Péter Esterházy's Celestial Harmonies continues to receive review coverage all over the place -- most recently in Slate, where Aleksandar Hemon reviews this A Cheeky Work of Postmodernist Genius.
(As we've mentioned, we expect to eventually cover this title -- but continue to be surprised by the interest in this unlikely book.)
The extensive coverage has, however, largely ignored what appears to us to be one of the most significant aspects of the book.
Only Michael André Bernstein, as far as we can tell, writing in The New Republic (12 April 2004, not freely accessible online) notes that in January 2000, after Esterházy had completed the book, he finally gained access to police files from the time of the Communist regime -- and learned that the biographical facts about his father were, to a large extent, built up on lies:
from 1957 until 1980, under the pseudonym "Csanadi," Mátyás Esterházy had served the notorious "Section III/III" of the Hungarian secret police as a regular informer.
That's Péte's dad, and the revelation undermined the "prose celebration of his father" that Celestial Harmonies apparently is.
But, as Bernstein notes:
Esterházy, it seems to me, did the one natural and straightforward thing a writer could do: he composed a new work about his crisis.
In the so-called "Corrected Edition" (Verbesserte Ausgabe is actually the title of the German translation), he reprints numerous passages from his father's spy reports and confronts Mátyás's long-concealed collaboration without evasion or excuse, but also without renouncing his love for a man who, no matter what has come to light, survives in his memory as the father whom he admired and cherished as a boy.
Which leads to the obvious problem with the American edition of this book:
It is hard to fathom why Esterházy's American publisher was unwilling to wait and give us both books together, the original Celestial Harmonies and its revisionary successor.
The two works, locked as they are in a melancholy dialogue, now constitute aspects of a single project.
Their cumulative effect is far greater than that of Celestial Harmonies alone, even without the historical disclosures that, at this juncture, make publishing the first book on its own a questionable decision.
And equally unfathomable is why all the other American reviewers ignore the existence of the second version, or at least the fact that Esterházy learned his father wasn't quite the man he thought he was.
So they held a big news conference on Friday to let everybody know how the preparations for the Arab world being the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair this fall were going.
The good news is that things appear to be going better than early indications had suggested.
The bad news is that, although there was AP coverage of the event, the only outlet we've seen that picked it up is CJAD -- here.
(Updated - 30 June): Yesterday's issue of The New York Times also picked up on the 'story' (relying on an Agence France Presse report) -- in briefest form: six lines, announcing: "Arab literature will be the focus of attention when the world's largest book fair is held in Frankfurt in October", etc. -- as if this were all new information.
Fortunately, Deutsche Welle offer some English-language coverage too, reporting on Building Bridges With Books.
Even better: the Frankfurt Book Fair site provides a (relatively) accessible press kit, where you can read the speeches, a couple of press releases, and more.
(A lot of it is, however, in the dreaded pdf format .....)
The piece we found to be of greatest interest was Peter Ripken's survey, Arab literature in translation (warning ! pdf format !).
A good overview of Arab literature in translation, especially in German, French, and, to a lesser extent, English.
Interesting information -- for example:
At present there are more than 500 works of fiction by Arab authors in print in Germany.
Less than half of them (about 200) have been translated from Arabic, while many of them are translation from French, mostly by authors from Maghreb countries.
Germany is a special case since there is quite high a number of books written in German by authors of Arab origin.
The most successful among them are Rafik Schami, Salim Alafenisch and Ghazi Abdel-Qadir.
Looking at the issue from a different perspective, again it is relevant to look at figures.
At present, German readers have the choice of more than 125.000 fiction titles (of which around 40 % are translations).
Of these less than 0,3 % are by authors from the Arab world, while several hundred books by Arab authors, translated years ago, are out of print.
Among the disappointing information: five of the Arab League nations won't attend: Algeria, Morocco, Libya, Kuwait and Iraq.
There will still be authors from these countries, but apparently no official presence.
Too bad: Algeria and Morocco, in particular, would have quite a bit to offer.
Apparently, it's popular sport to read the index to former American president Bill Clinton's recently published memoir (more fun, by all accounts, than wading through the actual text).
Ellen Gamerman reports on Making the List (in the Baltimore Sun), for example -- noting that:
Some names that appear in the book -- Clinton's pre-Hillary girlfriends, for example -- are not referenced in the index.
But in general, the list is relentless.
Of all the sections of the book, it could be the most heavily read.
As it turns out, however, it's not just a few girlfriends the index is missing.
In this week's issue of Newsweek Jonathan Alter reports on The Clindex:
It turns out that the production schedule for My Life was so rushed that the index was cobbled together in just a few days.
I knew the explanation for the incomplete "Clindex" was haste and sloppiness when I saw the names of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in the book.
And in a review in Business Week Thane Peterson notes that:
My guess is that, all told, at least 10,000 people are mentioned (the index mentions nearly 1,000).
Which doesn't sound like a good percentage.
Shoddy book production -- with the flimsy excuse of it being 'rushed' -- was also in evidence elsewhere.
As Alter notes:
In fact, the book contains scores of typographical errors.
The final line of the entire book, for instance, refers to others bearing no responsibility for "the failure of my life..."
Later printings have already changed it to "the failures of my life."
We have no idea what the big rush was (yeah, yeah, the summer season, an attempt not to interfere too much with whoever the Democratic Party candidate will be in the fall, etc. etc.), and think it reflects quite poorly on the publisher (Knopf), as well as the editor (Robert Gottlieb).
Knopf -- generally among our favourite publishers -- usually does an excellent job in the care they take in the presentation of their books.
Here -- just because it was a sure-fire bestseller, regardless of how shoddy the presentation ? -- they appear to have let their customers down.
Simon Houpt offers a profile of the book's editor in The Globe & Mail, but unfortunately doesn't get much into the editing My Life was (or wasn't ?) subjected to.
Certainly, it doesn't sound like Gottlieb even had much opportunity to edit much of the book, what with the ridiculous pressure to get the book published fast -- though that's not an excuse that's worth much.
And if they couldn't even get a proper index done, or proper copy-editing .....
In The Independent today Oliver Bennett believes: Never judge a book by its clubbers.
He reports on the Oprah-like success of the Richard and Judy book club.
He doesn't get all his facts right, writing, for example, about Oprah's bookish efforts that: "Jonathan Franzen famously insisted that his The Corrections be removed from her literary circle" (Franzen did no such thing; it was Oprah that axed the book; see our account of those events).
But overall he's close enough to the mark, as Richard and Judy demonstrate that TV personalities can get people reading -- or at least reading certain books.
Despite the supposedly higher standards in this case, and the service they perform as: "the club helps the public to navigate a path through the 120,000-odd books published each year" we're not entirely thrilled by this phenomenon.
(For one: how many of the 120,000 possible titles do they actually consider ?
Okay, admittedly only a fraction are actually worthy of consideration -- cookbooks etc. (i.e. the bulk of books published annually) won't make the cut -- but still .....)
Also interesting: the conclusion that:
The net result has not only been good for books -- Richard and Judy's careers have taken a huge surge in credibility, as has the whole derided notion of daytime TV.
Twenty-five years after they first tried this, The Observer offers a selection of: "80 prodigiously talented young people -- scientists, DJs, novelists, architects, politicians -- who we believe will shape our lives in the early 21st century"; see the lists A-L and M-Z.
A limited -- and curious -- selection of writers made the cut: Hari Kunzru, Robert MacFarlane, Alice Oswald, Helen Walsh, Sarah Waters, and Louise Welsh.
We suspect our lives will be shaped elsewhere.
Though Orwell’s birthplace in Motihari continues to be a pilgrimage for the lovers of literature, nothing has been done to keep his memories alive in the house where he was born, and lived for a number of years.
It's hard to imagine this Bihar backwater would ever be much of a literary-pilgrimage-site, but you'd figure they'd milk this for all its worth (a couple of rupees, surely).
But apparently not.
Luke Harding visited a couple of years back, reporting in The Guardian (24 June 2000) that Orwell's books were unavailable in town, and that: "Eric Blair's birthplace, it transpired, was almost, but not quite, a cowshed."
He also describes what's become of the town:
Motihari now is a chaotic, mud-infested town of 150,000.
It has rickshaws, lychee sellers, potholes, itinerant farm animals and small shops.
There are few cars; no one can afford them.
Motihari is so far off the beaten track that its most expensive hotel, the Raj, costs £4 a night (cockroaches gratis).
It's been fifteen years since a book by Vladimir Voinovich has been published in the US, but his 2002 novel, Monumental Propaganda, is now available in English -- as is our review.
He hasn't quite given up the Soviet satire, but the book does also continue into post-Soviet times.
Thirty per cent of Norwegians have some difficulty reading (i.e. aren't entirely literate) -- a large enough segment of the market for leading publisher Gyldendal to decide it'd be worthwhile to cater to them.
So, beginning next year they'll start publishing a line of books with a limited vocabulary, etc.
That's what Marie Kleve (in Aftenposten -- sorry, Norwegian) and Aldo Keel (Neue Zürcher Zeitung -- sorry, German) report.
Probably not something that will work in the US -- where it strikes us that a large percentage of books already meet the dumbed-down, simplified-vocabulary criteria.
The centrepiece of the week-long Tage der deutschsprachigen Literatur ('Festival of German-Language Literature' -- see English description at new books in german) is the Ingeborg-Bachmann-Preis (see English description at new books in german).
A sort of forerunner of the whole American Idol-etc.-type concept, it involves writers reading excerpts from previously unpublished work and then getting publicly criticized (or, occasionally, praised) by a panel of judges -- all televised live.
(They've been at this for ages now, by the way -- it pre-dates all the Idol-type shows.)
Some decent authors have won this competition, and it generally makes for a good (and enjoyably controversial) show; German-speakers can enjoy highlights at the site.
The winner will be announced Sunday.
Also part of the festival: Translatio 2004 was awarded, the Austrian State Prize for Literary Translation.
Much-praised German- and French-to-English translator Anthea Bell was one of the winners.
(For more background on Ingeborg Bachman, see the author page at books and writers.)
(Updated - 28 June): And the winner is: Uwe Tellkamp.
See, for example, coverage in the NZZ.
That's PIs as in: public intellectuals.
Yes, Richard Posner had some fun and success last year with his book on American PIs (the predictably titled Public Intellectuals), and now the British monthly, Prospect, takes a less scientific approach in naming Britain's top 100 public intellectuals.
(Actually, they ask: "Who are Britain's top 100 public intellectuals ?" -- but then they offer their answer right there, which seems to us to defeat the point of asking .....
They also pretend to allow some user input -- "We want you -- the readers of Prospect -- to vote on the top five British public intellectuals" --, but since the permissible choices are restricted to the names on their list it's hardly an open competition.)
Literary types do tolerably well.
Among the authors included: Martin Amis, A.S.Byatt, Michael Frayn, David Hare, Ian McEwan, V.S.Naipaul, Philip Pullman, Salman Rushdie, George Steiner, Tom Stoppard, Jeanette Winterson, and James Wood.
Still, as David Herman notes in his accompanying text:
Perhaps even more spectacular is the demise of literary and cultural theory from its high point in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Eagleton (again) is the sole survivor on this list.
Otherwise, theory remains isolated in its academic tower, cut off from the general culture by jargon and obscurantism.
Literature is well represented, but many of the key critics are over 60.
Among the next generations, the centrality once assumed by Leavis has gone.
See also Ian Herbert's commentary in The Independent.
More discussion will doubtless follow.
In the July issue of Prospect there's also a piece by Jo Tatchell on Saddam the romancier.
Of course, publishing success is no longer as easy as it once was, Tatchell noting that Saddam's writing:
follows a populist family tradition.
His uncle, a former mayor of Baghdad, and an influential local tyrant himself, contributed to the genre with a book entitled He Created Them by Mistake: the Persians, Jews and Flies, published in 1974.
His masterstroke was to make 20,000 Iraqi schools purchase 50 copies each. Result: a million seller, and no marketing spend at all.
Of course, there is no way of knowing whether Saddam Hussein's future work will offer anything beyond the comic cachet of simply owning the books.
In the meantime, we can only speculate if his inner life will sustain him, like Archer or Oscar Wilde, through his incarceration and trial.
There have, of course, been numerous previous articles on Saddam the would-be novelist -- see, for example: Charles Paul Freund on Saddam Hussein, Novelist (Reason, July 2002), and BBC pieces such as Saddam 'second novel' in print (20 December 2001) and Saddam 'pens two more novels' (20 March 2002).
But he's been making international inroads too, as at least the first of his books has been translated into several languages: you can get Zabibah und der König (see also the publisher's publicity page) or Zabiba et le Roi, for example.
We thought American publishers had, again, missed the boat, but no: it doesn't seem to have gotten much publicity, but Zabiba and the King: By Its Author Saddam Hussein, edited by Robert Lawrence is now available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
(We'd be very curious to learn who cleared the copyright here, and where the royalties are going .....)
But it doesn't seem to be selling too well.
(Amusing note: the book that buyers of the German edition at Amazon.de bought to go with it -- and that Amazon.de recommends -- is the Strafgesetzbuch (StGB) -- the (German) penal code .....)
At USA Today Dinah Eng reports on the (baffling) continuing success of Star Wars-related 'literature'.
We have a hard time even thinking of these things as books, but, like Harlequin romances, they've proven to be a winning formula -- 65 million books in print, 83 different adult titles (and 238 juvenile).
Del Rey has just signed a new contract with Lucas Licensing, the licensing arm of Lucasfilm Ltd., which extends Del Rey's book-licensing agreement through December 2008.
Notably absent from all this: the authors.
But then, it practically doesn't matter who puts together the words for these things.
(Updated - 26 June): Grumpy Old Bookman notes that just because the Star Wars-books sound like a sure-fire winner doesn't mean they are (a lesson publishers never seem to learn): they sell well, but not that well, as British publisher Dorling Kindersley found out a few years back.
The print edition reached us a week or two ago, but now the summer issue of Bookforum is available online.
Well, a few articles, anyway -- notably Minna Proctor on Yoel Hoffmann and Gary Indiana on Jean Echenoz (see also our reviews of Echenoz's books, such as Piano).
We were tempted to once again complain about the excess of attention paid by both press and public to this recently released brick of a memoir by former American president Bill Clinton, but here a reminder how much worse things could be: Xinhuanet reports: Hundred books to be published to commemorate late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
Yes, apparently among the highlights of the Chinese publishing year are ... "100 books to commemorate the centenary birth anniversary of late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping".
The 100 books, selected out of 300, include research works on Deng Xiaoping theory, Deng's life stories and manuscripts, poems, children's readers and photo albums.
Exciting stuff !
(And apparently carefully selected.)
Among the highlights: "The Collection of Deng Xiaoping's Works on Military Affairs is another important selection of Deng's works".
(Note to the publishers: we won't be needing a review copy .....)
So let's hear it for the free market, where people are free to waste their twenty or thirty dollars on this crap-piece of Clintoniana but don't have to wade through tables piled with a hundred variations on Deng-dung at their local bookstore.
(And what a waste of precious resources -- publishers having apparently been properly cowed: "The concerned publishing houses have paid high attention to the publication of these books and have made time schedules for each of them.")
So for one day we won't complain about the pathetic un-businessmanlike ways of the American publishing industry, which look positively inspired compared to what's happening here in China.
The new issue of The Oxonian Review of Books is now available.
