‘It is not only great works of art that are born out of suffering and doubt.’
Do we allow ourselves to be tricked into substituting simple pleasures an...more‘It is not only great works of art that are born out of suffering and doubt.’
Do we allow ourselves to be tricked into substituting simple pleasures and convenience for authentic reality? Do we willingly allow ourselves to be submissive pawns in a game of corporate and political control? Nobel Laureate José Saramago’s The Cave is an enlightening examination of Plato’s allegory of the cave as he depicts a natural world shrinking away as the cheap, plastic reign of a compartmentalized authoritative control casts its shadow across the land. The Cave chronicles the struggles and strife of the kind hearted Algor family, who find themselves in a difficult place when the powerful capital city The Center ceases purchasing their hand-crafted pottery, choosing instead to stock their shelves with plastic dining sets that are cheaper to mass produce, and are bound by a contract forbidding any dealer to the Center, past or present, from selling to anyone else. Saramago harnesses his marvelous poetic wit to make the readers hearts ache for the Algor family, and the plight of manual laborers as their livelihood is threatened by ominous forces that place profit and power over quality and general well-being. The political climate in The Cave creates a perfect breeding ground for a discussion of Plato’s Forms, with Saramago focusing his sights everywhere from plastic plates, police states, and language in order to examine the way we trade the authentic for cheap imitations and replicas.
All of Saramago’s classic motifs are immediately recognizable in The Cave, such as obdurate authoritative forces chasing the common man out of the light; menacing capital cities operating through an elaborate, yet faulty, chain of command; musings on the nature of a Creator; and his brilliant, signature style of blending dialogue into his dense paragraphs of meandering prose. For the uninitiated, Saramago doesn’t break up dialogue in the traditional sense, but instead allows multiple voices to blend into one continuous stream separated only by commas and a capitalized first letter to denote a new speaker. This reinforces his perspective that his stories aren’t of the individual, but of the collective voices and hearts of all humanity, inseparable from the natural world around them. His books are the voice of existence, flowing and unscarred by the borders of ego, asking us to seek freedom and happiness in collective equality and cooperation instead of a competition where those who have assert their dominance through force and fear. The Center becomes the focal point for his admonition against authoritarianism. It is like a grey concrete tumor of commercialism swelling outward and destroying the green countryside, accumulating power and wealth as it tightens its grip of authority and dominerence over the rural manual laborers. Saramago mocks the bureaucratic structure of The Center, viewing it as an unnecessarily complex web that is self-sufficient only by imposing its own authority down through the ranks.
…his position on the Center’s organization chart reminded him that the whole definition and maintenance of hierarchical configurations is based on their being scrupulously respected and never contravened or transgressed, and, of course, the inevitable result of being too free and easy with one’s inferiors or subalterns is to undermine respect and to encourage license, or, to put it more explicitly and unambiguously, it all ends in insubordination, indiscipline and anarchy
Plato used his allegory of the cave to further illustrate his concept of Forms, roughly speaking, a theory to address the problem of universals by asserting that Forms are the quality of reality, and that phenomena are shadowy interpretations of Form. Forms are atemporal and aspatial, but had distinct, individual qualities that are perceived in multiple ways when represented by objects. The cave allegory consists of people chained to the floor and forced to spend their lives watching shadows flicker across the back wall of the cave. They would perceive the shadows as reality and give names to them, when in fact they were just reproductions of the true reality. Saramago expertly meshes his admonitory themes of authoritarian force with Plato’s Forms to argue that we are becoming like the prisoners of the cave, trading the authentic for imitations. Saramago’s defense of manual laborers asserts that hand-crafted work born from sweat and blood is authentic and that the plastic, cheap mass produced plates are like shadows on the wall of a cave.
The ominous sight of those chimneys vomiting out columns of smoke makde him wonder which one of those hideous factories would be producing those hideous plastic lies, cunningly fashioned to look like earthenware.
The Center and it’s hub of consumerism is the reproduction of authentic living. People are compartmentalized into tiny apartments away from the sun, living shallow lives that are dictated to them by the endless list of Center laws and experience the natural world through sideshow attractions—such as a ride that simulates each of the seasons and drops fake rain and snow onto the visitors—that are reminiscent of George Saunders’ short fiction. Even power is seen as only assumed and created, keeping people submissive through emotions of fear and hopelessness. The Center offers safety from the dangers of rural life, making a large show of the way they fight back against the shantytowns that rob trucks en route to The Center. It may be possible, however, that the robberies are staged to simply give The Center a reasonable motive to send in the troops and further build a sense of security and fear.
The truck had not been burned by the people in the shacks, but by the police themselves, it was just an excuse to bring the army…he had suddenly seen what the world was like, how there are many lies and no truths, well, there must be some out there, but they are continually changing, and not only does a possible truth give us insufficient time to consider its merits, we also have to check first that this possible truth is not, in fact, a probable lie.
Saramago is a lover of words, and the heart of the marvelous allegorical clockwork of this novel is his examination of words and their relation to the world around us. ‘Words were born to play with each other,’ he writes, ‘they don’t know how to do anything else.’ In a manner reminiscent of both Jacques Derrida (of whom Saramago was associated with several times through both men’s activist actions), and Jorge Luis Borges (Saramago’s books are littered with allusions to the great author), Saramago explores the way words are merely shadows on the wall of reality. ‘Words, for example, which are not things, which merely designate things as best they can, and in doing so shape them…’ Saramago offers that the world of physical reality is experienced by putting our perceptions into words, but words are not the same tangible reality, and we must accept that they can only form imperfect representations regardless of how poetic and poignantly words can play with one another. While language is shown as another replica of Forms, it is through language that the mind can find a haven—language is the bridge through which we can glimpse true reality and meaning. By arranging words together into the magic of literature, we are able to point towards a deeper understanding and dig up the buried treasure of substantial meaning. Some read for pure enjoyment, some for escape, others to appreciate the aesthetics of linguistics organized onto a page like a painting on a canvas, and while each individual reader may take a different path through words, we all travel this path because it offers us a taste of our own personal heaven and a glimpse at overwhelming beauty.
The same method doesn't work for everyone, each person has to invent his or her own, whichever suits them best, some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don't understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they're there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it's the other side that matters, Unless, Unless what, Unless those rivers don't have just two shores but many, unless each reader is his or her own shore, and that shore is the only shore worth reaching.
Saramago hints at the true beauty of literature and how one idea can be interpreted in multiple ways, each shaping or reaffirming what we hold most dear in our hearts. Words may only take meaning in the way they interplay with one another, but it is through a careful consideration of words that we are able to deduce a fountain of wealth that flows through the author. ‘What you call playing with words is just a way of making them more visible.’
One of the many aspects that continuously pull me back into Saramago’s enchanting pages is his loving attentiveness to words and the reader. Saramago approaches his story as if it were a living thing independent from himself, being both the narrator delivering the story, but also an observer and participant much like the reader themselves. In a manner much like Macedonio Fernández, Saramago questions the motives of his characters, chastises them for their actions, and presents them as if they were writing themselves into his pages. ‘If this demonstrably ill-natured assistant head of department were to have any kind of future in the story we have been following, we would probably eventually get around to asking him to explain what lay behind his feelings on that occasion…’ This helps to build a camaraderie and mutual respect with the reader as you feel he is sharing the journey along with you. I greatly enjoy his authorial interjections, a tactic that often bothers me with other authors but seems completely endearing with Saramago. He gives off such an innocent joy to be an integral part to the creation of a story and just can’t contain his excitement when he blurts out his commentary on the characters and story. Reading Saramago is akin to having a wise, caring grandfather rocking you to sleep in his arms while bestowing the secrets of the universe to you in an engaging bedtime tale. Many of the novels shortcomings are easily glossed over because the reader is so captivated by his soothing narrative voice. This novel occasionally dips dangerously close to oversentimentality and often feels a uneven, yet chastising it beyond mere mention seems malicious. It would be like insulting your own loving grandfather for his bedtime stories, which you know please him to tell as much as they please you to hear. Saramago’s narrative voice is comforting while still cutting to the core of matters with a razor sharp edge.
Despite the growing tumor of consumerism and authoritarianism, The Cave offers a bright beacon of hope. Ciprano Algor and his family bond together to create a new product, a line of clay figurines (his selection of figurines speaks volumes about the human race and our attraction to warfare and power, but I’ve blabbed on long enough and shouldn’t spoil the discovery for future readers), to sell to The Center. The creation process in the kiln opens up a channel for Saramago to examine the role of a Creator, and he openly chastises any Creator that would knowingly damn their creations.
He will not, like Marta, call them rejects, for to do so would be to drive them from the world for which they had been born, to deny them as his own work and thus condemn them to a final, definitive orphanhood.
Through caring, understanding, cooperation and hard-work, Saramago proposes a bright future. The son-in-law, Marcal, employee of The Center, finds his true purpose lies as a member of a family, a part of natural order as opposed to his imitation family as an employee to a company. At the end, we see that we must strive for the real instead imitation despite that the latter seems to be the easier way.
While The Cave is a wonderful allegory exploring Plato’s philosophy and the nature of language, it is not best suited as an introduction to Saramago. This book is best viewed as another glowing intersection for the themes that characterize Saramago’s fantastic oeuvre and would fall short without interpreting it through its interplay with his other novels. The book is creeps forward at a very leisurely pace, content to build its themes in authorial asides and intense investigations of mundane actions, which made it easy to set aside whereas other Saramago novels were impossible for me to put down once I'd been hooked. The Cave is a novel about exploring language and Form, not plot, and if you are patient there is an immense wealth of ideas to ponder and mull over that more than justify the effort. It is not a weak novel, but one simply best suited for those that already hold the wise Saramago as dear in their hearts. Of all his novels, this one shines as the most endearing as the way he presents the Algor family can be best described as a tender caress of words. Moving and heartfelt, yet slow and ponderous, Saramago brilliantly examines the way we trade the authentic for cheap imitation and begs us to not to be bound to the floor of a cave by consumerism and a willful submission to authority, but to be daring enough to step out from the cave and great the bright sun of our existence with open arms, an open mind, and goodwill towards all of mankind. 3.5/5
'[B]ut if ancient knowledge serves for anything, if it can still be of some use to modern ignorance, let us say softly, so that people don't laugh at us, that while there's life, there's hope.'(less)
'Nature only knows one thing, and that’s the present. Present, present, eternal present, like a big, huge, giant wave – colossal, bright and beautiful...more'Nature only knows one thing, and that’s the present. Present, present, eternal present, like a big, huge, giant wave – colossal, bright and beautiful, full of life and death, climbing into the sky, standing in the seas. You must go along with the actual, the Here-and-Now, the glory -’
Following the success of his lengthy, 1953 National Book Award Winning novel The Adventures of Augie March, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow returned in 1956 with the very slender Seize the Day. Called ‘the most Russian novella written in America’ by critic James Wood ¹, one of Seize ‘s greatest successes is the enormous accumulation of ideas, social, spiritual and psychological commentary, and pure literary vitamins packed into this snack of a novel that rivals the depth of novels three to four times it’s length, not to mention the enrapturing prose that pulls this story along. Much like the Russian literary giants of whom Bellow highly regarded, Seize is intensely psychological as Bellow takes a page from Wilhelm Reich (whose first name is also that of Seize’s protagonist) with regards to character analysis and social commentary. This novel is ripe for classroom discussion and analysis, with carefully crafted metaphors and motifs that seem effortlessly blended into the narrative, similar to the way Dr. Tamkin builds his character mask through ‘hints, made dully as asides, grew by repetition into sensational claims.’ Bursting with insight and frosted in delicious prose, Bellow breaks down the socio-economic conditions of the 50’s,and their implications of the common man through an ostensive examination of Wilhelm Reich’s psychoanalytic theories.
