Archive for January, 2009

La Peau de Chagrin (The Wild Ass’s Skin) (1831)

Honoré de Balzac

Penguin Classics, 288pp

Literature in translation provides interesting reading experiences. I first read Honoré de Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin in a translation by Herbert Hunt (which is the Penguin Classics translation) and over Christmas 2008 read it again in a translation by Ellen Marriage as part of the Thompson Publishing Company’s complete La Comédie Humaine, an eighteen volume set, of which La Peau de Chagrin is the first work. I have read some Balzac, but I am of the suspicion that this will remain my favourite work of his. It lacks the realism of some of his other works – such as La Cousin Bette or Eugénie Grandet – and is part of the Études Philosophiques cycle of La Comédie Humaine. Reading Marriage’s translation about a year after first reading this work, with it still relatively fresh in my mind, I was immediately struck at how a different translation can render a work familiar and yet new; I came to sequences of this work with a sense of excitement of how it would be rendered, and that the feeling that something might alter because of the new language.

Here is the opening paragraph from both:

“Towards the end of the month of October 1829 a young man entered the Palais-Royal just as the gaming-houses opened, agreeably to the law which protects a passion by its nature easily excisable. He mounted the staircase of one of the gambling hells distinguished by the number 36 without too much deliberation.”


“Towards the end of October 1830 a young man entered the Palais-Royal just as the gambling-houses were opening in conformity with the law which protects an essentially taxable passion. Without too much hesitation he walked up the staircase of the gambling-den designated as No.36.”


Similar, yet not. The year is different for starters – the original French tells us “Vers la fin du mois d’octobre dernier” which is simply “at the end of last October”. So the translators have taken its publishing date to provide this extra information – only Marriage has taken, we assume, the fact that the first mention of this book was made in December 1830, and Hunt the publication date of January 1831.

The plot is simple, yet brilliant. One cold Parisian evening Raphaël de Valentin wagers and loses his last coin. In his despair he walks through Paris, to the Seine, in which he intends to drown himself. Only there is a shop, one he has not seen before, and its light brings him in. There he is shown the wild ass’s skin, which the shopkeeper tells de Valentin will grant any wish. He leaves with the skin. The power of the skin is revealed almost immediately, and de Valentin finds himself wealthy beyond dreams.

The Wild Ass’s Skin is split into three sections, the first of which details the above. The second part tells of de Valentin’s passion for Foedora, a beautiful but unobtainable woman, during his impoverished younger days, before he obtained the skin, and of his residence with a mother and her daughter, Pauline. The final part of the novel sees de Valentin having retreated from life, living a solitary lonely life in his mansion. Through chance he meets again Pauline, and when she learns of her role in his demise, she tries to kill herself, and so does he, and in a fiery moment they consummate their love before he dies.

The Wild Ass’s Skin is perhaps Balzac’s most famous work, and certainly the most influential. Oscar Wilde is said to have drawn on it for his Picture of Dorian Gray, and Sigmund Freud identified with de Valentin and the themes of this novel, especially at the end of his own life. Unlike many works of fantasy, this is not overwhelmed by its fantasy, but retains a truthful and grounded reality. We accept the skin and its effects without question, and even de Valentin’s scientific study to discover its power seems credible (though of course we know it cannot be). This is the success of Balzac and the novel, that we can suspend disbelief so easily.

What The Wild Ass’s Skin does best of all is hold a mirror up to French society. I cannot say it better than this: “The novel extrapolates Balzac’s analysis of desire from the individual to society in general; he feared that the world, like Valentin, was losing its way due to material excess and misguided priorities. In the gambling house, the orgiastic feast, the antique shop, and the discussions with men of science, Balzac examines this dilemma in various contexts. The lust for social status to which Valentin is led by Rastignac is emblematic of this excess; the gorgeous but unattainable Foedora symbolizes the pleasures offered by high society.” (Marceau, Felicien. Balzac and His World. Trans. Derek Coltman. New York: The Orion Press, 1966.)

As the British band Blur indicated in their hit Country House: “He’s reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac” to be reading Balzac is to be allowed to wallow, to be consumed by his world view, to give yourself fully . Here is a writer paid by the word and who made sure his books were filled to the brim with them. He allowed digressions, meandering thought and plot, and sometimes seemed to have little regard for plot. That said, The Wild Ass’s Skin shows little of those usual criticisms (it has some faults), and remains a strong, engaging novel, and one of my favourites. Those criticisms become unjust when you realise that Balzac’s scope is the whole of French society – and to do that just simply takes a lot of words. The Wild Ass’s Skin is a short 280ish pages, but is presented as the first novel in this long cycle, The Human Comedy, the story of life.

The Wild Ass’s Skin is a masterpiece of French literature and cannot be recommended enough.


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Yes Man (2005)

Danny Wallace

Ebury Press, 419pp

Okay. So I was travelling back from Norwich to North Wales, facing a six hour train journey, still tired, not ready to face Roberto Bolano, and from within the shop window I saw a copy of Danny Wallace’s Yes Man. The night before, with an evening to kill in Norwich, I went to the cinema with no idea what was playing, and so I made a decision – buy a ticket for whatever the next film starting was. That film was Yes Man, with Jim Carrey. The film, it had its moments, and Zooey Deschanel was gorgeous, but I thought there was a better story lurking in it somewhere, something that might have become lost in translation, for I knew of the book. Only I thought the book was fiction – it’s not. Danny Wallace did this. He said yes to everything.

After a fractured opening in which Wallace teases the encounter that led to him making such a decision – a decision he calls life changing but what others might call foolish. You see, things hadn’t been going well for Danny. His girlfriend had dumped him, and he had retreated into his own self-absorbed world, staying in watching television when he could be out with friends, basically saying no to the world. Deciding to say yes alters everything. What follows is a madcap adventure that takes him around the world, has him getting into a fight in a nightclub, involving himself in charitable actions, taking drugs and getting chased by lizards. At times his tale seems far-fetched, and you find yourself questioning his account.

Wallace’s prose is quite straightforward, and he has an engaging persona – some might know him from his work on British radio and television – and at times his portrayal of events is hysterically funny – the dinner date with his ex and her new boyfriend is pure agonizing comedy. You have to admire Wallace for allowing himself to open to this, and his dunderheaded approach to it. Most people, I feel, would have quit by the end of the second day.

Yes Man is one of those fun books you buy for such long journeys, and as such it works well. While you’re reading you may question the way you live your own life, you might even seriously consider undertaking a similar challenge, but once the book is put down, you carry on just the same. It seems saying yes can be as hard as Wallace makes out.

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A Death in the Family (1956)

James Agee

Penguin Modern Classics, 336pp

James Agee, screenwriter of The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter, was a prolific film critic and sometime novelist. A Death in the Family, published after his early death of a heart attack at the age of forty-five, would earn him the Pulitzer Prize and international acclaim. Though the novel was incomplete at his death, its constituent elements had been completed and it only befell its editor, David McDowell to organise his work into its final form. This meant including Knoxville: Summer 1915 as a sort of prologue, but was actually an independent piece and the placing of certain sections which are chronologically not part of his story but heighten ones understanding of its central character, and those pieces are presented in italics throughout.

A Death in the Family has as its central story an autobiographical tale. In Knoxville in 1915 James Agee’s father travelled to see his father, who had suffered a heart attack, and on the return car journey was killed in a tragic accident. The novel that Agee has crafted out of this tragedy can be read as very thinly disguised autobiography.

It is a testament to Agee’s skill as a writer that this story does not come across as sentimental or crass. There is a fluid energy to his prose, a lyrical intensity that is utterly distinctive. Take this description from early in the novel concerning a visit to a local cinema:

“They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust.”

It is a simple image, deceptively simple, and you can see it. Though we have no knowledge of picture houses in Tennessee in 1915, we know this place, for Agee’s prose brings to vivid life. It is this elegance, the accumulation of detail and of word that works effortlessly to create such powerful image. We come to know Jay, the father, and we know him, or men like him, and after the death when we really meet his children, his son Rufus and daughter Catherine, we know them too.

“Catherine did not like being buttoned up by Rufus or bossed around by him, and breakfast wasn’t like breakfast either. Aunt Hannah didn’t say anything and neither did Rufus and neither did she, and she felt that even if she wanted to say anything she oughtn’t. Everything was queer, it was so still and it seemed dark. Aunt Hannah sliced the banana so thin on the Post Toasties it looked cold and wet and slimy. She gave each of them a little bit of coffee in their milk and she made Rufus’ a little bit darker than hers. She didn’t say, “Eat”; “Eat you breakfast, Catherine”; “Don’t dawdle,” like Catherine’s mother; she didn’t say anything. Catherine did not feel hungry, but she felt mildly curious because things tasted so different, and she ate slowly ahead, tasting each mouthful. Everything was so still that it made Catherine feel uneasy and sad.”

Again, see, it is the detail. Catherine, still so young, would see that banana was cold and wet and slimy, those three adjectives are all necessary, and need to be spaced such. This is after their father’s death, after they know of it but do not understand it, and as it would, the world takes on a sheen of unreality, “There were little noises when a fork or spoon touched a dish; the only other noise was the very thin dry toast Aunt Hannah kept slowly crunching and the fluttering sipping of the steamy coffee with which she wet each mouthful of dry crumbs enough to swallow it.” Beautiful.

Agee’s novel is not an easy one to read. Its power is strong, and at times is experimental:

“She knew he would try not to wake the neighbors and the children; and that it was impossible to start the auto quietly. She waited with sympathy and amusement, and with habituated dread of his fury and of the profanity she was sure would ensue, spoken or unspoken.

Uhgh–hy uh yu hy why uhy uh: wheek-uh-wheek-uh: Ughh–hy wh yuh: wheek: (now the nearly noiseless, desperate adjustments of spark and throttle and choke)

Ughgh–hyuh yuhyuh wheek yuh yuh wheek wheek wheek yuh yuhyuh: wheek: (which she never understood and, from where she stayed now, could predict so well)”

(This goes on for another page)

But even the experimentation is necessary; it builds up the image, the power. One finishes Agee’s novel floored by its simple stark power and beauty, its willingness not to ignore death and the impact of death upon a family, and of a people devastated but carrying on, as people must. It is an impressive work of art, and perhaps one of the best American novels of the twentieth century, and indeed Time magazine included it in their 100 Best English Language Novels 1923 – 2005. A Death in the Family is a great novel, a life-affirming life changing book, and leaves you wishing Agee had written more. I adored this novel.

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