Gao Xingjian

Book Review – Herta Muller The Land of Green Plumbs

Ayn Rand wrote something to the effect that “people who praise communism never lived under it.” Herta Muller has done an outstanding job expressing the same thoughts through her fiction. Similar in style and tone to The Appointment and The Passport, The Land of Green Plumbs presented another dystopian, yet believable, view of her native Rumania during the Ceausescu years.

I really liked the narration. The author chose a nameless narrator to present the story. The lack of a name created a sense of distance from the character closest to the reader. I interpreted this as a parallel for social relations in Rumania under the Communist Party. In Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible, he described how living in a totalitarian state—in his case, China– impeded normal emotional relations between men and women. A fear that anyone could be an informer prevented it. I got this same sense of Ceausescu’s regime from the exposition in The Land of Green Plumbs.

Unlike so many ‘political’ novels, I found Muller’s prose outstanding. Her writing style reminded me of Cormack McCarthy and Ernest Hemmingway. The author preferred the use of nouns and verbs as opposed to modifiers. With that acknowledgement, she used adjectives and adverbs at the proper places. This method didn’t diminish the impact of the story at all. Here’s the narrator’s description of a discussion with her hairdresser. Like just about every scene in this book, it contained upsetting material…and this is just a trip to a hair stylist!

I stayed with my hairdresser as long as I could and told him everything I knew about my father’s life.

In this tale of death, my father’s life began at a time I knew best from the books of Edgar, Kurt, and Georg and least from Father himself: An SS-man who came back from the war, who had made graveyards and left places in a hurry, I told the hairdresser. Someone who had had to make a child and always keep an eye on his slippers. As I talked about his damn stupid plants, his dark, dark plumbs, his boozy songs for the Fuhrer, and his swollen liver, I was getting a permanent wave for his funeral.

            Before I left, the hairdresser said: My father was at Stalingrad. (65 – 66)

In spite of her minimalist approach to language, Muller still populated the book with lyrical flourishes. She used simile very well in the following line:

Hate was allowed to trample and destroy. To mow the love that sprang up in our closeness like long grass. (Page 75)

Here’s another great passage.

The world hasn’t waited for anyone, I thought. I didn’t have to walk, eat, sleep, and love someone in fear. (Page 34)

With beautiful albeit dark language like this, it didn’t surprise me that the author included poetry throughout the work. The tone of it surprised me even less. The Land of Green Plumbs included the most troubling poem I’ve ever read.

He who loves and leaves

Shall feel the wrath of God

God shall punish him

With the pinching beetle

The howling wind

The dust of the earth. (Page 153)

In 2009 the Swedish Academy awarded Muller the Nobel Prize in Literature for works such as this one. The version of the book I have included her Nobel Lecture. In it she discussed her life in communist Rumania. Some of the things she mentioned made it into The Land of Green Plumbs. The fact the author based the story on true events made the book that much more disturbing.

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Drama Review – Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill

Whenever someone tells me (s)he is about to read a work by Eugene O’Neill, I worry. I make sure to tell him/her to have someone hide all sharp objects within a five mile radius. For those planning on reading Strange Interlude, I would caution readers to stash all the blunt ones, as well. While I cannot deny O’Neill’s genius, there’s no ignoring the depressing nature of his work. In 1936, the Nobel Prize committee presented O’Neill with the award in Literature, “for the power, honesty and deep-felt emotions of his dramatic works, which embody an original concept of tragedy.” Strange Interlude exhibited all these traits.

            Eugene O’Neill was the first and, to this day, only American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Four of his works earned him the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Strange Interlude did so in 1928. While I found the overall story unique and creative, I didn’t think it one of O’Neill’s best. I certainly wouldn’t put it in the same category as Beyond the Horizon or The Iceman Cometh. The first time I read Long Day’s Journey into Night, the drama engrossed me so much, I felt like I had a drinking problem when I finished. While interesting, Strange Interlude lacked the same impact.  

            As typical of O’Neill’s plays, a number of lines struck me as very philosophical. In the first act, Marsden thinks, “The square thing…but we must all be crooks where happiness is concerned!…steal or starve!…” (Page 76). In Act Two, Nina says, “Life is just a drawn out lie with a sniffling sound at the end.” (Page 104) I already warned my readers to hide all sharp and blunt objects. Lines like these serve as a good sampling of the overall tone of the play.

            Like in Beyond the Horizon, O’Neill jolted the audience with a major plot twist. After entering into an unhappy marriage to Sam Evans, Nina decided to have a child in the hopes it would improve their relationship. She then discovered insanity runs in Sam’s family. Therefore, she got a friend, Dr. Edmund Darrell, to, ahem, serve as the child’s biological father. They would allow Sam to raise the child thinking it his own. Even he didn’t know about the insanity in his ancestry. Before readers applaud Dr. Darrell for graciously giving up his time to serve as the, ahem, biological father of Nina’s child, this wasn’t the altruistic act in may appear to be. It turns out the doctor loved Nina as well. I thought this mix made for a compelling drama. I turned the pages in anticipation of the emotional catastrophe to come.

            I thought the repeated, and I emphasize repeated, asides by the various characters rather annoying. As any author knows, the hardest part of writing drama is that the audience or reader doesn’t know the inner thoughts of any character. O’Neill chose to remedy this through numerous soliloquies. I found them distracting after a while. Granted, unlike Gao Xinjian, at least he didn’t reject the Stanislavski system. That would’ve made the incessant inner monologues insufferable.

                 At the end of the play, Nina explained the title. “Strange interlude! Yes, our lives are merely strange dark interludes in the electrical display of God the Father.” (Page 255) Yeah, not real life-affirming stuff, yet it showed the essence of O’Neill’s work. I’d recommend Strange Interlude to people already familiar with O’Neill’s plays. It’s a good drama, but not one of his best. Keep in mind he penned masterpieces such as Beyond the Horizon and The Iceman Cometh. Even as a critic, I admit it’s not entirely fair to fault him for not consistently crafting work up to their superlative level.