Some years ago, a friend and fellow bookworm, Kristine Goulding, suggested on this blog that we read a book from every country in the world. And so the reading challenge was born, with only one rule: the writer has to be from the country. We’ve taken our time over it, but we are now up to 114 countries out of 200 (I split the UK into four, added Tibet and Western Sahara to make it more interesting).
During the lockdown, Usha Raman, who writes for this blog, started a podcast called Reading for our times. In each episode, people read extracts from books they love, around a particular theme.
“[T]he image of the reader is solitary. We are each alone when we enter the borderland and go on to explore what lies in it and beyond it, in the book we’re engaged with. True, we can come back and and talk about it, and if we talk well and truthfully and interestingly enough we might entice other readers into it, and they too will explore it—but they too will be alone there until they in turn come back and tell us what they found there.”
Daemon Voices is a collection of Philip Pullman’s essays, articles and talks, mostly on storytelling, reading and the craft of writing, but also on politics, art and religion.
Pullman is best known for his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. Ostensibly for young adults, these books—like all good writing—crosses age boundaries (and it is worth noting that Pullman didn’t intend the trilogy for a particular audience). I find this happening less now, but writing for children or young adults has often been scoffed at as not being as “serious” or “important” as writing for adults. Pullman dismisses this and is passionate about the importance of children’s literature. Good writing for children or young adults, as he points out, is every bit as important as that for adults. And as for adults reading children’s books, he quotes CS Lewis: “I now like hock, which I am sure I did not like as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had one pleasure, I now have two.”
Writers have responsibilities, says Pullman. They have a duty to their readers to use language well (something that as an editor, I can’t agree with more): be clear and aware of what you are saying. But there is also their responsibility to their families: after all, to be a writer is a job, and they have to make sure they earn enough to provide for their loved ones. I have read a lot on writing and writers but very few say anything about the money-making side of it.
There is so much here that I am only going to pick out a few things. We get a lot of insight on how Pullman wrote his books, especially His Dark Materials. It takes a single element to give an idea that spark that brings it to life. The first book fell into place when he came up with the idea (or the idea came to him, as he puts it) of daemons. A daemon is an animal version of a person that is constantly with them—the soul, in a way, that is external but part of them. It changes shapes in children and settles into a particular animal when they reach puberty. So when Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy, hears of children who daemons are being cut away from them, it is shocking not just to her but to the reader, and sets the trilogy in motion.
In His Dark Materials, the forces of good fight the Church to stop it taking control of Dust, the essence of consciousness. This reflects Pullman’s view of organized religion. He is not an atheist, because he finds that atheism can be equally totalitarian (something I had noticed too and was glad to find someone else agreeing with me).
I loved Pullman’s perspective on the story of Adam and Eve,
which makes sense. He sees the apple as the fruit of knowledge, which humans
had to eat so they could be aware of the world around them. Hence the
self-awareness that results when Adam and Eve bite into it, much as we become
aware of ourselves when we cross the threshold into adulthood. Once you reach
that threshold, there is no way back to innocence. But that does not mean that
the Garden of Eden is closed to us forever—the way back is through what Pullman
calls “the back door”, through wisdom and understanding.
There are also essays on narratives in art, where he examines well-known paintings (there are illustrations, both in colour and black and white). His dissection of Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, which I’ve known for a long time (my interest in art was sparked by the Impressionists), made me see it in a completely different light. And the quote that I begin this review with is illustrated with “The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friederich: again, a different take on a familiar painting, where the explorer is the reader.
There is some repetition, but that’s hard to avoid in a collection like this. There are things that I disagree with (his dislike of fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings, for one), but this book wouldn’t be worth its salt if I agreed with everything. If you are a budding (or already established) writer, if you’re passionate about words and stories, then get this book. You don’t need to read it cover to cover—as I did—but can dip into it. There are essays here that I know I will be going back to. His writing makes me want to sit down with him over a meal and have a long discussion about books, writing and everything else.
A few years ago, a friend challenged me to post a photograph of my 10 favourite books on this blog. The list took a while to put together, and I finally came up with 15.
I’m an inveterate list maker, so I tend to keep running lists in my head of my 10 (or 15 or 20) best books, albums and movies. But while I listen to the albums often, and go back to the movies from time to time, I realized that I hadn’t actually read the books on my list for years—just dipped into them.
So over the next year, I’m going to revisit these old friends. I came across them for the first time when I was much younger—how will I see them now? Some of them, like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Sonnets, reflected who I was then—or thought I was (if I remember correctly, that was 1978). Forty years later, will these poems speak to me as they once did? I have grown and changed, as we all do when life happens to us. Can I still tap into the magic that these books once held for me?
There are a few on the list that I know almost by heart. One of them is Under Milk Wood, which I have reviewed on this blog. The copy my husband gave me (there’s a story there that you can find in the review) is falling apart, so I’m very careful with it. But we do have a complete recording of the play, and we can both recite whole passages of it. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Macbeth are works that I know well but haven’t read for years. My latest memories of both is watching films based on them—Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which wasn’t entirely true to the original, and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, which was. And with the publication of a new series from Hogarth Press where well-known writers rework Shakespeare plays into contemporary novels, this might be a good time to go back to the original.
For the last several years, I have been focusing on books that I haven’t read before. There are so many new ones published that it is impossible to keep up, and I often feel I need a couple of lifetimes to get anywhere. And the reading challenge some of us set ourselves a few years ago has opened up a whole new world of writing from countries around the world.
In the effort to read widely and as much as I can, I have neglected the ones that have been part of my life for a long time. I am not going to stop reading new books but will intersperse them with these old familiars, letting them tell me their stories again. And while I’m about it, I might add a couple to that ever-growing list. I am thinking of Flicker by Theodore Roszak, which I read in the 1990s and was very taken with at the time. It’s a sort of whodunit (in the Umberto Eco mould) about film and semiotics, so right up my street. And one that is eminently dippable, my father’s copy of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which does not list quotes by subject, ready to be inserted into a speech, but by author and work, which makes it a delight—like having the best extracts from literature at your fingertips.
As I read these books, I will write about them on this blog. And if you want to share your own list of favourites or your thoughts on rereading them, I would love to hear from you.
I’m looking at close to half an hour of standing over the stove, staring into a pot as I stir, maybe stepping away for a few seconds at a time to check on this or that, open the refrigerator and put something away, or just look out the window. I block out the impatient honks from the main road and the rushing motorbikes going way too fast for the narrow streets in my residential area. I put on my newly acquired air pods and flip through my list of podcasts. I really don’t feel like the news, or even news-spinoffs right now. Nor am I in the frame of mind for smart social science. I just want to be told a good old story.
And even better if the story is told by the one who made it all up.
The Writer’s Voice, a podcast from The New Yorker features new fiction read aloud by authors. Curated by the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Triesman, the series is a little over two years old, and now offers a cache of 95 audio stories, with a new reading added every week.
I’ve often caught stories on the podcast that I had passed over in the magazine, or have listened to stories that I had already encountered on the page, and both experiences have been interesting. A story in the June 25, 2018 issue of the magazine, “The Luck of Kokura” for instance, did not grab me in the first few sentences, but I chose to listen to the author, Gary Shteyngart, reading it for the podcast, and where the I had been unable to turn the page of the printed magazine, I did keep my ear–and my mind–on the reading. Maybe it’s a commitment one makes to listening, especially when it’s the writer’s voice calling, or maybe it is just that one is in any case not doing anything else with the time (remember, I am in the kitchen staring at simmering sambar), but I was fascinated by Shteyngart’s account of a hedge fund manager gone rogue, a sort of between-the-lines psychological study of this peculiar demographic I’ve never been able to understand: Young, Ivy-League educated, highly driven, materially-invested number-crunchers on Wall Street. A story that I had enjoyed in the magazine, “Likes” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (October 3, 2017), came alive in a different way when I listened to Bynum’s reading, making me feel the father’s yearning to be part of his tween daughter’s world, looking for clues to it on her Instagram feed and on the drive to physiotherapy after ballet class. And of course, who would not want to hear old favourites like Zadie Smith or Jhumpa Lahiri read their work, rendered doubly lyrical by word and voice?
Of course, authors are not always the best readers, and a well-written story can become a little less than it is when rendered in an unremarkable voice (there’s a reason why Books on Tape gets actors to read!). But most readers would be willing to cut the writer some slack in this regard–and in some ways, it makes the author something of a “regular person”.
