Book choice for September 2009

The Leopard [suggested by Gill Smithson]

front cover

I think this may be the nearest thing to a perfect novel. It's set in Sicily around the time of the '100 days' - the beginning of Garibaldi's campaign to unite Italy (and extend the franchise along the way). The central character is an aging aristocrat. He is at once admirable, contemptible and pitiable. He is more aware than his peers that the power of his class is crumbling, along with his own previously formidable powers. His loyalty - to his family, his class, and a king whom he personally despises - dominates his actions, even while he knows the inevitability of failure. Yet his personal relations with his family are distant.

The book is a great work of art. Much is understated, implied, ambiguous. The revolution has bittersweet consequences: it is obvious what was gained, but something was lost (the author was also a count). So much is said in so few words. Occasionally the peaks of human artistry inspire awe: how can a person do this? This is such a peak. Paragraphs, pages even, are perfect.[review by Jonathan Ward on amazon]

A much longer and more erudite review is available here and naturally the book has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was born in Palermo into one of the oldest families of Sicilian aristocracy. His father was the duke of Palma, and his grandfather was the prince of Lampedusa. The family had once been very rich, but had lost most of their property. Little is known about Lampedusa's private life. He lived a wild youth and only his mother could keep him under control. Likewise the family did not approve of his enthusiasm for literature - in the family library he read books of all kinds in several languages. During World War I Lampedusa served in the Italian army as an artillery officer, but was captured and imprisoned in Hungary. After escaping he returned to Italy on foot. His plans for a diplomatic career were ended by a nervous breakdown. The influence of his mother, with whom he spent much time abroad, hindered his literary aspirations. After she died, Lampedusa was free to devote himself to culture and write for his own pleasure.

The above is just the start of a much longer biog at that link, and he too has a Wikipedia page.


Shortlisted for this month

The nominator can bring one, two, or three books to be chosen by the group (or mandated in the case of only one book being selected).  This month, Gill also brought the following selections:

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons)

Dangerous Liaisons

Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel has been made into at least three film versions, but none of them come nearly up to the real thing. Laclos' story of evil and depravity, starring a pair of jaded aristocrats so satanic we wonder if they have a human bone in their bodies, is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, novels of the 18th century. In a nutshell, it revolves around the cynical plot to seduce and destroy the reputation of a young girl fresh out of her convent, which they plan and achieve with the icy calm and cynical detachment of a pair of mathematicians solving a calculus problem.

The anti-hero and anti-heroine of this book, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquis de Merteuil, fascinate and repel us at once by their sheer wickedness. Valmont is a depraved Casanova, lay-em-and-leave-em, who has lost count of all the broken hearts and destroyed characters he has left in his wake. The Marquise de Merteuil, married and widowed too young, has combined shrewd intelligence with appalling powers of deception to engage a string of lovers whom she uses and casts off at random. Somehow these two find each other and form an unholy partnership. When the book opens, their affair is already spent, but they have remained friends; and the Marquise is infuriated when she learns she is about to be dumped by her current lover, a rich aristocrat named Gercourt, who is about to marry Cecile de Volanges, the most naive teenager who ever emerged from the protective cocoon of convent education. Her main attraction, for him, is her virginity, and it is this the Marquise wants Valmont to do away with so that Gercourt will find out on his wedding night that he didn't get the innocent virgin he was expecting, but an already corrupted young woman, and will become the laughing stock of Paris.

Seducing and abandoning an innocent girl is an old story to Valmont, but he has more pressing concerns; he is hopelessly in love with a young married woman, Madame de Tourvel, whose virtue seems impregnable. And here he appears as more sympathetic and human than the Marquise; even if he's trying to seduce a married woman, he, at least, is capable of love; something which is beyond the Marquise, who sees other people as nothing more or less than objects to be used or cast aside. It's only when he finds out that Cecile's mother has been telling Madame de Tourvel his scandalous life history that he decides to seduce Cecile, to pay back the mother for messing in his business. At the same time, he perseveres in his pursuit of Madame de Tourvel. But just at the point of victory, the Marquise turns his very strength, his ability to love, into a weakness; she uses it as a weapon against him to make him think his love for Madame de Tourvel is contempible. At this point, we see the real conflict in the book, Valmont against the Marquise. But Valmont, as cynical and jaded as he is, is no match for this lady; her very emotional detachment makes her unassailable. Valmont doesn't have a chance. He's not only destroyed the Madame de Tourvel, he's also destroyed himself. It looks like the Marquise is the sole victor in this combat. But is she? Fatally, the Marquise has forgotten that letters can be dangerous weapons, and she's written a few too many. What goes around comes around.

Laclos's book caused a sensation in its own time that reverberated for decades afterward; 40 years after its publication it was condemned by a criminal court and publicly incinerated in a mass book-burning ceremony. If Laclos had still been alive then, they might have wanted to toss him on top of the pyre. Whatever feelings the book may have aroused when it was written, it has endured for two hundred years since as a masterpiece of literature in any language. Any book that has been the basis of three different films, each unique from the other, has to be saying something to modern readers. Laclos' book says a great deal and says it magnificently.[amazon]

After such a glowing review, it'll come as no surprise that the book has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Laclos was born in Amiens into a bourgeois family, and in 1760 was sent to the École royale d'artillerie de La Fère, ancestor of the École polytechnique. As a young lieutenant, he briefly served in a garrison at La Rochelle until the end of the Seven Years War (1763). Later he was assigned to Strasbourg (1765-1769), Grenoble (1769-1775) and Besançon (1775-1776).

Despite being promoted to captain (1771), Laclos grew increasingly bored with his artillery garrison duties and the company of the soldiers, and began to devote his free time to writing. His first works, several light poems, were published on the Almanach des Muses. Later he wrote an Opéra-comique, Ernestine, inspired by a novel by Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni. Its premiere on 19 July 1777, in presence of Queen Marie-Antoinette, was a failure. In the same year he created a new artillery school in Valence, which was to include Napoleon among its students. At his return at Besançon in 1778, Laclos was promoted second captain of the Engineers. In this period he wrote several works, which showed his great admiration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In 1779 he was sent to Île-d'Aix to assist Marc-René de Montalembert in the construction of fortifications there against the British. He however spent most of his time writing his new epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, as well as a Letter to Madame de Montalembert. When he asked for and was granted six months of vacation, he spent the time in Paris writing.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses was published by Durand Neveu in four volumes on 23 March 1782, turning into a widespread success (1,000 copies sold in a month, an exceptional result for the times).

The above taken from the author's Wikipedia entry. He also has a biog at the Literary Encyclopedia.

Zorba the Greek

Zorba the Greek

Set before the start of the First World War, this moving fable sees a young English writer set out to Crete to claim a small inheritance. But when he arrives, he meets Alexis Zorba, a middle-aged Greek man with a zest for life. Zorba has had a family and many lovers, has fought in the Balkan wars, has lived and loved - he is a simple but deep man who lives every moment fully and without shame. As their friendship develops, the Englishman is gradually won over, transformed and inspired along with the reader.

The novel has its own Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Nikos Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Heraklion on the island of Crete. During the Cretan revolt of 1897 his family was sent to the island of Naxos, where he attended the French School of the Holy Cross. From 1902 to 1906 he studied law at Athens University. He worked first as a journalist and throughout a long career wrote several plays, travel journals and translations. His remarkable travels began in 1907 and there were few countries in Europe or Asia that he didn't visit. He studied Buddhism in Vienna and later belonged to a group of radical intellectuals in Berlin, where he began his great epic The Odyssey, which he completed in 1938. He didn't start writing novels until he was almost 60 and completed his most famous work, Zorba the Greek, in 1946. Other novels include Freedom and Death (1953) and The Last Temptation (1954), which the Vatican placed on the Index. Return to Greco, an autobiographical novel, was published in 1961. Nikos Kazantzakis finally settled in Antibes with his second wife, and died there from leukaemia in October 1957. He is buried at Heraklion, where the epitaph on his tomb reads: 'I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free'.

Both the review and the above biog are taken from Amazon and Kazantzakis also has a Wikipedia entry.


Previous Months' Book Choices

August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
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November 2007
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