The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

 The Masterpiece cover

The Masterpiece by Emile Zola was first published in 1886. My copy was translated by Thomas Walton in 1950 and I must say that I doubt if anyone else could have done a better job. It’s the fouteenth novel in Zola’s Rougon Macquart series, and it’s a great read. I read this one for Back to the Classics Challenge and The Classics Club.

The Masterpiece is Zola’s most autobiographical novel, he based the main characters – a group of artistic friends on some of his own friends and himself. The artist Cezanne was his friend and there must have been plenty of artistic discussions between the two over the years, so Zola would have had plenty of copy to choose from I’m sure. The character Sandoz is based on Zola.

The main character Claude is a serious young artist, his friends think he has great talent and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes his generation’s Delacroix with his art being hung in The Salon and winning prizes. Claude is developing a new style called ‘Open Air’ (Impressionist). However he makes life difficult for himself, painting on enormous canvases and never being happy with his work, never knowing when to stop. His ideas which start off well somehow always go awry and when he does manage to get a painting accepted by The Salon it’s only in the gallery of the ‘refused’ artworks, where everyone laughs at his efforts. However some years later one of his friend’s steals that composition and changes it slightly and the resulting painting and the artist are lauded.

Zola concentrates on Claude’s story and his wife Christine, but his friends are a sculptor, journalist, architect and of course a novelist, and their lives and how they interact with Claude are also a big part of the book.

Germinal has always been my favourite in this series but this one ran it a close thing, although I must warn anyone thinking of reading it – especially in these angst-ridden pandemic times – that it vies with Thomas Hardy for shock and darkness. However there are some lovely descriptions of Paris, especially at night, Claude was in love with the city.

There’s an introduction by the translator Thomas Walton, obviously not to be read until you’ve finished reading the book, but as it happens the one passage that I had marked to quote is in his introduction.

Sandoz (Zola) is speaking to Claude:

“Has it ever struck you that posterity may not be the fair, impartial judge we like to think it is? We console ourselves for being spurned and rejected by relying on getting a fair deal from the future, just as the faithful put up with with the abomination on this earth because they firmly believe in another life where everyone shall have his deserts. Suppose the artist’s paradise turned out to be as non-existent as the Catholic’s, and future generations proved just as misguided as the present one and persisted in liking pretty-pretty dabbling better than honest to goodness painting! …. What a sell for us all, to have lived like slaves, noses to the grindstone all to no purpose!”

Such is life!

I bought my copy of this book in a charity shop in North Berwick one hot summer’s day a few years ago in the glory days of travel. I can’t say that I like the cover though. It’s an Ann Arbor paperback, The University of Michigan Press, and I bought about five other Zola books along with it, all similarly very far from home.

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

Coriolanus

In 2020 I didn’t read many books from my Classics Club list (2), in fact it was only the spin books that I read, so this year I thought I would start to chip away at the fewer than 20 that I have left to read from my second list of 50 classic books. So I decided to read Coriolanus by William Shakespeare which I knew nothing about. I picked it up a few hours after watching the insurgents live on CNN as they beat their way into the US Capitol building and it felt just a wee bit spooky with
Act First Scene 1 Rome. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs and other weapons.Then they proceeded to march on The Capitol!

Those plebeians – the common people – were revolting over a lack of affordable grain, people were starving while others hoarded grain and made huge profits.

Caius Marcius (Martius) is a top officer in the army and he is absolutely full of himself, according to him he has saved Rome countless times over the years. His mother Volumnia is ambitious for her son and wants him to become a consul, but Marcius really despises the ordinary Romans and doesn’t hide the fact so he’s very unpopular with the citizens. Marcius tells the rioters that they don’t deserve any bread as they’ve never given any service in the army. He’s incensed when two of the rioters are rewarded with seats in the Senate.

News of a war having broken out with the neighbouring Volscians means that Marcius leaves to lead the Roman army in battle. When Marcius wins the war and news comes of his many brave deeds he’s given the title of Coriolanus after the town of Corioloni.

When back in Rome Coriolanus is encouraged to become a consul, but he needs to curry favour with the people which means he has to feign humility, he tries but his real character asserts itself and the upshot is that he is banished from Rome altogether.

In his fury Coriolanus teams up with his old enemy Tullus Aufidius of the Volscians and together they march on Rome. While Coriolanus and Aufidius are camped outside the city walls the Romans are in a panic, as is the army, and two of Coriolanus’s old friends go outside the walls to plead for mercy – to no avail. But when his mother Volumnia pleads with him to make peace he relents. This treachery infuriates Aufidius and Coriolanus can’t stop himself, he’s still bragging about how many people he has killed, which isn’t at all sensible as he’s in the company of a lot of Volscians – the relatives of the people he had killed. It doesn’t end well for Coriolanus!

And so another Shakespeare play bites the dust in these strange times, and there were some even stranger parallels between the two Capitols of Rome and Washington. The boasting and arrogant character of Coriolanus is very reminiscent of Trump, but that’s as far as the similarities go as Trump could never be called brave and at bottom he seems to have despised people who didn’t dodge the army which is the opposite of Coriolanus’s attitude.

My copy of this book is a very old leather bound one with no publication date, but it is inscribed, May N Haxton 25/12/06, so presumably it was a Christmas gift in 1906.

I read this one for the Classics Club and Back to the Classics.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

 Thomas Mann cover

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann was first published in 1913 and translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter.

Gustave Aschenbach is a successful hard working writer, living in Munich. He had been allowed to add the word ‘von’ to his name, almost raising him to aristocracy. In his younger years he had done a lot of travelling but that had tailed off as he got older and he had hardly left Munich in recent years. On impulse he decides to travel to Venice, a place he had loved in the past.

This is a tale of obsession as when Aschenbach reaches his hotel in Venice he is entranced by the sight of a young blond boy, beautiful and elegant and obviously the only much pampered boy in his family which consists of three older sisters and their mother. Aschenbach can hardly take his eyes off the boy who is dressed beautifully in contrast with his very plainly dressed sisters. The mother is festooned with ‘well-nigh priceless pearls’. The family comes from Poland and Aschenbach eventually discovers that the boy’s name is Tadzio.

Aschenbach gets into the habit of settling himself on the beach where he can have a good view of the family, and his interest is eventually noticed by the mother who calls Tadzio away when he strays too close to where Ascenbach is sunning himself. When Aschenbach can’t see them he walks aroudn the city looking for them, and even follows them around when he finds them.

During all this time visitors are beginning to leave Venice and aren’t being replaced by others, but Aschenbach is too steeped in his obsession to notice. Eventually even he can’t ignore the frequent wafts of carbolic acid that he can smell in the air, but the hoteliers and businesses are in denial, they don’t want to lose the few customers who haven’t already left. Too late Aschenbach is told of the Asiatic Cholera which had begun in the delta of the Ganges and wafted its way through many countries before reaching Italy. Plus ca change – as they say!

This little novella is the first that I’ve read by Thomas Mann, but won’t be the last as he’s such a good writer but I must admit that I started reading this one in bed and decided that it wasn’t bedtime reading, so I started it again in the morning and read it in a couple of sittings. I still felt that it didn’t really get going until Aschenbach reached Venice, which didn’t take long.

I’m assuming that everyone has seen the 1971 film of the book starring Dirk Bogarde, which is why I’ve recounted the whole story, but it’s really just the bare bones of it and it didn’t matter that I already knew the ending, it’s in the title after all. The film is a bit different though.

Back to the Classics 2021 – My list

I’ve signed up for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 which is hosted by Karen @ Books and Chocolate. It’s a year long project so should be easy to complete!

Below are the categories for 2021 with my choice in each category in bold. A few of my choices also appear in my Classics Club list but I believe that is allowed.

1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899
Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott

2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. All books must have been published at least 50 years ago; the only exceptions are books which were written by 1971 and posthumously published.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

3. A classic by a woman author.
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall

4. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. You may read it in translation or in its original language, if you prefer.
Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.
The Rover by Aphra Behn

6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.
The Deer Park by Norman Mailer

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author — a new book by an author whose works you have already read.
The Masterpiece by Emile Zola

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. The animal can be real or metaphorical. (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird).
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

9. A children’s classic.
Pinocchio

10. A humorous or satirical classic.
Jill the Reckless by P.G. Wodehouse

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction). It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure.
The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes 1685-c1712

12. A classic play. Plays will only count in this category.
Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

Obviously I intend to read more classics than this over the year, particularly Anthony Trollope. My project to read everything by him – and that’s a lot – has come to a halt this year for some reason.

Have you read any of these books?

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

 Mrs Dalloway cover

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was first published in 1925 and I never really intended to read it as I’m not a big fan of the stream of consciousness style of writing, but surprisingly I did like it. A friend had had to study it for her degree and she loaned me her copy of the book, however it wasn’t to her taste at all.

The story takes place within one day when Mrs Dalloway (Clarissa), who is an upper-class middle aged woman married to a politician and living in London, is busy getting ready to host a party in her home, it’s just a few years after the end of World War 1.

Clarissa loves walking around Westminster, it’s a lovely day which reminds her of being at Bourton, her childhood home and as she goes to buy flowers for her party her mind wanders back to those days and her past lover Peter Walsh whom she had refused to marry. She thought he would be coming back from India soon, retired. He had had so many plans but in the end had done nothing much with his life. Surprisingly when Clarissa gets back home Peter Walsh is waiting for her. It’s not a successful meeting, Clarissa was obviously correct to turn him down. On the other hand, Peter had always said that Clarissa would be a wonderful society hostess and she seems to have fulfilled that expectation, but perhaps it’s Clarissa’s talents in that direction that have contributed to her husband’s success as a Member of Parliament.

The focus switches to Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Rezia. They’re in London to visit a well known doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. Septimus is suffering from shell-shock due to his wartime experiences and Rezia is hopeful that he can be cured. Their own doctor keeps saying that there is nothing wrong with Septimus, but his behaviour alarms his wife and the servant and Septimus shouts for his dead friend Evans and has conversations with him. It’s not going to end well.

It’s an odd book to write about, but I did enjoy it, unexpectedly, and the party? Well, in the end it was a success of course.

The Classics Club Spin # 25

classic spin

It’s Classics Club Spin spin time again, how quickly it comes around. Ths spin number will be chosen on Sunday the 22nd of November, but this time we have almost 9 weeks to read the book which comes up in the spin. It should be read by the 30th of January. I have a few chunksters on my list so it would be ideal if one of those ones came up. Are you participating this time around?

My spin list is:

1. Montaigne essays
2. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
3. Coot Club by Arthur Ransome
4. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
5. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Parrot by Hugh Lofting
6. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
7. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
8. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
9. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
10. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
11. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
12. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
13. The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
14. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
15. Sing for Your Supper by Pamela Frankau
16. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
17. The Trial by Franz Kafka
18. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
19. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
20. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

 Pied Piper cover

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute was first published in 1942 and the subject is World War 2, I generally love books about the war that were written at the time, and I loved this one.

The story begins in a London club where an air raid is in progression. Two members get into conversation, John Howard is 70 years old and he tells the much younger club member – a naval officer – of his recent exploits in France. John Howard had gone to France to have a fishing holiday but to his horror the Nazis began their unbelievably fast march through European countries and before long they were in France. John had to get home to England – fast. But a couple of English guests in his hotel ask him if he could take their small children with him when he goes back home, they think that will be much safer for them. The children’s parents are diplomats and intend to travel to Switzerland on their own.

Things start to go awry almost immediately when one of the children falls ill and so begins a suspenseful journey with John Howard gathering more children along the way and having to join the vast numbers of refugees on the roads as the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed them. What should have been a simple train journey home to blighty turns into a complete nightmare when the trains are unavailable as the French army runs from the advancing German army.

Considering the subject matter I can hardly believe that it has taken me so long to get around to reading Pied Piper, I think I enjoyed this one even more than The Chequer Board which had been my favourite. I now want to tread his book Most Secret (1945) as it also has a wartime plot. Have any of you read that one?

I had to laugh at the author’s portrayal of the French rural/country people as being money grabbing and avaricious – nothing changes, that has been exactly our experience of them over the years on various holidays.

Classics Club Spin – # 24

spin

It’s Classics Club Spin time again – number 24. The spin number will be chosen on Sunday the 9th of August and I’ll be writing about whichever book I have to read by the 30th September 2020.

My spin list is:

1. Montaigne essays
2. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
3. Coot Club by Arthur Ransome
4. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
5. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Parrot by Hugh Lofting
6. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
7. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
8. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
9. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
10. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
11. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
12. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
13. The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
14. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
15. Sing for Your Supper by Pamela Frankau
16. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
17. The Trial by Franz Kafka
18. Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant
19. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
20. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

I’ve read quite a few chunky books recently so I’d really prefer to avoid reading some of the heftier books on my list, such as Salem Chapel and The Corn King and the Spring Queen, actually there are quite a few hefty books on this list, the odds might be against me!

The Rescue by Joseph Conrad

1920 club

The Rescue cover

As we have a complete set of lovely Folio Joseph Conrad books I decided to read The Rescue by Joseph Conrad for the 1920 Club, apart from that, it was slim pickings on my bookshelves for that particular year.

Prior to reading this one I had only ever read one other book by Conrad – Lucky Jim – and I wasn’t too thrilled by that one as I recall although it was probably at least 15 years ago that I read it. Anyway, I must admit that I found the first two thirds of The Rescue to be a bit of a turgid slog. I consoled myself by reminding myself that not every book can be as non stop-action packed as a Dorothy Dunnett book, so I ploughed on.

Eventually things did speed up. The setting is the Malay Straits where Tom Lingard is sailing his ship The Lightning, he makes a good living trading in the area. The Lightning is approached by a boat seeking help. Their yacht has run aground on a mudflat and when Lingard boards the yacht he meets with its owner Mr Travers, he is obviously a snob, very rich and is suspicious of Lingard. He’s sure he’s some sort of pirate and is rude towards him. But Mrs Travers who is much younger than her husband is very attractive as far as Lingard is concerned, the feeling seems to be mutual. When Travers and his guest d’Alcacer leave the yacht to stretch their legs on the sandbank they are stranded on they end up being kidnapped by a local tribe. There’s been trouble among the tribes, and in the recent past Lingard had befriended the chief of another tribe, and had sold him arms.

Travers and d’Alcacer are in danger of being murdered and Lingard goes to where they are being held captive in an effort to get them released, despite the fact that he’s completely smitten by Mrs Travers, and her husband is such an unpleasant man. Mrs Travers is tasked with delivering a message to Lingard but for some reason she fails to do so. It all gets very messy.

There’s an introduction by Captain Richard Woodman at the beginning which of course I read after finishing the book. It enlightened me as to why The Rescue felt almost like it had been written by two different writers. Apparently Conrad began to write the book in 1900 but half-way through it he came to a standstill and just couldn’t progress with it. He gave it up and went on to concentrate on The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ which was a huge success, but he didn’t go back to The Rescue until 1915, and only then as his agent had nagged him to finish it. He still couldn’t do it and it was only in 1918 that he tried again and eventually saw his way around the writing problem he had – by then it was TWENTY years after he had given up on it half way through. That’s obviously why the pace picked up two thirds through the book, really he should have gone back and re-written the parts that were twenty years old.

This book is very much of its time and the ‘n’ word appears quite a lot. All the way through the book though I was amazed by the writing as Conrad wrote his books in English, a language that he didn’t even begin to speak until he was in his 20s. His first language was Polish, but he must have had a real talent for languages, he even uses a Scots word in this book.

I might read another of his books at some point in the future, but not anytime soon.

Classics Club Spin # 23

It’s Classic Club Spin again – number 23 – how time flies. The spin number will be announced on Sunday, April the 19th and the corresponding book must be read by the 1st of June.

My list isn’t very different from the last one.

spin book
1. Montaigne essays
2. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
3. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
4. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
5. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Parrot by Hugh Lofting
6. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
7. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
8. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
9. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
10. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
11. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
12. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
13. The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
14. The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
15. Sing for Your Supper by Pamela Frankau
16. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
17. The Trial by Franz Kafka
18. Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant
19. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
20. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison

I’m not too bothered about which number turns up although having read a few chunksters recently a slimmer volume would be nice.