The Reviews That Escaped Me – July ’17

A little while ago I had the idea of reading the four most recent novels/novellas by Milan Kundera one after the other and reviewing them. Although I had read at least one of them before I wasn’t sure whether I had read the others or not. After the publication of Immortality in 1990, which is possibly my favourite of his novels, Kundera’s output dwindled significantly; his output in this period consisted of Slowness (La Lenteur) (1995), Identity (L’Identité) (1998), Ignorance (L’Ignorance) (2000), The Festival of Insignificance (La fête de l’insignifiance) (2014). Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 but moved to France in 1975 and these post-Immortality books were all written in French rather than Czech. Of course as I read them in English translation it doesn’t really make much difference but it was interesting to notice that the style was still recognisably Kundera, the only difference with his older books was that they were shorter and his style was a bit more sparse.

So, I had intended to review each book separately but it’s now been over a month since I read them and I have to accept that I’m not going to do it, mainly because they’re starting to blur together in my mind and I usually find that I have to write a review soon after finishing the book or I lose the impetus to do so. Although shorter than his early works I still enjoyed reading them. As always Kundera analyses his characters’ motivations, thought processes, their conversations and interactions with other characters as well as highlighting any misunderstandings between them. All his characters analyse and philosophise about their lives and the world generally, which may annoy some readers, but I find that Kundera is not doing this for effect or as a gimmick but out of genuine inquisitiveness and playfulness as he places his characters in certain situations and wonders what will happen to them.

Instead of any reviews I thought I would share a few of my favourite quotes from the books.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.
—From Slowness

For love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting it is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you’re intelligent, because you’re decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don’t chase women, because you do the dishes, then I’m disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I’m crazy about you even though you’re neither intelligent nor decent, even though you’re a liar, an egotist, a bastard.
—From Slowness

Remembering our past, carrying it around with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.
—From Identity

To die; to decide to die; that’s much easier for an adolescent than for an adult. What? Doesn’t death strip an adolescent of a far larger portion of future? Certainly it does, but for a young person, the future is a remote, abstract, unreal thing he doesn’t really believe in.
—From Ignorance

Overall, Slowness was my favourite of the four and is comparable to his other works. There was a scenario near the end of the book where all the characters were brought together into a scene by the side of a pool in a hotel; we know a little bit about each character but the characters themselves know nothing of each other and their actions are quite confusing for each to comprehend. Kundera even brings together two characters from different time periods, the eighteenth and twentieth century, to highlight how modern life forces us to experience pleasures differently than in the past.

The other novellas were enjoyable to read but were not quite as good as Slowness. My enjoyment of Identity was spoiled for me as Kundera relies on an ‘it was all a dream’ ending. In Ignorance Kundera concentrates on the experience of being in exile, returning to your homeland and how our memory can play tricks on us. I didn’t quite get the ending but I think that was my fault. The most recent, and shortest, of the four is The Festival of Insignificance and it shows that Kundera can still produce an entertaining and intelligent work; here Kundera considers navels, apologisers and Kalinin’s bladder; there’s a superb scene describing a woman’s unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Image source: scan of personal copy

I also read another volume of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler called Selected Short Fiction which was published in 1999 and translated by J.M.Q. Davies. It includes two of Schnitzler’s early stream-of-consciousness works, Lieutenant Gustl and Fräulein Else, the first of which is rather funny, whereas the second is more dramatic, even melodramatic, but seen from a single viewpoint. The stories span Schnitzler’s whole literary career from 1888 to 1931 and are in a variety of styles. I found Success quite amusing; a policeman is ridiculed by other officers as well as his fiancée for not being able to make an arrest. When his fiancée flaunts the fact that she is spending the day with another man and doesn’t much care for him she calls him ‘a surly ape’. The policeman ends up dragging her and her friend in to the station as his first arrest. From then on he has no trouble making more arrests. Schnitzler has quite a wicked sense of humour; in The Duellist’s Second he recounts the problems of a second who ends up sleeping with the wife of the dead duellist when he visits her to tell her of her husband’s death. It’s worth tracking down a copy as some of the translations are unavailable elsewhere.

