The Stranger by Albert Camus

For today, I read The Stranger by Albert Camus.

The following authors listed The Stranger:

Stanley Crawford, Edwidge Danticat (LOVE this name, as I’ve referenced before haha), Denise Gess, Barry Hannah, Kent Haruf, Jim Harrison and Heidi Julavits.

When we started the blog (four years ago! It’s amazing for me to think we’ve been doing it that long) I remember marking The Stranger as already read in the book because I had no real interest in re-reading it. I read it for a class in college. I remembered not particularly caring for it.

But, again, re-reading sometimes proves enlightening. I actually liked The Stranger much better this time around. However, the main character is a bit unlikable. He is definitely not Rabbit Angstrom. But, he is completely apathetic about so many things. He just goes through life, acting on impulse but not really having any feeling behind his actions. His girlfriend proposes, he says sure, but not because he really loves her, more because she wants him to and he can’t see any reason why or why not. She asks if he would marry someone else right then if they asked, if she wasn’t around. He replies he probably would. This is just one of the examples of his apathy.

This character trait gets him in a lot of trouble. He ends up killing a man that had been threatening his “friend” (he doesn’t seem to have any true friends, he doesn’t care enough). He gets arrested. His apathy definitely works against him.

Eventually his apathy lifts. But it’s too late by then. The apathy leaves to just display a raging storm of anger.

I like though, how the novel explores how our reactions to things color people’s perceptions of us. Before the murder, his mother, who he placed in a home instead of caring for her at home, dies. While attending the funeral, he has no wish to view her body so keeps the coffin closed. He sits the night long vigil but does not cry. He smokes cigarettes and drinks lattes offered to him. He does not visit the grave site after the funeral but leaves directly. He goes and meets a woman the next day and ends up having sexual intercourse with her. All of these things are used against him in the court room. And it reminds me of how we tend to prosecute people just by how they behave. If a parent has a child go missing and they don’t seem to be “grieving” enough, we judge them to be at fault. If they “grieve” too much, we perceive it as an act and prosecute them again. We then massacre them in the court of public opinion.

This is a first person narration novel which I always enjoy. The narrator has certain ways of describing things that make you be right there on the street with him, in the courtroom with him, in the holding cell with him. And that is what I really liked this time around about the novel. It’s possible in college I was trying to read it while suffering from insomnia and a hangover at the same time.

This book is also not very long, so if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of the classics, this one is a great one to help with that.

Have a great Memorial Day!!

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Four Year Anniversary Of This Blog!

Exactly four years ago our first post went live. Exactly four years today (that’s why we’re posting today instead of our usual Thursday). As such, we wanted to do something a little special this week. One of our regular readers, Jeremy Morong, was kind enough to write a wonderful guest post to give some thoughts about this blog and what it has meant to him over the last four years. Let’s give Jeremy a listen:

I am of the opinion that Kim and David started Eleven and a Half Years of Books to show off how smart they are.

I could be wrong. It happens. Perhaps they simply wanted to create a forum where they could offer their insights into literature in an always entertaining and lively fashion, using The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books as a guide. Perhaps. I can’t rule it out. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to be cynical about these things.

Then again, I don’t believe their motive matters, because when smart, insightful people offer us their wisdom, it makes us smarter, too. Sort of allows us to play catch up, and ride their coattails. So when we find a site like Eleven and a Half Years of Books, a blog that gives us a chance to view reading a book on a whole other level, a higher one, in a way that our high school English teachers so desperately wished they could. Of course, in most cases, they failed. Sometimes spectacularly. But maybe that’s only me…

Kim and David are not failing. Each week, we are gifted a look at the incredible world of books. It will likely be a book review, which is great—that’s what we are seeking. But sometimes there’s something else, and that’s great, too—there might be a discussion on author pseudonyms, reviews of short stories, perhaps an author interview, or, if we’re really lucky, we might find that we are the ones being interviewed, like I once was!

In short, I want to thank Kim and David. We always need more people sharing with us the love of reading. Week in and week out, they do that. It’s not easy; writing a blog is tough. Writing a blog, consistently and on schedule, with quality content each time (for four years!) is tougher still. It is truly impressive. Believe me, I know—I’ve started a few myself, and it hasn’t been pretty.

With that, I would like to offer Kim and David both my congratulations and appreciation, and I look forward to what’s next. I know I’ll be reading.

Always!

-Jeremy Morong

Jeremy Morong is a writer from Omaha. His first short-story collection, The Legend of Hummel Park and Other Stories, was published this fall; it was inspired by a park in Omaha with a mysterious history. His first-person tale of killing vampires titled The Adventures of Braxton Revere was released by EAB Publishing in May 2015. His first novel, the adventure-fantasy On the Backs of Dragons, was published in 2013. He is currently the Production Manager for the literary journal Midnight Circus. He lives with his wife Abby and their two children.

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

Dave again. We have something special for next week, and then Kim is going to take the next two weeks. For the moment, however:

The Sotweed Factor, or A Voyage to Maryland, A Satyr is a poem by the English-born poet Ebenezer Cooke. However, we’re not talking about that today. Today we’re talking about The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth. We need to keep that straight.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Donald Harington.)

The Sot-Weed Factor is a satirical historical epic involving a fictionalized Ebenezer Cooke. Ebenezer decides while carousing in college that he wants to be a poet, letting his studies slip and fail. He ends up getting an interview with Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, promising to both help Calvert regain Maryland and write an epic poem to Maryland as its poet laureate:

“The Marylandiad!” repeated Ebenezer, and declaimed as from a title-page: “An epic to out-epic epics: the history of the princely house of Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore and Lord Proprietary of the Province of Maryland, relating the heroic founding of that province! The courage and perseverance of her settlers in battling barb’rous nature and fearsome salvage to wrest a territory from the wild and transform it to an earthly paradise! The majesty and enlightenment of her proprietors, who like kingly gardeners fostered the tender seeds of civilization in their rude soil, and so husbanded and cultivated them as to bring to fruit a Maryland beauteous beyond description; verdant, fertile, prosperous, and cultured; peopled with brave, men and virtuous women, healthy, handsome, and refined: a Maryland, in short, splendid in her past, majestic in her present, and glorious in her future the brightest jewel in the fair crown of England, owned and ruled to the benefit of both by a family second to none in the recorded history of the universal world the whole done into heroic couplets, printed on linen, bound in calf, stamped in gold” here Ebenezer bowed with a flourish of his beaver “and dedicated to Your Lordship!”

*****

“I have no authority,” Charles concluded, “and so can no longer confer dignities and titles as before. But I declare to you this, Mr. Cooke: hie you to Maryland; put her history out of mind and look you at her peerless virtues the graciousness of her inhabitants, their good breeding and excellent dwelling places, the majesty of her laws, the comfort of her inns and ordinaries, the richness and beauty of her fields, woods, and waters look you at these, I say; study them; mark them well. Then, if you can, turn what you see to verse; tune and music it for all the world’s ears! Rhyme me such a rhyme, Eben Cooke; verse me such a verse, I charge you; make me this Maryland, that neither time nor intrigue can rob me of; that I can pass on to my son and my son’s son and all the ages of the world! Sing me this song, sir, and by my faith, in the eyes and heart of Charles Calvert and of every Christian lover of Beauty and Justice, thou’rt in sooth Poet and Laureate of the Province! And should e’er it come to pass what against all hope and expectation I nightly pray for to Holy Mary and all saints that one day the entire complexion of things alters, and my sweet province is once again restored to her proprietor, then, by Heav’n, I shall confer you the title in fact, lettered on sheepskin, beribboned in satin, signed by myself, and stamped for the world to gape at with the Great Seal of Maryland!”

Mind you, to this point he’d written almost no poetry, though he has managed to dedicate eternal devotion and virginity to the beauty of a prostitute he had a comical encounter with, Joan Toast. That’s probably okay though, given that it likely wasn’t even Charles Calvert, but instead Ebenezer’s old tutor. His tutor masquerades as a number of different people throughout a convoluted and complex conspiracy that is beyond Ebenezer, as apparently does Joan Toast. Regardless, Ebenezer goes off to Maryland on a bizarre, misguided, and ill-fated adventure that is often to Candide and Tom Jones. Though he ends up writing his Maryland poem, by then Ebenezer is so frustrated and hounded that he instead writes a biting satire:

He lay back and closed his eyes; his head throbbed from the small exertion of perusing his work. “I’faith!” he said to himself. “What price this laureateship! Here’s naught but scoundrels and perverts, hovels and brothels, corruption and poltroonery! What glory, to be singer of such a sewer!”

The more he reflected upon his vicissitudes, the more his anguish became infused with wrath, until at length, despite his weariness, he ripped from the ledger his entire stock of sea-verses, and using the quill and ink provided by his host he wrote on the virgin paper thus exposed:

Condemned by Fate, to wayward Curse,

Of Friends unkind, and empty Purse,

Plagues worse than fill’d Pandoras Box,

I took my Leave of Albions Rocks,

With heavy Heart, concern’ d that I

Was forc’d my native Soil to fly,

And the old World must bid Good-b’ye.

No sooner were these lines set down than more came rushing unbidden to his fancy, and though he was not strong enough at the time to write them out, he conceived then and there a momentous project to occupy him during the weeks ahead which, should he find no means of regaining his estate, might well be his last on earth. He would versify his voyage to Maryland from beginning to end, just as he had planned before, but so far from writing a panegyric, he would scourge the Province with the lash of Hudibrastic as a harlot is scourged at the public post, catalogue her every wickedness, and expose her every trap laid for the trusting, the unwary, the innocent!

Fun, no?

For a book rumored to be difficult to read, I had no difficulty and enjoyed The Sot-Weed Factor immensely. The book is large, but I do not think Barth could have accomplished what he does in any less space. The Sot-Weed Factor has a story that is both comic and compelling, suspenseful and entertaining. It has the feel of the historic, but says things that never would have been said in a piece from the period. My final summation would have to be that The Sot-Weed Factor has plenty to chew on yet doesn’t chip teeth.

A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac

I found A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac (also translated as The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans) to be a complex and rich story, both a love tragedy as well as a complex society thriller. For me, this is the pinnacle of Balzac’s work. That is really saying something, considering he finished 91 books and left 46 more unfinished. I’ve personally read about 21. Some are good, some are downright bad, but for me A Harlot High and Low was about the best. It certainly affected me more than any other.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Iain Pears.)

A Harlot High and Low features a love story: Lucien de Rubempré and Esther van Gobseck. Their love is pure, powerful, and enduring. Unfortunately, Lucien has given himself up completely to the schemes of the master criminal Vautrin (who often masquerades as a Spanish priest). Vautrin is scheming to make Lucien extremely rich and powerful, stopping at nothing, and Esther is a courtesan (nicknamed “the Torpedo”). Not a simple prostitute, she was perhaps one of the most famous and powerful entertainers of men at the time. This is, of course, impossible for Vautrin’s plans for Lucien. Still, Vautrin is wily as well as a master of the criminal underworld. Because Esther’s love alone is not good enough for Vautrin, he puts Esther through a four-year program to be good enough for his Lucien. Lucien, though he loves Esther, is weak enough and slave enough to Vautrin to go along with it.

‘…Just as in Police files, you are a mere number, without social identity,’ went on the implacable priest. ‘If love, appearing to you as a runaway, made you suppose, three months ago, that you were reborn, you must feel that since that day you have been truly in a state of childhood. You must therefore conduct yourself like a child; you must change utterly, and I take it upon myself to put you beyond recognition. In the first place, you will forget Lucien.’

The poor girl was heartbroken at this thought; she raised her eyes towards the priest and shook her head; she could not speak, finding that the supposed rescuer was still to be her executioner.

‘You will at least stop seeing him,’ said the priest. ‘I shall take you to a religious house where the daughters of the best families receive their education; there you will become a Catholic, you will be instructed in Christian practices, you will be taught religion; you could leave that place a girl with accomplishments, chaste, pure, well-bred, if…’

He held up a finger and paused.

‘If,’ he went on, ‘you feel that you have the strength to leave the Torpedo here.’

Worse, Vautrin still needs Lucien to marry another in order to get a vast fortune.

This is bad enough, but the unscrupulous and incredibly wealthy Baron de Nucingen falls for Esther. Vautrin exploits this to get yet another fortune. Esther does this for Lucien, but kills herself after.

When the doomed woman appeared in the drawing-room, there was a cry of admiration. Esther’s eyes gave off a light of infinity in which the soul lost itself as it saw them. The blue-black of her splendid hair showed off the camellias. In short, every effect the sublime whore aimed at had been achieved. She had no rivals. She was the very embodiment of the unbridled luxury with which she was surrounded and adorned. Her wit, too, was at its most sparkling. She ruled the orgy with the cold, tranquil power deployed by Habeneck at the Conservatoire in those concerts at which the leading musicians of Europe attain the peak of execution in their interpretations of Mozart and Beethoven. She nevertheless observed fearfully that Nucingen ate little, didn’t drink and was acting as master of the house. At midnight, nobody was in his right mind. They broke glasses so that they shouldn’t be used again. Two curtains of Pekin print were torn. Bixiou was drunk for the only time in his life. As nobody could stand up, and the women lay more or less asleep on the divans, the guests were unable to carry out the joke they had originally planned of leading Esther and Nucingen to the bedroom, standing in two lines, holding candelabra and singing the Buona Sera from The Barber of Seville. Nucingen alone gave his hand to Esther; though drunk, Bixiou, who noticed them, still found the strength to say, like Rivarol at the last marriage of the Duc du Richelieu: ‘The Prefect of Police should be told…A foul trick is about to be played…’ Intended as light chaff, this would turn out to be prophecy.

This leads to Lucien being arrested, breaking in prison to betray Vautrin, and killing himself. Ironically, after Esther’s death it turns out she just inherited the kind of immense fortune that could have allowed her to marry Lucien. Also, it is revealed that the authorities were going to let Lucien go anyway, given his ability to compromise most of the women of Paris society.

Vautrin, if you can believe it, ends up spending much of the rest of his life working on the police force.

This is a sophisticated, beautiful book. Balzac is heavily credited as one of the big forces in the modern realistic novel, though he himself frequently pays his homage to Sir Walter Scott. It really is Balzac’s best, but you really can’t read it alone. You see, Balzac’s work was pretty much all part of a vast collection called The Human Comedy. 91 finished and 46 unfinished books? All part of it. All the same world, characters repeated and running through various books. It was supposed to completely depict the entirety of nineteenth century French society, from top to bottom. To really appreciate this one, you really need to have read Lost Illusions, the story of how Lucien came to Paris from the country to seek his rightful place in society, totally failed and betrayed his friends back home, decided to destroy himself, and then instead gave himself to Vautrin as a last resort. A Harlot High and Low is beautiful sophisticated novel and all, but it’s true magic comes as the capstone (as I see it), of The Human Comedy.

I’m sure that many people would love A Harlot High and Low, but I’m not sure so many are willing to go through enough of The Human Comedy as is really necessary to truly appreciate this book. I thought I did okay with having read 21, but that’s quite a bit more than most people. I would really recommend reading this one, but perhaps only after reading at least Cousin Pons, Cousin Bette, The Black Sheep, Father Goriot, and Lost Illusions. The build up from those books really makes A Harlot High and Low sing.