|"I suppose I have the reading taste of a stuffy old professor in a tweed jacket who laments that children are no longer forced to learn Latin. To describe myself more seriously, I tend to read novels from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries; moreover, when I hear of a book that has been praised as a “classic” I’m usually curious to read it in order to learn why it has been so acclaimed, hence my inclination to read older literary fiction."|
Though this novel consists of such adventures as kidnappings, duels, and love affairs, the story’s subject is not these events but the personality of its anti-hero, Grigory Pechorin. Lermontov presents the reader with multiple perspectives of this Pechorin and invites the reader to analyze this charismatic figure. At times callous and cynical, at other times lovesick and lonely, Pechorin is a character who becomes more intriguing and nuanced with each read. In one chapter a reader will find him cruel and manipulative in his hedonistic motivations, and in another chapter will be moved with sympathy for the enigmatic Pechorin when his, usually penetrative, insight fails him and he wonders why every fulfilled desire leaves him unsatisfied. In his only novel, Mikhail Lermontov mixes the adventurous romance with the psychological novel.
Contrary to what the title may suggest, this novel is full of colorful characters of pre-WWI Viennese society. The story’s protagonist, Ulrich, is the “man without qualities.” Ironically enough, however, he is a man of many qualities: he’s intelligent, attractive, athletic, a mathematician, a former engineer, and an ex-lieutenant. The novel begins with Ulrich’s decision to take a “vacation from life” in order to decide on an appropriate occupation. Ulrich’s concerned father promptly involves him in the Parallel Campaign, the planning committee for the celebration of the Austrian Emperor’s 70th year in power. Unknown to the characters is that by the year of the celebration, 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire will be destroyed by the First World War. While Ulrich attempts to participate in this doomed Parallel Campaign, Robert Musil dissects, with wit and irony, Viennese society and the decadence that brings about the self-destruction of pre-WWI Europe, a self-destruction that becomes only ever more inevitable as the novel progresses. Unfortunately, Musil died before he could finish the novel, yet this unfinished magnum opus, a psychological, philosophical, mystical novel, is one of the greatest achievements of 20th century European fiction.
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship: Just as Thomas Mann said he could only speak of Goethe in terms of love, I can only speak of this novel in just such terms. Wilhelm Meister leaves his hometown on a business trip and winds up joining a travelling theatre troupe. Wilhelm has always been passionate about the theatre, with hopes of being a great playwright and actor, but he and his friends encounter many mishaps along the way. Wilhelm meets many characters, such as Philina, the seductive actress; Laertes, a fellow and like-minded actor; Jarno, a mysterious and worldly figure critical of Wilhelm’s theatrical aspirations; and Mignon, the orphaned acrobat of whom Wilhelm becomes a guardian and parental figure. A novel of wisdom and humor, of dramatic plot-twists and subtle motifs, of irony and beauty, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is delightful.
This novel is a clever play on the trope of a novel about a writer’s development. Just when you might think that the story has fallen into self-parody, the novel will charmingly reveal another layer of its self-awareness. The story is of the narrator’s envy for his best friend’s literary success and his star-crossed infatuation with a female friend. However clichéd that may sound, the novel is quite skillful in its playfulness and subversion of literary tropes.
If you are looking for an inspirational, feel-good book, this is it. But this is no self-help book. Rather, Classics Professor Gilbert Highet, writing with strong and forceful prose, champions the power of the human intellect. The book provides the reader with a survey or gloss, so to say, of the history of learning in the West, examining achievements of societies and individuals. Additionally, the book considers the limits and obstacles that come along with knowledge and learning. Admittedly, Highet’s references can be limited to his expertise in Greco-Roman literature and history, and his views can be outdated (the book was published in the 1950s). Even so, this little book is a testament to learning, to art and knowledge, and, in its essence, to the human being.
This short story collection contains the tender “A Simple Heart” and the two more romantic stories “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller” and “Herodias.” For someone unfamiliar with Flaubert, this book offers a nice introduction to his more realist fiction of French life (“A Simple Heart”) as well as to his more historical and sensational inclinations with accompanying stories. Or, for those who enjoyed Flaubert’s more ironic novels Madam Bovary and A Sentimental Education, Three Tales is a welcome supplement.
Dostoevsky is mostly known for his long novels, such as Crime and Punishment. This compact collection presents another side of Dostoevsky’s talent. These exciting and emotionally compelling stories provide a way to enjoy a whole work of Dostoevsky’s in one sitting.