Rudyard Kipling

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Last week I picked up William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” I had actually been looking forward to reading it as I had heard that it was such a classic. I read, and read and read and almost 50 pages in I still had no idea what the book was about, who the characters were, where they were or what the point was. I later read that his style is called “stream of consciousness” and inspired by James Joyce—oh.

Anyway this sent me into full Nobel rebellion. I decided I was done with the Nobel writers. I felt like I had read many different writers from all of the world and fulfilled my initial goal of reading writers that I would not normally read. So I binged on non-nobel books- Ellena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, and Susan Barkers The Incarnations.

Then from several sources I was sent an article on Svetlana Alexievich (who I still want to read) and then, friends of our invited us to see the moving the Jungle Book and I realized that the Nobels are everywhere!

I had already been thinking that instead of reading plays, watching them would be more interesting, so I have now expanded my Nobel enterprise to sampling the authors in whatever media they present themselves- even if it is a Disney Movie

Rudyard Kipling is apparently the youngest Nobel winner and was awarded the prize in 1907 ;“in consideration of the power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration which characterize the creations of this world-famous author.

In my mind both Rudyard Kipling and the Jungle Book (especially as adapted by Disney) seem to harbor a lot of potential controversy, about colonialism and man’s relationship with nature. The movie seemed quite sanitized and in reading about the original story – it has been. It almost seems like a game of broken telephone. The story was written over a hundred years ago but rarely seen in it’s original form- now we have movie interpretation after movie interpretation. Although the characters names are the same, their back stories and motivations, from my limited reading of the original (http://www.literatureproject.com/jungle-book/jungle-book_1.htm ), seem to have been completely lost.

“The Law of the Jungle, which never orders anything without a reason, forbids every beast to eat Man except when he is killing to show his children how to kill, and then he must hunt outside the hunting grounds of his pack or tribe. The real reason for this is that man-killing means, sooner or later, the arrival of white men on elephants, with guns, and hundreds of brown men with gongs and rockets and torches. Then everybody in the jungle suffers. The reason the beasts give among themselves is that Man is the weakest and most defenseless of all living things, and it is unsportsmanlike to touch him. They say too–and it is true –that man-eaters become mangy, and lose their teeth.”

 

“Keep him!” she gasped. “He came naked, by night, alone and very hungry; yet he was not afraid! Look, he has pushed one of my babes to one side already. And that lame butcher would have killed him and would have run off to the Waingunga while the villagers here hunted through all our lairs in revenge! Keep him? Assuredly I will keep him. Lie still, little frog. O thou Mowgli –for Mowgli the Frog I will call thee–the time will come when thou wilt hunt Shere Khan as he has hunted thee.”

 

Why has the Jungle Book persisted in our culture as a classic while other stories do not. It is obviously not about Kipling’s writing itself as that is lost in our current interpretations as are even the more detailed threads of the story. Is it just because there are talking animals? I am sure that someone somewhere has written a PhD thesis on this.

As for Kipling himself, he in fact is still an enigma of controversy as this article nicely explains

 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/26/rudyard-kipling-unexpected-revival-150-years-after-birth

 

I am not sure where this project will take be next but I will wait until the next author crosses my path in whatever form that takes

 

 

Boris Pasternak

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The Nobel Prize in Literature 1958 was awarded to Boris Pasternak “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition”.

 

I picked up Doctor Zhivago in a second hand bookstore in Calgary.  The book was so old it was falling apart as I read it!

I was quite excited that I got to read this book, as I have never seen the movie and thought it would be a good read. In fact it was an enjoyable book. It had a lot more about politics and the Russian revolution that I had thought it would. As I read I kept thinking he was the Russian Victor Hugo as there are many characters with their own plots that intertwine. As I got nearer the end I thought Hugo meets Ayn Rand. He become more preachy as the book goes on and his characters have these monologues that seem to be political statements and often don’t fit in with a natural dialogue. The number of coincidences becomes less and less believable and when he kills off the main character 70 pages from the end I wondered why I was still reading it.

 

Then I read about Pasternak himself and the history of the publication of the book which was a story stranger than fiction.

He himself initially accepted the Nobel but was expelled from the Russian Writers union. Two weeks later he decided to decline the award.

 

“Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure. – Pasternak.”

 

I then read that apparently the book was initially not published in Russian as it was censored and appeared in Italian first. Recently CIA papers have revealed that it was the CIA that first distributed a version in Russian in the USSR as anti-communist propaganda. There is a fascinating history in the following article. Who knew book publishing could be so cloak and dagger!

 

http://www.rferl.org/content/Was_Pasternaks_Path_To_The_Nobel_Paved_By_The_CIA/1496794.html

 

The translation I read was the original English translation which apparently was done quite quickly and apparently the translator would read a page and then translate the gist of it into English rather than more literally. A critique of a later translation in the Guardian stated that

 

“The translator needs distance. His main pitfall is to drift unconsciously into the linguistic aura of his original – in this case, to write a kind of Russified English.”The same article gives several examples including”

 

“These differences prompt questions about accuracy. When Volokhonsky-Pevear write: “Having performed his traveling ablutions in pre-war comfort”, they translate the Russian word for word, and it sounds absurd. Hayward-Harari turn what it implies into easy English (“He washed and shaved in pre-war comfort”). This was certainly one of Pasternak’s principles as a translator. In his great translations of Shakespeare he cut, compressed, paraphrased and invented freely. He wrote Shakespeare in Russian.”

 

Another argument that the translation can change not only the literary style but also meaning of the book.

As Pasternak did not write any other novels (only poetry and plays and translations himself) I don’t see reading any more of his stuff. I will however finally watch the movie when I next get the chance.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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The Nobel Prize in Literature 1982 was awarded to Gabriel García Márquez “for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts”.

I just finished Love in the Time of Cholera (lent to me by my friend Christine)   I had avoided reading this author as I always thought that it would be too difficult a read. This was very far from the truth. This novel reads easily and is enjoyable. I found myself carrying it around with me in case I had a few spare minutes to read a few more pages.

I also had the impression that his style was that of magical realism, of which I am not usually a fan. This book was not really in that style (although I can’t speak for his others). Interestingly enough though, while I read him I felt that he reminded me most of Salman Rushdie (who does write in a magical realist style and whom I adore).

This book is more than a love story, in fact the love story although central is not the main focus, if that makes any sense. He writes a lot about aging in such a beautiful way, that this should be required reading for any geriatrician.

It starts with the suicide of a character who had sworn that he would not live past the age of 60, and stuck to his word.

In describing one of his main characters at the beginning he writes:

At eighty one years of age he had enough lucidity to realize that he was attached to this world by a few slender threads that could painlessly with a simple change of position while he slept and if he did all he could to keep those threads intact, it was because of his terror of not finding God in the darkness of death

 

When I was  reading about Marquez I found this lovely article.

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/gabriel-garca-mrquez-an-appreciation

He is of course an author from Columbia, a previously colonized country, finding its independence and voice. His Nobel prize acceptance speech is wonderfully optimistic

“I do believe that those clear-sighted Europeans who struggle, here as well, for a more just and humane homeland, could help us far better if they reconsidered their way of seeing us. Solidarity with our dreams will not make us feel less alone, as long as it is not translated into concrete acts of legitimate support for all the peoples that assume the illusion of having a life of their own in the distribution of the world…….

 

Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions? No: the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness,…

 

we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

 

I definitely plan to read more (if not all) of his books.

Nadine Gordimer

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Nadine Gordimer “Who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity” won the prize in 1991.

To support my project my friend Christine lent me a copy of “A Sport of Nature”.   Hardcover, which I proceeded to haul around with me on several short trips.I had been looking forward to reading this author and was not disappointed.

The phrase in the title is defined as ” A Plant, animal, etc, which exhibits abnormal variation of a departure from the parent stock or type…. a spontaneous mutation, a new variety produced in this way”

The book tells the story of a white South African girl who grows up in the 50’s and 60’s between two households. The first happily living a white upper class life and the second liberal family who struggles to find a way to help the black population gain rights. She herself seems oblivious to politics or the issues of the day. She drifts from one phase of her life to another always landing not only on her feet but better off than before. Whether consciously or unconsciously she always ends up with people who do well for themselves. She eventually becomes a more integral part of the fight for freedom than any of her family who continue to desperately try and end up having to leave the country as they realize they are not welcome.

