One Hundred Years of Solitude follows several generations of the Buendia family, one of the first families which founded the town of Macondo in the juOne Hundred Years of Solitude follows several generations of the Buendia family, one of the first families which founded the town of Macondo in the jungle near the Columbian coast. The characters are numerous and many of them have the same name, which presents a bit of a challenge for the reader in keeping track, and many of their children are illigitimate and, because their origins are hidden, in-bred. The town itself rises and falls alongside the family until it is eventually obliterated by a hot wind, along with the last surviving member of the family.
I read this with a great deal of impatience, and a few times I was so annoyed I wanted to throw it against the wall - but it is a beautiful edition and I never wilfully damage books (no "cricking the spine" near me thank you!). Its tone of fabrication, magic realism, embellishment - all told with a complete straight face and not a single tongue in cheek - reminded me of Angela Carter's Nights of the Circus and Big Fish by Daniel Wallace (though I've only seen the movie), yet both of those stories were more captivating because they had a central protagonist, a character you could come to care about. Solitude does not have a central character but rather an ensemble cast through generations, and so it is hard to care for any of them or really understand them. Even the town is haphazardly drawn and constantly shifting, so that it is hard to grasp it - I know this is probably deliberate, but it didn't work for me.
The language is rather dry and emotionless, very much a matter of telling, not showing. Dialogue is limited, and entire years pass by in the space of a few pages of very dense prose. The story seems to lack control, in its habit of shuffling forward, halting, reversing, moving forward again, stopping, starting, going back again, jumping forward - it's all over the place. By the end, you can see that Marquez had very good control, but I'm a fan of structure, structure that is a part of the story as much as its backbone. You could say that that is exactly how it works in Solitude, but to me it was just annoying.
I held off on researching or reading reviews of the book until I'd finished, because I find that other people's opinions - even jacket blurbs - prejudice and contort my own reading experience. Yet, once I finished it, I found that the section on allegory in Wikipedia (the book has its own entry) really cleared things up for me.
Anyone studying or with an interest in South American or Columbian history would appreciate this book far more than I did - I'd like to study it, but it's just so alien to me that I find it hard to interest myself with it. It's obviously a very clever book, but it's not the kind of book that works for me, and I would never bother re-reading it. Despite the fact that it would be nothing without the characters, none of them are treated with any respect - the women in particular are horrible people - and their emotions, motivations, passions, fears etc., while being central to the novel, are mentioned as one would note the weather. The author, apparently, wrote it in the style his grandmother used to tell stories - complete with "magic realism" told with a straight face and no change in tone - and he's done so admirably. Aside from the sentence about Amaranta's "hot and wormy guava grove of love", the language is not cheesy, certainly not sentimental and, in general, too dry and distant to pull me in.
Skip the second and third paragraphs if you don't want much of a synopsis...
Set in pre-1949 Revolution China, The Good Earth tells the story of Wang LSkip the second and third paragraphs if you don't want much of a synopsis...
Set in pre-1949 Revolution China, The Good Earth tells the story of Wang Lung, a young man living with his ageing father in a small home in rural China, who spends his days tilling the earth in order to have enough to eat. His father finds him a bride by going to the House of Hwang and buying a slave girl from this wealthy household; Wang Lung is excited because it means he will never again have to rise before dawn, start the fire, make the tea and do all the other house chores that he's been doing. It is no accident that wives, and women in general, are referred to as "slaves". A wife has been purchased for a purpose, just as a girl-child is.
His wife is O-Lan, though we don't learn her name until quite some time later, as in Wang Lung's world, her name is not important (neither were children named until much older, if at all). She, with her unbound feet, works uncomplainingly and tirelessly beside him in the fields and in the home, bearing Wang Lung's first son in-between hoeing the soil. With O-Lan's resourcefulness and thrift, the family sees its way through hardship, drought and famine, and Wang Lung is able to save money and buy land from the mighty House of Hwang, which is seeing hard times. Then the rains come, and do not stop, and the land all around is flooded. People become desperate, eating grass and bark from the trees. By now, Wang Lung has two sons and a baby daughter (or "slave" as she is often called, for that is her future), and they have just enough coin to get them on a train to the city to find work, leaving behind the house and land for their return.
Things are worse in the city, and Wang Lung bears witness to the growing disgruntlement of the working class, the poor, who must beg for rice while the rich have everything - but he alone sees the stupidity and meaninglessness in their angry proposals to take everything from the rich for themselves. For Wang Lung, it is the land that has value, and the land that can succour a family, not jewels or rich cloth. As the wealthy finally flee and the poor ransack the city, Wang Lung and his family return to their farm and begin their journey into a period of wealth, and soon they are living the life the poor can only dream of. But with wealth comes discontent, disgruntlement, animosity, jealousy, even idleness, and it takes old age to bring wisdom to Wang Lung.
I think the main reason why I enjoyed this so much is that I feel I can relate to Wang Lung's love of the land, and his need to go out in bare feet and feel the soil between his toes, as well as his understanding that land is bigger than wealth and jewels and prestige. That land is the breath of life, in a way. Granted, he is all about land ownership, but that's not the part that I connect with.
The other reason is how I was essentially taken by surprise with this book. I didn't really know what to expect, but it wasn't this utter simplicity of life rendered in the simplest prose imaginable. When I started reading it, I was distracted by the knowledge that it was written by an American - pfft, what would she know? I couldn't help thinking, and "Here we go again, another land and people and culture viewed through the eyes of a white person." But learning that Buck lived in China for forty years, helped soothe me somewhat. That, and the fact that the book just doesn't read like something written by a white woman. On the other hand, maybe I am stereotyping myself, seeing the style of the prose and the stark honesty of the story's details as inherently (rural) Chinese? Quite probably, but how are you to know? We're so used to white privilege we can't even tell when it's influencing us half the time. (Also, unlike with Japan, I have no personal experiences with China and haven't read that much about it.)
At the end of the day, I just have to express my reading experience and share the things I appreciated about the novel, and leave it at that without over-thinking it all the time. I read this for my Classics Book Club, which is a "real life" book club, but wasn't able to go in the end, so I missed out on a pretty colourful discussion by all accounts.
One of the things that appealed to me was the way the story covers almost the full cycle of Wang Lung's life, from him as a young single man to him as an old man with grown children in the early twentieth century - and it doesn't read like the 1900s, it really doesn't. Rural China - and the city - seemed like it hadn't changed much at all from the days of Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. The only noticeable change was the arrival of a steam train. In the background of Wang Lung's personal story are details and events that speak of the turmoil the country is going through, turmoil that led to the Chinese Civil War that began in 1927 (some say it never ended). Towards the end of the story, the civil war comes to Wang Lung's home but again, not in a larger context way but in a smaller, more personal upheaval as his despicable nephew is a soldier who brings a whole corps to camp in Wang Lung's courtyard. Wang Lung himself is blissfully ignorant of what is happening in his country - in fact, he often seems unaware that he is part of a bigger country, a larger population, such is the focus on his own life and trials. It only adds to the incredibly narrow scope of the story, complementing the tone of the novel.
And the tone is what really makes it work, I think. Buck wrote it in a calm, overly simplistic style that never changes tempo, that never becomes dramatic or emotional or inspired. The stand-offish feel to it is what helped me forget it was written by a foreigner, because it just sounds so completely non-judgemental. Some might find it cold, alienating possibly, or just simply boring, but for me it worked. It has the cadence of a traditional old-world story-teller, which made it feel almost unbearably realistic.
Wang Lung did not move. He did not rise nor in any way recognize the men who had come. But he lifted his head to look at them and saw that they were indeed men from the town, dressed in long robes of soiled silk. Their hands were soft and their nails long. They looked as though they had eaten and blood still ran rapidly in their veins. He suddenly hated them with an immense hatred. Here were these men from the town, having eaten and drunk, standing beside him whose children were starving and eating the very earth of the fields; here they were, come to squeeze his land from him in his extremity. He looked up at them sullenly, his eyes deep and enormous in his bony, skull-like face. [p.85]
The starkness of the visuals, the raw contrasts stripped bare and offered up in the narrative, are inescapable. Wang Lung is no hero, no good kind man, but a product of his upbringing, his culture, his country. You can sympathise with him while also cringing at the way he treats his wife, O-Lan: he takes her for granted, finds her ugly and big-footed, and even when he appreciates all she has done for him (and partway acknowledges that without her help and her economy he wouldn't be the rich man he is at the end), he can't feel anything but repulsion for her. It's tragic, but like the land, it's simply what it is. The novel doesn't encourage you to judge, but helps you to be more accepting of another culture. Nevertheless, beneath that bland acceptance you will probably feel the stirrings of anger, at the very least. It would be impossible to read The Good Earth without "presentism" and without our 21st-century sensibilities, especially for women. The contrast is too great. But that doesn't mean you can't appreciate the book for what it is, for what it achieved.
At its heart, it is a novel of survival, success against the odds, of family and community and of honouring your roots. I can see why Oprah's book club picked it - the theme of "success is up to the individual" is popular in America; and this is motivational as well as cautionary, speaking to the opposite extreme: when you have success and lose sight of your original, honest goals and find yourself corrupted by your own success. I'm not a fan of simplistic morals in stories, or obvious ones, but you get caught up in Wang Lung's story easily enough that they're tightly woven in. Without these themes of success and corruption, you wouldn't have Wang Lung at all - yet, he is undeniably a common character in fiction and real life, the quintessential "self made man"; it's the whole point of the novel. There are other themes of course, just as clear-cut, but that's the one that still stands out for me a month after finishing it.
The simplicity of The Good Earth has a contradictory effect on me: on the one hand, it was perfectly suited to the story and gave it a reality and an honesty it otherwise wouldn't have had; on the other hand, there's something slightly condescending about it, and renders it too obvious to inspire my imagination or my critical thinking, and that's disappointing.
This is Fitzgerald's last work before he died, and is incomplete. This authorised text version comes with a lot of preface and appendices, all designeThis is Fitzgerald's last work before he died, and is incomplete. This authorised text version comes with a lot of preface and appendices, all designed to be extremely helpful to the Fitzgerald enthusiast.
That ain't me.
Aside from a couple of neat lines in The Great Gatsby, I was incredibly bored by that book and haven't bothered with anything else of his.
I don't think I'd even heard of this book before, but I had to read it for one of my bookclubs. It's very short, at only 127 pages, and ends abruptly. It still took me two weeks to read, during which time I read 6 other books. I know I have to make allowances for the fact that it is unfinished, both in terms of the story itself and the quality of it, but even if it was finished and polished I would still hate it.
"The Love of the Last Tycoon is properly read and judged as a work in progress: drafts in which Fitzgerald had not yet fulfilled his intentions but can be seen working toward them - or perhaps discovering his intentions in the act of writing." Preface p. xv
Hate is a strong emotional response to anything: it also means that it got under my skin and I liked it despite myself. I'm fighting with that, and I hope to win, because the story is so annoying and the characters so frustrating. It is also the worst kind of book for me because I am the kind of person who picks up typos and overlooked grammatical mistakes in published books - although those have been more-or-less corrected in this version, the fact that it is a draft and a bit all-over-the-place does make it harder for me. And did I mention that I don't like Fitzgerald anyway?
