Some light late summer reading

The Irish Times notes the local interest in the Man Booker Prize long-list – Three Irish writers compete for top award. But, while the Guardian praises the list and here, and here, compiled under the chairmanship of Guardian columnist Prof John Sutherland *ahem*… Sinéad at the Sigla Blog is less impressed – No surprises with the Booker List – but helpfully points to her interviews with two of the long-listed authors – Kazuo Ishiguro and John Banville. Also worth noting is DJ Taylor, also in the Guardian, arguing that “One conspicuous feature of this year’s list is its profound metropolitan bias”

More on John Banville at The Literary Encyclopedia, which as well as including information that the Irish Times neglected – he was previously the Literary Editor there and in 1999 became their Chief Critic [great job title btw] – also has a couple of noteworthy quotes –

“I feel part of my culture. But it is a personal culture gleaned from bits and pieces of European culture of four thousand years.” Questioning the very notion of national literature – “there is no such thing as Irish national literature, only Irish writers engaged in the practice of writing”

Indeed.

  • Denny Boy

    Good on Sinéad for her insightful remarks on Sigla. The book trade is going to hell in a handcart and you can’t trust prizes any more.

    I’m delighted to see that John Banville made the Booker longlist though. He is, in my opinion then, one of two heavyweights Ireland has these days, the other being Niall Williams.

    But the Brits fare little better. What’s Ian McEwan doing there again? He’s a very good storyteller, but hardly a writer of literature.

    Ishiguro and Rushdie yes. But what’s that about the latter making the list with a book that hasn’t been published yet? Very fishy indeed.

    The inclusion of the two Ms’s Smith I won’t even comment on, except to say that if either wins, then it’s a bad day for the integrity of UK letters – and that the Richard and Judys of this world are the real winners.

  • foreign correspondent

    I am currently reading Banville´s book about Prague, Prague Pictures, and it´s well written. Any advice about which of his novels are particularly worth reading?

  • slackjaw

    foreign correspondent,

    FWIW I found the Book of Evidence excellent and Shroud extremely dreary.

  • Deaglan

    I would agree with the ‘Book of Evidence’ recommendation also check out ‘The Untouchable’

  • Denny Boy

    Yup, The Book of Evidence (arguably his very best), and the other books in the trilogy: Athena and Ghosts.

    Agree with slackjaw about Shroud, but even at his “worst” Banville still leaves clear blue water between himself and any other Irish writer du jour. I know of no better stylist.

  • Sinéad

    Denny Boy, thank you for your kind words.

    I just get the sense with this list that high profile authors published by big publishers with access to large marketing spends are chosen over smaller, just as worthy books. These literary prizes are a real chance to discover new novelists (there are only three first time authors on the list) but instead books, and authors, that don’t really need the publicity consistentlyend up on them.

    I would love to see Banville make the shortlist but I just don’t see it happening unfortunately. A lot of critics and book lovers alike seem to find his prose inpenetrable. I loved the Book of Evidence, ditto Athena and The Untouchable.

    McEwan, I’ve always found, is a short story writer trapped in a novelist’s body and Saturday is fairly dismal.

    I’ve just got a copy of Rushdie’s new book for review and as Midnight’s Children is one of my all time favourite books, I’m keen to get stuck in to it.

  • Jacko

    You all make me feel distinctly “unread”.
    But lovely to see a thread on something other than the same old, same old.
    My own reading tastes tend towards the historical (mostly avoiding the NI stuff) and the bio and autobiographical.
    On the reading front, one taste I do seem to share, at least with PB, is on the newspaper front with the Irish Times.

  • Printemps

    Denny Boy

    What do you have against Ali Smith? I find her writing excellent – I loved Hotel World and her short stories are up there with the best. I haven’t read her newest. I certainly don’t understand how Zadie Smith or Ali Smith represents the RichardandJudification of literature. Z Smith’s has such a promising start with White Teeth but then seemed to get sucked into MacSweeney’s gimmickry for her second, which made an interesting idea a mediocre novel. Still, it’s hardly Richard and Judy territory, although if they get people interested in literature, why be such a snob? Have you read either of these authors? Sorry to be harsh, but you come off as some self-appointed arbiter of taste.

    Getting on the list with a book not written is suspect though, considering the Booker is an annual award. What next, getting on the list with a basic idea of what one’s next novel will be?

  • foreign correspondent

    Going slightly off-topic, I´d like to nominate John McGahern as one of Ireland´s better writers, having recently read and enjoyed ´Amongst Women´.

  • Denny Boy

    Sinéad

    “I would love to see Banville make the shortlist but I just don’t see it happening unfortunately. A lot of critics and book lovers alike seem to find his prose inpenetrable.”

    Impenetrable? Depends on one’s grasp of the language I suppose. Here’s what the Sunday Times critic had to say:

    ‘Here, however, progress towards enlightenment is clogged by stylistic excess. Endlessly fussing over his phrases — “if that is the word I want”, “if that is the way to put it” — Morden proves a maddening narrator. Self-caressingly fond of fancy epithets (“velutinous”, “cinereal”, “horrent”, “caduceus”), he cultivates a style of puffed-up grandeur.’

    Is this where we are, when a man isn’t allowed to use words his readers might not understand?!! Ah, but this goes against our modern sense of “inclusivity”, right? We mustn’t let the ignorant feel they’re, er, ignorant. For Christ’s sake, if writers write for the lowest common denominator then how is the language to grow? And are we too arsed to reach for a dictionary when the going gets tough? Jeeze!

    No, I fear you’re right, Sinéad. The Booker judges will go for the well-known writers. But not for Banville. They’ll go for the ones who have already been hyped by the publishers’ PRs. And am I the only one who notices that all the quality papers tend to notice THE EXACT SAME SMALL CROP OF NOVELS every time? For instance, when I saw “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian” reviewed in the Guardian, I knew as night follows day that the others would pick up on it in the weeks that followed. No don’t get me wrong; it’s an OK read, but so were a number of other books published in that same period.

    And now it’s made the Booker longlist. Quelle surprise! Also no surprise that Julian Barnes is there – we can’t ignore such a pillar of the literary establishment, now can we? But Booker material? I don’t think so. Where’s the innovation, where’s the, well, surprise?

    And while I’m ranting away here, has anyone noticed how many of the hyped authors are journalists? Is this why their stuff is guaranteed a review each time? Would Ali Smith have made the pages of the qualities had she not been a reviewer herself?

    I wonder what would happen to the Booker were the Yanks allowed in. I’m reading William Gay’s “Provinces of Night” at the moment and it blows out of the water almost anything I’ve seen on this side of the, er, water. There are many more great Americans of course. The Guardian made the mistake a few weeks ago of slotting the great Annie Proulx in amongst the British and Irish. It was no contest, I’m afraid. I felt a little sorry for Colm Toibín, who went back to back with her. It was Sluggered here.

  • Denny Boy

    Foreign correspondent:

    “Going slightly off-topic, I´d like to nominate John McGahern as one of Ireland´s better writers, having recently read and enjoyed ´Amongst Women´.”

    What do you base this on? Would you care to quote a wee example of his prose? For me he’s a reasonably good storyteller in the tradition of Frank O’Connor, but hardly a stylist.

    Isn’t the Booker about style? If it isn’t, then why isn’t it? And if it isn’t, shouldn’t we have some chick-lit novels included because many of them tell a ripping good yarn – and I’m not being sarcastic.

  • Sinéad

    Denny, I couldn’t agree more about Banville. I think one of the duties of a writer should be to challenge us. I love his use of words and the fact that I have trundle off to the dictionary from time to time. I’ve always been curious about words, which is probably why I do what I do, and Banville is a champion of language. I think I mentioned in my interview with him that many people literally shuddered when I said I was reading several of his books back to back. He’s hard work for some, but I find him a joy to read.

    The Booker is definitely not about style. In fact, I’m not sure what it’s about these days. As someone said on the Sigla blog, the last non-safe choice was Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late over a decade ago.

    On McGahern – he’s is one of my favourite Irish writers. There are many reasons why a writer stands out in our estimation. Banville is a stylist, McGahern excels at telling stories. Both are very different writers, and because of that, it doesn’t mean one is better than the other.
    Foreign Correspondent, make sure you read The Dark and The Barracks. They’re excellent.

  • Yoda

    I have to admit that Banville is, for me, a bit of a bore.

    I really tried to like The Revolutions Trilogy. I tried really hard.

    I picked up a second hand copy of The Book of Evidence, but I’ve been oddly reluctant to start it.

    I suppose that the whole “language is inadequate” chestnut and the “search for meaning” seems precious. I find it odd that it manages to exist in a bubble that, coming from a writer who is so “European,” ignores miss much of the more exciting theoretical innovations of post ’60’s European thought.

    Don’t even get me started on “post-human.”

  • Denny Boy

    Sinéad, re Banville vs McGahern: sure, they’re very different writers, McGahern being a storyteller. But does this mean that his prose must of necessity be tired and lacklustre? I dip into “Amongst Women” and scan the first pages for any sign of inspired writing, a nice little turn of phrase. I find none, only bread-and-butter prose. The nearest he comes to an interesting statement is:

    “On the tides of Dublin or London they were hardly more than specks of froth.”

    But what does this mean? (I’m donning my mortarboard here, even though school’s out for summer.) What tides? The twice-daily rush hour, commuters entering and going out again? But one can hardly describe a city in terms of a tide; a city’s population moves in so many directions; not even a whirlpool or a maelstrom provides a fitting metaphor. Flux, eddy? “Must try harder,” I write in the margin.

    The McGahern myth would have us believe that the author overwrites massively then pares down. Oh yeah, sez who? McGahern? His publisher? I for one don’t believe it. It seems to me that he simply doesn’t have the language – unlike Banville.

    PS I loved “How Late is Was, How Late” too. It took me a while to figure out that the “sojers” were the cops 😉

  • Denny Boy

    “I picked up a second hand copy of The Book of Evidence, but I’ve been oddly reluctant to start it.”

    Oh do start it, Yoda! Then you can comment on it.

  • Yoda

    I’m trying, Denny, believe me.

    But I need a hook.

  • Sinéad

    “But one can hardly describe a city in terms of a tide; a city’s population moves in so many directions; not even a whirlpool or a maelstrom provides a fitting metaphor. Flux, eddy? “Must try harder,” I write in the margin.”

    Why can’t one? Says who?! As far as I’m concerned writers can describe what they like, how they like, and to be honest flux and eddy are predictable options – I’d like to think he chose tide, because it wasn’t the obvious choice.

    I don’t find McGahern’s prose lacklustre at all, I think he’s wonderfully evocative at description. I think he does have the language, it’s just not the same as Banville’s. Would you prefer all writers to tackle language the same way? Books would get fairly boring wouldn’t they?

    Yoda – The Revolutions Trilogy is a tough one and I found it a slog, but please jump in to the Book of Evidence. It’s worth it. 🙂

    Back on topic, someone told me this week that The People’s Act of Love by James Meek is worth a read.

  • Denny Boy

    Sinéad, you can defend McGahern all you want but I do find that Irish writers wither and die in the face of the competition coming out of the US. I mentioned I was reading William Gay? Here are a couple of descriptive passages plucked at random:

    “…light to dark, light to dark, until she vanished. Until the night negated her, made her transparent as the shade in some old grandmother’s ghost story, sucked her down where the light goes when you lean and blow out a candle.”

    “By the time they reached the roadbed, night was seeping down out of the trees and nighthawks came slant out of the mauve dusk like flung stones.”

    “He was slightly hunched, as if something inside him was winding itself up and as it tightened drawing him toward his own center.”

    “It [the thunder] finally came, so faint it was like a dream of thunder, a hoarse incoherent whisper, like a madman mumbling to himself in the eaves of the world.”

    Maybe you can quote some John McGahern that stacks up well against this? I should add that William Gay is also a superb storyteller whose subject matter, like McGahern’s, Trevor’s, O’Connor’s, et al, is country life.

  • Yoda

    But Denny the descriptions you cite are opne to the same critique you make of McGahern.

    Any descriptions that are not merely similes?

    Speaking of similes, my all time favourite: “The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.”

  • foreign correspondent

    I didn´t mean to provoke a McGahern/Banville debate with my earlier post. I was only commenting that I enjoyed Amongst Women a lot, probably more than a lot of other Irish novels I have read in the last years, a purely personal opinion.
    BTW I have also just read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. It was all too much for my conventional ´one novel=one story´ mentality :-). Are all his books like that?

  • Denny Boy

    Yoda

    “But Denny the descriptions you cite are opne to the same critique you make of McGahern.”

    What, they’re tired? They read pretty new to me and I’m well read.

    “Any descriptions that are not merely similes?”

    What’s so “mere” about a good simile? It’s hard to write a good one.

