Review 1562: #1956 Club! The Fall

I’ve never read any Camus before, so I decided to read The Fall for the 1956 Club. This I can say: after reading The Kreutzer Sonata, The Prague Cemetery, The King Without a Kingdom, and The Fall, I’ve decided I hate novels that are monologues.

An unnamed person meets Clamence, an ex-Parisian lawyer, in an Amsterdam bar. Clamence begins his monologue explaining how his life changed. He began as a successful lawyer for the defense—handsome, genial, charitable, always doing good—and a womanizer. As he talks, we see that his charitable impulses are rooted in self-regard. His discourse becomes more and more cynical until . . . .

Well, I don’t know, because 50 pages before the end, I realized I was struggling to pay attention, and I stopped reading. His “witty” discourse may have been ground-breaking in 1956, but in 2020, it just seems banal.

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Review 1530: The Last of Chéri

The Last of Chéri is the second novella by Colette about Chéri and Léa. I try to avoid spoilers, but in this case I can’t avoid one, although it is actually about the previous novella, Chéri.

At the end of Chéri, Léa, Chéri’s middle-aged lover, made a sacrifice of her own love by separating from the young Chéri so that he could grow up. Now, it’s six years later. World War I has intervened, during which Chéri received a medal he didn’t exactly earn. His wife, Edmeé, is heavily involved in running a hospital and is in love with its lead physician. During the war, Edmeé and Charlotte, his mother, took over managing his fortune, a task that he was good at, and he doesn’t know how to ask for it back. His friends have been killed or have gone to work. In short, Chéri feels no purpose in life. The old ways of living for pleasure are dead, and in any case, he finds them boring.

Chéri hasn’t thought of Léa for years, but with her he was loved. He wonders if he can return to her.

I frankly didn’t much like the Chéri of the first novella, but I have more sympathy with thirty-year-old Chéri, even though I regret the solution he finds for his problem. Ultimately, this book is an indictment of how he was raised, and I eventually found it touching.

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Review 1520: I’ll Never Be Young Again

Richard is a young man who has always felt his famous poet father disdained him. He is about to throw himself into the Thames when he is stopped by an older man named Jake. With Jake, he sets out as a common seaman on a Norwegian barque.

Richard is a very changeable, touchy, and selfish young man, but Jake says he will be all right, he’s just young. The pair go off traveling among the fjords and see Stockholm, with Richard changing how he feels about their experiences almost minute by minute. Ultimately, an accident sends Richard on alone to Paris, where he begins writing and meets a girl, Hesta.

I thought I had read just about everything by du Maurier, but I hadn’t come across this novel before. It is her second, and it certainly shows immaturity. Although du Maurier is good at description, this novel depends upon it too much, so that it is slow moving. In addition, the dialogue is quite crude. Du Maurier believed she had a male side that eventually led to an ability to write effectively from a male point of view, but I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She overdoes it.

Finally, Richard is so self-centered that its hard to find any sympathy for him, which made it difficult for me to finish the book. When he meets Hesta, for example, she is an independent young woman studying music. He manages to strip everything away from her so that she is totally dependent upon him. Then he takes her for granted.

So, I didn’t really enjoy this novel, although the ending lessened my dislike of it. I have to say, though, that Richard as a character is all too believable.

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Review 1494: #1920Club! Chéri

I haven’t read any Colette for a long time, so I thought it would be fun to read Chéri for the 1920 Club. It is the story of Léa, a middle-aged but beautiful courtesan, and her young lover, called Chéri, set in 1913.

Léa has been with her spoiled, childish lover since he was a very young man, but now his mother, Madame Peloux, thinks it’s time he was married. So, he and Léa prepare to part. Once parted, though, they both realize that they loved the other more than they thought.

Colette’s world of wealthy and stylish early 20th century Parisians is in some ways more foreign to me than stories about cultures much further removed. I couldn’t help feeling how sterile are lives lived only for pleasure. Also, I don’t really understand the attraction of a young man who behaves like a petulant child. But this is part of the realization that Léa finally has, that it’s about time he grew up.

The descriptions of people, rooms, and clothing are evocative and lovely. Despite my not being over fond of it, this is a masterly examination of the human heart.

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Review 1477: The Collector’s Apprentice

I find that as I read more, I have a lot less patience with mediocre fiction. Either a novel has to grab me immediately or I have to feel that I am reading good fiction. So, I had only about 50 pages of patience for The Collector’s Apprentice.

Vivienne has taken on an alias after her fiancé, George, scammed her father and other investors of their money. Even though she doesn’t believe George was guilty (he told her a Swiss banker cheated everyone), she has been blamed for it and ostracized from her family. She finds herself with no means of support in 1922 Paris.

She has to put up with about five pages of hardship before being hired as a translator for Edwin, a collector of fine art from the United States. As her ambition was to curate her father’s collection, this job is perfect for her.

I was willing to put up with the chick-lit-like features of this novel because of my interest in the art world it seemed to be approaching. However, soon it became clear that we were going to get entangled with George again, and I found that not at all interesting. So, I quit reading.

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Review 1424: Little

Best of Ten!
Often I don’t read reviews attentively or more often I don’t remind myself what a book is about before reading it, so I didn’t realize for some time that Little is a fictional biography of Madame Tussaud. It is an idiosyncratic one, to be sure.

Marie, often called Little for her small stature, is familiar with loss. In 1760, when she is five, her father dies. Her mother never recovers from it, and shortly after she and her mother take up residence with Doctor Curtius, for whom her mother is employed as a servant, her mother commits suicide.

Doctor Curtius is one of many peculiar characters, Marie not excepted, who occupy the novel’s pages. He is a very odd creature, unused to others, who models body parts in wax to be studied by anatomists. Marie is not dismayed by his peculiarities and is entranced by his wonderful collection of body parts. So, he begins teaching her to draw and model objects in wax.

At Little’s suggestion, they model the entire head of some subjects. Soon, they have a business of selling heads of themselves to customers. Dr. Curtius is mistreated by the hospital, so when a traveling Frenchman, Louis-Sébastian Mercier, suggests they move to Paris from Switzerland to model great men, they do.

Shortly after they arrive in Paris, Doctor Curtius falls under the influence of their landlady, the Widow Picot, who soon has Little working for the entire family, not just Doctor Curtius, even though Little has never been paid. Madame Picot makes no secret that she would like to get rid of her. In the meantime, she and Doctor Curtius begin by modelling the heads of famous criminals. By now, the French Revolution threatens.

Little is narrated in a sprightly, whimsical fashion even when it relates things that are not so pleasant. That, and the pervading personality of its main character, are two of its charms, even as it becomes darker. This is a strange and wonderful novel.

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Review 1408: Love Is Blind

Although generally speaking, I love William Boyd, I should have known better than to read a book named Love Is Blind. Even from the title, I could tell it was about a man who falls in love with a woman who is trouble, a plot that I hate. Although men love to write books upon this subject, most of the women incarcerated in the United States are there because of a man. Of course, it happens for both sexes, but a man enthralled by a lethal siren is the least of it and, for me, not interesting.

In 1894 Edinburgh, Brody Moncur is a piano tuner of significant skills. He is offered a position of assistant manager in his company’s Paris office which he takes, determined to get away from his controlling father.

In a promotional effort, Brody makes a deal with John Kilbarron, a famous pianist, to play only his company’s pianos. Soon, he has fallen in love with Lika, Kilbarron’s mistress, who is an opera singer. They begin an affair, and his life becomes a series of efforts to win her away safely from Kilbarron.

Disturbingly, we get very little sense of what Lika is like as a person. She serves pretty much as Boyd’s MacGuffin. The novel just focuses on Brody’s obsession and its consequences. It’s obvious that Lika has her secrets, and to me, it was even obvious what the major one was.

As well written as it is, I simply didn’t enjoy the theme of this book. As with Boyd’s other recent books, it takes in a sweep of history and visits many places while it meanders to its denouement.

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Review 1364: Madame de Treymes

If you have read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the situation in her novella, Madame de Treymes, will seem familiar. As Madame de Treymes was written before The Age of Innocence, perhaps Wharton was trying out some ideas in this novella that she developed more fully in the later novel.

John Durham is in love with Madame de Malrive. He knew her as Fanny Frisbee in their younger days in New York, but now she is separated from her husband and has a young child. He proposes to her, expressing himself willing to adapt to any conditions she may make, but she says her husband’s family will never agree to a divorce. She has used her leverage because of her husband’s dissolute life to keep her son and does not want to jeopardize her custody.

Fanny says that the family never explicitly states its intentions, and she never knows what they are going to do. Her sister-in-law, Madame de Treymes, seems to be sympathetic, however, and she asks John to try to discover from her the family’s intentions.

Durham arranges a meeting with Madame and is first inclined not to believe the stories he’s heard about her. However, the meeting goes badly wrong.

This novella is about the inability of the aristocratic French and the Americans of the same class to comprehend each other. A misunderstanding on both sides results in unforeseen circumstances. This novella is subtle and more of a character study than a plotted piece, about the gulf between two very different cultures. I read this interesting novella for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1314: The Paris Architect

Cover for The Paris ArchitectLucien Bernard is an architect in 1942 Paris who is eager to prove his abilities as a modernist designer. He has an opportunity to design a factory for Auguste Manet, a wealthy businessman, and is undeterred by the knowledge that it will be used to manufacture arms for the Germans. All he wants is the opportunity to advance his career.

But first, Manet wants his help in designing an undetectable place to hide a person. He has been helping Jews hide from the Gestapo until they can leave the country. Lucien has no love for Jews and is terrified he’ll be caught. But he takes on the challenge.

This is an interesting premise for a novel, but Belfoure’s writing ability isn’t up to the task. The writing, especially the dialogue, is crude and obvious. Most of the Germans are cartoonish as villains, and other characters are flat as pancakes. Lucien’s secret is threatened from several directions, which is supposed to heighten the tension but almost makes it ridiculous. Lucien’s assistant hates him and is involved in helping his own uncle finds Jews, while Lucien’s mistress is two-timing him with a Gestapo officer.

Most problematically, Lucien is a jerk. He is supposed to evolve into a good guy during the novel, but there is a fairly late scene where his reaction to thinking his girlfriend is cheating on him is brutal. Of course, he is rewarded by falling in love with a beautiful model in Paris.

As you can probably tell, I disliked this novel.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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