Friday, September 26, 2008

David Lodge: Small World

This could well be the funniest book I’ve ever read. I grinned and chortled all the way through to the very last sentence. Set right at the end of the 70’s when air travel still felt glamorous, computers were still in their infancy, and mobile phones unheard of, the story follows a set of British, Irish, American, German, Italian, Japanese and French academics as they jet around the globe from one literary criticism conference to the next. There’s plenty of bawdy sex, romance, mistaken identity, quotations from literature, discourses on literary theory, the quest for the Holy Grail of the UNESCO chair of literary criticism, and even a kidnapping. The action whizzes along at a pace to match the characters’ whizzing around the globe attending conferences from the smallest and dullest at the so-called Rummidge University in England, to the biggest and brightest in New York City – with plenty more in-between. Persse McGarrigle, a young Irish poet who’s still a virgin (will he lose his virginity by the end of the book?!) is chasing after a mysterious and intelligent young woman with a mane of shining black hair (will he ever find her?), while the older but no wiser professors are all chasing after the UNESCO chair, with plenty of back-stabbing and in-fighting going on in the process. Having jetted to, attended, and organized a number of such conferences myself, and having tackled literary criticism as an undergraduate, I think this book should be on every professor’s office shelf.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Orhan Pamuk: My Name is Red

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, which makes it a bit more difficult to admit that I'm not crazy about this book. It's obviously good, and he's a great writer, but it's not the type of story nor style that I generally enjoy. He seems obsessed with Istanbul in winter: there's cold snow and ice everywhere – does it still snow there these days? However, there's also no shortage of humour, for example I enjoyed the diatribes for and against coffee: it’s a sin, it’s what enables people to think clearly, and so on.

The story highlights the impossible situation of women, how they must always be in some man’s charge: either the father or the husband or the husband’s family. Here a woman is in difficulty when her husband disappears and she’s neither divorced nor widowed, but forced to stay with the husband’s family against her will. There are many references to pretty boys, making it clear that boys were frequently used for sex in that world. And many references and retellings of old Middle Eastern stories and myths which would have more resonance for a reader already familiar with these tales.

But the main theme of the story is art, and I learned a lot: the history of the great miniaturists of the Middle East; the discussion over the difference in styles between the east and the west; the meaning of art in religion, and the meaning of religion to artists (religion = Islam). How the style of western art began to influence artists in the east, and how the preachers became involved in these discussions. This was the most difficult part for me. It requires a reader with more knowledge of the history of art and the interplay between art and religion in the Islamic world – many indeed saw art as being incompatible with religion, i.e. art as immoral; also, the immorality of artists having such a thing as individual style, something we take for granted in western art. At times the discussions became tedious and inhibited the progression of the story. At other times the story speeds along, one character taking up where the other leaves off, allowing for different viewpoints, so we know what Shekure (the female lead) is thinking and then we know what her would-be lover, Black, is thinking.

It’s also a murder mystery set in 1590’s Istanbul. There are fascinating tidbits of everyday life: chamber pots; mattresses being unrolled; details of the clothing women wore; the food served at a wedding feast, the role of the match-maker, and more. Each chapter is narrated by a character in the story talking directly to the reader; but some of these narrators are not real characters - some are drawings, for example, and even the murderer is a narrator, while still hiding his identity.