I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville

I’ve never read anything by Herman Melville – I know I should have read Moby Dick by now, but it has never sounded appealing to me – so when I spotted this new collection of Melville short stories from Pushkin Press it seemed a good opportunity to experience some of his work without having to commit to a 600+ page novel.

I Would Prefer Not To contains four stories, although the final one takes up more than half the book and is probably better described as a novella. My favourite was the first story, Bartleby the Scrivener, which was first published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853. The narrator is an elderly Wall Street lawyer who employs two clerks, or ‘scriveners’ – Turkey and Nippers – whose job is to make copies of legal documents, and one office boy, Ginger Nut. An increase in work leads the lawyer to look for a third scrivener and, as he has been having difficulties with the temperamental natures of the other two, he decides to hire Bartleby, a quiet man whom he hopes will be a good influence on the others.

At first Bartleby works hard at his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to proofread a copied document, he replies with, “I would prefer not to”. Over the following days, he refuses to do more and more of the tasks that are requested of him – never giving an angry or rude response; always just those same five words: “I would prefer not to”. As the lawyer decides how to deal with this unexpected problem, the reader wonders what is wrong with Bartleby and what has caused his unusual behaviour. I enjoyed the story, but it left me very confused and I didn’t really understand what Melville was trying to say. However, after turning to Google for help, it seems that the meaning of the story was deliberately ambiguous and it can be interpreted in many ways, which made me feel a lot better about not understanding it!

Next is The Lightning-Rod Man, a short and intriguing tale of a salesman who arrives at the narrator’s house in Albania during a thunderstorm and tries to sell him a lightning-rod. The narrator is sceptical and says he will trust God to keep him safe, but the salesman won’t take no for an answer. Again, the meaning is not immediately obvious, but it’s an entertaining story and reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. The third story, John Marr, is the weakest in the book, in my opinion. The title character is a retired sailor trying to adjust to a life on land, in a remote community on the American prairies. Feeling isolated and out of place, he remembers his seafaring days through songs and poems. The piece included in this collection is taken from John Marr and Other Sailors, a volume of poetry published in 1888, so maybe it would have worked better if read in the context of the original book.

Finally, we have the novella Benito Cereno, in which an American sea captain sailing off the coast of Chile encounters a Spanish slave ship in distress. Boarding the ship to see if he can help, he meets the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, who tells him how the ship came to be in trouble. As he observes the behaviour of Benito Cereno and his slaves, he begins to wonder whether there is more to this than meets the eye. This was another interesting story, but I felt that it was much too long and too easy to guess the twist; we see things only through the eyes of the narrator, who is frustratingly oblivious to what is really happening on the Spanish ship. It was also another difficult one to interpret: was it a racist, pro-slavery story or an anti-racist, anti-slavery story? It could be either and it can’t be assumed that the views of the narrator reflect the views of the author.

So, now that I’ve had my introduction to Herman Melville, will I be reading Moby Dick? At the moment I think I would prefer not to, but maybe I’ll be ready to tackle it one day in the future!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Goodbye, Mr Chips by James Hilton

Since reading James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which I loved, I have wanted to try more of his work – and although it’s taken me a few years, I’ve finally read another of his books! If I’d known how short Goodbye, Mr Chips was I would have tried to read it before now; there are only about 120 pages in my edition, so it’s a very quick read.

Before starting the book, I thought I already knew the story because I’ve seen two of the adaptations – the 1939 one and the 1969 musical version (both of which I enjoyed). The earlier film is much more faithful to the book, but neither follow the original story exactly and there are incidents in both that don’t appear in Hilton’s text. The novella tells the story of Mr Chipping, a quiet, unassuming teacher, and follows his career at the fictional Brookfield School over a period of many decades. Chipping – or Mr Chips as the boys call him – teaches Greek and Latin and, as the years go by and the world begins to change around him, he gains a reputation for being old-fashioned and traditional, reluctant to embrace new teaching methods and belonging to an earlier time. We first meet him as an old man – the sort of old man people struggle to imagine ever being young:

…white-haired and only a little bald, still fairly active for his years, drinking tea, receiving callers, busying himself with corrections for the next edition of the Brookfeldian Directory, writing his occasional letters in thin, spidery, but very legible script. He had new masters to tea, as well as new boys. There were two of them that autumn term, and as they were leaving after their visit one of them commented: “Quite a character, the old boy, isn’t he? All that fuss about mixing the tea — a typical bachelor, if ever there was one.”

Of course, Mr Chips was young once and the boys would have been surprised to learn that he wasn’t always a bachelor. Back in 1896, at the age of forty-eight he had married Katherine Bridges – and although their time together was tragically short, Katherine’s kind heart and sense of humour had a profound effect on Chips, leaving him a better person and changing his outlook on life.

The story is told in a series of flashbacks, with the elderly Mr Chips looking back on his life and career, remembering not only the happy days of his marriage to Katherine, but also the more difficult times he has lived through, such as the First World War. It’s a nostalgic and sentimental book, but quite a sad and poignant one too. I found it too short to be completely satisfying and I think this is one of the few occasions where I would say I preferred the film – either of them – to the book, but I did still enjoy it and am looking forward to reading Random Harvest, the other James Hilton novel I have on my TBR.

This is book 23/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My first book for this year’s RIP challenge is Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire novella, Carmilla. First published in 1872, it is thought to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which came more than twenty years later, and is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction (although John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Byron’s Fragment of a Novel were written earlier still).

My previous experience with Le Fanu has been limited to his Victorian Gothic novel, Uncle Silas, and one of his short stories, Laura Silver Bell, both of which I read ten years ago. I’ve always intended to read more of his work, so when I saw Carmilla available through NetGalley (a new Deluxe Edition is being published by Pushkin Press this week) it seemed the perfect opportunity.

The story is narrated by nineteen-year-old Laura, who lives in a lonely castle in Styria, Austria, with only her father and governesses for company. Laura longs for a friend her own age and it seems she may get her wish when a young woman is injured in a carriage accident near the castle. Her name is Carmilla and her mother, who is desperate to continue on her journey, asks Laura’s father to take care of her daughter until she returns. Laura is delighted to have Carmilla staying with them, but also feels uneasy, because she has seen Carmilla before – in a dream that has haunted her since her childhood.

As this is a very short book, if I say much more I will be giving away the entire plot – and anyway, as I’ve already said that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what Carmilla really is and how the rest of the story will unfold. For the modern day reader there are no big surprises here, although I’m sure that at the time when it was published, as one of the first of its kind, it would have felt much more original and shocking. However, there are still plenty of things that make this book an entertaining and worthwhile read.

First of all, it’s interesting to read Carmilla while keeping in mind its place in history and its influence on later vampire fiction – there are some very obvious similarities with Dracula and Anne Rice has cited it as an inspiration for her Vampire Chronicles. It can also be read as an early example of a lesbian romance; although the constraints of 19th century fiction prevent Le Fanu from being too explicit, the relationship between Laura and Carmilla is clearly based upon physical attraction and we learn that Carmilla always chooses young women as her prey. Finally, with its sinister atmosphere, remote castle setting and other elements of classic Gothic literature, it’s the perfect choice if you’re taking part in the RIP event or just looking for something dark and spooky to read as we head towards Halloween!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 1 read for R.I.P XVI

St Martin’s Summer by Rafael Sabatini

St Martin’s Summer is a term used to describe a period of unusually warm weather taking place in early November – but the title of this Rafael Sabatini novel from 1909 has a double meaning, as the name of our hero is also Martin: Martin Marie Rigobert de Garnache. When a young heiress, Valerie de la Vauvraye, writes to the Queen of France requesting urgent help, Garnache is the man the Queen sends to her assistance. Valerie is betrothed to Florimond de Condillac, but Florimond has been away fighting in Italy for the last three years and in his absence his stepmother, the Marquise de Condillac, has been trying to marry the girl to her own son, Marius, instead. Can Garnache rescue Valerie from the Marquise’s clutches and reunite her with Florimond?

Having read Rafael Sabatini’s most famous novels, Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, I have moved on to his lesser known titles and have had mixed success with the ones I’ve chosen so far; some I have enjoyed, while others have been disappointing. I had high hopes for St Martin’s Summer, which seemed to be a popular one and came highly recommended by a blog reader (thank you, Cheryl T) – and I’m pleased to say that it definitely lived up to my expectations.

First of all, it’s a lot of fun to read. Set in early 17th century France, the story itself is quite simple and straightforward, revolving entirely around Garnache’s attempts to free Valerie from her imprisonment in the Chateau de Condillac and the Marquise’s attempts to thwart him. What makes the book so entertaining, though, are the lengths both sides go to in their efforts to get one step ahead: there are duels, disguises, impersonations and all sorts of other tricks and deceptions, some of which are obvious to the reader, but not to the characters, who repeatedly fall into each other’s traps!

Garnache is a wonderful character. Like many of Sabatini’s heroes, he has great courage, a quick brain and an array of other skills and talents, but also one or two serious flaws – in this case an inability to keep his temper under control:

The greatest stumbling-block in Garnache’s career had been that he could never learn to brook opposition from any man. That characteristic, evinced early in life, had all but been the ruin of him. He was a man of high intellectual gifts, of military skill and great resource; out of consideration for which had he been chosen by Marie de Medicis to come upon this errand. But he marred it all by a temper so ungovernable that in Paris there was current a byword, ‘Explosive as Garnache.’

Garnache’s temper gets him into trouble and ruins his plans again and again, which is frustrating to watch but makes him a more believable and sympathetic character than he would otherwise have been. At the beginning of the book he also has a low opinion of women – he has remained single to the age of forty – but as he spends more time in the company of Valerie, as well as being forced to pit his wits against such a formidable female opponent as the Marquise de Condillac, he begins to change his views! The Marquise is obviously a great villain, but I also liked Garnache’s quick-thinking servant Rabecque, who is sometimes more perceptive than his master, and Monsieur de Tressan, the Seneschal of Dauphiny, a cowardly man who tries to ‘run with the hare and hunt with the hounds’.

I really enjoyed this book – it was so much better than my last Sabatini, The Minion, and I hope my next choice will be another good one!

~

Book 22/50 from my second Classics Club list

Book 35/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

I Will Repay by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

I haven’t been very successful recently at finishing the books chosen for me by the Classics Club Spins, so I decided to make an early start on my current Spin book, I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy – and have finished it three weeks before the 22nd August deadline! It helped that it was a relatively short book, as well as a light and entertaining one that I found easy to read.

First published in 1906, this was the first sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel to be published, but if you’re reading the series in chronological order, as I am, it’s the fourth. I have previously read Sir Percy Leads the Band and The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and found them both disappointing in comparison to the original book, but I’m pleased to say that this one was more enjoyable. Not everyone will agree, as we do see very little of the Scarlet Pimpernel and nothing at all of his wife Marguerite, but I thought it was quite an exciting and gripping story in its own right.

The novel opens in 1783 with Paul Déroulède and the young Vicomte de Marny fighting a duel in a Paris tavern. When the Vicomte is accidentally killed, his father, devastated at losing his son and heir, forces his other child, fourteen-year-old Juliette, to swear an oath promising to avenge her brother’s death: “May my brother’s soul remain in torment until the final Judgment Day if I should break my oath, but may it rest in eternal peace the day on which his death is fitly avenged.”

Ten years later, the Revolution is underway and Paris has become a dangerous place for a young noblewoman like Juliette:

And the afternoons were very lively. There was always plenty to see: first and foremost, the long procession of tumbrils, winding its way from the prisons to the Place de la Révolution. The forty-four thousand sections of the Committee of Public Safety sent their quota, each in their turn, to the guillotine. At one time these tumbrils contained royal ladies and gentlemen, ci-devant dukes and princesses, aristocrats from every county in France, but now this stock was becoming exhausted…

Walking through the streets one day, Juliette’s expensive lace-trimmed clothes draw the attention of a mob and she escapes from them by hammering on the door of the nearest house, which happens to be the home of Paul Déroulède. Paul, who has made himself popular with the citizens of Paris despite his own royalist sympathies, protects her from the mob and takes her into his household. As Juliette gets to know her brother’s enemy, she finds herself falling in love – so when a chance comes to send Paul Déroulède to the guillotine, she faces a very difficult decision.

You’re probably wondering where Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, comes into the story; as I’ve said, we don’t see very much of him, but he does have an important role to play towards the end. However, the absence of Sir Percy for most of the novel probably explains why this book was not more popular on its publication as people who were expecting a Scarlet Pimpernel book would have been disappointed. Personally, this didn’t really bother me as I was so caught up in the story of Juliette and Déroulède, and all the detail of this period of the French Revolution. The novel is set shortly after the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, during the ‘Reign of Terror’, and Orczy does a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere on the streets of Paris where anyone with a drop of noble blood risks being denounced and sent to their death. Orczy makes no secret of the fact that she is clearly on the side of the aristocrats, while the ordinary citizens of Paris are portrayed as brutal and bloodthirsty, but I suppose you would expect bias from someone who was a baroness!

Having enjoyed this one, I’m planning to continue with the next book in the series, The Elusive Pimpernel, which I’ve been told is one of the best.

This is book 21/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Book 33/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell is an author I’ve never read but have been meaning to try for a long time, so when I put my list together for this year’s 20 Books of Summer I decided to include High Rising. Originally published in 1933, this is the first of her Barsetshire novels, a series of twenty-nine books set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire which was created by Anthony Trollope in the 19th century. I loved Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, so I hoped for a similar experience with Thirkell’s.

The book begins with novelist Laura Morland, a widow with four sons, collecting her youngest, Tony, from school and bringing him home to the village of High Rising for Christmas. High Rising, together with nearby Low Rising, is the sort of small 1930s middle-class community in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and where the arrival of a newcomer causes a great deal of gossip and excitement. The newcomer in this case is Miss Una Grey, who has come to work as a secretary for Laura’s friend and fellow author George Knox. It seems that Miss Grey – or the Incubus as Laura calls her – has set her sights on marrying George and will do whatever it takes to get her wish. As well as trying to save George from the clutches of the Incubus, Laura spots the seeds of a romance between her publisher, Adrian Coates, and George’s daughter Sibyl, and decides to do what she can to push them together.

There’s not really much more to the plot than that, but what makes this book worth reading is not the plot but the characters and the interactions between them. Although some of the characters, such as Adrian and Sibyl, seemed to lack depth, others interested me much more – for example, Anne Todd, Laura’s secretary, who is trying to make a living through typing manuscripts while caring for her invalid mother. It took me a while to warm to Laura herself, but eventually I became quite fond of her; I can’t say the same for Tony, whom I found unbearably irritating with his incessant talk about his toy trains, which carriages and engines he should buy next and the model railway he wants to build in the garden. To be fair, though, I think there are a lot of children like Tony and he was probably the most convincing character in the book!

I couldn’t quite manage to love this book, but I enjoyed it overall. It does have some of the problems common to novels of this period, such as attitudes to race and class, and I also felt that it didn’t have a lot of substance, but otherwise it was a quick, light, entertaining read at a time when that was just what I needed. I don’t think I want to start the next book, Wild Strawberries, immediately, but I’m sure I will read it at some point.

Book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

This is also book 20/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

Last November I took part in the Classics Club’s 25th Classics Spin and the book selected for me to read before the deadline, which is this Saturday, was The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Written in French and first published in 1804 and then again in a longer version in 1810, this very unusual novel is the work of the Polish author Count Jan Potocki who, it seems, led a very unusual life: born into an aristocratic family he spent some time with the Knights of Malta, he was apparently the first Polish person to fly in a hot air balloon, and he is said to have shot himself with a silver bullet after becoming convinced that he was a werewolf! I read a Penguin Classics edition of the book translated into English by Ian Maclean. I’m not sure how many other English translations exist, but I highly recommend this one; it’s very readable and makes the novel accessible to the modern reader without losing the feel of the period in which it is set.

I’m going to find it very difficult to give a summary of the plot, but I will do my best! It begins in 1739 with Alphonse van Worden, a young Walloon officer in the Spanish army, on his way to join his regiment in Madrid. Taking shelter in a seemingly abandoned inn in the mountains of the Sierra Morena, two beautiful women appear who introduce themselves as his cousins from Tunis, Emina and Zubeida. After listening to their story, Alphonse goes to bed for the night, only to wake up outside under a gallows, beside the bodies of two hanged men.

This is the first of many bizarre situations in which Alphonse finds himself over the next sixty-six days as he encounters a succession of strange and intriguing characters, including a gypsy chief, a cabbalist, a hermit and even the legendary Wandering Jew. Each of them has a story to tell – and often, another character within their story has another story of his or her own to tell too. Sometimes the stories-within-stories become several layers deep, to the point where one of the characters, the mathematician Velásquez, remarks:

“I do not know who is speaking and who is listening. Sometimes the Marques de Val Florida is telling the story of his life to his daughter, sometimes it is she who is relating it to the gypsy chief, who in turn is repeating it to us. It is a veritable labyrinth. I had always thought that novels and other works of that kind should be written in several columns like chronological tables.”

This probably sounds very confusing, but the novel is actually not as difficult to read as you might think. Although, like Velásquez, I often forgot who was speaking and who was listening, I found that in most cases it didn’t really matter all that much. I stopped trying to keep everything straight in my mind and just enjoyed each story for its own sake – and there’s a lot to enjoy! There are tales of hauntings and evil spirits, duels and disguises, magic and hidden treasures and, apart from one or two – the Wandering Jew’s story became a bit tedious, I thought – they are all very entertaining. Some are romantic, some are gothic and ghostly and others are funny; I was reminded at various times of Don Quixote and The Thousand and One Nights. The novel is conveniently divided into sixty-six chapters, one for each day of Alphonse’s journey (although some of the stories are split across several days), so if you wanted to you could probably read one chapter per day, although I was so gripped by it that I finished the book much more quickly than that!

Despite the sometimes random and meandering feel of the book, it does all come together at the end and most of the loose ends are tied up quite neatly. However, I thought this was one of the few weak points of the book – the conclusion of Alphonse’s story seemed too convenient and too abrupt and I think I would have preferred a different kind of ending. Still, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was a lot of fun to read and just the sort of escapism I needed at the moment!

This is book 19/50 read from my second Classics Club list.