Posts Tagged ‘Amin Maalouf’

2021: My year of reading

December 27, 2021

2021 has been a very conservative reading year. I’ve apparently only bought 20 books (I received another 3 for Christmas), but I have read over 90, so there’s been a lot of re-reading going on, and this has mainly been comfort reading to help me through the strange times we are living in. And the big clear-out also continues, as I get rid of books I know I’m not going to read or refer to again.

I spent quite a while revisiting Richard Brautigan’s novels, which have been in my library since my hippy days. They are light-hearted froth in a lot of ways, and yet some of them are very well-written, and I didn’t decide to get rid of all of them, but kept one or two just in case, as you do. The same is true of Hermann Hesse’s novels: I’ve now re-read all of these apart from The Glass Bead Game, which somehow I can’t face at the moment, even though some think it’s the best of all his works. I have a very vague recollection of it being a bit of a disappointment way back in the 1970s, too. But as I grow older I realise that Hesse’s fiction, and his ideas about the self and personality were pretty influential in my younger years in terms of how I saw myself and the world I lived in, and the connections between Hesse’s characters’ lives and the psychology of Carl Jung has been quite to the forefront when I’ve been re-reading the novels. Necessarily this led to a re-reading of some of Jung as well. In the end, I think the pandemic has caused me to undertake some fairly deep reflection on my entire life, and I know this has been the case for a good number of people.

There have been some new books this year, and a good number of them I read because they were choices of other members of my current book group. I’m a little surprised that I’ve stuck with the group – I like the people a lot – but at other times when I’ve been in a book group, I’ve dropped out fairly quickly because I didn’t like other people choosing my reading matter for me…

I’ve also realised that I read very little travel writing this year, which struck me as rather odd since my own opportunities for travel have been necessarily rather constrained for the past couple of years. I re-read a short and very lovely book Something of his Art, by Horatio Clare who travelled in the footsteps of my hero J S Bach, making the journey on foot from Arnstadt in Thuringia to Lübeck to hear the master organist Dietrich Buxtehude in the early eighteenth century. Clare records his impressions of the walk and reflects on the music and musician.

Discovery: I’ve wrestled with the Tao Te Ching a few times but not really got anywhere. My liking for Ursula Le Guin led me to get her version (ie version rather than translation, with plenty of her annotation and commentary) and I feel I’m now getting somewhere with it and something from it.

Blog report: more visits than ever this year, but this is largely due, as last year, to the number of what I imagine are students of the literature of the Great War reading up about various poems and poets as part of their studies. I’m grateful for their visits, and for everyone else who reads rather more widely in my meanderings through the world of literature, and I enjoy your comments and interactions.

Best SF: Laurent Binet’s Civilisations, although strictly speaking it’s an alternative history rather than science fiction. But a superb ‘what if?’

Best new novel: this has to be the (for me) long-awaited The Books of Jacob, by Olga Tokarczuk, which was a challenging but rewarding read and shows why she is a Nobel-class writer. Looking forward to more from her.

Best non-fiction: I found Adrift, by Amin Maalouf a fascinating account of the current state of the world, and how we got here. He’s a Lebanese writer, mainly a novelist but he has written about history and society before. He anchors so many of our current political problems in the Middle East and the effects that interfering outsiders have had over the past century as they struggled for control over the region and its resources. That’s oversimplifying a great deal, but is a very thought-provoking approach and one which matches the way I have thought about the world and seen it changing over my lifetime. The West’s appalling and cavalier treatment of Palestine is at the heart of so many problems and conflicts…

Best re-read(s): Amin Maalouf again, and Leo The African, his amazing re-creation of the true story of the Muslim boy from Spain at the time of the Reconquista, and his life, travels and adventures. Simply wonderful. Also Jean Giono’s Regain, about the resurrection of a remote village in France, the power of nature and those who live in harmony with it. Another book from my student days.

Next year’s plans: I want to continue with my reading of all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I’ve also made a resolution to read/re-read more history. I shall continue to sort and tidy up my library, and attempt to buy no new books at all… I am allowing myself one exception, which will be the final volume of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy, if it’s published. And lest you think I’m being extremist here, I will point out that I have several feet of as yet unread books on my shelves…

Overrated

June 30, 2021

There are quite a few things in the world of literature that make me cross. For the life of me – and I’ve read it several times (because I had to!) – I cannot see what some people find to rave about in The Great Gatsby. It’s always struck me as being about superficial, trivial, privileged people who I couldn’t care less about and the narrator puts me off right from the start.

