**spoiler alert** I have been thinking on how to describe the process of reading this book, and I think it best to indulge in a kind of extended metap...more**spoiler alert** I have been thinking on how to describe the process of reading this book, and I think it best to indulge in a kind of extended metaphor (Mr. Stephenson, I hope, will appreciate the spirit of the undertaking, even if the metaphor itself is a little simplistic.)
Imagine, if you will, that you are pressed against a vast stained glass window, which is illuminated from behind. The space around you is dark, but there is something behind you that keeps you from stepping back to see a greater portion of the window. You can move over the surface of the window in any direction, but you can never see more than what is right in front of you.
Your task is to grasp the meaning of the window.
At first all you can do is study, and marvel at, the colors and textures, the subtle changes in hue and thickness. You linger for a while over your favorites; you touch the ripples in a particularly distorted piece, or move carefully over one that seems excessively thin and fragile. Over time you start to make sense out of small sections—you piece together a figure here, a deliberate striation there—but you still cannot assemble these moments of illumination (hah!) into any kind of larger narrative.
About 600 pages in, you suddenly fit together several sections at once; you start to project outwards from there, sketching in your mind’s eye plausible window-shapes, imagining just how large this damn thing might be.
Around 700 pages in you suddenly come across a sharp curve in the leading, and another, and you realize that your ideas were far too mundane for this work: this is not just any window-form, but a rose window, as vast and complex as any you have seen.
By the end of the book, you sense that there are at least two overarching themes. One is revolutions—not just the political kind, but also the rotations of bodies, their trajectory and orbits and intersecting paths. Another is emptiness—the emptiness behind it all, be it the celestial framework of the universe or the intricate mechanisms of finance and politics as Europe moves through its Age of Reason.
I am dazzled. And jealous. But mostly dazzled. Did I mention that he wrote this beast longhand? That he tried many methods of notetaking, but in the end found it easiest to keep his decade of research “in his head”?
Why, then, only four stars?
Because this is a book where plot and theme are one and the same, and the characters exist to demonstrate the great clockwork he has constructed. Oh they are people to be sure; but they are people who never linger in a moment, never savor a touch or a glance, never lose themselves in a haze of emotion—or if they are teetering on the edge, the curtain falls, the chapter ends, and we are back to calculus. The characters tell us a lot about what they feel, and it is a testament to the fine calibration of the clockwork that how adroitly they delineate their inner states is precisely aligned with their backgrounds, education, and sex. But we never feel it, we only read it.
Did Mr. Stephenson ever weep for his people, as he put them through their paces? Perhaps he felt a pang, regret, but I’m not sure he wept, and a book of this scale should provoke tears. There is a coldness in the prose. I am aware that this was not a sentimental age, but I cannot even feel their injuries, their violent surgeries; I felt more moved by the plight of that poor dog than any of the characters, though many of them also suffer what could be called cruelty.
Also, Eliza reads like she was written by a man. She is a marvelous construct for an erudite Pygmalion to play with, but she did not live for this reader.
In the back matter, Mr. Stephenson describes how he began the project after reading about Newton and Leibniz, and certainly their work and positions are marvelously rendered here. So this was never a project about the human heart, and there is little room for a poignant moment in a book so stuffed with ideas and events and so bustling with people. But now, able to step back a little from the great window, I find myself remembering a blur of descriptions and ideas . . . and yet only three things really stand out: the meticulous tracking of Eliza’s successive penetrations (Pygmalion takes careful notes, to the exclusion of all other displays of love or intimacy), and two bodies. One is the little Shaftoe boy in the beginning, and the other is Tess’s horrific decay at the end. Both float past us with all the other teeming flotsam of this magnificent teeming novel, and I cannot help but think that something was lost in not giving them more weight. Love matters. But perhaps that too is part of the emptiness, of a world ruled by particles instead of God. (less)
**spoiler alert** I have finally finished this monster of a book, foreword, appendices, notes and all. I should say right off the bat that the fourth...more**spoiler alert** I have finally finished this monster of a book, foreword, appendices, notes and all. I should say right off the bat that the fourth star up there is solely for the absolute thoroughness of the editorial work on this: the notes are excellent, the translation readable, the index first-rate.
And I must confess(!) that I came into this with a very heavy bias, as Rousseau is not my favorite person and I was reading this book in part to flesh out a story idea I'd had, one that was a bit heavy-handed in its anti-Rousseau sentiment . . . but I suppose I should give some points to the jerk in that by the end of his Julie I was actually somewhat moved, and my idea became less, uh, virulent in its sentiments (though he still gets his, trust), and I am more than anything else just relieved to have this brick out of my knapsack.
The story of Julie is in fact fairly brief; what makes it long is the amount of personal philosophy Rousseau crams into the letters, along with long, detailed descriptions of the Valais, Geneva, and Paris--there are pages alone devoted to the dress and manners of Paris women. If you haven't read Emile, you can get the gist here, and some of the text as well--paragraphs are lifted wholesale. And you can also learn every nuance of his personal brand of Protestantism, how a nobleman should extricate himself from an ignoble affair, how to produce various flavors of wine from one vineyard, how to train a servant . . . we won't get into the various books the characters quote and advise each other on, because there were so many my head is spinning.
Julie herself deserves a place in the family tree of Mary Sues. While I expected the rapturous descriptions from her lover, as it turns out, everyone loves Julie and Julie loves everyone--but she loves virtue more, hurrah for her. This is a woman who does everything right, who is able to look back on every blow in her life--even, say, the death of her mother--and see it was all for the best. That doing everything right includes sending her lover away for years at sea, nearly killing him, only to bring him back to her house and make him observe at close detail her new life with her husband and children . . . ugh.
And therein lies the rub, for me. I appreciate the romance in this, the idea of a virtuous love, I can understand the emotion such an idea carries. As, apparently, did most of Europe--this book is one of the first runaway bestsellers, perhaps the first bestseller; it made Rousseau capital-F Famous, deluging him in fanmail and proposals, sending readers by the droves to the little Swiss towns he describes.
But like so much of Rousseau's work, it's just implausible, and completely at odds with his own less-than-virtuous life experiences. Julie is beautiful, everyone loves her; her house is not fancy but still perfectly suited to her station; her servants adore her, her otherwise emotionless husband loves her, her cousin loves her, her perfectly-behaved children love her (so much so that her cousin gives Julie her own daughter to raise), and she happily prescribes life choices to everyone around her that they accept like some kind of commandment from a goddess. She is nothing more or less than Rousseau's perfect mouthpiece. This is a woman who is granted thirty pages in which to die, so she can demonstrate just how Rousseau thinks we should go into that good night--even going so far as to school her own Minister on how one should go to God.
For us mere mortals, I'm guessing we're supposed to love her too, and aspire to conduct ourselves like her . . . but quite frankly if her creator couldn't be bothered, why should I? Personally, I would have high-tailed it to England with my foxy and adoring tutor, taken the estate his friend offered us for free, and lived happily ever after. Dear J-J, you can in fact go through life without the mental hairshirts of virtue and class and still be a good person. Trust me.
I had said at the start of this ramble that I was moved at the end, though. And I was. But not by Julie's epic death; I was moved by all the people whose lives she had shaped and were now left with the emotional vacuum of her loss. Her lover who gave up everything for her, who had denied himself any kind of surrogate happiness (or, ahem, release); her cousin who I suspect might have found other words to describe her love were they alive today . . . those were the plights that moved me, and it seems peculiarly apt that for Rousseau it was enough of an end to have these two young adults simply devote their lives towards the raising of Julie's children, full stop, when he never even kept his own.
I cannot speak to the overall accuracy, thoroughness, etc. as this was a new field of research for me. But I had to upgrade to Evernote Premium to get...moreI cannot speak to the overall accuracy, thoroughness, etc. as this was a new field of research for me. But I had to upgrade to Evernote Premium to get all my notes and page scans in, which should tell you something.
2. It's taken me a while to get through it because of real-world-stuff, but it's a credit to Massie's writ...more6 things:
1. GIRL. What a story. What a life.
2. It's taken me a while to get through it because of real-world-stuff, but it's a credit to Massie's writing that all it took was a few paragraphs and you were back in his brisk, energetic tale. This is how I like my history: a well-told narrative, yet without pretending to know everything about the subject. There are points where the narrative lets us know that the record is missing or incomplete.
3. Behind every benevolent autocrat is, apparently, an orchard of ruble-trees?! SHE SPENT SO MUCH MONEY. Where did it all come from? Her allowance as Grand Duchess seemed quite comfortable, yet when you see the amounts available to the Empress, well, you can see why both she and Paul in turn were chafing at the bit. But this was the one thing that I really wanted to see addressed: where did the millions and millions of rubles come from?
3a. It takes a bit of shine off her legacy to know that so much of it was simply bought outright.
4. That anyone could walk up to her in the park and vent is a wonderful thing. I don't think people realize how generally accessible monarchs were. You could strap on a sword and hang out in Versailles. You could take your dog for a walk and chat with Catherine. The world seems like it was much smaller then.
5. This book reinforced my image of Diderot as a smart, kindly, well-read, energetic ass.
6. I think the office of "favorite" deserves a great deal of modern study. Perhaps in a series of, ahem, personal experiments? Seriously though, I am now in the market for some kind of comparative examination of male and female concubinage. Any recommendations welcome.(less)
I have not had this much pleasure out of a book in a long time.
