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Friday, May 08, 2015

Aesop's Fables (?) by Aesop

Book Review
Aesop's Fables (?)
by Aesop
Free Librivox Audio Book

  The 1001 Books project has a little pre 18th century section, which I've skipped up till now because there are like 10 titles and they are super random.  The pre 18th century portion includes this title and Don Quixote and a couple random Greek and Roman titles.  Aesop's fables are about 320 separate folk tables, all of which have a moral.  The phrase, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." Is one line that we remember to this day, but almost all of the tales are recognizable to anyone who has grown up in the US, UK or Europe.

  Many, though not all of the Fables involve animals talking to one another.  It's "fun" to listen to the tales and speculate about links to a deeper Indo European folklore.  The most likely suspects are the tales involving animals common to Indo European family folklore: donkeys, rabbits, horses and lions.  Some of the fables are obviously non Indo European in origin and come from the wider tales of the Near East from the pre Greek area- tales about Monkeys- a decidedly non Indo European animal- stand out in particular.

 The reader also gets a good feeling for the world of these fables: farmers, smiths, herders, small villages and rural settings.  There are some forests, some Greek/Roman deities and the idea of married couples living together and raising children.   Although Aesop's Fables are often grouped in Greek/Roman literature, there is nothing particularly Greek about them, in the free version I read, the Gods were Roman and the tales seemed more Roman than Greek (the translation most people read was actually written during the Roman period by a Greek speaking author.

  It is hard to imagine a scenario where a reader would sit down and read "the book" of Aesop's fables, more likely is reading the tales aloud to a young trial, but who knows these days.  The Audiobook version ran about four hours for 300 fables.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

In Sicily (1941) by Elio Vittorini

Book Review
In Sicily (1941)
 by Elio Vittorini

 The average length of a novel on the 1001 Books list declines as the reader moves forward in time. There are multiple explanations for this decline in average length, but it can be conceptualized in terms of the prevailing modes of release.  In the 18th century, novels were typically serialized and then published in multiple volumes over time.  In the 19th century, serialization continued, but the prevailing mode of publication for novels was the "triple decker", i.e. three volumes.  That was less than the multi volume sets for 19th century, but still, three volumes for a single novel was very normal.

  In the 20th century, the single volume novel became the standard mode of presentation.  The single volume/paperback/hardback mode of publication endures till today.   Today, a decade after the Ebook has entered into the marketplace, it has yet to make a significant impact on the hardback/paperback single volume mode of publication and people continue to buy the equivalent of a paperback book for their ereaders. I think the adoption of the single volume format, especially the emergence of the "paperback novel" was a key accelerant in this average shortening of length.  A single volume paperback, with the right page margins and text, can plausibly be less than 150 pages.

  In Sicily is a great example of just how short a novel can be.  It is barely 150 pages, and that includes an introduction/jeremiad by Ernest Hemingway which is literally exactly what you would expect Hemingway to write about a book written about a man visiting his elderly mother in the mountains of Sicily in the 1930s.   Although there isn't much too it, at the end of In Sicily you will have certainly been transported to that place and time.

  

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Embers (1941) by Sandor Marai


Book Review
Embers (1941)
 by Sandor Marai

  The 1941 publication date for Embers references the publication of the Hungarian original.  The English version wasn't published until 2000 and it was based on a prior German translation, so the English version is a translation of a translation.  The edition I read was a paperback of that original English language translation was some kind of a publishing event.  The cover bears a laudatory vote from Alice "the Lovely Bones" Sebold.   Her presence on the cover somewhat prejudiced me against the contents, but I'm pleased to report that Embers is a fun, light read about two old friends who meet in a forest redoubt in the dying Austrian Empire prior to the beginning of World War II. 

 Whether it be a tribute to an adept translation or the author himself, Embers very much reads like the kind of contemporary fiction that does well on the Bestseller chart and spawns movie adaptations.   Perhaps unfortunately for those who only see movie versions of popular books, there are no ghosts or werewolves, so it's unclear whether we will get a movie version of Embers.

 Even though Embers was written in Hungarian by a Hungarian, it very much belongs to Austrian/Central European literature rather than representing some kind of emerging Hungarian national literature.  In fact, the existence of a prior German translation giving birth to the English translation makes all the sense in the world.

 

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Book Review: The Living and the Dead (1941) by Patrick White


Book Review:
The Living and the Dead (1941)
 by Patrick White

 Australian author Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Living and the Dead is set in London, his only book with London as a setting, so it makes sense that this title made the 1001 Books list.  I didn't know that White was an Australian author until after I finished this book and looked him up online.  One of the revelations about from the process of a chronological reading of the 1001 Books list is just how very long it took colonies to produce their own notable authors.  Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, India, Pakistan- the development of independent literature recognized at an international level came after World War II.

  The  experience of writers from these outlying colonies prior to World War II seems largely tied to the experience of returning to England and Europe and writing about that, with many of the early writers who tackled colonial subjects being from England, making the reverse trip.  The Living and the Dead is an excellent example of a writer from a colony writing a book that has nothing to do with the place he is from.

  I think that's an example of the larger artistic phenomenon of outsiders making the most acute observations of a society because of their particular vantage point.  "Outsider art" often refers to artists who are outsiders by virtue of their lack of formal artistic training or marginal socio-economic status, but the phrase is just as apt for writers who literally come from a place outside of the original artistic community.

  White treads in the territory of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.  That is a sensibility that is long on spiritual discomfort and physical inaction.  The twins at the center of The Living and the Dead, Elyot and Eden Standish, are the children of an upper class would-be painter and his wife, the flirty flaky daughter of a socialist harness maker from Norwich.   White gives us the romance between the parents before switching to the story of the children.  The parents and the children could be characters from any number of inter-war English novels.

  I could imagine a Netflix/television series that simply intertwines the plots of various English novels written after World War I and before World War II.   You could simply layer the various plots on top of one another and intertwine them to create a panoramic narrative of inter war English society.  The children live in an air of spiritual dissatisfaction and alienation from their surroundings that seem recognizably modern, but the narrative technique is a step below the modernist experimentalism.  For the better, I think.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky


Book Review
The Brothers Karamazov(1880)
by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky
LibriVox Free Version- Constance Garnett translation


  There are so many thing that can be said about The Brothers Karamazov but the major categories are probably:

 1. The relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's other works, with particular attention paid to Crime & Punishment.
 2.  The relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to other great works of Russian literature, with particular attention paid to Gogol and Tolstoy.
 3.  The relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to 19th century literature in terms of influences on and as influencer, with particular emphasis on mid 19th century English novelists like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

 There is a fourth question, what is the relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to the modern Audience.  That question at least, is so easy to answer that it requires no analysis.  The Brothers Karamazov is a quintessential "bucket list" book, often regarded as something one is supposed to read and something one will read eventually.  It maintains this rank alongside other Russian novels like the author's own Crime & Punishment and Tolstoy's War & Peace, and non Russian modernist works like Ulysses by James Joyce.  I've listened to all four of these titles as free Librivox audio books, and if I could give one practical piece of advice it is for those in that "bucket list" category of readers or would-be readers to take advantage of the Librivox resource.  It is true that the quality of the readers...is variable.  But overall, you can't beat free, and the Android/IPhone app interface is quality.  I think more people would intake The Brothers Karamazov and those other bucket list type titles if they knew they could listen to them for free on their mobile phone.

    The Brothers Karamazov is typically considered as Dostoyesvsky's masterpiece, a reputation assisted by the proximity of the Author's death to the publication date, it's length and the strength of the work itself, a philosophical novel that is also a murder mystery, courtroom drama and novel of sensation in the mid 19th century sense of that phrase.  I think it is fair to opine that anyone who actually makes it to the end of The Brothers Karamazov has an investment in saying that their time and energy weren't wasted.  The Brothers Karamazov is one of those 19th century works of fiction that is so long that it contains both stories within stories, lengthy digressions from the main narrative and OF COURSE enormous philosophical speeches.    The enormous philosophical speeches are so synonymous with Russian literature that the genre of the "19th century philosophical novel" is tantamount to saying "19th century Russian literature." 

  However, I would argue that the lengthy philosophical speeches is Dostoyevsky's version of the lengthy digressions that authors like Charles Dickens used, often in the form of characters who speak around the subject and narrators who include scenic descriptions.  These scenic descriptions were very much a part of Crime & Punishment, but by The Brothers Karamazov, the locations of the events has faded into the background, replaced by incredibly lengthy dialogues between characters.  These dialogues are preset in all his works, but it is only The Brothers Karamazov that the dialogues and monologues alternate.  

   Personally, I prefer to Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky.  The intense mental claustrophobia of Dostoyevesky's protagonists make The Brothers Karamazov emotionally draining.  At times, the experience of listening to this book felt like drowning in the deep end of a swimming pool.  Tolstoy's expansive scenarios are like the polar opposite of Dostoyevsky's claustrophobia.  Linking them together because of their shared penchant for philosophical discourse is almost unfair. 

  By the end of The Brothers Karamazov, I began to perceive the influence of the sensation novels of the mid 19th century- Wilkie Collins is the most well known author from this period.  These novels combined supernatural twists with criminal procedure.  Here, the explicitly supernatural is absent, but there are more than enough freaks and geeks to keep the proceedings "sensational."  It's hard not to finish The Brothers Karamazov and not feel that he was writing for the same kind of Audience he would imagine would read Dickens or Collins.  I don't even know if Collins was translated into Russian, so that is just a guess on my part. 

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