Quite enjoyable. A larger-than-life novel in the vein of Celine / Cendrars. I don’t know how much of Fingon is MacKinnon. Entertaining.
I will be a man fulfilled if, when my time comes,
I can disappear anonymously and without regret,
At the originating point of our world, the Sargasso Sea,
Where life first burst from the depths of the ocean floor towards the sun.
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.
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.
Another two brief stories. The Elixir of Life is based on a Hoffman story about Don Juan that Balzac advises never made it into his collected works and so he has no qualms of conscience in borrowing. This omission may have been rectified by now. The story is more magical and fantastic that what Balzac usually writes. It is very intriguing and melancholy though. Study of a Woman contains characters from some of Balzac’s other novels. It is a snapshot of an episode that may occur in one of his full books. In the Elixir of Life Balzac references Rabelais which apparently he does in more than twenty of his novels:
…eyes were growing dull, and drunkenness, in Rabelais’ phrase, had “taken possession of them down to their sandals.”
Book Two is right up there with Book One however it is more linear. Part of what I liked about Book One was that it wasn’t dictated to by the story. The story was told, but chapters were sometimes ever increasing tangents. Book Two is far more straightforward as each chapter follows the other – the absurdity is within the episodes themselves. Frère Jean is a fantastic creation – a warrior ex-monk is search of the divine in a bottle:
But from good wine you can’t make bad Latin.
In Book Two you meet comic genius mixed with a sublime imagination and ideas. Rabelais is a revelation.
This novel had a real atmosphere to it and I was really reminded of Platonov. The characters just drift along and many details are given which don’t seem to add up to anything in the long run but you enjoy them because they are rich, and also interesting in what they mean and how they interact with all the other events and detail. Like a tapestry – though I could be over-egging things with the metaphor. This type of novel seems to mirror life much more so than the traditional narrative arc which we take for granted in our films, TV and books. This novel was still very satisfying but the goal wasn’t the end point, it was the narrative and your attention to it. The mood and the characters developed were quite something. Bunin was a master who you hardly hear about in the Russian literary canon (probably due to his exile in the west). So, canons should be ignored.
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.
This novel engendered a very strange phenomenon: I hated it most of the way and reading was a real struggle, but then suddenly about three-quarters of the way through, I absolutely loved the book, the prose, and everything about it. This doesn’t normally happen as your relation to a novel is usually static – or, at least, there is not the degree of polarisation that happened here. As a result, I am going to have to re-read and enjoy the ruminations, rants and absurdity again. This was very different from Pilch’s other novels but in the end perhaps more satisfying. A surreal and interesting journey.
Finally, I have got to the end of the duelling novels. This, by Kuprin, was the most modern of them all. It beats Chekhov’s Duel by about ten years and it was the one I liked best. The novella was longer than the others in the series and the suspense builds slowly as you, the reader, wonder how this duel is to come about. Kuprin wrote about what he knew and it is likely that he witnessed duels when he was the army and that a good part of the character Romashov is actually the young Kuprin. Romashov is painted so brilliantly, you get right inside his young head as he searches for meaning, vacillates, over-analyses and generally carries on the established type of ‘The Superfluous Man’ in Russian Literature. Except in Kuprin’s novel it seems somehow more personal. We are not viewing just a superfluous literary motif. In the other Duel novellas it seemed there was more of a filter between you and the duelists. In Kuprin’s duel you view military life with all its hardship and pettiness – there isn’t much honour in it, so how can a duel, which is ultimately a matter of honour, take root here?
This isn’t all about Romashov – there is an excellent supporting cast. The words that come out of Nazanski’s mouth could be the elder Kuprin advising the younger, possibly. Rafaelsky is a brilliant creation too, he is not in it for long, but the idea of a military man with a zoo and menagerie that he transports from camp to camp adds a colour and richness to the story. He is a sympathetic character, which, like all the others, doesn’t reach perfection as Nazanski shows with his anecdote at the end. Surochka is an enigma, Romashov thinks he is in love, but the reader on the outside isn’t quite sure what to make of her . It is this greyness that leaves you wondering at the end whether Romashov has been trapped by his basic good nature. There’s so much detail in this novel that it is a joy to read. Everything has the potential to be important to the outcome as the reader and Romashov are led towards the duel that will close the story.
A very very pleasant book. There are a few writers where you are left with the impression that he or she would be an amusing person to have met and had a drink and a yarn with. Desnos – along with Svevo and Cendrars falls into this category, in my opinion. This book is beautifully made in every respect and you can buy your own limited edition from Air and Nothingness Press. I really enjoyed reading about the ‘Burgundian’ journey with all the asides and references which are picked up by the excellent footnotes. The text flows effortlessly and I wasn’t aware of any nuances of translation. Eminently enjoyable.