I don’t often go on a book-buying spree as my reluctance to part with money usually takes over but I couldn’t resist buying these three books by H.E. Bates on the British countryside. They are Through the Woods (1936), In the Heart of the Country (1942) and The Happy Countryman (1943); all three books contain loads of illustrations.

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Filed under Bates, H.E., Fiction, Kundera, Milan, Schnitzler, Arthur

‘Clochemerle-Babylon’ by Gabriel Chevallier

Image source: scan of personal copy

Last year I read Clochemerle by Gabriel Chevallier and wished to continue my reading about the inhabitants of that village in Beaujolais. Clochemerle was published in 1934 and the events in the novel took place in the early ’20s, whereas the sequel, Clochemerle-Babylon was written twenty years later and the events take place in the early ’30s. So, it’s ten years since the ‘scandals’ in Clochemerle—how has it changed? Well, first of all we’re informed that the curé Ponosse, a central figure in the first book, has died. Ponosse was well-loved by his parishioners, partly due to his love of wine.

The death of the Curé Ponosse occurred in the vintage month, when his beloved Clochemerle was impregnated with the odour of new wine, in the golden glory of a brilliant, hot September. The old priest died in the apotheosis of a great year, famous for its wine, one of those years whose fragrant soul is destined to be poured, later, from bottles, to rejoice the heart of man, to celebrate earth’s abundance, the memories of happy days, and perfect summers.

It’s a good year for Clochemerle wine and Ponosse’s name is forever linked to such a great wine year, which would have pleased him immensely. Ponosse died peacefully in his garden after a frugal meal and a glass of wine, muttering ‘Clochemerle…dear Clochemerle.’ After he is laid to rest the question is, who will replace him?

In Clochemerle-Babylon there is little plot, as such, even less than in the first book, instead Chevallier concentrates on characters and allows them to develop throughout the novel. Chevallier is also determined to show how much has changed in the ten years or so since the end of the First World War, even if outwardly it seems to be much the same. The title of the book refers to how some of the older, more prudish, characters see the ways of the modern world and how Clochemerle is on a slippery slope into decadence and immorality. But even those that aren’t so critical are still taken aback by the pace of change.

It was true that the elders found everything changing all about them with a precipitation which was leaving them stripped of authority. The girls (kids they remembered no bigger than that) suddenly flowered and married. The lads returned from their military service with blasé airs and a new vocabulary. A horde of new brats was born, making their disprespectful uproar in Clochemerle.

So, in this age of jazz, electricity, aeroplanes and motor cars who is Ponosse’s replacement? The Curé Noive who is the complete opposite of Ponosse:

He was a tall, heavy fellow, this priest, his face bloodless and sinister, in his forties, sombre as the ace of spades, all bones, hands, and feet. His profile was aggressive, his chin like a fender, his whole person seemed black, including the sombre eyes glittering with the light of fanatical piety.

And his sister, who serves as his housekeeper, is even more severe. Even worse than his intense piety, in this region of winemakers, is Noive’s dislike of wine. Chevallier humours us with a few chapters illustrating just how incompatibe the new curé is with Clochemerle before getting rid of him after nearly all of the villagers, including the Baroness, plead with the Archbishop to get rid of him. The Archbishop is soon convinced of the mistake in imposing such a pious curé on the village—the case of Clochemerle 1929 also helps him decide that the villagers are best left to doing what they do best, making wine, and not concerning themselves with religious ideas.

The Clochemerle 1929 was a magnificent wine. Drinking it in small sips, his grace the Archbishop felt himself well disposed towards the Clochemerlins. It takes all sorts to make a world and a Church, to people Heaven and Hell. But there was no denying that it took capable vignerons to make a wine like this, men whose minds must on no account be distracted by excessive metaphysical cares.

