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.
By Gianni Rodari.
Quite a light pleasant surreal read. I’m not sure what genre you would place this in which is always an excellent state of affairs – confuse the marketing people with something askew. I think of this as a contemporary novel – even though it was written in 1978 it seems current somehow. Very imaginative throughout and full of surprises and chuckles but it is the rounding up in the last paragraph that raises it to be something special. Special within the context of contemporary literature.
By Owen Jones.
A well-written book which contains many many pertinent ideas regarding ‘chavs, class and how it relates to Britain, and other countries, today. Class is definitely not dead – even if conservatives choose to not define things in this way for their own ends.The occupations that traditionally related to the working class have changed from the like of manufacturing and skilled labour to call-centres and supermarket – but class still exists and the income gap has widened dramatically. We are not ‘all middle class now’.
One (of many) really good points Jones makes is that the narrative we are fed is that British manufacturing in the late 70s was uncompetitive and finished – so that justified the lack of government support and destructive economic policies of the Tories. However, in other parts of Europe industry was supported and while it wasn’t unscathed there are still strong manufacturing sectors and more balanced economies than we have in Britain. The government bailed out the banks in 2008 to help them through a difficult time so they didn’t ‘fail’ – why couldn’t that have been done in the 70s and early 80s with manufacturing? This would mean that the current economic woes partly caused by an over-reliance on the financial sector wouldn’t be as extreme.
There is much food for thought in this book. The discussion relating to the bias of the middle-class media is excellent as is the analysis of aspiration. It’s easy to read and understand and quite immersive. Following are a couple of good quotes.
This was from a conservative MP off-the-record:
‘What you have to realize about the Conservative Party,’ he said as though it was a trivial, throwaway comment, ‘is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.’
And another good point.
‘Clearly not everyone can become a middle-class professional or a businessperson: the majority of people still have to do the working-class jobs in offices and shops that society needs to keep ticking. By putting the emphasis on escaping these jobs rather than improving their conditions, we end up disqualifying those who remain in them. We frown upon the supermarket checkout staff, the cleaners, the factory workers—slackers who failed to climb the ladder offered by social mobility.’
By Leo Tolstoy.
A very early book by Tolstoy and it shows, parts are a little stilted and cliched. But, there’s enough here to make it worth reading – the study of Cossack life in the Steppes. I listened to this book as an audio-book while doing other things and it transported me into another world for a few minutes at a time. It is interesting to analyse Tolstoy’s superfluous man – Olenin, who he treats with sympathy, but the main element that you take away is the atmosphere of the Caucasus.
By Vladimir Nabokov.
Of course a Nabokov autobiography would have Memory in the title. Nabokov is all about memories and explores the richness of these. You could argue he didn’t need to write this as there is much of his life in his novels. But, this is a different autobiography. This is Nabokov capturing episodes and experiencing pleasure in the process. This book is by Nabokov for Nabokov and we are lucky enough to be invited to participate and listen. The framework is very loose; written over a period of years and some parts were never intended to be in a larger work. The passage when he describes burping his baby son Dmitri is great – it becomes a philosophical experience while amusing at the same time. There’s so much warmth contained within precise fantastic prose.
“I think bourgeois fathers – wing-collar workers in pencil-striped pants, dignified, office-tied fathers, so different from young American veterans of today or from a happy, jobless Russian-born expatriate of fifteen years ago – will not understand my attitude toward our child. Whenever you held him up, replete with his warm formula and grave as an idol, and waited for the postlactic all-clear signal before making a horizontal baby of the vertical one, I used to take part both in your wait and in the tightness of his surfeit, which I exaggerated, therefore rather resenting your cheerful faith in the speedy dissipation of what I felt to be a painful oppression; and when, at last, the blunt little bubble did rise and burst in his solemn mouth, I used to experience a lovely relief as you, with a congratulatory murmur, bent low to deposit him in the white-rimmed twilight of his crib.”
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.’
‘Next time you stick your nose up my bum,’ said Panurge, ‘remember to take off your glasses!’
‘A famished belly hath no ears! By God, I’m roaring mad with hunger.’
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:
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.
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.