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Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Demian by Hermann Hesse

Well everyone, it's that time again: it's the Hermann Hesse analysis hour. I'm sure that would make more sense if this were a video, but never mind that. I'll admit, this book is not one of Hesse's that I was wildly excited about reading, considering the pedestrian sound of the blurb. I'm not sure what kind of impression my review will give, but I can at least attempt something cohesive and sensible.

Demian is the story of Emil Sinclair, the pseudonym which this was originally published under, as he grows from a young boy to adulthood. As a child he boasts of a fabricated theft to a bully, a story that the bully decides to blackmail him with; terrified of what the bully wants him to do in order to pay his silence, but equally terrified of his pious parents' reaction to his lies, he suffers in silence for several weeks. That is until a strange boy, Max Demian, takes an interest in him. That is the start of their intermittent association and the self-discovery that accompanies it.
Demian is not a book that immediately grabbed me. At first I found it rather slow. By the time I got to the middle, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was some kind of prototypical Siddhartha, considering that both are concerned with self-realisation and at first their protagonists take remarkably similar paths in terms of their exploration of the world. After a while though, I couldn't help but be intrigued by the book. The use of dreams and Jungian symbols, as well as the attempt at achieving an equal of binaries such as good and evil or male and female, kept this from being a slog. Granted, these things aren't always implemented all that subtly or with much critical evaluation, but it's certainly made me more interested in further reading on the subject.
As a narrator, Emil is sympathetic, if a bit more analytical and critical than most first-person narrators I've read before; considering that he is writing all of this in retrospect, it does make sense, but it can be kind of jarring reading an undeniably adult voice during the period in which he describes and analyses his childhood thoughts. Despite this he is sympathetic and at no time do his actions seem unnatural as he travels down an incredibly difficult and fraught path of self-discovery. The other major character, the title character Demian, is something of a different story. He's a little bit harder to pin down, probably because he is clearly presented as an idealistic figure; I personally found him a bit difficult to like him all that much as he felt just a bit too much like a Mary-Sue sort of figure. At no point can I remember any of his faults that would make him feel human, at no point was he ever in the wrong; I realise that he does embody the ideal that Emil is striving to achieve, but Demian seems to embody this self-possession and perfect understanding of himself and other people at an age that I find utterly unbelievable, and it kind of pulled me out of the story. I honestly want to describe him, but all that I can remember about him is how perfect we as an audience are supposed to find him and how devoid of other personality features he was.

I feel somewhat conflicted about this book. On the one hand, there is a lot here to like, with the Jungian and philosophical slants, as well as a sympathetic narrator. On the other hand, there is this character of Demian who just does not feel right. I suppose I feel more disappointed because I had such high hopes of Hesse, considering how much I enjoyed the other books of his that I've read. 3.5/5

Next review: Don Quixote, Books 4 &5 by Miguel Cervantes Saavedra

Signing off,

Monday, 22 October 2012

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

This is an odd one. I don't even know whether I can really call Invisible Cities a novel or not. This isn't the first time I've read Calvino's work before; no, my first introduction to his work was 'Night Driver', a short story that firmly places his work into the postmodern. Even knowing that, I'm still not sure what to make of this.

The blurb of my edition states two things. First, that the book is Marco Polo talking to Kublai Khan about the cities within his realm, all of which are actually aspects of his home city, Venice. Second, a quote from Gore Vidal that states, "Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of [...] Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant." I would be more inclined to believe Gore Vidal. While you do get scenes of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan talking, it is pretty bare and lacking conflict as a "plot"; in my head, Invisible Cities is more an exercise in world building than it is an actual novel. The majority of its chapters are 1-2 page descriptions of a fantastical city. How many of them are supposed to relate to Venice, I'm not sure; the only ones that rang true for me was one with canals (obviously) and one which is constantly under construction for fear that it will crumble once construction ends (it brought to mind the rapidly crumbling foundations). Just because their relation to the real world is tenuous at best is not a criticism from me. Far from it, in fact; whilst I was discussing what I was reading with my boyfriend, we realised just how much potential each of these cities contained. There was something about their weirdness, their unique spin on a city, that really captured my imagination in a way that I haven't experienced for years now.

This was a pretty short review, all in all. I would definitely recommend Invisible Cities, especially to those who read as an appreciation of writing as a craft, and those who enjoy the world-building aspect of it in particular. I can see it boring people who insist on deep and involving narratives, but I would recommend giving it a go. 5/5

Next review: Demian by Hermann Hesse

Signing off,

Friday, 19 October 2012

Clarimonde by Theophile Gautier

With little to fill the late evening, I decided that I might as well read Clarimonde, a short story set as part of my university course on the Gothic. At 24 pages, it was hardly an arduous task to take up. So, how well did it hold up with the other gothic fiction I've been reading recently?

