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A big pile of holiday reading

including Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels, Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, George Orwell’s Observer journalism, and Susan Whitfield’s Life along the Silk Road. I started Huysmans’s Parisian Sketches (in English translation) and Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo Jumbo... without liking (or finishing) either.

Les échelles du Levant by Amin Maalouf

More emotionally engaging than the other books I’ve read by him, which is a bad thing because I don’t read books for the sake of emotional turmoil. Also... is it me, or does he really use lots of words? Or do all novelists? I really wish they’d keep things a bit simpler. In the end I decided that I didn’t really enjoy this book.

Spies by Michael Frayn

Lightweight reading for a weekend away (I mean physically more than intellectually). But very enjoyable.

Sept 20. My French total for the year is now 4440 pages. I’m afraid I shall certainly fall short of the 6000 pages I aimed for, even though arithmetically I appear to be on target. However I needn’t worry. It’s not as if I was reading English or anything slobby like that.

Histoire de la Seconde République Fançaise by Pierre de la Gorce

(2 vols: title sic on the spine.) It begins with the 1848 revolution which ends Louis-Philippe. I reckoned that la Gorce would find no one to sympathise with after 1848, so that he would be a little more objective. In fact the conservative governments which took over soon after the revolution have his sympathy and mine. Even so his tendentiousness is excessive: during the election the conservatives wage ‘the campaign of truth against sophistry’.

When Louis Napoleon stages his coup, la Gorce is the first to congratulate him on this victory for the ‘party of order’. The summary at the end of the book is more balanced, but I have an uneasy feeling that he will look favourably on Napoleon.

Jun 29. Today I finished Louis-Philippe, taking my total French reading for the year to 3350 pages. I shall have more holidays in the second half, so my target of 6000 pages may still stretch me. I still spend as much time as previously with my nose in the dictionary, but I seem to read with less effort, perhaps because the books I’ve chosen have done more to grip my attention.

Louis-Philippe by Jean Lucas-Dubreton

A longish volume, very well written though not easy for beginners. Lucas-Dubreton’s prose surely cannot come across as unselfconscious to French readers. He seems to be conservative, though more balanced than la Gorce. Maybe French history favours conservatism. English history seems to be made up largely of progress impeded by self-interest, French of stability interrupted by stupid and bloodthirsty revolutions and assassination attempts. I devoured 250 pages of Louis-Philippe during a 3-day work trip abroad, unexampled in my case. I think Lucas-Dubreton is my favourite French historian. He wrote masses, though not on my favourite subjects. I can find out little about him. [Later: but I’m beginning to have suspicions about his politics.]

La Restauration (Louis XVIII & Charles X) by Pierre de la Gorce

La Gorce is officially immortal. His reactionary nostalgia casts doubt on everything he says – Charles X is ‘that excellent prince’ – and his book is readable but to my ear a little flat.

La disgrâce de Turgot by Edgar Faure

(2 vols). Faure was a politician who wrote two books in the series Trente journeés qui ont fait la France – this and La banqueroute de Law. Turgot is a little dry but well written if you excuse the occasional lapse into Franglais (a cattle epidemic is met by a policy of ‘le « stamping out »’). It’s surprising that Faure doesn’t provide any backgound on economic thought in Turgot’s time.

A brief history of Napoleon in Russia by Alan Palmer

(Holiday reading). Reasonably interesting.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

(Holiday reading). Entertaining enough.

La prise de la Bastille by Jacques Godechot

A sober, balanced and lucid volume.

Bailly’s memoirs

(3 vols.) Fairly readable, giving some insight into the mind of a civilised person who welcomed the revolution warmly and played a leading part in its early stages. But on the whole I was disappointed by it.

History of my grapplings with the French language: 20-25 years ago I read Voltaire’s Essai sur les Moeurs, Siècle de Louis XIV and Philosophical Dictionary; Helvétius’ de l’Esprit; Montesquieu’s Esprit des lois; Pascal’s Penseés and Provinciales; an abridgement of Casanova’s memoirs; Ch. Diehl’s Figures Byzantines; Camus’ l’Étranger and Peste; Nerval’s Filles du Feu; and Volney’s translation of Herodotus.

Five years ago I read Taine’s Ancien Régime. Then a couple of years ago I resolved on a final push which would bring me up to fluency, starting with Voltaire’s correspondence. But the language never becomes easy, and I still keep turning to the dictionary – there are so many words.

Last year I set myself to read at least 5000 pages of French and in fact read 5400, helped on by buying luxury editions in large print (in contrast to the cheap edition of Voltaire which dogged me through 2002). I suppose this year I must read at least 6000.

2004: Eats, shoots and leaves by Lynne Truss,
Pedant in the kitchen by Julian Barnes

(both presents.) Both brief, lightweight and pleasant; neither untainted by vulgarity. Such interest as is possessed by Truss’s book owes nothing to its campaigning aims.

Voyage en Orient, by G. de Nerval

(4 vols.) Gérard sits in his garret in Cairo, Beirut and Istanbul mistranslating Lane’s recently published travels and presenting them as an account of his own adventures.

In Beirut he is told that only dogs and the French go out into the sun at the middle of the day.

Letters of Harriet, Countess Granville

(2 vols.) Harriet was the wife of the Granville Leveson-Gower whose ‘private correspondence’ I read a while ago, and niece of Lady Bessborough. I had read a couple of her letters in historical collections, and found them witty, pereptive and elegant. But she was on the periphery of things, and the collection as a whole wears thin. She had a curious predilection for larding her prose with Gallicisms, as if English was a mere argot incapable of aptness or precision.

I repatriated this book from its Canadian exile.

The mulberry empire, by Philip Hensher

(Holiday reading (Tracey’s choice).) Well written and gripping until it comes to its grim end.

Père Goriot, by Balzac

(In English – holiday reading.) I thought it melodramatic twaddle.

How it ended, by Jay McInerney

(Holiday reading.) I didn’t get much out of this, which is a shame because I greatly enjoyed Story of my life and considerably enjoyed some of his other novels.

The garden of the Villa Mollini, by Rose Tremain

(Holiday reading.) Much inferior to her best novels, particularly How I found her. I quite enjoyed the last story.

The glass palace, by Amitav Ghosh

(Holiday reading.) This didn’t really warm up until half way through.

Encounters in History, by Pieter Geyl

I read this for the long chapter on French revolutionary historiography. Like his book Napoleon: for and against it is impressively sane. I wondered why more people couldn’t be as reasonable as Geyl. As I read further into his involvement in Flemish nationalism a worrying thought took hold of me: perhaps he was capable of writing sensibly about French history only by virtue of having an alternative outlet for his insanity.

The crowd in the French revolution, by George Rudé

Rudé portrays the revolutionary mob as a homogenous socialistic mass, active or inactive according to the price of bread. He’s more interested in refuting a sentence of Taine’s than in explaining anything.

Originals abroad, by Warren Smith

I read this because it was frequently cited in my edition of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu’s letters. But the eighteenth century personages it describes are not intrinsically all that interesting, nor eccentric enough to be worth gawping it.

Léon l’Africain, by Amin Maalouf

Enjoyable, as always.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters

(3 vols). She was a good writer, if overfond of paradox, and her letters are worth reading when she has something to say. When she doesn’t she is at least brief, which is fine for one’s correspondents; but for posterity it is better to be altogether silent.

Histoire des Girondins, by Lamartine

(8 vols.) He tells us at the outset that history is narrative with a conscience, but his own is rotten. When it doesn’t intrude into the narrative the tale is beautifully told; but when it does it is almost unreadable. The third volume, full of massacres, is hard to stomach.

Intellectually the book is unsatisfying: a history of epiphenomena. It is Stalinist in its vocabulary, designating the revolutionary faction ‘the people’.

It ends as sick-minded as it begun. I don’t know what it is with the French and their revolution. I tried Albert Mathiez’s Réaction Thermidorienne and found it just as bad, tossing it aside fairly quickly.

The White Rock, by Hugh Thomson


The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

A gripping entertainment.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell

Interesting and pleasingly written.

2003: Voltaire’s correspondance

(13 vols.) I read this more to improve my French than for pleasure; nonetheless, it can’t have been bad, since I made steady progress, though I needed a rest now and then.

Two of the volumes are devoted to Voltaire’s correspondence with Frederick the Great. The first is excruciatingly tedious. The second is agreeable enough, and makes Frederick seem an appealing person, though I think the truth is the opposite. Brougham makes him pretty repulsive in his Statesmen of the age of George III.

Some related books I shall read one day are the Abbé Morrelet’s memoirs and Baron Grimm’s literary correspondence, assuming that accounts of the latter running to 18 vols are exaggerated.

Lady Bessborough and her family circle

(ed. by the Earl of Bessborough.) Lady Bessborough became a figure of interest nearly 100 years ago in 1916, nearly 100 years after her death, when her moving letters to her sometime lover Granville Leveson Gower were published. The present volume, dating from 1940, contains letters written within her family. It suffers from the solicitude of generations of Ponsonbys for their forbears’ reputations. Only the spirited Caroline Lamb, whose reputation is beyond salvaging, excites much interest.

Three sailing books by HW Tilman

(specifically Mischief in Patagonia, Mischief in Greenland, Mostly Mischief.) I read these for a relaxing break from Voltaire, and devoured them quickly. I like Tilman’s mountaineering books greatly, chiefly for his wit and elegant prose, but also for the interest of the journeys. But his hostility to women makes him an unsympathetic character. His sailing books are weaker stuff, but not without charm and easy to read.

Am I alone in reckoning his prose superb? The following well turned sentence is from Patagonia:

So far as trade and currency go Peru is free, like Uruguay, but for those bold spirits who think or say that such freedom is not enough, accommodation is found in a prison on Isla San Lorenzo.

The History of Twenty Five Years, by Sir Spencer Walpole

(4 vols, covering 1856-1880.) I read this interleaved with some of the earlier volumes of Voltaire. Walpole writes fluently, though rather rhetorically: you imagine him banging the table at every gesture. I found the book easy to read, but in retrospect it is dull. Walpole must have been too close to the subject, which in any case is not very exciting. The book has the feeling of having been ‘digested into annals’ rather than composed into proper history.

There are no interesting characters, which is one difference from Walpole’s earlier History of England (covering 1815-1856), enlivened by Brougham amongst others. Gladstone seems admirable in a rather unconvincing sort of way: one longs for a second opinion from Lytton Strachey. Disraeli was merely squalid.

Another difference between the two books is that the later one is built from drab materials – turgid Victorian biographies and the pages of newspapers. The earlier one drew on such interesting works as Greville’s memoirs and the letters of Princess Lieven.

Voltaire, by Theodore Besterman

Besterman was the great panjandrum of Voltaire studies. I read this as a companion to the correspondence. (Besterman himself edited two scholarly editions of Voltaire’s letters, each of more than 100 vols if I’m not mistaken. I’m resolved to deprive myself of the pleasure of reading them: life is too short and houses too small.) The biography is okay, though Besterman’s attempts to enlist Voltaire as an atheist are rather fatuous.

My name is red, by Orhan Pamuk

(Holiday reading (Tracey’s choice).) Okay.

Richard III, by Desmond Seward

(Holiday reading.) Quite enjoyable. But the history of the time isn’t terribly interesting. Murderous coups might be exciting if they could be told in detail, but the bare bones cannot be gripping.

The popularity of the period stems from the fashion (started by Horace Walpole) of rejecting More’s account. But nothing is as detestable as revisionism, with which Seward is happily uncontaminated.

Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf

(Holiday reading.) Humane and readable, but nothing deep.

Eight feet in the Andes, by Dervla Murphy

(Holiday reading (Tracey’s choice).) She visits Peru and has her mule stolen. Nothing changes.

1688, by John E. Wills

(Holiday reading.) A pleasant, well written account, though more a selection of canapés than a meal.

The keys of Egypt, by L and R Adkins


2002: The quarrel of Macaulay and Croker, by William Thomas

I was astonished to find that people still wrote books about such things. It’s a good read, though I’m not sure if it added much to what I already knew about the protagonists.

Horace Walpole’s letters

(19 vols, ed. Mrs. Paget Toynbee.) I read about 6 vols before giving up. By common consent Walpole’s are the best letters in English, but he had nothing to say and his polite inanities bored me to tears. Byron’s and Macaulay’s letters are more fun.

index | Colin’s home page | books: 2002–2004 : 2005–2007 : 2008 : 2009/10 : 2011 | language dictionaries