Posts Tagged ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’

On old favourites

March 11, 2017

I’m sure everyone has these. I have more books than I care to think about (sometimes) and I’ll certainly never now have the time to get around to (re)-reading them all. But among them are some books I have loved for many years and which I treasure with a great fondness. Childhood favourites are The Wind in the Willows – my copy is certainly the first book in my library and I can still recall buying it with a Christmas book token when I was seven or eight years old. I used to fantasise about living in Badger’s underground home, so cosy it seemed. And I discovered a brilliant audio version, yes, on the librivox website…

Then there was Winnie the Pooh, which I loved; I recently bought a new copy to be able to read to my new grandson, in a few years time. Somewhere I have a copy of the Latin translation, bought as a curiosity many years ago. And The Borrowers, which was serialised in a children’s magazine when I was very young. I bought my elder daughter the omnibus edition and we shared it as a bedtime book but never got to the end together before she became too old for bedtime stories…

I also loved Professor Branestawm’s adventures, unable to read them without collapsing into hysterical fits of laughter; I still wish I could imitate him and send the gas company an envelope filled with mashed potato instead of a cheque paying the bill.

Grown-up reading seems rather different to me: as I’ve grown older, I’ve grown out of, or beyond some of the books that moved me greatly when I was younger. I haven’t lost Hermann Hesse’s Narziss and Goldmund and will revisit it every few years for as long as I’m able: it meant something else to me when I was a mere student, and now in my older age it holds very different but just as significant messages for me. I shall also return regularly to Oscar’s adventures in The Tin Drum, to the reflectiveness of Adso in The Name of the Rose, and the magical world of Maldonado in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And – I’m still not sure why, but Josef Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls demands to be re-read, if only for its magnificent swearing. And if I was to pick out one SF novel, it would have to be Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars: anyone who can project us a billion years into the future earns my respect. Finally, you won’t be surprised to hear, nothing will separate me from Sherlock Holmes (in this existence, at least).

Where I’m heading, I think, is towards what has made me love these books for so long, to come back to them so many times. They’re not the only ones that I re-read, by any means, but they means something different and special to me. I suppose that I must have read them at various crucial moments in my life. That’s certainly true of the Hesse and the Arthur C Clarke; I just can’t remember about the others. Some of them are brilliant novels that are on many lists of ‘the greats’, others are probably only great to me. What they share, for me, is the ways they open up life and experience, reveal the vastness of our lives and the universe.

Oscar remembers, recreates a vanished world, a place that no longer exists. Many other novels do this, too – Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for example. But the haunting picture of the lost Danzig is overlaid with the many tragedies of its inhabitants: the Jewish toyshop owner who commits suicide, the mixed communities which in the end could no longer co-exist, the Germans who had to leave.

Hesse shows us a friendship which lasts many years, a lifetime, in fact. So do many novels. But he also shows what attracts these so very different characters to each other and what sustains the bond across the years when they are on their separate journeys, and somehow manages to link these two men to the wider human condition, our needs for companionship and understanding.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to play a game with myself. I have to downsize, perhaps eventually move into some sort of sheltered accommodation, and can only take a hundred books with me: what would I choose from the thousands I currently have? All of the ones I’ve mentioned above would be on the list. It’s a bit like returning to childhood, which is where I began this post: I still have my very first bookcase, which my dad made for me when I was about seven: I gradually filled it up as I grew up. It might just hold a hundred books.

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My A-Z of reading: E is for Ending

October 24, 2016

I wrote about beginnings under B and I imagine you would expect me to write about endings… and it’s a lot harder and more complex, I feel. For, as we read, we develop our own expectations of the way a story will go and how we think it should end, and those expectations do not always match those of the writer who produces the text and therefore gets her or his way. How many times did I hear someone in a class object to the ending of a novel?

My impression has always been that until relatively recently, readers expected both a tidy resolution of the story (loose ends tidied up) and a happy ending too, and for many years, that was what they got. More recently, though, writers have experimented with offering their readers open endings rather than closed and final ones: why should they have to tie up all the loose ends, and what right do their readers have to a feeling of happiness and satisfaction at the end of a novel? And if we do not like the way a novel ends, then surely the question to ask is, so why did the writer choose to have that ending rather than the one I wanted? I found it useful to point my students in that direction, as it reminded them once again that a novel is a work of fiction (that is, something made) where the writer is in control of everything, making choices all the way along the line, and thereby excluding other choices…

In some ways for me the ending of Persuasion is the perfect happy ending: Anne and Wentworth finally get each other after many years, in spite of so many obstacles; his letter is a masterpiece of genuine feeling, and what reader can grudge them their happiness as they walk together – united at last – through the streets of Bath? Jane Austen manages it perfectly, I think.

Contrast this with the ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, some forty years later. The power of it blew me away when I first read it: Lucy’s passion for Paul and the way the ending is deliberately left open – does he return for them to live happily ever after or is he lost forever in that dreadful Atlantic storm? – is heart-wrenching in the way it leaves the lovers parted, or in suspended animation for a century and a half now. Amazingly daring then, I’m sure, such openness is often imitated now, to rather less effect. There’s a similar power for me in the ending of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: after we and Raskolnikov have been churned by the psychological torment of the plot, we are surely happy that Sonya will be waiting for him to return after he has purged his crime and they will be happy together…

It’s hard not to fall in love with Huck Finn’s innocence and genuineness as his adventures unfold; the silly escapades after his reunion with Tom Sawyer are a blot on the book and his character, but his decision to abandon civilisation and light out for the territory at the end of the novel I find immensely moving and powerful. Nor can I get to the end of the n-th re-read of The Name of the Rose without a lump in my throat: the suddenly aged Adso at the end of his life, in some way shaped by his one experience of passion and sexual fulfilment, and noting at the end of his adventure with William ‘I never saw him again’. If a book is well-written, a good story that makes me care about the characters, then little details like that are extraordinarily powerful.

Other endings I have loved: the tour-de-force that is the final section of Ulysses, the return full-circle at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the kick in the guts that is the end of Nineteen Eighty-four – that has to be the ending, no matter how much we loathe it. And most recently, in a trilogy that has become (and I think will remain) a classic, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights: the relationship that develops and blossoms between Lyra and Will, that I cannot put a name to, and then their separation forever into their own respective universes, parallel but never again to meet…

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.

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo

June 13, 2014

41SC8pityRL._AA160_It took me a long time to settle into this re-read (fifth); I thought perhaps I had gone off Conrad, and his greatest novel, but it was not so. As I reached the end, the powerful sense of tragedy gripped me again: truly, the desire for money is the root of all evil, and the undoing of many.

This time round, I was very aware of Conrad’s cynicism, perhaps symbolised in the character of the journalist Decoud, whose shallowness is the ultimate cause of his suicide. At university I hated Conrad’s anti-revolutionary stance, his distrust of any attempt at change; now I perceive him not as conservative or reactionary, merely totally without faith in any good or improvement ever coming from anyone’s attempts, which are futile. It’s a dark view, perhaps understandable in view of Conrad’s personal background… I just thought about Tony Blair and New Labour, with much sadness.

So, in this imaginary South American land beset by dictators and revolutionaries (it does remind me of Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude) the evil dictator Guzman Bento ruthlessly tortured and killed his opponents, but brought a long period of peace to Costaguana (Saddam Hussein, anyone?). Ribiera, his replacement, is more human but ineffectual and easily challenged by the Montero brothers, who are powerful, but brutes.

For Conrad, idealists talk and have fine ideas, but ultimately achieve little; real things are achieved by others circumventing these idealists. Perhaps the Englishman Gould and his silver mine show this most clearly: economic power interacts with secular power, merely to serve its own ends: it is amoral; the mine that was a force for some good initially has become another instrument of oppression by the end of the novel. Everyone is either venal or ineffective in Conrad’s world; no-one comes out of it well. On this re-reading the parallels with our twenty-first century world were quite stark, Conrad very prescient. Or I’ve got older.

The eponymous Nostromo, who lives for his reputation, is ultimately corrupted by the silver, too: everyone has his price, and I was struck by the way his eyes were suddenly opened to the way he was used, manipulated by the rich and powerful.

Conrad is a masterful storyteller: the tale is complex, the characters develop slowly, and he plays with the time sequence of events in his story to draw the reader in; the conceit of the silver mine is skilfully woven throughout the novel, its tentacles touching and sullying every character. I am glad I came back to this fine book.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

May 5, 2014

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After his death the other week, I told myself it was time to re-read Marquez’ classic One Hundred Years of Solitude; imagine my surprise on taking my copy down from the bookshelf, when I discovered it was twenty years since I’d last read it… and I’d been recommending it to friends and students alike all that time, on my memory of the book alone.

So I re-read it, and it’s still brilliant. I found myself comparing it with Love in the Time of Cholera, which I’ve re-read more recently: the former has a much broader scope: a town, a huge family, a century, whereas the latter, though covering many years in the story, seems more narrowly focussed on a group of people, and especially, the intensity of personal relationships. I felt that One Hundred Years was a more youthful, a more playful novel, whereas Love felt like a work of more mature years, more reflective, and, in my memory, more expressive in its language and imagery. I think I might find it harder to say which was the better (if that means anything!) of the two novels.

Everyone says ‘magic realism’ when Marquez comes to mind, and it’s useful genre shorthand, but what does it mean? what is it, exactly? It’s not a fantasy world, in the Tolkein vein, though the setting counts as ‘exotic’ for the Western reader, perhaps (there were times when events in the novel, such as the civil wars and the banana plantation, reminded me of Conrad‘s Nostromo, with its civil wars and silver mine). The sequence of narration is not always linear, but that’s not exclusive to magic realism. The characters seem real, plausible, as do the events and places, but somehow – I think partly through a lyrical written style – Marquez manages to weave in increasingly unlikely happenings and have his reader accept them as part of the story, and eventually some completely impossible events occur, and we are so enmeshed, so drawn in, that we continue… yet the characters never become completely unreal.

In Macondo, which is totally cut off from the rest of the world, travellers arrive with new objects and discoveries, and these amaze and captivate the innocent inhabitants; some of these things verge on the fantastical, or seem like magic to the townspeople; though we know they aren’t, we partake of their sense of wonder, and we are not surprised when a person becomes obsessed with one of them. The story focusses on the Buendia family and its increasingly bizarre descendants – perhaps partially explained by intermarriage and even incest – some of whom are mad, some visionary, some very old: these last eventually becoming ancient caricatures of their original selves, adding to the sense of strangeness, but also endearing us to them because of their permanence. I am still unable to fathom what Marquez is suggesting through the character of the ageing matriarch Ursula, or Colonel Aureliano of the thirty-two civil wars and the gold fish, but there is something about the cyclical nature of time (which leads to the great cleverness of the ending which leaps on you unexpected and left me breathless) and the impossibility of really achieving anything permanent.

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of genius (I think I’ve read it four times now and my feelings haven’t changed) and I’d agree with whichever critic it was whorecently said it was the most important or best novel written in Spanish in the twentieth century. It retains its place in my top three novels of all time.

A sad day today

April 18, 2014

I can’t let the day go by without expressing my sadness on hearing of the death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I knew he was ill, and I knew dementia meant he would never write again. He brought me much pleasure when I discovered his novels over thirty years ago, and One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera stand out particularly to me; I cannot say which I prefer. Someone wrote that he was the greatest Spanish language writer of the twentieth century; I can’t really comment on that, but in my reading of literature from many lands, I felt he was one of the greatest writers of the century in any language.

I know Colombians are proud of him: early in my teaching career, at a school where I worked, the Spanish assistant was from Colombia, and when he learned that I had read Marquez, he translated for me and wrote out by hand, Marquez’ speech of acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

If you don’t know his novels, you are missing a great treat; if you do, I’m sure you agree the world has lost one of the greats.

The Test of Time

March 5, 2014

The last small digression (for the moment) is about what stands the test of time. I’ve often wondered, and had my students discuss, what books written today might still be read in a century’s time. How can we know what will survive? For example, the blockbuster of recent years, the Harry Potter series: will children in 2114 still be reading the books, in the same way that (some) children are still enjoying the books of a century ago and more, like The Wind in the Willows, or Winnie the Pooh?

Novels and writers very popular in my younger years have vanished almost without trace: I’m sure some dusty secondhand bookshops still harbour the thrillers of Alastair MacLean or Arthur Hailey, but then thrillers possibly aren’t going to last very long. I remember how fashionable D H Lawrence was in the 1970s when I was at university, and have long been aware how he has almost disappeared from view. And he is/ was a serious writer, writing about serious themes and ideas – love, relationships between men and women. Not enough, it would seem.

Shakespeare wrote plays about love; many writers today write about love, perhaps tragic love – The Time Traveller’s Wife leaps to mind. But can we expect that novel to survive the test of time? And why won’t it?

Writers from centuries ago clearly have an advantage: Shakespeare and Jane Austen have already lasted, and have been hallowed and canonised by academia, so they are hardly likely to fade into obscurity – the longer a work lasts, the more it’s likely to continue to last, if you see what I mean.

I have often thought that it cannot just be the subject matter that ensures a work’s survival, for there are a limited number of themes out there, and all have been repeatedly used: one of the most interesting analyses of the last decade was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, in which he explores that very idea, that everything written is basically a variation on an age-old trope. So that leaves character, style and language, perhaps?

We aren’t capable of seeing the wood for the trees, possibly. The SF writer Theodore Sturgeon was famous for stating that 95% of science fiction was crap, but then 95% of everything was crap: we are surrounded by a lot of chaff which will be winnowed away somehow by the passage of time…

In the end, I think there has to be an original treatment of a theme or subject (Shakespeare notoriously lifted others’ plots!); there have to be powerfully conceived and developed characters as opposed to stock ones who are merely the vehicles for a plot to unfold; there has to be something in terms of the way that a story is written (yes, language and style) that can set a work apart from all the others that surround and swamp it.

So, from my three best books of the twentieth century (Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) which will someone, somewhere, be enjoying a century from now?

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