If, as National Book Foundation head and former LJ reviewer Harold Augenbraum says, literary awards are the new reviews, then the Nobel prize is the biggest (and sometimes the most contentious) review of them all. This week, three novels by Nobel prize winners have dropped into my lap, an unexpected treasure trove I thought best to present separately. Among the three authors, Toni Morrison will be the best known to Americans, but anyone interested in good literature is acqauinted with the works of Herta Müller and José Saramago as well. Bold ventures by some of our best contemporary writers (though note that Saramago died in 2010), these novels all touch on social issues that shake us to our roots.
Morrison, Toni. Home. Knopf. May 2012. 160p. ISBN 9780307594167. $25; lrg. prnt. CD: Random Audio.
Frank Money was damaged emotionally as well as physically while fighting in Korea, then returns home to an America as racist as ever. What saves him from utter despair is the need to rescue his equally damaged sister and bring her back to their small Georgia town, a place he has always despised. But thinking over the past both near (the war) and far (his childhood) allows him to rediscover his sense of purpose. At 160 pages, this is not a big brass band of a novel but a chamber work, effectively telescoping Morrison’s passion and lush language.
Müller, Herta. The Hunger Angel. Metropolitan: Holt. May 2012. 256p. ISBN 9780805093018. $26. LITERARY
Winner of the Nobel Prize, as well as the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and European Literary Prize, Müller is a writer to know. When teenaged Leo Auberg is picked up by a patrol in January 1945, he’s promptly taken to a camp in the Soviet Union and spends the next five years slaving in a coke-processing plant. Profound hunger makes him see the world in almost hallucinatory detail, and Müller is said to deliver a sharp sense of life reduced to the minimum: the heart merely a mechanism, thumping like a shovel meeting coal, and sand, snow, and cold acting almost as malevolent forces on their own. Since Müller was hounded from in her job her native Romania for failure to cooperate with Ceausescu’s secret police, eventually managing to emigrate to Berlin, she has an intimate understanding of totalitarianism’s particular terror and should communicate it here.
Saramago, José. Manual of Painting and Calligraphy. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. May 2011. 256p. ISBN 9780547640228. pap. $13.95.
Published in 1976 but only now being translated into English, Saramago’s first novel examines the very act of artistic creation. It show a portrait painter struggling to capture the likeness of a wealthy industrialist, aware that the sitter may not want to see the truth that he, the artist, sees and also aware of his own limitations as he tries to paint what he has understood. The novel is thus deeply interior yet also (not surprising for Saramago) deeply political, with the artist’s struggle for free expression mirroring Portugal’s as it finally throws off the heavy-handed regime of the dictator Salazar. Saramago achieved polish‚ and fame‚ with later works, but his significant themes and lyrically compacted style are all here.