“…and in life, only the soul matters” [Eça de Queiroz/Costa, Dedalus, 1901/2008: 174].
Eça de Queiroz’s novels The Maias  andThe Crime of Father Amaro 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.
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  or Dombey and Son , 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.
“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.
“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 ) 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.
The Baron in the Trees (Il barone rampante)  – ★★★1/2
The Baron in the Trees is the fourth book of Italian author Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities ), telling of a young man, Cosimo, of the eighteenth century who decides to live on trees, never going down, sticking to his own principle that he would never touch the ground again. His family soon realises that what might have started as a childish tantrum has transformed into something big and life-changing. In time, Cosimo manages not only to live on the trees, but also to hunt, cook food, sleep and wash his clothes up there. He makes himself useful to others and develops friendship with a local girl Viola. The exploration of the new world of Cosimo up in the trees is fascinating and Calvino’s existentialist concept of one man eschewing society and its norms is appealing. It is then even more surprising to learn that, unfortunately, The Baron in the Trees is also quite plot-less and, in the end, delivers little by way of substance.
“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.
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 – Tessof the d’Urbervilles  and Far from the Madding Crowd .
This French classic lived up to my high expectations and even went beyond them. This is a tale of Eugène de Rastignac, a young man from countryside, who gets entangled in some tricky situations while chasing his coveted place at the very top of Parisian high society. Impoverished Father Goriot may just force the young man to rethink his quick and morally-dubious leap to success.
This tale of two lovers separated by circumstances may remind of Romeo & Juliet, but there is more here than first meets the eye: colourful characters include the Unnamed, the Nun of Monza and Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, and it so happens that Renzo and Lucia must face a plague, a city in revolt and a war before even thinking about any reunion. This is a true Italian classic.
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.
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.
“Death was the only absolute value in my world. Lose life and one would lose nothing again forever… Death was far more certain than God, and with death there would be no longer the daily possibility of love dying. The nightmare of a future of boredom and indifference would lift. I could never have been a pacifist. To kill a man was surely to grant him an immeasurable benefit. Oh yes, people always, everywhere, loved their enemies. It was their friends they preserved for pain and vacuity”
Amulet impressed me the most in January, and this is only my second novel by Roberto Bolaño. This story is told by Auxilio Lacouture, a woman who proclaims herself to be “the mother of Mexican poetry” and who is friends with up-and-coming poets, writers and artists in Mexico City. When she is left stranded in an empty and already raided by the army university, she starts to reminisce, opening to us the world which is both imaginative and realistic, artful and honest, uplifting and dark.
The Belly of Paris [1873/2007]by Emile Zola–★★★★1/2
I cannot believe that the following two prominent classics on my list ended up below Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet, but here we go. The Belly of Paris, translated by Brian Nelson, tells of Florent, an escaped political prisoner, who arrives to Paris and tries to settle down with his half-brother’s family. He seems to be a newcomer who unwittingly disrupts the usual flow of life in the area. Zola shows the plight of the working-class in the city, and his descriptions of Les Halles, once a famed food market, are sumptuous and exquisitely-rendered. The characters are also interesting and the atmosphere is conveyed, even if the plot itself requires some patience. Continue reading “January 2020 Wrap-Up”→
The Black Sheep (La Rabouilleuse) [1842/1970] – ★★★★★
The Black Sheep is an outstanding novel by Balzac (Lost Illusions) 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”→
I spotted this tag first on youtube since I follow one book reviewer there – Eric, and decided to post my answers to this tag, too. The creator of this tag is ArielBessett, and I have also seen this tag at Whimsy Pages(Alex’s blog) and at The Book Prescription. I am not tagging anyone for this tag, and everyone is welcome to participate.
I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?
The Maias (Os Maias)  by José Maria de Eça de Queiroz. After I enjoyed The Crime of Father Amaro, I thought I would read another book by this author – Os Maias, a realist family saga, which was also recommended to me by Susana at A Bag Full of Stories. I am still to finish this Portuguese classic even though I started it about three weeks ago, but I do have an excuse – it is 715 pages long! I am enjoying it so far and I think it will be a five-star read for me.
II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?
Every time I think of autumn or winter, I think of some nice crime mystery to read. I think it is so nice to read something like that in a warm home when there is snow or rain falling outside. I will be reading some detective stories by Andrea Camilleri (The Shape of Water and The Snack Thief will probably be my next reads). I also want to re-read The Essex Serpent , which I enjoyed very much when I first read it. Given its slightly gothic, dark atmosphere and setting, it will also be the perfect autumnal transition. Continue reading “The End of the Year Book Tag”→
“...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”→
I saw this tag at The Orangutan Librarian and decided to post my answers to it too. I will probably end up being hated for some of my opinions below 🙂 but a confession is a confession.
I. Which book, most recently, did you not finish?
Celestial Bodies by Jokha al-Harthi (translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth). This is the recent winner of the International Booker Prize and, naturally, I wanted to read it as soon as possible. It is a tale of three sisters and their relationships in Oman. It is told through various characters’ perspectives, not only of the sisters’ but also of their children and husbands, apparently. I read first twenty or so pages, and though I liked the beginning, reading about the perspective of Mayya, one of the sisters, when other characters started telling about themselves, my attention veered off and I did not finish the book. I promised to myself to come back to this novel to finish it. The book has all the qualities of an important novel and I especially love that it is set in Oman, portraying a different culture.Continue reading “The Book Blogger Confessions Tag”→
“Man has gone out to explore other worlds and other civilisations without having explored his own labyrinth of dark passages and secret chambers, and without finding what lies behind doorways that he himself has sealed” [Stanisław Lem/Kilmartin/Cox, 1961/70: 164].
Solaris is considered to be the most influential and significant work of a Polish writer Stanisław Lem. Also made into a movie  by Andrei Tarkovsky, the book tells of Kelvin, a psychologist, who arrives to a station orbiting the mysterious planet called Solaris. On board of the station are supposed to be three other researchers, and Kelvin joins them to know about their progress in trying to understand the planet, and, in particular, the ocean on Solaris that may or may not have consciousness of its own. Then, Kelvin starts to experience something coming from the mysterious planet no one has warned him about. The so-called “visitors” frequent the station and Kelvin begins to think he is losing his grip on reality when his dead wife makes an appearance, opening his emotional wounds. But, what is this strange force that plays tricks on the inhabitants of the station? What is the meaning of this psychic phenomenon coming from Solaris? Can researchers really understand its workings? It is easy to see why Solaris stood the test of time. The book is inventive, thought-provoking and fascinating. Its main attraction is the eerie, seemingly impenetrable mystery that surrounds the strange planet Solaris, but the merit of Lem’s story is also that it tells us as much about humanity, its characteristics and its limitations as about the attempts to understand the unfathomable – one of the greatest mysteries of the universe. Continue reading “Review: Solaris by Stanisław Lem”→
“Each face, each stone, of this venerable monument, is a page of the history, not only of the country, but of the science and the art” (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback ofNotre-Dame [1831: 110]).
“It was a singular destiny…for the church of Notre-Dame, at that period, to be thus beloved in two different ways, and with so much devotion, by two beings so unlike as Claude and Quasimodo – loved by the one, a sort of half-human creature, instinctive and savage, for its beauty, for its stature, for the harmonies dwelling in the magnificent whole; loved by the other, a being of cultivated and ardent imagination, for its signification, its mystic meaning, the symbolic language lurking under the sculpture on its front, like the first text under the second in a palimpsestus – in short, for the enigma which it eternally proposes to the understanding” (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback ofNotre-Dame [1831: 155]).
“He is already part of you. Though you fly to Greece, and never see him again, or forget his very name, George will work in your thoughts till you die. It isn’t possible to love and to part. You will wish that it was. You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you. I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal”