Alain Robbe Grillet (1922-2008) was a French author, one of the leading figures in the nouveau roman literary movement, and since 2004 member of the Académie française. His best-known novels are Le Voyeur and La Jalousie. Robbe-Grillet also wrote short stories and screenplays, including L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last year at Marienbad). He passed away today at the age of 85.
La plage (The beach) is a story from the collection Instantanés, published in 1962. I'm not aware of any translation of this collection, but an English translation of La plage is available in Penguin Parallel Text: French Short Stories 1
The story is a prime example of the nouveau roman style. Like his best novels, it's full of repetition, and each repetition reveals more details. It's a simple story, about three children walking along the beach (and that's about all there is to the plot). The three children are introduced as about the same height and age, one of them slightly smaller. In the first repetition, we find out they are blond, sunburnt, and also dressed alike: Shorts and shirts. A few pages later, we learn a few new details in the next repetition:
Leurs trois visages halés, plus foncés que les cheveux, se ressemblent. L'expression en est la même: sérieuse, réfléchie, préoccupée peut-être. Leurs traits aussi sont identiques, bien que, visiblement, deux de ces enfants sont des garçons et le troisième une fille. [...] Mais le costume est tout à fait la même: culotte courte et chemisette, l'une et l'autre en grosse toile d'un bleu délavé.
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Crime and punishment, English translation by Constance Garnett
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821-1861) was a Russian novelist. His novels depict life in 19th century urban Russia. His characters are often poor, working class people (unlike Tolstoy's characters, who are usually aristocrats). Dostoevsky is especially strong in character analysis.
In Crime and punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student living in the slums of St. Petersburg, kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker, apparently to solve his financial problems. The novel deals with the aftermath of this murder, the emotional and mental effects of the crime and its investigation on Raskolnikov.
We get to know Raskolnikov as morose, self-centered, intellectual, proud and haughty, but occasionally also as spontaneous, generous and self-sacrificing. A split personality with more than a hint of madness. As the novel is largely told from his point of view, we cannot help but identify with Raskolnikov, despite his morosity, and despite his murder.
Raskolnikov believes that the law is for ordinary people, but some extraordinary people are above the law, and above the mores and conventions of society. These people are justified to break the law - even to kill - to reach their goals. Raskolnikov likes to compare himself to Napoleon, who had no scruples about the millions of deaths for which he was responsible, and who is not considered to be a criminal. Napoleon would certainly have killed the pawnbroker if it had advanced his own goals.
The murder is justified because Raskolnikov believed himself to be one of the extraordinary people, but also because by the murder he rid the world of an evil.
After the murder Raskolnikov is torn between remorse and guilt, and the believe that the murder is justified. One moment he is paranoid, believes everyone suspects him of the murder, and is ready to give himself up, the next moment he is rational, calculating, convinced he will never be caught because of his superiority. At times, he is acting strange and his friends and family think he is losing his sanity. Because of his feelings of guilt he also begins to doubt whether he is indeed extraordinary, but he never gives up this believe.
Two people cross his path that have a profound influence on Raskolnikov (and on the novel). The first is Sonia, a pious, generous and self-sacrificing young woman who works as a prostitute to support her (step-)family. The other person is Svidrigaïlov, a scoundrel who lives for sensual pleasure, and who sacrifices others for his own pleasures - he had no scruples about raping a 15-year-old girl, and did not care that this girl killed herself afterwards. In a way the cold, calculating, criminal personality of Svidrigaïlov, and the generous, self-sacrificing personality of Sonia represent the two opposing sides of Raskolnikov's split personality.
Raskolnikov is drawn towards Sonia. She is the first one to whom Raskolnikov confesses his crime. Sonia urges him to give himself up, to save his soul and his mental well-being, what he eventually does. When he is convicted to 8 years in a Siberian prison camp, Sonia follows him to Siberia and settles in a neighbouring village.
Raskolnikov's relationship with Svidrigaïlov is complex and enigmatic. He despises Svidrigaïlov, mainly because Svidrigaïlov has in the past tried to elope with Raskolnikov's sister Dounia, against her will and despite his existing marriage. He considers Svidrigaïlov a scoundrel because of his past crimes. On the other hand he is also drawn towards Svidrigaïlov - he looks for him, visits him, talks with him, and he does not know why he does it. Maybe to convince himself that the murder of the old pawnbroker is not on a par with Svidrigaïlov's selfish crimes?
A disappointing epilogue describes how Raskolnikov, after some time in a Siberian prison, finally realizes he loves Sonia, repents of his crime, and accepts he is not extraordinary and not above the law: An unconvincing happy ending stuck unto an already finished story.
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Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) was an American journalist, short story author and novelist. In the 1920s he became part of the American expatriate literary community in Paris (sometimes known as The lost generation). In the 1930s, he became war correspondent in Europe, first during the civil war in Spain (he actively supported the Republicans), and later the second world war.
Hemingway was one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. He was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1953 (for The old man and the sea) and the Nobel prize in 1954.
I read For whom the bell tolls in high school, a long time ago. I think I liked it then, and I still remembered the storyline and the plot, but nothing else. Much later, I read The old man and the see, and (recently) A clean, well-lighted place - both masterpieces. So I started For whom the bell tolls with high expectations.
I was, however, somewhat disappointed by this novel.
It's the story of Robert Jordan, an American fighting in the Spanish civil war, on the republican side, who crossed the enemy lines to blow up a bridge behind the lines, with the help of a local guerrilla band. The operation seems to be doomed from the start, but has to be carried out anyway. The story is told mostly through the thoughts of Robert Jordan, occasionally as a stream of consciousness. Small parts of the book are told through the thoughts of others, which I find rather detracts from the novel. Conversation is often literally translated from the Spanish, with a heavy use of thou, articles before names (the Maria) and expressions like that you should speak - this may be natural conversation in Spanish, but in English it sounds archaic and contrived. I don't understand what Hemingway tried to achieve here.
The conversation in the novel is peppered with swearwords, but these words were consistently replaced with unprintable or obscenity, another narrative device I found annoying. Either print the swearwords or leave them out, but this way the conversation is hard to read and irritating.
An interesting story, a decent plot, and an insider's insight in the war (the story is loosely based on Hemingway's own experiences) make for a good read, but For whom the bell tolls is not the masterpiece I hoped it would be.
William Faulkner (1897-1962) was an American novelist and poet. He is probably the second-most influential Southern author (after Twain). His experimental use of literary devices - in particular stream of consciousness - makes his work often difficult to understand. He won the 1949 Nobel prize for literature.
As I lay dying is the story of the death and final journey of Addie Bundren. After her death her husband and children decide to honour her last wish and bring her to Jefferson, the town where she came from, to bury her there, a journey through Mississippi. As the story unfolds, we discover that several family members have selfish motives for a trip to Jefferson: Addie's husband Anse, for instance, is toothless and wants to go to town to buy false teeth, while their teenage daughter wants to have an abortion before anyone finds out she's pregnant.
Little by little, we get to know the Bundren family and their history, their lack of love and respect for each other, their quarrels and fears, by small revelations of one family member about another family member. The journey is disastrous for all involved, except for the lazy and selfish Anse, who is the only one to realize his goals (and more than his goals!), but at the expense of the others.
The story is narrated by several different people - family members, neighbours, passers-by, even the deceased herself. The numerous changes in narrator (sometimes mid-sentence), the stream of consciousness style of the narration, and the unreliability of the narrators (there is more than a hint of madness in several of them) makes the story sometimes hard to follow. As I lay dying is more challenging than Huckleberry Finn or To kill a mockingbird, and probably needs a second reading to fully appreciate it, but the extra effort needed to read this book is certainly rewarded.