My Year in Books: 31-35

fiveI’m nine books behind schedule. I’m not going crazy right now. That is a totally manageable number. It’s only because it has been the last couple weeks of university and I’ve had to hand up a paper literally every week that I’ve fallen back this far. I’ll catch up though. I know it. I do have two weeks of exams coming up, oh god. It’s going to get even worse. No. I’m fine. I’m definitely not nervously laughing as I type this.

You know the drill now, Titus Andronicus is reviewed here.

The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles (2006) by Martin Gayford is a biography of the brief period in which two of the greatest painters of the late 19th century attempted to live together. It sounds like the plot of some failed sitcom – Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin share a house and the result is a rip-roaring romp! Or not. Both artist had famously large personalities and quite differing styles and ideologies so the combination of their lifestyles in the same dwelling looked less like a post-impressionist composition and more like Jackson Pollock. Being a student of Art History I was already quite familiar with this period in both Van Gogh’s and Gauguin’s lives so my overall reward from this book was wholly unsatisfactory. However, I am aware that I am writing from a position that the common reader might not have so I will praise this work. It follows a lucid timeline and never gets confused with its surprisingly vast premise. The book’s main source were the letters Van Gogh wrote during the period of the Yellow House and these have been published in many formats over the years so if you want the primary source, read the letters. Nevertheless, if you are more interested in reading a narrative and learning a lot more about Gauguin and Van Gogh then I would recommend this book. There are reproductions of the works that were painted by both artists during the period plastered throughout the book as well which can only aid in one’s understanding of the conceit.

Throughout The Yellow House, Gayford comments on Van Gogh’s penchant for the novels of Émile Zola, especially the Rougon-Macquart series. This reminded me of an aborted project that I planned some while back in which I was going to read the Rougon-Macquart novels but I never began. I did however buy the first two and, encouraged by Van Gogh himself, I read The Fortune of the Rougons (1871). Vincent Van Gogh gives some brilliant book recommendations. The novel follows the story of Silvère and Miette – young lovers who are caught in the midst of violent coup d’état. However, this being Zola and the beginning of a twenty book cycle, the plot takes the back seat about fifty pages in and you must very slowly and meticulously read on as Zola attempts to explain the family tree of the Rougon-Macquart family. I know that sounds horrible but… it isn’t. Zola somehow makes genealogy interesting. It is a joy to learn about the origins of the Rougons and the dastardly Pierre and his siblings. Whilst the lineage actually takes up most of this novel, the plot is really wonderful despite its brevity. There are some passages that make you want to just die with their utter beauty. Instead of thinking, “oh no there are nineteen more of these books”, I’m thinking of the wonderful time I am going to have travelling through these reticulate novels.

Following my enjoyment of Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen last time I quickly decided to pick up another famed work of Japanese literature to see if it was just pot luck. Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1963, trans. 1965) is a hugely popular work by one of Japan’s best-known writers. The novel concerns Noburu, a young boy who is the member of a pseudo-gang of other youths who like to precociously discuss philosophy and morality. Things quickly turn however when Noburu’s mother starts going out with a sailor named Ryuji. This greatly upsets Noburu who plots to terrorise Ryuji with seemingly no mercy. I thoroughly enjoyed this short book. Like with Yoshimoto, I admire Mishima’s minimalism, the sparseness of his prose. I like to think of Japanese literature as an attempt to see who can create the most beauty with the least amount of words. I suppose the emoji is the endgame then. The novel is unrelenting and disturbing at times, its overall atmosphere is one of unease and dread. When reading the novel you can sense that it is building toward something uneasy and the final couple of pages stick around in your head for hours after you’ve finished. The audacity and the brazenness of this book is one of the many reasons why is has become a staple of Japanese literature in the Anglophone world. Just don’t read it if you really like cats.

One of my dirty little secrets for years now has been that I haven’t read any Virginia Woolf. I have tried though. I began The Waves and then realised that transcribing the Bible into Wingdings would probably be easier.  Mrs Dalloway (1925) has sat patiently on my bookshelf for many years now. I mean I’ve heard only good things and how could I hate it I love modernism and it was influenced by Joyce and it’s stream of consciousness I usually like that and it’s feminist and kinda gay and I’m sure Virginia Woolf was a very nice woman butIdidntreallyenjoyMrsDallowayallthatmuchatall. I’m probably wrong though, I always am. I mean, I get it, I get what Woolf was doing but for a novel that was less than 200 pages it just never seemed to end. It can’t be the framing, it can’t be the style – they’re some of the things that I really liked about this novel. It must be the story. Carol Ann Duffy wrote the introduction to my edition and she says that Woolf wrote this after reading Ulysses. Whereas Joyce can write about nothing for almost 1000 pages and make it all so good, Woolf’s shorter attempt just falls flat for me. Thankfully I’ve yet to meet a die-hard Woolf fan who admits that Mrs Dalloway is her best work, it’s always either To The Lighthouse or The Waves and I’m not attempting that one again. Woolf may have to wait for another couple of years.



  1. I was going to start reading Zola with Therese Raquin (so I can watch the adaptation, with the Olsen sister) but a twenty book series??? Cool. Though, I never did make it through the Forsyte Saga and that’s only nine books…


    • Thankfully the Rougon-Macquart cycle isn’t continuous. Each book is independent from the next so you don’t have to read them in order. I must get around to the Forsyth Saga but by the looks of my current TBR I’ll start it when I’m in my mid-forties.


  2. I’ve been meaning to read more of Woolf. I have a few of her essays and novels but I’m not sure where to start because I know her stuff is based heavily on the times she lives in and how she critiques the patriarchy. It shouldn’t be too complicated but it’s starting it that is putting me off.


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