The Kill by Emile Zola – Classics Club Spin no. 18

The Kill cover

The book that I got in the Classics Club Spin is The Kill by Emile Zola which was first published in 1872 and it’s the second book in his Rougon Macquart series. I think this is about the fifth book in that series that I’ve read and it is the one that I’ve liked least. However it’s one of his earliest books and he obviously improved with maturity.

The setting is Paris 1852 and Aristide Rougon has gone there having left his native Provence. He hopes to get help from his older brother and eventually he does get a job with his help, he’s a surveyor of roads. It isn’t really what he was looking for but he realises that the work gives him access to important city planning decisions and this means that he can take advantage by buying up tracts of land that he knows will be needed in the rebuilding of the new Paris. He’ll make lots of money when the land is bought from him by the city.

Aristide is a born wheeler dealer and when his wife dies he marries Renee a young woman from a wealthy family. She is already pregnant and needs a husband. Aristide can use her money for his business dealings, but although Renee is much younger than Aristide and is very pretty, he isn’t really interested in her, she’s just a business deal as far as he is concerned. They both have affairs and Renee eventually ends up having an affair with Aristide’s son by his first wife. She spends a fortune on her clothes and has to borrow to pay some money towards her debts. Meanwhile Aristide realises that he isn’t such a brilliant businessman as he thought he was.

The subject matter of massive greed, waste and infidelities didn’t appeal to me and the book is very overwritten. I like descriptions but there are far too many of them in this book – too many adjectives, too much purple prose.

They say that writers should always write about what they know but Emile Zola was writing about a society that he knew little about and he apparently got all of his information from the society pages of the Paris newspapers. Of course they described the dresses and jewellery that were worn at balls and Zola must have felt the need to do the same. I got to the stage where I was thinking – ‘please – no more satin, lace and bows!’

I’ll definitely be continuing with this series though.

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope

The American Senator cover

The American Senator by Anthony Trollope was first published in 1877 and this was my second attempt at reading it, which is strange as I ended up loving it. Obviously my brain just wasn’t in the right place when I lost interest in it first time around. What I love about Trollope’s writing is that he wears his heart on his sleeve and he chose to highlight different aspects of British culture that he found to be unfair and distasteful. In this book it’s the way young women were put on the marriage market at the age of 18 and often pressurised into being ‘settled’.

Arabella Trefoil is from an aristocratic family but is penniless and she has been chasing after various wealthy men for years and it has all come to nothing. She’s now getting on for 30 and is worn out with it all so she plumps for an engagement with an older man, John Morton, a diplomat, but she makes no attempt to even be pleasant to him, she thinks he’s mean with money and is having second thoughts. When another man who’s a wealthy young lord comes into view she’s tempted to try to manipulate him into a marriage proposal and lies her head off to everyone, including herself.

Mary Masters is a lot younger, just 18 or so and her step-mother is pressurising her to marry a local farmer. It would be a hard life for Mary who would be expected to do a lot of the farm/dairy work on her own, but apart from that Mary just doesn’t love the man. Her step-mother doesn’t see that as a problem.

Meanwhile Elias Gotobed is an American senator who is in England visiting John Morton and writing to a friend in America about his observations on British society and culture. He’s critical of the way the eldest male in any family inherits everything leaving the other children to make the best of it, usually by joining the army or the church.

The way the Church of England is organised is another thing that appalls him. This is a subject that obviously weighed on Trollope’s mind as his Barchester books are about the same thing.

He’s critical of fox-hunting, the cruel ‘sport’ which entails riders trampling crops and trespassing, ending with a fox being ripped apart.

He’s critical of the House of Lords as they’re unelected. The voting system is bizarre and basically corrupt.

Unfortunately the senator doesn’t keep his criticism for his American friend. While at a dinner party he’s keen to share his thoughts with the other guests. Mr Gotobed has no tact or sense of diplomacy whatsoever. Freedom of speech is more important to him, no matter how much he upsets his hosts. His bad manners shock the guests.

This was a great read although it’s slightly depressing that one of the things that obviously annoyed Trollope still hasn’t been improved as the House of Lords is still an unelected house. It’s a really ridiculous state of affairs but I read somewhere that in British politics things are usually spoken of for around 200 years before any change ever takes place, so there can’t be too long to go now surely!

Nana by Emile Zola

Nana cover

Nana by Emile Zola was first published in 1880 and it’s part of his Rougon Macquart series which I’ve been reading completely out of order. There’s a list on Goodreads which recommends the order they should be read in, you can see it here. I’m not sure if it makes a huge difference to the enjoyment of the books.

Bluntly, this book is about prostitution and the part it played in French society of the Second Empire, particularly in Paris. Nana is the main character and in the beginning she’s a new girl in a theatre, her first experience on stage didn’t go well at all, she couldn’t sing, but she had the wit to realise that a lack of talent wouldn’t be a problem for her, she had a great figure and she was more than happy to show it all off, with just a very thin gauze veil for cover.

The men are agog, so are a lot of the women, and Nana goes from being a penniless unknown to being the toast of Paris, in some circles anyway. She’s a manipulative and totally dishonest tart who as time goes on becomes more and more out of control. The wonder is that the men involved with her were happy to put up with her nonsense, but there’s nowt as queer as men when it comes to sex it would seem!

Apparently Zola did a lot of background research for this book and he even managed to get a peek at a very ornate and expensive bed of a famous Parisian courtesan, and he based Nana’s bed on that one. As ever Zola’s descriptions light up the book but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others of his that I’ve read. Zola wanted to compare Nana’s destructiveness with that of the French Empire’s disintegration which came in 1870.

Zola did set out to show how hereditary weaknesses affected various members of the families in this series and Nana’s personality is completely out of control, self-centred and destructive. She’s a nutter, one of those women who should have ‘dangerous to everyone’ stamped on her forehead. She’s smart though, much wilier than everyone else and has the unusual (for that society) tendency to kindness when others are in despair.

This one was on my Classics Club list.
Have you read Nana? What did you think of it/her?

The cover of my Penguin Classic shows ‘Nana’ painted by Edouard Manet.

Classics Club Spin number 17

Well the Classics Club Spin number has been chosen, it’s number 3 so the book that I’ll have to read before April 30th is Sir Walter Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor.

That’s fine by me as I’ve been meaning to read that one for ages. My copy which was published by Richard Edward King Limited originally belonged to Jack’s grandfather so it’s very old, but strangely it has no publication date on the front. The print is very small so although it’s only 316 pages long that probably translates to over 600 pages in a more modern print size. I think I’ll download it from Project Gutenberg so I can read it on my Kindle, or get a more modern copy.

Did you take part in the spin, and are you pleased with what you have to read?

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

Britannia Mews cover

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp was first published in 1946 and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I had imagined it was going to be about a neighbourhood during World War 2 – a setting that is usually right up my street so I was quite disappointed when I realised that the story opens in the 19th century.

At the beginning Britannia Mews is quite a good address, this book marks its decline to slum status and its subsequent gentrification years later. Mainly it’s about Adelaide who is only ten at the beginning of the book, she’s very close to her cousin Alice, they share drawing lessons together, but when Adelaide’s hormones turn up she becomes obsessed with the drawing master and elopes with him. Adelaide’s family had already left Britannia Mews for a better address but when they were in the midst of moving again, this time out of London, she takes her chance to run off and ends up back in the now slum area of Britannia Mews. She has worked everything out, getting a special marriage licence so that when her parents track her down it’s too late for them to do anything about it.

Adelaide like many a woman before her thinks that she will be able to transform her husband, starting with scrubbing their rooms, but it’s not long before she realises she’s made a terrible mistake, but she’s never going to admit that to her over-bearing mother, she’ll stick it out come what may, despite having to live amongst filthy people the likes of which she’s never met before.

I enjoyed the second half of this book more than the first and I have to mention that for a filthy slum Britannia Mews was remarkably lacking in vermin. In reality someone like Adelaide would have moved out at the first glimpse of cockroaches, bedbugs and rats. But that’s me being pernickety I suppose.

This one is on my Classics Club list.

The Children Who Lived In A Barn by Eleanor Graham

Mobius Dick cover

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham was first published in 1938. My copy is a Persephone reprint. The author is probably better known as an editor for Puffin and Penguin books, and as such she obviously knew better than anyone that the best way to write a book for and involving children is to get rid of the parents as fast as possible, which she duly does in this book.

The Dunnet family consists of the parents and five children who range in age from thirteen to seven. Susan is the eldest and luckily she’s a very level-headed and competent girl, she has to be because their rather feckless parents take off for Switzerland where Mrs Dunnett’s mother has taken ill. They’re completely confident that Susan can look after everyone until they get back, but they don’t return and even worse the children are evicted from the family home as the landlord wants the house.

The villagers are mainly helpful and a farmer offers them the use of an old barn to live in. They set to work making it habitable and as the summer approaches they make a decent job of looking after themselves although the bulk of the work has fallen on Susan who has to learn how to wash and sew. She’s at her wits’ end trying to make ends meet.

Susan has become a little mother figure with help from a local teacher, the baker and some others, but the local district visitor is determined to get them all put into a ‘Home’ for orphans. She’s a thoroughly despicable character, but to be fair nowadays there is no way that ‘home alone’ children would be allowed to look after themselves, they’d all be taken into local authority ‘care’ immediately.

This is a charming story even although the reader has to suspend disbelief, not only when the children are allowed to stay in the barn, but also the reason why the parents haven’t returned is fairly pathetic and totally unlikely. It’s well written otherwise although I have to say that it always annoys me when the youngest girl in a family is portrayed as spoiled and whining as is Alice in this book – such nonsense as I should know!

There’s a preface by the author Jacqueline Wilson in which she explains that when she was growing up it was normal for children to be given a latch key and to be by themselves at home – until their mother got home from work. All quite true, there were millions of us growing up like that, really bringing ourselves up, I don’t know when it was decided that children had to be chaperoned all the time, possibly around the late 1970s.

I’m fairly sure I didn’t read this one when I was wee, I think I would definitely have remembered it as it would have been right up my street. Have you read it?

This one is on my Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

The endpapers are taken from a 1938 screen printed design by John Little.

Arrowhead

Long Summer Day by R.F. Delderfield

Long Summer Day cover

Long Summer Day by R.F. Delderfield was first published in 1966 and it’s the first book in his A Horseman Riding By trilogy. It’s a good read, I’ll probably give it four stars on Goodreads.

It begins in 1901 and ends in 1911. At the beginning Paul has been invalided out of the army, he was in the cavalry and had been fighting in the Boer War, a bullet wound to his knee had ended all that. The end of his army career has come at more or less the same time as the death of his father which means that he has inherited a half share in a very lucrative scrap metal business. The war had made it even more successful than it had been, but Paul isn’t at all interested in the business and is happy to leave the running of it to his ‘uncle’ Franz, his father’s business partner.

Paul knows that he wants to live an outdoor life and despite having no experience of it he’s drawn to farming. When a large estate is advertised for sale he goes to view it and falls in love with the place. The locals make up a great cast of quirky characters and I can see that this series is going to be an enjoyable journey through British social history. I’m presuming that the next two books will be dealing with the two World Wars that changed society so much.

This one was on my new Classics Club list – another one bites the dust.

New Classics Club list

At last I’ve got around to compiling my new list of 50 classic books to work my way through for the Classics Club. I completed my original list – and then some – a wee while ago, I think I got to 68 when I decided it was probably time I counted how many classics I had read, but the original list of 50 is here if you’re interested.

My new list is of mainly quite old books, I’m quite strict about what I regard as a classic and almost all of these books are ones that I’ve had in the house for donkey’s years awaiting their turn for a moment in the limelight by actually being read.

I’ve already read and reviewed a couple of them, I got Down and Out in Paris and London in spin number 16.

1. The American Senator by Anthony Trollope
2. Nana by Emile Zola
3. The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott
4. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
5. Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott
6. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor
7. Montaigne
8. Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
10. Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Laclos
11. Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter
12. High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
13. The Disorderly Knights by Dorothy Dunnett
14. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15. Orkneyinga Saga
16. The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham
17. A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon
18. The Town in Bloom by Dodie Smith
19. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
20. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
21. Expiation by Elizabeth von Arnim
22. The Benefactress by Elizabeth von Arnim
23. The Earth by Emile Zola
24. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
25. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
26. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
27. The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison
28. Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant
29. Salem Chapel by Margaret Oliphant
30. Doctor Dolittle and the Green Parrot by Hugh Lofting
31. If This Is a Man Primo Levi
32. End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy
33. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
33. Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
34. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
35. The Trial by Franz Kafka
36. Maurice by E.M. Forster
37. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
34. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
35. Long Summer Day by R.F. Delderfield
36. Post of Honour by R.F. Delderfield
37. The Green Gauntlet by R.F. Delderfield
38. The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham
39. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
40. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
41. Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp
42. Rider of the White Horse by Rosemary Sutcliff
43. The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
44. Sing For Your Supper by Pamela Frankau
45. The Tempest by Shakespeare
46. An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer
47. Angel Pavement by J.B. Priestley
48. Pawn in Frankincense by Dorothy Dunnett
49. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
50. The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

I’ve managed to get a nice split of 25 books by female authors and 25 by male authors, if I’ve counted correctly, and 10 of them are Scottish authors. Towards the end I cheated a bit (to my mind anyway) and added authors that I wouldn’t normally think of as being classic authors as they’re a bit modern-ish in my eyes. A few of the books are children’s classics.

What do you think of my list? Have you read any of them?

