Le chef d’œuvre inconnu- Honoré Balzac

Whenever I have read Balzac before I have always found it a little bit of a struggle. Now, this is usually because the texts I read are chosen by my university, and I am reading these (very lengthy) novels not just for pleasure, but to obtain specific information that will help me pass an exam or some coursework. When I saw Le chef d’œuvre inconnu  on the bookshelf, I was intrigued at how short (a.k.a accessible) it appeared, and I instantly wanted to read it- giving myself the opportunity to enjoy such a classic French author’s work without slogging through hundreds of pages.

The first thing that struck me, even in the first handful of sentences, was the beauty that is intertwined in the text. Both in the imagery that Balzac creates, and the sheer delicacy of his choice of words and the fluidity of his sentence structure. Also, it is amazing to see how things can change so dramatically in such a short space of pages- and how this change is influenced by something that so many people would never think twice about: art.

It was interesting to see how someone could be so passionate about something that wasn’t simply love with another person and the lengths it could drive them to if it goes wrong. Though, having said that, of course, what would a 19th C narrative be without the influence of a woman’s beauty to shake things up a little?

 

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who has struggled to enjoy a Balzac text before, as it works as a type of stepping stone into appreciating his undeniable skill as an author, and has definitely encouraged me to pick up one of his longer works for fun again!

Le Diable Au Corps- Raymond Radiguet

I received this book as a Christmas present from my boyfriend. A brave move on his behalf, if you ask me as choosing a book for someone is never easy, especially when you’re branching into literature of a language that you don’t speak. However, he did pretty well, considering the book fits three categories of things I like: romance, war and french.  I had never heard of this book before, nor had I heard the author mentioned, so I was intrigued to get stuck in.

 

I have to admit I was a little confused when I first began reading. For some reason, I had expected the narrator to be Marthe, who is mentioned in the blurb, and out of a lack of concentration, it had taken me a few pages to realise that it was actually Francois.  However, once I had actually realised who it was narrating the events, I could start to form opinions on the characters.

I actually found Francois, the narrator a little irritating, which is, in some ways, a credit to Radiguet. He did truly appear like a lovesick teenage boy, whose youth was made clear through his neediness and naivety. I suppose that, given the circumstances of his love affair, one could hardly blame him for seeming emotional and needy- but that didn’t make it any less annoying, especially for the first part of the narrative.  Having said this, Marthe was hardly a likeable character. She appeared to have no sort of conscience, and her selfishness was far too much to be able to overlook or excuse for any reason.

It was strange to read a book and not identify, or take a liking to, either character. I would say that that as the narrative progressed, I did become more tolerant of Francois, but perhaps more out of dislike for Marthe other than anything else. Even though the main turning point of the narrative, Marthe’s discovery that she is pregnant, is a necessary step in order to show each character’s ability to develop, it was a bit of a cliché problem in an illegitimate love affair. Keeping the novel’s age in mind, however, I suppose that it would have been less of a cliché, and more of a scandal.

Something I did like about the book was that it was very easy to read. As I have mentioned before, I appreciate a book with short chapters as it means I can dip in and out of the book, reading it when I have a spare five minutes, meaning I can finish it sooner than if I had to dedicate a large chunk of time each time I want to read! Also, in spite of the fact that I didn’t necessarily like the narrator, I did find Radiguet’s writing style very clear, which mean that I didn’t have to struggle with unravelling too much french syntax, which can often be a problem.

Even though I didn’t like either of the main characters, I would actually recommend Le Diable Au Corps for that very reason. It was the first time I have read a novel and this been the case, and it was actually quite refreshing. I also think that the novel would also be a good starting point for someone who wants to read more french literature, as the straightforward narrative and the author’s clear writing style, as well as the short chapters, means that it is not a challenging read.

Sentimental Education- Gustave Flaubert

Another French book to add to the collection this time. A book that, when first faced with, I was not excited about and very nearly did not read. However, the fact that I haven’t read much Flaubert in the past, along with the fact that I am a French student, and should probably have read Flaubert, persuaded me.

In fact, I am quite glad I did manage to persuade myself, as I was pleasantly surprised by what the novel had to offer. The beginning was dry, as I had sort of anticipated, but I persevered and it paid off. At first, I tried to read the book entirely in French, but quickly realised that this would lead to lots of skimming, and decided that reading an English translation alongside the original was a much better approach.

As you might imagine, the book is filled with the scandalous romances that took place in the 19th Century, and in particular follows those of Frédéric Moreau. However, alongside or rather entwined with,  these many romances, we follow Frédéric’s political beliefs, at a time of great political change in the country. Inevitably, his political and social beliefs have an effect on his love affairs and, in a bid to gain social and political status, he becomes disloyal and dishonest towards his multiple mistresses.

 

It is interesting that, in spite of the  many encounters Moreau makes during the course of the novel, he ultimately ends up alone, having made very little social progress in comparison to the beginning of the novel. Also, even though he has met numerous new and different people, at the end of the narrative, he still only really has the person he had at the beginning: Deslauriers. It is as if Flaubert wanted to show that social standing and importance counts for very little if you aren’t a decent person- even back in a time when money and social status seemed to be incredibly important.  I really appreciate noticing little life lessons like this, that are so relevant nowadays, despite the fact that so many years have passed since- it shows that, after all, we are still people, no matter how society may have changed.

 

What I also like, as is the case in so many of the novels published at the period, is the intertextuality. Flaubert, like other contemporary novelists, acknowledge other great works of the period, that affected literature then, and continue to do so now. In this instance, Blazac’s Comédie Humaine, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote are just two of the classics that are explicitly mentioned, with other more subtle references scattered among the pages. I think this nod of the head to such great works shows that Flaubert is not embarrassed to be influenced by other great writers, and in a way shows his humility- accrediting him further as an author, in my opinion.

 

I cannot lie and pretend that Sentimental Education is the most exciting book I have ever read. It is not filled with action and drama- though the love affairs are a little shocking- but it does provide the reader with some important life lessons (subtle as some may be) about what is important to function and succeed in society, and that is sometimes more important than a gripping narrative plot.

 

Le Ventre de Paris- Émile Zola

Texts that deal with the subject of the dynamic between the rich and the poor, or the upper  classes and the working class people have interested me for a while, so this Zola novel seemed an obvious choice.

Apart from the fact that it is a Zola novel, meaning it is by no means an easy read, it was not a let down!

From the very start, as is usually the way with Zola, the description of settings and scenes made for a very vivid image of the characters and their surroundings. I found Zola’s use of metaphor, using food to represent a person’s position in society or among others, particularly interesting as I had never seen social class represented in such a way before.

I also found it very interesting how he uses the microcosm of the Parisian market to represent the goings on in the city on a larger scale. It means that the reader is able to establish a better sense of ‘knowing’ each character, because of the small-scale setting, meaning they can predict how a character may react towards certain situations later in the narrative. The microcosm setting also means there are fewer characters to ‘get to know’, which is important for a long novel, but also means that it is easier to see character development within each. Personally, I mostly enjoyed seeing the development of Lisa, as I think her character shows the most change, particularly towards her brother in law, Florent.

On the same subject as Florent, I believe that he worked as a brilliant protagonist. I found it incredibly easy to empathise with and sympathise for him, constant willing the best for him for the entirety of the narrative.

What I particularly liked about Le Ventre de Paris is the fact that it shows that one’s position in society is not fixed, and because of this changeable nature, it is not to be taken for granted. I liked seeing how, not only characters facing the changes reacted, whether they were climbing up or falling down the social ladder. It was also interesting to see the cut-throat nature of business and money-making from the perspective of someone writing in the 19th Century, and how it is not so different from modern day attitudes and behaviour.

Overall, whilst it is by no means an easy book to read, I would definitely recommend persevering with Le Ventre de Paris , even if for nothing more than to see the difference between the effects of capitalism on people and their personal relationships in the 19th Century fiction and in our own experiences in the modern world.

Mrs Dalloway- Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway was on one of my university module reading lists, and I really thought that it deserved a review. Being very short at under 200 pages, it was a pleasant change from the Victorian novels I had been used to, and actually meant that I was much more alert for the book’s entirety- aware that every word would matter. I certainly wasn’t wrong about that, it was such an intense read, with every page packed with ‘stuff’- in a good way! I found myself highlighting and underlining all the time, and not merely for academic purposes, but simply because there was just so much that I thought stood out. It was refreshing to read a book that had so much to offer on every page, even though the timeline of the narrative is only actually one day and only really follows preparation for one party.

 

The fact that this book is set around World War I instantly appealed to me, as it is a subject I can’t ever learn enough about, and the fact that it is written by a woman added to this appeal because so much war literature is dominated by men.

 

I can’t avoid the truth that the narrative is a little confusing, and only really upon my second and third readings did I really get the book. Mrs Dalloway, if you didn’t know, is written with a ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative. This means that point of view that the narrative is told from can change without notice- even between sentences.  Once you have gotten to grips with this, it actually makes for a brilliant read, allowing you to realise how everyone’s thoughts do sort of merge into and follow on from each other in daily life.

The book deals with the issue of PTSD in a very subtle way through the character of Septimus Smith and his relationship, not only with other people, but the world in general. Woolf noted his reactions to such small details that I might never have considered would affect a sufferer, and how this altered his relationships with other people, notably his wife. I really believe this gave the book a new level, and was great to have a character developed in such a way.

On a similar note, Woolf’s attention to detail throughout the entire narrative really was second to none, and her use of figurative language and imagery means that no questions are left as to why Mrs Dalloway is such a timeless classic. One part that particularly stands out to me is close to the beginning, describing the public’s reactions to planes in the sky post war, and the fact that no one can yet fully comprehend that they will not cause harm as they did in previous years.

 

I would wholeheartedly recommend Mrs Dalloway to anyone regardless of age, gender, or anything. It doesn’t matter that it was written almost one hundred years ago- I believe that everyone has a lot to learn from Woolf’s literature. If nothing else, it allows you to see where modern types of stream of consciousness narrative may have got their inspiration from, and accomplishes such a narrative far better than I have ever read before. Virginia Woolf- a true literary genius.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enfance- Nathalie Sarraute

Another French book, this time. Given that I shall be relocating to the French Alps in under a month for my year abroad (eek!), I thought I should start making a conscious effort to practise my language abilities to prevent turning up and not understanding anything. I chose Enfance by recommendation. It was on some of my friends’ reading list for a module at university, and they spoke highly of it, so I decided to give it a go.

 

At first, I was confused. No, my ability to read French hadn’t disappeared; I just did not get the narrative technique to begin with. Sarraute, as the narrator, converses with an interlocutor, which, once you realise, is not difficult to grasp, but does require concentration. This shouldn’t put you off reading Enfance, though, I think everyone who reads the book (biography/memoir/life-writing?!) would agree that it actually makes the narrative a lot more interesting as it forces the reader to consider the reliability and authenticity of narrators, particularly in autobiographical works.

 

In the same vein, I enjoyed the book because of the fact that it pulls into question the idea of reliability- not only of the narrator, but also of our own memory. As well as wondering if the events in the book are real, one is encouraged to consider whether events in our own lives really did happen as we remember them, or if we have (albeit sub, or even un, consciously) edited them out of convenience.

 

As well as calling memory into question, Sarraute’s story also calls for a reconsideration of family figures and parental roles. It is safe to say that Sarraute’s mother does not conform to stereotypical characteristics of a mother, which means her father is almost forced to compensate for this. As a result, I could not help but feel pity for Sarraute, and the incredibly lonely life, or at least childhood, she appears to have led. However, what makes this even more touching is that Sarraute never overtly asks for the reader’s sympathy. In fact, she doesn’t even explicitly tell the reader that she was lonely or unhappy- it is just clear through the fact that her only friend is her toy bear, and that her favourite thing was handwriting, simply because she could control it, and it is this very lack of self pity that made me pity Sarraute more.

 

I think I liked Enfance so much because it was so different to anything that I had read before. I have read autobiographies and similar such texts, but I don’t think I had ever read it in this form. In fact, if the reader did not know anything about Sarraute before reading the book, it appears to have such a strong narrative that it might be mistaken for a novel written in first person narration.

 

Overall, I would very strongly recommend Enfance, for French speakers. I would be resistant to recommend an English translation, simply out of worry that the style would not be effectively translated across languages. I don’t think the book has a specific audience in terms of age, which makes it a perfect read for everyone.

Douce Nuit- Mary Higgins Clark

The review is another French book this week, for two reasons: I could almost justify it as revision for my imminent French exams, and it had been on my bookshelf for almost 18 months so I thought I would give it a read.

I must admit, it was a little odd reading a book that is set so close to Christmas time in May, and when the weather has been incredibly warm recently, but it by no means distracted me from the story itself.

There is no denying Clark’s ability to create suspense, I finished the Douce Nuit in a couple of days, purely due to the fact that I wanted to know what would happen next, where the narrative would lead and what would happen to Brian.  However, I would say that this is more as a result of the plot, rather than a particular writing style, although, I should acknowledge that the book was originally published in English, so some stylistic elements may have been lost in translation.

I think the plot is incredibly charming, brilliantly capturing the impulsive and determined nature of a seven year old boy that is fiercely defensive of his family, as well as they sheer panic that would overwhelm his family in the case of his disappearance. I think the festive time setting of the book also added a little ‘something’ to the narrative, and is relevant and made reference to throughout the novel. It both intensifies the emotions, given the common belief that families should be together at Christmas, and, in some ways, lessens the emotions, given the belief in Christmas miracles.

There were enough characters in the narrative to make the scenario seem somewhat feasible despite the fact that, at points, I had to turn back a few pages to remind myself who was who, but there weren’t so many that some of their roles seemed empty or simply decorative. I did like this because it meant that the narrative was perfectly supported without becoming confusing or overcrowded. I particularly appreciated the presence of another child, Michael, in the narrative, as it meant that I got to experience the situation from another young point of view, which doesn’t often happen.

The narrative conclusion is happy and heartwarming, in the true style of a novel that is set at Christmas, and as would be expected in a situation as worrying as Catherine’s. However, I do appreciate a little complication in a narrative, and it did seem a little too convenient for my liking, but I don’t think I could expect much else from this genre of book.

All considered, I probably would recommend this book, but I would perhaps suggest that it is read over the Christmas period in order that the reader can get into a similar festive spirit as the characters would have been. I would actually be intrigued to read the book again in English in order that I could fully appreciate it stylistically as well as in terms of the plot.

 

 

 

 

La Liste de mes envies- Grégoire Delacourt

Given that I study French and that I will be spending the next academic year in France, I suppose it is only right that I read some french literature to review on here, plus it definitely counts as revision in the lead up to exams…doesn’t it?

 

It was actually a pleasant change to pick up a french book that I wouldn’t need to write an exam or essay on (oh…), and that wasn’t some sort of medieval geste or interwar political text, so I knew from the outset that I would enjoy La Liste de mes envies.

 

What struck me from the beginning was the simplicity of Delacourt’s writing. Not only is this incredibly useful for a reader whose second language is French, it also gives the impression that Jocelyne, the book’s protagonist is open and honest and that there will be no horrible surprises- not from her, at least! I felt for her straight away, when in the second sentence she claims she has always known that she has never been attractive, and this sense of self-deprecation continues throughout the text, but in a way that is not attention seeking or irritating.

 

In fact, throughout the whole book I feel for her: her ex-alcoholic husband, her estranged children, her aging father, the fact that she witnessed her mother’s death- nothing seems to be going her way. This is why, as a reader, you can’t help but feel truly happy for her when she realises her lucky lottery win. In fact, you don’t even question the secrets she begins to keep from her husband because you feel that she deserves to have such secrets.

 

The lists of Jocelyne’s envies, or desires, after which the book is named, that Delacourt includes throughout the book are almost humorous because he keeps them so realistic, and really displays the kindness of Jocelyne’s character through what she wishes to do with her money. The lists, of course, include bigger buys such as designer clothes and shoes, but also less extravagant things such as getting a haircut. One list reveals that she wishes to choose someone at random to give 1 million euros, but the most striking is the last wish on one of the lists: to be told that she is beautiful. It is at this point that I felt true sympathy for Jocelyne because she wanted something that, even with all of this money, she could not get.

 

In fact, it seems that Delacourt’s aim, throughout is to remind the reader that having money shouldn’t change you, because it is not the answer to all of life’s problems. Jocelyne manages to remain humble throughout, even in spite of her incredibly popular blog and newfound fortune.

 

The most heartbreaking part of the book is that the men she loves cannot or do not reciprocate. Her father, as a result of his alzheimer’s, continues to forget who she is, which results in her pretending to be the nurse because the heartbreak of reminding him that she is her daughter is too much. Her husband, just after it seems that he has started a fresh, giving up drinking and taking her out for dinner, eventually betrays her and she is left heartbroken.

 

La Liste de mes envies is short, which keeps it accessible and the very short chapters, or rather, narrative splits, as they aren’t actually numbered or named mean that you can really engage with each part without forgetting what happened earlier on. It is almost as if they are bursts of Jocelyne’s inner thoughts and the reader is able to share them with her.

 

I would recommend this book to anyone because of the sheer beauty of Delacourt’s ability to create such a wonderful character, with whom I felt I could establish a real connection. The simplicity of his writing is beautiful, and by avoiding the complexity that can often be found in French syntax, the reader is able to focus properly on what is being said and what is happening, rather than the main attention occupied by unravelling tenses. My sole criticism of the book is that it was over too quickly, I feel as though I could have continued as a part of Jocelyne’s life for much longer and I will, without a doubt, come back to this book as a result of that.

 

Due to the book’s great success, it has been translated and is also available in English as The List of My Desires.