The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus

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There have been as many plagues as wars in history ; yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise… 

I picked this up in a charity shop after reading a great online article (that I now can’t find) about the life of Albert Camus and how his experiences in the French resistance helped shape this particular novel. It struck a chord with me at the time, partly because the resistance story was incredible but also because, and I’m aware this might sound a bit grim, I’m kind of fascinated by the history of the plague. It’s obviously not the death and the suffering that do it for me; rather, as an ex-history student, I find it quite interesting to consider how plague epidemics changed the world around them. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction books on the subject but never any fictionalised accounts until the article on Camus encouraged me to give this one a try. And I’m very pleased I did.

The genius of Camus here is that this isn’t really a book about plague. Well, actually it is, but rather than dwelling on all the gory details just for the sake of it he uses his tale of a fictional plague epidemic in his home town of Oran in Algeria to draw subtle comparisons with the experiences of those living under Fascist rule. For the citizens of Oran it begins quietly enough, with the death of a few rats, but it’s not long before the city is overwhelmed and the populace is in a state of panic. The unnamed narrator’s account of the epidemic describes Oran’s year in enforced quarantine in minute detail; he describes the mounting death count, the daily struggle to survive, the fear of being forgotten by the outside world, the dwindling power of hope and the eventual abandonment of all those things that used to give life meaning.

Much of the novel is focused on Dr Rieux and the men who join him in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. Their stories are told partly through diaries, letters and sermons, so they’re a welcome contrast to the hard, cold precision of the report style used elsewhere. In focusing on the efforts of these men in particular, and in switching the format every now and again, Camus ensures that occasional moments of friendship and kindness shine through every now and again. In fact, Camus often stresses how it is love alone that brings Oran’s inhabitants through these darkest days and keeps them fighting.

The Plague is a powerful novel and a genuinely moving one at that. The writing is simple but commanding; at times I felt so immersed in this novel it was like living in the quarantine zone myself. I shared in Rieux’s despair. I found it completely absorbing and quite disconcerting at times.

 

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A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot

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I might have finished this a bit sooner if it hadn’t been for the Olympics. I’m definitely not complaining – after the dramas of the last few months it’s nice to turn on the TV to something that’s worth getting excited about, isn’t it? But it does mean I’ve been squeezing reading time around sports events. Much of this book was read in between gymnastics and cycling heats!

It’s not the ideal way to read anything, especially A Very Long Engagement which, I found, demands quite a bit of attention if you’re to follow it thoroughly. The novel opens in early January 1917 with five wounded soldiers sentenced to a barbaric punishment for cowardice in the line of duty. Two years later Mathilde Donnay, fiancée of one of those men, discovers that her lover may not have been killed in the fighting that day as she’d been led to believe and so she begins a quest to uncover precisely what happened to those men and why it was covered up.

I’m not able to write today, so a fellow Landis is writing this for me. Your face is all lit up, I can see you. I’m happy, I’m coming home.

As I said, it isn’t the kind of book you can only pay half attention to, in part because Japrisot frequently refers back to small details hidden in earlier parts of the novel, details that didn’t seem worth noticing at the time. Mathilde hounds witnesses and compiles hundreds of statements so over the course of the novel you essentially end up reading varying accounts of the same story from different points of view, again and again and again. Many of these stories are garbled, third hand and half forgotten. Some witnesses are helpful; others are evasive. You might think that it’d make for a repetitive, slow narrative but really I quite enjoyed this meticulous combing over of the details. Mathilde is a much more conscientious investigator than me: I forgot every detail within a page or two but you can bet your ass she was lodging them in her brain for safe keeping.

It’s with Mathilde, in fact, that I think Japrisot really excels here. I love her pig-headedness, her refusal to be pitied, and her shrewd ability to sum up others. Without her at the helm I think this novel could easily get bogged down in all that detail but with her it becomes an intensely compelling journey. Japrisot gets her tone of voice just right so that she’s sarcastic without being alienating, single-minded without becoming utterly exasperating. He also subjects the reader to all of her whims; sometimes you feel like she’s sharing her journey with you but at others she keeps the reader at arm’s length. By the end of this novel I cared about Mathilde enough to not mind the fact that the solution to the mystery rests on a rather unlikely coincidence; I was just glad she’d found some answers.

Given the subject matter I was relieved that A Very Long Engagement never strays into mawkish territory and again I think that’s something to do with Japrisot’s portrayal of the clear headed Mathilde. I also think credit lies with the writing; it’s intimate in its depiction of France before, during and after the war but without ever becoming overly sentimental about the effects of that war. It’s an emotional journey both for Mathilde and for the reader but there are moments of real beauty and humour among the horrors. It’s absolutely worthwhile.

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!

Perfume (1985) by Patrick Suskind

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I chipped away at this novel in small bites for almost two weeks, which isn’t a very satisfying way of reading anything. It’s not even a particularly long book – just 263 pages in my edition – but various lifey things once again got in the way and stole my reading time away from under me. As a result I don’t really feel like I ever got to sink my teeth into this one fully and I suspect that I’ve unwittingly allowed this to cloud my feelings about the book.

“In eighteenth century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages…” 

The book opens in 1738 with the birth of Jean Baptiste Grenouille into grimy Parisian poverty. Grenouille is gifted with an infallible sense of smell, a sense so astute it can break an odour down into its component parts, follow it for miles to its source and even bottle it up in his memory for later enjoyment. As a young man he wheedles himself an apprenticeship to a struggling perfumer from whom he learns to preserve and mix natural essences for sale to the wealthy aristocracy. However, Grenouille has a higher purpose in mind and his growing passion for capturing more everyday aromas, and the scent of beautiful young virgins in particular, leads him on a path to creating the ultimate perfume. The book is subtitled “The Story of a Murderer” so I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Grenouille’s obsession takes some grim turns.

On the face of it Perfume is a wordy book: there’s almost no dialogue but there are some pretty lengthy descriptions of smells and perfume making processes to get through. In someone else’s hands that could get pretty boring pretty fast but Suskind’s direct, dry humour make this a surprisingly easy and compelling read. I love the fact that Grenouille understands his world not using sights and sounds but through the smells he encounters around him and that this this is really cleverly reflected in Suskind’s descriptions. The Paris of Perfume has a stench that wafts up through the pages and reminds you how haunting smells can be (or even just descriptions of smells). It gives the book a very visceral feel which goes hand in hand with the macabre, occasionally gruesome plot to make a really vividly imagined story.

Given how much I love the language of this novel it’s hard to explain why I still feel a bit undecided about it. The fact that I was reading piecemeal didn’t help at all of course but in part I think I was sometimes uncomfortable with Suskind’s portrayal of Grenouille. On the one hand I like the image of Grenouille as an enigmatic parasite, a tick waiting for an opportunity to attach itself to an unsuspecting host. It’s a menacing image and I think it makes Grenouille a really sinister, creepy sort of villain. On the other, I think I found him so repellent and depraved that I could never really appreciate his unique sort of genius without being slightly horrified. Maybe he was simply too dastardly to be believable. When I combined the simplicity of the character with the slightly ridiculous climax of the novel I ended up feeling a little let down. A bit like the language and imagery and cleverness of the first two thirds of the book hadn’t really delivered in the end.

This book has lots of ardent fans, one of whom is a colleague who was genuinely horrified when I told her I had mixed feelings. I’m clearly in a small minority of readers here so I’m beginning to wonder whether I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d been able to throw myself into it more wholeheartedly from the beginning. I often find that my enjoyment of a book suffers if I’m struggling to squeeze in time to read. So maybe this is a really unfair review. Or maybe I should stick to my guns and be honest about the fact that I was disappointed. I don’t know.

I’m sticking with a murdery theme and going for what I hope will be a short, satisfying read next: some more Dorothy L. Sayers.

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.

The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Littleprince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

When it is midday in the United States, the sun, as everyone knows, is setting in France. One would just have to travel in one minute to France to be able to watch the sun setting there. Unfortunately, France is too far away for that. But on your tiny little planet all you needed to do was to move your chair a few steps. And you could watch the twilight falling whenever you felt like it…

‘One day, I watched the sun setting forty-four times,’ you told me. And a little later you added: ‘You know… when one is terribly sad, one loves sunsets…’

I’m quite late to The Little Prince party, despite often having heard it referred to as a masterpiece of children’s literature. It’s high praise indeed and I was worried that, as so often happens, the product wouldn’t match the hype. It might, I thought, be one of those books that children find magical but which are difficult to appreciate as an adult. I always feel a little sad when this happens.

Thankfully I needn’t have worried; The Little Prince is kind of magical if you’re an adult too, possibly even more so. In fact I suspect that, however much children might enjoy the story, it’s the adults it really speaks to most. I’m not sure whether that was deliberate on Saint-Exupery’s part; I imagine he probably knew exactly what he was doing here.

The story is a very simple one, involving an airman whose plane crashes in the desert, miles from civilisation. Here he meets a little prince who has fallen to earth from a tiny asteroid. While the airman fixes his plane the prince tells him about his home, the planets he’s visited and the strange folk he’s met on the way.

My feelings about this book were a little conflicted at first. I thought it was beautifully written and beautifully illustrated (even in my cheap black and white paperback) but I wondered if maybe there were too many messages here, too many lessons for the prince to learn at once. I wasn’t sure if there was a bigger theme uniting it all that I’d somehow missed. It just felt a bit incoherent and I was disappointed.

After a couple of days thinking about it I decided that actually my feelings were much more positive than I’d first realised. I like the fact that this was such a personal book for Saint-Exupery, one that drew directly on his own experiences in the desert and his own personal relationships. It’s really not a happy story; it’s about loneliness, growing up, friendship and longing for home when you’re far away. It’s a revealing portrait of how its author must have been feeling at the time.

Going back to the adult/children debate; I’m sure the feelings evoked by this book are more potent if you’re old enough to have experience of them, if you can look at yourself and realise that you’re more like the geographer or the rose than the little prince. I’d like to read it again, I think, in a year or two to see if I take anything else away from it. I think it’s probably one that gets better with each reread.