Never have I found it more difficult to finish a lovelier book. My first attempt was derailed five years ago; the second was ultimately successful onlNever have I found it more difficult to finish a lovelier book. My first attempt was derailed five years ago; the second was ultimately successful only after a three-month hiatus. And this little volume carried so much weight by now, as a favourite of several people - exes, friends, the hard-to-label - from different times and places in my life ... all of which have something of the partially-lost domain about them.
I started reading it again in a sunny May garden surrounded by birdsong - the first time I'd had a garden to myself; it proved the perfect place and bestowed the magic for the book to take on its own life.
It's so delicately perfect that I hesitate to describe it and review it in my clumsy words. I was in the vicinity of the verge of tears for most of the story, yet not upset.
The descriptions of the seasons are some of the prettiest I can recall.
Most of this book is a beautiful bittersweet dream. Occasionally, it is like waking in a sweat and wondering, cursing, why the hell one did something. Though being characters in a highly romanticised novel, these people do take some of their actions to extremes.
Meaulnes contains elements of many - more recently written - books I've already read, yet it never palled. As Augustin and Francois glimpse an enchanting place, reading this felt like seeing a source of favourite stories and ideas....more
Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition, translated by Robert Baldick (no other translations tried. Also, quick Beavis & Butthead style sniggerPenguin Twentieth Century Classics edition, translated by Robert Baldick (no other translations tried. Also, quick Beavis & Butthead style snigger at the name.)
Five stars doesn’t mean I agree with every single word. (This book gets quite a few lower ratings from people who dislike it because they don’t think like the protagonist – intelligent people who don’t usually review that way.) It’s fascinating, though; the level of detail is beautiful. And the milieu helps a lot. I love hearing about mid twentieth-century France this way, but set the same stuff in contemporary Britain or America, with the same tone, and I wouldn’t be nearly so interested.
I can’t help thinking of Roquentin as simply being in a state of sensitivity, almost involuntary acute observation. What he sees, factually and physically is remarkably similar to wandering about a town walking on the air of mindfulness. Noticing. I am also reminded of the wired state of taking everything in that precedes information overload, or the frozen photograph-memory of trauma, or being in love or acutely missing someone when almost everything in the world can have a connection to them. The feelings attached to these states and to his existential nausea are each emphatically different, so unlike one another that imagined sequentially they would probably remind everyone of the whole-body physicality of emotion.
Roquentin is also in a phase of transition; the book takes place over a short period in which he realises he needs to set aside what he’s been doing and go somewhere else; his mind and body seem to be forcing the issue. (Those of you who’ve lived in the same house and been in the same job for ten years probably won’t know this so well but I recognised it – one of those times of wrestling with various ideas internally, eventually precipitating change. Only one or two friends at the time ever tend to hear about it. Other people just see the outward events.)
The actual nausea at existence is so beautifully described that it was intriguing. Especially because it was so often triggered in Roquentin (I keep wanting to write Roquefort because Roquefort cheese smells…) by things which I would most associate with mindfulness. This guy experiences this stuff and I couldn’t help but accept that in a mindful sort of way. (And be interested and pleased that this is labelled as philosophy, that art and literature provides room for different ways of labelling or not labelling experiences and states of mind.) Even if it is puzzling to me to experience horror at things which are mostly beautiful and curious in the randomness of their existence, rather than at, for example, various systems created by humans.
Apparently teenagers tend to identify wholesale with Nausea. I doubt I would have much. My main concerns, aside from being ill a lot, were looking forward to getting away from people I didn’t like, looking forward to finding people I did like and consuming culture which would help me connect with the latter. Although I spent a lot of time alone due to a mixture of strict parenting, tiredness and illness and not knowing many other kids I liked, my mindset was essentially social. Roquentin seems like one of those individuals I’ve usually envied who, socially, appear to need no one much but themselves. He does have feelings for Anny but his world hardly seems changed by them. (I have developed a very high tolerance for solitude but the amount of time I spend thinking about other people and conversations I have had, or might like to have, with some of them is high. Roquentin is almost entirely concerned with his immediate surroundings and with abstract ideas.)
There are moments which chime loudly: certain reflections on time – a few pages in he talks of what since being a small child I’d thought of as “the nothingyness of three o’clock”. And I’ve also experienced those flashes of disgust at appearance and perceptions of a person’s looks changing (but he doesn’t mention the concomitant flashes of beauty which I also experience).
Philosophically, the book became most alive for me during the conversation with the Autodidact on p.160-164. His ideas, disdained by Roquentin as Humanist are very close to my own. They incorporate some distant agape or Buddhist metta - though these days partly through bitter experience and partly through seeing the need for variety and humour and a place for both negative and positive, I’m not so preachy about them as I was, say, four years ago. He repeats other ideas from one of his books which I quite agree with. Finding something in which you can become immersed, process or Flow. Or, my usual shorthand if people will know what I’m talking about: squirrels.
First time I've ever posted an image in a review. Don't worry, I won't be making a habit of it. Ah, there is a sizing problem. CBA to fix it just now. Have a link: http://xkcd.com/167/
(Hares are the most inspiring animals I’ve ever seen though. Less than ten feet away, and so tame they were happy to stop and eat, and even looked right at me.)
Problems occur when things block the possibility of squirrels. Disability, chronic poverty, long-term caring responsibilities - worst when two or more of these occur together - being the ones I’ve seen most through work and life. There aren’t always answers. Sometimes there are just brick walls.
On that basis, it’s easy to say of Roquentin and his like “some people don’t know they’re born” . That too is dismissive, lacking in understanding of individual experience and frame of reference, and selectively prejudiced. About as useful as a British kid’s actual unwanted serving of Brussels sprouts is to a five year old in Ethiopia that same night. (But I agree that it’s easy to envy his situation. What I would do if I were him…!)
I thought the book was excellent already and then Sartre threw a curveball. What about when the best ideas belong to someone who would be almost universally considered repugnant? Do certain actions devalue everything about a person, seems to be the implication, or can we still like and approve of certain things about them? (This, which was very pertinent, left me longing for a particular conversation with a particular person whose opinion I desperately wanted … as per the above.)
All this and I haven’t even mentioned my very long history with this book. It started with the existentialist nanny (who sounds like a good story title). Actually, an Eng Lit student who was doing one module on Existentialism. She was lovely, one of the ones who stayed for a couple of years who I now look on as part of what glues me together. (There were thirty-odd of them…) She had these turquoise Penguin Twentieth Century Classics editions and so if I read Camus or Sartre or Kafka it must be in one of those. Whilst I was very interested in some of her books and read them later, these never really attracted me. And I had no idea they were commonly read by teenagers and students. (Any idea of that sort of reading came a few years later from Will Self’s Cult Book slot on the Mark Radcliffe show. If he did ever cover these writers I was away or I’d fallen asleep before I could press Record.) At university I didn’t meet anyone who was into them. It wasn’t until I was 27. (One of my more cynical friends criticised him for “behaving like a teenage goth” but he never quite lost his magic for me, even when one particular thing made me decide I’d had enough after quite a lot of subsequent years of friendship.) I asked him for a book on pessimism… he gave me The Book of Disquiet but I didn’t manage to read much: I couldn’t deal with the way it made even things which I’d quite liked look depressing. What I was actually looking for at that time was what’s inside Sartre’s Nausea. Can’t remember why I didn’t actually read it that year. I meant to. Then there was another transition and then I was busy. And then a while later I was living with someone. Another of these beautiful hurting near-geniuses who’d little in the way of post O/GCSE education. He used to borrow my “difficult” books and read them whilst stoned/ in comedown and commuting. Not long before things fell apart he borrowed Nausea and every time since when I tried to read it I’d be consumed by the idea that I was in his head at that time and I couldn’t get past three pages because I didn’t want to think about that. But this time I got past it, thanks to being in a lovely location. (Odd holiday reading, I know, but it works.) By the fourth or fifth page I was consumed in the story itself and my own responses to it. I briefly recalled that he had said meditation was pointless. And it helped that he’d abandoned Nausea about page 80 (going on to read the entirety of Infinite Jest in about ten days under previously stated conditions) which left me with most of the book all to myself and all my other friendlier remembered people again. Now it’s odd to think that the memory of him ever marked it at all because it feels so much mine and it’s others I’d want to talk about it with. ( I hope I haven’t been too rude about him here because that’s not my intention.)
There is so much more to it than I thought there would be, and though I’m 15-20 years older than what’s thought of as its typical reader, I’m rather glad to have brought some of those extra years to it.
What a frustrating book. It isn't badly written, but only if it were written quite differently would I really enjoy it.
Chéri and Léa are difficult,2.5
What a frustrating book. It isn't badly written, but only if it were written quite differently would I really enjoy it.
Chéri and Léa are difficult, unsympathetic characters - but this is a type I often find interesting to read about. Books can show such people's underlying thoughts and feelings, and the events that made them so disagreeable: they can make them sympathetic and understandable if you are reasonably open-minded.
But we hear nothing of Chéri's inner life, and in writing alone there is no appeal in a person who is gorgeous, selfish, rude, spoilt and shallow, and barely has a kind word for anyone. Yes, his "eyes ... were used only to win love, never to reveal his mind", but dammit, Colette, you should be revealing his mind rather more than in the odd factual sentence about his childhood.
Léa experiences so many pleasurable things during the course of the book, but they are mentioned in passing, only for the narrative to concentrate on her varying degrees of boredom with and sneering at almost everyone she encounters. Colette is described as a sensual writer, but sensual, vivid descriptions of Léa's beauty treatments, dress fabrics, food, let alone a lover (even within the constraints of the era) are absent. This book seems not sensual, but bitter, jaded, and depressed, not even attempting to derive deep pleasure from one's surroundings.
Léa and Chéri don't even seem to like each other much, let alone to be "soulmates". This is a type of love which is some other force, animal and compellingly fated, not modern companionate love.
These characters live on the surface in the worst possible way; they lack joy, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness and true engagement with their worlds.
Yes, they can be analysed, but I could only enjoy reading about them if there were a narrative that dealt more explicitly with these aspects of personality. There is a terribly wasted opportunity as they each separately come to realise that they are in love: disappointingly this leads to no further unfolding of the selves except in one long conversation quite near to the end of the book. And this was too little too late after dragging myself through the emotional deadness that made the story feel three times longer than it is. (I quite forgave myself for having abandoned this book after a few pages, some years ago.)
As with difficult characters, it can be interesting to read about alien situations to gain a better understanding of them. The May-to-September age gap between Chéri and Léa was clearly something open to ridicule at the time when the book was written, but these days it would be more scandalous because she had been a close friend of his mother's throughout his lifetime and had babysat him when he was a child. I suppose because Colette wasn't writing at a time when she had to explain or justify this aspect to any great extent, little space was devoted to it. But the lack of interiority made me wonder all the more "why?". What did it mean to them?
I'm afraid I resorted to a somewhat objectifying psychological analysis to get any satisfaction out of the story, though I would have preferred to understand the characters on more human terms. I took the story as an example of what could happen if two people with avoidant attachment styles and poor-to-indifferent reflective and mentalisation capacity, raised in and living in a narcissistic and materialistic milieu, were to be strongly physically attracted to one another and subconsciously fall in love as a result of that attraction.
I wonder whether the world in which the novel is set was indeed the joyless, petty place it seems here. Before Chéri"Belle Epoque Paris" had rather a magical ring to it....more
[4.5] Not sure I've ever seen quite such division of opinion among my GR friends, so many 1s and 5s in equal measure - and several 3s - as over Michel[4.5] Not sure I've ever seen quite such division of opinion among my GR friends, so many 1s and 5s in equal measure - and several 3s - as over Michel Houellebecq. Can't see myself finishing a proper review soon, as there is just so much to this book (another one which I first got more than ten years ago), so much to think about. But it's a different, more complex beast from what its reputation had led me to believe - that reputation which essentially equates the whole book with the character Bruno - a Martin Amis character taken seriously (the sort of Amis character who, to quote a GR friend, reads like a literary adaptation of a Viz strip) - and neglects all the other interesting stuff in the novel and the ideas which contradict him. They never told me it was kind of SF either.
[3.5] Back in the early 90's, A Year in Provence was a favourite easy target for satirists and alternative comedians on British TV. Now in my 30s, wit[3.5] Back in the early 90's, A Year in Provence was a favourite easy target for satirists and alternative comedians on British TV. Now in my 30s, with a new liking for books about moving to the country and doing up an old house, I wanted to find out what this object of so many jokes was really like.
And, much as I love it when I genuinely disagree with haterz, I can kind of see the satirists' point.
There is, nevertheless, much to like about this book. It can be enjoyably escapist and it has some lovely descriptions of places and customs. It's a very easy and fast read, without being dumbed down or badly written, and is fairly witty; so in many ways it was a great book to read when not feeling well.
But its main fault is one I particularly dislike, so it gets 3 stars rather than 4. In other books of this ilk, we see the authors making friends with local people, becoming part of the place socially as well as materially. Mayle gets to know people, yes, but he talks about them with a detachment that is subtly condescending. I'm not sure he even means it that way; it's probably a form of old-fashioned British reserve, but it can come across like a more polite and stealthy means of saying "look at these funny Frogs with their strange customs and lazy ways, hahaha".
Oddly, he never reflects on the costs of their house project or personal good fortune - even in the light of being glad they can afford this lifestyle these days, though they couldn't when younger, as may often be heard from better-off middle-aged to older people. This creates another layer of detachment from most readers.
