Sunday, June 12, 2005

How well read are you?

Do you know who started a novel with this paragraph?

We were at prep, when the Head came, followed by a new boy not in uniform and a school-servant carrying a big desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every boy rose to his feet as though surprised in his labours.

It's from Geoffrey Wall's translation of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. I found the Penguin Classics paperback [1992] on the floor at the
Guille-Alles library in St Peter Port yesterday. It was on the floor because, like many others no doubt, Guernsey's excellent public library has run out of shelf space and books have to be crowded, spines up, below the shelves as well as on them.

I went in search of Madame Bovary after reading a piece in The Times UK on Friday headed "Paper pulls classic hoax on vanity publishers".

Reporting from Paris, Adam Sage wrote –
Vanity publishing houses in France have been accused of gross incompetence after apparently failing to recognise the manuscript of one of the greatest French novels — Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Believing it to be a new work, they offered to print it at a cost to the author of up to €4,800 (£3,200). The newspaper Le Figaro sent a copy of the 19th-century masterpiece to five of France’s biggest vanity publishing companies. It changed the title and names of the main characters. None identified the novel.

The report ended –
Mohammed Aissaoui, of Le Figaro, said: “These committees should have been surprised at the literary quality, at the style of this text and at the absence of faults, which contrast sharply with what they usually receive.”

New novelist's comment

On the Romantic Novelists' Association's private forum, a new novelist, Linda Gillard, posted "One wonders whether the NON-vanity publishers would have
recognised it."

Before asking permission to quote her comment, I read the opening chapter of Linda's first novel Emotional Geology and a profile of her at the site of her publisher, Transita. After starting her career as an actress, Linda became a magazine columnist, then re-trained as a teacher and now has begun a new life as a novelist on Scotland's Isle of Skye.

I enjoyed the first chapter of her début novel and look forward to reading the rest, but one thing bothered me. In a letter to her daughter, the central character writes – "I can never watch gannets without thinking of how they go blind in old age and die of starvation."

I couldn't believe this was true, and it isn't. On a forum about sea birds I found this -

Question from Robert Vaughan : I've been told that gannets often go blind with eye damage as a result of diving into the sea - is this true?
Answer from Malcolm Ogilvie : No. The myth is mentioned in Brian Nelson's monograph 'The Gannet', in some excerpts from a collection of tales about Clyde fishermen:
"There was a belief among some fishermen that gannets were prone to blindness. "The lenses o' his eyes, wi' so much divin' intae the water, get hardened, an' he loses his sight" said John Turner MacCrindle. Fishermen occasionally saw "blind" birds, flapping unseeingly away from the boats. This is not likely to be the correct interpretation. It may be that the birds are merely overladen and their floundering gives an impression of blindness. Natural selection would hardly produce a specialist plunge diver with such a weakness, and it is certain that gannets can endure at least 40 years of diving."

It may be that Linda Gillard corrects her heroine's misapprehension later in the book. More on this interesting new author in a future blog. And more on Madame Bovary which I thought I had read but now find I haven't. Shall I find the novel as enthralling as its fame suggests?

Don't Tell Alfred

It's some years since I last read
Nancy Mitford's novel Don't Tell Alfred, [first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1960] but, after catching sight of it on my summer bookshelves, I read it again this week and was struck by a conversation at a dinner party in Paris between Fanny Wincham, wife of the British Ambassador, and M. Bouche-Bontemps, the French Foreign Minister.

'I don't know about England,' he said, 'but in France mothers are frightened of making their children frown. They love them so much that they cannot bear to see a shadow on their happiness; they never scold or thwart them in any way. I see my daughter-in-law allowing everything, there's no authority outside school and the children do exactly as they like in their spare time. I am horrified when I see what it is that they do like. They never open a book, the girls don't do embroidery, the boy, though he is rather musical, doesn't learn the piano. They play stupid games with a great ball and go to the cinema. We used to be taken to the Matinée Classique at the Français and dream of Le Cid – that's quite old-fashioned – it's The Kid now. How will it end?'

'I think you'll find they will grow out of it and become like everybody else.'

'Who is everybody else, though – you and me and the Ambassador or some American film actor?'

Later in the conversation, the Frenchman goes on -
'I am very serious, however. This is a moment in the history of the world when brains are needed more than anything else. If we don't produce them in Western Europe where will they come from? Not from America where a school is a large, light building with a swimming-pool. Nor from Russia where they are too earnest to see the wood for the trees. As for all the rest, they may have clever thoughts about Karl Marx and so on, but they are not adult. If the children of our old civilization don't develop as they ought to, the world will indeed become a dangerous playground.'

How right M. Bouche-Bontemps was! Forty-five years later, instead of being better and safer, as everyone hoped in 1960, the world is horribly dangerous, and a novel like Don't Tell Alfred, full of jokes and politically incorrect comments would stand little chance of being published.

Sell Off Libraries?

This week, under the heading Sell Off Libraries, the Letters to the Editor section in the UK broadsheet The Daily Telegraph included this –

Sir –
Tim Coates (report, June 4) bewails the lack of spending on library books. Library authorities up and down the country are busily "reinventing" libraries as discovery centres in order to preserve their bureaucracies.
It seems to be the underlying point is that the vast majority of British adults no longer need the traditional library service.

Provide books for children as part of the education service and provide books for the elderly housebound as part of adult social services by all means, but we don't actually need the expensive town centre libraries any more. Sell them off and give the council taxpayers a break.
Michael Keene Winchester, Hants

It would be interesting to know how many books Mr Keene has in his house and how much time he spends reading. My guess is he's not a bookworm.

Thriller heroes : Langdon v Reacher

The day after reading Mr Keene's letter, I went to St Peter Port's public library for the third time in seven days and came away with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code to read on the ferry to Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, where I went on Thursday, and The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

"You've got two great books there," said one of the library's friendly staff as she handed them to me at the check-out desk. 'I've read them both and enjoyed them.'

In this weeks's issue of The Bookseller, The UK's Official Top 50 chart shows The Da Vinci Code at No 1 with 2,793,607 copies sold and Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind at No 50 with 322,192 copies sold.

I spotted The Shadow of the Wind on the trolley of newly returned books standing outside the lift [elevator] in the lofty entrance hall of the Guille-Allès library. Being extremely hype-resistant, I hadn't intended to read the Brown book. But when I noticed the paperback a few books away from Zafón's novel, I was tempted to find out what all the fuss was about.

In the final paragraph of his Acknowledgments, Dan Brown writes –
And finally, in a novel drawing so heavily on the sacred feminine, I would be remiss if I did not mention the two extraordinary women who have touched my life. First, my mother, Connie Brown – fellow scribe, nurturer, musician and role model. And
my wife, Blythe – art historian, painter, front-line editor and without a doubt the most astonishingly talented woman I have ever known.

The book's dedication is – For Blythe…again. More than ever.

Naturally this made me warm to him. But, oh dear, some disappointments were in store...tautology, cliché etc. At the front of the Corgi Books paperback are more than four pages of laudatory reviews. But on p 69 of the novel I read "Equally as bizarre…" and on p 128 the author writes "Langdon felt like he was trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle in the dark".

On p 197 "Sophie's blood went cold" and on p 305 "A prim and elegant butler stood before them, making final adjustments on the white tie and tuxedo he had apparently just donned." The butler speaks English with a thick French accent but says, "Right this way, please."

On p 248 there's a reference to Masai warriors "the African tribe famous for their ability to rise from the deepest sleep to a state of total battle readiness in a matter of seconds". The author may have checked this statement but it sounds implausible to me and I couldn't find support for it on the web.

On p 580 we read "…Jacques trusted him explicitly."

Nit-picking or fair criticism?

You may think this is nit-picking. But mistakes of this kind are not what one expects in a novel by "a graduate of Amherst College and Phillips Exeter Academy, where he spent time as an English teacher before turning his efforts fully to writing."

They would never have been made by Ian Fleming - his first book Casino Royale was serialised by the Yorkshire Evening Press while I was a reporting for that paper - who introduced me to this type of fiction. Or by my favourite thriller writer today, Lee Child.

Part of my problem with The Da Vinci Code is that, unlike Dan Brown, I'm not religious and find it hard to identify with people who are. Although I did feel some sympathy for Silas, the albino fanatic who had had such a wretched childhood and youth.

From a woman reader's point of view, Dan Brown's hero, Harvard professor Richard Langdon is such a wimp, far too passive, swept along by the heroine, French code breaker Sophie Neveu. He didn't even take the initiative with their final unexciting kiss. As for the closing paragraphs in which "With a sudden upwelling of reverence, Robert Langdon fell to his knees" – I can't see
Jack Reacher doing that and thinking "he heard a woman's voice…the wisdom of the ages…whispering up from the chasms of the earth."

Helpful feedback from the US

In the hurly burly of moving, last week I neglected to mention the kindness of an American reader Lisa L. Spangenberg who, after reading the reference to Richard Ben Sapir, emailed me a link to information about him including the following –
Sapir's best-received solo effort was his 1987 novel of international intrigue and theft, Quest. The story tells of a priceless object hidden in the Tower of London and cloaked in the deepest secrecy. The object is stolen and passes through the hands of a number of characters who do not know its full importance. The quest of the title involves the daughter of a murdered World War II veteran who once held the object, a New York police detective, and an investigator for the British crown. "It's long, it's ambitious and it grabs you from the beginning," wrote Newgate Callendar in the New York Times Book Review. "It has a bit of the supernatural in it, and some police work, and a centuries-long trail of murder," added Callendar. "It's a book with a wide scope, and Mr. Sapir handles the story expertly." Concluded this reviewer, "Mr. Sapir is a brilliant professional."

On her website, Lisa Spangenberg writes –
My personal business card says I'm a Digital Medievalist, and has done since 1992. It's the best way to describe my training, my occupation, and my interests. I am trained as a medievalist. I started studying medieval English literature as an undergraduate, and am currently completing a doctoral dissertation in Medieval English and Celtic literatures (I'm writing about fairies, really). Though my academic training predisposes me to work in the realm of codices and manuscripts, my professional life has frequently been in the silicon realm. My life as a digital medievalist began in 1989, when I was hired to turn a scholarly book into an electronic one.

She goes on
The combination of digital technology and medieval studies isn't as unusual as you might think. We medievalists are surprisingly technologically savvy; there's a lot you can do with a scanner, some manuscripts and a computer.

Lady Antonia tied up by burglars

I meant to include this in last Sunday's blog. Better late than never.

"They're young, smart and talented - and that's just the spouses. With a rush of new books set for the shelves, this summer looks like being the season of the literary couple.

Lisa Allardice
examines the long history of writers who have shared more than just a passion for prose."

The piece includes – "Antonia Fraser works in the old nursery on the top floor of their Holland Park house while Pinter takes himself off to a studio at the bottom of the garden (in such seclusion that his wife was once tied up by burglars, an ordeal of which he remained unaware until it was over)."

Perhaps I was background-hunting in some out of the way corner of the world when that happened. No doubt it received a lot of coverage at the time.

Rubbing shoulders with M J Rose

Early this morning a Google alert informed me that my blog is now listed among the secondary sources at The Complete Review where it is rubbing shoulders with M J Rose's famous blog
Buzz, Balls & Hype. A good start to the day!


At 15 June, 2005, Blogger Jozef Imrich, Esq. said...

Well deserved attention ...

C.S. Lewis wrote in the last chapter of "An Experiment in Criticism:'

'Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.'

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