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Category: Literature Page 2 of 3

[:en]Musings on literature.[:de]Sinnieren über Literatur.

The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of WrathA work born of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath is surely one of the greatest, most powerful and important books in American literature. Focusing on a poor family of tenant farmers escaping the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma, Steinbeck set out with the express intention of shaming the people he held responsible for the plight of these losers of the Depression, and aimed quite simply to “rip a reader’s nerves to rags” with his tale. The Joad family sets out for California with their few remaining possessions, seeking work, land and new lives among the colourful orchards and vineyards of the western state, a veritable promised land. Instead they find further hardship, exploitation and abuse, labelled as ‘Okies’ and reds, welcome if they’re willing to work for a pittance, hounded should they try to make a living for themselves.

Very reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, it’s easy to understand why the book was rewarded with so many accolades, and its author with the Nobel Prize for Literature. What sets the book apart from Sinclair’s style is the directness of Steinbeck’s writing. The family is full of quirky and unique characters, entirely believable, if slightly monochrome in flavour. Other readers have complained the book is divided rather obliquely into the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, and whilst they make a reasonable point, this neither detracts from the overall message of the novel, nor prevents those characters from acting as the real driving force of the story. The heroes of the novel are true salt of the earth, which gives the book openness and accessibility: that Steinbeck writes their dialogue in their vernacular is a powerful motif.

Steinbeck intersperses his tale of the Joads with rather more artistic and morally or politically charged chapters covering the broader sweep of change facing America in the ’30s. In effect, the chapters intertwine the individual experiences of the Joad family with the macrocosmic overview of society in the Depression years. Steinbeck’s rather more loaded and overt statements appear in these segments, but he also allows his characters to speak for him, especially Tom Joad and the preacher.

The Grapes of Wrath is entirely deserving of its accolades, and its place on countless lists of best novels or works to read before you die. Some reviewers had difficulty persevering past the book’s opening, others found the vernacular language distracting, but generally speaking this is an extremely accessible novel which doesn’t require a great deal of background knowledge to be appreciated.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Unbearable Lightness of BeingAt its simplest level, this is merely a short novel about attitudes to love and the meanings of fidelity. The main characters approaches to love are almost diametric opposites, the surgeon Tomas, a promiscuous conqueror of women, and his wife Tereza, ashamed of her very body and unable to reconcile her husband’s habits with her view of married fidelity. While the events unfold in front of the backdrop of the Prague Spring and the difficult years that follow, this is a novel focussed on the smaller, personal image, albeit no less profound in scope.

Despite this concentration on the characters, this is a novel bound to disappoint anyone looking for character and plot development. Various scenes are revisited from different perspectives, but there is no real plot to speak of, certainly the novel ends rather abruptly without any hint of a conclusion. Instead, we are treated to a philosophical tour of what it means to ‘be’ at all. The characters are explored for who they are and how they deal with people and with the world around them, their approach to love, sex, relationships, work. The principal dichotomy on display is that between the weight of responsibility and the lightness of inconsequence, but there is plenty of musing in other fields. Kundera fleetingly touches on many areas of life, from the meaning of words and their role in (mis)communication, to the position of kitsch in art, and our treatment of animals.

For all its philosophising, this is an eminently readable book. The prose is straight-forward and the interspersed author’s comments on his creations provide plenty of food for thought, though this constant interruption might annoy some readers. Even its chapters are very short, which may have been Kundera’s intention to give the reader plenty of time to pause and reflect.

Jeder stirbt für sich allein

Jeden stirbt für sich alleinThis is a truly fascinating story, an insight into the lives of those who endured the excesses of the Nazi state at the height of its power. Fallada wrote this book shortly after the war in less than a month, a novel inspired by reading through Gestapo files. It was his last, but one he was very proud to have written.

At heart, the book deals with one couple’s private campaign of resistance to the Nazi regime. As Fallada wrote in an article about the novel, “Über den doch vorhandenen Widerstand der Deutschen gegen den Hitlerterror”, his writings were dedicated to their sacrifice that it not be in vain. The core of the book centres on the Quangels, a couple who lose their son during Hitler’s invasion of France, and who strive to offer a token of resistance, by way of writing postcards and letters denouncing the Nazi acts. These political flyers almost unswervingly end in the arms of the Gestapo, who catalogue this defiance and use their ruthless methods in pursuit of the perpetrators, destroying lives as they do so. This, in my opinion, is one of the book’s greatest strengths, its depth of living characters, almost reminiscent to me of a Dickensian world, each role played by a figure of flesh and blood, and not merely props for the main actors to play up against. Thus the novel details episodes in the lives of thieves and prostitutes, Jews and Gestapo inspectors, youth and the permanently unemployed.

Aside from the insight into what life was like under the Nazis, the book also offers this strong message of hope. The very premise of the powerless individual trying to make a difference against the faceless society is a strong one. During the sham trial, the farcical nature of events finally sees the otherwise stoical Otto Quangel laughing at his prosecutor, something which many of us should no doubt revel in. It’s also fitting that Fallada should choose to end the novel with a look towards the future, at the youth who would inherit the responsibility for Germany in post-war Europe.

All in all a heartily recommendable read. The glimpse of life in Nazi-run Berlin is fascinating, and the police and courtroom scenery definitely sits in companion to the likes of Arthur Koestler’s portrayal of Soviet excesses in Sonnenfinsternis. It was a surprise to me to learn that the book was only recently translated into English.

Finally, a word about the language. As another commenter has written, there is a fair amount of Berlin dialect in the book which for makes for a challenge for non-native speakers and advanced learners, and given the book’s age there are also a fair number of old-fashioned or unusual turns of phrase, but the book is otherwise written in a fairly straightforward style.

Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the ShoreDieser Eintrag ist auch auf Deutsch verfügbar.

Giving this book a three-star rating seems unjust. When reading it, I found much I liked about the work, yet having had a few days to digest it, find myself struggling to justify just exactly what I found so appealing.

To deal first of all with the good, Kafka on the Shore is on a basic level a decent page-turner. Two related stories are interwoven, chapter for chapter, and while they don’t necessarily come together in the end, the narrative is nicely paced and suitably eventful to keep the reader engaged. There are various themes on display, from the Oedipal tragedy and the journey to adulthood, together with more complex issues dealing with time and reality, and plenty of the metaphorical and surreal elements to spice things up. If you aren’t enamoured by ‘magic realism’ this will no doubt be an instant turn-off.

As for the prose, which some other reviewers have complained about as stilted or to be blamed on the translation, I found the book to be for the most part very pleasantly written. It must be said that the translation is American, which for a British reader did jar on occasion. There were also moments when the dialogue came across as particularly unrealistic and forced, but this probably has more to do with Murakami squeezing in a lot of metaphysical/philosophical discussion. This is a novel in which 15-year-olds can discuss interpretations of Schubert, and pick up books on Napoleon’s Russian campaign on a whim. It won’t appeal to everyone, but the discussions and ideas floating around in the book make for interesting intervals in the action.

Unfortunately, having finished the novel I found my admiration began to wane. As others have pointed out, there is no ‘satisfactory’ conclusion, which on its own is no problem, rather that none of the various threads of the novel have any answers. Thinking back, I find that what I read as interesting and titillating discussions or metaphorical events simply turned into question marks hanging over the book’s closed cover. The author himself suggests readers should use the book’s riddles to find their own solutions, and that multiple readings are recommended, but for that I have neither the time nor the inclination.

To my mind, Kafka on the Shore is a perfectly interesting diversion, and one which works on some levels as an engaging story. But where it tries to become more deeply meaningful, it offers only disconnected ideas that the reader has to piece together if he is to see any of the picture. This was my first Murakami, and whilst the book hasn’t made me a fan, it also hasn’t put me off picking up another of his novels should the opportunity arise. But for the sour aftertaste, it even deserves an extra star, or the sheer joyful way in which he has written a modern day fairy tale cum parable.

The Satanic Verses

Satanic VersesThis isn’t a book that requires any introduction, at least in terms of the furore and controversy surrounding it. I’d probably heard of Rushdie before I started to read for myself, such is the reputation which precedes this book. The title has been sitting at the back of my mind for a long time, so when I saw it on a bookshelf figured it was about time to dip into it.

Some years ago, whilst taking part in a brief course on the history of modern India, I picked up Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and thoroughly enjoyed it. The style was lucid, inspiring, at times witty, the plot meaningful, its events engaging and powerfully written. Unfortunately, The Satanic Verses is in comparison an utter disappointment. The book is simply difficult to like, try as one might. Rushdie’s writing, despite still being very imaginative, colourful, even amusing, is for the most part unnecessarily convoluted. The book’s plot is divided into various threads spanning time, space and reality, with enough levels, characters and subplots that the reader has to pay extreme attention not to become lost. Some of the characters go under different names, or names are shared among different characters, while the main characters undergo enough physical alterations, that trying to juggle the figures in your imagination becomes a feat in and of itself.

Written style aside, should you find yourself able to understand Rushdie’s message–and thanks to the written style it’s easy not to ‘get’–I simply can’t find very much worth recommending. If you are looking for examples of novels centred on the interplay of good and evil, issues of identity or multiculturalism, the parody of religion, or even merely novels featuring magic realism, there are simply so many better, easier, and more enjoyable works available, even from Rushdie’s own pen, that this work wouldn’t get a look in.

As other reviewers have said, were it not for the fatwa this book should probably have disappeared off most people’s radars without much word of comment. That it didn’t is unfortunate, since I don’t think this book particularly lends itself to many people, yet so many pick it up to find out what all the fuss was about. It is a frustrating and convoluted read, and while there are beautiful and intriguing passages which reminded me of what made Midnight’s Children so enthralling, these are ultimately pretty small fish for sieving through 500 other pages of nigh-on impenetrable packaging.

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