Tag Archives: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Why I rarely publish negative reviews

Since I started this blog, I have reviewed approximately 120 books here; I share these reviews also in Goodreads and in Facebook. But I read much more books, which means that I am by far not writing about all the books I am in fact reading.

The reasons for this are mainly the following:

Reviewing takes some time; if you want to write something more than just a few superficial remarks, something meaningful, you need to spend a comparatively big amount of time – time I sometimes don’t have, or time I prefer to invest in something to me more valuable in that moment – for example in reading, travelling, working on my actual book project, or spending quality time with people that matter to me! And imagine, I have a job too, haha.

Furthermore, a lot of the books I am reading are not really creating this urge in me to write about them. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe the book is kind of dull and boring, or it is more or less ok, but nothing special and I have already forgotten the plot after a short time, or the topic is too special to be of any interest for a wider audience. So what’s the point to bother someone with my thoughts in such cases?

A special case are awe-inspiring books, books where I feel that at this moment they are beyond my capacities as a reviewer – recent example: Dostoevsky’s Demons. I would need to write a 10,000 words text if I wanted to review it, otherwise I would have to neglect important aspects of the book as I understand it. And if I will ever be able to express my limitless admiration of and fascination with Hans Henny Jahnn’s strange behemoth of a novel River without Banks – a book that literally changed my life and my view of life in general – in an adequate way remains a big question for me. (I reviewed the first part here; the biggest part of the novel was never translated in English.)   

The fourth category are the hopelessly bad, crappy, worthless books that you come across sometimes. I am not particularly inclined to write reviews about books I didn’t enjoy or that I even strongly dislike. In general, I prefer to be silent in such cases instead of wasting valuable time to indulge in negative feelings. In general, I believe that I am usually much better in positively raving about the qualities of a book than to give it the thump-down. Therefore, only about 5% of my published reviews so far are negative; if I would write a review about every single book I am reading, this percentage would be much higher, maybe more like 25-30%.

So, in which cases of this fourth category I am nevertheless making the effort to publish my negative opinion about a book? There are of course, as I see in retrospect now, a few reasons:

There are books and authors that have acquired the status of a “classic”, or at least of being extremely popular. While I have no problem with popular books and authors in general, I have experienced a couple of times the situation that I read a book that was praised as a “masterpiece”, or even as “one of the best novels of the 20th century” – and it turned out to be awfully bad from whatever standpoint you look at it. That’s what I call the “Emperor’s-New-Clothes syndrome”, and in such a blatant case as this one I feel obliged to raise my finger and voice my objection. This specific book and author get in my opinion much more attention than would be deserved if we look just at the – according to me hardly existing! – literary quality of the work; it is more a result of the successful efforts of the author during his lifetime to turn himself into a brand, than of the genuine quality of his writing that he occupies such a prominent place in literary history, and this book is praised by so many people although it is obviously no good at all (admittedly not all books by this author are as bad as the one I reviewed). The purpose of my review is to be a small contribution to a re-assessment of this specific book, and thus maybe also to a re-assessment of other, much better novels published during that period by authors who were not so good in self-marketing, but maybe better writers with some meaningful message in their works, written in a much better prose.

Another category of books are those by contemporary authors, who – supported by an aggressive marketing, a devoted group of friends in the media, and a similarly devoted crowd of “groupies” in social media – blow the horn and thus make a lot of noise around their silly, shallow, obnoxious books and turn this kind of attention into a mass phenomenon, and in extreme cases even into a movement that shares certain elements with a sect. That’s what I call the “One-million-flies-cannot-go-wrong syndrome”, and again I find myself every now and then in a position that I simply must voice my objection against such a book, and may it even be in a very succinct way, like in this case. (This review by a fellow book blogger sums it up very nicely in more detail what is wrong with this book and its author.)

Closely related to the last category are books that are lacking a basic quality a book (and its author) should have in my opinion: intellectual integrity. When the content and the message of a book is in stark contrast with the personal behaviour of its author, it is clearly a case of hypocrisy and lack of integrity. Intellectual impostors like the author of this book, should be always exposed.

Some books simply make me angry. A lot of people like this book and similar one’s by the same author – but to me it is obvious that the book is just an alibi for something else. This author makes his living by providing arousal templates for the needs of a very “special” audience. His sick anal-sadistic torture fantasies are poorly written, and as a reviewer I really hope that I prevent a few readers from exposing themselves to this revolting stuff.  

Very young and inexperienced authors will be usually treated with kindness by me; most bad books I read by such authors will be never reviewed here. In exceptional cases, when for example the publisher is to blame for not editing a book by an inexperienced author at all (and thus doing him a very bad service), like in this case, I will make an exception. Not because I want to slam the poor author for his shortcomings, but because I find it unethical when some publishers don’t protect authors from seriously damaging themselves.

Another exception are cases (like this one) in which a young author who in my opinion lacks literary talent is “made” by a publisher, in co-operation with key figures of the literary scene; a system that manipulates the public, arranges that such an author gets literary awards, and plenty of media attention that will in turn help to generate additional money and influence for this person in the literary scene, damages the chances of other young authors with real literary talent (but maybe with less talent for self-promotion), and even corrupts the readers and potential young authors, because a system that systematically ignores literary merit must in the long run have negative repercussions on the literary life in general, especially when the book market in that country is very small. Also in these cases, a reviewer should speak out and make it clear when such a “hyped” book has no literary value, and is obviously more a media or lifestyle phenomenon than serious literature.  

Hey, before I forget it – I know some authors personally. Some of them are nice people, others not so much. It is just like in all other spheres of life. Would the fact that I am in good or maybe not so good terms with someone influence my judgement (as imperfect as it may be) regarding the quality of their respective writing?

The answer is obvious: never!

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A short rant on the translation of book titles

You probably all know the phenomenon: you read a translated book, the quality of the translation is excellent, good, average, poor, a crime – and all shades in between; if the language is good or not in the original edition you usually don’t know for sure unless you are able to compare. Many great books have been spoilt completely by an inadequate translation and there are also cases when the translation reads much better than the original. Fortunately, there are many excellent translators, and for a translated book the name of the translator has for me great importance because I know already what I can expect in terms of quality of the translation.

A particular annoying case are book titles that are not a translation of the original title, but that reflect the fact that nowadays the marketing departments of publishing houses seem to have greater importance as, mind you, people who wrote, edited and translated the book.

A few examples: Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (The Blinding) becomes Auto-da-fé, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The unburied dead) becomes The Victors or Men without Shadows, or Boualem Sansal’s Le village de l’allemand (The village of the German) transforms miraculously into An Unfinished Business or The German Mujahid. The Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles was for decades published as Der Hund von Baskerville (as if the English title would be The Hound of Baskerville!) and only the newer translations use the correct Der Hund der Baskervilles. Most German editions of Dostoevsky’s Преступление и наказание have been published under the title Schuld und Sühne (Guilt and Atonement), some under the title Raskolnikov, when the obviously best translation would be Verbrechen und Strafe (Crime and Punishment), which was used for the translations of Alexander Eliasberg in the 1920s and by Svetlana Geier in the 1990s and which now fortunately seem to stick. And, dear publishers, there was a reason why Herta Müller chose the poetic Der Mensch ist ein grosser Fasan auf der Welt (Man is a great pheasant in the World) and not the prosaic Der Pass (The Passport), as the English edition of one of her books suggests. It is a lack of respect to the author and also to us readers to change such a title – do you marketing guys even believe that the book sold better because you invented a new title for it?

It would be easy to add dozens, if not hundreds of examples of wrong title translations. I am sure most readers of this post have their own list for this phenomenon.

There are a few cases when a different title for a translation seems acceptable or necessary. Not in every case the book appears in the original edition under the title which the author had in mind. Ismail Kadare’s The Siege (an exact translation of the Albanian title would be The Castle or The Fortress) should have been published under the title The Drums of Rain (in Albanian), and the title of the French edition Les Tambours de la pluie is therefore highly appropriate.

Another case may be copyright issues or the existence of a book under the exact same title that is already on the market. Nigel Barley’s Island of Demons was published in German as Das letzte Paradies (The Last Paradise) probably because almost at the same time another book by Lothar Reichel about Bali was published as Insel der Dämonen – both books referring to Walter Spies and Victor von Plessen’s movie Insel der Dämonen, and both with a cover illustration based on paintings by Spies. In such a case when even the content of the book is similar, a different title seems unavoidable.