Much like Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses, Seize the Day follows a Jewish protagonist, through the course of one day while simultaneously painting the larger portrait of the character’s life history. However, Seize the Day stands on it’s own taking the reader through an entirely different approach and resolution as a psychoanalysis of Tommy Wilhelm (formerly Wilhelm ‘Wilky’ Adler before adopting his stage name²). A bit of background on Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, is extremely beneficial towards understanding Bellow’s novel, as Reich’s theories and practices constitute the framework for the novel.
Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)
In short, Reich’s psychoanalysis - beyond the standard Freudian constructs of figurative castration, Oedipal complex, etc. centered on a belief that ‘ neurosis is rooted in physical, sexual, and socio-economic conditions, and in particular in a lack of what he called "orgastic potency”’. The ‘orgastic potency’ refers to a theory that an orgasm is a healthy release of libido and creative powers fueled through love, which can become blocked by social conditions and other outside forces, thus creating an ‘orgastic impotency’ which directly causes neurosis and heath disorders (Reich believed Freud’s jaw cancer was unrelated to his tobacco use and was instead attributed to Freud ‘biting down’ of his [Freud’s] problems). This was the primary focus for character analysis, and lead to his practice of Vegetotherapy. Vegeotherapy was a form of psychotherapy consisting of the patient removing their ‘body armor’ – both figuratively and literally as the patient would conduct the therapy nude, and simulate extreme stress and emotions with the aim of responding to them and releasing all the built up emotional blockage (to achieve an emotional orgasm) ³.
Following the ideas of Reich, Bellow probes the ‘neurosis’ of Wilhelm by setting him in financial ruin (socio-economic conditions), an estranged marriage brought on by his love affairs and belief that his wife is attempting to choke him off (castration), and at odds with his father (Oedipal complex – the more awkward aspects of this complex are only lightly touched upon, as when Wilhelm reflects upon his mothers death he feels a ‘great pull at the very center of his soul,’ yet ‘never identified what struck within him’). Wilhelm looks back on his past as a laundry list of failures, but shows hope for recovery by always believing that he can get a new start. This ‘new start’, in this case putting the last of his money into commodities with Dr. Tamkin on Tamkin’s ‘can’t fail’ get-rich-quick promises, seem less and less possible now that he is graying and in his 40s, and Bellow does not hesitate from depicting Wilhelm in a rather unflattering light as a slob, sloucher, pill-popper in denial, and rather whiney. Wilhelm does look at his past as a series of event leading him to his sad state, yet he does in part own up to his mistakes and does not shy away from accepting that it was his choices that brought him to those events. This ownership of his faults may be the only glimmer of potential recovery that Wilhelm displays from the start.
The financial ruin of Wilhelm is a major focus of the novel, and should be addressed before proceeding into a discussion of the metaphorical vegeotherapy that Bellow conducts upon his protagonist. Reich was a outspoken Marxist and many of these anti-capitalistic beliefs take shape through both Tamkin and Wilhelm. ‘A man like you,’ Tamkin addresses Wilhelm in one of his many speeches, ‘humble for life, who wants to feel and live, has trouble – not wanting to exchange an ounce of soul for a pound of social power – he’ll never make it without help in a world like this.’ Both men see money as a vicious tool for keeping others down. It is the driving force of New York, according to them, and the world, and is always used as a weapon. Wilhelm feels castrated by his wife’s refusal to grant him a divorce and by her still living off his money, which she demands in increasing quantities. Wilhelm believes his own suffering is inflated due to the downward spiral of poverty and having others always riding on his back dragging him down. ‘A rich man may be free on an income of a million net. A poor man may be free because nobody cares what he does. But a fellow in my position has to sweat it out until he drops dead.’ He views the whole system as utterly threatening and damning. It is even discussed as a method for enslavement and cruelty throughout history in one of the many instances of evoking the Jewish plight and consciousness (It is clear why Roth cites Bellow as an important influence. Bellow manages to weave a religious motif through biblical imagery and brief touches on the Jewish culture that occasionally give a parable-like vibe to the novel).
‘People come to the market to kill,’ says Tamkin, ‘They say, ‘I’m going to make a killing.’ It’s not accidental. Only they haven’t got the genuine courage to kill, and they erect a symbol of it.’ Money is seen as an extension of the animalistic urges in man, seeing money as a force of destruction that blocks the creative forces of love. These animal instincts, an important aspect of Reich’s psychoanalysis, are described by Tamkin when he discusses that a man whom ‘marries sorrow’ will figuratively ‘howl’ from his window at night to express his pain of the world. Wilhelm briefly thinks upon his grandfather calling him by his Yiddish name, Velvel, a name meaning wolf, in another excellent example of Bellow tying the Jewish consciousness into this piece.
Wilhelm’s vegeotherapy is essentially the entire days events. Every waking moment is either the pains of an old wound or a new stressor that builds and builds on him. The systematically recalls all his failures, all his fears, and dwells on all his faults as the day progresses until he is balled up in a knot of anxiety. Then, one by one, he sheds his bodily armor, casting off everyone he knows in a fit of emotional outpouring and indignant anger. Bellow plays with his water motif in a very interesting way here. Throughout the book are frequent allusions to water, many of them directed at Wilhelm’s apparent aversion to it (he uses an electric razor that doesn’t require him wetting his face, he doesn’t wash his hands, etc.). Wilhelm is often described as drowning in his problems. Tamkin is ridiculed by Dr. Adler for having a supposed invention of a underwater suit that would allow people to be protected underwater in case of nuclear attack, which makes for a wonderful metaphor for Wilhelm’s seeking shelter in Tamkin’s stock-market schemes to saving him from drowning in his financial woes. Despite the fears of water, Wilhelm’s orgasm is a flood of tears, and violent output of water as the curtain falls upon the novel.
This watery orgasm poses an interesting analysis on the novel. Perhaps it is what we fear most, that which is the hardest, that we should actually take stock in. In other words, taking the easy way out to avoid the hard way is what causes problems. Wilhelm always ran to the next-big-thing, off to Hollywood or to the bed of a new woman, which brought him to his knees in life. Tamkin offered an easy way out, but should he really be trusted. Bellow creates an incredible trickster figure in Tamkin, ironically having him be a psychologist in a novel focusing on psychoanalysis. Tamkin is often described as speaking ‘hypnotically’, and Wilhelm often wonders if this is some sort of spell he is under from the flow of his words.
’Bringing people into the Here-and-Now. The real universe. That’s the present moment. The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real – the here-and-now. Seize the day.’
The short, punctuated pattern of speech creates a trancelike rhythm. He is like the snake in Eden tempting with an apple of knowledge promising better things. Bellow keeps the temptation sweeter by having Tamkin also express truth and Bellows ultimate message and moral – to love one another. The truth is tangled with the lies and deceit, just like real life where we must sort through all the messages we receive and decode the thread we should follow to salvation, personal success and stability, and which glimmering threads really lead us to damnation and ruin.
For such a thin book, Bellow fills it chock full of literary glory. Seize the Day is like a quick left jab, but when it catches you on the chin you realize it is like a full forced right hook of a fist from any lesser writer. There is simply so much occurring on various levels in this novel and it is truly astonishing. Bellow leaves the reader with an empowering look at life, to seize the moments when they come and make the best of them, and to take ownership of our failures because ‘you can spend the entire second half of your life recovering from the mistakes of the first half.’ Seize the day, and seize this book. 3.75/5
‘all of a sudden, unsought, a general love for all these imperfect and lurid-looking people burst out in Wilhelm’s breast. He loved them. One and all, he passionately loved them. They were his brothers and sisters. He was imperfect and disfigured himself, but what difference did that make if he was united with them by this blaze of love?’
¹ Besides often raving about Bellow (see sub), in Wood’s How Fiction Works, he speaks at length about a tiny paragraph and opens a sea of meaning from a small aside thrown in by Bellow. As the passage from Wood inspired me to read the novel, I’d like to include it here in full:
Another example of the novelist writing over his character occurs (briefly) in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day. Tommy Wilhelm, the out-of-work salesman down on his luck, neither much of an aesthete nor an intellectual, is anxiously watching the board at a Manhattan commodity exchange. Next to him, an old hand named Mr. Rappaport is smoking a cigar. "A long perfect ash formed on the end of the cigar, the white ghost of the leaf with all its veins and its fainter pungency. It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well."
It is a gorgeous, musical phrase, and characteristic of both Bellow and modern fictional narrative. The fiction slows down to draw our attention to a potentially neglected surface or texture—an example of a "descriptive pause," familiar to us when a novel halts its action and the author says, in effect, "Now I am going to tell you about the town of N., which was nestled in the Carpathian foothills," or "Jerome's house was a large dark castle, set in fifty thousand acres of rich grazing land." But at the same time it is a detail apparently seen not by the author—or not only by the author—but by a character. And this is what Bellow wobbles on; he admits an anxiety endemic to modern narrative, and which modern narrative tends to elide. The ash is noticed, and then Bellow comments: "It was ignored, in its beauty, by the old man. For it was beautiful. Wilhelm he ignored as well."
Seize the pay is written in a very close third-person narration, a free indirect style that sees most of the action from Tommy's viewpoint. Bellow seems here to imply that Tommy notices the ash, because it was beautiful, and that Tommy, also ignored by the old man, is also in some way beautiful. But the fact that Bellow tells us this is surely a concession to our implied objection: How and why would Tommy notice this ash, and notice it so well, in these fine words? To which Bellow replies, anxiously, in effect: "Well, you might have thought Tommy incapable of such finery, but he really did notice this fact of beauty; and that is because he is somewhat beautiful himself."
a. Wood’s considered Bellow to be ‘ one, to my mind the greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century - and thus one of the greatest in American fiction’. Wood also insisted that the novel be included in Bellow’s own syllabus for his [Bellow’s] literature course at Boston University so the students could ‘get a sense of the stature of the man who was their professor. Bellow modestly absented himself for that particular class, so that the students could freely concentrate on the writing.’ (Excerpt from Wood’s articleThe High-Minded Joker, a reflection on the life of Saul Bellow published by The Guardian, on April 8, 2005, three days after Bellow’s death.)
² The adoption of his stage name plays beautifully into Bellow’s depiction of the Oedipal complex, as well as exposing the dualities inherent in his protagonist with regards to his ‘body armor’ and true self. ‘He had cast off his father’s name, and with it his father’s opinion of him. It was, and he knew it was, his bid for liberty. Adler being in his mind the title of his species, Tommy the freedom of the person. But Wilky was his inescapable self.’ This also allows for the naming of Dr. Tamkin to represent a surrogate father for Tommy Wilhelm, a false, faulty father for a false faulty self. The use of names in the novel is textbook Lit101 analysis and used to it’s full potential.
³ Reich was declared schizophrenic by Sandor Rado, thought to be bipolar by his own daughter and was a staunch believer that Earth was secretly at war with UFOs. Despite his apparent open insanity, Reich’s ‘orgone accumulators’ – a device built to achieve the emotional orgasm of vegeotherapy, was popularly used by many big-name people, such as Sean Connery, J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac.
‘Everyone on this side of the grave is the same distance from death’ (less)
‘Summer is the time for dreaming, and then you have to stop. But some people go on dreaming all their lives, and cannot change.
Hamsun has always favo...more ‘Summer is the time for dreaming, and then you have to stop. But some people go on dreaming all their lives, and cannot change.
Hamsun has always favored the eccentrics. Those set apart from society by their volatile nature, the mysterious strangers whose behavior and whims set an entire village upside down, and those who become a force of nature all themselves. Hamsun’s 1904 novella, Dreamers, is no exception in its depiction of an eccentric man whose womanizing, drinking, and clever schemes pit him as a solitary force acting within and against his tiny, isolated fishing village. Told in a pleasant, bleary-eyed conversational pace and tone, it is as if it were a late-night tale from the protagonist himself over a bottle of his brandy. While Dreamers is a minor work in Hamsun’s impressive catalogue, feeling a bit like a bloated short story and lacking some of the poetic depth that marked his greater works, all the classic Hamsun motifs and quirks come together to create this charmingly simplistic and comedic tale that examines the changing morality in a rapidly modernizing world.
All the joys of a Hamsun novel come together in this tiny piece. The novellas anti-hero is classic Hamsun, reminding the reader of the booze-soaked eccentricities that characterized Nagel in Mysteries, as well as the flirtatious woodman in Pan. The link between man and nature, which characterizes much of Hamsun’s work, also plays a large role. As the turning of seasons is reflected in the actions of the characters, be it their passions or the ways they are reliant on nature to make their living such as the fishermen and farmers having their destinies forever linked to the land, we find man either succumbing to the whims of nature, or becoming a force of nature themselves. ‘It was weather for dreamers, for young people to flit about in restless excitement.’ Spring is the season of new, young love, and serves as a perfect setting for this story. It’s refreshing warmth loosening the icy grip on our hearts and setting our instinctive passions to bloom. The powerful, handsome and musically talented Rolandsen has already had his season, already engaged to a woman he avoids (‘it was a burden to have a fiancée who did not understand a clean break’. Despite his failed attempts at infidelity and his standoffish nature to push her away, she refuses to leave him), and the awkwardness and impotence in chasing the younger girls in their season of romance sets him apart, pains him, and puts him to drinking and scheming.
Rolandsen is not one pushed by natural order and to blow the winds of fate himself and seeks his own place in the world.
’There was a weathercock on the roof of the telegraph station on an iron pole. When Rolandsen got home, he climbed up on to the roof and gave the role a blow with his own hands. The cock reeled backwards, and looked as if it were crowing. That was how it should look. It was very apt that the cock should crow.’
Hamsun uses this opportunity to comment of the modernization of his times. The telegraph is a motif in his oeuvre, being used most prominently in this novella as well as in Growth of the Soil to represent the growth of technology that binds us all together, creating a worldwide community as opposed to isolated communities that is made possible by the telegraphs ability to transmit news and other information across distances. Rolandsen’s status as telegraph operator allows him to be a representation of mans creative power, a power allowing us to cut out our own destinies, break free from the bonds of tradition, and not being under the thumb of nature. While Rolandsen is the symbol of change, the curate serves as a symbol of the tradition. This preacher comes to town impoverished, not wealthy as they had suspected, and attempts to tidy up the morality of the town (his annoyance with his wife’s messiness and having to always clean up after her is a comical metaphor of his obdurate religiousness. It is shown that people want to have fun and to be themselves, and don’t mind living in a mess as long as it isn’t too harmful). Hamsun enjoys playing with morality and probing the underlying currents of our actions. As in Mysteries where there is much commentary on how there are no unselfish-actions, what we discern on the surface level of the townspeople’s actions are often not indicative of their underlying motives and true character. The curate fires his hardworking and honest layman because the man’s sister sleeps around and therefor he should not employ someone so close to immorality. He instead hires humble Enoch, however, Enoch quiet humbleness may turn out to be a front to disguise his sinful nature. Rolandsen gladly accepts shame and a sinful reputation in order to achieve his true goals, taking blame for actions he hadn’t committed. Traditional morality is questioned, obstinate religious judgment is shown as an impoverished and fallible outlook on humanity, as Hamsun offers an existential viewpoint on morality as subjective.
It is the dreamers who brought this new era, the scientists (like Rolandsen and his experiments) and the innovators, and gives man the upper hand towards nature. It calls into question all sorts of moral issues, much like in the modern day where scientific advancements are still a battleground for moral debate, and Hamsun examines this effortlessly, the reader hardly noticing the serious weight of moral quandaries as they glide across this comical story. What is God’s place in a world where man creates his own morals, he poses to the reader. ‘Obviously He’s Lord over all Creation, but it can’t be anything special to be a god of animals and mountains. It’s really us human beings that make Him what He is. So why shouldn’t He be with us?’ Rolandsen asks the curate’s wife when she tells him ‘God be with you.’ If there aren’t people to worship Him, would he be a God? This paradox is a bit cliché in the modern world, but would have seemed an intriguing point to find nestled in a 1904 comedic novella. Hamsun shows man as being one with nature, yet being able to rise above it.
This novella is certainly not without its faults. The poetic beauty that Hamsun so easily pours into many of his novels is absent here and the tone and prose is very simple and rarely dips away from the story to allow some abstract train of though to stretch out and grow. It contains all the charms of a Hamsun novel, including the doomed love motif as Rolandsen chases woman who find him beneath themselves (there is a touching conclusion however, but it seems slightly tacked on), and the neurotic anti-hero, yet they aren’t fleshed out and as vibrant as in most of his stories. However, for those who enjoy Hamsun, this quick little book is wholly satisfying and makes for a wonderful weekend read. It is a quick dip into the mind of a great novelist, and while the story is a bit inconsequential, he manages to tackle heavy subject matters with great ease and deliver it all in an upbeat and charming manner. It reads much like his short stories, yet he manages to encompass the actions of all the townsfolk, weaving in many amusing side-stories that are engaging, yet cause it to feel a bit like a bloated short story. Had he expanded on it into a full novel though, it would have seemed like overdoing it, and had he trimmed much it wouldn’t have had much impact. Hamsun pokes fun at us all, we all appear fools in his eyes, but it is nice to laugh at oneself.
Despite it’s flaws, this was a very enjoyable short read. I adore Hamsun’s works, they always feel very close to my heart and I always enjoy finding bits of myself in his works, even though they aren’t the most admirable qualities. Hamsun has a gift for making the eccentrics seem so loveable, despite focusing more of their deficiencies and letting their good traits permeate through the peripheries. While this is a minor work, it was fun and I always enjoy a trip back into the word of Nobel Laureate Knut Hamsun. Recommended for those already seduced by his quirky ways, and, as always, for those unfamiliar with the man I urge you to make your acquaintance with the mercurial narrator of Hunger. 3/5
‘But now it was spring again, and spring was almost unbearable for sensitive hearts. It drove creation to its utmost limits, it wafted its spice-laden breath even into the nostrils of the innocent.’
Early in his career, Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) briefly experimented with the short story, releasing three short volumes before abandoning...moreEarly in his career, Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) briefly experimented with the short story, releasing three short volumes before abandoning the venue entirely¹ Hamsun never put a whole lot of stock into his short story writing, although it is quite good, and claims the third collection had merely been written as a gift to his second wife. While lacking the full impact of works such as Hunger or Mysteries, Tales of Love & Loss, made up of 20 stories pooled from his three short story volumes that are available in English only through this collection, still delivers a completely satisfying array of stories that make a perfect companion to any Hamsun collection while demonstrating his wit, humor, and probing of moral dilemmas.
Much of Tales seems like early sketches of characters that would later appear in his novels. Stories such as John Tro or The Call of Life, read almost as deleted scenes from Hunger, while hints of Glahn from Pan appear in Ladykiller and hints of Nagel from Mysteries can be seen in the mysterious nuisance in the incredible Secret Sorrow. The latter story, as well as the unsettling A Real Rascal, are perfect examples of Hamsun practicing his depth of moral investigations. These stories read as if they were a laboratory of thought for Hamsun to test his ideas and abilities before expanding upon them in full length novels, yet the stories collected in this book are just as exciting and worthwhile as the novels.
Many of the concepts toyed with in these stories would not appear in novel form for another dozen or so years, especially the many tales of provincial life, such as Life in a Small Town or On the Prairie, that seem to be laying the groundwork for late-career novels like The Women at the Pump or Growth of the Soil. There are several stories that seem rather unique to Hamsun, such as A Ghost, which is a rather satisfying, creepy ghost story (as the name would imply) with a moral lesson attached, or the apolitical, politically charged (and almost gonzo-esk) Revolution on the Streets featuring a professor who just so happens to be caught up in student riots while trying to go about his daily habits as if all was normal. There is a lighthearted, comical side not typically thought of about Hamsun that shines through in many of these stories. The first, and earliest written of the stories, A Lecture Tour, follows an author attempting to give a ‘serious lecture about serious literature.’ After having nobody attends his lecture, having already paid in advance for the pavilion, while a man showing off animals has a sold-out audience down the street, the writer agrees to be part of the animal show to cover his losses. As translator Robert Ferguson asserts in his introduction, this story ‘shows Hamsun in the process of learning to laugh at himself and his literary pretensions and ambitions. This self-mockery would later be tinged with the tragic in Hunger as we watch a starving artist fall into crippling poverty all in the name of high-art.
Some of the best pieces in this collection are those that are not much more beyond sketches of people existing in a particular place. On The Banks, probably my favorite of the collection, is a simple overview of a fishing boat crewed by a group of men who all speak different languages. None of them are able to converse with each other verbally, and the only one that is able to speak enough of a different language to tell a story gets so excited by his own story that he can never spit it out. On the Banks is beautifully poetic and tragic in a way only Hamsun could provide. On the Prairie is another example of character sketches, that while having no plot other than the workers getting drunk at the end of a harvest season, gives so much insight to the characters and their lives through tiny observations that the reader comes away feeling as if they have read an entire novel about the coexistence of these men. It is truly astonishing.
There is an auto-biographical element to many of these stories that helps them to win the hearts of any Hamsun reader. Many of them discuss the various jobs Hamsun worked while at home and abroad in America, and his first hand experiences allowed him to paint such vibrant pictures of what it was like to be in those places at those times. Having just read James Wood’s article on Hamsun (graciously bestowed upon me by the great and wise Señor Puma) in which he discusses how Hamsun, while working for the railroads, would wrap his body in old bags underneath his clothes to help keep warm: ‘He was very poor and weathered the deep winter of Chicago by wearing newspaper under his clothes; his colleagues liked to touch him to make him crackle,’ it was exciting to read in A Woman’s Triumph that the narrators coworkers ‘prodded me to hear me crackle’. These little bits taken from his life are always sprinkled through his novels and add a certain joy upon discovery.
Hamsun’s short stories are more than just an added bonus to any Hamsun reader; this collection stands alone with the best of his novels and was far more entertaining and enjoyable that I had hoped for. It is interesting to watch the progression of his thoughts, to see him experiment with styles, narration, and ideas that would later go on to be part of his incredible novels. Certain motifs of his oeuvre, such as using the invention of the telegraph as a metaphor for human communication (something that is highly important to the plot of Growth of the Soil), are seen in their infant stages of development in these stories. Also, the reader learns little facts about the author’s life. For anyone with a love of Knut Hamsun, this is a wonderful addition to any Hamsun collection. 4/5
¹ Hamsun also briefly toyed with plays and poetry during his early career, abandoning both as well. Although his time spent sharpening his poetical verse is evident in the dramatic maturity of his prose in Victoria and the novels written afterwards, Hamsun never returned to plays and considered the genre rather inferior (a comment that is most likely fueled by his distaste for Henrik Ibsen, a distaste he gleefully made public on numerous occasions such as giving a lecture dismissing Ibsen’s work to a full audience that included the playwright in question who happened to be sitting front and center).(less)
Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago is an author I can only speak lovingly of. He has such a charm and warm glow about his prose that fills my heart with eac...moreNobel Laureate Jose Saramago is an author I can only speak lovingly of. He has such a charm and warm glow about his prose that fills my heart with each word from his pen. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but his passing has reinvigorated an interest in his publication that has brought several volumes of posthumous releases and newly translated works to help fill the void his absence has created. The Lives of Things is one such work, appearing for the first time in English and comprised of six stories previously published in 1978. These short pieces offer a unique look at his early writing, powerful in its own regard, and displays glimpses of themes he would mold and expand upon throughout his impressive career.
