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First Thursdays, October-June: Lermontov, Pessoa, Goethe, Balzac, Pynchon, Sarraute, Proust, Canetti, Hardy

From: John
Sent on: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 11:17 PM
Thanks for the wonderful discussion of Cervantes last week. I've posted the next round of books for our group. Up next: Lermontov. Then Pessoa, Goethe, Balzac, Pynchon, Sarraute, Proust, Canetti, Hardy. Please peruse the descriptions below and RSVP on our Meetup page. Thanks! John
Classic Literature and Cafes Book Club

October 7: Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time
Set in the Russian Caucasus, A Hero of Our Time (1840) revolves around Grigory Pechorin, "a bored, self-centered, and cynical young army officer who believes in nothing. With impunity he toys with the love of women and the goodwill of men. He is brave, determined, and willful, but his energies and potential are wasted? Author Mikhail Lermontov describes his hero as 'composed of all the vices of our generation.' But Pechorin, the romantic young 'Hero of Our Time,' is much more than that. He is the fictional descendant and the Russian counterpart of those passionate young men who had preceded him in the works of Rousseau, Chateaubriand, Constant, and Byron. He is the immediate heir of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Pechorin, nearly at the end of this tradition, set down in the Caucasian wilderness amid bandits and adventurers, beautiful ladies and treacherous comrades, becomes in his own right one of the great romantic heroes in modern literature, a blend of cynicism and passion, brutality and elegance, perceptiveness and impetuosity."

November 4: Fernando Pessoa's Book of Disquiet
The Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa [masked]) "seems to have interpreted Whitman's statement 'I contain multitudes' as an imperative; the gifted and perfectionist poet gave voice to a variety of selves, whom he named not with pseudonyms but with what he called heteronyms. The elegant volume here is the 'diary' of 'Bernardo Soares,' presented as a bookkeeper, like Pessoa, who is obsessed with the role and aim of literature and tries, therefore, to become 'like a character in a book, a read life.' No plot orders the entries, nor is there any discernible progression. Instead, Pessoa speculates on the paradoxes of art ('Only when I'm disguised am I really myself'), at times mordantly ('To speak is to have too much consideration for others. Both fish and Oscar Wilde die because they can't keep their mouths shut'), at times quixotically ('Writing is like the drug I despise but take, the vice I loathe but practice'), nearly always aphoristically."

December 3: Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796), "a novel of self-realization greatly admired by the Romantics, has been called the first Bildungsroman and has had a tremendous influence on the history of the German novel."

"The story of Wilhelm Meister, the son of a middle-class merchant, is set in the world of late 18th-century Germany. Wilhelm is not interested in entering his father's business, but in becoming a poet, playwright, and actor, if not the founder of a national German theatre. Falling in love with a young actress, he uses his business trips on behalf of the family firm to acquaint himself with a travelling theatre company. When the latter goes bankrupt, Wilhelm rescues it by advancing funds from his father's business. His financial involvement makes him not only a business partner in the theatre company, but also affords him an opportunity to write, act, and direct. After a brief engagement of the company at a nobleman's castle, where Wilhelm endears himself to the nobility as a well-educated member of the bourgeoisie, he is invited to direct a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Playing the title role, Wilhelm is a success as actor and director, but soon actors and audience become tired of the demands of literary drama on the stage, preferring opera and slapstick farce. Frustrated in his ambitions on the stage, Wilhelm turns his interests toward the nobility, hoping to find his educational goals realized within the circles of the aristocracy."

January 6: Balzac's Pere Goriot
"Honore de Balzac's Le Pere Goriot is one of the most enduring novels of world literature, a chronicle of ambition and despair to touch any but the stoniest heart. Balzac wrote the novel in the autumn of 1834 to satisfy his creditors--from whom he was literally in hiding. Perhaps as a consequence, Pere Goriot is above all else concerned with money: specifically, the vast social and economic changes that occurred in France between the French Revolution of 1789 and the July revolution of 1830. These were tumultuous decades in France, marked by high political intrigue, wild swings of economic fortune, and level of social mobility never before seen.
Set in Paris in 1819, only four years after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Pere Goriot focuses on the intertwined characters of Eugene de Rastignac, an ambitious young man from the poorer rural nobility; Vautrin, a criminal mastermind; and Jean-Joachim 'Pere' Goriot, an old man eking out his last years in increasing poverty. The novel involves characters from a variety of economic classes competing for money, power, and social recognition--much as in the real France of the time. Pere Goriot is just one small part of Balzac's massive lifework, La Comedie Humaine, or The Human Comedy, which includes well over one hundred interwoven novels, stories, and essays. Nonetheless, this small part is a particularly important one...

February 3: Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
"Tyrone Slothrop, a GI in London in 1944, has a big problem. Whenever he gets an erection, a Blitz bomb hits. Slothrop gets excited, and then (as Thomas Pynchon puts it in his sinister, insinuatingly sibilant opening sentence), 'a screaming comes across the sky,' heralding an angel of death, a V-2 rocket. The novel's title, 'Gravity's Rainbow,' refers to the rocket's vapor arc, a cruel dark parody of what God sent Noah to symbolize his promise never to destroy humanity again. History has been a big trick: the plan is to switch from floods to obliterating fire from the sky...."

"Published in 1973, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is recognized as a classic of postmodern absurdism. Set during World War II in Western Europe, the sprawling narrative combines numerous plots and subplots that either directly or indirectly center on the construction of a secret rocket by Nazi Germany and the simultaneous Allied quest to prevent its deployment. Divided into four sections that progressively become more disorienting for both the characters and the readers alike, Gravity's Rainbow exploits the thermodynamic principle of entropy and the psychological concept of paranoia to reflect the so-called postwar 'culture of death,' which the novel identifies with the proliferation of technology, bureaucracy, and violence in contemporary society...

March 3: Sarraute's Tropisms
The laconic 41 pages of Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute "trace and record 'movements'--what Sarraute calls the instinctive, irresistible, rapid sensations that flow through people. (Sarraute claims, in the foreword, that she has always been intensely sensitive to this 'underground' level of human experience. 'In this domain,' she writes, 'my first impressions go back very far.') In a series of vignettes, Sarraute shows how these rapid sensations form the core of dramatic action. She focuses these vignettes around the experiences of middle-class people; though she seems to focus on a couple, she speaks sometimes of 'they,' sometimes of 'you,' sometimes of 'he' and sometimes 'she.' These pronouns could refer to a single character, or to several characters: thus, 'he' may be both son and father, because familial relationships are constituted, for Sarraute, by these tiny sensations rather than by specifics."

April 7: Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust
Both a psychological self-portrait and a profound meditation upon the artistic process, Marcel Proust's seven-part masterpiece In Search of Lost Time changed the course of twentieth-century literature. Swann's Way, the first volume, introduces the novel's major themes and the narrator, a sensitive man drawn in his youth to fashionable society. Its focus then shifts to Charles Swann, a wealthy connoisseur who moves in high-society circles in nineteenth-century Paris and a victim of an agonizing romance. This masterly evocation of French society and its rendering of a search for a transcendental reality independent of time, ranks as a landmark of world literature.

May 5: Canetti's Auto da Fe
"Set in Vienna and Paris, Canetti's novel tells the story of Peter Kien, an internationally respected scholar of Chinese studies who maintains a personal library of 25,000 volumes. After dreaming that the books are burned, Kien marries his housekeeper Therese, believing that she will preserve his beloved library should disaster befall him. Therese throws him out of his book-filled apartment, however, and Kien, now homeless, enters the grotesque underworld of the city. Delusional, he fluctuates between horrifying hallucinations and an unspeakable reality. Kien's disintegration finally leads him to set fire to his precious books and to await his own death in the ensuing inferno."
This grotesque, disturbing novel has been described as "an allegorical commentary on the psychic, moral, and spiritual dissolution of Vienna on the eve of Hitler's Anschluss." A Jewish chemistry student at the University of Vienna, Canetti witnessed that catastrophe at first hand.

June 2: Hardy's Jude the Obscure
"Hardy's last and most controversial novel, Jude the Obscure caused much outrage when it was published in 1895. Jude Fawley, poor and working-class, longs to study at the University of Christminster, but his ambitions to go to university are thwarted by class prejudice and his entrapment in a loveless marriage. He falls in love with his unconventional cousin, Sue Bridehead, and their refusal to marry when free to do so confirms their rejection of and by the world around them. The shocking fate that overtakes them is an indictment of a rigid and uncaring society."

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