Wednesday, 30 April 2014

B O D Y and Soul of Contemporary Literature

Even without taking account of book blogs like mine, there is an infinite number of online sources with regard to literature, classical as well as contemporary. Many of them take advantage of the internet to publish original works, no matter if they were written by established or by budding authors. It's no problem to find a website covering whatever genre it may be and most of them invite their readers to submit suitable texts. The other day I stumbled across another online literary journal which I'd like to present to you today: B O D Y

The editors of B O D Y are based in Prague, Czech Republic, but judging from their names they are English-speaking expatriates residing there, not Czech citizens. Besides, their ezine was meant to be an international medium from the very beginning in July 2012 and so the entire journal is published in English. The focus of the literary journal is on poetry and prose, but in the end it's the quality of the submitted texts that counts. Since the internet is a highly visual medium, also contemporary art and photography find room in the journal.

The homepage of  B O D Y is very unpretentious and clear. Actually, I'd even call it elegant, but of course that's just my opinion and a reason more why I like it. There are separate columns for poetry, fiction, the Friday picks, performance text featuring interviews or authors and others reading texts on video, the art section, the archives of previous posts sorted by month and by subject in addition to the latest thirty, letters to the editors (which is a new feature), and last, but not least the information about what and how to submit.

Moreover, the homepage of B O D Y displays the most recent posts in each one of the columns and the additional categories recent, featured and essays. For the convenience of readers the website is searchable and the entire archive by month is available on the right. Since I dedicate a post to it, it goes without saying that this online literary journal is free. If you wish to subscribe it, you can do it either by e-mail or by RSS. Well, I prefer to browse such sites and to read texts at random... and it's definitely worth it. 

So why not have a look at B O D Y right now? Have a good time there!

Monday, 28 April 2014

Poetry Revisited: Spring Rain

(From Rain to the Sea: 1915)

The roofs are shining from the rain.
      The sparrows tritter as they fly,
And with a windy April grace
      The little clouds go by.

Yet the back-yards are bare and brown
      With only one unchanging tree--
I could not be so sure of Spring
      Save that it sings in me.

                                        Sara Teasdale

Friday, 25 April 2014

Book Review: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis are probably millions of people worldwide who think of the USA as a place where a dishwasher can become a millionaire. It’s a cliché and yet the old American dream keeps attracting social climbers. But things aren’t that easy after all, not even in the land of unlimited possibilities. Competition is merciless and upstarts in the USA need to be thick-skinned just like everywhere else. However much personal freedom and entrepreneurial spirit are held in high esteem by her citizens there are complex as well as amazingly strict social conventions which should better not be violated. And beware of showing sympathies for socialist ideas! The Nobel laureate in Literature 1930 conceived a famous literary figure who had to learn it the hard way: Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. 

Sinclair Lewis, in full Henry Sinclair Lewis, was born in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, USA, in February 1885. He made his debut as a writer at Yale University, but depended on working for newspapers and publishing houses and on selling trivial stories to magazines for years. He continued to write short stories all his life. Only in 1914 he brought out his first serious novel Our Mr. Wrenn: The Romantic Adventures of a Gentle Man. His most successful novels appeared in the 1920s, namely Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929). In 1930 Sinclair Lewis was the first US-American who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Best remembered among the later works of the author who was increasingly suffering with alcoholism are the novels It Can't Happen Here (1935) and Kingsblood Royal (1947). Sinclair Lewis died in Rome, Italy, in January 1951. His last novel, World So Wide (1951), was published posthumously.

In April 1920 George F. Babbitt is a settled man in his forties and at the verge of a midlife crisis. The Great War is over, prohibition is in force and the Great Depression is not yet looming. He has everything that he can dream of: a thriving real estate business, a good wife as well as three promising children, a fashionable home. He lives in Floral Heights, a suburb of the fictitious Mid-Western city of Zenith which is just like any other inland settlement with a population of around 300,000. Streets, stores, buildings, individual houses including their interiors, everything is interchangeable. For George F. Babbitt this standardisation is the sound basis of economic success and he welcomes it. He gladly follows the advice of national advertisers because it spares him the trouble to 
“… fix the surface of his life, fix what he believed to be his individuality.” 
In other words: it spares him to create his very own image. He is proud to have been to college, but his favourite reads are the comic strips in the newspaper and their editorials which supply him with his ‘original’ opinions. As befits a citizen of his rank he is a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Boosters’ Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Presbyterian Church. He’s a man of high morals, even prudish, and a pillar of society. However, he’s a middle-class business man striving to be more without success although in the election campaign for the Republican candidate for mayor he distinguishes himself as an orator. The only true friend of George F. Babbitt is Paul Riesling, an able wholesaler and small manufacturer of prepared-paper roofing who used to be a gifted violinist at university and went into his father’s business after graduation because he had to provide for his wife, but the friendship peters out when Paul goes to jail for having shot (not killed) his bad-tempered wife Zilla. George F. Babbitt craves now even more for freedom and understanding because 
“… he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business—a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion—a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships—back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.” 
When George F. Babbitt’s wife Myra leaves Zenith to visit family living in the East, he yields to his growing desire for change and new company. He begins to see the attractive and refined widow Tanis Judique to whom he had recently shown an apartment and is soon drawn into her circle of friends who enjoy parties and heavy drinking (which at the time is against the law). Not only his conduct, also his points of view become more liberal to the great displeasure of his business partners and friends who take action to get him back onto the right, i.e. conventional rut. 

In his novel Sinclair Lewis satirised American society in the 1920s of which Babbitt was a typical exponent, but he managed to create a timeless piece of literature. Even in the new millennium the questions this book raises remain topical. While its plot is limited to conditions in the USA during the Jazz Age, standardisation is a global reality today. Our world has become so frighteningly uniform that it doesn’t really matter anymore where you are. The same desires, the same advertisements, the same products, the same shops, the same interior design, the same architecture can be found virtually everywhere on this planet just like in the novel. Success in business and social station are in the centre of all human striving. There true individualism is detrimental. It’s better to swim with the current and to protect the interests of your social group in order to avoid exclusion. Movements which advocate popular ideas including a certain share of racism and chauvinism are part of the game. The language that Sinclair Lewis used in Babbitt is very colloquial and includes many slang expressions which someone like me whose native language isn’t English can find a bit hard to link with known words.  

Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis has been my first experience with the work of this Nobel laureate in Literature. I’m afraid that with a few exceptions his books are quite forgotten today. As a matter of fact, many of his novels happen to be out of print. I enjoyed Babbitt although I must admit that I wasn’t overly impressed by it. However, it was an interesting read and certainly deserves my recommendation.

* * * * *

This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Benefits of Bibliophilia

or: Why It’s an Advantage to Have a Wide Reading 

The complaint that people don’t read anymore is often heard these days. Certainly it’s true that with all the new media books have lost popularity. To many books seem old-fashioned and environmentally questionable, be it their paper or their electronic version, be it fiction or non-fiction. And the sullen odour of school that they have about them for a considerable number of people shouldn’t be underestimated either. More importantly, however, our time has become so fast paced that any text longer than a paragraph or a page at most has become an ordeal to read because it requires more attention and concentration than many of us are willing or able to summon up. 

None of the above has ever been true for me. I always take my time for reading. I’m a born bibliophile or else it wouldn’t make any sense to write a literature blog, would it? And I’m glad that I’m such an avid reader because I get so much out of the books apart from the mere pleasure of getting involved in an intriguing plot. Every book is the key to an inner world of wonders that would otherwise be lost. I’m a rather introverted person and consequently it’s always fascinating for me to be allowed to slip into the head of somebody else and to witness all those strange thoughts as well as emotions that might never ever have come into my own mind. It doesn’t matter that characters and events in the books I read rarely are real – they are authentic enough to broaden my horizon. 

Books help me to better understand the world around me and myself too. In real life I’m often at a loss, especially when I need to deal with extraverted people who sometimes make me feel like an alien cast away all alone on this planet. In earnest. It happens quite regularly that I wonder why people right in their minds act and talk the way they do and not always can I ask for an explanation. Reading novels allows me to get to know from the inside all kinds of types, introverted, extraverted, crazy, clever, average,... Probably, it’s even the better way of studying them because authors use to concentrate on typical traits of a character instead of losing themselves in depicting unimportant or even confusing shades. Without books I could only rely on my own common sense and experience. 

Another advantage of books is that they make it easy to travel to other cultures and to learn about them as well as from them. They raise awareness and understanding for people who have a different cultural background which becomes all the more important as globalisation advances. If we like it or not, society is changing as it always has been. As human beings we tend to close our eyes before such developments because we are afraid of what we don’t know. Books can help us to be less fearful, more open-minded and more sensitive to the needs of other people around us – provided that we make a good choice and don’t just stick to writings that glorify our own traditions and thoughts. Books can help us not just to face reality, but also to deal with it. 

It’s my firm opinion that if we don’t read books anymore, we cage ourselves in. Our minds may still be filled with millions of facts from the internet and yet we may know nothing worthwhile about the world and the people in which we are living because in a way we content ourselves with looking at small details without knowing (or even being interested in) their grand context. 

May authors never cease to write books!

Monday, 21 April 2014

Poetry Revisited: Easter Wings

(from The Temple: 1633)

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
     Though foolishly he lost the same,
          Decaying more and more,
               Till he became
                    Most poore:
                    With thee
               Oh let me rise
          As larks, harmoniously,
     And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
     And still with sicknesses and shame
          Thou didst so punish sinne,
               That I became
                    Most thinne.
                    With thee
                Let me combine
          And feel this day thy victorie:
     For, if I imp my wing on thine
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

                                         George Herbert

Friday, 18 April 2014

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery the Books on France 2014 reading challenge I’m once again returning to the French capital, more precisely to an old palatial dwelling of eight upper-middle class families in one of the most elegant quarters of modern Paris. However, the novel deals with most of the inhabitants only indirectly because despite their money they have nothing special about them. The real focus of the story is on the concierge who isn’t at all the dull old woman that she pretends to be and on a well-to-do girl of twelve who considers adult life devoid of every meaning. Of course, the book that I decided to review today is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, one of my favourites. 

Muriel Barbery was born in Casablanca, Morocco, in May 1969. After her university studies in France she taught philosophy for several years, but her husband encouraged her to start writing fiction. In 2000 the French novelist made her acclaimed debut with The Gourmet (Une Gourmandise; also translated as Gourmet Rhapsody). Six years later she brought out The Elegance of the Hedgehog (L’élégance du hérisson: 2006) which was an even bigger success and sold so well that it allowed the timid writer to take a break from teaching and to escape from the media pressure. Since 2008 Muriel Barbery lives in Kyōto, Japan, with her husband.

The main scene of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the concierge’s home and working place at 7 rue de Grenelle in Paris. Fifty-four-year-old Renée Michel has been taking care of the building for half of her life. At first sight Madame Michel matches every cliché of a French concierge: she is short, ugly and plump, she is slow, she cooks smelling plain food, she has the TV running all day long and she has a fat cat called Leo. Beneath the surface, however, she is quite extraordinary. Although she didn’t receive much formal education, she is very well-read – she adores the work of Leo Tolstoy, notably Anna Karenina, and has a penchant for philosophy – and she has a fervent love for the arts, especially Japanese art-house films. In public she always takes great care to hide her knowledge and good taste because she believes that it makes life easier and safer for her to keep her distance to the rich… and to stay in her place. On the fifth floor lives Paloma Josse, the highly intelligent and introspective daughter of a Member of Parliament, who – like Renée Michel – tries her best not to attract any attention. She has decided to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday in June because she can’t bear the idea of turning into an empty and snobbish adult like everyone around her, like her mother and her elder sister Colombe in particular. She also has taken the resolution to make good use of the remaining months to keenly observe her surroundings and to see if she can discover something worth living for after all. In the meantime she keeps a diary with “Profound Thoughts” and a “Journal of the Movement of the World”. When Kakuro Ozu, a widowed Japanese businessman in his sixties, moves into one of the flats, the dull façade of the concierge begins to crumble. Unlike the other inhabitants of the building he sees Renée Michel, the intriguing person, instead of just Madame Michel, the dull concierge. And well-trained by her previous observations Paloma too begins to suspect that like a hedgehog Madame Michel hides a “fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant” soul under her coat of deterrent quills. Kakuro and Paloma teach Renée that the beauty of life and the connections with the world are all that count in the end. 

The main first-person narrator of The Elegance of the Hedgehog is Renée Michel, but her account alternates with the diary entries of Paloma Josse which are set in a different, more modern typeface. Apart from the budding love story between the concierge and the Japanese art-lover in the second half of the novel, there isn’t much of a plot. Days in the bourgeois residence just take their usual and mostly insignificant course which perfectly mirrors the void of its inhabitants’ stereotypical and strikingly class-conscious, not to say hypocritical lives. Thanks to it Renée Michel and the people taking a true interest in her – the Portuguese cleaner Manuela who is her only friend, Paloma and Kakuro – stand out even more against them. The author seems also to have given the names of her main protagonists much thought. Paloma is Spanish for “dove” which corresponds with the girl’s character, while her sister Colombe (French for “dove”) can well be seen as her older self, the young woman who she may be one day. As for Renée, when she comes out of her shell at last and opens up to Paloma and Kakuro, she is “reborn” as her name indicates. Throughout the novel Renée and Paloma indulge in philosophical reflections on the nature of beauty and the meaning of life which are interspersed with numerous references to important works of philosophy, literature (notably Anna Karenina and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy) and different arts. Even the title may allude to an essay on Tolstoy, namely The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin, although otherwise there is hardly any obvious connection. Muriel Barbery took special care to apply the findings of modern philosophy to everyday life and succeeded quite well in making them accessible to a less expert reader. As a result the author’s style is rather essayistic which prevents it from being a particularly easy read and yet doesn’t diminish at all the charm of the story. 

All things considered, I can say that I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery – when I first read it a couple of years ago and now again. In my opinion it’s the perfect novel for everybody with a philosophical vein, with a comprehensive interest in the arts and with a certain weakness for Japan. I hope that you’ll enjoy the book as much as I did!

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Author's Portrait: Emilia Pardo Bazán

Having a look back at the past two hundred years, it can be noticed that literature underwent a remarkable change not just in style and topics, but also regarding its authors who became socially more diverse. Particularly apparent is the fact that from the late eighteenth century on ever more women writers emerged from the shadows of patriarchal societies, notably in Europe. In more conservative, especially Roman-Catholic countries the development may have lagged behind, but there too women writers entered the scene sooner or later. A Spanish woman who gained renown as a writer in the late nineteenth century was Emilia Pardo Bazán. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

Poetry Revisited: Ein Aufatmen – A Deep Breath by Ada Christen

Ein Aufatmen


Grüne Tannen, bunte Blumen,
Blauer Himmel, Luft und Duft,
Silberhelle Wasser rieseln
Aus der grauen Felsenkluft.

Helle Sonnenlichter zittern
Spielend auf dem feuchten Grund,
Und der Vögel heimlich Zwitschern Gleicht dem Wort aus liebem Mund.

Grüne Tannen – kleine Vögel,
Ach, – ihr kennt ein Zauberwort –
Euer Rauschen, euer Zwitschern
Scheucht die alten Schmerzen fort!

Wie in süßen Morgenträumen
Liegt vor mir ein kleines Haus,
Blütenweiße Bäume strecken
Winkend ihre Äste aus.

Liebes, lang’ entbehrtes Grüßen
Ist der Lerche jubelnd Lied,
Das wie klingend helles Strömen
Ob dem Haupte wirbelnd zieht.

Kleines Haus und Blütenbäume,
Ich versteh’ den Zauber nicht;
Doch er spricht zum dunklen Herzen
Und es wird d’rin wieder Licht!

Fremder Menschen bunte Massen,
Fremder Sprache milder Laut,
Große Häuser, helle Straßen,
Selbst der Himmel heller schaut.
Seltsam fremd, wie nie besessen,
Klingt mir hier der Name mein,
Auch mein Herz lernt hier vergessen,
Lernt vielleicht hier glücklich sein.

Ada Christen
Austrian poet and novellist

A Deep Breath


Green fir-trees, colourful flowers,
Blue sky, air and sweet scent,
Silvery waters trickle
From the grey rock cleft.

Bright sunlight vibrates
Playing on the humid ground,
And the birds’ secret twitter
Equals the word from dear mouth.

Green fir-trees – small birds,
Oh, – you know the magic word –
Your rustle, your twitter
Chases away the old pains!

Like in sweet morning dreams
Lies before me a small house,
Flower-white trees stretch out
Waving their branches.

Dear, long missed greeting
Is the lark’s jubilating song
That like sounding clear streaming
Draws whirling above the head.

Small house and flower trees,
I don’t understand your magic;
Yet it talks to my dark heart
And light returns within!

Foreign people’s colourful masses,
Foreign language’s mild sound,
Big houses, bright streets,
Even sky looks brighter.
Strangely foreign, like never owned,
My name resounds here,
Also my heart learns here to forget,
Maybe learns to be happy here.

Prose translation
by Edith LaGraziana 2014

Friday, 11 April 2014

Book Review: Broken April by Ismail Kadaré year I called out My Mediterranean Reading Summer 2013 and read or at least listed a book for each one of the twenty-one countries plus Gibraltar and Palestine. Between June and September 2013 I also reviewed about half of those novels, but for the remaining ones my weekly rhythm just didn’t leave the time or else I felt that they didn’t really fit in for some reason. Today I’m making up at last for one of the omitted reviews, namely my read set in Albania. The novel in question is, of course, Broken April by Ismail Kadaré who has been mentioned in connection with the Nobel Prize in Literature already several times, and in the end never was chosen yet. 

Ismail Kadaré was born in Gjirokastër, Albania, in January 1936. The son of a civil servant studied languages, literature and philosophy in Tirana and literature in Moscow. After having gained some renown as a poet in the 1950s, he made his debut as a novelist publishing General of the Dead Army (Gjenerali i ushtrisë së vdekur) in 1963. The most notable among his many other novels are The Siege (Kështjella: 1970; also translated as The Castle), Chronicle in Stone (Kronikë në gur: 1971), Broken April (Prilli i thyer: 1978), The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura me tri harqe: 1978), The Palace of Dreams (Nëpunësi i pallatit të ëndrrave: 1981), The Concert (Koncert në fund të dimrit: 1988), The Pyramid (La Pyramide: 1992), The Successor (Pasardhësi: 2003), The Fall of the Stone City (Darka e Gabuar: 2008), and The Accident (Aksidenti: 2010). Ismail Kadaré lives in Paris and Tirana.

The story of Broken April is set in the highlands of Northern Albania some time during the reign of King Zogu I. between 1928 and 1939. It’s a wild and inaccessible country where state authorities always had a hard time because people rather relied on their customary law. Blood feud following the strict rules of the Kanun is still widely in practice although modern ideas have begun to spread even to this remote region. It’s 17 March when twenty-six-year-old Gjorg Berisha from the village Brezftoht lies in wait for Zef Kryeqyqe to take revenge for the death of his brother. He doesn’t really see much point in shooting the man because it also seals his own fate, but it’s his duty in the family vendetta that has lasted already for seventy years and cost the lives of twenty-two kin on either side. Gjorg’s parents are content although the deed means almost certain death for their last remaining son as soon as the words of honour that the Kryeqyqe family have granted first for twenty-four hours and then for thirty days will have ended. Before Gjorg can concentrate on those final thirty days of his life, half of March and half of April, he still has to fulfil some more duties set in the Kanun. First of all he is obliged to attend the funeral of his victim and then he must set out for the Tower of Orosh to pay the required amount of blood money. At the same time the writer Besian Vorpsi from Tirana and his young wife Diana enter the highlands to pass their honeymoon travelling from village to village. Besian is deeply fascinated and intrigued by the landscape and above all by the Kanun that still reigns there. As usual Diana listens in awe to the explanations of her knowing husband, but before soon the archaic rules of the Kanun and the gloomy atmosphere of the wild country begin to weigh on her. They even get a face, the face of Gjorg Berisha. Every day the travel that was meant to be the happy beginning of their married life draws Diana deeper into the reality of life in the highlands, while Besian remains the curious observer until his wife commits a terrible faux-pas. 

The third-person-narrative Broken April evokes a world of the past with people tied up in customs passed on from generation to generation unquestioned, but an outsider like Diana Vorpsi can see their cruelty and even absurdity. Despite all the stories of Gjorg Berisha and the Vorpsis are told without emotions and without judgement. Things are as they are in the highlands of Northern Albania, and yet, Ismail Kadaré as a story-teller manages to create an atmosphere which allows the reader to feel the desperation and hopelessness of men caught in the merciless rules of the Kanun and waiting for their turn to die or to just vegetate in a dark tower of refuge for the rest of their days. The author’s style and language are clear as well as simple although the novel also includes many poetic descriptions, especially of Albanian landscape.

I enjoyed Broken April by Ismail Kadaré. It was an interesting read which taught me some things about blood feuds in the Mediterranean region altogether and not just in Albania. Of course, I had heard of the tradition before and I knew that it had survived until far into the twentieth century, but I certainly wasn’t aware of how complex the rules of such blood feuds were and how strong the social pressure was to keep the traditions of honour alive.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Crime Appeal

Or: Why Murder Mysteries Are So Frightfully Popular 

Those who already had a look at my review list or follow my blog regularly will have noticed that I hardly ever discuss any kind of thriller. It’s true that there was a time in my life when I too enjoyed reading murder mysteries, especially the classic ones by Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon. I was a teenager then and had not yet been compelled to study textbooks of criminal law which later made my taste for thrillers fade completely. However, the older I grow the more I get the impression that I must be a big exception there. Bestselling lists are full of crime and whoever I talk to is or has just been reading a detective story, but why is this?

Monday, 7 April 2014

Poetry Revisited: Slow Spring

(from Twenty-One Poems: 1907)

O year, grow slowly. Exquisite, holy,
The days go on
With almonds showing the pink stars blowing
And birds in the dawn.
Grow slowly, year, like a child that is dear,
Or a lamb that is mild,
By little steps, and by little skips,
Like a lamb or a child.

                                              Katharine Tynan

Friday, 4 April 2014

Book Review: The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz
Brazil hosts the FIFA World Cup (soccer) in June/July. Not that it mattered to me! Sports don’t figure at all in my diverse fields of interest, but the unavoidable publicity for the event drew my attention to the country and I realised that I knew next to nothing about her literature. The only Brazilian author who came into my mind was Paulo Coelho and I reckon that I’m not the only one who is painfully ignorant of the gems that Brazilian literature has to offer. Certainly this lacuna in my reads is partly owed to the fact that translations aren’t easy to find. So I decided to do some research and finally picked for this week’s review a Brazilian classic which is on many school reading lists and which is available in English: The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz. 

Rachel de Queiroz was born in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil, in November 1910. As from 1927 she worked mainly as a journalist for different newspapers writing very popular chronicles, but also dedicated herself to fiction. Her first novel, O Quince, came out in 1930 and was received with immediate acclaim. Other novels followed: João Miguel (1932), O caminho das pedras (1937), The Three Marias (As três Marias: 1939), O galo de ouro (1950), Dora Doralina (1975), and Memorial de Maria Moura (1992). Rachel de Queiroz died in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in November 2003 shortly before turning 93 years old. 

It’s Brazil in the 1930s. In the beginning of The Three Marias the narrating protagonist, Maria Augusta called Guta, is a twelve-year-old girl, a sensitive and fearful child used to carefree country life. It’s her first day in the boarding school attached to a Roman Catholic convent in Fortaleza and the austere atmosphere intimidates her from the start. Despite all she quickly finds friends, but it’s her class mate Maria José who takes the initiative and introduces her to the other girls. Before long they form a party of three with Maria Glória. One of the nuns jokingly refers to them as the Three Marias which is how the three stars of the Orion’s Belt are called in Brazil. The life of the girls in boarding school is strictly regulated and at least as secluded as that of the nuns. Guta feels encaged and shut out of life. She suffers under the harsh conditions, sheds many tears and is full of fears that make her consider suicide sometimes. Time passes and the girls grow up with the romantic ideals that they find in cheap novels and the small or big scandals that their hunger for life and love provokes. Soon school years are over and the now eighteen-year-old girls are sent out into the world to deal with real life. The three Marias return to their respective families, but Guta can’t bear the regulated routine of home where she feels like a stranger. She convinces her father to allow her to go back to Fortaleza to attend a typing course and earn her living as a typist there. At last she is free! Free to come to know the world and the ways of men. Raul, a horny aging painter of some renown, Aluísio, a melancholic young men who doesn’t dare revealing his love to Guta, and Isaac, a Jewish physician from Greece who has to pass exams to have his degree recognized in Brazil and to be allowed to stay, court Guta, while Maria Glória makes a happy marriage and Maria José turns into a devout teacher fearing for everybody’s soul. 

Quite obviously the first-person narrative titled The Three Marias is a coming-of-age novel and my German edition calls it “the best and most entertaining women’s fiction of Brazilian literature”. Well, there’s definitely some truth in the latter although I don’t like the label at all. In any case, Rachel de Queiroz’s novel made quite a stir when it first came out in 1939! Just imagine strictly Catholic Brazilians reading a book in which the female protagonist handles men without the caution that six years of convent boarding school should have instilled into her and also without always having marriage in the back of her mind, moreover a book written by a woman of only twenty-nine. And yet, it cannot be said that Rachel de Queiroz advocated shameless behaviour or talked openly about sex. On the contrary, the author’s language is very decent and oblique by today’s standards. Often she only slightly hints at what happens. The story itself, of course, isn’t as innocent as moralists would wish it to be, above all towards the end. In addition, the author displays the full scale of social reality in the 1930s without closing her eyes before the improper and the unpleasant. Prostitutes, illegitimate and orphaned children, an eloping couple, a hard-drinking husband, a blind baby, an abandoned worn-out wife and mother,… they all make a background appearance in this novel. 

When I found out that The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz was a coming-of-age novel, I wasn’t quite sure if I would really wish to review it. At my age I’m not easily intrigued by such reads, but this one definitely gives an interesting insight into the mind of a young woman and after all I already reviewed other novels of the kind. Nada by Carmen Laforet (»»» see my review) can’t really be compared to this one because it has a different focus and as for Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (»»» see my review), I liked this Brazilian novel even better. In a nutshell, The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz deserves much more attention.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Read the Nobels

A Perpetual Reading Challenge

In spring 2013, I browsed the internet for interesting books to read as every so often and came across a blog that is dedicated to the Nobel Prize in Literature, more precisely to the works of its many recipients since 1901. Basically, Read the Nobels serves as a collecting site for reviews (not just the links) that the participants of the perpetual reading challenge wish to share. Having launched my book blog with a review of Auto-da-fé by Elias Canetti, who was awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature, and planning to present more novels written by Nobel Prize laureates in due course, I didn’t hesitate to join.

In fact, everybody interested with a BLOGGER or GOOGLE account can join this challenge. It suffices to write an e-mail with the necessary data to the administrator. She will then add you as an author (click here for detailed instructions) so you can post on the site. Also bloggers ready to take more responsibility for the blog and to help revive it will certainly be welcome.

In addition, I joined the annual event Read the Nobels 2016 hosted by The Guiltless Reader on her blog Guiltless Reading as well as on Read the Nobels. And of course, I made a seperate list for it although it's pretty short.

For my and your convenience, I made a complete list of recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature since its first award in 1901 with the links to my original reviews from Edith’s Miscellany and LaGraziana’s Kalliopeion.  Of course, there is a much greater choice of reviews available on Read the Nobels because it isn’t limited to my posts.

However, this is my current count: 
62 reviews of books written by 59 Nobel Prize laureates in Literature of altogether 119.

And here comes the list: