Posts Tagged ‘nobel prize’

‘You like to hunt?’
‘Yes, man. More than anything. We all hunt in my village. You do not like to hunt?’
‘No,’ said Robert Jordan. ‘I do not like to kill animals.’
‘With me it is the opposite,’ the old man said. ‘I do not like to kill men.’

Dear The Rest of the World,

This is a little epistle about the anxiety of reading Very Important Books. This point has become of interest to me because I have finally read For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. It’s the only Ernest Hemingway book I’ve ever read (apart from The Old Man and the Sea, which almost doesn’t count because it’s so beautiful and austere it reads like a story that has always existed about the creation of the world). I read For Whom the Bell Tolls every day on the train, swallowing that restraintful, resolute prose in twenty-page increments. How could someone portray the scale of war so well by simply writing about the monoplanes that fly over one small patch of Spanish sky and the cafes where Communist heroes go to meet their mistresses; and how is it possible that in the same book, that author can desolate as well as exhilarate a reader by furnishing them with a many-layered portrait of a man behind enemy lines?

But even though the famous terse locution thrilled me, and the intimacy with the protagonist, Robert Jordan, edified me, I have to admit to you, The Rest of the World, that sometimes I felt a little adrift. I don’t know much about the Spanish Civil War, and I don’t know much about Hemingway either. And when I felt my attention begin to wane, I panicked a little. Did I not know enough about the context to enjoy this canonical book? Was there something else I just wasn’t getting? Can I ask you a question, The Rest of the World? (And do you mind if I just call you ‘World’?) Do you get this anxious about reading canonical novels? Is it like going out on a date with the quarterback (or the full-forward)?

So I did what I usually do in these situations: turn to people who know more about things than I do. I found four academic articles about For Whom the Bell Tolls. In true me-style, I had picked one article which only referred to the book once, so that left me with three. The others were interesting, though. Kristine A. Wilson introduced me to the word ‘tauromachy’ (show-off synonym for ‘bullfighting’) and more importantly Federico Garcia Lorca’s concept of duende as a way of interpreting the novel. Duende is a slightly amorphous notion, but can approximately be described as ‘a depth and quality of emotion, a dramatic sense of emotional intensity, manifested in the production and experience of great art.’

Vague as that definition might be, World, I found this a very useful concept. Lorca claims that this variant of pathos resonates especially for the Spanish people, who accord death a special status. Duende arises out of a recognition of the tension between life and death, as well as the spectre and ‘weight of human history’. All this tension is aimed at an audience and ‘inspires passion for life’ –a little like the Greeks’ catharsis. Wilson’s article helped with the parts of the novel I found most difficult, which were the love scenes between Jordan and his guapa, Maria. These scenes are positively flowery compared to the terseness of the language elsewhere, and full of the kinds of claims–the earth moves!–that romantic little boys and girls everywhere might find sigh-inducing. I found them grossly misjudged at the time of reading, and I still find them some of the worst-written passages of the book, but Lorca’s schema gives them a place in Hemingway’s emotion-building.

The third article, ‘Gendering Men: Re-Visions of Violence as a Test of Manhood in American Literature’ by Josep Armengol, proposed that Hemingway was obsessed with the idea of violence as a test of manhood because of a violent father and evidenced by participation in military activities and hunting, and of course, his novels which ‘recurrently explore “the condition of a man in a society upset by the violence of war”‘. Thus, it follows that violence was one of his main fictional subjects. My understanding of For Whom the Bell Tolls was not as radically improved by this article, World — I didn’t think it was rigorous enough in defining its terms. But it did shade in a few pale areas of Hemingway’s personal history.

Finally, the work of Karen Engle, which used For Whom the Bell Tolls as a springboard for discussion of how sexual war crimes are conceptualised by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. That’s two of my favourite topics together, World, human rights and literature. Engle wrote about the judicial treatment of rape by the ICTY and how it functioned ‘to limit the narratives about women in war, denying much of women’s sexual, political, and military agency.’ Although many people consider Hemingway a misogynist, Engle argued that Hemingway’s portrayal of Maria was more complex than simply ‘victim’; she is also a woman who fought her abusers, assists with the partizans‘ preparations for the blowing up of the bridge, and continues to have a successful sexual life despite the suffering she sustains every day.

So, World, I think I succeeded in milking For Whom the Bell Tolls of as much meaning as I could happily extract without getting a qualification/payment out of it. I’m no longer embarrassed to say that I did get bored at times with the seemingly interminable minutiae in the novel. But I’m at peace with that being a subjective judgment, rather than the corollary of being poorly informed. As a bonus, my not-quite-connection with the book tossed me into contact with some interesting things. Sure, I’m a neurotic reader, but I’m a contented one now, too.

Nice feelings,

(Picture also includes evidence of my weekend lifestyle magazine habit. I’m totally busted.)

Okay, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. There’s a new highly coveted prize in town: the 3000 Books Book of the Month. Yes, that’s right.

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How do you feel about that? I feel pretty good about it.

Anyhow, this book blew my mind and then some. Konrad Lorenz was the post-Hugh Lofting Dr Dolittle, an ethologist whose house was besmirched by the droppings of birds, monkeys and dogs alike. Lorenz had a blessed combination of curiosity, patience and skill which enabled him to observe and comprehend the activities of animals. Not only that, in King Solomon’s Ring he relates them with such humour and gentle enthusiasm that you’re a fair way to being as in love with him as the jackdaw who tried to feed Lorenz with mealworm goo.

King Solomon’s Ring is so readable because, as well as possessing a charming and occasionally distinctly German turn of phrase (“You have got a chaffinch, he is lovely and sings well.”), Lorenz is a genius at describing animals with reference to human behaviour. Thus, the war-dance of the male fighting fish, probably perceived by the regular Joe as a mere watery wriggle, takes on the significance of Homeric lay. It is an honest-to-God page turner, and I can’t recommend it any more highly. I even used ‘jewel font’.

God, but that annoyed me: if he wanted someone educated all he had to do was marry Jeanne Beder, she’s got breasts like hunting horns but she knows five languages.

I felt a misled by the title of this book. Jean-Paul Sartre’s collection of existentialist short stories, Intimacy, is called Le Mur in french, or ‘The Wall’. The renaming of a work when translated always has the potential to go awry. Both titles are taken from one of the stories within, but as you can see, the ones chosen are not really interchangeable. Of course, such changes can be deliberate in drawing attention elsewhere. But I really feel that the french title is more telling. The stories deal with the crises that crop up in a life, such as problems in love, philosophy or politics, and each sufferer’s troubles are personally significant and difficult to surmount.

‘Intimacy’, as a title, seems to promise the elucidation and the minutiae of relationships between people, but this is not really the case. The title story does deal with a crisis point within the marriage of Lulu and Henri, and introduces Lulu’s various supports (a friend, the ripe Rirette; and a lover, Pierre, basically absent). By the first page, you’ve also got a quotable quote about intimacy: ‘when Lulu put it in the dirty laundry bag she couldn’t help noticing the bottoms were yellow from rubbing between his legs.’

The other stories are very different though, particularly two (‘Erostratus’ and ‘The Childhood of a Leader’) in which Sartre deals predominantly with the thoughts and actions of one individual. It would be easy enough to stretch the thematic aegis of the title to include intimacy with one’s self, though contrived. In that case, ‘Intimacy’ might be an appropriate title, but by no means is it an illuminating one. Intimacy is assumed, and necessary, with all of Sartre’s characters — he shows you their barest and most motivating thoughts. But what is viewed through that intimacy is far more interesting, and the salient lesson can be characterised as the cruelty of freedom and decisions; deciding how to die, deciding to kill — this book could as appropriately have been called ‘Death’.

Of commercial interest: this book is hard to get a hold of. There is only one used copy of this book at Amazon, and one new copy at Better World Books. None at Book Depository.

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Yes, it’s about hunger. It is about the nameless protagonist’s addiction to a state so all-encompassing that it allows and eventually requires the sufferer to forego usual/rational thought and deed, but is so unsustainable that desperate measures are necessary to maintain his existence. It is also about denial, physical and psychological. Knut Hamsun’s direct, modernist style stuffs the reader into the narrow crevice between the narrator’s brain and his skull, evoking painful awareness. His compulsion towards the state of hunger is a way to escape from the ideas which are too large for his head: short, frequent, violent bursts of inspiration are frittered away by the mind now too skittish from lack of nourishment to contrive an activity for the next half an hour, let alone put together a piece denouncing the despised Immanuel Kant, or a one-act drama set in the Middle Ages. These attempts at greatness (and money-making) are made, but endangered by his weakness, his faintness, and an absence of funds sustained by continuous freudian acts.

Hunger, or escape, is the only resolution, the only goal. Hamsun challenges the mind with the hunger artist’s (a Paul Auster term) peripatetic days, featuring street names so unfamiliar to this reader that they might as well have been imaginary. His vagrant meanderings take as signposts multiple mesmerising short-term plans, more often than not the recollection of an acquaintance, or an office, where he might go and beg money or earn a living. Forays to his editor’s officer, or Kierulf the baker, or a shop assistant who owes him change, have various outcomes which are invariably negative. He is downtrodden, but the downward steps are his own. The novel ends with what seems a peripeteia, but is really a continuation; it is a radical way of sustaining the pain, the escape to facilitate further escapes, a solution which is not a resolution.

This edition includes a pedantic translator’s appendix and note, which is reassuring and (by reason of its distaste of the two earlier translations) amusing. It also includes an introduction by way of an essay by Paul Auster, which is passionate and involving.

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I present this book for whatever it is worth. It is a fruit full of bitter ashes; it is like the bitter-gourds of the desert, which grow in sun-baked places and only offer the thirsty a more fearsome burning, but which on the golden sand are not without beauty.

Immorality, much more than morality, is subjective. Gide was prolific and famously personal in his writing career. Therefore, one might expect a fiercely argued treatise of a book of this appellation. Nevertheless, The Immoralist does not simply comprise a marginally fictionalised account of Gide’s decidedly ‘immoral’ behaviours. It is in fact remarkably skimpy on details of any events which might today be eagerly recounted in the pages of novels or gossip magazines. Instead, The Immoralist interpellates readers, as moralists or im-, to explicit recognition of codes of morality within individual and social experience.

The Immoralist opens with a special pleading put to the Premier of France arguing the case of Michel, a former academic whose resolution to realise his true nature creates friction between himself and his wife, who is chronically ill; renders him incapable of enjoying aspects of his privileged life; and precipitates the making of hitherto unimaginable relationships with tenant farmers and impoverished African boys. Though appearing to beg employment for Michel, this appeal to the highest ranks of national representatives seeks more: to find out whether it is possible ‘to invent a use for so much intelligence and strength’ despite the owner’s deviation from the principles guiding middle-class citizens.

Michel is, at first, an exemplary repository of most of these principles. Familial commitment, intransigent love of work, ownership of property and an engagement with religion are all present in the earlier incarnation of the man. Change occurs in Michel’s life not as the acknowledgment of new, salient principles, but rather in his side-stepping the old ones on the basis of personal desire and whim.

Despite his joy at undertaking a way of life which caters for his interest in the lives of the lower classes, Michel experiences tension at every turn. The irruption of Michel’s old life into the new shows the intractability of tradition and human relationships and foregrounds the elusiveness of the ‘fresh start’. Yet when most of the trappings of society are successfully shed, the exigencies of life and desire expand to consume and collapse even the enlarged receptacle. Gide refuses to characterise The Immoralist as either ‘arraignment’ or ‘apologia’, rather severing our access to Michel’s story at the point where he is capable of an unsheathed interface with life’s pleasures and benefits but completely vulnerable to vicissitudes of life and the self.

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oh vienna. you won’t feel the same about the city again. the piano teacher stabs all the senses, a disparate flinging of words unified by the protagonist erika kohut’s austerity and the author jelinek’s control. to gingerly peer out at jelinek’s vienna through peeled fingers is to chafe your hands as well.

with barely a hint of gentleness, the triangular becomes the linear as the imagined and actual interactions between erika, her mother and erika’s student walter klemmer fail to resist the banality of infected self-awareness. though the main source of misery is patently the inflamed relationship between mother and daughter, much more in the novel than in michael haneke’s 2001 film does the relationship between erika and klemmer attain its horrific and destructive character from the sense that they are both diseased, not just erika – two blind bulls thrusting their crenellated horns at one another.

the volatility of the interplay between the kohuts and klemmer eventually explodes in a painful, technicolour rumination on sequestration and etiolated delusion. though the novel thrusts individual acts of violence upon the reader, most terrible is erika’s fate; she is not wholly self-destructive but is able to sustain her cursed context. an anti-triumphal masterpiece, the piano teacher‘s every word is lacerating.