The dilemma with reviews is how to review a book that you really enjoy, but one that falls slightly short of the great achievements by that same author. The 3 stars I reluctantly awarded seems a slighting on this collection, but I assure you it is not so. To place 4 stars on the review would then align it in the same category as I have rated many of his other books, wholly deserving, and this collection does not quite have the same impact as, say, Blindness. Also, when hearing there was a book of his short stories coming out, I was very excited, but felt a bit underwhelmed when I discovered it was such a slim volume. Basically, this is a giant self-serving disclaimer and you may now continue forth knowing this is a very high 3, or a 7.5/10.
Each story contained is very satisfying, and shows a younger author building an enviable style. It is interesting to see how he has progressed, as much of the sentence structure found here is more truncated than his later works. Also, Saramago’s signature rejection of dialogue conventions have yet to be developed at this point. Instead of the fascinating and unique way of dialogue as an unbroken sentence pulsating back and forth between interlocutors, in these stories we see Saramago using the em-dash and line breaks to flag dialogue while still avoiding calling out the speaker. His grasp on language and the sheer poetry of his words are anything but wanting however, and fans of Saramago will find many golden passages to bask in. Saramago pays strict attention to colors in many of these stories, which I need to reread his later work to see how that survived. His exciting and loving way of toiling through phrasing and circling around ideas is ever present as well, and gave me exactly what I crave most in his works. For example, the first story, The Chair, consists of a mere few seconds of time and space, which he exploits for nearly 30 pages of pure poetic investigation, elevating the breaking of a chair to epic proportions complete with Western-style showdowns between termite and wood that could rival Tombstone. 4 pages pass before he even gets on with it, choosing to examine the notion of the phrases ‘to come to bits’ and 'topple over'. I’ve always enjoyed his method of picking apart the shortcomings of language:
If they were to say the same thing, if they were to group together through affinity of structure and origin, then life would be much simpler, by means of successive reduction, down to onomatopoeia which is not simple either, and so on and so forth, probably to silence, to what we might term the general synonym or omnivalent. It is not even onomatopoeia, or cannot be formed from this articulated sound (since the human voice doe not have pure, unarticulated sounds, except perhaps in singing, and even then one would have to listen up close) formed in the throat of the person who is toppling or falling although no star, both words with heraldic echoes, which now describe anything which is about to come to pieces, therefor it did not sound right to join the parallel ending to this verb, which would settle the choice and complete the circle. Thus proving that the world is not perfect.
The world may not be perfect, but Saramago, you were damned close.
As with many of his novels, the settings of these stories feel wholly universal and timeless, attributing a fable-like mythology to the places spoken of. His satirical wit is shown to already be sharpened as he comically depicts the lives of civil servants, royalty, and the chains of command. His political parables are just as poignant today as they were in 70’s, and readers today will empathize with the man in Embargo as they watch the gas prices rise with the summer temperatures. I cannot fill up my tank now without thinking of his plight. Many of these allegorical themes will be familiar to the Saramago reader, and it is interesting to see the initial blueprints of many larger ideas and motifs in later novels. Stories like Reflux, where a walled off necropolis is constructed to remove the sight of death from a kingdom, seem to live on as the sprawling cemetery in All the Names, as well as the civil servant in Things. Death plays the largest role in the works of Saramago, and here too, as it is the common denominator of each story. Sometimes mocking, sometimes foreboding, but always with the aim of redemption does Saramago approach our inevitable end.
Let it be known that the story Things is worth the price of admission alone. A city begins to fall to pieces, both literally and figuratively, as the government decrees that all products must be made with lower standards of quality because there ‘was little point depriving members of the public (especially those in categories A, B, and C) of the civil right to lodge complaints; a wise decision which could only benefit the manufacturing companies.’ Hilarious right? Until man-made objects begin vanishing – entire apartment buildings disappearing into thin air sending the residents plummeting several stories to their deaths. Applying a wry satire on Government procedure, social status and abbreviations, this story is shocking and satisfying in a way that makes in seem like the best of Vonnegut crossed with P.K.D. The remainder of the stories are all worth a read still too. The probing of myth in the face of death in Minotaur and the highly ethereal Revenge will leave you craving for more of this great writer.
While this is early, unpolished Saramago, it is still of the highest caliber. I would, however, not recommend it as a starting place for new readers (except for Things), as having a bit of built-up love for the man will serve as a good pair of shocks over the few bumps and potholes. The man started strong and ended stronger, and this is a wonderful way to enjoy him in short bursts. 3.75/5
‘If you believe in God, then He exists.’ This sentiment best surmises the questions and crises of faith presented in the Nobel winning body of work fro...more‘If you believe in God, then He exists.’ This sentiment best surmises the questions and crises of faith presented in the Nobel winning body of work from Isaac Bashevis Singer. The Polish born author came to the United States on the brink of WWII and left an honorable mark on Jewish literature, winning two National Book Awards, one for his memoirs and one for A Crown of Feathers (which he shared with Thomas Pynchon for Gravity's Rainbow), as well as the Nobel in 1978. While having written With a wide variety of stories, funny, sad, and occasionally outright depressing, Singer explores the strength of faith when faced with adversity, be it folktale demons or holocaust horrors, and illustrates the challenge of believing in a God who is ‘eternally silent’.
Singer personally selected the 47 stories presented in this collection, selected from a deep pool of seven story collections. He says this was difficult since he felt ‘like some Oriental father with a harem full of women and children, I cherish them all’. However, this offers a good overview of his work since it contains the pieces he feels best represents himself. The stories range in form and content, yet the message of faith resonates through all of them in various forms. The earlier stories read like folktales that reminded me very much of the Ukrainian Tales of Nikolai Gogol, presenting small Jewish villages in the backcountry of Poland assailed by demons and black magic (the satanic orgy in The Gentleman from Cracow is unforgettable). While it is frightening to see evil beings stalk the earth with ragged claws and hoofs, trying to seduce Rabbi’s from their studies and women from the virginity, the truly chilling creatures are those in human flesh of his later stories. Singer shows that man can be the epitome of evil, even through simple, seemingly harmless ways, not just the big obvious ones like the holocaust stories.
Through each tale, we watch evil descend upon the poor Jewish souls, and even when they take all, they cannot take their faith. Faith is often shaken, ridiculed and lost, but the Void these characters face when they are stripped of their faith is far more frightening than the evils that beleaguer them. He presents any which way one could feel lost in the world and question the existence of a God, a being who is always silent and remains on the sidelines, despite any pleading. While the opinions of a deity morph through the timeline of his writing, he never denounces his God.
Singer sparked plenty of controversy within both literary and religious circles with stories that embrace homosexuality and transgender characters. However, he broaches the topics with tact and respect, and such a broad love and open mind is what led him to be a recipient of such high honors. Singer writes what he believes, never panders, and makes no excuses. In his ‘Author’s Note’ to this collection, he writes how he has recognized and avoided the dangers of writing fiction:
’1. The idea that the writer must be a sociologist and a politician, adjusting himself to what are called social dialectics. 2.Greed for money and quick recognition. 3. Forced originality – namely, the illusion that pretentious rhetoric, precious innovations in style, and playing with artificial symbols can express the basic and ever-changing nature of human relations, or reflect the combinations and complications of heredity and environment…’
He enters into a longer discussion on the pitfalls of what he considers ‘experimental’ literature, arguing that ‘literature can very well describe the absurd, but it should never become absurd itself’. This makes one wonder what Singer would think of the recent trend of books that, as many (myself included) have dubbed ‘weirdness for the sake of weirdness’. Regardless of ones opinion on experimental books, I’ll keep silent here and simply present the authors opinion as I don’t wish to spark an argument with this as I am in no way qualified to present an opinion, I do enjoy the general idea of writing for your beliefs and not for others.
Literature lost a valuable moral compass when Singer passed on July 24th, 1991. His method of writing flows in a manner that makes one feel they are on his knee hearing a life lesson story. Let us all sit back and listen. 4/5
As a disclaimer of sorts, when it comes to books such as this, I try to remain detached from the author’s opinions as these are often touchy subjects. I hope I respectfully presented this information, and I do very much wish not to offend anyone. I have no qualms with discussing these ideas with an open mind with a willing interlocutor, but I wish to refrain from stiff-arming any ideology in a review. I hope I have at least succeeded in that. Thank you for reading, and best wishes! (less)
‘Was there any meaning in the life he lived? Not even that did he believe in. But this was something he knew nothing about. It was not for him to judg...more‘Was there any meaning in the life he lived? Not even that did he believe in. But this was something he knew nothing about. It was not for him to judge.’
Despite the small size of this novel, it is a deep chasm of heavy thoughts and difficult questions. Barabbas, widely considered the masterpiece of the Swedish author and 1951 Nobel laureate Par Lagerkvist, is a parable of the dilemma of faith. Barabbas, acquitted for murder, goes on living while Jesus is crucified in his stead, and spends his life haunted by this single event. While he is ‘damned lucky’, emphasis on damned, to be alive, he cannot help but feel life is meaningless anyways and struggles to accept faith in this strange crucified man whom he hears so much about. Powerful and deeply moving, this novel offers a unique, detached perspective on religion and faith, as a parable that is as poignant today as it was back in the religious persecution days of ancient Rome while being able to reach a reader despite any personal religious beliefs.
Lagerkvist built a fruitful career around challenging morality and faith within his readers. His prose is simple and direct, wasting no time with verbose passages, and cuts right to the heart making every word count. This novel, weighing in at a mere 144 pages, is bursting beyond capacity with moral musings and feels more like a novel of epic proportions that a slim novella. He also manages to take a topic that is known for inducing strong, passionate opinions from both sides of the spectrum and writing about it in an objective, removed manner. For example, the opening chapter is the most chilling depiction of the crucifixion on Mouth Golgotha I have ever encountered. Barabbas stands and witnesses the scene with a cold indifference, not knowing anything about the man being crucified. Jesus is never named in the novel, being only referred to as the ‘dead man’ or ‘crucified man’, and it is strange to see him regarded in such an impersonal way, especially in a scene illustrating his violent death. In a way, this objective approach is necessary to fit the lead character, but also makes the ideas easier to swallow as they aren’t tainted by emotion or seeming too slanted either way. There are times when both Christians and atheists will feel he is on their side and other passages where they will find him seemingly aligned against them. I feel this novel can work regardless of a religious opinion, yet as always, one must keep an open mind and allow the novel to unfold. It goes some very dark and disturbing places, and readers should be cautioned that the ironic, enigmatic conclusion is not a light at the end of a tunnel. This novel will challenge all beliefs and portray the world as a cruel, indifferent place as we follow Barabbas on his journey.
The idea of faith is the pulse of this novel. While Barabbas wants so badly to believe, he cannot. He cannot grasp the meaning behind the doctrine to ‘love one another’, simple as it may be, for he has no notion of love. He witnesses many potent events, yet tries to find logical explanations for them. He also cannot grasp how if a man was God, why he would allow himself a slaves death, and furthermore, why he would allow his followers to suffer and be put to death as well. Lagerkvist lays out the foundation to the disbelief of a God found in many people, yet offers slight glimpses of counter arguments: ‘He had used his power in the most extraordinary way. Used it by not using it, as it were; allowed others to decide exactly as they liked; refrained from interfering and yet had got his own way all the same…’ (remind LOST fans of Jacob there?). This crisis of faith causes the world to seem an even more indifferent place than he originally thought, ‘He was not bound together with anyone. Not with anyone at all in the whole world,’ and Lagerkvist pours an ocean of lonesome imagery into later portions of the novel.
Seemingly every word and event is a metaphor of religion, allowing the novel to work on several levels. Barabbas was ‘born hated’ by parents who cared nothing for him, such as the mother who died in childbirth cursing the world and all in it. He is damned from the start, much like the idea of original sin. The accusers of those who are preaching the crucified mans doctrine are often blind or near blind. Pay attention to every detail, as there are many layers to this novel. The book also works as a critique of modern times. The Christians in the book are persecuted for their faith, but it is primarily because it preaches that the lowest of citizens will be set free and equals with all those above them. Without understanding what this means, the Romans want to squash this belief as they want to keep the lepers and beggars and other lower class folk oppressed. Lagerkvist is often critical of those with power, yet shows many of the leaders as decent people and that it is the system and standards that create the cruelty those beneath them suffer. It is interesting how religion and Roman government are juxtaposed in many scenes, often more so to highlight their similarities instead of their differences. Lagerkvist is quite critical of Christians at time, showing many of the staunch followers to be rather hypocritical. They preach love and acceptance, yet seem very exclusive and unwelcoming to people who don’t fit their mold, such as Barabbas and the girl with the hare-lip.
I had read this intending it to be a quick escape after finishing Joyce’s epic novel, yet found myself caught up in the burdenous queries posed by this novel. Lagerkvist has a gift of stirring such strong feelings with so few words. If you enjoy examining faith, this is the book for you. It is a trip through suffering, offering both hope, and crushing visions of the world and death as a meaningless void. I will certainly be returning to the novels of Lagerkvist soon, his simple prose styling and layered meanings are too marvelous to only read one of his books. 4/5
I hope I didn't raise anyones blood pressure with this review. Please know that I had no intentions of conveying any opinions regarding religion, either for or against, and was simply trying to review a book with a difficult message. Anything said in this review was with no desire to dispute, argue, or impose any beliefs, just to detail the literary merits of this wonderful novel by an author surely deserving of the Nobel recognition. I would be more than happy to dicuss such topics with any willing person, as I find the various forms of religion fascinating, but this review was intended to be written purely objectively. Sorry for the disclaimer, but this is a touchy subject with many.(less)
I often catch myself staring, rather lovingly in fact, at my bookshelves. Each shelf is swelling nearly to the point of overflowing with books, each a...moreI often catch myself staring, rather lovingly in fact, at my bookshelves. Each shelf is swelling nearly to the point of overflowing with books, each authors collection seemingly positioned at random - yet, somehow, the location of each work holds some secret form of order that is beyond even me. I'll caress each spine with my eyes, occasionally running a finger down it to feel a spark of retrospection and for a moment recall the times when I held a particular book during the course of absorbing it. I can often relate any major event in my life to the particular novel I was reading at the time, and vice versa, making my bookshelf an eternal, tangled web of my past. Perhaps this is why I never got into the electronic readers. I can understand their versatility and convenience, but there is a strange power felt while just holding a nice edition of a novel in your hands, especially after time has passed and you pick it back up just to feel its weight in your palms. Plus, I greatly enjoy scavenging through used book stores for old hardcovers and often traverse several stores before reading a novel I know I'll love just to be sure I have the edition that best suits me. One day I hope to have my own personal library; in my mind it looks much like the one from Beauty and the Beast a la Disney, but less cartoonish. Maybe it is an obsession, but literature fills a special place in my heart. It should, seeing as I owe a large sum of money back for furthering my education of it.
On the topic of obsession comes Hamsun's first novel, Hunger, published in 1890. As my eyes scanned each novel I had read in 2011, they stopped here and acknowledged this as my personal favorite novel I had read this past year. This book is a monumental achievement of psychological literature as it is a powerful examination of human consciousness. Hunger is a novel of a starving artist, meant in the most literal sense possible, who puts up with extreme hardship and hunger, suffering all for the pure sake of putting pen to paper. The reader is immersed in the nameless narrators consciousness, following him down the chilly streets of Christiana as he barely hangs on by a thread in pursuit of the next burst of genius to sell for small change in order to continue on. The reader is trapped in this unraveling mind, floating on his rantings and ravings that Hamsun details with eloquent precision, and watches as his moods shift and swing to and fro like a hinged door in a hellish hurricane.
I read this novel in a matter of two days, it is one that simply cannot be put down. I would set it aside and feel its pull begging me to transport myself back into the narrator and suffer his trials and tribulations with him. Although I read it perched on the side of a pool, my feet in the clear water and basking in the exquisit Michigan summer sun, I could not feel at ease as Hamsun projected the mania onto me. I felt much as the narrator felt, being drawn inside of him. He writes:
The dark had captured my brain and gave me not an instant of peace. What if I myself became dissolved into the dark, turned into it?
The novel moves in several parts, each taking place a few weeks after the previous and pitting the narrator in his most extreme moments of desperation. It will become quickly apparent that this narrator is no fool however, and is in fact quite brilliant. This brilliant mind weaves pages of lustrous prose and cutting insight to the world, and people, around him, yet we see him loose control and throw into a fit of anger and delirium and experience the occasional aberration of reality. It proposed the dilema, has he gone mad from hunger, or is he hungry because he has gone mad? Hamsun offers evidence to either side, yet leaves it up to you to draw conclusions. Hamsun intentionally conceives him out of contradictions, much like his hero Johan Nagel of his excellent sophomore novel Mysteries, showing him as brash but tender, kind yet callous, pathetic yet brave. He often comes into money but gives it all away to someone else while overcome with manic passions and seems to care little about his own lamentable conditions as if it were all some sort of game to him. He prays and speaks to God, trusting in his design, yet doubts his existence at the same time. This attention to the psychology of a frenzied, contradictory lead role has brought many comparions of Hamsun to Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his character Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. This is an apt comparison, although I felt Hamsun's narrator and the Underground man from Notes From Underground were more kindred spirits. This book could practically be a prequel to that novel of Dostoyevsky's.
This novel is one of Hamsun's most personal, as it draws heavily from his own life experiences. As Robert Bly's afterword describes, Hamsun spent most of his young life working hard labor for menial pay, and became very much an introvert from the lack of his peers whom he could converse about 'higher ideas' with. He spend much of this time hungry and exceedingly poor, and would go into fits of writing lofty incantations, yet, in the yellow morning, would see these pages as nothing but stanzas of gibberish and tear them up and toss the scraps into the street (if you caught the lifting of Ginsberg there, one thousand cool points are awarded to you. That's my favorite part). Perhaps Hamsun felt he was loosing grip on reality, much like his narrator. I read an essay of Hamsun once that said he was a wanderer, often moving to new places to get inspiration for novels and write in seclusion, and that he was highly popular with the female folk. The narrator seems an extension of Hamsun in this regard, as it is hinted that he is not a native of Chrisiana and has all across the map, and that even in his wretched state of malnutrition causing his ragged clothes to hang off him and his hair to fall out, he is still able to attract the affections of a local lady.
Hunger is not a novel you will ever forget. It sprouts deep roots within your heart and mind and will follow your thoughts wherever you go. If you are a first-time reader of the great Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, this is a perfect introduction. Although I don't like to give such a one-sided depiction of a novel, this is one that I cannot find anything negative for to say. Upon completion, I declared that some day I will teach this novel, it is that good and there is enough material for countless discussions. This was my favorite novel that I read in 2011, and I hope you read it. It would be a damn shame not to. 5/5
-I love a dream of love I once had, I love you, and I love this patch of earth. -And which do you love best? -The dream.
With his succinct 1894 novel, Pa...more-I love a dream of love I once had, I love you, and I love this patch of earth. -And which do you love best? -The dream.
With his succinct 1894 novel, Pan, Knut Hamsun once again displays his prowess of capturing the human psychology and detailing the internal conflicts that arise through the sudden rise and fall of moods. Through Glahn, the capricious man who has taken up residence within the northern wilderness and the socialite Edvarda, Hamsun demonstrates how even the slightest romantic collision of two souls can create a spark whose burn is felt long after the romance has begun to smolder. The irrationalities that exist in such a torrid affair between man and woman come alive in his prose and fiery dialogue as the reader experiences the pains and paranoia of chasing after an elusive lover.
Appearing in print only two years after Mysteries, an incredible account of an irrational stranger much like Glahn (and my favorite of his books), Hamsun appears much more matured, confidant and focused in his writing. While Mysteries was slightly bloated, Pan is trimmed down to a potent simplicity and directness. Returning to the first person narration similar to Hunger, the reader is treated to a troubled and unreliable mind to lead them through this tragic love story. The first section of the novel is Glahn’s journal, which he insists was purely ‘ to while away the time’ and amuse himself, shows him reflecting on the events of a previous summer. While he repeatedly mentions that Edvarda no longer crosses his mind, he continuously winds his way back to her in his accounts. The second section, written from an acquaintance of Glahn’s a year a short time after the journal, offers a slightly different image of the man. While Glahn portrays himself as socially inept, unattractive and clumsy, the second narrator displays him as a powerful foreign force in the world with a charm and chiseled looks that make him irresistible to women.
As the title would imply, this is a story of the forest with Glahn as a ‘Pan’ of sorts. He is a perfect blend of man and nature, coexisting with the wild in perfect harmony. While he is a hunter, he only kills what he must for bare survival, never taking more than what he needs to eat in the immediate future. He is also seemingly superhumanly in-tuned with nature, being able to tell the exact time through the flowers and trees and seemingly able to commune with the land on which he dwells. While his descriptions of society and the people he interacts with are exceedingly simplistic, the true prose of the novel blossoms in his depictions of nature and the reader feels the glowing sun, hears the rushing waters and smells the trees and grass through his words. In a novel of love and lust, the intimate scenes between him and his various lovers occur primarily offstage while the sexual imagery is reserved for nature:
’In the night hours of the forest, great white flowers have suddenly opened out, their chalices spread wide, and they breathe. And furry hawk-moths bury themselves in their petals and set the whole plant quivering. I go from flower to flower; they are in ecstasy, and I see their intoxication.’
He is Hamsun’s image of pure masculinity and a ideal blend of both creative and destructive powers, a mythical being both beast and man. Hamsun decorates the novel with allusions to fables, the most obvious the name of Glahn’s dog, Aesop, to help bring this idea of Pan alive in a realistic setting.
If Glahn is a symbol of the wild, then Edvarda is a symbol of society. She is well of high standings both financially and socially, playing hostess to many soirees and moving between multiple suitors. The pair are doomed from the start as Hamsun illustrates the infinite divide between well groomed society and the primal realm of the wild. Glahn is at ease in the forest, yet feels completely awkward and ill at ease in social settings and displays bizarre behavior and strange outbursts. Edvarda is a creature of irrationality as well, playing men off of one another and escaping into the wilderness in secret to satisfy more basic instincts of passions under the cover of night.
The frustration felt by Glahn as he grapples with his passion practically chokes the reader. He is just as in-tune with the body language of others as he is with nature, and is constantly analyzing Edvarda in social settings. In the forest, she goes wild with emotion, yet in society she is cold, calculating and inaccessible. She dismisses his advances yet keeps him on the line with one sweet smile or insistence that he be the last to leave, yet refuses to let on to any romantic entanglement in the company of others. It is a blockage of passion that crushes souls and forces one to act out if only to be acknowledged. Always being one with nature, the romance is played out with the seasons with fall darkening the tone of the novel and ushering us towards certain chilly doom and destruction.
Never has there been an author whose words have sung better harmony to the melody of my soul as Hamsun. His characters come alive wonderfully through his careful prose and marvelously plotted out shifts and moods. This is a novel for anyone who has loved, anyone who has lost, and anyone who has squirmed in frustration over a ill-fated tryst. Despite the meager size of the novel, Pan is another knock out and delivers just as much emotional impact and literary brilliance as Hamsun’s other novels while being much warmer and heartfelt than his previous works while setting the grounds for a further investigation of the rift between nature and society that he explores in Growth of the Soil. Satisfy your primal instincts and enter the dark forest of Hamsun’s mind. The dream of love always burns brighter than the loves we use to bandage our wounds.
A quick note on the translation I read the James W. McFarlane translation, an older translation published by Noonday (of which Goodreads seems not to have in their various editions). While it still delivers, I would direct anyone towards a different translator. The newer Penguin edition would probably be a better choice. While Hamsun’s poetic might is strong enough to punch through, I felt I was missing some of the flow that I glimpsed in his other books. It was as if McFarlane was hitting all the right notes, but not letting them truly flow. (less)
”On the night before your birthday if you get into bed left foot first and turn the pillow over before you go to sleep, anything might happen”So begin...more”On the night before your birthday if you get into bed left foot first and turn the pillow over before you go to sleep, anything might happen”So begins the magical, whimsical tale The Wishing Tree by none other than the great William Faulkner. Dulcie, a young girl, wakes on her birthday to find a mysterious stranger in her room who whisks her, the other children, the maid Alice, and a 92 year old man away on a magical adventure full of wishes come true. This rare book is actually quite good as far as short children’s stories go and shows Faulkner in a unique form as he wrote it as a gift to the 8 year old daughter of a friend.
Who knew Faulkner wrote a children’s novel? I had never heard of this, so, Faulkner being a major idol of mine, I was surprised and delighted when I found it at random on the wrong shelf of The Dawn Treader Used Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mi this past weekend in perfect condition, dust jacket and all, for under $10. I hastily picked it up and read the jacket to make sure that this actually was THE William Faulkner as it seemed unlikely he had written such a book. This story, weighing in at only 82 pages, existed as just one copy that belonged to little Victoria until it was slightly edited, garnished with the beautiful illustrations of Don Bolognese in 1967 and received an actual publication by Random House. It was written in 1927, which places it sometime around the time he wrote his second novel Mosquitoes. The Wishing Tree is very playful and funny and shows a different side of Faulkner than is commonly seen. However, it is distinctly the words of the master, as the opening paragraph will show:
She was still asleep but she could feel herself rising up out of sleep, just like a balloon: it was like she was a goldfish in a round bowl of sleep, rising and rising through the warm waters of sleep to the top. And then she would be awake
Also, the servant woman speaks in dialect which shows off what Faulkner would polish in later novels. Alice often speaks as such: ”The one that run off on me and lef’ me payin’ a lawyer to fin’ out what the gov’ment down with him. Him and his army! I’ll war him: he ain’t never seen no war like what I can aggrovoke.” As with all his adult works (strange I would ever have to make that distinction while talking about Faulkner), there are underlying themes about the post-civil war South to be found in this story amidst the magic and wishing.
This book is perfect for any collection of Faulkner, or for any fan of Faulkner who would like to see a different early side of him. This works for me but the real excitement I felt when finding this was knowing that I can read it to my daughter when she is older and introduce her father’s favorite author at a much younger age, seeing as I am not subjecting something like Absalom! on her when she gets to be 8. I'm not quite sure how to rate a book like this but I'm going to say 4/5 (less)
Hamsun’s aptly named second novel, Mysteries, is a dazzling, dark look into human nature and man’s psyche. It is no surprise that Henry Miller claimed...moreHamsun’s aptly named second novel, Mysteries, is a dazzling, dark look into human nature and man’s psyche. It is no surprise that Henry Miller claimed that Mysteries was ’closer to me than any book I have read,’ this novel is so probing and insightful that you feel it begin to pick your own mind as the pages churn by. Written in 1892, just 2 years following Hunger, this novel once again demonstrates Hamsun’s signature frantic yet serene prose while showcasing Hamsun as a Modernist far ahead of his time and a master of the ‘psychological novel’. Plunging into the existential mysteries of the human heart and soul, Hamsun pens some of his most memorable characters while keeping the reader forever pondering the truth behind the abundant mysteries.
As always when it comes to speaking of Hamsun, it should be noted that it is a crying shame how his work has been passed over and that his name is relatively unheard nowadays due to his sympathetic association to the Nazi party during WWII. I went into more detail of this in my review for Growth of the Soil, but this association cost him his fame and caused to widespread burning of his books in Norway and the relative popular neglect for his works in the United States following the war. If you can put his late life politics aside, you will find an incredible author whose name holds up to his comparisons to Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Mysteries places the human psyche under Hamsun’s microscope. Much like his first novel, the great Hunger, this novel follows the concise rise and fall of emotions in the protagonist, creating a well rounded depiction of a man in the grips of mania and excitement. We follow the loquacious ravings, often liquor-fueled, of our hero, Johan Nilsen Nagel, from a calm steady conversation to the height of frenzy, and are shown glimpses through a cloudy window of the mind to his introspective obsessions. This is fully believable and creates for an intense, unpredictable character.
There is a wonderfully ironic moment when Martha Gude takes leave of Nagel to go see a preforming magician since the real magician of this novel is Nagel himself who preforms an elaborate smoke and mirrors trick of personality throughout the novel. The true nature of Nagel, is never fully revealed, instead, the reader must discern what they can as small pieces of the whole are glimpsed, then hidden again behind contradictory evidence. This eccentric stranger, dressed in a loud yellow suit who keeps the town on edge and full of gossip with his erratic behavior, is a ’walking contradiction’, as Dagny is quick to point out and Nagel is eager to uphold. The reader learns of his lifesavers medal, for example, which he speaks aloud that he earned rescuing a drowning man while on passage to Hamburg, however later on, he adamantly claims to Dagny that is was purchased from a pawn store. He tells the town he is an agronomist, yet it is hinted that this is merely a ruse. Even his name may be false. The biggest insights can only be hinted through a cryptic conversation between him and a former lover whom speak in ’elliptical allusions to the past and used words and phrases that had meaning only for them’.
The nature of this novel is akin to the mysterious nature of the protagonist. Choosing to write from a third person perspective, Hamsun is able to remove the reader from any situation that could give too much away. Unlike Hunger where the reader was a fly on the wall of the narrators internal monologues, the secrets of Nagel are kept from us. Hamsun does occasionally have Nagel speak aloud in long tirades of his inner thoughts, but this is used sparingly and creates a bit of unevenness in the writing, although it is ultimately not distracting. This third person perspective is highly efficient to the delivery of this story, as the reader often learns of Nagel’s whereabouts from his mouth as he professes them to the townsfolk. However, the reader quickly learns to take everything with a grain of salt and we are often left wondering if he speaks the truth, or perhaps even a half-truth.
Hamsun makes remarkable use of Nagel’s long, mercurial rants, often crafting them as small allegories of the surrounding events and people. Nagel speaks in a breathtaking prose laden with symbols and metaphors that always tell much more just beneath the surface of his sparkling words. His tales are often elaborate and outlandish, earning him quite a reputation around town. He also uses Nagel as his mouthpiece for literary and political criticisms, bashing many of the Norwegian politicians of the day, criticizing the capital city and the artists who inhabit it (although, speaking of contradictions, he spoke lovingly of this city, Kristiana, in the opening lines of Hunger), and spitting a brutal assault on both Leo Tolstoy and the highly regarded Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibesn. To digress a mere moment, Hamsun was an outspoken critic of Ibsen, who was quite popular at the time. In the year succeeding the popular release of Hunger, Hamsun invited Ibsen to attend a lecture of his and offered him the front and center seat in a room full of other writers of great notoriety. He then went on to lambaste Ibsen’s work to his face saying his plays were ’indefensibly coarse and artificial psychology’. There is an article featuring this story and a good overview of Hamsun’s biography here.
The real brilliance of this novel is how Nagel serves as a barometer of human nature and in juxtaposition with him, the true nature of the various members of the town can be seen with crystal clear accuracy. While Nagel may be erratic and potentially manic, his boldness reveals an unapologetic image of himself, which brings out the truth in others. The closed mindedness, the destructiveness, the arrogance, and all the other hidden demons float to the surface around Nagel. This can also show a character in a positive light, or just as a harmless windbag who cannot help but vomit their opinions into any available ear. Nagel asserts that there are no selfless acts and that every man has a secret vice, including those who may seem like the most saintly, good-natured folk among us. Each one of us carries a bit of demon somewhere inside. While one may give a small chunk of change to a beggar on the street may seem as ‘selfless’ as it gets, Nagel would argue that does this not cause the giver to feel an inner peace at helping another, which is itself a selfish reward. This existential probe begs the reader to examine his or her own life, and examine their own opinion on Nagel as it may reveal a great deal about them.
This story has no true linear plot, but sets Hamsun’s colorful cast in one town and allows them to simply interact. Due to this storytelling device, many critics have labeled Hamsun as one of the first early Modernists, and many authors followed in his footsteps. Ernest Hemingway claimed that ’Hamsun taught me to write’ (thanks wiki), and after reading the often drunk and frenzied lead characters of his early works one can understand why Charles Bukowski was such a fervent fan and claimed he used Hamsun as a ’writing crutch’. His unique style, voice, and his monumental simplistic prose have caused him to quickly become one of my favorites. This novel is not as direct and concise as Hunger, yet it can be felt that Hamsun was reaching his talents out to greater heights and experimenting with perspective and layering of time (there are many amazing instances where Hamsun will seamlessly follow from various past incidents and present goings-on all within one flowing paragraph without the reader becoming lost), so the rough patches that are slightly noticeable within this book are understandable. He makes up for it ten-fold.
Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that one should not ’read books for the infantile purpose of identifying oneself with the characters… but for the sake of their form, their visions, their art’ ( Lectures on Literature). I have always tried to keep this in mind while devouring a novel, and I have very much appreciated this novel for its aesthetic purposes (I hope), but I fell for that infantile impulse to identify with Nagel. He has become one of my favorite characters found in literature, right up there with the Underground Man and Steinbeck's Samuel Hamilton. While this novel isn’t quite as close to perfection as Hunger, which few novels are, Mysteries is my favorite of Hamsun’s novels, although I would recommend the former if you are looking for an introduction to his work. This novel has an ending out of left field and will keep your mind spinning for days to come as you try to piece together the mysteries Nagel left behind. Who is this eccentric stranger? Does he really know more than he lets on, and how does he know these secrets that lurk inside? Is he crazy, or simply genius? Hamsun leaves that for you to decide. 4.75/5 (less)
Wisława Szymborska, the recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature, has the power to make the reader feel both insignificant and heroic simply fo...moreWisława Szymborska, the recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature, has the power to make the reader feel both insignificant and heroic simply for existing. This collection, which spans her career from 1957-97, offers a broad range of Szymborska’s talents. Her eloquent prose is direct and extremely quotable, overflowing with clever witticisms just begging you to go crazy with a highlighter through the pages, and is very accessible, making this a perfect collection for both veteran poetry fanatics and for those who only occasionally dip into the sea of poetry.
Born in 1923, Szymborska was witness to all the horrors of the century from her home in Krakow, Poland. Inspired by another Polish poet, Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz (of whom I give the highest of recommendations), she began penning her first poems, as well as short fiction, in the mid-1940’s while serving on the railroads. Despite her first collection being banned by the socialist regime, she continued to refine her craft and held close to the party limitations until splitting ways in the mid-60’s. Anyone who has read Miłosz’s The Captive Mind will see why he would applaud her for breaking loose and writing freely. This collection of her poetry does neglect much of her overtly political poems written while towing the party line and focuses primarily poems which are more all-encompassing of of humanity.
Poets are poetry, writers are prose- Prose can hold anything including poetry, But in poetry there is only room for poetry- Baring her soul, Szymborska often addresses her self-conscious feelings about being a poet in this collection. ”They publically confess to being poets only reluctantly, as if they were a little ashamed of it” she says in her Nobel Lecture, which, as a nice little addition, is included in this collection. Poetry is often overlooked; I myself admit to being enamored with poetry yet often neglect this art for lengthy periods of time. Poetry is not taken as serious as it should be. Perhaps this is due in part to every weepy eyed kid you knew in high school who had a folder of sappy or morbid ‘poetry’ that they took far too seriously when finding any moment to read it and show off their ‘inner pain and deepness’. Okay, total cliché, but we’ve all seen this in film or in real life and I think this image of poetry has taken root in the everyman’s mind and created a slight aversion to it, masking it as only for ‘arsty’ folk. Even Szymborska states that it is better and more comfortable to say whatever it is else you do in life that to label yourself as ‘a poet’. With this collection, Szymborska scores a massive victory for poetry and evinces that poetry can be for and understood by the everyman, and although she may be quite self-conscious while doing so, she bravely puts forth her powerful stanzas. Poems such as Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem shows her ideas of the power of poetry, especially over the absence of poetry that would or could have been written.
The message lying in wait within her poems is often fairly discernable upon the first reading and Szymborska uses very direct and honest language. Literally anybody could pick this up, flip through, and find a half dozen poems that they feel is a potent statement on the human condition. This is a translated work, but the messages come through unhindered, though (I have not seen or am able to understand the original Polish) there may have been a loss of some literary devices so I cannot be certain that she doesn’t chip in cases of consonance or apply any alliteration or any other devices of that nature.
Much of her poetry pertains to death. Szymborska takes it upon herself to prepare the reader for their inevitable fate, showing humans as fragile, temporary, and sometimes rather insignificant in the face of eternity. I found it humorous how she occasionally sneaks this in, drawing me near with some tirade and then slapping me across the face with an open palm of mortality. Take, for example, the poem True Love, in which she humorously details how annoying those who are caught up in love are to those around them. This poem wraps up as follows: Let the people who never find true love Keep saying that there’s no such thing. Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die. Heavy stuff right out of the blue. Poems such as Cat in an Empty Apartment or The Suicide’s Room show the void death leaves within the world. However, Syzmborska has one of the most optimistic poems about death I have ever read with On Death, Without Exaggeration. She illustrates death as weak and sloppy, saying death always does the job awkwardly and can’t even get the things done that are part of its trade: dig a grave make a coffin clean up after itself
Syzmborska is one of the rare few who place the living on the winning side in a battle against death: Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent is himself living proof that it’s not
There’s no life that couldn’t be immortal if only for a moment.
Death always arrives by that very moment too late.
In vain it tugs at the knob of the invisible door. As far as you’ve come can’t be undone.
Not all of her poetry is gloomy. Much of it deals with the human condition and Szymborska has a signature bemused flair that seeps into her poems about mans fate and place in the universe. She often writes of how the world is seemingly made up of chance, how we by chance became who we are (and that she would never want to be anyone else) and that each second of life is an escape from a chance death (which made me think of life as a game Russian Roulette – each time a near death experience slides by its as if we hear that ‘click’ of safety, but this can only go on so long before that ‘click’ will be the ‘bang!’). Several poems, including my personal favorite Life While-You-Wait give us a Shakespeare-like vision of each human as a actor upon a stage, except life is improvisational acting and there is no rehearsal and no second chance to get it right. I know nothing of the role I play. I only know it’ mine, I can’t exchange it.
I have to guess on the spot just what this play’s all about.
If I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance, or repeat a single Thursday that has passed! But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen”
The link between the past, present and future is often tied tightly within her poems. In a very existential way, Szymborska describes us as being a product of our choices and pasts, a unique chance of actions that created us out of the infinite possible selves. From No Title Needed: And yet I’m sitting by this river, that’s a fact And since I’m here I must have come from somewhere and before that turned up in many other places, exactly like the conquerors of nations before setting sail.
From somber, introspective, morbid to outright funny, Szymborska’s collected poems deliver one treat after another. It could easily be picked up and read at random, but a straight through reading offers a bit more insight to the growth and maturation of the aging poet. If you are a fan of this often neglected art, do yourself a favor and read some Szymborska. If you are looking to get into poetry, this is a perfect starting point. Keep your pen or highlighter nearby while you read because she is very insightful and delivers gem after gem that you will want to revisit. 4/5
A few recommended poems: Life While-You-Wait On Death, Without Exaggeration Over Wine An Opinion on the Question of Pornography I’m Working on the World 4a.m. No Title Needed A Contribution to Statistics
This collection of poetry, from the whole of Transtromer's career, more than justifies the stamp of "Nobel Prize Winner" that is printed on the cover....moreThis collection of poetry, from the whole of Transtromer's career, more than justifies the stamp of "Nobel Prize Winner" that is printed on the cover. Shamefully, I had never heard of this Swedish born poet until the week before he won the prize. I had read an article that highlighted him as a frontrunner for the prize this year and I began to seek out his poetry. It took a bit of patience, and I urge anyone to first flip around in the book for awhile until they find the right poem that speaks to them, but once I caught the cadence of his thoughts (it was the poem A Winter Night for me), the gates opened and I was ushered into Transtromer's beautiful, and sometimes sad, vision of life. I have been bursting with nothing but praise for him ever since. His prose is very lucid and ethereal, creating a seemingly weightless reality that hovers just above and beyond our own. It called to mind a quote from the Polish author, Bruno Schulz. Schulz, in the introduction of his "The Streets Of Crocodiles", says there are images that "...are merely trying to occur, they are checking whether the ground of reality can carry them. And they quickly withdraw fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realization." Transtromer builds up just these sorts of images that dwell in the peripherals of existence as he speaks of death, islands, shadows, trains, memories and the absurdity of our position in life.
"I am transparent/and writing becomes visible/inside me" he writes in the poem "Further In". Much of his poetry comes from life experiences, which pass through him ("I am the turnstile" - The Outpost) and out through his pen into insightful observations on the human condition. His shorter poems often times give the reader cryptic metaphors or a simple weightless image to ponder, such as the "bridge builds itself/slowly/straight out in space" (Snow Is Falling), but it is in the longer poems where Transtromer works his real magic. In poems such as The Gallery, Night Duty or Traffic, to name a few, Transtromer weaves a variety of metaphors and images into one powerful theme. He also spends much time detailing the seasons, from lush green summers to cold, dead winters. There is a moment where he describes spring as the trees turning back to face him as he and the earth run towards each other. There is so much joy and love for the world and existence to be found within his words. In later poems, specifically poems written after his stroke, death becomes a prevalent theme as he shows us all existing within its inevitable shadow.
Give Transtromer a try. If you are patient it will really pay off and you will never view the world around you the same again. He gives us, as he puts it in a haiku: Thoughts standing still, like the colored mosaic stones in the palace courtyard.
‘Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking.
Saramago had a gift for delivering such potent messages in such...more‘Liking is probably the best form of ownership, and ownership the worst form of liking.
Saramago had a gift for delivering such potent messages in such a simple manner, focusing a vast array of complex ideas into a simple parable that easily penetrates to your heart. His short story, The Tale of the Unknown Island is no exception, as is brought to even higher heights of fairytale-like beauty with the simple illustrations by Peter Sís. While it would have been best to include this in a collection of stories instead of sold on it’s own, this tale is a wonderful parable about looking for happiness and understanding the mysterious ways love works in our world.
This story is classic Saramago with all of his talents and motifs on displays. Right away the reader is immersed in the political satire that fleshes out much of his work, as a man comes knocking at the King’s Door for Petitions. ‘Since the king spent all his time sitting at the door for favors (favors being offered to the king, you understand), whenever he heard someone knocking at the door for petitions, he would pretend not to hear’. The story takes off into a wonderful parable about finding happiness as the Man and a runaway cleaning woman, the only one to believe in the man’s quest, embark to discover an Unknown Island. Saramago’s language seems so simple, like a story aimed to be understood and enjoyed by all ages, yet carries a powerhouse of ideas and meaning in his seemingly unthreatening words. A message of love seems best delivered in such a pleasant way. This story caresses the heart and makes one feel the subtle magic of the world that echoes in the beauty of life all around us.
The story, while being a joy to read, is a bit too short and feels as if it could have been much greater. There is a lengthy satirical buildup, yet, right when it seems the story could set off towards a wonderful adventure, the epiphany occurs and the story rapidly comes to an end. It is conclusive, but the message comes suddenly and made me wonder if it was originally intended to be a novella. Had he expanded on the ideas, I think this could have been a wonderful tale of double the length. Had this been included in a collection of short stories, the quick conclusion wouldn’t have felt so disappointing. Including this, perhaps, in Saramago’s The Lives of Things (that was a complete work, but I am unaware if Saramago had other short stories this could have been included with) would have given a more satisfactory feel to both that collection and this story. That said, this is still worth reading, and is very uplifting and enjoyable.
The world lost a wonderful storyteller when Saramago passed in 2010. He had a unique style, and a sweet simplicity that reminds me of a more intellectual and literary version of Paulo Coelho. This story is a bit too light to stand on it’s own, yet is a satisfying trip into the warm, soothing places in Saramago’s heart. 3.5/5
‘[W]e can’t see ourselves unless we become free of ourselves’ (less)
Out of the half dozen Saramago novels I have read, this is actually my favorite. It may have been due in part that I devoured most of it while seated...moreOut of the half dozen Saramago novels I have read, this is actually my favorite. It may have been due in part that I devoured most of it while seated upon the sun soaked banks of a river this past July, but this short little work really struck me. It is so unique and imaginative and this book was just a really fun read. Despite it's focus of death and all, it isn't quite as heavy as most of his novels and will make you laugh at the dark abyss of death as most of this novel is actually darkly humorous. There is no traditional plot for the first two thirds of the novel as Saramago displays his story with a broad shot that encompasses all facets of his deathless phenomenon.
The first part of the novel is more or less Saramago's imagination exploring all sides of his idea. Saramago takes something most people would view as a great joy - to live forever - and puts it on an ugly display as a terrifying curse. Namely, just because you live forever doesn't mean you don't suffer bodily harm. He tells of people with their guts spilled out somehow living on and other horrific conditions to a similar effect. He goes on to explain how this also practically ruins the economy and brings about the maphia (who choose this with a 'ph' to separate themselves from the regular mafia) who create more undying corpses if you don't bow to their wishes. Wow. What a disaster of a world is made in the first 100 pages.
In the second section of the novel, Saramago zooms in and shows this event on a small scale; his major focus is on death herself and how she relates to the world. Saramago's death character was fascinating and different than any traditional image of death (speaking of tradition death, there is a funny bit where the government takes all the traditional images of death and uses technology to see what these skull images would look like with a human face) and he actually manages to make death a likeable, empathizable character. I won't go into the plot and spoil what happens in case you have not yet read this, but I never thought I'd read a book about Death as a main character and describe it as 'cute' and like it for that. Saramago once again does the impossible and all I can say is that after the last page you can't help but say "aww".
As a note of caution, Saramago has a unique style that tends to turn people away and this slightly bothers me. It is NOT difficult to read, give it a few pages and I promise you will grasp it. It flows surprisingly well. Also, Saramago has a very distinct voice that I can't get enough of. He speaks directly to you as a reader and he talks at his characters in a very fatherly, loving fashion that lets you see how proud he is of his own creations. He has a very good way of telling a story, often justifying his reasons for why he chose to tell it the way he does in a funny, unique manner. I would highly recommend this to any Saramago fan, and to anyone new to this Nobel laureate's works although I think Blindness might be a better starting point. 4/5(less)
‘The gates of grammar closed behind him. Search for him now in the groves and wild forests of the dictionary.’ Czesław Miłosz (30 June 1911 – 14 August...more‘The gates of grammar closed behind him. Search for him now in the groves and wild forests of the dictionary.’ Czesław Miłosz (30 June 1911 – 14 August 2004)
1980 ‘s Nobel Laureate, and my personal favorite poet, Czesław Miłosz left behind a beautiful collection of poetry and political thought that chronicles both the human suffering during the 20th century as well as his own personal experiences, triumphs and tribulations as he went from war-town Poland to the United States. Often recognized more for his political musings, such as those in the excellent book The Captive Mind, Miłosz always stressed that he was first a foremost a poet. His poetry, however, does contain some of his greatest political statements and insights as Miłosz used his poetry as a method to speak against the totalitarian mindset and stand up for human rights. Provocative, moving, and glimmering with gorgeous prose, Miłosz’s works taken as a whole form a breathtaking portrait of an extraordinary man.
‘ The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.’
Much of Miłosz early work is centered around the Polish political climate, and understandably so as political unrest and war was a constant part of his early life. Even his birth was directly affected by the political climate, his parents fleeing to Lithuania for several years to escape the political turmoil, not returning until the new Polish state was established after WWI. His early catholic upbringing and his political activism while studying at the University, becoming involved with a radical group of contemporary poets, were the early seeds that would continue to grow and blossom throughout his body of work. Many of the horrors witnessed during WWII, and their effects on his contemporaries, is documented in The Captive Mind, illustrating his distaste for the totalitarian mindset and the lethal temptations of a totalitarian mentality on the activist intellectual. His memories of the war burn brightly in much of his early poetry.
Flight When we were fleeing the burning city And looked back from the first fiel path, I said “Let the grass grow over our footprints, Let the harsh prophets fall silent in the fire, Let the dead explain to the dead what happened. We are fated to beget a new and violent tribe Free from the evil and the happiness that drowsed there Let us go” – and the earth was opened for us by a sword of flames.
Living under communist rule after WWII was crushing to Miłosz, who watched friends and literary heroes fall victim to the party lines, selling out their integrity to write bright banners of praise for their oppressors. One of my personal favorite Miłosz poems – the final lines are so chilling! -speaks out against the evils done upon the common man by such obdurate, tyrannical forces:
You Who Wronged You who wronged a simple man Bursting into laughter at the crime, And kept a pack of fools around you To mix good and evil, to blur the line,
Though everyone bowed down before you, Saying virtue and wisdom lit your way, Striking gold medals in your honor, Glad to have survived another day,
Do not feel safe. The poet remembers. You can kill one, but another is born. The words are written down, the deed, the date.
And you’d have done better with a winter dawn, A rope, and a branch bowed beneath your weight.
Miłosz spent these years working for the underground resisitance and publishing poetry under the pseudonym J. Syruc.
In 1951, having been sent to Paris to serve as a cultural attache by the Communist government, Miłosz defected and remained in France under political asylum until moving to the United States in 1960 to teach at the University of California, Berkeley (his poem A Magic Mountain comments on his time spent living in Berkeley). Miłosz’s feelings of alienation living in a foreign land and communicating in a foreign language permeate much of his poetry. His homeland was lost to him behind the Iron Curtain, and he was lost to them as all of his works were banned after his defection (the ban would be released after his 1980 Nobel Prize, Poland having no qualms then claiming him as a national hero with international success).
'One after another my former lives were departing, like ships, together with their sorrow.'
Much of my favorite Miłosz is written in the last quarter of his life and contains his reflection on his life as a whole, his thoughts on aging and the poetic grappling with impending, inevitable death.
At A Certain Age We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers. White clouds refused to accept them, and the wind was too busy visiting sea after sea. We did not succeed in interesting the animals. Dogs, disappointed, expected an order, A cat, as always immoral, was falling asleep. A person seemingly very close Did not care to hear of things long past. Conversations with friends over vodka or coffee Ought not to be prolonged beyond the first sign of boredom. It would be humiliating to pay by the hour A man with a diploma, just for listening. Churches. Perhaps churches. But to confess there what? That we used to see ourselves as handsome and noble Yet later in our place an ugly toad Half-opens its thick eyelid And one sees clearly: “That’s me.”
Miłosz passed in 2004, but his body of work is immortal. He was always a believer in the immortal truth, and that this truth was best expressed through poetry. In his poem on the morning of the death of Zbigniew Herbert, Miłosz says the poet is only a vessel, someone that ‘serves’ this truth, and concludes speaking of the immortal word as such:
Liberated from the phantoms of psychosis, from the screams of perishing tissue, from the agony of the impaled one,
It wanders through the world, Forever, clear.
Rest well Miłosz, your truth will float forever and touch the hearts of many. And that is a life well lived. 5/5
If you can’t tell, Miłosz is my absolute favorite, so I’ve included a few other of my favorite poems below:
An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven What kind of man I was to be you’ve known since the beginning, since the beginning of every creature.
It must be horrible to be aware, simultaneously, of what is, what was, and what will be.
I began my life confident and happy, certain that the Sun rose every day for me and that flowers opened for me every morning. I ran all day in an enchanted garden.
Not suspecting that you had picked me from the Book of Genes for another experiment altogether. As if there were not proof enough that free will is useless against destiny.
Under your amused glance I suffered like a caterpillar impaled on the spike of a blackthorn. The terror of the world opened itself to me.
Could I have avoided escape into illusion? Into a liquor which stopped the chattering of teeth and melted the burning ball in my breast and made me think I could live like others?
I realized I was wandering from hope to hope and I asked you, All Knowing, why you torture me. Is it a trial like Job’s, so that I call faith a phantom and say: You are not, nor do your verdicts exist, and the earth is ruled by accident?
Who can contemplate simultaneous, a-billion-times-multiplied pain?
It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you deserve our praise.
But perhaps because you were overwhelmed by pity, you descended to the earth to experience the condition of mortal creatures.
Bore the pain of crucifixion for a sin, but committed by whom?
I pray to you, for I do not know how not to pray.
Because my heart desires you, though I do not believe you would cure me.
And so it must be, that those who suffer will continue to suffer, praising your name.
Ars Poetica? I have always aspired to a more spacious form that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose and would let us understand each other without exposing the author or reader to sublime agonies.
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us, so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
That's why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion, though its an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel. It's hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from, when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons, who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues, and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand, work at changing his destiny for their convenience?
It's true that what is morbid is highly valued today, and so you may think that I am only joking or that I've devised just one more means of praising Art with thehelp of irony.
There was a time when only wise books were read helping us to bear our pain and misery. This, after all, is not quite the same as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.
And yet the world is different from what it seems to be and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings. People therefore preserve silent integrity thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.
The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.
What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry, as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly, under unbearable duress and only with the hope that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
Encounter We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn. A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road. One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive, Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they, where are they going The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles. I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
Meaning When I die, I will see the lining of the world. The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset. The true meaning, ready to be decoded. What never added up will add Up, What was incomprehensible will be comprehended. - And if there is no lining to the world? If a thrush on a branch is not a sign, But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day Make no sense following each other? And on this earth there is nothing except this earth? - Even if that is so, there will remain A word wakened by lips that perish, A tireless messenger who runs and runs Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies, And calls out, protests, screams.
Christopher Robin (written upon hearing of the death of the real Christopher Robin. How touching is this one?) I must think suddenly of matters too difficult for a bear of little brain. I have never asked myself what lies beyond the place where we live, I and Rabbit, Piglet and Eeyore, with our friend Christopher Robin. That is, we continued to live here, and nothing changed, and I just ate my little something. Only Christopher Robin left for a moment. Owl says that immediately beyond our garden Time begins, and that it is an awfully deep well. If you fall in it, you go down and down, very quickly, and no one knows what happens to you next. I was a bit worried about Christopher Robin falling in, but he came back and then I asked him about the well. "Old bear," he answered. "I was in it and I was falling and I was changing as I fell. My legs became long, I was a big person, I grew old, hunched, and I walked with a cane, and then I died. It was probably just a dream, it was quite unreal. The only real thing was you, old bear, and our shared fun. Now I won't go anywhere, even if I'm called in for an afternoon snack."
'Then comes the evening.' Those who have seen the film Hamsun, starring Max Von Sydow, will recall seeing several scenes with Marie Hamsun finishing a...more'Then comes the evening.' Those who have seen the film Hamsun, starring Max Von Sydow, will recall seeing several scenes with Marie Hamsun finishing a novel with this line at book readings. Growth of the Soil, Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun’s 1917 novel widely regarded as his masterpiece, is that novel. Powerful in its sublime simplicity, Growth is the life and times of Isak, following him as he cuts his legacy from the untamed wilds of Norway.
I would recommend anyone with an interest in the author to view the film Hamsun, as Sydow delivers a stellar performance as usual, and it depicts an accurate enough portrayal of the Hamsun’s later years – particularly those involving his outspoken support of Adolf Hitler. This taboo cost the author his wealth and social status and still seems to avert modern readers, but, as the old saying goes, hind sight is 20/20 and Hamsun favored Hitler more due to his anti-English sentiments and openly admitted to finding his anti-Semitism ridiculous. He was also reported to be one of the few people to ever talk down to Hitler, causing Hitler to dismiss him and bury himself away in rage for several days when Hamsun insisted upon releasing Norwegian prisoners of war who were sentenced to death by firing squad. Hamsun was a massive literary inspiration to many of his contemporaries, being highly praised by authors such as Hemingway, Hesse and even Bukowski, and his luckily novels do not reflect this unflattering political alignment. This novel was however issued in field editions to German soldiers during WWII, which is understandable as the novel exudes a deep love for ones homeland. Putting aside all the ugly Nazi business, Hamsun has a brilliant mind and voice and it would be a shame for his novels to be passed over.
Growth of the Soil, written 27 years after his other classic and debut novel, and one of my personal favorite books of all-time, Hunger displays Hamsun at a much more matured writing style. While Hunger was gritty, raw and frantic, Growth delivers a very controlled and serene prose. The typical quirks of Hamsun are still present, and avid readers will find his unmistakable voice booming from the pages. It is quite impressive how so little yet so much seems to transpire in this relatively short novel (324pgs in the Penguin Classics edition) and the vast length of time that goes by. The novel begins with a youthful Isak setting out on his own and by the end he is reflecting upon old age as he begins to embrace the deterioration of his strength and body and leave the future in the hands of his full grown children. He masterfully manipulates time, as it passes in spurts sometimes burning quickly through chunks of years or slowly moving through a season, yet the pace and flow never falters as Hamsun seems to evenly disperse his timeline.
Characters have always been a strong point for Hamsun. Here readers will find a colorful cast of some of the most human characters since Tolstoy. Hamsun has a charm of seemingly bringing you into the ever growing Sellenara home of Isak and Inger and allowing you to cozy up by the fire with the family. You watch their struggles, successes, sadness and share in the local gossip over the course of generations, giving the novel a feel that will put fans of East of Eden or The Good Earth right at home. You feel as if characters such as the comical busybody Oline are real neighborhood kooks that you encounter and not just some name on a page, so when reading about their actions it causes you to laugh and say “oh she would say or do that!”. Geissler, the enigmatic manic-depressive who turns up from time to time, is the books most memorable character. His monologue near the end will echo within you for months to come and contains a message that is still timely today.
The real heart of this novel, however, is the land itself. The focus primarily remains out in the wilderness and usually stays behind amongst the fields and mountains even when characters travel into town. Hamsun seems to poke fun at more ‘civilized’ trifles as he juxtaposes city and country characters often through the lens of the backlands where a need for an impressive set of clothes and status icons such as a cane seem foolish and juvenile. He shows the land as being the true home and heart of a family, as the characters rely upon the land and live off the fruits of their blood and sweat. There is magical little moments where the natural world and the human world comingle spiritually; where Inger witnesses tiny fish singing to her or when the ducks seem to speak to the son with their voice passing through his soul. The poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote “Even a simple “hi there,”/when traded with a fish,/makes both the fish and you/feel quite extraordinary” and these spiritual exchanges between man and the land greeting each other brings out a deep inner beauty of the novel.
Knut Hamsun has a power to take such a mundane chain of events and portray it in verbal majesty to rival the overgrown backlands of Norway. It is no surprise the Nobel committee honored him with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 shortly after this novel achieved great success. If you want to take a trip to your roots and revert back to nature, which Hamsun would argue is the way it should be, this is a perfect novel for you. It rewards a patient reader, as it slowly reveals its heart if you sit back, relax and let it unfold around you like a morning sunrise. This is could be a great introduction to Hamsun, although I would recommed Hunger over this as it is more accessible. And then it was evening, and I need to go to sleep. 5/5 (less)