Review: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola

The Ladies’ Paradise [1883/1995]★★★★1/2

In this French classic translated by Brian Nelson, Denise Baudu, a young woman from the Valognes countryside, arrives to Paris with her two younger brothers, orphaned and destitute, looking to get employment at her uncle Mr Baudu’s small drapery shop. However, the moment Denise arrives, she becomes entranced by The Ladies’ Paradise, a magnificent shopping establishment that entices its customers with its extravagant window displays, personalised service, constant sales and affordable luxury. Since Mr Baudu’s small shop is on the brink of bankruptcy and Denise has to feed and clothe her two brothers, she feels she has no choice but to attempt working at this glittering shopping monstrosity that has already devoured many small businesses in the area, shutting them down. The proprietor of The Ladies’ Paradise is “brilliant” and ruthless Octave Mouret, an enigmatic figure, whose money-making schemes are already revolutionising the city’s shopping space. Can Denise, with her innocence and simplicity, navigate this complex, often immoral, commercial world so that she and her brothers survive? Zola masterfully and perceptively captures the changing Paris of the 1850-1860s that starts undergoing drastic urban transformations and changes in customer trends, seeing the rise of the “temples to Fashion’s madness for spending”, that are huge department stores.

Continue reading “Review: The Ladies’ Paradise by Émile Zola”

Review: The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós 

The City and the Mountains [1901/2008] – ★★★★★

“…and in life, only the soul matters” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 174].

Eça de Queiroz’s novels The Maias [1888] and The Crime of Father Amaro [1875] are among my favourite books of all time. Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, The City and the Mountains is de Queiroz’s much later novel about the life of Portuguese nobleman Jacinto de Tormes as told from the perspective of his best friend Zé Fernandes. The novel starts in Paris, France (the City) and ends in Tormes, Portugal (the Mountains), presenting a vivid contrast between the busy, money and technology-driven Parisian lifestyle, on the one hand, and the quiet, simple, filled with natural beauty, mode of life in the countryside, on the other. As important as this duality is the psychology of Jacinto de Tormes, a man of great means and even bigger opportunities. However, it turns out that it is not so easy to figure out the purpose of a thing called Life and the quest for ultimate knowledge may not lie in the most obvious of places. Thus, this charming book on duality and human transformation is many things: a delicate city satire, a study of fin de siècle societal eccentricities, a heart-warming presentation of lifelong friendship, and, finally, a lyrical tribute to the beauty of Portuguese countryside.

Continue reading “Review: The City and the Mountains by Eça de Queirós “

Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit [1857] ★★★★

In this classic story, Arthur Clennam returns home from China after many years of absence and finds the same dull and uninviting London house with the same resentful mother inside. While he meditates on what to do next with his life, his attention is drawn to a very timid seamstress of his mother– Amy Dorrit (nicknamed “Little Dorrit”). This young woman is hard-working, kind and is blindly devoted to her imprisoned family members. This makes Arthur wonder about her life, and his first step to make poor Amy his friend leads him to the discovery of another world – the world of London’s poor. Arthur is amazed to find that the absurd workings of the notorious Marshalsea prison for debtors, where Amy was born and her father is now imprisoned, should have a symbiotic relationship with the bureaucratic realm of the complacent and Kafkaesque Circumlocution Office, a governmental institution designed to keep the needy poor and the desperate for answers – even more confused. Set in England, Italy and France, Dickens’s episodic novel may not have the clarity and subtlety of the narrative expositions of Bleak House [1852] or Dombey and Son [1857], but it still contains all the entertaining Dickensian components. There is: a plot with long-buried family secrets and unforeseen reversals of fortune; perceptive and humoristic satire on the government (Dickens was once a Parliament Reporter) and the unfairness of the British class system; and a line of unforgettable characters, whose destinies inexplicably criss-cross and among whom are a couple of sinister personages lurking in the background and pulling the strings. Still, the “heart” of this novel is one shy young woman whose quiet resilience in the face of immense oppression moves all, as she champions the power of introversion and self-sacrificing love.

Continue reading “Review: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens”

Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

The Magic Mountain [1924/27] – ★★★★★

But mind, the mountain’s magic-mad tonight,
And if you choose a will-o’-the-wisp to light
Your path, take care, ’twill lead you all astray

(Goethe, Faust (tran. H. T. Lowe-Porter)).

Hans Castorp is a young man on a threshold of a very successful career of an engineer at a prestigious shipping firm in Germany when he enters an international sanatorium Berghof in the picturesque Swiss Alps for three weeks and only to support Joachim Ziemssen, his sick cousin, and keep him company. Little does Castorp suspect that the sanatorium, with its orderly routine and confused sense of time, will start working insidiously on his mind the moment he steps onto its premises and he will end up living there for the next 7 years. During that time, Castorp will make friends with the most extraordinary individuals, engage almost daily in deep philosophical discussions on virtually every topic under the sun, fall hopelessly in love, and in that whole process entangle his body, mind and spirit so deeply in this “enchanted” place with its own particular passage of Time that any disentanglement will become out of the question. In this story, matters of science and spirituality converge, forces of time sweep people off their feet and then the re-consideration of what is Life and what is Death, and what is to be healthy and what is to be sick, may lead to some divine insights and instances of ultimate self-discovery. Translated from the German, The Magic Mountain is a masterpiece of the world literature, a splendid study of a man undergoing inner transformations in an environment of perpetual unchangeability.

Continue reading “Review: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann”

Novellas in November: Daisy Miller by Henry James

This review is my contribution to the Novellas in November Reading Challenge hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at BookishBeck.

Daisy Miller [1879] ★★★1/2

Daisy…continued to present herself as an inscrutable combination of audacity and innocence” [Henry James, 1879: 44]. In this story, young and wealthy American living abroad Frederick Winterbourne becomes infatuated with Daisy Miller, an unmarried American girl touring Europe with her mother and brother. Daisy Miller is a bold and flirtatious girl who continues to mystify Winterbourne daily since their fateful meeting in Switzerland. Now, in Rome, Italy, Winterbourne’s puzzlement turns into true incredulity and then horror as he watches Daisy’s interactions with one handsome Italian Giovanelli. But who is Daisy Miller, really, and how “common” she really is and how “innocent”, or not? Henry James (The Turn of the Screw [1898]) penned a novella which showcases the societal power of prejudice to the fullest, even if it also gives the feeling of being generic and predictable.

Continue reading “Novellas in November: Daisy Miller by Henry James”

Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth [1905] – ★★★★1/2

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” [Ecclesiastes 7:4].

In this book, Lily Bart, a young woman from once aristocratic but now impoverished family, has reached her twenty-ninth year without finding a husband. Her beauty and financial resources declining, she notices changes in the society’s perception of her. Miss Bart, free-spirited, fun-loving, popular and, in her own words, “horribly poor – [but] very expensive] [1905: 12], soon faces an unenviable position worsened by the fact that she still loves shopping, jewellery and luxury. To what extent can she still count on the kindness of others to survive in the world that is increasingly becoming unforgiving and even hostile, full of social traps and intrigues? Considered scandalous upon its release, but converted Wharton into a successful author virtually overnight, this satire on New York City’s high society through the in-depth portrayal of a modern and increasingly fragile woman conveys the sheer pathos of a situation whereby individual willpower and the independence of spirit find themselves at odds with societal demands and expectations.

Continue reading “Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton”

Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders [1887] – ★★★★★

In this novel, Grace, an impressionable, recently-educated girl, “who has been around cultivated folks” arrives home to a small village of Little Hintock after a long absence and to the delight of her father Mr Melbury, a timber merchant. She soon rekindles her friendship with her childhood sweet-heart Giles Winterborne, an apple and cider farmer. However, as soon as she does so, she also notices a much more promising suitor who starts to intrigue her more than anyone else in this world: an educated, ambitious and “irresistible” doctor Edred Fitzpiers. Thomas Hardy’s narrative is like an exquisite painting created in a style of Old Masters, where money, ambition, sophistication, self-interest and the excess of knowledge clash violently with rural simplicity, kindness, loyalty and naïve mentality. The beauty/mastery of the prose is matched by the gripping plot full of vivid characters and psychological nuances. Emphasising the unbridgeable gap between the social classes and drawing attention to the iron confines of a marriage, while evoking the atmosphere of the old rural England, Hardy created with The Woodlanders the work that is on a par with some of his greatest literary creations – Tess of the d’Urbervilles [1891] and Far from the Madding Crowd [1874].

Continue reading “Review: The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy”

Review: Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is old-goriot-balzac.jpg

Le Père Goriot [1835/1991] – ★★★★★

This is my fourth Balzac (after Lost Illusions, The Black Sheep & Cousin Bette) and it is probably the best of the other novels I have read so far. Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot or Old Goriot) centres on one young man from France’s provinces, Eugène de Rastignac, who has just settled in Paris and set his sights on becoming a lawyer. He desires to climb the social ladder fast and his impatience for money, status and power soon makes him cross paths with one impoverished father of two daughters (old Goriot) who selflessly devotes his remaining time to them (or, more accurately, to the memory of them). From richly-decorated Parisian drawing-rooms to the bedlam that reigns in a poverty-stricken lodging house, the result of this crossing of the paths is a thrilling head-to-head collision of reality and illusion, youth and old age, ruthless selfishness and selfless devotion, all happening at the very heart of turbulent and exploitative Paris of 1819.

Continue reading “Review: Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac”

Review: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

The Betrothed [1827/1972] – ★★★★★

The Betrothed is an Italian classic by Alessandro Manzoni, the man who happened to be the grandson of Cesare Beccaria, the world-famous criminologist and philosopher. The novel is set in medieval Italy where two lovers (Renzo and Lucia) are prevented from marrying by a cowardly priest. From this flows all sorts of misunderstandings and advances from corrupt regimes as the two lovers are trying to overcome numerous obstacles and go through life trials (including a war, a plague and famine) on their path to a reunion. Beautifully translated from the Italian by Bruce Penman and boasting colourful and memorable characters, this classic tale from Italy is about undying love, faith, hope and perseverance in the face of oppression, betrayal and despair.

Continue reading “Review: The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni”

Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac

The Black Sheep BalzacThe Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) [1842/1970] – ★★★★★

The Black Sheep is an outstanding novel by Balzac (Lost Illusions [1837]) that tells of a remarkable battle for inheritance. At the centre of this story are two brothers, Joseph and Philippe, who could not be more different from each other, the modest and studious Joseph is the complete opposite of the bold and physically-imposing Philippe. They become the protagonists in the fight against their uncle’s supposed will to leave his fortune to mere strangers that coveted his attention for years. As in other novels, Balzac masterfully concocts a tale that is based on contrasts – the provincial life in Issoudun vs. the town life in Paris, the consequences of immense wealth vs. the results of poverty, the life of the upper classes vs. the destitution of the working class, while his moral spins around the fleeting nature of success, the extent of the individual ruthlessness and cunningness, and the consequences of a mother’s blind love for her child. More than any other Balzac novel, The Black Sheep is all about appearances often deceiving us and the fact that “a leopard never changes its spots”.  Continue reading “Review: The Black Sheep by Honoré de Balzac”

Review: Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac

Honore de Balzac Lost Illusions Lost Illusions [1837 – 1843/1971] ★★★★★

“...he was living in one of those golden dreams in which young people, cantering along on their ifs, leap over all barriers” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 113].

It’s hard…to keep one’s illusions about anything in Paris. Everything is taxed, everything is sold, everything is manufactured, even success” [Balzac/Hunt, 1837/1971: 387].