So Curé Noive leaves Clochemerle and is replaced with a more suitable man, the Curé Patard, an ex-military man who declares that God ‘knows you’re a sinful lot of swine. He’ll put up with you as you are.’ He likes his wine too, which is good.

With Patard taking up his new position Chevallier switches his focus with Part Two. Clochemerle is now being affected by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. There is less demand for their wine and the good times now seem to be over. Clochemerle even has its first registered unemployed, Tistin la Quille. In an amusing chapter titled Tistin has himself Registered, Tistin convinces the council of Clochemerle to register him as unemployed, something that had never happened before in Clochemerle. The council is happy to do so as it shows them in a benevolent light and highlights their democratic principles. Tistin becomes a bit of a local clebrity due to his unemployed status and ends up getting two young widows pregnant; he doesn’t want to marry either as this may jeopardise his unemployed status. Chevallier’s satirical eye passes over much of the politics, religion, sexual differences of Clochemerle society; much of which is amusing though a lot of his views may seem outdated, or sexist, these days.

Clochemerle-Babylon is an amusing book and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It’s got even less of a plot than the first one but it’s fun catching up with some of the old characters from the first book as well as being introduced to new characters. There’s a lot more characters than the ones introduced in this review. The next, and last, book in the series is Clochemerle-les-Bains which I hope to read soon.

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‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977 Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn focuses on the lives of four work colleagues, Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, who are all single and approaching retirement. They work in the same office; we never find out what it is they do but it seems as if their jobs are pretty superfluous as none of them will be replaced when they retire. They seem to spend most of their time making cups of tea and eating jelly babies. All four characters live alone, have no immediate family and very few friends. Norman lives in a bedsit, likes fried food and complaining; Edwin is a widower who is interested in attending church functions and likes making holiday plans, though he rarely goes on holiday; Letty also lives in a bedsit and plans to move to the country on retirement to be close to her friend, Marjorie, whom she has known since childhood; Marcia lives in her deceased parents’ house. Since her parents and her cat died she has largely withdrawn from the world around her. She collects milk bottles and tinned food and likes cataloguing things. She’s not a big eater.

Although there’s a lot of humour in this novel I was glad that Pym is not too hard on these characters. Each character is aware, to different degrees, that they are out of sync with the world around them and that their impending retirement is only going to exacerbate this. At first it’s difficult distinguishing between the two male characters and equally between the two female characters but their differences soon emerge. For example it soon becomes clear that Marcia is a bit odder and more reclusive than Letty. Marcia has recently had a mastectomy and has formed a kind of crush on the surgeon who performed on her; she looks forward to her hospital appointments and occasionally takes the bus to the surgeon’s house in the hope of seeing him. Marcia had vaguely thought of Norman in a romantic role but now Mr Strong, the surgeon, has replaced Norman in her thoughts. She buys mostly tinned food but barely works up the enthusiasm to use their contents, usually making do with a biscuit and a cup of tea. As the novel continues she gets thinner and thinner, her appearance becomes stranger and her garden is wilder. She has aroused the interest of the social services, in particular Janice Brabner who sees it as her duty to help Marcia whether she wants it or not.

Letty lives in a bedsit; she was the daughter of middle-class parents and had moved to London in the late twenties where she met her friend Marjorie. Letty often meditates on the strangeness of life and wonders how it could have been different.

Like most girls of her generation and upbringing she had expected to marry, and when the war came there were great opportunities for girls to get a man or form an attachment, even with a married man, but Marjorie had been the one to marry, leaving Letty in her usual position of trailing behind her friend. By the end of the war Letty was over thirty and Marjorie had given up hope for her. Letty had never had much hope anyway.

Although they chat throughout the day the four colleagues rarely enquire about each others’ lives outside the office. Even their lunchtimes are spent in different ways. Norman, for example, likes to go to the British Museum or, when the weather is nice, a visit to the park. The problem is that nearly everything about modern life is a source of irritation to Norman such as long hair, semi-nudity in public, litter, abandoned cars or just cars in general, etc. It’s slightly worrying that I can identify with Norman. Edwin, however, is more satisfied, though a bit duller, filling his days attending church services and functions and reading the Church Times.

Letty’s plans for retirement become derailed when it turns out that her friend Marjorie is going to remarry. About the same time her landlady sells her house to an exuberant Nigerian Christian family who aren’t really to Letty’s liking. With her prospects looking grim her thoughts often turn to her approaching retirement, equating it with death.

Letty allowed her to ramble on while she looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.

But there is a positive side to the novel and that is that, despite their awkwardness, the characters do try to reach out to each other. For example, Norman helps to find some lodging for Letty, after their retirement they organise a lunch and all three characters try to reach out to Marcia even if Marcia is largely beyond help. Letty adjusts to her new lodgings and landlady and starts trying some new things, such as helping out with the church as well as watching television and sharing meals with her landlady. She comes to realise that she has slightly more control over her life than she had thought before.

So, the humour has a dark edge, very often commenting on death. As Marcia clears away some plastic bags she ponders:

So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read ‘To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children’. They could have said from middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves.

Or this quote as Letty sits down to chat with her new landlady following a funeral:

‘I think just a cup of tea…’ There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

If this sort of thing upsets you then you may wish to give this book a miss, but you’d be missing out on a funny, compassionate story of four awkward but endearing characters. The end is very uplifting.

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‘Paris’ by Émile Zola

Image source: scan of personal copy

Paris is the last volume in the Three Cities trilogy and was first published in 1898. After the struggle I had with the previous volume, Rome, (see here and here) I did wonder if I would ever finish the trilogy; but I have. Even the first volume in the series, Lourdes, was a bit of a struggle. The main character throughout the series is the Abbé Pierre Froment, a priest who no longer retains his faith, and although Zola makes us sympathise with Froment’s predicament we know right from the start that he will end up leaving the church; it just takes so bloody long for it to happen. The whole series is seriously flawed, in my opinion, Lourdes would have worked better as a piece of journalism, Rome should have been abandoned completely, although a short story could possibly have been salvaged from it, and Paris, which was the best of the three, would still have worked better without Pierre’s struggle with his faith.

Paris opens with Pierre agreeing to take some alms from Abbé Rose to a former house painter, called Laveuve, who is on the verge of starving to death. Abbé Rose is being watched by his superiors as his persistent alms-giving is starting to annoy the church hierarchy. Pierre agrees to take the few francs to the man and visits Laveuve in his working-class slum. Pierre witnesses many scenes of poverty which Zola describes ruthlessly. Pierre enquires with a family as to the whereabouts of Laveuve, whom they know as ‘The Philosopher’. Pierre eventually locates him in a nearby hovel.

Here, on a human face, appeared all the ruin following upon hopeless labour. Laveuve’s unkempt beard straggled over his features, suggesting an old horse that is no longer cropped; his toothless jaws were quite askew, his eyes were vitreous, and his nose seemed to plunge into his mouth. But above all else one noticed his resemblance to some beast of burden, deformed by hard toil, lamed, worn to death, and now only good for the knackers.

Pierre not only delivers the alms from Rose but he also spends the rest of the day trying to get Laveuve admitted into the Asylum of the Invalids of Labour by using his connections with the wealthy people on the board of the organisation. Zola here presents the high-society of Paris, particularly the Duvillard’s family and friends; the Baron Duvillard is a banker involved in an African Railway scheme and his wife, Eve, does at least want to help Pierre. But he’s passed around from person to person, none of whom are willing to help him directly. In the end all his efforts are in vain as Leveuve dies before any decision can be made. He is disgusted with himself that he had allowed his hopes to rise once again, to hope that he could actually help people with charity, and as a result his doubts return.

