Monthly Archives: June 2013

Lost in fiction in translation

I have heard that publishers calculate a ceiling of about 3000 readers for any translated fiction. Only 3000! Are you one of the 3000? Perhaps you have contributed to the Scandinavian crime wave? Or have a copy of Kafka’s stories on your shelf.

Do you think that 3000 is a small number? I do, and I find it both very surprising and very depressing. It’s surprising because there is so much good fiction in translation. And it’s depressing because that kind of figure makes it harder for publishers to think of fiction in translation as a viable economic prospect. And because readers are missing out on innovative and enjoyable fiction.

Is it a small number because there is just so much good fiction in English that we don’t need to bother? Well that’s a very insular attitude. But the following figures suggest there might be some truth in it.

4.5% of literature published in the UK is translation. Compare with

3% in USA

12% in Germany

15% in France

24% in Spain

46% in Poland (figures from Publishing Perspectives)

It is possible that the figure is low because readers don’t get to hear enough about fiction in translation. So let’s celebrate those who promote it.

First: those imaginative, independent publishers: such as And Other Stories, Peirene Press and Quercus.

Second: The prizes: there are four to keep an eye on.

  1. The Man Booker International Prize, which in 2013 contained only 3 English language contenders (Lydia Davis won).
  2. IMPAC is the Dublin-based International Literary prize, in which public libraries feature strongly in making nominations. This year on the shortlist of ten novels, five were in translation.
  3. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
  4. The Society of Authors also administers prizes for translation in a whole range of different languages.

Third: A number of other literary organisations support literature in translation in their programmes. One is the Booktrust which has a downloadable pamphlet of recommendations by 20 writers, called Discover a World of Reading. And there’s English PEN, Free Word and the London Review of Books.

Fourth: We should recognise the work of the translators. And I’m thrilled that one of the translators mentioned below taught me languages at school. Nice connection.

36 Translation

Here’s my list of twelve books in translation not to be missed. No particular order.

  • WG Sebald anything by him. Translated by Michael Hulse and others (German)
  • Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast. Translated by Jamie Bullock (German)
  • Tove Jansson The Summer Book. Translated by Thomas Teal. (Swedish/Finland)
  • Per Petterson Out Stealing Horses. Translated by Anne Born. Winner of 2007 IMPAC Award (Norwegian)
  • Gerbrand Bakker The Twin. Translated by David Colman. Winner of 2010 IMPAC Award, and The Detour Winner of 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (Dutch)
  • Italo Calvino If on a winter’s Night a Traveller. Translated by William Weaver. (Italian)
  • Andrey Kurkov Death and the Penguin Translated by George Bird (Russian/Ukraine)
  • Diego Marani The New Finnish Grammar. Translated by Judith Landry (Italian)
  • Orphan Pamuk Various. Winner of 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. Translation by Maureen Freely and others. (Turkish)
  • Irene Nemirovsky Suite Francaise. Translated by Sandra Smith (French)
  • Heinrich Boll The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Translated by Leila Vennewitz (German)
  • Evelio Rosero Armies. Translated by Anne Mclean. Winner of 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. (Spanish/Columbia)

And then of course there are the classics, a list of which might start with these …

  • Cervantes Don Quixote no 1 on The Guardian’s 100 best novels list (Spanish)
  • Tolstoy War and Peace (Russian)
  • Erich Maria Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front (German)
  • Di Lampedusa The Leopard (Italian)
  • Flaubert Madame Bovary (French)
  • Alain-Fournier Le Grand Meaulnes (French) and ….

With so much excellent fiction being identified by publishers and prizes, and all that close and creative work being undertaken by translators, that figure of 3000 readers really should be higher.

Ok, that’s 17 books I’ve mentioned – at least. What have I left out? What would you recommend? Has you reading group found a gem not listed here?

36 Ignorance script

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Decluttering my books

Books and declutter; I am not sure whether those two words can belong in the same sentence. But I am hearing other people combine them because I am moving. Moving house that is. Moving house means moving everything inside the house that isn’t nailed to the floor: my furniture, my clothes, the lamps, the food in my fridge and my books. As soon as I told them I was moving, kind friends began asking how I am getting on with decluttering and something they call ‘sorting out my books’. I consider my response: I’m not – getting on with it, that is; books aren’t clutter; my books don’t need sorting. In that pause my friends think I am considering the size of this task. Sometimes they add – ‘books are so dusty’ or ‘aren’t books heavy’. Both statements are true but obvious. Milk goes off. Someone’s hidden my Allen keys.

