“She alone was left standing, amid the accumulated riches of her mansion, while a host of men lay stricken at her feet. Like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes…The fly that had come from the dungheap of the slums, carrying the ferment of social decay, had poisoned all these men simply by alighting on them. It was fitting and just. She had avenged the beggars and outcasts of her world. And while, as it were, her sex rose in a halo of glory and blazed down on her prostrate victims like a rising sun shining down on a field of carnage, she remained as unconscious of her actions as a splendid animal, ignorant of the havoc she had wreaked, and as good-natured as ever.”
La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)
Now there are only three to go. I’ll finish before September, so it will have been a four-year reading project – which seems nuts – but I have read a lot of other books too. I just keep coming back.
Nana is one of the best known of the series, and is one that I read first, years ago. No problem in repeating it, though, I remembered very little and the translation I read this time was superior and not as bowdlerized.
We first saw Nana in the amazing L’Assommoir – she was the laundress Gervaise’s beautiful, precocious, and trouble making daughter – who at the end of that novel was living on the streets and introduced to the life of a prostitute. Here she has continued down that path until she was the untalented but frighteningly sexy star of the theater – appearing practically naked in a production called La blonde Vénus, and creating a scandalous shockwave through Parisian society – one that nobody really recovers from.
Nana is a force of nature, a being of pure sexuality and no common sense that destroys everything and everyone that comes into contact with her.
With this subject matter it was going to be a racy book – but I was surprised at its frank sexuality. For example, I didn’t remember the plot thread of lesbianism that ran through the story from the first time I read it, years ago. This theme might have been edited out – or I might have simply missed it – probably a bit of both. There are a few scenes of raw sexuality – such as the passage where Nana spends time admiring her nude image in a full-length mirror while her lover waits in bed. Really heady stuff.
The book starts out slow – there are the numerous crowd scenes that Zola is known for – effectively written but a bit of a slog – so many French names – until you get to know the characters. An online character list was a big help. After a few chapters the pace picks up until, near the end, Nana is destroying another man in almost every other paragraph.
So, all in all, a rewarding read. I can see why it is near the top of the Zola canon – a little too flamboyant to be with the classics like L’Assommoir or Germinal – but still…
Now I’m excited… on to La Terre. Seventeen down – only three to go.
“Science gains from it [the pendulum] more than one can expect. With its huge dimensions, the apparatus presents qualities that one would try in vain to communicate by constructing it on a small [scale], no matter how carefully. Already the regularity of its motion promises the most conclusive results. One collects numbers that, compared with the predictions of theory, permit one to appreciate how far the true pendulum approximates or differs from the abstract system called ‘the simple pendulum’.” ― Jean Bernard Léon Foucault
Let me look back… it was October 1 of last year when my Difficult Reads Book Club began plowing through Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. One of the reasons we chose that book was because it was a bit shorter (a mere 642 pages) than the other’s we have tackled (Gravity’s Rainbow – 770 pages, The Brothers Karamazov – only 586) and we planned to be finished well before Christmas. There were some delays… COVID related, death in the family, which delayed the schedule and we didn’t get to the end until the New Year.
It was not an overly popular book and a good number (most) of my fellow readers dropped off before we reached the conclusion. I stuck it out, however… and am glad I did.
The book was not at all what I expected. I thought it would be a thinking-man’s Da Vinci Code – but it turned out to be more of a satire on the genre than a homage. Humberto Eco was asked about the popular book:
INTERVIEWER: Have you read The Da Vinci Code?
ECO: Yes, I am guilty of that too.
INTERVIEWER: That novel seems like a bizarre little offshoot of Foucault’s Pendulum.
ECO: The author, Dan Brown, is a character from Foucault’s Pendulum! I invented him. He shares my characters’ fascinations—the world conspiracy of Rosicrucians, Masons, and Jesuits. The role of the Knights Templar. The hermetic secret. The principle that everything is connected. I suspect Dan Brown might not even exist.
I like the idea that Dan Brown is a character from the book. It fits (except that Foucault’s Pendulum was written first).
So the book kept surprising me. I’ll admit I skimmed a lot of the center sections – they were a long, long list of various obscure (and not-so-obscure) semi-supernatural groups from history and explanations of the fictional connections between them. I understood the point right at the beginning, but there were hundreds of dense pages to make sure that point was driven home.
All through all of this, I could not imagine how it would all end. And it ended in a way I could never have imagined. There was a climactic scene of insanity and bizarre violence that answered no questions at all. It was fun. Then there was a final section of quiet nostalgic contemplation and an slight sense of almost closure – with plenty of mystery remaining.