Classics Club = 68 classics read since 2012

I joined the Classics Club way back in 2012 with the intention of reading 55 classics by the time my 55th birthday came around. Sadly I missed that deadline, shockingly I’m getting on for 58 now! I recently realised that I must have passed my target so I thought it was about time I counted up. Below is the result and if you click on the titles it’ll take you to my thoughts on the book. The list isn’t chronological – I’m not that well organised.

I’m just going to continue with the Classics Club though. Over the years my idea of what a classic book is has changed a lot. In the beginning I was just counting much older books, mainly Victorian, but recently I’ve been a lot less strict about that. I do feel that it’s a bit strange calling something a classic when it has been written well within my lifetime, but I think a lot of people regard 30 years in print as meaning that a book is a classic – fair enough I suppose. Going by that my list of classics read since 2012 would be much longer than the one below. I’ve really enjoyed reading them, some more than others of course but I’ll write about that in another post soon.

1. In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
2. Linda Tressel by Anthony Trollope
3. Kim by Rudyard Kipling
4. The Lady of the Camelias by Alexandre Dumas
5. Swan Song by John Galsworthy
6. An Academic Question by Barbara Pym
7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
8. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
9. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
10. The Talisman by Walter Scott
11. Ivanhoe by Walter Scott
12. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
13. The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope
14. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
15. The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope
16. The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett
17. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
18. The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett
19. Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
20. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
21. O Pioneer! by Willa Cather
22. Moby Dick by Hermann Melville
23. The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby
24. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
25. An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
26. The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
27. England, Their England by A.G. Macdonell
28. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
29. The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell
30. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
31. Witch Wood by John Buchan
32. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
33. The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck
34. Love by Elizabeth von Arnim
35. Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitgerald
36. Good Morning Midnight by Jean Rhys
37. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope
38. One of Ours by Willa Cather
39. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
40. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
41. Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym
42. The Silver Spoon by John Galsworthy
43. An Eye for an Eye by Anthony Trollope
44. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
45. The Belly of Paris by Emile Zola
46. The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola
47. The Castle by Franz Kafka
48. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
49. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope
50. He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
51. Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
52. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
53. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
54. Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope
55. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
56. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
57. My Antonia by Willa Cather
58. Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather
59. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
60. Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
61. Germinal by Emile Zola
62. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
63. The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
64. Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh
65. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
66. In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim
67. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
68. Introduction to Sally by Elizabeth von Arnim

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

 Alone in Berlin cover

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada was a completely random choice by me at the library. The book was first published in 1947 and although it’s a Penguin Modern Classic, I had never heard of it.

What a read it is! Given the subject matter it is obviously not a comfy read in fact it’s really quite horrific in parts, especially when you realise that a lot of it was based on actual happenings.

The setting is Berlin in 1940. It’s a city full of fear, run by thugs and gangsters in various uniforms, with spies everywhere. Many of the people are Nazi Party members, often just so they can get a decent job, but then they are expected to contribute so much money to various Nazi funds. It’s quite similar to the austerity that the British government likes to control those of us in the UK with – only worse.

But some of the people are tired of living in fear and when Otto Quangel’s soldier son is killed it’s the last straw for him. He has to do something to fight against the Nazis and decides that the best thing he can do is write postcards criticising the Nazis and the war and leaving them around Berlin, thinking that they will be passed around by whoever finds them. His wife Anna thinks that they should be doing more than that but as he would be executed if he was caught she agrees that it is enough and ends up helping him.

Sadly almost all of the postcards are handed in to the Gestapo as soon as they are found. Everyone is too terrified to have something like that in their possession. Gestapo Inspector Escherich has the job of tracking down the perpetrator, and his superiors aren’t impressed that it is taking him so long to do it, he’s living in fear of being sent to a concentration camp if he can’t find the culprit.

Meanwhile the other inhabitants in their tenement block are brought into the story. Mrs Rosenthal is an old Jewish woman, on her own now since her husband was taken away by the Gestapo. The Persickes are red hot Nazi thugs, drunken and violent and keen to get their hands on Mrs Rosenthal’s possessions.

Alone in Berlin tells how the Nazis got a grip on the German people in 1933 and by the time they started taking over other countries their own people were also well under control. Of course lots of them were very enthusiastic Nazis but those who weren’t had to keep their heads down, otherwise they would lose them!

It had never occurred to me before that while people in the UK were having to live with harsh rationing, a lot of Germans were enjoying the good life as so much stuff had been looted from the countries that they were over-running.

This is a great read but Hans Fallada got the idea for it from an actual couple who did exactly what Otto and Anna had done, and came to a similar end – a horrible thought.

The author had quite a wild life himself, with alcoholism and drug addiction. I’ll definitely be seeking out his other books.

This book is a Penguin Modern Classic so I read this one for the Classics Club.