Lost Illusions by Balzac; pt 2

Following on from part one.

This is such a wow of a novel. I gather that Balzac, in writing the vast book series, of which this is one, wanted it to be a document, as much as work of fiction. And so it is. There is a level of detail about subjects like accounting in early nineteenth century France and the legal system that is hard to believe one could get away with selling in a work of fiction. Then there is the paper industry – the Chinese were to blame then as now, the difficulties of cheap labour competition – the bookselling industry and its corrupt links to the reviewing industry. And the reviewing industry’s corrupt links to just about anybody. Reviewers who often scraped together the funds for their precarious existence by selling their review copies and the tickets they received as bribes from theatre managements.

Then there is his cynical eye, unblinking in its observation of the appalling nature of Parisian society, not to mention the hand-me-down version as practised by the best of provincial society. There are ‘good people’ depicted here, but they are all self-deluding dills and one wants nothing more than to bang their heads together or make them sit in the corner with their backs to class until they reform, or write a hundred times on the blackboard ‘I will get real’. Being ‘good’ is no way to escape the scathing judgement of Monsieur Balzac.

That said, there is one strange small group of men who stay true to their dedication to real literature, as opposed to the rascally reviewers with whom Lucien goes astray. And I feel like Balzac sees himself there. They have no weaknesses, they never betray themselves or each other. They worship no false gods, not fashion, not wealth, not status. None of the things that are like oxygen to Lucien.

I think Balzac needs them to balance David and Lucien’s sister. David is perfectly able to see Lucien as he really is, but he can’t do the right thing with that information. David’s ruination is that he knows everybody else without knowing himself at all. At least Lucien’s sister steps up to face the facts, way too late for it to help their dire situation, but still. David remains in fourth grade writing those lines and sitting in the corner while she’s going to get out of primary school for sure…if she doesn’t die of starvation first.

So Balzac wanted a tiny bit of this novel to show that there were real people out there, real writers, who did the right thing routinely, without question and they knew Lucien too, really knew him, but never deluded themselves. A fine little band of writers who are prominent in the story only briefly, but you always know they are there, never changing how they are. Despised by the status seekers. But we readers know differently.

I’ve always thought in the past that a modern writer – and I suppose I mean timeless – is one who is not profligate in their words. Chekhov most obviously. Camus. But here is Balzac, a tap that never turns off, surely paid by the word if ever a writer’s output indicated that. And it is all so now. I kept thinking that, oh, here is the Chinese problem, here is Air bnb. Ruination of people by gambling, a contemporary curse. The insane addiction to status, which destroys human beings now and did then. The doubtful nature of friendship – now on social media, where it is such a bargaining tool – and then.

Oh, oh, oh. Do read this marvellous book about what human beings are, right this very moment, written by somebody the better part of two hundred years ago. See your foibles and weaknesses, your dishonesty and willful lack of judgement, your capacity to give up everything for status, your  waste of money on fashion, your betrayals and your lies. The book is a mirror. See what we do.


Lost Illusions by Balzac; pt 1

[describing a novel he’s written] ‘Edmund. A Butler’s Tale. A huge, roller coaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters. A searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in.’

Okay, so Balzac’s novel is early nineteenth century, it’s hot teenage actresses, not gypsies and the indictment is of society as a whole – nothing escapes Balzac’s eye. But in spirit, Lost Illusions is Edmund to a tee. Sizzling roller coaster ride that never stops, indeed.

Update: I am happy to report that when I wrote on social media for my friends that I’d finished a Balzac that could be thus described, Gareth, immediately guessed ‘Lost Illusions’? My comparison was presumably apt.






Martha in Paris and The Eye of Love by Margery Sharp

‘I’ve come,’ announced Mr Joyce, ‘to talk about Martha.’

That’s a real suck-you-in sentence which had me loving Martha without knowing a dang thing about her. I imagined that she’d run rings about Mr Joyce and that she’d make me laugh in the process.

Margery Sharp again manages to combine sheer elegance of language with heroines that are anything but. Martha is fat and plain, but she doesn’t give a toss – or not even that, it’s more that she hasn’t even ever thought about such trivial matters. She’s an artist, obsessed with shape, and then with colour. Nothing matters to her apart from that. Oh, she likes a good bath, and she eats like she is built. But if she had the least reason to think that either of those habits were bad for her art, they’d be out on their ear. Just like Eric.

In fact, just like her baby. She gets pregnant to Eric. Drops him without his knowing that – he had plans to marry and obviously then she’d give up art. She has the baby in secret, and then leaves it with a note at Eric’s front door. It’s the spitting image of him. He lives with his mother. She left formula for the baby. Sorted. Back to painting.

I suppose that all sound awful, but it isn’t. It’s just funny and admirable that she can live in such a male-like way, obsessed with the thing she does and survive even the potential inconvenience, if not trauma, of an unwanted pregnancy.


After reading this and picking up the other Sharp I’d bought at the same time, I discovered I’d read them in the wrong order. The Eye of Love is an account of the charming love affair between Martha’s aunt and her (spoiler) husband-to-be. It will come as no surprise that this pair is as unattractive as Martha. But they have only eyes for each other as those who attempt to part them discover. If you ask me, it doesn’t matter whether you read this or Martha in Paris first. But there is a third and I am pleased that I am going to read that last, when I am able to pick up a copy.

The edition I have of these two is just awful, not least because it wants to turn Sharp’s exceedingly clever writing into the most tawdry of chick-lit, or whatever it was called in the early sixties. The cover of Martha in Paris proclaims:

Martha went to Paris

to learn to paint…

and learnt to love instead.

It’s so insulting to Sharp when love of any kind, of her rellies, her baby, the father of the baby is just not happening. NOT HAPPENING. New English Library what on earth were you thinking?

Legends of Our Time by Elie Wiesel

I discovered after reading this, that Wiesel is a controversial figure. I’m not talking about the anti-Semitic loons or the woman who wanted to join the ‘me too’ campaign. Rather, within the body of work that stands as ‘Lest We Forget’, there is much debate as to what his testament means, whether he has betrayed those he writes of, himself included, how his work fits into what others have done. He was the rockstar of the Holocaust preservation, the first to force non-Jewish people to acknowledge the horror. Yet he only managed to do that by watering down what he had to say, a process that started with The Night, his French and then English version of a much longer work written in Yiddish for an entirely different audience.

As has been noted by scholars in the field, the watering down process wasn’t only about making something that was palatable to the world that was complicit in the murder of millions of Jews. It made sense that a different audience would be presented with a differently written, more culturally accessible work.

However, there is also the issue of memory, what a memoir is, at which point it becomes a lie. Much has been written about this too in reference to Wiesel, and in particular his juxtaposition with James Frey on the Oprah Bookshow (whatever that is).

For my part, I can understand the impossibility of saying the same thing to the people you are accusing as to the people to whom wrong is done.  It is so easy to understand the humiliation as well as the rage. Even the idea of silence, as a major theme. What I find hard to relate to is the mysticism that is fundamental to his interpretations of the world. His rage feels as genuine as his talk of forgiveness feels forced. I can believe whole-heartedly in the one, not at all in the other.

This may be entirely my failing. I’ve never been religiously inclined and the notion of ‘forgive and forget’ does not sit easily with me. Eventually one sort of forgets. With that comes something which isn’t forgiveness, more like a moving on, I suppose, which takes the place of that more noble sentiment.

In any case, can one have it both ways? Forget in some personal way, and never forget in some social way which we believe is vital to the prevention of such events in the future? I had the misfortune to go to Berlin’s memorial for murdered Jews a few years ago. Full of people taking selfies and having fun. It could scarcely have been more offensive to point of the place. Richard Brody wrote of it:

The title doesn’t say “Holocaust” or “Shoah”; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” and the vagueness is disturbing. Of course, the information is familiar, and few visitors would be unaware of it, but the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe. The reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that “everybody knows” is the first step on the road to forgetting.

Why no names, he asks? The victims are shrouded in abstract concrete anonymity, as are the murderers.

Nothing I read in this book of Wiesel’s shakes my conviction that the process goes on. It may have been hidden for a while, but it was never not there. The idea that it has ‘come back’ like it had disappeared because WWII was lost, for example, by the murderers of the Jews could not be further from the truth. It has never not been there. Not before, and not after WWII. The despising glee Wiesel describes on the faces of his Transylvanian neighbours as the town’s Jews were sent off to the camps has never changed. It only goes underground now and again when that is the right strategic thing to do.

Right now around the world anti-Semitism is going public in a million different ways. What happens when we permit ourselves to forget, to think that things are different now, is that they become the same. The Guardian reported a story a few days ago about a National Trust event in which Nazi uniforms were worn and displayed. The organiser denied this, but in fact a plethora of photos from the event showing them being worn gives the lie to that.

The purpose of the extremity of the Far Right and on-going Nazi groups is that its very existence makes this event acceptable. It’s okay, it’s just part of ‘living history’. It’s not like we actually bashed Jews or something. And before you know it, none of it means anything anymore. Anti-Semitism will simply be upfront  normal again instead of hidden where it should be in sewers with rats.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that when I wrote to the National Trust to complain about the very idea of this ‘Living History’ display of Nazis, to receive back a reply which barely contained its irritation with me. In particular I note that is said:

Historical re-enactments can help raise awareness of important and difficult moments from the past and bring stories to life in an engaging way. We don’t therefore have an issue with re-enactments in themselves but do believe they should be done sensitively.

My eyes are stuck still on the words ‘engaging’ and ‘sensitively’. How could these words ever be used to talk of such things? The answer is, because the events don’t really matter because they never did. Except to Jewish people, of course. And they will never stop paying the price.

Update 28/8/18 update 28/8/18 And even as we write and read, Naziism continues to come out of its hiding place to take its preferred place on the stage. And no great surprise to see that even (or especially?) Hitler salutes are ignored by the police, despite being illegal. The reason? Appeasement. ‘…a desire not to escalate an already tense situation had forced them to hold back.’ The police are the grand-children of Nazis too.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

I’m just not sure

I wonder why it is that sticking my dick up girls’ arses doesn’t interest me like it used to

why a book that has something interesting to say about academia

The girls love it. Especially when I take my dick out of their arse and get them to lick it. They really like that.

and also about politics

Maybe if I fucked two girls arses and then got them to lick my dick. Maybe I’d enjoy that like I used to. Hmmmm.

should interleave his ideas and quite amusing prose

Or maybe. Oh, I don’t know. Young student? Arse? Licking excrement covered dick? While another one likes my balls maybe? Yeah. Let’s try that.

with tedious, ludicrous shit about girls liking his pathetic (to the reader) dick up their anusses. Maybe it gets guys to read the book.

I kind of wish that it wasn’t a book where the ending was just what you thought it was going to be, but maybe that was the point. That his scenario is inevitable. I don’t know.

Any girls reading this like having dicks shoved up their arses and then get to lick them after? That being the author’s definition of love? Form an orderly queue. I’ll let him know.

La tête d’un homme by George Simenon

I find it hard to believe that this is a B2 book, it seems easier than that to me. Maybe that’s because so much of Maigret is formulaic. You know the regular characters, you know there’s going to be a pipe and tobacco and smoke, cafés and boissons, a murder here, a suspect there. A chase. The Seine.  Maybe that’s why I found this B2 much easier than the last. Maybe I’m not really better at French, only at reading Maigret.

Remarkably good – I’m looking forward to reading the non-facile version when I spot a copy at the market. There are various cinematic productions of it, the earliest one from the 1930s looks like the most interesting, but as (more or less) no French movies have French subtitles, I’m not rushing out to get it.

You can see the introduction to the English Penguin edition here and it gives some interesting background:

When Simenon wrote La Tête d’un homme (originally translated as A Battle of Nerves) it was 1930, he was staying at a small hotel in Paris and he was at a turning point in his career. Over a period of five years, using eighteen different pseudonyms (notably ‘Georges Sim’) he had become one of the most successful authors of pulp fiction in France, publishing up to forty-four titles a year. But Simenon wanted much more than the fame and wealth he had won so quickly as a popular author. From now on he would write under his own name and he would aim for the Nobel Prize. Crime fiction was to be the first step on that road.

In September 1930 he had already completed four of the Maigret series, though none had been published. They were to be launched at a wild party thrown the following February at a nightclub in Montparnasse. Four hundred guests were joined by as many gatecrashers, the cost of the whisky and champagne exceeded Fayard’s entire publicity budget and Simenon had to cover the deficit. It was money well spent. Eleven Maigret titles had been published by the end of the year. He wrote four more in 1932, two in 1933 and then, after nineteen titles, sent Inspector Maigret into retirement, intending never to write another. Instead he would concentrate on his romans durs or ‘novels of destiny’. But it didn’t work out like that. After an interval of six years, with the outbreak of war and a young son to raise in uncertain times, worrying about his health (although he saw no military service), Simenon revived his most popular creation. Over the following thirty-three years he was to write a further fifty-seven Maigrets. And when in February 1972 he finally exhausted his creative impulse and wrote his last novel – the last of 193 ‘Simenons’ – it was a Maigret.

I’m glad Simenon thought a lot of his non-Maigret books too, believing myself that they are some of the most important literature of the mid-twentieth century. One should not be surprised, therefore, that he didn’t receive a Nobel prize. He was nominated seven times in the 1950s and 1960s. If only he’d written bad poetry and set it to music. He might’ve made more money and won the Nobel too.

Maigret and ‘the others’ by Georges Simenon

‘Best known for Maigret’. I’ve never understood why. Simenon’s non-Maigret books should be considered important literary works. His Maigrets were how he got paid.

Maigret et la jeune morte

My struggles to learn French continue, recently with facile editions of Maigret et la jeune morte and La Rue Aux Trois Poussins/Le Mari De Mélie. This edition of Maigret et la jeune morte comes with audio as well. I found the voice of the narrator very irritating, so as yet I can’t say if I have gained anything from that aspect of the book. I suspect that all French narrators have the same effect on me; certainly I always hate them at the movies.


It was interesting to see that my prejudices were entirely supported. La Rue Aux Trois Poussins/Le Mari De Mélie are two short stories which were both emotionally rewarding, very sad, even in their stripped down form. The Maigret, on the other hand, felt naked, like more words might have fleshed it out, given it something it was missing. Perhaps it would have been less confusing too, though I admit I made such a mountain out of reading it that it never had any continuity for me and the confusion may be entirely of my own making.

Not enough data to be sure, but I’m pleased to see my theory hold. It’s a great pity if the existence of Maigret is the reason why Simenon is so often overlooked. Listen to me, folks. Read ‘the others’. Promise it’s worth it!


The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane

Complete coincidence saw me reading this directly after Old Masters. There are odd points of comparison. Firstly, they are both related by others. ‘Reger told me…’ and, in this one, ‘It came over me all of a sudden, he said.’ So, in both we are aware of an interpretation going on, a reporting of the story even though ‘he said’ immediately becomes ‘I’.

Secondly, both main characters are deeply unhappy and find the world an entirely unsatisfactory place. But whereas Reger is a completely detestable odious old crank, Mohamed is wonderful, the reader is in his corner. Reger has no particular cause for unhappiness, it is like he seeks it out by turning the world into a place at which to rage. Mohamed is an Algerian Muslim in Paris – or rather in a Muslim slum outside Paris. He is trapped there with an overbearing mother who is the type to control those around her by pointing out interminably what she has done for them, the sacrifices made.

Not for the first time I acknowledge how lucky I am that my parents never once in their hard-working, sacrificing-for-their-children lives, made us beholden to them. It must be awful to live in cultures where those sacrifices are investments, made now to get something back later; weights placed upon children to prevent them from being free.

So there Mohamed is, living with one of those women who make powerlessness a strength with which they hold their children vice-like. Mohamed wants to escape. He wants to escape his mother, the slum, the expectations, Islam, the lot. He has a well-paid job, he can afford to move into Paris proper. All he has to do is trade in his cultural background for a new look, a new name, a bit of skin-whitening, a little hair-straightening. He wants to be a new person, a banker still by day, but by night a writer, a cosmopolitan type, a wooer of women. He wants to get laid. More than anything in the world he wants to lose his virginity.

This could just be trite and silly, but it isn’t for one moment that. It is funny and sad and excruciatingly embarrassing. Leïla Marouane is on my to-read more list. Highly recommended.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Némirovsky does it again. Another repugnant main character, who nonetheless raises our sympathy. Another example of stereotype reflecting reality. To begin with I was horrified, as I was supposed to be, by this creature who is utterly trapped by her fear of aging. She has nothing to live for other than the impossible task of preserving her physical beauty, life for her is literally no more than how other people see her. One wants to say, at least things aren’t like that any more. But they are, of course.

At the extreme end, I know various extremely wealthy women whose fears are the same as Gladys’s. They have retreated from public life as their looks fade. Some of them have husbands who have mistresses on the side, have sired children with them even. They are willing to put up with the humiliation of this, rather than lose the prestige of their positions. Gladys has more pride than this. The idea of marrying and inevitably becoming this sort of woman is one she rejects despite the costs. It is those costs that make the meat of this tale.

The book is about not only Gladys, but also the utterly repulsive society that breeds such a creature. If this had been Nick’s millieu, I shouldn’t think he would have found so much as one exception to his condemnation of the rotten bunch.

If you are looking for some sort of Austenesque genteel teasing of her world, this is not it. This is the dark side. Enter if you dare!