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The Literary Saloon Archive

21 - 31 October

21 October: Franklin on Jelinek | Kertész at Y | Booker sales | Okey Ndibe on Achebe
22 October: Cope's The Megalithic European | Index fun ? | Newton exhibit | Aylett collection | Enzensberger dialogues
23 October: Literary prize news | Irène Némirovsky | More Achebe | Garcia Marquez profile
24 October: More on: Achebe's CFR and the Nigeria Prize for Literature | Literary axing
25 October: Kertesz and Gombrowicz reviews | The Little White Car review | In Praise of Empires review
26 October: Wilde auction | Granta events | City of (some) Literature
27 October: Governor General's Literary Awards | Gilmore Girls enthusiasm | National Book Awards attendance | Israel in Frankfurt | Literary anniversaries | Ian Rankin reviews
28 October: Literary prizes (mainly French)
29 October: Orwell's birthplace | Egyptian writers in Frankfurt | The Economist does graphic books
30 October: Literary endorsements | Kertesz noticed ! | Behind the weblogging scenes | More LRB
31 October: The Paris Review interviews | Unusual collaboration | Translation club | Nigerian poetry

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31 October 2004 - Sunday

The Paris Review interviews | Unusual collaboration | Translation club | Nigerian poetry

       The Paris Review interviews

       In a brief piece in The New York Times on Friday Felicia Lee wrote that starting 10 November The Paris Review will begin making their author-interviews available online -- the full interviews, not the ridiculous brief excerpts they currently post. They'll put them up through 16 May, by which time all will be posted.
       No news about this elsewhere (least of all The Paris Review site), except at the National Endowment for the Arts: they provided a $ 50,000 grant which they describe (scroll down here):
To support the preservation and dissemination of the entire archive of Paris Review interviews online, free of charge. The journal will present nearly 300 interviews conducted since 1953 with writers whose work has defined the literary landscape of the latter half of the 20th century.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Unusual collaboration

       Books that are co-authored aren't that unusual, but in The Moscow Times Victor Sonkin reports on an unusual collaboration, Cemetery Tales ('Kladbishchenskiye Istorii') by Boris Akunin and Grigory Chkhartishvili:
The book is divided into six sections, each dealing with a famous cemetery, whether in Moscow, London, New York, Paris, Yokohama or Jerusalem. The first half of each entry consists of an essay by Chkhartishvili dedicated to the cemetery: its legends, its history, its famous dead. (...) Akunin takes charge of the second half of each entry with six short novellas about ghosts and vampires.
       So what's so unusual ? Chkhartishvili -- a literary scholar, translator of Japanese and English prose, and an essayist -- and Akunin -- who writes "crime stories with an intellectual twist" -- are the same person. First we've ever heard of an author collaborating with his alter ego.

       (Updated - 1 November): It was the first we'd heard, but our admirable readership (in this case The Millions) knows better: Ed McBain wrote Candyland with his alter-ego, Evan Hunter; see, for example, comments about that in this interview.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Translation club

       Also in The Moscow Times, Anna Malpas reports on a club in Moscow where translators meet once a month.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Nigerian poetry

       In Vanguard Obakanse Lakanse offers a critical examination of the Language of contemporary Nigerian poetry.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

30 October 2004 - Saturday

Literary endorsements | Kertesz noticed ! | Behind the weblogging scenes | More LRB

       Literary endorsements

       At the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal Sam Schulman disapproves of "literary figures pronouncing on presidential politics" in Get Them Rewrite:
American literary figures are speaking out against President Bush's re-election with unusual fervor and unanimity. From our best writers we might expect a high standard of vituperation. We are often disappointed.
It is hard to find evidence of a kind of updated New Frontiersmanship among today's engagé writers. What is abundantly present is rigidity, self-satisfaction and pride -- qualities with which they lavishly endow President Bush.
       What seems a big part of the problem for Sam is that so many writers speak against the jr. Bush (and so very few in support of him). Even so: he's not entirely wrong, of course: the level of discourse is abysmal -- but that's unfortunately true across the board. Bush-supporting writers haven't seemed any more eloquent to us -- and the jr. Bush himself, even leaving aside his mangling of the language, leads the charge: his misrepresentation of his opponent's position (and of many of his own policies and accomplishments) is beyond outrageous, his unwillingness to face the public (attendance at Bush-events is restricted to avowed supporters, press access severely limited (currently essentially to just puff-piece interviews)) or respond to criticism an affront to the American public.
       Sure, it'd be nice if literary folk offered a "high standard of vituperation", but it seems a bit much to expect under current conditions. A leader who set a better example might be a great way to get things turned around .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Kertesz noticed !

