Nobel Prize

Book Review – The Bow and the Lyre by Octavio Paz

Poetry is knowledge, salvation, power, abandonment. An operation capable of changing the world, poetic activity is revolutionary by nature; a spiritual exercise, it is a means of interior liberation. Poetry reveals this world, it creates another. (Location 70)

As one can discern from the quote above, Octavio Paz held poetry in pretty high regard. In his explication on the nature of the poetic, the author presented a high-minded analysis of the reasons why:

…the struggle between prose and poetry, consecration and analysis, song and criticism, latent since the birth of modern society is resolved by the triumph of poetry. (Location 3404)

A heady analysis bracketed these citations.

It is somewhat unusual for a literary figure to write an intellectual tome on his/her field. As Mr. Paz was a poet of great renown, I wanted to explore his take on the topic. Since this April 19th marks the twentieth anniversary of his passing, this month seemed a good time to do so.

The author derived the title from a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He wrote, “The universe is in tension, like the bowstrings or the strings of the lyre. The world ‘changing, rests.’” (Location 2932) That seemed a solid choice. It referenced the bow and the lyre that poets used to accompany their work during ancient times. It also gave an indication of the book’s heavy philosophical leanings.

Some of author’s more thought provoking observations included:

By means of the word, man is a metaphor of himself. (Location 361)

…–the poem is something that is beyond language. But that thing that is beyond language can only be reached through language. A painting will be a poem if it is something more than pictorial language. (Location 229)

The myth is a past that is a future ready to be realized in the present. (Location 804)

Are you still with me, reader? Okay. I’ll continue.

As indicated in the opening, Mr. Paz had a very high opinion of poetry.  He reasoned:

The spoken language is closer to poetry than to prose; it is less reflective and more natural, and that’s why is easier to be a poet without knowing it than a prose writer. (Location 207) … The poet sets his matter free. The prose writer imprisons his. (Location 212)

He added, “When a poet acquires a style, a manner, he stops being a poet and becomes a constructor of literary artifacts.” (Location 140)

Mr. Paz didn’t just like poetry; he used this book as its apotheosis. He believed poetry played a vital role in any community. This is where I found the author drifting from adoration into pretention. He wrote:

Without an epic no society is possible, because there is no society without heroes in whom it can recognize itself. (Location 3302)

At one point, he even suggested the poem on a superior plane to the person who created it.

The poem is not a literary form, but a meeting place between poetry and man. A poem is a verbal organism that contains, stimulates or emits poetry. The form and the substance are the same. (Location 97)

He later wrote:

Poetry is not the sum of all poems, Each poetic creation is a self-sufficient unit. The part is the whole. (Location 114)

I also thought one of Mr. Paz’s observations odd. He noted: “Poetry is the hunger for reality.” (Location 859) That seemed a strange statement as the author wrote surrealist poetry himself.

Mr. Paz displayed both practical and intellectual proficiency in the topic he presented. I still found The Bow and the Lyre a very difficult read. The complexity of thought and amount of information would benefit academics. I wouldn’t suggest this book to people with a general interest in poetry, however. For those readers, I’d advise them to check out a volume of the author’s own poetry. Mr. Paz just may have agreed with that. As he explained:

The poem is a work that is always unfinished, always ready to be completed and lived by a new reader. (Location 2964)…A poem is fully realized only in participation: without a reader, it is only half a work. (Location 437)

Drama Review – The Bonds of Interest by Jacinto Benavente

In The Bonds of Interest Jacinto Benavente presented a farcical tale of a pair of unconventional seventeenth century conmen. This disadvantaged duo duped everyone they met into believing the quiet member of the team a prestigious nobleman. Because of this, everyone granted them luxuries on credit. When part of the scheme entailed marrying the one off to a nobleman’s daughter, the two would discover whether or not the “bonds of interest” could overcome the desire for retribution.

Even though the comedy described an improbable story, the playwright still adhered to sold writing principles. Whenever a narrative focuses upon the exploits of two main characters, one is always portrayed as the dominant of the two. Benavente employed this method to brilliant effect while applying a twist to it.

The tale presented a scheme concocted by Crispin. While the dominant character, he masqueraded as Leander’s servant. When they encountered people, Crispin delivered most, and sometimes all of , the dialog. He touted the praises of his “master”, while serving as the outfit’s mastermind. The playwright balanced this character’s roles through his words very well.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but the playwright crafted a brilliant plot twist regarding Leander. He did so by making him a well-developed character. While a fugitive from justice, he still behaved nobly in regard to his love interest, Silvia. Even though he participated in a large scale scam, he allowed his feelings for Silvia to allow him to express himself honestly.

The playwright used a clever technique to express this inner decency. He did so in the form of an insult. Crispin told Silvia’s father:

And after all, the only trouble with my master was that he had no money; no one could out do him in nobility of character; your grandchildren will be gentlemen even if that quality does not extend up to the grandfather. (Location 1683)

Leander’s transition illustrated exceptional writing ability on Benavente’s part. I applaud him even more for working it into a farcical story.

The Bonds of Interest included several memorable lines. My favorites included:

Men are like merchandise; they are worth more or less according to the salesman who markets them. (Location 1779)

It is as foolish to trust a man while he lives as a woman while she loves. (Location 661)

Love is all subtleties and the greatest subtlety of them all is not that lovers deceive others—it is that they so easily can deceive themselves. (Location 1240)

I had rather deal with a thousand knaves than one fool. (Location 1550)

With the understanding that the play was a farce regarding an unbelievable series of events, I only had one criticism of it. I admit it’s not a fair one, either. The drama premiered in 1907 and the writing style reflected that of the early twentieth century. At times I read some excessive exposition.

In the following example, Crispin explained his and Leander’s back story.

…But more than this, have you forgotten that they are searching for us in other parts and following on our heels? Can it be that all those glorious exploits of Mantua and Florence have been forgotten? Do you recall that famous lawsuit in Bologna? Three thousand two hundred pages of testimony already admitted against us before we withdrew in alarm at the sight of such prodigious expansive ability! (Location 1261)

To paraphrase Stephen King: everyone has a backstory. Most of it isn’t very interesting. It becomes even less exciting when a character keeps making the same point through consecutive sentences.

While first performed in 1907, The Bonds of Interest contains humor that still resonates. Combine that with the story of two people struggling to advance their station in life through a preposterous “get rich quick scheme.” That makes it just as entertaining today. To borrow a lesson from the play: don’t believe everything I wrote just because I wrote it. Read Benavente’s drama and decide if it bonds to your interest.


Book Review – Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 masterpiece, Babbitt, told the story of a closet liberal living in a world of conservatives. This group of right wingers pursued conformity for conformity’s sake. And here I thought that Lewis’ 1935 work It Can’t Happen Here was a prescient harbinger of twenty first century America.

The story progression read like a bildungsroman. Many times such tales feature a young protagonist. George F. Babbitt aged into his mid-40s during this one. On the surface, the character appeared to experience what we now call a mid-life crisis. Lewis’ prose dug much deeper into the character’s psyche for such a glib description. The novel explored his personal awakening. It progressed into a classic of American tragedy.

The author selected the perfect setting for Babbitt’s conflict. Aside from his inner struggle, Lewis “institutionalized” him, if you will, in the homogenous community of Zenith.  It contained a very conservative social atmosphere.

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance. If it was not Babbitt who was delivering any given verdict, at least he was beaming on the chancellor who did deliver it. (Location 2246)

The residents of Zenith adhered to a circumscribed belief system.

All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary. (Location 6163)

The book contained the best examples of Lewis’ satirical wit that I’ve read. The best included:

But Babbitt was virtuous. He advocated, though he did not practice, the prohibition of alcohol; he praised, though he did not obey, the laws against motor -speeding. (Location 729)

He stopped smoking at least once a month. He went through with it like the solid citizen he was: admitted all the evils of tobacco, courageously made resolves, laid out plans to check the vice, tapered off his allowance of cigars, and expounded the pleasures of virtuousness to every one he met. He did everything, in fact, except stop smoking. (Location 632)

The Zenith Athletic Club is not athletic and it isn’t exactly a club, but it is Zenith in perfection. (Location 850)

My personal favorite read as follows.

“Just the same, you don’t want to forget prohibition is a mighty good thing for the working-classes. Keeps ‘em from wasting their money and lowering their productiveness,” said Virgil Gunch.

“Yes, that’s so. But the trouble is the manner of enforcement,” insisted Howard Littlefield. “Congress didn’t understand the right system. Now, if I’d been running the thing, I’d have arranged it so that the drinker himself was licensed, and then we could have taken care of the shiftless workman—kept him from drinking—and yet not’ve interfered with the rights—with the personal liberty—of fellows like ourselves.” (Location 1827)

In spite of Babbitt’s moral shortcomings and self-delusion, I still wanted him to succeed. His struggle between individuality and conformity contains relevance almost a century following the book’s publication. That shows the timeless nature of Sinclair Lewis’ work.


Book Review – Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Aside from the years of his birth and death, Sinclair Lewis’ grave marker reads: “Author of Main Street.” That shows the importance the author placed on this one particular work. In it, he presented a critical portrayal of the provincialism he found in small town American life. An unflattering masterpiece resulted.

Main Street introduced readers to Carol Kennicott. An ambitious woman who worked as a librarian in St. Paul, Minnesota, she married a small town doctor, Will Kennicott. She began her new life with him in his home town, a small community called Gopher Prarie; a location the author based on his own birthplace, Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

I liked how the author established the conflict at the very beginning of the story. Carol harbored the following ambition:

“That’s what I’ll do after college! I’ll get my hands on one of these prairie towns and make it beautiful. Be an inspiration. I supposed I’d better become a teacher then, but—I won’t be that kind of teacher. I won’t drone. Why should they have all the garden suburbs on Long Island? Nobody has done anything with the ugly towns here in the Northwest except hold revivals and build libraries to contain the Elsie books. I’ll make ‘em put in a village green, and darling cottages, and a quaint Main Street.” (Location 114)

When introduced to the residents of Carol’s new home, one would certainly have thought this would be a rather easy quest for the young protagonist. After all, the community featured some elite organizations such as the Jolly Seventeen and the Thantaposis club. Under her leadership, they even agreed to present a theatrical show. They would undoubtedly have shared the dream of making Gopher Prarie more sophisticated. Not with Sinclair Lewis writing about it they wouldn’t.

The author compared small town American life to a disease. That’s an interesting metaphor coming from somebody who grew up in one. Here’s an exchange between Carol and Mr. Pollock.

She asked impulsively, “You, why do you stay here?”

“I have the Village Virus.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it’s extraordinarily like the hook worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You’ll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I’m a perfect example. But I shan’t pester you with my dolors.” (Location 2400)

Main Street didn’t include as many examples of sardonic wit as some of Lewis’ other books. It did contain a few good ones, however.

Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be. (Location 2365)

It is a “parasitic Greek civilization”—minus the civilization. (Location 4134)

He pressed fifty dollars upon her, and after that he remembered to give her money regularly…sometimes. (Location 1136)

And the most memorable:

Cy was to be heard publishing it abroad that if he couldn’t get the Widow Bogart’s permission to enlist, he’d run away and enlist without it. He shouted that he “hated every dirty Hun; by gosh, if he could just poke a bayonet into one big fat Heinie and learn him some decency and democracy, he’d die happy.” Cy got much reputation by whipping a farmboy named Adolph Pouchbauer for being a ‘damn hyphenated German”…This was the younger Pouchbauer, who was killed in the Argonne, while he was trying to bring the body of his Yankee captain back to the lines. At this time Cy Bogart was still dwelling in Gopher Prairie and planning to go to war. (Location 4216)

I did concur with the usual criticism of Main Street. I found the book very long. At times the author provided excessive details when describing the setting. Had he not done so, the story would have progressed at a better pace.

I also thought Lewis restrained his vitriol in this book. Aside from referencing the “Village Virus” and detailing the variety of characters that moved out of the community, he didn’t deliver too negative an attack on his subject. In Elmer Gantry, he didn’t hold back. I expected a similar tone in Main Street.

It seems ironic that the author of Main Street’s final resting place is in the community he satirized in the book. That’s interesting since he passed away in one of the world’s most popular cities, Rome, Italy. Even death couldn’t prevent Mr. Lewis from succumbing to the Village Virus.


Honeymoon by Patrick Modiano Translated by Barbara White

It seemed ironic, yet fitting, that Jean B. made documentaries about lost explorers. He was, after all, a lost explorer himself. Driven by his desire to discover the reason for an old acquaintance’s death, he embarked on a journey. This quest would transcend time and location. He traveled from present day France back to the era of the German Occupation. He did so alone as his wife feared he would “involve her in an adventure that leads nowhere.” (Page 114)

For those not familiar with Modiano’s work, Honeymoon would serve as a good introduction. It included many themes common to the author’s books. It included the elements of memory, the German Occupation and a protagonist searching for the past. He weaved them together to craft an engaging narrative.

As a young man, Jean B. spent a brief period of time with a couple named Rigauld and Ingrid. He discovered the latter’s death several decades later. At the time, he’d felt disillusioned with his own life. He embarked on a search to discover what happened to these two people.

The book included some superb writing.

She took my arm because of the sloping road. The contact of her arm and shoulder gave me an impression I had never yet had, that of finding myself under someone’s protection. She would be the first person who could help me. I felt lightheaded. All those waves of tenderness that she communicated to me through the simple contact of her arm, and the pale blue look from time to time—I didn’t know that such things could happen, in life. (Page 24)

Unless the line of life, once it has reached its term, purges itself on all its useless and decorative elements. In which case, all that remains is the essential: the blanks, the silences and the pauses. I finally fell asleep, turning all these serious questions over in my mind. (Page 36)

It does also happen that one evening, because of someone’s attentive gaze, you feel a need to communicate with him not your experience, but quite simply some of the various details connected by an invisible thread, a thread which is in danger of breaking and which is called the course of life. (Page 88)

As one can tell from the passages, Modiano’s writing is pretty deep. It may not suit all readers’ tastes. My version of the book contains 120 pages. It took longer to read than I anticipated. I found myself re-reading numerous passages because of the writing style.

For my personal preference I don’t mind reading works that challenge me. For that reason I enjoyed Honeymoon and would recommend to others.

In 2014, Patrick Modiano received the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Academy cited his work: “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” Honeymoon serves as a good example.


The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Through her approach to oral history, Svetlana Alexievich crafted a unique portrayal of the Second World War. While interviews with Soviet combatants brought a human face to the conflict, the author chose an original method of elucidation. Ms. Alexievich focused her narrative on one group of combatants: women. She also opted to approach the topic as an “historian of feelings.” An enlightening and at times unsettling portrayal of USSR during the “Great Patriotic War” resulted.

The Nobel Prize Committee honored Ms. Alexievich with the Literature prize in 2015. After the announcement, I read her work on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan: Zinky Boys. I found The Unwomanly Face of War a similar style of narrative. As the author explained, “It is impossible to go right up to reality. Between us and reality are our feelings.” (Location 210) “I write not about war, but about human beings in war. I write not the history of war, but the history of feelings. I am a historian of the soul.” (Location 213) For emphasis, she later added: “-True, I don’t love great ideas. I love the little human being.” (Location 476)

The author delivered a trenchant observation on the subtleties one can discern from a face-to-face interview. She wrote:

The tape recorder records the words, preserves the intonation. The pauses. The weeping and embarrassment. I realize that, when a person speaks, something more takes place than what remains on paper. I keep regretting that I cannot “record” eyes, hands. Their life during the conversation, their own life. Their “texts.” (Location 2008)

Of course, the actual interviews comprised the most memorable portions of this work. The most harrowing tale described both the horrors of war with its awful aftermath under Stalin’s regime.

My husband had been arrested by the NKVD; he was in prison. I went there…And what do I hear there?…They tell me, “Your husband is a traitor.” But my husband and I worked together in the underground. The two of us. He was a brave, honest man. I realized that someone had denounced him…Slander…”No,” I say, “my husband can’t be a traitor. I believe him. He’s a true Communist.” His interrogator…He started yelling at me, “Silence, you French prostitute! Silence!” He had lived under the occupation, had been captured, had been taken to Germany, had been in a fascist concentration camp—it all was suspicious. One question: Why did he stay alive? Why didn’t he die? Even the dead were under suspicion…Even them…And they didn’t take into consideration that we fought, we sacrificed everything for the sake of victory. And we won…The people won! But Stalin still didn’t trust the people. That was how our Motherland repaid us. For our love, for our blood…” (Location 5025)

The woman quoted (Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kashechkina) fought with the underground. After the Germans captured her she served time at the Croisette concentration camp in France.

Ms. Alexievich received the Nobel Prize in Literature for “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.” As one woman she interviewed told her: “It’s terrible to remember, but it’s far more terrible not to remember.” (Location 2294) The Unwomanly Face of War proves it.


Bob Dylan Named 2016 Nobel Literature Laureate

“Things have changed” for who’s eligible to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. The 2016 award went to American singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. Why did the Swedish Academy award it to a lyricist? The answer is “blowin’ in the wind.” Mr. Dylan must think it’s an “idiot wind.” To date he hasn’t responded to the committee’s efforts to get in touch with him. Through this “simple twist of fate” Bob Dylan has found himself the center of an unlikely controversy.

Perhaps, Mr. Dylan thinks some “jokerman” notified him about this honor. I’m sure “it ain’t me, babe” would’ve been his first reaction.

Since the Nobel Prize is a lifetime achievement award, it may be showing him that he’s not “forever young.” Of all people, he should know what matters is feeling “young at heart.”

Or maybe he’s thinking that by ignoring it, “I shall be released” from accepting it. “Most likely you’ll go your way and I’ll go mine” if he doesn’t answer the Swedish Academy’s requests. To be fair: They’re simply saying “’I want you’ to accept, Mr. Dylan. ‘All I really want to do’ is award you the prize. We’ve ‘got to serve somebody’ with it.” Mr. Dylan may reply, “’If not for you’, I wouldn’t be in this situation!”

I can understand if the announcement put Mr. Dylan in a “melancholy mood.” The news swept through the internet like a “hurricane.” From some of the reactions I read from novelists, I worried the “man in the long black coat” would have him “knocking on Heaven’s door” soon. I don’t blame him for seeking “shelter from the storm” the media frenzy caused.

This year’s selection of singer/songwriter Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature shows just how much “the times they are ‘a changin’.”As for me, I’m “pledging my time” to encouraging Mr. Dylan to accept this award. I don’t want him to look back on this and think “I threw it all away.” “One of us must know sooner or later” whether he will or not. But he earned it, so it’s his decision. I’d tell him that if he opts to turn it down: “Don’t think twice. It’s alright.”


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.

Book Review – Happy Valley by Patrick White

Reading Patrick White reminded me of the old Foster’s marketing campaign on “How to Speak Australian”. In one add a rugby player put a band aid on his head. He ran out to the field as an Australian voice over said, “Helmet.” The next screen showed a can of Foster’s getting slammed on a table. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Beer. Foster’s: It’s Australian for beer.” Reading his works makes me feel like the name “Patrick White” is Australian for “Novelist.”

Mr. White held the distinction of being the Land Down Under’s sole Nobel Laureate in Literature; receiving the award in 1973. His novels presented a unique approach to writing that made his works extremely challenging (to be charitable) and perplexing (to be realistic). While still trying to wrap my mind around complex works such as The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm, I discovered his first novel still extant. Wanting to see if some of White’s unusual approach to writing germinated in that effort, I checked it out. To my both my delight and consternation, many of the elements of his later work appeared in his 1937 debut, Happy Valley.

I struggled with this book. As I wrote above, White’s work has a reputation for difficulty. The overall premise challenged me. Nine characters, most of them major, appeared in his narrative. He depicted two unhappy marriages with the other persons playing supporting roles. After battling through Happy Valley, I have a better understanding as to why we refer to players in a novel as “characters.”

In addition, White pioneered an original approach to point of view. He wrote in third person POV. He’d center on one character and then would transition into the second person point of view. For readers scratching their heads, here’s an example.

Going home, Alys Browne felt calm and detached. She trod on a frozen puddle and heard it crack. I wanted to escape, she said, this, after all, is California, its true significance. Understanding, you felt no pain in your body, that ice did not touch, in your mind that was a fortress against pain, and Happy Valley, and because of this you lived. (Location 4862)

This section presented a unique challenge. It had the White POV transition combined with a character speaking about herself in the first person. This writing style made Ulysses seem like a light read. I didn’t commit a typo when I left out the quotation marks, either. The author chose not to include any in the text. Passages such as this provide a good example why many readers experience difficulty with this author’s work.

While understanding Happy Valley vexed me, I did find it a worthwhile read. White presented a number of exceptional lyrical flourishes that justified the effort. I liked the following poetic expression: “Words beat on the border of her mind, but did not penetrate.” (Location 1321)

In another line that I enjoyed the author exhibited outstanding imagery: “You could see the surf whiten the shore through the darkness.” (Location 1342)

I found the following one of the best chapter endings I’ve ever read.

So on, so on, with the diversity of detail and the pathetically compulsory unity of purpose that informs a town asleep. Smoke mounts faintly skywards from the chimney-pots. Dream is broken, turns, sighs. She said, she said, the wind. The cat walking on the water-butt touches with her cold pad a star, claiming it as her own, like Happy Valley extinguished by the darkness, achieving a momentary significance. (Location 1639)

After reading the above paragraph I could mentally see a book being slammed down. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Novel.”

I appreciated reading Happy Valley even though the complexity of the plot and writing style confused me. At times my head felt like I’d just thrown back a few pints of Foster’s. With all that out of the way, I do plan on reading this book again. Now that I understand what I’m in for and have a background, I’d like to go through it once again. This time I’ll focus on mining it for the story. The way I see it, if I get flustered and the attempt drives me to drink, I’ll know just what to pick-up.

The Genius of the Artist

“Talent, Proust says. I would say luck and much labor.” With these words novelist Sir V. S. Naipaul concluded his Nobel Valedictory Lecture in 2001. I remember being struck by this unusual choice of words the first time I read the speech he entitled “Two Worlds”. I thought how extraordinary it was that someone who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature would credit this accomplishment to mere chance, if you will, and the age-old adage of “hard work.” That’s quite a remarkable display of abasement, especially from an Oxford graduate. Granted, Mr. Naipaul was reared among humble surroundings in his native Trinidad, but that notwithstanding: he had just been placed in the same pantheon of such incomparable writers as Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Surely, having his work judged to be of the same caliber as these timeless novelists couldn’t be attributed merely to luck.

Or could it? Not every recipient of the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature is a household name. I should point out that Mr. Naipaul now finds himself among the ranks of such forgotten writers as Selma Lagerloff, Theodore Momsen, and Christolph von Eucken. Not to mention it’s very first recipient in 1901: Sully Prodhomme. The runner up that year went on to become much more well known. His name was Leo Tolstoy.

Just as strange, Naipaul’s greatest literary influence and author to whom he is most frequently identified with never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, either. You may also recognize his name: Joseph Conrad.

Many other famous writers who are widely read today were never honored with a Nobel Prize. Perhaps the most conspicuous being James Joyce who authored Ulysses, a novel some would call the most influential publication of the Twentieth Century. Additionally, the very well known Marcel Proust whom Naipaul chose to cite in his “Two Worlds” speech never received recognition from the Nobel academy; this in spite of his ten-volume epic masterpiece Remembrances of Things Past.

While I’m sure literature students would describe the works of these writers as somewhat “difficult to comprehend” I suspect very few would deny these men possessed great talent. With that in mind I thought that perhaps there was something to Naipaul’s thoughts on luck after all.

But what is luck? The Oxford American Dictionary defines it as: good fortune; success due to chance. I think that anyone who has read Naipaul’s seminal work–A House for Mr. Biswas–, would be hard pressed to call the quality of that finished product “success due to chance.” Aside from the critics’ requisite comparisons to Conrad, this 1960 masterpiece has also drawn numerous comparisons to Charles Dickens. When one looks at the way Naipaul described the plight of the poor I supposed one can understand the parallels, but it’s hard to imagine any physical setting farther removed from Victorian England that mid-twentieth century Trinidad.

On the other hand, how then do we define talent? I consulted the same source—in homage to Mr. Naipaul’s alma mater of course–and found the following definition: “a special aptitude or faculty.” During the course of his lecture, Naipaul made references at both the beginning and conclusion of his speech to passages from Proust’s work of literary criticism Against Sainte-Beuve. The first one reads:

The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody that delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline. Those who are obsessed by men who are gifted…Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable them finally to bring this indistinct music closer to them, to hear it clearly, to note it down….

It seemed to me that this example of Proustian eloquence could aptly apply to any number of Naipaul’s works, but for the sake of consistency I will specifically refer to A House for Mr. Biswas. There is no denying that it meets Proust’s criteria as coming from “inside.” The detail in the descriptions of events in the life of a young boy and his subsequent journey into adulthood are either semi-autobiographical or the result of a monumental imaginative ability. The fact that the protagonist is a poor man of Indian ancestry and just happens to aspire to a career as a writer unmistakably found their source from inside Mr. Naipaul’s consciousness and recollection of his early years. The depth and poignancy contained in this story of a man on an unwavering quest to own a home of his own are unmistakably the work of a very talented writer. Some, including myself, would argue a work of genius.

How then are we to define genius? Most of you are probably assuming I’d elaborate on James Joyce’s statement about how “a man of genius makes no mistakes, they are all volitional and are portals to discovery,” but I thought I’d take a different route. The definition that I like the best comes from the wise learned philosopher—who also played bass guitar on the old O-Jays records—Anthony Jackson. He explained that there are three components of genius. The first two would conform nicely with Mr. Naipaul’s so-called luck. Mr. Jackson said that the primary element of genius is an original style on the part of the artist. The second component of genius involves possessing the technical ability to execute that unique style. In my view it is the third segment of genius that is by far the most important. It is also significantly different from the others for a reason of singular importance: the first two can be innate. The third component of genius is persistence. It is the persistence to push, or more appropriately, to force your ideas onto an intractable world that says, “just what do you think you’re doing?”

President Calvin Coolidge had a famous quote about never giving up that went as follows:
“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than the unsuccessful person with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Was Proust right when he said that talent is what makes for great writing? Was Napaul correct that luck and hard-work are what will make for successful writers? The innate factor of talent is always fixed. Either we possess it or we do not. Events are to a large extent capricious and will inevitably be left to chance. Awards and so-called honors will be distributed with the same degree of scientific precision that goes into predicting the weather. It is the persistence and determination to force your ideas onto a world that may not at first be receptive to them that will make all the difference. Talent, Proust says, Luck and Much Labour, Naipaul says, I say both so long as persistence supercedes all.