Top Ten Tuesday: Novels set in France

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is along the lines of Top Ten Books with [XXX] Setting

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There’s a lot of scope with this topic, which probably accounts for the fact that for the first time in ages I’m actually sticking with the original TTT theme and not rewriting it to suit my own whims. I’ve chosen Top Ten Novels set in France because I’m reading one at the moment and there are several others on my mental TBR list.

Also, I love France.

1. A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot. I’m so close to the end of this book and I’ll be sorry to finish it. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. Set in 1919, this is the story of Mathilde, her love for Manech and her quest to uncover the precise circumstances around his disappearance in the war.

2. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. This was hands down one of the best books I read last year. Edmund Dantes is falsely imprisoned, escapes and then plots his revenge on those responsible. Brilliant. Full review here.

3. Chocolat (1999) by Joanne Harris. I read a whole swathe of Joanne Harris books about fifteen years ago and this was by far the best (and the only one I now remember in any detail). Vianne sets up a chocolaterie in a small town in the middle of Lent and causes a stir amongst her new neighbours.

4. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ only historical novel and one of my favourites. Dr Manette is released from the Bastille at the start of the novel but must return to revolutionary Paris years later when his daughter’s husband faces the guillotine. Full review here.

5. Suite Francaise (2004) by Irene Nemirovsky. Beautifully written but unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 1942 Suite Francaise was intended to be a sequence of novels about life in France immediately after the German invasion. 

6. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustav Flaubert. The scandalous tale of a doctor’s wife who seeks escape from her provincial life in the arms of other men. Flaubert perfectly captures all of Emma’s contradictions so you don’t know whether to hate her or sympathise.

7. Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book is becoming something of a TTT regular. Tender is the Night is a powerful account of the disintegration of a marriage (based on Fitzgerald’s own experience) and told against the backdrop of the French Riviera.

8. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. A ridiculously entertaining adventure story featuring D’Artagnan and his friends, this is much better than you might expect.

9. Charlotte Gray (1999) by Sebastien Faulks. Not one of my favourites but I loved the subject matter, if not the characterisation (or, in fact, the writing). I could write a whole book about how much I hate Charlotte – and why I don’t think Faulks does a good job of honouring the real female agents who parachuted into occupied France during the war – but there’s no denying the fact that I devoured this book whole in 24 hours. It can’t really have been that bad.

10. Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo. It’s long, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but if you can get through all the filler there’s a lot of good stuff here about an orphan, a criminal, love and redemption. Just don’t go in expecting it to be like the film (it’s better).

On my TBR I also have: A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbary) and about a hundred others….

Can you recommend any? Suggestions always welcome!

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The Count Of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas

MonteCristo2Hurrah. It’s finished.

I’m relieved and pleased and sorry and a little sad to see the back of it. It’s been a good companion over the past three weeks. I will miss it.

When I started reading The Count Of Monte Cristo I didn’t know a great deal about how the story would progress beyond the first twenty chapters, which I’d already read. I’d seen the film, the one with Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce, but I soon realised that this would be of no help whatsoever. The book and the film bear only a passing resemblance to each other, as Wikipedia so wryly notes:

“[The film] follows the general plot of the novel…. but many aspects, including the relationships between major characters and the ending, have been changed, simplified, or removed; and action scenes have been added.”

As a result of this I think I was sort of expecting a straight forward story about betrayal and revenge but in the end it wasn’t really the swashbuckling adventure I’d imagined. There was a lot more to it than that. Our hero, if you can call him that, can be cold, calculating and unscrupulous. He can be frequently cruel and he doesn’t really care who gets hurt as long as justice has finally been done. Half the time I didn’t know whether I wanted him to succeed or not. As a reader you start to wonder whether his obsession with revenge has obscured his natural sense of right and wrong. It becomes a story that’s as much about a man trying to find peace as it is about vengeance.

I think it’s funny the way that you almost forget that the Count is really Edmond Dantes. It’s a bit a like you get wrapped up in the myth he creates for himself. It helps, of course, that Dumas takes such a long time to confirm the Count’s identity, so for much of the book you can’t really be sure who he is (although you have strong suspicions). In the meantime you’re forced to go along with the mystery until you almost start to believe the lies the Count tells to others and to himself. You forget about Dantes and get swallowed up in the myth of the Count’s extraordinariness, this ‘exceptional being’ (as he so modestly puts it), an avenging angel sent by God himself. It’s cleverly done I think.

I enjoyed this book hugely. It was so readable and involving that I didn’t really feel like it started to flag until the very end (those final few chapters felt a bit flat after the drama of the preceding ones). But for such a long novel the pace was pretty steady.  I guess that’s probably down to the fact fact that it was originally published in instalments and you can see the evidence of this everywhere: in the absence of lengthy descriptions, the characters who pop up and disappear again, the plot threads that are left hanging for chapters on end, the corrections added at a later time… (My favourite being: “We had forgotten to say that Jacopo was a Corsican…” ). These aren’t huge issues at all – I think they’re part of the book’s charm – but I can understand that if you like your books concise and neatly constructed then this might be a little distracting.

In summing up there isn’t a great deal more to add, besides that I highly recommend The Count Of Monte Cristo to all. If you’re interested in my earlier updates on this book then you can read these here:

It’s Alexander, dumbass! (Chapters 1-14)

Le Comte est trop grand pour mon sac (Chapters 15-35)

Sacre blog! (Chapters 36-86)

I’ve tried not to make them too spoilerish but watch out just in case.

Sacre blog! (Monte Cristo #3)

“Moral wounds have the peculiarity that they are invisible but do not close; always painful, always ready to bleed when touched, they remain tender and open in the heart.” 

I had an unexpected day off work on Thursday and spent much of it lazing around, reading The Count Of Monte Cristo and watching costume dramas on Film 4. Afterwards I felt a little guilty for being so unproductive but I’d been in a dreary sort of mood and I was too lazy to do anything but indulge it for an afternoon. So I made some tea, read some Dumas and watched Mr Darcy chase Keira Knightley around in the rain for a while. There are worse ways to cheer yourself up.

Clearly my lazy day yielded positive results as I now find that I have reached Chapter 86 of TCOMC. Without noticing it I appear to have read the best part of fifty chapters in a week. Crikey! The end is almost in sight.

Currently Edmond Dantes, in his guise as the Count, is in Paris and causing quite a stir on his secret path to revenge. I’ve quite enjoyed watching him ingratiate himself into the families of his old enemies, setting cunning traps to turn them against each other. He’s not even doing much of the dirty work himself. Instead he’s very subtly manipulating other people, mainly those who have also been wronged by his enemies, into doing it all for him. I suppose at the end he’ll be able to put his hands up and say, “Who? Me?” in all innocence. He’ll be able to deny any obvious involvement.

Danglars, Mondego and Villefort clearly don’t suspect a thing yet but, in fairness to them, I don’t know what’s going to happen either. The Count is still playing his cards very close to his chest. Will he bring down his enemies one by one or will they all fall at once? Will he reveal his true identity or will someone else reveal it for him? Will innocent bystanders get hurt in the process? (I’m thinking particularly of the Viscount de Morcerf here as I’ve grown quite fond of dear Albert. I’m afraid that the Count seems to think the children of his enemies are fair game when it comes to revenge). And what will happen to Mercedes? And will Edmond Dantes find peace in the end?

There’s still no sign of any immediate answers to my questions although we’re finally starting to see the results of some of the Count’s meddling. I wondered, briefly, whether the worst of his plotting was over now and he’d just sit back and watch his enemies crumble before him…. but then I remembered that I still have another three hundred pages to go. I’m sure the dear man still has a trick or two up his sleeve yet.

Le Comte est trop grande pour mon sac (Monte Cristo #2)

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Please excuse the poor French and all the upcoming *spoilers*….   

I had to buy a new handbag to accommodate The Count Of Monte Cristo. My lovely grey satchel, a Christmas present from my sister, just wasn’t built for lugging a 1,300 page epic around every day, especially not alongside my phone and my keys and my purse and all the other crap I’m too lazy to throw away (mainly hairgrips, receipts and KitKat wrappers). My new bag is a massive New Look thing and it’s completely impractical. It won’t fit into my bike basket or my locker at work… but The Count fits inside it quite nicely sooo…. Priorities.

