Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing


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Like a Visit with an Old Friend

This is the phrase that leaped to mind, unbidden, as I read the first few pages of the “Preface” to Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

steppenwolfThe familiarity of the words (for I have read them at least thrice), their poetical presentation (even in translation from the German!), the warmth and clarity in the characterizations of the first people we see in this story… these are the paltry words I conjure for a picture much richer in my mind and soul.

I am reminded, even as I begin, how different today’s published novels are from the writing then.

“Then” was merely ninety-four years ago; it was first published ten years before I was born. This forms my perspective. That is, I have read many stories, as a child and youth, which were published beginning the mid-19th Century. In my youth and teen years, I devoured the novels and short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain, “Saki” (H. H. Munro), Victor Hugo. Later, in my twenties, I was enthralled with the writing of Henry James, then later still, Joseph Conrad. Beginning my college years, I learned to love the soliloquies in Shakespeare’s fictional biographies of kings and princes.

Many others could be cited, but these are stored in deep memory, having moved from current memory to make room for the avalanche of information and impressions one is relentlessly confronted with in current times.

One reads these books not only for the story but for the way the words were presented by the author, sometimes author/translator. I look back and thank my father for having such books available to me, despite our otherwise, and temporarily impoverished living conditions. We had wealth beyond what is considered wealth today.

So now you have an idea of my perspective when I read a contemporary fiction such as “Stay with me, by Ayobami Adebayo,” which was recommended to me.

stay with meI found the writing immature and uninspiring,  even if the author was skilled in depicting, sympathetically, the emotional state of the main character who suffered a series of great tragedies throughout her life.

And this is where I become perplexed–the author and her novel are highly regarded:

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2017 BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION; LONGLISTED FOR THE 2018 INTERNATIONAL DYLAN THOMAS PRIZE; LONGLISTED FOR THE 2018 WELLCOME BOOK PRIZE; NEW YORK TIMES 100 NOTABLE BOOKS OF 2017 (Source)

Ayobami Adebayo‘s stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Hedgebrook, Sinthian Cultural Institute, Ebedi Hills, Ox-Bow School of Arts and Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2017, her debut novel Stay With Me was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. (Source)

The above is all to the credit of an author who is thirty years old, and whose celebrated novel was written, I assume, through her late twenties in that it was first published when she was 29.

But…

Its appeal is to the emotions, exclusively, in my opinion. There is little depth in the characters, even some equivocal characterization. The words are simple, which is all right indeed, but they are not put together in a way that makes want to slow down to savor their progress.

Why does her writing receive such accolades?

I suppose I am out of touch, being an old, “white,” male.

Back to “Steppenwolf.”


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Hermann Hesse and Nikos Kazantzakis

The struggle between the realm of the intellect and the realm of the senses.

Hermann Hesse (1887-1962)

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957)

Kazantzakis’s novel Zorba the Greek is based on a real person influential in Kazantzakis’s life. Zorba personifies the realm of the senses and the narrator (NK himself, apparently) is the young, formally educated but unworldly “scribbler” in whom Zorba tries to instill a direct understanding of the dance that is life.

In Steppenwolf and The Glass Bead Game Hesse shows the intellectual life, the life of the mind and of reason, is an insufficient life, an incomplete life.

The Glass Bead Game, sometimes titled Magister Ludi, was instrumental in gaining Hesse the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. The Prize eluded Kazantzakis, although he was nominated several times and had influential supporters. He lost out to Albert Camus in 1957.

NK is the more passionate of these two writers, and I have a special place for him in my heart, where I think my soul may be located; and, I have a special place for Hesse in my head, where I think my mind may be located.

Here is a poem inspired by Nikos Kazantzakis and Zorba:

The Dance

Between man and woman
Between young and old
Between and among one’s many inner voices

Of the electron in its field of probabilities
Of the earth among its solar neighbors
Of the pen across this page

The Dance is the fundamental unit
The atom of the Ancient Greeks
And Zorba is Its Prophet –

“Did you say — Dance!?
Come on, my boy …”

NOTE: The final quote is from the movie ”Zorba the Greek” with Anthony Quinn famously playing the main character.

Source for bibliography of Hermann Hesse’s work
Source for bibliography of Nikos Kazantzakis’s work