Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Ignorance (2000) by Milan Kundera

Book Review
Ignorance (2000)
by Milan Kundera

 Ignorance is the fourth Kundera title on the original 1001 Books list, the first since The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) and it gives Kundera one book in every decade except the 1990's.  The other two are The Joke (1967) and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979).   Similar to his other books, Ignorance deals with the impact of Communism on the residents of the Czech Republic (then Czechslovakia) and the various decisions people made.  Here, the narrator is a female emigre, returning for the first time after the fall of Communism, where she hooks up with an old flame after a random encounter.   The punchline is that her partner doesn't remember who she is.  I mean, it's not a punchline, like all Kundera novels, the plot takes  a back seat to the solo philosophizing of your typical Kundera protagonist.

  I would say Kundera is over-represented on the first list.  I would give him two books, The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being and cut the other two.  How much European existentialism do we need?  Just watch The Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders and you've pretty much got it.

The Blind Assassin (2000) by Margaret Atwood

Book Review
The Blind Assassin (2000)
by Margaret Atwood

   The path to literary greatness takes many twists and turns.  The major milestones I've seen repeated in the 20th century are:
1. The break through debut novel.
2. The  major prize winning novel.
3. The blockbuster movie or television version of a novel.
4. The best-seller.

   I think an easy, fair and accurate way to evaluate canon eligibility is to hand out points for each of those four, maybe add a fifth for "public celebrity status" and then just see where you are at with each author.  I think you'd have to adjust the value of each best seller downward to account for authors who have nothing but best sellers- there is a whole shelf full of "airport thriller/mystery" type authors who have dozens of best-sellers, a couple good movies and no prizes.

  If you look at a writer like Margaret Atwood, who is currently sitting in third place in the odds table for next years Nobel Prize in Literature, you can see the path to canonical status in action.  Specifically, in the past year she had her first blockbuster television version, the award wining The Handmaiden's Tale.  The Blind Assassin was another major achievement, it won the Booker Prize in 2000.   As a Canadian, Atwood is ineligible for the United States based Pulitzer and National Book Award- and you'd have to think that given her eligibility she would have won, see Annie Proulx, who won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award for The Shipping News, which basically takes place in Canada.

  I haven't gone back and looked at the contemporaneous coverage of the Prize, but it looks like it was a weak year- with a minor Ishiguro book and a bunch of titles I don't even recognize. The Blind Assassin wasn't particularly well received by United States critics- the New York Times straight out panned it, and I would imagine the Booker really gave The Blind Assassin a sales boost stateside.

 As for the substance of The Blind Assassin, it's a work of historical fiction, set in the same Southern Ontario landscape that figures prominently in many of Atwood's books.  Iris Chase, the protagonist and narrator, discusses her past, with an emphasis on the relationship between Iris and Laura, her deceased sister.  She also throws in a sci-fi twist, with a fantasy story-within-a-story whose authorship is a major element of the larger story.   I read it respectfully, but I have to say that I agree with early critics, who found it sloppily written and over-long.  550 pages!

  But hey, if Atwood wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, this will be one of her canonical works.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Super-Cannes (2000) by J.G. Ballard

Book Review
Super-Cannes (2000)
 by J.G. Ballard

  Make no mistake about it, J.G. Ballard is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Mostly because he's one of the 20th century authors who pioneered the concept of speculative fiction as literary fiction, escaping the confines of genre and emerging as a serious writer with serious ideas, but also someone who enjoys dsytopias and sci fi.  This is one of my favorite themes of 20th century fiction, the elevation of non serious fiction into serious literature, how it happens, why it happens, the consequences of it happening.

  Super-Cannes is often called a companion piece to his 1996 novel,  , both set in hyper-modern developments in south-western Europe.  In Cocaine Nights, the development is a "leisure world" for retired and semi-retired expatriates, living on the coast of Spain.  In Super-Cannes, the development is a combination business park and residence for multi-national corporations.   Both books cover the same territory:  An outside is drawn to the community by accident, in Cocaine Nights it is the untimely death of the brother of the narrator, in Super-Cannes it is the untimely death of a doctor in the development, which leads to his replacement with the wife of the narrator.

  Thematically both books lie squarely within what you might call Twin Peaks territory, where everything is not what it seems under a placid surface.  Perhaps a better comparison is Blue Velvet.  Both Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes make for fun reading, plenty of sex, violence, drugs and death, but also enough depth to make you reflect, even if Ballard's ideas have largely been co-opted by a generation of pop culture content creators, it still seems fresh enough to engage a reader.

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