Tuesday, December 22, 2009

19: Remarkable Creatures

Remarkable Creatures, Tracy Chevalier

Elizabeth Philpot and her sister are eccentric spinsters in the early 1800's - back when mothers spent most of their energy marrying off daughters and the rest solving the menage problem (how to seat large dinner parties so that so married couples sit next to each other). When their brother prepares to get married, the sisters are exiled to Lyme Regis to lived as country gentry, as opposed to degraded gentry in London.

Lyme Regis in the 1800's is where Louisa Musgrove jumped the steps on the Cobb to tragic (or not so tragic, all things considered) results. The Cobb is a stony walk along the beach - where Sarah Woodruff haunts. In fact, Charles Smithson even had a passing interest in fossils and paleontology and even went to look for interesting fossils, just like Mary Anning, the other protagonist of Remarkable Creatures. If my memory serves me correctly, in one scene, Sarah Woodruff even found fossils to give to Charles. Lyme must be a hot spot for women combing the shores for fossils.

The book is told, alternating, from Elizabeth Philpot's view and that of Mary Anning. It is historically attested that Mary Anning was struck by lightening as a baby and her contemporaries often attributed her later curiosity and spark to that extraordinary incident. The book is a charming story of two friends as they hunt for fossils on the beaches of Lyme. In 1800, the society of England is dominated by men and as are the lives of Philpot and Anning - except the part where they are combing the beaches of Lyme, looking for bones of ancient monsters. They deal with men, squabble over men, and fight against them. Only in finding lost creatures on the beach are they free from the tyranny of men.

I don't usually enjoy historical fiction. The characters (who are often speaking in first person, like in this book) are supposed to be from ancient Rome or Jane Austen's Lyme, but they speak in such a modern tone and the modernity filters to their thoughts.

In Girl with the Pearl Earring, Griet likens everyone's voice to something metaphoric; she likened her mother's voice to a bubbling pot. That is the introductory device in Chapter 1 of Girl with the Pearl Earring. The introductory device here in Remarkable Creatures is Elizabeth Philpot describing characters by what feature they lead with: she herself leads with her jaw, Mary Anning leads with her eyes. Chock-full of significance, foreshadowing, etc. But it all feels so modern. (And also a bit formulaic, this book has similar feel to Girl with the Pearl Earring, with respects to tone and organization of the story.)

The narration fixes on the aspects of life in the 1800's that are different from now, which is only natural for someone reflecting on history - but the narration is from the point of view of characters who live in that time only and do not have knowledge of later days, when evolution is accepted and women own property and can hold self-respecting jobs. The narrators not only long for a time of less male dominance, but come across as expecting it. It makes perfect sense for someone from this century stuck into 1800's Lyme, but it doesn't make much sense for someone from the 1800's.

And the tone is so modern. I feel that Mary Anning, not having received much of a formal education, should speak in a quaint style, like Elizabeth Jane, who said "fay" instead of "succeed" and "dumbledore" instead of "bumblebee". The modernness in the tone of the narration and in the thinking of the characters pulled me out of the book at times.

But perhaps, I'm a little overly critical; it was a good book, nesting somewhere comfortably between literary fiction and chick-lit.

On a side note, I got this book as an advanced reading copy - complete with spelling mistakes and everything - as a result of LibraryThings Advanced Reviewers draw. It was really exciting to read a book before it's out in stores.

On a second side note, happy holidays to all my readers and a special happy holidays wish goes out to my friend Mary, if you're still reading. No pun - contextual or biblical - intended.

Monday, November 30, 2009

18: The Original of Laura

Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura

A fragmentary review:

"Dear Mummy and Hummy," wrote Lolita, once upon another Nabokov book. Flora might have written something of the sort, but her mother's tenant is named "Hubert Hubert".

There is a lovely, nearly-complete scene wherein Flora is sitting on a bench at a train station and is accosted by an old friend, who presses her to read a book called Laura. She says "it is, of course, fictionalized and all that but you'll come face to face with yourself at every other corner. And there's your wonderful death. Let me show your your wonderful death. [...] You'll scream with laughter. It's the craziest death in the world."

You know, it's easier to write a fragmentary review than a coherent one. It's also easy to call a half-written, incoherent manuscript, which probably should have been burnt like Nabokov asked, a "novel in fragments" to excuse its lack of plot and cohesion.

Hubert Hubert sees his dead child Daisy in young Flora and his dead wife in Flora's mother.

Philip Wild sees his dead childhood sweetheart Aurora Lee in his young wife Flora.

Humbert Humbert sees his dead childhood sweetheart Annabel Leigh in prepubescent girls.

Naively: doesn't anyone like anybody in and of themselves? Why so strapped to the past?

In conclusion, there might actually be a novel here; there's a strong theme of being strapped to the past inherent in the characters and even in the fact that Nabokov's previous works are referenced and reminisced over. Philip Wild tries to erase his body parts by some kind of autohypnotism - the act of erasure is somehow in conflict with the bonds of the past. But I don't think one can actually find the story/concept, whatever Nabokov was aiming for, in this book, which includes photographs of Nabokov's original index cards that make up the "manuscript" of The Original of Laura.

There's only enough here for a coffee table book that says "I'm literary, yes I am, and a fan of manuscripts rescued from the fire".

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why I hate Jane Eyre

I thought I would hate Twilight. From listening to friends and reading reviews, I'd already noticed its similarities to Jane Eyre and I read it, hoping for a bash-fest of a comparison between it and my all-time-least-favourite book. But I was wrong. It's only Jane Eyre that I hate.

Twilight is really not all that bad. It's a seductive, little fantasy about obsessive love on the dark side of mortality. The reader is swept (clumsily, of course) into Bella's shoes because Bella has no character unless you give her your own. There's a dangerous, handsome, gentlemanly boy who's dangerous and standoffish to everyone else but you because you're oh-so-special. It's the perfect rock-a-bye for a large percentage of the female population; a dark knight in sparkly armour (chastely) tapping Miss Insecure, Lady Fantasizing and Little Girl Goth - who all just want to be understood and held. It is what it is; it's not trying to be Tess of the D'Urbervilles or Lolita. And it's too dull to lull me.

The writing is as bland as my cooking. That's saying a lot, coming from the girl who burnt fish she was trying to steam by forgetting to put water in the pan - guess how my memory is with salt and seasoning ... But, really, who am I to lampoon a phenomenon that's brought manic highs to the heaving chests of girls of all ages?

On libraryThing, I found tons of reviews by well-meaning, well-read people, detailing (and mocking) all the ways in which Twilight's relation with Miss Insecure/Lady Fantasizing/Little Girl Goth becomes a bit rough (and not the nice kind of "rough" like in the sound of Bruno von Falk's voice that evokes a kiss that ends with a bite) and their recommendations to read more substantial works. Like Jane Eyre. Which I do have a hate-on for.

Let's review the ugly facts of Jane Eyre:
  1. The men are pigs.
    Rochester tries to fool poor, penniless Jane into marrying him even though he is already married. If he had succeeded, she would have been ruined - the society of Jane's England would have branded a letter more scarlet that Hester's Prynne's "A" into her forehead, making her unfit for any mode of life, except as Rochester's kept woman. How gentlemanly of him.
    Then, we are treated to St John Rivers. He wants to drag poor frail Jane to some hot, uncivilized country where she'd probably succumb to the elements faster than stout Englishman Rawdon Crawley. It's all very noble, this saving the souls of savages, but ... seriously? What about Jane?
  2. In order for Jane to be on equal footing with him, Rochester has to be disfigured and thrust into misery and Jane's fortunes have to be elevated by a hitherto unheard-of uncle. She was really that much below him who tried to commit bigamy with her?
  3. In the scene where Jane hears "Grace Poole's laugh", she stands on the roof and yearns for faraway lands. Why on earth does content, humble Jane need to wish for bigger things and distant dreams? She doesn't. Charlotte Bronte did. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte wrote herself when she should have written of her characters. It's why Jane's humility is so pronounced; Charlotte Bronte disliked how she was treated as a servant. It must have been comforting to seek refuge from constantly having to swallow one's pride in Jane's steely humility. C.B.'s projections of her own frustration bring Jane out of character. It's an example of inferior, amateurish writing. Virginia Woolf said so.
Despite all these ugly things, both times that I read Jane Eyre, at ages 11 and 22, I was entirely held by the first few chapters of the book. The 1st person voice is so personal and the portrayal of Jane's trials at school is moving and real. There are brilliant nuances in Bronte's telling and the events she chose to bring to the surface - Jane having to stand in from of the school and be branded a liar, Helen Burns always being punished by a stern teacher - breathes a vivid air on everything. Makes me think of the rapid, fervid breathing of some little thing - a bird - grounded, as the cat prowls closer and closer.

All this ... and then Charlotte Bronte unleashes her deep-seated fantasy for a reformed playboy with a crazy wife in the attic and a man so good that he's cruel.

Do the good things redeem the book of all its problems? Yes. Unfortunately, they do.

Jane Eyre can have all the lulling, poisonous things that Twilight has and get away with it. Jane can be like Bella and fit into the role of a battered woman; Rochester paraded his rich, beautiful almost-fiancee in from of Jane and forced her to watch as her employer. Jane can be like Bella and constantly go for men more liable to hurt her than love her. The book can be a blatant fantasy of dangerous men and attainment of desired traits: the Cullens are beautiful, rich, intelligent, good - everything a middle-aged woman with three kids would find desirable - and Jane is morally strong and humble - everything that C.B. wanted so badly to be. There are many people calling Twilight out on its deficiencies, from its lack of character development to typos. But Jane Eyre's strengths (remember the fluttering bird) do make up for its faults and, thus, I haven't found many people detailing the wrongs of Jane Eyre. Despite having enough ugliness to be reviled, it's still made every must-read reading list under Google's eye. Therein lies my dislike for Jane Eyre.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reading Anais continued

I keep a diary because journaling is supposed to have therapeutic effects. It's supposed to help with depression and various mental illnesses. Recording one's life and being able to look back on it and think about what has happened and why ... this process is supposed to filter out the crazy in one's life. It's introspection and meditation and all those healthy things. One should be able to spot complications in life (falling in love with a married man, starting an affair with one's psychoanalyst, etc) before they take root. Journaling should temper one's more feral instincts, stabilize emotional swings and contribute to living a simple, uncomplicated life.

But secretly, I suspect, journaling only has that effect on people who are by nature temperate and not inclined to do crazy things.

As I'm reading Anais Nin's diary, I get the feeling that she's not being entirely candid. When I started reading, I was awed by how candid her depiction of June Miller is. It's so personal and she admits to being fascinated by June. I was inspired by the idea of this journal, in which someone can shed all of her inhibitions to tell the truth and honestly record all that she thinks, and thus free herself of hidden demons lurking at the back of her mind, that would usually be suppressed. As I read on however, I became more and more aware that this diary was always meant to be read. I can also see that she's not entirely honest with the diary.

In reading her episode with Dr. Allendy, I was hit with the realization that, when she questioned whether or not she was attracted to him, she already knew the answer, which she did not share with her diary. After this realization and casting Anais Nin in the role of an unreliable narrator (like Ishmael), I'm left questioning a lot of things. What does she feel about Henry Miller? Her relationship with him seems to hover between romantic and platonic. Even such a candid, beautifully-written diary suffers from omission and elision.

Diary-writing does not prevent life from being complicated; all the reflection and introspection leads to discovering one's problems, but not to fixing them. In fact, a diary is just a place to think and justify one's actions that might appear to the world as wrong - whereupon, one can live out questionable situations all the more systematically.

Note to self: must find more time to read ... and write in my diary.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

18: Swann's Way

"And, drying my eyes, I promised them [the hawthorn flowers] that, when I grew up, I would never copy the foolish example of other men, but that even in Paris, on fine spring days, instead of paying calls and listening to silly talk, I would make excursions into the country to see the first hawthorn-trees in bloom."

Proust, Swann's Way, somewhere towards the end of Combray chapter

I had been reading this book for a whole year before I finished it. Most of the time, I was lost in Combray, in the little remembrances that make up the whole books. In contrast, I read Swann in Love, the second half of this book is barely any time.

I remember the episode where the narrator soiled his fancy traveling clothes to say goodbye to a particularly fine hawthorn-tree and I wanted the quote, which you see above. Finding it was like wading through a pond of Combray-coloured memories, all of which are distinct yet so similar, and being lost. When I listen to a CD repeatedly, at the end of a track, I would start to hear, in my head, the beginning of the next track. Sometimes, when one rereads familiar works, at the end of a scene or passage, one gets the feeling of the next passage before it arrives. But this book, when I went through it, trying to find my hawthorns scene, so many passages gave me the feeling that the passage that I was looking for was immediately following - it all seems to be the same kind of moment, lived out in different actualities. It is only by the miracle of Project Gutenberg's searchable text, that the above quote was brought to you.

But all of the remembrances of the narrator's childhood summer home and perfectly every day occurrences there - the walks along Swann's way or Guermantes Way, tearful farewells to hawthorn flowers, and sleepless, miserable nights because maman would not come say goodnight - constitute the whole of this book and the story of Charles Swann in love is just a strange interlude, after which we return to the narrator and his unrequited love for Gilberte Swann, Charles Swann's daughter.

I might note that nowhere do we find the narrator's name. The only other book that I've ever read where we never see the narrator's name is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Well, this book is technically not over yet. I have to go find the next volume.

"For what we suppose to be our love, our jealousy are, neither of them, single, continuous and individual passions. They are composed of an infinity of successive loves, of different jealousies, each of which is ephemeral, although by their uninterrupted multitude they give us the impression of continuity, the illusion of unity."

Marcel Proust, Swann's Way

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Reading Anais Nin

Sometimes, I think I'm a bit whimsical. As I nearly finished cooking dinner today, I was seized with a sudden craving for onion soup. Despite having no idea how onion soup is made, I proceeded to cook and invent a recipe for onion soup out of the contents of my fridge, while eating the dinner that I'd already made.

Yesterday, I was seized with a sudden compulsion to read the diaries of Anais Nin. Exercising great self-restraint, I did not immediately drop my studies and rush to nearby bookstores and libraries in a frenzied book hunt but, instead, waited until wrapping up classes and meetings today to head to the library.

Now, I'm reading volume one of The Diary of Anais Nin (1931-1934). I was completely drawn in on page one; she writes of living in the provincial town where Madame Bovary poisoned herself, of a townsman being one of "Balzac's misers", and of lanes through which Marcel Swann would drive to dinner. Here's another passage that made me stop and reread:

"You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book (Lady Chatterly, for instance), or you take a trip [...] and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death.

"Some never awaken. They are like the people who go to sleep in the snow and never awaken. But I am not in danger because my home, my garden, my beautiful life do not lull me. I am aware of being in a beautiful prison, from which I can only escape by writing."

(Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Volume One)

I liked reading that; I often do feel as if reading a book (Herman Hesse, Demian or, perhaps, The Diary of Anais Nin) or hearing a symphony (The Rite of Spring for one) had the effect of shaking me out of a stupor.

photo at top © 2009 Kay

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wrapping up the September/October reading list

I started this reading project with the noble ambition of making a large dent in the Nobel Laureates book list and am moving on to other books and other horizons.

Most of these books that I've read (the Piano Teacher, Auto-da-fe, Mourning Becomes Electra) are about such extraordinary people. Here, I'm not using the word "extraordinary" as one describes superheroes or gods, but as in the sense of being an island amongst people - these characters (Erika Kohut, Kien, Herzog, the Buendias) have festered so long in their isolated world that they are unable to reconcile their perception of the world with reality. It apparently makes for great literature. It's really quite something.

On dust jacket flaps and in book reviews, one often reads about so-and-so being an extraordinary character, and so special ("an extraordinary girl in an ordinary life breaks out into stardom" or "the extraordinary adventures of Becky Sharp") but I always feel a little let down by the description. Those characters still react to situations as I might and think as I might. They don't read while their child is being eaten to death by fire ants. They don't stalk around a consignment store, giving people money so that they don't have to sell their books. They don't turn all of their thousands of books in their bookcases so that the spines face inward as a domestic battle tactic. Good one, Kien.

For a concrete example, take Temperance Brennan on the popular tv show Bones. Not only is she named after my personal favourite knightly virtue, she isn't your average person. Highly intelligent, slightly socially awkward, overly rational and, of course, beautiful, she's really not the girl next door. But, on the extraordinary fictional personage scale, she doesn't hold her own against Kien and the life. Despite her apparent inability to perceive sarcasm or bounds of socially accepted conversation, she still has human emotions. She has friends and shows concern for her coworkers. At times, viewers can still relate to her. If you, however, want to read about someone intelligent, socially awkward, overly rational/idealistic, and is guaranteed to react different from you in every possible situation, then let me refer you to Auto-da-fe.

Rushdie once wrote: "If from speed you get your thrill, take precaution - make your will." Well, if from deviance you get your thrill, read on - but make your will. I'm glad I read on. Now, my first thought when dealing with troublesome cohabitants is an impulse to rearrange all my books in battle position.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Reading Herzog

Buried under a pile of graduate student drudgery as I am, I am still reading and ticking off Nobel Literature laureates. This week, I'm reading Saul Bellow's Herzog.

Herzog is a professor who is so afflicted by the cruelties of his ex-wife that he is reduced to a semi-sane state, wherein he stops in the middle of his lectures of scribble down snippets of letters. These letters - to various people from various points in his life and also to politicians and other stranger - are a kind exorcism of the things bottled up in Herzog. But everything is so abstracted; Herzog can only talk of his life problems in philosophical settings.

Usually, the act of writing unsent letters should be cathartic and, ultimately, healing. It's like journaling - a way to shake off depression and repression. In Herzog, however, I think this letter-writing is not some optimistic sign, but the exact opposite. The aspect of the letters that Herzog writes which is brought out in the book is not that the letters unburden Herzog in any way (which they don't) but, instead, that they are letters to no one. These letters and scribblings contribute to the isolation of Herzog as opposed to alleviating it.

These books by these Nobel Literature laureates - they're never about people who, through some arduous process, can retreat back to the human norm, settle down and become an ordinary Joe Schmoe. Nope, the main characters in these books are all characters who have gone too far down some path of their own to come back to any form of mainstream happiness. The Buendias in One Hundred Years of Solitude live in their solitude - the worst kind of solitude; solitude amongst fellow human beings - until there is no chance of any of them integrating back into society. In The Piano Teacher, Erika is isolated in her own world, which she shares with no one. Kien was so buried in his library that he could not understand the meaning of people outside his sanctuary of books, leading to his ultimate destruction. Herzog, too, is insular, sharing in this kind of insularity amongst people.

Some of his snippets are intriguing, though. Here are a few quotes from Herzog's:

"Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead."

"Will never understand what women want. What do they want? They eat green salad and drink human blood."

Sunday, October 4, 2009

17: One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich

This is one of those books that I always wanted to read, but never got around to it. I thought it might be depressing and, like a hypochondriac, I often suspect myself of depression, read about symptoms of various mental illnesses, and fall under the impression that one depressing book will plunge me into a fit of depression and completely ruin my life by spur-of-the-moment neurotic choices. Not that this has ever happened to me before or anything ...

This book is set in a Soviet labour camp and details a common prisoner's day, from waking to sleeping. That's a lot of promise for misery - mostly coming from the words "labour" and "prisoner". But, I was, fortunately, wrong. If anything, this book is very opposite of disheartening. The prisoner whose day we follow is actually very optimistic. He has accepted the harsh conditions of the camp as normal and works within the constraints to get the best situations possible. He takes pride in the work that he does and savours the thin rations like the fancy food at fabulous restaurants that come in tiny servings. His day is actually quite bright. I'd even say that this would be a book to read to get out of depression.

Really, people can adapt to any situation, as long as they have the right mindset. What is the mindset? Somewhere towards the end of the day, our prisoner reflects that he feels bad for one of the other prisoners because he hadn't the right attitude that would let him survive. So, there is a right mindset and a wrong one. What is it? Acceptance and forebearance? Or learning to ignore unpleasant things rather than dwelling on them? Or taking things as they come and not worry about the far future? After all, our prisoner only ever concentrates on this day that we've been shown and doesn't worry about the other 3562 days of his 10 year prison term.

The extra three were for leap years."

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

16 Desire Under the Elms/Strange Interlude/Mourning Becomes Electra

Eugene O’Neill, Three Plays

1. Desire Under the Elms
An old miser brings his young bride home to his homestead and his three sons. Two give in to their desire of a new life in California and the third, Eben, falls in love – or lust – with the new wife with disastrous effects.

2. Strange Interlude
Charlie Marsden loves Nina. She loves a man named Gordon who died in war. Nina’s life flows through many transitions, introducing a lover, a husband and a son (named after Gordon) – until the end, when the second Gordon has grown up and the husband has passed away, and then she settles down with dear old Charlie and can look back on her dramatic, chaotic life as a strange interlude to the real life, childhood and old age, with Charlie. What other part of life is real anyway?

3. Mourning Becomes Electra
I think the title is very true – mourning does become Electra. She is at her very best bearing libations to her father’s grave. I’ve never liked Electra; she defended a father who was only so willing to sacrifice one of his daughters (Electra’s sister) in exchange for a fair wind to sail to Troy. I’m one of those people who sympathized with Becky Sharp more after her second appearance as Clytemnestra. It seems to me that these women, Clytemnestra and Becky, were only trying to make their own destiny – only to be thwarted by the Electras, who bear her family name, shame and duties so faithfully.
But nevertheless.
Like the Oresteia, after which it is modelled, this play is in three parts and is the most substantial play of this book. The story mirrors the story of the Oresteia. Christine decides to murder her husband upon his return from war. Her children, Lavinia and Orin, then murder Christine’s lover, as revenge for their father’s death, which then causes Christine’s suicide. Just like Electra of the Electra complex, Lavinia then takes her mother’s place, wears her mother’s colours and blooms forth in her mother’s beauty, which had previously not been apparent in her. But the previous events have been too much for Orin, who commits suicide due to his guilt over the past deaths and leaves Lavinia to mourn. Which she does very well.

These plays are so very engaging and I enjoyed reading them. I think the trend of reading these Nobel laureates is that after reading, I get the sense that my world has been shaken somehow. I feel unsettled. It’s as if I’ve been listening to Arnold Schoenberg. Some part of my worldview has had a gash in it and I’m not sure what has happened. And so then I need to think about what I’ve just read. I think this is a good kind of unsettledness; it doesn’t do for one’s worldview to be so set and unchangeable.

Authors are so brutal to barely conscious beings in their works. A child or a small animal is often used to reflect some aspect of the main characters. Just as Agamemnon dispatched Iphigenia to be sacrificed for the sake of the war, authors tend to dispatch little creatures in some prominent way, to represent and call to attention the demise of a main character or main subject.

Take, for example, Michael Henchard’s canaries. After his decline of fortune, he was completely cut off from his daughter. So, poor and miserable, he brings a cage of canaries for his daughter at her wedding. There, in the kitchen where he was received – for he was no longer the mayor of Casterbridge and not to be received in the upper rooms – the cage of poor little canaries sat forgotten, under its cover, amidst the happy marriage. It was not until a few weeks later that the poor daughter found a grizzly sight when she lifted the cover off of a cage that sat forgotten in the corner of the kitchen. Those poor little canaries are Michael Henchard – well-meaning and neglected until neglect and despair leave behind poor little corpses for Elizabeth Jane to cry over.

Here Eugene O’Neill goes even further than using poor little animals to illustrate a point. In Desire Under the Elms, he uses a baby in place of Michael Henchard’s canaries. Abbie and Eben’s child, which Abbie passed off as her husband’s, certainly wasn’t a character of its own right. It was more of a device for arousing sympathy and pathos.

It happens often that I read books and I don’t figure out, for a long time, why they made me feel a certain way. In the interval between the days of reading the book and finally understanding its impact on me, I sometimes come up with other, slightly laughable reasons for it. When I read Suite Francaise, I just loved it. There are so many things that are so good about that book that I still can’t pin-point why I loved it so much. The light-hearted response that I came up with was that the cat, that I wrote so much about in my post on Suite Francaise, was never heartlessly killed – nope, not for any irony or reflection of chaos did Nemirovky kill off the cat. So, I guess, analogously, for this set of three plays, the unnerving impact on me was due to the ease with which O’Neill expended human life – for tragedy, to mimic Greek tragedy, all sorts of reasons.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

15: One Hundred Years of Solitude


Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

The setting of One Hundred Years of Solitude is in Macondo, a village founded by José Arcadio Buendias, the first Buendias that we are concerned with. He is a leader of men and of good intelligence but also of a solitary nature. He starts keeping a laboratory of equipment that he buys off of passing gypsies, allowing him to have solitary realizations such as “the earth is round like an orange”, while everyone else ridiculed him. His solitude, the act of shutting out the outside world, infiltrates through his line and the titular years of solitude belong to his descendants.

The descendants have wild stories infused with magic realism. There is a general of a revolution, children who live to see a banana plantation kill its striking workers in Macondo, and children who live to see a world that has forgotten the revolution and the plantation – who are alone in their memories of those events and the roles of their family members. Through the generations, the family names are recycled and traits belonging to a name are passed on. Once in a while, one of the female characters notes that the José Arcadios carry out their solitude in wildness and revelry or that the Aurelianos shut themselves away from the world in the laboratory, making little gold fish or reading in pursuit of esoteric knowledge. The idea of avoiding the names is always fleeting. The last Amaranta wanted to throw open the windows and doors of the house, invite the world in, and have children named Gonzalo or something other than Aureliano and José Arcadio – but it, like any other attempt on the parts of the Buendias to partake in the outside world, never comes to pass.

There are so many Aurelianos – 22 to be exact. I remember reading and loosing track of which Aureliano and which generation I was reading about and having to consult the family tree to get my bearings. In retrospect, I think the point was to get lost in the generations of repeated names and repeated traits. I always thought it would be interesting to write a story in which there is no continuity between the chapters and the main characters occur in a different manifestation of themselves each chapter, to tell the story in a different way.

This book is exactly like that. All of the Aurelianos collectively form the character “Aureliano”; they have been placed in different stories and live out different lives, but with each Aureliano, we see more of the Aureliano character. Different traits are brought to the surface layer. All of the Aurelianos feel a disconnect with the world which drives them into isolation. General Aureliano let the memory of the wars he lost drive him into an endless routine of making little gold fish in his workshop. The last Aureliano to reach adulthood is the only one to be mentioned to have friends and yet he let them fall away without much regret, to retreat into a world closed to the outside with his lover.

The thick, lush weaving of so many stories that this book contained seems to be so rich, but I don’t know what to think about it. Politics and history are not important to the story; they are only ways in which the solitude of the Buendias can be seen. Love stories and the lives of the characters are likewise vehicles of the conveyance of solitude. It’s about solitude amongst people – which is the worst kind of solitude. But why? From whence did their solitary streak arise? Is solitude a plague?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

14: Gosta Berling's Saga

Selma Lagerlöf, Gösta Berling’s Saga

Who is Gösta Berling?

He is the eponymous main character of this saga. He is a disgraced priest who is taken in by the Lady of Ekeby, a rich patroness who supports 12 cavaliers. Of these 12 cavaliers, who excel at idling, drinking, and carousing, Gösta Berling is the charismatic leader.

One late wintry night, as the 12 cavaliers are drinking in their room in the cavalier’s wing of the great house at Ekeby, a thirteenth joins their table. He’s dark and shadowy and is either the devil or Death himself. He tells the 12 cavaliers that he is there to renew his contract with the Lady of Ekeby; in return for being the Lady of Ekeby and the owner of a great many mills and foundries, she offers him one soul a year – the soul of a cavalier. For in fact, one cavalier does seem to die every year and this circumstantial fact, along with a few other tales of bygone woes, convince the cavaliers of the veracity of the dark stranger claiming to be Death or the devil. They make a pact with him to let them manage the great estate of Ekeby for a year and, if they act honourably during that year, Death would take the soul of an evil man in the neighbourhood or, otherwise, he would take all twelve of their souls.

The next day, at a feast, the agreement is surprisingly brought about. The Lady of Ekeby is driven out of her house to live as a beggar and the cavaliers are given management of Ekeby. Gösta Berling and his comrades take this to be a sign that the devil had spoken true and plan to live an honourable year. Thus begins Gösta Berling’s Saga.

This book had so many feast and balls; all that the cavaliers do is feast, play music, make merry, and carry off a different rich, beautiful woman of the neighbourhood after every ball. Each chapter is a little story and they are beautifully woven together with wonderful foreshadowing. Things that appear innocuously in one little episode forebode disaster in a later one. The rather slow Count Henrik is tricked and manipulated into taking cavalier’s side against his wife in a completely innocent episode. Later, in a more sinister episode, he takes his mother’s side against his wife out of the same slowness and susceptibility to being cajoled. The peculiarities that Lagerlöf brings to light in her characters are never forgotten and always recalled for a closer examination of its effects.

After reading so many episodes of Gösta Berling, I am still at a loss as to what kind of person he really is. Is he some mythical, happy creature, skilled at partying or is he a deep, reflective kind of man? Would Tonio Kröger like him, as one of the fair ones who lived in the world and would never understand poor poet Tonio? Or would Tonio scoff at Gösta as one of his fellows, poetic souls exiled from reality? There are episodes to support both sides but my main impression is that I, the reader, was flooded by so many examples of his actions, which ought to reflect his character better than words of description, that I was overwhelmed and failed to arrive at any conclusion at what kind of hero or anti-hero Gösta is. Nevertheless, I still really liked the book and its fantastical tale that makes magic out of snow, wolves and ice and injects romanticism into a Swedish countryside.

In 1909, Selma Lagerlof was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.