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Nobel Prize

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Title: Jazz
Author: Toni Morrison
Year: 1992

Toni Morrison is an author I think most people have heard about (she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993), but that I haven’t had the opportunity to read until now. I picked up Jazz more or less randomly in a second-hand book shop a couple of years ago, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently. After turning the last page, I’m still not very clear what I think about either the book or the author, but I will try to do my best to let you understand why this is so.

The story is set in the 1920s in Harlem, although threads of the story go back in time much longer than that. The main characters are Joe Trace, a middle-aged salesman who has an extra-marital affair with a young girl named Dorcas. When she leaves him for a younger man, Joe shoots her at a party, but because of the commotion, only Dorcas herself knows who shot her. She refuses medical attention and tells everybody that everything will be clear tomorrow, but then she’s already dead. Violet, Joe’s wife, is known to be a bit crazy and attempts to disfigure Dorcas’ face on the funeral.

The novel itself is a patchwork of individual stories that form a larger picture that only takes shape towards the end. Some episodes are hard to understand, but the creative style makes the reading enjoyable most of the time. However, I cannot claim I understand the novel, especially when I read something like this on Wikipedia:

The novel deliberately mirrors the music of its title, with various characters “improvising” solo compositions that fit together late a whole work. The tone of the novel also shifts with these compositions, from bluesy laments to up beat, sensual ragtime. The novel also utilizes the call and response style of Jazz music, allowing the characters to explore the same events from different perspectives.

What? I feel that these aspects of the novel are completely beyond me and perhaps that’s the reason why the rating isn’t higher than it is. I think that a more thorough reading might have given me more, but I did not have the feeling that I was missing a lot when I read it. This novel is one example of a case when I think critics perhaps exaggerate phenomena that are indeed present in the text, but not to the extent they claim. It should of course be mentioned that I know little of both Toni Morrison herself and of the jazz on which the novel supposedly models itself.

I would like to end this review by saying that I don’t regret reading the book, but I can’t say that it told me very much about the author. Perhaps I should read something else by her before I form a definite opinion, because it’s clear that there is something underneath the intertwining narratives and sometimes extravagante language, I’m just not sure exactly what it is.

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Original title: La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada
English title: The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother
Swedish title: Den otroliga och sorgliga historien om den troskyldiga Eréndira och hennes hjärtlösa farmor
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Year: 1972

Having read and liked One Hundred Years of Solitude (review in Swedish), I felt quite confident that Gabriel García Marquez probably wouldn’t be guilty of writing something bad, the only question was how good this collection of short stories would turn out to be, as brilliant as the only novel I’ve read by him before or simply “good”? The latter is the most accurate answer, even though some of the stories were truly brilliant.

Language is the biggest reason to read García Marquez. He is a true magician that can use ordinary words and turn them into fantastic sentences, stunningly beautiful, but also conveying their meaning effectively. He doesn’t get it right every time, but he does often enough. Here are two examples from my Swedish translation:

Karibiens olyckligaste sjuklingar kom för att söka bot: en stackars kvinna som sedan barndomen räknade sitt hjärtas slag och som nu inte hade några siffror kvar, en karl från Jamaica som inte kunde sova därför att oväsendet från stjärnorna plågade honom, en sömngångare som steg upp på natten och förstörde det han hade åstadkommit på dagen, och många andra mindre allvarliga fall. (10)

De ville kedja fast ett ankare från ett handelsfartyg i anklarna för att han skulle gå till botten utan svårighet i de djupa vattnen där fiskarna är blinda och dykarna dör av hemlängtan… (34)

These are ingenious flashes of wonder, but what about the average level? García Marquez is a bit uneven in that the best he can do is probably the best I know, but that his average level is, although good, far from perfection. Some of the short stories are barely more than worthwhile, lacking both in story and in execution (I simply find them dull and/or boring). As I usually do, however, I will point out a few stories you really should read, even if you don’t plan on reading the entire volume (which spans only a little more than a hundred pages, so it shouldn’t take too much time).

First, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, the opening story, is by far the best one, followed by Blacamán the Good, Vendor of Miracles and the final story which lends its name to the entire collection: The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother. These are all worthwhile and I recommend them warmly. The reason I won’t give this collection more than three and a half snails is that the other short stories fell short of the mark and would earn only around three snails, sometimes even fewer. Regardless of that, I will still try to read more by Gabriel García Márquez in the future.

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Title: All That Fall
Author: Samuel Beckett
Year: 1956

I seldom come across books I find extremely hard to review, but after reading Samuel Beckett’s play All That Fall, I have simply no idea what to write. I don’t think it’s because of the format, because, after all, I have read some plays before and have been able to appreciate them (very much so, at least in one case). On the surface, this play is about an old and fat Irish woman who laboriously makes her way to the train station to pick up her husband, who is blind. A lot of things happen along the away and back, but since the play merely spans 45 pages or so, and the story is hard to summarise without giving it away, I’ll leave it at that.

When a Nobel Prize laureate writes (Beckett was awarded the prize in 1969), there is usually something more than story going on and this is certainly the case here, but unfortunately, I feel that most of it is beyond me (in other words, I don’t understand what’s supposed to be great). To me, All That Fall is a story with nicely written dialogue, realistic but a bit grotesque characters and focusing on death in various ways. I fail to see the brilliance here and don’t feel motivated to re-read the play and give it a more fair assessment. I don’t know if his other plays are this inaccesible or if it’s simply my being obtuse. Two and a half snails isn’t more than slightly better than mediocre, but that’ll have to do this time.

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Reading Nobel Prize winners is always nice, because they combine education and pleasure. Or rather, they provide at least one of them, if not both. In other words, if a particular book is not interesting, it is at least educational to have read it. Generally speaking, Nobel Prize winners are of course skilled writers, so even if I do not enjoy a book as such, it might be interesting for other reasons. Disregarding the few exceptions, I have liked what I have read. The average for the following ten books is 3,5 out of 5, but please note that four books have received an outstanding 4,5 out of 5. Of these authors, I plan to read more books written by Gao Xingjian, Orhan Pamuk and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who have all made a deep impression on me. Of course, I also plan to read more Nobel Prize winners in general.

1. Harry Martinson – Aniara (4/5)
2. George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion (3/5)
3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Hundra år av ensamhet (4,5/5)
4. Albert Camus – L’étranger (3/5)
5. Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises (2/5)
6. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (4,5/5)
7. Gao Xingjian – One Man’s Bible (4,5/5)
8. Eyvind Johnson – Drömmar om rosor och eld (3/5)
9. Orhan Pamuk – Snow (4,5/5)
10. Doris Lessing – The Grass is Singing (2/5)

Entering this task on my 101-in-1001 list was an excellent move. It made me read a lot of fiction I would otherwise have missed. I have found a couple of new authors I like and I have educated myself at the same time. I am satisfied.

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Title: The Grass is Singing
Author: Doris Lessing
Year: 1950

Perhaps it was a mistake to read The Grass is Singing, the novel first published by the 2007 winner of the  Nobel Prize for Literature, Doris Lessing. I bought the book because I was curious about her (I am curious about most Nobel Prize winners) and because I had a gift certificate at a shop not selling anything else I wanted. Considering that the other book I bought, Snow by Orhan Pamuk, was such a delight, I proceeded with The Grass is Singing. Since I like slim volumes, the mere two hundred pages attracted my attention.

This novel is about several things, but mainly it is about a failed marriage and two deeply unhappy and miserable people, Mary and Dick Turner. They live on a farm in South Africa, but have serious problems keeping together themselves, their business and their marriage. This story is told with a language that is good, but not excellent. The merits are the portraits of the main characters, as well as the depiction of the novel’s other main theme, blacks and whites in Africa and the relationship between them. This novel provides a profound insight into the minds of white colonialists. It is told directly and without either wallowing in the horrible reduction of human beings to mere objects, or trying to sweep it under it under the carpet.

The problem is that the story is dull and utterly fails to engage my interest. Yes, the themes are interesting, but nothing else. Sure, I can appreciate the realism of the characters, but then what? I require more than realistically grey pictures of humdrum characters caught in a bleak and uninteresting story. Even though the novel starts strongly with the discussion of a murder, which ought to kick the reader straight into the story, the momentum is lost pretty soon. Finishing the book I am relieved that the misery has finally come to an end, rather than clinging to the last, concluding pages of the novel.

I hope I just happened to read the wrong book, because this is without doubt the worst of the Nobel Prize winners I have read so far. Hopefully, Doris Lessing has evolved a lot as an author since 1950, and perhaps I ought to read something else by her. But then again, perhaps not. After all, there are so many books and so little time. In any case, I advise against spending your time on The Grass is Singing. If you want to read Doris Lessing, read another novel.

