Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Other countries produce writers who routinely pretend to be smarter, better-read and more open-minded than they are. Britain, uniquely, does the opposite. My first bundle of evidence? The collected works of Mr Nick Hornby, with pride of place reserved for his columns about books read (and unread) in the cliqueish US magazine The Believer, now collected by Viking as The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (£16.99).

Among the choice nuggets of pseudo-populist claptrap with which Hornby spoils some decent commentary lurks the statement that he doesn't bother with translated fiction. When he once did, "I felt as though I was listening to a radio that hadn't quite been tuned in properly". Imagine the scene at Hornby's cherished Arsenal FC, when every non-French speaker spurns crucial advice from Monsieur Wenger because, sorry chief, but you sound like a radio that hasn't been tuned in properly... Where would Arsenal be if the club took the same dim view of funny foreigners? Somewhere between Enfield Town and Canvey Island in the Ryman League Division One.

That quote comes from an unworthy put-down of Javier Cercas's novel of myth and memory in the Spanish Civil War, Soldiers of Salamis, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 (see page 25 for this year's competition). In spite of The Believer's commandment that "Thou shalt not slag anyone off", Hornby does just that to Cercas's fine translator, Anne McLean. Don't believe The Believer; she's great, as is the book.

The weird thing about Hornby's columns is that his practice often ends up more generous, and curious, than his dismal principles. True, we begin with a little shocker of a manifesto which asserts that "nothing good will happen to you" if you tackle demanding works, and merits a case all by itself in the gallery of British Blokeishness. Yet within pages Hornby has flip-flopped, with warm praise for the poet and critic Ian Hamilton, a stringent author who spent a lifetime defending the distinctions of value that Hornby is affecting to despise. And by the time he comes to laud the "singular seriousness" of novelist Marilynne Robinson, the plain-guy-in-the-Islington-barber's pose stands revealed as the stunt it always was.

I also have some bad news for Hornby about those out-of-tune translations. He reads them, and he loves them. One of his touchstones for all-time greatness is Crime and Punishment - not written by some bloke from north London. He enthuses over Anton Chekhov, who shared the misfortune of writing in Russian. He runs into Hanan al-Shaykh at a festival and is rightly delighted by her "lovely" novel, Only in London. That's translated from the Arabic, by Catherine Cobham. Then he meets Andrey Kurkov, and falls for his fiction ("fresh, funny, clever, incredibly soulful"). Now, Andrey's a splendid writer, and a splendid guy (he once took me to a humdinger of a party in Kiev), but he also writes in Russian. George Bird translates him here. As for Marjane Satrapi's haunting graphic novels about growing up in revolutionary Iran, Hornby loves them so much that he reprints a whole selection. Satrapi lives in Paris and writes all her texts in French.

By the end, Hornby has been exposed to so many non-Anglophone voices (and has adored most of them) that he again sounds rather more like an Arsenal than a Millwall fan. As a reader of international literature, he has been tuning in not to some crackly Bakelite wireless, but a state-of-the-art DAB receiver. But he entirely fails to spot the skills of the literary engineers who bring him these gifts. When talking of the bookish cricketer Ed Smith, he snipes that "if critics had any use at all, it would be to give our golden boys and girls a fearsome bashing". Well, the golden boy of Highbury can consider himself duly bashed.