The story starts as a small intimate family story and slowly over the books pulls back to encompass a much wider worldview. It is told in the third person and a distant one at that. There are parts told by a third person’s telling of a secondary characters reading about the main character in a newspaper article. Sometimes we are told things far ahead of time and others we don’t learn a critical detail until so far into the story that the reader needs to think back and re-imagine the story.

Much like Toni Morrison’s writing, each and every sentence is packed as full as it can be, and often take a couple of readings to completely absorb. Just one simple example

“They carried with them demands that stretched muscles of response which atrophy where a common background provides always foreseeable demands and appropriate ways of meeting them”

Her writing is so beautiful that I was surprised that in her Nobel speech she quoted others more than using her own words. It is however a great speech:

“Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.

 

There is a paradox. In retaining this integrity, the writer sometimes must risk both the state’s indictment of treason, and the liberation forces’ complaint of lack of blind commitment. As a human being, no writer can stoop to the lie of Manichean ‘balance’. The devil always has lead in his shoes, when placed on his side of the scale. Yet, to paraphrase coarsely Márquez’s dictum given by him both as a writer and a fighter for justice, the writer must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms, since only a try for the truth makes sense of being, only a try for the truth edges towards justice just ahead of Yeats’s beast slouching to be born. In literature, from life,

We page through each other’s faces

We read each looking eye

… It has taken lives to be able to do so.

 

These are the words of the South African poet and fighter for justice and peace in our country, Mongane Serote.13

 

The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties, trusts the state of being, as it is revealed, to hold somewhere in its complexity filaments of the cord of truth, able to be bound together, here and there, in art: trusts the state of being to yield somewhere fragmentary phrases of truth, which is the final word of words, never changed by our stumbling efforts to spell it out and write it down, never changed by lies, by semantic sophistry, by the dirtying of the word for the purposes of racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs.”

In an article in the Guardian she apparently coined the term “Witness Literature” which I think is such a wonderful term for what she does in her books.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/jun/15/fiction.nadinegordimer

When I started this project- it was with the intent of reading more widely. I had been thinking that I mostly read English language female writers. Interestingly enough, so far my two favorite authors this year have been English language female writers.  Maybe at this age it is hard to change tastes.

 

Beckett and Sartre

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Samuel Beckett 1969 “for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”.

I found “Waiting for Godot” in a second hand bookstore in Calgary and could not resist. The title alone has become part of our culture but likely most people who reference it have never read or seen the play.

I had heard all the jokes- “It is a play where nothing happens-twice” and thought that it would be good to read it. I also knew nothing of Beckett.

The play itself is both easy and difficult to read. I started by thinking this is easy- the language is not difficult and there are really no long speeches (save one), so easy. Then I started trying to understand the play. I could see that whoever had read it prior to me that tried the same. Various sentences were underlines or starred or circled. Sometimes I agreed sometimes not. By the end of act one I almost gave up- I went to u-tube and watched both “Lucky’s speech” and the beginning of the play.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGQToJ9RR-4

I then read the second act straight through without really trying to “get it” – that is when I got it.

By the end I felt trapped and frustrated by the characters lack of memory that doomed them to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. In the end, for me the play was not about the plot or the story it told or even about some complicated allegory, it was about leaving me with a feeling that left me thinking about the play for several days afterwards.

I will only quote one excerpt from the play that particularly struck me

….Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave-digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries…..

Much has been written about both Beckett and Godot with many theories, none of which Beckett commented on. One could argue that that is art- something that gets people questioning and discussing- that there does not need to be some deeper truth, just the discussion around it……..or Beckett is having a great big belly laugh about the knots people get tied up in trying to explain it when maybe it is a bunch of nonsense (kind of like the white canvas hung in an art gallery). The play is sub-titled a “tragicomedy” and Beckett apparently loved to be humorous.

He was quoted as saying-“ My work is a matter of fundamental sounds…… That’s all I can manage, more than I could. If people get headaches among the overtones, they’ll have to furnish their own aspirin.”

