I don’t read as much fiction in translation as I should but when I see a novel translated by Carol Brown Janeway in the publishing schedules I sit up and take notice. It was through her that I first discovered Daniel Khelmann’s fiction, beginning with the very fine Measuring the World about two eighteenth-century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long-suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. Very different from the playful, episodic Fame which satirises celebrity and is also immensely enjoyable. F is yet another different kettle of fish and already I have that rare feeling of looking forward to reading it again. There’s so much in this slim novel that one reading won’t suffice.
It begins with one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in a while:
Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.
Unhappiness, indeed. Martin grows up to become a faithless priest struggling and failing to keep his burgeoning weight under control, still in the grips of his boyhood obsession with Rubik’s cube. Eric becomes a financier, on the brink of ruin having lost his most important client’s fortune, unable to keep his sexual peccadilloes under control and plagued by a terrifying paranoia, while his twin Ivan, the executor for the artist Eulenboeck whose work fetches a pretty price, satisfies his own thwarted artistic ambitions in a somewhat unorthodox way. Their father, immune to the Great Lindemann’s hypnotic techniques, or so he insists, packs up and leaves shortly after the performance on that long ago afternoon in 1984, becoming a household name when his book My Name is No One, triggers an existential crisis in the nation. That’s the bare bones of it but Kehlmann’s novel is very much more subtle than that.
Written in a mixture of three different first-person narratives with third-person sections criss-crossing time and assorted other devices you’d think that F might become a little fragmented but Kehlmann is so deft that it flows beautifully. You never quite know which way you’ll be taken next but that’s part of the enjoyment. Along the way, Kehlmann takes swipes at both the art and financial worlds, religion and a whole barrage of modern obsessions, carefully aiming barbs here and there with a hefty helping of quiet humour. All the various pieces of his puzzle fit together beautifully, clicking smoothly into place. If Jeffrey Eugenides hadn’t already used the analogy, I’d compare it to Martin’s beloved Rubik’s cube. Of course none of the many pieces of Kehlmann’s narrative puzzle would fit so snugly were it not for Janeway’s faultless translation. They truly are a brilliant pairing. If you know of any other combination aside from Murakami’s translators – also a match made in heaven – I would love to hear about it.
I’m not sure how I managed to miss Heather O’Neill’s first novel – probably a case of so many books so little time – but The Girl who was Saturday Night snagged my attention when flipping through publishers’ catalogues choosing books for my Books to Look Out For in May post, or rather posts as there were far too many goodies to cram into just one. Set in 1994 against the backdrop of the Québécois separation referendum, it’s about nineteen-year-old Nouschka and Nicolas Tremblay, the twins of washed-up folk singer/national treasure, Étienne, raised by their grandfather in a dodgy area of Montreal and dragged into the limelight as cute seven-year-olds when their father’s star was at its height. Étienne is a man of colossal ego with a penchant for fourteen-year-old girls one of whom conceived the twins on a one night stand, leaving them with their paternal grandparents when they were born. Both suffer from chronic motherlessness – Nouschka happy to go home with anyone for the night, Nicolas engaged in a career of attention-seeking behaviour and crime so petty that he holds up a librarian for the fines she’s collected that day. Life is chaotic: they both love and hate each other, scrapping viciously then turning to each other for comfort. When Nouschka falls in love with failed figure skater Raphaël, even more disturbed than her brother, she thinks she’s finally brought about her own separation but things are not so simple. Throughout it all a film crew documenting the life of Étienne, still a Québécois legend, pops up catapulting Nouschka, Nicolas and Raphaël into the tabloids.
Narrated by Nouschka who ‘always ended up in the middle of some festive waste of time’, the novel is peppered with sharply witty phrases: her grandfather’s ‘memory was a shelf in a junk shop with things that should have been thrown out’; ‘When love takes off its clothes and has a drink. It sometimes takes the most appalling forms’. Her voice is world weary, a layer of shellac covering shaky fragility which slowly softens as the novel progresses and Nouschka finds her way to some sort normality. There are touches of whimsy – a bird ‘bursts off the pattern’ of a shaken carpet and flies away, one of the many, many cats slips ‘into a mirror’ and disappears – but this is far from a whimsical novel. It’s about fame and its fallout, parenting and irresponsibility, love and dependency. Hard to sum it up in a few words – what begins as a rambunctious, party girl’s story ends in quiet hope with a riotous ride in between.
