To Review or Not To Review

…that is the question. Were Shakespeare alive today he might despair at this flippant appropriation of Hamlet’s words – regarding the nature of suffering and existence – to the mere frippery of book reviews. Then again, we could well imagine some literary wag retorting, ‘A matter of life and death? No. It’s far more important than that!’

As it happens, and to mislead you no longer, I’m not questioning the value of book reviews per se, rather, I have a more specific query: is it worth reviewing any and all books, regardless of when they were published, or should we instead restrict ourselves to only recent releases?

To date, I’ve written two book reviews for this blog, of The Infatuations by Javier Marías, and of The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani, in each case less than a year after the book was released, and for The Infatuations, less than a month. As an amateur reviewer with a full-time job, and crucially without access to pre-prints, it’s hard to turn them around much faster than that.

But what of books published a few years ago, or longer ago even than that? Some Henry James or Charles Dickens? Or perhaps Miguel de Cervantes’ picaresque? A week or two ago, I almost began to write a review of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for this blog. It’s an immense book, which already has several websites, such as The Wallace Wiki & The Howling Fantods, dedicated to decoding and analysing this epic work. Not to denigrate my abilities, but would a few-hundred word review written by me really add anything, other than to note that yet another aspiring author was both inspired and intimidated by this book? This question posed, I renamed the file from “A Review of Infinite Jest” and began to fill it out with this essay instead.

I know that many other bloggers, and websites such as Goodreads, regularly post reviews of old books, but I’m unconvinced of the need. Before continuing, I should qualify my arguments by stating that I in no way wish to discourage people from engaging with literature and in fact am heartened by it. It shows the literary form has not shrivelled into irrelevance. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t question the value of these reviews, and further, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the nature of these reviews. Are they in fact the same beast as the review of a freshly-printed book? In general, I would contend that they are not.

It’s not that I believe these reviews are unable to say anything original, or that the personal perspective they might provide is worthless, it’s just that the longer the book has been exposed to the oxygen of the wider cultural environment, the greater the etchings and erosions that the collective opinion and critical thought will make on it, and so the harder it is to write a truly original view of things. The original book has become obscured by this cloudy accretion of oxides. The risk is that in over-earnest attempts to be impartial, by consciously attempting to divest oneself of all that critical baggage, it is easy to drift into a reactionary position and find oneself unfairly rubbishing the critically-acclaimed masterwork. Maybe the best critics are able to avoid these traps.

Another aspect of reviews is of course the plot summary – useful at first when it isn’t common knowledge, but after a while certain words of Calvino become apposite, when he describes the class of books that “Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too“. An exception might therefore be made for the unjustly unpopular or little-known work. In that case there can be genuine value in a review – it carries no baggage, and by drawing our attention to the book the review performs a useful service. The longer a book has been published though, the less the need for yet another straightforward review – after all there were presumably a surfeit of those when it first went on sale.

So, if we’re not to review these old books, how we do direct our excess literary energies? How can we best engage with these older works? Is there anything original that we can add to the collective critical opinion?

My feeling is that, rather than a general review, it might be better to provide a more specific discussion as to how the novel meshes with the contemporary environment, to assess the impact it has had, perhaps embark on a deeper exploration of one of its themes. Furthermore, rather than pretend that the subconscious infiltration of other opinions hasn’t occurred, we should face them out in the open, and discuss the book within that context. Finally, rather than critique only a single book, perhaps a comparative approach examining two or more works might prove to be more illuminating.

These are merely my opinions, though ones which will naturally guide the direction of my blog, but what do you other readers & reviewers out there think? Please do leave your considered comments below.

Review: The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Some authors seem to have a few principal obsessions, which they repeatedly examine in their novels. In the case of Diego Marani, author of New Finnish Grammar, these obsessions are language and identity. Luckily there are readers who share these obsessions, and I count myself in their number. In his enjoyable new novel, The Last of the Vostyachs, Marani once again explores the relationship between the Finnish language and the national identity of the Finnish people. Given this thematic similarity, it only seems natural, if not unavoidable, to review Vostyachs by making some reference to New Finnish Grammar.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani (Dedalus)

If the underlying theme in the two books is the same, the presentation is certainly different; Vostyachs is in many ways a straightforward crime novel. Ivan, a mute, is the last of the Vostyachs and hence the last remaining (potential) speaker of his language. He is encouraged to speak once again by the academic Olga Pavlovna, who has discovered that in Ivan’s language lies a host of treasures. Contacting her old colleague and previous collaborator, Prof. Jarmo Aurtova, she reveals her exciting discovery, and in a classic set-up delivers her linguistic charge to the care of this villain.

Aurtova, it is revealed, is an adulterer, a serial womaniser and a ruthlessly-ambitious personality, which are perhaps not the best characteristics for someone taking sole care of a bewildered man unused to the city and the ways of its people. For Ivan constitutes evidence of a link between the Finnic and Eskimo-Aleut languages, possibly even those spoken by Native Americans, all of which sits in direct contradiction to Aurtova’s painstakingly-constructed theory of Finnish linguistic development. It rapidly becomes clear to the reader that the obliteration of his thesis is untenable to Aurtova and, no matter what the cost, even murder, he will not allow his work, his obsession, to be disrupted. Whether or not he is successful in his quest for self-glorification I leave for you to discover.

For much of the book there are thought-provoking exchanges between Olga and Jarmo, culminating in an amusing, but tense, scene of seduction and counter-seduction. In one such conversation, Olga, saddened by the thought of the loss of a language, tells Aurtova, “And with each one that dies, a little truth dies with it.” Unmoved he replies that, “…the contrary is true: the fewer there are left, the more we’re moving towards the truth, towards the pure language which contains them all.” Somehow these deliberations are sharpened by the knowledge that we are reading a translated piece of literature, and indeed, one that has only been translated into a limited number of languages.

While there are many healthy ways to appreciate language, Aurtova is a fanatic, believing in the superiority of some languages over others. More than that, he is an unprincipled opportunist, who in the end has abandoned the scientific method once it no longer suits his interests. And so for all of the linguistics and talk of fricative laterals with a labiovelar appendix, Vostyachs is a thriller, full of narrative tension. Perhaps because of that the book somehow feels a little less profound or original than Grammar; where that book was mournful and subdued, Vostyachs is tense and unsettling, though there is much humour to be had too. The ending could not be described as an utterly happy one, but it is uplifting, spiritual even, and I can say that, without revealing anything of the plot, language (or the power of language) emerges the winner.

And we the reading public are winners too, as aside from the merits of Grammar and Vostyachs purely as stories, it is good that Marani keeps providing us with these entertaining opportunities to think about language, and all of the things that go with it. Grazie mille Diego!

New Finnish Motivation

For a while now I’ve been preoccupied by thoughts of language, the preservation of language, and identity, sure that the kernel of an idea that I had for a novel could be made to work. But I worried that it would be an idea that only I would find interesting. Even though advice is given to not write for a specific audience and to write only for oneself, for a project that might be 100,000 words long and occupy several years, it becomes hard to put these worries from your mind completely.

And so I was very grateful to receive for Christmas New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (translated from the Italian by Judith Landry), which in many ways was a gift of more than just a book, it was a gift of inspiration, of reassurance and motivation.

New Finnish Grammar became somewhat popular in the UK eighteen months ago, when, after an 11 year exile, it was finally published in English. It was a particular favourite of Nicholas Lezard, whose excellent review of it can be found in the Guardian, and was in fact quoted on the cover.

Set during the Second World War it tells the story of Sampo Karjalainen, a soldier who is found unconscious in the street, apparently the victim of a vicious assault. His head injuries are so severe that an almost total amnesia has overcome him, including the loss of his language. With the few clues about him pointing to a Finnish identity, the neurologist caring for him encourages Sampo to work hard at relearning his Finnish, with the eventual aim of him returning to Helsinki. The doctor believes that both his Finnish language and identity will re-emerge once he’s embedded in a familiar environment.

The central mystery of Sampo’s true identity, and the foreboding introduced in the prologue, provides the narrative foundation to the novel, allowing Marani to build atop it a discussion of the Finnish language and its inherent relationship to the Finnish book of epic mythic poetry, The Kalevala. The experiences of Sampo mirror the struggle of Finland to determine its own national identity and language, an issue that was forced by the Kalevala. In fact, so compelling is the novel’s narrative drive, that I had to actively slow down so as not to miss all the details. I’m sure I was unsuccessful, but at least it gives me an excuse to read this fascinating book a second time.

After having spent some time relearning Finnish Sampo is asked to name his favourite Finnish word or phrase, and replies that it’s the abessive case, and after reading his reasons perhaps you might be inclined to agree.

Yes, a declension for things we haven’t got: koskenkorvatta, toivatta, no koskenkorva, no hope, both are declined in the abessive. It’s beautiful, it’s like poetry! And also very useful, because there are more things we haven’t got than that we have.

This reference to absence could be applied to many things in the book, to all the things for which Sampo is searching. The key hypothesis of the neurologist is that both the Finnish experience and the recovery of his language would help Sampo in this search for his old personality and memories, and that developing each would reinforce the others. A pastor who instructs Sampo in the Kalevala seems to agree:

When you can read the Kalevala you will be a real Finn; when you can feel the rhythm of its songs, your hair will stand on end and you will truly be one of us!

With words like these, and similar from rest of the book, from all the persuasion and instruction that is delivered to Sampo, and that could equally well be being delivered to the reader,

So the shortest words are also the oldest, the most worn away by time. In Finnish, the word for war is sota, and these two syllables are eloquent pointers to how many we have indeed waged.

you might find yourself wanting to learn Finnish! The author certainly seems to possess a fondness for it, a language which is almost without relatives, Estonian and Hungarian being the only two.

However, the intellectual, linguistic side of the novel slowly gives way to sadness, when Sampo, despite his efforts to regain his identity, and no matter how much his Finnish improves, never really regains a feeling of inner peace. And I will leave things at that for fear of revealing too much. To find out more, I recommend that you read the book!

And yet, perhaps a little selfishly, as sad as I felt for Sampo, at the end of the novel I was heartened and encouraged. If a novel like this, which is rooted so heavily in the topics around language, can be so interesting and likeable, then perhaps there is hope yet. I can tackle once more my own idea, not with expectation, but at least with a little confidence. That said, the final lesson to take from the novel is cautionary, as, just like Sampo, I shouldn’t count on any certainties; there can be no guarantees that anyone will like my novel when it is finished, myself included.