11 December 2009

Bel-Ami (Guy de Maupassant)

I shall start with a disclaimer: I am not approaching this review from a particularly objective point of view. As stated in an earlier post, I am in my happy place- Bath. Well, near Bath, but for the sake of anonymity I shall not name the tiny hamlet I am currently residing in. Furthermore, I am wrapped in the world's largest, baggiest jumper, drinking a mug of coffee and eyeing in the mirror the image of myself leaning against a walking stick carved like a swan. Needless to say, I am in a serene mood and disinclined to engage in much slating of literary ability at this moment.

That is all slightly redundant considering I am reviewing Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant's novel about a charismatic young veteran soldier who rises to the highest circles of the Parisian bourgeois with the help of several powerful mistresses. The classic has undoubtedly stood the test of time and creates a memorable, if totally unlikeable protagonist in Georges Duroy. I shall get to my main quibble with the text in a moment and instead concentrate on the positives for now.

Although 'a scoundrel' in very sense of the word, the reader cannot help cheering on the meteoric rise of Duroy. He uses the women in his life without a thought for their happiness or sense of self. He tosses one aside for another with little compunction. Duroy happily claims any credit for his successes, although most of the time they come about as a result of the labours of his wife or mistress at the time. However, when a character is so deliciously self-involved it is easy to see there is no malicious intent behind his actions. Duroy acts only for himself and the toe-stepping that occurs is merely a consequence of these actions rather than a driving motive.

Because I came away from the text with a slight feeling of derision for all the women Duroy uses I suspect the text was subliminally rather misogynistic. Considering the time in which it was written I am not surprised or even annoyed about this. Nor am I much riled by the depiction of Duroy's peasant parents. They are described in a scornful tone and their surroundings are much ridiculed which can only be attributed to Maupassant's ignorance due to his aristocratic upbringing.

No, my main issue is that the book is quite obviously poorly translated. There is no way the story of Georges Duroy would have lasted as an enduring classic if the original French version were written in the basic manner in which the English version stumbles along. After doing some research on Douglas Parmée I find that he is a well-respected translator of French literature. I, however, remain underwhelmed by his abilities. I finished the novel and enjoyed it on the strength of the plot and characters but felt I was perhaps only being shown the basics of what is a much richer story in the original language.

Still, absorbing and insightful, Bel-Ami is worth a read and, if you speak French, most probably a MUST READ.

Rating: 7/10.

08 December 2009

Dyslit: In Conversation

Jamie: Have you ever read ‘The Razor’s Edge’?

Anna: Maugham right?

Jamie: Yep.

Anna: No.

Jamie: You should read it.

Anna: Maybe. I don’t normally read book recommendations. It’s the ultimate act of superiority, putting yourself in cahoots with the author, both of you saying, I know what’s best.

Jamie: That’s not…

I think you’d like it, is all.

Anna: Why don’t you paraphrase it for me?

Jamie: I can’t remember the whole story. I read it years ago.

Anna: No, just the bit that you felt I might relate to.

Jamie: Larry… rejects society, materialism, everything, in search of some transcendent meaning to life.

Happiness, without the jewellery I guess.

I think the reader is meant to assume he finds happiness in the end. I don’t think he does, because he’s constantly onto the next thing, always looking ahead. Never in the present. I don’t think you could ever be happy, living like that.

Anna: Maybe it’s not his lifestyle, but the fact that Sophie’s dead. Perhaps he can’t be happy without her.

Jamie: What was the point of that? Cheap thrills?

Anna: Sorry. Don’t listen to me. I don’t know the first thing about literature. The only thing I know about it is most of the time, you should avoid reading it.

Jamie: Rubbish.

Anna: It doesn’t open you up, it shuts you in. You can’t think for yourself when you've got Proust, Maugham, Kerouac all in your head.

Jamie: So you’re saying you’d like to live an uninformed life.

Anna: Yes.

Jamie: With no regard as to how that would affect intolerance, religious persecution, the ability to learn from our historical mistakes…

Anna: Why not? Within reason of course. Acumen-tested.

Jamie: What? You have to be intelligent to be uninformed?

Anna: Yes.

Jamie: And in this veritable utopia, where are you?

Anna: Uninformed.

Jamie: Naturally.

(a pause)

Where am I?

Anna: Where do you want to be?

Jamie: Uninformed.

No, informed.

I don’t know.

Anna: Well, it’s irrelevant where you want to be. You wouldn’t have a choice. Imagine if people did.

Jamie: Culpability as a reason to oppose free will.

Anna: Something like that.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski)

Earhart gave me the push towards this novel and it is probably the best recommendation she has ever given me. We enjoy the same books, but the novels that we absolutely LOVE are always quite different. Of course, the reason I loved this so much is probably because Earhart hasn't actually read it. She just sold it to a bunch of unsuspecting customers when it came out last year.

When I first started reading Edgar I thought to myself "Wow, this is similar in feel to The Outlander." I felt most chuffed when I reached the end of the novel and found an interview with David Wroblewski and Gil Adamson who WROTE The Outlander. I am brilliant.

Edgar tells the story of a young boy who lives on a dog farm with his parents. I'm not sure dog farm is the right term, but it is so much more than a kennel. Edgar's parents raise a special breed of dog- Sawtelle dogs. These dogs are a mix of dogs that Edgar's paternal great grandfather "liked the look of". Whenever he saw a dog that was particularly intelligent and aware he would buy it and breed it into his line of dogs, creating this super race. Combined with a special training technique the family have honed over the years, Sawtelle dogs are highly valued around the country.

Edgar, who was born mute, has a very strong bond with the dogs, probably due to his inability to speak. This bond proves his saving grace when his uncle Claude arrives, fresh out of prison, to live with them. This family reunion ends in tragedy and Edgar is forced to flee into the surrounding forest, several of the dogs following at his heels. What follows is weeks in a relative wilderness as he comes to terms with what he must face back home.

The book is startlingly beautiful. Nothing seems quite real. The characters are slightly heightened; the forest is awesomely majestic and lonely; Edgar's relationship with the dogs seems unearthly, supernatural even. The book clutched at all of my senses, clawing me in to the drama. Wroblewski structured the novel in five acts, like a play, and you can see what this has done to the feel of the story. Slow reading builds to a frenzied turning of the pages as Edgar and Claude are propelled towards a terrible yet magnificent denouement.

The novel has been compared to Macbeth but I see bits of King Lear and even Romeo and Juliet in there as well. Suffice to say Wroblewski most probably found himself inspired by the Bard, a worthy foundation for any novel!

No matter what accolades I give The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I don't think I can sum it up better than Stephen King's review: "I flat-out loved this book." I did too Stephen.

Rating: 9/10.

New Moon (Stephenie Meyer)

I am already grinning to myself and have yet to write anything.

I just went to see New Moon, the second film of The Twilight Saga.

Ahhh. Where to begin?

I feel I should start with saying that this film is probably 300% better than the first film. (Review here). The new director has obviously not insisted on an insipid blue wash and allows the actors some actual screen time to emote, rather than racing the camera around them psychotically.

However, the film still suffered from the same problem that the Harry Potter films (especially the early ones) had- they are virtually incomprehensible to someone who has not read the novels. I mean, you could understand what was going on. But you would be pardoned for being under the impression that the books are eratically plotted, totally vacuous and remarkably two-dimensional. Not the case (well, not ENTIRELY the case).

The Twilight books are not GOOD... but they are a phenomenon. These books are the pinnacle of guilty pleasure reading. Odd, dangerous, melodramatic and ultimately supremely fulfilling. The films pale in comparison.

Yet still, as I mentioned before, this film was a vast improvement on the first. I almost fell out of my seat when Taylor Lautner appeared on screen, thirty pounds heavier than in the first movie. That, in itself, made the 8 pounds and unimpressive popcorn worth it. Add to the mix the fact that Robert Pattinson was given about three lines and five minute of screen time to sulk and you'll see the movie was positively five star compared to Twilight.

There's been a lot of press about the books as outlets for Stephenie Meyer to publicise her Mormon beliefs and racist, Aryan views. There's probably a lot of truth to this. The portrayal of the Quileutes is definitely questionable and Edward as the supreme enforcer of familial values and chastity is quite unnerving when combined with the stalking, controlling behaviour and omniscience Meyer depicts as charming, loving behaviour.

None of which appears with any sort of prominence in either film. Bella is far more in control in the films and Edward highly ridiculous compared to his written persona. Bella can dismiss him with a withering "Just... shut up." Edward slumps against a wall, defeated. Pathetic. In addition, you can see that the producers seem to be keeping abreast of political correctness. Even if they are from Utah.

At least the books offer some escapist fun. This film is redeemable only as an homage to Jacob Black's amazing abs.

Traipsing back from the hinterlands...

I feel I may have already used that Waugh reference on another post and if so, I apologise. Full marks and a box of reindeer shortbread to the person who finds the post. It does, however, fit rather well with what I want to write.

I have been remarkably remiss at updating recently. Earhart's excuse is that she is reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men fame) and is sinking slowly into that quicksand-filled quagmire of reading a book slowly out of dislike yet being unable to put it down because it is nonetheless strangely compelling. Thus, she may not surface for awhile. I have no such excuse, merely that once I stop blogging for a few days it turns into a mountain to surpass when I attempt to begin again.

Today was my last day of work for the year (thank every denominational being ever to be suspected of existing) and I now have three weeks to do naught. I am off to Bath tomorrow, which is my happy place. You know that clichéd therapy technique where they tell you to imagine your happy place with palm trees and Adonis under a waterfall etcetera? My happy place ACTUALLY exists and I go there ALL THE TIME. (Smug, self-satisfied smirk).

A week there and then off to Norway for the coldest Christmas of my life, although seeing friends makes that all worthwhile. Which is all an incredibly long-winded way of saying that I am going to post several entries tonight because I'm not sure when I shall next have the opportunity. I have quite a few things I've been meaning to blog about for awhile so hopefully I will get it all done.

First on the agenda- this article today from the Guardian. In a surprisingly upbeat tone for such a negative idea, Sam Jordison questioned what books would be on a list of the worst novels of the decade. Ian McEwan gets stabbed quite a bit both in the article and the comments. I agree with the criticisms of Saturday but what the hell was wrong with On Chesil Beach?

Vernon God Little gets much abuse in the comments to which I can only say CLEARLY the peanut gallery were posting on the website today. RIDICULOUS. That novel is a little slice of genius pie. An anomalous use of language does not make a book poorly written. What do you think Shakespeare was doing you philistines?
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