This is a blog about my reads as well as everything related to them.
My taste is for good quality literature - old and new. Some of it I review here or on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany.
As I already remarked two years ago, when I wrote a biography of Emilia Pardo Bazán (1851-1921) on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany (»»» read her author’s portrait there), the important Spanish author unlike her male counterparts from English-speaking countries and France began to fall into oblivion rather soon after she gained considerable fame for her work. Several of her books have been translated into English. Two of them are her most famous novel The House of Ulloa from 1886, which has been reissued in English translation only in 2013, and its often overlooked sequel Mother Nature from 1887. As an example of Spanish Naturalist writing above all the first deserves a closer look.
The House of Ulloa is set towards the end of the reign of Spanish Queen Isabel II, more precisely just before the liberal revolution of 1868. Father Julián Alvarez enters into service with Don Pedro Moscoso who has a remote country estate in Galicia and is generally known as marquis of Ulloa although in reality the title belongs to a cousin living in Santiago. The young priest is supposed to take care of the marquis’ affairs sorting papers in the library that are in a complete mess, but to his great dismay he finds that his private life is in disorder too and the estate threatened by ruin. In fact, his employer turns out to be a man of loose morals who openly consorts with his mistress Sabel working in the kitchen and treats his illegitimate four-year-old no better than his hounds. Moreover, his daily life is filled with little more than hunting and drinking. When pious and naïve Father Julián asks Don Pedro to change his ways, he admits that he can’t because his steward Primitivo, the father of Sabel, would never allow it and has the power to turn all peasants of the region against him. Nonetheless, the priest hopes to lead his employer back on the path of virtue and suggests that he passes some time in Santiago to choose a wife from his Cousin Manuel’s daughters. Thus he marries Marcelina, called Nucha, and brings her to the house of Ulloa as his wife and new mistress of the estate, but the discreet young woman soon realises that she isn’t accepted and that her husband goes on with his life as if she weren’t there. She suffers and makes Father Julián her confidant. The priest, though, is powerless and can only watch what is going on. Meanwhile, Don Pedro gets involved into politics which at the time is inseparably linked with corruption and risks his estate…
In this naturalist masterpiece the nineteenth-century author Emilia Pardo Bazán skilfully interweaves the main story of predominantly male decadence and corruption in politics as well as society with a feminist critique of a patriarchal world that submits women of all classes to a sexual double standard, violence and abuse in the name of Catholic religion and often with the help of clerics. Although the novel touches very serious topics and has a not less serious plot, its tone is not only gloomy like the wintry landscape of Galicia but also full of wit and clever irony. Moreover, it’s a timeless work of literature that has lost none of its power and meaning in this modern world. In other words, The House of Ulloa is one of those almost forgotten classics that deserve being read more widely outside its country of origin Spain.
The original Spanish versions of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s work have long entered into the public domain and many of them as well as some older translations are available for free via the Virtual Library Miguel de Cervantes, on Feedbooks, on Project Gutenberg, on Wikisource, and several other sites of the kind.
When I picked this slim novel by Jean Rhys, I thought that it would take me to England because she is an English writer, but as it turned out already on the first page I was completely mistaken!
Good Morning, Midnight is the sad (according to many: depressing, even repulsive) story of an Englishwoman called Sasha living in Paris. She has no job, no future and she lost her baby. Altogether the world seems to have nothing to offer to her but misery. She feels terribly lonely and hopeless. In other words she belongs to the helpless and resigned who slip into depression and drown their pain in alcohol – like the author did. In fact, there's very much of Jean Rhys herself shining though the lines.
It's true that Good Morning, Midnight isn't a cheerful read, but the novel is excellently written, deep and thought-provoking which is why I liked it. I talked about the book at length on my main book blog Edith's Miscellany and I invite you to read my review there. To go directly to the post click here: I hope that you'll like what you'll find!
In the USA the word "Babbitt" has become synonymous for Philistine, thus for "But how many of those who use the word know that it's actually the title of a novel and the name of its protagonist?
