It did take me a few chapters to get into the swing of it, but I eventually got into the rhythm of it, and quite enjoyed it in the end. I found it invIt did take me a few chapters to get into the swing of it, but I eventually got into the rhythm of it, and quite enjoyed it in the end. I found it invaluable as a witness of the time, place and culture, and knowing the fate of its author made reading it all the more poignant. As a literary text, however, it was less enthusing. Of course, it was a subversive text, aiming at prodding the people to look at themselves and their society, so some black and white was in order. Still, the almost saintly purity of various of the characters (not just the two main protagonists, but several others, like Tasio, Elias, and so on) was at times irritating - those who have read Cuore will know what kind of cloying, edifying sentimentalism I'm talking about.
Pleasant read, though I could not really "sink" into the novel, as jarring notes kept jumping at me - the main protagonist, Alexandra, raised on a farPleasant read, though I could not really "sink" into the novel, as jarring notes kept jumping at me - the main protagonist, Alexandra, raised on a farm in the middle of nowhere, not much of a reader, living among simple, uncultured people, is exceedingly perceptive and thoughtful in her perception of human feelings. But she is not alone, as I think maybe with the single exception of Oscar, there is no character that at least once is preoccupied with the feelings of others. Of course I am not arguing that they would not feel the most complex of inner turmoils: it is their reasoning about it that strikes the wrong chord.
Also, these characters are all good to the core, even the one (won't spoil it for you) that commits the unspeakable: each and every one of them is deep down thoroughly good and wholesome - somewhat annoying, whereas the writing is very enjoyable. The opening sentence is memorable:
One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.
One passage that struck me (out of many!) was this most delicate kiss in the suddenly darkened hall, the contrast between the tender tension in the tent and the more childish excitement outside: (view spoiler)[
At that instant Amedee laid hands on the switchboard. There was a shiver and a giggle, and every one looked toward the red blur that Marie's candle made in the dark. Immediately that, too, was gone. Little shrieks and currents of soft laughter ran up and down the dark hall. Marie started up,—directly into Emil's arms. In the same instant she felt his lips. The veil that had hung uncertainly between them for so long was dissolved. Before she knew what she was doing, she had committed herself to that kiss that was at once a boy's and a man's, as timid as it was tender; so like Emil and so unlike any one else in the world.
Not until it was over did she realize what it meant. And Emil, who had so often imagined the shock of this first kiss, was surprised at its gentleness and naturalness. It was like a sigh which they had breathed together; almost sorrowful, as if each were afraid of wakening something in the other.
(hide spoiler)] and that is representative of what spoiled it for me.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This book has a remarkable flow - it took me a while to read it for the simple reason that these days I have very little time.
The other side of the "This book has a remarkable flow - it took me a while to read it for the simple reason that these days I have very little time.
The other side of the "readability coin" is that this book lacks proper probing of the issues: Chang seems too much in love with her project (offering a portrait of Cixi which is very different from conventional wisdom - at least as far as China's assessment of her goes) to remember to educate her readers on so many other aspects of that long reign that just a modest amount of curiosity makes any reader wonder about. In this sense, then, it is a lost opportunity: we get a lot of the facts, and this is remarkable given that the official Chinese position on Cixi is very different - but a lot is left unexplained. We know that there are the Manchu minority and the Han minority, but beside different dress codes, what else is there to distinguish these two cultures? How did this environment affect Cixi? How did the Manchu manage to achieve and retain power? What was the general situation of China at the time? On these themes it seems that Pearl Buck is more instructive than Jung Chan, which is a pity. Sure, this is not intended to be scholarly work, which is fine of course, but I felt shortchanged nonetheless.
All the narration points towards showing how great a ruler Cixi was - with some flaws, for which however plenty of justifications. Yet there are some sudden changes, both of Cixi's attitude and in the attitudes towards her, that are left unexplained and which are difficult to make sense of: for instance, after the Boxer troubles, first she flees Bejing to escape not just the invaders but the resentful population, then all of a sudden it seems that her people love her again: what happened to bring this change about?
Jung glosses over what are very obviously serious shortcomings in Cixi's personality: in places the facts we are presented with show a woman of many contradictions, and great passions (from allowing almost any licence to her son, to some chilling displays of callousness, e.g. Pearl's murder). But in other places she mellows down (e.g. after returning to Bejing: why?).
It is a real pity that there is no real exploration of Cixi's character - this is a good book, but it could have been much better.
According to the introduction to the Penguin edition, referring to his own work Waugh said
‘I regard writing not as investigation of character but as
According to the introduction to the Penguin edition, referring to his own work Waugh said
‘I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.’
Yet he is very precise in his depiction of English class conscious society. Witty, funny, and piercingly critical, it portrays in Paul Pennyfeather the stereotypical, quintessential English gentleman who sails effortless through life's up and downs (in this respect, the passing of Lord Tangent with no consequences for those involved is also a gem).
The "cover story" is itself hilarious, with Paul's almost perfect composure providing a comedic counterpoint to the innumerable catastrophes befalling him and those around him. I can imagine how contemporaries must have loved and laughed at the myriad of clever references to the contemporary political and cultural elites. At the same time, society is severely reprimanded: from the justice system, to the press, to conventions and privilege, which I read all as different manifestations of the same "ill", the English class system.
There are further reflections of what it all means - there are several references to suicide here and there, but also to some form of renewal, as in the many lives of Grimes, Philbrick and Fagan, not to mention Paul himself and Margot. And then there is Otto Silenus' simile between a Paris Luna Park ride and people notion of life
‘People don’t see that when they say “life” they mean two different things. They can mean simply existence, with its physiological implications of growth and organic change. They can’t escape that – even by death, but because that’s inevitable they think the other idea of life is too – the scrambling and excitement and bumps and the effort to get to the middle. And when we do get to the middle, it’s just as if we never started. It’s so odd.
And is it different lives, or different identities? Paul's return to Scone as an unrecognised, new Mr Pennyfeather and his last conversation with Peter seem to come down for the latter.
The writing is also beautiful throughout, carrying the reader effortlessly along, though at points Waugh seems to want to remind somewhat more explicitly how good he is at this
Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams, and taught the childish satyrs the art of love? Had he not suffered unscathed the fearful dooms of all the offended gods of all the histories – fire, brimstone and yawning earthquakes, plague and pestilence? Had he not stood, like the Pompeian sentry, while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears? Had he not, like some grease-caked Channel-swimmer, breasted the waves of the Deluge? Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters?
EDIT: if you are young, or non-British, or both, I recommend an annotated edition (I had the Penguin one, which I am happy to recommend) that can explain the many implicit references to people, places, politics, etc....more