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The Kill

emile-zola-the-kill

Émile Zola continues his stories of the Rougon-Marquart clan with The Kill (La Curée), which tells the story of Aristide Rougon, who is introduced to readers in The Fortune of the Rougon-Marquart’s as a slothful (accent on full) son of the matriarch of this clan. Aristide changes his name to Saccard when the gets to Paris. He hits his well connected brother to get a cushy government job with loads of status. He’s disappointed at first with apparently low level job till he realizes that he will get all sorts of information on city plans that enable him to make real estate deals, quite questionably ethically ones, that will get him a fortune. Saccard is slimy for sure, but the house of cards he sets up is compelling. As a reader, I was just wondering when this all would fall.

Along with Saccard, his second wife Renée is equally questionable ethically. She’s materialistic, superficial, self absorbed and incapable of loyalty. The marriage was arranged to get Renée out of trouble. Her early life was pitiful, but by the time of the story she’s in control and for much of the story rather powerful and independent. Her undoing is her relationship with Saccard’s son.

The writing is beautiful and this portrait of a corrupt society feels real and moves quickly. It was fascinating to learn about the corrupt real estate market of 19th century France. Wall Street didn’t invent financial malfeasance..

 

 

 

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Poem of the Week

Now Winter Nights

By Thomas Campion

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-turned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.

The Fortunes of the Rougons

What a crazy family! Well, that’s not quite right. They aren’t outright crazy, they’re just greedy, selfish, venial social climbers for the most part.

Emile Zola’s 20 novel series, Rougons-Macquart, begins with The Fortunes of the Rougons, which I’ve relished. I’m on determined to read all 20 books about the two sides of a family descended from Adelaide Fouque whose legitimate son spawns the Rougon side of the family and whose two illegitimate children are the start of the Macquart side.

Set in provincial France, the story opens with two young lovers, Silvère and Miette, marching with hopeful revolutionaries participating in a coup d’état led by republicans trying to wrest power the elites who’ve neglected the needs of the working class.

The story shifts back a generation to Adélaïde Fouque, who marries Rougon, a gardener, and they have a son Pierre. When Rougon dies Adélaïde takes a lover, Macquart, who’s a drunk and something of an odd ball. With Marquart Adélaïde has two illegitimate children, Antoine and Ursule. Antoine and Pierre are particularly at odds with each other especially after Pierre fools his mother into giving him control of her money.

This first book sets the stage for struggles and troubles to come as I’m seeing in the second book, The Kill. Zola’s style moves fast and I find learning about the French history of the Second Empire.

The Quiet American

quiet-american
“I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

I really loved Graham Greene’s The Quiet American even though the tone and the main character so differed from favorites like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Gaskell’s Margaret Hale or any 19th century novel that I treasure.

Yes, the two world wars left a stamp of jaundice and cynicism on Europe and Greene shows that (in many of his works). Yet I think he’s insightful and observant. Somehow while the main character Fowler, cynical, selfish and tapped out, earned my sympathy because he was honest with himself. I guess the similar sorts I’ve run across aren’t.

I like how Greene plays Fowler’s cynicism off Pyle’s (the chatty, “Quiet” American) innocence. By connecting them through Phuong, Fowler’s mistress whom Pyle falls for and takes. Through Phuong we see the the West’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Pyle sincerely and innocently loves her. He deals with Fowler, who offers Phuong so little. She’s like a servant and whose job could end whenever he’s called back.

Fowler lies to her, has cheated on his wife and while I didn’t like or respect him, he was the most perceptive observer in the book. He saw how flimsy and immature Pyle’s views on democracy, world affairs and Vietnam were. He also is fully aware of the selfishness of his relationship with her, but does nothing for her. While Pyle offered Phuong marriage, love and respect as well as future prosperity, his simplistic ideas about politics led to many deaths including his own. Insulated from reality by his optimism and blind trust in a handful of books, Pyle epitomized the idea that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Throughout the story Phuong is distant and opaque throughout the book. Other than her penchant for buying scarves, we know so little of what Phuong really thinks. Pyle and Folwer probably didn’t know her all that well either. Phuong never complains to her sister or anyone about her life direction. She’s willing to forego decision-making and leave that to her sister or Pyle or Fowler.

What engaged me most was Greene’s style and the complexity of characters and plot. I didn’t know anything about Vietnam in the 1950s and this book made me appreciate that history more.

A few favorite quotations

“So it always is: when you escape to a desert, the silence shouts in your ear.”

“Suffering is not increased by numbers. One body can contain all the suffering the world can feel.”

Poem of the Week

Though I didn’t get to his famous San Francisco bookstore on my trip, I thought I’d share a Ferlinghetti poem this week. Enjoy.

I Am Waiting

BY LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
More

Diary of a Mad Old Man

old man Junichiro Tanizaki’s Diary of a Mad Old Man is just what the title says. Well, he’s not completely mad. The main character is an old man obsessed with his daughter in law, a former cabaret singer, whose husband’s grown tired of her.

The old man is sickly and most of his life is spent going to doctors and taking medication. His infatuation of Satsuko, the daughter in law who leads him on, but doesn’t let him do mor e than kiss her legs or eventually her neck, gets him to buy her jewels and later a pool. She’s got a lover and a fondness for Western fashion. It’s an interesting look at desire mixed with a battle against a failing body.

A quick read, the book provides an interesting glimpse of Japan in the post-WWII period when the Japanese were starting to prosper. Old age (over 75) is largely ignored by writers. This novel rings true as a chronicle of a man with his wits about him who’s able to analyze his actions and his family. He’s aware of how Satsuko, the daughter-in-law operates.

Poem of the Week

Sunday Brunch at the Old Country Buffet

by Anne Caston

Here is a genial congregation,
well fed and rosy with health and appetite,
robust children in tow. They have come
and all the generations of them, to be fed,
their old ones too who are eligible now
for a small discount, having lived to a ripe age.
Over the heaped and steaming plates, one by one,
heads bow, eyes close; the blessings are said.

Here there is good will; here peace
on earth, among the leafy greens, among the fruits
of the gardens of America’s heartland. Here is abundance,
here is the promised
land of milk and honey, out of which
a flank of the fatted calf, thick still
on its socket and bone, rises like a benediction
over the loaves of bread and the little fishes, belly-up in butter.

From The Writer’s Almanac

zolaIt’s the birthday of of writer Émile Zola (books by this author), born in Paris in 1840. His father was an Italian engineer, and he died when Émile was seven, leaving the family to get by on a small pension. Émile’s mother hoped he would become a lawyer, but he failed the qualifying examination, and so he took a series of clerical jobs. He also wrote literary and art reviews for newspapers.

In his early career, Zola generally followed the Romantic Movement in literature, but he later began a writing style he dubbed naturalism, for which he is best known. He defined naturalism as “nature seen through a temperament” and was inspired by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1839) to apply scientific principles of observation to the craft of fiction. Between 1871 and 1893, he wrote a 20-novel series called Les Rougon-Macquart about different members of the same fictional family during France’s Second Empire. He wrote of this project: “I want to portray, at the outset of a century of liberty and truth, a family that cannot restrain itself in its rush to possess all the good things that progress is making available and is derailed by its own momentum, the fatal convulsions that accompany the birth of a new world.” The most famous books from the cycle are The Drunkard (1877), Nana (1880), and Germinal (1885).

He was also involved in the famous Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongfully accused of passing military secrets to Germany and imprisoned on Devil’s Island. Evidence later came out that strongly implicated another man, but the evidence was suppressed to protect the original verdict. Zola published an open letter on January 13, 1898, entitled J’Accuse…!, on the front page of Paris daily L’Aurore. In it he accused the French army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. He was convicted of criminal libel on February 7, but fled to England before he could be imprisoned, wearing only the clothes on his back. The following year, the government offered him a pardon, which he accepted, even though doing so implied that he was guilty. He was finally exonerated of all charges in 1906, four years after his accidental death of carbon monoxide poisoning from a stopped-up chimney.

I want to read Émile Zola’s A Lady’s Paradise.

Poem of the Week

The Meeting

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

After so long an absence
At last we meet again:
Does the meeting give us pleasure,
Or does it give us pain?

The tree of life has been shaken,
And but few of us linger now,
Like the Prophet’s two or three berries
In the top of the uttermost bough.

We cordially greet each other
In the old, familiar tone;
And we think, though we do not say it,
How old and gray he is grown!

We speak of a Merry Christmas
And many a Happy New Year
But each in his heart is thinking
Of those that are not here.

We speak of friends and their fortunes,
And of what they did and said,
Till the dead alone seem living,
And the living alone seem dead.

And at last we hardly distinguish
Between the ghosts and the guests;
And a mist and shadow of sadness
Steals over our merriest jests.

“The Meeting” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Romeo and Juliet

Here’s a couple scenes my students did for a final project.

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