Showing posts with label Nobel Prizes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nobel Prizes. Show all posts

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review | Too Much Happiness

I'm really beginning to doubt whether or not it was wise to start my literary relationship with Alice Munro through Too Much Happiness. As a collection it is surprisingly strong, but though I recognized an obvious brilliance to Munro's writing (something which is often lacking in Nobel laureates, oddly enough), I didn't feel quite the emotional resonance I was expecting. It'll come, I'm certain - unlike an author like Mo Yan (who will take me a long time to revisit...) or an author like Herta Müller (with her depth and quiet pounding who can only be visited on rare, carefully planned occasions) - I have every intention of reading another of Munro's collections within the coming months.

The stories in Too Much Happiness generally follow the same idea - characters' lives revolving around a before-and-after pivot. These pivots are misleadingly quiet plot points, usually so calmly dealt with they almost lose their whiplash strength. These are not quiet events - divorce and death and children and love - but they lack the grandeur and pomp many other writers would ascribe to them. In "Fiction", the pivot is most strongly felt by a chapter-like division, giving us the set-up and then an entirely different story in the second half. Or the powerful opening story "Dimensions", which has reveals the backstory in bits, then all at once.

With the exception of the titular "Too Much Happiness" (the final story in the collection and by far the weakest - I'll get to it in a moment), each of the stories seemed to strike me like a punch while I was reading them, then leave behind a mildly bitter aftertaste (except "Dimensions", which simply left me speechless and almost physically winded), and then appear remarkably clearly in retrospect. Looking back on the stories a couple weeks later, I'm reminded of the characters and their lives. I'm reminded of Munro's absolutely clean writing. The stories have stuck, even if it seemed for a short time like they might not. They still don't scream, but they've firmly pushed their way to the front. They will not be forgotten so easily.

Weierstrass was last semester 
My main struggle with the collection on the whole comes from the final story - "Too Much Happiness". This, it should seem, would be right up my alley, telling the story of Sophia Kovalevsky, a mathematician in the late 19th century (with extra Weierstrass references!). But it's not. The back cover describes this one as being about Sophia's "yearnings", but if so, her yearnings are decidedly dull. "Too Much Happiness" is too long, too clumsy in its characterizations (namely, its lack of it - the previous story "Wood" managed to make me significantly more emotionally invested in the struggles of its lead than the almost-sprawling-by-comparison "Too Much Happiness". It's a story that seemed hemmed in by its own ambitions of telling a bigger story, but also hindered by a lack of space in which to grow and breathe. The story is also unique in that Munro seems to be experimenting with a different writing style (a bit more old-fashioned, less coolly detached and more dramatically involved). It's a nice idea, but I don't think it worked particularly well within the story, and certainly not within the rest of the collection. Much less as the closing story.

All in all, I liked Too Much Happiness. I wasn't blown away by it (no absolute adoration here) but I appreciated it very much. After hearing so much about Munro's stellar writing, it was a joy to experience it myself, and the multi-layered strength of her stories will stick with me for a while longer. It may not turn out to be Munro's best collection, but Too Much Happiness certainly made me want to read more of her stories... perhaps it wasn't such a bad introduction after all.

Monday, May 6, 2013

When ideas within a framework fail to impress | The Garlic Ballads

Is there something about Chinese fiction that's problematic for me? Of the four Chinese novels I've read (or gave up on for very good reasons) in the past few years, ironically only the one I read in a translation into Hebrew has been any good (Chronicle of a Blood Merchant)*. Of the English translations, I couldn't finish The Fat YearsThe Dictionary of Maqiao was a slog most of the way through despite its clever structure, and now the fourth, The Garlic Ballads... I just finished Mo Yan's novel and am feeling distinctly underwhelmed.

I've been trying to finish The Garlic Ballads for weeks, actually. It's a bit like the situation I found myself in with The Fat Years - I wanted to keep reading out of sheer inertia. The Fat Years I gave up on the moment I lost a bit of momentum. I kept reading The Garlic Ballads because one thin aspect of the story seemed like it might develop further. It ultimately developed into a rather horrifying scene, but otherwise fully failed to move me.

If the eBook hadn't been returned to the library a few days ago, I would have been able to actually quote from the passages that highlighted much of what I didn't like about the book. But even without the book in front of me, I can clearly state that somewhere - either in the translation or while actually writing the novel - someone missed an important lesson on dialogue. The Garlic Ballads has a bizarre mash-up of flowery prose alongside extremely brash colloquial speech. It has nothing to do with certain characters speaking one way or another - the same character might give a very proper, stilted speech, and two pages later use slang that seems utterly out of place. Every translation from Chinese I've read - whether in Hebrew or in English - has had a very specific stiff feel to it, recognizable even across the different languages. This, coupled with the scant Chinese I know, leads me to be more lenient when it comes to translations from Chinese. But not this lenient. You lose me once the inconsistencies start.

I don't know why I didn't like The Garlic Ballads quite so much. It's not a horrible book, but I never felt like I connected with it: I didn't care about the characters, I didn't like the writing, and the plot kept feeling like some slippery ice-cube I was trying to grab inside a giant bath. I wasn't sure if Mo was winking at the readers, or at the government, or at the Western world, or what. But it felt like he was winking. Each chapter opens with a quote from the blind minstrel's "garlic ballads", where a lot of the political stuff gets jammed. It's generally a clever idea, having quotes from one of your characters framing the story (though the minstrel remains generally background until the very end), but... did it lead to anything? Did it enlighten me? Things happened, yes, and ideas were tossed around, but was there a plot? Was there character development? Was there anything?

So I end up feeling a bit like I did after The Fat Years. Namely, that Mo had a bunch of ideas, and decided to place them within a specific framework. Unlike the awful mess that was The Fat Years, The Garlic Ballads does a much better job of telling some kind of story (even if it's unclear what that story is). The gimmick here - the framing - is much more successful. The writing is also much better. But overall, I can't say that I enjoyed this book or took something significant from it. Even when reading the "difficult" scenes, I felt like an outsider who was uncomfortable, not like a character going through these events myself. I finished the book and just felt relieved to be done with it. I could now mark a V next to its title. Going through the motions... never a good indication when it comes to literature.

* This is mostly ironic because the vast majority of Chinese books are translated into Hebrew through English. I bought Chronicle of a Blood Merchant in large part to send a subtle hint to publishers that they can translate directly from the original language, and shouldn't be quite so cheap. Turns out I liked the book.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Archive surprise | After the Divorce

Grazia Deledda's novel After the Divorce doesn't seem to be all that popular, and I'm not sure why. Sure, the fact that it was first published in 1905 might have something to do with it, but that's a pretty weak claim in our contemporary, classic-appreciative world. After the Divorce is a good book. It deserves more attention.

To a certain degree, After the Divorce reminded me a lot of Émile Zola's books. This is partly because Deledda, like Zola, deals with issues that are still fairly relevant in our modern age. The book feels old, but not old-fashioned. It's remarkably interesting and is told in a surprisingly modern way, with a sharp eye for religion and belief, and a little less of Zola's particular brand of preaching.

It's not just that. After the Divorce has a little bit of everything. There's love, loss, murder, an evil mother-in-law... and yet the novel never feels overwhelming. It's relatively short and is remarkably easy to read, but more importantly - it's enjoyable. I read the book in a day not because it's light fare, but because it's interesting. There are soap-opera overtones, but this never degenerates into stupidity.

After the Divorce has a seemingly narrow focus (a small Sicilian town), yet the story is generic in nature and can be applied anywhere, anytime (much like many of Zola's novels). The story opens dramatically - Giovanna's husband Constantino has been convicted of a murder he denies committing and is sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. Giovanna is convinced to seek out a divorce from her husband under a new clause in the law that would permit her to get a divorce even in her highly Catholic society. After the Divorce - as the name indicates - follows Giovanna and Constantino... after the divorce. The story progresses much like a tragic soap, with events constantly unfolding. Yet After the Divorce isn't petty or shallow. It portrays Giovanna and Constantino's struggles realistically, as each deals with the consequences of Constantino's imprisonment. It's all very interesting... and very different from most books I've read.

After the Divorce strikes me as one of those books that stands the test of time, except for the fact that it seems to have never gained the popularity it deserves. Maybe it's my own literary ignorance, but I had not heard of Grazia Deledda until I began to look up all the Nobel Prize winning writers. She appears on no lists of "greatest novels" or "greatest authors". Like the vast majority of authors, Deledda's works have faded into the background. According to the official Nobel Prize website, Deledda earned her award "for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general". This is certainly an accurate description of Deledda's writing in After the Divorce. It's a shame she is not better remembered for it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Czesław Miłosz's search for self-definition

I've blogged about Czesław Miłosz in the past: Miłosz has been one of my favorite poets since I first discovered him in the spring of 2006. His poetry has always resonated particularly strongly with me, and as the years go by, this power that his words hold over me has hardly diminished. Not long after I discovered him, I also learned that Miłosz was well-regarded for his essays and his novel The Issa Valley. After several weeks in which I debated which book of his I ought to read, I eventually bought Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition.

I would not read it for six more years.

Native Realm is anomalous for a number of reasons. Not only is it a remarkably strangely written autobiography of an undeniably fascinating writer, it is also a curious treatise on Eastern European development. Miłosz's search for self-definition is centered not around himself, but rather around his native Poland/Lithuania. Miłosz seeks more to define Eastern Europe as a whole than any kind of personal self-realization. This entails a lot of hard-core historical context, which he comfortably provides. Within this frame, readers can follow aspects of Miłosz's own life, but that doesn't feel like the main point of the book. 

Miłosz's focus on history means two things: firstly, the reader becomes acquainted with Eastern Europe's complex socio-political-religious situation in the early 20th century, and secondly, that Miłosz himself must acknowledge and tackle dark and disturbing periods in his homeland's history. In this regard, Miłosz provides one of the most powerful passages in the whole book:
As an eyewitness to the crime of genocide, and therefore deprived of the luxury of innocence, I am prone to agree with the accusations brought against myself and others. In reality, however, it is not so easy to judge, because the price of aiding the victims of terror was the death penalty. 
Native Realm loses some of its coherence as the book progresses. The chronological arrival of World War II shifts the focus from Eastern Europe in general to Miłosz's own wanderings. It is no less interesting, but the change was disconcerting, as I suspect the reality must have been as well. Native Realm was not at all what I expected (I must confess that I prefer Miłosz's poetry to his passive political descriptions), but it filled in several gaps in my understanding of the world. And even if it takes me another six years to read another book by Miłosz, at least I will have what to revisit and learn from.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Poem of the month

Lo, this land that lifts around it
Threatening peaks, while stern seas bound it,
With cold winters, summers bleak,
Curtly smiling, never meek,
'Tis the giant we must master,
Till he work our will the faster.
He shall carry, though he clamor,
He shall haul and saw and hammer,
Turn to light the tumbling torrent,—
All his din and rage abhorrent
Shall, if we but do our duty,
Win for us a realm of beauty.

Master or Slave - Bjornstjerne Bjornson

Monday, September 19, 2011

Comparing minority Romania

I just started reading Herztier (The Land of Green Plums in English) by Herta Müller and I find myself repeatedly thinking one completely unjustified, unrelated thought - this book is the grown-up alternative to The White King. Or a complementary novel. Something of the sort.

I loved The White King. It's a good book, well-written and finding the perfect balance between child and adult without restricting itself to one particular audience. It's a book that educates and enlightens, all while telling a good story. Written by an author belonging to the Hungarian minority in Romania, it describes a child's life in totalitarian Romania in the late 80s. On the other hand, The Land of Green Plums is written by a member of the German minority in Romania. It's about young men and women growing up in the shadow of WWII during the 70s and 80s, life in totalitarian Romania.

It strikes me as odd, first of all, that my only literary knowledge of Romania is seen through the eyes of minorities. Not necessarily bad (in fact, there is something far more enlightening about this somewhat skewed view), but worth noting. More to the point, I'm noticing that as the book progresses, the dark undertones of the story become far more pronounced. Müller introduces her characters as sketches at first, gradually filling them in. It's disconcerting and quite enticing. I'd normally call this a risky move on the author's part, but Müller handles it deftly and so far (about a third of the way through, meaning there's still plenty of room to go wrong...) it's working quite well. I'm hooked, certainly.

It's these dark reflections, this adult-minded depression and gloom that makes it quite obviously different from The White King. For all the pain and sadness that book had, there was a thread of childish hope and optimism throughout. Even the wonderful downer ending did not leave the reader completely at a loss and just sad - there was something behind the pain. There was hope. The Land of Green Plums doesn't really have that. There's just an unrelenting sea of struggles and sorrows. Maybe in the end, it really is all about the child-vs.-adult mindset. Maybe the adults in The Land of Green Plums are watching the kids in The White King and thinking to themselves, "Just wait a few years, kids. Soon, you'll all be as depressed as we are..."

Friday, April 22, 2011

A poetry story

A lovely 'Even Hoshen' edition
Czesław Miłosz and I "met" in late spring of 2006. The days were warm and sunny, the atmosphere carefree and happy. The school year was coming to a close. Our end-of-the-year English unit was poetry, as was our summarizing final project and exam (more details here). I was impressed enough with Miłosz writing to give him the front-centre spot in the project, and enough to remember his name. And yet.
And yet it took me an additional five years to read further Miłosz poems, this time in another language. When an article in the Ha'aretz Book Review (partial English representation here) mentioned a newly published translation of a collection of Miłosz poems, I immediately took note. During the National Book Week, I visited the booth of this publisher (small, independent and almost entirely unknown... sadly). I picked up the book was struck by the beauty of the edition. This was not a simple publication. I could discuss the publishers at length (at a later time), but suffice to say that the edition is positively lovely - heavy paper, a distinct blue font, and specially drawn images scattered throughout the book. A book for a true bibliophile. And Miłosz lover.

I did not immediately dive into It (as the collection is called in this edition). I took my time, occasionally reading a poem here and there. One evening, I sat down to read a few poems before bed. One left a particularly strong impression. "Meaning":

When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.

And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?

Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.

(translation Robert Hass)

It's a poem that can impact a reader in two languages (or possibly more). This is why I return to Miłosz, why I do like some poetry. I'm not a huge poetry reader, but poems like this - poems that move a reader enough to read them again and again and again without the words growing old - are the reason I will continue to seek out new poets. And return to the talented ones.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

2. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Seven years of rain

This counts as fantasy
My father is a slow reader. Reading Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece was a project for him - several years of careful, deep reading that never became difficult. Ask him for his favorite book, he answers comfortably: Cien años de soledad.

Why, you may ask, is such a book in a list of fantasy literature? Readers unused to García's writing style may think this is simply due to the idea "magical realism", often tossed around when García's name is mentioned. It's not a wrong phrasing, but truth be told: One Hundred Years of Solitude is fantasy. And wonderful fantasy at that. Things happen in a strange and mysterious way, all without a single logical explanation from the author.

A few weekends ago, the subject came up. My father mentioned that one aspect he loved so much about the book was that:
It could appear to be completely normal and everything would be entirely realistic and all of a sudden something happens that doesn't make any sense.
"Like seven years of rain," I mentioned. Yes, now he remembered. Seven straight, completely acceptable years of rain. Or a character living forever. Or the wonderful ending.

This is not a man who likes fantasy. Not fantasy as it's typically perceived, at least. Almost every reader I've encountered who has read One Hundred Years of Solitude would probably balk at the idea of putting it on a list of fantasy greats, but I call it as it is.

If I mentioned in my definition of fantasy that Lord of the Rings is fantastic without being magical, here is a book that is entirely magical and entirely fantastic, perhaps without being pure fantasy. Much as my father said: things just happen. And as they happen, it makes sense. Except for how it absolutely doesn't. It's this fantastic quality to the storytelling. Pure magic.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Vintage, California

I read "The Grapes of Wrath" on a summer visit to an Eastern European country, an apt setting for this novel. Alongside the grim stories are beautifully written chapters about nature and land. The book went well with the corn fields flying by.

I reread it perhaps a month or two later. I was worried that my impression of the book had been altered by the way I'd read it, something not unheard of. The experience was, indeed, quite different, but actually more positive. Since then, I've only ever reread two very specific parts of Steinbeck's novel and have largely ignored the rest.

The first revisited part is, unsurprisingly, the end. At the risk of spoiling the book for those who haven't read it, I won't go into what exactly it is about the ending that called me back again and again. Just know that it's a good ending. At first I didn't like it. Even before I reread the whole novel, this one scene, these last few pages kept pulling me back in, first in annoyance, and later, growing respect and appreciation. Each revisit explained something new and made me like the book a little more.

The other part is at once more complicated and simpler. As I mentioned earlier, "The Grapes of Wrath" has descriptive chapters amidst the meat of the book. These are beautiful "literary" chapters, ignoring real characters and looking at nature and at the land. These are chapters to build the world, adding a level of descriptive depth to it.

Chapter 25 epitomizes this. This chapter lends the book its name and stands as some of the single greatest writing I've ever read. From its pure, idyllic opening ("The spring is beautiful in California."), to the title-giving final line ("In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage."), it travels the state and sums up much of the story indirectly.

These two snapshots don't make up the book. In fact, they paint a picture of a completely different type of novel, one that focuses too much, perhaps, on the aesthetic qualities of words and less their meaning. Now, a few years later, they serve as an excellent reminder that I liked this book, and this (coupled with how well "The Grapes of Wrath" grew on me) proves that I must revisit it. Preferably soon.

Monday, May 31, 2010

One big, wrong family

Isaac Bashevis Singer received the Nobel for his writings about Jewish life, for the "Polish-Jewish roots" in his writing. "The Family Moskat" picks apart life in Poland from before WWI until the German invasion in 1939. The purpose is similar to that of many "great" novels - view the changes and details of a society or group of people. Here, the Moskats represent Hassidic Judaism as a whole, with each member of the new generation breaking off in a different way.

"The Family Moskat" is a book that, I presume, will mean something different to everyone who reads it - Jew vs. non-Jew, religious vs. secular, conservative vs. liberal, etc. The moral dilemmas reach out to the reader in that everyone is always wrong. Every character is incredibly real in that sense - they all have their glaring faults. It is difficult to find the character with the moral high ground; if one is not doing the right thing, he is saying something else that's terrible.

This made "The Family Moskat" both a fascinating read and a difficult one. It's hard to swallow some of the downfalls, like the amount of adultery committed, or the thefts, or the lies, or even the religious twists and turns. On the other hand, nothing is quite as thought-provoking as poor decisions. So many aspects of the book can be discussed. Like the world he's writing about, Singer's story can be broken down into all its little parts.

One thread continues to hit me. One of the Moskat cousins at some point coverts to Christianity. This puts her in the mind of her family (some of it, at least) as dead. In Judaism, little is as terrible as leaving the faith. Soon, it becomes clear that the conversion does little to help her in the eyes of others (including the husband for whom she converted). On the Hassidic side of things, modern education is blamed for this travesty. Looking at this story from a Jewish perspective reveals wrongs, while looking at this from a culturally liberal viewpoint will highlight wrongs on the other side. Each direction provides the reader with enough food for thought to last several months. "The Family Moskat" is rich in that sense. But like dark chocolate, too much can be a bad thing too.

This is a minuscule epic and an incredible view into the drama of the time. Singer's writing, it seems, developed with his later stories. Perhaps, but this one holds its own.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Winners and finalists

Last week, Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for her novel "Wolf Hall". The surprise came in that Mantel was the expected win. Bookies and fans claimed her to be the favorite and indeed she won.

That Thursday, Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This Romanian-born German writer was received with a lot of criticism in the U.S. immediately, as many began to cry foul, claiming that the Nobels were far too Europe-centric. Müller, virtually unknown in the U.S. until her ascension as Nobel laureate, was seen as an obscure, bad pick by many, while others insisted that the problem was with the U.S. for not recognizing one of Germany's top authors, especially one who has been translated into English (nice list here). It's an interesting debate but is fairly pointless. Instead, let's congratulate Müller on her win and get reading her works.

Meanwhile, on U.S. soil, the National Book Award Finalists have been revealed. The picks emerge from over a thousand possibilities and will probably pinpoint a truly good book (going based on previous years' winners). Here is a prize with little controversy: there's not much in the finalist lists to complain about. In addition to the finalists, Gore Vidal and Dave Eggers received the awards for
Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and The Literarian Award, respectively.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Pamuk and Amazon

We enter a to-be common realm: Amazon reviewers.

A few months ago, I read "The Black Book" by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. It was favorably reviewed on Amazon and I checked it out from the library, thinking, "I'm interested in Turkey. I like stories. What can go wrong?" Well, "The Black Book" proved to be a disappointment. While filled to the brim with stories, the main plot wasn't so hot, the end was kind of random, and the entire story dragged on for about 300 pages too long. It could have served great as a short story (well written, interesting idea...), but as a novel, there were too many stories within stories within... You catch my drift.

But I like giving second chances. I do. So when I saw novel "Snow" on sale for cheap, I bought it. I read it. I liked it. The story too had slow moments, was at times awkwardly pretentious (probably the translation, though), but in the end managed to excite me, delight me, and keep me reading, a grand improvement over "The Black Book". I finished reading it, pleased that I had given Pamuk a second chance.

And yet Amazon seems to disagree with me. Again. Fellow reviewers bash the book as "drawn straight from the headlines", as though writing about relevant subjects is suddenly a bad thing. Quite a few feel that the book is boring. Their right, I suppose, even if I don't agree. Some say the writing style isn't for them. Also understandable. But then this:

Did they like it because they're supposed to like it?
Excuse me? Did I read that correctly? Another wrote:
...his acclaim and yes, even his Nobel prize, have more to do with his subject matter than with the quality of his writing...
At this point I nearly gave up. Because who are we, pathetic amateur reviewers, to say if a person should have won a Nobel Prize, to say casually dismiss a writer and readers who enjoy his novels as liking it "because [we're] supposed to"? Yes, I will not mask the fact that there are probably readers out there who, in order to make themselves appear educated, say they like books they don't, and no, I will also not pretend that I wasn't originally interested in Pamuk because of the little circle on the cover, but that claim, which I have seen in many places and warrants its own official complaint, is completely wrong and unfair to readers who like it simply, perhaps, because the story is interesting (yeah, the subject is cool!) or because the writing style is kind of neat.

Mr. Pamuk has clearly split readers pretty evenly. He's got those who find his writing tedious, pretentious, long, and all-in-all terrible and he has those who find his writing to be fascinating accounts of Turkey, eye-opening, lyrical, and all-in-all wonderful. And then he has me, who seems to be at odds with the greater community no matter what.

Oh, literature. No subject rivals you.