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January

Review posted on January 2 - Moment of Freedom (Jens Bjørneboe) 10/10

Review posted on January 13 - Powderhouse (Jens Bjørneboe) 10/10

Review posted on January 22 - The Silence (Jens Bjørneboe) 9/10

Review posted on January 24 - Piranesi (Susanna Clarke) 7/10

Review posted on January 28 - The Immoralist (André Gide) 7/10

Review posted on January 30 - Miss Lonelyhearts (Nathanael West) 6/10

 

February

Review posted on February 4 - The Master of Go (Yusanari Kawabata) 7/10

Review posted on February 8 - Astragal (Albertine Sarrazin) 8/10

Review posted on February 13 - Siddhartha (Hermann Hesse) 8/10

Review posted on February 24 - Serotonin (Michel Houellebecq) 8/10

 

March

Review posted on March 3 - The Tartar Steppe (Dino Buzzati) 7/10

Review posted on March 5 - Incest (Christine Angot) 7/10

Review posted on March 18 - Berlin Alexanderplatz (Alfred Döblin) 7/10

Review posted on March 23 - Zazie in the Metro (Raymond Queneau) 7/10

Review posted on March 25 - The Tunnel (Ernesto Sábato) 9/10

 

April

Review posted on April 1 -Against Nature (À Rebours) (Joris-Karl Huysmans) 8/10

Review posted on April 5 - Therese Raquin (Emile Zola) 8/10

Review posted on April 7 - The Collector (John Fowles) 10/10

Review posted on April 17 - Once Upon a River ( Diane Setterfield) 6/10

Review posted on April 21 - The Confusions of Young Torless (Robert Musil) 8/10

Review posted on April 22 - The Blind Owl (Sadegh Hedayat) 4/10

Review posted on April 26 - Boredom (Alberto Moravia) 10/10

Review posted on April 28 - The Iliac Crest (Cristina Rivera Garza) 7/10

 

May

Review posted on May 2 - The Birds (Tarjei Vesaas) 8/10

Review posted on May 6 - Stoner (John Williams) 9/10

Review posted on May 12 - Hangover Square (Patrick Hamilton) 8/10

Review posted on May 16 - Blindness (Jose Saramago) 7/10

Review posted on May 18 - Demian (Hermann Hesse) 6/10

Review posted on May 21 - Contempt (Alberto Moravia) 9/10

Review posted on May 25 - Embers (Sandor Marai) 7/10

Review posted on May 31 - The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) 7/10

 

June

Review posted on June 8 - The Conformist (Alberto Moravia) 8/10

Review posted on June 18 - The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera) 8/10

Review posted on June 26 - The Ginger Man (J. P. Donleavy) 7/10

 

 

Start the new year with a BANG!!

 

Moment of Freedom (1966) Jens Bjørneboe

 

The bleakest, most depressing indictment of humanity I have ever read. And possibly one of the most powerful and brilliant books.

Where to begin with this? Well, it's part of a trilogy called 'The History of Bestiality' which includes Moment of Freedom, Powderhouse, and The Silence.' The books opens with a narrator who does not apparently know his name but works as a servant of justice. One day, he notices the judge is distracted, looking at something on his desk, and the narrator acquires the photographs in question and discovers they are of the town's most prominent members (including the judge) engaging in sexual acts with children and animals. Thus begins a journey through the depravity of the human race which takes in several cities and stories which detail (quite convincingly) the abhorrent nature of man. The narrator ponders on the children killed by the 2nd World war, the many prostitutes and pimps of the European cities, the devices of torture we invented and used without concern in the passing centuries, his ex Nazi friend whose only lament is that their great leader did not succeed, a destitute kitten, starving and ill-treated, roaming the streets, the small boy whose mysterious stomach illness is solved only when it is discovered that the barber he works for has been buggering him.

It truly is a vile and disgusting civilisation we have concocted. And the narrator (or Bjoernboe) points out that as much as we might like to believe this is a thing of the past, we are kidding ourselves. It manifests in new ways, takes root without fuss or notice, and spreads too quickly to be adequately dealt with. He too, is complicit and, with total apathy, tells us of a time in Italy when he had sex with a young prostitute while her five-year-old daughter (or sister) sits and watches.

Then the book concludes with Bjoerboe telling us about a new aspect of humanity which troubles him, something he clearly brings up because he believes this may be more than a mere passing fad. In fact, it may be a new means by which the rancid diseased human can express his bilious soul. He tells us of a series of young men who, apparently mild and quiet individuals, one day acquire a gun and begin indiscriminately killing people in the street. As though he knows (even in 1966) that this is the next logical step for humanity to most effectively demonstrate its evil nature.

Seriously, this book blew my mind. Sadly, the only copies I can get are by Norvik Press which aren't the worst but aren't the best either. This trilogy deserves something better. It is an absolute masterpiece of horrific nihilism.

 

10/10

 

Edited by Hux

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Powderhouse (1969) Jens Bjørneboe

 

Powderhouse (part 2 of Jens Bjørneboe's History of Bestiality trilogy) is possibly even better than part 1 (Moment of Freedom). It deals with the same bleak worldview but while Moment of Freedom felt like a collection memories and opinions with no real narrative framework, Powderhouse was far more coherent and self-contained. The narrator is now working in an asylum for the criminally insane in France as an odd-job man and, as a result, the book has a more conventional narrative which allows for other characters and themes to be brought together in a way that was lacking in Moment of Freedom. This book felt like a book, but still provided Bjørneboe an opportunity to explore his ideas regarding the evil inherent to humanity.

One of the plot points is that the chief physician encourages lectures as a kind of therapy. This allows for the narrator to give a lecture about the history of witchcraft and the various inhuman methods with which society dispatched of the accused. This is then followed by a lecture from one of the doctors about the history of executions and the executioners themselves, a portion of the book that was thoroughly gripping in its macabre detail. The fact that execution was often a family business, the various methods used, and the countless downsides to each individual technique. How long it takes to die, what is considered humane, and the incident where a doctor twice shouted the name of a guillotined man at his severed head and the eyes looked at him.

The book had a strange, almost post-apocalyptic feel to it, as it all takes place of the grounds of the asylum and the narrator often sits outside his home on those grounds drinking wine, giving milk to a hedgehog, or having sex with the young nurse Christine.

I would be more inclined to recommend this book to people than Moment of Freedom as it has a more digestible narrative but still affords Bjørneboe an opportunity to examine how deeply unpleasant the world is.

 

10/10

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The Silence (1973) Jens Bjørneboe

 

"The court sat, the charges were read, the witnesses heard, the evidence presented; humanity was found guilty."

Part Three of the trilogy focuses on colonialism and the global exportation of evil. The narrator is now in an unknown north African country and spends his days throwing bread at hungry children and refusing the advances of child prostitutes. His alcoholism has intensified, and he has occasional discussions with Columbus, with God, with Robespierre. He is accumulating all the evidence required to confirm that humanity is a slew of excrement. And yet, there is a lingering sense of hope, one to be found in the spiritual element. Bjørneboe clearly feels that, whether capitalist or communist, the move away from a spiritual understanding of ourselves is a terrible mistake. Before we can know where we're going, we must know who we are. And that is only achieved through spiritual salvation. His attacks on colonialism are unoriginal and somewhat simplified (as much of the world now approves of) but he's using this merely as a platform from which to reach his ultimate conclusion so it's forgivable.

Like the other two books, especially Powderhouse, there are sprawling narratives about history which are presented as stories. The chapters about Cortes and Pizarro for example are coloured with a sweeping canvas which must be taken as part of the whole story of human history. These stories are sporadically told between conversations with his friend Ali, the hungry children begging for food, the American oil man who wants to atone for his countries sickness. And they slot neatly into the narrative as reminders of our crimes but also as occasional reminders of our capacity for beauty too. The story about Satan living as a human only to conclude that the earth is too awful and that he'd rather go back to hell being one I particularly enjoyed.

These three books were bleak, dark, significant works, and unrelenting in their pessimistic view of the human species. Yet a glimmer of hope remains as Bjørneboe concludes that despite the guilty verdict there is one voice we have yet to hear from: that of the defense.

 

9/10

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Piranesi (2020) Susanna Clarke

 

Like a lot of contemporary novels this was immensely easy to read. I probably could have read the whole thing in one sitting. It's a simply told, easy to digest, magical story which has short chapters and an uncomplicated narrative. But as fun as it was to read, there isn't much more to it. One of my big complaints of contemporary literature is that people often mistake 'easy to read' for literature of significance.' But this isn't the latter. Add to that the fact that it contains an (seemingly) other worldly quality which, to some, might seem unique and profound by virtue of its strangeness, you inevitably end up with a series of rave reviews from critics and public alike.

It is wonderfully easy to read. But that does not make it a great book. Similarly, I have read books which I did not enjoy reading but which resonated with me. This is why I generally avoid contemporary fiction.

The story is a straight-forward mystery of a man living in a strange mansion with never-ending vestibules and rooms and corridors. There are statues everywhere, clouds in the upstairs rooms, waves running through some of the downstairs rooms. Piranesi is living here with little memory of anything but this existence, his only other friend being a man he calls 'The Other,' someone he meets on Tuesdays and Fridays. It's an interesting idea and one that keeps you engaged.

But again, as much as I enjoyed reading the book, I neve felt there was anything more significant going on. I suspect I will forget most of it within a few days.

 

7/10

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The Immoralist (1902) André Gide

 

This is a short novella about an academic who agrees to an arrange marriage, who then takes ill resulting in the couple travelling to North Africa where he recuperates. They return to France and their country estate, before moving to Paris. Then his wife takes ill (with what appears to be the same illness) and they travel some more to Switzerland, Italy, and then finally, North Africa once more.

Throughout these travels the protagonist (Michel) begins to question his conventional life and the norms he accepts and lives by. The book is VERY subtle about revealing certain things (published in 1902 after all) but essentially it has Michel telling us that he is attracted to young boys. There's never any overt details or experiences but he drops hints here and there and regularly mentions how attractive certain young men are (though this is expressed in a very vanilla, almost innocent manner). None the less, something is stirring within him as he develops a new philosophy on life which involves a possible rejection of the accepted social conventions (this assisted by a louche character named Ménalque who rejects morality and embraces privilege). All the while, however, Michel is determined to care for his ailing wife.

It's wonderfully written and very brisk in its design. Ironically for a book exploring a rejection of the moral norms, the book never dares go too far in giving us any specifics (with the exception of the socially accepted sex with prostitutes). But the message is ultimately clear. Plus, if you know anything about Gide, it doesn't take a lot to read between the lines.

 

7/10

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Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) Nathanael West

 

Miss Lonelyhearts (as he known throughout the book) is an agony aunt for a newspaper. He receives heart-breaking letters from various people about genuine suffering but can only offer them repeated platitudes and clichés until it begins to torment him. His boss (Shrike) is an unpleasant man who ignores his own wife's infidelities, even encourages them, while his girlfriend doesn't seem to know how to connect with him. The protagonist has a Christ complex, further exacerbated by his job and experiences, which results in a slow detachment from himself and his life.

The book (novella) was immensely easy to read. Chapters are short and to the point. I would say most people will enjoy some aspect of this book. But there's a very American feel to it, both the dialogue and prose, which often feel like a bad film noir script. To a Brit, a lot of this came across as slightly ludicrous and devoid of irony. I found a lot of it jarring.

Definitely worth a read though.

 

6/10

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The Master of Go (1951) Yasunari Kawabata

 

A fascinating commentary on a game of Go over the course of several months. The reporter for a newspaper follows the two competitors (the elderly Master playing his last game and his younger opponent Otaké) as they go from city to city, playing a game that takes six months to complete. Chapters detail the intricacies of each important move, telling us how they affect the game and place one particular player or the other in the ascendency. There are diagrams throughout the book showing the progress of each new move (they meant nothing to me) but knowledge of Go is not required to have a general grasp of what's going on.

Aside form the actual game, the book focuses on the two players (both based on real people), the master being a man in his sixties with a heart problem and no children, the younger opponent being a married man with a newborn baby who has his own health issues (mostly stomach and digestive issues). The book opens by telling us of the master's death a few years after the game, a detail which is of no great significance when it comes to the actual story. We are even informed that the master loses (because that too is not actually important).

This book is about old and new, the past and the future. One generation being displaced by another. There's also an obvious connection to the war and the Japan that entered it versus the one that came out on the other side. But mostly, for me at least, it is about traditions and the innate desire each new generation has (often wrongly) to destroy them. There is something romantic about the master, something moving about what he represents to the reporter.

Or, as he says himself: 'and yet the retreating figure of the Master somehow brought tears to my eyes. I was profoundly moved, for reasons I do no myself understand. In that figure walking absently from the game there was the still sadness of another world.'

 

7/10

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Astragal (1965) Albertine Sarrazin

 

Anne limps into the road with her broken leg after having escaped prison and meets another career criminal named Julien. He takes her in, first with friends, then with a woman called Annie and her young daughter. Anne then spends some time in hospital dealing with her broken foot (risking being send back to prison). After Julien goes to prison himself she begins working as a prostitute. She is waiting for Julien, waiting for happiness.

Throughout the book she has to deal with the pain of her leg and the ongoing issues it presents her. This is where the title comes from. Astragal being the French for the talus bone.

If you like stream of consciousness, you'll probably like this. I tend to have an up and down relationship with that kind of writing but the prose here is great. The chapters skip along at a pace while you hang on every word. She has the ability to make her thoughts seem urgent and alive but it never becomes vague and obscure. One of the issue I have with stream of consciousness is that it can often seem like you're eavesdropping on a private conversation, one which leaves you with no context. Sarrazin avoids that and allows her lyrical language to maintain a strangely matter-of-fact approach which never becomes too ethereal or whimsical. It is utterly engrossing.

The book is a roman-a-clef, a story which is essentially Sarrazin's own life. The more you learn about this women, the more tragic she becomes. The fact that she had such an awful life and only began to achieve recognition for her writing just as it was prematurely ended adds to the sadness.

 

8/10

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Siddhartha (1922) Hermann Hesse

 

A rather simplistic and somewhat prosaic novella that plods along nicely without ever really reaching any great heights. It's all very matter-of-fact, mundane, obvious, straight-forward, uninspiring. Ultimately, I would describe the narrative (and the prose) as enormously dry and artless.

But then comes the ending. The simplicity of the book suddenly becomes beautiful and profound. Knowledge can be communicated, but wisdom cannot. Siddhartha has found enlightenment through the means of accepting that it cannot be taught. He respects the Buddha, finds his outlook sincere and pure, but does not believe (as his friend Govinda does) that he can be taught because words and thoughts never truly become things. Like the river, like the rock.

To me, this is a book that requires you reach the end to fully experience (and appreciate) the words that led you there. All the dry, meandering story telling that precedes it comes into its own light and beauty when Siddhartha And Govinda meet one last time as old men. It all comes together. And the mundane becomes poetry, wisdom, insight.

I recommend listening to Nick Drake's 'Riverman' (inspired by the book) when you finish.

 

8/10

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Serotonin (2019) Michel Houellebecq

 

Another superb examination of the West's decline.

The narrator is a 46-year-old man named Florent-Claude who is experiencing depression and, after discovering his Japanese girlfriend is a pervert, chooses to walk away from his life and disappear entirely. He quits his job, leaves his rented apartment, and has no family so it's easily done, before living in various hotels (always looking for ones that allow smoking), whilst being prescribed antidepressants by his doctor. He then takes us on a journey of his past, specifically his past relationships and loves (Camille being the one that got away) and does his best to stave off feelings of failure and regret which come attached to a growing sense of futility and suicide. This is the trade-off of being on antidepressants. He no longer has a sex drive. He no longer has a life.

He then spends some time with an old friend, a farmer, whose wife has taken their kids and left him. While there, he witnesses a protest which his friend is instrumental in organising but there's always a sense that he has thrown himself into this protest as a consequence of his deteriorating mental state, which leads to a disastrous outcome. This might be viewed as another way of Houellebecq exploring how we distract ourselves from our real problems by manufacturing alternatives. It's during this period that Florent almost loses touch with reality. His apathy (most easily observed in his encounter with a paedophile who he doesn't judge or contact the police about) is also a symbol of the drug (and the culture we've created around it) but also of the West's decline in general. To Houellebecq French and German civilisation are the peak of that civilisation. And this is where they are now.

This was such a fantastic book. I would say it's almost as good as Atomised and Houellebecq is always at his best when he's looking at the decline of the European identity. I sometimes feel like he wants to criticise certain things more specifically but reigns himself in by focusing on the bigger picture. As always, there's plenty of laughs along the way, much needed as you descend into the realm of hopelessness.

 

8/10

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Posted (edited)

The Tartar Steppe (1938) Dino Buzzati

 

A young soldier (Drogo) rides towards a remote fort in a desert where he is to be stationed. There, by the Tartar Steppe, the soldiers are tasked with watching for any potential movements of the mysterious northern army. Once there, he wants to leave but agrees to do his four month stint. Various circumstances dictate that he ultimately stays for two years. He makes friends, he rises up the ranks, he does his duty. Occasionally, there's excitement at the prospect that the northern armies might be mobilising. But it usually turns out to be an illusion. He is young, he has the best days of his life ahead of him.

A further four years go by. Drogo has been promoted, he continues to do his duty. One day, a soldier sees movement among the desert and the potential for glory appears to be on the same horizon. But again, it's a false alarm. And Drogo and his comrades go back to their marching, their routine, their daily activities. He is still young, he still has the best days of his life ahead of him. Fifteen more years go by. Drogo is now second in command. He is a middle aged man, watching new, younger men, arrive to do their duty. He has never married, has no children, has accomplished little in his career, but he continues to hope, continues to believe that his life has meaning. But he is no longer young.

Drogo is now in his late-fifties, closing in on retirement. He is struck by an illness and becomes withered and guant. Just then, the Northern armies do indeed appear to be on the march towards the fort. But Simeoni (the leader) says that he is too ill to fight and so must return to the city to recuperate. Just as his purpose to life arrives, he is taken away in a carriage, has it snatched away, and dies pointlessly in an inn. The end.

The book is a curious (kafkaesque) look at the repetitive nature of existence, at the wasted years we throw away on working in jobs we hate, at the wasted youth we cannot hold onto, at the desperate search we have for a purpose, a meaning. To find something that will distract us from the ticking of the clock. But in truth, no matter what we do, we waste our lives. Because what purpose is there? Marriage? Children? Being a success? All things designated by others as symbols of a successful life. But what difference does it really make?

This was a truly fascinating book. It wasn't necessarily the most enjoyable read and the prose never fully gripped me. But the ideas explored, specifically the ambiguous (Buzzati never tells us how to feel) notion of a what a worthwhile life is, are enormously powerful.

 

7/10

Edited by Hux

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Posted (edited)

Incest (1999) Christine Angot

 

I keep telling people that I don't like stream of consciousness but whenever I read it, I seem to enjoy it a great deal. This is another example. The book is predominantly about a woman explaining the breakdown of a relationship with a woman, this relationship, in contrast to all her previous romantic relationships, being her first with a woman. Towards the end of the book she details the incestuous relationship she had with her father having met him for the first time at the age of sixteen (hence the title). This incestuous relationship lasts for two years then ends with a complete severing of ties. She then meets her father again at twenty-six (whilst married) and the relationship briefly begins again.

There was nothing especially salacious or shocking about the book and the only time it crossed that line was, incidentally, when it also lost a certain amount of credibility (when, still as a sixteen-year-old, she has a new thirty-year-old boyfriend and ends up going to the cinema with him and her father and giving them both a hand-job). That felt utterly unconvincing which is apt because the book itself, despite using the author's real name (and the names of other real people) is clearly fictional. This, I'm reliably informed, is called 'autofiction.' I'm not against writers making things up but when they deliberately blur the line and present things as true (especially when it's a sexual relationship with their father), it feels slightly false and performative. Dare I say it, it feels very middle-class (wanting a more interesting identity than the one you have). This is very common in the modern world but Angot's book was published in 1999 and was, by all accounts, a sensation in France.

The subject matter itself was never really all that gripping but I did find the style (that stream of consciousness rapid fire, short sentences style) very compelling. Perhaps because it made me read very quickly. I'm not sure. That's one of the reasons I'm suspicious of stream of consciousness writing, I'm always of the opinion that it's a sneaky way to make mediocre prose seem more vibrant than it actually is.

But hey ho... the bottom line is I enjoyed it.

 

7/10

Edited by Hux

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Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) Alfred Döblin

 

This is a heavyweight novel. One of those intimidating buggers which demands you invest more than merely your time. The style is experimental and sometimes difficult to follow, but worth it in the end. The novel begins with a third person narration but very quickly we discover that Döblin switches to first person when it suits him. You will hear the protagonists thoughts but there will be no marker telling you when the change has occurred which, at the beginning, was difficult to deal with. Gradually, however, I did find this technique actually quite enjoyable, producing an effect which adds to the overall flow of the narrative. Then we come to dialogue. Döblin doesn't use speech tags and, to make matter worse, doesn't break up dialogue by starting a new paragraph; instead, it's simply a wall of text where only the presence of apostrophes delineate between speakers. Again, this was hard to follow at the start but, similar to the narration, I actually found it very affective once I got into the novel. And I did get sucked in after a few chapters. After that, the whole thing flows really well and you find, rather intuitively, that you're correctly guessing who is speaking and when (Döblin spares us too many conversations involving more than two participants).

Style aside, the basic story is about Franz Biberkopf, a lowlife criminal who begins the novel being released from prison after 4 years for the murder of his girlfriend (the crime itself described by Biberkopf as 'some stupid stuff'). He intends to go straight but struggles to break the cycle of his social status. As the novels says: ' As long as he had money, he remained decent. But then he ran out of money.' Soon, Biberkopf gets involved with a criminal gang and one tragedy after another seems to befall him. It's one thing after another and frankly a rather bleak worldview (plus there's a certain political movement on the horizon in late '20s Germany which bubbles away in the background and only adds to the foreshadowing) That's the basic premise of the narrative and there are no real happy endings to be found here.

This is one of those novels, like so many of the '20s and '30s, which want to look at civilisation as a whole, delving into the underbelly of a particular city and examining some of its many inhabitants. Döblin occasionally drops us into the lives of people who aren't remotely involved in the main story, occasionally throws in some Greek myth, the bible, an old drinking song, whatever takes his fancy. There are stream of consciousness elements, sound effects, parables. Some of it works, some of it doesn't, but it's all in service of a wonderfully ambitious and interesting book (to me at least). I was genuinely enraptured by the writing at times, though it must said, I also struggled. But I'm one of those people who takes a certain perverse pleasure in being asked to put in some effort when it comes to my reading.

 

7/10

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Zazie in the Metro (1959) Raymond Queneau

 

A strange little book.

I chose to read this because it was on Le Monde's list of 100 books of the century (36). I knew absolutely nothing about it otherwise (apparently it was a huge hit on publication and produced an equally successful film the following year). It's a comedic novel and generally those don't appeal to me and it's written in a manner that must have been hard to translate (what is it = wotzit, etc). It wasn't terrible.

Zazie is being looked after by her uncle (unkoo), Gabriel, in Paris for three days and while there she wants to see the metro but due to a strike, never actually does. Her uncle shows her around Paris where they meet some quirky individuals and he explains to Zazie that he works nights as a security guard (in reality he performs in a gay club as a drag act). His performance is cleverly skipped over so we never know exactly what it entails though he insists it's an artform. Eventually -- due to Zazie's belief that he's a hormosessual -- he agrees to take her and the rest of their family to see the show.

The book reminded me a lot of 'A Confederacy of Dunces' in the sense that the characters are slightly bombastic and unrealistic. Zazie is probably the only exception, a foul-mouthed know-it-all with a burgeoning interest in sex (and hormossesuals in particular). It also reminded me of 'The Man Who Was Thursday' especially the character of Trouscaillon, who adds a surreal, almost disturbing role to proceedings which I genuinely found perplexing and creepy (especially his rapey encounter with Marceline). No explanation is given for this and just when you want one, the book suddenly descends into further surrealism with an astonishing ending which equally bewildered me. I'll have to think about it some more.

Easy to read. Well worth a look. Unique.

 

7/10

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The Tunnel (1948) Ernesto Sábato

it was amazi
The story of a man who becomes so obsessed with a woman that he murders her. That isn't a spoiler, it's literally on the first page. The narrator, Juan Pablo Castel, wants to tell us how it came about, how they met, how it ended, etc, and this is very much his perspective.

He is an artist who, at one of his exhibitions, notices a woman looking at one of his paintings. He then spends months fantasising about meeting her again, running through the various scenarios of how the encounter might unfold (he does this a lot). Then, as luck would have it, he sees her in the street outside a building and speaks to her so enthusiastically that it understandably intimidates her. That being said, she too seems to be drawn to him and, once he walks away, she chases after him. There follows a tawdry affair of passion, paranoia, and possessiveness. This only exacerbated when he discovers that she is already married to a doddering old blind man. And even further when he discovers that she spends a lot of her time at a coastal home with her husband's cousin, Hunter, this leading Castel to conclude that they too have some kind of romantic relationship. The whole book is an examination of jealousy, possessiveness, paranoia and passion. Castel comes across as deranged, as someone who can't let anything slide; he continually asks her questions, nitpicks every answer, runs through every possible scenario that might prove he is being deceived, humiliated, mocked by her. It's a rather brilliant portrayal of a man with low self-esteem who endlessly ruminates on life rather than living it. Some may take issue with the character and dismiss him as a bad guy but I found that Sábato was excellent at making you go from understanding his obsession to wondering why he was behaving so irrationally. Sábato gives you just enough to empathise with Castel's paranoia but not enough that you ever agree with it. It's a masterpiece of exploring a mind that won't switch off.

There is little in the way of an alternative perspective, namely that of the murdered woman, Maria. And while it would have been nice to know more about her, her background, her desires, and yes, her potential for being all the deceitful things Castel was worried she might be, it's also understandable that we don't get any of that. After all, this is a book exploring obsession. And so, Castel's perspective is the only one we need. It would be easy to criticise her lack of presence (not to mention the rather flimsy manner with which they meet and fall in love) but that would be missing the point. It is a story of possessive love and obsession. A thriller. A gripping and urgent look at the unhealthiest aspects of passion. It's Castel's story.
 
9/10

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Against Nature (Á Rebours) (1884) Joris-Karl Huysmans

 

I think this book might qualify as a modern novel, not in the writing style (which is very much of its time) but in the utter lack of a plot. There is only one character (Des Esseintes) and he essentially spends the entirety of the book detailing his likes and dislikes in regards to the more creative and decadent human fields. There are chapters where he discusses his favourite paintings, their meaning and impact on him, as well as chapters covering scents and fragrances, jewels and furniture, music and food, wine and sex, literature and travel. The book is understandably classed as being part of the decadence movement. And it feels like it, as though you're enjoying a sumptuous meal of the senses, an opulent and nourishing exploration of luxury and excess. He is very much a privileged member of society (more so than Huysmans) and this allows him to explore his tastes as he pleases.

Des Esseints is especially enamoured with he works of Baudelaire and Poe, delights in their writing. A lot of his praise can seem remote and out of context if you're not familiar with their work, but for the most part, you simply enjoy Des Esseintes' love for these writers. He also mentions the things he dislikes (women writers get a special mention) and laments, as many modern writers do, the era he is living though, his opinion being (as it is with contemporary writers) that we have lost something, moved into a new and less interesting period, certainly one which lacks greatness and wonder. The book ends with Des Esseintes concluding that the spiritual world of the past is gone, no longer lit by ancient hope.

The book also includes a rather famous part where Des Esseintes plans a trip to London and while eating a meal in an English restaurant in Paris as he waits for the train, he observes the English patrons, pictures the trip ahead, the streets of London, the museums, the sights and sounds, before concluding that there is no longer any need to go -- he has already experienced it in his imagination as vividly as he would in the flesh. At which point he returns home.

This is not a perfect novel by any stretch but it's very good, certainly unique, and the only book I can think of which includes a jewel encrusted turtle.

 

8/10

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Therese Raquin (1868) Emile Zola

 

Therese Raquin is married off to her aunt's son, Camille, an anemic hypochondriac endlessly spoiled by his doting mother. The marriage is thoroughly sexless and insipid. Camille's mother and Therese set up a shop in Paris while Camille gets a job at the rail company; there he meets an old friend, Laurent, an aspiring artists who paints Therese and pursues an affair with her. To continue their affair they must kill Camille and they drown him in the river (though he puts up a fight and bites Laurent on the neck).

Here begins their spiraling into madness, the paranoia, the guilt, the torment. Laurent begins to convince himself that Camille might not actually be dead while the scar on his neck, throbbing and pulsing, is a continual reminder of the crime they have committed. It is almost eating into his flesh. To make matters worse, Laurent and Therese don't even like each other very much yet persist in wanting to marry as a kind of justification for their actions. She was simply an unhappy woman while he merely wanted some sex. But in 1860s France, the moral code dictated that you couldn't simply have those things, couldn't get divorced and pursue casual encounters. And so this is the mess they find themselves in. But soon, they do marry and continue to live with Camille's mother who, after several strokes, becomes paralyzed. They argue in front of her, confess their crimes safe in the knowledge that she can do nothing about it. The guilt torments them, sends them both into insanity and plotting. Therese begs at the feet of her dead husband's silent mother. Laurent sees no way out.

Along with Crime & Punishment, this is one of the greatest literary explorations of guilt (and its capacity to torment individuals) I have ever read. These are two people who ostensibly just want to experience some pleasure and happiness but the chains of culture have stifled them into becoming self-hating monsters. Specifically Therese, a woman who, like her contemporaries, is doomed to experience the restrictions of social convention even more than men; which is presumably why the novel is named after her; she, more than anyone, is a victim of the age.

 

8/10

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I find it rather hard to understand why Zola is so little read in this country - or so it seems. For me, he's one of the 'greats'.

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Posted (edited)

The Collector (1963) John Fowles

 

Magnificent!

An anti-social (and sexually impotent) man named Frederick Clegg who has no friends and collects butterflies becomes obsessed with an attractive young 20-year-old art student named Miranda. He has fantasies about kidnapping her, making her fall in love with him. One day, he wins the pools and suddenly has the money to make his fantasies come to life. Step by step he finds himself buying a van, a house in the countryside where he can keep her, but all the while he doesn't really believe it will ever come to anything beyond meaningless fantasies. Then, as if on auto-pilot, he actually does it.

Miranda is kept in a basement where Fred takes care of her every need, buying her nice clothes, perfumes, her favourite food, whatever she wants. He provides her with records, books, and the materials she needs for her art (including a drawing pad). At first she is understandably belligerent, refusing to speak, refusing to eat. Then she adapts her technique to better her chances of escape, almost befriending him, wanting to get to know him. Finally, she succumbs to the inevitable and offers herself to him sexually, only to find that he is appalled by this. Nothing she does seems to get through to him.

The book reminded me a lot of The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato. But while that book only gives us the man's perspective, this one gives us both. Part one is narrated by Fred, we see things from his point of view, see Miranda as he does, a kind of precious item placed on a pedestal. But then, in part two, we are given access to the diary Miranda has been writing during her captivity, and we not only get her perspective but we suddenly get a human being, one that is complex and flawed; she is no longer just that beautiful creature he is obsessed with but a person, with thoughts, ideas, and loves of her own (including an older man she is seemingly in love with referred to as G.P throughout the novel). Fowles isn't even afraid of making her a little unlikeable, because, in truth, all fully formed human beings are. The point is, she is more than just the idealised fantasy that Fred wants her to be.

Given that this was published in 1963, I was amazed at how modern it feels. Fred is very much what we would call an incel today, low on confidence, self-pitying, while Miranda is opinionated, sure of herself, intellectually dominant. It was such a fantastic book to read, so easy to get lost in the stark prose, so nuanced in its portrayal of a madman and his victim who refuses to be a victim. And the ending has a sting.

 

10/10

Edited by Hux

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I read The Collector many years ago and remember loving it., one of those books that really draws you in. I seem to remember it had a rather oppressive atmosphere. I don't remember all the details of the story but I'm tempted to find it again and give it a re-read.

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1 hour ago, ~Andrea~ said:

I read The Collector many years ago and remember loving it., one of those books that really draws you in. I seem to remember it had a rather oppressive atmosphere. I don't remember all the details of the story but I'm tempted to find it again and give it a re-read.

 

It's very effective. I was most impressed with Miranda being given a chance to be more than just a victim.

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Once Upon a River (2018) Diane Setterfield

 

On a winter's evening in 1887, a man bursts into the Swan pub on the Thames with a dead girl in his arms. Half an hour later, the girl is alive again and several characters claim her. Robin Armstrong (more so his father, Robert) who believes she is his missing daughter, abandoned by his ex wife. The Vaughans who believe she is their kidnapped daughter returned to them. And Lily White, who claims to have a deceased sister. All of this is investigated by what I would describe as the protagonist, Rita Sunday, a nurse who knows all the players involved.

The book is very engaging, easy to read, and has a touch of magical realism to it. It's not the kind of thing I normally read and I wasn't entirely blown away. But I could see that it was a fun and entertaining yarn. If you enjoy plot driven books with a style to them that has an element of mystery (like those programmes on Sunday evening about a vicar solving crime (or some other amateur sleuth... there's a million of them) then you'll probably enjoy this. It's not my cup of tea but I found it mostly enjoyable as a read, though I did spend a lot of my time thinking... I could be reading something far more substantial instead of this. Along with the much better Piranesi, it's probably the only other contemporary novel I'll read this year as I'm becoming increasingly unmoved by them. It felt much like all the other contemporary novels I read (and it annoyed me how easily everyone began weeping... at one point, a character wept so much, their sleeve became damp... how?)

Anyway, like I said, if you like plot driven mysteries, you'll probably like this.

 

6/10

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On 17/04/2022 at 2:21 PM, Hux said:

It's not my cup of tea but I found it mostly enjoyable as a read

I actually found the writing more memorable than the plot of this one (although I did love it overall!). I thought it was very beautifully written, with the narrative cleverly weaving in the themes of the river and storytelling. Do you think that might be why you found it generally enjoyable, even though it's not the type of book you'd usually choose?

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16 hours ago, Hayley said:

I actually found the writing more memorable than the plot of this one (although I did love it overall!). I thought it was very beautifully written, with the narrative cleverly weaving in the themes of the river and storytelling. Do you think that might be why you found it generally enjoyable, even though it's not the type of book you'd usually choose?

 

The writing was clear and to the point. Books like this (not my cup of tea) usually live and die by how engaging the story is. I liked the Rita Sunday character and was intrigued by the dead child mystery (though didn't entirely enjoy the resolution). As I said in my review, it felt like one of those cosy Sunday evening dramas (I'm amazed ITV hasn't announced they're making it).

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