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Favourite Books of 2016

I had a not-so-good reading year in 2016. I read only 18 books. That is not not-so-good. That is bad. I left some of the books half-read. Not because they were not good, but because I was distracted or got into a reading slump. I could finish reading only 18.

That is the bad news. The good news is that I liked most of what I read. Actually loved most of them. That makes me very happy. That means, my list of favourites will contain most of the books I read 🙂 I don’t have to differentiate between them and choose some over others for arbitrary reasons. That is one of the great pleasures of reading less number of books. That makes me very happy.

So, without much further ado, here is the list of my favourite books from 2016, in no particular order.

Short Stories / Short Prose Pieces / Novellas

(1) A Game of Chess and other stories by Stefan Zweig

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My first proper book by Stefan Zweig. The title story was exceptional – it had some of the best passages I have read. There was also a beautiful description of the Riviera in another. Loved the whole book. I can’t wait to read another Stefan Zweig book.

(2) The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s love letter to the Russian Steppe. Also his longest story. My most favourite of his.

(3) A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov

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One of Chekhov’s longer short stories. Loved it.

(4) The Walled City by Zeenat Mahal

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One of my favourite discoveries this year was author Zeenat Mahal (the nom de plume of Faiqa Mansab) and her novella The Walled City. It is a love story set in the beautiful city of Lahore and evokes the sights, sounds, smells, people and culture of the city so brilliantly. It also had one of my favourite passages :

“Saqib watched his work with forced detachment. He’d put his dreams to sleep on canvas after canvas, crystallized in a vice of color and form. Some had emerged as twisted nightmares, others as singed vestiges of shattered hopes.
     This painting was both.
     Like the woman, it had exacted much from him. He could almost feel the weight of the palette knife in his hands again, as he’d mixed and smeared, brushed and stroked in a frenzy of ecstasy or despair, until she’d emerged out of its blankness in the arms of another man, a faceless lover. But her almond shaped eyes that had held him captive for so long, gazed out at him, even now. He wasn’t just the painter; he was voyeur and conspirator, sinner and judge, plunderer and savior. The man in her arms didn’t matter, not to her, not to him.”

If you want to read ‘The Walled City‘ online, you can find it here.

Faiqa Mansab’s new book “This House of Clay and Water” is coming out in May. I can’t wait to read it.

(5) Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling

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There is a story plot which I have been fascinated by. In this story, a character from a book jumps out into the real world. (Or conversely a real world character jumps into a book or a painting). When I first heard this story, it gave me goosebumps. I discovered that Jasper Fforde has written this. Jodi Picoult has also written this. Then I discovered that Cornelia Funke has written this before them both. I was amazed to discover that Woody Allen wrote a story with this plot in the ’70s. (In his story Madame Bovary jumps out of the book into the real world and falls in love with the reader). Then I further discovered that Raymond Queneau wrote this in his book ‘The Flight of Icarus’. I thought this must be the earliest form of this story. I let it be. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Pu Songling had written similar stories. In the late 17th century! He seemed to be saying from the distant past – “Experimental writers from the 20th / 21st century – Take that! All these innovative plots that you think you invented (or copied from others without acknowledgement) – it has all been written and done and dusted.” Songling’s book is made up of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural written for grown-up mature readers. There are probably 500 stories of his. I probably read around 30 in this book. Many stories involve the main character, who is a scholar, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but who turns out to be a ghost or a fox fairy or flower fairy. In many stories, the beautiful woman loves our scholar back, they get married and have children and live happily everafter 🙂 It is the kind of ghost story that I have never read before. This book deserves a proper review. Highly recommended.

(6) Contemplations by Franz Kafka

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I read ‘ The Metamorphosis‘ and many other stories by Kafka this year. My favourite was this one – his first ever published collection containing short one or two page prose pieces. Very beautiful.

Novels

(7) A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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A novel about an introverted, shy man whose life story it tells. Very beautiful. It got into many award shortlists. Wish it had won some.

(8) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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I got this book years back when it first came out. I finally read it. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in post Second World War America. The difference though is that our American Hamlet cannot speak and his parents rear dogs.  So, while we are expecting Hamletian madness to happen, we get one of the most beautiful dog novels ever written. Almondine is one of my most favourite dog characters ever and Easy is another favourite. There is a black pup (of which animal we never know) which our Hamlet’s dad saves from the flood. It refuses to eat or drink anything and the part of the story where it comes is beautiful and heartbreaking. I really should have written a proper review of this beautiful book.

(9) The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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This much awaited novel from one of my favourite writers is set in the aftermath of 9/11 and tells the story of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. Gae Polisner says that the manuscript of her next novel has gone out already. I hope that novel comes out this year. We readers are always greedy!

(10) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

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The longest novel of the year for me (862 pages). The longest novel I have ever read on the Kindle too. It has been called the Japanese Wuthering Heights. It was long and epic and I loved it.

Graphic Novels / Manga

(11) A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (graphic novel – part 1)

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I got this because I was planning to watch the TV show. Before long the show took over. But till then, the graphic novel version of the book was good, very good.

(12) Barakamon (part 1) by Satsuki Yoshino

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A Manga comic about a young calligrapher who goes and lives in an island and his friendship with the islanders. Very charming! Can’t wait to read the next part!

Science

(13) The Universe in your Hand : A Journey through Space, Time and Beyond by Christophe Galfard

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Stephen Hawking’s former student gives his own version of the history of the universe. And I can confidently say that the student has excelled the master here. Galfard’s book is very readable. (Hawking’s book is unreadable after the first chapter – believe me, I tried). He uses storytelling techniques and science-fiction-movie-style narration to bring the most complex concepts alive. Probably the finest book on physics written for the general reader. One of the wonderful things that I learnt from this book was about the things we don’t know and which we will never know. This is a book that I will be reading again.

(14) The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

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Weinberg’s book has been called the finest account of the Big Bang theory ever written. Weinberg being a Nobel Prize winner himself, this book has been well respected. I have wanted to read it for years. Finally got to read it. The initial few chapters are easy to follow. The book then gets more challenging. The thing I loved about the book though was reading Weinberg’s thoughts on physics and why it is important and why we should be doing it. Weinberg’s humility as a person and as a scientist shone through when he talked about the larger issues in science and his confidence as one of the great scientists of the 20th century shone through when he talked about the science we knew and could predict. It made me fall in love with him. I will be reading those parts of the book again.

(15) Mr Tompkins in paperback by George Gamov

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One of my friends has recommended this for years. I finally got around to reading it. It has two parts  – Mr.Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom. Beautiful book on relativity, radioactivity, structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. It has one of the finest descriptions of radioactivity that I have ever read. The book also has a foreword by one of my favourite scientists Roger Penrose. That doubled my pleasure! Great book to gift to your young ones at home. I wish I had read this when I was in school.

Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite books from 2016?

Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with great books and beautiful reading moments 🙂

I discovered Minae Mizumura’sA True Novel‘ through this article about giant translated novels that make a mockery of subway reading. When Bellezza suggested a readalong of Mizumura’s book, me and a few others jumped in.

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This book at 862 pages is the longest book that I have read this year. It is also the longest book that I have read on my Kindle. So this is a new experience for me. I realized while I was reading that the pages were flying and the only reason I think this happened was because I was reading a digital copy of the book. I would never be able to read a paper book this fast. I don’t know why we read things faster on a screen when compared to paper.

A True Novel is multi-layered. In the first part of the novel, the author herself is the narrator. There is a preface in the beginning where the author describes how she was inspired to write the book and the story behind it. It makes us think that the story is based on real events. The next  part of the book talks about the narrator’s (that is, the author’s) own life and her experiences while growing up in America and later after she moved to Japan as an adult. Weaved into her story is the story of Taro Azuma, who is a mysterious figure, who works as a chauffeur for a friend of the narrator’s father. No one knows about his past life in Japan, but he works hard and so everyone likes him. In this part of the book the narrator talks about how Azuma comes in and goes out of her life and how she hears news about him through others. Then later, the narrator meets a person called Yusuke, who tells her about Azuma’s life in Japan, before he came to America.

The second part of the book, which comprises most of the book, is the story that the narrator hears from this new person Yusuke. In this part, a woman called Fumiko, whom Yusuke meets in Japan, tells the story of Taro Azuma. This story is also structured like the first part, in the sense, Fumiko tells the story of her life and she weaves in the story of Taro Azuma into it. Through her we hear about how Azuma started his life and how his circumstances changed when he met the family that Fumiko worked for and about the great love of his life, Yoko.

In the final part of the book, which is small and runs for only a few pages, one more narrator Fuyue tells Yusuke more things about Taro Azuma, things we didn’t suspect.

The story then unwinds and we move out from the innermost story arc to the next outer one to the outermost one where the author-narrator finally shares her thoughts.

I liked this circular narration of the story, moving from one narrator in the outer circle to another narrator in the inner circle. It make me think of classics like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Cao Xueqin’s Dream of Red Mansions which have a similar structure. No one writes like that anymore and so that made me happy.

One more thought I wanted to share on the narrators was this. It is hard to tell whether the three narrators are reliable or not. For example, is this a true story, as the author-narrator Minae Mizumura says? Or is this a literary device that the novelist adopts – like Somerset Maugham did by making an appearance in some of his novels? Did Fumiko tell the whole truth? Or did she suppress some parts of it, as Fuyue, the third narrator says in the end? Or is Fuyue lying or misinformed? These are interesting topics of conversation.

I also loved the central story, which is the story of Taro Azuma and Yoko. It is tempting to call it a love story and that is probably how it will be known. But love is such a catch-all term and these days it is used mostly to refer to love of the romantic variety. Ancient Greek had four different words for love – Eros, Philia, Storge and Agape. Today, love is generally used in the sense of ‘Eros‘. But the love between Taro and Yoko is complex and deep – it is the way one would feel towards one’s soulmate. It has elements of all the four Greek words, but it also has facets which is hard to describe in words. Taro is from a very poor family and Yoko is from a rich family and the love they feel towards each other, an impossible love in post World War II, class-conscious Japan is beautifully described in the middle part of the book. We also see how Japan, a country with a traditional culture and lots of poverty became the industrialized powerhouse it is today and how the lives of our novel’s characters change significantly because of the overall change that the country goes through.

A True Novel‘ has been compared to Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and when we read the book it is easy for us to see why. It is tempting to assume that Taro is the Japanese Heathcliff and Yoko is the Japanese Catherine Earnshaw, but the similarities end after a while. Beyond the brooding, Taro is unique in his own way and so is Yoko. Though there are other similarities in the story – I won’t write about them here because I want you to discover them yourself, if you choose to read the book – and though Minae Mizumura might have been inspired by the Heathcliff-Catherine legend, I would like to see the book as a classic in its own right, a story which tells us how the lives of a few families across different social strata underwent big changes over the past few decades when Japan herself went through significant changes, economically and culturally.

Mizumura’s writes in vintage, spare, Japanese prose. There is no word wasted. The pages fly as a result. I still can’t believe that I read 862 pages in a week! I loved the places where Mizumura takes a digression from the main story and shares her thoughts on other topics – like how one becomes a novelist, about the different kinds of Japanese novels and about the differences between Japanese and English as literary languages. Those were some of my favourite parts of the book.

So, what are my final thoughts on the book? I loved ‘A True Novel‘. After having a bad reading year, I am glad I ended it with a chunkster that I loved. I am also happy that I have now read a giant-translated-novel-that-makes-a-mockery-of-subway-reading 🙂 Yay! I am also happy that I read a Japanese literary work after a long time. I can’t wait to read more of Mizumura’s work, especially her nonfiction book ‘The Fall of Language in the Age of English‘, which I think is an important book for our times.

I don’t think I have done justice to Mizumura’s book in my brief review. If you love Japanese literature and chunksters, this book is for you.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

Let’s say in ten years’ time I have written numerous novels and am doing quite well for myself. I doubt if the day will ever come, but let’s just suppose that it does. Would I then be satisfied? No, I don’t think so. Most likely, I would still want to know if it was my mission on earth to become a novelist. However prosaic a writer’s work or person may be, a writer is also an artist, and every artist must ask himself whether he was born to do what he does, rather than whether he can live by doing it. Behind the question is a perennial—indeed obsessive—need to believe that in some mysterious way one is destined to be an artist. A novelist is particularly prone to this concern. To become a painter, a dancer, or a musician, two things are necessary: an apparent gift and hard training. In contrast, nothing seems easier than becoming a writer. Anyone can string a few sentences together and turn out a novel practically overnight. Who becomes a novelist and who does not seems almost arbitrary. Hence the strong desire to hear a resounding voice from on high telling one that one was indeed destined to write.

I remembered a time when I often encountered new people in unfamiliar places and spent hours with them. Who it was or where the place was did not matter; what mattered was that those hours cut off from routine could be as intoxicating, as blissful, as time spent drifting on the surface of a deep sea. But after I reached my mid-thirties, this happened less, and I began to feel that new encounters were often just repetitions of old ones. I hadn’t experienced meeting a stranger as a pleasure for a very long time.

…one of the many ways in which it (Japanese) differs from European languages is in how the personal pronouns—I, you, we, he, she, and they—function. In its European counterparts, these pronouns are the pillars of the language and are essential in constructing a sentence, even if they are only indicated by the inflections of verbs. This isn’t so in Japanese. Here, the personal pronouns are elusive, constantly shifting, often absent, and function like any nouns. This becomes most problematic when it comes to the use of the personal pronoun “I.” In their first encounters with Western thought, Japanese people tried to grasp the concept of a “subject”—a concept that has become increasingly important in the modern West. Yet in Japanese there exists no grammatical equivalent to, for example, the English word “I.” There is no grammatical “I” that can be used by anybody—which ultimately means no grammatical “I” that can speak as a “subject” independent of its context. In fact, there is no single word for “I” in Japanese but a variety of “I’s,” depending on who the speaker is and whom he is speaking to—a linguistic feature perhaps unimaginable to those who only know European languages. All this renders the notion of the abstract and transcendent “subject” difficult to conceive of in Japanese. And that may be one of the reasons why Japanese readers continue to look for an actual, specific individual in a story rather than perceive the story as the work of a writer’s imagination.

Have you read Minae Mizumura’s ‘A True Novel‘? What do you think about it?

This is my third and final post for this year’s German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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I think I first heard of Stefan Zweig through a comment made by Peter Hall in his book ‘Cities in Civilization‘, in which Hall talks about Vienna and its culture and architecture and mentions Stefan Zweig’s thoughts on Viennese culture at the beginning of the 20th century. I still can’t believe that I remember that, but happily I do. Later, I read one of Zweig’s short stories in an anthology. I then got his book ‘The World of Yesterday‘ and read the first fifty pages and loved it, but got distracted and kept it aside for a rainy day. I thought that I will get back to it one day and also read other Stefan Zweig books. I have still not got back to that book, but I discovered this story collection ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ and so I thought I will read this first.

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A Game of Chess and other stories‘ has four stories – two of them are short stories and two of them are novellas. The first story ‘The Invisible Collection‘ is about an art dealer who goes to visit a longtime client. He has never met this client, but has been impressed by this client’s wisdom because he has collected little known pieces of art across the years which have gone on to become extremely valuable. Of course, when he actually meets that client, he ends up in an unusual situation. I can’t tell you more – you should read the story.

The second story is a novella called ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘. In this story, a few people are holidaying in the Riviera. They don’t know each other originally, but get to know each other because they are staying in the same guesthouse. They have interesting cultural and intellectual conversations everyday and some of them even play tennis. At one point the wife of one person elopes with one of the guests. Most of the people are critical of the woman and call her irresponsible. But the narrator of the story takes her side and says that given the right circumstances, anyone can break the prevailing social rules and fall in love or get attracted to a stranger. This leads to a lot of heated debate. Then one of the older women takes aside the narrator, asks to speak with him privately and tells him the story of what happened one day in her life many years back. The forms the major part of the story.

The third story, ‘Incident on Lake Geneva‘ is about a stranger who ends up in the shores of Lake Geneva and the people of the town don’t know what to do with him as he speaks a strange language and it is war time. Who he is and what happens to him form the rest of the story.

The fourth story, a novella, is the title story ‘A Game of Chess‘. A ship is leaving New York for Buenos Aires. It has the World Chess Champion Mirko Czentovic in it. Our narrator wants to engage the champion Czentovic in some way. But Czentovic avoids people. The narrator tries to catch his attention by engaging in a game of chess with a fellow traveller. The trick works. Czentovic agrees to join them next day for a game or two. And he easily defeats them. But the story doesn’t end there. One of the spectators joins the amateur players against Czentovic. He is able to see the World Champion’s tactics and strategy many moves in advance and gives the right kind of advice. Before long, the amateurs are able to hold their own against the World Champion. Czentovic is impressed and calls for a game next day with this mysterious traveller. Meanwhile our narrator goes to meet this mysterious traveller and this mysterious chess genius tells the story of how he got so good at the game.

I loved all the stories in the book, but I loved the novellas a little bit more. I can’t decide which is my favourite story, because I liked both ‘A Game of Chess‘ and ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’ equally well. All the stories had beautiful passages that I liked very much. Most of them had an interesting structure – a narrator starts to tell us the story and this narrator meets another person who takes over and tells us the rest of the story, the important part of the story. This is how stories used to be written once upon a time, in which the original narrator doesn’t play an important part in the story. It made me smile. There is a description of the Riviera in ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life‘ which is incredibly beautiful which I loved. ‘A Game of Chess‘ has been called the best chess story ever written. I don’t know about that, but it definitely had one of the most beautiful passages on chess that I have ever read.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life’

Most people have little imagination, and what does not impinge on them directly, or run a sharp wedge insistently into a sensitive spot, generally fails to arouse them. On the other hand, something quite minor can put them in a towering passion if it happens right before their eyes or touches off their most immediate feelings. So, in a sense, the rarity of their emotional involvement is offset by the unwarranted and excessive vehemence they show in such instances.

You know the Riviera landscape. It’s always fine, but it offers its rich hues complacently and with picture-postcard flatness to the eye, rather like a sleepy, languid beauty who is content to be touched by every gaze, almost oriental in her ever-luxuriant display. But sometimes, very seldom, there are days when this beauty rises up with a purpose and cries out for attention, sparkling with madly garish colours and flinging her myriad blooms triumphantly in one’s face, her sensuality burning bright. And just such an effervescent day had dawned after the stormy chaos of the night. The rain-washed street gleamed white, the sky was turquoise and on all sides lush bushes catching the light flamed like green torches. The mountains seemed nearer and more distinct in the crisp, sunny sky, pressing forward inquisitively on the glittering, brightly polished town.

From ‘A Game of Chess

But are we not guilty of belittling chess by calling it a game at all? For surely it is also a science and an art, poised between these categories like Muhammad’s coffin between heaven and earth, a unique fusion of all opposing pairs : ancient yet eternally new, mechanical in its arrangement yet requiring imagination for its effect, limited to a fixed geometrical space yet limitless in its permutations, forever evolving yet sterile, a thought process without purpose, a mathematics that solves nothing, an art form with no artworks, an architecture without materials, and nevertheless demonstrably more enduring in its essence and being than any book or artefact. It is the only game that belongs to all nations and all eras, and no one knows which divinity brought it into the world to stave off boredom, sharpen wits and firm up the spirit. Where is its beginning and where its end? Any child can learn its basic rules, any bungler can try his hand at it, and yet from within its small, unvarying square field it brings forth an extraordinary and incomparable species of virtuoso, people whose peculiar gifts make chess their only possible vocation. In this type of genius, vision, patience and technique operate in the same proportions as with mathematicians, poets and composers – only these elements are differently layered and combined.

I don’t think I have done justice to this beautiful book in my review. ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘ is one of my favourite books of the year. I will definitely be reading it again. I can’t wait to read more Stefan Zweig.

Other reviews

The Invisible Collection (Jonathan’s review – Intermittencies of the Mind)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Lisa’s review – ANZ Lit Lovers)

Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life (Melissa’s review – The Book Binder’s Daughter)

A Game of Chess (David’s review – David’s Book World)

Have you read ‘A Game of Chess and other stories‘? What do you think about it?

This is my second post for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy Siddal from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

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Continuing with more Kafka, I decided to read Michael Hofmann’s translation of Kafka’s shorter prose. The book is called ‘Metamorphosis‘ after Kafka’s most famous work, but in the 300-page book, the title story occupies only 50 pages and the rest, comprising the majority of the book at 250 pages, has some of his shorter prose collections. The collections featured are ‘Contemplation‘ (Kafka’s first published work), ‘A Country Doctor : Short Prose for My Father‘ and ‘A Hunger-Artist : Four Stories‘. There were also a few standalone stories – ‘The Judgement : A Story for F.‘, ‘The Stoker : A Fragment‘, ‘In the Penal Colony‘ and a few others. I didn’t read the last two.

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I found Kafka’s stories to be roughly of three types. There were the short-shorts which ranged from single paragraphs to one or two pages. Then there were the short story length pieces, which were around ten pages. Then there were the longer stories ranging from 30 to 50 pages. I reacted to them in different ways. I loved most of the short-shorts. There was a beautiful passage in nearly every one of them and some of them were beautiful overall. The longer stories – I can’t really comment because I read just one, ‘The Metamorphosis‘, that too in a different translation. But based on this one reading, I can say that Kafka can tell a good story in this form and I liked it. The in-between 10-page short story – I liked many of them, but some I found quite challenging. The challenging ones all started well, but at some point, I didn’t know where the story was going. For example, there is one story called ‘A Little Woman‘, in which the narrator talks about how this woman finds him annoying in everything he does. (At one point the narrator says – “if one could divide life into minute constituent particles, and judge each individual particle separately, I am sure each little particle of my life would contain some irritant for her.“) They seem to have a close relationship. I was expecting some revelation through the story or in the end – something like how this woman is his mother or his wife or his lover or his daughter or even his dog, but nothing of that sort happened. She was just annoyed with him.

Some of the stories which I think are important in some ways are these. After writing ‘Metamorphosis‘, in which Kafka  talks about a man who wakes up in the morning to discover that he is a huge insect, it looks like Kafka explored related themes in other stories. In ‘A Report to an Academy‘, an ape which has evolved into a culturally sophisticated human-like being, writes a report about it for the scientific academy (at one point the ape says – “My achievement would have been impossible if I had selfishly clung to my origins and to memories of my early youth. And it was precisely the renunciation of my self that was my project; I, a free ape, willingly accepted this burden.“) In ‘Josefine, the Singer, or The Mouse People‘, the narrator, who is a mouse talks about the singer-superstar among mice, Josefine. We learn about the cultural life of mice and how Josefine is an oddball in the mice population. Then there is ‘A Country Doctor‘. A country doctor gets a midnight call. His coachman gets his coach ready, but then asks the doctor to travel on his own. The coachman then looks at the maid with lust and when she realizes what is happening she runs into the house and locks the door. The coachman runs after her and tries to break the door down so that he can go in and rape her. The doctor realizes what is happening but he is unable to do anything because he has to rush to his patient’s house. When he reaches there, he discovers that his patient doesn’t seem to have any major problem. But after careful examination, he discovers that his patient does have a life-threatening illness and he is beyond help. The patient’s parents hope that the doctor will work a miracle. While the doctor is waiting there wondering what to do, he contemplates on life – he is sitting with a patient who is beyond help while in his home his coachman is trying to rape his maid and he is unable to help her too. He ponders over the futility of it all. That situation must be the very definition of the word ‘Kafkaesque‘, I think.

Some of my favourite stories from the book were ‘The New Advocate‘, ‘The Neighbouring Village‘ and ‘A Hunger-Artist‘.

Instead of reviewing my favourite short-shorts, I will share some of my favourite passages here.

From ‘Children on the Road

Then birds flew up like corks out of a bottle, I followed them with my eyes, saw them climb in a single breath until I no longer thought they were rising, but that I was falling, and, clinging in to the ropes in my dizziness, I began involuntarily to swing a little.

From ‘Looking out Distractedly

What shall we do in the spring days that are now rapidly approaching? This morning the sky was grey, but if you go over to the window now, you’ll be surprised, and rest your cheek against the window lock.
      Down on the street you’ll see the light of the now setting sun on the face of the girl walking along and turning to look over her shoulder, and then you’ll see the shadow of the man rapidly coming up behind her.
      Then the man has overtaken her, and the girl’s face is quite dazzling.

From ‘The Way Home

I weigh up my past against my future, but find both of them excellent, am unable to give one or other the advantage, and am compelled to reprove providence for its injustice in so favouring me.

From ‘The Neighbouring Village

My grandfather was in the habit of saying : ‘Life is astonishingly brief. By now it is all so condensed in my memory that I can hardly understand, for instance, how a young man can undertake to ride to the neighbouring village without wondering whether – even if everything goes right – the span of a normal happy life will be enough for such a ride.

Have you read any of these shorter prose pieces by Kafka? Which are your favourites?

My reading has been pretty bad this year and it has affected my blogging adversely. I tried to get out of this reading slump by participating in reading events, but this didn’t work. Reading plans just stayed plans. I missed participating even in my favourite reading event of the year – German Literature Month. But my heart couldn’t accept this state of affairs. So for the past few days I pushed myself and read a little bit. Though reading like this is not enjoyable, I managed to read three books. So today, the last day of this year’s German Literature Month, I decided to write about them.

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This first post is about Franz Kafka’sThe Metamorphosis‘. I read the graphic novel adaptation of this book a few years back and had wanted to read the original since. I had two translations of the book – an older 1972 translation by Stanley Corngold and a newer 2007 translation by Michael Hofmann. With respect to translations, readers normally regard the shiny new ones as always better and opt for them. I am slightly different in this regard. I read the first sentence and the first paragraph and then maybe the first page and then read a random passage in both the translations and see which translation works for me. While deciding which one to read, I look at things like which translation feels faithful to the original and which translation reads better. I also look at things like, has the translator kept the implied meaning of the original sentence or has he / she tried explaining / clarifying the meaning in the translated sentence. Sometimes these things are contradictory – for example, the faithful translation may not read well while the translation which reads well may not be faithful. Then the choices become more interesting. In the present case, I read the first sentence of both the translations. They went like this.

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin. (Stanley Corngold translation)

When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams, he found himself changed into a monstrous cockroach in his bed. (Michael Hofmann translation)

There are minor variations in the two translations and one can argue one way or another. For me, the most important difference was how the word ‘vermin‘ has been replaced by ‘cockroach‘ in Hofmann’s translation. That is a big change. The word that Kafka uses in the German original is ‘Ungeziefer‘. Readers, critics, commentators and Kafka scholars have debated for years what exactly Kafka meant by that word. It has been translated as ‘vermin‘ and ‘bug‘ and ‘insect‘ at different times and sometimes even ‘cockroach‘. But the general consensus has been that Kafka didn’t really specify the exact nature of the insect. As one commentator says – “The German word ‘Ungeziefer‘, like its English equivalent ‘vermin’, is a generic term, a collective noun denoting all sorts of undesirable insects. Kafka never divulges the kind of insect into which Gregor has been transformed, nor does he specify it’s firm and size.” So, that is 1-0 for Corngold over Hofmann. After thinking about this, I read a few random passages and Corngold’s translation leapt up to me everytime. I also have a soft corner for old-fashioned academic translators – translators who are professors of literature who occasionally translate a book. They are a dying breed now because many of the contemporary translators are professional full-time translators and not academics. All these factors made me choose the Corngold translation over the Hofmann one.

The Stanley Corngold translation (left) and the Michael Hofmann translation (right)

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Now about the book itself. The story is about Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who gets up one day morning and discovers that he has turned into a monstrous insect. He thinks it is a dream, but it is real. He thinks he can sleep it off, but nothing happens. His family starts knocking at his door asking him why he has still not gone to work. His boss comes visiting at some point to find out what is happening. Through all this Samsa tries to keep his sanity intact by trying to think of mundane things like how he can catch the next train to work. At some point, after a lot of difficulty (it is hard to get up if one is an insect and lying on one’s back), he gets up and somehow opens the door and reveals himself to his family. They are stunned and then repulsed by his new appearance. What happens after that – how his family handles Gregor’s new situation, does Gregor’s mind continue to be human or does it undergo a transformation, does Gregor ever turn back into a human being – is told in the rest of the story.

Many people more intelligent and smarter than me have written about what Kafka’s story means. I am not going to add my mundane thoughts to that. I want to say one thing though. In the story Gregor Samsa is a hard-working everyday person whom people take for granted. Nobody cares about what he wants. When this kind of person undergoes a major transformation and is no longer useful to his family or to his firm or to society – what happens to him is what Kafka has imagined. It is heartbreaking to read. The cynic in me says – “If you are a cog in the wheel, be careful, because people you care for, who you think are important, will abandon you, if you are no longer useful.” It is a sobering thought.

When I started reading the book, I thought that it would be a 100-page novella. It turned out to be a 50-page book. But added to those 50 pages were 150 pages of critical essays, notes and commentary! I have never read a book before in which the critical commentary was longer than the book! I read all of the commentary. Many of them talked about alienation as a theme in Kafka’s book and many of them also analysed the book from a psychoanalytical Freudian perspective. Some of them also talked about how the book was a metaphor for Kafka’s own relationship with his father. Most of it was hard to read and went over my head.

So, what do I think of Kafka’s book? I wouldn’t say that it was one of my favourites. But it must have definitely been one of the most unusual books when it came out. It definitely inspired many copycats. It is regarded as one of great literary works of the twentieth century. It was not always easy going for me, but I am glad I read it.

Have you read Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis‘? What do you think about it?

I have been eagerly looking forward to October, because it is Diverse Detectives Month hosted by Bina from If You Can Read This and Silicon from Silicon of the Internet. The phrase ‘Diverse Detectives’ is used in the sense that the detective in question is not a regular detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but someone who is a person of colour (African, African-American, Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, Latin American, Persian, Arab, Native American, Indian etc.) or / and someone who is gay or who has a fluid sexual orientation, or LGBTQIA+ as the current acronym for that goes. I think it is easier to find the first kind of detective. It is hard to find the second kind. I will look forward to finding out what books other participants read especially with respect to the second kind of detective. I remember Pierce Brosnan saying sometime back that it was time for a black Bond, it was time for a gay Bond. I don’t know whether Bond will ever become black and / or gay, but I can definitely say that diverse detectives have arrived, if you look at the suggested reading list for the event.

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One of the fun parts of participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always love making reading plans. Whether I stick to the plan or not is another matter 😂 I had a lot of fun making plans for this event. When my constantly evolving reading list finally took shape, I was so excited. Here it is. I am hoping to read some of these books over the next month. I divided the list into three parts as you can see.

In English

(1) The Walter Mosley Omnibus, comprising, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and White Butterfly

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I got this book years back at an Indian version of the Parisian bouqiniste, or a platform bookshop, as we affectionately call it here. I had heard of Walter Mosley a few days back and as such things happen, a few days later the book leapt at me when I was browsing. The blue, red and white in the titles makes me think of the French national flag and its meaning and the Colours trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I don’t know whether Walter Mosley was trying to say something there. I loved the fact that these three colours are featured in the cover – I am sure that was intentional. I read the first few lines of the book and I am thinking that Walter Mosley might be the African-American Raymond Chandler and his detective Easy Rawlings might be the African-American Philip Marlowe. I will know when I finish reading the book.

(2) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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I have wanted to read this book for years. Can you believe that I haven’t read a single Alexander McCall Smith book? Time to remedy that. Can’t wait to read about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest detective.

(3) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

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One of my favourite friends gifted this book to me a while back and I have wanted to read it since. It features the seventy two year old coroner Dr.Siri Paiboun and is set in Laos. It promises to be a lot of fun.

(4) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I first discovered this book through Eva from The Charm of It. And before I knew it, I started spotting it everywhere, like in the Diverse Detectives reading recommendations and Bina’s TBR list. It features the detective adventures of Blanche, who is a plump, fiesty, African-American housekeeper – how can one resist that.

In Translation

(5) Four Short Stories by Jorge Luis BorgesDeath and the Compass, Tlön, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quaint

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I have read just one story of Borges before. I have read that he was a master at taking a traditional detective story and turning it on its head. ‘Death and the Compass‘ is supposed to be the most famous of his ‘detective’ stories. I can’t wait to read that one and the others.

(6) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

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I have had this book for years, since my Chinese days. I have never read a detective mystery set in China and so am very excited.

(7) Three Byomkesh Bakshi books (Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles) by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

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These stories featuring the Indian detective Byomkesh Bakshi first appeared in the 1930s, and were originally written in Bengali. They are quite famous in India  and have been adapted for TV. My Bengali friends rave about them and I can’t wait to read them.

(8) The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

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Satyajit Ray is one of India’s greatest filmmakers. But like many other artists, he was a man of many talents, and one of them was writing mysteries featuring the detective Feluda. The original stories were written in Bengali and first appeared in the 1960s and have delighted generations of Bengali readers, young and old alike. The collected Feluda stories come to around 1600 pages and I wouldn’t be able to read them all in one go. Hopefully I will be able to read some of them.

Not Available in Translation

Time to look at some of the books in my language, Tamil 🙂

(9) Manimozhi, Forget Me by Tamilvanan

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I read my first Tamilvanan book when I was in my preteens and promptly fell in love with his works. Tamilvanan was probably the greatest detective mystery / crime fiction writer in Tamil in the twentieth century. He wrote from the ’50s to the late ’70s. He started his career writing literary fiction, but after a not-very-impressive start he shifted to crime fiction. (I don’t know why he didn’t hit it off as a literary fiction writer, because I have read his literary fiction and it is pretty good.) One of the fascinating things about Tamilvanan was his prose. He wrote Tamil which didn’t have the slant of any regional dialect. It didn’t have any English words. It wasn’t the way anyone spoke. It was the ideal version of Tamil, somewhat like the ideal version of the Queen’s English or the Parisian French. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I remember spending many an hour of my teen years taking in the delightful pleasures of Tamilvanan’s prose. Tamilvanan wrote books which spanned the complete range of crime fiction – detective mysteries, noir crime and every other genre in between. Half of his stories featured two detectives and the other half were standalone crime novels. His main detective was called Shankarlal. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and James Bond – sometimes he would go to the crime scene and collect evidence and look for clues like Holmes did, at other times he would call everyone and sit inside a house and run thought experiments and solve the mystery like Poirot did and at other times he would be travelling to exotic locales and would be speeding away on boats with a damsel-in-distress in tow with the villains chasing them. When I think about it now, it all seems illogical and unbelievable, but when I read these books, I loved all the different facets of this detective hero. Tamilvanan was the inspiration for all the detective mystery / crime writers in Tamil who followed him. I don’t know how many books he wrote, but I think I have around a hundred of his books, all stocked up for a rainy day. Most of his books went out of print, and I got some of the last copies available. These days, his publishers are trying to bring some of his famous works back into print, which is great. ‘Manimozhi, Forget Me‘ is a crime novel. A father one day calls his twenty-something daughter and tells her that he is not the good guy she thinks he is, and bad guys are going to kill him, and he asks her to leave town. What he is, really, and what happens to the daughter forms the rest of the story. I read it the first time years back and it was gripping and page-turning like the best detective/ crime fiction is and I loved it. I can’t wait to read it again.

(10) The Sea Mystery by Tamilvanan

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My english translation of the title doesn’t really say anything about the story. I still remember the first scene – a man hires a boat in the night to take him to a ship, which is at the outer anchorage. While the boat is waiting quietly this man boards the ship. Ten minutes later he comes running across the ship’s deck being chased by gunmen, jumps from the ship onto the waiting boat and the boat speeds off to safety. It was a scene straight from a Bond movie. I loved it when I first read it. I can’t remember much of the story now except for that first scene. I hope to read it again and rediscover it.

