Eugénie Grandet

This was such an unexpected surprise and I feel incredibly fond of this book. On the one hand it’s a simple story of the Grandet family. Felix, his wife and their daughter Eugénie. Their maid Nanon and the two families of friends, the Cruchot’s and the des Grassins who visit them. They live in Saumur, in the Loire Valley region of France in a house whose appearance ‘weighs as heavily upon the spirits as the gloomiest cloister,’. Into this gloomy house comes cousin Charles from Paris and Eugénie falls immediately in love.

But on the other hand it isn’t simple at all because avarice is the enormous all pervading silent character that engulfs their lives on every page. The lowly cooper, Felix Grandet made a fortune in 1789 when he bought land confiscated from the aristocracy. A bumper harvest in 1811 increased his wealth and he’s quick to invest in business, so that by the time the novel opens ‘one day in the middle of November in the year 1819’ Grandet has a fortune so large that his every action is ‘cloaked in gold‘ and he has become a miser who worships his gold at the cost of everything else, keeping it secretly in a strongroom

‘while Madame and Mademoiselle Grandet soundly slept, the old cooper would come to commune with his gold, to caress and worship, fondle and gloat over his gold.’

This is only a short novel, my Penguin copy is 248 pages, and the gathering of his wealth, the swindling and hoodwinking of his neighbours, takes up by far the largest part, so that I did wonder why it wasn’t called Felix Grandet, but it is ultimately Eugénie’s story and that’s why I’m afraid I can’t talk about the book without talking about the ending, although I won’t give away the whole plot.

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Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

I’ve had a couple of Peirene novels sitting looking at me for quite some time and have been intrigued by the TLS claim that these are ‘two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting’. I also wanted to take part in Read Indies month, hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy and so it seemed sensible to give it a go.

As it turns out Portrait of the Mother by Friedrich Christian Delius (translated by Jamie Bulloch) was the perfect book to read in one go as it follows a young German women as she walks across Rome on a January afternoon in 1943, from her lodgings to a Bach concert at Rome’s Lutheran church, all told in one sentence.

It’s a walk that takes her just over an hour and through her internal monologue we get a fabulously detailed look at Rome, the paintings, sculptures, empty shops and people. But we also learn about her upbringing and her families lives, her new husband fighting in North Africa and how she feels as an outsider even though she’s amongst allies.

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The Outsider

Written in the first person Monsieur Meursault a Parisian living in Algiers lets us into his very ordinary life. He lives in an apartment where his neighbours include Raymond who brutally assaults his mistress and Salamano a widower who lives with his dog. His girlfriend Marie stays over sometimes. He goes to work, drinks wine, smokes a lot, swims and endures the heat.

‘My mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.’ This first line captures Meursault’s state of anomie brilliantly, however ordinary his life this is no ordinary character and I was hooked immediately by his simple straightforward prose.

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The Lady and the Little Fox Fur

foxfur

Paris in 1965 and an elderly lady lives in an attic under the metro counting out coffee beans. She rides the crowded metro carriages to feel the warmth of other bodies and watches hot pancake batter drip from the hands of street sellers. But then, one hot day, when she’s rootling around in a bin for an orange she finds instead a smelly old fox fur and everything changes, ‘a winter fur in summer.’

‘She was breathing the oxygen meant for people who had spent their day working.’

It’s a book about loneliness and trying to find a connection to the rhythms of everyday life and how, in finding something to love (and she finds the humour in it too!) that turns to an acceptance of her situation with her fox fur, her few possessions and her imagination. Not lonely anymore but just alone.  violette leduc

She gives a running commentary as she walks around Paris in her battered hat and shiny green coat, her childhood and past experiences folded into her existence. It’s funny and knowing: ‘After six, the wind in Paris grows stronger and disarranges all our principles.’ but it isn’t sweet or sentimental. In the introduction Deborah Levy says it’s a way of staring at life and making from it a kind of tough poetry.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If This Is A Man

if this is a manOn December 13th 1943 at the age of 24 Primo Levi, a chemist from Turin was captured by the Fascist militia and giving his status as an ‘Italian citizen of Jewish race’ was taken via the detention camp at Fossoli to Auschwitz. Of the 650 who arrived the children, the old men and most of the women were ‘swallowed up by the night’.  Ninety six men and twenty nine women entered the camps of Monowitz-Buna and Birkenau. The rest were sent to the gas chamber, only 3 made the return journey home. The story of his journey home is told in The Truce.

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The Beautiful Summer

the beautiful summer
It’s summer in Turin in the 1930’s and 16 year old Ginia is ready for adventure. Parentless, she works in a dressmakers, loves to laugh and dance and lives with her older brother, taking care of him and their apartment.

But then she is befriended by Amelia an artists model, and over the summer becomes involved with her older bohemian set that includes Guido and love!

The cover blurb in my Penguin copy says that ‘It’s the start of a desperate love affair, charged with false hope and overwhelming passion’, which makes it all sound rather melodramatic; when the clever thing about The Beautiful Summer, is that within 100 pages of very little drama Cesare Pavese has us completely believing in the confusion Ginia is going through.

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The Leopard

leopard

It’s 1860 and Fabrizio, Prince of Salina rules over thousands of acres, hundreds of people, his wife and seven children. But when Garibaldi lands in Sicily and is hailed a hero and liberator by the people, it is clear that the old way of life is changing.

Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa is writing about his great grandfather, by following the prince to his death in 1883 we get a glimpse of a Sicilian nobleman at a moment of crisis and the degeneration of his family until almost collapse in 1910.  Continue reading “The Leopard”

Death in Spring

death in Spring
Mercè Rodoreda is a new writer for me and this was a completely new type of read. Born in Barcelona in 1908, Rodoreda wrote a number of novels and short stories in Catalan in the early 1930’s. In 1935 she began working for the Catalan Ministry of Information, but was forced into exile on Franco’s victory, first in France and then Switzerland. She returned to Catalonia in the 60’s, Death in Spring was published posthumously in 1986, which adds to its sense of mystery and otherness.

I say all this because knowing a bit about her background seemed to matter very much when trying to understand this strange book. Narrated by a nameless 14 year old boy, the drama is set in a nameless village, a village ‘born from the earth’s terrible unrest’, in no set period in history. But while it feels realistic, in that we recognise her world, Rodoreda’s gentle language lulls us into the brutal customs which are followed without question. Continue reading “Death in Spring”

Doctor Zhivago

dr.zhivago

This wasn’t at all what I expected. I thought I was going to read a sweeping love story set against a backdrop of snow.

Instead I found the history of Russia in the first half of the 20th century, world wars, revolution, civil war and the political terror of the 1930’s told through the eyes of a doctor and poet.

But it was the plain, almost dispassionate style that surprised me the most. Writing in 1957 Pasternak describes the civil war vividly, but without sentiment. A sense of catastrophe and upheaval is always present, the characters come thick and fast, which gives a sense of the chaos and disorder but somehow Yuri Zhivago is detached, as if he’s watching events through a window and never really taking part. Continue reading “Doctor Zhivago”

War and Peace

 

war and peacePhew! This has taken me so long to read and I’m so relieved to have finished!  It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it but it just went on and on. I was almost weeping by the end, I just wanted someone to take his pen away! The biggest problem for me was that it felt like two books – the saga of War and Peace and then Tolstoy’s philosophy. Which was incredibly wise and true but pages and pages of it!

Written between 1863 and 1868 and set during the Napoleonic Wars (1805-12), the story of the Rostov’s and Bolkonsky’s and Pierre Bezukhov, was terrific.  I loved all the Russian names, the soirees in Petersburg, the palaces, and the huge family gatherings.  The cossacks, troikas,snow, dancing, nuts cooked in honey, herb cordials, ‘flat cakes made from dark flour and buttermilk’, roasted chicken, liquors and mushrooms, Mitka playing the balalaika, racing sleighs and droshky and muzhiks.

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