Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

I am almost done! I mean, with Slobodan Novak's Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. It's considered one of the greatest Croatian novels of the twentieth century and won nearly every literary award in Yugoslavia when it was first published in 1968. It has gone through nine editions in Croatian, been translated into six languages, and adapted to stage and screen. It also bored the hell out of me.

Well now, that's actually rather harsh. Novak's prose is stunning, and I firmly believe that beautiful writing can make up for a mediocre, or even nonexistent, plot. Christine of the blog She Reads Books did an interesting post on this awhile ago in which she asserted that,
For me, brilliant prose can make up for almost any sin. Last year I read The Road Past Altamont, by Gabrielle Roy, which is one of the most CanLitty books of all CanLit ever. It’s beautifully wrought, the prose is great, I really enjoyed it — but when I finished, I was all, “Wait a minute, was there actually a plot?”. There wasn’t a plot, nothing at all happened (this is CanLitty CanLit, remember) but it was enjoyable and worthwhile all the same, simply because the writing was beautiful. In this case, the prose was able to make up for the fact that, as stated, the entire book passed by without anything really happening.
Same thing with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh: Wait, there was a plot here? What happened? What's the point of all this? The entire thing is a guy taking care of a 100-year-old woman he can't stand. And -?

But, as I said, Novak is nevertheless an astonishingly talented writer and I am still very grateful to Autumn Hill Books for introducing me to his work. Here is a sample:
And, since all roads to freedom lead across Freedom Square, I set off toward the piazetta, accompanied by angelic singing from behind the closed doors of St. Andrew's, not quite knowing what to do with my freedom. I stopped at the belvedere on the square, as usual, placed my palms on the wall like a preacher, and, facing the red west at the end of the Kvarner Channel, studded with little islands, I breathed in as deeply as though I was going to blare protractedly to the oceans in a historic voice with triple echoes: "In the name of the Central Committee, in the name of all the workers of the world . . ." or as though I too were going to proclaim yet another prophecy of total salvation on a scientific basis. But I didn't. I let the sun sink into the vat of lead oxide, and merely tapped my fingers in a superior way on the cement balustrade. And I felt an urge to drum my fingers like this over the destruction of the world, calmly, breathing in the leftover molecules of oxygen and iodine, with none of the pathos of "The Last Adam." To tap the tips of my fingers soundlessly, to squirt saliva through my incisors, spitting out roguishly the acrid froth of exile and loneliness, and to grin like this from the terrace of the world, at all the promise-makers and the boot-lickers and all the happiness-spreaders and world-saviors. To grin like a nice pink corpse turned to wax by a vision of paradise. And I wanted to be the last person in fact only so that I could see Madonna being borne rigid aloft by rearing angels, and myself left, thank God, alone, even if only for a short time, just so that I could scratch "a question-mark on ice," and even if only within the four walls of her mausoleum.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh is a triumph. But because nothing actually happens in it - well, it's . . . I don't want to say "meh" but I think it averages out to three of five stars. Or maybe three-point-five?

I haven't been reading anything else this week, unfortunately. I started my new first full-time job last Tuesday, and didn't expect working forty hours a week for the first time in my life to be such an adjustment. Even in college, when I had classes and studying to do, my part-time office assistant job was only around 10-15 hours a week. Finally, a year after graduating in a bad economy with a liberal arts degree, I can leave my minimum-wage position as a cashier in a grocery store, working with teenagers and high school dropouts. Needless to say, I am so grateful that blogging exists and that, through This Book and I Could Be Friends, I have acquired new contacts in the publishing industry and been introduced to great translated works. Word of advice to all college students out there: take that internship. Even though I currently do not work in publishing, I have still been able to build upon my experience as an intern for Open Letter Press. By focusing on translated literature, I feel that I am developing a niche for myself in the book blogosphere and hope that my readers (especially other book bloggers) will become aquainted with works not widely read in the US.

Which brings me to my next point: advance review copies (ARC's). Being a n00b, I had no idea this was a controversy in the literary blogosphere until I read this post by Wendy of the blog caribousmom: "Accept Review Books . . . Or Not." I was aware that a similar argument had been raised with regards to (i.e. "shill reviewing") but the idea that a book blogger would turn down free books and even deny themselves publishing contacts was quite surprising. But as I read the comments it started to make more sense. It seems that a lot of the criticism is directed at those blogs that become overly commercialized (someone mentioned bloggers whose "reviews" consist entirely of jacket copy followed by a line or two of why they loved the book). I have also noticed another issue that was pointed out: the same books being reviewed on multiple blogs (oversaturation), with the result being one title clogging people's feed readers. But I am glad the Wendy de-bunked some of the "myths" associating with accepting ARC's and review books. Right now, I'm not getting that many, so I do have the personal policy of reading and reviewing every one I get (hence, my drive to finish Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh). It's really up to the individual blogger. Personally, I think it's awesome!

So anyway . . . Novak review up tomorrow.


debnance said...

Excellent. I will need to follow your blog to see what other translated works you review. I'm always on the lookout for new, small, less well-known reads.

Frances said...

You crack me up! The admission that it bored the hell out of you. But hats off to your continuing reads of works in translation. Plenty of books in English have bored the hell out of me too! :)

Today I am reading the new Laurie King book The Language of Bees, and hosting a book giveaway for The Crimes of Paris. Happy reading!

Belle said...

I feel much the same about beautifully written books that don't have a plot. They do bore me! When I'm in the mood, they can be just what I need, only I'm not often in that mood!

Thanks for the link about ARCs - missed this somehow!

E. L. Fay said...

Debnance: Only about 1% of all books published in the US are works of translated fiction! (That's out of a figure of only 3% for translated books overall.) So if you're interested in going off the beaten literary path, you can never go wrong with something translated! I hope you like my reviews!

Frances: Yep, there are many boring books in English as well. I love Anne Rice, but The Feast of All Saints just about made me fall asleep.

Belle: I think plotless but beautifully-written books only work if they're short. The Novak novel was just too long! About the ARC stuff - I actually just found a few more posts on other blogs dealing with that controversy in which some authors even chipped in. Apparently, there are "book bloggers" out there who beg and cajole authors and publishers into sending them free books and then don't review them or just brag about all the free books they get. Personally, I've never seen a blog like that, but I guess it's possible.

Julie said...

Interesting post. I'm also a sucker for gorgeous writing, and I'd rather read a book with brilliant prose and no plot than the other way around. Of course, ideally a book would have both... :-)

Wendy said...

I can forgive quite a few plot holes if the writing is amazing, and for a minute I actually considered this Croatian book...but lately I've been reading some great literature that ends up being a little boring so I'm going to immerse myself in some lighter reading right now.

Thanks for the link to my post about bring up some good points. I hate the idea that readers are just posting book blurbs - I feel like if I get a review book I should put the effort in to actually review it...and I agree with you; I think it is awesome that we are getting these books!

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