that is central to the novel, as the inquisitor attempts to draw out the truth from the reluctant servant. Does society place constraints upon him dishing out both facts and gossip about others, is he trying to protect someone, or just tired of recalling his former life? The rural, small-town antics of this French community are described in enormous detail, creating a portrait of the different people and places within an area over several decades – their everyday business, affairs, eccentricities, beliefs and crimes. Sometimes puzzling, and with a style and structure that requires focus, The Inquisitory – another gem from our Calder list – is nevertheless an amusing, well-observed and engaging work.


Thursday 20 August 2009

Marguerite Duras's Trilogy

Trilogy is a collection of three of Marguerite Duras’s novella-length stories. It was originally published by John Calder in 1977, and we are hoping to republish it under our Oneworld Classics imprint next year. The three tales are all are concerned in some way with personal relationships and change, with the main characters in each working towards a sometimes uncomfortable conclusion or confrontation through the (often accidental) fortuitous intervention of a stranger. Each of them were written between 1955 and 1962, the period in which Duras began to produce more experimental works and become more involved in writing for theatre and film.

Indeed, the first story, The Square (which Calder published separately in 1959), was adapted with little change into a play. Consisting almost entirely of a dialogue between two strangers, with the only breaks in their speech occurring when Duras wishes to draw attention to outside events – the setting sun, a child asking for milk– in order to mark the time and setting and for the characters to react to them, it is an inherently theatrical piece. A travelling salesman meets a young woman in a town square. They strike up an intense conversation about themselves – their lives, lowly place in society, hopes, fears and dreams. The girl is a maid, who clings to one hope – finding a man at the local Dance Hall who will make her his wife and rescue her from this monotonous, isolated existence. The salesman has been reduced to peddling goods across the country. Unlike the girl, his dreams are mostly connected to the past, not the future. He relies upon an opportunity presenting itself in order to lift himself of his current drudgery. The two strangers reveal their private emotions and history to one another, finding sympathy and understanding even when they are not entirely in agreement.

Duras’s tendency to evoke details from her own life may be apparent in Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night. Duras’s recurring problems with alcohol may have contributed to the characterisation of Maria, a depressed, alcoholic woman, who has discovered her husband’s affair with her friend, finds a fugitive killer hiding on a roof. The man has killed his young wife and her lover. Extraordinarily, she tries to rescue him. The results of her actions are combined with the ongoing tension between herself, her husband and his new lover, as they struggle to deal with her addiction, illicit sexual attraction and the problems in the marriage.

In The Afternoon of M. Andesmas, the wealthy Andesmas waits for an acquaintance to visit him. He hears the sound of music and dancing coming from the village square, a gathering that is contrasted with the sheltered life of the old man. Imagining the villagers below and influenced by two visitors, he begins to draw surprising conclusions about the villagers and his relationship with his beloved daughter.


Wednesday 19 August 2009

Fists – The Blog Tour Starts Here

A lot of weird things happen in life; I guess life is just a rather bizarre matter. When I started writing, in spring 1986 – at least this is the date on the earliest short story I can find in my closet – I probably would have felt I was in the first chapter of a science-fiction book if somebody told me that some day I would join a blog tour. “A what?” I probably would have asked. “A blog… never mind,” the somebody would have told me. “Just try to picture yourself in a room, in front of a small television talking to people in other countries.” “Yeah, right” I would have replied. And that on top of it all I would also be a writer? Never would have guessed.

Actually, to be honest, at the time I was already pretty sure about what I wanted to do with my life. Maybe a year after my first short story I began my first unfinished novel. It was the story of two kids that run away from home and eventually get caught up in some Mafia business. Given how well Mafia stories sell, I guess at the time I was much smarter than now. Anyway, while I was writing the book I can clearly remember being in the car with my mom, waiting for a green light, and asking her if once I finished the book she would publish it for me. She said ok. Things were surprisingly clear at the time.

So here I am now: I kept on writing, the whole matter went from a game, to a huge love, to an obsession, to a living; I have written with computers, typewriters, pencils and fountain pens: now I write with a Bic ballpoint; I dreamt of finishing a story, of writing without thinking too much, of finding a publisher and some success. More or less all of this happened. For some time I didn’t now what to dream anymore, so I decided to go for the long shot: I am now dreaming of becoming a great old writer, with a white beard and a walking-stick. I have at least forty years – you never know.

Pietro Grossi


Pietro Grossi will be touring various book blogs over the coming weeks to promote the release of his short-story collection Fists, by Pushkin Press – the book Il Dominecale called "the greatest addition to Italian literature for a very long time". The full itinerary is as follows:


Wednesday 19th Alma Books Bloggerel

Thursday 20th Bibliophilic Blogger

Friday 21st Nihoni Distractions

Monday 24th The Truth About Lies

Tuesday 25th Pursewarden

Wednesday 26th The View From Here

Thursday 27th Bookmunch

Friday 28th Notes in theMargin


Thursday 3rd Lizzy’s Literary Life

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Tibor Déry - The Portuguese Princess

Tibor Déry was born in Budapest in 1894. As a young man, he was an active party member in the liberal republic under Mihály Károlyi. However, within a year Béla Kun and his Communist Party had risen to power. Hungary was declared a Soviet Republic and Déry was exiled. He returned in 1934, only to be imprisoned on numerous occasions by the right wing Horthy regime – once for translating Retour de L'U.R.S.S (he also translated Lord of the Flies and Kipling’s Naulahka into Hungarian). During this period he wrote his great (and ironically titled) epic novel, The Unfinished Sentence – an epic novel that is around 1,200 pages long.

He became a supporter of communism, but after being expelled from the Communist Party due to a “cleansing of Hungarian literature” in1953 he began writing satire on the regime and was a spokesman during the 1956 uprising. He wrote Niki: The Story of a Dog in the same year. His involvement in the uprising led to his imprisonment, but he was released in 1960. He died in 1977.

The Portuguese Princess (published by John Calder in 1966) is a collection of four stories (one of them divided in six parts) that centre on Hungary: predominantly during the German occupation of Budapest, its immediate aftermath and the post-war Communist regime. Despite the overtly dangerous or despondent circumstances he writes about, Déry writes vulnerable but humane characters, whose eccentricities and outlook on life amuse and often appeal. His style is deceptively simple in tone and structure, but contains passages of richly imagined or starkly effective description. This also means that his character-driven stories have a coherent, appealing narrative and that his themes are put across effectively.

This collection obviously would have had greater relevance during the more immediate post-war and Cold Wars periods. However, certain details that he describes remain strong in the public consciousness: the Jews being led to their deaths, and the heavy bombing of civilian areas, the effects of Soviet Communism. The descriptions of the war-torn streets of Budapest, under attack from foreign powers, which are meant to be their salvation, can be paralleled with the involvement of foreign nations in the Middle East in recent times. The dilemmas the characters face and the ways in which they deal with them – showcasing kindness, bravery, pettiness and selfishness – are realistically portrayed. Déry’s writing is both satirical and sympathetic, and he is an excellent observer of humanity and its foibles. He also provides a crucial insight into this period in Hungary’s history, of which not so many people now would have a clear understanding, such as the short-lived rule of the Arrow Cross Party, the immediate post-war situation in Eastern Europe, or the peculiar hypocrisies that existed within Hungarian Communist society.

The first story, the very short ‘A Charming Old Gentleman’, concerns Uncle Miko, who is exactly what the story’s title says. He is also a chronic embezzler: having lost his wealth a decade earlier, he insists on paying his own way by working himself, only to get sacked when they find him taking funds. In addition, he has a love of good food and beer, which he hides from his wife, who is happily convinced that he is looking after his digestion by eating light meals and taking a walk for his constitution each evening. This walk actually involves a trip to a local restaurant. He embezzles, but yet insists on working and not living off his son-in-laws; he lies to his wife, but does so to keep her content, and dreads telling her about his working ‘mishaps’ because she becomes ill. Miko’s dishonesty, used to fund his love for the good things, actually displays his obvious love and appreciation of all aspects of life – this, combined with his affectionate, mischievous nature endears him and his positive outlook on life to the reader.

