Sunday, August 29, 2021

Back to Classics Challenge 2021: Sister Carrie

"When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility.

This book is as much about Carrie Meeber, the young woman who comes from rural Wisconsin to Chicago in the 1880s as it is about George Hurstwood, the older married Chicago business manager who falls for her. This book was controversial when first published since Carrie lives what would be considered an immoral life when she shacks up with men who are not her husband. But the book also bucks convention (and probably pissed off critics of it) because Carrie is not punished for this. In fact, despite certain challenges, she thrives. 

The book opens with 18 year old Carrie on a train from her small town in Wisconsin on her way to Chicago sometime in the late 1880s. She meets a flashy but charming salesman, Charles Drouet, who will later play a great role in her life. But at this point, she is basically a country hick with no idea of what a city like Chicago has to offer and also to take from a fresh girl like her. Her married sister lives in the city and the expectation is that Carrie will get a job and help them by paying room and board out of her salary. Her sister’s husband is a dour Swede who has no imagination or interest in what a young girl might want out of life. His expectation is that she should be happy working in any of the various factories employing cheap labor. Carrie’s sister is slightly more sympathetic, but not much. Carrie soon finds that almost all her earnings are eaten up by room and board and the cost of transportation to and from work. She has no money at the end of the week, nowhere to go and no one to go with her.  Her chance meeting with Drouet will later pay off in taking her away from this existence, which serves only to grind her down. Drouet can offer her something better. 

Drouet, in turn, is very admiring of George Hurstwood, the manager of a local “resort” (sounded like an upscale bar to me). George is older, successful and surrounded by local celebrity and big wigs who come to the bar. He is also unhappily married with two grown children. When George meets Carrie (Drouet introduces them almost as if he is showing Carrie off as a possession, though he calls her his wife) he falls head over heels in love with her. 

Definitely this is a realist novel along the lines of Emile Zola (which fits nicely with The House of Ulloa and the Zola title I read earlier this year). I’m not that particular about language or prose but I have to say, Dreiser’s dialogue and description is sometimes pretty flat and matter-of-fact. 

What I liked most about this book was its time capsule quality. Dreiser really brought the streets of the nascent Second City to life and later those of New York as well. He gave me a glimpse of how some people lived during those times and, sometimes down to the penny, what a dollar could get you and where. I liked those details. The plotting was a little hackneyed maybe, but overall I appreciated this classic novel and especially I appreciated Dreiser’s non-judgmental stance. Also, I learned that “out of sight” meaning “terrific” or “great” was a common phrase in the last 19th century! I had always assumed it originated in the 1960 or '70s, but no. The trivial things we readers learn, right?

Chicago in the late 19th century

Another book from the Modern Library list of the 100 best English-language novels published during the 20th century. I read this for the Back to Classics Challenge 2021 category “20th Century Classic”. Sorry for those of you who were looking forward to me reading the next book in the Alexandria Quartet for this prompt, but it just didn't work out. I will read it, for sure. But not in time for the 2021 challenge, alas!

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - His Excellency, Eugène Rougon

Inspired by Karen at Books and Chocolate and her enthusiasm for the novels of Emile Zola, I decided a few years ago to read all of his Rougon-Marquand series - 20 books total - in the recommended reading order (as opposed to the order of publication). This initial bout of enthusiasm lead me to read The Fortune of the Rougons waaay back in 2013.  The best laid plans of mice and men as some one once said…it only took me eight years to read the next book.  At this rate, I will be 120 or so when I am done with the series. 

His Excellency, Eugène Rougon takes place fairly soon after the events of The Fortune of the Rougons. Eugène Rougon is a lawyer from the provinces who went to Paris to make his fortune and luckily (or shrewdly) put his faith in Charles Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in 1851 when Napoléon, who was then President of France, staged a successful coup and crowned himself emperor Napoléon III.  When the book opens, while the Empire is still at the height of its powers and popularity, Rougon is resigning his influential post in the national assembly. All those who relied upon him and his political power are astonished and disappointed; one by one they desert him. 

But it would appear Rougon is playing a long game and when he finds the opportunity to insert himself back into the Emperor’s good graces, he strikes and soon becomes, next to the Napoléon III, the most powerful man in the country. His sycophantic hangers-one soon flock him again and all are given power, favors and positions accordingly, but eventually things go too far and Rougon, or rather one of his cronies, oversteps the bounds of his office and Rougon finds himself politically walking a fine line.

I liked this book, though it was pretty heavy on the politics and I don’t think with either this or The Fortune of the Rougons (it has been too long since I have read Germinal to remember if it is any different), that Zola is a particularly subtle writer. The best thing I found about this title was the character, Clorinde de Babi, a young, beautiful Italian noblewoman with whom Rougon becomes obsessed and to his peril, he underestimates. The introduction I read suggested Clorinde was based on the mysterious, real-life Virginia Oldoïni, Countess of Castiglione, who was one of Napoléon III’s many mistresses and a fascinating person historically. Clorinde is as politically astute as Rougon in this novel, if not more so. However, as a female, her options are limited and her power necessarily more indirect and behind the scenes. 

Definitely these first two books have been a great window for me on the Second Empire historical period in France and I expect as I read on, my view will only be deepened. Though, it is very clear that Zola was no fan of the Emperor and this isn’t an unbiased view by any means. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, much of the political  practices criticized in the novel, the cronyism, the corruption, the abuse of power, etc. is not something left in history or unique to France or the 19th century, I’m afraid.

I read this title for the category "Classic in Translation" in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 hosted by Karen.