Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Thoughts on the Booker Prize and Some Reading Updates

So Kiran Desai has won the booker prize. Honestly from the reviews it was the only book that I had found interesting. It will anyway take a lot of time for me to get around to reading that book. I managed to get hold of last year's superhit, but scandalously not even shortlisted, Saturday by Ian McEwan, only a few months back. I loved it, but with reservations about the last act, where McEwan tries to turn the novel into some sort of medical thriller. I was even more ambivalent about Kazuo Ishiguro's Never let me go. If only he had done even a quarter of research as McEwan must have done for his novel! It felt like he had read a few news articles in the newspapers on cloning and decided to write a novel on the subject. Still overall I felt both novels were quite good.

These days I am trying to read more of literary essays, biographies and in general books which deal in some contextual analysis. The best I have read so far is Isaiah Berlin's brilliant collection of essays titled Russian Thinkers. It is an absolutely thrilling work of intellectual history, literary criticism and political philosophy. If you are even moderately interested in nineteenth century Russian Literature, which is almost same as saying that if you are interested in literature at all, you can't afford to miss the essays in this volume. These are scholarly essays, not off the cuff book reviews, indeed many of them were first published in journals like Slavic Review or Journal of Slavic Studies, and the average length of the essays would be somewhere around thirty to forty pages, but they are extremely readable, even for someone as deficient on history education as myself. The way Berlin makes even comparatively obscure figures like Herzen and Belinsky come alive on pages and makes a case for their relevance not just for a historical understanding but also for contemporary debates about role of intellectuals in society, the idea of historical progress, social change and literature's role in bringing about that social change, is absolutely marvellous. It is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in a long time.

I am currently in the middle of Mario Vargas Llosa's Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. I am surprised to find that it is not what I was expecting it to be. I was thinking that it would be similar to Dostoevsky's The Possessed, a denunciation of the revolutionary impulse by some obscure psychologising about the evils of human nature. Not that I am criticising The Possessed, but Llosa certainly is no Dostoevsky, who was a genius even though his politics was vile, reactionary and repugnant. Llosa's book is an extremely sympathetic analysis, though not without gloom and despair, of the revolutionary impulse and a great portrait of the Latin American left and the decaying contemporary Peru. I have a few reservations about it but will write about it after finishing the book in a separate post.

Next on the list are Thomas Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew and (hold your breath here!) a comic book adaptation of Proust (of the Combray section of Swann's Way). Will post about them later. The Bernhard book, at least from the first twenty or so pages, looks like The Magic Mountain, only more readable and even funny at places and of course quite short. Not that I have read Magic Mountain (I have left the book at around fity pages three times) just that I had the feeling.

Update: I also wanted to point out to the terribly sad news of the murder of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Obituary from The Times and a report on the funeral from BBC. Another reminder of how more things change, they remain the same. It is depressing to read about the persecution of intellectuals in Czarist Russia in a book of history and then read this news story the next day and see how little things have changed.

19 comments:

bhupinder said...

I am amused when Llosa claims to be a rightist. All his writings- at least the fiction- are otherwise. He is a split personality of sorts, and hence a good theme for a novel !

Alok said...

Yes that's true. I think it is ultimately just about how honest you are with what you observe and what you think. Only a hateful, dishonest propagandist would deny the genuine sources of revolutionay ideas, even though often they have resulted in failures and waste.

His War of the End of the World still remains my favourite book though. The way he refuses to judge either sides (his admiration of Flaubert and his cult of authorial absence must have come handy) and makes a case of both for and against the war makes it a genuinely complex book.

Fausto Maijstral said...

Llosa is a rare sort. He admires Thatcher and Aznar, but he also criticizes them when they are wageing war or being morally conservative. Contrary of the clicheed opinion people have about those who share his political mindset, he hates any sort of dictatorship - right wing and left wing type. Hence is dislike of both Castro and Pinochet. I think he is an admirable person.
He used to be a communist in his youth, so maybe that's why he refrain from passing judgement of those seduced by revolutionary ideas.
He is of course mostly a great writer. Among the favourites for this year Nobel, he would be an excellent pick.
My favourite book of his is "The feast of the goat", about the murder of Trujillo, the head of the domican military dictatorship in the 50's.

Alok said...

Yes you have put it very well. He is an honest and an intelligent writer, and that's how he avoids political cliches and straitjackets in his fiction.