There's something of a Canadian focus to it, and an interview with Paul Auster, but of most interest to us: the first review (by Jenni Quilter) we've seen that discusses Gilbert Adair's The Holy Innocents, the revised version, The Dreamers, as well as the Bertolucci film-adaptation (and, for good measure, Adair's Buenas Noches Buenos Aires).
Not quite as thorough or enlightening as we'd wish, but it's something.
The American edition of Time apparently ignored this story, but at least Time (Asia) reports on A Literary Thaw in Korea, wondering: "Do North Korea's racy and topical new novels signal greater freedom, or is Kim Jong Il just letting off a little steam ?"
(What we wonder is: it took two people to write this ?)
We mentioned a more interesting piece on this subject last month -- and still hope for a translation of The Bush Commotion by Yeom Ho-sam.
As to the Time (Asia) piece: they mention:
Kim Il Sung, the Dear Leader's father, once dubbed writers "engineers of the human soul" -- but he and his son have always had strict control over the project specs.
No mention that the original (pretty well-known) dubbing is attributable to someone else .....
Again we wonder: it took two people to write this ?
And this is the best they could do ?
As to the attribution -- see the next entry.
Annoyed that some Time (Asia) hacks attribute Stalin's famous exhortation that writers must be "engineers of the human soul" to Kim Il Sung (see previous entry) we immediately looked to see if there were any good links about Stalin's statement -- and were rewarded by finding out about a book that looks of considerable interest: at Radio Netherlands Marijke van der Meer reports:
One of the lesser known chapters of the era is the story of the colossal waterworks projects undertaken by Stalin and how he forced many of the country's leading writers to sing the praises of these grandiose, partly unworkable, engineering schemes.
This is the subject of a fascinating book, called Engineers of the Soul by Dutch journalist Frank Westerman.
Even she knows:
The title of the book refers to a speech that Stalin gave to a gathering of writers at the home of Maxim Gorky on October 26, 1932, in which he exhorted the writers to reshape the souls of men: "The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks….
And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul."
It's been published in Dutch -- and is (was ?) scheduled to appear in English -- pre-order your copy at Amazon.co.uk.
Given that the publisher is Harvill -- which no longer exists as a stand-alone imprint -- and the publication date is given as 2 March 2006 -- we're not exactly holding our breaths.
(By the way, Simon Sebag Montefiore also describes that party and speech in his biography of Stalin: "'Me ? Why me ?' retorted the nearest writer. 'I'm not arguing.'")
The Kakutani gave the new Bill Clinton book (which will be unleashed to the world about when we post this) a pretty bad review in Sunday's issue of The New York Times.
The first real review, it's been taken apart more than the book has (Knopf apparently did a pretty good job of keeping the book away from prying (or critical) eyes -- or maybe the others that got their hands on copies just found it too much of a slog to get through).
At The American Prospect site Michael Tomasky writes on Why Michiko Kakutani's review of Bill Clinton tells us more about reviewer than reviewee.
Well, that's what the heading promises; in fact, he offers a more broader (and more dubious) analysis.
That piece did, however, eventually lead us to this entertaining -- if a bit too forced -- exercise, where MediaMatters compare the Kakutani's reviews of this year's Clinton book with last year's Clinton book (Hillary's).
Much of the supposed recycling is a bit of a stretch, but there are a few examples which are striking.
The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Premchand's 1936 classic, The Gift of a Cow -- somewhat surprisingly, the first title we have under review originally written in Hindi.
(Perhaps even more surprisingly: it's still (or rather: again) in print and readily available.)
As already noted (and already much-commented on) at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, literary agent Simon Trewin writes about publishing hardships in Pile 'em high ... then let 'em die at the Independent on Sunday.
Worth a look.
Thomas Mallon's review of James Marcus' Amazonia: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Dot.Com Juggernaut in the current issue of the Weekly Standard offers a decent (and depressing) quick overview of the evolution (?) of Amazon.com.