Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, February 27, 2015

Luigi Pirandello - Two Short Stories by a Nobel Laureate

"With Other Eyes"

"Mrs. Frola and Mr. Ponza, her Son in Law"

I was recently kindly given an advance review copy of a forthcoming anthology of short stories by diverse authors, 100 Great Short Stories edited and introduced by James Daley.  Included in the anthology were two short stories by the 1934 Nobel Prize Winner, Luigi Pirandello, a writer I have not yet read.  

There is no date of publication or translation information in the collection, my best guess is they were written between 1922 to 1933 and were likely translated by Stanley Applebaum. (If you have information on this please leave a comment.)

Both stories are very good and both center partially on a dead wife.  I will just post briefly on the stories.  I could not find them online in English.  

"Mrs. Frola and Mr. Ponza, her Son-in-Law" is a very funny quite intriguing story set in a small town in Italy.  There is a big debate in the town over whether Mrs. Frola or her son-in-law Mr. Ponza is crazy.  The plot is just so clever and well done.  In Italian society when a man marries the daughter of a widow it was commonplace for the widow to live with the couple.  Mr. Ponza instead maintains a seperate flat for his mother-in-law.  The story turns on why he does this.  Some say it is because the woman's daughter is dead and to shield her from learning this he keeps Mrs. Frola away, letting her occasionally visit and having his second wife pretend she is his dead wife.  Some say Mr. Ponza does not know his wife is dead and Mrs. Frola goes along with it so Mr. Ponza will not be heartbroken.  
Pirandello does a way better job than I just did of unwinding the story.  Just a delight.

"With Other Eyes" opens with a second wife finding in her husband's chest of drawers a miniature picture of his dead first wife.  At first she feels jealousy perhaps hatred for her.  Then she thinks about how she died.  Her husband found she had committed adultery and he coerced her into suicide.  She begins to see her husband through the eyes of his first wife.  This a very interesting psychologically perceptive story.

I liked both of these stories a lot and will hopefully read more Pirandello one day.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"A Convict's Twilight" by Arturo Rotor, M.D. (1932?)

This Post is in Observation of The Anniversary of the People Power Revolution 

Arturo Rotoro  (1907 to 1988) was a very well known medical doctor, highly respected music critic, world class authority on orchids who wrote beautiful stories about a Philippines society just a fading memory to an ever smaller number of people. The disease "Rotor Syndrome" which he isolated and first correctly described is named after him.      He also played a vital role during WWII in the government in exile.  He and his wife both taught at The University of the Philippines.  He continued seeing patients throughout his career.

"A Convict's Twilight" is a very powerful haunting work set in a convict labor camp nesr Davao, a seaport town on Mindanao Island, located in the southern Philippines.  I am not clear if  it should be considered an essay based on medical field work of the author or a short story and I could find little information on the publication history of the text. (1932 is my guess for approximate publication date, if you have data on this please leave a comment.)

As the text begins, a group of convict laborers are returning to camp after a day of very hard work clearing the rain forest to make way for farms.  It is hard for those in the great urban mega city of Manila to grasp existentially that in the time of their great grand parents much of the country was a rain forest.  Rotor does a magnificent job making us feel the power of the forest, enemy and intimate friend.  He poigantly meditates on the relative oppressiveness of being a prisoner in Manila behind bars with at least the bustle of the city near you versus isolation in the convict camp in Davao.  The convicts have at most two hours of their own time.  The narrator recognizes a woman he treated in his medical practice back in Manila.  Her husband is at the convict camp and she moved to Davao to be near him.  She is nearly overwhelmed with emotion when she recalls the kindness of Dr. Rotor.  Her emotions are deepened by the cruel hand fate has dwealt her.  There is little kindness in her world now.

There is a very moving powerfully rendered scene at the close of "A Convict's Twilighf" which may well bring tears to many eyes.  

Historically this work and others by authors of this period are a precious world class cultural treasure helping keep awake the past, of a country before social media, fast foods, and mega malls took over.

You can read the work HERE

I am dedicating this post to the memory of my Father in Law who was there in 1986.  

Mel u

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. (1905)

Edith Wharton is one of my favorite writers.  Her Age of Innocence was one of my first blogging subjects in September of 2009.  I later read and posted on her novella, Ethan Frome and a few of her short stories. (There is background information on her in my prior posts.)

I really enjoyed reading The House of Mirth inspite of it being a very sad and depressing book.  The star of the book is Lilly Bart, a beautiful young woman whose parents recently died.  She is left with a small income but lives largely from the  largess of a very wealthy aunt.  Much of the plot action centers on her matrimonial prospects and her various suiters.  She cannot maintain her high society status without  a wealthy husband but she cannot really find a man she wants to marry among her circle. 

There are great observations of the role of money in New York City society, at the opening of the 20th century.   The character of Lilly Bart is very finely articulated.  Maybe I did not read the novel carefully enough but I found the male characters less well done.  The prose is throughout exquiste.  

I guess I would suggest first read Age of Innocence then The House of Mirth.

What Wharton book should I next read?

Mel u

A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light by David Downie forthcoming April, 2015)


If you love the great French 19th century writers; Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, George Sand, and towering above them all Honore de Balzac then reading A Passion for Paris - Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light by David Downie is perhaps the next best thing to spending three months on an intensive literary tour of Paris.  

I have read other "glories of Paris" books but Passion for Paris is the first that focuses on the great Romantic Era French writers.   For me it was just a joy to read.  With Downie as my guide I felt I was meandering through Paris of 1850 or so, from the most elite intellectual salons, restaurants with food to die for, coffee shops where Balzac got part of his legendary fifty cups a day fix, hideaways of mistresses of Victor Hugo, apartments where Baudelaire wrote The Flowers of Evil, brothels for every taste, and set in on conversations between some of the greatest writers of the world.

I learned from Downie a lot about Victor Hugo and I was proud of the French for their reverence of their great writers.   I did not know of his many romantic entanglements and of his very advanced social views.  I was staggered by the incredible energy of Balzac.  Downie tells his readers where they can see homes and museums of the writers.  He lets us see the writers as humans living in a time and place but he in no way indulges in shallow reductionism.  I gained in my understanding of George Sand and her place in the era.  The book focuses on writers but it does also go into fascinating accounts of the artistic world.  It was wonderful to learn how Rodin modeled and created his great sculpture of Balzac.

The standard of prose is high and you really get a feel for Paris in the Romantic Era from A Passion for Paris. has additional information 

Official Author Auto - Biography 

A native San Franciscan, I've called Paris home since 1986. I'm the author of a dozen books. My travel, food and wine features have appeared worldwide. I've been contributing editor or Paris correspondent for half a dozen magazines. After a quarter century I still love living in Paris. My wife Alison and I also enjoy sharing with our readers, taking them on private tours of Paris, Rome, Burgundy and the Italian Riviera. Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light, with photography by Alison (Random House) is into its 10th printing. Paris City of Night is a classic thriller set in Paris; Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa; Rome; and Burgundy are published by The Little Bookroom, as is Quiet Corners of Rome. My Paris Timeline App, on the Apple store, traces 10,000 years of history, mystery, and lore. The Food Wine Rome app lists hundreds of restaurants and gourmet shops. Paris to the Pyrenees is my latest bestseller. A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light comes out in spring 2015.

If fate ever lands me in Paris, I hope I can go on one of David's walking tours of Paris!  Ok maybe three or four tours.

I highly enjoyed his book.  I will profit in my continued reading of the French masters from this book

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Honorine by Honore de Balzac (1843, trans. By Clara Bell -A Novella - A Component of The Comedie Humaine)

"“A strong light casts a deep shadow, and a childish weakness that would pass unnoticed in a normal person, or would be met with a sympathetic smile, cannot but appear grotesque in the case of a man whose knowledge of the world and its ways can only be compared with that of Shakespeare” - from Balzac by Stefan Zweig 

Many book bloggers I follow could read the full Comedy in under three months.  I am near the midpoint.  I do suggest reading the full work as a tremendously worthwhile reading life experience. It will provide a panoramic look at French society from 1830 to 1845 or so and a great grounding in the history of world literature. 

"We can have as many Balzacs as we like; what we cannot really want is the entire absence of any sort of Balzac, and Barthes, in spite of his polemical flourishes, is not asking us to want it. If there is no imputable direction to a text, no chance of an encounter with a mind other than ours, we cannot read, we can only make private mental doodles on the script in front of us. Even when we assume a mind in the text, we can of course read wrongly; we can get lost. But if there is no imaginable mind in question, no set of needs or specified context, we can't even read wrongly. Or: we might be able to read in a very modest, functional sense, to unscramble a basic meaning, but not be able to act on it or take the meaning any further."

- Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts

In the 19th century novelists of the highest status often used a device now looked down upon, the story within a story where one character tells a story, often to people he barely knows about a past experience in the teller's life.  Often this might be on a train or in tavern or at a party and the story might take hours.  Literary critics and theorists pretty much look down on this narrative method and it is seen by many as kind of a lazy way to narrate a story.  I think if we ponder a bit Michael Wood's remark on the many voices of Balzac and the difficulty of saying precisely who is speaking in Honerine we can see that this in the hands of a master liike Balzac is not a simple minded device.  

The story is narrated by a French counsel officer serving in an Italian town on the Mederatanian Sea. He is married to the daughter of the only wealthy man in the city.  Balzac generalizes about Italian women versus French, hardly politically correct but a lot of fun to read now.  In fact he starts the work by telling us the English love to travel because England is such a dreary place!  I laughed so much over this.  

At a social event he begins to tells his life story.  His parents passed living him with little money in the care of his uncle, a priest.  The uncle introduced the boy, after he studies law, to a very affluent count
hoping the man will take him on as a protege, the uncle getting on in years.  The account of his involvement with the count is very interesting and well done.  Balzac of course describes well the palatial home in which the mysterious,of course, count lives.  The young man lives there and eventually becomes like a son to the count.  The count, in his late thirties keeps totally to himself but the man senses something troubles him.  Then the first narrator begins to relay the life story of the count.  Of course it involves love gone wrong.  From this we branch into a tale narrated by the wife of the count, who left him long ago for another man.  Now the story gets complicated.  I don't want to spoil it but we go into another tale of obsessive love and high drama that does stretch credibility a trifle.

What we really have in terms of the rhetoric of fiction is one man assuming the identities of several other persons while telling us an indirect narrative.  It is if one voice is split into four or five, there is really only one central character and we see the various tales through his eyes.  We don't try to assume we are encountering a mind in this narrative directing it all we are not really reading it. There is no reason to assume the various narrators are fully perceptive.  

Honorine is half first rate Balzac, half formula Balzac which is enough to make it a very good work.


I have now begun reading Beatrice.

Mel u

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"The Deserted Woman" by Honore de Balzac (1832, Short Story, A Component of The Comedie Humaine

(From A Passion for Paris:  Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light by David Donnie)

"The Deserted Woman", read in a translation by Ellen Marriage, is the story of young Baron Gaston de Nuel who at age 23 has been sent from Paris to provincial Normandy to recover his health.  We never learn exactly what was wrong with him.  The first third of this story is devoted to characterizing all the types of major and minor important figures who make up the gentry of Normandy.  It is really well done, very visual, very convincing and at places just hilarious.  Then the story goes into a formula romance.  Our young Baron meets and falls in total love at first sight with a mysterious wealthy noble woman ten  years older than him.  Balzac is great at describing women and he is on fire here.  There seems to be little slow getting to know you gradually falling in love stories in Balzac (or else where in the period literature).  The baron basically only knows what she looks like and from thus he decides he wants to spend his life with her.  She, however, is the deserted wife of an aristocrat who left her rich but unable to ever marry again or even in the milieu have a scandal free relationship.  
Compressing a lot, they move to a villa on Lake Geneva and live there for nine years then something tragic happens that destroys their lives.

I enjoyed reading this story a lot and I am sure in 1832 it was considered quite daring.  


Mel u

Friday, February 20, 2015

"La Grenadiere" by Honore de Balzac (1832, a short story component of The Human Comedy)

He bombastically takes every entanglement as tragic, every urge as a great passion;  he is always ready to declare every person in misfortune a hero or a saint;  if it is a woman he compares her to an angel or the was in conformity with his emotional, fiery, and uncritical temperment, as well as with the romantic way of life, to sense demonic forces everywhere and to exaggerate to the point of melodrama" from Mimesis by Eric Auerbach 


"La Grenadiere", translated by Ellen Marriage, is set in Tours,near where Balzac was born, on a small paradise like estate in the midst of a vineyard.  The first ten pages of the thirty pages or is devoted to a description of the estate, the small house, and the countryside.  The owners rent it out,often to affluent English seeking a long get away.  It is now rented to a French woman and her two young sons.  She fits the sterotype of the Madonna like heroine.  One of the characteristics of the 19th century novel, far from just Balzac, is that beautiful women are good, the ugly evil.  When a beautiful woman is out of this mold her beauty only magnifies her evil.  Her sons are little cherubs from Heaven and her life is totally devoted to them.  There is a hidden sadness sometimes glimpsed briefly in her eyes, linked to the father of the boys.  Some very tragic happens, designed to wring tears out of the most cynical Parisian.  

This story perfectly fits Auerbach's account of the weaker work of Balzac, see my last post for more details.  


Mel u

Thursday, February 19, 2015

"The Message" by Honore de Balzac (1832). Eric Auerbach on What is Wrong in Balzac from Mimesis)

Mimesis:  The Representation of Reality in Western Literature by Eric Auerbach (1953), Chapter 18, "In the Hotel de la Mole", pages 468 to 482

As I read on in Balzac's Comedie Humaine I began, I think, not just to see the incredible imaginative power of Balzac but to timidly begin to see weaknesses in his work. I detected in his treatment of the rich that he does not do near the job of Proust or even Zola in creating characters and depicting their worlds.  The rich are just stock characters, each could be substituted for the other.  There seemed an almost comic but not intended to be somfeel to some of his stories and novels about the trials and often infidelities of the upper elements of society.  I am currently reading The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and her depiction of people like Balzac's rich is much more intricate.  

I wanted to see what literary historians of the highest order thought of Balzac, seeking confirmation of my nascent theories or disabuse. I decided to read Eric Auerbach's chapter on Stendhal, Balzac, and Flaubert in his majestic work Mimesis.  Auerbach must, by me at least, be read slowly and carefully, often several times; his sheer cultural depth is overwhelming.  As I read his elegantly articulated thoughts on Balzac, I felt vindicated in my opinions on the weak side of Balzac, his treatment of the upper classes often falls into formalistic melodrama unintentionally self-parodying.  He sees his rich characters as fully determined by their environments, types not individuals.  I don't have a count but I am guessing at least half of the 91 works in The Comedie Humaine are accurately critiqued by Auerbach.  In reading the short stories, not the great novels of Stendhal this is even more evident.  If you look at the consensus best of Balzac lists, most all deal with the poor or middle class.  Balzac wrote very fast and he wrote to sell and he used formulas a lot.  The Comedie Humaine is a great, maybe the greatest, large scale literary mountain range, one needs, I think, to read through it to appreciate the really incredible artistry of Balzac at his best and to begin to grasp his great cultural influence.  Every work has something wonderful, even if it is just great descriptions of people, houses, and furniture. And "ah the Food"!

I urge all those into and sometimes perplexed by Balzac to ponder slowly what Auerbach says in the remarks I quoted.  

"Balzac plunges his heroes far more deeply into time conditioned dependency;  he thereby loses the standards and limits which had earlier been felt as tragic, and he does not yet possess the objective seriousness toward modern reality which later developed.  He bombastically takes every entanglement as tragic, every urge as a great passion;  he is always ready to declare every person in misfortune a hero or a saint;  if it is a woman he compares her to an angel or the was in conformity with his emotional, fiery, and uncritical temperment, as well as with the romantic way of life, to sense hidden demonic forces everywhere and to exaggerate to the point of melodrama" 

"To him every milieu becomes a moral and physical atmosphere which impregnates the landscape, the dwelling, furniture, implements, clothing, physique, character, surroundings, ideas, activities, and fates of man, and at the same time the general historical situation reappears as a total atmosphere which envelopes all its several milieux. It is worth noting that he did his best and most truthfully for the circle of the middle and lower Parisian bourgeois and for the provinces;  while his representation of high society is often melodramatic, false, and even unintentionally comic.  He is not free from melodramatic exaggeration elsewhere; but whereas in the middle and lower spheres this only occasionally impairs the truthfulness of the whole, he is unable to create the true atmosphere of the higher spheres--including those of the intellect" from Mimesis by Eric Auerbach.  

"The Messenger", a very brief story, is very much a trials and tribulations of the rich story. Two affluent Parisians are on the same stage coach.  They fall into conversation and discover they are in love with the same woman.  The resolution of the story is kind of vague.  


Note on above image. I like this pic a lot, I think it might be for a Japanese webpage or translation of Balzac but I am not sure.

I invite responses to Auerbach's thoughts on Balzac.

41 novels, 25 novellas, 25 short stories.

Mel u

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"The Signal" by Vsevolod Garshin (1883). A Late Czarist Short Story Writer

A few days ago I posted on a new to me late Czarist short story writer, Fyodor Sologub (1863 to 1927) who lived and died in Saint Petersburg.  Yesterday I discovered another late Czarist writer who also lived and died in Saint Petersburg, Vseveld Garshin (1855 to 1888).  I wonder if they ever met?  

Garshin fought in the Russian-Turkish War, 1877.  He entered as a private, was wounded and subsequently commissioned as an officer.  He left the army, returning home to Saint Petersburg, to pursue his literary interests.  He wrote nothing but short stories, twenty two in all.  His stories focus on the down trodden of the era.  (There is a link to a  collection of his short stories translated by Captain Roland Smith, done in 1917 at the bottom of this post.  I could find no data on Roland Smith so if you have any information please leave a post.  His translation of "The Signal" is very elegant.

The central character in "The Signal" served in the front lines in the Russo- Turkish War.  One of his duties was to deliver meals and hot tea to the officers, which often involved running through enemy fire.  There is volumes of class history in the very poigant passage  in which the officers praise him for bringing them tea under fire, with no thought to the fact he is following orders that might get him killed.  Should he have been killed bringing them tea, one doubts if the officers would have much cared. After the war he and his wife suffer great hardship, he cannot find work.  Like Gorky, Garshin focuses on displaced serfs, people without a fixed place in society.  One day he encounters one of his former officers, now an important person with the railroad.  He offers the man a good job as a track walker and signal man for the railroad.  His job is to walk ten miles or so of track on a regular basis making sure all in order and to signal the locomotive engineer if there are issues.  He gets a house and he brings his wife there also.  They are content.  He slowly gets acquainted with the next over track man. This man is not happy at all, he feels they are underpaid and abused.  One day when the chief inspector comes to the area this man complains to him and the inspector strikes him with his whip on his face.  Outraged, he tells his friend he will go to the railroad head office to file a complaint, inspite of being told just to endure it for the sake of the job.  

A few days later the central character while making his rounds sees someone tampering with the track.  It is the other signal man, he is loosing a bolt which will cause a coming passenger train to jump the track and go cantepaulting into a ravine, likely killing everyone on board.  Horrified the man tries to signal the train to stop but he realizes he has no red flag.  He removes his white shirt, makes a deep cut in his arm and covers as he can the shirt in his blood and franticallty tries to signal the train to stop.
He knows if the train wrecks he could be executed or sent to Siberia for life.

I will leave the close untold.  I found "The Signal" fit  to stand with the great Russian short stories.  In just a few pages we learn a lot about the life of a late Czarist railroad track man and about the world in which he struggled to survive. 

I have read descriptions of his other stories and i will I am pretty sure I shall  be posting more on Vsevold Garshin.  He killed himself by jumping out of his fifth floor apartment. 

Mel u

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014)

I first read Middlemarch October of last year.  My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead is a wonderful companion to this magnificent work.  Virginia Woolf  famously said that Middlemarch "was one of the few novels written for grown-up people".  Mead fascinatingly and insightfully explains what Woolf mean by using the term "grown-up" instead of adults.  I had never before pondered this matter and I found Mead's conjectures very convincing.  In her very important essay "Notes on Camp" Middlemarch is the only novel Susan Sontag  places in the category of "High Art".   One of the basic dictums of the reading life is that reading a great work of literature is a different experience as one advances in life.  I saw this so clearly when I recently reread King Lear for the first time since I got out of school decades ago.  Now I have three adult daughters of my own and I cannot help but relate the play to my relationships with them.

Everyone really into reading, Mead tells us, has one book that they hold to through their lives, reading it differently as the years go by. (Mine would be Gravity's Rainbow and if I had read it younger, maybe Proust's In Search of Lost Time.)   Middlemarch is Mead's book.  She kind of tells her own life through the ways her experience of Middlemarch changed as she read it over as she advanced from her late teenage years, through her first romance, jobs, education.  She also tells us a lot about the life of George Eliot, her romances, her work, and above all how she became George Eliot.  Mead lets us see the very deep,wisdom of Middlemarch.  Middlemarch is a book about marriage, among much else but it is not just about the matrimonial chase of Austin's world, it is about marriage in various stages.  

There is a lot to be learned about the social and business side of being a famous writer in Mead's book.  She takes us inside George Eliot's homes and walks the English countryside with us while talking about what was happening in her life during her various readings of Middlemarch.  She compares her own life, her relationships to those of the author and lets us see how the two cross illuminate. 

My Life in Middlemarch is truly a wonderful reading life book helping us see how great literature can expand our inner world and see deeper into life.  It also shows how reading a wonderful book is just a great experience how it can be a lifetime of revererbitation. 

My next Gerorge Eliot work will be her often called semi autobiographical work The Mill on the Floss and I look forward to benifiting from the many insights Mead offers in this early work.

Mead talks a lot about her husband in this book and somehow I think my having read his book on Stefan Zweig, Impossible Exile - Stefan Zweig at the End of the World by George Prochnik , made this part of Mead's book more meaningful for me.  


REBECCA MEAD is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of My Life in Middlemarch and One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

"What do you see, Madam" by Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood (1917)

"Her world held rows and rows of dusty caned chairs, and over these, like migrating robins, the pink anatomy of the chorus -- hips thrown out against the painted drop, listless eyes that saw only supper, a new step, and once in a while, some other things. Mamie Saloam could go where she willed. She could stoop or look up because Mamie breathed true ambition and heroic drudgery.

When she passed the boundaries of decency, it was a full run for your money; when she went up in smoke, those original little pasty pans of Egypt became chimney pots. If Helen of Troy could have been seen eating peppermints out of a paper bag, it is highly probable that her admirers would have been an entirely different class." From "What Do You See, Madam?"

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is a classic of modernism.  She has a cult like following, perhaps more talked about than anymore read.  I have not yet read Nighfwood but would like to one day.  I am today to be able to share with my readers a very interesting, no doubt a little shocking for 1920, one of her stories that can be read online.  Barnes was fascinated by the demi-monde world of New York City, in an era where the Bowery was a theater district, of sorts and the line between actress and prostitute was a bit blurry.  

Mamie is a young actress, playing the part of Salome in the story of John the Baptist.  This drama was popular as it gave theater managers an excuse for having women do sultry dances in brief outfits.  Theaters were policed by public decency groups.  Mamie is just beginning to feel the power of her sexuality.  It is when she glances at herself, from the back, in a mirror that she realizes she won't have to "eat cod from a paper bag" any more.  When the ladies of The Decency League comes in the manager of the theater asks them "What do you see, Madam?"

"What Do You See, Madam" is a very well done story.  It lets us see how Mamie feels.  I would have liked to have been front row center on Mamie's opening night and I could have told my wife I was at a theatrical performance of a biblical story.  

(1917 is my guess of first publication date, if you have details, please leave a comment.

Please share your experience with Djuna Barnes with us.

Djuna Barnes was born on the 12th of June 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. She began her career as a reporter and illustrator for magazines, under pseudonyms such as Lydia Steptoe, and Gunga Duhl, the Pen Performer. In the 1920s she lived in Paris with her lover, the sculptor and silverpoint artist, Thelma Wood. She was a member of the influential coterie of mostly lesbian women that included Natalie Barney and Janet Flanner. Although she wrote many plays, short stories, and poems, she is best known for her novel Nightwood, written in 1936. She died in 1982.  from Lodestar Quarterly

Mel u

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The White Mother" and "The White Dog", two short stories by Fyodor Sologub translated by John Cournos, 1908?)

Two Short Stories by Balzac's First Russian Translator. -  Late Czarist Period 

Fyodor (sometimes translated as "Theodor", born and died in St Petersburg, Russia) Sologub is a second level Russian writer that I encountered for the first time yesterday.  He was a profuse literary writer and was the first, according to my research, to translate Balzac into Russian.  That alone makes him an important figure.  He wrote a number of short stories and I enjoyed the two I read. (At the end of this pits I will include a link from which you can download  a collection of his short stories translated by John Crounus , from 1915.  Crounus (1881 to 1966) was born in Russia into a Yiddish family.  His family immigrated to the USA, living in Philadelphia, when he was ten. He had a diverse career as a writer and it is for his translations that he is still known.  

"The White Mother". Published somewhere between 1900 and 1913

"The White Mother" feels like a story Balzac might have written, or Turgenev on a sentimental day.  The story focuses on a thirty five year old bachelor.  When we first meet him he is at a party and the hostess is trying to suggest matrimonial prospects to him.  He listens to her but his heart is in verthe grave, given many years ago to his beloved and passed Layla.  Much of his time is spent thinking of her, she fills his dreams and he has no interest in displacing her with a wife.  One day he is out for a walk and he comes on a young boy crying and lost in the streets.  The man asks where his father lives and learns he is dead.  The boy tells him he has two mothers, one white and one black.  At first he thinks the black mother must be a nun and the boy an orphan.  He finds out the white mother is the boy's deceased mother, the black mother is his black haired black eyed step mother.  She wants to get rid of the boy, left as a burden on her as a stepmother after his father died.  After some pondering and conversations with friends, the boy somehow makes him think of a son he and Layla might have had, he adopts the boy, the final touch is when the stepmother says she will agree to it only on the condition the man pay her for the clothes the boy is wearing.  This is a story aimed at the heart and it works.  I enjoyed reading it a lot.

"The White Dog"

"The White Dog" is a very interesting story set in the Russian countryside.  It has an amazing close that I am surprised got past censors circa 1907.  One of the central characters is an unmarried woman, having reached spinsterhood at thirty or so.  I don't want to spoil the plot for potential readers but at the close of the story she strips naked and runs outside, she evidently transforms into a huge white dog.  Two men hear the unearthly howls of the dog and take it for a werewolf and shot her.  As they approach the dog they see it is a woman, covered in blood.  No doubt this story echoes Russian folklore and certainly it can be seen as the final venting of frustration by the woman and perhaps as societies disregard for such women as no longer of value.

Mel u

Friday, February 13, 2015

"Pink Flannel" by Ford Madox Ford (May 8, 1919 in Land and Water)

A Short Story set in WW I by the Author of The Good Soldier and Parade's End 

Yesterday I was very please to find included in an anthology of short stories I was kindly given by Dover Publishing a story by Ford Madox Ford (1873 to 1939).  "Pink Flannel" was originally published in Land and Water a literary and political journal focusing on World War One, May 8, 1919.  Land and Water was published weekly in England from 1914 to 1920.  It is a stream of consciousness story centering on an English soldier in the trenches in France thinking about his up coming 36 hour furlough.  (Ford volunteered for frontline duty in the war even though he was above the age of required service.)

The man is in a panic as he cannot find a letter he received from a married woman arranging their meeting during his short leave. He needs to find out if she wants to continue the affair.  He is afraid some malicious individual will show the woman's husband the letter.  As German gun fire and artillery rain over him he racks his brain to try to recall where he might have hidden the letter.  He can identify the weapon by the sound and knows which are most dangerous.  There are not a lot of hiding places in his base in the trenches.  He seemingly shrugs off the threat of death but is in a panic over the lost letter.  Ford does a marvelous job of displaying the stream of thoughts of the soldier.  

I read this in a forthcoming in 2015 anthology 100 Great Short Stories selected and introduced by James Daly, published by Dover Thrift Editions.  The selection of stories is first rate, with a combination of must includes and more creative selections.  The formatting, of course this may be fixed upon publication, is a total mess, with no clickable index.  Translator information is not given and date of first publication information, very important, is left out.  I had to Google Ford's story to find out when it was first published.  

In my brief research I could not find the story online.  

Mel u

Note added Feb 19-  I got in touch with Max Saunders, leading authority on FMF, he advised me that Ford wrote just over twenty short stories but more are still being discovered in little known his journals from the period. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

First Love by Ivan Turgenev (1860, translated by Constance Garnett)

First Love is Ivan Turgenev's most read novella.  A group of people are looking for ways to pass the time (now they would all be on devices) and agree to tell each other stories about their first loves. A man of advanced years agrees to go first and tells us of his love, at age 16, for the daughter of a neighbor. First Love is just an amazing work, the remembered experiences are marvelously rendered.  I would put it and his Faust and King Lear of the Steepes with the best of the works I have ever read, especially First Love.  Seemingly simple, it is a story of great emotional depth and complexity.  There is a scene in the story, readers will know it, that is overwhelming powerful.

Please share your experinces with Turgenev with us.  

Mel u

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"The Great Breteche" by Honore de Balzac (1830). Clifton Fadiman on Balzac

I first heard, I am almost certain, of Honore de Balzac in The Life Time Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman (1960).   I might have been twelve or so, I had no one to guide me into the reading life, no conceptions of classics and Fadiman became my guru.  He says in his introduction his book is not for scholars (which he says are often well  read only in their narrow field) or the very well read but for me it was a wonder.  The great books of the world listed with concise introductions that made me want to read them.  In his introduction Fadiman gave a lot of good advice, one was if a classic work does not resound with you, put it down and come back to it in a few years.  He says the very well read would quibble with his selections and that writers have their ups and downs in fashion.   I would include some Japanese and Indian works, and not just to be politically correct.  

In his chapter on Balzac he lists two novels, both in The Human Comedy, as elements of the life time reading plan. The books are Pére Gioriot and Eugénie Grandet.  I think I have now read  the major Balzac novels and Fadiman's recommendations seem spot on.  He says "no other novelist before him understood the world of money as did Balzac".   He then repeats what seems a common place error, that The Human Comedy consists of some 100  books.  Fadiman can be excused  his error more than modern writers as he could not easily for $2.95 download the full Comedie Humaine and see what really constitutes the work.  Fadiman says, in 1960 as of 2014 I have no clue, that Balzac is not much read in America.  This is possibly because potential readers felt overwhelmed by what they were told about the size of the collection.  Here are the facts.

25 short Stories

25 novellas

41 Novels. (At most ten novels are more than 500 pages)

(The line between novella and novel is not rigid but this is close enough).  

Many book bloggers could read through the full Comedy in under three months.  

"The Grand Breteche" (a short story component of The Human Comedy, translated by Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell) is set at the same party as is "Another Study of a Woman".  Balzac, as did many writers of his era, often used as his narrative method one person telling a story to another.  "The Grand Breteche" is a great Gothic style horror story that could have inspired the great Irish master of the form, French Hugenot descended Sheridan Le Fanu. ( I admit I did not know what a "Breteche" was so in case I am not the only one so ill educated here is a picture- it is important to the story to be able to visualize this.)

In fact the story is structured as one person telling a group of people a story a Notary (an important individual at the time who preformed numerous level services involving wills and bequests) had told him.  The story of the notary is in part the retelling of a story of one of his contacts.  The first teller was, just for curiosity, wandering around an old castle abandoned for decades.  He runs into the narrator who very politely tells him he is on private property which the owner has denied all access.  He wants to know why so the notary tells him a story.  It centers on a married couple, infidelity, and a terrible revenge with servants paid for silence.  I really don't want to spoil the ending.  This is a really fun story you can read just for enjoyment.  

It can be easily found online.


Mel u

"A Sheltered Woman" by Yiyun Li (March 10, 2014)

A Short Story by the 2005 Frank O'Connor Prize Winner

Anytime I am presented with the opportunity to read a short story by Yiyun Li, winner of the Frank O'Connor Prize in 2005, I am pleased.  Prior to this I have read both of her novels and several of her always excellent short stories.

"A Sheltered Woman", long listed for The London Times short story of the year prize for 2015, the richest single story award, set in Shanghai, centers on a woman who makes her living taking care of mothers and babies for the first month after birth.  She lives with the families.  She has had numerous offers to work permanently but she does not want to become emotionally involved with the family or caught up in any drama.  

My main purpose here is to journalise my reading of this story and to let my readers know they can read this story online.  I really enjoyed it and will keep on reading stories by Yiyun Li when I can

Biography from the Author's webpage

Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction. Her novel, The Vagrants, won the gold medal of California Book Award for fiction, and was shortlisted for Dublin IMPAC Award. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, her second collection, was a finalist of Story Prize and shortlisted for Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Kinder Than Solitude, her latest novel, was published to critical acclaim. Her books have been translated into more than twenty languages.

Yiyun Li has received numerous awards, including Whiting Award, Lannan Foundation Residency fellow, 2010 MacArthur Foundation fellow, and 2014 Benjamin H. Danks Award from American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

Mel u

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Daughter of Eve by Honore de Balzac (1838) - a novel. A component ofThe Human Comedy)

"The Countess had longed for emotions, and now she had them, terrible, cruel and yet most precious.  She lived a deeper life in pain than pleasure". 

Translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley

Everyone who writers about Balzac, including me, says his work deals with the impact of money and commerce on his characters and through them France and especially Paris.  I began to wonder as I near the midpoint in The Human Comedy, is "money makes the world go round" the deepest theme in Balzac?  In the lines I quoted from A Daughter of Eve I am starting to see there is much more to Balzac.  

Balzac wrote fast, he needed to earn a lot from his writings.  He knew works about the foibles and the sexual peccadillos of the upper class were popular so he wrote many of them.  Who is not so saintly to never have felt a degree of schadenfreude upon hearing someone born into great wealth has gotten themselves in a fix?  A Daughter of Eve is formula Balzac.  It is one of the better done minor novels of the comedy.

It begins with two sisters talking to each other about their marriages.  One seeks the advice of the other and thus begins a  story of one of the sister's infidelity, brought on by boredom, much like Emma Bovary. The sister is married to a count, a very good man and decent husband.  She just wanted to feel stronger emotions than bland happiness and material comfort.  

There are some very good, near as good as Proust, descriptions of grand parties.  At one the omniscient narrator tells us what type  of bosoms have gone in and out of style in Paris.  We learn what types of breasts different kings fancied.  There are great descriptions of people and places.

A Daughter of Eve is a minor work but very much worth reading.

This story was translated by Katherine Prescott Wormeley (1830 to 1908)  I was astounded when I researched her.  She immigrated from England at 18 with her wealthy family.  Her father was a Rear-Admiral in the British Navy.  They settled in Rhode Island.  She became very involved in a project helping train poor women to work in hospitals.  When the American Civil war began she channeled thousands of women into jobs as army nurses and helped organize and manage nursing staff and field hospitals during the long war.  She also worked thousands of hours as a battle hospital nurse under horrifying conditions.  She latter founded the U. S. Sanitary Commision which set standards for hospitals and nursing.  Through her countless 1000s of men, on both sided, survived.  She wrote many very moving letters describing the war.   She asked for nothing for her services.

Form 1893 to 1807 she translated for an American publisher a forty volume edition of The Comedie Humaine and this brought Balzac to American readers.  She also translated Dumas and other writers.

There are several good webpages devoted to her role in the American Civil War.  One of them is 

I read one of her civil war letters to her mother in which she talks of her work.  It is beautifully written and shows great intelligence.  

Katherine Prescott Wormely was a great person and a hero of the reading life.  I bet Balzac would have been greatly honored to have her translate his works.


Mel u