Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An explanation as to why I’m reading the Man-Booker Prize winners:

It was a gradual and growing idea idea: I thought one of my bookselling co-workers had said that he had read Man-Booker prize winners, and as I saw copies of the winners flow in and out of the store inventory, I began to fondle them and set them aside. As I considered it, it seemed like more and more of a good idea.

Several reasons come to mind:

1. My love of British literature: I am curious about what had been proclaimed the best of British (and Commonwealth) literature in the second half of the twentieth century and into the new millennium.

2. As a citizen of a Commonwealth country, I was interested in the works of South Africa’s prizewinning authors, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

3. A chance to read fiction from all over the world (The old empire: New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, India, Egypt etc.)

4. The Man-Booker Prize is an easier target than the Nobel Prize winners, which are received for a consistent work contribution. This would be difficult to choose one work for which these authors were known.

5. I am an Anglophile. I was more interested in Booker prizewinners than Pulitzer prizewinners.

6. It has only been given since 1969: much shorter a lineage than the Pulitzer or the Nobel Prizes.

So far I have noticed two emphases: India and the ocean. Some might suggest the lack of plot development. I plan to document any other observations and links I find. Hopefully I shall finish all 41 books by the end of September when the shortlist for 2008 is released. I would like to have identified similarities in past winners and try and predict this year’s winner, though this is difficult as the committee changes yearly. Bon voyage!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Sea" by John Banville

Winner of the 2005 Man-Booker Prize, number 39 in a line of 41 books to read (non-consecutively), The Sea reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for all-too-obvious reasons, perhaps. The overwhelming presence of the sea, the prominent place of an attractive mother-goddess (Mrs. Ramsay/ Mrs. Grace), themes of youth, memory, transience, and mortality.

Protagonist Max Morden is a recent widower, having lost his wife, Anna, to cancer. He has retreated to the seaside town where he spent summers as a child, staying in a house which once was the home of the Graces, a family which he idolized as the “gods” in his youth. The narrative switches between the present experience of staying at the seaside; to the recent past, where Max remembers Anna’s gradual descent and death; and his childhood, his experience with the Graces – in particular the children: Chloe, his cruel sometime-girlfriend, and Myles, her mute twin brother.

Critics of the book may accuse the novel of being boring or limited in terms of action. True, there is not a strong emphasis on plot and dialogue, but rather on philosophical musings. It is the poetry of the text which takes precedence. Reviewers (Christian Science Monitor; Sunday Telegraph) compared Banville to Vladimir Nabokov in terms of his precisely worded sentences. Banville’s prose is strangely captivating: he is able to ensnare the pull and release of the ocean in his sentences (“…in a sort of driving heave, the whole sea surged, it was not a wave, but a smooth rolling swell that seemed to come up from the deeps, as if something vast down there had stirred itself…”).

The Philadelphia Inquirer recommends that the novel should be heard, not simply read, and I am inclined to agree.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Before the acclaim of Middlesex and My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, Jeffrey Eugenides published his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993). An homage to the five Lisbon girls from the boys of the neighborhood (the ubiquitous “we”), the Virgin Suicides is a voyeuristic shrine to unfulfilled love and the decay of young life.

As opposed to Middlesex, where words were spawned as often as generations, Eugenides conserves his words to create a sculpted landscape of images. His careful choice of syntax creates a hazy atmosphere in which the hot days of summer seem to linger, and the amber glow of the seventies has not yet dimmed.

The adoration of the Lisbon daughters begins by a conceptualization of all five girls – Therese, Bonnie, Mary, Lux and Cecilia – as a “mythical creature with ten legs and five heads,” which only later develops into five characters. The neighborhood boys, not allowed to step into the Lisbon household, have to rely on imagination, surveillance, and the words of those lucky enough to find a way into the house to conceptualize “the effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space.” Sightings of crucifixes draped with bras, and the moist smell of young women pervade: Eugenides convinces the reader that we too are seeing and smelling and hearing the sounds of the Lisbon girls.

The family consists of Mrs. Lisbon (iron-fisted, Catholic); Mr. Lisbon (passive; high-voiced); Therese and Mary, “tight-lipped, tight-assed”; Bonnie, who is religious and wears a hair-shirt; Lux, the promiscuous “carnal angel”, the pinnacle of the Lisbon sisters who makes love to strangers on the roof at night; and Cecilia, who is characterized by her strangeness, her placid eyes, and the faded vintage wedding dress she always wears. Cecilia, thirteen, has not much time to develop. She attempts suicide on the first page and fails, only to succeed later by jumping out of the window and impaling herself on the fence.

Cecilia’s death is compared by the neighborhood boys to a contagious flu. The remaining girls waste away, locked inside their coffin-like house. All love and attention seems to vanish; the house disintegrates; everything is inflected by a sense of ennui and rot. The community is almost waiting for the other Lisbon girls to join their sister in death. They are not disappointed: the reader is informed from the first sentence that all five girls are to go.

It is a story pieced together from obsessive memories, gossip, by interviews assumedly conducted long after the Lisbon girls are dead, pieces of stolen mail, glimpses of diaries, long-term espionage, and a sort of teenage telepathy.

Haunting and poignant, the Virgin Suicides present a stack of fading pictures that pay tribute to the mysterious deaths of five girls locked away from sunshine, health and true affection. But more so, it is about the boys who loved them, the boys who watched them, and who now, middle-aged and pot-bellied, remember them to save them.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Tribute - in honor of reading my first Hemingway novel (and liking it)

Penningway, Remingway
Ernest M. Hemingway
Created a style so
Terse and precise

I started quite late with
The-Sun-Also-Rises -
So aw’fully behind -
(But the writing’s quite nice!)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Possession: A Romance" by A.S. Byatt

I attempted to read Possession my junior year of college. It was a whim: it was a large, appropriately dusty, tome of a book whose Pre-Raphelite front cover appealed to my sometime attraction to Victoriana. It was far too literary for me then; Byatt’s prose is capable of holding one at a distance and freezing one out. As part of my resolution to read all winners of the Man-Booker Prize, I decided to try again.

The novel centers on two twentieth-century literary scholars, Roland Michell and Dr. Maud Bailey, who uncover a secret romance between two relatively obscure Victorian poets (their academic specialties), Randolph Henry Ash and Christobel LaMotte. Trying to stay one step ahead of unscrupulous scholars and academic rivals, Roland and Maud find the seductive call of curiosity a stronger force than responsible, methodical scholarship. The lust for discovery and the poets’ paraphernalia cause the quest for truth to be conducted in secrecy and care. Though originally an awkward couple – Roland a passive, hesitant modern male and Maud a beautiful but frigid feminist – as they trace the development of Ash and LaMotte’s relationship, the protagonists find themselves similarly drawn together.

Possession is an overwhelming, exhaustive literary masterpiece. Part novel, part poetry anthology, part literary criticism, and part biography, the book is salted liberally with myth, mysticism, folk tales, legends, biology, questions of religion, science, feminism, sexuality, semiotics, metaphorical allusions, and poetry. Byatt’s strengths lie on her exhaustive knowledge and thorough research, and her own impeccable poetry. She has a gift for calling Tennyson, Browning, Dickinson and Rossetti to mind in the work of her fictitious poets, sprinkling epigrams and stanzas from their respective works throughout her novel. Byatt shows herself to be the mistress of the modern novel, as well as master of hyper-intelligent prose, dialogue and evocative epic poetry.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who misses the library, the English classroom, and invigorating literary discussions during the summer months.