Posts Tagged ‘Tim Parks’

Victor Hugo and the novel that is “never a downer.”

Saturday, May 20th, 2017

Not just a pretty face.

One of the more exuberant articles I’ve read recently comes from the pen of Tim Parks, writing in the current London Review of Books, about Les Misérables and David Bellos‘s new book about that doorstopper epic, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables.’ After reading the article, and perhaps Bellos’s book as well, it is hard to avoid the conviction that the French poet and master-novelist Victor Hugo was completely mad.

Hugo began Les Misérables in his early forties in Paris, when he was already a leading writer and a controversial public figure. He stopped after three years during the 1948 revolution, and began again in December 1860, nine years into his long exile, by then on the island of Guernsey.

Parks notes that Les Misérables is a curiously sexless book. Jean Valjean seems to live without it. And although Fantine apparently had it, it occurs offstage, so to speak, leaving her an impoverished single mother with Cosette. The sexlessness of the novel is at striking odds with the hypomanic Hugo:

In 1845 Hugo, who had always sought favours from whatever monarch was on the throne, was made a member of the Chamber of Peers, something that would enable him – though not his married lover Léonie Biard – to avoid jail, when caught in flagrante in an act of adultery a few months later. As a young man, he had been romantically conservative and insanely jealous, to the point of insisting that his teenage beloved, Adèle, keep every inch of her ankles properly covered. But after his early marriage to Adèle, in 1822, at the age of 20, five children in rapid succession and the realisation that his wife had had an affair with his friend, the critic Sainte-Beuve, Hugo, in 1833, secured himself a lifelong mistress and worshipper in the actress Juliette Drouet, then in 1844 began his passionate seven-year affair with Biard.

The discovery of his adultery exposed Hugo to ridicule around the time he began Les Misérables, a book that opens, we remember, with a long account of a man who having ‘given the best years of his life … to worldly pursuits and love affairs’ becomes a priest, a prelate and ultimately a kind of saint. ‘People joked,’ Bellos remarks, ‘that [Hugo] must be doing penance for his unsaintly behaviour,’ but declares himself sceptical of this ‘moralising approach’ or of any idea that a troubled Hugo might have looked for ‘refuge in an uplifting tale’. Rather, ‘the main impact of the Biard affair’ was to convince Hugo to ‘write about everything except that’. The novel ‘is unusual … for not talking at any point about adultery or even sex’.

Here’s a fascinating passage from the long review about the names of some of the principals in Les Misérables:

The character names are also, we are reminded, brilliantly invented. Bellos ponders the origins of Fantine, the name of the single mother who falls into prostitution: ‘The first syllable is a contraction of enfant, “child”, so the name itself suggests a meaning close to that of “kid girl”.’ Fantine, Bellos points out, had ‘no parents to name her and no formal identity at all’. The name is part of her status as a misérable. Cosette, Fantine’s illegitimate child and later Valjean’s adopted daughter, might be confused with chosette, a ‘small thing’, or nothing in particular. Again it is a sign she is one of the dispossessed. Bellos doesn’t remark on the irony that these names, while elaborately suggesting a blurred identity at the semantic level, are in fact highly idiosyncratic and wonderfully memorable. It’s in this sense that they are so clever. There are any number of Emmas, only one Fantine. The name is for ever associated with Hugo’s novel. Conversely, Jean Valjean, Bellos explains, couples France’s most common Christian name with a surname that amounts to a contraction of ‘Voilà Jean!’, suggesting ‘somebody or other, anybody, a nobody’. ‘It’s as heart-rending,’ he tells us, ‘as a slumdog answering to the name of “Heyou”.’ Some readers may struggle to feel this.

I take issue, however, with Parks’s accusation that the author “loads the dice,” pushing the situations and characters to unrealistic extremes. I’ve known people and events that will match anything in Les Misérables, and coincidences just as unlikely. I agree that the book is “a story of extravagant gesture and irrepressible underlying optimism,” as Parks writes. “Hugo believes in progress. Despite its title, the novel is never a downer.”

Read the whole article, aptly titled “Thunderstruck,” here.

Writers and the economic food chain

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Tim Parks touched a few nerves with his New York Review of Books blog post, “Does Money Make Us Write Better?”  He writes:

“Let’s talk about money. In his history of world art, E.H. Gombrich mentions a Renaissance artist whose uneven work was a puzzle, until art historians discovered some of his accounts and compared incomes with images: paid less he worked carelessly; well-remunerated he excelled. So, given the decreasing income of writers over recent years—one thinks of the sharp drop in payments for freelance journalism and again in advances for most novelists, partly to do with a stagnant market for books, partly to do with the liveliness and piracy of the Internet—are we to expect a corresponding falling off in the quality of what we read? Can the connection really be that simple? On the other hand, can any craft possibly be immune from a relationship with money?”

Is making a painting comparable to writing?  He wrings his hands over other issues.  “Asked to write blogs for other sites, some with much larger audiences, I chose to stay with the New York Review, partly out of an old loyalty and partly because they pay me better. Would I write worse if I wrote for a more popular site for less money? Or would I write better because I was excited by the larger number of people following the site? And would this larger public then lead to my making more money some other way, say, when I sold a book to an American publisher?”

Payment “indicates how much the publisher is planning to invest in you, how much recognition they will afford you, how much they will push your book, getting you that attention you crave, and of course the level of the advance will tell you where you stand in relation to other authors.”

Of course, for many, many writers on food stamps, it isn’t a choice. Certainly not for poets, novelists, and, increasingly, journalists.

Noah Berlatsky responded in a column entitled, “A New York Review of Books Writer Can’t Tell You About Writing.”  His conclusion?  Parks is “too far up the food chain.”

“I read Tim Parks’ essay and I think, good lord, he lives on a different planet, doesn’t he?  …  I’m over here praying that some packager will sign me up to write some wretched jargon-clogged business textbook so I can pay my quarterly taxes.” He writes:

“So what is the vast majority of writers doing? I’ll tell you. They’re writing SEO copy for godawful, often morally dubious websites. They’re writing instruction manuals for online marketing courses through packagers. They’re writing educational materials, or editing other people’s dissertations. They’re writing author bios for online encyclopedias or bands. They’re doing work, in short, which doesn’t involve a community of writers, or peer respect, or worries about whether too much money is going to affect the quality of their work. Indeed, “quality of work” for most writers most of the time doesn’t mean literary flair, honesty or style. It means hitting the right word count with clean copy before deadline. Period.”

Brian Oard is withholding judgment, for a different reason:  “I refuse to comment until Tim Parks pays me.”

Versions, adaptations, translations, plagiarism, and hogwash – more on Tranströmer

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

The New York Review of Books is grumpy. Or at least a tad cynical.  Tim Parks comments on the Swedes picked a Swede, calling the selection of Tomas Tranströmer for the prestigious lit prize “a healthy decision in every way. Above all for the Nobel jury.”  The lifetime judges are “condemned for life to making, year in year out a burdensome and near impossible decision to which the world increasingly and inexplicably ascribes a crazy importance.”  Picking someone they don’t have to read in translation is an inevitable temptation, the bottle of ibuprofen always on one’s desk.


What a relief then from time to time to say, the hell with it and give it to a Swede, in this case the octogenarian acknowledged as his nation’s finest living poet and a man whose whole oeuvre, as Peter Englund charmingly remarks, could fit into a single slim paperback. A winner, in short, whom the whole jury can read in the original pure Swedish in just a few hours. Perhaps they needed a sabbatical. Not to mention the detail, not irrelevant in these times of crisis, that the $1.5-million-dollar prize will stay in Sweden.

But most healthy of all, a decision like this, which we all understand would never have been taken by say, an American jury, or a Nigerian jury, or perhaps above all a Norwegian jury, reminds us of the essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously. …

Meanwhile, the Times Literary Supplement blog considers calls the choice a brave one:  “The Nobel Academy already stood charged of Eurocentrism, making Tranströmer something of a defiant choice.”

In 1998, the TLS called  Tranströmer’s poetry “the work of a major, even a great, modern poet,” raving about the “icy Nordic romanticism of bleak forests, remote villages, and shorelines” where “half-smothered, the gods of summer / fumble in sea-mist.”

Controversy erupted in 2007 when Alan Brownjohn considered Robin Robertson‘s “versions” of the Swedish poet, and all hell broke lose.  The controversy is here.  Versions, adaptations, translations – what’s the difference?

Not a problem for this year’s Nobel judges in Stockholm:

Of course, the Swedish Nobel committee did not need to translate Tranströmer to consider him for this year’s laureateship. They chose him because “through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”