Thursday, August 31, 2006

Scarlet and Black post IV

The development of Julien continues as he places more distance between himself and Madame de Renal, although he can't resist one last visit to her before leaving to go to Paris

Bullet points between pages 210 - 287

* Julien is promoted to junior lecturer status at the seminary but is snubbed in the exams and comes 198th rather than the 1st place he deserved

* His patron who runs the seminary is deposed in another twist of politics and shortly after is involved with a government minister who under the seminary head's recommendation offers Julien a post a secretary in Paris

* Julien has a last visit with Madame de Renal and is suspected as an intruder and shot as as he leaves the grounds of the house

* As he heads for Paris he comes across two old friends and now enemies of Renal and is captivated by their talk of Napoleon

* Once in Paris he starts to cultivate friendships with M. de Mole and his family and starts to discover the importance of holding the right type of views and the ability to talk about anything other than politics

* he fights a duel with a diplomat who becomes his friend but for formalities sake spreads the rumour he is the illegitimate son of a good friend of the Marquis de Mole, a position the Marquis encourages when he is lonely and laid up with gout and values Julien's friendship

With Madame de Renal off the scene, his influence growing and his knowledge of politics and power increasing it will be interesting to see where Julien goes next...

Dead trees or screen time?

In a bizarre case of my day job spiralling into my blog interest I received a letter today from someone in the printer industry warning that Google’s offer of free downloads of books might well be an admirable attempt to increase literacy but it may well lead to an abuse of corporate facilities. The point is made that printing out a book at work will cost the employer money.

It is an interesting argument but surely employers already concerned about the amount of time staff spend surfing the web might view it as a cost worth paying if people print it off and then take it home with them and don’t spend hours reading it off the screen.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Scarlet and Black post III

As a result of major delays with the trains this morning I was able, until a rising temper made even reading difficult, to get through a fair few pages of Scarlet and Black.

Bullet points between pages 115 - 209

* As the relationship develops so does the boldness and inevitably the jealously around the couple leads to gossip and anonymous letters being sent to M de Renal warning him about his wife and the tutor

* As a distraction the King comes to town and the signs that Julien is becoming spellbound by the idea of becoming an influential wealthy person rather than looking on in envy start to crystallize

* In response to the growing gossip the lovers coordinate their behavior and supply the mayor with the impression that it is coming from his deadly rivals in town and as a result Julien will drop his tutoring duties for a week and live separately from them

* In that time alone he is wined and dined by the town’s other major figures and comes to see that the great men of the village are petty and unpleasant characters and in reality M de Renal isn’t as bad

* Things come to a head when the old priest hears of Julien’s affair from the maid’s confession and demands he goes to a seminary for a year

* Julien leaves and heads off with a bad parting from his lover who he thinks is as cold as a corpse when he departs

* Once in the seminary he is not allowed to receive her letters, discovers that his attitude and aloofness makes him unpopular and starts to unmask his feelings of hypocrisy towards the teaching of religion

* Julien is sent to help decorate the cathedral and as he is walking around there is a scream and a woman faints – it is Madame de Renal. Julien is told to go away and leaves her in shock and retreats back to the seminary

Where will the story go tomorrow it's hard to know now that the exile from Madame de Renal has been partially broken...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Scarlet and Black post II

The love affair between the innocents begins but a clever story of assumptions is being weaved where it is almost bordering on classic farce in some respects as each of the main characters assumes things about the other often completely wrongly.

Bullet points between pages 63 - 114

* What develops as a romance/love for madame de renal is seen by Julien as a Napoleonic crusade to prove himself as a man and he sets out to set himself challenges that would emulate the ambition shown by his great military hero - for instance he sets himself the goal of holding her hand in the darkness

* Julien has a chip on his shoulder about his social situation and vents his anger against M. de Renal but because the mayor thinks he is about to leave to a rival employer he offers to increase the young tutor's pay much to the latter's amazement

* After upping the ante and demanding three days leave to visit his friend Julien is offered a job and toys with the idea that he might leave

* With the confessions of his adventures with a mistress still in his ears from his time with his friend Fouque, Julien very clumsily sets out to seduce Madame de Renal and ends up visiting her in the middle of the night

* As he gets more confident he publicly declares his support of Napoleon but is put in his place by his mistress who is afraid of those views

* Julien uses his relationship with madame de Renal to learn about society and it starts to crystalise that they are on opposite sides of the fence

I am aiming to read m ore pages tomorrow, just happen to be very tired at the moment, so will get through hopefully a bigger chunk tomorrow. The feeling that Julien is going to get too confident and it will all come crashing down on the arrogant innocent is growing by the page...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Book of books - Bonjour Tristesse

It is hard to believe that Francois Sagan was not too far off the age of the central character Cecile, who is 17 in the story, when she wrote this book because it has the wisdom of a much older author and the ability to disturb you in a profound way. In a nutshell this is a classic case of not judging a book by its cover because it is far from the dreamy easily digestible love story that you first imagine it might be and has a real edge to it and a finale that leaves you thinking for quite a while afterwards.

plot summary
Cecile and her widowed father have a particularly strong relationship after the 17 year old girl comes out her convent education at 15 and spends a couple of hedonistic years sharing her fathers life, friendships and adult world. They decide to go on holiday with his current mistress Elsa but things are complicated when an old family friend Anne Larsen turns up and after elbowing out Elsa becomes engaged to the father. Fearing that her life is about to be destroyed by routine and boredom Cecile conspires with Elsa and her holiday boyfriend Cyril to get her father jealous. It works and in a gripping finale Anne discovers the father kissing his old mistress in the woods, jumps into her car and ends up driving off a cliff. After a period of reflection the father and daughter pair return to their hedonistic lives leaving not just Anne but also Cyril and Elsa as victims.

Is it well written?
if Sartre is about philosophy then this is about psychology with the moral being that it is dangerous to meddle with other people's feelings and minds. It is a great story because you cannot see the end coming. You understand that a 'tragedy' is on the horizon but you suspect it is much more likely to be Cecile being discovered as the lynchpin of the Elsa conspiracy rather than Anne dying. There are some really clever exchanges between Cecile and Anne about the need to think about the future as opposed to living for the day and it is those thoughts and sentiments as well as a few ponderings on the arrogance of youth, that you ultimately get out of this book.

is it worth reading?
because of the questions it forces you to confront it is definitely worth picking up and at just aver 100 pages it is a quick read, even if the themes live with you longer. It is a book that I suspect would get different reactions depending on your age with the young sympathising with Cecile and the middle aged nodding along with Anne's arguments and no doubt those in their twilight years just concluding that meddling between a man and a woman is something that should always be avoided.

leads to
This reminded me a great deal of The Great Gatsby, because of the games people play on both books. Picking up on that theme it does have an American feel to it, maybe it is no coincidence that Anne is driving a large American convertible and so as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald there are echoes of other books of the 1930s.

version read - penguin paperback

Scarlet and Black post I

This week I am sticking with the French theme but have been forced to go back into the 19th century because I do not have that extensive a library. I really wanted to start some Proust but believe it or not bookshops just don't have that much Proust and neither did my local library so while I wait for it to arrive via Amazon the delights of Stendhal's Scarlet and Black will have to do.

Also to add insult to injury it has been a bank holiday weekend so I have not got that far into the book so apologies for the slow start.

Bullet points between pages 1 - 62

* The introduction to the novel includes some biographical stuff about the author but is at pains to stress that context that the book was written around. Coming in 1825-30, after the turbulent years of Napoleon the country was split between liberals and royalists and the church had also been dragged into the debate. As a result there are numerous references to people's politics throughout the book. The main point is that because the Napoleonic era had ended the country and particularly the provinces where this story is set, reacted to the times and acted in a particular way.

Ever since Napoleon's downfall, provincial usage had rigorously banned all manifestations of gallantry. Everyone is afraid of being turned out of his post. Scoundrels seek the support of the Jesuit party, and hypocrisy has made enormous strides, even among the educated classes. Boredom is twice as great as ever, and no pleasures remain save farming and reading. pg62

* The setting of the story, the village of Verrieres, is sketched out with the mayor M. de Renal top of the political tree

* As things develop the mayor has a run-in with the priest over politics and creates some distance from other wealthy landowners and in a move to impress decides to appoint the latin loving son of the carpenter Julien Sorrel as a tutor to his two sons

* Sorrel's home life of abuse at the hands of his father and brother is made clear so the difference with the home of the de Renal family is at first jaw dropping for him

* Something starts to develop between the tutor and the mayor's wife but it is all very innocent and both are too naive to understand what is happening and the danger of the feelings that are starting to emerge, particularly Sorrel, who is ten years her junior

The question of their relationship developing seems inevitable but what will the consequences of that be? maybe we will find out tomorrow...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Books the Googlefight victor

It’s all harmless fun, and saw something about it on the travolution blog, which is run by a great bloke called Kevin May, but if you fancy seeing how popular your favourite author is, according to the number of search results on Google, then you can go to Googlefight and put it to the test. In a few contests Shakespeare emerges as a real heavyweight brushing aside Dickens easily and based on our recent reading Camus easily beats Sartre.

One positive for those of us who are booklovers is the strength books shows against its entertainment challengers.

In a fight of books versus films the score was a whopping 2.9 billion to 1.4bn and books came out stronger against video games and TV.

Visit the site to set your own author fights.

bookmark of the week

This bookmark was purchased at Didcot Railway museum near Oxford on a Thomas the Tank Engine Christmas day out a couple of years ago. For anyone who likes trains, and I have two boys who fall into that category, it is a great place to see and climb on a number of old steam engines.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Book of books – Nausea

This is not an easy book to read because there are parallel tracts here of a narrative story and a philosophical debate, which is Jean-Paul Sartre's speciality that although working well together challenge the reader in a way a traditional novel wouldn’t.

Plot summary

The best way is to sum up the narrative and the philosophical seperately

Antoine is a historian researching the life story of the Marquis de Rollebon, who played a part in the death of Tsar Paul I and the Napoleonic period. He drifts out of interest with the character and drops the book, visits his old flame, who doesn not renew their relationship and moves back to Paris from the French port of Bouville. The few characters he meets includes a café owner, a woman he casually sleeps with and the Autodidact a figure he meets at the library who is eventually exposed as a peodophile.

Throughout the book Antoine is fighting a battle against existience working out why things don’t conform to his ideals and when there is a clash between how he feels and reality he feels nausea. In the end he has a revalation that he can live with existence developing around him but he opts for a life of virtual solitude not to take part in it all. On the way he meets a humanist and dismisses those arguments and of course disposes of a belief in God.

Is it well written?
Considering what it is able to do the book deserves to be read by anyone who is looking for an example of how a novelist combines more than just a story. The philosophical element here is what makes the nausea so real and so disturbing. Anyone who has ever felt uncomfortable socially will recognise the difficulty he has talking to others and even raising his eyes to look at people some times. The philosophical definetly adds to the depth of the character.

Is it worth reading?
When it comes to looking up lists of French literature often the only book by Sartre’s name is Nausea and so by default it is going to get read by anyone who is studying French lit or looking for some of the most fanous works from that country. Beyond those people it does deserve to be tackled because it is a novel that challenges you to think about what you believe and think and how you fill your days and questioning that has to be worthwhile.

Leads to
More french literature or more Sartre. I am particularly keen to try and dig up my copy of Age of Reason and purchase the Reprieve and Iron in the Soul, his war-time trilogy. Maybe if I get past the boxes in the attic I will be able to do that.

Version read – penguin twentieth century classics

Friday, August 25, 2006

Bonjour tristesse post II

This short books ends in tragedy and leaves you thinking about the demands love can make both between lovers and family and the costs of physiological games.

Bullet points between pages 51 - 107 (part II)

* As Anne starts to get more involved in the lives of Cecile and Raymond trying to get them to move away from their hedonistic lifestyle cecile seizes on the chance arrival of Elsa and plans to use her to lure her father away from Anne and marriage

* Under Cecile's instructions Elsa stages a love affair with Cyril emphasising to the father that he is getting old and his days of romancing types like Elsa will be over when he gets married

* In between becoming physically involved with Cyril, feeling guilty over plotting Anne's downfall and studying for her exam, ironically in philosophy, Cecile starts to reach the climax of her plan to manipulate her father's feelings

* Things come to a head when Anne discovers Raymond kissing Elsa, storms off in tears and then as the father and daughter write letters of remorse to get her back the police phone saying she is dead after a motor accident

* Cecile thinks it is a suicide staged to look like an accident but perhaps that is because she is feeling so guilty. They attend the funeral at Paris where Cecile shuns Cyril, despite him earlier asking her to marry him

* The book ends with both finding new, but obviously temporary loves, and returning back to their hedonism, which Anne had fought in vain to break them out of.

A powerful story about the dangers of getting involved between a man and a woman and between a daughter and a father. A full review will follow on Sunday...

As deep as a holiday tan

Interesting piece in The Guardian today by Mark Lawson examining what the top ten summer reads tells us about British reading habits. The conclusion seems to be that as a result of there being no Dan Brown or J.K Rowling offering the list is free of some of the usual titles but still influenced by television, particularly the Richard & Judy bookclub.

Having looked over at what people are reading on sun loungers on holiday my feeling is that you have to be careful about reading too much into these things because I doubt most people thought very hard before picking their books to take. Most people opt for a mixture of the top twenty that are all easily available at the newsagents and bookshops at airports. The choices reflect more the apathy and power of suggestion and advertising more than what the actual books themselves are about.

A couple of years ago I once quizzed someone on their choice of book only to be told that they chose it because the cover looked good. Need I say more?

Bonjour Tristesse post I

The choice in some bookshops is tragically depressing so my decision about what to read next depended to a great degree on what I had already bought in the past. In my bid to keep with the French theme there was a choice between something from the 20th century or from the 19th. Because of Camus and Sartre I opted for the former so today (and it should be just a day at 107 pages) I am reading Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan.

Bullet point between pages 9 – 50 (Part One)

* A father and his 17 year old daughter, who have been close since the death of the mother when the girl was two, are on holiday with the father’s latest mistress Elsa

* Ceclie, the daughter, is enjoying her holiday and finding love with a student named Cyril, when her rather care-free father announces that an old family friend Anne Larsen is coming to stay

* Ceclie suspects that Anne might have feelings for her father and things come to a head at a casino when she discovers them talking in the car and Elsa is unceremoniously dumped

* Anne and Raymond, the father announce they are going to be married and shortly after Cecile is banned from seeing Cyril after being caught fondling in the woods

Part One of the book ends with it being set up for a battle of love for the father between Anne and the life and relationship he has enjoyed with his father. Just like the Sartre there is more going on here than just the surface story and it is asking some philosophical questions about love and ownership.

Should post the concluding bullet points tonight…

Worth boasting about?

On my way to work this morning I cycled pass a bus with a picture of a man reading a book under a tree on the side with the words: Merton council residents borrow on average four books a year from the library. I spent the rest of my journey wondering if this was really anything to be proud about?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A war president's reading list

Interesting piece in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on President Bush’s summer reading list, which as already noted on this blog includes The Outsider by Albert Camus. Bush is also apparently reading Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s book about Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb plus and Richard Carwardine’s biography of Abraham Lincoln. Gopnik expresses the hope that Bush, a war president, will be changed by reading books that cover the subject of impulse violence (Camus), the birth of atomic destruction (Oppenheimer) and the life of another war president (Lincoln). Let’s hope he is right and when it comes to thinking about his plans for Iran Bush remembers some of the lessons learnt reading at his ranch this summer. On the other hand Tony Blair, The British Prime Minister, has been seen reading thriller Break no Bones by Kathy Reichs, which is about archaeology students who find a corpse on a beach. Unless Blair is researching methods of getting rid of his political enemies its hard to see what lasting impression his holiday reading will provide.

Nausea post IV

The book climaxes with a disturbing brief time spent in Bouville and Antoine sketching out a future for himself that involves writing another type of book, but one that presumably will involve him aping his live in Bouville and flitting from the library to cafes and the park.

Bullet points between pages 220 – 252

* On his return to Bouville Antoine is determined to meet the Autodidact to see how he is after the scene in the café and he finally meets him in the library

* The Autodidact doesn’t want to talk to him and then gets involved with a scene with some school boys and the Corsican librarian hits him in the face after accusing him of being disgusting

* Antoine offers to help the Autodidact, who now will never be allowed to go back to the library, but he is told to go away

* The final port of call is for Antoine to visit the café owned by the woman he has been sleeping with on a casual basis. The waitress offers to play his favourite record one last time and Antoine dreams about the man who created the song

* The book ends with him almost promising to himself to have a quiet life in Paris because there is enough existence as it is without him stirring it up more

A full review of the book will be posted on Saturday but as for what is next I have to admit to being torn between reading more Sartre, moving onto Proust or Scarlet and Black by another French great Stendhal? I’ll pop down to Waterstones in my lunch break and share the decision later.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Nausea post III

I didn't manage to get to the end today so the climax of the book will have to wait until the morning.

Bullet points between pages 140 - 219

* Antoine abandons his history of the life of the Marquis de Rollebon and is at a loss to know what to do with himself and admits it is the visit to Abby that is keeping him going

* He goes for lunch with the Autodidact, who it turns out is a humanist, and they disagree and possessed by a nausea Antoine leaves the restaurant and heads off to the municipal park

* Once in the park a pivotal moment in the book occurs with him able to understand that his nausea is a feeling that results from a failure to determine the existence of everything

To exist is simply to be there; what exists appears, lets itself be encountered, but you can never deduce it. pg188

* You start to understand that the nausea is a result of the conflict between Antoine and reality, his reaction to people and objects around him

* Antoine decides to go and live in Paris and heads off to the capital to visit Anny deciding that afterwards he will quite Bouville

* meeting Abby is a strange experience because she also shares the same nausea type feelings but expresses it as a determination to enjoy special moments. When Antoine points out they share the same feelings she corrects him and says that she never went as far as expecting the world to fall into an order of her choosing

* They part with it quite clear that the relationship is over and that Abby could not solve his problems and he is on his own and that when he returns to Paris it will be without his old love

The last few pages will be digested tomorrow morning and then I'm tempted to delve into something else French...

Shelved in the attic

I always look with longing at the pictures of home libraries wishing I had the space to get the books out of the numerous boxes in the attic and garage and have them out on display. So I looked with real envy at Alain de Botton’s shelf-lined lounge in an interview in The Independent in which he boasts that he has 2,000 books and is buying more all the time. Lucky for him it looks like he can see what he has rather than try to remember what’s lurking in the corner with the bats up in the attic.

Book of books - Pepys the unequalled self

This review is posted because it ties in with the idea of the plague slightly, because Pepys lived through the 1665 London outbreak and because it is a diary, the form of narration chosen in Nausea.

This book by Claire Tomalin was a great surprise because I had expected it to be about the diaries and very little else but it contained a much fuller picture.

Pepys is world-renowned for his diaries, which present a view into the world of 17th Century London life which is unparalleled. But this book is about much more and covers the period of his life before he kept diaries and towards the end when he no longer was able to write them. Pepys had a remarkable life mingling with royalty, the navy and living at a time of plague and the Great Fire of London.

Is it well written?
There is a great deal of information here and it is understandably richer when the diaries are there as a resource and it does tail off a bit towards the end when the commentary gets patchier because charting his movements becomes a question of referring to mentions in other sources. But what keeps you going right through to the end is the readable way this historical biography is written it is a very readable book.

Is it worth reading?
The problem with any biography is that people are turned off or on by the subject and so there will be some readers who opt to avoid this because they believe they are not interested in Pepys. It is a wider book than that and provides a window on a lost world that is interesting above and beyond Pepys.

Leads to
Tomalin has another book out now, a biography of Thomas Hardy. Again he might not appeal to everyone but you know this will be more than just his life story and will weave a picture of Dorset in days gone past. Otherwise it is a case of being inspired by Pepys and reading about the plague, fire or naval history. Otherwise Liza Picard’s Restoration London is about the 1660s.

Version read - Penguin

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Nausea post II

It is hard to review this book because there are two parallel trains of thought going on - the mental and the physical. In the case of the later not a great deal happens with each entry and life revolves around the library where Antoine is writing his book and the various cafes he frequents.

That is my explanation for why the bullet points might seem rather limited as compared to a traditional novel.

Bullet points from pages 60 - 140

* After a conversation with the Autodidact about adventures Antoine starts analysing if he has ever had adventures and comes to the conclusion he was too busy living life to try and construct an adventure

* But he obviously regrets it and there is a scene where he becomes convinced that literally round the next corner an adventure is waiting but he seems some how to find it difficult to go on and meet it

* He receives a letter from a former girlfriend, Abby, and after some deliberation he resolves to go and see her in Paris

* He goes to a cafe and convinces himself the owner has died and then flees to the safety of the library

* His introverted state starts to consume him more and more and he goes into cafes and hears conversations but can barely bring himself to look at people

* He concludes that he has finished his book on the Marquis de Rollebon and asks himself what he will do next?

* There is just a week to go before he goes to meet Abby and maybe that is the adventure he seeks. He wants to get her to come back to his hotel in Bouville because if she does he won't be frightened anymore

A guide to his mental outlook is often the time, he hates three o'clock because it is a dead time, the weather and you get fog, rain and cold as well as light and dark, particularly the darkness on the streets not covered by lights.

Unlike most novels, where you have an idea of where things are going, this seems to be a question of not will he have a happy ending or some sort of resolution with Abby but will he fall apart, or be identified as insane before he reaches some point of safety? Even now with just slightly more than 100 pages to read I have no idea of the answer to those questions.

Favourite line from today's reading is given when Antoine is cornered into accepting a dinner invitation with the Autodidact from the library:

I had as much desire to lunch with him as to hang myself
pg 112

More of that kind of sentiment no doubt tomorrow...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nausea post I

Today has been a strategy day at work (that involves talking about the future with lots of alcohol being consumed) so reading, even seeing straight, was not that easy today. So forgive the relatively limited number of pages that were got through today in Jean-Paul Satre's first novel and oft quoted masterpiece.

Bullet points from pages 1 - 60

* The story starts with a page explaining who the main character is, Antoine Roquentin a well traveled man who has now based himself in a town to write the history of marquis de Rollebon, who has papers about him in the town

* the book is written as a diary and you are introduced to the idea that a lonely historian is starting to have episodes that are starting to convince him he might be going insane

* the word nausea is first introduced as a feeling that comes from other objects - a pebble or a scrap of paper - but one night he goes to a cafe and feels nauseous for a great deal longer and only snaps out of it when his favourite tune is played

* this is an uncomfortable book with passages about him studying his face, noticing the smallest details about other people's faces and mannerisms and because of his inability to cover up his feelings of revulsion are disinterest by pretending for the sake of the social situation

* he has been in the town researching and writing his book for a couple of years and is at the point where he hates the marquis de Rollebon but still likes the concept of the book

It is very much a book about a man and his mind and for that reason it reminds you instantly of the outsider by Camus and also because of its existentialism. Quite where the character of Antoine can go is hard to guess - maybe completely into a spiral of introverted despair? Let's read on and see tomorrow...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

bookmark of the week

This bookmark directly relates to a chapter of my family's life in South London when my father was principal of Spurgeon's College in London. I'm not sure if this bookmark was ever a big seller but is is something that will always remind me of my time in London SE25.

the words are:
Spurgeon's College, South Norwood Hill, london SE25 6DJ
Founded by C.H Spurgeon to train Baptist Ministers and Missionaries
Please support us by prayer and gift
"How shall they hear without a preacher?"

Book of books - on the plague

Following last weeks reading choice, The Plague by Albert Camus here are a couple of quick reviews from the Book of Books of some books studying the impact of plague as well as some fiction on the subject

In the Wake of the Plague by Norman Cantor
A study of what happened as a result of the Black Death. Most historians concentrate on the plague while it was ravaging people rather than what happens afterwards. This is different and recounts how after the plague there was a power shift, with the British losing the chance to seize more land in France; entire land-owning families were wiped out; it increased anti Âsemitismm as the Jews were seen as responsible. It is a good look at the powervacuumm and the politicalupheavall left by the plague.

A Journal of a Plague year by Daniel Defoe
Along with the relevant passages from Samuel Pepys diaries about the plague in London in 1665 this is a very good insight into the fear, belief in anything that might stave off the disease and the decline of human behaviour under great strain. It has an authentic voice because Defoe witnessed the plague himself, despite being five at the time, and the story is told against a background ofevocativee descriptions of London this is a book, that although criticised by some for its historical accuracy, is a deserved benchmark on a historical/novelisation of the impact of the plague.

Year of wonders by Geraldine Brooks
My wife described this as a historical romantic novel and that is probably the best description and it wasn't something I enjoyed naturally coming from a background of non-fiction reading. It takes Eyam, the village ravaged by the plague, and tells the story of the spread and reaction of the disease from the view point of a widower who becomes linked with the rector, who is the one who demands everyone stays in the village and faces death with the 17th century equivalents of stiff upper lips. It all becomes a bit too Mills and Boon for my liking at the end but for those people turned off by non-fiction then it might be an easier route to engage with the subject of the plague.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

book of books - the plague

This book is the third Albert Camus title to be reviewed this week and unlike the others has not only a few more characters, including the town of Oran, but also has a story that is more accessible than perhaps The Outsider or The Fall.

plot summary
Set in an Algerian port town of Oran, which is run by the colonialist French the town is struck by the plague. The disease, which carries on for months not only kills thousands but keeps the town cut off from the world. The main characters fight or flee the plague and the main voice of the story belongs to Dr Bernard Rieux, who as a result of his position is able to record the spread and the impact of the plague. It ends with the town liberated from the disease but life for the survivors is overshadowed by the impact of the exile and the memories of what they have lost and endured.

Is it well written?
The book is working on different levels with it also being a metaphor for the German invasion of France in the second world war and as a result you have to ask does it succed in delivering that metaphor as well as a readable story. The answer on both counts is yes, because you understand and feel the impact of the exile, particularly the question - when will it end? The book succeeds because of the empathy and affection the reader develops for the principle character Rieux but also for his like-mided friends Tarrou, Rambert and Grand.

is it worth reading?
After starting with The Outsider and then tackling The Fall I wish I had gone for The Plague as a second Camus stepping stone because not only is it a more rounded story but it shows the depth of his writing. Some of his descriptions are incredibly powerful being able to sum up the feelings and fears on an individual as well as an entire town. Camus has large numbers of worldwide followers and it is because of his writing, which is displayed on numerous occasions in this book.

leads to
Three choices here really: either more Camus, some more French literature or into non-fiction territory with some reading about the plague - particularly the London plague that was chronicled by Pepys.

version read - penguin twentieth century classics

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Plague post IV

The book ends with a mixture of happiness and tragedy as the plague claims its last victims and the exile for the town ends.

Bullet points from pages 172 - 252

* The judge's son falls victim to the plague and the serum is tested on him and although he lives slightly longer than usual he still dies

* Rieux shows his anger and frustration to the priest and argues that the child was innocent and God had no right to take him

* The priest has a moment of almost losing faith before dying of pnenomic plague refusing help until almost the very end from Rieux

* One of the other main characters Tarrou confides in Rieux that he always wants to show sympathy to the victims of the plague and wonders if it is possible to become a saint without believing in God

* In a very moving chapter Tarrou finally succumbs to the plague and dies. Shortly after Rieux receives a telegram telling him that his wife has died.

* As the plague recedes the narrator of the story is revealed to have been Dr Rieux and as things wind down with Rambert being reunited with his wife, grand recovering and writing to his ex-wife the final twist occurs with Cottard losing his mind and firing on the police, the final victim of the plague.

On the book jacket this is described as a metaphor for the German occupation of France during the war. With the current furore over Gunter Grass, which reminds us of the fear that connections with the Nazi party can still create, there is one particular passage, which should warn anyone who disbelieves that history can repeat itself:

"He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learnt from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city."pg 252

A full review of The Plague will be posted tomorrow...

book of books - The Fall

There are certain broad brush statements you can make about foreign literature based on selected reading and if you read some 20th century American novels you could easily walk away believing that issues of race and class dominate and if you read Albert Camus and Louis-Ferdinand Celine then questions of identity and social interaction are obviously important to French authors.

To illustrate this case you only have to read The Fall by Camus to discover a story about the change in social position of a man who fell from wealth and influence becoming a cynical bar room philosopher.

Plot summary
The main character – in fact the only one who speaks - Jean-Baptiste Clamence is a lawyer who had it all, success, women and wealth but a laugh in the night and a growing sense of paranoia undo him and lead him to end up in a Amsterdam recounting his fall and the hypocrisy that had sustained him prior to it. For instance he examines why he helped an old lady across the road and concludes it was for his own sense of well-being and in case he was seen rather than a genuinely charitable act.

Is it well written?
It is written as a conversation that happens over several nights between two men in the legal profession in a number of bars in Amsterdam. After a while the style of monologues with references to prompts from the silent party does start to tire and some of the speeches can go on for a bit. Although you hear the silent voice through questions you do start to yearn for another voice and some proper dialogue. I am not unaware that of course the point of the style might have been to show how introspective and paranoid the principle character has become.

Is it worth reading?
Interestingly this is not listed as one of the works in 1001 Books to Read before you die that should be read by Camus. I can see why, because it is a book that seems trapped in a style and is a moral about pride and vanity that is not totally satisfactory because Jean-Baptiste Clamence goes from apparent good deeds to a drunk reprobate because having been laughed at he in some ways wants to laugh back at society. Read it as part of an exploration of Camus but opt for The Outsider first, if you are new to the author.

Leads to
More Camus, The Outsider, The Plague or perhaps novels looking to write about philosophical subjects, I can’t really list any because that is not an area I am too familiar with.

Version Read – Penguin circa 1963

Bush no stranger to Camus

Oddly enough in this Camus dominated week it turns out that President George Bush read The Outsider (or The Stranger in some versions) as part of his holiday reading in a ten day vacation on his ranch and according to a White House spokesman decribed it as "an interesting book and a quick read". The world might have differing views about Bush (see today's Independent front page story as an example)but at least he is prepared to read something that is thought provoking rather than the British Members of Parliament who put The Da Vinci Code as their number one favourite summer read.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The plague post III

As a result of a family funeral today I did not have the chance to read very much. It has been a long and tiring day but one where the memory of Richard 'dick' Allegranza rightly was celebrated. he will be very much missed.

Anyway here are the bullet points for a frighteningly few pages. Have no fear we will finish the book off tomorrow.

Bullet points between pages 138 - 171

* The whole of Part III is used to describe the impact of the plague as it stretches into autumn with details of the impact on morale, the business of burials and the strain on patience, hope and morale

* the character of Cottard continues to revel in the plague because not only has it covered over his previous mistakes and made him well-off as a result of smuggling but he has become an associate of the town rather than a stranger looking in from the outside

* When faced with the chance to leave for good Rambert decides to stay with Rieux and Tarrou fighting the disease arguing that if he did escape and head back to Paris his happiness would be ruined by his guilt at leaving them

The concluding 80 pages lie ahead tomorrow and I will also post a review of The Fall to round off what has been a very enjoyable if not challenging week looking at the world through the eyes of Camus.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

book of books - the outsider

Anyone who is a Cure fan will know the lines to Killing an Arab: “standing on a beach with a gun in my hand/staring at the sea staring at the sand/I’m alive I’m dead/I’m a stranger killing an Arab.” As a bit of a Cure follower in earlier years (although like Graham Greene’s catholism it never really leaves you) I used to sing along to the band’s Albert Camus inspired signature tune.

But trying to wrap up an existential book in a catchy chorus is of course never going to be as satisfying as reading The Outsider in full.

Plot summary
The short novel details the story of Meursault, a young man that no matter how awkward it is cannot conform to a social norm. So he attends his dead mother and neither expresses much emotion or shows any awkwardness as he smokes near the body and shows his boredom to the old people’s warden. He then answers his girlfriend’s requests of marriage with a non-committed reply about not really loving her or anyone. The pivot of the book is when he decides to go and kill an Arab and then shows no remorse in the trial because of his refusal to be hypocritical. He ends in prison with the reader left pondering on Meursault’s approach to life.

Is it well written?
It reads like a mental diary of the main character Meursault and the location and story is sketched around him in quite light lines so sometimes you wish there was more about why and how he acts like he does from the position of others. There are only hints of how people react to him in the court and his girlfriend but a third-party point of view might have made his existentialist behaviour even more pronounced

Is it worth reading?
It is an easy read in terms of quantity of pages but a hard one to digest because in all likelihood it will make you feel uncomfortable and even frustrated with Meursault. It is one of those books that has to be chosen carefully depending on your mood because it has the ability to influence how you are feeling. I have found other French literature has that effect because of its philosophical content. If you are not prepared to engage with an anti-hero then wait until the moment is right for this novel.

Leads to
This week is getting quite a Camus flavour so it is going to lead to more Camus but in terms of a book having the ability to sow the seeds of an uncomfortable mood in your head the next step, and one I will be taking next week, is to head for Nausea by Jean-Paul Satre.

Version read – Penguin twentieth century classics

The plague post II

As the town settles into a state of exile there are obvious parallels to be drawn with the German occupation of France because no doubt there were people there wondering when it would end with no prospect in sight.

Bullet points between pages 57 - 137 (part II)

* The second part starts with a description of the state of the town now it is isolated with the growing sense of despair, panic and madness

* The cathedral is the scene of a week of prayer, which ends with the priest warning them not only is the plague a punishment from God but also an opportunity to meet their maker earlier than they might have intended

* One of those trapped in the town, Rambert a journalist from Paris, begs Dr Rieux for a certificate of health so he can try to leave but is denied because it is not possible

* Daily deathrates replace weekly ones to make the totals seem smaller and the town settles into a pattern dictated not just by fear but by the August heat and a life in the plague town is described by Tarrou in chapter six

* Tarrou sets up sanitary squads to help fight the plague and it divides some of the small group that gravitate around Rieux with Rambert and Cottard turning it down at first although Rambert does sign up at the end of the section

* Rambert tries to use the underground criminals to escape from the town but his attempts always seem to be failing and going back to square one. His despair sums up the impact the plague has had on the town and everyone in it:

'So you haven't understood yet?' Rambert shrugged his shoulders almost scornfully.
'Understood what?'
'The plague.'
'Ah!' Rieux exclaimed.
'No, you haven't understood that it means exactly that - the same thing over and over and over again.' (pg134)

Hopefully that's not how the bullet points feel...

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

book of books - A burnt-out case

Graham Greene is famous for a couple of things as well as being a world renowned author and both of those other interests – travelling to remote places (Greeneland) and the Catholic Church – are involved in A Burnt-Out Case.

Following on from a Heart of Darkness, which is mentioned in this book and an obvious influence on the first chapter, this is a story about the strange things that happen to Europeans when placed in a remote and different environment.

Plot summary
The book starts a little bit like a mystery trying to work out who the mystery passenger is and then it widens to become a question of what Querry’s motivation is and just how far will he go to escape his past. Against the backdrop of a leprosy mission he wrestles with his indifference while Dr Colin wrestles with his fight to wipe out leprosy and the Catholic church figures try to wrestle with the indifference of the natives and the problems of the heat. As a reporter turns up and runs a story painting Querry out to be a saint there is a pivotal exchange between one of the priests and Dr Colin describing the state of Querry:

'Perhaps Querry is also a patient,' Colin said.
'That's nonsense. I was thinking of the lepers - you have always dreamt of a school for rehabilitation, haven't you, if you could get the funds. For those poor burnt-out cases of yours.'
'Querry may also be a burnt-out case,' the doctor said.

It ends with Querry having cured himself of not caring but at the cost of involvement with the local white community and one of these, Rycker eventually kills him in a misunderstanding over his wife as Querry’s past reputation catches up with him.

Is it well written?
It keeps you guessing about what will happen to Querry but some of the other characters seem to go almost nowhere - for instance you yearn to know more about Dr Colin but never really get past his battle with leprosy and his atheism. There is also too much Catholic politics for my liking getting in the way of the story. Obviously there is a deeper debate here about religion and the hold the Catholic faith has on people but if you are not interested in that debate it makes a great deal of the book unappealing

Is it worth reading?
Not as a first stop on the Greene trail. His more well known works like Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair are probably going to get read first. This is not always easy reading and because of its openly Catholic themes I would wait until you have engaged more deeply with Greene’s other more well known works before reading A Burnt-Out Case

Leads to
More Greene, particulary Brighton Rock, or onto Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness if you haven’t read that to get a chiming version of an African Congo river cruise experience

Version read – penguin paperback

The Plague post I

Because things have gone a bit wonky with the holiday reading running over the weekend I am going to get through The Plague for the next couple of days and bolster that with a book of books reviews of The Outsider and The Fall.

Bullet points from part I (chapters 1 - 8) pages 5 -56

* Introduced to the town of Oran, on the Algerian coast, part of the French Empire. An ugly town with very few good things to say about it

* Dr Bernard Rieux becomes the focus of the story and he is the first to discover a dead rat on the stairs and over the next few days thousands come out of their holes to die

* The porter of Dr Rieux's building goes down ill and develops a fever with swellings and dies in agony

* Other cases crop up and Dr Rieux utters the word plague with a colleague for the first time but the city is unaware of the spreading epidemic

* The usual battle between the authorities and the doctors ends in compromise with the efforts made by the authorities falling far too short to stop the spread of the plague

* Part one ends dramatically with the hospital full of cases, the death rate hitting 30 a day and ends with the Prefect of the town getting an order to declare a state of plague and close the town

For Camus fans there is a great moment when the customers in the tobbaconists shop are overheard discussing the crime committed in The Outsider
"An animated conversation was in progess and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case which had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach." (pg49)

Monday, August 14, 2006

A burnt-out case post III

The book ends with the themes of faith, Catholism and love still at the forefront and your anger at the demise of Querry is very cleverly cut short and replaced at a deeper anger at the injustice of leprosy.

Bullet points between pages 119 - 199

* Querry talks to Dr Colin about life and the subject of women comes up and the Dr reveals that his wife died at the mission

* The superior leaves the mission leaving Father Thomas in charge, who has just returned bearing the article written by Parkinson

* In a rage Querry goes to see Rycker, who he blames for the intrusion into his life but finds him unwell and heads off the Luc to get supplies and takes his young wife who needs to see the doctor to discover if she is pregnant

* To help her sleep he tells her an autobiographical story about a man losing faith in live and religion and reveals more about how he came to be so bored and uninterested that he decided to bury himself in Africa

* Rycker turns up accusing Querry of sleeping with his wife and they argue but Querry walks out and warns his wife and then heads back to the mission

* The young Rycker wife turns up and makes up lies saying that Querry is the father of her baby. She then admits to him she cannot go back on her lies because she has burnt her bridges, to which he replies that she has burnt his home

* Rycker tracks them to the mission and then calls out Querry who laughs, he says at himself, but is shot twice by Rycker who thinks he is laughing at him

* The superior returns for the funeral and the book ends with him talking to Dr Colin about Querry and how he was perhaps returning to faith. Dr Colin angrily dismisses questions of faith as he starts to plough through 60 patients starting with a three year old boy he diagnoses with leprosy

A very powerful ending that leaves you wondering about your own personal search for meaning and your own reaction to the anger that can be provoked by diseases like leprosy.

Sticking with the idea of how people react to a community suffering from an illness the rest of this week will be spent reading The plague by Albert Camus. The first post on that will go up tomorrow and a book of books review of A Burnt-out case will also go up tomorrow...

Mere Plodders in the reading stakes?

Perhaps some copies of How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland should be dispatched to the House of Commons after it turns out that some MPs are taking an awful long time to read something as page-turningly easy as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code according to an article by John Ezard in today's Guardian. It turns out the blockbuster is number one on MP's summer reading lists according to Waterstones, the same title was also number one last year. They say a week is a long time in politics but obviously not in the business of turning pages in a novel.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A burnt-out case post II

The challenge for Querry is to remain indifferent as he gets more involved in the African community and the bored locals start to turn him into some sort of saint completely misunderstanding his motives.

Bullet points from pages 61 - 118

* Rycker's wife comes to see Querry after a chapter setting the scene that she is struggling to meet her husbands expectations both socially and sexually

* She overhears Querry being rude about her husband and storms off

* Things start to develop with myths being created around Querry with Father Thomas, Rycker and others starting to paint him out to be some sort of saint who has chosen to bury himself in the bush

* In a moment of weakness Querry tells Dr Colin that he is happy but the boat comes in with a journalist on board that threatens to destroy that feeling

* Querry is honest with the journalist, Parkinson, but the hack reacts with anger and says that the story demands that he builds Querry up and says that when he is finished they will be erecting statutes to him

* This section of the book ends with Querry looking back over some of the things that Parkinson has stirred up and you get the feeling he is starting to re-evaluate his behaviour with some feelings of regret

Just as with The Heart of Darkness there are themes of darkness and light creeping in with Father Thomas scared of the dark and worried the jungle will creep on his room. Also for the second time, while discussing Querry with Father Thomas, Dr Colin describes Querry as a burnt-out case

bookmark(s) of the week

Instead of the usual one bookmark here are four that I bought last week on holiday in Dorset. A couple are from castles - Corfe Castle and Lulworth Castle - and the others are from beauty spots, the Blue Pool and Studland Beach.

If you are ever scratching your head about where to go on holiday then Dorset is a good place because of the coast, beautiful Purbeck Hills and the numerous places to go with a family. Just don't mention the petrol (as high as £1.02 in Swanage) and things are great.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

A burnt-out case post I

The plan was that as I headed off camping in Dorset I would take a couple of shortish books with me that I could plough through by the end of the week. That plan assumed that firstly, I would have time to read and, secondly I would have the energy and ability to focus in the darkness by torch light.

As a result I am a bit behind with Graham Greene's A burnt-out case, another book inspired by the theme of heading into a colonial situation to escape/discover something not possible in the normal western world. But in a bid to make sure I keep things going here is the first posting of the book.

Bullet points between pages 5 - 60

* The story starts with a boat trip going on a journey. there is a heavy Catholic atmosphere and a passenger who is a bit of a mystery

* The story then cuts to Dr Colin, a man who has spent 15 years working in a leper colony trying to eradicate the disease

* With the boat coming in the passenger, Querry gets off but leaves a number of questions unanswered, namely who is he? and what does he want to do in a leprosy mission?

* Querry and Dr Colin talk but you don't get much information out of the exchange. The breakthrough happens when Querry is forced because of floods to stay with Rycker, a palm oil factory manager, who digs out a decade old copy of Time and tells Querry he knows who he is

* The identity of Querry, a world famous architect spreads, but this leads to him making his case for complete indifference plain. It is only as a result of pressure from Dr Colin he agrees to help build a new hospital

* Despite the indifference this first third of the book ends with Querry going into the bush to save his assistant, a mutilated cured sufferer of leprosy, and he admits that he values feeling "needed"

I will post the second third of the book tomorrow with a suspicion that Querry will start to care and that Rycker's young wife might start to take a shine to him...

Friday, August 11, 2006

One every three hours

There is a fascinating article in The Independent today by Thomas Sutcliffe discussing How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland. In essence Sutherland it seems reckons you should be able to churn through a novel in three hours. Where I agree, is with the view held by Sutcliffe, is that some books, War and Peace as a good example, have bits which are read quickly and other bits that are like reading up hill. Keeping a standard pace is therefore very difficult and this does tend to challenge the Sutherland hypothesis.

Why I have no major problem with the idea that to keep up with the amount of books that are in print you have to read faster, maybe Sutherland should refer to the research quoted by Penguin that Says that a heavy reader gets through four books a year. Quite how many words that equates to every three hours (around 10-20 probably) is surely more of a problem than getting those of us who are already bookworms to get reading even more?

Thursday, August 10, 2006

book of books - Heart of darkness

This book by Joseph Conrad is so well known for the film apocalypse Now and there are several things taken from the book - Kurtz and "the horror, the horror" - that stayed in the film. As is usual though the book is better than the film and it feels darker because you are left to fill in the blanks with your own imagination.

Plot summary
The story starts being told by a sailor on a boat on the Thames (Marlow) who tells his other crew members about how he had to go into the Heart of darkness to pick up a man running an ivory collecting station in Africa. Having picked up Kurtz, who was leading a disturbed existence and had gone mad by conventional standards, they drift back down the river with Kurtz's strength ebbing away until he dies. Marlow then goes and meets his fiance and tells her that Kurtz's last words were her name, rather than "the horror,the horror".

Is it well written?
It is a book that is able to convey light and mood in a consistent way that I have not come across before. It takes the reader in and as you go up river it gets increasingly unusual - with broken down huts and arrow attacks - and when they get to Kurtz's inner station with the heads on poles it is obvious they have arrived at somewhere very dark indeed. That darkness never seems to leave Marlow and in turn is spread to the rest of the crew and the book ends with a second narrative point of view concluding that the sea they are going on leads also into the darkness.

Is it worth reading?
It is a book that totals around 100 pages, but for all that it is so deep in colour, images and story movement that you have to really concentrate on every page. Those people who liked the film will see that the biggest thing that Conrad provided was a sense of mood. The only issue that some people might have is that unless you understand about colonialism and the brutality of that way of life a lot of the undercurrents of the book will be missed. Versions of the book without an introduction for that reason are probablt best avoided.

Leads to
In my case I am going for another journey into Africa type book - A burnt-out case by Graham Greene. The stepping stones towards Heart of Darkness include A Journey to the end of the night by Louis-Ferdninand Celine.

Version read - Penguin Twentieth Century Classics

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Heart of darkness post III

I am on holiday this week updating this from a field in Dorset so I am keeping the posts shortish so I don't annoy the family or run out of battery.

Bullet points from pages 81 - 121

* After the boat is attacked everyone assumes the same people would have killed Kurtz, but they carry on up stream anyway

* When they find Kurtz he has tons of ivory and is clearly unhinged and has entered the heart of darkness to get those ivory stocks

* Kurtz gives Marlow his confidential papers and likes him because he is half English but also because he probably identifies that Marlow is not a company man either

*Marlow meets a Russian - the owner of the abandoned house earlier up stream - who is in awe of Kurtz and provides details of how he existed and his long trips into the woods with his tribe of followers to get more ivory

* Marlow warns him of the intention to bring an end to Kurtz's reign and the Russian leaves

* They get Kurtz onto the boat, he needs to be carried because he is ill, and as they head back down to the central staton the life ebbs out of him

* Kurtz's last words, heard by Marlow alone, are "the horror, the horror", after analysing them Marlow takes it as an indication that he had found peace with himself and his actions

* In the end Marlow meet's Kurtz's fiance, who is decribed as being swathed in darkness, apart from her forehead, and he tells her that the last thing Kurtz said was her name

* The story ends by cutting back to the Thames with the other narrative voice making the observation that the sea flows off into the heart of darkness

Light and darkness, both physical and spiritual are key to the book, the is the instant comment I would make but I will do a full review later in the week.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Heart of darkness post II

I am on holiday this week camping so have opted for short bursts of bullet points from a shortish book to make life simplier.

Bullet points from pages 47 – 80

* At the coastal station Marlow is first introduced to the name Kurtz, who is the chief of the inner station

* He heads to the central station and again the landscape is full of strangeness with a drunk man claiming to have responsibility for the upkeep of the roads and a black man shot through the head

* Once at the central station he is told his steamer has sunk and calculates that it will take a couple of months to fix

* The man running the station introduces the name of Kurtz again and tells Marlow he must go up the river to find out what has happened because he thinks Kurtz is unwell

* Marlow meets the chief bricklayer who confides that Marlow's influential contacts (his aunt) might be a factor in why he has come and in regards to his position with Kurtz

* His wrecked boat is left unrepaired because no one from the coastal station can be bothered to send him the rivets despite them being in abundance

* There is a slight break in the story while Marlow gathers breath and for a moment you are back on the boat in the Thames and a different narrative point of view describes how it is so dark that Marlow can't be seen only his voice heard through the darkness

* Chapter II starts with Marlow hearing a conversation about Kurtz a man who apprently sailed 300 miles towards supplies and civilisation only to change his mind and turn around in his canoe and sail back into the wilderness

* Finally with the ship repaired the voyage up towards the inner station starts and going up the quiet river into the haert of darkness is described like an eerie dream with signs of desolation (an abandoned hut with a warning of caution) and then sounds of natives scraming in the fog

With just a mile and a half to go before they reach Kurtz's station they are attacked and it is at this point things end for today. Kurtz and the end of Marlow's tale await tomorrow...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Heart of darkness post I

I am on holiday this week camping so have opted for short bursts of bullet points from a shortage book to make life simpler than struggling to sit down and write long posts in email cafes across Dorset.

There are certain books that have become synonymous with films, without necessarily sharing the same name. One of the best examples is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which will forever be linked with Apocalypse Now.

In the Francis Ford Coppola film Martin Sheen’s military agent is sent deep into the jungle to locate and kill Marlon Brando’s character, soldier that has gone wild and set up his own laws, and it is often mentioned as a throwaway comment that it is based on this book, without too many people even bothering to read it.

The slim volume is not too daunting and if you liked the film, and the Redux version is excellent, then there is really no excuse for not reading it.

My reason for picking it up is that reading the section on going into the jungle to the trading station in Journey to the end of the night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine reminded me of the film and I thought it was high time to read the book.

I am reading the Penguin Classics version, which has a 20 page introduction.

Bullet points for pages 7 - 47

Intro highlights: light is very important in the book so it starts as darkness falls and there is a combination of actual darkness and the metaphorical. The book is based on Conrad's own bitter experiences in the Congo.

* The story starts on a boat is moored up in Gravesend with four crew members and the Director of the company onboard

* One of the characters Marlow starts talking about how London had once been a place of darkness,– undiscovered and talks of how a Roman might have seen it as a river leading to death and misery in the past, a hostile wilderness

* He goes on to talk about his own experiences and his search for some place on the map to discover: “It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery – a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.” Pg12.

* Marlow tells of how he became a skipper of a boat owned by a foreign trading company and headed out to replace a captain who had been killed

* He sails for thirty days and then enters the mouth of the river that will lead into the heart of the country and he starts to see strange things inclFrencha french man-of-war firing into the bush at 'enemy forces' and then once at the trading station the colonialists are blowing up bits of the mountain for no apparent reason

* In searching for the shade he comes across a group of natives that are the victims of the plans to build a railway and again the darkness of the trees is hiding death

You feel that as he gets ready to head up stream that you are leaving reason and goiunchartedhartered territory emotionally as well as physically

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bookmark of the week

I picked this bookmark up at the Natural History Museum in London. It is different from the normal variety because it doesn't have a NHM logo on it but instead is just a picture of a T-Rex against a cliff landscape.

My sons love dinasours and this reminds me of the times spent with my eldest on my shoulders looking at the displays at the NHM and the time spent watching programmes about dinasours on television.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

book of books - journey to the end of the night

This book by Louis-Ferdinand Celine is the first part of a couple of autobiographical works that according to the dust jacket shocked readers, particularly in the US, because of the gritty portrayal of life. Presumably what they were interested by was the sexual elements of the story but there is something deeper going on here and it is a typical French literary experience because what you come away with is not necessarily a story but a mood. To experience Celine is like Camus and Sartre something that makes you think about how you feel rather than just empathising with how people acted.

The context
The story follows a medical student who enlists in the first world war, discovers he is a bit of a coward and then opts out of the conflict by going through a series of asylums and then in the end meets and breaks off a relationship with a woman. That then becomes a pattern for the book that even when things appear to be going well he has a pessimistic outlook on life and sure enough things go wrong, mainly because he ensures they do. Throughout the multiple locations of the book, France, Africa and the USA, the main character Ferdinand is ghosted by Leon Robinson who keeps turning up. Although Ferdinand starts to fear and hate him in the end with Robinson gone he is at a loss to know what to do next with his life.

is it well written?
it is not an easy read, but that is not necessarily because of the style, it is more about the reaction a reader used to experiencing a straight forward narrative might have to these wandering series of events. It is obviously a foreign book that has been translated and that probably has an influence on the text. It is a book that does not have the power of something like the Outsider by Camus or Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre because the mood is sometimes obviously broken by the leading character rather than there being a consistent environment that leads to a breaking/changing point. This reminds you if anything of The Fall by Camus with someone talking about different anecdotes to tell a life story. It is hard to judge if it is well written but it is certainly not something that can be easily read.

Is it worth reading?
Not an instant answer to this one. Certainly it links into other works of literature and the Africa that Celine describes is echoed in the Africa of Conrad in The Heart of Darkness (my next weeks reading choice) and for that reason it should be a stepping stone as part of a process of reading the classics. One of the problems with a book like this that includes a character with relatively loose sexual morals is that for its time it was probably disturbing and provocative but now it is no longer shocking and rather seedy and disappointing and you end up agreeing with Madelone when she describes Ferdinand as a dirty beast. The story doesn't necessarily translate across the decades as well as some others.

Leads to
In my case because of the power of the images of colonial rule that part of the tale is going to lead to reading more about Africa in the form of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene's A burnt-out case. It should also lead to other French writers including as already mentioned in particular Albert Camus.

Version read - New Directions paperbook

Friday, August 04, 2006

Journey to the end of the night post V

The book ends in much the same way it has been going for the last couple of hundred pages. Things start to unravel a bit for poor old Ferdinand as he burns yet more bridges and heads back to Paris with funds running low and friendships few to mention. As the book moves to a finale his link to past experiences Robinson is killed and he ends up drifting like the barges on the Seine with no idea of where to go.

Bullet points from pages 396 - 509

* He is asked to stay on in Toulouse for a bit longer so Robinson can show him the sights but he overhears his friend and fiance saying how loathsome Ferdinand is and how is as a bad influence probably on drugs and a sexual animal

* Following that Madame Henrouille falls down the stairs in the crypt and rather than go and help herFerdinandd sneaks off and heads back to Paris.

* Back in the capital he hooks up with Parapine, a doctor he had consulted about Bebert's typhoid, and gets a job working with him in an asylum

* The boss of the asylum likes Ferdinand but starts to believe that Parapine is mad and a type of person that is harbouring potentially dangerous thoughts and plans he gets Ferdinand to teach him English then leaves him in charge of the asylum as he tours the world

* Robinson arrives having walked out on his fiance, Madelon, but is worried she might tell the police he tripped up the old woman and killed her

* Sure enough Madelon arrives and after Ferdinand has got involved, attempted to soil her relationship with further sexual advances, she has a row with Robinson in a taxi and after he refuses to go with her she shoots him twice in the chest

* Robinson dies and the tale ends with Ferdinand being comforted by Sophie, his latest sexual interest, and ending up watching the dawn rise on the banks of the Seine and as the barges blow their horns and head up stream he describes them saying to each other and Paris that it is the end of things and then the curtain is brought down on the book

It has not been an easy read and so even trying to describe the climax of the book it is hard to get across a sense of action because it does not involve Ferdinand directly, he is a witness. Possibly that is a metaphor for his entire existence - that he is not directly involved in the action enough - it reminds you that from the very start he had to admit to himself that he was a coward. Both him and Robinson were cowards but in the end his friend had the courage to provoke his own murder leaving Ferdinand without direction.

Will post a full review tomorrow...

Heavy readers? Nowhere near enough

Following up the Penguin Classics range rebranding the Independent has a story in today (sorry can't seem to get a link) that has at the very end a rather sad piece of commentary on the state of reading. The Indy quotes research cited by Penguin that claims that even a heavy reader in the UK reads only four books a year (that’s a shocking one every three months) and a light reader only manages to get through one title.
I thought Harry Potter had got us all reading again, along with these horrible celebrity biographies? Presumably those four books are made up of those types of books, which deepens the tragedy even more.
Let’s hope the Penguin rebranding can do something to address those poor reading figures but against such apathy maybe its time for another national campaign by the government to encourage people to broaden their minds with books. If four a year is a heavy reader then we really have something to worry about.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Journey to the end of the night post IV

A sense of resigned depression has started to seep through the story with the monotony of being a dirt cheap doctor undermining Ferdinand's ability to make firm decisions like dropping Robinson and leaving Rancy.

Bullet points from pages 291 - 395

* Robinson is very much back on the scene but Ferdinand is desperate for him to leave

* His patient Bebert dies and his involvement with the Henrouille family drags on with the old woman boasting of how her son and daughter-in-law failed to get her sent to a convent or asylum

* Robinson hooks up with the Henrouilles and they build a rabbit hutch and then plan to put a bomb on the hutch and wait for the old woman to open it. The bomb is triggered by a rabbit as Robinson is fitting it and it blinds him

* Laid up in the top floor of the Henrouille's house eventually they hire the services of a priest who gets him a job in a church crypt in Toulouse and so Robinson heads South

* With Robinson gone Ferdinand expects an improvement in fortunes but when it doesn'?t come he decides to depart once and for all from Rancy and head off for new pastures

* It seems that everyone Ferdinand treats as a doctor ends up dying with Mr Henrouille dying of heart failure joining Bebert abd several other former patients. There is a beautifully described moment when Ferdinand sees some of these dead patients as ghosts floating as angels

* Having quit Rancy he drifts around, striking up a relationship with a Polish actress, but after meeting the priest who set Robinson and Senior Mrs Henrouille up with jobs in Toulouse he gets 1,500 francs and promises to go and see them

* Robinson is getting married and although Ferdinand has a bit of fun with his fiance he admits to himself he is jealous

With Robinson settling down and the ties in Rancy well and truly cut you wonder where is Ferdinand going next?

Pick up a Penguin

According to a big piece in The Times about the relaunch of the Penguin Classics range, divided into categories like The Best Crimes and The Best Lovers, the competition to get people to read a classic book rather than a new publication is intense. Of course there are going to be arguments about what is not on the list but my problem is with the categories. It turns books into a video shop experience and my fear is that people who like crime or romance will stick to a very limited selection.
In the end no doubt Penguin won't care too much about that sort of hair splitting as long as the books are sold in large numbers but I am wary of labelling works into a niche it because it could be a case of cutting off readers from wider experiences.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Journey to the end of the night post III

After having the first couple of hundred pages shared between a couple of locations – France and Africa – things change more rapidly and Ferdinand goes across America and back to France much more quickly.

Bullet points from pages 192 – 290

Having arrived in New York and escaped from his obligations on Ellis Island he drifts around the town looking for Lola and Robinson

He eventually finds Lola and in a bitter exchange manages to get $100 off her but at the cost of their friendship

Armed with the money he boards a train for Detroit and gets a job at the Ford factory

After regularly visting a brothel he strikes up a relationship with a prostitute who loves him but accepts that he is a wandering soul and can’t keep him from going back to France

Robinson turns up again wanted by the Police for using dodgy papers and he is also upset when Ferdinand heads back to France

Once back in France he completes his studies and qualifies as a doctor and sets up a practice in a poor suburb where he rarely gets paid and ends up giving out free advice

Things start to fall apart as a young patient, Bebert, catches typhoid and as he worsens so Ferdinand starts to plan to leave Rancy and move on

Robinson, or at least the fear of meeting him, causes Ferdinand great anxiety and is the cause of his change of mind and disgust with his situation

You are left wondering where he will go next of Bebert dies and he leaves Rancy. It has crept up on you but all of a sudden you care about this character and wonder what will happen next...

book review - The last valley

The last valley came out to good reviews a couple of years ago and it was appreciated because Martin Windrow had chosen a period of history not that well documented.

When most people think of the Vietnam war they think of the US involvement but before that the country was run by the French and most of the errors that were made by the Americans had already been done by the French. The reason for posting this review is that the attitude the French display in Journey to the end of the night towards the natives of Africa is hideously similar to the approach they took to the Vietnamese.

The context:
A history of the French demise in Vietnam, with an in-depth look at the collapse at Dien Bien Phu. After following a strategy of “castles in the sky”, which could dominate areas of the jungle and be supplied from the air the French ended up being surrounded and defeated in the hills at Dien Bien Phu. The problem was one of underestimation of the National Vietnamese Army (NVA) forces and a failure to pull out when defeat became a serious possibility. After they lost the prisoners had to walk a March of Death, to prison camps and few returned.

Is it well written?
In terms of the names and places it can get confusing but there are useful maps that help and because most of the action takes place in a single location, Dien Bein Phu, it becomes easier to follow. The book appears to be based on secondary sources but it is balanced with an insight into how the NVA operated, in particular how they exploited unrest back in France to undermine their enemies, a tactic that would be used again with Nixon in the peace talks.

Is it worth reading?
As a backgrounder to the numerous books on the US conflict it is a good introduction to establishing the context for the sorts of problems that the Americans would encounter. The US seemed to think that the French had failed because they were not as strong militarily and sadly underestimated the enemy as well.

Leads to
Numerous history books on Vietnam but specifically on the French problems the next book to turn to should be Street without joy by Bernard Fall, which was one of the sources Windrow used in The last valley.

Version read – Cassell Military paperbacks

Saving characters from write outs

It comes to something when fellow authors beg a fellow writer not to kill off a character but Stephen King and John Irving apparently did just that (see today's Independent pg 23) to try and convince J.K Rowling not to kill off Harry Potter at the end of the seven book series.
It reminds you of the pressure put on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when he tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes. In that instance it staved off the end for a while longer, so based on that precedent it might just work again.
The real tragedy is that the grim reaper can't be convinced to let a few great authors live on to produce another couple of masterpieces.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Journey to the end of the night post II

As you get deeper into the book the differences between this and other works starts to become more apparent. The relationship between the main character and his environment is one thing that is different because he drifts from the battlefields to various hospitals and then out to Africa without ever seeming to change his pessimistic outlook. The war can end and Africa beckon but it seems to have a low impact on him personally.

Bullet points between 94 – 191

* Around page 100 the main character leaves Paris and heads for the French colonies.

* On the boat Ferdinand is discovered to be the only fee paying passenger and suspected of being a spy and is almost thrown overboard until he sacrifices his self respect to suck up to the soldiers attacking him

* Once in Africa he is given the job of going into the jungle to replace a man who is being recalled for failing to send the colonial trading company his accounts

* Before leaving the port to head up the river Ferdinand vows to get ill confiding that he knows how to pick up something that will be bad enough to get him sent home

* The man he is replacing is Robinson who he met in the war, again in Paris and now in the jungle. Only for a long time he can’t remember him then when he does Robinson disappears

* Four weeks later after being ill he burns down the shack and heads into the bush and ends up the Spanish run port of Santa Tapeta

* While ill he ends up being bought by a captain of a galley and ends up sailing across the Atlantic to New York

* He escapes from the boat and gets caught and ends up counting fleas at the immigrant landing station at Ellis Island. Then when asked to take some statistics across to New York he bolts for freedom

Still not an easy read and the fact that even as a pessimist he can’t seem to enjoy some of his good luck starts to grate after a while.

Throughout the African experience the natives are treated terribly by the French and there is a moment when he reaches a staging post and comes across Lieutenant Grappa, who is responsible for looking after a large patch of jungle and comes to the conclusion it all looks the same, that you understand why the French suffered in Vietnam.

Bearing that in mind I will post a review of The Last Valley by Martin Windrow tomorrow, which is about the demise of the French in Vietnam.