It wasn’t officially the Margaret Jull Costa weekend, of course, but a glance at the programme showed a series of events presumably built around the decision of Ali Smith – a guest selector at this year’s festival – to devote one event entirely to Margaret Jull Costa, 3 times winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Prize for literary translation.

i can’t remember such prominence being given to a translator before.  This is a good thing and I hope the start of a trend.

Ali Smith opened with a eulogy to the importance of translation and introduced her interviewee with perhaps the best chosen words I will hear this entire festival.  “Today we are in the presence of many of my favourite writers … all in one body.  Please welcome, Margaret Jull Costa.”

Ali Smith and Margaret Jull Costa

What followed was an introduction to 5 new-to-me Spanish and Portuguese writers with Jull Costa and Smith alternating readings between them.  I can’t say I was enamoured of this format. I would have preferred less reading and more about the craft of translation.  However,  I was introduced to many interesting sounding authors and books. (See footnote 1.)  In fact, I could say this event has served as my introduction to Portuguese literature, having only ever read one Portuguese novel, if my memory serves aright.

The chosen texts showed the breadth of Jull Costa’s translation work and her preference for literature which mixes realism and fantasy.

A guest appearance was made by the daughter of Medardo Fraile, an author who needed to be persuaded into allowing Jull Costa to translate his short stories.  His daughter described the process.  Jull Costa submitted a few of her translations to the committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter.  They meticulously examined these around the kitchen tabland began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the project.

When Ali Smith said that this book contained the best stories she has ever read, there was no longer any need to guess whether a copy would be coming home with me ….

Audience Q&A allowed some time to discuss Jull Costa’s career and her craft.  Thankfully, as I was already disappointed from the previous night’s event in which she had shared the stage and billing with Bernardo Ataxga.   Unfortunately she had only been given time to read two short poems.  She’s a gracious lady and didn’t appear to mind.  I did though as I had attended to hear the translator talking about the challenges of translating the author’s work.  Perhaps my expectations were at fault.  What is clear is that I am missing the translation slams.  There aren’t any scheduled on this year’s program. 

The third Jull Costa event wasn’t really but it was an event where both novelists, Javier Cercas and Michel Laub, are translated by her.  Another event where the shared billing meant nothing – one author hogging the limelight, talking far too much (and knowing he was doing so), then giving a “short” reading that was anything but. It’s bad form and I feel sorry for the second author and the chair when this happens.  I mean how does a chair intervene discreetly?  Arrange a signal before going on stage?  

Javier Cercas and Michel Laub

I’m not going to say much about the novels as, due to timing issues, I haven’t completed them yet.  I have sampled the first 50 pages of both though and I must say that Laub’s Diary of the Fall is a huge surprise.   I would say pleasant but it is full of uncomfortable themes: social and religious prejudice and the Holocaust.  Nevertheless I’m looking forward to reading to the end later today.  Cercas’s Outlaws will take a bigger commitment to finish.  First of all, it’s much longer and secondly, it doesn’t answer its own core question. This is in line with the author’s definition of good literature, which must leave enough room for the reader to find the answer for himself.  Not sure I entirely agree. Books with endings that are too ambiguous or make me feel that the author is just toying with me have been hurled at the wall before now!  What fate awaits Outlaws?


Footnote 1

The 5 texts sampled were: The Maias – Eça de Queiroz, Raised from the Crowd – José Saramango, The Word Tree – Teolinda Gersāo, The Infatuations – Javier Marías, Everthing Looks Different in the Light and other Stories – Medardo Fraile

 © Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

Fest – Mark McCrum

And so the day dawns on which Edinburgh Book Festival starts for me.  Unusually I missed the first week, but then I was rather distracted! i will, however, be making up for lost time during week two. Whatever I’m expecting I can assure you it will be nothing like the festival of Mark McCrum’s invention (or I do hope not).

The small fictional literary festival at Mold-on-Wold comes complete with its own programme, and sparks fly from the outset. Bryce Peabody, a savage literary critic, has just decimated Dan Dickson’s latest novel.  Not content with that he decides to attend Dickson’s event and call him to task during the Q&A.  Such a nice man. Later it becomes apparent that this is the warm-up for his own event the following day, when he’s going to dish some dirt that will set off real fireworks …..

Is it such a surprise that he is found dead in his bed, before he can do so?

Enter Francis Meadowes, author of the crime series featuring George Brathwaite, an amateur sleuth.  Meadowes, in the right place at the right time, finds himself investigating Peabody’s death, using his fictional alter-ego’s methods. It all gets rather meta,  in the most delicious way.

This isn’t some cozy little murder mystery, the sort I might write for my clever-clogs detective, George Brathwaite, for the amusement of a bunch of readers, who might freak out if they saw a road accident, let alone a murder. Actual people are dying here.

Of course, everyone has a motive for wanting Peabody dead: authors he has savaged, ex-partners he has betrayed,  the ex-partner of his current amour.  There are so many grudges against him, it’s hard to keep count.  

While Peabody may be a vitriolic man, is there any real poison in McCrum’s pen?  I’m not sure.  McCrum is an established journalist, ghost writer and non-fiction author who has chosen to self-publish his first novel.  Economics seems the motivating force behind that decision. As for the literary luvvies with which the novel is populated, they are pretty ghastly (and probably very recognisable) literary types.  The audience doesn’t escape the satire either.  However, there does appear to be a particular bite in the portrayal of the festival director ….

In the end though, despite Meadowes’s protestations against coziness, there is a very Agatha feel to the mystery: it’s set in the countryside, everyone has a motive, and some of it is a bit implausible,  Neither is the real perpetrator that difficult to spot.  Like all good Agatha’s the climax is a set piece.

This was not the way Francis had planned it – or wanted it.  Brathwaite would have hated a set-up like this – as near as dammit to the traditional ‘group denouement’ of the Golden Age.

Well, if the fictional detective wasn’t happy, I was.  I enjoyed the setup, the satire and the meta …  And now I’m really in the mood to enjoy the world’s greatest literary festival, where none of these backroom petty rivalries exist … do they?


© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

I said I was going to be busy in August and I did not lie.   Here are the reasons why the blog has been quiet lately.

1) A trip to Thuringia.  Loved Weimar so much last year, decided to go back and explore the area in more detail this year.  A more enchanting place, I ne’er did find (with the exception of Munich and Bavaria). Here’s the view of Weimar from Schloss Belvedere.

2) A visit to the House of the Romantics in Jena. An in depth look at the German Romantic Movement – details of which I will be processing for a while.

House of the Romantics, Jena


3) The physical highlight of the trip, the hike to the Wartburg in Eisenach and the resulting trip back to medieval times.  The claim made is that this is the most significant castle in the whole of Germany … and not just because this is where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German in just 10 weeks …  at this desk.

Martin Luther’s Desk in the Wartburg

4) No trip to Weimar is complete without a trip to one of the many theatres.   I chose to attend an investigation of the relationship between Goethe and his wife, Christiane at the Theater im Gewölbe in the Cranach Haus.  A tiny theatre with about 150 seats.  Cosy.

Theater im Gewölbe, Weimar


5) A visit to the book shop – yes, just one.

As my luggage was already heavy – like any self-respecting bookworm, I’d already packed far too much reading material – I had to reign in my acquisitions.  Even so, I judged the amount I could acquire to perfection – my suitcase on the way home weighed 20.1 kg!

The Books I Took


The Books I Brought Home

6) On the way home, a 3-day city break in Berlin.  The Hauptstadt, not comparing favourably to Thuringia, if I’m honest.  Far too many building works and cranes destroying the views. (Not that Weimar was entirely innocent in this regard, but there were no cranes.)  Nor was I such a literary tourist there.  Day One spent hopping on and off the tour bus, trying to see the famous sights.  Day Two escaping the city to visit the beach on the Wannsee.  Day Three non-book shopping on the Kurfürstendamm.  Still thanks to a tip from Katy at Love German Books, I did discover the Joseph-Roth  Diele, a restaurant decorated entirely in homage to the great Austrian writer. It sells the books too! Katy, if you’re reading this, Rossetti says next time we’re in Berlin, he will happily follow up any further recommendations you may have.

