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The Literary Saloon Archive

1 - 10 October 2008

1 October: Nobel Prize for Literature news: The odds - Uncompetitive insular US ? | Monteiro Lobato's O Presidente Negro | German critics' October favourites
2 October: Nobel notes: Engdahl fallout - More odds - Office pools | Rushdie interview | More on the Translation Prizes | October issues
3 October: Get your bets in - Nobel Prize to be announced 9 October | Philip Glass opera of Peter Stephan Jungk book | Charlotte Mandell interview | Newman Prize for Chinese Literature | Public Enemies buzz | Almost Blue review
4 October: On American isolation and insularity | Jean Echenoz's Courir | Beyond the Hoax review
5 October: Prince Claus Award to Indira Goswami | NLNG preview | October Literary Review at The Hindu | Suhayl Saadi in D.C.
6 October: Nobel Prize speculation | Chinese fiction in translation | APA's Book Issue | Toussaint reviews
7 October: Tokarczuk takes Nike | If not the US, at least Sardinia ... | Margaret Drabble expected to dumb-down ? | More poetic insults of Islam ? | First reactions to The Jewel of Medina
8 October: French prizes, second round | Paavo Haavikko (1931-2008) | Alaa Al Aswany Q & A | On Márai's Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948
9 October: Quotes from the reviews of Le Clézio's books | And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio | Seamus Heaney Q & A | More on Machado de Assis | Chad Post profile | October Words without Borders | Three French Maries | Pythagorean Crimes review
10 October: Reactions to the Nobel Prize: Our impressions - Le Clézio's - Clezi-who ? - An anti-American choice ? - US/UK reactions - Foreign reactions | Sutherland on the (Man) Booker | Turkish overview

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10 October 2008 - Friday

Reactions to the Nobel Prize: Our impressions - Le Clézio's - Clezi-who ?
An anti-American choice ? - US/UK reactions - Foreign reactions
Sutherland on the (Man) Booker | Turkish overview

       Reactions to the Nobel Prize: Our impressions

       As we've mentioned, the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to French author J.M.G. Le Clézio. Though there were apparently a lot of rumours that he was the favoured candidate this year (and he's long been in the running) and the last Ladbrokes-odds had him at a decent 14/1, we were surprised by the choice. ([Updated:] See now however reports that Leak in Nobel deliberations suspected after bettors pick Le Clézio, as the odds plummeted from 15/1 to 2/1 and betting was suspended.)
       He does have several things going for him, literarily speaking, including that he's a two-for-one author -- a truly radical experimentalist in the 1960s and 1970s, he turned his back on that and became a far more conventional author in the past few years -- though even the critics put off by his early games grant he's always had a way with words (see also our collection of review-quotes). He's always been environmentally conscious, and in recent decades he's embraced true multiculturalism, fascinated by native culture in the US (where he has spent considerable time -- not that the American literary world took much notice), Africa, and elsewhere. He's about as anti-establishment -- but also (or even: especially) the (French) literary establishment -- as it gets, which probably was worth lots of bonus points with the Swedish Academy, too. Indeed, like quite a few recent Nobel choices -- Jelinek, Saramago, Pinter, Fo -- he's an outlier, even as his radicalism might seem less ... offensive to those who are offended by the more overtly political posturing of some of those earlier laureates (at least that's what the Swedish Academy may have hoped).
       We're not thrilled by the choice, but we can go along with it -- no howls of protest here. Too bad, however, that so few of his works are readily available in English (and, indeed, that so few (relatively -- he's written a lot) have been translated).

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Reactions to the Nobel Prize: Le Clézio's

       In French writer receives Nobel for literature (here at the IHT) Sarah Lyall writes about the Nobel laureate's reaction to the news and prize:
He said he had received the telephone call telling him about the prize while he was reading Dictatorship of Sorrow, by the Swedish writer Stig Dagerman.

"I am very happy, and I am also very moved because I wasn't expecting this at all," he said. "Many other names were mentioned, names of people for whom I have a lot of esteem. I was in good company. Luck, or destiny, or maybe other reasons, other motives, had it so that I got it. But it could have been someone else."
       (The Dagerman -- a collection of essays -- does not appear to be available in English in this form. There's a surprise .....)
       Le Monde also quotes him about how he heard (or rather missed the call):
"Je suis ému et heureux. Je ne m'y attendais pas. Quand le téléphone a sonné, j'étais en train de lire La Dictature du chagrin, de Stig Dagerman."
       Meanwhile, at Le Figaro Astrid Eliard and Thierry Clermont write about Un apràs-midi particulier chez Gallimard, his happy publishers.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Reactions to the Nobel Prize: Clezi-who ?

       It was disappointing yesterday to find so many (mainly English-language) reactions, in both newspapers and at weblogs, that wondered as, for example, Adam McDowell does in the National Post: "Jean-Marie who ?": Nomadic novelist wins Nobel Prize for literature.
       At Publishers Weekly Michael Coffey even begins a story on the prize by claiming:
When the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced this morning, even the most literate of Americans must have said, qui ?
       Looking at the admissions on many, many literary weblogs he may well be right.
       So at this point we remind you of Horace Engdahl's oh so maligned comments, that:
"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."
       The strongest charges against Engdahl came from Adam Kirsch in Nobel Gas, but this collective reaction of general bafflement in the US (another of those obscure choices by those Swedes ...) underscores Engdahl's point rather emphatically.
       Here's a guy whose first novel was reviewed in Time, for god's sake (even if he is now published in the US, if at all, by small and university presses, in limited print-runs -- but at least the occasional work continues to appear in translation). For all of Kirsch's support for Philip Roth as an international literary figure, Le Clézio may well be the closest thing to Roth the French have: as has been noted, he's very popular in France, and while not part of the literary establishment is certainly a leading literary figure there. He's also very internationally oriented -- yet how much does he figure in the 'big dialogue of literature' in the US ? For twenty years now the few books that have been published in the US have rarely rated more than a Publishers Weekly mention, and hardly been reviewed elsewhere.
       Sorry, but the American reactions suggest that the American literary scene is almost entirely inward looking. If so many, especially those who are constantly discussing and dealing with literature (as, for example, so many literary webloggers are), are unfamiliar with an author of Le Clézio's stature, what hope is there of any international dialogue ? We're not talking about some obscure poet from some obscure nation, we're talking about an author who has been publishing for over three decades (and began with a pretty big splash, i.e. was immediately noticed), has had a dozen books translated into English, and writes in the language from which the most fiction is translated into English, year in and year out. If an author like him turns out to be considered an unknown, what hope is there for the less prominent authors from less prominent cultures ?
       (Note also that -- at least in the US; the UK is another story ... -- this isn't a failure of the publishers or translation, at least not to the extent that that excuse would fly: some Le Clézio has always been in print for these three decades now, and half a dozen books are now. No, it's the public -- and those who want to engage in the 'dialogue of literature' -- who haven't (or couldn't be) bothered.)
       It's no surprise or shame that many in the US haven't read Le Clézio -- there's only so much one can read, after all, and he isn't that easy to come by (or, in the early works, to deal with) -- but at least his name should have been familiar. Just as Philip Roth's is among French (and Swedish Academy) readers .....
       ([Updated:] See now also David L. Ulin's Le Clezio -- who's he? in The Los Angeles Times, where he admits
I've never read his books. In fact, until Thursday morning, I'd never heard of him -- and I'm not alone. Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which administers the National Book Awards, said the same thing, as did David Kipen, literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts.
       But he also argues -- not quite clearly to us --: "unfamiliarity cuts both ways".)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Reactions to the Nobel Prize: An anti-American choice ?

       Disappointingly, very many of the early reactions to Le Clézio receiving the Nobel Prize have examined it in light of how people have perceived Horace Engdahl's supposedly America-denigrating comments in the run-up to the announcement.
       The take, now, varies: TLS-man Peter Stothard (writing at something called 'The Daily Beast' ([updated:] and now at his own weblog)) suggests that If He Had to be French ...:
The actual choice -- of the 68-year old French novelist, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio -- is merely a pinch of salt in the American wound.

Le Clézio -- known to his admirers as JMG -- is not a fully paid member of the Washington-hating Paris intelligentsia.
       Meanwhile, at The Guardian's book-blog John Sutherland wonders: 'Have the judges of the Nobel prize for literature struck a blow against Coca-colonisation ?' in Will Le Clézio's Nobel prize cut America down to size ?, maintaining:
The larger question raised by this year's award one can confidently have an opinion about. Has America got too big for its cultural boots ? So big, in fact, that it's positively dangerous. Our screens, large and small, have been Americanised. Our popular music. Our bestseller lists increasingly feature American, not home-grown blockbusters. Even the credit crunch, which is shaking up our lives, comes to us courtesy of Wall Street, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.
       In the FAZ Jürg Altwegg sees the selection as a Doppelschlag gegen Amerika ('One-two punch against America' ), while in The Guardian Mark Lawson sees it as A formal rejection, as: 'Nobel judges like their books experimental -- to the cost of the classic American novelists'.
       In the Le Monde blog Americana (hey, folks, a major French newspaper has a blog called Americana ...) they consider Le Clézio, le Nobel et la littérature américaine, while at the KR Blog Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky does see evidence of American Ignorance here.
       Meanwhile at The Media Mob at The New York Observer Leon Neyfakh's mention of who won the prize is headlined: Take That, America ! Nobel Prize for Literature Goes to French Novelist J.M.G. Le Clézio, and he writes:
The Times notes also that 12 of Mr. Le Clézio's books have been translated into English, but a quick look at Amazon suggests that none of them are very easily available here. Will American publishers rush to buy the rights to these books now, or will they ignore the whole thing in protest ?
       In protest ? Surely not. They'll consider the dollar amounts -- the premium they'd have to pay, now that the guy has won this recognised prize, and the sales-possibilities. And as Chad Post mentioned in his exclusive interview at Galleycat:
"I just talked to an editor at a big house who doesn't think any of the commercial houses will go after him. Even with the Nobel, there are too many books, many of which still wouldn't sell well enough to justify this."
       But there are a lot of books still left, and a few do have some commercial possibilities. We just can't see anyone swooping in to buy the rights to the whole catalogue.
       ([Updated:] While at Bloomberg Catherine Hickley reports that Nobel Winner's Publisher `Not Panicking' in E-mail, Phone Flood, in an AP report Hillel Italie thinks:
The prize will almost surely raise sales for Le Clezio in English, but the Nobel bump is unlikely to last. Winners that sell best are those who write in English
       Meanwhile, at Brainstorm Eric Banks reports from the university presses that have some Le Clézio titles in print, in Chicago and Nebraska Prize Their Nobel-Winning Clezio.)

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Reactions to the Nobel Prize: US/UK reactions

       Fortunately, there are some sensible author-overviews and reactions on offer too.
       In the English-language press you can find:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Reactions to the Nobel Prize: Foreign reactions

       A number of foreign reactions are also of interest:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Sutherland on the (Man) Booker

       A long piece in the New Statesman as the next prize countdown begins, for the Man Booker, and John Sutherland looks at the history of the award, in The Booker's Big Bang.

       Outrageously, he still has not addressed his about-face ("I won't. So there.") on his promise to: "curry my proof copy and eat it" if Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence did not get this year's award (as it now can't; see our previous mention). Is the London literary establishment really going to let him get away with this ?

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Turkish overview

       Boyd Tonkin visits Orhan Pamuk and writes about some of the Turkish literary scene in his 'The Week In Books'-column in The Independent, in Their name is read -- Turkey in full colour.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

9 October 2008 - Thursday

Quotes from the reviews of Le Clézio's books
And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio
Seamus Heaney Q & A | More on Machado de Assis
Chad Post profile | October Words without Borders
Three French Maries | Pythagorean Crimes review

       Quotes from the reviews of Le Clézio's books

       To try to help you get a better idea of what kind of a writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (this year's Nobel laureate; see our continuing coverage below) is, we've rounded up quotes from the (English) reviews of a few of his books. Far from comprehensive -- he was widely reviewed in the 1960s and 70s -- but it's worth noting that the recently translated texts have hardly gotten any review-coverage in US or UK newspapers and non-trade magazines.
       [The New York Times has now set up their Le Clézio-page, which includes links to several reviews (albeit only in the dreaded pdf format), and the TLS also has put up a brief page with links to reviews and articles; quotes have been pulled from them and now added below.]
       The reviews are presented in the chronological order of book-publication; English title where applicable (even when the review is of the French version); links where available.

       The Interrogation:
The novel has little rational development, but reads like a very intelligent collection of random ideas and even styles. There are some fetching typographical innovations, including words crossed out and what purports to be a page of a newspaper bound into the text at one point. It is extremely ambitious and deliberately naive by turns. (John Sturrock, TLS (9/1/1964))

The Interrogation still does not add up to a book; it is more like a dazzling ray of samples of the books he might one day write. (John Sturrock, TLS (15/10/1964))

Here is a very good although uneven first novel, written by a Frenchman (now 24) and well translated into British English. (...) Like his hero, he is full of promise, but he lacks the discipline and will that might have forged a style and purpose. he is still young, however, and anything can happen. (Leon S. Roudiez The New York Times Book Review (18/10/1964))

It has intense visual strength and might easily be transcribed into a New Wave movie by some current master of the jolting, hand-held camera. Yet it lacks human warmth, and ends as another pale variation of the modish French anti-novel -- truly a tale of tedium. (Time (23/10/1964))
Fever is obviously not a book to be read straight off, because it is repetitive. (...) What is ultimately disappointing about M. Le Clézio is his self-indulgence. (John Sturrock, TLS (21/4/1966))

In all of the stories, the author's verbal felicity is amazing. Even if weraied by the reptition, we come away awed by his skill in manipulating language and dazzled by his ability to create with words vividly impressionistic paintings. His greatest achievements are rhetorical. He deserves to be read for this reason, if for no other. (Page Stegner, The New York Times Book Review (31/7/1966))
       The Flood:
Le Déluge is quite a muscular piece of Pop-Mysticism. (...) What he writes here is easy to admire but hard to understand, since the stable objects of common reference are few. But there is no doubt what the message is: Down with eyesight. (...) What is recommended is a return to the blind reign of the mneral, before the vegetable leap into consciousness which destroyed the wholeness of things. Blindness then is a step on the road to reconciliation with matter. (TLS (8/9/1966))

(A) strong, if misdirected, talent. M. le Clézio straightjackets himself in theories. These hamper the free flow of his lyricism and often squander the genuine verbal felicities he has at his command. (David F. Williams, TLS (21/12/1967))

Though The Flood exhibits considerable talent for metaphor, it is difficult to locate a passage that doesn't suffer, in this way, from encountering too little resistance. (...) The arc of a man's passion, exactly that, is what we miss in The Flood. (...) Feats of creation, feats of annihilation ought to be harder than he makes them look. (Hugh Kenner, The New York Times Book Review (28/1/1968) )
       Terra Amata:
Terra amata is another heady collection of M. le Clézio's cosmic cuts able to pass without hesitation from the ant-sized to the astronomical. (...) (H)e seems more obviously talented when he is being young and terrestrial than when he is being prophetic and ubiquitous. (TLS (9/11/1967))

These adolescent outpourings sound like cries of woe between bites of eclair. There is nothing in the novel to indicate that Chancelade is worth listening to. He has done nothing, suffered nothing, experienced nothing to make him worth our regard. (Thomas Lask, The New York Times Book Review (3/4/1969) )
       The Book of Flights:
In Le Livre des Fruites J.M.G. Le Clézio pursues his mock-heroic to make writing coextensive with reality. There is no time to lose if, like him, you hold to the view that everything which exists is a sign, with an equal claim to be included in a "text"; and since M. Le Clézio is not asking for help it can only be assumed he is prepared to write the Book of Life single-handed. (John Sturrock, TLS (26/6/1969))
La Guerre sets out to discover, or perhaps to create, a mythology for the industrial environment. (...) La Guerre is "prohpetic" in both senses of the term. It interprets the present in poetic terms and and it foretells an immediate catastrophe. It abjures plot or characterization in favour of an inventory of city-symbols, imbued with an attempted antique animism. (John H. Mole, TLS (13/11/1970))

