Books Read – Summer Catch-Up

Haven’t been updating over the summer, but I’ve certainly been reading (see little reviews). Here are some of the less well-known names:

  • Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, part of my short Arabic project. Palestinian / Iraqi writer, who actually wrote the book I read in English, hence the fact that I’ve still read no Arabic books this year.
  • Pío Baroja, a once famed Spanish / Basque writer, now completely unknown. There’s quite a bit of his stuff floating around on Project Gutenberg, for anyone who’s interested. Belonged to the Generation of ’98, along with fellow Basque, Unamuno etc.
  • Mário de Andrade, a Brazilian writer and important figure in the modernismo movement. Often seen as a (perhaps, the) precursor of magic realism (writing in the 1920s), but is perhaps as much of a precursor of post-modernism too (certainly ticks all the post-modernist boxes). – Really good, by the way.
  • Zsigmond Móricz, who seems to be considered the greatest Hungarian writer of prose in c20th (by among others Lazslo Nemeth and Peter Esterhazy). A few things of his translated into English (apparently, he’s one of those writers who loses a lot in translation). I also have Relations.
  • Beppe Fenoglio, an Italian writer. (It suddenly occurred to me I hadn’t read any Italians this year, and I do have a fondness for their literature – so now I’ve embarked on a lot of them).
  • Annie Ernaux, French novelist and currently writing. I read this in French, but it is available in English too, as are quite a few of her novels.
  • Henri Lopès, a novelist from the Republic of Congo (that is, the small ex-French colony centred around Brazzaville; rather than the sprawling ex-Belgian colony centred around Leopoldsville/Kinshasa). One of those novelists who also rose to be head of state in his country (or perhaps he was head of state first).
  • Romain Rolland, once a Nobel prize winner, now largely neglected – writer of realist roman fleuves.
  • Antonio Tabucchi, a marvellous Italian writer, with an obsession about Portugal (another Obooki Prize contender).
  • Wilson Harris, a Guyanese writer (yes, that strange English-speaking country in South America). Quite experimental, he’s still alive and writing in English, though to be honest I’d never heard of him till coming across on some list on The Neglected Books site.
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Long Books? – Who can be bothered?

I’m sure there was a post in the Guardian way back about this – it might even have been by the famous author Lee Rourke; anyhow, it occurs that if you look through the books I’ve read in the last 3 years, not one of them’s longer than 500 pages – and in fact, I honestly can’t remember the last book I finished that was over 500 pages (it was probably The Lord of the Rings, though I read it as three books / or Ian Kershaw’s Hitler biography). This is going back about 7-8 years now.

It’s not necessarily for lack of trying. Last year I tried to read Daniel Deronda (got about 150/200 pages in – nothing much was happening), The Egotist (Egoist?) by Meredith (got about 50 pages in – odd style, but bored) and probably some others (Infinite Jest perhaps, though that seems a while back); and then this year there’s Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat (about 100 / 150 pages in – odd style, but bored); Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (page 200 or so – nice satire of the Brutalists, but bored); Munif’s Cities of Salt (interesting account of the influence of the West on Saudi Arabian society – about halfway through and might finish one day, but currently stuck).

Why do people write such long books, when they don’t really seem to have that much to say? – In particular, all these books seem to me just to be stretching out their subject matter interminably etc. etc. If you’re going to take up so much of your reader’s time, at least make it interesting, worthwhile. It makes me intimidated ever to pick up a long book again, now I’m quite confident I’ll never get to the end of it. – I must admit, I find non-fiction a lot easier in this regard than fiction.

Anyhow, to defeat my own argument, I should – either this month or next – finish two books over 500 pages; – on the other hand, they’re both books of short stories: – The Treasury of Yiddish Stories (just over 500 pages), and vol 3 of The Arabian Nights (about 550).

Stendhal Season: Armance

Stendhal’s novels can perhaps be divided into 3 categories, at least in the English-language world (based largely on how often they’ve been published in the last 50 years):

  • Novels you could go into most good bookshops and buy (The Red and The Black, The Charterhouse of Parma)
  • Novels you might have to look about a bit for (Love, The Life of Henri Brulard,  some of the Italian Chronicles)
  • Novels you’ve probably never come across (Armance, Lucien Leuwen, The Pink and The Green, the remainder of the Italian Chronicles, Lamiel)

Having recently finished Stendhal oh so fashionable part-history part-novel oft-footnoted work The Italian Chronicles (those few that made it into the NYRB edition at least), so now I’ve just read Armance (in a nice 50c American pulp fiction edition, complete with red-edged pages). – Oh, the plot? – It’s a love story: girl loves boy, boy loves girl; they are prevented from happiness by a contemptible French high society ripe for satire.

One thing I particularly enjoyed were the epigraphs Stendhal used under his chapter headings. Here are some of the translators notes (the translator being the famously wrong-titled C. K. Scott–Moncrieff):

  • Chapter 2 – “The first of these lines is taken from the Epitaph in Gray’s Elegy, in the notes to which it is not shewn as an “Imitation”. The ascription of the whole to Marlow (sic) is probably, therefore, one of Beyle’s fantasies.”
  • Chapter 4 – “This motto is printed in the French editions as prose. The last two lines are taken from The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene III … The ascription to Massinger need not be taken too seriously. Compare Scarlet and Black, chapter XLVI.”
  • Chapter 9 – “Beyle ascribes this motto, which he quotes in French to Burns, thinking possibly of various phrases in the lines To A Field Mouse. In Henri Brulard he again quotes the passage, as from Cymbeline [it is Cymbeline], but gives the speech to Imogen instead of Berlarius.”
  • Chapter 11 – “The first half-line, which is not in Troilus and Cressida, is perhaps a reminiscence of Othello: “Trifles light as air”.”
  • Chapter 18 – “Beyle quotes this motto in French, and attributes it to Schiller [it’s Pope].”
  • Chapter 19 – “This motto and that prefixed to Chapter XXII are quoted by Beyle in English, which makes it seem probably that by Deckar he meant the voluminous writer Thomas Dekker … but this quotation, which the French editors religiously print in three lines, imagining it to be a specimen of English poetry, bears the marks of Beyle’s composition.”
  • Chapter 21 – “This line, taken from the Aeneid (I, 207), is inadvertently ascribed by Beyle to Horace.”
  • Chapter 28 – “The last three words are added by Beyle. The source is cited in all the editions as King Henry III [it’s King Henry VIII].”

Hmm, misquoting sources – how very modern!