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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A Thousand Peaceful Cities

By Jerzy Pilch.

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.






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Don Quixote

By Miguel de Cervantes.

I always knew I would love Don Quixote because of the amusing and surreal bits and pieces that had been mentioned to me over the years. Because of the length and comittment to the cause required by the novel I knew I had to find the right time. So, a holiday in Spain seemed to be perfect, and it was, as I did want to be completely focused and consumed by the world of Quixote and Panza in the sun and heat of Spanish lands.

The novel is split into two parts each were published a decade apart. The second part is more controlled (if controlled is the right word) and the writing seems better and smoother. Again it is difficult to really assess this in translation. The first part jumps all over the place and has several stories within stories and is less about Panza and Quixote than part  two. In the first, anything can happen, and the two characters frequently overstep the line due to their madness and sanity which they possess in equal measure. Panza has a different type of madness which seems to grow as the novel progresses – maybe due to the association with Quixote. I can see why people have been entranced by the book since 1605 when part one was written. The humour transcends the centuries and cultures. The world of Cervantes is alien to us in the way that the world of the Knights Errant is ridiculous to the readers of Cervantes day. Then and now readers are drawn into Quixote’s world and marvel and his madness and intelligence, and Panza’s proverbs.

The second book I liked less because everyone knows about Quixote due to the first part being published and authored by Cede Hamete Benegeli – so meta-fiction very definitely meets knight errantry. Also, the extended period at the Duke and Duchesses residence is not very exciting – after this however it picks up and there is a return to form. The characters seem a little more typecast too:  Cervantes may have promoted the elements of the novel that his audience liked from part one and focused on these. There are far more Panzaian proverbs and there are no separate stories within the story of part two as he was criticised after the first volume for distracting the reader with these. In my opinion, the edges, and the fact you have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next does give part one the sharpness and steel that part two lacks. Having said this, in totality there is nothing I have ever read quite like Don Quixote. All other modern picaresque fantasies are just shoots from the tree grown by Cervantes.

Part one is an absolute masterwork. There are some fantastic turns of phrase and nearly every sentence is loaded and perfectly formed. I must say I loved some of Panza’s proverbs. We should all pick our time when we begin our journey with Don Quixote, mine took five weeks and I can see that I will be returning for shorter skirmishes with rereads of certain episodes.

Following are some quotes from the novel that I thought were great (and there are a multitude more):

“I didn’t deserve to leave in this way; but man proposes and God disposes, and God knows what suits each man and what’s best for him, and time changes the rhyme, and nobody should say, ‘That’s water I won’t drink,’ because you’re in a place where you think there’s bacon, and you don’t even find a nail; God understands me, and that’s enough, and I’ll say no more, though I could.” [Panza]
“He’s doing the right thing,” said Sancho Panza, “because if you give the cat what you were going to give to the mouse, your troubles will be over.” [Panza]
“May God hear and sin be deaf,” said Sancho.
“There can be no doubt,” said Sancho, “that this demon is a decent man and a good Christian, because otherwise he wouldn’t swear by God and my conscience. Now I think there must be good people even down in hell.”

And finally:

“…the benefit caused by the sanity of Don Quixote cannot be as great as the pleasure produced by his madness?”


Note: translation is important and Edith Grossman’s translation is excellent. The footnotes are thorough too.

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Very Woman (Sixtine)

By Remy de Gourmont.

This novel was enjoyable, but for a slightly different reason than usual. I took pleasure in the actual prose, the richness of it. Remy de Gourmont was a symbolist and a combination of these sensibilities and perhaps the older translation made this novel a luxurious read. The verbal tussles of Sixtine and Entragues were interesting, but I can’t say that I enjoyed the story as much as ‘A Night in the Luxembourg’. I think this was because there wasn’t enough going on. Sixtine and Entragues seemed to meet, and spar with each other, again and again with imperceptible change. Several characters were brought into the action that could have been developed – but these were one-off experiences. So, this novel was good, and quite poetic – but it didn’t enthrall me. I may dip into it again; the prose captures and preserves a decadent, symbolist atmosphere so perfectly.

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Prose Tales of Pushkin

By Alexander Pushkin.

There were some excellent prose tales in this collection that I downloaded for the Kindle. The tales I hadn’t read were: An Amateur Peasant Girl, The Shot, The Snowstorm, The Post Master, The Coffin-maker, Kirdjali and Peter the Great’s Negro. A few of these stories ended very abruptly and this did make laugh. Pushkin says ‘there’s your story, no need to carry on and bore you with any more writerly artifice, The End’. Not in those exact words… Though in finishing An Amateur Peasant Girl he says:

“The reader will relieve me of the superfluous task of describing the end of the story.”

The story The Shot is quite special and I thought I could see strains of what would become Lermontov’s domain in it. All of the pieces were interesting: from the dark surrealism of the Coffin-maker, to the historic Kirdjali, then the personal of Peter the Great’s Negro. I say ‘personal’ because the subject of this story was loosely based on Pushkin’s great-grandfather who was African and thought to be from Cameroon. The story was unfinished and when you read it there is definite potential for it to become a long work. It is as though an episode has been snatched out of the centre of a novel. The characters were well sketched and, as I said, the piece felt like it came from somewhere and had a destination that it hadn’t quite reached.

Great stories.

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Dead Souls

DeadSouls1By Nikolai Gogol.

What a lovely edition of the novel from Donald Rayfield. I read this years ago and thought it was good. But either my taste has matured or this translation is the best yet, because the novel with the scenes and characters struck me as so very vivid.

Chagall’s illustrations are amazing as well. Chagall is another Picasso-type genius – he had so many ideas and you can see that for him creating was a form of play. Quite different from chancers like Damien Hirst who will have a couple of mediocre ideas in their life and will repeat them over and over endlessly, unlike Picasso and and Chagal with their twenty or thirty thousand great ideas each.

Dead Souls is actually very funny. There is a definite slapstick element there and then the way the author or narrator pokes his nose into the action adds another dimension to the levity. The story itself is satire and so uses humour to help the pill (or message) go down. So what is the message? Gogol is concerned with morality and virtue and we see an examination of this within the range of characters that inhabit the story. But is virtue in Gogol’s modern world really present, or is it a superficial thing and is it traded to gain advantage? Gogol thinks the latter. This is a good quote from the novel – when the narrator makes one of his appearances:

I haven’t chosen a man of virtue for my hero, and I can explain why: the poor virtuous man must be given a well-earned rest , because the very phrase ‘virtuous man’ is beginning to sound shallow on people’s lips, because the virtuous  man has been turned into a sort of horse and there’s no author who hasn’t ridden him…”

The only positive character is Murazov the wealthy merchant who has prestige and influence but is humble and generous. Is Gogol promoting a liberal conservatism with this stance? I don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. I do, however have Belinsky’s open letter to Gogol. This letter is critical of Gogol and after reading it I may be able to give more of an informed contextual opinion.

After reading Dead Souls I can see elements of Gogol in Ilf and Petrov, Bulgakov, Erofeev and other modern Russian writers. The book doesn’t seem dated at all. Do yourself a favour and buy this and every evening read a chapter – your life will be better for it. A great novel to end the year on.

Soundtrack: The Church – The Feast.

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A Modest Proposal

swift_modest_proposal-173x300By Jonathan Swift.

A genius work of satire. I can’t believe Swift was writing this stuff in 1729. Reading it, you can’t help think think of the current crop of politicians and their attitude to the poor which doesn’t seem to have changed much. The best line of the piece would be:

“I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”

This is essential reading. I can feel a re-read of Gulliver’s Travels coming on.

Soundtrack: Motorhead – Eat the Rich.

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Eugene Onegin

feature_eugeneOneginBy Alexander Pushkin.

Wow. What an amazing novel, poem or however you categorise it. I have enjoyed Pushkin’s prose work previously but I have shied away from his poetry. This is so funny, so aware and such a good story. I love Tatyana’s dream, and the part where Pushkin remembers grasping a stirrup and thinking of his ex-lover’s foot is a laugh out loud moment.

Apparently this translation by Charles Johnstone is ‘good’ according to some commentary but others have said that Stanley Mitchell captures more of the humour and lyricism of the Russian original. So possibly I will need to purchase and read again at some stage.

Throughout you get a real sense of Pushkin’s personality. In the introduction it is mooted that Pushkin is playing a game with the story and with form and enjoying himself greatly. You can really sense this. I think that Pushkin would have been an amusing but tempestuous man to know.

Eugene Onegin completely confounded all my expectations. I didn’t expect a text that was so aware and amusing. This is definitely worth reading. It takes time to get into the language but after you do you keep reading and wanting to read as all is revealed. As to the ending – it was perfect and again I laughed out loud.

Soundtrack: anything by Bulat Okudzawa.

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wilsonBy Daniel Clowes.

This is the first graphic novel I have ever read – and I thought it was great. What has put me off reading any previously is probably the ‘superpower’ element that seems to be a part of so many comics – sorry ‘graphic novels’. But this was entertaining, meaningful and funny. The main character Wilson seems to blunder through life with no tact whatsoever exposing his neuroses for all to see and searching desperately for some kind of meaning. Whilst he is an arse, he is still treated with a touch of sympathy so that we don’t give up on him completely.

One thing I really liked was that each page was an episode and each was drawn differently. Now, this could be Daniel Clowes showing what a versatile artist he is – which is fine, but it is maybe nicer to think of it in that these episodes can be seen many ways. We are forced to see Wilson in a very simply drawn form then in quite a detailed film-noir character with all the shades in between. It was a great idea.

Having read and enjoyed this first graphic novel, which was gifted, I have decided it won’t be the last. The trick will be finding the good ones to buy as it is a strange new world that I know nothing about. All I know is that superheroes don’t interest me; but Wilson, as the polar opposite of a superhero, did.

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