Van Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate iVan Wyck Brooks is not much of a popular writer these days. What he did instead of analyzing the early years of American literature was to celebrate it. His The World of Washington Irving was a pageant in which the literary figures of the United States between 1800 and 1840 pass in review.
The emphasis is on Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe; but he looks forward to the New England greats he was to explore in The Flowering of New England. At the same time, he reminds us of minor writers such as William Bartram, Audubon, N. P. Willis and John Lloyd Stephens, as well as painters such as Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.
I can think of few books I have read that have so many footnotes that I loved to read. If Brooks is a slow read, it is because he wants to share with us more information than he can fit in the main body of the text.
Brooks was a popular writer of my parents' generation, so fortunately one can frequently find good copies of his work in used book stores. I feel that if this were not such a conflicted time in our own history as a nation, that Brooks would be rediscovered and reprinted. ...more
This is the third time I have read Moby-Dick. Each time, I become more admiring of Herman Melville's skill in changing this from a mere sea adventureThis is the third time I have read Moby-Dick. Each time, I become more admiring of Herman Melville's skill in changing this from a mere sea adventure tale to the mighty classic that continues ever to grow on me. When I was younger, I somewhat resented the long chapters about whales and whaling, as if they were interruptions to the business of getting at the white whale.
But no, this time I realize that what Melville was doing was making us see the white whale, and all whales in general, as a force of nature. If all we had were the dramatic chapters ending in the pursuit of the whale, it would have been a lesser work.
I have read other works by Melville, none of which come close to Moby-Dick in their intensity. Typee and Omoo were all right; Mardi was an outright bore. But there was something about whaling and the Ahab's monomaniacal quest for revenge on the white whale that made him realize that this was something special, and that it required a different narrative structure.
So many times I have heard of someone writing "the Great American Novel." Perhaps Moby-Dick is it, perhaps Huckleberry Finn, perhaps Light in August or one of Faulkner's other novels. Maybe there is no Great American Novel. But if there is, Melville's opus certainly deserves consideration. He didn't try to write the Great American Novel. It just worked out that way.
Years ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- ConfessioYears ago, I had started Thomas de Quincey's magnificent book, but laid it aside for some inexplicable reason. Now I see that this volume -- Confessions of an English Opium Eater -- is infinitely worth reading through to the end, and even returning to its glories at a later date.
De Quincey's opium habit led to his heterodox approach to life, which alternated between manic passages of glory to massive funereal threnodies, of which the following sentence from "The English Mail Coach" is but a sample: "I sate, and wept in secret the tears that men have ever given to the memory of those that died before the dawn, and by the treachery of earth, our mother."
Of the three essays in this volume, by far the best is the first, the eponymic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. The second, Suspiria de Profundis, is also tinged by its author's drug habit, particularly in its most depressive phase. The shorter "The English Mail Coach," begins with youthful exultation and ends with a long meditation on an night collision with a gig when the one-eyed coachman drove while asleep. In that collision, De Quincey speculates that a young woman was killed, though we never know for sure.
There is a scholarly elegance to De Quincey's writing:
Oh, burthen of solitude, thou cleavest to man through every stage of his being -- in his birth, which has been -- in his life, which is -- in his death, which shall be -- mighty and essential solitude! that wast, and art, and art to be; -- thou broodest, like the spirit of God moving upon the surface of the deeps, over every heart that sleeps in the nurseries of Christendom.
De Quincey had an awesome background in the Greek and Latin classics, and his prose is mightily influenced by those two dead languages, but only in the best sense of the word.
Anton Chekhov seems so deceptively simple in his great plays such as The Three Sisters that we sometimes don't see the mystery that is there. In thisAnton Chekhov seems so deceptively simple in his great plays such as The Three Sisters that we sometimes don't see the mystery that is there. In this case, we have a young family consisting of a brother and three sisters, all full of high hopes and expressing a wish to move to Moscow, where "the lights are much brighter there/you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares." The mystery is in the curious entropy of life, that proceeds heedless of our wishes and dreams.
Even Andrey, the brother, whose "brilliant career" as a Moscow professor, comes to grief in the garrison town in the provinces:
Oh, what has become of my past and where is it? I used to be young, happy, clever, I used to be able to think and frame clever ideas, the present and the future seemed to me full of hope. Why do we, almost before we have begun to live, become dull, grey, uninteresting, lazy, apathetic, useless, unhappy.... This town has already been in existence for two hundred years and it has a hundred thousand inhabitants, not one of whom is in any way different from the others. There has never been, now or at any other time, a single leader of men, a single scholar, an artist, a man of even the slightest eminence who might arouse envy or a passionate desire to be imitated. They only eat, drink, sleep, and then they die... more people are born and also eat, drink, sleep, and so as not to go silly from boredom, they try to make life many-sided with their beastly backbiting, vodka, cards, and litigation. The wives deceive their husbands, and the husbands lie, and pretend they see nothing and hear nothing, and the evil influence irresistibly oppresses the children and the divine spark in them is extinguished, and they become just as pitiful corpses and just as much like one another as their fathers and mothers....
At the end, the garrison is transferred to Poland; and the three sisters have resolved to soldier on in their own way, perhaps even irrespective of happiness.
Reading Chekhov could be like a cold bath on an icy day. But there is something in his stories and plays that reminds us that happiness does not come to us as the result of the fulfillment of pipe dreams. It may not come to us at all. No one ever told us that life was going to be fair....more
I am relatively new to the sci-fi/fantasy works of H. G. Wells, but now that I've got started, I can see myself continuing until I've read more of theI am relatively new to the sci-fi/fantasy works of H. G. Wells, but now that I've got started, I can see myself continuing until I've read more of them. Back in his day, Wells was something of a guru, and his book The Outline of History was re-printed and read until I was in my teens (some time during the Cretaceous era).
The Time Machine is so far on a par with The War of the Worlds, which I read with great enjoyment not too long ago. The unnamed Time Traveler ends up on the Thames in the year 800,000 (and then some) A.D., at a time when the area was inhabited by a small, pleasure-loving people who seemed to have deficient survival skills. The Traveler seems to fall in love with a young lass whose life he saves named Weena.
These people who live on the surface of the earth are called Eloi. But they do not live alone: Under the earth, approachable by frequently-spaced wells with handholds and footholds for climbing are the pale, apelike Morlocks. In his very British way, the Traveler takes an instant dislike to them and makes no effort to communicate with them. It appears that the Morlocks use the Eloi as protein for their diet.
Eventually, the Traveler returns to the present, where he finds his friends do not believe him. ...more
This is the strangest of autobiographies: In fact, it is like a set of notes for an autobiography, with repetitions, footnotes that are nothing more tThis is the strangest of autobiographies: In fact, it is like a set of notes for an autobiography, with repetitions, footnotes that are nothing more than a reminder to the writer, and crude illustrations of rooms, streets, and scenes that played a part in the early life of Stendhal (Henri Marie Beyle).
And it is only the first twenty or so years in Stendhal's life that are covered, comprising his childhood in Grenoble, his first few months in Paris, and his happiness at joining Napoleon's army in its invasion of Italy.
Why is it called The Life of Henry Brulard when Stendhal's real name is Marie-Henri Beyle? If we learn anything in the first two-thirds of the book, it is that Marie-Henri loathes his father and his aunt Seraphie, who seems to spend most of her time belittling and punishing him. He refuses to call himself Beyle, adopting instead the name Brulard, which belonged to his late, beloved mother. When Seraphie dies and he finally gets to Paris, he is disconsolate because in Paris there are no mountains, as in his native Dauphiné. In fact, until the very end, when Stendhal falls in love with Italy, he is a young man not comfortable in his own skin:
"Is Paris no more than this?"
This meant: the thing I've longed for so much, as the supreme good, the thing to which I've sacrificed my life for the past three years, bores me. It was not the three years' sacrifice that distressed me; in spite of my dread of entering the Ecole Polytechnique next year, I loved mathematics; the terrible question that I was not clever enough to see clearly was this: Where, then, is happiness to be found on earth? And sometimes I got as far as asking: Is there such a thing as happiness on earth?
Although The Life of Henry Brulard lacks the formal excellence of a great literary biography such as we are accustomed to, it is so manifestly truthful and self-critical that, for once, we do not feel that the author is busily embroidering an alternate past for himself.
The whole book was written over a four-month period in the 1830s, when Stendhal was fifty-two. Reading The Life of Henry Brulard is like experiencing a great writer forgiving all the dead ends and defeats of his youth. It is, if anything, a kind of celebration of a wayward youth. Stendhal stops writing abruptly when he feels his life is on the right track. What we get are all the wrong tracks that threatened to overthrow his development.
Fortunately for all of us, Stendhal went on to become a great writer, one who was eventually happy within his own skin. ...more
Anton Chekhov's plays are so dense with the aura of disappointment that it is difficult to summarize them. Here we have a country estate which is runAnton Chekhov's plays are so dense with the aura of disappointment that it is difficult to summarize them. Here we have a country estate which is run by Ivan and Sonia, unmarried brother and sister, for the benefit of their selfish father, the now retired Professor Serebryakov and his young wife. Ivan loves Serebryakov's twentyish wife Yelena; and Sonia, Doctor Astrov, who is in turn also in love with Yelena and thoroughly tired of her aging husband's hypochondria.
Even Astrov realizes that his love for Yelena, in addition to being immoral, is morally suspect:
In a human being everything ought to be beautiful: face, dress, soul, thoughts. She [Yelena] is very beautiful, there's no denying it, but all she does is eat, sleep, go for walks, fascinate us all by her beauty and -- nothing more. Other people work for her. Isn't that so? And an idle life cannot be pure.
Be that as it may, that doesn't stop Astrov, Ivan, and Sonia from feeling trapped by their longings. Why? Because no one's perfect.
As for Yelena herself, she is exasperated not only with her husband, but with the two men who are chasing her and with herself as well. ...more
It has been a long time since I had run any of Anton Chekhov's plays, but after I read his long short story "The Steppe" while on vacation, I wanted tIt has been a long time since I had run any of Anton Chekhov's plays, but after I read his long short story "The Steppe" while on vacation, I wanted to take another look. We are sometimes so cowed by Tolstoyevsky -- as my late mother called him -- that we ignore that there are other Russian writers who are just as great.
The central symbol in The Seagull is, of course, the dead seagull. I can imagine high school teachers making much of this, but I don't think one can assign any cut-and-dried meaning to the dead seagull. In the play, we are confronted with a group of characters who are far from comfortable in their own skin. Nobody seems to be what he or she wants to become. And when, in the course of the play, they do manage to become what they wanted, they become dissatisfied and drawn back to the scene where we originally met them.
The seagull is a bird usually found by the ocean, but the play takes place by an inland lake. The men and women meeting at Sorin's country estate would love to soar, but in their own ways, all are shot down like the seagull. In the end, the seagull has been stuffed by a taxidermist and has become a ridiculous reminder of crushed aspirations.
A wonderful play, with a keen appreciation of the ways people become dissatisfied with their lives and one another....more
This review is only for one of the novelettes in this collection, entitled Sylvie by Gérard de Nerval.
The narrator is a feckless young man who fallsThis review is only for one of the novelettes in this collection, entitled Sylvie by Gérard de Nerval.
The narrator is a feckless young man who falls in love easily but cannot ever "close the deal." In this story, he goes to the haunts of his youth in Valois, where he takes up with the beautiful Sylvie, who, alas, is pledged to another. Still, he returns to see her married to the local pastry cook, with small children running around. He muses, "This way lay happiness, perhaps, and yet...." Never have ellipsis marks been so sad.
The atmosphere of Sylvie is dreamlike. Nerval's writing is always beautiful in a hortatory way:
Such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us in the morning of life. I have tried to set them down without much order, but many hearts will understand me. Illusions fall away one after another like the husks of a fruit, and that fruit is experience. It is bitter to the taste, but there is fortitude to be found in gall -- forgive me my old-fashioned turns of phrase. Rousseau said the spectacle of nature provides consolation for everything.
Rousseau, who was originally buried at nearby Ermenonville (before his remains were spirited away to the Pantheon in Paris), acts as the local deity of the place, the scene of the narrator's attempts at love.
This is a beautiful little work. It encourages me to read more by Nerval. ...more
On a day in May of 1863, Private Henry Fleming went on walkabout from his regiment, the 304th New York Infantry, on the battlefield of ChancellorsvillOn a day in May of 1863, Private Henry Fleming went on walkabout from his regiment, the 304th New York Infantry, on the battlefield of Chancellorsville. Except we don't really know all that. We are not told of "Fighting Joe" Hooker, of all his eclat and bluster, and of his ultimate failure upon being flanked by the Confederates. All we know if the war being waged in the mind and heart of one New York private, a farm boy who says "yeh" instead of "you," and who fancies himself a hero but who has not quite yet come to terms with with raging red beast that is war.
Henry does not actually run from battle: He wanders from battle, eventually meeting up with one of his comrades, Bill Conklin, the "Tall Man," who dies in his presence. Then he wanders back to his regiment (with some help), and takes up his musket again.
In the meantime, a change has taken place in the New York private:
With the conviction came a store of assurance. He felt a quiet manhood, non-assertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man
In the end, we seem him carrying his unit's colors into battle and even stealing the colors of the Rebel unit he is fighting.
This book, Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War foreshadows -- and even beats to hell -- Ernest Hemingway ... and Hemingway knew it! Who knows what Crane would have done had he not died so young of tuberculosis? As it is, he has left behind a body of work that will never be forgoten -- even if it takes a while for some people to realize this.
This particular edition is highly recommended because of the excellent introduction by Civil War Historian Shelby Foote. ...more
I first read this book many years ago and remember liking it somewhat. This time, I read it on a long flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Los Angeles aI first read this book many years ago and remember liking it somewhat. This time, I read it on a long flight from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Los Angeles and loved it. Joseph Conrad is one of your better Eye-of-God writers, and in An Outcast of the Islands, he rises to his subject of colonialism in 19th century Indonesia.
Peter Willems is a clerk in a Macassar mercantile firm who is cashiered for "borrowing" money without permission from Hudig & Company. As he haunts the docks, wondering whether to put an end to his miserable existence, he runs across Providence in the form of Captain Tom Lingard, a successful sea captain and trader who takes him in hand for the second time in his life. Lingard is the subject of a Conrad trilogy, consisting of this novel, Almayer's Folly, and The Rescue. As Conrad describes him:
The sea, perhaps because of its saltness, roughens the outside but keeps sweet the kernel of its servants' soul. The old sea; the sea of many years ago, whose servants were devoted slaves and went from youth to age or to a sudden grave without needing to open the book of life, because they could look at eternity reflected on the element that gave the life and dealt the death. Like a beautiful and unscrupulous woman, the sea of the past was glorious in its smiles, irresistible in its anger, capricious, enticing, illogical, irresponsible; a thing to love, a thing to fear. It cast a spell, it gave joy, it lulled gently into boundless faith; then with quick and causeless anger it killed. But its cruelty was redeemed by the charm of its inscrutable mystery, by the immensity of its promise, by the supreme witchery of its possible favour. Strong men with childlike hearts were faithful to it, were content to live by its grace—to die by its will. That was the sea before the time when the French mind set the Egyptian muscle in motion and produced a dismal but profitable ditch. Then a great pall of smoke sent out by countless steam-boats was spread over the restless mirror of the Infinite. The hand of the engineer tore down the veil of the terrible beauty in order that greedy and faithless landlubbers might pocket dividends. The mystery was destroyed. Like all mysteries, it lived only in the hearts of its worshippers. The hearts changed; the men changed. The once loving and devoted servants went out armed with fire and iron, and conquering the fear of their own hearts became a calculating crowd of cold and exacting masters. The sea of the past was an incomparably beautiful mistress, with inscrutable face, with cruel and promising eyes. The sea of to-day is a used-up drudge, wrinkled and defaced by the churned-up wakes of brutal propellers, robbed of the enslaving charm of its vastness, stripped of its beauty, of its mystery and of its promise.
Tom Lingard was a master, a lover, a servant of the sea. The sea took him young, fashioned him body and soul; gave him his fierce aspect, his loud voice, his fearless eyes, his stupidly guileless heart. Generously it gave him his absurd faith in himself, his universal love of creation, his wide indulgence, his contemptuous severity, his straightforward simplicity of motive and honesty of aim. Having made him what he was, womanlike, the sea served him humbly and let him bask unharmed in the sunshine of its terribly uncertain favour. Tom Lingard grew rich on the sea and by the sea. He loved it with the ardent affection of a lover, he made light of it with the assurance of perfect mastery, he feared it with the wise fear of a brave man, and he took liberties with it as a spoiled child might do with a paternal and good-natured ogre. He was grateful to it, with the gratitude of an honest heart. His greatest pride lay in his profound conviction of its faithfulness—in the deep sense of his unerring knowledge of its treachery.
Lingard sets Willems up in his own secret trading post, to which only he knows how to sail across the dangerous sand bars. His agent there, Caspar Almayer, does not think much of Willems; and, soon, they fall out after Lingard leaves them to sail to other ports.
Ultimately, Willems betrays Lingard by showing one of his Arab competitors how to navigate into the port. He has fallen in love with the daughter of a blind sheik, and gives up everything for her. There is a moment of self-awareness as he faces his ruin as a human being:
He was cowed. He was cowed by the immense cataclysm of his disaster. Like most men, he had carried solemnly within his breast the whole universe, and the approaching end of all things in the destruction of his own personality filled him with paralyzing awe. Everything was toppling over. He blinked his eyes quickly, and it seemed to him that the very sunshine of the morning disclosed in its brightness a suggestion of some hidden and sinister meaning. In his unreasoning fear he tried to hide within himself. He drew his feet up, his head sank between his shoulders, his arms hugged his sides. Under the high and enormous tree soaring superbly out of the mist in a vigorous spread of lofty boughs, with a restless and eager flutter of its innumerable leaves in the clear sunshine, he remained motionless, huddled up on his seat: terrified and still.
Years ago, I read Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and found myself not liking it very much. When I heard how Tales of Belkin influenced DostoyYears ago, I read Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and found myself not liking it very much. When I heard how Tales of Belkin influenced Dostoyevsky according to Joseph Frank's biography of the latter, I decided to give it a try. It has been so many years since my first exposure to Pushkin, and I have changed so much in the meantime, that I expected the result this time would be different. It was. The five tales of Belkin were brief, to the point, and composed with a lightness that I found delightful. Curiously, the story I liked best was the only sad one in the lot, "The Postmaster," which I found to be remarkably similar to Dostoyevsky's Poor Folk in tone.
Now I think I am ready to read Eugene Onegin and some of the author's other prose works. ...more
The South Seas are not at all the paradise it is cut out to be, and Robert Louis Stevenson, to his benefit, realized this. The Beach of Falesa beginsThe South Seas are not at all the paradise it is cut out to be, and Robert Louis Stevenson, to his benefit, realized this. The Beach of Falesa begins on a high note, with the trader Wiltshire arriving at Falesa and getting a good reception. In fact, he is offered a beautiful women to marry the first night he is on shore, the lovely Uma.
That's when the real story begins. Wiltshire and Uma are a good match for each other, but the white man who introduced them, one Case, is actually trying to lay a taboo on him because Uma comes from a suspect family. This seriously affects the way the natives behave toward him from that point on. What is more serious, no one is selling copra to Wiltshire -- but they are selling it to case.
Instead of a paradisaic romp under the palms, what we have is a confrontation with a very superstitious culture that could be (and is) easily manipulated by an unscrupulous person. Case goes so far as to build a "devil temple" called Tiavolo out in the brush, where he takes groups of natives to overawe them as to his power among the world of devils.
This is what Wiltshire must overcome, and he does a fair job of it. This is not one of RLS's classic short works like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and its author knows it -- but it is by far the best work of fiction I have ever read, including Conrad, on the tribal culture of the Pacific Islands.
The young Fyodor Dostoevsky was a talented writer even before his work became deeper and more profound as in the great novels that followed. Poor FolkThe young Fyodor Dostoevsky was a talented writer even before his work became deeper and more profound as in the great novels that followed. Poor Folk was by far the better of the two books, being a naturalistic study of urban poverty reminiscent in its small way of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. It is written primarily as an epistolary novel with a few pages of the journal of Barbara Dobroselov while a young girl. Her correspondent is a much older man, Makar Devushkin, a copyist in the lowest grades of the civil service. The two end of emotionally lacerating each other even as they try to help each other, despite the scorn of the neighbors, who make fun of both of them.
The same sense of embarrassment can be found in A Little Hero, which is a tale of purely social embarrassment. A large group of people attend a get-together in the countryside. The eponymous "little hero" is only a young boy, but he develops a passion for a married woman, a Mrs M----. This is noticed by many of the other guests, who ridicule him and call him a crybaby.
When Poor People was first published in 1846, it was immediately recognized by the prominent critic Visarion Belinsky as a great book and became instantly famous. It is still well worth reading today, if for no other reason than to follow the path Dostoevski took to writing his great novels like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov....more
Although it is much less popular today and is now confined more to genre fiction, melodrama is still a major literary form today. George Sand (real naAlthough it is much less popular today and is now confined more to genre fiction, melodrama is still a major literary form today. George Sand (real name: Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin) was not only one of the great writers of the nineteenth century but perhaps one of the high water marks of melodrama.
Mauprat tells the tale of Bernard Mauprat, a scion of a family of French brigands, called the "hamstringer Mauprats," who saves and falls in love with his second cousin Edmée, who comes from a more respectable branch of the family. Alas, Edmée leads him a merry chase over a period of years -- to such an extent that most 21st century readers would merely dismiss her as a tease. She defends herself eloquently in this in a trial:
Many women think it is no great crime to show a little coquetry with the man they love. Perhaps we have a right to this when we have sacrificed all other men to him. After all, it is a very natural and very innocent ambition to make the man of one's choice feel that one is a soul of some price, that one is worth wooing, and worth a long effort.
If it were not for the fact that Sand has created more than a dozen interesting minor characters (most notably Patience, Marcasse, Mme LeBlanc, the monk John Nepomucene, and the American Arthur among them), I would probably have given up finishing the book. But Sand kept me coming back for more, and I admired her skill in this literary genre which is admittedly not my favorite.
As Bernard exclaims in the closing pages of the book, "Oh, woman, woman! ... Thou art a mystery, an abyss, and he who thinks to know thee is totally mad." ...more
Many of the great 19th century American historians -- such as Francis Parkman, John Lothrop Motley, and William H. Prescott -- are good enough to be cMany of the great 19th century American historians -- such as Francis Parkman, John Lothrop Motley, and William H. Prescott -- are good enough to be considered as literature. This, the last volume of Parkman's six-volume history of the French in North America, is probably the best of all. It covers the French and Indian War from the point of view of the French, the American colonies, the British, the Indians, and the Acadians (who were French but not integrated with the Quebecois). The title is a bit of a misnomer, as the book is about far more than Montcalm and Wolfe, with intriguing pictures of such participants as George Washington, Robert Rogers of Rogers' Rangers, the Acadian conspirator-priest La Louttre, and the corrupt politicians surrounding the governor's office in Quebec. ...more
I hadn't read this classic since my teens. After finishing a particularly long history of the Russian Revolution, I decided to revisit this work, whicI hadn't read this classic since my teens. After finishing a particularly long history of the Russian Revolution, I decided to revisit this work, which I remember loving. Looking at it now with an adult perspective, I found some of the scenes in the middle -- during the standoff between Long John Silver's pirates and the good guys led by Captain Smollett, Doctor Livesey, and Squire Trelawney -- were a bit muddled. That is especially so when, during three chapters, the narrator is no longer Jim Hawkins, but the Squire.
Still, there are moments, particularly around the beginning and end, that I felt my blood rush as of old in this tale of buried treasure.
There needs to be a new verb tense created for the work of Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin -- something that indicates that something has happened, happens agThere needs to be a new verb tense created for the work of Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin -- something that indicates that something has happened, happens again, and is likely to happen forever in that vastness of Russian village life. The Well of Days is an autobiographical novel, part one of two of The Life of Arseniev. (The second novel, which seems hard to find, is called Lika and takes up with Aleksey Arseniev's love life.)
Bunin's style has been described as resembling a rich brocade. White Russian in his sympathies, he lived the latter part of his life in exile, dying only in 1953, the year of Stalin's demise. I would imagine that his hatred of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath made him view his past life in ever more glowing terms:
I went back, frequently pausing and turning round. The wind seemed to blow still stronger and colder, but the sun was rising, shining, the day bgrew gayer, claimed for life, for joy, and over everything -- over the town, over the deserted Woodenware Place, over the sacred, silent domain of the monastery with its high wall, churchyard grove, and golden cathedral cupolas, and over that boundless steppe across which, away, towards the pellucid green northern horizon, the road ran -- there sailed, in the pale-blue, watery, bright autumnal sky, large and purplish clouds, and everything was bright and motley, and over everything, light and picturesque, now and again alternating with the sun, ran airy opaque shadows. I would stand still, gaze, and go further ... Where had I not been on that day!
I could read that stuff forever. It's a pity that Bunin is not much read any more: This novel and the various short stories I have read are quite beautiful. It is not for nothing that he was the first Russian recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
That must have cheesed Stalin off to no end!...more
The first novel by W. H. Hudson, The Purple Land is a fictionalization of his experiences in Uruguay, then referred to simply as the Banda Oriental, oThe first novel by W. H. Hudson, The Purple Land is a fictionalization of his experiences in Uruguay, then referred to simply as the Banda Oriental, or the Eastern Sector. It tells the story of a young married man who is forced by circumstances to leave home to work on a distant estancia. There he quickly gets into trouble and moves on, slowly making his way back to the capital, Montevideo. Along the way, he is involved in a number of adventures with women who fall in love with him (he does not appear to be wearing his wedding band), various lowlifes we try to get the best of him, a revolution that fails, and some good people who try to help him out.
Like his Tales of the Pampas, The Purple Land shows its author's attachment to the lands of his upbringing and his closeness to nature. Whether or not you intend to visit Uruguay, as I did, it is well worth reading this book set long ago and far away. ...more
I had read other books by Theophile Gautier, but nothing prepared me for this superb collection of fantasy-horror stories entitled My Fantoms, translaI had read other books by Theophile Gautier, but nothing prepared me for this superb collection of fantasy-horror stories entitled My Fantoms, translated by the biographer Richard Holmes. To the extent that it was Holmes's contribution that made the difference, I think I'd like to see him do more translations.
The only thing that threw me for a loop was that Holmes changed the titles of the seven stories from, in some cases, their much better known original titles. It is not until the Bibliographical Note at the very end of My Fantoms that Holmes gives us the original titles. For the sake of reference, here they are:
"The Adolescent" = "Omphale, Histoire Rococo" "The Priest" originally "La Morte amoureuse" "The Painter" originally "Onuphrius Wphly, ou Les Vexations fantastiques d'un admirateur d'Hoffman" "The Opium-Smoker" originally "La Pipe d'opium" "The Actor" originally "Deux Acteurs pour un rôle" "The Tourist" originally "Arria Marcella: Souvenir de Pompéi" "The Poet" originally "Gérard de Nerval"
The last story does not resemble a story at all: Rather, it seems more like a commemorative essay on Gautier's dear departed best friend, Gérard de Nerval, who had hanged himself from a lamppost some years before. Then, as one reads on, the tribute is full of details that Gautier could not possibly have known and which strain the reader's credibility.
By far the best stories are "The Priest" and "The Tourist." It is in the latter story, in which the ruins of Pompeii come back to life just so that the hero, Octavian, could live a love affair with one of the victims of Mount Vesuvius some 1,800 years before. It is in that story that Gautier's most famous quote can be found:
Nothing, in fact, actually dies: everything goes on existing always. No power on earth can obliterate that which has once had being. Every act, every word, every form, every thought, falls into the universal ocean of things, and produces a circle on its surface that goes on enlarging beyond the furthest bounds of eternity.
If you ever find yourself reading the journals of the Goncourt brothers, who knew Gautier well, you would find in him a somewhat bizarre but appealing figure -- one that I hope to know better after reading more of his work. ...more
I picked this out as my Halloween reading and was disappointed to find that, with possibly two exceptions ("The Dream-Woman" and "Mad Monkton"), theseI picked this out as my Halloween reading and was disappointed to find that, with possibly two exceptions ("The Dream-Woman" and "Mad Monkton"), these were not, after all, tales of terror and the supernatural. They were merely well-crafted stories displaying Wilkie Collins's considerable talents at devising a strange but satisfying plot. I have loved the author's The Woman in White and Armadale, though I do not feel the same way about his more famous The Moonstone.
If you want tales of terror and the supernatural, I would advise you to look elsewhere. But if you are interested in odd plot twists, I urge you to read "Mr. Lepel and the Housekeeper" and "Mr. Policeman and the Cook." "A Stolen Letter," "A Terribly Strange Bed," and "Blow Up with the Brig!" might well have been crafted by Edgar Allan Poe as samples of his Tales of Ratiocination. The last tale, "The Biter Bit," has a wry ironical humor that left me smiling.
It's a pity that people don't read short stories much any more. Dover Publications has some excellent collections that worth dipping into. Since I have not yet indulged my Halloween mood, I'll just have to reach for another Victorian or Edwardian horror story collection on the shelf adjacent to my fiercely uncomfy chair in which I do most of my reading....more
This 1891 novelette by Henry James tells of an ocean voyage on a ship called The Patagonia, sailing from Boston to Liverpool. The unnamed narrator isThis 1891 novelette by Henry James tells of an ocean voyage on a ship called The Patagonia, sailing from Boston to Liverpool. The unnamed narrator is friends with a Mrs. Nettlepoint, a woman of good family with a son names Jason. Accompanying them -- somewhat unexpectedly -- is a young woman named Grace Mavis, who is to marry a childhood friend whom she has not seen for ten years. During the cruise, it appears that Miss Mavis is spending an inordinate amount of time with Jason Nettlepoint, who is some years younger than she is. The usual shipboard gossip has decided that Grace and Jason are an "item," and that the woman's intended would likely be thrown over.
There is something of a surprise ending which abashes the characters circling around Grace Mavis worrying about the proprieties.
The Patagonia can be read in a single sitting and is not a bad story to begin an acquaintance with the psychological depths of James's oeuvre. ...more
Written in 1863, near the beginning of his career, Rachel Ray is one of Anthony Trollope's sweetest, tightest, and most charming novels. The eponymousWritten in 1863, near the beginning of his career, Rachel Ray is one of Anthony Trollope's sweetest, tightest, and most charming novels. The eponymous young lady is the daughter of one widow and sister of another. She falls for a handsome young man named Luke Rowan, who is the partner in a local brewery run by Mr. Thomas Tappitt, who has three young daughters to marry off. When Luke falls hard for Rachel, the Tappitt family becomes his enemy -- especially after he impugned the quality of their beer and how he could improve it.
Another enemy of the relationship is the local evangelical contingent, headed by the Rev. Mr. Prong and Rachel's sister Dorothea Prime -- two of the most unlovable characters Trollope has ever created.
On the other side is Mrs. Butler Cornbury, the well-wishing daughter of the Rays' pastor, the Rev. Charles Comfort, and the Rays' farmer neighbors, the Sturts.
In the conflict between these forces, and the wavering of Rachel's mother, it becomes evident that ... but I don't want to spoil the gratifying and well configured conclusion.
If you are not familiar with Trollope's works, I think that Rachel Ray would be a good place to start. Over the last six years participating in a group read of his novels, I would have to say that the overwhelming majority of them are superb; and only one or two can be classified as legitimate stinkers. That's not bad considering the man wrote forty-seven novels. ...more
It is interesting to think that Alexandre Dumas Père's The Three Musketeers was written around the same time as Théophile Gautier's Captain Fracasse,It is interesting to think that Alexandre Dumas Père's The Three Musketeers was written around the same time as Théophile Gautier's Captain Fracasse, although the latter was not published until almost thirty years later. Both have as their hero an impoverished Gascon nobleman of good family. Dumas's D'Artagnan goes directly into the King's Musketeers, whereas the Baron de Sigognac joins a troupe of traveling players and adopts the stage name of Captain Fracasse.
Fracasse is nothing more or less than pure swashbuckling wish fulfillment. Sigognac/Fracasse falls in love with the lovely ingénue of the troupe, Isabelle. All seems to be going well until Isabelle attracts the attention of the unprincipled young rake, the Duc de Vallombreuse, who attempts to kidnap her. Here we see Signognac come into his own and show himself to be the best swordsman in all of France.
I don't want to give away the plot, because it is a dandy -- however improbable it may be. Gautier has given us as many memorable characters as Dumas has with his Musketeers, especially the actors. Mention must also be made of the rogues, including the highwayman Agostino, his little girl aide Chiquita, the quixotic Jacquemin Lampourde and his associate Malartic.
It is difficult for me to say which of the two swashbucklers is better. Both are equally improbable, and both are written to delight young hearts and minds. As I raced to the predictably happy ending, I felt like a boy of twelve again. This book, which is readily available free or at a nominal cost for e-readers, is highly recommended to readers who are young at heart. ...more
On a whim, I picked Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) off my shelf because (1) tax season was becoming onerous and (2) I was consequentlOn a whim, I picked Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) off my shelf because (1) tax season was becoming onerous and (2) I was consequently in the mood for humor. Its author, Jerome K. Jerome, has written other works, but none of them achieved the popularity of this one. Ostensibly, it is a recounting of a boating trip taken by Jerome and two of his friends and his dog Montmorency up the Thames to Oxford and back.
Along the way, Jerome intersperses interesting historical anecdotes going back to the Roman occupation and the Middle Ages along with what could only be called shaggy dog stories. One of the best of them is about a gigantic trout on display in a glass case in a pub at Streatley. Every person they talk to claims to have caught the fish -- supplying exhaustive details of the struggle to land it. Finally, one of the party, George, accidentally falls into the case and shatters the fish, which, as it turns out, broke into a thousand pieces because it was made of Plaster of Paris.
Perhaps the strangest scene, near Reading, is when the boaters come across the floating body of a woman who had drowned herself because, having brought a child into the world without being married, she was turned out by all her friends and relatives. This incident does not destroy the book, but it is a strange scene to be juxtaposed amid so much self-deprecating humor.
All in all, I think Three Men in a Boat reminds me of Robert Benchley's comedy shorts from the 1940s in that both Benchley and Jerome act on the principle that, if anything can go wrong, it will. ...more
**spoiler alert** The work of Honoré de Balzac is chock full of surprises. Picture to yourself a novel set in a grim little town in Brittany among a g**spoiler alert** The work of Honoré de Balzac is chock full of surprises. Picture to yourself a novel set in a grim little town in Brittany among a group of encrusted local nobility, the du Guenics and their friends. The son, Calyste, becomes interested in an artsy woman twice his age by the name of Felicité Des Touches who has moved into the area. Although Balzac mentions George Sand by name, Mlle Des Touches -- who calls herself Camille Maupin and smokes cigars -- is herself a novelist of note and very like George Sand.
When the Marquise Beatrix de Rochefide comes to visit Mlle Des Touches, Calyste then falls in love with her -- hard. But Beatrix is even then in a relationship with the Italian musician Gaetano Conti, and separated from her husband the Marquis Arthur de Rochefide (who has found consolation in the arms of a Mlle Aurelie Schontz). Beatrix returns to Paris, and Calyste is disconsolate. So disconsolate that he allows himself to be married to the young daughter of the Duchesse de Grandlieu, by the name of Sabine.
As one could expect, Calyste runs into Beatrix at the theater and falls in love with her anew -- and this time she is available.
Originally, Balzac ended his novel here, but he returned to it later, added several more chapters and in the process made it much better. Sabine is distraught and tearful when she finds out that Calyste has hooked up with Beatrix.
But then Mama, the Duchesse, steps in and brings in some heavy guns to bear. With the help of a connection, the Marquis d'Ajuda-Pinto, who contacts his friend Count Maxime de Trailles, a plot is set in motion. If Mlle Schontz could be persuaded to dump the old Marquis, and Beatrix could be induced to dump Calyste, then the Marquis and his estranged wife Beatrix could be reunited, if not in love or lust -- at least in respectability.
Balzac employs a deft touch here and the plot comes off perfectly.
This is not one of Balzac's better-known novels, but it deserves to be; and it also deserves to be translated into the modern idiom. The Victorian ladies and gentlemen who produced the translations at Gutenberg.Org were at the very least competent, and at best even inspired, but I feel that no one will read Beatrix if they have to wade through their at times arcane prose.
**spoiler alert** Don't read this book if you are in the mood for something light and airy. As one of the characters says toward the end of Pierre and**spoiler alert** Don't read this book if you are in the mood for something light and airy. As one of the characters says toward the end of Pierre and Jean, "How ugly life is! If for once you find a little sweetness in it you are wicked to enjoy it and pay very heavily for it later."
It certainly didn't begin that way. We have an idyllic little family with two grown-up sons, one a lawyer and the other a doctor, and you end up with a divided family being torn by centrifugal forces. It is like Chaucer's definition of tragedy as "a dite of a prosperite for a time, that endeth in wrecchidnesse."
Oddly, it all starts with an unexpected inheritance from a former friend of the family who gives the younger son, Jean, 25,000 francs -- and completely ignores the other son. The suspicion begins to grow in the brother, Pierre, that possibly Jean was not the son of Gerome Roland, his own father, but of the deceased friend of the family.