       As MobyLives noted, somebody else finally noticed Imre Kertész was in the US. Yes, a week after literary weblog Beatrice reported on Nobel laureate Kertész's 92nd Street Y appearance, the AP gets around to it too: Claudia La Rocco reports that Kertesz Gives First U.S. Reading (note that this report hasn't been widely picked up yet).
       La Rocco reports:
Although happy with his reading, Kertesz said, "I cannot decipher to what extent American readers will be fertile ground for the problems I write about, and the ways in which I write about them."
       Given the limited enthusiasm and coverage we've seen so far, we're inclined to be sceptical too. Very disappointing.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Behind the weblogging scenes

       Conversational Reading pointed us to Dan Wickett's impressive in-depth Interview with The Bloggers at Emerging Writers Forum: lots of good behind-the-scenes information from ten of your favourite literary webloggers.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More LRB

       A few days ago we mentioned Robert Douglas-Fairhurst's review of the anniversary-London Review of Books; now Giles Foden also reviews it in The Guardian.

       (Updated - 31 October): See also Rachel Cooke's Happy birthday, LRB in The Observer.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

29 October 2004 - Friday

Orwell's birthplace | Egyptian writers in Frankfurt
The Economist does graphic books

       Orwell's birthplace

       We mentioned that George Orwell’s Indian birthplace, Motihari, hasn't exactly been able to establish itself as a literary pilgrimage site. Now Peter Foster reports in the Daily Telegraph that 'Orwell was here' – India seeks to write new chapter in author's life:
Now, with the assistance of the local branch of the Rotary Club, the house where Orwell was born is to be restored and, finances permitting, converted into a museum.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Egyptian writers in Frankfurt

       One more Al-Ahram Weeekly article on the Arab world at the Frankfurt Book Fair, as Rania Khallaf offers Nebulous defeats, six Egyptian authors describing what they took from the fair. We like the author descriptions -- "older novelist", "younger novelist" (apparently there are generation-issues in the Egyptian literary world), and it's interesting to read what they got out of it, like Edwar El-Kharrat ("older experimental writer"):
The one German encounter I enjoyed, largely through personal initiative, was with writer Ingo Schulze; and we had a wonderful time together.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Economist does graphic books

       The Economist reviews Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return -- and offers the obligatory no-respect commentary:
Loyal readers sniff that graphic novels -- sometimes described as sequential art or comix -- are hailed as the next big thing every five years or so, but never quite catch on, and are often banished to areas of bookshops reserved for humour or science fiction.
       So what do loyal readers of sci fi and humour complain about ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

28 October 2004 - Thursday

Literary prizes (mainly French)

       Literary prizes (mainly French)

       In the International Herald Tribune Alan Riding writes about Entr'acte: Publishers' fertility rite: annual literary prizes. Fun odds and ends, including the impressive statistic that: "France alone, it is said, has 1,150 literary prizes."
       He also writes:
In a new book, Literary Prizes: The Great Scam, a French journalist, Guy Konopnicki, claims the Goncourt is the most blatant example of conflict of interest: he says that it bends to pressure from publishers (who nominate books for consideration) and that some jurors are themselves writers with close ties to leading publishers. Further, the jurors, appointed for life and in some cases in their eighties, are out of touch with public taste.
       Unmentioned is the fact that the book -- Prix littéraires: La Grande Magouille (get your copy at -- had some trouble getting published: originally scheduled to come out at the end of September (under the title: Les Prix littéraires vont très bien et pourquoi plus personne ne les prend au sérieux), publisher L'Archipel apparently dumped it, but Jean-Claude Gawsewitch picked it up and has just brought it out.

