So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And f 5 stars
So, after starting this book over a month ago, and having to put it down twice for weeks at a time to get on with work, I’m finally done. And fuck me, if I don’t completely love it. Favourite book of 2012 by a huge margin. I can’t remember what made me pick this book up in the shop – probably the gorgeous cover and the fact the pages are edged in the same blue as the cover design (I’m a sucker for a pretty book) – but I am really glad I did. This is the reason I persist on ‘wasting my money’ impulse buying interesting looking books that I’ve never even heard of before; you might pick up a few duds but occasionally you stumble across something glorious that you’d never have been led to otherwise.
And now I’m left in the awkward position of trying to write a review for a book I totally adored. I’ve heard other people saying reviewing books you loved is harder than books you hated and I never really believed them – but it is. Whilst I loved this book it probably isn’t for everybody – in fact I’m sure it isn’t. And I know from experience that the quickest way you can get someone to dislike a book and notice its flaws is to build up their expectations by raving about it before they’ve read it… Oh welll…here goes…
We, The Drowned is a hard book to describe; at the surface level it’s just ‘the lives and adventures of the inhabitants of a Danish port town over a hundred years’ but that’s not really what it’s about. I tried describing it to my dad as ‘a Danish One Hundred Years of Solitude, but without the magical realism and about sailors instead of a gigantic Latin American family’ but that description strips One Hundred Years of Solitude of its key features and does both books a disservice. Both are brilliant books, both deal with the history of a place by telling the story of the people who lived there over multiple generations – but apart from that they’re completely different beasts and liking/hating one will not mean you have the same opinions about the other.
So I’ll try again… We, the Drowned is a massive book, 690 pages spanning 100 years and 3/4 (depending on your opinion of Klara) central characters. I agree with another reviewer that the story, though divided into four parts actually feels more like three different books that run into each other:
The first part was all about Laurids Madsen the man ‘who went up to heaven and came down thanks to his boots’, who starts off as a daredevil prankster but comes back from war with Germany with what would now be diagnosed as post traumatic stress. And it’s no wonder; the violence in the book is brutal and him and his companions are sailors, not soldiers. Combat on a sailing ship isn’t the bloodless carnage of something like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s bloody and nasty; people soil themselves and go down screaming and sobbing like children, if someone gets a cannon shot to the head they don’t comically pick their skull back up and get on, their whole face is blown off. If they’re really unlucky they’ll survive it and go home to a family that doesn’t recognise them and doesn’t want to because it would mean acknowledging the person they loved before the war no longer exists. I haven’t read much stuff set on sailing ships beyond the odd Robert Louis Stevenson, but the battle seemed very real to me. Jensen doesn’t go overboard with description and purple prose but I could vividly see and imagine the whole thing. That said, I don’t know how well it measures up to a Hornblower or Master and Commander I’ll add them to my reading list.
Since it’s on the blurb it’s no spoiler to say that Laurids leaves Marstal soon afterwards, and the majority of this part is about his son Albert growing up without him and his later quest to find his father as soon as he’s old enough to go to sea. It’s old-fashioned adventure on the high seas stuff – shrunken heads, murders, cannibals, pearls, pokey little bars, brutal first mates, and ineffectual captains. But between the sailing and adventure there’s Marstal. Marstal is as much of a character as any of the central characters, maybe even more, not only does it ground all the characters into some sort of context but it grows and changes throughout the novel. In a stroke of genius all the Marstal scenes, or scenes where there are a lot of Marstalers present are told in the first person plural ‘we’. This ‘we’ is never acknowledged as a named character, there is no one narrator, but is the collective consciousness of the town itself: for Lauids this ‘we’ was the Marstal sailors who had been recruited for war alongside him, for Albert it is his peers, the Marstal schoolboys. I’ll admit it confused me at first but I grew to love it very quickly, it created a sort of understanding of the town and its people and a sense of inclusion that third person would simply have been too impersonal to portray. Without it the Marstal bits might have seemed like the ‘boring’ parts between adventures but, if anything, I almost came to love them more by the end of the book.
Which is good because the next portion of the book is entirely set there. After the Treasure Island-like adventures of his youth the book skips straight on to Albert as an old man living in Marstal. Although told in the ‘we’ it is really from Albert’s eyes that we see the approach and then the horrors of World War I and the effect it has on the town. And it’s chilling. As a history student, it’s embarrassing to admit but I’d never really looked at WWI from the standpoint of a neutral country and, though I’ve been taught over and over again about the horrors of the trenches, somehow no one ever mentions the war at sea and the sinking of ships. Here the trenches are absent, the suffering of the front lines barely noted, even the losses at sea are distant from the lives of people on the land – life goes on as normal. But, through Albert, we hear about the Marstal ships being shot down and sunk by players in a war they were not even part of. It’s a beautiful and depressing portrayal of war and the effect it has on people and places. As well as the war this part of the book is about growing old – the age of sail is all but dead and the world Albert knew has changed almost beyond recognition. Watching Albert come to grips with this, and the ways in which he deals with his lessening importance within the town is just as powerful, in its way, as the depiction of the distant war.
The third part takes us back to the sea with Knud Erik, a fatherless boy Albert mentored as a child, and his mother Klara. Knud Erik wants nothing more than to be a sailor like both Albert and his father. Klara, meanwhile hates the sea for taking her husband, and so many others, and leaving the women of Marstal in a constant state of grief and uncertainty. She’s the first major female character in the book, and I could take a lot of issues with her but, though she claims to speak for ‘the women’, in the end she’s just about well enough developed that she’s only really speaking for herself, something that becomes more and more apparent as the story goes on. I’m still not sure what I think of her, I certainly understand her, and I appreciate her growing into a strong woman who doesn’t use sex as a tool buuut…well, there’s just something not entirely likable about her. Despite the tension it causes, Knud Erik, does of course become a sailor. First sailing on sailing ships as a teenager; having adventures reminiscent of his mentor Albert’s – cruel first mates, vicious storms, murder at sea, icebergs. Then, once the age of the sailing ship is truly over, on steam and then mechanical ships, serving on the allied merchant convoys of World War II.
This again was an entirely different perspective on the War than anything I’d ever read about it before. What the ships docked in London did during air raids is something I’d never really thought about. Nor the horrors of the ‘keep going, don’t stop to rescue anyone’ order given to convoys when one of their number got struck by a u-boat. It gave me a new appreciation for the men who risked their lives, without lifting weapons, to help in the war effort.
All in all a brilliant book – I haven’t mentioned half of the bits I would want to talk about for fear of spoilers. It’s bleak and depressing and certainly not for everyone, but I loved it. Some bits were predictable – I knew what would happen to Karo the moment he appeared, same with the ‘free men’ in the hold and several other characters, but it didn’t seem ‘predictable’ so much as ‘inevitable, given how the characters around them are sketched’ and, instead of rolling my eyes when it happened I was gripped and unable to tear myself away from my book as I watching the build up and then the fall out. Other bits weren’t so predictable; the first ‘romance’ especially left me reeling with an ‘I should have expected that but I really didn't’.
It had its flaws of course – sometimes characters we’d been introduced to reappeared in unlikely places – but nothing too unforgivable. There wasn’t much chance for female characters to shine and the one that did appear as a sailor late in the book I was unconvinced by, but I think that’s the nature of the setting – women weren’t given chances to shine. The adventures were, for the most part, gripping and the Marstal parts were beautiful and really gave a sense of the community there beyond just the main few characters – it wasn’t just ‘main character, his immediate family, and some other people to bulk up the population count’ who lived there – the town was a living breathing character in itself. The use of ‘we’ for the parts set in Marstal worked incredibly well, and wasn’t something I’d really seen done before. The perspectives through which both World War I and II were told were unusual but even more powerful for that.
All in all I just kinda loved it and will be on the lookout for anything else written by Carsten Jensen from now on....more
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable aCrossposted/edited from my blog
I’m going to start off with the disclaimer that I do not read a lot of poetry and don’t feel particularly comfortable analysing it.This makes me a bit of an uncultured idiot when it comes to trying to write a review, but I’m going to do my best. When I do read poetry – and I’m trying to do so more – my preference also lies very heavily towards old-fashioned narrative and epic poems that tell an interesting story. Since I find the King Arthur legend (or legends) one of the most interesting stories there are, buying this book when I spotted it in the shop was a complete no-brainer. I don’t know what a serious poetry fan or scholar would make of it but as a piece of Arthurian literature – especially as a piece of medieval and British Arthurian literature – I found it to be an unpolished gem of a book.
The Death of King Arthur tells the story, with no magical frills or whistles, of Arthur’s last invasion of Europe and his return home to face – and eventually die at the hand of – the treacherous Sir Mordred. It’s a familiar story to almost everyone who’s read even a single children’s ‘life of King Arthur’ type book. What makes this version different, however, is that it does not follow the French Romantic tradition of having Lancelot and Guinevere’s adultery as the cause of Arthur’s downfall – in fact there’s no mention of any affair between them and Lancelot gets only a walk on part – instead it’s pure politcs and territorial war that takes Arthur out of Britain and gives Mordred the chance to seize power. As someone who finds Lancelot a rather dull (dare I say ‘Mary-Sue’) character who gets too much exposure at the expense of other knights, I really welcomed this angle. Once the sword’s pulled out of the stone Arthur often seems to fade into a background character – here he’s no doubt the main character with both moments of incredible military skill and high emotion.
This ‘unromantic’ motivation also makes for an ‘unromantic’ poem that focusses not on the idea of courtly love and lofty ideas of ‘Albion’ but positively revels in the horror and brutality of medieval warfare. It’s gloriously unapologetically bloody and violent, to open a few pages purely at random gives me:
"Then good Sir Gawain on his grey steed gripped a great spear and speedily spiked him; through the guts and gore his weapon glided till the sharpened steel sliced into his heart."
"Then eagerly Arthur opened his enemy’s visor and buried the bright blade in his body to the handle and he squirmed as he died, skewered on the sword."
"leaving wounded warriors writhing in his wake; he hacked at the hardiest and hewed them at the neck, and all ran red wherever he rode,"
There are decapitations, guts spilling out of war wounds, people being impaled through the loins…you think of a nasty way to die and I can almost promise it’s there. Little-me would have loved this poem!
Alas, I’m no longer little-me and I do demand a bit more character development and deeper storytelling to go with my macabre enjoyment of gruesome descriptions. After a promising non-Lancelot focussed start, the middle section gave way almost to a list of who was killed by who in what vividly described way. Most named only appear once or twice and with the exception of Arthur and Gawain (and perhaps Kay if I’m feeling generous) it’s very hard to feel anything for the knights on either side of the battles. I have to confess to several times being confused as to who was fighting who and why. It’s no Odyssey (or even Aeneid) that you could write an essay just on the psychology of a sidecharacter, and for a long time during the middle section I feared I was going to have to give this three stars, but it redeemed itself. Once news of Mordred’s treachery (and the implication of Guinevere’s as well in this story) reaches Arthur things get back on track. It’s still more endless guts and blood but the motivation – and the cost – is both more familiar and more relatable. Even the battles seemed to have new life breathed into them with a wonderful description of naval warfare sticking out especially. And once one of Arthur’s favourite knights is slain on the battlefield there is, in my eyes at least, a beautifully powerful depiction not just grief on Arthur’s part but guilt and shame from the murderer as well. It’s a tantalising hint of the author’s ability at portraying emotions that is, sadly, a little too set aside in favour of bloodshed for most of the poem.
There are other glimpses prior to this – particularly in the second of the two prophetic dreams Arthur has (one of the very few ‘fantastical’ elements of the story) – where Arthur sees himself rise on the wheel of fortune only to be thrown off again. But it was his grief at seeing his friend’s body and the way he openly wept, threw himself on the corpse and had to be almost dragged away before his grief turned to anger and vengeance that struck me. That’s a more human and emotionally Arthur than I’m used to and it packed a punch that I wasn’t expecting after the rather scant emotional story of the rest of the poem.
The rest of it is solid stuff, for what it is. The various wars take up the majority of the poem but there is one traditionally Arthurian type of adventure near the beginning where Arthur pauses his warplans to rescue a kidnapped damsel from a monstrous ogre-like figure who cuts off the beards of the knights he kills and turns them into what I can only imagine is the sexiest patchwork gown imaginable. Apart from that though it’s (more) blood, guts and simplistic and unsympathetic ‘he was rude to me, so I’m going to kill him’ from then on. I enjoyed it, and I’m happy to admit to loving the blood and guts, but it wasn’t until the last section that I felt emotionally invested in the story.
As for its quality as a poem… I don’t know. I found it less well crafted than Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I found myself stumbling over the words and puzzling to make out the rhythm more often – but I also know I’ve been cursed with the worst sense of rhythm (and tone) imaginable and it’s probably perfectly simple for anyone with half an ounce of musical talent. I like this alliterative style of poetry though, it’s one I find very accessable. How much of the language and alliterative bits I liked (or didn’t) is down to the original author and how much Armitage I couldn’t say, and wouldn’t like to guess at. Another translation may well be better – I don’t know, but I did enjoy this one....more
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking5 stars
A very serious contender for my favourite book this year (currently competing against We, the Drowned), I’m having a really hard time thinking what to say about this one. It really is true that positive reviews are harder to write than negative ones. Add to this that this is a very complex novel – touching on themes of slavery, fascism, racism, capitalism, exploitation, class conflict, the european arms race, economics, trade unions, human experimentation, the ‘civilising’ mission, the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, Nazi theories of ‘Lebensraum’ and a hell of a lot more – plus the unconventional way it’s written and, well…there’s either too much to say or too little. There’s simply so much stuff I feel I should be better informed on before I could possibly talk about. And then the blurb goes and tells me that it’s an allegory for 1930s Czech politics in and I start feeling even more inadequate in my ability to comment!
Since I don’t feel qualified to talk deeply about the historical specifics I’m going to try to go for the more general approach. Although that extra knowledge and context would have been nice you really don’t need it to understand and appreciate the novel in itself. The themes, although tailored to reflect the political situation of the 30s are sadly still all too relevant and relatable today. And even with only the broadest and most basic knowledge of its historical context it’s very understandable as an allegorical satire of Europe’s own brutal history of oppression, from the slave trade (where the wild newts are beaten senseless, kept in slimy oil slicked tanks, and those that survive the journey sold for extortionate prices) right up to Nazi expansionism (where the newts have propagated so much that they start demanding their territories be expanded into human lands to provide space for them all). It could so easily have come off heavy-handed and trite but the way Čapek handles it, blaming neither side exclusively but criticising both and explaining the political and economic reasons such things came to be with incredible dark humour, stops the book from feeling remotely ‘preachy’. It’s a book that made me think, that absolutely horrified and appalled me in places, but was so spot on with its analysis and caricatures of human nature that you just had to laugh – even as you saw the ‘war with the newts’ becoming ever more inevitable.
It’s a heavy going book, not only in the themes but in the very writing style. It’s one of those books that’s more about ideas than characters and as such there is really no single protagonist. Captain van Toch – who uses frequent racial, national, and anti-Semite slurs but is utterly devoted to the welfare of his newts – is used as the primary character in the first ‘book’ to introduce us to the context of the newts – the size of a child, vaguely humanoid, incredibly intelligent and able to work tools, develop complex skills, and even learn human speech. After that though, as knowledge of the newts becomes widespread and humanity turns to exploiting their abilities for slave labour, the closest thing the novel has to a ‘protagonist’ is a minor character who collects any and all newspaper clippings he can find about the newts. The majority rest of the book up until the final chapters is written almost more as a history textbook than a novel, drawing on these clippings as primary sources to illustrate its points. Far from finding this dull (as I sometimes do when other books try similar things) this was my absolute favourite section of the story, I loved reading all the different newspaper articles Čapek had come up with to illustrate the different attitudes towards the newts in various times and places. Some were funny – Indians demanding lifesaving newts leave for touching members of the higher castes, others were horrific – the report from a scientific conference where the experiments on newts were outlined but none felt unnecessary and they all contributed to making the premise feel fleshed out and ‘realistic’ – and to show the unfolding path both humans and newts both took to get to the war of the title. The formating was occasionally a little irritating – several articles were multiple pages long but because they were all in the footnotes you had to flick back afterwards to find where you had left off the main text – but the writing was so solid I could totally forgive it that. What really got me though was the last chapter ‘The Author talks with himself‘ where Čapek breaks the fourth wall to have an argument with himself about if and how the final war could have been avoided. It’s a powerful chapter on its own even if you ignore the context it was written in and the impending Nazi threat to his own country.
I really wish Penguin had deigned to provide an introduction or afterword for this novel, there’s so much in here that could be discussed and contextualised that the non-inclusion of one really is a massive oversight (which their online reading notes don’t really make up for). The extent of my own (and I suspect a lot of British readers) knowledge of Czech politics in this period is only the very very broad context for the Nazi takeover given at GCSE and A level lessons but just Googling and Wikipedia-ing the author’s name brought up so much that would really have been relevant. Far from just being a science/speculative-fiction author and the inventor of the word ‘robot’, Čapek was very involved in Czech politics, an outspoken critic of fascism and number two on the Nazi’s list of ‘public enemies’ in the country. In a book where one of the main themes is an allegory of the lead up to World War II (though Čapek died before it came to that) it seems kind of astounding that a publisher like Penguin, well-known for providing insightful scholarly introductions, didn’t bother to include one here.
Probably not a book that is universally approachable or has ‘mass appeal’, it quite possibly it requires an interest in modern European history (with some of his depictions of the war against the newts it’s almost astounding to hear that he died before WWII ever commenced). I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t want anything too heavy going – but it’s made it onto my list of absolute favourites and I will be tracking down any more Čapek that I can and checking out the rest of Penguin’s ‘Central European Classics’ (something I planned to do anyway since I’ve had such success with translated fiction in the last few years). Love, love, love....more
Eeeeeh! Well it looks like 2013 is shaping up to be a good reading year. Not only have I liked pretty much everything I’ve read so far but I’v 5 Stars!
Eeeeeh! Well it looks like 2013 is shaping up to be a good reading year. Not only have I liked pretty much everything I’ve read so far but I’ve discovered a new favourite. When I say that I loved this book, I really mean it. I can’t say it’s my absolute favourite because picking a single favourite is too hard, but it’s definitely among the books that I would take to a desert island or save from a burning building. It’s got everything; revenge, wrongful imprisonment, murder, duels, bandits, drug-fuelled hallucinations, treachery, buried treasure… you name an adventure trope and it’s probably in there – as well as one of the most scary anti-heroes/anti-villains in fiction. It’s a book that’s so high on melodrama and absurd plot twists it could easily become ridiculous, but it’s so utterly compelling that it never does. At approximately 1250 pages long, it never felt like a slog, in fact it practically zipped along and I’m actually a bit sad to have finished it.
The Count of Monte Cristo tells the story of Edmond Dantès, a young sailor about to be promoted to captain and to marry Mercédès, the love of his life, when, on the day of his wedding, he is falsely accused of being a Bonapartist conspirator by his jealous friend’s and rivals and thrown into Azkaban the island fortress of the Chateau d’If. While rotting away in his dungeon he befriends another prisoner, discovers the location of some burried treasure, and vows to escape and take his revenge on those who put him in prison. All this, and Dantès eventual dramatic escape, happen very early on in the book and from there on it’s almost a thousand pages of long, intricate, gloriously drawn-out revenge schemes as Dantès, transformed into the ‘avenging angel’, the absurdly rich Count of Monte Cristo, returns to destroy the lives of those who wronged him.
His enemies are all now very important men; Fernand, the young man who as in love with his fiancé is now a Count,the respected veteran of many wars, and married to Mercédès, Danglers, the jealous shipmate who instigated the plot is now a rich and successful banker, and Villefort, the young prosecutor who buried the proof of Dantès innocence to further his own career, is crown prosecutor. But they all have weaknesses, flaws, ambitions, and guilty secrets in their past that the count exploits one by one to ruin them in a twisty-turny adventure of deception, secrets, murder, and betrayal in high Parisian society.
It’s gripping stuff not least because the Count of Monte Cristo is such a terrifying and compelling character. Hardened by his experiences he is cold, calculating, and cruel. Instead of taking a dagger and killing his enemies (as the ‘real life inspiration’ for the character is said to have done) he insinuates himself into their lives, expertly manipulates them, befriends their children, and then sits back and watches impassively as his machinations lead to their self-destruction, happily believing himself to be enacting God’s will. The sheer tension and dramatic irony as the reader watches these ‘friendly’ interactions, knowing, that the Count is plotting everybody’s downfall is what drives the book. He’s an impossible character to like - only towards end does he ever question his methods, his aim, and the collateral damage and innocent people harmed in his schemes – but damnit he’s compelling. He’s compared, frequently, in the book to the Lord Ruthven (from the Vampyre by Polidori) and it’s an apt comparison, there’s really more of the vampire and the villain about him than the hero for most of the novel. And that’s where the strength of the book lies, not just in relishing the nasty characters lives come crashing down around them, but in the growing horror of the person Dantès has become, the lengths he will go to get his revenge. And how, just how, he can ever find redemption and peace or even reconcile himself to an ordinary life once his revenge is finally complete.
I could say more, but I don’t really want to go into any details that will spoil any of the intricate plots. I’ll just leave it by saying again that I loved it. Some of the characters are pretty sketched out and plot-devicey, sure – but then it also has great side characters like the ‘unfeminine’ Eugénie or the stroke victim Noirtier who will save his granddaughter from loneliness, arranged marriages, and murder attempts all while paralysed from the eyes down. It relies massively on coincidences, everybody seems to know each other in contrived, slightly incestuousy ways, and the Count is utterly brilliant at absolutely everything – but then that’s half the fun. Dumas doesn’t always get his continuity right in terms of dates and places but fuck it, with a book this good it just doesn’t bother me. It’s an absolutely wonderful page turner and I loves it.
Would highly recommend it to almost anybody (though make sure you go unabridged! And I can’t speak for the quality of other translations)....more
Ooof, what can I say about Anna Karenina… Well, to start off with it’s long. I mean really fucking long. And not just long but heavy going too. 4 Stars
Ooof, what can I say about Anna Karenina… Well, to start off with it’s long. I mean really fucking long. And not just long but heavy going too. Although I really enjoyed most of it I did have to slog through it at points like no other book I can even remember. It was rewarding, definitely, but boy was it draining. There were several times I just had to put the book down for a couple of days and it took me faaar too long to finish (I was meant to be done by the end of September), but at no point did I want to abandon it. Now that I am done, rather than dwelling on the book itself, my presiding emotions are simply a sense of relief and vague pride in having finished. But I’ll try to get over that to write a review.
This wasn’t the Anna Karenina that either the blurb or pop-culture had really promised me. The famously doomed love affair is not the sole focus of the book – I’m not even sure it’s meant to be the main focus at all – but one of many themes and threads that run through the story. In fact Anna Karenina herself is neither the most compelling character nor the one who gets most page time. That last honour (though not, for me, the first) would probably belong to Levin, an introspective country gentleman, and his romance with Kitty Scherbatsky (two characters I’d never really heard of before starting the book) gets at least as much attention as the more passionate affair between Anna and Vronsky. As well as these simultaneous and contrasting love stories, however, there’s a lot of page time spent on stuff that doesn’t at first glance seem to add to the narrative – Russian politics, agricultural theory, the aftermath of emancipating the serfdom… It can probably be a bit much if you go in expecting only an epic love story. Personally I really enjoyed most of these chapters, particularly the ones on agricultural theory and Russian peasantry. It might just be the former history student in me but I found it absolutely fascinating to look at the types of thoughts and theories being written in late Tsarist Russia and find the little hints of things to come that Trotsky couldn’t possibly have known about when he wrote it. In fact I often found myself enjoying Levin’s chapters on interacting with the peasants and trying to find the most efficient way to run a farm (while not particularly enjoying Levin as a character) more than I liked a lot of the angsty relationship drama – at least early on. But equally a lot of people I know who don’t share my geeky interests found these chapters a real drag and I can totally understand why.
The main criticism I heard from friends before I started the book though was ‘none of the characters are likable’ and ‘it’s just horrible people doing horrible things to each other’. And that’s true, to a certain extent. There were characters I liked (Oblonsky is fantastic and I actually really liked his long-suffering wife, Dolly, as well) but everyone in the book is a far cry off perfect and although they do grow and change over the 900 odd pages it’s not necessarily in positive ways. I started off not thinking much of Vronsky for his behaviour towards Anna (seriously, stalking is not the way to win a girl!) but ended up totally wishing he would kick her jealous, clingy, batshit insane, bitchy arse to the curb and stop putting up with her shit. At the same time I could totally relate to why Anna was behaving the way she was, her frustration with her situation of being ostracised by society until she divorces her husband and marries Vronsky instead, while only wanting herself to be his mistress/lover and enjoy the sex and the romantic times and being the centre of his world without being expected to settle down and start popping out his children.
The characters weren’t necessarily likable, but they were certainly interesting and I have to say that Levin, who everyone else seems to love, was the only one who consistently pissed me off. He’s often thought to be a stand in for Tolstoy’s own views so I’m not sure what it says about my opinion of him that I found Levin to be a patronising, moralising twat of the ‘I can’t be a misogynist, I think women are paragons of perfection!’ school of misogyny. Even another character in the book (hurrah for Oblonsky!) had to eventually call him out for always assuming that women naturally wanted to be mothers and nothing else. The way Levin romanticised everything to the extent that reality always disappointed him wound me up, especially when it came to Kitty *gasp* actually existing as a person with opinions of her own that didn’t always gel with his vision of her as a subservient woman who should always agree with him. Every time another man even spoke to Kitty he seemed to instantly think the worst of her and get irrationally jealous. It was more unhealthy than Anna/Vronsky/Anna’s husband in places and I just wanted Kitty to get out of there fast because no one deserves end up with someone who has that little trust and respect in them. But since Levin and Kitty were the foil for Anna and Vronsky’s romance I never really expected that to happen. They’re meant to be the healthy happy and pure relationship to Anna’s hurtful, miserable and adulterous one.
On the whole though, irritation with Levin and reading fatigue at the sheer length of the book aside, I really enjoyed Anna Karenina. It was a slog, not going to lie about that, it took a lot of effort to get through, but I think in the end it was worthwhile. I enjoyed the odd chapters on politics and agriculture and, eventually, I found myself getting pretty into the love stories as well. I’m still a bit disappointed with the way the start of Anna and Vronsky’s affair and that how and why she caved into him wasn’t really shown – one chapter she was fancying him but loyal to her husband and the next they’d had sex. It was a rather beautiful scene actually and I really liked the way Vronsky compared the crime and aftermath of adultery with that of murder, but I don’t know, it seemed to miss a bit of build up somewhere. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending either. After the culmination of the book that everybody remembers (even if they haven’t read the book) we get several chapters of Levin being introspective and an obnoxiously heavy-handed moral and religious message. What I really could have done with instead was less Levin and more Vronsky and Karenin, both of whom were much more interesting characters. But the majority of the book I liked. Trotsky handled an insane number of characters (all with several different names depending on the social status of who they’re speaking with) magnificently and there was a lot of really beautiful, true to life, writing.
