Balzac

By Stefan Zweig.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. This ‘biography’ has, from Zweig’s pen, Balzac as a wild, wayward  picaresque character. Balzac, himself, wrote to the Duchesse Duchesse d’Abrantès:

“In my five-foot two-inches there is compressed every imaginable contrast and contradiction. If anyone likes to call me vain, extravagant, stubborn, frivolous, inconsistent in my thinking, dandified, careless, indolent, lacking in due reflection and not sufficiently painstaking, without perseverance, loquacious, tactless, ill-bred, rude, subject to odd changes of mood, he will be no less right than anyone else who says that I am thrifty, modest, and courageous, tenacious, energetic, carefree, industrious, steadfast, taciturn, full of refinement and courtesy, and always cheerful. It can be asserted with equal truth that I am a poltroon or a hero, a clever fellow or an ignoramus, extremely talented or stupid. Nothing will surprise me. I myself have finally resolved to believe that I am merely an instrument, the plaything of circumstance.”

The book was published after Zweig’s death and it had to be pieced together from the manuscripts he left behind. A great many years had been spent researching Balzac’s life and it had become an obsession. What we are left with in this biography is still, despite the fragmentation, up there in the rarefied air – it twist and turns and roars – like the genius of Balzac himself.

The following quote in the biography comes from Zweig’s mouth and it seems to encompass the paradigm that shaped both of their creative life.

“The artist possesses a remedy which no physician can prescribe for other patients. He alone can throw off his worries by giving them artistic expression. He can transmute the bitterness of experience into the moving portrayal of human character and fashion the constraint of outward circumstance into creative freedom.”

I imagine I will read this biography again: it is packed full of ideas, characters, vivacious plot lines and surreal anecdotes – just like a good novel by Balzac.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuściński.

This is a collection of essays on Africa – or perhaps essay is the wrong word – these could be seen as disconnected acts in the larger drama of Africa in change. Kapuściński veers between the descriptive narrative and musing – trying to find a meaning in the upheaval he documents. He covers the length and breadth of Africa in these pieces. This is an exceptional read. Here are some extracts:

“I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward.This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else—wider, deeper—may be considerably more interesting and important.”

 

“Our contemporary suspicion of and antipathy for the Other, the Stranger, goes back to the fear our tribal ancestors felt toward the Outsider, seeing him as the carrier of evil, the source of misfortune. Pain, fire, disease, drought, and hunger did not come from nowhere. Someone must have brought them, inflicted them, disseminated them. But who? Not my people, not those closest to me—they are good. Life is possible only among good people, and I am alive, after all. The guilty are therefore the Others, the Strangers.”

 

“History does not exist beyond that which they are able to recount here and now. The kind of history known in Europe as scholarly and objective can never arise here, because the African past has no documents or records, and each generation, listening to the version being transmitted to it, changed it and continues to change it, transforms it, modifies and embellishes it. But as a result, history, free of the weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data, achieves here its purest, crystalline form—that of myth.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another Day of Life

By Ryszard Kapuściński.

Quite a brilliant book. Kapuściński writes really well and completely engages you with his narrative. I learn’t a lot reading this. Irrespective of mistakes Kapuściński may have made in his support for the ‘regime’ in Poland, his books are a window into a different world. This is a cohesive snapshot of Angola (and Africa) changing from colonial to self rule. He may play hard and fast with personal facts but this doesn’t detract from the work.

“Confusão is a situation created by people, but in the course of creating it they lose control and direction, becoming victims of confusão themselves.”

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book Three

By François Rabelais.

I seem to have enjoyed each succeeding book slightly less. Book III seems to me too wordy and philosophical and not enough about the actions of the characters. The re-invention of Panurge with a different persona is interesting but I would have liked to see Panurge put more into practice his dodgy precepts and justifications in a ribald rambunctious quest. Still, this is good stuff. I have dipped into Book IV and it seems more to my taste. Each of them though, has a distinct character. Some fantastic passages in Book III though:

‘It is true that I can just about make out one sign in me suggestive of old age – I mean a green old age. Don’t tell anyone. It’ll remain a secret between the two of us. I do find good wine more delightful to my taste than I used to: and more than I once did, I fear encounters with poor wine. Note that that does somehow suggest the westering sun and signify that noon-day is past.’

and this:

‘Next time you stick your nose up my bum,’ said Panurge, ‘remember to take off your glasses!’

and finally:

‘A famished belly hath no ears! By God, I’m roaring mad with hunger.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Galley Slave

By Drago Jančar.

If this novel had been published first in Britain or had Jančar lived in the west this wouldn’t have been published – no publisher would have had a punt on it – as it probably wouldn’t have sold. This would be a tragedy for literature and this is symptomatic of the control marketing (and the shifting of units with the least possible effort) has on on the creative industries in the UK. What a great book. It is dark, challenging, imaginative, amusing, bleak and many other vicarious elements. Jančar is a special writer and this is exactly the kind of book I like – it defies definition. Stasiuk makes reference to Jančar in one of his novels, I realised after I read this – so good writers lead to good writers. This novel is still in gestation, and all the elements it includes – Ot is an intriguing character and symbol. Following is a quote regarding Slovenian literature – I believe it came from Dalkey Archive.

Literature means different things to different people. For past generations of Slovenians, many of the books in the list below provided flesh to their growing minds and bodies during a time of scarcity and censorship. These novels were as essential to them as food. To the current generation of savvy, traveling, computer-literate Slovenians, and of course to foreign readers as well, these same books are not lifeblood: now they must succeed as mere words, as mere art.

And here is the List:

http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/collections/slovenia/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Dukla

By Andrzej Stasiuk.

Another fantastic book by Stasiuk. I think he perhaps is the most interesting contemporary writer writing today. His voice is unique and even though it seems that he writes about straightforward things there is such an atmosphere attached to these along with an undercurrent of thought and ideas. This is a novel about light and the town of Dukla in South-Eastern Poland – except that it isn’t really a novel and it isn’t really about these things either. It seems to me he has gone further than Gombrowicz in that form is present but it is very definitely broken down and that different layers are present underneath each structure and these peep through and take precedence at different times. But the book isn’t slavishly in thrall to these forms, it all happens quite naturally. Stasiuk really is masterful.

“There’ll be no plot, with its promise of a beginning and hope of an end.  A plot is the remission of sins, the mother of fools, but it melts away in the rising light of the day.  Darkness or blindness give things meaning, when the mind has to seek out a way in the shadows, providing its own light.”

 

 

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Ghost Milk

By Iain Sinclair.

I started reading this on the day the Olympics started in London in order to give a balance to my experience of the event. I like watching all the various sports, but the official narrative that is given to each event or athlete is something that I do not relate to. Let’s just have their actions do the talking. I am also suspicious of the overall story that surrounds the games by the sponsors, officials, community leaders and politicians. This is where reading Sinclair’s book at the same time provides a useful counterpoint. It is an enthralling book – not just because of the subject matter –  but Sinclair writes in a very captivating way, he makes many literary and filmic references which direct further reading or research. This really is a broad canvas with ideas, thoughts, people and places. A very worthwhile read – here is an excellent quote.

In the age of the spinner, content means nothing; the apparatus of explanation, the word-weaving, tells us what we are looking at and how we should react.

 

 

 

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Trips to the Moon

By Lucian of Samosata.

I loved this little book. Very Rabelaisian – or perhaps ‘Rabelaisian’ should be renamed ‘Samosatian’. What an imagination. There’s much that we lose here as many of the references that Lucian makes are to works that have not survived from his heyday – around AD125. Still, well worth reading. This made me chuckle:

The campaign thus happily finished, they made an entertainment to celebrate the victory, which, as is usual amongst them, was a bean- feast. Pythagoras alone absented himself on that day, and fasted, holding in abomination the wicked custom of eating beans.

 

 

 

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book Two

By François Rabelais.

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.

 

 

 

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