Updated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turnUpdated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turned loud and forceful, with the implication of battles and fights, but the flute play remained elegant and graceful. After a while, the zither play also turned mild and gentle, and both the zither and the flute switched between high notes and low notes back and forth. All of a sudden, the sounds of both the zither and the flute changed completely, as though there were many zithers and many flutes playing together in an orchestra. Although the music had changed into something magnificent with many complex florid notes, each tone and cadence stayed clear and meaningful and the melody remained pleasing and moving. Linghu Chong could feel that his mind had been completed captured by the music, and almost couldn’t help standing up. After a while, the tone of the zither and the flute changed again. This time the flute took over the lead and the zither simply accompanied with soothing chords. Soon, the sound of the flute ascended higher and higher. Out of nowhere, feelings of grief and sadness rose and washed over Linghu Chong’s heart. He turned to look at Yilin, only to find tears rolling down her cheeks like streams. A loud ring echoed suddenly, then the zither and the flute fell silent at the exact same instant. Silence swept across in all directions; all that remained was the moon, shining high and bright in the indigo sky, casting still shadows from the endless trees on the ground."
Xiao Ao Jiang Hu or The Smiling, Proud Wanderer* is one of the last wuxia novels written by Jin Yong and is one of the few that is not explicitly set in a specific historical period, although there are internal clues that point to the Ming Dynasty. In his postscript, Jin Yong explains that this was deliberate, as he "intended to employ the characters within the novel to depict certain universal phenomena from the three thousand years of Chinese political life."
Indeed, the vicious politicking and back-stabbing intrigues among the Five Mountain Sword Schools and their enemy, the Sun Moon Holy Cult (Riyue Shenjiao) that form the meat of the novel can be easily transposed to any political stage. However, considering that the novel was written at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it is not hard to see whom Jin Yong aimed to satirize:
“This time, the Sun Moon Holy Cult had come to Huashan and had planned everything meticulously. Not only had all the masters from the cult came out, they had also gathered all the subordinates from each clan, each stronghold, each cave, and each island to force the five mountains sword schools to submit to them. If the five schools didn't want to submit, then they would immediately be annihilated. Then Ren Woxing and the Sun Moon Holy Cult would control the world. They would continue with Shaolin and Wudang schools, and none from among the orthodox path would be able to resist. The business of long live the chief and unifying the Jianghu was to be settled today on the Peak of Morning Sun at Mount Huashan.
Linghu Chong was hesitating in making a decision. But hearing Shangguan Yun praising him with 'Long live Vice-Chief, your benevolence is endless', even though it was still not as much as what Ren Woxing was accustomed to receive, if he really became the Vice-Chief then this slogan would forever follow him. He felt it was very comical and couldn't help uttering a laugh. This laughter sounded like a ridicule and when they heard it, everyone on the Peak of Morning Sun became quiet all of a sudden.
Another person said, "Sacred Chief illuminates the world making our Sun Moon Holy Cult favored by the common people, also like the rain coming down after a long drought. Everyone's happy and they're giving thanks."
The only thing missing are the Little Red Books.
Those who cross party lines are subjected to "struggle sessions" in which people are forced to denounce each other under the pain of death, such as in the scene at Liu Zhengfeng's hand-washing ceremony at the beginning of the book. Even people like him who attempted to retire from public life and thus remain neutral in the fierce factional fighting cannot escape their fate. The hero's quest turns into a search for peace and human dignity, by the means of principled retreat from the corrupt and merciless jianghu, a metaphor for the political life. The theme of disillusionment with politics and ideologies is embedded in the narrative through layers of truths that gradually reveal the true state of the world to the protagonist. His struggle is not against foreign domination, as in earlier Jin Yong novels, but in keeping himself free of "improper" attachment to the corrupting world of power politics. Ultimately, the story is a cautionary tale against totalitarian brain-washing and mindless conformity.
It is not surprising that this book (and other Jin Yong titles) was banned in China during the Mao era.
"Linghu Chong laughed loudly. “Little nun,” he said, “Do you want me to win or lose?” “Of course I want you to win,” Yilin said, “When you fight while sitting down, you are the second best in the world, you won’t lose to him.” “Good!” Linghu Chong said. “Then please go! The quicker the better, the further the merrier!”"
Expelled from his sword school for consorting with the ideologically unsound and falsely accused of stealing a precious martial art manual, Linghu Chong became a jianghu pariah. He spent a significant part of the novel either being imprisoned or gravely injured. Like Dumas’ Edmond Dantes, while detained at the Cliff of Contemplation atop Mount Hua, he met a venerable master who imparted to him the long lost, incomparable sword art of the Nine Swords of Dugu (Dugu Jiujian). His further wanderings embroiled him in the bloody warfare between the “righteous” and “unrighteous”, during which it was gradually revealed that many of the “righteous” were just as morally bankrupt as the other party --- including his master, that shining paragon of Confucian virtues, the “Gentleman Sword” Yue Buqun. Linghu Chong is a particularly likeable, sympathetic hero --- he's like a funnier Yang Guo from Shendiao Xialu without the abrasive cockiness. In contrast to his seemingly easygoing, wine-loving, raffish persona, Linghu Chong was internally torn by his growing awareness of the fact that everything that he dearly held to be true --- the moral and martial superiority of his "righteous” school, the goodness of the master who raised him, the love of his master’s daughter, and the brotherhood that he had counted upon --- were just as illusory as the ideological distinction between the righteous and unrighteous. His desperate desire to return to the filial fold of his master’s family and regain the love of his beloved xiao shimei (apprentice sister) made him a pitiful figure at times.
"The two swords met with a resounding clang and the points of both swords vibrated. Both of them immediately thrusted forward at the same time towards each other's throat. Their speed was unmatched. Looking at both swords thrusting forward at such speed, it seemed that no one would be able to go up to save them and they would both meet common ruin. The crowd called out in surprise. But the crowd heard a sudden ringing sound and saw that the points of both swords pushed against each other in mid air, generating sparks and then bent together to make an arch."
Fortunately, he was fated to meet Ren Yingying, the Holy Maiden of the Sun Moon Holy Cult, who got him through the various low points of his life and taught him the transcendent art of the qin (zither). The uber-competent, shrewd, occasionally ruthless Yingying is a familiar Jin Yong love interest archetype. Their initially tentative relationship gradually blossomed into a redemptive romance that provides a welcome contrast to the dark tale of betrayal and deceit (their banter, which mainly consists of him making innuendoes to the prim and proper Yingying, who invariably blushed with prudish embarrassment, is amusing, if a bit repetitive --- if you like wuxia heroines who blush a lot, Yingying is your girl).
"Half of the girl’s face could be seen from the reflection in the water. Her eyes were shut tight, and her long eyelashes swayed in the breeze. Even though he could not see very clearly from the reflection in the water, he could still tell that she was a gorgeous-looking girl seventeen or eighteen years of age."
Meanwhile, we are treated to the deliciously convoluted plot, highlighted by thrilling sword fights --- which could be both lyrical and brutal at the same time, murder mysteries and intrigues to obtain a perverse martial art manual that requires its practitioners to castrate themselves (Freudian subtext, anyone?).
"Dongfang Bubai pulled out a green silk handkerchief from his side and gently wiped off the sweat and dirt from Yang Lianting's forehead. Yang Lianting became slightly enraged and berated him, "A grave enemy is right in front of us, why are you still wasting time with these useless pleasantries? Beat them away first and we'll still have time for intimacy later."
Grotesque comedy abounds, provided by the cheeky, smart-mouthed Linghu Chong himself, the Six Peach Valley Immortals, who serve as the court jesters of the story, or the hilariously unreasonable Monk No Comandment (Bujie), his student Monk Cannot Have No Commandment (Buke Bujie), and No Commandment's wife, the "mute" Granny. A gag that runs through the story is the bad luck that befalls Linghu Chong whenever he meets "unlucky" nuns, culminating in him inadvertently becoming the first ever male leader of the Hengshan School --- a school of nuns (Yingying promptly relieved him of the embarrassing fact by coercing various male riffraffs under her command to enter the school). The climax is a gory Machbetian bloodbath in which the ideology of good and evil is finally revealed to be no more than a veil for the naked struggle for power.
"The fifteen masked men slowly approached forward, their thirty eyes shone through the holes on their masks like the eyes of fierce wild animals, filled with cruelty and hostility."
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer showcases Jin Yong’s masterful, mature style, with vividly realized, affecting characters, nearly perfect in its blend of page-turning wuxia action, political satire and romance. Read it because it's just a sheer good story.
* The title has been variously translated into English as Smiling, Proud Wanderer, Laughing in the Wind, State of Divinity and Blood Hot Cold Proud (whoever came up with that title deserves to be shot). It literally means “Laughing Proudly at the Jianghu (the World of Rivers and Lakes, i.e. the martial world)." In the novel, the phrase stands for "to live a carefree life amidst the mundane world of strife."
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Victory or defeat in ancient Greek wars is primarily the result of marital spats and/or pettWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Victory or defeat in ancient Greek wars is primarily the result of marital spats and/or petty sibling rivalry in Zeus and Hera’s dysfunctional divine household.
2. Zeus “the father of gods and men” is a henpecked husband who is also partial to domestic abuse.
3. If you take a pretty girl who is the daughter of a priest of Apollo as war booty and refuse to have her ransomed, Apollo will rain plague on your troops. And he won’t be appeased until you return the girl and throw him a ginormous BBQ party involving hundreds of cattle at his temple.
4. If an arrow or a spear were thrown at you in battle, more often than not, it would land on your nipple or thereabout. Or alternatively, it would pierce your helmet and splatter your brain.
5. Paris is a proper guy’s name, not just a name for capital cities or bratty heiresses.
6. Brad Pitt in man skirt* Achilles is the badassest warrior there ever was.
7. Real men eat red meat, specifically: a. sheep chines; b. fat goats; and c. the long back cuts of a full-grown pig, marbled with lard.
8. The most valuable booty are (in no particular order):
a. bronze tripods (each worth 12 oxens) and armors; b. swift war stallions; and c. pretty women (each worth 4 oxens, if also skilled in crafts). Lesbians are particularly prized.
9. There is nothing more glorious for a warrior than to sack enemy cities, plunder their wealth, kill all their men, bed their pretty women and enslave their children.
10. The only men who matter are warriors, but if you are a woman, the range of roles that you could play is rather more diverse. You could be:
a. a runaway wife who sparks a cosmic battle between your thuggish hubby’s city-state and your cowardly boyfriend’s (1); b. a war booty with a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome (2); c. a manipulative uber bitch (who also happens to be a goddess) (3); d. a long-suffering wife and mother (4).
(1) Helen (2) Briseis (3) Hera (4) Andromache
But whatever role you choose to play, you will still be the bone of contention between men and the armies that they lead. All the major conflicts in the story are triggered by women, or specifically by their sexuality: Helen’s elopement with Paris launched a thousand Argive ships against Troy; Agamemnon’s desire to bed Briseis, Achilles’ lawful prize, caused a nearly unhealable rift between them; and Hector’s desire to protect his wife from the dismal fate of being an Argive sex slave inspired him to fight Achilles to the death. Homer’s mortal women might be meek and mild, but his goddesses can kick ass with the best of them, and even occasionally best their male counterparts: Zeus is not above being manipulated by Hera, and Ares the God of War actually got whacked on the head by Athena.
*Troy, Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Warner Bros. 2004.
What I find most surprising about the Iliad is the amount of graphic, X-rated violence that it contains. The violence is not the biblical slaying and smiting, but something much more voyeuristically gory:
“…the one Peneleos lanced beneath the brows, down to the eyes' roots and scooped an eyeball out --- the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword, hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all. But the big spear's point still stuck in the eye socket ---."
I imagine that this kind of anatomically precise, brain-splattering, gut-spilling action scenes made the Iliad popular with the Romans, who routinely went to the Colosseum to watch gladiators hack each other to death, but there is only so much of it that I could take in one sitting, which is why it took me almost three months to finish it. It is not that I’m particularly sensitive to fictional death and dismemberment --- and after all, this book is a war book --- but the sheer amount of such scenes, as well as their mind-numbing repetitiveness made for tedious reading. It doesn’t help that many of these deaths happened to seemingly throwaway characters, barely introduced in three or four lines, merely to be summarily (and gorily) dispatched in another half a dozen lines on the same page. The Iliad is assumed to be the written version of a much older oral poem, and such characters might represent collective memories of real Bronze Age warriors, but by Zeus, hundreds of pages of them being hacked, cleaved and skewered to death almost did me in.
Now, what is the purpose of such meticulously catalogued carnage? Was Homer trying to present War with all its attendant horrors to shock his audience into pacifism? Or was the old guy just trying to write an 8th century BCE equivalent of a blockbuster action-adventure movie with enough gore to satisfy his young male demographic? The Iliad both celebrates and laments the warrior spirit: the haughty pride and terrible thirst for vengeance and plunder that set men to distant shores, intent on razing cities and putting its inhabitants to slaughter, but also the stark, tragic consequences of such acts.
I actually find the gods’ politicking and manipulations more interesting than the actual war. The Greek gods are blissfully free of any human notion of morality --- which makes the problem of theodicy much more simpler to solve than in the Judeo-Christian model. The Olympian gods do not move in mysterious ways: they are moved by caprice and petty grievances. Why did we suffer such an ignominious defeat, despite all that we had done to win Zeus’ favor? Well, it happened that just before the battle was about to begin, Hera seduced him and subsequently put him to sleep with the help of Hypnos, whom she bribed with one of the Graces. A perfectly logical and very human explanation.
The story gets much more interesting in the last five books. The Olympian gods entered into the fray and the effect is sometimes like watching WWE SmackDown:
“Bloody Ares lunged at it now with giant lance and Athena backed away, her powerful hand hefting a boulder off the plain, black, jagged, a ton weight that men in the old days planted there to make off plowland --- Pallas hurled that boundary-stone at Ares, struck his neck, loosed his limbs, and down he crashed and out over seven acres sprawled the enormous god and his mane dragged in the dust.”
Or maybe an episode of Super Friends :
“How do you have the gall, you shameless bitch, to stand and fight me here? …. But since you’d like a lesson in warfare, Artemis, just to learn, to savor how much stronger I am when you engage my power ---“
The gods are “deathless”, so you know that there won’t be any lasting harm from their catfight, but the cost of battle to all too mortal men is heavy indeed. This was a time when war was as elemental as they come: no mercy was shown to the enemy on the battlefield, save one that pertained to a warrior’s honor, which was to be buried with full honors by his family and comrades. When mighty, “stallion-breaking” Hector finally succumbed to Achilles in a strangely anticlimactic duel, his father Priam went to Achilles’ camp and
“kneeling down beside Achilles, clasped his knees and kissed his hands, those terrible, man-killing hands that had slaughtered Priam’s many sons in battle.”
Troy’s old king begged for his son’s body, and in the magnificent, poignant last book, Homer showed us the real cost of war, both on the vanquished and the triumphant. By the will of the gods, Achilles’ death would soon follow: his destiny was ultimately no different from the rest of tragic humanity, fated to suffer and die by callous, immoral gods for causes that were entirely beyond their ken.
“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men live on to bear such torments ---“ ...more
I have a confession to make: I am allergic to sci-fi. The kind that has as its hero a humanoid who lives iThis review is for the first two books only.
I have a confession to make: I am allergic to sci-fi. The kind that has as its hero a humanoid who lives in 23345 AD on a dystopian red planet, where he must fight slimy insectoid aliens whose sole purpose in life is to lay and hatch their filthy eggs on human bodies. The guy is barely human anyway, with half his face swathed in shiny robotic gear with glowing red eyes that look like the battery-powered tip of my 10 year old’s toy laser gun. Or instead of being half-android, he is half Vulcan or Neptune or whatever and thus has the emotional life of a plant. He would speak in pseudo-scientific jargon, something like, “ I must get the quark-photon-intercellular battery on my jet-propulsion pack to work so that I can get back to my Hyper Drive Interstellar Pod and shoot off to Alpha Centauri XYZ2345 in 10,000 times the warp speed along the space-time continuum”. I could feel my brain slowly turn to mush after barely ONE page of dialogue like that. He would have a robotic sidekick that looks like my Brabantia Dome Lid Waste Container with a string of blinking Christmas light around it, except that it can also speak in a metallic voice that somehow sounds like my mother-in-law in one of her bad days. Oh, and there will be other more sympathetic alien life forms that look like the misbegotten offspring of a camel and an orangutan, or some rubbery stuffed toy that the dog had chewed to bits. In short, I just can’t see why I should care about the fate of these monstrous, barely human creatures. Why waste precious time reading about some trash can android or an alien that looks like the Elephant Man on a bad hair day while there are perfectly normal, realistic HUMAN characters out there?
My favorite genre is historical fiction; you know, those books about human beings who either have been dead for centuries, or never existed at all, written by people who cannot possibly have any first-hand knowledge of the period that they’re writing about? Nothing could be more different than science fiction, something that I have not touched in 20 years or so.
So, what am I doing with The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Omnibus, 832 pages of sci-fi drenched in techno babble and redolent of the smell of a million alien armpits?
Well, for one thing, it’s included in the BBC’s 100 Big Reads, which for some reason has become my guide to a worthwhile reading list that is not solely composed of the classics. The other thing is that it’s supposed to be one of the funniest books ever written ---I can always overlook the sci-fi for the funnies. And the characters are recognizably human, or at least sort of human, although one of them is called Zaphod Beeblebrox, (which, incidentally would make a good brand name for a laxative) and has two heads and three arms. The other two are genuine human beings from Earth --- or carbon-based ape-descended life forms --- take your pick, and the other one is a human looking alien with ginger hair (a hideous genetic mutation that should be bred out in real humans). And he is conveniently named Ford Prefect. No need to memorize ridiculous alien names when a simple English one will do.
And now that we are superficially acquainted with the protagonists, it’s time to summarize the plot of this sprawling intergalactic tome --- except that there is no real plot to speak of. Well, actually there is something about looking for the Ultimate Question --- ‘What is the meaning of life?’ --- which is of interest to all life forms in the universe, at least to those that have the brain capacity to ponder such things. But mostly they just bounce around from one bizarre planet to another, having weird adventures in which they meet, among others, a paranoid android, rebellious appliances, a comatose intergalactic rock star and a megalomaniac book publisher. Ultimately, the barely there plot is nothing but an excuse for an absurdist farce through which Adams pokes fun at organized religion, meat-eaters, politicians, big businesses, environmentalists, the publishing industry and other pet peeves. Some parts are brilliantly funny, especially in the first book, while others had me scratching my head and wondering whether he was high on something when he wrote them. Certain sections are mind-numbingly boring and confusing in that special sci-fi way. Oh, and the constant smugness and non-stop zaniness are grating after the second book or so, and I just lost interest completely after finishing it.
At least I know now that ‘babel fish’ is not just a strangely named online translation program. And that it is possible to write a book about what is essentially nonsense and have it become a major pop culture icon. But I’m also mightily relieved that I can stop hitchhiking through THIS universe, which is probably too cool and too clever for me to completely understand.
And this shall be my last sci-fi book for the next 20 years. ...more
Note: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are theNote: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are the deer”. For the common people, the subjects of Empire, their role is to be the deer. If the Emperor doesn’t like somebody, he is going to be put in the cauldron and boiled, just like a deer that is caught in a hunt. This is the meaning of the book’s title.
2. “Extreme confinement since infancy for Emperors surely led to many of the hideous excesses perpetrated by tyrants down the ages.” As imperial subjects, you are extremely lucky to get a monarch who is not merely sane but is also intelligent and capable.
3. Death by a Thousand Cut, or Lingering Death, is the worst way to die in Qing Dynasty China. You are not immune from it, even if you are a Jesuit priest. Better whip up that canon-making skills, Father.
4. ‘Losha’, otherwise known as Russia, is a huge empire to the north of China with a pesky habit of creating trouble at the border. It is a primitive country, inhabited by wild Cossacks and boorish foreign devils, but it needs to be placated, as it possesses muskets and cannons.
5. Russian Orthodox priests are equally adept at writing erotic love letters and Letters of State. When the Russian sovereign is also your lover, both types of communication can be conveniently merged in a single letter.
6. Russian women are beautiful, except for their noses, which stand up far too prominently from their faces. The blonde ones also have bodies that are disgustingly covered with yellow down.
7. Indecent assault is a legitimate Kungfu move, especially if you are too lazy to learn proper martial art.
8. “All emperors had sisters who were a bit crazy”. For ‘crazy’ read ‘nymphomaniac’. The great empires of Russia and China both have at least one of them.
9. All languages except Chinese is gobbledygook and every alien script is nothing but squiggly lines. Of course it doesn’t help if your good self is illiterate in any language.
10. “The tendency to insult the virtue of an adversary’s mother is more or less universal”. ‘Tamardy’ is an abuse, and NEVER call a Chinese person ‘turtle’ --- it is a grave insult.
11. Outlandish praises and idiotic slogans (such as ‘Long Live to Our Leader’ and ‘Victory to Our Great Leader’, etc.) are music to tyrants and cult leaders. Run-of-the-mill flattery will do for lesser personages.
12. Simultaneously impersonating a palace eunuch AND a Shaolin monk is surely no fun for a red-blooded teenage male, but it doesn’t matter if you can slip into a whorehouse for some serious romp. Get rid of that monkish habit first, though.
In his last novel Jin Yong (Louis Cha), the undisputed master of wuxia (Chinese martial art fiction) brilliantly subverts the conventions of the genre that he had done so much to popularize with his previous 14 novels. For a start, the protagonist of the story, Wei Xiaobao (‘Trinket’ in this English translation --- huh?!), is nothing like the typical wuxia hero. He is no patriotic Guo Jing who defends Song China from the Mongol hordes, or Yang Guo, the great xia (knight-errant) from The Return of the Condor Heroes (Shen Diao Xia Lu). Nor is he Zhang Wuji, the hero of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, who led a successful rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty. Trinket is a bastard born and bred in a Yangzhou brothel. He is illiterate, foul-mouthed --- and too lazy to learn any kungfu, despite having the opportunity of learning from the best masters. He is also an inveterate gambler, a habitual liar, and a lecher who managed to marry seven (!) beautiful women. In another word, he is a lovable rascal.
Accidentally brought to the Forbidden City at the age of thirteen, Trinket impersonates a palace eunuch and strikes an unlikely friendship with the boy-emperor Kang xi. Aided by his natural cunning, he rapidly rises through the ranks to become Kang xi’s right-hand man, traveling all over China, Manchuria and Russia as His Majesty’s secret agent. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Triads (in its incarnation as an anti-Qing resistance movement), the Mystic Dragon Cult, Mongolian lamas, Jesuit priests and Russian spies. At one point, he is simultaneously a top Qing mandarin, the master of a Triad lodge, the marshall of the Mystic Dragons and a Shaolin monk. Trinket has to use every guile and dirty trick in the book to manage his increasingly complex allegiances. For a while he manages to play his various patrons against each other to his personal advantage, and we are alternately appalled by his misdeeds, laugh out loud at his antics and marvel at his astonishing ability to bullshit his way of (almost) any situation. However, his high-wire act eventually fails and Trinket, a man with multiple, often conflicting identities, is forced to choose sides. Through the choices that he makes, Jin Yong questions the values of patriotism, primordial allegiances and conventional morality.
This novel was written during the height of the Cultural Revolution, and it is not difficult to detect allusions to the political situation in Mainland China at that time. The persecution of the dissident scholars involved in the writing of Ming history at the beginning of the book has an all too familiar ring. The leader of the Mystic Dragon Cult, with his outsized personality cult and fanatical, brainwashed young followers, bears a certain resemblance to Mao and his Red Guards. The story itself can be enjoyed on several different levels: as a rousing martial art romp, hilarious farce, historical fantasy, or cynical satire. Or you can just read it for pure narrative enjoyment. Hundreds of millions of Chinese readers can’t be all wrong. You will not be disappointed.
It is surely an understatement to call Les Miserables a sprawling epic. In fact, it is perhaps the loosest, baggie"Conscience is the highest justice”.
It is surely an understatement to call Les Miserables a sprawling epic. In fact, it is perhaps the loosest, baggiest monster of all those great 19th century novels. This monster contains everything: morality play, melodrama, political tracts, religious polemic and urban history. Hugo’s great bag of a novel is big enough to contain all those and more. He has a healthy ego, and is perpetually eager to pontificate on subjects as diverse as the battle of Waterloo, monastic history, the jet jewelry industry, the development of the argot and the sewer system of Paris. The effect is like having a retired professor camping out in your living room, always ready with an impromptu lecture or two. These mini-lectures, which are almost encyclopedic in their details, give a fascinating picture of the different aspects of French life at that time. But every time Hugo gets up on the soapbox to talk politics, he bores me to tears. These political lectures are delivered in a polemical, disjointed style which nuances are hard to grasps unless you are intimately familiar with French history of the period. And these digressions tend to occur in the middle of the exciting parts of the main story. What happens at the barricade? Is he killed? Wait; let’s wax poetic about flowers for a few pages first. Jean Valjean escapes through the sewer! Wait --- you’ve got to read this dissertation on the sewer system of Paris first. You get the idea. Yet, somehow, it doesn’t matter, as these digressions (except for the abovementioned political op-eds) are often as absorbing as the main narrative.
And what is the main narrative? At its heart, Les Miserables is a moving parable of mercy and redemption, a meditation on justice and conscience that makes us reflect on our own lives. Hugo’s France, with its crumbling tenements, abandoned street children and revolutions may be history to the Western world, but it is still alive and well in parts of the developing world. The barricades still have resonance today. Yes, Hugo could be sentimental and verbose, didactic and pedantic. He is not averse to use improbable coincidences (or divine providence, as another fellow reader had kindly pointed out) to tie up his storylines. He could have used a good editor with a big red pen. But again, it doesn’t matter in the big picture, as we are swept away in the stories of Jean Valjean, Bishop Myriel, Gavroche, Marius, Cosette and Eponine. Their stories, despite the melodrama and Romantic trappings, are the eternal story of man’s struggle against himself and society to live a good life, to be kind and forgiving to his fellows, to sacrifice one’s life selflessly for the good of others. Conscience is the highest justice, indeed.
1. If a young lady is not born into either rank or fortune, she will be looked down upon bySpoilers!
Miss Rebecca Sharp's Guide to the Regency Society
1. If a young lady is not born into either rank or fortune, she will be looked down upon by good society and forced to exist in a humiliating dependency on others for life, unless the said young lady is willing, nay, not merely willing, but most strenuously strive to improve her situation.
2. If the said young lady, despite being a poor orphan, happens to have the good fortune of being admitted into an exclusive academy for young ladies as an articled pupil, she has to ensure that she makes the utmost effort to learn everything that she could in that fine establishment. The modern languages, Greek, Latin and the rudiments of Hebrew, as well as music and dancing are important subjects that need to be mastered by an accomplished young lady, but most important of all is the ability to speak good French with the purest Parisian accent, for it enables the speaker to pass herself off as a daughter of the French aristocracy, even though in reality her mother is a mere stage actress.
3. “A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry whom she likes”. A wealthy husband should be prospected immediately after the young lady completes her education. The brother of a school friend is most suitable, even if the said young man is a fat dandy and not very sensible, as long as he is of ample inheritance. Beware of the gluttonous young buck though, for an overindulgence in a bowl of punch might thwart a young lady’s designs on him!
4. “Schoolmistresses' letters are to be trusted no more nor less than churchyard epitaphs”. There are notable exceptions, it must be admitted, but they are exceedingly rare. Nevertheless, the young lady, should she fail in her initial effort to land a wealthy husband, should endeavour to gain a letter of introduction that would recommend her as a governess to the most respectable of households. Such households, though populated by dissolute aristocrats, might house a number of potential spouses. A younger son of a baronet, even though he is a scoundrel, gambler, swindler and murderer, is a most suitable prospect, provided that he is to inherit an elderly relative’s fortune.
5. “Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same”. A little sweet talk and a wink, and they all fall on your feet bearing trinkets of pearls and gold. It doesn’t matter a whit if he happens to be your best friend’s husband, nor if you yourself is somebody’s else’s wife. It is best, however, if the gentleman admirer is a wealthy, powerful nobleman, for the advantages that a clever lady could get from him, financially or otherwise, is great indeed. Why, not only is he able to provide the lady’s household with a thousand-pound cheque at a whim, he is also able to bestow a profitable colonial governorship on the lady’s husband. Beware of the jealous husband, though, who through an imaginary affront to his honor might destroy all of the lady’s clever schemes!
6. How To Live Well On Nothing A Year. Appearances must be kept: a residence in Mayfair, a smart carriage, the best game and wines for one’s entertainments, and the latest Parisian fashions. How to afford all these when one has no regular income? Not to despair, the ingenious lady always has means to do so. Prevail upon the generosity of friends and relatives. Impose upon your landlord and your greengrocers, washerwomen and other domestics. Unlike banks or Hebrew money-lenders, these little people are very unlikely to set loose a bailiff upon your respectable self, especially if they are in awe of your noble family.
7. If all these schemes fail, and both your husband and gentleman admirer abandon you in a cloud of scandal, despair not! A lady of some talent can always flee abroad and sing for her supper, if necessary. Better still, if you could rekindle a relationship with a former beau, now older and ailing, who though his own fortune is much encumbered, would take a life insurance naming your pitiful self as a beneficiary. The small fortune that ensues from such a settlement is surely enough to tide you over until your estranged son succeeds into his baronetcy and is finally able to provide you with a generous allowance. Then you can spend your declining years as an admirably pious and charitable society lady. Thus a penniless orphan girl need not condemn herself to a life of servitude and penury, but instead rise into the pinnacle of society through her industry and ingeniousness!
" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central" We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time..."
Delusions, self-induced or otherwise, form the central theme that runs through Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke, thirsting for knowledge and a meaningful occupation, deludes herself that she would gain those things by marrying Casaubon, a cold, obsessive scholar more than twice her age. Casaubon himself is mired in self-delusion about his life-long research, which Dorothea soon finds out to be obsolete. The idealistic Lydgate deludes himself that by marrying the pretty but high-maintenance Rosamond Vincy he would gain both beauty and love, without having to give up the ideals that he lives for. Rosamond's delusion is that by marrying Lydgate, whose fledgling medical profession she despises, but whose aristocratic connections she covets, she would gain status while being maintained at the high standards that she has gotten used to. Bulstrode, MIddlemarch's banker and pious benefactor, has successfully deluded the whole town of his decidedly unpious past before it came back with a vengeance in the form of a certain Mr. Raffles. Mr. Brooke, who champions the liberal spirit of the Reform Act, is under the delusion that by merely being idealistic, he has changed the world, while neglecting to reform his own estate. The main interest of the novel consists of seeing how these very human characters cope with the consequences of their delusions.
Dorothea soon realizes that Casaubon and his work are not what she thought they were, but she holds up her end of the bargain by being a loyal spouse to him, though her heart sinks when she imagines the loveless and futile years that stretch out before her. Casaubon's sudden death mercifully terminates the disastrous marriage, and Dorothea's integrity, after further trials and tribulations, is ultimately rewarded by her finding love with Will Ladislaw. Lydgate discovers how his love of a pretty face slowly compromises his ideals and ends up in mediocrity, very far from what he aims for as a young medical reformer. Rosamond selfishly persists in her delusions without any regard for what it costs her husband. She finally gets what she wants, but at what price? Bulstrode's past misdeeds eventually catch up with him and destroy the life that he has so painstakingly constructed in Middlemarch. Mr. Brooke's political dilletantism never change the world, but it successfully opens up a path to meaningful occupation for an otherwise aimless young man.
Meanwhile, all of these characters' struggles are contrasted with the Garths' earthy integrity. Mr. Garth is an estate manager who does his job capably and honorably, without any pretensions to status or unearned wealth. Fred Vincy and Mary Garth are the only couple that is not under any delusions of each other's characters and goes on to a long and happy union.
Eliot's writing is infused with penetrating insights into human nature without ever losing compassion and understanding for their frailties and errors, a quality that she shares with Tolstoy. She never sentimentalizes her characters, except perhaps for the idealized Garths. They are all believably human, and they drive the narrative instead of the other way around. Eliot also has a great eye for the ludicruous and her wicked sense of humor constantly enlivens what could have been a ponderous account of provincial English life. One may read Middlemarch for the portrait of a Midlands town on the cusp of industrial revolution in 19th century England, which Eliot admirably delivers, but ultimately it is Eliot's insight into the universal human condition that makes it eternally relevant.
Finally, this book is a profoundly wise, if rather melancholic, reflection on the loss of youthful hopes and ambitions, and their replacement by the more realistic (and inevitable) compromises of maturity. Which, Eliot says, is not a bad thing in itself, as " the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs".