Kissing your book good night

Has a book given you so much happiness that you kiss it goodnight?  Have you ever loved a book so much you don’t want the characters to leave you? These kind of books don’t come to your hands very often, but when they do it’s impossible to forget them. That happened to me with the The Baron in the Trees (Il Barone Rampante, 1957) by the great Italo Calvino.

The book was suggested by my mum, who is a voracious reader and luckily has an excellent literary taste, so most of what she recommends it is worth reading. This little book made a huge impression on my mum, she talked and talked and talked about it but it was until the Christmas holidays that I got my brown eyes into it.

The main idea for the novel is very simple. One day, Cossimo Piovasco Di Rondó, refuses to eat a disgusting snail dish prepared by his weird and sadist sister Battista, and in an act of total rebellion leaves the table, climbs up a tree and decides never to come down. Ever.

The story is narrated by Cosimo’s brother, Biagio, who tells us the adventures lived by Cosimo during his life on the trees. Sometimes, it feels like a children’s book as we go through the stages of Cosimo’s life as a hunter when he manages to kill a wild cat and make a hat with its skin, wearing it for the rest of his life. He also becomes the guardian of the forests of Ombrosa, since he manages to move around freely through the branches of the trees able to see fires from the distance and call for help.But The Baron in the Trees is also a love story, Cosimo falls in love with Viola since he first saw her as a girl and waits all his life to see her again.  In the meantime there are encounters with Spanish exiles also living on the trees in a nearby town as well as some Russian travellers. Certain passages in the book are incredibly moving and it is so because Calvino follows simple ideas to fill of life the novel. For example, when Gian dei Brughi, the most wanted thief  loses interest in terrorising  people after discovering the pleasure of reading. Genius.

But behind the story, lies a crucial period in the history of Europe. During his life on the trees, Cosimo and Biagio experience the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and its no coincidence that the story is set in the region of Linguria, at the time when the Italian provinces where not united. Calvino also present us with a portrait of a unique family struggling to keep their noble dreams alive at a time when monarchies and nobility are crumbling down.

For many The Baron in the Trees is about the triumph of individuality and the breaking social rules that condition our existence. It’s about celebrating the freedom to choose what we want to do with our lives leaving behind what is “expected” from us. Cosimo, the Baron, keeps his promise and never comes down. He’s present in the lives of his family, his town and history, and it seems like having Cosimo on the branches of the trees was his true mission in life.

I suffered as I see the book coming to an end, I kissed it good night, I wanted Cosimo and Biagio never to leave me. I wanted the story to go on forever and have these extraordinary characters to keep me company. I guess that’s why I read, to be able to travel in time and space and meet new friends on the way.

Reading failures

The other day surfing around WordPress I came across DragonFlyy419’s blog with a post asking people to comment on books they hated. We always talk about the books we loved, changed our life, made us grow, etc. But what about those classics or “must read ones” that simply didn’t do it for you?

Surprisingly the majority of the people commented on their frustrating experience with To Kill A Mockingbird. So I could not resist and took the opportunity of a life time to tell the world how much I hated The Iliad. Yes, you read well, The Iliad. Homer’s masterpiece. Yuk! 

I was forced to read it in school when I was about 12 or 13 years and I found it completely impossible to follow, what was with that language! and overall boring, dead boring. A truly traumatic experience. Needless to say it was absolutely useless for the teacher to tell us we had to read a wonderful story in the form of an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter. Yeah thanks, now I get it!

Having said that, that blog made me think about many more books that I know are crucial in world’s literature but that went down my list of reading failures. The following may be shocker for more than one, so please feel free to comment and bring back the hope.

1. In Search of Lost Time I – The Way by Swann’s by Marcel Proust. Failure in the first of the seven volumes! I attempted it at least three times, always unable to go further than page 150. Happily for the sake of the masterpiece I did manage to go through the famous madeleines episode.

2. The Rings of Saturn. – W.G Sebald. Not for me from page 1. As much as I love Britain his journey through East Anglia sadly did not catch my attention.

3. The Light of Day. –  Graham Swift.  After truly enjoying Waterland (which reminded me of Faulkner in a way), I was dissapointed by this novel.

4. The Rebels.- Sándor Márai. I know people who are huge fans of Márai and I just did not get it. Maybe try another one?

5. My Name is Red. – Orhan Pamuk. Again, at least 3 attempts and no success after page 60. However, I see this novel as a challenge and I will come back to it as I enjoyed other Pamuk’s books such as the moving and melancholic Istanbul: Memories and a City.

I think 5 is enough, don’t want to put anyone off reading these books. But if you felt the same, I’d be delighted to hear all about it.

On reading bad literature

Last Sunday 12 December, Edward Docx published an article in The Observer in which he simply categorized Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson as “mesmerizingly bad”.

I recognise that Larsson’s great contribution to contemporary literature is the creation of a splendid character such as Lisbeth Salander. Troubled, brave and incredibly intelligent. At least in The Girl With A Dragon Tatoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. 

Then it all came crumbling down with The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest. Oh dear! WHAT happened there???  I mean, come on, Salander recovering from a shot in the head and being buried alive among other things, is able to hear, get up, lock the door as the ultra evil and heartless Zalachenko, who, by the way is also recovering from having an ax thrown into his skull, walks down the hospital corridor looking out to finish her up. Really? What is this? Nightmare on Elm Street Swedish style? Nah! I closed the book feeling laughed at and that was it for me.

While the rest of the word went crazy on Larsson’s final book of the Millenium Trilogy, I wondered what would have happened if Stieg Larsson were still alive. Was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest the result of editors in a hurry to publish and make the most of the Larsson mania?

I do see a point in Docx’s article, having the Millenium 3 in my hands I felt I was reading bad bad literature. A book that was taking the Mickey at the detective-thriller novel, pushing the whodunnit recipe to the maximum and that at the end of the day was not worth my time. A friend of mine, well-known writer and columnist, to my surprise felt the same. She thought that Larsson’s final book went into the light without a careful editing and I wonder if that is at all fair for the author (especially for the one that can’t complain!).

I think we all should be exposed to bad literature, just a little bit. It allow us to judge, to have an opinion and helps us love our well written thrillers and novels (e.g Henning Mankell, Cormac McCarthy, etc etc etc).

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (who as Larsson, mutatis mutandi please!, never saw the huge success of his work) was an extraordinary reader who also had the great virtue of reading bad literature. “It is useful to also get bored with a book”- he said once.

I wonder if I should have kept on reading The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest….

Novels and nightmares

When was the last time you read a novel followed by nightmares? I mean proper nights of constant bad dreams that leave you exhausted the next morning. If you asked me that question a month ago I’d probably scratched my head for a couple of minutes before answering.

As a teenager I read a book about some evil spirits in a kind of fairy tale setting. I don’t remember the title or author of the novel but I suspect it was probably Scandinavian. The story talked about a family who moved into a cabbin in a wonderful green forest unaware of the “evil” spirits that lived  in the other side of a river. As it happens the children cross the mythical water border as their dog felt the danger and acted strangely. This opened the path for “evil” to follow them and move into the house causing all sort of discomfort to the family. It was described as a “bad presence”, always there, always watching. Even today just the memory of that book makes me scared but out of curiosity I should try to find out the details.

But leaving evil spirits in enchanted forests, here I am confessing that at my age a novel gave me a week of bad dreams. The strange thing is that I made the connection when I was about to finish the book, because, it must be said, it was not reading a horror novel. I was reading Blindness by Jose Saramago.

My dreams were about chaos, not knowing where to go and what to do. I wasn’t blind (like most of the characters in the book) but I dreamed the stress, frustration, anger, sadness and fear of the lead female character. I woke up relieved to see myself in my bed and in a peaceful atmosphere, but still wondering what was causing me to dream those things.

A few days before finishing the novel  I was fully aware that those dreams were inevitably linked to the book. So I decided to enjoy them thinking they would go away. At the end, I had to speed read the novel to avoid another night of bad dreams but at the same time I was enjoying the story tremendously!

The night I closed Blindness and went to sleep prepared for my last nightmare.

The whole experience left me thinking how literature can have such an impact in our unconsciousness and proved why the works of authors like Jose Saramago are simply to powerful to forget, even when you are asleep.

Harvill Secker International Writing Day

Having co-curated the ACALASP Festival of Ibero American Literature which took place in November 2009 at Foyles, Charing Cross in London, my friends from this famous bookshop invited me to attend the Harvill Secker International Writing Day. I decided it was about time to have a nerdy literary Saturday and today was the day.

There were very interesting discussions. My favourites were the first session on “Books that changed the word” and the last one dedicated to literary translation.

“Books that changed the world” is a challenging subject. The panel was formed by Nicholas Shakespeare, Irish writer Joseph O’Connor, and a very posh sounding Claire Clark, brilliantly chaired by English PEN Director Jonathan Haewood. I’ll just throw what, to my opinion, were the best ideas of the morning.

Among these books that changed the world, are those titles which Clark defined as totemic. These, as you can imagine, are those of Tolstoi, Joyce, Kafka, Dickens, Proust, Darwin or Homer if you like. There was also a nice discussion on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the impact and controversy around it.

O’Connor mentioned that a vast number of this “must read” authors are somehow already part of every reader’s DNA and have a key place as the furniture of our current culture. He asked the audience, for example, how many had read the Origins of Species. I think out of 80 people only 3 raised their hands (with great proud, by the way). There! we haven’t read the masterpiece but we all know it’s relevance and we accept the fact that it did change the world. Examples are endless. I must confess this comment was a relief as I am one of those persons who have unsuccessfully tried to read the first volume of In Search of Lost Time at least 3 times, embarrassingly leaving the book aside on page 120. Curiously, just after the iconic madeleines moment. 

The highlight of the day was a rare public appearance by the Galician author Manuel Rivas. In my opinion a huge disappointment. When an interesting writer such as him does not feel comfortable in English I believe is crucial for the success of the event to have simultaneous translation. Not consecutive, simultaneous. After a charming effort to start the session in English, Manuel Rivas gave up (or maybe that was as far as his English could go) and carried on speaking in Galician. His translator, Jonathan Dunne, did his best to keep the chat flowing but  inevitably I got distracted and eventually bored. 

I am not a ferocious reader of Rivas’ work, but the film La lengua de las mariposas which is an adaptation of one of his stories, caused a great impact on me and I do recognize Manuel Rivas is the voice of the suffering of the Galician people during the Spanish Civil War. But aside the importance of talking about these subjects, his literary work is beautiful and human. I was indeed disappointed by the event, overall because the consecutive translation took away precious time that would enable us to hear more of what Manuel Rivas had to say, especially with the publication of his latest work  Books Burn Badly. 
I missed the talk by AS Byatt which striked me as an intelligent woman worth reading.
Another missed opportunity was the session on Crime Fiction. Great subject! The discussion was chaired by a man whose name I did not catch but that is a crime fiction critic. He sat there with Irish writers Stuart Neville and Gene Kerrigan, who reacted only to the chair’s questions. It seemed more like a job interview than a literary chat. Straight forward questions followed by straight forward answers. Neville had better moments that Kerrigan, he seemed a bit more charming and engaging. A few interesting points were mentioned. Let me write them down just as they sounded, as bullets:
  • In the past 10 years, crime fiction is the most popular genre leaving the all times winner romance in second place.
  • Crime fiction is so popular because people like reading about things that scare them. (Really?)
  • The highest paid author in Britain is a crime fiction writer.
  • Women are the main readers of crime fiction.

Towards the end of the conversation Stuart Neville said something quite interesting in regards of these celebrities who become best-selling authors e.g. Katie Price, etc. He said that the money these books bring back is key to afford publishing other authors like him. Clever huh?

I may not feel inclined to read Stuart Neville or Gene Kerrigan’s books, and the audience at Foyles agreed with me as they were the only authors who (sadly) were not asked to sign any books. Well, people were told they were staying another 10 minutes to do book signing but no one came forward.

However, Neville has a blog that I will read:

The day finished with a fascinating session called Lost in Translation chaired by Sarah Ardizzone. In the panel we had a grumpy Tim Parks, Alon Hilu and Xiaolu Guo. I read Park’s novel Europa a few years ago and did not like it so I was not impressed by his attitude today. He was sitting there feeling he was the big shot at the table. Yawn!

The discussions on literary translation can carry on for hours. It was interesting to hear the feelings of authors such as Hilu and Guo towards they translators. Both of them did not have the best impression. They described it as a love-hate relationship in which the translator not always gets it right. Tim Parks, on the other hand, being an author and translator himself understandably made his defense in quite an intelligent way. But then Guo mentioned the fact that she is her own translator of her work from Chinese to English (eat that!) since he found that no translators were accurate enough because there are cultural references that only Chinese people understand and therefore are untranslatable.

I asked the panel if they agreed in the fact that there is an element of creative writing in literary translation. Parks answered me. First, as if the question was truly obvious but later on he did admit that the translator is forced to be as creative as possible to find the way to remain faithful to the original ideas of the author. Thanks for that, I liked it.

As we left the gallery at Foyles, the audience was provided with a goody bag courtesy of Harvill Secker. It is the most generous goody bag I have ever had and ever will. It contained 6 books!! One hardback signed copy of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, José Saramago’s Blindness, Gunter Grass’ Peeling the Onion, J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Bernieres’ A Partisan’s Daughter and Nesbo’s The Redbreast. How good is that!!

The only puzzling thing is that all these except for the Umberto Eco’s are actually not Harvill Secker books but Vintage. So who should I thank?