Category Archives: Classics Club

My 10 Classics Club Favourites

Now that I’ve completed my Classics Club project (whoopee) I thought it would be fun to look back over the 50 books I read and and pick my 10 favourites.

The books I’ve listed were those I consider the most memorable and thought provoking out of the 50 books I read in the last seven and half years. They are also books I think that perfectly fit Italio Calvino’s definition of a classic as

a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.

Though I seldom seem to find the time to re-read, these 10 novels are all ones I know will prove as rewarding the second, third or even fourth time around.

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola

You knew there would be a Zola in the list didn’t you? My all-time favourite is Germinal but L’Assommoir comes a very close second. Paris is the setting for this tale of a woman from the bottom rungs of society who tries to make something meaningful in her life. Her lazy, drunk of a husband thwarts her ambitions. There are some magnificent set pieces including a brawl between women in a wash house and a wedding “banquet”.

Published: 1877. Read 2014

Author’s origin: France

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

This was a joy to read. Elderly women are not often portrayed in a positive light in fiction but Sackville-West gives us a memorable tale of a woman who decides at the age of 80 to assert her independence.

Published: 1931 Read 2019

Author’s origin: UK

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

On the surface this would seem to be a novel about a crime and the hunt to bring the culprit to justice. But actually it’s more a study of the criminal mind and whether it is ever acceptable to commit murder. Completely engrossing.

Published: 1866 Read 2013

Author’s origin: USSR

Heart Of The Matter by Graham Greene

This has become my all-time favourite Graham Greene novel. It’s an intense novel in which a decent and well-meaning man takes an action that leads to spiritual conflict and despair. The West African setting adds to the atmosphere of oppression and suffocation.

Published: 1948 Read 2013

Author’s origin: UK

North And South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Nothing I’ve read by Gaskell has come anywhere close to being as good as this tale of conflict in an industrial city (it”s loosely based on Manchester.) In what is considered a classic Industrial Novel, Gaskell shows the desperate poverty of the mill workers and the consequent effects on their health.

Published: 1855 Read 2012

Author’s origin: UK

Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

New York in Wharton’s novel is a city where the individual spirit is hampered by codes of behaviour that govern everything from the time at which dinner is served to what to wear to the opera. It takes a brave spirit to try to break out from the constraints of this society.

Published: 1920 Read 2020

Author’s origin: USA

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck isn’t an author you would naturally associate with humour. But this novella has characters who make such a mess of things, that you can”t help but laugh even though their situation is anything but funny. They are people who live in the sardine canning district of Monterey, California. Among them is a group of down-and-outs who live from one drink to another, begging, borrowing, stealing and fighting.  

Published: 1945 Read 2013

Author’s origin: USA

Old Goriot by Honore Balzac

A biting novel in which Balzac portrays France as a corrupt, ruthless society that feeds on ambition, money and status. This is meant to be one of the best novels in La Comedie Humane series. It’s made me hungry for more Balzac.

Published: 1835 Read 2015

Author’s origin: France

Mrs Dalloway  by Virgina Woolf

A complex stream of consciousness novella that takes place in the course of one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. It’s so rich and multi-layered that I don’t think one reading alone can possibly do justice to Woolf’s narrative.

Published: 1925 Read 2016

Author’s origin: UK

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Set on the cusp of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Paton’s novel expresses his love for his home country and his fear for its future. Paton uses multiple voices to dramatise the differing attitudes between the country’s white and black populations and the emergence of irreconcilable hatred.

Published 1948 Read 2015

Author’s origin: South Africa

What do you make of my choices – any surprises? What would be on your list of 10 favourite classics? If you’re curious about what else I read, you can see my full Classics Club list here.

Classics Club Project: It’s A Wrap!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Flush with the success of completing my Booker Prize project, I’ve now reached the finishing line on a second long-term reading project: The Classics Club.

This was a project started in August 2012 to read 50 classics of literature over the course of five years. That “deadline” came and went. As did the sixth and the seventh anniversaries. But I was determined I would have this done before the eighth anniversary rolled around.

I made it with three months to spare.

Thankfully my final book was a pleasure to read: Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope which is book number four out of the six that form his Chronicles of Barsetshire series.

What else did I read as part of the project? You can see my full list of titles here as well as the books I couldn’t finish, I actually listed far more than 50 titles when the project got underway because I wanted plenty of choice. So there are another 30 books that I never got around to reading.

The books I chose were a combination of authors I’d never read previously (like

was an attempt to fill in the gaps in my reading of the great and the good from the literary world. The eagle eyed among my readers will notice that there are more than 50 titles listed here. The reason is simple: I wanted plenty of choice so I could pick a novel to suit different moods. 

Some of the authors I selected were people I have never read before such as Honore Balzac and John Steinbeck. Others were novels I had read previously but at age when I don’t think I fully understood them  (such as Mrs Dalloway). I mixed in a few favourites like George Eliot; some novels translated from their original language and some Welsh classics.

I used a very loose definition of “classic”. I didn’t take it to mean just old (though I did read a few Greek tragedies). Nor did I interpret classics as those books appearing in “xxx books you must read before you die” lists. I wanted books that had endured the passage of time; that could be considered “important” or “significant” in themselves or in terms of the author’s body of work.

So I ended up with books spread across the centuries starting from Euripedes and Medea, both believed to have been written around 431 BC. I managed one eighteenth century novel in the form of The Vicar of Wakefield and 18 novels from my favourite literary period. To my surprise the majority of books I read were from the twentieth century, starting with Miles Franklin, My Brilliant Career in 1901 and ending with The Human Factor by Graham Greene in 1978.

Was it worth doing? Yes absolutely, I read some fabulous books and found some authors that I want to discover further.

Will I do it again? I know there are some members of the Classics Club that are on their second cycle. I have 30 books already identified and it wouldn’t be too hard to find another 20.

But I’m not going to commit myself at this point. You all know I don’t like projects which involve reading from lists plus I have a few other projects i’d like to complete first. So I shall pause for this year at least.

Which were my favourite books? I’ll share my list of 10 favourites and (maybe) 10 disappointments with you soon but will just leave you with my top 3 selections for now.

The 3 Favourites

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola: My love affair with Zola continued with this novel from 1877. It’s set in Paris, tracing the miserable existence of a woman who tries to make something of her life but keeps getting pulled down by a lazy, drunkard husband. Simply superb.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West: A wonderful tale of a recently woman who decides, in her late 80s, to exert independence for the first time in her life.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: I read this on a flight from UK to USA and, for once, did not want the journey to come to an end. I was quite resentful when we landed and had to unbuckle before I had read the last few pages.

Would these be among your favourite “classic” reads? Are there any books you think I should add to my list if I decided to do a second round of the Classics Club? By the way if you’d like to join in with this project, just visit the blog site Classics Club via this link.

The Age Of Innocence By Edith Wharton: Masterful Exposé Of A Stifling Society

Cover ofThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I’m kicking myself for leaving The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton unread for so many years. This masterpiece of storytelling and characterisation has lingered on my “owned but unread” bookshelves for well over five years. I dug it out purely because it was the only book I own that fitted the brief for the 1920 book club hosted by Karen of KaggsysBookishRamblings and Simon of StuckInABook. 

Why haven’t I got around to reading this book earlier?

The answer is simple. My experience with another of Wharton’s much-praised novels, House of Mirth, coloured my judgement. I couldn’t get into that book at all, finding it rather uninspiring. I was afraid The Age of Innocence might be a repeat of that experience. 

How wrong could I be? 

The Age of Innocence is a tremendous study about a society that is completely bound up with rules and codes of behaviour.

Today we think of New York as a city of ceaseless energy, a melting pot of cultures, ideas and backgrounds. But in the 1870s it was a city where the ‘establishment’ of rich and powerful, live in a structured world of complex values and unwritten codes. These people reject anyone – and anything – who dares to change the status quo.

Wear the wrong dress to the opera. Dine at any time other than 7pm. Get married too soon after the engagement and before the requisite number of visits to “the Family.” Blatantly engage in extra-marital affairs. All such transgressions of the accepted order can result in the offending party being ostracised.

Edith Wharton examines this society and its constraining effects through the character of Newland Archer, a cultured young man who is a bit of a catch in the marriage stakes. He likes to think of himself as a non-conformist “distinctly the superior of these chosen specimens of old New York”. Yet he lives very much governed by the codes of his class.

A]n unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English-speaking audiences. This seemed as natural to Newland Archer as all the other conventions on which his life was molded: such as the duty of using two silver-backed brushes with his monogram in blue enamel to part his hair, and of never appearing in society without a flower (preferably a gardenia) in his buttonhole.

The plot of the novel revolves around this tension in his life.

When the novel opens he is about to be engaged to May Welland, an acknowledged beauty from an esteemed family. He envisages she will fully blossom under his guiding hand. Though he loves her grace, her horsemanship and skills at games, his intent is to coach her to a greater appreciation of literature and art. Together he plans, they will travel and be unconventional.

But frustrated by May’s lack of independent action, her refusal to speed up the betrothal time or to elope with him, he comes to view her as “a terrifying product of the social system he belonged to.”

His eyes are opened wider by the arrival into his life of a distinctly unconventional woman, Countess Ellen Olenska. As a young girl she had been educated in Europe. Instead of the ‘proper’ lessons of needlework and etiquette, she had learned life drawing with nude models. She married a fabulously wealthy count Olenska, but when he turned out to be a bore, she left him.

The Countess has now returned to New York City., cutting a glamorous though controversial sway through its stuffy circles. Much tut tutting ensues because she chooses to live in a bohemian neighbourhood alongside artists and writers, goes to parties hosted by women deemed “common” women and – horror of horror – scatters flowers around instead of arranging them neatly in vases.

Newland falls in love with her and her spirit of independence. The feeling is reciprocated. But there’s a problem – she is still married and he is engaged to another woman.

The Age of Innocence follows the course of this love triangle. Will true love prevail or are Ellen/Newland destined to be forever apart? I’m not going to tell you because it will spoil your enjoyment of reading this novel and especially the haunting final chapter.

Newland Archer is an expertly rendered character. He feels utterly trapped, driven to “inarticulate despair” by a marriage (he does go through with the wedding) to a woman he finds boring and a life he has accepted out of “habit and honour.”

In one key scene, he is at home with his wife. As he regards May he is dismayed to recognise she is “ripening into a copy of her mother”, becoming a woman who would “never, in the all the years that lay ahead, surprise him with an unexpected mood, a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.” In despair he throws open the window.

After he had leaned out into the darkness for a few minutes he heard her say: “Newland! Do shut the window. You’ll catch your death.
He pulled the sash down and turned back. “Catch my death!” he echoed; and he felt like adding. “But I’ve caught it already – I am dead. I’ve been dead for months and months.”

If May represents death and constraint, the Countess is life. She holds out the promise of a relationship filled with passion, drama and a world of possibilities. But where Newland seems ready to reject everything he believes America stands for, Ellen sees there is much in American culture that is worth keeping. She values its fairness, honesty, integrity, and a respect for others.

These two women are frequently shown as opposites. In the first scene for example which takes place at the opera house, May is corseted in virginal white with a “modest tulle tucker” to disguise her breasts. Ellen shocks the patrons by arriving in a revealing Empire style dress which draws attention to her bosom. Innocence versus experience clearly in this setting but I think this is rather too simplistic an interpretation of May. Throughout the novel she shows her self to be an artful player, cleverly manipulating her husband and his lover yet never showing her hand.

I loved the way Edith Wharton shows the conflict between his desire for a new way of life, and the reality. Wharton makes him a figure of ridicule, a daydreamer who is seldom able to realise his dreams. He talks passionately about breaking away from convention yet when the opportunity arises for him to revel, he bottles out.

The Countess provides the colour and energy of the novel. a woman for whom we are meant to feel empathy. Like Newland Archer she is caught in a trap between her desire for independence from a loveless marriage and the pressure of her family to avoid the social stigma of a divorce. It’s a powerful illustration of Wharton’s key themes of entrapment and the lifeless nature of a society that was ignorant its reign was coming to an end.

The Age of Innocence was a glorious book to read. What a fantastic way to bring my ClassicsClub project to an end!. This experience with Wharton’s novel has encouraged me to have another go at The House of Mirth. I fear I may have misjudged it.

Homage To An Irish Childhood: Never No More by Maura Laverty

Never No More is a delightful tale that evokes the generosity of spirit at the heart of a small rural Irish community in the 1920s.

Maura Laverty spent her childhood in the vast peatlands known as the Bog of Allen in County Kildare. Through her fictional alter ego, Delia Scully, Laverty vividly recreates the natural beauty of this region, its colourful characters and the traditions that provide a rhythm to their lives.

Delia is nine years old when her recently widowed mother decides to move her large family to Kilkenny where she will open a new drapery business. Delia hates the idea but fortunately her beloved Grandmother, Mrs Lacy, comes to rescue – Delia can live with her in Derrymore House, Ballyderrig.

Gran sees potential in the girl where her mother sees nothing more than a dreamer. In the gentle nurturing bosom of the older woman. Delia flourishes, becoming a trusted helpmate in the kitchen, an aide in Gran’s many errands of mercy to her neighbours and skilful with her needle.

The one blot in this idyllic world is that Delia can’t make the progress she needs to fulfil her grandmother’s wish for her to become a teacher. The girl delights in reading poetry but cannot get on with French and maths. She also struggles with what she views as the petty rules and regulations in her convent school.

Never No More doesn’t have a plot as such, beyond tracing Delia through the years as she navigates the typical milestones in any young girl’s life. Her first days at school, the onset of puberty, the first dance, the first kiss are all made easier to manage when there is Gran to provide sound advice and the occasional shoulder upon which to cry.

The relationship between the young girl and the mature woman is the outstanding feature of this book. Mrs Lacy is loved and respected by everyone in her community, generous with her time, her knowledge and her food. A committed Catholic, she has no evident vices beyond the occasional tendency towards impatience.

She’s the person you want at your side if you’re a mother in labour or a young bride. When your home burns down and you’re left with not even a stick of furniture, it’s Mrs Lacy who offers you shelter and a home for however long you need it.

To the young Delia. she is much more than a substitute mother:

Did you ever know just how much you meant to me Gran? That to me you stood for understanding and sympathy and wisdom and for all the warm uncritical loving I needed? you were the purple bog and a ripe wheat-field and a crab-tree in May. You were good food, and songs in the firelight and the rosary at night. You were a welcome for my coming in and a prayer for my going out.

The love Delia feels towards this woman is equalled by the love she feels for the countryside around Ballyderrig:

The bog was never so beautiful as in May, when we cut the turf. A white road stretching straight and true as a taut ribbon ran gladly through that gentle spread of lovely colour. For a little distance, the full beauty of the bog was screened by the hedges that bordered the road – hedges of foaming May blossom and twisted mountain ash and swaying bog-willow. Later, the wild convolvulus would join each bush and tree with wildly-flung vines dripping with purple and white bells, and the honeysuckle and sweet briar would do their most fragrant best to kill your memories of the scent of departed hawthorn.

When the novel was published in 1942, people in that part of Ireland were apparently unhappy about the way they had been portrayed. I didn’t feel Maura Laverty was being unfair towards these individuals however. For sure there is a lot of humour involved in her anecdotes about the turf cutters, farmers and tinkers who make up the community. But she never makes them seem ridiculous. Nor does she sentimentalise this way of life; never shying away from the fact that people are poor and women die young in childbirth.

Never No More doesn’t just delight with description and anecdote, it also tantalises the taste buds.

The whole novel is punctuated by episodes in which Gran gets to work in the kitchen. Laverty can’t resist going into detailed description of each dish and exactly how its made. Some are more appealing than others!

“Buttery pancakes speckled with sultanas” I can relate to but I think I’ll pass on the stuffed eels and pigs brains “parboiled and coated in batter and fried”

Unsavoury dishes aside however, Never No More is an enjoyable read, a warm and heart-felt homage to a way of life I suspect exists only in fragments.

Never No More by Maura Laverty: Endnotes

Maura Laverty

Never No More: The Story Of A Lost Village is the debut novel by the Irish born Maura Laverty.

Published in 1942, it proved popular around the world. She followed it with another semi-autobiographical novel featuring Delia Sculle: No More than Human.

Though she wrote several novels, short story collections and two cookery books, she was better known for her work as scriptwriter for an Irish soap opera called Tolka Row that was broadcast on the RTE television station for four years in the 1960s.

Classics Club Spin Lands On A Virago Modern Classic

When I put my list together for the latest Classics Club Spin I was hoping it would land on Anthony Trollope or The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. But it was not to be.

Spin #22 landed on the number 13 which means I am to read Never No More: The Story Of A Lost Village by the Irish born broadcaster, scriptwriter and cookery book writer Maura Laverty.

Never No More by Maura Laverty

Published in 1942, it proved popular around the world, though not in Ireland. In fact the novel created huge controversy in her home town of Rathangan, Co. Kildare, where some residents were upset by descriptions of people they believed to be their relatives.

The novel was re-issued as a Virago Modern Classic in the early 1980s. This is the edition that I found in a second hand bookshop in Cardiff .

Never No More was Maura Laverty’s first novel and was based on her own experience of growing up in early-20th-century rural Ireland and her subsequent life in Spain.

The synopsis reads:

When Delia’s family moves away, Delia goes to live with her grandmother in a farmhouse in the Irish countryside. Here, she experiences the happiest years of her life as she watches the seasons come and go until, one November day, she stands poised for independence – and Spain.

Laverty followed Never No More with another semi-autobiographical novel featuring Delia Sculley, No More than Human. It apparently offended the censor because of its frankness about the female body. The subject matter and the local reaction to her novel reminds me of another Irish author, Edna O’ Brien’s The Country Girls which sent shock waves through rural Ireland when it was published in 1960. If Never No More is only half as good as The Country Girls it will be a delight to read.

There’s an interesting article about Maura Laverty in the Irish Times, which indicates that she was better known for her work on an Irish soap opera called Tolka Row that was broadcast on the RTE television station for four years in the 1960s.

Classics club Spin #22

Classics club spin

The Classics Club Spin is making another appearance and I’m using this to give me a nudge towards finishing this project.

I have only 3 books left to read towards the target of 50. Which sounds as if I’ve done a great job with this challenge but in reality I am way behind. The intention was to read 50 classics in 5 years, a timescale that went completely out of the window for me. No member of the Classics Club police force came knocking on my door however so I suppose my crime wasn’t that heinous.

Nevertheless I’d like to finish this soon. Then I can start again but with a new list…

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 Sunday 22nd December  the Classics Club will announce a number. This is the book I will need to read by 31st January.

When I put my original list together I included more than 50 titles to give me flexibility in case I didn’t like some of my chosen titles. Even so I don’t have 20 titles left unread so 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. Frost in May Antonia White 1933
  10. Old Soldiers Never Die Frank Richards 1933
  11. Turf or Stone  — Margiad Evans 1934
  12. The Grapes of Wrath   John Steinbeck 1939
  13. Never No More Maura Laverty 1942
  14. The Quiet American  — Graham Greene 1955
  15. Alone in Berlin Hans Fallada 1947
  16. To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf 1927
  17. No Name Wilkie Collins 1862
  18. The Lifted Veil — George Eliot 1859
  19. The Fall – Albert Camus 1953
  20. Anna of The Five Towns – Arnold Bennett 1902

I’m rather hoping for The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope or 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.’

Keep your fingers crossed for me ..

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