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Five Minute Study Guide | Honoré de Balzac – The Human Comedy

The Human Comedy is a 16-volume, 90 novel long work that chronicles the lives of Frenchmen in Paris and abroad during the 19th century. Published between 1842 and 1848 but in total a two-decade project, Honore de Balzac himself has often compared his masterwork to Dante’s Inferno and even Arabian Nights. Just like Dickens, his works were meant to be examinations of contemporary, mostly urban life from the perspective of both the rich and the poor as well as the unemployed and the belaboured. Balzac’s Human Comedy was so influential that this work has today become synonymous with his name, and has influenced Karl Marx, Henry James, and even TV shows like the Wire, who seek to study the effects of urban life on people and their communities..

In 1832, Balzac first released Pere Goriot, what would officially become the opening work of the Human Comedy. It is a novel of education about Rastignac, a law student’s who rises in prominence in the impoverished quarters of Paris, just as an old merchant, Goriot, gradually declines in stature. Similar to a bildungsroman, that is, a novel of youthful formation, Rastignac’s ascent chronicles youthful improvement at the cost of a corrupt society.

Such is the nature of Balzac’s works. They are primarily focused on making those connections between two seemingly disparate elements. With The Human Comedy, we get an entire web of relationships. We get stories that focus on individuals but include characters from other works, such as The Search for the Absolute, a story about a man looking for a theory of everything, and The Unknown Masterpiece, about an artist’s search for the perfect painting.

But these relationships are not only between people and people, as he gets all the way down to the material objects that unify them. The impoverished eat similar foods and the rich take pride in similar adornments, and Balzac uses these as symbols not just to connote status, but to make light of man’s obsession with material goods. People are obsessed with the most banal things, and as finances become a more salient tension in the works, people will reveal their uglier side.

But we have to understand the context that Balzac is writing within. Paris in the 19th century has survived Napoleon and a revolution, yet it is still a burgeoning collective of both the rich and poor. The industrial revolution has not quite hit Paris yet, but the rural population is beginning to move to larger city centres, and with his we get major competition amongst both the old and the young.

Balzac may not have understood the most intricate nuances of modern society, but he knew how it moves. He likened it to an amorphous creature that is motivated solely by money and pleasure alone. however, he also paid respect to the noble causes, to those who either loved too much or those who lived by a code of honour they couldn’t sustain. The Country Doctor, for example, examines the possibilities of social reform, while Lost Illusions is primarily about genuine friendship. Still, behind all these cerebral ideals hides the eager presence of money.

The Human Comedy is unofficially the great pioneering work of Realism, and it employs several different styles of writing, including the epistolary form (as in letter writing),the prolonged dialogue, prosaic description, stories within stories, and even fragmented vignettes, a method he used to write Madame Firmiani in 1832.

Most objections about Balzac’s work come from the broad, imprecise execution of his characters, whom critics believe lack the complexity of Henry James’ or Gustave Flaubert’s. His characters are not necessarily supposed to be full beings, but rather take upon a type that fellow urbanites may identify with. His work has been eclipsed by later realists and even some modernists, but his encyclopedic account of Paris and its surroundings was virtually unprecedented and has been seldom matched. I think it’s important to read Balzac because it shows step by step how everyone, no matter how unimportant, is a cog in a much larger machine.

 

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How to Write a Sonnet

The sonnet is perhaps the most misinterpreted style of poetry in the English language. For too long, it has been associated with Shakespearean dandyism and caricatures of half-witted Don Juans trying to woo their lovers with pithy flower metaphors. This myopic view has prevented many aspiring poets from honing their craft and incorporating structure to their unstructured verse. I’m here today to teach you how to write a sonnet, but I also want to explain how it can be beneficial for the average writer–and even the non-poet–to use the sonnet as a training ground for keeping ideas sound and cohesive.

OK. But what is a sonnet?

