Last year, I read The Stranger by Albert Camus (L’Étranger, published 1942, translated from French by Matthew Ward), and the book struck me as odd and a bit disturbing given the themes. Overwhelmingly, the story seemed to say that life is meaningless. I read it again this summer for my book club, and I think it’s a book improved upon rereading. I was also surprised by how much more I enjoyed it after discussing it with a group.
A similar change in my opinion of a book happened when I read The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung, published 1915, translated from German by Willa and Edwin Muir) for my September book group. Reading it myself, I felt like I just didn’t “get” it. It was rather disturbing: a man has changed in to a huge insect and the family locks him in his room, embarrassed. But once I started creating discussion questions and as I sat with my book group to discuss it, I felt the actual meaning of the story come in to focus. It’s a fascinating story given the right context.
Neither book is a favorite for me in retrospect. Each book is rather depressing. But I was reminded how important it is to discuss literature with others in order to better understand it. It reminds me that classics are worth reading, even if we don’t particularly enjoy the book. After a bit more work, a classic that at-first was confusing can be a rewarding read. (more…)
As I helped compile the listing of Imperial Russian Literature for the Classics Circuit a few months ago (found here), I found my TBR list growing exponentially: there are so many authors I want to read that I just don’t know when I’ll get to them all. Through my searches at the library and at Amazon.com, I discovered a volume by Penguin Viking: The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader. It was just what I was looking for: stories, novellas, and poems from twenty different Imperial Russian writers.
I intended to read the entire volume for the Circuit (about 600 pages), but I’m finding that summer living has made reading time scarce. Even reading half the volume, though, makes for quite a long post here, so I hope you don’t mind. I read the authors I had never read before and share my thoughts below: Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Sergey Akaskov, Karolina Pavlova, and Ivan Goncharov. Some of them are writers that I intend to revisit. Other writers were a good read, but I’ll probably not revisit them.
According to Merriam Webster, superfluous means “exceeding what is sufficient or necessary: extra; not needed: unnecessary.” As I read the collection of stories, poems, and novellas, I couldn’t help thinking of that word. Ivan Turgenev wrote the novella “The Diary of a Superfluous Man” in 1850, which focused on one of the gentry who lived a rather aimless life. I haven’t read the novella (it is not in my Reader), but I read Mel u’s post about it early in the Classics Circuit Tour. As I read my selections, I kept thinking about how each story or poem seemed to discuss one of these “unnecessary” people in Russian society. Reading Russian literature in that light is quite depressing, yet the stories are, for the most part, wonderfully drawn together. (more…)
Knut Hamsun’s Hunger is about pride in being human, the ridiculousness of everyday life, and the hopelessness of the two of those combined. As the title may suggest, the unnamed narrator is a hungry starving artist, struggling to write to earn money to pay for a meal. His life physically depends on his ability to write, but since at times in the book he’s gone one day, three days, and nearly a week without food, his coherency disintegrates. Hunger, at its heart, explores the human psyche in the midst of physical deprivation and emotional panic.
I could not put down the 140-page novella The Stranger by Albert Camus after I picked it up, despite the fact that it is odd and rather disturbing. Camus’ Nobel Prize-winning writing style was absolutely beautiful: it reminded me of both John Steinbeck’s in The East of Eden (which I thought was a perfect combination of showing without telling: he painted a picture) and J.M. Coetzee’s in Life & Times of Michael K (it was sparse and simple; reviewed here). And yet, Camus’ subject showed that life is pretty meaningless.
The back cover gave up the main crux of the story, but reading it was still worthwhile. I’ll try to avoid spoilers: A man living a pretty meaningless, boring life, finds his life changed dramatically. And yet, to him it doesn’t matter. Life is life because he lives it. Does it matter how he lives it? (more…)