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Reading the World: ‘Strait is the Gate’ by Andre Gide *****

Strait is the Gate is, for some reason, the first of Andre Gide’s books which I have read, despite his having been on my radar for years.  I had written his name upon the list of authors whom I hoped to get to during 2017, and also thought that he would be a great inclusion upon my Reading the World list.  First published in France in 1909, and in Dorothy Bussy’s 1924 translation, I could not pass up the chance of adding yet another marvellous classic of French literature to my list.

Strait is the Gate also seemed a wonderful place to start, being, as it is, the first novel by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner of 1947, and one of his best works in English; indeed, its blurb states that is is ‘… regarded by many as the most perfect piece of writing which Gide ever achieved.  In its simplicity, its craftsmanship, its limpidity of style, and its power to stimulate the mind and the emotions at one and the same time, it set a standard for the short novel which has not yet been excelled’.

9780141185248Strait is the Gate is a ‘story of young love blighted and turned to tragedy by the sense of religious dedication in the beloved’.  The novella’s opening paragraph is relayed in one of my favourite styles: ‘Some people might have made a book out of it; but the story I am going to tell is one which took all my strength to live and over which I spent all my virtue.  So I shall set down my recollections quite simply, and if in places they are ragged I shall have recourse to no invention, and neither patch nor connect them; any effort I might make to dress them up would take away the last pleasure I hope to gt in telling them’.  All of Gide’s writing holds this strength, and his descriptions in particular are absolutely beautiful, and often quite startling.  Of the house of an uncle, our narrator, Jerome, says thus: ‘Certain others [windows] have flaws in the glass which our parents used to call “bubbles”; a tree seen through them becomes distorted; when the postman passes he suddenly develops a hump’.  He describes his aunt, Lucile, whilst she is playing the piano: ‘… sometimes she would break off in the middle of a bar and pause, suspended motionless on a chord’.

After the death of both of his parents, young Jerome becomes infatuated with his cousin, Alissa, with whom he spends every summer at her family’s secluded house in Le Havre.  ‘No doubt,’ he says, ‘like all boys of fourteen, I was still unformed and pliable, but my love for Alissa soon urged me further and more deliberately along the road on which I had started’.  Alissa’s younger sister, Juliette, fast becomes a go-between for the pair: ‘She was the messenger…  I talked to her interminably of our love, and she never seemed tired of listening.  I told her what I dared not tell Alissa, with whom excess of love made me constrained and shy.  Alissa seemed to lend herself to this child’s play and to be delighted that I should talk so happily to her sister, ignoring or feigning to ignore that in reality we talked only of her’.

Religion was not so much of an aspect here as the blurb makes out; rather, it is more of a familial novel, and a wonderfully wrought one at that.  Interesting family politics are at play throughout.  Letters which Gide writes from the perspective of others in Jerome’s family feel entirely authentic; he has captured such nuanced elements of voice, and renders each distinctive.  His prose is packed with emotion, which grows as the work progresses.

Bussy’s translation is seamless; there is such a marvellous elasticity to the writing, and the whole has been rendered beautifully.  Strait is the Gate is a truly beautiful work, and a novella which I was immediately immersed within.  Whilst it is my first taste of Gide’s work, it certainly will not be my last.  I can fast see him becoming one of my favourite authors, in fact.

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One From the Archive: ‘Nana’ by Emile Zola ****

The 35th book on my Classics Club list is the rather beguiling Nana by Emile Zola.  Nana, which was first published in 1880, is the ninth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, which I am reading in no particular order.

nanaThe novel begins in 1867 at the Theatre des Varieties in Paris, where eighteen-year-old Nana is the newest star: ‘Nobody knew Nana.  Whence had Nana fallen?  And stories and jokes, whispered from ear to ear, were the round of the crowd.  The name was a caress in itself; it was a pet name, the very familiarity of which suited every lip.  Merely through enunciating it thus, the throng worked itself into a state of gaiety and became highly good natured.  A fever of curiosity urged it forward, that kind of Parisian curiosity which is as violent as an access of positive unreason.  Everbody wanted to see Nana.’

From the very start, Zola sets the scene of the Theatre des Varieties marvellously: ‘A few individuals, it is true, were sitting quietly waiting in the balcony and stalls, but these were lost, as it were, among the ranges of seats whose coverings of cardinal velvet loomed in the subdued light of the dimly burning lustre.  A shadow enveloped the great red splash of the curtain and not a sound came from the stage, the unlit footlights, the scattered desks of the orchestra.  It was only high overhead in the third gallery, round the domed ceiling where nude females and children flew in heavens which had turned green in the gaslight, that calls and laughter were audible over a continuous hubbub of voices…’.

The intrinsic position of Nana within the theatre is also strongly built: ‘Nana, in the meantime, seeing the house laughing, began to laugh herself.  The gaiety of all redoubled itself.  She was an amusing creature, all the same, was that fine girl!  Her laughter made a love of a little dimple appear in her chin.  She stood there waiting, not bored in the least, familiar with her audience, falling into step with them at once, as though she herself were admitting with a wink that she had not two farthings’ worth of talent but that it did not matter at all, that, in fact, she had other good points…  Exceedingly tall, exceedingly strong, for her eighteen years, Nana, in her goddess’s white tunic and with her light hair simply flowing unfastened over her shoulders, came down to the footlights with a quiet certainty of movement and a laugh of greeting for the public and struck up her grand ditty…’.

Just a few deft strokes of the pen is enough for Zola to create scenes which live vividly within the mind’s eye for subsequent pages: ‘The air there was heavy with the somnolence of a party prolonged into the early hours; and a dull light came from the lamps, whose charred wicks glowed red inside their globes. The ladies had reached that vaguely melancholy hour when they felt it necessary to tell each other the story of their lives.’

As a character, Nana is rather a complex construction.  On one hand, she is quite sensual and has a way of successfully wrapping men around her little finger and bending them to her will.  She is also quite naive, however, and in one particularly memorable scene she almost bursts with excitement at the prospect of going out into the city to drink milk.  She is on the borderline between child and adulthood, and that very juxtaposition and all its awkwardness makes her endlessly fascinating.  The entirety of the plot revolves around her; we learn of her loves and heartbreaks, and of her small son Louis, who is living in the countryside, and whom she does not get to see.

Whilst Nana is not quite as compelling as the fabulous The Ladies’ Paradise, it is an incredibly enjoyable novel, which brings to life the Paris of old.  The entirety is so well written, and I am itching to carry on with the rest of Zola’s works already.

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Reading the World: ‘Lavinia’ by George Sand ****

George Burnham Ives’ 1902 translation has been used in Michael Wallmer’s lovely edition of George Sand’s Lavinia.  Sand was an incredibly prolific author; her oeuvre is something which most writers can only dream of.  Her work spans four decades, being published as she was between 1831 and 1876.  Lavinia is one of her earliest books, in fact, and was first published in its original French in 1833.lavinia-front-cover_1_orig

After a young and rather well-to-do English traveller, Sir Lionel Bridgemont, abandons well-born Portuguese Lavinia Buenafe, he breaks her heart.  She consequently marries a nobleman, and is soon widowed.  Some time later, after asking Sir Lionel – himself just about to be married – to return the love letters which she sent him many moons ago, she finds that they are near one another in the Pyrenees.  They thus decide to meet, and along with their present-day story, elements of their past are revealed.

Lavinia’s cousin, Sir Henry, who has accompanied his friend Sir Lionel to the Pyrenees, adds some humour to the whole.  When Sir Lionel berates him for telling Lavinia that her letters were in his constant possession, he says: ‘”Good, Lionel, good!…  I like to see you in a fit of temper; it makes you poetic.  At such times, you are yourself a stream, a river of metaphors, a torrent of eloquence, a reservoir of allegories…”‘.  Sir Henry has rather an adoring, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, view of Lavinia, calling her: ‘”… as fresh as the flowers, lovely as the angels, lively as a bird, light-hearted, rosy, stylish, and coquettish…”‘.  Sir Lionel is really his antithesis, in speech at least, holding as he does a very conventional, if amusingly relayed, view of womankind: ‘”… In the opinion of every man of sense, a lawful wife should be a gentle and placid helpmeet, an Englishwoman to the very depths of her being, not very susceptible to love, incapable of jealousy, fond of sleep, and sufficiently addicted to the excessive use of black tea to keep her faculties in a conjugal state…”‘.

Lavinia is a slim novella at its modest 71 pages; perhaps deceptively so, as there is quite a lot of depth to it.  The descriptions are perhaps the real strength of the piece: ‘… the lovely valley, bathed in sparkling dew, floated in the light and formed a sheet of gold in a frame of black marble’.  Lavinia is beautifully written, and so well translated; it is a real treat to settle down for an hour or two with.  There are amusing asides which pepper the text, and make it feel far more contemporary than it is in actuality.  There is a wonderful pace to the novella, and the structure of one singular chapter works well with regard to its length.  Strong and thoughtful, Lavinia is perhaps most interesting when one looks at the shifting relationships and passing of time within it.

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One From the Archive: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

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Book Haul (February 2017)

This post is a little early, coming as it is before February has even finished, but I am going on holiday in a couple of days, and wanted to ensure that I remembered to post it.  Without further ado, here are the books which I purchased during February, a month in which I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy anything new.  I bought thirteen books in total; unlucky for some, but lucky for my bookshelf!

9781743215524We begin the month with two travel guides.  My boyfriend and I had originally planned to travel to Riga, and so I bought the Riga Rough Guide before trying to book our flights (which, it turns out, is nigh on impossible from Scotland if we don’t want to change plane twice and have a thirteen-hour long journey…).  After three hours of searching supposed ‘direct’ flights – which was rather trying, believe me! – we eventually decided to book a trip to easy-to-get-to Amsterdam, hence my subsequent purchase of a Lonely Planet Guide to The Netherlands.  The Lonely Planet guides are a little pricier than others, but I absolutely love them, and try to buy them for as many trips as I can.

I lucked out somewhat by finding an omnibus collection of two Elisabeth Sanxay Holding novels.  I have wanted to read The Blank Wall for an absolute age, but have never found a physical copy of it, and those online were rather expensive.  I managed, somehow, to order a used copy with the aforementioned, as well as another of her novels, The Innocent Mrs. Duff.  Good old Internet!

February was, I suppose, a month of classics for me – or modern ones, at least!  I 18176595purchased my final outstanding William Maxwell novel, Time Will Darken It, which I am both ecstatic and rather sad about reading.  I also chose two books by Sylvia Townsend Warner – the Virago edition of her Diaries, and the also gorgeous green spined Selected Stories.  I love Warner’s work so much, and am just as excited to get to her non-fiction as I am to read more of her short fiction.  Carrying on with the green spines, I also bought one of my last outstanding Nina Bawden novels for some well-needed escapism away from my research work.  I chose A Little Love, A Little Learning almost at random, but have later found that it has been well reviewed by several of my friends, and bloggers whom I very much admire.

Two French classics have also made their way onto my shelves.  Whilst neither was 716381actually upon my original Reading France Project list, one of my esteemed reading friends on Goodreads gave both five star reviews, and I just couldn’t resist them.  Thus, I am very much looking forward to Andre Gide‘s Strait is the Gate, and Therese by Francois Mauriac, both of which I endeavour to read whilst in France over Easter.

Two further short story collections and two contemporary novels finish my haul for this 9780307957795month.  With regard to the short fiction, I chose to finally get my hands on a copy of Karen Russell‘s St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which I have wanted for such a long time.  As Mother’s Day is also coming up, I plumped for a gorgeous Everyman’s Library hardback edition of Stories of Motherhood, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell.  With regard to my contemporary picks, I chose One by Sarah Crossan, in which my interest was piqued after watching a BBC2 documentary encouraging teenagers in one particular school to read, and Liz Jensen‘s The Uninvited.  I’ve not read anything by Jensen in a long time, and the storyline intrigued me rather.

So ends this month’s book haul!  Which books have you bought and received this month?  Have you read any of these?  Which should I begin with?

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One From the Archive: ‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ***

I read and very much enjoyed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman earlier this year as part of my now defunct online book group’s reading schedule.  I hoped that Summer Will Show would be just as enjoyable, but alas, I was rather disappointed with it overall.