Now I am not being precious about books. I write in them, their corners get manked because I carry them in my rucksack, I stick post-it notes and those lovely plastic coloured page markers in them, give them away, and even throw them away sometimes. I just assume I’m going to have books around me, like mugs, spiders and socks with holes in the toes.

My Inner Critic pops up to remind me that I have not solved the problem of where I am going to keep my books in my new house. I anticipate hours of moving books around, organising shelves, changing my mind, sitting and reading a rediscovered volume, or searching for the companion to (say) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson: ie Housekeeping and wondering if I can buy the recently released paperback version of her essays When I was a child I read books yet. Or wondering why I need three German-English-Deutsch dictionaries. I do, I do. Oh bliss!


Back to disposing of books. In preparation for my move I have been forced to look in my cellar, where I find that there are boxes of books (and it has to be admitted other things, such as a roof rack, paint tins, suitcases of different sizes, cat basket, empty jam jars, a box of tile spacers and other potentially useful stuff. I have neither cat nor car, by the way). The thing about the boxes of books (but not those other things) is that they have been there since I moved in 29 years ago. I try to apply a general principle that if I have not looked at them in 29 years I am unlikely to want to look at them in the next 29, so I can move them out and on. But of course this breaks down as soon as I come across War and Peace in two volumes, or Julian Barnes’ early works, or The Tin Drum. Rather than a decluttering fest I have a delightful and time-consuming reunion with many of my books.

In the past I have tried throwing out a book every time I buy a new one. I have cut down hugely on book buying in the last few years by the simple expedient of using several libraries. But I do still buy books. For example, this week I had to get EM Forster’s A Passage to India. I went to the shelf where I keep his novels and I was rather horrified to find it was not there. I wanted to check the name of the older woman who hears the sound in the Malabar Caves – it’s Mrs Moore. Not having a copy made me want to read it. And I seem to have given myself another problem: what should I throw out to make way for this new book?

Here are some of my criteria for ejection. I usually need at least six of these to apply before I dispose of a book:

  • I’m unlikely to read it again.
  • It was not especially remarkable in the first place.
  • It’s a duplicate because I forgot I already had a copy.
  • It’s on a topic I am unlikely to read about in the future (eg most of my university history books).
  • It was given to me by someone I hate.
  • No-one wants this book because it’s an out of date text book.

And what do I do with them if the decision is OUT? Usually I take them to the local charity shop. Sometimes I give them away. Occasionally I put a book that no one will ever want in the recycling bag.


For a couple of years I passed on books through something called BookCrossing. You register the book on the website and if the person who finds it reports its location you can track its journey. One book, left in Gordon Square ended up in New York. Who knows where it has gone now. But not enough people reported finding them to hold my interest, so I stopped doing it. I liked the idea of people finding books on buses, in cafes, in cinema foyers.

Are you one of those people who can’t throw any books away? Or do you have a system for keeping your collection under control? Go on, say it, you have a Kindle.  But a Kindle would not help me in the onerous task of moving house, would it?


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Let us now praise the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Let us now praise the institution that this year was called The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’ve just finished reading all six shortlisted novels. They were all good, providing interesting subject matter, innovation and excellent writing. Six great reads! Here’s a reminder of the shortlist.

Hilary Mantel Bring up the Bodies

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour

AM Homes May we be forgiven

Zadie Smith NW

Maria Semple Where’d you go Bernadette

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

34 AM Holmes

I don’t believe it makes much difference to women’s fiction who won: it was AM Holmes. And whoever wins, I like a literary event that foregrounds women writers. With some women writers apparently sweeping all before them (think Hilary Mantel and JK Rowling) it has been questioned whether we still need a prize for fiction by women. I wont repeat the arguments so well made by Danuta Kean in Why We Need The Women’s Prize, except to notice once again that fiction by women is disadvantaged in the review pages of literary journals and newspapers. Fewer books by women than by men are reviewed. Not surprisingly there are also fewer women reviewers.

Next year the prize will be sponsored by Baileys. Thanks to those who kept the prize afloat while a replacement sponsor was sought. Kate Mosse was awarded a well-deserved OBE in the Birthday Honours, for services to literature. She was one of the founders of the prize and chairs the board

Here are my brief reviews of the two shortlisted novels that I read most recently.


Maria Semple Where’d you go, Bernadette?

A racy read, almost a romp through contemporary electronic or wired life, set in Seattle, complete with Microsoft, TED talks, and high pressure sales ideas to ‘up-class’ the local school.

Bee is 15 (although she actually seemed much younger to me, more like 12 – no adolescent angst), and the only child of two high achieving parents. Her father Elgie is a top thinker with Microsoft, and her mother, Bernadette was once a cutting edge architect. Both parents come croppers – Bernadette through experiencing failure to preserve her twenty-mile house (a nice eco idea) and her husband by being immersed in MS before he finds his project is expendable.

The novel is the record of the disappearance of Bernadette, after some high stress middle class rage between her, her fellow Moms at Bee’s school, and her husband. Some of the plot is a little far fetched, but enjoyable for all that: eg a trip to Antarctica, the very handy on-line assistant, supposedly in India, who arranges every detail of the trip, the FBI investigation and the psychologist’s intervention.

Bee, of course, is high performing and it is she who presents the fast-paced narrative through the documentary evidence, itself saying something about the trail our lives leave: emails, letters, electronic records, faxes etc. When Bernadette wants to disappear she has to find a way to achieve it outside the electronic records. The novel concludes with a letter from Bernadette, sent via snail mail, which happily brings the family back together. The father never quite emerges as a rounded character, but comes good in the end. I wonder if this novel would also work as YA fiction?

Behind all this action are themes about the effects of the internet on our lives, how we can escape or use it, exploit it or be abused by it.

34 Life after Life

Kate Atkinson Life after Life

The device of this novel is that our heroine Ursula lives her life multiple times. There are a number of logical difficulties with this: are we to consider that this happens to everyone, or just her? Does Ursula have some special destiny, and if so what? Is this device to show that small things can lead a life along paths that are horrendous, and can the same be said of missed opportunities? So is it the case that when she failed to deny the bullying American boy a kiss it leads to rape, pregnancy, life-threatening abortion and finally death at the hands of an abusive husband thereby missing her opportunity to kill Hitler in the early ‘30s?

Ursula is born in 1910 to well-to-do parents, her father a banker, her mother a rather free spirit. She dies, nearly dies and then survives again and again. She has brothers and sisters, lovers, two husbands, servants, a rather wild aunt, and other friends who move in and out of her lives, survive or don’t survive. They experience European twentieth century history: the First World War, influenza epidemic, inter-war years, the second world war. The scenes in blitzed London are especially vivid – Ursula is an ARP warden. In another life she marries a German and survives in Berlin until the final days of the war, fearful of the prospect of Russian liberation.

So many lives mean so many deaths, so it is quite a stressful book. The deaths are Ursula’s but also her father’s, mother’s, cousin’s and just about every character at some time or other. It is an interesting way of writing a family saga, revealing different things about the people in every life.

The novel forces us to ask about the relationship between fate and freewill, and if it is possible to learn from lives we never knew we had, whether individual people really influence history. If Cleopatra’s nose had been a millimetre longer would the course of world history have been different? Discuss.

But in the end, can there be an end? Does she get her life right somehow, and if so, what is it that makes it right? Why would it ever stop, this succession of lives, there would always be another one. Ursula herself asks,

What had the Fuhrer’s apprenticeship for greatness been? Eva [Braun] shrugged, she didn’t know. “He’s always been a politician. He was born a politician.” No, thought Ursula, he was born a baby, like everyone else. And this is what he has chosen to become. (p332)

Now is that true, that we can choose who or what we become?


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Reading for writers

What must you do to be a writer? There are two things, according to Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing. The first is to ‘read a lot’.

Plenty of writers agree with him. Twenty-two writers provided Dos and Don’ts for the Guardian book Write, and seven of them mention reading. PD James, for example, says,

Read widely and with discrimination.

Hilary Mantel recommends a specific book that has influenced many writers, and I referred to and quoted from it in a recent post about writing routines. She says,

Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible.

Colm Tobin is also specific.

If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

And Will Self is typically contrary.

Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer).

These brief points were collected from short pieces in the Guardian Review.

33 Guardbk Write

But what is the purpose of reading for a writer – apart from enjoyment? You might be looking for models, as Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, tells us

Hemingway studied as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; EM Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust.

I’ve read some of these, know the names of others, and had to look up Sherwood Anderson (I am ashamed to admit). I’ve got some reading to do!

Geoff Dyer, in his contribution to the Guardian supplement How to Write Fiction, suggests that reading will ‘inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life’. (Note: not just your writing, but your writing life).

Reading is not just part of your apprenticeship; it continues to inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life – and it is never passive. … One’s reading does not have to be confined to the commanding – and thereby discouraging – heights of the truly great. Take a look at what’s happening on the lower slopes, even in the crowded troughs.

I especially like Dyer’s advice to look at the lower slopes and even in the troughs, as well as the heights. What works, what doesn’t, what feels authentic, what is hackneyed, clumsy, elegant, elegiac, poignant, daring – we read to find these things. That’s why it is never passive.

Passive reading, then, is not enough. Read with a consciousness of technique, says Ursula K le Guin. Read  the classics in order to learn what a writer can do with the English language. For her book, Steering the Craft, she turned a workshop into a self-guided set of discussion topics and exercises for writers. ‘Reading with a consciousness of technique in mind, would be useful as well as enjoyable,’ she suggests. She goes on to show how in chapters on sound, sentences, point of view, with examples from such classic texts as Jane Eyre, and by Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain.

I particularly like two how-to-write books that feature reading.

First: Jurgen Wolff’s Your Creative Writing Masterclass, which draws on the expertise of writers of novels, screenplays and short stories to provide material for his masterclass.

Charles Dickens drops in to demonstrate how to create exciting characters, Ernest Hemingway helps you figure out how to write concisely and powerfully, and Jane Austen shows you how to warm to an unsympathetic character…

The chapter on conflict, for example, refers to John le Carre, Ayn Rand, Elizabeth Bowen and Raymond Chandler. A wide choice, and some names recur.

Second: Reading Like a Writer: a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them was written by the felicitously named Francine Prose. She argues for close, slow and careful reading in this way.

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses note, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted,

And she demonstrates the value of close reading by exploring the opening paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. And so on, through chapters about sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue and gesture, each liberally illustrated with examples. Each one a reason to read more. And she includes three pages on books to be read immediately, including Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway and others already mentioned. Nothing by Sherwood Anderson however.

33 F Prose

Have you heard the advice to aspiring writers that they should not read while writing? The argument is that they will be influenced by what they read. I wonder why it is considered a bad thing. My writing would definitely benefit from the influences of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor and, maybe, from Sherwood Anderson. And we are not writing in isolation. The very words we use have been wrought by use, their meanings shifting with use by speakers, readers and writers. We write, so to speak, into the tradition of previous writers: in forms, structures, conventions, techniques, vocabulary all of it. Think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She is sending up the gothic novel, but she is also writing about reading and its influence. Or we are writing to challenge the traditions, or boundaries. Think of the writers who consciously forged new forms like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, for example; or who experiment with time lines (Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man); or with our established ideas of what fiction is (WG Sebald) and so on.

I am just finishing the revisions of a co-authored non-fiction book. (More on this in later posts). Our editor asked us to give our draft manuscript ‘more edge’ and I found a great example in Charlie Brooker’s I can make you hate. Reading his columns helped us understand how to engage the reader more directly, to find a hook for the chapter, how juxtaposing apparently unconnected things (eg: Nick Clegg, Maxine Carr and the go compare tenor; Nick Clegg and Pudsey Bear; patriotism and chocolate) can pique interest and make serious points with wit. We didn’t want to imitate his style, but we learned from his approach, and I got to fume about a number of topics (but not to hate).

33 Ch Brooker

Let’s return to Stephen King.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

So the second rule for writers is ‘Write’. There are only two rules.

What books are inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life?

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My American Penfriend

So what’s it like, this blogging? my friends would ask when I set up about six months ago. Very few people I know are involved in blogging. Something to do with their preferred modes of on-line communication I think.

Not like anything I’ve ever done, I would answer. But recently it has occurred to me that it is a bit like something I have done – writing to a penfriend. I haven’t met most of the people who read this blog, and I hadn’t met either of my two penfriends when I began to correspond with them. It’s a periodic, episodic kind of communication; every now and again I write something of interest to me and sometimes people reply. I can select the content of my letters/posts. Writing a blog and writing to a penfriend are both about communicating, about making connections, through the written word.

My first penfriend was Matilda Mayer, a girl of my age, 12 or 13, who lived in Mauritius. I liked getting the airmail envelopes with the exotic stamps, but sadly remember very little about the content of our letters. Nor do I remember why or how we stopped corresponding. I do remember thinking that it was very exotic to live on an island in the Indian Ocean. I think of her whenever I hear Mauritius mentioned.

My second pen-friendship was more recent, from 1990 to 1996. Robert O’Neal’s address was Potosi Correctional Center, Mineral Point, Missouri, USA. Potosi is a prison, nothing correctional about it. When I first wrote to Robert I asked him what he wanted me to write about and whether would it be disturbing to him to hear about my life. He told me he would love to hear my stories. So over the years he read about my daily life in North London, my holidays in Europe, incidents – and there were many – in the lively school in a deprived area of London where I worked, about my daughter, my friends and my cat – although he preferred dogs.

One time he was really excited to see my street on tv. An IRA bomber cell had stopped their van at the top of my street, and shot and wounded a police officer in the chase. I had slept through the whole incident. Irritated that my paper had not been delivered I opened my front door to find a line of English bobbies on their hands and knees across the street, doing a fingertip search. Robert loved this kind of detail. I was writing a kind of dedicated, individualised blog for him.

He responded with stories from his life in Potosi and eventually some things about his life before he was sent to prison. He told me when he got into trouble, about his friends, the progress of his appeal, his frustrations with his legal situation, about his failed attempt at escape and the punishment that ensued. Sometimes he picked out a poem he liked from Palgrave’s Treasury, which I had sent him. He would tell me what he liked about it. He tried writing poems himself. Then he took up fiction writing, fantasy fiction and sent me long unedited stories. I preferred his letters, because they were more concerned with him, but I understood that he liked to escape into the worlds he had created.

Robert was white, in his 30s, from a less than affluent background, with a troubled childhood that had resulted in him being ejected from his school. He had never really got a good foothold in adult life. We wrote about 200 letters to each other and we sent each other postcards. I was able to send him books and tapes before the prison authorities became more strict and they were banned.

Through writing letters he became my friend. I cared about him and about the life he was in. We were able, as friends are, to add to each other’s lives. He was very much in my life; I would always be thinking about my next letter, as I am about the next post on my blog. This will amuse Robert, I should tell him about this, what would he think of this, would run through my head. I went to visit Robert in Potosi. Twice. I still miss him and think about him, cherish his memory. He was executed in 1996.

32.ROn & me

I found out about the organisation LifeLines from an article in the Independent about the pen-friendship between a woman in the UK and a prisoner on death row in Louisiana (I think). I could do that, I thought. And so I did. I have recently seen an advert for LifeLines in Amnesty magazine and been involved in some Tweets about LifeLines. They need letter writers for prisoners on death row. I wonder about starting over, making a new friend.

I hope, dear reader, you don’t need my words as much as Robert did. And perhaps you might consider writing to someone on Death Row?

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What I did on my holidays …

Just as the weather improved and summer arrived all at once I spent three days on the Northumbrian coast, near Lindisfarne, with my dear friend Jane. We enjoyed together walks along the beaches and cliffs, visits to the monuments and sights, the fresh air and sun, and having nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.

Book- and word-related events of our three days included …Imagining that the high tide flooding of the causeway to Holy Island as an ideal plot device. Twice a day the village is cut off. Dire warnings are posted about checking the tide. It comes in quickly. One could imagine a chase, the pursued just escaping with wet feet or in a 4X4 with slightly larger wheels than their follower’s. In that story there would be not only a chase, but a ‘locked room’ mystery, for this story must hinge on the isolation of the island community, cut off from the mainland twice daily.


In St Abbs we visited the converted primary school, now a café with great homemade soup and stotties. There were shelves of books for sale to raise money for the St Abbs community, which runs its own harbour. I found a copy of The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, which I bought for £1 and gave to Jane. Recycling books. Great.


Overlooking St Abbs Harbour there is a very moving bronze monument by Jill Watson: ‘Commissioned by the people of Berwickshire to commemorate the women and children left by the East Coast Fishing Disaster of 1881.’ The figures, about four inches high, look out to sea. There is a story here. On 14th October 1881 a great storm hit the east coast and 189 fishermen were lost.


The Ramparts Walk at Berwick-upon-Tweed is a perfect setting for a lovers’ tryst in a historical romance, a Montagu/Capulet affair, with allegiances both north and south of the border …

Reading in bed, while the blackbird shouts at the cat in the B&B garden; The Heart Broke In by James Meek from the Fiction Uncovered 2013 list.

This would be an ideal place for a writing retreat. Wide skies, the sea, friendly hospitable people but not very many of them, good walks, interesting sites to visit (for your Artist’s Date), perfect weather.


Lots of really good talk with a very good friend.


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