Posts Tagged ‘magic realism’

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

August favourites #20: 20th century novel

August 20, 2018

51Kz09gvDWL._AC_US218_I’ve been learning Spanish for the last few years, a retirement project I took on to keep my brain active and challenged, and I’ve been really lucky to have an excellent teacher and a very small class. I’d like to be able to read my choice of best twentieth century novel in the original; I have got so far as acquiring a copy, and because of my familiarity with the text, can make a stab at decoding a fair bit of the Spanish, but I think I’m still a long way before being able to enjoy Gabriel Garcia MarquezCien Años de Soledad – One Hundred Years of Solitude– in the original. Many years ago, when I was a teacher at Harrogate Grammar School, we had one year a Spanish language assistant who came from Colombia; it was shortly after Marquez had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he was so rightly proud of his fellow-countryman that he translated the author’s acceptance speech for us and I still have my copy somewhere. It is a lovely book – I choose that word advisedly – magically carrying me through the story from start to finish, holding me utterly enthralled. I can’t recall how many times I’ve read it; I’ve worn out one copy and am on my second.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Ryszard Kapuściński: Nobody Leaves

April 9, 2017

I’ve long been a fan of Kapuściński’s reportage and travel writing, and still am, even though his reputation has taken quite a serious knock in some quarters with the revelations in recent years of his somewhat cavalier and casual attitude to truth and accuracy, and his propensity for inventing; at times his writing does read a little like the magic realism of novelists like Marquez… I don’t necessarily see this as a flaw, as long as one is aware that it is happening: it seems to be part of his quest, his determination to create a full and clear impression of his subject-matter, to which he always displays a great sensitivity.

Context is important, too: although a citizen of the Polish People’s Republic, and a respected journalist with great freedom to travel, and benefitting from a light touch from the censor, he did nevertheless have to operate under certain constraints: perhaps his chosen approach allowed him to be published and read, rather than hide his manuscripts in the bottom drawer. Perhaps I’m making excuses for a writer whom I really like; I definitely think it’s easy for Westerners to be critical when they have never experienced similar condition themselves. It reminds me of the pontifications of those who criticised the late Gunter Grass for taking so long to come clean about his membership of the Waffen SS.

Kapuściński is best known in the West for his reporting from Africa in the 1960s and 1970s; The Shadow of the Sun is a beautiful book showing an understanding I’ve rarely encountered elsewhere. His book The Emperor, about the court of the emperor Haile Selassie, is fascinating, as is his account of the last Shah of Persia, Reza Pahlavi. Reflections gleaned from his travels around the Soviet Union, in Imperium, are enlightening, and his tribute to the man he regarded as the first reporter, Travels with Herodotus, is another good read.

Nobody Leaves is rather different, more magical, if anything, and this seems understandable as it’s about his own country in the 1950s and 60s – difficult times in many ways, although remembered by fewer and fewer people now. His style is more laconic, suffused with a touch of dry, wry humour; it reads like quite a lot of (translated) modern Polish fiction I’ve read. It’s an ideal style gradually to portray, in an accretive, impressionistic way, the dreams and hopes of those years, the terrible sense of loss and waste, now obliterated by the bright new capitalist future the country has embraced so wholeheartedly.

Kapuściński doesn’t intrude; he’s very much a reporter in the background, and so when, very occasionally, he foregrounds himself, or a question he has put to someone, there’s a deliberate reason for doing this, and an evident effect. The most painful and shocking piece, for me, was about two illiterate parents who sacrifice their lives and health to further their daughter’s education; their pride is unbounded when she becomes a teacher, but she rejects their sacrifices and her career to become a nun, and her order block contact between her and her dying parents. My father was a devout Catholic, but often scathing about the religious authorities in his homeland; now I understand why…

I suspect the pieces in this book meant more to Poles reading them half a century ago, but for me the man’s humaneness, his humanity, shine through. It’s well-translated and has a helpful introduction, too.

A limited acquaintance: Latin American writers

November 17, 2015

51S71FNH8ML._AA160_51sX1TFZKpL._AA160_51W50mnoFDL._AA160_My acquaintance with the literature of Latin America is very limited: I’m familiar with some of the novels of the Columbian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the short stories of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. I tried Mario Vargas Lhosa and found him impenetrable, and gave up on the acclaimed Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes; I don’t think it was my loss, either…

Marquez I have grown to love; One Hundred Years of Solitude is on my list of best novels ever; I return to it every few years and never cease to marvel. What is magic realism? It’s almost the literary equivalent of a drug: normality is there, in the characters, their lives, actions and speech, and then, imperceptibly it has happened: you are outside the frame of the real, things have an enlightened, extra edge or perception to them, sometimes a great warmth, welcoming and pleasurable. It’s seductive, more-ish, a totally different perspective on everything. Marquez gives us the (hi)story of a family, a town and an epoch, and it blows me away… the ending is truly astonishing.

As time has passed I have become more fond of Love in the Time of Cholera; perhaps it’s an older person’s novel? A tale of enduring unrequited love, magically sustained long beyond what seems possible, and eventually attained, a marvellous and exotic setting, beautifully described, again taking us beyond the real so subtly that it takes a long while for us to realise what the author has done…

Others have also wandered around in the territory of magic realism; I’d put some of Gunter Grass‘ fiction in this category, but I feel increasingly that there is something specifically Latin American about it, and that Marquez really did invent and develop a new genre.

Borges is so utterly different, enigmatic and sometimes utterly twisted, one eye on eternity which he knows is incomprehensible, but her just won’t leave it alone. Some of his stories might be compared with the drawings of Escher. He’s preoccupied with libraries and the organisation and categorisation of knowledge; the mad blind librarian Jorge in Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose is that writer’s tribute to Borges… Could all knowledge, every permutation of every letter and sign, ever be contained in a storehouse? Borges prefigures the immensity of the internet, and a website I discovered recently, the Library of Babel, tries to replicate what Borges imagined: warning! – the website may mess with your head.

Hardly a representative sample of Latin American literature: others of my readers out there may correct me, but I’m interested that the continent has given us two such different writers, writing things that perhaps Europeans never could.

Olga Tokarczuk: Primeval and Other Times

October 29, 2015

51q23Ej2pPL._AA160_Well, this gets my award for the most powerful and moving book I’ve read this year so far…

The simplest way to categorise it is to call it Polish magic realism, I think. These are tales of a mythical Polish village through the troubled twenthieth century, though that’s a very bald description; they are stories, descriptions, reflections and philosophising too. As we meet and follow a series of characters, Tokarczuk also reflects on the nature of the world and our existence in a century which didn’t seem to care about people or the planet.

I’d read her novel House of Day, House of Night about ten years ago, and obviously enjoyed it enough to put this book on my Christmas list…four years ago! It’s another novel about a small place, and I don’t recall a thing about it; that might explain why t took me so long to get around to this one.

In some ways, Tokarczuk’s writing is very ephemeral: one seems to glide or float through the pages, yet the impressions are very powerful and you are irresistibly drawn in to her world; her style is very lyrical, and it does seem to have been beautifully translated. There is an absolutely magical chapter in which a child explains the family treasures she has come across in the drawer in the kitchen table; not only are you drawn further into the child’s world, you create your own version of the drawer at the same time – or at least, I did.

Some of the characters are there throughout the book, some pop up only a couple of times. Chaos begins with the First World War, continues through the reborn Polish nation, erupts again with the Second World War, though not as horrendously as one might expect, except for a dark and vague chapter where Jews are killed, and we cannot tell who the killers really are. Tokarczuk seemed to me to be alluding to those still murky episodes in Polish history which have yet to be owned and fully revealed…

She challenges religion in a number of ways, not aggressively, but through offering new angles on ages-old beliefs, perspectives which the reader is invited to explore and entertain, at least for a while. There are also some curious takes on some well-known Bible stories.

One of the main characters is a boy – hard to describe other than to say that in some ways he is half-witted or mentally different (itself hard to say, given the circumstances of the novel itself) – who is also one of the most learned characters, perhaps the one who I liked the most. And his name is Izydor…

I do like it when I am utterly bowled over by something I did expect to like when I finally read it, but didn’t have such great hopes of.

Bruno Schultz: The Street of Crocodiles

March 31, 2015

51ft9Cr66yL._AA160_I finally picked this up and read it for the first time (having bought it new in 1980!) because I learned from Gombrowiczdiary that the two knew each other, and Gombrowicz rated Schultz quite highly.

It’s a collection of linked short stories centred on Schultz’ hometown of Drohobycz, formerly in eastern Poland. The atmosphere is dreamlike, almost hallucinatory in places; there are echoes of Kafka‘s short story Metamorphosis as Schultz writes about his father, though the transformation is slower and more drawn out than that of Gregor Samsa.

Although they are divorced from reality, there is a hypnotic feel to the stories; the characters are also unreal: the closest comparison I could come up with as I thought about them was with Marquez and magic realism, that style which was to emerge much later on. The language is often beautiful, lyrical as we shift from semi-reality to fantasy. Echoes of some of Boris Vian, too. I often wonder which writers have read, heard of or comes across each other when I pick up on similar traits like this in different writers.

The two most accomplished stories are The Street of Crocodiles and Cinnamon Shops (this collection is sometimes given the name of that story as its title), both powerful and haunting visions of aspects of the town. When I read something like this, I find myself reading quite differently compared with how I interact with a more conventional novel or short story: here, I drift too, in a dreamlike state, through the almost poetic visions and imaginings of the writer, rather than absorbing words and thinking about them as I seek to take plot and character on board. Quite a magical experience.

Writing from other worlds…

July 7, 2014

As English is the dominant world language, and it’s ours, I have always felt that literature from other countries barely gets a look-in in the UK. It’s one of the reasons why I read French Literature at university along with English, and have worked to sustain my working knowledge of one other language. And then, there’s the fact that, proud as I am to have the language of Shakespeare as my mother tongue, I’m in fact only half English. The other half of me is Polish, and this has always reminded me that there is another world, there are other worlds out there…

It’s not possible for anyone to keep up with all the literature in the world; I don’t know how long ago that might once have been possible. So I’m aware that, even though I read quite widely, I’m only scratching the surface of what’s out there. When I read other people’s blogs about literature, I see how much else there is that I have no awareness of. So I choose, I follow certain tracks for certain reasons. This means that others are inevitably ignored. I have always been interested in Eastern European literature, particularly that written during the time of the various so-called communist regimes of the Cold War; it was fascinating to observe truths being told even under the eyes of the censors. Now, of course, that writers there have the same ‘freedoms’ as we have in the West, they are writing more of the same stuff that we produce. Having my origins in the outcome of the Second World War, I have also been fascinated with how Germans have come to terms (or not) with what was done by them and in their names during the Hitler years; I suppose Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll spring to mind at once.

Something fascinated me with Latin America and magic realism – I can’t remember what or when – and I like the perspective it offers on life and story-telling. And a chance discovery of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and its amazing bookshop opened my eyes to some of the literature of the Arab world: so very different, but, as importantly, just as valid a perspective on the world as our own. Amin Maalouf and Naguib Mahfouz spring immediately to mind.

I would find it almost impossible to justify what I’m about to say, which is that, in comparison with the literature I’ve just described above, I have found a great deal of the English and American literature I have encountered from the same time-period, ie since the Second World War, rather dull, introspective, navel-gazing even. I’ll counter this immediately by mentioning Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as instances of new and exciting anglophone writing, but also categorise them as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Reading through what I’ve just written, I’m realising that I can’t just leave things there; I’m going to have to explore some of the bold and sweeping statements I’ve made in more depth and detail, and attempt to be clearer and fairer…

to be continued…

%d bloggers like this: