Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests





Monday, September 29, 2014

The Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn

The Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn  (1997, 213 pages)

"Parts of The Keepsake somehow brought to mind ancient death cults in Meso-American religion."-from my first post on The Keepsake (in September 2011)"
This is an update of a prior post on the occasion of my fourth reading of this great book with a few new observations added at the start.

Notes added after fourth reading

. Obviously I hold this book in very high esteem.  After finishing my fourth reading I look forward to the fifth, hopefully in 2015.  As I read this time I saw,I think,how the circular broken wheel structure of the narrative mirrors the life of the narrator.   I saw deeper I hope into the perpetuation of cycles of abuse, I began to wonder if the narrator was sexually abused by her mother.  There is much pain and loneliness in Ths Keepsake  that it hurts to read but not as much as the pain of knowing it is there and looking away.    There are deep things about old books and the reading life here but I do not yet feel I am close enough to an understanding to yet talk of it.  

3rd reading observations

"Parts of The Keepsake somehow brought to mind ancient death cults or Meso-American religion."-from my first post on The Keepsake (in September 2011)

This is my third  reading of a very amazing almost painfully beautiful very dark book, The Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn  (1960, New Zealand).  I hope to read it a number of more times.


There is so much in this book it is hard for me to know where to start.  I found reading it the third time a very intense experience as I feel I am beginning to come to terms with the work.  

Here is the goodreads description of the book (almost never do I quote third party descriptions but I need help here)

Through a shifting and interwoven narrative, Kirsty Gunn explores the dark world of a young girl who has grown up with a mother dependent on storytelling and the oblivion of addiction to cope with the memory of her lost love, the girl's father. Raised on these deceptive tales of happiness, the younger woman is drawn into and begins to relive the real story of pain, abandonment, and the tyranny of desire. Her shocking affair with an older man seems to repeat the pattern set by her mother. The tangled yarn of her mother's past begins to be unraveled by the younger woman - until finally she can come to tell a story that is her.   

This is not a bad description but it misses the real core themes of the book, in my opinion.  It is about love as obsession, incest, child molestation, reading and its role as a memory and a trapping device, about colonialism, about Europe, about drug addiction, the nature of evil, about human weakness and predators that feed upon it.  I wish I could explain more but I cannot.  The prose itself seduces us with its opiate like beauty just as the woman in the plot was seduced and destroyed.

There is a very dark beast lurking in the labyrinth , a mystery the narrator may or may not understand as her life progresses and as she falls in the same traps her mother did.






Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Imaginary Mistress" by Honore de Balzac (1843, a novella component of The Comedie Humanine )




"The Imaginary Mistress" is a comedic work and a satire of high  society in France in the 1830s.  There are three central characters in The Imaginary Mistress.  The estimated reading time is only sixty minutes and I think it is worth the time.  There is really nothing remarkable about it but it is fun to read of the foibles of rich aristocrats, imagine we are watching a beautiful young countess being dressed for a ball, viewing the sumptuous furniture, and watching the money flow.

A rich French woman marries a very rich Polish count.  The count has a very close friend, also a Polish nobleman and a fellow veteran.  He is not as rich as the man that married and he manages the financial affairs of his friend.  As I read this I wondered if the use of Polish noble men was kind of a message to his amorata, a Polish countess.  The plot, involving a woman who rides horses in a circus, among others and a terrible illness,  is pretty melodramatic and predictable.  It was a fun read.


17 of 91

Mel u

Friday, September 26, 2014

"The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" by Hilary Mantel (2014)



"I said, ''It's the fake femininity I can't stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It's the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It's her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It's her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can't cry?''

Debunking idiotic right wing reaction to this story




It is not often that a short story plot generates international outrage.  "The Assissination of Margaret Thatcher", the title story in Hilary Martel's new collection of short stories has done just that with its story about a middle aged middle class English woman chatting with and even helping a bit a professional killer who broke into her house as a vantage point to shoot Mrs. thatcher. Martel has stocked the fires, and perhaps sales, by talking to the British press about how much she hated the Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister of England 1979 to 1990) and how she had fantasied about killing her.    Those who disliked Thatcher were often not just adverse to her very right wing politics but also hated her personally as a worshiper of the rich and many found her personally "phony".  She was also seen as strongly anti-Irish.

The fascination and fun of this story is in the interaction of the assassin and the lady whose house he has illegally entered.  These two people very different worlds share a common hatred for Thatcher.  The killer seems in the pay of The Irish Reublican Army.  He hates her for her political views, the woman thinks she is phony and hates her personally.  The conversations are almost surrealistic in the very unlikely meeting of these two very different people.  

This is a very clever creative story I greatly enjoyed reading.  It is online here.



Mel u


Thursday, September 25, 2014

"The Money" by Junot Diaz (from The New Yorker, June 11, 2011)



I offer my great thanks to Max u for the gift of a subscription to The New Yorker which allowed me to read this story.

"The Money" is the briefest short story by Junot Diaz I have so far read.  It is also the first one that does not focus mostly on young Dominican men,living in New York or New Jersey, endlessly in search of women.  It can be read in just a few minutes.

The story is told by a young, maybe early adolescent boy living with his parents and five siblings in an apartment in a rough neighborhood.  His dad works on and off as a fork lift operator.  Like lots of immigrants, his mother sends money back home when she can.  The plot action begins when the family returns from vacation to find the money the mother saved to send home stolen.

This is a decent work.  It is not as exciting as his more r rated stories but for sure worth reading. 

It can be found here. 


Mel u





Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"Madame Firmiani" by Honore de Balzac (1832, a short story component of The Human Comedy)





I am for now working my way at more or less random through Balzac's grand Comedie Humaine.  There are ninety one works under this rubric but many are short stories or novellas so a full reading of it is not as challenging a thought as seems at first.  I would like to do this but for now I am just reading. 

"Madame Farmiani" (estimated reading time is twenty minutes) has three main characters, Madame Farmiani, a very beautiful voluptuous aristocratic woman, a young man of twenty something in love with her and his uncle.  The man "selling point" of this story in 1832 was probably the long fairly detailed reverie on the face, hair, toilette, and body of Madame Farmiani.  Her husband is rich though no guest at one of her at homes has ever seen him.  A young man, the heir to an uncle's considerable estate, falls in love with her. The uncle hears of this and goes to Paris to investigate and is very taken with her.

The story ends happily, maybe the ending seems a bit pandering to mass tastes.  The story is worth the read for the descriptions of the woman, the aristocratic interiors, and the narrator's running commentary on the motives and characters of the people in the story.

If you wanted to dig into this story much could be made about the attitude toward women shown by the narrator.  Of course this is Balzac and money plays a big role in the story.


16 of 91




Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Study of a Woman" by Honore de Balzac (1830, a short story component of The Human Comedy)





There are in the edition I have 91 works in Honore de Balzac's Comedie Humaine.  This is not as daughting a reading project as it sounds as many of the components are short stories or novellas.
It is not all huge 19th century novels.   My IPAD Kindle application estimated the reading time for the Delphi Edition of the works of Balzac (which includes some informational writings)  to be 234 hours, so if you start now and read five hours a day you can complete it easily by the end of the year.  Balzac is the foundation stone of modern French literature and much more and so far he has been a great pleasure to read.  Engels said he learned more from reading Balzac about the true nature of society than he did from decades of study of history, economics, and social philosophy.  

"Study of a Woman" is a gentle comic satire of lower level Parisian aristocrats.  The man is a Marquis hoping to be elevated to a peer of France.  He is most remarkable for his conformity to all social norms both at work, in society and at home.  His wife,lovely but not stunning, is the model of virtue.  When a young dandy at a dance squeezes her hand a bit too hard, she turns totally cold.  One day she receives a love letter from a young noble man who spoke briefly to her at a dance. The fun of the story is in what happens because of this and I will leave it untold. I read it in a translation by Katherine Wormeley.The estimated reading time is ten minutes.  

Mel u



Sunday, September 21, 2014

"The Tavern" by S. Ansky -1886

A ultra-realistic story by the author of The Dybbuk




One of the things my blog is about is giving what voice I can to the lost, the forgotten, those with no one to speak for them.  

My post on The Dybbuk - contains background information on S. Ansky


S. Ansky (1863 to 1920, Russia) is of great cultural and literary interest.  His life was a fascinating patchwork.  David Roskies does a wonderful job of explaining his great importance and the tumult within his psyche.  I have previously posted on his classic drama, The Dybbuk and one of his short stories, "Go Tell it to a Goy".  His work is now a subject of heavy scholarly interest as perhaps our best window into Jewish life in late Czarist Russia.   

"The Tavern" gives us a hyper-realistic darker than Zola look at a day in the life in a tavern in a small town in late Czarist Russia. This is not your Fiddler on the Roof type place.   The tavern, run by two Jewish women, it was considered not fit work for a man, caters to the everyday people of the mixed Gentile and Jewish community.  It is a place where people come to drink very cheap vodka until they are totally drunk, make business deals, get some food, socialize, and act like a big deal in front of everyone else.  The owners quickly size up all the patrons.  A man drinking alone is probably a wife beater, an old begger woman selling some linen is probably a fence and a woman alone in the tavern is seen as either a prostitute or as waiting for her husband to come in so she can castigate him as a drunken bum.  The patrons abuse the owners verbally, drink and eat on credit and use the bar as a second home.  When a petty Czarist inspector comes in the owners suck up to him and when he leaves they curse him.  We see a son and mother at a secluded table, the son trying to console his mother for the beating his father last gave her.  Political meetings sometimes go on in the back room.  

I know this sounds grim but it really made me feel I was there and it was just a lot of fun to read this superbly done story.  There is drama and it was fun to see the patrons come and go.  

Ansky spent a lot of time in Paris and I can see, or maybe imagine, the influence of Balzac on him.  

There are several more short stories in The Dybbuk and other Writings and I look forward to reading them.

I was kindly given the full Yale Yiddish Library by the publisher.


Reading these books has opened up a new reading world for me.  Many of the original readers,and their descendants,of these works, along with the books,  were burned by the Nazis.  

Mel u

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"Prefiguration of Lalo Cura" by Roberto Bolano (from The New Yorker, April 10, 2010) -

The World of Marcel Proust Versus that of Roberto Bolano- my slightly twisted take







Roberto Bolano ( Chile, 1953 to 2003) is one of my favorite writers.  I have read several of his novels and short stories.  To those new to Bolano, just take the plunge into 2666.

Marcel Proust wrote  about courtesans, dandies, sexual explorers, and those in love with the reading life.  Bolano wrote about whores, idolers, queers, and those in love with the reading life. Balzac would tell us the only real difference between the two groups is one has lots of money.  I think Zola would be at home in both groups.  

"Preconfiguration of Lalo Cura" is narrated by a young man.  It starts out being about the narrator's great love for his mother, just like In Search of Lost Time.  The mother in Proust is a woman of style, refinement and wealth, the one in Bolano's story is a hooker and an actress in porno movies.   The young men in a Proust are looking to marry wealthy heiresses while waiting to inherit great wealth.  Those in Bolano are looking for women they  can get no name, cheap, sex from while waiting to publish their terrible poems in journals with thirty or so readers. Everyone in both works are very into the reading life.  Both groups of people gossip a lot. People in both worlds are seen as what they read.  Try to guess which group of young men die violently.

Bolano's story is another of his  voyages  into the dark streets of Latin America.  It is a throughly entertaining story, lots of interesting things happen.  I enjoyed reading it a lot.

The story is online here.


My great thanks to Max u for the gift of a New Yorker subscription allowed me to read this story.

Mel u


Friday, September 19, 2014

"Sarrasine" by Honore de Balzac (1830, a short story component of The Comedie Humaine)

"The 19th century as we know it is largely an invention of Balzac" -  Oscar Wilde 





Recently I was reading an interesting review, by Nicholas Lezard, of  a new collection of some of Balzac's short stories. The review was published in the  very English Guardian.


Lezard makes the shocking to Anglophone readers assertion that "Balzac is simply a better novelist than Dickens". He also says, and I totally agree, that reading Balzac is like time traveling.   He mentions as one of Balzac's best short stories "Sarrasine", included in the anthology.  (I read it in an older translation by Clara Bell in the Delphi edition of the works of Balzac.).  It is part of Balzac's exploration of sexual themes, the blurring of male and female.


Based on my limited exploration of the vast world of Balzac he often uses the devise of one person telling the story of a third person to structure his works, especially in his short stories where he has less staging time.   They are also studies in how the telling of a tale can impact the teller and the hearer.  There is drama in these relationships, not just simple story telling.  

"Sarrasine" is set an a social event of a very wealthy family.  The origins of their wealth are clouded in mystery but the narrator does tell us that enough money can make up for anything in a families past. The pretensions of society fall away before enough money.  The host family are impeccably dressed, their sixteen year old daughter is ravishing beautiful and a great matrimonial prize.  Their young son is incredibly handsome and the dream son in law for the wealthy guests.  Then a very strange quite old man dressed way out of touch appears at the party. A guest asks a man near him at the party about him.  Now begins a fascinating story that I will not spoil for you.   

Proust's narrator often speaks of Balzac's exploration of sexual themes normally not spoken of openly.

There is much to ponder in this very interesting story.

It can be found online in older translations.  

I am reading Balzac kind of at random.  I have not  made a mental commitment to read the full ninety plus works in The Human Comedy, yet.  



Mel u

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Downfall of the Heart" by Stefan Zweig (1925)






Stefan Zweig (1881 to 1942, born Austria, died Brazil) is experiencing a great resurgence of interest, partially thanks to Pushkin Press and The New York Review of Books publishing English translations of much of his very large body of work.   I have read and posted on a number of his works and intend to keep reading him.   (My date of publication for this story is a guess. I read it in The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig, translated by Anthea Bell.  I really wish this valuable collection included the original date and place of publication for each story.)

"The Downfall of the Heart" centers on an affluent sixtyfive year old Jewish businessman.  Working since he was fifteen, the man is on holiday with his wife and nineteen year old daughter.  They are staying at a posh hotel in Italy. He hears a noise.  To his heartbreaking horror, it is his he thought virginal daughter sneaking out of a room down the corridor from their suite.   He is almost apoplectic in his rage over this. He cannot help but imagine his daughter naked in a man's bed.  He drives himself to despair trying to figure out which of three young men in the hotel his daughter slept with.   The man has never really done anything but work to give his wife and daughter a good life.   He knows the people in the hotel his wife and daughter socialize with look down on him as not much more than a rich old Jewish peddler.   He feels out of place and uncomfortable in the company of these people.  He tells his wife he wants to end the holiday early and go home.  He ends up going back alone, his wife finding his idea outlandish.  Zweig masterfully sets out the terrible impact this has on the man.  The ending is terribly sad and i will leave it unspoiled.  The story is very visual and I could see the decline of the old man, his withdrawal into himself.

I really liked this story a lot.  

Mel u




Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Class Portrait" by Tobias Wolff (January 6, 2003, in The New Yorker)


I offer my great thanks to Max u for the gift of a New Yorker subscription which made it possible for me to read "Class Pictures" by Tobias Wolff.

"Class Pictures" is my first exposure to the work of a very distinqushed writer, Tobias Wolff (1945, Birmingham, Alabama, U S A).   The story is set in a very elite  private school that caters to the high school age sons of wealthy  Americans.  The time is around 1960.  Most of the students will go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton.  Wolff does a fine  job of giving us a feel for the school.  The boys are quite competitive both in academic achievement and in letting others know of the wealth of their family.

Every year the school invites a famous writer to read his work and spend time with the students.  Each  year there is a writing contest among the senior class boys and the winner gets a private meeting with the visiting writer.  Robert Frost is the writer this year and all of the literary leaning boys have submitted poems for the contest.   I will leave the rest of the plot unspoiled.

I enjoyed reading this story.

It can be found here.




Monday, September 15, 2014

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad - 1900



I have seen the excellant movie based on Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad a couple of times so I had an idea as to the plot.  I have read a few short stories and novellas by Conrad since I began blogging five years ago but Lord Jim is my first major Conrad novel.

Lord Jim is an excellant sea faring white man in the tropics novel. Conrad's prose is majestic, his descriptions of the terrible storm at sea that ruined his life, and his characterizations are first rate.  Some might find the descriptions of Malaysian persons racist but this just means it is reflective of how the narrator thought, not necessarily Conrad himself.  The picture below, done to sell Classics Illustrated, brings out the attitude toward South East Asian women exibited throughout Lord Jim.


Lord Jim is exciting, a classic, and I am glad I read it.  I preferred The Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent

In 2015 I hope to read his Nostromo. 


Mel u

"Wildwood" by Junot Diaz (from The New Yorker, June 11, 2007)




My great thanks to Max u for the gift of a New Yorker subscription that made it possible for me to read "Wildwood" by Junot Diaz.

Most of Junot Diaz's stories focus on young Domican men living in New York, New Jersey or Santo Domingo.  Their biggest preoccupation in life is finding women.  They are fixated on bodies with a woman with a large well shaped posterior being the biggest prize.   It is all about being macho while in most cases being very devoted to and near dominated by their mothers.  "Wildwood", named for a city in New Jersey, is very refreshingly told from the point of view of a teen aged girl, giving us an insight into how the prey feels about the hunter.

The narrator lives with her mother and younger brother.  Her mother works three jobs to support them and afford a house. The father deserted the mother after three years.   The mother is harshly dominating.  In the culture the oldest daughter is supposed to do a lot of the house work.  The mother becomes increasingly abusive and the daughter longs to run away.  She begins become sexually active and we know the patterns of abuse and abandonment will continue.

There is a great plot in the story which I will leave unspoiled.

You can read it for a while in the archives of The New Yorker.


I think this might be my favorite Diaz story so far.

Please share your favorite Diaz story with us.





Friday, September 12, 2014

Phedre by Jean Racine -1677


Recently I read and posted on an excellant book Mousier Proust's Library by Anka Muhlstein.  From her I learned of the great importance of the drama Phedre by Jean Racine to Proust.  She points out the many rerferences and echoes of Phedre in In Search of Lost Time.    Twenty pages of  Guermantes Way is devoted to the narrator's thoughts on seeing it preformed.  It informs, my post read research indicates, Proust's views on sexual jealousy, something very important in Proust.  In order to begin to appreciate the  extreme depth of Proust, I knew I needed to read Phedre.  

Jean Racine (1639 to 1699) was one of three great 17th century French playwrights, along with Moliere  and Corneille.   Phedre is based on a story from Greek Mythology.  Racine developed themes from previous plays by Euripides and Seneca. In the long ago I read the Euripides play.   Phedre is "high art" in the categories of Susan Sontag. Phedre is married to Thesus, King of Athens.  She is in love with her step-son Hippolyte who is in turn in love with Arica.  Arica is a princess of the royal Athenian house that Thesus drove from the throne so such a romance could be seen as treason.  The plot also includes two ladies in waiting to Phedre, the tutor of Hippolyte, and a confidant of Arica.   The plot action begins when Hippolyte pretends to start  a journey to find Thesus, who has been gone for six months but really is going to join Arica.  The plot action becomes very intense.  Napolean, per a new biography of him 

Even one reading I felt the power of this work and can see it echoing in the many tangled relationships in Proust.  I would like to see it preformed.  Naplolean, as documented in a new biography by Andrew Roberts, loved Phedre.

Once I read the section of Guermantes Way that deals with the narrator's thoughts on seeing an operatic performance of it, I hope to reread it.  






Culturally this is a work of great importance.



Mel u





Thursday, September 11, 2014

Eve and David by Honore de Balzac - 1843 (Part Three of Lost Illusions - A Component of La Comedie Humaine




Eve and David is the final novel in the trilogy of works that makes up Honore de Balzac's Lost Illusions.  Eve and David are the sister and brother in law of the poet, Lucian.  The final novel focuses on all the efforts and problems of Eve and David as they try to help him and work their way out of problems caused by these matters.   Much of the novel focuses on the paper making business of David and his attempts to invent and put into a practice a process  that will revolutionize paper making and make him wealthy. Balzac goes into great detail about the paper making industry.   Of course there are ups and downs twists and turns a plenty.  

Lost Illusions is exciting and historically edifying.   There is a lot of depth in the characterizations.  
I would not follow C. K. Scott Moncreiff in calling it "the greatest novel ever written" (of course he read the real thing, not a translation). I also think Moncrieff was given to enthusiasms and I do not know the context in which he made that remark.  I think the greatness of Balzac is in  the vast world he created and mirrored, not for individual works but I am only a Balzac neophyte.  Lost Illusions is the longest component of La Comedie Humaine.  

I think the next large Balzac work I read will be the four part Loves of a Courtesan which follows Lucian back in Paris.

Balzac must have been a near writing machine.   I just found out today that in addition to his fiction he ghost wrote a huge memoir of one of the mistresses of Napolean, which became a big seller.

Mel u





The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. 1886




My Posts on Thomas Hardy

I think I first found out that some few books were considered great literature from reading The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman back around 1960.  The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy is one of nineteen English language novels on the list.  Written in a time before political  correctness and such, Fadiman acknowledges his list is swayed to English language works.  Since beginning The Reading Life five years ago I have read two Hardy novels,Jude the Obscure and The Return of the Native and several of his short stories.   I am very glad I have at long last read The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Thomas Hardy was greatly admired by Marcel Proust, who regarded him as a flawless artist.

The novel begins with a young man making a very terrible decision while drunk.  He sells his wife and baby daughter to a sailor for five crowns.  From this act, the plots line and the lives of the central characters develop.  The man tries to find them, having done it a time of emotional confusion, but he cannot.  He takes and keeps a vow not to touch liquor for twenty one years, he having already lived that long.  Twenty years go by and the man has changed, through hard work and application he has built up a good business and become mayor of his town Casterbridge.  In a cultural that celebrates drinking, he has kept his vow.  I really don't want to give away much more of the plot that Hardy worked so hard to make consistently exciting, surprising and one has to say, often depressing.  There are lots of twists and turns.

As I read on in the novel, I came to marvel over Hardy's ability to show how events can change some people or maybe better said how they can reveal them.   There is unremitting tradgedy, one bad thing after another happens.   Hardy does rely on a few devices of melodrama for his big events.  Hardy makes the English countryside and the created community of Wessex County come very vividly to life. There are lots of very interesting minor characters and the main figures are brilliantly realized.  

Some say Hardy is a "depressing writer" depicting a world of unending misery.   I think at the very end of The Mayor of Casterbridge Hardy is addressing this.




What Hardy novel should I read next year?  back to back Hardy a little too deeply sad for me now. 

Mel u

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"The Flowers of May" by Francisco Arcellana - 1951 A very moving short story by a National Artist of the Philippines





Francisco Arcellana (1916 to 2002) was a highly regarded poet, essayist, critic, journalist and teacher.  It is for his short stories that he is best remembered.  He is considered one of the first writers of the modern Filipino short story in English.    It is his lyrical style that became the role model for a generation of writers.   He was proclaimed a national artist of the Philippines in 1990 and was given a state funeral.  Much of his career was spent at The University of the Philippines Diliman, not far from where I live. I have previously posted on his short story "The Mats".

"The Flowers of May" is almost a Filipino version of "The Dead" by James Joyce.  There were no memories of snow covered countryside in the consciousness of many Filipinos in 1951 but there are memories of the beautiful flowers of May, of May in the churches of Manila and in the old walled city. The narrator thinks of his sister Victoria who died in May.  The narrator speaks of the great depth of pain of his father, his morher's perhaps futile attempt to comfort his father over the loss.  He speaks of many dead from his family.  The story is very well set in place but the concerns are universal.

This is a beautiful heartbreaking story.  There cannot be much worse a thing than for a beloved child to pass in youth.  Faith offers the consolation of an early entry into heaven and perhaps an eventual reunion but this can be cold or even a mocking comfort.

"The Flowers of May" is about how life can be turned into a charnel house,a great city into a dark necropolis.  This is a world class short story.

You can read it here.




A Distinguished Provincial in Paris by Honore de Balzac - 1842, part two of Lost Illusions, a component of La Comedie Humaine






A Distinquished Provincial in Paris by Honore de Balzac is part two of his Lost Illusions trilogy.  The very erudite C. K. Scott Moncrieff called it "the greatest novel of all time" (though he never read War and Peace).  Upon completion of the trilogy I will attempt to explain why I think Moncreiff said this.

One of my reasons for reading now Lost Illusions, though Moncreiff's remark was enough, is that per my research it is the longest of the ninety one compotents of Balzac's La Comedie Humaine.  I am not committing myself yet to trying to reading the  full Human Comedy but I will be regularly reading Balzac from now on.  The task is not as daughting as it sounds as lots of the components are novellas and short stories.   Balzac's work is an incredibly rich source of knowledge about how real life worked, especially how the rich, middle class and poor made and spent money, about the interiors of buildings, clothing, furniture, food and much much more.   

In Two Poets, work one of Lost Illusions, we meet a young poet from the provinces, Lucian.  As Two Poets closes Lucian is on his way to Paris, intent on making his mark as a poet. His good friend David helped finance his move to Paris.   Anka Muhlstein in Mousier Proust's Library talks about a homosexualilty in Balzac and refrences this work, among others.   (In works of older novels you should not be too quick to see expressions of love between men as indicative of sexuality but you should likewise not repudiate it.  Likewise, you have to accept that great love relationships between middle aged or older men and women in their teens were not always meant to be farcical or depraved.  Maybe there are national differences in literature concerning this.  In Japanese novels,for example, of the pre-world war II era girls as young as thirteen are seen as appropriate love and sexual interests for fifty year old men.  In Balzac, and in Japanese literature, a nubile young daughter was an economic object of potentially high value.)

A Distinquished Provincial in Paris is a classic account of the corruption of a young poet from the provinces by the mother of all big cities, Paris.  One of the great things about Balzac is about how much detail he provides about daily life.  Lucien only has enough money to just get by in Paris if he lives in the cheapest of quarters and eats where poor writers dine.  Balzac takes us deeply and wonderfully into several different segments of Parisian society in A Distinquished Provincial in Paris.   In exploring the city, in the company of a man he met at the writer's cafe, enters into a portion of Paris known for prostitutes. In Balzac the mistress of the minister of finance and a street walker are both selling themselves, one just has a better marketing scheme.  He begins to become close to some of the courtesans (mistresses of wealthy men) and we learn a lot about the economics of being and having a mistress.  We see the status markers among mistresses when one of Lucian's courtesan friends demands and gets a coach from her lover.  The motivation for having a mistress is far from just sexual.  A beautiful mistress decked out in the most expensive clothes marked her keeper as a man of wealth and taste.   Of course it might also let others see him as a strutting self deluded fool.  

Mean while, Lucian becomes a journalist when he finds no market for his book of poems.  From the bookseller he offers his poetry to he learns how book publishing and selling works in Paris.  Balzac really goes into great depth about the business side of publishing and I found this portion of A Distinquished Provincial in Paris very fascinating.   Lucian is offered a job as a journalist.  Newspapers were coming into their own as a cultural and politcal powers and as we would expect Balzac takes us deeply into the "real world" of newspaper work in Paris.  Lucian learns all sorts of ways to make extra money, from selling tickets to theatrical productions which producers give him in exchange for good reviews to taking bribes for a favorable take on a politician. Lucian loved the power this gives him and as he moves in higher realms of society he begins to feel shamed by his provincial background and his tastes become more and more expensive.  There are deep issues concerning the permeation of all levels of a French society by literal and quasi-prostittutes.  Of course Lucian is prostituting his literary skills.  So far we don't know if his skills are real or an illusion.  

A Distinquished Provincial in Paris is a fascinating work and is very valuable just for the data on the French publishing industry Balzac provides.  As I read it I really felt transported to Paris.  There are romantic melodramas but Balzac needed to sell his books! 

I have begun the final work of the trilogy, Eve and David, and am looking forward to seeing how things turn out for Lucian.




Mel u
The Reading Life





Tuesday, September 9, 2014

"Teaching" by Roddy Doyle (April 2, 2007, in The New Yorker)




In the last few years I have read eight novels by Roddy Doyle and several of his short stories.  Obviously I greatly like and admire his work, much of which focuses on working class modern Irish of Dublin. 

"Teachers" takes place in just a few hours, set in a school in Dublin, on the opening day of the school year.  The narrator, has taught there for thirty years.  Now every year on opening day a few students will tell him he taught one of their parents.  He tries to bring the face of the parent to mind.  He used to totally love teaching, he tried to engage the students.  Sometimes the passion comes back but many days he is watching the clock for last bell.   He thinks back over his life, to the women he has been involved with.

"Teachers" is very well done story that lets us feel we understand the life of the teacher.

I think the section I most appreciated was when he began to talk about how the student body had changed in the last thirty years.  It felt very real.



You can read it for a while here


Please share your experience with Roddy Doyle with us.

Mel u


Monday, September 8, 2014

Monsieur Proust's Library by Anka Muhlstein (2012, 161 pages)


My recent reading of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (sometimes translated as Remembrance of Things Past) was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  I will very soon begin again.   As I read through I thought that this might be the ultimate book about people who lead reading centered lives.  Everyone reads in the world of Proust.  I loved it when Princess Guermantes said there was nothing better in life than reading.    Anka Muhlstein in her short very pleasant highly cultured book, Monsieur Proust's Library helped me to understand how classic French literature helps structure the novel and she also lets us know a lot about the writers that Proust most admired.
Among English writers he loved Robert Louis Stevenson, George Elliot,and above all Thomas Hardy.

The most mentioned writer in In Search of Lost Time is Honore de Balzac. Refrences to Balzac permeate the work.  People have extended conversations about Balzac and relate events in their own world to La Comedie Humaine.  One glaring difference between Proust and Balzac is that if a character in one of Balzac's works is rich, he explains how they got rich in detail.  In Proust we don't find this. 

We also learn of the great importance of Racine and Baudlieire to Proust and his novel.  

We learn the Proustian difference between good and bad readers.  One intriguing chapter is devoted to the "homosexual" reader.  

In the closing lines of the book, I was deeply impacted and knew she was very right when Muhlstein said one of the meaning of a search for lost memories was in a rediscovery of old books.  

I really am glad I read this book.  I strongly endorse it to all readers of Proust.  It is very much worth reading and is itself a work of art.   By all means read Proust first. 

Muhlstein has a book on Balzac and I hope to read that soon.

Ms Muhlstein gave a very illuminating lecture centering on the influence of Balzac on Proust which can be heard here


Anka Muhlstein was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1996 for her biography of Astolphe de Custine, and has twice received the History Prize of the French Academy. Her books include 
Balzac’s Omelette and, most recently, Monsieur Proust’s Library. From the NYRB webpage.




"The Duchess of Palliano" by Stendhal (1838, translated by C. K. Scott Moncerieff)


Having recently completed C. K. Scott Moncrieff's translation of Proust, I was delighted to learn from Jean Findlay's new biography of Moncrieff that he also translated a number of works of Stendhal.  The writings of these two great French writers became classics in the Anglophone literary world via the translations of Moncrieff.  Besides The Charter House of Parma and The Red and the Black, he also translated four, that I now know of, shorter works by Stendhal.   Like his novels, they exhibit Stendhal's love of Italy.   Stendhal was a writer of great influence.    In Japan prior to World War Two, he was the most admired western writer.   I have read his major works in newer translations but look forward to rereading them in the Moncrieff translations.

