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Book 83: Rhodesia (English) – The Grass is Singing (Doris LESSING)

She realized, suddenly, standing there, that all those years she had lived in that house, with the acres of bush all around her, and she had never penetrated into the trees, had never gone off the paths. And for all those years she had listened wearily, through the hot dry months, with her nerves prickling, to that terrible shrilling, and had never seen the beetles who made it. Lifting her eyes she saw she was standing in the full sun, that seemed so low she could reach up a hand and pluck it out of the sky: a big red sun, sullen with smoke, like a shining plow disc or a polished plate, ready for plucking. She reached up her hand; it brushed against a cluster of leaves, and something whirred away. With a little moan of horror she ran through the bushes and the grass, away back to the clearing. There she stood still, clutching at her throat.

 

Nobel laureate (2007). Doris Lessing is an amazing writer. The breadth of her writing genres is breathtaking. She was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which qualifies her to represent that defunct country, whose racisim would have been anathema to her, and later lived in Britain. Apart from needing to give Rhodesia some representation, as one of the countries that has existed during my lifetime, Lessing is simply too important to ignore, although modern Zimbabwe is so different that I wanted to choose a ‘Black’ writer to represent it (hence, ‘Bones’ by Chenjerai Hove).
This, her first novel, is a murder mystery which begins and ends with the crime, while all the rest of the book fleshes out what caused the killing. The victim, Mary, is a city girl who should never have left her satisfactory urban life but (due to the needling of her contemporaries) marries an eternally struggling farmer, Dick Turner, who seems congenitally immune to success, and she buries herself on his isolated farm. So isolated are they that she does not even know about the war. The (distant) neighbours despise these ‘poor whites’, who in turn hold themselves aloof from them. Dick treats his land a bit better than the other rapacious ‘Whites’, likewise his ‘Black’ labour force (although partly because of the difficulty of acquiring and holding onto them). But Mary becomes an ever more virulent racist – yet we can understand (although not sympathise) because we have seen how she has come to be this way. Despite this, she is drawn into a highly charged relationship with her final male servant (having driven off a string of predecessors), Moses, who she had once abused.
Mary’s mental disintegration stands as a symbol for the inevitable breakdown of the racist Rhodesian regime. Lessing masterfully describes her boring life, yet I couldn’t keep from eagerly turning the pages. I would definitely say this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

 

LESSING, Doris (1919 -2013 ), The Grass is Singing, New York, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN 9780061673740

Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)

I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.

[my translation]

On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.

 

MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.

 

 

Book 58: Australia (English) – Voss (Patrick WHITE)

Time to pop in at home on the way to my next exotic destination!
If you asked many Australians who is their country’s best writer, or especially their favourite one, I doubt if many of them would say Patrick White. In fact not so many of them have read him; he has a reputation for being difficult, and there are so many other great Australian writers, who are easier to read to boot! (It seems like Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is the default choice for Australia). But I felt the compulsion to give him a go, and now was my chance.
This classic by Australia’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner is a fictionalised account of the last journey of Ludwig Leichhardt, who mysteriously died on his last audacious expedition trying to cross the continent from east to west. It seems to be a close portrait from what we know; White’s Voss (despite his Norwegian-sounding name) is, like Leichhardt, also a German, a loner, more comfortable in the bush than in society, a good bushman but an equivocal leader (as shown by a mutiny), who tried to maintain good relations with the Aborigines (two of whom travelled with him, and from whose skills he undoubtedly profited).

He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.

The back story of Voss is his unrequited romance-by-letter with a young Sydney girl, despite his cruelty to her (not least in deserting her for his doomed expedition):
With rough persistence he accused her of the superficiality which she herself suspected. At times she could hear her own voice. She was also afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers. But this fear, like certain dreams, was something to which she would never have admitted.
I did enjoy Voss, which was a great psychological study of a loner who flees society and a loner who stays at home, and the surprising, tenuous but strong bond between them.
Time to finally get around to reading Cloudstreet!

 

WHITE, Patrick (1912-1990), Voss, Sydney, Vintage, 2012, ISBN 978 1 74275 688 2
(first published 1957)

 

Book 39: Poland (English) – Quo Vadis (Henryk SIENKIEWICZ)

                Light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could reach. The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and inflamed at once by the glare took on the colour of heated brass. It seemed to look with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing. In the rose-coloured abysses of heaven rose-coloured stars were glittering; but in distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens. Rome, like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania. In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples, mountains, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people, who had gathered there for safety or to gaze at the burning.

 

I found it surprisingly hard to decide what to read for Poland! Finally I defaulted to Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), who justly won the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. Quo Vadis (Latin for ‘Where are you going?’) is his best-known work, except perhaps in Poland itself, where his trilogy on 17th Century Polish history, With Fire and Sword, is more famous.

Now normally I try to choose a novel which will teach me as much as possible about the country it represents here. This majestic tale of the Roman Empire under the emperor Nero (in the first few years of the Christian Era) might seem to have nothing to say about Poland, which didn’t even exist at the time (and was one part of Europe which the Empire never reached), but you can see the persecution of the early Christians as a symbol of the suffering of this most Catholic of countries under the boots of its surrounding empires. Like the Christians under the Roman Empire, the Poles have had to fight long and hard to maintain their distinct culture, language and religion under constant occupation (or threat) by their neighbours, and have miraculously succeeded.

The main characters are the true-life novelist and courtesan (and finally victim) of Nero, Petronius, who seems able to control him for a time; the mad mercurial emperor himself who is infamous for having set his city alight and blaming the Christians for his crime; and the fictional young lovers Lygia and soldier Marcus Vinicius – she converts him to Christianity. If you know anything about Roman or early Christian history you know that this is not going to end well…

You get a fine feeling for the precariousness of life lived under a dictatorship (or even democracy?) under the whims of a demented despot, even for those close to the source of power. Perhaps not so irrelevent to our times after all? What a pity that this great, majestic work isn’t read enough any more.

 

SIENKIEWICZ, Henryk (1846 – 1916), Quo Vadis: a tale of the time of Nero, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, Mineola NY, Dover, 2011, ISBN 978-0-486-47686-5 (originally published in Polish 1896)

Book 27: South Africa (English) – Disgrace (J.M. COETZEE)

A lecturer (lecher?) commits an ethical crime at his university and is sanctioned by it. He is, we assume, a White, although I don’t think this is ever spelled out. He refuses to admit his guilt but ‘goes into laager’ (as a South African would say), staying on his daughter’s isolated farm where she lives a rather idealistic 1960’s-ish lifestyle (VW Kombi included). While she looks after him, they no longer see eye to eye. She seems to see supine acceptance and resignation as the only way to survive in the new South Africa where Blacks have the power, at least partly as penance for the apartheid that was inflicted on them, and despite her terrible suffering seems more likely to get along in the new world than her fossil father.
“’Aren’t you nervous by yourself?’
Lucy shrugs. ‘There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. Anyhow, if there were to be a break-in, I don’t see that two people would be better than one.’
‘That’s very philosophical.’
‘Yes. When all else fails, philosophise.’”
There are two parts to the story. In the first, set in the city, he is in his own world and in control (or so he thinks). In the second, out on the farm, everything is out of his control, the Blacks are taking over, and he is incapable of understanding them. His daughter, on the other hand, is full of forbearance and fortitude, and can adapt to the changing circumstances (which isn’t to say that she isn’t traumatised by them).
The characters brilliantly symbolise the changing face of this fraught land. This is a simply written but insightful novel by a truly great writer.

 

COETZEE, J. M. (1940 – ), Disgrace, London, Vintage, 2008 (originally published 1999), ISBN 978-0-099-52683-4