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Category Archive for 'Classic Novel'

Originally published in Italy in 1973, under the title Caro Michele (Dear Michele), Natalia Ginzburg’s most popular Italian novel changed its title for an English-speaking audience in this new edition. Happiness, as Such, the English title, conveys the author’s purpose, emphasizing the uncertainties of knowing exactly what happiness is on a grand scale, the major point of this novel, and applies to a broader cast of characters than just “dear” Michele, the “oblivious” son of a forty-three-year-old mother whose life is a mashup of strange experiences and uncertain goals and values. Told through a series of letters, primarily between Adriana, the mother, and twenty-one-year-old Michele, her son, the letters reveal the often interconnected stories of several other characters – family, friends, and lovers, past and present – as they go about living and describing their daily lives. Author Ginzburg, whose style is so unpretentious and seemingly spontaneous that a reader cannot help but become involved in the various narratives, gradually shows how each person protects his/her happiness by doing whatever seems right at the time in order to escape misery, unpleasant consequences, and time-consuming self-analysis. As she reveals her characters, author Ginzburg herself begins to come alive, a person of ironic humor, witty insights, and immense sensitivity to hidden meanings as revealed in seemingly ordinary dialogue.

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Shimada sets this newly translated 1982 “locked room” mystery, the second novel of his career, at the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, in a fictional building designed by the main character, Kozaburo Hamamoto. From the outset, the author stresses that Hamamoto’s house is a very special creation, with floors that are not level are not level and a tower with the same five degree tilt as the Tower of Pisa. This unique fictional residence is the setting for a celebration of Christmas, 1983, as owner Kozaburo Hamamoto, a widower, has invited eight guests to spend the holiday weekend with him at the Crooked House, also called the Ice Floe Mansion. The mysteries begin almost immediately. At breakfast time, one guest does not answer his door, and outside the room a dark figure is lying in the snow. As the guests go outside to get closer, they see that there are objects strewn around the figure. The “body,” however, turns out to be one of Hamamoto’s antique puppet dolls from Czechoslovakia – a Golem – with a missing head. When they return to the house, however, they find the body of a chauffeur who has come with one of the guests, stabbed to death with a hunting knife which has a white string attached. Additional crimes occur, and the mysteries become much more complex, eventually requiring the work of a fortune teller, psychic, and self-styled detective to help solve one of the most detailed and complex locked room mysteries ever.

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After I remarked to some book friends that one of the joys of having finished my schooling and my teaching career was that I would never again have to read a novel by Henry James, both of these friends responded that I really should read The Beast in the Jungle (1903), which they found to be quite different from many of his other works. Though I admit to having loved some of the films of James’s novels, I did not love reading any of the six novels I had had to read for classes, and I have always found James’s prose style to be so contorted, by today’s standards, and so artificial, that I have often had to reread and self-translate it into less formal English in order to come close to understanding what James is saying. My friends persuaded me by their enthusiasm, however, and I decided to try reading Henry James again after so many years of avoiding him. Voluntarily returning to his company, it turned out, was a mixed blessing. I admired much of the book and, for the first time, I really began to feel as if I were beginning to know who Henry James really was as a man, not just as a writer. The Beast in the Jungle parallels what we know of his life very closely, and it feels so autobiographical that the reader cannot help but believe that it is based on a very real inner turmoil in his life and may also explain some the mysteries which have always surrounded him.

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Set in that fraught period between the German occupation of France during World War II and the liberation which came much later, Patrick Modiano’s second novel, written in 1969, when he was just twenty-three years old, incorporates as his main character a young man who is at a total loss about what to do with his life. Describing himself as someone who “started out a pure and innocent soul,” he admits that his “innocence got lost along the way.” The people who have gravitated toward him now are former policemen and criminals, including an official now known as the Khedive, who have opened a “detective agency” from which they are collecting protection money. The Khedive, who still has important contacts throughout the police department, has high hopes himself of eventually becoming “Monsieur le Prefet de Police.” The young man known only as “Swing Troubadour,” does dirty work for this group, sometimes referred to as The Night Watch, earning a huge salary in the process. Possessing a warrant card and a gun license, the young man is ordered to infiltrate a “ring” of enemies and destroy it.

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Magda Szabo (1917 – 2007), one of Hungary’s most celebrated authors, lays bare her own values and her soul in The Door, a rich and intensely intimate examination of the relationship between a character named Magdushka, a writer whose point of view controls this novel, and Emerence, her housekeeper-servant. As suggested by the choice of the main character’s name and occupation, much of the story here parallels aspects obvious from the author’s own biography, and she has admitted in an interview that much of the content here is based on similar experiences from her own life. How much is actually true and how much is an elaboration becomes irrelevant once the book gets underway, though it is difficult to imagine the author recreating Magdushka’s unwavering commitment to the temperamental and prideful Emerence, her affecting sense of responsibility, and her overwhelming guilt regarding her betrayal of a secret, if she herself had never experienced similar feelings under very similar conditions. In a brief opening chapter, Magdushka, now in old age, describes the continuing nightmare which has loomed over her adult life. In it she is behind the front door of her own house, unable to open it for rescuers and unable to call for help. Magdushka sees parallels between this nightmare and her experiences with Emerence at the climax of their relationship many years earlier. Since what happened then is now in the past, she knows that “none of that matters, because what happened is beyond remedy.”

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