Tag Archives: L’Etranger

A rant … about how books are described

Few things are as annoying as finding a novel described in this way: ‘a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka’. Really? L’Etranger by Albert Camus is a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka? I don’t think so.

It annoys me because this description, from the Spectator, does no favours to Camus, Hemingway or Kafka, and moreover nor does it help the reader understand anything about L’Etranger. In fact, I find it such a confusing amalgam of writers that my brain rejects the whole idea. Why are books described in this way?

Other examples

Sad reader that I am, I have been collecting some recent examples that grated on me.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a very affirming short book about the importance and power of seeing alternatives to the present situation, and the importance of books in achieving this. It’s an important book. So what can we make of this description, included in the front pages?

Like Simon Schama, Solnit is a cultural historian in the desert-mystic mode, trailing ideas like butterflies. (Harper’s)

My brain baulks at three things in these two lines. Why did the Harper’s reviewer want to couple Simon Schama to Rebecca Solnit? Is the reviewer saying, Look at me! I read cultural history! And what on earth is the desert–mystic mode, and does it tell the potential reader anything about these writers? I don’t know any desert-mystics and I am fairly sure that it is not helpful to describe either of these writers as in this mode. And finally the image of the butterflies is contrary to my experience of them. Butterflies are more likely to flit away than trail after a writer. So even if you miss out the first three words, the reviewer still provides no idea about the value of Hope in the Dark. Please read more about it here, with no reference to Simon Schama, or deserts or butterflies.

Elizabeth Strout, in writing Amy and Isabelle, is twice likened to other writers.

This beautifully nuanced novel steers a course somewhere between the whimsy of Alice Hoffman, and the compassionate insight of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller, and is sure to delight fans of all three. (Publisher’s weekly)

And as if three (female) writers were not comparison enough we also get this from another review:

Alice Munro fans should lap up this atmospheric and tender novel (Image)

Independent People by Halldor Laxman (1934-5) is a big story about the hard rural life in Iceland. A gnomic comment on the rear cover of my copy merely says:

See also Far From the Madding Crowd.

And Thin Air by Michelle Paver (2016) is described in this way:

… like Touching the Void rewritten by Jack London Thin Air is a heart-freezing masterpiece (The Guardian).

Is Amazon to blame?

We could blame Amazon for this way of describing books, because long ago the website introduced the idea that ‘if you like this book you might also like x, y or z.’ And ‘People who viewed book x also bought book y’. This can be annoying, but I admit that at times it can be helpful.

Marketing by publishers?

These comparisons, extracted from reviews, have a use for publishers,. Quoting them is intended to promote less well-known, less-purchased books on the back of more successful authors. Readers must be hooked in to buy with the hope that by association of the two books the potential purchaser will buy this one. It has a secondary function; the comparison with another known author together with the cover signal the book’s genre – chick lit, noir, classic whodunits and historical romances. It helps the reader place the book.

Not so common now?

I have a feeling that the practice of comparisons, or likenings, is less common than it used to be. But I am not sure. Perhaps I pay less attention to blurbs now my tbr pile is so big, influenced more by reviews and recommendations by friends and fellow-bloggers than reading the blurb.

But it irritates me to bits. I don’t want to know what books or authors are brought to mind for a reviewer. I want to know its quality, something of its plot, about that book, not other books.

What do you think?

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Four more Good Reads

Here are four more books I have recently read and enjoyed:

  • The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud
  • The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  • Wrinkles by Paco Roca
  • The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane
  1. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

197 Mersault coverThis novel is both homage and challenge to L’Etranger by Albert Camus, through its content and it s prose. It tells the story of the Arab, killed almost in passing by Meursault, the anti-hero of Camus ‘s novel. It references L’Etranger directly from its opening to its ending, as the victim’s brother tells his story in a series of late night meetings with an admirer of Camus’s novel in a bar. This framing recalls The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, perhaps intentionally. Both place the reader within the novel.

At one level the novel is about a family’s grief, and what it means to define your life against an absent older brother. His disappearance was complete – no body was found and he was not even given a name by Camus. Daoud calls him Musa.

The Meursault Investigation is also a novel about colonial rule (of Algeria by the French) and the disappointment of Algeria since Independence. It is a story of betrayal and loss, of questioning and regrets.

At times the narrator elides Camus and Mersault, reminding us that Camus came from a French background. Other books by Camus are also referenced. He reserves particular bitterness for to the accolades given his brother’s murderer and ‘his’ book.

75 2 more CamusThe Meursault Investigation does not diminish Camus’s novel, rather provides a new perspective, and allows the reader/listener to bring Algerian experiences into the present day. (Daoud is a journalist who lives in Oran).

Annecdotalist liked much about this novel as she writes on her blog here.

Winner of several prizes including EnglishPEN award – see EnglishPEN’s World Bookshelf.

The Meursault Investigation Kamel Daoud (2014), published by Oneworld 143pp

Translated from the French by John Cullen.

  1. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

9781784630232frcvr.inddI think this is a seriously good novel, told in a strong voice, and with plenty of tension and tenderness. The story unfolds in Belfast over the long weeks of the summer holidays, following eleven-year old Mickey Donnelly. It is the time of the Troubles. Written in the present tense, in Mickey’s voice, we are able to see the world from the perspective of a boy with much to be frightened of: big school, his brother and father, the Prods, the local bullies (girls and boys). He shows us the damaging wash of the Troubles – visits from IRA, fathers being in prison, mysterious visitors, no-go areas of the divided city – and to see the damage wrought by the culture of violence on families, children and communities.

Mickey is intelligent and not keen to be a big tough boy like his older brother. Much of the tension relates to the place he gained at the grammar school and his parents’ decision to send him to the tough local school for lack of money. He has the holidays to figure out how to survive despite the fearsome reputation of St Gabriel’s. He likes to play with Wee Maggie his younger sister and his dog Killer. He loves his Ma. His Da is a drunk and life is better without him, except that Ma loves him. His elder brother Paddy is involved with the IRA, hiding guns in the dog’s sleeping place.

During the summer holidays Mickey takes some family responsibility, learns a thing or two about growing up, and witnesses the worst of life in Belfast in the Troubles. The climax sees him deal with his drunken father and he finds himself ready for senior school.

The Good Son celebrates one boy, a misfit, and the strength of a mother’s determination to protect her family and her good son.

The Good Son by Paul McVeigh (2015), published by Salt 234pp

Shortlisted for the Guardian’s prize Not the Booker Prize (you can vote 6th October).

  1. Wrinkles by Paco Roca

197 Wrinkles coverWrinkles is a graphic novel, what the French call bandes dessinees. Following a review in The Guardian I requested a copy from the local library for research for my new book on ageing.

Wrinkles tells the story of Ernest, a retired bank manager who is increasingly disoriented and so is placed in a care home. He is befriended by his lightfingered roommate who shows him the ropes. The place none of them want to go is upstairs, according to Emile:

‘the upstairs floor is where you find the helpless. Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there. Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s. Better to die than end up there.’ (20)

Ernest is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and in a bid to avoid an eventual move upstairs Emile encourages him to outwit the doctor’s tests and eventually Emile and Ernest make a bid for freedom, a Thelma and Louise kind of thing. But it ends badly, and the ‘big one’ marches on, until Emile is left alone and the story peters out … What endures are the strong emotions and ties between the old people.

The format lends itself to recreating sudden shifts in consciousness; for example showing Ernest’s introduction to the home as his first day at school; the interminable game of bingo, where no one can hear the number called and it has to be repeated ten times; and the stories people are telling themselves like being on a train to Istanbul, being afraid of kidnap by Martians.

Wrinkles by Paco Roca (2007), published by Knockabout 100pp.

Translated from the French by Nora Goldberg.

  1. The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane

197 Wild Places coverI loved this profoundly moving, engaging and erudite tour of the wild places of Britain. Robert Macfarlane is sometimes on his own, sometimes with friends, and occasionally his experience is enlivened by chance encounters.

Structured round a series of visits to different kinds of places – island, valley, moor, forest and so on – The Wild Places follows a year’s journey, as Robert Macfarlane reflects on friendship, humans’ relationship to the earth, history, cruelty, what is known about certain animals or birds, grief, and above all a love of the wild places. He learns more about what makes them wild, and what wild means (not the absence of people’s influence, as he thought when he set out, like the untouched wildernesses of New Zealand) but a kind of ascendancy of nature’s processes: like the work of the sea on the shingle beaches of East Anglia, or the wind shaping the peaks of the mountains.

He introduces us to animals (wild hares), birds (peregrines), and people (his friend Roger Deakin who died while Macfarlane was making his journeys, but had accompanied him on one or two), as well as giving us his descriptions of landscape, presenting researched information about phenomenon, and all in an assured and erudite prose. Writing about the experiences that people have of encounters with the wild places – people brought to sudden states of awe … ‘encounters whose power to move us was beyond expression but also beyond denial’. ‘It is hard to put language to such experiences,’ (236) he explains, but reading this made me see Macfarlane’s talent with language as well as wild sleeping.

Also recommended is The Wild Ways by Robert Macfarlane which I mentioned in my very first post Reading in 2012.

And another supreme writer about the natural world appears in this book briefly and drew the map: Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk.

The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (2007), published by Granta 321pp

 

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Amsterdam Stories

142 Amsterdam BridgeAmsterdam, city of canals, bicycles and Anne Frank. I love it. In 2014 I visited twice, seduced by flights from Exeter Airport and by the reopening of the Rijksmusem. On both occasions I spent a whole day in the museum. Before the second visit I found a list of the ten best books set in Amsterdam, compiled by Malcolm Burgess. I chose two to read while I was there.

The book that dominates Amsterdam is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. But I’m going to sidestep it. I don’t underestimate its significance, charm and poignancy but Amsterdam is much more than the city where Anne Frank lived, hid, wrote and died.142 Am flowers

 

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Translated from the Dutch by Adrienne Dixon.

142 RitualsCees Nooteboom is, according to Malcolm Burgess, the greatest living Dutch novelist and Rituals is his masterpiece. It won the Pegasus Prize in 1981, having been published the previous year. I have to admit that I had not heard of Cees Nooteboom before. I think that this is because I am out of touch with European literature.

I found this a very interesting but troubling book. The Amsterdam setting is without special significance, although it had to be ituated somewhere and I did enjoy recognising some of the places mentioned in the novel.

I found time in the novel was a challenging aspect. There are three episodes related in Rituals, associated with three different people, the narrator, Inni Wintrop, and Arnold and Philip Taads. The Intermezzo is the first movement, set in 1963, the father Arnold Taads in 1953 and then the son leapfrogging ahead to 1973. It is an interesting approach for a novelist and highlighted dimensions of the relationships between the three men in an unsettling way.

The three men have some things in common, all attempt suicide; all try to find answers to the question of how to live by adopting the rituals of the title. Some rituals are formal or recognised: the Roman Catholic Church, Japanese aestheticism and tea rituals, Hari Krishna and nihilism. Others are rituals placed on life by the individuals to give it form: chasing women, selling art, organisation of time, daily rituals and so forth.

Cees Nooteboom appears to be asking how we make meaning from being alive, and how some attempts to understand life are flawed, meaningless and lead to nothing. He is also examining how time affects our understanding. I find this description of the older Tadd’s routines to be nightmarish.

Time, Inni learned that day, was the father of all things in Arnold Taad’s life. He had divided the empty, dangerous expanse of the day into a number of precisely measured parts, and the boundary posts at the beginning and end of each part determined his day with unrelenting sternness. Had he been older, Inni would have known the fear that dominated Arnold Taads demanded its tithes in hours, half hours, and quarter hours, randomly applied points of fracture in the invisible element through which we must wade as long as we live. It was as if, in an endless desert, someone had singled out a particular grain of sand and decided that only there could he eat and read. Each of these preappointed grains of sand called forth, with compelling force, its own complementary activity. A mere ten millimetres further and fate would strike. Someone arriving ten or fifteen minutes early or late was not welcome. The maniacal second hand turned the first page, played the first note on the piano, or, as now, put a pan of goulash on the stove on the last stroke of seven. (84)

This kind of philosophising seems to me to be a European phenomenon. Think of Meursault in Camus’s L’Etranger, dealing with the nothingness of life by committing a random murder.

 

Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton

Translated from the French by Tamsin Black.

142 R's whoreThis novel is a complete contrast to Rituals: it was written in French in 1999, by a woman and is set in the seventeenth century.

The narrator is Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s mistress after the death of his wife Saskia. As the title indicates she is condemned by the elders of Amsterdam. Her story begins when she arrives in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, and takes us through the birth to her daughter to her death. She addresses Rembrandt much of the time. It’s an intimate account of the domestic life of the great master, his business arrangements and financial difficulties, his social relations and daily life in Amsterdam in the mid seventeenth century. Here’s an example taken from her early days in the house.

I always used to look down when I went in to see you. Even when Geertje sent me to your studio in her place with the herrings and the beer. I’d knock gently, three little taps at the door. Come in, you said, and I’d go in. And I’d wait, holding the plate and pitcher, and behind your back I’d watch the picture emerge from your painting. I could see that great greasy crust on the palette of nameless colours, and bladders of paints and pots of oil that smelled of garlic, the hen’s feathers, and lavender. I’d learnt to breathe slowly with my mouth open, and my eyes no longer stung.

Barent Fabritius had given me his hand and brought me right into the pupils’ studio, where the artist who crushes the paint watches the oils heat until they become clear; then he can break up the colour into them. Not too hot, make sure the hen’s feather doesn’t fry in the turpentine. Beside him, an apprentice is stirring the bones and the skin of a rabbit till they melt in a bain-marie – the steam coming off it’s disgusting. If they’re mixed with powdered chalk they’ll turn into skin glue. (19-20)

The research is used to make clear the concreteness of painting and etching, and a visit to the Rembrandtshuis makes clear the physical effort, the smells, textures, shapes and colours with which Rembrandt spent his days. In this way the novel drew me into the life of old Amsterdam and its people. And it was authentic enough to add to the enjoyment of my visit.

The novel’s theme is the importance of art and love over form and narrow-mindedness. But we are reminded that in the end even fate, death, will get you – for some in the form of the plague.

And I will also enjoy the National Gallery exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works (until 18th January and later in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum).

my desk this morning.

my desk this morning.

I may have started a new series of books and cities. The first two posts were

Tales from the Vienna Streets and

Berlin Stories

I’m planning a trip to Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) next year. Any suggestions for related reading? Or any other books set in Amsterdam that you would recommend?

 

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Thinking about … Book Covers

A book’s cover is part of its aesthetic pleasure. This is one reason why I don’t warm to kindles. I’m not a luddite. I felt this way when LP albums gave way to CDs and we needed magnifying glasses to appreciate the cover art. Put it another way, book covers are an art form.

Of course they say you shouldn’t judge a book – and all that – but covers play an important role in placing a book, especially within a genre. I was brought up on Penguins, and not just the orange ones, but the green whodunnits, blue intellectual texts, black classics. Even before they stopped being purely typographical they gave out some information about the contents. Did pretentious youths of both sexes really wander about with the blue ones to impress people with their intellectualism? Oh yes they did!

75 VW mugThe penguins have been such a strong brand that they are marketed on all kinds of merchandise. What booklover hasn’t got at least one mug, tea-towel, totebag adorned with a favourite novel?

75 Steb mug

Among my favourite livery in the ‘70s and ‘80s were the green covers of Virago books, and the zebra stripes of The Women’s Press. When I moved to London in the early ‘80s I visited an English teacher who lived in Camden. Her bookcase full of the green-backed Virago books made a huge impression on me. The reproduction of a painting on the cover of those books were additional delights. The new livery is nothing like as pleasing. Blogs sometimes comment that the original Virago cover was an improvement on the current jackets, especially for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels.

Today the elegant dove-grey Persephone books, with the addition of the delightful endpapers, have replaced Virago’s covers in my affection. It helps that Persephone is mainly dedicated to women writers and to neglected books. The Persephone endpapers are photographs of colourful fabrics associated with the period of the book’s original publication. And at the shop you get a matching bookmark. Love it!

Of course, these covers, identified by their uniform colour might appeal to people who organise their books by either publisher or colour. There are people who do both, see the blogpost How do you organise your books? People like the Camden English teacher. Or my nephew.

The cover of a book has always been key to my memories of it. I remember the colour and size, even if I can’t remember where it is now I have moved after 30 years.

The Guardian’s paper version of Geoff Dyer’s tribute to Albert Camus in the series my My Hero was accompanied by six different penguin covers for The Outsider. For some reason the on-line version here has a moody black and white picture of le grand homme, smoking. The six covers are fascinating, of their time and all saying something about the alienation of the novel’s narrator.

75 Etr covers

And here are a further two covers from my shelves. (The French version is nearly 50 years old!)

75 2 more Camus

I am getting interested in the production of book covers. Some of the smaller independent publishers have encouraged innovative and imaginative book covers – Peirene Press and Salt Publishing for example. My co-author and I are excited about the cover of our forthcoming book, Retiring with Attitude. Retiring is a word that describes what is no longer, difficult to capture visually. We wait to see what the designers will produce.

Here are some links to other sites looking at cover design.

London Fictions has a great page exploring some of the covers of historical London fiction. You can find it here. Actually it’s a great blog, celebrating a rich seam of fiction, lots of it.

In 2012 one hundred artists from 28 countries were asked to draw attention to illiteracy by the Belgian graphic design studio beshart by designing covers for the Observer’s 100 best novels of all time, plus 10 Belgian novels. I can’t remember where I first came across this wonderful site, but I could browse for hours among doedemee’s 100 covers here. Great project.

And this one does what it says on the tin: The Book Cover Archive. I think this might be book designer’s porn.

Authors, especially self-publishing authors, might want guidance about covers. Here’s some from Writer.ly blog, three articles. They cover colour, legibility focusing on fonts, and DIY covers.

 

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