       Meanwhile the big French prizes have come out with their final-cut shortlists -- see the Goncourt and Renaudot shortlists (with Marc Lambron's Les menteurs on both); the prizes will be announced 8 November. See also the various Femina shortlists (with Laurent Gaudé's Le soleil des Scorta also a Goncourt-finalist); those prizes will be announced 3 November.
       (Never mind whatever talk you've heard about the recently published but sixty year old book by Irène Némirovsky, Suite française (see our previous mention), maybe being considered for a prize: it didn't make the longlists for any of these. Also: that book was a find, but note that Némirovsky was a fairly well-known author in her time, and books of hers were in print -- both in French and English -- before this new book surfaced.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

27 October 2004 - Wednesday

Governor General's Literary Awards | Gilmore Girls enthusiasm
National Book Awards attendance | Israel in Frankfurt
Literary anniversaries | Ian Rankin reviews

       Governor General's Literary Awards

       The shortlists for the many, many Governor General's Literary Awards -- "Canada's national literary awards" -- have been announced: see the official (and very long) list of finalists.
       English categories, French categories, English to French translations, French to English. It looks hard not to be a finalist in at least some category -- though a lot of titles didn't make it:
This year, a total of 1,465 titles, 830 in the English-language categories and 635 in the French-language categories, were submitted.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Gilmore Girls enthusiasm

       So with Norman Mailer's guest appearance on the television show the Gilmore Girls the floodgates have opened and everyone's falling over themselves expressing their enthusiasm -- maintaining it's both a literate and literary show. (We note that we let slip mention of that over a year ago .....)
       First, there's Dana Stevens writing on Literary Lionesses: The WB's Gilmore Girls is the most bookish show on television at Slate -- which we'd be a hell of a lot more impressed by if she had managed not to spell Allen Ginsberg's first and last name wrong (she spells it: "Allan Ginsburg"). But she's right that:
But compared to, say, the book coverage on Oprah, with its self-congratulatory assurances that readers are courageous, exceptional individuals whose reading efforts deserve to be lauded with cheers and matching T-shirts, Gilmore Girls at least treats reading as a seduction, a flirtation -- not only with the latest WB dreamboat, but with literature itself.
       (Note, however, that the standards have not been kept up at the once relatively impressive official Rory's Book Club: the latest book is The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, which the character would not be caught dead with.)
       Meanwhile, Joy Press jumps on the bandwagon at The Village Voice, enthusing over The Sunshine Girls:
Gilmore Girls is still the sweetest show on TV. It's also one of the smartest, weighing in somewhere between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       National Book Awards attendance

       GalleyCat mentions a Publishers Weekly article (only abstract freely available -- and GalleyCat actually offers a longer excerpt; scroll down for it) about the question of who will attend the American National Book Awards ceremony on behalf of The 9/11 Commission Report.
       Strict literalists that we are, and sticklers for rules (especially when they are the idiotic ones book awards organisations come up with) we don't see what the problem is. Perhaps the article addresses this, but the 2004 National Book Awards Entry Rules & Guidelines are crystal clear: scroll down to the additional conditions and read that publishers must:
inform authors of entered books that, if nominated, they must be present at the National Book Awards Ceremony and at related events in New York City prior to the ceremony.
cover all travel and accommodation costs for nominated authors, and to provide them with seats at the Awards Ceremony.
       So everybody -- and we mean everybody -- behind the report better be there. Given how much money W.W.Norton has raked in on this thing, there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to spring for all those tickets. Certainly unacceptable:
"People within the commission are sorting out who's going to be available to come," according to Norton spokesperson Louise Brockett
       The rules clearly state that the authors must be present -- and that it's the publisher's obligation to get them to show up and to pay their way. If Norton can't do that -- and it sounds like they're trying to get out of it -- then the only course of action is to toss the report off the shortlist. (Come on people: if you institute stupid rules, then you have to live by stupid rules !)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Israel in Frankfurt

       One more Frankfurt Book Fair article, as yet another country shows how not to do it: Shiri Lev-Ari reports on Israel's presence at the fair in Ha'aretz, in A literary withdrawal.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Literary anniversaries

       In the Daily Telegraph Robert Douglas-Fairhurst reviews two anniversary issues of leading British literary publications, the London Review of Books and Granta 87: Jubilee in They have both kept their teeth.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Ian Rankin reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of five more Ian Rankin books:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

26 October 2004 - Tuesday

Wilde auction | Granta events | City of (some) Literature

       Wilde auction

       Sotheby's sale of Oscar Wilde material -- "some of the scarcest and finest Wilde material still available" H.R.Woudhuysen writes in the 22 October TLS -- is scheduled for the 29th. See almost all the goodies at the fine online catalogue, as well as their overview article.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Granta events

       Ian Jack continues his Granta 25th anniversary tour (Boston yesterday, Toronto upcoming), with the next stop in New York where there will be an event tomorrow (the 27th) at Symphony Space. Why do we mention it ? A Nell Freudenberger sighting: she'll take part in the panel discussion portion of the evening, along with Jack, Bill Buford, A.M.Homes, and Edmund White.

       Considerably more interesting sounding: Ronald Harwood will be giving a talk on The Lost Worlds of Joseph Roth at The Royal Society of Medicine on 28 October.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       City of (some) Literature

       The news out of Edinburgh, recently named the first City of Literature by UNESCO, keeps getting better: we mentioned the brilliant (and well-timed) PR move of their axing support for the University of Edinburgh’s writer-in-residence, and now Jane Bradley reports in the Evening News: A city of literature ? Not at our libraries
       Yes: "Book borrowing in Edinburgh is plummeting faster than almost any other area in Britain", an almost forty per cent drop in the past five years alone:
In 1998-99 each man, woman and child in Edinburgh borrowed on average more than ten books, but by 2002-03 the figure fell to around six.
       Apparently they spent all their money on attaining the dubious (and not much sought after) honour of getting named 'City of Literature', rather than on literature itself. Sounds right: who needs books (or readers) when you have that official, tourist-impressing label from UNESCO ? The short-term pay-off is surely much higher.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

25 October 2004 - Monday

Kertesz and Gombrowicz reviews | The Little White Car review
In Praise of Empires review

       Kertesz and Gombrowicz reviews

       The first we've seen anyone notice the new (and forthcoming) Imre Kertész books: Richard Eder apparently reviewed all three in The Los Angeles Times yesterday (not freely accessible, alas), and Amanda Heller offered a short take of Liquidation in the Boston Globe.
       Meanwhile, in The Washington Times there's a review of Witold Gombrowicz's Bacacay and Polish Memories (see also our previous mention).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       The Little White Car review

       The Little White Car, written by Dan Rhodes but published under the pseudo-pseudonym 'Danuta de Rhodes', was one of our least favourite reads of the year (see our review). Yesterday The New York Times Book Review got around to it, Caryn James reviewing it. One sentence stands out, with which James concludes her review:
The pleasures of the book are enhanced by knowing the true identity of the fabulous Danuta, the Dame Edna of hot young novelists.
       Obviously, people should enjoy a book any which they want (by eating the pages, for all we care) -- but we're baffled by the notion that the pleasure of the text can be enhanced by such (or, indeed, almost any) information about the author. Where does that leave the text itself ?
       But then perhaps that's the point: in an age where image is everything the text no longer matters.
       James even begins her review:
The joke behind The Little White Car begins even before the novel does, with its author's name.
       But the joke also ends there: it doesn't have anything to do with the book itself. Admirably, James does try to suggest otherwise:
by the time Estelle complains about Englishmen being lousy lovers, we've all but forgotten this slur was written by an English man.
       But who in their right minds would possibly read a book differently depending on who the author is, at least in such regards ? (And in this instance, it doesn't take much to imagine that a British author has often been accused of being a lousy lover, i.e. is just writing from experience.)

       (Note also that the joke isn't taken very far: the NYTBR review is accompanied by a publicity photo, a headshot of the author (don't even get us started on that ridiculous policy ...), and it ain't of a woman. (If it is: our deepest sympathies.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       In Praise of Empires review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Deepak Lal's forthcoming book on Globalization and Order, In Praise of Empires.
       Wild stuff, but perversely fascinating.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

24 October 2004 - Sunday

More on: Achebe's CFR and the Nigeria Prize for Literature | Literary axing

       More on: Achebe's CFR

       We mentioned more reactions to Chinua Achebe's turning down the honour of being named Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria yesterday (again). Now more reactions, at Vanguard:

        - Habib Yakoob thinks CFR Award: Achebe got it wrong. (We're pretty certain -- but not absolutely -- that this piece is meant tongue in cheek; however, humour is clearly not this writer's forte. Or maybe they just like it spread this thick in Nigeria.)

        - Obi Nwakanma writes on Chinua Achebe’s symbolic weight.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More on: the Nigeria Prize for Literature

       We mentioned the admirable decision by the jury not to award the first Nigeria Prize for Literature yesterday, too -- but not everyone is as thrilled as we are. In Vanguard Denja Abdullahiana offers his candid views on The NLNG prize for literature fiasco.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Literary axing

       In the Sunday Herald Senay Boztas reports: New City of Literature’s writer-in-residence axed:
Days before the Scottish capital was appointed the world’s first City of Literature, the Scottish Arts Council withdrew funding for the University of Edinburgh’s writer-in-residence.
       Poor timing, if nothing else -- and while they do have something of a point, the explanations are not entirely reassuring:
"The Edinburgh post finished in September, and the council decided to use the funding elsewhere," said a SAC spokesman. "They are looking for other settings for literature development, and there is a stress on community work over course work, because a lot of universities now have their own creative writing fellowships."

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

23 October 2004 - Saturday

Literary prize news | Irène Némirovsky | More Achebe | Garcia Marquez profile

       Literary prize news

       A variety of literary prize news:

        - We're particlarly impressed by the success of the inaugural NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature: they decided that none of the shortlisted titles were worthy and so they didn't award the prize. As Chux Ohai reported in the Daily Independent:
In the wisdom of the almighty jury, the winner was "the integrity of Nigerian literature" and the decision was necessary to preserve the "standard Nigerian literature had attained over the years".
       At This Day they report A Winner Next Time:
"Unfortunately none of the entries received met the high standards set by the panel of judges for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2004," announced the judges' report the penultimate Saturday.
       The audience, however, was less than thrilled

        - In The Moscow Times Victor Sonkin reports: The Debut Prize has become one of the major literary events of the year, propelling young authors to overnight success.

        - As widely noted, Man Booker judge and literary editor of The Economist, Fiammetta Rocco, offers her behind-the-scenes look at this year's judging, in Sitting in judgment in this week's issue of The Economist. No great gossip, but a few interesting titbits.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Irène Némirovsky

       John Harris mentioned it in The Observer almost two weeks ago, in You read it here first -- one of the few books that looked like it would attract a lot of attention at the Frankfurt Book Fair:
It lies so outside the usual parameters of fashionable fiction as to come off looking like that most thrilling phenomenon: a truly unexpected hit. (...) In Frankfurt, its success is captured in an altogether more straightforward vernacular: money, deals, and lots of meetings.
       Yes, so pathetic is the situation re. fiction in contemporary publishing that the novel attracting the most attention was written some six decades ago: Irène Némirovsky's Suite française, published for the first time in France a few weeks ago. (See the Denoël publicity page or get your own copy at
       Now come the reports of how well it's done, sold in 14 -- or 17 or 18, depending on what report you read -- countries.
       Jon Henley reports that Emigré Jew's wartime book takes France by storm in The Guardian:
Suite francaise, the first two parts of what Irène Némirovsky originally intended to be a five-volume epic, has been hailed by ecstatic French critics as "a masterpiece" and "probably the definitive novel of our nation in the second world war".

Rights to the work, published three weeks ago, have already been sold in 18 countries, including Britain and the US, often for sums higher than any previously paid for a French novel, and a vigorous campaign is underway for Némirovsky to be posthumously awarded France's most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt.
       Colin Randall reports Auschwitz victim's book causes a stir in France in the Daily Telegraph, and Börsenblatt wonders: Ein neuer Weltbestseller ? ('A new world-bestseller ?'), noting it's already sold 25,000 copies in France.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       More Achebe

       We've mentioned that Chinua Achebe has turned down the Nigerian Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic. Now the BBC wonders: Who has the right to criticise ?, with a selection of reader comments that will be broadcast on the BBC's Focus on Africa programme today, and in Vanguard Chioma Anyagafu reports: Achebe vs FG: Unending Missiles as Things Fall Apart.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Garcia Marquez profile

       In The Independent Nicholas Caistor profiles: Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love, passion and a melancholy man.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

22 October 2004 - Friday

Cope's The Megalithic European | Index fun ? | Newton exhibit
Aylett collection | Enzensberger dialogues

       Cope's The Megalithic European

       In the Daily Telegraph Andrew Perry talks to Julian Cope about his new book, in He's really into the stones, man. The book is The Megalithic European, a European companion volume, it appears, to his previous unlikely bestseller, The Modern Antiquarian. (We also have his two very different autobiographical works, Head-On and Repossessed under review.)
       See also the official site, the HarperCollins publicity page, or get your own copy at (And we'll probably try to review this too.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Index fun ?

       In the Boston Globe Alex Beam writes that The index embraces its silly side, about book indices -- an often sore subject. As the article confirms, there's less and less interest in providing readers with these vital resources.
       The most baffling index decision we've come across recently: the much-praised (reviewers specifically mentioned how wonderful it was) index to the British (original) edition of Francis Wheen's How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World was tossed out for the American edition (where the book was also re-titled, Idiot Proof) and a new index put in its place. Problem is: it was a bad and entirely inadequate one. How does something like that happen ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Newton exhibit

       We recently mentioned that there's an Isaac Newton exhibit, The Newtonian Moment, at the New York Public Library. At Slate James Gleick -- author of the recent (and very concise) Isaac Newton -- writes about it, finding it impressive but problematic:
On display is what must be the most impressive collection of Newtoniana ever assembled in the United States (.....) But it's a 19th-century Newton who's been dusted off here: Sir Isaac, powdered and bewigged, the genius of rationality and order, who created—and who came to personify—modern science.
       He makes it sound like Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (finished off recently in The System of the World) presents a truer picture of the man .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Aylett collection

       Much of the fun in Steve Aylett's work is found simply in some of the sharp and twisted sentences, and so a collection of these -- "choice quotes from twelve satirical Aylett books" -- sounds like it might be an entertaining manual. That's what he now offers in the Tao te Jinx.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Enzensberger dialogues

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Dialoge zwischen Unsterblichen, Lebendigen und Toten.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

21 October 2004 - Thursday

Franklin on Jelinek | Kertész at Y | Booker sales | Okey Ndibe on Achebe

       Franklin on Jelinek

       As we've mentioned, we're not big fans of recently named Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek; still, we feel she's getting a raw deal in far too many places -- especially the semi-serious American press (we can't wait to see what The New Criterion has to say about her .....). As we mentioned shortly after the prize was awarded, Stephen Schwartz ripped into the Swedish Academy's choice at the Weekly Standard. He at least has the excuse that he wanted to get something out fast (not that we think his opinion likely would have been much different if he had taken his time ...). Ruth Franklin, writing in the 1 November issue of The New Republic has no such excuse.
       Access to Franklin's article is restricted at the TNR site (it's here, if you can make your way past registration), so we normally wouldn't bother much with it here, but we're so annoyed we'll trouble you with some quotes and our comments.
       Usually, she's a fairly sensible reviewer -- most recently of Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World: see her review (here at Not so here, where she rivals Schwartz in shrill outrage and melodramatic exaggeration:
But with the selection of Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian writer whose novels of the 1980s are prooftexts of a particularly virulent sort of radical feminism, the academy has dealt the prize's reputation a blow from which it may not soon recover.
       Franklin's in-depth -- or at least at-length -- dismissal mentions exactly three of Jelinek's texts: two available in English translation at Jelinek's site (her recent play Bambiland and her "manifesto" I Want to Be Shallow), as well as one of her novels available in English:
Jelinek's signature work is her novel Die Klavierspielerin -- literally "the female pianist," translated into English as The Piano Teacher
       Signature work ? Well, it's well-known, especially since the movie version recently came out. But, as we've previously noted, Jelinek has repeatedly insisted that another work is the stand-out and one she considers most representative of her ambitions. As Georg Diez reports in an interview with her at FAZ Weekly (and as she similarly expressed in an interview with Profil):
She talks about her book Die Kinder der Toten (The children of the dead) that she believes is her most important book, the delusion of history as a ghost story. "That is the text that I wanted to write. Everything else was a practice run in comparison. But I am also unburdened because I said in it what I wanted to say."
       So how much space does Franklin devote to a discussion of this work ? She doesn't even mention it. So much for thorough critical analysis.
       But at least Franklin gets in some more good digs:
It is hardly unusual for Nobel laureates to be recognized years after publishing their best work. (Grass and Naipaul come to mind.) But what if a writer's current work is so appalling that it ought to disqualify her altogether ?
       Again: we'd suggest Franklin look at the older (and newer) work before summarily dismissing an author on the basis of a single work (Bambiland, in this case, which she really doesn't seem too like). And even with Bambiland, a better (or rather: any) understanding of the context -- specifically Jelinek's earlier output, political involvement (sorry, Franklin's treatment thereof is superficial and mis-focussed), and the Austrian theatre-world (especially the Burgtheater and all the fun Bernhard, Turrini, and she have been having there the past decade or two, under the Peymann-regime and after) might allow her better understanding (if not necessarily appreciation) of Jelinek's method and achievement.
       And just because Franklin doesn't see how Bambiland might be staged doesn't mean it's unstagable -- as numerous stagings of the play suggest .....

       Franklin also opines:
Though a recent film of the novel garnered some critical acclaim, Jelinek's work was never intended to appeal to a mainstream audience.
       How can one not love statements like that ? Franklin offers no explanation why Jelinek might not intend her work to appeal to a mainstream audience -- or evidence that it doesn't (sorry, poor American sales don't count: you try finding a Serpent's Tail book at your local bookstore, much less one of hers.) The sentence seems a purely gratuitous swipe: Franklin knows the easiest way to dismiss an author (especially for American readers) is to call them elitist and of no interest to the masses. Unfortunately, while Jelinek is no schlock-meister, she does seem to be very, very popular: as Nigel Reynolds reported in the Daily Telegraph of her works: "Though not popular in the English-speaking world, they regularly make the bestseller lists in Germany where each new novel sells more than 100,000 copies." And in her native Austria she's even better known as a dramatist, widely-known and much-discussed, making the covers of tabloids and serious news-weeklies alike, all long before she won the Nobel. (Austrians -- and the Viennese, in particular -- take their theatre very, very seriously (there is simply no comparable media coverage of dramatists in the US, and even in the UK coverage is spread among many more playwrights), and Jelinek has probably eclipsed Handke as the most-discussed living playwright over the past few years.)

       Finally, Franklin also writes (wishful thinking ?):
What recommends Jelinek to her fans, it seems, is her politics, and her advertisement of herself as some kind of dissident. Thankfully, the advertisement has as yet been relatively ineffective. Normally the Nobel Prize announcement is followed by the frantic rushing of the writer's languishing work back into print, but at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in full swing at the time of the announcement, there was surprisingly little interest in the rights to Jelinek's books. (She is currently published in English by Serpent's Tail Press in England.) This year's Nobel Prize may be the rare case in which a writer is quietly forgotten before her fifteen minutes have even begun.
       First of all: why this certainty (okay, okay, she writes: "it seems" -- but doesn't suggest any alternatives) about what appeals to Jelinek's fans ? If anything, we'd suggest it's a matter of style that wins her readers over. Certainly that's why we don't particularly like her -- but we can see that it might appeal to readers. Politics (of any colour) isn't an easy way to win over readers under the best of circumstances (in overcoming bad writing) -- while good (or in some way intriguing or catchy) writing can make even the most noxious politics ... endurable. But it's Jelinek's politics (in its broadest sense) that really seems to annoy Franklin (obviously: she can't be bothered to actually read anything more than a smattering of the author's texts) -- an increasingly popular way of looking at even literary things at The New Republic, it seems (literary editor: Leon Wieseltier).
       As to the "surprisingly little interest in the rights to Jelinek's books", well, maybe Franklin was in Frankfurt and knows better, but from all we've heard that's simply not true. And the surge in interest in Jelinek's work, at least as measured by (a crude measure, admittedly, but still) surely suggests there's an interested audience.

       A counter-weight to Franklin's ridiculous piece is the brief introduction to the author by Ritchie Robertson in the 15 October Times Literary Supplement. No great enthusiast either, he at least reasonably discusses her life and work (more than just three pieces ! he even quotes from The Children of the Dead). A decent start to understanding Jelinek:
     We probably make the best sense of Jelinek if we read her as a satirist. Like Bernhard (...) she is -- to borrow a useful term from the Austrian critic Wendelin Schmidt-Dengler -- an Übertreibungskünstler, an artist of exaggeration. Seen in this light, the powerlessness of her characters corresponds to the Olympian gaze of the satirist.
       He concludes: "I am not convinced that Jelinek is a great writer, but she is often a rewarding and salutary one". At least -- unlike Franklin -- he gives her (and, more importantly: her work) a chance -- i.e. is willing to look at the whole of it and the pieces (and the context). Which is the very least she -- like any author -- is due..

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       Kertész at Y

       Beatrice reports from the Imre Kertész reading and talk at the 92nd St Y on Tuesday. Stunningly, there has been no other media coverage of the event (or the author) so far. (Surely this should be an easy job for the publicity-handlers from the publisher -- the guy won the Nobel prize just two years ago ! -- but even the local New York coverage has been dismal. What the hell is going on here ?)
       Sad also this observation:
The conversation hit an early bump when Rosenbaum wondered if perhaps the childhood trauma of the concentration camps had so heavily weighed upon Kertész that he repeatedly returned to it in fiction while not writing so much about his experiences living under communism, to which the author replied that he had written quite a bit about that subject but it was apparently not as well known in English as his other work. The followup -- "don't you think it's interesting, then, that the world remembers you more as a Holocaust survivor ?" -- was a valiant effort at a save, and Kertész met it halfway allowing that "the Holocaust is a universal experience," while life under a communist regime was a particular experience, especially in its Hungarian variety.
       They couldn't even find someone to discuss his works with him who had read them -- more than the ones available in English, that is ? So far Americans have not been given an opportunity to see him as anything "more as a Holocaust survivor" -- it's the Holocaust-works that are the only ones available (and the ones which are being re-published, in new translations this fall) -- while the rest of his rich output has been essentially ignored and gone unmentioned. He's a far more complex and broader writer than the Holocaust-works could suggest. But "Holocaust survivor" is still a label that sells (whereas Hungary-under-communism-survivor: not so much) -- the reason why Random House opted to re-translate two already available works, rather than bring to market what else he's done.
       Somebody save the guy before it's too late: don't let him be pigeon-holed as just a Holocaust-survivor-author. What's remarkable about Kertész is his literary presentation of experience (not just WW II experience). He is an artist, and he is -- no question (really) -- a great writer. But the magic is in the writing, not in the subject-matter. (Obviously, his specific experiences -- both under the Nazis and the Communists) made him into the artist he is, but he has built on on experience more capably (and appealingly) than most.)

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       Booker sales

       In The Guardian John Ezard reports on Booker prize's long-term fame lottery. They commissioned a survey (based on Nielsen BookScan's tally of electronic till receipts, which they consider "virtually definitive.") of the sales of all previous (Man)Booker winners over "the 12 months ending last Saturday."
       Obviously, the most recent winners tends to do best, and the oldest not so much, but there are quite a few surprises. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient sold a pathetic 246 copies (that's less than one copy a day in all of Britain !). But 1978 winner, Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea sold an impressive 7,600 copies.
       Most interesting are the complete duds -- including Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (13 copies). Also fun: compare actual sales with the sales rank of the book:
  • Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey - 13 copies vs. Sales Rank: 90,023 (and a phenomenal 109 Used & New copies for sale)
  • Heat and Dust, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - 13 copies vs. Sales Rank: 40,094
  • Staying On, Paul Scott - 17 copies vs. Sales Rank: 47,267
  • Holiday, Stanley Middleton - 28 copies vs. Sales Rank: 111,991
       Proof again that Amazon sales ranks with more than four digits are essentially negligible.

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       Okey Ndibe on Achebe

       We mentioned that Chinua Achebe has turned down the Nigerian Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic, and there's been a lot of press about that. See also Okey Ndibe's opinion piece at Nigeria World.
       He believes:
For many Nigerians, it is no longer open to debate whether this president is seized of a ghastly agenda. Mr. Obasanjo's record, the litany of his crassness, the evidence of his malicious misgovernance, more than suffice to convict him of the charge of dreaming and doing evil in Nigeria. Achebe, a writer, intellectual and citizen with a track record of investment in the moral resuscitation of his nation, must have felt compelled to spell out his feelings.
       And argues:
Not only has this presidency been woeful, it has patented the art of emptying all sacred and noble ideas of meaning. It has moved with reprehensible sagacity to devalue human life and violate language. It has given so-called national honours to men and women who exemplify the despoliation of Nigeria. To compound this treachery, it has included a smattering a worthy names on its honour list. That cynical strategy is calculated to lend legitimacy to a patently corrupt and worthless process. By flavouring its baneful list with a few tested names, it has enrobed knaves with undeserved prestige and robbed the eminent of hard-earned moral capital.
       Not a purely Nigerian problem, but it's good to see that Achebe's actions have occasioned such discussion.

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