Last week it was announced that Hodder & Stoughton was to buy Stieg Larsson’s publisher, Quercus, an independent started by Anthony Cheetham back in 2005. For several years it was the book trade’s darling, its success no doubt helped along by Cheetham’s many years of publishing experience combined with his legendary entrepreneurial nous. Finding itself cash-strapped, it had put itself up for sale a few months ago and I had been anxious about who might buy it. It came hard on the heels of the announcement that Little, Brown was buying Constable & Robinson, another independent
I’m very fond of independent publishers – they’re more likely to produce books that are a little out of the mainstream rather than staying on a bandwagon for rather too long. They keep the big boys and girls of the publishing world on their toes but sometimes find themselves swallowed up by the conglomerates as happened to Fourth Estate who caught HarperCollins’ eye. As is often the case with independents their very inventiveness results in a huge success – in this case Dava Soebel’s Longitude which opened up a whole new genre of niche history – attracting the attention of the publishing behemoths. That particular acquisition was accompanied by the appointment of Victoria Barnsley, whose baby Fourth Estate was, to CEO of HarperCollins which ensured that it didn’t entirely lose its personality. Sadly, since her surprise departure last year, Barnsley is longer holding the reins.
I’m a great fan of Quercus – good strong commercial fiction and crime coupled with the literary and translated fiction of Maclehose Press. I’m sure Hodder will take care of them – worries about the takeover of the illustrious John Murray, surely the most venerable of independents, proved unfounded – and that Little, Brown will look after Corsair, Constable & Robinson’s literary fiction imprint, long a favourite of mine. There are a multitude of independents out there, many of them publishing in enterprising and inventive ways: Persephone’s beautifully produced women’s lost classics, originally only sold from their own shop, filled the Virago Classic gap; Profile’s often quirky and original non-fiction is always worth a look; not to mention Alma’s short but carefully chosen list plus And Other Stories’ inventive crowd sourcing, publishing by subscription approach. Some of them have reserves to live off – Faber have a solid backlist of plays, poetry and William Golding while Bloomsbury still has the Harry Potter goldmine. These, along with Canongate who filled that Fourth Estate gap for me, Granta, publishers of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, and Atlantic are some of my favourite publishers. I’m sure many of you will have your own treasured independents – I’d love to hear who they are.
You’re either brave or happy to court controversy if you choose to write a book with this kind of title unless you mean it to be taken with a pinch of salt. You lay yourself open to be shot down in flames, ridiculed for your ignorance and put right by every Tom, Dick and Henrietta who knows a thing or two about books. Andrew Taylor has valiantly stuck his head above the parapet and while some of his choices are predictable, some are not. Before I opened it I tried to think of three titles that I felt may have gone some way to change the world in one way or another but which might have been omitted. The first was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone because I remember selling the second instalment to children who the minute it was theirs sat on the shop’s stairs and got stuck in, oblivious to anyone else. It doesn’t matter what you think about the Potter series’ literary merits it introduced reading to children all over the world who may not have found their way to the habit otherwise and continues to do so. My second was Pamela because it’s often claimed as first English novel and the third was Diderot’s Encyclopédie because it’s emblematic of the French Enlightenment which has shaped modern Europe. The first was in, the second wasn’t but Taylor claims The Canterbury Tales as ‘the first masterpiece of creative literature in the vernacular English of its time’ so that’ll do but no sign of Diderot which does seem quite a big omission. Readers better educated than me are bound to come up with missing books they feel passionately about and argue that others should not be there. That said it’s an interesting list, ranging from The Iliad to Quotations from Chairman Mao by way of The Prince, The Wealth of Nations, Madame Bovary, The Telephone Directory, On the Origin of Species, The Interpretation of Dreams, If This is a Man and Silent Spring to name but a few. I was somewhat taken aback to find that the first feminist text was The Second Sex – what about A Vindication of the Rights of Women? And you might roll your eyes at the inclusion of the telephone directory but Taylor’s persuasive on that one. The entries are brief, offering a context for the book and reasons for its presence on Taylor’s list – it’s a useful starting point but no substitute for the real thing, obviously. I’m sure you have your own ideas for such a list. Do let me know what they are.
When I was a reviews editor I tried my best to make sure that translators were credited in the bibliographic information that accompanies reviews. It didn’t always work: sometimes space was tight and the sub-editors had to cut the copy but sometimes the fact that it was a translated work was not immediately apparent. Perhaps the translator hadn’t been credited on the book’s jacket or I may have been sent a manuscript with no mention of a translator’s name.
I thought about this last week when I finished Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent Measuring the World about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border. I read the book partly on a recommendation but also because it had been translated by Carol Brown Janeway. I first noticed Janeway’s name when I read Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader many years ago and have since read several other novels just because she translated them.
I remember hearing a radio programme about how poorly paid translators of fiction are, and that many of them do it for love of the books that they work on. Low pay for such a skilled job seems unfair – a good translator captures both the spirit and style of the book, a bad one will ruin it. Haruki Murakami uses several translators, two of whom – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel – managed to replicate the same idiosyncratic style when translating the zillions of pages that make up 1Q84 to the extent that you really can’t see the join. Perhaps poor fees in the UK have been justified because fiction in translation is notorious for not selling well here but that can’t be true of the many Scandi crime novels whose authors must have gratefully set up a shrine to Henning Mankell in their living rooms. Whatever the reason, translators at least deserve recognition so many apologies to anyone I failed to credit over the years. And for any fellow Murakami fans who haven’t yet heard, his new novel – already going down a storm in Japan – looks set to be translated in 2014.