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.

The Lifted Veil and Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot – #NovNov

The second book I’ve read for this month’s Novellas in November is one of the Penguin Little Black Classics series. It contains a novella by one of my favourite Victorian authors, George Eliot – The Lifted Veil – as well as an essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, also written by Eliot.

The Lifted Veil was written very early in Eliot’s career and published in 1859, the same year as her first novel Adam Bede. It’s a controversial story which seems to get very mixed reviews and now that I’ve read it, although I found it quite enjoyable, I can understand why. It’s not her usual sort of book at all; I’ve seen it described as science fiction, Gothic fiction and horror, none of which are genres you would normally associate with Eliot!

Our narrator, Latimer, is a young man who suffers from an illness which seems to leave him with an unusual and unwelcome gift – the ability to see into the future and into the minds of other people. It begins with a vision of Prague, a city he has never visited or seen in a picture, and it is so incredibly detailed – ‘right down to a patch of rainbow light on the pavement, transmitted through a coloured lamp in the shape of a star’ – that Latimer is both excited and alarmed. Other episodes of clairvoyance follow, including dreamlike sightings of a tall, blond-haired young woman dressed in green. This turns out to be Bertha, his brother Alfred’s fiancée…but Latimer has seen a future version of himself married to Bertha. Will this come true – and if so, will the marriage be as unhappy as the vision seems to suggest?

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoiling the story, but I found The Lifted Veil an interesting and intriguing read. For such a short piece of writing, it contains many different topics and themes: the contemporary scientific ideas of Eliot’s time, ranging from mesmerism and phrenology to blood transfusions; fate and whether it can be changed; the possibility of life after death; and the question of what we can see when the ‘veil is lifted’. I should warn you that there is a scene involving a dead body – as I said, this is not a typical Eliot book – although it’s quite tame if you’ve read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, as I have!

The novella takes up just over half of this 110 page book. The essay from 1856 that follows, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, is unrelated and seems to be a bit of a random choice to fill the remaining pages in the book. Still, I thought it was fascinating to read Eliot’s thoughts on her fellow female authors. In case you can’t tell from the title, Eliot has a very low opinion of books she describes as ‘the frothy, the prosy, the pious or the pedantic’, and an even lower opinion of the women who write them:

It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen; that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers’ accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains. It is true that we are constantly struck with the want of verisimilitude in their representations of the high society in which they seem to live; but then they betray no closer acquaintance with any other form of life. If their peers and peeresses are improbable, their literary men, tradespeople, and cottagers are impossible; and their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.

Although I did feel a bit sorry for the lady novelists mentioned in the essay, including the authors of Laura Gay, The Old Grey Church and Rank and Beauty (three of the novels which come in for particular criticism from Eliot), I can also see why Eliot would have felt frustrated by female writers who were perpetuating stereotypes of Victorian fiction such as the perfect, virtuous heroine, and making it difficult for more literary authors like herself to be taken seriously. Of course, her male pseudonym would help to distance her work from the type of novels she despised and I’m sure Eliot would be pleased to know that her own novels have stood the test of time while the ‘silly novels’ and their authors have largely been forgotten.

So, two very different short reads in one book! Have you read either of them? I would love to hear what you thought.

The Man from London by Georges Simenon – #NovNov

I’ve been struggling to concentrate on longer novels for most of the year, despite having more time than ever before to read them! This month’s Novellas in November (hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, ) seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to get through some of the shorter books on my TBR, beginning with this one – a French classic from 1934 reissued today by Penguin Classics.

The Man from London is my first Georges Simenon book (I haven’t read any of the Maigret novels, though I feel that I should have done by now), so I didn’t really know what to expect from it. I was pleased to find that it was suspenseful, atmospheric and, in this translation by Howard Curtis, very readable.

The story begins on a cold, foggy night in Dieppe, where railway signalman Louis Maloin is sitting alone in his watchtower, looking down on the docks at the ferry just arriving from England. It’s a sight Maloin observes every day, but tonight something is different: he watches one of the newly arrived passengers fight with another man and knock him into the water, along with the suitcase he is holding. Aware that he appears to be the only person who has seen this happen, Maloin retrieves the case from the water when nobody is around and takes it home with him. When he discovers what the case contains, the decision he makes could have consequences that will change his life forever.

Although there is an element of mystery to the book, with questions over the identities of the two men and where the contents of the case came from, this is really more of a psychological thriller than a crime novel. The fight Maloin witnesses and his reaction to it provides a starting point for an exploration of the state of Maloin’s mind as the process he has set in motion spirals out of control. He experiences every conceivable emotion over the course of the story, ranging from guilt at not telling the police what he has seen and allowing a murderer to walk free, excitement at gaining possession of the case for himself, and terror, knowing that someone could discover what he has done at any minute.

The atmosphere Simenon creates is wonderful, with the tension building and building as Maloin tries to go about his normal life, while being confronted at every turn by the face of the man he has come to think of as ‘the man from London’. The wet, foggy December weather adds to the overall mood, as do the descriptions of the places and people Maloin encounters as he moves around Dieppe trying to avoid the murderer and the police.

The short length of the book meant it held my interest from beginning to end and although I think the potential was here for a longer and more complex novel, I still found it quite satisfying. I’m glad my first experience of Georges Simenon’s work was a good one and I’m definitely interested in reading more of his books now.

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson

This was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and for once, I have managed to read it and post my review by the deadline, which is today!

I have had mixed results with Robert Louis Stevenson in the past: I loved The Master of Ballantrae, liked Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, couldn’t finish Kidnapped and can hardly remember Treasure Island, which I read as a child. I hoped The Black Arrow would be another good one; it sounded as though it should be fun, at least, and the setting – 15th century England, during the Wars of the Roses – appealed to me. Originally published as a serial in 1883, then as a novel in 1888, it is often labelled a ‘children’s novel’, but apart from the fact that the hero and heroine are in their teens, I think it’s a book that could be equally enjoyed by older and younger readers. It’s probably too old fashioned for a lot of children today, but any who do like reading classic adventure stories should find this one entertaining.

The Black Arrow tells the story of seventeen-year-old Dick Shelton, an orphan who comes to believe that his guardian, Sir Daniel Brackley, was responsible for the murder of his father. Setting out to discover the truth and obtain justice for his father, Dick joins a company of outlaws known as the fellowship of The Black Arrow who also have reasons for wanting to take revenge on Sir Daniel. Meanwhile Dick falls in love with Joanna Sedley, a young heiress kidnapped by Sir Daniel so that he can arrange a marriage for her to his own advantage. And while all of this is taking place, the Wars of the Roses plays out in the background and Dick must decide whether his loyalties lie with York or Lancaster.

The novel is written in a sort of pseudo-medieval style, with archaic words and phrases like ‘ye’, ‘methinks’, ‘forsooth’, ‘cometh’ and ‘goeth’ – common in older historical fiction, but not usually used today, so could take a while to get used to if you don’t read a lot of books like this. In many ways it reminded me of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, particularly once the band of Robin Hood-like outlaws appeared, and I think readers who enjoy one book will probably enjoy the other.

Despite the historical setting, you won’t really learn a lot of accurate history from this book. Throughout the first half, at least, the focus is on Dick’s mission to avenge his father’s death and rescue Joanna from Sir Daniel’s clutches. We hear of battles taking place but don’t see much of the action until the second half of the novel when Dick is drawn into the fictitious Battle of Shoreby and meets Richard ‘Crookback’, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III. As the events of the novel are taking place in 1460-61, Richard would actually have been about eight years old at that time (not the adult man we see in the story) and not yet Duke of Gloucester, but Stevenson does admit to this in a footnote!

I can’t really say that I loved this book – although I was entertained at first by the spying and intrigue, the disguises and daring escapes, the shipwrecks and secret passages, I felt that the story and the characters lacked depth and eventually it all started to become slightly tedious. Apparently Stevenson himself didn’t rate The Black Arrow very highly and described it as “a whole tale of tushery” (tushery referring to the archaic language). I still think it was worth reading and I preferred it to Kidnapped – although, to be fair, I should probably try Kidnapped again as I didn’t get very far with it. For now, I’m just pleased to have finally read another book from my Classics Club list as I’ve been making very little progress with it this year!

This is book 18/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation (I think we can see why the title is usually shortened) was originally published in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848. It’s the book I was supposed to read for a Classics Club Spin over a year ago, but I struggled to get into it at the time and decided to wait until I was more in the mood for Dickens. And you definitely need to be in the right mood for a book of this length – more than 900 pages in the edition I read! I’ve loved other very long Dickens novels, though, such as the wonderful Our Mutual Friend, so I hoped I would end up loving this one too. Unfortunately I didn’t, but I did still find a lot to enjoy.

The Dombey of the title is the wealthy owner of a shipping company who dreams of having a son and heir who will be able to continue the family business. Dombey gets his wish early in the novel when his wife gives birth to a son, Paul. However, she dies shortly after the birth, leaving Paul to become the sole focus of his father’s attention – even though Dombey already has a six-year-old daughter, Florence. Florence loves her father and does her best to please him, but no matter how hard she tries, it’s obvious that all of Dombey’s hopes and ambitions lie with Paul and that Florence is just a useless girl and an inconvenience.

Whether or not the proud and arrogant Dombey will ever come to love and value his daughter as she deserves is the question at the heart of the novel, but as you would expect from Dickens, there are also plenty of diversions and subplots and lots of larger than life characters to get to know. Of these, my favourites were Captain Cuttle, the kind-hearted retired sea captain with a hook for a hand, and Susan Nipper, Florence’s loyal nurse and one of the few people who will stand up to Dombey for his neglect of his daughter. There’s a great villain too: James Carker, the scheming manager of Dombey and Son, with gleaming white teeth and a devious brain. There are too many others I could have done without, though – mainly the ones who seem to be there purely for their comedy value, such as Major Bagstock, Sir Barnet Skettles and Cousin Feenix, without actually adding much to the central plot.

Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his treatment of female characters (I think Dora in David Copperfield is his worst), but the women in this book are well-drawn and interesting. Yes, Florence can be too good to be true at times, but her father’s rejection of her is so cruel and hurtful that it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her. Her stepmother, Edith Dombey, though, is one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across in a Dickens novel: a woman filled with self-loathing after being pushed into marriage by her mother, who then decides to take her fate into her own hands.

Although I really enjoyed parts of this book, other sections dragged and I’m afraid I can’t list it amongst my favourite novels by Dickens. Nicholas Nickleby is the next one I’m planning to read, so I’m hoping for better luck with that one.

This is book 17/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

Seeing a few reviews of Joseph Conrad books on other blogs recently reminded me that I’d had a copy of one of his novels, Lord Jim, unread on my shelf for a long time, so a few weeks ago I decided to read it. My previous experience with Conrad amounted to a failed attempt to read Heart of Darkness, so I wasn’t really expecting to love this book – and I didn’t, but at least I managed to finish this one!

Published in 1900, Lord Jim is the story of a young seaman – Jim – who, at the beginning of the novel is serving as first mate on the Patna, a ship packed with hundreds of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. During the voyage, the ship hits an object submerged in the sea and begins to take on water. Believing that the Patna is sinking, Jim and the rest of the crew jump into lifeboats and abandon the ship, leaving the pilgrims to their fate. Although the other crew members manage to avoid taking responsibility for what they have done, Jim will be haunted by this moment of cowardice for the rest of his life.

Our narrator, Marlow, is a sea captain who is intrigued by Jim and decides to help him rebuild his life following an official inquiry into his actions on the Patna, during which he loses his seaman’s certificate and is told he can no longer serve as an officer. Jim takes up several new positions arranged for him by Marlow, but wherever he goes his past seems to follow him until eventually he ends up at a remote trading post in Patusan, a fictional land somewhere in Asia.

I won’t say any more about what happens to Jim after he arrives in Patusan, but I will mention the structure, which I thought was both one of the most effective things about the book and the most confusing. Because the novel is narrated by Marlow, in the form of an account told to a group of friends one evening, we never actually see things from Jim’s own point of view – and within Marlow’s narration, other characters also take their turn to narrate. This leads to lots of quotation marks nested within each other as one character tells a story that had been told to them by another character and so on, until it becomes very difficult to remember who each narrator is. To make things even more challenging, events are not always related in chronological order either and often the plot will go off on a tangent, jumping forward in time for a while and telling us about something that will happen later. All of this meant that I found myself really struggling to follow the story and stay engaged with it.

The way the book is written, showing us Jim only through the eyes of others, gives more complexity and ambiguity to his character than there would probably have been if he’d had the chance to tell his story himself, but it also makes it hard to connect with Jim and to try to understand what is going on inside his head. There’s always a distance between Jim and the reader, but of course that’s surely the whole point because Jim, after the Patna tragedy, has tried to distance himself from the people who knew him before and to avoid his past catching up with him again. As a psychological study, Lord Jim is a fascinating book and I found the writing beautiful and poetic; as an adventure novel I thought it was less successful – the Patusan sections raise some interesting issues about colonialism, empire and race, but the muddled structure disrupted the flow of the story for me and I have to admit that I was glad to reach the end of the book.

I think I’ve probably tried enough Joseph Conrad now, but maybe I’ll give him another chance at some point in the future.

Coincidentally, just after finishing this book I came across the 1965 film starring Peter O’Toole on Sony Movies last week and although it diverges from the novel quite a lot in the second half, I did find it helpful to see some of the scenes and characters brought to life!

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.