‘Games of the Underworld’ begins on Christmas Eve in Budapest, 1944. The six stories focus on different characters inhabiting the “underworld” – citizens sheltering in the cellars of their apartment buildings from the near-incessant shelling. In the first, Frances Rusko, her daughter Evi and fiancé Janos, must shelter in the cellars when the Russians begin their bombardment. Frances and Evi share affectionate and witty banter; this and Evi’s description of cooking and eating duck shows a positive fondness for life which is juxtaposed with the shelling, the dead soldiers outside and the revolutionary activities of Janos’s brother. The second, ‘Dawn of December’ is mostly set in the cellars. As the walls shake violently, many of the characters get on with everyday activities. The old maid following her routine is both amusing and somewhat worrying: when the shelling stops in the morning, she cleans her flat, gets ready, and proceeds on her ‘daily inspection’ (complete with hen companion) of the deserted streets, noting a dead soldier – upon her return, she instructs someone to inform Uncle Lajos as to the street where his soldier son is lying dead. The attempts of the cellar dwellers to live normally, the description of the desolate urban landscape and the lady’s eccentric behaviour are alternately amusing and saddening. In ‘Horse’ an old man discovers a horse in a dairy. Not wanting the animal to be killed, he brings it down into the cellar. Most are split between killing and caring for the horse. This is paralleled with the of the Jews being rounded by the Arrow Cross in order to be killed, and the girl Juli’s decision that the horse ‘will not join the procession’ of those sent to the slaughter, whilst the citizens do nothing, leads her to commit murder. In ‘The Parcel’ the resident should obey a decree stating that if a citizen is found near a house, the residents must bury him in the nearest public park. Doing so would be dangerous, so they move him, pleased that the people in another building will have to deal with it – only for the body to be returned the next morning. Darkly amusing, this story looks at the petty behaviour of people, even when under siege. ‘Aunt Anna’ concerns the sudden arrival of Anna, whose outspoken manner sets her at odds with the others, who have quietly replicated their lives in the cellar and are frightened of speaking out. Anna sacrificing her life so that her deserter son can escape is the act of someone who refused to be cowed and took a stand against the war, and is contrasted with the passive inaction of the others. The last in the sequence, ‘Fear’, sees Aunt Mari and the widow Daniska moving into a safer cellar in a wealthier house. Existing class, political and religious tensions are raised; the wealthier residents continue to order those in lower positions around; those allied with the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party know they should hand over the two Jews with foreign passports, but fear being executed by the Russians by thus displaying their political sympathies; and the two women are terrified that the young deserter, now hiding in this building, may be found and denounced. The arrival of a group of rowdy, drunken Arrow Cross soldiers brings all this to a head.

The title story ‘The Portuguese Princess’ follows three orphaned children, Tutyu, Johnny and Peter. Displaced by the war and struggling to survive, these three unrelated children eke out an existence together. However, when they ‘treat’ themselves with the little money they have to watching a performance of the “Bloody Adventures of the Portuguese Princess”, the beautiful set designs, archetypal characters and moral undercurrent enthral the children, and allow them to be children for the first time in years. Whilst Tutyu feels an affinity with the princess, Peter sides with the villainous Black Knight, wanting him to abduct and kill. Thus Tutyu and Johnny finally see him for the vicious, heartless boy he has become and probably will remain, and part ways with him. The last story, the highly satirical ‘A Gay Funeral’ reveals a bourgeois society existing within a Communist state, in which the wealthy Mrs V. refuses to let her husband die, despite his crippling pain and desire to stop living. Before his death Mr V. claims that he has lived a lie, not making himself or anyone else really happy; he entreats his niece to appreciate life and to have a ‘sense of proportion’.


Friday 14 August 2009

Aidan Higgins

Aidan Higgins (born 1927) is one of the most important contemporary Irish writers. His work won him numerous awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and although he was once shortlisted for the Booker, he’s not very well known in the UK. John Calder published a few of his works in the Sixties and Seventies, and the brave Dalkey Archive have recently reissued some of them, so there's some hope that his work may be reassessed by the new generations.

Brought up in a landed Catholic family in County Kildare, his upbringing has informed his work, especially his acclaimed first novel, Langrishe, Go Down (1966). An experimental work, it was later adapted as a BBC television film by British playwright Harold Pinter. The extent of his learning, as well his experiences of travelling and living in London, Germany and South Africa, have also influenced his writing.

In Balcony of Europe (1972) he utilises Irish and Spanish settings (also referencing England, Germany, Finland, Russia and America) and employs various European languages - primarily Spanish - and different English dialects (favourite American, English or Irish expressions used by characters are significant throughout). He is clearly intrigued by cultural difference and similarity as displayed through language. References to European culture and history are blended with mythological, religious and poetic imagery, displaying the wide extent of his learning, as well as the continuing influence of his Irish Catholic upbringing.

Balcony of Europe opens in Dublin. Middle-aged painter Dan Ruttle watches his mother decline and die in a few days in hospital. His father is poor, having spent unwisely all his life, and they are both estranged from his brother. Dan eventually responds to his friend Roger Amory’s repeated insistence that he and his wife Olivia come to stay with him in Spain. They arrive in a town in Andalusia, once called the ‘Balcony of Europe’. Dan is soon fascinated by the attractive, sensual Charlotte Bayless, a young American-Jewish woman married and with a young child. They begin a love affair– a relationship that is not much of a secret to Charlotte’s husband Bob or Olivia. The affair consumes them both for a while, causing Dan to lose interest in his work and to become jealous of her flirtations with other men. The natural end of the affair coincides with the Ruttles’s departure. Despite now being dispersed across Europe and America, the community of ex-pats that was formed in Spain still keep in contact for a while – letters that reveal the tenacity of their personal relationships and their occasional dissatisfaction with their lives. Dan and Olivia’s new life on isolated, rural Aran now contrasts with the lives of their former friends.

The supporting cast of characters flit in and out of the narrative – some seen once, others making regular appearances. There is the chess-playing neo-Nazi Finnish baron, still loyal to the memory of Hitler; Charlie Vine and his chatterbox lover Salina; a short, misogynistic homosexual who once travelled to Russia on the Ost-West Express and now loiters in the hope of being seduced by ‘lovely’ boys; Hans Andersen’s stay in Malaga in 1860 contrasted with Dan and Charlotte’s visit a century later.

The novel is ostensibly divided into four parts dealing with consecutive periods of time, but the structure is loose, not especially linear and somewhat akin to that of a short story collection. Different characters, incidents, dreams and meandering trains of thought are focused on in different chapters within a slowly developed and minimal plot. Parallels are formed between Dan’s native Ireland and Spain: the hold of Catholicism, an isolated populace, invasions and expulsions, bloody civil wars. Higgins’s Spain is realistic, not a picturesque travel fantasy: a place where American planes fly ominously overhead, local men spy on foreign women undressing at the beach, men are rumoured to be informers and the rural landscape is beautiful but raw. The rise of tourism outside of Andalusia is ‘hell’.

Religion, sex, relationships and death provide central themes – Charlotte’s sensual nature and her ‘Jewishness’ are focused on in great detail, linked to her New World status and ongoing references to the slaughter of Jews in Europe during the war. Dan’s mother is attended to by chanting nuns in hospital during her dying moments. The baron speaks of a coming apocalypse whilst American planes fly above –the result of the recent Cuban crisis. Surreal dreams come to both Dan and Olivia. Literary, historical and classical references are woven into the narrative at various points, paralleling the characters with figures such as Shelley, and portraying the rise and fall of civilisations and the possibility that our own might be destroyed if the Cold War escalates. This gives way to Ruttle’s isolated, but tentatively more successful later existence on Aran.