Just recently, I was congratulating myself of how, as the serious, grown up person that I am, I am no longer slacking. I wake up at six even if my entire soul says no, I go for the run even if my entire body says no, I finish the excel sheet even if my entire sanity says no. And yet I distinctly felt that there was something fishy about this statement only to realize I’d been slacking about the book diary since the fair spring month of April.
But I had someone to blame for that, namely, David Foster Wallace. Everything came to a standstill around Easter when I decided that after years and years of gathering dust on my shelf, it was time for The Infinite Jest. The struggle, with ups and downs, moments of elation (very few) and fury (quite many) lasted more than a month, with a merciful break provided by some travel, for which I very wisely opted for other reading solutions. The idea was that I’d write the next installment of the diary when I’d finally crystallized how I felt about the book. The jury is however still out. There are long passages of fine prose, linguistic inventiveness, interesting ideas, though as oft happens with what we could call speculative fiction, some ‘predictions’ seem oddly dated nowadays, while other appear eerily prescient. My favourite would probably be subsidized time, which popped into my mind the other day when the ESPN football coverage gave the sponsor’s name to added time.
Much of the rest, though, seems frankly gratuitous, a long catalogue of David Foster Wallace’s obsessions explored in painstaking detail, a 1000 plus page ego trip with tiresome end notes and lots of unnecessary details on tennis, drugs and bodily functions. Female characters aren’t even worth mentioning (except the mother, obviously), though I must have simply been tricked by Ferrante and co into believing women are people too, and not simply sub-par tennis players and side notes in subplot.
It will thus horrify the purists, but I found Silvia Avallone’s Acciaio (Steel), which was my travel break read, much more enlightening and rewarding. Set in the small coastal town of Piombino, where everyone is somehow connected to the steelworks where men work as hard labourers and women dream to make it to the HR department (as opposed to a career as lap dancers in one of the local clubs), it explores the lives of two teenagers, Anna and Francesca. It is in many ways a classical coming of age story that also explores provincial Italy with a sharp eye, zooming in on the contrast between the working classes living in Piombino and the rich gravitating towards the neighbouring island of Elba and obviously the dreams of the former about joining the latter. There are some excellent passages describing the seemingly mundane phenomenon of teenagers going to the beach, perfectly encapsulating that fleeting moment when the gilded innocence of childhood slowly swerves towards the dark realities of adulthood.
Andrea Camilleri’s The Brewer of Preston is a tricky read for those who know him though the Montalbano series, the writer of this piece included. I had been aware that there is Camilleri beyond Montalbano and being curious as to what that could entail, I picked the Brewer of Preston off the shelf of a bookstore in Genoa. I even secretly harboured the hope that brewing might actually be included in the plot, but alas, The Brewer of Preston turned out to be a very heinous thing, namely an opera by semi-obscure Italian composer Luigi Ricci. The good people of Caltanisetta, back in the late 19th Century, felt similarly about opera, particularly as it was imposed on them by a Florentine (as in, non-Sicilian) city father, and thus proceeded to set the local theatre on fire. It is this historical fact that serves as the starting point of Camilleri’s novel, which reconstructs a possible version of the events, through chapters which share opening lines with famous literary works. This latter detail, which is one of the most intriguing ones in the book, only struck me towards the end though, when I finally recognized one and then proceeded to review all that came before.
Not having had enough of experimental writing, musical context and historical retelling, I did however jump onto a different continent with Marlon James’s Booker Prize winning The Brief History of Seven Killings, which chronicles a failed attempt on Bob Marley’s life. The story is told from the shifting points of view of several characters- in an interesting experiment, the Norwegian translation has a different translator for each different narrative voice. Though such a format could have easily been too heavy a burden to be borne by the story itself, the puzzle does eventually fall into place and the reader slowly settles into the rhythm of the more exotic characters too- Jones doses the Jamaican dialect quite scientifically, from characters who speak it almost exclusively to ones who use standard English.
Then comes the point where I would normally gush about the new Haruki Murakami, Killing Commendatore, recently published in English, and be smug about the fact that I’d read the Romanian edition much earlier. Only problem is that Polirom sabotaged my project by publishing the two parts of the novel separately- as in publishing The Idea Made Visible in spring, and not yet publishing The Shifting Metaphor, so presently I feel suspended in a ‘Murakami purgatorium’, or perhaps more poignantly I am stuck in a deep well, without the sound of a strange bell and the knowledge of how the story ends. Come to think of it, it’s not such a bad place after all, somehow mirroring the seemingly suspended state in which many Murakami characters, including the hero of the current novel, find themselves. There comes a point in their lives when they stray away from what should have been its normal narrative and enter a universe that’s just a little strange. After a while this strange universe becomes quite familiar to the reader, a continuum that travels from book to book, and some of the criticism leveled at Murakami is that he keeps repeating himself, well thank God he does. Nor am I particularly fazed by the fact that he often allows his books to end with many unanswered questions, some plot lines almost forgotten, strange isn’t strange anymore if it is completely explained. I do however feel a bit bad about not having identified the Great Gatsby reference myself, given Murakami’s fondness for Fitzgerald, though that is maybe easier to do once I’ve read the second part too.
I have a firm impression that writing comes easy to Leila Slimani, her sentences are clean, unlaboured but poignant. She doesn’t go for length either, both novels I read, in rather quick succession, are a couple hundred pages long, and feel perfectly dosed as such. What seems to confound English translators, though, are her titles: Dans le jardin de l’ogre has been rendered rather unimaginatively as Adele, while Chanson douce has been translated as both Lullaby and The Perfect Nanny– the second title very much an attempt to draw the wider public to a story, inspired by real events, which is gruesome enough for a Crime Scene Investigation fed generation: a woman who kills the children she is hired to look after. Those who expect goriness from Lullaby and salaciousness from Adele (fundamentally the story of a sex addict) are in for a disappointment: Slimani is too good a writer to succumb to easy handling and easy answers. As the stories unfold you end up feeling both sympathy and repulsion for the characters- not just the main ones, but everyone else around them and you recognize that the world they inhabit can very well be your world too.
There is a Romanian saying roughly translated as you should not go to the praised tree with a cart, and yet I did take my cart to Andrei Dósa’s Ierbar (roughly translated, this seems to be a theme here, as Herbarium, but bear in mind that iarbă also means weed in Romanian), mainly because I felt I could relate to someone braving the world with a Romanian name and a Hungarian surname and choosing Romanian as the language to write in. I’d also liked his poetry, though I am definitely no expert in that domain, plus everyone else in my generation went frantic on social media about how they’d loved it. I won’t say I disliked it, there are certain bits, usually the ones where he lets the poet loose, that work very well, but overall, it’s somehow too disjointed to be called a (short) novel, more like a collection of sketches united by recurrent characters. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I simply felt the lack of a core that would connect them in a meaningful, if disparate, whole.
I have concluded that the only kind of autograph worth having is that of a writer, since they’ve actually written, albeit probably on a computer, the book they are signing, so I generally add to my collection during the Budapest book festival, and this year it was Dragan Velikić’s turn. Prior to the signing he had also been part of a round table on Serbian literature, which unfolded in a very literary and Balkan way, with three out of five writers showing up late-ish after having had coffees, one showing up even later after having been involved in a minor traffic accident, and the fifth not showing up at all. One of the main topics of conversation was, unavoidably, Yugoslavia, a version of which serves as a backdrop to Velikić’s Islednik (The Investigator), in which he reconstructs and deconstructs his family’s past, and through it, the past of his country/countries. For beyond Yugoslavia we also get glimpses of Italy, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, though one can of course say that Yugoslavia as it existed in the late 20th Century was built exactly from bits and pieces of these three. While the previous Velikić novel I’d read tended to bourgeon out of control every now and then, the more explicitly autobiographical nature of this one gives it a focused centre which makes it a much more poignant read.
Elsa Morante landed on my list due to Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, in a classic case of reading leads to even more reading (the same goes for Silvia Avallone, as a matter of fact). In certain ways Morante can be considered one of Ferrante’s forerunners, Ferrante herself admits to that much, yet the world of Arturo’s Island is a strangely masculine one, with the one important female character being subject to much fearful male scrutiny. It’s also an almost mythical world, anchored in the realities and dreams of Procida, an island off the Italian cost in the vicinity of Naples- while it has a very strong sense of place, it hovers fundamentally out of time, in the world of Arturo’s fantasies. Left without a mother at an early age, he constructs a universe of fancy around his father, a universe which ever so slightly shows its cracks and wrinkles towards the end of the story but is never fully robbed of its magical qualities.
Finally, for our current installment, Tom Wilson’s Do You Speak Football was a perfect read for a hot World Cup July but can also be a perfect backdrop for cold Champions League Novembers or Februaries (the absolutely rottenest months of the calendar). It is essentially a compendium of terms from many different languages describing the beautiful game in its finest details, from the Argentinian la nuestra to the Zambian kanyumba (small house). For those whose interest has been piqued, la nuestra is the way of playing perceived to be traditional to Argentina, combinative and technically polished, whereas kanyumba is a ball lofted over the opponent’s head. It’s a book best read as a reference work (this is advice from someone who use to raid the Larousse encyclopedia alphabetically), though an occasional systematic approach to a country’s vocabulary can reveal interesting insights into its (not only) footballing soul.