While really the title should be Mostly Upper-Class, Mostly British Women in the Eighte...moreI have not had this much pleasure out of a book in a long time.
While really the title should be Mostly Upper-Class, Mostly British Women in the Eighteenth Century, within those borders lies a whole wealth of weirdness. There are some choice pieces in here; I've got quotes from it scribbled everywhere. For those who, like me, had a rather perfunctory intro to Women's Studies--a quick stop at Wollstonecraft and straight on to the late 19th century--this book is excellent at showing that she was just one of many, many voices in her time, clamoring from all sides and with a whole range of ideas as to what it meant to be a woman.
There are some WTF pieces in here; there are some yes! fist pump! pieces in here, and there are some that truly break your heart, as you watch the author in question wrestle deeply with the inherent contradictions between what she has been told her role should be (and which she wants to keep, at least in part) and her desire to learn, to be treated as an equal, to be taken seriously.
All of which I read slowly and with pleasure and with a lot of "no freakin' WAY" at some of the most idiotic stances against the ladies (who knew the study of botany was so very corrupting?), or this choice bit of Fordyce (Austen fans will know Fordyce's Sermons, as they are what Mr. Collins helpfully regales his cousins with in Pride and Prejudice):
"What shall we say of certain books, which we are assured (for we have not read them) are in their nature so shameful, in their tendency so pestiferous, and contain such rank treason against the royalty of Virtue, that she who can bear to peruse them must in her soul be a prostitute, let her reputation in life be what it will."
But here's the rub: I read all this . . . and then I read that Elizabeth Wurtzel essay that just came out, in which she states that, "I believe women who are supported by men are prostitutes, that is that," and I thought to myself, three centuries gone now? For ****'s sake.
We are overdue to put some things to bed, no pun intended. We are overdue to call some questions done, to stop entertaining those who would drag the dialogue back to old ground. Because the thing about this book is, it shouldn't have been this pleasurable. It shouldn't have been so amusing. Because this kind of enjoyment is founded on familiarity, and we're three centuries gone now; this should have been bewildering in its strangeness, not reminding me of people I read and know. (less)
Casanova was a much, much better plotter than Rousseau was.
... Though really, my cat is a better plotter than Rousseau was.
And now, an addendum:
The co...moreCasanova was a much, much better plotter than Rousseau was.
... Though really, my cat is a better plotter than Rousseau was.
And now, an addendum:
The comparison to Rousseau, and how light this narrative was when placed alongside JJR, was the first thought that sprang to mind. And they are similar projects, especially in these earlier years, though Casanova moves us ahead far more briskly.
But more particular to Casanova, what I find myself coming back to is how different it was being a teenager. The liveliest (ahem) scenes in this first volume occur during his years from about 14 to what, 16? 18? I'm not quite sure. But in this time he becomes an abbé, he earns a law degree; he travels to the homes of acquaintances as another adult among them, albeit a young one; he disposes of his own property, he engages a lawyer and brings a lawsuit, he is arrested. Yet he's also a teenager, in ways we recognize: he behaves petulantly, he acts without thought, he's quite often an ass ... all this, and at times it seems that all a young woman has to do is look at his pants ... well. Let's just say that, at this age, stamina is not one of Casanova's talents.
Which makes me wonder anew (because I've been down this path before): where did our current, extended adolescence come from? And what, ultimately, are the benefits of such? Casanova is already showing some less-than-desirable traits, but I wonder how he might have behaved were he unfettered by his concerns about his budding career, his financial security, his own good name. Or was his more adult range of liberty what gave rise to his more provocative antics?
So it has been a long time since I last read this, or any le Carre. And I had forgotten everything, so that when I saw the movie I was squinty-eyed: w...moreSo it has been a long time since I last read this, or any le Carre. And I had forgotten everything, so that when I saw the movie I was squinty-eyed: was that in the book? I don't remember this bit etc. I am not reading much fiction lately, I am still knee-deep in my own, but it felt like it could be a good book for now, it might even dovetail with my own work, a little.
So things I had forgotten: almost nothing happens in this book, save that people talk. And talk. It took a while to grasp just how much of the book is recounted in dialogue, or remembered in flashback, or recounted in reports that reference an even further past . . . stories nested in stories. Even the few active set-pieces, the real-time stuff, is filled with conversations . . . that reference the past, or what might have happened, to explain what's happening now . . . there is a point, near the end, when Smiley thinks of a Matryoshka, but the hypothesis has already been proven, time and again.
There is no Bond-like global canvas here, save as names; you go to Prague and to Paris, to Hong Kong and Brno, and you see almost nothing there, because locale isn't what's important. Even the whodunit bit--who is the bad apple in the barrel?--even that isn't quite as important as the people themselves. This isn't a spy novel so much as it is a tragedy. le Carre's characters are fleshy and limned very carefully against their grey dull backgrounds; some of the prose is marvelous, a real mastery of a few broad strokes bringing a name to vibrant life.
And his people aren't merely saying things: they mutter and they demand, they grumble and they even shout--and am I the only one who's noticed that characters don't really shout as much, nowadays, in fiction? Everything using say/said dialogue tags that are supposed to make them invisible, and exclamation points seem on the verge of extinction . . . In le Carre, his people shout! and yell! and they act adverbially too, so much so that I may never think of benignly again without seeing Smiley attached to the word, making it suspect. They do all this, yet they don't do much at all, they don't go tearing through the streets shooting at each other or practicing complicated martial arts. They talk and shout and watch and read (so much reading), and occasionally they hurt someone; more rarely they cry. And yet you keep turning, and you can even see a bit of their world, and in the end you feel very badly for people who have done nothing to command your empathy.
There is a lot more that could be teased apart here: the sly references to boy-literature like Biggles; the seemingly prolonged childhood that this trade bestows; what it means to have something to say; how love seems to be something to whisper about, like a disease down there. But what I wondered about, in the end, was this: would le Carre to try his luck today, would this get published at all? The book seems at once richer and more languid than many novels today, yet still very much in the tenor of a "popular" fiction. A slow, fat novel about people explaining things; it seems something from another age, when the literary categories were smaller and simpler and thus more expansive. Rather like the oldest of his old guard characters, for whom the world is either red or free, and there's little that cannot be solved with malt whiskey, meticulous reporting, and just a little old-fashioned legwork.(less)
79 cents at the thrift store, the better to be reminded of why King has been such a huge part of my formative reading. In my younger days I pounded do...more79 cents at the thrift store, the better to be reminded of why King has been such a huge part of my formative reading. In my younger days I pounded down every book through Misery at least, and I am (sorry Stephen!) one of those legions of fans who still hold The Stand very close to my heart, despite its troubling depictions. There was nothing in here, thank goodness, that was completely new to me, and I say thank goodness because after all these years I would hope I've heard most of this advice in one form or another. It's simple and it's solid and it will get you down the road, after which, as Stephen tells you quite happily, you're off on your own and let him know how it goes, all right?
What was unexpected, and very moving, were the biography segments that bracket the writing stuff. I knew only bits of his overall life, the way you scan headlines; but the emotion in his self-portraits affected me, the descriptions of Tabby and the accident affected me, the difficulty of coming back to work after such excruciating injuries affected me. It felt very plain and more than a little raw at times, and I was impressed that he would have gone on not only to finish this book but to finish it as he needed to, letting go of some of the formal structure of these types of projects . . . he finished it in this hybrid form and put it out there, when he does not need to put it out there, not ever again. More personally (and aren't these books really about that? He gives and you take away the pieces that speak to you, and leave the rest for someone else?) I am finally, finally in a position to understand just what he means by three hours a day every day, by how that shapes everything around you, what that adds up to over the decades of a life. Like prayer. I am coming to terms with being a late bloomer, that I am where King was at fifteen or twenty years younger, but he made me thankful that I've gotten this far at all, and laid before me a vista of quiet progress that looks like a pretty good way to go forward. A good way, in fact, to live. And for that I thank him.
A pretty little book that sacrifices the emotional impact of its first panel for the self-imposed structural conceit of the project. The writing is lo...moreA pretty little book that sacrifices the emotional impact of its first panel for the self-imposed structural conceit of the project. The writing is lovely throughout, but the first panel has a depth of feeling that sets it apart ... and sadly makes the other two panels seem cold and thin in comparison. This book has the honor of being one of the few works thus far that have made me weep in public; the D'Alembert section is lovely and heartbreaking, all the more so for being grounded in truth. All these people and their unfulfilled loves, poor little Jean pining. It is handled well, delicately, with a lens just slightly tilted because the panel is performing multiple roles ... but moving nonetheless.
As for the rest, what would have pleased me in my younger days now just makes me irritated; I don't have the patience now for such cool experiments, I am instantly grumpy when I can't find some hint of a beating heart behind the baroque architecture. (Case in point: a friend helpfully pointed me to a critical work examining Lovecraft through the lenses of such philosophers as Heidegger and where I once would have responded "ooh" my kneejerk blurt was "why?!" I AM getting old, yikes.) Had Crumey been able to infuse the later two panels with the sense of love and loss, of tragic misunderstanding, that drives the first, we would have had something magnificent indeed: a philosophical novel that privileges the human over the ideas.(less)