AuthorDavid Hebblethwaite

Compass: Man Booker International Prize 2017 

Mathias Énard, Compass (2015)

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (2017)

Compass is the latest novel by Mathias Énard, author of Zone (which I reviewed here alongside Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake). The original French novel, Boussole, won the Prix Goncourt in 2015. Now the English translation is up for the Man Booker International Prize. 

Compass is narrated by Franz Ritter, a Viennese musicologist in the grip of an unknown illness. Over the course of a night, he takes us through his memories. On a personal level, many of these concern Sarah, a French scholar he has known for many years, and for whom he harbours unrequited feelings. But Ritter also ranges over his professional interests: cultural encounters between East and West.

The dense, erudite, digressive paragraphs of Compass will be familiar to readers of Zone. But there seem to be more moments of lightness this time, punctuating the turmoil of Ritter’s night. The trawl through his mind highlights how much influence Eastern music and art had on Western arts in the 19th century. Compass also suggests that “the Orient” has become a cultural construct built up by both West and East, independent of historical reality. However, although Ritter may be preoccupied with scholarship at times, his thoughts still return to the personal. Even his relationship with Sarah seems to have reached a new chapter by the end of the night.


Should this book reach the MBIP shortlist? 

The Shadow Panel called Zone in a couple of years ago, since we felt strongly that it should have been included on the then Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. Personally, I don’t think Compass quite reaches the heights of Zone, because it’s not formally as tight. Nevertheless, this is a significant work of literature in an excellent translation, and it would certainly merit a place on the shortlist. 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the shadow panel’s response

This is the official group response of the shadow panel to the Man Booker International longlist. 

The Shadow Panel for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize would like to extend its congratulations and thanks to the official judges for their hard work in whittling down the 126 entries to the thirteen titles making up the longlist. In some ways, it is a somewhat unexpected selection, with several surprising inclusions, albeit more in terms of the lack of fanfare the works have had than of their quality. However, it is another example of the depth of quality in fiction in translation, and it is heartening to see that there is such a wealth of wonderful books making it into our language which even devoted followers of world literature haven’t yet sampled. Of course, at this point we must also thank the fourteen translators who have made this all possible, and we will endeavour to highlight their work over the course of our journey.

In the second year of the prize’s new incarnation, there is a definite sense of quality being prioritised, with many of the titles promising heavy topics and quality writing (we note, with trepidation, that the longlist is also literally far heavier than its 2016 counterpart). This second year of the MBIP book prize is also the first of the post-Tonkin era, and it will be interesting to see what effects the departure of the longtime IFFP/MBIP Chair will have. Will the new age bring a different feel to the prize, ushering in a longlist notable more for the writing and less for emotional turmoil? Time will tell…

Turning to the actual books, we note a pleasing spread of languages (eleven) and countries (twelve), with five of the longlisted titles by writers hailing from outside Europe.  There are some notable omissions, though, with no books translated from Arabic, Japanese, Portuguese or Russian (a language particularly poorly represented over the past few years). The list of writers shows a mix of old friends (Ismail Kadare, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, Yan Lianke, Alain Mabanckou) and newcomers to the prize (Wioletta Greg, Clemens Meyer, Roy Jacobsen), some of whom will no doubt become new favourites for many readers.

While the female authors longlisted (in particular Samanta Schweblin) should prove to be strong contenders, the fact that only three women made the cut is disappointing. However, we fully acknowledge that this is less a reflection on the judges than further evidence of the gender imbalance in what is published in translation in the UK (it would be enlightening, and perhaps useful, to learn how many of the 126 submissions were by women). On that point, it was interesting to note in the week leading up to this announcement the start of a new initiative, The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. Hopefully, this will encourage the commissioning of more translations of works by female authors, which may then encourage more submissions for the MBIP in future years.

Another interesting feature of the list is the spread of titles published by independent presses and major publishing houses. Peirene Press’s six-year run may have come to an end, but that has more to do with the high standard of the competition than with weak entries. Other small presses to miss out include And Other Stories, Comma Press, and Istros Books (although we feel it is only a matter of time before they finally achieve a longlisting). Among the small presses who did manage to have titles selected, particular congratulations must go to both MacLehose Press and Fitzcarraldo Editions, with two nominations apiece rewarding their commitment to high-quality, challenging literature. We were particularly pleased by the recognition of Mathias Énard’s novel Compass; perhaps this decision will go some way to righting the wrong of the omission of his work Zone from the 2015 IFFP longlist (a decision we at the Shadow Panel saw fit to rectify…).

Zone was the first book ever called in by the Shadow Panel, and one of our main tasks after the longlist announcement this year was to decide whether this was required again. It is no secret that Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream would have been the automatic pick, but thankfully the official panel has made that decision for us. Works that were perhaps unlucky not to be chosen include Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound, Marie Sizun’s Her Father’s Daughter and Sjón’s Moonstone, yet the only other title we seriously considered calling in was László Krasznahorkai’s War and WarHowever, a combination of his previous success in both the MBIP and the American Best Translated Book Award and doubts as to whether the novel was eligible (or even submitted) have led us to decide not to do so.

Therefore, we set off on our journey at the same point as the real judges, ready to explore the thirteen titles selected for the official longlist. However, this is where our paths will (and should) diverge. Over the coming months, our eight shadow judges will do their best to examine these books and explain why they were selected (or question those decisions). We give the longlist a cautious nod of approval; the shortlist, of course, is another matter entirely.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest:from my #shadowclarke shortlist 

The first review from my shadow Clarke shortlist is now up at the CSFF website. I thought I would begin this shadow Clarke journey with the one author I already knew: Christopher Priest. 

The Gradual returns to Priest’s Dream Archipelago (setting of The Islanders), and concerns a composer who goes on a concert tour of the islands, only to find when he returns that time has slipped away from him. The novel also takes in themes of grief and creativity; I enjoyed it very much. 

I’d also like to say a few words about the review itself. This is my first extended piece of writing on a book in some time; it has also been a few years since I’ve written as much about science fiction specifically as I will be in the months ahead. In that time, my approach to reviewing has changed: now I’m most interested in trying to capture my experience of reading a book, rather than “like/dislike + reasons” as I might have done in the past. I think this shift comes across in the tone of the review, and I’m interested to see how else it might manifest as I go through my shortlist.

My full review of The Gradual is here for you to read. 

Man Booker International Prize 2017: the longlist 

Once again, I’m part of the shadow panel following the Man Booker International Prize. The longlist has now been announced:

Compass by Mathias Énard, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak (Portobello Books). 

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape). 

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, translated from the Dutch by David McKay (Harvill Secker). 

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (MacLehose Press). 

The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare, translated from the Albanian by John Hodgson (Harvill Secker). 

The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Ross (Chatto & Windus). 

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated from the French by Helen Stevenson (Serpent’s Tail). 

Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions). 

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (Pushkin Press). 

Judas by Amos Oz, translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange (Chatto & Windus). 

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld). 

Fish Have No Feet by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton (MacLehose Press). 

Well. For the first time in my four years of doing this (including IFFP shadowing), I haven’t read any of them. So it’s going to be a busy month ahead. I will review as many as I can on the blog  (though it may be in the shorter format that I’ve been trying out on Twitter and Facebook), and use this post as an index. 
I won’t make any broader comment on the longlist, except to say: a lot of languages are represented there – eleven in total. I wonder if that’s a record. 

Finally, you can find the rest of the shadow panel here: StuTony MaloneTony MessengerBellezzaClareGrant, and Lori. Right, time to start reading… 

Stepping out of (or into) the shadows 

Well, it has been quiet around here lately. I had been hoping to be back up and running by now, but unfortunately I’m still only able to use my phone to get online, which makes blogging awkward. You can still find me talking about books on Facebook and Twitter, though. 

Having said that, there is news that requires a blog post: it’s time for award shadowing. Once again, I will be part of the Man Booker International Prize shadow panel, reading and (hopefully!) reviewing the longlist once it has been announced on 15 March. I’ll post more about that at the time. 

The other project I want to tell you about is already underway. Inspired by the idea of shadow juries, the writer (and friend of this blog) Nina Allan has decided to put one together for this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award. She invited me to take part, and I was happy to accept. Besides me and Nina, the Clarke shadow jury includes Megan AMVajra ChandrasekeraVictoria Hoyle; Nick Hubble; Paul KincaidJonathan McCalmont; and Maureen Kincaid Speller. (The links are to the individual blog posts – or, in Victoria’s case, a video – where each person announced their involvement in the jury.)

As with any other shadow jury, we will all be reading and reviewing the Clarke shortlist, which is announced on 3 May. However, the Clarke Award doesn’t have a longlist phase, so we’re doing something a little different to begin with. Each shadow juror has put together their own personal shortlist from the published list of books submitted for this year’s Clarke. We’re each going to review the books on our individual shortlists as well as the official one. The hope in doing this is to widen the conversation around the Clarke Award. It’s been a few years since I last blogged the Clarke, and I look forward to getting back into it. 

On that note, let me tell you which books I’ve selected for my personal shortlist:

  • The Power by Naomi Alderman 
  • The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen 
  • Graft by Matt Hill
  • The Gradual by Christopher Priest 
  • The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo (tr. Lola Rogers) 
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The other thing to say is that the Clarke shadow jury is being hosted by the new Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy at Anglia Ruskin University. This means that our reviews will all be published on the CSFF website first, before appearing on individual blogs. The site already hosts an introductory essay by me about my relationship with the Clarke Award; and a piece explaining in more detail why I chose the novels in my personal shortlist (they’re all books I hadn’t read previously). I recommend spending some time exploring the CSFF site, because there are introductions and shortlist pieces from each shadow juror.

One last question: how am I planning to fit all this in? When I agreed to take part in the shadow Clarke, I already knew I’d be doing the MBIP at roughly the same time, but I felt confident there was enough time for everything. I hadn’t expected to be having difficulties with blogging. 

I think I should still be able to do it all. We’re writing full-length reviews for the shadow Clarke, but there’s also more time with that award; so, while I may not (for example) be able to review all of my personal shortlist before the announcement of the official shortlist, I should still be able to review both shortlists by the time that the Clarke winner is announced on 27 July.

The biggest task is getting through the MBIP longlist before the shortlist announcement on 20 April. I usually manage to read everything, but not necessarily to review it all. I may end up using the shorter ‘snapshot’ review format that I’ve been trying out on social media; but I’ll try to post as much on here as I can. 

Let the shadowing begin! 

You can find me elsewhere… 

For various reasons, I’m not currently in a position to write at length on the blog. So instead, I’ve been setting out thoughts on the books I’m reading at Facebook and Twitter. Join me there for now, and hopefully I’ll be back to blogging in a few weeks.

Starting again for 2017

That’s the end of another year, then. I don’t have any elaborate plans for reading in 2017; I’m just going to read by instinct more. I’ve decided to drop a couple of ongoing blog projects, in particular my Classics Club attempt . I will keep the list for reference, because I’m still interested in reading the books; but it was not working for me as something to keep up regularly over five years. 

2016 has shown that going with the flow suits me more as a reader and blogger, so that’s what I’ll continue to do. This year, I tidied up my main reading interests into four areas: world literature and work in translation; fiction that ‘breaks the mould’ of the novel; classics; and books from small publishers. That’s plenty to be going on with. 

Finally, I’d like to thank you for reading, and wish you all the best for 2017.

My favourite books read in 2016

This time last year, I wrote that I wanted to understand more deeply why I respond to some books as I do. I think I’m on the way there, and certainly when I look at the books that have stood out most to me in the reading year, I can see a continuity. They belong together in ways that reflect what, how and why I read.

So, here’s the selection: these are the books that I count as my strongest reading experiences of 2016, roughly in ascending order. The links will take you to my reviews.

12. Nocilla Dream (2006) by Agustín Fernández Mallo
Translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead, 2015

A novel that feels like a statement of how fiction should relate to the wider world in the 21st century. Nocilla Dream is an assemblage of adapted quotations and character vignettes, with recurring images and locations… but it won’t fit together into a stable whole, however much you try. Like the globalised world it depicts, Fernández Mallo’s novel has no centre; reading it was an experience  of glimpsing a deeper meaning through the haze, only for that to recede shortly after.

11. The Queue (2013) by Basma Abdel Aziz
Translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. 2016

In a Middle Eastern city, the flow of life has been disrupted by a bureaucracy that forces people to queue for days on end in order to obtain authorisation for the smallest things. This is a novel that works through quietness and precision: its measured tone persuades one to accept the reality of this situation; then, the chilling implications unfold. A similar process occurs with the city’s inhabitants, as all the queueing changes the way they think and behave, until there’s no easy way for them to imagine something else.

10. Never Any End to Paris (2003) by Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, 2011

This was a book that seemed superficially light: a fictionalised account of the author’s time in Paris in the 1970s, where he sought to live like Hemingway. But as I carried on reading, the novel circled around issues of reality and imagination – how the place in the mind can endure longer and loom larger than the real one. That led me to confront the basic questions of what it is to read fiction: ultimately, nothing in Vila-Matas’ book is solid, but the reading of it persists regardless.

9. Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) by Leena Krohn
Translated from the Finnish by Hildi Hawkins, 2004

I didn’t get around to reviewing this one, and I really must. Like The Queue, Tainaron is precisely balanced on a knife-edge between reality and unreality. It’s told a series of letters sent home from someone living in a city of giant insects – a city that might be more a state of mind than an actual place. For me, this is on a par with Viriconium in terms of dismantling the certainties of story, and the disorientation that follows in the reading.

8. The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz
Translated from the German by Adrian Nathan West, 2015

The Weight of Things is the short opening slice of a much larger, untranslated (and possibly untranslatable) fictional project – and the shadow of two world wars looms over its apparently small tale of a couple visiting the husband’s ex-wife in her asylum. Broken chronology destroys the sense that there can be progression beyond the fictional present; and there’s one moment cuts though the reading as much as in any book I’ve experienced. At the time, I described reading Fritz’s book as like waking from a beautiful nightmare, and I still feel the same.

7. Tram 83 (2014) by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated from the French by Roland Glasser, 2015

Here’s a book where it really is all about the language: the rhythm, the pulse, the interplay of voices. Lucien travels to the newly seceded ‘City-State’, intending to concentrate on his writing – but he gets caught up in other matters. The city has its own soundtrack of voices, bewildering and exhilarating to Lucien and the reader alike. The protagonist tries to bring his own language to the city, but all he can do is merge into its web; likewise, the best way I found to read Tram 83 was to lose myself in its words.

6. Good Morning, Midnight (1939) by Jean Rhys

This is the second novel on my list set amid the streets of Paris, but shows writing transformed by place in a different way. The Paris of Rhys’s protagonist is so quietly anonymous that the present day fades in comparison to the memories that continue to haunt her. This was my first time reading Rhys; I found her novel so piercing that I must read more.

5. Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016) by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

I love this book for the way that Manyika slides between viewpoints to explore the gap between an individual’s self-perception and the person by others. Retired literature professor Morayo breaks her hip and has to move temporarily into a nursing home – and suddenly she is a vulnerable old woman to people who don’t know her. Reading the novel, and being able to see all sides, allows the gap to be bridged. That Morayo is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve encountered all year is a welcome bonus.

4. Martin John (2015) by Anakana Schofield

Schofield’s novel takes readers inside the mind of a flasher – not so much in a way that tries to explain him as one that challenges the reader to engage with his character. While most novels are organised to create meaning for the reader, Martin John is arranged to create meaning for its protagonist, constructed around his loops and preoccupations. This is what makes it such a strong, disorienting experience: there is no map of this novel’s singular landscape.

3. Mend the Living (2014) by Maylis de Kerangal
Translated from the French by Jessica Moore, 2016

At one level, Mend the Living is a novel about a heart transplant. At another level, it’s an all-pervading cloud of language which explores the different meanings of this event, and the human body itself, as life effectively passes from one individual to another. At times, reading de Kernagal’s book was like having several extra senses with which to perceive what was being narrated.

2. Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf

2016 was when I finally introduced myself to Woolf’s work, and not before time. I read five of her books, and liked some more than others; but the first one I read is still the most vivid. Mrs Dalloway showed me a different way to read, as I found a novel in which events take place at the level of thought and consciousness, as much as in geographical space. There’s such power in being brought so close to the characters’ viewpoints and flowing between them. And the ending, which brings the horror of war crashing directly into Clarissa Dalloway’s polite society, is one of my year’s finest reading moments.

1. Human Acts (2014) by Han Kang
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, 2016

I thought about it for a long time, but there was no escaping the conclusion that a Han Kang book would top my list for the second year in a row. Like The Vegetarian, Human Acts is a novel of the body, but this time as the level at which to process conflict (or try to do so). Though there’s violence and bloodshed on a large scale in Han’s depiction of the Gwagju Uprising, it is the small human movements that I found most vivid. That contrast helped to create the strongest experience ofall the books I read this year.

I’d like to write another post that explores what this list could tell me about how and why I read. For now, though, I’ll leave you with my previous lists of favourites: 201520142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

Some reviews elsewhere

I haven’t been posting links to my external reviews lately, so here’s a round-up of the most recent four: all books that are worth your time.

winterlingsThe Winterlings by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade (tr. Samuel Rutter). Twenty-five years after being evacuated to England, two sisters return to the Galician parish of their childhood. The place is otherworldly to them, but they also have a glamour of their own – and so mystery encroaches on the reader from all sides. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

 

beast

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth. Second part of the thematic trilogy that began with The Wake. This volume is set in the present day, and focuses on an Englishman in search of his place in the landscape. A strange creature haunts the corner of his eye, and his language grows more primal as he heads further into hallucination. Reviewed for Shiny New Books.

 

brussoloThe Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome by Serge Brussolo (tr. Edward Gauvin). A tantalising slice of weirdness set in a reality where art is retrieved from the depths of dreams. One man believes that the dream realm has its own objective existence – and he’ll risk his very self to prove it. Reviewed for Strange Horizons.

 

tobacconist

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (tr. Charlotte Collins). A new novel in English from the author of A Whole Life. The tale of a young man who becomes a tobacconist’s apprentice in 1930s Vienna and strikes up a friendship with Sigmund Freud. Love begins to stir, just as the shadow of the Nazis grows. Reviewed for European Literature Network.

And Other Stories giveaway winner

Thank you to everyone who entered my competition to win an And Other Stories subscription. One random selection later, and we have our winner: congratulations to Jenny – I hope you enjoy your books!

© 2017 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: