Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is one of my final reads from my Classics Club list and, I have to admit, it wasn’t one that I was looking forward to, having had at least two previous attempts to read it. I did read The Idiot a few years ago (also for the Classics Club) and got on much better with that one, so I was prepared to give Crime and Punishment another chance. I’m glad I did, because I managed to get to the end this time and enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, follows the actions and thought processes of Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, an impoverished former student living in St Petersburg. In the first chapter we learn that Raskolnikov is planning the murder of an elderly pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, a crime he proceeds to carry out, although it doesn’t go entirely according to plan. At this stage his motives are not completely clear, but it seems that he is simply in need of money: he is struggling to pay the rent, can’t afford to continue with his studies and has discovered that his sister is about to marry a man she doesn’t love for his money.

Nothing in a Dostoevsky novel is simple, however, and other motives soon begin to emerge. At one point Raskolnikov states that the old woman he has killed is just a ‘louse’ and of no use to society. He also explains that he believes in the theory that there are some people who are superior to others and have the right to commit serious crimes such as murder. He considers Napoleon to be one example of such a person and he is keen to test the theory out for himself. Are some men really so great that the law doesn’t apply to them and that they have no need to worry about the consequences of their actions because by committing murder they will have proved their greatness?

Of course, Raskolnikov does not escape the consequences and from the moment he kills the pawnbroker, his emotions are thrown into turmoil. Although he gets away from the scene of the crime presumably undetected, he obsesses over every detail of the murder, becoming feverish and causing his family and friends – who know nothing of what he has done – to worry about him. Despite taking some steps to cover his traces and remove the evidence, there are times when he seems to want to be discovered and goes out of his way to make himself appear suspicious. He becomes more and more tormented as the novel progresses and as Dostoevsky allows us to access Raskolnikov’s innermost thoughts, this is not the most comfortable or pleasant of reads! You wouldn’t really expect a book with the title Crime and Punishment to be comfortable and pleasant, though, would you?

The crime part of the novel is obvious enough, but the punishment takes more than one form. First, there is Raskolnikov’s psychological disarray in the days following the murder, which is a punishment in itself, but there is also the question of whether or not his crime will eventually be found out and he will receive punishment of a different kind. I won’t spoil things by telling you whether he is discovered, betrayed, confesses or escapes justice forever, because once the detective Porfiry Petrovitch gets involved, there is a certain element of suspense which I’m sure you would rather experience for yourself.

Although I don’t think I would describe this book as “one of the most readable novels ever written” as stated on the cover of my edition, once I got into it I found it very compelling and a quicker read than I’d expected it to be. I’m so pleased I gave it another try and that I persevered past Raskolnikov’s nightmare about a horse being thrashed to death, which was where I stopped on my last attempt. And of course, the horse dream, horrible as it may be, is in the story for a reason and its significance starts to become clear later on. I won’t pretend that I fully understood everything that happens in the book, but I can always read it again one day – after I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, which I think is going to be one of the titles on the second list I put together for the Classics Club.

Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt

Midnight Blue is a novel set in the Netherlands in the 17th century and written by Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt. Originally published in Dutch, this edition from HarperCollins features an English translation by Jenny Watson.

As the novel opens in 1654, we meet Catrin, a young woman who lives in the village of De Rijp and who has recently been widowed. Hoping to make a new start, Catrin says goodbye to her family and sets out on the long journey to Amsterdam, where she has been offered work. Arriving in the city, she takes up her new position as housekeeper to the merchant Adriaan van Nulandt.

As she settles into her job and gets to know the family, an attraction forms between Catrin and Adriaan’s younger brother, the charismatic and adventurous Matthias. She also watches with envy and fascination as Adriaan’s wife, Brigitta, is encouraged to pursue her passion for painting, something for which Catrin also has a talent. It’s not long, however, before a face Catrin thought she had left behind reappears, threatening to tear apart the new life she has built for herself – and so she decides it’s time to move on again, this time to Delft and the home of another Van Nulandt brother, Evert. Evert owns a pottery workshop and it is here that Catrin finds an opportunity to put her artistic abilities to good use at last…

Although Catrin’s personal story is fictional, the world in which Simone van der Vlugt places her is grounded in historical fact. My knowledge of Dutch history is very limited, picked up mainly from the few other novels I’ve read set in the country, and it’s always good to have the opportunity to learn something new! The period covered by the novel includes such notable events as the Delft Explosion of 1654 and an outbreak of the plague. Life in Catrin’s home village of De Rijp and the cities of Amsterdam and Delft is vividly described, and as Catrin spends so much time travelling from one place to another, we are also given descriptions of the scenery seen from the canals and rivers which link her various destinations.

The time during which the novel is set – known as the Dutch Golden Age – saw art, science, trade and industry flourishing in the Netherlands, including the pottery industry which forms such an important part of the story. You can expect to learn a lot about mixing chemicals, painting designs, glazing pots and firing them in kilns…and you’ll come away from the novel with an admiration for Delft Blue, the blue and white pottery produced at Evert’s workshop. Several historical figures from the art world are incorporated into the story too, although I found it difficult to believe that Catrin would have come into contact with so many famous artists of the period – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes and Carel Fabritius all make an appearance and all have words of advice or encouragement for Catrin.

Catrin herself is an interesting character. The novel is written in first person present tense, which is not my favourite for historical fiction, but it does mean that we get to know our narrator quite well. Even so, we don’t know everything about her immediately; Catrin keeps some parts of her past hidden to be revealed later on – and when the past does begin to catch up with her, this introduces a thriller element to the novel which adds another layer of interest. I was occasionally pulled out of the 17th century by the use of a word or phrase which felt too modern, but it’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the translation and how much to the original text.

Midnight Blue is a light and entertaining novel which I would recommend to readers who have enjoyed other books with Dutch settings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Miniaturist. I read this as part of a blog tour, so if you would like to see more reviews, you can find the rest of the schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review!

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas

Louise de la Valliere Louise de la Vallière is the fourth book (or in some cases, the fifth – more on that later) in the series of d’Artagnan novels which began with The Three Musketeers. Looking at other readers’ reviews, this seems to be one of the least popular books in the series and I can understand why, even though I did enjoy it.

In Louise de la Vallière, the story is picked up directly where the previous book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, ended and follows all the romance and intrigue of the court of Louis XIV. As the novel opens, the king’s brother, Philippe (known as Monsieur), has just married Charles II’s sister, Henrietta of England (Madame). An instant attraction has formed between the king and his new sister-in-law, so to avert suspicion they decide that Louis will pretend to turn his attentions to Louise de la Vallière, Madame’s young lady-in-waiting. Things don’t go exactly according to plan, however, and the king and Louise end up really falling in love with each other, breaking the heart of poor Raoul, the Vicomte of Bragelonne, who was hoping to marry Louise.

Apart from a few brief scenes here and there, there’s an almost total absence in Louise de la Vallière of the swashbuckling action and adventure which formed such a large part of the earlier volumes of the series. This could be disappointing if you’re expecting more of the same, but I do think the antics of Louis’ court are fun to read too. It’s amusing to watch the king’s desperate attempts to steal some time alone with Louise – passing letters hidden in handkerchiefs, climbing ladders to reach her window and installing secret staircases in her room!

What does all of this have to do with d’Artagnan, you may be asking? Well, the answer is – very little. He does appear from time to time, but this is not really his story. We don’t see much of Athos or Porthos either, although what we do see assures us that they are still the same characters we know and love: Athos is still noble and honourable, while Porthos is still the gentle giant, as good-natured and trusting as ever. I didn’t care for Aramis in this book, though – he’s preoccupied with a mysterious prisoner in the Bastille and when we do see him, he’s plotting and scheming, reluctant to confide in his fellow musketeers. His storyline ends on a cliffhanger which has left me wanting to start The Man in the Iron Mask as soon as possible!

Now, a note on the structure of this series. The first two books are The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After, which I have written about in previous posts. The third book was originally intended to be one very long novel, but most publishers now split it into three: The Vicomte de Bragelonne, then Louise de la Vallière and finally The Man in the Iron Mask. Some versions (such as the free Project Gutenberg ebooks – see the notes here), split the chapters differently, including an extra volume, Ten Years Later, between The Vicomte and Louise. Be sure to check the editions you’re reading or you could miss part of the story.

This may not have been my favourite Musketeer novel, then, but I did still find a lot to like about it and can’t wait to finish the series with The Man in the Iron Mask.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat

The Travels of Daniel Ascher When I read The People in the Photo a few weeks ago for Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth on Twitter), I didn’t expect to have time to read another book for the same event, but I’ve had this one on my Kindle for a while and have managed to squeeze it in before the end of the month. The Travels of Daniel Ascher was originally published in French in 2013; I read an English translation by Adriana Hunter.

At the beginning of the novel, twenty-year-old Hélène Roche has just moved to Paris to begin studying archaeology at university. Her great-uncle, Daniel Ascher, also lives in Paris and has offered to let her rent one of the upstairs rooms in his house, but when Hélène arrives she finds that he is out of the country, on a trip to Tierra del Fuego. This is nothing surprising – for as long as Hélène can remember, Daniel has been off on his travels, visiting one exotic location or another – and actually, his absence doesn’t bother her too much as she has always found her eccentric great-uncle slightly embarrassing.

As Hélène gets to know her fellow students, she discovers that most of them are fans of The Black Insignia, a series of novels in which the hero travels the world, having exciting adventures in locations as varied as the Amazon, Machu Picchu and Pompeii. Hélène alone has never read a Black Insignia book, partly because she thinks the stories sound childish and uninteresting and partly because the author of the series is her great-uncle Daniel, writing under the name HR Sanders. Her new friend Guillaume, however, is so enthusiastic about the books that Hélène is persuaded to look at them again – and in the process she makes some surprising discoveries about the life of Daniel Ascher.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher is a very short book (I easily read it in one evening) and I think it’s probably aimed at young adults, although that’s not to say it has nothing to offer an adult reader too. When the truth about Daniel Ascher’s childhood begins to emerge (I’m trying not to spoil anything here) it’s a story which has been written about many times before, but the way in which Déborah Lévy-Bertherat chooses to approach that story feels fresh and different.

I thought the book was generally well written, although as with all translated novels, unless you’re able to read the original, it’s difficult to know whether anything has been lost in translation. I do have a criticism, though, and that relates to the dialogue, which is written without quotation marks and presented as one continuous paragraph, with what one character says separated from the next by a comma. I’m really not sure why so many contemporary authors think this sort of thing is a good idea – I find anything other than conventional dialogue very distracting and unnecessary. In this particular novel, I suppose it helped to create a dreamlike atmosphere, but at the same time it made it difficult to connect with the characters and took away some of the emotional impact of the story.

WITMonth 2016 The Travels of Daniel Ascher wasn’t a perfect book, then (at least not for me), but it was an interesting and unusual one and I don’t feel that I wasted my time reading it.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern

The People in the Photo August is Women in Translation Month and although I hadn’t made any formal plans to take part, I found myself reading a translated novel by a woman this month anyway – one I’d been interested in reading for a while. Hélène Gestern’s The People in the Photo was originally published in French in 2011; this Gallic Books edition is an English translation by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz.

Hélène Hivert lives in Paris, where she works as an archivist. She has never known her mother, who died when Hélène was very young, and for some reason her father and stepmother have never wanted to talk about her. When Hélène finds a photograph of Nathalie, her mother, taken at a tennis tournament in Interlaken in 1971, she’s intrigued. There are two men in the photograph whom she can’t identify, so she places a newpaper advertisement asking if anyone can provide more details.

Stéphane Crusten, a Swiss biologist living in England, responds. One of the men in the photo is his father, Pierre, who is now dead, and he recognises the other as a close friend of his father’s. What Stéphane doesn’t know is why Hélène’s mother is in the picture with them. Corresponding at first through letters and emails and later by telephone and in person, the two begin to piece together the fragments of information they have in an attempt to discover the connection between their parents. Gradually, as they delve into their family histories and more old photographs come to light, the true story of Nathalie and Pierre is revealed.

The People in the Photo is a beautiful, moving novel. The story is told in epistolary form, through the letters and emails Hélène and Stéphane send to each other, and it was nice to watch two people being drawn together in this way, forming a bond in writing before they had even had the chance to meet. The photos they discover are not included in the book, but they are described in such careful detail that I could picture them quite clearly in my mind, and I liked that aspect of the novel too.

However, this was not a perfect book; it did have a few flaws which stopped me from loving it as much as I’d hoped to. First, I thought it was very predictable – maybe not for Hélène and Stéphane, who were genuinely shocked by each revelation, but definitely predictable for the reader. This in itself wouldn’t have been a big problem, but I also found the plot very contrived and too reliant on coincidences, on photographs which turned up just when another clue was needed and on circumstances which conveniently prevented secrets from being revealed until after the next letter was received.

In the end, though, none of this mattered too much. It’s still a lovely, emotional story and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop until I reached the final page and had learned all the secrets of the people in the photo.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon

The Royal Succession The Royal Succession is an English translation of Maurice Druon’s 1957 French novel La Loi des mâles, the fourth volume of his Accursed Kings series which began with The Iron King. Described by George R.R. Martin as “the original Game of Thrones”, the seven books in this series tell the story of Philip IV the Fair of France and the kings who follow him, said to have been cursed “to the thirteenth generation” by the vengeful Grand Master of the Knights Templar.

Books two and three – The Strangled Queen and The Poisoned Crown – described the troubled reign of Philip’s son, Louis X. As The Royal Succession opens in the year 1316, Louis is dead, leaving no clear heir to the throne. There is some doubt over the parentage of Jeanne, his five-year-old daughter from his first marriage, so all eyes are on Queen Clémence, his pregnant second wife.

While France looks forward to the birth of Clémence’s child, a regent is needed; the obvious choices are Louis’ younger brother, Philippe of Poitiers, and his uncle, Charles of Valois. At this crucial moment, Philippe is away in Lyon awaiting the election of a new pope, but by resorting to some underhand methods he is able to turn the situation to his advantage and becomes regent on his return to Paris. However, his mother-in-law, Mahaut, Countess of Artois, is even more ambitious and vows to clear the path to the throne for Philippe.

Nobody is safe from Mahuat’s plotting, and when Clémence gives birth to Louis’ posthumous child, the sickly Jean I, the baby king finds himself at the centre of one of her schemes. Meanwhile, Philippe searches for a way to deal with the claim of his little niece, Jeanne, and finds a possible solution in the Salic Law, which excludes females from the line of succession.

I hope I haven’t made all of this sound too complicated! Some concentration is needed, but Druon does explain everything clearly and the plot is easy enough to follow, especially if you have also read the previous three books (something I would highly recommend). The period covered in this particular novel is fascinating and I found this a much more gripping and entertaining read than The Poisoned Crown.

The Accursed Kings series is based closely on historical fact, but there is one part of The Royal Succession which feels more like fiction – and that is the storyline surrounding the fate of little Jean I. However, having looked this up, it seems that Druon has developed this storyline out of a theory which has never been proved or disproved. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, and other books have been written on the subject. It also explained for me the role in the series of Guccio Baglioni and Marie de Cressay, something I’ve been wondering about since the first book as their story had previously seemed so disconnected from the central history.

There are three books left in the series and I’m looking forward to continuing with the next one, The She-Wolf.

The Poisoned Crown by Maurice Druon

The Accursed Kings has it all. Iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin and swords, the doom of a great dynasty…and all of it (well, most of it) straight from the pages of history.

This is how the author George R.R. Martin has described Maurice Druon’s series of French historical novels, the inspiration behind his own Game of Thrones. The Accursed Kings (Les Rois Maudits) consists of seven books, all published between 1955 and 1977 and all available in English translations. The Poisoned Crown (Les Poisons de la Couronne) is the third in the series, continuing the story from The Iron King and The Strangled Queen.

The Poisoned Crown It’s 1315 and Louis X (known as le Hutin, the Quarreller) is on the throne of France. As the son of the late Philip the Fair, whose line was cursed ‘to the thirteenth generation’, Louis’ reign will be short and troubled. In the previous novel we saw the demise of his first wife, Marguerite of Burgundy. Now a second marriage has been arranged – with the beautiful Clémence of Hungary, who arrives in France after a terrible sea voyage and quickly wins the hearts of those around her with her kindness, generosity and religious devotion. All that remains is for Clémence to provide the king with heirs and secure the succession to the throne.

In some ways it seems that the presence of Clémence is making Louis a better person, but in others he is still proving to be cruel, weak and incompetent. A war against Flanders ends disastrously, he is unable to deal with the impact of famine and he fails to listen to good advice, being too easily influenced by his unscrupulous uncle, Charles of Valois. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing again between the king’s cousin, Robert of Artois, and Robert’s great-aunt Mahaut, who are still fighting over the lands they each regard as their own. Eventually the barons of Artois begin to rise against Mahaut, bringing the king into the dispute and setting a chain of events into motion which could bring about the end of Louis’ reign.

Three books into this series, I’m still enjoying it, but The Poisoned Crown is probably my least favourite so far. It feels like a bridging novel, leading us from the previous two volumes into the remainder of the series, rather than a satisfying story in itself. There’s less action in this one and too much focus, at least in my opinion, on the conflict between Robert of Artois and the Countess Mahaut. Still, there were plenty of things that I did like and the history is as fascinating as ever; I previously had almost no knowledge of what was happening in France during this period, so I’m really learning a lot from these novels.

Not everything in The Accursed Kings is based strictly on historical fact, though. One of the subplots which is largely fictional involves the Lombard banker, Spinello Tolomei, and his young nephew, Guccio Baglioni. Guccio’s romance with the impoverished noblewoman Marie de Cressay moves on a step in this book, although Druon goes on to spoil things for us by informing us of what the next ten years will have in store for them. One thing I find quite annoying about Druon’s writing is his habit of constantly telling us what is going to happen next. Of course, when you don’t know the history, even the titles of some of these books are spoilers in themselves!

The Poisoned Crown ends abruptly, but the scene is set for the fourth book in the series, The Royal Succession.