"The Duchess of Palliano", (reading time approximately 30 minutes)is set in the 16th century among the nobility in the central Italian city of Palliano (sometimes spelled with only one "L").  Italian politics was compleletly chaotic at the time (unlike now, of course) with all sort of interlapping lines of authority with Rome and the Leaders of the Church as the highest authority figures. Honor, especially matters of fidelity, was of great importance to the aristocracy.   A cheating wife and her paramour could and actually at the time should be killed.  A Duke might have a dozen affairs but his wife, even if he had not entered her chambers for years, must be faithful.  "The Duchess of Palliano" is very atmospheric exciting story about what happens when the duchess is evidently found in a very indelicate position by the Duke.  Stendhal brings the characters to life and lets us see the treachery and intrigue of the era.



Per my research, the Moncrieff translations of Stendhal are under copyright protection in the USA and England but not, for example, in Australia.  All of his Stendhal translations can be found on the webpage of the library of the university of Adelaide.


Please share your experiences with Stendhal with us.

Mel u

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Nora Webster by Colm Toibin (forthcoming October, 2014)





Colm Toibin is one of the most loved of contemporary novelists. Of his numerous books I have read and posted on The Master (a wonderful book on the London years of Henry James), Brooklyn, The Testament of Mary, a collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons, and his fascinating nonfiction work on Lady Gregory, Lady Gregory's Tooth Brush.  

I just completed his latest novel Nora Webster. Set in Wexford, Ireland (around 1968 to 1972, based on current events) it focuses on a woman both amazing and ordinary, Nora Webster, trying to cope with the impact of being left a widow at forty with four children to raise on her own, two boys and two teenage girls.  Her husband, Maurice, a teacher,  rescued her from a stifling office environment.  He supported the family and she took care of them.  We see her trying to shield her children from money problems.  She has to sell their vacation home to start.  I really don't want to tell too much of the very exciting plot.  I will say Toibin is such a master that he can create great excitement out of the events of everyday life without having to resort to plot pyro-theatrics.

I will just mention some of the things I like about this very moving beautiful novel, which I predict will be another best seller.

The character of Nora Webster is brilliantly drawn.  You can see she is devastated by the loss of her husband of twenty years but she knows she must go on for the sake of the children.  In one great set piece she ends up going back to work the office she left to marry Maurice.  A woman she hated, you will hate her also, is now the office manager.  Seeing Nora adjust to the people in the office was just compleletly wonderful. There are lots of class markers in the story and these were very interesting.  I also liked the use of Ireland as the place setting.  I imagined myself walking down Grafton Street,before it became full of tourist places on a trip to the big city to shop.  It is a time of terrible troubles in Northern Ireland and Nora is worried one of her daughters going to school in Dublin will get in trouble in political protests.  Protestors burn the British Embassy in Dublin and for a very tense week Nora loses touch with her daughter.  We also see her trying to help her sons cope with their adolescent years.  Nora is a strong,good Irish mother trying to get by as best can.  We learn a lot  about small town Ireland versus Dublin.  

There are lots of very interesting things in Nora Webster, much more than i have mentioned.

I throughly enjoyed reading this work and hope in time to read lots more by Toibin.

A full biography and information on all of his books can be found on his web page.




Mel u


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Two Poets (part one of Lost Illusions, a trilogy, 1837) and "Pierre Grassou" (a short story, 1840) both by Honore de Balzac




Today I willl posting on two of the ninety one components of Honore de Balzac's cycle La Comedie Humaine.

I decided to read Lost Illusions at this time for a couple of reasons.   One is that my research indicates it is the longest component of the cycle.  Thus I am "getting it out of the way".  Secondly C. K. Scott Moncrieff said it was the greatest novel ever written and Balzac the most worth reading novelist.  (It should be noted he never read War and Peace).  Unfortunately Moncrieff did not to translate this work for prosperity. 

Two Poets is the first part of the trilogy of Lost Illusions.   In it we meet a young poet from the provinces, Lucien.  He is the son of a working class man and an impoverished once aristocratic woman, now a widow.  He aspires to be a poet.  His sister, his mother and his best friend David do all they can to convince him he must move to Paris to develop his talent.  One of the great things about reading Balzac is his marvelous very detailed  descriptions of businesses, artifacts, and people.  Much space is devoted in Two Poets to a fascinating description of the development of a printing business.  The owner of the very successful business is illiterate.  I think Balzac is making a deep point about the dependency of art on commerce.  There is a lot of romantic intrigue and debates about who the young man should marry. As Two Poets ends Lucien is on his way to Paris.  Another grand Balzacian theme is the country versus the city and I think we will see this developed later on.  

"Pierre Grassou", reading time about 23 minutes, introduces a reurring character.  Pierre Groussou is an artist of mediocre talent, schooled by great masters.  He ends up being exploited by an art dealer but never the less makes a decent living from his work.  

Please share your favorite Balzac works with us

Mel u