Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek

The Good Soldier Svejk was probably the book I was most afraid of reading from this year's TBR Pile Challenge, and, at long last, I have finished it -- all 752 pages!  Finally.

I'd first heard of Svejk in a book called The Novel 100 by Daniel S. Burt, which lists the Best Novels of All Time.  I really like The Novel 100 because, it's not just about The Best Books, it's really more about the most influential books, so it includes books like Gone with the Wind and The Three Musketeers.  It also includes books in translation, like The Princess of Cleves and Dream of the Red Chamber, and it has very interesting and readable essays about why each title is included.  [There's also an appendix with 100 runners-up, some of which I believe are in the updated and expanded edition of the book.]   

Anyway.  Svejk is long, it's about war, it's in translation, it's Eastern European -- a quadruple threat --  but it's actually a very easy and amusing read, though it did take me several weeks to get through it.  Basically, this is a picaresque novel about an everyman named Josef Svejk.  After a series of misadventures, he ends up fighting on the Austro-Hungarian side of WWI.  Svejk is either a complete idiot or an absolute genius.  He's constantly getting in and out of scrapes, and his superiors, the police, and medical professionals can't decide if he's really as dumb as he seems, or is just faking.  The book satirizes the futility of World War I, the military bureaucracy, etc.  It's kind of a WWI version of Catch-22, but much longer, and as if Yossarian traveled all over Europe.  (Which in fact he may have done -- it's been several years since I read Catch-22 and my memory of the plot is a little fuzzy).  I have heard that Joseph Heller may have been influenced by Svejk, but I haven't done enough research to be sure.

One of the illustrations from The Good Soldier Svejk.  Svejk is the character on the right.
It's quite funny in spots, and the translation I read was very easy, but it was hard for me to read more than a few pages at a time.  (It's not quite as long as it seems because there are lots of cartoony illustrations.)  Basically, Svejk travels all over during the war, telling funny anecdotes about other people, and the author pokes fun at pretty much everything.  There's a lot of drinking and gambling and carousing, and all the other kinds of trouble soldiers get into while waiting for war to happen. (There's also a lot of descriptions of bodily functions and numerous descriptions of food, including what the soldiers are eating and what they're dreaming about during wartime).  It was probably really shocking for its time, and I'd be surprised if it hasn't been banned or censored.

Svejk was pretty amusing to read it bits and pieces but since it was planned as six volumes, it goes on a long time.  There aren't even any actual battle scenes for the first 500 pages.  It's kind of the same thing over and over, but with slightly different settings and characters.  I could see this would be a good read if it was serialized, which it essentially was, being originally published in parts.  I actually got a little bored with it around 450 pages and put it down for awhile.  To be honest, the last 300 pages or so were a bit of a slog.  And the story is unfinished!  Svejk was planned as a six-part work, but Hacek died before he could complete it.  It's still one of the most famous works of Czech literature, and was also adapted into a movie.  He's kind of a cult anti-hero in Eastern Europe; apparently there are statues commemorating Svejk all over the place:

A manhole cover of Svejk from Bratislava
Just for fun, while reading this book I decided to do a Google blog search for Svejk, to see what other people thought about it.  I was delighted to find a blog posting about a Svejk Cafe in Riga, Latvia.  If you read the description, there's a link to a PDF of the restaurant's menu, which is extensive.  Some of the dishes are named after characters in the book, and if you look closely, you can see Josef Lada's illustrations imprinted on the menu's pages.  If I am ever in Latvia I'll definitely have to go.

Having finally finished it, I have a little more courage to read some of the other books from my TBR shelves that scare me, including Moby Dick, Les Miserables, The Jungle, and To The Lighthouse.  Maybe I'll even tackle some of the Russians -- I've never read Dostoevsky or Gogol, and I need to read something Russian for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  Any suggestions?  And has anyone else read Svejk?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Classics Club Spin the Third

File:Blotter explosion-spin art.jpg

It's time for another classics spin!!  I participated in the first two Spins and wound up liking both of the selections -- The Mystery of Mrs. Blencarrow and Lady Chatterley's Lover.  So, naturally I've signed up for this mini-challenge again.  On Monday, the Classics Club will choose a number from one to twenty.  I've made a list of twenty books from my Classics Club list and whichever number comes up determines the selection from the following list.  On October 1,  I'll post about my selection.  So here are my choices:

Five really long books:

1.  No Name by Wilkie Collins
2.  Miss Marjoribanks by Mrs. Oliphant
3.  He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope
4.  Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope
5.  A Dance to the Music of Time (First Movement) by Anthony Powell

Five books I really want to read:

6.  The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West
7.  Twilight Sleep by Edith Wharton
8.  Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck
9.  Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
10. Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

Five books I'm neutral about:

11.  The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
12.  Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
13.  Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
14.  Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
15.  Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Five books that are on the bottom of the TBR list:

16.  New Grub Street by George Gissing
17.  The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
18.  The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason
19.  Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
20.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I'm making excellent progress on my Classics Club list -- of the 75, I've already finished 32, so I'm nearly halfway there.  I'm currently reading #33, The Good Soldier Svejk, and it's taking a long time, but I hope to finish at least 38 from the entire list by the end of the year.

Is anyone else signing up for the next Classics Club Spin?  What's on your list?  Are any of them on this list as well?

Updated:  The Classics Spin came up with #4, so I'll be reading Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope.  I'm happy because it's a Trollope (ten read, only 37 left to go), and because it's on my owned-and-unread shelf, but sadly, it's on the long side.  How about your Classics Spin selection?  Happy or scared about it?  

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

Short stories collections are really hard to write about.  Many people dislike short stories; my theory is that most people, once they get invested in characters and settings, want the stories to continue.  To me, a short story is a just a moment captured in time with these characters, an introduction.  Sometimes as a reader I want more.  

Edith Wharton is one of those rare writers that was equally good at writing both short stories and full-length novels.  Some of her novels are among my favorites; as are some of her short stories.  This collection, published by NYRB Classics, features twenty stories that are all set in New York, or includes characters that are New Yorkers.  

Some of her stories are sad, some are extremely funny.  Many of them are deliciously ironic, and she was especially good at ghost stories.  This collection includes all of these, and are selected from those published at beginning of her career to works published near the end.  It begins with "Mrs. Manstey's View," her very first published short story, and ends with "Roman Fever," from her last short story collection.  

"Roman Fever" is possibly Wharton's most famous short story and one of my personal favorites.  This was one in the collection I had actually read before, but I never get tired of it.  It's the story of two New York society ladies who meet unexpectedly while in Rome with their grown daughters.  They sit on the terrace of restaurant, admiring the view, and the reader learns the history of their complicated relationship.  The ending is deliciously ironic, and I'll say no more.  It's quite short so if you have a few minutes do click on the link and read it -- tell me in the comments if you liked it, but don't give the ending away!!

My other favorites in the collection are mostly ironic or funny.  They include "Expiation," an amusing tale about writers in the same family; "Diagnosis," about a wealthy man who has recently discovered the truth about his illness; and "The Pomegranate Seed," which is one of the ghost stories.   The only one I really didn't care for was "The Long Run," which, as the name implies, seemed to go on forever. 

Unfortunately, this collection does not include "Xingu," my other favorite of her stories, about a pretentious group of women who attend a "Lunch Club" to become more cultured.  I reread the story today before I finished this posting, and I suppose it wasn't included because it really doesn't have a New York connection.  It's still really funny though, and definitely worth reading.  Many of Wharton's works are available free online through Project Gutenberg, so you can just click on the links and start reading if you're curious.  They're really worth trying, even if you're not willing to tackle a 450 page book with twenty stories in it.  

This book counts toward my Back to the Classics Challenge and is one of the alternate reads for my TBR Pile Challenge.