Chess and Journey into the Past

By Stefan Zweig.

Two short novels. Chess was the first bit of writing I had read by Zweig – having found him by mentions on the Pushkin press website and the fact he wrote a biography of Balzac. The novella was excellent  and I followed it closely with Journey into the Past. Both were lyrical, melancholy, and filled with the past and reminiscences. The framework was a touch trite for these – but the strength of the evocation meant I was happy to let it go. Something in these reminded me of Nabokov – probably the appreciation of the backward gaze. And, the chess theme.



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Cousin Bette

By Honoré de Balzac.

One of Balzac’s greatest novels, and, an uncomfortable read. There’s so much intrigue here. Balzac is cutting with his perspicaciousness and the subtle and not-so-subtle lampooning of individuals and the aspects of the Human Comedy that they embody. As always – fantastic witticisms:

“Money never misses the slightest occasion to demonstrate its stupidity. Paris would by now contain ten times the treasures of Venice if our retired businessmen had had the instinct for fine things that distinguishes the Italians.”


“She struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Crevel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels.”

At novel end, you breathe a sigh of relief. The characters have been through the ringer and the reader feels the same. But, masterfully done. Balzac was fired up and had things to say here. A final quote:

“‘You remind me, Papa Lumignon,’ said Stidmann, ‘of the bookseller who used to say, before the Revolution: “Ah! if I could only keep Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau properly short of cash, in my garret, with their breeches locked up, what good little books they would write for me and I should make my fortune!” If fine works of art could be turned out like nails, commissionaires would be making them…”





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On the Eve

By Ivan Turgenev.

This was a reread and I liked it as much second time around almost twenty years after the first time.

I couldn’t remember the ending but I think it ended well – from a novelistic point of view (not necessarily for the characters). You find yourself drawn into the machinations and the characters, Turgenev is a master of the insular within a context.

There was much to consider. I like this paragraph:

‘Have you noticed,’ began Bersenyev, eking out his words with gesticulations, ‘what a strange feeling nature produces in us? Everything in nature is so complete, so defined, I mean to say, so content with itself, and we understand that and admire it, and at the same time, in me at least, it always excites a kind of restlessness, a kind of uneasiness, even melancholy. What is the meaning of it? Is it that in the face of nature we are more vividly conscious of all our incompleteness, our indefiniteness, or have we little of that content with which nature is satisfied, but something else–I mean to say, what we need, nature has not?’




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The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle

By Tobias Smollett.

This was an absolutely brilliant and amusing read. It twisted and turned as Peregrine matured and immatured, traveled, fought duels, learnt lessons, caused havoc, fell in and out of love and generally encapsulated many aspects of the human experience. Smollett is a writer you don’t hear much of. Maybe, his books are too easy to read and are passed over in favour of Sterne and Tristram Shandy. But, there is much to be entertained by in this novel – and the scenes stay with you leaving you to consider them, but only if you feel inclined. Smollett also translated Gil Blas and Don Quixote – so you can see where his influences lie.

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King Candaules AND The Mummy’s Foot

By Théophile Gautier.

Two surreal and magical short pieces – perfect to break up some of the non-fiction I have read recently. Gautier is a more decadent and fantastical Balzac – and maybe not as much of a polymath. Having read Gautier years back I am tempted to read his travels in Egypt – he did write a fair bit – I saw a 22 volume set of his works online recently. So, worth some continued investigation. These were both excellent.




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By Leo Tolstoy.

This was worth reading. And, it was a good tale – Tolstoy can tell a story. It doesn’t draw you in the same way as a Dostoevsky or Turgenev – it all seems a little too planned. Each scene has been mapped out, considered and fulfills its purpose precisely. I don’t believe great (important) works of literature work in this way: the random disordered elements and the frenzied activity of the writer as he or she throws what they have out on the page makes something unique. This is a novel by numbers, and it is well done but nothing special.

The themes are well worth considering – the inhumanity of the prison system, the lot of the working people and the different universe that the privileged inhabit. Finally, of course, ‘where is meaning to be found?’ – which is the major tenet of the book.



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Germinie Lacerteux

By Jules and Edmond de Goncourt.

This novel is an ever escalating catalog of misfortune a la L’Assommoir by Zola. I don’t think it has aged well – though at the time books such as this were probably quite important as they heralded a new realism and awareness in literature. Having said that I can’t say I enjoyed this at all: there was an exaggerated bleakness the lack of hope which seemed artificial. Still, the character of Germinie and the psychological elements are very interesting, and these have enough unique qualities to dispel the cliches. The character of her lover the sign-maker – could have come straight out of Balzac – including his confusion and misreading of Germinie. So, possibly the best elements in this story are inherited from Balzac.


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A Drama on the Seashore

By Honoré de Balzac.

Quite a strange short tale – two stories in one, really. I’m not sure if this based on something Balzac heard and that the writer in tale who hears the story is in fact him. It could be timely to read a biography of him. It may shed some light on some of his work. Andre Maurois wrote something I believe.

A very tragic novella dealing with extremes of human emotion and relations, and framed perfectly in a walk the writer and his lover take on the seashore. Exquisitely done. Again, another story that stays with you.




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Colonel Chabert

By Honoré de Balzac.

Another wonderful slice of melancholy from Balzac. As always other stories and back-stories are hinted at – making it an even richer tapestry of characters and potentialities. I can see how this could be developed into something much larger. Tolstoy probably could have written an enormous magnum-opus from this short story / novella. A war-hero colonel loses his identity after being left for dead and registered as such. Chabert then convinces a lawyer that he is that war hero and his scheming wife has also remarried and things then get complicated. But, of course, it doesn’t all end up like a Hollywood movie – there are far more subtleties. Quite a brilliant story which you continue to turn over in your mind after finishing.






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