Le Clézio's psychological perceptions of the emotional state one undergoes during a war -- how people actually experience war -- is extremely accurate and is, indeed, the true theme of the novel. (...) (W)e can see that despite the occasional flaws of his book Le Clézio has altered the form of the novel for traditional and authentic reasons: the old forms no longer serve to express his modern experience. (Barbara Probst Solomon, The New York Times Book Review (15/7/1973) )
       The Giants:
In terms of both intellectual adequacy and formal control Les Géantes might be the outcome of a creative writing project carried out by half-a-dozen schoolgirls as the culminating exrecise of a course in "environment studies" or the "consumer society" (half-a-dozen to explain the otherwise inexplicable length and repetitiveness of the piece). (G. Craig, TLS (5/10/1973) )

(D)espite The Giants' unremitting loftiness of manner one often suspects that chauvinist outrage against the encroachments of the American supermarket on peculiarly French traditions is its underlying motivation. (...) The Giants has the cultivated brilliance which one associates, rightly or wrongly, with prize-winning French novelists. Composition and verbal varnish are very much in evidence. What is surprising is the simplicity of the novel's message -- it's even surprising that such a novel should have a message at all. (...) But the power of The Giants lies in its combination of stylistic virtuosity and political urgency. (John Sutherland, TLS (9/1/1976) )
       L'Inconnu sur la terre:
L'Inconnu sur la terre is a series of paeans to the pleasures of being alive and sensate; it owes something to both François Ponge's prose poems about objects and Sartre's phenomenological descriptions. (Alison Finch, TLS (13/10/1978) )
       The Round & Other Cold Hard Facts: ( see also the University of Nebraska Press publicity page, or get your copy at or
The collection is uneven and the style can make for monotony. It is quite often painfully hard to read. That insistent present tense produces a kind of literary indigestion, and one fears the snare of thinking that it is therefore good for one. Yet there is something intriguing, and, at its most successful, exciting about Le Clézio's ability to transform an all too familiar social realism through a formal strategy at odds with his material. (John Pilling, TLS (8/10/1982) )
       Onitsha: (see also the University of Nebraska Press publicity page, or get your copy at or
Once again J. M. G. Le Clezio, a novelist fascinated by the non-Western and an anthropologist respecting the Other, takes readers to a site that destroys Westerners; that is, the site either encourages their most egregious exploitative colonialism or puts them in the thrall of difference. The latter happens when the new non-Western environment casts a spell severing the Westerners from their own kind but keeping a barrier between them and the natives. (...) The ending, twenty years later, though a bit lame, does minister to our reader needs. All in all, an expertly managed piece of professional fiction-writing, but a little hard to take seriously. (Marilyn Gaddis Rose, World Literature Today (Spring/1992))
       Étoile errante:
As in Onitsha, with which Etoile errante is designed to form a diptych, Le Clezio has written some very moving passages about less-known moments in recent history. He is far less convincing as an adolescent girl than he was as an adolescent boy in the earlier novel, and also as in that novel, he cannot keep a story going. The present narrative, chiefly third-person subject, is close to spellbinding for the first 135 pages, as Esther bounds around the rocks and ravines in Le Clezio's careful reconstruction of the Italian occupation of France, but it becomes tedious and repetitious after that. (Marilyn Gaddis Rose, World Literature Today (Summer/1993))
       The Prospector: (see the David R. Godine publicity page or get your copy at or
With its echoes of other famous quests, Alexis's search takes on mythical proportions and brings him face-to-face with the elemental forces of nature. The lyrical descriptions of the land and seascapes powerfully convey the entrancing rhythm of the waves that carry him on his journey and make The Prospector a novel of intense beauty. (Susan Ireland, Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer/1994))

It may well be supposed that Le Clézio's readers find his work attractive because, while scarcely distinguished by concern with the invention of individual "characters" in the conventional sense, it expresses an unusual sensibility towards a dimension wherein human beings can breathe naturally in response to the seasonal rhythms of the planet, and thereby recover some hope of achieving ultimate wholeness and serenity. (David Gascoyne, TLS (4/10/1985) )
       La quarantaine:
Like much of Le Clezio's work, La quarantaine contains much autobiography, some of it authentic. (...) At the end of his quest the narrator asks himself, "Have I been pursuing an illusion ?" But Le Clezio himself can certainly be assured that he has not been and that this wide-ranging, multifaceted novel, a "Himalaya litteraire" (one not always easy to scale!), confirms his reputation as an outstanding writer of his generation. (John L. Brown, World Literature Today (Fall/1996))

Such lyrical passages teeter on the edge of banality, and in some of Le Clezio's earlier novels have toppled over it. But in La Quarantaine, he can get away with them, in the context of a strong and absorbing narrative. It is one of the best, as well as one of the most characteristic works we have had for some time from a notable outsider. (Robin Buss, TLS (10/5/1996))

In some way each narrator finds a meaning to life through telling the story of an unknown, a real or imagined ancestor to whom he lends his voice. (The Economist, 17/2/1996)
       Poisson d'or:
The reader already familiar with the novels of J. M. G. Le Clezio will find in Poisson d'or many of those themes present in his previous works: the fate of the oppressed, the tension between so-called First and Third World societies, the both physical and spiritual journey of self-discovery. In particular, readers will detect many affinities between this work and Desert (1980), which also focuses on the life of a young North African woman who, like Laila, leaves Africa only to return in the end, abandoning an unsatisfying Western world in order to rediscover her true origins and identity. (William Thompson, World Literature Today (Fall/1997))
       Hasard suivi de Angoli Mala:
As in many other novels, Le Clezio recreates a sense of the surface of the modern world, here as found in the Mediterranean and the tropics. His prose portrays the surface of this world, like the shimmering surface upon which the producer's ship cruises from port to port, taking us from southern France to the dark storms of the tropics. But beneath the fluid surface, drenched in sunshine, one intuits a metaphysical underpinning, a dark realm that determines that being is condemned to dissolution, however much one may try to find the means to sail beyond the limits. (Allen Thiher, World Literature Today (Fall/2000))
       Coeur brûlé et autres romances:
The other pieces here are much like sketches tom from the artist's notebook, setting forth vignettes of women who have had different fates and share only in the warmth of the writer's interrogation about their fate. (...) All in all, then, this collection is a mixed affair. "Coeur brule" is vintage Le Clezio, powerful and disturbing, but the other texts really add little to our understanding of this writer, who has made the world his home and his writing a place where all cultures can meet. (Allen Thiher, World Literature Today (Spring/2001))
His fiction is characterized by a preoccupation with outsiders -- adventurers on a quest, misfits, the deracinated and the dispossessed of the Third World. While Le Clezio's output is undoubtedly uneven in quality, it is hard to deny the seriousness of his engagement with the world (we are a long way from the weary nihilism of Michel Houellebecq) and particularly, as his career has developed, with the world beyond European shores. (...) The reader is intended to draw parallels between the two "idealist" communities, but it is hard to see to what purpose. We are left with an over-schematic and unconvincing novel. As always with Le Clezio, the writing is wonderfully limpid and there are some superb descriptive passages (...) but this is not enough to compensate for a lack of narrative focus. (Adrian Tahourdin, TLS (21/4/2006))
A portrait of a cultural sensibility shaped by the 1950s, Ballaciner (Le Clézio's portmanteau of ballade and cine) offers penetrating analyses of some of the "disturbing, unforgettable dreams" conjured up on the cinema screen (TLS, Muriel Zagha (10/8/2007))

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

       The gossip was right (and we, as usual, completely wrong, having dismissed that gossip) and they've announced that French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio has taken the Nobel Prize in Literature.
       Though his name will elicit more than a few shrugs, he's fairly well-represented in English translation, and we'll try to help you sort through some of that later in the day.
       The J.M.G. Le Clézio page at books and writers gives you a good summary and introduction, as do the Nobel site's own Biobibliographical Notes. In French there's also L’association des Lecteurs de J.-M.G. Le Clézio, Fredrik Westerlund's author-overview, and Marianne Payot's 2004 interview in L'Express with him and Amin Maalouf (and check out also the links to reviews of a few of his titles there).
       There's an English interview at France Diplomatie, "The French language is perhaps my only true country", which includes:
Can literature affect this chaos, transform it ?

We no longer have the presumptuousness to believe, as they did in Sartre’s day, that a novel can change the world. Today, writers can only record their political impotence.
       As has been and will be widely noted, J.-M. G. Le Clézio has been a sort of two-career writer, his earlier novels, into the 1970s, far more experimental; unfortunately, it's only the second stage of his career that's readily found in print in English now. (Coincidentally, we picked up a copy of his 1973 The Giants a few weeks ago, which sounds (and looks) like a pretty funky ride, set in Hyperpolis, a consumer-capitalist apocalyptic vision -- we can't wait .....)
       The books of his that appear to be in print in English at this time are:        As you can see, a variety of stuff, at a variety of publishers (and all independent or university-affiliated -- it'll be interesting to see which New York publisher makes the winning bid for the backlist ...).

       See now also our: Quotes from the reviews of Le Clézio's books (above).

       We'll have a round-up of the reactions (domestic and foreign) tomorrow -- with a few exceptions, most of today's articles are necessarily rush-jobs (or yet another variation of a press agency report ...) -- but among the other reactions of interest already available:
  • At Publishers Weekly Michael Coffey finds that the Nobel Prize Is a Boon for Three Small Houses, as those are the only ones publishing any of the laureate's books in the US; we're certainly pleased for them (especially "ebullient" David Godine)

  • Galleycat has an Exclusive Interview: Will Americans Read Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio ?, though we wish they had asked a few more questions (that was apparently pretty much the only one). Still, Chad Post states: "I am going to check his books out for Open Letter Press" -- and, more interestingly: "I just talked to an editor at a big house who doesn't think any of the commercial houses will go after him. Even with the Nobel, there are too many books, many of which still wouldn't sell well enough to justify this." (It seems to us it would be worth a big publisher's while to cherry-pick -- several of the Le Clézio titles of recent years aren't that hard sells; it's the early stuff, through ca. 1975 (save -- probably -- The Interrogation), that needs a Dalkey Archive-like home (and we're actually surprised they didn't pick up some of his titles a while back ...).

  • The University of Chicago Press weblog is pleased that they're the publishers of the one title, providing a bit more information about The Mexican Dream by JMG Le Clézio.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Seamus Heaney Q & A

       At The Harvard Crimson Hyung W. Kim has 15 Questions with Seamus Heaney.
       Among them, of particular interest today:
FM: You won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995. What was that like ?

SH: It’s a subject I usually don’t talk about. There’s not much to say about it. I was in Greece at the time, and I didn’t learn about it for two days. I was able to hide for a couple of days and get myself ready. I’ve said it before about the Nobel Prize: it’s like being struck by a more or less benign avalanche. It was unexpected, unlooked for, and extraordinary.

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       More on Machado de Assis

       We recently mentioned yet more love for Brazilian author Machado de Assis, and in what is ostensibly a review of the collection A Chapter of Hats Stephen Henighan praises: 'The genius of Machado de Assis, Rio de Janeiro's laureate of irony' in the TLS, in Realism from Brazil.
       He finds:
Machado’s reputation in English reached its high point in the late 1970s and early 80s. Susan Sontag wrote an essay praising him, the three major novels appeared in mass-market paperbacks; even Woody Allen mentioned his name.
       (The only place we could find the Allen-praise in was Miranda France's review of the same book in The Telegraph, where she writes: "For Woody Allen, he was 'a brilliant and modern writer whose books could have been written this year'.")

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       Chad Post profile

       Dave Lull alerts us that in Publishers Weekly Rachel Deahl profiles The international literature evangelist, Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent; there's also a video segment.

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       October Words without Borders

       The October issue of Words without Borders, devoted to 'Turkish Delights', is now available.

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       Three French Maries

       In the October Bookslut C.L.Jansen writes Hail the Three Maries: Fables, Feminism and the Fantastic in Contemporary French Women's Writing, introducing Marie Darrieussecq, Marie-Claire Blais, and Marie N'Diaye.
        Note, however, that while Jansen writes:
Marie Ndiaye, is as yet, unavailable in English, and remains a relative unknown on the international scene. The glittering acclaim her work has received in the francophone world, however, will no doubt mean that translations are in the pipeline.
       In fact, her Among Family came out more than a decade ago (get your copy at or, and the widely-hailed Rosie Carpe (which we're ashamed not to have covered yet) is also available; see the University of Nebraska Press publicity page, or get your copy at or But there's still a lot more that should be made available .....

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       Pythagorean Crimes review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Tefcros Michaelides' Pythagorean Crimes.

       Worth noting: yet again a (foreign) author (even though he's actually a professor mathematics) who has done a lot of translation, as they note at the publicity page for the book. Among the books he's translated are:
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, the widely acclaimed and successful The Parrot’s Theorem by Denis Guedj, Timescape by Gregory Benford, and D’Alembert’s Principle and Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey.
       A pretty interesting mix, too.

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8 October 2008 - Wednesday

French prizes, second round | Paavo Haavikko (1931-2008)
Alaa Al Aswany Q & A | On Márai's Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948

       French prizes, second round

       The two biggest French prizes have announced their second longlists (their mediumlists ?), winnowing down the contenders: Prix-Litteraires: Le blog has the information on both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Renaudot, and they have a convenient table collating all the books on these and the other major long and shortlists.
       Interesting to note that Olivier Rolin's Un chasseur de lions is the only book that's still in contention for both prizes.

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       Paavo Haavikko (1931-2008)

       Finnish author Paavo Haavikko has passed away; see, for example, the Helsingin Sanomat obituary, where they write:
Haavikko was a hugely respected albeit contentious figure, with a penchant for stirring debate on topical issues.
       See also the Paavo Haavikko page at books and writers.
       He's probably the Neustadt International Prize for Literature winner who has remained farthest in obscurity (in the English-speaking world).

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       Alaa Al Aswany Q & A

       At The Guardian Sarah Kinson has a Q & A.

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       On Márai's Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948

       At hlo Zoltán András Bán writes about Márai Sándor's Memoir of Hungary, 1944–1948 in The treason of an implacable moralist.
       See also the Central European University Press publicity page, or get your copy from or

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7 October 2008 - Tuesday

Tokarczuk takes Nike | If not the US, at least Sardinia ...
Margaret Drabble expected to dumb-down ? | More poetic insults of Islam ?
First reactions to The Jewel of Medina

       Tokarczuk takes Nike

       They've announced that Bieguni by Olga Tokarczuk has won the 2008 Nagrody Literackiej Nike, probably the biggest Polish literary prize; see also the (English) report at PCI Online, and the (Polish) Wydawnictwo Literackie publicity page for the book. Tokarczuk has been translated into English, and was the most recognisable name on the shortlist, so there's some chance this may wind up available in English at some point.
       (Meanwhile, someone has to explain to us why Jonathan Littell's Łaskawe (i.e. The Kindly Ones) is already available in Polish -- see the Wydawnictwo Literackie publicity page -- months before the English translation is out .....)

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       If not the US, at least Sardinia ...

