31 March 2015

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

In 1968 Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) was the first Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His most famous novels Snow Country (雪国: 1935-1947), Thousand Cranes (千羽鶴: 1949-1952), and The Old Capital (古都: 1962) were especially mentioned by the Nobel committee. The work that the author himself considered his best, however, is of a very different kind, namely the chronicle-novel The Master of Go (名人). It’s partly reportage, partly fiction and was first published in instalments between 1951 and 1954. 

The Master of Go recounts a major championship Go match that took place in fourteen sessions from 26 June to 4 December 1938. The adversaries were Shūsai, the twenty-first Master of Go in the Honnimbō succession and until then undefeated, and much younger Kitani Minora, called Otaké in the novel. Yasunari Kawabata himself was present during the match as a reporter for the newspaper Mainichi and also as the first-person-narrator of the novel he appears in this role, though hiding behind the fictitious name Uragami. Knowing nothing about Go and the rules of the game, it is virtually impossible to make head or tail of the moves of black and white stones described and depicted in the included charts, but in the end it isn’t important what the players do on the Go board because the emphasis is on the opposing characters of Shūsai – who gets completely absorbed in the game or any game actually – and Otaké – who merely plays Go according to the rules. The aristocratic tradition incorporated by Shūsai, that was the backbone of Japanese society and at the heart of arts until 1945, is challenged by modern liberalism represented by Otaké. So the Go match can be seen as a symbol for the eternal controversy between old and new or between the Japanese and the Euro-American approach to things, especially in the course of World War II. The game almost immediately turns into nerve-racking tug-of-war that takes its toll on both players as the author shows in a very precise and at the same time poetic language. Hardly two months after the first session sixty-four-year-old Shūshai falls seriously ill. He is hospitalised with a chronic heart condition aggravated by the tension of the match. After a recess of three months the weakened Master of Go can finally return to the Go board and loses his final game as well as his aura of invincibility. Little more than a year later, Shūsai dies and with this event the wheel of the novel comes full circle. 

If you liked this book notice or if you are curious to know what I have to say about another work by the same author, please click here to read my review of The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata here on Read the Nobels.

This book notice was first published on Lagraziana's Kalliopeion.

28 February 2015

The Celtic Twilight by William Butler Yeats

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18148112-the-celtic-twilightReviewed by Edith LaGraziana

Today William Butler Yeats is known above all as one of Ireland’s greatest poets who was awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. But he didn’t only write much admired and often recited poems. He also collected folk tales and legends which already in his time were at risk of getting lost in a modern Ireland that was under British rule during all his lifetime and remained under it until several years after his death at the age of seventy-four in January 1939.

With its strong reminiscences of heathen, thus Celtic times the mythological heritage of first Catholicised and then Anglicised Ireland is surprising, impressive and quite unique in the world. I'm sure that W. B. Yeats has been aware of it when he set out
“to create a little world out of the beautiful, pleasant, and significant things of this marred and clumsy world, and to show in a vision something of the face of Ireland to any of my own people who would look where I bid them.”
Under the title The Celtic Twilight he brought together a varied selection of stories and tales from Old Eire which first appeared as a book in 1893. Some more stories passed on to the author were added to the revised edition of 1902 which I’m reviewing here and which keeps being in print until this day. Therefore it deserves a closer look.

The book offers a mixture of what W. B. Yeats heard and saw of the legendary worlds of dhouls and faeries, but he also commented the stories like almost every other writer of his time and his background would have done. He didn’t degrade and dismiss the beliefs of the peasantry as superstition and mirages produced by uneducated minds, though, as might have done a less open-minded person or more fundamentalist Catholic in his place. On the contrary, he perceived Ireland as a magical land and even reported some strange incidents that he experienced himself. For the rest he translated the stories told to him into modern language and wrote them down as “accurately and candidly” as he could.

The people who appear in the stories as their protagonists, as their witnesses or just as their passers-on are the men and women of Ireland who live in unison with a world of magic surrounding them. But they don’t just cling stubbornly to their heritage of a pagan past that has been virtually wiped out everywhere else. They accept to be part of a universe where much more is possible than science can explain and they take things as they come, sometimes with an impish wink of the eye. This gives them and their whole country the natural and charming aura that keeps impressing us.

Reading The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats allows a glimpse into a magic world that is closed to most of us ever since we left childhood behind. Isn't this a good enough reason to abandon yourself to the skilled storyteller for a while?

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.

31 January 2015

Our Winter of Discontent by John Steinbeck

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0141186313/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=19450&creativeASIN=0141186313&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21&linkId=NKGMUL3YTPF43TM4Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

After my Christmas digression into light Irish literature, I return to my usual set of deep and thought-provoking reads already with this week’s review. More precisely I picked a Nobel read for My WINTER Books Special, the only one that I could find, namely Our Winter of Discontent by John Steinbeck. The members of the committee of the Swedish Academy mentioned especially this last novel of the American author when they awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to him in 1962. It’s the story of a good and honest man who finds his morals corrupted by the requirements and habits of post-war America where virtually everything seems permitted to achieve financial wealth and social status.

John Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, USA, in February 1902. He grew up in the rural atmosphere of his birth town at the sea surrounded by many migrants, an environment that later often appeared in his literary work. After high school he studied English Literature at Stanford University until 1925, but his mind was already set on becoming a great American writer and he never earned a degree. In 1929 he brought out his first novel titled Cup of Gold, but success didn’t come before Tortilla Flat was published in 1935. The California novels followed, among them In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Others of his most notable novels are Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), East of Eden (1952), and Our Winter of Discontent (1961). He also wrote the script to Elia Kazan’s famous film Viva Zapata! (1952). In 1962 the author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. John Steinbeck died in New York City, New York, USA, in December 1968.

Ethan Allen Hawley is a descendant both of the Pilgrim Fathers and of whalers, maybe even pirates, and thinks of his life as Our Winter of Discontent. For generations his family belonged to the honourable and rich of fictitious New Baytown on Long Island, but when the whaling industry went down, also their decline began. Upon Ethan’s return from World War II, his father was dead and all that was left of the former wealth were the old Hawley house and the town’s grocery shop. Harvard-bred only in letters and trained for war, not business, Ethan soon was forced not just to sell the shop, but also to stay on as the clerk of the new owner, an Italian immigrant called Alfio Marullo. In April 1960 Ethan still works as grocery clerk keeping the shop that he once owned. He hates his job that barely suffices to cover the expenses of his family consisting of his wife Mary, fourteen-year-old son Allen and thirteen-year-old daughter Ellen. On Good Friday morning on his way to work he meets the bank teller Joey Morphy who shares with Ethan his thoughts about how to rob a bank without getting caught. Later Mr. Baker, president of the bank, drops in on Ethan to convince him to invest his wife’s six-thousand dollars and to restore his family to wealth, power and prestige, but Ethan refuses because it’s Mary’s money and security. Coming by to check on the shop, Marullo points out to Ethan that a good businessman needs always to “look out for number one”, ie for money because it is at the heart of success and nothing else matters. As an honest man to the backbone Ethan won’t listen to him, though. So when a travelling salesman, previously announced by Mary’s attractive and men-hunting friend Margie Young-Hunt, offers him money behind Marullo’s back in return for placing orders with his company, Ethan refuses because he won’t betray his boss. Probably none of this would trouble Ethan, if the same day his wife and his teenage children didn’t make it clear to him that they too crave for money and the prestige it implies. Since he wants the best for them, he begins to question his attitude and convinces himself that it’ll do no harm to put aside his moral scruples at least temporarily – like he did as a soldier. He acts accordingly and the expected results materialise on Independence Day weekend 1960, but Ethan is full of remorse.

Our Winter of Discontent is the author’s lament over moral decline in post-war America which manifested in a huge number of scandals making the headlines at the time of its writing and before. Through his choice of title John Steinbeck also alluded to Richard III by William Shakespeare of which Ethan quotes the respective passage at the end of part one. In the novel’s world – like in the world in which we are living today – money isn’t just the driving force of economy and personal progress, but its cult is at least on an equal level with religion. Baker’s bank house is described as a “red brick basilica” and in one scene the bank teller compares the opening of the safe in the morning with a lodge meeting of the freemasons where “Father Baker genuflects and opens the safe and we all bow down to the Great God Currency.” Nobody except Ethan seems to see any harm in bribery, chicanery and treachery. The novel centres on his inner conflicts confronted with the need to give up his high moral standards for the sake of his family’s happiness. Consequently, most of the story is told from Ethan’s point of view, thus in first person, and only the introducing two chapters of each of the two parts are third-person narrative. The Swedish Academy praised John Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”. All of it can be found in this last novel of his, too, and in addition I noticed a bitter undertone of the kind that seems to be characteristic of advancing age. Already some time ago I realised that every parent or grandparent generation laments over moral decline – in fact I catch myself at it occasionally.