If truth be told, I’ve never been one for audiobooks. I had always assumed that listening would never quite be the same as reading, firmly believing that my seeing eye soaked in more meaning than my hearing ear ever could, that writing needed to be pored over for its elegance and power to really be felt. And yes, give me a book to hold any day over a pair of earbuds and a listening device–there is a definite pleasure in letting one’s eyes travel over a page full of well-written prose. But The Writer’s Voice gives me stories in spaces where I would otherwise not find them, and lets me bring stories into places that otherwise become tedious to occupy–like my car on an hour-long commute.
Given the content of this blog, it’s pretty clear where I stand on this. But there are writers who question the point of a book review and can be scathing about reviewers.
In this article in The New Statesman, Chris Power defends the point of the review.
“Reviews don’t matter. ‘I never really trust reviews,’ said Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recently published interview. … When considering the criticism of criticism, you needn’t look hard to find equivalents to Michael Gove’s comment, from June 2016, that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’.
“Of course reviews matter. That’s easy and predictable enough for someone writing a review to say, but it can be proven. Reviews matter in two ways: as filters, and as shapers of opinion. In his 1991 book, U & I, Nicholson Baker describes ‘book reviews, not books’ as ‘the principal engines of change in the history of thought’; because no one has time to read all the books they want to, reviews must sometimes stand in for the thing itself. The more contentious point, about influence, can be divided into two questions: do they influence and if so is that influence beneficial or malign? …
“Despite the modern quantification of criticism – exemplified by the Tomatometer score formulated by the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes – which can give a false impression of objectivity, a review is only ever an opinion. This is why good criticism always refers back to the work under review to support its points.”
From time to time, this blog showcases books in translation to tempt readers to explore writing from countries that do not always make it to the bestseller lists. But we often overlook the work of the translator, who has not only to be fluent in two languages but has to be able to write. The fact that we read books written in other languages is not simply because they have been rendered into another language (English, in this case) but also because the translation does justice to the original.
Rachel Cooke in this article for The Guardian, says that the quality of the translation is paramount.
“Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.
Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.”
Read the full article on The Guardian website. Cooke’s article is followed by short pieces by translators of some well-known foreign writers.
The Strand Book Stall in Mumbai has been an icon for readers. Books of all sorts piled everywhere, where readers were encouraged to browse and get into conversations with like-minded people. It was one of my favourite places: a trip to Bombay (as it was called then) was incomplete unless I had been to Strand. There is a sign in Foyle’s, London, that says “Welcome, reader. You are among friends.” It reminded me of Strand–that was exactly the sort of atmosphere that its owner, TN Shanbagh aimed for.
But the bookshop is going the way of too many others and is closing its doors. Imran Ali Khan , a writer (and a contibutor to this blog) and a longtime customer of the Strand, he bids farewell to a place which gave him some of the books that have become a part of him.
“When I was five my parents took me to visit Bombay, as it was still called. For the time we were in the city, we lived in one of its great towers, the likes of which I had never seen before. In an attempt to make me feel right at home my parents took me to a bookshop. Tucked away in the by-lanes of this vast city, it was the only bookshop I had seen in my life other than Manney’s in Pune, where we lived at the time. Great towers, this time of books, rose before me, names and titles stacked one over the other. A narrow, seemingly endless staircase led to the children’s section. My parents bought me a children’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
“A few years later when we moved to the city, the great towers had names that I would remember, and the streets that coiled around them like giant serpents did too. I knew how to navigate the giant serpents, I knew that when I left the sea behind me and saw Flora Fountain and the Four Seasons I wasn’t far from Strand Book Stall. I went back to Strand, climbed the deep, narrow stairs and read. As time passed, Strand became integral to my survival, my escape from the confusions of chemistry and the madness of mathematics. I no longer needed to climb the stairs to the children’s section because the looming towers of books on the ground floor began to make sense. I had met some of the books before, some were introduced to me, and others I bumped into without meaning to.”
How much do you need to know about the writer to be able to enjoy their books? Nothing at all, according to Elena Ferrante, author of the Nepolitan Quartet and other books. She writes under a pseudonym and refuses to reveal her identity, insisting that her books can speak for themselves. The media hates a mystery and has turned this into a circus, with an Italian journalist claiming to have tracked down the real Elena Ferrante. Rumour even had it that she was really a man—how could a mere woman write these brilliant books? But while journalists fretted over her identity, people kept reading her books: the sales figures speak for themselves.
