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
I first read this book more than twenty years ago. It made an impression on me then, and still makes an impression on me -- in exactly the same way. LI first read this book more than twenty years ago. It made an impression on me then, and still makes an impression on me -- in exactly the same way. La Bete Humaine is a strange work in that most of the main characters commit murder, are murder victims, or at the very least contemplate committing murder. All the characters are connected in some way with the railroad that connects Le Havre with Rouen and Paris. There is a certain bestial passion that drives their characters to contemplate and commit crimes, often for rather trivial reasons.
The classic case is Misard, a railroad employee at a remote railroad crossing at La Croix-de-Maufras, who slowly poisons his wife Phasie because she has 1,000 francs which she has hidden on their property and refuses to tell him of the location.
Parallel to these crimes is the French criminal justice system on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War and in the last days of the Emperor Napoleon III. Only two of the murders are prosecuted, and the Le Havre prosecutor, Denizet, is more intent on putting together a "package" that adheres logically and aesthetically than actually ferreting out who did the crimes. Injustice prevails because Denizet gets it wrong, and the politician in Paris who has a better idea of who is guilty decides not to act because it would be politically inappropriate.
Zola makes me think of the sculptor Rodin. Both take their raw material and hack away at it until the resulting object is both beautiful and forceful, like Rodin's famous statue of Balzac, or Zola's La Bete Humaine, Nana. or Germinal....more
As I re-read many of Anthony Trollope's novels, I find myself revising my rating of them upward. It seems that there are few authors I positively enjoAs I re-read many of Anthony Trollope's novels, I find myself revising my rating of them upward. It seems that there are few authors I positively enjoy reading as much as Trollope. There are some, very few, of his works that I do not care for that much; but, for the most part, I find his oeuvre to be remarkably consistent in its appeal and its innate excellence.
In Phineas Finn, we have the story of the eponymous hero, a handsome young Irishman of twenty-three, who comes to make his fortune in England as a member of Parliament. When he obtains the seat at Loughshane due to the influence of his father, he finds himself moving in an illustrious crowd of famous politicians, nobility, and beautiful young women. Although his political luck has been phenomenal, he finds himself relatively poor (M.P.s were not paid for their service unless they managed to hold some position in one of the ministries) and lovelorn.
This book is about handsome Phineas and four women. First, there is Mary Flood Jones of Floodborough in Ireland, a beautiful but humble young woman. Then there is the proud Lady Laura Standish, who turns down Phineas to marry a Scottish millionaire -- though that quickly grows sour. Thereupon, he turns to Lady laura's friend, Violet Effingham, but runs into competition with Violet's childhood friend Lord Chiltern, who also happens to be Lady Laura's beloved brother. Lord Chiltern is so offended by what he sees as Phineas's treachery toward a friend, that they fight a duel at Blankenberg in Belgium -- dueling having been forbidden in Britain -- where Phineas gets a shoulder wound. Finally there is the wealthy, exotic, beautiful, and smart Madame Max Goesler.
Eventually, Phineas makes his choice, though it coincides with having to surrender his Parliamentary seat and his cushy Treasury post because of his belief in Irish reform:
He, like Icarus, had flown up towards the sun, hoping that his wings of wax would bear him steadily aloft among the gods. Seeing that his wings were wings of wax, we must acknowledge that they were very good. But the celestial lights had been too strong for them, and now, having lived for five years with lords and countesses, with Ministers and orators, with beautiful women and men of fashion, he must start again in a little lodging in Dublin, and hope that the attorneys of that litigious city might be good to him. On his journey home he made but one resolution. He would make the change, or attempt to make it, with manly strength.
Phineas Finn is the second of Trollope's six Palliser novels and easily stands among his best work....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.
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.
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
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.
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
Letters from My Windmill is a bit of a misnomer, as letters are not involved. What Daudet gives us, instead, is a series of short sketches mostly setLetters from My Windmill is a bit of a misnomer, as letters are not involved. What Daudet gives us, instead, is a series of short sketches mostly set in Provence around Arles, though there are a couple set in Algeria. Some of the sketches are obviously contemporary, while others are set in the Middle Ages or the 17th century.
