Dubliners

My first attempt at reading James Joyce when I was nineteen years old failed painfully. Feeling very grown up, I bought a copy of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man  only to read the first thirty pages and give up. I read somewhere that one of the most unread books in the world is Ulysses. It seems that most people have the intention of reading it, but never actually finish the book. Despite the discouraging statistics, I am committed to reading Ulysses someday. Sure, it won’t be as speedy as reading Chick Lit!

Hoping to get used to Joyce’s style with a book less demanding and more accessible, I read Dubliners recently. Dubliners, written in 1914, consists of fifteen short stories portraying everyday episodes with various characters and their lives in the city of Dublin. The stories circle around common human emotions and dilemmas and remind us that no matter which period we live in and what the settings are, we human beings face similar problems and choices.  What seems to me to be consistently present throughout the fifteen stories is the mood of melancholy and desperation. Joyce’s characters have significant flaws, and they fall into common human pitfalls. I cannot say I like or dislike the characters, but I surely feel empathy with them and am compelled not to judge.

One of my favorites is the story with the title A Little Cloud, where the main character Little Chandler meets an old friend Gallaher, whom he had last seen eight years ago. He has high thoughts of his old friend, who has become a successful writer in London. We can sense that Gallaher stands for the things Little Chandler yearns for. Little Chandler dreams of being a successful poet or a writer, but feels trapped in a dull life with a job as a clerk and a family, living in a city he finds uninspiring. Even his name is not artistic enough for a poet! In Joyce’s own words He felt acutely the contrast between his own life and his friend’s. Little Chandler went to meet his friend Gallaher with the hope to be inspired, but all he got was feeling smaller than before. Little Chandler becomes a little cloud over Dublin. When he went home and his eyes met the hatred in his wife’s eyes, he started crying with remorse. Crying, because he has not been able to realize his dreams and he never will be. The story ends with Little Chandler’s awakening to this sad truth about his life.

There is no moral in the stories in Dubliners, but a poetic realism characteristic of Joyce. I also loved reading Counterparts and A Painful Case which also evolve around the theme of entrapment in deadly routine and monotony.

I really enjoyed my first descent into the world of James Joyce. Perhaps Ulysses will be on my nightstand next. I have never been to Dublin and am more curious than ever to go on that trip!

 

 

 

 

 

Never Let Me Go

I was watching the Nobel Prize ceremony last night. It is not so much the achievements that make me watch it, but more hearing the speeches made by the laureates. It gives me hope and makes me feel confident in humanity to hear the world’s most clever people say very wise things about making the world a better place.

This year’s prize in literature was given to Kazuo Ishiguro. So far, I read one book by him called Never Let me Go and I cannot pass without saying a few things about it. Friendship is a central theme of the book, which is also one of my favorite themes. I have never read a novel as this one, where human emotion and science fiction go so well hand in hand. At first sight, the story is about a group of students at an English boarding school Hailsham. The mood is very bleak, as the fate of the students and from the very beginning you sense something not quite right. Then you start to understand what a “donor” is. The writer portrays the characters and their relationships with such human depth that the implausibility of the events becomes irrelevant.

Highly recommended!

The Red-Haired Woman

The last book I read is The Read-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk. Pamuk is the first Turkish writer to receive a Nobel Prize in literature. So far, I have read four of his works: The Black Book, Istanbul: Memoirs of a City, Snow and his latest work The Red-Haired Woman. He captures the Turkish spirit with his unique writing style, which is very intricate, sophisticated and mysterious like an oriental rug, handwoven with an abundance of delicate words and sentences that come together to create an overwhelming and beautiful whole.

I found The Red-Haired Woman distinctly different in style than The Black Book and Istanbul. The language is much less intricate and the symbolism more straightforward. In the typical Pamukian manner, there is a smorgasbord of different universal themes to choose from.  Inspired by the Greek tragedy Oedipus and the Iranian legend Shahname by Firdevsi, the main themes of the novel are: Are we predestined to our fate or do we create it ourselves? Father-son relationships, mother-son relationships, is it possible to escape one’s past? Pursuit of happiness, faith, hope…..

My favorite part of the novel is where the protagonist Cem becomes an apprentice of Master Mahmut Usta and spends his summer holiday digging wells in the imaginary town of Öngören. I absolutely love the simple but powerful symbolism of well-digging, where the pursuit of water becomes the pursuit of our dreams and happiness. Mahmut Usta’s faith is amazing. Pamuk’s depictions of the well-digging and his portrayal of Cem, Ali and Mahmut Usta are masterly. Personally, I found themes of pursuit of happiness and hope more interesting and original than the Oedipus comparison, which I think seem a little forced.

For me the strength of the novel is also its weakness. The richness of themes and the cleverness with which they are interwoven in the story has become a pitfall, where the reader is left to figure out what the story is really about.

The last chapter that is narrated by the red-haired woman herself is a brilliant piece of prose. It brings perspective and clarity to the multiple events and themes introduced to the reader.

If you have never read Pamuk before and are curious, this novel would be a good start. Though, if you really want to get under the skin of Pamuk, you must read his masterpieces The Black Book and Istanbul, which are both translated into several languages.

 

 

The Romani Connection. From Tomatito to Esmeralda

One of the powerful cultural vitamin injections of this spring was a concert by the famous Flamenco guitarist Tomatito at Denmark’s Radio Concert Hall. It was breathtaking to see the maestro play his guitar with such ease, intense passion and emotion. Accompanied by his orchestra, Tomatito demonstrated how music, song and dance in perfect unison can bring about an authentic atmosphere charged with poetic rhythm. I think this unique sensation is called Duende in Flamenco terminology, meaning the soul or a heightened state of emotion. Duende was surely achieved during this concert on May 27th.

Flamenco music has a strong element of drama and tension, where emotions such as sorrow, pain, anguish, happiness, longing, desire and more are articulated with eruptive energy through the elements of el cante (singing), la guitarra (guitar playing), las palmas (handclapping) and el baile (dancing).

While listening, I began wondering, where such strong emotions stem from. To be able to understand, we need to learn about the history of the Roma, Romani people or the Gitanos as they are called in Spanish. They are also commonly known as Gypsies, but this word seems to have developed undesirable racial connotations. Flamenco is the cultural heritage and folklore of the Romani people, whom, based on the most common theory, migrated from the banks of the river Ganges in northern India in the 11th century. They continued their journey and nomadic existence from Asia to Europe and some of them continued to Spain and settled there in the 15th century. They brought with them musical instruments and songs. In Spain, they met the cultures of the Andalusians, the Sephardic Jews and the Moors (Arabs). It is in this flux of intercultural mingling, Flamenco seems to have emerged.

It seems that Flamenco was the Romani people’s way of expressing their cultural identity through their art. The sorrow and pain is rooted in the poverty and oppression they experienced as an outcast minority. Flamenco is a record of their history, which live through the song lyrics, music and dance inherited from generation to generation. My impression is that the Roma people are truly artistic in the soul. They do not care about the material world, their philosophy is living by the day and living for their art, song and dance, which often caused the society to blame them for loose living, laziness, crime and conflict.

The Romani people brings me to another cultural vitamin injection, which I indulged in this spring: Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame of Paris, also known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The beautiful story of the hideous looking and deaf bell-ringer of the church of Notre Dame, Quasimodo, whose ugliness is his greatest weakness and weapon and the enchanting gypsy girl La Esmeralda, whose mother and father were birds of the air. They are both outcasts of society.

Esmeralda does not know her origins, she thinks she is from Egypt, as gypsies were mistakenly believed to be Egyptians back then. She is a free spirit, who loves to sing and dance, and do amazing tricks with her goat Djali. She is a true Roma soul. Even though her fate was destined by a swap between herself and Quasimodo as babies, later as grown-ups, their fates cross each other again and again. The story unfolds in Paris in the Middle Ages, which Victor Hugo delivers a detailed birds eye view of, even though he wrote the novel three hundred and forty-eight years, six months and nineteen days later. The novel, not only is a wonderful story that will touch your heart, it is also a piece of historical masterpiece, an impressive work about the Medieval times. Reading through the pages heavy with names of people with impressive titles from the French aristocracy and the religious community, it is not possible to escape Hugo’s irony about these times, where ignorance, poverty and religious oppression were dominant.

It is through great art like Flamenco music and Victor Hugo’s writing that our sensitivities will be awakened and we will be reminded that both horrible and great things have happened in the course of history, when different cultures met. There is so much pain and beauty in both pieces of art. And so many lessons to learn.

 

Steinbeck’s Monterey

 

If you are new to John Steinbeck’s prose, Cannery Row may not be the most obvious choice, but it is a wonderful novella that is worth reading. It takes place in Monterey, which I visited last summer during our family trip to California. My favorites in Monterey peninsula are Fisherman’s Wharf, the 17 Mile Drive, Pacific Grove, Carmel Beach and Carmel-by-the-Sea. Once a fisherman’s town, with sardines as the primary source of income, Monterey is today a famous travel destination with an impressive natural beauty and charming streets with many boutiques, galleries and cafés. I picked up my copy of the book in the Monterey Bay Aquarium shop. The aquarium, which was originally built as the famous sardine factory of Monterey, is now an exciting place to experience the rich sea life of California.

 

Steinbeck’s novella Cannery Row takes place in 1940’s, when Monterey was the world’s largest sardine supplier. The title of the book, Cannery Row, is also the name of the main street and the neighborhood of the famous sardine factory, which played a central role in the lives of the town’s inhabitants.

The predominant theme of the book is friendship. The book is a colorful collage of amazing and mostly shifty characters whose lives evolve around the sardine factory . We have Mack and his buddies, the local hobos, whose petty mischief we are inclined to oversee in the light of their good intentions, which unfortunately always fail. Take the amazing episode where they venture into collecting frogs for Doc, so that he can complete his scientific research. Doc, one of the main characters, is a gentle intellectual, a dedicated scientist but somewhat lonely and melancholic. Then there is the owner of the local grocery shop, Lee Chong, whose store “while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply”.  The descriptions of the tensions between Lee Chong and Mack, while Mack succeeds in persuading him to rent him and the boys an empty storage house, the Palace Flophouse, are amazing. Take the couple, Mr. & Mrs. Malloy who move into a deserted boiler from the canning factory during the housing shortage caused by a great catch of fish in 1937; Mrs. Malloy who wants curtains for the boiler, which has no windows!

It has always seemed strange to me, said Doc. The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.

The book is full of human values and warmth, even in the shabbiest places. Steinbeck’s prose is simple, straightforward and very powerful. Through Doc’s words, Steinbeck reminds us of the paradox of humanity: Head versus heart, goodness versus success. Success has nothing to do with goodness. Goodness is considered as softness and not a desirable trait in the business world. But we may find lots of goodness among the so call failures.

I hope this piece has inspired you to read this amazing little book. Or maybe even to take a trip to Monterey 🙂