The Joy of Premature Congratulation!

on Wednesday, March 30, 2011
What are we in, March or something, and already I'm talking about literary prizes?!? (I alternatively used exclamation and question marks here because I'm not sure which is grammatically correct.) Yes, the year has barely begun and we are already being slapped on the side of the head by the literary equivalent of two dead fish, those being the long lists for the most inconsequential awards anyone could wish not to win.

First up we have the Orange Prize. I know I'm going to anger many in litland by so labelling the book world's toast to female authors and I certainly agree that some marvellous books have actually won it but seriously, does it really need to exist? Aren't women adequately represented in the literary prize world these days not to need an aluminium plated token named after a pretty mediocre citrus fruit (or an even worse Telco)? I side with the likes of A.S. Byatt and Tim Lott - yep, I grabbed one from each gender camp - who see it as sexist and, in intellectual terms, degrading to women. Apparently Silvio Berlusconi is a fan and has offered to present the award so I stand to be corrected. Jokes aside, I feel obliged to point out that a few really good books have made the shortlist, and I truly hope they show up again when real prize time rolls around in September. Of particular note are Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht and Swamplandia! by Karen Russel. Take note team Booker and Pulitzer!

Speaking of the Commonwealth's most prestigious prize, the folks at the Booker Sausage Factory have not succumbed to Award Fatigue as I might have hoped but instead have announced yet another list. Following hot on the heels of the totally irrelevant Lost Booker and the hardly more relevant (but at least cute) Best of Beryl Booker, they have now rolled out the long list for the third International Booker Prize. Cue excitement. Or yawns. Hey, I'm a big Ismail Kadare and Chinua Achebe fan but neither really needed this particular trophy on their cabinet. The long list boasts many of the usual suspects. Philip Roth, because this would totally make his career. Su Tong, because already winning the Asian Booker apparently isn't enough. John Le Carre because... well... I got nothing. Anyway, stay tuned. May will bring the next Booker Prize announcement: The Booker Prize for Most Nominations Across The Various Booker Prizes. Sweet. I'm tipping McEwan.

One area of the lit world which is unfortunately on the rise but sorely lacking in the prize department is self-published e-literature. Thankfully one such author who clearly cannot write but is greatly deserving of a prize is the unintentionally hilarious Jaqueline Howett. After responding with grammatically incorrect vitriol to a blogger who reviewed her vanity-published e-book, she has hit the heights of internet superstardom. Anyone interested in laughing at the Kindle's answer to the big bang (though I would liken it more to a mass outbreak of dysentery in some huge area - say, sub Saharan Africa - with only one semi-functional toilet) should check out Big Al's Books and Pals at Congratulations Ms. Howett. You are the winner of the first and hopefully last Man Booker Prize For Completely Debasing Yourself And A Glorious Profession To Which You Claim To Belong In A Manner Even More Spectacular Than That Time Martin Amis Published Yellow Dog Or Elfreide Jelinek Won The Nobel Or Someone Thought Of Creating The Orange Prize. Sure, it's a wordy name for a prize, but at least it's grammatically correct!

Portrait of the Artist as a Looney Tune: Perec's Short Fiction

on Friday, March 18, 2011
No author's photograph captures the essence of its subject quite like that of the Frenchman Georges Perec. I imagine many of you have seen it, but if you haven't I strongly suggest you pause here and check it out on the interGoogle. Yep, that's him staring out at you with the crazy hair of Einstein (or Don King), the pudgy face of Elmer Fudd and the almost psychotic eyes of Charles Manson. Quite the combination. In terms of appearance, he was the literary equivalent of Salvadore Dali. Come to think of it, his unbridled creative flair isn't all that far removed from the Spanish painter's either. The prime difference though, was that Perec worked within a constantly changing set of strict rules that he imposed upon himself and his work. Perec loved nothing more than the idea of writing as a functional experiment. Like his compadres in the Oulipo movement, he was obsessed with the confluence of deep theoretical mathematics and literature. Hence we have A Void, a mystery written without the use of a single "E", and it's sister volume Three, written with all the leftover E's and not a single other vowel. And then there's the micro-observation of his great masterpiece, Life: A User's Manual, and the imagined autobiographical dystopia of W, Or The Memory of Childhood.

Perec was never greatly in or out of fashion, but he suddenly seems to be experiencing something of a renaissance, at least in the publishing world. Two of his shorter works have recently been released by two different houses. So if you've always wanted to have a go at Perec but found the longer works a bit daunting, this might be your chance. But be warned. Bite size though they may be, each of these books conceals a razor blade making them far from easy to digest.

An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in Paris is exactly as the title suggests - a second by second experiential account of what Perec witnesses as he sits at a cafe watching what goes on around him over three days. It is repetitive, often nonsensical and almost unutterably tedious. Which, of course, is the point! The staccato form punctuates each minute observance with a slap, and you feel Perec's googly eyes darting from one thing to the next.. There is a degree of intrigue in the idea of the project which ultimately seems aimed at forcing the reader to accept just how dull life, when observed closely, actually is.

