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Book by Its Cover
by Jeff Goldberg
“The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature… That ignorance is restraining.” – Horace Engdahl
If you’re interested in literature on a global level or even just an American one you’ve probably consumed a hundred bemused articles and angry blog posts about the above statements made by Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, just a few days before Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio took the award.
Le Clézio looking smug
Now, I’ll admit, I haven’t read Le Clézio, which either proves Engdahl’s point about American’s not participating in the global dialogue or, just possibly, means the prize went to someone unknown and/or unworthy. On second thought, even though a brief glance at wikipedia shows that Le Clézio has a long, varied, and lauded career as an author, it still doesn’t prove Engdahl’s point, because since when do I stand in for all Americans? You see, it doesn’t matter if 99.9% of Americans are isolated and insular, because 99.9% of people don’t win the Nobel prize. The point of the Nobel isn’t to award a country, but, rather, an individual author.
Let’s look at Engdahl’s other big claim: “There is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world … not the United States.”
What I find cute about this is how he’s thinks Sweden is part of Europe. I mean, sure, physically it’s there. But, really? Sweden? It’s like my seven year-old nephew putting on his big boy pants and asking to hang out with me and my friends. Sure, we love to have him around because he’s so adorable and innocent, but we all know he’s been harboring tons of Nazi loot stolen from murdered Jews even while claiming neutrality. Wait… that metaphor got away from me. But my point is: Get over yourself, Sweden. If it wasn’t for the Nobel prize no one would even remember you.
I’d like to go back and ammend a statement I made earlier about me being an example of an isolated and insular American. Upon further reflection I realize that my favorite authors are almost all non-Americans. Jorge Luis Borges (Argentinia), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Martin Amis (England), Raymond Queneau (French), and Samuel Beckett (Ireland) to name a few, plus Vladamir Nabokov and Isaac Bashevis Singer who can hardly be considered insular and isolated Americans. I’m not trying to show off my global-well-read-ness, seriously. I’m just still pissed about Engdahl.
An interesting note: Le Clézio lives in America, as have many of the non-American winners of the Nobel prize for literature. Not that I’m saying America is so great. I’m just saying.
The first book in the reading series is Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous, published in English translation earlier this year. I must say, it scores some points on the title alone.
If you know me, you know that I love judging books by their covers. And why shouldn’t I? Someone has spent lots of time and effort crafting a cover designed especially to convey something to the undecided book-browser. If the cover displays a heroine with a heaving bosom clasping onto a shirtless bodybuilder there’s a good chance I’m not part of the intended reading audience. Those folks in marketing know what they are doing.
Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio has the following things going for it:
a. It’s short.
b. It’s got a fun cover.
c. It’s a good book.
I bet I fooled you there. You thought I was going to mock the book by saying the only positive things were it’s diminutive length and it’s cover, and then I pulled out the final bullet point.
Actually, I didn’t think it was that good, but I hate being predictable.
It’s an interesting story about Italian citizens and immigrants who are living together in a building, each in turn talking to the police about a murdered tennant and a missing neighbor.
The murder itself is mostly irrelevant to the story, and though the truth about the murder is revealed at the end I can’t imagine anyone getting much satisfaction from it, nor the author intending for us to care. Rather, the book is about Amedeo and all the immigrants he has helped or befriended, despite the prevailing attitude of racism and distrust towards non-Italians.
My problem is that I feel like I’m being taught a lesson. You mean the racist, xenophobic Italians are bad and the poor, hard-working immigrants are good? Thanks! There’s more to it than that, sure, and even the different immigrants are somewhat xenophobic towards each other, but it’s hard to get past the suffocating political correctness of the novel.
Even amongst the Italians there is dislike for Northern Italians by the Southern Italians and dislike for Southern Italians by Northern Italians and dislike for non-Romans by Romans and dislike of the Romans by non-Romans and Neapolitans seem to be especially disliked by everyone. So here you have a bunch of immigrants just trying to get by and then all the Italians hating everyone and everything that wasn’t born on the same street as them.
It won Italy’s apparently prestigious Flaiano Prize for Fiction, so I suppose it must be good.
I’m still obviously in a bit of a huff about the Nobel, so that’s all you’re going to get today. I will order some books by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and review them soon so that you’ll all get to hear from me (the definitive voice) as to whether he deserves it.
Jeff Goldberg is the senior contributor to This Recording.
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“Trouble Will Find You” – Koufax (mp3)
“Five Years of Madness” – Koufax (mp3)
“Get Us Sober” – Koufax (mp3)
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