Tag Archives: Classic Literature

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

5 stars

5/5

I planned to spend Sunday reading through extracts from the Waterstone’s Eleven choices, that I picked up on Thursday, but instead gave in to my desire to finish the last 80 pages of the WONDERFUL Eline Vere.

Pushkin Press, 2010 edition (first published in 1889), 540 pages - personal library

Thank you, thank you to my ‘Secret Santa’ Armen (hmm.. not so secret!) who gave me this Pushkin Press translated Dutch classic novel by Louis Couperus at December’s Riverside Readers book group. I have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this delicious doorstop of a novel for the past three weeks. Before I continue, I want to do a little plug for Pushkin Press. I’ve only read two novels by this publisher of translated European literature, but this, and Journey by Moonlight have completely won me over as an advocate for their titles – Literary gems, beautifully bound quality paperbacks with yummy illustrated covers in muted tones. (NB neither of these were sent by the publisher – I just really dig this publisher!) Anyhow, to the novel itself…

My experience of reading Eline Vere was a bit like watching a very good period drama series on the television. A sumptuous visual experience conjured up by descriptions of the vivid colours of dress and opulent surroundings of well-to-do members of Dutch society at the close of the 19th century. The narrative is frequently broken up by intimate tête-à- têtes between the different characters, sometimes philosophical, sometimes frivolous, occasionally candid and cutting. This creates the impression of multiple little scenes, so that although this is long book it is broken up into enjoyable and manageable segments.

I haven’t gone straight into describing the plot because although there is a central character and several plot-lines, this book is really driven by a set of circumstances and the relationships between different characters and how they react to each other. There is much discussion of the role of fate in this novel and yet although the main character Eline, comes to believe that her future is pre-destined, what Couperus seems to play with as a device is really the idea of chance – how a word uttered or held back can make a mark on a person’s future, which can be indelible depending on the nature of the person. And this idea of a persons nature is really key to the novel as it centres around a young woman who despite having everything in her favour – riches, beauty, grace and intelligence – is unable to take control of her own will to the extent that she undermines her own chances of happiness.

Eline is an incredibly complex character. A less skilful author would be unable to gain the reader’s empathy for this charming yet doleful figure. How frustrating she should be, but yet I was sympathetic to her because despite orchestrating her own misery she genuinely seemed paralysed by her mental state. Couperus’s subtlety in conveying each characters’ core ‘being’, giving the reader insight into their mind is almost magical and it was a genuine pleasure to be introduced to the contrasting personalities in the novel. I loved the outwardly frivolous yet wilful Frederique (Freddie) and revelled in the descriptions of young Lili Verstraten aware and happy with her own indolence –

“She was never bored, even when she was idle. On the contrary, she would sit back and enjoy the notions drifting through her mind: rose petals wafting on a gentle breeze, soap bubbles, fragile and iridescent.”

But as you have probably determined by my earlier comments Eline Vere is not simply a frothy book. Couperus’ insight into people, and their sense of self-awareness is remarkable. His writing is beautifully descriptive yet well paced. Themes of love, free-will, spirituality and psychology are interwoven deftly into the story. This isn’t a novel to consume in one sitting – as that would be rather too much, like eating a whole pile of profiteroles! When enjoyed at a languid pace however, this is a richly rewarding read.

Has anyone read any of Couperus’ other novels? Can you recommend any translated foreign classics?

Embers, by Sándor Marái

3.5 stars3.5/5

Embers is a novel by Hungarian author Sándor Marái. Set in a castle in the shadow of the Carpathan mountains it is a story of an old man coming to terms with an apparant act of betrayal by an old friend from his youth.

Embers, by Sandor Marai

Penguin, 2003 edition (first published 1942), paperback, 256 pages - personal library

At the beginning of the novel, Henrik – the old General is presented with a letter. He recognises the writing from long ago. It has been exactly 41 years and 43 days since he saw the man  who wrote the letter. Konrad, his old friend, now adversary, is coming to the castle. At dinner the men sit down and by the light of the fire, Henrik confronts Konrad about the day that he believes he was betrayed.

Embers is a beautifully written tale with elegant prose which creates an gothic atmosphere:

“Beyond the cool walls, summer buzzed and hummed and seethed. Like a spy he took note of the boiling restlessness of the light, the rustle of the hot wind in the dessicated leaves, and the noises of the castle.”

Marái’s language imparts a sense of decay and brings the reader into the castle, alongside Henrik.Patience is required of the reader. The old General cannot be rushed. He has waited for this confrontation for four decades and must get satisfaction by putting Konrad on trial.

At times I found the pace of the tale frustrating, at others it drew me in. I enjoyed the way that the actual source of the conflict was revealed bit-by-bit, yet at times found Henrik too ponderous. He is the very illustration of a person whose resentment has eaten them up inside like a disease. At times is somewhat tedious in his obsessive need to bring Konrad to account. Large parts of the novel are soliloquy as Henrik reminisces on their early days with occasional outbursts of anger and resentment at Konrad. One of the thing I found fascinating was the way that Henrik himself revealed his own flaws in his critique of Konrad. Although Henrik was wronged by Konrad, I wondered how he could have been so blind to his friend’s resentment against him. One detail in particular made me believe that he was a terribly controlling person – this was a diary that he gave his wife which she would write in and allow him to read each night. Was Henrik a bitter and insensitive person from the beginning, or did he become so because of they way that he was treated?

One of my pet-hates is misleading book cover commentary, and I felt that the quotation from the Evening Standard about it being “a novel of suspense” potentially sets the wrong expectation for Embers. Yes, there is something a little suspenseful about the way that the subject of the betrayal is revealed, however Embers is not an edge-of-your-seat mystery or thriller. It’s a novel about an old man, facing his adversary, and seeking resolution to the feelings of turmoil and anger that have haunted him over the years. Not much actually happens in Embers, yet everything changes for Henrik. I believe that some readers will find it a frustrating novel at times, as I did, yet if you just let yourself be lulled into the atmosphere of the book you may also discover an elegant and emotive tale.

Have you read any novels by Sándor Marái?

Book Review – The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Haunted Hotel Wilkie Collins Don’t you just love this cover? I read this on my iPhone Eucalyptus App so I didn’t have the pleasure of having the lovely Penguin copy, but I might tempted to buy it.

I chose The Haunted Hotel as one of my Venice Reads and as I usually find with Wilkie Collins novels, it didn’t disappoint.

The Haunted Hotel is a sort of ghost story-come-mystery. The tale opens in England, where a wild-eyed Countess Narona visits Doctor Wybrow in a state of distress, convinced that she is going mad. Her husband-to-be, Lord Montbarry has jilted his kind-hearted fiancé, Agnes for her. The Countess is convinced that Agnes will somehow bring about her downfall. After the marriage, the Countess and Lord Montbarry move to Venice where they stay in a decaying palace. The plot thickens when Lord Montbarry dies, leaving £10,000 insurance money which is claimed by his widow, and simultaneously the wife of Montbarry’s close servant, a courier named Ferrari, receives an anonymous note containing £1,000. The courier has also mysteriously disappeared. The palace is later turned into a fashionable hotel where ghostly goings on occur in room number 13A.

As with many of Collins’s novels, The Haunted Hotel has a strong theme of destiny. The book opens with a satisfying sense of doom and the suggestion that something gruesome is yet to occur. Despite being a comparatively short novel at 240 pages it felt surprisingly in-depth. Collins spends time setting the scene and building up the suspense carefully. I have to admit that there were a couple of points at which I found myself losing concentration in the middle part of the book and wondering where it was all going, but this was more than made up for by the last third of the book which was genuinely creepy!

If you’ve read my comments on Armadale and The Moonstone, it will come as no surprise that I’m a bit of fan of Wilkie Collins, especially in the way that he dramatises his characters, for example in his description of the Countess:

“Every human creature, with the slightest claim to a place in society, knew the Countess Narona. An adventuress with a European reputation of the blackest possible colour- such was the general description of the woman with the deathlike complexion and the glittering eyes.”

His sharp descriptions of comic (Mrs Ferrari) or sadly unattractive (Mrs. Rolland) comments are also very witty.

“A person of unblemished character, evidently – but not without visible drawbacks. Big bushy eyebrows, an awfully deep and solemn voice, a harsh unbending manner, a complete absence in her figure of the undulating lines characteristic of the sex, presented Virtue in this excellent person under its least alluring aspect. Strangers, on a first introduction to her, were accustomed to wonder why she was not a man.”

I loved the narrative voice, especially at the end of the novel where I felt a bit as if I was listening to a proper ghost-story.

Collins also manages to combine humour and mystery with sensitive moments. There is a passage where Agnes is discussing the pain of being jilted that demonstrates poignantly the pain of love lost.

I’m starting to feel that there is a bit of a rather dark theme to the books I’ve read which are set in Venice (Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, Don’t Look Nowby Daphne DuMaurier and Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers). It seems to be the setting for unusual happenings, with danger lurking under the surface. The sense of an unsettling atmosphere is used to great effect in The Haunted Hotel. It is the kind of book that I would call a ‘proper old-fashioned ghost-story’ and well worth a try when you fancy something spooky to read.

Book Review – Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons was my first book choice for Riverside Readers. I saw it as if by serendipity in my local second-hand book shop a few days before my choice was to be made and the thing was decided! I haven’t (yet) seen the film version with John Malkovich and Glenn close so my only other frame of reference was Cruel Intentions! Here are my thoughts…

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is set in then parlours and private rooms of French aristocrats in the Eighteenth century. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Viscount de Valmont are rich and bored and basically enjoy manipulating the lives of others in a sort of sparring match of vicious minds. Valmont is bent upon seducing the virtuous Presidente de Tourvel while Merteuil is plotting to corrupt the young Cecile de Volanges who is on the brink of being married to a respectable and rich match. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce Cecile and ruin her honour, and at the same time she is already being distracted by her music tutor Chevalier Danceny! The drama unfolds in a flurry of letters between the protagonists. As the name of the book suggests the games are dangerous and such complicated drama combined with Machiavellian minds of the worst kind can only lead to destructive consequences.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis, I LOVED Les Liaisons Dangereuses. If you didn’t know any better from reading the synopsis you might assume that you were about to dip into the latest edition of HELLO! magazine. And in a way, it is the same in that you are reading about the crazy lives of the very wealthiest people who have nothing better to do than create mayhem and scandal. Here’s the thing though; the novel is so wonderfully written and the characters so well exposed through the letters that I came away from it feeling as if I’d read something of a bit of a work of art (probably Rococo!). I could almost hear the rustle of skirts disappearing through doorways and imagine the vain and cruel Marquise de Merteuil at her toilette or committing her vile words to paper in a beautiful French boudoir.

I have to admit that at the beginning of the book, the French titles and names were  a bit confusing for me (even gender was a bit ambiguous) but I soon got to grips with the characters because of their distinctive voices. The character of the Marquise de Merteuil was fantastically vivid, scheming and manipulative, but strangely forthright in some of her letters. Valmont was also brilliant as the corrupting influence, never ceasing to try  a new turn of phrase to convince the Presidente de Tourval to take to his bed.
I wanted to love them both for being so clever and calculating but I couldn’t help but hate them just as much because some of the things that they do are just so morally corrupt as to be quite horrifying.

The character of the 15 year old Cecile was also joy to read Naive but also desiring of male affection she was part free spirit as much as being a pawn in the games of the evil pair. The presidente de Tourval I wasn’t sure of at first, but was impressed by her strong character and reasoned arguments. Her character was genuinely intelligent – an interesting female model to have been created by a male writer of the time.

No one comes out unscathed in Liaisons and it is a very dark and shocking book even by today’s standards. The only bit that I felt I struggled with was the middle of the book where things seem to move more slowly but in hindsight it was important to build up the climax of the novel. I think all the book-groupers felt that the middle bit was somewhat long-winded but that things picked up again quickly towards the end. Mostly I think that the majority enjoyed Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although it wasn’t quite Jackie‘s cup of tea or Kim’s. Simon (Savidge Reads) and Clare (Paperback Reader) have also posted their thoughts meaning you can read different perspectives.

I think that you will probably be able to tell if this is your kind of book or not from the thoughts above and as you can tell by now it’s one of my firm favourites. I really enjoyed this month’s Riverside Readers session, also – especially with all the impassioned discussion!

P.S. I picked up this bookmark while I was in Venice at the weekend and it just occurred to me that the picture is sort of how I imagine the Marquise de Merteuil to look, although obviously French and not Italian!

Have you read Les Liaisons Dangereuses or seen the film Dangerous Liaisons? If not, is this the kind of story that you enjoy or not?

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

I thought I would get started a little early on my Venice List, and it seemed only natural to start with the classic German novella Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. I was delighted to find a copy in the library, (this version):
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann German Library editionDeath in Venice was a book I’d heard of but had no concept of what the story was about until I looked it up for my list. After reading a synopsis, I was surprised at how shocking the premise is. First published in 1912 as Der Tod in Venedig (published as an English translation 1925), and compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, the novella follows Gustav von Aschenbach – a famous author in his early fifties – on a trip to Venice. He is struck by a Polish family who are staying at his hotel. At first he notices the puritanically dressed daughters who’s scraped back hair makes them look like nuns and then their brother, a stunningly beautiful boy of 14 who he later discovers is called Tadzio. Aschenbach begins to follow Tadzio him at a distance, compelled by a strange fascination for this boy who he believes has god-like beauty. He stays in Venice to be close to Tadzio despite an uncomfortable feeling that something dangerous is lurking in the cities waters.

Considering that Death in Venice is little more than 60 pages in length, I felt when I’d read it almost as if I’d read a novel. It fits a lot of detail in and everything is described vividly, from Aschenbach’s decision to travel, the strange characters he passes by and of course in glorious colour, the boy whom he is fascinated with. At first I felt that the detail was a bit much for me, until I had read into the story a while, but later I found myself flicking back to re-read the descriptions of the main character to acquaint myself with his face and features which are described in minutae. I found the second half of the story more compelling than the first, but the initial build up is important to understand the journey (not just in simple travel-terms) that Aschenbach is taking.

I enjoyed Aschenbach’s observations about the characters around him. For example there is an old man who he notices at the beginning of his journey and is appalled by because he dresses flamboyantly and rouges his cheeks to give the appearance of youth. Later in the book I recalled this figure when Aschenbach himself visits the hotel’s barber shop and is ‘beautified’ by the assistant there. I was impressed Mann’s writing, the way that he neatly brought this comparison in, and the subtle yet unforgiving way which he lays Aschenbach’s soul bare.

As I mentioned before, I found the latter half of the novella the most compelling. Mann successfully builds up a sense of danger and I was just waiting for something bad to happen – would it be a fall from grace? A violent moment? A slow decline? I was curious to find out. The descriptions of Venice are also wonderful – especially at the beginning where Aschenbach concludes that arriving by any other way than by sea is a like going in at the back door as he sees the city appear before him.

I wouldn’t say that this story would suit everyone. It is very descriptive and a little slow from the beginning. I would describe it as a sort of ponderous story, meandering through the thoughts of an man who is gripped by an uncomfortable ‘Lolita-like’ fascination. I am very glad that I read it and became quite absorbed despite my initial feeling that it was going to be a bit turgid.

Have you read Death in Venice? Did you / do you think you would enjoy reading it?

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett

If you pop by Novel Insights occasionally, you might notice that I updated my header today. I was inspired to do this for three different reasons. Of course the first reason is that I wanted something new for 2010. The other two reasons are to do with my latest favourite novel – The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The grey tone is inspired by Persephone books, which are beloved by bibliophiles for the simple grey exterior and beautiful end-papers. and the image in the header is of Scheherazade telling her tales, because the thing that struck me when I read this beauty of a book is what an absolutely wonderful storyteller Frances Hodgson Burnett was.

Frances Hodgson Burnett

Although, I had read The Secret Garden as a child and adored it, I didn’t realise that Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924) was a prolific and in fact a very succesful writer. I don’t love introductions to novels as a rule, however I found Anne Seba’s foreword in the Persephone edition to be just the right amount of information and enlightening. I was left with the impression that she was an interesting, and strong woman, and I felt that this understanding meant that I was more aware when reading The Shuttle of her distinctive voice and led me to wonder how her own experiences might have impacted her very vivid characters.

If I had simply read the synopsis printed on the book (something about ships, international marriages and English drawing rooms) I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it came so highly recommended through Savidge Reads and Paperback Reader that I snapped it up when I saw it in the library.

In brief summary, it is the story of the weaving together of English society with American at the dawn of the new century. Glamorous American millionairesses marry debt-ridden landed gentry in tumbledown English country homes for better or for worse. Hardships are endured, but wonderful characters endure also!

The plot of the novel revolves around the marriage of Englishman Nigel Anstruthers, (a decidedly shifty character with a title but no money) to the sweet and simple American heiress Rosalie (Rosie) Vanderpoel. We are party to the dynamics of their marriage at the outset and then we skip a few years to when Rosie’s sister and heroine of the novel Bettina (Betty) comes to visit the Stornham estate. I was actually slightly over-excited at the name, as my Dutch Grandmother’s maiden name is Van de Poll and random fact – this is actually the reason that my name is Polly as it was her nick-name as a young woman. Vanderpoel is a version of the same name so there you go!

Anyway… even more exciting was the beautiful writing, characters and fabulous plot line. Betty Vanderpoel is a wonderful character and I felt as if Burnett had really poured her soul into creating her. In fact she almost wrote of her as a proud mother might. I loved this description of her:

“Her hair was soft and black and repeated its colour in the extravagant lashes of her childhood, which made mysterious the changeful dense blue of her eyes. They were eyes with laughter in them and pride, and a suggestion of many deep things yet unstirred. She was rather unusually tall, and her body had the suppleness of a young bamboo. The deep corners of her red mouth curled generously, and the chin, melting into the fine line of the lovely throat, was at once strong and soft and lovely. She was a creature of harmony, warm richness of colour, and brilliantly alluring life.”

And she is not only beautiful but strong, intelligent and wilful and with her family’s wealth, she wields power too. Nigel Anstruthers is the most fascinatingly vile character you could conceive, Rosalie is sweet and to be pitied, her son Ugtred is old before his years and always by her side.

Burnett introduced me to a fascinating piece of social history I never knew about, and conjured the feeling of the time vividly. There was an exploration of the relationships of husbands and wives at the time, which seemed to me to be quite bold in its criticism. The plot manages to combine social history with romance and gets seriously dark in parts. It is also funny! I laughed out loud a couple of times at G Selden’s character. Was it gripping? I read the nearly 500 pages in nearly two days – so take from that what you will.

I will definitely look out for more of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s writings and other Persephones to see what other forgotten treasures there are out there (I am quite enjoying finding less well-known books by famous authors at the moment such as The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne). I think I will have to go on a pilgrimage to the Persephone bookshop in the not too distant future.

Have you read any Persephone books or can you recommend forgotten gems?

Paper vs Pixels – Advantages and drawbacks of reading on iPhone

Eucalpytus - Book CoverA couple of weeks ago I was buzzing with excitement because my new work phone (an iPhone!) arrived. I spent Friday night, not out with friends or watching TV, but surgically attached to my phone and thinking every five minutes about what new ‘Apps’ I could download. If you don’t know what an iPhone App is, in a nutshell it’s a ‘application’ which you can download to your phone which adds functionality (a bit like a program on your computer). Typical examples include functional apps, like to do lists, calendars, or expense charts, fun apps like games or novelty items like a Zippo lighter on your phone – some free, some cost a few pounds. The beauty of the apps on iPhone is that  there are lots of creative ideas floating about which use the functionality of the phone itself, like it’s ‘accelerometer’ (a sort of motion sensor), it’s microphone or it’s internal magnet.

I could go on, and on (yes it really is quite inspiring!) but I have to admit that the App that I really got excited about was the ‘Eucalyptus App‘ by the Gutenberg Project. You pay £5.99 (or $9.99) to download it but once you’ve bought it gives you access to all the books that have been made public online by the Gutenberg Project – that’s over 20,000 books for (almost) free! Of course it doesn’t mean you’re going to be getting the latest Dan Brown or Man Booker, but it does mean you can read Dickens, Tolstoy or in my case Wilkie Collins’ novels on your phone. So having had it a couple of weeks and been reading Armadale on it (for Savidge Reads Sensation Season), I wanted to give you my pros and cons Print vs Pixels!

Pro’s

1 – An excellent reading experience

Eucalpytus 2While I don’t think I’ll ever find reading on a phone as good as thumbing the pages of a lovely paperback, I was super impressed by the experience of reading on this app. I had already used my Nintendo DS which had a similar program whilst travelling (also to read Wilkie!) so I wasn’t totally new to using a reader, but let me tell you why it’s so good.

  • Once you’ve downloaded them, books are displayed with covers very similar to the recent new penguin classics range (see first photo), so you don’t miss out on having a smart cover.
  • The fonts chosen are the same as what you would get in a book, so it renders like a real page, except you can ‘pinch’ them to expand or zoom out and make the text bigger without losing the page layout.
  • It feels very tactile because you turn the pages using the touchscreen, by swiping your finger across, a little like you would when leafing through the pages of a book.

2 – It’s so portable!

Don’t get me wrong, I love big chunky books on my shelves and in front of the fire with a cup of tea / glass of wine, but I do not love them in my handbag and on the tube! This App means that I am currently carrying Ulysses and Armadale around in my handbag with no extra shoulder-strain. It’s not dependent on internet access either so I can read it underground.

3 – No dog-eared pages

I’m terrible at remembering my bookmark, so often dog-ear my pages (boo-hiss!). The app remembers I am in the book so I don’t have to!

4 – Note-making is easy

Ok, so this isn’t actually a virtue of the App itself, but I have found myself jotting things down in the ‘notes’ bit of my phone as I go along, because of course I’m using the handset for both. I am too forgetful / lazy to remember to carry a pen and notepad so this works well for me. Plus I can then synch it with Outlook and have  already typed-up notes for blogging from. Yes I know I’m a geek!

5 – It’s going to save me money on classic books

I was going to spend about £6 at least on Armadale in print, so simply by buying the app I’ve saved, and now have access to thousands of others. Of course classic books are nice to have anyway, but if I end up loving them I can buy them retrospectively from a second-hand shop.

Con’s

1 – You can’t read it in the bath!

Technically that’s not true, I could read it in the bath but soapy wet hands and electronics don’t go well together. For me that’s quite a drawback as I love lounging in a long hot bath and reading until it’s not so hot! Also, I haven’t tried it on the beach yet but the Nintendo DS wasn’t good at all for reading in the sunlight because you couldn’t see the screen.

2 – It won’t fill a bookshelf

This isn’t a big deal for me because I will probably end up buying copies of the books I love, but electronic copies of books will never have quite the same tactile and sensory appeal (fusty smells, crinkly pages, interesting covers) as your favourite hardback or paperback copy.

3 – Too many distractions

While I can pick this up more easily when I’m on the go, as I always have it with me it can be difficult to settle down to because the nature of the iPhone is that it allows you to, nay encourages you to multitask. With a good book, it’s easier to take it somewhere quiet and not be distracted.

So overall? I genuinely love this App because of the care and attention that has gone into making it an enjoyable reading experience. The benefits don’t completely outweigh the negatives but they are very strong plus points. I’m not sure that I would buy new books for my phone unless I was going away for a long time and couldn’t pack hard copies, although having said that I did take about 10 books travelling with me and traded as I went! I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t ever buy a device dedicated only to reading books as I wouldn’t want to carry something seperately unless it was actually a book.

I think that what it means is that I will choose to read in different formats in different situations. For example I’ve downloaded Ulysses for when I’m travelling, but I have a paper copy that I’ll read at home…in the bath!

Have you used a digital device for reading yet? Do you think you could be converted? Will paper-format books always be around?