Let's see who wins the Nobel today. He seems to me a great choice.

bhupinder said...

Perhaps it is a matter of personal choice, but I thought that the War of the End of the World was stretched too long and is in the nature of a 19th c novel, with very little of the innovations that Llosa has introduced to the novel.

Same for the Feast of the Goat- I felt it was one of his weaker novels, unnecessarily drilling deep on minor details.

Perhaps the fact that the theme is closer to me that I have found Alejandra Mayta to be his finest novel (The Storyteller is next closest), but in terms of style, I felt Llosa is most sophisticated in Mayta.

Alok said...

Yes you are right. Alejandro Mayta's narrative is quite complex, with frequent shifts in time and in perspective. He handles it very deftly.

War of the end of the world is I think a very ambitious novel. I read in an interview that the initial draft of the novel ran to more than 1000 pages! It does feel like a latin american War and Peace and I think it should be a matter of praise that someone was ambitious enough to tackle the subject in that form when most contemporary novels feel so puny in comparison to those nineteenth century greats.

What I like most about it is the way it captures the psychological attractions of religious fanaticism and anti-modern forces and presents them sympathetically without romanticising it. It is also very relevant in these times when more and more peopple (including people like myself) see religion and obscurantist forces just as expressions of irrational stupidity rather than outcome of concrete socio-economic conditions.

Alok said...

I haven't read Storyteller yet. Will check it out after it.

bhupinder said...

Llosa considers War of the End of the World to be his best work too. Of course, it is a great work, unfortunately not too well known.

Your analogy with War and Peace reminds me of the "War and Peace" of the 20th century- "Life and Fate" by Vasili Grossman, it too remains unfairly treated and little known.

Alok said...

I read a review somewhere of Life and Fate recently. Haven't read it, in fact i hadn't even heard of it before.

bhupinder said...

Oh you must read Life and Fate- it is not only a conciously attempted sequel to War and Peace but you would also find some very interesting debates between the characters on the classical russian literature of the 19th century.

It is amazing that some very wonderful novels just dont get the recognition- Full many a flower is born to blush unseen...

Alok said...

Oh I love the Russians. It is already high on the list. I recently came across another book from the same new york review of books publishers called The Case of Comrade Tulayev by Victor Serge. That looked interesting too.

It also has some info about life and fate here.

bhupinder said...

Thanks, I havent read (or till now heard of Victor Serge)- though there is a right wing blogger by that name.

Alok said...

Rigt wing blogger? Can't believe that :)

Serge was a revolutionary. An anarchist and even a Troskyist for some time.

Cheshire Cat said...

How did the Bernhard turn out?

Alok said...

It's a very strange book. For one thing, I can't put a hand on the tone and the voice of the narrator. Angry, Frustrated, Comic, Mocking, Sympathetic? Also though it is written in a single paragraph, the narrative is quite complex... I didn't really understand when was the narrator telling the story and in general couldn't place the events in time. Also I felt that the style was allegorical, though I really didn't understand what it all meant in the end.

Though I can now see why people would compare him to kafka and beckett.

Cheshire Cat said...

It is tonally complex, but then Bernhard's greatest strength is his voice. Everything you said is true - angry, frustrated, comic, mocking, sympathetic - the voice has a strong identity and is yet able to accommodate all those modes. Of course there are various themes being explored here - the nature of friendship, of creativity, of fame - but my pleasure in his work comes first and foremost from the performative aspect. And it helps that he's so funny, I'd say this is the greatest contrast with Mann :)

Alok said...

Also the book felt very "spontaneous", as if the narrator was thinking and writing at the same time! I don't know if it was because there were no paragraph breaks or because language and the sentences were mostly free of metaphorical flourishes. It felt like one continuous stream of thought...

Will try to write some summary of the book some time. May be that will be of some help.

right about Mann of course, though i think magic mountain is also funny in its own Teutonic sort of way :)

I compared the books because they both start with very similar desciptions of life in mental asylum or sanatorium.

Cheshire Cat said...

Yeah, absolutely. I like that aspect of it because I feel compelled to finish the book at one reading. With most books, I get distracted, and never quite manage to find my way back!

Alok said...

Yes, I felt the same too. I recently read a chilean novel By Night in Chile which had a similar structure too. A short novel, narrated in first-person in a single sustained voice.