Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Source of Book: I own this.
Date originally posted on Facebook: July 10, 2010

This is another in the continuing series of books I probably should have read back in High School. In this case, I resisted reading it back then because it, along with Wuthering Heights, was a favorite book of the wrong kind of girl. Too many young women, who rarely read anything of substance, seemed to be drawn to the Brontes, and for the wrong reasons. I heard far too much mooning over Heathcliff and Rochester for my taste. I will here specifically exclude my sister, who did like this book. However, she read voraciously, and with excellent taste, and was never frivolous when it came to books, so I would give weight to her judgment.

I read Wuthering Heights for the first time a couple of years ago. It still is hard to believe that such an atmospheric and emotionally raw book could have been written by a woman at that time in history.

Jane Eyre, written by Charlotte Bronte, is more in the form of a traditional novel with its typical Victorian story arc. The protagonist overcomes early hardship through hard work and good character, finding happiness in the end. The early chapters to a degree dwell on Jane’s suffering in a manner a bit foreign to modern sensibilities, although perhaps typical for the era in which it was written. It is in the middle of the book that the author finds her unique voice, and the story starts to ring true emotionally. 

Charlotte Bronte, 1850 portrait by George Richmond

Indeed, I found the strength of the novel to be its emotional trueness, if that term may be used. One thing that did surprise me is that Jane’s emotions and thoughts resonate, even for a male reader. I found it easy to identify with her as a person, as easily as with a well written male protagonist. Jane is a truly compelling and interesting character for herself alone. Several female authors of the era began at this time to write of women who rose above the Victorian ideal of the quiet and unobtrusive helpmeet, who triumphs through goodness alone. Jane Austen began the trend with her witty characters, and George Elliot and others continued it. Of the books I have read, however, Jane Eyre stands alone as a woman who is determined to find her own way in life, and meet men on her own terms, as an equal.

I think, too, that her determination to marry only for love was a bit revolutionary in its way. I imagine that this was a significant reason for the book’s popularity with young women. Perhaps all teenaged girls dream of the great romance with a dark, brooding man, who can be rescued from himself only by their charms. Unfortunately, I think that this idea has been taken far too literally by girls these days, who lack the experience or depth of knowledge to distinguish between an unfortunate good man and a truly bad man. I note that every murderer seems to get a marriage proposal.

I think too that there are many that naively mistake good men for St. John. The point is not that St. John is good, or that he is the safe choice. Rather, it is clear that St. John is selfish, ambitious, and incapable of love. In that sense, he is the religious version of Meredith’s egoist. He wishes to be the flame that draws the moths, to have a girl that is content to delight in his glory. It is in this way that the modern girl goes wrong. The “bad boy” that is sought is the mirror image of St. John, not of Rochester. The girl that chases the wicked man becomes the moth, delighting in the glory of the man of her imagination, ignoring the harsh reality.

I take the real lesson of Jane’s romance with Rochester to be the importance of finding a person of similar intelligence and depth. Each of them looks beyond the unattractive exterior of the other, and sees the love for art and literature, the kindness to the child, Adele, and a focus on something other than wealth and status. These lessons are perhaps even more important today, in an era when image is everything, and a spouse is all too often a status symbol. Perhaps some things never change. In past centuries, a woman would marry to please her family, to gratify their egos and desire to advance the family name. Now, women seem to choose mates based on what will impress their friends, someone to make them feel daring and unique, and, of course, to provide her with the lifestyle she wishes. Fortunately, a few of us still manage to find a best friend, someone to talk to about all subjects, serious and lighthearted.

This book also caused me to lament the decline of the novel in recent years, particularly the decline of the female protagonist. The days of Austen, Elliot, the Brontes, and others produced most of the memorable female authors. There was a golden age of the novel, to be sure, and in general there seems to be a decline in the craft. There are now two forms of writing: the pulp novel, and the “serious” novel. Pulp tends to have the good characters and plots these days, but by definition lacks the quality and depth of writing. Those authors that do focus on the quality are ashamed to write anything that might appeal to the unwashed masses, and so forgo appealing characters or compelling plots.

As my wife pointed out, starting with Kate Chopin, the trend among female authors was toward an oddly twisted feminist view. Unfortunately, this view was not of the admirable feminism of Jane Eyre: self sufficiency, hard work, moral character even at personal cost. The new feminism focused instead on selfishness. Men became seen as the cause of women’s unhappiness. Thus, a feminist act was now adultery, divorce, revenge. The female protagonist was no longer someone to identify with and admire, unless those values were the reader’s as well. To be fair, it is near impossible to find an admirable male character these days. I should also point out such authors as Willa Cather, who continued to write well for characters of both genders.

I’m sure I am forgetting a number of points I wished to make about this book. I enjoyed reading it, and marveled at the skill of the author. It still is incredible that a girl with so little experience could write like that as a first effort. I am eager to find a copy of Agnes Gray, to complete the trilogy, if you will.

Note: Since I originally wrote this about two years ago, I have discovered more modern literature with admirable female protagonists. My literary friends have assisted me, of course, and I have sought out some on my own.

I believe that there are two positive developments in the last couple of decades. First, there seems to have been a reaction against the dichotomy of “serious” versus “popular” with a number of authors writing books with high literary standards but that still speak to those outside the confines of academia and the literati. A few I have reviewed that fit this category are The Kite Runner, The Book Thief, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

The second development that I welcome is that the “men are the only thing that is keeping women back and therefore divorce is the ultimate feminist act” meme seems to have at least jumped the shark. Books like Eat, Pray, Love (more accurately described as Eat, Whine, Divorce) are firmly in the category of pulp now, and it is therefore acceptable for serious writers to cast a critical eye on the whole philosophy. For more on this issue, see my review of Running Away to Home.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Barchester Chronicles (BBC Series)

What is this? A movie review? Are flying pigs next? Perhaps, but this was a special exception.

I’m not much of a movie watcher, as my friends and family well know. For the most part, I would rather hold a book than watch a screen, big or small. I do have a few exceptions. I would rather have something to watch when I am ironing, for example, and I appreciate sports on occasion.

I also have a weakness for a well-made British literary series. Pride and Prejudice is probably the best ever, but this one comes close.

The Barchester Chronicles is based on the first two books of Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden, and Barchester Towers. The six-book series covers the inhabitants, particularly the clergy and gentry, in the fictitious cathedral town of Barchester and its environs. There is some overlap in characters (and with characters in other books, for that matter), but only the first two books concern the same main characters.

The regular reader of my blog is aware that Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors, on the strength of his memorable and complex characters. There are rarely pure heroes or villains in his books, as everyone has a mixture of virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses, admirable and shameful motivations. In short, his characters are more genuinely human than those of most authors.

As one might imagine, this reliance on characterization makes for a challenge in moviemaking. With a minimum of action and an unhurried pace, the filmmaker must tease out the nuances of the characters through the witty dialogue and the skills of the actors.

The casting in this series is extraordinarily well done. Each character is recognizable from the book, and really looks and sounds as expected. There is excellent chemistry between the actors, bringing the viewer into the world of Barchester. As with any truly great movie, one is immersed. One sees, not actors playing parts, but people, as they existed in the imaginations of Trollope and his readers over the last century and a half.

I have no wish to spoil the plots of these excellent novels, so a bare minimum of explanation must suffice.

Mr. Harding is the warden of a retirement “hospital,” a position appointed by the church. His elder daughter is married to Archdeacon Grantley, who is the son of old Bishop Grantley, whose death is one of the major events at the beginning of the second novel. John Bold is a young doctor, whose impeccable character and zeal outrun his judgment of human character.

The events of The Warden, which occur over the first two episodes, concern Bold’s attempt to reform the church sinecure that is the wardenship, while he at the same time falls in love with Mr. Harding’s younger daughter, Eleanor.

Barchester Towers, which is considerably longer, unfolds over the remaining five episodes. The deaths of John Bold and Bishop Grantley set the forces of the book in motion. The new bishop, Dr. Proudie, his wife, and the chaplain, Mr. Slope, are from the opposing political and religious faction from the Archdeacon and Mr. Harding. Slope, who is the closest person to a true villain of any character in the books (and perhaps in all of Trollope’s works), antagonizes his opponents, and attempts to play politics with his influence with the weak Bishop. He is interested in the widowed Eleanor, perhaps for her late husband’s fortune. Also in pursuit of the lovely widow are Bertie Stanhope, a feckless and charmingly indigent young aristocrat; and Mr. Arabin, a young clergyman.

As before, the disposition of Eleanor’s hand in marriage, and the corresponding disposition of church offices are the concerns of the plot.

Trollope raises and explores important questions. What does integrity really mean? How does one balance abstract principles with human needs? How is one to be truly good? What differentiates good character from bad? What is the role of kindness in godliness? Trollope embodies the adage of good writing: show, rather than tell. His refusal to set up easy straw men, and insistence on conflicted characters makes his writing thought provoking, rather than didactic.

As I mentioned, the casting is exceptional. I was initially attracted to the series because Mr. Slope is played by the young Alan Rickman, whose acting style seemed perfect for the lugubrious Slope. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better choice after seeing him in the role. He is Mr. Slope. No one else should be allowed to play the part from henceforth.
Alan Rickman as the Rev. Obadiah Slope

The one portrayal that I found a little disappointing was that of Archdeacon Grantley by Nigel Hawthorne. Not that it was bad acting or that it was an inconsistent portrayal. Rather, I felt that Hawthorne played up the Archdeacon’s aggression a bit too much. He seems, dare I say it, to be almost “American” in his passion, rather than “English” in a slow simmer. Again, this is a minor quibble - if I re-read the books, I suspect that I will not find any reason for complaint, just that my mind’s eye had a slightly different picture. If anything, this highlights just how accurate and convincing everyone else was, that this is the only blemish I could identify.

I should also mention the excellent portrayals of minor characters, such as John Bold’s spinster sister Mary (Barbara Flynn), Bunce (one of the retired residents of the hospital, Joseph O’Connor), and journalist Tom Towers (George Costigan).

Also excellent are the portrayals of the henpecked Bishop Proudie and his wife (Clive Swift and Geraldine McEwan, respectively). Mrs. Proudie is properly controlling and vulgar, while the Bishop is simpering, and completely at odds when confronted by the warring forces of his wife and Mr. Slope.

Bertie Stanhope (Peter Blythe), Eleanor (Janet Maw), and Signora Neroni (Susan Hampshire): excellent portrayals all.

I was particularly impressed, however, by the late Donald Pleasence, as Mr. Harding. So many of Trollope’s characters, while not exactly easy to play, at least are guaranteed to come of right if played true to the book. Mr. Harding strikes me as the very hardest type of character to inhabit. He is one of the most admirable persons possible. He is almost impossibly good at heart (although his distaste for conflict nearly does him in), and could easily come off as an insufferable prig. Trollope’s genius is at full flower in this character, who is impossible to dislike. Pleasence re-creates Mr. Harding, from the cello related tics, to the timidly spoken, but simple and profound truths that come from the best part of his heart. The series would be worth watching just for Donald Pleasence alone.

 Donald Pleasence as Mr. Harding

I hesitate to recommend watching any movie before reading the book. I’m old-school that way. However, if one were to pick a time to do this, I could heartily recommend watching this series. It is faithful to the books in detail and in spirit, contains many of the best lines, and will do nothing to spoil the experience of the books.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Source of book: I own a beautiful hardback edition of this book. See below.

Rabindranath Tagore lived from 1861 to 1941, and is best described as a Bengali Renaissance Man. He had a breathtaking range of knowledge, and wrote well in many genres, and in multiple languages. It would not be exaggeration to say that he brought the romance of India to the Western world more than any other figure, perhaps even Ghandi himself. (Thy Hand, Great Anarch, which I previously reviewed, has a fascinating chapter on this remarkable man.)

Tagore received the Nobel Prize in literature for Gitanjali, the first Indian national to do so. He later repudiated the prize after the British opened fire on a crowd, an event which probably was decisive in triggering the Indian Independence movement. (Tagore may or may not have appreciated that the Nobel Prize committee is awarded by a Swedish, not English, committee.)

Gitanjali means “song offerings,” a title which captures its essence fairly well. The work is a series of 103 poems which are largely devotional in nature, and which combine and synthesize the divine with both nature and romantic love. This is not exactly a new idea, of course, nor one limited to any particular religious tradition. (The Old Testament, for example, contains numerous beautiful examples of both. I might use both Song of Solomon and Psalms as a comparison.) Rather, this work exemplifies a universal, eternal, longing of the human spirit: that of unity and fellowship with the Creator.

At the outset, I would like to offer two observations: first, poetry is not the ideal medium for the exposition of clear theological thought and argument. Poetry at its best does convey truth, and often truth that cannot be thought, but rather felt. However, one should not try to parse every word of the poet and build a systematic school of thought from it. I would thus urge the reader to read this collection, not with the goal of agreeing or disagreeing with the details of the theology or worldview, but with the goal of finding common ground in the “groanings that cannot be uttered.”

Second, this is, without a doubt in my mind, one of the most beautiful collections of introspective poetry ever written. I am not a scholar, so I can merely guess that Tagore, with his wide range of knowledge and experience, intentionally made use of language that his English speaking (and largely Christian) audience would find familiar. Thus, there are references that those familiar with the Bible (and the Greek philosophers) would recognize. If anything, this renders the sentiments more universal and resonant.

I can only quote a few excerpts, but will note that there are few weak poems in this collection. Tagore arranges them in a rough arc from youth to death, and each poem builds and follows on the last.

Gitanjali opens as follows:

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill. 

The poet responds to this inspiration from the deity with a wish for simplicity of worship.

My song has put off her adornments. She has no pride of dress and decoration. Ornaments would mar our union; they would come between thee and me; their jingling would drown thy whispers.
My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight. O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet. Only let me make my life simple and straight, like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music. 

Or this:


Let all the strains of joy mingle in my last song---the joy that makes the earth flow over in the riotous excess of the grass, the joy that sets the twin brothers, life and death, dancing over the wide world, the joy that sweeps in with the tempest, shaking and waking all life with laughter, the joy that sits still with its tears on the open red lotus of pain, and the joy that throws everything it has upon the dust, and knows not a word.

I love how the poet focuses on worship expressed as Joy and Love.

What divine drink wouldst thou have, my God, from this overflowing cup of my life?
My poet, is it thy delight to see thy creation through my eyes and to stand at the portals of my ears silently to listen to thine own eternal harmony?
Thy world is weaving words in my mind and thy joy is adding music to them. Thou givest thyself to me in love and then feelest thine own entire sweetness in me. 

Tagore also writes a number of beautiful lyrics about nature and its relationship to life and the divine. There are many good examples, but I am partial to this one:

I must launch out my boat. The languid hours pass by on the shore---Alas for me!
The spring has done its flowering and taken leave. And now with the burden of faded futile flowers I wait and linger.
The waves have become clamorous, and upon the bank in the shady lane the yellow leaves flutter and fall.
What emptiness do you gaze upon! Do you not feel a thrill passing through the air with the notes of the far-away song floating from the other shore? 

I also liked this musing on separation:

It is the pang of separation that spreads throughout the world and gives birth to shapes innumerable in the infinite sky.
It is this sorrow of separation that gazes in silence all nights from star to star and becomes lyric among rustling leaves in rainy darkness of July.
It is this overspreading pain that deepens into loves and desires, into sufferings and joy in human homes; and this it is that ever melts and flows in songs through my poet's heart. 

It was interesting, too, to contrast Tagore’s worldview with that of New Testament theology. To me, Tagore is always expressing a longing for a knowledge he will never have, at least until death. He wants to call the unnamed deity a friend, but feels a sense of distance. He is always longing, but never finding fulfillment. He is ever reaching toward his desire, but that desire only comes to him while asleep, and he ends up missing the connection he longs to have. This lack of a two-way relationship lends a bittersweet feeling to many of the poems.

It is only in death that the poet expects to find fulfillment.
I know that the day will come when my sight of this earth shall be lost, and life will take its leave in silence, drawing the last curtain over my eyes.
Yet stars will watch at night, and morning rise as before, and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasures and pains.
When I think of this end of my moments, the barrier of the moments breaks and I see by the light of death thy world with its careless treasures. Rare is its lowliest seat, rare is its meanest of lives.
Things that I longed for in vain and things that I got---let them pass. Let me but truly possess the things that I ever spurned and overlooked. 

Tagore comes closer to the Apostle Paul’s view of grace in several other poems. He notes the universal tendency of humans to attempt to reduce the divine to a set of rules and regulations. He resists the attempts at bondage, but looks to the love of the Divine as the higher calling.

By all means they try to hold me secure who love me in this world. But it is otherwise with thy love which is greater than theirs, and thou keepest me free.
Lest I forget them they never venture to leave me alone. But day passes by after day and thou art not seen.
If I call not thee in my prayers, if I keep not thee in my heart, thy love for me still waits for my love. 

This freedom he longs for is not just personal, but national. Indeed, if any country has suffered as a result of its blind traditions (the Caste system, widespread corruption), it is India. Tagore’s vision remains unfulfilled, but it is still a most noble vision, shared by luminaries such as Milton. This is my personal hope for myself and those I love: that our world may not be continually narrowed, but that it may be ever expanded into the infinite goodness and truth of the divine. Simply one of the best of the collection.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action---
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake. 

One more poem spoke to me in a personal way. In I Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul speaks of the three truly eternal things that will remain after all else passes away: Faith, Hope, and Love. Of these, of course, the greatest is love. Everything else will pass away, and we will be left with Love, as personified in the Divine. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” This is the ultimate hope and longing. This is the true meaning of fulfillment.

Tagore expresses this in a way that encompasses both the aspiration and the knowledge that, in this life at least, we fail. In the end, I will give myself up, through love, into His hands.

I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands. That is why it is so late and why I have been guilty of such omissions.
They come with their laws and their codes to bind me fast; but I evade them ever, for I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.
People blame me and call me heedless; I doubt not they are right in their blame.
The market day is over and work is all done for the busy. Those who came to call me in vain have gone back in anger. I am only waiting for love to give myself up at last into his hands.

Note on the edition: My brother, who is also a book junkie, has always had a knack for finding outstanding gifts for me. He located this hardback edition of Gitanjali, published by Floating World Editions, a small, artsy publisher of Asian works. This book is a pure pleasure to hold, to feel, and to read. It is a perfect size (8 x 5) for a poetic work, the materials are high quality, and the layout is beautiful. The illustrations by Mark W. McGinnis are interesting and apropos without being overwhelming or distracting from the text. 
 Mark W. McGinnis' illustration for VII, quoted above.

My only quibble is that there are a couple of obvious typographical errors. (For example, at one point, “now” is printed where “know” is the obviously correct word.) Regardless of this, the book is a joy to own and read.

Note on the translation: This is Tagore’s own translation of his work. Interestingly, it is not a direct translation from the original Bengali work. Tagore edited, omitted, and combined the poems to make a new work. Many Bengalis consider William Radice’s later translation to be more accurate to the original. I would be interested in reading that version. However, Tagore’s own translation is excellent for what it is, whether it is “authentic” or not. The English version can be simply regarded as a separate work in its own right, equally representing Tagore’s artistry.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ivanov by Anton Chekhov

Source of book: I own this.

This is one of the few works I have read where I can honestly say that I disliked every single character. Every last one. Which, I suppose, is partially the point. The main character, Ivanov, hates everyone too, but most of all hates himself.

This play is the first of Chekhov’s dramas, and it feels a bit like a first effort. It has plenty of witty lines, some humor, and enough darkness for the most modern-minded critic. However, I found it a bit difficult to make out exactly what the author was trying to say.

On the one hand, the plot is simple and easy to follow. The basic flow of ideas is likewise comprehensible. On the other, Chekhov seems unsure of himself when it comes to deciding on the point he wishes to make. Perhaps this is related to the inherent unlikeability of the characters. It would have been helpful had even one of the characters felt sympathetic or recognizably human, and therefore allowed the reader to identify with someone, anyone.

I’m not saying that unpleasant characters are automatically unsympathetic. In The Brothers Karamazov, for example, part of the power of the characterization is that the reader can see his or her worst self in Dmitri, Ivan, or Smerdyakov. Each of these characters has a passion or motivation that feels real and human – something that just seems lacking in Ivanov.

The basic outline of the plot is thus: Ivanov is a nobleman who married a Jewess who was subsequently disinherited by her family. Ivanov is in debt, his wife is dying of tuberculosis, and he has lost his appetite for life and love. In an effort at escapism, he either seduces or is seduced by the young daughter of a friend. After his wife dies, he is set to marry the young lady, but instead kills himself. Ivanov’s behavior throughout the play is despicable, but Chekhov seems to treat him as the hero, or at least the protagonist.

In contrast to Ivanov is the young doctor, Lvov, who is an unbearably self-righteous prig. He is continually reminding everyone of how “honest” he is, and considers it his life’s mission to unmask Ivanov. (This is ludicrous, if for no other reason, than that everyone already knows about Ivanov.) If Ivanov (or someone else) were sympathetic, then it would make sense for Lvov to be the villain. The play could then be about hypocrisy. Or it could be about not judging without knowing all the facts.

Another alternative interpretation is that the play could be about Ivanov’s loss of vitality. His lament in Act III is a good representative of the various renditions of that theme, as stated by Ivanov and other characters:

IVANOV: I’m just a nasty, miserable nobody. Only another pathetic, bedraggled wreck like Paul could to on liking and respecting me. God, how I despise myself. How I loathe my own voice, footsteps, hands – these clothes, my thoughts. Pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? And pretty mortifying. Less than a year ago I was strong and well, I was cheerful, tireless, and dynamic. I worked with my hands. My eloquence moved even ignorant louts to tears, I could weep when I saw unhappiness and protest when I met evil. I knew what inspiration meant, I knew the charm and magic of quiet nights when you sit at your desk from dusk to dawn or indulge in flights of fancy. I had faith, I looked at the future as a child looks into its mother’s eyes. But now, oh God! I’m worn out, I’ve no faith, I spend days and nights doing nothing. My brain doesn’t obey me, nor do my arms and legs. The estate’s going to rack and ruin, the woods fall before the ax. [Weeps.] My land seems to look at me like a lost child. There’s nothing I hope or care about, and my spirit quails in fear of the morrow. Then there’s Sarah. I swore to love here for ever, told her how happy we’d be, offered her a future beyond her wildest dreams. She believed me. These five years I’ve watched her giving way beneath the weight of her own sacrifices and wilting in the struggle with her conscience, but God knows she’s never looked askance at me or uttered one reproach. What then? I stopped loving her. How? Why? What for? I can’t understand. Now she’s unhappy and her days are numbered. And I’m low and cowardly enough to run away from her pale face, sunken chest, and pleading eyes. How shameful. [Pause.] Little Sasha’s touched by my misfortunes and tells me, at my age, that she loves me. It goes to my head, so I can’t think of anything else. I’m spellbound, it’s music in my ears. So I start shouting about being born again and being happy. But next day I believe in this new life and happiness about as much as I do in fairies. What’s the matter with me? What depths have I sunk to? Where does my weakness come from? What’s happened to my nerves? If my sick wife touches me on the raw, or a servant does something wrong, or my gun misfires – then I’m rude, bad-tempered and quite beside myself. [Pause.] I just don’t understand. I might as well shoot myself and be done with it.

In true Russian fashion, Ivanov may say all of these things about himself, but he cannot stand to hear others say them about him. Thus, when Lvov confronts him soon afterward, he complains that he is being insulted.

Ivanov himself cannot figure out what has happened to him. He vehemently assets that he loved Sarah once, and now does not, for reasons he doesn’t understand. The accusation that he married Sarah for her money (which was then denied her) infuriates him, but it is impossible to know what the truth really was at the time.

While this potential theme is interesting, Chekhov never really gives an explanation of what caused Ivanov’s decline. Ivanov thinks he has overloaded himself with responsibilities, and that he eventually broke his figurative back. However, Ivanov is hardly a reliable explainer of anything, and all we have is his own word.

I suspect I will need to mull over the play for a while before drawing any firm conclusions. Perhaps that is what Chekhov intended.

Some other themes warrant mention. The play opens and closes with music and firearms. Ivanov’s wife Sarah is a musician, and the music stops with her death between acts III and IV. Firearms are everywhere, from the opening scene where a brandished shotgun precedes the first words of dialogue, to the final suicide. Guns are strategically placed throughout the scenes, even when they are not actually involved in the action.

Many of the characters also lament the sorry state of young men.

LEBEDEV: …No offence meant, but young men are a pretty spineless, wishy-washy crew nowadays. God help them. Can’t dance, can’t talk, can’t drink properly.

Chekhov also takes aim at doctors while giving a backhanded dig at lawyers. Shabelsky is the loose cannon – both comic relief, and the one person able to say what others are only thinking.

SHABELSKY: Doctors are like lawyers, only lawyers just rob you, while doctors rob you and murder you as well.

And later:

SHABELSKY: …I’ve never trusted doctors, lawyers, or women in my life, it’s all stuff and nonsense, quackery and jiggery-pokery.

Of course, there is an extra layer of irony here: Chekhov was a physician as well as an author.

The drunken Lebedev, who is pretty much Ivanov’s sole friend (apart from Sasha, at least) does his best to console Ivanov, but can’t avoid making a muddle of it. He attempts a profound statement about life, which doesn’t quite work.

LEBEDEV: A man’s like a samovar, old boy. He doesn’t always stand on a cold shelf, there are times when he gets stoked up and starts fairly seething. The comparison’s no damn good, but I can’t think of anything better.

The best aphorism, however, belongs to Borkin, who manages Ivanov’s estate, but is always coming up with get-rich-quick schemes. He comes up with a simile so pessimistic, it incites a laugh.

BORKIN: [sighing.] Our life - . Man’s life is like a bright flower blooming in a meadow. A goat comes along and eats it up. No more flower.

So maybe, after all, this is the theme of the play, spoken by one of many fools. It is a theme that has run through literature, ancient and modern. From Ecclesiastes:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

To Shakespeare:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

All the intentions and actions of the characters, good or evil, are ultimately meaningless. In the end, tragedy carries the day, and everyone becomes or remains profoundly unhappy. The flower that was has been eaten by the goat.

Note on the translation: I read the translation by Ronald Hingley, which is generally well regarded. It is occasionally criticized for being more “British” than “American” in idiom, but to this Anglophile, that is not a real drawback. I have also heard good things about Paul Schmidt’s translation. I found Hingley’s version to be vastly superior to the unattributed (but obviously older) version available from Project Gutenberg. Hingley captured a certain poetry and vitality completely missing from the rather dry free version. Since Hingley’s and Schmidt’s translations are readily available for a reasonable price, I would recommend going with one or the other.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

Source of Book: Borrowed from the library.

I previously read the first two books in this series. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie was Bradley’s debut novel (at the age of 70!) I reviewed that book in some detail. The second book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, was also excellent, although I did not write a long review for that one.

As I mentioned in my review of the first book, this series combines elements of the English and the American detective novels. The eleven-year-old heroine, Flavia, is observant, and gathers information through conversations; but she also is a chemistry buff, and solves the mysteries partially through procedure.

This book, the third in the series, continues the high standard of writing established in the first two. Literary, artistic, and scientific references are lovingly hidden in the narrative – and the author takes care that they are accurate. Even the musical references have been carefully chosen. As a musician, I love to hear mentions of more obscure works, and this book does not disappoint. (Case in point: Flavia’s rather mean oldest sister, Ophelia, plays Schubert’s B Flat Major Piano Sonata when she is distraught. This piece is more sublime than turbulent, which adds a bit of interesting nuance to the character.) 

Really, only a cold, cold heart could resist this music. 
This book also continued the development of the various characters in the drama. Flavia and her sisters and father continue to gain a significant back story, and are revealed, despite the unreliable narration of Flavia, to have more depth than previously revealed.

Another notable and welcome development is the reappearance of Dr. Kissing, the frail old man introduced in the first book. His quiet rebellion against the strict life of the nursing home where he resides is both inspiring and poignant, and laced with his characteristic wry sense of humor.

I also liked the exploration of Flavia’s need for a true friend. This wish is not truly granted in this book, but Flavia’s growing awareness of the void makes for an additional layer to her psyche. Throughout the series, I have enjoyed the way the author develops the characters through the eyes of Flavia. She is a believably precocious young lady: arrogant, callow, immature, selectively perceptive, and self absorbed. One cannot help but like her, while realizing that she would be maddening in person. Bradley’s writing brings all of this out without letting the technique get in the way of the story. The reader can zip through the book without difficulty, but the characters and their inner conflicts remain with the reader every bit as much as the plot.

As I noted in my original review, Bradley is an unusually good modern writer in a genre that has become a cliché. While the first book had a plot that fit the genre, the subsequent installments have refused to follow a predictable pattern. As a result, the books read less like “murder mysteries,” and more like stories about intriguing characters that just happen to involve mysteries. The difference is subtle, but important. Sherlock Holmes and Watson (and so many others) live on in our imagination, not because of the clever plots (although the plots are sure clever), but because of the memorable characters, which transcend any particular narrative.

Monday, July 2, 2012

He Knew He Was Right by Anthony Trollope

Source of Book: I own this

He Knew He Was Right is not merely the title of the book, nor the defining factor in the main plot: it could rightfully be considered to be the underlying theme of Trollope’s treatment of each of the characters and of all the myriad subplots. Everyone is sure that he or she is right. Trollope could have made the book about stubbornness and preached against a strong nature. He also could have done the typical Victorian thing, and punished the assertive women while rewarding those with a meek spirit. Instead, Trollope’s loyalty lies with the truth. Each character must confront the question of whether his or her cherished views are true or false.

It is difficult to know exactly where to begin with this length and complex book. At around 800 pages of fairly small print, it is epic, even for Trollope, who is hardly known for his brevity. Perhaps I should start with the author himself.

Anthony Trollope is one of my favorite authors for a number of reasons. He was formerly one of the more popular Victorian novelists, but made the ill-advised choice to write an autobiography. In said autobiography, he admitted that he set aside a certain amount of time each day to write, and made himself write a certain number of words. This did not jive with the idea of the author as inspired genius, writing as the spirit led him, so his reputation suffered.

I find Trollope to be more subtle in his characterizations than his contemporaries, Dickens and Collins. Rarely do even his minor characters become “types,” and his books rarely contain true villains. Even those who exist, such as the unforgettable Obadiah Slope are complex characters, who seem psychologically true to life, even though they populate a world foreign to a modern American reader. He Knew He Was Right is no exception, being full of realistically drawn characters.

The main plot of the book revolves around Louis Trevelyan and his wife Emily. Even before the marriage, there are signs of future trouble. Louis likes to have his way. His future father-in-law, Sir Marmaduke notes that, “his way is such a good way,” but his wife realizes that, “Emily likes her way too.”

The trouble begins when the rakish Colonel Osborne attempts a not-so-innocent-on-his-part flirtation with Emily, who is half his age. Louis demands that she cut off contact with him. She protests that he is unfairly accusing her of unfaithfulness. In this way, the conflict is not one primarily of behavior, but of ego. Emily will not admit any fault, and Louis will not admit to wrongfully suspecting her. This feud grows all out of proportion until it results in a prolonged separation and the use of the couple’s child as a pawn in a battle of wills which consumes the parties and destroys their happiness. Of this plot, I will have more to say later.

Meanwhile, a number of subplots are developed. Emily’s younger sister, Nora, falls in love with Hugh Stanbury, a gentleman who is forced to earn his own living due to financial circumstances. Hugh’s sister Dorothy goes to live with her Aunt, Jemima Stanbury; who is an epically strong willed and stubborn old lady, in the vein of Miss Havisham, perhaps, in her manipulation and bitterness, but less crazy, and still capable of kindness on rare occasions. Dorothy’s mother and sister are called upon to share a house with Emily after she is banished from her husband’s presence. The French girls, Camilla and Arabella, fight over the hand of Mr. Gibson, who wishes to marry Dorothy.

Each character has the opportunity to display a stubborn commitment to his or her values and preferences. Louis, of course, wishes for his wife to admit fault. Emily likewise desires to be acquitted of the accusation of unfaithfulness. Dorothy, who is rather mild mannered at the outset, has no desire to marry Mr. Gibson. Nora and Hugh must defy the wishes of her parents in order to court each other. Miss Stanbury continues her feud with the family of her late beau, who left her his fortune at their expense. Arabella and Camilla French both wish to be married and to dominate the other. And on it goes.

Nora’s case is particularly interesting because she is offered the hand of Mr. Glascock, the future Lord Peterborough. Glascock is one of the truly admirable men in the book. (Hugh Stanbury is the other.) After making a rather kind and affectionate proposal and being refused, he acts as graciously as possible. Later in the book, he goes far out of his way on behalf of Nora and Emily, despite no duty to do so. In every respect, he is a true gentleman, and one that most girls would be eager to marry. However, there is no chemistry between him and Nora, perhaps on account of the difference in age, or perhaps because of temperament. Mostly, however, it is because Nora loves Hugh.

Hugh is also a worthy man, but in a different way. He knows that he will never inherit wealth, so he chooses to use his talents writing for a newspaper – something which horrifies his aunt Jemima. He has a world-wise and jaunty air, and puts a good face on his lack of a fixed income. He is, moreover, kind to his sisters and mother, and also takes action at personal expense to assist Emily. As Nora recognizes, there are tradeoffs in making this choice. She chooses love over money, but Trollope allows her to truly understand the factors on both sides.

As usual, there are too many quotable passages to choose from. Trollope’s extended description of Louis and Emily while they are not speaking to each other is brilliant, as is his use of repetition to show Louis’ obsession as his mind slowly crumbles. Indeed, this continual and recurring internal discussion was disconcertingly familiar to one like me who tends to spend time thinking things through. As Trollope puts it near the end, “Thought deep, correct, continued, and energetic is quite compatible with madness.” Perhaps the line between a reflective introvert and a madman is not so broad as could be hoped.

In this book, Trollope also questions some of the orthodoxy of the Victorian Era (and previous eras) regarding the role of women. Nora, while realizing that she did not love Mr. Glascock, laments to herself that, “The lot of a woman, as she often told herself, was wretched, unfortunate, almost degrading. For a woman such as herself there was no path open to her energy, other than that of getting a husband.” Hugh makes a perfect potential match with her. In a discussion with Louis Trevelyan, he notes that women do not like being “looked after.” “[I]f I were married, - which I never shall be, for I shall never attain to the respectability of a fixed income, - I fancy I shouldn’t look after my wife at all. It seems to me that women hate to be told about their duties.” I might add that men don’t fancy it much either, but this was less of an issue 150 years ago, I suspect.

Hugh may be flippant in his speech, but he is fiercely loyal to Nora. He stands up to his future father-in-law, who thinks him too poor: “And I, Sir Marmaduke, have been brought up in the idea that when a man has won the affections of a woman, it is the duty of that man, - as a man, - to stick to her through thick and thin; and I mean to do my duty, according to my idea.”

Trollope has the ability to slip little self-effacing asides into the narrative. “Who would ever think of learning to live out of an English novel?” Or, his subtle dig at the conventions of the novel: “It was for the welfare of England at large that the eldest sons of good families should marry the sweetest, prettiest, brightest, and most loveable girls of their age. It is a doctrine on behalf of which very much may be said.”

I also love the extended riff on the ending of books in a marriage.

We must now go back to Exeter and look after Mr. Brooke Burgess and Miss Dorothy Stanbury. It is rather hard upon readers that they should be thus hurried from the completion of hymeneals at Florence to the preparations for other hymeneals in Devonshire; but it is the nature of a complex story to be entangled with many weddings towards its close. In this little history there are, we fear, three or four more to come. We will not anticipate by alluding prematurely to Hugh Stanbury's treachery, or death, or the possibility that he after all may turn out to be the real descendant of the true Lord Peterborough and the actual inheritor of the title and estate of Monkhams, nor will we speak of Nora's certain fortitude under either of these emergencies. But the instructed reader must be aware that Camilla French ought to have a husband found for her; that Colonel Osborne should be caught in some matrimonial trap, as how otherwise should he be fitly punished? And that something should be at least attempted for Priscilla Stanbury, who from the first has been intended to be the real heroine of these pages. That Martha should marry Giles Hickbody, and Barty Burgess run away with Mrs. MacHugh, is of course evident to the meanest novel-expounding capacity; but the fate of Brooke Burgess and of Dorothy will require to be evolved with some delicacy and much detail.

Of course, much of what he alludes to here does not come to pass – he is only messing with the reader.

As a final dig at English tradition, Mr. Glascock, after having had an argument with Caroline Spaulding, the daughter of the American diplomat (who he eventually marries), makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the infamous “rule of thumb” in the English common law. “Caroline and I have had a little dispute, but we have settled it without coming to blows.”

Carolyn’s cousin, the feminist “poet” Wallachia (one of the few caricatures – and a good one), retorts, “I don’ suppose that an English gentleman ever absolutely strikes a lady.”

In his wonderful, self confidently wry manner, Glascock replies, “Not except on strong provocation. In reference to wives, a stick is allowed as big as your thumb.”

In another exchange with Caroline’s younger sister, who opines in her “ugly American” way, “I’d sooner be senator from Massachusetts than be the Queen of England.”

“So would I,” said Mr. Glascock. “I’m glad we can agree about one thing.”

In general, I would say that Trollope does a better satire of American manners than Dickens.  Trollope is more gentle, and therefore more perceptive, in his approach. Dickens feels the need to demonize the Americans, while Trollope’s darts are more true to the mark by their very charity.

Even Wallachia, who is obnoxious even by modern American standards, is given a few good lines. Trollope eventually notes that, “The hope in regard to all such women, - the hope entertained not by themselves, but by those that are solicitous for them, - is that they will be cured at last by a husband and half-a-dozen children.” Occasionally, I suspect that this is what my in-laws hoped would happen to my wife. (She is much nicer than Wallachia, but she would have had a hard time with Victorian Era English gender roles. Whether the kids and I have “cured” her is debatable, of course.)

Jemima Stanbury is also another worthy character in this book, and she gets some of the great lines. As a guy, I was a bit unfamiliar with the idea of the chignon, although my wife and other women presumably have an idea about this. Trollope himself was no fan of the Victorian version of this hairdo, and pokes fun at it later in the book. However, he cannot resist a little dig at Miss Stanbury.

Mr. Gibson and Arabella French. Illustration by Marcus Stone.

“She would talk of ‘those bandboxes which the sluts wear behind their noddles;’ for Miss Stanbury allowed herself the use of much strong language.” Unsurprisingly, the battle between the generations over styles has been in existence as long as recorded history, and Trollope makes a particularly effective satire of the desire that the younger generation dress exactly as the older did.

That Trollope did not exactly wish to identify with Miss Stanbury is made clear in a later incident involving the posting of a letter. Anthony Trollope’s primary career was that of a postmaster, and writing was originally a diversion for him. He was the inventor of the ubiquitous “pillar box” – the curbside mail collection device. Miss Stanbury, along with many of the older set, disapproved.

Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which--a most hateful thing to her--stood almost close to her own hall door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination.  She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump as she called it out in the middle of the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post.

Dorothy’s sister, Priscilla, is very like Miss Stanbury in temperament, if not in opinions. The two, predictably, do not get along. Trollope has an odd affection for Priscilla, even though she is clearly out of place in Victorian society. She refuses to cater to the expectations of others, and will not accept charity, even from those she loves. She also has a delightfully witty tongue, which is why she is the one young female in the book that I truly liked. Sure, Nora is strong in her way, but it is Priscilla that I would marry, if I were placed in that world, despite her misgivings that she would make a man miserable.

Her thoughts on “self esteem” are illustrative: “All that is twopenny-halfpenny pride, which should be thrown to the winds. The more right you have been hitherto, the better you can afford to go on being right. What is it that we all live upon but self esteem? When we want praise, it is only because praise enables us to think well of ourselves. Every one to himself is the centre and pivot of all the world.”

Another great line occurs in reference to the rather cowardly Mr. Gibson, who is continually at the mercy of a variety of strong women. After a particularly bad “foot-in-mouth” moment, Trollope opines, “But there are men so awkward that it seems to be their especial province to say always the very worst thing at the very worst moment.”

I also liked his explanation of benign government incompetence. Sir Marmaduke is the governor of some Asian islands, and he is recalled to explain his policies for some useless government committee. His explanation is amusingly accurate, “It had worked well; - that is to say, everybody had complained of it, but he, Sir Marmaduke, would not recommend any change.”

Despite all of the wit, and despite the happy ending for many of the characters, the story of Emily and Louis is a devastating tragedy.

Louis Trevelyan at Casalunga. One of many excellent illustrations by Marcus Stone in the edition I own.

I think that Trollope was at the height of his powers in his analysis of the situation. The rift is devastating precisely because it was avoidable. Had either Louis or Emily made a different step, at least during the first few months of the feud, reconciliation was likely. Trollope is too good of a writer to come out and directly state the reason why the parties could not understand each other, but the point cannot be missed: Louis and Emily cannot express what they truly desire of the other. Instead, they make demands based on the conventional gender roles of their time, and never take the time to hear and understand the other.

Louis says that he wants obedience. Emily is willing to obey. But, really, what Louis wants is to know that Emily cares about his feelings and insecurities, and will voluntarily avoid hurting him. It pains him to demand obedience, where love should have attained the same result.

In contrast, Emily desires to be treated like an adult. She wants to be trusted, and not treated like an errant child for innocent behavior. And really, any wrong that has occurred has been on the part of Colonel Osborn (who is really slimy), not on Emily’s part.

Trollope makes it clear that if Louis had simply expressed his feelings and fears, Emily would have seen his point. Likewise, if Emily had simply validated Louis insecurities, he would not have demanded obedience in a high-handed manner.

If either had given a millimeter, the whole tragedy could have been avoided.

This is one area in which I think that certain religious movements have gone astray in focusing on some form of “submission,” by which they often mean, “obedience.” A decent man does not want a servant to do his bidding. A decent man wants to know that his wife values his feelings and desires. In a loving relationship, each party should care enough about the other to avoid causing pain to the other. Louis and Emily cannot and will not see this until it is too late. Eventually, it becomes more important to each that he or she be RIGHT, and that the other admit it, than that the marriage ever be put back together.

Louis himself eventually begins to subconsciously hope that his fears may be true. That is, he would be happier to find out that Emily had been unfaithful than that he had been unreasonably jealous. It is this pride and stubbornness that tears the relationship apart. The love that they once had for each other is slowly destroyed, until all that is left is pride and despair.