Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

Thérèse Raquin

Thérèse Raquin, Emile Zola – Guest review by Emer

This is a story of lust, murder and madness, set in Paris in a backstreet haberdashery shop where the ‘woodwork exuded damp from every crack’. The protagonist, Thérèse, has been forced into a marriage with her cousin, Camille – described as being in a ‘permanent state of feverish shivering’ – and lives out an oppressive existence, completely void of excitement, until Camille brings home a friend, Laurent, who is handsome and full-blooded, and so begins a torrid affair that leads to murder.

When it was published in 1868, the book was on the receiving end of fierce criticism, some seeing it as ‘putrid literature’ bordering on the pornographic, but this is too simplistic a notion and does not do justice to the brilliance of the novel as a study of neurosis brought on by violent passion and fear. We are told that Laurent feels no remorse for his actions but that his fear is purely physical, a feeling that the spectre of the dead man will rise up before him as a constant reminder of what he has done. Thérèse, of a more nervous disposition, has ‘vague feelings of remorse.’

What starts out as a passionate affair eventually leads both parties to rage and hatred for each other and the atmosphere becomes stifling. The book holds one’s attention brilliantly considering that there are only four main characters, but the writing is excellent and the feeling of claustrophobia is all pervasive. Definitely worth a second read, and a deterrent against having an affair!

The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton is perhaps most well known for her novella Ethan Frome, but here in The Company of Books we urge The House of Mirth on anyone who breathes the word ‘classic’. The story of Lily Bart, 29 and still unmarried though beautiful and possessed of charm and wit (alas, however, unpossessed of a fortune) this novel exemplifies what what is meant by the expression ‘biting satire’. Mixing in a society where position and appearance are all that matter, Lily struggles to maintain her footing, and we watch as she makes a series of wrong decisions, sometimes for the right reasons, and suffers the escalating consequences. I once saw an online review of this where the reader rather resentfully complained about the misleading nature of the title: ‘There was no mirth in it at all’. The full quotation, however, comes from the Bible: ‘The heart of fools is in the house of mirth’ – which alters expectations somewhat. It is not a joyful read, but this is a book that stays with you, partly for the story itself, but partly too because it really does pull no punches about the vacuousness and cruelty of the society it depicts.

Beware of Pity

Beware of Pity, Stefan Zweig

Before we get to the contents of the book, it must be said that the recent Pushkin Press edition is a satisfying object, reassuringly chunky with a nice clear font and an invitingly smooth cover.  The cover blurb (where did this need for celebrity guidance spring from?) informs us that Colin Firth was “riveted” by it. And well he might be. From an embarrassing but ultimately minor faux pas (pun intended) a series of events ensues, the outcome of which is infinitely greater than the sum of its parts: in 1913 a young Austrian cavalry officer, Anton Hofmiller, asks a girl to dance, unaware that she is lame.  Enter the ‘pity’ of the title. It’s not a particularly short novel at 450 pages, but – I dislike quoting from other people, however the Preface puts it well – “it zips along almost effortlessly, like a clear-running stream”. Such is the power of the writing that as we read we are fully persuaded of the moral dilemma of the young officer and we literally cringe at the decisions he makes – or fails to make – as the situation develops. To quote again from the Preface: “Beware of Pity has moments of high melodrama that, over seventy years on, still have the power to make one put one’s free hand over one’s mouth as one reads”.  And seventy years on, the nature, purpose and point of pity still give pause for thought.

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Looking for a good book to read? This is a selection of books we like. From just published to older publications to the classics, we're sure there's something here to tempt the bookworm within you.