Category Archives: Taking Little Novel(la) Risks

Anthem – Ayn Rand

A while back now I set upon the idea of trying authors that I have always felt I should have read yet had been daunted by, yet starting with some of their shorter works. ‘Anthem’ is by far and wide the shortest work that Ayn Rand ever wrote. In fact it is for her much more famous ‘The Fountainhead’ (at a substantial 752 pages) and ‘Atlas Shrugged’ (at a whopping 1184) that Ayn Rand is most probably known by many. I also liked the sound of it because it had a dystopian edge and I am also trying to dip my toes in the world of science fiction as and when the mood takes.

Penguin Classics, paperback, 1937, fiction, 112 pages, broowed from the library

‘It is a sin to write this. It is a sin to think words no others think and to put them down upon a paper no others are to see. It is base and evil. It is as if we were speaking alone to no ears but our own. And we know well that there is no transgression blacker than to do or think alone. We have broken the laws.  The laws say that men may not write unless the Council of Vocations bid them so. May we be forgiven!’

Written in a tunnel which no one else is found this is the how Equality 7-2521, who we will call simply Equality from now on, starts telling us his story. His world is one that is both familiar and unfamiliar world in where society has changed and free thinking is banned. Equality is different from everyone else though and has been told ‘we are born with a curse… we know that we are evil’ as well as physically being 6ft tall which is again seen as freakish and ‘a burden’. Initially I have to admit that as he refers to himself as ‘we’ all the time it did take a while for me to really that Equality was a singular person, but then again in the world he lives being independent minded is not something that is promoted.

Ayn Rand has you intrigued from the very start with ‘Anthem’, and as you read on this is a world which is in many ways a very familiar one and also such an unknown quantity too. You want to learn the new hierarchy of this society from its ‘Home of the Street Sweepers’ to the ‘Palace of Corrective Detention’  and I was particularly keen to learn more about the ‘Unmentionable Times’. Yet my interest started to fade. In part it was the use of language the never end ‘we this’ and ‘we that’ started to grate, by the end of the novella I could see why she had done this yet while I appreciated what she was doing it was rather an effort not to put the book down due to the irritation of the repetition. I didn’t though and did go on in part because finally when Equality meets Liberty 5-3000 (or ‘the golden one’ as he calls her) we start to get a plot that moves and intrigues a little more. And yes, note how they are called Equality and Liberty, that didn’t hit me for a while possibly as my mind kept focusing on ‘we’ every sentence.

‘Anthem’ did sort of save itself in the end, though as I don’t want to give anything away I can’t really say why. I thought mid way through that I should give up because I wasn’t really enjoying it as much as I had hoped and I felt I had read this before. I should say even though it does sound very ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ like and Orwellian ‘Anthem’ was in fact written before that, it seems like what has come since has rather bettered it whilst extending on it. If ‘Anthem’ had been a novel it probably would have bitten the dust with me. As it was only 112 pages I just kept on, even though they were a long 112 pages if I am being totally honest. After finishing it I am not sure I would rush out and read any more Rand, as while I liked the ideas behind the book I didn’t really care for the execution, even though when I had finished it I was strangely glad that I had read it.

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Up at the Villa – W. Somerset Maugham

Well either I have been very lucky in the novellas that I have chosen for ‘Taking Little Novel(la) Risks’ so far or this way of testing out authors that I have meant to read might be favourable to any author. Either way ‘Up at the Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham has been a resounding hit with me. I have always thought that I might rather like W. Somerset Maugham. I think probably because of the era that he wrote in covers two of my favourite periods in history, the end of the 1800’s and the 1930’s and 40’s. I loved the movie adaptation of ‘The Painted Veil’ when I saw that a few years ago and had thought then ‘oh, I must read some of his books’, however I proceeded not to do that very thing. We have all been there I am sure.

Vintage Classics, paperback, 1941, fiction, 120 pages, from the library

When I started ‘Up at the Villa’ I knew it was more than likely that I was going to like this book a lot. It had a slightly familiar feel, its protagonist Mary Panton is a widow (though you think she could easily have been a divorcee if fate hadn’t intervened ‘setting us both free’) who has fled to the hills above Florence to escape the world back home and think about her failed her disastrous marriage. She has however made friends, in the form of ‘The Princess’, and also found herself with more than one suitor already happy to share her future. There is Edgar, one of her fathers friends, who wants to look after her and clearly adores her and there is also Rowley Flint, a rogue if ever there was one, who Mary believes (possibly quite rightly) simply wants to have her.

I was prepared therefore to simply comfortably find myself embroiled in a love triangle that would take place over several lavish dinners, fuelled with wit and banter as the men tried their hardest to woe Mary and would have been quite happy if that had been the case. But it wasn’t. After one dinner and a brilliant sparing match between Mary and Rowley, Mary does something very rash on the way home, something which leads her into a situation that would shock and scandal the society that she is in, and the book takes a much darker turn. I didn’t see this coming (and of course I am not going to tell you what it is, but you wouldn’t guess it from the demure cover – see one below which is older and brilliant) and was literally thrilled by it.

If that wasn’t a revelation of its own then Somerset Maugham’s writing was. I was expecting something that would be much harder work, and yet I flew through this book if about an hour and a half – admittedly it is very short. The characters were marvellous if a touch stereotyped Rowley is the typical incorrigible bachelor who ladies shouldn’t love but do, The Princess was a typical rather wry matriarchal character who loves everybody else’s business and wants to tell everyone how to go about it too. It is Mary’s character that I found fascinating, a woman with fairly good means who doesn’t seem to know what to do with her life and so does something rash, and something she will regret, a woman who at thirty seems to be discovering a different side to herself even when she has had quite a trying time. I liked her a lot. I also liked how Maugham used her to describe the situation women might find themselves in at that time, and just what they shouldn’t go about doing whilst also showing that there are more to the stereotypical male than Mary, and women at the time, might think.

“The Princess gave him another of those quiet smiling looks of hers in which there was the indulgence of an old rip who has neither forgotten nor repented of her naughty past and at the same time a shrewdness of a woman who knows the world like the palm of her hand and come to the conclusion that no one is any better than he should be.
   ‘You’re an awful scamp, Rowley,and you’re not even good-looking enough to excuse it, but we like you’, she said.”

‘Up at the Villa’ is a perfect book when you want something slightly familiar and yet something that completely throws you. There is a comfort in Maugham’s writing that is rather like finding a wonderful black and white film on the telly on a rainy afternoon. That probably sounds ridiculous, or a big cliché, but it sums up my experience of this book the best way I can. You can’t help but loose yourself in it and find you are left wanting to turn to the next one as soon as you can.

The only question is which Somerset Maugham, as I now have 19 more to treat myself to, I should go for next? I don’t know if I am quite ready for ‘Of Human Bondage’ and I can still remember ‘The Painted Veil’ so maybe I should turn to ‘The Magician’ which I have on Mount TBR anyway? Maybe I should go for another shorter one… oh I don’t know – can you help?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Review, Taking Little Novel(la) Risks, Vintage Books, Vintage Classics, W. Somerset Maugham

Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

So yesterday I told you about how I was embarking on ‘Taking Little Novel(la) Risks’. I wasn’t sure which one to start my journey on and so I plumped for one that I thought was going to be the hardest work, ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though I admit that is was a close toss up between this and the Ayn Rand. I have tried Garcia Marquez twice and failed with both ‘Love in a Time of Cholera’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.  I think I didn’t believe I was clever enough for them, or maybe I was just being a lazy reader at the time, and so I took a deep breath and started reading…

Penguin Books, paperback, 2005, fiction, 208 pages, translated by Edith Grossman, from the library

I couldn’t initially decide if I was going to find ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’ a mildly titillating read from its title (if I am being totally honest, especially after my failed attempts at Garcia Marquez before, I will admit that I thought that if it was it might help) and whilst there is some innuendo, bragging of the 514 women that he has slept with, a few very funny scenes of failed seduction and indeed of utter advantage taking, there is so much more going on in this novella.

As the novel opens we are introduced to our narrator on his ninetieth birthday where he has decided that he will give himself ‘the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin’. In fact no sooner have we met him than he is in contact with Rosa Cabarcas, the town’s most infamous madam, who after a struggle finds him Delgadina a young girl of about fourteen. I will admit that when I read the ‘fourteen’ I wasn’t sure if I should read on, I was enthralled by the prose thus far but did I really want to read about a ninety year old man and a girl so young? Well, in the end I decided I should (in part because it was translated by Edith Grossman and I thought it couldn’t be too horrific if a woman had translated it, I don’t mean that in a sexist way just, oh… you understand) and thank goodness I did because what develops as the tale goes on is a touching story not only about love but also about age and a man who has never really had love in his life.

It was really this nameless man who makes this book a really special read. Not only as he goes from being this quite cold man who is very aware that he is difficult, ‘I pass myself off as prudent because I am so evil minded’, to a man in the rather belated first flushes of youth. I also really liked him because of his humour, from tales of taking his maid Damiana by surprise (quite literally), which made me laugh out loud, to his sardonic wit in statements like ‘Movies are not my genre. The obscene cult of Shirley Temple was the final straw.’ I found myself starting to really like this grumpy old so-and-so and really hoping that love might not escape him this time.

Of course I cannot tell you what happens, there was a murderous twist somewhere along the line that gave the novel another dimension of trickery which I really liked, as I wouldn’t want to spoil the reading, and I do recommend you give ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’ a read. Don’t be put of by the title, it’s apt but the contents aren’t as salacious as you might think. I would definitely suggest this to anyone who, if you are like me, might think Garcia Marquez’s writing is impenetrable; you will be pleasantly surprised and probably quite moved. I can’t say I am rushing to read ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ or ‘Love in a Time of Cholera’ just yet, but I will be trying more of his work and then giving one of those epics a go, any recommendations?

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Filed under Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Penguin Books, Review, Taking Little Novel(la) Risks

Taking Little Novel(la) Risks…

I am deep in the middle of reading Man Booker longlisted novels for We Love This Book and also the submissions for the Green Carnation Prize and it’s made me realise, and often without those two excuses, that I do tend to read a lot of contemporary fiction. In fact looking at my reviews most of them now veer towards books published in the last year or soon out. I have started to feel I am missing out on books pre-2010/11 and I think I need to combat that.

I also worry I’ve not read enough of ‘the greats’ either. I’m not just talking about Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens (seriously I haven’t read them, I shouldn’t call myself a lover of books should I?) but also writers like Somerset Maugham or Forster and what about modern-ish classic writers like Philip Roth or Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Well the other day I had a slight epiphany.

Going to the library one lunch time this week (as I don’t already have enough books do I?) I saw ‘Lesley Castle’ by Jane Austen. It was very short, it would be a taster of her writing. I had a brainwave, why not search the shelves for some authors I have meant to try/heard are masters from all eras and find the shortest books by them too? This is the collection I pulled off the shelves…

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I wanted a real mixture from all eras, areas of the world etc and so I ended up with ‘Lesley Castle’ by Jane Austen, ‘Claudine in Paris’ by Colette, ‘Memories of my Melancholy Whores’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘The Lady and the Little Fox Fur’ by Violette Leduc (which Simon T has mentioned), ‘Up At The Villa’ by W. Somerset Maugham and ‘Anthem’ by Ayn Rand. What a collection!

I am going to read them randomly at whim, well I have already devoured two on trains in and out of town this week, but I like the idea of slowly upping my classics in take and being introduced to new older authors between more ‘current’ reading.

What do you all think of this idea? Do any of you do all this already? How do you try and keep a more stable reading diet combined with a whim routine? Or do you not?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Random Savidgeness, Taking Little Novel(la) Risks