I’m about a third of the way through the book now and I’m having a very nice time indeed. Since my last update, Edmond Dantes has made a dramatic escape from the Chateau D’If where he’s been languishing for the past fourteen years and, following a tip-off from a fellow inmate, he’s uncovered a vast fortune buried on the deserted island of Monte Cristo. By now he knows that his father died in poverty during his imprisonment and that the three men responsible are living happy, prosperous lives free from any guilt. One has even married Mercedes, Dantes’ beloved fiancée. Understandably Dantes is a little miffed to hear all this.

The old Edmond Dantes has all but disappeared now. It’s a bit like he’s shed his skin. With his new fortune and a series of false identities – safe in the knowledge that no one will recognise him after all this time – he sets about rewarding those men who did their best to have him released from prison and punishing those who put him there. I’m on chapter 35 and Dantes (under one of his many pseudonyms) is, I think, laying the groundwork for his revenge on Danglars, Mondego and Villefort (and Mercedes too perhaps?). At least, I think that’s what he’s doing. It’s a little tricky to see how he’s going to do it right now but I have every faith in him. It’s ridiculous how much I’m looking forward to all the vengeance. It’s almost bloodthirsty.

I was surprised to realise that I miss the old Dantes a little now he’s gone. Actually, what I miss most is being privy to all his thoughts and plans. Until recently everything was told from his viewpoint but Dumas has very cleverly shifted it all around now so that we only see him through the eyes of other people. It makes him feel very distant and mysterious and less like his old self. It also builds the suspense a bit more I guess.

I could have done without all those pages devoted to the Luigi Vampa backstory, that would have built the suspense too. I’m glad that’s over. I’m now looking forward to more plotting, more revenge, and fewer asides about bandits, thank you very much.

It’s Alexander, dumbass! (Monte Cristo #1)

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I decided to have another go at reading The Count Of Monte Cristo. I first attempted it about ten years ago but got distracted by another book (I can’t remember which one) and never went back to read the rest. I’ve learned since then that I’m really not the sort of person who can read two books at once. I’m too easily side-tracked. I need to focus on one book at a time, and one book only, or one of them will inevitably be side-tracked in favour of the other. I’m in awe of those people who can have several novels on the go at the same time. How do they do it?

There are one hundred and seventeen chapters in The Count Of Monte Cristo. That’s quite a lot. They’re not terribly long chapters but it’s still not a short book by anyone’s standards. Rather than leave the blog hanging for weeks on end while I read, I thought I’d post several shorter updates as I go along. I might still do my usual final review at the end as a summary but we’ll see how things go. I may have decided that I’m well and truly sick of it by then!

The book begins in February 1815. We’re introduced to Edmond Dantes, a nineteen year old merchant sailor returning to his Marseilles home with the world at his feet. He’s about to be promoted to Captain, the beautiful Mercedes has accepted his marriage proposal and he’s loved and adored by all who know him….. almost. Among those who are jealous of his good fortune are his fellow sailor Danglar and Fernand Mondego, Mercedes’ love-struck cousin.

“Danglars was one of those calculating men who are born with a pen behind their ear and an inkwell instead of a heart, To him, everything in this world was subtraction or multiplication, and a numeral was much dearer than a man, when it was a numeral that would increase the total (while a man might decrease it)…

Danglar manipulates Fernand into denouncing Dantes as a traitor. As a result Dantes is arrested during his betrothal feast and dragged before the prosecutor, Gerard Villefort. Villefort can clearly see that Dantes is the victim of a foul plot but, rather than risk his own reputation by becoming embroiled in what turns out to be a genuine Bonapartist conspiracy, he sacrifices the innocent man to a long imprisonment in the notorious Chateau D’If.

I’m currently only about fourteen chapters in so there isn’t a great deal worth commenting on at the moment. Dantes hasn’t been desperately interesting so far and I suspect all that goodnatured joyfulness would have become a little boring if allowed to continue. It was enough to make me almost look forward to his ruin. At this stage, after an imprisonment of several months, he still thinks it’s all been a horrible mistake and that Villefort will have him released eventually. Hopefully he’ll become a bit more exciting once he’s had time to suffer and dwell on the details a bit more.

I’d forgotten how easy to read Dumas’ books can be. They’re so readable that you can almost forget you’re reading an epic nineteenth century masterpiece of French literature. There are few lengthy descriptions, lots of engaging dialogue and the action starts immediately on page one. So far it’s been pretty much the perfect escapist adventure story.

Top Ten Tuesday: Translated into English

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the folks at The Broke And The Bookish.

Officially, this week’s TTT theme is all about characters and books that celebrate diversity. I took a good look at the books I’ve read recently and came to the uncomfortable conclusion that my recent Victorian/Edwardian classics kick has skewed my reading list very much towards British (no, if I’m honest, I should say English) authors. In fact, if you look over the 21 books I’ve read this year, only one wasn’t originally published in English (The Little Prince – blogged here) and only five were written by non-Brits (three Americans, one German and a Frenchman). It’s a little bit sad.

I’m not, of course, saying that English-speaking authors can’t write books that celebrate diversity. Far from it. But I decided that instead of sticking with the original theme this week I’d celebrate diversity in my own way by looking at some of my favourite books that were translated into English from another language.

1. Crime & Punishment– Fyodor Dostoyevsky [Russian]. Without the BBC Big Read I probably wouldn’t have thought of reading this, but I’m so very glad I did. It’s an epic masterpiece about one young man’s determined belief in his own extraordinariness and the terrible things this leads him to do.

2. The Name Of The Rose – Umberto Eco [Italian] . Oh sweet Lord, this took me years to finish and I gave up more than once, but I’m pleased I persevered. There’s a gruesome murder in a monastery, a labyrinth, a secret manuscript and a lot of theological debate; it was a challenge, I won’t lie, but now it’s over I can look back on it fondly.

3. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas [French]. Does this really need an introduction? It’s a good old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure with swordfights, battles, royalty and a beautiful, scheming villainess. Surprisingly readable and funny.

4. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez [Spanish]. I read this on holiday several years ago, mainly whilst lounging around a swimming pool in the blazing French sun. The heat melted the glue in the book’s binding and the pages fell out into the water. I spent ages fishing them out, putting them in order and drying them in the sun so I could finish the book! Well worth the effort though.

5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera [Czech]. P and I had a long discussion about whether I should include this book as we both have mixed feelings about it! The fact that it caused such a debate would suggest that it’s probably worth checking out, I reckon.

6. If Not Now, When? – Primo Levi [Italian]. I read pretty much every Levi book I could lay my hands on while I was at university. If Not Now was his only work of fiction and it follows a group of Jewish partisans hiding in the Polish forests during the last war. It’s hauntingly beautiful and I love it.

7. Kitchen – Banana Yoshimoto [Japanese]. I was torn between this and After Dark by Haruki Murakami (the only Murakami book I’ve enjoyed). Kitchen is a very short novella about a young woman trying to find solace after losing her parents and grandmother very close together. It wins the toss because it’s just a nice book.

8. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy [Russian]. I adore this book. Besides its obvious merits, it got me through a particularly bad bout of insomnia ten years ago when I’d been up night after night after night…. By the time the end was approaching I had stopped caring that I was awake.

9. The Shadow Of The Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon [Spanish]. I love the idea of the ‘Cemetery of Lost Books’, I wish it was a real thing. I was in my third year at university when I got completely swept up in this and it played havoc with my end of term essays.

10. Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky [French]. Suite Francaise begins in Paris in 1940 and its two short sequences examine life under the German occupation. It was unfinished at the time of the Nemirovsky’s death in Auschwitz but it’s so beautifully written you can look past the fact that it doesn’t have an ending.

I’m aware that there’s nothing particularly new or unexpected in this list. It’s predictable, I know, but I’ve been thinking that I’d like to do something to tackle the lack of variety in my reading material so far this year. Any recommendations for books that were not originally published in English would be gratefully received!