Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book One

By François Rabelais.

This first book is quite cohesive. I guess Rabelais didn’t know himself  if he would write another and the impetus seems to be his own amusement and that of his friends. This was a very enjoyable experience and  as a result I took my time reading Book One. I like the way the episodes aren’t really connected they just sort of flit about and are not as linear as most novels.

Pantagruel makes you laugh, consider things philosophically and stimulates the imagination: it doesn’t get much better than this. I can now see where many of the writers I love got a great deal of their inspiration. There were free translations I could have found for the kindle but I decided that if I was going to make the effort to read all five books then it should be with the best translation – by most accounts Professor Screech’s translation is the best. There are many footnotes – but they don’t get in the way as the book is the kind that stimulates you in bursts as it is all angles and the footnotes don’t interfere but add to the richness of the text. The rest are coming up shortly.



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The Duel [Conrad]

By Joseph Conrad.

What I liked about this Duel episode was that a point of honour arose out of nothing. Following this, the reason for the bad blood became shrouded in mystery and neither participant was able to set the record straight without losing face. The public could only guess at the reasons and let their imaginations run wild while each man remained silent. This story was based on two officers in Napoleon’s army who carried out a series of Duels over fourteen years while traipsing all over Europe. Also of interest is the army’s attitude to dueling – it was frowned on to an extent but it was almost part and parcel of a military man’s life and at least one duel was a rite of passage. Though, your prospects for promotion could be damaged. Both the duelists in question did still manage to make the rank of General despite the dueling handicap. I liked this novella more than the Von Kleist ‘Duel’.






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The Duel [Von Kleist]

By Heinrich Von Kleist.
For some reason this seemed a little more dated than the Casanova. Probably because the story is a little more traditional in the telling. The 20th and 21st Centuries have their share of picaresque reminiscences – whereas this quite linear production, where plot is the focus, is more of its time. A number of issues are raised in the novella that are worth considering. The main idea that interested me was that of dueling as an arbiter of guilt or innocence. If you believe in an ordered controlled universe, where the will of God is easily seen in the world, then this is understandable. In this day and age, many Christians believe God to be bound by his own given rationality and unable to interfere in the chaos of existence. Hence, this idea that the outcome of a duel is the finger of God indicating guilt or innocence is surprising to most people. This is an extreme example, but the remains of this philosophy can still be seen today: if you are not successful in life then you have done something to offend God, again, he has pointed his finger at you.
The additional materials were also well worth reading in this edition. The biographies of famous duelists were very entertaining. I can’t say I enjoyed the work as much as Casanova, but it was good, and it generated some thought.

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The Duel [Casanova]

By Giacomo Casanova.

Once again, this book benefits from the added materials. As well as Casanova’s novella, we also have the excerpt from his memoirs which covers the events recounted in The Duel. The differences between the two are intriguing, but neither are eminently reliable; both seem to portray Casanova in a overly favourable light. Much of the background to the duel was also interesting particularly his relationship with the Polish king Poniatowski. Casanova seems to have liked Poniatowski vey much, despite being banished at the novella’s end, and he describes him as a wise man, but then wonders how a wise man could have made so many bad decisions as king. Poniatowski, and his ineffectual nobility, are mostly to blame for the initial carving up of Poland in 1772. To be fair, Poniatowski did introduce many reforms but they were too late, the nobility didn’t have the support of the people, they were a dissolute bunch. The democratic nature of the Polish kingship was also unique in Europe, it seems Poniatowski was an enlightened man, which is why Casanova liked him, but he made some bad decisions and then, in 1795, it was too late. You could argue that in the modern day Komorowski and Sikorski are now doing the same, carving up Poland to outside interests for the benefit of the ‘newly-moneyed’ nobility. The statement that history repeats itself is a cliche, but it is sometimes true, motifs and actions do seem to recur.

The only negative thought that crossed my mind when reading this book was the fact that Casanova’s memoir and the novella could be seen a bit like a modern non-entity celebrity tell-all tale. Except that, he actually wrote it, and it is in the literary vein of the larger than life expositions that we see from Celine and Cendrars. Casanova also did things too, he travelled about in a rakish fashion with little money but always managed to get by, he met powerful influential people and thinkers of the day (and he was a thinker himself), and argued, had duels and generally had a good swashbuckling time. So, really, it’s a bit different to Jordan. I have convinced myself.

There are some interesting biographies of other famous duelists in the materials as well. A very worthwhile and pleasurable read. Now on to Von Kleist.

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Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes.

I always knew I would love Don Quixote because of the amusing and surreal bits and pieces that had been mentioned to me over the years. Because of the length and comittment to the cause required by the novel I knew I had to find the right time. So, a holiday in Spain seemed to be perfect, and it was, as I did want to be completely focused and consumed by the world of Quixote and Panza in the sun and heat of Spanish lands.

The novel is split into two parts each were published a decade apart. The second part is more controlled (if controlled is the right word) and the writing seems better and smoother. Again it is difficult to really assess this in translation. The first part jumps all over the place and has several stories within stories and is less about Panza and Quixote than part  two. In the first, anything can happen, and the two characters frequently overstep the line due to their madness and sanity which they possess in equal measure. Panza has a different type of madness which seems to grow as the novel progresses – maybe due to the association with Quixote. I can see why people have been entranced by the book since 1605 when part one was written. The humour transcends the centuries and cultures. The world of Cervantes is alien to us in the way that the world of the Knights Errant is ridiculous to the readers of Cervantes day. Then and now readers are drawn into Quixote’s world and marvel and his madness and intelligence, and Panza’s proverbs.

The second book I liked less because everyone knows about Quixote due to the first part being published and authored by Cede Hamete Benegeli – so meta-fiction very definitely meets knight errantry. Also, the extended period at the Duke and Duchesses residence is not very exciting – after this however it picks up and there is a return to form. The characters seem a little more typecast too:  Cervantes may have promoted the elements of the novel that his audience liked from part one and focused on these. There are far more Panzaian proverbs and there are no separate stories within the story of part two as he was criticised after the first volume for distracting the reader with these. In my opinion, the edges, and the fact you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next does give part one the sharpness and steel that part two lacks. Having said this, in totality there is nothing I have ever read quite like Don Quixote. All other modern picaresque fantasies are just shoots from the tree grown by Cervantes.

Part one is an absolute masterwork. There are some fantastic turns of phrase and nearly every sentence is loaded and perfectly formed. I must say I loved some of Panza’s proverbs. We should all pick our time when we begin our journey with Don Quixote, mine took five weeks and I can see that I will be returning for shorter skirmishes with rereads of certain episodes.

Following are some quotes from the novel that I thought were great (and there are a multitude more):

“I didn’t deserve to leave in this way; but man proposes and God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him, and time changes the rhyme, and nobody should say, ‘That’s water I won’t drink,’ because you’re in a place where you think there’s bacon, and you don’t even find a nail; God understands me, and that’s enough, and I’ll say no more, though I could.” [Panza]
“He’s doing the right thing,” said Sancho Panza, “because if you give the cat what you were going to give to the mouse, your troubles will be over.” [Panza]
“May God hear and sin be deaf,” said Sancho.
“There can be no doubt,” said Sancho, “that this demon is a decent man and a good Christian, because otherwise he wouldn’t swear by God and my conscience. Now I think there must be good people even down in hell.”

And finally:

“…the benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?”


Note: translation is important and Edith Grossman’s translation is excellent. The footnotes are thorough too.

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Prose Tales of Pushkin

By Alexander Pushkin.

There were some excellent prose tales in this collection that I downloaded for the Kindle. The tales I hadn’t read were: An Amateur Peasant Girl, The Shot, The Snowstorm, The Post Master, The Coffin-maker, Kirdjali and Peter the Great’s Negro. A few of these stories ended very abruptly and this did make laugh. Pushkin says ‘there’s your story, no need to carry on and bore you with any more writerly artifice, The End’. Not in those exact words… Though in finishing An Amateur Peasant Girl he says:

“The reader will relieve me of the superfluous task of describing the end of the story.”

The story The Shot is quite special and I thought I could see strains of what would become Lermontov’s domain in it. All of the pieces were interesting: from the dark surrealism of the Coffin-maker, to the historic Kirdjali, then the personal of Peter the Great’s Negro. I say ‘personal’ because the subject of this story was loosely based on Pushkin’s great-grandfather who was African and thought to be from Cameroon. The story was unfinished and when you read it there is definite potential for it to become a long work. It is as though an episode has been snatched out of the centre of a novel. The characters were well sketched and, as I said, the piece felt like it came from somewhere and had a destination that it hadn’t quite reached.

Great stories.

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War and Peace (original version)

By Leo Tolstoy.

Having read so much Russian literature I finally decided it was time to read War and Peace despite misgivings about the size and the importance of the novel. I found that there isn’t just one authoritative text – there was the original serialised version which was first published in 1865 based on Tolstoy’s first drafts of 1863. However, Tolstoy wasn’t happy with this version and decided to make it broader in scope – so he did additional research and a number of versions appeared over the coming years and these were much larger with a different ending. What causes difficulty in determining an authoritative version is that Tolstoy lost interest in the novel and so his wife Sophia kept adding and editing over the years with many more different renderings.

I decided to read the original version which some commentators have described as less war and more peace. There is something special about a first draft – it can be seen as a snapshot of something a bit more raw before things get too considered.

It was good to read this impression first. The novel really was great – I read it quickly – in nine days, the translation was smooth and it felt cohesive. The text did seem quite a ‘light’ read at times – it didn’t require too much discipline as the story carried me along and I just kept on reading. There were some excellent characters and the narrator’s occasional intrusions were very welcome to break up the plot. The writing was masterful and controlled – Tolstoy really knew what he was doing. Most of all I like the fact that the characters change and develop as the novel progresses – you can see personalities react in response to the events of the novel. As a result, I have found myself thinking about the various characters and relationships since finishing. There was also much left unsaid in this version in both the backstory and future events. I suspect Tolstoy, in broadening his scope in the later versions, may have left less to the imagination – in the same way that George Lucas did in editing his own ‘epic’ creation – which is a pity.

The main idea that interested me was Tolstoy’s argument that history is created by movements of people. Only afterwards, with the benefit of hindsight, do historians reevaluate and then paint in broad brushstrokes the individuals that supposedly shape history. Why do they do this? Maybe it is a basic human desire to prove that geniuses exist that can alter the path of history and/or mankind, and the knowledge of these higher beings gives some comfort. The wise are those that are aware of the irrational flow of events and move with it as shown by the actions of the commander Bagration early on in the novel.

As I really did enjoy the novel I find myself curious about the longer more epic version and I think I will have to read it. It is quite ridiculous really – because I read the original version of one of the longest novels ever written, I now have to read an even longer version. Maybe in March next year I will become a mad March hare and read about more war and less peace.

Soundtrack: Belle & Sebastian – I Fought in a War.

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Taras Bulba

By Nikolai Gogol.

First of all, the good things about this novel and then the misgivings. The atmosphere and story really transports you. Comparisons can be made to the epic Iliad by Homer and the story is entertaining. With Gogol you can never really tell what is going to happen and the tale goes off on a whole different direction at the end. I loved ‘Dead Souls’ beyond measure but Taras Bulba lacks the humour that you find in the characters of Dead Souls. It does have some fantastic one-liners:

“I want my vodka so clear and frothing that it hisses and whirls like it is possessed!”

I have to say though, I found the anti-semitism and xenophobia directed towards the Turks and Poles distasteful. Throw in a some handfuls of misogyny and rampant nationalism and you start to wonder why you are reading the novel. I finished it though, and went on to another short story (St John’s Eve) that mirrored all these elements again. So this wasn’t a one-off. For context, the story was written at a time just after the Poland had attempted a revolution to self-govern the Russian partition of Poland – so Russian nationalism was probably riding high. As for the anti-semitism there are no mitigating factors apart from the fact that those prejudices were part and parcel of Russian life at the time. However, we don’t find anti-semitism in Lermontov or to anywhere near the same degree in Pushkin. Pushkin may have, in fact, had Jewish ancestors as well as African. Unfortunately, after Taras Bulba it seems that Yankel (who is Jewish) seems to become something of an archetype in much Russian literature. We find this later in Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Babel and Turgenev.

So, should this book be read given these factors? I think so, as long as you are aware of them. Everything you read has to be viewed in context. Works of literature don’t just spring into being from nothing – they are created from the historical, social and political milieu that surrounds them. This is why books are so important – they don’t just tell stories – they tell us about what it was like to live in that place at that particular time.

Right, having leapt into the air and kicked the soapbox away in one fluid motion (today is World Book Day), I will read some more of Gogol’s short stories acutely aware of context.

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Lord Jim

Lord-JimBy Joseph Conrad.

Quite a good story. Unfortunately some of the language seemed dated – a problem which I don’t notice when reading novels in translation from this era as the translation is usually reasonably modern. Or, it could be that the Conrad’s descriptions are particularly of their time, long and suffused with colour, a hint of hyperbole similar to turning your gaze towards an exotic island noting every crevice, nook and cranny and paying equal attention to each specific detail as all is important in order to give the overall panorama the breadth of vision the written word can lack. Writing is a lot more sparse now, maybe to its detriment, but perhaps Conrad was more extreme with his detail and vocabulary as English wasn’t his first language (Polish was) and he had something to prove.

Various sentiments in this book are of their time. There are no positive female characters: only the one character in the entire novel – Jim’s ‘woman’. His treatment of the local population too is ambiguous, but this could be the point as the white men are not viewed in a terribly good light either. Given the fact Conrad was a reactionary conservative who didn’t believe in democracy, I think maybe you need to assume the worst. However this doesn’t mean as readers that we can’t take something of interest out of the novel.

I listened to this an an audiobook from Librivox and I really had to grit my teeth to get through the novel. The narrator did the voices. They were awful. In future, if an audiobook grates after the first few minutes I will have to stop. This is eminently preferrable to cursing the narrator, who is probably a very nice chap, for the hour and a half it takes me to get to work each morning. Just don’t do the voices.

Soundtrack: Guided By Voices – A Salty Salute.

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