A sonnet is a 14-line poem developed by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) during the 14th century. Enamored by a lifelong love for a mysterious and elusive woman known as Laura, Petrarch composed 366 of these poems (for every day of a leap year) that primarily addressed her, but at times took a contemplative focus toward himself. The poem often contained:

  • Several analogies associating the female figure with natural symbols, such as flowers, celestial objects, water, diamonds, etc.
  • Analogies to pure and fertile animals, such as deer.
  • The colors red (for passion) and white (for chastity) often in conflict with each other.
  • A turn, or a volta. After 8 lines, there would be reversal where the wooer would be rejected or the object of desire would leave. The feeling of longing gets replaced by a feeling of loss or despair.
  • The rhyme scheme abbaabba cdecde is used most often.

While the first three characteristics mentioned above would make the average reader throw up in disgust, the structure of the sonnet remained when it left Italy and became the most popular form of poetry in England during the late 1500s and early 1600s. Unfortunately, English does not contain as much potential for easy rhymes as Italian, so several poets modified the rhyme scheme to make it abab cdcd efef gg, what is now known as the Shakespearean sonnet (though the bard did not invent it). Here are a few of its  characteristics that you must know:

  • Developed by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Sir Philip Sidney, the Shakespearean sonnet contains fourteen ten-syllable lines that are written in iambic pentameter, which means that, of the ten syllables, every odd number is unstressed and every even number is stressed. When writing, enunciate this rhythm in your head: ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM ba-DUM. It will come with time.
  • Unlike the Petrarchan sonnet, the turn is often in the last two lines and not the last six, with the first twelve lines divided into quatrains, or groups of four. This helps build up a certain idea that can culminate in a statement that confirms or denies the design in question.
  • While many English poets replicated the Petrarchan narrative of a longing for a fleeting love, many (including Shakespeare) challenged the norms by denying the conventional message. Consider the beginning of perhaps his most famous effort, sonnet XVIII: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate”. He immediately addresses the inadequacy of associating them with a bland, irrefutably perfect image in lieu of a more genuine one.

Sir Thomas Wyatt

In the past few weeks, I’ve been voraciously reading the work of various sonneteers and trying my hand at a few verses of my own. I think that, like a morning crossword or Sudoku, the sonnet can help you take more control over your language, give rhythm and cadence to your speech and give a bit more weight to your daily contemplations. It can also give you a more lucid understanding of the structure of language in general. That’s why I want to give you a few pieces of advice on how to write a sonnet:

Where to Start

1. Begin with a blanket statement, a quote, an expression, or a basic observation. What is an overused line that people use too often? Did that person really just say what you think they did? This is a good starting point because a sonnet is not a 14-line statement, but an exploration of the language that produces meaning. The sonnet helps break down barriers, and in that way they can be refreshing.

2. If you are addressing your poetry to a spouse, a lover or a friend, don’t rely on conventional stereotypes. Begin with words that are familiar too you both, or perhaps words that have lost their power over time.

Forming the first argument

3. Petrarch was one of the first to use the conventional set of analogies still known today, but don’t fall back on them. Sure, hyacinths and nightingales are sure to please a bumbling fairy strolling some imaginary forest, but if you are addressing someone else, use images closely attached to them. If you are praising them, be creative. If they’re a skateboarder, investigate the workings and movements of the board. If they love crochet, analyze the movements of the hands or the final product. Not only should the subject matter be dear to their hearts, but the rhythm of the poem, as well as its final form, should resemble one of their praiseworthy qualities.

4. If writing a Shakespearean sonnet, the quatrains should in some way be related to one another, and should contain a certain element of progression. Sonnets often mark the progression of a desire–be it blind idealism or immediate gratification–and should, in their rhythm, portray the attempt (and if need be, failure) of the acquisition.

The Turn

5. Once you have completed that progression, the last lines should be epiphanic–they discern a particular truth from the previous twelve. If you’re making a turn after the eighth line, outline in the last six lines how it cannot be, or why your words can’t stay true.

6. Ask yourself: What did I think before I wrote this and what do I know now? Your limitations allow you to include what is most necessary, but they also force you to exclude what is not. Make sure that you directly address elements from the first part of the poem in the second one. Antonyms, opposite elements (such as night/day) allow the reader to see the changes that have occurred.

Other techniques

7. Creativity flourishes when it is most limited, but you can challenge the rigidity of the sonnet, so long as you do so deliberately, and not indifferently. If you want certain phrases to emerge above others, change the rhythm slightly or interrupt the line in the middle. These changes and pauses provide certain discomfort, but they also force concentrated reflection. But don’t dismantle the rhythm altogether. Subtle changes are what make the biggest differences.

Okay, so let’s just see if we can deduce what a sonneteer might be doing based on the aforementioned information. I will use P.B. Shelley’s “Ozymandias” as an example:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Okay, How about we break this down step by step. This isn’t an analysis of the poem as much as a close inspection of the form.

I met a traveller from an antique land

(begins with conventional moment–the beginning of tale or parable)
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

(He interrupts the line to emphasize its STANDING. it’s like its right in front of you)
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

(Shelley has told us it’s inanimate, but for a second the bodily descriptions make us think otherwise.)
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

(The sculptor makes artificial things but was alive with passion. he’s balancing the Alive/Dead duality)

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

(Same thing)
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

(Below is the Turn. The line of vision goes from the statue as a whole to the message below, which will make us rethink the first part of the poem.)
And on the pedestal these words appear:

(The narrator quotes the statue, adding another voice to the poem)
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

(Nothing remains, and so little that it warrants three words: Nothing Beside Remains. The word “Round” also prompts the mind’s eye to look around the imagined statue, an act that confirms there is nothing else.)
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

(Shelley uses elevated words (collosal) and deflates them down to meager qualities (bare). He portrays the idealistic inflation and subsequent deflation of the once-idealized figure.)

The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

(The word level offers some resolution. Everything eventually slips into the sand and erodes into an even plane. The sand, of course, represents time.)

I hope that this walkthrough helped you gain a sense of how to write a sonnet. Remember, the most memorable sonnets are those that move away from regular conventions while staying true to the structure of the work. Sonnets, however, are not an easy thing to write, so aspiring poets should start early. Be sure to speak them aloud, as well. You’ll be surprised by what you’ll change.

As I said before, sonnets provide great training for someone who wants to master the language, as they can teach you how to speak more clearly and economically, while also permitting the release of emotions without seeming too pathetic or too lofty. Let me know what you think and if they’ve helped you in any way.

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1927-2014

Marquez

We report with great sadness that Gabriel Garcia Marquez has passed away at the age of 87. Novelist, screenwriter, playwright and journalist, Marquez will perhaps be remembered as the most famous South American writer of all time. He also paved the way for many other novelists and poets on the continent, including Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende, all of whom have become unofficial laureates for the literary communities within their respective countries.

While Marquez worked as a journalist for a number of years, he would only receive literary success nearly forty years into his life. In 1967, he published his most famous work, the pioneering One Hundred Years of Solitude. The result of several months of tireless writing, the novel was an immediate success, and became an exemplar text for authors around the world seeking to tell their local stories to a global audience. Magic Realism, the idiosyncratic style he used in the novel, was emulated by hundreds of authors including Salman Rushdie in India, Italo Calvino in Italy and Peter Carey in Australia. Learn more about Magic Realism Here

The novel–along with his other two successful works, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Autumn of the Patriarch–did not only open doors for a whole new type of storytelling, but they effectively permitted the literary world to become a global effort. As the opening line of Solitude shows us, Marquez was interested in writing a whole new style of literature that blended art and politics:

 Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Magic Realism blends actual historical events with fantastical additions that often reflect the mythological or religious beliefs of a certain people. Unlike the realist or naturalist traditions once the norm in English and American literature, the genre addresses one of the most challenging aspects of reading regional literature. One Hundred Years of Solitude was a groundbreaking demonstration of how a people’s history could be told within a fictional lens without relinquishing the power of superstition for the sake of historical truth. The novel would even lead to the creation of a genre called “historiographic metafiction”, where the past becomes  a playground for storytelling and the authority of history can be skillfully interrogated.

Blending the inevitability of violence with the allure of magic, One Hundred Years of Solitude will be read for centuries to come. Until then, we should celebrate the life of one of the most innovative writers of our time, someone who carried the weight of his nation on his shoulders and became a national icon for it. Rest in peace, Gabo.

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Take Qwiklit’s 100-Day Writing Challenge, Now!

At Qwiklit, we understand the challenges of being a good writer. While you may have had that flash of poetic brilliance one time ten years ago, it has since been hard to come by, and everything has since been a shadow of your former greatness. What we want to do is bring back that greatness. One day at a time.

The 100-Day writing challenge is a series of 100 writing prompts that get increasingly more difficult as time goes on. We combined poetry, prose, playwriting and even a little bit of diversionary writing, just to keep you on your toes. If you or anybody you know is considering getting into creative writing, but just need that little boost to get you going, the 100-day challenge will prime you wonderfully for that summer novel you’ve been dreaming of writing.

So without further ado, you can begin the challenge by clicking on the link below:

Qwiklit100daychallenge

Jack kerouac

10 Writers Who Use Stream of Consciousness Better than Anybody Else

By May Huang

A narrative technique that has perplexed and fascinated readers for centuries, the stream of consciousness technique has been used by many writers to trace the seamless (and oft erratic) musings of characters such as Mrs. Dalloway and Stephen Dedalus. Below are 10 writers whose works – ranked amongst the finest in English literature – feature the stream of consciousness technique.

Okay, but what is Stream of Consciousness?

Stream of Consciousness is a type of writing that originated with the works of psychologist William James (Brother of Novelist Emeritus Henry James). Basically, its purpose is to emulate the passage of thought through your mind without any inhibitors. For that reason, sentences become longer, less organized and more sporadic in style. Its lack of structure is not for everybody, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any order. Stream of consciousness permits deeper patterns of order to emerge, ones based on the genuine movement of information in your brain. It also permits writers to simulate different forms of consciousness, such as dreams, comas, drug use and hallucinatory seances.

  1. Dorothy Richardson

Considered the pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness technique, 20th century British author Dorothy Richardson was the first author to publish a full length stream-of-consciousness novel: Pointed Roofs. In fact, it was in reviewing Pointed Roofs that British author May Sinclaire first coined the term ‘stream-of-consciousness’ in April 1918.

On one side was the little grey river, on the other long wet grass repelling and depressing. Not far ahead was the roadway which led, she supposed to the farm where they were to drink new milk. She would have to walk with someone when they came to the road, and talk. She wondered whether this early morning walk would come, now, every day. Her heart sank at the thought.” from Pointed Roofs

  1. William Faulkner

Recipient of both the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American author William Faulkner used the stream of consciousness technique to great effect in The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, exploring the depths of different characters’ inner conflict through disjointed, unpunctuated narrative. In one short paragraph, the reader is at once exposed to different smells, sounds and movement:

Nonsense you look like a girl you are lots younger than Candace color in your cheeks like a girl A face reproachful tearful an odor of camphor and of tears a voice weeping steadily and softly beyond the twilit door the twilight-colored smell of honey suckle. Bringing empty trunks down the attic stairs they sounded like coffins [...]” - from As I Lay Dying

  1. James Joyce

Dublin born writer James Joyce employed the stream-of-consciousness style in all of his novels, including Finnegans Wake, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and - of course – the 1000-page, 265,000-word long Ulysses. It is easy to get lost in any paragraph in the novel, as the protagonist Stephen Dedalus guides us quickly – and disjointedly – through his thoughts and surroundings. One moment he is asking himself, “Would you go back to then?” and the next he is on Grafton street, pondering whether to buy a pincushion while the “jingle of harnesses” sounds in his ears. Then, out of the blue, he answers himself and concludes that it would be “useless to go back.” Next thing you know, he’s moved on to Duke Street and we’re not quite sure how he – or we – got there.

  1. Virginia Woolf

 

Recognized as the most important feminist writer (and perhaps one of the most important writers in general) of all time, Virginia Woolf used the stream-of-consciousness technique to great significance in her work. Paying scrupulous attention to detail and describing even “the footman’s hand,” “parcels and umbrellas.” Woolf takes readers through different minds, perspectives and surroundings in Mrs. Dalloway. She makes us wonder who is speaking – and about what.

  1. Marcel Proust

French writer Marcel Proust also used the stream-of-consciousness style in his works, notably in the seven-volume long Remembrance of Things Past, in which even the simple childhood memory of eating a petite madeleine plunges one into the “vast structure of recollection.” Reading Proust, one is caught up in the taste and smell of the pastry, “the water-lilies on the Vivonne” and “Sunday mornings at Combray” – all of which are memories that converge in the narrator’s stream of consciousness.

  1. Jack Kerouac

American writer Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is now remembered as one of the defining novels of the Beat Generation – as well as a modern example of stream-of-consciousness writing. Originally written over a course of 3 weeks on one scroll of paper (deemed the ‘original scroll’), On the Road is based on Kerouac’s road trip across America, a journey at times vividly recounted in continuous stream-of-consciousness prose, fusing both description of land and memory:

The brown hills led off towards Nevada; to the South was my legendary Hollywood; to the North the mysterious Shasta country. Down below was everything: the barracks where we stole our tiny box of condiments, where Dostioffski’s tiny face had glared at us [...]” from On the Road

  1. José Saramago

Portuguese Nobel Prize Laureate Jose Saramago, like Woolf, also liked to alternative between narratives and use stream-of-consciousness in his writing. In Blindness, Saramago uses long sentences and eschews quotation marks to enhance the seamlessness of his prose, allowing the stream-of-consciousness to run free of interruption:

The very air in the ward seemed to have become heavier, emitting strong lingering odours, with sudden wafts that were simply nauseating, What will this place be like within a week, he asked himself, and it horrified him to think that in a week’s time, they would still be confined here, Assuming there won’t be any problems with food supplies, and who can be sure there isn’t already a shortage, I doubt, for example, whether those outside have any idea from one minute to the next…” - from Blindness

  1. Samuel Backett

The second French writer on this list, Samuel Beckett used the stream of consciousness technique in his Three Novels (Molloy, Malone Dies and the Unnamable) to deliver a stream of observations and musings on time and existence. In fact, Molloy defies conventional grammar and tense rules in order to emphasize the continuity of the narrator’s non-stop train of thought:

What shall I do? What shall I do? now low, a murmur, now precise as the headwaiter’s And to follow? and often rising to a scream. And in the end, or almost, to be abroad alone, by unknown ways, in the gathering night, with a stick.” – from Molloy

  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky

Although Crime and Punishment is Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s best-known work, his 1864 novella Notes from Underground also sits amongst the classics of Russian literature. Throughout the novel, the ‘Underground Man’ expresses his continuous train of thought through long, comma-filled sentences (even in brackets).

If you take, for instance, the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of acute consciousness, who has come, of course, not out of the lap of nature but out of a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect this, too), this retort-made man is sometimes so nonplussed in the presence of his antithesis that with all his exaggerated consciousness he genuinely thinks of himself as a mouse and not a man. It may be an acutely conscious mouse, yet it is a mouse, while the other is a man, and therefore, et caetera, et caetera.” from Notes from Underground

  1. Toni Morrison

83 year old African American author Toni Morrison published several books on slavery, the most compelling of which is undoubtedly Beloved. The story of a ‘ghost baby’ who returns to her family in the form of a grown woman, Beloved is both a harrowing tale about the horrors of slavery as it is a testament to the unrelenting power of memory. Morrison uses stream of consciousness in one of the final chapters to reveal the intermingling of three characters’ thoughts:

Beloved

You are my sister

You are my daughter

You are my face; you are me

I have found you again; you have come back to me

You are my Beloved

You are mine

You are mine

You are mine

I have your milk

I have your smile

I will take care of you

You are my face; I am you. Why did you leave me

who am you?” – from Beloved

Let us know what you think of our selection!