Old Man Goriot: 100 novels

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Old Man Goriot. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

Old Man Goriot

Old Man Goriot focuses heavily on three characters: Rastignac, a young student determined to break into Paris high society; Vautrin, a jovial criminal who takes Rastignac under his wing; and the titular Goriot himself. Despite being the title character, we get very little from Goriot and see his tragedy play out mainly through the eyes of Rastignac.

The novel is one of those rich, meandering tapestries full of mesmerising detail. Indeed, Balzac is generally credited with founding realism in European literature. The book is not stylised or romanticised in any way, but rather depicts the thoughts and actions of people who may as well be real.

As such, it makes for a depressing read. Goriot’s story is not a happy one. A hardworking small businessman, he makes enough money to ensure his daughters are ‘well married’ and they enter a higher social strata. They quickly snub their father, except when they need more money. Goriot sacrifices more and more of his own well-being to try and help his daughters with little reward. Eventually, penniless, he suffers a stroke and dies slowly – but his daughters are too busy attending an important high society ball and do not visit him before he finally dies. They also do not attend his funeral, choosing instead to let a medical student and Rastignac (his fellow boarder) organise a paupers grave.

The way this desire to ‘go up in the world’ and achieve greater wealth and fame corrupts people is played out again in the character of Rastignac. From a poor rural area of France, he has high ambitions but quickly realises you need wealth and connections to even be noticed. He takes money from his family, that they can ill afford, and even contemplates becoming an accessory to murder.

Despite the fairly horrible actions of the characters, they are well-fleshed out and surprisingly sympathetic. Poverty is shown to be a grim and horrible thing, and it is no surprise that people are desperate to escape to the glittering world of wealth and good fortune.

Indeed, with our own inequality of wealth rising, this book has some surprisingly poignant moments. The poverty of the boarding house, the desperation of most of the characters to escape, and the prejudice the wealthier class has against the poorer ones – even to the extent of daughters turning against their father – all feels sadly modern.

Buy Old Man Goriot

Eugene Onegin: 100 novels challenge

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about Eugene Onegin. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels. This review will contain spoilers.

Eugene Onegin

So there comes a point on any 100 novels list when you hit something like this: Eugene Onegin. A Russian novel written entirely in verse.

In verse.

Purely from a technical viewpoint this felt like a bad idea. I can’t read Russian. Translating poetry is notoriously difficult, and this was a mega-poem of 389 stanzas.

From a personal perspective it also felt like a challenge. I don’t ‘get’ poetry. You can blame it on the education system, I guess. Or on a culture that is rapidly replacing oral communication with text. For whatever reason, reading poetry fills me with a deep terror.

So I did what any self-respecting former English student would do. I procrastinated. I read Vonnegut and 87th Precinct  novels and occasionally told people that I was still deciding which translation to get.

Eugene Onegin - operaIt wasn’t until I had a weekend that involved spending eight hours on a train that I decided to to tackle Eugene Onegin. I downloaded it onto my kindle and sallied forth.

Turned out that once I had started I couldn’t stop.

As a poem it is unpretentious; written in a witty but down to earth voice that quickly pulled me into the story. There is little in the way of dense and tangled imagery. Instead, Eugene is a rather straightforward tragic love story. There’s a couple of passionate letters, a duel that ends in murder, and a love affair that ends up unrequited for both people involved. There’s also, in the style of old books, a few amusing digressions – such as several stanzas all about feet.

I sniggered out loud a couple of times, which is pretty good going for a book written in the 1800s. I also felt genuinely sad for the characters, caught up in rigid social niceties that prevented them from achieving anything like a happy ending.

In short, it was everything I could have wanted from a train read.

It is generally considered a classic in Russian literature, and there is something haunting about it. Despite the witty, almost irreverent language, the actual story is horrible. Nobody wins – except, perhaps, Olga?

Overall, if you are looking to get into your classics, Eugene Onegin is a good place to start. I’m almost inspired to attempt a visit to the Opera!

Buy Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Penguin Classics).

100 novels: The Golden Notebook

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list, and my latest review is about The Golden Notebook. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Golden Notebook

Buy The Golden Notebook on Amazon

This is going to be one of the most difficult novels for me to write a review about, because I’m still not sure I really understood what it was about.

First up, Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Golden Notebook is generally considered to be her most influential book. It’s also a ‘feminist classic’, although Doris distances herself from that title in her introduction, saying:

But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled […] as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.

I have been in a false position ever since, for the last thing I have wanted to do was refuse to support women.

The central theme she refers to is that of ‘breakdown’ or ‘cracking up’. In other words, what we now refer to as ‘mental illness’.

And yet, reading through The Golden Notebook, it is easy to see how people arrived at the conclusion it was about the plight of women; the way women are driven by mad by circumstance and by the double standards they are held to. She also, in her introduction from June 1971, mentions her belief that:

the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint.

Alas, reading the book in 2014 we seem to be tackling many of the same issues: endless (confusing) wars, a complete lack of faith in any ideological movement, an absence of hope… and of course, the same old problems of racism and sexism.

The solution that the central character arrives at is to go mad; perhaps the only sane response in a world of increasing horror.

And yet, despite tackling issues still alive today, such as racism and sexism, the book does seem to be written from a time long long ago. An enormous gulf separated me from the central characters. Their obsession with the Communist Party, for a start. Few people I know would ever invest much time and energy into supporting a political party. We are too aware that they are all corrupt, all ‘as bad as each other’. We support certain aims, we accept that one might be slightly less evil than another about issues we care about. But on the whole, nobody really believes politicians care about the country, or the citizens of a country… let alone the state of the world.

So where are the solutions? We face a crisis in terms of climate change, with people already dying. We are so addicted to petroleum that we are prepared to blow up swathes of the country to extract it. And the level of inequality between the wealthiest and the poorest is such that the top 0.7% of people own 41% of the worlds wealth.

We can’t trust our political parties to sort it out, revolutions rarely work and have a high cost in blood shed and violence, and peaceful protest is ignored.

If there is an answer, I believe it lies in each of us striving to be better, to think outside our own circle of friends and family, to use whatever power and privilege we have to push forward our collective wellbeing.

In The Golden Notebook, however, Anna — and to a large extent Doris — is dealing with the failure of the dreams of peace and plenty that the Communist Party promised. In it’s own way, as well, it’s about the loss of teenage naivete. We all believe we can change the world when we are teenager, and then we grow up and find ourselves trapped in the same patterns of power that our parents dealt with. Yet I think, for that generation that came of age during the Second World War, it was a far more crushing blow.

In many ways, The Golden Notebook is a depressing, hopeless book. Several characters make reference to the silent despair of the majority, quietly going crazy all across London. Yet perhaps there is some hope, that complete breakdown and reformation is the only solution… and in that, the breakdown of Anna Wulf and Saul Green represents the greater breakdown of society. When they give each other the first lines of the next novel, it is the formation of something new.

I found the book tough going. The characters are not sympathetic. Doris accurately represents the part of mental illness that has you endlessly circling the same ideas and motifs, again and again… and again. By the third ‘affair with a married man’ you are frustrated and slightly bored with the whole scenario. And yet, despite that, I found myself unable to put the book down. It opened my ideas to a world very different from mine, and forced me to think about things that made me uncomfortable.

All in all, I would recommend The Golden Notebook to others, with the caveat that you probably won’t actually enjoy it.

Other reviews of The Golden Notebook

How do you choose what book to read next?

In my last post I wrote about some of the things I am reading when I’m not working my way through the 100 novels I’ve challenged myself to read.

As a kid finding something new to read was never a problem. I used to raid my parents bookcase and the library and choose whatever looked interesting. I soon found my favourite authors and genres. It helped that I had a limited pool to choose from. It only took a few minutes to run along the shelves and pick the next book out.

Nowadays, with over one million books sitting on Amazon’s limitless shelves, and hundreds of thousands more being added every day, I don’t find it so easy. On the one hand, some of my favourite books have been little-known, obscure novels I would have never found if someone hadn’t donated it to a charity shop or market stall. On the other hand 90% of the books for sale I can be pretty sure I won’t enjoy. I’ve read a few self-published novels at random and most of them have been… well, pretty awful.

But I don’t want to miss the not-awful ones!

I could only read authors and specific genres I know I already like. But books are meant to broaden the horizon and make you consider new perspectives. Sometimes you need a new voice and a different set of themes to tackle.

I like to read classics, sure, but I also like to read modern novels. Ones that reflect on my own time, or the near future. The question that plagues me is… how do I find them?

How do you choose what book to read next?

What do you do? Do you use Goodreads recommendation tool? Do you get friends and family to suggest ideas? Do you scour the book reviews in newspapers? Do you have a particular book blogger whose opinion you respect? Is it even possible you buy books when some author sends you a tweet begging you to?

Let me know in the comments (or on facebook/twitter!)

Also, a shameless plug, but if you stumbled on this post looking for something to read… why not give my own short novel a try? The Rising Wind.

(By the way, here’s the full-sized version of that awesome flowchart at the top of the post)

What I’ve been reading lately

Whilst I am ploughing through the 100 novels challenge, the truth is I don’t just read the books on that list. I frequently intersperse my reading with some slightly less worthy works of fiction; the genre fiction which I love.  I grew up on crime novels and science-fiction, and as you will see, I always return to those genres… much like comfort food.

Blackbirds

First up, a very modern, somewhat racy novel, Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. I love Chuck’s blog, terribleminds, where he dispenses foul-mouthed wisdom from the lofty tower of writer-that-earns-a-living. I loved two of Chuck’s earlier books – Shotgun Gravy and Bait Dog, and was expecting to love Blackbirds. Truth be told, although many of the elements were there – razor-sharp writing, interestingly damaged characters, sex, violence and some paranormal shiznit – I came away feeling unsatisfied. Chuck has said that he’s been kicking this novel around for a few years, and it shows, the scenes feel as though they’ve been patched together with some pretty flakey story-glue. I’m going to steer clear of the other Miriam Black novels, but give one of Chuck’s other books a go.

87th Precinct

The Pusher by Ed McBain book coverThen some re-reading. I’ve been ploughing through Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, of which there are many. Ed more or less invented the cops-and-robbers genre, as far as I can tell. I read these as a teenager, and they influenced my writing style quite a lot. Short, staccato like sentences, a heavy focus on dialogue, and plenty of intrigue and violence. Of course, they are dated now – access to a cellphone would resolve many of the plots – and the women are all sexualised to the point of parody. However, the stories still rip along, the characters are still broadly sympathetic, and I’ll confess, I forgive a good crime novel pretty much anything.

Never Far from Nowhere

I also belong to a book club, and the most recent novel on the list was Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy, which deals with race issues in the 1970s. Andrea Levy is an important writer, being one of the few black historical authors for the United Kingdom, and she charts a uniquely English racism which makes for uncomfortable reading – because most of it is still true today. With that said, this book is less than subtle, and I found the characters fairly one dimensional. This was her second novel, and it was her fourth, Small Island, that won most praise from reviewers. I think there is nascent talent evident in Never Far From Nowhere, but it hadn’t quite gelled yet. I’ll be glad to read her later works, however.

Inverted World

Inverted World book coverAnother recent read was Inverted World, a science fiction novel by Christopher Priest. Inverted World is a brilliant novel in science-fiction terms… the ideas are interesting and the science is good. Like a lot of sci-fi, the characters exist mainly to serve the idea, rather than the other way round and the writing is flat and unevocative. The different points-of-view don’t add much to the story; it could just as easily have all been written from 3rd person, and might have been better for it.

Flashman

I’ve also been re-reading the Flashman novels. Historical novels set during the 19th century, the Flashman novels are that rare thing… books which features a thoroughly unlikeable main character, which nevertheless succeed admirably. It is partly a critique of the victorian novel, by undercutting any sense of nobility or bravery, the Flashman novels show the Empire building of Britain as the rapacious, violent, incompetent and greedy exercise it was and sheds a less than flattering light on the major players of the time.

The Great Gatsby

The final book on my list is The Great Gatsby, which I grabbed because it was free on kindle (and a week before payday I am out of money for new books to read!) I read this many years ago, and apparently liked it enough to award it five stars on Goodreads. Whether the book will stand up to a re-read I will soon discover.

What have you been reading lately? Got any good books to recommend?

Photo of books by shutterhacks.