Eugene Onegin Read Along – Chapter’s One & Two

Eugene OneginWell, this is a first for me, a read along!

Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin has long been on my list of books to read, since it was gifted to me by husband many years ago. I don’t know why it seemed to intimidate me, since I loved long prose poems as a teenager, especially that other Alexander – Alexander Pope.

The book is a verse novel and I’m reading the Penguin Classic version translated by Charles Johnston with an introduction by the novelist and literary critic  John Bayley (husband of the late Iris Murdoch).

So I’m a little late finishing, but I have read the first two chapters and have a few basic impressions, though not much idea of the story, without reading outside the text.

So, I’ll follow Tanglewood’s lead (hosting this read-along) and try to answer her questions:

First impressions of Eugene?

A bit of a dandy? Son of a lavish spender who clearly didn’t instill much of a work ethic into his son. Then thanks to the legacy of a rich Uncle, he will spend more time in a dressing room, than any character I’ve ever read of.

Eugene turned countryman. He tasted

the total ownership of woods,

mills, lands and waters – he whose goods

till then had been dispersed and wasted -

and glad he was he’d thus arranged

for his old courses to be changed.

Not interested in history or politics or activism, he possesses a wealth of well polished stories to offer at the many social engagements he attends. Hates the Greek heros and prefers the theories of economics. Something of a chameleon, a charmer, dare I suggest, a manipulator, seducer? Prefers balls to ballet, the city to the countryside, yet tolerates boredom, cynicism suits him.

Chapter One introduces Eugene while chapter two introduces the characters he meets when he moves to the countryside, descriptions of Eugene are superficial, he lacks depth, something he may encounter soon perhaps.

What do you make of the narrator’s commentary?

I find the commentary more accessible than I thought, certainly it’s easier to interpret than Shakespeare and mildly humorous with its frequent drift into French words and an “I’ll write how I like” attitude, although it’s difficult to know when reading a translation, fortunately the French isn’t translated, so we have a better appreciation for the play with words intended.

Thoughts on the characters in Chapter 2?

Chapter Two begins to broaden the range of characters and they provide a welcome contrast to Onegin and the possibility of assisting him perhaps to see things through different eyes.  He is charmed by his friend, the poet Vladimir Lenksy and enjoys listening to his outpourings of emotion:

EugeneHe roamed the world, his lyre behind him;

Schiller and Goethe had refined him,

and theirs was the poetic flame

that fired his soul, to burn the same;

Olga, the subject of the poets verses since boyhood, the loved one and her elder sister Tatyana, the dreamer, the loner, living vicariously through her books.

I can see why it’s good to read and reread, even going back and reading earlier passages from yesterday seem to enlighten the story further. So forgive my ignorance as I trundle forward for the first time, slowly discovering what it is I am reading.

Click here to read the follow up review of Eugene Onegin Chapters 3 & 4

They’re Reading Thousands of Great Books Here, Cité du Livre – A Local French Cultural Centre and Library

Yesterday via a link on twitter, I read a provocative article in BBC News Magazine by Hugh Schofield entitled Why don’t French books sell abroad? It was an interesting, if superficial article, that made a few observations without going into any depth to understand the contemporary literary scene in France. It asked questions, reminded us of some old provocative stereotypes and did little to enlighten us on the subject of what excites French readers and why the English-speaking world aren’t more aware of their contemporary literary gems.

Kate from BooksKateRates, reads and blog about French literature and wrote an interesting blog post in response to the article and I have been scribbling notes since reading the original article. I plan to share them here, as it is a fascinating subject if one takes the time to research and understand it.

But firstly, I wanted to show you the library, as it offers a glimpse into  how the French absorb literature and culture and it’s one our favourite local hangouts.

Situated in what was a 14,500 sqm match factory, the library, La Bibliothèque Mèjanes, is part of the Cité du livre, a centre for the arts and culture which includes an auditorium for lectures and readings, rooms for more formal lectures, a small cinema showing themed films for 3 week periods (currently Humphrey Bogart films), a music and film lending room, adult and children’s libraries, a press room, an exhibition space (currently celebrating the centenary of Albert Camus), a café and plenty of space for research and study.

Library Press Room

Library Press Room

As we walk in through the enormous sculptures of the covers of Camus’s  L’etranger on one side and Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince and Molière on the other, we arrive in a long corridor and the reception area for borrowing and returning books.

Turn left and we head towards the reading library where outside the door is a display of books for adolescents. A quick glance at these books shows us that half of them are translated fiction, from South African, German and Hispanic authors.

AsterixInside, we walk past displays of translated literature originating from South Africa, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then the stacks of Bande Dessinée, the very popular hardcover graphic novels, which even today remain at the top of the French bestsellers list, right now its Asterix chez les Pictes, visiting the people of ancient Scotland!

And here are the novels, in French called romans. Rows and rows of books and you might notice something they all have in common, well, in fact, something they all lack. Colour.

Compare it to the shelf opposite which contains the English language novels. It certainly removes that whole likelihood of an impulse buy based on an intriguing cover.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Most French literary novels are published without fancy colourful covers and while in the bookshop you might find first editions with promotional covers, there are many more with pale or cream covers without images and a black or red text title.

However, after looking around a little more, I discover that there is colour in some sections. Science Fiction and Fantasy are full of dark colours and the books covers in the section entitled Policiers (Crime) are mostly black. However, novels and poetry, even the section called American Literature pale into insignificance among a sea of white. It reminds me of one of the three principles of France l’égalitié and certainly here, all books have the same chance of being found, whether it’s from the library or in the bookshop, not just due to their bland covers, but also due to a government policy called le plan livre and the fixed price of books.

It costs €17.50 to join the library (adult) and its free for children, there is no cost for lending and no fees for late returns. 16 items (books and CD’s) and 3 DVD’s can be borrowed at any one time for a period of 3 weeks and the first renewal can be done online. The library is also full of computers providing free internet access to all members. My only complain is that its closed on Sunday and Monday. C’est la vie en France!

So what kind of books do French people read today? And is it true that nearly half of the fiction read is translated foreign fiction? And why don’t we see more books by French authors in English bookshops?  These questions and more I will talk about in the next post Reading Contemporary French literature.

PeopleIn the meantime, if you want to know what’s popular in France and available now to read in English, check out Gallic Books, who offer the best of what’s available in French translated in English with new titles coming out every month.

I’m looking forward to reading The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern due out in English in February 2014.  If you wish to read it in French, it’s already available with the title Eux sur la photo.

The Honey Thief

I requested The Honey Thief to read because it appeared to offer a unique insight into a culture we know little about and about which we see and read far too much negative press.

The Honey ThiefThe book promised an alternative perspective, not because the author had lived an extra-ordinary life, but because as part of his upbringing he and others like him listened to these stories passed down and sometimes relived from one generation to the next. They are not about war, oppression, the Taliban, terrorists or western women living in a foreign culture, they are about sharing the wisdom and perspective of a people who have only experiences to share, wisdom to offer and guidance as their intent.

Sometimes stories are all that is left to be passed on to the younger generation and we are fortunate to be given this glimpse into these gifts of an ancient culture and tradition.

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Najaf Mazari was born in Afghanistan, though he only refers to his homeland as that since he left it, because before anything he is Hazara, one of the many peoples of that vast and mountainous tract of land surrounded by six countries, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and inhabited by more than 14 ethnic groups, separated socially and geographically.

Rather than an affinity with what we casually call Afghanistan, his loyalties are to his people and the area they have inhabited for at least 800 years, Hazarajat, although due to its’ long history of domination, they have often fled their spiritual home for the sanctuary of the mountains or other lands. But loyalty remains deep within them all, no matter where they find themselves.

Living as a refugee in Australia, Mazari with the aid of his friend Robert Hillman, shares these stories that are part of the fabric of Hazara life, stories of an oral tradition, keeping their bonds and culture alive, giving them courage and hope to continue to endure the many challenges that will face them, from family expectations to foreign visitors, to facing an enemy and offering forgiveness.

snow leopardThey know the mountains and rocks are loyal and must be respected, they read the wind and interpret the moon and understand that wars can last 100 years. We see their relationship to the mountains in the poignant story The Snow Leopard, where a visiting English photographer wishes to track and photograph the elusive creature. His first visit is unsuccessful, no one will guide him to those dangerous parts of the mountain where it is believed the snow leopard resides, as there is more than just the mountain to fear. On his second visit, he finds a guide and though unsuccessful, their journey is filled with insight, learning and a renewed respect for the mountain.

The stories share something of the way the Hazara see the world and the story The Honey Thief  brilliantly encapsulates their relationship with nature, animal life and shows how good can sometimes come from bad. The narrator shares with a boy how he became a beekeeper, caught red-handed stealing the honey, his captor observing that he wasn’t stung – thus finding his future apprentice.

Similarly this boy, whose grandfather is a wise man whom the villagers consult daily, discovers that even wise men have something to learn from young boys who like to ask lots of questions in The Wolf is the Most Intelligent of Creatures and learns that what might appear to be ill advice may in fact be the correct advice to give. This story, the very first, is sure to immediate challenge your own perceptions, something I adore in travel and delight in finding in a great tale.

Almost like fables and yet not, because all of these stories, while offering the seduction of a fable, are rooted in a realism that convinces the reader they tell of lives actually lived and not conjured up or given magical powers, a device that the common fable sometimes utilises.

The author Najaf Mazari

The narrator Najaf Mazari

And when the stories finish, we discover perhaps the greatest gift of all, one that can be referred back to and shared at home ourselves, a small collection of mouth-watering recipes with names and ingredients like Lamb Qorma, Sabzi Gosht, (lamb with spinach), Kofta Nakhod (beef & chickpeas), Boulanee (like Cornish pasties) and Chelo Nakhod (chicken & chickpea stew); surely living proof of the richness and diversity of their culinary culture and the trade that has passed between these boundaries of peoples for hundreds of years.

If you are interested in learning more, or considering reading the book, I highly recommend checking out these two excellent reviews:

  • Richard Marcus at BlogCritics – a beautiful, sensitive and concise review, how he packs so much into so few words, I’m still trying to figure out.
  • Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes – check out this short but flavoursome review and the recipe with pictures, she not only read the book, but cooked that first recipe with astounding success!

Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, a member of the Penguin Group US, in return for an honest review.

The Zenith

In 1996 I spent three months travelling in Asia, limiting my visit to four countries, India, Nepal, Vietnam and Thailand.

It was in Vietnam that I first travelled on my own and perhaps for this reason, it has always resonated deeply within me. It is a special place and I experienced it at a unique time, the city of Hanoi had no cars and most of its population travelled by bicycle, unlike the city of Saigon in the South full of the noise pollution of motorbikes. 090212_1801_IntheShadow1.jpg

That’s not to suggest it was easy to navigate those intersections, with bicycles coming from all directions, the ring of the bicycle bell a constant stream of warning as the masses somehow managed to criss-cross in opposite directions without accident. I watched that flow for a long time before I understood and dared to join it. The trick? Do not hesitate.

While in Hanoi, I decided to read a couple of Vietnamese authors, I was interested in reading something that came from a local perspective and not from the English-speaking perspective which seemed more prominent.  A young boy in the street sold me two books, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Dương Thu Hương’s Paradise of the Blind, the latter a story that illustrated the effect of a rigid communist ideology on a family in the wake of the land reforms of the 1950’s, as narrated by a young woman travelling to Moscow in the 1980’s.

A quote on the back written by Grace Paley, confirmed my thoughts.

“At last a woman, a Vietnamese woman, tells us Vietnamese life: the village, the city, the repression and expansion, the middle peasant, the poor peasant, the years of exquisite food and no food, working in the Soviet Union – and all beautifully told so that we begin to understand not where we were for years, but where and how they – the Vietnamese – are now.”                                                      – Grace Paley

090212_1801_IntheShadow6.jpgThe author’s depiction of ordinary people, in both rural and urban Vietnam was compelling and the definition of terms at the back of the book, particularly of food and practical items was especially useful for me as I cycled my way around the city and out along the river, past markets and temples and saw how people lived, ate and spent their days. This book was the first Vietnamese novel published in the US (1993) I have since discovered, so no surprise that I had never come across this enlightened perspective before.

zenithDương Thu Hương now lives in exile in Paris and her latest novel The Zenith has recently been published. It gets off to a slow start initially, when Ho Chi Minh, the President looks back as a 70-year-old man at parts of his life with regret. He regrets the lack of contact with children that he fathered and the loss of a woman he loved, he regrets the distance that has come between himself as a man and the people he sought to represent.

Wishing to retrieve something of that contact, he attends the funeral of a woodcutter to pay his respects, only to realise the suffering his presence will have caused because of his distinguished position and the expectations that are carried with it should he grace them with his presence. He despairs at having lost sight of that which motivated him to first become involved in the revolution, to bring equality to all.

A bitter longing mixed with a searching curiosity flowers in his heart; he wants to attend the funeral of the woodsman because he wants to experience the funeral of a real father.

Things pick up in pace and interest when we learn more of the story of the woodcutter, his family and village, this one story perhaps seen to represent various stages in the country’s own experience of communism, both its idealistic benefits for the community and its destructive elements against the weak and innocent, when power, greed and envy are present within its leadership, turning even family members against each other. The story-telling reaches its zenith and had me totally convinced of the authenticity of the relationship between the wise sixty-something father/grandfather Mr Quang and his new 18-year-old bride Miss Ngan and relishing the way they managed the reactions of close family and their community with their provocative yet bona-fide marriage.

Of old, it was said: “Tears run downward.” So true.

“Filial love for parents can’t equal the ties of anxious love in a father’s soul for a child. Because when we love our parents we look up but when we love our children we look down. And according to the laws of heaven and earth, tears always flow downward. Especially whenever we recognise that as fathers we have done wrong. Hell itself will then open a door straight into the heart.”

It highlights the enormous gap that can grow between those who rule and have power and/or wealth and those who are trying to survive, just like the distance between rich and poor in a democratic society, similarly it exists between those who yield power and those who don’t in a communist society, trust breaking down within a community as people become increasingly desperate and open to being corrupted while others live in constant fear.

This is not a book to be read quickly, nor even understood immediately. I continue to think about what I read and what it attempted to portray about society, leadership, workers, family and the effect of power and its oft great distance from the reality of how people live, the destructiveness of jealousy and the perseverance of those who will never be compromised, who will always fight for what they perceive is good and right.

The country, its writers and message continue to allure and despite all the suffering, both past and present, there remains for me a quiet tranquility that pervades it, a steadfast patience and determination I admire.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by NetGalley on behalf of the publisher.

The Night Circus

120912_2017_GreatChrist6.jpgI bought this back in November and put it aside to be my post-Christmas read, a time when I am happy to indulge in a little magic realism, which this promised to be and most certainly was.

Since finishing it, I have come to see it more and more as a metaphor of the reading experience itself, Le Cirque des Rêves is a circus like no other, it opens at night and closes at dawn, full of enchantment and extra-sensory pleasures, where everything exists in black and white and whose followers, les rêveurs (dreamers) wear a splash of red to identify themselves.

Now, sitting in this cave of lightly perfumed silk, what had seemed constant and unquestionable feels as delicate as the steam floating over her tea. As fragile as an illusion.

night circusEach tent offers an extraordinary experience and like a good story, invites its readers inside to share the temporary illusion. It struck me the way the circus moves from city to city, from country to country with its fans following to be a little like the blogosphere itself, this place where we easily circumnavigate the globe, visiting blogs and reading/experiencing their content, like les rêveurs ourselves.

We lead strange lives, chasing our dreams around from place to place.

The Night Circus follows the lives of two young people, Celia and Marco. Marco is an orphan plucked from obscurity in 1874 by a somewhat slow aging illusionist to be trained as his protégé, a pawn in a seemingly never-ending game he continues to wage against Prospero the Enchanter, who chooses to nurture (in his own cruel way) a daughter he discovers he has when she arrives on his doorstep in 1873, with a suicide note pinned to her coat written by her mother. The two youngsters follow the different schools of thought of their masters, destined to meet and compete in a game where only one can be victorious and where the rules are deliberately obscure.

Along the way a catalogue of characters are drawn into this web of entanglement, along with the reader, never quite knowing exactly what drives and controls the outcomes, but mesmerised nonetheless within the fascination and charm of the circus and its characters.

BettleheimThis book prompted me to pull out an old copy of Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment – The Importance and Meaning of Fairy Tales; a child psychologist, he was a fan of the value of  fairy tales for young people, believing they provided a safe environment to liberate their emotions.

… how wandering in enchanted worlds, children develop their own sense of justice, fidelity, love and courage… not as lessons imposed, but as discovery, as experience, as an organic part of the experience of living.

Books like Erin Morgenstern’s  The Night Circus, invite us to return to that world as adults, discerning a slightly different but no less valuable meaning, as we have grown older and a little more cynical, able now to find deeper meaning in the analogies offered.

It is a tribute to the imagination, to a darkness that is not despairing and the light that always finds a way to reignite the flame.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace – The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady

Kate Summerscale likes to take ordinary people who have been noted for doing some extraordinary thing, though not usually something to be admired – and shares their story in a way that reads like compelling fiction.

Her previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House reads like a detective novel and coincided historically with the introduction of the adapted role of a certain type of police officer – that of the detective.  This person was required to use specialist skills to investigate suspicious deaths, such was the case with Mr Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard, assigned to investigate the gruesome death of a young family member of a supposedly respectable household in a quiet Wiltshire village, putting all members of the family under suspicion and creating an unprecedented public sensation.

Now she has turned her pen and research skills towards the diary and letters of a Victorian lady, Mrs Isabella Robinson, an impulsive, intellectual woman, widowed young and remarried to an uninterested man who seemed to require nothing more of her than to keep house and children in order, a role she fulfilled, but was not content to be limited to and thus her attentions strayed towards the happily married Dr Edward Lane.

Throughout most of her diary entries he appears not to return her amorous feelings, but Mrs Robinson has the skills of Flaubert (who was prosecuted in the late 1850’s for corrupting public morals with Madame Bovary – a novel considered ‘too repulsive’ for publication in Britain) in expressing both her angst and sexual frustration and perhaps even her fantasies (were they?) with regard to certain men hovering in her vicinity – certainly, as with Flaubert’s prose, there were pages deemed unsuitable and unfit for the eyes of anyone outside the court and the media banned from laying eyes on it for fear of corrupting the public.

Her dramatic verse, which employed few filters would prove to be her undoing and became the sensation of a highly publicised court case, which also straddled a moment in history, when divorce laws were changed to make them easier to obtain, particularly as the law discriminated against women and allowed some terrible situations to endure as a result.

The law stipulated that to secure a divorce, a husband needed to establish just his wife’s infidelity, whereas a woman needed to prove that her husband was not only unfaithful but also guilty of desertion, cruelty or sexual misdeeds such as bigamy, incest, rape, sodomy or bestiality.

Ironic, in that no one questioned Mr Robinson concerning his mistress and two illegitimate children, clearer evidence of infidelity than anything penned by his errant wife.

Queen Victoria

Allowing these situations to be resolved through the Court created a predicament with the population concerning reportage in newspapers, an issue to which even Queen Victoria was said to have addressed.

On 19 December, Reynold’s Weekly, observed that the cases in the Divorce Court ‘seem to indicate that among the high, the moral, the respectable, and the Christian classes…adultery is in a highly flourishing, if not exceedingly rampant, condition.’ A week later Queen Victoria wrote to Lord Campbell, the chief designer of the Divorce Act, to ask if he could suppress some of the stories coming out of the court.

It seems the Queen had no power to stop the presses and received a reply indicating that they were unable to limit the newspaper stories.

Overall, an interesting read and historical context and no doubt opinion continues to be divided on whether Mrs Robinson was hard done by or plain foolish to have committed such desires, whether fantasy or fact to paper.  A woman fifty shades before her time perhaps.

Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

A Love of Words and Music

I have been struggling a little to finish ‘The Maid and the Queen’, what with school holidays, the French presidential elections (which I voted in for the first time), working on promoting my Aromatherapy business and socialising more than usual, including attending an excellent concert of the cult singer/artist ‘Camille’ at Le Silo in Marseille on Friday.

Camille

No one song can possibly represent what a performance by this artist represents, she sings, uses her voice and body as an instrument, dances barefoot in her sacking dress and easily extracted volunteers from the audience to participate.  She is total inspiration, if you would like listen, here is a sample ‘Mars is no Fun’.

So no book chat today, instead I will share a fun word cloud tool that I discovered thanks to Elodie at  ‘Commuting Girl’ called Tagxedo into which you can copy any text or enter your blog or website name and the tool will analyse the content and show you which are the most popular words and how often they are used.

So Voila! For this blog ‘Word by Word’, here is an image of the most common words used and I am delighted that the word ‘Word’ is indeed such a dominant feature.

Intrigued, I decided to put the text of my ‘sitting on the shelf’ novel as I have always wondered which words I might be over using.  So I am not going to say anything more about the novel, except that it is called ‘A Piece of the Mosaic’ and here is a clue to what lies within.

So what does your blog, novel, poem,story look like?