Saturday, 31 July 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: The Booker Prize Longlist 2010

So. The Booker Prize longlist for this year was released recently, and it makes for interesting reading in itself.

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)
Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador)
Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin - Fig Tree)
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)
Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
Andrea Levy The Long Song
(Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)
Tom McCarthy C (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)
Lisa Moore February (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)
Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)
Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House - Jonathan Cape)

Already the columns of major news outlets are beginning to buzz. The main topic of literary conversation at present is the fact that if Peter Carey wins this Booker, he will be the only author ever to have won the prize three times. On this basis, Ladbrokes (one of the UK's major betting agencies) has already tipped him as favourite to win.

Sorry, but why? I don't doubt the man's literary prowess, but surely at least statistically the person who is most likely to win is someone who has never won it? Or someone who has come close on multiple occasions but never quite bagged the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the Booker Prize rainbow? (Actually, the pot of gold is not all that proverbial in this instance; a Booker Prize win can mean serious boosts in sales, fame and reputation.)

The author that I would put my money on, if I were the betting type, would be David Mitchell, purely due to the fact that he was frankly ROBBED in 2004 and has a Booker win coming to him. This is bearing in mind the fact that (for once) I actually feel familiar with a good few of the authors on the longlist. Rose Tremain's The Way I Found Her is marvellous, and Andrea Levy's Small Island, which I also enjoyed, won the Orange Prize. Peter Carey's reputation doesn't need to be spoken of any further, and Helen Dunmore is fairly prolific in a number of spheres, including the world of poetry.

What I usually do is wait with bated breath until the shortlist is announced (usually in September, I think) and then try to sample as many of the shortlisted works as I can before the winner is declared. I am deeply jealous of Rosie Blau and all of the others on the committee who have not only had the pleasure of reading through a raft of ace contemporary works to formulate the shortlist, but also now have the chance to get to know these books further and decide on a really worthy winner. I personally have a feeling this is going to be David Mitchell's year. Let's see.

update July 2010

# of books read in July: 3
Cumulative total: 32

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)
18. French Kissing (Catherine Sanderson)
19. Icons of England (various authors; edited by Bill Bryson)
20. Shirley (Charlotte Brontë)
21. Women's Hour Short Stories
22. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
23. Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)
24. Reviving Ophelia (Mary Pipher)
25. Nightingale Wood (Stella Gibbons)
26. The Orange Girl (Jostein Gaarder)
27. Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)
28. Gemma and Sisters (Noel Streatfeild)
29. See Under: Love (David Grossman)
30. Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)
31. Le roi des fougères (Jean Anglade)
32. The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)

To hit my target of 100 books this year, I would need to read 3.4 books a week consistently from now until the end of the year. This seems distinctly unlikely. I am therefore trying to remember the following lovely little poem by Edward Monkton as a sort of consolation:
"He knows not where he's going
For the ocean will decide -
It's not the destination...
...It's the glory of the ride"

The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)

--The blurb--
"1348. The Black Death is sweeping through Europe. In Florence, the plague has carried off one hundred thousand people. In their Tuscan villas, seven young women and three young men tell tales to recreate the world they have lost, weaving a rich tapestry of comedy, tragedy, ribaldry and farce."

--The review--
At around 700 pages, modern readers often expect an unreadable epic that is trapped in the past in which it was created. What you are treated to with The Decameron, however, is a relatively accessible collection of one hundred short stories, which can be enjoyed at your leisure and in a similar manner to Bible stories (mostly minus the preaching): anybody expecting something boring is proved wrong with the collection of thoroughly engaging thrills, chills and spills.

The project is an obviously ambitious undertaking, and it would be unreasonable to expect something of this magnitude to succeed entirely. For one thing, it is impossible, even having read all of the short stories, to remember the details of each and every one. Some of the longer stories also fail to hold the reader's interest: this is not necessarily because they are long (Boccaccio himself, at the end of the short stories, defends in his conclusion the inclusion of the longer stories by simply saying "well, if you had anything better to do, you wouldn't be reading any of these stories at all - long OR short", which seems fair enough) but because they are tedious. By their nature, the shorter stories are snappier and more concise, and in any case, even if all of the stories were of exactly the same length, it would be difficult for any author to sustain their prowess equally across such a large number of stories.

Content-wise, some of the stories can also become repetitive: the vast majority involve adultery of some kind, and the confusion of lust for love by our naive Italian forefathers. Lust and love are treated interchangeably and for the modern reader this can become wearying or frustrating. However, Boccaccio is an absolute master of the witty comeback and most of the stories are not boring at all. The predecessor of Keats' poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, was very illuminating to read in its original prose form, and the very first story of the collection, about a saint whose behaviour was so appalling that he should never have really been one in the first place, carries many fascinating implications about the foundations of religion.

Even though the stories are not always beautifully or tersely written, quite often Boccaccio's surrounding descriptions are, and the structure of smaller stories within a larger framework is refreshing and accessible, even if we do not really get to know the storytellers themselves very well at all (they are portrayed as mere vessels for the stories, which are the real stars of the show). The breadth and detail of content means this is a collection that readers can return to over and over again; it is easy to see how the process of getting to know the stories one by one could become a real pleasure.

Other works by Giovanni Boccaccio
The Crow (c.1365)
On Famous Women (c.1375)
The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta (c.1343)
The Filocolo (c.1336)
The Filostrato (c.1340)
Teseida (c.1341)
On The Fates of Famous Men (c.1355)

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Le roi des fougères (Jean Anglade)

--The blurb--
"How did the young Antilles boy, Zébédée Lhasard, son of Pamphile Lhasard, tramway driver from Clermont-Ferrand, become Prince of the Ferns? How did he come to share the cave of a forger of Roman antiquities on the slopes of the Puys? Jean Anglade unveils, with humour and poetry in equal measure, this strange destiny, and traces a beguiling portrait of the Auvergne at the edge of the 1950s."

--The review--
The King of the Ferns, by Jean Anglade (not to be confused with actor Jean-Hugues Anglade!), is not available in English, and the author himself is virtually unknown outside of France (which is perhaps not helped by his reclusive nature even in France, with him rarely if ever appearing on television, and with him not having won any literary prizes in nearly 50 years). However, in France his output at least is extremely prolific, with him having released 40-50 novels and novellas, as well as multiple history books, plays, poems, translations and essays, among other projects. At the age of 95, he's still writing, with his most recent attempt having been released just a few months ago. But is what he's writing any good?

While imperfect, it thankfully appears that quantity is not being prized over quality. Anglade has produced a lovely readable little novella (just 96 pages in all) that is concise, compelling, and carries the reader along with its imagery. It peters out a bit due to its predictable ending, but this is compensated for by the vivid setting of Clermont-Ferrand and the eccentric and minimal cast with which we are presented.

Although only available in French, those who are not fluent in the language should still easily be able to handle The King of the Ferns: if anything it makes good practice for those who are in the process of learning it.

The only other difficulty - apart from the ending - is perhaps determining this story's target audience. While fairytale-ish (due to its light style and happy ending), it is absolutely not for children, as proved by one fairly sombre and horrible scene - teens and up might be a better target.

Selection of other works by Jean Anglade
L'Immeuble Taub (1957)
La Foi et La Montagne (1961)
Une pomme oublié (1974)
La Noël aux prunes (1983)
La soupe à la fourchette (1999)
Les délices d'Alexandrine (2009)
Des chiens vivants (2010)

Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)

--The blurb--
"In this opening volume of Proust's great novel, the narrator seems at first to be launching a fairly traditional life-story. But after the prelude the narrator travels backwards rather than forwards in time, in order to tell the story of a love affair that had taken place before his own birth. Swann's jealous love for Odette, together with the comic antics of the Verdurins and the adoring members of their 'little clan', provide a prophetic model of the narrator's own love-relationships and peregrinations in salon society."

--The review--
Choosing whether to read this in translation or in the original French will be personal to everyone. When it comes to fluency in a language, it's my belief that there exists a fine line between understanding and appreciation: you can know the meaning of the words (or the parts) without being fully able to appreciate their beauty (or the whole). It was in fact my French fiancé, who has read the entire series of In Search of Lost Time, in French, on the grounds that he (whose English is better than my French) would not feel able to fully enjoy it in English, who recommended that I read the opus in my own mother tongue, English. Taking him at his word (for now at least; I may choose to read parts of it in French later), I therefore embarked on it in English. So far, no regrets.

The translation (by Moncrieff, with Enright as editor) is beautifully rendered and very poetic (although part of this quality may be an accident of the translation itself). Almost Biblical in its timeless principles of life, it contains many comforting and useful words of life in a way that may be more recognised today by readers of Charlotte Brontë. However, less accessible to the modern reader are the relationships contained therein: the relationship between the narrator and his mother is highly Oedipal, and the relationship between Swann and Odette is just one long series of mind games. The meaning of this latter relationship is continually unclear: we are not sure if he wants to sleep with her (despite his statement that he does not find her attractive - although this too changes later on), or if he is just using her to further his own integration into the Verdurins' prestigious social circle. Swann's own insecurity in his relationship, and the fact that he can never seem to decide whether he likes her or not, keeps readers in suspense with great success.

The beauty inherent in this novel does not mean that weaknesses are nonexistent. The style may be offputting to some: think a combination of James Joyce's Ulysses, and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which has then been aged quite a bit. It rambles considerably and at times often does not seem to be about very much. None of the characters are especially likeable and there also exists a narrative flaw of which Philip Roth and others are often guilty - the narrator has access to information about Swann and Odette that he could not possibly have been privy to, which casts doubt on his reliability. However, this being a seven-volume epic, it is possible that this will be resolved later, and simultaneously, it is precisely this ambiguity of motive and feeling which so perfectly encapsulates the madness of the kind of love or lust being experienced.

Odette and Swann's relationship, while weird, is a constant source of interest: she is playing mind games with him just as much as he is playing them with her, and the evolution of her character proves extraordinary, with her being portrayed as innocent and infatuated initially, before it is then implied that she puts her own self-interest above any positive qualities that Swann may have. Further to this, the language used by Proust is highly sexual and sensual, although we are not told explicitly about the relationship's physical status.

The first volume's poetry, complexity and highly synaesthetic approach all serves to hook the reader totally and utterly, despite the faults in the novel's construction, leaving readers awaiting the next instalment with bated breath.

In Search of Lost Time - list of instalments
volume 1 - Swann's Way
volume 2 - Within A Budding Grove
volume 3 - Guermantes' Way
volume 4 - Sodom and Gomorrah
volume 5/6 - The Captive and the Fugitive
volume 7 - Time Regained