In conversation with Ireland’s Marian Finucane


PODCAST: Interview with Marian Finucane

This weekend was exciting. I was invited to be a guest on the Marian Finucane show on Ireland’s RTE Radio 1. It’s always an honour when people are interested to hear about A Year of Reading the World, but I knew this was a particularly big deal when my Irish neighbour’s eyes lit up at the mention of the programme. ‘Oh how wonderful,’ she said. ‘I must try and listen in.’

Because Dublin was a little far for me to travel from London on a Saturday morning, the producers had booked a studio for me at BBC Western House near Oxford Circus. The arrangement was that I would go there and do the interview remotely.

There was only one snag: as the place is unmanned at the weekends, I would have to let myself in. There wouldn’t really be anyone around to help set me up.

Not being a technical person, this made me slightly nervous. I had visions of myself sitting in front of a bewildering array of buttons and switches desperately trying to work out what to press as poor Marian called my name again and again from across the Irish Sea.

Luckily, the reality was quite different. I arrived in the studio to find three microphones –coloured so that I could be sure I was sitting in front of the correct one – and an incredibly comprehensive list of instructions. ‘To your left there is a phone,’ I read. ‘Pick it up, dial this number and tell the control room in Broadcasting House that you are ready to proceed.’ It felt a bit like being a secret agent in a spy film.

Before I knew it, I was listening in to the show, waiting for my slot. If I’d been at all anxious from the technical shenanigans, I’ve no doubt Marian would have put me at my ease. She was so charming and interested in the project that it was a real pleasure to speak to her.

As you can hear from the podcast of the show above, we had a great chat. And if I needed any more proof of what a star Marian Finucane is, the number of visitors to this blog from Ireland over the last few days has told its own story. Céad míle fáilte to you all.

Photo by curtis.kennington

Where’s the world in World Book Night?


Tonight is a big night from for booklovers in my part of the planet. Following on from the original date of World Book Day (marking the anniversary of the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes), World Book Night is the time when bibliophiles in the UK, Ireland and the US give away free copies of some popular titles in an effort to encourage reluctant readers to get into stories.

There’s a serious point behind it: with 35 per cent of adults in the UK claiming not to read for pleasure, there is a huge group of people for whom books are a closed, er, book. It’s great that tonight might give some of them a chance to discover what they’re missing.

All the same, I can’t help being disappointed when I look at the list of the 20 books that volunteers in the UK will be distributing this evening. Though the genres vary from classic crime fiction in the shape of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral to John Boyne’s Young Adult Holocaust novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and from former SAS sergeant Andy McNab’s memoir Today Everything Changes to Sathnam Sanghera’s The Boy with the Topknot, an account of growing up in the Punjabi community in Wolverhampton, there is not a single translated novel to be found on the list. Unlike previous years, all the books are by authors who write in English – most of whom are British, with the odd Irish and American wordsmith thrown in for good measure.

It’s a similar story when you look at the US WBN list, although there is one Spanish-language work in the mix: Puerto Rican author Esmeralda Santiago’s Cuando Era Puertorriqueña, which is also being given away in both Spanish and English.

According to the WBN UK website, this year’s selection was arrived at by an ‘expert editorial committee’, which looked for ‘good, enjoyable, highly readable books with strong compelling narratives [and] … a really wide variety as what will inspire one person will turn another off’.

I have no problem with that. I’m with Samuel Johnson in the belief that reading any book is better than reading none. ‘I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good,’ wrote the 18th century man of letters. ‘I would let him first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get a better book afterwards.’

The one point on which I disagree with both Johnson and the WBN committee is that this has to be an ‘English’ book. If you want to give people a gripping crime novel, why not put a bestselling Jo Nesbo on the list or the latest translated French thriller? If it’s Holocaust fiction you’re after, why not pick from the fine array of German-language novels on the subject or plump for Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-winning Blooms of Darkness – I certainly can’t think of a more intriguing premise than that of a Jewish boy being hidden in a brothel throughout the war.

The problem seems to be that those in charge of World Book Night have got so hung up on the issue of engaging non-readers with books that they have forgotten the world. Perhaps they are afraid that the world itself might prove another obstacle to someone picking a story up.

They could be right. But if they don’t give potential readers the choice, we’ll never know.

Instead, for now, the ‘world’ represented on both sides of the Atlantic this World Book Night will be a very narrow, inward-looking one; a place where the only stories non-readers will be offered are those written in the language they have been speaking all along.

What translated fiction would you choose to give away this World Book Night? Leave a comment and let me know…

Photo by wsilver

Ireland: the big one

My heart sank when Irish blogger and literature lover Fionnuala Barrett, whom I’d asked to recommend my book from the Emerald Isle, replied with Ulysses. I should have seen it coming, I suppose. After all, James Joyce is to Ireland what Charles Dickens is to England and knowing Fionnuala’s particular interest in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, I could probably have predicted Ulysses would make it on to her shortlist.

Fionnuala did give me another option in the shape of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, but I couldn’t help feeling that this would be a bit of a cop-out – fabulous though this neglected classic, which is probably the first Anglo-Irish novel, no doubt is. It was Ulysses or bust as far as I could see.

The stakes were raised by the fact that I had tried and failed to read Ulysses once in the past. I’d had to study the Nighttown chapter during my MA course and had blithely set off to read the rest of the text only to run aground about 300 pages in.

This failed literary expedition – one of the few in my 25 years of reading – and the fact that I’d read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man meant that I would have to introduce a slight kink into the rules of this project: for the one and only time this year I would be taking on an author I had read before.

But the more I thought about it, the more I began to be fascinated with the challenge of taking on this book. Leaving aside my personal struggles with unpicking Joyce’s dense weave, the sheer fact of trying to read a novel that runs to close to 1,000 pages in many editions in a year when I was already reading 195 other books was intriguing. How could I manage it?

I chewed it over for a while and then in December last year, as I was making my final preparations to set off round the reading world, the solution dawned: an audiobook. I would listen to the novel on my weekly drive to my Sunday singing job. Listening one hour a week should enable me to get through the epic comfortably in six or seven months.

And so, in perhaps one of the more unusual requests I’ve made of her, when my mother asked what I might like for Christmas I announced that my gift of choice was an unabridged recording of James Joyce’s Ulysses. This she diligently found in the form of an edition from Naxos, one of the few unabridged audio versions out there. And so, on my first Sunday back in the harness after the New Year festivities I inserted CD number one of 22 into the car stereo and pressed play.

I’m not going to write much about Joyce’s book, which in a nutshell follows ad-man Leopold Bloom and young teacher Stephen Dedalus as their paths cross and recross over 24 hours in Dublin. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s extraordinary and if you do want to read more about it there’s enough criticism out there to sink a fleet of battleships.

In fact, I think that was part of the reason why I failed to finish the book first-time round. While I’m usually a great believer in disregarding introductions and footnotes on a first reading, and diving in blind to see what you make of the text for yourself before consulting anyone else’s opinion, something about the aura and reputation of this work made me feel unable to do that. It was as though I couldn’t trust myself to read it on my own, as Joyce first wrote it, and had to cling to the criticism like a child unable to take the stabilisers off its bike. The result was that I was flicking to the back of my annotated edition every second sentence and the rhythms so essential to the narrative never got a chance to flow.

With audio, this problem is non-existent. There are no annotations to make you worry that you’re not getting every allusion: instead there are just Irish actors Jim Norton and Marcella Riordan’s smooth tones, which they modulate deftly between the characters’ internal monologues, their memories and the moment-by-moment events of the day, as well as the voices of other people, making it instantly easier to locate yourself in the rich swirl of experiences kicked up by the text.

This means that you can relax and give yourself over to the narrative, allowing your own associations and memories to interact with Joyce’s text. Indeed, as I found my thoughts drawn to moments in my childhood and adolescence by the book’s biblical, classical and poetic references, I began to wonder whether all readers of Ulysses shouldn’t create their own personal footnotes to the text, showing the places that have evoked particular ideas or experiences for them.

There are parts of the book that work even better read out loud then they ever could on the page. From comic set pieces such as headmaster My Deasy’s terrible letter to the papers, which Norton delivers with great wit and timing, and aural effects such as the use of sibilance to convey the susurration of the sea, through to the many songs and musical references in the text, the audio version brings the book alive. I particularly liked the way that Joyce’s cannibalised version of the Lord’s Prayer, a text which is, after all, spoken much more than it is read, came across. In addition the production team has chosen to break up the text with snippets of music, much of it contemporaneous with the text, which adds a welcome extra flavour to the sound world – although I occasionally found myself distracted by trying to name the songs as the next instalment of narration began.

Indeed, distraction is the single biggest issue with the audiobook form. Unlike written texts, where you can flick back a page when you realise your eye has been skimming the words without taking them in, audiobooks are harder to navigate, particularly when you’re driving. As I steered my way around the back streets of central London, doing my best not to kill or be killed by map-reading tourists, cyclists, taxis and buses, I found I couldn’t always give the narrative the attention it deserved, with the result that I lost the thread a few times and had to resign myself to missing odd chunks of a minute or two here and there.

Although generally good, one or two directorial choices meant that some of the sections were harder to listen to than they might have been. In particular, I found the decision not to vary the intonation in the penultimate chapter ‘Ithaca’, which consists almost entirely of questions and answers, hard to swallow. While the intention may have been to create a soporific effect, as well as aping the dry rhythms of the catechism, it made for rather monotonous listening.

Nevertheless, the audio version got me through the text and for that I am very grateful. London traffic meant that it was  inevitably a patchy read, but it was a largely enjoyable one. I now feel that I will be able to return to the written text in future with much greater confidence and enthusiasm. And that great volume peering down at me from the bookshelf in the corner of the room holds no terrors anymore.

Ulysses by James Joyce, read by Jim Norton with Marcella Riordan, directed by Roger Marsh, produced by Nicolas Soames (Naxos, 2004)