Books and writing

“It is better to understand little than to misunderstand a lot.” – Anatoly France

A forgotten French master

Anatoly France

Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev had a brain almost double the size of the grey globe between the ears of French Nobel laureate Anatoly France - another quite interesting fact from an episode of QI. As much as I enjoyed Turgenev, it offended me slightly that presenter Stephen Fry said he was very much the greater writer. Not thanks to the sizeable noggin, of course.

So the Nobel in Literature is just another award – or not really, since it's a great way to discover writers you might not have heard of otherwise. But there are some on the list who have been branded unworthy by revisionists and critics - and France is one of them. At the famed English bookshop Shakespeare & Co in Paris I tried to buy any of his books in translation (seemed appropriate), but nobody there had even heard of him.

France was a poet, novelist and journalist who lived from 1844 to 1924. His father had a Paris book shop, Librarie de France, from which Anatole later took his surname. After his studies he worked there until he got a job as librarian to the French senate.

France wrote some odd stuff for a Nobel noble. A lot of it was essays and discourses on topics of his day, like the renovation of Paris landmarks. The official motivation for his 1921 award was “in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements, characterised as they are by a nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament.” For a quick sample, look up a page of his most memorable quotes and you'll find biting sayings like: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread” or charming sayings (from a man with a turbulent romantic life) like: “You learn to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to run by running, to work by working; in just the same way, you learn to love by loving.”

His best novels were top-sellers back then and all his writing had an effortless, disarming grace. I found myself reading even the prose that was so bound to its time and context that I had no idea what it was about. His first novel, an instant success, was The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, about a sceptical old scholar bewildered by modern life. In the satyrical allegory The Island of Penguins the birds become human after a near-sighted abbot accidentally baptises them.

His most rated novel was The Revolt of Angels in which the main character's celestial guardian joins the revolution of angels. It must have been part of the reason why his entire oeuvre was put on the Prohibited Books Index by the Roman Catholic Church (he considered it an honour).

After his death in 1924 he was dismissed as a derivative writer who lacked real imagination, but most of these sideswipes came from clerics and political opponents who hated his mocking of the church and highbrow society. Unfairly, that opinion stuck and these days probably none but devoted Francophiles or scholars would bother to read him. But the wit, compassion and social insights of his important novels are well worth discovering.

My battle with commas


Back in the late 80s I sent some short stories to a publisher. The professor who had to read and rate the manuscript made a passing comment that floored me: “The author should find some clarity about the use of commas,” or words to that effect. School, university, four years at a newspaper and I still didn't have a grip on commas. If only he had taken out the offending ones and added the missing, I might have learnt what I still don't quite get.

The book was published and languished on shop shelves before the final trip to the pulp factory. Probably not because it was a compendium of catastrophic commas, but I suspect that didn't help.

I like commas, with their round little heads and crescent-shaped bodies, curling up at the feet of letters like cuddly kittens. Their function, I've been told, is to create a resting point for the reader's eye (or a breather for the reading voice in their head), to break up sentences into civilised chunks and to prevent confusion or ambiguity. That's a lot of important work for a tiny grammatical gizmo.

Online writing, often casually proofed or uploaded in a rush, is complicating my relationship with commas. Reading even upmarket sites or blogs, I'll trip over a comma that I didn't expect, or the blank space where I'd think a comma should be. World English, as the Oxford Dictionary calls it, is becoming more confusing as unedited writing appears online with a mash-up of British and American grammar, as erratic and inconsistent as the moods of a cat.

For instance, it was drilled into my head that a comma has no business in front of “and”. But here comes the Oxford comma, invading the world of text via America. It appears in lists as here: one, two, and three. US writers and Oxford linguists find it essential. No idea why.

Possibly also imported from US usage is the comma after salutations - as in “Hi,” at the start of a letter or message. Shouldn't be there, but is very often. Commas work in pairs when it comes to weak interruptions in sentences (as R.L. Trask calls them in his stern, but invaluable book Mind the Gaffe). But this morning I read a news story again which said “Mr Smith from Rondebosch, Cape Town was not present.” Introducing the appositive comma: there should be one after Cape Town.

Mr Trask breaks down the comma conundrum quite well. It has four uses. First is the listing comma (the Oxford model) as used by some. Second is the joining comma, merging two full sentences into one. It has to be followed by a “suitable connecting word”, mind you, such as and, or, but, while and yet. Third is the gapping comma, showing words were left out rather than repeated. Most important by far (he writes) is the fourth use, the bracketing commas.

Don't relax yet. Mr Trask follows that with a tough one: “The subject of a sentence can never be separated from the following predicate by a single comma, no matter how long that subject is.” Let me remember not to make that mistake. Terrible things might happen, as that day in grade eight when I split an infinitive.

English, British or World, is a great communication tool. Sticking to its rules makes it easier to use and to understand. That's why I bother with them. This post has a large litter of commas and I shudder to think how many are in the wrong spot. At least you'll always be spared one thing in my writing. When it comes to punctuation, I draw the line at semicolons.Those treacherous hybrids, neither comma nor colon, are beyond me.

So I simply don't use them.

Don't kill the author…

Writing reviews

You could almost hear the thwacks as truckloads of Dan Brown's novel Inferno, were offloaded for its worldwide release. No sooner had the echoes faded than they were followed by a flurry of thuds — critics hitting the author until he let out a very public cry of pain. Brown told the BBC he seems to get his worst reviews in Britain, where “it seems to be sport to kick me around a bit”.

Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey K. Pullum said “Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad.” Jake Kerridge let rip in The Telegraph with “As a stylist Brown gets better and better: where once he was abysmal he is now just very poor.”

Of course it's hurtful, the author admitted to The Guardian. “I've learned that universal acceptance and appreciation is just an unrealistic goal... The best thing to do is just put on the blinders, write the book that you would want to read and hope that other people share your taste.”

Not as simple as it sounds. Some years ago I was on the receiving end of a scornful review (“these short stories are worth less than the paper they were printed on”). When I got promoted to a job that included reviewing movies, music and some books, I remembered that roundhouse. I didn't want any creative blood on my hands, so I drew up some ground rules for my reviewing. Maybe they'll work for you as well.

Don't forget who reviews are for: not other critics or even the author, but the readers. They want to know if the book is worth buying. So save the dazzling metaphors and learned references for another time.

1. A review isn't a title fight against the author. Don't try to show you're cleverer or a better writer.

2. Review the book, not the author or his body of work (if he has one already).

3. Consider what kind of book the author was trying to write. If it's simply for entertainment, rate it that way. If it tries to be profound, have a look at the deeper meaning.

4. Don't say the book reminds you of some other title. If your reader doesn't know the book, the comparison isn't helpful.

5. Say the good things first and motivate the negative very carefully. Writing is hard. It takes forever. You get lonely doing it. And you have to keep believing it's worth the effort, which might be toughest of all. Show some respect (or compassion).

6. Be clear on the difference between what you rate and what you like. You should be able to give top marks even for a book that isn't your kind of thing. Otherwise you should rather be a reader, not a critic.

The bottom line: write the review you would like to read if you ever get around to finishing that semi-autobiographical debut novel so many critics have on their hard drive.

About me


Freelance writer Pieter van der Lugt Journalism, creative writing, corporate content, copy editing, translation – whenever I work with words, the job is done only when it communicates well. No matter how weighty the subject, I believe you can always keep it simple and concise. If a reader doesn't scroll down or turn the page, an opportunity has been lost.

I've written anything from scripts for corporate information videos to web posts on topics such as health and entertainment. I've had two books of jokes for children published, and translate National Geographic KiDS every month. In writing and copy editing, in English or Afrikaans, my ultimate goal is to make content easy to understand and a pleasure to read.

Contact me for original copy, or let me edit your material until it shines.

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