Friday, 30 April 2010

update April 2010

# of books read in April: 3
Cumulative total: 17

1. The Blessing (Nancy Mitford)
2. The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)
3. The Hours (Michael Cunningham)
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)
5. Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
6. En passant (Raymond Queneau)
7. The Story of God (Robert Winston)
8. Ye Gods! Travels in Greece (Jill Dudley)
9. The Man in the High Castle (Philip K Dick)
10. La Chine Classique (Ivan P Kamenarovic)
11. White Teeth (Zadie Smith)
12. The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively)
13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
14. Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)
15. Rebuilding Coventry (Sue Townsend)
16. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
17. The Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella)

That is ****ing weak. Compounded by my apparent inability to get on with Wuthering Heights, and the fact that I have sooooo very nearly (but not quite) finished Charlotte Brontë's Shirley.

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Livres Très Recherchés

Whenever I visit an Anglophone bookshop - whether in Britain, the US or elsewhere - I never seem to struggle to find things that look interesting and turn out to be good reads. My bookshelves are positively groaning under the weight of contemporary English works (by which I mean books written in English) as well as classical English novels, drama and poetry.

However, my search since arriving in France has not been so fruitful. While France is certainly not short of fine authors, such as Marcel Proust, Victor Hugo, Henri Troyat, Raymond Queneau and Françoise Sagan, there is one problem: many of these are long dead. So where is all of the contemporary talent? I'm convinced it must be somewhere, but have so far not had much luck, having spent a while in French libraries and bookshops browsing and just not finding much of interest. When I have found something of interest, I've started reading it only to find that it is too rubbish to bother continuing with (such as Stéphanie Janicot's Dans la tête de Shéhérazade ). My French fiancé verifies that French contemporary literature offers little to nothing of merit, so perhaps it's not just the fact that I'm not a native speaker, but then again, his tastes are quite highbrow, so he may be more selective than I am.

So where exactly is the problem?

The sought-after books of my title are perhaps overshadowed for three main reasons. One is the idea that all French culture (whether books, films, theatre or miscellaneous) is so greatly lauded in the country's press that accolades, or deeming things to be good, perhaps lose all meaning (this was brilliantly expressed in a BBC Magazine article that I can no longer find thanks to the inadequacies of the website's search function). Secondly, there doesn't seem to be much shortage of French translators who have English as one of their languages, meaning that French readers rely heavily on translations of English works (walk into the bookshop round the corner from my flat and you'll find a French copy of Hugh Laurie's Everything is Under Control; The Elegance of the Hedgehog is also a novel that has enjoyed great popularity) rather than on their country's own talent for their literature. Finally, the price of new books is often prohibitive; even on Amazon, the price of the new paperback by Anne-Marie Garat exceeds €20, and the same bookshop located in close proximity to my flat, which sold me a handsomely bound and illustrated hardback Moroccan cookbook for a mere €12, is trying to flog recently released paperback novels for (again) in excess of €20.

Despite all of this, though, this is not to say that my search for half decent LIVING French novelists has been a total failure. I have recently discovered Tatiana de Rosnay, for instance, and Werewere Liking, though Cameroonian in origin, also writes in French and is an author whose work I enjoy. Pascale Kramer's work is also worth a look, as is that of Jean-Louis Fournier and Erik Orsenna. In short: in spite of the problems with which the contemporary French literature market is so obviously fraught, there ARE gems out there. You just might have to look a bit harder for them, that's all.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)

--The blurb--
"The year is 1962. Florence, the daughter of a successful businessman and an aloof Oxford academic, is a talented musician. She dreams of a career on the concert stage and of the perfect life she will create with Edward, the earnest young history student she met by chance and who unexpectedly wooed and won her heart. Edward grew up in the country on the outskirts of Oxford, where his father, the headmaster of the local school, struggled to keep the household together and his mother, brain-damaged in an accident, drifted in a world of her own. Edward's native intelligence, coupled with a longing to experience the excitement and intellectual fervor of the city, had taken him to University College in London. Falling in love with the accomplished, shy, and sensitive Florence - and having his affections returned with equal intensity - has utterly changed his life. Their marriage, they believe, will bring them happiness and the confidence to fulfill their true destinies. The glowing promise of the future, however, cannot totally mask their worries about the wedding night. Edward, who has had little experience with women, frets about his sexual prowess. Florence's anxieties run deeper: she is overcome by conflicting emotions and a fear of the moment she will surrender herself to her husband in their honeymoon suite."

--The review--
The Swinging Sixties are years that are fondly held in Western consciousness, life being free and revolutionary, where personal independence was gained and old imperial shackles lost. This perception stands in stark contrast to the prim and frigid setting of McEwan's On Chesil Beach, where the quiveringly intense setting perfectly reflects the excitement and nerves of the evening, while allowing us to get to know the characters via the dreamlike leaps through time created by a non-linear narrative. The courtship between Florence and Edwards is gently, fluidly and organically traced, and McEwan's skill shines through in doing this: while simultaneously delighting readers with his eloquent descriptions of the scenery, and building two very realistic and human characters through the story of their relationship, tension is also layered effectively, compelling the reader to continue.

In reading this novel, we perhaps gain a truer insight into the situations of several young people of the 1960s: confined by a lack of education relevant to the real world, and still forced in many ways to conform to parental and societal expectation, there was a very real risk of being trapped for life in an unhappy or unfulfilling relationship due to the stigma associated with separation, divorce, and sex before marriage. The difference in this case is that Florence and Edward do not end up taking that risk, and the reader is left to decide if they made the right choice, and whether their ensuing lives are happy or unhappy.

The ending of this novella is slightly Truffaut-esque, with quick and slightly avantgarde and nostalgic recapitulations of how the characters' lives transpired, and while others might find this conciseness pleasing, others might find it to be more of a let-down. However, the novella's overall result is moving, beautiful, inspiring and slightly tragic, standing testament to McEwan's ongoing talent.

Other works by Ian McEwan
First Love, Last Rites (1975)
In Between The Sheets (1978)
The Cement Garden (1978)
The Comfort of Strangers (1981)
The Child in Time (1987)
The Innocent (1990)
Black Dogs (1992)
Enduring Love (1997)
Amsterdam (1998)
Atonement (2001)
Saturday (2005)
Solar (2010)

Rebuilding Coventry (Sue Townsend)

--The blurb--
"Coventry Dakin's tale begins with her accidental murder of a man. Forced to flee the law, she deserts her council estate, her boring husband and two demanding children for the anonymity of London's cardboard city."

--The review--
It's difficult to say where or how the old trick of hooking readers via increasingly bizarre or engaging characters' names began: Shakespeare and Dickens were surely early pioneers, while Jasper Fforde continues to hold the flag fly with one of his most famous characters, Thursday Next. Sue Townsend uses this trick in this 1988 novel, allowing the book's title to hinge on it and giving readers extra interest in the protagonist.

This extra interest is certainly needed, for the character of Coventry Dakin is at times a little flat and on the badly-constructed side, as is at times the plot itself. Coventry, and the man with whom she has allegedly had an affair, Gerald Fox, are rather two-dimensional compared with the supporting artists of Coventry's husband and children, Coventry's friend Dodo, the eccentric couple who take Coventry in (Willoughby and Letitia), and Gerald Fox's widow, Carole. Willoughby and Letitia's son Keir is also a rather forced character who adds nothing to the narrative or to the cast of personages that populates the novel.

Equally, the novel's impetus (the murder) is ineffective, and the ending too lacks punch, even though the method by which Townsend commences (in medias res) is more successful. However, this is not to say that this short novel is a waste of time: as previously mentioned, the flip side of Coventry, Gerald and Keir's boringness is more than compensated for by the backdrop of the novella's other hilarious characters, the move from the north to the south of England adds variety, and Townsend's skills in wit and dialogue are certainly no less apparent here than in her other works.

Though on a personal level I find Townsend's The Queen and I to be a preferable novel in terms of both characters, humour and politics, it is worth bearing in mind the difficult task faced by Townsend in the wake of the release of the Adrian Mole series: with such a huge success on her books, the pressure on subsequent works to live up to what has gone before them must be immense. Perhaps some slack ought to be cut.

Other works by Sue Townsend
Womberang (play), 1979
The Adrian Mole series, 1982-2009
The Queen and I, 1992
Ghost Children, 1997
Number Ten, 2002
Queen Camilla, 2006