Tom Wolfe ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’


The Mayor shook his head some more. He found the Christian churches baffling. When he was growing up, the goyim were all Catholics, unless you counted the shvartzer, which nobody did. They didn’t even rate being called goyim. The Catholics were two types, the Irish and the Italians. The Irish were stupid and liked to fight and inflict pain. The Italians were stupid and slob-like. Both were unpleasant, but the lineup was easy enough to comprehend. He was in college before he realised there was this whole other set of goyim, the Protestants. He never saw any. There were only Jews, Irishmen and Italians in college, but he heard about them, and he learned that some of the most famous people in New York were this type of goyim, the Protestants, people like the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilt’s, The Roosevelt’s and the Astor’s, the Morgans. The term Wasp was invented much later.


Reading Wolfe’s Bonfire is a deep dive into the 1980’s New York and in particular to the Bronx and Manhattan. As Wolfe points out ‘Wasps were rare in the Bronx’, the Bronx which had been Irish was now run by the Jews, see the Mayors quote at the introduction, but the inhabitants, the electorate were now overwhelmingly Black or Hispanic. In this widely painted story Wolfe takes us into the heart and motives of all of the main protagonists and nobody comes out of it smelling of roses.

The story concerns a Wall Street bond salesman named Sherman Mc Coy, a Wasp who lives on Park Avenue, son of a Wall Street man, the Lion of Dunning Sponget, the epitome of entitled. But Sherman is worried and feels guilty about everything, about under achieving, about overspending, about his wife who controls him. Sherman is having an affair with a rich, ‘foxy’ lady, Maria and meets her in a seedy rent controlled apartment which she sublets. Nothing seems to be going right for Sherman who after making a weak excuse to his wife to go out, tries to call Maria from the phone box to try to see her:


He picks up the telephone and cradles it between his shoulder and his ear and fishes around in his pocket for a quarter and drops it in the slot and dials.
Three rings and a woman’s voice: ‘Hello?’
But it was not Maria’s voice. He fingered it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: ‘May I speak to Maria, please?’
The woman said: ‘Sherman? Is that you?’
‘Christ! It’s Judy! He’s dialled his own apartment! He’s aghast – paralysed!


This is a piece of comedy but is also typical of Sherman as the book begins, he freezes before his wife, his guilt spoils his evening and then doesn’t know how to lie.

The problems begin for Sherman when he picks up Maria from La Guardia and takes a wrong turn of the highway and finds himself in the Bronx, he is immediately lost as he has never been here before and the Manhattan grid system just doesn’t continue on out here. What they see through the car windows is a whole new world to them and as they search a way back onto the freeway they are scared. And the the incident! The ramp onto the freeway is blocked by rubbish and as Sherman gets out to move it two black youths come towards him asking if they can help, Maria screams at him to get back to the car, he runs at the tallest of the two and knocks him to one side then jumps into the passenger side and Maria accelerates away, but they hear a light thump and the smaller of the two disappears from the rear mirror. Sherman, still feeling guilty wants to report the incident but Maria says she was driving and that she doesn’t want to report it. The youngest of the two youths goes to hospital and is treated for a bad wrist, the next day, after having told his mother of the car, a Mercedes, of the two whites in the car and of a part of the plate number, he returns to hospital and falls into a coma. These are the facts but then self interest is invited to the feast.

The reverend Bacon, a black minister pushes the case into the news, thinking not of any penal case but of a civil case against the hospital. The Bronx District attorney, with an election due, wants to find and make an exemplary case of this white man in the Bronx, to show that it isn’t the Johannesbronx, so when they discover that the car belongs to Sherman, Bacon whips up the press, the civil case against a rich wasp will be with more than the case against the hospital, the district attorney couldn’t ask for a better profile to prosecute and so Sherman is taken down town to be booked based on the second black youth, the Crack king of Evergreen Avenue’s testimony in a plea bargain to drop all charges on him who puts Sherman driving and hitting the boy in a straight stretch of road. They can’t resist taking him in before the press and doing this one by the book, exemplified by the exchange between Sherman and another person in the holding cells:


‘What are you here for?’
‘Oh man, 220, 265, 225.’The fellow threw his hand out, as if to take in the entire world. ‘Drugs, handguns, gambling paraphernalia – ayyyyyy, every piece of bullshit, you know?’
The man seemed to take a certain pride in his calamity.
‘You hit somebody with your car?’ He asked once more. He apparently found this trivial and unmanly…..
‘You got cigarettes?’
‘No, they took everything away from me even my shoestrings.’
‘No shit?’ He looked at Sherman’s shoes. He himself still had on shoelaces, Sherman noticed.


Sherman’s attorney, an ex-prosecutor is in it strictly for the money, dropping him when his money runs out. Sherman is able to show, via a recording that Maria’s testimony against him is false and the charges against him are dropped. Sherman is one of the only people to come through this better than he was, no longer continually feeling guilty in his life or indecisive as when, in front of the detectives, he throws out of his apartment the representative of his neighbours that want him to leave their apartment block:


‘You know, I have a confession to make,’ said Sherman. He made himself smile again. ‘Until that sonofabitch came up here, I was thinking of blowing my brains out. Now I wouldn’t dream of it. That would solve all his problems, and he’d dine out on it for a month and be damned sanctimonious while he was at it.


I’m afraid my write up really is unable to show anything of the complexities of this great book.

First Published in English as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1987 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Milena Agus ‘While The Shark Is Sleeping’

This book is the first of my 2016 Italian lit target And the first book by Milena Agus.

Milena Agus is a Sardinian author who has imagebeen nominated for Italy’s Literary prizes (Strega, Campielo) with her second novel From the Land of the Moon **. This post is on her impressive first book, read in one sitting!

This story is about the Sevilla Mendoza family narrated by the 20 year old daughter, the line between real life and her story is blurred

“I write stories because when I don’t like this world here, I move into my own and I feel great. And there are a lot of things I don’t like about this world. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s ugly and I much prefer my own. In my world, there’s also him. He already has a wife.”

There is a tragic sadness running through the story, something particular to Sardinia, epitomised by the story of the people of Sardinia and mirrored here by the inability of the characters to face facts, to withdraw not so much inland as into theirselves.

“History tells us that we Sardinians are no sailors, that we withdrew inland for fear of the Saracens when actually we could have built a fleet and confronted them instead of escaping into the mountains.”

The inward journey of the narrator is punctuated by the events concerning her immediate family, her parents who are shadow figures and who for very different reasons abandon her, her brother, their aunt, Zia, and their grandmother, Nonna. We feel the weight of the narrator’s flawed character and her family member’s maladictive search for love. Her mother commits suicide we think

“Then one day she decided to leave, in accordance with her idea of beauty. For a while she’d been saying she didn’t like the posts supporting the canopy on the terrace, that they were rusty and needed repainting. So, I reckon, one morning she set up the whole scene. She bought the paint and the anti-rust and flew away brush in hand. It was clear to everybody that she’d got dizzy and lost her balance. But why had she put on her favourite dress? Why was her hair freshly washed and perfumed and the house all in order? Was it because she didn’t want our family to look bad? Besides, she’d always been strangely interested in covert suicide.”

But then later again the blurring is evident when her lover, the vet, sees the events as a story she can control

“I decide to let my vet read my stories. He likes them a lot. Only he doesn’t understand why they always have to end badly. I often tell him that there’s going to be a death and then he gets angry.
‘Shit, darling, you’ve already killed off one, two is overdoing it. Two deaths are ridiculous in any story that’s not a tragedy.’”

There are various men in this story, all of them without exception live for themselves, they are outsiders, and mostly absent, the three women in the story, the narrator, the mother and the Zia are all sufferers in need of a love that is incompatible with the men. No punches are thrown describing the Zia’s and the the narrator’s sexual experiences and the narrator’s attempts at understanding them.

This is a lyrical novel and reminds me of an earlier Italian post ‘Live Bait’

I recommend this story.

First published in Italian as Mentre dorme il pescecane by Nottetempo in 2005
Translated into French by Françoise Brun as Quand le requin dort and published by Liana Levi in 2010
Translated into English by Brigid Maher as While the Shark is Sleeping and published by Telegram in 2014
** First published in Italian as Mal di pietre by Nottetempo in 2006

Jonas Lüscher ‘Barbarian Spring’

I discovered a recommendation for this book in the French magazine Lire’s October edition which has the book’s humour as caustic , a stinging turn of phrase, and less than 200 pages of small mindedness as well as …. repeated misfortunes for dromedaries. Well I had to try this one!

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We discover the main protagonist, Preising who tells his story in an interview. After he inherits his company in dire straits, ‘Preising’s father, who put off dying just long enough for his son to complete the Business Studies degree he’d interrupted by spending eighteen months at a private Parisian singing school, bequeathed Preising his TV-aerial factory with 35 employees at a time when cable television had already gained a firm foothold.’ more by luck than by skill he hires a young engineer that turns his company into a success and keeps Preising as a figurehead with no real power.

Half a decade after the banking crisis and a couple of years after the Arab Spring Preising finds himself on a business trip to his suppliers in Tunisia where he is installed in one of their themed hotels in the desert ‘THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS RESORT in the oasis at Tschub was modelled on a nomadic Berber settlement –or, to be more precise, on what market researchers thought a first-class tourist to Tunisia might imagine when he pictured a typical Berber settlement.’ The Hotel is filled with a large wedding party of derivative traders from the City. Here we have the ingredients for a fine tale.

To avoid spoilers my description stops here, but the story reminds me a little of Tom Sharp although I did not laugh out loud as I did with ‘Wilt’, but maybe I’m just 40 years older now.

First published in German as ‘Frühling der Barbaren’ by Verlag CH Beck in 2013.
Translated into English by Peter Lewis and published by Haus Publishing as ‘Barbarian Spring’ in 2014

Katharina Hartwell ‘The Thief in the Night’

Katharina Hartwell’s latest book, ‘Der Dieb In Der Nacht’ ( The thief In the night) did not make it onto the Deutscher Buchpreis long list, but luckily it made it onto my reading list! As the novel begins, Felix has been missing with no trace from Berlin for ten years when Paul accidentally meets someone he is persuaded is Felix in Prague. This person presents himself as Ira Blixen.

Hartwell’s story is steeped in the five senses, the descriptions of taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing are detailed and present throughout the book as is Hans Andersen’s cruel view of the world (Felix’s mother studies Andersen and tells his stories to him and his sister).
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Paul is introduced to us as a photographer who goes through the prettiest city in the world (Prague) taking photos. And gets paid for it.
But something is clearly not as it should be, first of all Paul’s view of Prague is not so simple ‘The prettiest city in the world -what does that mean? How do you measure beauty in a city and who decides that it’s the prettiest of them all?’*** We learn he doesn’t like going out, prefers staying in with the curtains closed and when he is due to leave Prague Blixen asks him ‘Have you ever been over to the Kampa peninsula?’*** And Paul answers him ‘I still don’t have a good feel for the city, probably not, I haven’t seen much so far’*** and the narrator reinforces our feeling of something not being right when he adds ‘He hadn’t once managed to cross the Karlsbrücke to the other side, he had never been to the Café Slavia, he had not been to the astronomical clock in the old part of the city where he had not heard it chime at the hour, nor seen the skeleton figure ring it’s bell.’*** Odd behaviour for a photographer.
We are slowly shown Felix’s (and Paul’s) world, Paul comes from a dysfunctional (and poor) family which he refers to as his ‘wolf family’, from the moment he gets the chance he becomes Felix’s friend and quickly becomes part of his family up to the point where Felix’s mother, refers to him as their ‘adoptive son’, living with and off them. (a parasite?)
However Felix’s family is in itself far from ideal, his father is a recluse, living in their house but without a relationship to his children. Felix’s mother is present but extremely independent from both her husband and her children. Felix’s sister, Louise is younger than him and fragile.

The story enters a dreamlike portion where Blixen becomes a central character, taking over the lives of both Paul and Louise with a reference to a similar event in a Karen Blixen short story (a parasite?), the story then cycles between the real and the unreal, between the fairy tale and the hard reality of Felix’s absence.
This is a major piece of fiction, well worth an English and a French translation.

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Published in German in 2015 by Berlin Verlag
***My translation

Daniel Kehlmann “Fame”

This is a novel in nine stories and as Leo, a famous author says “Stories within stories within stories. You never  know where one ends and the the next starts! To tell the truth they all blend together, they’re only ever really separated in books”.***

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Kehlmann strings together for us nine seemingly weakly intertwined novels, using varying writing styles, I thought I recognised a similarity to The Book Of Dave in chapter 7.

The link between the chapters seems to me to be role play and disappearance:

From the man whose telephone number is given to someone else and who thus effectively disappears, to the man later in the book who has the responsibility for editing new phone numbers and who, caught up in relationships with two different women, asks himself “If I was mad?….in which labyrinth I was lost? I’d advanced step by step, none of them seemed large or difficult, but without realising it I’d advanced so far that I could no longer see the way out…..but during the daytime, when I got up and took on each of my roles as if they were the only one, everything seemed to me once again to be easy and almost normal”***

From the woman writer who replaces Leo on a book tour in an eastern country and who was not expected, (she wasn’t Leo) and who steadily disappears, to the writer of this book who appears in a veiled manner taking on roles in the book and who eventually disappears.

I enjoyed this book and was not tempted to pause between the distinct chapters.

First published if German as Ruhm in 2009 by Rowohlt Verlag
Translated into French by Juliette Aubert and published by Actes Sud in 2009
Translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway and published by Quercus in 2011

***Book read in French, my translation with excuses to Carol Brown Janeway

Pierre Lemaitre ‘Au revoir là-haut’

Changing genre is no mean feat as recently J K Rowling has shown, here Pierre Lemaitre successfully obtains France’s most prestigious literary prize the ‘Prix Goncourt’ at his first attempt.

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Pierre Lemaitre has seven crime thrillers of renown published here in France of which his early trilogy based on the detective Camille Verhoeven, which are already translated into English by Frank Wynne and published by MacLehose Press

I read parts of the book and listened to the whole audio book , which is written in such a way as to suggest an oral story with the narrator cutting in from time to time to give comments, pushing Lemaitre to read the audiobook himself.

‘Au revoir là-haut’ was published at the end of 2013 and coincides with the centenary of the first world war. The book covers the end of the trench warfare and deals with:

-The feeling of the French soldiers, “Those that thought the war would be over soon are all long dead. Killed by the war. So Albert was pretty sceptical when rumours of an armistice started circulating in October. He took no more notice than he had of the initial propaganda which explained, for instance, that the German bullets were so soft that they just squashed up against their uniforms like over ripe pears, causing great laughter amongst the ranks. In the last four years Albert had seen a stack of soldiers laugh themselves to death after being hit by a German bullet.”***

-The mixing of the well to do upper classes with the poor working classes (officers and soldiers), “The officer stared at him, gave a sigh of discouragement and slapped him in the face. Albert instinctively protected himself. Pradelle smiled a wide smile that said it all… When he pronounced his name, Maillard, he insisted on his unpleasant way of pronouncing the last syllable making it sound worthless, full of scorn as if Maillard meant dog shit or something of the like.”***

-The severely facially disfigured soldiers seen for the first time in warfare (‘les gueules cassées’ in French) and the use of drugs such as morphine and heroin at the time during the war for injuries and on the black market post war.

-Then finally two enormous swindles one of which according to Lemaitre is based on a true story, up to you to guess which one of the two.

The three main protagonists are linked by dramatic events which take place in the last days of the war contrasting utter self interest in one character to pure altruism in the second character, both stemming from wealthy backgrounds. The third character from a working class background becomes a pawn in the future of these two eventual swindlers, taking an active part in one of the schemes.

Two of the most remarkable sights during a visit to France for anyone interested in the First World War are the huge military cemeteries spread over a large part of North Eastern France and the various war memorials to be found in every town or village in France, the least generous of which that I have seen and is referenced in the book is of a cockerel standing on and scratching a German army helmet. These two sights are the subject matter for the swindles.

The last one hundred years has caused such change in social relationships that, realising this is a thoroughly believable set of situations, I, whose life has spanned more than half of this time, still need to ask is it possible people related to each other in such a way?

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The Great Swindle: First published in French by Albin Michel as ‘Au revoir la-haut’ in 2013
Translated into English by Frank Wynne and to be published by MacLehose Press in November 2015
***Book read in French, my translation with excuses to Frank Wynne

Fabio Genovesi ‘ Live Bait’

I discovered Fabio Genovesi when his ‘Chi Manda les Ondes’ was long listed for the 2015 Strega prize, his previous book has recently been translated into English as ‘Live Bait’ helping me with my weak knowledge of contemporary Italian writers (few other nominees have translated works). image The style of the book is a young, dual narrator, high energy, present tense approach, this brings to my mind both ‘The Long Firm’ and ‘La Rue des Boutiques Obscures’. The story is set in the Tuscany that we as visitors never see, Muglione, a village off the beaten track, surrounded by smelly irrigation ditches. There are three main characters: Fiorenzo the 18 year old centre point, who despite serious setbacks (losing both his hand and his mother before the book really gets going) is a lively eternal optimist whose belief is in life it’s better to have lots of dreams because it works like bingo cards: the more you have, the better your chances of winning. Tiziana, who had left Muglione to study successfully in Munich and who has accepted a job back in this godforsaken village and is, in contrast to Fiorenzo, a self doubter but shares with him a spontaneous side. Mirko, the little champ a fourteen year old cycling phenomenon that could one day put Muglione on the map. This is a story full of secondary characters and local colour, I laughed out loud at some of the situations, Tiziana’s friend, Raffaella, in the chapter All Tigers Are Lesbians had me in stitches The ups and downs of life in a small village taking in the complicated relationships between the main characters gives here a true off beat comedy I was glad to read and am looking forward to the translation of ‘Chi Manda les Ondes’ I enjoyed this book

Live Bait: First published as Esche Vive by Mondadori in 2011
Translated into English by Michael F Moore and publish by Other Press in 2014
Translated into French by Dominique Vittoz as Appâts Vivants and published by Fayard in 2012

Bernhard Schlink ‘The Weekend’

Christiane organises a week-end in the country with old friends for her brother Jörg this, however, is no ordinary week-end, her brother Jörg is one of the last of the RAF terrorists detained in German jails and freed by presidential decree after 20 years.
The old friends are of course just that! Since their university days of fashionable contention of state and society, they have all prospered within that society.

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José Carlos Llop ‘The Stein Report’

Having entered Spanish Literature into my WordPress reader, I came across the Spanish Lit month 2015. In for a Peseta in for a Pound I thought so here we go.
I chose the Stein Report, this medium length book drew me in so that I read it through in one go!

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