Newly Discovered…

This is the joy of reading: that there is such a vast world out there waiting to be discovered… And you find new authors, new books, new genres, new countries to fall in love with.

This is the anguish of reading: that there is such a vast world out there, which you can never hope to explore in its entirety.

It feels at times like the explorers of two-three centuries ago faced with a rather blank map of Africa.  Where to go first?  What part of this vast continent was truly deserving of your time and attention?  Since you could never hope to cover it all.

For the time being, I continue to be somewhat haphazard in my meanderings.  I have not completely ruled out any genre, nor any country or time period.  But I do try to stick to what is easily accessible at present, hence my discovery of contemporary French literature (I had read mainly the classics, and mostly for schoolwork before).

So here are some of my new favourite things:

1) Veronique Olmi: Beside the Sea

Completely shattered after reading this – and yet I could not set it aside. Not the easiest of reads, especially if you are a mother yourself, but it exerted a powerful fascination. A language at once simple, unadorned, conversational and yet poetic. The back story is merely hinted at, never overtly stated. You are never in any doubt about the outcome, but what is remarkable is how the book shows just how fragile the barriers between ‘normal’ and ‘depressed’, between ‘normal’ and ‘dysfunctional’ families are. There are no easy distinctions and that very dangerous slippery slope is there for any one of us…

2) Pascal Garnier: The Panda Theory

This very dark, yet also quite funny and odd little book is the story of Gabriel, who shows up unexpectedly in a completely nondescript Breton town on a Sunday in October.  He seems taciturn yet amiable, maybe a little odd, and he gradually insinuates himself into the lives of disparate members of the local community.  He is an excellent listener and he offers to cook for people, with no ulterior motive whatsoever as far as they can tell.  While cooking a shoulder of lamb for the Portuguese bar-owner, José, he listens to the latter’s anxieties about his wife, sick in hospital. He gently turns down the flattering attentions of the pretty hotel receptionist, even as he cooks calves’ livers for her. He buys a saxophone off a couple desperate for money, although he does not play the instrument, and becomes involved in their sordid lives as well.  He wins a giant cuddly Panda at the funfair and gives it to José for his children.

Yet all is not as it seems.  Occasional flashbacks suggest a more troubled past life for Gabriel, who seems less and less cuddly as the story unfolds.

This is also the story of a small group of outsiders, people drifting at the periphery of society. These loners and no-hopers have somehow found each other and created an artificial family, clinging to each other and to some last shred of humanity.  Gabriel brings this group together, watches them reach their peak of happiness and knows from experience that life for them can only be a disappointment hereafter.

If I say that this is a novel about ‘existential angst’, it will probably put off any would-be reader.  Yet this world-weariness and anxiety are conveyed beautifully through an intriguing storyline, limpid prose and a dialogue of searing sincerity.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

3) And four new crime fiction series that I look forward to reading in more depth. You know me and my love for exotic locations!  Alison Bruce’s DC Gary Goodhew series (set in Cambridge, UK), Adrian Magson’s Inspector Lucas Rocco (set in France) , Jeffrey Siger’s Inspector Kaldis (Greece) and Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva (Brazil).

What have you recently discovered that made you want to get up and do a jig?  What do you want to share with everybody (or – hush! so good you want to keep it all to yourself)?

 

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover

 

As we turn to writing again…

Let’s face it, for many of us the summer did not involve quite as much writing as we had planned, because of childcare responsibilities.  Frustrating though it may have felt at times, I do know in my heart of hearts that downtime does have its uses!  I can see it in the way the children relate to me now, and I swear I can feel new paths forming between my neurons.

But now it’s autumn, it’s the start of the schoolyear, it’s Vive la Rentrée, as the French call it.  A season when I always feel new energy and new resolutions coming along…

So here are some of my favourite inspirational writing thoughts to get you in the mood:

1) Geoff Dyer (author of the wonderfully if tongue-twistedly entitled ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’):  ‘Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance.’

2) Neil Gaiman: ‘The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.’

3) AL Kennedy: ‘Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.  Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.’

4) Hilary Mantel: ‘You can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.’  N.B. So that’s why it isn’t working for me at the moment…!

5) Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst.’

6) Helen Simpson: ‘The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”‘

7) Jeanette Winterson: ‘Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.’

8) Franz Kafka: ‘ You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice…’

9) Simone de Beauvoir: ‘Change your life today. Don’t gamble on the future, act now, without delay.’

Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things.  It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success.  But which books deserve a wider audience?  Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film).  But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world.  So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category.  What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions.  Very much like you and me, in fact.

2) Dorothy Parker:

Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic.  But how many have read her short stories?  They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’).  But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.

3) Jean Rhys:

Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories.  Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades.  She is still largely unknown, with the exception of  ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.

4) Tove Jansson:

I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is.  The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions.  And she has written books for adults too!  ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:

I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type).  Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.

Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team).  I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.

What is your opinion?  Which authors have I missed out?  Is it easier to neglect women authors?  Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.

Most Overrated Books (in My World)

The Lovely BonesWhen there is too much of a buzz around a book, I tend to wait for a few years before reading it (I will probably read 50 Shades of Grey when I am a grandmother, at this rate).  I did that with Harry Potter, ‘Life of Pi’ and I am still waiting to read Hilary Mantel’s latest two.  Because, with all due respect to reviewers, online chat forums and book clubs, no one can read a book for you.  Tastes are so different, that only you can make up your own mind! (Thank goodness.)

I finally read Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’ yesterday and was intrigued for the first 50 pages or so, then a bit bored, then finally frustrated.  It’s an interesting premise (the omniscient narrator from heaven) and the adolescent voice is charming, but after a while the archness and sentimentality begin to jar.  It just goes on for too long: a novella-length of about 20,000 would have been more than enough.

So that got me musing about other books that I have found highly overrated.  Please bear in mind this is always a very personal exercise, so don’t be offended if I have included any of your favourites!  However, I would love to hear you defend any of my choices (because I am not Miss Know-It-All), or let me know if there are any others I ought to include.

1) Dan Brown: The Da Vinci Code

And pretty much everything else he has written.  When I first read this, I thought it was a parody of a certain type of thriller.  But alas, no, it’s deadly earnest!

2) Elizabeth Gilbert: Eat Pray Love

Don’t get me wrong: I think she is very brave to share with readers her early-midlife-crisis and search for fulfilment.  I just find the journey a selfish and not that well-written pursuit of personal happiness, with very little attempt to understand or interact deeply with the cultures she encounters.  Some funny observations, but overall too much bellybuttonism for my taste.

3) Stieg Larsson

Yes, I ‘m sorry, the whole Girl with Dragon Tattos and other tormented characteristics left me cold!  It’s not the violence or misogyny that I complain about (the first is widespread in crime fiction, the second is debatable anyway).  No, it’s the fact that it bores me.  Everyone talks about its relentless pace and it being a page-turner, but I have to admit I skipped entire repetitive passages. It feels completely unedited, a real jumble: just spewing out of odd bits of information, plotlines and shifts in narrative voice.

4) Hemingway’s novels

His short stories are brilliant.  I just find his terseness and übermasculinity grates over the length of a novel.  And sometimes I am not sure he is as profound as his critics make him out to be.

5) Paul Coelho: The Alchemist

Possibly because all the people I despised in high school loved it so much.  Or because fable-type narratives always hit my cynical vein, from which then gushes forth pretentious twaddle.  Sometimes beautiful words are poetry that makes us gasp in wonder… and sometimes it’s a rich cake, giving me indigestion.  (On the other hand, I do like some of his other books, for instance ‘Veronika Decides to Die’.)

As I said, don’t take my word for it!  If you haven’t read these, then you may want to ignore my opinion and make up your own mind. Now I would like to know which books you love to hate!  Although I may shoot you if you dare to say ‘The Great Gatsby’ or Jane Austen…

Rereading ‘The Great Gatsby’

I blithely said at some point that I would write regularly about the writers who have most inspired me.  Well, not only have I not been ‘regular’ about it, but – with some ‘dare you to’ from Marilyn McCottrell over at the very funny and wry Memos from the Middle blog – I will also now break my promise about sticking to the less obvious suspects.  Yes, I will brazenly talk about that much-praised, over-analysed book called ‘The Great Gatsby’, a.k.a. ‘The Great American Novel’ by some.

