Archive for the Category ◊ Book Reviews ◊

• Friday, January 14th, 2022

Milan Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, the Czech Republic, to a middle-class family. His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a musicologist who taught him to play the piano, which Milan took further by studying musicology and musical composition.

Milan Kundera finished secondary school in 1948. He then studied literature and aesthetics for two terms at the Faculty of Arts at Charles University in Prague before transferring to the Film Academy to learn film direction and scriptwriting. He graduated in 1952 and worked as a lecturer in world literature at the Film Academy.

He joined the communist party in 1948 like several intellectual Czechoslovaks of the time. He was expelled from the party two years later for having “unorthodox inclinations”. However, he rejoined the party in 1956 and was discharged in the seventies. Kundera’s works were banned, and he was dismissed from his teaching job by the Czechoslovak communist regime after taking part in the short-lived liberalisation movement of 1967-1968.

In 1975 Milan Kundera and his wife Vera left Czechoslovakia for France, where he was appointed guest professor at the University of Rennes. He was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979 and lived in exile in France, becoming a French citizen in 1981. Presently he lives with his wife in Paris.

Milan Kundera has written novels, a short story collection, a poetry collection, essays and drama. In 1985 he received the Jerusalem Prize, and in 1987 he won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature. In 2000 he was awarded the international Herder Prize, and in 2007 he won the Czech State Literature Prize. He was made an honorary citizen of his home town, Brno, in 2010 and received the Ovid Prize in 2011.

In his first French written novel, Slowness, published in 1995, Milan Kundera revives the metaphysical, meditative novels that prevailed earlier in France with the celebrated Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot and which became neglected after the end of the French age of enlightenment.

The novel’s various events, pivoting from the twentieth to the eighteenth-century, are set in the same place, an eighteenth-century château converted into a hotel. The novel’s subject – slowness – is hinted at from the beginning of the novel when Vera and Milan, the married couple, driving out of Paris to spend the evening and night in a château, observe a fast driver behind them who is impatient to overtake.

From this happening commences the author’s lyrical apologia of slowness against fastness, establishing how the first is suitable for absorbing pleasant memories and leads to bright meditative thoughts. Contrarily, the latter is designed for escapism connected to the aspiration to evade unpleasant thoughts.

The author goes further in his contemplation by juxtaposing the art of slowness in the eighteenth century with Madame de T. and the Chevalier, in the short libertine novel published in 1777, “Point de lendemain” (No Tomorrow) written by the French writer Vivant Denon, compared to the exhilarating speed of our modern time portrayed by the entomologist Vincent.

Madame de T. used the art of slow seduction, striving to reach the pinnacle of desire before the pleasurable delight of consummation. Her invited Chevalier has to follow by playing the game. Nothing is hurried, a walk in the château’s vast grounds, few words are said, some insinuations, whispers, their bodies approach one another, in an attempt to ignite further the long-awaited climax.

Vincent is the archetype of his generation, rushing to everything, from one place to another and from one sexual relationship to another. Without savouring any moment of it, which induces him to want to forget and erase the failure of his horrid disastrous encounters by speeding. The only one desire he has is to forget his aborted adventure fast, “his whole disastrous night, erase it, wipe it out – and at this moment, he feels an unquenchable thirst for speed. His step firm, he hastens towards his motorcycle, he desires his motorcycle…on which he will forget everything, on which he will forget himself”.

Kundera also mentions another of his favourite eighteenth-century novels, “Les liaisons dangereuses” by Pierre Chaderlos de Laclos, considered one of the significant eighteenth-century literary accomplishments. The story of another libertine couple, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont who had no concern for sentiments because what only counts for them is the enjoyable pleasure ensuing their conquests.

The author goes further in his approach by elucidating his theories opposing sensuality, scientific knowledge, forethought and tact against self-display and theatrics. These theories are embodied by the fame-seeking Berck, whose boastful attitude leads Kundera to refer to him as “the dancer”.

The interwoven plot lines, fiction, reality, themes and characters come together at the end of the novel when the hasty entomologist, Vincent, meets the decelerated Chevalier. The twentieth- century confronts the eighteenth face to face. Eighteenth-century procedure meets twentieth- century improvisation.

The short, dense novel, taking place over one night, gives the reader food for thought, as intended by the writer who stirred few subjects like the present-day hustle and desire to maximise everything taking away the pleasurable things of life that need to be savoured slowly to be appreciated.

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• Friday, December 17th, 2021

Pearl S. Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia,USA, in 1892 from southern Presbyterian missionary parents who migrated to China after their marriage. They returned to the USA for their daughter’s birth and travelled back to China after she was five months old. Buck was the fourth of seven children and one of the three who would survive to adulthood. In 1934 Pearl S. Buck returned permanently to the USA, where she died in 1973 in Danby, Vermont.

Pearl S. Buck was raised in Zhenjiang in eastern China; her mother educated her together with a Chinese tutor. At fifteen, she attended a boarding school in Shanghai, followed two years later by Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia and graduated in 1914. Pearl S. Buck returned to China in 1915, met an agricultural economist, John Lossing Buck, and married him in 1917. They both moved to the poor rural province of Anhwei, where Pearl S. Buck collected all the material for her future novels about China. In 1935 she divorced John Lossing Buck and married Richard Walsh.

In 1938 Pearl S. Buck was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She published over seventy books, including novels, collections of stories, a biography, an autobiography, poetry, drama, children’s literature and translations from Chinese. Pavilion Of Women, published in 1946, was made into a Chinese-American drama film released in 2001.

Pavilion Of Women, which takes place in the nineteen-thirties, is one of the numerous stories by Pearl Buck set in China. It is the story of a big, wealthy Chinese family, all living under the same roof; sons with their wives and children, cousins, nephews and nieces with their children, served by the household’s many servants. Each family member occupies one of the multiple courts of the vast estate.

The beautiful Madame Wu, the main character in the story, is an attentive wife, a good mother and a fair-minded mistress towards her several servants. She is greatly respected as the head of an old, influential, wealthy, heavy-weight family in China.

On her fortieth birthday, after twenty-four years of married life, Madame Wu, who leads the whole household, including her yielding, unintellectual husband and his affairs with an iron fist in a velvet glove, considers her marital responsibilities accomplished. She decides to retire to one of the house’s courts, away from her husband and her sexual spouse commitment.

Madame Wu intends to lead a peaceful life of freedom, materialising a long-lasting dream by starting to live a new leisurely existence away from her previous demanding, weighty household responsibilities and at last claim her life as her own, distancing herself from wife-hood and motherhood.

Madame Wu provides a concubine for her husband and lord to share his bed in order for her ambitious plan to work. A young, naïve peasant girl without a given name at birth – being a castaway child – and to whom she will give the name of Ch’iuming, will not present a threat to her and will satisfy Mr Wu’s sexual needs and give him more children in addition to the four, Liangmo, Tsemo, Fengmo and Yenmo that the couple had together. Madame Wu implores her reluctant, appalled husband to accept her long-planned arrangement, which she will carry out despite all the family’s protests.

Madame Wu’s plan is executed thanks to her determination and long time planning, but without counting on the considerable transformation she is about to experience, which will change her life forever. It all starts with Brother Andre, a mystic foreign excommunicated catholic priest she called to teach English to her young son, Fengmo. Brother Andre, who retains Madame Wu’s interest through their several meetings and exchange of ideas, awakens in her the sense of spiritualism and helps her comprehend the meaning of life in-depth, the mystery of the soul and the satisfaction of altruism.

The sagacity and foresight that Madame Wu will develop and nurture to attain a spiritual elevation will help her become the mediator and healer of people around her. “Yes, she now believed that when her body died, her soul would go on. Gods she did not worship, and faith she had none, but love she had and forever. Love alone had awakened her sleeping soul and had made it deathless. She knew she was immortal.”

The author juxtaposes two religious Christian missionary characters, Brother Andre and Little Sister Hsia. Elevating one above the other by portraying the useless preaching of Little Sister Hsia, a lonely person who likes to visit Madam Wu from time to time to read to her some gospel, which the kind lady allowed her to do just out of politeness, not out of interest. With Sister Hsia, Pearl S. Buck demonstrates her criticism of the Protestant mission work in China and its inhumanity, ineffectiveness and affront to the indigenous people.

While with Brother Andre, the author portrays a better, more positive missionary character. He is charitable, altruistic, understanding, methodical in his approach, and philosophical. He is wise, practical, analytical and logical in his line of reasoning. He helps needy people and fosters unwanted children cast away in the street by their parents.

Pearl Buck interlaces various subjects in her story, including the meaning of marital life, parenthood and its responsibilities, the significance of real love, family commitments, self-control and reflection, the importance of duties and the significance of moral beliefs and acquired wisdom. A compelling story with a good insight into Chinese life of the time.