(11) Detective Sambu by Devan

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Devan was the Tamil Dickens. He wrote books about everyday middle class people, his descriptions of life were realistic and authentic and his stories were told with lots of humour. This is one of his famous works. Sambu is a clerk in a bank. He is forty years old. His boss calls him an idiot – in the sense, when his boss wants to speak to him, he tells his secretary – ‘Call that idiot.’ Sambu is frustrated with his life and his career, when one day surprising things happen. How this clerk becomes a detective – I can’t wait to find that.

(12) The Murderous Autumn by Sujatha

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Sujatha was one of the great Tamil literary masters. His fans called him ‘Vaathiyaar‘ – an affectionate way of saying ‘Teacher‘. Detective mystery was one of the genres he wrote in. He also wrote literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, short stories, plays, nonfiction books on science for the general reader, literary essays, translation of ancient Tamil epics into modern Tamil and all kinds of things in between. He even wrote screenplays for movies. He was a true allrounder. His detective mysteries mostly featured the lawyer duo of Ganesh and Vasanth. They were probably modelled after Perry Mason. This is their most famous story. My translation of the title is not perfect – the original title ‘Kolaiyudhir Kaalam‘ can be more accurately translated to ‘The season in which people are murdered and drop dead like leaves during Autumn‘. I don’t know how to shorten that into a few words. I read this book years back and I remember it being a combination of murder mystery, paranormal, science and an unexpected ending. I can’t wait to read it again.

So, this is my reading list for Diverse Detectives Month. Are you participating? Which books are you planning to read?

I got a package on the mail today. When I saw it I couldn’t stop smiling. When I opened it, the object of my affection slowly crept out of the package and looked at me. It was the book ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ by Arno Schmidt.

I discovered ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ through an article I discovered through Twitter. The article said that the book was thick, it was originally written in German, this was the first time it was getting translated into English, it was translated by the old German hand John E. Woods, and the book had influences of Joyce and Poe. I have a soft corner for chunksters and everything about the book gently whispered to me to get it and I ordered it eventhough it cost me a small fortune. I was thrilled when it arrived today. Dalkey Archive Press, the publishers, say that only 2000 copies of the book have been printed. I am thrilled to be one of the lucky 2000 to have a copy! Yay!

The first thing that hits you when you look at ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ is its size. There is an article by Scott Esposito which describes the book as a ‘chunkster‘, ‘enormous‘, ‘giant‘. Its dimensions are given as 11×14 inches with 1500 pages. Tolstoy’sWar and Peace‘ is that long and so we expect something of that size. But ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ defies all expectations. ‘Chunkster‘ doesn’t begin to describe it. It is HUGE! Comparing it to other novels in terms of size is meaningless. I have seen some huge books during my time, but none like this one. I have around two thousand books in my collection and this is the biggest of them all. I take out ‘War and Peace‘, ‘Les Miserables‘, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo‘ and put them next to it and ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ towers over them all. It towers over even the huge one volume edition of Arnold Toynbee’sA Study of History‘. To give you an idea, if I take a knife and cut it in the middle into two, each of the resulting two books are as big as ‘War and Peace‘ in terms of dimensions and thickness. It is not a ‘chunkster‘ or a giant. The best way to describe it is this. There is a scene in the TV show ‘Game of Thrones‘, in which Daenerys’ dragon flies and descends and lands next to her. The dragon is huge and Daenerys is tiny next to it. ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ is that dragon – it is a book dragon. It dwarfs every other book in sight.

Here is a picture of the book. I have put it on top of today’s newspaper, so that you can see the relative size.

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I took the book out of its slipcase and opened it. It was so heavy that I couldn’t hold it in my hand for long. I put it on my lap. It weighs a little more than six kilograms (thirteen pounds) and I could feel every ounce of it. This is definitely not a book you read when you commute by the subway. It is too big to carry. It is not even a restaurant book, because of its size. This is a book that you can only read in the library or at home after putting it on the table. 

After opening the book, I flipped through the first few pages. Every page had three columns – the main text ran through the middle column, while the left and right columns had notes and comments. The prose was hard to read – it looked like a combination of surrealistic Joycean prose and Burgess’ nadsat. I looked at the last pages of the book and read the afterword by the translator, James E. Woods. Woods describes how he got into translating the book and shares his thoughts on it. It is brief and to-the-point. It is just two pages long. I smiled when I read that, because a 1500-page book might have benefited by a longer afterword. Or maybe a fifty page introduction. But the publisher and the translator had decided not to have any unnecessary words – Arno Schmidt is what you want, Arno Schmidt is what you will get.

Thanks to James E. Woods for taking twelve years of his life to translate this book. Translating epic length books is a labour of love and one can’t pursue it unless one loves the book in question very deeply. There is not much money to be made here. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press for publishing this work. Bottom’s Dream, Arno Schmidt, thanks for coming to live in my home. I hope you like it here. I am normally bad at taking care of my books, but I will keep you wrapped in plastic sheets, keep you in a dust-free environment and take care of you well. And hopefully, I will read you one day soon. German Literature Month is around the corner and so that day is not as far as you think.

Bottom’s Dream‘ has been sighted in a few other places. Here is an article about it.

Here is an article comparing ‘Bottom’s Dream‘ to other big chunksters which can’t be read in the subway.