Oblomov de Ivan Goncharov

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Ya ni me acuerdo de cuando añadí este libro a la “wishlist” de GoodReads, y seguramente fuera gracias a las recomendaciones de esa web. Se quedó allí durante siglos hasta Halloween del año pasado. Hacía un tiempo maravilloso para ser Nueva York en otoño y era festivo. Sólo tuve que ponerme la chaqueta más gruesa que me traje de Barcelona, gorro, guantes, y bufanda.

Este año como que el otoño y el invierno habían tardado en llegar, las hojas de los árboles seguían verdes, o simplemente ya se habían caído. Aún así, pasear por Central Park fue para mí todo un lujo. En los tres meses que llevaba por entonces en la ciudad, era la segunda vez que entraba en este parque, que está a diez minutos andando de mi casa. Por algún motivo quise recorrerlo de arriba a abajo, así que rodeé el primero de los lagos, seguí por una de las grandes carreteras llenas de ciclistas, y acabé en el extremo más cercano al Upper East Side. Justo allí hay una paradita de la librería The Strand que se conoce en Nueva York por sus libros de segunda mano. Obviamente no me pude resistir y empecé a rebuscar entre libros y allí encontré Oblomov.

Atrasé mi lectura hasta el verano porque sabía que siendo literatura rusa del siglo XIX Oblomov sería algo denso y bastante deprimente. No andaba muy equivocada. El protagonista de la novela, Ilya Illytch Oblomov, es un joven barin, con tierras en algún sitio del descomunal imperio ruso que vive en un apartamento de San Petersburgo con su criado Zakhar. La novela empieza en un día de primavera en el que era tradicional ir al parque de Ekaterinov. Sin embargo, a Oblomov le notifican que debe dejar su piso y que las finanzas de sus tierras están en un estado deplorable. Estas noticias no sumen a Oblomov en la tristeza porque vaya corto de dinero o porque eran las tierras de su familia si no porque implica hacer algún tipo de esfuerzo. De hecho, durante las primeras doscientas páginas de la novela, varios personajes visitan la casa de Oblomov y no consiguen que salga. De verdad que no puedo expresar la frustración que sentí cuando, página tras página, hora tras hora, este chico seguía en bata y sin salir de su habitación. Tal nivel de inactividad y desgana puede llegar a ser muy estresante.

Por suerte, hacia la mitad de la novela las cosas cambian y la historia se vuelve más interesante. Principalmente esto se debe a la introducción del personaje de Olga que conoce a Oblomov en una de sus raras salidas al exterior. Ella es alguien lleno de ganas de vivir, que ve belleza en todas partes, y que por algún motivo se queda prendada de Oblomov, y él de ella. Debo decir que este personaje me ha resultado muchísimo más interesante que el protagonista. Al principio es fácil influenciarse por cómo Oblomov la ve, alguien infantil, simple, ingenuo, ya que disfruta de la vida y no conoce ese terrible sosiego y pereza que le arrastra a él. Sin embargo, poco a poco vislumbras a una mujer fuerte con dominio de sí misma y que toma las riendas de su vida.

A partir de aquí hay  (pequeños) spoilers.

Lo que más me gustó del personaje fue que en un momento de la novela también sufre de la “enfermedad” de Oblomov. Poco a poco deja de hablar con sus amigos, se pasa todo el día en la cama, ve su vida como algo trivial, sin objetivo, o que dichos objetivos ya no valen la pena, que todo es en vano. Y sin embargo tiene la fuerza para salir de esa situación. Sin embargo, no vuelve a ser la misma, ese periodo de su vida le deja marca, tiene un efecto sobre su personalidad, pero ella sigue adelante.

El personaje de Agafia sale muy puntualmente en la novela y me hubiese gustado saber más de ella. Es la mujer de Oblomov, aunque en realidad parece que sea su mujer de la limpieza por el caso que le hace. Por eso me hubiese gustado que la novela contase como se casaron – cómo lograron que el señorito saliera de su habitación para casarse, en serio –, como tuvieron un hijo – porque a Oblomov le da pereza hasta quitarse las zapatillas y andar, así que del resto ya ni hablamos –, y como evolucionó su relación con los años.

Fin de los (pequeños) spoilers.

Oblomov es un libro interesante que presenta a un personaje que, aparentemente, es un retrato de muchos jóvenes rusos de la época que ahora llamaríamos ni-nis. Aunque la exposición de su personalidad y su descenso a los abismos es algo previsible, los personajes secundarios fueron para mí la gran fuerza de la novela. No lo leáis cuando estéis en un momento en el que no os apetezca hacer nada.

Beast de Paul Kingsnorth

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Hace unos meses, en una de las pocas entradas que ha tenido este blog, hablé de The Wake de Paul Kingsnorth. Me enteré de su existencia porque el autor es amigo de Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall) y sale en YouTube leyendo el principio del libro.

Lo leí al principio del curso escolar y fue bastante más duro de lo que imaginaba. El libro está escrito en lo que se supone que era el inglés hablado del siglo XI. Como no existen documentos escritos en esta lengua, y la mayoría de los habitantes eran analfabetos, el autor muchas veces tira de imaginación.

No fue hasta al cabo de una semana de lucha para poder leer el libro que me di cuenta de que la sugerencia de Rylance de leer el libro en voz alta no era porque así se podía disfrutar mejor de la belleza poética del lenguaje. Cuando lees ese libro en voz alta es mucho más fácil entenderlo. Vocalizar palabras que en aquella época sólo existían para ser habladas y no escritas hace que la mayoría cobren sentido, o que se vuelvan mas parecidas al inglés contemporáneo. Nunca he leído un libro en voz alta y esta primera vez ha sido bastante sorprendente.

En principio este artículo trata del segundo libro de Kingsnorth, Beast, pero voy a entretenerme un poco más con The Wake. El libro está narrado en primera persona por Buccmaster, un campesino con cierto estatus que es testigo de las invasiones danesas y normandas que hubo en Inglaterra durante ese período (para ser precisos la de 1066). El libro empieza in media res y que la narración sea algo parecido al flujo de conciencia hace que sepamos del pasado de Buccmaster de forma progresiva. El libro me gustó muchísimo. El rigor histórico se disfruta, pero además ir conociendo al protagonista poco a poco e intentar adivinar lo que está pasando a su alrededor compensa la dificultad del lenguaje. Es una experiencia que recomiendo con creces.

Pero vayamos a por Beast. La primera vez que supe del libro se decía que era la segunda parte de The Wake, y que sería una trilogía. Puede que sea una trilogía, pero no en el sentido tradicional de la palabra. Beast también empieza de golpe y está narrada en primera persona, por Edward Buckmaster. Sin embargo, esta vez la acción se sitúa en la Inglaterra actual, y el lenguaje es también contemporáneo salvo por las comas, que brillan por su ausencia.

El protagonista está viviendo en una casa de pastor en medio del páramo inglés. Yo imaginé los páramos del Peak District y Yorkshire que visité el verano, pero no hay ninguna referencia geográfica más. Sabemos que Edward ha huido de su vida, pero el por qué es algo que se va adivinando poco a poco, como en el caso de The Wake. Quizás lo que más me gustó de la novela fueron las reflexiones de Edward en su soledad, sobre la felicidad y el sentido de la vida. Por ejemplo:

“The wheel of blood and sperm and death and life kept turning and none of it needed me none of it knew of me for there was no me and never had been. I saw the abyss open up and I knew I would be swallowed by it and I knew that everything in my world everything I was and everything I thought and felt and cared about and refused to care about had been carefully constructed only to help me survive any glimpses I might have of this.”

No hay mucho más que contar del libro, no tiene una trama muy marcada. Pero el lenguaje es en cierto modo muy bello. Me recordó un poco a Mercè Rodoreda (aunque no sea muy fan de Espejo Roto o La Plaza del Diamante, La muerte y la primavera está entre los libros que más me han impactado) en su forma de escribir. Ambos se basan mucho en escribir como uno habla, lo que le da un ritmo muy particular a la narración. También tienen un lenguaje muy directo, sencillo, y raso, pero no falto de belleza.

Ninguna de las dos obras ha sido traducida al castellano. Dudo que The Wake sea traducida jamás, pero encenderé una velita para Beast.

Reading Historical Fiction

I think I’ve been reading HF for as long as I can remember. I think I started reading HF pretty early, I recall having read almost every book by Odile Weulersse in my middle school library by the time I was 10. Also, I think that HF had a major role in my love for literature. The first “adult” HF book I recall reading is Christian Jacq‘s The Judge of Egypt series. My parents bought it for me to read on first summer camp when I was 12. I’ve always been interested in Egypt so I read Beneath the Pyramid in less than a week. It also helped me to forget about the fact that I was having quite an awful time in the summer camp. I’ve never been a very sporty person and during my pre-teens and teenage years I was mostly shy and judged weird and boring by most of my peers. So being surrounded by them for two full weeks didn’t make life very pleasant.

It was during that summer that I learned one of fiction’s powers: the ability to let you escape from reality.

From that moment onwards I’ve always enjoyed HF that happily fulfill this role but, as I grew older, I started to ask more of them. I think that the first time I was aware of this was when I incidentally bought my first HF Romance novel when I was around fifteen or sixteen. The plot seemed decent enough, and I started reading on a nice summer afternoon and I finished a couple of days afterwards. I found it somehow disappointing. Everything was there, a historical setting, nice dresses, fancy vocabulary with some extra risqué scenes the purpose of which I didn’t quite understand.

After some similar experiences in the realm of HF I had to admit that the process of finding novels of the genre that would appeal to my newly-developed tastes would require more time and effort than before. The number of HF books I read dropped sharply for some years, but I soon started making some discoveries.

The classics proved to be an excellent source to read about other eras (for instance, Zola‘s Rougon-Macquart series or anything by the Brontë sisters) and I even found some excellent HF written in the 18th and 19th centuries (e.g. The Princess of Clèves by Madame de LaFayette). And then, slowly but surely, I’ve developed a sixth sense for possibly good HF.

During the last couple of years I’ve had the pleasure to discuss HF with other voracious readers. I think that the most interesting one was with a friend who didn’t like Historical Fiction at all. Her point was that it was impossible for any author to fully capture or understand an ear in which he or she had not lived. I couldn’t entirely disagree with her.

Regardless of the amount of hours a writer spends documenting on the era he/she wants to write about, I’m sure it is not the same.

However, in my opinion, this doesn’t take any literary merit from those novels. Also, I think that, precisely, the best Historical novels are those who try to bring together a modern reader and an historical setting. Being an outsider to the events of, let’s say, the French Revolution, can be an advantage. From the modern era an author can try to shed new light on how we may understand the motives of people that lived in a different cultural and political setting, that had different customs and perception of human relations, society, and so on. Two examples of that are Possession by A. S. Byatt and The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles. Not only are they brilliantly well-written, but also the authors’ insight on Victorian psychology is amazing.

On the other hands, together with many other readers, I’ve always been a bit reluctant to start any novel whose main characters were people who actually existed. I felt it was unfair to impose a certain personality to a real human being, given the insufficient amount of information there is. Of course, it is fiction, and I’m sure there isn’t any claim by the authors that what they write is actually what went through their minds, but yet, it doesn’t feel quite right. Nevertheless, there are authors that perfectly manage to draw a line between the character and fiction. One of them is Hilary Mantel, whose works on Thomas Cromwell and the French Revolution are perhaps some of the finest HF nowadays.

To conclude, I want to stress the fact that in no way I’m implying that HF novels whose purpose is mainly to entertain readers should be avoided or regarded as a lesser for of literature. I started reading because of the diversion it provided and a reason as good as any other. Also, reading tastes evolve with your own personal circumstances and development and right now what I enjoy the most is HF where the author’s knowledge of the era doesn’t only show in the choice of costumes and description, but also in the understanding of the characters and the society that surrounds them. Finally, my next reading goal is to start reading historical non-fiction!

On my TBR List #1: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth has been on my TBR list since it was longlisted to the Man Booker Prize two years ago. This video kindly reminded me of this book.

Since it is set in the 11th century, it is written in Medieval English. Now that will be a challenging experience. I fear it might be something akin to the last story in Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – set in a distant future when people speak a very different English –, but longer. Let’s hope it is worth it.
I just read in an article that The Wake is going to be turned into a film and Mark Rylance, Claire Van Kampen, and Colin Callender (a producer of the wonderful Wolf Hall) are part of the team. So I’m really looking forward to it!

Here’s the first page of the novel read by Mark Rylance.

Pure by Andrew Miller, Stacking the Shelves #1, and a guideline for buying books.

Pure by Andrew Miller was one of the two books I bought during my visit to the United Kingdom. I usually track the HF section in Goodreads and this one got my attention some months ago since it was set a few years before the French Revolution.

The main character, Jean-Baptiste Baratte is a newly-graduated engineer who is given to perform the strangest of the works: destroying one of Paris’ cemeteries, Les Innocents. The atmosphere is rather eerie and it has an effect on the characters Jean-Baptiste meets there.

The Fountain of Les Innocents, the only thing remaining from the cemetery nowadays.

In Paris the engineer is exposed to the so-called “party of the future” through his new friend Armand. I suppose the author meant to use this as a hint of the future revolutionaries but, to be honest, I didn’t feel an atmosphere of incipient revolt throughout the book.

It is true, however, than the destruction of the cemetery could be seen as a metaphor for the arrival of new times that will sweep away the old order. On the other hand, I personally see it as a symbol of the absolute power of the King and the nobles. They are set to destroy the cemetery and they don’t care about how it is done or how it may affect the lives of people who live nearby, but they want it done fast or there will be consequences.

Let me clarify my previous point: The lack of revolutionary atmosphere does not mean that there’s no atmosphere whatsoever. Not at all. The feeling of being in constant danger, of being watched, of people being at the brink of collapsing, is present throughout the novel. There’s an asphyxiating atmosphere surrounding the cemetery that affects almost everyone. It doesn’t mean that the author didn’t do a thorough research on the era or on the destruction of the cemetery, quite the contrary!

Although the plot was interesting, and it is based in true events, perhaps I was expecting more historical context, more “revolt”. Dr Guillotin is one of the characters of the novel, but it’s still not enough.

However, I must say that Miller has a very particular way of writing that specially enjoyed. It is almost scientific, impersonal in a way, and yet it manages to lure you into the story and the characters.

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This might come as a surprise but I’ve bought some books in the week I’ve been here. In my defence, it is difficult to walk for ten minutes and not stumble upon a second-hand book stand.

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The first book I got was due to an email I got from BookDepository. They were selling some books at a really low price and I was surprised to find The Wars of the Roses by Trevor Royle. I find The War of the Roses a pretty fascinating topic and, since it is quite difficult to come across decently-priced non-fiction History books, I decided to buy it!

I got Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson at The Strand, it’s a book set in late 19th century England that I’ve been meaning to read since I read Magrat’s review of the BBC series.

When I was at The Strand I couldn’t help but looking for books by David Mitchell. I’ve already read all of them but since I borrowed Cloud Atlas and Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoët I still need to add them to my collection. So, Cloud Atlas was there and… the price was no different than in Barcelona. But I checked on Amazon and… they were selling it at half the price! I really couldn’t resist.

Some days later I was walking around Central Park when I saw a stand of The Strand and, again, some mysterious force drove me to it and I started browsing. I found three books that interested me: The Recognitions by William GaddisA hero of our time by Mikhail Lermontov, and Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov – a classic of Russian Literature dealing with the decay of the aristocracy. In a fine exercise of self-discipline I ended up only buying the latter.

A few months back I took a sort of oath to stop buying so many books. I think it’s quite impossible to do so without some sort of rules or principles to guide you when you’re in a bookshop. Incidentally, I’ve completely given up on the idea of not entering a bookshop when I see one.

In no particular order, these are the questions I ask myself when I find a book I’m interested in:

  • Is it available in the library? Can you get it on your ebook at a better price?
  • Do you really want this book? And by this I mean:
    • Have you already read it, loved it, but do not own a physical copy.
    • It has been on your Wishlist for some time, has good reviews, etc.
  • Is the book written in a language you don’t speak? In which case, is this book an exceptionally good translation? (probably not available on ebook).
  • Is the book really long? (Having it on your Kindle would be much comfortable) Or is the edition especially beautiful?
  • Is it cheaper to order it through Amazon? If it is, I save it for a day when I feel like treating myself.

Doctor Pascal by Émile Zola and the end of the Rougon-Macquart series

Eight years ago I took out Germinal by Émile Zola from my high school library. Yesterday, during my flight from Barcelona to Oslo, I finished the last volume of the Rougon-Macquart series, Doctor Pascal. Perhaps the most well-known series in France, this set of twenty books tells the story of a family but also of that country during the Third Empire (1851-1871). He carefully examines every single socio-economic and political aspect of the regime and devotes a book to it. There are also some more psychological books, such as The Dream or Une Page d’Amour, and yet those convey a clear picture of the moeurs of the society at the time.

I must confess it took me some years to decide to read the whole saga. After Germinal I soon read The Ladies’ Paradise, which still remains one of my favourite novels of the Rougon-Macquart’s. Then followed The Fault of Abbé Mouret, The Dream, and Money. I felt such a strong dislike for the latter that I discarded the idea of reading anything else by Zola.

Fortunately, a friend of mine who at the time was studying French Literature at the Sorbonne suggested me to read the first volume, The Fortune of the Rougons. It was completely different from the other books of the series, and I loved it so that it gave me the determination to read the remaining fourteen.

A nice thing of the series is that each book is self-contained. Of course, reading it in order (be it the chronological order o the suggested order) will make the overall experience more enjoyable, as you’ll be able to track what characters from other books are up to.

Throughout the years there have been some disappointments, as I mentioned before, but some of his books are simply brilliant. For instance, The Earth  – a novel about farmers – the  is not very well-known and I find it one of his most accomplished works. In general, Zola is not known for being bland or indulgent. He can be rather crude in his descriptions of human nature. But at the same time you can feel in his words that he is in love with life and that he loathes society for imposing some rules that seem to be a hindrance to happiness.

The last two books are, in their own way, paramount examples of these two
characteristics found in Zola’s novels. In La Débâcle – where he narrates the Franco-Prussian war through the eyes of two soldiers – there’s a ferocious criticism to Napoleon III’s reign, his incompetence as a ruler (you end up pitying the guy) is evident, and there’s also a lot, a lot, of drama (1).

In Doctor Pascal I believe he tries to set an example of what should be a healthy lifestyle, that is, of living happily, without consuming ambitions or (unromantic) passions, and he establishes love as the only way to achieve happiness. It is also where he explicitly writes down his theories on the inheritance of physical and moral traits within a family. Predating genetics, Zola had an intuition that some characteristics were passed on from parents to children, and even guessed that a generation or two could be skipped or that this inheritance could be from uncle to nephew, for instance. He had no idea on how this process took place but was certain of its existence. I haven’t got any idea on genetics myself, but sometimes his theories seemed a bit too far-fetched; it almost looked as if an individual was doomed from the very beginning to be the combination of her ancestors. I guess that’s naturalism for you.

Overall, I had mixed feelings when reading this book. It’s the story of Pascal Rougon, a country doctor who’s fifty-nine, and his niece Clotilde (twenty-five), whom has been living with her uncle for the last eighteen years. They fall in love. To be fair, I didn’t care that much about the incestuous side of the relationship, but what made it feel wrong to me was how they treated each other. Clotilde always, always, calls Pascal “master”, which is just… no. She constantly refers to herself as being her servant, wanting give herself to him, or him to take her.

This was the more surprising since I always thought Zola was quite a feminist for the time. In his books he usually defends how important is to educate women and for them to know what sex is before entering marriage. He also warns of how vulnerable and easily manipulated women are without education, and how terrible the consequences of that can be. Furthermore, in The Ladies’ Paradise Octave and Denise relationship is one of love and respect, quite modern I think.

Please read the book and then, only then, consider watching the BBC series The Paradise, which has little to do with the novel

Unfortunately, I think Zola heavily identified himself with the doctor, especially given that he also had an affair with a women thirty years her junior, and felt this need of being admired and praised, to mistake the teacher-pupil relationship with a romantic one.

Pascal also seems to be particularly obsessed with her youth, adoring her young and lean body, and her devotion to him. It is true that at some point he says that he also loves her for her mind and independence, but… only once.

I can give it a pass because I guess this was still a pretty healthy relationship for 19th century – he respects her wishes, thinks of her well-being, and treats her as an equal despite her devotion – but some aspects seem weird two hundred years later.

However, this should not deter anyone to read a book from the series. There are great books, great stories, and great characters to be found in them.

This is probably the longest review I’ve ever written, but I wanted to give a proper close to this brilliant series, and I hope it encourages someone to start!

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(1) If you want to read a nice and heart-warming 19th century, Zola is not your best choice. I think that all of his books except one end in tragedy. Not only that, the books are filled with terrible events, cruelty, and the worst people can give. There are also moments of sheer happiness, but it doesn’t last long. Also, I find Zola extremely liberal in his description and analysis of sex, religion, and violence considering he wrote in the late 19th century.

Number9dream by David Mitchell

It’s kind of ironic that I changed blogs because I was tired of only writing book reviews, and my second post here is… a book review.

It’s been three years that I read David Mitchell for the first time – and I will always be thankful to the friend that lent me Cloud Altas. And just yesterday I finished reading the last book by Mitchell I had left, Number9dream.

I already knew that the author had been in Japan for a few years and, after reading the brilliant The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoët, I wasn’t surprised when I found out the book was set in Japan.

The main character is a nineteen-year old named Eiji who has abandoned his rural hometown for Tokyo in order to find his father. It looks like a simple, coming-of-age plot, isn’t it? Well, you never know what to expect from David Mitchell, so I assure you it is much more than that. For one, Eiji has a wild imagination and spends some of his spare time indulging in his daydreams. And there is no way for the reader to tell whether what you are reading is what is actually happen or not. Because it is a novel, I think I’m always inclined to blindly believe whatever the narrator is telling me, so this led to a fair amount of confusion. But I think this was intended.

Actually, Eiji’s imaginations is what I liked the most of the novel – together with a few winks to other novels by Mitchell such as Cloud Atlas. The plot is… unbelievable crazy. It could almost pass for one of these thrillers where an ordinary man is thrown into a dangerous situation that could end up in World War III or the like.

But, it is written by David Mitchell, so it will be a pleasure to read no matter the content.

To sum up, it is a good book, but it is perhaps the book by this author that I have enjoyed the least. It has a good premise, some nice and unexpected turns, but overall I did not find the characters relatable and the story did not engage my attention either.

By the way, the book’s title is taken from John Lennon‘s song, #9 Dream.


I did not imagine there were such pretty gardens in the center of Barcelona.
I did not imagine there were such pretty gardens in the center of Barcelona.
Joan Maragall Gardens –– FYI, Joan is a man's name where I come from, it's the Catalan equivalent to John.
Joan Maragall Gardens –– FYI, Joan is a man’s name where I come from, it’s the Catalan equivalent to John.

I started writing this review earlier this morning, when I was resting from my walk around Montjuic – it is something between a mountain and a hill in Barcelona. Now that I know for certain that I am leaving this city, I feel the need to visit some spots I may have disregarded or completely forgot about in the first two decades of my life.

 
 
 

One of them is Montjuïc. Almost everyone has visited the castle as it has one of the best views of Barcelona, but the gardens surrounding it are not well known. I discovered them two years ago when waiting for Muse at the Olympic Stadium. Together with some friends we went for a stroll and discovered there were pretty gardens everywhere! Unfortunately, it was 5:30 AM and all of them were closed, so I promised myself I’d come back.

 

They are actually very nice, and each of them very different. Joan Maragall’s Garden reminded me of the “classic” French Garden from the XVIIIth century, which I love. On the other hand, Joan Brossa’s Garden is more of a well-kept forest, where you can see the type of flora and fauna we have in the area. In any case, both are very quiet places, and not very far away from the center.