Monday, December 31, 2012

Zola: A Life by Frederick Brown

Not an easy read, but worth the effort
I came to this book after having read Zola’s twenty Rougon-Macquart novels. I wanted to read the most comprehensive, authoritative biography of the great writer, and I think this book qualifies. The level of detail is tremendous. Frederick Brown not only provides us with the story of Zola’s life, but also the lives of his many contemporaries (including Cezanne, Flaubert, Turgenev, Goncourt, Manet). In addition Brown puts these lives in valuable perspective by thoroughly examining the events of French history, which, during Zola’s life consisted of a very complicated series of wars, revolutions, and political upheavals. (Before reading this biography, it helps the reader to have a basic preliminary knowledge of French history in order to navigate the serpentine rise and fall of governments.)

Brown also examines Zola’s writings from a critical perspective, and draws a complex web of literary influence to and from the author. For every novel that Zola published, Brown provides a detailed synopsis of the story (spoilers included), a critical analysis of the work, and valuable information on the critical and public reception of the book. Brown seems to grow tired of this, however, as books described in the beginning of Zola’s life are more thoroughly examined than his later works. I myself got a little tired of Brown’s constant Freudian analysis. “Zola did this because of his father. He did this because of his mother.” It’s as if Brown lacks confidence in the intelligence of his readers, and feels the need to relentlessly push his thesis on us.

This book is not an easy read. It is a scholarly work, written for an audience of literature professors, not for the casual reader. The beginning of the book is particularly challenging. When discussing Zola’s education and literary influences, Brown rattles off references to a lot of titles that most readers outside academia probably have not read. In every other sentence he’ll throw in metaphors pertaining to obscure classical literature. Once over this intial hump, the reading goes more smoothly and one becomes accustomed to Brown’s particular wordcraft. (He uses the word “tergiversations” about once in every chapter.)

Another problem with the book is that there is a period of Zola’s life that just isn’t very interesting. Brown’s depiction of Zola’s early hardscrabble career as a journalist, critic, and part-time novelist is particularly fascinating, but once Zola strikes it rich the excitement dies down quite a bit. While seclusion in a country house made it possible for Zola to create some of his greatest masterpieces, it doesn’t make for the most exciting narrative. This is rectified late in Zola’s life, however, by the Dreyfus affair. Brown’s relation of the events surrounding the scandal are rewardingly exhaustive, covering at least 150 pages.

Despite my complaints, I’d have to say that I’m glad I read this book. I wanted to read “Everything You Wanted to Know about Emile Zola”, and that’s what I got. Something else I got from this book is a long wish list of books for future reading, by Zola and other authors discussed in the book.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

When God Laughs and Other Stories by Jack London

London’s best and worst
This collection of short stories was originally published in 1911, about the middle of Jack London’s career, when he was branching out from his tried and true Klondike subject matter, and experimenting with new settings and new literary techniques. The stories take place in diverse locales, including San Francisco, Tahiti, Korea, Australia, and the open seas. The quality of the stories also varies greatly, and in many ways the selections represent the zenith and the nadir of London’s writing. Three of these stories, “The Apostate”, “The Chinago”, and “A Piece of Steak” are masterpieces of storytelling, among the best of London’s career. On the other hand, “A Wicked Woman” may be the worst story London ever wrote, and at least two others here, “When God Laughs” and “Created He Them,” could easily vie for that ignominious title.

Rather than waste space discussing the losers, let’s focus on the winners. In keeping with London’s preoccupation with socialist thought and labor issues, “The Apostate” focuses on the oppressive life of a young man who has toiled as a factory wage slave for most of his life. “The Chinago” is likewise concerned with social injustice, relating the tale of a Chinese laborer in Tahiti who is tried under French law for a murder he did not commit. It is a scathing indictment of colonialism, and a stark depiction of the indifference to human life that European exploiters often displayed toward their third-world servants. “A Piece of Steak” is an excellent boxing story featuring an aging fighter, poor and underfed, who, in order to feed his family, must fight an epic battle against a youthful opponent. “Just Meat” is another good offering about two thieves who make a big score. “Make Westing” and “The ‘Francis Spaight’” are both gritty seafaring tales, satisfying but not exceptional by London standards. The most pleasantly surprising discovery for me was “A Curious Fragment”, a futuristic socialist tale, set in the 26th century in a world reminiscent of London’s fascinating novel The Iron Heel. It’s an intriguing sci-fi story which, though all too short, offers plenty of social commentary and suspenseful drama.

Despite some of the stinkers in this collection, overall the scales are tipped in favor of the good. Faithful fans of London will definitely find When God Laughs well worth reading. Those who know London only from his sled dog tales will find in this collection prime examples of how he successfully (and in some cases not so successfully) applied his masterful storytelling skills to an incredibly diverse range of subject matter.

Essays and stories in this collection
When God Laughs 
The Apostate 
A Wicked Woman 
Just Meat 
Created He Them 
The Chinago 
Make Westing 
Semper Idem 
A Nose for the King
The “Francis Spaight” 
A Curious Fragment 
A Piece of Steak 

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gambara by Honoré de Balzac

For opera lovers only
Count Andrea Marcosini, a handsome, young, Milanese nobleman temporarily banished by his home country, strolls the streets of Paris, enjoying the New Year’s festivities of 1831. He spies a young woman of radiant beauty, and though by her shabby dress she appears to be far beneath his social class, he pursues her in hopes of an amorous conquest. She leads him through a red light district to the door of a run-down boarding house inhabited by Italian expatriates. He enters the house under the pretext of dining at its table d’hôte, and sits down to a meal with the tenants. He discovers that the young woman, Marianna, is the wife of Paolo Gambara, an aspiring composer. Andrea and Gambara bond over a love of Beethoven, and the two form a friendship while Andrea attempts to woo the other’s wife. Despite possessing a profound intellect, Gambara is a failure as a composer because his work is far too radically avant garde for the audience of his day. To Andrea’s ears, Gambara’s music is merely a hideous cacophony. Taking the composer under his wing, Andrea ventures to boost Gambara’s career by getting him drunk, in hopes that the alcohol will subdue his intellectual genius and allow his poetic passion to shine through.

Balzac is a superb author, and nine times out of ten I enjoy his work, but getting through this one was a grueling experience. Gambara is a novella, but feels a lot longer. At least half of the text is taken up by Gambara’s blow-by-blow commentary of two operas. One is a fictional masterpiece of his own making; the other is Robert le Diable by Meyerbeer. These lengthy, mind-numbing descriptions, sprinkled with key changes, can only be loved by the most enthusiastic patron of the opera or those possessing a master’s degree in classical music. The sole purpose of the story seems to be to allow Balzac to showcase his ability to express musical concepts in prose. The story that surrounds these passages is not particularly engaging, and the touching epilogue is not moving enough to redeem all the boredom that precedes it. Gambara can be seen as a companion piece to The Hidden Masterpiece, another tragedy of artistic genius by Balzac. The latter story, which focuses on painting instead of music, is far more interesting, more elegantly written, and more accessible to the general reader. All but the most diehard admirers of Balzac should steer clear of Gambara.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

A heaping helping of skillfully crafted pulp fiction
Now known as one of America’s best writers of crime fiction, Elmore Leonard got his start writing western tales for pulp fiction magazines in the 1950s. This retrospective collection of his western work consists of thirty short stories and novellas, presented in chronological order.

If thirty stories sounds like a lot, it is. With that many entries, this collection can’t help but get repetitive. How many stagecoach robberies can fit between the covers of one book? Though none of the characters appear in more than one story, the same types continually pop up under new names. The first seven or eight stories lead the reader to believe Leonard may be a one-trick pony. He confines his subject and setting to the Apache country of Arizona. The protagonist is usually a civilian scout hired to guide a party of soldiers, settlers, or criminals through Indian lands. No matter how much the hero warns his employers about the dangers of such a trip, they stubbornly refuse to listen and plod forward regardless, with dire consequences. Though Leonard has a respectful admiration for the Apaches, his portrayal of them is a stereotype nonetheless. He depicts them as stoic killing machines, keenly intelligent and shrewdly calculating, until a drop of alcohol transforms them into murderous lunatics. Though these early stories are strong individually, when read together they inspire a cumulative Apache fatigue.

Thankfully, after the first quarter of the book Leonard broadens his scope and gets more innovative with his plots and characterization. In “The Big Hunt,” a young buffalo hunter and his companion, an old skinner, amass a bountiful collection of hides, but when the fruit of their labor is stolen from them by some bullies, the boy must set out after the thieves in search of restitution. “Saint with a Six-Gun” tells the tale of a newly appointed deputy marshal assigned to guard a dangerous gunslinger the week before his execution, a mission which may be more than the green lawman can handle. In “The Rancher’s Lady,” a widower goes to meet his new bride, whom he has only known through correspondence. Upon arrival, however, a former acquaintance informs him that she used to be employed at a house of ill repute. Despite its lack of shoot-’em-up action, it’s one of the strongest selections in the book. There are several longer, novella-length pieces which give Leonard the opportunity to establish an ensemble cast of characters and explore the interactions between them. One such entry is “Trouble at Rindo’s Station,” in which a disgruntled Indian affairs agent, his crooked ex-boss, and a couple of stagecoach robbing outlaws find themselves trapped by a violent band of Mescaleros. As the collection progresses, Leonard’s writing goes from good to better to excellent. By the end of the book he has perfected the art of dialogue, and one begins to see the emergence of the wry, rapid-fire banter that characterizes his Chili Palmer or Raylan Givens books. The last two stories in the book, “The Tonto Woman” and “‘Hurrah for Captain Early!’” were included in Leonard’s 2001 short story collection Fire in the Hole, and are both excellent examples of his later, mature style.

With very few exceptions, these are all well-crafted, entertaining stories. Even if you’re not particularly a fan of the western genre, if you like Leonard’s writing, you will enjoy this book. When originally written, these stories were not intended to be read together, and redundancy is an unfortunate by-product of their juxtaposition. The solution: don’t read them all at once. To fully appreciate this hearty 30-course chuck wagon dinner, take a break between helpings and savor the flavor.

Stories in this collection
Trail of the Apache 
Apache Medicine 
You Never See Apaches . . . 
Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo 
The Colonel’s Lady 
Law of the Hunted Ones 
Cavalry Boots 
Under the Friar’s Ledge 
The Rustlers 
Three-Ten to Yuma 
The Big Hunt 
Long Night 
The Boy Who Smiled 
The Hard Way 
The Last Shot 
Blood Money 

Trouble at Rindo’s Station 

Saint with a Six-Gun 
The Captives 
No Man’s Guns 
The Rancher’s Lady 
Moment of Vengeance 
Man with the Iron Arm 
The Longest Day of His Life 
The Nagual 
The Kid 
Only Good Ones 
The Tonto Woman 
“Hurrah for Captain Early!” 

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