Saturday, October 13, 2018

Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe

" a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings."
That's the dedication for Romain Rolland's Nobel Prize in Literature of 1915. It was largely a prize for his novel Jean-Christophe, serialized in the French magazine Cahiers de la Quinzaine from February of 1902 to October of 1912, and subsequently issued as ten short-ish novels.

Jean-Christophe Krafft, generally referred to as just Christophe, was a musician born in Rhineland Germany around 1870. He flees to Paris when he's young, wanted for taking part in a riot against soldiers stationed in his home town. Later he flees to Switzerland after taking part in a May Day riot in Paris. He also lives for a while in Italy. He has deep friendships and loves, but mostly he composes music and conducts, eventually achieving success and renown. The novel is Christophe's story, but it is also the story of art and culture in Western Europe from 1870 or so to 1912. The handsome, dynamic, heroic figure on the Pocket Book cover is the image Rolland wants to convey. But at the same time Christophe can be short or haughty with people, has a temper, is complicated.

Imagine Beethoven born in 1870.

Rolland conceived the novel as a scholarship student in Rome in 1889 and began it not long after during a trip in Switzerland. After his scholarship was done, he came back to Paris and taught music history at various schools, ending up at the Sorbonne. He wrote plays that went nowhere, and biographies (of Beethoven and Michelangelo among others) that did little better. It wasn't until Jean-Christophe was in progress that he had any reputation; but then...

I took pages of notes as I was reading this, copied out passages, read a biography by Stefan Zweig from 1921. I don't mean to burden you with all of this; I only mention it to suggest that it is a novel that I thought well worth reading; its current obscurity is undeserved. It was both affecting and thought-provoking.

Romain Rolland

That's not to say that it's perfect. Rolland doesn't write well about women, and the female characters too often rely on clich├ęs. If you imagine a continuum between writing too specifically and too generally, Rolland is way over on the side of generalities. (Put Tom Wolfe--or Gary Shteyngart in his newest, Lake Success--with the endless use of brand names, on the side of too specific.) But still Rolland creates characters you care about, and the ending, with the death of Christophe, is powerful.

The novel also needs to be retranslated. The only translation into English, the one I read, is by Gilbert Cannan, and was done as the novel was coming out in the early 1900s. At every translation to burgess for what was bourgeois in the original I cringed. Even where it's not bad, it's out-of-date.

So I would not want to tell you it's a Drop-Everything, Read-Now novel; it's not Anna Karenina or War and Peace by Rolland's master Tolstoy; it's not the equal of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, though it's hard to imagine Doctor Faustus without Jean-Christophe. I only want to suggest that you leave space for it, don't forget it's there, if you're looking for a long novel with characters you care about and insight into its time's art and culture. Something challenging but engaging. A novel about an artist.

Though I find the cover above cool, that's not the edition I read. I bought that for a dollar yesterday (with a bunch of other books...) at the University of Toronto University College book sale pretty much so I could take a picture of it. (Still going on through Sunday for those of you in the Toronto area!) I read the much more boring-looking edition shown. (No abridgements around here! The full 1600 pages for us!)

I discussed the first parts in two earlier instalments. The first three novels (Dawn, Morning, Youth) are looked at here. The next four (Revolt, The Market Place, Antoinette, and The House) are here. I may write a post on Zweig's biography; I'm also reading Rolland's collection of articles against the militarism of World War I, Above the Battle, which may get posted on as well. Everything Rolland-related at the blog should be available here. I found this at the Nobel Prize site informative.

And that's the third-longest book on my Classics Club list done! Woo-hoo!

Thursday, October 11, 2018


I'm going to try to read something for the 1944 Club; it will be my first time joining in on the year club project. In my usual way for any reading project, I've pulled far more books off the shelf than I will conceivably read:

All the mysteries (to the left, next to the Hubert the Harris Bank lion) I've already read; all the serious books to the right would be first-time reads. (Oops. Should I have admitted that?)

Karl Shapiro's volume of war poetry V-Letter feels like it would be a great fit, or I've had Hersey's A Bell For Adano on a shelf for years; it's set in Sicily as the allied armies are retaking it, and went on to win the Pulitzer.

But maybe the most interesting one would be Quentin Reynolds' The Curtain Rises:

It was around my family's house forever. My dad might have bought it at the time, though he would have been fifteen or sixteen; or it's possible my grandfather or grandmother bought it. I hung on to it, thinking I'll read that someday. And maybe that day comes next week!

I also recognized that corner of Borges in the picture at KaggsysBookishRamblings, but I am not pulling Ficciones off the shelf...really...

Of course, it's possible I'll just reread Rex Stout's Not Quite Dead Enough, which, it just so happens, is the next volume in my slow occasional project to reread all the Nero Wolfe mysteries in order.

Co-hosted at Stuck In A Book and KaggsysBookishRamblings. Thanks!

Monday, October 8, 2018

Myrl Coulter's The Left-Handed Dinner Party and other stories

"Secrets aren't good for families."

That's printed on the back cover of Myrl Coulter's book The Left-Handed Dinner Party and other stories and it's well-chosen as a summary.

It's nice when they make it easy for you.

Not that there aren't secrets in these families. The stories take place on the western Canadian plains; Myrl Coulter herself lives in Edmonton, but these are set in a smaller town. The ten short stories--two stretch to something closer to novella length--often circle around three generations of a family with the middle generation missing or dead. When the secrets are revealed, and they aren't always, even to us, the resolution is generally bittersweet and not definitive.

But that's the way life is, isn't it?

I thought the stories were mostly very good, with one or two weaker. The best was the last and longest, which also resolved an earlier story that it was linked with. Coulter has a nice understated prose style that works. Here's the end of that last story; it doesn't really give anything away to quote it:
The red sports car was parked on the street. Sitting in the passenger seat, an old photo album resting on her lap, Jean Andrews waited to meet her grandson.
Or the end of the title story:
The day after school was out, Dina backed out of her driveway, a small U-Haul trailer attached to her car. She paused a moment beside the SOLD sign, then drove up the hill. Oldest and Youngest sat sulking in the back. Dog rode shotgun in the passenger seat. At the intersection where the main road ran through the city, Dina looked right toward downtown. And then turned left.
As you could guess, those are small epiphanies to domestic stories. The spare presentation is quite effective in context. This is Coulter's third book; it came out last year from the University of Alberta press. Her first two are memoirs, it seems. I might go read them, even though memoirs are not my thing. But it made me hope she's working on a novel, and that I definitely would read.

Happy Canadian Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Georgette Heyer's Footsteps In The Dark

"The sweat stood out on Duval's forehead. 'Truly? Yes, yes. I see. Yet for a moment there I could have sworn I saw something."
In Georgette Heyer's Footsteps In The Dark (1932) three siblings--Margaret, Peter, and Celia--inherit the abandoned priory of Framley. Together with Celia's husband Charles, they go to visit, with the thought that the priory will make a nice country estate getaway, even if it's a little lacking in all the mod cons. But as soon as they arrive in the local village, they're warned: the priory is haunted. By the Monk!

Well, our new owners pay no attention to the superstitions and attribute everything to rats behind the wainscotting. But it's not long before they hear groans from the cellar, a skeleton tumbles out of a priest's hole, and then Margaret sees the Monk in belted robe and with burning eyes beneath his cowl. It's getting a little harder to accept a purely rational explanation, especially for the superstitious Celia.

Harder, but never really impossible, though they do resort to a planchette at one point to discover what's needed to lay the ghost. But there's never much doubt this is more Arthur Conan Doyle (think The Hound of the Baskervilles) than Matthew Lewis, and a rational explanation is found in the end. But there's Gothic scenery and plenty of suspense. Throw in the book's romance and humor and you've got what I found a very successful mix.

This is the first Georgette Heyer I've read. Her mysteries often get a bad rap. She's distinctly not one of the four Golden Age queens of crime, and seems to be considered an also-ran. My 80s paperback reprint had never been read, or if it had, somebody had skipped pages 134 and 135, because I had to cut them. But I thought it was fun and I'd certainly read another.

Its weakness I suppose was lacking the usual Golden Age misdirection. There are plenty of odd ducks running around the priory grounds at night, useful as suspects: a fisherman (named Strange!) on vacation, a vacuum-cleaner salesman, an ex-India Colonel, a moth-hunting entomologist, the drunken French painter Duval, and the bumbling local constable. Presumably one of them is the Monk, but which? Well, it was pretty clear, and pretty early. But if you don't mind a weaker puzzle, it was very enjoyable.

Good for a couple of challenges:

Just the Facts, Ma'am Vintage Mystery Challenge. Golden Age. How. Death by strangulation.


Readers Imbibing Peril XIII

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Mount TBR 2018 Checkpoint #3 (Mt. Ararat)

I've currently read 39 out of the 48 books that are the Mt. Ararat challenge. That puts me a little ahead of the pace I need to be on, though I should be aiming at a much higher mountain, especially as it is now book-buying season in Toronto with two of the four big charity sales on the University of Toronto campus just recently past (and two more to come). But we'll ignore any new volcanic mountain-building activity for now, and just celebrate the nearly 13,700 feet I've gotten up the mountain I'm attacking.

I'm going to go with (A) as a suggested topic: my favorite character so far has to be Don Fabrizio of The Leopard. Sure, it's partly because he's played by Burt Lancaster in the movie. But he's a worldly Italian aristocrat, if, perhaps, a little less rich than he needs to be, with serious scientific interests, and at the same time a sardonic wit. "His family is an old one, I am told, or soon will be." I'd have him to dinner, though look out for your daughters.

Thanks to Bev at My Reader's Block for hosting!

Tuesday, October 2, 2018


"There is but one heroism on earth--to know life and yet to love it."
This is apparently Romain Rolland from somewhere in his oeuvre, but I have no clue where. I picked it up from Stefan Zweig's biography, Romain Rolland, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Bram Stoker's Dracula

"...the world seems full of good men--even if there are monsters in it."
Maybe I shouldn't have been, but what did surprise me was how good a read this is. Why, I don't's not only a classic, but it's been a major hit for more than a century. That was kind of the only thing that did surprise me since, of course, I knew practically everything in the book.

How do I know the story? I couldn't even tell you. I'm not much of a horror person, and movies less than books, but somehow this book is such a force we all know what's in it.

The story is told in the form of interlocking narratives from the major participants, though not Dracula himself. Mostly diaries--everybody in this book is a diarist--but also lawyer's letters, newspaper accounts, and a ship's log. I suppose Stoker got the idea from Wilkie Collins, though I don't think he does it as well as Wilkie Collins: his diarists all sound alike, except for the bit where Van Helsing speaks his improbable Dutch accent into an early recording machine and calls it a diary. But it's still successful in delineating the different characters, and in creating suspense.

And, oh, the suspense! It's still there, even though we know SOMEBODY is going to end up with a stake through his heart. I especially liked the early part of the book where Jonathan Harker, young lawyer, is first traveling to Romania and Dracula's castle on what seems an exotic, but perfectly possible, business trip. The ominous warnings he receives from the locals, the strange portents, the schedule that puts him at his destination at midnight--it all works very well. Later, the fact that the various characters seemed occasionally to forget they were dealing with a vampire was a little harder to overlook. Of course it is improbable that there's a vampire. But for us, now, reading a book, or watching a movie, vampires aren't any longer as improbable as all that. In fact, it seems like they're everywhere...

The only other thing to note is this Penguin edition, pictured above. The photo is great. It's the Victorian/Edwardian actor Henry Irving as Mephistopheles, not actually as Dracula, but it looks right. And it's appropriate because Bram Stoker worked as the business manager for Irving's theater company. I got that from the introduction, by Maurice Hindle. But mostly I disliked the introduction which comes down, far too heavily I thought and a bit incoherently, on the psycho-sexual interpretation of Dracula. That's hardly wrong, or unthought-of. But it was a bit obvious and not well done. Also the notes explained more things than I needed and not some of the ones I wanted.

So, how about a feminist interpretation? No need to wait for Buffy. Our four strong and good men, and their leader Van Helsing, are the vampire-hunters, but every time they decide to hide the facts from the ever-competent Mina, something bad happens.
"...the very first thing we decided was that Mina should be in full confidence;"
If only they'd listened to their own advice...

Read for a whole bunch of challenges!

Though since I finished it before the Classics Club October Dare, I'm now dreaming of a (first) visit to Manderley...