       Cross-cultural exchanges ! At the Western Mail Harri Pritchard Jones reports on how a trip to Sardinia with three other Welsh-language authors went, finding Interest in Welsh literature heats up in Sardinia.
       Among the observations:
That interest in writing from Wales can be seen across Italy, with a growing number of books translated into Italian. The Italians seem to identify with us, perhaps because of our shared rural and urban backgrounds.

The Sardinians were keen to know about the status of the Welsh language and its literature, and it seemed to us that, compared to our situation, their native Sardinian literature is in a parlous state.

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       Margaret Drabble expected to dumb-down ?

       In The Independent Arifa Akbar reports that a Top novelist feels pressure to 'dumb down' -- namely, Margaret Drabble. Though it should be noted that Drabble then told The Independent: "They have not asked me to dumb down" .....
       Well, apparently:
Margaret Drabble, one of Britain's leading novelists and biographers, believes her publishers are pushing her to "dumb down" her work to appeal to a larger readership.

At a meeting of alumni in her old Cambridge University college, Newnham, Dame Margaret suggested that she felt pressure from Penguin, to "rebrand" her fiction, The Independent has been told.
Later, Dame Margaret told The Independent she understood that her publishers were under pressure to market her books but added: "I do feel publishers are under very strong pressure to sell books rather than encourage long-term readers. They have not asked me to dumb down ... but I have a feeling there's a problem. I write literary novels but I can sense my publishers have difficulty in selling me as a genre ... whether in literary fiction, or women's fiction or shopping fiction. They don't quite know whether I'm highbrow or literary," she said.
       No word on the sales figures for her novels, which is presumably the root of the discussion and problem .....

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       More poetic insults of Islam ?

       In The National (UAE) Suha Philip Ma'ayeh reports that yet another Poet accused of being enemy of Islam -- Jordanian poet Islam Samhan, in this case --, as:
Last week, Jordan’s grand mufti, Noah Alqdah Samas, the kingdom’s highest religious authority, called Samhan an enemy of religion for his poetry, some of which included lines comparing his loneliness to that of the prophet Yusuf in the Quran.

Now there are calls for the poet to be detained, his collection of poetry banned and the publishing house penalised. He is even receiving threatening phone calls to his private mobile number.

All this comes as something of a surprise to Samhan, whose book, In a Slim Shadow, published eight months ago, is a collection of his best work over the past decade. The ministry of culture even bought 50 copies.
       But at least there's some discussion of the issue, as:
The controversy has also brought to the forefront issues of freedom of expression in a country where the king has repeatedly said the ceiling is the sky.

It also shows the religious establishment’s intolerance for poets and writers who use religion metaphorically in literature.

Defending a writer’s right to creativity, Saud Qubeilat, head of the Jordanian Writers Association, warned: "One shouldn’t judge poetry based on literal terms, otherwise many of the poets would be declared apostates.

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       First reactions to The Jewel of Medina

       Well, the 'controversial' The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones (which we last mentioned to report on the outrageous firebombing of the home (and office) of the UK publisher) has hit US bookstores (and you can get your copy at or pre-order it at, and the first few reactions by people who have now actually read the book are coming out.
       In The Los Angeles Times Laurel Maury reviews it -- and lends some support to the suspicions we've held from the beginning (well, from the first limited quotes from the text): that it simply isn't a very good book.
       Maury finds:
The Jewel of Medina is a second-rate bodice ripper or, rather, a second-rate bodice ripper-style romance (it doesn't really have sex scenes). It's readable enough, but it suffers from large swaths of purple prose. Paragraphs read like ad copy for a Rudolph Valentino movie
       And concludes:
I suspect Jones wanted to write a feminist text, sort of Islam 101 for the post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer generation. I can't say whether, from a religious point of view, The Jewel of Medina is worth the anguish it's caused, but as literature, it's a misstep-ridden, pleasant-enough mediocrity.
       In Judge for Yourself: Jewel of Medina in U.S. Bookstores at Galleycat Ron Hogan sums up:
Now that we've read the novel for ourselves, and seen precisely two paragraphs that might be construed as sexually explicit (and that's being extremely generous to one of them), Jones deserves a public apology from Spellberg for her public misrepresentations.
       However, he also notes (and we're thinking he way, way underestimates it -- surely the sex-aspects are only part of the problem, the basic one of some heathen (or anyone, for that matter) daring to fictionalize these venerated figures being the real issue the devout take issue with):
That's not to say that there aren't elements of the novel that fervent Muslims could potentially find distasteful
Jones is confident that, once people have a chance to read her story rather than Spellberg's twisted version of it, all the controversy will evaporate. She points to the experience of her Serbian publisher: Although there had been some initial outcry over the book's publication, leading to its temporary removal from bookstores, it's now a #1 seller in that country
       Pretty impressive that it's doing that well in Serbia, but we wouldn't count on the fuss about the book dying down anytime soon.

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6 October 2008 - Monday

Nobel Prize speculation | Chinese fiction in translation
APA's Book Issue | Toussaint reviews

       Nobel Prize speculation

       The Nobel Prize in Literature will be announced on Thursday; as we've noted, our prognostication record with regards to any of these big literary prizes is spectacularly poor (and continues to be: we guessed they'd wait until the 16th to announce the winner ...), but that won't stop us from offering our two cents worth (which is about all our opinion is probably worth ...).
       A few notes first, first regarding those Ladbrokes odds. Worth noting: despite Horace Engdahl's 'anti-American' comments (see our previous mentions here and here) the odds on a North American (admittedly that includes Canada ...) taking the prize have gone up from 3/1 to 2/1 (while Europe and Asia have both slipped from 7/4 to 2/1). (Note also the absurdity of these odds: put down a quid on each of these three options (ignoring the other possibilities) and even in the best case you'll have lost a quid on your bet; don't they have a gaming commission in the UK which oversees how odds are set ? Because these are way over the top (i.e. the house has really, really stacked the deck).) More significantly, the odds on the three leading Americans (according to their odds) have actually improved since Engdahl made his comments, Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth moving from 7/1 to 5/1, and Don DeLillo from 10/1 to 7/1. While the limited changes in the odds (across the board) suggests betting activity isn't very heavy, the few punters who are playing along clearly don't believe that Engdahl's comments mean the Americans are out of the running.
       There hasn't been that much media speculation -- most of the articles just regurgitate the Ladbrokes-odds -- but the one name they've latched onto has been that of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio; see, for example, Guessing game in full-swing ahead of 2008 Nobel Prizes. Again: the punters remain unimpressed, as his odds have stayed firmly at 14/1; we also don't really see him as a front-runner.

       Elsewhere, you can find some discussion/mention of contenders and reader-favourites at:        So what do we think ?
       Well, for one: that it's really, really hard to guess who will take the prize. There's the nominating procedure to consider, and even though it's fairly wide open (see the Swedish Academy site for their explanation), it may well mean that certain worthy authors aren't even in the running. (The fact that former laureates get to nominate a name is interesting too: we wonder who Coetzee, Jelinek, Pinter, Saramago, et al. put up.)
       Also: presumably countries with more crowded fields -- lots of contenders, few absolute standouts -- might find their support split. Spanish authors -- Enrique Vila-Matas, Javier Marías, Juan Goytisolo -- for example, may cancel each other out early in the running. The same for those from India (we don't see Rushdie standing out in that field) -- as well as the US.
       Worth considering also: they seem to have come to a decision very quickly, which we take as a sign that it's an agreeable candidate -- i.e. no one who anyone would be adamantly opposed to.

       Anyway, as far as contenders who are on the Ladbrokes list (a decent starting point) go, we think the following have a decent chance (Ladbrokes-odds in parentheses; listed alphabetically):
  • Ko Un (33/1): Seems like the obvious Korean choice -- they haven't had one yet --, a prolific poet with some prose under his belt too, and that exotic Buddhist touch as well.

  • Milan Kundera (40/1): Maybe a bit too Mitteleuropäisch -- they've done that a lot in recent years -- but the work is obviously good enough, both in breadth and depth. And bonus points for switching from writing in Czech to writing in French (though success in two languages didn't help Nabokov).

  • Harry Mulisch (50/1): One of our favourites, and with Hugo Claus out of the way the only big Dutch competition left standing is Cees Nooteboom (33/1) -- and the body of Mulisch's work is simply more impressive. But Nooteboom may draw off some support .....

  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (still listed as 'James Ngugi'; 50/1): looks slightly stronger than Chinua Achebe (50/1) at the moment, Wizard of the Crow putting him firmly back on the map.

  • Amos Oz (5/1): Israeli authors also make for a formidable contingent, which could work against him, but his work is strong enough to put him over the top.

  • Mario Vargas Llosa (20/1): His work has the most breadth of all the Latin American candidates (and he has fewer clunkers than Fuentes (40/1)), and the Academy might want to surprise with a slightly (but hardly problematically) rightist choice.
       (As far as the Americans go, we'd figure Philip Roth (5/1) has the best (only ?) shot, but we can't really see him getting it.)

       As far as wild-cards (not listed by Ladbrokes) go, we suggest the following might be in the mix:
  • César Aira: Why not ? Maybe the one author who writes too much (making for a bit of inconsistency), but it would be hard to complain about the choice. (See also our review of How I became a Nun.)

  • Ayi Kwei Armah: Who could they pick if they go sub-Saharan ? Ngũgĩ (and Achebe) may be the favourites, but Armah has had the success in the West and turned decisively back to Africa in the past few decades (Ngũgĩ and Achebe, like Soyinka, have all lived in the US for quite a while now, while Armah hasn't even been published there for ages) and has produced some ... unusual stuff. (See also our review of The Healers.)

  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi: How about an Iranian author ? It would show some support for the embattled authors there, but not a full slap in the face of the regime. And his very impressive body of work would make him a worthy laureate. (See also our review of Safar.)

  • Gamal al-Ghitani: Sure, Adonis (4/1) is the prohibitive Arabic-writing favourite, but al-Ghitani would be a solid choice. One drawback: he's Egyptian, just like Mahfouz was, and if they gave it to an Arabic-writing author they might want to look elsewhere. (See also our review of Zayni Barakat.)

  • Lars Gustafsson: After the disaster of 1974 (when they awarded the prize to not one but two of their own) the Swedish Academy has stayed away from Scandinavian authors. They presumably would draw the line at giving it to a sitting Academy member -- putting Torgny Lindgren (see his Academy page) out of the running -- but Gustafsson (and Per Olov Enquist) might be considered. Of the two, Gustafsson appears to be the stronger candidate -- helped by the fact that he's also written poetry (and theory) extensively. But petty national jealousies might prevent the Academy-members from seeing him rewarded in this way.

  • Yoel Hoffman: If the big Israelis -- Grossman, Oz, Yehoshua -- cancel each other out, maybe he can slip in; stylistically he certainly seems more up the Swedish Academy's alley.

  • Ogawa Yoko: Okay, she's way too young, but as far as Japanese authors go she seems the top candidate; Murakami (7/1) seems just too Western-popular in his orientation for them to pick him. (See also our review of The Diving Pool.)
       Those are our thoughts -- pretty much off the top of our heads, but then what's there to think about ? the Swedish Academy's decision-making process is hard to crack, and chances are good they'll manage to surprise yet again (though we can't help but think that since they came to their decision quickly it's a relatively 'safe' choice).

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       Chinese fiction in translation

       At The Guardian Nicky Harman writes about Bridging the cultural divide, arguing that: 'We need to bring more of China's literature to British readers, but publishers need to understand Chinese fiction better'.
       She thinks that:
there is also a need for British publishers to understand Chinese fiction better. That boring old label "banned in China" actually means only one thing: that the book ticked one of the censor's no-no boxes. Sex and violence will not sell a book if it is badly written, as many are. Some publishers say they want a personable, articulate author, preferably one who can speak English. There are only a few writers who provide that winning combination and there are many who write great stuff but are not young, glamorous or English-speaking.
       The problem of translation is, of course, a more general one -- and Chinese fiction is currently doing pretty well in getting translated into English (relatively speaking, anyway ...). But the Han Dong title she mentions (and has translated), Banished !, sounds fairly interesting, and we look forward to it; it is also sort of listed at

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       APA's Book Issue

       The current issue up at the Asia Pacific Arts site is APA's Book Issue, with several interesting articles -- including the APA Top Ten: Favorite Asian American characters in literature.

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       Toussaint reviews

       The most recent additions to the complete review are our reviews of two Jean-Philippe Toussaint titles Dalkey Archive Press is bringing out next month (along with Monsieur, which we've had under review for a while):
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5 October 2008 - Sunday

Prince Claus Award to Indira Goswami | NLNG preview
October Literary Review at The Hindu | Suhayl Saadi in D.C.

       Prince Claus Award to Indira Goswami

       They announced this a while ago, but we just noticed via the Bibliofile column at Outlook India that the €100,000 2008 Prince Claus Award to Indian writer, Indira Goswami.
       Several of this Assamese author's works have been translated into English -- see, for example, the review of The Man from Chinnamasta at The Hindu -- but she's not exactly a household name outside India. Of course, neither is the Prince Claus Award, but still .....

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       NLNG preview

       In Vanguard Benjamin Njoku wonders: Jude Dibia or Kaine Agary: Who wins 2008 NLNG literary prize ? -- probably Nigeria's biggest literary prize.
       The books in contention are Unbridled (by Jude Dibia) and Yellow-Yellow (by Kaine Agary) -- and you can even get the latter at
       Njoku writes:
The nominees for this year’s prize, Jude Dibia and Kaine Agary are two promising Nigerian writers who are convincingly on the path to rewrite the course of history for their generation should anyone of them emerges the winner of the prize this year.

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       October Literary Review at The Hindu

       The October issue of the Literary Review is now available at The Hindu; as usual, several interesting pieces, beginning with a profile of Anita Desai by Ziya Us Salam, Explorations of the unknown.

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       Suhayl Saadi in D.C.

       The British Council lets us know that Psychoraag-author Suhayl Saadi is spending the month at George Washington University as part of the British Council's UK Writer-in-Residence Program; see their press release -- and note that the first public reading is scheduled for tomorrow.
       See also their page about the author -- and note that while Psychoraag is listed at (but only as an import) and, it is impressively available in its entirety as a free download (and it does sound like it is worth a look).

       Meanwhile, for the Horace Engdahl-bashing contingent (see our previous mentions here and here), we note that Psychoraag -- a book written (more or less) in English -- does not have a US publisher, but, as they note on the author page : "Psychoraag was also translated into French in 2007" (indeed, get your copy at or see the Métailié publicity page). Draw your own conclusions.

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4 October 2008 - Saturday

On American isolation and insularity | Jean Echenoz's Courir
Beyond the Hoax review

       On American isolation and insularity

       The reactions to Swedish Academy permanent secretary (and, in that capactity, Nobel Prize in Literature judge) Horace Engdahl's comments about how:
"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."
       have generally been of the ridiculing and who-needs-him variety (with limited exceptions); see our previous mention for an overview of the reactions.
       We've been trying to stick to sidelines in this controversy, but Adam Kirsch's Nobel Gas has pushed us over the top. Of course, he's using the comments largely as an opportunity to slam the prize itself, suggesting:
Engdahl made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature. America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for literature has become.
       (We're always rather amused at what heated reactions this small bunch of academy-Swedes can elicit: "seceding", after all being as absurd a reaction as taking the prize seriously.)
       How wrong is Engdahl ? Or how right ?
       Part of the problem/issue is the sheer volume of American literature that's produced. Remember that, with surprisingly few exceptions (Germany, France, China, Japan, but not too many others), it would be possible for a book-a-day reader to make his or her way through the entire annual domestic fiction output of any given European (or Asian or African or South American) country. In the US, a very conservative estimate would have 10,000 new works of actual fiction appear (sorry, those thrown around figures of 200,000 or 300,000 books published annually includes everything from reprints to cookbooks to how-to manuals; the number of actual new readable fiction titles is, at best in the low 10,000s). So from the start the stage is different: American readers could easily get their fill domestically, readers in the majority of other countries can't.
       There's no denying either that much of the major literature that makes its way around the world is American, and that some of the major writers working now are American. But while Pynchon and DeLillo and Roth are arguably great and influential worldwide, how much do they contribute to the international dialogue on literature ?
       Kirsch mentions Roth, who, after all was editor of the impressive 'Writers From the Other Europe' series. He might also have mentioned John Updike, one of the few reviewers who actively sought out foreign fiction and whose reviews in The New Yorker helped introduce many foreign authors to American readers.
       And yet look how much lasting influence the 'Writers From the Other Europe' series has had (yeah, Kundera made the mainstream leap -- but who else has ?). Look at how those authors Updike introduced have fared. With very few exceptions -- especially non-English writing exceptions -- foreign authors don't figure in the American literary dialogues. Our (least) favourite example is, of course, the foreign-fiction-phobic Sam Tanenhaus, at the still influential The New York Times Book Review. They've actually been on a decent run of a foreign mention or two a week recently -- Wojciech Tochman's Like Eating a Stone this week (a rare non-fiction mention !), Per Petterson's To Siberia in the 12 October issue (though we might mention that book first came out in English in 1998 ...) -- but these are little more than token mentions, and certainly not part of any larger literary dialogue. We just received the 23 October issue of The New York Review of Books, and, yes, they review/mention a few Alain Badiou titles, which makes for something of an international dialogue, but there's barely a mention of any fiction, much less foreign-language fiction
       Contrast that with the European book sections, which are constantly concerned with books from elsewhere (including the US). In part it's because they have to -- there just isn't enough worthwhile domestic stuff to bother with -- but does that matter ? The point is there's a lot more cross-cultural reading -- and, yes, it does make a big difference, and is ultimately reflected in the literature itself. Isolated -- in all senses of the word -- authors can, of course, produce some of the greatest books, but a broader literary culture demands engagement of a larger percentage of readers and writers with the foreign -- and that simply doesn't exist in America. Old men Roth and Updike have more or less withdrawn from the scene, leaving very few semi-prominent names that look abroad. There's Paul Auster, more popular in France than the US, maybe. There's Eliot Weinberger, who appears to be marginalized in the US compared to his international standing. There's Jonathan Franzen's German-speaking connexion, but he seems to have hit a post-2001 wall as far as fiction is concerned. A few emigré writers -- such as Ha Jin and Norman Manea -- have figured in the American mix, but given how many live here the number is surprisingly small.
       There's also no question that, as Engdahl notes, far too little is translated into English in the US. A few commentators have suggested that, hey, abroad the numbers are padded by all those translations from the English and that if you consider any obscurer language the situations will be similar, but as best we can tell (and we're fairly confident that we can tell pretty well) that's simply not true. Consider just a few of the authors we are interested in (not an objective selection, admittedly, but pretty random and hence likely representative enough):
  • We just received the proof of only the second Ogawa Yoko title to be translated into English (see also our review of the first, The Diving Pool); compare that to the huge number of her books available from Actes Sud in French (click through all three (!) pages of titles)
  • Antonio Muñoz Molina actually lived in New York for many years, but only a handful of his titles are available in English (see our review of In her Absence); compare that with the ten titles available in German from Rowohlt
  • Sam Leith mentions Murakami Ryu in his Engdahl-piece, Nobel Prize judge is wrong to denounce American literature, as one of the few Japanese authors read in English (see also our review of his 69), but compare what's available in English with the dozen (!) titles Editions Picquier have out in French
       Think also of the foreign author who once were translated and are still domestically important -- take France: Philippe Sollers is still churning out the books, but the last novel of his to be translated was Watteau in Venice in 1994. Jean Dutourd, too, is still writing away, but hasn't been translated in ages. They -- and countless others -- haven't figured in any American discussion of literature in decades. Much less the significant writers from obscurer corners of the world.
       Similarly: among the national literatures that we find are currently most exciting are those from Ukraine and (South) Korea; restrict yourself to what's available in English and you would barely believe anything is going on there at all. So, sorry, Mr. Kirsch, no, much of the literary dialogue and international give and take going on just naturally by-passes the US, where everyone remains blissfully unaware of what's really going on out there. There are valiant efforts to promote international literature -- publications pushing it, publishers bringing out as many translations as they can -- but little of it figures in any broader literary discussion.
       Translation is a good indicator, too: we remind you of how many foreign authors also translate works -- Murakami Haruki, Peter Handke, etc. etc. -- and how few Americans do (with a very few noble exceptions).
       Again: in large part that's in the nature of the beast and this particular market, where the foreign exists very much on the margins because it is overwhelmed by the domestic. That has its advantages, and it has its drawbacks. Over the long term we figure the drawbacks will prove the greater.

       (Updated - 6 October): See also the comments at Biographia Literaria.

       (Updated - 9 October): The reactions to Engdahl's comments continue, with:
(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Jean Echenoz's Courir

       Jean Echenoz was slow to win us over, but by Piano we were convinced. He is consistently translated into English (not that many people seem to notice ...), and his new book, the Emil Zatopek-based Courir sounds like another winner -- "une petite merveille d'écriture et d'humanité" François Dufay calls it in his review in L'Express.
       See also the Les Éditions de Minuit publicity page, or get your copy from -- and see François Dufay's interview in L'Express, as well as (French) reviews in Lire and Téléreama.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Beyond the Hoax review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Alan Sokal on Science, Philosophy and Culture in Beyond the Hoax.

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3 October 2008 - Friday

Get your bets in - Nobel Prize to be announced 9 October
Philip Glass opera of Peter Stephan Jungk book | Charlotte Mandell interview
Newman Prize for Chinese Literature | Public Enemies buzz | Almost Blue review

       Get your bets in - Nobel Prize to be announced 9 October

       Deliberations apparently went fast this year, despite (or because of ?) Horace Engdahl's comments (see our previous mention): the Swedish Academy has released a brief statement, announcing that:
The Swedish Academy will announce this year's Nobel Laureate in Literature at 1 p.m. on Thursday, October 9.

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       Philip Glass opera of Peter Stephan Jungk book

       The New York City Opera has commissioned Philip Glass to compose an opera based on Peter Stephan Jungk's Walt Disney-inspired The Perfect American. It is is scheduled to open the City Opera's 2012-2013 season.

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       Charlotte Mandell interview

       Three Percent points us to Greta Aart's interview with Charlotte Mandell in Emprise Review, Translation as Breathing New Life in a New Language; Mandell's translation of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones is due out next spring.

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       Newman Prize for Chinese Literature

       Paper Republic points us to the announcement that the inaugural Newman Prize for Chinese Literature has gone to Mo Yan, after a "jury of seven distinguished literary experts both nominated the candidates and selected the winner in a transparent voting process".
       There are quite a few literary prizes awarded in China itself, but one hears almost nothing about them hereabouts, so this may be a useful way of getting a bit more attention for contemporary Chinese literature.

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       Public Enemies buzz

       We've mentioned the forthcoming book co-authored by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, Ennemis publics, and in The Guardian Angelique Chrisafis looks at the pre-publication buzz, in The cultural whipping boys' manifesto: France has vomited on us for too long, as:
The book, Public Enemies -- released next week and seen by the Guardian -- is being billed as the publishing sensation of the year, sure to spark a fresh slanging match with critics, some of whom are already talking of a work of staggering vanity and egotism, and a precious insight into the mind of French literary celebrities.

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       Almost Blue review

       The most recent addition to the complete review is our review of Carlo Lucarelli's Almost Blue.

