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...