Sunday, 30 April 2017

April Books: Madame Bovary, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Moby Dick and The Leopard

At the start of March, I decided I'd spend a year reading some of the books I thought a well-read person should have under their belt as they head into the latter half of their seventh decade. I wrote about the plan - including a list of titles - here. At the start of April I wrote appraisals of the five books I'd read by that stage, here and here.  Since then I've got through another four of the titles on my original list of 25 - and I have to report my first failure. But first, a deliberately brief reaction to the four I actually finished, starting with...

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, first published in 1856. I read the Alan Russell translation, which was first published in 1950 - and a damn fine translation it proved to be. This defeated me the first two times I tried to read it. I got about a third of the way the last time I gave it a go, but I just found it too bleak and depressing. I now understand why: there isn't a single admirable or likeable character in the whole book - it is absolutely stuffed with fools, clods and knaves, with the bourgeoisie coming in for a particular clobbering. True, Charles Bovary, Emma's dullard provincial doctor husband, is marginally less detestable than his airhead wife, but the slightest shred of sympathy we might have felt for this cloddish cuckold evaporates when, in order to create a reputation for himself rather than from any desire to alleviate suffering, he performs an incompetent operation on a man with a clubfoot, which ends with the poor chap having to have his gangrenous leg amputated. 

The character I most warmed to was the local chemist, Monsieur Homais, a pompous, energetic, common little bourgeois schemer with a finger in every local pie, who pretends to befriend the new doctor, while deliberately undermining his practice (Homais suggests the daft operation which reveals what an untalented bungler Dr Bovary is). As for Emma - well, is it possible to read the book without hoping that she comes to an extremely sticky end? (Which, of course, she does.)

Putting all that aside, the writing (as far as one can judge from a translation) is superb (or, if you prefer, superbe) -  it can be enjoyed even when one hates what is being described - and the psychological insight, particularly into the myriad ways we persuade ourselves that we believe in things we don't really believe in, and that we feel things we don't actually feel is horribly, painfully acute. 

I admired Madame Bovary enormously, but I won't pretend I enjoyed it. 

But I both admired and enjoyed the The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which was first published in 1958, with an English translation by Archibald Colquhoun in 1960. The novel is mainly set during the 19th century Risorgimento, a period of war and revolution which resulted in the unification of Italy. The main character - the Leopard of the title - is a Sicilian nobleman, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina, and the writer was a 20th Century Sicilian nobleman: Tomasi was Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa, and started writing his only completed novel after falling into a state of depression following the destruction of the Lampedusa palace by the Allies during World War II. The Duke - the last of his line - was a literary dilettante who lives mostly in Paris. He stipulated that Il Gattopardo should only be published after his death. 

The Leopard is one of the greatest novels I have ever read: a beautifully written, superbly constructed miracle of subtle characterisation and superb descriptive writing - there are delights on every page. I didn't finish it the first time I tried to read it. This time, after two pages, I realised what my problem had been the first time round - I'd simply tried to read it too quickly: in order for all its sophisticated psychological insights, its sly, understated, satirical humour, and its exquisite observations regarding the effect of landscape and nature upon the people of Sicily, it needs to be read with genuine attention and at a stately pace. The resulting rewards are limitless. Genius.

Nature is an ever-present factor in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the 1967 magical realist classic by the Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa. I thoroughly enjoyed Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, and assumed I'd enjoy this when I first tried to read it, but ran out of steam about a third of the way through. I think the problem was that the story concerns several generations of the same family (the Buendias, whose patriarch founded the town of Macondo in the middle of the jungle) who, on the male side, bequeath their names (and many characteristics) to their heirs - and, despite a family tree at the front, I simply couldn't figure out who the hell everyone was. My confusion was exacerbated by the fact that, while the males tend to drop off the perch at a reasonable age, some of the female characters survive into impossible old age, there's rather a lot of (regrettably) productive incest, and any number of bastards to cope with into the bargain. 

This time, as with The Leopard,  I took it at a slower pace and, after concluding that the family tree was all but useless, decided that knowing exactly who was who and how they were related to each other didn't really matter all that much, and, as a result, enjoyed it all immensely - incest, bastards, 140-year olds, scheming, hate-filled women, steamy jungle heat, years of uninterrupted rain followed by years of uninterrupted drought, rampaging red ants, troupes of Egyptians (or were they Turks?) on flying carpets, alchemical experiments, dead people wandering around the Buendia house, voracious red ants who eat the foundations of the house and end up dragging off the last of Buendias (a baby with a tail, born of incest), a placid mistress whose mere presence causes livestock to reproduce copiously, yellow butterflies which indicate the presence of a randy mechanic (randiness abounds) even after he's dead... the book is crammed with people, images and events which linger in the mind: I'm not very good at remembering details from the books I read, but I could come up with a list ten times as long as the one above off the top of my head, several weeks after reading it. 

It's an astonishingly rich work: the fecundity and power of Marquez's inventiveness is - like the jungle surrounding Macondo - almost overpowering. Another 20th Century masterpiece. 

The fourth of the novels on my April list was Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851), which I finished this morning. Often described as the first great American novel, it wasn't a success at the time, selling a mere 3,200 copies in the four decades between its publication and Melville's death. I found the first third - roughly up to the point where Captain Ahab nails a Spanish gold coin to the mast and promises it to the first member of the Pequod's crew to sight his prey - captivating. The second third - up to the point where the ship is firmly on the trail of the albino sperm whale - is a mixed bag: there are an awful lot of chapters about various aspect of whales and whaling which, while interesting enough in themselves, don't half tend to hold up the action. The final third is... well it's pretty nigh bonkers, what with an absolute deluge of hallucinatory soliloquies as the drama heads towards its hugely symbolic, operatic, inevitable rematch between Ahab, a tragic hero undone by the flaw of Pride, and the humungous homicidal fish (yes, I know, but Melville reckons it's a fish), which stand for  - what? - evil? Untamed nature? What is to be found lurking in the depths of the human psyche when we undertake a voyage of self-discovery? 

Whatever, I ended this extraordinary Bible- and Shakespeare-drenched work feeling almost as exhausted as "Call me" Ishmael, the last survivor of the tumultuous battle between Man and Nature - or Man and Himself - must have felt as he bobbed about in the immensity of the ocean, miraculously ignored by formerly homicidal sharks, held aloft by what had been meant as the tattooed harpooner Queequeg's coffin - but which has subsequently been pressed into service as a lifebuoy after the White Whale has totalled most the ship's wooden accessories. I'll think about it some more when I've recovered - right now, I'm feeling a trifle overmatched by the experience of reading it. 

Finally, I have to admit to my first defeat. I've tried several times to read Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, but have never managed to get past page 20. This time I made it as far as page 66, at which point I realised that I couldn't stand to read another page. A young lady and her beau are sitting on a bench in Kensington Gardens, discussing the obstacles in the way of their getting married. At least I think that's what they're talking about. No young couple in the history of humankind ever spoke to each other in the way these young people speak to each other - their language, their thoughts, their concerns, their sensibilities are those of a rarified, bloodless, overly intellectual, impossibly precious, mimsy, punctilious little old lady who has never had sex or let out a guffaw of laughter or had too much to drink or even bloody well farted.  For God's sake, I wanted to shout - stop talking and just bloody well get on with your lives. Belch! Break wind! Swear! Touch each other! Kiss! Snog! JFDI!

Sorry to come over all D.H. Lawrence, and I'm all for young folk behaving in a civilised fashions, and I'm ever so keen on good manners and talking things over and being mindful of convention - but hell's bells, these people are so impossibly, gutlessly anaemic, so ridiculously cerebral,  you just want to grab them and shake all the words and mental convolutions and rationalisations out of them so they can just fucking well live!

I will put Henry James aside for the time being and try once more before the year is out. Who know? Perhaps page 67 will feature the young man grabbing the girl, dragging her under the bench and giving her a damned good seeing-to (or the other way round, because she appears to be one with some balls). 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for another interesting and very informative post. I might give Melville another go [ I gave up on "Moby Dick" and then tried the snappily titled "Pierre; or, the Ambiguities" which to me was incomprehensible] because I have now discovered that he wrote "Billy Budd" from which eventually resulted a very moving and chilling film.

    Apropos of nothing I remember reading that the great actor Sir Ralph Richardson was a great authority on Henry James and was forever quoting him or singing his praises. Mind you, the great man was genuinely eccentric.

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