Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

I went to the beach today, after more than six months. I had to buy something from the store, and I thought why not make it fun by going to the beach 😊 I got some popcorn at the beach and settled down on the sand to watch the waves. The sky was grey and the sea was grey too, but there were a lot of people there, and the energy and excitement was infectious. Young people were playing cricket and other sports, young lovers were taking pictures of each other, moms were taking pictures and videos of their babies, and there was happiness all around. It made me think of the old times, when I used to go to the beach often. It is after all just five minutes walk from my home. I remember the first time I saw the sea at the beach near my home. It was a profound experience. Romain Gary wrote about it beautifully in his memoir ‘Promise at Dawn‘ –

“My first contact with the sea was unforgettable. I had never met anything or anybody, except my mother, who had a more profound effect on me. I am unable to think of the sea as a mere “it” – for me she is the most living, animated, expressive, meaningful, living thing under the sun. I know that she carries the answer to all our questions, if only we could break her coded message, understand what she tries persistently to tell us. Nothing can really happen to me as long as I can let myself fall on some ocean shore. Its salt is like a taste of eternity to my lips. I love it deeply and completely, and it is the only love which gives me peace.”

I felt exactly like that, though I wish I could write as well as Gary.

Today’s visit also made me think of all the beach visits during old times. When my mom was still around and my mom, my dad, my sister and her husband and me used to visit the beach and sit there till late. I remember once sitting there after the sun had set and the moon had risen and the waves started coming closer and closer and at one point, it started getting us wet. We saw with our own eyes that the waves rose high and came closer and closer when the moon rose. Sometimes friends and relatives used to visit and we all used to go to the beach. We were the only people in our circle who lived near the sea, and so we used to get a lot of guests. One of my friends used to visit regularly, but the visits went down across the years and now he has moved to the north east to live near the beautiful Himalayas. Before leaving, he visited one day late in the night. We talked for a while and then he left. I didn’t know it then, but now I realize that he had come to say farewell. Our paths have diverged so much since our younger days and now we live on opposite sides of the country. I don’t think we’ll ever see each other again.

We always think that when we part with friends and loved ones and kind strangers we’ll always meet them again and relive old times and renew our acquaintance. But most of the time, the parting is final. Our paths drift apart never to converge again. These days, thanks to social media, we can keep in touch and share our experiences, though we may never meet again in real life.

Today, my mom is gone, my dad has stopped going to the beach, my sister and me aren’t talking, my friend has moved on and we’ll probably never meet again. The sea though, is still there. It has been there for millions of years, since the time of the dinosaurs, and it will continue to be there, long after I am gone and long after the human race had become extinct. The waves will still be lapping at the shore, the sand will sparkle like gold, and the sunrise and sunset will be incredibly beautiful. There will be no one to see it. If Mother Nature is kind, there will be lions and lionesses and tigers roaming around the beach, frolicking with their adorable cubs.

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I discovered ‘The Word Pretty‘ by Elisa Gabbert accidentally. I read the first page and found it beautiful and so decided to read it.

The Word Pretty‘ is a collection of essays. Many of the essays in the collection are about books and bookish things, my favourite kind of essays. There are essays on keeping a notebook to record thoughts, on translations, on the pleasure of reading introductions to books, on the beauty of paragraphs, on the importance of punctuation, on poetry, on aphorisms. There are also non-bookish essays on photographs, on different words used to describe beauty, on the interplay between time, money and happiness. There is an even an essay on the Alcatraz prison.

The essays in the book are interesting and pleasurable to read. I enjoyed reading them. I liked both the bookish essays and the non-bookish ones. That is the good news.

I have one or two quibbles with the book though. That is the bad news. After reading a few essays at the beginning, I felt like Elisa Gabbert was quoting a lot of other writers in her essays. This is normal, of course, in today’s essays. But when a particular essay is about books, there are quotes from the introduction to the book and what other writers or reviewers thought about the book, and one has an increasingly nagging suspicion that Elisa Gabbert hasn’t read the book. She even says that in one of her essays – “I’m a promiscuous and impatient reader, so one of my literary guilty pleasures is reading the introductions to great books and not the books themselves.” She talks about the Tao Te Ching, but she hasn’t read the book itself (or has only dipped into it) but quotes from the introduction to it. This trend keeps continuing through the rest of the essays in the book, that one starts wondering whether Elisa Gabbert has read the book in question or whether she has just read the introduction to it and maybe a couple of reviews or essays about the book and maybe the Wikipedia entry on it, and has then written this essay. Even when she says that she has read the book, for example, in the case of ‘Le Grande Meaulnes‘ (‘Lost Estate‘) by Alain-Fournier (one of my favourite books), it is hard for us to believe it, because she quotes from the introduction and not from the book, and whatever she says about the book can be found in a Wikipedia entry or a typical review – that is, the essay is probably derivative and offers secondhand opinions. I’m not sure that she has read ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’. But I think she did read the two Javier Marias books that she has written about. Writers writing about books that they haven’t read is common these days, but it is still frustrating when we encounter such instances.

The other quibble I had was this – in one of the essays Elisa Gabbert says that lately she is drawn more towards translated fiction and she likes reading them more. Then she goes on to write about Javier Marias’ books. So far so good. But then, there is no evidence in the rest of the book that she prefers translated fiction (or poetry) or enjoys reading them. No names of non-English writers are even mentioned. It is a cool thing, these days, to say that one prefers translated fiction. It is also very cliched.

One more quibble I have – the last one, I promise – is that Elisa Gabbert criticizes different writers and their works in the essays – sometimes she criticizes a writer for ‘overwriting’ a book, sometimes for ‘underwriting’ a book, sometimes for using too much pronunciation, sometimes she hates the title of a book. But when someone criticizes her owns books in review sites like Goodreads, she takes offence 😊 To her credit, she writes about both, in her essays.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Word Pretty‘. If you like reading nice bookish essays, this book is for you. It will make pleasurable reading on a Sunday afternoon, when you are sitting in your garden, with a cup of tea, and enjoying the fragrance of the flowers, the sounds of the birds, the flitting of the butterflies, and your dog or cat enjoying time on your lap.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“When I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. No, she said, it means you’re a writer.”

“I’ve always believed that the secrecy of diaries is pretense; with their naked confessions, they seem designed for others to discover and read, unlike notebooks, which are coded, often impenetrable to outsiders.”

“I read that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is difficult to translate into Japanese because of “insect appreciation” — that is to say, the Japanese do not experience revulsion at the prospect of a man-sized beetle. What to do, then — convert Gregor Samsa into something that the Japanese do find disgusting? Or let it become a new story in a new context? Which is more accurate, more faithful to the original? Imagine reading Metamorphosis without understanding why Gregor’s family is repulsed by him — after all, he has transmutated into something wondrous, something perhaps better! Everything is translatable, but nothing is perfectly translatable : tidy words become gangly phrases, the “Kafkaesque” becomes fantastical, innuendos appear or disappear, polysemy and rhyme seem to teleport to a new location in the poem. Meaning dissipates in the processing, decays over time, but it’s remarkable how much is retained, the way it’s remarkable how good the Lascaux cave paintings are…Problems in translation are not much of an argument against translation. The work can remain what it is while also being transposed, twisted, given new significance, like a glove turned inside out.”

“There are probably people who go through life with a permanent mind of poetry. I am not one of those people. I fall in and out of it, and not at will. As I write this, I am not in it, and have not been for three or four months, which is to say, I have not been able to focus on or become absorbed in any book of poetry. Oddly, I have continued to write poetry. I continue to think about poetry, almost daily…one doesn’t need a mind of poetry to talk about poetry. But I don’t want to read it. Or— and this is how it feels, when I’ve lost my mind for poetry — poetry doesn’t want me to read it. I can look at the words on the page and feel fairly certain that they represent good poetry, but I remain unmoved and unengaged. It’s like looking at an attractive person when you’re freshly in love with someone else : an empty appreciation that leads nowhere. When I’m in the mood for poetry, it’s not a seduction on my part; it’s more like the poem and I have chemistry.”

Have you read ‘The Word Pretty‘? What do you think about it?

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I started reading an anthology called ‘The Oxford Book of Essays‘ and in that book there was an excerpt of an essay by Thomas Macaulay on Robert Clive. I loved this excerpt so much that I went in search of the whole essay. I found it online and it was around 120 pages long. It was a book-length essay. I just finished reading it.

First page of Macaulay’s essay

In his essay, Macaulay gives us an account of Robert Clive’s life. There are some sketchy details of his personal life, a little about his parents, a sentence about his marriage, but most of it is about his work during his time in India. Robert Clive came to India when he was seventeen years old. He worked as a clerk in the Madras office of the East India Company. He worked in the same position for around eight years. When he was twenty five, circumstances thrust him into the forefront, and he distinguished himself by performing amazing deeds and with one thing leading to another, this lowly clerk became the Governor of Bengal and laid the foundation for the British empire in India. It is an amazing, unbelievable story.

Thomas Macaulay was probably one of the three great British historians of the 19th century. The other two being Thomas Carlyle and Edward Gibbon. While Thomas Carlyle’s classic book on the French Revolution continues to be in print, it has been joined by other modern books on the subject. Edward Gibbon’s book continues to reign supreme as the definitive work on Roman history in English, as most historians feel daunted by the subject matter and have avoided coming up with a new interpretation of that time. Gibbon’s book has attained the status of a classic, as described by Mark Twain – always recommended but never read. Beautiful collectors’ editions of the book are available which are snapped up by young collectors to adorn their bookshelves. In contrast, Thomas Macaulay’s classic book on English history has long gone out of print. Today, Macaulay is regarded as a historian who wrote beautiful prose, but who propounded the imperialist point of view and so his books have fallen out of favour. To use a modern phrase, he has been ‘cancelled’. Which is a shame. Because going by the evidence of this essay, Macaulay is good, really good.

By the time Robert Clive died after moving back to England, he was regarded as a bad guy, as an employee of the East India Company who achieved great things and acquired great power, but who used that in unscrupulous and immoral ways to accumulate personal wealth. Macaulay tries putting things in perspective, by explaining both sides of the equation and lets us draw our own inference from it. It was wonderful to read. Macaulay’s prose proves that its reputation is not unfounded – it is beautiful to read. 19th century English prose, especially in the hands of great writers, is like Urdu. Every word, every sentence is beautiful, is a pleasure to read. We can experience that beauty in every page of Macaulay’s prose. It is sad that people don’t write like this nowadays. Even the best writers today write prose which is only a little better than mine. I’m just an anonymous guy who revels in his mediocrity. I can never write like Macaulay or Dickens or Eliot or Carlyle. If this is the best there is now, it is sad how things have sunk.

