Beowulf is one of those classics that we've all heard about, but about which we know little. Unlike Greek and Italian classics, or some other legends,...moreBeowulf is one of those classics that we've all heard about, but about which we know little. Unlike Greek and Italian classics, or some other legends, it hasn't entered into our common lexicon or our everyday phrases. We know a lot more about the fall of Troy and "beware of Greeks bearing gifts" (ouch) without having read The Iliad or The Aeneid - but Beowulf? Not so much. Stop reading right now and ask yourself: what's it about? Who is Beowulf? Where and when is it set? What lessons in life does it teach? Unless you studied it at university (in which case you'll know a heck of a lot more about than I do!), you're probably drawing a blank just as I did before reading it.
And I'm still not sure I have anything enlightening or interesting to say about it. This is one of those old classics that you really do benefit from having the wealth of knowledge that comes with a teacher well versed in the nuances, because on your own you probably won't pick up on a lot of it, especially if you don't have a background in it. That doesn't mean that you can't enjoy Beowulf for what it is, and appreciate the tale and the translation.
So what is Beowulf all about then? Beowulf is a man, a Geat warrior (a tribe from Geatland in modern-day north Sweden) and nephew to the king, Hygelac. He takes fourteen warriors with him and sails to Denmark where the king, Hrothgar, is being besieged by a demon called Grendel which attacks at night and kills indiscriminately. Beowulf has pledged to rid the Danes of this demon, and on his first night at the hall he fights the creature - with no weapons but his hands - and wins. Grendel retreats, sorely wounded.
Hrothgar is extremely grateful the next day and bestows many gifts on the Geats, but that night Grendel's enraged demon mother attacks, seeking revenge. She makes a kill but Beowulf and his men fight back and she flees. They follow her to a lake and Beowulf dives down with just a sword - sour and jealous Unferth's sword, that is supposedly undefeated - and takes on Grendel's mother. The sword proves useless but Beowulf is able to kill Grendel's mother and then the wounded Grendel too.
Having rid Denmark of two demons, King Hrothgar is even more grateful and bestows even more gifts. The Geats sail off and time passes; we meet Beowulf again as a much older man, having served his king in a war with the Swedes and been king himself for some thirty years. Now a dragon has woken after a thief got into its treasure horde, and is on the attack. Beowulf takes some men and goes to confront it, but only one of these warriors, Wiglaf, actually comes to his aid; the others flee. Beowulf and Wiglaf defeat the dragon but at the cost of Beowulf's life: he dies.
There are also many tales within this story, tales of war and rivalry, fights breaking out over disagreements, women and anything else really. It is an epic poem about bravery, loyalty and fame. Originally written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English between the middle of the 7th century and the end of the 10th, the author is unknown. This translation (in fact I think most translations are like this), has the original text on the left page and the modern-English translation on the right. If you look at the original, you can see just how far the English language has come in over a millennium: to the un-Gaelic eye it's unreadable. The alphabet isn't even the same. I've read parts of The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English (from 14th century), and if you read it out loud it's not too difficult and quite fun - but the alphabet was the same as ours and the words not that far off. Our modern-day English is another language altogether, and the hilarity of time travel books and films is that, were you really to go back to say the 10th century England, you wouldn't be able to understand them at all, and vice versa. Even after the Normans came, their French might have been hard to understand too (though the French have put a lot of effort into "preserving" their language, whereas our organised English is actually a fairly new concept). So while it's interesting to see the original verse alongside the translation, I certainly wasn't able to read it.
But translation makes a big impact on how you read such classics, and how well you enjoy them. This is a fairly recent translation by Seamus Heaney, an Irishman, and it is highly readable and almost prose-like. There is less poetry to his rendering, but there is still rhythm. His translation is well suited to being read aloud: you can easily imagine someone telling the story with a rapt audience crowded around, a fire crackling in the hearth, casting a warm glow on ruddy cheeks.
Hygelac's kinsman [Beowulf] kept thinking about his name and fame: he never lost heart. Then, in a fury, he flung his sword away. The keen, inlaid, worm-loop-patterned steel was hurled to the ground: he would have to rely on the might of his arm. So must a man do who intends to gain enduring glory in a combat. Life doesn't cost him a thought. Then the prince of War-Geats, warming to this fight with Grendel's mother, gripped her shoulder and laid about him in a battle frenzy: he pitched his killer opponent to the floor but she rose quickly and retaliated, grappled him tightly in her grim embrace. [p.107]
My thoughts on this story are sketchy at best. First of all, I admit surprise that it's about Scandinavian warriors, because - being an Anglo-Saxon tale - I was expecting it to be about an Anglo-Saxon warrior, set in the once heavily-forested Britain that is long gone, with maybe a druid somewhere around. I had just got that impression from somewhere and it stuck. Considering the fact that the Vikings were often rampaging and pillaging and raping and looting the UK coast, I wonder if it's a story that came from them and was told by the locals (and written down by one of them)? It would have to have done, I would think.
What makes me curious is why, for so long, this text was aggressively studied at universities across the country: Heaney says in his introduction,
For decades it has been a set book on English syllabuses at university level all over the world. The fact that many English departments require it to be studied in the original continues to generate resistance, most notably at Oxford University ... For generations of undergraduates, academic study of the poem was often just a matter of construing the meaning, getting a grip on the grammar and vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon, and being able to recognize, translate, and comment upon random extracts which were presented in the examinations. [p.x]
Was it just a puzzle, then? Or one of those texts that was considered a right of passage (a bit like Ulysses)? What I mean is, why were they so "gung ho" to have this studied by all students? A question for a crusty old academic from a hundred years ago, I think (who would no doubt patronise me with his condescending answer). I don't mean that there's no value in the poem, only expressing curiosity that it was so precious - especially considering it hasn't entered into our culture like Shakespeare has.
As for the story itself, it's short, interesting, at times eventful, but my interest in it is predominantly for its place as a precursor to fantasy fiction. I got onto this topic a bit when talking about The Aeneid - or if I didn't, then I meant to! - but when you read these ancient texts, from The Bible to The Odyssey to just about anything else that's survived (many of which I haven't read but based on what I know of them, I would include in this), you really start to notice what they all have in common: fantasy, and our deep abiding love for it. Magic, wizards, dragons, demons, epic love, battling evil, quests and the more subtle themes and tropes that today's fantasy authors are thankfully branching out into, they must all fascinate and delight us more than we're often willing to admit, since it's the one genre we've always had (with romance being a close second - there's romance in these texts but it's generally not the main attraction). It makes me grumble, to hear certain people trash modern-day fantasy books, when they resemble more closely these ancient texts than anything else we write. It's perfectly okay, academically-speaking, to study Beowulf or Dante's Inferno, to spend years pulling it apart and teasing out meaning, but read Robert Jordan, Kate Elliott, Brandon Sanderson, Jennifer Fallon or Steven Erikson and you'll be dismissed as someone who likes "escapism" and doesn't take reading seriously (and is probably not very smart or educated, to boot).
Truth is, Tolkien himself loved Beowulf and wrote an essay on it that forever changed the way it was studied. You can see the influence of works like this on his own books. So from that perspective, this was an interesting read. I can't really say that I got a lot out of it though. Certainly Heaney's translation is very readable, especially for a contemporary audience, but I didn't find the story particularly thought-provoking, enlightening or educational - not reading it on its own. But as part of a body of work about heroes and quests and being brave, it's well worth reading. (less)
**spoiler alert** When the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, Mr Lockwood, arrives, he goes to visit his landlord, Heathcliff, at Wuthering Heights, a...more**spoiler alert** When the new tenant of Thrushcross Grange, Mr Lockwood, arrives, he goes to visit his landlord, Heathcliff, at Wuthering Heights, a house up on the moors. The household that Lockwood has stumbled upon is an unusual one, with an ancient and sanctimonious servant with a thick Yorkshire accent called Joseph; a rough farmhand and "clown" called Hareton; a surly but beautiful young woman with bad manners called Cathy; the housekeeper Zillah and the haughty Heathcliff. None of them are welcoming, and their relationship to each other seems strange.
Mr Lockwood spends the night at Wuthering Heights because of bad weather and is visited by a ghost of Cathy Earnshaw - when Heathcliff comes to see him and he relates the story he sees Heathcliff at the window, crying and begging Cathy to come haunt him.
Beyond curious, he beseeches the housekeeper at the Grange, Ellen "Nelly" Dean, to tell him what she knows. Having grown up with the original family at Wuthering Heights, and being a party and a witness to the events of the intervening years, she has plenty to say, beginning in 1771 with the arrival of Heathcliff as a little boy at Wuthering Heights, a friendless orphan found by Mr Earnshaw in Liverpool. With the dark-skinned appearance of a gypsy, he becomes the favourite of Mr Earnshaw and so earns the enmity of his son, Hindley. With his dark scowling countenance and arrogance, only Hindley's younger sister Cathy befriends the boy, who idolises her in turn.
So begins an intense friendship and love between Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff, until she agrees to marry young Edgar Linton and Heathcliff overhears her telling Nelly that it would degrade her to marry Heathcliff. Reappearing three years later, Heathcliff sets in motion his plan for revenge against Hindley Earnshaw and Edgar Linton, destroying their children and robbing them of their inheritance.
This is only the second time I've read Wuthering Heights - the first being in 2005, and I actually couldn't remember what happened until I was reading it. The first time, I expected it to be more like Jane Eyre, dark and brooding but ultimately happy. I was completely thrown by Heathcliff's nature, by the violence and hatred and Cathy's premature death. This is one book where it is better that you know something of what to expect before starting it - knowing that Cathy and Heathcliff don't find happiness helps prepare you and free you to delve in and notice everything else that's going on. So while I won't reveal everything that happens, I have no qualms about what I have revealed.
There are several familiar Gothic themes in this book, but it will always be a fresh and original novel. There can only be one Wuthering Heights! Interestingly enough, Heathcliff is a classic Byronic hero - tall, dark, handsome, intense, possessive, obsessive, passionate, in love with his "sister"... This is a character that appears time and time again in romance novels. You'll see him everywhere, but with a big difference: a woman conquers him - yes the ultimate fantasy - and softens him, removing his streak of cruelty or humbling his arrogance or what have you. I come across Heathcliff all the time in historical and paranormal romance, where he's a fixture, but only the original defies our expectations.
Likened to a devil or demon, and coming from the factory town of Liverpool with its smoke and misery - factory towns were a symbolic stand-in for Hell - even Heathcliff's wife Isabella says she doesn't think he's a real man. Yet I felt sympathy for him. One of the themes is nature vs. nurture - just how much is Heathcliff's personality, and how much is the fault of the way others treated him because of his looks, his status etc.?
This is also a book of parallels, the most distinct being between Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw, and Hindley's son Hareton and Cathy's daughter Cathy Linton. Heathcliff makes sure Hareton grows up rough, wild, uncouth and illiterate, when really he is a gentleman's son and of the "first" family in the neighbourhood. He's a great admirer of Cathy (Linton) but she despises him, teasing him mercilessly for being illiterate and stupid - yet she later befriends him, he overcomes his upbringing, learns to read and everything is righted with a happy ending - for them.
This isn't the romantic tale you might expect, but a dark gothic one of misery and torment and cruelty. It's also absorbing and fascinating and you can never really get to the bottom of it, so to speak. It will haunt you as Cathy's ghost haunts Heathcliff. I'm not in the least surprised that this is considered a literary masterpiece. Aside from the clever way it is structured, with the dual narrators taking us back in time to show how the group Lockwood met became that way, forcing us to reassess; there is also the setting - the isolated world of the Heights, the Grange and the village of Gimmerton, beyond which the story never goes, and of course the moors - not to mention the ghosts and the way the characters are haunted by real people, real past events and choices.
The narrative is cyclical, coming full circle, and I did read into it a slight critique of classism and, as Lizzy Bennet famously said (which I'm taking slightly out of context here), "a selfish disdain for others". It's hard to say what Emily's motives were in writing Wuthering Heights, but if it were clear-cut we would have become bored with the book long ago. It's its ability to provoke us, challenge us, puzzle us, fascinate us that draws us. Definitely one worth studying in greater detail.(less)
Genly Ai is an envoy, a messenger from the Ekumen, a community of worlds peacefully trading with each other. The young man is an envoy to a new world...moreGenly Ai is an envoy, a messenger from the Ekumen, a community of worlds peacefully trading with each other. The young man is an envoy to a new world they call Winter, which the inhabitants call Gethen. Even as a world among many different worlds, Gethen is unique. Still locked in its Ice Age, the people are what could be a long-abandoned experiment: they are asexual, neither male nor female, but both female and male. Every twenty-six days they individually enter a state called "kemmer", during which they take on either a male or female sexual role, their bodies changing to allow them to mate and have children.
The rest of the time, they are non-sexual. Ai likens them, at times, to eunuchs, and finds them disturbing, while they consider him to be a pervert, permanently locked in kemmer.
Having landed his ship in the kingdom of Karhide, Genly Ai is taken under the wing of the prime minister, Lord Estraven, only to be seemingly betrayed by him when he finally meets the king, Argaven. Estraven himself is branded a traitor and flees to the neighbouring - and, in a way, more advanced - country of Orgoreyn, a land of bureaucrats. Finding Argaven disinclined to welcome a treaty with the Ekumen, Ai journeys to Orgoreyn, where Estraven - his one real ally - has paved the way for him.
But like Argaven, the bureaucrats of Orgota are too afraid to take the plunge, many fearing it's a hoax and they'll lose face with Karhide. Instead, they have Ai arrested and sent to a "voluntary farm", a kind of concentration camp from which only one person would even care to rescue him from: Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. In this deadly cold world, a world of contradictions and obscurities, a land stripped bare by the glaciers and blizzards, Ai's own perceptions are subtly altered, his understandings and assumptions of people are confronted, by the unique puzzle of a genderless people.
I first read this while living in Japan, about six years ago, and while I couldn't articulate exactly what my problems with the book were at the time, I was left feeling decidedly bothered, disappointed and even angered a bit. I find that my emotional response and reader's response to the book hasn't changed at all, this second time around. I can only hope that, this time, I can articulate why I find it so disappointing and, dare I say it, unworthy.
This isn't a review I was looking forward to writing. It would be so much easier if, like so many other people, I loved this book. But I don't and I can't. When you dislike a popular book, a canonised book - a "masterpiece" and an "instant classic", according to other reviewers - naturally part of you wonders whether you're just not getting it, whether you're not bright enough or clued-in enough, or whether you're placing unnecessary or unfair demands and expectations on it. But really, I don't think so. The downside of any book bearing the hefty label of "classic" is that it's going to be more closely scrutinised than other books, and readers will come to it with some naturally high expectations. While any understanding of any text can be improved upon by study and dialogue, initial impressions and a "layman's" analysis is still perfectly valid.
I have several, inter-connected problems with this book. While there are some elements I like, that fascinate me, overall I find the effort disappointing.
The big draw for this book is the "bisexual" aspect of Gethen's human population, the unusual nature of their bodies, their ability to be both mother and father in a single lifetime. While this is indeed a fascinating concept and a premise that makes you eager for insight, Le Guin just never manages to really come to grips with it.
We are a society, a species, that is hugely influenced by gender. So when you remove such an integral part of our various cultures, our understanding of life and sin and the rest of it, it is hard for us to imagine what could possibly be left - especially when you remove, along with it, the ever-present sexual tension and sexual awareness that infuses all our relationships, conversations, interactions. Le Guin envisages a people who know no war, who work and change slowly and carefully, who are at times beset by the (negative and clichéd) traits of women but none of the strength and decisiveness of men - a bland people who don't seem to make friends or have a sense of humour or play (all things that could be attributed to life on a harsh, inhospitable planet - except that, the opposite could happen just as easily).
Le Guin perfectly captured a very different people and attitude and way of speaking and interacting, but shied away from some of the bigger questions and from really delving into this, into what this creates. I would have expected this, if she had presented a profound issue/question/analysis of our own society or attitudes and left it to her readers to think about, but this is a very empty book, and the nature of the human population on Gethen is handled in a vague, offhand manner.
Yes, this is speculative fiction; yes, it's a product of its times and was, I'm sure, "groundbreaking" at that time; and yes, you need to take that into consideration - that's too obvious to need pointing out. But I find it worrying that so many books - "classics" - escape a closer, rational inspection simply because they are such treasures, and any critique is easily dismissed as a product of its times. I would think that less is truly learned from a text by simply accepting it as it is, by not analysing and critiquing it. No book, not the Bible or the Koran or Lord of the bloody Rings, is untouchable, and human minds grow stagnant by not questioning.
My problem is this: Le Guin has created a sexless people, for all intents and purposes, who are neither female nor male, but uses the terms "he", "man" etc. to capture and identify them. These are powerful pronouns and nouns. The old argument that "man" (or "Man") meant all people, both genders, is complete crap. It never did and never will. It bespeaks to the more powerful gender, the one in control. It is naturally selective and singular, and historically comes from a highly patriarchal society. All obvious points.
Now, this is my own paradox of sorts: does Le Guin achieve more by having Genly Ai and all the people of Gethen use "he", "brother", "man" etc., or would taking the Fantasy route and using a newly made-up, local word be more telling, more disorientating, more profound? I lean towards the latter, though part of the problem is that I really, honestly, do not know what Le Guin was trying to achieve with this book. If it is meant to show us the narrow confines of our own language, attitudes, labelling system, well, okay, but it's weak. Ai is from a future well in advance of our own, and it's disheartening to hear so much gender bias coming from him. But I can't tell if it's Ai, or Le Guin (or the 60s).
The end result is that, despite many reminders that they are genderless, using "he" etc. firmly settles the idea in my mind that this is a society of men - the ultimate society, in a way, a society that has got rid of women once and for all since the one thing above all others that women and women alone can do - childbirth - is no longer the provenance of women. Yes, this creates a fascinating study, but it is unsatisfactorily studied and throughout it the use of "man" etc. shackles it, enslaves it, as does Ai, who attributes all Gethenian weaknesses to their "feminine" side.
The English language has great potential and great flexibility, but in some words it is completely short-sighted and inflexible. The gender-specific pronouns are perfect examples of this. They are horribly confining, and we've yet to create a asexual alternative. I wonder whether this book would have been more deserving of its "masterpiece" status if it had taken that extra step, and truly confronted sexual stereotypes and our whole way of thinking - even though it is narrated by Ai.
It would have been far more interesting to see what a truly genderless society could achieve (or not) when they are not obsessing about sex all the time. Sex invades and defines so much of what we do, say, wear, think etc., that removing it presents an amazing opportunity to strip away this major aspect and, well, see what's left.
Parts of the story are also told by Estraven, through his journal entries. Getting this insight into the mind of a Gethenian would have provided an amazing opportunity to explore a non-gendered mind - but sadly we learn little that's new (though it's interesting to see how he perceives Genly).
This is my disappointment: I am not made to think or question, by this novel. My perception of my own society is not confronted; I learn nothing new about it. "It is a novel of ideas", they say, and yes it is. But with so much focus on the planet itself, so much time spent describing the ice-bound world and how to survive in it, as interesting as that is, you can't help but feel that whatever idea Le Guin was trying to explore became completely lost in the wilderness. A profound idea, unexploited. Leaving behind a book that struggles to have anything interesting to say.
Plotwise, there's little, but there are moments that never fail to grab me: the work prison Ai is sent to, and the return to Karhide and the ensuing tragedy, which I had completely forgotten about and so was taken by surprise - the first and only time in the novel that I felt truly emotionally engaged.
The only other thing I'll take the time to mention, is that the prose does a weird thing at the beginning. Ai is reporting his experiences as Envoy, but begins his tale is a very odd present-tense. This switches to past tense abruptly, for no apparent reason, and while it took me a few paragraphs to notice, it left me with a weird feeling like I'd eaten something bad. (less)
When this book came up as the October selection for the Classics Book Club (a "real life" book club here in Toronto rather than an online one, run by...moreWhen this book came up as the October selection for the Classics Book Club (a "real life" book club here in Toronto rather than an online one, run by Chris of Eclectic Indulgence), I was pretty pleased because it meant getting around to reading a book I've had on my shelf for about fifteen years. The reason I had this - which, let's face it, isn't one of the more famous Classics you've heard of - is rather silly but I'll tell you all the same. I grew up watching A Room With a View - I've probably seen it fifty times if I've seen it once, it's a wonderful movie with countless quotable lines because the actors have such superb delivery (while I'm at it, I'll confess that as a teen I had a huge crush on George Emerson, played by Julian Sands) - and there's a scene in the movie, the famous nude bathing scene; I'm stunned that it's not up on YouTube.
So, the scene begins when Mr Bebe, the vicar (Simon Callow), and Lucy's brother Freddy (Rupert Graves) go to the Emerson's cottage, which they're still moving into, to ask George if he "wants to have a bathe". Mr Bebe starts going through the Emerson's books, sitting in a packing box, picking them up and reading the title - he picks up one, says in a curious voice, "The Way of All Flesh.... Never heard of it." And that's it. I'd never heard of it either, and then one day I came across this old Penguin edition in a second hand bookshop and I was so curious and fan-girly about it I bought it. Flipping through it, though, it looked dense and even had bars of music in it - not good fodder for a young teen who read mostly fantasy! I carted it around with all my books whenever I moved, over the years, but never honestly thought I'd get around to reading it. Until now. And I have to say, I loved it!
First, a word on the cover. The painting is called "Family Prayers" and it was painted by Butler himself. Once you know that, and know that the book is semi-autobiographical, you can see why such an ugly painting is perfect for the book. The stiff, wax-like figures enduring what is clearly a very dull Bible reading is very much a slice from Butler's life. The new Penguin edition has the larger version of the painting, and the colours are different, making it a more appealing portrait than the dowdy, drab version on my edition.
The book was first published in 1903, after Butler had died, but it was written in 1873, revised in 1880, put aside in 1884, a year before his dear friend and editor, Miss Savage, died. The last chapter is considered inferior because she never had a chance to read it. This edition is also the original, abridged edition: when Butler died, he charged his publisher, R.A. Streatfeild, to publish the manuscript; Streatfeild made some edits to the manuscript and it is that version that I read, though the cut paragraphs are in the notes at the back. The new Penguin edition reinserted those cuts, but I'm not entirely convinced Streatfeild's version isn't the better one after all.
The novel is semi-autobiographical, as I mentioned: the Samuel Butler character is the "hero" the story, but not the narrator. The story is narrated by a family friend and the "hero's" godfather, Edward Overton, who knew his hero's great-grandfather, old Mr Pontifex, when he was just a boy, and Mr Pontifex's successful and pompous son George. Mr Overton was of an age with George Pontifex's younger son Theobald, who took Orders, married an older woman, Christina, and had three children: Ernest, Joey and Charlotte. Ernest is Butler.
It is a harsh, honest - though certainly one-sded from Butler's perspective - portrait of a Victorian family, as well as a discursive essay on religion. Mr Overton gives a family chronicle of the Pontifex's, focusing on Theobald - a weak man who avoids committing to things, including marrying his fiance - and, once he's born, Ernest. Ernest is a deeply flawed boy who grows into an equally flawed man. Growing up in a repressive environment at home, frequently chastised, beaten and told he is inferior, Ernest develops into a boy who is always looking for love and acceptance, is naive and gullible to the point of being taken advantage of, and imitates what he hears from the mouths of others because of his understanding, drummed into him from birth, that everyone else is superior. His mother, Christina, he wants to love but she betrays his trust, time and again.
In fact, both of Ernest's parents are the epitome of "well-meaning" cruelty, and Butler comes down heavily upon them both. They, like many Victorian parents but perhaps more so, believe in the concept of "training up" their children. I came across this term, "train up", earlier this year thanks to the wonderful blog, Awful Library Books - one book featured there was the shocking contemporary piece, Train Up Your Child by Michael & Debi Pearl (1994), which advises parents to whip their children, even babies, for "every transgression" in order to make them dutiful and submissive. They also recommend mothers hit their children if they cry for her. I'll leave you to read more excerpts from this "manual" through the link above; suffice it to say that the descriptions of Theobald and Christina's misguided parenting technique brought it vividly to mind, including this insight about Christina:
...nevertheless she was fond of her boy, which Theobald never was, and it was long before she could destroy all affection for herself in the mind of her first-born. But she persevered. (p.118)
Yet it's also apparent that if Theobald had been a different man - and he himself learnt parenting, such as it is, from his own bully of a father - Christina would have been a much different mother.
There are many gems in this book that stand out, and speak to people in different ways (as was clear at the book club meeting). Ernest's life journey to the point at which he comes into money left him by his aunt when he turns twenty-eight, and also comes into self-awareness, cleverness and a higher degree of astuteness, is one which has more lows than highs. Some seriously crappy things happen to him, most of which are his fault - or rather the fault of his repressive, forbidding childhood and parents, who, in their quest to make him dutiful and submissive to their will, created an individual who is ripe pickings for scams, swindles and other hood-winking at the hands of others.
Yet, I felt great sympathy for Ernest. He isn't a likeable character but his yearning for love and acceptance, and the influence of his parents on all his flaws, made me both sorry for him and angry on his behalf. Mr Overton dangles the words "my hero" (meaning, the focal point of his story and also a character who, if you bear with him, will make it all worthwhile), and made me extremely interested in finding out how Ernest could go from this weak-willed, easily taken advantage of idiot to someone who can laugh at his own foolishness and point out his own previous flaws articulately.
Ernest isn't the only fascinating character. We are very much in Butler's hands here, but it wasn't a bad place to be. His characters will put you in mind of Dickens, I should think: larger-than-life, extreme examples and even stereotypes; monstrous. And the ups and downs of Ernest's young life, likewise, could put you in mind of young Pip. (Dickens's fiction is dismissed as trash by Mr Overton, and Austen portrait of families is also referred to: "The parents in Miss Austen's novels are less like savage wild beasts than those of her predecessors, but she evidently looks upon them with suspicion..." [p.52])
There being so much going on in this book, I could write for ages and never cover it all. I don't have ages though, and neither I'm sure do you, so I'll get right to the religious side of the novel. I liked the way Richard Hoggart expressed it in his introduction:
Most of [the book's] specific causes have been won; its battles tend to look old-fashioned - interesting, no doubt, but dated. Yet it still has a peculiarly lively appeal. It speaks to us, makes us listen, less for the particular errors it is castigating than for the way it castigates and exposes them: we respond to its temper of mind, its energy, charity and irony. (p.7)
In the novel, Ernest and Theobald give us perspective on the position of Christianity at the time, and Butler, through his characters, comes down just as hard on the hypocrisy and cruelty in the church as he does the hypocrisy and cruelty in the domestic family. While he does at times drift into long paragraphs of thought that can lose you a bit (some readers preferred to skim over these passages and stick to the more clear-cut story), I found it fascinating and intriguing - but I didn't take away any new ideas. In fact, I can't clearly remember any points from these ramblings, as I can about Ernest. Still, the novel wouldn't be the same without them.
If you have some time, patience and aren't easily daunted by lengthy books - and I hasten to add here that I found this novel to highly readable, with a deep sense of irony - I highly recommend The Way of All Flesh. It's very much a product of its time, and yet there are points in here that show just how far we haven't come; some astute observations on everything from academia to families, that are still highly relevant today and no doubt will be for a long time yet to come.
And I can totally see why Merchant Ivory placed this book so prominently in the Emerson's Edwardian home. (less)
It all begins with garrulous Aunt Becky and the infamous Dark jug. She may be dying but the old matriarch of the large Dark and Penhallow clan is dete...moreIt all begins with garrulous Aunt Becky and the infamous Dark jug. She may be dying but the old matriarch of the large Dark and Penhallow clan is determined to throw one last "levee" - and stir up her extended family with her plan for bequeathing the heirloom. Dating back to when the first Darks came to Prince Edward Island in the early 19th century, the Dark jug has been in the family ever since, and with it comes a certain prestige for the owner. Over the generations, the Darks and Penhallows have intermarried time and again, and now they gather in Aunt Becky's rooms to hear what's to become of this jug, and who will get it.
But sharp-tongued Aunt Becky's not about to make things easy for them. She announces that the new owner of the jug will be announced a year from October, and that Dandy Dark is trusted with the secret - or perhaps he will make the decision on her behalf, so everyone should be on their toes.
And so they all are. Drowned John and Titus Dark stop swearing, knowing that Aunt Becky wouldn't give the jug to someone who curses all the time. Tempest Dark decides to finally start his history of the clan that he's been talking about doing for years. And perpetual bachelor Penny Dark thinks maybe he should get married, if he wants to get the jug, and casts his eye upon the spinsters in the clan.
Meanwhile young, pretty Gay Penhallow is caught up in love with Noel Gibson, while her sophisticated and seductive cousin Nan decides to steal him away. Peter Penhallow suddenly and violently falls in love with widowed Donna Dark, whom he has hated since they were children - only he's been travelling through Africa and South America so much he hasn't seen her since, or not until Aunt Becky's infamous final levee. Joscelyn and Hugh Dark, separated on their wedding night for reasons unknown, still yearn for things they cannot have. And forty year old spinster and dressmaker Margaret Penhallow too yearns for things she feels she can never have: a beautiful little baby to adopt and the little old house she calls Whispering Winds.
At the centre of it all is the jug, and Aunt Becky's final surprise.
According to the inscription on the inside of my copy, I got this book for my birthday in 1993 from my brother (meaning, my mum picked it out for him to give to me), when I turned 14. As far as I can remember I only read it once, but I did love it. I'm always wanted to re-read it, and now I finally have I can say that I still love it. Allowing so much to go by meant that it felt like visiting old friends I hadn't seen in a long time, but with all the surprises still intact: I couldn't remember what had driven Hugh and Joscelyn apart, I couldn't remember how Donna and Peter finally overcame her father, Drowned John's, refusal to let them marry; and I couldn't quite remember what happened to Gay Penhallow - though I was pretty sure she did end up with thirty-year-old Roger, the clan doctor (rest assured, it's not as Jane Austen as it sounds - Gay is no Mariane Dashwood).
There are of course A LOT of characters to keep track of, and at first they tend to blend one into another (for instance, there are two Penny Darks: one is the bachelor and the other is Joscelyn's sister-in-law), and it doesn't help that they go by the old naming conventions (e.g. "Mrs Frank Dark"); you'd think it would but it doesn't.
But Montgomery focuses on the main characters, and since the novel takes place over about a year and a half, we get to know characters, progress somewhat with their story, then come back to them later, so you do get very familiar with them - and like I said, they start to feel like your own crazy extended family! Montgomery is so good at writing these character sketches (one has only to read those scenes set around the dinner table at family gatherings in The Blue Castle to get a sense for it), that for all their eccentricities you have to wonder just how many of them were based on real people Montgomery knew.
The pacing is wonderful: brisk and rolling like gentle hills, here getting dramatic, then slowing down again for a spell, a breather, before dashing off into a new plot. Perhaps the most tragic character for me was little Brian Dark, whose mother, Laura, died when he was young, never revealing who the father was, so that Brian lives with his uncle Duncan Dark and his family, barely fed or clothed and given endless chores, mostly to look after the dairy cows. It broke my heart a little bit, especially now that I have my own little boy.
The story is told with Montgomery's usual insightful wit and honesty, and an artist's touch: she knew when to get in there and strip a character bare, and when to hold back and let things reveal themselves to the observant reader, on their own. I should add a warning for American readers: the final sentence does include the "n-word", which should be taken in the context of the period it was written in, as well as the character who uses it - don't let it put you off this author, who weaves magic with her words in the simplest, most unpretentious ways.(less)
Jane Victoria Stuart lives at 60 Gay St., Toronto, with her mother, Aunt Gertrude, and Grandmother. Mother is very beautiful and well-dressed and goes...moreJane Victoria Stuart lives at 60 Gay St., Toronto, with her mother, Aunt Gertrude, and Grandmother. Mother is very beautiful and well-dressed and goes out almost every night, but life at 60 Gay is dreary and oppressive - not least because Grandmother is the kind of matriarch who rules with an iron fist. And she is constantly finding fault with Jane.
She is nine years old when she learns that her father is still alive - she'd always assumed he was dead. She isn't taught to hate Father, exactly, but between the girl at school and cousin Phyllis telling her that it was the birth of Jane that broke up her parents' marriage, that her father never wanted her, and her Grandmother being equally poisonous about him, when a letter from him arrives unexpectedly a year later, requesting Jane spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island, Jane refuses to go. Only, Uncle William says Jane must or her father could take her away forever, and so Grandmother decides: Jane must go.
But, not only is PEI everything that Gay Street is not, her father turns out to be a man Jane instantly clicks with and loves. He gets her as no one else ever has, and the two form a close bond. Together they go house-hunting with a fairly exact list of specifications: A little green and white house on a hill with some trees around it - young white birches, preferably - by the gulf, with a window looking seaward. And "lashings of magic" (p.71). After visiting several promising homes they finally find Lantern Hill, a very small house that meets pretty much all their requirements.
Jane, who has never been allowed to do anything at 60 Gay, happily takes on all the housekeeping, learning to cook, making tea for visitors, growing plants and veggies. She makes friends with all the children in the area and learns to drive the neighbour's tractor into the barn, shingle a roof, and make ambitious meals. Her father, a writer, brings to life the Bible and history and gradually her own confidence rises, so that when she has to return to Toronto and St Agatha's school for girls, she's more assertive and gets good marks at subjects she never liked before.
But as young Jane tries to juggle her love for both her parents, neither of whom will speak to each other or about one another, she becomes sure that they still love each other and it was meddling Grandmother and Aunt Irene, her father's sister, that poisoned the marriage - not Jane. But perhaps only Jane can stop them from continuing their mistake, and bring them back together again.
Of all the LM Montgomery books I read from the age of 10, this one was my first favourite. I liked Jane more than Emily (Anne came later for me, around 15 or so), I loved the self-contained novel that this is, I loved the stark contrast between her Toronto world and her life on Prince Edward Island - I called it a dichotomy at first, but Jane's nature isn't split; rather, arriving on PEI and meeting her dad, finding Lantern Hill and living the way she'd always yearned to live, is a true home-coming for Jane. It's her loyalties, to her mother and father, that are torn. And watching over everything like a great big spider is Grandmother, pulling everyone's strings.
When I first read this, growing up on a farm in Tasmania, it was very like being in PEI and Jane's love for the island really made me see my own island state with fresh eyes. I had never seen Toronto or knew anything about it except that it was in Canada somewhere, but the Toronto of the 1930s - in particular dark, gloomy, watchful 60 Gay (a fictional street) - figured hugely in my imagination. The massive old house itself was a larger-than-life character, one inseparable from Grandmother. It's rather like the mansion was Grandmother's "familiar". Watching Jane blossom once she was away from it, and seeing it slowly smother her mother, it takes the form of some kind of manifestation of all Grandmother is: controlling, oppressive, vindictive, manipulative, the opposite of everything that Jane experiences in PEI.
If Jane's life at 60 Gay reminds you somewhat of Valency and her relatives at family gatherings in The Blue Castle, you're not alone: there are similarities, especially with Jane's perfect and pretty cousin, Phyllis, who is so condescending, like Valency's cousin Olive. But the comparison is a small one and doesn't detract from the novel's strengths. I think the oppressive extended family, family misunderstandings and parents who feel resentful is something of a Montgomery trademark - I'm thinking not only of Jane and Valancy, but of Emily too.
I wondered, when I started re-reading this, if it would have the same effect on me as it did nearly 20 years ago (wow am I really that old?!), if the magic would still be there. It did, and it was. Such was Montgomery's ability to create these vivid landscapes and strong characters, and an emotional connection between story and reader, that the magic was very much still there. (less)
I had a big reorganising of my bookshelves a few weeks ago, and found, tucked away on the bottom shelf of one bookcase alongside random books - Japane...moreI had a big reorganising of my bookshelves a few weeks ago, and found, tucked away on the bottom shelf of one bookcase alongside random books - Japanese dictionaries and textbooks, old teen books from when I was a teen, a Jamima Puddleduck book and various other odds and ends - this old Australian classic. Norman Lindsay is a famous Australian artist, poet and author - I hope that Australians today still know who he is but I wouldn't be surprised - saddened, yes, but not surprised - to discover that they don't. We're just not that good at keeping our famous people, our great people, alive in our memories, with a couple of exceptions. It's hard to gauge though, since it's been quite a while since I left.
Norman Lindsay is famous for his provocative and challenging paintings, around which they made a movie called Sirens (with Sam Neill as Lindsay) that, despite a stilted performance by Elle MacPherson is a great movie to watch. I can practically smell the eucalypts... Lindsay is also well-known as a children's author, a sculptor, a poet and an erotic sketch artist. His nudes are luscious. His work is often provocative.
When I was little, my mother gave me this book. The inscription reads: "To Shannon, for helping me shift the rock heap! Love from Mum" and the date, 4th of September 1985, when I was just four years old (nearly five). Books were a rare treat, as were presents outside of birthdays and Christmas, so I treasured this. The rock heap she's referring to would have been in the garden: the patch of land, 1 1/4 acres, that my parents bought off my grandfather to build a home on was a corner of the farm that was no good for farming, being a small hill - or rise - full of rocks and several very tall, very skinny pine trees that creaked in the wind. They're all gone now. The garden paths are all made using the rocks dug up from the garden, of which we never run out! Even on the farm, the worst job of all was picking up rocks after a paddock had been ploughed. Crappy job.
I was too young to read it - too many words! - but I loved gazing at the pictures, especially the one at the back. I made up a story in my head to go with the illustration, but over the years I forgot all about this book. When I rediscovered it, having followed me throughout my youth and many moves, I put it on my desk so I'd remember to read it. And finally, 15 years after my mum gave it to me, I did.
This is the story of Bunyip Bluegum, a koala, who lives with his Uncle Wattleberry. Unfortunately, there isn't enough room in the tree for the two of them and Uncle Wattleberry's huge whiskers, so Bunyip leaves home to explore the world. He comes across two characters: an old sailor named Bill and his mate Sam the penguin. They are proud "professional puddin' owners", being in the possession of a magic pudding. It can become several kinds of pudding, their favourites being steak 'n kidney and plum duff. It also walks and talks and never shrinks. It is a magic pudding.
Others covet their pudding: a Possum and a Wombat, while easily cowed by a punch to the nose, try again and again to steal the pudding. With Bunyip's help, they fight off Possum and Wombat, meet a host of other interesting characters and tell the story of two ships called the Saucy Sausage and the Salt Junk Sarah and how Bill and Sam came by the pudding in the first place.
Lindsay's animal and human characters often break into rhyme or song, and not at a young child's reading level.
"We laugh with scorn at threats," said Bill, and he added as a warning-- "I don't repent a snout that's bent, And if again I tap it, Oh, with a clout I'll bend that snout With force enough to snap it."
and Sam added for the Wombat's benefit-- "I take no shame to fight the lame When they deserve to cop it. So do not try to pipe your eye, Or with my flip I'll flop it." (p34)
Yeah, they get a bit violent - in the cartoon sense, like watching old Warner Bros. cartoons. It's very early-20th century in its tone, even with a dig or two at Jews. As a classic though, you have to take it in historical context, like with the Danish picture book Rasmus.
Some of the language will be tricky for today's youth, or non-Australians. It is at times full of lingo, a mix of British and Australian:
To start with, they had an unpleasant scene with a Kookaburra, a low larrikin who resented the way that Bill examined him. "Who are you starin' at, Poodle's Whiskers?" he asked. "Never mind," said Bill. "I'm starin' at you for a good and sufficient reason." "Are yer?" said the Kookaburra. "Well, all I can say is that if yer don't take yer dial outer the road I'll bloomin' well take an' bounce a gibber off yer crust," and he followed them for quite a long way, singing out insulting things such as, "You with the wire whiskers," and "Get onter the bloke with the face fringe." (p90)
I could probably read an analogy into this story - maybe the pudding, with its renewable resources, represents the country, and the possum and wombat thieves who want to plunder it. Or, today, the logging and mining industries, or perhaps just people themselves. I couldn't say what Lindsay intended, if anything, and you can certainly read it as a fun tale that teaches against thievery, deception and covetousness. I like the environmental angle though, it's more my style.
I wish I had memories of reading it at a younger age, that would have been nice - or of having it read to me, which would be even better. But I'm so glad I still have it, and it was such a delightful, rollicking fun story. I wouldn't want to see Lindsay slide into obscurity, and I hope he never does. But who outside of Australia has ever heard of him?(less)
On the cover of my old, battered, secondhand copy, it says under the title: "The greatest novel of rapture in modern fiction". There's a lot you could...moreOn the cover of my old, battered, secondhand copy, it says under the title: "The greatest novel of rapture in modern fiction". There's a lot you could say about this amazing book, and that's definitely a good place to start. I have to admit to being rather surprised to see that printed on the cover, but it's just one of the remarkable things about this book: that it was written at all, that it was published at all, that it was written in the way it was and that you shouldn't be ashamed or embarrassed or guilty about reading it. Really, you shouldn't.
That said, I'm glad I didn't read this book at a younger age, mostly because I wouldn't have understood it. The language isn't a breeze to read, it requires effort and thought and, dare I say it, education too. It also requires patience and a willingness to withhold censure until you've at least read the damn thing.
I always assumed everyone knew the story of Lolita, or had at least heard of it, it being one of those kinds of books. But I've since realised it's not as well-known as I'd thought, so in case you don't know what it's about, I'll give you the brief run-down.
Humbert Humbert is a pedophile. Not of any little girl, no, but of "nymphets" - girls between the ages of nine and fourteen, posessed of "certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm" - Humbert warms rather quickly to his topic and you get the sense he's like one of those obsessive antiques collectors, where nothing but the "real deal" will do - hence, I have to use his own words:
You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs - the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate - the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. (p.17)
Arriving in America from Europe, circumstances result in him boarding with a widow, a Mrs. Haze, and her ten-year-old daughter Lolita. He falls instantly in love with Lolita, an obsessive, determined yet shy kind of love (he's well aware that society does not and would not approve), marries the mother, Charlotte and, when she dies, runs off with Lolita.
Written in first-person narration as a true story, we know several things right from the beginning: Humbert Humbert murdered someone; he's writing this from prison; and he dies after writing it. Because it's written in Humbert's voice, what you get is a very passionate, non-repentant account of the years he was with Lolita and afterwards. He tells us his plans for having his wicked way with her, including drugging both mother and child, and his methods of keeping Lolita in his control once he does "possess" her. He doesn't go into detail about having Lolita, but the mere mention of such things as having intercourse three times that morning, or of ripping her clothes off - these little bits here and there are enough to make you squirm.
This is the problem with Lolita, the reason behind the censure and fear: it's not so much the glorification of pedophilia, which I'll go into later; no, it's the fear that you, the reader, will be turned on by his descriptions and his feelings. Because Humbert is so crazily passionate about Lolita - and I do believe that he truly loved her, in his own warped, selfish, possessive way - sometimes the book reads like a romance, with erotic echoes: he uses the same kind of language, though he's very wordy, and talks about Lolita in the most personal way, so that he presents a sympathetic character you can't help feeling for, even though at the same time you loathe him. Because when you're sympathetic, you can't help feeling what he feels. Hence the fear of being turned on, because, as a reader, you can't distance yourself from this book. Humbert draws you in, he's often talking directly to you, telling you things you just don't want to know - only you can't skip them, because that would be to make reading the book itself entirely pointless. No matter how long-winded he can get (and trust me, he gets very wordy!), you have to read every word, because there's so much detail, so much subtlety involved, you won't know what's going on or understand him if you skip bits.
He also expects us to sympathise with him, saying things like "you can laugh" or "don't mock me" etc. - while the last thing I want to do is laugh - and this, oddly enough, makes it easier to resist him. But that's the thing about this character, Humbert Humbert: so unrepentant, so brazen and factual, so romantic in a weird and disturbing way (disturbing because of the object of his love). No, pedophilia is not glorified in/by this book, or Nabokov, but Humbert certainly tries. He compares himself to famous historical figures like Plutarch, who loved nymphets as well. He thinks he's just alive in the wrong period, that it's perfectly natural for him to love little girls. But we're not fooled.
The wonderful thing about this book is the non-preachy, non-moralistic, non-judgemental style it's written in. In fact, it would be pretty insulting if Nabokov wrote it any other way. He lets Humbert speak for himself and he lets us realise what a sad, lonely, pathetic man he really is. Anyone who says Lolita glorifies pedophilia (and I remember John Howard condemning the movie, with Jeremy Irons and Anna Paquin, along these lines - naturally, he hadn't read or watched it, just knew it was "bad") either hasn't read it or didn't actually read it. There's nothing here that condones Humbert's behaviour or actions, but at the same time Nabokov doesn't come out and say "This is bad, don't do this". He really doesn't need to.
None of the characters are likeable, though Humbert Humbert has enough warped personality and charm to carry the novel. This brings me to Lolita herself. She's not exactly innocent, and it's true she makes the first real move with Humbert. She's a little shit, really, precocious and greedy - a typical child/teenager, really. Humbert tells us her flaws, and recounts her words and actions with no rose-coloured glasses: he really does love her. Though, as he realises after he's lost her, he never cared about what she thought or felt. He simply had to have her, for his own sake.
When we had our bookclub meeting on this book, we got into a hearty, inconclusive debate about blame: was Lolita blameless? It's an interesting question, and opens a whole can of worms. Because she was no innocent, even at such a young age, and because she did in essence seduce him, you could argue that she knew what she was doing and deserved what she got. Well, I disagree. Firstly, because she was just a child, and you don't really understand the scope of what you're getting yourself into at that age - we're talking ten, eleven, even thirteen years old here. It's like a game, and you think you have all the pieces and are in control, but you're not. Humbert, being the "responsible adult", was duty-bound to put a stop to it. Of course, that's the last thing he would have done. Taking advantage of a child who thinks she's mature is only one of his sins. My point is, every child has the right to make mistakes, to live and learn - you shouldn't be taken advantage of by someone who knows it was a mistake, an error in judgement: that shifts the blame pretty quickly, in my understanding.
Also, is it not like those mysoginistic comments that because she was wearing high heals and a short skirt, that woman deserved to be raped? No, I'm sorry, but I'm sick of arguments that put all the blame onto women, as if men were unable to control themselves. No one asks to be raped. No child wants their childhood taken away, to be "possessed" by a "Dad" who has a sexual drive that would scare anyone. I'm not saying that there aren't some manipulative or controlling etc. women out there, "women" being the key word. We're talking about a child here, one who knows enough to not-quite-teasingly tell Humbert he's dirty and is raping her, yet is entirely dependent on him for food, shelter etc., and has been psychologically tormented by him.
Lolita is about more than a dirty older man having his wicked way with a girl. At the very least, it's a fascinating character study (even though Humbert Humbert's kind of pedophilia is only one kind), and that, more than anything, is what I took away from it. Nabokov is a brilliant writer, and Lolita is very cleverly written. Part 2 is a bit more long-winded than Part 1, and I didn't really buy the Rita character, but Humbert is a very convincing character and the way you react to him is a very fine achievement for any work of literature. This is not a book to avoid; it's a book to read and appreciate for the wonderful, skilful way it was written and for broaching a taboo subject that would fare better if we would only face up to it rather than pretend it didn't happen at all.
The Lolitas of the world deserve nothing less. (less)