“The Festival of Insignificance” by Milan Kundera.

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This is the first work by Milan Kundera that I have read and while I was worried that choosing a new work of his, especially one which has had such mixed reviews, was not the wisest choice when it comes to being introduced to an author, I was pleasantly surprised.

The book is far from insignificant as its pages contain a wealth of opinions about existence, individuality, will and humour. It focuses on four men in contemporary Paris, and the reader becomes privy to their thoughts about specific matters. While the reader immediately gets a sense of each character when it comes to their distinct concerns, that is about as far as character development goes in this short book. Intertwined with that, the book tells the story of Stalin and his comrades, specifically Kalinin. To say that nothing much happens would be an understatement as there is no real plot, rather the story takes place within the minds of the characters. As I thoroughly delight in such a premise, it was certainly an aspect which I liked.

The book definitely possesses a healthy dose of humour, while still focusing on serious themes. Kundera rightly shows that the best thing we can do in life, is to simply laugh at the absurdity of things and eventually come to the understanding that we are all ultimately insignificant. In a way it’s a beautiful thought because it means that we can drive away some of the worries that may make us take life too seriously. This is perhaps a reflection which Kundera has come to with age, as the older we get the more we lose the maximalism of our youth and our will to excel, and rather accept our place in life, focusing less on the abstract and more on the concrete.

While there are many interesting thoughts to be found in the book, they are found in the realm of the seemingly meaningless which makes it all the more intriguing. The example of the subplot of Stalin is the most notable, because rather than highlighting Stalin in the story, Kundera focuses on Kalinin, an unremarkable man, but one who has still had his place in history (revealed through the tale of Stalin bullying Kalinin over his problems with his bladder, but eventually naming Kaliningrad after him). This tale is really the key to understanding the book and the extent to which Kundera suggests that the insignificant is really what we should focus on in order to live our lives to the fullest;

“Insignificance, my friend, is the essence of existence. . .,” says Ramon. “We must love insignificance, we must learn to love it . . . in all its obviousness, in all its innocence, in all its beauty. . . . It is the key to wisdom.”

I truly enjoyed this little novel, and so would recommend it to absolutely everyone. I do admit that perhaps some of the more nuanced philosophical aspects may have escaped me slightly, but it did not lessen the impact of the book.

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt.

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 Picking up another book by Donna Tartt, I knew that I would not be disappointed, but once again I have to admit that this novel exceeded all of my expectations. As I took it off the shelf and immediately started reading it, I forgot to even read the summary on the back, so I was surprised, when I was halfway through the book and actually took a peek, that it hardly matched the story that I had already become so immersed in.

The blurb is as follows; ‘Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small and captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld’.

While it sounds like the novel may be riddled with suspense and crime, it hardly is. Rather it is truly about a lost little boy, who has lost the only person who truly loved him and as a result he embarks on a self-destructive journey which destroys any hope he could have in his life. It is a harrowing tale, which was very difficult to read, because of Donna Tartt’s incredible insight into the human mind and the often terrifying world of emotions (for this, the backdrop of Las Vegas with its desert emptiness was the most striking). Not only that, she also manages to make the reader feel anxious along the way, making him feel like he is a part of the book himself. It is near impossible to put into words how beautifully Tartt knows how to focus on details and surroundings, which is what really makes her writing so great.

At times it is deceptively simple, as if truly written as a straightforward memoir by a broken man, who remembers his past, but there are so many layers to it that it can’t be called anything but masterful. I have never been to New York, but the manner in which Tartt wrote about it and the immense amount of detail she put it, makes me feel like I now have (or at least want to go there very soon), and the same goes for Las Vegas. But it was not just the environment which came alive, but also the characters and their knowledge, as she is not afraid to write long passages about aspects of culture whether it would be a painting or a book. When it comes to characters, while Theo himself was already an absolutely mesmerizing character, his friend Boris formed another interesting part of the book with his Russian mannerisms, past and attitude.

Boris’ and Theo’s escapades in Las Vegas of getting drunk and high on whatever they can get do take up a lot of space in the book, and while some say that this is completely unnecessary, for me they were the most compelling. The reason why is because they formed Theo’s future character and were so bleak and disturbing when you imagine 13 year-old boys doing all this to themselves because they feel unloved that it baffles me how someone can say; oh, those little brats, how unappreciative they are of what they have in life. Rather it illustrates the hopelessness of how they felt and the misery, which Theo was thrown into the moment his mother died.

Here I’d like to return to the summary again, as I feel like it is very deceptive. The entire book was strong so that everything made sense and while the flow of it was very slow, it was an exciting read. That being said, when it came to the last two hundred or so pages of the novel which actually focused on the advertised ‘criminal underworld’, things felt rushed and so it lost a little of its charm. Especially as it could be felt how Tartt was trying to pull things together at the end, the weakest of those being Boris’ monologue in Amsterdam, which was very out of character as it was too polished, too serious for him. If these thoughts would have been attributed to Theo it would have worked, but somehow it ruined the realness of the novel which was so poignant up until that moment. As for the painting, which is supposedly the main focus of the novel – the painting is but a tool and not the centrepiece, as it eventually brings the story together at the very end, in order for Theo to understand why everything has happened to him, the way that it has. At some points it even faded into the background where it was easy to forget that such a secret exists.

As my copy was a whopping 864 pages long, this is not a book that everyone will have the patience to finish. Among most reviews the common consensus is that the book is too detailed and drags on in some parts for too many pages, but since these are things I often enjoy, I clearly appreciated it in this novel. Particularly because the amount of research that has gone into writing this is so apparent to the point that it is at times breathtaking. I would recommend this to everyone because it is definitely worth a read, so no wonder it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“A Meaningful Life” by L.J. Davis.

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While explaining the plot of this book to a friend, I realized just how overdone and cliché it sounded. Lowell Lake, a man in his thirties, works a regular office job in New York, has a nice wife and a comfortable living situation,  yet realizes that he has never done anything that might be regarded as meaningful. The book explores his crisis through his memories and through the solution which he has found – the renovation of an extremely run-down house in Brooklyn.

The subject matter definitely sounds familiar, but Davis turns the life and fate of Lowell Lake into a marvellously hilarious story. It’s dark, it’s brutal at times, and because of Davis’ writing it is exciting to follow the story. Any book which results in me laughing out loud in a coffee shop full of people is a gem of comedy in my eyes, so I greatly appreciated the humour which was introduced to an otherwise miserable tale.

That being said, the flow of the book changes quite significantly half way through. While the pace is quick at first as Davis builds up Lowell’s character through his memories, from the moment that Lowell purchases the house, the book begins to drag on. Not only that, but Lowell’s character becomes practically unbearable. While he is easy to relate to and understand given that he is just an average man, who has had it easy in life, but is faced with the prospect that he has always been and always will be average, he becomes difficult to pity by the end of the book. His lack of appreciation for everything around him and his inability to see his failures as his own fault, as he tries to blame the system or tries to blame his wife, makes him appear weak and ungrateful.

This is especially crystal clear as the house is not his first attempt to give meaning to his life. The reader is also made aware that upon moving to New York, Lowell decided to dedicate his time to writing a book. With him spending days drunk and hopelessly trying to scribble words on a page without even knowing what he was writing about, the only sacrifices made were by his wife. So when the house comes into the picture years later, it is difficult to see how he could not have learned from his mistake and why he takes his wife for granted once again. As I’m writing this, I understand that this sounds like a rant about Lowell’s character, but his unlikeable nature was what ruined the novel for me when it came to the ending, since I could not care less about him, his choices and the consequences which they would bring, no matter how funny Davis kept the story.

Beyond Lowell’s unsympathetic character, the novel was an interesting read as it exposed the class and racial situation within Brooklyn in the 1960s, and opposed to that had a variety of hilarious situations and episodes that were a pleasure to come across. I understand the premise of this book, I understood Lowell’s obsession with the house, as he wanted to restore it to its grandeur for it to be a symbol of something he could never be, and if he had been a more compassionate character I would have rooted for him. All in all, the book is still worth a read, because my dislike for the main character has obviously influenced my opinion of this book greatly to the point where I’m not sure whether the rating I’m giving it is based on my thoughts on the book or my thoughts on Lowell Lake.

I give this book three out of five wine bottles.

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“The Winter of Our Discontent” by John Steinbeck.

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There is a reason why I always finish a book when I start reading it, and this book by John Steinbeck reminded me why. I started this novel back in January and every single time I picked it up, I just did not find myself enjoying it, so I would only read two or so pages. Recently, I decided that I needed to give it a fair chance and so I sat and read it seriously, and to my surprise, I could not put it down.

The novel follows Ethan Hawley, a grocery clerk, whose spirit has become broken by slaving away at a store while he is haunted by the memories of his great and aristocratic ancestors. His family being unsatisfied with their position, with his children constantly asking him when he will become rich, Ethan finally decides to change the course of his life. The only thing of value which Ethan possesses is his honesty and throughout the story we see how it is eaten away at by the influence of those around him and the most primitive need to have wealth and satisfy his own pride.

Steinbeck uses an interesting approach when it comes to narrative, by starting the first two chapters of both parts of the book in the third person and then switching to Ethan’s point of view. This fact greatly contributed to why I enjoyed the book, because the moment when Ethan’s narrative began, I became enraptured by him and this was my reason for loving the book. It was interesting to see the way his mind worked in how he dealt with situations inside his head and then how he acted upon them, because there was a very clear difference as he most often played the part of a fool in real life in order to confuse those around him.

This deliberate manipulation along with his wit and charming nature made him an intriguing character, one which I constantly wanted to know more about. This was also largely due to how well the dialogue was written, because it constantly maintained wonderful rhythm. When it comes to the plot, Steinbeck himself has said that that he wrote the novel to address the moral degeneration of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s, and this could not be clearer in the book. We see Ethan challenge his own beliefs when he is faced with the prospect of coming into money, whether it would be through a bank robbery or through getting it by deceiving an alcoholic friend, who can be of use to him, and these moral dilemmas make for a fascinating read.

The most interesting and perhaps tragically ironic of them concerns Ethan’s boss and owner of the store Marullo, who has looked upon Ethan suspiciously all the years he has worked there only to finally see him for the honest man he is, when Ethan is already on the way to his moral decline. Saying all that I am saying regarding questions of morality in the book, I feel like I am greatly oversimplifying Steinbeck’s work. The nuances which he adds and his writing in general are anything but simple, which is why I enjoyed this novel so much. No one in the book is inherently good or inherently bad, which is something that eventually provides a moral predicament even for the reader. While the book does have a cheery feel to it, mostly because of Ethan’s personality, it is based on an underlying darkness, which can leave the reader with a feeling of despair in the pit of their stomach when it comes to the ending.

I am beyond glad that I finished this book, because I absolutely loved it and the themes and characters are so universal that this would be a great read for anyone. While Steinbeck failed to impress me with ‘Of Mice and Men’ (I just wasn’t moved by the story, not the writing), this novel has persuaded me to pick up a book by him again in the near future.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur.

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I think that this may be the first poetry book which I will have the pleasure of reviewing on this blog, which just goes to show that I much prefer to read novels over anything else. After having seen a poem from this book published online (accompanied by its illustration), I was intrigued and could immediately see that I may relate to a lot of the themes from this collection. I was not wrong. Kaur focuses on love, relationships, the pain caused by them and the healing which one has to go through in order to feel good again.

The collection is divided into four chapters – the hurting, the loving, the breaking and the healing. The poetry itself is simplistic, one could say almost minimalist, not only in the way it is presented, but also the language which is used. Kaur does not employ incredibly original metaphors or intricate words, which is both the charm and the downfall of her poetry. The reason for the latter is that some poems fail to deliver a strong message and rather resemble overused quotes that you may feel that you have already seen on the internet. That being said, a few of them are truly beautiful, making you reread the poem more than once, as it draws you in.

However, these quality poems are largely outnumbered by underwhelming ones, which are either too cliché or simply fail to impress because the emotion or statement is so obvious that it seems like Kaur has stripped down ideas which so many other poets try to express in eloquent ways in their poetry. It baffles me that this book is a New York Times bestseller, but at the same time it also reflects the literary level which our society, particularly the younger generation, has now embraced.

The most profound chapter of the collection was definitely ‘the hurting’, because it focused on raw emotions and pain in the face of a domineering or menacing father figure and the consequences which that can have later in life. ‘The healing’ ranks as the worst as it was full of supposedly empowering poems, which were essentially just banal and threadbare words, resulting in a near-unreadable chapter.

While I said at the beginning that I related to a lot of what Kaur wrote about, I failed to be moved by the collection in general. I will definitely reread some of the poems from time to time, but for the most part it left me wanting for more complicated writing. I do want to include a poem which I liked, which would also illustrate her style of writing for anyone who might be interested in reading the collection;

emptying out of my mother's belly
was my first act of disappearance
learning to shrink for a family
who likes their daughters invisible
was the second
the art of being empty
is simple
believe them when they say
you are nothing
repeat it to yourself
like a wish
i am nothing
i am nothing
i am nothing
so often
the only reason you know
you're still alive is from the
heaving of your chest

And also to show the change in quality, I’ll include one which I particularly disliked (which honestly I can’t believe was included in the book);

you
are your own
soul mate

I give this book two out of five wine bottles.

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“Mr Palomar” by Italo Calvino.

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If your mind needs a rest from everything going on around you, then pick up this book by Calvino. Through the eyes of Mr Palomar, an old and retired man, one can experience the world in a way, which may not seem accessible in an environment of daily stress and worries. Mr Palomar, however, spends his days musing about the minuscule details in life such as the movement of waves in the sea, the way birds sing, the shops he goes to, and beyond the minuscule, about his own existence. I would not call this fiction, although it is classified as that, purely because the atmosphere created is so real and also because the book does not have a plot. It is purely a series of thoughts.

While the observations listed above may sound trivial, Calvino keeps his thoughts concise and intriguing to read. He offers ideas which may not even have occurred to you and in doing so reveals something magical about the world we live in regarding any given situation. Although this book may be easier to understand and relate to if you are an introvert, it would be more beneficial to read if you are not. It may give you an entirely different perception of the small things in your life, that you may have failed to notice if you have not spent enough time by yourself. Being a sublime mix between comic and profound, Palomar’s reflections will not leave you without something meaningful to think over. His way of looking at things is perfectly summarised by this quote;

“Or else, given that there is world that side of the window and world this side, perhaps the “I,” the ego, is simply the window through which the world looks at the world.”

To conclude, if someone is convincing enough to convey how a cheese shop in Paris is similar to a museum (doing so in an elegant but modest language), while at the same time provoking thoughts in the reader as to all the places he visits daily in order to draw comparisons, it can be said that they are a truly great writer. I’ll end with words which really caught my eye;

“A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones
but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but, rather, corresponds to an inner architecture.”

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“The Collected Stories” by Richard Yates.

 

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During a recent conversation I had trouble thinking of American writers who I really like (apart from Fitzgerald, of course). I had completely forgotten Richard Yates. Thankfully, during a book buying frenzy I had bought these stories and they proved successful in reminding me why I loved his writing when I read ‘Revolutionary Road’. All of the stories have a clear theme running through them, which could be summarised as the unhappy and lonely lives of husbands and wives in the 50s and 60s in the American suburbs, with some exceptions. And while on the surface the stories are precisely about that, Yates provides a wealth of insight into the minuscule details of the lives of ordinary people and the reasons for their pettiness. Overall the stories are bound to leave the reader with an overwhelming sense of doom and sadness, which is something I always look for in a book, and a desire to never get married, which is slightly more controversial.

Talking about a collection of stories is always difficult, so just as I have done before, I will discuss my favourite stories; ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ and ‘A Convalescent Ego’. The first follows Jack, a young and poor writer, who is commissioned to write a screenplay for an upcoming movie, therefore finds himself in L.A. There he meets a girl called Sally, who he clings to at first because she provides excitement and an insight into the strange world she lives in, making him feel alive again. The novelty quickly wears off and he begins to see the emptiness of her life, the lives of those around her and his own loneliness. Yates illustrates this beautifully with minor quarrels and almost comical situations, which do not diminish the melancholy present throughout the story. The most pertinent aspect being the need to have someone by your side, whether you love them or not, to quench the loneliness we all feel and to forget about the things which bother us in ourselves. For Jack it was Sally, but it could just as well have been anyone else, which is hinted at with one of the other characters of the story Jill – who changes partners constantly, always being unsatisfied with the previous one, yet still needing someone by her side. A beautiful story with painful realisations and a bleak undertone, which made me put down the book for a while, as I needed to think it over.

The second story, ‘A Convalescent Ego’, is about Bill, a man who is home from the hospital, recovering from an operation due to tuberculosis (an illness which appears throughout many of the stories). During a day at home, he clumsily breaks a tea cup while his wife is out shopping and this accident, having followed many similar ones before, leads him to a form of hysteria of trying to make up for his mistake while simultaneously trying to predict his wife’s reaction to all the possible ways he could resolve the issue. Not only were the intricate ways in which he imagined his wife’s responses genius, because creating such scenarios in my mind is something I can relate to a bit too much, but the way Yates revealed so much about Bill himself was exceptional. It becomes clear that Bill despises the fact that the surgery has made him weak, barely a person, as he can’t go to work. This quality has in his eyes stripped him of his masculinity and made him feel pathetic in the eyes of his wife, who in every scenario wins the argument and proves how foolish he has been in his attempts to rectify the situation. I was unsure I liked the ending of the story, but I suppose that following every imagined scenario it could not have ended any other way but with a reaffirmation of his masculinity. Bill’s behaviour towards his wife at the end of the story seems so unexpected yet the reader, having been privy to all his thoughts, should not have expected anything else. It was the outburst of the exasperation which had built up inside him for a long time, despite his inner desire to do well and be kind. It’s almost a reminder that even though we may see some things that we feel as obvious to others and easy to notice by those around us, it’s not always so. These feelings do not necessarily show on the outside and rather than lashing out when it all gets too much, it would be better to remain cool-headed and communicate with others.

I loathe the fact that this review cannot capture the brilliance of Yates’ stories and that I have to resign myself to choosing my favourites in an effort to discuss the book. In fact, I don’t like choosing favourites at all, because when I like a collection as much as I did this one, it almost feels like a betrayal. All of these stories rely on subtleties and a dark sense of quiet and inner unrest, which is almost never resolved, only accepted. The subtle nature of the stories is what I cannot illustrate here, therefore I recommend for everyone to read the book. It is a heartbreaking and emotional collection, which may be hard to get through all at once, but once you do, it will feel like a part of you has been left within the pages and this will make you want to re-read it for years to come.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“A Sun for the Dying” by Jean-Claude Izzo.

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Another review, another depressing French book. Funnily enough, I couldn’t be happier about it. Izzo’s book is a real gem. It always fascinates me how, when I choose to buy completely random books in bookstores, I usually find something excellent.

This story is centered on Rico, a homeless man, who decides to leave Paris and head for Marseilles after the death of his friend Titi. Throughout the novel, the reader is made aware that he is telling his story to someone, yet we only find out who it is at the very end. Rico recounts his experiences on the streets of Paris, he delves into his intimate relationships and explores his past, in order to explain why he has found himself on the streets.

It would take a very cynical person to not be moved by this book. I feel like what surprised me the most was the lack of ‘what ifs’ in the story. Rico constantly dreams, thinks and talks about his past, yet he never imagines what his life might have been like, had it not been for one of his choices. This, coupled with his string of very unsuccessful romances, is just pure sadness. The reader is subjected to the harrowing tale of a man, who has been looking for love, or if not that, then some meaningful relationship his whole life, only to have it crumble before his very eyes every single time. The most acutely gloomy story is that of his wife, who leaves him after he has sacrificed his entire existence for her, only to have her fall in love with another man. With that begins his descent into alcoholism, which eventually puts him on the streets.

Rico numbs himself to the world, drinking his days away, trying to get into some sort of routine. Focusing on the past seems to both help with that and destroy his sanity at the same time, because he cannot really accept how the events unfolded and the pain which he has had to endure since. The interactions he has with others seem to be meaningless, except when it comes to Titi, who is almost a guide to him – trying to teach him how to survive. This being the only true relationship, which Rico has been able to form, Titi’s death quite clearly makes Rico feel like he has died too (since it seems to be a pattern in his life in one form or another).

The reader feels the intense cold, the desperation, the humiliation, the anxiety which Rico goes through as he travels from Paris to Marseilles, where he meets the narrator of the book – a young Algerian boy, who is in the same situation as himself. Finally in Marseilles, where he finds  friendship and the return of his self-respect, as he rediscovers himself as a salesman, it is by then too late, making the ending even more sombre.

I also liked that the book was not entirely black and white – Rico was by no means a perfect man, yet feeling sorry for him came naturally. At the same time, Izzo did add a character like Dédé, who seems to be evil incarnate on the surface and yet he is also very easy to understand. Unlike Rico, he has not given up and still wants to enjoy life, without thinking about the consequences of his actions. This makes me return to the point about surviving – even while writing this review, I have changed my mind. I don’t think that Rico’s story is one of survival, it is rather about getting by, merely awaiting the end.

Even with all this going against them, Rico and Titi retain their humanity and, despite the hardships which they have encountered, they can still appreciate those of others. Most clearly demonstrated by something Titi says about prostitution, which becomes relevant when Rico encounters Mirjana.

I’ll tell you something, Rico. When a man’s at the end of his tether, he begs, but when a woman’s at the end of her tether, she sells her body. Just think of that. Any humiliation you may feel is nothing compared with what they must feel. Getting fucked for a living, we can’t even imagine what that must be like.

I would strongly recommend this book to everyone. It has made me see things which I had only seen in the abstract sense before, in a completely different light. Especially when it comes to Paris. Izzo writes with such emotion that it draws you in and tugs at your heart strings in the most incredible way.

I give this book five out of five wine bottles.

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“Aimez-vous Brahms?” by Françoise Sagan.

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Starting off the New Year in terms of reading with a book that could not be more ‘me’ if it tried. By that I mean, Paris, a sad love story, dysfunctional relationships and much more. Immediately after reading this book, I had a feeling that there might be a film based on it, and I was not disappointed. (Called ‘Goodbye Again’ starring Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins) It is probably worth watching, mostly because they might be able to recreate the atmosphere, which this book excels at creating, and yet I have the feeling that, as with many films, the character’s thoughts may not be portrayed so powerfully on-screen.

The story is a simple one. Paule, a woman approaching the age of forty, is in love with a slightly older man, Roger. Their relationship has gone on for years and yet it is a casual one, where she is strongly in love with him, but he only uses her as a form of reassurance of his own masculinity. Through her work, Paule meets Simon, who is fourteen years younger than her and, beyond his looks, does not attract her whatsoever. Yet Simon falls madly in love with Paule. What fascinated me about this book was the complete misery which could be seen in each relationship.

First, looking at Roger and Paule, Sagan perfectly describes the feelings of unrequited love. The loneliness Paule feels, when Roger is not around, the hopelessness of performing any task, because all she can think about is him. Finally, when Paule does begin a relationship with Simon, mostly out of pity, the fact that she does not even have to say it out loud for him to know that she thinks of nothing but Roger, hits the nail on the head. On the other side of this coin, there is Roger, who has constant affairs with Paule being the only stable thing in his life. His thoughts reflect the fact that he is drawn to her because of her sadness, the thought of her pining for him, yet it does not change his behaviour. The mere thought of it makes him feel so secure, that he does not need to make an effort.

Second, Simon and Paule. While Paule’s love for Roger is melancholy, Simon loves Paule obsessively, to the point where it seems that he is insane. Yet this is merely another expression of unrequited love. Just as Paule theoretically has Roger in her life, Simon has Paule, but while he is close to her, he knows that it means absolutely nothing to her. This would be a good moment to emphasize once again, that this book really showed the most dysfunctional of relationships.

As I’m writing this, I realize that I cannot really depict how powerfully Sagan was able to demonstrate the emotions of the characters. To see that, you must really read the book. Of course, another important element in the book was Paule’s age. She reflects on the things she should have had by that time, of the idea of Roger as something permanent in her life, of the mockery she would have to endure if she were to settle down with Simon. All of these aspects come together to create a gloomy but beautiful stream of thought, of personal reflection mixed with love. The book does end on an unhappy and ironic note, as it should in my opinion, because anything else would ruin the tone of the story, yet I did not feel sad after reading it.

Something about the insights in this book coupled with the incredibly Parisian setting of cafés, drinks, cigarettes and outings to the Bois de Boulogne, made for a lovely read. I would assume that reading this in French would have made this atmosphere all the more authentic (which I probably should have done), but the translation, in my opinion, did it justice. To illustrate that;

Aimez-vous Brahms?‘ It was one of these questions young men had asked her when she was seventeen. And no doubt she had been asked the same things later, but with no one listening to the answer […] Nowadays she took six days to read a book, lost her place, forgot music. She could not keep her mind on a thing, except fabric samples and a man who was never there. She was losing herself, track of herself; she would never be herself again. Aimez-vous Brahms? For a moment she stood by the open window; the sunlight hit her full in the eyes and dazzled her. And the little phrase, Aimez-vous Brahms, seemed suddenly to reveal an enormous forgetfulness: all that she had forgotten, all the questions that she had deliberately refrained from asking herself. Aimez-vous Brahms? Did she care for anything now, except herself and her own existence? Of course, she said she loved Stendhal; she knew she loved him. That was the word: knew. Perhaps she merely ‘knew’ she loved Roger. Sound acquisitions. Sound touchstones. She felt an itch to talk to someone, as she had felt at twenty.

 I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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“The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism” by Pascal Bruckner (2010).

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After an interesting conversation about politics which took place during the summer, a friend recommended this book to me. I knew that I wanted to read it, but my incentive came after I started reading more and more articles and watching videos which dealt with the themes this book deals with. All of this ensured that I was already biased when I began the book and so I would constantly find passages with which I agreed. This review will include long quotes, because I think that Bruckner’s own words are a better way to show the tone of the book.

The author explores a wide variety of subjects within the book, but they all link back to why the West is losing its grip on reality by constantly victimizing itself. He does this in a sarcastic and very straightforward style, which does have a consequence that I will mention later on. This self-victimization is especially relevant in the context of Europe, since Bruckner does think that the United States have a better attitude towards current events. That being said, he did not shy away from criticizing the forceful way in which the States sought to bring democracy to the countries in the Middle East. He also ended the book on a wonderful reminder that both Europe and the United States can learn from each other – where one is too passive and guilt-ridden, the other might do well to learn a little modesty and take a better look at how it is perceived by other countries in the global context.

Much of the book is, however, focused on Europe and particularly France. Bruckner condemns the French self-deprecation, even self-hatred which he thinks is causing a revolt within a country which should be united. Speaking of multiculturalism, Bruckner sees the necessity for assimilation, but sees it as impossible within the current context, where the French identity seems to be non-existent or rather unappealing. The reason for this is a mix between both France constantly apologizing for its crimes rather than learning from them and the resulting sense of guilt which it has instilled within its own society. I think the most poignant fragments which illustrate the current situation, especially where the immigration issue is concerned is this;

“It is true that there is a chauvinistic nostalgia for past grandeur, but it is for an abstract grandeur for which we are not prepared to pay anything. The fantasy that torments France in the early 21st century is not expansion, it is separation. It is a mistake to describe France as a power that dreams of dominating; at best, it is a country that is in need of a destiny and is trying to survive. The memory of the glories of yesteryear is accompanied by a complete renunciation of the mentalities that were the condition for those glories. […] Consider the immigration problem: by its attitude, simultaneously repressive and permissive, the Republic has put itself in a position to lose on all fronts. Its visa policy, which is restrictive and touchy, discourages the best minds of Africa and Asia, who allow themselves to be snatched up by universities in North America and Britain. Ultimately it welcomes only the least qualified, who are employed in servile, thankless tasks and its bureaucracy and police then carry on an ignoble guerrilla war against them.”

and

“This Left has to produce, relying heavily on artifices, the image of a France which is xenophobic, because it is France, that is, branded with a criminal past […]. Paris is supposed to steal from the projects, exploit their wealth, and conduct violent policy of despoiling them! Let us recall that others have tried to make these areas the equivalent of the occupied territories in Palestine, a Gaza Strip or a West Band of their own around Lyons, Toulouse, or Paris. So now the French have become colonialists at home, and the hexagon will have to be taken from them! Instead of admitting that the French system discourages initiative and effort, that an unemployment rate of 40 percent among young people in the projects, the absence of qualifications and inter-familial solidarity, and the omnipresence of gangs that rule the projects and regularly shake down the inhabitants of the apartment blocks there make their situation catastrophic, a fantastic genealogy is invented, and areas like Les Minguettes and La Courneuve are seen as if they were the Aurès mountains of Algeria or the high plateaus of Tonkin. […] The situation in the projects has to do with rejection, with territorial separation, not with the subordination to commercial ends that was the peculiar feature of empires.”

This, however, ties in with the politics of identity, which Bruckner denounces quite strongly. He sees it as a form of inciting even more separation and as a way for many people to enjoy the benefits of being a victim of a system which is seen as oppressive. That should not be the case since it discourages action and a desire for meaningful change. Ultimately, Bruckner sees the solution at a European level. Once Europe is politically and militarily strong it can be a better ally to the States and as a result become more forward-looking.

When I mentioned a consequence arising out of Bruckner’s style of writing, I was referring to the possibility that this essay might not be a good tool to use for convincing people who have completely different ideas. The sarcasm and bluntness, which do make the essay entertaining to read, may seem patronizing to some, and while it does balance out by the end of the book, many may not stick around as long as that. Especially when Bruckner touches upon the problems in Israel, because, while I agreed with most of what he said, it is still a controversial topic yet he seemed to present things as though they were self-evident. Therefore, I would recommend this book to everyone who is open-minded and to those, who may disagree with the passages quoted above to read until the end of the essay, because there are a lot of good points to be found within these pages.

I’ll end this review with a lighter quote, which pokes fun both at the reality we live in and at the sense of entitlement which we have become accustomed to;

“We are now scandalized by hot summers and cold winters: the heavens owe us temperate weather or we will prosecute them! We sniggered at the American’s incompetence in dealing with Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, but when the temperature rose a few degrees in August 2003 it was experienced in France as an Apocalypse, and fifteen thousand elderly people died: ‘The Battle of the Heat Wave,’ read a headline in an evening paper in September of the same year, as if the summer heat were the equivalent of Verdun or Stalingrad.”

I give this book four out of five wine bottles.

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