He had ceased to believe in the efficacy of alms; it was not sufficient that one should be charitable, henceforth one must be just. Given justice, indeed, horrid misery would disappear, and no such thing as charity would be needed.

Pierre is then witness to an act of terrorism as he notices a man, Salvat, whom he had seen when visiting Laveuve, meet Pierre’s brother, Guillaume. Salvat walks away to the Duvillard’s mansion, followed by Guillaume, who is followed by Pierre. Pierre watches Salvat enter a doorway and is soon seen running from the building; Guillaume enters the building and there follows an explosion. Pierre helps his injured brother get away and lets him stay at his house to recuperate. The only casualty of the bomb is a young servant girl.

Pierre and Guillaume, who had been estranged, now become better acquainted and Pierre gets to know both Guillaume’s family and his revolutionary friends. Guillaume is a chemist who had been working on a new explosive and Salvat had managed to pilfer some of this when he was working briefly for Guillaume. The rest of the novel now concentrates on Pierre’s complete disassociation with the church and his appreciation of Guillaume’s scientific and atheistic outlook on life. Pierre is completely astonished and then smitten by Guillaume’s fiancée, Marie, who seems to embody the best of this new, more open, outlook to life. Now that Pierre has lost his faith in God he seems to find a new faith in some sort of scientific positivism, whereby all the problems of the world are going to be solved by socialism, science and work. This was no doubt close to Zola’s personal views but it certainly seems to be highly unrealistic to a modern reader. I wonder how the contemporary reader would have found these arguments? It is strange that all the political talk about socialism and anarchism concentrates on Saint-Simon, Fourier, Proudhon et al. rather than Marx, Engels, Bakunin et al.; it’s almost as if a hundred years of political thought meant nothing to Zola.

There is a lot more in this novel as well; there’s the manhunt of Salvat as well as his public execution; the threat of terrorism; there’s Zola’s look at bourgeois society and its decadence at the end of the nineteenth century by portraying political, financial and moral corruption; there’s the joys of cycling (for men AND women); the joys of marriage and fatherhood. Unusually for Zola this novel has a very positive, almost utopian, ending, predicting the downfall of Catholicism and the rise of Science and Justice.

Therein lies the new hope—Justice, after eighteen hundred years of impotent Charity. Ah! in a thousand years from now, when Catholicism will be naught but a very ancient superstition of the past, how amazed men will be to think that their ancestors were able to endure that religion of torture and nihility!

I wonder what Zola would have made of the world today?

The novel ends with the whole family looking out over a Paris bathed in golden light from the setting sun. Marie holds up her son, Jean, to look at the sight, promising him that he’s going to reap the benefits that Science and Justice are going to bring. Jean would be aged sixteen in 1914.

This was cross-posted on the Reading Zola blog.

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Filed under Fiction, Zola, Émile

Ten Random Books

Today Simon at Stuck in a Book published a post called 10 random books to tell us about yourself inviting us to do just that—select ten books at random from our bookshelves as a way of getting to know fellow bloggers from their bookshelves.

So, I followed Simon’s approach and used my GoodReads shelves and an online random number generator to see what popped up. The books include everything, fiction, non-fiction, books that have been read, unread books, books I’ll probably never get to read, comics, plays, poetry etc. etc. Here’s the results:

1. ‘Travels with My Aunt’ by Graham Greene
I had a bit of a Graham Greene session a few years ago, having not read anything by him up to then, but never got round to reading this one. I’ve read several reviews by other bloggers and it really appeals—it will probably be my next Greene book.

2. The Literary Detective: 100 Puzzles in Classic Fiction’ by John Sutherland
I can see why I added this to my GoodReads TBR shelf but to be honest I doubt if I’ll ever get round to reading it. I’m sure it would be a fun read though.

3. ‘Varney the Vampire Or the Feast of Blood’ by Thomas Peckett Prest & James Malcolm Rymer
I added this to my TBR as it was a group read for the Gothic Literature GoodReads group. I didn’t get round to reading it but it looks like it would be a fun book. It was a serialised Victorian gothic horror ‘penny dreadful’ first published between 1845-7. It’s not going to be top-notch literature but looks interesting enough and must be one of the first vampire stories.

4. ‘The Quarry’ by Iain Banks
This was published just days after Iain Banks’ death on 9th June 2013. I read it a few months later, along with a re-read of my favourite Banks novel The Wasp Factory, as a commemoration of Iain Banks life and works. I enjoyed it and found it somewhat similar to The Wasp Factory.

5. ‘The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling’
by Henry Fielding

This is one of those classics that I keep forgetting about. I’m sure I’d like it though I will probably want an edition with some notes. I saw the 1960s film years ago.

6. ‘Betty Blue’ by Philippe Djian
Ok, so I saw and loved the film when it came out in the late eighties but have never read the book, or anything else by Djian. I’ve read a couple of reviews recently (here and here) of Elle, which has also been made into a film starring Isabelle Hupert. I should see about reading something by Djian.

7. ‘Rowlf’ by Richard Corben
Richard Corben was a comic book artist/illustrator who produced work in the underground comics of the late 1960s and moved into the mainstream, contributing to magazines such as Heavy Metal. His work could very often be categorised as horror, sci-fi or fantasy but he had his very own distinctive style. I have a copy of this buried away somewhere along with many others; one day they will be allowed out in the sunlight again.

8. ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ by H. Rider Haggard
Basically a late Victorian adventure story. I read this in 2010 and remember being surprised at just how good it was though I was in just the right frame of mind when I read it. It’s probably incredibly poitically incorrect and I can imagine some people getting in a rage over it. Personally, I’m not shocked when Victorians don’t have the views of twenty-first century Western intellectuals.

9. ‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles
I’ve read a few books by Paul Bowles but nothing recently. I first discovered his work when I first got into ‘The Beats’; I soon realised that I generally preferred those authors that inspired the Beats rather than the Beats themselves. Every now and then I get the urge to re-read Let It Come Down and then remember that I got rid of my copy. Up Above the World looks as if it will be similar to his other works, involving travellers adrift in an alien and hostile environment. Sort of like a nastier Graham Greene and with more drugs.

10. ‘Identity’ by Milan Kundera
I’m pretty sure I’ve read this one but I can’t remember a damn thing about it. I think I was a bit disappointed with it at the time but I’d be interested to see what I’d make of it now. I had half-planned to read/re-read Kundera’s later works (i.e. post-Immortality) but haven’t got round to it yet. However I have a copy of this one and as I’m trying to read as many books from my physical TBR pile this year this one could well get read soon.

All the book cover images were taken from GoodReads.

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‘Too Loud a Solitude’ by Bohumil Hrabal

Image source: scan of personal copy

Too Loud a Solitude was first published in 1976; this translation, by Michael Henry Heim, was first published in 1990. Too Loud a Solitude is a first person narrative by Haňta, a man who, for the last thirty-five years has been compacting books into a pulp, whilst drinking beer constantly to help him get through this ordeal. He doesn’t even like drinking, it’s just that it makes him think better, or so he claims. Haňta enjoys his job, mostly because it gives him access to so many books to read; he’s read so much that he can no longer remember what are his own thoughts and what are those that he has read. The opening page is just brilliant and I will quote a rather large part of it:

I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can’t quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that’s how I’ve stayed attuned to myself and the world around me for the past thirty-five years. Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.

Haňta is dedicated to his job, he lovingly makes each bale into a piece of artwork by adding special books or images from books of the Old Masters. His boss thinks he’s a beer-soaked idiot though.

Haňta has a huge book collection at home and looks forward to his retirement when he can lovingly compact only the books he truly treasures—he aims to have his own compactor when he retires. He’s got so many books at home that there is a genuine fear that he’ll be crushed to death if one day they were to fall on top of him.

Haňta’s cellar is overrun with mice which he happily sends into the compactor to get crushed with the books. Two of his friends, ex-university men who are forced to work in the sewers, tell Haňta of the ongoing battle that’s going on underground between the white rats and the brown rats—a war of epic proportions is raging which plays on Haňta’s mind. Haňta tells us of his earlier life as well. He tells an amusing story of his love for a girl called Manča; you will just have to read the book yourself to find out why she earned the nickname Shithead Manča.

Haňta has quite a few visitors in his cellar, some are real like the two gypsy girls and the professor, whilst some are not, like Jesus and Lao-tze. Haňta is used to having visions when he drinks; his father and grandfather also had visions when they drank.

After his uncle’s funeral Haňta spends time thinking about the life he’s lived, the books (and mice) he’s sent into the compactor, the books he’s read:

It never ceased to amaze me, until suddenly one day I felt beautiful and holy for having had the courage to hold on to my sanity after all I’d seen and been through, body and soul, in too loud a solitude, and slowly I came to the realization that my work was hurtling me headlong into an infinite field of omnipotence.

Rather than hurtling towards an infinite field of omnipotence Haňta seems to be hurtling towards some sort of nervous breakdown as he starts ruminating about his life, both past and present, he remembers a gypsy girl he loved in the past who disappeared one day; he discovered that she had been sent to a concentration camp; as a form of revenge Haňta loves compacting Nazi literature.

Although there’s not much of a plot to this novella it does end in quite a dramatic way but I will say no more on that. This is a strange but rather fun book to read; Hrabal’s style reminded me of early Beckett (such as Murphy) or the wackiness of Kurt Vonnegut. The story is about the love of reading and the way that books are treated by the majority of people, as waste matter that needs to be disposed of. At first I thought the books were being compacted due to censorship but I don’t think that’s the case, they’re just books that are no longer needed as only a few oddballs are left that enjoy reading them. Whenever I read a book such as this I’m aware that I’m probably missing out on all sorts of symbolism. The Wikipedia page says that the ‘novel is vibrant with symbolism’ but gives no examples. Hrabal also repeats things throughout the novel, especially the fact that Haňta has worked as a paper compactor for thirty-five years, which gets mentioned nearly every chapter. This could annoy some readers but I found it amusing; again it reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut’s style. I’m not sure what effect it has other than to make the reader realise that this fact is of extreme importance to the narrator. I have a couple more books by Hrabal and will look forward to reading them soon.

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‘Pierre and Jean’ by Guy de Maupassant

Pierre and Jean was Maupassant’s fourth novel and was originally published in 1888. It’s a short novel, running to only about 130 pages in my edition, but Maupassant, well used to short-stories, doesn’t hang about and gets the story moving from page 1.

It begins on a boat; Gérôme Roland is fishing and he is accompanied by his wife, Louise, their two sons, Pierre and Jean, and the young attractive widow Mme Rosémilly. M. Roland is a retired jeweller from Paris who decided to move to Le Havre once he had made enough money. Pierre the older son had tried various professions but has recently qualified as a doctor, while the younger son, Jean, who is more diligent has recently passed his diploma in law. Both brothers are looking to set themselves up in business in Le Havre. There is an element of competition between the brothers and both have an eye for Mme Rosémilly.

When they return from their boating expedition the servant informs M. Roland that his lawyer, M. Lecanu, wishes to speak to him urgently. It turns out that an old friend of the family from their Parisian days, M. Maréchal, has recently died and left his inheritance to Jean, whom he thinks is worthy of this legacy. Everyone is shocked but overjoyed, and of course a little sad of the death of their friend whom they had nearly forgotten about. But why does he only leave the money to Jean, and not also Pierre? M. Roland argues that it was because Maréchal was present at the birth of Roland’s second son.

Both Jean and Pierre are a little dazed by the events and both go out separately for a walk. Pierre is out of sorts and wonders if he is jealous of Jean. He admits he is a little jealous but won’t let that stop loving his brother. When Pierre goes to visit a friend of his and recounts the day’s news the friend says, without elaborating further, “That won’t look good”, but Pierre has no idea why he says that. Later, when talking to a barmaid about the inheritance she innocently mentions that it’s no wonder that Jean looks nothing like Pierre. It’s a little later that he realises what these comments mean; that Maréchal must have left the money to Jean because Jean was Maréchal’s son, which also means that Pierre’s beloved mother must have had an affair behind his father’s back. Now the seed has been sown in Pierre’s mind he keeps thinking and thinking, digging deeper and deeper. He tries to remember Maréchal from his youth and remembers a photograph of him that used to be in the house. Pierre wonders what he should do, after all at this stage they are only suspicions, but even if they were untrue it could easily lead to gossip and be a threat to his mother’s honour. But Pierre is unable to tell Jean his suspicions as the others are all celebrating their good fortune. Instead, Pierre tries to find out more about Maréchal from his parents.

    He kept on saying to himself: ‘Why has this Maréchal left all his money to Jean?’
     It was no longer jealousy that made him seek an answer, not the rather unworthy but natural envy he knew was hidden inside him and that he had been fighting against for three days, but terror of an appalling thing, terror of believing that his brother Jean was the son of this man!

But poor Pierre doesn’t know what to think; if it’s true then it means that his beloved mother had an affair. But he soon admits that it could be true.

    Certainly she might have loved just like any other woman. For why should she be different from any other even though she was his mother?

So, I wondered at this stage of the novel how a typical nineteenth century writer may have ended it: the mother may die of guilt and shame; the brothers may have fought over Pierre’s suspicions with one or the other dying or living their life in poverty; Pierre may have convinced Jean to give up the inheritance to protect their mother’s reputation, etc. etc. None of these are correct. I shall reveal the ending in what follows so you may wish to stop reading at this point if you don’t want to know the ending. Instead, after seeing the picture of Maréchal, Pierre is convinced that Jean is Maréchal’s son and finally confronts Jean with this information. Pierre has become increasingly irritable over the last few weeks and by now Pierre suspects that his mother knows of his suspicions. Jean thinks Pierre is just jealous of him, especially as he’s just announced his marriage to Mme Rosémilly. But Pierre unburdens himself and when he’s finished he leaves. The story up to now has been from Pierre’s viewpoint but it now cleverly switches to Jean’s viewpoint. Jean quietly tries to process the information and then goes to his mother, who was in the next room when Pierre blurted everything out, and asks her if were true. When she acknowledges that it is true she is prepared to depart from his life forever, however, Jean is having none of it and offers her love and protection.

Alone, Jean thinks about the events of the night and what needs to be done:

If he had learned the secret of his birth in any other way he would certainly have been outraged and felt a deep resentment, but after his quarrel with his brother, after this violent and brutal accusation which had shaken his nerves, the heartbreaking emotion of his mother’s confession took away all his energy to revolt. The shock to his feelings had been violent enough to sweep away all the prejudices and pious susceptibilties of natural morality on an irresistible wave of emotion.

He contemplates giving up the inheritance but reasons that he can no longer claim any inheritance from M. Roland as that is Pierre’s by right so then the inheritance from Maréchal is then his by right. The next day Jean arranges, with Pierre’s acceptance, to organise a doctor’s position on a cruise ship for Pierre. Pierre is quite happy to go as he’s now guilty about blurting out his suspicions to Jean and it will give him an income for a while as well as some time to think. M. Roland meanwhile is totally oblivious to everything that’s going on around him.

Pierre is not sure what his mother told Jean but seems happy enough to allow everything to carry on as normal. It’s funny how Maupassant subverts the nineteenth century novel with Pierre, the legitimate son, having to make way for Jean, the illegitimate son and it’s odd how no-one in the novel thought that splitting the inheritance between Pierre and Jean was a viable solution.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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