Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Our luck may fail; our powers forsake us; our place on the boards be taken by better and younger mimes — the chance of life roll away and leave us shattered and stranded. Then men will walk across the road when they meet you — or, worse still, hold you out a couple of fingers and patronize you in a pitying way — then you will know, as soon as your back is turned, that your friend begins with a ‘Poor Devil, what imprudences he has committed, what chances that chap has thrown away!’ Well, well — a carriage and three thousand a year is not the summit of the reward nor the end of God’s judgment of men. If quacks prosper as often as they go to the wall — if zanies succeed and knaves arrive at fortune, and vice versa, sharing ill-luck and prosperity for all the world like the ablest and most honest amongst us — I say, brother, the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account.

"Vanity Fair" by William Makepeace ThackerayThis quote has always seemed to me to be the heart of Vanity Fair, although it quivers with a sympathy — a sense of gentleness and mercy — that the sour Thackeray can’t quite summon for the characters he creates.

They are, for the most part, zanies and knaves or men and women of substance corrupted by their vanities. There is only one character Thackeray would likely describe as “ablest and most honest” — William Dobbin — and even Dobbin Thackeray mocks for pursuing and finally marrying a woman who Dobbin knows is not equal to and does not deserve his love.

The phrase “our place on the boards … taken by better and younger mimes” nods at one of Thackeray’s principal conceits in Vanity Fair: that his characters are “puppets” and he is the “Manager of the Performance”. But I also think the phrase gestures at something more profound, that Thackeray thinks we are all puppets, too, hack players in a foolish play.

“Well, well,” as Thackeray said. Maybe. But the vitality Thackeray invests in this nearly 800-page novel argues differently. And his opinion that “the gifts and pleasures of Vanity Fair cannot be held of any great account” perhaps suggests there are other gifts that are of “great account”. What these gifts might be, however, Thackeray doesn’t say.

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Bronte Wuthering HeightsHalloween is an excellent time to read a scary book, but you don’t have to read dreadful trash written by semi-literate hacks – although honestly, that can be pretty fun too.

So I’ve chosen my favorite works of “horror” from famous writers for this personal “best of” list, and treated each to my 100 Word Review format. Hope you find something in here you like!

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847). Heathcliff and Cathy’s fierce love survives betrayal and lives on beyond death in this superb novel. Wuthering Heights tests the reader’s patience through its long middle section, but rewards this patience in the end, when Heathcliff either embraces an ecstatic vision or succumbs to insanity.

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian (1985). Sam Peckinpah meets the Old Testament in this nightmare Western by the author of No Country for Old Men. Although the story follows a young boy through the Indian wars of the 1850s, its central figure is “the judge,” who seems to be neither man, demon, nor god, but the embodiment of the endless violence fixed deep in the human soul.

Henry James: The Turn of The Screw (1898). A country house, two small children, a young governess, and the appearance of menacing apparitions. You’ve seen this set-up before. But James is a master storyteller, and the ambiguity at the center of his tale – whether the children are haunted by the ghosts of former servants or by their governess’ furious delusions – make this work particularly effective and frightening.

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897). Stoker’s novel makes the list because it’s a vampire novel actually worth reading. Dracula is a predator, not a seducer, and Stoker’s work surprises by resembling a detective novel as much as it does a horror story.

William Shakespeare: MacBeth (1606). An obvious choice, but it bears repeating that a play featuring regicide (among other murders), witches, ghosts, sleepwalking, suicide, a severed head, and blood everywhere and continuous, is a good choice for Halloween.

Nikolai Gogol: The Nose (1836). In this Russian short story, a minor civil servant wakes up one morning to discover his nose has been replaced by blank skin as flat as a “freshly cooked pancake”. The missing nose is an embarrassment, an inconvenience, an annoyance, a source of curiosity or indifference, but never the cause of wonder or fear. Similar in many ways to The Metamorphosis, Gogol wrote this story nearly 80 years before the appearance of Kafka’s famous beetle.

Shirley Jackson: The Lottery (1948). Jackson’s much-anthologized short story packs a wallop with its renowned gimmick ending. Whether it’s anything more than Children of the Corn for the Proust set is another matter.

Matthew Lewis The MonkMatthew Gregory Lewis: The Monk (1796). For lurid trash with a pedigree, it’s hard to beat The Monk. The novel tells the story of a pious Capuchin who succumbs to lust and features black magic, rape, incest, torture, murder, and behind it all, the machinations of the Devil himself. The Monk is one of the key novels of the Gothic genre. It is also an urtext for the mass-market bestseller, in which a book that lacks coherent plot, internal logic, human insight, or a glimmer of writerly craft can become wildly popular by sheer force of sensationalism.

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I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s masterpiece is frightening story of abuse, a Gogolish road-trip through post-war America, a funhouse of unreliable mirrors, and a tale of selfish vice vanquished (but not excused) by love. After Humbert Humbert destroys his doppelgänger in the fairy-tale mansion on Grimm Road, he and Nabokov make a furious last dash to preserve Dolores Haze from time and death. They succeed.


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image of the nobel prize medalWhen Mo Yan of China was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature today, thousands of reasonably well-read people around the world (including me) asked themselves the following question. “Who?”

So as a public service, I am pleased to present the “Winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature” quiz!

There are two ways to play this game: Quick and Super Extra Special. For the Quick game, simply read though the list of the 50 most recent winners below and mark a tick on a piece of scrap paper every time you don’t recognize a name. At the end, count them up.

For the Super Extra Special game, print out the list below and mark one of the following four words next to each name.

1. Yes. You believe the writer deserved to win the Nobel Prize.

2. Okay. You believe it was not unreasonable for the writer to win the Nobel Prize.

3. Huh? You have no idea why the writer won the Nobel Prize.

4. Who? You have no idea who the writer is.

Award yourself 1 point for each Yes, Okay, or Huh? you mark. Subtract 1 point for every Who? you mark.

Subtract an additional 1 point (for a total of 2 points) for every Who? you mark next to a winner who wrote in English. These writers are indicated with asterisks.

However, award yourself 3 bonus points each (for a possible total of 9 points) if you want to insist that Beckett wrote in French or Singer in Yiddish or Brodsky in Russian. No cheating!

You win if you achieve a positive score. I scored minus 8 points on the Super Extra Special quiz and I’m not feeling very good about myself. I hope you do better.

2012 – Mo Yan

2011 – Tomas Tranströmer

2010 – Mario Vargas Llosa

2009 – Herta Müller

2008 – Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

2007 – Doris Lessing ***

2006 – Orhan Pamuk

2005 – Harold Pinter ***

2004 – Elfriede Jelinek

2003 – J. M. Coetzee ***

2002 – Imre Kertész

2001 – V. S. Naipaul ***

2000 – Gao Xingjian

1999 – Günter Grass

1998 – José Saramago

1997 – Dario Fo

1996 – Wislawa Szymborska

1995 – Seamus Heaney ***

1994 – Kenzaburo Oe

1993 – Toni Morrison ***

1992 – Derek Walcott ***

1991 – Nadine Gordimer ***

1990 – Octavio Paz

1989 – Camilo José Cela

1988 – Naguib Mahfouz

1987 – Joseph Brodsky ***

1986 – Wole Soyinka

1985 – Claude Simon

1984 – Jaroslav Seifert

1983 – William Golding ***

1982 – Gabriel García Márquez

1981 – Elias Canetti

1980 – Czeslaw Milosz

1979 – Odysseus Elytis

1978 – Isaac Bashevis Singer ***

1977 – Vicente Aleixandre

1976 – Saul Bellow ***

1975 – Eugenio Montale

1974 – Eyvind Johnson, Harry Martinson

1973 – Patrick White ***

1972 – Heinrich Böll

1971 – Pablo Neruda

1970 – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

1969 – Samuel Beckett ***

1968 – Yasunari Kawabata

1967 – Miguel Angel Asturias

1966 – Shmuel Agnon, Nelly Sachs

1965 – Mikhail Sholokhov

1964 – Jean-Paul Sartre

1963 – Giorgos Seferis

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert - Penguin editionEmma Bovary should have stayed on the farm.

Instead, she marries an oafish health officer and rises into the middle class of a country town, where she finds boredom, loneliness, empty promises from romance novels and religion, and fury at the cages in which 19th-century France placed women.

Flaubert’s universe is barren of virtue. There is no tenderness or compassion, no understanding or true friendship, no curiosity or wonder in Madame Bovary. No love either, despite all the talking of it.

Everyone is crass and venal, foolish, pompous, scheming and self-serving, craven, dastardly. Words fail the characters – even Flaubert’s words. The novel’s people are surrounded by his exquisite descriptions of wedding revelry, bustling towns, the beauty of nature, but Flaubert’s words make no impression and bring no consolation.

All anyone sees in Emma Bovary is her beauty, her clothes, and her body. So perhaps it makes sense that when Emma tries to solve the problem of her life – a problem she feels but can’t articulate – she turns to sex and shopping. They lead her to misery and destruction, of course.

I don’t think Emma could see other choices. Who is at fault? Emma Bovary herself? The society in which she lived? Or the world Flaubert made for her? Probably all three.

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The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix PotterBefore Beatrix Potter became the author of children’s books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), she was a gifted natural historian and scientist.

So it’s not a surprise that Ms. Potter’s illustrations closely resemble the animals on which her characters are based or that she writes unsentimental stories that display a strong understanding of human (rather than animal) psychology.

This is certainly the case with Beatrix Potter’s most famous character, Peter Rabbit, whose trauma in Mr. McGregor’s garden is so realistically portrayed that cheeky amateurs with access to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) could diagnose him with Acute Stress Disorder if they liked.

In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter’s mother tells him not to go into Mr. McGregor’s garden because “your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.”

This does not deter Peter, who runs straight to the garden and encounters Mr. McGregor. In the subsequent chase, Peter loses his shoes and coat and catches cold while hiding in a watering can. Peter escapes and his mother puts him to bed with a dose of camomile tea.

Trauma is a cause of Acute Stress Disorder, and I think this experience qualifies as a traumatic event according to the DSM-IV because Peter was both “confronted with an event that involved actual or threatened death” and responded with “intense fear [and] helplessness.”

We see the symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, which picks up Peter’s story the next day.

As the book opens, Peter’s cousin Benjamin finds him “sitting by himself” looking “poorly” and “dressed in a red cotton pocket-handkerchief.”

Benjamin leads his cousin away toward the McGregor’s garden without either agreement or resistance from Peter.

From this description, we can find in Peter (1) an absence of emotional responsiveness and a reduction in awareness of surroundings and (2) anhedonia or lack of interest in activities that used to bring enjoyment, both of which are characteristic of Acute Stress Disorder.

The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix PotterOnce in the garden, Peter Rabbit displays three more important symptoms: (3) poor concentration, (4) marked symptoms of anxiety, and (5) increased arousal, hypervigilence, and an exaggerated startle response.

There are three instances of poor concentration in the tale. First, Peter falls “down head first” from the pear tree he and Benjamin are using to enter the garden. Peter and Benjamin pick onions as a present for Peter’s mother, but Peter drops half the onions at one point in the tale and drops the others a little later.

Peter is also clearly anxious and hypervigilent during his return visit to Mr. McGregor’s garden. While Benjamin is collecting the onions, Ms. Potter notes “Peter did not seem to be enjoying himself; he kept hearing noises.”

Peter also doesn’t join Benjamin in eating Mr. McGregor’s lettuces either, instead saying that “he should like to go home.” When the two rabbits walk among Mr. McGregor’s flowerpots, frames, and tubs, “Peter heard noises worse than ever, his eyes were as big as lolly-pops!”

It is in this emotional state that Peter and Benjamin are trapped under a basket by one of the McGregor’s cats for five hours. Ms. Potter writes it was “quite dark” and the “smell of onions was fearful” under the basket. Both Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny cry.

The little rabbits are saved by Benjamin’s father, old Mr. Benjamin Bunny, who cuffs and kicks the cat into the greenhouse, then whips both Benjamin and Peter with a switch.

Peter returns home, where his mother forgives him because she “was so glad to see he had found his shoes and coat” and all seems to end well. The last drawing in the story shows Peter folding up the pocket-handkerchief with the help of one of his sisters.

But Peter’s trauma isn’t resolved as much as it is ignored, and the ambiguity of this resolution hangs over the end of the story. I suspect that the effects of Peter’s untreated trauma will linger for years, making it hard for Peter to find stable employment as an adult and perhaps leading to the self-medicating abuse of rabbit tobacco.

Peter Rabbit isn’t the only psychologically realistic character who experiences trauma in Beatrix Potter’s stories. Mr. Jeremy Fisher is nearly eaten by a trout and resolves never to go fishing again. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs are saved from a fox by the collie dog Kep, only to be gobbled up by puppies before Kep can stop them.

Even Mrs. Tittlemouse, who is threatened by no more than a series of unwanted visitors in her sandy house, lives under the constraints imposed by her obsession with cleanliness and order.

Beatrix Potter’s dispassionate examination of life’s menace has earn her books readers for more than one hundred years. I have to ask, however: “Why do we let children read them?”

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I had a long slow argument with Henry James while reading The Wings of the Dove. Was he an immortal genius? Or a purveyor of pretentious soap operas? Here’s who won the argument:

“On that especial issue, Peter made something like a near approach, taking into account his great reasons, the particulars and nuances and complexities, they being, of course, more important than the main point, they being really fine, and grand, and ravishing, and although he hung fire on his answer, and really, who might blame him, before committing himself, as it were, to a more definite position, which if stated plainly, might fall a little flat, might seem a little thin, might reveal too baldly a poverty of thought and a desolation of feeling, conveniently concealed in a thicket of syntax, great flashes of brilliance aside, yet he did half commit himself, in the end, all of which is to say, perhaps, he wouldn’t decide James wasn’t coming out something more ahead than not.”

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Hermann Hesse, author of books such as Siddhartha and winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature, is the perfect writer for teenagers. His novels are painfully earnest, full of sensitive characters who are struggling against the soul-destroying conventions of society and searching for transcendence.

This description certainly fits Harry Haller, the central character in Hesse’ most famous book, Steppenwolf. And it’s not hard to see why Harry would appeal to adolescent readers (despite the fact he’s nearly 50 years old). Harry is grumpy, gloomy, brilliant, artistic, misunderstood, rejected, spends a lot of time alone in his room brooding, and is – turns out – pretty horny. This exactly describes the kind of teenager who would bother picking up Steppenwolf in the first place.

The question is, for those of us who read Steppenwolf twenty or thirty years ago, Should we bother reading it again?

The answer is “sorta”.

Steppenwolf is still utterly humorless and Harry is still gloomy, misunderstood, brooding. What stands out now is how dull Harry Haller is. Hesse keeps telling us how fine a soul Harry has: how intelligent is he, how artistically refined, and how much he suffers.

But the only evidence we have of Harry’s genius is Hesse’ say-so. Nothing in Steppenwolf persuades us that Harry is as remarkable as Hesse claims, and without any tangible signs of brilliance, Harry is rather uninteresting, except for when he’s being petulant.

Steppenwolf also displays that vanity particular to the aging male animal, which is the magical belief that beautiful young women find us attractive.

In the real world, young women don’t fall for decaying misanthropes unless they have a sum of money and Harry doesn’t. But Hesse asserts that not one, but two gorgeous young girls are fascinated by Harry and that he is still capable of prodigious feats of physical love with them.

What saves Steppenwolf is how thoroughly Hesse destroys any sense of value we might have for Harry’s genius. Hesse still sees Harry as a unique soul – but a unique soul leading a useless existence.  Harry is a man who has forgotten how to laugh or find pleasure in life.  He’s a fool who should be pitied, and scolded, and taken by the hand and pulled away from his stubborn loneliness and self-importance.

When this happens, Harry does become interesting. He begins to feel human. He engages our sympathy. And he makes the long hallucinatory sequence that forms the middle-end of Steppenwolf credible rather than ridiculous because Harry feels like a convincing person in it.

Finally, the last pages of the book work for readers of a certain age. Steppenwolf closes not with Harry triumphing over his old self, but rather with him discovering that he is the same person he always was despite his best efforts.

I suspect the young don’t much like this ending. The young believe they can be anybody they want to be (and they should believe this).

Unfortunately, for those of us who have been living with our adult selves for a couple decades, the ending of Hermann Hesse’ Steppenwolf bears an unhappy resemblance to the truth.

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As You Like It - The New Cambridge Shakespeare book coverIn As You Like It, Shakespeare banishes all unhappiness, unless it springs from love.

The play follows a multitude of characters driven from a nobleman’s court to exile in the Forest of Arden, where they find refuge from the ambition, intrigue, envy, and striving of the world.

There a usurped Duke philosophizes on his new freedom; a lord tends his melancholy like a garden; and the clown Touchstone pursues his fooling to the edge of the sublime – but the show belongs to the misery and ecstasy of love and to the superlative Rosalind, mistress of all situations and persons except her own wild heart.

There are familiar Shakespearian tropes in As You Like It. The instantaneous and absolute way love conquers. The woman dressed as a man who hides from her love and is loved by the wrong person in turn. And the character who arranges events to create maximum drama, even as the audience is left wondering what motivates her manipulations.

No matter. The dialogue is superb. Rosalind bewitches men and women, on and off stage, in equal measure. And all ends happy in this most delicate of Shakespeare’s comedies.

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Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney, Yale Univ PressNikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls first gained fame as a caustic satire of Russian society when it was published in 1842. Today’s readers will value it as a mesmerizing phantasmagoria of human vice, mendacity, and mediocrity.

The title refers to a defect in Russian law that frequently required the owners of serfs (or “souls”) to pay taxes on their human property even after the serfs have died. The story follows Chichikov, a small-time confidence man, as he buys these souls at steep discounts, saving the owners from the taxes and gaining for himself fraudulent collateral he can use in subsequent schemes.

Gogol offers a parade of vividly detailed human caricatures described in language which is baroque, grotesque, exuberant, and exact. Fans of Vladimir Nabokov will find much that is familiar in Gogol’s prose. I enjoyed the translation of Dead Souls by Bernard Guilbert Guerney which Nabokov recommended .

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