By Leo Tolstoy.
Definitely nowhere near the best thing I have read by Tolstoy. And, only just worth reading – it was quite short at least.Tolstoy highlights his own foibles as far as love is concerned.
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.
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.
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.
Two great short tales. A Passion in the Desert quite different from Balzac’s usual stories – but still very entertaining. Some commentators have said that it is Balzac trying his hand at Orientalism. Adieu also involves an army officer but his passion is the wife of one of his superior officers and not a tiger in the desert. Both involve nature and adventure and are a departure from Balzac’s usual way of doing things. It is possible that the shorter tales were a ground for experimentation. Here is one of the final exchanges from A Passion in the Desert:
‘In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.’ ‘Yes, but explain—-‘ ‘Well,’ he said, with an impatient gesture, ‘it is God without mankind.’
Another intense study by Balzac into the nature of human relations. It’s very melancholy and keeps you guessing right the way through – though the plot isn’t wholly the point. Things are left unsaid and the characters are ambiguous. Is Granville all he seems – and how about the other characters? The two central women in the novel (Angelique and Caroline) seem to occupy the moral extremes while Granville’s life itself is a balance between the rigour of being a lawyer, while also possessing a poetic soul. If he was completely one or the other then the events in the novel wouldn’t overpower him. There’s lots to think about here. Balzac is a master.
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.
Soundtrack: Grant McLennan – Comet Scar.
On New Year’s Eve after a couple of wines I regaled a friend with the opinion that Balzac has everything, so why bother reading anything modern? It’s all right there – in Balzac’s characters, their intrigues and the truths that come out of their mouths. In the cold light of day, I have to say, this still holds. Although, instead of saying ‘just’ Balzac, I would add a legion of old writers. Modern stuff has no interest – not because it is ‘modern’ but because I don’t think it is very good. In our ‘Late Capitalist Realism‘ all that matters is plot and for something to be written in a snappy way, because units have to be shifted and that’s what the ‘real’ world demands, isn’t it?
In Balzac’s Gobseck there is plot, hinted at back-stories, intrigue, fantastic characterisation and real psychological insights brought about by all these elements. There is a truth in the words – not just craft and a desire to sell books. This truth is sometimes not altogether clear – it is equivocal. But, when something is not stated plainly then you start to consider it and the questions become internalised. I have spent the days after reading Gobseck thinking about Gobseck himself. It is true he had a desire for wealth, but he was also an adventurer and lived against the grain and he had an integrity about him, a purity of purpose. So, why then do we find his actions distasteful at the end? It’s a short novel and in the public domain so it should be read and I won’t give anything else away. I believe Gobseck to have had many positive attributes, as the early relationship between he and Derville shows. But, then, is there one small action that changes his path? Is this moment even in the novel? There are so many quotable lines from this story – here is one:
“I like to leave mud on a rich man’s carpet; it is not petty spite; I like to make them feel a touch of the claws of necessity.”
This a a perfect short novel: it grabs you by the throat and carries you along in a violent fashion towards the shocking conclusion. Even 150 years later this novel is still incredibly powerful and, apparently, Leskov scared even himself when writing it. Morality, love, murder and meaning are all analysed and one of the real strengths is that you are left with so many questions at the conclusion. Who is the most culpable? Sergei or Katerina herself? Was the boredom of bourgeois respectability instrumental in creating these monstrous acts? They follow the familiar motif of adherence to passion or supposed ‘true love’ – but what if this becomes subjugation and requires terrible actions? An incredibly interesting and moving novel. Leskov, it seems, was an outsider – not accepted by the conservatives or the radicals – maybe because of his equivocal nature, which can be seen in the unresolved questioning in this book. Absolutely an intense and thought provoking read. As a reader, you come out the other side very affected and it is as though the world is silent in the last few lines as everyone holds their breath, and then it finishes suddenly.