Clarimonde is the story of a young priest, Romuald, who falls madly in love with a courtesan, the eponymous Clarimonde, on the day of his consummation as a priest. Despite his desire to be with her, his duty dictates that he become the cure at the church of a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. It is only when he is summoned to the bedside of a dying Clarimonde is he given an opportunity to be with her; unfortunately, it is not one that sits well with the part of him still devoted to God.
As a short story, there isn't much room to really work with, but I really liked what was there. At first I wasn't entirely sure what exactly was going to qualify Clarimonde as anything gothic, but Romuald's strange double life was certainly a pleasant surprise. The reveal about Clarimonde's true nature towards the end did seem a tad tacked on though, as the story doesn't really go into the lore or the technicalities of how she functions in that condition.

As it's only 24 pages, this is more than manageable to read. I'd definitely recommend it, particularly to readers of Gothic fiction or those who need something a bit lighter or who are in a reading slump. 4/5

Next review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Signing off,

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Well, on to dissertation stuff now. Yes, be warned, you will be seeing a fair bit of Hermann Hesse in the next month or so, as I need it for work. Although I probably would have gotten to Siddhartha eventually, considering that it's one of the books that made Hesse known worldwide and I had thoroughly enjoyed Beneath the Wheel before this. So how did it measure up?

Siddhartha is the story of a boy, the eponymous Siddhartha, who is born as the son of a Brahmin (essentially someone in the priest caste in India), but feels that there is something missing in the holy chants and rituals that he has known all his life. In his desire for enlightenment, he leaves his home village, along with his childhood friend Govinda, in order to discover fulfilment in his own terms. It's an interesting look at the Buddhism, but at its heart, it is the story of one person's will to get out into the world and find out his own path to enlightenment.
As a story, it's incredibly simplistic: it's pretty much a look at a man's spiritual journey as he grows from a youth to an old man. I would say that it's a strange mix of character study and book of Buddhist philosophy, which works very well. It's frustrating, there's so much about Siddhartha that excites me, but I can't seem to put it into words. As an enlightened Siddhartha states at the end, "Words do not express thoughts very well. They always become a little different immediately they are expressed, a little distorted, a little foolish." I suppose that what I like most about the philosophy in Siddhartha is the feeling of potential and attainability that I feel it has. The way that I interpreted what was said was that because everything is of the same nature and is thus of equal importance, there is the potential to become anything: it states that within the criminal there is the seed of enlightenment, a part of them that is perfect, and that it's just a matter of finding it and letting it grow. I rather like that. I don't know whether it's possible to enact in everyday life, or how you would do it if it is possible, but I think it will stay with me regardless.

There's a lot more in this book that I think makes it an important book to read, but I think that it's the sort of thing that works best when seen as a culmination of all the events in the book. It's something that is best experienced first-hand. Definitely something that I would recommend to all, even if you aren't of the Buddhist persuasion, as it's an important statement about the potential of human nature. 4.5/5

Next review: Clarimonde by Theophile Gautier

Signing off,

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My initial reason for wanting to pick up Carmilla is actually kind of shallow: it stars a lesbian vampire. Okay, there's a bit more to it than that five word clause allows for; I knew that it pre-dated Dracula by a few years so I wanted to know how the books differed in terms of vampire mythology as well as how a Victorian author would tackle same-sex attraction, considering the social norms of the time. It was an interesting read.

The story is narrated by Laura, a young girl living in an isolated castle in Styria with her father, nanny and governess. After a visit from a family friend and his niece is cancelled due to the premature death of the niece, Laura is desperate for the companionship of a girl her age. This wish is unexpectedly granted when a carriage overturns near the castle. The carriage contains a girl named Carmilla and her mother. The mother states that her journey is urgent, but she cannot take Carmilla any further due to the impact that it may have on her already fragile health; thus, it falls to Laura and her father to take in Carmilla. At first, things seem fine, but odd deaths start occurring in the area, and Carmilla may not be what she claims.
As a vampire story, it's a pretty standard plot. In this case, I'm willing to overlook that issue, seeing as this is one of the prototypical vampire stories that even Dracula takes influence from. From a plot point of view, I have very little to complain about. Considering how short this book actually is, it builds tension nicely and does manage to be rather spooky, despite the over-saturation that I've experienced with vampire lore in the media. I guess the one point that I have to nitpick about is the ending. Obviously, the vampire has to die for real, that's standard form for these early vampire stories; my only problem is that Carmilla's death is told to us second-hand. As a teenage girl in Victorian times, I'm not surprised that Laura wasn't directly involved with the death, but I feel it would have had more impact if she had actually been present for the death; so instead of her reading their written account of finding her coffin, etc, Carmilla had decided that she couldn't stand losing Laura as prey and making one last-ditch attack, during which she is killed. I admit, this is a fairly minor point though, and the ending is definitely fitting for what the story is.
The thing that interested me more about Carmilla was the little interesting interpretations that it made regarding vampire lore. First, there's the idea that a vampire must return to their coffin for a few hours every morning. Granted, that makes them more likely to get caught, but it's an interesting twist on the "vampires must rest in native soil when they do rest" rule. But what was probably my favourite aspect of the vampire lore in this was the point that the novel states about prey: vampires have to feed regularly, but they will often be obsessed with one particular victim, the signs of which can be confused for love and affection towards the victim, and will thus prolong the feeding process for them. I really like this idea, mainly because it explains the strange love affair that people seem to have with vampires; on paper, a reanimated corpse really shouldn't be that attractive, but if their interest in prey is interpreted from the outside as love, then I can understand the idea of "they just crave love and affection" that seems to have obsessed modern audiences. Unfortunately, this whole love as a front for bloodlust thing makes the lesbian overtones really awkward in retrospect. Carmilla only ever targets female victims in the story, even those victims who she just kills after a few days. That point plus the fact that at no point is she ever portrayed as regretful or sympathetic in her role as a vampire, makes it seem as though her lesbian overtones are as a direct result of her being an evil undead creature. That's just unfortunate. And it's a shame, as the romantic overtone that Laura's friendship with Carmilla is actually really well written and would be quite sweet if the context was different.

While possibly dated by the standards of the average reader, I would definitely recommend Carmilla to readers who are particular fans of classic vampires and want to read other fiction from Bram Stoker's contemporaries. It's definitely an enjoyable book, and well-written considering the length and the over-saturation that modern readers must deal with. 3.5/5

Next review: Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Signing off,

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre

Considering that I'm studying Camus as part of my university course, it's only natural that the same course would cover a close associate of his, Jean-Paul Sartre. I've been meaning to read some of his work for a while now, kind of as a comparison to Camus. I'm not sure what to make of it. 

Dirty Hands covers a similar subject matter to Camus' The Just Assassins. The play starts with a revolutionary, Hugo, returning to a safehouse after spending two years in prison for an assassination. There he meets a former colleague, who decides to listen to his story to find out his motives for killing who he did; was it for political reasons or was it a crime of passion? It then flashes back to the time building up to the assassination. 
I have one major problem with this play: the main character. I could not stand him. The main conflict of his motive for killing sounds interesting, right? Except that it doesn't really add up either way. In terms of politics, he is utterly despicable: he states that so long as power is seized for the working classes, it doesn't matter that people have to die, caring more about the ideals than the people behind them; that could be an interesting character to follow, except that he doesn't have the courage to actually back up those ideas, meaning that he just sounds like a whiny brat. So he wants the world to burn for his ideals because he was never loved by anyone? Boo hoo, go cry in a corner while the more interesting characters, or at least the characters with any kind of agency can do something instead. If you think of it as a crime of passion, then that doesn't make much sense either because the only people he seems to care about are himself and maybe the guy that he kills. It's just frustrating, as the ideas behind it, like the tactics of revolutionary groups during war and the question of whether it is to a political party's best interest to be installed by a foreign power, were almost completely eclipsed by my utter loathing for the main character. If the play was meant to make me think about assassination and whether it can be justified or not, then it failed because all I was doing was hoping and praying that someone would finally kill this idiot. 

While I haven't really read enough of Sartre's work to really judge this properly, if I were just going on Dirty Hands alone, then I would say that Camus is the superior writer by far. The philosophical ideas behind this are interesting, but they are obscured by a loathsome and really rather boring main character. Read The Just Assassins instead. 1/5 

Next review: Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu 

Signing off, 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele D'Annunzio

I honestly had no clue what to expect from The Child of Pleasure. I had heard of its author before in history class back in college, but up until now I had never read anything of his work. I was under the impression that he wrote poetry, a medium that I'm less fond of. Of course, this is where university comes in again.

The Child of Pleasure follows the life of a young Italian aristocrat named Andrea Sperelli as he seeks beauty in every aspect of his life; this includes his love life as he pursues two women throughout the book. One is a young widow named Elena, who lives a life of luxury and flirts her way through scores of salons and parties, but has to suddenly leave him. The other is a married woman named Maria, who dotes on her daughter and has essentially forsaken earthly pleasures to pursue virtue. At first, he courts them separately, only meeting Maria after Elena has been absent from his life for over a year; later, when they are both near enough for him to court, he decides to try and initiate affairs with them both, incensed after their separate pleas to him to love them as sisters.
I suppose that what I ought to mention as probably the best part of this novel is the writing. The skill with which this world of decadence is described is par none; I can't think of an author, off the top of my head, that has managed to describe sensuality with this much skill and detail. Reading The Child of Pleasure actually feels decadent, simply because of the detail that is given to the clothing, the scenery, the smells, all of that stuff that a lot of novels tend to skim over a bit. Even filtered through translation, the author's skill in this respect is clear to see. I would recommend this to anyone who is happy to read something with beautiful writing.
Onto the other big aspect, the plot. It's pretty strong on its own; the aesthete who is so wrapped up in the lies that he has convinced himself off fooling those around him. I only have two problems with it: one is general, the other is a specific thing that I found out regarding the translation. Okay, so first, the general problem. I thought the ending lacked punch. You would think that after lying to two women in order to get both of them to have affairs with him, he would get his comeuppance big time, except he doesn't, not really; okay, so it's implied that society somehow knows what he was doing and mocks him for it, but so what? That's hardly the heavy payment that must be made for a life revolving around the aesthetics and the senses. Now to the translated version's problem. When I started reading this, I had been told by my lecturer that the translation has some problems, but not how. I later learned that the English translator changed the order of the chapters, so that it would be chronological; the first chapter in the Italian is over halfway through the book in the translated version. Looking back at the chapter in question, I can definitely see why that one was the chapter that D'Annunzio started on: it sets up a mystery around who this woman Elena is, as well as showing some of the Count's later selfishness. Don't get me wrong, the translation is in other ways very good, especially when it comes to the writing, as seen in my previous paragraph. I just don't see the point of changing the order: I mean it's not as if novels haven't started in medias res before. I guess I just wish that I could have read it in the order that the author had intended it to be read in.

Overall, definitely a book to be picked up, simply for the writing alone. If you're interested in this, and can speak Italian, I would try and read it in the original language, simply to appreciate the author's intent better. As it is, I would still recommend the translation, just with a few criticisms in mind. 4.5/5

Next review: Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre

Signing off,

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The Fall by Albert Camus

I didn't really know anything about Camus' book The Fall when I picked it up for reading. All I really knew was that it was the last of his works to be published before his death; as such I suppose I was expecting something that was perhaps more complex than what I'd read in The Outsider and The Just Assassins. I certainly got that at least.

The Fall consists of the confession of a man named Jean-Baptiste Clamence. He meets another Frenchman in the bar in Amsterdam that he has taken to frequenting, and over the course of several nights confesses to his sins. Basically, it's a character study. And it's certainly an interesting one.
The main topic that is often referenced is that of judgement and penitence. Clamence's main issue with life is that he becomes convinced that everyone around him is judging him, and in the process mocking him; thus a lot of his confession is the lengths that he goes to either to stop the judgement occurring or to make himself superior to it. What it adds up to is a fascinating character portrait that is sympathetic and yet utterly self-absorbed at the same time. For example, one of the things that he mentions is that he used to be incredibly generous and helpful to people in need, as it made him feel morally superior; while the motives are selfish, can one really judge him negatively if the results of his actions are good? I say that, but at the same time there are things that he confesses to, like walking away after hearing someone fall off of a bridge, that are harder to justify, even if it does feel like it rings true to life.
The translator's notes bring up an interesting viewpoint for the novel: the idea that Clamence is either a satirical portrayal of a former friend of Camus', Jean-Paul Sartre, or a self-portrait of the author. Although I only know the basics of the disagreement between the two men, I can certainly see why people see the former interpretation working. I think it would be more interesting to look into the latter interpretation more, as it's very much removed from the idealised version of oneself that authors are tempted to write into their stories; it takes a lot of courage to write a version of yourself that is this morally ambivalent.

This is the kind of book that I really want to talk about more, but struggle to. I don't for a second believe that I've understood it all in this reading, so I would say that those looking for books that benefit multiple readings will probably enjoy this. What I can say from my initial reading is that those looking for a well-written, in-depth character study will like The Fall. I would also say that those who were put off of Camus by The Outsider might want to take a look at this, as the narrator is more noticeably charming compared to Meursault. Definitely a book to try at least once. 4.5/5

Next review: The Child of Pleasure by Gabriele D'Annunzio

Signing off,

Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Just Assassins by Albert Camus

I needed something short after the slog that was That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana. I got that with The Just Assassins, a five scene play. Considering how much I enjoyed The Outsider, I was very much looking forward to reading more of his work. So were my expectations met?

The plot of The Just Assassins centres around a group of revolutionaries in Russia, presumably some time at the beginning of the 20th century, as they plot to assassinate a prominent member of the nobility in order to bring Socialism to the land. This is one of those problematic plays, as it makes one question their own personal moral code. It puts forward the question of "Is murder justifiable, if it is for political reasons?", and that is a question that is rather uncomfortable to consider in a post-9/11 and 7/7 society; granted, the murder committed in The Just Assassins has its limits, but my point still stands. What makes it an especially uncomfortable question is that it doesn't really give us any answers. On the one hand, the revolutionaries are very much dedicated to the ideal of social justice, which is admirable considering that they mention the tsars, a regime not much remembered for its fairness; additionally, the majority of them draw a line at casualties including children. On the other hand, we get to see the personal damage that this man's death creates on his loved ones, specifically his wife; at no point does a man become purely a symbol, and that is a fact that the revolutionaries seem to forget.
It's definitely an interesting play, so if you happen to see an adaptation of it advertised, I would definitely recommend it. There's only one thing that bothered me, and that was the way in which the revolutionaries are referred. They're referred to in the stage directions as terrorists. While this is a legitimate view of them, it seems a bit too emotionally loaded a word to use, especially in such an oddly neutral play. I don't know what kind of word was used in the original French version, but it seemed a bit leading to use the word in the translation.

So, to finish. This is definitely a play that I would recommend seeing, or at the very least reading, if you're looking to have your perceptions played with. I'd also recommend it if you're looking for something to mentally stimulate you, but at the same time not be too taxing. 4/5

Next review: The Fall by Albert Camus

Signing off,

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana by Carlo Emilio Gadda

This is the kind of book that I would probably never have even have heard of were it not for my university courses. And of all my books, this one had one of the more intriguing premises. So how did it hold up?

So, to the premise. It's Mussolini's Italy, around 1937 to be precise, and in the Via Merulana in Rome, there have been two crimes in the same apartment building in quick succession. The first is a robbery in which a widowed Countess is robbed of her jewellery, while the second is the brutal murder of a young married woman. The main character, Doctor Ingravello (also known as Don Ciccio), who is investigating these crimes with the police was a secret admirer of the murdered woman, as well as friends with her husband, so he is particularly keen to find the culprit. At the same time, the book aims to portray and criticise Mussolini's Italy. Sounds like a great premise, right? Well, That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana doesn't really live up to it.
As a mystery novel, it leaves much to be desired. Mainly because neither plot thread has an ending. The robbery plot thread is more closed, as the jewels are found, but otherwise the reader is left with a feeling of incompleteness as neither story feels like it was given adequate attention. The other thing that left the mystery fan in me cold was that there is only ever one possibility that the plots follow; there is never any sense of tension because the author only ever gives us one suspect to consider at any one moment, presenting no other alternatives. It says on the blurb that Ingravello finds that everyone in the apartment block comes under suspicion, but this is an out and out lie; there is a grand total of one other person in the building who comes under suspicion, the rest being outsiders who have had dealings with the building in the past. I just feel that the mystery novel aspect, which is the one advertised on the back, is poorly developed and more meant to be a vehicle for the social commentary.
There's a lot of social commentary. Social commentary on a society that had died out about 11 years before the book was published. Social commentary that cannot get to the point. You see, Gadda wraps up most of his social commentary in LOADS of symbolism and metaphor, to the point where a lot of what he's saying is completely lost; as far as I could tell from the translator's note, this was due to timidness and not wanting to offend people. So he wrote what was meant to be criticism of a long dead regime in Italian history and he muddles it so as to not offend people. One, who in their right mind defends Mussolini of all people? Two, how much of that regime remained to be offended by Gadda's criticisms? I just fail to see the point of loading your book with what I imagine to be witty commentary in its original form, only to then change it so that no-one understands it. It's especially frustrating, as the writing is evidently very good; granted, the translation apparently loses some of the original flavour due to the inability for people to translate dialects, but what makes it through is promising stuff.

So overall, a frustrating read. I wanted to like this book, considering its premise, but by the end all I can see is an unfinished narrative that is confused about just what it wants to be. 2.5/5

Next review: The Just Assassins by Albert Camus

Signing off,