Ciao!

So, you haven’t heard from me (Robbie) in a while, because I’ve been on holiday, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t seeking out interesting gobbets of information to feed you with, one of which to follow. I’ve also got reviews up my sleeve for a whole plethora of books, including Evie Wyld’s debut novel, Judith Schalansky’s The Giraffe’s Neck, and the 1180 page epic tome by Michael Schmidt, The Novel, A Biography (I admit, I haven’t read it all yet, but I will make that clear) and many others that I can’t bring to mind at this moment. For now, though, let me tell you about an Italian publisher who is doing something rather special.

Beautiful sea urchin

There are a lot of sea urchins in Italy (I think this is a different species, however)

Whilst I was on my version of the Italian Grand Tour (going to as few places as possible, and only if they are very quiet) I came across a bookshop, and being of a mothlike bookish persuasion I was drawn inescapably in, even though I struggle to find enough Italian to ask for a glass of white wine. Inside I saw a lot of books, some of which I liked the look of and some that I didn’t, but one particular imprint caught my eye for three reasons: they were brightly-coloured enough for my sun befuddled eyes to be able to see them clearly, they were by ‘canonical’ authors I could recognise easily, and they were cheap. Seriously cheap, and for reasons I will go into in the following paragraph-but-one I will tell you why this is praiseworthy, and why it should be held up as an example to the publishers of so-called classic literature in this country. But before I do that I should give you a picture of one of these books, because so far all I’ve given you is a sea urchin, and tell you a bit about the publisher (I only know a bit).

Dante's Divine ComedyNewton Compton Editori may not seem like the most Italian of names (without the helpful Editori, anyway) but it is Italian through and through, having been started by a Vittorio Avanzini in Rome in the 60s. NC is primarily interested in publishing classic fiction, but have recently moved into contemporary translations, which we thoroughly approve of. They produce two forms of Classic – their paperback, which sells at 1.90€ (about £1.50) and a hardback (3.90€ // £3.10). They have only just put up the prices on their paperbacks, so if you fly out quick you can still swipe copies for only 99 cents (like I did).

Oscar Wilde's the Importance of Being ErnestThe reason I feel like this is noteworthy is that these books are not poorly made, are not going to discolour in a week (I’m looking at you, £2 Penguin Popular Classics). I tested my paperback copy of Bulgakov’s Cuore di Cane in Italy by leaving it in the baking sun whilst taking my siesta, holding it in my armpit whilst walking along the sea wall of the port, and it also spent quite some time lightly folded over in the bottom of my bag on the flight home, where it came out looking pretty healthy. What I am alluding to here is that Classic can be cheap (more on this in a moment) and well made, because you will sell hunners of them so they can be printed in bulk, which reduces the cost of production massively. Flaubet's Madame BovaryRight, cost. I have talked about this in passing before, but this gives me the opportunity to have a good rant. For many of the cannonical classics there is no living author, and often no rights either. Thus, if I wanted to, I could typeset, print, bind and sell a copy of Great Expectations tomorrow and wouldn’t have to pay anyone (If I did all the production). So how is it that companies (Cambridge Modern Classics and Penguin Classics being the big players here) can rationalise a £9.99 price tag (going all the way up to around £17 in some cases) for a book where there is no advance or royalty needing covered?

Bulgakov's Master and MargheritaNow of course, occasionally you will change the cover, or order a new translation, or even deign to actually pay an academic to write a forward, but largely these texts haven’t changes for decades. Just imagine the money being taken, and (in my opinion) taken unfairly.

978-88-541-6972-2I would like to hear any defense of the extortionate prices involved for out of copyright text, so if you have one please let me hear it. I have heard it said that a cheap classic will put people off buying modern fiction, but it just doesn’t wash with me, because what is on offer is a completely different experience.

Last week, Freight Books read…

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi KawakamiStrange Weather in Tokyo, by Hiromi Kawakami (trans. Allison Markin Powell), published by Portobello books.

What a beautiful novel! A funny, ethereal and above all heartfelt love story between two isolated people. Strange Weather in Tokyo was shortlisted for the International Foreign Fiction Prize and could quite easily have won it, in my book. My only criticism (and it isn’t really one) is that it was too easy to read; I flashed through it in a matter of days, buoyed on by an expertly crafted strain of will-they-won’t-they authorship. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

The Iraqi Christ by Hassan BlasimThe Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press), translated by Jonathan Wright. On the day the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is due to be announced, I finally finished The Iraqi Christ, which is shortlisted (edit: and has now won it). This takes my total to three of the six shortlisted titles (and I am just starting on Strange Weather in Tokyo). I have no idea who will win, so instead I should probably talk about The Iraqi Christ instead.