It was a thought provoking book – I’m not sure if it was worth the effort – but I haven’t read anything remotely like it before (and doubt I ever will again).
So now we’re taking a break – I’m catching up with some of my other reading – and then we’ll decide on our next project. We are thinking about a selection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish novels (The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Dispossessed (1974) and one other) – which sounds good to me. I’ve read Left Hand when I was a kid but remember little about it.
“I love the smell of book ink in the morning.” ― Umberto Eco
It’s that time again, my Difficult Reading Book Club has started to tackle another tome.
It started with Gravity’s Rainbow. I saw this sign, a couple of years ago, at The Wild Detectives bookstore in Bishop Arts. We met there (a bit of a trip for me) every Wednesday evening for several months as we slogged through the difficult, but fantastic, book together.
I’m not sure how I think about the whole Zoom meeting thing for book club. I miss the one-on-one, of course. But it is such a long trip to the book store, and there is something interesting about the dynamic of talking to those little heads in boxes. I think everybody being at home, in a place they are comfortable, makes the conversation interesting. Still….
And now we’re doing another. Last night we had our kickoff meeting (no reading yet) for Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.
I’m stoked. I have never read Eco before – though I bought a copy of The Island of the Day Before and prepared to read it a couple decades ago – never started. There are some familiar faces in the Zoom and some new ones. Some of the folks are particularly interested in Kabbalah – and are reading it for that reason. We discussed conspiracy theories in the opening meeting (as an icebreaker everyone told their favorite conspiracy theory -mine was that Any Kaufman faked his own death).
We discussed challenging vocabulary and decided that each meeting each person is to bring a word they learned from that week’s assigned reading. We discussed reading translations vs. books written in English.
“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?” ― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
It started on May 5 and ended a week ago – I read all of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. The book is roughly a thousand pages long and I read it in conjunction with my Difficult Read Book Club. We used to meet every week at the Wild Detectives Book Store in Bishop Arts. Since Covid put the kebash on all of that we have met on Zoom for the last two books, Brothers Karamazov and 1Q84.
It’s really a great way to read a long/difficult book. There is a weekly goal of a certain number of pages so the herculean task is split into manageable chunks. There is a group of like minded folk to bounce questions off of and keep you interested. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.
Was the book good?
Yes, it was very good – I enjoyed it immensely. I is for everyone?
No. It is a very odd book, with an unusual structure. It is amazingly politically incorrect. It makes no sense in a lot of places. No spoilers, but the ending definitely does not tie up all the loose ends.
Here’s a guy that really didn’t like it:
He is looking for a conventional narrative (evidence for this are all the books on the shelf behind him). 1Q84, like I said, is not a conventional narrative. It exists in its own world.
Here’s one of the many, many folks that liked the novel:
I like his take – and I like the drink he made.
Our Difficult Reads Book Club will have a party soon at the Wild Detectives to celebrate in person reading 1Q84 and Brothers Karamazov – which we read earlier. At the party we will find out what our next book will be – it will be a shorter work so we can finish before Christmas. I’m excited, can’t wait.
“If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.” ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
In January through March of 2019 (that feels like a different age) I went every Wednesday after work clear across town to a bookstore called The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff. I had stumbled into a reading group there that tackled long, difficult books called The Difficult Reading Book Club. We finished our book, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, then had a celebration. For various reasons I skipped the next book (a set of three tomes by Virginia Woolf – though I wasn’t afraid – who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf) and then COVID hit.
For a year we didn’t do any reading, but finally momentum built and for a couple months we did a weekly Zoom meeting read of The Brother’s Karamazov. I actually liked not having to make the long trip after work and a reading group is particularly suited for remote computerized interaction.
And today we had our kickoff meeting for our latest difficult (and long) challenge – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been avoiding spoilers for the novel, but did learn some useful facts from this meeting.
“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
We finished our reading group (The Wild Detective’s DRBC [Difficult Reading Book Club]) attack on Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Seven hundred thirty six-odd, dense pages. This is definitely the way to devour an elephant like that: broken up into manageable chunks and each followed by a weekly Zoom meeting to discuss and clarify the confusion.
I actually sort-of read the book in college. It was assigned on, say, Thursday and I had to write a paper on the next Wednesday. That’s not enough time. Not surprisingly, I have no real memory other than a feeling of panic and dread. And the memory of relying too much on a little yellow pamphlet.
The Brothers Karamazov is often mentioned in short lists of the greatest novels of all time. That’s a bold statement, but one I can support.
First, it is a novel of ideas. Philosophical questions are presented and then played out across the stage of the plot. The plot is complex yet melodramatic. There are many things, a whole tangled skein of threads, going on at once. Reading it like this, especially in the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, is how much humor there is in the book. The characters are deep and complex, and the novel uses a lot of literary devices that are considered “modern” (unreliable narrators, stories within stories within stories, subtle shifting points of view, ambiguous ending, unknown first person plural narrator) which helps keep the dense text fresh.
It is the story of faith against rationality. There is no doubt on which side Dostoevsky sympathies lie – but he does not give his intellectual adversaries short thrift. He has the courage to give the other argument strong, even unassailable defenses and weapons. There is no straw man here. It makes for robust conflict and gives the reader incredible insight and the opportunities for hours of thought.
Faith and Doubt, Free Will (Dostoevsky acknowledges the existence of free will and understands that it is the key to salvation, but paints it not as a blessing, but as a curse – as a terrible burden that will flatten and destroy all but the strongest of men), and the need for moral simplicity and clarity are the battlefields that the novel is fought over… and the victor is very much in doubt.
“In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor
For the last month or so my Wild Detectives Difficult Reads Book Club (DRBC) has been digging through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was originally scheduled for the beginning of the year, with a weekly meeting at the book store – but was cancelled due to the quarantine. Finally, we started back up with Zoom meetings every Wednesday evening, instead of meeting in person. It actually works pretty well.
I made sure I could call into the Zoom meeting from my son’s apartment when I was on my New Orleans trip last week. He is working remotely and is something of a gamer – he had dedicated panel lights and an expensive headset with fancy microphone and the meeting worked really well from his place – I need to up my Zoom game from home now. In particular, everyone said my voice was very clear.
“You sound like a DJ, and you look like one too,” one woman said.
“Look like a DJ?” I replied, “Everyone has always said I have a face for radio.”
But before the meeting I had to get my weekly chunk of reading done (we are about a third of the way through). We had made it up to The Grand Inquisitor chapter (which sort of stands on its own) – the heart of the book and arguably is one of the most famous and influential works of literature ever written. It is also a dense and difficult read.
It was a beautiful day. I took my Kindle, walked down through the French Quarter and picked out a bench along the Mississippi to sit down and work my way through the (e-ink) pages.
The French Quarter is known for a lot of things – but it isn’t really known for a place to hang out and read Russian Literature (though a lot of literature has been written there). For me, however, it was perfect.
And I don’t care what you think… the bars are closed for Covid anyway.
Don’t like that man, Uncle Matt said as we left the Rectory. Never have and never will.
And I knew that. They had gone to high school together and there had been something about a girl, some last-minute prom-date type of situation that had not gone in Uncle Matt’s favor, and I think some shoving on a ball field, some name-calling, but all of this was years ago, during like say the Kennedy administration.
—-George Saunders, The Red Bow
Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas Cathey MIller, Cathedonia (click to enlarge)
As I’ve said before, I’m watching Youtube videos that contain fiction writing tips and such while I ride my spin bike for exercise. Some of my favorite clips are interviews with the writer, George Saunders.
I have written about and linked to George Saunders short stories several times already:
Today’s story is particularly dark, awful to contemplate, and appropriate to the disaster coursing around the world today. How do you respond to a tragedy? Do you respond with a sense of honoring the dead or with preventing it from happening again? Or both? How do you define mercy in uncertain times? Where do you stop? When does the cure become worse than the disease? How do you get through the day when you know it is going to get worse before it gets better? How sure are you that it will get better?
Mamzelle Aurlie certainly did not pretend or aspire to such subtle and far-reaching knowledge on the subject as Aunt Ruby possessed, who had “raised five an’ buried six” in her day. She was glad enough to learn a few little mother-tricks to serve the moment’s need.
—– Kate Chopin, Regret
Kids love the reflecting pool. The water is less than a quarter inch deep.
I, like a lot of people, read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in college. I liked it – and it left a lasting impression – though I obviously wasn’t paying much attention because I thought it took place in Europe – France to be exact. It wasn’t until decades and decades later I realized it was set in New Orleans and Belle Isle – places I have become very familiar with. I guess I wasn’t that far off – it’s sort of France.
At an rate, here’s today’s story – a tale of a very different place and an even more different time than we live in now. But the people are the same, after all.