Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reading Update: these books are odd

I thought I’d update my progress on adding purple highlighting to my page of all Nobel laureates of literature.

Books I’m currently reading (note: I like to read many books at once, some very quickly and some dragging on for months, even years):

1. Elias Canetti, Auto-da-fé

2. Anatole France, Penguin Island

3. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems

Books which I’ve obtained and plan on reading:

1. Selma Lagerlöf, Gösta Berling’s Saga

2. Czeslaw Milosz, Selected Poems (which I read half of a while ago, but didn’t finish)

3. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

4. Heinrich Böll, The Bread of Those Early Years

5. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book

For some of these books, I plan to write reviews here in this blog (the proper review-like blurbs with the numbering) and, for the rest, I’ll just discuss them in these little reading updates and/or post something on my LibraryThing.

Reading Penguin Island (this book is odd!):

Penguin Island is historical satire based on the premise that a nearsighted and fatigued abbot accidentally baptized penguins, believing them to be men. To rectify this mistake and to bring it into accord with established religion, theology, etc., the Lord changed the penguins into humans and they founded a nation on Penguin Island.

The way that Anatole France pokes fun of historical events is hilarious. There is one particular escapade that amuses me to no end. There is told a story of a monk called Marbodius who makes a descent into hell, exactly as Dante did in the Divine Comedy – I even had déjà vu from reading it – and meets Virgil, whom he, like Dante, admired greatly. After conversing together for a bit, Virgil tells Marbodius of another person who had come to visit him. After making fun of Dante’s vulgar Italian and the rhythm in his poetry, Virgil goes on to say:

“The thing is monstrous and scarcely credible, but when this man returned to earth he disseminated the most odious lies about me. He affirmed in several passages of his barbarous poems that I had served him as a guide in the modern Tartarus, a place I know nothing of. He insolently proclaimed that I had spoken of the gods of Rome as false and lying gods, and that I held as the true God the present successor of Jupiter. Friend, when thou art restored to the kindly light of day and beholdest again thy native land, contradict those abominable falsehoods.”

So ... ha! Take that Dante! I never liked Dante simply because I found all my favourite people in his version of hell – okay, seriously, perhaps it’s reasonable for Ulysses to be in some form of hell, since it is where all the other Greek heroes are, but why is he in such a deep pit of hell? Any closer and he’d be with Brutus, Cassius and Judas in the very center of hell. And the crime that he’s accused of is being a “false counsellor” and that’s just ludicrous! Yes, he came up with the Trojan horse and thus the noble city of Troy was sacked, Priam killed, Hector’s baby son thrown from the city walls, the Trojan women enslaved and the great city burned. Boohoo. But, see here, he was on the other side, the Achaian side, the Greek side, Homer’s side! So he was a good and true counsellor to his leader and his troops. He can’t help it if all of posterity favours the Trojans.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

9: Suite Francaise

Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française

There’s something funny about animals in books. Some authors just mention random pets haphazardly, to be sure, but I’ve read a lot of books where the mention of the animal reoccurs and is symbolic of the main characters in some way. For example, there’s the admirable example of Chanticleer and his two wives, from The House of the Seven Gables. The Pyncheons, having drooped from their prosperous status of previous generations, keep only a remnant of their prized chickens, locally renowned for their size and princely deportment. Of these remaining chickens, Chanticleer is the rooster, thin and gouty, but he, nevertheless, retains the proud strut of his ancestors and does various human things, like telling off Hepzibah in loud shrieks for taking the egg that the usually barren hen laid to make an omelette. I personally think the name “Chanticleer” just about says it all.

In Suite Française, there is likewise a cat. In the first part of Suite Française, Némirovsky describes the exodus of Parisian, all abandoning Paris in the wake of German air strikes of WWII. Several different groups of people are followed by the story. There’s the writer Corte and Florence, his mistress, the Michauds, the Péricands, and Charles Langelet. The cat belongs to the Péricands, an upper middle-class family. He is introduced almost as soon as we meet the Péricands as follows: “A cat held a little piece of bony fish tentatively between its sharp teeth. He was afraid to swallow it, but he couldn’t bring himself to spit it out either”. Immediately, we know that it’s not just about the cat; all of Paris is afraid to stay in the comforts of their homes, but couldn’t quite bring themselves to leave it either.

The adventures of the cat are followed. As Mme Péricand packs up her family – the baby, Jacqueline the little daughter, Hubert the clumsy teenage son, the rich, ailing, fussy father-in-law constantly threatening to leave his fortune to a charity that is most notable to Mme Péricand for not being herself and her husband – the cat is also remarked to be captured and stuffed into a travelling basket. While staying in makeshift lodging along the way to their place of refuge, the cat is noticed to have snuck away in the night, for some country fresh air and mice, by the little girl crying “Albert’s run away!” and “I want Albert! Find Albert for me! The Germans will take him! He’ll be bombed, stolen, killed! Albert! Albert! Albert!” It’s summarizes the entire outpouring of people from Paris with all the usual customs of civility completely abandoned and fear of the incoming invaders, doesn’t it? (Nope, no sarcasm. Seriously, it really does make you think of the panic of fleeing one’s home.)

Not to worry, just like the family being scuttled to and fro, the cat is fine and continued to be dragged along with his family; Némirovsky is very careful to give updates about the state of the cat. She has a later chapter devoted to Albert exploring the French village at night (but back in Jacqueline’s bed before morning, we are assured) and a line in the Péricands’ hasty departure from the village under air raid attacks which details that Jacqueline had managed to pack the cat, even as surprised as they had been, and towed him along in his basket.

This little attention to Albert the cat is part of why this book is so good! It covers great breadth in that it follows a great number of threads (just like the other book I love), but each with attention to detail and insightful observations, sometimes expressed through description of peripheral things. Like the cat.

The second part of the book, Dolce, is very aptly named. It is about a little French village, called Bussy, during the German occupation. A French woman falls gently and subtly in love with the German officer lodging in her absent husband’s house. The love story is told through events like shy evenings by the piano (the German, who is almost always referred to as just that “the German”, is a musician) and a passionate conversation as overheard by a little girl, often distracted and not catching every word. She’s pretty, her husband keeps a mistress in a separate household, and he is wide-eyed and handsome. “The officer smiled. ‘They think you’re Judith going to murder Holofernes in his tent.’” This is said as the pair walk along a street while on an errand to retrieve some items belonging to a family who had abandoned their house. It’s altogether ... beautifully written , subtle and lovely.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What to read next?

You, dear reader, are treated, see above, to a generous sample of my handwriting. And now you know why, as I read the second Mrs. de Winter's description of Rebecca's neat slanty handwriting, I sympathized more with Rebecca than with the narrator. Why this dubious treat? That question will be answered at the very end of this post.

What to read next? That is the question. It comes upon me frequently in many a midnight dreary and often sets me on the kind of restless mood that set Ishmael off to sea. What to read next?

I'm not an expert in literature; I don't study literary analysis nor do I, strictly speaking, analyze the books that I read. Nope, I'm a simple bookworm who always want to read more. However, not all books were created equal and, like any other reader, I enjoy some books more than I do others. I'm sure that when I was very young, I didn't have literary taste and eagerly pounced on every book that was handed to me or recommended to me, but such a time has long passed. Though I used to be naive and a great believer in the ability of young people to change, I now think that people may take some time to develop into who they become, but that process must eventually end, after which we just "know" who we are and spend some time adjusting to being comfortable in our own skins and living in this world, and then we must face a whole new younger generation, which we will see as worse than ourselves in all possible ways, whose ways we will not be able to adapt to - the wiring of our brains having been set in stone - and spend the rest of our old age reeling against a world which we no longer feel ourselves to be apart of, which we then scoff at with scorn or, if we are very nice, treat with indulgence, affable but distant and removed. But still, however far I am from being crotchety and set in my own ways, I still have preferences.

... but what are these fabled literary preferences of mine?
I don't know.

I generally like classics but I really loathe Jane Eyre. A lot. One of my very intellectual acquaintances commented that he didn't like Harry Potter because of its simplistic philosophy. I love the Harry Potter series for the rich imagination therein and very adorable writing. One doesn't read Harry Potter to understand its philosophy; no, one had better stick to Fear and Loathing or Thus Spake Zarathustra for that. But I really didn't like People of the Book for precisely that reason - it was too simplistic in everything. I usually avoid overly popular books and bestsellers because their prominence somehow makes me associate them with other prominent books that I have disliked. But Suite Francaise was on many "must-read" lists and it is now one of my favourite books.

I like reading books that have been seasoned by knowledge of many centuries of previous books; I'm reading Moby Dick now and I like the passage when Ishmael is comparing the counterbalancing of a sperm whale's head with that of a right whale with the counterbalancing the head of Locke with the head of Kant. So, perhaps it stands to reason that, conversely, I probably wouldn't like early literature. This is, however, very wrong because I love early literature - I think the Iliad is perfect! (It begins with the wrath of Achilles and ends with the funeral of Hector. Such a feeling of an odd kind of symmetry! And just so perfect! And it reads well! I could just read it again and again and never get tired of it! I remember one line which Paris says to Hector when scolded for lying about with Helen and polishing armour that he never uses while other men die for him: "Never to be cast away are the gifts of the gods, magnificent, which they give of their own will, no man could have them for wanting them." And the similes are so poignant - "As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple \\ colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses \\ [...] \\ so, Menelaos, your shapely thighs were stained with the colour \\ of blood, and your legs also and the ankles beneath them." when Menelaos was shot by Laodokos. And isn't it odd that the Iliad is written entirely in third-person narrative, except for this one line, where the blind bard Homer is clearly addressing Menelaos ("your shapely thighs"), the wronged man coming to fight for his and his honour? And correspondingly, in the Odyssey, there is just one or two spots where some character is addressed directly by the third-person omniscient narrator, the bard himself. In that book it is Eumaeus, the swineherd who remained loyal to his absent master Odysseus through the long passage of time and much injustice/heartbreak, to find his master come home again. I think it is no accident and those two characters, Menelaos and Eumaeus, embody something of the spirit of their respective works. But, okay, enough babbling about Homer.)

Anyways, there doesn't seem to be a general rule as to why I do or do not like books, or if there is, I haven't read enough books to be able to state exactly what it is. Which is why the hunt for the next book that will blow my mind is slow, drudging work. Having watched a very uplifting movie, Julie & Julia, and hence am inspired to make some short term goals ... here goes!

When: now until end of October (approx. 2 months in duration)
Who: me!
What: will read one representative book from as many Nobel literature laureates as will make the piece of paper in the picture at top of this post, on which I've copied the names and year of each laureate and highlighted in purple the ones of whose work I've read at least one book, mostly purple. At least more purple than white.

Frequent (well, hopefully frequent anyway) updates of the little piece of paper will be posted.

By the way, I welcome recommendations of particular books as long as you tell me why.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

8: Soul Mountain

Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain

Gao Xingjian (Gao is his surname) is a Chinese-French writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. He grew up in China during a period called the Cultural Revolution, which had a lasting impression on him. Due to his plays, he has since emigrated to France and been declared a persona non grata in China. Soul Mountain is one of his major works.

How to introduce such a book? What kind of book is it? What is it about? These are hard questions which I will try to answer. In any case, this is an extraordinary book and is somewhat of a faithful portrait of facets of Chinese culture. Gao Xingjian took a long journey into rural China. The narrator of this book is journeying, autobiographically, in search of a place called “Soul Mountain” which, due to its isolation and the lack of easy transportation, takes on a mystical aspect befitting its name. He traces a journey to the outskirts of Han (Mandarin) civilization, into panda reserves, temples, and the lands of Qiang and Yi ethnic minorities, which are seldom visited by outsiders.

Storytelling runs deep in Chinese culture. When the narrator of Soul Mountain visits with a friend that he hadn’t seen in a long time, they stay up all night talking and their talk eventually strays to histories and legends. The narrator under the guise of “you” (in sections written in the 2nd person narrative) tells many wondrous stories of questionable veracity involving the places around him – an abandoned temple, ruins of what appears to be a great house, an old theatre – to his lady friend. This casual storytelling as a normal form of conversation seems familiar to me because I notice that whenever my dad is with his old friends, their inevitably converges on some historical anecdotes and myths. One person would say, “wasn’t it so-and-so who became emperor after this or that emperor?” and the talkers would then try to trace the threads of history. Chinese history is, after all, so very long and rich. Further, there are little anecdotes that the inhabitants of some little village may know, but not everyone else for it is not found in books that anyone but a serious historian would read but relates to the locals in some way. For example, my dad tells a story of a friend of his whose surname is “Zhu”, an uncommon surname. This friend always claimed that he was descended from the House of Zhu, who had been dethroned and driven from the capital to hide, according to some local legend, in a mountain – the same mountain where my dad’s friend’s family hailed from. Thus history lives on in tall tales and like ilk.

Another reflection that is apparent in this book is the presence of the Cultural Revolution. It is a period of time that I don’t understand well, but I do understand what it meant, beneath the politics, to the common citizen. There was a movement which reviled Western things and old things, in an effort to build a new China. Almost every young person had to go to rural farm and work alongside the farmers – schools and universities were closed for some years. Many of the intelligentsia suffered much persecution during this time, under the branding of “Western thinking” and “Old Things”. This led to a new breed of literature, called scar literature, written by these self-same intelligentsia, having survived the horrible times. These works are clever, poignant, dotted with anecdotes of acute suffering and enveloped in a seasoned and resigned bitterness. I suppose Soul Mountain is somewhat related to a brand of scar literature, perhaps a wayward cousin, several times removed.

The reason why the narrator and Gao Xingjian took these journeys is ostensibly to avoid being set to correctional labour camps due to their political opinions. He relays to the reader many stories of unhappy people persecuted during the Culture Revolution – a poor girl who wrote something in a diary which condemned her to life in prison, for example. This tastes strongly of scar literature. However, it is different because those stories are a part of the overall web of stories, not the focus, and the overall web is a story of one man’s journey within his own past and his own stories, mingled with the mystical places that he frequents.

No ill effects of the exile to the country side nor any lasting bitterness on the narrator’s part is actually described. In fact, it was probably due to this exile that Gao Xingjian was introduced to the ways of the ethnic minorities that he sounds fond of in his description. Most people I know who lived through the farm labour days in fact remember them quite fondly. My dad’s best stories from his youth always start with “when I was with the farmers” and continue with “I had a friend, a Yi friend, who told me ...” or “I went bear hunting with a friend who lost an ear during a previous bear hunting expedition”, etc. My friend’s mother has very happy memories of herding cows and accidentally making one fall over in a stream, whereupon she was sheepish from being laughed at by the supervising farmer. Soul Mountain has many traces of contact with parts of China without skyscraper or pollution or advanced technology, which are still steeped in shaman’s tales and mystical superstitions. It doesn’t really fit into any partitioning of literature that I know of, which makes up some of its charm – I can’t characterize what kind of book this is, I can only tell you similar stories and try to show you how it lies close to my heart and hope that you get the gist of it.