Of more immediate interest is the compelling, absurd and often hilarious The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department To Submit a Request For a Raise. Written in a single, seventy-page sentence this book is Perec's attempt to talk through a business flow chart, exploring at each step the two possible outcomes, one of which will send him back to the start, the other of which will allow him to progress. It is stupidly circuitous, but I challenge you to have a go at putting a complex series of ideas, as represented in visual form by single words and arrows, into a coherent narrative. To me, The Art and Craft... is a true triumph of the Oulipo movement, and certainly worth the short time you will spend zipping through it. The flowchart itself is featured on the opening page, and it is fun to flick back to see where Perec is up to at any given point. There is a playful sense of ridicule present too, with Perec making light of the knots into which we tie ourselves when approaching what we consider to be important life moments (in this case asking for a raise).

Perec was clearly nuts, but we as readers are all the richer for it. Fans will find much to ponder and enjoy in these slight volumes and newcomers to one of literature's most playful absurdists can whet their appetites without being clobbered by he author's characteristic obsessiveness. Just keep some brain candy on standby. You're likely to need it afterwards.

The Power of the (Wrong) Word

on Thursday, March 17, 2011
As you would know by now, this here bookworm prefers to make his burrow in foreign soil. Consequently, I am always on the lookout for new and improved English versions of books that I have loved in the hope that somehow I might get to experience the work as the author intended it without having to take a crash course in every language imaginable. The other day I was in my favourite bookstore and was intrigued to see what appeared to be a new translation of Antonio Tabucchi's great novel of small-time political rebellion, Pereira Declares. Or should I say, in mid-1990's Prince style, "the artist formerly known as Pereira Declares"? Set in wartime Portugal, it is the story of an ageing journalist, living out his sunset years as editor of the cultural pages of a small-time Portuguese newspaper who meets a young wannabe writer and is drawn into the fight against the country's tyrannical, Nazi-loving regime. What begins as projected affection for a son he might have had becomes an ideological metamorphosis and, ultimately, causes Pereira to take drastic, reckless action of his own. It is a wonderful book about the small man's ability to make moral choices in an immoral environment and is well worth you taking the time to read. But that is all by the by.

What made me believe this was an altogether new translation was that the title has been changed from Pereira Declares to Pereira Maintains, which is supposedly a more accurate rendering of the original Italian title Sostiene Pereira. I, of course, wouldn't know. I don't speak Italian. Yet this seemingly minor change in the title (and consequently most repeated line in the book) completely alters the way we read the thing, especially in our understanding of the consequences of Pereira's final act of rebellion. The book ends with our hero trying to flee the country, having set himself on a path of almost certain torture and death if he remains. So, if Pereira "Declares", it suggests that he is bearing witness from abroad, that he did indeed escape, and that he is letting people know of the murderous activities of the Portuguese authorities. However, if Pereira "Maintains", it suggests that he was caught and he (or his legal representative) is telling his side of the story in a way that paints his actions in the most favourable light. The book becomes a plea for his life. There is also the possibility that it is being told by a member of the secret police or prosecutor, with an air of sarcastic disbelief. No matter what Pereira "maintains", we are invited to believe his fate is sealed. Interestingly, either translation suggests that we are hearing the story from an unreliable narrator but siding with one Sostiene rather the other will change whose unreliable retelling we are receiving.

Alas, readers of the original translation need not rush back. A quick look at the front leaf shows that this is not an entirely new version but merely (somewhat oddly for such a well-regarded novel) the first British edition. The translation is copyright 1995. Which means that, having decided that "Maintains" is the correct translation of "Sostiene" (my rudimentary latin suggests that "Sustains" is, in fact, the literal translation), the publishers simply did a "Replace All" job on the text and sent it off to press. They might have wanted to read through the thing though. On page 149, towards the end of the book, we find the sentence "The next morning, he declared, Pereira was awakened by the telephone." Fairly nondescript, I know. But I wish I could read Italian because I'm intrigued to see if Tabucchi uses a different word at this point, which might give that particular assertion some extra piquancy. If so, it becomes the only definitive statement in the whole novel.

The Pereira switcheroo has shaken my confidence in translations. One word, translated differently, can change the entire meaning of a book. Which gives me a sneaking suspicion that Anna Karenina was pushed. Who's with me on this?

Bridesmaid Revisited

on Saturday, March 12, 2011
So the folk over at Man Booker land have decided to run a poll on which Beryl Bainbridge book ought to win an honorary Booker Prize. The grand dame was nominated five times but failed to ever win the blooming thing, giving her the rather cringeworthy reputation as the perennial Booker Bridesmaid. 'Tis a pitiable tale. In 1973 she lost out to J. G. Farrell. In 1974 the cake was shared by Nadine Gordimer and Stanley Middleton, with Ms. Bainbridge left to nibble at the crumbs. It took another 15 years before she made her next appearance on the shortlist, only to lose again, this time to A. S. Byatt. Never one to be discouraged she was back in 1996. Yep, you guessed it... K.O.'d by Graham Swift. Master Georgie turned out to be her final Booker appearance in 1998 and, to be honest, she probably should have won. Given that the prize was doled out in consolation to Ian McEwan, who failed to win it the previous year for the very deserving Enduring Love, it beggars belief that any judge hell-bent on licking someone else's wounds would not give it to the poor dame who had missed out four times already. Alas, Amsterdam won the day, probably the least deserving of all six nominees. Bainbridge's final novel, According to Queenie, didn't even make the shortlist and she dropped off the perch in 2010.

Well, thank the book gods for good ol' fashioned guilt. In a genial pat on the back that some might see as more of a patronising slap in the face, team Booker want decaying Beryl to have the last laugh from beyond the grave. They are calling on us, Bainbridge's adoring reading public, to pick which of her wonderful books we believe ought to be handed the 'Best of Beryl" Booker (personally, I suspect they just fancied the alliteration). Needless to say, the winner will be bestowed the third lest meaningful Booker after The Man Booker International Prize and the Lost Booker Prize. At least Bainbridge can't possible lose this one. Results will be conveyed via Oija Board, crop circle or black forest nude communion on April 19. Head over to to register your vote.

An Explosive Discovery: Beers, Babel and Blowing Nuclear Chunks

on Thursday, March 10, 2011
My Czech cousin was just in town. He barely speaks English. I don't speak Czech. And yet we get on like a house on fire. Years ago, I visited Prague and we spent a rather hilarious evening downing Pilsners until he had to drag me home over his shoulder, stopping every five minutes to let me decorate the 13th century sidewalks with carrot chunks. It was one of the most enjoyable nights I can't remember having in my entire life.

Having just discovered VB, Ludvik is disappointed that I gave up the grog since we last met. I suspect he thinks less of me. Thankfully I still have my love of Czech literature to fall back on. The other day we got to talking about Karel Capek, probably my favourite writer from pre-War Czechoslovakia. I count his War With The Newts among my top ten books of all time. Ludvik likes it but insists Capek's true genius was best on show in "Povídky z jedné a z druhé kapsy". Except he didn't know what that was in English. He kept pointing at his hips. Our usually functional game of conversational charades had hit a wall. Cue Wikipedia. We scanned the selected bibliography and found it was Tales From Two Pockets, a wonderful collection of short detective tales that had been serialised in the Czechoslovak papers in the late 1920's and early 30's.

That is all by the by. What was most exciting for me was the discovery of a book of which I had never heard. On Wikipedia of all places! Somehow, Krakatit (An Atomic Phantasy), first published in 1922, had slipped under my radar. Perhaps it just hadn't been translated into English. Some further research revealed that it had indeed been translated, but in the late 1940's, and has been out of print since then. I instantly hopped onto Abebooks and searched for a second-hand English copy. It cost me nineteen bucks and arrived, sans dust jacket and a little worse for wear, five days later. Thank you interweb. Sometimes I do not hate you.

Now I know how people get all worked up about Kafka's prophetic abilities. But as much as I love ol' Franz, when it came to true prophesy, Capek was the man. With his brother Joseph, he invented the word Robot (in R.U.R. -Rossum's Universal Robots). He foresaw artificial intelligence and the advent of consumer society in The Absolute at Large. And in Krakatit, he pretty much mapped out the trajectory of the arms race that would only start ten years after he died and then go on to cripple the world for the better part of forty years. In the book, Prokop discovers a substance that even in the smallest concentrations can blow up entire cities. He calls it Krakatit. Governments and corporations vie for his affections, trying to get him to hand over its formula. When he refuses, it all turns rather nasty. Like all great Czech literature, Krakatit has its fair share of claustrophobic weirdness. Prokop teeters on the brink of insanity as each new conspiracy adds a layer to the one that came before. Yet, for all its intellectual rigour and narrative complexity, the book remains a fun, easy read. Capek wasn't just a litsnob's writer. He wrote for the people. He had an uncanny ability to make you laugh and think in equal doses, without ever questioning the incongruity that might seem apparent in less capable hands.

As a forewarning of nuclear power and the lengths people will go to control it, Krakatit has no equal. I know it will be hard to track down a copy, but if you can I really recommend you do. If any publishers are reading this (Catbird, I'm looking at you), bring it back into print. But in the meantime, for Capek virgins, check out the Penguin European Classics edition of War With The Newts or read RUR. If you want Capek in bite-sized pieces, read Tales From Two Pockets or Apocryphal Tales. Any of these books will be a great introduction to your new favourite writer!