Title: Père Goriot
Author: Honoré de Balzac
Translator: Burton Raffel
Pages: 384 (actual novel only 217)
Rating: 2.5 of 5
My first reading of a Balzac classic left me with mixed feelings about whether I ever again want to read anything from his large body of work. The writing is witty (but melodramatic), the characters are interesting (but detestable), and the overall plot rings true to life (but the seedier, morally repellent side of life).
The novel explores how love, both familial and romantic, can be exploited for personal advancement. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s essay on The Inner Ring (see also The Room Where It Happens from Hamilton). However, where Lewis warns against the compromises and moral corruption that come with obsessively trying to be part of the inner ring, Balzac’s characters simply take a c’est la vie attitude toward it. Balzac invites us along on the young Rastignac’s journey toward embracing this cynical approach to life. I’m half tempted to pick up another book or two from Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine to see what happens to some of these characters, but I have a hard time reading literature where such absolute moral bankruptcy is treated as par for the course.
The edition that I read contained about 150 pages of essays and analysis. Personally, I found most of them to be pretentious rather than helpful: the kind of essays where the author wants to talk about a pet theme, theory, or philosophy and finds a way to impose it on Balzac or his writing (eisegesis rather than exegesis as we would have said in biblical hermeneutics 101). If literary analysis is your thing, you may get more out of them than I did.
Overall, I’m glad I tried a new author but I don’t think he’s my cup of tea.
Also, I’m using this for my Classic by a New-to-You Author category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.
Title: The Sleepwalkers:
How Europe Went to War in 1914
Author: Christopher Clark
Genre: European History (WWI)
Pages: 587 (+160 pages of citations, indices, etc.)
Rating: 5 of 5
This is the ugly history of the politics, propaganda, and events that led up to World War I. Prior to reading this, my general impression of WWI (based on fuzzy memories of high school history & reinforced by the fourth season of Blackadder) was that it was a horrifically pointless war started on a pretext by arrogant greedy statesmen whose various alliances dragged all of Europe into a maelstrom of death…and it was somehow mostly Germany’s fault. Having read this amazingly well-researched book, I think the blame could be spread around a bit more liberally, but my general view remains pretty much the same.
Christopher Clark makes meticulous use of primary source material to weave together a coherent account of how the Great War came about. This is a daunting task given the complexity of the issue and massive amount of (often self-justifying) written sources. He does his best to describe for the Balkans (especially Serbia) and for each of the “great powers” what was going on domestically, militarily, colonially, and in their relationship with each other. This required a lot of jumping back and forth over the same material many times to try to cover the myriad of interactions. It could be confusing at times, but given the complexity of the matter, I was impressed overall with the author’s clarity.
The author also interacts with secondary sources, stating when he agrees or disagrees with common conjectures and analysis. He steers away from blaming things primarily on Germany, pointing out different (and constantly shifting) degrees and kinds of paranoia, imperialism, bellicosity, manipulation, etc. in all of the “great powers.” He also maintains that world war was not fatalistically inevitable, conjecturing about specific situations, decisions, policies, and procrastinations that could have completely changed the course of history had this or that person/committee acted differently in the moment. As the title of the book implies, the author sees the forces of Europe stumbling along with woefully incomplete understanding or analysis of the possible effects of their various power games.
Whether you agree with all of the author’s analysis or not, this is a must read if you are trying to understand the causes of WWI. If you’re not the kind of person who can sit down and read a long history book, then I suppose you can settle for Blackadder’s explanation of how the War began or if analogies are more your thing there’s the story of If WWI were a bar fight (though Serbia bumping into and accidentally spilling beer on Austria should probably be Serbia chucking beer in Austria’s general direction and then pretending it was an accident).
Author: Joseph Conrad
Rating: 2.5 of 5
This is my third Joseph Conrad book, and I don’t know if I’ll bother with any more. He creates memorable, believable characters and situations, but his message/theme is always the same and is just plain depressing. He basically finds different ways to say “Society is rife with exploitation and everyone is vain, greedy, cruel, violent, and/or cowardly” while describing any action in the most dully dispassionate way possible and unexpectedly throwing in flashbacks or sudden leaps forward.
In Nostromo we follow the political travails of a fictional South American country, focusing especially on Nostromo, the vain Italian expatriate who is foreman of the dockworkers. He is constantly flattered and used as a tool by the European aristocracy but never really admitted to their society. Most of the conflicts, personal and political, revolve around the local silver mine as the story illustrates that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”
The narrations is surprisingly dull for a book about violent revolution. It focuses primarily on the pettiness, vanity, and greed of individuals and skips quickly over any large-scale action, mentioning it fairly dismissively in flashback form. Four hundred forty-eight tightly-packed pages of this was a bit much, and I was thoroughly tired of it by the end. If you’re interested in Conrad, I’d recommend Heart of Darkness over this one… all of the vivid bleakness with a fraction of the page count packs a much bigger punch.
And one final thing: I am using this as my Classic with a single-word title over at the Back to the Classics Challenge.