The poison of envy begins gnawing at Pierre's vitals until it begins to rot his relationship with family and friends. When he finally confronts Jean with his suspicions, their mother overhears their conversation in the next room and becomes almost catatonic with shame -- because it was, in fact, the truth.
What remains is for the family to go their separate ways. Pierre becomes the ship doctor for a new Transatlantic liner plying the sea between Le Havre and New York. Although he is about to be married, Jean is at first miserable to hear of his parentage leading to a crisis between the brothers and the mother -- with the father remaining in blissful ignorance.
In the book's last scene, Pierre's ship vanishes in the distance:
As they were about to leave the quay and go along the boulevard Francois I, his [Gerome's] wife turned back once again to take one last look at the open sea, but she could see nothing but a wisp of grey smoke, so distant, so faint that it looked like a light mist.
As with everything of de Maupassant's that I have read, I wonder why I don't read more. Perhaps French realism and naturalism is ultimately self-limiting. Reading a number of Zola's and Flaubert's novels in rapid succession, for example, takes an almost impossible emotional equilibrium to take in so many desperately unhappy tales.
And yet, Flaubert, Zola, the Goncourt brothers, and de Maupassant are unquestionably great writers.
Apparently, what I've been reading on my Kindle is only Volume 1 of 2. I am not a big fan of early gothic and may or may not search out Volume 2, whicApparently, what I've been reading on my Kindle is only Volume 1 of 2. I am not a big fan of early gothic and may or may not search out Volume 2, which looks to be difficult to find outside of a major university library. I have been told that Hoffmann's shorter works are better than The Devil's Elixir[s]. I certainly hope so....more
Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly has written a strange, but beautifully composed set of decadent short stories. The unifying theme is a set of heroines who arJules Barbey d'Aurevilly has written a strange, but beautifully composed set of decadent short stories. The unifying theme is a set of heroines who are intent on vengeance, crime, or violence. In most of the six stories, there is a framing story, usually involving aging roués recalling their youths over coffee, brandy, and cigars. Typical are the old soldiers in "At a Dinner of Atheists," in which the conversation turns to women:
All took part in this abuse of women, even the oldest, the toughest, and those most disgusted with females, as they cynically called women -- for a man may give up sex love but he will retain his self-love in talking about women; and though on the edge of the grave, men are always ready to root with their snouts in the garbage of self-conceit.
Even when the company is mixed, as in "The Crimson Curtain," the ambiance is masculine, upper-class, and deeply cynical.
Although Les Diaboliques is about women, I do not think women would like it, as the viewpoint is so exclusively masculine. Still, I liked it enough to consider seeking out other of his works which may have been rendered into English....more
For the last week, I have been immersed in this unexpectedly great history. For some strange reason, I have confused this book with Guimaraes's The DeFor the last week, I have been immersed in this unexpectedly great history. For some strange reason, I have confused this book with Guimaraes's The Devil to Pay in the Backlands; and I have always assumed that the Brazilian film O Cangaceiro by Lima Barreto was based on Rebellion in the Backlands. I was wrong on both counts, but it doesn't matter. That's because, in the end, I regard da Cunha's book on the level of Herodotus, Thucydides and Gibbon as one of the greatest of all works of history.
Picture to yourself an isolated and desolate part of Northeastern Brazil which was populated by the followers of a heretical religious leader called Antonio Conselheiro, or "Anthony the Counselor." His followers were mostly mestizo jagunços, backwoodsmen who were uniquely acquainted with this arid region of broken down mountain ranges. They built a capital of some 5,200 dwellings at a place called Canudos.
Based on misconceptions of what Antonio's followers were up to, the newly formed Republic of Brazil send three military expeditions, all of whom were shot to pieces by hidden sharpshooters. Rarely did the Brazilian soldiers ever see their enemy, but they felt their bullets. From these failed expeditions, the jagunços were able to replace their blunderbusses with the latest in military technology, along with several hundred thousand rounds of unused ammunition.
Into this strange situation marched a fourth expedition in April 1897. This expedition was likewise being mowed down until the Brazilians were lucky enough in mid-course to choose Carlos Machado de Bittencourt as the commander. Bittencourt did what none of the other generals did: He set up strong bases of supply and got men, supplies, and food and water to the besieged expedition, who were within sight of Canudos but unable to proceed further.
What makes this a unique book is that Euclides da Cunha was not only present at the scene, but he was sympathetic to the enemy:
What did it matter that they [the Brazilians:] had six thousand rifles and six thousand sabers; of what avail were the blows from twelve thousand arms, the tread of twelve thousand military boots, their six thousand revolvers and twenty cannon, their thousands upon thousands of grenades and shrapnel shells; of what avail were the executions and the conflagrations, the hunger and the thirst which they had inflicted upon the enemy; what had they achieved by ten months of fighting and one hundred days of incessant cannonading; of what profit to them these heaps of ruins, that picture no pen could portray of the demolished churches, or, finally, that clutter of broken images, fallen altars, shattered saints -- and all this beneath a bright and tranquil sky which seemingly was quite unconcerned with it all, as they pursued their flaming ideal of absolutely extinguishing a form of religious belief that was deeply rooted and which brought consolation to their fellow-beings?
This is a book that should be beside the cot of every NATO general officer in Afghanistan.
There is an ironic postscript. Years after the massacre in Canudos -- for there was no general surrender: the jagunços fought to the last man. Various sermons of Antonio Conselheiro were found and it has been determined that he was a legitimate religious leader and that both the Catholic Church and the Brazilian government attacked without legitimate cause....more