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!'

Thursday, 24 April 2008

The Amethyst Ring by Anatole France (winner 1921)

Pointless, that’s the best possible summary of The Amethyst Ring by Anatole France, pointless from start to finish. It opens with an amusing enough vignette of Mme Bergeret, but then she promptly disappears from the scene, never to reappear. In fact, I didn’t notice her disappearance until very late in the piece, because the entire book is peopled with inconsequential characters who come and go randomly. Not one single thing of consequence happens in the book; even the minor incidents which are related don’t go anywhere and are soon forgotten. Its sudden ending is an absolute low point: a bishop, who has newly gained his position thanks to the lobbying of various society ladies, writes an open letter to the government decrying the unfair tax laws religious communities were subject to: and fin. What earthly purpose did that serve? If France was concerned with the inequities of taxation, he would have done better to write that open letter himself, instead of springing it as possibly the worst ending of a book I have ever read.

The only theme in the book is a recurring discussion of anti-Semitism, revolving around the Dreyfuss affair. Prior to reading the book (and it’s never explained within in), my knowledge of the Dreyfuss affair was limited to a vague muddle of: it took place in France, it was somehow related to anti-Semitism and “J’accuse!”. So I suppose the book can be credited with sending me to Wikipedia and a skim-read of the Dreyfuss affair article – Dreyfuss was accused of selling French military secrets, based on very circumstantial evidence and apparently suspicion centred on him because he was Jewish. An international outcry followed, although much of the French public were on the side of the military hierarchy, and he was eventually cleared. It possibly brought down the government of the day, I didn’t really pay sufficient attention…

I commented, in relation to Gordimer’s A World of Strangers, that ‘issue’ books risk being dated once the issue around which they revolve has faded from the popular imagination, and The Amethyst Ring may suffer from this effect to an extent, inasmuch as people aren’t quite so het up about the Dreyfuss affair these days. But the book’s failings can’t be blamed wholly on this problem; even its treatment of the Dreyfuss affair is unenlightening and the book doesn’t really come to a conclusion as to how the whole affair, or the Jewish people, should be viewed.

And the amethyst ring of the title? It’s a ring bought for the aforementioned bishop to fete his appointment, left behind by mistake at a debtor’s house and confiscated with the rest of his possessions. Its significance remains a mystery: thus an apt enough title, as it’s as pointless as the rest of the book.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oe (winner 1994)

The fact that I read half of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, and then abandoned it for Bunin and Gordimer probably indicates what I thought of it appropriately enough. I'm not sure I would have bothered finishing it if the strictures of the Nobel Project hadn't demanded it. I had formerly only heard of Oe in connection with Murikami, which is a recommendation in itself, since I am a fan of Murikami (except for Dance Dance Dance, which for reasons I can no longer remember annoyed me to the extent that I couldn't finish it. But Oe, in my humble opinion, is nowhere near as engaging as Murikami, Nobel Prize or no.

In fact, lack of engagement was my main problem with the novel. It's not that there's anything wrong with it per se, I just didn't feel any emotional connection to the characters. A wee plot summary is in order, I feel: basically a bunch of reform-school boys are evacuated to a remote village in Japan in the dying days of World War Two. Shortly after their arrival, the villagers (who hate them with an inexplicable passion - frequently threatening to beat them to death etc. Why, who knows?) flee the village because they believe it to be plague-stricken, leaving the errant boys and a couple of others behind to their fate. So far, very Lord of the Flies, one would imagine, except it's not, nothing of consequence happens. There's a reason people frequently bandy about this work by one of the only other Nobel Prize winners I have read, and you never hear anyone say "It all went very Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids."

Also, it tends to irritate me when authors stick in gratuitous underage sexuality (not sure exactly how old these miscreants are, but 'immature penises' make their appearance on the very first page). It just seems so 'look at me, I'm so cutting-edge, it takes a work of great literature to be able to tackle these risqué themes, no ordinary 1950s writer would dare'.

By the end, I must admit, I was angry at the villagers for being so nasty to them, and I suppose if I was pushed it may make me reflect on the role of the outsider and what war does to one's mentality and ponder on whether wartime Japanese society was really like that and yada yada yada. But on the whole, I just didn't care.

A World of Strangers by Nadine Gordimer (winner 1991)

I initially picked up Gordimer's latest, Get a Life, which annoyed me from the first paragraph, so it was with some trepidation that I decided to take A World of Strangers home with me. Maybe she's gone off the boil in old age, I don't know, but A World of Strangers was much less annoying.

I was a bit worried, with the apartheid-era-South-Africa setting, that it would be all polemics (by the way, my work offers a prize of a chocolate bar for the successful incorporation of the word 'polemicizes' in an abstract. It will be mine!), but in fact, although it does have points to make about racism and the like, it doesn't shove it down your throat, which is nice, especially since it would otherwise run the risk of being dated now that apartheid's over.

Hmmm don't have much else to say about it really. I won't join the Daily Telegraph and proclaim it 'an astonishingly brilliant book', but it is an okay book, easy enough to read, and it was nice to have over a couple of holiday days (not wholly spent) in bed. So, average...

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Gentleman from San Francisco and other stories, by Ivan Bunin (winner 1933)

I am not often a fan of the short story - it's a bit of a tease really, drawing you in and then abruptly spitting you out, and in many of the stories in this collection, the ending comes abruptly indeed.

By far the best story in the collection is the first, 'The Gentleman from San Francisco'. Nothing much happens in it (only one key event which I won't recount here), but Bunin's decriptive powers are simply amazing. The gentleman himself is described as:

'Dry, of small stature, badly built but strongly made, polished to a glow and in due measure animated, he sat in the golden-pearly radiance of the palace...'

while this passage describes the workers on board the ship:

'As the gloomy and sultry depths of the inferno, as the ninth circle, was the submerged womb of the steamer, where gigantic furnaces roared and dully giggled, devouring with their red-hot maws mountains of coal cast hoarsely in by men naked to the waist, bathed in their own corrosive dirty sweat, and lurid with the purple-red reflection of flame. But in the refreshment bar men jauntily put their feet up on
the tables, showing their patent-leather pumps, and sipped cognac or other liqueurs, and swam in waves of fragrant smoke as they chatted in well-bred manner.'

As I read, I couldn't help but praise the translator, as well as Bunin, for these most felicitous phrases - turning to the front of the book, I found that it was translated by no less than D.H. Lawrence, S.S. Koteliansky & Leonard Woolf, so small surprise that it's well done!

Despite the often-lengthy sentences, the text somehow draws the reader along at a frenetic pace. It's the type of story that you want to devour like a delicious meal, even though you know you should slow down and savour it. In fact, I read it once, at the beginning of the book and then again when I had finished the whole collection. I had to force myself, the second time, to take my time and really pay attention to the words.

The story covers themes of death, of the deceptiveness of appearances, of the relationship between the rich and those who serve them, but its chief delight is in its decriptions.

Unfortunately, the rest of the collection didn't quite live up to 'The Gentleman from San Francisco'. Much of the rest was overwhelmingly Russian. (Incidentally, Bunin was the first Russian to win the Novel Prize.) I mean, I like Russian culture and so forth as much as the next man (probably much more, in fact), and I must say
many of the Russian-set passages made me nostalgic for Moscow. They probably made Bunin even more nostalgic for Moscow, given that he left Russia in 1918, an opponent of the Revolution (a couple of the stories are set post-1917, in Paris, but for the most part they look back to late-Tsarist Russia, some being written before 1917).
However, the themes of tumultuous affairs where the woman cheats on her husband, and gets murdered by him, or grows tired of her lover, and gets murdered by him, are a bit grating. That sort of alcohol-fuelled extreme passion inflamed by a mere bare ankle is a bit boring and unrelatable, to those of us with milder passions. Does make you glad not to have been a woman in Tsarist Russia. Or possibly in Russia at any time.

But really, you should hunt out the Lawrence, Koteliansky and Woolf translation of 'The Gentleman from San Francisco' and give it a read or two, a true masterpiece.

PS One of the true delights of the copy I had was its dust-jacket list of the other titles in 'The Landmark Library'. Must-reads include:

'The Story of Ragged Robyn' by Oliver Onions

'The Left Leg' by T.F. Powys

'Celibate Lives' by George Moore

'Rough Justice' by C.E. Montague

'His Monkey Wife' by John Collier

'Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman' by E.W. Hornung

'The Grasshoppers Come & Beany-Eye' by David Garnett

and many more... Hunt them down today!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Fateless by Imre Kertesz (winner 2002)

My first selection from an author I'd never even heard of pre-Nobel project. Imre Kertesz, for the reference of any others new to his oeuvre, is (was?) a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Question: was it merely the scale of the Holocaust which has resulted in an outpouring of so much survivor-literature? Or is it the traditional association between Jews and literariness/scholarship ('people of the Book') etc.? Or is it that world interest in the Holocaust is such that those with stories to tell have been pushed to tell them?

Anyway, Fateless (now a film if anyone's interested) is the tale of a young boy in various concentration camps. It seems to be heavily autobiographical, although I say that with no knowledge of Kertesz's life other than the information above. Perhaps what gives it a strongly autobiographical flavour - other than the fact that it probably is largely autobiographical... - is its very direct, matter-of-fact narrative style. The naivety of the narrator - a 14 (?) year old boy - seems incredible, but it works. His lack of awareness of all that the camps mean almost convince us, as readers, that we are also unaware of the significance of being sent to Auschwitz. Kertesz manages to guide us into a deeper understanding of unfolding events even as they become clear to the narrator.

In a way, it reminded me of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, in that the horror of the situation isn't dwelt upon in either work. However, the final message of the book is quite different. I don't really want to go into the ending and spoil it for anyone who may read it - not that there's a twist or anything (he was dead all along!) but you should read it for yourself.

I think I have lost all my powers of literary analysis, by the by...

Friday, 28 March 2008

The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda (winner 1971)

Yes, the Nobel Project means not only reading novels, but also poetry (shudder). I mean, I don't hate all poetry - Dickinson has her moments and I quite enjoy Browning, for two. And of course me speciality of medieval literature is almost all poetry, but that's completely different. But anyway, it's not my favourite. The worst being the large sub genre of net poetry. I think I'd probably pick being caught looking at internet porn over internet poetry.

If internet poetry is universally puerile, then the poetry of Pablo Neruda is... less so... The Book of Questions is apparently a collection of poems about unanswerable questions, many of which revolve around autumn. I'm sure if I was in literature class I'd be raving about the delicate leitmotif, but I'm not so I just found the constant harping on what colour yellow is and where the leaves go irritating. There was the occasional insightful 'question' but for the most part they were eye-rollingly facile. One plus was that the edition I read, translated by William O'Daly, included the original Spanish text alongside the English. Not that I read Spanish, of course, but it was of passing interest.

I was a good girl and read the entire book even though technically I could have cheated and claimed one poem counted as reading 'something' by the author. Gold stars for me. None for Neruda.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (winner 2007)

The Grass is Singing is about the murder of a white woman by a black man in Southern Africa set I think in WWII but I could be wrong on that front. The murder is the starting point of the series, the rest of the book being an exploration of how things came to that pass - essentially a reconstruction of the murdered woman's life. I read it in a single day - it's short, straightforward and engaging, if those are praiseworthy qualities... which I don't see why they shouldn't be.
It doesn't hammer home the whole race issue although it's obviously there, as is a critique of the role of women in this society.

PS I promise once I get through the wee backlog I'll write some more insightful reviews

The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (winner 1946)

From one Nobel German to another... but my reaction couldn't be more different. I simply hated The Glass Bead Game, all fifteen million pages of it. It was only the lure of the Nobel Project that kept me from flinging it across the room on several occasions. That's hours of reading time I could have devoted to my library studies (lol).

The whole philosophy behind the book rubbed me up the wrong way - basically it's set in an alternative future where after the wars of the 20th century people turned their back on the worldly pursuit of scholarly fame and fortune to live entirely the life of the mind in an isolated scholarly province in what seems to be Germany. The cream of the intellectual crop are sent here as kids, separated from the outside world and their families. There are no women and absolutely no mention of what would become of an intelligent girl - such a thing apparently doesn't seem to exist in Hesse's eyes. The central character is, so we are repeatedly told, this overwhelmingly charismatic leader, but we're only told this, it never comes out in Hesse's portrait of him. To me, he seems like an arrogant twat who's never wrong and is always laughing 'merrily' at the foibles of others. Grrrrrrrrrrr. The whole idea of turning your back on the world and the insistence on meditation to control any possible emotion etc etc really irritates me as well.

In the end the lead character does go out into the world... and immediately dies. What was the point of that?

The Glass Bead Game of the title is a pointless exercise where they try to weave together all the world's knowledge in some sort of trivial exhibition. I never really got how it worked or what the point was supposed to be.

In conclusion, I immediately rued selecting such a weighty tome from amongst Hesse's oeuvre, and this certainly has not inspired me to ever read anything else from him!

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass (winner 1999)

Now I'm cheating a little bit with this one, cause I already included Gunter Grass in the list of laureates whom I've read. But I read this JUST before embarking on the Nobel Project, so going to do a quick summary anyway. To be ultra quick - read this book! It's the story of a malignant dwarf with the power to shatter glass with his voice in pre- and during- WW2 Danzig, and if that doesn't make you want to read it, I don't know what will. My memory, she ain't what she was, so any more incisive an analysis I probably can't provide, but it's a great book, you don't need to know any more than that.

The Nobel Project (for literature)

So the other week I was reading an intensely boring bio of Solzhenitsyn (it cunningly disguised the fact that it was focused on his Orthodox beliefs until it was too late), and it occurred to me that he's actually one of the few winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature whose works I've actually read. How few? There's been 104 winners since 1901, and I reckon I've read at least one thing by only 10 of them (Gunter Grass, William Golding, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, John Steinbeck, Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, and Rudyard Kipling). I'm going to take a punt and guess that you, dear readers, haven't done much better, but I have a Masters in English Lit and it's a bit embarrassing (yep, that does sound incredibly up myself, but there you go). So the Nobel Project is born. I'm going to read one thing by everyone who's ever won the prize if it kills me (and it just might).

For anyone who wants to play at home - here's the list thanks to

2007 - Doris Lessing
2006 - Orhan Pamuk
2005 - Harold Pinter
2004 - Elfriede Jelinek
2003 - J. M. Coetzee
2002 - Imre Kertész
2001 - V. S. Naipaul
2000 - Gao Xingjian
1999 - Günter Grass
1998 - José Saramago
1997 - Dario Fo
1996 - Wislawa Szymborska
1995 - Seamus Heaney
1994 - Kenzaburo Oe
1993 - Toni Morrison
1992 - Derek Walcott
1991 - Nadine Gordimer
1990 - Octavio Paz
1989 - Camilo José Cela
1988 - Naguib Mahfouz
1987 - Joseph Brodsky
1986 - Wole Soyinka
1985 - Claude Simon
1984 - Jaroslav Seifert
1983 - William Golding
1982 - Gabriel García Márquez
1981 - Elias Canetti
1980 - Czeslaw Milosz
1979 - Odysseus Elytis
1978 - Isaac Bashevis Singer
1977 - Vicente Aleixandre
1976 - Saul Bellow
1975 - Eugenio Montale
1974 - Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson
1973 - Patrick White
1972 - Heinrich Böll
1971 - Pablo Neruda
1970 - Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
1969 - Samuel Beckett
1968 - Yasunari Kawabata
1967 - Miguel Angel Asturias
1966 - Shmuel Agnon, Nelly Sachs
1965 - Mikhail Sholokhov
1964 - Jean-Paul Sartre
1963 - Giorgos Seferis
1962 - John Steinbeck
1961 - Ivo Andric
1960 - Saint-John Perse
1959 - Salvatore Quasimodo
1958 - Boris Pasternak
1957 - Albert Camus
1956 - Juan Ramón Jiménez
1955 - Halldór Laxness
1954 - Ernest Hemingway
1953 - Winston Churchill
1952 - François Mauriac
1951 - Pär Lagerkvist
1950 - Bertrand Russell
1949 - William Faulkner
1948 - T.S. Eliot
1947 - André Gide
1946 - Hermann Hesse
1945 - Gabriela Mistral
1944 - Johannes V. Jensen
1943 - The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section
1942 - The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section
1941 - The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section
1940 - The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section
1939 - Frans Eemil Sillanpää
1938 - Pearl Buck
1937 - Roger Martin du Gard
1936 - Eugene O'Neill
1935 - The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section
1934 - Luigi Pirandello
1933 - Ivan Bunin
1932 - John Galsworthy
1931 - Erik Axel Karlfeldt
1930 - Sinclair Lewis
1929 - Thomas Mann
1928 - Sigrid Undset
1927 - Henri Bergson
1926 - Grazia Deledda
1925 - George Bernard Shaw
1924 - Wladyslaw Reymont
1923 - William Butler Yeats
1922 - Jacinto Benavente
1921 - Anatole France
1920 - Knut Hamsun
1919 - Carl Spitteler
1918 - The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section
1917 - Karl Gjellerup, Henrik Pontoppidan
1916 - Verner von Heidenstam
1915 - Romain Rolland
1914 - The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section
1913 - Rabindranath Tagore
1912 - Gerhart Hauptmann
1911 - Maurice Maeterlinck
1910 - Paul Heyse
1909 - Selma Lagerlöf
1908 - Rudolf Eucken
1907 - Rudyard Kipling
1906 - Giosuè Carducci
1905 - Henryk Sienkiewicz
1904 - Frédéric Mistral, José Echegaray
1903 - Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson
1902 - Theodor Mommsen
1901 - Sully Prudhomme