Author Archives: BookerTalk

Top Ten Tuesday: The First Ten Books I Reviewed

top-ten-tuesday-new

The first book I ever reviewed was so dreadful that I have obliterated its title from my memory. It was by Maeve Binchey and though I know she is extremely popular among some readers, I vowed never to read anything by her again. Ever. I only got to the end because it formed part of a book review column that was being introduced on the newspaper where I was a rather junior reporter.

Maybe it was that experience that destroyed my interest in reviewing. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I began in earnest. I’m re-interpreting the brief for  this week’s Top 10 topic. So instead of listing the first 10 reviews to appear on this blog (which would be dull) I’m opting for the first 10 reviews of Booker Prize winners. It is after all my project to read all the prize winners that prompted me to begin the blog in 2012.

  1. The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens. The very first review to appear on this blog, was this 1970 winner. It’s embarrassing to look back at this review – I clearly had a lot to learn…
  2. Something to Answer For by P H Newby. This review appeared in April 2012. My attempt was slightly – but only slightly – better than the first effort.
  3. Saville by David Storey. This appeared in the same month as the Newby review. Not a book I cared for at all as my review indicates all too clearly.
  4. Staying On by Paul Scott. This is a follow up to his superb series called The Raj Quartet. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book, I’m also happier with the quality of the review.
  5. White Tiger by Arvind Adiga  I remember enjoying this novel which won the 2008 Booker Prize but I see from my review that I wasn’t that keen on the ending.
  6. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. A wonderful book and one of my favourite Booker winners.
  7. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Definitely not one of my favourite Booker winners. Though I admired the technical virtuosity and the brilliance of the imagination, I struggled to finish the book – and also, I seem to remember, struggled to write a review.
  8. Possession by A S Byatt. These reviews do seem to be getting more coherent (at last)
  9. The Sea by John Banville  My review from 2013 may not have done full justice to this book but at least it’s no longer embarrassing to read after all these years.
  10. Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. And so we reach July 2013 and a novel that was a re-read.

It’s been interesting to look back at these blog posts and to see the progress I made in just over a year of writing reviews. When I decided to begin blogging I had no concerns about my ability to write: I had after all trained as a journalist and had worked for years in a communications role. But it didn’t take long for me to appreciate that writing reviews of books is an art that requires a completely different skill set.

There is still a long, long way to go before I reach the point where I find it easier to write these reviews and am more satisfied with the result. I wonder if I ever will reach that day or whether I’m too too much of a perfectionist to ever be satisfied….


Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. .

#Classics club spin lands on Evelina

The latest Classics Club spin has landed on number 19.

EvelinaThat number on my spin list is allocated to one of the oldest books on my original Classics Club list: Evelina by Frances Burney. Strictly speaking the book is called Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. 

It was first published as a three volume novel in 1778 but Burney’s authorship became known.

Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat who lives a secluded life in the countryside until she is seventeen.  She gets her guardian’s consent to visit London for a holiday, an adventure which opens her eyes to the perils and pitfalls of  18th-century society. The novel  is a satire on Georgian society.

I included it on my Classics Club because it’s been described as a significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth and deals with some of the same issues.  It’s the first – and the best known – of Burney’s published novels.

I’ve found an interesting article by Chloe Wigston Smith on the British Library website which casts light on Burney herself and the origin of the novel. Interesting to discover that she was very anxious to keep her identity a secret because she was worried about the public reaction. She didn’t even tell her father until six months after the novel was issued and she’d received positive reviews.

I was rather hoping to have landed a more recent novel from my spin list since my last venture into eighteenth century literature (via The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith) wasn’t a great success. I hope this one proves more enjoyable.

The Sixteen Trees of the Somme by Lars Mytting #bookreview

16 trees of the sommeOne of the things I love about reading is how it opens up new areas of knowledge. It could introduce  you to places you know nothing about or enlighten you about a period in history.

In the case of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme, my enlightenment concerned wood. Not just any old wood. Two very special kinds of wood called flame birch and flame walnut.

I’ve never seen furniture manufactured from either of these woods but when polished,  the natural patterns that are revealed seem spectacularly beautiful.

It looked like a painting whose meaning is individual to each beholder. From a reddish-orange depth, blue and black lines spiralled outwards wildly, like a blazing fire. The pattern changed depending on where the light struck it. It glinted and new shadows became visible … In the centre of the wood there was a dark, craggy concentration, a maelstrom the colour of dried blood with thin strands swirling around it.

Wood is central to this novel about skeletons in the family closet. It not only plays a key role in the plot, it portrays mood and atmosphere and reveals much about the characters and their attitudes.

The story concerns Edvard Hirifjell, a man in his 20s who was orphaned when his parents died in France in mysterious circumstances. He was wih them at the time but when missing for four days, eventually being disovered in the office of a local doctor. The child was taken in by his taciturn grandfather Bestefar to live on the family farm in a remote mountain valley, tending sheep and becoming an expert in potato crops.

When Bestefar dies, Edvard discovers that there is a beautiful, highly ornate coffin already waiting at the undertakers. It’s been designed and made by his grandfather’s estranged brother Einar, a fabulously skilled cabinetmaker.  Further discoveries follow in the form of letters which hint at a family connection to a concentration camp, an assumed identity and a missing inheritance.

As the young man begins to piece together his past, he travels first to the Shetland Islands and then to the battlefields of the Somme.

This novel works on so many levels.

It’s cleverly plotted with plenty of surprises building the momentum towards the concluding revelations.

It has an empathetic central character whose quest to know the truth about his family, is also a process of self-discovery.

The historical context is so well integrated it never feels as if we’re being educated about the battles of the Somme or the centuries-old connection between Norway and the Shetlands.

And then there is the  keen observation of the natural landscape and the forces of nature. Storms batter the Shetland Islands, whipping the sea into a seething, frothing mass that looks as if it will  “swallow the whole island.” In its wake lie swathes of land where peat has been ripped up and tossed into the water and the beach is scrubbed clean.

Not what you want to encounter on your summer holidays. Much better to head for the lushness of Norway with its

….  fruit trees, the pea pods that dangled like half moons when we got close to them, so plentiful that we could fill up on them without taking a step. The dark-blue fruit of the plum trees, the sagging raspberry bushes just waiting for us to quickly fill two small plates and fetch some caster sugar and cream.

This is a menalcholy novel at times.  Edvard barely remembers his parents except as fleeting images.

For me my mother was a scent, she was a warmth. A leg I clung to. A breath of something blue; a dress I remember her wearing. She fired me into the world with a bowstring, I told myself, and when I shaped my memories of her, I did not know if they were true, I simply created her as I thought a son should remember his mother.

 

His desire to uncover the truth about his parents is more than a desire to put substance and shape to those memories. He’s always felt a sense of alienation, of not quite belonging. His journey into the past is a way of slaying his feers and setting him on a new path to the future.

I’d never heard of Lars Mytting or this book until I spotted it while browsing in a bookshop. So I had no idea he was already a best selling author based on a non fiction book called Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. The Sixteen Tres of the Somme is his first novel to be published in English. Go out and buy it – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

Gareth Davies takes the chair in Cwtch Corner #Waleswrites

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

Cwtch Corner moved a few miles or so to Cardiff this month to meet up with Gareth Davies at the launch of his debut novel: humans, being. 

The central character is Vic; a middle aged comedian at a turning point in his life. His wife has left him; audiences aren’t finding his jokes as funny as they once did. His attempts to get back into the social scene aren’t exactly going well. 

It’s been described as the male equivalent of Bridget Jones’ Diary.

 

Gareth Davies reading from his debut novel

Q. Hi Gareth, my attempt to describe your new novel probably doesn’t do it justice. How would YOU describe it in one sentence ?

“It’s a a book about life, love and growing up – in your forties.” 

Q. What made you decide to write humans, being?

“It started as a different idea. I wanted to write a novel called ‘12 Songs’, where the main protagonist unknowingly lived his life according to rules inspired by his 12 favourite songs from the 80s. It wasn’t working, I couldn’t work out the reveal (or the copyright issues for the songs,) but I liked the characters I was creating, Vic and Mia [his best friend]. So, I ran with them rather than the idea and created humans, being, because Vic and Mia were just two humans trying to exist in a confusing world.

Q. You were raised in Wales and worked/lived in Prague for several years. But now you’re a storyteller performing stories from Wales and China. How have those experiences influenced your writing?

When I lived in Prague many of my short stories were set in the Wales of my youth. It was as if my writing was keeping me attached to my heritage. Interestingly, now I am living in Cardiff, I am working on a novel set in eastern / central Europe. Maybe it’s a way of not letting go of an important part of my life.

The storytelling I see as a separate part of my creative life. Finding, learning and telling traditional stories that have a meaning and lessons for life is very rewarding, but I haven’t noticed that influencing my writing, yet.

Q. Some authors have a particular routine they follow when they’re writing. John Banville likes to use a fountain pen for his literary fiction and a ball point for his crime fiction.  Do you have a routine you like to follow? Or  maybe a favourite pen/notebook?

I don’t really have a routine. I write whenever I get the ideas. I do like writing in various cafes around Cardiff. Much of the early parts of humans being was writing in the Little Man Coffee shop in the centre of Cardiff.

I used to always write straight onto a computer but these days, I’ve found that handwriting first and then typing up is quite useful. I don’t have a favourite pen, but I do like writing using a fountain pen, I feel it flows better on the page..”

Q. Which books have influenced you the most

“The books that have had the greatest influence on me as a writer are probably those which have a similar style to mine. Things like The Rotter’s Club by Jonathon Coe, Tim Lott’s Rumours of a Hurricane and Matt Haig’s Humans. Humorous looks on life, love and society.”

Q. What book is on your bedside table right now??

Punch by Kate North. We launched our books together. It’s a really interesting, quirky collection of short stories.


Teacher, writer, storyteller. Gareth Davies has a varied career which has seen him live in Prague for almost twenty years, teach English as a foreign language and tell stories in countries as far afield as Japan, Croatia and Poland.  He moved back to Cardiff in 2015 to do an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. He’s  had several short stories published in magazines and has self-published two novels.  You can discover more about him via his website

His novel humans, being was published in April 2019 by Cinnamon Press, an independent publisher based in North Wales.  You can buy the book direct from the publishers via this link

 

 

Classics club Spin#20

roulette-wheelTime for another round of the Classics Club Spin.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of this, the idea is to create a list of any twenty books remaining from your Classics Club list, numbering them 1-20. On Monday 22nd April the Classics Club will announce a number. This is the book I will need to read by 31st May.

Since I don’t have 20 titles left unread from my original list I’m having to be creative. Numbers 16-20 are new additions.

  1. The Black Sheep  — Honore Balzac 1842
  2. Basil Wilkie Collins 1852
  3. Framley Parsonage  Anthony Trollope 1861
  4. New Grub Street George Gissing 1891
  5. O pioneers —  Willa Cather  1913
  6. Gone to Earth  — Mary Webb 1917
  7. Age of Innocence  — Edith Wharton 1920
  8. The Last September —  Elizabeth Bowen 1929
  9. All Passion Spent  Vita Sackville West 1932
  10. Frost in May Antonia White 1933
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  12. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934
  13. The Grapes of Wrath   John Steinbeck 1939
  14. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  15. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955
  16. Alone in Berlin Hans Fallada 1947
  17. To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf 1927
  18. No Name Wilkie Collins 1862
  19. Evelina Frances Burney 1778
  20. The Lifted Veil — George Eliot 1859

I’m rather hoping for Turf or Stone by the Welsh author Margiad Evans , a dark novel about an abusive marriage. I’ve never read anything by her previously but she features in the Library of Wales collection of Welsh ‘classics.’

 

 

Six Degrees from Ali Smith to Susan Hill

 

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation begins with a book that has divided opinion ever since it was published in 2014.

Howtobe bothHow to Be Both by Ali Smith contains two stories. One story features the Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa, a real-life figure who produced a series of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.  The other story, relates to a teenage girl called George whose mother has just died and who is left struggling to make sense of her death with her younger brother and her emotionally disconnected father.

The book was published in such a way that readers might either begin with Francesco or with George. My copy opened with the Italian artist and I was immediately captivated. (see my review here ). But I know quite a number of bloggers whose opinion I value didn’t rate the book at all.

How to Be Both was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but the prize went instead to the Australian author Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North. 

The Narrow Road

This was such a superb book that I’ve struggled to write a review that would do it justice. It’s one of the few Booker prize winners that I want to re-read.

This is a novel set in the context of one of the most infamous episodes in World War 2: the construction of the Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At the heart of Flanagan’s novel is an Australian surgeon, Dorrigo Evans, who to his astonishment becomes something of a legend for his wartime courage at a Japanese POW camp on the Death Railway. The novel ends with an encounter between Evans and one of those captors.

A similar encounter takes place in  The Railway Man  by Eric Lomax.

The Railway Man

This is an autobiography in which  Lomax relates his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II during which he was forced to work on construction of the help Thai-Burma Railway.  The book won the NCR Book Award (until it closed in 1997 it was the major UK award for non-fiction) and became a film starring Colin Firth.

A later winner of the prize was another of my all-time favourites – Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.

Wild Swans

This is a family history spans more than a century of China’s history told through the  lives of three female generations of Chang’s family.   Chang’s mother was a member of Mao’s Red Army while Chang herself willingly joined Red Guards though she recoiled from some of their brutal actions.

As time progresses, life under Mao and his Cultural Revolution became more difficult and dangerous, causing immense suffering.  Parts of the book are heart-wrenching as we learn of citizens rallying to a call for metal so it could be turned into weapons, giving up their cooking pots and pans to avoid being denounced by the regime.

My fourth book also recounts times of hardship for the peasants of China.

thegoodearth

 

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (my review is here ) is a tale of the fluctuating fortunes of two families: the peasant farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan and the rich, wealthy House of Hwang headed by The Old Lord and the Old Mistress. His land is the essence of Lung’s being. When the harvests fail and his family have no more grain or rice to eat, they move to the city  where they are reduced to living in a makeshift hut . But Lung always dreams of returning to his land.

The novel won Buck the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938 “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces. 

That accolade of “biographical masterpiece” from the members of the Swedish Academy could equally apply to my next choice: Samuel Pepys – The Unequaled Self by Claire Tomalin. 

Pepys

Pepys’ story is an extraordinary one: his origins were humble (he was a tailor’s son) but he became one of the most wealthy and powerful government figures in England in the seventeenth century. He’s most famed of course for his diaries in which he described his daily domestic routine and gave us an account of landmark events such as the Great Fire of London.

Tomalin does a superb job of bringing the man to life, weaving extracts from his diary into details from contemporary letters and official court documents. I read this seven years ago and still remember some of the episodes she relates. (my review is here)

Pepys loved hearing gossip. He also loved to collect books. In his will, made shortly before his death in 1708, he bequeathed his vast library to Magdalene College, Oxford. It remains there to this day.

Not on the same scale as Pepys but the final book in my chain was written by another avid ‘collector’.

Howards End

The author Susan Hill lives in an old and rambling farmhouse full of cosy fireside nooks and aged beams. It’s also full of bookcases overflowing with books. Howards End is on the Landing ( see my review here)recounts the year she decided to ‘repossess’ these books.  For a year she read only those books already occupying a space in her shelves (or on the floor), foregoing the purchase of anything new.

Would that I were disciplined not to buy new books until I had read the old. But my experiment with restraint lasted only a few months.


Six Degrees of Separation  #6Degrees is a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.  I’ve made one rule for myself – all the books in the chains I create are ones I have read though not necessarily reviewed. I never cease to be astonished at the level of variety across all the bloggers who take part in this meme.

WWWednesday 10 April, 2019

I got my days mixed up this week so my WWW Wednesday is actually coming to you on a Thursday.

What are you currently reading?

I have three books on the go at the moment.

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne

Zola and Victorians

In 1888, the works of Emile Zola were denounced in the House of Commons in London as “vile” and “diabolical”. Zola’s novels were – according to Samuel Smith of the National  Smith – sold to “young girls in low bookshops”, leading directly to prostitution.  Zola’s British publisher, Henry Vizetelly, was subsequently prosecuted and imprisoned, his health suffered and he was ruined financially.

Horne’s book reconstructs the events using  court records, Hansard transcripts, letters, journalism. It’s a fascinating topic but I so wish Horne had done a better job of creating dialogue between the various members of the Vitzelly family.

 

 

One Woman Walks Wales by Ursula Martin

One Woman Walks Wales

This is an extraordinary account of Ursula Martin’s decision to walk through Wales to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

She initially set out to do a route that she could cover the six months between hospital appointments for check ups after her own treatment four years earlier. But she miscalculated and ended up walking around 3,700 miles. It took her 538 days On her own most of the time. Camping in the wild most nights (without a tent). Without equipment to make a hot meal.

I’ve reached only day two of her journey and already I’m thinking she must be crazy. But also far braver and more determined than me.  I know she made it because this year she was trekking through Romania. In the snow.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

american marriage

This is my book club selection for April. I wasn’t jumping for joy when I heard this had been selected. Not that I knew anything about the book, it was just the title that was off-putting.

But I’m pleasantly surprised by this tale of a couple whose life together is severed when he is accused and imprisoned for a crime they both know he did not commit.

This was an Oprah Book Club title in 2018 and apparently one of Barack Obama’s best books of 2018.

 

 

 

 

What did you recently finish reading? Dignity by Alys Conran

Dignity

I enjoyed Alys Conran’s debut novel Pigeon (see my review here) which won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2017. Her latest novel Dignity which was published at the beginning of April, is I think just as good.

It’s a tale of three women: Evelyn, an engineer’s wife in British India; Magda, an old lady stuck in an empty house; and Susheela, a young English carer of Bengali descent in a British seaside town on the verge of collapse. Review coming soon……

 

 

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

 I had this idea last week where I would identify the categories of books I like to/want to read, and then make my next reading choice based on a cycle of those categories.  So I’d read a classic, say, then a book in translation, followed by a Welsh author, a prize winner, crime fiction or a ‘new this year’ book.  I didn’t include non fiction since I tend to read those simultaneously with a work of fiction.

This sounded a good idea at the time but then the doubts began to creep in. Does it feel too rigid, not spontaneous enough. What if I’m not in the mood for that particular category?

And then I challenged myself: who says you have to stick 100% to that cycle? It’s your plan so you get to make up the rules.

Rule number 1: if I don’t feel in the mood for a particular category at the time, I can skip to the next category in the sequence. For example if I really don’t fancy a translated book, I can skip to a Welsh author……

Rule number 2: There isn’t one. There is only one rule. No sense in making this a burden.

All of this is a long winded answer to a simple question: what am I thinking of reading next? I don’t know exactly what I’ll read next. All I can say is that since I’ve just read a book in translation (Emile Zola’s The Kill), and then a Welsh author (Alys Conran), it will either be a prize winner or – if none of those take my fancy, a crime novel….

The Kill by Émile Zola #bookreview

the killTo read Zola is to be plunged into a world of passion and sensation: a world of corruption and greed. France in the period of the Second Empire (1852-1870) is, in Zola’s eyes, a dynamic society weakened  by decadence, corruption and sexual promiscuity.  Time and again in his Rougon-Marquart he returns to this issue, finding evidence in every quarter – government, business, religion – of a diseased nation.

In The Kill,  his focus is on some of the uncontrollable appetites that have been unleashed in such a morally corrupt society.  Lust for gold and lust of the flesh come together in the triangular relationship between the business tycoon Saccard Rougon, his unstable wife Renée and her young lover Maxime (her husband’s son.).

Saccard is a self made man; immensely rich from a business empire that takes advantage of Baron Haussman’s visionary plans to modernise and re-build the city. He buys land and property at low prices and then re-sells using vastly inflated valuations. In Zola’s portrayal, Saccard is the epitome of insatiable excess and greed, a man who, no matter how much money he possesses, can never have enough. A man who “could not be near a thing or a person for long without wanting to sell it or derive some profit from it.”

His wife Renée is the key to the fulfilment of his ambition to conquer and plunder Paris.  She’s the daughter of an old bourgeois family,  pregnant as a result of a rape. In return for marrying her to save her honour, Saccard receives a large sum of money together with Renée’s dowry in the form of some highly valuable property.

Renée is as much an item of prey ensnared by Saccard as the people whose houses and businesses are demolished to make way for his business empire. It’s her dowry and inheritance that initially funded the business.  Then, when his business schemes start collapsing, he hatches a scheme to get her to part with the deeds to her family home (worth several millions) so he can keep up the pretence of success.

Renée played right into his hands. Caught up in the whirl of a lavish lifestyle, she had often had to ask her husband to pay debts to her costumier, little guessing the consequences of her requests.

With each new bill that he paid, with the smile of a man indulgent towards human foibles, she surrendered a little more, confiding dividend-warrants to him, authorising him to sell this or that. When they moved into the house in the Parc Monceau, she already found herself stripped almost bare.

Renée doesn’t understand business or money except how to spend it in great quantities. But that’s as far as her innocence extends.  Bored by her lavish lifestyle, the carriages, the jewellery, gowns, the grand mansion and extravagant dinner parties, she craves excitement. Her desire leads to a dangerous affair with her stepson Maxime and to increasingly irrational and scandalous behaviour.

She develops a deep interest in courtesans and prostitutes. Disguised as a boy she dines at a cafe in which no women from her class would dare to be seen. She relishes the doubly  transgressive nature of the relationship with Maxime, delighting in the risk of being discovered. Towards the end of the novel, when he is clearly tiring of her attentions, she appears at a ball dressed in such a skimpy outfit, she appears to be naked.

Not until the end of the novel, when her infidelity has been discovered, does she realise she had been little more than another commodity to her husband.

She was an asset in her husband’s portfolio, he urged her to buy gowns for an evening, to take lovers for a season, he wrought her in the flames of his forge, using her as a precious metal with which to gild the iron of his hands.

The novel’s French title La Curée, refers to scraps from the prey  that are thrown to the dogs after a hunt. Zola uses the hunting symbolism throughout the novel to represent the way the Empire has enabled people to chase after money, power and influence. It was a time, Zola, reflects:

… when the rush for spoils filled a corner of the forest with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches..

and when people like Saccard “swooped down on Paris … with the keen instincts of a bird of prey capable of smelling a battlefield from a long way off.”

Zola clearly has no sympathy for people like Saccard; fortune hunters whose shady transactions, would “drag the country down to the level of the most decadent and dishonoured of nations.”  But neither does he hold any affection for Maxime – an androgynous narcissistic figure  who “had vices before he had desires” – or Renée. The latter, even after she has been abandoned by husband and lover, still acts recklessly, gambling, drinking and longing for new desires.

Zola’s primary critique is not however aimed at these members of the Nouveau Riche, but at the social, political and social system that enables and indeed encourages the decline of moral standards. As he made clear in a letter to the editor of La Cloche (the magazine that serialised The Kill), the novel was the product of its time, “a plant that sprouted out of  the dungheap of the Empire.”

He thus stresses the way in which in the new Empire, wealth could be accumulated with little effort and a lot of skullduggery. Saccard’s fortune has no firm foundations, it exists on paper only.  All around him marvel at how gold flows from him in endless waves but no-one can really be sure whether in fact he had any solid, capital assets.  What Zola shows in great detail is how government funding for Haussmann’s plans  in the form of grants and loans to developers, opened the door for speculation and creative accounting. Saccard ends up acting for both sides in negotiations over some property, driving up prices to his own advantage.

A novel which describes the intricacies of investment strategies and property negotiations probably doesn’t sound very exciting. But this being a novel by Zola, The Kill is written with a high regard for dramatic tension as Renée hurtles towards her fate. It’s a gripping tale of a city undergoing rapid transformation with devastating consequences for many of its inhabitants.


About the Book

The Kill/ La Curée was the second novel in the Rogoun-Macquart cycle of twenty books. It was first serialised in La Cloche newspaper in 1872. Serialisation was suspended by the Government on the basis that if was immoral (the novel does contain many bedroom scenes), prompting Zola to write a robust defence of his work.

My edition is published by Oxford University Press, with translation by Brian Nelson. As with all other OUP editions of Zola’s novels that I’ve read, this contains an excellent introduction about the historical context of The Kill, its major themes and how it reflected Zola’s concept of naturalisation.

Why I Read this Book

I’m trying to read all of the Rogoun-Macquart novels. Those I’ve read so far are highlighted on my Zola project page. The #ZolaAddiction2019 initiative, hosted by FandaClassicLit blog. was the spur to dig out another title from my collection.

For other reviews of The Kill, take a look at the readingzola blog site 

 

The Next Big Thing by Anita Brookner

The Next Big Thing  is another Anita Brookner novel which provides a penetrating portrait of loneliness. This time her subject is a 73-year-old man who has led a quiet and unremarkable life. Julius Fitz fled Berlin with his parents and his brother, settling in London with the aid of a benefactor who provided a home and employment in his music shop. Now the shop has been sold, forcing Julius to retire and contemplate how to make use of this unexpected freedom.

Has this all come too late? “He was not trained for freedom, that was the problem, had not been brought up for it,” he reflects. And in fact he has nothing in place that will help him. Though he’s comfortably well off he is alone. He was married once but his wife’s liveliness crumbled under the strain of cramped living conditions and the increasing neediness of Julius’ parents. He has no friends, no-one to really talk to beyond mundane interactions in shops and on park benches. His only contacts are his solicitor and his ex-wife Josie, both of whom he meets occasionally for lunch and dinner.

The plot revolves around Julius’ attempts to find some purpose in his life.

He considers various options: he could remarry, he could leave London and move to Paris. He imagines himself as a regular guest on a chat show during which he impresses the audience with his remarkable insights on art. The plans all fizzle into nothing because Julius is a ditherer. He tries to fill his days but walks, excursions to buy the newspaper and a visit to the local park, don’t amount to much. His present existence he reflects is one “in which nothing happened nor could be expected to happen.” 

He does take a brief holiday to Paris, hoping to revisit the places he once enjoyed as a young man. But of course the city has changed, as has Julius, so the trip is not a success. Feeling his age, and a strong sense of disappointment, he returns home earlier than planned.

Not until he receives an appeal for financial help from his cousin Fanny with whom he was once infatuated, does he find anything close to real purpose. He sees himself rushing to her aid, and But then Julius, being Julius, having given up his flat and made his travel plans, begins to have doubts. Throughout his life he has adjusted his needs to suit the requirements of others , surrendering in the process “that part of himself that others could not and would not supply, and in so doing had forgone his right to respect.”

A reunion with Fanny he thinks, may be yet another case where he his good nature is in danger of being taken for granted. Her letters are full of self-pity and self-centred, he can’t expect much in the way of empathy. And yet wouldn’t a relationship with Fanny  –– even if only as a companion for whom he has to foot the bill – be preferable to his current existence?

The Next Big Thing is a wholly introspective novel, delivered at a rather slow pace. Whole chapters elapse between when Julius has an idea and when he puts it into action. It takes him ages to visit a doctor to discuss the ‘funny turn’ he had when at dinner with his solicitor. Even longer to get around to taking the medication he was prescribed. It was difficult to feel a lot of empathy for him because he is so ponderous. Instead of being sympathetic towards his predicament I just ended up frustrated by his prevarications and passivity. Brookner’s narrative style is so matter of fact, it added even more distance.

The covers of some editions apparently proclaimed this novel to be Brookner’s “funniest yet.” I suppose they were thinking of a few scenes which show Julius completely misreading a situation. During the appointment with his doctor he begins pontificating on the similarity of his symptoms and the overwhelming feeling of strangeness  experienced by Freud during a visit to the Acropolis.  The doctor is more of a practical man, rather more keen in addressing problems of high blood pressure than having a philosophical discussion. On another occasion Julius ogles a young woman  who has moved into an adjacent flat, reaching out and stroking her arm, completely oblivious to the inappropriate nature of his action. In another context maybe – just maybe – one of these could be considered mildly amusing but the second just made me cringe.

Not one of her best unfortunately even though the Booker judges thought so highly of it that they included it on the 2002 longlist.

 

In celebration of Emile Zola

zoladdiction2019It’s the start of #ZolaAddiction2019, a month long celebration of the master of literature who put French contemporary society under the spotlight. That might sound rather dull and ‘worthy’ but in fact Emile Zola’s novels contain a high level of sensationalism. It’s impossible to read many of his novels without encountering rather a lot of sex and violence.

To mark the occasion I thought I’d give you a peek at my stack of Zola novels. They are all part of his Rougon-Macquart cycle of twenty novels  which features two branches of a family over five generations. One branch are the respectable (ie legitimate) Rougons; the other are disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts. Through them Zola traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution.

My first encounter with Monsieur Zola came via Germinal: a stunningly powerful novel about industrial strife in the mining towns of northern France. I’ve read five more of his novels and haven’t yet been disappointed. But Germinal still remains my favourite.

These are the titles I’ve read so far.

Zola novels read

 

I have another six titles in the cycle waiting to be read.

Zola novels to read

Nana is probably the best known among these titles. It tells the story of Nana Coupeau’s rise from streetwalker to high-class prostitute. Like many of the other titles in this series, it was an instant hit with readers.  In 1879, Le Voltaire, the French newspaper,  launched a gigantic advertising campaign to highlight its forthcoming publication of the story in instalments. It raised the curiosity of the reading public to a fever pitch. When the novel was published in book form the following year,  the first edition of 55,000 copies was sold out in one day.

I try to buy Oxford World Classics editions, published by Oxford University Press, wherever possible. Not only are the covers of the most recent editions, ultra pleasing on the eye but they come with excellent introductions. Sadly not all of the 20 novels are available in these editions. I think in fact there are only four other titles from the OUP so I’m going to have to ration my reading and hope, by the time I get through this half dozen, the powers that be at the OUP will have pulled their fingers out and published some more….


#Zolaaddiction2019 is hosted by FandaClassicLit blog.

 

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