Tuesday, June 26, 2007

philip roth

The opening scene of ‘Everyman’ takes place in a graveyard. (I immediately thought of Ian McEwan’s ‘Amsterdam’): This is how it begins:
“Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him”.
The author has said this is a novel about illness, death and fear. ‘Everyman’ is a compact novel of 180 pages with dense and sometimes hard to digest images, not because of its style, which is quick and accessible, but because it conveys very concisely the feeling of loss and despair anyone has felt when losing someone close to one. So far, this is my favorite Roth novel. Some quotations from an interview that I edited ahead:

“Everyman is the name of a line of English plays from the 15th century, allegorical plays, moral theatre. They were performed in cemeteries, and the theme is always salvation. The classic is called Everyman, it's from 1485, by an anonymous author. It was right in between the death of Chaucer and the birth of Shakespeare. The moral was always 'Work hard and get into heaven', 'Be a good Christian or go to hell'. Everyman is the main character and he gets a visit from Death. He thinks it's some sort of messenger, but Death says, 'I am Death' and Everyman's answer is the first great line in English drama: 'Oh, Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.' When I thought of you least. My new book is about death and about dying. Well, what do you think?"
"Are you afraid of dying?"
"Yes, I'm afraid. It's horrible… What else could I say? It's heartbreaking. It's unthinkable. It's incredible. Impossible."
"Do you think a lot about death?"
"I was forced to think about it all the time when I wrote this book. I spent two whole days in a cemetery to see how they dig the holes. For years I had decided never to think about death. I have seen people die, of course, my parents, but it wasn't until a good friend of mine died in April that I experienced it as completely devastating. He was a contemporary. It doesn't say so in the agreement I signed, I didn't see that page in the contract, you know. As Henry James said on his deathbed: 'Ah, here it comes, the big thing.'"
"You said that you're afraid of dying. You're 72 years old. What are you afraid of?"
"Oblivion. Of not being alive, quite simply, of not feeling life, not smelling it. But the difference between today and the fear of dying I had when I was 12, is that now I have a kind of resignation towards reality. It no longer feels like a great injustice that I have to die… I'm exactly the opposite of religious…I'm anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It's all a big lie…I have such a huge dislike. It's not a neurotic thing, but the miserable record of religion. I don't even want to talk about it, it's not interesting to talk about the sheep referred to as believers. When I write, I'm alone. It's filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety - and I never needed religion to save me."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

hyland follow up

Some projects that came to mind as I was reading M. J. Hyland's “Carry me down”, because of its device of having kids for narrators, were Ann Carson’s “Autobiography of Red” and Mark Haddon’s “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time”.

Carson’s novel in verse, based on a Hercules myth, takes a red-winged "monster" Geryon, with an adolescent crush on an older boy, Herakles. Moving from various locales, including Buenos Aires and Peru, the novel meditates on the interwoven themes of identity, memory, and eternity. Haddon’s novel also uses a conflicted kid (although he never names it, I guess he is autistic?) as a protagonist. He has said: "This is a murder mystery novel… the boy with Behavioral Problems explains a few pages further on. A fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, Christopher decides to investigate the poodle's murder and turn the story into a book of his own”.

m. j. hyland

Cover of 'Carry me down', and photo of the author, M.J. Hyland.
“Carry me down” is M. J. Hyland’s second novel.

John Egan, the 11-year-old narrator of the novel, is the protagonist of “Carry me down”, an exciting story that is read very fluently, with a direct, crisp prose, and an incredible capacity for producing claustrophobic and psychologically charged scenes. The scenario consists of a mother, a father and ‘Granny’ in a house on the environs of a small Irish village named Gorey. Very quickly we notice that John is a ‘freak’ because he is extremely tall for a boy his age, as well as socially awkward and very sensitive. Naturally he is made fun of at school making the reader aware of his emotional vulnerability. And here, in the School framework appears the most interesting character, in my opinion: Mr. Roche, the eccentric, sympathetic and vengeful professor, one of the few to really accept and value John’s peculiarity. (Incredible scenes involving the disgusting bully Kate –Mr. Roche makes her drink from a bucket dog-like, until she wets herself, after mocking John for pissing his pants). The narration is exclusively his and we are told of his every moves and dreams. His ultimate goal is to appear in the Guinness Book of Records, because he believes he has a unique skill: he is able to tell when a person is lying.
Hyland admits: "I think I write about characters who don't know how to live, or find living acutely difficult in one way or another, who live life in a kind of subdued terror, so these are not characters who travel through life lightly."
Nobel Laureate, Coetzee, said about Hyland’s novels: "real works of art, written with an intelligence and a command of the medium that marks a real arrival on the literary scene".

Monday, June 18, 2007

josephine hart

Josephine Hart has written five novels. She was immediately catapulted by her debut, 'Damage', transformed into a film by Louis Malle, with Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons. 'Sin', her second novel, like 'Damage' also takes a first person female narrator, expert in the art of lying and concealing. Hart is a master when it comes to strategies of dissimulation and sleazy revenges. Her prose has that special mood that some have compared to Daphne Du Maurier. I agree! What I really like is her capacity to play with the great abyss that exists between our internal worlds and our external, social personas. This is done deflty specially in the concise dialogues of 'Sin'. This novel begins with the protagonist's direct statement:

"I believe now that I was exposed too early to goodness and that I never recovered".
This is Ruth, a woman possessed by a terrible envy. From small acts of malevolence, she is drawn into a maelstrom of destruction, where innocence and goodness (embodied in her cousin, Elizabeth) are no defence. Elizabeth is an orphaned girl adopeted by Ruth's parents. She is blond, good and sweet. Ruth has curly, black hair... Ruth says that she even envies her name, which has a musical quality, unlike her own, too short and blunt. Similar to 'Damage', in 'Sin' this woman goes out of her way to get what she wants, destroying her cousin's life, through a series of manipulations, and losing quite a lot herself...

Saturday, June 16, 2007

cormac mccarthy

Already a classic!
Just finished reading ‘The road’ and that’s how I would describe McCarthy’s last novel. WHAT AN AMAZING READ! This is a novel that should be read and not talked about. Its bone-chilling quality can be traced, first, in the landscapes the two main ‘characters’ ‘visit’. ‘The man’ and ‘the boy’ are heading for the south, for the coast, and their journey consists only on getting on with something to eat, to cover themselves, and simply endure. And, secondly, through its concise and abrupt dialogue between father and son, dialogues that are so transparent, abrupt and palpable, that one feels there’s nothing that could be added. (Most of the paragraphs stand by themselves, as condensed poems).
This is a novel about creation and destruction, a narration that makes us aware of the universe’s very throes, the feeling that the universe itself is watching its own end.
Tenderness could be the most present feeling in the novel, a sort of love story between these two characters; tenderness ‘in extremis’, a precious and almost mystical delicacy among desperation, death and what remains of nature. As always with McCarthy's prose, his 'biblical' style also cries out here the need for human conscience. (In several sections I had in mind Michael Haneke’s masterpiece, ‘The Time of the Wolf’).
However offensive to rank a book, or any work of art, I think this is the year’s novel!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

carson mccullers

"There's nothing that makes you so aware of the improvisation of human existence as a song unfinished. Or an old address book. "--Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers is one of the greatest american writers. It is a good thing that Universities in the US go through her works using diverse perspectives (women/queer studies, subalternity, space, etc.), but I think it is even vain to talk about her or her works. One thing is sure: she is one of those rare writers that write through illuminations, using her grotesque characters as very few authors (Faulkner) have done, being able to endow them with a metaphysical quality. Her complete novels are published in a single volume and her works are being reprinted constantly. What a privilege! These novels are simply breathtaking, and the novella 'The ballad of the sad café', probably one of the most important short novels ever written. (Merchant/Ivory productions made a very loyal film based on this novella, starring Vanessa Redgrave as the fascinating Miss Amelia).

Monday, June 11, 2007

andrea levy

London, 1948, a time when landlords were allowed to deter undesirable tenants by putting up a sign that read, “No Irish, no coloureds, no dogs”. Small Island traces this first wave of Caribbean immigrants coming to Britain after World War II. This conflict (especially racism and xenophobia—what could be more pertinent today!) is what Andrea Levy tackles with incredible precision through her sympathetic characters. (The stories are told from each character's perspective, moving backward and forward in time). Her own parents being Jamaican, Levy´s narration focuses on the difficulties these immigrants faced going to Britain, and their frustration, since, in their own eyes, they weren’t immigrants at all but rightful claimants to the land that they had been brought up to believe was their welcoming Mother Country.

Extract from Andrea Levy's Small Island:
It brought it all back to me. Celia Langley. Celia Langley standing in front of me, her hands on her hips and her head in a cloud. And she is saying: 'Oh, Hortense, when I am older' (all her dreaming began with 'when I am older'). "When I am older, Hortense, I will be leaving Jamaica and I will be going to live in England." This is when her voice became high-class and her nose pointed into the air - well, as far as her round flat nose could - and she swayed as she brought the picture to her mind's eye. "Hortense, in England I will have a big house with a bell at the front door and I will ring the bell." And she make the sound, ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling. "I will ring the bell in this house when I am in England. That is what will happen to me when I am older."

Saturday, June 9, 2007

nadine gordimer

I am acquainted with Gordimer’s last works, that is, post-apartheid (1994) novels such as ‘None to Accompany me’, ‘The pickup’, ‘Get a life’.
‘The House Gun’ (1998) is one of these, an excellent example of Gordimer’s intricate plot that allows her to use social and political issues seen through the perspective of unique individuals and the way their lives are affected by unexpected and apparent ‘alien’ conflicts. As always with Gordimer, in ‘The house gun’ she makes use of magnificent intertexts (Thomas Mann, Herman Broch, Shakespeare, and many others) letting us feel that she is dialoguing with a rich array of literary references.
In this ‘liberated’ South Africa a young and sexually conflicted white murderer needs the help of a black lawyer. We see this clash through his parents’ efforts to help him, and this echoes in their jobs, friendships and their own personal relationship. And the pertinent question: what would have happened if the gun hadn’t been there? The obvious answer: there wouldn’t have been any murder. This fable evokes reflection on the fact of the general rise of violence in the world. The gun bought like any commodity in many countries – in the United States, Great Britain, France, or Japan – serves domestic violence and promotes murder.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

jerzy kosinski

I was thinking of doing a list of the most extreme books I've read. There's plenty I would like to include. Some came immediately to mind: 'The Notebook' (A. Kristof), 'Cement Yard' (I. McEwan), 'A personal Matter' (Oé), 'Still Alive' (R. Kluger), etc... But there's something about this novel, based on Kosinski's experiences during WWII that wanders in your mind for a long time after you read the novel. Kosinski was a highly controversial writer, accused of being a pathological liar, of plagiarism, etc. He ended up killing himself, leaving a bunch of acclaimed novels, such as the NBA winner, 'Steps'. He is basically known for his novel 'Being there' that was a big hit transformed into film (Shirley McLaine).
'The painted bird' is an impressive story with some of the most extreme violent scenes that can possibly be written. This book was tantalizingly recommended to me by a friend who couldn't finished it but said maybe I could! Anyone willing to give it a try?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

ali smith

At first I was daunted by this novel’s structure, because it seemed too conservative. Nobody would think that a novel divided in three sections, called: “The beginning”, “The middle” and “The end”, would be able to transform the narration in an almost stream of consciousness manifesto that belies the notion of linear recitation.

“The accidental” relies on its verbal flair, rapid description and musical constructions that keep the narrative flowing. It even allows formal experimentation when some sections are transformed into verse, almost poems that are lay out as caligrams. Although the characters of the novel seem quite conventional in many aspects (a middle class family: wife, husband and two kids, girl and boy whose lives are disturbed/changed when Amber, ‘the accidental’ shows up at their vacation cottage) it manages to pass on, precisely through its apparent banality, the horrors of what we are living now, in a concealed and ironic way.
For instance, a scene that I like, involves Eve (mother of this family and writer) talking with her editor. When they meet to discuss a dateline for her book, Eve says: “I thought this time I might write about a person who dies… A Palestinian boy, I was thinking, like that twelve-year-old the soldiers shot… Or what about if I wrote about someone who’s alive right now, but will be dead tomorrow morning, say? In Iraq?” (198). And though later she says to the editor that she’s just teasing her, this concern stays throughout the entire novel.
As the author has said:
“Although people won't think this immediately, I think it's a war novel. We lived through a war as though we were not at war in this country. We saw it on television but we saw a very different version of it which would be unrecognisable to people from elsewhere.' So The Accidental becomes a book which is also about what is real and what isn't; insiders and outsiders; who gets to tell who want to think”.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

theodor kramer

I couldn't find the cover of Theodor Kramer's only collection of poems in English! "Love in London" (Ariadne) Who knows why there's no more of him available!

Kramer's poems reflect the changing moods of an exiled German-speaking writer in response to the traumas faced before, during and after World War II. (After Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938, several well-known Austrian writers took flight to England. Most of them continued writing in their native language).

here, an ironic sample of Kramer's seal:


They reprint my poems now in postwar Vienna;

it's like I've suddenly got a twin-ghost penner

who's growing in stature in some surreal way,

while the real one here lives in decay.

He grows and hardly suffers hardships bad;

but I'm in need (an old chap looking sad!)

of someone now to look after me all the time,

and show some affection for a bloke like I'm,

or else I'll suddenly fade out, I fear.

But who then knows what to me happened here?

And those who know they simply could't care less;

my work collects-I'm soon passé, I guess.

**Translation by Fritz Brainin and Jorg Thunecke**

Friday, June 1, 2007

lauren kelly

Here we have the 3 covers of the novels Lauren Kelly has written. These are amazing 'mystery/suspense' novels that focus on female protagonists, usually young women struggling with personal issues, personality disorders and extreme traumas (familiar and social). These narrations, as the author has pointed out, are 'genre' novels that try to give shape to the mystery of our lives, considering that life is essentialy a mystery, a series of mysteries, and that we may never be able to solve any of them, but the plots of these novels are organized in all directions at once, as with mystery stories, and make use of differente strategies (flashbacks, concealed messages, codes) to catch the attention from the first page. At the same time they convey a lot of criticism to our society, art, hierarchic relations, etc.
At the beginning it reminded me of some of Patricia Highsmith's suspense novels, although Highsmith claimed that she prefered male characters (very rarely she used females as protagonists of her novels) because she considered them more energetic and active. So here we have a new perspective of the genre. These are fascinating novels of no more than 200 pages each.
ps. Lauren Kelly is a pseudonym of Joyce Carol Oates.