I visited Book Heaven last week and made a few agreeable discoveries. This strange little shop in the Victorian Goldfields hamlet of Campbell’s Creek has stock for every possible taste. My daughter (twenty-nine years old) was seeking vintage Billy Bunter but was disappointed on this occasion. The Silent Companion, who is drawn to any text about any kind of music, was instantly swept away by two large tomes of history and photographs about women’s harmonica bands in regional Victoria in the 1920’s. Our guests were rummaging through political biographies and books about iris diagnosis respectively. Another customer had to be dragged away by his wife from the pile of explicit volumes about the raising of ferrets. And if one were wishing to catch up several years’ worth of Mills and Boon or Barbara Taylor Bradford, one would be well satisfied.
I, with my more elevated tastes, headed straight for a small well-hidden section labelled Books in Translation. Here I found the usual Simenon, many titles by a Swedish author called Marianne Fredriksson, author of Hanna’s Daughters and Simon’s Family and about thirteen more. Hanna’s Daughters was published in English in 1999. I have spent my whole life cruising in libraries but I have never heard of this author. Then I found an even more intriguing name, Carmen Martin Gaité. The one title they had by her was Variable Cloud first published in English in 1995. It immediately drew me as it was a nice-looking paperback from Harvill Press with these words from Rafael Conte in ABC Literario:
‘A serious fascinating work, indeed a great novel, perhaps the author’s masterpiece…Leaves its readers mesmerized.’
And the subject was friendship between women and the art of writing as a means of self-liberation. Later I found that she had died in 2000 and had spent many years of her writing life under the Franco regime. And I’d never heard of her! Since then I have bought two more books by her, The Farewell Angel and The Back Room. They are in the waiting-to -be-read pile. I will review all three soon but I wonder if any of our lovers of writing in translation have read her or even heard of her.
I also picked up a nice paperback from The Eridanos Library by Giuseppe Pontiggia, The Invisible Player, a Premio Selezione Campiello from 1979. The blurb begins,
An anonymous letter in a magazine sharply attacks a university professor at the height of his career. The search for the culprit soon becomes an obsession, the primary purpose of his days.
That joined the pile. I was about to leave when my eye was caught by a very large book, 764 pages, bright blue, looking unread, and on the cover, Winner of the Brage Prize for Literature 2002. Wow, another ‘Norwegian literary sensation and best-seller.’ The Halfbrother, by Lars Saabye Christensen. And one key character is a father called Dad! Now where have we heard that before?
I was pleased with my discoveries and looked forward to reading about lives and events set in milieus quite unfamiliar to me. But then I woke at three am one night and thought of all those books, good books, even wonderful books, lying neglected and unread in dusty bookshops all over the world. Let’s forget about books hot off the press, the prize-winning this and that. Let’s, at least some of the time, honour the many great writers who are just over our shoulders. I hate to think of books ending as my father’s did, on a skip in a suburban street in the rain.