august 2013 books

Madame Bovary
Gustave Flaubert
This book is supposed to be a masterpiece, but I did not enjoy it. I kept waiting for...something? I think I was waiting for the point, and it just never happened. That's what I get for reading philosophical novels; I now expect all fictional characters to discuss what to do in an existential crisis. It was a simple story, straight-forwardly told. So I did what I always do when a supposedly great book leaves me unimpressed. I looked it up. Sometimes I have to look up books that I have just read. Seems kinda inefficient.

Part of the big deal was the historal significance. It turns out that Flaubert basically invented the modern narrator. In fact, part of what seems so humdrum about it is because tons of writers after Flaubert picked up his narrative style. When I read Jacques the Fatalist, we talked about how novels developed, and how Diderot's novel was not like any novel I'd ever read. And maybe if things had gone differently, budding novelists of the nineteenth century would have imitated Diderot, and all novels would be a series of half-told intersecting stories. As it turns out, those novelists read Flaubert, and so now Madame Bovary seems like a boring book to me because I've read so many imitators. Not that those guys knew they were imitating Flaubert, they were just writing a novel and that's what a novel is supposed to be like. Got that?

I also found out that Flaubert's prose is considered to be flawless. Ah, crap, I was supposed to be paying attention to the writing! I feel like I need someone to tell me what I'm supposed to be getting out of these books before I read them. I don't seem to be very good at noticing it for myself.

Flaubert was known as a perfectionist, always searching for le mot juste, "the precise word." For each word, a writer has a choice of several synonyms or near-synonyms, depending on what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. Unfortunately for me, reading at that level is beyond my current development as a reader. I know that Josh will sit and contemplate a sentence for a long time, pondering why someone might use one word over another. I've never done that in my life, and I never knew that anyone did that until I started going out with a poet. And if that is what one needs to do to fully appreciate Flaubert, I honestly don't know if I will ever get there. I'm sorry, Gustave.

Another part of the problem is that I had a hard time relating to Emma Bovary. She is perpetually disatisfied with her provincial life, and so she has affairs and spends a bunch of money on credit. The point of literature is not whether or not you like the characters, I know that, but characters who cheat on their nice, though dull, husbands and characters who are bad with money have to be some of my least favorite. In hindsight, I was able to appreciate the character development, as Emma went from naive to vaguely disappointed to haughty and cruel. I can tell it's good characterization when each thing that she does seems inevitable because that's who she is.

What was so revolutionary about Flaubert's narration is that he does not judge, he only tells the story. While Emma's actions actions do catch up with her, even that seems like an expression of her character more than some kind of justice. In fact, the book was put on trial for obscenity because Flaubert did not condemn adultery. It's not good enough to tell a story about a disillusioned lady who falls into sin and then dies horribly, you have to say good riddance to bad rubbish. Apparently the readers of the time had similar difficulties about telling a story vs liking the characters. They had a good excuse, though, since Flaubert had just invented it. Me, I'm just slow.

I did pick out this quote, because I thought it was lovely:

"Human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars."

I feel ya there, Gustave.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne
Verne is known as one of the fathers of science fiction. One thing that I have noticed these past few months is how historically significant many of these French dudes have been in the development of literature. Good job, France!

A brief plot summary: There has been a giant sea creature sighted, and it's been wrecking ships. Our narrator, a natural historian by the name of Professor Arronax, speculates that it's a giant narwhal. Since he's the expert, he is invited on a mission to hunt and kill it. They finally find it, but in the course of battle, the Professor, his servant, and a harpooner are thrown overboard. They end up on the narwhal, which they discover is not a giant horned sea mammal at all, but a submarine. They are brought inside the Nautilus, where they meet Captain Nemo, who tells them that now that they know the secret of the Nautilus, they can never leave. The bulk of the book is made up of their adventures with Captain Nemo. They sail all over the world, visiting underwater forests, coral reefs, the South Pole.

After having read the book, I found out that the particular translation I was reading, known as the "classic translation," is quite poor. Due to these bad versions, the English-speaking world thinks of Verne as a kiddie author moreso than a literary figure. Sacre bleu!

To be honest, while the adventures were great, there was a lot of just describing fish, which was less exciting. Since Verne's time, we've explored the earth a bit more, and so a lot of the stories seem quaintly obsolete. A lot of it was just giant creatures. He knew about the regular specimens that had been studied, and I guess he just assumed that in the depths of the sea, there is basically a giant everything. He was right about the squid, though. Then again, it's a fanciful book, so maybe I'm taking it too seriously. And maybe we just haven't found the twenty-five foot manatee yet. I'm pretty sure that there is not a tunnel under the Suez, and I know for sure that you can't just sail up to the South Pole, plant your flag, then hop back on your boat. But it's not his fault that the explorers hadn't gotten there yet. Lazy explorers.

Both Captain Nemo and the Nautilus have become enduring figures. The latter because it was pretty much the most awesome submarine ever, and this before submarines existed. Captain Nemo is a tragic figure. He invented this submarine so that he could withdraw completely from humanity. A couple of times he shows sympathy for oppressed peoples, but his backstory is left vague (apparently, you get to find out in the sequel, The Mysterious Island).

Suite Francaise
Irene Nemirovsky
This book comes with a really neat backstory. The author was a Russian Jew living in France in 1942, when she was taken off to Auschwitz, where she died shortly thereafter of typhus (okay, that part is not so neat). Her children had been previously sent away. Fifty years later, her oldest daughter was in the process of donating her mother's papers to an archive, when she came across a notebook containing a partial novel. She had it published.

The novel contains two parts which deal with the quick defeat of France by the Germans in World War II and then the subsequent occupation. The really interesting thing is that she was writing these things pretty much while they were happening. She had plans for three more parts, but she had to wait and see how the war turned out. Unfortunately, the Germans were not interested in seeing her complete the work.

The first part, Storm in June, shows a mass exodus when the people of Paris wake up one morning to find that the Germans are on their doorsteps. We follow the doings of several characters, ranging from middle class to very wealthy, as they pack up everything they can take and try to get out of town. But the trains are overflowing and there is very little fuel for cars, people end up just walking. Everyone is in a panic, but then the armistice is signed. People are sad, but then they simply go back to their homes.

In the second part, Dolce, France has fallen. It's much quieter reading, as we see the effects of occupation on small town France. The residents are forced to let individual soldiers stay in their homes. At first, they are suspicious, because these are the enemy. But then when they are faced with the idea of actual Germans instead of Germany, it turns out that the soldiers are a bunch of regular young men, boys even. The residents react in different ways. Some of them refuse to talk to the occupiers, others are civil but distant, some of them take advantage of them, and others still become friends.

Both sections show a lot of class tensions. When people are fleeing Paris, the rich people are packing up their silver and their figurines. They are quickly outraged to find that they can't get food, simply because there isn't any to be had. These are folks who are not used to being told no. Then in the second part, there are townspeople and farmers. So as people disagree about this enemy among them, their own ideas about what people from town or people from the fancy villas are like comes up.

Ms. Nemirovsky may not have known it, but she was imitating Flaubert! She describes her characters, their past, their thoughts and their actions, without judgment. One lonely lady lives with her angry and bitter mother-in-law and finds herself falling in love with the soldier staying in their spare room. And I did not blame her one bit. He seemed nice. These are good characters, too. You find yourself sympathizing with basically everyone, which makes it all the harder when they come into inevitable conflict. It makes the idea of peace on earth seem futile. Maybe people should read more books.

It occurs to me that maybe what is so unsettling to people about the neutral narrator is that when it's done well, you end up feeling for characters who do terrible things. Or you end up feeling that things you used to think were terrible are more complicated. And you start to wonder about yourself, like maybe you're not the upstanding citizen you always thought you were. But that's hard to think about, so it's much easier to just say that Flaubert is obscene.

And that thought segues nicely into Nemirovsky's controversial life. If you do any research on this book or the author, you will quickly come across the phrase "self-hating Jew." When Nemirovsky was fourteen, she and her family had to flee a very comfortable life in Russia because of the revolution. She built her life up again in France, had some success with her books, and when they started rounding up Jews, she said, no thank you, I lost everything once already, I am Catholic now. She even wrote some things that are considered anti-semitic. It's impossible to know how she really felt about Jews or Judaism. I can see how she would not want to be murdered for a faith she had no particular connection to other than ancestral. But heck, I can see how she might not want to be murdered at all.

Again, it's a lot easier to say that Irene Nemirovsky was just a nasty person who betrayed her people than it is to think you might have done the same thing in her shoes.

The Princesse de Clèves
Madame de La Fayette
This book is very old. Published anonymously in 1678, it's an early form of the psychological novel, which means you spend most of your time reading about what people are thinking about.

I really did not enjoy this one. It takes place in the royal court of Henri II. Here, I'll go ahead and spoil it for you: it's about a woman who does not cheat on her husband. It's not even about an affair. I've read books where nothing happens before, and I enjoyed some of them. But the problem here was that supposedly stuff was happening. It was just nobility stuff, so it was intrigues and gossip and a bunch of melodramatic nonsense. You stupid nobles ought to go out and develop some real problems.

It's funny, stuff actually did happen. A king died, a new religion was formed, a series of wives were beheaded, there were marriages signalling alliances between whole nations. But mostly we heard about a note that fell out of someone's pocket that everyone thought was written by one person, but was actually written by someone else. Gah.

A funny side note: Once, Nicolas Sarkozy said something about how it was dumb that civil servants were tested on this very book. Someone took that to mean that he thought all literature was a waste of time, and so the French staged public protests where they read the book.

To be clear: I do not think literature is a waste of time. I just hated this particular book. Feel free to protest me by reading it. Good luck with that.

The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh
This was our book club book, and from the rave reviews on Amazon, I allowed myself to get hopeful. And this book was fine. I mean, there are book club books that I have just hated, and I was not able to muster up enough emotion for that. But pretty much the nicest thing anyone said about this book was that it was a quick read.

Being fresh off Flaubert and Nemirovsky, I was primed to judge characters. So it was easy for me to tell that the characters in this book were not good. Several times, they acted in a way that did not seem natural to them, and I suspected that they only acted that way because it moved the plot along. Well, yes, this action is completely unexpected, but if the character had acted in a way that was natural, the book would've been too short.

I know you're all tired of hearing me complain about the crappy books I read for book club. I'm tired of it, too. I have to finish out my year as the Wednesday meeting moderator, but after that, I'm going to jump to another club. There are several on Meetup. One day I looked through them, and some of them are reading such good books that it made me sad that I was missing it. Dostoevsky! Cervantes! Faulkner! Our club choose books by voting, but I am tired of this particular democracy. I would rather have someone competant just pick all the books.

The Age of Reason
Jean Paul Sartre
After reading Camus, I think I got cocky. I found out that Sartre had written novels in addition to long arguments about existence, and I thought I could handle it. Unfortunately, I don't think I got this one, nor do I think I'll be seeking out the other books in the trilogy. They all take place during the time of World War II, this first one being while there was a war going on over in Spain. However, that doesn't really come up at all, except that a character vaguely wishes he could go to Spain and fight, but then realizes he doesn't want to enough to actually do it. Hey, I think this book classifies as a psychological novel!

We follow Mathieu, a professor, who until now has lived his life such that he is "free," in that he has no real obligations to anyone or anything. He's lived this way so that one day, when he needs to act, he can do so without disrupting any existing ties. Basically, he's been waiting for his Moment. So he sorta wanted to go to Spain, but then what if his Moment came along but he couldn't take it because he was in Spain? I remember feeling a bit like that when I bought a house. I felt vaguely sad that I couldn't just pick up and leave, the way I would be able to if I kept renting, because I had a piece of property. I was aware that by making this choice, I was denying opportunities to make future choices. It was a real bummer last year when the circus called and I couldn't take my unicycle act on the road because I had this stupid mortgage.

Alright. So we have Mathieu. He drinks with his students and he goes to see his mistress. But then his mistress gets pregnant, and he has to decide whether to continue his no-obligations lifestyle or to finally make some ties. Not to keep you in suspense, but he spends the next three days walking around Paris and hitting up everyone he knows for some abortion money.

This seems like a good time to mention that everyone in this book is pretty unlikeable. There is a student who doesn't think because he considers himself to still be in a learning period of his life, a cocaine-addicted dancer clinging to her youth, a gay guy who tries to drown his cats to be free of his impulses, and a self-centered and lazy woman who spends the whole book complaining about flunking out of school. The mistress is tolerable, and I feel sorta bad for the gay dude. Again, books aren't about liking the characters. I know people like these people, and their actions in the book are in line with their characters, but man, they sure do suck.

When I was reading the book, I made a note that said that to Sartre, freedom was overcoming your base instincts to make completely rational decisions to act. Then about fifty pages later, I came back and wrote, "Or maybe the exact opposite?" I told you I did not get this book. So I went and looked it up, where I discovered that this book was not about Sartre's idea of freedom, but more of a study of the various ways that people conceive it. He just liked to think about freedom.

It seems to me that an individual's idea of freedom has a lot to do with the things in their life that make them feel unfree. Mathieu feels trapped by obligations to others, so he avoids them. The gay man feels trapped by his desires, so his freedom is to be able to go against his impulses. The flunking student is going to have to go back to her small town because her parents are not willing to pay for her studies anymore, so she thinks freedom is being able to do whatever she wants while being supported by someone else.

That's what I got. Bleah. No more Sartre for a while.

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