Posts filed under ‘Nobel Prize’

The New Life

Orhan Pamuk. I found this pretty slow going, especially in the first half. It’s about a young man whose life is changed by a book, and by unrequited love, and who spends months of his life randomly boarding old and dangerous buses, searching for a mysterious angel. He’s in several bus crashes, which I have a feeling are or were pretty common in Turkey, and it is in these brushes with death that he feels closest to the angel. There’s an undercurrent of encounter between East and West, and a nostalgia for the old Turkish goods which are being replaced by new imports from the West. The one product that survives the transition is clocks:

‘For our people, the ticking of clocks is not just a means of apprising the mundane, but the resonance that brings us in line with our inner world, like the sound of splashing water in the fountains of the mosques,’ Dr Fine said. ‘We pray five times a day; then in Ramadan, we have the time for iftar, the breaking of fast at sundown, and the time for sahur, the meal taken just before sunup. Our timetables and timepieces are our vehicles to reach God, not the means of rushing to keep up with the world as they are in the west. There was never a nation on earth as devoted to timepieces as we have been’ we were the greatest patrons of European clock makers. Timepieces are the only product of theirs that has been acceptable to our souls.’

This process of exchange and transformation is quite interesting, really. I won’t be in a hurry to read more of his books, but you never know.

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May 2, 2008 at 8:32 am Leave a comment

Kristin Lavransdatter III: The Cross

Yep, finished it last year. As I was reading it for escapist purposes, I was seriously annoyed when she killed off some of the best characters. In the end, however, it was quite memoriable. And beautiful. If a little sad, in a perhaps-the-next-world-is-better-than-this-one sort of a way.

January 13, 2008 at 3:14 pm 2 comments

Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife


This is the second in the trilogy, set in medieval Norway. Here‘s what I thought of the first book. I’m not sure what I make of this one, really. I found the first half very tedious – Kristin moaning about her sins (getting pregnant before she got married), and generally making her husband very unhappy because of it. Things warmed up in the second half when she stopped complaining about her husband and started trying to get him out of jail.

I love the descriptions of Norway – the light and the lakes and the meadows. When I think about the book, it seems glassy and smooth and slightly two dimensional. Blue, and cool. But I looked forward to creeping into bed with it every night. And it changes pace every now and again and becomes heartbreakingly beautiful. I’ve nearly finished the third one, so I’ll give you more of a run-down then. Not one of my favourite books in the world. But I have a feeling it’s the sort of book that stays with you – a little bit of Kristin’s Norway has a place in my heart.

November 12, 2007 at 9:11 pm 2 comments

The Solid Mandala

It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within.
Meister Eckhart

It was an old and rather poor church, many of the ikons were without settings, but such churches are the best for praying in.

Dostoevsky

The Solid Mandala, Patrick White, 1966. I’d been meaning to read this for quite a while, partly because of the intiguing title, and partly because of its epigraph from Meister Eckhart (always on the look-out for all things medieval). But I have to admit it was a sense of duty more than anything else that kept me plugging away through the first two hundred pages. I don’t find Patrick White’s novels easy to like. It portrays the everyday life of twin brothers, Waldo and Arthur, in grimy detail. Mucus, excrement, furtive orgasms, tedious suburbia, two old men and their two old dogs. Their codependent relationship of love and hate borders on homosexuality. The first two hundred pages are told in Waldo’s voice: the ‘clever’ twin, awkward and unlucky in love, narcissistic and burdened by his half-wit of a brother, he dwells endlessly on his thwarted literary ambitions. But, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the narrative shifts into Arthur’s voice. And lightens, and comes together, and starts making sense. Becomes beautiful.

Arthur is a holy fool. He is a lot cleverer than Waldo admits, because Waldo’s identity is predicated on being the smart one beside Arthur’s stupidity. In the first two thirds of the novel we see Waldo constantly taking care of Arthur, but in the last third it is revealed that Arthur is just as preoccupied with taking care of Waldo, perceiving his weaknesses so accurately that he knows to conceal what he knows, what he reads, and the success of his own relationships. He discovers that the concept of the mandala expresses perfectly what he intuitively knows:

“The Mandala is a symbol of totality. It is believed to be the ‘dwelling of the god’. Its protective circle is a pattern of order superimposed on – psychic – chaos. Sometimes its geometric form is seen as a vision (either waking or in a dream) or -”
His voice had fallen to the most elaborate hush.
“Or danced.” Arthur read.

Arthur is obsessed with marbles, which become the ‘solid mandalas’ of the title. Over the years, his collection condenses to four special marbles, which represent himself, and the three people he most loves. He considers throwing one away because it has a knot in it, before realizing the the knot, in fact, is the point: ‘…till from looking at his own hands, soothing, rather than soothed by, the revolving marble, he realized that the knot at the heart of the mandala, at most times so tortuously inwoven, would dissolve, if only temporally, in light’ (p. 273). He offers this marble to Waldo, ‘half sensing that Waldo would never untie the knot.’

There are repeated references to Tiresius, as well as to The Brothers Karamazov, which acts as an echo of the brothers’ fraught relationship, and their searches for transcendence. Their weatherboard house is fronted by a tragic parody of a Classical facade. Finishing the novel, I understood why White deserved the Nobel Prize. It is a heavy novel, but the weight of it is essential. Arthur’s voice would not come as such a relief if it had not been proceeded by Waldo’s. His revelations would not seem so dearly won. The two are connected, bound together. The epiphanies are expertly enfolded into the structure of the whole, much more convincingly than in my hazy memory of The Tree of Man. I was quite astonished how White managed to make this heavy material blaze with light – like the knot in Arthur’s marble. There are also some echoes of The Idiot, and in my opinion, The Solid Mandala is a worthy successor to Dostoevsky, much more so than Coetzee’s Master of St Petersburg, which I didn’t care for. This novel is quite remarkable. Consider me a convert.

Image: ‘The One’, Kiolero, flikr.

October 14, 2007 at 3:37 pm Leave a comment

The Wreath

Yet another take on the Middle Ages. Noticing a theme yet? Sigrid Undset won the Noble Prize for her portrayals of the Norwegian Middle Ages in novels such as this one. And it is lovely. It is the first of a trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the other two. I forgot to order them, though, so wait I must.

In some ways this is straightforward historical romance fiction. Young girl grows up on remote farm in medieval Norway, falls in love with a bit of a rogue, and accordingly compromises her chastity, which leads to a number of awkward situations. But the beautiful depictions of the places and seasons, the portrayals of the tensions in the society (between Christianity and Paganism, for example), and most of all, the finely drawn, heartfelt but often pained relationships, make this novel something special.

When I think about novels set in or drawing on the Middle Ages, I start by asking why? Why was the Middle Ages deemed necessary for this story? What does this particular representation of the Middle Ages reveal about the desires and assumptions of the author? I guess a fairly obvious question is how accurately is the Middle Ages represented, but this question is not always the most interesting one. In this case, I think Undset did a lot of careful research, and integrated it into the story sparingly but lovingly, though not being an expert on fourteenth-century Norway, I can’t say for sure. Using a medieval setting can often serve nationalistic purposes (especially for countries which have medieval pasts). Perhaps there is a bit of this here. But my instinct says its main purpose is different.

I think Undset turned to the Middle Ages because it offered a template for a society with rich kinship systems, formal relationships and obligations, especially for women. It is these constraints, together with the threads of nature and religion, that shape the novel. While Kristin’s illicit love affair drives the plot, her relationship with her father and with a wandering monk, and her parents’ relationship, are actually the most interesting elements. Expectation, disappointment, affection, desire and loss are brought into painful relief in brief, intimate moments scattered throughout the narrative. Kristin’s mother, Rangfrid, prays for her family at night: ‘As her body gradually grew stiff with the cold, she set out once more on one of her familiar night journeys, trying to break a path to a peaceful home for her heart.’

Kristin’s childhood vision of purity and brilliance proves difficult to sustain, but her first glimpse of a stained glass window remains one of the most beautiful scenes in the novel:

On the grey stone wall above her, Kristin saw strange, flickering specks of light, red as blood and yellow as ale, blue and brown and green. She wanted to look behind her, but the monk whispered, ‘Don’t turn around.’ When they stood together high up on the planks, he gently turned her around, and Kristin saw a sight so glorious that it almost took her breath away.
Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicoloured specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monk’s face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl the colours of the picture were dimly reflected. She gave him a questioning glance, but he merely nodded and smiled.
It was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven.

July 19, 2007 at 9:57 am 1 comment


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