The worst are for me always such title translations which seem to be more or less correct, but are indeed not and that even by that change the intention of the author or suggest an interpretation of the text that is wrong or misleading.

An interesting case is the title of Christoph Hein’s novel Landnahme in English: Settlement. Settlement is an excellent novel which I intend to review later and the translation is overall good. My first reaction was that the title is obviously wrong. But the case is more tricky as it seems.

The main character is what was called in West Germany a Heimatvertriebener (literally “one who was expelled from his home place”), a German who had to flee from what was after WWII becoming Polish territory and resettled in his case in Eastern Germany, the future GDR (where these people were called Umsiedler, literally meaning “those who have resettled”).

The word Landnahme in German means literally “to take the land”, it is clearly an active, possibly even an aggressive act, depending on if the land was already occupied by someone (in that case it would be translated as “conquest” in English), or if the land was acquired by legal means (buying or acquisition by a lawful redistribution of the land).

Settlement is therefore under no circumstances a literal translation of Landnahme. The author plays with the ambiguity of the word in his text, showing how difficult it is for the main character to make this land (in every sense of the word) his own, and by all means.

Acquisition would have been a much better literal translation of this word, or even Conquest – although the ambiguity of the German word would have been lost. So what to do as a translator in such a situation? Go for the “correct” literal translation and decide to use either Acquisition or Conquest? Or go for another solution? The translator went for the second option, and rightfully so I suppose.

Settlement means in English either an inhabited place, a village, a community of people living in a place, but it means also an arrangement to settle a conflict or a dispute, so although it is not a “correct” literal translation of Landnahme, it keeps the ambiguity of the German title – and that is what counts most in my opinion. So contrary to my first reaction, I have to concede that Philip Boehm, the translator, has done an excellent job to find this title for Hein’s novel in English.

Do you have annoying examples of wrong translations of book titles, or of ingenious one’s as the last example?



Christoph Hein: Settlement, transl. by Philip Boehm, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York 2008

(review to follow)

© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Isaac Babel meets King Kong

If you love Russian literature as much as I do, then Elif Batuman’s book The Possessed is a treat for you. The title refers to Dostoevsky’s novel (also published under the title The Demons) but also to the possessive love of many readers and scholars to the Russian literature in general. And of course to the Russian writers and many of their literary heroes as well.

Elif Batuman is of Turkish origin but grew up in an obviously wealthy upper middle class family in the U.S.. She fell in love with literature and more specifically with Russian literature at an early age. And when she took violin lessons later, her teacher was an enigmatic and somehow secretive Russian – this first Russian she met in real life left a mark on her. When she decided to study linguistics (in the vague hope to become a novelist later), she took up Russian lessons as well. And while linguistics proved to be a real disappointment, Russian language was not, although it took her a long time to learn it well.

When I started The Possessed, I had the expectation to read a book about Russian writers and literature. But it is first of all an autobiographical book by Elif Batuman on her intellectual coming-of-age. That was unexpected – I came across this book by chance in an antiquarian bookstore in Sofia, and since the good hard cover cost only about 5 Euro, I thought I give it a try. Despite my slight momentary disappointment (I had simply wrong expectations), I enjoyed this book very much because it is overall so well-written, funny, interesting, fresh. And it is also a travelogue, kind of.

Batuman describes her time in Stanford and her participation in some international conferences with a lot of (self-)irony and humor. How two well-known Babel scholars “give each other the finger” in a parking lot over a dispute regarding the last free parking space is hilarious. The Babel family (widow and two daughters of the great Isaac Babel) prove to be not easy to handle when they participate in an international conference to Babel’s honor. And also the Tolstoy conference in Jasnaya Polyana turns almost into a disaster because Aeroflot loses her luggage and she has to spend a week in her flip-flops, T-shirt and jeans – not because she is a “Tolstoyan” who prefers the most simple outfit, as most participants seem to assume. Also how she successfully collects travel grants on rather dubious scientific projects, or how the famous New Yorker magazine sends her to Sankt Petersburg without willing to pay her travel expenses, but expecting that she spends a night in the Ice Palace – a real palace made of ice, built according to an old design – these and other stories make for a very entertaining read.

On a more serious note, Batuman provides interesting background information on the writers and works she is covering: mainly Isaac Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. I didn’t know Ivan Lazhechnikov before, but her extremely interesting chapter on The Ice House, his book published in 1835 makes me curious to read this work (Batuman makes excessive use of her New Yorker reportage in that chapter).

Another part of the book that I found extremely interesting, was the description of her time in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. While she studied Uzbek language and literature there, she gives very interesting insights into the history and everyday life of people in this now independent country with an ancient literature of high level (especially the works of Mir Ali Nevai, sometimes also referred to as Alisher Navoi).

As I mentioned, this is also an autobiographical work. The author is also the main character, and it describes her changing private life as well. Boyfriends come and go, also interests shift somehow, but the love for literature and the wish to write are the interests which give the authors’ intellectual journey such a strength and continuity.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been almost a masterpiece. I say almost, because there are a few things that irritated me a bit and that could have been easily avoided.

Batuman mentions somewhere the fact that Tolstoy introduces in Anna Karenina many characters without a name, or he is using the same name (such as Andrey) several times. That can be a bit confusing when you don’t read Anna Karenina very focused. As if to make an allusion to Tolstoy, she is introducing a certain Matej, a co-student and friend from Croatia in an early chapter. In a much later chapter, a Matej, co-student from Croatia is introduced to the reader again, this time he is the boyfriend of the author. I suppose this is the same person, but then why to introduce him twice? The second time it was very confusing because unless it is an oversight by the author (and the editor), it doesn’t make sense to introduce him again. (I suppose that the two chapters were published before the book edition separately in some journal, and later it was forgotten to remove the double introduction of this person) Or did I miss something completely? I am still confused, and that distracted me a bit from the beautiful prose Batuman writes.

As for her literary likes: they are excellent, and I share most of them. Isaac Babel is one of my biggest heroes in the literary world. And as everyone, she has her idiosyncrasies, which is fine. Still, I would have liked to understand what exactly is so boring about Orhan Pamuk. She doesn’t explain it.

Abdulla Qodiry, the author of Past Days, the most important Uzbek novel of the 20th century might be a great author, world class – but when she writes that he is writing on a thousand times higher level than Cechov, I simply have to believe it as a reader because she doesn’t explain what’s so terrible about Cechov’s writing, or so great about Qodiry’s abilities as an author. (I love Cechov very much and simply cannot believe her.)

The same goes for her rejection of any literature from the “periphery” – come on, you just told us how great Abdulla Qodiry is – and doesn’t he come exactly from the periphery: Uzbekistan?. Or her strong dislike of Creative Writing courses. What exactly is so terrible about them? I didn’t get it – beside the fact that the weather was better in California than in New England where the course she fled from was to take place.

My point here is the following: these opinions – which I don’t share – are all fine, but when the author is not explaining me (or at least not in a way that a reader would consider somehow enlightening or satisfactory) WHY she has these opinions, I get the impression that these are just resentments. Probably it’s more, but it is a pity she didn’t put more effort in explaining her strong opinions on (some) literature. 

Another aspect of the book that I found a bit difficult was the way, scholars or experts that teach outside Stanford are described: the Babel scholar that teaches in Tashkent and makes his own research in Odessa and Moscow is considered a moron: the whole truth is in the American archives, and who wastes his time to interview people who knew Babel or find documents in former Soviet archives is simply a poor idiot. The same goes for the Babel family, three monsters, driven by paranoia and maliciousness. (By the way, Babel was shot on the 27 January 1940, not on the 26th. Who is so strict in his judgement of others should have his facts correct.)

And I could have also done without the anecdote about the poor old Tolstoy scholar, his “accident”, and the resulting bad smelling underwear – Batuman doesn’t give his name, but I am sure for insiders he is easy to identify. Why to embarrass a person by dwelling on his incontinence, a medical condition, not a character deficit? That put me a bit off.

I see my complaints about the book are rather longish. But don’t be deceived: this is despite my ranting in the last paragraphs a book I enjoyed, partly travelogue, partly autobiography, partly literature study. It’s the first book of this author, and I will gladly read what she publishes in the future. It’s just the fact that with a bit of editing, this would have been really a masterpiece. As it is now, it is still a good book.

And Babel and King Kong? There is an almost uncanny connection between the great writer from Odessa and the famous 1933 movie. I am not going to spoil the fun of future readers, so if you want to know about it: read this book.




Elif Batuman: The Possessed, Granta Books, London 2011


© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014-5. Unauthorized use and/or 
duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.