Thirty-odd years ago I thought that the French author Montesquieu was enlightened, witty and clever. I based this opinion on reading his Persian Letters, an epistolary novel which details the experiences of two Persian travellers, Usbek and Rica, in France in the early part of the 18th century. Last month I picked up Persian Letters again… and found out what a change thirty-odd years made.
While reading a history of the Latin language recently, I came across one of the fables of Aesop – translated into English from Nahuatl. In case you’ve never heard of Nahuatl, it was the language of the Aztec empire and in consequence the lingua franca of Central-America up to the 16th century; it is still spoken in parts of Mexico.
The book in question is Ad infinitum: A Biography of Latin by Nicholas Ostler and I wouldn’t recommend it to the general public although if you do happen to be interested in historical linguistics and especially in Latin, it’s fine; all the more enjoyable if you can actually know Latin of course (sadly I don’t).
But what has a Nahuatl version of the fables of Aesop – who after all was Greek – got to do with the history of Latin?
Over a year ago I read an article by Mario Vargas Llosa, who was at the time engaged in re-reading War and Peace by Tolstoy. It was so damnably well-written that not only it made me re-read War and Peace myself but it also made me to read Mario Vargas Llosa.
El año pasado leí un artículo por Mario Vargas Llosa (enlace al final del post), quien en aquel momento se dedicaba a releer la Guerra y paz de Tolstói. Y estaba tan condenadamente bien escrito, que no sólo me causó volver a leer Guerra y paz, sino también me animó leer el propio Mario Vargas Llosa.
Last year I borrowed the title of this well-known spaghetti western of my childhood for an end-of-year post, choosing a book for each category. I don’t see why I shouldn’t cast a look back at this year’s reading and do so again… (And I hope you appreciate that I’m sparing you an embedding of Ennio Morricone’s theme tune to play in the background while you’re reading this!)
Life is short and bookshelves are long… and it’s too easy to get suckered into a book, keep turning the pages, start philosophising or daydreaming and forget to live. So here’s five books you should avoid like the plague if you don’t want to become a book addict:
In 2001 the Belgian journalist Dimitri Verhulst was commissioned by a Flemish magazine to write an article and, in order to gather material, he had himself locked up in the asylum-seekers’ centre at Arendonk. His sojourn there clearly gave him more material that he needed for a simple article for he ended up writing a whole book: Problemski Hotel.
I came to read this book as a direct consequence of the recent Brussels bombing. I felt then, and I still feel, that if we allow terrorists to dictate the agenda, they half won the battle. And so I invited you all to take part in a reading challenge – to read a Belgian book. If we were going to talk about Belgium, I’d rather talk about Belgian literature. Of which, I had to realise, I knew absolutely nothing.
What Has Belgium Ever Done…
… other than being invaded in two world wars? (No disrespect, God knows they weren’t the only ones.) Admittedly, it also plays host to the EU but that’s probably on the Canberra basis – they couldn’t agree which, so they picked one in between. At least, that’s my theory.
On account of the EU, Brussels in recent years has acquired status as a swearword in most countries in Europe; or at the very least as a synonym for… well. Any number of negative things since the EU’s faults are many: lack of democracy, bureaucracy, common agricultural policy… [insert your problem with the EU here]. Playground swings which due to health & safety considerations will not actually swing (not to mention they even look the same all over Europe)!
There’s a song by the English comedian stroke musician Mitch Benn titled The Hardest Song In The World To Find. Of the song in question there is only one copy left, and that’s stuffed in the wrong sleeve in a second hand record shop on Camden High Street. Although my interest in obscure music records is nil, I can fully sympathise with Mitch Benn’s sentiments because there’s a book that I couldn’t track down, not in thirty years.
Moscow Stations by Venedikt Yerofeev is one of those quirky… no, strike that… one of those weird, modern books that I’m not supposed to like. And, generally, I don’t like them. But every now and then something modern comes along – in my vocabulary that would be anything written after World War II although my detractors will cry ‘after the 19th century’ – which works for me. There was, for example, Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. That has been a long time ago, but more recently there was Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, and now, Moscow Stations.
Recently I chose to indulge in a little light reading, and the experience was disappointing, to say the least. By way of antithesis, I recalled some great page-turners I read over the years.
So here’s a random list of eleven books for light reading (in no particular order), based on one criteria only: you can’t put them down.
Talk about being bitten by the listmania bug. I immediately decided that I have to make my own list… only to conclude a hundred titles later that I have to rethink my approach. So ten books that – quite literally – transported me to another time, into somebody else’s life or to a place far away…
In no way is this an exhaustive list of books that transport you – to begin with the postman has just delivered a book for me that I am one hundred percent sure would belong on this list, and I’ve only flipped through the pages so far! – but I can always write another list later! 🙂
The end of the year (the beginning of the new year in the case of the late and lazy, like myself) is invariably a time of stock-taking: in the case of shopkeepers, literally. The rest of the world, not being shopkeepers, makes lists with boring titles like The Best Whatever of 2015. I flatly refuse to write The Best Whatever of 2015… so stealing the title of a well-known spaghetti western instead, please see below The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of 2015. At least it will be… novel.
(And as the first year of Waterblogged was only a half-year, you’re in luck; this post is only going to be half as long as everybody else’s.)
A Writer Remembered for the Wrong Reason
Japanese literature is not one of my strongest fields (to put it mildly!) but Yukio Mishima is a writer whom I have found interesting – although perhaps for the wrong reason. Because Mishima, who was three times nominated for the Noble Prize in literature, ultimately is probably more famous for his failed coup d’état followed by his seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1970 than for his novels. To somebody like me, who is interested in history, Mishima’s coup d’état throws up lots of questions about postwar Japan. Nevertheless, it’s probably not what you would want to be remembered for as a writer.
Today I want to write about a French book; I want to hold up the humanity of a French writer, who fought and died for the freedom of France in 1944, against the mindless hatred of those who committed the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. I want to talk about a book for children that should be read by adults: a book about human nature, of love and friendship and, inevitably – given the author – the Sahara. I want to talk about The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Flight to Arras, or to give it its original title Pilote de guerre, ‘Pilot of War’, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is set during the German invasion of France in 1940. In other words, it’s a war story. But if this makes you think you’re in for a cracking adventure, some kind of adult version of Biggles, think again. To take Flight to Arras for simply the story of a dangerous reconnaissance mission is falling wide of the mark. More than anything else, this book is a brilliant and moving description of the collapse of France fused with a philosophical discussion on the nature of war and defeat – told by a man in the cockpit of an aeroplane; a man who lived the story he’s recounting.
Continue reading “Glassfuls of Water into a Forest Fire (Flight to Arras)”
“In a flash, the very instant he had risen clear, the pilot found a peace that passed his understanding. Not a ripple tilted the plane but, like a ship that has crossed the bar, it moved across a tranquil anchorage. In an unknown and secret corner of the sky it floated, as in a harbour of the Happy Isles. Below him still the storm was fashioning another world, thridded with squalls and cloudbursts and lightnings, but turning to the stars a face of crystal snow.”
(Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
After wanting to do this for a couple of years, I finally picked up my second-hand volume of Saint-Exupéry last week to read it again.
(The things blogging does for you:
I swear I read more than ever since I started blogging.
I don’t know where I’m finding the time.)
A 40-year old man is wandering round a huge station unable to find his way out. He’s becoming increasingly disorientated among the endless escalators, passages and moving walkways, bewildered by the flashing signs that mean nothing to him. He’s a big man and strong, well used to taking care of himself, yet he’s beginning to panic. He asks passers-by for directions but their answer is so full of jargon that they might as well speak a foreign language. All he wants is to get out of this station and be in the street, under the open sky. His name is Hal Bregg, he’s an astronaut and he has just returned from a ten-year long voyage – but a hundred and twenty-seven years passed on Earth while he was away.
Continue reading “Return From the Stars”
I got bitten by the list mania bug today and here’s my first list: my top ten books when I was about ten. So here goes, in no particular order:
- Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
- The Treasure of Silver Lake by Karl May
- The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
- The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight
- Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
- Lottie and Lisa by Erich Kästner
- Tizenkét halálos perc (Twelve Deadly Minutes) by Jenő Szentiványi
- The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
- In Desert and Wilderness by Henryk Sienkiewicz
- The Children of Captain Grant by Jules Verne
All right, it’s eleven.