domingo, 31 de marzo de 2019

The Three Musketeers

The Three Musketeers [Trois mousquetaires] (Oxford World's Classics, 2009)
by Alexandre Dumas [translated from the French by William Barrow]
France, 1844

Whatever his defects as a writer's writer, the feuilleton kingpin Alexandre Dumas' "vitality & exuberance," as bigtime Dumas fan Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git has put it, certainly won me over during the course of the 600+ pages of The Three Musketeers which I read at last with great enjoyment earlier in the month.  For somebody who'd been worried that such an old-fashioned combination of historical fiction bromance + high testosterone swashbuckling might not = enough to satisfy my jaded entertainment needs at such an extended length, I'm pleased to report that I was almost constantly amused by the novel's good natured humor (d'Artagnan to his attendant: "Well done, Planchet!  You are the very king of valets"), the arch dialogue among the various musketeers ("'Faith,' said Aramis, 'I confess that I am reluctant to fire upon these poor devils of citizens.'  'He is a bad priest,' said Porthos, 'who pities heretics.'"), the Count Fosco-like villainy of its smiling villains ("'My compliments to the cardinal.'  'My compliments to Satan!'") and, hell, even the clumsy segueways ("We will now leave the two friends, who had nothing very important to say to one another, and follow Aramis") and the weird hand porn ("It was one of those perfumed gloves which the lover likes to pull from a pretty hand") (303, 427, 565, 331 & 225). Dumas, who would seem to have nothing in common with a modern day descendant like Mathias Enard other than an infatuation with storytelling, also pulls off a scene in which a terrified character's hair stands on end in the face of death, and on a biographical note was apparently quite a likable personality himself filling "his leisure hours," as David Coward's intro inform us, "with writing and love-affairs" (ix).  Thumbs-up.

Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870)

domingo, 10 de marzo de 2019


Zone (Actes Sud, 2015)
by Mathias Enard
France, 2008

As in a spy novel updated to reflect some of the more unpleasant aspects of our post-9/11 reality, Francis Servain Mirković is a half French/half Croatian secret service functionary en route from Milan to Rome with a suitcase full of top secret dossiers and a murky past of his own in tow. Aboard the train, addled by drink and amphetamines and possibly on the verge of cracking up due to a lifetime spent both furthering and documenting dirty tricks from one end of the Mediterranean to another, his story about work and play in the Zone comes gushing out in a 500-plus page torrent of internal monologue and guilt-wracked memories only two or three times interrupted by scenes from the novel about the Intifada he's reading.  Despite the hype Zone's received even from people whose tastes I trust, I wasn't quite prepared for how phenomenal its one sentence + digressions would be.  In part a riff on the Iliad but with the Battle of Lepanto, the Nazi concentration camps, the French-Algerian conflict, and the Bosnian war among the main substitution sites for the clash taking place at "Ilion la bien gardée" ["well-defended Ilion"] (152), the novel's bold enough in its guise as a 21st century song of wrath to make liberal use of Homeric epithets (cf. the Berbers as "dompteurs de cavales" ["tamers of horses"] on p. 162 and "l'Hadès grand mangeur de guerriers" ["Hades, great devourer of warriors"] on p. 416) in anachronistic homage to its oral literature urtext (Pound's Cantos are another source of inspiration).  Similarly, Enard's prose often struck me as unabashedly poetic in nature despite the horrors Mirković's monologue evokes.  You can sense it and sometimes even hear it in the compressed wordplay (cf. "en Sicile île mortelle" [literally "on Sicily, deadly island"] on p. 169 and "la Méditerranée, le cimetière bleu" ["the Mediterranean, the blue cemetery"] on p. 283), but you don't exactly half to will yourself to "see" it as well in Mirković's vivid dreamscape of suicide bombers, where "ces petits Christs solaires" ["these little solar Christs"] in the form of severed heads launched into the air due to the force of the martyrdom explosions, are imagined contemplating Jerusalem one last time from on high before leaving this world for the next  (201-202 & 462).  How to make sense of a narrator that celebrates John of Patmos as the "premier romancier de la fin du monde" ["first novelist of the end of the world"] (249) and a novel which itself expends hundreds of pages reminding us that war is the natural state of man are probably acts best left to the individual reader.  For my part, I enjoyed the Life a User's Manual- and The Savage Detectives-like giddiness of Enard's storytelling even if one of Zone's lasting messages--that, for somebody or other, right or wrong,  "il y a toujours des Carthages à détruire" ["there are always Carthages to destroy"] (107)--is perhaps less enjoyable or giddy as a thematic takeaway through no fault of Enard's.  Whatever,  a real feat.

Mathias Enard

martes, 5 de marzo de 2019

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune

The Balkan Trilogy: 1, The Great Fortune (NYRB Classics, 2010)
by Olivia Manning
England, 1960

"All I have is here," newlywed Harriet Pringle says of British expat life with her husband Guy, stateless freeloader Yakimov, and assorted displaced malcontents in faraway Bucharest, a problem since the storm clouds of what will soon become World War II are increasingly threatening the then neutral Romania with just what it means to be "a peaceful nation in someone else's war" (267 & 235).  That heavy duty geopolitical backdrop notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this first foray into Manning's The Balkan Trilogy and the first of six volumes in her Fortunes of War double trilogy.  On the most superficial level, I was pleased to discover that Manning's something of a Muriel Spark-like savage charmer on the observational front--perceptive in painting sympathetic but conflicted Harriet into something of a haves and have nots corner during an early run-in with some child beggars ("The children clung like lice.  They caught hold of her arms, their faces screwed into the classical mask of misery while they whined and whimpered in chorus" [122]) but also completely unremorseful in alluding to a poverty-stricken local dressmaker as "a tiny creature, very thin, smelling of mouldy bread.  Her face, which had one cheek full and one caught-in like a deformed apple, was dark yellow and heavily moustached" out of sheer descriptive malice elsewhere (262).  More significantly,  although somewhat related to this, I appreciated the fact that Manning's a bit of a slippery character when it comes to narrative POV.  If it wasn't always clear to me how much those sort of class-conscious sentiments were hers rather than her roman à clef characters', I'm willing to chalk that up to nuance in a novel which grapples with condescension to the Romanians on the part of the international community and the prejudice of the rich against the poor among all but one or two of the more idealistic characters regardless of nationality.  One of The Great Fortune's successes or at least one of the more ironic examples of Manning's sleight of hand, in fact, is how long the novel seems to side with the expat community in focusing on its fear about "the disintegration of their adopted world" (259) even while the disintegration of that same world has been hiding in plain sight all along for the Jews who have been hauled into jail on trumped-up charges and the poor freezing to death in bunches every time winter rolls around.  In short, a lively, fast-paced read but also "a cheap holiday in other people's misery" as some other blokes might have it.

Olivia Manning (1908-1980) in 1955