I first read this several years ago, around 2003 I think, while I was living in Japan. I remember really struggling to read the first chapter, which i...moreI first read this several years ago, around 2003 I think, while I was living in Japan. I remember really struggling to read the first chapter, which is the narrator's description and explanation of a character called Robert Cohn. I don't know why I had so much trouble reading it, just that I couldn't follow it, couldn't keep track of it. It wasn't a good way to start. Then, I was hoping right up to the last page for a happy ending. I felt cheated that I didn't get it. Kind of like "why the hell did I read this then?"
This time around (reading it again for a book club - I missed the meeting, incidentally), because I knew what to expect, I could focus on all the other things in the novel, knowing that the narrator, Jake, would still be alone at the end of it. That he wouldn't get to keep Brett. And I had no trouble reading the first chapter. Really, the prose is incredibly easy to read, simplistic even, except for when the descriptions get vague.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Set in 1924, Fiesta is the story of Jake, an American living and working in Paris, who goes to Pamplona in Spain to see the bull fighting with some friends, a mix of American and English ex-pats - one of which is Brett, Lady Ashley, a beautiful and charismatic woman of 34 who's waiting for her divorce to come through so she can marry a bankrupt, Mike Campbell.
Jake and Brett met during the war, when he was recovering from an injury. They fell in love, but his injury was of the groin variety so they can't be physically together - hence, she doesn't want to stay with him even though she loves him. Instead, she has casual relationships and affairs, while Jake has to watch. Sometimes he even introduces them. But there's nothing he can do about it.
The story is heavily detailed with the kind of descriptions that, while apparently perfectly acceptable in classics and other works of literature, can be the cause of some rather heavy criticism in genre fiction. Like so:
"I unpacked my bags and stacked the books on the table beside the head of the bed, put out my shaving things, hung up some clothes in the big armoire, and made up a bundle for the laundry. Then I took a shower in the bathroom and went down to lunch." (p.207)
It would be petty of me to ask, Where else would he take a shower? wouldn't it. Shame.
This book is all prose, very little plot. It's not that it's wordy, rather that it reads like a mouth full of crooked, over-crowded teeth. The dialogue is very 20s-specific, and if I was the kind of reviewer who liked to write snappy, witty, clever little reviews, the first thing I'd do is satirise the dialogue. Like so:
"I feel so rotten!" Brett said. "Don't be a damned fool," Jake said. "The count's a brick." "Let's have a drink." "Here's the pub." "This is a hell of a place," Bill said. "Why don't you see when you're not wanted, Cohn? Go away. Take that sad Jewish face away," said Mike. "I feel like hell. Don't let's talk," said Brett. "It's been damned hard on Mike." "Do you still love me Jake?" asked Brett. "Yes." "Because I'm a goner. I'm in love with the bullfighting boy." "It's been damned hard on Mike." "Where's that beer?" Mike asked.
And so on. A lot of repetition, a lot of drunken mouthing off, a lot of really very pointless, empty conversation that goes round and round in circles. The problem is, of course, that the characters are all horrible, shallow, self-interested, boorish, ill-mannered, childish tourists, the kind that make you cringe. Jake is probably the only character you can feel any real sympathy for, but even he has his moments.
As the first-person narrator, it's amazing how little we know Jake's thoughts. He hides behind recounting pointless dialogue and describing mundane things. There are times when he gets thoughtful, wistful even, and those parts are what make the novel worthwhile. It's also very easy to feel like you're in Paris, and Spain. The heavily descriptive prose does help create a realistic, breathing setting. Especially when they reach Pamplona, to watch the bull-fighting. It just also happens to be the place where their behaviour becomes even more embarrassing.
I'm not sure if Hemingway was criticising his fellow ex-pats or not - but I think he is. Maybe he was just describing it how it was - and it is believable. Jake isn't a judgemental character, but I wonder how much of that is Jake and how much Hemingway? This edition doesn't come with any additional notes or introductions or appendices, so I haven't read anything about the novel that might shed light on this. As a chronicle of ex-pat life, especially among those who have money, in the 20s, and of bull-fighting, it's a success. But it's still two-dimensional.
As for the bull-fighting, it's one of the more interesting sections, especially towards the end where there's an involved recounting of three bull-fighters at work. We now know that bull's are red-green colour-blind; it's the movement of the cape that enrages them, not the colour. So I wonder what was wrong with the bull Jake assumed was colour-blind?
As simplistic as I've made this novel sound, there is quite a lot going on in the details, things that make it both interesting and deplorable. The bull fighting, for instance, is both a commemoration and a presentation of a highly controversial topic. There's certainly a parallel between the beauty and brutality of the bull-fighting, and the way these ex-pats treat each other. They are at once unlikeable, and likeable. It just goes to show how confounding humans can be, and how contradictory.(less)
This has been on my shelf, unread, since uni, when I picked it up second-hand after reading and loving The Day of the Triffids, recommended to me by m...moreThis has been on my shelf, unread, since uni, when I picked it up second-hand after reading and loving The Day of the Triffids, recommended to me by my mum. I can't believe I waited so long to read this amazing book, and if there is one book you should read in your life it is this one.
It has been a long time - how long no one can say, though surely centuries - since God sent the Tribulation to the Old People (us), near destroying everything we had built and learned. The Tribulation continues: the wilderness - vast tracts of land covered in what looks like black glass - and the Badlands beyond the Fringes, absorbs most of the world. Pockets of civilisation, such as it is, survive with their own form of understanding the past. Genetic mutations of plants, animals and people continue, and everyone has their own idea of what the "true form" should be and focus their energies on zealously destroying the Deviations.
Davie lives in Labrador - at least, that's what they think the Old People called it - and at birth passed inspection. The Bible and a book written after the Tribulation, the Repentances, clearly outline what the True Form should be, and that Mutants are an abomination to God and Man. Even at a young age when none of this is really understood, though, he instinctively keeps his ability to think-speak with several other children in the area, including his half-cousin Rosalind, a secret. It is only as he grows older, especially after he loses his friend and playmate Sophie, whose parents have done all they can to hide the six toes on each of her feet, that he really begins to understand the dangers of being a Deviant.
This book is beautifully, subtly, skilfully written. For that alone it is worth reading. Characters are rarely described yet vividly portrayed through their words, their speech-patterns, their reactions. The feeling of suspense and danger overshadows a Little House on the Prairie kind of lifestyle, and the small-minded bigotry comes across clearly in the small details as much as in the story itself.
What is even more fascinating, though, is the world Wyndham has created here and the philosophies grounded in it. That everyone has their own ideas of what is right, that Davie's people are studiously trying to recapture the Old People's way of life without understanding the significance of that way of life being visited by climatic and genetic destruction, speaks loud and clear. Davie is taught that:
"...mankind - that was us, in civilised parts - was in the process of climbing back into grace; we were following a faint and difficult trail which led up to the peaks from which we had fallen. From the true trail branched many false trails that sometimes looked easier and more attractive; all these really led to the edges of precipices, beneath which lay the abyss of eternity. There was only one true trail, and by following it we should, with God's help and in His own good time, regain all that had been lost. But so faint was the trail, so set with traps and deceits, that every step must be taken with caution, and it was too dangerous for a man to rely on his own judgement. Only the authorities, ecclesiastical and lay, were in a position to judge whether the next step was a rediscovery, and so, safe to take; or whether it deviated from the true re-ascent, and so was sinful." (p.40)
Davie himself begins to question this wisdom, after hearing from his Uncle, an ex-sailor, that other societies in other parts of the world have a different understanding of the True Form; he also feels scared and troubled by his Aunt's baby, who because of a tiny blemish will be taken away and never spoken of again, while his Aunt will be expected to do penance and pray not to have a mutant baby again, or will even be replaced, de-certified and cast off (it's always the woman's fault, isn't it?).
Another interesting (and damning) perspective comes from one of these other societies, called Zealand, one that has advanced and re-built and where think-speaking is treasured and encouraged - a utopia, in fact, for Davie and his friends:
"...we can make a better world than the Old People. They were only ingenious half-humans, little better than savages; all living shut off from one another, with only clumsy words to link them. Often they were shut off still more by different languages, and different beliefs. Some of them could think individually, but they had to remain individuals. Emotions they could sometimes share, but they could not think collectively. When their conditions were primitive they could get along all right, as the animals can; but the more complex they made their world, the less capable they were of dealing with it. They had no means of consensus. They learnt to co-operate constructively in small units; but only destructively in large units. They aspired greedily, and then refused to face the responsibilities they had created. They created vast problems, then buried their heads in the sands of idle faith. There was, you see, no real communication, no understanding between them. They could, at their best, be near-sublime animals, but not more." (p.156)
Aside from the disparaging remark about animals, whom I tend to respect more than I do humans as a species, this is such a damning view of us Old People, yet so spot-on. Even written in the 50s, it's clear that we as people and societies and other groups, are not learning. Most post-apocalyptic fiction, that I've read anyway, is entirely plausible (though Day of the Triffids is a bit odd in that respect): it's easy enough to follow the path we are on, all the paths, to their worst conclusion. What the people of Zealand are really saying is that communication leads to understanding leads to co-operation and can avert catastrophe.
Despite the religious overtones and the philosophising, this is not a lecturing book, it does not try to tell you what to think or judge you. As the blurb says, it is "A terrifying story of conformity and deformity in a world paralysed by genetic mutation" and, in true fantasy/sci-fi form, every reader will take something different from it, or nothing at all. I personally was thoroughly engrossed in this classic, and find it broadens and strengthens my understanding of the dangers of taking things too literally, in strict interpretations. Freedom of thought and debate is one of our greatest strengths as a species, and without it we wallow, stuck, on the same path, repeating the same mistakes again and again, blinded by our own arrogance and lack of imagination. (less)
Set in the early decades of the 19th century, mostly in Regency London, Thackeray tells the "history" of a cast of characters whose lives, interests,...moreSet in the early decades of the 19th century, mostly in Regency London, Thackeray tells the "history" of a cast of characters whose lives, interests, ambitions and pleasures intertwine, along with a staggering supporting cast of real and imagined people of all description and class. Through the friendship of the stockbroker's daughter Amelia Sedley and the drawing master's (and opera dancer's) daughter Rebecca Sharp, who went to school together, we meet Amelia's family of parents and portly brother Jos; her betrothed, George Osborne as well as his father and two sisters; and his best friend Captain William Dobbin, who falls in love with her at first meeting. When Rebecca leaves the Sedley family after a visit during which she tries to snare Jos, we meet the family she is to act as governess for: Sir Pitt and his Lady Crawley, their two sons and two daughters; rich, fat Miss Crawley who is to leave all her money to the second son, Rawdon; Sir Pitt's brother Bute and Mrs. Bute at the Rectory; and so on. The Sedleys, Osbornes and Crawleys are the main families in this novel, around which all else revolves.
Beginning in the year or so before the Battle of Waterloo outside Brussels, we follow the machinations and manipulations of the clever, indomitable Becky Sharp, and the pain and suffering of sweet, naive Amelia, whose family is ruined and cast into poverty and who would never have married George if gentle, good-hearted Dobbin hadn't brought it about. From London we travel to Brussels - by this time Becky has married Captain Rawdon, which secretive act has lost Rawdon his aunt's inheritance, but she is still stringing along all manner of men, including Amelia's cocky husband. During the battle, George Osborne is killed, and the stage is set for a dramatic saga on all sides, interspersed with Thackeray's opinions, insights, philosophising, cheeky asides and liberal-minded essays on class, women, men, wealth, and so on. If you've ever seen the BBC series or watched the more recent movie, you'll be familiar with the story, but not with Thackeray's - ahem - thoughts.
Thackeray's theory of characterization proceeds generally on the assumption that the acts of men and women are directed not by principle, but by instincts, selfish or amiable--that toleration of human weakness is possible only by lowering the standard of human capacity and obligation--and that the preliminary condition of an accurate knowledge of human character is distrust of ideals and repudiation of patterns. This view is narrow, and by no means covers all the facts of history and human life, but what relative truth it has is splendidly illustrated in Vanity Fair. There is not a person in the book who excites the reader's respect, and not one who fails to excite his interest. The morbid quickness of the author's perceptions of the selfish element, even in his few amiable characters, is a constant source of surprise. The novel not only has no hero, but implies the non-existence of heroism.
I totally agree with this, and there isn't much more I feel able to add. Throughout the novel, I struggled to find a character whom I could identify with, or respect, or even like. Perhaps only Dobbin could be said to be heroic, but he has his short-comings too, as Thackeray has no problem in showing (and telling) us. But this novel isn't about liking people, it's more about understanding human nature. It's a remarkable study of character, personality and society, and could easily be describing today. Thackeray (his voice is strong and constant throughout the book - he even, towards the end, intrudes in person) has very "modern" insights into the lower classes, the socially constructed (as opposed to natural) differences between classes, and how and why women are their own enemies. There are some great lines, some telling paragraphs, and more than a few times, a hint of reproach:
Rebecca's appearance struck Amelia with terror, and made her shrink back. It recalled her to the world, and the remembrance of yesterday. In the overpowering fears about tomorrow she had forgotten Rebecca - jealousy - everything except that her husband was gone and was in danger. Until this dauntless worldling came in and broke the spell, and lifted the latch, we too have foreborne to enter that sad chamber. How long had that poor girl been on her knees! what hours of speechless prayer and bitter prostration had she passed there! The war-chroniclers who write brilliant stories of fight and triumph scarcely tell us of these. These are too mean parts of the pageant: and you don't hear widow's cries or mother's sobs in the midst of the shouts and jubilation in the great Chorus of Victory. And yet when was the time, that such have not cried out: heart-broken humble protestants, unheard in the uproar of the triumph! (pp364-365)
Thackeray concerns himself greatly with women, individuals and in general, in Vanity Fair, presenting an insightful study and a very compassionate understanding of their trials and tribulations, showing his readers what is not included in the histories. While it's surely appreciated, he does neither gender any favours. It's curious, that he would strive to expose the strictures at the same time as the manipulations, just as he lends a page here and there to the conditions of servants even while describing them in less than a flattering light, right down to thieving. Is he looking for balance? Open-mindedness? To show off his genius in understanding all manner of people?
I just want to take a moment to say, since there is no "most virtuous" character, who do I consider to be the most reprehensible? That one's easy: George Osborne's father, Mr Osborne, who refused to let his eldest daughter marry because he wanted her to housekeep for him and didn't feel like letting her marry; and for being such a bastard when Mr Sedley became bankrupt; and for the things he encouraged in Amelia's son, and more besides. Yeah, he took the cake alright.
Rich and heavy in detail, this is not a book you can skim. It is a painfully slow read, but not because the prose is particularly cumbersome or stiff - it is the excruciating detail, detail you can't help but think is often irrelevant. The story itself, though it covers about 15 years, could have easily been condensed into a much slimmer book, especially if you took out all Thackeray's tangents and descriptions. But without these details, these exhausting descriptions, the novel would be barren, insipid, unrevealing, without an omniscient voice even, and we would not understand the characters who drive this story, this history of their ups-and-downs (and there are more "downs" than "ups"), nor the historical setting in which it takes place. If you're looking to research the period, this could very well be your first stop. Having read so much Georgette Heyer, I'm pretty sure she must have read this many times, along with Austen etc. All those Heyer books also helped me understand a great many expressions and words, though "plucked" is a new one, and I'm now confused as to the difference between being "plucked" and "rusticated". I wish there was a dictionary of words used in the classics which have slipped into obscurity - no one was ever able to explain to me what "marry" meant in Shakespeare, for example.
When you finally reach the end of this hefty book, you are left with a bad taste in your mouth, and have to remind yourself that this is just one man's version of the world, of people, and that you do know plenty of good, generous, deserving people. There are only so many Becky Sharps in the world, so many Mr Osbornes, though we've all known one or two; but there is a good lesson to be reminded of from this book: don't judge a person too quickly, or as you would not wish to be judged; and, nothing is simple, or black-and-white, least of all a human being. Well, there are a few politicians I could think of ...(less)