This is a fine collection of short stories by a clearly talented author. Dark, twisted, often fantastical and self-referential, they carry a wonderfully wry strain of humour that matches the often macabre settings we are treated to. The experiences carried in the novel are not exclusive to war torn Iraq; we are also taken to Europe and the experience of Iraqi-as-refugee. I enjoyed these stories the most because the sense of alienation, isolation and disconnect was really tangible. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

In Times of Fading Light by Eugen RugeIn Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (Faber), translated by Anthea Bell. This book won the German Book Prize (before it was translated, naturally), but for some reason missed out on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist. It is a novel of strands, charting the life of one East German family from the establishment of the German Democratic Republic through to the modern day. We flip backwards and forwards between the generations, starting with the Grandson, Alexander, who is visiting his ailing father Kurt, and then flitting backwards and forwards in time to visit each generation throughout that half century. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

An Atlas of Remote Islands (and Pocket version, right), by Judith Schalansky and translated by Christine Lo (Particular Books, Penguin).

When I woke up this morning I was worried, because I had no translation to review today. Indeed, I had nothing to review (I’m halfway through three books, which is a situation I hate being in, and other options for review are awaiting a blog post I will be writing tomorrow) whatsoever. Then our extremely cheerful postman arrived with the book on the left, and a feature that I had been planning for next week suddenly became possible. Hey, it is even a translation – perfection is a chance discovery. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

Pig's Foot by Carlos AcostaPig’s Foot, by Carlos Acosta (Bloomsbury Publishing), translated by Frank Wynne. Pig’s Foot is a temporal traipse through the history of Cuba. The narrator, Oscar Mandinga, leads us through the four-generation family history of Pata de Puerco (guess what this translates to), a Macondo-like slave village in Cuba’s deep south.

This is a rather remarkable debut novel, clearly a labour of love, which describes the landscape and, above all, people of Cuba in delicious technicolour. The currents of bloody revolution that flow around this little village, the changes that occur, and the wonderfully-drawn characters that inhabit it, all add up to a rich and satisfying meal. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

When I called that Nazi ‘mate’, that did it for them! I wonder what I’m going to do next. Because I will do something, I know. I just don’t yet know what it will be…alone_in_berlin

Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann (Penguin Classics). I’ll start by saying that this is one of the most perfectly paced books I’ve ever read. For a book with so many key characters, and totaling not far off 600 pages, the story is so carefully structured, revealing little bits and pieces to you as you creep through the text. This is a storyteller who doesn’t show all his cards at once, and despite the book’s dealing with factual events, Fallada manages to keep you in suspense until the very last moment. Continue reading

Under the Covers

In the latest of our series of our most treasured book covers, Robbie Guillory brings you Švejk, the (anti)hero from Czechoslovakia (as was).

cover of The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav HasekThe (sadly unfinished) tale of The Good Soldier Švejk (or Schweik or Swejk, depending on your ability to produce accents) is one of the greatest novels of the First World War in in existence. An exploration of the futility of war and the pointless activities acted out in the name of military discipline, Švejk is an exemplar of passive resistance (or stupidity – the arguments flow back and forth). I will review this at some point. But on to the covers, because we will be looking at variations on a theme. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

The President's Hat by Antoine LaurainThe President’s Hat, by Antoine Laurain (Gallic Books). Translated by Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce and Louise Rogers Lalaurie. This is the perfect read for a weekend away – doesn’t take long to read, regular chapters for regular breaks for another G&T and not too heavy in terms of theme or content. I really enjoyed it, but I doubt it will be a book I will ever feel the need to read again. Continue reading

Last week, Freight Books read…

The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, by Dubravka UgresicThe Museum of Unconditional Surrender, by Dubravka Ugrešic (my copy is by Pheonix), translated by Celia Hawkesworth. This book is hard to come by if you want a new copy, it seems. I think it is only being published in America at the moment, and this is something that needs to be rectified as soon as possible!

I think we’ll kick this off with a quote from a section that comes between the acknowledgements and Chapter 1, but which is very much what the book is about. I hope the author won’t mind me typing out this swathe. First, though, we need this picture:

Continue reading