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‘A Woman’s Life’ (Une Vie) by Guy de Maupassant

A Woman’s Life was first published as Une Vie in 1883. Maupassant began working on it in 1877 when he was only twenty-seven and it was to be his first novel. The translation I read was from 1965 by H. N. P. Sloman for Penguin Books.

The book covers the adult life of Jeanne and begins with her returning home after five years in a convent. She is aged seventeen and is happy to be returning to the Poplars, the home of her loving parents. Her parents are reasonably wealthy, owning several farms, but they are slowly selling these off to raise money. Jeanne’s father, the Baron, is trying to move with the times by introducing new farming methods on his farms. Jeanne’s mother, once beautiful, now suffers from various ailments which leaves her exhausted and short of breath. A frequent visitor to the house is Jeanne’s Aunt Lison; she is in her forties, timid and unobtrusive. Here is Maupassant’s description of her:

She was a short, silent, unobtrusive woman, only appearing at meal-times and then retiring to her room, where she remained closeted all day. She had a friendly manner and was beginning to feel her age, though she was only forty-two. Her eyes were soft and sad and she had never counted for anything in the family. As a child no one had ever kissed her, for she was neither pretty nor noisy; she was like a shadow or some familiar object, a living piece of furniture that one sees every day without noticing it.

Aunt Lison appears at different parts of the story but is hardly noticed by any of the other characters at all.

Although not particularly religious the family attends church regularly out of respect for the abbé. One day at church they are introduced to their new neighbour, the young Vicomte de Lamare, who has inherited the property following his father’s recent death. Jeanne and Julien, the Vicomte, soon begin courting and decide to marry. This is, for Jeanne, a blissful period of her life. The wedding is planned for six weeks time followed by a honeymoon in Corsica. There is a wonderful scene where the two lovers go off for an evening walk in the gardens. The Baron and Baroness go to bed and ask Aunt Lison to wait up for the young couple. Coming back Julien notices that Jeanne’s shoes are wet and asks ‘Aren’t your darling little feet cold?’ Lison, hearing this, begins to tremble, then sob. When asked why she says ‘No one has ever asked me a question like that…never…never.’ She then runs off to her room much to the amusement of the young couple. Jeanne mutters ‘Poor Auntie!’ Jeanne is amused at the thought of any man making love to Aunt Lison but Jeanne is just as unprepared for her wedding night and married life. Maupassant is quite explicit, for a nineteenth century writer, in his depiction of their wedding night. Jeanne gets used to married life but does not enjoy the physical side.

After the misery of the first night Jeanne had got used to Julien’s touch, his kisses and tender embraces, though her revulsion from their more intimate relations remained. She found him attractive and loved him, and her light-heartedness and gaiety returned.

During their honeymoon in Corsica Jeanne continues to feel embarrassed about Julien’s sexual appetite. However, one day finding themselves alone whilst trekking up a mountain path she becomes more playful with Julien and she experiences physical sexual pleasure for the first time. The remainder of the honeymoon is like a dream for her.

Well, what with this being a nineteenth century novel we know that things will slowly get worse from hereon. Once they return to the Poplars the everyday realities of life become clearer. It becomes apparent that Julien is extremely miserly, even resenting spending money on food and heating, and he seems to have quickly lost interest in his wife. Jeanne, meanwhile, realises that she has nothing to occupy her time as Julien takes complete control of the finances and the running of the property. It turns out that Julien’s lack of sexual interest in his wife is because he is chasing other women; first there is the maid, Rosalie and then a local Countess, Gilberte. As the novel progresses Jeanne is let down by everyone, one by one. Her husband has affairs; even her parents, it turns out had lovers in the past; her son becomes a dissolute young man who, through his gambling debts and reckless business deals, drains Jeanne’s whole inherited wealth. When a new, puritanical, abbé arrives Jeanne becomes momentarily drawn towards religion but in the end she can’t accept his vengeful, vindictive God.

As Jeanne is introduced to the miseries of life Maupassant portrays her compassionately, he does not ridicule her for her naivety, instead he shows how she copes with it and adapts to the new situations. She is naturally optimistic even if events are sometimes overwhelming. By the end of the book Rosalie has returned and helps to organise the day-to-day running of Jeanne’s life and they become friends. The novel ends with her son, Paul, wishing to return, having already delivered his newly born daughter into her care, whom she instantly dotes on. Rosalie sums it up: ‘You see, life is never as good or as bad as one thinks.’ Maupassant has convinced us to hope for the best for Jeanne.

This was cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘Bouvard and Pécuchet’ by Gustave Flaubert

Of all of Flaubert’s works the one that most appealed to me was Bouvard and Pécuchet, a story about two clerks who embark on a mission to understand everything. It was published posthumously in 1881; it was an unfinished work even though Flaubert had been working on it for nearly ten years. An earlier draft from 1863 exists which has what I feel is a better title, The Two Woodlice (Les Deux Cloportes). The two woodlice, Bouvard and Pécuchet, are single, middle-aged clerks who happen to meet and strike up a friendship one day in 1838. The meeting takes place on the first page of the book and has a Beckettian feel to it.

