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21 June 2018

Nobels: 2000: Gao Xingjian

I've taken a shamefully long time to read this very short book, a collection of narratively inconsequential short stories. I suspect I have the same problem here as I have with lyric poetry: the translation can only hint at how the language works with a sentence like this:
"What" is not to understand and "what" is to understand or not is not to understand that even when "what" is understood, it is not understood, for "what" is to understand and "what" is not to understand, "what" is "what" and "is not" is "is not", and so is not to understand not wanting to understand or simply not understanding why "what" needs to be understood  or whether "what" can be understood ... 
The Nobel citation talks of "an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity" but I really didn't find bitter insights; and "universal validity" seems to be another way of saying that the stories cover unexceptional events.

So, to put it kindly, I didn't love this and have no urge to read any of his novels (the fact that they are called Soul Mountain and One Man's Bible doesn't help much either).

On we go, to someone I really should have read before.

29 May 2018

Nobels: 2001: V S Naipaul

Finally a rainy, thundery day (there was no possibility of riding a bike this day) gave me the perfect chance to finish Naipaul's breakthrough novel A House for Mr Biswas. According to Wikipedia it took him three years to complete it, and it sometimes felt it would take me that long to read it.

It's a long (600+ pages) and detailed account of the life of Mr Biswas, set in relation to all the generally ramshackle and overcrowded places he inhabited - to say he called them home would be inaccurate.

You've probably gained the correct impression I found this a bit of a slog. What kept me going, apart from a sense of duty to this blog and its handful of readers, was the occasional insight into the character of Biswas and his family, and into Trinidadian society, a dazzling mixture of cultures on the verge of decolonisation as the second world war presaged the collapse of the British empire. I suppose I can't avoid the word Dickensian, in that respect, but the plot is too linear to be gripping. There are no twists, just a procession of episodes, while Biswas's social and economic status remains more or less static. Perhaps that's the subversive point: we expect the hero of a novel (of this size) to develop and change, and Biswas just doesn't.  The novel is peopled Dickensianly with a bewildering array of extended relatives, so much so that a list of characters would have been helpful. (I don't know why novelists don't do this. I suppose they think it's an insult to their story-telling prowess, or an insult to the reader's reading memory.) Naipaul has said "there was a short period, towards the end of the writing, when I do believe I knew all or much of the book by heart", and that shows. He doesn't give the little reminders of who's who that a more considerate writer would.

It's often funny, although very soon you realise the underlying bleakness isn't going to go away. The laughter is bittersweet. Linguistically it's sharp, with  an enjoyable mix of  registers and languages of the characters - sometimes Hindi, sometimes English (sometimes colonial, sometimes colloquial, gradually becoming more American) - giving some glimpse of the excitement and possibilities of a multi-lingual society and making the surface of the prose glittering and fun.

I'm not tempted to read any more fiction by Naipaul on the basis of this, though. I'm interested in the comments about his non-fiction and travel writing in that Wikipedia article and someday maybe I'll look into them.

25 April 2018

Nobels: 2002: Imre Kertész

A writer of whom I am sure I had never heard before, Imre Kertész was and wrote in Hungarian. As far as I can tell this book, Fateless, fairly closely follows his own history. A secular Jew in Hungary as the Second World War was nearing its end, he was taken away one day to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. The book describes the treatment a similar boy, Gyuri, received in the camps and his final liberation in 1945.

It's a sparsely-told account. Gyuri is deadpan, with a touch of autism about him in the way he affectlessly describes what happens and strives to discern some logic in it. Ultimately, and especially in the final chapter after his return to Budapest, Gyuri is making the case that life stories aren't demonstrations of fate or destiny at work, but are just sequences of events. (The original title, Sorstalanság, means fatelessness, which gives a better sense of the rejection of implied meaning in narrative.) Whether we can assume that the book is saying that the holocaust has made meaningful narrative obsolete is another question.

Unusually, with this book I noticed the typeface. It's not typical of faces used for novels and is more reminiscent of, say, French poetry. Here's a sample. It's a smart choice by the publisher: it suggests a coolness that's inherent in the text.

This was a good, enthralling read, something that I would never have picked up but for the project I've undertaken and I'm so glad to have read it.

Next up is the longest book I've tackled here so far. I'm already disposed against it for that reason, and it may be some time before you find out what it is and whether I overcome my bias.

18 April 2018

Nobels: 2003: J M Coetzee

In a parallel universe I am doing a blog about Booker prize winners and this is where those two universes meet. J M Coetzee won the Nobel in 2003 and the book of his that I have been reading, Disgrace, won the Booker in 1999.

It's a relatively conventional narrative - certainly in comparison with Jelinek - about an aging South African teacher of literature, whose life takes a turn for the worse when he seduces one of his students. At one stage his employment status is reduced to that of dead dog disposal man. At the same time, though, he achieves some kind of redemption, but it's not as pat or simplistic as that may sound (or would be, in the hands of a less honest writer).

The technical accomplishment of the book - the sheer dexterity of the writing and the development of the story, the pacing, the dialogue - is stunning. Coetzee was clearly in total command of his craft when he wrote this.

What's more difficult is the moral, even political infrastructure. The hero, David Lurie, isn't a particularly endearing character (he isn't meant to be). His sexual drive is unflatteringly depicted and there's a strong hint of incestuous guilt about his relationship with the student. And while the book is ostensibly about his out-of-placeness is an evolving South Africa - he has an entirely European frame of cultural reference, knows virtually no Xhosa - I found it more engaging on the conflict between generations. His daughter feels more at home in an African South Africa than he does, in spite of what happens. He's so flawed that, although you can sympathise with his feelings of loss, you also have to doubt the value of his world as it was.

It isn't comfortable or comforting, however, but the best books aren't. For the sheer quality of the writing I'd recommend Coetzee and may one day read more by him. But next up for me is a writer I (and you, I bet) had never heard of.

14 April 2018

Nobels: Pinter and Lessing

I've skipped over Doris Lessing (2007) and Harold Pinter (2005) because I had already read at least one work of each. Them's the rules.

Doris Lessing's citation called her an "epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny". Her most important book was probably The Golden Notebook (1962) a fundamental text of 20th century feminism and probably still worth reading (it's a very long time since I did).

Harold Pinter is probably better known. His plays seem pretty conventional now but that's because they changed theatre in Britain, which is quite an achievement. Perhaps it's his screenplays that will last best: The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between three particular stand-outs.  The citation says that he "in his plays uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression's closed rooms". He hated Tony Blair and I think the feeling was mutual.

12 April 2018

Nobels: 2004: Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the prize in 2004. She was virtually unknown in Britain at the time, and because she has the nerve (da noive!) to be Austrian and to write in German, a thick, pun-ridden, allusive German, there clearly must have been some mistake.

Her work is dense and modernist, with an elusive narrative thread and shifting points of view, but is centered on two themes: the willful amnesia of Austrian society about its part in twentieth century history, and the tendency of men to dominate women, both linguistically and physically. There's a long and detailed survey of her work by Nicholas Spice at the other side of this link.

My own German isn't good enough to read this book in the original, but from the preview of the ebook on the German Amazon site, I can see how playful and difficult it is. The translation by Joachim Neugroschel is fittingly roughcast: it doesn't have the "smoothness" that's so often praised by monolingual reviewers. A smoother translator would never have dared to use the phrase "Little shop of whorers" (p 48) to describe a peepshow, for example but as far as I can tell it's exactly the kind of almost-clever, almost-trite pun Jelinek loves.

Once again, though, I'm puzzled by the translation of the title. In German it's "Die Klavierspielerin" which simply means "The (female) Piano Player". You can make a case that Piano Teacher is a better title (in that it foregrounds the pupil/teacher relationship that's a vital part of the plot), but Jelinek could have called the book "Die Klavierlehrerin" and didn't. Why would a translator try to improve on what the author decided?

Anyway, the book itself is one of those where I feel like an alien visitor to the planet, watching people behave in ways that I will never understand. I think that's my problem, and that other people will find it easier to relate to what goes on. It's the same bewilderment I get from knowing that some people like the books of Michel Houellebecq: I'm sure they do, but I really can't see why. Actually, this is the kind of book he would write if only he had any talent for writing or for understanding people. Largely (I think) an exploration of the writer's own obsessions, but at least Jelinek gives her characters some depth and her writing is always quirky and intriguing.

Apparently this is her least challenging book so I don't think I'll read any others.

Elfriede Jelinek, trans Joachim Neugroschel: The Piano Teacher Serpent's Tail 1988

04 April 2018

Nobels: 2006: Orhan Pamuk

I skip over Doris Lessing and come to Orhan Pamuk and his third novel The White Castle. It is a short book (<150 pp) but it felt much longer, and not in a good way.

The story is quite sparse: an unnamed narrator, an Italian scholar, in captured into slavery in 17th century Istanbul. His owner, a Turkish scientist (more or less) called Hoja, works with him on a range of projects under the patronage of the Sultan, culminating in the invention of a military machine which ultimately proves ineffective in battle. During their collaboration their identities become almost fused, but towards the end one of them runs away and is reported to have gone to Italy and resumed the narrator's pre-capture life.

The whole point of the narrative is in the relationship between the narrator and Hoja and you can find material there for considering the following Big Questions:

- how and how far can a man know himself
- the differences between eastern and western philosophies of:
-- the self
-- the universe
-- dining tables
- the use and misuse of narrative
- our old friend, the unreliable narrator

It's in the nature of these things that no firm answer is given. Indeed, the whole narrative, and the framing narrative (an introduction by a fictitious modern scholar) is self-undermining.

It's compulsory to mention Borges in this context, and I was reminded of the way Borges constantly irritates me: huge intelligence put to the service of luxurious games. I think the worst thing is the way there's no anchoring of the play of ideas to any solidity of emotional involvement. But that's just me. Lots of people love this sort of thing and I can't possibly say they're wrong. I won't be searching out any of his other books.

Pamuk's Nobel citation says that he "in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures", which is about as bland as you can get. As with Alexievich a few years later, it's likely that the award was in part a reaction to the state-supported attacks on some unpopular opinions. Pamuk spoke up about the death of Armenians at the hands of Turkey, a subject that is extremely contentious, and the Academy - rightly, I'd say - wanted to defend free speech. You can read more about it at Pamuk's wikipedia entry.