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 Plodding, outdated prose.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.
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.
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