I enjoyed reading Macaulay’s essay on Clive. Macaulay has written more such essays. I am hoping to read them soon. I also hope to read his book on English history and find out whether it is really an imperialist tract, or whether it is really good, but it got ‘cancelled’ because people didn’t like Macaulay’s face or some aspect of his opinions and politics.

Have you read this or other essays by Thomas Macaulay? What do you think about him?

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I recently read Claire’s (from Word by Word) interesting post on Hugh Schofield’s provocative article in BBC News – “Why French Books Don’t Sell Abroad?” Claire shared her thoughts on French literary culture and she was also kind enough to share Laurence Marie’s wonderful reply to Schofield’s article (aptly called ‘Why Do French Books Sell Abroad?’), in which Marie quotes facts and figures which are totally at variance with what Schofield says and gently lobs the kitchen sink at Schofield as any self-respecting window-smashing French intellectual would do. I thought I will also add my little thoughts to the debate and do my bit to bolster Marie’s case and undermine Schofield’s 🙂 A debate is always fun, isn’t it?


One of the first sentences in Schofield’s article starts like this.


France once had a great literary culture, and most French people would say it still does. But if so, how come their books don’t sell in the English-speaking world?


The implication here, of course, is that because French books don’t sell that much in the English-speaking world as they used to, French literary culture is no longer great. In my opinion, that is an extremely weak and spurious argument. Using sales of a book to judge literary merit – when did literary critics start doing that? If this were the case, romance novels and crime fiction would occupy the top positions in terms of literary merit. Because they always sell well and will continue to sell well. Critics can just forget about every other kind of novel.


In a later sentence, Schofield says this :


And how come the French themselves read so many books that are translated from English and other languages?


This seems to imply that if a person reads a lot of translated fiction, it means that the literature of their own language is not great. This is another spurious argument. French readers and writers have always promoted good literature, irrespective of the language in which a book was originally written in. For example, Edgar Allan Poe was virtually unknown in his own country and he died penniless, while he was translated in France by the poet Charles Baudelaire and his works were celebrated. The first ever European translation of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (‘Arabian Nights’) was done by Antoine Galland into French in the early 18th century. English translations followed only more than a century later. You can’t blame a reader or a country for loving good literature, irrespective of its origin.


Schofield’s article quotes David Rey (who manages the Atout Livre bookshop in eastern Paris) in which Rey says this :


French books are precious, intellectual – elitist. And too often bookshops are intimidating. Ordinary people are scared of the whole book culture.


This seems to imply that French readers don’t read French books and are intimidated by French books. This sentence is a total contradiction to a sentence which comes earlier in the article, which goes like this :


The French take huge pride in their literary tradition – it’s been calculated that the country has a staggering 2,000 book prizes.


How can the French be very proud of their literary tradition, have thousands of literary prizes, buy a lot of books (the article says that Marc Levy’s books have sold more than 40 million copies) and probably read most of them and also be scared of the whole book culture and find bookshops intimidating and refuse to step into them? (Did the editor check this article for inconsistencies?)


The article also talks about the French policy of not allowing the sale of discounted books. This is what it says :


The French have preserved a nationwide network of small bookshops, mainly as a result of a system of protection. Books cannot be sold at a discount


A law passed earlier in the year that prevented online retailers from discounting books led to complaints from Amazon that it was being discriminated against.


From my perspective, I understand what the French government is trying to do here. It is trying to help the publishing industry and writers. Writers have been poorly paid across the years and the centuries and there is nothing wrong in protecting their interests by not allowing discounts on their books. To buy books at a discount, French readers visit secondhand bookshops and bouquinistes. Personally, when I buy a new book at a discounted price, there is always a conflict going on in my heart – I love the fact that I got a beautiful book at a discounted price, but I also know that books which are discounted are typically books that don’t sell well, which means that the concerned writer is already not making money, and this makes the situation worse and there is a deep pain in my heart when I think about that.


I also found this sentence totally irrelevant to the main topic of the article :


the sale of e-books is a fraction of what it is in the US and UK.


What is the connection between this and the question asked by the article – ‘Why French Books Don’t Sell Abroad’ – I have no idea on that. This sentence just implies that French readers like reading paper books over e-books. I find nothing wrong in that. This situation is true across the world – inspite of the e-reader phenomenon, a majority of readers across the world still prefer reading paper books.


The article also makes this interesting comment about French book covers.


The books themselves are not made to look appealing. New novels have the same cream cover, with a standardised photo of the author. Design does not seem to be at a premium.


I have no idea how this is connected to the main topic of the article on why French books don’t sell abroad. I won’t say anything more about this, but I will point you to Claire’s wonderful reply to this point in her post in which she beautifully explains why French books have a similar cover and what could be the reason behind that.


The article also says this about French nonfiction books :


And compared to the UK, there is a glaring lack of offer in certain genres – popular history, popular science, biography, humour, sport.


Here too, I have no idea on how this is connected to the main topic of the article. However, I would like to add a comment here. One of my favourite historians is French. His name is Fernand Braudel. He was one of the important members of the Annales school, which pioneered the use of social scientific methods in history and published books on history from the perspective of the normal man / woman. Though Braudel was a ‘proper’ historian, his works are accessible to a general audience. His work ‘The Mediterranean is brilliant and his ‘Civilization and Capitalism’ and ‘Identity of France are masterful works. If you love history, these are all must reads.


The article also quotes writer Douglas Kennedy as saying this :


French novel-writing has never recovered from the experimentation of the post-war era.


“It’s ironic because it was the French who invented the social novel in the 19th Century. But after World War Two, that tradition disappeared. Instead they developed the nouveau roman – the novel of ideas – which was quite deliberately difficult.”


This is the kind of wrong perception which is prevalent among some people now, and I have to write a long rant about it. But I will try to make it brief.


Some of the writers who pioneered the ‘nouveau roman’ were the OuLiPo writers. I have read a few of them and know about a few of them.


Raymond Queneau was one of the founding members of the OuLiPo group and he mostly wrote experimental novels. One of them is ‘The Flight of Icarus’. From what I know, it was the first instance in which a character from a book steps out into the real world and talks to real people or disappears from the book and the writer goes in search of that character. (If I am wrong in this, please do let me know, because I am not able to discover this idea in a book which pre-dated this.) This idea later inspired Woody Allen when he wrote his short story ‘The Kugelmass Episode’ in which Madame Bovary steps out of the book and falls in love with a reader. Allen later used this concept in his movie ‘Purple Rose of Cairo in which a character steps off the screen into the real world – a scene which has been copied in countless advertisements. This idea has inspired countless books which were published recently, including Jasper Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’ (and other books in that series), Cornelia Funke’s ‘Inkheart’ (and other books in that series) and Jodi Picoult’s and Samantha van Leer’s ‘Between the Lines’. Of course, no one gave credit to Queneau. Queneau also wrote another book called ‘Exercises in Style’, in which he told one short story in one page and then retold it in many different ways 98 more times. ‘Exercises in Style’ is totally unique and the first of its kind and it is used as a textbook in creative writing courses today.


Other famous OuLiPo authors include Georges Perec, who didn’t use the letter ‘e’ in his famous novel ‘A Void’  and Italo Calvino, who told a whole story in the second person, in his book ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – probably the first time it has ever been done (Calvino wrote in Italian though). Marguerite Duras also wrote in the nouveau roman style. She pioneered the minimalist novel form in which two characters have a conversation for the entire duration of the story, a structure which was unheard of before, and which has subsequently inspired countless novels and movies including the Richard Linklater movies ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’. (if you know of a writer who wrote in this style before Marguerite Duras, please do let me know. I will be glad to change my thoughts on this.)


In my opinion, the ‘nouveau roman’ didn’t lead to the decline of French literature. Because other writers borrowed the ideas first introduced by the ‘nouveau roman’ writers and used them in their own popular novels. Jasper Fforde did that. So did Cornelia Funke. And Jodi Picoult. The popular success of their novels shows that the ideas first explored in those nouveau romans are alive and kicking and thriving today. And readers who read in English love those ideas first explored in the nouveau roman form which is why these popular novels are successful today. Readers who read in English are not just plot-loving-readers as the article seems to imply. They are more complex and more interesting than that.


French writers have always been pioneering in exploring new ideas, new ways of telling a story, experimenting with plot structure, extending the definition of the novel and exploring themes which are controversial and which haven’t been explored before. French literary culture has always given them the freedom to do that.


For example, from what I could tell, the first novel to explore adultery from a woman’s perspective was ‘Madame Bovary’. (Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ tells me that ‘Madame Bovary’ was inspired by ‘La Femme de Trente Ans’ by Honore de Balzac. That doesn’t change my main argument though –  Balzac was still French 🙂) It probably inspired other books which came later and which explored the same theme like Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, Theodor Fontane’s ‘Effi Briest’ and Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’.


Another example is the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique. Though the stream-of-consciousness narrative mode is synonymous with the writings of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf today, the first person in modern times to use that was the French writer Édouard Dujardin in his book Les Lauriers sont coupés. James Joyce is reported to have read that, years before he wrote ‘Ulysses’. Marcel Proust also used this narrative mode in his magnum opus ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Of course, critics have written papers to show why Marcel Proust’s style was not the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style 🙂


The surrealist style novels were pioneered by French writers, the most famous of which was Andre Breton’s ‘Nadja’. My own favourite is Boris Vian’s ‘Foam of the Daze’, which is a beautiful, surreal, aching love story.


Modern science fiction was pioneered by French writers. Jules Verne is the father of modern science fiction. I sometimes laugh when I read that H.G.Wells and Hugo Gernsback are also regarded as fathers of modern science fiction. Jules Verne wrote his first science fiction novel before either of them was born (Wells was born in 1866 and Gernsback was born in 1884. Jules Verne wrote his first science fiction novel in 1863.) His only sin was that he was French and so he has two other Anglo-Americans competing for the honours. In my mind, there is no doubt. Jules Verne is the father of modern science fiction. Thank you very much.


J.K.Huysmans’ fin de siecle novel, ‘Against Nature’, is one of its kind and is regarded as the ultimate example of ‘decadent’ literature – a novel in which the main character shuts himself up in his castle and admires his works of art and his possessions and treasures and lives a rich interior life and avoids human contact.


I want to conclude with one last example. Patrick Modiano’s ‘Missing Person’ is about a man who can’t remember his past. When he goes on a quest in search of his true identity and his past story, he discovers first that he is one person and then he is another. This continues till the end of the story. We, of course, are familiar with this story, through the Bourne series by Robert Ludlum. Modiano’s book was published before Ludlum’s. I suspect that Ludlum got inspired by Modiano’s book.


The French literary landscape and culture has also inspired writers from other countries to come and write in French and experiment in their works. One famous example is the Irish Nobel prize winner, Samuel Beckett. Beckett wrote most of his famous works in French. His famous absurdist play ‘Waiting for Godot’ was written in French and was first performed in front of a French audience. More recently, Jonathan Littell, who was born American but who now holds French citizenship also, published his first novel ‘The Kindly Ones’ in French. It went on to win the Prix Goncourt. In case you are curious, it is a holocaust novel told from the perspective of a German SS officer who worked in the Eastern front. As you can guess, that would be pretty controversial.


Schofield’s article also ignores French books which are written by authors who are not French – typically authors who are Canadian or North African or Caribbean. Two of my favourite authors who write in French are Canadian. Nicole Brossard has written some very beautiful novels including ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon’, which is one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read. Nancy Huston, who was born Canadian and who lived and wrote from there before she moved to France, wrote the beautiful ‘The Mark of the Angel’ – a novel about love, war and the Holocaust, a novel which has a German heroine who is married to a French musician and who falls in love with a Hungarian Jewish man.


One other thing that the article is silent on is French comics. French readers love comics and even though I am an outsider, I have loved French comics since I was a child. (When I say ‘French’ with respect to comics, most of the time I mean Franco-Belgian, because the comics were created by Belgian writers with various European artists and published in French) And I am not talking about just the Tintin and the Asterix series which are world famous. But also the ones which are less famous among English-reading readers – like ‘XIII’, the Lucky Luke series, the Blueberry series, the Largo Winch series, the adventures of Ric Hochet, the Wayne Shelton series and others. Two of my recent favourites are these : the first one is ‘Western’ which is by my favourite comics writer Jean Van Hamme and is an achingly beautiful ‘western’ love story. The second one (which I am still reading) is ‘Batchalo’ which tells the story of the Roma community in France during the Second World War. Unfortunately, this has not been translated into English.


The article also says this :


French authors routinely appear in the English-speaking world’s lists of the best novels ever – Voltaire, Flaubert, and Proust… sometimes Dumas and Hugo too. But when it comes to post-war literature, it’s a different story. Even voracious readers often struggle to name a single French author they have enjoyed.


Well, this is not true. Though I am not a French literature expert and I am just a fan, I have my own list of favourite French authors from the post-war era. Here are some of them (Take that, Schofield 🙂 This is me throwing the kitchen sink!) I have added links to my reviews of these novels with brief excerpts from my reviews of what I thought of them.


(1)   Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon by Nicole Brossard“The thing which I totally loved while reading the book was Brossard’s gorgeous prose. It was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose.”

 Yesterday At The Hotel Clarendon By Nicole Brossard


(2)   The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston“Nancy Huston’s prose is very conversational and in many places she talks to the reader directly while telling the story. It is like sitting in front of the fire on a winter night, listening to a story told by our favourite aunt. There is also a gentle sense of humour throughout the book, even when it talks about serious topics like war, the holocaust, violence and death. The way the book weaves the stories of Saffie, András, Emil and Raphael and the people in their lives with the story of the fight for Algerian independence and the way it shows how the weight of history changes and distorts individual lives is quite interesting. It also made me feel sad, because it showed how difficult it is to find happiness and freedom in the world, even if we try our best.”

 The Mark Of The Angel By Nancy Huston


(3)   The Square by Marguerite Duras“I liked the way the story explored the characters’ interior worlds through conversation and dialogue and when we think that there is nothing happening in the story – there are no events, only conversations – we realize, when we reach the end of the story, that a lot has happened in the characters’ interior worlds and the characters have undergone subtle and sometimes strong changes which have transformed them in very important ways. The way Marguerite Duras brings out the intensity of emotion and feeling of her characters not by describing them but through conversations and how through this conversational window she gives us a peek into the core of her characters’ hearts is a defining feature of this story.”

 Four Novels By Marguerite Duras


(4)   Foam of the Daze by Boris Vian“‘Foam of the Daze’ is a fascinating, surrealistic, fantastic love story with a heartbreaking ending. It addresses all the great themes – youth, loss of innocence, love, loss, death, the soullessness of mind numbing but inevitable work – and it does all this in an inventive, imaginative, novel, unique and original way. If you like stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new, you should give Boris Vian’s book a try. It will reward you for taking the risk with a rich reading experience.”   

 Foam Of The Daze By Boris Vian


(5)   Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux“‘Simple Passion’ is an interesting book. There is not much of a plot here – the plot can be told in two lines. The book is mostly about the narrator’s thoughts on life, love, longing, waiting, the agony of parting. Annie Ernaux’s prose is spare and simple, but there are beautiful sentences in every page. Though I read it in one sitting, I read it very slowly and enjoyed lingering over those beautiful sentences. ‘Simple Passion’ is a beautiful, slim gem. It is a book to be savoured over a winter evening warming oneself next to a fire having a drink. Or alternately, it can be savoured on a warm summer evening, watching the sun set, while sitting outdoors in the garden and sipping a delicious cup of tea.”

 Simple Passion By Annie Ernaux


(6)   Missing Person by Patrick Modiano“‘Missing Person’ is not just the search of the main character for his past, but it is also a meditation on identity and what makes a person who he or she is. It asks interesting questions on what and who we are – whether we are the products of our past, or whether we are what we do and think in the present or whether we are a summation of our future potential. It is a fascinating philosophical question that is explored in the book through the search of Guy Roland for his past.”

 Missing Person By Patrick Modiano


(7)   Trap for Cinderella by Sebastien Japrisot“‘Trap for Cinderella’ is a page turner. It is not very thick – the edition I read had 171 pages – but I read it slowly and enjoyed reading each page and passage and sentence. The revelations come slowly and suddenly. We see the story and the world through an amnesiac’s eyes and mind and it is quite surprising and scary. The mystery gets revealed in the last page…It is a noir thriller, which holds its own when compared with the best works of James Cain and James Hadley Chase. It is a masterful exhibition of what can be done with just a few characters in a crime novel, and a masterclass in crime fiction writing.”

 Trap For Cinderella By Sebastien JaprisotGR



I want to write about one last thing. Most of the time when I want to explore new French writers, I ask Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ for suggestions. You can find her reviews of French books here. Sometimes I also check the reading lists of Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’. You can find her French reading lists here – Reading List 1 and Reading List 2. You can also find Emma’s reviews of French books here. Stu from Winstondad’s Blog mostly reads and reviews translated fiction. His blog is a rich source of reading suggestions of not just French fiction, but also translated fiction from all languages. You can find his reviews of French books here. I also sometimes check the book ‘One Hundred Great French Books’ by Lance-Donaldson Evans. It is a rich source of reading suggestions spanning the entire history of French literature. You can find my review of the book here.


In conclusion, French books are not elitist but are accessible. French books come in all sizes and shapes and genres as do books in English and in other languages. French readers read translated fiction. That doesn’t mean that they don’t like fiction written in their own language. They love French fiction. French writers are pioneering innovators and in many cases others are just catching up with them. It might be true that less French books from the post-war era are getting translated into English. It doesn’t mean that they are not good. They are brilliant. If they are not translated it is a big loss for English-reading readers. It is not a loss for French writers. French books are written not only by French writers. They are also written by Canadian, North African and Caribbean writers. Comics are a big part of the French literary tradition. French writers and publishers are supported by the policies of the French government.


That is all I have to say 🙂


What do you think about this topic? I would love to hear your thoughts. Even if you have a different point of view, I would still love to hear it.

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Most of us who read a new translation of an old classic, sometimes ask ourselves, which is the best translation available of this book. We discuss with our reading friends and fellow bloggers about the merits of different translators and translations. Frequently, a new translation of a classic makes a big splash and many times becomes the definitive translated version of the original. I remember when the new translations of the Russian classics by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky came out, they were received enthusiastically. Most readers felt that theirs was the best translation of ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ yet. I also remember when Lydia Davis’ translations of ‘Madame Bovary’ and ‘Swann’s Way’ (the first volume of ‘In Search of Lost Time’) came out. They were received with a lot of affection and enthusiasm and readers, reviewers and critics lost no time in saying that these were the best translations of those books ever. It makes us think on how one compare the merits of different translations and decide which one is the best.


One simple way of doing that is hailing that the latest translation is always the best. Because new things are always more appealing than old ones. A child always likes a new toy more. So a Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation will always score over a Constance Garnett translation. A Lydia Davis translation will always score over a Scott Moncrieff / Terence Kilmartin translation. A new translation of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ by Susan Bernofsky is coming out next year. It is already being hailed as the best. Of course, this way of judging a translation is not satisfying. The latest is the best is not a good or a logically strong argument.


Another way of comparing translations is to take a particular sentence from a book, read it in the original language (if we know the language) and compare translated versions of that sentence. And pick the one that we like the best. When we do this, sometimes we discover that the most literal translations are not the best ones or the most artistic ones. There is a Wikipedia page which does this with respect to Homer’s epics, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey’. Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life did that wonderfully with a couple of German classics – Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice and Jeremias Gotthelf’s ‘The Black Spider’.


Sometimes we might read a book and unexpectedly discover the author or one of the characters talk about a translator affectionately. It happened to me a couple of times – when Michael Harvey talked about Richmond Lattimore’s translations of the Greek epics in his thriller ‘The Chicago Way (I hadn’t heard of Lattimore before I read this book. I want to check out his translated version one day. The translation of Greek epics currently favoured by readers seems to be the one by Robert Fagles) and Dan Brown talked about Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ in his novel ‘Inferno’ (I have a soft corner for Mandelbaum as I have read parts of his translation of ‘The Odyssey’ and liked it very much).


Out of these my own preferred way of comparing and analyzing different translated versions is the second one – comparing translated sentences together and alongwith the original. But most of the time, it is impossible or hard to do that, because we don’t know the original language and can’t judge how accurate or faithful a translation is.


I wanted to look at translations from a different perspective. Or more precisely, look at the translator more closely than at the translation. And as this is German Literature Month, I want to do that to the German books I have read in the past few years. My basic assumption is this. I don’t know German (Okay, I know ‘Guten Morgan’ and ‘Danke Schone’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ but that doesn’t count.) So, it will be very difficult for me to compare two different translations of the same German book. Also, with respect to contemporary fiction, normally there is only one translation available. No one has done a second translation of Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ or Bernhard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ or Peter Stamm’s ‘Unformed Landscape’ or Elke Schmitter’s ‘Mrs.Sartoris’. Chances of a new translation of any of these books coming out is extremely remote. Maybe it might happen fifty years from now, but it is definitely not going to happen now.  So this model of comparing different translations, though good in theory, is difficult to apply in practice to contemporary German fiction. So I decided to look at it from a totally different angle. During my love affair with German Literature these past few years, I discovered that there were some books that I adored, there were others towards which I was lukewarm and there were others which I was indifferent to. And I discovered that I tended to like books translated by some translators consistently while it wasn’t the case with other translators. I thought to myself – is it possible for me to look at translators that way? Is there a connection I feel with some translators, with respect to literary taste, than with others? Can I say that because my reading taste consistently matches with what one particular translator is translating, I can blindly pick any book that this translator has worked on? Looking at it from this perspective, can I say that I have a favourite translator?


I was quite excited when I thought about it this way. I thought it was time to investigate.


To start with, I made a list of German books I read. I didn’t include the classics (like Thomas Mann’s ‘Death of Venice). I included only contemporary works. And I didn’t define what constituted a contemporary work before proceeding. I decided very arbitrarily and subjectively whether a book was a contemporary work or not. Then I grouped them under translator’s names and tried to see whether a pattern emerged. This was how the list looked like (it is not in any particular order).


Carol Brown Janeway


Mrs.Sartoris by Elke Schmitter


Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach


The Reader by Bernhard Schlink


Michael Hofmann


Unformed Landscape by Peter Stamm


Seven Years by Peter Stamm


The Land of Green Plums by Herta Müller


Shaun Whiteside


The Wall by Marlen Haushofer


The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink


Sorry by Zoran Drvenkar


Anthea Bell


Rain by Karen Duve


The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach


Three Bags full by Leonie Swann


John E. Woods


Perfume by Patrick Süskind


The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind


Amanda Prantera


The Loft by Marlen Haushofer


Michael Bullock


The Thirtieth Year by Ingeborg Bachmann


Barbara Harshav


Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier


Michael Henry Heim


Homecoming by Bernhard Schlink


Chantal Wright


Tell Me What You See by Zoran Drvenkar


Looking at the list, we can immediately see that the first four are all big names and they all seem to be translating a lot of work now. We keep stumbling upon them again and again as their range is wide. We stumble upon the others when we are looking for the books of a particular author. When I look at the top four, this is what I think.


Carol Brown Janeway – She translates from a wide range of works. (What’s with Janeway and authors whose second name starts with ‘Sch’? J) In the above list one is literary fiction, another is real-world crime and the third one straddles the fine line between literary and popular fiction. One thought which straightaway jumps at me is that I loved all of her translations that I had read. Every one of them. And unfailingly, all of them had big and beautiful fonts and thick paper. That is always an added bonus.


Michael Hofmann – Looking at the authors Hofmann has translated, it looks like he translates mostly highbrow award winning fiction. No crime novels or popular novels for him. I liked very much all his translations that I read but not in the same way as those of Carol Brown Janeway. Janeway’s translations had that extra little something.


Shaun Whiteside – For me, Whiteside is the dark horse and is the most difficult to classify. I adored one of his translations (Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’), didn’t like another of them (Schlink’s ‘The Weekend’) and liked another of them in parts (Drvenkar’s ‘Sorry’). He has hit on all parts of the spectrum and his translations seem to be a microcosm of the world itself – there seem to be room for all kinds of books there. But he has translated ‘The Wall’ and that is one thing that towers over every other book here. I think I can say that it is the best German book I have ever read. And Whiteside translated it. That is something. And looking at the fact that he has also translated Pascal Mercier’s ‘Perlmann’s Silence’ (which I haven’t read yet, but I love Mercier), I think there are going to be more Whiteside translations that I am going to adore.


Anthea Bell – She is tricky, like Whiteside, but in a different way. Looking at her translations, one feels that she is adventurous with respect to the books she translates. ‘Rain’ is an unconventionally bleak novel – though it has many fans I didn’t like it much. I liked ‘The Collini Case’ though. And I was totally charmed by ‘Three Bags Full’ which is a murder mystery in which sheep are detectives. She is a translator who surprises us with her unusual, adventurous choices.


Out of the rest, John E. Woods is interesting because he has translated two of Patrick Süskind’s works. I loved both of those books. He looked like a one author translator to me till I discovered that he has also translated Bernhard Schlink’s ‘Flights of Love’. I am keeping away from Bernhard Schlink for a while (after the disaster of ‘The Weekend’) but I hope to get to this book one day. If I like it, that will be one more feather on John E. Woods’ cap. Amanda Prantera, like John E. Woods, seems to be a one-author-translator. She has translated two of Marlen Haushofer’s works. I have read one of them – ‘The Loft’ – and it is excellent. It has to be, because it is a Haushofer novel. It will be interesting to find out which authors Prantera chooses to translate in the future.


The other translators are all one-book-wonders (by ‘one-book-wonder’ here, I mean that I have read one translation of theirs. Not that they have translated only one German book. It has more to do with me than with them. I apologize if you thought I was using this phrase in the popular way it is used) and though I liked all those books very much, I can’t arrive at any inference from that.


So, in conclusion, I can say this. I will read any translation of Carol Brown Janeway. I loved all her translations, though they were of different literary genres. If I want to read highbrow literary fiction, Michael Hofmann is the person I will look to. I will keep an eye on Shaun Whiteside, purely for the fact that he translated ‘The Wall’. If he can get hold of another book which is close enough, it will be a great day. Anthea Bell is an adventurous risk-taker. It is always wonderful to find out what she is up to. Anyone who translates ‘Three Bags Full’ must be a charming, fun person. I will also keep an eye on John E. Woods and Amanda Prantera. If I can add one more name – I am reading Jamie Bulloch’s wonderful translation of Katherina Hagena’s ‘The Taste of Apple Seeds’ now. When I finish it, I am sure Bulloch will be a wonderful addition to my list of favourite translators.


Do you like some translators more than others? Especially for quirky, subjective reasons like mine? Who are your favourite translators translating German fiction into English?

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My Favourite Economist

I normally don’t write a post like this – which has got nothing to do with books, literature or sport, but I thought I will make an exception today. I read in the newspaper today that Paul Samuelson, the revered American economist passed away during the weekend. It was sad news, because Samuelson was one of the academics and economists my friends and I admired the most, when we were students. Economics is not a good profession to be in today because leading economists are ridiculed for not having been able to predict the big economic depression that descended last year. Many people probably question what is the use of a field, which calls itself a science, but which is not able to do what a scientific field should – predict what happens when a particular set of conditions exist. But in those starry-eyed student days, some of the economists were our heroes and Paul Samuelson was the superstar who towered above all of them.

Paul Samuelson was a genius and an allrounder – he was to Economics what Gary Sobers was to Cricket. (Pardon me for the cricket analogy – if you are not a cricket fan, you can replace Gary Sobers with Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Steffi Graf, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Michael Johnson, Daley Thompson or Jackie Joyner Kersee). Or a different way of saying that would be that he was the Newton of Economics. He did important work in multiple areas of economics and sometimes created new branches of economics because of his innovative work and left his stamp in each of them – something which is extremely difficult to do in these days of specialization. He was also the first to use rigorous mathematics in economics to showcase a particular idea. Before Samuelson, most economists wrote verbal descriptions of theories, and mathematical models were frowned upon. Samuelson changed all that.

Samuelson also headed the newly setup Economics department of MIT and built it into an institution which produced a succession of Nobel Laureates. He led the trend by becoming the first American Nobel prize winner of Economics, and many of his students went on to emulate their teacher. Samuelson’s pioneering textbook on economics for college students, which was published more than 60 years back, continues to be the most important economic textbook for students and the textbook most used by teachers. I have a few editions of it – I got the last one a couple of years back 🙂 In the book, in the last passage of the introduction, Samuelson says : “As you begin your journey into the land of markets, it would be understandable if you are anxious. But take heart. The fact is that we envy you, the beginning student, as you set out to explore the exciting world of economics for the first time. This is a thrill that, alas, you can experience only once in a lifetime. So, as you embark, we wish you bon voyage!” These words have inspired generations of students (including me) to study economics.

I don’t know much about Samuelson’s life and what his political and social views were. But I know one thing – he was, is and will be a legend in his field. For generations of students, he was the one who gave economics its sex-appeal, and inspired novices like me to dream of becoming an economist. He is one of my heroes. How I wish I were still that age, when I was a student – when being a student was fun, and academics and professors and Nobel prize winners were our heroes and heroines.

Hope Samuelson is watching the world from the Elysian fields and smiling at how new students are discovering his favourite subject and how his successors in his chosen profession are pushing the frontiers of knowledge into exciting new terrain.

You can read a tribute to Samuelson on NYT here.

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After a long time I was following Wimbledon, not by just reading the newspaper reports the next day, but by following the key matches live. Today was the women’s seminfinal day and the first match was between Serena Williams and Elena Dementieva. Serena was probably the favourite going into the match, but from my perspective as a tennis fan, there was little to choose, because I have admired the Williams sisters for years – for their accomplishments, for taking women’s tennis to a different level and for their grace under pressure – and out of the Russian girls Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva were my favourites. So I sat back with a cup of tea and a bowl of nuts to enjoy the match. (more…)

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I was watching the Presidential inauguration of Obama on Tuesday night (Indian time) last week. It was the first time I have watched an American Presidential inauguration live on TV. It was good to see the familiar faces of past American Presidents as they walked in as guests. Though there were many interesting things about the inauguration – the momentous occasion, the invitee list, the way the chairperson of ceremonies conducted it, Obama’s eloquent speech, the songs and the poetry recitals – for me the most fascinating and poignant thing about the ceremony was the smooth transfer of power which happened. (more…)

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