Category Archives: Prize Winning Literature

Alice Munro

How is it that I have never before read Alice Munro? How is it possible that I have missed such awe inspiring brilliance? I am stumped. Baffled. I feel as though I have suddenly discovered all that I am lacking in my appreciation of literature, of texts in general. What else am I missing out on? I shudder to think!

Alice Munro and short stories to boot (you will recall that this is my least favorite genre)!

“When she realized what was in her head, she should have got off the bus. She could have got off even at the gates, with the few other women who plodded up the drive. She could have crossed the road and waited for a bus back to the city. Probably some people did that. They were going to make a visit and then decided not to. People probably did that all the time.
But maybe it was better that she had gone on, and seen him so strange and wasted. Not a person worth blaming for anything. Not a person. He was like a character in a dream.
She had dreams. In one dream she had run out of the house after finding them, and Lloyd had started to laugh in his old easy way, and then she had heard Sasha laughing behind her and it had dawned on her, wonderfully, that they were all playing a joke.”

In this first story of her collection Too Much Happiness, Munro has carved a fluid, simple and wonderfully vivid and intense narrative without being overwhelming. She has danced around this story in a way that clearly indicates her skill and alacrity. She is subtle with a sense of integrity or perhaps, even, innocence or naïveté?

Clearly, Munro’s ability to manipulate the flow and style of this genre sets her apart from so many other short story writers who have, in the past, so defined this genre for me.

Am I allowed to confess that I possibly enjoy Munro more than Woolf in this genre?

J.M. COETZEE (2003 Nobel Prize Winner)

Coetzee is one of my favourite novelists. I encountered him under the tutelage of my high school English teachers in the context of post colonial fiction. The first book that I read (which we studied) was The Life and Times of Michael K. As a result of my initial experience with Coetzee, for me, his work is defined by this text, despite the fact that it is in fact his fourth book.

As an overview, what captivated me in this novel was the rawness of his characters, the intensity of their ache. It would be a lie not to admit to the fact that being a South African immigrant had something to do with creating the magical connection that I felt for Coetzee. The way that he depicts the country and the manner in which his characters reflect the land held a magic for me that was very real.

Since reading Michael K all those many years ago (1992 to be precise), I have slowly made my way through the rest of Coetzee’s repertoire: Dusklands (1974), In the Heart of the Country (1977), Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Foe (1986), and Age of Iron (1990). I did try and lose myself in The Master of Petersburg (1994) but it failed to capture me in the same way that Coetzee’s earlier works did. The last Coetzee book that I read was Disgrace (1999) and I have to say that it destroyed my relationship with the author. I was tormented by his depiction of the dogs in this book and I never managed to move beyond it. Perhaps this is my loss; however, at this stage I am happy to say that Coetzee’s earlier works are indescribably brilliant and I am a far better person for having read them.

The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson

I finished The Finkler Question and it has taken me an age to come to writing this review. I suspect that this is largely due to the fact that I have struggled to get a grip on this novel. Yes, it is well written, a lovely combination of humour and dissent, of emotional distress and longing, of delicious language and revolting self loathing. A difficult book to access. It is possible that this is a man’s book, written by a man, about the friendship between men and their respective relationships with their partners. At times I felt quite alienated by this aspect of the novel and while I related, in part, to the general desire of these characters to belong, I struggled to properly empathise with their journeys.

Although I will credit Jacobson with stellar writing, I still find it difficult to understand why this book was the recipient of the Booker Prize. Yes, it is different and confronting, but I find myself wondering whether perhaps this book outshone the other nominees simply because it is so politically incorrect: a Jewish author writing about a Jewish character who is ASHAMED of being affiliated with Israel and her actions, specifically in Gaza. At times this aspect of the book is so confronting and the author’s self-loathing so over bearing that one has to put the book down and take a breather. Jacobson does a superb job of covering this tension with humour and there is no doubt that there are many many moments of ‘laugh out loud’ comedy. For me, this was one of the saving graces of this book. The other redeeming factor was that I fell in love with the elderly Jewish man, Libor and his all consuming love for his late wife, Malkie. The tenderness and sensitivity with which Jacobson has painted this relationship is miraculous, especially in confrontation with the angst which devours most of the book.

Libor is a delightful character, filled with wit and wisdom. “Libor’s position with regard to Israel with three ‘r’s and no ‘I’ – Isrrrae – was what Treslove had heard described as the lifeboat position. ‘No, I’ve never been there and don’t ever want to go there,’ he said, ‘but even at my age the time might not be far away when I have nowhere else to go. That is history’s lesson.”… But whereas Libor pronounced Israel as a holy utterance, like the cough of G-d, Finkler put a seasick ‘y’ between the ‘a’ and the ‘e’ – Israyelis – as though the word denoted one of the illnesses for which his father had prescribed his famous pill. ‘History’s lesson is that the Israyelis have never fought an enemy yet that wasn’t made stronger by the fight. History’s lesson is that bullies ultimately defeat themselves.” For Jewish readers, there is a subtext here that grates uncomfortably as this discussion so resembles life in Israel and in the Diaspora. Although Finkler detests his “fellow Jews for their clannishness about Israel, Finkler couldn’t hide his disdain for Treslove for so much as daring, as an outsider, to have a view. ‘Because of the blood that will be spilled while we sit and do nothing,’ he said, spraying Treslove with his contempt. And then, to Libor, ‘And because as a Jew I am ashamed.’”

Treslove, who spends the entire book trying to work out what it is that is so special about his Jewish friends and then aspiring to join their tribe, is baffled. “Such confidence, such certainty of right, whether or not Libor was correct in thinking that all Finkler wanted was for non-Finklers to approve of him… Libor was right – Finkler was seeking love. A man without a wife can be lonely in a big black Mercedes, no matter how many readers he has.”

Treslove and Finkler’s relationship is quite tortured and in some ways irritating. Treslove is desperate for Finkler’s approval but unsure why and Finkler is so arrogant and unknowing that he cannot comprehend the lengths to which his friend would go for him. “But that was Finkler’s way. He would lift the hem of his life infinitesimally, just enough to make Treslove feel intrigued and excluded, before lowering it again.”

There are many poignant moments in this text which leave readers pondering some of the deeper implications of the way that we live our lives:

“what moved him was this proof of the destructibility of things; everything exacted its price in the end, and perhaps happiness exacted it even more cruelly than its opposite. Was it better then – measuring the loss – not to know happiness at all? Better to go through life waiting for what never came, because that way you had less to mourn?”

And, clearly, Jacobson himself has “a timid awareness of one’s small –place in a universe ringed by a barbed-wire fence of rights and limits”. Ultimately, this is a novel about identity and each of the characters is on their own quest to find themselves and to understand the nature of their connections to the world that they inhabit.

“What am I?” Treslove stared at the ceiling. It felt like a trick question.”

While this is certainly a worthy theme, it is not what stayed with me from this text which in truth I really did not enjoy. What I have retained is the marvellous way that Jacobson uses language and I will leave you with just one example below:

So these were the reluctant, resented dawns. Hephzibah was right about their splendour. But not about their breaking. The verb was wrong. It suggested too sudden and purposeful a disclosure. From her terrace the great London dawn bled slowly into sight, a thin line of red blood leaking out between the rooftops, appearing at the windows of the buildings it had infiltrated, one at a time, as though in a soundless military coup. On some mornings it was as though a sea of blood rose from the city floor. Higher up, the sky would be mauled with rough blooms of deep blues and burgundies like bruising. Pummelled into light, the hostage day began.