Two men appeared.
One came from the Bastille, the other from the Jardin des Plantes. The taller of the two, in a linen costume, walked with his hat pushed back, waistcoat undone and cravat in hand. The smaller one, whose body was enveloped in a brown frock-coat, had a peaked cap on his bent head.
When they came to the middle of the boulevard they both sat down at the same moment on the same seat.
Each took off his hat to mop his brow and put it beside him; and the smaller man noticed, written inside his neighbour’s hat, Bouvard; while the latter easily made out the word Pécuchet, in the cap belonging to the individual in the frock-coat.
‘Well, well,’ he said, ‘we both had the same idea, writing our names inside our headgear.’
‘My word, yes! Someone might take mine at the office.’
‘The same with me, I work in an office too.’
Then they studied each other.

They quickly become good friends, meeting each other at lunch or after work to go for a walk, sharing meals and conversation. They are, however, quite different: Bouvard is a widower, he has curly hair, he is rotund and is quite sociable; whereas Pécuchet is a bachelor, has black hair and is rather morose. One day Bouvard is notified that he has inherited his uncle’s fortune—this uncle is actually Bouvard’s natural father. Bouvard decides to wait until his retirement before moving to the country at Chavignolles. There is no question of Pécuchet being left behind and he is invited to share Bouvard’s good fortune.

This all happens in the first chapter. In the second chapter Bouvard and Pécuchet get used to their new surroundings and try to find out how to survive in the country. Although those around them offer advice both men dive into books and magazines to determine the best way to run their farm. They take up every hare-brained scheme that they come across, which often involves paying a lot of money for equipment, and ignore the advice of others. This sets the pattern of the whole book whereby Bouvard and Pécuchet decide they need to know about something, they then do some research and try to put in practice whatever they come across, fail, then move on to their next obsession. For example, Bouvard has read that bleeding his bullocks will fatten them up, they end up dying from it; he decides to make beer from germander (mint family) leaves which cause intestinal problems of those that try it; they decide to have a pear orchard but all the trees die. They try making jam, pickling vegetables and making bread, but fail. They then get a still and try to produce liqueurs, but after narrowly escaping death when the still explodes, Pécuchet says ‘Perhaps it is because we don’t know any chemistry!’ And so chapter three is about their attempts to understand chemistry then anatomy, medicine etc. Each subsequent chapter is taken up with their search for knowledge on a variety of subjects, always with the same lack of success. Initially Bouvard and Pécuchet are optimists, always convinced that they will be successful but by the time they get to study philosophy in chapter eight they have finally had enough and decide to commit suicide on Christmas Day but then upon seeing a midnight mass procession they turn to God. The book doesn’t end there as they end up adopting two children and then try to find the best way to educate them. Although the book is unfinished Flaubert left a plan which indicates that they end up getting a double-sided desk made so that they can go back to their original work as copyists.

Bouvard and Pécuchet is certainly a strange book and one that takes a bit of getting used to as there is no real narrative just the cycle of attempt and failure. Flaubert tries to connect the chapters to give it some overall structure but this can be rather tenuous. Although a lot of the episodes were humorous I felt that Flaubert was holding back on the humour. I wondered about his aims in writing such a book and most of what I read about it suggests that he was trying to show how pointless most knowledge is. But for me the problem is with Bouvard’s and Pécuchet’s approach to knowledge; they seem to be uncritical consumers of all knowledge regardless of its source, they seem unable to learn from their mistakes, they are merely dabblers and dilettantes and seem unwilling to listen to others’ advice. For example the fact that they can’t grow pear trees is not because the knowledge to do so is not there but it is because they are fools who are incapable of processing the information. After all, it is possible to grow pear trees. That there is a lot of useless, wrong or dangerous information around is apparent to the modern-day internet user and the ability to sift out all this crap from the relevant and useful information is a daily task that we all have to perform—sadly there are still many modern-day Bouvards and Pécuchets around.

However, all this reading had disturbed their brains.

I had a quick look in Frederick Brown’s biography of Flaubert, Flaubert: A Life, to see if I could uncover a bit more about Flaubert’s intentions in writing this book and what exactly drove him to continue with it for so long. It was interesting to find that Turgenev warned him from making it too heavy and suggested the story lent itself to a satire. Flaubert ignored Turgenev’s advice. In a letter to his sister, dated 6th June 1877, he wrote ‘At times, the immense scope of this book stuns me. What will come of it? I only hope I’m not deceiving myself into writing something goofy rather than sublime. No, I think not! Something tells me I’m on the right path! But it will be one or the other.’ I think it is more goofy than sublime, but I don’t see that as a negative criticism as I believe that Flaubert should have played up the ‘goofiness’ even more.

In the end the main problem with it is that it’s a bit too repetitive. I felt that the last couple of chapters became a bit more focused as their route from philosophy to religion then to education had more of a narrative drive than the earlier progression through literature, drama, politics and love. It was quite a fun book to read and it was a shame Flaubert didn’t finish it but I feel that he should have paid more attention to Turgenev’s advice.

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‘Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel’ by William Trevor

I make no apologies for reading and reviewing another William Trevor novel as one of my aims this year is to read as many books by William Trevor, Brian Moore and H.E. Bates as I feel like. I also hope to read at least one book by John Cowper Powys, an author I’ve been meaning to read for years now. I am concentrating on Trevor’s earlier books initially but I am not going to be a slave to chronology. Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel was originally published in 1969, four years after The Boarding House (The Love Department was published inbetween these two) with which it shares some similarities. Although both books centre around a group of characters and a single building each book has a different set of characters and the situations that develop are quite unique.

The novel begins with Mrs Ivy Eckdorf, a professional photographer, originally from England and who now lives in Munich, brazenly and intrusively engage a man in conversation whilst on a flight to Dublin. She explains, despite the fact that the man doesn’t care, about her life:

   ‘The one who was my husband last,’ said Mrs Eckdorf, ‘gave me a taste for cognac. Hans-Otto Eckdorf.’
   ‘Oh yes?’
 ‘Indeed.’ She paused, and then she said: ‘That has been my life. A mother, a father who walked away. And then Miss Tample. And then two German businessmen. The only light in my life is my camera.’
   ‘I see.’
   ‘We are the victims of other people.’
   ‘It’s often so—’

It’s difficult to know where to stop the quotation as the flow of words from Mrs Eckdorf is constant. She intends to visit O’Neill’s Hotel in Thadeus Street, Dublin after hearing about it from a bartender on a ship. O’Neill’s is owned by a deaf ninety-one year-old called Mrs Sinnott who has offered lodging and employment to a number of orphans over the years. The hotel, once grand, has now fallen into disrepair and is suspected of being little more than a brothel. Mrs Eckdorf believes that something terrible happened in the past and that she can help uncover the source of their problems.

There are too many characters, brilliant characters, to cover them all but it is useful to get to know some of them. Mrs Sinnott’s fifty-eight year-old son, Eugene, basically lives off the hotel but does little to help in the running of it, instead he spends his time drinking and gambling. He spends his time analysing his dreams for racing tips. O’Shea is the hotel porter and is mainly responsible for the actual running of the hotel; he dreams of the days when the hotel was elegant and hopes that the current decay can be reversed. When Mrs Eckdorf arrives he mistakenly believes that this elegantly dressed woman intends to purchase the hotel in order to renovate it. He sees himself as Mrs Sinnott’s protector, from all the others, who are trying to take advantage of her. The worst of these people, in O’Shea’s eyes, is Morrissey; he’s a shady character who doesn’t actually live in the hotel but has somehow got a key and sneaks in at night to sleep in the hallway, and occasionally pass water in the backyard. Worse, he uses the hotel to pimp out Agnes Quinn to interested men. I always love a vivid character description, so here’s a description of Morrissey.

Morrissey was singularly small, a man in his mid-thirties who had once been compared to a ferret. He had a thin trap of a mouth and greased black hair that he perpetually attended, directing it back from his forehead with a clogged comb. He was dressed now, as invariably he was, in flannel trousers and the jacket of a blue striped suit over a blue pullover, and a shirt that was buttoned to the neck but did not have a tie in its collar.

Other characters include Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, who now lives elsewhere with their son, Timothy John. Timothy John is in love with a girl called Daisy Tulip and he works in an insurance agency under Mr Desmond Gregan, the husband of Enid Gregan, née Sinnott, Eugene’s sister. Desmond Gregan dreams of growing and selling tomatoes for a living instead of working in an insurance agency. If that’s complicated enough we have a travelling cardboard salesman called Mr Smedley who plays a significant part later on, Mrs Dargan a large prostitute who virtually lives at the Excelsior pub along with Eugene and others.

Ivy Eckdorf knowingly arrives at the hotel on the eve of Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday and the chaos ensues. If her actions at the beginning of the novel seemed erratic and confrontational then what follows is even more so. She knows how to win over O’Shea by telling him what he wants to hear but Eugene, for all his faults, has a keener eye and suspects something. Mrs Eckdorf wheedles her way into Mrs Sinnott’s room and communicates with her, as all the others do, by writing in one of her notebooks. Trevor allows us periodically into the thoughts of all the characters. Mrs Eckdorf believes it is her mission to uncover and photograph Mrs Sinnott’s birthday party and uncover the truth of past events in O’Neill’s hotel. In fact, we get to know more and more about Mrs Eckdorf’s life and as the novel continues we start to see that her erratic and obviously manipulative behaviour starts to show cracks in her mental wellbeing. She manages to unburden herself to Father Hennessey but he is unable to help her as she jumps from confession to messianic visions to contrition. It’s a glorious book with a host of crazy characters and with a ‘car-crash’ of an ending.

‘Extraordinary things have happened to me in this city,’ said Mrs Eckdorf in the bar of her hotel at half-past one on the morning of August 11th. ‘You would scarce believe,’ she said.

This was read as part of Reading Ireland Month 2018.

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‘The Wanderer’ by Knut Hamsun

The Wanderer consists of two related novellas, Under the Autumn Star and On Muted Strings. Both share the same narrator and contain the same characters so they can easily be thought of as two sections of the same novel. Under the Autumn Star was originally published in Norwegian in 1906 as Under Høststjærnen. En Vandrers Fortælling and On Muted Strings was first published in 1909 as En Vandrer spiller med Sordin.

Under the Autumn Star begins with the narrator, Knut Pederson (Hamsun’s real name), explaining that he had fled the city to the country to find some peace and solitude.

It is years since I knew such peace, perhaps twenty or thirty years; or perhaps it was in a previous life. Whenever it was, I must surely have tasted before now this peace that I feel as I walk around in ecstasies, humming to myself, caring for every stone and every straw, and sensing that they care for me once more. We are friends.

Pederson meets an old workmate called Grindhusen, who paints but is not exactly a painter, who does stonework but is not exactly a stonemason. Pederson joins Grindhusen in his travels to find work.

They turn up at a parsonage where Grindhusen has been employed to dig a well. Pederson suggests to the priest that it would be possible to install pipes from the well to the house. So they busy themselves with work and on his time off Pederson wanders about the forest and churchyard. He finds the priest’s daughter, Elizabeth, attractive but a bit too young for him; he nonetheless falls in love with her. But it is the girl’s mother that seduces Pederson when the priest and Elizabeth are out of the house and she asks Pederson to help her move her bed. When the work is complete Pederson and Grindhusen move on to dig up potatoes; Pederson is especially reluctant to settle down despite having offers.

One evening the priest came over and offered me work on the parsonage farm. The offer was a good one, and I considered it for a while before finally turning it down. I preferred to rove around as a free agent, picking up such work as I could, sleeping out, taking myself a little by surprise.

Once the work is done Pederson goes wandering again, this time with someone called Lars Falkenberg, a very different character than Grindhusen. Falkenberg is a bit of a con-artist in that he pretends to be a piano tuner; he has some piano-tuning equipment and twiddles about with the piano for a bit before leaving the piano in the same state it was when he arrived—no-one ever notices that nothing has been improved.

It is not long before they end up at Øvrebø, home of Captain and Madame Falkenberg (no relation to Lars), where they get jobs felling trees. Much of the remainder of the novel centres around events at Øvrebø. Meanwhile Pederson and Falkenberg vie for the attentions of the maid Emma. Pederson develops a machine for sawing trees and receives help and support from the Captain. It turns out that Elizabeth is a friend of Madame’s and so she visits frequently. One day Pederson is asked to drive Elizabeth back to the parsonage and Madame goes along as well. They stop for a picnic beside the road.

The pair of them plied me with food and feared I wasn’t getting enough; and When I had opened the bottles, I got my full share of beer, too; it was a regular roadside banquet, a small fairy tale in my life. Madame I hardly dared look at, lest she should have occasion to feel hurt.

But something happens between Pederson and Madame on this trip; both feel that there is an attraction between them. Later on Pederson virtually stalks her when she goes on a visit into town. Meanwhile, Falkenberg gets taken on permanently at Øvrebø and marries Emma whilst Pederson sets out on his wanderings again.

The events of On Muted Strings takes place six years later with Pederson returning to Øvrebø. The story is dominated with the marital affairs of the Captain and Madame. They have no children and it appears that the Captain is carrying on an affair with Elizabeth and hosts never-ending parties. Madame is jealous and tries to get her revenge on her husband by having an affair with an engineer. Domestic fights and squabbles continue throughout the book with the servants and Pederson caught in the middle. It is a different book to Under the Autumn Star but a very interesting sequel. Although not quite on the scale of Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil I was very impressed with the The Wanderer and hope to continue with more books by Hamsun.

Since writing the above I have also read Hamsuns Victoria which was originally published in 1898. It is a novella and the full translated title would be Victoria: A Love Story. And that is what we get, a pretty standard nineteenth century love story with the usual themes; love across a class divide, unrequited love, an impoverished poet writing about his beloved, the death of his beloved. Hamsun’s style though is unfussy and modern and I’m guessing that he was trying to update the tired themes of the nineteenth century love story fit for the approaching twentieth century; but to our eyes it just really melts in with the rest of them. Or maybe he was just trying to write a more old-fashioned story. It’s not a bad read though and the two lovers Victoria and Johannes are well sketched.

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‘The Immoralist’ by André Gide

The Immoralist was originally published in 1902 in French as L’Immoraliste; this translation, by Dorothy Bussy (née Strachey), was first published in 1930. It begins with a preface by the author then a fictional letter to the Prime Minister explaining that the following text is what the main character, Michel, told them after asking them to visit him in a little village somewhere in Algeria. The rest of the novel is Michel’s story.

Since last seeing his friends Michel explains that he had married Marceline, even though he hadn’t particularly loved her, in order to please his father who lay on his deathbed. The thought of marriage had not previously entered his head as he had been occupied with his work on ancient cultures. On their wedding day Michel and Marceline embark on their travels, first to Paris and then on to North Africa. Whilst travelling Michel begins to pay a little attention to his new wife and realises that she is in fact very pretty, something he had never noticed before even though they had grown up together. It is only now that he really considers his recent marriage and what it means to him.

So the being to whom I had attached my life had a real and individual life of her own! The importance of this thought woke me up several times during the night; several times I sat up in my berth in order to look at Marceline, my wife, asleep in the berth below.

In Tunis Michel develops a cough and feels tired but they head further south until they get to Biskra. He starts to cough up blood and initially tries to hide it from his wife but she soon realises that he has tuberculosis and she looks after him during his illness. As a distraction Marceline brings Bachir, an Arab boy, in to Michel’s room; Michel soon starts to look forward to Bachir’s visits and develops a definite desire to live.

And suddenly I was seized with a desire, a craving, something more furious and more imperious than I had ever felt before—to live! I want to live! I will live. I clenched my teeth, my hands, concentrated my whole being in this wild, grief-stricken endeavour towards existence.

With Marceline’s help and his own renewed will to live Michel recovers from his illness. He finds the presence of children both in the street and at home a great help as he enjoys watching their healthy bodies. There is one incident when he witnesses, via a reflection, one of the boys, Moktir, steal a small pair of scissors behind his back. Michel says nothing and, curiously, Moktir then becomes his favourite. Later on in the novel Michel is made aware, from the enigmatic character Ménalque, that Moktir knew that Michel saw him.

Once Michel’s health has returned they return to France via Italy. Michel returns to work and decides to spend his time between Paris and an estate he inherited in Normandy called La Morinière. Whilst at La Morinière Michel learns about the state of the tenants and the land from Bocage who has been looking after the estate during the abscence of the landowner. Michel becomes irritated with Bocage’s old-fashioned ways and becomes besotted with Bocage’s young son, Charles: ‘…a fine strong young fellow, so exuberantly healthy, so lissom, so well-made…‘ Charles has ideas to shake up the running of the farms and Michel helps him implement some of these ideas. Michel is uneasy being a landowner and tries to ingratiate himself with the tenants and local populace but under the influence of Charles he evicts two farmers for no real reason. There is also an episode whereby Michel encourages another boy, Alcide, who is also Bocage’s son, to poach from his own land while at the same time encouraging Bocage to catch the poachers. Michel seems to just be playing at being a landowner, he doesn’t seem to want the responsibility of owning land and instead makes an ass of himself.

In the third part of the book events mirror the first part in that they leave Paris to travel to North Africa via Italy but this time Marceline falls ill. Michel looks after Marceline but he keeps them moving on until they finally reach Biskra and the conclusion of the book.

I have missed quite a lot out of this review. In fact, it is amazing just how much is packed in to such a small book. Both the setting and style is similar to Albert Camus and so it is no surprise to discover that Camus was influenced by Gide’s work. The story and style also made me think of Paul Bowles’s work such as The Sheltering Sky et al. Michel’s illness makes him re-evaluate his life and to take control of it but he soon falters as his freedom brings confusion. Near the end of the book he tells his friends:

What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me.

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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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‘Fat City’ by Leonard Gardner

gardner_fat-cityFat City was first published in 1969 and is the only novel by Leonard Gardner. It has recently been republished by New York Review of Books in the U.S. and by Pushkin Press in the U.K. It was made into a film in 1972 which was directed by John Huston and starred Stacy Keach & Jeff Bridges; the screenplay was written by Leonard Gardner himself. I saw the film years ago and though I liked it I remember being a little underwhelmed by it. I would like to watch the film again to see what I make of it now but seeing that the book was published in January this year by Pushkin Press I thought I’d read it as part of Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight. It gets labeled as a ‘boxing novel’ which could be enough to put me off a book but it’s not about boxing but about the boxers themselves.

The novel takes place mostly in Stockton, California; I’m not sure about the time period but the Wikipedia article suggest the late ’50s; in a way it doesn’t really matter too much as it’s all quite timeless which is something that I like about a lot of good American literature. The two main characters are Billy Tully, a man nearing his thirtieth birthday, whose wife left him a few years before and with whom he is still in love and Ernie Munger, a young kid who works at a late night petrol station. Tully hasn’t boxed for years but is looking to get back into it while Munger is a young kid just starting out. Tully is not only past his prime but he has a drink problem as well. His life consists of low-wage jobs, cheap bars and cheap hotels. But he’s trying to get back into boxing as he believes he still has a few good years in him and so he heads to a gym to have a workout and meets the eighteen year old Ernie Munger whom he spars with. Tully is impressed with Ernie and encourages him to see his old manager, Ruben, at the Lido Gym. Tully realises how out of shape he is and heads for his local bar where he meets the regulars Earl and Oma. All the main characters are introduced in this first chapter and it’s interesting how the subsequent chapters follow the individuals in their separate lives only for them to interact further on. It’s not a groundbreaking technique but it’s expertly done and suits the story that Gardner is telling.

Most of the characters are living on the edge in some way but none are completely broken and they still have dreams. Tully for example is trying to revive his boxing career, but he can’t help looking back, back to when he was with his wife and his boxing career was on the way up.

That period had been the peak of his life, though he had not realized it then. It had gone by without time for reflection, ending while he was still thinking things were going to get better. He had not realized the ability and local fame he had then was all he was going to have.

But as he tried to advance his career he found he wasn’t up to it and he began to lose bouts and then his wife. The quote continues…

Nor had his manager realized it when he moved him up to opponents of national importance. That knowledge had been mercilessly pounded into Tully in a half dozen bouts as he swung and missed and staggered, eyes closed to slits. Then he had looked to his wife for some indefinable endorsement, some solicitous comprehension of the pain and sacrifice he felt he endured for her sake, some always withheld recognition of the rites of virilty. Waiting, he drank.

When Ernie goes to the Lido Gym Ruben Luna, Tully’s old manager, is impressed with him and believes he shows promise and manages to get a bout arranged for him. Ernie starts going out with Faye Murdock and when she becomes pregnant they marry. Tully, meanwhile, is moving from hotel to hotel when he either can’t pay or just feels like moving on. He works as a fruit picker, carries on drinking heavily and training at the gym. Getting to the hotel one night at midnight with the intention of getting up at four in the morning to go to work he broods:

And was this where he was going to grow old? Would it all end in a room like this?[…]Then the abeyant melancholy of the evening came over him. He sat with his shoulders slumped under the oppression of the room, under the impasse that was himself, the utter, hopeless thwarting that was his blood and bones and flesh. Afraid of a crisis beyond his capacity, he held himself in, his body absolutely still in the passing and fading whine and rumble of a truck.

Despite the quotes used it isn’t unremittently bleak or depressing. The characters are all expertly drawn by Gardner. When Tully shacks up with Oma we can tell that they’re just going to be with each other for a short while; Oma only needs Tully whilst Earl is in prison and Tully only needs Oma to bolster his spirits for a while and besides it’s cheaper renting together. Gardner handles the fight scenes excellently; I was glad he didn’t spend too much time on the details and that he avoided making it dramatic, instead the boxing matches are quite mundane in a way. I won’t reveal much more about the story but a match is arranged for Tully, one he should win and needs to win. The novel ends rather abruptly, leaving us to wonder what would happen to both Tully and Ernie, but the ending works well as we’ve just caught sight of one character near the end of his career and another at the beginning of his. We have the sense though that Ernie’s life will be similar to Tully’s.

gardner_fat-city-nyrbAlthough I read the Pushkin Press version I don’t particularly like the cover as it seems to imply that it’s a tale of childhood, something similar to the film Cinema Paradiso, which it isn’t, it’s more along the lines of a Charles Bukowski story. I much prefer the NYRB cover with its photograph of a grim urban street with the kind of gym that I envisaged when reading the book.

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‘Narziss and Goldmund’ by Hermann Hesse

Hesse_Narziss-and-Goldmund-fcXC-700pxNarziss and Goldmund was originally published as Narziß und Goldmund in 1930. The translation I read was by Geoffrey Dunlop and was originally published in 1932 as Death and the Lover. The Penguin edition was first published in 1971.

I had a rocky ride reading this book; after about fifty pages I wanted to throw it to one side with contempt, I continued for a while then it annoyed me for another reason, but I continued, and by the time I finished it I was enjoying the story and found it difficult to see why the beginning annoyed me quite so much.

The story has a simple beginning: Narziss is a scholarly type who is well-suited to the monastic life, he’s still quite young when the story begins and is yet to take his vows. Goldmund is brought to the monastery, Mariabronn, one day by his father. Although he makes friends easily, he only becomes true friends with Narziss – opposites seem to attract.

Narziss was dark and thin of face, and Goldmund open and radiant as a flower. Narziss was a thinker and anatomiser, Goldmund a dreamer and a child. Yet things common to both could bridge these differences. Both were knightly and delicate; both set apart by visible signs from their fellows, since both had received the particular admonishment of fate.

Narziss is attracted to Goldmund’s free spirit and Goldmund idolises Narziss’s piety and scholarship. Having grown up in such an environment Goldmund feels that it is his destiny to become a monk and follow the path set out for him. But Narziss, who has an almost supernatural ability to look into people’s inner lives, tries to convince Goldmund that the monastic life is not the best course to take. Goldmund, however, continues to struggle to emulate Narziss. One night some of the boys escape to the village and Goldmund feels the pull of the world through the enticements of an attractive maid. Narziss tries to convince Goldmund that there is nothing wrong with his feelings and that he should not keep trying to be like Narziss, but should instead try to ‘know himself’. In one of their intense conversations Narziss describes the differences in their natures:

Men of dreams, the lovers and the poets, are better in most things than the men of my sort; the men of intellect. You take your being from your mothers. You live to the full: it is given you to love with your whole strength, to know and taste the whole of life. We thinkers, though often we seem to rule you, cannot live with half your joy and full reality. Ours is a thin and arid life, but the fullness of being is yours; yours the sap of the fruit, the garden of lovers, the joyous pleasaunces of beauty. Your home is the earth, ours the idea of it. Your danger is to be drowned in the world of sense, ours to gasp for breath in airless space. You are a poet, I a thinker. You sleep on your mother’s breast, I watch in the wilderness. On me there shines the sun; on you the moon with all the stars. Your dreams are all of girls, mine of boys—

This conversation affects Goldmund and he later collapses and is put to bed to recuperate. On recovering he has a vision of his mother, whom he can barely remember, and experiences feelings of agony and joy; from hereon he appears to Narziss to have found his true self. Goldmund realises that Narziss was correct in his analysis of himself and that he must escape into the world, away from the cloister.

Now, why did this part of the book annoy me so much when I first read it? It may have just been that I wasn’t in the mood for it but it was also this idea of duality in life, this idea that everything could be explained in terms of complimentary opposites (yin and yang?) which I find just too simplistic an argument to be useful for…well, anything really. In this case it is stated that thinkers/scholars are all like Narziss — pious, ascetic, distant from the world; and artists/free-spirits are all like Goldmund — lovers, live life to the full, belong in the world. Later on in the novel we get this explanation:

All being, it seemed, was built on opposites, on division. Man or woman, vagabond or citizen, lover or thinker — no breath could both be in and out, none could be man and wife, free and yet orderly, knowing the urge of life and the joy of intellect. Always the one paid for the other, though each was equally precious and essential.

With regards to character types I think it’s more useful to think in terms of a spectrum of types rather than in binary terms; in this case, admittedly, Narziss and Goldmund may sit at either ends of the spectrum but most of us will be somewhere between the two poles. Having read this section through again I believe that Hesse is using these two extreme character types to make the point that we should not try to be someone we’re not. But then doesn’t this raise the question as to whether we stick to our ‘natural self’ (whatever that means) and never try to change ourselves or whether we should try to change, try new things, experiment etc. I’m not quite so sure it’s as easy as Hesse seems to think to ‘be yourself’. Why shouldn’t Narziss experience the world? Why shouldn’t Goldmund study, learn a trade and settle down etc? They don’t have to be one or the other?

The other thing that annoyed me was all this ‘mother-worship’ stuff going on with Goldmund. It’s explained in this quote:

I understand you well. Now we have no need to dispute: you are awake, and so you have seen the difference between us, the difference between men akin to their father and those who take their destiny from a woman; the difference between spirit and intellect.

Again, it’s the incredibly simplistic idea that artistic temperament comes from the mother while the intellect comes from the father. I guess it’s the influence that Freud et al. had on artists during this period that explains some of this.

Once I realised that I just disagreed with a lot of what Hesse was saying I began to enjoy the book a lot more and didn’t worry. Once Goldmund leaves the monastery to experience life the book changes tack completely and it becomes more of a picaresque novel. Just when all this wandering about starts to get a bit dull Goldmund suddenly finds an aim in life:

…Goldmund had a thing he had never known, a thing he had often smiled at, or envied, in others: an aim.

The aim is to become an artist which takes up much of the rest of the novel until Narziss and Goldmund meet again.

Despite the problems I had with this novel, in the end I really enjoyed it. The style is a mixture of realism and mythology; the descriptions are realistic but it’s in a vaguely defined medieval Germany that almost seems Arthurian until Goldmund experiences the plague that’s ravaging the countryside.

hesse-revisedI read this as part of the Hermann Hesse Reading Week hosted by Caroline at ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Karen at ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’. I’ve enjoyed reading the other posts on Hesse’s work and I’ve discovered a lot about the man and his work.

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‘Trauma’ by Patrick McGrath

McGrath_Trauma-fcAfter reading too many unfulfilling books lately I wanted to read something modern, quick & easy to read but I wanted a book that still had substance. I’ve read a few of Patrick McGrath’s books and Trauma had been on my TBR list for quite a while so…its time had come.

I like books that have a first sentence that pulls the reader in. Patrick McGrath does this really well; Paul Auster is another author that excels with these killer opening lines. Trauma opens with these lines:

My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was seven years old, and I felt it was my fault. I felt I should have prevented it. This was about a year before my father left us.

And so, along with the title, we are left in no doubt that we are about to read a story about depression, suicide, dysfunctional families & relationships and other mental illnesses.

The novel is told from the viewpoint of Charlie Weir. From the beginning we find out about his mother who in her latter years drank and smoked heavily, was depressed and lived in squalor. His father was only a periodic presence in his childhood and his mother and father had a violent relationship. Charlie has an argumentative relationship with his older brother Walter. Both Charlie and Walter seem to thrive on their arguments and their dad would often encourage them to argue and fight when they were children.

Walt and I could get angry at each other in seconds. It alarmed others. It worried Agnes, my wife, to whom I was still married at the time, when she first saw it happen, that two otherwise civilized men could so quickly become so abusive.

At the point the book starts Charlie has been separated from his wife, Agnes, for seven years though he is still in touch with her and his daughter Cassie. Agnes is now married to Leon, a fireman, but Charlie lives alone. Oh, and Charlie is a psychiatrist who specialises in trauma, especially trauma experienced by war veterans. As the book is set in late 1970s New York there are a lot of Vietnam veterans that need help. The story dips into the past frequently and we discover that he met Agnes through her brother Danny, who was one of Charlie’s Vietnam patients. Danny rarely talked about what happened in Vietnam but it is hinted that the failure of Charlie’s and Agnes’s marriage had something to do with Danny’s treatment.

Previous McGrath books that I’ve read have had a gothic and/or horror feel to them but Trauma is told in a short, punchy style more reminiscent of an old U.S. detective story. There is also a lot of smoking, drinking and sleeping around, which all adds to the seedy feeling of the book, which is the effect that McGrath is presumably after. All the characters are in some way damaged and yet none, including Charlie, seem to be enthusiastic about getting professional help. So we view these characters at times when they’re at their lowest. McGrath handles this excellently as they could so easily become stereotypes but each character is believeable if not particularly likeable.

So, the main thrust of the story is to see whether Charlie can resolve the issues concerning Danny and his marriage breakup as well as his relationships with his mother and brother. As the book progresses there are enough revelations of everyone’s past history to keep the novel ticking over at quite a speed. In the blurb on the back, the book was regularly described as a thriller, and whilst I can see that it could be described as such, I prefer Hilary Mantel’s description of it: ‘The novel works beautifully as a sober, tightly written character study.’

When reading novels I always pick out and save quotations. Trauma had several good ‘one-liners’ but I especially liked this longer one:

   I often wondered how it would be to tramp off into the mountains and keep going until I was exhausted, then simply sink into the snow and fall asleep. Then the wolves could have me.
   To want to die in the forest and be eaten by wolves: another marker of incipient madness.

I couldn’t help but look at some other reviews before reading the book and was a little surprised to see many bad reviews. The criticisms were mainly that the characters were unlikeable, they drank and smoked constantly, the ending was rushed and some thought the ending was predictable. Well, I didn’t think the ending was rushed, it was just that the novel did pick up speed a little near the climax. At least it wasn’t one of those enigmatic ‘work it out for yourself’ type of endings. I thought the ending was quite ‘natural’ and believeable; McGrath wasn’t trying to concoct an ending that was overly clever just to confound those readers that pride themselves on working it out.

Now I’ll have to sort out what my next McGrath book will be.

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‘The Joke’ by Milan Kundera

Kundera_The-Joke-fcX-700pxThe Joke was Milan Kundera’s first novel. He began writing it in 1962, it was completed in 1965, first published in 1967 as Žert and first translated into English in 1969. Kundera didn’t like the English translation as the translators completely changed the structure of the book. The irony that the book was published in Communist Czechoslovakia uncensored but completely altered and re-arranged when published in the West was not lost on Kundera. The translation that I read is by Michael Henry Heim and was approved by Kundera and published in 1982. Looking at the Author’s Note in a more recent translation it appears that Kundera had second thoughts about aspects of this translation and personally altered it and republished it in 1992.

For me this is a re-read and re-reading books is something I’ve been doing and enjoying just lately and which I plan to continue doing. Although I’ve read and re-read most of Kundera’s books, at least up to Immortality, The Joke was one that I kept meaning to re-read but never quite got round to it. My reluctance was in part because I didn’t enjoy my first reading that much; I remember it being a bit bland, but this was after reading his later books. However, I’ve really enjoyed re-reading it and my (relatively) lower opinion of it was a bit unfair. I think now I would say it stands up there with his other works – no problem.

What spurred me on to read it now was to include this review in Stu’s Eastern-European Lit Month. When deciding to read this book I did wonder if Kundera would object to us including Czechoslovakia in Eastern Europe rather than Central Europe and whether modern-day Czechs and Slovaks would have any objections as well. Maybe it’s not an issue but it’s similar to the point that Kundera made in the preface to my edition; that the West quickly thought of Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet Bloc countries as being part of the U.S.S.R. whereas the inhabitants of those countries thought of themselves as belonging to a distinct country.

The book is split into seven parts with the first six parts focusing on one of the characters where we see events through their eyes. Ludvik Jahn is the main character and he has three parts to himself whilst Jaroslav, Helena and Kostka all have a part each. The last part is a mixture of viewpoints as all the characters are brought together. Now, I always love this type of approach to a novel as the multiple viewpoints makes it more three-dimensional and realistic than a third-person narrative or one from a single first-person narrative and it works well here with the type of story that Kundera is telling.

The book opens with Ludvik returning to his hometown. He hasn’t been back there for years and he meets up with an old acquaintance called Kostka, and arranges to use his flat for a meeting with his lover when she arrives. The narrative switches to Helena, who is preparing for her trip to meet Ludvik, then switches back to Ludvik in 1948. At this time he was a young optimistic member of the Communist Party although he’s a bit of a joker and worst of all, he’s often accused of being an individualist. Ludvik has a very serious girlfriend called Marketa who is often made fun of as she never understands any jokes. Just as their relationship is forming Marketa has to leave for a short training session so they have to rely on sending each other letters. Marketa is enjoying the training session and her letters are full of her enthusiasm and optimism of the socialist order. Although Ludvik agrees with her, he’s jealous of her happiness away from him:

So I bought a postcard and (to hurt, shock, and confuse her) wrote: Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

Their correspondence soon dries up and when she returns to Prague she is reluctant to renew their relationship. It’s not long before Ludvik is called before a Party University Committee which confronts him about his relationship with Marketa and the postcard that he sent. Although it was only meant as a joke, under the scrutiny of the committee the words on the postcard look like anti-Communist sentiments and can not be tolerated. Ludvik is thrown out of the university and the Party and soon finds himself ostracised. Even his friend Zemanek refuses to help him so he returns to his hometown. He has few options now and so he gets drafted to a Work Brigade and ends up working in a mine for years.

Ludvik finds it difficult adjusting to his new lowly status but slowly gets used to the militaristic lifestyle. The only positive side is that they get paid reasonably well and when they get leave they can let their hair down a bit. Ludvik then meets Lucie:

She was coming in my direction, in the direction of the courtyard. Why didn’t I simply walk past her? Was it because I was merely drifting aimlessly or because the unusual late-afternoon lighting in the courtyard held me back? Or was it something in the way she looked? But her appearance was utterly ordinary. True, later that ordinary quality about her was what touched and attracted me, but how was it she caught my eye and stopped me in my tracks the first time I saw her?

They form a relationship though it is often difficult arranging to meet each other as Lucie lives in a dormitory and Ludvik’s leave was erratic. Their relationship is initially Platonic but Ludvik becomes obsessed with having sex with her; he tries to organise trysts with her but is frustrated with Lucie’s reluctance together with the petty life back at the camp. This culminates in Ludvik’s attempted rape of her. When he tries to get in touch with her days later he discovers that Lucie has disappeared.

The narrative returns to the present day and we learn about Jaroslav, an old friend of Ludvik, who belongs to a folk music group. Jaroslav is interested in folk traditions of all sorts as was Ludvik when he was younger. Jaroslav and the whole town are preparing for a procession called The Ride of the Kings, an event that means a lot to Jaroslav. We now find out more about Jaroslav and Ludvik as well as Ludvik’s reason for returning to his hometown – his rendezvous with Helena. We even find out what’s happened to Lucie as well and it’s at this point that the parts of the novel start to slot together and the connections between the characters are made clearer. So I won’t reveal any more of the plot in order not to spoil it for others.

At the beginning of the book it would appear that ‘the joke’ refers solely to the joke on the postcard. However, by the end of the book it’s clear that it refers to other ‘jokes’ in the lives of the characters. In the author’s preface to my edition Kundera states:

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its “philosophy” as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. He is condemned to triviality.

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