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.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

13: The Waste Land and Other Poems

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems

The first copy of this that I borrowed from the library had more notes in it than the Half-Blood Prince’s potions book. So, I borrowed a second copy, which was less marked up but still contained plenty of marginalia. In the first copy, the person with the pink pen has outlined each section of the poems and several pencil markings have quite insightful comments. I think that it’s interesting to read a book that so many people have read, deciphered and left traces of their days of reading; it gives hints to future readers. I somehow think that margins are meant to be written in and books are meant to be lived in. The physical book shouldn’t be venerated; this is where Kien of Auto-da-fé went wrong. Because Therese put on gloves to read a beaten up old book, Kien thought that her action showed a love and respect for books, when in reality, it should only have showed a courtly love for books, which is easier feigned and rarely genuine. Real love of books reads books to pieces. When the pages are dog-eared, the margins filled with notes and doodles and the spine cracked and broken from use, then we can see that the book is well-loved and thoroughly studied.

Overall, there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the world and a preoccupation with living death. The dead people that Eliot portrays are not the peaceful, sleeping dead, entered in the ground and pushing up the daisies. Here, death is that of living folk; people who go through life like zombies, people in loveless marriages holding pointless, unsynchronized conversations every day. Perhaps that is the meaning of the lost generation, who failed to see hope in everyday life. And that poem is so chock full of things. Reference, imagery – all very intellectual and elite. The inscription, which I believe says it all best, is in Latin and Greek. It is about Sibyl, the seer that Aeneas appealed to, who had eternal life but not eternal youth. She is asked what she wants and she says she wants to die. I think that is the spirit of the poem; there is life without “something more” than everyday occurrences and stock phrases and stock feelings and Eliot sees it as a living death. But the inscription, how many people could have deciphered that? And there are so many quotations strewn throughout that he appended the poem with a reference section. I think it tries too hard to be so evasive and mysterious, which has led to an over-analysis and dissection of the poem – at least in the copy I read, scribbled in the margins.