Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oh, the noble Nobel

Yesterday the French writer Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio received the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm. 'Jean-Marie Who?' asked many of my Anglo-Saxon friends when the winner was announced earlier in the year. My friends are not particularly ignorant people. You can't blame them for not knowing Le Clezio. Like many previous Nobel literature laureates, he doesn't have a high profile outside his own country.

The only reason I happen to have read him, is because I happen to have lived in France for the last couple of years. I try to read at least one classic and one recently published French novel each year - in French, of course. Not very ambitious, I know, but it takes me much longer to read French than English, and let's face it, as far as modern novels go, I haven't been missing that much. French literature hasn't exactly set the world alight in the past few years. The days of Camus and Sartre and their international glory are long gone. The last Frenchman who won the Nobel Prize for Literature was Claude Simon in 1985. 'Claude Who?' you might well ask. I haven't read him either. That was long before I started living in France and feeling obliged to do my bit for French culture.

But Le Clezio's award got me thinking about other Nobel Prize authors and how often 'ordinary readers' don't know these illustrious names - and even less their work - when they are crowned.

Most people on earth would probably die without ever having read anything published by a Nobel Prize writer. Granted, there are a few literary souls, often academics, for whom it is a question of honour to have read the work of every single Nobel Prize winner of the last fifty years. If they don't know the writer by the time s/he is anointed, they'll hide this gap in their cultural knowledge and immediately start reading her/his work to catch up. And then, somewhere between the ignorami who never read anything worthwhile and the academics who try to read everything worthwhile, there are the rest of us. 'Ordinary readers' like me who turn to books for pleasure or illumination rather than pain or academic gain, and who sometimes know and even adore the work of Nobel laureates, while just as often they leave us cold.

When I look at the long list of laureates of the past century, some personal favourites jump out at me: the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1996), the American Toni Morrison who wrote Beloved and other beautifully crafted novels(1993), Gabriel Garcia Marquez who made magic realism acceptable to cynical western readers (1982), the ever-green and ever-wise Saul Bellow (1976), the French-Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (1969), the French existential philosopher Albert Camus (1957), The American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1936)...

But there are just as many whom I haven't read and, frankly, I have no burning desire to rush out and buy all their books: the Austrian Elfriede Jelinek (2004), the Chinese Gao Xingjian (2000), the Spanish Camilo Jose Cela (1989)... And there are some whose names I don't even know, complete and utter strangers to me and my bookshelves. Is this my fault? I mean, do you know the Swedish witers Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson who shared the prize in 1974? Or, another double act, Shmuel Agnon and Nelly Sachs who were laureates in 1966?

And of course the further back you go on the list, the more unknown names you'll come across: Halldor Laxness (1955), Johannes V Jensen (1944), Grazia Deledda (1926), Wladyslaw Reymont (1924), all the way back to Sully Prudhomme and Theodor Mommsen, the very first laureates in 1901 and 1902.

Surely this must prove that the most famous of all literary prizes does not automatically bring international and immortal fame?

I might be horribly wrong about some of these writers I haven't read. I might be missing the literary thrill of my life. I might even, at some later and more evolved stage of my existence, learn to love some of them. Who knows? That's the wonder of reading, isn't it? That you never know, that you can always be surprised, unexpectedly enchanted, instantaneously overwhelmed.

That's why we keep on reading, isn't it?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Hate and hurt in Mumbai

Whenever anything of international importance happens anywhere in the world, I turn to my bookshelves for comfort and comprehension. Usually not to non-fiction, as one might expect in the case of major political events, but to fiction. Stories.

I believe that one great novel can teach us more about the world we live in, on a deeper level, than dozens of mediocre books filled with facts and only facts.

Last week's terror attacks in Mumbai proved this to me once again. For many years I've been dreaming of visiting India, mainly because of stories written by authors of Indian origin like Vikram Chandra, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, Kiran and Anita Desai, to name just a few in an ever-increasing list of literary delights. Barely a month ago Aravind Adiga won the 2008 Man Booker Prize for his debut novel, The White Tiger - not the first Indian author to achieve this honour for a first novel. In 1997 Arundhati Roy won the Booker for another remarkable debut novel, The God of Small Things.

In fact, The White Tiger is the ninth Booker Prize winner about India or Indian identity. And Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies was also on the 2008 shortlist. I am clearly not the only admirer of novels about this fascinating sub-continent.

So when I saw the shocking television images of burning buildings and injured people in Mumbai, I immediately thought of all these admirable writers, most of whom still prefer to call the city Bombay. It was, above all, Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay that sprang to mind.

From love and longing in Bombay to hate and hurt in Mumbai?

