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.