Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Tuesday afternoon book news

Afternoon everybody. Hope you're enjoying the new improved Plashing Vole schedule (i.e. once a day rather than four times). I am. It's keeping my blood pressure down.

The book drought seems to be over: I've been buying a lot of second-hand stuff recently. The plan is to read them one day and then bequeath them to whichever resentful and unwilling relations answer the door to the courier the day after I die. What they do then with several lorry-loads of Marxist literary criticism, science fiction, experimental Welsh poetry and several generations' worth of children's fiction is entirely up to them. Mind you, given the rate of environmental destruction, my library will provide useful sustenance and shelter for our amphibian descendants.

In this week's pile is Robin Llywelyn's Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn (White Star on a White Background) and From Empty Harbour to White Ocean, first released as O'r Harbwr Gwag i'r Cefnfor Gwyn. I've read White Star in English, and thought it was about time to get to grips with the original. Llywelyn is one of those authors massively disadvantaged by the English publishing industry's indifference to literature in other languages. Llywelyn is a massively talented experimental author whose work crosses generic and stylistic boundaries. He is, as far as any literary author goes, 'important'. (And if you get a taste for the hip young gunslingers of Welsh literature, go for Wiliam Owen Roberts too: mindblowingly good. His Y Pla is available in English as Pestilence though nothing else has been translated, damn it.

I've been catching up on Llywelyn because it's in the back of my mind to write something on Welsh literature (in both languages) and science fiction. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Llewelyn touches on fantasy themes and techniques occasionally, but there's not much SF by Welsh authors, in Welsh, or set in Wales. It's quite different in Scotland: there are lots of authors, my favourites being Iain M Banks and Ken MacLeod. They aren't just Scottish SF writers: Scotland has a future in their work. I'm only just starting to think about why Scotland and Wales differ. Both have small bourgeois classes and large working classes. Both are post-industrial economies and landscapes. Both have experience of being colonised and being colonialists. So you'd think there was space for Welsh authors to consider common SF tropes like imperialism, conquest, post-oil life, the end of Big Industry, environmentalism and so on. But it doesn't seem to have happened. One line of thought I'm playing with is that language is at the heart of it. Scots Gaelic is virtually dead and may as well be dead in the daily lives of its population outside a few small islands. So its authors don't have the lovely ghost of Gaelic culture seductively haunting them: one thing Scottish SF largely doesn't do is engage with Scottish mythology. Instead, Scotland starts either with the Union or with industrialism. In Wales, even non-Welsh speakers have learned it in school, see it on signs everywhere they go and hear Welsh spoken every day (in the North and West) and fairly frequently elsewhere. Welsh mythology is more available, and therefore perhaps fantasy is more attractive as a genre: the Mabinogion is always there to be plundered.

Language has another effect. Scottish SF writers have the world's English-language markets available to them. Dare I say it? Scottish culture isn't so different from post-industrial life around the Western World. Throw in an accent, a deep-friend Mars Bar, Walter Scott, respect for education and a tinge of nationalism and you've got a story replete with local colour without frightening the mass readership. For a Welsh-language author, you've got a very small readership. That leads to subsidy from various state bodies, most of whom don't like genre fiction. So you have to be a bit more self-consciously 'literary' and pay more attention to things an English readership largely doesn't care about, such as the fate of minority languages. There should be room for SF here (what are Cymdeithas yr Iaith if not a local affiliate of the Rebel Alliance fighting Eric Pickles' Evil Empire?), but it largely hasn't happened, with the exception of Islwyn Ffowc Elis. And of course hard SF depends on hard science, which is conducted and discussed in English. Translation from Welsh is expensive and English publishers don't give a damn, so the odds are stacked against Welsh SF. Anyway, this is all very random preliminary rambling: your thoughts welcome.

What else? Well, I've been buying more histories of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I don't really know why other than a homegrown version of Ostalgie. Many of them were rigid, authoritarian and humourless apologists for mass murder… and yet before it became a self-perpetuating and irrelevant cult more concerned with its own bureaucracy than fomenting a much-needed revolution, the Party represented a political idealism largely dissipated in our own age. Certainly other leftwing parties are an unpleasant stew of Stalinism and sexism: the SWP has recently attacked its own members as 'creeping feminists', which doesn't sound very progressive to me.

I've also launched into John Niven's scabrous, offensive and enormously funny satire The Second Coming, in which Jesus returns with the message 'be nice', only to discover that the only way to propagate it is to appear on a TV talent show. The only problem is, Jesus likes Slint, Mogwai, Pavement and Nirvana (and keeps telling people that 'God loves fags', to their enormous annoyance), while the show wants Billy Joel covers. Niven's targets are perhaps too wide: I'm not sure raging against Christian, Muslims and a thinly-disguised Simon Cowell isn't too scattergun, but it's an entertaining read. After that, it's time for Jakob Arjouni's near-future post-September 11th novel Chez Max, and George Saunders' short story collection Civilwarland in Bad Decline, which sounds like Ballard played for laughs.

So far this week I've taught Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and introduced Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Only two of the students had finished the Trollope (it is around 850 pages long) but we had a good introductory session on it. I don't usually teach such canonical texts but I have to admit that I'm enjoying reading and teaching them very much. Perhaps they're so unfashionable that they're no longer canonical and I'm on the radical, transgressive cutting edge by bringing them back in to the classroom! Paradise Lost tomorrow. The poem, not the dodgy 90s goth band. Though now I've mentioned them, I may as well play you a bit:

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