And whilst he has good words to say about many things, such as quality food and beautiful landscapes, I don't hear the sort of unbridled enthusiasm and immersion in experience which makes me warm to the authors of memoirs....more
Elizabeth David revolutionised British food by introducing French and Italian country cooking to middle-class Britain in the 1950s and 60s. In this shElizabeth David revolutionised British food by introducing French and Italian country cooking to middle-class Britain in the 1950s and 60s. In this short collection of essays and excerpts, we see a nation on the cusp: pre-war anecdotes and recipe ideas allude to Empire and the huntin', shootin', fishin' gentleman, whilst excitement and exotic novelty comes from the flavours and bustle of French and Italian provincial markets encountered on holiday ... in a decade or so hence we would be joining the EEC.
Whilst her style is a little more formal than that of current food writers, David's feelings shine through when you contrast the excitement and vivd descriptions of the French and Italian cornucopia with her grey, dreich, shortage ridden British holidays. She's delightfully aware of her then-unusual and OTT enthusiasm and a few times almost apologises for it... if she were around these days she would surely find a self-deprecating way to laugh at herself for being such a foodie.
The only thing that I found unpalatable here was descriptions of meat (including offal and rabbit) and fish, which of course would not bother everyone. Though David anticipates changing attitudes to food-animal welfare by worrying about the most humane way to kill and cook a crayfish, but finds herself criticised by others for this.
Whilst we are now so used to pasta that it was utterly startling to see the word italicised like the foreign language term it techincally is, a few things never change. Namely the rubbish kitchen equipment provided in many British holiday cottages. I too have tried to cook with that "one Pyrex casserole without a lid, and a rusty knife with a loose handle" and laughed in recognition and sympathy.
This was one of those times when I found the Penguin 70s short format perfect. Of Pageants was fascinating but I wouldn't want to read 300 pages of Elizabeth David cover to cover, as I found when I tried to read French Provincial Cooking some years ago.
Read in two halves, two months apart. In February I was quite intensely irritated, and marked the book two stars... You know those reviews of Nausea aRead in two halves, two months apart. In February I was quite intensely irritated, and marked the book two stars... You know those reviews of Nausea and L'Étranger, in which people say the likes of "I used to think this way when I was younger, but it's a bit shit"? (c.f. Hanif Kureishi: "The cruellest thing you can do to Kerouac is re-read him at 38.") I still appreciate those books, but this one looked like my equivalent. I wasn't a teenage existentialist but I was a teenage narcissist, and Kundera's Immortality seemed to be preaching as wisdom a whole bunch of thoughts which I've gone to considerable and repeated effort to talk myself out of. I suspected myself of being too dismissive and normative towards the book, (also Caliban, mirrors, etc, and yeah this post is a bit mememe) but I simply didn't like the way it made me feel, and what it reminded me of. With its narrative concentrating on the self-designed outward actions of characters as if describing scenes from a film (or teenage / twentysomething self-narration). Mostly surfaces, dull ones at that, interspersed with a few self-consciously Interesting Thoughts, the kind some people would put on an online profile. And also C19th hangers-on of the famous who did what they did primarily because they wanted to be remembered. A lot of it seemed relevant to the social media era - paradoxically: I had this book because it was recommended years ago by someone who's very reclusive and never uses social networks.
However. In the third quarter of the novel Kundera critiques the narcissercising, and displays a lot of empathy with the underlying motivations of the characters doing it. So the book became somewhat different from my first assumption.
Overall it was a metafictional / anti-novel patchwork thing that was only patchily engaging. Authorial presence interweaved with the characters and their story, whilst doing lots of fine dining, like 1980s Martin Amis turned up to 11. (Immortality was published in 1991, so yeah...) The story of a Parisian professional couple, chilly Agnes and laid-back Paul, and Agnes' melodramatic sister Laura - classic French-film triangle - is punctuated by philosophical reflections on human nature, social behaviour &c, accounts of the Kundera-character's eccentric mates, and the history of Goethe-groupie and eventual woman-of-letters in her own right Bettina von Arnim. The most pointless bit was a 70-odd page survey of the pulling career of a mid-twentieth-century art critic named Rubens; I liked and recognised occasional musings on how people inwardly mark the passing of time, but most of it was nothing I hadn't seen before in a couple of dozen litfic works. Anyway, just about everyone in this sprawl-on-a-theme turns out to be connected by butterflies' wings and hurricanes.
I remain slightly puzzled by the quote on the front cover from Nicholas Lezard: "It will make you cleverer, maybe even a better lover. Not many novels can do that." (It was good to learn about Bettina von Arnim and her circle, but the rest was a mix of meh and confirmation of things I'd heard before.) I'd be a little embarrassed by the assumption I agreed with everything I posted three years ago... who knows what someone thinks of stuff they wrote over two decades past, and of it still being used to sell books?
Glad to put this book away now - almost every time I saw the title, The Fall song would appear in my head, and I was getting pretty tired of it....more