M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Seraphita" by Honore de Balzac (1834 - a novella - A Component of The Human Comedy)


"Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). In a letter written in 1837 to Madame Hanska, his mistress and later his wife, the great French novelist declared that 'Swedenborgianism' was his religion. The influence of Swedenborg on Balzac is most clearly seen in Louis Lambert and Seraphita (the latter a seminal work which influenced artists as diverse as Strindberg, Yeats and Schoenberg), but references to Swedenborg and Swedenborgian teachings may also be seen in La Peau de ChagrinA La Recherche de l'AbsoluUrsule MirouëtCousin Pons and other works. Reference: Lynn R Wilkinson, The Dream of an Absolute Language: Emanuel Swedenborg and French Literary Culture (1996)". From the webpage of the Swedenborg Society.



Seraphita starts out with a magnificent descriptions of the fjords of Norway in Chapter One.  In chapter Two we meet a mysterious person, Serphita, that appears as a beautiful woman to a young man that loves her and a handsome man to a  fervently anamored young woman.  From this point on Seraphita is devoted to theories of Swedenborg.   These go on and on for a loooong  time.  They are structured as one person explaining  the doctrines of Swedenborg to the young man and woman.  Reading these long explanations of Swendenborg's theories, which sound kind of like a combination of the Book of Revelations, medieval Kabbalistic theories and Neoplatonism put in a blender at high speed.  I am glad I read this work early in my reading of The Human Comedy but in my future Balzac readings I am fast forwarding through any lengthy accounts of the philosophy of Swedenborg. 





A very lucid account of the thought, life, and influence of Emanuel Swedenborg (1668 to 1772) can be found here


21/91




Monday, October 20, 2014

Louis Lambert by Honore de Balzac (1832 - a novel - a component of TheHuman Comedy)







Louis Lambert, a short novel, is considered in part an account of Balzac's school years and an exposition of the ideas of the once highly regarded  Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swendenborg, whose ideas influenced Balzac.  The novel is set in a school for boys.  Louis Lambert, the son of a tanner, was a very bright boy.  The account of his very early age reading of dictionaries as well as anything else he could get his hands on was very interesting.  The story is told in the voice of another boy.  Each was the other's only true friend.  Madame de Stael paid for the schooling of Louis.  The other boy, who narrates the story, is revealed to be Balzac.  

Louis wrote a philosophical treatise based on Swendenborg's ideas.  The professors thought it rubbish but the narrator exposits it in detail as a work of transcendent brilliance.  The exposition is extended and those not into the history of ideas or philosophy may find this tedious or may see it as the product of a too self absorbed overheated bright intellectual youth.  There is a plot over and above the retelling of Louis's school experiences.  It is pretty much straight out of the romantic play book, troubled youth dies to early driven to  madness by his genius and understood only by the woman he loves close.

I will next read what promises to be a very interesting albeit a bit odd novella set in Norway 
centering on an androgynous figure.  

I am hoping to read all of The Human Comedy by year end 2015.  I am for now more or less reading at random.  I will continue on with my other reading but will try to always be reading a Balzac work among my others.  





Breakdown of The Human Comedy 91 components

Novels. 40

Short Stories 31

Novellas 20

20 completed, 71 to go





Sunday, October 19, 2014

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams (1960)




I wish to thank James of James Reads Books for suggesting I read Butcher's Crossing by John Williams.  I don't know for sure if I prefer it to Stoner but I hope to read John Williams much acclaimed novel based on the life of a Roman emperor, Augustus, very soon.

Butcher's Crossing is set in the American West in the 1870s.  I think this is a book which will resonate most strongly with Americans, for people who grew up with the myth of the cowboy and American manifest destiny and exceptionalism as nearly part of their DNA.   

Michelle Latiolais in her very interesting introduction to the New York Review of Books edition of Butcher's Crossing points out that the book was first published when the United States was engaged in it's very controversial now clearly absurd war in Vietnam.  Latiolais leans toward the view that the barbaric events in Butcher's Crossing, the incredibly wasteful and cruel killing of huge numbers of buffaloes, the evidence of the destruction of aboriginal culture, the sense that land was limitless, and the rampant environmental destruction reflect the attitude of cowboy righteousness that pushed Americans into believing violent action was the solution to all problems.

The lead character in the novel is a young man from Boston, Will Andrews, who just completed three years at Harvard, the premier American university then and now.   His intellectual idol was Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most American of intellectuals.  Will has caught the fever in the slogan, "go West, young man" and has left Boston and security to seek a deeper experience of life out west.  

I do not wish to restate much of the plot but will just go over some of the great things I found in this book.  Will winds up in the small town of Butcher's Crossing, it got that name because it centers around the ecomonics of killing buffaloes.  Will wants to make a lot of money, he has six hundred dollars with him, and he decides to try his luck hunting buffaloes, American Bisons.  At the time buffalo skins were desired highly for coats and such.  Millions were slaughtered and skinned with their bodies left for the vultures.   In this he meets four men that will play an important part in the story.  Each one can be seen as representing an aspect of the American dream, one, a buffalo skinner, is a German immigrant as is a prostitute who plays a big part in the story.  Mr. McDonald is a broker and financier of buffalo hunts.  Miller is a very experienced buffalo hunter who knows the west and the buffalo.  His side kick is harder for me to categorize.  He is addicted to whiskey, reads the Bible a lot, and slavishly devoted to Miller.  

The very long, maybe fifty pages, description of the slaughter of the buffalo was very powerful, quite nearly overwhelming.  It is very vivid and detailed.  We see the sufferings of the hunters and the hunted.  We watch Will change from an idealistic Emersonian boy from Harvard into a filth incrusted killer thinking only of profit.  The hunt was meant to take about six weeks but they ended up trapped by winter in a mountain valley for six months.  The trip back was horrible, I won't spoil any of the plot turns for new readers though it was tremendously exciting.   

I guess this is a darker work than Stoner, the most read, I think, of his novels.  They are both superb works of art.


(1922 to 1994, USA)








Saturday, October 18, 2014

Armance by Stendhal (1827, translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff)

Stendhal (1783 to 1842, France) wrote two of the highest status classic novels of all times, The Red and the Black and The Charter House of Parma.  Like most once I completed these two works I moved on from Stendhal.  Recently I read an excellant biography of the great Proust translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff in which I learned that he also translated numerous works by Stendhal.  I read his two famous works in new translations but once I read this I decided to make a project of reading or rereading Moncrieff's versions of the eight works by Stendhal translated by Stendhal.  

Armance, published initially anomounously, was Stendhal's first novel.  Moncrieff thought very highly of Armance and is less than half the length of his famous novels so I decided to read it.  Set among wealthy restoration aristocrats, Armance is a beautiful young woman of marriageable age.  Octavio is her cousin, a wealthy handsome young man ready for marriage.  The novel focuses on the intrigues  involved in the marriage market.  There is also a veiled suggestion that Octavio's seeming disinterest in women may have come about when he was hit by a carriage.  The idea  is that the accident rendered him impotent.  There is an exciting pistol duel scene and lots of deceptions.

Armance is a romance among the very rich novel, a marriage market work. That is pretty much it.   It is not in the class of his two big name works but it was an enjoyable story, the characters were interesting and the prose of Moncreiff is always wonderful.  I have been reading a bit of Balzac lately, in older translations, and the elegance of Moncrieff's writings far surpasses them.  

My suggestion on this book is first read Stendhal's two major works, then consider this lesser book. I am glad I read it.  

Please share your experience with Stendhal with us.




Mel u

Friday, October 17, 2014

Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of Nathanael West by Joe Woodward (2011)






Nathanael West (1903 to 1940) was a sublime chronicler of the dark side of the American Dream.  Joe Woodward in his brilliant, very well written and documented biography of West, Alive Inside the Wreck -  A Biography of Nathanael West, helps us understand how he came to write his novels.   The general literary consensus on West is that Miss Lonelyhearts is for sure a master work and probably The Day of the Locust is also.  Little interest is shown in his two shorter,  very strange novels, The Dream Life of Balso Snell and A Cool Million.  All I can say is read all these novels, total page length is under six hundred pages.  Then when you have read and been stunned by these books (if you are not amazed by them, and wonder if it you or West that is at fault here, it is you) then you are ready to read Joe Woodward's   biography of West.  You can see Woodward likes West a lot personally but he does not shield us from his darker side.  He loves West's books.  I hope to reread them all in 2015 and I think after reading Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of West I will be able to see a bit deeper into West's oeuvre and enjoy it more.  West's work is dark, randomly violent and focuses on the Preterite of America but it is also very funny at times and a delight to read.  

I do not feel inclined  to repeat the outlines of West's life but want to talk a bit about some of the factors that make me highly recommend Woodward's biography to not just the obvious audience of West lovers but anyone interested in American culture in the 1930s, a time of terrible ecomonic hardship lasting for the decade, known as the Great Depression.  All of his books were wriiten in the 1930s.

Harold Bloom, for whom I have great respect, has said that Miss Lonelyhearts is about being Jewish in America.  (He also said that along with I Lay Dying and the Byron the Bulb Segment in   Gravity's Rainbow, Miss Lonelyhearts were the only three examples of the sublime in American literature.) West (born as Nathanael Weinstein in New York City, his mother was a German Jew and his father Russian, West legally changed his name, Woodward tells us, to make himself  seem more main stream American for his screen writing career) grew up in relative affluence.  His father was successful in the building  and hotel businesses in New York City.  As I read Woodward's  very well done material on the background of West's parents I thought I saw for sure the ghost of the  darkly comic visions of powerful Yiddish writers like Lamed Shapiro.   There are deeply buried memories of Eastern European pogroms in West and Woodward helped me see this.  West's spoke no Yiddish but a few slang words and thought of himself as an American.  He had a comfortable upbringing and worked for a while in a family owned hotel.  I can see him observing with a comic eye the comings and goings of the guests.  In a very entertaining and informative section Woodward lays out for us West's academic career.  West was no great shakes as a student but he was very well read in European classics, especially Russian and French.  After some shady episodes he did graduate from Brown but he was more interested in partying than excelling.  In this you can see West has no great respect for authority figures and little impulse to please.

West came into full maturity just as the economy of America went into a terrible downturn.  We see in Woodward how this impacted West's life and  his work.  His work is almost a case study of living through the Great Depression in America.  

Woodward really helps us understand what West's life was like once he relocated to Hollywood and became a script writer.  He always earned very good money, in part because he was reliable, if you told him to write a script by next week on race car drivers in Mexico, he could be counted  on to do it.  He made a huge score, in partnership with a friend, on a twenty six page movie proposal and was paid over $36,000 for it.  Woodward said this had the buying power of about $500,000 today.  Compressing a lot, he married a lovely woman and bought a beautiful house.  He became  good friends with people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, S. J. Pearlman ( who married West's sister) and Dorothy Parker.  Woodward's goes into a lot of fascinating detail on the business side of being a Hollywood screen writer.  I liked it a lot when I learned that West lived when he first got to Hollywood in a hotel catering to Hollywood hopefuls, extras, starlets who  are prostitutes on the side and people who came as far west as they could in America to wait to die.  Readers of The Night of the Locust will see this experience and learn how an American cartoon icon got it's name.  The Night of the Locust is considered to be a strong influence on The Crying of Lot 49 (a book I have read numerous times) and I for sure see that.  

Woodward also spends a lot of time talking about West's love of hunting and the outdoors.  He often went down to Mexico with Hollywood friends to hunt and party.  Woodward helped me understand this was a city boy's  get away.  

Woodward talks about West's marriage, sadly it was cut short soon.  We learn that before marriage West visited Brothels but Woodward does not say much on this.  I do not know if it is out of respect for   West but I would have liked more data.  He also makes veiled refrences to suggestions that West may have been bisexual at times but he provides no details.  On this I would only say I prefer things be stated for all to know, to hide details suggests it is shameful, or don't vaguely mention it and leave us to wonder.  

Woodward's book begins with the tragic car wreck, he was on the way to the wedding of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which West and his wife were killed.  Beginning and closing the book with a very detailed account of the car wreck brought a fine structure to the book.  West was at work on another book.

One of the big questions Woodward helped me understand is just why did West keep writing when all of his books were ecomonic failures.  He made more from one month as a screen writer than all his books.

Woodward very happily includes a list of all the movies West worked on and I hope to see some on TCM one day.

Woodward loves the work of West and that love brought him to a very deep understanding of his great novels.  All four are must reading for all literary autodidacts and students of America in the 1930s.

I have read a lot of literary biographies and I count Woodward's among the very best.  He places West very clearly in American and world culture.  The sections on West's reading habits was really fascinating.  

Woodward gives his theories on the novels and I found them consistently illuminating. 

Official bio of Joe Woodward from his webpage







Joe Woodward is a native of California and currently lives in Claremont, California.  He is a four-time finalist and two-time winner of a Los Angeles Press Club Award.  His non-fiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Poets & Writers Magazine and regularly in The Huffington Post.  His fiction has appeared in Passages North, Notre Dame Review, Zone 3 and elsewhere.

Joe received his BA in English at the University of Redlands and an MFA in English from Brooklyn College.  He is grateful to his teachers including Allen Ginsberg, L.S. Asekoff, Joan Larkin, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Ralph Angel, Bruce McAllister, and the many others. 

He is represented by Elizabeth Evans at the Jean V. Nagger Literary Agency in New York.  

Select Publications: 

Books

Alive Inside the Wreck A Biography of Nathanael West -- O/R, 2011

Short Fiction

"At the Airport" -- Peregrine, 2012

"The Season of Her Imagination" -- Passages North, 2012

"Salad Days" -- Notre Dame Review, 2012

"Crossings" -- Connecticut Review, 2011

"Viola" -- Lake Effects, 2011

"The Decemberists" -- Zone 3, 2010

"The Autopsy" -- Southern Indiana Review, 2010

Profiles

"The Gun on the Table: Tobias Wolff -- Poets & Writers, 2008

"A Novelist's Inner Poet: Carol Muske Dukes -- Poets & Writers, 2007

"In Search of David Foster Wallace" -- Poets & Writers, 2006

"Welcome to Ellis Island: Bret Easton Ellis" -- Poets & Writers, 2005


I endorse Alive Inside the Wreck - A Biography of Nathanael West to any and all interested in West and his world.  



I hope to do a Q and A with Woodward so look for that soon.



 

 

 

 






 









Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The View from Endless Street - Short Stories from the South of England by Rebecca Lloyd

I find posting on collections of short stories very challenging.  The temptation of most seems to be to rave on in a sentence or two in metaphor laced lines that have little concrete meaning on a few stories then generalize on the book.  To me this is not really the proper respect due an artist who might well have put decades into a book you can read in a few hours.  It also does not give thoughtful readers much insight into whether or not the book is for them or not.  My attempted method is to talk in some detail about enough of the stories to give a feel for the people, plots, and themes you will encounter. Then I will conclude with my suggestions as to who should read the collection.

My bottom line on The View From Endless Street is that it should be read by all lovers of superbly crafted stories that exemplify the Frank O'Connor vision of the best of all short stories as vehicles to speak for the voiceless, the marginalized and the left out.  There are lots of ways to be left out or marginalized, one way is poverty and many of the people in the collection are below middle class standing.  I think The South of England, the locale of the stories, is meant to stand for a place left out or forgotten in the boom years of London.  



"The River"

"The Island swayed gently on its outward journey and Grandpa lay languid in the midst of it.  As I watched the beautiful serenity of the floating trash, I felt awe, if awe is a solemn kind of thing that reaches deep inside you". 

The lead story in The View From Endless Street is sad, joyous, despairing and a beautiful way to begin this wonderful collection.  Set in a small town in England, it centers on a young woman and her grandfather.   The grandfather loves to spend his time fishing for eels.  She has to watch him as recently a big eel almost pulled him in the water.  Some of the eels are huge, four foot long and a foot in diameter.  The grandfather, maybe he knows his days are numbered,  is sort of watched over by his as he has seen better days.   The river is  very dirty and there are floating islands of trash. To some they are trash but under that we see an ancient fisherman's floating grave.  I totally love these lines.

"The River" is a great story, about aging, love across generations, finding meaning where others cannot.  It connects the mundane debris of poverty to ancient warrior rituals in a very powerful close to the story. 

"Castle Street in June"

"He'd come to know finally he'd never had anything to lose from the start and the thought was a strange and bitter irony that would never leave him".

"Castle Street in June" centers on two very alone people living on a run down Castls Street.  One of the things Lloyd does with a subtle brilliance in her stories is to show us the hidden similarities between seemingly unlike persons.  Teresa has been badly at sea since her long time life companion passed away after a long and lingering disease of the blood.  She is terribly isolated and has, in an acute device from Lloyd, the visibility in the neighborhood of a very old elm tree.  To her, a water meter man is cherished company.  In the old days door to door salesmen would call and have tea but even they no longer come.  Lee has returned, alone, to the street of his youth.  He too walks the streets to know purpose.  Lloyd gives us the freedom to wonder where he was all the years he was gone.  Both feel there is no meaning left in their existence.   They cross, not strangers in the night, on Castle Street.
This is a beautiful story about the missing from social media modern life people, the kind of people Joyce and Chekhov wrote about when they helped shape the modern short story.

"The Women"

"After Patricia left, Mother began to to howl, a wild noise so drawn out and haunting that Charlie left home without his coat."

"The Women" centers on a grown man of somewhere in an unspecified middle year and his mother.  It is just such an intense tightly written story that I find it hard to write about.  Partially this is for personal reasons.  Charlie takes care of his mother, both are what I will call for lack of a better term delusional.  It is very hard to tell what actually takes place in the story and what is conjured up by dark involuntary memories.  As the story opens the mother is telling her son about two women, I could not quite tell if they were real or not, that visit her and drink her whiskey and eat biscuits with her.  They may be real people who are preying on her.  Charlie changes the locks in the house so the women cannot get back in and they do not return, though they may try to open the door with their old key.  We don't know as we are seeing the event partially through the son's perceptions.   The son does have a job, working at a warehouse.  His biggest preoccupation is his collection of Confederate Soldiers.  He longs to get away but guilt and maybe his knowing he needs the relationship as much as his mother does keeps him there.  There is a lot of depth of understanding of the mutual dependency that can develop under the circumstances in which Charile and his mother live.   We also learn a lot about what it is like to be poor, old or mentally dysfunctional in south England. 

"Raptor"

"Raptor" is a very interesting story.  It has significant similarities to the other stories I have talked about but it is also very different.  The lead character in "Raptor" is not really in poverty as are the characters in the prior stories I talked about.  He owns an aviary and has several of his employees are falconers.  Falconing is by and large a rich aristocrats story.  Seven years ago Violet walked in and Robert hired her.   Over the last seven years she has borrowed about £500,000 from him, claiming her father is a fabulously wealthy man who will soon settle a fortune on her.  There is a well of loneliness in Robert that makes him want to keep believing this absurd story and keep loaning Violet money, to the destruction of his business.  

There is much to think about in "Raptor".  Why does Robert want to help Violet?  Why is she his seeming only relationship?  What is the real history of Violet?  why does Robert keep seeing her even after she is exposed as a thief and a fraud?


"The Balloon"

 "The Balloon" has three characters.  An elderly widow with swollen legs who owns a novelty story, a decent young man who is in her place installing new carpet and the carpet installer's girl friend.  We learn about her in conversations between the other two characters.   She is is an artist.  She makes paper mâché.  She has yet to make a sale.  She sees her boyfriend only when she feels like it and seems to use her so called creative nature as an excuse for selfish behavior.  A funny and sad catastrophe occurs when the man's surprise gift of an engagement ring goes very agley. The conclusion is very visual and I enjoyed imaging it.  The old lady gives him some good advise as the story closes.

"The View From Endless Street"

The  title story, "The View From Endless Street" echoes many of the themes of the collection.  The central character, Ronnie, lives in a council house.  Like other men in some of the stories, he has kind of an arrested emotional and social development. He has an assigned social worker so maybe there is an impairment in his mentality that requires this.   The dominant figure in his life is his deceased mother.  He often thinks back to a brief relationship he had in his teenage years with a neighbor girl, Lilly May.  He has stayed on Endless street all these years just so he can once and a while see her from his balcony.   She never moved. Ronnie got away with something terrible long ago.  Just another denizen of Endless Street.

I greatly enjoyed read the stories in Rebecca Lloyd's The View from Endless Street.  There are twenty stories in the collection, each one very interesting and acutely perceptive.  The people in these stories are those left behind in the boom years of London, they don't read George Eliot or Proust, consume coffee costing three pounds a cup at Starbucks, most probably don't even have Twitter accounts.   They are the voiceless marginalized people that some of the greatest of all of the world's short story writers have taken as their subject matter.  By this I mean writers such as Mansfield, Chekhov, Joyce, R. K. Narayan, and Frank O'Connor.  This collection needs to be read slowly.  I read about a story every three days so I could let a story sink in before I began the next one.  Some I read several times.

I endorse The View From Endless Street without any reservations.  

Ms. Lloyd kindly allowed me to publish one of the stories from the collection and there is a link to it at the top of my post.




Author Supplied Bio

I was born in New Zealand, and spent the first half of my childhood in England and the second half in Australia. At least that’s what I always thought until recently, looking at the dates of our voyages from one side of the world to the other, I discovered to my amazement that I’d only spent four years in Australia, and yet it feels as if all my young life was spent there. If I could return to one place in my childhood, it would be the ruined tennis court at the bottom of our rambling Sydney garden. One end was dry and full of insects and the other was permanently under an inch of water and teaming with pond life. I wandered between the two environments trying to understand how nature works. Of everything I learnt there, nothing was as extraordinary as the evening I stood in the dry section after dark and became aware that the ground was covered in thousands and thousands of tiny luminous discs. It was as if the sky had fallen to the ground and dragged the stars down with it. I realised after a while that the discs were the underside of the lid that trapdoor spiders make to conceal their burrows in the daytime, and that the luminosity of the lids attracted insects to the burrows after dark. These spiders are not deadly, in fact some of them like to play dead, but this isn’t the same thing.

As an adult

I spent the first part of my adult life working in science, but it was a very closed world and I was restless; I wanted to know about other cultures before I got much older. So I took an MSc. in tropical diseases diagnosis - and went to work high up in the mountains of Tanzania in a remote hospital laboratory where on the top floor you often walked through the clouds themselves. Because I had studied anthropology, I was able to use those skills to (partially), win the trust of the isolated tribal people who lived there. I had a visitor from England once who set off with his camera into the forest and I found out later that ten tribesmen had tracked him all the way, and he never knew a thing about it. When I asked them why they did it, they said because they could. The stories I heard and the experiences I had up there in the mountains, both terrible and wonderful, were awesome, and I began to write things down - anecdotes, beliefs, stories, hopes and fears. I saw a lot of death and poverty, and I saw extraordinary beauty both in nature and in the kindness of people. I didn’t know it then, but in recording the things I heard, I had taken my first steps as a writer. In the same way that my four years as a child in Australia feels to me like a whole childhood, my two years in Africa feels like another whole lifetime.

As an author

Once back from Africa and living in East London, I began to write short stories and made some early attempts at novel writing. I was also very much engaged with the local communities as a victim support worker. I had direct access to the lives of people I never could’ve met in any other way, and those experiences, although never told directly in my stories, were inspirational. I was very moved by what people told me and by how they lived and what they thought. My story ‘The River’ which won the Bristol Prize in 2008 was my farewell story to life in East London. These days, I live in a kinder place, and although I have never sought ‘social safety,’ I have been aware that as you grow older, there’s a balance to be struck between the energy that’s taken from you by the environment you live in and the energy that’s left for writing. So although the young people’s novels I have written are fantastical, they are, I hope, grounded in real life. I write fiction everyday. I work directly onto my computer, but do have a notebook which is almost constantly with me when I’m out. The only thing I haven’t been able to figure out is how to find a sentence, phrase or description I remember writing in one of my notebooks, and need to use. I write in a small and cluttered room which gets alarmingly cold in the winter – I have a pair of fingerless gloves. On the other hand in the summer, I can sit with my feet on my big windowsill and write while looking out at my garden where, due to the enthusiasm my neighbours have about wildlife, a great diversity of insect, bird and plant life is all around us – as well as newts, frogs and toads of all sizes.

Things you didn't know about Rebecca Lloyd

  1. I love moths, and the English names for them; they are poetic and fascinating – Lover’s Knot, Hart and Dart, the moth Uncertain, Mother Shipton, Cream-spot Tiger.
  2. I think I would like to go up in an air balloon, but I’m also nervous of heights, and so now I just watch them floating over my house in the summer and wave up to the little people in the baskets, and imagine they can see me and are waving back.
  3. My garden is full of toads, frogs and newts, and every night in summertime I go out with a torch and see how many of each I can spot.
  4. I’m very bad at wrapping presents; I always make a real mess of it, and have been advised that I should use tissue paper.
  5. I think I should swim more because I do love it, but I never seem to be able to fit it into my day.
  6. I don’t know if I was a day-dreaming child or not, but I wish that the idea of day-dreaming was thought about more kindly by adults, because in day-dreaming you are using your imagination, and it is a precious thing.
  7. When it isn’t cold or windy, or raining, I love to take my bike out and cycle down leafy lanes and along the side of the river.
  8. I love clouds and how you can imagine faces and animals and landscapes in them. I’ve watched clouds since I was little, and think I always will.
  9. My favourite food is prawns – I could eat them till the seas run dry.
  10. In my best dreams, I am flying, sometimes above fields, sometimes high up by the ceilings in vast rooms.
I hope to do a Q and A with Rebecca Lloyd so please look for that later this year.



The Magic Skin by Honore de Balzac (1831-A Novel- a Component of The Human Comedy)



The Magic Skin was the novel that cemented Balzac's place as one of the most important of Fench novelists.  The  major Paris journals carried reviews proclaiming The Magic Skin as a work of genius.  Several of them were actually written by Balzac under an alias. It sold out of print on publication day.  

I decided to make The Magic Skin my next Balzac novel (I am hoping to complete the full Human Comedy by the end of next year) when I read in Balzac's Omlette by Anka Muhlstein that sumptuous banquet in it was Balzac's food writing at the very best.  She also said it was one of the few works of Balzac that makes use of supernatural elements.  

I really liked parts of this book a lot.  There is a lot to learn about French society in the early 19th century in The Magic Skin.  Parts dragged for me and almost seemed like filling.  The story opens with our central character, Raphael, in an elegant gambling house.   Balzac does a brilliant job of making us feel we are there. He goes into enough details on how winners, losers, waiters and spectators act and look.  Raphael loses all but his last few Francs and determines to throw himself into the Seine.   

He begins to wander the streets of Paris after dark.  He enters a large antique, art, and curiosity shop run by a strange old man.  This section of the novel was wonderful, really brilliant.  The shopkeeper takes Raphael on a long tour of his shop, describing everything from incredibly expensive Venetian renaissance paintings to the weirdest of junk.  I was sorry when this section ended.  Raphael tells the shopkeeper  he is planning suicide.  The shopkeeper begins to tell him about a very old donkey skin that he claims makes its owner's wishes come true.  The man uses his last few Francs to buy it, thinking  this is probably just ridiculous but what does he have to lose?

In the next section we are in the very modest rooming house where Raphael lived when he was poor.  The land lady did  her best to take care of him.    As could be expected, his wishes begin to come true.  In a scene as good as Anka Mulstein said it was, Raphael stages a wonderful banquet which turns into an orgy with beautiful women.  Long story short, someone dies and leaves him incredibly rich.

We next meet him living in a mansion with servants to catering  to his every whim.  He tells his friend about the magic donkey skin, which shrinks every time it grants a wish.  Compressing a lot he ends up going back to his rooming house.  The land lady has since he left married a very wealthy man.  She confesses she has always been in love with Raphael.  He tells her he is madly in love with her.  This was the weakest section of the novel.  

In the next section Raphael gets sick and decides to move to the country.  Ok maybe this is the weakest section!  The descriptions of the countryside were very good, the treatment of the peasants w
  Was   a bit condescending,I guess not to many agricultural workers bought novels in France in 1831, and straight out formula about simple uncorrupted country folk versus the corrupt dwellers of Paris.

For me the best parts of the novel were first those in the antique shop, then the truly fit for royalty feast and orgy, followed by the gambling den.  I also enjoyed the opening sections of the descriptions of Raphael's life after becoming wealthy.  The weakest part was the romance between Raphsel and his old land lady, his illness and the close of The Magic Skin in which he moves to the country.

For sure this is worth pursing by those who have read five or six other Balzac novels first.   It contains all,the basic elements of Balzac, for better and worse.  The good sections are great.  The weaker sections will be over soon so just endure them.  Some of the things that may seem like cliches to us might not have been in 1831.

19 of 91

Breakdown of The Human Comedy

Novels. 40

Short Stories 31

Novellas 20


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