Winesburg, Ohio

May 20, 2007

winesburg.jpg Sherwood Anderson’s iWinesburg, Ohio is a “novel” that takes place entirely in a small Midwestern town during the turn of the century. Although the book is actually a collection of short stories, it is considered a novel because the stories are loosely connected by the town, and by the man, a reporter, considered the “main character.”

I love the dedication that Sherwood wrote for this book, and I think it says a lot about the content and his purpose in writing the stories-

“TO THE MEMORY OF MY MOTHER, EMMA SMITH ANDERSON, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated.”

The book has no central plot, but each story or vignette describes a character dealing with, or more accurately, struggling with some facet of life, more often than not struggling with a relationship. These are not happy stories about happy people leading happy lives. One of my favorite stories in the book, “The Untold Lie,” describes two farmhands, one long-married, and the other young and unattached, discussing the merits of marriage. The young one has gotten a girl “in trouble” and is asking his elder for advice- whether marriage is a worthwhile venture. The elder refuses to answer, but spends the rest of the afternoon considering his married life. At the last minute he races to catch his young friend, to tell him “the truth.” He catches him but his friend is no longer interested in his advice, he is marrying the girl because he loves her. As the elderly man returns home, he has pleasant memories of his life, and realizes that the advice he would have given, would have been a lie.

Anderson’s book is highly acclaimed (it is on many of the top 100 lists) and is said to have changed the course of short story writing in America. I reluctantly admit that I didn’t really enjoy it that much, although it was good enough to keep me reading. This becomes something of an anomaly for me because if I were ever to attempt to write fiction, this is likely the type of book that I would choose to write, although the content would likely be different. But I do like observing others and their lives, trying to understand what makes people tick.

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Knut Hamsen won the Nobel Prize in 1920, and his first novel, Hunger, by itself would justify the award. Hamsun writes from experience, and that clearly makes the novel extraordinarily compelling in a way that few writers have been able to accomplish throughout my reading life.
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According to the overflap of this edition, Hamsun, struggling for 10 years as a writer, went to a publisher in 1888 with this sentence and an unfinished novel-

“All this happened while I was walking about starving in Christiania- a strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him.”

It was first published in magazine form, and two years later the novel was published.

Hunger is about a young struggling writer, living on the erratic and insubstantial income he receives from the occassional publication of articles in the local newspaper. The hero rarely complains, but describes his own decline in all its detail. His ever present hunger, his ongoing starvation, is almost like another character in the novel that moves along what becomes a psychological page-turner. Hamsun wastes no time and sets the mood in the first pages- “As soon as I was wide awake, I took to thinking, as I always did, if I had anything to be cheerful about today.”

Most of us have at some time described ourselves as “hungry.” It is difficult to imagine the horror of real hunger-

“Nothing to do, I was dying with open eyes, helpless,staring up at the ceiling. Finally, I put a forefinger in my mouth and started sucking on it. Something started to flicker in my brain, an idea that had gotten free there, a lunatic notion. Suppose I took a bite? Without a moments hesitation I shut my eyes and clamped down hard with my teeth.

I leaped up. Finally I was awake. A little blood trickled from the finger, and I licked it off. There wasn’t much pain, the wound didn’t amount to anything, but I was suddenly myself again. I shook my head, walked to the window, and found a rag for my finger. While I stood puttering about with that, my eyes suddenly filled, I cried softly to myself. The poor bitten thin finger looked so pitiful. My God, I was a long way down.”

Those are many low moments. But then there are successes. An article is published and a substantial meal is purchased, a room is had for the day, and a candle- to write into the evening. The determination to survive as a writer is always there. There is pride, honorability, friendship, joy, and a brief flirting with love. And always, the hunger returns.

I have no doubt that Hunger is and will remain firmly entrenched on my top 10 list.

On a side note, I finished this as I was sitting on my deck- it is finally getting warm enough in Michigan to spend time outside. I love reading outside. I usually keep my camera around just in case something interesting wanders into the yard. As I was reading Hunger, it occurred to me that for the most part, it is humans- those with the greatest capacity for intelligence, that struggle the most with starvation. How odd. I watched throughout the evening and caught a number of lifeforms foraging in the yard. I realize that on occassion, usually due to the intervention of man, that other animals can starve too. But isn’t it odd that there are so many humans that have to? Foraging in the yard.

Nada

April 30, 2007

Nada is the first novel of Carmen Laforet, 23 at the time of publication. It was published in Spain in 1944, a few years after the Spanish civil war that left the city of Barcelona in shambles. It is not a political novel however, but a novel of humanity- humanity living on the margins.
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Nada is the story of an adolescent, Andrea, who arrives in Barcelona to live with family that she doesn’t know, hoping to continue her studies in the city. Carmen’s prose is incredible, and as always, Edith Grossman’s translation is impeccable. Andrea arrives in Barcelona-

“I began to follow – a drop in the current – the human mass that, loaded down with suitcases, was hurrying toward the exit. My luggage consisted of a large bag, extremely heavy because it was packed full of books, which I carried myself with all the strength of my youth and eager anticipation.”

The novel is written in the first person, although not what I would consider diary form. The book evokes truth to the point that it seems autobiographical, although it is strictly a novel. Andrea’s family is quite, well, crazy. They live in idleness and squalor. They endure hunger and violence. The atmosphere in their home is clouded with distrust, and there appears to be no escape for anyone. Andrea succinctly describes her loneliness-

“Life became solitary for me again. Since it seemed to be something that couldn’t be helped, I accepted it with resignation. That was when I began to realize that it is much easier to endure great setbacks than everyday petty annoyances.”

One finds oneself cheering for Andrea’s survival, for her escape. The family seems hopeless, but Andrea is hope for the future. From the mind of a twenty-three year old author through the thoughts of an 18 year Andrea, come these words-

“I thought, It’s useless to race if we always have to travel the same incomprehensible road of our personality. Some creatures were both to live, others to work, others to watch life. I had a small, miserable role as spectator. Impossible to get out of it. Impossible to free myself. A dreadful grief was the only reality for me then.”

Nada is quite worthy of your attention.

Flaubert’s Masterpiece

April 26, 2007

Madame Bovary is likely the best known of Flaubert’s works, but Bouvard and Pecuchet is considered by many who have read both, to be the better novel. Although I always approach unfinished novels with a little trepidation, the book’s description was intriguing so I took the chance. No regrets- it is the better novel.
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Bouvard and Pecuchet are middle aged copy clerks who are thrown together by circumstances, and after discovering a common habit they quickly become friends and coconspirators in a life of leisure, learning, and what appears to be consistent failure. An inheritance funds their lifestyle, but it is their curiosity that drives their pursuit of knowledge.

The friends first embrace farming, and fail. They stumble through fields including philosophy, medicine, politics, education, and literature. They read continuously. They experiment. They discuss and debate. They stumble through one misadventure after another. They do have successes, but that only pushes them further until they fail, even in love.

At first, the novel appears to progress as a comedy of errors. But although Bouvard and Pecuchet appear to be fools, they are not, and there is much that we can learn from them, as Flaubert intended.

The new translation from Mark Polizzotti includes chapter outlines and fragments for additional chapters that were never completed. The novel is followed by Flaubert’s charming Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas. A poorer translation of the Dictionary is available here.

I completed The Curtain this weekend, as well as Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert, which I will write about later. The Curtain was not only entertaining, but thought-provoking, and has sent me in search of his earlier book, The Art of the Novel.

Kundera writes about the novelist, and primarily the novel and its history, expanding at times to include the arts in general. His framework for the discussions include aspects of the context of the novel- within the history of a small nation as opposed to its place in world literature- (would the world even know of Kafka if he had written in the Czech language?).

When discussing the novelist, Kundera points to Cervantes as the example of the true novelist. In the paragraph which led to the title of the book, he writes-

“A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes send Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.”

Kundera uses much of the world’s best literature to make his points. He does not see the novel as entertainment, but as a vehicle for the author to reveal not only an aspect of the world to the reader, but to reveal the reader to himself. He makes me want to read some of those books that I’ve avoided because they appear daunting. (Musil’s The Man Without Qualities for example. Kundera makes me want to reread those masterpieces that I have already read.

I love the way the book ends (I don’t think this will ruin it for anyone- it’s not that type of book)

“In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.
For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal.”

The Weekend Today show just had a segment on the upcoming auction of the controversial Rice portrait of Jane Austen.
austen.jpg The controversy centers around whether or not the portrait is actually a portrait of Jane. There is some question regarding some features of dress as well as the hairstyle, although the auction house, Christie’s, is convinced of the authenticity. Either way, the portrait would make a nice edition to your library. The controversy appears to have impacted the cost, and it is expected to sell on Thursday the 19th for as little as $400,000 to $800,000.

The Today story featured the Jane Austen society and the interviews included a replica of Stefanie’s Jane Austen action figure.

kokoro.jpgKokoro was written in 1919 by Natsume Soseki during the Meiji period of Japanese history. It is a novel that is delivered as three distinct but related stories, tied together by the life of the narrator. The first story, “Sensei and I” introduces us to the primary characters, the narrator and the Sensei, a man living a life in solitude, for reasons unknown. (The translator points out that English does not have an adequate word for “Sensei”, the closet being “teacher.”) The second returns the narrator to the home of his parents, where he questions his life and future in the light of his father’s mortality. The third story deals is the testament of the Sensei, describing the events leading to his chosen life of solitude.

This is quite simply, an outstanding book. It deals with questions of love, friendship, and responsibility. The plot is minimal, but the lives of the characters are rich. The Sensei’s reasoning for writing the account of his life provides, I believe, one of the primary purposes for Soseki’s novel-

…”I did not write this merely to pass the time away. My own past, which made me what I am, is a part of human experience. Only I can tell it. I do not think my effort to do so honestly has been entirely purposeless. If my story helps you and others to even understand a part of what we are, I shall be satisfied.”