Readersforum's Blog

December 7, 2011

Chilean poet Nicanor Parra wins Spanish top prize

Chilean poet Nicanor Parra has won Chile's National Literature Award twice (AFP/PRESIDENCIA/File, Hugo Adonis)

Chile’s 97-year-old poet Nicanor Parra has won the Cervantes Prize, the culture ministry said Thursday, the oldest person to win the leading literary award for works in Spanish.The prize honours a writer’s life work and it carries with it a cash award of 125,000 euros ($170,000).

It will be handed out on April 23, in recognition of the anniversary of the death in 1616 of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of “Don Quixote” and Spain?s greatest literary figure.

Parra, who is also a mathematician, is considered to be one of the most important poets writing in the Spanish language.

He describes himself as an “anti-poet” because his works reject the traditional refinement of most Latin American literature and instead use a more colloquial tone.

Parra published his first collection of verse, “Cancionero sin nombre” or “Unnamed song book”, in 1937

He won Chile’s National Literature Award twice — in 1969 and 1981.

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November 23, 2011

The fight hasn’t gone out of literature just yet

The row between Bernard-Henri Lévy, left, and Michel Houellebecq kept Paris entertained for much of 2008. Photograph: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

Niall Ferguson’s spat with critic Pankaj Mishra is the latest in a long line of literary feuds.

By Robert McCrum

“I will hound him in print in a way he has never experienced before.” Professor Niall Ferguson’s declaration of war on critic Pankaj Mishra for a hostile notice in the London Review of Books will have brought some pre-Christmas cheer to those who row in the galleys of literary journalism.

For a moment it seemed as if this would be the year in which peace broke out on the slopes of Parnassus. In May, Theroux shook hands with Naipaul. In America, the critic Dale Peck made up with his long-term foe, “the worst writer of his generation”, novelist Rick Moody.

So, thank God for Prof Ferguson’s thin skin. The only question is: will this “spat” descend into a full-blown “feud”? In the taxonomy of literary bust-ups, which takes in Dickens v Thackeray and Henry James v HG Wells, there are three basic categories.

First, there’s the Row-Literary. This is really no more than the cost of doing business in Grub Street. The Row-Literary is usually inspired by a bad review. John le Carré’s review of The Satanic Verses in the Observer is a locus classicus.

A small domestic incident quickly became an international bushfire when lifelong literary fire-raiser Christopher Hitchens merrily chucked kerosene on some smouldering embers. Feud watchers will know that it’s the sign of a really good literary row when outsiders get dragged in.

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November 8, 2011

World literature tour: Argentina

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:12 am

Buenos Aires' celebrated El Ateneo bookstore. Photograph: Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

This month we’re off to the country that gave us Jorge Luis Borges, as well as many lesser-known but equally dazzling writers.

By Richard Lea

After a month in Colombia, the tour returns with recommendations ranging from Jorge Isaacs’s Maria, described by dande as “One of the most notable works of the Romantic movement in Spanish literature” to Tomás González’s La Luz Difícil, a newly released novel which according to K “Colombian Literature junkies are giving … outstanding reviews”.

Along the way Daryl suggested Elena Garces’s Colombian Women “deserves to be read as an indicator of the contemporary situation of women in many other Latin American countries”, while Rafael Leal cited the “reactionary” philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila, who apparently “did not believe in translations and read everything in its original language” – though his own works, consisting “mostly of aphorisms” are available in “Polish, German, Italian and French”. For Leandro, whereas Gabriel García Márquez describes “Latin-American reality”, Fernando Vallejo “describes Colombian reality” in particular, so that Colombians reading Vallejo feel “pain, anger” from descriptions which “destroy our hearts”. Thanks for all these recommendations, especially the outpouring of love for Victor M Roselló’s East of the Orteguaza.

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October 28, 2011

Occupy first. Demands come later

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 5:03 am

'The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end.' Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Critics say the Occupy cause is nebulous. Protesters will need to address what comes next – but beware a debate on enemy turf.

By Slavoj Žižek

What to do after the occupations of Wall Street and beyond – the protests that started far away, reached the centre and are now, reinforced, rolling back around the world? One of the great dangers the protesters face is that they will fall in love with themselves. In a San Francisco echo of the Wall Street occupation this week, a man addressed the crowd with an invitation to participate as if it was a happening in the hippy style of the 60s: “They are asking us what is our programme. We have no programme. We are here to have a good time.”

Carnivals come cheap – the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. The protesters should fall in love with hard and patient work – they are the beginning, not the end. Their basic message is: the taboo is broken; we do not live in the best possible world; we are allowed, obliged even, to think about alternatives.

In a kind of Hegelian triad, the western left has come full circle: after abandoning the so-called “class struggle essentialism” for the plurality of anti-racist, feminist, and other struggles, capitalism is now clearly re-emerging as the name of the problem. So the first lesson to be taken is: do not blame people and their attitudes. The problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is not “Main Street, not Wall Street”, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street.

There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want. What social organisation can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What organs, including those of control and repression? The 20th-century alternatives obviously did not work.

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October 8, 2011

Nobel literature prize for poet unable to speak for the last two decades

AFP/ GETTY IMAGES Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer at his home in Stockholm

By Arifa Akbar

Swedish poet who all but lost the power of speech after suffering a stroke more than 20 years ago plans to accept the grandest prize in literature by way of a piano recital.

Tomas Tranströmer, 80, was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature after the Swedish Academy praised him because, “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.” The poet, who lost the use of his right arm after the stroke in 1990, is a keen pianist. Swedish musicians have adapted for him compositions designed to be played with one hand.

Neil Astley, the poet’s friend and the founding editor of Bloodaxe, Tranströmer’s British publisher, said the Swede often expressed himself through music, and anticipated a performance at the Nobel ceremony.

“I imagine he’ll be in a wheelchair, and he will speak to people through the piano,” he said. Mr Astley said Tranströmer’s latest poetry collection had sold out within hours of the announcement. More than 300 orders were placed straight away. The writer had previously sold around 4,000 poetry collections in the past 25 years in Britain. more

October 6, 2011

Nobel prize for literature: Tomas Tranströmer joins a strange gang

Nobel champions (of Stalin) Pablo Neruda, left, and (of Hitler) Knut Hamsun. Photograph: AFP/Corbis

For all their august reputation, the Swedish poet’s fellow winners have a notably chequered history.

By John Dugdale

In becoming the 108th winner of the Nobel prize for literature, Tomas Tranströmer joins a curious club in which giants such as WB Yeats, Rabindranath Tagore, TS Eliot and Jean-Paul Sartre are outnumbered by obscure figures (often Scandinavian realist novelists or poets from Mediterranean or Latin countries) you’ve never heard of. Several should not be in at all, according to the contemporary interpretation of the prize’s rules as excluding anyone except imaginative writers; the roll of honour includes the philosophers Henri Bergson, Rudolf Christoph Eucken and Bertrand Russell, the Roman historian Theodor Mommsen and Winston Churchill, whose chronicle of the second world war (put together by young researchers) secured his entry as a historian. Erik Axel Karlfeldt, a Swedish poet, was not only dead when awarded the 1931 prize but until his death had been permanent secretary of the awarding body, the Swedish Academy. Two more little-known Swedes who were then academy members, Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson, were scandalously jointly honoured in 1974.

Politically, the laureates range from Knut Hamsun, who eulogised Hitler, to Pablo Neruda, who composed an ode to Stalin, and Mikhail Sholokhov, who had been a Supreme Soviet member under him; left-of-centre views perhaps predominate (Jorge Luis Borges’s support for rightwing regimes is said to have put paid to his chances), but conservatives such as Eliot, François Mauriac and VS Naipaul have received the nod too. Creatively, authors at the avant-garde end of modernism or writing experimental novels, plays or poetry after 1945 are scarce – Eliot, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon and José Saramago are the most obvious adventurers. Conversely, Proust, Joyce and other difficult authors have been shunned.

Of the 107 laureates since 1901, only 12 have been women, and a longstanding European bias is evident when countries are ranked Olympics-style by wins: first France, then the US, UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy and Spain, followed by Russia/Soviet Union, Ireland and Poland all on level pegging. Naguib Mahfouz is so far the Arab world’s sole winner and is one of Africa’s four; Asia has had three, divided between India and Japan; Latin America and the Caribbean seven. more

September 23, 2011

Julian Assange autobiography: why he didn’t want it published

Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, disowned his 'unauthorised' autobiography on its day of publication. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Memoir looked set to make the WikiLeaks founder and publisher Canongate a fortune – then the arguments started.

By David Leigh, James Ball and Esther Addley

It started out as a dream £1.2m publishing contract, with a vision of many millions to be made for all parties in worldwide book sales and film deals. But Julian Assange: the Unauthorised Autobiography – as the Canongate publishing director, Nick Davies, titled the book jacket – has turned out to be something of a nightmare, threatening the hoped-for profit bonanza.

There are not many autobiographies whose subject angrily disowns it on publication day, as Assange did, when he revealed that the manuscript had in fact been penned and handed over by someone else: in this case, ghostwriter Andrew O’Hagan, who had hoped to keep his role quiet. The founder of WikiLeaks upheld his reputation for 360-degree belligerence by claiming that he had been “screwed over to make a buck” by an opportunist publisher whom he had tried to injunct.

To complete the picture of acrimony, Assange went on to publicly denounce his former lawyers, claiming they were sitting on his publishers’ advance of £412,000, which they were holding to cover their legal fees. Assange’s allegations of “extreme overcharging” were rapidly denied by the London media firm of Finers, Stephens, Innocent (FSI).

The saga of Assange’s memoirs began last year, when after co-operating with the Guardian and the New York Times to publish a series of huge electronic leaks he had obtained of US military material he was arrested in London, wanted for extradition and questioning by Swedish authorities about claims of sexual assault from two women in Stockholm.

A book deal was drawn up and clinched by the London literary agent Caroline Michel, under which Canongate, the innovative Scottish firm run by Jamie Byng, and the US publishers Knopf agreed to pay £600,000 and $800,000 respectively for the rights, with Knopf paying $250,000 (£162,000) in advance. Canongate also agreed to pay upfront O’Hagan’s ghostwriting fee, believed to exceed £100,000.

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August 16, 2011

When does a soldier’s ‘memoir’ count as fact, and when as fiction?

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 11:46 am


Oliver Bullough investigates the curious case of Nicolai Lilin.

Publishing has been plagued by fabricated memoirs in recent years. Famous cases include that of a Belgian woman describing how she had been kept alive by wolves, and a man who said he was saved in a Nazi concentration camp by a girl throwing food over the fence. But Nicolai Lilin’s Free Fall: a Sniper’s Story from Chechnya may be unique. Lilin, who wrote a brutal first-person account of fighting in the Russian army in the Chechen war, praised by its publisher as “a unique and remarkable memoir”, has admitted that he did not experience much of what he described and deliberately embellished it to help sales.

Previously, the authors have at least initially insisted on the truthfulness of their tales. Lilin, however, immediately told The Independent that much of his book had not actually happened to him, including the opening passage, in which he is conscripted forcibly into the Russian army.

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June 16, 2011

New Che Guevara diary published

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 7:14 am


Che Guevara in 1958, during the period covered by Diary of a Combatant. Photograph: Cap. Antonio Nunez Jimenez/AFP/Getty Images

Diary of a Combatant covers revolutionary’s arrival in Cuba in 1956 with Fidel and Raúl Castro through to late 1958.

By Ben Quinn

A previously unpublished diary kept by Ernesto “Che” Guevara during the guerilla campaign he fought alongside Fidel Castro has been released in Cuba.

Diary of a Combatant covers the period from 1956 until late 1958, beginning with Guevara’s arrival in Cuba aboard the yacht Granma with Fidel and Raúl Castro and going on to cover his march from the east of the island to Havana.

The book was unveiled in the Cuban capital on Tuesday on what would have been the Argentine-born revolutionary’s 83rd birthday. His widow, Aleida March, was on hand with one of his daughters to sign copies and said that the purpose of publishing the diary was “to acknowledge his thoughts, life and work”.

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May 6, 2011

Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie lead list of UK’s top-earning crimewriters

Agatha Christie has The Mousetrap to thank for much of her fortune – it has been playing on the West End stage since 1952. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Dead authors are still making a fortune, while John Grisham and Dan Brown lead the US rankings.

By Maev Kennedy

Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, has beaten Agatha Christie to the title of most successful – and highest earning – British crime writer of all time.

The first crime writers rich list, prepared for the crime drama digital TV channel Alibi, is based on recorded sales, box office returns, licence fees and company accounts. It reveals that many dead writers, including Fleming and Christie, live on as flourishing brands.

It puts Fleming in first place at more than £100m, with more than 100m copies of the Bond books sold worldwide. Christie comes a close second at £100m exactly, including ticket sales from The Mousetrap, the longest running stage play in the world, a fixture in London’s West End since 1952.

But both were beaten hands down by the American writers John Grisham, at $600m (£366m), and Dan Brown, at $400m.

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