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Longlist for 2009 Man Booker Prize

In literary, reblog on July 29, 2009 at 8:57 am


The official website of Man Booker Prize has announced the judge’s longlist. The Man Booker Prize is one of the prestigious literary awards in the English-speaking world. Included in the list are A.S. Byatt and Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee.

* Byatt, AS. The Children’s Book
* Coetzee, J.M. Summertime
* Foulds, Adam. The Quickening Maze
* Hall, Sarah. How to paint a dead man
* Harvey, Samantha. The Wilderness
* Lever, James. Me Cheeta
* Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall
* Mawer, Simon. The Glass Room
* O’Loughlin, Ed. Not Untrue & Not Unkind
* Scudamore, James. Heliopolis
* Toibin, Colm. Brooklyn
* Trevor, William. Love and Summer
* Waters, Sarah. The Little Stranger

Winners in the past are Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, V.S. Naipaul, among others. See the archive of winners here.

Kafka, Borges and Perfection

In book review, literary on July 20, 2009 at 12:46 pm

The following piece, “Before the Law”, is the introductory parable of Franz Kafka: the Complete Stories, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer and with foreword by John Updike. What a powerful hook! The closest literary companion of Kafka is the Argentinian master of labyrinths, Jorge L. Borges. Kafka writes best in parables and short narratives. Borges never published a novel.

The literary figures of Kafka and Borges (not necessarily the empirical authors) are obsessed with perfection.  While Borges pretended that the books he wanted to write have already been written, Kafka never “completed” his stories — i.e. they are complete and perfect in their incompleteness. For these two authors, the notion of literary perfection is in the negative.

I’ve never seen a more perfect preamble for a collection than this:

BEFORE THE LAW stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. “It is possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not at the moment.” Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: “If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the door-keepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.” These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tar-tar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit down at one side of the door. There he sits for days and years. He makes many at-tempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper by his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts every- thing, but always with the remark: “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted any- thing.” During these many years the man fixes his at-tention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He for- gets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly, later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contempla-tion of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware t of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a ques-tion he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low towards him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. “What do you want to know now?” asks the doorkeeper; “you are insati-able.” “Everyone strives to reach the Law,” says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admit-tance?” The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and to let his failing senses catch the words roars in his ear: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

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Argumentum Ornithologicum

Ulysses Seen

In literary on July 15, 2009 at 5:58 am

The Telemachiad or first episode of Ulysses takes place mostly in a Martello tower, involving a mourning Stephen Dedalus (from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), a Falstaffian Malachi Mulligan, and the Oxford man Heines. This is before we meet Mr. Leopold Bloom. A lot of people say it’s the hardest to visualize, since we’re practically “in the middle of nowhere”, regardless of the specificity of setting.

Fortunately, Ulysses illustrated is on the works. The creators are well-versed in the myths, allusions and techniques of the book. I have seen portions of the Telemachiad and all I can say is that they know very well what lines and details to include. Their website includes notes on the production. Here’s a sample from the “who chose this face for me?” scene:

The project is called Ulysses Seen. An illustration can never be a substitute for a book, and I’m sure the creators admit that too. But it’s a great project!

Related post:
Notes on Ulysses

Notes on Ulysses

In book review, literary on July 14, 2009 at 9:40 am

This is only the beginning of what is to become a series of notes on James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is hailed by many as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. I like the brutishness in positing superlatives; they do not only appeal to the certainty and integrity of critics, but also to an almost religious testimony that what I am about to behold is borne of the sublime.

A primer: by now, the reader is already familiar with some modern masterpieces. I know nothing yet about what scholars have to say about the author and his works, preferring to get a taste of the work before the commentaries. Arthur Schopenhauer said that we must at least attempt to think on our own before reading what others have to say about the subject — otherwise their commentaries will stain our original thought, and we will be tempted to merely replicate the opinions of others. Ralph Waldo Emerson echoes this advice in Self-Reliance.

I’ve tried to read Ulysses three times in the past, and I failed. Eccentricity is god in this book. But after reading the first 50 pages, I felt extremely gratified. Reading bits of Aristotle helped, but only marginally. It was probably Shakespeare and Borges who led me on, so I delighted in passages like Buck Mulligan’s “He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father”, referring to Stephen Dedalus’ idea of Hamlet.

I love passages that seem to leap out of the page because of their universality. For example:

Stephen bent forward and peered at the mirror held out to him, cleft by a crooked crack, hair on end. As he and others see me. Who chose this face for me? This dogsbody to rid of vermin. It asks me too.

The appeal is metaphysical. “Who chose this face for me?” The mirror is held out not only to Stephen but also to the reader. The passage leaps out and transcends the page, so that we gain the same impression when we hear Goethe’s Mephistopheles say, “And we, when all is said and done, / Depend on creatures we have made”. It is true that while Mephistopheles is referring to Wagner’s homunculus in the Part Two of Faust, we are tempted to read more into it and think about the creatures we have made in our lives.

Another example is when Stephen Dedalus speculates how events in the here and now annihilate their infinite possibilities upon reaching actuality.

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been killed to death? They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.

I love almost-philosophical speculations on the naked reality of things — I am contented with “almost” because I’m not really after the dialectics behind them. What I am looking for, instead, is an erotics, not a resolution, of metaphysics, pretty much like Susan Sontag’s erotics of art in place for its interpretation.

Another striking passage is how the narrator demonstrates Dedalus’ state of mind by juxtaposing the “snotgreen sea” with the bowl of his dying mother’s bile.

The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

Its effect on the reader’s imagination is astounding! As Dedalus’ mother is projected by the sea’s immensity (conversely, the sea is miniaturized into a bowl of bile), we suddenly feel her monolithic and haunting presence on his memory.

Related post:
Ulysses Seen

Argumentum Ornithologicum

In literary, reblog on July 13, 2009 at 6:03 am

by Jorge Luis Borges

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second, or perhaps less; I am not sure how many birds I saw. Was the number of birds definite or indefinite? The problem involves the existence of God. If God exists, the number definite, because God knows how many birds I saw. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because no one can have counted. In this case I saw fewer than ten birds (let us say) and more than one, but did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, which was not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That integer – not-nine, not-eight, not-seven, not-six, not- five etc. – is inconceivable. Ergo, God exists.

(via Petra Magno)

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