31 August 2014

The Passport by Herta Müller

Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

It never is an easy decision to leave home for good, but many people don’t really have a choice. Let’s be honest. Who apart from adventurers and philanthropists would WISH to live in a war zone or just in a region without jobs to make a decent living? Oppression from political and/or religious authorities is another motive to go into exile. Some like Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid) in 8 A.D. were forced to go, while others crave for a chance to leave. Not so long ago many Romanians like Nobel Prize laureate Herta Müller and the protagonists of her novella The Passport ventured at the bureaucratic troubles involved in legal emigration from a Communist country.

Herta Müller was born in German speaking Niţchidorf in the Banat, Romania, in August 1953. In the 1970s she studied German and Romanian Philology at the University in Timișoara, Romania. As a writer Herta Müller made her debut with a censored version of Nadirs (Niederungen) in Romania in 1982 and was then banned from publishing as a reaction to her criticism of the Communist terror regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu. In 1986 The Passport (Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt) came out in Germany. The following year, in 1987, she was finally allowed to travel to Berlin where she stayed and still lives. Other important works of the writer that led to her receiving many literary awards, among them the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature, are Travelling on One Leg (Reisende auf einem Bein: 1989), The Land of Green Plums (Herztier: 1994), The Appointment (Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet: 1997) and The Hunger Angel (Atemschaukel: 2009). 

In the novella The Passport (the original German title would be Man is Nothing But a Pheasant in the World in English) Herta Müller tells the story of a miller family in a German-speaking village in Romania in the 1980s. Mr. and Mrs. Windisch and their grown-up daughter Amalie, who is working in a kindergarten in town during the week, are waiting for their passports and visa to Germany. Passing by the war memorial and through a deep pot hole on his bicycle every morning, Mr. Windisch counts years and days since the application. Existence is filled with the continuous repetition of activities in the always same desolate environment producing ever again ominous signs of old peasant superstition. To Windisch life seems to stand still, but the perspective of leaving gives him the sense of an ending. Many neighbours have already left or are about to leave, while the necessary permissions of the Windisch family are being delayed by the officials. To get their passports Windisch has gives dozens of flour bags and money to the involved officials, notably to the mayor, the militia man, the post-office woman and the (Catholic) parson. However, the men want more. They want sex in return for the yearned for papers and Windisch is disgusted by the thought of having his beautiful daughter sell her body like his worn-out wife had done to survive in the Soviet gulag after the war.

The simple plot of The Passport is intensified by the description of seemingly unimportant objects and observations that intersperse the entire text. It isn’t easy to read between the lines and to decipher the true meaning of the symbolic language that often reminds me of a game of word associations. Especially the chapter titles leave me with the impression of having been chosen at random. The writing style of Herta Müller is often compared to that of Franz Kafka although in The Passport I don’t see much of a resemblance, yet. The story and its setting may be exaggerated, but not enough to remove them almost beyond recognition from reality and to lift them to a more symbolic as well as universal level. It’s a narrative from the German-speaking minority in a rural area under Nicolae Ceauşescu, hardly more. Maybe Herta Müller's later work reminds of Kafka?

The Passport is the first and only book of Herta Müller that I know so far. I enjoyed the read because it makes think about power and its abuse, but also about the absurdity of certain aspects of life and superstition. It’s not very likely that I’ll ever become this writer’s biggest fan, and yet, I’m more than ready to recommend this novella.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.   

31 July 2014

The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda

Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
There are topics which aren’t actually a taboo in our society, but we still prefer to envelope them with silence because they are embarrassing, terrifying or painful. Sometimes they are all three and many of them are related to serious health problems. Also literature uses to deal with fatal illness only reluctantly and tends to insinuate it rather than call it by name. This was the case regarding tuberculosis and still is the literary approach to cancer and AIDS. For today’s review I picked The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda, the Nobel laureate in Literature of 1926, which shows the effects of breast cancer on the life of a young woman in Sardinia, Italy, during the 1930s. Silence and solitude play an essential role in the story.

Grazia Deledda was born in Nuoro, Sardinia, Italy, in September 1871. She was largely educated by private tutors and completed her literary studies as an autodidact. Already in 1888 she brought out her first novel Sangue sardo (Sardinian Blood). Over the following five decades the author produced an immense number of novels, short stories and essays along with poetry and plays, most memorable among them After the Divorce (Dopo il divorzio: 1902), Elias Portolu (1903), Ashes (Cenere: 1904), L'edera (1908; The Ivy), Reeds in the Wind (Canne al vento: 1913), and – rather untypical – The Mother (La madre: 1922). In 1926 Grazia Deledda was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature with only one vote ahead of the Spanish writer Concha Espina (»»» read my review of The Metal of the Dead). Her last novel published during her lifetime was The Church of Solitude (La Chiesa della solitudine: 1936). Having suffered from breast cancer for a while Grazia Deledda died in Rome, Italy, in August 1936. The (unfinished) autobiographical novella Cosima and a collection of novellas titled Il cedro del Libano (The Cedar from Lebanon) first appeared posthumously in 1936/37 and 1939 respectively.

The Church of Solitude is the story of twenty-eight-year-old Concezione who has just been discharged from hospital after a mastectomy, the removal of her cancerous left breast. She has resigned herself to living as a recluse and passing the rest of her days taking care of her mother. They live together (sharing even the bed) in a two-room house outside town which Concezione’s grandfather built at a fork in the road together with the adjoining small church consecrated to the Virgin Mary, Mary of Solitude. Her late father left house and church to her along with some money so she won’t need to work. However, Concezione takes pride in earning her own living sewing linens, above all men’s shirts. It was through her work that she got to know Aroldo, a blond blue-eyed foreigner who has been hired like many others to build a provincial road. Love was budding between them, but cancer changed everything. After her return home Concezione behaves reserved and cold to Aroldo.
“…; she seemed another person to him too. It was as if the hospital, instead of the operation the two women had described to him – that is, the simple extraction of a nasal polyp – had by witchcraft taken her blood, her flesh, her youth.” 
Aroldo asks her to marry him despite all. At the same time other suitors make an unexpected appearance. Old Giordano, a friend of her father, wants to convince her that she should marry one of his two grandsons. He tempts her with the prospect of reuniting land, woods, and livestock that her sick father sold to provide for her and her mother after his death. Her mother’s wealthy and childless friend Maria Giuseppa would like to see her married to her nephew, an illegitimate son of her late brother who is handsome and strong, but even in his aunt’s opinion an imbecile. She makes Concezione opulent gifts and paints the splendour of her house and all her stuff, which would one day belong to her, in the brightest colours to persuade her to take her nephew for a husband. For Concezione, however, getting married to any of them is out of the question. In the church she prays to Mary of Solitude to be spared the suffering which they all cause her with their constant pestering:
“‘Mary, Mother of God, make them leave me alone,’ Concezione prayed, kneeling at the foot of the altar. ‘… And if they knew that a terrible illness, the worst of all, was lurking like a poisonous snake in my poor breast, they would flee me like they flee lepers and the possessed. Most Holy Mary, make them leave me in peace, like an old woman who has nothing in the world but a meter of ground on which to die, and under which to be buried.’” 
Aroldo at last realises that his efforts are hopeless and takes to playing the guitar, drinking and running after women to hurt Concezione. The others too become less pressing although they continue the courting. Month after month slips by. All the while Concezione is trying to understand the reasons for her illness and fighting against the love for Aroldo that she has forbidden herself. It doesn’t help that one day in July Aroldo turns up dead drunk in the neighbourhood and then disappears without a trace. People gossip and the local sergeant of the Carabinieri (the police) starts an investigation about the young man’s fate.

Probably due to its serious topic The Church of Solitude is one of the most neglected works of Grazia Deledda. Like her other novels it is full of descriptions of the ways of life in Sardinia in the 1930s and of hints at the social changes that modern times were slowly bringing even to the remotest parts of the island at the time. The central focus of the author is, however, on Concezione’s inner world and on her reaction to what happened to her and to what she expects to be her fate. She’s a young woman with a great zest for life and at the same time she knows that she needs to be reasonable. So she hides, she renounces and she prays a lot, but she remains silent about the true nature of her illness because she’s too ashamed. Consequently the word cancer appears only once in the entire novel and not with regard to Concezione. Not knowing her secret, people – of course – treat her like any other woman of marriageable age with a tempting little fortune and don’t leave her alone as she wishes. Grazia Deledda displays her protagonist’s constant, though changing inner conflict in a powerful and very convincing way. Although Concezione herself never leaves the immediate environs of house and church, the plot is surprisingly varying and gripping. In addition, the author’s language is rich in strong images and often poetical which made it a pleasure to read despite the topic.

It goes without saying that I warmly recommend The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda for reading. Since the author died already in 1936, at least the original Italian version of this novel is in the public domain in Europe. La chiesa della solitudine can be downloaded for free from several Italian websites, but unfortunately it isn't available on Project Gutenberg or the sites of other big providers of free e-books as it seems.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.  

05 July 2014

Pamuk, Orhan "The White Castle"

Beyaz Kale - 1985 

Reviewed by Marianne
from "Let's Read"

Orhan Pamuk belongs to my favourite authors. I have read quite a few of his books already, my reviews you can find here.

This novel is as intriguing as "My Name is Red" which was the first Pamuk novel I read and which made me fall in love with his writing.

The author transports us back into the Venice and Istanbul/Constantinople of the 17th century. His tale is about two men who are as different and yet as similar as possible to each other who come from the two different parts of the world. We learn about the differences between the Orient and the Occident at the time but also about their common goals, about man's goals through the ages.

This is the story about a Venetian who gets captured and transported to Turkey where he becomes the slave of a man who could be his identical twin.

We discover a lot about the different characters of the two men as well as the different characters of men leading their lives in the two countries. The characters not only change knowledge but also memories and ideas. They fight together for the future.

If you are interested in Turkey and its Ottoman background, this novel is a must. If you like to read entertaining stories, this is also one of the greatest you might come across for quite a while. This novel was written quite a while before "My name is Red" and there are similarities between the two. So, if you have read this one, carry on with the other.

What I like most about Pamuk's writings is that he doesn't just tell us about his part of the world, he also makes us think about ourselves and what our goals and meaning in life is. Perhaps that is what draws me most to the literature of this master.

From the back cover: "From a Turkish writer who has been compared with Borges, Nabokov, and DeLillo comes a dazzling novel that is at once a captivating work of historical fiction and a sinuous treatise on the enigma of identity and the relations between East and West. In the 17th century, a young Italian scholar sailing from Venice to Naples is taken prisoner and delivered to Constantinople. There he falls into the custody of a scholar known as Hoja -- "master" -- a man who is his exact double. In the years that follow, the slave instructs his master in Western science and technology, from medicine to pyrotechnics. But Hoja wants to know more: why he and his captive are the persons they are and whether, given knowledge of each other's most intimate secrets, they could actually exchange identities. Set in a world of magnificent scholarship and terrifying savagery, The White Castle is a colorful and intricately patterned triumph of the imagination."

Orhan Pamuk "who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures" received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.
Orhan Pamuk received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 2005.

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

30 June 2014

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0486431673/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0486431673&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

There are probably millions of people worldwide who think of the USA as a place where a dishwasher can become a millionaire. It’s a cliché and yet the old American dream keeps attracting social climbers. But things aren’t that easy after all, not even in the land of unlimited possibilities. Competition is merciless and upstarts in the USA need to be thick-skinned just like everywhere else. However much personal freedom and entrepreneurial spirit are held in high esteem by her citizens there are complex as well as amazingly strict social conventions which should better not be violated. And beware of showing sympathies for socialist ideas! The Nobel laureate in Literature 1930 conceived a famous literary figure who had to learn it the hard way: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. 

Sinclair Lewis, in full Henry Sinclair Lewis, was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, USA, in February 1885. He made his debut as a writer at Yale University, but depended on working for newspapers and publishing houses and on selling trivial stories to magazines for years. He continued to write short stories all his life. Only in 1914 he brought out his first serious novel Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man. His most successful novels appeared in the 1920s, namely Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). In 1930 Sinclair Lewis was the first US-American who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Best remembered among the later works of the author who was increasingly suffering with alcoholism are the novels It Can't Happen Here (1935) and Kingsblood Royal (1947). Sinclair Lewis died in Rome, Italy, in January 1951. His last novel, World So Wide (1951), was published posthumously.
In April 1920 George F. Babbitt is a settled man in his forties and at the verge of a midlife crisis. The Great War is over, prohibition is in force and the Great Depression is not yet looming. He has everything that he can dream of: a thriving real estate business, a good wife as well as three promising children, a fashionable home. He lives in Floral Heights, a suburb of the fictitious Mid-Western city of Zenith which is just like any other inland settlement with a population of around 300,000. Streets, stores, buildings, individual houses including their interiors, everything is interchangeable. For George F. Babbitt this standardisation is the sound basis of economic success and he welcomes it. He gladly follows the advice of national advertisers because it spares him the trouble to 
“… fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality.” 
In other words: it spares him to create his very own image. He is proud to have been to college, but his favourite reads are the comic strips in the newspaper and their editorials which supply him with his ‘original’ opinions. As befits a citizen of his rank he is a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Boosters’ Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Presbyterian Church. He’s a man of high morals, even prudish, and a pillar of society. However, he’s a middle-class business man striving to be more without success although in the election campaign for the Republican candidate for mayor he distinguishes himself as an orator. The only true friend of George F. Babbitt is Paul Riesling, an able wholesaler and small manufacturer of prepared-paper roofing who used to be a gifted violinist at university and went into his father’s business after graduation because he had to provide for his wife, but the friendship peters out when Paul goes to jail for having shot (not killed) his bad-tempered wife Zilla. George F. Babbitt craves now even more for freedom and understanding because 
“… he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business—a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion—a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships—back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.” 
When George F. Babbitt’s wife Myra leaves Zenith to visit family living in the East, he yields to his growing desire for change and new company. He begins to see the attractive and refined widow Tanis Judique to whom he had recently shown an apartment and is soon drawn into her circle of friends who enjoy parties and heavy drinking (which at the time is against the law). Not only his conduct, also his points of view become more liberal to the great displeasure of his business partners and friends who take action to get him back onto the right, i.e. conventional rut. 

In his novel Sinclair Lewis satirised American society in the 1920s of which Babbitt was a typical exponent, but he managed to create a timeless piece of literature. Even in the new millennium the questions this book raises remain topical. While its plot is limited to conditions in the USA during the Jazz Age, standardisation is a global reality today. Our world has become so frighteningly uniform that it doesn’t really matter anymore where you are. The same desires, the same advertisements, the same products, the same shops, the same interior design, the same architecture can be found virtually everywhere on this planet just like in the novel. Success in business and social station are in the centre of all human striving. There true individualism is detrimental. It’s better to swim with the current and to protect the interests of your social group in order to avoid exclusion. Movements which advocate popular ideas including a certain share of racism and chauvinism are part of the game. The language that Sinclair Lewis used in Babbitt is very colloquial and includes many slang expressions which someone like me whose native language isn’t English can find a bit hard to link with known words.  

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis has been my first experience with the work of this Nobel laureate in Literature. I’m afraid that with a few exceptions his books are quite forgotten today. As a matter of fact, many of his novels happen to be out of print. I enjoyed Babbitt although I must admit that I wasn’t overly impressed by it. However, it was an interesting read and certainly deserves my recommendation.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.  

12 June 2014

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A review by Small Talk

It is a magical time and place - Paris in the twenties. Hemingway is a struggling young writer. There is little money and he has a wife and baby to support. But he is part of a set of writers and artists who are or will be household names. It’s literary voyeurism at its best.
A Moveable Feast was published after Hemingway’s death. A set of sketches of his time in Paris during his first marriage with Hadley, it shows us a Hemingway trying to become the Hemingway the world knows today, crafting his literary style, making and discarding friends, building up to the nastiness and the greatness he became known for later. The title is taken from something he said about Paris - “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
In a lot of ways, Paris is the hero of the book. It’s a Paris that has probably all but disappeared a long time ago - a place where a struggling young artist could live cheaply and well, where there was Sylvia Beach and her book shop providing literary sustenance, where Ezra Pound created a fund to save TS Eliot from his bank job to allow him to write full time, where there are cafes to write in and parks to walk through, where there would always be a fellow-writer to go on trips with. It’s lovely and romantic, especially when you know your writing is going well, and you feel the world is there for the taking. Watching a beautiful young woman waiting for someone in a cafe he is writing in, Hemingway says “I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and pencil.” It’s heady!
He writes about the famous figures he encounters. He doesn’t flatter, he is downright nasty sometimes. Fitzgerald is weak and a drunk, Zelda undermines his confidence, jealous of his writing and scornful of his manhood. His novel The Great Gatsby is pure genius and just for that Hemingway is willing to forgive him anything. Ford Maddox Ford has terrible breath and lies all the time and is disliked intensely by Hemingway. Ezra Pound is generous to a fault, even to writers not deserving of it. Gertrude Stein has regressive views on homosexuality, she plays favourites with the writers and artists invited to her home, and she has a falling out with Hemingway. James Joyce is a hero who frequents a restaurant Hemingway cannot afford, yet he attempts to go there hoping to catch a glimpse. All of this is terribly interesting and voyeuristic and is the literary equivalent of People magazine.
But what binds me to this book is Hemingway’s notes on his writing progress and his own consciousness of the purpose of his life - the writing, always the writing. “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of cafe cremes, the smell of early morning sweeping out and mopping and luck were all you needed.” It does not matter that he is poor and has sometimes to go hungry. It does not matter that the artists and famous people he meets always manage to disappoint him. He is writing and writing well. “Do not worry,” he tells himself, “ You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Hemingway is probably describing the happiest time of his life - married to Hadley whom he loves, probably the only woman he ever truly loved, living in beautiful Paris, moving among probable geniuses, and crafting his own literary legacy. It is a deeply evocative book. An older Hemingway manages to capture a more innocent time, a time when anything seemed possible, when everything seemed a bit more clear.
To be young and in Paris. It’s pure heaven. Especially when an adult you knows how it’s all going to end.

Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

31 May 2014

Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1852422378/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1852422378&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21Fate would have it that during the past weeks unusually many books of recipients and nominees of the Nobel Prize in Literature have come into my hands and I already presented some of them on this blog. I decided that today it’s time at last to also review a book written by the only Austrian Nobel laureate in literature so far although I must admit that I’m no particular fan of my compatriot’s work because the little that I heard or read about it made me avoid the author rather than give her a chance. In the end, I picked Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek which is an early novel of this highly controversial poet, novelist and above all playwright. 

Elfriede Jelinek was born in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, in October 1946. She grew up in Vienna where she studied several musical instruments from an early age on (pushed by her ambitious mother) and later art history and dramatics at university. Anxiety disorder prevented her from earning a degree in the latter studies, but as a therapy Elfriede Jelinek turned to writing. Her first published book was a volume of poetry titled Lisas Schatten (Lisa's Shadow) that came out in 1967. Several novels, some translations and many often highly successful plays followed, and yet only few of her works have been translated into English like the novels Women as Lovers (Die Liebhaberinnen: 1975), Wonderful, Wonderful Times (Die Ausgesperrten: 1980), The Piano Teacher (Die Klavierspielerin: 1983), Lust (1989), and Greed (2000). In 2004 the writer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her latest works are the stage essay rein GOLD and the drama Aber sicher! dating from 2013. Elfriede Jelinek lives in Vienna with her husband. 

The short novel Women as Lovers combines two parallel plot lines set in Austria during the early 1970s. On the one hand, there is the city-bred Brigitte, a young woman working as an unskilled seamstress in a brassiere factory in Vienna to make her living. On the other hand, there is Paula, a fifteen-year-old girl from a village who persuades her parents to allow her, against the local custom, to be apprenticed to dressmaking in the neighbouring small town. Coming from different lower-class backgrounds, both share a dream, the same that already their mothers and grandmothers had: social and economic upgrading through marriage. They want to exchange their unloved and unprestigious jobs as soon as possible for the kind of married life that cinema and magazines make desirable in the most beautiful colours. They dream of eternal love, nice children and a prosperous life including hard work for the family (instead of for strangers) and a comfortable house with an idyllic garden. The strategies of the girls to achieve their goal differ, though. Brigitte takes it into her head to conquer Heinz, an apprentice electrician with a promising future since he is destined to take over his master’s workshop as well as electronic supply shop. Heinz isn’t particularly handsome, nor very sympathetic, but he is Brigitte’s ticket into a better life and she employs all female art of seduction, including sex and getting pregnant, to bind him to her. Paula’s choice is based on attraction rather than reason. She falls up to the eyes in love with the ordinary wood worker Erich from the village. He isn’t bright, but a good-looking young fellow with Italian features and Paula is convinced that she can see to it that he makes her dreams come true. She, too, seduces him with all artifice in her power including sex and pregnancy. Brigitte’s schemes work out as planned and Paula’s don’t, but in the end neither of them is really happy. Their dreams couldn’t stand the test of reality. 

In her third-person narrative Women as Lovers (like in her other works) Elfriede Jelinek plays with clichés, in this case lower-class girls just out of school who are prepared to do almost anything to catch a husband and achieve through them the socioeconomic status that they feel out of their own reach. In the 1970s this may still have been a rather common practice (and it hasn’t been completely abandoned since) because self-confident and self-determined female role models only began to appear at the time. The author depicts Brigitte and Paula as calculating young women who see men mainly as commodities, as futures in which they invest their bodies hoping for good returns. They believe that getting the man will make them happy, but they are mistaken because they disregard the importance of self-respect and independence. The concise narration of the plot and the short sentences make the novel simple in style and sterile with the exception of occasional poetic side steps. The English translator may have had some trouble reproducing certain stylistic peculiarities of the German text. In fact, Elfriede Jelinek broke with the rules of German orthography about the use of capital initial letters writing the entire text in small letters (which seems to have been a bit of a rebellious fashion among writers) and she uses some abbreviations which generally is a taboo in literary writing. 

All those things considered, Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek has been an interesting read which I even enjoyed in a way although it paints a rather too negative and one-sided picture of women. Probably, it was meant to provoke, but it just makes me sad because I know how much truth is in stories of Brigitte and Paula. This one may not have been the best novel that I ever read and it definitely hasn’t made me a fan of the writer, and yet it was at least worth the experience and the time to write its review.

30 April 2014

Desert by J.-M. G. Le Clézio

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1848873816/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=1848873816&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21 Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

France has seen quite some of her writers rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature: René F. A. Sully Prudhomme (1901), Frédéric Mistral (1904), Romain Rolland (1915), Anatole France (1921), Henri Bergson (1927), Roger Martin du Gard (1937), André Gide (1947), François Mauriac (1952), Albert Camus (1957), Saint-John Perse (1960), Jean-Paul Sartre (1964), Claude Simon (1985), Gao Xingjian (2000), and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (2008). Their names are stars twinkling in the literary sky although some have become hard to make out in the growing haze of the years. However, it would almost feel like a sacrilege to ignore them all in the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, so I decided to review at least one work by a French Nobel laureate. My choice fell upon Desert by J.-M. G. Le Clézio. 

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born in Nice, France, in April 1940, but his ancestors had been living on the island of Mauritius since the late eighteenth century. He began writing as a seven-year-old and already in 1963 his first published novel, The Interrogation (Le Procès-Verbal), earned him a renowned literary award, the Prix Renaudot. In the following decades he finished his studies, travelled extensively and worked as a professor at different universities along with producing several important novels like The Flood (Le déluge: 1966), Terra amata (1967), The Book of Flights (Le Livre des fuites: 1969), War (La Guerre: 1970), and The Giants (Les Géants: 1973). As from the late 1970s J.-M. G. Le Clézio’s style changed and his books began to attract a wider public. Some of his most notable later works available in English are Desert (Désert: 1980), The Prospector (Le Chercheur d'or: 1985), Onitsha (1991), Wandering Star (Étoile errante: 1992), and The African (L’Africain: 2004). In 2008 the French-Mauritian writer of novels, short stories, essays and also some children’s books was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His latest published novel is Ritournelle de la faim (2008) and not yet translated into English. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, Mauritius, and Nice, France, with his family. 

The impressive scenes of Desert are Morocco or Western Sahara and Marseille, France, alternately in 1909/10 and in modern times, probably the period when the novel was conceived in the 1970s. The two plot lines are interlaced and linked in various ways. One such connection is the desert itself and the deep love for it which share the Tuareg teenager Nour and the orphan girl Lalla Hawa although about sixty years separate their stories. Another common point is the Blue Man, a wonder-working man of the Tuareg people and maternal ancestor of Lalla Hawa. In the early twentieth century the desert warriors under their aged leader Sheikh Ma Al-Ainine, who was a disciple of the Blue Man, stand up against the Christian (colonial) army. They set out to chase the Infidels from their beloved country in the name and with the help of Allah. Nour and his family are among the track of men, women, children and livestock struggling northwards through the desert regardless of heat, cold, thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. In the 1970s their descendant Lalla Hawa lives with her aunt’s family in some shanty town at the Atlantic coast where the dunes of the desert end. It’s her greatest pleasure to roam the beach and the dunes to observe the sea, the animals and the plants in solitude or to meet her mute shepherd friend, a foundling called “the Hatani”, on the stony pastures although she is ever again warned against seeing the boy. Lalla grows up to be a young woman in a poor neighbourhood without other “schooling” than that of household routine and the stories which the old fisherman Naman and her aunt keep telling, but she doesn’t mind since her nomadic soul only longs for freedom. She is happy. When her aunt arranges a marriage for her with a wealthy middle-aged man from the city, Lalla flees into the desert with the Hatani and counts on being no longer a suitable match for any honourable man, especially if she got pregnant. Half dead with thirst and hunger Lalla is rescued and when she has enough recovered, she joins her aunt who meanwhile went to Marseille. Alas, nothing there is the way she had expected and she misses the desert. Only when a photographer notices the beautiful seventeen-year-old, fate turns in her favour.

The stories of Nour and Lalla are filled with the spirit of the Desert which – of course – accounts for the novel’s title. The protagonists move about in a world of beauty and frugality, of secret and magic, of life and death which J.-M. G. Le Clézio describes in countless poetic pictures. The protagonists are fully aware of their surroundings and see things that nobody else, above all no European, might notice or even appreciate. They love the desert no matter how hard it is to survive in such a harsh environment and they belong to it. For Lalla emigration is no rescue from misery, but imprisonment. The pace of the novel is slow like that of a caravan making its way through the desert under a merciless sun. Time is of no importance. The novel is written in a simple language which made it easy for me to read the French original.

Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio may not be a novel to everybody’s taste, but I loved it. I feel that there is much more in it than I could grasp reading it only once and rather quickly. It goes without saying that I warmly recommend this novel.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany