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La Bête humaine

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La Bête humaine
Emile Zola (1890)
Folio, 1977

This is an incredibly sensual book, almost to the point of vulgarity. Not in the sense that it is overtly sexual or violent even, just that the atmosphere is palpable in every scene.

All of the characters feel as though they are just centimeters from one another: living, breathing and viscerally gutting themselves all within close proximity. Even when Severine and Jacques take their weekly dalliances to Paris, it feels as though Paris herself has become but another suburb of Rouen.

The image of the ripe neck is persistent and laden with connotations of lust, death and some form of culmination, either murderous or sexually inclined. The image of the body is extended to non-organic objects, such as the train and we see a kind of self-mutilation in the horrific accident which occurs before the book’s denouement.

The motif of modernity feels like a powerful force which keeps pulling these desperate creatures towards some pre-ordained demise, all the while the pace is painfully slow, as though the fact that it is inevitable means that their end is in no way urgent, seeing that it is given.


The Essential Hemingway

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-10-01-42-amThe Essential Hemingway 
Ernest Hemingway
Vintage Books, London (2004)

This collection of novellas and short stories gave me an entirely new appreciation of Hemingway. Reading a couple of his novels set in Spain did not cause me much excitement so I thought I would be faced with something similar throughout his short stories.

The reality was very different. Hemingway is certainly a master of the story. I got this feeling more from the last set of stories in the collection such as; The Light of the World, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Death in the Afternoon. Each of these deals, as does the whole collection in some sense, with the ever approaching spectre of death. In the last stories I saw the culmination of a life’s work, one which was unceasingly ebbing closer to the abyss and silence. Silence as an author’s worst enemy is approached in these stories with a defiant din. An echo back to the void.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place resonated especially with myself, as someone always searching for that last call, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this image of a small bar, in a small village on the edge of a small night and in the depth of sentiment toward a patron trying to ride through the solitude of night. This story is especially pertinent to life in Sydney were all of the bars are closing and all of the lights are being turned out in favour of the ding of the casino bell or of the soft quilted bed cover. Ever less room is being left for those of us who love the night and the rhythm of a bar just before closing hour. The later that hour the better. It not a matter of a party or even of socialising, it is the possibility of disappearing into the night and into its anonymity. It doesn’t matter so much that you can’t sleep when so many others are not sleeping either.


Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 9.40.04 PMZadie Smith

The Penguin Press, USA (2012)

NW tells the story of a group of individuals living in a northern corner of London and their various experiences in life. Leah starts off this multi-perspective tale with a dramatic event which seems to alter the very fabric of her existence. Unfortunately we are waiting to find out how and what exactly causes this change through the rest of the book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the revelation that occurs is the realisation that she does not wish to have any children of her own. There is a clever kind of suspended mystery at play here, for although we know this to be the case from the beginning and as it is a fact articulated by Leah to herself throughout, we are still shocked or at least gratified to find its verbalisation to those closest to her to add another level of meaning when said out loud. Natalie (Keisha) is the other fundamental character to this story and her life is also disintegrating before our eyes. Initially her life, as seen from the perspective of Leah and Michel, is depicted as a bastion of marital and motherly bliss. She is successful, independent and a natural mother. All of these illusions are stripped away in the third section of the novel when Natalie is revealed as duplicitous and voyeuristic with regards to her own life. She herself feels to be disengaged from her identity and even her own life; watching with apparent boredom as she engages in various sexual exploits with multiple anonymous partners. All of this is presented to us as though it doesn’t really matter. No one really cares if Natalie is a nymphomaniac just as much as Felix’s death is nothing more than a blip registered on the eternal periphery of these interconnected yet absurdly disinterested lives. In a way, this allows for a much larger picture of NW, one which is built from the many mirrors and intersections of every day life to form a world where everyone and paradoxically no one is watching at any one point. The sense of observation bears down upon each individual story, each of which is linked indeterminably to another, and another etc and continum ad absurdium…

Certainly a great insight into life in a vacum and it being the first book I have read by Smith it will be my pleasure to read more.

Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris

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Guy de Maupassant
Les Dimanches d’un Bourgeois de Paris
Librairie Paul Ollendorff, Paris 1919 [1880]

A simple tale of a man searching for health and completing the cycle of work and life in an ordinary fashion with frequent trips to the countryside. Maupassant exhibits his infinite talent for turning irony into meaning, whereby Patissot’s lack of self awareness allows for the expression of  a wonderful third person omniscient perspective:

“Et Patissot, en s’en allant, fut pris d’une immense consideration pour cet homme, non pas tant à cause de ses grands succès, de sa gloire et de son talent, mais parce qu’il mettait tant d’argent pour une fantasie, tandis que les bourgeois ordinaries se privent de toute fantasie pour amasser de l’argent!”

(And Patissot, going upon his way, was seized with an immense sense of esteem for this great man, not so much for his successes, his glory or his talent, but because he was so willing to spend such large amounts of money on a whim, whereas an ordinary bourgeois citizen would sacrifice all whim for the chance to accumulate more money) 

The irony extends to real life when Patissot is asked to visit a famous artist by his journalist cousin and is informed that the best way to deal with artists is to

“…faites seulement des compliments, rien que des compliments, toujours des compliment…”

(… all you need to do is pay them compliments, nothing but compliments, always compliments…)

The irony becomes apparent when in fact the artist in question is Emile Zola, Maupassant’s mentor and friend. When we do reach the scene with Zola, the joke continues, as hinted by their arrival at a tiny house built by the previous owner which now stands in the shadow of Zola’s construction:

“Avant d’entrer, ils examinèrent l’habitation. Une grande construction carrée et neuve, très haute, semblait avoir accouché, comme la montagne de la fable, d’une toute petite maison blanche, blottie à son pied. Cette dernière maison, la demeure primitive, a été bâtie par l’ancien propriétaire. La tour fut édifiée par Zola.”

(Before entering, they analysed the facade. A huge square building, new and very high appeared to have birthed, as the mountain in the fable, a small white house pressed tightly against its feet. This last house, primitive in its design, had been built by the previous owner. The tower was of Zola’s creation.)

The physical character portrait of Zola however, is completely in earnest. We can almost imagine the great Zola standing over an already 30 year old Maupassant lecturing on the limits of style. And with what seems fitting to Maupassant’s world view the giant on top of the hill descends to share in common the universal pride of property:

“Alors le propriétaire s’éveilla dans le coeur indifférent de l’homme de lettres qui, souriant, ouvrit le vitrage pour montrer l’étendue de la perspective.”

(And so the indifferent heart of the great man of letters was awakened, and with a smile he opened the window out on to the extensive views below.) 

These are most certainly the most interesting scenes in the novella, with the rest focusing on the superficialities of contemporary French society and bizarre relationships formed by strangers. However, there is a turn towards the absurd with the case of the disappearing Government:

“Pardon, monsieur, on ne peut pas le voir. J’ai essayé plus de cent fois, moi, monsieur. Je me suis embusqué auprès de l’Elysée : il n’est pas sorti. Un passant m’a affirmé qu’il jouait au billard, au café en face ; j’ai été au café en face : il n’y était pas. On m’avait promis qu’il irait à Melun pour le concours : je me suis rendu à Melun, et je ne l’ai pas vu. Je suis fatigué, à la fin.” 

(Excuse me Sir, but we cannot see him. I myself have tried at least a hundred times, Sir. I petitioned the Elysée: to no avail. Someone in passing informed me that he was playing at billiards in the cafe near by, I went to the cafe nearby, he was not there. They informed me that he would be at Melun for the races, I presented myself at Melun, and I did not see him there. To be honest, I am exhausted.)  

It’s refreshing to read some obvious parody of French institutions that we all so love to hate. Although the there is no real ending, and is rather abrupt in its denouement, the various chapters churn through unlikely characters who are more than keen open up to Patissot:

“C’est vrai, monsieur ; mais, si les prêtres étaient des hommes comme les autres, mes malheurs ne seraient pas arrivés. Je suis ennemi du célibat ecclésiastique, moi, monsieur, et j’ai mes raisons pour ça.”

(It’s true Sir, if priests were men like all others, my misfortune would never have come to pass. I myself am revolted by ecclesiastical celibacy, Sir, and I have my reasons. )

Maupassant is well versed in the fact that a good story is one in which everyone has their own.


Michel Houellebecq

Paris, 2001

I had heard quite a lot about Houellebecq before I picked Plateforme off my local Alliance Française library book shelf, but I honestly had no idea what to expect. With the topical publication of Soumission in January of 2015 I had imagined a writer very much on point and in touch with the social and political climate of a Paris steeped in the 21st Century. Whilst I was not immediately disappointed, I was somewhat dismayed at what was purported to be a great insight into the human condition. Plateforme was published in 2001 so I can quite frankly believe that its influence was much more important then, than it is now. However, all good books are in their essence, if not their production, timeless and I have failed to recognise how Plateforme could belong to this milieu. Not that anyone is presenting it as such; I am however of the mind to take Plateforme as emblematic of some sense of Houellebecq as a writer and in doing so, am  have exposed myself ass lightly less than enamoured.

The writing in Plateforme is exceptionally self-conscious, I was initially thrilled to see a certain cat and mouse scenario unfolding; one where we know not whether the narrator is Houellebecq himself, and thus imminently vile or whether he is nothing but a satirical figure created by Houellebcq to entangle us in a wonderful social irony. Perhaps it is because I decided that the former is the most plausible explanation that I do not consequently hold the book in much esteem. I can’t say that I really relish the image of flaccid masturbation as a great read. However, in amongst the pubescent portrayals of two dimensional sexual vessels, there was the odd glimpse of pure humanity in his work. This in itself is something that I prize as greatly becoming in a writer and is perhaps in itself enough to make up for any former disappointments:

 Curieusement, et sans l’avoir le moins du monde mérité, j’avais eu une seconde chance. C’est très rare, dans la vie, d’avoir une seconde chance; c’est contraire à toutes les lois.

It is at this point where the self-absorption which has been so vocal throughout the whole book is exposed to be incredibly insightful. The narrator is saying what we have all been thinking, and his ability to do so, after such a long time, is astounding and even endearing. Perhaps all is not lost and there is hope for us yet, or else Houellebecq is in the process of laying together another pastiche of irony; this time made up directly in our own image.

The Leopard

Tomasi Di Lampedusa

Vintage, London 2007

The Leopard delves into the psyche of a mid-nineteenth century Italian patriarch. Very soon we get the waft of decay, from the stagnating Italian sun down into the state of disrepair allowed to fester on his late cousin’s household. Everything becomes symbolic in a world in transition. The Prince is not reluctant to, nor is he ambivalent about change, he is rather resigned and accepting; he is however, by his very essence behind and not his opinions. We are led through a story which hinges intimately upon the psychology of a nation in the process of being born and of the many individuals who must now turn with the tide to make up this world in spite of their own reluctance.

Spanning over a number of decades we churn through political revolutions, social intrigues and the machinations of a dusty countryside; lingering half between ignorant poverty and opulent tradition. Popes and Kings come and go, and yet the Prince remains a constant. He is an ever flowing organism tied to everyone and everything by which he is surrounded through the threads of possession; be it financial, loyal or spiritual.

Death of Prince, when it does finally come, is not so much a transferral of power into the hands of a younger generation, but more so of a gentle decline into another form. Sons are left behind and a nephew gets old, yet perhaps it is they who are caught more so upon the precipice of change. The Prince becomes a man of his times and the others can do nothing else but follow.

It is this seemingly endless ebb of history and tradition which makes The Leopard such a sumptuous piece of writing to read. The narrator ploughs us seamlessly through the dust and all we can do is wait in anticipation for events which never come, and yet are all the more thrilling for it. The style reads as though from another époque and not simply another era. There is a sense of fantasy in the pervading stamp of omniscient perspective. Though firmly rooted in the nineteenth century we feel as though we could be reading of an Italy before science and even before culture; The Leopard’s is a land that has been burnt by an unflinching sun for over a millennia.