Monday, June 25, 2007

Reading The Whole World

I am taking a sabbatical in a few weeks (actually 20 days to be exact). Never had one before. I'm used to having a month off in the summer but now there will be three.

What will I do? Rest, people say. But rest comes in many forms. I have no desire to sleep in or sleep extra. But I would like to spend time in the wilderness, wouldn't mind heading down to the desert if I could, would love to flop by a mountain stream and just watch it go by and count the emerald bubbles.

Yet there are few things more interesting on this earth than stories and few stories more interesting than those that come from people far away in lands even farther away. "I had a farm in Africa . . ." writes Isak Dinesen and right away we want to go there and see this farm, walk its acres, see its animals and houses and the colours of its skies. I have read a lot of English literature but I confess to not having read enough of non-English literature, even in translation, even of those from other lands who choose to write in the English tongue instead of their own. Perhaps this is the summer to turn all that around.

I have read some books from far away, of course. All Quiet On The Western Front, burned by the Nazis, is a German book, and even in translation the prose is magical. It had a profound impression on me as a boy and I will always remember a passage the author wrote about the soldiers marching in the driving rain - it rains on the trenches, it rains on the mud, on their faces, on the dead, in rains in their hearts.

Dumas counts for France with his adventure novels on the three musketeers (actually four): "All for one and one for all." Ah, if only the world was really like that. But sometimes, you know, it is. And Victor Hugo of Les Miserables fame counts for la belle France also: "They covered his hands with kisses. He was dead."

Russia is easy. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Chekhov. Turgenev. Sholokov - And Quiet Flows The Don. Pasternak - Doctor Zhivago. Solzhenitsyn - One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. Russia is easy.

What is not so easy, at least for me, is to say I've read the stories of the Indonesians or Malaysians, the stories of China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, Vietnam and Cambodia, Denmark and Norway, Chile and Brazil and Colombia. The fiction is out there all right. Some names have been carried to me by the nuthatches and sparrows and robins. Some by CBC and CNN. Some I've found listed on Amazon. There is much out there. Where to begin?

Somehow I've decided to begin with Africa, a continent that people often mention as if it were one country instead of many. I have read some African writers - Alan Paton of Cry, the Beloved Country; Andre Brink of A Dry White Season; Nadine Gordimer of The Conservationist. But my intention this summer is to try and read some literary works from each of Africa's countries - Botswana, Sudan, Chad, Mali, Kenya, as well as the nations of North Africa - Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and, surprisingly (for isn't it a nation of the Middle East?) Egypt.

The point of the matter is you can be a tourist in a country and learn nothing about the real people and the way they really are when you are not looking. If you live in the country for a few weeks or months or years you can learn something, for sure. But when a good writer writes of their people and their land then you get to the heart of it fairly quickly. Not that I undertake to read the whole world, African nations included, just to gather in some sort of international information that will allow me to blather on, ignorantly, at a party of friends. "Well, you know, the famous writer of fiction in Ethiopia says . . . " This should be a matter of the soul, stories that come into you and make their home in you and never leave. They work on you in the night and by the bright rays of the day, and they humanize the planet and all the news reports, and they dye your imagination with the colours (and they colour outside the margins too, which your art teacher told you never to do). Everything changes once I've read hundreds and hundreds of the good stories of the earth, not just those written by Americans and Canadians and the British. Not that those nations cannot plant rich fiction in me. But it is time to leap over the garden wall.

I know that I will not like some of the stories and sometimes that will be my fault and sometimes theirs (no matter how the critics praise for I know critics well enough to accept they will praise the worst writer just for being ethnically unique, or politically correct or incorrect, or writing about an atrocity or injustice no one else has written about yet). But it is my hope that I will find enough sun and shadow to delight me and bring that deeper rest to my soul I crave.

A friend says persons come back from their sabbaticals to stay a year or less at their old jobs and then move on. Some never come back. I have no idea which of those people I will be, if any of them. But I am going on safari and it is certain that I do not know when I will be back and who I will be when I arrive at my front door which will be shut tight against the October winds.


EMP said...

"I had a farm in Africa..." In fact, that is where I was born. Came to Canada at almost 30, a decage ago. I, too, thirst to jump over the garden wall; read the world. Lived in Praha, Czech Rep., for a year (95/96) and fell in love with Europe's non-western tongues--I was already in love with the Romance languages, having studied French and Italian in university (Johannesburg). But Africa gripped my heart: Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head and others. I would love to hear what all you discovered. It has been too long since I have read anything Out of Africa. (I am a shameless fan of Alexander McCall Smith, I confess.)

murray said...

EMP, I have a shelf of modern African writing. I need to post about some of those books, thanks for reminding me about my sabbatical safari. My dream would be to see the big cats in the wild on the African continent some day. I have friends in South Africa and my brother-in-law works with a church in Rwanda, but I have never been. I will say that Brink's A Dry White Season is one of the important African books, as well as Cry, The Beloved Country by Paton (so lyrical) and also the writings of Nadine Gordimer. I did not like Achebe's Things Fall Apart, I must say I feel it is vastly overrated, the writing itself is not good, nor is the storyline. (This actually comes up in my novel ZO when the monk and archbishop, who clash on just about everything, also clash on literature, including modern African literature.) Dinesen, although colonial, remains important.

EMP said...


"I know that I will not like some of the stories and sometimes that will be my fault and sometimes theirs (no matter how the critics praise for I know critics well enough to accept they will praise the worst writer just for being ethnically unique, or politically correct or incorrect, or writing about an atrocity or injustice no one else has written about yet)."

That more or less sums up how I still feel about "Things Fall Apart"--although I rather liked the Yeats poem from which the title was taken:
/Turning and turning in the widening gyre /The falcon cannot hear the falconer; /Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; /Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/ ~The Second Coming.

However, even the books I did not love remain important reading experiences for an innocent (naive, ignorant!) African to read in an apartheid era. But in high school, my heart was clearly Eurocentric in its love of literature: I remain a Shakespeare/Austen/Dickens fan, and could not wrap my heart around the more political African poetry (although I studied and loved both Zulu and Sotho during my linguistics degree). Perhaps I am an incurable Romantic at heart...

murray said...

I noticed your love for the Austen films. I assume you've seen some of Branagh's wonderful Shakespeare films, esp. Henry V and Hamlet? And the good Dickens' ones? Little Dorrit, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Oliver Twist (Polanski), David Copperfield? I go to England frequently, was just there Nov. 9-20, and I always find exquisite locations I feel they should be using in their films. Keira Knightley's P&P is probably the favourite JA film in the house though we have them all and the new Emma was a hit. Branagh's Henry V is astounding.

EMP said...

"...Branagh's wonderful Shakespeare films, esp. Henry V and Hamlet? And the good Dickens' ones?"

Are there any of Branagh's Shakespeare films that are not good?! I'm also a huge fan of Emma Thompson and enjoyed Branagh's Much Ado immensely. (And I'll watch a Dickens adaptation any time. I'm off to see Theatre Calgary's Christmas Carol next weekend: Dec 11, 2 p.m. Want to join us?)

"Keira Knightley's P&P is probably the favourite JA film in the house"--I concur! Just watched it the other night with a mutual Austen-lover (who is married to EB, as a matter of fact). My Robin will watch anything starring KK; he particularly enjoyed her in Pirates and Love Actually. :) I'm a Connery girl. Have you seen Finding Forrester?

"Branagh's Henry V is astounding." Indeed. Oh, this is so much fun! Maybe we can have a movie night in PC one blustery eve.

murray said...

All men would like to look like Connery looks in his 60s and 70s - and the voice! - he often hung about St Andrews when I was there for a term, it's his fave hangout, but we just missed him - KK is supposed to do Anna Karenina and also some other juicy role I've forgotten at the moment, which makes me glad, because - not wishing to offend your husband - enough of POTC, back to the classics she was trained for. If they ever did a film version of ZO, oh yes, do I have a role for her! Yes, FF is a great kind of unknown, marvelous story about writing and having to be, as a young man, two personas, since being good at English isn't cool - I see the same struggle in my son who took top honours and awards in English in Grade 12 but feels he has to go around disparaging the honour - oh, redneck Alberta! Back to Sean, where has he been lately?