Friday, 11 July 2008

Two Tales (Betrothed and Edo and Enam) by S.Y. Agnon (Winner 1966)

While I wasn’t overly enamoured of Agnon’s Two Tales, I did get the sense that he deserves a bit of a benefit of the doubt. I think there were motifs going on in the tales that I didn’t quite grasp – allusions to the Torah and Jewish beliefs and so on which I could sense but not quite comprehend.

One of the most interesting parts of Edo and Enam was the leitmotif of reincarnation. This included a sort of dramatic irony slant: ‘There is no event whose mark has not gone before it. Such is the parable of the bird: before it flies, it spreads its wings and they make a shadow; it looks at the shadow, raises its wings, and flies away.’ There is also, however, several explicit references to reincarnation as part of Jewish belief, which surprised me (expert Torah scholar as I am). I’ve never heard reincarnation mentioned outside a Hindu context, as far as actual religions go.

The two tales are linked – there is one direct allusion between them, but the themes of sleep or sleeplessness, relationships, and fate link them as well. Edo and Enam was, for me, the more satisfying of the two. Despite or perhaps because of its sometimes lengthy, and to me rather inexplicable, evocations of traditional Jewish beliefs and societies, it had a certain mystique to it. It’s very hard to encapsulate what the story’s ‘about’ – the forces that bring people together in mysterious and inescapable ways, the values of traditional beliefs versus science and modernity, wrapped up in a tale of a man and his sleepwalking wife and their connection to a shadowy scholar.

Betrothed, which was the first tale in the collection, rubbed me up the wrong way a bit in that it featured a young man surrounded by a coterie of women implicitly competing for his affections. These affections, however, were claimed long ago, although he himself doesn’t realize it until his betrothed comes back into his life and reminds him of their childhood vow. Again, it’s about the forces that bind people together and the inevitability of fate. It also features a woman with troubles sleeping – although in this case, the woman in question sleeps too much, an illness which the central character is oddly indifferent to.

Even if these tales aren’t the greatest things I’ve ever read, they seem like the sorts of things that would open up under close examination, revealing the motifs and imagery which can escape one at first, especially if care were taken to chase down the cultural and religious references. I don’t think this task is for me, but there’s something there below the surface.

Friday, 4 July 2008

China Sky by Pearl Buck (winner 1938)

Eek! A month since my last post, how slack am I? I actually finished this last week but haven't got around to posting.

China Sky: it was readable and interesting, but I don't know that it really had much to set it above any historical romance. Set in China at some point during the Sino-Japanese war, it tells the story of two American doctors, a man and a woman, with, predictably, romance involved. The problems are that the man gets married on a trip back to the States and his wife turns out to be a whiny, empty-headed China-hater who gets herself mixed up in a traitorous plot involving a Japanese patient/prisoner-of-war at the hospital. It's entertaining and ineluctably moves towards a fairly inevitable conclusion in the grand fashion of tragedy (not that it is a tragedy for most involved) so there's nothing wrong with it as a book - as a Nobel-prize worthy book I'm not convinced.

As I have found out, Buck was raised in China and it shows in her intimate knowledge of the country and the conflict (this was written in 1941 so without the benefit of hindsight). There is a genuine sympathy and esteem for the Chinese people in the book, even though these days it sometimes appears patronising - early on a Chinese doctor tells the American doctor to take safety in an air raid because "If I die, there are others like me, but who will take your place?" In the main, though, it's as firmly pro-Chinese and anti-Japanese as you'd expect.

Worth a read at any rate.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Barabbas by Par Lagerkvist (winner 1951)

It would appear, from my brief rifling through the Lagerkvist shelves at the library, that he carved out something of a niche for himself in historical fiction, particularly in interpretations of Biblical and other classical stories. In this respect, he put me in mind of Joseph Heller, who, when he was not writing a sublimely brilliant book about war, wrote very mediocre books based on tales from the Bible. The main differences between Heller’s Biblical reinterpretations and Lagerkvist’s Barabbas are: 1) that Heller writes mainly (if I remember arightly) for the sake of a rollicking good tale, whereas Lagerkvist wrestles with deep philosophical and religious issues and 2) that Barabbas is really quite good.

The first element to note in Barabbas is the element of surprise over the subject matter. Books reinterpreting the role of Judas are almost a cliché these days, but a fresh look at the role of Barabbas – a familiar character to any with passing knowledge of the New Testament, but after all, a character whose part is played out very quickly – is new to me, at any rate. As you read on, it dawns on you (judiciously helped to that end by the text): Barabbas is literally the man who Jesus died for, the man who was saved through his suffering.

As time passes on, Barabbas wrestles with this guilt, the scorn of others who recognize and reject him as ‘Barabbas the acquitted’ and slowly acquires faith only to reject it at every turn. Lagerkvist does not flesh out Barabbas’ life extensively, or write in the familiar vein of a historical novel, adding spice and colour to the sparse facts of historical record. What he invents, he invents to show Barabbas’ struggle with the effects of his experience – in the novel, Barabbas sees Jesus die and *possibly* be resurrected. He is clearly deeply affected by his experience, but Lagerkvist leaves the question of whether or not he witnessed a miracle, and ultimately whether or not he was converted to Christianity or merely shaken to the core by the fact of his acquittal and the unique message of the man who died in his place, more or less open.

I won’t summarize here the exact trajectory of Barabbas’ life or his spiritual position at the end of the novel, suffice it to say it’s moving but always human and relatable, I think whatever your personal faith. I admire Lagerkvist for showing not a man, a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, instantly converted by incontrovertible miracles, but a man never quite sure of what he saw, struggling with the same questions of faith that any believer, not themselves witness to these events, would experience. A thoughtful (and very short!) novel that I would recommend to Christians, atheists and undecideds alike.

PS If I’ve inadvertently made it sound unremittingly dull, it’s really not.

PPS A little gem in the foreword from M. André Gide: ‘The Swedish language has given us, and is still giving, works of such outstanding value, that knowledge of it will soon form part of the equipment of any man calling himself well-educated’. Lolz! Way to predict stuff André.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Madmen and Specialists by Wole Soyinka (winner 1986)

I actually didn’t dislike Madmen and Specialists by Wole Soyinka, for the most part – the insistence on chanting, repetitive lines in parts got on my nerves, as does repetitiveness in any form. I must confess, however, that I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on through most of the play. Not in terms of the action per se, but in the mentalities. There just wasn’t the sort of background information you’d have in a novel, say, to illuminate the weird African world of wise women, cannibalism and cults. I would assume that the cannibalism was symbolic, but the play insists upon its literalness, and then what are we to make of the witches-in-Macbeth-esque crones? Remnants of traditional African society or some sort of strange social commentary? The brief introduction informs me that the cult of ‘As’ is ‘an ironic expression of horror at… the universal triumph of expediency and power lust’ but can’t say I would have got that on my own. Enigmatically, the note before one long speech reads ‘the speech should be varied with the topicality and locale of the time’ (allowing even more latitude than Echegaray over the choice of furniture!) but then it’s so African-centric I fail to see how it could be altered according to locale, and as for topicality, I suppose the author assumes there will always have been a recent war to serve as the backdrop of his play.

One speech in particular caught my eye:
‘you cyst, you cyst, you splint in the arrow of arrogance, the dog in dogma, tick of a heretic, the tick in politics, the mock of democracy, the mar of Marxism, a tic of the fanatic, the boo in buddhism, the ham in Mohammed, the dash in the criss-cross of Christ, a dot on the i of ego an ass in the mass, the ash in ashram, a boot in kibbutz, the pee of priesthood, the peepee of perfect priesthood, oh how dare you raise your hindquarters you dog of dogma and cast the scent of your existence on the lamp-post of Destiny you HOLE IN THE ZERO of NOTHING!’
He overuses ‘tick’ but other than that it’s an arresting speech and I imagine it would be fun to act.

I think it’s the sort of play you need to see rather than read, which is after all the point of plays.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Less Than One by Joseph Brodsky (winner 1987)

My choice of a book of essays by Mr. Brodsky, a poet, was dictated not so much by genre preference as by the fact that it was the only work this esteemed library had by him in English. So apologies if this isn't exactly representative of his oeuvre.

I began Less Than One with enthusiasm - the opening essay in the collection is a memoir of his Peterburgian youth - exactly the sort of subject matter which appeals to me, and well-written to boot. Brodsky seemed to have quite a conversational style, which somehow manifested itself in my head in a measured, American voice - perhaps because he was in fact writing in English, having moved to the States at some point in the 70s I believe.

Sadly, from there Brodsky lost me somewhat. Most of the following essays were paeans to poets I've never read, and in at least one case, never even heard of. It is disctinctly tedious to read criticism of something you've never read (with apologies to Mum & Dad for proofing my thesis...) I must admit my heart sank in particular with the opening line of 'On "September 1, 1939" by W.H. Auden': 'The poem in front of you has ninety-nine lines, and time permitting, we'll be going over each one of them.' (This was originally a university lecture.) As the collection wore on, I fell prey to the temptation of skimming the poetical essays, but I did read most of the collection.

Sadly, within 30 or so pages of the end, Brodsky infuriated me beyond belief with his description of the walls of his childhood apartment as being 'of a light-brown, cocoa-cum-milk shade'. I can't express how much this phrase annoys me. 'Cocoa-cum-milk'???? What the frick is that supposed to be? Is Brodsky too good to say 'milk chocolate' or something of the like? 'Cocoa-cum-milk', give me strength. I know etymologically 'cum' means with, but that's not how it's used at all! If I said Tom Cruise was an 'actor-cum-nutjob' I wouldn't mean he was an actor accompanied by a nutjob, but that he was both actor and nutjob à la fois. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

Anyway, nobody probably shares the anger this phrase has generated in me, but suffice to say I was disgruntled for the rest of the book.

Now, if my readers will permit a slight digression from the subject of Noble Prize winners, I also have a rant to get off my chest on the subject of Thursday's episode of Criminal Minds, mostly for my Dad's benefit, because I know he likes to make fun of said show. I still watch it though... Anyway, the show revolved around a serial killer in Mexico. The profilers figure out, eventually, that this serial killer must have started out raping women before he moved on to killing. He's been killing for about 2 years, and has racked up a number of victims, all elderly women. One woman who was raped comes forward, and she tracks down half a dozen more. The cops take all their details, and deduce that four of the women worked at the same factory. They go to the factory and identify a suspect, but can't physically locate him. So far, so reasonable, right? With about 5 minutes to go, one of the Mexican cops-cum-lackeys-for-the-American-overlords (see what I did there?) wheels out a big whiteboard with the names of the rape victims and the murdered women on it. Dios mio, what do we see but that the middle names of the rape victims correspond to the surnames of the murdered women!! That's right - he's been killing the mothers of the rape victims! Anyone else see the small flaw in this scenario? That's right, the rape victims all gave information about themselves including the factory they worked in, but none of them thought the fact that their mother had recently been murdered could be at all germane to the investigation. Who writes this stuff? Oh, and although we're told that the killer is striking in the poorest area of whatever Mexican town this was supposed to be, they all speak adequate English to be interviewed by American cops with no problem. Even though the American cops have a Spanish speaker along with them, they prefer to respond to questions at this stressful time in English. But of course. Arrrggh.

Since the last commentator has questioned whether any of the Nobel winners are worth a read (and I'm beginning to wonder myself) I will briefly re-state that you should all rush out immediately and read The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and 'The Gentleman from San Francisco' by Ivan Bunin.

I have now read 21 Nobel winners, more than double my original tally. (Although as us statisticians know, a large percentage increase from a small base may be more-or-less meaningless. Something I wish mater would bear in mind when forwarding my the latest health scare...) So that means only 83 to go (*sigh*)

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Four Chapters by Rabindranath Tagore (winner 1913)

Another piece of melodrama today. It took me an age to get through Four Chapters, despite it being a mere 86 A3 pages. I put it down for a long while, and only just picked it back up and finished it, having lost some of the fine details of the story in the process – this is my fault, rather than that of the book, of course, but I do hold it responsible for losing my interest to begin with.

Basically, the story is that of two lovers set against the backdrop of the Indian anti-colonial movement of the early twentieth century. This provides the impetus for one of those ridiculous situations one only meets in literature – the woman, Ela, has vowed to stay single in order to devote herself fully to her country’s struggle for independence. She manages to get Atindra sucked into the whole independence movement, despite his (as it turns out) lukewarm feelings on the subject. But despite her eventual decision to throw herself on Atindra and basically beg him to marry her, his scrupulous devotion to the cause he doesn’t even believe in prevents him from allowing her to break her vow. Which is just about as ridiculous a scenario as I’ve ever heard.

One of the other major stumbling blocks to my enjoyment of the novel is the stilted ideological set-piece conversations that supposedly take place between these passionate lovers, and in fact, the writing style in general. This last is probably, to be fair, the fault of the translator, but the whole thing reads like it’s playing out in a bourgeois English drawing room, with the occasional jarring Indian reference thrown in just to keep us on our toes. This may be my own prejudices – perhaps upper-class Bengali is most appropriately translated by poncey English. Or perhaps it’s just that I am not such a fan in the first place of the whiney posh English accent this book brings to mind. Some quotations may illustrate what I mean – language such as “I do so love these horrid boys”, “cool the overheated heads of these impossible jackanapes” etc.

Ela’s language also disgusts me: she tells Atindra “I am your slave… yours to command” and calls him “my king, my god” begging him “kill me with your own hands. I couldn’t wish for a happier end… By this love I charge you – kill me, kill me! … Let the last bit of my consciousness be for you.” This from a woman who seems intelligent and likeable at other moments of the book, and frequently seems to interact on a more-or-less equal basis with the male revolutionaries who surround her. She is, we are told, even trained in jujitsu, and manages to dislocate an attacker’s wrist (albeit one who had been deliberately sent by the revolutionaries to test her). A book that sells out its heroine like this is one up with which I will not put.

There are, however, a couple of moments where the book gets away from the awful artificial dialogue and has a touch of poetry to it. For example: “Try to think… that we’re here on such a night as this, fifty or a hundred years hence. The present rings us round too narrowly. What we desire so passionately is ticketed with a high price by the tricky pen of the present. What we mourn so inconsolably is labelled “Eternal Sorrow” with vanishing ink.” But these are all too few and far between and can’t make up for the emotional falsity of the book as a whole.

PS The logo of the printer/publisher included swastikas. And yes, this was post-WWII. Normal and backwards-facing I may add.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The Son of Don Juan, by José Echegaray (winner 1904)

I invariably eschew the reading of a book’s introduction until after I have read the book itself, and I duly did so upon picking up The Son of Don Juan by José Echegaray. However, I judged it would be safe to read the author’s preface, since he is surely not going to give away the secrets of his own work… Not so! Not only did Jose reveal the twist in the tale, but he did so in the following sentence ‘[Critics have said] that from the moment when it is perceived that x will happen, the interest of the work ceases’. Well, if that is so, perhaps the reader shouldn’t bother at all now you’ve told us what happens!

In any case, I persevered, and forewarned as I was, could but enjoy the heavy foreshadowing leading up to the afore-not-quite-mentioned event. I may as well mention here that I found the stage directions particularly charming: Echegaray, for example, mandates the furniture should be a bookcase and a cabinet, of ‘if this be impossible, two equivalent pieces of furniture’, and later says a character’s appearance and behaviour should be like such-and-such ‘in short, as the actor may think fit’.

But to the subject proper, I thought it to be an average piece of work. I must admit, reading plays is not my favourite pastime (so we’ve disposed of plays, poems, and short stories now – yes, the novel is king with me), but even if it were a novel, I imagine it would still be overwrought and rather hysterical in places. Perhaps a more thorough knowledge of the mystique of Don Juan was in order to fully appreciate it, although I think the play gives an adequate grounding in that gentleman’s career for even someone wholly unacquainted with his story to grasp what’s going on – essentially, that the son of Don Juan is punished for the sins of his father – apparently the consequences of licentiousness are genetically transmitted.

I had, of course, formed my opinion of the piece prior to reading the introduction, which is just as well, because the introduction really made me want to punch Echegaray in the face. Apparently, he was a mathematical genius, professor of mathematics in one of Spain’s top institutes, a cabinet minister, lectured and wrote on mathematics, physics, civil engineering, politics, economics and geology, and wrote over 50 plays (crowned, of course, with Nobel-Prize-winning success). But it is the priggish anecdotes that really make you hate the man: apparently, after a conversation with friends, he decided to take up fencing and within three months was able to defeat his fencing master. On another occasion, some friends were discoursing on German philosophy, a subject he knew nothing about. For some reason, they advanced the opinion that it would be impossible to master the intricacies of any school of philosophy within a short period of time. This, for Echegaray, was a challenge, and within two months he apparently not only learnt all about German philosophy, but he learnt sufficient German to read and quote the works in the original. Vomit.

Anyhoo, I don’t feel my life has been particularly enriched by the reading of The Son of Don Juan, although there are some nice poetic passages, and the opening scenes showing the former lothario in his twilight years are quite nice. Overall, however, its emotional pitch is just set too far into melodrama for me, so I am one of those (according to the author of the introduction) very few readers able to ‘turn away with calmness’ from the play.

PS Old José was JOINT winner his year. Say it with me, 'ha ha!'