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My Favourite Reads of 2012

1.      Broken April (Ismail Kadare) – For its evocation of the bleak and yet principled of world of the Kanun, and its descriptions of the landscapes of northern Albania.

“Just as he had done many times before, Gjorg brought the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the man’s head. For a moment the head seemed to resist him, trying to elude his sights, and at the last instant he even thought he saw an ironic smile on the man’s face. Six months before, the same thing had happened, and so as not to disfigure that face (who can say whence that touch of pity came at the last moment?) he had lowered the front sight of his weapon and wounded his enemy in the neck.

The man came closer. Please not a wound this time, Gjorg said to himself in a kind of prayer. His family had had great trouble paying the fine for the first wound, and a second fine would ruin them. But there was no penalty for death.” Read more

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Means of Suppressing Mondoweiss

I hadn’t intended reading Shani Boianjiu’s Means of Suppressing Demonstrations in the New Yorker, but when I read Phil Weiss’s demented response to the story (“a piece of propagandistic fiction…that must be categorized as Israeli army literature.”), I knew that it would be worth looking at. The third-person narrator in the story is close to the perspective of Lea, an officer nearing the end of her army service. She spends her days bored at a checkpoint on Route 799 (the road, like the story, is fictional), and her nights having meaningless but not necessarily unpleasant sex with a fellow soldier, Tomer. The premise of the story is that three local Palestinians approach her, demanding that she and Tomer suppress their ‘demonstration’ as brutally as possible, so that it will make the papers. They come back every day, trying to convince the soldiers to up the ante from tear gas to rubber bullets to live fire. It’s a clever conceit, and it’s executed brilliantly. The story is droll and ambiguous, at once a satire of the life of an IDF soldier and the Palestinians they meet on a daily basis. It is only propagandistic fiction if you don’t understand how fiction works, if you think IDF soldiers in the West Bank spend every day murdering people, or if you believe that the purpose of fiction is to be pro-Palestinian propaganda. Read more

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Embellishing the Myth: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child

The critical praise for The Stranger’s Child was probably inevitable, and in many ways reflects the ecstatic reception given to Jonathan Franzen’s similarly uninteresting epic, Freedom, in the United States. Both novelists’ previous works – The Line of Beauty and The Corrections respectively – were superior, and The Line of Beauty was a worthy winner of the 2004 Booker Prize. But one acknowledged classic should not mean a free pass for subsequent works; particularly as The Stranger’s Child is so obviously inferior to its predecessor. Read more

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The Israeli Writer and Tradition

The ever vigilant Phil Weiss brings us news that the Nakba has finally made it to the pages of the New York Review of Books, in the form of a critical review of David Grossman’s latest novel, To the End of the Land, by Patricia Storace. Weiss highlights “three devastating excerpts of the review.” First, Storace objects to Grossman not pointing out that “Ein Kerem [where the protagonists of the novel live] was once Ain Karim, a Palestinian village whose inhabitants were driven out in 1948…Ora’s stone house with arched windows and decorative floor tiles must surely be one of the Palestinian villas….the neighbourhood is little more than a name and a décor. Without its historical or social setting, we cannot fully grasp what living there might mean. We sense oppressively that we are being told one story to distract from others.” It is a strange, overwrought complaint. Storace does know that Ein Kerem was once Ain Karim; presumably other readers know this too, maybe even some Israeli ones. Surely she does not expect an author to spell out every last bit of historical background for his reader? A novel is not a work of history. And maybe Ein Kerem’s past as Ain Karim is more potent when left unmentioned. Read more

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Frank

We are constantly told, correctly, to ignore the artist and focus on the art. What does it matter if Wagner was an anti-Semite or David Lynch practices transcendental meditation or V.S. Naipaul thinks that women’s writing is shit, when they’re all great artists? And yet the artist’s life continues to tempt us. Perhaps, we think, in learning about their life, we might learn something about the source of their inspiration, and – who knows? – maybe a bit of it will rub off on us.

Then there is the category of artists who only achieve fame with death, following which their lives achieve mythological status, and they dully and tragically become martyrs for the cause of art itself. Perhaps no writer embodies this phenomenon more than Franz Kafka, for whom the concept of the ‘tortured artist’ seems to have been invented, and for whom life was one long trial, without even the closure of an adequate sentence.

Kafka’s myth seems to warn off a biographer like some old temple curse, but Ronald Hayman’s 1981 biography analyses its subject with admirable restraint, with a strict focus on Franz the man rather than Kafka the literary deity he would become. And it is testament to Hayman’s skills that his Franz feels like Kafka’s Franz: timid, bewildered, and above all unqualified for the demands of an early twentieth-century central European life. Read more

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Ain’t No Best

“Ain’t no best,” Nas says, weighing in on the question of who’s the greatest rapper of all time. It’s a truism, of course, and one worth remembering when thinking about the soap opera provided by contemporary literary awards. 

The latest literary prize to cause controversy is the awarding of the 2011 International Man Booker (awarded bi-annually to a writer for their collective body of work, as opposed to the single novel award of the Commonwealth-based Booker Prize) to America’s finest, Philip Roth. Following the decision, author and publisher Carmen Callil withdrew from the judging panel, arguing that “he [Roth] goes on and on about the same subject in almost every book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” The first charge seems rather banal, and could be levelled at most great authors, while the second seems to be a back-handed compliment, one that recalls the famous face-fuck scene in The Dying Animal. Finally Callil asks, “in 20 years time will anyone read him?” as if this is the sole measure of greatness. Taken together, it makes her seem rather churlish – with the decision taken collectively, there was always a possibility that she would be disappointed with the decision. But controversy sells, and literary prizes need all the publicity they can get. Read more

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Favourite 30 Books

The ‘Favourite 30′ series continues! This time it’s my favourite 30 books, accompanied by a pithy and pretentious explanation as to why.

30. Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales - For taking us into the Gulag with clarity, compassion, and – above all – dark wit.

“Five or six persons follow shoulder-to-shoulder along the narrow, wavering track of the first man. They walk beside his path but not along it. When they reach a predetermined spot, they turn back and tramp down the clean virgin snow which has not yet felt the foot of man. The road is tramped down. It can be used by people, sleighs, tractors. If they were to talk directly behind the first man, the second group would make a clearly defined but barely passable narrow path, and not a road. The first man has the hardest task, and when he is exhausted, another man from the group of five takes his place. Each of them – even the smallest and weakest – must beat down a section of virgin snow, and not simply follow in another’s footsteps. Later will come tractors and horses driven by readers, instead of authors and poets.” Read more

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