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2 October 2008 - Thursday

Nobel notes: Engdahl fallout - More odds - Office pools
Rushdie interview | More on the Translation Prizes | October issues

       Nobel notes: Engdahl fallout

       The countdown for the Nobel Prize in Literature continues, dominated for now completely by the fallout from Horace Engdahl's comments (see our previous discussion) about how the US "is too isolated, too insular" (literarily speaking), and how its writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture" (words from the interview that many of the commentators conveniently overlook ...).
       Among newspaper mentions John Lichfield provides a good overview in Nobel judge: There's nothing great about the American novel in The Independent, while Paul C. Mathis finds Scholars Defend American Literature in The Harvard Crimson. Meanwhile, Giles Foden has A one-word response to Engdahl in The Guardian (and it's not: 'Agreed !').

       Among weblog responses and discussions, see, for example:        This has also been generating a lot of notice and commentary abroad; as usual the Germans (well, and the Swiss) take it most seriously and offer the most in-depth responses; see, for example, Hubert Spiegel speculating about the Crash an der Literaturbörse in the FAZ, but in particular Andreas Breitenstein arguing rather passionately that 'Horace Engdahl desavouiert sich und den Literaturnobelpreis' in Dünne Luft um den hohen Thron in the NZZ ('desavouieren' ! what a verb !).

       (Updated - 3 October): See now also Lionel Shriver on the Sour Swede by Forbes, and Ulrich Baron noting that Uncle Sam Has Bigger Problems in Der Spiegel.

       (Updated - 4 October): See now also Adam Kirsch argue that: 'The Swedes have no clue about American literature' in Nobel Gas at Slate, and Sam Leith claim that Nobel Prize judge is wrong to denounce American literature in The Telegraph.

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       Nobel notes: More odds

       We mentioned that Ladbrokes have set odds on who will get the prize, but you can also place bets at Unibet -- they do use Ladbrokes' (mis)spellings of names and also pretty much the same list of candidates, but they do offer slightly different odds.

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       Nobel notes: Office pools

       More Nobel office pools and discussion opportunities:
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       Rushdie interview

       At The Times they've posted: Salman Rushdie talks to Clive James: interview highlights. Looks interesting, but we don't have the patience for this sort of thing; fortunately the video-interview is summarised elsewhere -- including by Ben Hoyle in The Times, in Salman Rushdie unrepentant about Satanic Verses. And see also Aislinn Simpson's Mohammed novel: Salman Rushdie defends books that challenge religion in The Telegraph.

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       More on the Translation Prizes

       Great to see that, as we had hoped, Peter Stothard now reports on the 2008 Translation Prizes -- and that they've also now made Adrian Tahourdin's survey-piece on the prizes from the TLS, In Paris's river, available online.
       As far as other reports, this one from Alfred Corn's weblog is the only one we've come across.

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       October issues

       Among the October issues of online periodicals now available is the always interesting Open Letters Monthly as well as the debut issue of the promising-looking The Manchester Review, which boasts an impressive line-up headlined by an excerpt from John Banville's novel in progress, The Sinking City.

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1 October 2008 - Wednesday

Nobel Prize for Literature news: The odds - Uncompetitive insular US ?
Monteiro Lobato's O Presidente Negro | German critics' October favourites

       Nobel Prize for Literature news: The odds

       Ladbrokes has set odds on who will win the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature, offering up some five dozen names (basically a retread of last year's list, with minimal changes), with the top ten currently:
  • Claudio Magris at 3/1
  • Adonis at 4/1
  • Amos Oz at 5/1
  • Joyce Carol Oates at 7/1
  • Philip Roth at 7/1
  • Don DeLillo at 10/1
  • Haruki Murakami at 10/1
  • Les Murray at 10/1
  • Yves Bonnefoy at 10/1
  • Arnošt Lustig at 14/1
       Some notes for the punters (and we remind you that, as we have noted, our record with regards to these big prizes is absolutely terrible):
       - the presence of Murakami, Bonnefoy (a late favourite in last year's betting), and now Lustig is due at least in part -- and likely in strong part, at least with regards to the latter two -- to the fact that they've won the last three Franz Kafka Prizes, which had correctly tipped, back-to-back, Jelinek and Pinter
       - you'll probably be able to get better odds on the Americans -- especially these low-odds authors (Oates, Roth, DeLillo) -- very soon after Horace Engdahl's comments make the rounds (see next story), so don't put you're money down on them yet (if you believe they're contenders)
       - you're a fool if you bet on "Jonathan Little", who carries so little weight that they don't even bother to spell his name correctly (they surely mean The Kindly Ones- (and Bad Voltage-) author Jonathan Littell)
       - Bob Dylan ? Bob Dylan ?!? and they're only offering 150/1 ? (It was 500/1 last year, at least for a while)
       - Wizard of the Crow-author Ngugi wa Thiong'o will be surprised that he's listed under the name he hasn't used in 30 years, James Ngugi
       - 'Umberto Ecco' ? (Didn't they make this same mistake last year, before correcting it ?) 'A.B Yehousha' ? 'Antoni Tabucchi' ? 'Cormac McCarhty' ? Couldn't they get someone who knows how to look up the spelling of names to compile this list ?
       - hey, at least this year they don't have J.K.Rowling as a contender .... yet; you have to figure that they'll add her name: free money for Ladbrokes from the Harry Potter-fanatics willing to risk a few quid to show their blind support

       Note that Ladbrokes also has a couple of Nobel Prize specials, including what continent the winner is from, what sex, whether they'll show up in Stockholm for the ceremony (especially if it's Thomas Pynchon), etc.

       You probably have two weeks to get your bets in, with the prize likely to be announced on the 16th.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Nobel Prize for Literature news: Uncompetitive insular US ?

       The Swedish Academy's permanent secretary Horace Engdahl (see his official page) understands that since they don't release a long- or short-list for the Nobel Prize for Literature they have to drum up interest in other ways, and so he's given a lovely little interview to the AP, stirring things up nicely. As Malin Rising and Hillel Italie report, Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete
As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year's award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it's no coincidence that most winners are European.

"Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can't get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world ... not the United States," he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," dragging down the quality of their work.

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."
       He has a few points -- "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature" -- but the real point, of course, was to get the Americans roiled up, and, boy, did he do a good job of that -- check out their responses.
       Of course, the question is whether or not this isn't just a feint -- it may well be that they'll find themselves choosing between a handful of American authors .....
       But at least there's also some information (of sorts) here:
He said the 16-member award jury has not selected this year's winner, and dropped no hints about who was on the short list.

(Posted by: complete review)    - permanent link -

       Monteiro Lobato's O Presidente Negro

       An interesting piece by Manuela Zoninsein at Slate, claiming in The Black President that: 'A 1926 Brazilian sci-fi novel predicts a U.S. election determined by race and gender', as Monteiro Lobato's:
1926 science-fiction novel, O Presidente Negro (The Black President) -- which foresaw technological, geopolitical, and environmental transformations -- is attracting the most interest this year, since it anticipated a political landscape in which gender and race would determine the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.
       And interesting that:
Long considered a historical relic, O Presidente Negro's popularity had dwindled so much that Editora Globo let it fall out of print, but 6,000 copies have been sold since a March 2008 rerelease. Brazil's intellectuals, bookworms, and bloggers are now madly debating Lobato's racist proposition and gasping at the prescience of one of their country's most quixotic personalities.

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       German critics' October favourites

       The October edition of the SWR-Bestenliste is out, where 29 leading German literary critics each award points (15,10,6,3) to the four books they wish would reach the most readers.
       Not too much of a surprise that Uwe Tellkamp's Der Turm is at number one (our review should be up within a week or so), though with 96 points it just edged out the volume of Celan/Bachmann-correspondence, which got 94 points.
       Worth noting: the new Orhan Pamuk (not available in English yet) did make the top ten -- in a three-way tie for ninth -- but with a feeble 25 points, which suggests a very tepid reaction from the critics. And also interesting to note that last month's number one -- Uwe Timm's Halbschatten -- was knocked off the list entirely, suggesting very limited enthusiasm for it as well (as the meagre 55 points it had already had, despite that sufficing to top the September list).

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