I am part of the greatest book club in the world. AND, during these strange, strange times, we are meeting on line so anyone can join us. You can find us at Stories That Matter (NC).
In April we are finishing our reading of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Next month, we’ll pick the next few books that we’ll be reading, probably two shorter works, and then one long one that will take several months. Here are my top choices:
A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya, 1967) or Ake: The Years of Childhood, Wole Soyinka (Nigeria, 1981)
Flights, Olga Tokarczuk (Polish, 2007 – appeared in English in 2017)
The History of the Siege of Lisbon – José Saramago (Portuguese 1989).
Otherwise, I would like to pick an African classic:
The River Between, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya, 1965). Thiong’o has been on my short list for the Nobel Prize for several years. The River Between has as its background the Mau Mau Uprising, and described an unhappy romance between Christians and non-Christians, was previously on Kenya’s national secondary school syllabus
A Grain of Wheat – Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Kenya, 1967) Of the several dozen texts produced by Kenya and Africa’s foremost author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat remains a favorite. Forming part of his foundational trilogy— others are Weep Not, Child, and The River Between—this novel evaluated what political independence heralded for ordinary citizens in Kenya. The narrative unfurls in a space of ten days before Independence celebrations in 1963, and captures the anxieties that linger as each group reviews what has been lost, and gained, as black majoritarian rule succeeds colonialism. Echoes of Kenya’s freedom struggle pulsate through the book, as do the heroic deeds of ordinary folks in defense of their land against the Brits. The dominant narrative is that of Mugo, a hermit that locals mistake for a freedom hero, but who is privately burdened by troubles of his own. His unraveling signals the novel’s denouement. What’s remarkable about this novel is that its political message does not compromise its artistic sophistication—as some critics lament of Ngugi’s subsequent offerings. The characters are complex and well-developed, the storyline unpredictable and absorbing. From his lengthy and productive literary life, lasting more than half a century, A Grain of Wheat is an example of Ngugi at his finest. Selected by the The African Studies Centre Leiden as one of the 12 best African novles of the 20th century.
Midaq Alley – Naguib Mahfouz (Eqypt, 1947) Re-translated by Humphrey Davies in 2011. The alley is a key social unit in Mahfouz’s oeuvre. This novel was praised by the Nobel academy. It reflects Mahfouz’s sharp portraiture. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1992(?).
Ake: The Years of Childhood, Wole Soyinka (Nigeria, 1981) The evocation of the wonder of a child’s discovery of the world and his place in it. Selected by the The African Studies Centre Leiden as one of the 12 best African novles of the 20th century. Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in 1986.
Segu by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe, French Caribbean, 1984). Ségou, south-centre of present-day Mali, cradle of the Bambara people, 18th century. At the center of Ségou is Dousika, a nobleman close to the Mansa, the regional king, embodiment of power and wealth, everything the Ségou society stands for. In this society in which life is organized by rituals and customs, the inevitable course of history draws Dousika’s sons away from his house to make their own way in the world. Exploring three generations, the novel follows the sons’ destinies in the larger context of the expansion of Islam in Saharan Africa and the slave trade in the Americas. The novel is a melting pot of ethnic groups, languages, religions and customs permeating the narrative substance and making the reading experience both rich and colorful. Maryse Condé pays homage not only to her African ancestors, but also to a world of infinite power, sophisticated culture and influence, emphasizing the diversity and complexity of Saharan civilizations. Ségou is often called “the African saga.” Yet, it is also a novel portraying eccentric and passionate characters; from mighty Dousika to Nya, his fiery first wife; from the short-tempered Malobali, the son of Dousika’s concubine, to the utterly good slave Nadié. All of them bring their own insights to the multi-faceted human fate, half free, half contaminated by history.
Also, this year I am going to read each of the following. I would love to talk about them with the group if you are interested:
Flights – Olga Tokarczuk (Polish, 2007 – appeared in English in 2017) Flights won the 2018 Booker Prize, and Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel. In Flights, she meditates on travel and human anatomy, moving between stories including the Dutch anatomist who discovered the Achilles tendon when dissecting his own amputated leg, and the tale of Chopin’s heart as his sister transported it from Paris to Warsaw. The judges of the Booker said “It isn’t a traditional narrative,” pointing to Tokarczuk’s own description of her writing as “constellation novels” to describe an author who throws her stories into orbit, allowing her readers to form meaningful shapes from them. The book’s themes – “the nomadic life that we now lead in the world, with our constant movement, our constant desire to pick up and go, whether it’s from relationships or whether it’s to other countries”, and “the limitedness, the finiteness, the mortality of the human body, which is always pulled towards the ground”
The Histories – Herodotus (Greek, 430 BCE) Considered the founding work of history in Western literature by a master storyteller. Serves as a record of the ancient traditions, politics, geography, and clashes of various cultures that were known in Greece, Western Asia and Northern Africa at that time. One of the earliest accounts of the rise of the Persian Empire, as well as the events and causes of the Greco-Persian Wars between the Persian Empire and the Greek city-states in the 5th century BC. Herodotus portrays the conflict as one between the forces of slavery (the Persians) on the one hand, and freedom (the Athenians and the confederacy of Greek city-states which united against the invaders) on the other. The Histories was at some point divided into the nine books that appear in modern editions, conventionally named after the nine Muses.
The Odyssey – Homer (Greek, 8th century BCE) A fundamental work in the Western canon, being the oldest extant piece of Western literature, second to the Iliad.
The Book of Disquiet – Fernando Pessoa (Portuguese, published posthumously circa 1935). The Book of Disquiet is a fragmentary lifetime project, left unedited by the author, who introduced it as a “factless autobiography.” The publication was credited to Bernardo Soares, one of the author’s alternate writing names, which he called semi-heteronyms, and had a preface attributed to Fernando Pessoa, another alternate writing name or orthonym.
Something by Jose Saramago. Probably: The History of the Siege of Lisbon – José Saramago (Portuguese 1989). Saramago is my favorite author and won the Nobel prize. The History of the Siege of Lisbon tells the story of a proofreader and the story of the Siege of Lisbon as it both is and is not told in the book he is charged with correcting. It discusses many themes including language, history and historiography, and war in the medieval world. In the novel Saramago challenges the common one-dimensional interpretations of historical events that only focuses on kings and battles and ask for a more pluralistic perspective that include individual motives and behaviour and take account of the role of chance in shaping history.
Other Works high on the list for me:
Short Stories of Borges
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombian, 1967) This may be my favorite novel of all time. Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982.
The Last Temptation of Christ – Nikos Kazantzakis (Greek, 1955) Blacklisted by the Vatican, Kazantzakis missed winning the Nobel Prize by one vote, probably because of this book. Passionate and poetic, with a desperate honesty and longing, Kazantzakis has influenced me more than any other writer.
The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie (1995) With Salman Rushdie’s vivid imagination and the power to bring out magic from his words, The Moor’s Last Sigh is a masterpiece in itself. The protagonist Moraes Zogoiby, known as Moor throughout the tale, narrates his existence, relating how all events have lead up to the present. Beginning with the tales of his ancestors, Moor descrives how the generations from then on have twisted and bent that lead to events in his life. Like many of Rushdie’s other works, The Moor’s Last Sigh draws on historical and cultural references, including the life of the last Moorish King of Granada, and events in contemporary India.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami (Japanese, 1994-95) This heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II. In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife’s missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan’s forgotten campaign in Manchuria. Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.
The Satyricon – Gaius Petronius – (Roman, 54-68 AD), Satirical classic written during the reign of Nero about a failing empire
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (Irish, 1890)
Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer (Middle English, 1387-1400). A collection of stories presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.
Paradise Lost – John Milton (English, 1667/1674) The poem concerns the biblical story of the Fall of Man: the temptation of Adam and Eve by the fallen angel Satan and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Milton’s purpose, as stated in Book I, is to “justify the ways of God to men.”
The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Greek, 458 BCE). Three plays following a cursed family, the House of Atreus. Agamemnon, follows the King of Argos as he returns home to an adulterous wife intent on murdering him for sacrificing their daughter. The Libation Bearers, continues the story, with Agamemnon’s children Electra and Orestes uniting to avenge the death of their father by taking revenge on their mother. The Eumenides and concerns the legal backlash all of these killings have, with Orestes receiving punishment for his crimes.
Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust (French, 1913) The first of Proust’s seven novels that make up In Search of Lost Time, also translated as Remembrance of Things Past, which is frequently mentioned as the greatest novel in history. Follows the narrator’s recollections of childhood and experiences into adulthood in the late 19th century and early 20th century aristocratic France, while reflecting on the loss of time and lack of meaning to the world. Introduces the theme of involuntary memory.
Quo Vadis – Henryk Sienkiewicz (Polish, 1896) Tells of a love that develops between a young Christian woman, Lygia and Marcus Vinicius, a Roman patrician in the city of Rome under the rule of emperor Nero, c. AD 64. (Sienkiewicz won the1905 Nobel)
Moby Dick – Herman Melville (American, 1851)
The Gulag Archipelago (vol. 1) – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Russian, 1973) Covers life in the Gulag, (the Soviet forced labour camp system) based on the author’s personal experience, as well as reports, interviews, statements, diaries and legal documents. Credited with helping bring down the fall of the soviet union.
Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin Pushkin (Russian, 1825-32). Considered by many they greatest work of Russian literature by a master compared to Shakespeare.
The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil (Austrian, 1930–1943). Camus called it the greatest novel. 1000+ page “story of ideas”, which takes place in the time of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy’s last days, and the plot often veers into allegorical digressions on a wide range of existential themes concerning humanity and feelings. It has a particular concern with the values of truth and opinion and how society organizes ideas about life and society, though the book is well over a thousand pages long in its entirety, and so no one single theme dominates.
Les Misérables – Victor Hugo (French, 1862)