This week I am celebrating my first blogaversary – my blog is one year old (thank you to all my followers for following!), and this will also be my 70th full book review (see the others here). Therefore, I thought I would review a classic for a change as a way to “celebrate” and also to draw attention to the best literature has to offer. Translated from the French by Herbert J. Hunt, Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac is part of his La Comedie Humaine series, and centres around Lucien Chardon, a handsome and optimistic, but very naïve, young man who desires to be successful in high society through his talent – he is a writer. He leaves his friend David Sechard, a typographist, in Angouleme and embarks on a dizzying adventure full of dramatic ups and downs in Paris, where he has to make difficult for him decisions about which path to success to follow. This is not one’s ordinary tale of a man’s fall from grace or the corruption of innocence. Balzac masterfully portrayed a story with a number of vivid characters, and his observations on the society, its hierarchy and its unspoken rules are second to none – making this work a true classic, both entertaining and insightfully profound. Through his tale, we get to understand the nuts and bolts of a printing business and journalism in the countryside and in Paris in the 1820s, as well as the consequences of unrelenting ambition and talent when they are not underpinned by solid connections and easily swayed by vanity and egocentrism.  Continue reading “Review: Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac”

Review: The Crime of Father Amaro by Eça de Queirós

The Crime of Father Amaro Book Cover The Crime of Father Amaro [1875/1962] – ★★★★★

Portuguese novelist José Maria Eça de Queirós has been compared to Russian Leo Tolstoy and French Honoré Balzac, and for a good reason – his debut (without a collaboration) book The Crime of Father Amaro (translated by Nan Flanagan in 1962) is a multi-faceted novel of great ambition and skill. In it, he tells of events taking place in a small cathedral town of Leiria, north of Lisbon. Father Amaro, a handsome young priest arrives to Leiria to take the position of a parish priest and soon falls under the spell of the most beautiful girl in town – good-natured Amelia, who lives with her strict and apparently religious mother Joanneira in the heart of the city. Amaro is an honourable guest and a lodger in the comfortable house of Amelia and Joanneira, and he soon finds that his duties of a priest clash with his physical desires, and, in particular, with his burning romantic passion for Amelia. Amaro is also caught up in the town’s complex politics, in a clash between the clergy of the town and the governmental powers. The forces within Amaro, as well as from outside of his influence, conspire to lead the young parish priest to making some unprecedented choices. This beautifully-written novel may start as one’s usual tale of sympathetic and doomed love, but – and here the readers will be in for a surprise – it will finish as a more complex story that subverts all expectations. If Italy has Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed [1827], Portugal can pride itself on having José Maria Eça de Queirós’s The Crime of Father Amaro; Eça de Queirós is a brave author who was not afraid to twist common literary tropes and introduce his own, unique versions of main characters, producing an unputdownable tale of one passionate love’s consequences, while also offering an insightful satire on the ways of a provincial town.

Continue reading “Review: The Crime of Father Amaro by Eça de Queirós”

Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

the turn of the screw book cover The Turn of the Screw [1898] – ★★★★

<<This review will contain spoilers>>  

Wasn’t it just a story-book over which I had fallen a-doze and a-dream?” [James, Ed. 2004: 33].  

This is a horror novella penned by James in 1898 at the invitation of Robert J. Collier for his magazine. First published as a series, it tells of a hired governess who comes to Bly, a country estate in Essex, to supervise two children, Miles and Flora. The children are orphans under the responsibility of their uncle who, in turn, does not have much time to spend with them and resides in London. The young governess willingly assumes her responsibilities, being totally delighted to be in charge of two beautiful, lovely and well-behaved children in such grand estate. However, Bly soon opens its horrors to the governess and she becomes aware that there are at least two ghosts in the house that haunt the children. The Turn of the Screw is now infamous for its multiple story interpretations and all kinds of meanings that can be read into the text. Nevertheless, whether one reads the story as a straightforward ghost tale or as a more complex psychological study of one nanny losing her mind, it is still a scary and intriguing read, which leaves much to think about and discuss upon finishing.  Continue reading “Review: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James”