When Odysseus in The Odyssey visits the famed warrior Achilles in the underworld – Achilles, who traded a long life full of peace and contentment for a short one full of honor and glory – tells Odysseus it was all a mistake. “I just died, that’s all.” There was no honor. No immortality. And that if he could, he would choose to go back and be a lowly slave to a tenant farmer on Earth rather than be what he is – a king in the land of the dead – that whatever his struggles of life were, they were preferable to being here in this dead place.
That’s what songs are too. Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.”
Alice Munro has won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. This is pretty good news for fiction writers and readers. I must say I am somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t Haruki Murakami (I’ve read all of his fiction and non-fiction), but I understand the Nobel’s decision (they cannot award Nobel prizes posthumously, after all). Here’s the New York Timesreporting on Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize:
Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy said that Ms. Munro is a “master of the contemporary short story.”
Ms. Munro, who lives in Clinton, a town in Ontario, told a writer from The Globe and Mail earlier this year that sheplanned to retire after “Dear Life,” her 14th story collection.
In a statement from Penguin Random House, her publisher, Ms. Munro said that she was “amazed, and very grateful.”
The best part, and the quote of the day, is her enthusiasm for her fellow Canadians:
I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians.
If you need a place to start, read Munro’s short story “Amundsen,” published last year in The New Yorker. Recommended.
Among the works highlighted by the Nobel judges were Red Sorghum, The Garlic Ballads, and Big Breasts & Wide Hips. As NPR’s Lynn Neary reports on Morning Edition, “He’s said to be so prolific that he wrote Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out — which is a 500,000-word epic — in just 43 days. He wrote it with a brush — not a computer — because he says a computer would have slowed him down because he can’t control himself when he’s online; he always has to search up more information.”
I felt I’d stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold air… The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost, and here it was twenty meters away. It was very quiet. A few dimly lit boats now and then prowled about, disturbing with their propellers the reflection of a large neon Cinzano trying to settle on the black oilcloth of the water’s surface. Long before it succeeded, the silence would be restored.
The above quote is how Joseph Brodsky describes the city of Venice in his brilliant collection of essays titled Watermark. I needed to take a fictional break recently, and I wanted to read something short, and Watermark turned out to be a wonderful (actually: an incredible) selection. The book is only one hundred thirty pages, comprised of forty-eight chapters, each recalling a specific episode from Joseph Brodsky’s many visits to this ephemeral city. But what this book lacked in length, it more than made up for in poignancy and enchantment. Watermark is a beautiful, confessional meditation on the relation between water and land, between light and dark, between past and present, between the living and the inanimate, dreams and achievements.
It’s hard to compare Watermark to other books, because I think it should stand as a classic on its own. But if I had to make a connection: it is the lyricism of The Great Gatsby, the mystique of Invisible Cities, and the confessional of the Notes from the Underground.
In the passages I highlight below, pay special attention to the adjectives and the vigor of the punctuation (the comma, the semicolon, and especially the em dash). If you’re short on time, the parts that I bold are especially worth reading.