The Written World

With Sarla Langdon

 

We embark on 2016 in a self congratulatory mood, delighted to have been introduced by Swansea University Humanities chief Professor John Spurr to poet, novelist and broadcaster Owen Sheers as “Sarla Langdon, the most powerful literary critic in Wales”. I preened while Sheers blanched — unnecessarily as I have always admired his work.

I discovered on Google that the largest and best-known national publishing houses use my quotes for their titles. I am the only regional reviewer to be regularly quoted by name.

It is gratifying to be cited by the English speaking world’s most illustrious book publishers on their reviews lists, in the company of the most respected quality newspapers in the UK…a real coup for BAY Magazine as the only regional publication to feature on these web pages.

I have picked the best of the very distinguished titles received for you this month, to make sure that once again, readers of this column are kept informed of the mainstream literary scenario.

 

A BIT OF FUN TO START THE YEAR

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THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING more notes from a small island by Bill Bryson (Doubleday £20.00)

In his new offering, The Road to Little Dribbling American travel writer Bill Bryson returns to his early route through the very funny A Small Island with ever-fresh observations of the eccentrities and idiocies of the British nation —- and a new and endearing insight into his own fallibility.

Following the self-styled Bryson Line from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath in Scotland, Bryson makes his ironic way across Britain by rail, road and Shank’s Pony, revelling in the craziness of his adoptive home and its people.

A suitably bizarre experience at a lonely farmhouse B&B, where gigantic, superbly cooked meals are interspersed by violent quarrels between mine host and his wife, offers a representative glimpse of the illogical world Bryson inhabits and invites us to share.

Bryson is in a rather more contemplative mode in The Road To Little Dribbling. The laugh-out-loud hilarity of his Notes From A Small Island and its manic Australian counterpart Down Under has softened into a recognizably British irony and understated outrage. His love for Britain shines through his most caustic anecdotes and observations. Particularly resonant is his discovery of the Dunning-Krueger Effect, a paper on stupidity by two scientists from Cornell University which basically states that most people are too stupid to know they are stupid —- a theory I have long held in my own non-scientific researches into people around me.

If you want a good laugh and an unapologetically critical look at yourself and the nation you inhabit, pick up The Road To Little Dribbling. I assure you you will find it difficult to move on till you have read every word of Bill Bryson’s innocently vitriolic new book.

 

KVACHI by Mikheil Javakhishvili

Translated from the Georgian by Prof Donald Rayfield (Dalkey Archive £12.95)

You don’t expect a book published in 1924 in a little known East European language translated by a venerable British Professor to be a barrel of laughs. Believe me, in any language, at any time, Kvachi is a merry romp, a celebration of the naughty doings of a confidence trickster par excellence.

The author, radical Georgian journalist Mikheil Javakhishvili was unfortunate enough to attract the personal attention of the notorious KGB boss Lavrenti Beria (also a Georgian),

Stalin’s (yes, he’s Georgian too, named Josif Vissarionovich Dzugashvili) murderous chief of the secret police, and was tortured and executed in 1937 despite public protests.

Thanks to the efforts of Prof Rayfield (who has appeared in this column before as the translator of the epic A Man Was Going Down The Road by Georgian litterateur Otar Chiladze), the doings and adventures of Kvachi are now available in English for us all to enjoy.

Kvachi grows up from being an adorable child, the darling of the villages around into a charismatic young scoundrel. He lies his way into the hearts of beautiful society women, charms his way into their pockets and gambles away several small fortunes, conning his way across Georgia, Russia, France—keeping just one step ahead of retribution.

His unscrupulous thievery brings to light the easy corruption that was the engine of Soviet government, pervading every transaction and every public office.

The publisher’s blurb compares Kvachi with Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull, Confessions of a Conman, and the comparision is extraordinarily apt. Kvachi is as compelling and tongue-in-cheek a narrative as Felix Krull and both protagonists are equally plausible as crooks, opportunists and exploiters of the gullibility and innocence of their victims. Neither is burdened by any constraint of conscience and both authors distinguish themselves by avoiding judge-mental statements that would spoil the irony and the sheer fun of these deeply humorous novels.

 

Jacobson, Remarque and Pahmuk:

THREE LITERARY GIANTS TAKE CENTRE STAGE FOR 2016

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SHYLOCK IS MY NAME by Howard Jacobson

(Hogarth Shakespeare £16.99)

Readers of this column are familiar with Welsh publisher Seren’s ambitious ten volume series ‘New Stories from the Mabinogion’ launched in 2009, a retelling of the ancient Welsh myths by modern-day literary luminaries including Prof Owen Sheers, Cynon Jones, Gwyneth Lewis, Niall Griffiths and Horatio Clare.

The original author(s) of these legends have not been identified: they are transcriptions from the oral Bardic tradition of the Dark Ages which have been collected in two medieval manuscripts, the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch.

In contrast, Hogarth Press’ new series of retellings or reinterpretations of classic works by the world’s most famous playwright, the extensively documented William Shakespeare, has well-established historical reference points. This new Hogarth Shakespeare series was launched in 2015 with Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale. It must be remembered that Shakespeare himself was a great ‘reteller’, a dramatiser of widely-known historical events and writings.

The latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare series is Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, a sequel to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, a contemporary rendition of the shaming of Shylock the Jewish moneylender. Jacobson sets his version in modern Manchester; the opening scene is in Gatley Cemetery where Shylock visits his dead wife Leah’s grave.

Shylock enters Jacobson’s novel at the point where Shakespeare leaves off. He has already had his humiliating encounter with Antonio and Portia, his daughter Jessica has absconded with all his wealth and eloped with her lover, leaving Shylock financially ruined.

Jacobson uses this situation to examine the nature of Jewishness, the psyche of the anti-Semite. As in all his novels he wields his fictional characters and their dialogue into opportunities for him to explore the position of Jews functioning as a minority race in a Christian cultural milieu.

If that sounds ponderous and worthy, please adjust your sets — Jacobson is a natural comic genius and Shylock is My Name bubbles over with caricatures of Cheshire Jews and Gentiles, from the dull-witted football star to the millionaire philanthropist and his naughty and nubile daughter. Jacobson’s situations are just this side of slapstick but there is no escaping his contemplative mode as he examines local attitudes and pseudo–attitudes to the British Jewish community, questioning glib, politically correct assumptions and posing the ultimate challenge to the Gentile — will he get circumcised and convert to Judaism for love?

Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name is a remarkable sequel to William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, a supra-modern update of a venerable segment of our literary heritage.

 

A STRANGENESS IN MY MIND by Orhan Pamuk

Translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap (Faber&Faber £20.00)

Nobel Laureate novelist Orhan Pamuk has over the years given the world some of the most enduring portraits of modern Turkish life in a series of distinguished novels. He has a gift for drawing the reader so deeply into his narrative that his characters and their lives take on a super-reality. Pamuk’s latest book A Strangeness In My Mind tells the story of life among the impoverished residents of outlying areas of Istanbul, economic immigrants from the even poorer rural villages.

The Soul of a City

While A Strangeness In My Mind contributes greatly to Western understanding of the people of today’s Byzantium, it is Pamuk’s portrayal of their relationships with immigrants from neighbouring Levantine countries that is the real eye-opener. We discover the character of secular Kurds, of mad Islamists and the terrified Syrians they persecute, of the Alevis fleeing massacres by the Sunnis — a unique insight into issues that so far have merely been depressing newspaper headlines.

Pamuk delivers this tapestry of inter-relating life-stories through the doings of his young protagonist Mevlut whose loves and labours from 1982 to 2012 form the platform for this compelling novel about Istanbul, portraying the soul of a city as never before.

The Boza Seller

Mevlut’s is the coming-of-age story of an itinerant street peddler of yogurt, of chicken and rice, of icecream and of whatever else Fate steers him towards. He is affectionately known as the boza–seller, a vendor of boza, a traditional beverage made from fermented grain with an alcoholic content that is a matter of some contention.

Serendipitously, boza is featured in Michael Palin’s travel series ‘New Europe’ in a segment on the Turkish Quarter of Sarajevo. Palin visits a boza café, tasting the drink and giving us a rare look at this regional beverage. Mevlut’s adventures as a boza seller play a pivotal role in A Strangeness In My Mind.

Ambivalent Attitude

This is the cue to examine the ambivalent attitude modern Turks take to the strictures of Islam as described by Mevlut. Boza is popular even with those who suspect that it is an alcoholic drink — and the ambivalence extends to the saying of prayers five times a day. Mevlut does not carry out this stricture but has bouts of conscience about his neglect of his duty as a Moslem. Fortunately these doubts are eased by the knowledge that none of his peer group do their ‘namaz’ as they should. They do all go to the mosque once a week and all seem comfortable with this observance, as much an assertion of their standing as members of the community as of religious obedience.

Fags and Booze

The women in Mevlut’s Moslem community seem to take as relaxed an attitude to the requirements of orthodox religious practice as their menfolk. Many of the women in Mevlut’s social circle of close family and friends — including his wife — drink raki and vodka and smoke cigarettes even in public, and some regard the wearing of the headscarf as a matter of choice and not of religious ruling. This is a refreshingly contemporary outlook: the fear of physical punishment is absent. Mevlut registers the doings of his social milieu in a completely non-judgmental manner, revealing facets of Turkish life hitherto unexplored.

More than a documentary – an epic

A Strangeness In My Mind is a Bildungsroman, an exquisitely phrased narrative spiced with the piquancy of commentary on Turkish life mastered by Orhan Pamuk . But above all, please do not mistake this work for a documentary: every page, every character is wreathed in the empathic love Pahmuk feels for his fellowmen, raising the novel above mere literary excellence to an epic revelation of the very soul of a city.

I fully endorse the selection by some of the Times Literary Supplement’s most distinguished contributors of A Strangeness in My Mind as the most important novel of 2015.

 

THE PROMISED LAND by Erich Maria Remarque

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (Vintage Classics £16.99)

Do you remember All Quiet On The Western Front, the definitive anti-war novel by German writer Erich Maria Remarque? Picking up his posthumous new work The Promised Land revived memories of the Oscar-winning Hollywood film based on this seminal book, which, merciless as it is as an expose of the evils of war, resulted in Remarque’s flight from Nazi persecution to the USA. Following the grand old barbaric tradition of book burning, so faithfully emulated by modern-day fanatics, the Nazis denounced and burnt Remarque’s works publicly and forced him into banishment.

The Promised Land is about life in exile. The protagonist, German art expert Ludwig Sommer, is acclimatising himself to life in New York after suffering untold horrors while escaping the death camps and finding a dangerous path to freedom along the ‘Via Dolorosa’, the tragic route across Europe taken by deeply damaged Jewish refugees trying to keep a step ahead of their Nazi pursuers. These persecuted groups, refused entry at every European border, (sound familiar or is it just me?) made it through to safety thanks to the many heroic Jewish underground resistance fighters who risked their lives in an unrelenting bid to get as many Jews to sanctuary as was humanly possible.

These are the people Sommer encounters again in the safe haven of New York, in the course of his new life as an art and antiquarian adviser. Each encounter creates more pain as hideous memories return and suppressed agonies burst through the emigrants’ battered psyches. Sommer wonders whether the physical and mental scars of Nazi brutality will ever heal.

As news of German defeat in arena after arena reaches the Jewish exiles, they realise that the Nazis will never be defeated. Erich Maria Remarque declares that they will simply cease to exist as every German denies any connection or knowledge of their evil regime and the whole of Germany is whitewashed so that all claim innocence and the Nazi memory is shoved out of sight and out of mind by a willing and complicit populace.

Ouch. A savage and bitter indictment of the human race as we know it — and as we don’t.

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