Nobel Prize

Sometimes, a Wonderful Story Catches you by Surprise

So I’ve been reading through my pile of 1970s paperbacks.  The last one in the lot seemed different.  While the book itself was a 1970s paperback (actually 1967, but who’s counting?) with all the production values therein, the text itself appeared to be a war book from Eastern Europe, or a novel in the Dostoyevsky tradition.  The book was entitled The Bridge on the Drina–which made me think of a battle for that bridge.  The author?  Ivo Andrić.

The Bridge on the Drina - Ivo Andrić

I’d never heard of either, so I read the back cover.  Turns out Andrić was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.  That did little to reassure me.  Nobel laureates have written some truly stultifying and ponderous works, and they were often selected more for ideological reasons than for actual literary merit (ask Borges’ ghost why he was never selected, and you’ll understand what I mean)… and Andrić was an official in communist Yugoslavia.

Uh-oh.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I set out to read this one.

No need.  I am here to tell you that, on this particular occasion, the committee got it right (although Andrić was selected over JRR Tolkien that year, which I think, in hindsight, was a mistake seeing how pervasive Tolkien has become as a cultural reference point).

The title gives away the story–the book is about the bridge that crosses the river Drina at the town of Višegrad, in Bosnia.  The thread that links the story together is actually the bridge itself.  Characters revolve around it, and it anchors nearly four hundred years of Bosnian, Serb, Turkish and Austrian history.  If you’ve ever read a James A. Michener novel, you’ll know how that works.

Characters come and go, their lives, their hopes, their loves and their dreams flickering on and off like a firefly as the constant stone of the bridge remains the rock that even the violent floods from off the mountain can never erode.

It is also the backdrop to tell of the turbulent political and colonial history of the Balkan region.

As a man who chronicled such things, the greatest of all Yugoslav writers was controversial everywhere after the breakup of the country into the smaller nations we know today.  Banned both in Bosnia and Croatia, his work has only recently come out from under the cloud.

But the bridge is bigger than the pettiness of politics.  It’s a character that you end up caring for possibly even more than you care for the humans who walk across its length.   When it is mined and partially blown up at the end of the book, you will lose a tear or two to that damaged stone.

The Bridge on the Drina

But, like the book itself, and the author’s legacy, the bridge is still there.  Rebuilt exactly as it was in 1914, when its center section was blown up.

Earlier this year, I sat down to write a few hundred words at a pub in Oxford called the Eagle and Child.  As literary pilgrimages go, it’s one of the greatest possible.

But now, I find myself wondering how difficult it might be to get to a little town in Bosnia to sit at the sofa on the kapia of a bridge that crosses a mountain river near the Serb border and write a few words, perhaps a short story.  Perhaps the history of the stones could seep into my writing as well.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is unlikely to win the Nobel Prize (people who write monster books seldom do), but if he does, the book that will set him on his way is the literary collection Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

In Competition for the Best Novel of the 20th Century

Remains of the Day film Location

Sometimes it’s fun to join the argument.  The 20th century was an amazing time for the novel.  It was a mature form even as the century began, so practitioners weren’t having to make it up as they went along, so we didn’t get bogged down with things like the epistolary narrative in supposedly great literature.

This means that the century got off to a running start, but the truth is that it really hit its stride in the 1920s, which is where the lost generation comes in. Though Hemingway might not be in play for the greatest novel of the 20th century, Fitzgerald most certainly is, and prior to reading the subject of today’s post, I would have said that The Great Gatsby beat everyone else in the running by a few lengths.  It is, after all, a nearly perfect book.  It still has a partial lock on my vote.

There are generally a couple of other books that appear on every top ten list you can find: Lolita and Ulysses I’ve spoken about Ulysses elsewhere, so let’s discuss the Nabokov.

Lolita is an extremely well-written work, of course, but I do believe that the subject matter–a key part of its fame–lets it down slightly.  While most of us can relate to the characters in the Fitzgerald (in fact, other than the near-mythical Gatsby himself, it’s easy to imagine being any of the others), it takes a little more imagination to put oneself into old Humbert’s shoes.  Advantage Gatsby.

And then, after Lolita, the great works appear to have dried up.  Sixties rolled into seventies, rolled into eighties, rolled… wait a minute.  In 1989, a book came out that maybe, just maybe, could topple the king.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Folio Society Edition)

That book is The Remains of the Day, by Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro, which won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to the Booker, but man, this time they absolutely nailed it.

Half social commentary, half elegy for a simpler world, the story is absolutely taut and perfect. You feel for the character, feel for what he is going through, and understand that what seems monstrous to us is perfectly normal to the main character of this book, which acts as a multiplier to the emotional effect of the novel.

Where a book such as Brideshead Revisited (which, structurally is surprisingly similar–it looks back at many of the same things from approximately the same place in time) approaches the loss of innocence through the lens of youth, The Remains of the Day does so out of a place of maturity and by looking at a sense of duty and of the inevitable process of aging.  The understatement, the ambiguity and the fact that the writer lets us come to our own conclusions just makes the story all that more powerful.

The fact that I read the Folio Society edition of this one might have helped me enjoy it even more.  Some books require a beautiful edition while others–I’d put Neuromancer in that list–are better enjoyed in a smudged and broken mass market paperback.

Is it best of the 20th?  Only time will tell.  Gatsby has had nearly a hundred years to age, to consolidate its leadership and to fight off the Nabokov’s of this world.  Ulysses is a novel that defined its philosophical movement. The younger novel, on the other hand, ignores postmodernism to return to a more ancient state of the novel.  This makes it a stronger book, but it might also contribute to a failure to impress the critics as the last century fades further into the past.

It might be passed over, but I hope Ishiguro’s Nobel prize means that it won’t.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His book Outside deals with humanity and post-humanity in a world where almost nothing is quite what it seems.  You can have a look here.