Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Compass I

I've barely started to read this novel by Mathias Énard because of the change of season and associated distractions, but thought I'd start writing about it anyway since I haven't written anything for a week. I chose it partly because it is a Prix Goncourt winner, and I have had better luck with those than with other prize winners. There are many problems connected with award-winning books or award-winning anything, but if you're as picky as I am you have to start somewhere. As a resident of the U.S., French awards still seem a little exotic to me, and, given France's literary history, the award standards are probably slightly higher, though the actual picks are also affected by local trends that may be just as arbitrary as local trends anywhere. While I don't have an enormous sample base, I have come to expect American literary picks to be the worst, Nobels in literature only slightly better, the British awards next, and the French the best. Literary awards are affected by the sense of responsibility of the awarders, which varies from country to country, and since I am most familiar with the U.S. I am automatically well-attuned to the latest groupthink or themes in political correctness that usually have a major impact on which books are selected here. If literary judges everywhere express biases according to their local standards, and those standards are similar to the standards in other countries, you can still get a sense of which book might win in your country by knowing the exact details of the environment in which the award is made. It's similar to politics, where you can see that Donald Trump isn't qualified for the job and doesn't even have a set of coherent ideas, but the trend was in his favor, because there were enough others who didn't view him the same way that you did. Literary awards are subject to similar sociological patterns, which means that they don't necessarily correlate with an objective measure of aesthetic merit, if there is such a thing. I have enough firsthand knowledge of the U.S. to know that it is not the best place to look for good writing.

Compass probably fits a current French award paradigm, because it explores music, literature and folklore spanning the geographical region from Western Europe to Persia. The narrator, Franz Ritter, is a musicologist who lives in Vienna, and his friend, Sarah, is a scholar who specializes in Persian and Arabic literature. In the same way that there is a pressure for American literary awards to go to minorities or women, in France there may be a pressure for literary awards to go to writers who demonstrate a sensitivity to Arabic or Persian culture. These pressures are not necessarily bad things, but they have a tendency to limit the scope of literature by ignoring works that don't fit a particular mold.

As I said, I've barely started reading this, so I don't have much to say at the moment. There seems to be a tension regarding Franz's unrequited love for Sarah. They are both brainy academics who are passionate about their subjects. Énard is a talented writer with respect to descriptions and esoteric knowledge, but it's too soon to say whether or not I'll find him too academic and pedantic after a few hundred pages. For the time being I am enjoying reading about intelligent, well-adjusted adults who are capable of having decent relationships with others. From reading Houellebecq, Krasznahorkai and many other modern literary writers, you would never know that there are people out there who don't lead dysfunctional, isolated or unhappy lives. I have long thought that the most challenging and interesting fiction would be about well-adjusted, educated, intelligent adults who think clearly on a variety of topics, are not conformists and have insights to offer. Believe it or not, I have yet to find a recent novel that fits that description. Contrary to Tolstoy's famous dictum, all happy families are not the same: it's just easier to write about unhappy ones.

Although it may not be the case, Énard could be pandering to or benefiting from the popularity of Islamic subjects in French literary circles. Even without its Islamic refugees, the French have been fascinated with Orientalism since the nineteenth century. Houellebecq probably was quite conscious of this when he wrote Submission. To compare the two, Énard is far more scholarly and knowledgeable than Houellebecq, who probably could have picked up his information on Islam and Huysmans from Wikipedia articles. Énard is probably a better writer in the technical sense, in which linguistic skill is emphasized, but may prove to be a weaker writer than Houellebecq when it comes to producing effects. For the moment I am enjoying his characters more than any of Houellebecq's, but I am aware that even the best academic writers tend to produce works that eventually lead nowhere. The book may be worth reading for Énard's expertise on Arabic and Persian culture, but, as I've said before, I don't believe it is incumbent upon me to learn about other cultures. Also, to the extent that religion is emphasized, I am so sick of hearing about it that I can hardly stand it anymore if I am expected to take it seriously. Whether it's Islam or Christianity, we are well past the time when educated adults ought to have moved on to other models for their worldviews.

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