Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Keep 'em coming!

Isaac Bashevis Singer, who received the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1978.

The book I chose to read after The World According to Garp is A Little Boy in Search of God/A Young Man in Search of Love by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I visited a secondhand store the other day with my mother, and as I was looking for more books by John Irving I happened to see this book, also by an author that I have always seen the name of but that I have never actually read. I didn't buy the book since I'm very restrictive these days when it comes to book buying, but what did I see as I was looking through my mother's books for a new book to read later that same day? Yep, exactly.

I wasn't exactly enamoured with this book to begin with, but as I am approaching the end of it I find myself liking it more and more.

This image is the one I get in my head when reading. There are these very conflicting thoughts and characters that appear all the time in the narrative, and I find it very hard to get a grip on the essence of the book, but I kind of like it. It's somehow fleeting. I am surprised by how quickly Singer can make my sympathies swing around, all within just a couple of pages, leaving me a little bit confused as to what I am supposed to believe, if I sympathize with him or not, if he's a decent guy or a spineless excuse for a man.

Basically, it's Singer's autobiography. Or part of it; it's not a very long book, he just describes his youth and his encounter with religion and love in the time after the first world war in Warsaw.

Funnily enough, this book is also about an author, however this time the author actually exists - and contrary to the last author I read about (the fictive Garp), this one proclaims himself an antifeminist since modern women make fools out of honest men! He can't resist femmes fatales, at the same time as he despises them and wishes he could find himself a chaste Jewish girl to marry. He sees the contradictions himself. The more I think about it, the more clever I find the book. There are lots of little things where I can nod in agreement, especially when it's a question of literature or monogamy. You will just have to read yourselves to find out exactly what, since I myself hate to know what a book is about before I start reading it I also do not like to talk in detail about books with people who have not read them.

And I just love how I find the same ideas in different books. In this one, an editor tells Singer that Yiddish authors have an obligation to write books that strengthen the position of the Jewish community. I have read the exact same thing somewhere else, about another specific group, but I can't remember where...
Singer, however, questions that a work of art that serves such purposes can actually have an artistic value. I have read this exact same counter argument as well, but where? Gah, annoying...

Well! I kind of got curious about Yiddish literature from reading this book. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The World According to Garp.

The title "The World According to Garp" is perhaps one of the best - ever। It fits the book in a rather subtle way, not as blatantly as you may think. It tells you something about the book before you start reading it, and then the book eases you into it, that is into this "world". This will be something different. It's not just a tale about the world, but the world
according to Garp. A subjective, openly subjective narrative, without any pretensions at objectivity. But it is somehow subtle, it does not scream "THIS IS DIFFERENT", it just provides you with a feeling of alterity, of not really belonging. In the beginning I didn't really understand why it was the world according to Garp - it felt more like it should be the world according to Jenny Fields (read it to find out why).

I often think about the point of literature, the meaning of it, and I never reach any conclusion. I have different approaches to literature depending on my mood; I can be businesslike ("this must be read, but I may not like it") or sentimental ("in reading this I exist in two places - physically here and mentally in the book", the same thing that happens when you watch a good movie). Because of this duality I have a hard time always applying the efficient character I wish could be the "trademark" of my reading. Reading fast and reading a lot. I can't really do it, and it's not for fault of trying. You are supposed to sit upright in a silent place and not waste time flipping pages in an inefficient way in order to read truly fast, but I prefer to lie down, listen to music and eat chocolate while I slowly and clumsily turn over the pages... So I guess my reading is often quite sensual, and I somehow feel that this is connected to the point of literature.

Garp actually thinks about the meaning of literature, somewhere in the middle of the book if I am not mistaken. What leads him to literature is at the same time different and as old as it can get when it comes to motivation: a girl. I don't want to say "love", because I don't think he was actually in love with this girl when he decided to become an author in order to marry her. He is not only different in his approach to things, but also in his actual existence - in his time that is (the book was written in the 70s and not in today's Sweden...). He is a somewhat failed author, self-centered and obsessed with his kids, the perfect stay-at-home dad (he doesn't want to see other people anyway) with a successful and brilliant professor-of-literature-wife and an eccentric mother. Garp does not believe literature should serve a purpose; it is and should be an item of luxury. This is an old question in literature, much debated and an obligatory aspect of every course on literature at University I guess; should literature and authors take a stand in society, or should their art just exist? I kind of believe that literature, by purely existing in all its forms (from Zola to Kafka, or let's say JK Rowling) fulfils its own purpose, one that is not instrumental, but without being an item of luxury.

John Irving has not had me gasping in suspense while reading this book, but he has impressed me deeply. It has been quite a while, I believe, since I last felt that a book was as deep as this one, as complex as this story. John Irving makes a rather incredulous story feel purely natural, and this is the sign of a good author. I was not questioning the probability of any of the happenings as I was reading, whereas I was actually questioning the probability in the stories Garp wrote himself (you get to read parts of his writings as well, which is a first for me I think). I can't really believe my luck in having discovered so many great authors this year: Magda Szábo, John Irving, Jens Bjørneboe, Per Petterson... I have so many books that I look forward to reading, and I recommend all of these authors very strongly.

And now some tunes...

There hasn't been much music here lately, so perhaps it's about time for some new songs. Two new favourites.

Uh Huh Her - Dreamer

Marina and the Diamonds - Numb

Saturday, December 25, 2010

John Irving.

Going home for Christmas for me usually means having lots of time off. No laundry to do, no cleaning up to do, no dishes... I have wasted a couple hours on a rather hilarious, albeit depressing, misogynic blog (unfortunately Swedish, which makes me a bit ashamed of being Swedish) debating with the kind of mindnumbing people you only find on the Internet, that which only made me realize even more what I actually want to spend my time doing: reading. I finished reading The Diary of a Chambermaid, but I can't finish Justine, because it's left at home in Oslo. Funnily enough, considering what I've been debating the last day or two, I started a book that actually deals somewhat with feminism (without knowing it beforehand). I got one book for Christmas, and it couldn't have been more perfect - Utrensning by Sofi Oksanen (in a delicious edition). But since I'm taking that one home with me anyway, I decided to read a book from my mother's collection, and since The World According to Garp is one of those books I have always seen everywhere, I decided to give it a go. I'm reading it in Swedish.

So what can I say about The Diary of a Chambermaid? I LOVE the love-eroticism-crime connection, and I think that's what I will remember about this book. I'm very curious to see how that plays out in the movie. It was surprisingly easy to read, at the same time as I learned many new, quirky words. I bought this book years ago so I'm very happy I finally actually read it! The only thing that I kind of have against this book is the fact that the main character isn't always very sympathetic. The main characters don't always have to be, and the fact that I did actually end up liking her, despite her faults (such as occasional stupidity and inability to plan ahead), perhaps only speaks in favor of the author. I'm not actually sure whether she was supposed to be likable or not... can someone else read the book and tell me what they think?

The World According to Garp is very amusing, but way longer than I thought. I had my doubts about actually being able to finish it before going home, but then I read 40% of it today, so I guess that won't be a problem. I can already recommend it.

Friday, December 24, 2010


In an attempt to very shortly illustrate my stay in Russia (not Russia in general), I have chosen a couple of photos. Adding as I find them!

Need I explain?

The law abiding citizens of Russia.

Churches. In cold places. Toes leaving this world in protest and me wondering why my winter shoes aren't more wintery.

Endless glasses of beer. Baltika, Nevskoe, my dear Dr. Diesel...

Food AND beer, and cheerful people.

Christmas decorations in unnatural, non-Christmas:y colours!

Nevskij prospekt, the eternal Nevskij prospect!

Drunken friends! Utterly Scandinavian, 4 Norwegians, one Dane and a Swede!

I ended the Paris photo post with me and Sasha. Quite appropriately, this photo post should end with my partner in crime in Russia, Maja, and me! Russian style :D


I made it back from Russia. With what? Well, better knowledge of Russian grammar (способ действия, in particular - very handy for reading literature! But for the life of me I can't incorporate any of them in my speech...), perhaps some improvement in my spoken Russian - which to my great surprise was deemed better than my ability to translate! I always thought it was the other way around. I'm happily back though, after all, although I currently find myself in the north of Sweden where it's OMFG cold and I'm doing... nothing but reading.

While in Russia, I got inspired to read more, and as a consequence, languages are on hold for the moment. I'm reading instead. I will write a post on my "guilty pleasure" reading later, but this post is about two books that have quite some things in common, even though I hadn't really realized it until last night.

Let's make a list! Both books...

* take place in 18/19th century France (exact years escape me)
* are written by Frenchmen (one in 1787, the other was finalized in 1900)
* deal with the lives of young women
* deal with the lives of young women who constantly get into trouble
* are highly subversive
* reveal the hypocrisy and debauchery of the "fine world"

Perhaps I should have picked up on those similarities a little bit earlier?

I'm reading one of them in Russian, because I found it in a 2nd hand book store in St-Petersburg, the other I found at the top of one of my book boxes that haven't been unpacked yet in our new apartment.

1. Justine by Marquis de Sade
2. Le Journal d'une Femme de Chambre by Octave Mirbeau (The Diary of a Chambermaid)

Octave Mirbeau's book is of course of a somewhat higher literary quality, even though the style is made out to be that of an actual chambermaid. Marquis de Sade has never really struck me with his awesome prose, not even in Russian (reading in foreign languages tend to make miserably poor prose seem better since you're too bad at the language to realize what crap you are reading)... I'm not saying Sade is THAT bad, he's just no... Emily Brontë. Reading Sade is always a case of curiosity, for the fun of it, not because he's a great author or because his philosophic ideas are breaht taking. Moral relativism is after all as comfortable and easy as it gets within moral philosophy!

The misfortunes of Mirbeau's chambermaid are of the "naww, poor girl" kind, plus dear Célestine doesn't complain all that much and is not trying to dissimulate her true nature from the reader. Justine, on the other hand, runs into the kind of stuff that goes two thousand miles beyond "naww..." and is, herself, a Saint (at least so far). So, yes, Mirbeau's books is a *bit* more nuanced and interesting. Sade's book makes you finally understand why sadism was given his name - some of his other books certainly don't, nor does his life - but I hardly doubt you will finish it with a sense of "oh I can so totally recognize myself in the characters" or "oh my god, this book has changed my life". Mirbeau has some points, and I find myself wishing I had a book to write down quotes in.

Okay, just one! Just one!

L'habitude agit comme une atténuation, comme une brume, sur les objets et sur les êtres. Elle finit, peu à peu, par effacer les traits d'un visage, par estomper les déformations; elle fait qu'un bossu avec qui l'on vit quotidiennement n'est plus, au bout d'un certain temps, bossu...

So I have this tendency to write about books I have yet to finish... I will write again once I have read them до конца, and see what I think about them then. Mirbeau's book is full of anti-Semitic stuff (one of the characters is an anti-Semite) and was written during the Dreyfus affaire, so I have to look into that more, and there's a movie with Jeanne Moreau. Fun fun!