It is interesting to see Daudet refer to characters from novels by his contemporaries. One essay addresses Pierre Gringoire, the poet from Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris; another is about Balzac's character Bixiou, who appears in The Bureaucrats and several other novels -- except that Daudet gives us Bixiou in old age, after he has been struck by blindness.
There is a curious similarity between Letters from My Windmill and Ivan Turgenev's Sketches from a Hunter's Album. Both books eschew the urban capitals and rhapsodize about the countryside. While I doubt that either writer copied from the other, it seems that both were inspired by the same sort of love of rural areas, stories, and characters....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
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
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 decided to re-read Henry James's The Turn of the Screw for my annual October reading horror-thon. This time around, I was a little disappointed by tI decided to re-read Henry James's The Turn of the Screw for my annual October reading horror-thon. This time around, I was a little disappointed by the story's ending, but even more impressed by its opening. In the end, it all evened out.
A man narrates the story written down by an unnamed governess who tells of her being hired by a wealthy man who asks her to educate his nephew and niece, with the stipulation that he not be bothered. The governess meets Miles and Flora, who turn out to be almost ideal children -- until something happens that troubles her and astonishes the reader.
Before our governess, there was another governess, a Miss Jessel, who had taken up with one of the grooms, one Peter Quint. Both of them died, but their ghosts appear to exercise control over the children, Quint on Miles, and Miss Jessel on Flora.
When she learns of what is happening, our governess attempts to save the children under her care, with mixed results.
One unusual slip-up for James is that he abandons the framing story when he describes what happens to Miles, and ends the story abruptly.
Still, although it is not his best work, The Turn of the Screw is still one of the best ghost stories ever written....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
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
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
**spoiler alert** This is a superb novel -- and a frequently misunderstood one. The Man in the Iron Mask is only tangentially about the mysterious mas**spoiler alert** This is a superb novel -- and a frequently misunderstood one. The Man in the Iron Mask is only tangentially about the mysterious masked figure. I have read this book so long ago, and in the interval I have seen several filmed version of the story which turned it into a novel of derring-do, as if it were a young man's book, like The Three Musketeers. No, Alexandre Dumas had other fish to fry. He had done adventure. Here, he writes about a most solemn subject: The end of life.
Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan are not young men in any of the sequels to The Three Musketeers. In The Man in the Iron Mask, two of the Musketeers, Aramis and Porthos, commit an act of derring-do: They attempt to replace Louis XIV with his brother, a prisoner in the Bastille. But the whole plot backfires, and Louis undergoes a change of personality, becoming more decisive and powerful, partly thanks to his new Superintendent of Finances, Colbert. With this change, the Musketeers become relics in a time and place that they have ceased to understand.
Attending the double funeral of Athos and his son, the Vicomte de Bragelonne, d'Artagnan begins to muse about his own mortality:
The captain [d'Artagnan] watched the departure of the horses, horsemen, and carriage; then crossing his arms upon his swelling chest, "When will it be my turn to depart?" said he, in an agitated voice, "What is there left for man after youth, after love, after glory, after friendship, after strength, after riches? That rock, under which sleeps Porthos, who possessed all I have named; this moss, under which repose Athos and Raoul [de Bragelonne], who possessed still much more!"
He hesitated a moment with a dull eye; then, drawing himself up, "Forward! still forward!" said he. "When it shall be time, God will tell me, as he has told others."
And yet the book is crammed full of adventures. It is just that entropy has reared its ugly head, and the eternal youth and joy of the Four Musketeers does eventually come to an end. ...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
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
**spoiler alert** Cousin Pons was Honoré de Balzac's last great novel, and certainly his grimmest. Picture to yourself an old bachelor named Sylvain P**spoiler alert** Cousin Pons was Honoré de Balzac's last great novel, and certainly his grimmest. Picture to yourself an old bachelor named Sylvain Pons who, over the years, has collected a fortune in paintings and objects d'art. His sole vice was to eat out with distant relatives, including the Camusota. When the latter break with him over some molehill of which they make into a mountain, Pons takes to his bed and never gets up from it again.
In the meantime, the value of his holdings, totaling as much as a million francs, comes to be known to his concierge and various allies whom she enlists, including a doctor named Poulain and a crooked lawyer named Fraisier, who conspire to get their hands on his collection, even if it means committing felonies to do so.
Pons's only friend is an elderly German musician named Schmucke, who lives with him, and who is dedicated heart and soul to him. To Mme Cibot the concierge and the others, he is just a speed bump on the road to their attaining a fortune.
This novel is like a dark symphony, along the lines of "Night on Bald Mountain" (without that musical piece's hopeful ending), in which palpable evil is incarnate and swirls around the desperately ill Pons and his friend Schmucke. This is not one of those cases where good triumphs in the end: It is, after all, a work by Balzac -- and one of his very best.
I recommend this novel to anyone who is not likely to get depressed reading about the driving of two old men to their deaths. As I got to the last chapters, I knew I could not put the book down without finishing it. The ending is extremely harrowing.
This is the third time I have read Cousin Pons. Few novels hold up as well to repeated readings....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
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.
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 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 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
**spoiler alert** As I re-read many of Trollope's novels, I find myself appreciating them more the second time around, and changing my ratings from fo**spoiler alert** As I re-read many of Trollope's novels, I find myself appreciating them more the second time around, and changing my ratings from four stars to five. Why not? Anyone who could enthrall me -- twice -- over a stretch of 800 pages deserves a high ranking indeed.
Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds is about an almost archetypical bad girl named Lizzie Greystock, who marries the dissipated Lord Florian Eustace. But then Eustace dies before the novel begins, leaving Lizzie a title and -- this is the crux of the story -- a diamond necklace worth 10,000 pounds sterling. Of course, no one witnessed the transfer of what the Eustace family considered to be one of their ancestral heirlooms, and Lizzie insists that Florian gave it to her. We, as the readers, do not know the truth. She also has a Scottish castle and an income of 4,000 pounds sterling.
Lady Eustace sets herself up at Florian's Scottish castle at Portray, and the fun begins. On one hand, the attorney Mr. Camperdown, acting for the Eustace family, wants the diamonds back. On the other, Lizzie is looking for love from her cousin, an attorney who happens to be a cousin and a Member of parliament, Frank Greystock; from a Lord with the unlikely name of George de Bruce Carruthers, whom she imagines to be a corsair faithful to her (he isn't); Lord Fawn, another Member of Parliament who is noted through the author's novels as being excessively timid, but who takes offense that Lizzie is holding on to the diamonds illegally. Eventually she finds someone else, a converted Jewish clergyman from Hungary named Emilius. The proposal scene is beautifully sketched:
She had never been made love to after this fashion before. She knew, or half knew, that the man was a scheming hypocrite, craving her money, and following her in the hour of her troubles, because he might then have the best chance of success. She had no belief whatever in his love; and yet she liked it, and approved his proceedings. She liked lies, thinking them to be more beautiful than truth. To lie readily and cleverly, recklessly and yet successfully, was, according to the lessons which she had learned, a necessity in woman and an added grace in man. There was that wretched Macnulty, who would never lie; and what was the result? She was unfit even for the poor condition of life which she pretended to fill. When poor Macnulty [her companion] had heard that Mr. Emilius was coming to the castle, and had not even mentioned her name, and again, when he had been announced on this very morning, the unfortunate woman had been unable to control her absurd disappointment. "Mr. Emilius," Lizzie said, throwing herself back upon her couch, "you press me very hard."
"I would press you harder still to gain the glory I covet." And he made a motion with his arms as though he had already got her tight within his grasp.
"You take advantage of my illness."
"In attacking a fortress do not the besiegers take all advantages? Dear Lady Eustace, allow me to return to London with the right of protecting your name at this moment, in which the false and the thoughtless are attacking it. You need a defender now."
Early in the novel, Frank Greystock asks for the hand of Lord Fawn's family governess, the poor Lucy Morris, who is sweetness incarnate; but he is roundly attacked for his choice because neither Frank nor Lucy have sufficient funds to see them through life. For most of the novel, Frank gives legal advice to Lizzie, and is actively pursued by her, but eventually tires of her and returns to his first love, Lucy.
While it is possible to read The Eustace Diamonds first, without having attempted Can You Forgive Her? and Phineas Finn, which preceded it in the set of six Palliser novels, I feel the reader would be deprived by not knowing about the Pallisers, the Duke of Omnium, Mme Max Goesler, Lord Chilton, and a handful of other characters who appear across several of the novels. It's a lot of pages (2,400 in the three novels), but they are among the author's best work and well worth the effort. ...more
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
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.
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