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.


Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Johan Borgen

Johan Borgen is justifiably regarded as one of the most important figures in modern Norwegian – and indeed, Scandinavian – literature. Although his writing gained something of an international audience towards his death, it never paralleled the reputation he holds in his native country.

Growing up in a period of social change in early twentieth-century Norway, and undergoing further tumult during both World Wars (the latter conflict saw him interned by the Nazis because of his political views), he drew on his experiences in his writing, especially in works such as Days at Grini (1945), an early and significant examination of the German occupation in Norway. However, he is most renowned for his Lillelord trilogy, a series of novels focusing on the life of the character Wilfred Sagen: from his upbringing in Kristiania (now Oslo) just before the First World War, following through his adulthood until after the end of World War II. The first novel, Lillelord, which is partly based on his childhood in Oslo, stands as an excellent example of Borgen’s psychological insight and understanding of the human condition, as well as his abilities as a shrewd social and historical commentator. We were lucky to inherit an English translation of Lillelord from the amazing Calder list – it’s one of its most hidden and shining gems.

Affectionately called ‘Lillelord’ (‘little lord’) by his family, Wilfred lives a sheltered existence within the safe cocoon of a cultured upper-class society. He excels at his studies, appreciates the arts and is a talented musician. His widowed mother, reluctant to wake up to the problems of the outside world, indulges him, trying to prolong his childhood. Although generally seen as the perfect little gentleman, some find his apparent perfection disturbing, suspecting that there is something duplicitous and insubordinate behind the mask.

Wilfred himself is fully aware that he leads a double existence, to the extent of having a split personality – on the surface a cultivated but childlike boy, but one harbouring manipulative and destructive tendencies. As he develops over the course of the novel, a series of experiences, including criminal acts, the discovery of the truth about his father and his sexual awakening, lead him into wishing to rebel against a suffocating society, one which rejects change and knowledge and instead embraces convenient half-truths, assumptions and the established order. This process will isolate him and drive him to insanity.

Wilfred’s growing understanding of the society he lives in and his mental and moral decline provides a remarkable insight into the mind of an intelligent boy in his mid-teens. Caught between childhood and the adult world, he is disgusted and beguiled by both states. ‘Lillelord’ finds himself suffering the frustration, confusion and feelings of displacement now regarded as typical of his age - during a period when the concept of teenagers was entirely alien, where psychological issues were an embarrassment and effective treatment was in its infancy. This is paired with the transformation occurring within Norwegian society. In the background, the threat of war between Germany and England looms closer, there is talk of socialist reform and new technologies are demonstrated, creating the sense that the characters’ comfortable existence is about to be shattered by the advanced but frightening modern world which would fully emerge after the First World War.


Sunday, 9 August 2009

Pope's Letters

I have just finished reading a large selection of Alexander Pope's letters in a lovely little hardback published by OUP forty or fifty years ago. It's strange, when you love a poet, to read his letters and find them so uninspiring, so sugar-coated – even petty-minded at times. No grand ideas discussed, no spark, no real depth of humanity, only polite conversation, literary chit-chat and whining about poor health.

Perhaps Pope saved all his best thoughts for his poems and didn't give too much importance to letter-writing. Or perhaps he didn't have much to say in prose, as he led a fairly uneventful life and rarely left his Twickenham house.

The only interesting letters for me were the ones he wrote to Jonathan Swift and John Gay, not so much because of what he said in them but because they cast some light on his friendship with these two authors.

As I was returning this book, I spotted Martin Amis's Money on display, so I grabbed it and it's going to be my next read.


Friday, 7 August 2009

Bad publishing

I'll admit it: I am a bad bad publisher. I have published *** and ***, and even ************************************************ (hiatus magnus lachrymabilis). The thing is, when you publish something good it may get some attention, and even a good review, but when you publish something bad it oozes into oblivion, leaving an indelible mark of shame in your conscience. I have just picked up a book I've published. I remember I didn't want to publish it, really, but was finally persuaded by financial considerations, and deadlines. It was a decent commercial success in the end, but it's still a blot on my conscience. How many books like this are published?


Thursday, 6 August 2009

Nabokov - Not impressed at all

From our local library I have borrowed the Weidenfeld & Nicolson edition of Nabokov's stories, a 600p+ royal hardback which collects all his shorter fiction. It comes with extraordinary quotes, such as Updike's "Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written – that is, ecstatically" or Martin Amis's "The variety, force and richness of Nabokov's perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction. To read him in full flight is to experience stimulation that is at once intellectual, imaginative and aesthetic, the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer".

Although I was hoping, in fact, to find a copy of Lolita (which I have now reserved), I was glad to have a chance to read, for the first time in English, the work of "one of the twentieth century's greatest prose stylists". So I got my teeth right into this lovely volume and read a dozen stories in a couple of days. The stories are arranged chronologically, and I jumped back and forth at random just to have an idea of Nabokov's different themes and styles.

I must say I was deeply disappointed with what I have read so far. I found Nabokov's prose florid, overcooked, slightly patronizing, always trying too hard, lacking that simplicity and intelligence which is the mark of true genius – and, above all, I often had a feeling I was reading a bad translation from the Russian. And the stories I have read were not that hard-hitting.

You may remember I had a similar problem with John Updike's prose. Maybe I just can't connect with these great "stylists". After all it's all so subjective. Still, I'd like to check out if Lolita is really that great masterpiece that it is purported to be. But it'll take at least a couple of weeks before I can get my copy from the library, so in the meantime I'll carry on reading from this volume, and I'll be happy to eat my words and change my mind about Nabokov's writing.


Monday, 3 August 2009

Apes (of God) - Part Two

Further to my post of last Tuesday, I am delighted to report yet another glorious day in the history of British publishing. John Blake has announced "a last-minute addition" to their October schedule, the spoof memoir of the late King of Pop's chimp, entitled Bubbles: My Secret Diary from Swaziland to Neverland.

If you want to follow the war of tongues between the snobs who accuse John Blake of being not entirely motivated by unmercenary considerations and the anti-snob party, who defend John Blake for championing books that people actually want to buy, unlike most other backwards-looking publishers, read the story and – above all – the comments on The Bookseller.

I told Elisabetta about this book as we were walking home, and she crumpled with laughter and almost fell over. She couldn't believe I had not made it up.

I wonder who has written or will write the book – some ghost-chimp? For a human being, to ape a monkey's thought processes must surely be a sign of some genius.

I look forward to reading the book.