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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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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Travels With Herodotus

By Ryszard Kapuściński.

This was an extremely enjoyable read. If you are looking for exactitude and factual journalism then maybe Kapuściński is not for you as his accounts are not to be trusted. He does make things larger than life in the same way as Cendrars and Celine (though both of these were dealing in personal reportage). Kapuściński does have a way with words and this travel with Kapuściński himself in the modern day juxtaposed with Herodotus’s Histories’ is very very entertaining. I read part of the Histories when years back but this book has inspired to pick it up again – I can see I didn’t understand it properly at the time.

The quote below could be seen as a sort of justification for his ‘magic’ journalism:

Herodotus is entangled in a rather insoluble dilemma: he devotes his life to preserving historic truth, to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time; at the same time, however, his main source of research is not firsthand experience, but history as it was recounted by others, as it appeared to them, therefore as it was selectively remembered and later more or less intentionally presented. In short, not primary history, but history as his interlocutors would have had it. There is no way around this divergence of purpose and means. We can try to minimize or mitigate it, but we will never approach the objective ideal. The subjective factor, its deforming presence, will remain impossible to strain out.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Road to Babadag

By Andrzej Stasiuk.

Again, another breathtaking book from Stasiuk. He has probably written a great amount more in Polish – but we have to wait for it to arrive in translation. The translation is really good – but this could be in part because Stasiuk doesn’t overdo things. He states it all very cleanly. This is the photo which haunted Stasiuk for years and which provided an impetus for travel – though by the sounds of it that was already there long before.

There is an episode where he talks about all the pieces he has collected over the years during his travels and that he takes them out sometimes to remember. This book, and much of his other work, is a remembering that combines with these objects. This is a private remembering and he creates something new out of these tokens. If he was a chancer like Warhol or Hirst he would no doubt have an exhibition of these objects rather than creating something new. It strikes me that much of modern creative endeavour involves collecting things. Curation masquerading as creativity. This is a fine book, which can be reread over and over and dipped into. The chapter about Moldova was excellent.

 

 

 

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Molotov’s Magic Lantern

By Rachel Polonsky.

An intriguing book filled with anecdotes, images and factual detail. The narration hit the perfect balance by providing a framework but not making the work ‘about’ the author. There were many images here that were incredibly rich – particularly the visits to Archangel and Murmansk. This was a really well written and conceived book – one subject leads to a place and another fact then a quick drop into an obscure historical detail. I may have to read this again on kindle – so I can highlight the parts that interested me and which could lead to further reading. I enjoyed this passage:

In ‘The Eye and the Sun’, Sergei Vavilov related a story told by Gorky that illustrates how human beings try to materialise light: ‘I saw Chekhov, sitting in his garden, trying to catch a ray of sunlight and put in on his head.’

What a great anecdote and image. I like the the fact that we may never have heard about this if Gorky or Vavilov had not decided to pass it on.

 

 

 

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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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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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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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