The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz eviewed by Edith LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany

When I decided to read and review The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz for Guiltless Reader’s Read the Nobels 2016 challenge, I didn’t quite know what to expect. After all, my main reason to choose the book was that I liked its title and that at first sight it wasn’t poetry like most other works from the pen of this Mexican author that I saw in the bookshop. Having read that the Swedish Academy had honoured him in 1990 with the Nobel Prize in Literature “for impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity”, I divined – correctly – that it would be a difficult read that required much attention as well as patience. However, for me this was rather an incentive to read it than a deterrent! As it turns out, the slim book is a highly philosophical exploration of language and grammar inspired by the memories of a visit to the Hindu temples of Galta in Rajastan.

Octavio Paz, in full Octavio Irineo Paz y Lozano, was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in March 1914. Already as a teenager he published essays and poems bringing out his first complete volume of poetry titled Wild Moon (Luna Silvestre) in 1933. After travels and studies, the writer joined the Mexican diplomatic corps and became ambassador in India in 1962, a post from which he resigned in 1968 in protest of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico. In the following years, he taught at different renowned universities and continued to write prolifically. Although much of his work – like The Monkey Grammarian (El mono gramático: 1974) – defies clear classification, Octavio Paz is best known for his poetry that has been widely translated into English and published in different collections. He also wrote important essays like The Labyrinth of Solitude (El laberinto de la soledad: 1950), The Bow and the Lyre (El Arco y la Lira: 1956), and Alternating Current (Corriente alterna: 1967) along with biographies like Claude Lévi-Strauss. An Introduction (Claude Levi-Strauss o El nuevo festín de Esopo: 1967), Marcel Duchamp. Appearance Stripped Bare (Marcel Duchamp o El castillo de la pureza: 1968), and Sor Juana or The Traps of Faith (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe: 1982). In 1990 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Octavio Paz died in Mexico City, Mexico, in April 1998.

The title of The Monkey Grammarian refers to Hanumān, the monkey God and ninth grammarian from Hindu mythology, who is worshipped – among others – in the temples of Galta, i.e. the abandoned town of Galtaji near Khania-Balaji east of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India. According to the Rāmayāṇa, he and his warrior monkeys helped God Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the hands of the demon king Rāvaṇa who kidnapped her to Ceylon. Seated comfortably in his study with a view on his neighbour’s patio in Cambridge, England, in the summer of 1970, the author as first-person narrator looks back on his visit to Galta where the legend of Hanumān is ever-present on the dilapidated walls of the temples. However, the memories of the sacred place and the present experience of nightfall in Cambridge serve the author only as starting points and constants a chain of contemplations on various aspects of time and reality, of language and grammar.
 “… The critique of paradise is called language: the abolition of proper names; the critique of language is called poetry: names grow thinner and thinner, to the point of transparency, of evaporation. In the first case, the world becomes language; in the second, language is transformed into a world. Thanks to the poet, the world is left without names. Then, for the space of an instant, we can see it precisely as it is – an adorable azure. …”
At the heart of all subtle, if not pedantic discussions about the true meaning of words is the vital question about origins and ends not just of language but of everything. The entire discourse moves around and between opposites: fixity and transition, permanence and change, always and never, male and female, the God-given and the human invention. And along the way the author puts everything in question including his own role in the process of creation.
“As I began these pages I decided to follow literally the metaphor of the title of the collection that they were intended for, the Paths of Creation, and to write, to describe a text that was really a path and that could be read and followed as such. As I wrote, the path to Galta grew blurred or else I lost my bearings and went astray in the trackless wilds. Again and again I was obliged to return to the starting point. Instead of advancing, the text circled about itself. …”
Wikipedia articles on Octavio Paz list The Monkey Grammarian among poetry although in reality it’s virtually impossible to pin it down to only one literary form and genre. It’s at the same time memoir of the author’s travel to the temples of Galta, a cursory introduction into the legend of Hanumān as important part of Indian mythology, an essay on language, grammar and poetry, a philosophical discourse on time and reality… and much more. Nonetheless, its classification as poetry in prose is justified considering that topics and language are highly lyrical throughout the text. Above all the depiction of architecture and nature are simply breathtaking thanks to their beauty of language and the vivid atmosphere that they create. The great number of metaphors and similes interspersing the book speaks of the lasting influence that surrealism had on the author’s style, but it also makes it a demanding read. In fact, it isn’t always easy to follow the logic of the reasoning. Often I had to re-read passages because the sentences were so lengthy and my attention didn’t last long enough to take in their exact meaning. Precision of expression definitely is another virtue of Octavio Paz as it should be of every writer, notably a poet.

I truly enjoyed reading the original Spanish version as well as the English translation of The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz. I hadn’t intended to read both, but I wasn’t sure if my Spanish was good enough to fully profit from the book. The English edition is quite good, in fact. It left me with just the same positive impression as the Spanish one, i.e. it didn’t feel as if it had lost much of its original power and atmosphere. Admittedly, as a poetic essay the book isn’t for everybody, readers who like it philosophical and don’t mind the complex will love it, though. Highly recommended!

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany

Today the world of the traditional Jewish shtetl in Eastern Europe only lives on in musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, films like Yentl and books like Satan in Goray. The opponents of World War II wiped it out ravaging homes and slaughtering people. Some like Isaac Bashevis Singer, the 1978 laureate of the Nobel Prize in literature, were lucky to get a chance to leave in time, but the great majority was either killed on the spot or transported to deadly concentration camps scattered all over Nazi Germany. However, the holocaust was only the broadest stroke against Jews in the region. There were other pogroms like the Khmelnytsky Massacres of 1648 that serve as starting point of the novel Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Years later the survivors return to their small town and are only too willing to believe the rather unholy message of a Messiah doing miracles in the Promised Land.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (יצחק באַשעװיס זינגער) was born Icek Hersz Zynger in Leoncin near Warsaw, Congress Poland, in November 1902. In 1923, he became a proofreader for a Jiddish literary journal based in Warsaw and soon began to write for it under the pseudonym Bashevis. His first novel Satan in Goray (Der sotn in Goray) appeared in 1933 in instalments in another Yiddish literary journal in Warsaw. Already in 1935 the author followed his older brother to New York where he worked as a journalist for a Yiddish daily. The first text that made Isaac Bashevis Singer known to a wider public was the short story Gimpel the Fool (Gimpl tam: 1945) that appeared in an English translation by Saul Bellows in 1953. The most notable of his novels are The Family Moskat (Di Mischpoche Moschkat: 1950), Shadows on the Hudson (Shotns baym Hodson: 1957), The Magician of Lublin (Der Kunznmacher fun Lublin: 1960), The Slave (Der Knekht: 1962), Enemies. A Love Story (Sonim, di Geshichte fun a Liebe: 1972), Shosha (1978), and Scum (Shoym: 1991). He also wrote numerous short stories, children’s books and autobiographical works. All his life he wrote in Yiddish, but edited the English editions himself thus producing what he called the “second original”. Isaac Bashevis Singer died in Surfside, Florida, USA, in July 1991.

The horrors of the Chmelnicki Upheaval of 1648 during which Ukrainian Cossacks raged in the small Polish town Goray lying tucked away in the densely wooded hills near Biłgoraj paved the way for the rising of Satan in Goray. The town has practically disappeared from the face of the Earth when seventeen years later those of its Jewish inhabitants who survived the slaughtering and fled to other parts of the country begin to return to what remains of their old homes.
“Last of its citizens to return to Goray were the old rabbi, the renowned Rabbi Benish Ashkenazi, and Reb Eleazar Babad, formerly the richest man in the community and its leader.”
The old rabbi tries his best to restore life according to Jewish laws in town, but times have changed because egotism and fear have taken root. Moreover, rumours that the coming of the true Messiah in the person of one Sabbatai Zevi and the long yearned for redemption are near grow ever louder. Wandering preachers like the packman Reb Itche Mates further spur the hopes of people and drive them into religious frenzy. Rabbi Benish knows that nothing of it is true, but he is old and too weak to bring his people back to their senses. Even the rabbi’s son Levi and daughter-in-law join the Messianic sect and fiercely fight against unbelievers. Reb Itche Mates stays in Goray and asks Rechele, the beautiful though lame and somewhat peculiar daughter of Reb Eleazar Babad, for wife. The betrothal feast turns into an orgy that defies Jewish traditions and laws, so Rabbi Benish rushes out to put an end to it, but on his way he has an accident. When he dies, Levi follows him as rabbi. Then the charismatic ritual slaughterer Reb Gedaliya settles down in Goray and he has an eye on Rechele who begins to have visions.
“Rechele spoke in fits and starts, as though in her sleep, but so resonant was her voice that its echo could be heard throughout the town, and the people of Goray came running. … Calling by name angels and seraphim, she told of the heavenly mansions and the lords ruling in each of them; the cryptic passages in the Book of Daniel so baffling to ordinary minds were explained by her – it was clear to all that the spirit of prophecy had entered into Rechele.”
Following this event the blind frenzy of the population of Goray grows ever more and under the influence of Reb Gedaliya morals become looser and looser…

The original version of Satan in Goray was written and first published in Yiddish like all Isaac Bashevis Singer’s literary work, but since he himself was involved in its translation into English in the 1950s, I reckon that it must be somewhat authentic in style. In fact, the language feels quite archaic and at times almost fairy-tale-like although it’s well suited for a historical novel dealing with the seductive power of salvation from a hard as well as cruel lot on Earth, with religious delusions and superstitions leading to all-consuming mass folly. It’s striking how much the blind belief of the Goray people in the (false) Messiah and in the wisdom of his followers resembles the frenzy that heaved Adolf Hitler into the position of unchallenged Führer of the Third Reich and paved the way for genocide and war. Of course, the author had only seen the very beginnings of the madness because his novel came out already in 1933. Apart from this, Satan of Goray is a Jewish novel through and through. It is rich in impressive images, local colour and references to religious traditions that can occasionally be a bit confusing for a non-Jewish reader like me. For the rest, it’s a quick and pleasurable read.

Admittedly, I decided to review Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer above all because I felt that it was time to feature a classic by a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. My first choice was a late novel of Henryk Sienkiewicz, but I changed my mind and I definitely have no reason to regret it. The Swedish Academy gave the award to the Yiddish author “for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life”. Having read his Satan in Goray I can only confirm this statement. I enjoyed the novel and believe that it deserves more attention. Therefore I gladly recommend it here.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

Download #FREE @ReadNobels December Wallpaper: Patrick White's Voss

(Originally posted on Guiltless Reading)

The year is ending and with it now December, it's almost time to wrap up my Read the Nobels annual challenge and my little wallpaper project.

Over the year, my calendar wallpapers were a fun little way to drum up some interest in the Read the Nobels Reading Challenge for 2016. I've featured 12 authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, featured a book cover, and a quote. Check out the full list down below.

How has your Nobel reading been going so far? It is my hope that this challenge has opened up new reading avenues for you!

If you noticed, my posts have not been as frequent but I am becoming my more focused on my reading choices in general. My Nobel reading has been slim but manageable and thoroughly enjoyable. I still have Alice Munro to round me up for the year. I will still continue on the with Read the Nobels (perpetual) Challenge so feel free to join in on the blog!

Looking for co-hosts! I'd like to continue with this annual challenge. I'm curious if anyone out there -- whether you joined this year or not -- to help me out. Sound off in the comments if you're interested in co-hosting or send me an email at readerrabbit22 at I'd love to hear from you!

Patrick White (photo from Goodreads)
Now, without further ado, here is December's wallpaper. This month features 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature laureate, Australian Patrick White. The Nobel Prize website cites his win thus: "for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature".

On the Read the Nobels blog, six reviews have been posted so far: The Tree of Man, Happy Valley, The Eye of the Storm, Twyborn Affair, Solid Affair, and Voss.

In the award speech, I thought it was especially interesting to read:
Patrick White is a social critic mainly through his depiction of human beings, as befits a true novelist. He is first and foremost a bold psychological explorer, at the same time as he readily refers to ideological views of life or mystical convictions to elicit the support and the uplifting message which they have to offer. (Source)

I think that that is what appealed to me when I picked the quote decided to feature his book Voss*.

Here's a synopsis of Voss*: Set in nineteenth-century Australia, Voss is White's best-known book, a sweeping novel about a secret passion between the explorer Voss and the young orphan Laura. As Voss is tested by hardship, mutiny, and betrayal during his crossing of the brutal Australian desert, Laura awaits his return in Sydney, where she endures their months of separation as if her life were a dream and Voss the only reality. Marrying a sensitive rendering of hidden love with a stark adventure narrative, Voss is a novel of extraordinary power and virtuosity from a twentieth-century master.

You can read more about White and his work here:

Do you like poetry? Have you read any of Neruda's work?

Download the last for year, December's Read the Nobels wallpaper!

Right click image, download, and set as your desktop wallpaper. Voila! #ReadNobels makes an appearance on your computer! (Note: Wallpaper for personal use only.)

* Affiliate links

Past wallpapers:

Read the Nobels 2016
Yes, there's still time to get one more book in
before the year ends!

The Tree of Man by Patrick White reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany

Everyday life with its inevitable, often annoying routine is what most of us gladly pass over in silence because it doesn’t seem worthwhile to lose a word about it or just a thought. Nonetheless, the greatest part of human existence is made up of it and at least sometimes we wonder whether there isn’t some unexpected meaning or purpose behind it all – like a secret plan of God or Destiny or whatever other seminal power. The Tree of Man by Patrick White, the Australian Nobel Prize-laureate in Literature of 1973, tells the story of a man who leads just the ordinary life of a hard-working farmer with wife, son and daughter in a changing world. He does what needs to be done and accepts all vicissitudes – joys as well as trials – with apparent stoicism although inwardly he wrestles all his life to reach a deeper understanding and find God.

Patrick White was born in London, United Kingdom, in May 1912 and grew up in Sydney, Australia. After boarding school in England he worked as a stockman in Australia for two years and then returned to England to study French and German literature. Still as a student he published his first volume of poetry and brought out some plays. After his father’s death in 1937, Patrick White became a full-time writer and reworked his first novel titled Happy Valley (1939). During a stay in New York City, USA, he wrote The Living and the Dead published in 1941 when he was already working as an intelligence officer for the British Royal Air Force in World War II. After the war, the novels The Aunt's Story (1948) and The Tree of Man (1955) received international acclaim, but in Australia his breakthrough as a novelist only came with Voss (1957) followed by his most famous works Riders in the Chariot (1961) and The Vivisector (1970). In 1973 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Best known among his later novels are The Eye of the Storm (1973), A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and The Twyborn Affair (1979). In 1981 he brought out his autobiography Flaws in the Glass: a self-portrait. Patrick White died in Sydney, Australia, in September 1990. 

The opening scene of The Tree of Man shows young Stan Parker who arrives at the piece of bushland far off any human dwelling that had belonged to his late father and that became his after the death of his mother. He owns nothing else except a dog, a horse, a cart and some tools to clear the place and build a hut to sleep in, but he is strong and knows what needs to be done and how. After a while, he takes Amy for his wife. For her this marriage means a turn for the better although life on the remote farm is hard and in addition quiet and lonely. Then others begin to settle down in the area and the community grows steadily despite fires, floods and droughts. Stan and Amy don’t talk much, but they feel strongly attached to each other – be it by love or just by habit. After several miscarriages Amy gives birth at last to a strong boy whom she calls Ray. 
“The father and mother would sometimes watch the sleeping child, and in this way were united again, as they were not when he was awake. Released from this obsessive third life that they seemed to have created, the lives that they had lived and understood were plain as cardboard. Affection is less difficult than love. But the sleeping baby moved his head, and the parents were again obsessed by vague fear, the mother that she might not ride the storms of love, the father that he would remain a stranger to his son.” 
Before long they also have a daughter called Thelma, but she is a delicate girl. In other respects too Ray and Thelma could hardly be more different, he being naughty and wild, she good and quiet. Grown-up they share, however, a craving for the pleasures and riches denied them on the farm. Ray leaves without a word to make his fortune in the world, but the dishonest and cruel streak of his nature soon gets him into trouble. Thelma, on the other hand, starts a career in the city that allows her to hook herself a wealthy husband. Meanwhile, Stan and Amy Parker become older following the same farm routines as ever in a neighbourhood that has changed into the suburb of a big city… 

The setting of The Tree of Man in time and place is vague although concluding from a few place names and plot elements like the appearance of motor cars on the roads or the war against Germany it should be New South Wales between 1920 and 1955. The plot flows gently and quietly like the ordinary life of any farmer in the Australian bush, an impression that is heightened by the fact that Stan and Amy Parker are often referred to only as the man and the woman. Unexpected turns and twists of fate are rare even when it comes to natural forces striking the country and calling for action. This is because the author’s focus clearly is on the Parker family, notably Stan, and their understanding of life, of each other and of themselves. The novel has been called a domestic narrative, a fable, even folklore, but much rather it’s a character or social study of the Australian soul merging the experience of life in an inhospitable country with the heritage of European civilisation. It’s also a story about being at a loss for words to communicate with others and to express, i.e. understand the inner self. By contrast the author’s language is highly poetic and rich in powerful images that make the book an intriguing as well as impressive experience.

There can be no doubt that The Tree of Man by Patrick White is a challenging read that reveals its full charm only to those who are receptive to the meaning hidden between the lines and to its spiritual dimension showing above all in the sublime descriptions of stunning Australian landscape. It may help to read the poem from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman from which the author took the novel’s title and quoted several verses although I didn’t bother to search for it until I set out to write this review… I enjoyed the book despite all. Admittedly, it took me a while to get into this read, but it definitely was worth it.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

© Read the NobelsMaira Gall