Book Reviews: Melancholy and Melancholy II by Jon Fosse

Norwegian painter Lars Hertervig, an actual real-life figure who struggled with schizophrenia and only found widespread success after his death, is the focus of Jon Fosse’s “Melancholy.” Here’s one of his works. “Melancholy” is split up into three sections. The first and by far largest follows one day of him as a young man, struggling to make it as an artist and studying at a German academy for art. He’s too afraid to go to the school that day, reasoning that while he is one of the few there who can actually paint, the teacher will probably hate his work-in-progress. To complicate matters, he’s in love with his landlord’s daughter and his strange behavior towards her is getting him kicked out, and both of these events seem to trigger a schizophrenic episode (presumably one of his first).

The story is narrated in a stream of conscious style on steroids. I’ve seen a lot of reviews quote large sections of text in order to illustrate but I won’t. In pieces, it seems annoying. Taken altogether, instead it’s a fascinating and intense examination of a brilliant, troubled mind. At times it really does feel like you’re reading someone’s thoughts. It isn’t for everyone, but if you can handle it, you’re in for a wild ride.

The second part again takes place on a single day. A few years have passed. Lars is locked away in an asylum, still fantasizing about the landlord’s daughter and dreaming of escape. Once again, Fosse provides a gripping psychological portrait that proves irresistible.

The third section is a change of pace. It’s set in the late 1980s/early 1990s and follows a writer considering writing a novel on Hertervig. Depression, though, has stopped his pen, and he is going to a young priest to see if religion might lift his spirits. This easily could have become a postmodern curiosity, not at all in line with the rest of the book, but although it seems to be taken from Fosse’s own life, he maintains the same style and same intensity to make it the perfect ending. This part does not “properly” end the threads of Hertervig’s life but it does explore art and wraps up everything on a thematic level.

An odd way to end the book, one not every writer could pull off, but Fosse expertly watches his step. Highly recommended, one of the best books I’ve read all year.

A year after “Melancholy” was published, Fosse wrote “Melancholy II,” a coda to the previous novel. Though a lot shorter than its predecessor, it covers just as much if not more ground. It follows one of Lars’s sisters over the course of, again, a single day years after his original breakdown. Lars is dead; she is a senile old lady just barely managing on her own. It opens with her sister-in-law asking her to come see her dying brother, she agreeing, and then, in her old age, completely forgetting and instead losing herself in reminisce about her dead brother. From there, it only gets more penetrating.

The prose here is changed, more in line with Fosse’s usual style of long but simply-worded sentences rather than the intensity of “Melancholy.” For those put off by the original, “Melancholy II” can be understood on its own, although there is a lot to be gained here by reading the books in order.

Fosse manages to weave human existence into this short bit of space. It’s haunting in the best of ways, at times gross (elderly people do not have the best control over bodily functions) but never unnecessarily so, never only for shock value.

If only more of Fosse’s books were available in English. Luckily, a lot of his plays are (although only Amazon seems to have them, no libraries or anything), and I’ll be reviewing some in the coming weeks.

Book Review: Chronicles by Bob Dylan

If you haven’t been following the Bob Dylan-Nobel saga, this post has a pretty good summary of the latest drama, although I disagree about the “damage” to the prize.

Anyway, I always look forward to the Nobel because it either introduces to a new author or motivates me to read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Even though Dylan’s primarily a songwriter that are meant to be listened to, this year was no exception. Dylan has written some prose: an experimental novel entitled “Tarantula” (I’ll get to it in the coming weeks) and a memoir, “Chronicles.”

“Chronicles” is actually meant to be the first volume in a three book autobiography project, but it appears Dylan has all but given up on volumes two and three (one was published in 2004, the next book was supposed to come out a few years after, and here we are, 12 years later with no news). It’s not a straightforward story. It starts in the early 60s, when Dylan was trying to establish himself, and jumps around decades, like to the 80s, where the singer experiences a creative block. In fact, that’s what a lot of the chronologically later sequences are about.

Eventually the book loops back around and ends in the early 60s, and it’s these sections, where Dylan is struggling, that stand out. His eagerness and development back then is much more interesting than the malaise of middle age. Then again, I’m not a Dylan fanatic, so perhaps those later sections might have a special significance for someone following Dylan for a while now.

The debate about whether the singer’s lyrics were high enough quality to merit the Nobel (or if the genre deserved the prize) continues, but his artistry is on full display here. Dylan writes in a snappy prose style that barrels forward in a way reminiscent of fellow Nobel laureate’ Saul Bellow. And the out of order timeline never feels random. I couldn’t always see the logic behind the time jumps, but it never caught me off guard, never left me confused, never felt like Dylan was doing it just for the sake of doing it.

All in all, not the perfect piece, but one that has helped me look at his prize in a new way. I was hoping for Pynchon, DeLillo, Vollmann or Erdrich if the prize had to come back to America, and while I still think they would have been better winners, this book at least confirmed that Dylan’s work rises to the level I expect from Nobel laureates.

Book Review: Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin

Despite being recently published and winning the 2008 Nebula Prize for Best Novel, I very rarely see Powers discussed. It’s a part of Annals of the Western Shore, three Young Adult novels that are vaguely connected but can be read in any order, like the Hainish Cycle. But don’t be put off by the YA label. In the case of Powers (and presumably the other two) all it means is that the protagonist in younger and seems like little more than a marketing gimmick.

Gavir is a young slave who, along with his sister, is owned by a wealthy family in the city-state Etra. He’s being brought up to serve as a teacher for both slave and royal children and has a lot of access to old poetry and stories (there’s lots in the book, but it never reaches Lord of the Rings levels of poetry and song, if that turned you off Tolkien). He also has a gift: he can dream about the future.

As you might guess, Gavir, once a teenager, escapes and explores the world around him. There is little overarching story; at times, it seems almost picaresque, as he goes from one location to another. As a result, it never turns into a page-turner, but it is thought-provoking, particularly when it comes to slavery and freedom.

Surprisingly, Gavir’s precognition skills end up being less important than you’d think. Though they do come up (I won’t spoil it and say how), at the beginning it appears Le Guin is setting up the power to move the plot forward. Instead, other than a sub-plot towards the end, it serves as foreshadowing and little else.

And the ending—ugh. Pretty anticlimactic. Spoilers alert:

 

Gavir discovers that a member of the family he escaped from is hunting him and has been for quite some time; Gav’s just been lucky in avoiding him. There’s a cat-and-mouse game as Gav and a little girl who he picked up on his travels, run to a city in the north where everyone is free. The hunter almost catches them…and then instead of a fight or even some resolution with this character, they cross a river before he gets to them and that’s it. They’re free and no longer have to worry about him.

 

End Spoilers.

Despite the weak ending, it’s a solid book, well deserving of its award win. I’d give it 4 stars and recommend it as proof that old age hasn’t slower Le Giun one bit.

Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Win (And Defending Him Against Some Criticisms)

So, if you somehow missed the news, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature last Thursday. To say this was unexpected would be downplaying it; his possible candidacy had long been treated like a joke, a way to throw away money at betting sites (because not only can you bet on the Nobel, it’s a prime way speculation works).

I admit, I’m not head over heels with the pick. My initial reaction when Sarah Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, aka the ones in charge of the decision, read out his name, I was shocked, wondering if I hadn’t misheard her—that “D,” did she mean DeLillo? After all, everyone was saying it looked like DeLillo’s year (based on odds movement on the betting sites). Nope, she repeated herself, and it was in fact Bob Dylan. Over the course of Thursday, I stewed over the news, and I got over my initial disbelief and came to listen to more Dylan, I accepted the decision as a good one. He’s still not the American I would’ve picked, maybe not even in the top 5, but I’ve stopped thinking of literary prizes as representing the best of the best and instead wonder if winners reach my vague idea of quality based on the standard from past laureates. On this basis, then yes, Dylan was a good choice. And, even better, I like the Swedish Academy’s ideas of songwriting as literature—surprisingly forward thinking from a committee often known for being too conservative.

Predictably, his win set off a ton of mixed reactions, even more so than usual. Gone were the articles about how no one knew the winner or that Philip Roth should’ve gotten it; pieces questioning whether Dylan deserved the Nobel instead took the center stage. While some of those that were pro Dylan had nonsensical arguments, it was the ones arguing against his win really annoyed me, and here I’ll be doing my best to defend Dylan against some of the ridiculous reasons he didn’t deserve the Nobel.

Songwriting isn’t literature.

I think this is one of the most common criticisms I’ve seen. It’s BS. Of course songwriting can be literature. Is all of it? No, but then not all books are literature, either. Poetry has been tied to singing for as long as there’s been poetry.

Some have said that because the lyrics don’t hold up as well on the page as other poetry and they rely on being sung to sound truly powerful, it doesn’t count. For whatever reasons, when I’ve seen this come up, plays are usually okay, because they’re still gripping when read, but movie scripts aren’t. I don’t see the logic. It seems like an arbitrary cut off so that it helps the argument. For starters, plays definitely lose something when they’re read. Then there’s also musicals which just do not work at all on the page. Hamilton just won one of the most acclaimed literary prizes in the U.S. Where was the outrage then? I haven’t come across any compelling reasons to exclude songwriting from literature; if you know of any, please let me know.

Who will they award next, a Youtuber?

Okay, first of all, ignoring that slippery slope, as far as songwriting goes, Dylan is not your typical one. Academics have been analyzing his work since the 70s and he’s been nominated for the Nobel since the late 90s. Compare that to a Youtuber, or even most other songwriters. Second, he’s just better than almost every songwriter out there. Eminem is not going to suddenly win 30 years from now; Dylan won because he’s produced a large body of literary and critically acclaimed songs and lyrics.

This is actually a quite conservative choice dressed up as a progressive one.

Okay…and? This is one of the oddest critiques I’ve come across. Dylan’s an American white male, so this is actually quite a conventional pick. I don’t see the problem with his ethnicity. Sure, it’s annoying the Swedish Academy doesn’t award more PoC, but Dylan still deserves his Nobel. And no matter how you look at it, awarding a songwriter for the first time is definitely a step forward. Sure, it might not be the radical choice you wanted, but it’s still something new, and anyway, I don’t see how this in anyway takes away from the decision to give it to Dylan.

If they were going to award it to him, why not give it during the 60s or 70s when he was still producing quality work?

This just displays ignorance about how the Literature Nobel works. Almost all winners are older. Getting it at 75 is pretty common. The youngest winners recently have been in their mid 50s, and those were close to being outliers. Also, you don’t win for a few hits; your entire body of work is awarded. In the 70s, he didn’t have nearly the body of work (nor the age) winners often have.

In addition, the Swedish Academy made a point to mention his memoir from 2004 and his album Modern Times, which debuted 10 years ago, when discussing his work. Not the most recent “masterpieces,” but longer gaps between last published quality works and winning have happened (see: Harold Pinter and Doris Lessing).

The prize should’ve gone to a lesser known writer who needed the money.

 Contrary to popular belief, most writers who win the Nobel aren’t just scraping by. In fact, a lot are bestsellers (just not in the U.S.). Mo Yan, Patrick Modiano and J.M.G. Le Clezio, despite being virtually unknown in the English speaking world, were all bestselling novelists in their home countries. Alexievich did say it would allow her to pursue one or two projects she needed to save for, but she’s also an exception, as her nonfiction work requires her to travel a lot. And, anyway, where was the outrage over this when Alice Munro and Mario Vargas Llosa won? They were both incredibly famous and didn’t need the Nobel to pin themselves into literary history.

Him over _____ (insert other writer here)?

This reaction comes up almost every year. It’s how prizes that can only pick each winner a year work. Someone has to win, and plenty of others have to lose. Sorry the Swedes’ taste in literature doesn’t exactly line up with yours, but then it doesn’t perfectly line up with anyone’s, not even individual committee members (there have been some nasty disputes over past winners).

I don’t think Dylan’s lyrics (poetry) compare to the work of other poets.

This is actually one of the few arguments circulated against Dylan’s win that I feel really holds merit. True, it’s subjective, but then all literature is. And it’s not some weak protest that crumbles under closer scrutiny. If you don’t like Dylan, you don’t like Dylan, nothing wrong with that. But don’t dress up your dislike and pretend it’s something that it’s not. “Oh, I like Dylan, but he’s a musician not a writer. He shouldn’t win.” “He’s so rich and won so many other prizes, did he really need this one?” etc.

And at the end of the day, it’s just another literary prize. Granted, it’s one of the oldest ones around, but the Nobel has made almost as many missteps as it has awarded true greatness. Only time will tell if Dylan is a great choice or a gimmick winner best forgotten, but if you ever find yourself arguing over the Nobel, just remember that’s it’s far from the end all be all in books.

Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize

In a very unexpected move, the Swedish academy, the group in charge of awarding the Nobel, gave this year’s award to American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.

Dylan had been nominated before, had even shot up in the odds on Ladbrokes before, but his candidacy was usually treated as a joke. This morning, his odds went from 50/1-16/1. Like I said, he had risen before, I think most prominently in 2010 when he was in the top 5. Most people assumed that since he was such a familiar name, people were betting on him, but now it seems like he might have been a serious contender then.

It’s a real surprise. Although I like Dylan’s music and the academy’s rationale that a songwriter should win (comparing the occupation to Homer and Sappho of the Greeks), I’m still not sure how I feel about Dylan winning. I’m sure I’ll warm up to it, and it is nice to see an American nab it. It’s such a difference with the usual little-known and little-translated author.

I think this will be met with negative reception, but time will tell. I’m sure the general public will be happier with this.

Book Review: An Angel Walks Through the Stage and Other Essays by Jon Fosse

I wouldn’t recommend anyone start with Jon Fosse here. Although he is a famed playwright, novelist and poet in Norway, he’s never been renowned for nonfiction. He actually published two books of essays totaling something like 600 pages early in his career before giving it up, and the present volume is a selection from those with one or two speeches that he gave later on. The pieces aren’t bad, in fact I really enjoyed them and gave the book 5 stars on Goodreads. It’s more that unless you’re already acquainted with Fosse’s work, you won’t get much out of them.

A lot of the essays here are about theory, but none are so dense as to be bogged down in academic prose. Instead, Fosse comments on philosophy and figures like Derrida, discussing more their impact on his thinking than any scholarly interpretations. There are also flashes of his biography here and there, like his schooling or his music-loving teenage years, nowhere hear anything comprehensive but, given the lack of information on Fosse in English, fans should delight in what’s here.

Many of the essays here are short, small thoughts rather than comprehensive arguments, just a page or two, with topics ranging from plays to Beckett to Bernhard.

If you already like Fosse and enjoy Literature with a capital “L” (I can’t imagine there are many from the first category that don’t fall in the second), then this is another great addition to Fosse’s oeuvre available in English. If you’re looking for a good place to start with him and neither Morning and Evening or I Am the Wind appeal to you, don’t worry, more reviews of his novels and plays are forthcoming.

Nobel Prize Speculations

So, the announcement date for the Nobel prize in Literature has been pushed back by a week. The committee said that this is due solely to the dates and when they meet, but as others have said, it’s quite probable that this delay is actually because of a disagreement about who to award. Most times in past years, the eventual winner was in the top 10 at Ladbrokes (yes, people bet on everything; not only that, but betting sites are actually used quite frequently in Nobel speculation), and, to my knowledge, the few times it wasn’t, the laureate had been added to the list and was rising suspiciously through the odds at this point in time. So, going off this, who could be this year’s winner/if there is an argument, which writers could they be battling over?

Haruki Murakami has consistently been the odds favorite for many years now, could this be his year? Could some academy members wanting to give him the prize be the reason for the delay? Honestly, probably not. As a fan of Murakami, I don’t know if I’d say he’s deserving. His prose is simple (and not in the Hemingway-sense where it feels like there’s an artistic reason behind it) and at times awkward (which could be the translation, but I’ve heard the English versions are quite close to the original). His stories are all similar, and, most importantly, if they’ve passed over him before, I don’t see any reason to give it to him now. His latest book wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, and if he didn’t win before, I don’t see him nabbing the Nobel now.

There is Adunis, though, a Syrian poet who writes in Arabic. I’ve read a short collection by him, and although poetry is not really my thing, I wouldn’t mind to see him win. That said, he has been considered the frontrunner before and has certainly been nominated—in 2005, the last time the announcement was delayed by a week, he was thought to be a finalist—meaning, why would he win now? The political situation in Syria? The civil war and refugee crisis isn’t new this year, and in 2005, sources said Orhan Pamuk, who was undergoing a trial in Turkey over freedom of speech, was another finalist but that the academy might pass him over in order to prevent the prize from getting too political (Pamuk would end up winning the following year). Perhaps the row is over giving it to Adunis, but I don’t see why he would end up walking away with it.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long been thought of as Africa’s frontrunner, but he has the same problem: nothing he’s published recently has really made waves. I also greatly dislike his work, so while it wouldn’t be the end of the prize if he won, I would prefer to see another African win. (On the other hemisphere, I put Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth in this category. I don’t understand why they keep coming up year after year).

Jon Fosse rose in the odds in 2013, when Alice Munro turned out to be the winner, but since then he’s been thought of as a likely candidate. Boosting his chances are his plays—Pinter was the last playwright winner—and a recent prestigious award for his recent “trilogy.” So we have an underrepresented type of literature with a recent big important work that might put him over the edge. I am hesitant, though: the same academy that awards the Nobel also gives out a smaller Scandinavian-only prize that Fosse won in 2007. If it was his year, I don’t know if an argument like this would be happening—the academy clearly already likes his work.

Javier Marias, meanwhile, is one of the few writers to see real changes in odds this year. He started out around 50/1 and moved all the way up to 17/1. The thing about him, though, is that he really didn’t deserve to be at such low odds originally. If I was a betting man, I’d have put some money on him just because of how low he was. He’s been bandied about in discussions online as a potential winner for several years now, and betting on him at 50/1 could give you a pretty penny.

Mircea Cartarescu has been called the Romanian frontrunner for several years now, after his humongous work Blinding, and just this year he published another large, critically acclaimed work. Like Marias, he also saw a jump in his odds, but also like Marias, he really should have been higher to begin with anyway.

So, who will end up winning? Other than Cartarescu and Marias, a few others have seen their odds go down (Fosse, Adunis and Roth included) but those changes were so small and there has been no other movement from them that no conclusions can really be drawn. And anyway, those with the lowest odds usually see them drop even lower in the weeks prior, so it’s not unexpected. Hopefully this next week, as the academy figures out who will win, we see more movement/even a leak.

As for my picks, I’d like to see Fosse or Marias win it this year. There are a number of others I wouldn’t mind seeing win (William T. Vollmann, Can Xue, Su Tong, Louise Erdrich), but I don’t think it’ll be any of them; had they made it to the shortlist, we probably would have seen their names rise (or just appear) on a betting list.

Book Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one of those flawed books that you still can’t help but love. Please note that this review will have spoilers in, so read on at your own peril!

In the future, time travel has been invented, and historians use it to study their areas of interest. One student at Oxford, Kivrin, is about to go back into the Middle Ages. Though going back that far can be dangerous, the head of the history department is on vacation and the professor filling in is cocky and eager to show his worth. Mr. Dunsworthy, another professor in the department, is not so sure about the whole thing but is overruled. Shortly after Kivrin is sent back, however, the technician seeks out Mr. Dunsworthy to try to tell him about something that went wrong, but before he can he collapses from disease. An epidemic soon falls upon London.

Even worse, unbeknownst to them, Kivrin falls ill almost immediately after reaching the medieval ages. Although she is picked up and taken care of, she needs to return to the exact spot she first appeared at a specific date in order to get back to her own time—and she has no idea where that spot is.

Alternating between Kivrin and Mr. Dunsworthy perspectives, The Doomsday Book is an almost perfect mix of comedy, tragedy, and excitement. Willis’s sense of humor is laugh-out-loud funny.

Part of the problem is the length. This very easily could have been edited down from the 600 or so pages that it is, especially the first half of Kivrin’s adventures in the past. No real progress is made during those chapters, and while Willis is skilled enough that you never have to power through, it does drag.

The characters in the past, too, are faulty. Some aren’t developed enough and others get involved in subplots that are never resolved. It turns out that the mistake the technician found was that Kivrin was accidentally sent back to 1348, the year the Black Plague reached England. Ultimately, every character in the past other than Kivrin dies from it. Willis could have meant this to be one of those books where everything is normal until a catastrophic event interrupts daily life, but as it is, she really just sets out the building blocks for subplots (so-and-so likes a married woman?) but then does nothing with them so that it just seems like set up for no reason. Though the Mr. Dunsworthy chapters also suffer from this, they are nowhere near as bad as the medieval ages.

But despite these problems, The Doomsday Book is an irresistible read. Willis is a Grand Master in science fiction and for good reason. It’s a case of where the author is already so skilled that their flaws are even more noticeable than had they come from a lesser writer.

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Warning: There will be tons of spoilers in this review.

Binti is an unfortunate book. I say that because it starts out with such promise. A girl—Binti—gifted at mathematics runs away from her ancestral home in order to attend a prestigious university. Sounds good so far, if a little cliché. While on the spaceship traveling there, aliens attack and kill almost everyone except for Binti and the pilot. Binti survives cunning and perseverance until she discovers the purpose of the raid: the aliens want to take over the ship so that they can do a surprise attack at the university and retrieve something that was stolen from their leader. Binti agrees to be their interpreter, both for her own survival and to try and get the two cultures to understand each other a bit better.

So far, the narrative has stumbled here and there, but for the most part it holds itself together and is an interesting read.

That is, until the ending.

After landing at the university, professors and staff argue about the aliens until finally they come to an agreement: they will give back the items they took, Binti can still attend, and an alien who Binti befriended can also enroll. The whole bit reads like one of those fake “that happened” stories online. The everyone who died on the ship is forgotten. While there is a sequel that may address this, it might be kind of relevant to bring up that massacre again in the book in which it occurred. They were not exactly well-developed, but still. And the mathematical skills that Binti possesses do come up again, but only in the abstract. They come in handy when she’s trying to survive, but it might as well be magic from the way it’s described. While nitpicky, it still is bothersome, especially since I felt there was some real potential for it to be used in interesting ways. The only good thing I can say about this is that it’s short.

Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.