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.






The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

For once I thought I had the metaphor right as I read. The people all have minds that are dysfunctional, they can’t remember anything properly, not short term, not long. They have vague, mushy memories, if any at all – only the present means anything to them. I thought he had created a Facebook world and set it in a primitive sixth century past. It was terribly clever, everybody would set upon some unfortunate individual for a bit and then, suddenly and entirely move on much as they do in the age of social media bullying. Groups ebbing and flowing, as one thing and then another grabs their oh too fleeting attention. It all made sense.

But then I read Ishiguro talking about what he’d written and he said it was about warrior societies and how forgetting is part of how they survive. That made sense too. On an individual level we know that memory must be discretionary. The person who recalls all is one who cannot function. Does the same pertain to the collective unit, community or society? Now I’m thinking, for example, of Germany and Austria after WWII. Australia attempting to come to terms with the idea that the continent belongs to groups of people who have been treated abominably since the start of White Settlement. Truth and Reconciliation in Rwanda. As a historian I’m committed to the belief that remembering is fundamentally important. But is it? Are the potentially devastating consequences of remembering worse, or better than those of forgetting? 

Put like this, it seems to me that Ishiguro is asking a question, the significance of which cannot be understated and which is particularly apposite at a moment in time where catastrophe is upon us. As we move into a new world – which might be PK Dick’s The Penultimate Truth, or Atwood’s Orxy and Crake, or Soylent Green, Forster’s The Machine Stops, or Frayn’s A Very Private Life – will it be better to forget the past, the one with trees and water and food that didn’t come out of tubes, where nature was our friend. Where the richest person wasn’t that far apart from the poorest, not compared with the future that we are building up to. Are we really going to want to sit our children’s children on our laps and tell them about those good old days? Are we going to be ready to explain what happened?

Or should we forget? Become used to a life lived inside our tiny houses, conducting everything through the internet, so that by the time the catastrophe is firmly upon us, we will already be addicted to how things are. Will the brave new world we are approaching be one in which memory is a curse?

I find the idea that this is fantasy fiction absurd. For a start, Ishiguro has less than zero interest in any of the conflicts which take place. They fight, somebody wins, it all happens over a sentence or two. I’m not complaining! And for another, it completely fails the xkcd test:


Despite this, the book was nominated for various ‘fantasy’ awards. Perhaps that’s why it was the only novel apart from his first that wasn’t put forward for major awards. (Source for this is wiki, but its reference is to a dead link.)

Apparently Ishiguro struggled with this. His wife read an early draft and said it just wouldn’t do at all. He took that to heart and continued to labour at great length upon it. I’m curious to read the version his wife put in the green bin. It is obvious that a book written about people with no memory is going to suffer from an unavoidable dullness, but I found it strangely compelling nonetheless.

Overall? It’s a book that is trying to deal with a profound and traumatic question. It makes sense to have set it in a distant past as otherwise our own memories and understanding would have corrupted our reading of it. But I wonder if it could have been done better? And I have no idea whether to recommend it or not.

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

I’ve decided I need a new bookshelf. ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. Perhaps all ex-Catholics need one of them, the one for the books they feel guilty about not finishing.

To begin with I hated this in a ‘I hate this but I want to read it’ way. That became ‘I hate this but by God I’m going to finish it’. And a couple of nights ago, up at 3am that in turn became ‘Yeah, nah. Move on’. And sometimes one moves on without the least guilt at all, other times one is tortured by it. Then one adds the inadequacy of looking it up on goodreads and discovering one wasn’t clever enough to stick with it. I suppose that’s the ‘fear of missing out’ on literary social media.

And I still do feel a bit like that. Guilt aside, I also feel like I might be missing out on a whopper of an ending.

Grrrrr. Maybe the shelf should be called ‘I’m moving on but I can’t get you out of my mind.’




Foe by JM Coetzee

Fancy being driven to pictures. When I read a novel, I’m looking for this:

sign post this way

and this:

sign post one way

with big hints along the way like:

sign post real world
and this:

sign post truth lie

I thought I was doing fine with this Coetzee I found in Leiden recently. There’s a woman and she is on a desert island for a while and then she’s rescued and she’s bogged down with Man Friday and Daniel Defoe’s in it writing her story and I thought I got it. But I couldn’t help feeling now and again like:

Questions and Answers signpost

and trying to figure it all out made things worse.

sign post lost

Frankly, in the end, I felt like I was in the middle of xkcd’s google map directions:

sign posts google_maps

I don’t know, Mr Coetzee. I really don’t know. I wish when I’d got to the lake and saw the trouble ahead, I’d just turned back. I’m going to have a lie down and a nice cup of tea now. That’s if I’m still alive, if I was real. Perhaps the book has the answer to that.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Almost three years ago I wrote on GR about this book:

Whilst I attempt to get my own thoughts in order, for those curious about this book, I strongly recommend reading both Nandakishore’s review and Whitaker’s here.

The fact that the reviews are so very different in content, attitude, the lot surely has something to do with the book.

More later.

But I simply couldn’t think of anything good to say. I’ve discovered, however, that I have company, I’m not the only person in the world who has an aversion for this book. Discovering that has given me the strength to move on without feeling like it must be my fault or that I should be feeling guilty. As much as I loved Museum of Innocence, I dislike this.

There, I’ve said it. And do go to the reviews referenced above to read erudite discussions of this book.

The Way of the World by William Congreve

It was hard not to have at the back of my mind whilst watching this, the National Theatre’s performance of The Beaux’ Strategem by George Farquar. But how unfair. That vast auditorium at Southbank, the huge budget, a set that was enormous in all directions – how could a play reading with $20 of props and a notional idea of costume in a 200 seat theatre compare?

Being a reading, this production of The Way of the World at the Little Theatre at Adelaide Uni, was far more uncertain than a fullblown production would have been. The cast ranged from what felt like highly professional to young and inexperienced, with the unsurprising result that the roles of the latter did not engage as they presumably should have. Then there is the language, which is a challenge to the audience not because it is particularly difficult, but because we are used to Shakespearean language, whereas Restoration plays are rarely performed. We wondered if we enjoyed the second half more than the first because we were in the zone by then, we’d slipped into the idiom.

There is also the form of the Restoration comedy, with which to contend as the audience. It’s a style which ruled for fifty years up to the early 18th century. It was largely comedic, exceptionally bawdy with the position of women quite changed from the Shakespearean period. It is no coincidence that we see the professional actress for the first time in UK theatre in this period. There are a couple of nice female roles in this play, the standout being Lady Wishfort played by Christine Runnel who gave an exceptional performance.

Harking back to the big budget Beaux’ Strategem, I would love to see a first rate production of The Way of the World. That said, we can only be grateful to the Guild for giving a rare opportunity to see this play in Australia. I suspect it was last performed in 2003 when Miriam Margolyes played Lady Wishfort with the STC. The audience on Saturday night was small, but very appreciative, with much laughter throughout. A better turnout was deserved, but between St Patrick’s Day, the election and the tail end of the Fringe, perhaps no more could be expected.

The Desert Island aka Shackleton’s Antarctic Collection.

I doubt there could be a more real life example of the ‘What would you take to a desert island?’ than Shackleton’s trip to the Antarctic. There is an exhibition of the photographs of that trip on at the RGS in London at the moment. One of the photos shows a wall of books, his floating library. The RGS has been able to digitally enhance it, so that we now know exactly what Shackleton took on this unhappy expedition.


Can you judge a book by its cover? The fact is that one often can. And taking that notion a little further, surely we can judge a man by the covers of his books. That’s something, with the advent of electronic book reading, that we will never be able to do again. It is so easy and cheap to download that one can never make assumptions about the relationship of the book to the machine owner. Here, however, of course we are entitled to draw conclusions. The man bothered to take the books to Antarctica. The books mean something.

I’ve arranged the list in order into:

  • literature
  • linguistic and general reference
  • exploration

Between the general reference section and the exploration books I’ve squeezed in two non-fiction books, one by the socialist JB Askew and one by Alfred Dreyfuss.

As for literature, it is interesting to note that it is relatively light on our notion of classics. Most of them are the best sellers or maybe, to convert to our idiom, the Goodreads trending books of his time. There are quite a few murder mysteries or similar.

I’m guessing that those reading this have never heard of:

Gertrude Atherton
Amelie Rives
Montague Glass
Ian Hey
AEW Mason
David Bone
Herbert Flowerdew
John Joy Bell
Louis Tracy
William J Locke
Rex Beach
Robert Hugh Benson
H De Vere Stacpoole

Yet Atherton was compared with Wharton, Rives was the EL James of her day, and William J Locke made the best selling US novels list in five different years. His stories were made into films 24 times, including Ladies in Lavender starring Dench and Maggie Smith in 2004 and four of his books made Broadway as plays. In fact, although not one of my 500+ goodreads friends has reviewed any of these authors, Locke is still well read and loved, judging by the reviews. I confess I did not know his name.

Potash and Perlmutter, the comic rag trade merchants of Monatague Glass, were all the rage amongst New York Jews. Stacpoole is the author of The Blue Lagoon of the film fame (some would say infamy) and Flowerdew used his novels to proselytise on the rights of women:

The Woman’s View: A Novel About Marriage (1903) is a marriage problem tale with a complicated plot drawing attention to the inaccuracy with which the marriage laws relate to how people, especially women, feel about marriage. Valerie marries a fortune-hunter, and discovers he had a wife who was alive when they were married but is now dead. Philip, who has always loved her, tells her she is free, but she still feels married, and remarries her husband. He beats her and her baby dies as a result, so Philip rescues her. The husband sues for divorce on grounds of adultery, and so she is once more free, though she has not committed adultery. She marries Philip to save his political career, but refuses to sleep with him, as she still has a husband alive. Her cousin, who is in love with Philip, tells her she must: Valerie then responds by telling him to get an annulment and going back to her husband. As in Retaliation, Flowerdew sacrifices plausibility for the sake of his thesis. Flowerdew published an article, ‘A Substitute for the Marriage Laws’ in the Westminster Review (September 1899). Oxford Index



Amelie Rives, whose steamy best-seller The Quick and the Dead?  earned her a vigorous campaign of hate mail. And there I was thinking hate mail was just a function of the ease of modern technology. 

Personally, I find it fascinating to read up on authors who were successful in their day but subsequently forgotten. I have included links to the biographies of the lesser known authors, leaving it to you to take your exploration from there. Be brave. Be inquisitive. Shackleton would be proud of you.

Books on Shackleton’s bookshelf:


The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

If no more than background reading on the state of society in America and in particular NY in this period and the way in which it compared with Europe – and compared itself with Europe, a different thing again – The Age of Innocence is a splendid thing. I take issue with Paul Bryant’s complaints about her material descriptions of the world she describes – I believe they are supposed to be part of her ironic portrait her characters and their setting. She is revealing what is important to them, not to her. One wonders, however, if Pinterest will have an app some time where one can key in words and out come pictures. I’d do that with this book. I have read that interior design was very important to Wharton. I still don’t think that affects what the point of it is in the book.

But the book is, of course, more than this. There is the story and the morality of the situation she constructs. What Wharton does which is so diabolically clever is that she talks of the powerlessness of women – and this is through the eyes of an independent, single, wealthy young man, Newland Archer – only to make it clear as the story develops that it is the women who are in charge. It is almost comic to see the way the hero charges about thinking that he is affecting the course of history when in fact it is the women who are doing that. Well, it would be comic if it weren’t awfully sad. Every time he thinks he is going to do the renegade thing and take off with his true love, a women ‘stops’ this from happening. Obviously not literally for he could always decide to rise above that, but he is never brave enough to. In the end he cannot rise above the thing that he thinks he is above – ‘what other people think’.

And then when it is late enough in his simplified life that what other people think no longer matters – not just late enough in his life, but late enough in history, times have changed, we are told – he doesn’t have the gumption to see if reality will match his dreams. I don’t know how much of a coward that makes him: he has been sustained for decades by dreams built on the tiniest wisps of what he thought he could have, but is it pragmatism at work when he decides to let sleeping dogs lie, or is it the fear, which could turn out to be unbearable, that finding out will not only ruin the present, but will ruin his precious bank of dreams. To risk one’s memories. That’s not an easy gamble to make.

I cannot begin to imagine how a movie could have been made of this when what is important about the book is Wharton’s delightful take on the people who populate her pages. She’s hilarious. The book is a hundred years old but hasn’t dated, the writing having an elegant lightness that is easy on the modern reader’s eye and ear. I do not hesitate to recommend it.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

We went to see a Cambridge University production of this last night, set in a similar period to the production we saw of As You Like It we saw earlier this year.

Zak Ghazi-Torbatt was hilarious as the perpetually drunk aristocrat Sir Toby Belch (subtlety is not the long suit of this play), he worked well with his off-sider, Sir Aguecheek, ably played by Ryan Monk. Ben Walsh’s Malvolio was a object lesson in how to not overplay comic creepiness. Megan Gilbert looked like an old hand doing Maria: it’s the best of the female roles and she didn’t let it down.

The setting was not, in my opinion, important to the play, neither detracting nor adding, but fifties music and song – If music be the food of love, play on – worked a treat. However, the director decided, in that modern way that is being forced upon us, to do her part in denying gender. To this end two changes were made to the play. One is the role of Antonio, changed to Antonia and played by a girl being a girl. This was not only inexplicable in terms of the desire to mess around with gender – after all, Antonio is a boy in love with a boy – but makes the relationship with Sebastian ridiculous. There can be no explanation, of course, as to why Sebastian can’t accept the love of Antonia. Nor, in a play with a happily-ever-after ending is it sensical to have this one person inexplicably left bereft. Needless to say, if it is a male character in love with a heterosexual male, we at least understand why Antonio can’t be part of the happy ending. I do wish that we had not been denied the chance to watch that doomed love, instead of which we bemusedly watched a girl carting around a bloke’s suitcases for three months wondering who she was going to end up with.

In like vein the director changed the role of the fool to a female. Weirdly, a fool dressed as a man, but not to be confused with one, as in the case of Viola, of course. And the fool played the part as a man, had the gait and stance of a man, yet was referred to throughout as a female, the original language being changed to this end. For us this just didn’t work at all. It’s a great role which was wasted. True, it could be that the girl playing the role – Rosanna Suppa – failed, but our feeling was that she couldn’t have succeeded. It’s so not necessary to do this to Shakespeare. Write a play with a female fool. Were there female fools in the period? If there were, find out what they did and how they did it. But leave Shakespeare’s wonderful parts alone please! Turning a male role into a female one by a few strokes of the pen doesn’t cut it.

The play was performed in the International School of Geneva‘s Arts Centre. I’m baffled as to why an excellent production of a wonderful play with an admission price of 20CHF attracted about a quarterful house. I hope this is a reflection on the lack of publicity received rather than Geneva’s lacking the capacity to support such an event. The audience was enthralled, entertained and provoked by Gabriella Bird’s production and it deserves a packed house for its second performance here in Geneva tonight.

PS: It is impossible to go to see Shakespeare without being amazed at the things he writes that are still with us. This time it was ‘Westward-ho!’ Well, I never.