Joseph Roth Diele, Berlin


So there’s a quick catch-up.  Plenty of stories to follow (perhaps in November – assuming there’s an appetite in the blogosphere for a fourth German Lit Month.  Is there?)  For now though, I have one day to unpack and repack.  Tomorrow sees me heading off to the Edinburgh Fringe and, of course, The Edinburgh International Book Festival.  What a month!  I could get used to this ….

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)


To kick off Women in Translation Month , let me recommend 5 fabulous reads that I’d love others to discover for themselves.  Listed in alphabetical order of author surname. Links to my original reviews.

Jenny Erpenbeck – Visitation (Translated from German by Susan Bernofsky)

Elena Ferrante – My Brilliant Friend (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

Yoko Ogawa – Revenge (Translated from Japanese by Stephen Synder)

Clara Sánchez – The Scent of Lemon Leaves (Translated from Spanish by Julie Wark)

Teresa Solana – A Not So Perfect Crime (Translated from Catalan by Peter Bush)

Unfortunately I’m unable to support this event as I’d like, as my August is already hectic (though in a good way).  Still I’ll no doubt keep track of my feed reader and add exponentially to my wishlist …. Have fun!

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

Winner of the 2014 CWA International Dagger

Translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne

So there I am at the beginning of July, wondering how on earth I am going to manage to participate in Spanish Literature Month because I’m in the middle of a busy, busy, busy summer, when the CWA announce that this book, which I really, really want to read, has won the 2014 International Dagger.  I have a voucher which means I can get me mitts on it, without breaking the book buying ban (according to Mrs Peabody). I nearly fainted when it dropped through the letter box.  At 561 densely-packed pages, it’s not a quick read but it’s all kinds of everything I like.

I’m really enjoying historical fiction this year and this one pitches me right into the Peninsular War, specifically into Siege of Cadiz of 1811 about which I knew nothing. 561 pages later I know lots: Cadiz’s strategic position, the ineffectiveness of the French bombardment, mainly due to French command insisting on using howitzers and refusing to use mortars, and the intense economic battle, waged primarily at sea.  These were the days of the commercial corsair; mercenary pirates, we’d call them now, I suppose, but, having sailed the seas and braved the dangers of navigating the Bay of Cadiz, I can but be in awe.

Meticulous as the historical detail is (and let it be said, the translation –  I bet Frank Wynne learned English vocabularies he never knew existed), I’m not going to pretend that the research is always invisible. However, it is only the odd paragraph here and there that reads as a history lesson.  And there is repetition – perhaps a tad too much about the technicalities of French ballistics ….

That said, I’d rather read this than a history book, for it is alive.  It pulsates with characters and viewpoints from all social strata, many of them quite unique: a taxidermist French spy, a young French professor turned artillery expert, a corsair dying of tuberculosis, the corsair captain,  Pepe Lobo (I give you his name because he’s – well, you know – a hard man with chinks in his armour), Lolita Palma, a spinster in her 30’s and a shrewd business woman, fighting for the continued viability of the family firm.  (In the end using those in her employ as cruelly as Napoleon his troops.)

In the seam that gave the novel eligibility for the dagger, there’s a murderer who is flaying young girls to death together with the detective who pursues him, Rogelio Tizon.  Now he’s as complex a character as I’m ever likely to encounter, and not one I’d like to meet.  A brutal, violent man, who does not welcome reform (i.e. the abolition of torture as a legitimate tool of police interrogation).  After seeing him interrogate those he suspects, a process he almost enjoys, it’s hard to swallow his outrage at the serial killer.  Yet there is more than an intimation of “a curious intimacy” with the murderer. How else would he detect the pattern of the killings and their relation to the falling French bombs? Only Tirzon would have the mendacity to enlist the enemy into catching the killer, and to ensure that when justice is finally served, it is chilling ….

It may not be the fastest paced thriller in the world – in fact, given that the climax doesn’t relate to the crime at all, it could be argued that the criminal thread is secondary to the historical. The Siege is nonetheless an absorbing, magnificent adventure from start to finish.  


At this juncture I should rush off to read Pérez-Reverte’s backlist but consensus is that this is his finest novel to date.  Apparently though, if I enjoyed this, I’ll enjoy Dumas and Stevenson. Well, I love Stevenson but have never read Dumas.  Where should I start?

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

A special post today.  It is my 900th after all, and posted on the day the Commonwealth turns its eyes to Glasgow, a mere 26 miles from my home.  Just in case you’re like me with a zero interest in sport, or you’re in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games and need a change of activity, here’s an alternative guide to the city and its environs.  

A is for art, architecture and Ayewrite (Glasgow’s Literary Festival).

B is for the Burrell Collection. A fabulous museum donated to the city by Sir William Burrell.  The Degas paintings and the medieval tapestries are exquisite.

C is for the River Clyde – not the prettiest of rivers but the waterway that enabled Glasgow to grow rich in days gone by.

The Doulton Fountain

D is for the Doulton Fountain, an ornate reminder of the city’s Victorian heyday and that

E is for Empire. Glasgow was once known as the second city of the Empire. The 19th century population was double that of today.

F is for the Finneston Crane – a giant disused cantilever crane to that stands testimony to Glagow’s great engineering heritage.

G is for Glasgow, From the Gaelic Glaschu meaning dear, green place, hence Glasgow Green, a huge green space, right in the city centre on the banks of the Clyde; George Square, the formal centrepiece of the city centre.

H is for the Hunterian, the oldest museum in Scotland.  The art gallery houses an impressive collection of Whistlers (including his mother) and this Chardin, which I have been known to stare at for hours.  The rising steam fascinates me.

I is for Ingram Street, the place for upmarket shoppers. For more suggestions, see S.

J is for Jamaica Street, its name a reminder of the sugar cane, tobacco and slave trading past.

K is for Kelvingrove Museum.  Another fantastic municipal collection ranging from stuffed animals, a fully operational organ from 1901 (time your visit to coincide with the free recital), and a comprehensive display of paintings by The Glasgow Boys.  Pride of place belongs to Dali’s Crucifixion.  This museum also houses a fine selection of furniture designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. My favourite exhibit pictured below.

Kelvingrove’s Hanging Heads


However, if you prefer plants to historical artifacts, visit the Kibble Palace in the Botanic Gardens.

L is for Laidlaw – William McIllvanney’s fictional detective, the sire of tartan noir.

M is for Charles Rennie Mackintosh, arguably Glasgow’s most famous son.  Tragically the library at the Glasgow School of Art was lost to a fire earlier this year but there are plenty of other Mackintosh sites to visit.  (Hill House in Helensborough, the Mackintosh House at the Hunterian, Scotland Street School to name just three.)


The Hill House (technically not in Glasgow but so worth the 40 minute train ride ) 

M is also for Madeleine Smitha Victorian socialite sensationally tried for murder by arsenic poisoning  in 1857.  (Every Victorian city must have an arsenic murder!) Her case one which inspired Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison (1930).

N is for the Necropolis, situated beside Glasgow Cathedral – a Victorian graveyard, Glasgow’s answer to Highgate Cemetery in London.

O is for Oran Mor – a former church, now night club and restaurant complex, stunningly decorated by Glaswegian author and painter, Alasdair Gray.

P is for the People’s Palace, situated on Glasgow which tells the story of the people and city of Glasgow from 1750 to the end of the 20th century, with particular emphasis on the socialism of the working classes.

Q as in IQ – needed if you’re ever to work out the Glasgow bus route map!

R is for rejuvenation.  Glasgow is a city seeking to do just that and was planning to demonstrate rejuvenation in action during the opening ceremony, by demolishing two huge blocks of flats on Red Road.  Fortunately sanity has prevailed and that idea has – er – bit the dust.

Argyll Arcade

S is for shopping.  You can spend lots of money in Glasgow. Buchanan Street, Sauciehall Street, Argyle Street, Ingram Street in the Merchant City.  Take your pick and pick your budget!   If you are seeking jewellery, go to the  Argyll Arcade, Scotland’s oldest covered mall. My favourite place is Princes Square just off Buchanan Street.

T is for tenement.  Traditional Glaswegian housing.  You can visit an original tenement flat, preserved by the National Trust of Scotland.  The modesty of these dwellings contrasts starkly with the Victorian splendour displayed in the public buildings of Alexander Thomson.  T is also for traffic cone – walk by the Gallery of Modern Art to find a traffic cone, where you never thought to see one!  By the way, the building was originally the townhouse of wealthy tobacco lord, William Cunninghame.

These cones get everywhere!

U is for the Ubiquitous Chip, arguably the best named restaurant in Europe and another decor executed by Alasdair Gray.

V is for Voltaire and Rousseau, the legendary secondhand bookshop named after its owner’s cats.  The most idiosyncratic bookshop you will ever visit.  Words cannot describe it.  Perhaps these pictures can.

W is for the Willow Tea Rooms.  You must have tea with Miss Cranston in the teashop designed and decorated by Rennie Macintosh.  Though if you prefer something stronger, why not try the local whiskey, distilled by White and MacKay.

X, Y, Z – Three wildcards, which I will use to highlight my 3 favourite places in the city.

3 IMO the best champagne afternoon tea is to be had at The Butterfly and Pig on Bath Street.


Crockery at the Butterfly and Pig


2 The Mitchell Library.  I’ve written many words about this – for obvious reasons.

1 The West brewery on Glasgow Green.  All beers brewed to the requirements of the German purity laws and a Jägerschnitzel to die for!  



Source materials: 

a) Personal meanderings and pitstops

b) Glasgow and Edinburgh – Robert Crawford (ISBN 978-0-674-04881) p 179-316

c) Look Up Glasgow – Adrian Searle and David Barbour (ISBN 978-1-908754219) / Look Up Glasgow Pocket Guide (ISBN 978-1-908754-76-9)

 © Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)

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Calgary Beach, Isle of Mull. Stunning, isn’t it?  One of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited. This experience guaranteed to be one of the highlights of 2014, and a harbinger of the pleasures that followed with the reading of Bhalla Strand.  Sarah Maine’s beach a crossing point between the mainland and a fictional island in the Outer Hebrides, leading to the location of Bhalla House, a crumbling Edwardian mansion, inherited by city-girl Hetty, who has plans to transform it and the island into a luxury holiday resort.

Just before she arrives to scout out her inheritance, however, a body is found beneath the floorboards of the conservatory and the resulting investigation introduces delays during which Hetty faces the locals and their hostility to her plans; a hostility fed by their mistrust of the outsider and a genuine concern for their way of life and the ecology of their island.

These are themes echoed in the historical narrative, the story of Beatrice and her ill-fated marriage to Theo Blake, an artist of some genius, whose descent into madness was documented in his paintings.  The seeds of that illness sown during his early life on the island but sprouting much later, during and after his marriage to Beatrice.  Domestic dramas like this don’t usually rivet me but this had me superglued to the pages.

The antagonisms between Theo and his tenants (those that survived the clearances required to make space for the mansion), his disregard for the wildlife, seeking out rare species of bird, only to shoot and add them to his collection of stuffed animals, his superior and condescending manner to his wife … it’s no wonder Beatrice soon finds herself torn between wifely duty and an overwhelming attraction to a rugged islander and estate groundsman ….

100 years later Hetty finds herself facing similar tensions.  Her business plans are formulated by her boyfriend and his patronising contacts.  Profits, the only driving force and, of course, a risk to the island’s fragile ecosystem.   But the island has defences of its own: the landscape, the tides and a particularly canny, rugged islander in the form of James Cameron.

And so the two narratives weave in and out of each other, held together by the timelessness of the Scottish landscape, echoing themes, emotional authenticity, a gothic mansion and the mystery of the body beneath the floorboards.  A fantastic blend from the palette of this debut author’s pen … As for Sarah Maine’s beach, I wish I could visit.  As for Theo’s Blake’s Bhalla Strand, a painting of that beach on which two wispy figures are fading with the transience of time, someone should paint it.  I want to hang it on my wall.


© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2014)


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