I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I am dividing it into categories and this second category consists of modern classics (written in the last 1`00 years or so but before I was born). They have been among my favourite reads this year. No ifs, no buts. I love older classics too, but the 20th century is where my heart lies.
Wonderful opportunity to read this book for the #1936Club. I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of these issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.
I compared three English translations of this book to the original in Romanian, which I also read for the #1936Club. Although I took issue with some of the translations, I loved Blecher’s impossible to define work.
Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty.
Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny
The kind of family saga that I adore, as it also contains political and social issues, a portrait of a country at a time of great changes.
The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists… Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.
A disquieting, beautifully paced book, which could have been written by Shirley Jackson (no higher praise, in my eyes), although the thriller and detection part of it does rely on a spot of coincidence that feels implausible. One of the best descriptions of unequal domestic division of labour that I’ve ever read, and, as the author says herself:
Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.
How could I not love this book, with its references to my favourite composer and opera (Mozart and Don Giovanni), as well as a masked ball, and a very sexy battle of the wits? A polyphony of joy, yet with a tinge of melancholy, like all the best things in life.
Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny (originally published in 1956)
This is the first in the so-called Cairo trilogy by Mahfouz and the first book I ever read of his, even though there was a flurry of translation activity after his Nobel Prize win in 1988. I actually ordered this volume for the #1956Club back in March 2020, but ran out of time to read it. Historical fiction for present-day readers, as the events described in this book took place more than 100 years ago. However, when Mahfouz first published this, it was recent history, and it is not at all coy about the relationship between Egyptians and their ‘protectors’, the English.
This particular edition (paperback of the 1990 translation Doubleday, reissued in 1994 by Black Swan) did have quite a few typos, repeated or missing prepositions and articles etc. Initially, these jarred terribly, but once I got wrapped up in the story, I ceased to notice them as much. I assume this must have been a problem with the reissue, as I would like to think that any work involving the editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would be of a high standard.
The trilogy is at once the story of a family, and also that of a city and a country in transition, although in the first volume the social and political landscapes only become dominant towards the end of the book. The story opens with the First World War (in which Egypt held an uneasy position, having formerly been an Ottoman colony, and now under British protectorate) and continues with the 1919 attempt at revolution for Egyptian independence.
The Al Jawad family lives in one of the older inner city neighbourhoods of Cairo, with narrow streets and latticed balconies from which the secluded wives can take a peek at the outside world without being seen. The family consists of the patriarch, Ahmad, his wife and five children, some grown, from two marriages. Ahmad is a wealthy shopkeeper and devout Muslim – more in theory than in practice, for he drinks, frequents places of ill repute and has a string of mistresses. However, at home, he is quite the domestic tyrant, keeping his wife and daughters indoors more than even their neighbours accept as traditional. His family tremble for fear whenever they ask him for something, for they know he is inflexible, quick to anger, violent and able to punish them where it hurts most, by kicking them out of the house and leaving them penniless. Outside the house, however, he is considered amiable, humorous and charming. He seems completely unaware of the hypocrisy of this stance, and indeed revels in doing the exact opposite of what his family asks him to do, even if he himself agrees with them, for fear that he might lost his position of dominance.
The five ‘children’ in the household are: Yasin ‘with the body of a bull and the elegance of a peacock’, Ahmad’s son from his first marriage, a civil servant in his early twenties; nineteen-year-old law student Fahmy and the happy-go-lucky schoolboy Kamal, the only one who can move easily between the feminine and masculine worlds. The two daughters are sixteen-year-old Aisha, famed for her blonde hair and blue eyes (unusual in Egypt and therefore much prized), and sharp-tongued Khadija, who at the age of twenty already considers herself an old maid and is afraid she will never get married because of her big nose.
Their mother Amina is the most docile, obedient and caring person you can imagine – downtrodden, yes, but by no means a one-dimensional character. She is devoted to her children, but is also keen to better herself. Her learning is largely limited to the Koranic verses that her youngest child teaches her while she in turn passes on old legends and stories, but she also enjoys discussing national and international political issues with her sons, in a naïve way, admittedly, because her husband does not believe women should be well-informed. As she tends her roof garden, she repeats a little prayer which I think encapsulates perfectly her gentle nature, wanting to please everyone:
God, I ask you to watch over my husband and children, my mother and Yasin, and all the people: Muslims and Christians, even the English, my Lord, but drive them from our land as a favor to Fahmy, who does not like them.
We follow the daily schedule of the family, including their much loved afternoon coffee gathering with all the siblings teasing each other, but there is no shortage of larger events happening over the course of the two years or so covered by the story. People fall in and out of love and lust, get married and, in some cases, divorced, and reconnect with their past. Yasin makes some sort of peace with his mother, whom he despises for daring to disobey his father, moving away and then constantly remarrying and divorcing. Fahmy the idealist is forbidden from marrying the neighbour’s daughter, and gets involved in the pro-independence movement. And even gentle Amina ventures outside the house to visit a mosque but is promptly punished by her husband.
However, the family story mirrors the political situation, with the sons in particular expressing increasing rebellion towards their domestic tyrant. For example, Yasin discovers his father enjoys the dissolute lifestyle just as much as he does and consequently starts losing his respect for him. At first he argues with his father mostly in his head, while his mouth utters the words their father wants to hear. As the author says in a different part of the book, this is a family that has learnt to hide things all too well.
‘As you wish,’ Yasin thought, ‘Who has ever gone against your wishes. You marry me and divorce me. You give me life and take it away. I don’t really exist… We’re nothing. You’re everything. No, there’s a limit. I’m no longer a child. I’m just as much a man as you are. I’m the one who is going to decide my destiny.’
But what he actually says is merely: ‘Whatever you want, Father’.
Gradually, however, these small rebellions multiply and grow, until Fahmy joins the freedom fighters in secret, very much against his parents’ wishes. He does so because he knows his mother worries his life might be in danger, but his father has a rather hypocritical attitude toward Egyptian independence too – or perhaps an attitude that many of us will find familiar when it comes to giving money to charities:
… he had been content to limit his patriotism to an emotional and psychic participation, not taking any action that might have altered the life he enjoyed so much… He had never even taken the trouble to go to one of their rallies. Would that not have been a waste of his precious time? The nation did not need his time, and he was eager to have every minute of it to spend on his family, on his business, and especially on his amusements with his friends and chums. Thus his time was reserved for his own life, and the nation was welcome to a share of his heart and emotions. It was easier to part with money than time.
I won’t tell you anything more about the story, other than that Ahmad learns he cannot control everything quite as much as he wants. It reminded me very strongly of Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.
The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists. It introduced me to a part of the world, a culture and a historical period that I knew very little about. Although I keep saying that I am not that keen on family sagas, as with Banffy’s Transylvanian trilogy, I really enjoyed being immersed in that world and have promptly ordered the next two volumes in the trilogy, albeit in a different edition (even if it spoils the symmetry on my bookshelf).
Well, it’s harvest time, with some of my favourite fruit now in season: grapes, apples, plums, peaches… I am full and replete with the joys of eating, but what about my reading this month?
It’s been a month of heavy English-language domination for some reason. Out of the 10 books I read (I’m not counting the re-reads for the moment), 6 have been written by English-speaking authors, of which 2 Americans, 2 Scottish and 2 English (I am nothing if not fair and neutral about the referendum on Scottish independence). Israel, Egypt, Switzerland and Swiss/China have been my other sources of books. Unusually, only half (five) of the books I read this month were crime fiction.
1) Anne Fine: Taking the Devil’s Advice – who’d have thought that a writer I knew predominantly for her children’s books can write such dark and humorous fiction for adults too?
2) Kerry Hudson: Thirst – love moves in mysterious ways: a very clear-eyed picture of modern London, immigrants and hope in the midst of squalour – highly recommended
3) Derek B. Miller: Norwegian by Night – there is much to like in this book about an octogenarian and a little boy on the run from Kosovan criminals in a country where they don’t speak the language… but I didn’t quite love it as much as other readers
4) Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar – I reread all of Tey’s crime novels for this feature for Classics in September for Crime Fiction Lover (CFL). The Franchise Affair, The Daughter of Time and Miss Pym Disposes are the best known of her novels, but I had not previously read Brat Farrar, the story of a planned scam to defraud a family of an inheritance. Although (in my opinion) it has aged slightly less well than her other novels, it is still a delightful read, excellent characterisation – and, as always with Tey, with much deeper moral dilemmas than is obvious at first sight.
5) D. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence – I’ll also be writing a review and conducting an interview with the author for CFL
6) Joan Smith: What Men Say – a reminder that reading tastes change in 20 years: I previously enjoyed Loretta Lawson and her investigations coloured by feminism. I found this book too much ranting and not enough plotting, mystery or suspense.
7) Naguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End – essential for understanding a certain period of Egyptian history, this is also a very dramatic family saga
8) M.L. Longworth: Murder on the Ile Sordou – an island off the coast of France, near Marseilles, a newly opened hotel with a disparate group of guests and staff of varying levels of experience (and with the obligatory secrets). A murder occurs and the island is not quite sealed off, but certainly under investigation to find the murderer – a familiar set-up for crime fiction fans. I can never resist a French location and I’ll review this very soon on CFL.
9) Joseph Incardona: Banana Spleen – I’ll post a more detailed review of this perhaps as part of a theme ‘Men Without Their Women’. A downward spiral for the 30+ something male protagonist, showing that despair and aimlessness is possible even in such well-regulated cities as Geneva.
10) Richard Weihe: Sea of Ink – This is also written by a Swiss author (of German language, while Incardona is Franco-Italian Swiss) and also deserves a more detailed review. Based on the few details known about the life of one of China’s most prominent calligraphers and artists, this is a prose-poem about creativity, inspiration and discipline, mastering the Way of Tao, finding both reality and self in great art.
So what was my top read of the month? Overall, it was Kerry Hudson‘s poignant novel ‘Thirst’ – it really struck a chord with me. My crime fiction pick of the month would be Mishani’s A Possibility of Violence – my first experience of Israeli crime fiction and thus feeling rather fresh and unusual.
I’ve recently read my first Egyptian novel and my first Israeli crime novel, although this was coincidence rather than a deliberate attempt to read across both sides of a long-standing conflict in the Middle East. Unlike the works of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, however, neither of the two books were political, although they both paint portraits of rapidly changing societies with many cracks beneath the surface.
Naguib Mahfouz: The Beginning and the End
Mahfouz is the only Arabic-speaking winner of the Nobel Literature Prize (in 1988). He almost single-handedly modernised Egyptian literature, introducing themes such as politics, existentialism, the voice of the dispossessed, as well as cinematic techniques to his storytelling. This novel is the story of the downfall of a Cairo family in the 1930s, an account of their struggle to survive and make ends meet following the death of the father, a petty government bureaucrat. Although the children are almost fully grown, their efforts to earn money and help the rest of them rise from poverty are beset with difficulties every step of the way.
I was not overly impressed with the book, which reads like a soap opera, until I considered how revolutionary it must have been for its period. The author gives us an unvarnished picture of Egyptian society at a particular point in time: the 1930s and 1940s. We see the corruption and machinations of the Egyptian bureaucracy, its education system, the plotting to marry off daughters, the dangers of women losing their virginity. Yet, although all this societal constraints seem to be suffocating the protagonists, Mahfouz makes no bones about laying an equal share of the blame upon them. Their weaknesses, lack of restraint, selfish behaviours, self-justifications all contribute to the tragic outcomes.
I have not read his other books, but I understand that Mahfouz is highly regarded precisely not only for modernising the language of fiction but also for his detailed examination of daily events in the life of middle-class families, in a society which has undergone major changes over the course of a few decades. It’s this translation of major political events into small everyday happenings and interpretations, this fresco of a vanishing way of life, which makes his work so valuable within his own cultural context. But his family sagas of greed, lies, misguided idealism and disappointments also touch universal themes.
D. A. Mishani: A Possibility of Violence
A bomb planted in a suitcase in present-day Tel Aviv – this has all of the hallmarks of a political thriller, but it turns out to be a much more personal story of revenge, confusion, parental love and fear. The style could not be more different from Mahfouz: almost clinically detached, sober, simple and precise language. Emotion is still there, but well concealed and tightly controlled throughout.
Mishani is a former editor and specialist of crime fiction, and he uses all the usual crime tropes well in his work. This is clearly a book designed to entertain rather than create a polemical debate. Yet this is not a typical police procedural: we catch glimpses of the complex environment that the police have to operate under in Israel today. Apparently, the police are universally reviled by all ethnic groups living within the borders of Israel, even by those citizens who revere the army. Although the author eschews political views in this book, there are echoes of the tensions between different subgroups within society, rumblings about the way in which Filipino care workers are treated and regarded in this country made up almost entirely of immigrants.