All in all, Our Winter of Discontent by John Steinbeck has been an absorbing and worthwhile read although in my opinion it doesn’t stand comparison with Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, the author’s other two works that I could finish so far. Considering today's economic situation and the often reckless behaviour of businessmen, the novel has lost none of its importance.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.

31 December 2014

None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/?_encoding=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=19450&field-keywords=978-1250007711&linkCode=ur2&tag=editsmisc00-21&url=search-alias%3Daps&linkId=JKP6AHT4ATN5RNPI Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

For a long time South Africa was a place where a white minority saw itself in the right to exclude the vast coloured majority from power and even to determine the lives of its members in a way that nobody with working brains was likely to endure willingly, but in the end segregation and institutionalised discrimination couldn’t last even there. Thanks to the influence of Nelson Mandela and other moderate political activists the country saw a peaceful transition from the Apartheid regime to a democratic system based on equal rights for all her citizens. None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1991, shows some of the dramatic changes during this difficult period and their influence on the daily lives of South Africans.

Nadine Gorimer was born in Springs, Transvaal, Union of South Africa, in November 1923. Having been mainly home-taught and thus rather isolated during her childhood, she turned to writing early. Already at the age of 15 years her first short story for children appeared in a newspaper and as a sixteen-year-old she made her literary debut in adult fiction. The author’s first novel, The Lying Days, came out in 1953. For the moral and racial issues that the author dealt with critically in her work, the Apartheid regime banned novels like A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), Burger's Daughter (1979), and July's People (1981). Others of her important works published before she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 are Occasion for Loving (1963), A Guest of Honour (1970), and The Conservationist (1974). None to Accompany Me (1994), The House Gun (1998), The Pickup (2001), and Get a Life (2005) count among the most notable novels of her late years. In addition to her novels the author brought out a great number of short story collections and essays. Nadine Gordimer died in Johannesburg, South Africa, in July 2014.

The scene of None to Accompany Me is Johannesburg in South Africa where Vera and Bennet “Ben” Stark live in an old house that had been part of the divorce agreement with her first husband. When the latter had returned from World War II, she had already had a lover, Ben, whom she married immediately after the divorce… and betrayed with her ex-husband once never knowing if her son Ivan was her first husband’s or Ben’s really. When Nelson Mandela is released from prison in 1990 and the Apartheid regime falls, Vera and Ben have been married for over forty years, happily married although Ben built his life around Vera sacrificing even his dream of being a sculptor and although in her forties Vera had an affair with a man fifteen or more years her junior. The couple has a son, Ivan, and a daughter, Annie. Ever since Vera resumed work after maternity leave, she has been a lawyer with the Legal Foundation and fighting for the rights of coloured clients although discriminating laws hampered her efforts a lot. The end of Apartheid brings new challenges with black communities claiming back the lands of their ancestors from white farmers like Tertius Odendaal who aren’t even willing to talk to them. By and by long-time political exiles like Sibongile “Sally” and Didymus “Didy” Maqoma, who used to be friends with the Starks, return to South Africa to seize the opportunity to create a just South Africa. In the climate of political uncertainty violence spreads across the country. On a deserted road on the way back from a fieldtrip, Vera Stark and her assistant are assaulted and robbed. She is wounded in the leg by a bullet and he is shot into the chest, but survives at first and dies later from unexpected complications. On the political field Sally Maqoma becomes a rising star, while her husband who had been the real activist of the couple is reduced to a role in the background. At the same time Vera Stark gets a chance to work on the new constitution and becomes even more absorbed into her work leaving her husband to himself with his failed business. Slowly her former client, Zeph Rapulana, who was a squatter-camp leader and belongs now to the new black middle-class, is taking the place of her best friend, confident and adviser.

Like real life None to Accompany Me interweaves the personal fates of its characters with events and atmosphere surrounding them. The setting is South Africa in the early 1990s. As is (or should be) generally known, the period is one of dramatic change on the political level, but also the lives of the Starks, the Maqomas and people like them are taking a new direction. There’s nothing extraordinary about the characters portrayed in the novel, not about anything they do, nor about anything that happens to them. They are average people coping best they can with the new situation. Vera Stark as the female protagonist of the third-person narrative also finds herself re-evaluating her marriage and discovering how shadows of the past like her first husband and her lover Otto Abarbanel fit in. She realises that the ultimate intimacy with a man that she yearns for is impossible and that being the beloved centre and only purpose of another person is a burden that she doesn’t want to carry any longer. She wants to be alone and on her own with none to accompany her – thus the title. The author tells the story of her protagonists representing South African people with such great narrative skill that it absorbs the reader right away. Characters, moods and events feel entirely drawn from real life although they are fiction embedded in historical facts. The language of Nadine Gordimer is rich in powerful images and easy to read although she uses several idiomatic expressions from her country (at least I believe that it’s for this reason that I didn’t know them). Also her clear and critical mind, which made that several of her books were banned by the Apartheid regime for a time, is obvious in every line.

Overall I enjoyed reading None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer very much. It surely isn’t the novel for which the author is best known, but it makes see despite all that the Nobel Prize in Literature of 1991 didn’t go into the wrong direction. In any case it’s another excellent book to which I gladly dedicated a post and which I recommend warmly.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany

30 November 2014

One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0941419746/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0941419746&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21&linkId=TZV2V6OXPZUV5YSD Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

Who are we? Are we really who we believe we are? Or are we someone completely different than we think? Do others see us the way we see ourselves? These are questions that occupied and still occupy the minds of many ordinary people and of scores of philosophers worldwide. While philosophers necessarily take a scientific point of view on matters of identity, writers can deal with it more freely, and in fact, they do so rather often – to their own as well as to their readers’ delight. Often the philosophical aspects of a novel almost disappear under the surface of an intricate plot, but One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello offers a direct approach. The work of the Nobel laureate 1934 centres on the narrating protagonist’s search for his only true identity which disturbs him to the point of madness and confuses his surroundings.

Luigi Pirandello was born in a country house on the outskirts of Agrigento, Sicily, Italy, in June 1867 and grew up in a well-to-do family. After having finished high school in Palermo, he began to study law and letters at the local university, but only continued his philological studies in Rome and finished them in Bonn, Germany, in 1891. Although he had been making poems already as a teenager, he dedicated himself to writing more seriously only after his return to Italy, above all after the family business was ruined by natural disaster in 1903. During his life the prolific author produced some volumes of poetry, several novels, hundreds of short stories, and about forty plays. It was above all his innovative dramatic work which earned him international fame and the Nobel Prize in Literature 1934, but also his novels and short stories were celebrated. The most notable among them are The Late Mattia Pascal (Il fu Mattia Pascal: 1904), Her Husband (Suo marito: 1911), The Old and the Young (I vecchi e i giovani: 1913), and One, No One and One Hundred Thousand (Uno, nessuno e centomila: 1926) along with his short stories and novellas republished in a 15-volume edition titled Short Stories for a Year (Novelle per un anno: 1922-37). Luigi Pirandello died in Rome, Italy, in December 1936.

The narrator and central figure of One, No One and One Hundred Thousand is twenty-eight-year-old Vitangelo Moscarda, called Gengè by his wife Dida. Thanks to his share in the bank that his father left him at his death and that is now run by his father’s partners and friends (fatherly director Sebastiano Quantorzo and brotherly legal consultant Stefano Firbo), he enjoys a good life without work in the invented Italian town Richieri. He is sure of himself until his wife jokingly tells him that his nose leans slightly to the right, when she finds him contemplating in front of the mirror one morning. He never noticed the tiny defect and the unexpected revelation pushes him into a state of self-doubt. For the first time he realises that his picture of himself differs considerably from the picture that others have of him and he becomes obsessed with the idea of laying bare his true, universal self. His task proves much more difficult than he thought. He becomes aware of the great number of people he is due to the mere fact that every person has a different opinion of him and that not one coincides with another or at least his own. He tries to shake off his idea of himself to be able to see himself in the mirror as a stranger would, but if he succeeds it’s only for split seconds. Then he includes the aspect of situation and communication into his considerations which confuses him even more because it proves that the one and only identity that he seeks doesn’t exist, can’t exist because everybody lives in a world of his/her own separated from all others. At this point he begins to put his findings to test, ie to shock his surroundings behaving in a different way than he normally would. People begin to think him crazy, but he isn’t willing to back down and resume old habits as well as roles… not even for his beloved wife.

The quality of One, No One and One Hundred Thousand as a philosophical novel through and through is striking from the first page to the last. Although it’s not a scientific treatise it requires an open as well as a very focused mind to be able to fully enjoy it. The sharp logic of the protagonist’s reasoning can make spin the head and it certainly lingers on in the mind long after having finished the book. It makes think about how we usually perceive our environment, including people, as stable and consistent with our own idea of the world although we know well enough that there use to be more sides to everything. The fact that the narrator directly addresses the reader ever again may add to the novel’s great power. Since the concept of identity proper is so complex, the plot is reduced to the necessary minimum. There isn’t much happening although the author has included several unexpected turns to show the protagonist’s growing confusion or madness. As requires the task, the main focus is on the protagonist himself and his considerations, while all other characters of the story, including his wife Dida whom he loves, remain rather flat and colourless: their true self is out of his reach. Since I read the Italian original, I can say little about the language except that it didn’t give me too much trouble to understand what the author wished to say although 88 years after the first release of the novel some of the vocabulary or at least the spelling seem to be a bit outdated.

Reading One, No One and One Hundred Thousand was quite a special experience for me, namely slightly disturbing and enjoyable at the same time. However, as regular readers of my blog know, I have a bit of a bent for the philosophical and therefore delighted in the read. Someone who is convinced that everybody sees the world through the same – objective – eyes (and I know people who do!), might not enjoy at all reading this great novel… and the more warmly I recommend it to every such person. It’s not an easy read, but marvellously thought-provoking.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.

31 October 2014

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata

Reviewed  by Edith LaGraziana

There are loud books that are talked about everywhere and every time, while there are quiet ones just as good or even better that remain in the shelves because they hardly attract attention. Even the works of writers who have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature are often neglected or forgotten. I don’t know if my choice for today’s review belongs to those hidden gems of literature, but The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel laureate of 1968, surely isn’t on a recent bestselling list. The story revolves around a young woman from Kyoto who leads the ordinary life of the daughter of a dry goods wholesaler in the 1960s. She floats through the year with the cycle of nature and of centuries old festivals welcoming on her way an unknown of twin sister and a young man as her companions.

Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成) was born in Osaka, Japan, in June 1899. He lost his close family very young and moved to Tokyo in 1917 to attend university where he soon took to writing fiction. In 1921 he published his first short story in the university’s literary magazine which he had revived. After graduation he worked as a newspaper reporter for many years, but never gave up fiction. The short story The Dancing Girl of Izu (伊豆の踊子: 1926) established his fame as a gifted writer in 1926. His most famous and probably most popular novel up to this day is Snow Country (雪国), first published in instalments over a period of twelve years (1935-1947). Other important works from his pen are Thousand Cranes (千羽鶴: 1949-1952), The Sound of the Mountain (山の音: 1949-1954), The Master of Go (名人: 1951-1954), The House of the Sleeping Beauties (眠れる美女: 1961), The Old Capital (古都: 1962), and Beauty and Sadness (美しさと哀しみと: 1964). In 1968 Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Yasunari Kawabata died in Zushi, Kanagawa, Japan, in April 1972. It remains uncertain whether he killed himself or if it was an accident.

Twenty-year-old Chieko lives in The Old Capital of Japan, thus in Kyoto. She has been brought up as the legitimate daughter of the Sadas, Takichiro and Shige, but she knows that they found her as a baby sleeping on a bench under a blossoming cherry tree and yet feels no desire to inquire into her true origins. Chieko has a good life helping her parents and enjoys the pleasures that Kyoto offers with its countless large or small festivals celebrated around the year in the different shrines and temples. In the novel’s opening scene the young woman contemplates the violets blooming in two hollows of the old maple tree in the small garden. She is very fond of the beauty of nature, especially of cherry trees in blossom and of the straight red cedars of Nakagawa District. With her friend Masako she visits the log village Katayama one day and from far they catch a glimpse of a working girl who looks like Chieko, but they don’t give it any importance. During the Gion Festival a few weeks later Chieko goes to the shrine at Otabisho and suddenly finds herself face to face with the girl from Kitayama absorbed in the “seven-turn worship”. They are as like as two peas. The girl’s name is Naeko and as fate would have it she was born a twin, but raised as an only child not knowing what has become of her sister. Although Chieko has no other proof than their striking resemblance, she is at once convinced that she is Naeko’s lost twin sister and ready to introduce her into the Sada family. Naeko, however, is a very humble girl and feels that she shouldn’t cause unnecessary confusion in her sister’s settled life. Naeko has just left the shrine to return home, when the weaver Sosuke Hideo mistakes her for Chieko whom he secretly hopes to make his wife. The shy country girl doesn’t set things right, nor does Chieko who watches them from a distance like the Mizuki brothers Shin’ichi and Ryusuke. Shin’ichi is a school friend of Chieko and like a brother to her, while she hasn’t had much to do with his elder brother Ryusuke yet, but that is about to change little by little.

In The Old Capital life and attitude of the protagonist are tenderly revealed through a series of unspectacular episodes taking place during a period of about one year, starting in spring and ending in winter. The story flows with the cycle of nature and of important festivals that are being celebrated in Kyoto more or less like in the old times – when the city still was the capital of Japan. Yasunari Kawabata doesn’t omit or hide, though, the changes and above all the westernisation that society underwent after World War II until the early 1960s when he wrote the novel. Chieko may wear kimono and obi most of the time, but first of all she is a young Japanese woman with modern habits. Hers is a quiet, even contemplative story without much action although it offers some interesting turns on which another, especially a more recently trained author might have based a dramatic as well as conflict charged plot to ensure the novel’s commercial success. As suits the story’s atmosphere, its style is very simple and flows over with powerful images of a scenery reflecting the protagonist’s frame of mind while at the same time leaving a lot of room for interpretation or imagination respectively. The novel also feels unfinished because it leaves open more than one plot line and makes the reader wonder what may become of the characters. All in all it reminds very much of a short Japanese poem called haiku that (provided that it’s composed according to the strict rules) is necessarily incomplete and ambiguous. This impression corresponds with the author’s idea of fiction writing as an art in the Zen tradition.

Reading The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata has been a very enjoyable experience for me, so much so that I’ve already added other works by this Nobel laureate to my reading list – something that I don’t usually do. If you’re like me interested in Japan and her culture, you’ll find the novel quite attracting and also for those who don’t just seek entertainment or thrill when they choose a book it’s a wonderful read. I recommend it warmly.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany.   

09 October 2014

Patrick Modiano: 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature

French author Patrick Modiano is the 2014 Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature.

Here are a few quick links to articles:
Has anyone read his work? If you have, what would you recommend?

P.S. This blog is among the few surviving multi-authored literary blogs and want to thank everyone for their contributions! I hope you continue to find this blog useful in your own literary explorations.

I've revamped the blog to be cleaner and easier to read. If you have any suggestions or comments for improvement, you can send an email or sound off in the comments. [Aloi at Guiltless Reading]

30 September 2014

Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0691095442/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_il_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1634&creative=6738&creativeASIN=0691095442&linkCode=as2&tag=editsmisc00-21 Reviewed by Edith LaGraziana

For centuries Palestine has been the place of nostalgia for millions of Jews living spattered all over the world in Disaspora, but only rising nationalism in the late nineteenth century made them seriously think of returning to live in the Promised Land of the Thora and of rebuilding a Jewish state. As shows Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon, who together with poet Nelly Sachs won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1966, many early immigrants were dreamers and often ignorant of the situation in the Holy Land under Ottoman rule. They arrived in a country that didn’t welcome them as they had imagined and that instead of being virtually empty and waiting for cultivation was the home of Arabic families who had been living there for generations.
Shmuel Yosef Agnon (שמואל יוסף עגנון) was born as Samuel Josef Halevi Czaczkes in Buczacz (today: Buchach), Galicia, Austria-Hungary (today: Ukraine), in July 1888. Already as a boy the son of a rabbi and fur trader began to write poems and stories in Yiddish as well as in Hebrew. At the age of twenty he immigrated to Palestine where he adopted the pen name Agnon. In 1913 he travelled to Germany where he got stuck during World War I, founded a family and continued to write. Only nine years later he returned to Jerusalem. The novel The Bridal Canopy (הכנסת כלה) established Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s fame as a Hebrew writer in 1931. A Simple Story (סיפור פשוט: 1935), A Guest for the Night (אוֹרֵחַ נָטָה לָלוּן: 1938), Only Yesterday (תמול שלשום: 1945), and To This Day (עד הנה: 1952) count among his most important works. In 1966 the author was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature together with the German-Swedish poet Nelly Sachs. Shmuel Yosef Agnon died in Jerusalem, Israel, in February 1970. The novel Shira (שירה: 1971) and several short stories were published posthumously by his daughter.

The main scene of Only Yesterday is Palestine during the years before World War I. In his small Galician home town Isaac Kumer has been dreaming of ascending the Holy Land of the Thora for virtually all his life and gradually his Zionistic zeal threatens to ruin the poor family business. In addition, he is coming of age to be called up for military service in the Austro-Hungarian army. Thus his father borrows money to make his oldest son’s emigration to Palestine possible. The journey goes by train to the port of Trieste (then part of Austria-Hungary, now in Italy) where the idealistic young man embarks on a ship to Jaffa. On board he befriends an elderly Hungarian-Jewish couple joining their daughter and her family in Jerusalem to lead a pious life and to eventually be buried in the Holy Land. Jaffa is a bustling port town and very different from what Isaac expected. He tries to hire himself out as a farm labourer because first of all he has come to Palestine to cultivate fallow land and soon learns that even Jewish farmers prefer taking on experienced and cheaper Arabs. Among the many men looking for work in vain Isaac quickly makes friends. They introduce him into the diverse and secular Jewish society of Jaffa, but as a Galician he remains an outsider since the majority of Jews there are Russians. Like everybody else Isaac has a hard time making a living until one day he is asked to finish a house painter’s work and develops the chance job into a decent career. When his best friend returns to Europe to learn a trade, which will be useful to build Israel, he is left with his girl-friend Sonya whom he admires. However, he is shy with women and he has a bad conscience about seeing her without his friend’s knowledge and approval. As time goes by, Sonya loses interest in Isaac and neglects him. At last, he decides to make a trip to Jerusalem. The city is different from Jaffa in many ways, above all Jewry is more orthodox, but Isaac doesn’t take long to adapt and stays resuming his work as a house painter. In the streets of Jerusalem Isaac comes across the elderly couple whom he met on board of the ship from Trieste. He becomes a regular visitor at their home although their extremely orthodox son-in-law, Reb Fayesh, disapproves of him as an ordinary Polak. On a whim Isaac one day paints the words “Crazy Dog” on the back of Balak, a stray dog. For weeks on end those two Hebrew words cause terror and confusion in the city, while the small dog is increasingly bewildered by people’s reaction to it. One night Reb Fayesh is surprised by Balak and is so shocked that he breaks down paralysed. Isaac helps the family best he can and falls in love with Reb Fayesh’s daughter Shifra, but he still needs to settle a few things before he can ask for her hand.

Although the omniscient narrating voice of Only Yesterday refers to himself as “we” and always talks of Isaac, Balak and everybody else in the third person – even in what must really be considered as inner monologues –, it’s not quite clear who actually tells the story because the point of view of the undisclosed collective shifts ever again and allows many interpretations. At first sight the plot of the novel seems rather simple, but in reality it is so multilayered that it is difficult to take in all aspects of personal, societal, religious, political, and economic development. The unexpected and Kafkaesque or fable-like appearance of the dog Balak towards the end of the second book introduces a bizarre and often ironical dimension into the story. Historical and socioeconomic facts regarding the situation of Jews living both in Europe and in Palestine at the time are told in great detail and accuracy as is the scenery of Jaffa and Jerusalem. S. Y. Agnon’s novel is monumental and epic to a degree that it surely isn’t to everybody’s taste. By modern standards it’s rather too lengthy with its about 640 pages, not counting the introduction and a very helpful as well as indispensable glossary. The language of the novel is poetic, but it often feels rather stilted – probably because it’s deliberately leaned on Biblical diction. I also suspect that the author used many modified quotations from and allusions to Hebrew, Aramaic and Yiddish texts which I don’t know at all. Sentences are often long and in many places incorporate direct address to others, even dialogues, which is made visible only by the unexpected use of a capital letter after a comma. Despite all, it isn’t difficult to read.

Although reading Only Yesterday by S. Y. Agnon I struggled with its peculiar style more than once, I enjoyed the experience. The bulky volume is an interesting (and important) example of Modern Hebrew literature and taught me a few things about the historical roots of the never ending conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, it seems quite revealing to me to find that Arabs are almost absent from the novel and if they appear, it often is in a negative light. The read left me with the impression that everything non-Jewish was invisible to those early settlers, ie outside their limits of perception, but pretending not to see what you don’t want to be has never been a good strategy. On the other hand, it may just have been a narrative necessity to concentrate on Jewish life in the early years of the twentieth century. In any case, the novel deserves my recommendation.

This review was first published on Edith's Miscellany

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.