pagnol.jpg Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs are two novels that could each stand alone, but are a continuing story that make up The Water of the Hills. The author, Marcel Pagnol, not only had a successful career as an author, but is even better known in the film industry. Frequently when a film is made from a book, and more often when a book is created from a film, one or the other falls short. These two stories are an exception, likely due to the fact that the talented Pagnol is responsible for both.

The story centers on a virtuous , hard-working hunchbacked man that moves his family near to a small town to start a new life and fulfill a dream. Ultimately, it is the reader that is moved. There is not one specific thing that I would choose that made this book enjoyable. It is, simply stated, a wonderful story.

It occurred to me throughout these two novels, that it was all here- murder, love, lust, altruism, deceit, fear, pity- all of the conflict imaginable- man vs. man, man vs. nature, man fighting internal struggles, man struggling with god. At one point I started ticking off examples of the deadly sins-

  • lust
  • gluttony
  • greed
  • sloth
  • wrath
  • envy
  • pride

They are all here, skillfully interspersed with measured amounts of virutous behavior, and Pagnol makes it real., and makes it work. The story stays with one after reading the final pages- it has been difficult to start something new, even two days later.

Because I enjoyed the story so much, I don’t like to point out anything negatuve. But I would have preferred that the book end 10 or 20 pages earlier. Pagnol literally tied up every loose end, and added a few twists that for me at least, were not necessary and didn’t add to my enjoyment of the story.

Knut Hamsen won the Nobel Prize in 1920, and his first novel, Hunger, by itself would justify the award. Hamsun writes from experience, and that clearly makes the novel extraordinarily compelling in a way that few writers have been able to accomplish throughout my reading life.
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According to the overflap of this edition, Hamsun, struggling for 10 years as a writer, went to a publisher in 1888 with this sentence and an unfinished novel-

“All this happened while I was walking about starving in Christiania- a strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him.”

It was first published in magazine form, and two years later the novel was published.

Hunger is about a young struggling writer, living on the erratic and insubstantial income he receives from the occassional publication of articles in the local newspaper. The hero rarely complains, but describes his own decline in all its detail. His ever present hunger, his ongoing starvation, is almost like another character in the novel that moves along what becomes a psychological page-turner. Hamsun wastes no time and sets the mood in the first pages- “As soon as I was wide awake, I took to thinking, as I always did, if I had anything to be cheerful about today.”

Most of us have at some time described ourselves as “hungry.” It is difficult to imagine the horror of real hunger-

“Nothing to do, I was dying with open eyes, helpless,staring up at the ceiling. Finally, I put a forefinger in my mouth and started sucking on it. Something started to flicker in my brain, an idea that had gotten free there, a lunatic notion. Suppose I took a bite? Without a moments hesitation I shut my eyes and clamped down hard with my teeth.

I leaped up. Finally I was awake. A little blood trickled from the finger, and I licked it off. There wasn’t much pain, the wound didn’t amount to anything, but I was suddenly myself again. I shook my head, walked to the window, and found a rag for my finger. While I stood puttering about with that, my eyes suddenly filled, I cried softly to myself. The poor bitten thin finger looked so pitiful. My God, I was a long way down.”

Those are many low moments. But then there are successes. An article is published and a substantial meal is purchased, a room is had for the day, and a candle- to write into the evening. The determination to survive as a writer is always there. There is pride, honorability, friendship, joy, and a brief flirting with love. And always, the hunger returns.

I have no doubt that Hunger is and will remain firmly entrenched on my top 10 list.

On a side note, I finished this as I was sitting on my deck- it is finally getting warm enough in Michigan to spend time outside. I love reading outside. I usually keep my camera around just in case something interesting wanders into the yard. As I was reading Hunger, it occurred to me that for the most part, it is humans- those with the greatest capacity for intelligence, that struggle the most with starvation. How odd. I watched throughout the evening and caught a number of lifeforms foraging in the yard. I realize that on occassion, usually due to the intervention of man, that other animals can starve too. But isn’t it odd that there are so many humans that have to? Foraging in the yard.

Some Prefer Nettles

May 5, 2007

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Some Prefer Nettles, authored by one of Japan’s great modern novelists, Junichiro Tanizaki, is set in 1920s Japan. The protagonist, Kaname, is struggling with a loveless marriage and a changing postwar culture. From page one, the evidence of a failed marriage is apparent. Kaname and his wife Misako avoid meeting each others eyes. Deciding whether or not to go out for the evening, they are both passive and neither will decide. In what is likely the best sentence in the book, Tanizaki describes the situation-

“It was as if they held a basin of water balanced between them and waited to see in which direction it would spill.”

That was page two. I always struggle with disagreeing with most of the reviews that I have read of this book, but I simply did not enjoy it. There was good writing throughout, and I would not avoid other novels because I didn’t enjoy this one, but the first hundred pages describe Kaname and Misako avoiding reality. Perhaps if the truth had not been apparent so early in the novel, I would not have been yawning half way through.

“He had nothing against his wife. They simply did not excite each other. Everything else- their tastes, their ways of thinking- matched perfectly. To him she was not ‘female’, to her he was not ‘male.’ It was the consciousness of being husband and wife and yet not being husband and wife that caused the tension between them, and had they not been married they could probably have been excellent friends.”

There are interesting and beautiful descriptions of the Japanese are of puppetry as Kaname reevaluates his adoption of western ways, and sees the value of the way of his ancestry. I may try this book again someday, but I doubt it. I have to get over feeling like I am wrong when so many enjoy a book and I do not. Fortunately, their are plenty more on the shelf.

Nada

April 30, 2007

Nada is the first novel of Carmen Laforet, 23 at the time of publication. It was published in Spain in 1944, a few years after the Spanish civil war that left the city of Barcelona in shambles. It is not a political novel however, but a novel of humanity- humanity living on the margins.
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Nada is the story of an adolescent, Andrea, who arrives in Barcelona to live with family that she doesn’t know, hoping to continue her studies in the city. Carmen’s prose is incredible, and as always, Edith Grossman’s translation is impeccable. Andrea arrives in Barcelona-

“I began to follow – a drop in the current – the human mass that, loaded down with suitcases, was hurrying toward the exit. My luggage consisted of a large bag, extremely heavy because it was packed full of books, which I carried myself with all the strength of my youth and eager anticipation.”

The novel is written in the first person, although not what I would consider diary form. The book evokes truth to the point that it seems autobiographical, although it is strictly a novel. Andrea’s family is quite, well, crazy. They live in idleness and squalor. They endure hunger and violence. The atmosphere in their home is clouded with distrust, and there appears to be no escape for anyone. Andrea succinctly describes her loneliness-

“Life became solitary for me again. Since it seemed to be something that couldn’t be helped, I accepted it with resignation. That was when I began to realize that it is much easier to endure great setbacks than everyday petty annoyances.”

One finds oneself cheering for Andrea’s survival, for her escape. The family seems hopeless, but Andrea is hope for the future. From the mind of a twenty-three year old author through the thoughts of an 18 year Andrea, come these words-

“I thought, It’s useless to race if we always have to travel the same incomprehensible road of our personality. Some creatures were both to live, others to work, others to watch life. I had a small, miserable role as spectator. Impossible to get out of it. Impossible to free myself. A dreadful grief was the only reality for me then.”

Nada is quite worthy of your attention.

Flaubert’s Masterpiece

April 26, 2007

Madame Bovary is likely the best known of Flaubert’s works, but Bouvard and Pecuchet is considered by many who have read both, to be the better novel. Although I always approach unfinished novels with a little trepidation, the book’s description was intriguing so I took the chance. No regrets- it is the better novel.
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Bouvard and Pecuchet are middle aged copy clerks who are thrown together by circumstances, and after discovering a common habit they quickly become friends and coconspirators in a life of leisure, learning, and what appears to be consistent failure. An inheritance funds their lifestyle, but it is their curiosity that drives their pursuit of knowledge.

The friends first embrace farming, and fail. They stumble through fields including philosophy, medicine, politics, education, and literature. They read continuously. They experiment. They discuss and debate. They stumble through one misadventure after another. They do have successes, but that only pushes them further until they fail, even in love.

At first, the novel appears to progress as a comedy of errors. But although Bouvard and Pecuchet appear to be fools, they are not, and there is much that we can learn from them, as Flaubert intended.

The new translation from Mark Polizzotti includes chapter outlines and fragments for additional chapters that were never completed. The novel is followed by Flaubert’s charming Dictionary of Accepted Ideas and Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas. A poorer translation of the Dictionary is available here.

I completed The Curtain this weekend, as well as Bouvard and Pecuchet by Flaubert, which I will write about later. The Curtain was not only entertaining, but thought-provoking, and has sent me in search of his earlier book, The Art of the Novel.

Kundera writes about the novelist, and primarily the novel and its history, expanding at times to include the arts in general. His framework for the discussions include aspects of the context of the novel- within the history of a small nation as opposed to its place in world literature- (would the world even know of Kafka if he had written in the Czech language?).

When discussing the novelist, Kundera points to Cervantes as the example of the true novelist. In the paragraph which led to the title of the book, he writes-

“A magic curtain, woven of legends, hung before the world. Cervantes send Don Quixote journeying and tore through the curtain. The world opened before the knight errant in all the comical nakedness of its prose.”

Kundera uses much of the world’s best literature to make his points. He does not see the novel as entertainment, but as a vehicle for the author to reveal not only an aspect of the world to the reader, but to reveal the reader to himself. He makes me want to read some of those books that I’ve avoided because they appear daunting. (Musil’s The Man Without Qualities for example. Kundera makes me want to reread those masterpieces that I have already read.

I love the way the book ends (I don’t think this will ruin it for anyone- it’s not that type of book)

“In anguish I imagine a time when art shall cease to seek out the never-said and will go docilely back into the service of the collective life that requires it to render repetition beautiful and help the individual merge, at peace and with joy, into the uniformity of being.
For the history of art is perishable. The babble of art is eternal.”

Disappointing book day

April 14, 2007

Although Saturday is typically a good reading day, today was frustrating on several fronts. Imani’s new banner prompted me to visit the shelves looking for my copy of William Blake’s works. After several passes the realization set in that I no longer had it- either I loaned it out and it was never returned, or it was something that someone had interest in that I gave away. The larger frustration was with myself for not doing a better job of organizing my books- the search should have been much easier. I am curious how others organize their books- alphabetically by author, or grouped in some logical manner?

The good thing is that I stumbled on a book that Imani also mentioned in a recent post- Voss by Patrick White. That was frustrating as well since I know it has been there for about 15 years- I am again reminded of the number of books I have purchased at some time and have not found the time to read them.

My reading time was spent with one of the latest books from the Canongate mythology series. The anticipation of the pleasure of starting a new book was high, especially from a series that I have been enjoying. The book is from a highly touted, relatively young Russian author, Victor Pelevin.

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Those of you familiar with the series know that many of today’s top authors have been asked to rewrite some of the world’s well-known myths in a modern or memorable way. Margaret Atwood delivered the wonderful Penelopiad, and Jennette Winterson also did an awesome job with Weight. The Helmet of Horror is Pelevin’s rewrite of the myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, and the famous labyrinth.

The first few pages were intriguing and made me hopeful. The story starts with an entry from Ariadne-

“I shall construct a labyrinth in which I can lose myself, together with who tries to find me- who said this and about what?”

The entire story is written in the format of a chat room, with each of the “characters” trying to figure out what is going on. The cast of characters consist of the likes of Organizm, Nutscracker, Romeo-y-Cohiba, and Monstradamus. The idea soon becomes tiresome, but one reads on hoping at some point to “get it.” I didn’t. It just didn’t work, at least for me. If you haven’t read any books in the series, I strongly suggest that you start with any of the others. This is not a judgement of the body of work of Mr. Pelevin. Based on the other authors chosen for this series, I’m quite certain that he deserves my attention. I just wish I has been introduced to his talent with a different book.