In this book, she reveals something of the woman behind the books. This frantumaglia (a jumble of fragments) is a collection of her interviews over the years—always by email—and her correspondence with film directors.
The interviews form the bulk of the book. Journalists keep asking her why she conceals her identity, wouldn’t it be better if she didn’t, what does she hope to achieve by it and so on, ad nauseam. I found the repetitiveness annoying and could only imagine how frustrating it must be for her. But Ferrante is very clear: once the book has been sent off to the publisher, it’s done. “I would like to think that, once my book enters the marketplace, nothing can oblige me to make the same journey. … I don’t want to accept an idea of life where the success of the self is measured by a success of the written page.”
But there are rewards for those—both journalists and directors—who engage directly with her writing. This is where she shines, describing how a story comes into being and takes shape. Ferrante is a perfectionist—until she is entirely satisfied, her writing stays private. This means that she has written more than she has published. Good writing, she believes, should say “the unsayable”, tackling issues that are often swept under the carpet. She has no time for “correct” stories, especially by women: “Better to make a mistake with the incandescent lava we have inside…than to assure ourselves success by resorting to murky, cold finds”.
The interviews are wide-ranging, and I cannot really do justice to them in this short piece. Ferrante speaks perceptively about Berlusconi (this was when he was Prime Minister), and how and why people engage with politicians like him—an issue that is still relevant today with the rise of populists. She discusses psychoanalysis and women writers, and her difficult relationship with her mother. The often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters is a theme she keeps coming back to in her books.
Because her responses to questions are in writing, the portrait that comes through is not filtered through the eyes of another person, and you get the full force of her writing. Here is Ferrante describing her mother, a seamstress, work: “The mobile skill of that hand put together the pieces of material, made the seams invisible, the pieces of fabric regained a soft continuity, a new compactness, became a dress, the shape of a female body”. Not very different from what a writer does.
Elena Ferrante comes across as fiercely individualistic, thoughtful and eloquent—all the characteristics that make her novels such a pleasure to read. I read this book cover to cover, and I’m not sure that’s the best way to read it. As I said earlier, some of it can be a bit repetitive because journalists tend to ask similar questions. And some of it can feel a bit long when you haven’t read the book she is referring to. But she is a pleasure to read, and I would recommend this book especially to writers.
To end with the big question: how much does a reader need to know about the writer to enjoy a book? I think Ferrante is right: good writing does not need the author to promote it. After all, we can’t really “know” an author—all we get are a few fragments of their lives upon which we build our image of them. So why do we need to know anything at all? I remember reading Wilfrid Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est for the first time when I was 15. The power Owen’s words stunned me, although I had never heard of him. Nothing I’ve learned about him since has changed the way I feel about that poem.
One of the things this blog tries to do is to highlight books from outside the usual UK-US cannon. We live in a rich, varied world, and as readers, we are ideally placed to explore this richness through books. This is what lay behind the reading challenge that some of us set ourselves.
From time to time, I post articles on reading suggestions from different parts of the world. In this article, published in Electric Literature, Chinelo Okparanta, a Nigerian-American writer, lists six books by West African writers that take an unconventional look at relationships.
“In my novel, Under the Udala Trees, I explore the themes of betrayal and rebirth and happiness in the context of gender and power. In writing the novel, I imagined, unlike Ramatoulaye, a sort of happiness that existed outside of the traditional schema of marriage. Or rather, I imagined the pursuit of that sort of happiness. The fundamental desires of my protagonist, Ijeoma, are unconventional in her West African setting in the sense that she does not find her value via an attachment to a man. Lately, I’ve been interested in finding other West African authors who are also unconventional in their portrayal of love and marriage, of gender and power. The following are my top six.”
You can read the article here. You can read more about Chinelo Okparanta on her website.
How do you get under the skin of someone else? Thrity Umrigar, an Indian-American writer, talks about the expectations that come with the hyphenated identity: write about what you know, that is, Indians. But that is the point of fiction, surely? That a writer can get inside the head of any character they create, and if they are good at what they do, make the reader believe in the character.
But when Umrigar wrote a book with a black protagonist, she got a lot of flack. As she says, “If men can write about women and science fiction writers can write about space aliens, surely I can write about someone from a different race. And I have spent my entire adult life in the United States. Why shouldn’t I write about that most American of topics — race and race relations?”