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The Literary Saloon Archive

11 - 20 September 2005

11 September: Houellebecq success | Justin Cartwright profile | Library issues in India | Goncourt and Renaudot longlists
12 September: Piles of Rushdie | Nigeria Prize for Literature shortlist | Literary pontificating | Sony Labou Tansi reviews
13 September: Proof, the film | Lolita's 50th | Oe Kenzaburo in Berlin | Kadare in Berlin | Banville interview | Sutherland on reviewing | Pamuk defense | Bókmenntahátíđin í Reykjavík
14 September: Waiting for the Barbarians, the opera | Barnes gets the Staatspreis | Fall Fiction Week at Slate | September Words without Borders
15 September: Hard hits for Slow Man | Poetry reviews | TNR take on Incendiary | The Church of Solitude review
16 September: LBC fall choice | New batch of RCF reviews | Rentrée | Zadie and Pamuk | Foreign language chunks
17 September: Kadare interview | Man Booker betting | Houellebecq's A to Z | McInerney defends fiction | Words Without Borders blog | German Book Prize shortlist | Akutagawa reviews
18 September: Scott Pack profile | Waterstone's and Ottakar's
19 September: Iain Sinclair interview | Fuentes praises the novel | The Days of Abandonment review -- and Europa editions
20 September: New Bookforum | Bangkok as book capital ? | Scots go to college ? | The Two Lolitas review


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20 September 2005 - Tuesday

New Bookforum | Bangkok as book capital ?
Scots go to college ? | The Two Lolitas review

       New Bookforum

       As Rake's Progress noted, the new, October/November issue of Bookforum is available online. Well, that tiny smattering that they make available, anyway.
       We haven't received our print edition yet, but are looking forward to Mark M. Anderson's review of Peter Weiss' thus far pretty much entirely ignored The Aesthetics of Resistance.
       Of the ridiculously limited amount that is freely accessible, Ronald Aronson's title piece on the New Atheism is of some interest -- covering also some titles we have under review, such as Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism and Sam Harris' The End of Faith.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Bangkok as book capital ?

       In The Nation (Bangkok) Lisnaree Vichitsorasatra reports that Bangkok seeks to be book capital -- looking ahead all the way to 2008. This is not the book title Edinburgh claimed this year (whatever the hell that was), but rather UNESCO's World Book Capital city variation, held this year by Montreal, and already awarded for 2006 (Turin, beating out its only competition, Tehran) and 2007 (Bogota).
       It's unclear whether there are any criteria for being named World Book Capital (Bogota ?!?), so they certainly seem to stand a chance, and anything to raise the profile of Thai, or even just South-East Asian literature, is certainly something we approve of. Though, come to think of it, Montreal's turn has done pretty much zilch to raise the profile of Canadian literature .....

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Scots go to college ?

       In The Herald Brian Donnelly reports that there's a Drive to teach Scots books in US schools.
       Yes:
Publishers and academics are to promote the teaching of Scots classics such as Blind Harry's Wallace and modern greats including Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song in US schools and universities.
       Yeah, that sounds promising.
       The Scottish Writing Exhibition 2005 ... well, we wish them good luck with it.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       The Two Lolitas review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Michael Maar's The Two Lolitas, the book version of the pieces published in various international newspapers (including the TLS) that reveal a possible pre-Lolita Lolita that might have influenced Nabokov.
       The book is extraordinary in one sense: while it is common for foreign translations of English-language texts to be available simultaneously or shortly after US/UK publication of the originals, English translations of foreign works, even by very popular authors, usually only follow years afterwards. Not so in this case: German publication barely beat out the appearance of the English translation. Good job !

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



19 September 2005 - Monday

Iain Sinclair interview | Fuentes praises the novel
The Days of Abandonment review -- and Europa editions

       Iain Sinclair interview

       Iain Sinclair has a new book coming out, Edge of the Orison (see the Hamish Hamilton publicity page or get your own copy from Amazon.co.uk) and so he's getting some publicity: first up, an interview/profile in the Independent on Sunday by Murrough O'Brien.
       (We really have to remember to request a review copy: we are, of course, very eager to cover it.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Fuentes praises the novel

       Two weeks back Carlos Fuentes gave the opening address at the International Literature Festival Berlin, speaking "In Praise of the Novel" (with a heavy Don Quixote-emphasis).
       It's available -- in English, which is the language he delivered it in -- at the official site, in pdf-format or, much more accessibly, at signandsight.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       The Days of Abandonment review -- and Europa editions

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment.
       A bestseller in Italy, and widely translated, it hasn't received much attention yet in the US -- but the one big review it did score was a pretty glowing one from Janet Maslin in The New York Times (25 August). We're not sure how she stumbled across it; one of the first offerings from new publisher Europa editions (an English-language outlet for Italian publisher edizioni e/o), it hasn't attracted much attention. But she's willing, on the basis of just this one title, to offer her endorsement:
Europa Editions, a new (and, on this evidence, excellent) source for European fiction for American readers.
       We're pretty enthusiastic, too, but we'd like a bit more evidence before we're willing to make such grand pronouncements. It is, however, an interesting experiment and idea. They have a fancy and nice website, and the initial list looks good (as does the much more extensive edizioni e/o catalogue).
       They seem to know what they are getting themselves into: see the page about them, which describes their ambitions and background, and notes:
When we began talking to people about the idea of opening up a publishing house in The U.S., the chorus of naysayers was quick to respond: What ? Books in translation in American ? You can’t do that ! It’ll never work. This, for better or for worse, has always proved to be our Siren song. We were hooked.
       We hope there's a business plan somewhere too, but we certainly hope they meet with success. Maybe it really will take foreign publishers trying to sell their wares to get literature in translation published in the US.

