Monday, May 30, 2022

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

No civilization had lasted for more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on.  

Published in 1950, The World My Wilderness is Rose Macaulay's penultimate novel, just before her most famous work, The Towers of Trebizond. I'd been meaning to read this forever and was lucky enough to find a paperback Virago copy a couple of years ago, on the free book cart in the lobby of the Ramstein AFB library. I can spot a green Virago spine a mile away so naturally I snapped it up. 

Just after the end of World War II, British expat Helen Michel is living in the south of France, in a small town near the Pyrenees, with her 17-year-old daughter Barbary, and her young son, child of her second marriage to a Frenchman. Her husband Maurice, suspected by many as being a collaborater, has died under mysterious circumstances, and Helen is living a quiet existence in their house, Fraises, when her oldest son arrives from Cambridge. After a visit, he returns to London, taking his sister back to live with their British father and his new wife. Also joining them on the trip is Barbary's stepbrother Michel, now orphaned, to live with his uncle. Fifteen-year-old Michel and Barbaray have been running rather wild with the Maquis, French resistors. 

The original 1950 hardcover edition

Not surprisingly, the move to London does not suit Barbary very well. Theoretically she's studying art but is also continuing to be rather wild, exploring the bombed-out buildings with Michel and making some rather disreputable friends. Her father, a British peer, attempts to 'civilize' her -- or rather, her new stepmother Pamela does -- but Barbary can't be bothered to put on makeup or look like a lady, much less sit in boring drawing rooms. Things take a turn for the worse when Barbary accompanies the family on a trip to Scotland to visit an uncle, a psychiatrist who would like very much to analyze her. 

I liked this novel but for a short book, only about 250 pages, it was surprisingly slow. I expected to rush through it but it really isn't that sort of book. It's quite description-heavy and the characters are really well drawn. I was surprised that as early as 1950 an author recognized the psychological effect the war must have had on so many people, including the young, since I've always thought PTSD and wartime trauma was mostly ignored -- Barbary's British father and stepmother were clearly very stiff-upper-lip type of people. 

Really like this Dutch-language edition from 1968

Barbary in particular is a very interesting character, she's both old beyond her years and also extremely childlike. I was very worried that something terrible would happen to her wandering about bombed-out London buildings alone, (and it does) but not at all what I was expecting. I also think the name Barbary is a little heavy-handed but again, it was published in 1950 so maybe that was a subtle hint for its time. 

I also quite liked the twist ending which I was not expecting at all. Overall, a very enjoyable book and an excellent summer read. 

This is my sixth book for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Zoladdiction 2022: His Excellency Eugene Rougon

To his father he owed his massive, square shoulders and heavy features; from his mother, the fearsome Felicite Rougon, who ruled over Plassans, he had inherited his strength of will, a desire for supremacy that scorned petty concerns and petty pleasures. He was without question the greatest of the Rougons.

Not one but TWO epic fails this week: I did not finish my Zola novel in time for Fanda's April Zoladdiction reading event, and I did not finish my selection for Classics Spin #29. In fact, I didn't even start my Spin selection. For both fails, I blame Zola. Sorry, Zola, but this book dragged so badly that it's squarely tied on the bottom Nana, the only one of his novels that I truly disliked.

His Excellecy Eugene Rougon is the sixth novel in the Rougon-Maquart cycle, and it's fairly short at 333 pages so I thought I'd have no trouble reading it in a week. I've owned this book for a couple of years but had putting it off because it's a political novel, which is not my favorite genre. Sadly, I was correct to be hesitant because I could barely finish it.

Basically, it's the story of the fall and rise and fall and rise again of a politician, Eugene Rougon, who makes appearances in the first two books of the cycle, one of the original Rougons, the bourgeois, legitimate side of the family . The book begins when he has resigned his post in the ministry. As he's attempting to pack up or burn documents in his office, a parade of hangers-on traipse through his office. This is the circle of friends and frenemies and political allies who are most of the recurring characters in the story. Before he leaves office, many of them are still trying to get favors or score points. 

The rest of the novel is basically Rougon and the group scheming, gossiping and back-stabbing one another to achieve their own ends (or example, one character is desperately trying to get a train line re-routed so it's closer to his factory, which will then increase its value). Often Zola will begin a novel by throwing a lot of characters at the reader, and normally they sort themselves out and become distinctive to me, but I had a really hard time keeping all the characters straight in this one, because they were all sort of awful, and not even in an interesting way as in some of the other books in the series. 

Maybe this was the wrong time for this book. There are so many political scandals right now in real life I can hardly keep them straight, and reading about them in 19th century France is even harder since I don't really understand the context very well. After reading the introduction (which I always save for last because of spoilers), I realized that many of these characters are based on real people and there's a lot of satire involved which would have been obvious to contemporary leaders but was lost on me. I didn't particularly find Rougon to be a very well-developed character and I didn't much care for the other main character, a politically savvy schemer named Clorinde who is basically a female version of Rougon. At one point she suggests that they marry but Rougon points out that two such people in a marriage would be a disaster). 

He loved power for power's sake; free from any vain lust for wealth or honours. Crassly ignorant and utterly undistinguished in everything but the management of other men, it was only in his need to dominate others that achieved any kind of superiority. He loved the effort involved, and worshipped his own capability. . . . He believed only in himself; where others had arguments, Rougon had convictions; he subordinated everything to ceaseless self-aggrandizement.

My other issue with the book was that great sections of it are Zola telling the reader what characters do or have done instead of actually describing or showing it. The parts when there are actual activities and dialogue are much more interesting than the narrator passively explaining it. Towards the end of the book there's a chapter when people are actually doing something and it was the best part of the book, but I had to get through eleven or twelve chapters to actually get there, which was a real slog. And there's SO MUCH gossip! So much scheming, it's kind of exhausting. I guess that's politics though, so maybe this just was not the book for me, or maybe it's just not the right time. But this book is definitely at the bottom of the Zola ranking for me. There are only four more books in the series left that I haven't read and I certainly hope those are better, I'd hate to finish reading Zola with a whimper instead of a bang.

I'm counting this as my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge; and as my French selection for the European Reading Challenge.