Of course all of this had me reading lots about Beckett. He himself did not go to accept his Nobel prize and apparently gave the prize money away. There is much discussion about him being an existentialist but he never admitted to it. There is also an amazing thread of Buddhist philosophy that goes through his work. People questioned him on this and he denied knowing anything of Buddhism. It begs the question do you have to know a philosophy to exhibit it? One could see “Waiting for Godot” as one long Koan.

He is one author that even has a journal dedicated to him (like James Joyce),

http://www.euppublishing.com/loi/jobs

A New Yorker article commented that although he is considered to be part of the western cannon :

They tend to overlook the fact that reading Beckett is frequently like watching the Western canon stick its finger down its throat – new Yorker 2006

Then, in the randomness that is the pile of books on my bedside table- next was Sartre. “Existentialism is a Humanism”.

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1964 was awarded to Jean-Paul Sartre “for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age”.

This choice of reading Sartre immediately after Beckett was perhaps not the best combination. I read about half of it. I then read that apparently this is a lecture that he gave to try to make his 781 page book “Being and Nothingness” appealing to communists. He later regretted giving the lecture and stated that he wanted to retract it. He also wrote that he never intended to write for the general public and he only expected other philosophers and intellectuals to read his work.

he also turned down his Nobel prize as

 A writer who adopts political, social, or literary positions must act only with the means that are his own—that is, the written word. All the honors he may receive expose his readers to a pressure I do not consider desirable.”

So my brain shut down and seems unable to take in more.

I then did read more about Buddhism and Existentialism as I kept thinking that this “nothingness” seemed to fit with Buddhist “emptiness” I found a great blog post were they wrote that Existentialist could be seen as depressed Buddhists.

http://zenthrowdown.blogspot.ca/2012/08/zen-buddhism-and-existentialism.html

There were other much more academic and serious papers citing all the differences between the two. I did not read them.

Suffice it to say I won’t be reading any more Sartre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Czeslaw Milosz

 

“who with uncompromising clear-sightedness voices man’s exposed condition in a world of severe conflicts” He won in 1980.

I found the book “A Captive Mind” at a second hand bookstore before I realized he was actually primarily a poet. This is a non fiction book – really a collection of essays.

I think I have set a record with this book! After reading the first chapter twice and still not having a clue what he is talking about I gave up at page 20!. I just can’t do it. Apparently the book …

“is by far the most insightful and enduring account of the attraction of intellectuals to Stalinism and, more generally, of the appeal of authority and authoritarianism to the intelligentsia.”

 

The story of the author is interesting. He was born in Lithuania in a Catholic family but grew up and lived in Poland. He lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland and through the first few years of the Russian Communist occupation of Poland. He became a cultural attaché to the US and refused to go home in 1951. He lived in France and the US and eventually became a US citizen.

The book is apparently an effort to examine why supposedly intelligent people agree to live in a totalitarian society. I did find an interesting article by a professor who teaches this book. http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2010/07/13/captive-minds-then-and-now/

He says that he finds that students these days cannot even comprehend the basic concept of the book as they cannot comprehend having their basic ideology so subsumed in another’s that is antithetical to theirs. He then goes on to cite example of where he sees that happening in modern day.

I can’t say that that is the reason I did not understand the book, I just literally did not understand what the guys was talking about. I get that he lived through a lot and has an incredible understanding of the issues but he writes in such a way as to make it inaccessible to me.

So I went to find some of his poetry. Now, this I can understand. His poetry is indeed well written. He wrote either in Polish or English but did his own translation which is likely important. This one was my favourite:

You who wronged a simple man

Bursting into laughter at the crime,

And kept a pack of fools around you

To mix good and evil, to blur the line,

 

Though everyone bowed down before you,

Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way,

Striking gold medals in your honor,

Glad to have survived another day,

 

Do not feel safe. The poet remembers.

You can kill one, but another is born.

The words are written down, the deed, the date.

 

And you’d have done better with a winter dawn,

A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.

 

I definitely get the sense this was a political choice- His Nobel speech is a commentary on poets but mostly on politics.

“It is not easy to distinguish reality from illusion, especially when one lives in a period of the great upheaval that begun a couple of centuries ago on a small western peninsula of the Euro-Asiatic continent, only to encompass the whole planet during one man’s lifetime with the uniform worship of science and technology. And it was particularly difficult to oppose multiple intellectual temptations in those areas of Europe where degenerate ideas of dominion over men, akin to the ideas of dominion over Nature, led to paroxysms of revolution and war at the expense of millions of human beings destroyed physically or spiritually. And yet perhaps our most precious acquisition is not an understanding of those ideas, which we touched in their most tangible shape, but respect and gratitude for certain things which protect people from internal disintegration and from yielding to tyranny. Precisely for that reason some ways of life, some institutions became a target for the fury of evil forces, above all, the bonds between people that exist organically, as if by themselves, sustained by family, religion, neighborhood, common heritage. In other words, all that disorderly, illogical humanity, so often branded as ridiculous because of its parochial attachments and loyalties. In many countries traditional bonds of civitas have been subject to a gradual erosion and their inhabitants become disinherited without realizing it. It is not the same, however, in those areas where suddenly, in a situation of utter peril, a protective, life-giving value of such bonds reveals itself.”

With the last three authors I feel that this period in the Nobel Prize was very much about shedding light on previously exiled and censored authors. It is not that their writing is not deserving, but there are many deserving authors and they were chose for their political meaning. I found the following article which sheds some more light on Nobel history and thinking

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/nobel-prize-misfits-are-a-literary-whos-who/article15986213/

So when will Salman Rushdie win the prize???

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Brodsky

Screen Shot 2016-03-19 at 5.17.02 PMIsaac Bashevis Singer

Won in 1978

“for his impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life”.

I really enjoyed this author.  I chose to read a book of short stories that were based on his live growing up in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw prior to the first world war. A time, place and culture that I knew very little about.  His father was the local Rabbi and often oversaw weddings, divorces and lawsuits in his home.

He writes in Yiddish and the writing is translated but he used so many Jewish sayings, terms and idioms that it seems to keep it’s character.  The fact that the stories are told from the perspective of a young boy makes it quite a sweet book.  He refers to his “red side curls” so that you can picture this little Hasidic boy who is sent to people’s homes to summon them to the Rabbi’s home

In his Nobel acceptance speech he speaks of the Yiddish language

“The high honor bestowed upon me by the Swedish Academy is also a recognition of the Yiddish language – a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government, a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews. The truth is that what the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Cabala. The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism. As such it still exists and refuses to give up in spite of all the brutality that surrounds it.”

 

“There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for two thousand years. It has been revived in our time in a most remarkable, almost miraculous way. Aramaic was certainly a dead language for centuries but then it brought to light the Zohar, a work of mysticism of sublime value. It is a fact that the classics of Yiddish literature are also the classics of the modern Hebrew literature. Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists – rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

His books are full of lovely interesting and comically flawed characters.  I found myself looking things up as he referred to marriage wigs and mezuzah’s.  I am not usually interested in books that are steeped in religion but this seems less about religion and more about a culture and a way of life.  One that I knew existed but did not realize how little I knew about it.

A final comment on this book – It was written in 1956 and he uses the word “evildoers”  – so I guess it was not a word invented by George Bush’s Canadian speechwriter!

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My second book this week was Watermark by Joseph Brodsky (another Jewish writer who ended up as an exile in the US but this time from Russia and it sounds much less willingly than Isaaac Singer).

He won in 1987 for “”for an all-embracing authorship, imbued with clarity of thought and poetic intensity”.

When I picked up the book at Green Apple in San Francisco I did not realize that he was a poet and this was his only work of prose.  In a way I am glad I read this.  I read some of his poetry online, but as it is in rhyming form and translated from Russian to English while trying to maintain the rhymes- it did not work for me.

Watermark is a series of short musings on travelling in Venice.  It is an easy and lovely read, especially if you have ever been to Venice.  He speaks a lot of  the architecture and art  and society of the city but also comments on how expensive it is.

I think trying to read this author does make me doubt how many more poets I will try to read in translation

Finally – back to Toni Morrison.  I found this podcast that was rebroadcast for Black History month on the New York Public Library site- The theme is Libraries Literacy, and Liberty -well worth a listen

http://www.nypl.org/blog/2016/02/02/podcast-toni-morrison-angela-davis