A wonderful example of pure slipstream: innovative, multi-levelled, endlessly amusing, completely original. Kehlmann is a young German writer, currently living in Vienna. This is his third novel. Like all the best slip, Fame more or less defies description, even undermining any attempt to recount the plot. It’s one of those books that as soon as you’ve finished it, your interest has been so piqued by the author’s intrigue that you want to go back and start all over again. And no, it’s completely non-fantastic — everything happens in the here and now, no troublesome fantasy to have to put up with. This is middle Europe in the present day, a world of mobile phones, grumpy authors, assisted suicide, self-fulfilment books and characterless hotels. It is the most enjoyable novel I have read this year. So far.
Borowski was born in 1922 in Zhitomir, in Ukraine, to Polish parents. His first book, a collection of poetry, was published in Warsaw in the winter of 1942. A few weeks later he was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. He survived the war, as did his fiancée, also incarcerated in the concentration camp. After the war Borowski joined the Communist Party and worked as a political journalist.
The stories in this book (fiction, but obviously and unquestionably based on direct experience) started appearing in 1946, and were published in two collections in the late 1940s. This Way for the Gas brings all his Auschwitz stories into one volume. Because of these stories, and his poetry, Borowski was almost immediately recognized in Poland as a major literary figure, although most of his output later was political journalism. He committed suicide in 1951, still only 29. It is at times a difficult and shocking book to read because of the content, but it is also undoubtedly a work of literature.
Like all great books it is not at all as your preconceptions might lead you to expect. Many of the events and descriptions come as a surprise, and because of our collective assumptions about life in an extermination camp some of it beggars belief, but Borowski was there. This Penguin edition appears to be the only English-language version presently available, and is published by the US branch of the company. It can be obtained through the internet.
Today is Bastille Day, La Fête Nationale. The French celebrate in style, notably with a military parade down the Champs Elysées. When I was a child I would see film of this on television and think they were celebrating my birthday. I have had an irrational but enduring affection for France ever since.
Just back in fact from Paris, where there was a festival showing of the film of The Prestige, in a small town called Bois d’Arcy on the western edge of the city. The festival was organized by an old friend of mine, Claire Duval. The facilities were tremendous: a modern conversion of large farm buildings into a cultural centre, including a substantial but intimate cinema. All the arrangements were perfect, organized by Claire with unobtrusive style. I made a speech in school-learned French to introduce the film, and was still cringing half an hour later. The film looked good on the big screen (I had not seen it in a cinema since 2008, when I was at a screening in Russia, with Russian dubbing). It seems to gain conviction with the years, looking better and better. The print Claire had ordered was subtitled, not dubbed in French, which helped compensate for the poor sound level of much of the English dialogue, especially at the end.
I seem to have passed away during the night, or at least passed on — the Guardian has left me out of its birthday listings today. A reversion to form, as the paper consistently ignored me for at least sixty years, but then by some unstated miracle began putting me in. I knew it was too good to last, and I am returned to unnamed oblivion. Funny how these small slights gain one’s undivided interest, if only for a minute or two. However, I was glad to see that most of my co-birthers remain: the television presenter Sue Lawley, a mediocre politician who used to run London called Illtyd Harrington, and the historical novelist Susan Howatch, all remain on the Guardian‘s ‘A’ list.
The cover of The Islanders has finally been agreed between myself and Gollancz, a matter of some relief to both sides. An earlier version of the illustration has been popping up on the internet, and Amazon.co.uk have put a version of it on their page for the book, but all these earlier ones were roughs. Similar to but not as polished as the full version.
Speaking of polish, the jacket will be printed on matt laminate, the islands picked out with spot varnish.
The cover is the work of an artist called Grady McFerrin. A gallery of his work can be viewed here. The illustration on the back of the book is a word cloud, based on the key images of the novel, and Mr McFerrin is not responsible for that.
(When possible I will upload a copy of the finished artwork, but at the moment the only copy I have is not the final, final version.)
Meanwhile, printed bookmarks based on images from The Islanders are distributed free with GrimGrin titles ordered from this website: here. You can also get one if you email me and ask nicely.
I am a collector of books about publishing, but somehow I missed this title when it was first published in 2000. Ms Athill worked for André Deutsch Ltd for most of her life, in the process gaining much respect from fellow publishing professionals as well as the authors for whom she was responsible. The book falls into two general parts: the first is an informal history of the firm and her role in it, the second describes some of the more famous authors she worked with. These include Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul (who later described this book as “feminine tosh”, but not in an unkind way, you understand) and Mordecai Richler.
I must say I found the book something of a disappointment: the story of the emerging indie publishing house is sketchy and incomplete, and her anecdotes about these writers are bland and calculated not to offend. Every negative judgement is immediately ‘balanced’ by gushing admiration for their wonderful works. Even Naipaul, whose lounge-lizard charmlessness is a blight on the art of authorship, gets off pretty lightly.
The book is a surprisingly poor piece of publishing, considering its subject: a dull cover, no interior photographs, no contents page and no index.
Planned and known CP appearances in the near future:
- 15th September – Alt.Fiction, Derby. Please check the Writing East Midlands website for more information. This is the Derby launch of CP’s new novel, The Islanders.
- 27th September; 6:30 pm – Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London. Launch of the anthology House of Fear, published by Solaris. CP has a new story, “Widow’s Weeds”.
- 30th September/1st October – Fantasycon, Royal Albion Hotel, Brighton. CP will be signing copies of the The Islanders. Also, will be interviewing special guest, Brian Aldiss.
- 25th January 2012 – BSFA London Meeting, Upstairs room, The Antelope Tavern, 22 Eaton Place, London SW1W 8EZ. CP interviewed about The Islanders, by Paul Kincaid.