Crabwalk by Günter Grass

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
As time passes, ideas may go out of fashion or even become kind of taboo, but once in the world they never disappear completely. These days, fascist ideas including national socialist ones see an alarming revival all around the world thanks to – for the moment still – democratic movements that prudently deny their roots. Such pretended nationalistic and patriotic, but actually racist ideologies make believe that they can put the unfathomable chaos of the modern world in a clear order and especially the young are easy prey for the populist demagogues who cunningly preach them taking advantage of the growing discontent in the population over living conditions and cultural diversity. In the novel Crabwalk by en-NOBEL-ed German writer Günter Grass a journalist from Berlin retraces his own and his mother’s lives to understand how their history encouraged his son to write a Nazi blog and to kill his pretended Jewish counterpart.

Murphy by Samuel Beckett

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

Many ways lead to enlightenment. Some of them – like religion and other established spiritual practice – are conventional and almost generally accepted, while others are so individual that they seem rather absurd, even completely crazy from an outsider’s point of view. They all have in common that it requires great determination and perseverance to pursue them because all along it remains uncertain when or if at all the ultimate goal will be reached. On the other hand, we are only beginning to learn here in the West that following the way is actually more important than arriving. The Irishman in London of the 1930s who is the title hero of Murphy by Samuel Beckett, the 1969 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, tries to reach a presumably blissful state of non-existence through complete inactivity, but just like his earlier lover his new one urges him to take on a job...

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

Originally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

The experience of the holocaust marked forever the lives of the survivors, no matter how much they would have liked it to be differently. Many of them will have pushed aside all thoughts of the past because they couldn’t bear the pain any more and they had to concentrate on building a future from virtually nothing. And yet, the indescribable suffering that they had seen and endured must have lingered on in their souls adding subconscious overtones to their actions, thoughts and ways of life. This is also the genesis of Mr. Sammler’s Planet as brought to literary life by Saul Bellow, the 1976 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the summer of 1969, Artur Sammler is a holocaust survivor well in his seventies who lives in New York City and indulges in intellectual musings on the increasingly vulgar and brutal comedy of modern life that surrounds him.

Saul Bellow was born Solomon Bellows in Lachine, Québec, Canada, in June 1915, but the family moved to Chicago, USA, in 1924. He studied sociology and anthropology at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin, before he became a naturalised American and joined the Merchant Marine during World War II. In 1944, Saul Bellow brought out his first novel Dangling Man, but after the war he started his long career as a university lecturer interrupted only by some time in Paris thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship and by numerous travels. Along with his work he kept writing long as well as short fiction, some non-fiction and even a play. The most notable of his works are the novels The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Seize the Day (1956), Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964), Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970), and Humboldt’s Gift (1975). “For the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work” the Swedish Academy awarded him the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature. The most important among his later novels are The Dean’s December (1982), More Die of Heartbreak (1987) and Ravelstein (2000). Saul Bellow died in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA, in April 2005.
The morning in summer 1969 begins like any other on  Mr. Sammler’s Planet or more precisely in his room in the apartment of his late wife’s widowed niece in New York City. Sammler is past seventy and came to the USA with his daughter Shula two years after World War II. The family had gotten trapped in Poland while liquidating the estate of his deceased father-in-law, so instead of returning home to England, Shula had had to hide in a Catholic convent and Sammler had fallen into the hands of Nazi slayers with his wife Antonina. His world had changed.
“[W]hen Antonina was murdered. When he himself underwent murder beside her. When he and sixty or seventy others, all stripped naked and having dug their own grave, were fired upon and fell in. Bodies upon his own body. Crushing. His dead wife nearby somewhere. Struggling out much later from the weight of corpses, crawling out of the loose soil. Scraping on his belly. Hiding in a shed. Finding a rag to wear. Lying in the woods many days.”
Sammler feels that he lasted rather than survived, and yet, friends and family ascribe to him the authority of a judge or a priest. Financially, the well-educated Polish Jew who lived with his family in London between the wars writing for Polish periodicals now completely depends on the generosity of his wealthy nephew, the surgeon Arnold “Elya” Gruner, who brought him and Shula to New York. Apart from occasional guest lectures that he gives at Columbia University, Sammler frequents public libraries and observes the moral decline around him. The sight of a pickpocket at work on the bus captures him.
“[…] It was a powerful event, and illicitly—that is, against his own stable principles—he craved a repetition. One detail of old readings he recalled without effort—the moment in Crime and Punishment at which Raskolnikov brought down the ax on the bare head of the old woman, […]. That is to say that horror, crime, murder, did vivify all the phenomena, the most ordinary details of experience. In evil as in art there was illumination. […]”
On another occasion the pickpocket follows him home, corners him in the lobby and exposes his genitals as a threat. Not enough with this, Sammler has to return a manuscript that his half-crazy daughter stole from an Indian scientist who envisions Moon colonies like H. G. Wells decades earlier because she is obsessed with the idea of him writing a memoir about his friendship with the famous writer in interwar London. Moreover, their benefactor is hospitalised with an aneurysm that will kill him and Shula’s violent ex-husband arrives from Israel to settle down as an artist in New York City…

From a third-person perspective and against the backdrop of the first Moon landing in July 1969,  Mr. Sammler’s Planet portrays a Holocaust survivor who observes his surroundings, i.e. his closest relations and people who just cross his path. He mentally shakes his head in incomprehension and disapproval at the increasingly loose morals that in his opinion must lead to the end of human civilisation. For a person well advanced in age his isn’t a particularly unusual reaction to changed times, but Sammler also shows a mild form of racism attributing the ongoing decline to the influence of what are to him, the European intellectual with old Jewish lineage, the primitive or barbarian ways of Africa. The black pickpocket who fascinates him so strangely is the incorporation of the prejudice that up to a point clearly echoes the demonising Nazi stereotype of Jews although, in the end, his blood restores him as a human being. Also other characters represent aspects of the growing madness that Sammler perceives all around and some of their actions are so grotesque that they make laugh. The plot is of little importance compared to Sammler’s contemplations and a powerful language always spiced with irony, if not sarcasm.

For me reading  Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow has been entertaining, even funny in part, as well as thought-provoking which is something that only few books achieve. A couple of years ago, I read the en-NOBEL-ed author’s earlier (epistolary) novel Herzog and didn’t enjoy it half as much as this one. Although so much older than myself, I found it easy to relate to the protagonist because, in the final analysis, we all live on our separate planets shaped by experiences and emotions of our own in addition to objective knowledge. Besides, nobody will deny that, at least occasionally, the people around us seem to behave like clowns in a poor comedy and the feeling that the world is doomed to go to ruin isn’t entirely strange to any of us, either. In a nutshell, it’s a novel about the human condition with a holocaust extra that deserves my recommendation.

Original post on Edith's Miscellany

Alexievich, Svetlana "Second Hand Time. The Last of the Sovjets"

(Russian title: Время секонд хэнд = Vremja sekond khend) - 2013

Reviewed by Marianne
from Let's Read

"Born in the USSR - that's a diagnosis." This is what one of the people interviewed by the author said and it would have been a great title for this book, as well.

I discovered Svetlana Alexievich in 2013 when she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) and then decided to read "Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster". After she received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, I found many more of her books and "Second Hand Time" sounded like a great read. The author wrote down her interviews with former citizens of the Soviet Union, people who liked the new system, people who disliked it, people who loved it, people who hated it. She wrote down their life stories and you can understand every single one of them. This is what makes politics so hard, trying to please everyone is not possible, there is always someone who disagrees with a certain decision.

I love how understanding she is with everyone, how she manages to report their feelings, their stories as if we are there with the storytellers. I also could relate to many of the stories. Having grown up during a different time, we probably went through a lot that the former Soviets had to go through after their state broke apart. Not exactly the same but our lives were still closer to that than to our children's nowadays. Maybe that is one of the reasons why I always loved Russian literature.

And then there are the stories she tells that get you closer to her interviewees. I liked how they said "For us, the kitchen is not just where we cook, it's a dining room, a guest room, an office, a soapbox." and  "We like to have a chat in the kitchen, read a book. 'Reader' is our primary occupation." Or the way they joke about politics, the best jokes always are from oppressed people. "How do you tell a communist? It's someone who reads Marx. And how do you tell an anti-Communist? It's someone who understands him." But one of my favourites is: "In five years, everything can change in Russia, but in two hundred - nothing."

With her work, the author has put together a vivid history of the USSR, of its failures and its positive sides. Yes, there were a lot of people who saw something positive in their oppression and partly, I even understand them. The above joke aside, communism is a good idea, if only it was invented for other species than men. Because men are greedy, they will never want to share and Karl Marx had a dream that this might be possible. He shared that dream with so many people, same as many people still believe in the American Dream and that they might be millionaires one day.

Svetlana Alexievich gets us to think like a Russian, to follow their tragic lives and imagine it might have been us. I read somewhere that her subject is the "history of the Russian-Soviet soul". Not a bad description. I have never read such a good and concise description of other people's lives. She asked her fellow citizens what they thought "freedom" meant and got different answers from those who remembered the USSR and those who didn't. They did grow up in different countries. I can relate to that in that way that our country was divided into East and West probably the same way the USSR/Russians are divided into Before and After. We speak the same language but have many different memories.

The author does what Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did one and a half centuries ago, she puts Russia on the literature map again.

This book makes quite an impression. The tragedies these people went through and are still going through should be known to the whole world. Reading this book is the first step.

And if I hadn't known it already, the Russians are a people of readers. The amount of authors and books mentioned is enormous. Here are just some of them:

Belov, Vasily Ivanovich (Васи́лий Ива́нович Бело́в)
Berdyaev, Nikolai Alexandrovich (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Бердя́ев
Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich (Никола́й Гаври́лович Черныше́вский)
Dobrolyubov, Nikolay Alexandrovich (Никола́й Алекса́ндрович Добролю́бов)
Dovlatov-Mechik, Sergei Donatovich (Серге́й Дона́тович Довла́тов)
Fyodorov, Nikolai Fyodorovich (икола́й Фёдорович Фёдоров)
Galaktionovich, Vladimir (Влади́мир Галактио́нович Короле́нк)
Grinevsky, Aleksandr Stepanovich (better known by his pen name, Aleksandr Grin, Александр Грин)
Grossman, Vasily Semyonovich (Васи́лий Семёнович Гро́ссман)
Herzen, Aleksandr Ivanovich (Алекса́ндр Ива́нович Ге́рцен)
Iskander, Fazil Abdulovich (Фази́ль Абду́лович Исканде́р)
Kollontai, Alexandra Mikhailovna (Алекса́ндра Миха́йловна Коллонта́й - née Korolenko, Domontovich, Домонто́вич)
Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich (Михаи́л Ю́рьевич Ле́рмонтов)
Nekrassow, Nikolai Alexejewitsch (Николай Алексеевич Некрасов)
Ogarev, Nikolay Platonovich (Никола́й Плато́нович Огарёв)
Okudzhava, Bulat Shalvovich (Була́т Ша́лвович Окуджа́ва)
Platonov, Andrei (Андре́й Плато́нов)
Pushkin, Alexander Sergeyevich (Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)
Rasputin, Grigori Jefimowitsch (Григорий Ефимович Распутин)
Saltykov-Shchedrin, Mikhail Yevgrafovich (Михаи́л Евгра́фович Салтыко́в-Щедри́н)
Shalamov, Varlam Tikhonovich (Варла́м Ти́хонович Шала́мов)
Uspensky, Gleb Ivanovich (Глеб Ива́нович Успе́нский)

Belyaev, Alexander Romanovich (Беляев, Александр Романович) "Человек-амфибия=Chelovek-Amfibiya" (Amphibian Man) - 1927
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Малая земля=Malaja semlja" (Little Land) - 1978
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Возрождение=Vozrozhdenie" (Rebirth) - 1978
Brezhnev, Leonid Ilyich (Бре́жнев, Леони́д Ильи́) "Целина=Celina" (The Virgin Lands) - 1979
Bulgakov, Mikhail (Булгаков, Михаил Афанасьевич) "Ма́стер и Маргари́та=Master i Margarita"  (The Master and Margarita) - 1967
Bunin, Ivan Alekseyevich (Бунин, Иван Алексеевич) "Okajannyje dni=Окаянные дни" (Cursed Days) - 1926 Nobel Prize
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich (Чехов, Антон Павлович) "Сапожник и нечистая сила= Sapozhnik i nechistaja sila" (The Cobbler and the Devil aka The Shoemaker and the Devil) - 1888
Chernyshevsky, Nikolay Gavrilovich (Чернышевский, Николай Гаврилович) "Что делать?=Chto delat?" (What is to be done?) - 1863
Dostoevsky, Fyodor Mikhailovich (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский) "Братья Карамазовы/Brat'ya Karamazovy" (The Brothers Karamazov) - 1879-80
Fadejew, Alexander Alexandrowitsch (Александр Александрович Фадеев) "Molodaia gvardia=Молодая гвардия" (The Young Guard) - 1946
Gogol, Nikolai Vasilievich  (Никола́й Васи́льевич Го́голь) "Шинель=Shinel" (The Overcoat) - 1842
Marx, Karl "Das Kapital" (Capital: Critique of Political Economy) - 1867
Ostrovsky, Nikolai Alexeevich (Николай Алексеевич Островский) "Как закалялась сталь=Kak zakalyalas' sta" (How the Steel Was Temperered) - 1832-34
Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich (Пастернак, Борис Леонидович) "Доктор Живаго=Doktor Živago" (Doctor Zhivago) - 1958
Polevoy, Boris Nikolaewich (Борис Николаевич Полевой) "Повесть о настоящем человеке= Povest' o nastojashhem cheloveke" (The Story of a Real Man) - 1947
Rybakov, Anatoly Naumovich (Рыбаков, Анатолий Наумович) "Дети Арбата=Deti Arbata" (Children of the Arbat) - 1987
Sholokhov, Mikhail Aleksandrovich (Шолохов, Михаил Александрович) "Они сражались за Родину=Oni srazhalis' za Rodinu" (They Fought for Their Country) - 1959 Nobel Prize
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Aleksandr Isayevich (Солженицын, Александр Исаевич) "Архипелаг ГУЛАГ=Archipelag GULAG" (The Gulag Archipelago) - 1973
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isayevich (Солженицын, Александр Исаевич) дин день Ивана Денисовича=Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha" (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) - 1962
Tolstoy, Lew Nikolajewitsch (Толстой, Лев Николаевич) "Война и мир=Woina I Mir" (War and Peace) - 1868/69
Turgenev, Ivan Sergeyevich (Тургенев, Иван Сергеевич) "Zapiski Okhotnika=Записки охотника" (A Sportsman's Sketches aka The Hunting Sketches) - 1852

From the back cover:

"From the 2015 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Svetlana Alexievich, comes the first English translation of her latest work, an oral history of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a new Russia.

Bringing together dozens of voices in her distinctive documentary style, Secondhand Time is a monument to the collapse of the USSR, charting the decline of Soviet culture and speculating on what will rise from the ashes of Communism.

As in all her books, Alexievich gives voice to women and men whose stories are lost in the official narratives of nation-states, creating a powerful alternative history from the personal and private stories of individuals.

Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine in 1948 and grew up in Belarus. As a newspaper journalist, she spent her early career in Minsk compiling first-hand accounts of World War II, the Soviet-Afghan War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Chernobyl meltdown. Her unflinching work - 'the whole of our history…is a huge common grave and a bloodbath' - earned her persecution from the Lukashenko regime and she was forced to emigrate. She lived in Paris, Gothenburg and Berlin before returning to Minsk in 2011. She has won a number of prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Prix Médicis, and the Oxfam Novib/PEN Award. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Russians/USSR/former USSR states had quite a few winners for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Svetlana Alexievich is the latest.

Nobel Prize Winners for Literature:
Ivan Bunin - 1933
Boris Pasternak - 1958
Michail Sholokhov - 1965
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - 1970
Joseph Brodsky - 1987
Alexievich, Svetlana - 2015 (Belarus but born in the USSR)

Svetlana Alexievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time" and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 2013.

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

Original Post on "Let's Read". 

© Read the NobelsMaira Gall