Monday, May 23, 2011

book review: Dearest Father by Franz Kafka

"Recently the belief that I was defeated by Father as a small boy and have since been prevented by pride from leaving the battleground, throughout all these years, despite enduring defeat over and over again."

As a father myself the idea of what my sons might be thinking about me kept coming to the forefront of my mind as I read this heart breakingly honest letter from Franz Kafka to his father.

their relationship was one clearly troubled and beset by the dominance of the father and the continual failure of Franz to feel he could live up to what was expected of him. He failed to take a role in the family business, failed to find favour for his writing and caused serious upset with his plans to marry.

But this letter, a love letter from a loving son to a father, is upsetting because there is a feeling that things would never change. No matter what Franz does or did it would make no difference to a man who is almost blinded by his obstinacy and pride.

That's a message for fathers now and a challenge not to provoke hate and servitude in our own children by pushing our own views down their throats.

As Kafka details the numerous occasions when his father and him clashed and the role of his mother as a not quite innocent bystander you feel for the man. You want him to be able to either breakthrough to his father or as an alternative to break free.

Sadly he is capable of neither and as we all know illness took him before there was a chance perhaps to reach one of those outcomes.

A beautifully produced OneWorld Classic contains a few extracts from Kafka's diaries that reinforce some of the points he makes in his letter.

he might not have wanted it printed but across the decades it has a message for fathers now and the clashes and battles he describes continue now in households all across his native Prague and well beyond.

Friday, May 20, 2011

book review: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

"Other napoleons came and went around him; in the middle of the lawn, where a patch of white mist now hovered, one of them peered into the shadows through a cardboard telescope; another spread an old newspaper on the stone balustrade, as if it were a staff map. There were some who sat astride rusty garden chairs, lost in thought."

Fiction should play with truth and reality and this whole story does it wonderfully. Starting off with the premise that Napoleon has escaped from his prison island St Helena to be replaced by a double the story charts what might happen.

The Emperor heads back to France leaning on the planning of an organisation dedicated to restoring him to power. But delays and bad weather means he is diverted and there is a wonderful moment when Napoleon goes with some British tourists to see the battlefield of Waterloo.

he finally manages to get back to Paris but without money or friends has to take refuge with a widow of one of his old loyal infantrymen. he uses his strategic skill to restore the fortunes of her melon business revealing to some of those around him as a result he is who they had thought he was.

But with the death of the double all those miles away on the island Napoleon can no more reveal who he is. Who would believe him and the fear that came with knowing he was still alive is snuffed out like a flame.

As he wanders through the gardens of an asylum watching the other napoleon's take the air before returning to the hospital his predicament as a pretender fully dawns on him.

This story is fun in the sense it takes one of the great historical 'what if' and takes it to a conclusion but it is also a disturbing prod at the question of identity. What does it mean to have your identity taken away from you, particularly when it's permanent through death? What does it fell like to have no one believe you?

One of the themes that emerges is that even those that followed Napoleon blindly into musket fire and the face of canon balls had no idea what he actually looked like. But the legend was stronger than reality and the idea of an aging, balding and over weight Napoleon returning from the dead to over throw the French establishment is one that even his most loyal foot soldiers will not b able to support.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A few thoughts on discussion on The Good of the Novel

Last night I attended a discussion at the London Review Bookshop provoked by the book The Good of the Novel, which has been published by Faber.

The evening threw up lots of interesting thoughts and there are perhaps not surprisingly more questions than answers when it comes to discussing the position of the novel now as well as the future direction it might take.

The evening started off with a few comments from Ray Ryan, co-editor of The Good of the Novel before asking a panel for their opinions.

I sat there with my phone and made a few observations based on what each person said and hope they might make a poor but fleeting record of what was said and provide an idea of the thoughts that were expressed on the night.

Ray Ryan, co-editor The Good of the Novel
The novel is always in society therefore difficult to analyse it independently of history.

Each novel sets it's own agenda and makes it's own demands of the reader.

Novelistic truth is not documented.

James Wood, well known critic
We go to it for pleasure. It gave me great feeling of freedom against the backdrop of a strict religious upbringing "An experience of realising reading the novel an area of freedom anyone could be represented thinking anything."

Very few outright tragic novelists. Secularism. Seeing the ways in which Dostoevsky could argue against himself in the Brothers Kasmanov. Began a movement away of whatever religious leaning I had.
Quite important now last decade a revival on both sides of atheism and envangelisism trying to pin us down.

Mental lives are flickering intermittent the novel as a form it alone can do. Hadn't yet had great novel that deals with atheism and fundamentalism perhaps it's coming.

Lee Brackstone, editorial director at Faber
Lee gave a publishers perspective: Publishers position often thankless. Position in chain of command between writer ad reader. We are the first people to cast artform into literary mold.
Lucrative narrative form. I tell other publishers to just buy what you love but Faber needs these things so just how useful is this advice? What pressures of the market to qualify taste? If market and everyman readers didn't exist what would we be publishing? Do the structures bring us the novel we deserve and if not what might that novel be?
Navigate between the gospel of the novel and the demands of a brutal market?
Visceral. To make these decisions and have responsibility in maintaining this list at Faber is a privilege. Novelist ability to deconstruct and surprise and reconstruct. Worries me that element of surprise will disappear where character, plot and style over come place and different voices.
Do readers want entertainment or challenge to comfort? Not novelist responsibility to represent the world but to make it a more uncertain place.

Frances Wilson, author and critic
What I'm interested in is the anti-novelism of novels. Intimacy kureishi it's not a novel might as well call it a fish a book whose intimacy spoke only to her. Rarely like scandal Of fiction that operates one inch from life. Novels should be dangerous or a risk you should be prepared to leave a different person.
Genius in the way kureishi re-framed the real.
If novels are meant to be vecihles of interiority take you inside the heads of Novels being morally uncertain. Deal with the complexity of thought and emotion.

Amit Chaudhuri, author and academic
Disliked the novel as a form for a long time. Viewed the cult of the novel with suspicion. Geoff Dyer berates the form. Always meant to be a poet. Larkin wanted to be a novelist but I always wanted to be a poet. Drawn to was rereadability one of my first experinence belief that certain sentences were enough and whole novel around it were a Nuisance. Get rid of it but do what? Feel like starting anew with each sentence. Novel became a series of fresh beginnings. Heard it had to do with plot and story and the problematic character. Wasn't going to novels for character was going to them for something spatial. Background. Description. which can be a criticism. I was drawn to description and background. Think of the story in a different way not about things happening but about a space. Found myself inhabiting and producing novels.

Novel became more successful with globalisation. Brought in rhetoric of plenty. Leaked into the novel. People were reading more. So what? World of infinite communication and plenty into which the novel had fallen the debate is not so much about the novel can elaborate on various views of the world whole thing haunted by main a happening in literature is the transformation in the interruption. Not the novel but what is the literary?
From critical theory and philosophy. Masterpiece only used by pr agencies not used in literary departments.

Then there were some questions and I picked out a few memorable comments and thoughts in response to queries from readers about what makes novels good and what the role of it is in society.

The good of the sentence rather than the good of novel.

New technology will allow novelist to look at form in a new way. David Foster Wallace was challenging it but no longer.

Novel performs function of a benign mirror happy to see something like us as well as something less pleasant.

James wood
Confirmation of the world and invention of the world. Realism can be very frustrating.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

book review: A Country Dance by Margiad Evans

"'I'm going home,' I say. 'You cannot undo what you have done, even with your Welsh tongue.''I will, though,' shouts the master.'Gabriel Ford will never take your word,' I answer back."

There is a certain lyrical quality to the few Welsh books I've read and it's here as the pastoral landscapes of the Welsh border clash with the battle between two men for the heart of a shepherd's daughter.

Penned by the Welsh-border writer Margaid Evans the story of Ann Goodman unfolds. She is torn by the mixed English and Welsh in her blood and finds herself the object of affection for a Welsh land owner and an English shepherd.

She moves between them as she crosses the border and although she is in effect engaged to the English shepherd Gabriel it is when working on the Welsh farm she becomes a woman the master sets his sights on.

Gabriel turns up to check up on his love and finds the master sweet talking her in Welsh. fights ensue and it is not until the very end Ann makes up her mind.

Apart from the three characters involved in the love triangle what stands out here is the description of a rural world that is bitterly hard. Village life is full of hardship, gossip and little joy.

Ann works hard and moves from one grueling task to another while facing the responsibility of looking after her ailing father and navigating her way through the troublesome waters of courtship from two potential husbands.

it provides an insight into the hills and valleys that leaves a lasting impression on the reader and the description of Wales is no doubt why it was chosen to be part of the Library of Wales series of books. It deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The month in review - April

April was a difficult month reading wise. A lot was happening in my life with the division of the company I work for being sold and as a result concentrating on reading or finding the time was a challenge.

Sadly that challenge is set to continue even more this month as I move offices and start a commute that denies me any reading time.

Still here is the look back over April with the following books read. Only managed to get six books read:

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki
The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum by Heinrich Boll
Lineman Thiel and Other Tales by Gerhart Hauptmann
The Call of The Toad by Gunter Grass
Death in Venice, Tristan, Tonio Kroger by Thomas Mann
The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschappeler