Saturday, 18 December 2010

Recent reads: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys and The Lady with the Little Dog by Anton Chekhov

Much of my reading time at this end of the year is spent reading or re-reading texts that I'll be discussing with students the following year.  It's a process I enjoy, as I get a (limited) choice from an always-interesting list and sometimes it's a matter or discovering new books and new authors, and sometimes it's a matter of revisiting old favourites.  It forces me into reading texts I might otherwise not get round to. 

The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys (aka Pierre Ryckmans) is one of my favourite novellas.  At 105 pages long (for those who like short texts), it's a wonderful What if story.  Emperor Napoleon escapes St Helena undetected (thanks to a double) and, in the guise of a boat-hand, returns to claim his authority.  Unfortunately, things go awry and the secret network that has organised his escape collapses, leaving him alone and unknown.  After tagging along with a group of English tourists who are visiting the site of Waterloo (and other adventures), he finds himself in Paris living with Widow Truchaut, and utilising his considerable campaign skills to... sell melons

All goes well until... well, you'll have to read the book for yourself.  It's certainly worth it.

I'm a fan of Chekhov's plays (The Cherry Orchard, The Three Sisters, etc) and Raymond Carver's short stories (who has been likened to an American 20th century Chekhov) and so thought this collection of short stories, The Lady with a Little Dog and other Stories, 1896-1904, would be illuminating.  These were written and published in the last 8 years of Chekhov's life and I found myself drawn more towards the final stories than the earlier ones - the stories which more powerfully reflected the concerns evident in his plays: primarily, characters seeking affirmation in a period of great social change and often finding themselves thwarted in this.  Some of the earlier stories from this collection were, I felt, rambling and stodgy - lacked the sharpness evident in his last works - but I'll have to read them another couple of times yet and may well find elements that I missed first time round.

No comments: