The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 200...

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 2009, at the Leipziger Buchmesse 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous blog, I mentioned that Wallace Stegner‘s Angle of Repose depicted a specific era of U.S. history not often written about by serious novelists.  Herta Muller‘s semi-autobiographical novel sheds a personal light on an era of European history dominated by the influence of the Soviet Union and the dictators who benefited from such influence.  As one reads The Land of Green Plums, it becomes abundantly clear that there are aspects to life under a repressive regime – namely, fear and paranoia – that can be read about in news accounts and discussed, but cannot fully be understood except by those who have lived under such a regime.Green Plums is set in Muller’s homeland, Romania, and although she does not identify the country’s dictator by name, it is Ceausescu and his police-state regime that she describes.  In her Nobel lecture (included in my Picador edition), she talked about the threats, intimidation and persecution to which she was subjected as a translator in a factory.  In the novel, this experience and others form the basis for the lives of the characters.  One method used by the secret police (the “securitate”) of entrapping Romanians into appearing as “collaborators” with internal spies employed by the secret police was to write fictitious letters to them from relatives.  (A portion of the wikipedia entry for Green Plums does not acknowledge that this was happening to the narrator in the novel, but if one considers the numerous examples of the securitate’s reading everyone’s mail and how the characters used code words in their letters, and hair in the envelopes, then it is obvious.)  Another method of oppression consisted of killing its political opponents, then declaring the death a suicide after a perfunctory investigation.  (Again, part of the wikipedia entry takes the description of Georg’s death as a suicide at face value, but that is probably an incorrect interpretation given the nature of the securitate.)  (more…)


Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Angle of repose

Angle of repose (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Stegner‘s Angle of Repose is a traditional historical novel, but it is unique among such works in that it seems to be the only critically significant novel set in the American West during the late 19th century.  The level of historical accuracy and detail is amazing, and is due to the fact that Stegner (1909-1993) was a historian and a novelist.  As part of his research, Stegner relied upon the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.  However, if you read the Penguin trade paperback edition (featuring a photograph on the front cover of a large tree with a ridge of mountains in the background) you will not find any mention of Foote.  To worsen matters, the publisher includes the standard disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual persons…is entirely coincidental.”  If that disclaimer leads you to believe that Stegner made up the entire story, then you have been misled.  You may be misled again if you read the Wikipedia entry for Angle of Repose.  The site’s anonymous author(s) adopt a different view, stating that Stegner’s “use of uncredited passages taken directly from Foote’s letters” is controversial.  At this point, it would appear that either everything in the novel is purely coincidental, or that Stegner engaged in some sort of literary theft, resulting in a Pulitzer.Fortunately, a member of the book group dispelled the controversy by sharing some information from her edition, explaining that the Foote family wanted to share the letters, but also wanted to remain anonymous.  Well, if you are Stegner, what do you do?  You have to credit your source, but your source wants to be anonymous.  The answer is that Stegner compromised by including a short paragraph immediately prior to the table of contents, saying, “My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors….This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives….”  That seems like a reasonably accurate and honest way to acknowledge his debt to the Footes while simultaneously keeping them anonymous–at least for a while.  (more…)

Candide (or Optimism) by Voltaire

Candide being swindled (in Voltaire's Candide,...

Candide being swindled (in Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


At least 250 years after its publication in 1759, Candide is still very funny satire. My favorite line from Candide is, “let’s eat some Jesuit“–probably because a good portion of my education is due to the Jesuits. Perhaps it would be even funnier to me if I was a Catholic, or maybe I would just laugh guiltily.The book is simultaneously brutal and humorous. Although you will find it in the literature section as it is considered a novella, some of the “fictional” events are based on historical facts, and it was the failure of the period’s intellectuals (Leibniz in particular) to deal with the harsh realities of the world (a major earthquake in Lisbon, the plague, and the Spanish Inquisition) that prompted Voltaire to write such a scathing rebuttal to some of those individuals. His lampooning of various governments and religions eventually landed him in prison.  (more…)