The Birdcage Archives

Monday 21 September 2015

In Literary News & Discussion

In Literary News & Discussion

Hello Gentle Reader

Part I: Freedom to or Freedom From?

Margaret Atwood wrote an article for the UK newspaper “The Guardian,” about freedom. The opens with the following:

‘“A Robin Redbreast in a cage, Puts all Heaven in a Rage,” wrote William Blake. “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” wrote John Milton, channelling God’s musings about mankind and free will in the third book of Paradise Lost. “Freedom, high-day, high-day, freedom … !” chants Caliban in The Tempest. Mind you, he is drunk at the time, and overly optimistic: the choice he is making is not freedom, but subjection to a tyrant.”

The article discusses the concept of freedom, in our ever changing world, which has become more and more frightening. As Atwood continues in the next paragraph of the article, she outlies the two freedoms of our ever more public safety conscious world:

“We’re always talking about it, this “freedom”. But what do we mean by it? “There is more than one kind of freedom,” Aunt Lydia lectures the captive Handmaids in my 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. “Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”’

All of this may be interestingly situated as Canada is currently in one of the longest federal political campaigns of recent memory. But the article makes various and striking points of freedom, and its often misconstrued sense of the term.

Margaret Atwood though, has been noted for his dystopian novels as of late; and her article showcases how with the recent technological conveniences of late, there are increased invasions of privacy. Though the question is: do we wish for freedom to, or freedom from? Do we wish to fly free, and risk being eaten by the cat? Or do we remain in the cage, being watched over by the cat?

Part II: Lets Discuss the Nobels:

Part II A:  The Two-Thousand and Nine Nobel Disaster

It has been announced, that the two-thousand and nine, Nobel Peace Prize, was a mistake. According to Geir Lundestad, the Secretary of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee, for a quarter of a century the two-thousand and nine Peace Prize, was awarded to President Obama, in hopes of giving the president a boost. However, in his book Lundestad, had stated that many thought the award was a mistake – citing it as too early. That year’s Nobel Peace Prize, was a surprising and controversial shock to many; including President Obama himself, who almost did not go to Oslo to receive the Award. Lundestad’s book though discusses more than just Obama’s mistaken award; but cover his twenty-five years of being a non-voting member of the committee.

Part II B: The Ten Most Popular Nobel Laureates for Literature

According to the Nobel Prize facebook page, the ten most popular Nobel Laureates for Literature are as follows:

1.      Patrick Modiano (Nobel Laureate 2014)
2.      Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel Laureate 1913)
3.      John Steinbeck (Nobel Laureate 1962)
4.      Ernest Hemingway (Nobel Laureate 1954)
5.      William Fualkner (Nobel Laureate 1949)
6.      Albert Camus (Nobel Laureate 1957)
7.      Wisława Szymborska (Nobel Laureate 1996)
8.      Gabriel García Márquez (Nobel Laureate 1982)
9.      [Sir] Winston Churchill (Nobel Laureate 1953)
10.  Pablo Nerdua (Nobel Laureate 1971)

An interesting, but if at times, odd list. I would never have guessed Churchill on that list or Rabindranath Tagore. Some are understandable Marquez for putting South America onto the literary map; and Szymborska for her gentle and wise poems that are accessible and delightful to read. But at times to see Steinbeck on the list, is a bit disappointing.

If I am to create my own smaller list of my five favourite Nobel Laureates it would be as follows:

1.      Herta Müller (Nobel Laureate 2009)
2.      Alice Munro (Nobel Laureate 2013)
3.   Wisława Szymborska (Nobel Laureate 1996)
4.   Patrick Modiano (Nobel Laureate 2014)
5.   Jean Marie Gustav Le Clezio (Nobel Laureate 2008) 

Well Gentle Reader, now you too can state and reason who you think deserves a Nobel Prize – be it Physics, Chemistry, Medicine & Physiology, Literature, Peace or Economics.

That’s all for now Gentle Reader. But as the days get closer to October, the excitement grows for the Nobel Prize’s announcements. Though the Swedish Academy has not set a date for the announcement there is a prediction it will be October 8th.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Thursday 17 September 2015

German Book Prize Shortlist

Hello Gentle Reader

Along with the announcement of the Booker Prize shortlist, the German Book Prize shortlist has also been announced.

This year’s German Book Prize’s concurrent theme is: displacement.  The jury spokesperson for the award, has called this years shortlisted books a: “illuminating mirror,” of society. The themes of each book deal with contemporary issues, from intercontinental refugee’s (fitting for the current refugee crisis), ideological differences and subsequent fights, the struggles of power, and of course gender politics and relations.

The shortlist is as follows:

Jenny Erpenbeck – “Gerhen, Ging, Gegangen,” – (Go, Going, Gone)
Rolf Lappert – “Über den Winter,” – (Through the Winter)
Inger-Maria Mahkle – “Wie Ihr Wollt,” – (As You Wish)
Ulrich Peltzer – “Das bessere Leben,” – (The Better life)
Monique Schwitter – “Eins im Andern,” – (One in the Other)
Frank Witzel – “Die Erfindung der Roten Armee Fraktion durch einen manisch-depressiven Teenager im Sommer 1969.” – (The Invention of the Red Army Faction by a Manic-Depressive Teenager in the summer of 1969)

There you have it Gentle Reader, tales of refugee’s, family discord, of political and ideological battles. The works go beyond the parochial and provincial and into the global world, asking questions that are as relevant today more than ever.

To see more about the German Book Prize shortlist, please following the link below:

Good luck to all of the writers!

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Booker Prize Shortlist

Hello Gentle Reader

Because of some internet inconveniences via connection, I could not post the announced Booker Prize shortlist until today; despite it being released yesterday.

Here is the Booker Prize Shortlist in no particular order; the list will state the author – nominated novel – country. Enjoy Gentle Reader:

Marlon James – “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” – Jamaica
Chigozie Obioma – “The Fishermen,” – Nigeria
Tom McCarthy – “Satin Island,” – United Kingdom
Sunjeev Sahota – “The Year of the Runaways,” – United Kingdom
Ann Tyler – “A Spool of Blue Thread,” – United States
Hanya Yanagihara – “A Little Life,” – United States

There you have it Gentle Reader, the six finalists for this year’s Booker Prize. There is a total of two United Kingdom writers, and two United States writers, with one writer from Jamaica, and one writer from Nigeria. Yet it is interesting to see the American giantess of American contemporary literature Marilynne Robinson, does not appear on the shortlist, despite thoughts that she was a hot contender. What this year’s Booker Prize appears to show, a continual interest into younger writers, and books that have not necessarily been picked up by the Booker Prize in past years. The stories range from post-modernist accounts discussing the possibility of what ‘tomorrow,’ may look like; to the life of new immigrants; all the way to a book that discusses the assassination of Bob Marley and the crack wars of New York. It is a varied and interesting list. But once again it were to appear, that the list appears to come down to a challenge between writers from the United Kingdom and writers from the United States.

At the end of the day though Gentle Reader:
Good Luck to all the shortlist writers!

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary 

Thursday 10 September 2015

Life Embitters

Hello Gentle Reader

There is always trepidation of realizing the gargantuan size of a book upon receiving it. Short stories always bring a much lighter sense of weight to it – in the physical sense. Yet upon receiving “Life Embitters,” in the mail, I was not expecting a six hundred page tome. And to think this is just still a selection of Josep Pla’s work. “The Grey notebook,” which was released by “New York Review of Books,” which is of equal size! Pushing aside these physical uncertainties and of course superficial judgements, one had to give the book a try. After all Josep Play, is known as one of the greatest literary practitioners of the Catalan language! However, just after reading “Blinding,” by Mircea Cărtărescu, which left me exhausted; reading “Life Embitters,” became far less enjoyable, then previous expectations had suggested.  Though I can say the shelf, which is reserved for Archipelago Books, has once again grown. At this point rivaling other shelves for space, and will perhaps be expanding itself onto other shelves; as my love for Archipelago Books seems to grow and grow?

As already mentioned Josep Pla was a popular and well respected Catalan language writer. Pla however was also a journalist, and his keen eye for detail, characters and their subsequent characteristics often make his work rich and lively. This being said, Pla’s writing style and characteristics and are not poetic or lush in lyrical tendencies. His language is matter of fact and plain, working on the principals of simplicity and clarity. Despite this though his work was often humorous and filled with biting irony; often giving his short stories a more grounded realistic sense of life, in its own comedic fashion. He preferred a laconic use of words, which often resulted in a dry language which could be reserved more towards journalists. Though he was not a literary writer (often seeing literary writing styles as artificial and unable to grasp the realities of the world), Pla can be a compelling writer. His particular use of language, attention to detail in depicting the realities (of now that time) in a journalistic matter of fact way of dealing with events, often plays well to his favour. However, this makes Pla a chronicler, and more akin to a journalist. This makes Pla a writer who is not literary in his fashioning’s, but rather a man who documented the time in which he observed. Yet his work often showcases his delight in pointing out unsung pleasures of life. Those everyday events, in which make it more bearable. Yet one should not be fooled to think that Pla did not place gret emphasis on his writing style. Maintaining a concise and precise writing style and narrative was always the objective; it would seem by opinion of some and many, to be truer to life and its realities to discuss it with open honesty and a plain language, then hide it behind literary verbosity and lyrical musings.

Josep Pla however, wrote a great deal of his journalistic articles, and his own personal work under censorship. First Pla wrote and lived under the censorship and approved ideas of the inept dictator Primo de Rivera, who dictated Spain from nineteen-twenty three until nineteen-thirty – often known Spain’s Restoration Era. Censorship followed Pla to Italy and Germany where he worked as a correspondent, while the rise of Falange and Francisco Franco were on rise, and would eventually take over the country. In the beginning Pla was supportive of Franco and his new regime. However this honeymoon lasted only a few months, before Pla began to show skepticisim for Franco and commented that the censorship that Franco utilized was worst then he had ever seen prior; and was perpetrated by ‘servants of fanaticism.’ However Josep Pla’s work showed moderate political stances, and very rarely deviated from that path. Franco’s open disdain for the Catalan language and its culture, further pushed Josep Play away from supporting Franco any further. This perhaps would later, help him form, his opinion about life, and political system as a whole. For Pla life was chaotic, irrational and often unjust. On the contrary though; those who dream of ideals of equality and fraternity are in themselves delusional, and will cause more damage than rectify any of the wrongs they wish to.  And it were to seem that Pla was right in this assessment.

“Life Embitters,” is a long collection of narratives. The narratives themselves are quite long.  When I first began reading the collection, I decided to start with the first short story, and keep moving forward. After reading the first three short stories, I put the book down and let it set for about a week or two, before picking it up again. At which time I decided to read, the short stories by selecting them via title, which struck me as interesting. Again I found the stories hit and miss. Pla is a gifted observer, there is no doubt about that at all. However his plain style matter of fact way of writing often becomes too dry; and considering how long many of the short stories are, they can feel endless. Though Pla is a great sketcher of one’s character – such as when he discusses how each resident of the boarding house, equally accused one another of stealing coal from each other, and their own routines and habits; it quickly once again becomes a dry testament on the different personalities that accumulate in such lodgings. Personally the entire story could have done better it seems if it had a bit more literary flare, or a bit more lyricism to give it a slight bit more character. Yet there was redemption with: “A Friend: Albert Santaniol.” It was a story that took the focus away from first person experinces and put them towards remembering another individual and their character: Albert Santaniol. The lens in which Albert Santaniol is depicted is not always flattering; but he becomes a character flaw to the grander society in which he is compared. This story is infused with pessimism and bitter irony; but the combination along with the authorial voice of Pla thrived. In this short story, Pla was able to bitterly dissect the society in which he observed; but it’s the discussions and thoughts that the character Albert Santaniol leaves behind that often left the greatest impression on the entire story; though its painfully pessimistic, its insights often leave room for thought and mulling over the observations, like one does fine win or mouth wash.

In all honesty Gentle Reader, I did not read “Life Embitters,” completely. I jumped into the short stories, as one would jump into a puddle. Some had proven to be deeper, and threatened to consume me; while others were enjoyable for the splash and its burst of water. The book is rather large, and the short stories, at many glances have the feeling of becoming equally as large. It was perhaps not the best idea to attempt to read, “Life Embitters,” after just getting through “Blinding.” Still Josep Pla is an interesting chronicler of the time in which he wrote those short stories. Though I have yet to red them all, and would prefer them to be a bit shorter, and I found at times his language dry; he has interesting points to be made, and often shows an interest in the characters and people he has met, who have left some impression on him, to create these fictional portraits and sketches of them. Both pessimistic and ironic, Josep Pla can be a difficult pill to swallow at times; and I presume an especially difficult one, in a large dose. Though I will have to give the Catalan master another go, again in the future.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.* 

M. Mary

Thursday 3 September 2015


Hello Gentle Reader

Reality in the worlds of Magdalena Tulli is not always tangible. Reality for Tulli is something that is fashioned, in a haphazard manner. It rests on being constructed by competence. Competency rests on the workers, who are exiled into the rafters, to construct the backdrops and props of the realities that have been dictated to them. Producing a competent reality proves to be difficult, considering the works have been exiled to the rafters, where they are denied action and interaction within their own story. This leads to shoddy workmanship and cut corners, that produces a reality, which is shaped by this resentful disposition. And so the reality becomes: simple painted backgrounds, elaborate plots, and costumes worn that become characters and eventually fate. All of which is dispersed without discrimination. If one is handed the suit of a groom, he will look to his left, and see his beautiful brushing bride; and already envisions a life together. If one is given a wedding dress, she will look to her right, and see a man unbecoming of her dreams; and wonders how long a divorce procedural may take.  Reality in Tulli’s case is never concrete or realistic. For Tulli it is created with ease and convenience; and is always doomed to the undying threat of being torn down; and to be made room for something else. Something new and more brilliant. But in an overcrowded world, something new must occupy the space, of something already existing. Therefore reality is over changing; and its landscape always developing into something else. Yet fate remains the same for the characters. Their costumes change, and their plots mature further, but not always in a way that is benefiting to them. The love sick groom becomes a heart broken husk. The disgusted bride fears the possible future of becoming a spinster. Sympathies are offered to both. Such consolations are thrown over their heads like rice at their wedding day. Now the clerk finalizes the papers effectively negating the marriage with divorce; and severing their strings, effectively tossing their shared life into the past. All that remains, is a wedding photograph displayed behind a window, with other faded portraits of lost intimacy, which have no chance of developing further. They will be left to collect dust, and be passed by with indifference.

“Flaw,” by Magdalena Tulli, shows herself moving more forward as a novelist. She creates a setting that offers the makeshift impression that is realistic. Her characters, act in accordance with their roles, and have their own clandestine plots, that move parallel to their roles: an old police officer, who admires a servant girl; a student with radical ideological leanings; a notary who is burdened with household troubles and disputes; a servant girl who admires the young student. Around and around their hidden passions spin, like the tram, destined to move around the square in the same circular format; as what lies beyond the cobblestones, and resident homes, is sand and presumably nothing. This entire world takes place in its own world. As stated Tulli states:

“The story is not taking place here or there. It fits entirely into itself as into a glass globe.”

Yet Tulli is far from creating a ‘conventional,’ novel still. “Flaw,” is an allegory. Its setting is a stage play, complete with backdrops and props, to offer a sense of reality. Yet in typical Tulli fashion this is a postmodernist façade. Though a welcomed sense of metafictional reality in which the allegory of the novel will take place. The novel begins with the construction of costumes, of a tailor. This is a metaphor for the entire writing process, and creation as a whole:

“First will come the costumes. The tailor will supply them all wholesale. He'll select the designs off-handedly and, with a few snips of the shears, will summon to life a predictable repertoire of gestures. See--scraps of fabric and thread in a circle of light, while all around is darkness. Out of the turmoil will emerge a fold of cloth, the germ of a tuck fastened with a pin. The tuck will create everything else. If it's sufficiently deep, it will call into existence a glittering watch chain on a protruding belly, labored breathing, and a bald head bedewed with perspiration. One thing leads to another.”

The act of creation is one in the same in this case. Be it the snipping of shears, and sewing of fabric into clothes; or the creation of worlds through literary means. “Flaw,” itself is a novel that discusses the subject of fiction and the act of storytelling itself. The entire novel centres on a single day in the described and defined city square. The characters move about their daily lives as usual. The maid sets preparations for dinner, only to be accused of stealing by the mistress of the house, which leads to an argument and explosive household drama that will once again require the notary to be involved, before he heads off to work. The policeman makes his rounds as usual. He will stop before the photography shop, and admire a woman in a white coat, who has not aged a day as she is encased in that perfect moment, captured by the lens of a camera. He will salute her; and salute the symbol of the state, as a sign of his patriotism both held personally and professionally. A student frets over his exams, as worries about his future. Yet all of it comes to an end with an abrupt change.

A coup takes place somewhere off stage. This coup’s impact becomes apparent. Stocks begin to plummet, real estate prices fall, and inflation rises. Yet who is losing power, and who is gaining it is not entirely certain. But the ramifications are felt all the same. Then there is the arrival of the refugees. They stream out of the street. The political upheaval has displaced them. Their presences now within this story and the city square, is looked at with disapproval and distrust. That once idyllic scene of an everyday street square is suddenly cast into chaos and anarchy, further by the arrival of unwelcomed people, who carry their troubles in their luggage, and their winter clothes. Soon even clouds form overhead, and snow arrives.

The narrator of this story, who interjects now and then, admits to have lost complete control over the story; and in the absence of control, unscripted violence circulates. Items that are more concrete, than the present reality, begin to circulate: brass knuckles, knives, and guns are moving through the setting. The intention if these items could be exploited if they end up in the hands of, the wrong possessor. If the actions become more violent with these implements, the story will be cast further into anarchy and disarray.

Characters now begin to wear new costumes and their roles change. The once poor fretful student now sees an opportunity into which to showcase his radical ideals. He begins to round up other students, and create a guard, in which they will solve the problem with the refugees. They act on disciplinary measures, and seek to rectify the stain on the square. They will enact civil order and obedience, on a world cast into anarchy and chaos. Their actions are brutal, as justified by the harsh realities of the present. Soon the refugees are contained; and then lost. Yet whether or not order follows their disappearance is not known.

“Flaw,” by Magdalena Tulli is both allegory of the process of creation and writing; but it also an allegory, of socio-political means as well. “Flaw,” could be seen as an allegorical depiction of the atrocities committed during World War II: the political upheaval, the displacement of people from their homes and each other; the cruelties in which the individual or mass can perpetrate upon another individual or group can be seen. This novel is challenging. It is written with beautiful and gorgeous prose. However “Flaw,” is challenging, and a formidable foe, when it comes to comprehension. The subject matter is oppressive, and difficult. It’s not a beach read for sure, and its certainly not a leisurely read. At times the book is laboriously intensive and frustrating. Yet Tulli has shown that her works can move forward, with metaphor, and not the conventional formats of storytelling. It’s a riveting reinvention, and high experimentation, shows the intelligence of the writer. But it can become a bit daunting and difficult to read, that may lead to a confidence killer in a reader. But persistent pays off, and is often rewarding, if albeit frustrating.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.* 

M. Mary

P.S. I look forward to seeing Magdalena Tulli’s work become translated into English further. It has come to my attention that Archipelago Books (who has published her subsequent novels: “Dreams and Stones,” “In Red,” “Moving Parts,” and “Flaw) has acquired the rights of her most recent book “Szum,” or “Noise.” No other news of its publication has come to my attention.