The narrator of The Last Tycoon is Cecelia, daughter of a succesful Hollywood movie producer and accustomed to being around movie stars etc. Her father's business partner is Monroe Stahr, boy wonder extraordinaire who joined at 25 and wows the industry. Now in his mid- to late-thirties, he's dying of something, probably cancer, which he has kept secret. Cecelia convinces herself that she is in love with him because he is so indifferent to her, and must now contend with an Englishwoman, Kathleen, whom Stahr met and who reminds him of his dead wife Minna, and so has fallen in love with. Which actually creeped me out a bit. It reminded me of Vertigo, the Alfred Hitchcock movie, but so much less appealing!
In a letter to his editor in 1939, Fitzgerald says: "This love affair [between Stahr and Kathleen:] is the meat of the book - though I am going to treat it, remember, as it comes through to Cecelia. That is to say by making Cecelia at the moment of her telling the story, an intelligent and observant woman, I shall grant myself the privilege, as Conrad did, of letting her imagine the actions of the characters. Thus, I hope to get the verisimilitude of a first person narrative, combined with a Godlike knowledge of all events that happen to my characters."
I think this is what annoyed me the most. It's a highly ambitious ploy, and not very successful if you ask me. When you are reading Cecelia's first-person narration, it feels good and right. When you are reading Stahr's third-person narrative, it feels good and right. But mixing them together, and having Cecelia occasionally intrude with "but I wasn't there" and "this is how it was told to me" etc. made me want to strangle the bloody book. I didn't buy it. I'm all for experimental literature, I just don't think this works.
The other problem with the book was that, like with The Great Gatsby, I couldn't care less about the characters. Horrible people, all of them. I know, I know, that's supposed to be the point. But when every 'problem' with a book can be dismissed as "that's the point", it just turns into a farce.
I can see why some people like this book, but I see more clearly why it makes me want to scream....more
Comrade Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov is one of the founding Party of the Revolution. He is also perhaps the only man of that group of idealising thiComrade Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov is one of the founding Party of the Revolution. He is also perhaps the only man of that group of idealising thinkers still alive. For a long time he has had a recurring dream of being arrested in his bed, while sleeping under the poster of No. 1 (Stalin), the same poster that hangs above every bed, on every wall. And finally, he is arrested. As a politicial prisoner he is given solitude and time to sweat. There is a certain degree of fatalism in the way he paces his cell and thinks. He knows, of course, exactly what is going on and what will happen. The only thing to decide is how he will die: with a bullet in the back of the head after a confession and a public trial, or a bullet in the back of the head after professing his innocence.
It's not a lot of choice, but Rubashov is a stubborn old man who still likes to argue Policy and doctrine with his interrogators. And there is the meat of this story, revealing and exploring the aims and processes behind the intractable wheel of the Party and its Revolution, now holding on from sheer force of will while those like Rubashov who still naively hoped it could be something else, something better, are sacrificed for the greater good.
I feel I have failed this book. I read at least six other books while making my way through this one. On the one hand, it helped to break it up into smaller, more manageable slices. On the other hand, it makes my impressions rather clouded. There is a lot I don't understand. It requires a close, earnest reading, preferably under the guidance of a knowledgable uni Professor. I could read this book a hundred times and learn something new each time, while other things remain obscure. But that, in a way, is the nature of the Party itself as it is described here. It doesn't make sense, it never did and isn't supposed to. That Rubashov is a scapegoat, and a symbol, is quite clear. That there is nothing he can do to escape it is also frustratingly clear. That the whole thing, the whole Revolution, has turned into a debacle, an absurd exercise in freedom for the masses achieved through repression of those same masses, an excercise which cannot be stopped or altered lest everything that has been achieved becomes undone, is also blatantly obvious. Koestler may get to his points in a roundabout, abstract philosophising way, but he hasn't left the most important ones to a reader's imagination.
The part I loved - if I can even use that word; maybe "appreciated'? - the most was in the Third Hearing, the conversations between Rubashov and his interrogator Gletkin. Here we get two sides to the argument, neither of them particularly strong but both given with absolute conviction. I don't like books where the enemy is a faceless presence, as No. 1 is, yet this works perfectly here - for the Party is a machine, an unfeeling, uncaring thing with only one purpose. But by showing Gletkin's thoughts - and his method of rationalising - we can gain an understanding of why so many people bought into the doctrine, even while loved ones disappeared, while people feared for their lives, while the Party betrayed them while saying it had been betrayed. Rubashov believes in telling the people the truth, and gaining their voluntary involvement and loyalty. Gletkin says, among other equally potent speeches:
Whether Jesus spoke the truth or not, when he asserted he was the son of God and of a virgin, is of no interest to any sensible person. It is said to be symbolical, but the peasants take it literally. We have the same right to invent symbols which the peasants take literally. (p232)
One of my favourite lines is from a man Rubashov is accused of traitorous deals with, who says "One can only be crucified in the name of one's own faith." I think I will spend many years wrestling the different meanings out of that!
This translation is quite old, and a bit stuffy. Unfortunately, the original German manuscript is lost and there don't seem to be any copies of it from which to do a new English translation. Apparently, the English translation is used in translating it into other languages. But I would ask, or rather plead, that they do a bit of editing. The typos were numerous and distracting. The comma use was also irritating, but that's more attributable to the period. Commas aren't so in fashion anymore.
Anyone interested in philosophy, socialism, 20th century history, Stalinism etc. would get a lot out of this book. Even someone like me, with just a sketchy knowledge of the period and events that form the ground of this fictional account, can still come away with the brain ticking over. It's the kind of book we are generally reluctant to read, because it requires too much work, but it is worth it. Even if, like me, you don't feel you can do it justice. ...more
Now here's a novel that is perfect reading for autumn, and added a delicious tremor to the chill air and overcast sky, leaf-littered ground and rottinNow here's a novel that is perfect reading for autumn, and added a delicious tremor to the chill air and overcast sky, leaf-littered ground and rotting plants. Which is interesting, considering it's largely set over a long summer.
The story begins with Jonathan Harker, a young lawyer, travelling to Transylvania at the request of his company's client, Count Dracula. The previous lawyer, Renfield, had some kind of breakdown and retired from the business (otherwise known as, being locked up in an insane asylum). Jonathan is to conclude land deeds and titles, as the count has bought property in England through his lawyers there. But as soon as Jonathan arrives, he notes certain oddities about his host and his home. As he spends more time with the count, his wariness only increases, until he discovers through his explorations of the half ruined castle that Dracula is no man at all.
Finding himself a prisoner while the count leaves for England, Jonathan finds himself in a desperate position and determined to escape his castle gaol and return to his fiancee, Mina Murray. Mina is staying with her best friend, Lucy Westenra, at her large family home in Whitby, Yorkshire. Lucy is beautiful and lively and has attracted three eligible men: Dr John Seward, who runs the nearby mental institute (where Renfield is a patient); the Honourable Arthur Holmwood, who becomes Lord Godalming when his father dies; and an American from Texas, Quincey Morris. Both girls are ignorant of the arrival of Count Dracula in their area, but the count loses no time in making Lucy his object.
Through the help of the men so loyal to her, Dr Van Helsing arrives, and quickly understands the truth behind the ailing Lucy. Fighting to save her while Mina leaves to be with Jonathan, recuperating in a nunnery in Europe, Van Helsing reveals to Dr Seward, and then Arthur and Quincey, the true nature of Lucy's illness, and the four of them promise to do everything in their power to free Lucy, and the world, of Count Dracula.
I've watched Bram Stoker's Dracula, the delightful film adaptation with Gary Oldman as the count, many times since a teenager. One thing it led me to expect, which was totally wrong, was a romantic storyline between Dracula and Mina. The film built up a tragic love story, a dead wife reincarnated in Mina, because, I guess, "sex sells". It certainly does add a seductive angle to the story. But it is completely absent from the book. Dracula is never a seductive man/creature, has no romantic interest in any woman least of all Mina, and is a pure villain at heart. While I'm not a fan of "evil" characters - far too black-and-white for my taste and convictions; when I watch the movie now and see the build-up of romantic desire in the count, it looks all wrong. Dracula didn't need the excuse of Mina-as-love-interest to go to England: he was already planning on moving there, mostly because he wanted new blood and to exert his superiority further. But hey, it's Gary Oldman mourning his long-dead wife. Guaranteed to keep us watching. Otherwise, the adaptation follows the book very closely.
The short of it is, while I kept expecting this romantic chemistry to appear, I wasn't actually disappointed that it didn't. This is a fabulous book, wonderfully written, very modern for a classic over a hundred years old, and rich with detail and atmosphere. It is a traditional vampire tale, in that there is nothing redeeming in Dracula, nothing to admire, but he is inherently fascinating all the same. Stoker introduces a vampire who can walk about during the day, in human form, but who has more power at night. Professor Van Helsing paints a violent image:
The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger; and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil. This vampire which is amongst us is of himself so strong in person as twenty men; he is of cunning more than mortal, for his cunning be the growth of ages; he have still the aids of necromancy, which is, as his etymology imply, the divination by the dead, and all the dead that he can come night to are for him at command; he is brute, and more than brute: he is devil in callous, and the heart of him is not; he can, within limitations, appear at will when, and where, and in any of the forms that are to him; he can, within his range, direct the elements: the storm, the fog, the thunder; he can command all the meaner things: the rat, and the owl, and the bat - the moth, and the fox, and the wolf; he can grow and become small; and he can at times vanish and come unknown. (pp 268-9)
Van Helsing has a distinctive way of speaking, English not being his first language, and his personality - at once jolly, kindly, serious, generous, caring and wise - comes across vividly in this epistolary story. Told through diary entries, letters, telegrams, and newspaper articles, we mostly get the perspectives of Jonathan, Mina, Dr Seward and Van Helsing. It begins with just Jonathan's adventure in Transylvania; later it moves between characters.
The Transylvanian section at the beginning is my favourite: it's so vivid, the atmosphere so intense you can practically smell it, see it, touch it. There is such a profound contrast between the beautiful, lush landscape and the evil inside Dracula's castle - it's amazingly effective to place horrors in a peaceful scenery that's full of life. The contradiction, the sense of something rotten in a place so otherwise pristine and primitive, flames our senses. (In her introduction to this edition, Elizabeth Kostova notes how perfectly Stoker describes a landscape he had never personally visited, only studied in the public library.) As Jonathan describes his journey by carriage to the count's castle:
Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road. There was everywhere a bewildering mass of fruit blossoms - apple, plum, pear, cherry; and as we drove by I could see the green grass under the trees spangled with the fallen petals. In and out amongst these green hills of what they call here the "Mittel Land" ran the road, losing itself as it swept round the grassy curve, or was shut out by the straggling ends of pine woods, which here and there ran down the hillside like tongues of flame. (p.15)
When he leaves the public carriage and rides in the one sent by the count (which Jonathan later suspects the count himself of driving, since he has no servants), and night falls, his description changes, becoming darker and more ominous with presentiment:
Soon we were hemmed in with trees, which in places arched right over the roadway till we passed as through a tunnel; and again great frowning rocks guarded us boldly on either side. Through we were in shelter, we could hear the rising wind, for it moaned and whistled through the rocks, and the branches of the trees crashed together as we swept along. It grew colder and colder still, and fine, powdery snow began to fall, so that soon we and all around us were crowned with a white blanket. The keen wind still carried the howling of the dogs, though this grew fainter as we went on our way. The baying of the wolves sounded nearer and nearer, as though they were closing round on us from every side. I grew dreadfully afraid, and the horses shared my fear; but the driver was not in the least disturbed. He kept turning his head to left and right, but I could not see anything through the darkness. (p. 21)
There are so many wonderful passages like that, and that in part is the success of the novel. You need a great deal of anger, and slowly rising tension and danger, in a vampire story like this. There is also death, and towards the end a race-against-time that was, admittedly, a bit slow: it followed the same pace as the rest of the book, maybe even slower, almost like Stoker was reluctant to end it all. Which wouldn't surprise me, as it's the kind of book you'll be reluctant to finish reading.
To end, I just have to include the quote that they put on the back of the book, because it's so ... words defy me.
I could feel the soft, shivering touch of the lips on the supersensitive skin of my throat, and the hard dents of two sharp teeth, just touching and pausing there. I closed my eyes in a languorous ecstasy and waited - waited with beating heart. (p 50)
If that doesn't make you want to read this book, and revel in Stoker's wonderful use of words, I don't know what will!
Regarding this particular edition by Black Bay Books (Dracula being in a state of expired copyright, there are hundreds of editions out there), I picked it ostensibly for its beautiful cover, which matches the cover of my Black Bay Books edition of The Historian. This edition does not contain any notes or biography of the author, only Elizabeth Kostova's foreward, which provides some interesting information. Now that I've read Dracula, I feel free to finally read The Historian and Dracula, My Love, both of which I already have (I am especially curious about the latter, considering how there's no romance in this book)....more
Spoilers! Frankenstein is the first book written by Mary Shelley (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, friSpoilers! Frankenstein is the first book written by Mary Shelley (daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, friend of Lord Byron), and her most famous. First published in 1818, she later revised it for its second printing in 1823, adding a preface that cleared up conjecture as to what she was writing about, changing the relationship of Elizabeth to the family (in the original, she is Victor Frankenstein's cousin, in the second she has no blood relation but was adopted by the family) to remove any suggestion of incest, and she also removed any hint that Frankenstein created the creature out of vice.
If you're not familiar with the story as Shelley wrote it, Frankenstein is about a young Swiss man, Dr Victor Frankenstein, who is a student of the natural sciences. He becomes absorbed by the idea of creating a living being and spends two years collecting body parts from the deceased and feverishly working in his laboratory. But when he instils it with life and it wakes and looks upon its creator, Victor is horrified and flees from his creation.
He spends months in illness, nursed by his best friend Henry Clavel, before returning to his father's home in Geneva, Switzerland, where his two brothers, Earnest and William, and his adopted sister Elizabeth live (his mother has already passed away). Before leaving Ingolstadt in Germany, where he was living and studying at the university, he receives a letter from his father telling him that his little brother William has been murdered.
On his arrival to his home town, he sees his creature in the dark wilderness, and becomes convinced it murdered William. A servant girl, Justine, is accused and hanged for the crime, and Victor goes traipsing off into the wilderness with his depression. He encounters the creature, who begs him to listen to his story, and we learn what has passed with the monster since Victor created and abandoned it. It is a heart-breaking story, and goes some way to explaining the monster's mind.
The monster's main purpose in telling Victor his story is to beg him to create a companion for him, a woman of his own species. Victor at first agrees, going to Britain with Henry and collecting new body parts. But he destroys the being before bringing it to life, and in retribution the monster kills Henry. Victor is accused, and spends some months in an Irish gaol before being released. Upon returning home to Geneva with his father, he marries Elizabeth, who the creature strangles to death on their wedding night.
His father dies from the shock of all these tragedies, and Victor chases after the monster, determined to end it once and for all. The chase takes them to the northern Alps, and continues across the ice in sleds, before Victor is rescued from an accident and taken on board a ship that has been trapped in the ice. He tells the Captain his story, who writes it all down to send to his sister back home, before he weakens and dies. The monster returns and pledges his own suicide by fire, since there is no more reason for him to live.
I did enjoy this, though it's not an easy read in the sense that the writing style is, for want of a better word, awkward, often clumsy. When I think about it, it's accurate enough for a story retold by one man (Captain Waldon), as told from memory by another (Victor), who in turn retells other people's stories (namely, the monster's). In such a case, details are bound to get lost in the retelling, though of course the dialogue is accurately remembered. But it does make it hard going at times: I kept getting pulled up short by glaring omissions, or confusing jumps. As someone in my bookclub put it, the story is good, the book not so great.
Frankenstein could easily be described as timeless, since there's little that anchors it firmly in the period in which it is set (1700s), and you can read all sorts of relevant themes into it. Shelley apparently wrote it as a warning to scientists and against the Industrial Revolution in general, reminding them that they are not God and of the dangers of over-reaching themselves. I would take it a step further, and say it is a warning against not taking responsibility for your actions, especially those of science in delving into new and strange areas (like nuclear weapons, cloning etc.). Right up to the end, Victor thinks he is blameless:
During these last days, I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blamable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness and misery. (p.235)
So although he can acknowledge that he was responsible for the creature, he does not see any connection between his neglect of the monster and the way the monster turned out. In other words, if he had stayed by the creature's side, taught him ethics, morals etc., he would have preserved the lives of his own loved ones and the greater populace in general.
The nameless creature was abandoned by Victor because it was ugly. That's it: he was f'ugly:
I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room. (p.51-2)
Talk about shallow. The creature, left to his own devices, with no language and no knowledge but that Victor is his creator, yearns to be loved and wanted. Stumbling through the countryside, he discovers fire, discovers berries and things to eat, but is persecuted and beaten by any humans he comes across. He tries so hard, and while he does not make the best decisions, he has the mind of a child in a giant's body, and with his unusual circumstances should hardly be judged along the same lines as anyone else. Victor creates a monster by seeing only a monster, without taking the time to learn its true nature, as does everyone else. They could not look beyond appearances.
