1001 Reads

Regularly updated blog charting the most important novels of the last 2000 and something years

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

16. Cervantes - D. Quixote (Part I: 1605, Part II: 1615)

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Francisco: Well this was at the same time the longest but also most enjoyable read of the list until now. Let's start with the negative points of the book. Mr. Cervantes could have done with a good editor, whole sections of the book are pretty useless to the main story but fortunately Cervantes was smart enough to realise this by the time he published D. Quixote part deux. Curiously he actually apologises for wasting the readers time with his drivel.

His drivel is actually quite good, it just doesn't fit the book. Of course this didn't stop many of the writers before him doing pointless interpolations in the middle of their main stories. The simple fact that Cervantes is aware of this shows a big shift in novel writing. And Quixote is the most recognisable book as a modern novel on the list up until now actually it is spectacularly modern in many parts.

D. Quixote is about much more than fighting windmills and laughing at Alzheimer's. It is also fiction about fiction, and very much a book about itself. The self-referencing is insane, from characters finding books from Cervantes and prasing them to high-heavens to Part II where everyone knows Quixote and Pança because they have read Part I. It isn't strange that Borges paid tribute to Quixote in Pierre Menard, Author of The Quixote there is much of Cervantes in Borges and what our minds think of as very 20th century innovations in literature stare mockingly at us from the 1600's.

Is it overly long? Yes. Do you empathise with the characters and let them become a part of your family? Yes. Do You feel sad when you finish it, because you want more? Yes.

So, it is a good novel but like all universally loved books you can fall in the trap of being acritical, and this is not a perfect book, parts of it can be done without and it can become repetitive at times. It is however a very enjoyable and innovative one.

Vanda: Now this, my friends, is a lovely book. Very very long, but very, very good.

Cervantes has been added to my imaginary "dream dinner party" scenario. He's funny, but also very sensitive. He thinks nothing of going off on tangents to tell stories he (probably) dreamed up the night before, or on badly disguised rants against the writer who dared to write the continuation of the D. Quixote story, without his knowledge or permission. You don't mind this however. You don't mind this a bit! (Well...I didn't, at least)

As is probably fairly clear on the last paragraph, the story doesn't have a linear structure per se, but the beauty is that Cervantes writes so well that you're quite happy to follow him (and D. Quixote) wherever they go. And once you've come to love the madman, he throws you a very sad ending, not so much because D. Quixote dies (which you start predicting since the beginning), but that he regains his sanity in the last moments of his life. It was a beautiful madness, and you're sorry to see it go.

Final Grade

Francisco: 9/10
Vanda: 9/10


From Wiki

Don Quixote is often nominated as the world's greatest work of fiction. It stands in a unique position between medieval chivalric romance and the modern novel. The former consist of disconnected stories with little exploration of the inner life of even the main character. The latter are usually focused on the psychological evolution of their characters. In Part I, Quixote imposes himself on his environment. By Part II, he is no longer physically capable, but people know about him, "having read his adventures," and so, he needs to do less to maintain his image. By his deathbed, he has begun to assume a new identity, including a nickname, "the Good."

The novel contains many minor literary "firsts" for European literature—a woman complaining of her menopause, someone with an eating disorder, and the psychological revealing of their troubles as something inner to themselves.

Subtle touches regarding perspective are everywhere: characters talk about a woman who is the cause of the death of a suitor, portraying her as evil, but when she comes on stage, she gives a different perspective entirely that makes Quixote (and thus the reader) defend her. When Quixote descends into a cave, Cervantes admits that he does not know what went on there.

Quixote's adventures tend to involve situations in which he attempts to apply a knight's sure, simple morality to situations in which much more complex issues are at hand. For example, upon seeing a band of galley slaves being mistreated by their guards, he believes their cries of innocence and attacks the guards. After they are freed, he demands that they honor his lady Dulcinea, but instead they pelt him with stones and leave.

Different ages have tended to read different things into the novel. When it was first published, it was usually interpreted as a comic novel. After the French Revolution it was popular in part due to its central ethic that individuals can be right while society is quite wrong and disenchanting—not comic at all. In the 19th century it was seen as a social commentary, but no one could easily tell "whose side Cervantes was on." By the 20th century it had come to occupy a canonical space as one of the foundations of modern literature.

American author Barry Gifford described "Don Quixote" as "the first Beat novel."

Following the Cuban revolution, the revolutionary government founded a publishing house called Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Book Institute), to publish large runs of great literature for distribution at low prices to the masses. The first book published by the Instituto was Don Quixote.

For the 400th anniversary of the original publication of the novel, the Venezuelan government printed one million summarized copies for free distribution. Similar initiatives took place in Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries around the world.

Monday, July 28, 2008

15. Thomas Deloney - Thomas Of Reading (c. 1600)


Thomas of Reading is a bit of an unremarkable piece of literature as a novel, but as an historical and social document it is quite an important one. This is one of the first novels in the English language that seeks to depict the life of the common people.

Deloney was probably a tailor and therefore the "clothiers" are the main characters here, but it doesn't work exactly as a novel but more as a sequence of separate episodes.

Well, I wasn't to impressed with it, as I am not with most Elizabethan fiction, it's ok, but in no way great, others had depicted the common people before, look at Lazarillo de Tormes, it just wasn't in English.

Final Grade



From Wikipedia:

He [Thomas Deloney] appears to have worked as a silk-weaver in Norwich, but was in London by 1586, and in the course of the next ten years is known to have written about fifty ballads, some of which got him into trouble, and caused him to keep a low profile for a time. His more important work as a novelist, in which he ranks with Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe, was not noted until much later. He appears to have turned to this genre to try to keep out of trouble. Less under the influence of John Lyly and other preceding writers than Greene, he is more natural, simple, and direct, and writes of middle-class citizens and tradesmen with light humour. Of his novels, Thomas of Reading is in honour of clothiers, Jack of Newbury celebrates weaving, and The Gentle Craft is dedicated to the praise of shoemakers. He "dy'd poorely," but was "honestly buried."

There is evidence to suggest that his son travelled to the Virginia colony. His descendents then spread into Alabama, Texas, and Tennessee.

A little video on Elizabethan Fashion :

Sunday, July 27, 2008

14. Thomas Nashe - The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

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Francisco: This is a pretty interesting book. It does have one major problem however, particularly if you are not a native speaker... or born in the fucking 16th century, it is written in 16th century English, so it hath been writteneth in thee's and thou's. But if thou hast a reasonable command of the language thou shouldst have gotten into its own gear by about the 20th page.

Anon, dear friends, not all is bad with this most exquisite piece of writing. In fact this is quite an achievement, Nashe is quite a racy fellow. There is depicted here a most impressive rape scene near the ending and if thou dost not quiver with disgust at the most vivid depiction of vileness thou hath no heart! Also, near the end there is the most harrowing tale of some Italian who gets revenge in good Neapolitan fashion on his brother's killer by first making him pray to Satan so his immortal soul be cast down into the fiery pits of hell and then shoot ye litte fuckwit in the very throat. Or when some Jew gets tortured in very ugly ways indeed. Still, the novel form is pretty loose here and there isn't so much a central plot but a compilation of stories brought together by a general frame of the travellers' travels.

Still, parts of the book are quite dull, particularly when Nashe uses his travels as an excuse for talking ye bollocks for a number of pages about whatever subject he wants to, completely forgetting any semblance of plot. So... not really essential reading but there are some bits which are very much worth it. And it fucks Euphues right in his poncy Elizabethan ass. Verily!

Vanda: I had a strange experience with this book, in the sense that I would sometimes catch myself after 5 pages not remembering anything I had just read. Apart from the racier, more violent parts, I found it rather dull, and it didn't manage to retain my attention, which very rarely happens. It was rather bizarre.

Sometimes, I would read a page over and over and nothing would stick. Very strange.

I had no problems with ye olde englishe, and still managed to find it interesting, particularly towards the end. I just..don't have much to say about it, since I don't really remember half of it (and I tried, really I did). I'm glad I'm finally reading D. Quixote.

Final Grade

Francisco: Thou gettest a 6 out of a total of 10.
Vanda: 5/10


It seems that no one really reads Elizabethan prose, I can understand why. This one is worth it, however. Plays are really famous and so is poetry... but prose... not really.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

13. Wú Chéng'ēn - Journey to the West (a.k.a. Monkey, a.k.a. 西遊記) (1592)


Well, this was a fun book. For some reason it is the most popular of the several classic Chinese literary works we have had here. Firstly the more widely available version of the work, published by Penguin is abridged and entitled Monkey, translated by Arthur Waley, however it is really what you should read, you will enjoy it more. If you have a deep interest in the text you should go on to Anthony C. Yu's translation.

Then it is one of those works that at least the UK you will have seen adaptations of, either in a TV series or as a Damon Albarn Chinese Opera/Circus thing, which was pretty amazing.

As a book, it is a fun filled action-fantasy-adventure tale, full of monsters and wisecracking, very funny but with an interesting historical background. And it is this historical background that particularly interests me. Tripitaka, the monk in the book is an example of the Chinese who travelled to India in order to bring back Buddhist texts. He is actually based on Xuanzang, a real monk who did an amazing trip to India. In that sense it is fascinating, but then he has demons, a crazy monkey-God and a guy who was turned into a pig as assistants, as well as a magical horse. A great read.

Final Grade



From Wikipedia:

The classic story of the Journey to the West was based on real events. In real life, Xuanzang (born c. 602 - 664) was a monk at Jingtu Temple in late-Sui Dynasty and early-Tang Dynasty Chang'an. Motivated by the poor quality of Chinese translations of Buddhist scripture at the time, Xuanzang left Chang'an in 629, despite the border being closed at the time due to war with the Gokturks. Helped by sympathetic Buddhists, he travelled via Gansu and Qinghai to Kumul (Hami), thence following the Tian Shan mountains to Turfan. He then crossed what are today Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, into Gandhara, reaching India in 630. Xuanzang travelled throughout the Indian subcontinent for the next thirteen years, visiting important Buddhist pilgrimage sites and studying at the ancient university at Nalanda.

Xuanzang left India in 643 and arrived back in Chang'an in 646 to a warm reception by Emperor Taizong of Tang. He joined Da Ci'en Monastery (Monastery of Great Maternal Grace), where he led the building of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in order to store the scriptures and icons he had brought back from India. He recorded his journey in the book Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty. With the support of the Emperor, he established an institute at Yuhua Gong (Palace of the Lustre of Jade) monastery dedicated to translating into Chinese the scriptures he had brought back. His translation and commentary work established him as the founder of the Dharma character school of Buddhism. Xuanzang died on March 7, 664. The Xingjiao Monastery was established in 669 to house his ashes.

Popular stories of Xuánzàng's journey were in existence long before Journey to the West was written. In these versions, dating as far back as Southern Song, a monkey character was already a primary protagonist. Before the Yuan Dynasty and early Ming, elements of the Monkey story were already seen.

The Damon Albarn Opera, go see it if you can:

Monday, July 21, 2008

12. Luis Vaz de Camoes - The Lusiads (Os Lusiadas) (1572)


This is a text that if you were brought up in a Portuguese speaking country you will know, and you will probably know it inside out and have spent long hours of your schooling analysing and interpreting it. That also probably means you didn't have a lot of fun with it.

Also, although there are several translations into English, none of them are that good, the only one that kind of approaches it is the Oxford World Classics one by Landeg White. It's cheap as well.

The book consists of the heavily fictionalised voyage of Vasco da Gama in verse, but it is much more than this, it is also a work of fantasy where the Roman gods take an active part and a book that is essential in understanding the Portuguese idea of themselves that comes down to this day.

It is not of course the most politically correct book you can get, it is an apology of empire and colonialism, but it is one that in the effort to portray the Portuguese people as great also has the decency not to demonise its opponents, the people the Portuguese meet are courageous and honourable for the most part, although Muslims in India come off pretty badly from it. But you can't really be projecting our sensibilities onto a 16th century work. What is amazing about it is what a close mimic it is of works like the Illiad and Odyssey, Camoes very purposefully attempts to create the great Portuguese fantastic epic, and does it with considerable brilliance.

The language in the original is beautiful and extremely intricate, the references to classical works are extensive to the point where the annotations in my version composed half the book. But there is plenty to enjoy, sea voyages, monsters, gods, political and religious intrigue it is all here.

Final Grade



From Wikipedia:

At the end of his obligatory service, Camoes was given the position of chief warrant officer in Macau. He was charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient. During this time he worked on his epic poem Os Lusíadas ("The Lusiads") in a grotto. He was later accused of misappropriations and traveled to Goa to respond to the accusations of the tribunal. During his return journey, near the Mekong River along the Cambodian coast, he was shipwrecked, saving his manuscript but losing his Chinese lover. His shipwreck survival in the Mekong Delta was enhanced by the legendary detail that he succeeded in swimming ashore while holding aloft the manuscript of his still-unfinished epic.

Some kids decide to sing the beginning of the Lusiads to the sound of Blitzkrieg Bop, interestingly the metric fits:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

11. Rabelais - Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532 - 1564)

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At Amazon UK or US.


Francisco: Well this was a fun read, albeit a bit too long for what it is. Gargantua and Pantagruel is actually composed of 5 books, bringing it to something like 700 pages in the Penguin edition. If it would be taken as 5 independent books it would probably be an easier read, when you get non-stop, hardcore satire for 700 hundred pages it stops having the same effect towards the middle. Gargantua is the first book story-wise but was published after book I of Pantagruel, making it one of the first prequels ever, I imagine.

This book actually surprised me, I had no idea it was so uncompromising not only on the language and subjects that it covers (lots of fart jokes and quite open sexual jokes) but also in ideological terms it surprised me. Rabelais' attacks on the church are quite scathing and when you think that one of the books is dedicated to a member of the clergy it shows a very open society. Rabelais wasn't persecuted for his writings, maybe because the whole book is quite a funny one and satirical, the Catholic church is just another target here.

The major problem with this book is the fact that it is so early. The novel form isn't very well developed and there is no overarching plot until book 3 when Panurge decides to get married. And that is a pretty loose plot as well. It is still a lot of fun to read, but it's definitely not for those who are squeamish about hard, soft or liquid shit. You can very much tell the Rabelais was a doctor by profession, his anatomical descriptions are some of the best stuff i've ever read.

Another great thing about Rabelais is his immense love for language, you can see that he's experimenting with language the whole way through the book. It is almost Joycean in his love of words and word creation.

Vanda: Ok, so I took almost three months to read through this book. I apologize and all.

The reason I took so long is because I hated it. Hated it, hated it hated it. Now this may be because I'm a girl, am not 11, and am not particularly fond of fart and poo jokes. Which pretty much sums up this book for me. I can't believe I was looking forward to satyres.

We have every conceivable nuance of toilet humour here. We have the chapter of young Gargantua trying out 300 different places to wipe his ass to find out which one is better, including his mother's gloves, dress, hats, curtains, different animals, different foliage, kitchen implements, etc. (the winner was the neck of a live goose). Then you have stories that you can just imagine being told by the aformoentioned 11 year old boy. "So he has this huge mule, right, and then it pisses, and there's this huge river, and it floods the whole of Paris, and everyone drowns!". "And he's so big, right, that he has whole cities in his teeth, and it's brilliant and really funny!"

So, uh, no, sorry. I'm probably missing the point here, I realize. I'm sure it had its saving graces, but even the thinly-veiled metaphors can only be described as stupid, it has a very very loose plot, and I just don't see the point. Sure, he was a monk, and a brave monk at that, but that doesn't make him a good writer. I'm just glad it's over, though I know there's even worse coming.

Final Grade

Francisco: 7/10
Vanda: 3/10


Rabelais gave the name to the religious/occult movement of Thelema, founded by Aleister Crowley, who had read Rabelais foundation of the Abbey of Thelema in Gargantua.

From Wiki:

Rabelais has attracted many modern writers and scholars. Most notably, perhaps, was English mystic Aleister Crowley.

Anatole France lectured on him in Argentina. John Cowper Powys, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, and Lucien Febvre (one of the founders of the French historical school Annales) wrote books about him. Mikhail Bakhtin derived his celebrated concept of the carnivalesque and grotesque body from the world of Rabelais. Rabelais was also a major reference point for a few main characters (University Professors and Assistant) in Robertson Davies's novel The Rebel Angels, part of the Cornish Trilogy.

10. Anonymous - Lazarillo de Tormes ( The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes and of His Fortunes and Adversities) (1554)


We now move to some more interesting writing, Lazarillo is one of the first picaresque novels, and it is a pretty funny and amazing one. Lazarillo is basically a Huck Finn kind of character, who moves through several masters and on the way you get a witty criticism of the society of the time through the eyes of a child.

The book is genuinely funny, and is incredibly influential or just prescient, as I said above you have Huck Finn, and you have Tom Jones and the never-ending roster of young witty children criticising the society around them.

The last thing Lazarillo is is another of those gallant knights to chivalry romances, he is the ultimate anti-hero, and for that he is all the more human, it is this humanity that endears him to the reader and makes his feel much more multi-dimensional than heroes in previous books here.

Final Grade



From Wikipedia:

In contrast to the fancifully poetic language devoted to fantastic and supernatural events about unbelievable creatures and chivalric knights, the realistic prose of Lazarillo described suppliants purchasing indulgences from the Church, servants forced to die with masters on the battlefield (as Lazarillo's father did), thousands of refugees wandering from town to town, poor beggars flogged out by whips because of the lack of food. The anonymous author included many popular sayings and ironically interpreted popular stories.

The Prologue with Lazaro's extensive protest against injustice is addressed to a high-level cleric, and four of his seven masters in the novel served the church. Lazarillo attacked the appearance of the church and its hypocrisy, though not its essential beliefs, a balance not often present in picaresque novels that followed.

The work is a masterpiece for its internal artistic unity. For example, as Lázaro's masters rise up the social scale (from beggar to priest to nobleman) so their ability to feed him diminishes; Lázaro leaves his first master, is thrown out by the second and is abandoned by the third.

The work is riotously funny, often relying upon slapstick humour (such as the young Lázaro leading his blind master to jump against a stone column, in revenge for his master banging his young servant's head against a stone statue); some of its funniest episodes are apparently based upon traditional material. But there is a deeper, more unsettling humour and irony here. Nothing is what it seems in this book: the blind beggar's public prayers are a sham and the nobleman's nobility is pure facade; and at the end of the book, Lázaro professes to have reached the pinnacle of success, but is little more than a cuckold living off the immoral earnings of his wife.

Besides creating a new genre, Lazarillo de Tormes was critically innovative in world literature in several aspects:

1. Long before the Emile (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) or Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens) or Huckleberry Finn the anonymous author of Lazarillo treated a boy as a boy, not a small adult.

2. Long before Moll Flanders (Daniel Defoe), Lazarillo describes the domestic and working life of a poor woman, wife, mother, climaxing in the flogging of Lazarillo's mother through the streets of the town after her black husband Zayde is hanged as a thief.

3. Long before modern treatment of "persons of color", this author treats sympathetically the pleasures and pains of an interracial family in his descriptions of life with his black stepfather and negrito half-brother, though their characterization is based on stereotypes

A little video resuming the story of Lazarillo... does anyone know if this is a trailer for an actual film? :

Friday, July 11, 2008

9. Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo - Amadis de Gaula (Amadis Of Gaul) (c.1450-1505)


A particularly long and particularly dull book. Chivalric romance can be better than this, but this is the ultimate descriptive book. No dialogue, not psychological insight into the characters, we are just told what is happening, in a very uptight writing style.

Yes it is representative of a style that was incredibly influential on the birth of the modern novel,without it there would have been no one to inspire Quixote, whose hero was Amadis.

But, boy is it dull... Although it does have the merit of giving the name to California, as that is the name of one of the places in the book (an island of Amazons), leading the Spanish conquistadores to give that name to the Area.

Final Grade



From Wikipedia:

The book's style was praised by the usually demanding Juan de Valdés, although he considered that from time to time it was too low or too high a style. The language is characterized by a certain "Latinizing" influence in its syntax, especially the tendency to place the verb at the end of the sentence; as well as other such details, such as the use of the present participle, which bring Amadís into line with the allegorical style of the 15th century.

Nevertheless, there is a breach of style when Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo presents the fourth book. It becomes dull and solemn reflecting the nature of the intruding writer. The first three books are inspired in deeds and feats by knights errant, dating back to the XIII century, while the fourth book emerges as a less brilliant attachment of the XVI century. The very pristine style of the "Amadis" can be perceived in the few original famous pages analyzed by Antonio Rodriguez Moñino: It is lively and straight to the facts of war and love, with brief dialogs, all quite elegant and amusing. Amadís of Gaul is frequently referenced in the satirical classic Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes in the early 17th century. The character Don Quixote idolizes Amadís, and often compares his hero's adventures to his own.

Historically, Amadís was very influential amongst the Spanish conquistadores. Bernal Diaz del Castillo mentioned the wonders of Amadís upon witnessing the wonders of the New World - and such place names as California come directly from the work.

Some Spaniards have a dog named Amadis de Gaula, this is all I could find, sorry: