The Great ‘Read Every Author’ Challenge Part I: Balzac & Thomas Mann

So, last week I wrote about some of the books I know I will never read. Moby Dick is another. I’ve always been suspicious of Moby Dick, and apparently with good reason. My A-Z of English Literature says: “Moby Dick is also said to be an allegory, but since it is largely a tedious textbook on whale catching, you may ignore that too.” And, ignore it, I shall.

I read Moby Dick in an abridged, kid’s version when I was young, and I think I liked it. But then, given the scarcity of reading material in those days, I probably would have liked a textbook on whale catching. The fact remains, though, that some books – like Moby Dick – are better read that way. It takes out the boring, interminable passages and leaves in the exciting bits. I think it’s great for kids to get to read these books that – in their original form – would be too complicated (not to mention boring), and were they to wait, they would never read as adults. Maybe, someone should do a version of William James in that style.

I also wrote last week about my plan to familiarise myself with every author possible by reading a short piece by them. So first up this week are Balzac and Thomas Mann.

Balzac is probably best remembered nowadays for the stellar rhyming couplet – “Reading Balzac, knocking back Prozac” – from the song “Country House” by 90’s band Blur, but he was – in his day – a hugely popular, and prolific, writer. He left behind some 90-odd novels. How the hell did he manage that, I hear the writers among you shout! Apparently, thanks to 15-hour writing marathons fuelled by copious amounts of coffee. But before you run off to try it, do remember he died at the age of 51 with serious health problems brought on by his lifestyle. Just saying.

Balzac: Tons of fun

The Balzac story I read is called, “An Episode of the Reign of Terror”. To be honest, I found this story…boring. Plodding, outdated prose. Balzac is often referred to as “the French Dickens” (which I think is a little unfair to Dickens) and he does display some of Dickens’ lesser qualities (the aforementioned, plodding, meandering prose). The problem with this story – and the problem with a lot of pre-20th century stories – is that they’re somewhat dated nowadays. If – as is the plan – I’m to rate each writer on the story I pick, I have to say, I wouldn’t rate Balzac on “An Episode of the Reign of Terror”. I certainly wouldn’t be encouraged to read any of his other stories.

But…but…but, I hear you cry (yes, I always hear you crying)…reading one story by a writer is not a fair way to judge their entire oeuvre – after all, Balzac wrote ninety novels! But the fact of the matter is, I’m never going to read any of those ninety novels, and, realistically, the only other option is not reading Balzac at all. So, I think that reading at least one story will give some kind of flavour of the writer and I can decide whether to move onto other works of theirs. But if I had read – or tried to read – a book by Balzac, I might have trudged through to the end, only to find that I don’t like his writing style.

Moving on.

Thomas Mann was a German novelist, whose novels were noted for their insight into the psychology of the artist and the intellectual. To be honest, he doesn’t exactly look like a barrel of laughs.

Thomas Mann: Not as much tons of fun

The story of his that I read was called “Disillusionment”. The reason I read “Disillusionment” is because I heard a song on the radio one morning, sung by Peggy Lee, called “Is That All There Is?”, which is perhaps the most bleak, most nihilistic song you’ll ever hear a ‘50s songstress singing. Not only that, but it’s written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller who wrote – amongst other things – “Hound Dog”. It’s been covered by Polly Harvey, amongst others, and the chorus goes:

“Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is”

Having heard that, I had to check out the Mann story.

And I have to say, I enjoyed “Disillusionment”. It’s quite dark, and has the kind of psychological realism and oblique ending that we have come to expect of modern short stories. I would certainly be happy to read more of Mann’s stories.

So. Round One of The Great ‘Read Every Author’ Challenge ends with Mann-1, Balzac-0.

What do you think? Have you read either of these authors? Am I right…wrong? Let me know in the comments.


(Images: Click the pics for credits)


18 thoughts on “The Great ‘Read Every Author’ Challenge Part I: Balzac & Thomas Mann

    1. Don’t you dare tell me that coffee is going to kill me Mr. Flynn! I love your famous old author series idea and I look forward to more. You are cute when you are ranting about them! I have never read Moby Dick, nor do I intend to. I actually don’t find Dickens very charming either. I have never heard of the other two authors, but thanks to you, now I have!

  1. I’m so happy that you’re telling me all this so I don’t actually have to pick up one of those books and read it for myself, yet in Company could chat away happily and make out that I’m more widely read and educated than I actually am 🙂

  2. This is more interesting than I thought it might be. Because of the way you write about it no doubt. Look forward to the next one. 🙂

  3. Leigh: I think you’re right. If Peggy Lee could sing a song with lyrics like that, I reckon she’d have a ball with Nick Cave or the likes.

    Kellianne: I said “copious” amounts of coffee! You don’t drink “copious” amounts, do you? And glad you’re enjoying the ranting! 🙂

    S.K.: JUST because you recommended it, S.K., I’ll give him another go. Can’t promise anything though!

    Katy: That is my simple job in life, Katy, to make you more erudite and knowledgeable at dinner parties! 🙂

    Cliona: I’ll take that as a great compliment. If I can make stuffy old authors and literary theories a bit of fun, my job here is done!

  4. So Balzac is out and Mann is in… sounds about right… mind you I’ve never read anything by Balzac – or Mann either !! that I can remember that is, happy to be guided though! Looking forward to your next installment D.

  5. Love the caption on Mann’s picture. And I love the concept of this series. It reminded me of the way some of my friends used to talk about Bruckner Symphonies. If you haven’t sampled them, don’t bother. Too many notes in all the wrong places.

    Really enjoyed this post, Derek!

  6. Hi Derek. I’m still chuckling that you mentioned Balzac’s story ‘An Episode of the Reign of Terror.’ This just about describes my reaction to a collection of Balzac’s short stories that someone once bought me. Looking back I don’t think that person liked me much! In fact I think it was a boyfriend , who later dumped me… Anyway, like you, I have never read his novels. The thought alone fills me with terror! Always think Balzac sounds like a good name for anti-depressants. After reading his stuff you might need them. On a serious note the best thing about Balzac is that apparently he influenced Gustave Flaubert. Now there’s a writer I love. Interesting post full of insight, real and thought-provoking, as usual. Well done! Haven’t read Mann’s work, but will do so now!

  7. Yes, you’re right this week LOL Thanks — I’ll keep avoiding Balzac…

    Mann’s Magic Mountain was my dad’s favorite novel (mum preferred Tolstoy’s Anna K) & it’s in my top ten books ever written list.

  8. interesting. Have you read Nabokov, one of his lesser know books Glory I really loved but might not to be all tastes, quite philosophical. And of course there is Kafka. Metamorphosis has been on my list for ages.

  9. Have never read either writer, but I do agree that the children’s abridged versions of classics are a wonderful way to make them accessible to children, and to get them into reading the classics. As a child, I read and enjoyed Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Last of the Mohicans, Jane Eyre, Little Women, Great Expectations … all stories I enjoyed in the shortened version, but whose original version, with the old-fashioned slow pacing, may come across a little … boring.

  10. Hmmm. I find myself being drawn into this in a most disturbing way – I want to copy you! No! I will not do it. I will continue to live vicariously through you! (notice all the exclamation points? I’m trying to convince myself.)

  11. I was partly intriguied and party wary on what I might read when I spied the topic of the post; but you won me over with your style of writing and I read it all the way through! You have certainly piqued my interest, haven’t read any of the two authors (or Moby Dick for that matter -never interested me); having said that I’m keeping Mann in the back of my mind for future reading… Thanks for a super-duper, rant-a-filled humorous article. 😀

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