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Archive for the ‘Booker Prize’ Category

Anna Karenina (Everyman's Library) Cover    Half-Blood Blues Cover  Dear Life: Stories Cover

This past January, I ended up reading three books at the same time.  I hadn’t intended to get involved in this menage a trois, but I’d already started Anna Karenina when I realized I needed to read Half Blood Blues for book club and then bought Dear Life on an impulse at the bookstore (I cannot resist the dual temptation of a beautiful cover and a staff recommendation note).  So for a few weeks in January I read one of Munro’s stories every day along with either Anna Karenina or Half Blood Blues.  Strangely, it all made sense.

When I kept seeing a common theme between three randomly chosen books, I assumed it was my brain’s way of making sense of this haphazard trio.  One was a short story collection about the small, quiet lives of (mostly) women in Canada in the years after World War II.  Another was one of the greatest novels ever, Tolstoy’s portrait of Russia in the nineteenth-century, as told through the story of three marriages.  The other was a Booker shortlisted novel about a group of multiethnic jazz musicians in Berlin and Paris at the onset of World War II.  Yet all three seemed to present a similar theme: “The Moment.”

I don’t think I’m alone in thinking about Munro’s Dear Life as a collection of stories that focus on the decision, or The Moment, when our lives irrevocably change course.  A soldier who jumps from a train before he reaches the stop where his fiance is waiting;  an engagement broken on the way to the wedding; a sister’s leap into a cold, deep pond.  Almost every single story in this beautiful collection depicts a lifetime shaped around a moment.  As well, these stories explore how our individual actions become the events that change the lives of both strangers and family alike.

What struck me was how this theme seemed equally important to my understanding of Anna Karenina and Half Blood Blues.  In Anna Karenina, it’s the moment when Anna and Vronsky sleep together that I’d identify as pivotal to everything that comes before and after in the novel.  Immediately after Anna and Vronsky consummate their affair, Vronsky compares himself to a murderer as she declares that her life as she knew it is ended.  “All is over,” she said; “I have nothing but you.  Remember that.” (173)  In an instant, she realizes that she has been irrevocably changed, her life forever altered. “She felt that at that moment she could not put into words the sense of shame, of rapture, and of horror at this stepping into a new life…” (173)  Despite the fact that there are about 750 pages left in the novel, Anna’s life has been decided in this one moment.

I’m not sure that everyone who reads Anna Karenina views it as being as fatalistic as I do, but it seemed to me that once she rejected her marriage with Karenin, she would never be able to change course.  We can’t help but envision Anna galloping to her demise with too much momentum to save herself when we see Vronsky in the steeplechase, proclaiming his love for his horse while at the same time racing it to its death.  In Anna’s case, it’s hard to see her affair with Vronsky as anything but destructive.  Everyone suffers as a result: Anna, Vronsky, her children, even Karenin.

In Half Blood Blues, the moment that changes everything is morally ambiguous.  On an impulse, Sid makes a decision that forever changes the history of Jazz, but also destroys a life.  It is both horrible and understandable; destructive and creative; selfish and altruistic.  Everything that happens in the novel, both before and after we find out what Sid did is shaped by one brief moment.   Perhaps this theme in all three books is best explained when Sid tells us:

Hell, I known this was it, this was our moment, our lifetime.  Folks think a lifetime is a thing stretched out over years.  It ain’t.  It can happen quick as a match in a dark room. (205)

What each of these three books explore in their own way is the consequences of that moment.  What motivates people to act and what are the consequences of our actions?  Can we know how important a single moment is as it occurs, as Anna did, or only realize it when we look back on our life, like Munro’s characters?

After finishing (and loving) Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, I was looking for reviews of the novel and more info about the author, when I found this interview!!  Who are Edugyan’s favorite authors?  Tolstoy and Munro! No joke.  I’ll take this as a sign that the unifying theme in all three works was less a figment of my imagination than I’d thought.  It seems that by some happy accident, I’d immersed myself in a perfect literary trio.  It was a great reading experience, in part because all three books were amazing, but also because the questions they raised were perfectly interrelated. Gotta love a little literary serendipity.

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The Sense of an Ending Cover

The Booker Prize has taken a lot of heat lately.   The judges gaffes were the literary equivalent of Mitt Romney’s campaign speeches, the short list was guilty of some glaring omissions, and the rival Literature Prize was launched.  This makes me sad (not the Literature Prize, I’m kind of excited about that, but rest of it).  I love the Booker Prize because it’s how I’ve discovered some of my favorite books.

When the short list was announced this year I was disappointed.  There were only two books I wanted to read: The Sense of an Ending and Half Blood Blues.  These were my initial conclusions: The Sense of an Ending should win hands down, Half Blood Blues sounded like a good read, the Menagerie book seemed way too much like The Life of Pi (which I loved, but you can’t short-list its imitators), Snowdrops and Pigeon English seemed kinda like popular fiction thrillers, and the comic western The Sisters Brothers seemed too violent and also I don’t read the Booker books for Americana.

I was both relieved and disappointed when I started reading the critics’ take on the selections.  The judges wanted books that were readable, would be popular, and “zipped along.”  Disappointing criteria.  I won’t belabor the point that books can be insanely good and not exactly easy to read (See, e.g., James Joyce) or compulsively readable and great literatue (See, e.g. Wilkie Collins) because that’s been fairly well covered in the linked articles.  I was both relieved and disappointed because the critics’ reactions to the list seemed to be more an affirmation of my assessment than of my failure to appreciate great literature.

With that in mind, I bought The Sense of an Ending (which won the prize as I predicted) and figured it would be a good book, but probably not a great book.  The competition just wasn’t that tough this year.  I’m happy to report I was dead wrong about both the winner and the competition.  The Sense of and Ending is bloody fantastic literature (British swearing seems more appropriate here), an instant classic, and an infinitely worthy book for the Booker Prize.

This is a book deserving of a permanent place on any bookshelf.  It is the kind of novel we pick up more than once in our lives because it left a lasting impression, because the language is beautiful, because the questions it raises can be revisited, long after we know how the story ends.  The rest of the post doesn’t give much away, but don’t read any further if you like to read a book before you read the reviews.  Just go buy it and be happy you did.

A lot of reviewers have focused on this novel as a critique of memory, history, and the insight we may or may not have into our own lives and the lives of others.  All of this is true, but there’s another aspect to this thoughtful, beautifully written novel that stood out for me.  It’s also a meditation on literature.  What do we expect from it?  What is it?  Are our lives anything like it?  Does it reflect the essential truths?

The early pages of The Sense of an Ending brilliantly capture the intellectual excitement and arrogance of youth. This section also provides a sort of framework for considering the rest of the story.  Tony, the everyman narrator, introduces the subject of literature as he reflects on his youth:

This was another of our fears: That Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.  Look at our parents – were they the stuff of literature?  At best, they might aspire to the social conditions of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. (16)

I found myself returning to this passage as Tony’s adult life is revealed.  His story turns out to be more like his parents’ lives than the wild adventure he’d imagined in his youth.  There is life, death, love and remembering, but it’s all pretty run of the mill.  His role in the novel, despite being the main character, is largely that of a bystander.

As Tony ages, he employs traditional literary devices to illustrate his belief that his life has fallen short of literary greatness.  When he visits his girlfriend’s parents for the weekend Tony explains “[h]ad we been in a novel, there might have been some sneaking between floors for a hot cuddle after the paterfamilias had locked up for the night.  But we weren’t; Veronica didn’t even kiss me good night that first evening…”  (30)  Later, the obvious symbolism he employs in telling a story is emphatically denied.  “Towards the end of my marriage, the solid suburban villa Margaret and I lived in suffered a little subsidence.  Cracks appeared here and there, bits of the porch and front wall began to crumble.  (And no, I didn’t think of it as symbolic.)” (91-92)

Throughout the novel, Tony’s portrait of his own life is contrasted with his belief that Adrian’s life is worthy of great literature.  We’re given a hint of this early in the novel when Tony tells us the only person “whose life so far contained anything remotely novel-worthy was Adrian.” (16)  The duality of the two characters continues throughout the novel as Tony and Adrian’s lives parallel each other with dramatically different outcomes.

In Tony’s opinion, the young Adrian doesn’t act as a fictional hero should.  “In a novel, Adrian wouldn’t just have accepted things as they were put to him.  What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book?  Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detetive; perhaps all four of us should have gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth.  Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids’ story?” (17).

Ultimately, it’s Tony, and not Adrian, who goes on a quest for the truth.  Are we supposed to see this quest as childish or as a great literary journey?  Who is the hero of the novel: Adrian or Tony? If this were a traditional tale of brilliance, crazy love, tragedy and adventure wouldn’t Adrian have been the main character?  Tony seems to think so.

I remember a period in late adolecense when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness.  This is how it will be when I grow up.  I shall go there, do this, discover that love her and then her and her and her.  I shall live as people in novels live and have lived.  Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy would be in attendance.  However… who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’?

The reader, like Tony, desperately wants to find out what happened to Adrian.  As Tony doggedly attempts to recover the diary, don’t you also want to see what Adrian’s written?

The literary double can illuminate two sides of the same character and in this case it seems to illustrate two opposing views of literature.  Is great literature supposed to be dramatic and otherworldly? Or can great literature be a simple portrait of the ordinary, everday life?  Tony would choose the former, but as Veronica repeatedly reminds Tony, he just doesn’t get it.

As Tony tell us: “Real literature was about psychological , emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.” (16)

I think that is the point.  Tony would be better off trying to understand his own life rather than Adrian’s.  Maybe we can’t fully understand any life, even our own?  The only thing I really understand?  This is the best book I’ve read in years.  I don’t know what literature is supposed to be.  I know I loved this book.

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