Tuesday, November 22, 2022

let's polish up this list, me old dutch

Obviously I can't leave that link at the bottom of the last book post hanging, so here's an updated version of the list in that 2015 post about novels originally written in other languages, and read, by me, just to be absolutely clear, in English translations. I think the only novel I've read any substantial amount of in another language was Le Grand Meaulnes which I was required to have a crack at in about 1986 as part of the AO Level French syllabus (and as you can see below I cheated a bit by having an English copy to hand as well). As an aside, even if your spoken/written French is reasonably good, as mine was, the bar to reading novels in French is fairly high owing to the sudden lobbing-in of a whole new tense (almost never used in colloquial French) and associated verb forms that you have to get to grips with. 

Anyway, the main thing to note here is that the two most prominent European languages that were missing (and which I specifically mentioned in the previous post) are now ticked off: Polish by Solaris and Dutch by The Dinner. There are still a few more obscure European languages omitted, most notably Finnish, Romanian and Bulgarian, but there is a lower probability of coming across one of those on a random browse through a second-hand bookshop. I'm taking the view here that my reading of some of the Moomin books with Alys doesn't count, especially since the bare minimum of research after writing the first half of this sentence reveals that while Tove Jansson was Finnish the Moomin books were actually written in Swedish.

the last book I read

The Dinner
by Herman Koch.

Well, you know what they say - you can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relatives. So when Paul Lohman gets a call from his brother Serge inviting him to dinner at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant he is not immediately filled with joy. But, nonetheless, turning Serge down isn't really an option for a number of reasons - firstly, Serge is a man of some power and influence, a successful politician and a possible candidate for Prime Minister at the next election, and so generally what Serge wants Serge gets. 

But there is another reason as well, and that has to do with their respective children: Paul and his wife Claire's son Michel, and Serge and his wife Babette's two sons, Rick and Beau. Something has happened, and the families need to discuss it in order to decide what to do about it. But broaching this sort of subject is a bit awkward, as Paul isn't sure how much (if anything) Claire knows already, and it's generally the sort of distasteful subject you want to knock back a couple of bottles of wine before discussing.

Eventually (via a series of flashbacks) the point of this particular meeting in this particular restaurant emerges: Rick and Michel have committed a crime. Not just any old crime, though: murder, or manslaughter at the very least. On a night out a few weeks previously they went to withdraw some cash from an ATM and found access blocked by a homeless woman in a sleeping bag. During the course of some light recreational putting the boot in things got out of hand, some of the debris in the ATM enclosure proved unexpectedly flammable and, well, one thing led to another and she died. I mean, we've all done it, right? Learn a lesson, don't set fire to any more homeless people and we'll say no more about it. Trouble is, it's not quite that simple any more. Some grainy footage of the incident has been uploaded to YouTube and been picked up by the news networks. No-one's obviously identifiable, but the parents know who is who. But who uploaded the video? Not Michel or Rick, it seems. But it seems that Beau, Serge and Babette's adopted son from Burkina Faso, may have played a part and moreover may be blackmailing the other two boys.

We now get some back-story, partly to establish the kids' characters a bit, but mainly to focus on Paul. Formerly a history teacher, his teaching career came to an abrupt end after what he makes sound like a minor series of infringements - an unnecessarily aggressive review of a female student's work, some mildly contrarian in-lesson discussions about the holocaust - but which we soon realise are filtered through a pretty dense Unreliable Narrator filter. It's not just that, though - later on while Paul is being a house-husband his wife Claire gets ill and spends quite a bit of time in hospital, and it's clear (though Paul doesn't describe it this way) that he (left in sole charge of Michel) doesn't cope very well, and when Serge and Babette come round to suggest that they look after Michel for a while he belts Serge in the kisser with a hot saucepan.

Later on, when one of Michel's school essays is deemed to contain some unacceptable thoughts on the subject of capital punishment, Paul is summoned to the school for a discussion with the headmaster, a discussion which culminates in Paul beating the headmaster up. 

So we are invited to be mildly suspicious about Paul's motivations, and about how many of his slightly worrying personality traits he might have passed on to Michel (generally regarded by both sets of parents as the ringleader in any cousinly activity). Serge, on the other hand, seems to want some sort of public confession and proposes holding a public press conference to simultaneously reveal his own son and nephew as the perpetrators and announce the end to his own candidacy for Prime Minister. Paul and Claire quickly agree that this cannot be allowed to happen and hatch a scheme to stop him.

The book this reminded me of most strongly was We Need To Talk About Kevin with its basic theme of Middle-Class People Fucking Up Their Kids And Generally Being Awful. I haven't read it but The Slap seems to cover similar territory. As a reader your main feeling is that you're being goaded into taking up positions of general intolerant awfulness: yeah, OK, homeless people should make an effort not to be so malodorous or it's no wonder people set fire to them; yes, of course the general bleeding-heart sensitivity of modern students makes you want to punch them square in the face; yes, those who adopt children from African countries only do it for some sort of Madonna-esque virtue-signalling; yes, of course the kids adopted via this route will betray you, their saintly white benefactors, at the drop of a hat. The other thing I was put in mind of was the work of Michel Houellebecq, though to be fair The Dinner is less overtly racist and bonkers. 

So it's enjoyable reading, though bracingly cynical and with no attempt to make you warm to any of the characters. I haven't checked exhaustively but I think it may also be the first novel on this list originally written in Dutch - certainly this list from 2015 reckons that there hadn't been any yet.

[POSTSCRIPT] I meant to add for completeness that The Dinner has been filmed three times, once in Dutch, once in Italian and once in English. I suppose it's obvious material for filming - spicy subject matter, but most of the action happening to four characters sitting round a restaurant table, so presumably fairly cheap to film. Anyway, the English version starred Richard Gere and Steve Coogan as the brothers and Laura Linney, Rebecca Hall and Chloë Sevigny in supporting roles - three women, incidentally, because the film-makers chose to give Serge (Gere) a wife and an ex-wife for some reason.

Monday, November 21, 2022

grim (reaper) and bear it

No sooner has a respectable period of mourning and scythe-sharpening elapsed after the death of Hilary Mantel than the Grim Blogger strikes again. And once again it's someone who, while not seventeen or anything, was perhaps not at the top of the list of expected next victims. And that person is science fiction author Greg Bear, who died at the weekend after heart surgery complications at the age of 71. 

The inordinate length of time it took me to get round to reading Eternity means that the "curse length" value for Bear in the table is one of the lowest at only just over a year - only Michael Dibdin, José Saramago and Philip Roth's deaths had a shorter gestation period. This feels a bit odd, though, as it's been at least 30 years, probably a bit more, since I read Eon. But, hey, I don't make the rules. Oh, hang on ..... I'm getting a message in my earpiece that says I literally do make the rules, in their entirety. But, whatever, here is the full list of all thirty-two authors who have met their demise during the lifetime of this blog.

Author Date of first book Date of death Age Curse length
Michael Dibdin 31st January 2007 30th March 2007 60 0y 59d
José Saramago 9th May 2009 18th June 2010 87 1y 40d
Beryl Bainbridge 14th May 2008 2nd July 2010 77 2y 50d
Russell Hoban 23rd August 2010 13th December 2011 86 1y 113d
Richard Matheson 7th September 2011 23rd June 2013 87 1y 291d
Iain Banks 6th November 2006 9th June 2013 59 6y 218d
Elmore Leonard April 16th 2009 20th August 2013 87 4y 128d
Doris Lessing 8th May 2007 17th November 2013 94 6y 196d
Gabriel García Márquez 10th July 2007 17th April 2014 87 6y 284d
Ruth Rendell 23rd December 2009 2nd May 2015 85 5y 132d
James Salter 4th February 2014 19th June 2015 90 1y 136d
David Cook 24th February 2009 16th September 2015 74 6y 205d
Henning Mankell 6th May 2013 5th October 2015 67 2y 152d
William McIlvanney 7th September 2010 5th December 2015 79 5y 90d
Umberto Eco 30th June 2012 19th February 2016 84 3y 234d
Anita Brookner 15th July 2011 10th March 2016 87 4y 240d
William Trevor 29th May 2010 20th November 2016 88 6y 177d
John Berger 10th November 2009 2nd January 2017 90 7y 55d
Nicholas Mosley 24th September 2011 28th February 2017 93 5y 159d
Helen Dunmore 10th March 2008 5th June 2017 64 9y 89d
JP Donleavy 21st May 2015 11th September 2017 91 2y 114d
Ursula Le Guin 6th December 2015 22nd January 2018 88 2y 49d
Anita Shreve 2nd September 2006 29th March 2018 71 11y 211d
Philip Roth 23rd December 2017 22nd May 2018 85 0y 150d
Justin Cartwright 7th September 2008 3rd December 2018 75 10y 89d
Toni Morrison 18th July 2010 5th August 2019 88 9y 20d
Charles Portis 3rd April 2018 17th February 2020 86 1y 320d
Alison Lurie 24th March 2007 3rd December 2020 95 13y 254d
John le Carré 21st February 2008 12th December 2020 89 12y 295d
Joan Didion 14th December 2010 23rd December 2021 87 11y 12d
Hilary Mantel 22nd October 2010 22nd September 2022 70 11y 338d
Greg Bear 4th October 2021 19th November 2022 71 1y 48d

Monday, November 07, 2022

the last book I read

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry.

Tom McNulty is just a simple Irish country boy in the mid-19th century American west. And what is there for a simple Irish country boy to do in the mid-19th century American west? Well, there's always showbiz. Tom and his friend John Cole, wandering teenage wastrels both, happen into a saloon in rural Missouri where the landlord is on the lookout for an act. I mean, ideally some girls to entertain the punters, but girls being in short supply he has the idea of putting these two pretty young teenage boys into some flouncy dresses and having them cavort around the stage.

And a very fine job the boys make of it as well, and they're quite the sensation in the local area. But eventually the bloom of youth wears off them and they're a bit too burly and stubbly to convince any more, not to mention having trouble fitting into the frocks. so it's a regretful farewell to the stage and off to enlist in the army, this being the obvious other thing for young men without much of that fancy book-learnin' to do.

Plenty for army boys to do in these exciting times, not least persuading those pesky native tribes to vacate the land so that the American Dream can be enacted upon it. During the course of a particularly brutal purge of some Sioux, Tom and John find themselves entrusted with the care of Winona, a young Sioux girl whose family have been massacred. During a break from fighting they set up home together as a little family group.

It should probably be made clear at this point that Tom and John Cole are more than just good pals, topping chums, brothers in arms, etc. This is hinted slightly coyly in the early part of the book and then driven home, as it were, with this short paragraph:

Righto, then. During this period of tranquility Tom resumes his habit of wearing women's clothing, sometimes for showbiz purposes, sometimes just casually round the house.

All good things must some to an end, though, and this time it's not the natives that need quelling (though there's always a bit of that going on in the background); no, this time it's white man against white man in the American Civil War. If anything this requires wading through even more brutal slaughter than before, not to mention a period of being captured by Confederate troops, imprisoned, and barely avoiding starving to death. After finally being released they collect Winona and make their way down to Tennessee where an old army friend is running a tobacco farm and needs help. 

Once again there is a brief period of tranquility and domestic bliss, and once again it's short-lived - first some dubious characters that they met on the road on the way to Tennessee and exchanged gunfire with track them down and require further gunfire and close-range slaughtering to get rid of, and secondly word comes from Tom and John's old commanders in their Sioux-quelling days that a bargain has been struck for the return of some white hostages, but that it involves giving Winona back to what remains of her family. 

Tom re-enlists in the army and delivers Winona back to reluctantly oversee her handover. As it happens after someone looks at someone in a funny way or coughs at the wrong moment the handover descends into a hail of hot lead and arrows in both directions and Tom and Winona are just about able to escape and make their way back to Tennessee, though not without Tom having to dispatch an old colleague of his who is intent on killing Winona.

And so domestic bliss descends again. There is, however, the small matter of Tom's desertion from the army and that small and isolated incident of murder, and sure enough eventually the authorities come for him. Rather than have everyone on the farm dispatched in a climactic gun battle Tom consents to be taken away to trial. Is this finally it, or will there be a last-minute reprieve?

Well, more in that in a minute. This is variously a story of war and conflict, a love story and an empowering LGBTQ+ story - in that while obviously the central couple of Tom and John are gay there's also the element of what you might call, if you were so inclined, Tom's genderfluidity, or, if you preferred, Tom's penchant for wearing dresses. There's an oddly dreamlike quality to the whole thing that means that while some of the descriptions of people being decapitated by cannonballs are quite graphic, there's never much of a sense of immediate peril to the main protagonists (contrast, for instance, with something like Blood Meridian which is set at a similar time). The first-person viewpoint contributes, of course: unless you're doing something slightly experimental or you're going to switch viewpoints dramatically your I-guy isn't going to die halfway through the book. The whole business with Winona is slightly odd, too: she pretty much instantly switches to regarding Tom and John as surrogate parents, despite them being implicated in the wholesale slaughter of her actual family before (to their credit, obviously) saving her. And finally (PLOT SPOILER ALERT) while the temptation to give Tom a last-minute reprieve and a happy ending was evidently overwhelming, I couldn't honestly say the resulting plot swerve was very plausible.

So it was fine, but I can't say I was knocked sideways by it in quite the same way as the judges for the 2016 Costa Book Award evidently were. My list (i.e. ones I've read) for the novel award here goes: 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1987, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2016, 2019. Days Without End also won the 2017 Walter Scott Prize, a relatively new award specifically dedicated to historical fiction; Wolf Hall is the only other winner I've read.