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