My foray into the 19th century realist novels continues with Balzac. Set in mid 19th century Paris, I am drawn into Balzac’s slow unveiling of the French high society. This is my first Balzac and in the first few pages alone, I am introduced to his style of direct (to the point of crude) depiction of the French aristocracy. (How different from the style of his contemporaries who rely on saying much by not saying anything at all, relying only hints and implications.) Women – let me qualify that – beautiful women are treated not just as possessions but as a commodity to be used as a bargaining ace, to be discarded when convenient, to be bought for societal gains. (Only the denizens of the 13th arrondissement of Paris can equal this.) Plain, old and forgotten Lisbeth knew her place in society. Cunning, she used these societal expectations to setup the Hulots’ fall. I enjoyed Balzac’s direct, bold, comical and exaggerated characterizations – the Baron as the “(self)lovesick fool”, the leering (and posing) Crevel (I spent the entire novel picturing him as Gerard Depardieu) and the ambitious Madame Marneffe who at some point juggled 4 lovers and a husband. And though a bit tedious, I did like that Balzac spent the first 150 pages setting up the characters’ back stories.
While some have direct literary references, others share similar themes and mood, and others just naturally fit (in my head, at least).
1. Radiohead’s 2+2=5 to George Orwell’s 1984
Well this is a no-brainer. The phrase 2+2=5 is of course the false propaganda in Orwell’s 1984, representing “the Party’s” thought control and manipulation. The track 2+2=5 is from Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief CD. Recorded in 2002, the album was written at the time of the US War on Terror, exploring powerlessness and paranoia.
2. Accidental Babies by Damien Rice to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover
Damien Rice is one of my favorite singer-songwriters and I’ve always felt that there’s intensity and complexity in his songs and lyrics. This intensity perfectly reflects the mood of Constance and Oliver’s relationship. It deftly captures the feeling of insecurity in being the other and the intensity and sense of urgency of their relationship.
3. I Lost You by The Walkmen to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence
The attraction between Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska is so palpable. But he had to sacrifice his greatest love to conform to a close-minded, malicious society. The Walkmen’s big, rich, dramatic tune and Hamilton Leithauser singing with such longing perfectly matches The Age of Innocence’s mood.
4. Beirut’s Postcards from Italy to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Italy is that other in Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond’s relationship. At the blossoming of their love affair, Osmond likened their love to a Florentine summer day, “My dear girl, I can’t tell you how life seems to stretch there before us – what a long summer afternoon awaits us. It’s the latter half of an Italian day – with a golden haze, and the shadows just lengthening, and that divine delicacy in the light, the air, the landscape, which I have loved all my life and which you love today.” Sadly, Italy (Rome, in particular) also became Isabel’s prison, removing her from society and family.
5. White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes to Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome
The song’s lyric “And I turned ’round and there you go. And Micheal you would fall,
And turn the white snow, Red as strawberries in the summertime.” The image of the red blood in the snow? We all know how Ethan Frome ends.
The book can best be summed up by Atwood herself in this amusing opening of the book’s last chapter,
“In my part of the world, we have a ritual interchange that goes like this:
First person: “Lovely weather we’re having.”
Second person: “We’ll pay for it later.”
What this ritual interchange reveals is a larger habit of thinking about the more enjoyable things in life: they’re only on loan or acquired on credit, and sooner or later the date when they must be paid for will roll around. “
Spending a great part of the year reading 19th century novels, I was looking forward to her exploration of the theme of debt (and money) in literature. She theorizes that at the very core of these novels (even in Austen’s romantic novels) is money (or the lack thereof in some cases). In fact, in novels like Madame Bovary and House of Mirth, the heroines’ ruin was brought about by issues of money. Although, I have to say I’m slightly disappointed that Balzac, whose novels unabashedly explores the ill effects of debt (both in the financial and metaphorical sense), was not referenced.
Here’s Atwood herself discussing Debt as motif in literature:
My 2012 literary journey can be highlighted with the discovery of two authors. Dabbling into sci-fi (I haven’t been much of a fan) by way of HG Wells via Margaret Atwood and this ongoing love affair with Edith Wharton. I picked up a copy of Age of Innocence years ago – it survived my move to Singapore 9 years ago but has stayed forgotten in my bookshelf until late last year. I was blown away by that book and once again, Wharton doesn’t disappoint in The House of Mirth. I daresay this is my favorite work of hers.
A novel once again set at the turn of the 20thc New York upper class, Wharton explores the role of the female in an unforgiving society (“Isn’t marriage your vocation? Isn’t it what you’re all brought up for?”) and the societal maneuverings that chews up its victims. The shunning of Lily Bart by a society that was all too quick to believe the worst, left her with no prospects, no friends and without any useful skills that she was so completely stripped of confidence. She refused Rosedale’s help (I am convinced it was without any dark motives.) and she didn’t even think herself deserving of Selden’s love. But ahh Lily, if only you were a little bit more cunning!
And Lawrence Selden – can you think of any male character more vile? He was quick to judge Lily for her aspirations and scoffs (and call bullshit) at the society he pretends to be outside of. He ran away from Lily when he thought she was having an affair with Trenor (when he himself was tapping Bertha Dorset!) and was ready to believe the worst in her. He acts like he’s Lily’s savior yet never had the courage to offer any real, tangible help. Spineless!
Edith Wharton’s writing is so deft, her characters so fleshed out that I have often forgotten throughout reading this novel that this is written in the third person.
On a lighter note, I am no smoker and hate cigarettes but damn you Edith Wharton, you make them sound so delicious.
*Note this review was originally written in January 2013.
So let me start by sharing how my literary love affair began. Like many devoted readers, it all started when I was young, particularly with a favorite storybook that I regularly checked-out from the school library. It was about a family of country mice who had one mission – to go to the moon. Why? Because they think the moon is one giant ball of cheese. It was a picture book and as a 6-year-old, I’d scan through its pages over and over dreaming of living in their comfy country homes and enjoying the lush greens of the outdoors. To this day, those pictures are still vivid in my mind.
|Bitten by the literary bug!|
That was the spark!
From then on I was the kid who had my nose constantly buried in a book. Whenever Ma and I would go to the mall, I can have a choice to buy one small item to bring home. We would always end up at National Bookstore where I’d drag her to the the Nancy Drew section. (It was either the bookstore or SM to buy hair ribbons – my other passion back in the day. :p)
As I grew older, I graduated on to Sweet Valley Twins and High, teenybopper romance from Sweet Dreams then in high school, it felt we were being ~rebellious to our Catholic school education by reading “mature books” – which simply means, books with a half-naked Fabio on the cover and a lengthy description of sex (OMG! what!) and the hilarious euphemisms for the male and female genitalia. Then, I moved on to suspense thrillers Ken Follett style or scifi-lite through Michael Chrichton. But after a while, I was getting slowly bored. The plots in these books are the equivalent of draw by numbers (not to mention the writing were mostly terrible.)
So, I turned to classics. I must admit part of the reason I did was because they were cheap. Goodwill Bookstore had a huge collection of classic titles which they were selling for PHP30 ($1.00!) each. With a measly paycheck and a voracious appetite for reading, classics were heaven sent to me. I devoured everything from Austen to the Brontes to Flaubert. (Madame Bovary remains one of my favorite books of all time.)
Then, in 2004, I made the big, life-changing move to Singapore. Borders and Kinokuniya carried an impressively wide catalogue which deeply fed my appetite. (Not to mention, a wide collection at the Public Library!)
And so continues my tireless bookish journey.