    Oh well, just for you, here’s a couple of simile-free passages:

    “She rose stiffly, still caught in the memory, touched for a moment the sagging crepe of her throat, as if she expected to feel there the flesh of a girl.”

    “He felt curiously off balance, out of sync, as if something somewhere needed to be adjusted half a turn. Everything looked skewed; the level and plumb of the world seemed subtly off.”

    “He got out of bed and crossed the carpet to stand beside her. He hair brushed his shoulder. Silver beads of rain strung off the eaves. Past the dark stain of the fields that were more sensed than seen, moving lights turned and swayed and darted through the slanting rain in a curious ballet that seemed senseless, profoundly alien.”

    Now let’s have some McGahern….

  • Denny Boy

    Foreign correspondent:

    “I have also just read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. It was all too much for my conventional ´one novel=one story´ mentality :-). Are all his books like that?”

    Nah, check out “The Joke”:

    “If there is anything that prevents a woman from telling a lover about her husband, it is rarely tact or true propriety; it is simply the fear that what she says will wound him. Once the lover dispels that fear, she is grateful to him and feels a new freedom, but more important, she has something to talk about. For topics of conversation are not infinite, and husbands are the most gratifying topics for wives, the only topics in which they feel sure of themselves, the only topc in they are experts, and people are always happy to have a chance to show off their expertise.”

    He’s a pretty old-fashioned guy 😉

  • Denny Boy

    Erratum: “the only topic in which they are experts”,

    … typing not being MY field of expertise 😉

  • Printemps

    Any answers for some of my questions in an earlier post? What’s your beef with Ali Smith, etc? Being a reviewer can hardly be it, she only became a reviewer after Hotel World.

  • Yoda

    Denny,

    The first two of the last three are still similes.

    I’n not slighting either Gay or similes. I’ve nothing against simile (I love me a good simile, like the Seinfeld one I posted above).

    I was just looking for a bit of tropic dexterity in the examples.

  • Denny Boy

    Yoda

    Make up your mind; do you want tropes or don’t you? But if you genuinely want to check out some REAL writing then I won’t wear out my fingers but point you instead towards one of Gay’s short stories, the one that kicks off the collection, a book I warmly recommended.

  • Yoda

    Ah Denny, don’t be like that. I just noticed that most of the examples you gave were similes. I’m half-pulling your leg.

    I do appreciate your recommendations and efforts at typing. 🙂

  • Denny Boy

    ” I just noticed that most of the examples you gave were similes.”

    Yeah, you’re right. I was so taken by the langauge that I failed to notice the “as if”s until you pointed them out 😉

  • Denny Boy

    Printemps wrote:

    “Any answers for some of my questions in an earlier post? What’s your beef with Ali Smith, etc? Being a reviewer can hardly be it, she only became a reviewer after Hotel World.”

    Sorry, I overlooked your post. And I was a little hasty in mistaking her for a journalist. (There are so many of them clogging up the review pages I lose track.) What I find wrong with Ali Smith? The mannered, self-conscious writing I suppose; anyone with keyboard skills can do that sort of thing. I’m left wondering if she can actually do coherent and consistent narrative. I sense that she can’t. I find myself siding with a reader who reviewed “Hotel World” on Amazon:

    “So I opened the what do you call it–I forget the word–the thing that people read and started to read and got sucked in fascinated really I can’t remember why–maybe the creepiness, I’m not sure–sucked into the story of this disembodied girl and her split-with-anger sister and all that she is forgetting and has forgotten about life and all that these other characters are making her remember. And I guess I was annoyed–it was really just a spark of indignation (I can remember the abstract words just not all the ones that are concrete) by how the thing was written because I really liked the premise and thought this could be a great one of those things that people read. But it got old after a couple of pages, and creepy after a couple more pages when the spirit started referring to herself in the plural and having conversations with her corpse and playing games with her old family whose names she can’t remember well and I have to admit a prejudice here–I cringed and almost put the thing down but as I read on it got more and more worth it. Still:
    If this review’s style annoys you, you’re not going to make it through the book.”

    And this is charitable.

  • Sinéad

    Denny

    I don’t feel I have to defend McGahern but it seems you only judge writers on descriptive ability. What about dialogue, characterisation, motifs and all the other things a writer can be judged on? To judge a book merely on It’s seem like a very narrow perspective. We have different opinions of McGahern, so why quote him to you?

    Those quotes from Gay don’t do very much for me, they seem to be trying too hard. The descriptions sound forced, and unnatural, but that’s just my opinion. Anyways we’ll end up talking in circles so let’s just conclude that I like McGahern, you don’t – and that’s okay!

  • Sinéad

    Oh, and speaking of Americans, anyone got any thoughts on John Irving?

    I’m just about to start his new book (work stuff) Until I Find You

  • Denny Boy

    Sinéad:

    “I don’t feel I have to defend McGahern but it seems you only judge writers on descriptive ability. What about dialogue, characterisation, motifs and all the other things a writer can be judged on?”

    Correction, I judge writers on their overall writing ability. Is there anything special about McG’s dialogue? Examples, please. Characterization? Ditto. Mention a striking motif or two if you don’t mind.

    “We have different opinions of McGahern, so why quote him to you?”

    Am I the only other person reading this blog? Yoda thanked me for my quoting and recommendations so perhaps you’d be performing a public service.

    “Those quotes from Gay don’t do very much for me, they seem to be trying too hard. The descriptions sound forced, and unnatural, but that’s just my opinion.”

    Oh pullease! I’ll bet if I’d quoted the Lord himself you’d have told me He was trying too hard. You couldn’t admit McG’s use of “tide” was sloppy and inaccurate when I pointed this out. I think a little objectivity might be in order, Sinéad; just because he’s one of “our own” doesn’t mean I can’t criticize his work. I’ll continue to do so because I believe his reputation is undeserved.

    “Anyways we’ll end up talking in circles so let’s just conclude that I like McGahern, you don’t – and that’s okay!””

    No one’s talking in circles. I submitted that if the Yanks were allowed on the Booker then they’d wipe the floor with the rest. I quoted William Gay to show how good he is, compared to, say, John McGahern. You found Gay’s work wanting. Now put up some McG and we’re square, as opposed to talking in circles.

  • Deaglan

    Sinéad, for what it’s worth, although I haven’t read much of his later work. I thought some of Irvings more established works ‘Garp’ ‘Cider House Rules’ or ‘Owen Meaney’ were excellent but reading ‘Hotel New Hampshire’ was an utter waste of time. My bother was that the recurring themes in his early novels such as fatherless narrrators, precocious sexuality and wrestling have tended to crowd out the narrative.

  • Printemps

    A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    Did you see the profile of John Irving in Saturday’s Guardian?

  • Sinéad

    Printemps

    I did, thanks and thought it was one of the better ones of late. So many thing struck me about it, especially the numerous parallels with his own life and The World According To Garp. I was also really intrigued by the idea that he writes novels from back to front.

    Deaglan
    The new book returns to the father/wrestling issues again, and might be one of the reasons the reviews I’ve read so far are quite mixed.

  • Deaglan

    Cheers for that, I wasn’t likely to read it but that’s definitely put the tin hat on it. I understand that all writers have their hobby horses/themes but Irving does seem to be taking the mickey somewhat.
    Also, on a related issue, I know comparisons are odious but(IMO) for sheer quality of writing McGaherns ‘That they May Face the Rising Sun’ beats the last three Banville novels into a cocked hat.

  • Denny Boy

    “sheer quality of writing”

    You will of course be providing us with an example or two….

  • Deaglan

    I’d prefer not to provide examples, and I regret making the comparison. Stylistically, the two are poles apart, they both have their (considerable) merits but I don’t think I am sufficiently well-read to back the comparison up. I should have confined myself to saying that I enjoyed reading the McGahern novel and would read it again whereas I found ‘Shroud’ and ‘Eclipse’ heavy going and, ultimately, not very rewarding.

  • Denny Boy

    That’s fair enough, Deaglan. I also thought Banville had dipped a bit with those two novels. He’s back on form with “The Sea”, however, even though – I hate to say it – he appears to have passed his prime.

    And lest anybody think I’m down on McGahern, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed his “The Dark”, “Amongst Women” and “Rising Sun”. It’s just that I don’t consider him to be a heavyweight, but more a chronicler of “a way of life dat’s fast disappearing”. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  • Sinéad

    Just spotted that John McGahern is giving a rare public interview on Rattlebag on RTE Radio 1 next Thursday, September 1st. You can find details over at http://www.rte.ie/radio/rattlebag/home.htm

  • peteb

    Thanks Sinéad

    I’ll make a note of it.