Test Your Nobel Knowledege: Your First Mystery Passage

Following the Nobel Prize for Literature presents the dedicated reader with a remarkable, sometimes peculiar reading list.  That you have found your way to this blog indicates one of two things about you: either you are a friend whom I have shamed into visiting my site, or you have, over the course of your reading life, nurtured some affinity for the works of this always quirky, often magnificent group of writers.

My plan is this: Once a month I will give you a chance to take your own knowledge out for a joy ride.  I’ll present you with a passage by one of the writers on that redoubtable Scandinavian list. You try to guess who it is. Perhaps you will be familiar with the passage. In that case, share what you know.  Perhaps you’ll be at a loss as to just what or who you are reading.  This is most to be desired because it will be your chance to run with your hunches, speculate wildly, give an unprejudiced response. A piece of writing may strike you, for whatever reason, as particularly French, or German, or the work of a woman, or modern (or modernist) or a bit archaic. Go with these.  I’m much more interested in your mental peregrinations than in correct answers. At the end of the passage I’ll give you a short list of questions. Use them playfully, like queries on a game-show quiz, or as prompts for other kinds of responses. You can also phrase your responses as further questions, for me or other respondents. Ask for hints.

Here, then, is your first passage.  It is from a famous work by one of the better known laureates. In the future, I’ll push your knowledge a bit harder, giving you excerpts from some of those early and mid-20th century writers whose reputations have taken a holiday on the back slopes of more famous literary mountains. But for now, I give you this, by a writer I hope you have read. If you haven’t, I extend my love and compassion to you, and urge you to rectify what is in your power to change.

After the first letter that she carried to the telegraph office with an ember of revenge against her own destiny, she had allowed an almost daily exchange of messages in what appeared to be casual encounters on the street, but she did not have the courage to permit a conversation, no matter how banal and fleeting it might be.  Still, after three months she realized that her niece was not the victim of a girlish fancy, as it had seemed at first, and that her own life was threatened by the fire of love.  The truth was that Escolastica Daza had no other means of support except her brother’s charity, and she knew that his tyrannical nature would never forgive such a betrayal of his confidence. But when it was time for the final decision, she did not have the heart to cause her niece the same irreparable grief that she had been obliged to nurture ever since her youth, and she permitted her to use a strategy that allowed her the illusion of innocence. The method was simple:  Fermina Daza would leave her letter in some hiding place along her daily route from the house to the Academy, and in that letter she would indicate to Florentino Ariza where she expected to find his answer.  Florentino Ariza did the same.  In this way, for the rest of the year, the conflicts in Aunt Escolastica’s conscience were transferred to baptisteries in churches, holes in trees, and crannies in ruined colonial fortresses.  Sometimes their letters were soaked by rain, soiled by mud, torn by adversity, and some were lost for a variety of other reasons, but they always found a way to be in touch with each other again.

Here are your questions.  Answer any or all of them.

1.     Who is this writer?

2.     What work is this passage from?

3.     Do you know where this writer is from?  What cultural elements show up in this passage that might provide a clue about the author’s nationality?

4.     Anything else you would like to say about this passage, the writer, or, if you’re confident you’ve read this before, your memories of this work?

Have fun with this. If none of you are able to guess what or who this is, I will consider you all impoverished, cave in and tell you, but with a strong admonishment to get to your reading.  I hope you’ll be back in early September for the next Nobel Literature quiz.

4 Responses to Test Your Nobel Knowledege: Your First Mystery Passage

  1. Avatar Scott Cox
    Scott Cox says:

    Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Columbia). However I admit that when I first read this passage I wondered if it might have been penned by Miguel Ángel Asturias.

    • The nod to Asturias makes me happy! I would love to know what in this passage suggested to you the work of the Guatemalan. About two years ago I succeeded in reading MEN OF MAIZE, a book I had attempted more than ten years earlier, when I was still unready for Asturias’s steaming “caldo” of a novel, his almost hermetic allusiveness. In the mean time, I read his El SENOR PRESIDENTE, and VIENTO FUERTE. Upon returning to MEN OF MAIZE, I came to the conclusion that it was a great book, and began to speculate on what qualities, of his vision and of his rendering of it, have left him virtually unknown, at least in the United States, while G. G. Marquez has, quite rightly, become a superstar. I would welcome your thoughts.

      Thank you, Scott, for starting the conversation.

  2. Avatar Scott Cox
    Scott Cox says:

    I think the words “revenge,” “tyrannical” and “ruined colonial fortresses” initially reminded me of the redolent themes found in The President. However the word “colonial” was actually a clue that it might be another Spanish-speaking author. Also, I do not recall female characters (Camila) in The President as having such strong, prominent and well-developed roles as do women in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels. However I admit that it has been years since I have read works by either author. What do you think?

    • I’ve not counted, but it seems that in OF LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS, the Garcia Marquez novel I’ve read most recently, fully half of the characters are women, each a full-blooded complex creation. You may well be correct that Asturias’ women are fewer and paler.

      I just read an entry on another blog in which the writer claimed that Garcia Marquez “despises women,” and that “this comes out on every page he writes.” I didn’t bother to respond because the blogger was so deeply wedded to her position and I didn’t want to disturb such a happy relationship. I will say here that I feel this blogger reads shallowly, as one is apt to do when finding oneself in the deep end of one’s emotional pool (I had an experience like this reading Alan Hollinghurst’s LINE OF BEAUTY. The book triggered in me such a strong sense of personal distaste that by the end I couldn’t possibly have offered a clearheaded assessment of what may have been a very good book.) The truth is, whatever Garcia Marquez’s personal feelings about women may be, he writes about them as he does about everything else —richly. They are never mere props or place holders, there because he needs a female to grind out some point of plot. Nothing in his stories appears as simple plot device or gratuitous sensual stimulation. All is of essence and layered with meaning. This, I think, is what is “magical” about his realism, because in our chronological lives we don’t usually see a whole lot of meaning in most of what goes on. In Garcia Marquez, a girl’s profusion of copper-colored hair signifies something, perhaps some effulgence in our own spirits that we keep shorn.

      A lot more could be said about this. It could be an interesting post: “Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Women…” Thanks.