Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Catching Up, part 1: Books

Wow. Four whole months and not a single post. Not so much as a "hey, I'm really sorry, I have x, y, and z going on in my life right now." Nada. Zip. If somebody were to ask me why I couldn't even be bothered to put up a measely "temporary hiatus" notice I would have to respond in the immortal, if rather lame, words of Beatrix Kiddo: "I don't know... because I'm a bad person?"

But seriously, my main excuse for not writing is that I've been busy moving to Paris. And yes, I know, it's not like they don’t have the Internet here in Paris, but still. I’m not saying that moving here hasn’t had it’s perks, because it certainly has, but not everything has been a walk in the Luxembourg gardens if you know what I mean. But that’s a discussion for another day and another blog. The point I’m trying to make here is that not only has this relocation been a huge adjustment for me overall, it also means that some of the series I was following and writing about in the States aren't as readily available to me anymore. (And I was just starting to get hooked on Sarasah and The Name of the Flower!) I still haven't quite worked out how or if I'm going to continue them, since I don’t think I’ll be in Paris forever, but I decided to pick this blog back up again anyways, since I never seem to run out of random things to obsess over and I'd hate to think of what might happen if I didn't have some kind of outlet.

So before I return to writing more detailed reviews, I thought I’d briefly revisit some of the items I’ve had on backlog since last November. This will actually be quite like the summer summary I posted last August after recovering from surgery, in which I gave a mini-review of everything I hadn’t been posting about lately. This time the whole batch will be broken up into several posts, with the first one (this one) being all about books. So here goes: a condensed review of what I’ve been reading recently.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (translation by Constance Garnett)

So I’d been meaning for a while to tackle the great gaping whole in my high school education that is nineteenth century Russian literature, but I was a little nervous about starting off with one of those famously epic and wildly intimidating thousand-page novels. So what better way to warm up than with a shorter novella written by one of the period’s most celebrated authors? Well, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from Notes from Underground but in the end I was completely blown away. By way of introducing the story, I’d like to pull a quote from the text itself:

Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to every one, but only to his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind. The more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.

Notes from Underground is the narrator’s confession of one such “reminiscence”, a confession made in old age and infirmary, made out of spite as much as from any moral or philosophical conviction. Although the first third of the book consists mostly in the narrator’s rambling internal monologue, Dostoevsky’s writing has the rare ability to pierce right into your heart, giving one the impression that the author has discovered your most intimate thoughts and feelings, even (perhaps especially) the ones you’re not very proud to own. And yet while you could also say all of that about Madame Bovary, for example, I found that Notes from Underground managed to retain, in spite of its cynicism, a sort of romantic beauty and wistfulness to which Flaubert’s book certainly never aspired. All these elements made for a very striking combination, and an engrossing read I’ll not soon forget. I’m not sure if any of this is making any sense, but I’m finding it quite difficult to articulate my impressions of the book. It really deserves so much more discussion than I’m affording it in this laundry-list of reviews. Before moving on to the next book, a few more quotes from Notes. What I think so impressed me about the book was that even the parts that didn’t make total sense seemed intimately familiar, perhaps because they were so universally human. I think the following quotes exemplify that a little bit. From the pages of Notes from Underground:

Man is a frivolous, incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess-player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it… He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd.

But why am I made with such desires? Can I have been constructed simply in order to come to the conclusion that all my construction is a cheat? I do not believe it.

I hated his stupid but handsome face (for which I would, however, have gladly exchanged my intelligent one).

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot (translated by Constance Garnett)

So after being so incredibly enamored with Notes from Underground I felt quite brave enough to attack one of his longer novels. I read [The Idiot] rather than the (perhaps more obvious) Crime and Punishment simply because I already had a copy; a friend had given me an old, tattered, paperback version many years ago and it had been sitting on my shelf ever since, just waiting to be read. And I have to admit that the novel caused me to fall a little bit out of love with Dostoevsky. I still think I genuinely admire and enjoy his work, but I don’t have as much of a crush on him as I did after finishing Notes from Underground. Essentially, The Idiot examines the question of what would happen when a truly pure and virtuous soul is thrust into the midst a humanly corrupt and degraded society. Reading this book was a very frustrating experience, because I cared so much about the fascinating main character, but in the end I don’t think the author did justice to his own creation and that’s something I have a hard time forgiving. Especially after reading a thousand pages of a story that really could have been told in less than half that amount. I also felt that the ambiguous, selective narration was a bit of a cop-out only rendered necessary by the excessive complexity sheer length of the story. On the other hand: I absolutely LOVED reading any scene with Lizaveta Prokofyevna, a truly delightful character whose personality quirks reminded me a lot of my own mother. From the pages of The Idiot:

There is something at the bottom of every new human thought… which can never be communicated to others, even if one were to write volumes about it and were explaining one’s idea for thirty-five years; there’s something left which cannot be induced to emerge from your brain, and remains with you forever; and with it you will die, without communicating to anyone, perhaps, the most important of your ideas.

Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.

François Mauriac, Thérèse Desqueyroux

Coninuing with the theme of psychological novels we have Thérèse Desqueyroux In brief, this is not a happy book. A short, intriguing, psychological character study? Sure bet. Overly melancholic? Perhaps just a bit. It tells the story of a woman who cannot escape from her unhappy marriage even after she’s caught trying to poison her husband. In order to preserve their reputations, both sides of the family decide to keep her as a prisoner in her own home. Believe me, it’s not as melodramatic gothic as it sounds; it’s actually a quite sensitive psychological study, and rather subtle in some of it’s finer points. Throughout the story, which is told out of chronological order, it becomes less and less clear who is the real monster and who is the victim: Thérèse or her husband. In spite of its depressing nature (there were plenty of internal monologues about loneliness and despondency), I really enjoyed the way the unique and clever way this story was constructed. It was short enough that the heaviness didn’t really get me down, and there were enough twists to keep me interested. All in all, I’d definitely recommend this to any francophone readers out there. From the pages of Thérèse Desqueyroux :

Rien ne peut arriver de pire que cette indifférence, que ce détachement total qui la sépare du monde et de son être même. Oui, la mort dans la vie : elle goute la mort autant que la peut gouter une vivante.

Sa solitude lui est attachée plus étroitement qu’aux lépreux son ulcère.

Rien n’est vraiment grave pour les êtres incapables d’aimer.

Ok, that’s it for now. After all that I think I’m ready for something a little lighter next time. More short reviews coming up soon (I promise!).