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Title: Snow
Original title: Kar
Author: Orhan Pamuk
Translator: Maureen Freely
Year: 2002

As the poet and journalist Ka returns to Turke, to the city of Kars in the far east, a heavy snow begins to fall. It hems in the town, isolating it from the rest of the country, making it a separate stage for its own problems. Initially, Ka’s mission is to inquire into the nature of a number of suicide committed by young women in the town, but he is soon drawn into a dangerously complex political struggle, and can barely stay afloat. Caught between the secularist army, supporters of the republic, and radical Islamists fighting for their right to practice their religion, Ka’s allegiances become entangled, threating to drown him. Also, in Kars, he meets Ipek, a woman of dazzling beauty he falls madly in love with.

Each separate theme in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow is not brilliant on its own, but considering that he manages to keep several of them prominent throughout the novel is truly brilliant. Not only does he write an interesting political thriller, but he also includes an insightful discussion about the nature of religious beliefs, as well as reflections on many problems in modern Turkey (the headscarf being a clear focus, as well a Turkey’s relationship to the West). Furthermore, Pamuk also muses on the nature of poetry and art, using himself as a narrator trying to understand his friend, Ka. These things are not enough to explain the four and a half snails I have decided to give Snow.

It is the language that turns this novel into a masterpiece. Of course, it is difficult to know how much of this should be attributed to the translator, but the English version I read contained the most amazing language. I have read novels more expertly written, but they can be counted easily. The words used to describe the characters and their thoughts, truly bring them to life; the painting of the landscape of Kars and the falling snow brings a unique atmosphere I will remember long after forgetting the actual plot of the novel. Also, the novel contains a lot of interesting techniques to present information ahead of the chronology, which highlight the main points of the story.

As I usually do for novels this good, I try to explain why they are not perfect. Snow is about a hundred pages too long (it is 436 as it stands now). I found many passages irrelevant, boring or just too wordy. Still, the language is excellent, so it is worthwhile anyway. This novel could have been one of the best I have read, but it is not. Still, Snow ranks pretty high and I recommend it to everyone interested in profound reflections and a tragic story adeptly put into words.

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Title: Drömmar om rosor och eld
English title: Dreams of Roses and Fire
Author: Eyvind Johnson
Year: 1949

In Drömmor om rosor och eld (English title: Dreams of Roses and Fire), Nobel Prize winner Eyvind Johnson tells a tragic story of Urbain Grainier, a priest whose charismatic personality divides the city of Loudon in two halves, those who admire and love him, and those who envy and despise him. The latter group intends to bring about his downfall by accusing him of witchcraft and of being allied to Satan. The atmosphere is this novel’s strongest point. The paranoia and fear mixed with everyday problems and worries blends nicely into a credible picture of early 1600 France.

Another merit is the author’s technique of telling the story in many different ways using many separate narrators. This makes the picture more complete and the feeling of realism is further highlighted. Unfortunately, this dwelling on everyday matters tend to be long-winded at times, occasionally outright dull, spending much energy describing characters or events that hardly matter and that only have vague bearing on the story at large.

However, as is the case with most Nobel Prize winners, the language is good, even brilliant at times. Occasionally, I stop to admire a sentence, a nice linking of chapters or events. There was some controversy concerning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1974, when Harry Martinson shared the prize with Eyvind Johnson, because both of them where on the panel deciding who should receive the prize. Considering that Graham Greene was a favoured candidate, I can only say that I think it is pretty clear who is the best author (knowing that one novel is not enough to assess either Johnson’s or Martinson’s qualities, I write this to exalt Graham Greene).

On the whole, though, the good things about narration and language are not enough to make up for the shortcomings described above. Drömmar om rosor och eld is worthwhile because of the language and skilfull execution, but the dullness of some chapters reduces the lustre. I shall consider reading something else by Eyvind Johnson, preferably something shorter and more to the point.

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Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Year: 1929

I have great difficulties understanding Ernest Hemingway. After reading The Old Man and the Sea, I, I had no trouble whatsoever understanding why he is so highly regarded. I enjoyed both the brilliant use of language and the simplicity of the story. I have read several of his short stories too, and they have also been very good. However, I have also read two novels which I found boring and uninspiring. The Sun Also Rises is one of them and, the subject of this review, A Farewell to Arms, is the other.

This story takes place in Italy during the Great War, and narrates a brief episode in the life of an American ambulance driver called Frederic Henry, how he is wounded and falls in love with a nurse. The novel’s focus is divided between the front and the harsh realities of war, as well as the more peaceful environment of a military hospital and his newly found love.

Some parts of this novel are interesting and well worth reading, especially the first few parts. What bothers me is that the story totally loses momentum somewhere around halfway, and just does not manage to finish gracefully. In fact, the last two parts of the novel feel like an over-extended epilogue. These parts being totally devoid of interesting content, I cannot possibly like this book. If the entire book would have resembled the last few chapters, I would probably give a grade of one snail or less.

However, that is not the case, and, admitting that he is good at writing, especially dialogue, I grant Hemingway two snails. I still do not understand him or A Farewell to Arms, though. How can I like some of his works so much, and then just not get the point of others?

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Title: One Man’s Bible
Original title: 一个人的圣经
Author: Gao Xingjian
Year: 1998

Introduction
I read this novel as part of a study assignment, which is why it is more ambitious than my normal reviews. The instruction was basically to reflect upon the novel and its contents and since I thought I might as well publish what I hand in, here you have my reflections on Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible. This novel is utterly impossible to spoil, so even though I do reveal parts of the story, I do not feel that I have to issue a spoiler warning.

Summary
One Man’s Bible is a story composed of two narrative threads, beautifully interlaced to form varied and lucid fabric depicting the author, his background and relation to his native country: China. The focus of the novel is roughly equally distributed between the two threads. The first explores the author’s historical heritage, focusing on the Cultural Revolution and the period following it, the second consists reflective musing on literature and life, always with clear connections to his personal background.

About the author
Gao Xingjian is a fascinating character in many ways, not least because of his background. He was born in 1940 to a bank official and an actress in Ganzhou, People’s Republic of China. Before the Cultural Revolution, he studied at university and worked as a translator. During this period, he also produced numerous works of literature, but he was compelled to burn them all out of fear of government reprisals (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

As the tremors of the Cultural Revolution shook China, Gao fled to the rural parts of western China in order to hide. He worked on a farm and later as a teacher, but persevered in his writing. Yet again, he had to immolate his manuscripts to avoid persecution by the authorities. After the Cultural Revolution, he moved back to Beijing and became a renowned and prolific playwright (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

In 1987 he left China, probably for good, since he does not want to return to that authoritarian state. He is now settled in France, where he has begun to produce literature in French, as well as to publish old material in translation to English (as of 2008, four books are available in English). Gao Xingjian is possibly most well-known for being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 (Literature resource center, 2008-02-21).

About the novel
As I have already stated briefly, One Man’s Bible consists of two parallel stories, and although interlaced and supporting each other, I think reflections upon the book will merit from treating these threads separately. Let me begin with the thread concerning historical times, because it is the basis of the novel and without it, the thread taking place in modern times would be pointless.

Writing about terrible things belonging to the author’s personal history is always difficult, because there is so much suffering in the world that I as a reader do not feel the need of adding more. Certain authors are capable of writing about terrible events and, at the same time, manage to create great literature (Imre Kertész and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spring to mind). I think that Gao Xingjian places himself firmly in this exclusive group of authors, mostly because of the reflective writing that parallels the historical retelling (more on that later), but also because it is apparent in his writing that his main objective is not to earn sympathy or to paint as dark a picture as possible of China’s history. This impression does of course not render this very story in a more positive light, but it makes the novel worthwhile.

The author focuses on fairly subjective narration of his experiences, not always in chronological order, but always with added comment and thought. It is not a wallowing in filth, repression and terror, but rather a story of a deeply reflective man put in a society in which he cannot thrive. It is moving to know that although he risked death, he still wrote during the Cultural Revolution. Thinking reflectively and openly was not something he felt that he could do, but over and over throughout his writing, he expresses an aptitude for reflective writing.

Note that Gao Xingjian does not write to encourage humanity to learn from history, because, as he rather cynically puts it “when people have forgotten about it [the terrible times], it will make a comeback, and people who have never gone crazy will go crazy […] This is because madness has existed since the birth of humanity, and it is simply a question of when it will flare up again” (p. 195). Instead, it is a one man’s bible, a story about a lonely man and his need to “release himself”, something which he associates with a “deep, instinctual animal drive” (p. 196).

I have previously read one book which takes place during the cultural revolution (Red Azalea by Anchee Min) and, even though I would like to make it clear that I do in now way intend to say that these books are similar in any other way, I would like to say that their portrayal of society is reminiscent of each other. Both are stories about repression, albeit it in different ways, and paranoia and fear are themes which run as a scarlet thread through both novels.

Throughout the novel, the author often touches on the issue of wearing a mask to conceal one’s real emotions and thoughts about what is going on in one’s vicinity, which is a theme I think can be traced to most novels set in repressive, totalitarian states. Perhaps, it is something present in most societies, albeit that the consequences of violating the masquerade is fatally different in the China of Gao’s youth, compared with that of present day Sweden. We all wear masks to present a face to the world which enables us to survive and thrive in the social milieu. The difference for me personally is of course that changing masks is something that can be allowed to function naturally and is seldom forced upon me from the outside. In the China of One Man’s Bible, this is not so. The author notes that “[h]is real face only came into existence later on, when, finally, he was able to take off the mask. But taking it off was not an easy matter, because the face and the facial nerves had become stiff from wearing the mask” (p. 212).

By way of making a connection to the other narrative thread in the novel, I would like to comment on another theme, which is present in almost all 61 chapters of One Man’s Bible, namely women. In the beginning, Gao’s relationship to the opposite sex is fairly ordinary, but after being scorched by a particular girl who betrays him after him having invested trust and emotion into his relationship with her. He says that you (here using second person singular to address aspects of himself, more on that below) “wander from country to country, city to city, woman to woman, but don’t think of finding a place that is home. You drift along, engrossed in savouring the taste of the written language, like ejaculating, leaving behind some traces of your life.” (p. 426) It is through his conversations with these women that we receive the story of One Man’s Bible. Women also constitute an important thread running through the historical narration, since the author often uses them as a basis from which to explore his past.

As seen in the quotation above, the author uses second person singular to separate himself from the story, because, as he says, literature is like a camera for a photographer in that it allows the author to shield himself from what he is writing about. This technique feels awkward in the beginning, but after a while, I sense a true separation between author and main character, and I cannot help but admire how skilfully this is executed. In certain chapters later in the novel, Gao uses this technique to highlight certain effects (since he uses third person singular for his historical narration, he is thus enabled to comment on what has happened, both from his standpoint behind the camera, as it were, and as a participant in the events he describes).

Conclusion
Gao Xingjian manages to do what few other authors are capable of, namely to write about suffering and misery in a way which makes his novel worthwhile to read, not because of the suffering, but because of the way in which the author relates to it. The greatness of One Man’s Bible resides in its ability to combine such reflections and still manage to create great literature. The language of this English translation (by Mabel Lee) is excellent and the stylistic ingenuity shown by the author makes this pure joy to read. Even though it is sometimes hard to relate to what is being told, and although the story itself is not always mesmerising, my overall impression of One Man’s Bible is very good. I intend to read more by Gao Xingjian and, if I may, I humbly suggest you do the same.

References

Gao Xingjian. (2003). One Man’s Bible. Flamingo: London.

Literature resource center (accessed 2008-02-21).

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English title: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Swedish title: En dag i Ivan Denisovitjs liv
Original title: Один день Ивана Денисовича
Author:
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Year: 1962

First, some sort of disclaimer. I read this book last summer, but I have somehow managed to forget to review it. I still have a distinct impression of what I felt about the book, and I do not think that time has yet altered that impression in any significant way. The feeling is a bit similar to what I felt after reading Imre Kertész’ Sorstalanság (in Swedish).

Both these novels manage to depict something horrible that has been written about so many times that it ought to be hard to write about them in a way which makes them not only educational, but also entertaining to read. Do not misunderstand me, the main focus of this novella is to tell the story about one day in a Soviet labour camp for one of its prisoners, Ivan Denisovitj, during the 1950s, and therefore, the book as a whole can never have a positive theme. What it can have, and actually has, is a narration that does not focus entirely on what is painful and horrible. Instead, the blend of all kinds of emotions, including cheerfulness and camaraderie, paints a credible impression of what life might have been for prisoners.

Combined with a skillfully employed language, I think this book is worthwhile and I recommend it, even to those of you who imagine you do not like this kind of literature. This is a way about writing about something that has to be written about, which manages to be entertaining as well as educational (unlike A Child Called “It” (in Swedish), for instance, which only manages to be educational). Add this novella to your “books I must have read before I die” list.

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