Friday, February 23, 2018

6 Great Books by (Women) Nobel Laureates

The Nobel Prize in Literature, though still regarded by most literary establishments as the preeminent such award, and the only one with genuine pretensions to being considered a global literary award, has increasingly been viewed as a subject of controversy and critique. Some of these complaints are quite valid - how, indeed, can one jury assess all of world literature when so little is available in translation and its members can only read so many languages? - and some are a tad silly - some Nobel winners have faded into obscurity despite being awarded, a claim that seems to presume that a worthwhile writer couldn't possibly be forgotten (or rediscovered, for that matter). As one would expect, the Nobel Prize has been given to more men than women, and most of the winners are European. Rather than focus on all the thousands of worthy writers that the Swedish Academy hasn't honored - an endless, and ultimately thankless, task - a more fruitful approach looks at the long list of winners as one more source of great books for readers. With that in mind, here are six great books by Nobel Prize recipients, six of the fourteen women (out of 114 winners overall) who have won:

Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda (1926)
Only the second woman to win the Nobel, Deledda wrote more than thirty books, most of them still unavailable in English. She is the most famous writer to emerge from her native Sardinia, with the exception of the political and cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci. Her most famous novel, Reeds in the Wind, set in Sardinia like most of her books, tells the story of the Pintor family, once noble and now fallen into poverty after one of the daughters ran away to the mainland and destroyed the family's honor. When her son, Giacinto, returns years later, looking for a share in the family patrimony, their faithful servant Efix, a martyr to guilt, sees a chance to expiate his part in the scandal. Unlike most of the writing on the Italian South and honor, Reeds in the Wind refuses to traffic in stereotypes, though it is deeply rooted in specifically regional traditions. Yearning and wistful, but without the pious sentimentality of poverty porn, this novel is a monument to a way of life that died long ago. I also recommend Cosima.

Dragon Seed - Pearl S. Buck (1938)
The first American woman to win the Nobel, Buck was not only a writer, but an activist who courted controversy with her progressive views on race and gender. Her writing, both stylistically and thematically, is quite out of fashion today, but her books built bridges between the West and the Asian countries, especially China, she refused to exoticize. She grew up in China and spoke fluent Chinese, but was banned from returning to her adopted country after the communist revolution. Dragon Seed, like most of her novels, is set in China; its protagonists are the peasants who suffered the Rape of Nanking when the Japanese invaded in 1937. Buck's insistence on privileging a view of history from the point of view of those with no political power is especially striking when one considers that this novel was published three years before World War II ended. I also recommend The Good Earth, The Mother, and Pavilion of Women.

Map - Wisława Szymborska (1996)
The first Polish woman to win the Nobel, Szymborska cultivated an elegant, acerbic, and ironically luminescent poetic style. Though she is often labelled an 'accessible' poet, and certainly her poetry offers a great deal of pleasure and rarely resists a simple surface interpretation, Szymborska's work yields rich sediments of meaning when read and reread with attention. She nimbly walks a tightrope between a visceral intimacy with her readers and a slightly sardonic aloofness. This is poetry that exudes an Arctic coldness that is nevertheless profoundly human and giving. Map collects all of Szymborska's poetry that has been translated (by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanisław Barańczak) into English.

Women as Lovers - Elfriede Jelinek (2004)
It's small wonder that cinematic provocateur Michael Haneke adapted Jelinek's novel, The Piano Teacher, since the director's surgical and pitiless take on humanity finds its match in Jelinek's radical, anti-capitalist, feminist critique of the state of things. The inherent violence of pornography and sex in a climate of misogyny is a constant theme in Jelinek's work. In Women as Lovers, two girls who work at an underwear factory take opposite approaches to marriage: one follows the inclinations of her heart and the other calculates on the best possible material future. In a capitalist economy run by men, there is a right choice and a wrong choice. This is bitter stuff, but it's also unfailingly brilliant. I also recommend Lust.

The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing (2007)
The author of more than fifty books, Lessing began her career with this searing novel set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) about the twisted relationship between a white farmer's wife, miserable in the heat and perennial failure of her husband's agricultural efforts, and their black 'houseboy.' Originally published in 1950, the book catapulted Lessing into the center of raging controversies surrounding racial oppression in the British colonies. Though she would later write science fiction, Lessing remained resolutely anti-utopian throughout her career, cutting deep into the rottenness of racism, economic exploitation, misogyny, and imperialism without giving in to the easy temptations of didacticism or strident polemicism. I also recommend The Golden Notebook, The Fifth Child, and Mara and Dann.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro (2013)
The first Canadian winner of the Nobel, Munro is justly worshiped as a high priestess of the short story. I remember the burst of devotional ardor that greeted the publication of this collection, and it is indeed a tour de force. Munro has a special talent for rendering the minute psychological meanderings of her often quite ordinary protagonists as fascinating as any epic journey filled with incident and drama. Two teenage girls write fake love letters to a middle-aged housekeeper, a woman with cancer simmers with fury at her cheating husband, a new widow finds an unexpected note in her dead husband's pocket. Munro's fiction is free of sensationalism, but has too much lyric subtlety and moral complexity to participate in a social realist tradition. I also recommend Friend of My Youth and Lives of Girls and Women.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Film Review: Baarìa

Giuseppe Tornatore's Baarìa has a big, expansive heart, but a rather disappointingly small brain. With an enormous cast and cameos by major stars, including a wordless, topless scene for Monica Bellucci, Baarìa exemplifies all of the best and worst tendencies of Tornatore's filmmaking, finishing up as a sweet, shallow movie. 

On the one hand, it's an enormous relief to see a film set in Sicily, and very specifically so, without getting sucked into the usual mafia exposé. The mafia isn't ignored, but it's not permitted to take center-stage. On the other hand, the politics of the film are so vague, despite the fact that the protagonist Peppino (Francesco Scianna) is a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, at various points running for election as a communist, that any perspective beyond the woolliest and faintest of sympathies for the left proves impossible. For those familiar with Italian politics, the outline of the various factions is there, but when Peppino's wife (Margareth Madè) scoffs at her husband's political commitments, it's hard not to agree with her: both he, and the film, are incapable of articulating a lucid political agenda. 

Tornatore, however, is more interested in exhibiting his memories of his hometown, Bagheria, than in digging deep into politics, and the film is more successful on that front. Many anecdotes take up only a scene or two, but strung together, they are the pearls of this film: a grandmother, a mother, and three children mop a tile floor and lie down on it in their skivvies to get relief from the heat, a painter tries to use locals as models for his painting of the apostles only to have the priest whitewash it to stop the gossiping during mass, Peppino's brother asks the pharmacist for medicine to make him die and the pharmacist obliges him with a harmless glass of liquor. Baarìa has some shocking, brief moments of violence and the occasional moment of awful taste - in the above-mentioned Monica Bellucci scene, a teacher tells the boys in his class they can watch Bellucci's prostitute with her client if they stay quiet - but the majority of it is just a string of disconnected memories, and it's at its best when it is just that.

As always, the women are beautiful or strikingly weathered. They have little to no personality and exist almost exclusively as objects of dreamy desire that will transform into humorless, nagging spoilsports once they become mothers. This is a film written and directed by a man who has never bothered to question his own views. The simple-mindedness of his writing of women is expected, but especially disappointing in a film that echoes the Fellini of Amarcord. Though Fellini was no feminist, there is room in his films for women to take up strange roles and to define themselves as stubbornly unstereotyped; Tornatore sees nothing but Madonnas and whores, virgins and mothers.There are no grotesques, like Fellini's enormous-breasted tobacconist, but there are moments of flat-footed magical realism, hobbled especially by low-quality computer imagery,  of coiling black snakes, smashed eggs, and statues of monsters. Tornatore doesn't succeed in blurring the line between dream and reality, so that these moments of premonition and nightmare instead reinforce that line. 

If Tornatore has a filmmaking superpower, it's his sentimentality. That's not generally a popular quality, but for English-speakers Italy is the country of la dolce vita, where love, wine, and pizza awaken Protestant Anglo-Saxons to the joyfulness in life. The addled, feel-good version of Cinema Paradiso that made Tornatore's reputation in the United States was stripped of its bitterness, so it confirmed that Italy was an amorous, gluttonous playground to the Americans for whom the film was recut. Even the director's cut is thoroughly sentimental, but it has a bite. Baarìa, instead, has lost its fangs, if it ever had them, and goodness knows it could have, but a strolling sausage-vendor's arrest by the fascists is played for laughs, no destruction from the American bombardment beyond a bit of flying plaster is shown onscreen, and the murders of communist party workers are merely discussed, their names unattached to bodies we can recognize. Sentimentality can be a wonderful thing: a nostalgia for the past can rescue the moments of happiness and connection that otherwise get lost when discussing the lives of poor, illiterate people and that richness restores a complexity to our total understanding of the dead, especially the dead who left behind no diaries, few or no letters, perhaps not even a photograph or a lock of hair. The value in Baarìa lies almost exclusively in its sentimentality, for sentimentality is a movement into the past that embraces and loves, that restores a little humanity to those usually defined by their misery. There is depth and substance in the small boys stuffing filched lemons into their shirts and the dancing couples, women with women and men with men, in two separate circles, but the film is otherwise resolutely shallow. One yearns for a little introspection to go with the wonder, a little questioning to go with the convictions. At two and a half hours, Baarìa lacks the piquancy and pith that might have given it a brain to go with its swollen heart.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Playing Russian Roulette with the Literary Canon

Debates about the literary canon, which continue to rage, though with less fury than in the '90s, tend to presume that the canon itself is relatively stable and unchanging. This opinion is stated as fact on Wikipedia. Complaints about the canon are usually founded in a critique of power structures: since wealthy, white men have historically held power over other people, their works have been enshrined within the cultural world as important, essential, and serious, while literary works by people who don't fall in that demographic are more often dismissed as specialized, fluffy, and inconsequential, or simply lesser. There is a lot of truth in this complaint, though in part the difficulty is rooted in a history of unequal power. As Virginia Woolf wrote nearly a century ago, if women (and by extension, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.) haven't produced as many masterpieces as men have, it's due to larger social and cultural structures: people who can't read or write, or afford writing materials, or be treated as human beings by publishers and editors are just not able to participate in the creation of a recognized culture. That stark fact, one that many of us find profoundly frustrating, does not, however, mean that the white male writers who dominate the canon can so easily be toppled from their pedestals. Shakespeare is essential because his work influenced nearly every western writer to live after him. No re-formulating of the canon will change that.

However, the belief that the canon is stable and unchanging seems utterly absurd to me. Canonical literature has something in common with pornography; as Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it." The difficulty is the same, since a clear delineation doesn't exist. We have no metric for determining whether a particular work is in the canon or not. As a result, the arguments about the canon tend to devolve into objections to finite lists determined as much by, for instance the languages the particular compiler can read or the university where he or she studied, than by the inequities of race, class, gender, and other demographic factors. This absurdity is thrown into stark relief when one speaks more than one language. On the English-language side, authors like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, John Milton, and Ernest Hemingway tend to be prominent in discussions of the canon, but on the Italian side, one is more likely to hear Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni, Verga, and Pirandello. The canon shifts constantly as it travels across borders, whether geographic, linguistic, ethnic, or anything else. It's true that women writers and writers of color are less likely to be included, but the canon itself isn't stable and really can't be without falling into irrelevance of its own accord. 

That should be heartening to those of us who feel frustrated treading water over the same texts a thousand times over. At the same time, one does have to reckon with pesky problems of lineage, influence, and context. Any Italian writer with even a high school education will have familiarity with The Decameron, The Divine Comedy and La vita nova, The Prince, The Canzoniere, and The Lives of the Artists. These are books that can't be dismissed and saturate the literary landscape in Italy, just as The Flowers of Evil, The Three Musketeers, Tartuffe, Madame Bovary, and The Red and the Black remain inescapable monuments in French literature, and Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Moby-Dick preside over American literary culture. These canons create a common language of conventions, myths, archetypes, and tropes that can be transgressed, altered, mocked, critiqued, attacked, or otherwise tampered with, but without that common language, it can be difficult to formulate a coherent discourse in any given context.

It should be a joyful task to constantly make and re-make the canon for anyone who cares about literature, not a subject for outrage and mockery. It is quite literally impossible to read every book in the canon, even if one restricts oneself to a single language. One needs to accept that the best-read person in the world will, unlike the Nowhere Man, have some holes in his education. Completism is impossible; the canon is a useful tool, despite its constant evolution, because it helps us chart a course through millennia of written material.

For universities and the professors and graduate students who teach there, the solution to the conundrum of both ensuring students have an understanding of literary history and not thus neglecting the majority of humanity that has written, unrecognized, throughout that history is to accept that we are mere mortals and no one can lay claim to a complete knowledge of literature. That is part of its fascination. I might choose to pair The Prince with Moderata Fonte's The Worth of Women, Shakespeare's sonnets with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, Hard Times with North and South, or Madame Bovary with Indiana, but choosing one book means deferring all the others. It will always be possible to complain that some absolutely essential book is omitted from a syllabus, a recommended reading list, or a generalized curriculum. One person's Pilgrim's Progress is another's Faust; you may insist on Candide, while I insist on Letters from a Peruvian Woman. Instead of attacking the canon, we could instead make use of it, bend it to our purposes political or otherwise, and thus contribute to its evolution, but to do that, we have to accept the limits of our human condition. It's bitter news for any bookworm, but in trying to read everything, we'll die both glutted and unsatisfied.