Even today, we would probably react in the same way: that doesn't make it any less our fault for creating a being with so many faults. In this case, it is the lack of nurture - i.e. it's environment - that created the ture monster, not nature. It's not that I seek to justify the murders the creature committed. But the creature wasn't born evil, he was turned evil by humans. Grrr. I just didn't like Victor and wish he had been more accountable for being so irresponsible. Yes, he was young, enthusiastic, and thought he could take God's place:
A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs. (p.47)
This is the meaning behind the subtitle: the Modern Prometheus. Prometheus was a Titan whom Zeus punished eternally for creating men out of clay, and bringing fire from the heavens and gifting it to humans. Zeus chained him to a rock and every day a bird would peck out his liver, only to have it grow back so the next day a bird could do it again. Nice. So is the loss of Victor's family, his best friend, and his bright future his punishment?
Another reason why I don't like Victor Frankenstein is that he is so selfish, arrogant, self-centred, self-indulgent, melodramatic and egotistical. Aside from wanting to bring dead body parts to life so that he could be worshipped like a God, the fate of Justine, for example, brings out his true character:
Despair! Who dared talk of that? The poor victim [Justine:], who on the morrow was to pass the awful boundary between life and death, felt not as I did, such deep and bitter agony. (p.87)
Yes, not even poor innocent Justine, sent to the gallows for a crime wholly Victor's fault, suffered as much as he. He could have stepped in and confessed, but did not want people to think him mad. Add "proud" to the list of his sins if you please. Later, he marries Elizabeth, despite the monster's threat that he will come to him on his marriage-day. It's always about him, he doesn't notice the pattern of the monster murdering his family and friends in order to make him feel this misery, and so realise it's his bride the monster will target: no, it's all about him, Victor.
He marries Elizabeth, making her just as miserable as he is, and took her to a secluded place where he intended to go head-to-head with the monster, only to find Elizabeth strangled to death in the bedroom. He puts people in danger, then whines about how miserable and wretched he feels when they die, yet doesn't seem to regret anything.
This is just my take on the book, and like true art, it can be read in a number of ways. It's definitely a good idea to read the book to know the story, though, because the movies that have been made about Frankenstein since the 1920s are way off the mark. Though I would imagine studying the popular culture side of the story would be just as fascinating as studying the book itself.
A note about this edition: This is a handsome book, with nice thickish yellowish old-style paper and print, it looks exactly like how it was originally published. But there are no notes or appendices or introduction, so if you're studying this book you might want to get a different edition. It's also the revised edition, not the original 1818 one, though the revised one is more common now. ...more
It would be hard to get more epic in scope, ambition and emotion than with Anna Karenina. I've been wanting to read this for years, especially since wIt would be hard to get more epic in scope, ambition and emotion than with Anna Karenina. I've been wanting to read this for years, especially since watching the BBC miniseries with Kevin McKidd as Vronsky - despite how depressing the story can be, I really enjoyed the adaptation.
Now to the book. God, where do I start? Let me apologise in advance for the terribly scattered nature and clunky writing of this "review", I have lots of interruptions and am too tired to think clearly.
Anna Karenina encompasses so much, it's hard to know where to begin. If you have absolutely no idea what the story is about, the gist of it is that Anna and Count Alexis Vronsky fall in love and have an adulterous affair (she was married with a son, he a bit of a rake but single), while Kitty, younger sister to Anna's sister-in-law Dolly, eventually gets over her infatuation for Vronsky and marries Levin, who has long loved her. They call this a "double-plot", and it works admirably well.
Set in the same period as it was written, it is at its heart a love story: half dramatic tragedy, half this-is-what-married-life-is-really-like. But it is so much more than that. The extensive list of characters are extremely realistic, and ponder all sorts of matters appertaining to politics, religion, art, life in Russia etc. Levin, in particular, is constantly preoccupied with the peasants, with his lack of religious feeling, and his ideas on farming techniques. He's an interesting character to be sure, and very human. Anna, too, is very well written, just as mesmerising to me as she is to everyone else (especially men) in the novel. The erratic, irrational jealousy and deep depression that she suffers from towards the end, a product of her horrible position (her husband won't divorce her, she cannot go out in public, her friends have shunned her, Vronsky insists on his "manly" freedom and so gives rise to these doubts in Anna, who lacks the reassurance that a committed relationship brings), is compelling, familiar and very very real. What she goes through as a woman in the 1870s still occurs today - especially the double standards: her brother, Steve Oblonsky, among other fashionable men of high society (half the characters are princes and princesses), is not just a womaniser but has mistress after mistress - and bastard children too. Although the novel opens with his wife Dolly discovering his infidelity, her tears and the wretchedness of her position, while he thinks she should be more lenient (she is, after all, looking old and plain after all those kids), his own affairs do not cause a ripple in society, whereas Anna is turned against as a fallen woman.
This realism is impressive. The reader is a silent, passive voyeur, almost, in the unfolding of events, but never detached. There is no real plot, just the characters revolving around each other and those lengthy studies into 19th century Russian farming techniques, among other things. It can be a bit of a drag, for while it's fascinating it did make me a bit impatient. But the political ideologies that are explored through dialogue between the characters is worth not skipping (the only bit I did skim through was several chapters towards the end describing the electoral system), and if you do try to skip a sentence here or there, you quickly find you simply can't get away with it: you've just missed something very important. Even the most mundane of sentences, such as the description of someone entering a room, is loaded with meaning and relevance. That's just one of the reasons why it took me so long to read.
There is, early on, a jump from everything going along swimmingly to Anna in tears, clasping Vronsky's hand, beseeching God. This totally threw me for a loop and I couldn't help wondering if some chapters were missing. But no: from this we are to infer that the two finally "did it" together. Another instance where something is hinted at but not stated, is how Anna ended up marrying Karenin:
"...Anna's aunt intimated to him, through an acquaintance, that he had already compromised [Anna:], and that he was in honour bound to propose to her." (p.503-4)
Yet another incident that implied I should know what the hell is going on, is Anna's reference - after she has given birth to Vronsky's baby and nearly died - that she can no longer have children. She knows this for sure and seems to say, when talking to Dolly, that the doctor has surgically done this for her. But was that possible at the time? I simply do not know. I also find it hard to believe a doctor of that time would do such a thing. So there were a few times when I couldn't help but wish the book had been written by a modern author, since we're no longer afraid to talk about such things. But that would be a different book altogether.
Another thing to note is the language - while I can usually keep up with the older meanings of words that have since changed, it seems hard to believe that the word "pathetic" could ever be a compliment, as Levin thinks of Anna after meeting her for the first time: "What a wonderful, sweet, pathetic woman!" (p.691) - which is where I wonder whether the translation could not, you know translate a bit better. Whatever word it is in the Russian, could they not use the equivalent in modern English? Don't gasp in horror at me! I don't think this is a sacreligious suggestion - mostly just the end product of my irritation.
Anna Karenina is well worth reading, but I won't recommend it to anyone. If you want to read it, by all means do, but be prepared for a bit of a slog! And, it might help I don't know, but you could watch an adaptation or two first - even though years passed I was able to visually recall some of the scenes from the miniseries I had seen, which made it all seem a bit less daunting.
About this edition: I would strongly advise against it. Typos galore. Sloppy editing. Punctuation a mess, or missing altogether (seriously, missing full stops, speech marks absent...I hate having to fill these in as I read, or figure out where someone's dialogue ends and their thinking begins). It was also really stuffy, and I don't think it needs to be. I don't know how long ago this translation was done, but it's not very accessible.
Some examples of really bad typos etc:
"Following the Commander, champagne glass in hand, Serpukhovskoy came down smiling.317" (p.303 - and no, that is not a footnote or anything. God knows what it is!)
" 'Where does it hurt '? " (p.500 - the question mark outside the speech mark!)
" 'How is our angel ?' " (p.513 - space before question mark - so irritating!!)
Oh I could go on, but I only marked so many pages. It's a sloppy edition, and I would check the one you see in the bookshop carefully to see if they've been through it since this one was published. I wonder, too, if Penguin has a more readable version? They usually do....more
The Story of O is about a young Parisian woman, called O, whose lover, Rene, takes her to a place called Roissy where she learns how to submit, be obeThe Story of O is about a young Parisian woman, called O, whose lover, Rene, takes her to a place called Roissy where she learns how to submit, be obediant and various other rules that will forever shape her life. She is handed over to Rene's half-brother Sir Stephen, and becomes his branded slave.
This is more about the psychological torture, submission and enslavement that O undergoes, than about the physical acts themselves - which are rarely dwelled on or even described, and certainly aren't pleasurable. The aloof tone of the novella (it is very short and unfinished, the final chapter being "suppressed", whatever that means) fits in well with the way the men in the story treat O and the other women they've enslaved.
Whether it's the way it's written or the translation, it's a rather frustrating book, skipping around in time and place until you're a bit dizzy, and you're never really given a chance to understand these people. It's hard even to care for O because she seems so apathetic.
It's worth reading, as a study of human nature and the interesting paradox of feeling free and at peace through the total submission of one's will, body and soul, but it's an enjoyable book and will leave you feeling unsettled and even unhappy. ...more
Tess Durbeyfield is the eldest daughter of well-meaning but irresponsible working-class parents. Innocent, poor but hard-working, she lets her motherTess Durbeyfield is the eldest daughter of well-meaning but irresponsible working-class parents. Innocent, poor but hard-working, she lets her mother persuade her to go to the home of a d'Urbeville - thought to be a relative, with Tess's father the last of the ancient knightly house of d'Urbeville, now long extinct. Her father is convinced that others should call him Sir John and give him money; her mother, Joan, thinks that putting Tess in the way of gentle folk will win her a gentleman who'll marry her.
But the d'Urbevilles are not even real d'Urbevilles - they are Stokes, a merchant family who took the other name because it had class and history. The widowed mother is blind, and the son, Alec, is a bit of a scoundrel with an eye for pretty ladies. He certainly has an eye for pretty Tess, and doesn't hesitate to take advantage of her.
--------------------------- includes mild spoilers
There's no doubt that Tess is a sympathetic character, and that Hardy felt deeply for her. I would be curious to know how this book was received, whether people in general no longer believed that it was a woman's fault for being seduced and losing her virginity outside marriage, in such a way, or whether they changed heart after reading this. The other question, raised by my mother, is whether he is sensationalising the character and her situation for the sake of writing a "blockbuster". I really can't decide what my impression is in this regard.
Divided into six parts, each labelled in such a way that the arch of Tess's story can almost be gleaned from the titles, the novel carries with it an immense amount of tension. Firstly, although I did not really know what this book was about before I started it, I did know that Tess gets raped. Not violently, no - she is too innocent and submissive by nature, and he had every intention of keeping her for longer - but raped nonetheless. So reading part 1, "The Maiden", was a very tense experience, a waiting game, and even if I hadn't known for sure what was coming before starting, there are plenty of hints from Hardy to lead you down that path.
I also expected this book to be heavy and depressing. Strangely enough, I didn't find it to be particularly depressing. Like most books of this period and earlier, it has the omniscient narrator who can explain the motivations, emotions, thoughts and history of the characters, adding extra layers of complexity through revealing all these details. So, as much as I wanted to hate Angel for being such a hypocritical, judgemental, moralistic, unforgiving bastard, I could not. When he asked another of the dairy maids, Izz, to go to Brazil with him I wanted to put out his eyes! But just as quickly as the impulse came upon him he changed his mind, and I could hope again.
Although Tess was annoyingly submissive and agreeable around her husband, her character was understandable, plausible - and here, as with Angel, you really need to feel what the characters are feeling. Yet she had spirit, and strength, and tried to keep Alec away from her - we the reader do not, as Alec does, believe it is all her fault. She has a great line which Alec pays no attention to, but which resonates throughout the centuries as a truism:
"I feel indignant with you for talking to me like this, when you know - when you know what harm you've done me! You, and those like you, take your fill of pleasure on earth by making the life of such as me bitter and black with sorrow; and then it is a fine thing, when you have had enough of that, to think of securing your pleasure in heaven by becoming converted!" (p.387)
There are other things that Hardy points out, such as the subservience of a woman's will to her husband's, and even with the words coming out of Alec's mouth they ring with the author's dismay:
"The fact is," said d'Urbeville drily, "whatever your dear husband believed you accept, and whatever he rejected you reject, without the least inquiry or reasoning on your own part. That's just like you women. Your mind is enslaved to his." (p.400)
Tess defends herself on this score, bringing in her lack of education, but the message is there. Throughout the novel, Tess is put-upon, demeaned, shamed, ostracised, raped, tormented, and abandoned. But there is the language, the rustic-ness of the setting, the simplistic characters and attitudes, the descriptions of the countryside and the work - interesting in its own right - and the insight into a time and place we can no longer visit, because the attitudes have changed so much.
This is one of those books where many events hinge on the bad or simply poor decisions and judgements of the characters. Because of the omniscient narrator, we often know when such-and-such could have been diverted, or some other course taken, but we can shout and shout all we like and Tess and Angel will never hear. This feeling of hopelessness mirrors Tess' own, the feeling that your feet have been set upon a path not of your choosing, and no matter what you do circumstances conspire against you, and you cannot escape. Just as you cannot escape this book.
I could go on and on about this book (I can easily see why people study it at uni), but I'm going to let my thoughts brew for the bookclub meeting. In short, it seems almost like a fluke that I should have enjoyed this as much as I did, and perverse somehow, to enjoy a book about the suffering of another being. But I did enjoy it, and I do recommend it, though I can well imagine that many people would not like it as I did. It is a tragic romance, and a treatise on the sins of having such attitudes (especially towards women), and what they do to people who should be considered innocent, but are held to blame for the faults of others....more
This is a re-read for me, only I can't remember if I've read it once, twice or how many times before. At least twice, I think, but so long ago that itThis is a re-read for me, only I can't remember if I've read it once, twice or how many times before. At least twice, I think, but so long ago that it was like reading it for the first time. I just had this urge to read it again, I can't explain it but I'm glad I did.
I probably don't need to describe the plot, I'm sure everyone knows it by now. I actually never studied this book at school or uni, so I've never delved into it and explored the themes or anything. Some people seem to find it, or elements of it, offensive to modern-day sensibilities, such as the absorption of certain characters in 'catching' a man and getting married. To be honest, I think one of the reasons why Austen's books are still so popular is because of their familiarity (as well as their sense of humour, the clash of characters, and that age-old quest for love): plenty of people are preoccupied with exactly the same things today. The 'meat market' is still there - in the form of pubs, clubs and other 'dos rather than balls. Language and costumes may have changed, but just look at that ridiculous tv show "The Bachelor" - it's catchphrase could easily be "A single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Though, cynically, they're more like Wickham - again, a very familiar character.
Back to the humour for a moment. The wit in the dialogue always makes me chuckle, even when the lines are so well-known I see them coming. There is a dry amusement between the lines when describing the interactions between characters, the way they dance around each other. The skill with which characters like Darcy and Mr. Collins are written is supurb, and even though they are rarely described you get a clear sense of their figure etc. - and personality - through the way they speak. Austen manages in a few well-chosen words to capture an entire scene or personality.
It's so nice to go back to the source and read the original text after watching the series and the more recent movie so many times. There were things, little details, that I had forgotten or barely noticed before, which pleasantly surprised me. Most of all, it confirmed my opinion that the recent movie is an excellent adaptation of a long, detailed book, and easily my favourite. (I've seen the much older series as well, the one where Darcy walks around like he has a stick up his bum. Compared to that, Collin Firth's Darcy was a breath of fresh air.)
I wonder, too, if we can go back to this non-formulaic structure of a love story. How many movies have you seen that are, in structure and basic plot, exactly the same? A few British movies have managed to play around with it a bit, like Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. What keeps my attention with P&P - and what no doubt makes it a tricky book to capture on film - is the life-like, everyday-ness of the plot, the turns you can't predict unless you're already familiar with the story, that feeling like it really happened because it doesn't feel contrived at all - that kind of structure makes an old book like P&P feel fresher than the latest romantic-comedy release.
At least, that's the way it is for me. I can understand why some people don't like the story at all, or are disinterested. Personally, I appreciated the book much more this time round, at 28, than I did when I first read it just before the BBC series came out in the mid-90s, when I was 16. I got more out of it, and understood the language much better - though there are still a few lines (at one point even an entire paragraph) whose meaning eludes me. I'll get there, cause this ain't the last time I'll read the book that's for sure.
Now I need to re-read the others and see if my opinion has changed any...
A Note On This Edition: This edition is part of a reproduction series of late 19th-century editions. The covers are, of course, new, but the text inside is printed on lovely thick paper, and like the Sandstone editions of books like Jane Eyre, the font etc. is a much older style. P&P is complete with spaces between words and semicolons etc., and illustrations by Hugh Thomson that are often quite funny. There is no ISBN for this book, you can't buy it in a shop. I actually got these from Doubleday bookclub years ago....more