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review 2014-06-02 01:00
Not Destined to Be a Favorite of Mine
The Ambassadors - Henry James,Harry Levin

I'd read that Henry James had a very distinct split in styles, and that accordingly readers often differ greatly in which style they like. The only other book by Henry James I had read before this was <i>Washington Square</i>, one of his early novels, and it's a favorite--but that made me all the more reluctant to try one of his later novels and feel disappointed. I don't know if disappointment describes how I feel about <i>The Ambassadors</i>, one of his late and most celebrated novels. Bored and frustrated at times, admiring at others--but I definitely prefer the more straightforward, more simple in style <i>Washington Square.</i>

Late Henry James features some of the most convoluted sentences I've encountered in literature. I wouldn't go so far as to say this sported the kind of sentence where you are lost before you get to the end, and at times I did admire how much James could pack in--this is a novel very dense in meaning--but it probably did at the least slow the pace when you have lines filled with semi-colons, commas, dashes and other punctuation tricks to keep sentences like this one aloft:

<i>Melancholy Murger, with Francine and Musette and Rodolphe, at home, in the company of the tattered, one--if he not in his single self two or three--of the unbound, the paper-covered dozen on the shelf; and when Chad had written, five years ago, after a sojourn then already prolonged to six months, that he had decided to go in for economy and the real thing, Strether's fancy had quite fondly accompanied him in this migration, which was to convey him, as they somewhat confusedly learned at Woollett, across the bridges and up the Montagne Sainte-Genevieve.</i>

Also, in comparison with <i>Washington Square</i>, let alone, say Dickens, <i>The Ambassadors</i> has a paucity of plot. Not much happens here. Stether comes to Paris as the "ambassador" of his fiancee, to convince her son Chad to come home and becomes entangled with the people around him and is seduced by their charms and that of Paris. That's the core of theme and plot.  The climax of the book turns on interpreting a fleeting expression seen from afar. The dialogue is simpler than the narrative, to the point of frustration at times because there are such underplayed subtle currents you have to strain to figure out what is really going on between people. And though at times I did find those challenging nuances fascinating, especially whenever Maria Gostrey appeared, in the end I felt unmoved by these characters--a very different reaction than how I felt at the end of <i>Washington Square.</i>

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review 2014-03-24 03:09
Considered One of the Greatest Novels for Good Reason
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

On the surface this novel could be read as a psychological thriller, family drama, and murder mystery--with enough of a twist to satisfy an Agatha Christie fan. It's rather beside the point though, and the reveal is hardly the climax of the book. This is after all one of the most celebrated works of not just Russian, but world literature, one of the candidates for greatest novel ever written. My introduction to Dostoyevsky was an excerpt from this novel, the chapter "The Grand Inquisitor." And not in a literature course, but a philosophy course, where it was used to raise issues about the nature of God and the problem of evil. It's the speech of (and a story by) the atheist Ivan Karamazov he tells to his devout brother Aloysha. And to give Dostoyevsky his due, he props up no straw man--it's a powerful indictment of God.

Not that I always appreciated the religious-themed passages. My Dostoyesky could go on and on... Those of you who complained about the speechifying in the novels by Russian-born Ayn Rand? The similarities in style are no accident--she was a fan of Dostoyevsky--certainly not of his philosophy, to which she was diametrically opposed, but of the way he wove such themes into plot and character. Sometimes I felt preached at in this novel--I particularly found the chapter on the sainted Zossima's teachings an unbearable slog, and by midpoint I decided to skip the rest of that chapter. Maybe some day I'll go back, but I rather doubt it. But believe me, that was the only part I skipped or wanted to skip. The eldest brother Mitya sometimes came across as too-stupid-to-live and the youngest Aloysha too goodie-goodie. And every female character was a drama queen--not that the men fare much better. But as long as the focus was on the brothers and their relationships with each other and their odious father, I was riveted. And certainly each of them were more engaging to follow through hundreds of pages than Raskolnikov, the monomaniacal and repulsive center of Dostoyevsky's <i>Crime and Punishment.</i> Certainly I'd be much more likely to read more of Doestoyevsky than Tolstoy, whose <i>War and Peace</i> bored me to tears (although I did rather relish <i>Anna Karinina.</i>) I do absolutely think <i>The Brothers Karamazov</i> lives up to its reputation as one of those great works everyone would learn a lot from being acquainted with--and an engrossing story as well.

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review 2014-02-28 06:09
Greatly Entertaining
David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

I was thoroughly entertained by this and never found it a slog reading through its 800 plus pages--and that actually came as a surprise to me because I am by no means a Dickens fan. I decided to read this one because it's on the the list of 100 Significant Books I've been reading through--and because a friend told me that I should at least try this one before giving up on Dickens. This was actually his own favorite among his novels, and the one most autobiographical. Even knowing as little as I do of his life, I could certainly see plenty of parallels between the young Charles Dickens and David Copperfield. And especially given this was written in first person, this book has a confessional quality that drew me in and propelled me forward.

The thing is this novel I so enjoyed is guilty of every sin that so often drove me batty in Dickens: the rambling plot riddled with unlikely coincidences, the long, long length, the at times mawkish sentimentality, the phrases repeated again and again, the characterizations that often seemed more caricatures, and above all, the women characters that convince me Dickens thinks of the female gender as not quite human--or at least I felt so at first. David's mother Clara in particular drove me up the wall--I wanted to reach into the book and throttle her. It seemed to me in my reading of several of Dickens novels that his women run to four types or combinations and at first David Copperfield seemed no exception. There is the angelic creature who is often a victim, such as Clara, Little Em'ly, Agnes and Dora. There is the evil harridan such as Miss Murdstone or Rosa Dartle. There is the sacrificing Earth mother such as Peggoty. And finally, there is the (often rich) eccentric such as Betsy Trotwood. But ah, often the eccentric characters are so richly comic--and in the case of Trotwood there is more than initially met the eye--in fact I wasn't a third way through the novel before I loved her. And Agnes grew on me too. Not everyone's reaction--George Orwell, among others, despised the character. But she was the first female character who struck me as being a rational creature. But they're memorable--and not just the women. I don't think I'm ever going to forget Mr Micawber. I know I'll never forget Uriah Heep, the most odious, shudder-worthy villain I've met in literature.

So yes, after this book I got more of a sense of Dickens' charms. A Christmas Carol has been a favorite since childhood. And I did love Great Expectations--till the end, which I found a bit of a cheat. But I hated Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. It's David Copperfield that's convinced me I should try more of Dickens. It was worth traversing its long and winding length.

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review 2014-02-15 04:07
Fascinating Study of a Blighting Avarice
Eugenie Grandet - Honoré de Balzac,Katharine Prescott Wormeley

<i>Eugenie Grandet</i> is one of the signature works of French literature, and Flaubert, who wrote <i>Madame Bovary</i> and is arguably the most celebrated French novelist, was supposedly greatly influenced by Balzac. It's easy reading <i>Eugene Grandet</i> to trace the line of realism in French literature from Stendahl's <i>The Red and the Black</i>, its predecessor, and <i>Madame Bovary</i>, its successor. All three concern themselves with people from the French provinces, which are presented as largely petty and grasping. All feature styles that are amazing in their command of details--rich but never rambling. All three novels deal with monomania. In the case of Madame Bovary, she seeks passion--the search for love (or lust?) rules all. With Julian Sorel of <i>The Red and the Black</i> it's ambition, as Sorel seeks to rise above his peasant roots. In this novel the ruling, blighting passion is avarice--money, gold, miserliness.

Mind you, that's not Eugenie's guiding passion--and I think that's the one aspect of the novel that makes me deny it a fifth star. This is a pretty short novel, less than 200 pages--yet richer than many a bloated classic that goes on for hundreds of pages. It's rich in incident, style and character--that comes through even in translation. It's easy to understand why Henry James thought Balzac the greatest novelist in literature. And indeed I can see a strong resemblance between Catherine Sloper of James' <i>Washington Square</i> and Eugenie. Except Catherine feels more real, more an individual and more the center of her own story. For that matter to me so do secondary female characters in Stendahl's <i>The Red and the Black</i>, let alone Emma Bovary. For a title character Eugenie seems rather pallid to me, more acted upon than acting. Her father and love are more interesting, more central to her fate--it's their avarice that matters. Eugenie never quite seemed real to me, but more the "angelic" kind of figure that annoyed me in so much of Dickens that I've read.

That said, yes, this is well worth reading and I'll remember this novel for a long time. Pere Grandet is a monster of miserliness like none I've read in literature. And I'm told with Balzac there's much more to him than one novel can convey. He embarked upon the ambitious project of linking his novels in a shared world, "La Comédie humaine," so minor characters in one often become the protagonists of others. And believe me, after reading this novel, this won't be the last I read of Balzac.

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review 2014-01-29 23:19
Fascinating for its Examination of Character
The Red and the Black - Roger Gard,Stendhal

I didn't think I'd wind up liking this book much reading the first dozens of pages. The book is centered on Julian Sorel, the brilliant and ambitious son of a peasant in post-Napoleon France. The "red" and the "black" of the title refer to the two routes to power for someone of humble birth in the France of the era--the military and the clergy. I admit it--I tend to want to spend time with characters I can root for, feel sympathy for. And Julian is about the most unsympathetic character I've followed closely through hundreds of pages. I can't say that even at the end I cared much about Julian or had much liking for him. There's something so calculating about him that left me cold, in spite of an impulsive side that nears too-stupid-to-live territory. And the whole sensibility of the book is one I usually feel out of step with--one of those focusing on, yet disdaining, provincial France and its supposed "money grubbing" spirit.

And yet the book after an initial hump held me tightly in its grip--even fascinated me. I think that's because this is one of those books that completely convinces you these are flesh and blood people, closely and intimately--and convincingly--following the thoughts and feelings of the characters. And Julian did have a redeeming feature as a character--he made me laugh, or at least smile. Despite his success with women, he often displays a spectacular social ineptitude and awkwardness. Ultimately he reminded me a bit of that other very famous fictional French provincial--Madame Bovary. Like her, he has aspirations beyond the station he was born into--one sustained by books, even if they're dreams of glory inspired by Napoleon rather than dreams of a grand passion born of too many romance novels. And the women in this book don't come across as porcelain dolls, the way too many of Dickens' heroines have to me. Madame de Renal and Mathilde de la Mole are complex and fascinating characters in their own right. The second a bit larger than life (or unbalanced?) but both are resourceful and intelligent--arguably more so than anyone else in the book.

The further I read into the book, the more I fell under its spell. Stendahl is a master of the omniscient point of view--a way of narrative associated with and much more popular in the nineteenth century--and yet the novel feels very contemporary in its sophisticated treatment of the psychology of the characters. Not light, happy reading--no. But ultimately satisfying.

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