Claire Harman’s introduction to the lovingly produced NYRB edition of Summer Will Show is wonderful.  I liked the way in which she set out the social context of the story, and of Townsend Warner’s own life in respect to it.  Let us begin with the aforementioned social elements, then.  Sophia Willoughby, Townsend Warner’s protagonist, is a modern woman in many respects, particularly with regard to when this story is set and when it was written.  She has decided to separate from her husband, who quickly moves to Paris, run a household complete with staff, bring her children up almost single-handedly, look after her Uncle Julius’ illegitimate son, and going out on male dominated hunts, for example.

'Summer Will Show' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Despite her strength and independence, Sophia is difficult to like, or to feel sympathy for.  She is an interesting character on many levels, but her lack of compassion and overriding coldness, particularly at the more pivotal points in the novel, is difficult for a modern reader – at least, this modern reader – to stomach.

I write about descriptions a lot in my reviews, but Townsend Warner’s are truly sublime.  The sense of place she crafts is always so well realised, and this, for me, was the real strength of the novel.  I loved the monologue at the start of Part II as well, due to the beautiful writing and the amount of contrasts and comparisons which Townsend Warner inserted.  The majority of the similes and metaphors in this monologue are lovely and inventive – for example, the similarities she draws between a cluster of dark fir trees and Hebrew lettering.

The first part of Summer Will Show, despite the darkness it included, was wonderful, but it did tail off a little afterwards.  The middle of the novel particularly dragged, and in consequence I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Suggested accompanying playlist:
– ‘Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ by The Smiths
– ‘Lightness’ by Death Cab for Cutie
– ‘Hospital’ by Tellison

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One From the Archive: ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker *****

First published in April 2014.

I received the gorgeous NYRB edition of Cassandra at the Wedding (pictured) for Christmas, and from what I already knew of the book, I was almost certain that I would adore it before I even began it.  This is the first of Baker’s novels which I have read, and as you can see from my five star review, I shall certainly be hunting out more of her work in future.

Cassandra at the Wedding was first published in 1962, and is hailed in its blurb as ‘a book of enduring freshness, insight, and verve…  it is the work of a master stylist with a profound understanding of the complexities of the heart and mind’.  There is also a charming quote on the back of the book from one of my favourite authors, Carson McCullers.  She states that “I… whose usual bed time is ten o’clock – stayed up all night reading that exquisite ‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ – dazzled by the pyrotechnics of such an artist.”  High praise indeed!  The novel’s premise is so very intriguing:

‘Cassandra at the Wedding’ by Dorothy Baker (NYRB)

“Cassandra Edwards is a graduate student at Berkeley: gay, brilliant, nerve-racking, miserable.  At the beginning of this novel, she drives back to her family ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to attend the wedding of her identical twin, Judith, to a nice young doctor from Connecticut.  Cassandra, however, is hell-bent on sabotaging the wedding.”

Cassandra Edwards is exactly the kind of heroine I like, and I was endeared to her from the very outset.  Her narrative voice is exquisitely crafted, and with passages like the following, it is difficult not to see her as a tangible and brutally honest being:

“As I say, if you move, if you push a little, you can get from Berkeley to our ranch in five hours, and the reason why we [she and Judith] never cared to in the old days was that we had to work up to home life by degrees, steel ourselves somewhat for the three-part welcome we were in from our grandmother and our mother and our father, who loved us fiercely in three different ways.  We loved them too, six different ways, but we mostly took our time about getting home.”

Cassandra reminded me a lot of Esther Greenwood, the narrator and protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and a character who is as vivid to me as any.  Esther and Cassandra share the same brand of wit, sarcasm and intelligence.  Although Cassandra was not always the most likeable of characters, I did come to very much enjoy her presence.  The way in which Edwards crafted her voice allowed me to know her inner workings, and she is certainly a protagonist whom, whilst I do not always agree with her actions, I respect.

The second part of the novel is told from Judith’s perspective.  She is a vastly different character to Cassandra, and using her narrative voice is a very simple technique, but it certainly works as an incredibly effective one.  Edwards is so astute; she presents the twins and their relationship – both when it is as its best and at its most strained – so very well.  Her prose is masterful and tight, and I cannot wait to read more of her work.

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