Category Archives: Nobel Prize for Literature

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer #Bookerprize

the_conservationistBooks frequently have deeper resonance for me when I read them in the country in which they are set. This was particularly true in the case of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist,  a 1974 Booker prize winning novel set in South Africa. Last year as I drove across the vast dry plains of the Klein Karoo, empty but for a few isolated farms, we were looking upon a landscape which is a key point of reference in this novel.

Gordimer’s novel is a character study about a rich, white South African capitalist who  buys a 400-acre farm as a tax dodge and a love nest for assignations with his mistress. Mehring soon becomes absorbed in the mechanics of running a farm, making excuses to get away from business meetings and social occasions so he can spend more time on his land. He believes he is a good steward of his land and a fair and generous employer.

We see him in a very different light however.

Mehring feels he bonds with his black labourers when he hands out cigarettes and indulges in good humoured banter. What we see is that his workers largely go about their work regardless of whether he is there to supervise. He thinks he understands how to look after the land but his Boer neighbours view him as merely an amateur, a ‘weekender’ from the city. He considers he is creating value by ensuring his land is productive, but his lover sees a man who pays starvation wages and writes off losses against tax liabilities.
He believes he has developed a physical and emotional affinity with the land.
His shoes and the pale grey pants are wiped by wet muzzles of grasses, his hands, that he lets hang at his sides, are trailed over by the tips of a million delicate tongues. Look at the willows. The height of the grass. Look at the reeds. Everything bends, blends, folds. Everything is continually swaying, flowing rippling waving surging streaming, fingering. He is standing there with his damn shoes all wet with dew and he feels he himself is swaying….
But here too he is blind to reality.  Death and violence lie beneath the surface of his idealised rural retreat, emerging quite literally in the form of a man’s body dumped in a shallow grave. As if in protest at the treatment of people like Mehring, the land rebels. Drought, followed by flood, destroy Mehring’s farm.
Such is Mehring’s inability to understand reality that he alienates all around him. His estranged wife has gone to America and he struggles to form a relationship with his liberally-minded teenage son, Terry. Though he’s frequently invited to social gatherings we get the feeling it’s Mehring’s wealth and status that is the attraction, not his personality.

Although The Conservationist concentrates on one man, it’s clear that Gordimer sees Mehring as a representative of a particular type of South African. One who reads the signs that change might coming but has no desire to take any action himself to end discrimination or improve the lot of his workers. He simply doesn’t see there is any need for change. If ever he needs a signal that he is wrong and that hold on the land is but a tenuous one, it is the body of a black man that refuses to remain buried. The corpse is the real possessor, the real guardian of the land; not Mehring. 

The Conservationist is an intense read and not simply because of Gordimer’s message. It’s the style of narrative that takes time to get used to, with its frequent flashbacks, stream of consciousness monologues and lack of speech tags.  It was hard work, necessitating many stops while I tried to work out whether I was reading a dialogue or unspoken monologue, and where in the sequence of events was this scene taking place. There is really little in the way of action – everything revolves around the farm and the different attitudes towards it exhibited by Mehring and his workers.

I respected what Gordimer was doing but can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book.

If you’d like to see another view of this book, take a look at Lisa’s review at anzlitlovers.

 

Footnotes

About the author: Nadine Gordimer is one of South Africa’s most respected authors. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.  Over a career spanning some 60 years she dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.  Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa.

The book: The Conservationist was joint winner of the 1974 Booker Prize, sharing the honour with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.

Why I read this book: It is one of the few remaining titles on my Booker Prize project.

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck

goodearth-collageMy path to The Good Earth by the Nobel prize winner Pearl S Buck was one I almost did not take. I had asked two colleagues in Korea to suggest local authors. Their first choice sounded appealing –  it was a best seller called Please Look After Mom (click on the title to see my review).  I was less enthused by their second recommendation – The Good Earth – because it was set in China not Korea and was written by an American author.  My preference is to read native authors wherever possible but I was heartened subsequently to learn that Pearl S Buck was in fact very familiar with China’s rural life and traditions having spent much of her early life there as the daughter of missionaries.

My reservations about The Good Earth didn’t last for long. Right from chapter one I was hooked by this novel about the rising/falling fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress.

The book opens on Wang Lung’s wedding day and then charts their progress through successive years during which time their family grows, they enjoy plentiful harvests and manage to become landowners only to see it all disappear -and then astonishingly they get it back many times over.  Meanwhile the rich Hwangs, for whom O-lan once worked as a house servant, go through a reverse experience because of the Old Lord’s penchant for multiple concubines and his wife’s addiction to opium. Their fortunes dwindle to the point they can no longer remain in their large house with its lavish furnishings. Wang Lung seizes the opportunity to make his mark on local society and becomes the new owner.
It’s a story that has so many twists and turns it feels like a soap opera at times. What sustained my interest was Pearl Buck’s portrait of Wang Lung and his deeply rooted believe in the beneficial power of the earth.

He took his life from this earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver.

He enjoys the wealth his toil brings not simply because it brings peace of mind because he can now feed and sustain his family but as time goes on it brings him a new status in his community. “… everyone knew now that Wang Lung owned this land and in his village there was talk of making him the head.”

china-peasantBut of course such pride makes his fall even more acutely felt. When the harvests fail, when every grain of rice and wheat has been eaten and the ox killed for food and when he has used every coin he possesses, there is no other path open than to go south. Either he has to see his family die or he has to give up the land and find work and food in a more wealthy province.  to the city to try and find a new life.  There they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut while Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw, earning barely enough to buy rice for the next day. He gets a break and obtains enough money to take his family back to their native land where he begins to rebuild his life, so successfully he becomes one of the wealthiest men in the locality.

At times Wang Lung seems to feel the earth has mystical powers – early on in his married life in fact he erects two crude figures on his plot of land to which he regularly pays homage. Throughout the novel, the land is the “good earth”; providing Wang Lung, with physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment. He is at his happiest when he works in the fields, knowing he is following in the footsteps of many generations of his family. Whenever he is troubled, physical labor on the land restores him. Whenever he is away from it, he feels out of his element. Even when he is wealthy old man who is too weak to get behind the plough, the pull of the earth sustains him:

… of his land he thought no more what harvest it would bring or what seed would be planted or of anything except of the land itself, and he stooped sometimes and gathered some of the earth up in his hand and he sat thus and held it in his hand, and it seemed full of life between his fingers. And he was content, holding it thus, and he thought of it fitfully and of his good coffin that was there; and the kind earth waited without haste until he came to it.

I’m glad I laid my initial reservations about this book to one side because The Good Earth proved a fascinating insight into the culture of China in the years spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the outbreak of World War 1.

Footnotes

The Book: The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck was published in 1931. Its commercial and critical success was considered an influential factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy.

The Author:  Pearl S Buck was taken to China when she was five months old and lived there for much of her life as the daughter and then the wife of a missionary. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. After returning to the United States in 1935, she continued to write and became a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, and wrote widely on Asian cultures,

My edition: e-book

Why I read this: As part of my project to read more books by authors outside of the traditional western canon.

 

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano

thirdreichI’m not convinced that The Third Reich was the best introduction to the work of the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. It’s one of his early pieces, written in 1989  but discovered only after his death in 2010. Although it apparently prefigures much of his later work it feels very much the product of someone who hasn’t yet found his form.

The chief narrator is Udo Berger, a German champion of war gaming who takes his girlfriend Ingeborg to a small coastal town on the Costa Brava where he spent his childhood holidays. Udo is a serious gamer, recently having won a German championship and turning semi-pro. While his girlfriend wants to lie on the beach, drink at cafe terraces and spend the evenings in disco, Udo prefers to stay in his hotel room perfecting his strategy for a board game called The Third Reich. It’s essentially a re-run of World War 2 with markers to represent armies and weapons that can be deployed by the players.

Fortunately for Ingeborg relief arrives in the form of Charly and Hanna, another young German couple who have rather more of an idea how to enjoy a holiday. Through these new friends they are introduced to the seedier side of the town, and some shady characters – two beach bums known only as the Wolf and the Lamb and El Quemado (nicknamed The Burns Victim because of hideous scars on his face), who operates the pedal boats on the beach. These characters provide a signal that there are dark aspects to the otherwise idyllic seaside resort.

Fairly soon, the intimations of danger become reality when Charly disappears while out windsurfing. When he is still missing after a few days, Hanna and then Ingeborg return to Germany. For an inexplicable reason Udo decides to stay put until Charly’s body is discovered, spending his time in heavy drinking sessions, playing his fantasy war with El Quemado and observing real life from the balcony of his hotel room.  His grip on life appears to disintegrate, sending Udo into a spiral in which he stalks the hotel owner and her terminally ill husband and  creates a fantasy that El Quemado is a torture victim out to get revenge for his injuries.

Described like this, the plot suggests a very powerful novel. The problem for me was that it led nowhere other than to an awkward message about the blurred lines between reality and fiction. There are also threads about guilt and identity buried deep but these never get fully developed. As for the protagonist – I will respectfully disagree with NPR who felt Udo is “someone complex, sometimes frustrating and absolutely unforgettable.”  True Udo is a frustrating character but that was really because his  raison d’être was so unclear  that when his fears and suspicions lead him to see menace at every turn, it was hard to take him seriously.

 

Paris Nocturne by Patrick Modiano

Paris 1960sPatrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne doesn’t merely convey atmosphere; it oozes forth in every section, every page, every paragraph.  Dreamlike, mysterious, unsettling; this is a book that begins with a puzzle and ends without answers. In between Modiano adds layer upon layer of obscurity.

Paris Nocturne opens with an accident. The unnamed narrator, a young man in his early twenties,  is knocked down by a car near the Place des Pyramides. His journey to hospital is in the company of the driver whose name he overhears while waiting for treatment.  By the time he comes round she and her male companion have disappeared, leaving an envelope stuffed full of banknotes as the only sign they existed.

Waking in a strange hospital he thinks he’s encountered the woman driver somewhere previously. She looks like a woman who looked after him as a child. But he’s not sure if his memory is genuine or the hallucinatory effect of a dose of ether. He sets out to track her down, driven not simply by a desire to piece together the events of that night but by a feeling she has answers to the many questions he has wrestled with all his life. Questions which often involve the father from whom he became estranged; a father he suspects was up to something distinctively shady. If he can find her, he reasons, every part of his life will somehow all make sense.

Port de Vannes, Paris

His search takes him on a meandering journey through deserted streets, across moonlit squares and into the cafes and bars of Paris. He makes an odd looking figure in his bloodied coat and bandaged foot but his attempts to solve the mystery are hampered less by his injuries than by his confusion about what is real and what he has truly recalled or merely imagined.

At times past and present seem to blend:

The same circumstances, the same faces keep coming back, like the pieces of coloured glass in a kaleidoscope, with the play of mirrors giving the illusion that the combinations are infinitely variable. But in fact, the combinations are rather limited.

That sense of a shrinking life resonates through the novel. This man has been a drifter for much of his life, hanging around cafés, eavesdropping on philosophical discussions led by a shifty guru-like figure, and engaging in unromantic liaisons with girl friends.  Now thirty years later, reaching “an age  at which, little by little, life begins to close in on itself” he regrets his many lost opportunities.

In the streets at night, I had the impression I was living another life, a more captivating one, or quite simply, that I was dreaming another life.

His explorations into the past don’t bring answers but serve only to further disorientate and dislocate him from the present. Appropriately for a novella of unanswered questions, one of the last lines is: “I think there’s something you’re hiding from me” which is how readers could well feel by the time they get to the end.

It’s a strange novel for sure, rather confusing but with a dreamlike quality that keeps you reading more. And if your attention ever wanders, you could just get out a map of Paris and plot our narrator’s night time meanderings through the quarters of the city. Be warned however; just like the narrator you may end up in more than a few blind alleys.

End Notes
Paris NocturneParis Nocturne by Patrick Modiano was first published under the title Accident Nocturne in 2003
This new edition translated in English by Phoebe Weston-Evans is published by Yale University Press. My copy came courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley.

Patrick Modiano was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Given the way Paris Nocturne invokes the sense of the city, it’s interesting to see that the speech awarding him the prize, commented on how his work had  “endowed the past with entrancing life and his Parisian cityscape with a singular voice. Magnificently, his work instantiates what an earlier Nobel Laureate,Seamus Heaney, called “the poetry of place”.

 

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