       (As to The Days of Abandonment: it's now also been made into a film, and we're curious how that turned out. A first person narrative, with much of the book taken up with her describing her loose grip on her life, it can't have been easy to translate onto the screen.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



18 September 2005 - Sunday

Scott Pack profile | Waterstone's and Ottakar's

       Scott Pack profile

       In The Observer Tim Adams profiles British bookselling behemoth (see also our next story) Waterstone's head buyer Scott Pack -- a man with lots of power and strong opinions.
       An amusing beginning to the piece:
A few weeks ago I had the unsettling experience of turning on the radio to hear broadcast to the nation a sentence that had long haunted my own thoughts. 'Who on earth,' said the voice, 'could care less what Tim Adams of The Observer thinks about anything ?'
       Pack's main contribution to the debate about book-selling has been his argument that reviews are, more or less, worthless (in the commercial sense), and he's at it here again:
In this world, he suggests, old-fashioned critics don't have much sway. 'I don't think newspapers exist in order to sell books for me, of course, but if a newspaper reviews a book that then sells only 20 copies in the following week, then it means they have reviewed something their readers have no interest in reading. I don't see the point of that.'
       Things are, of course, a bit more complicated; we look forward to the weblog (and other responses).
       More scarily, Adams also reports:
In Pack's view, the greatest service to readers of recent times is provided by Richard and Judy's Channel 4 book club.
       Greatest service to readers, or to (some) publishers and booksellers ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Waterstone's and Ottakar's

       Bookselling consolidation in the UK: as widely reported, Waterstone's (meaning parent company HMV) have made an offer for Ottakar's (which the latter is unlikely to turn down -- though regulators may still have their say).
       For decent overview-coverage of some of the issues and problems this acquisition raises, see A literary storm by James Hall in the Sunday Telegraph and Who will bring the high street to book ? by Frank Kane in The Observer.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



17 September 2005 - Saturday

Kadare interview | Man Booker betting | Houellebecq's A to Z | McInerney defends fiction
Words Without Borders blog | German Book Prize shortlist | Akutagawa reviews

       Kadare interview

       Ismail Kadare-fan Julian Evans offers a profile-interview of the recent Man Booker International Prize-winner, Living with ghosts, in The Guardian.
       He notes: "Kadare's cohabitation with the regime has excited critics in the wake of this year's International Booker" and gets into that a bit, but doesn't mention the double-translation issue (see our piece on Twice Removed-literature, as well as Kadare-translator David Bellos on The Englishing of Ismail Kadare).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Man Booker betting

       One-time Man Booker judge David Baddiel muses on the absurdities of wagering on the Man Booker Prize in 'When I was a Booker judge, I thought of getting someone to bet on my behalf' in The Times.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Houellebecq's A to Z

       The Guardian offers "an A-Z of culture by Michel Houellebecq", The joy of supermarkets, "an edited extract from an article, based on a conversation with Sylvain Bourmeau, that first appeared in Les Inrockuptibles".

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       McInerney defends fiction

       Naipaul (and others) argue the novel is dead, and now Jay McInerney argues for The uses of invention in The Guardian.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Words Without Borders blog

       We missed this last time we looked by the site, but translation eXchange noticed: Words Without Borders now also has a weblog.
       It's all a bit confusing, described as: "Literary Blogs from Around the World" though what it seems to be is a venue for a (few) bloggers, sort of from around the world, to be able to have their say. Not many entries yet, but fairly interesting, and with Dalkey Archive Press-man Chad Post, as well as Dutch expatriate Arnon Grunberg (see our review of, for example, Phantom Pain) contributors with a lot to offer. But they should get more people involved ! (And date the entries !)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       German Book Prize shortlist

       The shortlist for the German Book Prize has been announced (no fear ! as we've mentioned before: they do a good job with providing all information in English as well -- though we figure we're the only ones making you aware of this, and you're the only ones who will read this).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Akutagawa reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of four works by Akutagawa Ryunosuke:        Kappa is a stand-alone book -- though it comes heavily padded with a lengthy (but worthwhile) introduction --; the others are longer stories that are included (or not) in various collections. We opted to (briefly) discuss the pieces separately because there appear to be no definitive Akutagawa editions. (The edition we found them in is the defunct (and missed) Eridanos Library volume; they're also included in the possibly still in-print The Essential Akutagawa (which apparently also includes his most famous story, Rashomon).) But there's definitely a need for a comprehensive Akutagawa collection -- maybe not the entire output, but the significant bulk (which means: a lot more than has previously been made accessible in English).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



16 September 2005 - Friday

LBC fall choice | New batch of RCF reviews | Rentrée
Zadie and Pamuk | Foreign language chunks

       LBC fall choice

       As you've probably heard by now, the Litblog Co-op's Autumn 2005 Read This ! Selection was announced yesterday.
       (As an LBC-member -- voting this time around, but not nominating -- I can't complain about the outcome: it was not my top choice among the five nominated titles, but it was right up there, and again strikes me as a worthy title that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.)
       The schedule this time around also looks to be considerably busier than the first time we tried this, so check out the The Litblog Co-op site in the coming days to learn about the other titles that were nominated, as well as more about the chosen book.

(Posted by: M.A.Orthofer)    - permanent link -



       New batch of RCF reviews

       The book review section of the summer issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction is now up, and, as always, they've covered an interesting selection of titles (including five that we've already gotten to).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Rentrée

       They get the number of new books wrong (it's 663, not 633), but at least The Economist offers some English-language rentrée coverage in Bleak chic. (The rentrée is the French season when they throw all their new books on the market at the same time (and we complain about US and UK publishers ...). The numbers this year: 663 books, 442 originally written in French and 221 translations, 96 debuts (down from 121 last year).)
       They focus on a few titles (and aren't impressed by the big picture). Michel Houellebecq's La Possibilité d'une Ile (see our previous mention) tops the list, of course, -- and they like it:
Mr Houellebecq does not disappoint. His deftly constructed novel is a bleak comment on contemporary society, at times funny, brutal and revolting, which pushes notions of hope and hopelessness to a dismal logical conclusion. If there are weaknesses, it is the familiarity of themes from his previous work
       Amélie Nothomb's Acide sulfurique (see our previous mention) doesn't fare as well: "another short though rather disappointing story that relies on a single, shocking idea".

       We haven't found any satisfactory comprehensive rentrée information site; pages along the likes of this one from the Nouvel Observateur are about as good as it gets.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Zadie and Pamuk

       In his A Week in Books-column Boyd Tonkin manages to bring together two bizarre recent author-related events: Zadie Smith's comments in New York magazine (well, the perceived-as-anti-English comments -- the anti-American and Man Booker-fawning ones seem to have gotten a free pass) and the ridiculous lawsuit an Istanbul public prosecutor is trying to bring against Orhan Pamuk for denigrating Turkish identity.
       (For Zadie-coverage, see our comments from last week, and then the comprehensive coverage at Return of the Reluctant, as well as comments at GalleyCat (who confirms: "she certainly did say those words in that order, whatever the context might have been").)
       Tonkin apparently doesn't think highly of New York:
So when Zadie Smith seems in a US interview to call England a "disgusting" place, nearly every deadline-chasing rentamouth assumes that she has done so -- rather than suspect that snide and sleazy New York magazine has stitched her up. Which it did.
       (Deadline chasing ? The story didn't break for days: at the beginning of last week everyone paid the piece exactly as much attention as all such author-profile-drivel deserves: none. Interestingly, he doesn't note that Ms. Smith surely is a big girl and should have known what she might be getting herself into. Why she -- or any author -- would subject themselves to this (or any) sort of interview will always be a mystery to us, but apparently the lure of free publicity trumps all.)
       Tonkin on the Pamuk case is more interesting, but he conflates the large into the small:
As plenty of eminent voices have already said, the case against Pamuk is an outrage and an absurdity. It should be dropped at once (.....) At the same time, it would be folly to join the anti-Turkish stampede that Pamuk's case seems to have triggered in western Europe. (...) It seems that the battle between genuine pluralism and policed debate runs right up to the cabinet table. Under-informed literati must not take Pamuk's case -- stupid and sickening as it is -- as conclusive proof.
       As far as we can tell, the anti-Turkish stampede -- which might more appropriately be called an anti-Turkey-in-the-EU stampede -- started long before, with the Pamuk case just a useful additional suggestion of Turkey's EU-unworthiness (never mind that it's just a local nut that's prosecuting Pamuk, much as local D.A.s in America occasionally bring very dubious cases.)
       Debate in Turkey seems to be opening up, but there's no question that there still are areas of concern, including minority (notably Kurdish) rights -- and that any country which criminalizes denigrating the homeland (much like any country that criminalizes the burning of a national symbol like the flag) has a serious self-esteem problem (as well as really strange priorities).

       (Updated - 18 September): For another hearty Pamuk-defense, see Robert McCrum insisting that Freedom of speech is non-negotiable.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Foreign language chunks

       In his Salon-column in The Moscow Times Victor Sonkin sees a resurgence of the old Russian habit of leaving chunks of foreign-language text untranslated in works of fiction (Tolstoy's French-filled War and Peace is a prime example).
       Sonkin writes;
Despite certain misgivings -- like the fact that this makes it more difficult to recommend the book to my grandmother, for instance -- I see this as a good sign. Russian literature is diversifying, and a new, better educated generation of readers is taking shape.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



15 September 2005 - Thursday

Hard hits for Slow Man | Poetry reviews
TNR take on Incendiary | The Church of Solitude review

       Hard hits for Slow Man

       The first wave of reviews, mainly from the UK, have passed, and now J.M.Coetzee's Slow Man is slowly being taken on by American reviewers (as it is due out in the US in a week or so). Yesterday it took a pummeling, as both Francine Prose (review in Slate) and Adam Kirsch (review in The New York Sun (warning ! link likely only briefly freely accessible !)) voiced their considerable displeasure. (There was, however, also more understanding coverage of the book at The Mumpsimus --- a piece that also looks at some of the review-reactions so far (including ours).)
       The key to how readers react appears to be found on page 79, the demarcation point in the novel: that's where a voice is heard over the entryphone:
"Elizabeth Costello here. May I speak with you ?"
       This is, of course, the Elizabeth Costello of Elizabeth Costello-fame, the central figure in Coetzee's previous 'novel'. Not everyone took to Liz the first time around, and she certainly hasn't won over Prose or Kirsch with her reappearance. As they (and practically all the critics) have pointed out, the novel doesn't so much take a sharp turn as it is completely transformed by her presence. The first 79 pages appear, on a first reading, a simple, realist fiction, the rest takes the fiction-concept as far as it can go (Elizabeth is an author, possibly the author of this very novel (if so, she has, however, lost her grip on it, as it appears to move beyond her control))
       Many of the critics were put off by this, arguing the book would have been much better if Coetzee had continued on his way. (We, on the other hand, loved her appearance and while we can't say it saved the book it certainly is what made it one of the best novels we've read this year (and easily the best novel written this year that we've come across).)
       Many critics seem to have come with certain expectations, or, once started on the book, enjoyed what they thought was a realist narrative for some eighty pages, only to be shocked to find the rug being pulled out from under them. Kirsch, for example, writes (and others have made similar comments):
Then, on page 79, something happens to make the reader's heart sink: Elizabeth Costello comes to pay Paul Rayment a visit.
       The consequences ? A good, promising book becomes a very bad book:
By introducing Elizabeth Costello into Slow Man, Mr. Coetzee substitutes dull metafictional questions for the interesting fictional questions he has been in the process of asking.
       That's the nub, of course: is Coetzee's metafictional play inferior to his realist approach ? We thought the metafictional approach was an appropriate additional layer on top of the fictional questions, and that it did raise the novel from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Most, however, seem not to have been as impressed -- though there seems to have been a limited willingness to actually explore what Coetzee was doing as well (dismissing it as metafictional or admitting to an emotional reaction -- Prose writes of "feelings that ranged from impatience to a dull rage to a sort of despairing boredom" while reading it -- appears to have been deemed an adequate critical response).
       Among the more interesting reactions to the introduction of Elizabeth Costello is Robert Macfarlane's (in his review in the Sunday Times):
From the moment of Costello’s arrival, the novel’s plausibility is abolished.
       The idea of worrying about "plausibility" in a work of fiction might seem almost ridiculous, but Macfarlane does have a point: a certain plausibility can be vital in holding a book together (and one of the reasons we, for example, so disliked Chris Cleave's recent Incendiary was because it struck us as so implausible (and the narrator's voice inauthentic) -- but Cleave was clearly striving to do something very different from what Coetzee is after). But part of the fun of fiction is in its use of the implausible: among the greatest American novels of the past decade is Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers -- which happens to employ a device very similar to Coetzee's Costello.
       Coetzee's transgression in Slow Man appears to have been that he offered a feint in the realist mode, before revealing what he was truly doing. (In addition, many critics seem to come back-breakingly laden with pre-conceptions of his work, based largely on his early output, and are reluctant to accept that he's wandered off in a different direction: to them, the beginning of Slow Man is a return to form (i.e. the style and approach of the early fiction), only to be ruined by that Costello-lady.)
       We enjoyed and were impressed by Slow Man (and we weren't the only ones), but the many negative reactions suggest that it's not exactly a book to unreservedly recommend. Indeed, it sounds like a hard sell, which is a shame, because to our minds it really does what it sets out to do very well.
       Also worth mentioning: Elizabeth Costello was a very strange 'novel' (though we enjoyed it as well), but Slow Man moves considerably beyond it. Elizabeth Costello was made up of interesting (or not) pieces; Slow Man was clearly conceived (and works) as a whole.

       (Updated - 18 September): Tim Adams also addresses the plausibility question in his review in The Observer today -- and sees it just like we did:
Her interventions into what, until then, has been a story of some compulsion might threaten, you imagine, to collapse any plausibilty and identification in Paul's predicaments. In fact, even as she reveals her manipulations, they prove what a consummate writer of fiction her creator, Coetzee, can be. Tim Adams, The Observer

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Poetry reviews

       Reviewing procedures are always of interest (at least to those who read (and write) reviews): the editorial in this month's issue of Poetry magazine addresses theirs -- offering an explanation, among other things, for why they were "publishing a lot of negative reviews".

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       TNR take on Incendiary

       As we've mentioned, we believe circumstances have led to Chris Cleave's Incendiary getting far more attention (specifically also serious review attention) than it warrants. Now even The New Republic weighs in, Lorraine Adams being given two and a half pages to discuss the book (issue of 19 September, review not (yet ?) freely accessible online).
       It's an interesting review, which is why we bring it up. For one, despite the fact that Adams clearly did not think very highly of the book, it does offer a hard-to-resist blurb:
The vast majority of the book is a weird cross between Monty Python and Irvine Welsh.
       Many readers wouldn't think that would be a very bad thing, and we figure it's about even money as to whether or not these words will appear on the paperback's back cover.
       One reason we like Adams review is because she is in agreement with us on a major point (that many of the other reviewers chose not to emphasise):
Cleave cannot let go of what he really wants to write about, which is not terrorism, but class.
       As she points out, this seriously undermines what he might have to say about terrorism:
The strange accomplishment of this urgent novel about the human consequences of jihadist terrorism is to make jihadist terrorism seem less urgent. (...) His talent for hammerheaded satire ends up making terrorism feel copied and pasted into a novel about class. Worse, set against the subject of terrorism, the amount of energy Cleave expends in indicting his sneering toffs feel rather like the repeated flattening of a feather with a mallet in an earthquake.
       Adams also emphasises how much of the success (or tolerance) of the novel rests on the narrator's voice:
It is only the narrator's voice that pulls the reader through this improbable and tiresomely knowing novel
       She gives Cleave more credit than we do -- it struck as far too polished to be convincing, while she seems a bit more reluctant to acknowledge the artifice of it -- but she does make some interesting points about the use of voice in contemporary fiction, including:
These days literary voice is usually considered best when it is idiosyncratic, even eccentric, and thus recognizable. Voice, in the novel, is now a variety of branding. (...) It functions in a novel the way melody sometimes does in pop music: when a tune is catchy, the rest of the song matters less. In fiction, a distinctive voice can ameliorate -- or disguise -- troubles in character and plot.
       Many reviewers seem to have been 'fooled' by the voice in the manner she describes; what surprises us is that they were taken by it in the first place: as we've said, it struck as almost completely unconvincing. The voice is striking, but almost absurd. (Or at least inappropriate: we've read many voices that one might expect to be far more absurd -- talking animals and the like -- but which nevertheless managed to convince; Cleave's barely ever does.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       The Church of Solitude review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Grazia Deledda's The Church of Solitude.
       It's of some interest, historical and literary, but also a fine example of the state of publishing foreign fiction in the US today. Deledda, you'll recall, was the 1926 Nobel laureate (you don't recall, do you ?). The Church of Solitude was published in 1936, the year she died of breast cancer. It deals with a woman with breast cancer.
       It was published in English translation in 2002, by SUNY Press, along with an informative afterword by translator E.Ann Matter. They even got a nice blurb from Susan Sontag ("Benighted, hot-blooded, moving, Grazia Deledda's unjustly forgotten novel (...) is a benchmark in the evolution of attitudes towards cancer and sexual passion."). Nevertheless, it got no major (or minor) review coverage; Library Journal seems to have been about the extent of it, with a few academic journals probably also writing it up. And it doesn't appear that the reading public took much notice. All in all: a fairly typical fate for far too much fiction in translation.

       (One obvious problem: the thin (176 page) paperback retails for an outrageous $21.95 -- a lot to ask the casual consumer to risk. (We obtained our copy from the local library which had withdrawn their copy from their collection (after at most three years !) and were willing to sell it off for a dollar (which is about our risk-threshold level).)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



14 September 2005 - Wednesday

Waiting for the Barbarians, the opera | Barnes gets the Staatspreis
Fall Fiction Week at Slate | September Words without Borders

       Waiting for the Barbarians, the opera

       A libretto by Christopher Hampton, based on a novel by J.M. Coetzee. Sounds promising. Oh, and: music by Philip Glass -- but the BBC report Philip Glass opera gets ovation.
       Waiting for the Barbarians, the opera, premiered in Erfurt a few days ago; see their publicity page as well as the informative page at the Philip Glass site.
       It will be coming to the US -- to the Austin Lyric Opera -- in 2007; see, for example, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin's Company to stage its first U.S. premiere in the Austin American-Statesman. She -- and others -- note that Glass sees (or is currently selling) it as "a criticism of the U.S.-led war in Iraq".
       For German reviews of the world premiere, see Peter Korfmacher's less enthusiastic Der Groove bleibt draußen in the Leipziger Volkszeitung and Ernst Scherzer's more enthusiastic Barbaren berauscht der Erfolg in the Wiener Zeitung

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -



       Barnes gets the Staatspreis

       They announced it ages ago, but Julian Barnes finally got to pick up the Österreichische Staatspreis für Europäische Literatur (the Austrian State Prize for European Literature) -- and the not to be sneezed at prize money of €22,000. (A state prize ? Limited to European literature ? Yeah, problematic -- but they've done a decent job with who they give it to.)
       FAZ have apparently printed his acceptance-speech, but it's not available online; we hope that some British tabloid like The Guardian reprints it (as they admirably did with Amos Oz's Goethe Prize speech a few weeks ago). (For now all that's on offer is Austrian Secretary of State (which isn't quite the same position as the US counterpart) Franz Morak's introductory remarks (with a paragraph of English; scroll down to the end).)
       The British press seem largely indifferent to this honour, and it was drowned out by Barnes making the Man Booker shortlist; for German reports see those here and here.

       Of somewhat greater interest, a pre-prize-ceremony interview in Falter, which included this exchange:
Wenn Sie eingeladen würden, eine Gruppe von, sagen wir, zehn europäischen Schriftstellern, egal ob tot oder lebendig, für eine Vorlesungstour auf einem anderen Kontinent zusammenzustellen, welche würden Sie aussuchen ?
Ich würde überhaupt keinem Schriftsteller raten, Vorträge zu halten, und ich bin mir nicht sicher, ob ich irgendjemand raten würde, den Vortrag eines Schriftstellers zu besuchen. Schriftsteller sollen schreiben, und Leser sollen lesen, und so etwas wie Biografie sollte es überhaupt nicht geben. Aber um Ihr Spiel einen Augenblick mitzuspielen: Ich würde Lord Byron nominieren, Turgenjew, Edith Wharton, Montaigne, Fontane, Cervantes, Flaubert, Dante, Jane Austen, Tschechow und Flaubert. Und natürlich würde Shakespeare im Tor stehen.

(If you were invited to put together a group of, say, ten European authors, living or dead, for a tour of readings on another continent, who would you choose ?
I would never recommend to any writer to give lectures, and I am not sure I could recommend that anybody attend a lecture given by a writer. Writers should write and readers should read and something like biography shouldn't exist at all. But to play your game for a moment: I would nominate Lord Byron, Turgenev, Edith Wharton, Montaigne, Fontane, Cervantes, Flaubert, Dante, Jane Austen, Chekhov and Flaubert. And of course Shakespeare would stand in goal.)
       (Barnes was apparently in football-fever (it was World Cup qualifying week), hence the eleventh (in this case actually twelfth -- Barnes got carried away and fielded an extra man) man between the posts.)
       But we can really get on board with the idea that: "Writers should write and readers should read and something like biography shouldn't exist at all."

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       Fall Fiction Week at Slate

       We're glad to see Fall Fiction Week at Slate ("You can find an updated list of articles on this page each day").
       Our one small problem:
Welcome to Slate's second annual Fall Fiction Week. For the next three days, we'll be publishing reviews of new novels, revisiting a few classics, and writing about how we read fiction now.
       Is the state of fiction so pathetic that they can only find material for three day ? And they dare call that a 'week' ? It's not even half a week, indeed, it's barely a long weekend .....
       The solution is not a different name ('Fall Fiction Week' is good) but actually devoting a whole week to fiction. We know Sam Tanenhaus can't handle a lot of fiction, but surely the brave people at Slate could give it a try .....

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       September Words without Borders

       The September issue of Words without Borders is up, featuring contemporary poetry in translation. As always, lots of neat stuff, including a Special Section: Poland Unplugged.

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13 September 2005 - Tuesday

Proof, the film | Lolita's 50th | Oe Kenzaburo in Berlin | Kadare in Berlin | Banville interview
Sutherland on reviewing | Pamuk defense | Bókmenntahátíđin í Reykjavík

       Proof, the film

       The film version of David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Proof, will hit the US screens on Friday; see the official Miramax publicity page.
       Among the early reviews is Anthony Lane's in The New Yorker, who notes:
The kind of narrative conceit that can grip and gratify onstage has a nasty habit, once transferred to film -- a more ductile and silvery medium, less tolerant of constructed argument -- of seeming merely pleased with itself. (That may be why Tom Stoppard has largely restricted himself to adapting other people’s work for the screen. Arcadia, an infinitely finer play than Proof, though skirting similar issues, is probably unfilmable.)
       The Stoppard-theory is an interesting one -- though he's had, at best, mixed results with his screenplays. And Arcadia may be near-unfilmable but certainly sounds tempting.

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       Lolita's 50th

       Discussions of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, 50 years after its first publication, continue: now Leland de la Durantaye offers a look at The Original of Lolita in The Village Voice.
       In an apparent desperate effort to fill some space The Village Voice also offers a small Word Salad-piece by Ed Park, using Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran as a starting point -- a piece that would look feeble on a weblog, much less in a print publication. (What the hell were they thinking publishing this ?)

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       Oe Kenzaburo in Berlin

       1994 Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburo is at the international literature festival berlin and he's promoting his new book, out in German translation as Tagame Berlin-Tokyo (get your copy from Amazon.de; no signs of any English translation yet), the first volume of a trilogy. (It's apparently based in part on the suicide of film-director (Tampopo ) -- and Oe-relative -- Itami Juzo.)
       In the Berliner Zeitung Sabine Vogel interviews him, focussing on Japanese politics (Oe is presumably less than thrilled with yesterday's election results). Nice to see an author emphasise -- as the article-title has it -- that: "For a sense of morality one doesn't need religion" (amen to that).
       Early German reviews can be found in the Berliner Zeitung, DeutschlandRadio, FAZ, and Der Tagesspiegel

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       Kadare in Berlin

       Recent Man Booker International Prize-winner Ismail Kadare is also in Berlin, and busy Sabine Vogel reports from his reading in the Berliner Zeitung: apparently it wasn't exactly an upbeat affair.
       Meanwhile, Anne Kraume wonders about Der Schriftsteller als Orakel, and the expectation of writers as political commentators -- apparently fatigue is setting in in that area.

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       Banville interview

       The Elegant Variation finally offers up part one of their interview with John Banville -- well worth the wait ! And there's more to come: tune in the next few Mondays for the next installments !

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       Sutherland on reviewing

       Grumpy Old Bookman points us to John Sutherland's look at the state of (mainly British newspaper and magazine) book reviewing in In critical condition in the Financial Times (link likely only very short-lived). Nothing really new, but a useful reminder of the current state of things (though maybe some thoughts on the role of reviewing on the Internet might have been of interest ...).

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       Pamuk defense

       Very nice to see: The Times reports Booker novelists denounce Turkey for charging author (link first seen at Bookslut), voicing support for Orhan Pamuk and the ridiculous charges against him (see our previous mention).

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       Bókmenntahátíđin í Reykjavík

       Book festivals and fairs everywhere, including Reykjavík, where the Reykjavík International Literature Festival 2005 boasts a pretty decent cast of authors. See also the report at Iceland Review.

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12 September 2005 - Monday

Piles of Rushdie | Nigeria Prize for Literature shortlist
Literary pontificating | Sony Labou Tansi reviews

       Piles of Rushdie

       With a new book out, Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie is going all-out with the publicity-touring and interview-giving. (We're not really sure why an author with his name-recognition needs to do this, but at least it keeps him busy.)
       His editorials (where he's actually not actively (or at least too obviously) flogging his book) are the least problematic. Today he has another guest-contribution in The Times, Lesson One for the modern Muslim: remember, this is not the 8th century, following up on his suggestion that Muslims get their act (or at least get a reform movement) together:
Several writers challenged me to take the next step and hypothesise the content of such a reform movement. The nine thoughts that follow form an initial response to that challenge, and focus primarily on Britain.
       Considerably tougher to take is the day at the ballpark with Keith Gessen, 7 2/3 Innings With Salman, a lengthy profile in New York. Gessen -- who gets some nice puff-coverage of his own in A.O.Scott's piece about n + 1 (and The Believer) in yesterday's The New York Times Magazine (and who translated Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl) -- tries his best, but it's fairly hopeless from the beginning:
The trip to Yankee Stadium was his publicist’s idea. "Dear Keith," she had written:

I had a few ideas about “hanging out” with Rushdie:
1--a walk through central park and coffee?
2--museum trip to the Met or MoMA?
3--a baseball game?
       Matters are not helped by the fact that: "at Yankee Stadium we were to discuss the new novel rather than the event that made Rushdie so well-known to begin with, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 death sentence on him for writing The Satanic Verses" -- something that might not have posed such a hurdle if Gessen had actually finished the new book (at least he's honest, admitting he hadn't). But at least he gets to it eventually -- and he does accurately note: "The book’s American material is much weaker."
       At least the Gessen-profile is fairly extensive, covering most of the Rushdie-bases (though with considerably too much baseball).
       A more concise approach is found at The Pittsbrugh Tribune-Review in which Regis Behe offers an intro-interview-review, all in one. Meanwhile in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Bob Hoover finds Novelist's return here speaks volumes about change. (Rushdie wil be appearing in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, hence the local coverage.)
       Unfortunately, these interviews were conducted before Shalimar the Clown fell embarrassingly (but deservedly) short of the Man Booker shortlist, so there's nothing about his disappointment (or his brushing it off with a shrug, or his rage, or whatever he might have felt).

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       Nigeria Prize for Literature shortlist

       The shortlist for the Nigeria Prize for Literature has been announced.
       For extensive reports, see Chux Ohai's Who wins Nigeria Literature Prize in October ? in the Daily Independent and Anxiety by Henry Akubuiro in the Daily Sun.
       As Akubuiro writes, nicely dramatically:
The stakes are high. The die is cast. All roads lead to the Muson Centre, Lagos, October 8, for the grand finale. Is it going to be Gabriel Okara, or Ezenwa Ohaeto, or Promise Okekwe -- or, are the roads merely leading to Damascus ? The answer, surely, lies in the womb of time.

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       Literary pontificating

       Manorama Online reports that Literary figures making false forays into performing arts.
       The problem of authors using their fame to comment on every subject under the sun is a familiar one, but this is a pretty specific complaint:
Performing arts are facing an "unhealthy" trend in Kerala as literary personalities in general tend to pontificate on anything related to culture and often "mislead" people at large on certain matters, according to a leading Kathakali artiste.
       And:
"Nevertheless, people just get carried away by opinions aired by litterateurs. The media celebrate them. Little knowing that fields like Kathakali or Koodiyattam necessitate specialisation and deep focus for one to honestly speak over the finer aspects,"

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       Sony Labou Tansi reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of three Sony Labou Tansi titles:
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11 September 2005 - Sunday

Houellebecq success | Justin Cartwright profile
Library issues in India | Goncourt and Renaudot longlists

       Houellebecq success

       We mentioned (as have many others) that Michel Houellebecq's new novel, La possibilité d'une île, has caused quite a stir in France. The publicity and even the bad reviews (mixed in with a few good ones) haven't hurt: as Le Monde reports, after only a week out the print-run has been upped to a staggering 310,000. (Note also that Amélie Nothomb's much-maligned Acide sulfurique (see our previous mention; get your copy at Amazon.fr) has also exceeded all expectations, its print-run now at 230,000 -- making it one of her most successful ever.)
       Alan Riding offers an introduction to Houellebecq and his book in yesterday's issue of The New York Times; the article is also (more readily) accessible as He's back: Bad boy of French literature at the International Herald Tribune-site. Riding also notes that the book will be available in the US late next spring, from Knopf (we had previously had our doubts about -- and couldn't find a trace of -- any prospective American edition): pre-order The Possibility of an Island at Amazon.com.
       Meanwhile, note also that Houellebecq's novel has made the first cut (the longlists) of the two most prestigious French literary prizes, the prix Goncourt and the prix Renaudot (see our mention below).

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       Justin Cartwright profile

       Two weeks ago we mentioned that Justin Cartwright (somewhat controversially) took the (South African) Sunday Times Fiction Award for his novel, The Promise of Happiness. A reader now points us to a Sunday Times-encounter with Cartwright, Chris Barron's Full of promises.
       The author comes across as fairly hapless:
Right now he is in a spot of bother because he has agreed to be interviewed for television. In Afrikaans. (...) I’m impressed that he remembers enough Afrikaans to sustain an interview. He doesn’t, he says quietly. Unfortunately, he only discovered this during a (short) interview on Afrikaans radio earlier in the day.
       But how can you not root for this guy:
He is asked to read a passage and carefully chooses one with the word "cunt" in it, presumably to dispel any notion that his work is impenetrable.
       And we hadn't realised how successful the prize-winning novel was in the UK -- though the explanation for that is an obvious one:
More important than either award from a sales point of view was reaching the short list for the Richard & Judy’s Best Read award, the British equivalent of a recommendation by Oprah Winfrey.

"A slightly ludicrous way of selling books", feels Cartwright. But it works. The Promise of Happiness has sold more than 200 000 copies and is yet to launch in the US.
       The sales figures explain why it's appearing in the US at all (Cartwright hasn't exactly done well stateside), but if he sold one-tenth as many copies in the States it would be considered an incredible surprise. (But we do eagerly await it -- we've enjoyed most of his stuff.)
       And, again, how can you not like an author who wonders (or at least says is willing to say it on the record):
"The mystery is why you would believe an afternoon TV host when you don’t believe book critics."

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       Library issues in India

       At least in India library issues get some decent press coverage: see now Abhijeet Mukherjee's Serious readers ask where are the books. He reports on a library that seems to be doing well:
But old-timers are far from happy. The library, they feel, has lost its character. Earlier, they recalled, serious readers would frequent it and the library catered to their needs by keeping newspapers, periodicals and books on various subjects. Newspapers and periodicals are still there, they say, but the focus has shifted to textbooks, guide books and books and periodicals on competitive examinations and joint entrance tests. Most of the members now, they lament, happen to be students though Ranchi University has a central library on the Morabadi campus.
       And while it's understandable that there's an effort to cater to students and their needs (though one would hope the university library could meet them ...) it comes at a cost:
But the new books seem to deal more with areas like "IIT Mathematics" or medical entrance tests while neither Amartya Sen’s Argumentative Indian nor the body of works by contemporary writers like Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy were to be found here. The collection on fiction is poor and even the selection of Hindi books leaves much to be desired. The library does not have a children’s section, it does not have contemporary Hindi and English fiction and non-fiction.

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       Goncourt and Renaudot longlists

       The longlists for the most prestigious French literary prizes are out, and among the big winners is Michel Houellebecq whose La possibilité d'une île made both.
       The Goncourt-longlist of thirteen titles also features Yasmina Khadra's L'attentat and Jean-Philippe Toussaint's Fuir (two authors we have other books by under review). See also the report in Le Nouvel Observateur.
       The Renaudot-longlist also features Lydie Salvayre's La méthode Mila (another author we have other books by under review).

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