The one passage that will probably stick with me the most, is the lingering death of one of the character’s relatives and the way everyone about him just wanted him to die and for it to all be over. After spending what seemed like forever in that situation myself over this summer sitting by the hospital bed of somebody I loved, it was the one section I could really truly relate to. But even that didn’t affect me as much as I felt it should (given how recently this was and how horrible I found it) and the reason I only give this four stars rather than four-and-a-half or higher is really because of that feeling; I simply never connected with the story on a particularly personal level. I was interested in it, but I wasn’t invested in it. I wanted to see what happened, but as an impartial observer and, ultimately, I didn’t really mind or care what the hell happened to all the characters....more
I was first introduced to Les Misérables, without knowing it, through my music centre’s ‘easter camp’ – three days of learning new music pieces 5 Stars
I was first introduced to Les Misérables, without knowing it, through my music centre’s ‘easter camp’ – three days of learning new music pieces for brass band and being forced to sing in a choir with the lame woodwind and string kids – when I was about six. We sang ‘Can you hear the people sing’ while marching up and down the school hall. It’s a memory my mother is very fond of bringing up while bursting into laughter and was the only time I ever enjoyed myself in any choir (and my mum persuaded me to try a lot of choirs, apparently oblivious to the fact that I am so tone-deaf that the conductor always had a quiet word with me after a few sessions to request I either mime or take singing lessons) but I had no idea, until years later that it was part of anything bigger than a cool song about French martyrs and/or slaves with drums.
So, like most people, my initial understanding of the actual story only came when I finally went and saw the musical in my late teens and quickly devoured the plot description in the programme before the curtain came up so that I would know what the hell was going on. Boiled down to its very basics: it’s set in 19th century France where ex-convict Jean Valjean seeks redemption, adopts an orphan girl, and is ruthlessly pursued for over a decade by police inspector Javert, also there’s a slightly cheesey love story where the orphan girl falls in love with a student revolutionary and lots of awesome revolutionary singing. Oh and the staging of the street barricades is fucking spectacular. I knew it was based on a long book by Victor Hugo (aka that guy who wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame)but until I grew up a bit out of my silly ‘classics are all boring and even when the plot’s good they’re way too slow and written in irritating ways’ phase , I wasn’t much interested in picking it up. (And can I just say how glad I am that I got over that phase!)
Sooo, fast forward a few years, I’m a bit less of a prat and I know a bit more about the book; mainly that not only is it huge but very, very, dense – going off on multi-chapter author tangents on anything from the Battle of Waterloo to the architecture of Parisian sewers. Still, I wanted to give it a go, I don’t mind thick books, love a bit of history (especially social history), enjoyed the stage show, have a relatively high tolerance for tangents, and just thought that this was really one of ‘those’ classics that you should probably at least try. So after doing a small bit of research into the various unabridged translations on the market (no matter hw long the book I get angry if I later find out I didn't read the whole thing), it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I finally picked up my brick-sized copy and started to read. And both feelings turned out to be pretty well-founded in the end too; I absolutely adored the novel, it was truly brilliant in places, but bloody hell some of it was tedious – just not necessarily the parts I had expected.
‘There is something we might mention that has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell – not even on the background‘. The book loves tangents so much it even starts with one; fifty pages of in-depth character study for a bishop who disappears around ninety pages in – though his actions set in motion the entire plot. The primary character, Jean Valjean, does not appear until page fifty and Fantine, the character the first section of the book is named after, does not appear until page one hundred and three. It could easily be frustrating, especially when the bishop is so very very perfect and good and exactly how an ideal bishop should be. But actually, I really enjoyed it. The writing was fabulous, and the character study was so in-depth that I didn’t feel annoyed by this near perfect portrayal, he felt like a genuinely good person and not ajust a plot device. I suspect it’s something that many readers have to struggle and force themselves through, but for me, it worked.
And, actually, so did a lot of the author tangents. I struggled with the fifty pages detailing the Battle of Waterloo later – but I still enjoyed it, I simply had to take it slowly because I have no head for military strategy. I enjoyed the asides about French politics, I fucking adored the chapters on the architecture and history of Parisian sewer system (adored!). I’m probably odd (I also like the farming and agricultural history sections in Anna Karenina better than the main plot), but I liked a lot more of these overgrown author tangents than I disliked, and they made me pine for an education system where the French revolution and Napoleonic Europe is a compulsory part of the history curriculum rather than a ‘some schools might offer it at A level’. The tangents that I did dislike though, I found reeeeally irritating; the study of the monastic system (normally a subject that fascinates me) effectively ground the whole plot to an absolute standstill, and after such high-tension exciting scenes before hand it was even more annoying, same with the excruciating dissertation on Parisian criminal slang (to be fair probably a hard subject to translate into English). Whenever the plot seems to be going somewhere at any sort of speed and you’re really getting into it, WHAM! Author tract to slow things waaaaay back down again. But actually, the things that frustrated me most in this book, related more to the main plot and the characters than to the infamous tangents and info-dumps that I had been warned about.
‘Grown up’ Cossette is, frankly, one of the most insipid, uninspiring, and dull characters in literature. The only point where I put this book down for a whole day wasn’t during any of the lectures on French politics or long descriptions of 19th century Paris, but during the romance sub-plot with her and Marius (who started out interesting and grew gradually less and less likable the more he mooned over Cossette until, at the very end, I wanted to punch him repeatedly in the face). I’m not a big ‘love at first sight’ fan at the best of times but this love story was just….eh. There were glimmers of something more interesting in Cossette, of her acting like a real teenager; when she discovers she’s ‘pretty’ she becomes a little vain, she gets over heartache quicker than Marius, notices other handsome men, but ultimately her characterisation is shallow and lazy. She exists only as a plot device – something to provide motivation for the two male heroes of the book, her ‘father’ Jean Valjean, and her love interest Marius. Every flaw she’s given fails to turn her into a more complex character (as it is with the men) but merely confirms her role is no longer 'orphan child' but‘generic female love interest’. And I’m not entirely sure that Hugo is very good at writing women in the first place anyway. He over-romanticises them, puts them on a pedestal, and sings the praises of their purity and innocence. Only Éponine, wonderful Éponine, – the urchin girl with feelings for Marius – manages to rise above the 'good woman=feminine and fragile, bad woman=unfemine' stereotype to be presented as a complex and compelling character in her own right. And it makes her, along with Javert and John Valjean, one of the best bloody characters in the whole novel.
When it’s good though, it’s absolutely great. The Jean Valjean vs Javert plot is as compelling as it is totally improbable. I only wish we had seen a bit more of Javert. From the musical I was expecting him to be a bit more of a major character than he is, as it is he just sort of pops up where needed, steals the scene, and then disappears again until the plot calls him back. The dogged pursuit of John Valjean I’d been sold is really less ‘dogged pursuit’ and more John Valjean constantly being thrown by sheer chance into the same policeman’s path again and again ad again (there’s a lot of chance and coincidence in this book). No matter how contrived though, those encounters are still wonderfully tense and dramatic. It’s during these chance encounters, the chase scenes and the attempts to hide their identity from each other, that the book starts moving at a bit of a clip and I found myself thinking ’1200 pages really isn’t all that long, I’ll be done in no time!’. Whatever the other subplots of the novel - and there's a lot going on - the real climax of the book is the absolutely beautiful resolution of this storyline. Arguably I'm just more drawn to this storyline because I’m much more of a fan of adventure stories than I am romances but I found this plot line both more compelling and better written. It was more original, and had far more to say than the Marius-Cossette romance that is the other main plot. Realistic would be the wrong word to describe it, it relies too much on contrived coincidences, but I found the characters and their motivations more believable.
All the bits that annoyed me though – from the ‘women are angels’ to the ‘stalking is love’, ‘love makes you not give a shit for anyone but your love interest’, the slightly heavy-handed lectures, and the idea of ‘deserving/undeserving poor’ lurking beneath the portrayal of many characters, was totally forgiven by the last section of the book. Even if I had hated the beginning and middle I would have had to give five stars to this book just for the chapters set in the Paris sewers and Javert’s final scene. Wonderful, wonderful writing. It’s possibly that I’m odd, but I think many people have a fascination for the tunnels and buildings underneath cities – from the abandoned tube lines in London to the catacombs and sewers of Paris – Hugo certainly does anyway, and so do I. I’m not about to go all urban exploring or anything because I’m a wimp (though I have visited the Paris catacombs), but I will read the fuck out of a book that makes effective use of these creepy abandoned underworlds beneath the city. The claustrophobic atmosphere in these chapters were just great, I could totally see the scenes playing out in my head as the characters tried to find their way in the dark maze of stinking sewers, their feet sinking into ‘bogs’. I loved it so much I even adored the info dump, which started out as an unpromising essay on why human manure should be sent to fertilise the fields rather than ferment in the sewers but ended up being a fascinating history of the sewer network in Paris, the dangers to the people who work (and lurk) there and the clean up mission started under Napoleon. It doesn’t sound fascinating, I know – but what can I say, I’m the daughter of a civil engineer and a town planner; I can’t help but find infrastructure cool. Other people love the barricade scenes (which were pretty dand ace as well – and without doubt the highlight of the stage and film versions) or the romance, I love the sewer chapters – different strokes.
Without that though, it would still be a solid four and a half, at least, star book. I may have been bored by Marius and Cossette – and Marius started as such a promising character too before he lost interest in anything but Cossette . I may have found the odd info dump annoying or poorly placed, but the sheer scope and ambition of the piece is astounding. Yes, it’s definitely heavy-handed at points and the ‘redemption’ story feels a bit of a joke to me as a modern reader because Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving family hardly makes him a criminal who needs redemption – he’s simply not a bad man to begin with. But the call for prison and judicial reform and the message of how society can force a good man or woman (in the case of Fantine) to desperate and illegal actions out of love for a child – and how society then expels and ostracises them rather than attempt to understand or lend a helping hand is one that, sadly, is still applicable today. It’s heavy-handed because, at the time, it needed to be. If nothing else too, the book taught me a lot of stuff on 19th century France – and I’m never averse to learning more about historical periods I know very little about.
Aaaaah. There is just so much stuff I could say on this book! So many themes and characters and scenes that I could talk for ages about that I haven’t even touched on here but I really gone on long enough and I think I’ve put down my main impressions ok, so I’ll leave it here. A long, brilliant, and occasionally frustrating book. I thought it was wonderful and, though I won’t be embarking on a reread any time soon, it’s going pretty hight on my list of favourite classics and Hugo's being bumped up on my list of authors to read more of.
Now to check out translations for 'Notre-Dame de Paris'......more
We is the earliest and least famous (at least in the UK) of the 'big three' 20th century political dystopias; Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, a 3.5 Stars
We is the earliest and least famous (at least in the UK) of the 'big three' 20th century political dystopias; Zamyatin's We, Orwell's 1984, and Huxley's Brave New World. It is also the only one of them to be written by an author who actually lived in a Police State (two in fact: Tsarist Russia followed Communist Russia). And, to be honest, those are really the main two reasons for reading it - its literary significance and its historical context. Take that away and it's a very dated and rather hard to relate to bit of sci-fi that I would probably never have picked up, let alone stuck with to the end. With both of these factors in mind, however, I found it utterly fascinating.
We tells the story of D-503, in fact it's presented as an account written by D-503, the head architect on the first OneState rocket to be sent into space. It starts, several days prior to blast-off, with D-503 picking up his pen to write an account of OneState society for any 'inferior life forms' the rocket may encounter. However it quickly turns into a more personal diary chronicling D-503's growing dissatisfaction with OneState as he falls in love with the mysterious I-330 and finds himself unwittingly swept into the plans of an underground resistance group to try to topple the regime. If you've read 1984 (and I have, though a very long time ago) it's impossible not to see the connections and to realise how much Zamyatin's work must have influenced Orwell's. Where 1984 had a strong cast of characters, however, Zamyatin's seem strangely blank and completely unrelatable.
Part of this is, of course, due to the nature of the story. It's a dystopia; society is different, and in OneState individuality is a disease. People are simply numbers, cogs in the machine of state. There is no real concept of 'I', but only 'we' and the narrator can't ever quite break away from his conditioning. But also it's a dystopia and in this case that means an 'ideas over characters' plot and try as he might, Zamyatin can't make me find his narrator very interesting. I-330 is probably meant to be the standout character of the book, she's strong, charismatic, politically active, and sexually promiscuous, but she always felt too much like a necessary 'part of the plot' for me to get a grip on her as a character. Much more compelling, for me, was O-90, D-503's plump state assigned sex partner who's hopelessly in love with him - why, however, I never quite worked out.
And then there's the thing that made me really lose sympathy for the main character. Not his OneState 'I am a cog in a machine and I like it' socialisation, but the racism. As the black character is sympathetic I hope this is just another example of how OneState is a horrible horrible place - but I do struggle with a narrator that keeps describing his friend as having 'african lips' with 'spittle flying from them' every time he speaks or 'moving like a gorilla'. I just... it's not nice to read.
The plot too, it has to be said, isn't always the most compelling, though it certainly has its moments. It fluctuates between serious political concepts and actually quite comical B-movie black and white sci-fi. You can practically imagine the rocket scenes being done by dangling a toilet roll dressed up as a spaceship in front of a piece of card painted black with stars, and the sex scenes are just - well the comedy has to be deliberate. And it is funny, not just 'oh dear how dated' funny, but genuinely funny in places - it just all gels very oddly together leaving me unsure what the tone of the book was really meant to be. The narrator himself is also so naive and confused by events that the story itself feels confused in places and I wasn't always sure what was actually going on - I'm still not sure exactly what was going on in some parts actually. It was a fascinating read, utterly fascinating, but not always quite as enjoyable a read as I was hoping for.
I'm glad I read it, but I won't be reading it again. To be honest I found it more interesting for its historical and literary significance than its own merits and I wouldn't really recommend it to anyone I know as a casual read, unless I happened to know that they were interested in either Russian Communism or early 20th century science-fiction....more
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have3 Stars
Taking a quick break from Les Misérables (great, but fucking long) to type up a brief review. And it will be brief because basically all I have to say is that I like the story itself, but I simply can’t make myself trust Heaney as a translator.
I have no particular reason not to trust him as a translator, let’s get that straight. I don’t read Old English, have never read an unabridged Beowulf translation before, and this one is very highly and widely regarded by people who can and have – so I’m not anywhere near qualified to say anything about how faithful/good a translation it is. I just have a gut feeling that, really, I’d have been better off with a different translation. When I finished the book I didn’t feel ‘yes I’m done with Beowulf, I’m one badass classics reader’ but, ‘I should probably go buy/borrow the Oxford World Classics edition’.
Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for an edition translated by a poet who’s famous in his own right – but then that never bothered me with Simon Armatage’s translations of Arthurian epics. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone for one translated by a poet I studied and disliked at school – but I assumed I’d grown out of that rather juvenile ‘I studied it so I hate it’ dislike and had only heard good things about his translation. Maybe it’s just because it’s fucking Beowulf and I was expecting something truly awesome… Whatever the reason I ended up feeling disappointed with the poem and disappointed with myself for picking this translation. It’s not bad, it’s very readable in fact and the story, as expected, is pretty damn cool. I just simply can’t get over the feeling I’m reading Heaney’s version of Beowulf rather than Heaney’s translation. It’s probably irrational – not being able to read Old English I’ll never know – but reading the introduction, which is lots about Heaney and very little about Beowulf didn’t really do anything to challenge this gut feeling. In fact reading the all about Heaney introduction (in several parts cause I had to keep putting it down from boredom) just reminded me why I found him so utterly unbearable to study at GCSE.
But for people without my anti-Heaney baggage – it tells the Beowulf story and it is very readable. As I said, I can’t speak for its accuracy as a translation, just of my own personal response to it so I’d take this whole review with a massive grain of salt too....more