Love and Longing in Bombay
is a collection of five interconnected 'long short stories', published in 1997, that reads like a love letter to a larger-than-life city. Vikram Chandra continued this literary love letter in Sacred Games (2006), a massive and magnificent epic about the criminal underworld of Bombay which apparently took him seven years to write. A very long love letter, surely, but as a reviewer in the British Sunday Telegraph raved: 'One could read Sacred Games seven times over and still be finding new treasures.'

For instance, one of the 'treasures' I missed when I read Sacred Games earlier this year, was that the hero of the story, police detective Sartaj Singh, was already an old acquaintance. When the unfolding news events in Mumbai prompted me to start paging through Love and Longing in Bombay again, I realised - of course! how could I have missed it! - that Sartaj Singh had actually made his first appearance more than a decade ago in one of these short stories.

My only excuse is that Sacred Games is so crammed with memorable characters that even a hero could get lost in the crowd. Bollywood meets Dickens would be a suitable, if insufficient, description. The Financial Times praised this 'blockbuster in every sense' for having 'more subplots than Shakespeare, more themes than Tchaikovsky, more dead bodies than Highgate, more history than Gibbons'.

And if this sounds like journalistic hyperbole, well, read it and judge for yourself. You might even end up reading it more than once and find a few of the treasures you missed in the first breathless attempt to keep following the twisting plot.

Something you won't miss, though, after what happened last week in Mumbai - 'India's nine eleven', as it is already dubbed in some quarters - is the undercurrent of political tension between India and Pakistan. The plot involves intelligence agents of both countries, the smuggling of radioactive materials, and 'the tense ticking away of a nuclear threat', as it was described in the Times Literary Supplement.

Fact, they say, is always stranger than fiction. We don't yet have all the facts - and might never have - about what happened in Mumbai last week. But we'll always have fiction to help us cope with even the strangest facts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Food glorious food

'The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.' Like all food lovers I can only agree with this famous remark by French epicure Brillat-Savarin - but if there is anything that does nearly as much for my personal happiness as tasting glorious food, it is the discovery of a glorious new book about food.

For the past week I've been wallowing in 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You Die, edited by Frances Case, with lyrical descriptions and lovely pictures of the best fruit and vegetables, cheese and bread, meat and sweetmeats and other culinary delights available all over the world. Part of the bestselling 1001 series (1001 Books You Must Read, Movies You Must See, Albums You Must Hear... Before You Die), it can serve as practical encyclopedia, attractive coffee table book, everyday kitchen guide, or a combination of all this and more.

Fortunately most foodies are adventurous souls - or have adventurous taste buds, at the very least - because a few of these foods might make the faint-hearted shudder. For the true food-lover it will be a pleasurable shudder, as when you watch a classic horror movie like Kubrick's The Shining. My favourite from these pages, when it comes to shuddering potential, is not the deep-fried giant water beetle of Thailand ('tastes like whitefish that stayed out all night', the book helpfully tells us; adding that 'beetles laden with eggs are a particular delicacy), nor the roasted leaf-cutter ant of Brazil (nutty and 'intensely crunchy in the mouth'; actually sounds rather tempting to me). No, I draw the line much closer to home, at a product from the food paradise of Italy, believe it or not. I don't think I'm brave enough to try casu marzu before I die. The name of this Sardinian treat means, quite simply, 'rotten cheese', and it has to be eaten riddled with live maggots.

The translucent maggots are 1/3 inch (8 mm) long and can jump distances almost twice their length - diners might like to consider wearing eye protection. (This description had me in stitches, probably some kind of shock effect, trying to picture myself eating rotten cheese while wearing diving goggles.) Some people prefer to remove the larvae before eating; others throw caution to the wind and devour the lot.

Well, to each his own.Thank goodness.

Other foods might shock other readers - bull's testicle, lamb's brain, pig's trotter, blood sausages - but they won't scare me. I might not like them, but I will try them. Still, the vast majority of ingredients in this book would be delightful to any more or less sophisticated palate. It is not a mere list of exotic tastes; most of the foods we've all heard of or tried before, and would love to try again - or even better, eat regularly. The origins and often ancient history of each food is described, as well as the legends and folklore surrounding many, and the literary references to mythic foods such as Proust's madeleine, the scallop-shaped little sponge cake in A la recherche du temps perdu.

I was surprised to learn, for instance, that the humble blood sausage (also known as black pudding), which my French partner loves but for which I haven't yet 'acquired the taste', was praised in Homer's Odyssey: As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood, and turns it this way and that, and is very eager to get it quickly roasted... My partner smirked when I told him this. Just goes to show that Homer had good taste, according to him.

Yet perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all was to find a colloquial phrase in my mother tongue tucked away between the covers. Under the entry for smoked snoek, 'considered a South African national treasure in much the same way as Parma ham is for Italians', we are informed that this cousin of the mackerel is so popular that it has even made its own contribution to Cape slang: 'Slat my dood met 'n pap snoek', which literally translates to 'kill me with a soggy snoek'.

The phrase is often used to express surprise, wonder, astonishment - all feelings I experienced while reading this book - so what the heck: Slat my dood met 'n pap snoek. There must be worse ways, for a food lover, to die.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Choosing the other tongue

This week the glossy and glazed cherry on top of the French literary cake, the Prix Goncourt, was given to an Afghan refugee, Atiq Rahimi, for the very first novel that he wrote in his adopted language. Syngué Sabour - Pierre de patience obviously represents a turning point for Rahimi, who previously published three acclaimed novels in his Afghan mother tongue.

Two years ago the same prestigious prize was won by the American Jonathan Littell for his first French novel, Les Bienveillantes, a hefty 1403-page brick of a book, nearly twenty years after he had published a youthful science-fiction novel in English. Littell's previous application for French citizenship was turned down, but within a few months of walking off with the Goncourt, he was officially and proudly declared French . The inevitable conclusion is that if you want the French to welcome you with open arms, all you have to do is win the most important literary prize in the country...

On a more serious note, Rahimi and Littell are shining examples of a rare but seemingly increasing breed of writers who opt for 'choosing the other tongue'. This was the title of an illuminating panel discussion in which I took part at the Iowa International Writers' Program a decade ago. All the speakers, myself included, came from erstwhile British colonies in Africa and Asia. Most chose the language of the former coloniser, rather than their mother tongue, for their writing. My own sin was worse. I wrote mainly in my mother tongue, Afrikaans, which had been widely regarded as the language of the oppressor during the Apartheid years.

My main defence was that it wasn't really a 'choice'. Sometimes I write in English, with my head (journalism, essays, the 'truth'), sometimes in Afrikaans, with my guts (fiction, novels, 'stories'). Language is subject to the needs of what has to be written.

By now it has become clear to me that some writers can actually choose one language above another. International French above a 'small' language like Afghan, for obvious reasons, in Rahimi's case. Or international French above the even more international English, for personal reasons, in Littell's case. The most famous case is probably Vladimir Nabokov, who published no less than nine novels in Russian before becoming an astonishingly accomplished prose stylist in English, with classic novels like Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada or Ardor. For Nabokov, as for Milan Kundera (yet another who chose French, after previously publishing in Czech) and most other tongue-changing authors of international fame I can think of, this was a true transformation. A full stop rather than a hyphen. Their writing left the safe shore of the mother language to sink or swim in another language.

The Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett, on the other hand, came and went between shore and sea, between goodbye and au revoir, between English and French. An Irishman who started out publishing novels in English (the 'oppressor', surely, for the Irish), then switched over to French when he needed a new kind of language for his ground-breaking plays like Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Subsequently Beckett wrote some of his plays in French and others in English, the language apparently dictated by each particular work.

All of the above writers, consciously or not, followed James Joyce's renowned advice on what a writer needs: silence, exile, cunning. Littell strikes me as taking the concept of artistic exile to its multi-national, globalised, 21st-century extreme - an American who writes in French, lives in Spain, and is married to a Belgian woman!

The point is that most people on earth cannot write a great novel, play or poem, even in their primary language. To be able to do this in a second language, sometimes acquired much later in life, is a staggering achievement. (Joseph Conrad learnt English, his third language, after Polish and French, when he was already in his twenties - and went on to produce masterpieces such as Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim in this foreign language.) So let's all applaud Atiq Rahimi for conquering the Goncourt this week - and let's hope the English translation won't take too long.

Because many of us who are not as linguistically talented as these authors are still waiting for the English version of Jonathan Littell's 2006 prizewinner, The Kindly Ones, due out next year. I, for instance, do read French novels - but when it comes to 1403-page tomes heavy enough to use for stoning someone, I'd rather be 'a stone of patience', to quote from Rahimi's title, and wait for the translation...

Friday, November 7, 2008

Three vowels for President!

Yes, we've come a long way. Barack Obama is not only the first black president elect of the USA, he also defeated the odds on another quirky score. He has a surname with three vowels and three syllables.


Let me explain. Once again I turn to an exhilarating and epic American novel about family and identity to help me make sense of the present. (And if we can't make sense, then at least we can make fun.) Thanks to a reader's letter in this week's edition of the French cultural magazine Telerama, I took Jeffrey Eugenides' marvellous novel Middlesex off my bookshelves this morning. Those of you who've read this Pulitzer Prize Winner of 2004, might remember the narrator's ironic take on another American presidential election, in which another 'multicultural' Democratic candidate (this time of Greek origin) was presented to the people.

This was 1988. Maybe the time had finally come when anyone - or at least not the same old someones - could be President. Behold the banners at the Democratic Convention! Look at the bumper stickers on all the Volvos. 'Dukakis.' A name with more than two vowels in it running for President! The last time that had happened was Eisenhower... Generally speaking, Americans like their presidents to have no more than two vowels. Truman. Johnson. Nixon. Clinton. If they have more than two vowels (Reagan), they can have no more than two syllables. Even better is one syllable and one vowel: Bush. Had to do that twice.

Well, actually three times. Middlesex had been published by the time Bush Junior was chosen for a second term. And of course the poor multi-vowel Du-ka-kis was soundly defeated by père Bush, no less.

But exactly two decades later we're watching the triumph of Obama. Can you believe it, he has more vowels than consonants in his surname? The final proof that the American people are really, really ready for change?

We'll have to see. Meanwhile, I'm delighted to have dipped into Middlesex again. The author's debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, was turned into a fascinating film by Sofia Coppola, but it will be much more difficult to turn the scope and largesse of Middlesex into movie magic. The story is set in several countries, spanning the Atlantic Ocean, and unfolds over several decades, with an unforgettable Greek-American narrator, Calliope Stephanides, who is born as a girl and changed into a boy somewhere along the way.

Truly a character 'on the cusp of identities' - the quote I used for the newly elected American president earlier this week - and this time we're talking of much more than racial identity. According to the Los Angeles Times, 'Eugenides has taken the greatest mystery of all - what are we, exactly, and where do we come from? - and crafted a story that manages to be both illuminating and transcendent'.

If you haven't yet discovered this gem of a novel (from a multi-vowel author), do yourself the favour, soon. And I'm not saying that simply because my own name happens to abound in vowels and syllables.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Time of our singing

On this historic day, the word 'historic' is beginning to look slightly frayed at the edges - but I'm going to grab it and fray it a little more, because frankly, that is what Barack Obama's election as the 44th president of the USA feels like. Historic.

I didn't know that the Americans would choose a president with a white mother and a black father when I started reading Richard Powers' The Time of Our Singing about a fortnight ago, but it turned out to be the perfect choice for this time of international singing. Yes, like millions of people all over the world I want to raise my voice in a song praising the young and charismatic president elect. No, I won't do it, because I can't sing, alas. But let me do it silently, mouthing the lyrics like a transvestite singer camping I will survive.

Yes, we've all survived eight years of George Bush - and centuries of racism and bigotism before that. As a born South African, I've seen more than my fair share of hatred between races, but I needed this extraordinary novel about a 'mixed-race' family (father white, mother black, children searching their identity) to remind me of how strong the river of racism used to flow in the USA until shockingly recently. And that the undercurrents are still there. Will probably always be there, as in my own 'rainbow nation' of South Africa.

The blurb on the back of this book reads as follows: Powers brilliantly and devastatingly delineates the tragedy of race in America, as it unfolds from the Civil Rights movement to Rodney King and Louis Farrakhan, through the lives and choices of one family caught on the cusp of identities. It is indeed a riveting read about race and identity and family, but it is much, much more. It is a story about music and singing, about physics and time, about love and hate and war and peace and time, above all about time. It is not 'easy reading', which is why it took me more than a fortnight to finish it, but it is also one of those books that you read slowly because you don't want to part company with it.

You need time, after all, to read a story about time.

The first hundred pages are particularly tough for people like me who read words but not notes - musical notation - and who have lived in fear of scientific subjects ever since high school. This book brims over with musical theory, including long lyrical passages about the art of composing, as well as mind-boggling ideas about the elasticity of time. The surprise is that the self-assured style of writing simply sweeps you along - as when you appreciate a magnificent modern poem or a Shakespeare tragedy without having to understand every single word - and after about a hundred pages you won't even try to swim anymore. You'll be quite happy to drown in this glorious stream of prose.

When you reach the incandescent final chapter, you might even grasp something of the circular nature of time. I broke out in goose-pimples when I realised what the author had pulled off. Surely this must be the supreme reward of this remarkable novel.

And if there ever was a right time to read a book like The Time of Our Singing, it is now. At this 'historic' moment, when a man who grew up 'on the cusp of identities' has been chosen to lead one of the most powerful nations on earth.