Babbitt was first published in 1922 and without doubt it must be called an important classic of American literature. Its author was Sinclair Lewis who would eight years later, in 1930, be the first US American recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. And yet, I'm led to believe that these days the novel isn't widely read anymore, if not forgotten by the great majority. What better reason to take it from my shelf and give it more than just a quick glance to see what it has to offer to a reader in the twenty-first century.
In fact, Babbitt is a novel that seems to me very up-to-date. It touches on many issues of our modern world, e.g. on the unhealthy craving for constant progress and growth, on globalisation = standardisation = uniformity, on the meaninglessness of life, on conformity and exclusion, on mid-life crises, on escape through entertainment,... I reviewed the novel at length on my other book blog – just click here to read what I wrote about it on Edith's Miscellany.
This charming French novel first published in 2006 happens to be one of my favourites of all time. It's imbued with philosophy from beginning to end and everything revolves around the meaning of life from the point of view of a well-read French concierge who hides behind the façade of a typical speciman of her profession and a twelve-year-old bourgeois who feels disgusted by the empty life to which she seems doomed by birth. It's only thanks to the influence of a Japanese business man who moves into the house that the concierge gradually learns to live her true self and makes friends. A happy end announces itself page by page, but it isn't to be.
This book written by one of the most famous Albanian writers of our time takes the reader back into the Balkan past when blood feuds were still common in the remote highlands... less than a hundred years ago.
It’s 17 March when twenty-six-year-old Gjorg Berisha from the village Brezftoht lies in wait for Zef Kryeqyqe to take revenge for the death of his brother. He doesn’t see much point in shooting the man because it seals his own fate, but it’s his duty in the family vendetta that has lasted already for seventy years and cost the lives of twenty-two kin on either side. He knows that after the killing he has only thirty days of his life left before it's his turn to become the next victim of the archic rules of the Kanun... to be killed or to hide until the end of his days in one of the dark towers of refuge that disturb the soft-hearted young wife of a writer from Tirana on honeymoon.
The Great War of 1914-18 had been raging in Europe and other parts of the world for over a year, when in December 1915 the little known French writer Romain Rolland was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings”. In reality, he may have been chosen because in his work he advocated peace and stood up against warmongers in his own as well as other countries. Just a few years later, in 1921, the by then already famous Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) portrayed the Nobel Prize laureate who was also his friend in the book Romain Rolland. The Man and His Work. But the biography isn’t a usual one because Stefan Zweig focuses on the artistic mission or rather vocation that his gifted friend felt in him from an early age and that he was determined to live although it meant sacrifice and even exile for a while.
Born into a bourgeois family in the small town of Clamecy, Nièvre, France, in 1866 Romain Rolland’s first acquaintance with the arts is with music that will always remain an integral part of his life. In school he also discovers his great love for literature and he makes friends with the writer-to-be Paul Claudel. Then he moves on to the École Normale to study History. There he makes friends with other important writers-to-be, namely André Suarès and Charles Peguy. After graduation fate has it that he is offered a two-year grant to further his studies in Rome and write his doctoral thesis. The experience is a revelation to him, not least because he meets a friend of Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner, Malwida von Meysenbug, who encourages him to go his way. Back in Paris Romain Rolland begins to teach Music History in different high schools and finally at Sorbonne University. At this time his writings are still closely linked to his work, but soon he makes first attempts at plays.
Around 1900 Roman Rolland and a group of friends found the literary magazine Cahiers de la Quinzaine. Moreover, they set out to modernise French theatre. Romain Rolland writes the seminal essay Theatre of the People (1903) and the first of a whole cycle of ambitious, though at the time unsuccessful plays. Then he turns to a cycle of biographies of the great men of history. Beethoven the Creator (1903), Michelangelo (1907), Handel (1910), and Tolstoy (1911) are the first to appear almost unnoticed by the public. In the early 1900s the author also begins to work on his most famous novel series in ten volumes surrounding a German musician in France, namely Jean-Christophe. The English edition is usually published in three volumes, namely Volume I – Jean-Christophe: Dawn, Morning, Youth, Revolt (1904/05), Volume II – Jean-Christophe in Paris: The Market Place, Antoinette, The House (1908), and Volume III – Journey’s End: Love and Friendship, The Burning Bush, The New Dawn (1910-12). Immediately afterwards he writes the comic novel Colas Breugnon, but in summer 1914 the war breaks out and it can only be published in 1919. The author is in Switzerland at the time and decides to stay there in exile because he doesn’t want to be forced into line with French politics. He is against war and wants to work for peace although thanks to censure writings like his anti-war manifesto Above the Battle (1915) and his pacifistic articles later assembled in The Forerunners (1919) aren’t reprinted in France or other war-faring countries. In 1915 the Swedish Academy of Sciences awards him the Nobel Prize in Literature. And he continues to write. By 1921, when Stefan Zweig brings out his biography of Romain Rolland, the tragicomic play Liluli, the novel Clerambault. The Story of an Independent Spirit During the War (1920), and the idyllic novella Pierre and Luce (1920) have been published. By 1929, when a new edition of the biography appears with an addition to the final chapter titled Envoy also the first volumes of the novel series The Soul Enchanted (1922-1933) and a biography of Mahatma Gandhi (1924) have appeared. More biographical essays, plays and novels followed.
Since Stefan Zweig committed suicide in 1942, all original German editions of his work are in the public domain. A digital edition of an English translation of Romain Rolland. The Man and his Work is available on Project Gutenberg … like many of the works of Romain Rolland.
Although renowned for his fictionalised biographies of great historical figures – like the one of Romain Rolland that I just presented – and for his autobiography The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig was also a highly celebrated writer of fiction, especially novellas. To get an idea, I invite you to read my short review of Letter from an Unknown Woman posted here on Lagraziana’s Kalliopeion earlier this year and my long review of Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Woman on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany.
This one is a coming-of-age classic from Brazil surrounding the narrator-protagonist Maria Augusta, called Gusta, and her friends Maria José and Maria Glória. First published in 1939 the first-person narrative was quite ahead of its time showing the girl who grows up in the care of a convent boarding school and after her return home to her family abandons step by step her timidity as well as the limitations that religion and society impose on women of her time. Unlike many of her peers she doesn’t marry young, but she convinces her father to allow her to return to Fortaleza where she went to school and still has friends to learn a profession. Before long she is a fully trained typist with a job… and free to discover the world and the ways of men.
I love the work of Nobel laureate José Saramago and have already read a few of his books, not this one, though - his very first novel published posthumously because the editor to whom the author sent it didn't even bother to answer until decades later when Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Find out more in the great review that went online here on the Read the Nobels blog past week!
This novel by the so far only Austrian Nobelist in Literature - Elfriede Jelinek - is from the 1970s, thus an early work of the author who is better known today as a playwright and a rather controversial one that is.
Women as Lovers is a rather disillusioned story about two young women or actually girls called Brigitte and Paula who have grown up in miserable circumstances in Vienna and in a small village somewhere in the countryside respectively. They both believe that Mr. Right will be their ticket to happiness and so they do everything in their power to catch him. But then they find that reality isn't at all the way they expected.
For the full review please click here to go to my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany.
Here's a recent review from Read the Nobels about a novel titled The Harafish. It's an interesting book from the pen of Naguib Mahfouz, the so far only Egyptian recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. It's also Guiltless Reader's first contribution to the annual event Read the Nobels 2016, which is still open for sign-up, by the way.
»»» read also my review of Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz.
For Europeans the desert is an intriguing place – very much like the High Seas, the Polar Regions and Outer Space. The Nobel laureate in literature of 2008, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, dedicated one of his novels to the magic of the desert.
The impressive scenes of Desert are Morocco or Western Sahara and Marseille, France, alternately in 1909/10 and in modern times. The two plot lines are interlaced and linked in various ways. One such connection is the desert itself and the deep love for it which share the Tuareg teenager Nour and the poor orphan girl Lalla Hawa although about sixty years separate their stories. Another common point is the Blue Man, a wonder-working man of the Tuareg people and maternal ancestor of Lalla Hawa.
The stories of Nour and Lalla breathe the spirit of the Desert. They move about in a world of beauty and frugality, of secret and magic, of life and death which J.-M. G. Le Clézio describes in countless poetic pictures. The protagonists are fully aware of their surroundings and see things that nobody else, above all no European, might notice or even appreciate.
Here's an article by Margret Aldrich on PresentNation that provides proof for what I've known all along: reading IS good for the brain!
I also recommend my own post Literary Fiction - A Way to Read the World
on my book blog Edith's Miscellany that went online just two days earlier.
This one is a Spanish classical novel written by a woman who is almost forgotten today although she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times and she was very close to actually being awarded it at least twice.
The Metal of the Dead is often referred to as a socialist novel, a genre that was a bit in fashion in the early twentieth century. So shortly after the Russian Revolution socialist ideology had not yet a bad reputation, but people still set their hopes in it everywhere in the world including the mining area of Rio Tinto in Andalusia that is the main scene of this novel that is considered her best. The plot deals with a general strike that was called there around 1917... and the joys and sorrows of the miners and their families.
For the full review please click here to go to my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany.
There will be very few who deny that the mother has a very special place in the heart of a person and that when she dies, it uses to be a particularly painful loss in most cases even if she has been suffering for a long time. It means the irrevocable end of an era – of “childhood” in a wide sense – since even the last remaining bond is cut and we can no longer submit like a child to her loving care if we feel like it. After the death of her mother, the renowned French author of autobiographical prose Annie Ernaux (born 1940) set out to trace the course of life of the woman who brought her into life and raised her. The result is A Woman’s Story first published in 1989, a touching literary portrait of a strong and powerful woman who was more than just the author’s mother.
The slim book begins in the morning of 7 April 1986, when Annie Ernaux receives a phone call from the nursing home of the hospital in Pontoise where her mother has died after breakfast. Although her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in the early 1980s and her condition has been constantly deteriorating since moving her to the nursing home became inevitable, death arrives unexpected. Now the author’s last living connection with her childhood is gone which makes her feel as if her roots had been cut off. Only after a first period of shock and mourning, she finds the strength to sit down and pay her literary tribute to her mother as she did for her late father before (»»» read my review of award-winning A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux on my main book blog Edith’s Miscellany).
Skilfully combining biographical and historical facts, anecdotes passed on in the family, own memories, conclusions and contemplations the author resurrects the picture of a woman born as forth child of six into a poor, but proud working-class family in the small town of Yvetot in Normandy in the early years of the twentieth century. She leaves school aged eleven and works in the factory always dreaming of a better life. Then she meets her future husband originating from a humble family like herself and working in the same factory. She gets married, has a first daughter and saves money to make her and her husband’s dream of a little café and grocery shop come true. This is in the 1930s and great grief is around the corner. Her little girl dies from diphtheria, Nazi-German troops occupy France, war rages in the country. Then a ray of light: another daughter – the author – is born to her in 1940. Things change for the better after the war, but she and her husband need to work hard to give their daughter a better start into life than they had. The girl studies at university, becomes a teacher, marries a bourgeois… and moves away. In 1967 her husband dies suddenly. Three years later she goes to live with her daughter’s family first in Annecy, then in Paris. But eventually, she feels the urge to return to Yvetot which she does in the mid-1970s.
The book isn’t a biography in the strict sense nor a memoir, but an homage to an exceptional woman and the different sides of her character that the daughter hardly noticed while she was alive. Moreover, it’s just the simple, even ordinary story of the ups and downs of a French mother’s life in the twentieth century that Annie Ernaux retells with great sensitivity and a certain nostalgia blending with the inevitable sorrow of a person who writes about a loved one who just died. This doesn’t mean that the tone of the book is whining or depressing – not at all! It goes without saying that it’s not a cheerful read either, but it’s quiet and contemplative as befits this kind of text. Highly recommended for reading!
Original French edition:
As you may be aware – or not –, I’m a more or less regular contributor to Aloi’s blog Read the Nobels and in January I also joined her annual event Read the Nobels 2016 (which is still open for sign-up, by the way!). Both challenge readers and bloggers like me to explore the vast variety of works written by recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature and I ever again seize the opportunity to dig deep into the treasure trove of their books. It’s one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, and yet, many writer names must be called insider tips rather than household names. Why? Is it a matter of changed tastes? Is it their sheer number? Is it their assumed literary profundity that discourages readers?