I don’t know how many times I’ve read this and it does seem to get better and better with age.  I suspect that my infatuation with it in my youth probably had something to do with the image of Robert Redford at the swimming pool, waiting for Daisy’s phone call, pouting beautifully and moodily in the mid-distance.  This was the movie adaptation of it, of course, sumptuously clothed and filmed (quite a bit of it in England, incidentally), but ultimately not considered a triumph by the critics.  The upcoming adaptation of it, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role… well, I beg to reserve judgement, but suspect he cannot quite replace Redford in my mind.

Yet, no matter how much I love it, I’ve been surprised that it’s considered the ‘Great American novel’, because it seems so far removed from the confidence, language and bluster that much of the American literature has. Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway – there are so many contenders for the title of the Great American Novel, but this one seems atypical.   It certainly talks about the dangers and the failure of the American dream, which is perhaps why it has grasped the public’s imagination for so long (and why it is being remade as a film and also currently onstage as a musical these days). The long sentences, the tentative statements, the moral ambiguity make the novel feel European in many ways.

There are some things that struck me instantly when first reading the novel and that have stayed with me since: the description of Daisy’s thrilling ‘money’ voice, the green light at the end of the pier, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes towering on a billboard above the grey badlands.  Oh, yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald is clever with his symbolism, foreshadowing of tragedy, the recurrence of the eye image, all of that.  I remembered that clearly from my previous readings.

But here are some things that I did not quite remember, or maybe only just now noticed:

1) Although it’s such a short novel, it does not feel rushed.  The pace is leisurely, gentlemanly.  For heaven’s sake, it does not even plunge straight into the story, but opens instead with a statement by the narrator, Nick Carraway, of just how uncritical and non-judgemental he has taught himself to be (thus breaking all the rules given to fledgling writers).  And the novel does not end with Gatsby’s death or pathetic funeral, but with the author painstakingly tying up all the loose ends, while the narrator muses cynically and at length about all of the characters in the drama.

Book cover for the Great Gatsby2)I had forgotten just how long and complicated his sentences are, abounding with semi-colons, commas,  adjectives, piling of details – accumulation which works wonderfully in the chapter describing Gatsby’s extravagant parties.

‘By seven o’clock the orchestra has arrived, no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums…. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there, among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colour under the constantly changing light.’

Occasionally, this can lead to some meandering but intriguing side alleys, which just adds to the unhurried pace of the narration.  And yet each details feels perfectly placed and not all superfluous.

3) I had also forgotten that Nick Carraway is such an unreliable narrator, despite his initial exhortation that ‘I’m inclined to reserve all judgements’.  I had initially taken his character assessments at face value: ridiculed silly Myrtle, condemned brutish Tom Buchanan, despised shady Wolfsheim, was wary of the golfing Jordan Baker.  My perception was coloured first by Gatsby’s naive dream, then by Nick’s cynicism.  Now I have begun to distrust Nick’s version of events, his critical and often far too self-righteous tone, his tone of omniscient interpreter of events.  I feel more pity and empathy for all of the characters, even Daisy, who ultimately fails not because she is a horrible, weak, selfish and self-centred person (although she is all of that too), but because she is human, not the goddess that Gatsby had built her up to be in his memory.

4) There are layers beneath layers beneath layers in this rich book – which is why I never tire of it.  There is no simple answer or explanation or solution.  There have been so many interpretations of it: a condemnation of wealth and excesses, the hollowness of materialism and the American Dream built upon it, the impossibility of replicating the past… yes, it is about all of that and more.  It triggers something within the readers, puts all sorts of ideas in their heads and feelings in their hearts, which cannot be easily summarised.  There is one instance when Nick says ‘Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all’.  And supposedly we are looking at this story though a single window, Nick’s window of insight.  Yet Fitzgerald has the skill to hint at multiple windows and to reveal the complexity and ambiguity of something far deeper.  There is something here we can barely explain but can only feel, like an image half-glimpsed, half-imagined in the moonlight.  There is always that hint of something ‘almost remembered’, an ‘elusive rhythm’, which we have to believe in to get through the everyday.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on ‘The Great Gatsby’: did you love it or hate it, especially if you had to read it at school? And do classics get better when you reread them?  What have you recently discovered upon rereading an old favourite?

 

My Favourite Scandinavian Crime Fiction

This is part of an article on Scandinavian crime fiction which I wrote during my seemingly endless offline period – actually, only about 2 1/2 weeks since I moved, but had no means of posting online.  Yes, I did not waste endless days on social forums and idle chat – but it will probably take me a few days just to wade through all th emails and interactions, to make sure that I don’t miss anything important.  And no, I did not finish my novel, although I did make some progress with it.  Having to live in boxes and using a box as a desk did not quite work for my fussy, pernickety creative muse!

What is it with the current obsession with Scandinavian crime fiction (loosely defined as crime fiction from those countries suffering bleak winters and darkness for half of the year)?  It’s not a new phenomenon: they are rooted in good ancient stock of storytelling in fur-lined caves around a campfire, when there is little to tempt you to go outside. The Gothic imagination of the North – the ghost stories of Scotland, Ireland and England, bloodthirsty Viking tales, the equally gory Nibelungensaga… Yet the latest batch of crime fiction emerges from societies that are well-ordered, neat and contained, where people consistenly report high levels of wellbeing (and fairness and equality) and where serious crime is fairly uncommon.  Murders are the exception here rather than the norm.  But it’s almost as though there is a fear that under the veneer of civilisation, that dark ancestral spirit is waiting to come out – as it sometimes does (I cannot tell you how devastated and puzzled Norwegian friends were about the shootings last summer).

It is nearly impossible (and not very productive) to lump together all Scandinavian crime fiction as a vast, amorphous mass: there are huge differences between Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (both Swedish), not to mention between Iceland, Denmark and Norway. And I am not sure why Finland is habitually ignored and untranslated, as last time I looked, they too were part of Scandinavia, or at least as much as Iceland.  Yet if there is one thread that they all have in common, it is that they all use crime as a social commentary and in this sociological perspective they have all been influenced by the godparents of Scandinavian crime fiction: Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ.  Not as well-known as they deserve to be (perhaps because they are not easily available: thank you to Harper for their reissue of the whole series under the Perennial imprint in 2007, translated with great verve by Alan Blair, Joan Tate and Lois Roth).

Written in the late 1960s and early 1970s and reflecting that period of tremendous social change in Sweden and throughout the world, the so-called Martin Beck novels were planned as a series of ten novels by this husband and wife team (and Per Wahlӧӧ managed to live just long enough to complete the final novel in the series).  Much has been made of the authors’ Marxist sympathies and their criticism of the perceived failings of the Swedish social democratic welfare state.  But you will find no blatant propaganda beating you around the head here: merely razor-sharp observations, small details that can almost be overlooked, comments made by one or the other of the policemen or the people whom they interview.  All of which help to place the novels in their time frame, yet not enough to make them feel dated. And there is lots of humour, some gentle, some satirical.

Fifty years on, when the dysfunctional police team led by a middle-aged, sour-faced male detective with a troubled marriage have become clichés, it is hard to appreciate just how fresh and exciting these novels were when they first appeared.  Yet some of that freshness and novelty still comes through, even to (comparatively) younger readers like me, who were born after the novels were published, and who have been brought up on a steady diet of gloomy cities where even gloomier detectives investigate crimes that expose the underbelly of a society in decay.  The writing is sparse and powerful, no word is carelessly flung on the page.  Without fuss, extreme posturing or excessive interior monologues, we are privy to the complexities of characters in this ensemble piece (for, although Martin Beck is the main character, his colleagues Kollberg, Larsson, Melander and Rӧnn are well-rounded figures in themselves, rather than just convenient sidekicks).

It is hard to pick a favourite among all the books, but perhaps ‘The Man on the Balcony’ (third in the series) and ‘The Laughing Policeman’ (fourth) lingered most in my mind, although the series gets more ambitious,complex and darker as it progresses.

So, if you like crime fiction, if you like the Nordic countries, if you admire and devour  Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum and all the other Scandinavian crime writers increasingly available in translation, then I do recommend going back to the source: Maj and Per. Their names almost say it all, don’t they?  The Ma and Pa of all the writers that came after them…