Equally, I fail to see why some think so highly of Lolita. I’ve had it recommended to me a number of times, by people whose opinions and tastes I rate highly. I’ve tried to read it at least three times, have never got beyond fifty pages or so. I’ve found it dull, and I’ve also found it toe-curlingly creepy, in a perverted sort of way. I shan’t be bothering again.

I shall also confess that I find Wuthering Heights grossly overrated. I read it, unravelled the complex plot at the time, and could now tell you almost nothing about the book or its characters, so deep an impression it didn’t make on me. Emily Bronte I can do without; her sister Charlotte, on the other hand, I rate very highly: the ending of Villette is an absolute master-stroke.

At least I’ve made the attempt with those books. There are writers I haven’t really bothered with – Dickens, and Hardy for instance: I had to read Hard Times in my first year at university, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles too. The former I quite enjoyed, the latter I found rather silly because of the leaden hand of fate that rested on the heroine’s shoulders throughout. Certainly, I’ve never felt called to use up any more eyeball time on those writers.

I have quite a large blind spot about British and American fiction of the last few decades: I haven’t read very much of it at all, because very little of it has recommended itself to me, and quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve missed much. My general feeling has been that writers in other countries and continents have found much more interesting stories to write. No recent English language writer has, for me, reached the heights of Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco or Amin Maalouf, for example.

I’ve enjoyed having a bit of a gripe here, and I can imagine some of my readers thinking, “Well, I never saw anything in Philip Pullman, or, what has Josef Skvorecky got to say to me?” So, what are the books or writers you consider overrated?

Amin Maalouf: Adrift

January 21, 2021

         It’s not often I read a book and end up thinking, everyone really needs to read this! But this is one of those rarities, the reflections of a wise and thoughtful Lebanese writer and novelist on the current state of the world, and why it’s in such a dreadful mess. He professes to be haunted by the image of our species heading ineluctably for shipwreck. And, a rarity, the book has been translated from French into English.

There are plenty of pundits who offer relatively superficial and partisan analyses of the world’s woes: Maalouf isn’t one of those. He begins modestly reflecting on his origins and family background, at some length: they are Lebanese, with historical connections with Egypt, and so his exploration is firmly anchored in how the problems of the Middle East, and of Islamic nations, are at the heart of so much that has gone wrong, a microcosm of the world’s greater problems.

It is false to think that the homogeneity of nations is a good thing: Spain became weaker after expelling Muslims and Jews after 1492, France became weaker after the expulsion of the Huguenots in 1685. Often the benefits of minority groups to a nation are only perceived when they have gone. I obviously thought of Brexit here!

The failure and collapse of communism as an ideal has helped move the world into its current disastrous state. Communism didn’t just appeal to the working class but also to minorities as a way of transcending divisions; briefly, Jews Christians and Muslims worked alongside each other in communist movements worldwide. A liberating space, an inspirational space has disappeared. And Maalouf weeps no tears for Stalin, Mao or any of the other tyrants: the failure of dirigiste state ‘socialism’ tarnished anything and everything vaguely resembling it, allowing conservative forces to invalidate social democracy and the welfare state too.

The Six Day War of 1967 had a devastating effect on the Arab world from which it has never recovered, and allowed political Islam to come to the fore. Equally, victory in that war has been a trap for Israel. Maalouf then notes the calamitous effects of the oil price rises of the 1970s, which were a direct response by Arab nations to the debacle of the 1973 war, in which the USA had supported Israel.

In his more general analysis, Maalouf sees 1979 as a turning point: the year conservatism declared itself revolutionary, with the election of Thatcher in the UK, followed by that of Reagan in the US the following year: the only option for the left was to try and hang onto what it had painfully won over the decades. At that time, Khomeiny also came to power in Iran, Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China and changed its political and economic direction, and the Catholic Church elected John Paul II as Pope. And the USA let the genie of radical Islam out of the bottle by deliberately drawing the Soviet Union into the quagmire of Afghanistan… Maalouf points out that until then, the Muslim world had been gradually moving in a progressive and tolerant direction, towards modernity and laicisation; the West wrecked all this. Conservatism has moved openly hand-in-hand with the perfidious forces of nationalism and racism.

And as the purpose of the Reagan/Thatcher revolution was a massive attack on state power, the work of states as unifying forces was seriously harmed; suspicion of big government has fed into our inability to tackle issues such as the climate emergency in our own time. Maalouf knows that the state can, and must have a role in creating and fostering social cohesion. Instead, widening social divides have been accepted, and public authorities are now mistrusted by many. It’s hard to do justice to the depth of his reflection, which is that of a lifetime, and his knowledge of history, and the interactions between nations.

Maalouf articulates, far better than I’ve ever been able to, a good number of the thoughts and ideas I’ve worked out about the state of the planet over the years. He has written the most profound, reasoned and intelligent analysis and commentary on our times that I’ve ever read; he does not proffer any simplistic solutions beyond helping understand where we have gone adrift, and sadly, he admits to a great pessimism about our future…

Do you really need another reading list? (part two)

April 13, 2020

Some thoughts on the rest of this particular list of novels by world writers:

Jaroslav Hasek: The Good Soldier Svejk. Heaven knows how many times I’ve read this and parts of it still reduce me to utterly helpless laughter. The Great War as experienced by a congenital idiot who can get himself into more scrapes than anyone can imagine, with superb original illustrations as an added bonus.

Vassily Grossman: Life & Fate. A serious story of the Great Patriotic War as it is known in Russia, and rated a twentieth century equivalent to Tolstoy’s War and Peace by many, including me. Last year the equally powerful prequel, Stalingrad, was finally published in its entirety, some sixty years after it was first written. It’s very strong stuff, and a salutary reminder of just how much the Soviet Union suffered in that war, and its massive contribution to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

Josef Roth: The Radetzky March. So moving that it hurts, in places, this is another portrait of a completely vanished world, the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it drifts inevitably and disastrously towards the First World War. I recently re-read it so will just point you here if you’re interested.

Ernst Wiechert: The Simple Life. Some days, this understated and little known German novel is the best I’ve ever read. A naval captain, appalled by his experience of the Great War, gives up on society and the world and retires to the forests of East Prussia with a loyal follower, to lead a simple life. He discovers a new existence, with meaning and significance, finds happiness and/or contentment, and of course, sadly, this cannot last. Escapist? Possibly. Hippy-ish? Again, perhaps. But the lessons the captain learns are real and there for all of us to contemplate.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand. This one feels like it’s on the list as a token gesture to literature from the Arab world, which I have explored much more since I originally put my list together. There’s the exoticism of the setting, the romance of a completely different culture, and the background is the famous poet Omar Khayyam and his poem, the Rubaiyat. But I think if you are only going to read one of Maalouf’s many novels, you should probably go for Leo the African, or Baldassare’s Travels. They are all magical, and at times remind me of Umberto Eco at his best. I’ve come relatively late to novels from this part of the world and there’s lots to explore.

Question: what is it about vanished worlds, and powerful evocations of them, that grips me so? For as I write this and reflect on what I’ve told you about a good number of the novels above, it’s clear to me that this is a common strand, and something that draws me and affects me greatly…

Another question: why are all my novels in this category – writers in languages other than English – all by male writers? I currently have no answer to this one, but it requires some thought on my part…

To be continued…

August favourites #24: French writer

August 24, 2018

I’m going for a slightly unusual choice here, a writer who is of Lebanese origin, but writes in French and is a member of the Academie FrançaiseAmin Maalouf, whose work I have long enjoyed and admired. With my obsession with the Silk Road, I could not resist a novel called Samarcand, which links Omar Khayyam, Arab astronomy and also the famous poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and was then hooked. But my favourite books of his are those set in the Renaissance world, such as Leo the African, which is an imagined account of the life of the real Arab traveller Leo Africanus, expelled from Spain as a child at the time of the Reconquista, captured by Christian pirates and employed by the Pope as a traveller and geographer, whose Description of Africa remained one of the most detailed and trusted accounts of that continent for many years. And then there was Baldassare’s Travels, in search of a mysterious lost book in the seventeenth century, and there’s another which goes back to very early times and tells the story of Mani, a prophet, seer and philosopher who came into conflict with established religion and paid for it with his life, at some time in the second or third century, as I remember.

From his position in one of the more conflict-ridden societies of the current Middle East, Maalouf also has interesting perspectives to offer on current affairs; Les Identités Meurtrieres I have found very insightful into what brings peoples, races and nations into conflict. Maalouf is clearly much better known in the francophone world than ours, and that is our loss.

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

Writing from other worlds…

July 7, 2014

As English is the dominant world language, and it’s ours, I have always felt that literature from other countries barely gets a look-in in the UK. It’s one of the reasons why I read French Literature at university along with English, and have worked to sustain my working knowledge of one other language. And then, there’s the fact that, proud as I am to have the language of Shakespeare as my mother tongue, I’m in fact only half English. The other half of me is Polish, and this has always reminded me that there is another world, there are other worlds out there…

It’s not possible for anyone to keep up with all the literature in the world; I don’t know how long ago that might once have been possible. So I’m aware that, even though I read quite widely, I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. When I read other people’s blogs about literature, I see how much else there is that I have no awareness of. So I choose, I follow certain tracks for certain reasons. This means that others are inevitably ignored. I have always been interested in Eastern European literature, particularly that written during the time of the various so-called communist regimes of the Cold War; it was fascinating to observe truths being told even under the eyes of the censors. Now, of course, that writers there have the same ‘freedoms’ as we have in the West, they are writing more of the same stuff that we produce. Having my origins in the outcome of the Second World War, I have also been fascinated with how Germans have come to terms (or not) with what was done by them and in their names during the Hitler years; I suppose Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll spring to mind at once.

Something fascinated me with Latin America and magic realism – I can’t remember what or when – and I like the perspective it offers on life and story-telling. And a chance discovery of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and its amazing bookshop opened my eyes to some of the literature of the Arab world: so very different, but, as importantly, just as valid a perspective on the world as our own. Amin Maalouf and Naguib Mahfouz spring immediately to mind.

I would find it almost impossible to justify what I’m about to say, which is that, in comparison with the literature I’ve just described above, I have found a great deal of the English and American literature I have encountered from the same time-period, ie since the Second World War, rather dull, introspective, navel-gazing even. I’ll counter this immediately by mentioning Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as instances of new and exciting anglophone writing, but also categorise them as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Reading through what I’ve just written, I’m realising that I can’t just leave things there; I’m going to have to explore some of the bold and sweeping statements I’ve made in more depth and detail, and attempt to be clearer and fairer…

to be continued…

Literature in translation

April 7, 2014

I wish I were able to read literature in more than two languages (English and French), but none of my other efforts at learning languages have been good enough so far. I do have a major issue with what I have to call English language imperialism: the idea that there is so much already available writing in English from English-speaking countries, such as the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia and so on, that we don’t need to bother with translating writers from other languages… as if nothing worthwhile were being written in French, German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and I don’t know what else. This reminds me of how few films from other countries make it as far as being subtitled and then shown in English cinemas or on TV.

From my limited experience, I have found that much of what is being written in other languages is rather more interesting, challenging and relevant – I will develop this idea in a future post – and English readers are missing out on an awful lot of great literature. I always browse bookshops whenever I’m in France, and I look when I’m in Germany: most contemporary and classic English and American literature has been translated and is available, at reasonable paperback prices (another issue there!) and there is a huge amount of writing from many other countries that has been translated into French or German, of which I’ve never heard, and which never makes its way into English bookshops. My already groaning ‘waiting to read’ shelf always gains a few more inches after a visit to France.

I went back through my reading log: so far this year seven out of the twenty books I’ve read were not originally written in English, and last year, 40 out of the 107 books read were translations, or written in French. And it does seem weird that if I want to read an interesting new Polish novel, I’ll have to read it in French… Currently I’m reading Terra Nostra, by Carlos Fuentes, a Mexican, who has been translated into English.

So, what is going on? Are we simply short of translators from other languages into English? Given the catastrophic decline in the study of foreign languages in this country (only between five and six thousand A Level MFL candidates in the country last year?) perhaps this has something to do with it. Is it that translations do not have the necessary commercial potential in this bean-counting country? But then, surely, a good Russian novel translated into English has a far greater potential readership world-wide than the same novel translated into French or German?

What wouldn’t I have been able to read without my French? Many of Ismail Kadare‘s novels (Albania); much of Milan Kundera‘s criticism (Czech Republic); Agota Kristov‘s bizarre novels (Romania); many of Amin Maalouf‘s novels, and his history (Lebanon); Eric Emmanuel Schmitt‘s challenging alternative future about Hitler (France); some of Naguib Mahfouz‘ fiction (Egypt); Ella Maillart‘s travel writing was mostly originally published in English but is now only available in French translation (!); most of Sylvain Tesson‘s travel writing remains only in French, as does that of Bernard Ollivier and AnneMarie Schwarzenbach (Switzerland)…

However, I already have enough books waiting to be read, so perhaps none of this really matters. And yet, I’d hate to be missing something out there…

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