A Love Story by Émile Zola

Posted February 15, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

A Love Story by Émile ZolaTitle: A Love Story (Goodreads)
Author: Émile Zola
Translator: Helen Constantine
Series: Les Rougon-Macquart #8
Published: Oxford World's Classics, 1877
Pages: 272
Genres: Classic
My Copy: ARC from Publisher

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Une page d’amour starts off with Hélène Grandjean’s daughter Jeanne falling violently ill. What follows is the story of Hélène, an attractive young widow trying to care for her daughter and hide her secret love affair with Dr Henri Deberle. This is the eighth book in Émile Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series. Subtitled Histoire naturelle et sociale d’une famille sous le Second Empire (Natural and social history of a family under the Second Empire), which really sums up what you can expect from the twenty novels found in the series.

This novel kicked off in a manner that really set the tone and pace but still allows Zola to impress the reader with his elegant style. Normally I find with older classics that they adopt a leisurelier pace but A Love Story was not a slow burn. I was very impressed with the way Émile Zola was able to keep that pace, while I sat in awe of the writing style. Most people know this French writer for Thérèse Raquin and I must admit that I picked A Love Story before knowing it was the eighth book in the series.

The twenty books in Les Rougon-Macquart series covers all aspects of life through the Second French Empire. This is the Imperial regime of Napoleon Bonaparte which took place from 1852 to 1870 (between the second and third French republics but that is too much of a history lesson). Zola wanted to explore French life and these books are often a social critique of the time. The end results is what is considered the most notable books in the French naturalism literary movement.

I will admit that I expected A Love Story to be social criticism, I even went in as viewing through a Marxist lens because the novel was set among the petite bourgeoisie. However I quickly discovered that this novel focused on the psychology of Hélène Grandjean, in particular the differences between love and marriage, as well as motherhood and duty. This was an intense look at a woman who discovered that she was never truly been in love. Her intense relationship with Dr Henri Deberle almost served as a sexual awakening. However the circumstances surrounding their relationship and lives leads the novel to its inevitable conclusion.

A Love Story was such a joy to read, however I do regret not starting elsewhere. There will be plenty more Émile Zola novels in my future, especially since I know that he often focuses on social criticism. I have Thérèse Raquin on my shelves, so I am sure it will happen soon but I suspect La Fortune des Rougon will happen in the near future as well. My love for French literature grows with every book I read, though it will never replace my Russian lit obsession. This is the type of book I would like to leisurely read while sitting in a Paris café, maybe that is how I will re-read A Love Story.


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Posted February 12, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Lincoln in the Bardo by George SaundersTitle: Lincoln in the Bardo (Goodreads)
Author: George Saunders
Published: Bloomsbury, 2017
Pages: 343
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Audiobook

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George Saunders’ long awaited debut novel has been surrounded by hype, and winning the Man Booker prize only helped to launch this book. Saunders is probably best known for his short stories that often share a vibe similar to the television show Black Mirror. I even called his last collection Tenth of December “contemporary witty, with an element of darkness”. Even comparing it to two other great collections that were released about the same time, Black Vodka by Deborah Levy and Revenge by Yōko Ogawa. Lincoln in the Bardo tells the story of Abraham Lincoln in 1862. The Civil War has been raging for almost a year while the President’s eleven year old son lies in bed gravely ill. Despite the predictions of a full recovery, Willie dies and his body is laid to read in a Georgetown cemetery.

Blending historical data collected while researching this novel, George Saunders blends in a narrative of the afterlife and grief. While the title suggest that Willie Lincoln is in the bardo, the narrative seems to fit more with purgatory. In some schools of Buddhism, bardo is known as the state of existence between death and rebirth, while purgatory is a state of purification before heading to heaven. This distinction is interesting as the characters in this limbo often are unwilling to let go of their physical remains and complete their journey into the afterlife. These characters are often faced with deformities representative of their mortal failures. Saunders does consider himself a student of Nyingma Buddhism but my understanding of theology is primarily Christian, so I tend to interpret the writing with that thought in mind.

The other part of this novel is set around the President and his family as they grieve the loss of Willie. It is here we see a lot of the historical documentation come into play. This includes excerpts from newspapers and biographies. This serves to drive the narrative of grief but also highlights the inconsistencies found in history. What made this book so appealing was the confliction in Abraham Lincoln. While grieving the loss of his own son, he was still responsible for the loss of so many others because of the Civil War. While the American Civil war may have led to many good things, the effects of war were truly felt throughout Lincoln in the Bardo.

The novel is told through different speeches; a narrative that closely resembles a play. This is what makes the audiobook such an alluring option. The publisher put a lot of effort in producing, with a cast of 166 voice actors, including Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle, Rainn Wilson, Susan Sarandon and George Saunders. I was worried that between the narrative style and the large cast, this would be too much of a gimmick but I think Saunders and the audiobook production managed to never go overboard. However I can understand why this would not work for some readers.

The end result of Lincoln in the Bardo was a dark comedy, ghost story and while I was a little worried (because of all the hype) I am glad my book club made me read this novel. At the moment I prefer George Saunders’ short stories but I can only compare Lincoln in the Bardo with Tenth of December. It does make me curious to try CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia. I know in the future Saunders will continue to be surrounded by hype but I am still interested to see what is next for this author.


Distracted by Other Books

Posted February 1, 2018 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Monthly Reading / 6 Comments

My Thoughts and Reading in January 2018

When midnight came around to usher in 2018 my first instinct (after celebrating with my wife) was to start reading. I had decided to go into the New Year with no reading goals and no long term plans except to enjoy my reading journey. I love the feeling you get at the beginning of the year where you are ready to achieve but I often find that feeling fades far too quickly. I wanted to see what it would be like to just read and have no reading goals, but here I am celebrating with friends and I just want to be reading.

I went into the year with two books on the go, The Devotion of Suspect X and Suburra. I know many people that will abandon the books and start fresh at the beginning of the year, but I am terrible at abandoning, especially if I am enjoying the books. The whole idea seems nice, in theory. Being distracted by other books is a constant struggle, especially at the beginning of the year.

I was given two books to read for book club over the Christmas break. We were unable to decide which to read and since we do not return till February, we had the time. One of the picks was Lincoln in the Bardo. I was excited for George Saunders’ first novel but since the release I think my interest in reading it died significantly. All the hype around the novel put me off reading it for a long time, but I was still curious. I enjoyed Tenth of December, so I wanted to dip into his writing further.

I ended up getting the audio book and had a wonderful time. The cast of a hundred narrators really worked for Lincoln in the Bardo. I did worry that it would end up being too much of a gimmick, Saunders managed to work with the unique style without going overboard. In the end, the conflict Lincoln had between grieving his son and knowingly sending sons, brothers and fathers to die in a civil war was what stood out. I will be interested to see where Saunders goes from here but I personally prefer his short stories; if I am only judging him based on Lincoln in the Bardo and Tenth of December.

The other book club book was Extinctions, which won the Miles Franklin award. So we ended up reading the Man Booker prize and the Miles Franklin, which is an Australian literary award. I started going to book club in 2012 as a way to push myself. For someone that is so introverted I am often surprised that the steps I take to interact with other people. In the five years attending book club I have been the only male to frequently attend and I tend to hate everything the club loves. If only I could learn to articulate my words better, we could have much better discussions. Then again, I go to practise. If it was not for the book club I may have never read books like The Dinner, Tigers in Red Weather, The Yellow Birds or Sweetland.

It is interesting to see how much the world around me influences my reading, my book club has pushed me to read many books I might not think to pick up but it is hard to say if I would discover them another way. I tend to spend a lot of time on social media with bookish people, from Twitter to GoodReads, from YouTube to blogs. Reading does not have to be a solitary act anymore and I love how easy it is to find people to discuss books with. We may all get distracted by literary prizes and the next over-hyped books but it is the people constantly discussing books that influence me the most.

These are the people that inspired me to try BookTube, another way to push myself and practise articulating my thoughts on what I have been reading. However, I prefer to consider myself a writer or blogger and my major goal for the year is to get back into the habit. I use to review every book I read and while this no longer seems practical, I want to write more. Between my blog and The Literati, my goal is more content; not necessarily reviews, rather I would like to focus on the personal essay. When I was a teenager I thought about writing fiction and all attempts to try my hand in this medium have been laughable. Although I have been with a story idea lately and while I have done my best to actively ignore it, I am yet to get it out of my head. I hold literature to a high standard and there is no way that I would be able to achieve that myself. I have written the idea down and if it continues to plague me then maybe I will not have a choice. I am not ready to try my hand at fiction, I still need to improve my craft.

The idea was sparked by reading Hecate and Her Dogs, but not related to the story. Paul Morand wrote such a beautiful and disturbing novella but I have a hard time separating the man from the book. It is the type of prose that you want to write down and admire. He was modernist writer along with his friend Proust and is considered a cult favourite among the artistic avant-garde. Sadly he was also a vocal anti-Semite and a Nazi collaborator. A question that has been asked a lot lately with people speaking out against sexual assault; how can we love the art, when the artist is such an asshole? It has become difficult to pick a movie nowadays. I do not want to forgive Paul Morand for his inhumane thoughts, nor call him a product of his time but I struggle to find where to draw the line. Ideally I never want to support people with problematic views but if I did this, I would quickly run out of classics to read; although I would quickly get my TBR under control.

My wife went for a new job that would require making a significant move. This has led me to spend a lot of time looking at my shelves, I mean, more so than usual. If we make this move there would be a serious need to cull my bookshelves. While I have toyed with this idea before, I never liked the idea of culling anything I have not read. I may not be interested in reading all the books at the moment but this could change. A major cull would force my hand. I want my shelves to be reflection of the books I am interested in reading and the ones that define my reading life. Eventually I hope to have a very small TBR pile but currently most of the books I own are unread.

I use to buy books frequently however my book buying habits have been through a considerable change. Currently my reading has been focused on the books I have received for my birthday or Christmas, like The Housekeeper and the Professor. However my time gazing at my shelves has reminded me of all the books I would love to revisit. I reread The Elegance of the Hedgehog as a result. It is hard to find the right balance between reading the unread and all the books I wish to dip back into; with a smaller TBR, this might be easier to manage. I am constantly being distracted by all the books I have and wish to read.

I keep checking the price on Matt McIntosh’s novel, theMystery.doc but it is still sitting at $45 Australian dollars. Part of me worries that this post-modern novel will never be published in paperback but do I have the patience to tackle a 1600 page book at the moment? Another book for my wishlist. I suspect that while reading Jacob’s Room is Full of Books I will find more books to add to my wishlist. It did inspire me to start writing monthly wrap ups again. I am actually trying to use her style of mixing my personal and reading life into one. However I plan to try and highlight my bookish thought process as well. I enjoyed the book but I preferred her other, Howard’s End is on the Landing. I am inspired to write this because of the book and I hope that it is just leading me back to writing more frequently. Also with a monthly post like this, the need to review everything I read will be eliminated. Let me know if you like this style.

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Best Books of 2017

Posted December 15, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in What are you Reading / 4 Comments

As 2017 finally comes to an end, all I can think is ‘Thank God’. While this has not been a bad reading read (over a hundred books), I did not achieve some of my goals. Most importantly I was stuck in a real creative slump for most of the year and I had trouble climbing out. I decided to take a step back from BookTube because I did not feel like it was the right medium for me. I was hoping to focus more on blogging and writing essays but that never happened either.

My goals for 20017 included writing an essay a month and I failed miserably, but now I havae co-founded a literary journal so I have to make sure in 2018 I write more. For my reading goals, I planned to read 50% books in translation which I was able to achieve and I hope to continue with this in future years. I also had a list of about ten books I wanted to read in 2017 and ended up reading only three of them. I guess planning my reading is not for me and with that in mind, I decided to have no reading goals for 2018. I just want to read what I want, when I want. I want to be carefree and enjoy my reading journey. I hope this will help me get back into my creative groove and blog or write more frequently.

Having said that, 2017 was a pretty decent reading year for me and I thought I should cover off some of my favourite books. I probably should make sure I review all these books at some point but here is my list. First, I want to give an honourable mentions to The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark, Night Prayers by Santiago Gamboa (translated by Howard Curtis), The North Water by Ian McGuire, Belladonna by Daša Drndić (translated by Celia Hawkesworth) and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (translated by Natasha Wimmer).

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Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

Posted December 11, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Made for Love by Alissa NuttingTitle: Made for Love (Goodreads)
Author: Alissa Nutting
Published: Ecco, 2017
Pages: 310
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: eBook

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When you think of Alissa Nutting’s writing, what comes to mind? Dark? Disturbing? Psychological? Or transgressive? While this is what I have come to expect from Nutting, I tend to enjoy the social criticism found in her books. In her stunning debut novel Tampa, we follow Celeste Price, a young beautiful middle grade teacher who is a hebephile. Which allows for an interesting take on the nature of a sexual predator, often not associated with female sexuality. This does allow Nutting to explore the schoolboy fantasy of an older woman teaching them the ways of the flesh, whether it be a Mrs Robinson type character, a babysitter or in this case a teacher. The sexual desire of a boy with their budding sexuality; to be with an experienced, already developed older woman. Tampa looks at how developing boys are unable to separate their emotions from the sexual act and this ultimately leads to them getting hurt not, to mention the emotional and psychological damage it will do to them for years to come.

However, you could also look at it as a novel of a woman unhappy in her marriage. From the outside it looks like they are the perfect couple, he is rich, hardworking and determined but she is truly unhappy, despite what people see. Is that because of her singular sexual obsession for fourteen year old boys or is it far more? When Tampa was being published, Alissa Nutting was in the midst of getting a divorce. While Tampa explores someone unhappy in marriage, her new novel Made for Love is the next step, someone trying to escape a bad marriage.

This novel follows Hazel who has just moved back in with her father and his new girlfriend Diane (truth is, Diane is a lifelike sex doll). She has run out of her marriage with Byron Gogol, the tech mogul and founder of Gogol Industries. Hazel is willing to give up the high life to just be free, but is she ever truly free? She ran because Byron planned to make her the subject of the first-ever human “mind-meld”, he will be able to see everything she does or thinks. Hazel on the other hand will not have the same level of access, he is a CEO and needs to protect his company.

I often look for the autobiographical elements in a book, I find it gives me a deeper understanding to both the novel and the author. This is why I often like to read a biography on some of my favourite authors. While I do not know much about Alissa Nutting’s personal life, knowing she went through a separation while writing Tampa really added an extra layer to the novel. Following up with a book similar to Made for Love, reveals even more. It suggests that there was more than just an unhappy marriage.

While there are plenty of novels about women living in a controlling relationship, I think Made for Love was the first one that ever made me feel the anxiety of trying to escape. In an age of social media and technology, it has increasingly become easier to track and monitor someone. Social media allows us to read about their thoughts with the world, and with an app like ‘Find My Friends’ I can tell you where my wife is right now. Privacy is becoming a distant memory and for Hazel, even her thoughts are not safe.

Yet again, on the surface their marriage appears to be a happy one, not even Hazel’s father understands why she would leave and give up on a life of luxury. Made for Love reminds me of Black Mirror in the way it explores technology in relationships and the disturbing reality of what it would be like to try to escape and abusive one. The way people value wealth and status over the emotional wellbeing. This is a biting satire and is what I have come to expect from Alissa Nutting, I eagerly await her next book.

This review was originally published in the literary journal The Literati


Crash by J.G. Ballard

Posted August 9, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

Crash by J.G. BallardTitle: Crash (Goodreads)
Author: J.G. Ballard
Published: Harper Perennial, 1973
Pages: 185
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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I have always enjoyed transgressive fiction, not because it is controversial and it breaks free from the expectations of society, but because of its satirical nature. When exploring the darker side of humanity, you are always going to get some attention and let’s face it, controversy sells. I am drawn to transgressive fiction because it defies conventional literature. Where else do you get to explore addiction and antisocial behaviours in a safe environment? It is a philosophy in its self, a way to strip away everything and look at the act itself. In the essay “Preface to Transgression”, Michel Foucault described it as a place where, “…God is absent, and where all of our actions are addressed to his absence in a profanation which at once identifies it, dissipates it, exhausts itself in it, and restores it to the empty purity of its transgression.” To me, it sums it up more intelligently than I could, it is a place where morality and laws are stripped away, allowing us to explore the nature of the transgressive in detail.

The nature of transgressive fiction did mean that these novels got a lot of attention and many were banned or the subject of obscenity trials. Yet some of the classics in this genre helped explore the ideas found in psychoanalysis (a psychological theory dedicated to treating mental disorders by investigating the interaction of the unconscious and conscious mind) and psychosexual development (psychoanalytical field dedicated to sexual behaviour, in particular the Freudian theory of the five stages of sexual development). Behind all the controversy, I think of the underlying themes to be found in transgressive fiction is one of self-discovery in an unaccepting world. The term ‘counterculture’ comes to mind when thinking about transgressive fiction, but even before that term was penned, we had D.H. Lawrence exploring a love affair between two different classes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Georges Bataille taking an unconventional look at his relationship with his father in Story of the Eye.

When thinking about J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, I was having a difficult time working out how it fit into the genre. When thinking of it in relation to psychosexual development, Crash does explore symphorophilia (coined in 1984 to refer to a paraphilia in which sexual arousal involves staging and watching tragedies like car accidents), autassassinophilia (a paraphilia where an individual derives sexual arousal by the thought and/or risk of dying), and/or car crash fetishism. It is certainly controversial, one publisher famously said, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” about Crash, but what did this novel have to say about society? Just to give you some background about this novel, it originally was a short story in the 1970 book The Atrocity Exhibition. Written shortly after his wife’s sudden death, the book is a series of interconnecting stories that explores the idea of how mass media inadvertently invades and splinters the mind of an individual. Suffering a mental breakdown, the protagonist (a doctor in a psychiatric hospital) surrenders to the world of psychosis.

Knowing this, I was beginning to understand what J.G. Ballard was trying to explore in Crash. If you look at cinema and the impact the Hays Code had on movies you might better understand the drastic change to films in the 1970s. In 1968, the code was officially replaced with the MPAA film rating system, which lead to an influx of controversial movies full of sex and violence. I think some of the darkest and grittiest movies come from this era. So does that mean Ballard is exploring mass media sensationalising sex and violence?

The automobile has become a huge part of our lives, we rely and depend on it to get us around but the amount of car accidents that lead to death is extremely high. According to the Association for Safe International Travel (ASIRT), nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day, while an additional 20-50 million people suffer injuries from car accidents. Globally, a car crash is the 9th leading cause of death, but in the 1970s this statistic would be much worse. This means, a car accident will be one of the most devastating experiences in some people’s lives. So what is Ballard trying to say when he explores this idea of sexual pleasure from a crash? That, I will leave to the reader.

Another thing that stood out to me in Crash was the narrator was named James Ballard. Naming the protagonist after himself means that the reader has to ask some very confronting questions, because we cannot rely on the author to give us the answers. I think it was a brilliant move by J.G. Ballard, automatically we might think that this is a fetish of the author but this allows him to explore the “empty purity of [this] transgression”. We are confronted we a completely different perspective and in the words of Ballard about this novel “[he] wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit. I wanted to force it to look in the mirror.”

In the end, like all good transgressive novels, Crash did leave me with plenty to think about. I had a lot of issues with this novel, I think the repetitive nature really hindered my enjoyment. I am not going to write off J.G. Ballard completely, but I am unsure which novel to try next; I was thinking High Rise. I love when a book leaves me thinking, and even writing this essay, I think I have gained a great appreciation of this controversial novel. Maybe I will return to it in the distant future and see what I think.

 


No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel

Posted July 28, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 4 Comments

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise FrenkelTitle: No Place to Lay One's Head (Goodreads)
Author: Françoise Frenkel
Translator: Stephanie Smee
Published: Vintage, 1945
Pages: 286
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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I have seen a lot of comparisons between Françoise Frenkel’s memoir and Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. They both depict the struggles of living in Nazi occupied France for a Jewish woman and both were works that were found by chance and published. I am yet to read Suite Française, although it sits on my shelf quietly waiting, so I am unable to speak to any more similarities. No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien où poser sa tête) was originally published in 1945 with a limited run by the now defunct publishing house Verlag Jehebe. Thirty years later it was rediscovered in an attic in the south of France and republished in 2015. Thanks to the efforts of Australian translator Stephanie Smee, an English translation of this book was released this year.

This memoir gives an account of part of her life, from opening Berlin’s first specialist French bookstore in 1921 to her experience with the rise of the Nazi party. Françoise Frenkel, like many other Jewish people, suffered greatly, but what fascinated me about No Place to Lay One’s Head is what she left out of the book. There is no mention of her husband in Rien où poser sa tête at all. The only reason I know about his existence is because of the timeline in the back of the book.

Grief is a powerful emotion and people find their own ways to deal with the pain. Looking at this timeline I know that Frenkel and her husband Simon Raichenstein opened Maison du Livre français (which means House of the French Books) together. He was deported (due to the fact he was a Belarusian) and lived in France from 1933, until he was arrested in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Françoise Frenkel ran the bookstore alone until she escaped Germany in 1939. I do not know if the two spent reunited in France, but I suspect that they may have. My suspicions are based on this idea of grief; Frenkel started writing No Place to Lay One’s Head in 1943 after she was able to so escape to Switzerland, and I get the feeling that the anger and sadness that comes through in the book might have been related to the one person she cannot bare to talk about.

I picked up this book in the hopes to explore the life of a specialist book seller in a rapidly changing political climate but I got something different. I would have loved more chapters on her time learning the trade in a second hand bookstore in the Rue Gay-Lussac. Or even exploring the idea of opening a specialist French bookshop in Germany and the impact it had. Maybe even something that compared the idea to Sylvia Beach opening Shakespeare and Company (a specialty book store dedicated to English language books) in France two years earlier. I love books about books and thought these would be some interesting topics to explore. However I got something completely different; something so devastating and yet full of beauty.

I am partial to a book that is able to deliver cruelty and shock in such an elegant way and I think No Place to Lay One’s Head was able to do just that. It is a weird feeling to go into a book hoping for one thing but finding something unexpected. This memoir is heartbreaking and to try and understand everything she was not saying, just made this book even more affecting. In the back of the book there is one picture of a dedication she wrote to a priest. “…I would be so grateful for your prayers – I seek inner peace; I am grieving for so many and know not where my family have been laid to rest.” I think that sums up the feeling Françoise Frenkel must have had when writing No Place to Lay One’s Head.


The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Posted July 27, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 6 Comments

The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoTitle: The Savage Detectives (Goodreads)
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Translator: Natasha Wimmer
Published: Picador, 2007
Pages: 577
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
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Chilean author Roberto Bolaño may have only gained traction in the English-speaking world shortly after his death in 2003 but he quickly cemented his legacy as a great South American author. In fact, Chris Andrews’ translation of By Night in Chile was the first English translation of Bolaño and it was released in December 2003. Between Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer, all but two of his novels were translated into English, not to mention his short story collections, poetry and essays. That is twelve novels translated in which two Roberto Bolaño novels get the most attention, The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The first Roberto Bolaño novel I read was By Night in Chile, a novella that managed to make a big impression on me. The book saw Jesuit priest Father Urrutia reflect on his life while in a feverish daze and open with the brilliant line “I am dying now, but I still have many things to say”. The fever seems to allow Bolaño to explore an idea of the reliability of memory because you could help wondering if it was an unreliable narrator or he just lived an unorthodox life. By Night in Chile is a novel that I still think about and even though I feel like I read it recently, I am keen to return to it.

Because of this novella, I was keen to pick up more Roberto Bolaño and I recently joined in with a group of people to read The Savage Detectives. My experience was different than what I initially expected. First, it is difficult to compare The Savage Detectives with By Night in Chile, they are very different in style and themes. Also, out of the eight-people reading this, five of them never finished, while I think I was the only one that really enjoyed it. At times it was struggle to read, but I think getting to the end gave me a real sense of accomplishment and the novel will stick in my head for a very long time.

To get an idea of what Roberto Bolaño is trying to achieve in this novel you really need to understand a little about his life. He was born in Chile but his family moved to Mexico while he was a teenager. He never finished school because he dropped out to work as a journalist. He left Mexico to return to Chile to help the socialist regime of Salvador Allende but was thrown in prison after Augusto Pinochet’s coup. On his return to Mexico, he started living as a bohemian poet and saw himself as an enfant terrible of literature, his own editor Jorge Herralde recalls him saying that he was “a professional provocateur feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody”. He was a young ambitious poet, what was he to do? Naturally he tried to start a literary movement which was called Infrarrealismo.

What makes The Savage Detectives so interesting is that it is a parody of Roberto Bolaño’s own life. His alter ego is one of the principal characters, and every other character is based off someone in his life. While By Night in Chile reflects on life from the deathbed, The Savage Detectives takes a similar but drastically different approach. It was like Bolaño wanted to reflect on his ambitious ideals and just how cocky he was. It felt like he was never afraid to poke fun of himself and I think if I knew more about his life, I would have gotten a lot more out of this novel.

I do not know enough of Mexican literature (especially the poetry) but I found The Savage Detectives to be a very approachable novel. You get a sense right away that the Visceral Realist are a parody, the name itself conjures up an image of trying hard and failing. I was so glad I finally got to this novel and I know that I will have to pick up more Roberto Bolaño in the future. In fact, I think he is an author that deserves to be read completely (well everything translated into English at least). I will admit that my knowledge in South American authors is lacking but the more I read, the more I appreciate their style. Next up… Jorge Luis Borges.


A Half Yearly Reflection

Posted July 12, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literature / 8 Comments

I have been going through an extended period of self-reflection lately, mainly relating to my role in the world of literature. I love books and I constantly want to talk about them. However, I have struggled to find the motivation to do so. I went into the year with the goal of writing an essay a month; this was meant to push me to become a better writer and a better communicator of literature. I was able to produce a few essays and I am happy with them but I have not being able to push myself into producing more content. I really love my blog and I often see it as a place to store my writing, and normally I am unconcerned if I am not producing content but I went into this year with the goal to become a better writer.

I am not writing this as a way to get compliments; I can see that my writing has improved since beginning this blog, I am just reflecting on my situation. For me, I feel like there is much further I need to go before I am happy with my writing, although by the time I get there I might feel different. I never see this as a problem, I think it drives me to be better. One of my biggest challenges is writing momentum. I can sit down to write an essay with plenty of ideas in my head and they come flooding out, but I tend to get to about a thousand words and I have lost all steam. I would love to write longer pieces but it is a challenge. This is an issue I have had for a while and the situation is improving. When I first started blogging I struggled to get further than five hundred words. Most of my writing comes from a single typing frenzy but I still need to edit and clean up my work. I am trying to work on a way to allow myself to continue on a topic and write over multiple sessions but the beauty in writing essays is that I can practise my craft in short sessions.

I have so many ideas that I would like to get down on paper (or in my case on my blog). I would love to start writing my bibliomemoir, which I am still unsure if I should share with the world yet, but I feel like my reading journey is interesting and maybe writing it down would be beneficial for myself. It does not matter what comes of it but I think a project like this could be a good way to practise editing my own work. I have not talked much about my process but I know where my weaknesses are and that is in the editing/revising.

I also have not been writing many book reviews lately either. Not because I did not read anything, but because I want to step further away from them. I think reviews have become the backbone of my blog and while I know I should do more of them, my new focus is on personal essays. I have a list of books I would like to review at some point but I have shifted away from the need to review everything I read. I want to talk about literature, however I want to do it in a way that is less like a review. It may be that I feel restricted by the review format and I just need to approach them differently. If I call it an essay instead of a book review, I might feel like I have more freedom to write about the literature I have been reading.

Since I have been reflecting on my writing goal, I might as well do the same with my reading goals. In a previous post I mentioned that I wanted to push the percentage of books in translation to 50%. I am currently sitting at 53% books in translation (from 24 different countries) after completing 55 books so far. My other major reading goals included reading the five-book collection of Franz Kafka I have from Oxford World’s Classics; so far I have only progressed as far as re-reading The Trial. I also set out a list of books I would like to complete by the end of the year, which I have been making progress on, I just noticed that I have a tendency to be distracted by other books.

Statistics and goals help guide my reading and help me be focused but I have been beginning to wonder if it is more of a hindrance than a guide. Having re-read The Year of Reading Dangerously, I started to change the way I pick my books, I thought it might be better if I have a list of books to read next. I tried this with the book on my nightstand and it seemed to work until I got distracted by my local library, I think I need to return to this format. The idea was to have a collection of ten book on my nightstand and focus on reading those books. So that I am not being distracted by new books, or books on my shelves, instead just picking a small pile of books that I am interested in getting to soon and focus on those books. I know I am always distracted by other books, I just need discipline as well. My hope is to be able to plan my reading a little better.

Another part of me wants to abandon all reading plans and just read what I want to read. After the pleasure I got from re-reading The Trial, I have been picking up other books to re-read. I recently re-read The Sense of an Ending after watching the movie adaptation. The Bell Jar is sitting next to me as we speak waiting for me to pick up again. There are so many books I want to revisit and maybe if I had no goals, I could drift from book to book, just enjoying where my mood takes me, Project 5000 be damned.

This half of the year has been a great time to discover literature; I fell in love with Marguerite Duras, Muriel Spark, existentialism and books like Back to Moscow. I have had complicated feeling toward Toni Morrison after finally reading one of her books and I cannot stop thinking about a book that mostly bored me. I read some interesting non-fiction, including Nabokov’s Speak, Memory and I disagreed with the winner of the Man Booker International Prize. These are the joys of reading, you can have differing opinions or find joy in reading about unlikely subjects, like people drinking.

Moving into the next half of 2017, I am unsure where my writing or reading will take me. In fact this essay did not help me, it has left me with more questions than answers. In fact I did not even touch on my complex feelings towards booktube. Nevertheless, I hope there will be more content on my blog and more musings about literature in the future. I will leave you with my top five books of the first half of the year.

  1. The Lover by Marguerite Duras (translated by Barbara Bray)
  2. The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
  3. Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
  4. Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades
  5. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Posted May 22, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick HamiltonTitle: The Slaves of Solitude (Goodreads)
Author: Patrick Hamilton
Published: Constable & Robinson, 1947
Pages: 327
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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Patrick Hamilton is one of those authors I kept hearing about but no one had actually read him. An author that is often compared to Graham Greene (and sometimes Charles Dickens) and yet I could not tell you anything about his books. Well, until recently when I picked up his 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude. Doris Lessing (who wrote the introduction to my edition called Patrick Hamilton “a marvellous novelist who’s grossly neglected”1. What a delight it was to find a novelist like Hamilton, there was something quite thrilling about reading a novel that is underappreciated, like I was in on a literary secret but I just cannot keep quiet.

Patrick Hamilton was born to writer parents but due to his father’s alcoholism the family lived in boarding houses. He became a novelist and published his first novel Monday Morning (1925) in his twenties. His first major success was the play Rope (1929) which was later turned into a movie of the same name directed by the legendary Alfred Hitchcock. Another of his plays, Gas Light (1938) gave rise to the psychological term ‘gaslighting’ which is commonly used today. His writing is often associated with an acerbic humour but later in his life he started to write in a more misanthropic voice. His own alcoholism and disillusions towards capitalism are often the driving force in his novels believing that violence and fascism would mark the end of capitalism. The Slaves of Solitude is the only one of his works to deal with the Second World War directly.

The Slaves of Solitude explores the lives of the residents living in a boarding house of the small fictional town Thames Lockden during the Second World War. While largely focusing on the experiences of Miss Roach, who moved to the suburban town to escape the overwhelming terrors and rigor of a city. Hoping for a dull and uncomplicated life, Miss Roach soon finds that living in close proximity to others, the added pressure brought on by war, and then the appearance of Vicki Kugelmann makes things anything by simple.

This is a quiet novel exploring the life of Mary Roach, a spinster type character who is just looking for some solitude. The cast of characters living in the Rosamund Tea Rooms do not make life easy. There is Mr Thwaites, who is often described as the ‘President in Hell’; Miss Steele and Miss Barrett, two aging gossiping spinsters; a retired comedian and also her so-called friend Vicki Kugelman. The novel follows Miss Roach and Vicki as tensions between them rise, as they become rivals in love. The Slaves of Solitude turns into an exploration into the emotional struggle between the two and their love triangle in exquisite detail.

I often hate the term love triangle and far too often feels so fake and unrealistic. However in The Slaves of Solitude, Patrick Hamilton is able to explore this trope the right way. This is a highly emotional novel, as a reader you get to experience all the anger and jealousy that Miss Roach is feeling. Hamilton is able to construct this complex web of emotions, not just because of the love triangle but also drawing on the emotions caused by war and living together. What impressed me most was just how much raw emotion was being explored with all its nuances.

Even when exploring different stages of sobriety, Patrick Hamilton has this unique ability to capture the changes in emotions, manners and personality. I do not think I have ever read a book that can capture this as well as The Slaves of Solitude. There is something so satisfying about being taken on an emotional journey and know that the author has the skills to master every unique feeling that might come up along the way.

This is not a plot heavy book, but the character development is well worth reading. Make yourself a Gin and French (Miss Roach’s drink of choice) and give The Slaves of Solitude a go. I know I will be heading back into the writing of Patrick Hamilton very soon. This novel was hilarious and witty but was still able to capture the raw emotions of the characters. A balance that seems impossible to pull off but Patrick Hamilton seems to do it with ease. I cannot recommend The Slaves of Solitude more, and I hope that more people will be reading it in the future.