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.

Winesburg, Ohio

May 20, 2007

winesburg.jpg Sherwood Anderson’s iWinesburg, Ohio is a “novel” that takes place entirely in a small Midwestern town during the turn of the century. Although the book is actually a collection of short stories, it is considered a novel because the stories are loosely connected by the town, and by the man, a reporter, considered the “main character.”

I love the dedication that Sherwood wrote for this book, and I think it says a lot about the content and his purpose in writing the stories-

“TO THE MEMORY OF MY MOTHER, EMMA SMITH ANDERSON, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated.”

The book has no central plot, but each story or vignette describes a character dealing with, or more accurately, struggling with some facet of life, more often than not struggling with a relationship. These are not happy stories about happy people leading happy lives. One of my favorite stories in the book, “The Untold Lie,” describes two farmhands, one long-married, and the other young and unattached, discussing the merits of marriage. The young one has gotten a girl “in trouble” and is asking his elder for advice- whether marriage is a worthwhile venture. The elder refuses to answer, but spends the rest of the afternoon considering his married life. At the last minute he races to catch his young friend, to tell him “the truth.” He catches him but his friend is no longer interested in his advice, he is marrying the girl because he loves her. As the elderly man returns home, he has pleasant memories of his life, and realizes that the advice he would have given, would have been a lie.

Anderson’s book is highly acclaimed (it is on many of the top 100 lists) and is said to have changed the course of short story writing in America. I reluctantly admit that I didn’t really enjoy it that much, although it was good enough to keep me reading. This becomes something of an anomaly for me because if I were ever to attempt to write fiction, this is likely the type of book that I would choose to write, although the content would likely be different. But I do like observing others and their lives, trying to understand what makes people tick.

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.

Guilty Pleasures

April 28, 2007

Last night I read Dorothy’s comments about the first section of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert’s text and Dorothy’s comments about Puritan guilt and our inability to easily accept the gift of leisure paralleled my experience yesterday. (I won’t quote the post here, but suggest that you read it).

I had a vacation day yesterday, and regrettably it was one of those afternoon-long outlet shopping days for my wife. Typically I slog along with her for hours, bored, feeling like the day is wasted, hoping and praying for a book outlet around the next corner. Although I dread the experience I always feel guilty if I don’t follow along like a loyal puppy, nodding and smiling at the selections, carrying the bags, and providing stimulating conversation between stores.

Yesterday was different. I brought a book along and read in the car- it was a rather cold, drizzly day in the midwest. I felt guilty the whole time. She said it was fine. She said she preferred it because she always feels rushed knowing that I am just standing there waiting. I still spent much of the time distracted, not only by all the people walking past the car, but by the guilt that I didn’t deserve this time alone- that I should be doing something else.

(Digression alert) I should have parked in a corner of the lot- it is too enjoyable watching the diverse shoppers coping with their colorful bags and bored children. The fragile, elderly couple, bundled up in their sweaters and covered with rainwear heading out with a tentative, measured gait- returning after the trek with a little more pain in their eyes. They are quickly passed by two young men, acting oblivious to the cold and rain in their khaki shorts and now damp tshirts. New white sneakers, strollers, umbrellas, hats, husbands angry about something but eating cheesecake, too-young couples holding hands, piercings and tatoos, screaming kids, and smiles. I love people.

Back to my point – I’m distracted and guilty about being there reading- then I run across a passage in Nada that is different, but parallels what I am feeling.

“All the happiness I enjoyed during this time seemed somehow diminished by my obsession with reciprocating her consideration. Until then no one I loved had shown me so much affection, and I felt gnawed by the need to give her something more than my company, the need felt by all people who are not very attractive to make material payment for what is, to them, extraordinary: someone’s interest and affection.”

I marked the passage and then late in the evening I read Dorothy’s post. Why is it so difficult at times to accept gifts, complements, and even leisure time? Why can’t we accept that we are deserving beings? I wonder if this adds to our stress levels and all those illnesses associated with stress. Personally, I’m going to try to rid myself of those guilty feelings and just be grateful… and spend more time reading in parking lots.

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.