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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, August 19, 2017


I’m not a great reader of novels – the interactions and fate of fictitious characters pale against those of the real people I find in histories…..And, if I want good prose, I find it in essays, travelogues and short stories – although I grant you that it’s only in stories (short and long) that the inner life of people can be treated in depth…..
Perhaps that’s why I’m so partial to short stories – produced by the likes of William Trevor, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Vladimir Nabakov, Joseph Miller and……Joseph Roth

Seven years ago, however, one post here did actually pay tribute to about 75 novels which had taken my fancy – only one third of which, interestingly, were British….And, of those, most were Irish or Scottish since I have found their style of writing much more lively than that of English novelists…..It’s not just the older generation I’m referring to (such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Edwin Muir and Robin Jenkins) but also the younger writers (such as Andrew Greig, James Meek and James Robertson on the Scottish side – and Sebastian Barry and John McGahern on the Irish).

Too many contemporary English writers seem to be unable to shake themselves out of their limited middle-class environment – eg Ian McEwan, although this is not something you could say about his acerbic mate Martin Amis. Sebastian Faulks and Louis de Bernieres are two exceptions who deal with big issues – the latter giving us “Birds without Wings” about the tragic exchange of population in early 20s Anatolia. And Lawrence Durrell still thrills me – despite the reputation he has unfairly been given for “over the top” writing…… 

When I was a teenager in the late 50s, it was the modernist fiction of Aldous Huxley and HG Wells which grabbed my fancy – with Evelyn Waugh for light relief (books such as “Scoop”). Joseph Conrad I read when I wanted something more exotic - and DH Lawrence for the emotional side of things.
The 60s brought the “angry young men” with writers such as Alan Sillitoe, John Bratby and Kinsgley Amis – the 70s the university realists – eg Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Jacobson
By the 80s EM Foster and Thomas Hardy were big – as films brought their books to life. On the contemporary front, Fay Weldon's journalistic prose made the woman's case....

There’s a nice little overview of the writing of the 1945-90 period here; and a more substantial survey here. It’s always interesting to see what foreigners make of British literature and I found the analysis and set of notes of The Desperado Age – British literature at the start of the third millennium (2006) revealing – if a bit forced. The author is Lidia Vianu (2006) who was then Professor of English literature at Bucharest University.

Lists of personal favourites are rather self-indulgent and pointless – unless including some sort of justification for the choices….which might just persuade us to give some of the texts a whirl…. 
It’s in that spirit that I now update that earlier post. 
In 2010 I hadn’t quite adjusted to my Romanian base – so had missed a baker’s dozen of superb books - Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (originally written in the 1950s but only widely available from 2010); Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy (written in the 60s but receiving a new lease of life after the film); and Gregor von Rezzori’s brilliant three semi-autobiographical books drawn from his time in Romanian Czernowitz (now in southern Ukraine) – first written (in German) between the 50s and 70s but issued by NYRB only recently.  
Rebecca West’s massive and stunning Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – a journey through Yugoslavia  was first published in 1941 and is actually four books in one – about Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia – but received a huge boost from the 90s Yugoslav conflagration. It’s not, of course, a novel but, 75 years on, it is a gripping read - and still repays study.

I would stand by my 2010 list – with the embarrassing exception of Paul Coelho! And I also don’t know how Jason Godwin crept onto the list…. Otherwise the mix of South American “magic realism”; French romanticism and nihilism; Irish, Israeli and Egyptian realism; and Scottish whimsy stands up well……
My tributes to the likes of John Berger and William MacIlvanney demand their addition – as do JM Coetze and Svetlana Alexievitch 

ps this post - and some earlier this year - are in the tradition of blogs such as A CommonPlace Blog where older people try to identify the books and journals they have enjoyed and would recommend to others   

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