A long time ago when pterodactyls swooped over the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan and plesiosaurs frolicked in the Thames a steady stream of great rA long time ago when pterodactyls swooped over the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan and plesiosaurs frolicked in the Thames a steady stream of great reviews of classic novels appeared on Goodreads from Jason Pettus. He ran an outfit called the CCLaP which iis some kind of arts thing in Chicago, and he had decided to read 100 allegedly classic novels he’d never read before and report back on whether he thought they were really classics. Okay, I know, we could all do that, but over the months of 2008/9 I realised that JP’s casual but excitable style was perfect for his project and his opinions were rock solid. He gathered up the first 33 reviews into this volume which is downloadable here :
I totally recommend this to anyone who wants to see a classic novel get a good going-over. Each review has a section “The argument for it being a classic” followed by “the argument against” followed by JP’s personal view. Here are the books reviewed :
The Art of War, Sun Tzu The Republic, Plato Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen House of the Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert Great Expectations, Charles Dickens Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain Washington Square, Henry James Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson The Island of Dr. Moreau, HG Wells Dracula, Bram Stoker Candida, George Bernard Shaw Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad The Call of the Wild, Jack London The Man Who Was Thursday, GK Chesterton Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger The Ripley Trilogy, Patricia Highsmith The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco Beloved, Toni Morrison Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
(I have read a mere half of these.)
I don’t agree with JP all the time, far from it. Here he is on Washington Square, which is a poignant study of Victorian repression :
Washington Square comes and goes with the reader barely noticing; just when you think the story's about to get ratcheted up and interesting, suddenly it's over, and you realize that the entire point was to provide not much more than a trifling and amusing afternoon of diversion.
Wrong, Jason, wrong! And The Sound and the Fury gets a strong beating :
So let me admit, I have a terrible confession to make today; that out of the 22 books I've now reviewed for this essay series, this is only the second I wasn't able to actually finish (the other being the 2,200-year-old Republic by Plato). And the reason I couldn't finish it, frankly, is exactly for the Modernist stream-of-consciousness style that it's so well-known for – because frankly, although I think the style has its strengths when used with a light touch, I also think it's a hacky unreadable mess when delved into with too much gusto, exactly what so many of the early Modernists did in their misguided zeal to just do anything new they possibly could.
Is it a classic? No.
Also, he loves Tropic of Cancer so much that I’ve half a mind to read another Henry Miller to see if I still hate him.
There are lots of fun things here. On The Catcher in the Rye:
So imagine my shock when I found myself finishing this book and saying to myself, "My God – JD Salinger is basically Judy Blume with more cursing." (Or to be completely fair, I guess that should be worded – "My God, Judy Blume is basically JD Salinger with Jews and menstruation.") I guess I had been expecting a lot more, given what a supernaturally high regard this book has among such a large swath of the general population; I was expecting it to not only be a good Young Adult novel (which it admittedly is) but also something that was going to reveal some sort of transcendent truth about the world to me as a fully-grown adult.
Anyway, although I heartily dislike only having a damned pdf file of this and not and a proper printed copy as I should have, nevertheless, for all you reviewhounds out there (that’s all of you ain’t it?) I RECOMMEND this for everybody.
This was published in 1967, around the time of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and was considered to be the literary acme of hip swingingness. DThis was published in 1967, around the time of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and was considered to be the literary acme of hip swingingness. Dig the crazy Life review – Life magazine, that citadel of the avant-garde, right?
Snow White has everything, including William Burroughs cut-ups, words posing as paintings, ribald social commentary, crazy aesthetic experiments, and comedy that smashes.
The cover of the Bantan paperback (it came out around the time of the White Album) is flat-out brilliant:
and the book roared off the shelves in that psychedelical year. It was DB’s only genuine hit. But yet I imagine a disappointment afflicted many of its readers, similar to that suffered by eager Lolita buyers ten years previously – instead of porn they got deluged with high-end literary brilliance. They’d been hoping for something like this:
We should probably call this novel a “novel”. Because it’s, well, not like other novels. When DB uses character names, they’re not meant to be taken seriously. It’s all fun with language, or what DB in 1966 brought himself to consider fun.
But alas for my career as a Barthelme fan, once the fun of this lunatic version of Snow White wears off (she’s a modern 22 year old in a modern American city living with 7 guys who have ordinary boring names, Kevin, Edward, Hubert, and as far as I could make out, they never have communal sex in the shower because the shower just wasn’t big enough, the guys had to take it in turn one by one, nothing pervy about that) the lack of any forward movement (given that plot is something Donald Barthelme would scrape off his shoe muttering) means that Snow White becomes a herkyjerky series of one page riffs and mocking semidemiparodies and finally deliquesces into intellectual elevator music. By around page 120 we find that we are only half-listening. This problem never arises with the short stories, they don’t hang around long enough to wear out their welcome.
No doubt, though, this “novel” inspired some great covers which I cannot resist reproducing here:
BRITISH POLITICAL ANECDOTE
Serendipity struck as I put this novel down, switched on the radio and listened to a programme about British politics. There was a most delicious anecdote told by a Member of Parliament – this was in a speech made in the House of Commons. You need to know that the chairman, as it were, of the debates is called the Speaker, and the present speaker, Mr John Bercow, is known for the smallness of his stature (five feet five inches). The MP said that he had recently accidentally reversed his car into Speaker Bercow’s car in full view of Mr Bercow’s office, and the Speaker had observed this, and had stormed out of his office towards the MP shouting “I’m not happy” to which the MP had allegedly said “Oh, then which one are you?”
All the MPs laughed heartily at this, and the MP then said “I would like to place on record that I never said those words” and they all laughed again.
I take Snow White a little like I take The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette, a 1968 album by The Four Seasons. They were a great, great singles band but that is a terrible mess of a would-be concept album. Two or three songs can be salvaged but mostly it’s a wreck. In 1968 though, you thought you had to do a concept album. Even Frankie Valli thought this! And Donald Barthelme, lunatic short story writer nonpareil, thought he had to write a novel.
There are so many literary awards these days but I think the following notable achievements have been TOTALLY MISSED. So here are the All Time Award wThere are so many literary awards these days but I think the following notable achievements have been TOTALLY MISSED. So here are the All Time Award winners :
Best Keith Richard impersonation : W H Auden
Award for the Best exotic dance : Colette and Diablo Cody (tie)
Most transgendered author : Gustave Flaubert
“Madame Bovary, c’est moi” - Ok, if you say so
Creepiest family portrait : The Fitzgeralds
Most ridiculous hats, if that’s what they are : Rebecca West :
Author who most looked like their own books : Jean Rhys
Author who least looked like their own books : William Burroughs
Best beard : Samuel R Delany
Craziest beard : Georges Perec
Worst dancer : Truman Capote
Most awed by his own talent : Anthony Burgess
Best fistfight between great authors : Vargas Llosa versus Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We give the award to the loser:
Best calypso singer : Maya Angelou
Most pretentious suit : Tom Wolfe
Best interviewees : Margaret Atwood and James Ellroy (tie)
- invite them on your chat show, you'll get your money's worth.
I must have missed out some awards.... any suggestions?...more
Donald Barthelme was the high priest of post-modern literary weirdness but he never suffered for it. Five minutes after relocating to New York from HoDonald Barthelme was the high priest of post-modern literary weirdness but he never suffered for it. Five minutes after relocating to New York from Houston he was signed up by The New Yorker and remained its darling boy until he died. He was the outsider on the inside. The rest of those American avant gardists must have ground their teeth and chanted sellout sellout as they burned effigies of him in some abandoned lot on 12th Street, but hell, he couldn’t care, he was busy getting slaughtered with his third wife and his vast circle of friends – hello Andy! dwarling Renata! - and publishing his fourth begarlanded book of short stories.
I think his collection Amateurs (1976) is – hmmm – maybe - the best, most brilliant short story collection I ever read. This one is his first. And look – I have a FIRST EDITION PAPERBACK published (as Alibris told me) simultaneously with the hardback which means on 1st April 1964 (wow, 51 years ago, and it’s pristine) which means during the week when The Beatles were No 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the American singles charts, something which never happened before or since, so, I’d say, Come Back, Dr Caligari couldn’t be a more 60s book if it was printed on blotting paper soaked in Owsley’s Orange Sunshine, which it isn’t.
JAZZ NOT ROCK
But Don was jazz, not rock. He was Sonny Rollins, not the Velvet Underground. He was bourbon, not acid. So really, he is not my guy. He was in many ways an irritating writer, very self-confident, very know-it-all, really rather smug, and his ideas tended to morph into brainy comedy sketches. In one story a group of friends picket the human condition outside a church, their placards feature slogans :
COGITO ERGO NOTHING!
THE BODY IS DISGUST!
NO MORE ART CULTURE LOVE!
Their leader explains : We are opposed to the ruthless way in which the human condition has been imposed on organisms which have done nothing to deserve it and are unable to escape it. Why does it have to be that way? Four years later Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In would compress that idea into a 20 second sketch. Five years later some of the intellectual silliness would be reborn in Monty Python. Did Don ever watch the Pythons? Did the Pythons ever read Don? Or were they – Don in his New Yorker arrogance and the Python crew with their Oxbridge superiority – just singing from slightly different pages of the same songbook? This is a Python sketch but it could so easily have been a Donald Barthelme riff:
And now here are the scores.
St Stephan 29.9 Richard III 29.3 Jean D'arc 29.1 Marat 29.0 A. Lincoln 28.2 G. Khan 28.1 King Edward VII 3.1
Well there you can see the scores now. St Stephen in the lead there with his stoning, then comes King Richard the Third at Bosworth Field, a grand death that, then the very lovely Jean d'Arc, then Marat in his bath - best of friends with Charlotte in the showers afterwards - then A. Lincoln of the U.S of A, a grand little chap that, and number six Genghis Khan, and the back marker King Edward the Seventh. Back to you, Wolfgang.
Two stories are collages of conversations from social gatherings with none of the speakers identified. William Gaddis’s novel JR (1975) does the same thing (for 750 pages). In one of story he spatchcocks in to the mix whole paragraphs lifted from Time magazine (this is pointed out in Tracy Daugherty’s biography). No one seemed to notice at the time. Bob Dylan’s memoir Chronicles (2004) does the same thing but he got a light spanking from the commentariat for plagiarism. One law for the Don and another law for the Bob.
For I’m the Boy whose Only Joy is Loving You is my favourite here. It turns out to be viciously autobiographical, something you don’t expect from a surreal jokester. It features several cod-Irish spoof conversations, and this one is between Don and his first wife. Got to admit, I love this :
Ah Martha, coom now to bed there’s a darlin’ gul. Hump off, blatherer I’ve no yet read me Mallarme for this evenin’. Ooo Martha dear canna we noo let the dear lad rest this night? When th’ telly’s already shut doon an’ th’ man o’ the hoose ‘as a ‘ard on? Don’t be comin’ round wit yer lewd proposals on a Tuesday night when ye know better. But Martha dear where is yer love for me that we talked about in 19 and 38? Pish Mister Hard On ye’s better be lookin’ after the Disposall what’s got itself plogged up. Ding the Disposall! Martha me gul it’s yer sweet hide I’m after havin’. Get yet hands from out of me Playtex viper, I’m dreadful bored wi’ yer silly old tool.
By the time of this collection, Don’s 2nd marriage was withering on the vine and he does have some interesting observations on wives and husbands tucked away amidst the spoofiness:
I believed that because I had obtained a wife who was made up of wife-signs (beauty, charm, softness, perfume, cookery) I had found love. … But I say, looking about me in this incubator of future citizens, that signs are signs, and that some of them are lies. This is the great discovery of my time here.
Okay, I give this collection 4 stars for boldness, effrontery, chutzpah, take-no-prisoners lunacy and great humour. In truth it’s a three star collection – a few are really tiresome – but heck. It’s a 1st April 1964 time machine! ...more
A Bug’s Life and Antz were both released in the same year, 1998. Same idea in both movies. Capote and Infamous came out within 12 months (2005/2006) -A Bug’s Life and Antz were both released in the same year, 1998. Same idea in both movies. Capote and Infamous came out within 12 months (2005/2006) - both biopics of Truman. Analyze This starring Robert de Niro as a mafia boss who goes to see a psychiatrist came out in 1999, the year that The Sopranos began, which featured James Gandolfini as a mafia boss who… you guessed. So people had the same idea at the same time.
John Brookes got the idea of reading a book from each country in the world in 2008-ish and began in 2009. His book is called Reading the World. Ann Morgan got the exact same idea in 2012, having possibly not heard of John’s blog/book (if she had, she never mentions it, which would be naughty). Her book is called Reading the World.
Ann got to publish her book this year with a proper publisher in a spiffy hardback. Copies sent to the proper grown up reviewers (not us toads) and notices duly appeared in The Guardian and so forth. John self-published his first volume ("England to Russia") in 2013 to zero fanfare.
Ann does not include any actual book reviews in her book, which wrong-footed some readers who were expecting, not too unreasonably, a collection of round-the-world book reviews. No, instead you get a pretty interesting account of how the different cultures of the world relate to the idea of a novel, the idea of publishing – like, are ebooks to be included or are they just not quite there yet?, the awkward situation of being an author in exile, political interference, what is a novel, and to begin with, what is a freaking country anyway? So hard to define… So that’s Ann.
John – he’s a bloke you see – is more robust. He gives you the reviews, one after the other. But he also has to scoff multiple aspirins right at the get-go fending off the headache caused by the same question : what is a freaking country anyway? Because, you know, there are no rules. Or there are, but no one respects the rules. Yeah, the Republic of France is a country, nobody can deny. But what about the Turkish Federated Republic of Cyprus? Or Kurdistan? Or Transnistria? It all gets a little subjective.
One big difference : Ann decided to do all her global reading in one year (2012) and John, well, he’s still strolling round the globe, no artificial time limit involving Stakhanovite levels of reading time for him.
It’s quite amusing watching these two Olympic medallist readers John and Ann both run into the same problem with the world’s teeny countries, of which there are many. The general concept for each is to read a novel from each country, but you may be scratching around when it comes to San Marino or Vatican City or Monaco or Andorra. So the rules are loosened and travel writing by non-San Mariners or true crime thrillers by non-Cardinals are allowed.
JOHN’S WHIMSICAL TRAVELOGUE
He likes to connect all his reviews together with an imaginary travel itinerary, as if he was really going from one place to another. So :
I make my way from Kiev to the capital of neighbouring Slovakia, Bratislava. Having enough of plodding trains and bumpy car journeys for a while, I elect to make the trip between these two capital cities by plane. I get a cheap flight with malev Hungarian Airlines from Kiev airport (actually known as Boryspil International Airport, which is 18 miles east of Kiev itself) leaving at 16:15 and – after a brief stopover back in Budapest – arriving in Bratislava at 21:00 in the evening, from where I get the N61 bus into the city centre
OMG – after every single review this is what we get. The jest wears off quickly – once was enough – but no, every review is connected to the next like this.
BUT THE ACTUAL IDEA IS SURELY PRETTY INTERESTING
So let’s consider what books John reads on his way from London through all of Europe to Russia. One rule John had was that the novel had to have been published after 1995 and set after 1990 – no historical novels. He was after modern fiction. What this gave him was a series of countries with two similar experiences – the first is the ex-communist states like Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. The story there is of massive culture shock and a steep plunge into poverty and into the hands of the mafia followed by a gradual improvement. The second is the ex-Yugoslavia countries like Bosnia and Montenegro. Here the experiences are of the horrors of modern war, the shelling , the fascists, the mass graves, the guilty secrets, the racism, followed by a compromised peace. John’s reading therefore becomes a litany of woe.
It made me consider : are all serious novels criticisms of their own societies? To take an obvious example, as Dickens got more serious and left behind the sunny tomfoolery of Nicholas Nickleby or the Pickwick Club, and as he lost his belief in the ability of the goodly hearted middle class to solve anything (they usually turn up at the end of the middle novels to provide an inheritance and a safe home) he got finally to the pessimistic mazes of Little Dorritt, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. Is that the way it always goes? Does any serious novelist intend his novel to be in praise of or even broadly supportive of the values of his own society? So, therefore, are all serious novels jeremiads?
WHICH WERE THE GOOD ONES?
John rarely slags off anything, he damns with faint praise sometimes. But these seemed to be the really good ones :
What can I do when Everything’s on Fire? – Antonio Lobo Antunes (Portugal, 2008)
Snow – Orhan Pamuk (Turkey, 2002)
Natural Novel – Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgaria, 1999)
Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov (Ukraine, 1996)
The Weather Fifteen Years Ago – Wolf Haas (Austria, 2006)
Summerhouse, Later – Judith Hermann (Germany, 2003)
Stella Descending – Linn Ullmann (Norway, 2001)
I ended up admiring John’s indefatigable spirit. I’d bet diamonds that I myself would never have got beyond the south of France. John’s blog is here
I had a breakthrough. You know, like you get after months, maybe years, of intensive therapy. The solution had been staring me in the face – it’s ofteI had a breakthrough. You know, like you get after months, maybe years, of intensive therapy. The solution had been staring me in the face – it’s often the way, isn’t it. The thing was, the lowest shelf of my shelves of novels – it’s actually the space between the real lowest shelf and the floor - was just too short. It was 8 inches, which is fine for most of the novels on this shelf but Cold Snap (Jones), Ulysses (Joyce), Lake Wobegon Days (Keillor) and The Collected Works of TS Spivet (Larsen) are 8 and a half inches tall, just because they’re more important than all of Henry James (which are all 6 inches), so they won’t stand up, I have to lie them down on their bosoms with their backsides protruding into the public gaze – it’s just not right. I hate doing that to books more than I hate going to the dentist. But then I noticed the top shelf of the back wall, which was populated by plays and poetry and sundry unclassifiable items. I never read plays and poetry no more. I know – it’s a terrible thing. So I just don’t care if playwrights and poets are on their front or their backside, they probably couldn’t stand up straight if you paid them anyhow, what a bunch of drunks. So I switched the beloved novelists for the less well beloved poets and playwrights and voila! I switched them round! No more dentist!
The above is the kind of thing that Nick Hornby might have but didn’t write in this book. Really, he’s quite similar to me – always playing the giddy goat – but of course he is a beloved million selling writer of novels so the resemblance shrivels and dies right there. This book is a collection of columns he wrote for The Believer, an American literary mag founded by Dave Eggars in 2003. So this is a chatty, witty record of what Nick bought and read in the years 2003 to 2006.
I liked it. I’ve spent 20 years avoiding anything by Nick Hornby until this year when I stumbled on the movie version of High Fidelity and thought it was a real hoot (not a fake hoot). Why did I avoid him? Well, who wants to read about modern British suburban life? No one has any guns, there are few tornadoes, a little bit of doleful adultery, it’s all a bit meurgh.
In true Hornby listlike fashion I will now present
BOOKS BOUGHT BECAUSE OF NICK’S ENTHUSIASTIC WIBBLING
Robert Lowell, a Biography : Ian Hamilton Another Bullshit Night in Suck City : Nick Flynn
BOOKS I HAD ALREADY READ & WAS PLEASED TO SEE NICK AGREED WITH ME
Clockers : Richard Price How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World : Francis Wheen Hangover Square : Patrick Hamilton Like a Fiery Elephant : Jonathan Coe Chronicles : Bob Dylan In Cold Blood : Truman Capote Stuart – A Life Backwards : Alexander Masters Persepolis : Marjane Satrapi
BOOKS I HAD ALREADY READ & WAS HORRIFIED TO SEE NICK DISAGREED WITH ME
No Name : Wilkie Collins (it did not fall apart in the last 200 pages!) The Long Firm : Jake Arnott (it was unreadable macho crap) Saturday : Ian McEwan (it was stupid) Housekeeping : Marilynne Robinson (it was like being buried alive in angel dust)
There’s a much longer list of BOOKS NICK READ SO I DIDN’T HAVE TO such as Philip Larkin’s Letters (ugh) and Oh Play that Thing by Roddy Doyle (sounds grim) or Father and Son by Edmund Gosse (I'm asleep already).
Reading about some guy reading is probably a complete waste of time which should be better employed filling in those terrible gaps in your own literary knowledge like BALZAC or HOUELLEBECQ or GOGOL but this was fun.
Quote from page 67: Oh man, I hate Amazon reviewers. Even the nice ones, who say nice things. They’re bastards too.
Lord knows what he’s said about Goodreads since then. ...more
This book should be available in an edition for Christians. It would then be called WTF,God?! (yeah, rather disrespectful I agree). But all you do isThis book should be available in an edition for Christians. It would then be called WTF,God?! (yeah, rather disrespectful I agree). But all you do is replace the word Evolution with the word God.
So, this book would be full of funny stuff like
These are supposed to be dolphins? God, have you ever actually seen a dolphin?
Look, God, everyone has trouble staying motivated sometimes. Take a walk or have a snack when that happens…Don’t force yourself to make turtles when your heart obviously isn’t in it.
God had not had enough coffee when He made the Surinam horned frog.
Why so gloomy, babirusa? Is it because God gave you some weird extra tusks that are ugly, useless, too brittle to fight with, and may eventually grow so long that they curve around and fatally puncture your skull? Could that be it?
Because the anti-evolutionists believe that every species was created by God individually, and did not evolve from any other species. You know, Genesis and all that :
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day.
And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
The implications of this have been rarely teased out. The Bible literalists like to say that God created the
But they shuffle their feet and look down at their hands when you mention the tapeworm. But it goes further. God also created the rats which spread the bubonic plague and killed around 45% of the population of Europe in the years 1346–53. But also He spent some time creating Xenopsylla cheopis - the flea which infected the rats. And before all that, He also mulled things over and created the Yersinia pestis bacterium which is the actual disease itself. I mean, without Yersinia pestis the fleas were just hitch-hikers and the rats were just stowaways.
And He created all the other diseases too, which I shan’t list – I’m sure you have your favourites. River blindness, syphilis, malaria, whatever.
So this thing cuts both ways. Yeah, evolution does look pretty silly when you think about that saiga antelope
or the star nosed mole
– but if this indicates that Darwin was barking up the wrong sea cucumber and Genesis is right after all, then I do find it kind of worrying that we’re all in the hands of Someone who thought the Goliath spider was a good idea
I was going to say that this is the book which contains the most mentions of YURTS ever, but of course there’s always
I’m sure that one clocks up an evI was going to say that this is the book which contains the most mentions of YURTS ever, but of course there’s always
I’m sure that one clocks up an even more impressive reading on the yurtometer. BUT THIS BOOK IS SECOND! It was one of those things like when you notice someone has a funny way of blinking or compulsively pulls at their left earlobe. Every two seconds…YURT! We built a YURT. Then we built another YURT. I intended to spend the winter in my YURT. I became concerned about the sogginess of my YURT. Your YURT looks so beautiful in the Scottish gloaming.
THE SONG OF DYLAN EVANS
I was never meant To live in a tent I do not care a damn About your grotty wigwam The idea of a teepee Makes me kind of weepy So pardon me for being curt I intend to live in a Mongolian YURT!
So… Dylan Evans was an academic robotics researcher who decided that he wanted to conduct a real life experiment to see what would happen after civilisation collapsed, no electricity, no manufactured objects, living off the land, old stone age, cool. Like Walking Dead without zombies.
This was just the usual white male middle-class delusional fantasy which has spawned a million science fiction novels. Its half-heartedness and ambivalence mirrored that of its creator and the mild grimness of its grungy no-toilet-paper leaking-yurt daily-vegetable grind send Dylan into a mental tailspin which ended with a few weeks in a psychiatric institution, bemoaning the wreckage of his life.
I didn’t really have to sell my house to fund the experiment. I could have rented it out and moved back in after… with less money to blow on ill thought-out acquisitions that quickly fell into disuse I could probably have done the experiment for a fraction of what I eventually spent. Nor did I have to give up my job….
The concept was to inhabit a couple of acres of the Scottish highlands (one of the wettest parts of the globe) for 18 months only and advertise for temporary residents to come and participate.
He started off in a bipolar high:
More yurts would eventually spring up, and woodpiles, and rows of vegetables… our bodies would grow strong from the physical labour and our minds refreshed by the natural surroundings, far away from the cities we’d left behind.
Yes, more yurts! Yurts stretching all the way to the horizon!
Dylan seems not to have factored into his idyllic bliss-out the stress of vegetables. Anyway, a couple of gnarled ur-hippies join him in his yurtopia. One calls himself (no really!) Adam. One day he sits down with Adam
to figure out some basic rules for Utopia. But all I succeeded in doing was to open a can of worms.
One rule was about what to do about outside purchases.
We can’t just buy a crate of wine every week and tell ourselves that we keep finding well-stocked cellars in the abandoned farmhouses nearby.
This is of course the Walking Dead method of staying stylish – have you ever noticed their clothes? It’s like Rick and Daryl keep stumbling across Alexander McQueen and Paul Smith branches in the abandoned malls of rural Georgia.
OFF THE PIG
Now here’s a sentence you could have predicted:
It felt strange to be eating the animal we had cared for those past few months, and fed that very morning, but it was delicious, and the crackling melted in my mouth.
GOOD GOD, MAN, LOOK AT YOURSELF IN THE MIRROR!
In fact Dylan was a morass of psychological conflict from the get-go – some time after the beginning of the experiment he got his girlfriend to live in a nearby house so he could live both kinds of life at the same time – hot shower on Tuesdays and Sundays, cold yurts the rest of the time. At least, until they broke up. Dylan doesn’t say exactly what precipitated this, but it may have been something to do with his obsession with yurt-know-whats.
THE WORLD SHOWED NO SIGN OF ENDING THAT YEAR
Even though the year this all happened in was the year of the Great Capitalist Shitstorm (2007) Dylan gradually lost faith in the end of the world as we know it. He became able to see it for what it was:
Now, almost a year into the experiment, every trip to the supermarket felt like a betrayal. How valuable a simulation of life after the collapse of civilisation could it be, if we were still popping down to Tesco every week? … The whole experiment began to seem like a sham, an extended camping trip, a bunch of soft-skinned Westerners kidding themselves that they were hardy backwoodsmen
Oddly enough, as Dylan loses faith, his fellow utopians get more committed to the project. Beginning with three people, after a year there were usually between eight and twelve people working away at the vegetable gardens. The horror of Dylan’s self imposed situation became ever more palpable – what was he going to do after the 18 months? Now he has no job, no house, no girlfriend, no prospects. He's spent ALL his money from the house on funding this ridiculous excursion. He gets suicidal and checks himself in to the mental hospital.
RECOVERING FROM UTOPIA
He got better, slowly. More optimistic thoughts arose in his mind :
Given that everything will come to an end eventually, does it really matter if humanity lasts another million years rather than just another thousand? Since civilization is bound to collapse sooner or later, does it matter when?
Hmm, you don’t think that sounds like a man in recovery, gradually rebuilding his shattered life? Okay, try this :
Even if humans discover how to prolong their lives the universe will eventually unravel and freeze. And then there will be nothingness for ever and ever, and permanent darkness.
So, you know, cheer up! Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we go to Scotland and live in a yurt. ...more
As you may know, the idea here was to read a work of fiction from every country in the world IN ONE YEAR. It was inspired by AM’s realisation of how iAs you may know, the idea here was to read a work of fiction from every country in the world IN ONE YEAR. It was inspired by AM’s realisation of how insular her reading had been throughout her entire life. She almost never read translated novels, only US & UK ones, like a lot of us. Who, me? Yeah, you. She points out that this insularity is encouraged by the universal recommendation concept of “if you like that then you’ll like this”.
With so much well-pitched material on hand, the prospect of seeking out stories from further afield feels a bit like being asked to abandon the bright supermarket aisles where everything is arranged just as we like it to forage for literary sustenance in the local park.
Along with many people I thought the account of this year of reading through the planet would be a mosaic of reviews of the books encountered, but it isn’t. The blog has the actual reviews. Instead, this book is an exploration of the difficulties and implications of trying to read a book from every country, and international book culture in general. Oh yeah. Uh huh.
SCOTLAND NO, TUVALU YES
She encounters a lot of heavy weather when she tries to find out how many countries there are in the world. What is a country? How do you reach a reasonable definition? If you consult the United Nations official list of 196 members you find that Taiwan is not there at all – only 21 other countries recognise it as an independent state, although it walks, talks and quacks like an independent state all the time. I mean, Taiwan is right there, you can see it. Likewise Scotland is not there, as it’s a part of the UK. But if you tell a Scottish person that Scotland is not a country you might get a Glasgow handshake. Whit? Boom! Stitch that, sonny!
In many ways, it’s a cute but silly idea. 12 of the 196 countries have a population of less than 100,000 – so they get one book each, as does Indonesia (population 255 million), Bangladesh (155 million) and Japan (126 million). The political boundaries of the world are as arbitrary as any other way of categorising humans. My own next reading challenge will be to read a novel by someone who is 7 feet tall, one by someone 6 feet 11 inches, and so on down to 3 feet. The problem is that there has only ever been one 7 foot tall novelist but there are 1 billion ones who were 5 feet 8 inches tall. Ah well.
Only 4% of books published in English are translations from other languages. When AM considers the case of Portuguese, she finds that there are 9 lusophone (new word!) countries with a combined population of 260 million, and in one year (2005) only ten books were translated from Portuguese.
If there’s a theme to this book it’s awkwardness. Discomfort. Things not fitting. Out of balance. What’s the word – koyaanisqatsi? Yes, that’ll do. When you have made some difficult decisions about what a country actually is (Palestine? Kosovo? Kurdistan?) then there’s the problems encountered by the authors themselves. Do they grok the very idea of a novel? If so, what do they want to say? They have to deal with Western cultural imperialism, with their own cultural impediments (maybe in their culture it is not right to make up stories displaying the less pleasant side of life) and with the forces of political and religious repression. They might come from a place of absolutely no books and no publishing. American critic Eric Larrabee commented as follows:
As an exercise in imagination, try to conceive of an author who 1) probably has never met another author; 2) owns no books; 3) is not known to his daily acquaintances as an author; 4) has no personal contact with his publisher; 5) is not certain where his book is on sale; and 6) does not think of himself as an author.
So AM has to go to some lengths to find something to read from some teensy countries. She got one book translated specifically so she could read it. (I sure hope she liked it!) I had to cringe as I read AM’s account of one book from a Pacific island which was a collection of oral folk tales some jolly NGO Westerners had got recorded and written down, as the book is the holy grail of cultural imperishability, and this here folk culture was visibly wilting. The result sounded ghastly, with stage directions. AM says it was “like a po-faced interpreter relaying a stand-up comedian’s routine”. And that is one of the very few places she lets us know what opinions she had of the books she read.
DEALING WITH CULTURE SHOCK (ENCOUNTERS WITH HOMOPHOBIA )
This was the most interesting chapter. I wasn’t so jazzed with the ins and outs of self publishing and ebooks and the dubiousness of translations and so forth, but the chapter about culture shock got my undivided attention:
Newcomers to Nepalese folk tales, for example may find the frequency with which coins are stuffed into animals’ rectums in the hope of making them appear to excrete gold disconcerting
She outlines very well what I think may be the central reason why there are so few non-Anglophone novels translated each year.
Without the context to understand the significance of these events we are left faltering, wrong-footed, unsure how to respond. Should we feel pity for the wife who is forced to submit at knifepoint or treat this as part of a ritualised performance enacted to formalise marriage? Are we supposed to laugh at the gold-stuffed donkey or disapprove of the owner for being cruel? Can we take what we read at face value or is there unknown contextual information that might temper these accounts? …We stare hesitantly at the things on offer, unsure where to start and what is expected of us, afraid of committing a faux pas.
And what about when you plunge in to a novel from, say, Papua New Guinea (AM’s example) and discover
That the casual homophobic slurs that pepper the narrative and the increasingly outlandish plot – which comes close to conflating homosexuality with paedophilia – make giving the novel the benefit of the doubt difficult… It dawns on us slowly that Stella (the author) expects us to share his protagonist’s prejudices, and the result is uncomfortable.
I should say it would be.
AM’s IRON DISCIPLINE
She read 197 books in one year. Now, for some YA readers on this site, that’s like a stroll in the park, but for most people that’s extreme. Last year I read 46 novels – well, not all the way through, I abandoned 12 of those. So yeah, 197 novels in one year, wow. This is how she did it:
I had to be very organised. I worked out the amount I needed to get through every day (around 150 pages to keep on track to read four books a week) and made sure I stuck to it. This meant reading for two hours on my commute (I was working full-time for most of the year) and an hour or two in the evening. I sometimes read in my lunch break too. In actual fact, the reading was only half the battle – writing the blog posts and doing all the research took as much time, so I got up early to spend an hour or two on this before I left for work.
Mind you, AM was always something of a freak reader – she ploughed through The Satanic Verses at age 11. Didn’t understand a word, but read every page anyway.
This was something really worth doing but the present volume is ever so slightly earnest and teetering on the edge of being dull at times. It could so easily have been rescued if AM had included her reviews of the actual books – maybe not all 196 but the 20 best and 20 worst, say. That would have been fun fun fun whereas what we have here is worthy worthy worthy.
One of the most peculiar novels I have read, half curdled cutesy sentiment, half meticulous exposure of the way poor people lived in Dublin in the 191One of the most peculiar novels I have read, half curdled cutesy sentiment, half meticulous exposure of the way poor people lived in Dublin in the 1910s and half a bizarre series of pompous semidemiphilosophical ramblings about life and love and men and women and cats and dogs and little pink sugar mice. Three halves, you see.
The two main characters are Mary Makebelieve and Mrs Makebelieve - believe it! - and none of the other characters have names, except one. That’s enough to set your teeth on edge straight off the bat. But we don't just read a novel to find out the characters' names. No.
James Stephens does have an arresting way with words at times. Discussing why Mrs Makebelieve has had quite so many different charwoman jobs he explains:
On [her employers] attempting (as they always termed it) to put her in her proper place, she would discuss their appearance and morals with such power that they at once dismissed her from their employment and incited their husbands to assault her.
So 16 year old sweet lovely Mary lives in a crummy single room in a tenement with her mother. Mary is what we here in Britain call a NEET –not in education, employment, or training. (The government here is at war with NEETS.) Whilst her dear old ma skivvies away, Mary walks the streets (literally, not metaphorically). And comes into the purview of a big policeman. Who strikes up an acquaintance. He is not named, naturally, but his size is expounded upon at length. Mary cannot get over his size :
Her vocabulary could not furnish her with the qualifying word, or rather epithet – for his bigness. Horrible was suggested and retained, but her instinct clamoured that there was a fat, oozy word somewhere which would have brought comfort to her brains and her hands and feet.
Yeah, you think that’s a bit odd? Try this. On the problems of a woman trying to find work :
The number of women who are prepared to make ten million shirts for a penny is already far in excess of the demand, and so, except by a severe undercutting, such as a contract to make twenty million shirts for a halfpenny, work of this description is very difficult to obtain.
Almost Dickensian. Mr Stephens spends a lot of time on the delineation of Mrs Makebelieve’s moral universe. Here she expatiates upon the what is expected of a man within his own household:
A great many people believed, and she herself believed, that it was not desirable a man or boy should conform too rigidly to household rules. She had observed that the comfort of a home was lost to many men if they were expected to take their boots off when they came into the house, or to hang their hats up in a special place. The women of a household, being so constantly indoors, find it easy and businesslike to obey the small rules which comprise household legislation… A man, she held, bowed to quite sufficient discipline during his working hours, and his home should be free from every vexatious restraint and wherein he might enjoy as wide a liberty as was good for him.
Our author also imbues his big policeman with disturbing attitudes. This is he after Mary has given him the elbow :
He would gladly have beaten her into submission, for what right has a slip of a girl to withstand the advances of a man and a policemen? That is a crooked spirit demanding to be straightened with a truncheon : but as we cannot decently beat a girl until she is married to us, he had to relinquish that dear idea.
Well, I think that this is all to be taken as satire of course, but that kind of stuff, plus the vaporising waffling ethereal rambling never-use-one-word-where-a-bucketful-will-do meditations on life and the universe which wrap the non-story around like jungle vines so it's hard to make out that a story is actually being told make this only intermittently weirdly entertaining, like watching a man juggle six porcupines illuminated only by flashes of lightning.
Two final points – a tip of the hat to the 1001 Books guide, where I found this title. It shows they like to unearth oddities as well as bashing us over the head with Ian bloody McEwan and JM bloody Coetzee.
And – a hip of the hop to General Books LLC of Memphis, Tenn who specialise in reprinting old stuff like this. They use OCR software and they make an elegant apology right there on page one about the typos you are bound to find. (They weren’t especially annoying). The format they end up with is more like a pamphlet than a book but hey, we will cock no snook.
Rating : a slightly bewildered what-just-happened 2.5 stars ...more