Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Book note: The Brothers Karamazov

September 6, 2022

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV: A novel in four parts with epilogue by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1880) translated and annotated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1990)

The Brothers Karamazov is one of the two or three greatest novels by a Russian, possibly one of the two or three greatest novels by anyone.  It will live as an example of the greatness of Russian culture long after current conflicts are forgotten.    

Dostoyevsky states in the first paragraph that the hero of the novel is Aloysha Karamazov, the youngest of the three legitimate sons of the depraved Feodor Karamazov.

He is a monk of the Russian Orthodox Church who tries to live by the literal teachings of Jesus—something that is unfamiliar to almost all respectable people, both now (myself included) and back then.

Aloysha forgives his enemies.  In fact, he doesn’t recognize the concept of enemy. He returns good for evil.  He thinks always of others and never of himself.  He cares nothing for success, possessions or personal gain.  He never argues and hardly ever criticizes, although he always states the truth as he sees it when asked.

He has been like this since his earliest youth.  No explanation is given of how he came to be this way.

He is very different not only from his elder brothers, the brilliant anti-religious intellectual Ivan and the passionate sensualist Dmitri, and from his depraved father, Feodor.

Feodor is as obnoxious as it is possible for a human being to be.  He is greedy, dishonest and malicious.  He openly embraces all the vices, and goes out of his way to be as offensive to others as possible, especially those with a claim to be virtuous.    

He despises his other two sons.  They in turn hate him and don’t like or trust each other.  Yet he trusts and confides in Aloysha.  Ivan and Dmitri, who despise their father and dislike each other, also trust Aloysha.

One day Ivan seeks out Aloysha, invites him to dinner and tries to probe the nature of his faith.

Ivan is an unbeliever, but not exactly an atheist.  “I long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man,” he says.  “I declare that I accept God pure and simple.”  This is probably meant ironically or hypothetically.  But Ivan is full of rage at God, or at least the idea of God, whether or not God actually exists.  

He confronts Aloysha with horrifying accounts of savage cruelty to innocent children, in history and his present day, all based on fact.  He cannot worship the Creator of a world in which innocent children are tortured, and denounces Christian churches for justifying such a deity.  Nor can he apply the Christian idea of forgiveness to torturers of children.

He said he loves life, but he can’t endure the meaninglessness of life.  If he can’t find answers to his questions by the time he is 30 (he is 24 and Aloysha is 20), he will “return his ticket.”  

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Book note: Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

August 30, 2022

VILLETTE by Charlotte Bronte (1853)

Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is about a complicated young women who didn’t fit what was expected of women in the Victorian age.  It also is about the cultural clash of an English Protestant in a French Catholic environment.  I read it in a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

The novel’s zig-zag plot has so many abrupt turns that I thought the author may have been making it up as she went along.  But, no, at the end, everything comes together like a solved Rubik’s cube.  I think it would make a good TV mini-series.   

Charlotte Bronte

Lucy Snowe, the narrator, is courageous, self-reliant, resourceful and also opinionated and judgmental.  She expects little of the world and much of herself.  Inside her stoic shell, she is highly sensitive and subject to mood swings.  A little thing can send her from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of despair, or vice versa.  Her greatest fear is exposing her emotional vulnerability.

She is left an orphan in her teens, and makes a living as a nurse-companion to an elderly invalid woman who needs 24-hour care.   This means, as my friend Judith observed, that she comes of age without having been socialized into how young ladies of her era should think and behave.

Her employer dies unexpectedly when Lucy is in her early twenties.  She is faced with the problem of earning a living and she has no network of family and friends to whom to turn.

She leaves for London, figuring job opportunities are greater there.  Somebody tells her there is good money to be made teaching English as girls’ schools in Belgium.  She immediately buys a boat ticket for Belgium.

She lands in the fictional city of Villette and heads for the nearest girls’ school.  She loses her way and arrives at the school at midnight in a pouring rain.  She talks her way into a bed for the night, and then into a job.

The owner of the girls’ school, Madame Beck, is herself an interesting character.  She is domineering, interfering, manipulative and utterly ruthless when it comes to upholding her own interests and the interests of the school.  But she is also sensible, fair-minded, a capable administrator and a good judge of character.

(Bronte, by the way, refers to Madame Beck and all the other Belgian characters as French.)

Lucy is set to work as Madame Beck’s personal servant and governess (tutor and nanny) of her children.  

 One day, on a few minutes notice, she is asked to teach a class of older teenage girls in place of an English teacher who failed to show up.  

The rowdy French girls are all set to make life miserable for the substitute teacher.  But Lucy quickly picks out the ringleaders and humiliates them.  She even locks one of them in a closet.  Her authority established, she goes on to teach the class.  

She notices Madame Beck watching through a keyhole.  From that day on, she leaves the nursery behind and is a full-fledged English teacher.

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Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina final version

July 7, 2022

I accidentally posted a version of this book note before it was finished.  This is the final version.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877) translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) Vintage Classics edition (2012)

Anna Karenina is the sad story of a beautiful, charming. intelligent and selfish woman who fails to find the love she needs from either her husband or her lover.

It also is the story of three marriages – the failed marriage of Anna to Alexei Karenin, and Anna’s seduction by Count Vronsky; the bad marriage of Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, to the former Dolly Scherbatsky; and the good marriage of Dolly’s sister Kitty to Konstantin Levin.

Neither Karenin nor Count Vronsky is a bad man.  Karenin is an honest civil servant, doing his best to make the world a better place.  He fulfills all the duties society expects of a husband, and thinks this should be enough.  But he feels neither empathy nor passion for his wife.  When his marriage falls apart, his conventional moral code provides him no guidance on what to do.

Vronsky has an aristocratic code of honor, which, however, allows for the seduction of a married woman.  He offers her the passion lacking in her marriage.  She succumbs after initial resistance.  As their relationship goes sour, his code of honor requires him to stand by her.  But he, too, finds this is not enough.

Anna is not a bad person, either—just narcissistic.  She is not malicious, and wishes people well rather than ill, but she has no code of conduct to guide her and no purpose in life beyond being loved and admired.  

When we meet her, her life revolves around being the center of attraction in balls, parties and other social events.   She happily lives the life of an American high school prom queen, carried on into adult life.  There is nothing to show she cares about her husband’s feelings, happiness or career.

When Dolly catches Stepan having sex with a family governess and decides to leave him, he calls on his sister Anna to salvage the situation.  Anna talks Dolly into changing her mind.  She assures her that Stepan is deeply sorry for what he has done, and won’t do it again.

All this is a lie.  Stepan is not sorry for what he did, only about the consequences.  Anna does not ask him to change his ways, and he doesn’t.  The result is that he lives a life of pleasure while Dolly’s life consists of a long succession of pregnancies and the struggle to care for her large brood of children.

Almost all the characters live by lies.  They lie to themselves about the reality of their lives, and lie to others about the reality of their feelings—what the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called bad faith.  This is a major theme of the novel.

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Book note: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

July 6, 2022

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877) translated from the Russian by Louise and Aylmer Maude (1918) Vintage Classics edition (2012)

Anna Karenina is the sad story of a beautiful, charming. intelligent and selfish woman who fails to find the love she needs from either her husband or her lover.

It also is the story of three marriages – the failed marriage of Anna to Alexei Karenin, and Anna’s seduction by Count Vronsky; the bad marriage of Anna’s brother, Stepan Oblonsky, to the former Dolly Scherbatsky; and the good marriage of Dolly’s sister Kitty to Konstantin Levin.

Neither Karenin nor Count Vronsky is a bad man.  Karenin is an honest civil servant, doing his best to make the world a better place.  He fulfills all the duties society expects of a husband, and thinks this should be enough.  But he feels neither empathy nor passion for his wife.  When his marriage falls apart, his conventional moral code provides him no guidance on what to do.

Vronsky has an aristocratic code of honor, which, however, allows for the seduction of a married woman.  He offers her the passion lacking in her marriage.  She succumbs after initial resistance.  As their relationship goes sour, his code of honor requires him to stand by her.  But he, too, finds this is not enough.

Anna is not a bad person, either—just narcissistic.  She is not malicious, and wishes people well rather than ill, but she has no code of conduct to guide her and no purpose in life beyond being loved and admired.  

When we meet her, her life revolves around being the center of attraction in balls, parties and other social events.   She lives the life of an American high school prom queen, carried on into adult life.  There is nothing to show she cares about her husband’s feelings, happiness or career.

When she takes up with Vronsky, she feigns interest in his activities.  She participates in high-level intellectual conversations on art or architecture, which would have been beyond Dolly and Kitty.  But she has no interest in these topics for their own sake.  Her obsession is with whether Vronsky still cares about her as before.

When she separates from Karenin, she misses her little boy, Seroyzha.  She needs his love, and plots a reunion with him.   But she always outsourced responsibility for his care and education to nurses, governesses and tutors.

I didn’t grasp Anna’s narcissism on my first reading of the novel because Tolstoy shows her suffering so powerfully.  Her suffering is real.  But it is pitiful, not tragic.

The novel begins with Dolly deciding to leave Stepan Oblonsky after she discovers he is having sex with the family’s governess.  He calls on his sister Anna to salvage the situation.  Anna talks Dolly into changing her mind.  She assures her that Stepan is deeply sorry for what he has done, and won’t do it again.

All this is a lie.  Stepan is not sorry for what he did, only about the consequences.  Anna does not ask him to change his ways, and he doesn’t.

The result is that Stepan is able to live a life of pleasure, and Dolly lives a life of misery.  Her life consists of a succession of pregnancies. 

Note:  I accidentally posted this before I completed it.  My next post is the final version.

Book note: Tolstoy’s War and Peace

June 29, 2022

WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy (1865-1869) translated by Almayer and Louise Maude (1923) edited and with an introduction by Henry Gifford (1983)

War and Peace is the best novel I have ever read.  Each time I read it, it seems new to me, and I notice things it it that I missed before.

It is the story of two very different friends, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky and Pierre Bezukhov, and the woman they both love, Natasha Rostov.  It is also a war novel, a historical novel and a comedy of manners, full of subplots, great descriptive writing and interesting, believable characters.

Andrei is the ideal Russian nobleman and military officer.  He is dashing, handsome, and rich, and occupies a high social rank.  He is a respected commander and staff officer, well able to cope with enemies on the battlefield and intrigues at headquarters.  Everything he does, he does competently.  His manners are impeccable, although some find him arrogant. 

His friend  Pierre is the opposite.  He is fat and clumsy, naive and foolish.  He is the bastard son of a nobleman, a marginal person in society until he unexpectedly inherits great wealth from his father, and then is taken advantage of by all.

What binds these two unlikely friends together?  Both question whether life has meaning.  Both want something deeper than the conventional values of society.  Andrei’s answer is to play the social game by its meaningless rules as best he can; Pierre’s is to search for meaning, in his blundering way, in freemasonry and other schools of thought.

The two friends differ in their opinions, and have interesting arguments.  Pierre is a would-be humanitarian reformer.  Andrei is a cynical conservative.

Both lack emotional intelligence.  Pierre is easily exploited, especially by his new, gold-digging wife, Helene.  Andrei is unable to form close relationships.  He enlists in the military partly to avoid his wife, who loves him deeply but whom Andrei cannot love in return.

Neither had a loving father and mother to set an example.  Pierre’s father apparently disowned him, until the very end; Andrei’s father was a harsh and distant widower, who didn’t like women.

Andrei does have a spiritual awakening of sorts when he is wounded in the Battle of Austerlitz and near death.  He comes to realize the futility of the quest for military glory, but otherwise is not permanently changed.

He spends years in isolation after the death of his wife in childbirth.  His capacity for affection is awakened by an encounter with the sweet, charming 16-year-old Natasha Rostov.

The Rostovs are everything that the Bolkonskys are not.  Natasha’s father is an irresponsible spendthrift; her mother is a foolish society lady.  But they are a loving couple, and their children, including brothers Nicholas and Petya, are affectionate and joyful, and have good values.

Andrei and Natasha are each fulfillments of the other’s ideal fantasy.  Andrei is a handsome, dashing prince; Natasha is a lovely, pure young maiden.  When they dance at a ball, they are smitten with each other, and soon decide to marry.

But the elder Bolkonsky intervenes.  He tells Andrei that he will give his consent to the marriage only if he and Natasha separate for a year and still want to marry at the end.

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Book note: Crime and Punishment

June 24, 2022

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Feodor Dostoyevsky (1866) translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1992) with an introduction by W.J. Leatherbarrow (1993)

Dostoyevsky’s great novel is about how a young man with basically decent and humane feeling puts himself into a psychological state in which he commits a cold-blooded murder.

When we meet the young man, Raskolnikov, he is hungry, exhausted, and in ill health.  He is full of guilt for sponging off his needy mother and sister.  He is deeply in debt to a pawnbroker, a greedy old woman who has an abused half-sister.

We later learn that he wasn’t always like this.  A fairly short time before the action of the novel begins, when he was solvent and healthy, he was compassionate and responsible, keeping his own life in order and going out of this way to constructively help others.

But now he is in a state where his mind is on automatic pilot—acting on impulse rather than conscious decision.  Some of his impulses are generous and kind, some are bad, but none are the result of conscious decision.

This state has been well described by 20th century psychologists, starting with Sigmund Freud.  The conscious mind is not necessarily master in its own house.  It thinks it is the CEO of the human personality, but often it is just the PR department.  

Dostoyevsky understood through introspection and observation what Freud and others later figured out through scientific study and clinical experience.

Raskonnikov’s main source of self-esteem is an article he wrote about how the end justifies the means, and how a truly great person, such as Napoleon, pursues his goal by all means necessary, without concern for moral rules.

Napoleon knowingly caused the deaths of many thousands of innocent people, but he was regarded as a great man because he was a force for progress, Raskolnikov wrote; a Napoleon on the individual level, who acquired money through a crime, but used the money to do good, would also be great.  In fact, it could be your duty to overcome qualms of conscience to accomplish a great goal.

He begins to fantasize about killing the pawnbroker and using her money to help his mother and sister, canceling out the criminal act by the good deed.  But there is no point in the narrative at which he comes to a conscious decision to commit the murder.

One day he overhears a student arguing with a military officer about that very thing.  The student says that killing and robbing the pawnbroker would be justified if the money was used to accomplish a greater good, because the pawnbroker contributes nothing to society.  Ah, replies the officer, but would you really do it?  No, the student admits.

This is what the experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman called priming or anchoring—one of the subtle things that influence human action below the level of consciousness.

Raskolnikov goes ahead and commits the murder.  He kills the greedy pawnbroker and then her innocent half-sister.  All the while he acts more on impulse and instinct more than rational judgement.  It is as if he is a spectator to his own actions.

I myself have experienced being in such a mental state.  I have done things with my mind on automatic pilot, sometimes to my great regret, and then wonder why I did them.

Raskolnikov flees the murder scene and gets away with loot, but not as much as if he had been able to act calmly, rationally and decisively.  

Later he reproaches himself, not for committing the murder, but for not being Napoleon-like character he imagined himself to be.   But his sense of guilt is too great and he eventually confesses.  Even so, he is still tortured by the conflict between his conscience and his philosophy.

Raskolnikov’s inability to overcome his basic human decency is not, as he saw it, a fatal flaw, but a saving grace

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Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Russianness

June 22, 2022

I’m re-reading Feodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  I’ve read them before, but somehow they seem as fresh and new as if I was reading them the first time.

My reason for re-reading them is partly to get some idea of what’s Russian about Russia.

No question, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are distinctively Russian.  They are polar opposites in many ways, but opposite sides of the same coin.

Dostoyevsky was a troubled soul who suffered prison, exile, poverty, the loss of children and gambling addiction.  Tolstoy was a wealthy aristocrat who went from success to success, yet in the end found his successes spiritually empty.

Dostoyevsky plumbed the depths of human evil.  Tolstoy explored the possibility of human enlightenment.

Both found modern European civilization spiritually shallow.  Both rejected secular humanism, utilitarianism, materialism, progressive reform and revolutionary socialism.  Dostoyevsky saw these ideas as evil; Tolstoy, as foolish.

Both were Christian believers.  Dostoyevsky was a champion of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and an opponent of Catholicism.  One of his heroes, Aloysha Karamazov, was a Russian monk.

Tolstoy preached a more universalist version of Christianity, which caused him to be expelled from the Russian Orthodox Church.  His ideas  influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 

Dostoyevsky was one of the few writers of his era to make poor people in cities his viewpoint characters.  He neither idealized or ridiculed them, because he shared their experiences.  In his novels, they could mess up their lives just like anybody else.

Tolstoy idealized workmen and peasants.   But in his novels, they were what’s called non-player characters.  He didn’t try to enter into their minds. His characters were all members of the upper crust—landowners, judges, army officers, educated intellectuals.  His ideal was the land-owning aristocrat who took responsibility for the people who depend on him.

Even so, he had such a wide-ranging knowledge of society and human character that his greatest novel, War and Peace, gave me an impression of a summing up all of human life.  

Also, unlike Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy was able to enter into the minds of his women characters.  Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov is one of the most fascinating characters in literature, but we see her only from the outside.  The inner workings of her mind remain a mystery.  

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are both known for their writings about the quest for spiritual and philosophical truth.  The debates among the characters are like Plato’s Socratic dialogues.  But their novels can also be read as social commentary and even comedies of manners. 

What’s Russian about them is rejection of modern Western ideals of freedom, reason and tolerance as supreme values.  Both believed it takes something deeper to make a civilization.

∞∞∞

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were contemporaries, and read each others’ books.  Dostoyevsky reviewed War and PeaceTolstoy reviewed  Crime and Punishment.  Each thought the other was okay, but not great.  They never met face to face.

One difference between the two was their handling of the Napoleon legend.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov was fascinated by the idea of Napoleon as a man of destiny, whose greatness was manifested in his willingness to commit crimes to accomplish great deeds.

Napoleon is a character in War and Peace, which came out about the same time.  Tolstoy depicts him as shallow and empty,  unworthy of his reputation.

Pierre Bezukhov, in the opening chapters, defends Napoleon’s crimes to shocked aristocratic party-goers.  Later he tries to be a man of destiny himself, by remaining in Moscow during the French invasion in order to assassinate Napoleon.  But the kind-hearted, indecisive Pierre can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.  Raskolnikov would have thought him a weakling.

Tolstoy thought most peoples’ stated philosophies had little or nothing to do with their actual conduct—which, considering what some people believed, was a good thing.   Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, believed ideas have consequences, and bad ideas have disastrous consequences.

Although Tolstoy had a point, the history of the 20th century, especially 20th century Russia, supports Dostoyevsky.  Ideas that, in Dostoyevsky’s time, were being kicked around in small, isolated discussion groups, were to become official doctrines imposed at gunpoint.

∞∞∞

All four of these novels are great, and worth reading for their own sake.  If there is anything greater in the Western literary canon, I haven’t read it.  I didn’t find anything in these four novels, or my (admittedly incomplete) reading of the writers’ other works, to indicate what they would have thought about the current Ukraine war.  But others have.

LINKS

How should Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy be read during Russia’s war against Ukraine? by Ani Kokobobo for The Conversation.

Can Russian literature make sense of Russia’s war on Ukraine? by Tim Brinkhof for Big Think.  

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Eight Experts on Who’s Greater by Kevin Hartnett for The Millions.  [Added 06/25/2022}

Alessandro Manzoni’s classic Italian novel

January 29, 2022

THE BETROTHED by Alessandro Manzoni (1827) translated by Bruce Penman (1972)

Recently I got around to reading an old paperback copy of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed.  I picked it up years ago because I read somewhere that it is a classic greatly beloved by Italians—much as The Pickwick Papers is beloved by the English and The Three Musketeers by the French.

The setting is northern Italy, around the end of the 16th century.  It is about the misadventures of Renzo, a good-hearted but foolish young workman, and his sweetheart, Lucia.  

I enjoyed it.  The author was a good storyteller and also a witty observer of the foibles of human nature.  

I also liked it because it gave me a glimpse of another time and place.  This helps remind me that today’s crises are not uniquely bad and that the way I and my friends see the world is not the peak of human wisdom.

Renzo and Lucia are eager to marry, but the local parish priest, Don Abbondio, keeps putting them off because he is afraid of the wicked local nobleman, Don Rodrigo, who has designs on Lucia.  

The two sweethearts flee, with the help of another Catholic clergyman, the Capuchin monk Father Cristoforo.  The two become separated, and Lucia takes refuge in the convent of the notorious Nun of Monza.

The Nun of Monza was a real person.  She was a member of an aristocratic family, pressured to take vows as a nun, more or less against her will, for dynastic and inheritance reasons.  

As a nun,  she lived a life of luxury and self-indulgence.  She look a lover, gave birth to a stillborn child and murdered a nun who threatened to tell about it.  But, in the novel, she takes a liking to Lucia.

Then Lucia falls into the clutches of an even more powerful and evil nobleman, the Unnamed.  He supposedly was so terrifying and ferocious that nobody, in his lifetime or after, dared refer to him by his real name—something like Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. He also was a real person, although his name, Francesco Bernadino Visconti, is known to history.

Renzo meanwhile finds himself in Milan, where riots are going on because of a shortage of bread.  Manzoni observes that the authorities think they can increase the supply of bread by holding down the price, while the street mob’s solution is to burn down bakeries.

Our hero shoots off his mouth, and a police spy decides to finger him as the ringleader of the riots.

Renzo is arrested, but gets away.  Lucia is freed because of the intervention of the saintly Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Frederigo Borromeo.  He, too, was a real person, the first cousin of St. Charles Borromeo.

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Love and marriage as it used to be

January 26, 2022

THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL by Anne Bronte (1848) with an introduction by John Weeks (1979)

Most educated people have heard of the Bronte sisters—Charlotte Bronte, who wrote Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte, who wrote Wuthering Heights.  I didn’t know there was a third sister, Anne Bronte, until one of her novels was selected by my novel-reading group.

Her best-known novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was a shocker in its day, which is why Charlotte didn’t want it to be republished after Anne’s death.

What made it so shocking?  The heroine was a wife who’d run away from her husband.

Marriage then was an iron-clad contract.  Indeed, someone who broke off an engagement could be sued for breach of promise.  Once married, the woman was transferred from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.

England in those days was a patriarchy—a real one.

Married women could not own property.  Everything a wife owned, including what she earned herself, belonged to her husband.  The husband could even take her children away from her.

Marriage was the transfer of the woman from the authority and protection of her father to the authority and protection of her husband.  The only truly independent women were, like Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley, fatherless, unmarried and in possession of sufficient property to support themselves.

Many Victorian novels tell of unhappy marriages and abusive husbands, but the wife, if she is to expect any sympathy from the reader, must do her best to put up with it.  Freedom only came when the abusive partner died, which, iIt must be said, very commonly happened in not only in novels, but in real life.)

###

We begin with reminiscences of Gilbert Markham, a classic unreliable narrator.  He’s a nice young man working on the family estate, oblivious to what is going on around him, but providing enough information that the reader can see what he is blind to.

For example, he is unaware of how his mother and sister cater to his needs and wishes because the man of the house comes first.  He doesn’t notice how the desperately the young women in his circle want and need to get married.  What for him is an amusing flirtation is, for them, a question of their whole futures.  The women in my novel-reading group said his is typical male behavior.

Gilbert’s attention is captured by a mysterious Helen Graham who has moved into a remote, previously-vacant house called Wildfell Hall with her small son.  She is cold and stand-offish, especially to men, but also lonely.

They gradually grow closer, despite his blunders, based on his tendency to act impulsively after jumping to false conclusions.

Finally she gives him a diary that tells her back story.

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Book note: The Good Lord Bird

November 20, 2021

Mural of John Brown by J.C. Curry in Kansas State Capitol

THE GOOD LORD BIRD by James McBride (2013)

The Good Lord Bird is the story of the abolitionist John Brown as it might have been written by Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had been black.  I happened to pick it up at a neighborhood free book exchange.

One of Brown’s beliefs is that the ivory-billed woodpecker, the “Good Lord bird,” is sent by God with the mission to destroy dead and rotten trees so the good trees can grow. This is a symbol of his own mission. 

The narrator is Henry Shackleford,  a young black boy growing up in the Kansas territory during the guerrilla war of the late 1850s to determine whether Kansas will enter the union as a free or a slave state.

He is a more-or-less contented slave until he is “liberated” after a shoot-out by John Brown and his sons, who adopt him as a kind of mascot and good luck charm.  Brown has the idea that Henry is a girl, because he was clothed in a gunny-sack that looks like a dress, and he plays along. 

Henry is like Huck Finn.  He is naive and ignorant of politics and religion, not to mention grammar, but a shrewd judge of human nature and human pretensions.  

The language and way of speaking McBride gives him is highly entertaining and full of what you might call black humor.

 Henry shares the hardships of Brown’s band and learns about all their eccentricities.  All his efforts to save his own skin are interpreted by Brown as heroism.

At one point he is separated from the band, is enslaved again and winds up as a servant in a Missouri whorehouse, where he is more or less content, until he is liberated again by Brown’s men.

The last half of the book is devoted to the planning and execution of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an apparent failure, but the spark that set off the Civil War.  We see Brown as erratic, often foolish, but with an indomitable will and energy that prevails over setbacks, hardship and danger, and a charisma that binds his followers to him in spire of everything. 

We get Henry’s view of historic figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.  

Tubman is depicted as a majestic figure, but Douglass as a speechifier who is unwilling to give up his good life in Rochester, N.Y., with his black wife and white mistress.

That’s harsh. I wouldn’t condemn Douglass for holding back from joining what is obviously a suicide mission.

The Harper’s Ferry raid is shown as a true tragedy. We see how bad decisions of Brown and his lieutenants lead to mistake after mistake, depriving them of what little chance they had of accomplishing their plan to ignite a slave rebellion.  There is a final, fatal mistake that is Henry’s fault.

But ultimately Brown was successful. The raid precipitated the American Civil War, which brought about the end of slavery and, in the course of time, full political rights for African-Americans.

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The magic realism of Rudyard Kipling

October 19, 2021

My friend Judith took exception to my posting that “The Man Who Would Be King” was Rudyard Kipling’s greatest short story.  She said Kipling wrote a great many others that were better than that one.  

She loaned me several of her Kipling anthologies.  I didn’t read all the stories, but I read enough of them to convince me she was right.

Kipling is known for his stories of India.  He was born in 1865 and spent his early childhood there, then returned to work from 1883 to 1889 on newspapers there.  

As a newspaperman, he met all kinds of people, as he also did as a Freemason.  The Masonic Order admitted monotheists of many ethnicities and varied social standings.

He wrote poems and stories, including The Man Who Would Be King (1888), that made him an overnight success.  He left India at age 24 as a literary celebrity, and never went back except for one brief visit.  He died in 1936.  

As Judith pointed out, many of his best stories have nothing to do with India.

Kipling was a keen observer, a master of the English language and an inspired storyteller.  His stories bring to mind the phrase “magic realism.” 

He had a keen eye for details and got the details right, whether he was writing about civil engineering, tiger hunting or life in the trenches during World War One.  

At the same time, many of his stories had a supernatural or mystical or some other angle that went beyond the mundane, like the Latin American magic realist stories.  Maybe that’s one reason Jorge Luis Borges liked his writing so much.

Here is an account of my recent Judith-inspired reading of Kipling.

One of my faults is reading too fast, and not stopping to appreciate literary style or take in detail.  

Probably I would have done better just to have read a few and appreciated them more deeply, rather than greedily gobbling down so many in a short time, as is my habit.  But, as G.K. Chesterton said, anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

The first three in my list below are, in my opinion, equal to or better than “The Man Who Would Be King,” which I still think is great.   Not all of them are equally good, but I enjoyed them all and together they give an idea of Kipling’s range.

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The Bridge-Builders (1893)

This was a mind-blowing story.

The bridge builders are Findlayson, a civil engineer in charge of building a bridge across the Ganges, plus Hitchcock, his assistant, and Peroo, his native assistant.  

These three are presented as the only important characters because only they are dedicated to the mission of completing the bridge.  Deaths of individual workers because of disease or accidents are not regarded as important.

Peroo is accepted by the other two as their equal in terms of competence and character, the only qualities they value, although he will never be, and never aspires to be, their equal in rank.

The first part of the story is about the obstacles they overcome—technical, administrative and political—and I at first thought the story was going to be about to be about heroes of science, engineering, discipline and the work ethic.  

But then, just as the bridge is almost, but not quite, completed, it is hit by a devastating flood.

Findlayson and Peroo are swept away by the waters and find themselves on an island in mid-river, where animals have also taken refuge.  

Peroo gives Findlayson a bit of opium to help him get through the night, and he begins to perceive the animals as talking avatars of the Hindu gods.

The crocodile, avatar of Mother Gunga, the goddess of the river, asks the other gods for their help in destroying the bridge and, by implication, Western civilization.

A tigress, representing Kali, the goddess of death is inclined to agree.  But Hanuman, the monkey god, recalls how his own exploit as a bridge-builder described in the Ramayana.
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Rudyard Kipling’s “The man who would be king”

October 5, 2021

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and other stories by Rudyard Kipling

After our reading group read Kim, Rudyard Kipling’s best and best-known novel, we turned to Kipling’s best and best-known short story, “The Man Who Would Be King.”  

John Huston made a good movie of the story in 1975; it’s unusual for an excellent work of written fiction to be made into an excellent movie.

“The Man Who Would Be King” is the story of two adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnahan, both ex-soldiers of the British Indian Army, and how they reached the inaccessible land of Kafiristan (“land of the heathen”) and established themselves as rulers, only to have everything go horribly wrong.

Dravot and Carnahan sign a “contract” to stick together, refrain from indulgence in alcohol or women and “behave with dignity and discretion.”

They establish their power by demonstrating firearms, whose power to kill at a distance seems like magic, and by their ability to drill troops, which makes them a force that can defeat mere mobs of individual fighters.  

The two men are Freemasons, and the local priests decide they are gods because symbols on their Masonic paraphernalia correspond to ancient sacred symbols known only to the priests.

Everything is fine until Dravot decides to take a wife and establish a dynasty.  The people are horrified because they believe a woman who mates with a god will die.  Dravot chooses a beautiful but unwilling woman.  She bites him, and his bleeding shows that he is a man, not a god.

The story shows Kipling’s gifts as a descriptive writer, an observer of human nature and a storyteller, but it also echoes basic themes of literature.  It is a classic story of hubris being clobbered by nemesis.

It is a classic story of the downfall of a ruler who allowed himself to become a tyrant.  So long as Dravot ruled justly, he was all right.  It was the act of tyranny, taking a woman against her will, that led to his downfall.

It is an echo of Genesis, and of myths and legends, of how people are granted everything they could want, provided they observe one simple rule, and how they fail to keep the rule.  In “The Man Who Could Be King,” the simple rule is the contract—the promises to avoid women, and to behave with discretion.

Kipling’s story is said to have been inspired by the exploits of an American adventurer, Josiah Harlan, who in 1839 marched an army into Hazarajat, in the center of Afghanistan, and proclaimed himself the sovereign Prince of Ghor.  

Like Kipling’s characters, he fancied himself a successor to Alexander the Great.  His reign was short-lived; a year later, a British army invaded Afghanistan and replaced his rule.

There also was Sir James Brooke, the white rajah of Sarawak, who established a family dynasty that ruled the northwest coast of Borneo from 1841 to 1946.  But Brooke was granted his authority by the Sultan of Brunei and Harlan also was acting as agent of Dost Mohammed, then ruler of Afghanistan.  Their stories were not Kipling’s story.

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In order to read “The Man Who Would Be King,” I bought a collection of Kipling stories.  I read the other stories, too, and mostly enjoyed them. 

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Kipling’s Kim and Kipling’s India

September 23, 2021

KIM by Rudyard Kipling (1901) with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Meyers (2002) 

I read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

Rudyard Kipling was a British imperialist.  He believed the British Empire was, for all practical purposes, permanent, and that it was a force for good.  The first belief proved wrong, and there are few who would defend the secondW.

So why read Kipling’s Kim?

Kim is an interesting story about the coming of age of a young boy and his struggle to define his identity.  Like Huckleberry Finn, Kim is often mistaken for a boy’s book because its central character is a boy, but it isn’t. 

Kim is also an idealized but fascinating portrait of the diversity of India, with its varied religions and ethnic groups.

Kim is the first, or one of the first, espionage thrillers, a new genre in which the spy is the hero and not the villain.

And finally, Kim is a work by one of the masters of the English language.

Kipling was, as we newspaper reporters used to say, a great wordsmith.  Anybody who loves writing can benefit from reading his sentences closely and noting his word choices and the rhythm of the sentence.

He is one of the few 20th century writers admired by both critics and the general public

His books of poetry were best-sellers.  Their rollicking rhythms stick in the mind, like Broadway show tunes.  He also wrote novels short stories, including the Mowgli and Just-So stories for children.  Henry James praised his prose style and T.S. Eliot edited an edition of his poetry.  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907.

The hero of Kim is Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish ex-soldier and a servant woman.  We meet him at age 13.   Kim has allowed to run wild in the streets of Lahore (now part of Pakistan).  He speaks local languages better than he speaks English, and is so sunburned nobody thinks of him as white.  

He earns money by begging and carrying messages.  The closest thing he has to a mentor is Mahbub Ali, an Afghan horse trader who turns out to be an agent of British intelligence.

As the novel opens, Kim encounters a Tibetan lama and decides to follow him on his religious quest.  They have adventures as they travel along the Great Trunk Road, meeting varied people.  These passages show Kipling’s genius as a descriptive writer, both of people and of the sights and sounds of India.  

He makes contact with his father’s old regiment, which takes him in.  He attends the regimental school briefly, then a Catholic school that serves India’s native Catholics.  These include the Thomas Christians, whose ancestors were supposedly converted by the Apostle Thomas, and mixed-race descendants of Portuguese seamen and traders who came to India in the 16th century—another example of India’s diversity.

Manbub Ali and Colonel Creighton, the secret head of British intelligence in India, are impressed by Kim’s talent for languages, disguise and deception and determine to groom him for a career as an espionage agent.

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Two poems by Billy Collins

May 12, 2021

Forgetfulness

by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go

followed obediently by the title, the plot,

the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel

which suddenly becomes one you have never read,

never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye

and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,

and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,

the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,

it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,

not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river

whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those

who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night

to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.

No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted

out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

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The coming of spring

May 2, 2021

The Trees

by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf

like something almost being said;

the recent buds relax and spread,

their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again

and we grow old? No, they die too.

Their yearly trick of looking new

is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the un-resting castles thresh

in full-grown thickness every May.

Last year is dead, they seem to say,

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Reading the short stories of O. Henry today

August 17, 2020

In search of some pleasant reading while waiting for the current crisis to unfold, I picked up a copy of THE BEST SHORT STORIES OF O. HENRY.

O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, who flourished from 1902 to 1910 and was possibly the USA’s most popular fiction writer in his day.

He was noted for his good-natured interest in people on all levels of society, and his knack for surprise endings.

He wrote more than 600 stories, not all of them of top quality, but his best hold up well.

His two best-known stories are “The Gift of the Magi,” about an impoverished newly-wed in New York looking for money to buy a Christmas present for her husband, and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” about two men who kidnap a hellion of a 10-year-old boy and get more than the bargained for.

I still found the first one still sweet and touching and the second still hilariously funny, even though I knew how they were going to come out.

O. Henry’s stories were not brutally realistic.  Rather his characters reflected regional and ethnic stereotypes—desperadoes along the Texan-Mexico border, penniless ex-plantation owners in the Deep South, feuding clans in the Cumberland mountains of Kentucky and hoboes riding the rails.

His beloved New York was full of rich socialites who fretted about standards of etiquette, genial Irish politicians, policemen and bartenders and struggling shop girls fantasizing about marrying millionaires.

He had a special sympathy for shop girls.  He knew just how much they were paid, how they budgeted to pay for food and rent, and how many meals they had to go without to buy a theater ticket or pretty blouse.

One of his best stories is “A Trimmed Lamp,” about a couple of young women who seek their fortunes in New York.  One gets a job in a ritzy Park Avenue shop; the other gets a higher-paid job in a laundry.

The first thinks taking the lower wage is a fair exchange for the chance to see high society and meet rich young men. But the fate plays a trick on both of them.

“An Unfurnished Room” is about a girl trying to decide whether to go out with a man she despises just for the sake of having a good dinner in a restaurant and an evening’s entertainment.  At the end, the narrator dreams he is in heaven and faces judgment.

The angel Gabriel asks him if he is an employer who paid working girls five or six dollars a week to live on.  No, replies the narrator, “I’m only a fellow that set fire to an orphanage and murdered a blind man for his pennies.”

I don’t think anybody in that era felt insulted about O. Henry’s portrayal of different ethnic and regional types.  Stereotyping is not necessarily malicious; it can be just a crude form of sociology.

Only one of the 38 stories in this collection has an African-American character.  Uncle Caesar in “A Municipal Report” is a carriage driver for hire in Nashville.

He is an ex-slave, but reportedly the grandson of a Congolese king.  He speaks in an exaggeratedly subservient and playing-the-fool manner, which I heard many times in real life in the 1940s and 1950s and which, thankfully, exists no more.  But at times the mask slips and the narrator can see the concealed sense of pride and dignity underneath.

Remarkably, Uncle Caesar murders a white man for justifiable reasons and gets away with it.  This is all right because his motive was to protect a sweet, helpless white woman from her exploitative and abusive husband.

Another short story, “The Last Leaf,” is about a pair of nice young women artists who, it is plainly hinted, are lesbians.  In a couple of respects, O. Henry may have been ahead of this time.

On the other hand, he wrote “A Harlem Tragedy,” in which Mrs. Fink, whose husband is indifferent to her, envies her neighbor, Mrs. Cassidy, because Mr. Cassidy regularly demonstrates his masculinity by beating her up, then shows his affection by making love and buying things that she wants.  Mrs. Fink tries to rouse her husband to violence and passion, with unexpected results.

O. Henry’s stories are a picture of a vanished America, not that America as we see it today, but as Americans of the time saw it.  He called his beloved New York City “Baghdad-on-the-Subway.”   Back then, the name Baghdad evoked thought of Scheherazade and the Tales of a Thousand and One Nights, not a violent, devastated war zone

The Best Short Stories of O. Henry is what I would call a good waiting-room book or bathroom book.  The stories were good enough to hold my interest, but not so compelling that I couldn’t bear to put them down.

A short story of the haunted Internet

August 9, 2020

The Basilisk by Paul Kingsnorth for emergence magazine.

Human nature in a time of pestilence

March 25, 2020

I recently read an old paperback copy of Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague, which I’ve had on the shelf for decades.  If I ever read it before, I don’t remember..

The novel tells the story of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran.  It was published in 1947, but Camus wrote it during the German occupation of France during World War Two.

The novel’s real topic is not so much plague specifically as how people react to catastrophe.  Camus’ view is surprisingly comforting and reassuring.  The novel’s principal characters all rise to the occasion, and the political and social order, although under strain, functions as it should.

The novel begins with mysterious deaths of rats in the city, a sign of plague, but which Oran’s physicians and municipal authorities refuse to take seriously until people start dying.  The public can’t imagine something could happen that would prevent them from living their accustomed lives.

At first the public seeks to maintain a semblance of normal life while the plague rages.  As the death rate increases, the people forget what normal life was like and just deal with the ever-present threat.  Just as they’ve given up hope, the plague fades away, and people try to pick up where they left off, as if it never happened.

The novel’s six main characters show different ways of thinking and coping with catastrophe—what Camus called the Absurd, meaning things and events that have no purpose or meaning in human terms.

Dr. Bernard Rieux is a physician who at first finds it hard to believe the plague is real, but calls on the authorities to take action.  He heads an auxiliary hospital for plague victims and also helps enforce quarantine regulations.

He works long, exhausting hours.  He finds he has to harden his heart in order to do his duty.  When he visits a patient at home and finds the person is infected, he calls for an ambulance to take the person away, despite the pleas of relatives, who understand that they may never see the victim again.  In the later stages, he has to go to patients’ homes accompanied by police

He does not believe in God and denies having any overarching philosophical belief.  He does his job simply because he is a physician and that is his role.  When asked what he believes in, he replies, “human decency.”

Jean Tarroux is a mysterious character who seems to have nothing to do but hang out around town and observe life.  But then he takes the initiative to form volunteer auxiliaries to help fight the plague—for example, by disinfecting houses.

He reveals that he is a former revolutionary—a Communist, if you read between the lines, although this is never spelled out.  He joined the revolutionary cause because of his horror of capital punishment; he left it because the revolutionaries are killers themselves.

He speaks about how human beings carry plague within themselves, which I take to mean most human beings are willing to see other people die in order to save themselves or achieve their goals.

He says the great sin is refusing to speak the truth in plain language.  He says his desire is to find out whether you can be a saint without believing in God.

He is one of the last to die, hanging on to life as long as he can,  but rejecting comforting illusions.

Click to enlarge.

Father Paneloux is a Catholic priest who preaches a sermon about how the plague is God’s judgment on the sins of the people of Oran. Camus, although an atheist, took religious faith seriously and a lot of his philosophy, including this book, is a kind of dialogue with Christianity.

The priest says people ignore God’s commandments and reject his love because they confidently expect to be forgiven, but sometimes God’s patience is exhausted and he lets people suffer what they deserve.

He says God figuratively is standing over the city with a giant flail, which is used to thresh wheat and separate the  nourishing grain from useless chaff.  I find this a powerful image.

I think of the flail in terms of the coronavirus emergency, in which we are see who are the wheat (not just health workers, but grocery clerks, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners, truck drivers) and who are the chaff (hedge fund managers, corporate lobbyists, diversity trainers).

The priest joins the volunteer auxiliary and witnesses the slow, painful death of a child from the plague.  He later preaches another sermon on whether a child’s painful death can be God’s will.

He said that a Christian must believe that everything that happens is God’s will, even if you can’t understand the reason.  This includes the death of a child.  Otherwise you don’t really believe in God.

But he adds that if you accept human suffering and death as God’s will, you must be willing to suffer and die yourself.  Later Father Paneloux himself falls sick and dies painfully, but not from symptoms of the plague.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

December 31, 2019

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is a novel set in England in the late 1820s and early 1830s when the only role for middle-class and upper-class women was to be somebody’s wife or somebody’s daughter.  Lower-class women, of course, were “free” to make their own way as servants.

It was published in incomplete form in 1866 after Mrs. Gaskell’s death.  The main plot thread is the progress of step-sisters Molly Gibson and Cynthia Kirkpatrick from being daughters to being wives.  I read it as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

It’s very readable, with likable believable characters and a moderately intriguing plot.  It’s also interesting as a portrait of a vanished way of life.

It is very different from North and South, which is the only other Gaskell novel I have read. While North and South is written in primary colors, so to speak, Wives and Daughters has many subtly different shades.

North and South is a report on the conflict between workers and factory owners in industrial Manchester, which is presented as a social problem that needs to be solved.

Wives and Daughters is full of shrewd observations about men and women and the different social classes relate to each other, but this is presented as an interesting and amusing reality, not as a problem.

Molly Gibson is the daughter of Dr. Gibson, a widower.  He is a good man, who is devoted to his patients.  He loves his daughter dearly and would do anything to make her happy, but he doesn’t make an effort to understand her.  He regards her desire for an education as silly, and unnecessary for a women.

Molly, on the other hand, devotes a lot of thought to understanding her dad.  Like Margaret Hale in North and South, she takes on adult responsibility at a young age and, in some ways, is more of a parent to her father than he is to her.

Early in the novel Dr. Gibson marries a widow, Clare Kirkpatrick.  She is a schoolmistress with a daughter, Cynthia, who is Molly’s age.  Being a schoolmistress or governess was the only profession open to respectable women in those days, and even that involved a step down in social rank, so she regards marriage as an escape.

Their courtship is very quick, and the two of them hardly know each other when they marry.  Because of their social position, they had few choices of marriage partners.  They wouldn’t marry down into the laboring class and they couldn’t marry up into the monied landowning class.

Their expectations are different.  Dr. Gibson wants a wife who will be a mother to Molly and keep house, but otherwise allow him to go on living as before.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick wants the perquisites of a higher social position and a household that upholds that position.

She is not cruel or malicious, but she is self-centered and never thinks about what other people think or want.  In her blindness to what others think or want, she is an example of how extreme selfishness makes you stupid.  She loves no-one, including her daughter.

Cynthia has grown up without experiencing a mother’s love.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick sent her away to school at a young age and treated her as a nuisance when she was at home.

She is exceedingly beautiful and charming.  She has the superpower of being effortlessly fascinating to men.  I’ve known women like that in my life, and so have most men.  So, interestingly, have the women in our reading group.

She is, like her mother, without an emotional core.  But unlike her mother, she is aware of what she lacks.  She regrets it and yet feels powerless to change.  She cares about what others think of her, but feels no true affection for anyone—except her stepsister Molly.

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Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red

September 23, 2019

I finished reading Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red, last week.  Published in 1998 and translated from the Turkish in 2001, it is an interesting oddity—a historical novel, a love story, a murder mystery and a novel of ideas.  Pamuk won the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature.

The chapters have various narrators, all addressing the reader in a conversational style.  The narrators are not just the principal characters, but the two dead murder victims, their anonymous murderer, illustrations of a dog, a horse, a tree, two dervishes, Satan and Death, an unnamed man imagining himself as a woman and the color red.

Islamic Empires. Click to enlarge

The setting is 1591 Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled north Africa, western Asia and the Balkans. a territory as extensive as the Roman Empire.

The Ottomans were eventually left behind by modern civilization, but at the height of their power, some Europeans admired their government, in which administrators were chosen for ability and disinterested loyalty, not noble birth, wealth or connections.

By the standards of the time, the Ottoman Empire was notably tolerant in religion.  It gave refuge to persecuted Jews and heretical Christians, including unitarians.

In the novel, Sultan Murat III commissions an illustrated book to celebrate the glories of his realm.  The problem is that he wants it painted in the European style, which many of his subjects consider contrary to Islam..

Pamuk’s artists see art is a form of mysticism.  A picture of a horse should be an ideal horse, a horse as God sees it, not a recognizable image of a particular horse.  If an artist has a unique style, that is an imperfection in his art.  The works of the greatest artists should be indistinguishable because they converge on a true vision.

I don’t know to what degree actual Turkish and Persian artists of the time thought that way and how much is Pamuk’s invention.

The two murders in the novel are a product of the murderer’s fear that the artists will be attacked by fanatic religious mobs if knowledge of their project gets out.

Two characters. the master miniaturist Osman and the apprentice Black, are given 72 hours to solve the second murder.

If they fail, the Ottoman judicial system will revert to its default procedure, which is to torture all suspects (in this case, including Osman and Black) until someone confesses or offers evidence of guilt of someone else.

To be fair, judicial torture was part of the judicial systems of Europe and China at the time, and the Ottoman system was used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its hunt for terrorists following the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure Pamuk planted enough clues to identify the murderer in advance, but I did not figure out who he was until the end.

Black is in love with the beautiful Shekuri, daughter of the illustrator Enishte, who is in charge of the Sultan’s manuscript project.  He has returned from eight years of wandering and found that she is married and the mother of two young sons.

Her husband is a warrior who has been missing in action for four years, and she lives in the house of her domineering father-in-law and lustful brother-in-law.  So she sees Black as a possible solution to her problem.

The two female characters, Shekuri and Esther, the Jewish neighborhood matchmaker and fixer, are the only ones who are able to think two or three steps ahead.  All the male characters are prisoners of passion and illusion..

There are fables within the main story and many, many allusions to how various illustrations related to Turkish and Persian literate and folklore.  I found this part of the novel tedious because I don’t know the background.

My Name Is Red would not be to everybody’s taste.  I found it interesting for its characters.  They operated under very different cultural assumptions from mine, but still reflected universal human nature in unexpected ways.

The world of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley

September 12, 2019

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  Published in 1849, the novel is set in Yorkshire in 1811-1812 at the time rebellious factory workers were fighting the introduction of labor-saving weaving machinery.

The title character is Shirley Keeldar, a rich, beautiful extroverted heiress who, in the absence of either father or husband, comes as close to being free and independent as was possible to any woman in that time and place.

By good-humoredly refusing to conform to the expectations for women in that era, she gets the men to accept her as a kind of honorary man.  She isn’t a rebel against society; she just wants to be a full participant.  She enjoys managing her estate and organizing charities.  She gets a number of proposals of marriage from rich suitors, which she turns down.

The Shirley character was the orphan daughter of a man who wanted a son and raised her as a boy—which was in fact the background of many accomplished women of that time and later.

Shirley was then a man’s name; it may have become more of a woman’s name because of the novel.

The emotional core of the novel is the intense personal friendship Shirley forms with the introverted and penniless Caroline Helstone, who lives as a tolerated poor relation of her uncle, Matthewson Helstone, an Anglican rector.

Rev. Helstone thinks he is doing his duty by Caroline by giving her food, shelter and a place to sit and do her sewing until some man comes along who is willing to marry her.

She is unhappy with these limitations, but the only choices for an upper- or middle-class woman of that time would be to find a suitable mate or live a marginal life as an old maid.   There was long before women could become school teachers, nurses or typists.

The only occupation open was governess, which is being a nanny and tutor to a rich family’s children.  Only educated women from genteel backgrounds are eligible to become governesses, but their lives were constant reminders that they are servants and social inferiors of their employees.

The older characters all regard Caroline’s discontent as girlish foolishness.  Their view is that life is not supposed to offer you love or happiness.  It is a grim test in which you prove or fail to prove your worthiness to enjoy eternal happiness with God in Heaven.

Caroline is attracted to her cousin, Robert Gérard Moore, a half-Belgian factory owner, who has affectionate and protective feelings toward her.  She accepts the fact that marriage is out of the question because she has no money.  Moore in turn has a platonic, intellectual friendship with Shirley.

Moore is in the forefront of the struggle against the “frame breakers,” workers are fighting mechanization of the weaving industry.  Brontë depicts them as criminals and terrorists who have successfully intimidated magistrates and other industrialists by threat of riot and assassination..

Moore alone has the courage to fight back.  He brings in troops to protect his factory, tracks down rebel leaders and sees to it that they are sentenced without mercy to transportation to Australia.  This is at great personal risk because at one point he is shot and nearly dies.

Rev. Helstone and the other Anglican clergy are all on Moore’s side.  They do not attempt to be peacemakers.  Methodist and Baptist preachers are depicted as part of the rebellious riffraff.

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Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories

July 27, 2019

Double click to enlarge.

Kurt Vonnegut Diagrams the Shape of All Stories in a Master’s Thesis Rejected by the University of Chicago by Open Culture.  Hat tip to Lambert Strether.

A novel of China between old and new

April 24, 2019

Ha Jin is a writer who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and writes novels in English about China.  I liked his novel WAITING (1999), which I read after picking it up in the free book exchange at my local public library.

The novel is about life in China and about Lin Kong, a Chinese army doctor, who is torn between the old China of arranged marriages and subordination of the individual to the family and the new China of supervision of personal morality by the state.

Ha Jin depicted a China much more tranquil than I imagined.  The 1960s saw the tail-end of the Great Leap Forward and then the Cultural Revolution, but, in the novel, all this happens off-stage.

Nobody is forced into a collective farm at gunpoint, nobody is dragged off by the police, nobody is forced to confess their political sins at a mass meeting.  The worst thing that happens to Lin is that, during the Cultural Revolution, he turns in some of his books and puts covers on the others so that the titles don’t show.

He’s considered daring for owning a copy of the war memoirs of Marshall Zhukov in the original Russian.  Later on he encounters a high-ranking officer who is privileged enough to own a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Everybody in the novel enjoys a modest prosperity.  The characters, except for a few high-ranking officials, all lead austere lives, but nobody lacks food, clothing or shelter.  Lin’s parents own a small piece of farmland, which nobody challenges their right to have.

That doesn’t mean that critical accounts of China such as Simon Leys’ essays or Jasper Becker’s Hungry Ghosts  are wrong, or that, on the other hand, the novel gives a false picture.  It means that China is a vast country, and not all one thing.

In 1962, Lin’s parents pressure him into an arranged marriage with the good-hearted, but illiterate and unattractive Shuyu, so that someone will be available to take care of them in their declining years.  She is one of the last Chinese women to have bound feet.  Lin has no desire to marry her, but goes along rather than defy his parents.

His military duty keeps him far from home, except for 12 days leave a year.  An attractive educated army nurse, Mannu Wu, falls in love with him, and, after a struggle with his feelings, he returns her love.  His superiors tolerate the relationship to the extent of allowing the couple to take walks together in private, but not to the extent of allowing adultery..

Each year, for 18 years, he  returns to his home village to ask Shuyu for a divorce, and each year she refuses.  He waits for the 18th year, when he can legally obtain a divorce without her consent and marry his true love.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

December 18, 2018

England during the reign of Queen Victoria was the world’s first and greatest industrial power and the center of a global empire that governed a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet you would hardly know this from reading most Victorian novels.  They’re typically set in London or in rural southern England, often the most backward parts.  Industry and empire are offstage.

One exception to this is Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), which I recently read as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.

Mrs. Gaskell did not just lament slums and poverty.  She took the trouble to try to understand newly-industrializing England—how the textile mills operated, the economics of the textile industry and the Issues at stake in the conflict between capital and labor.

Her viewpoint character is 20-year-old Margaret Hale, who is forced to relocate with her family from the sunny agricultural and aristocratic South of England to the grimy, slum-ridden town of Milton (Manchester) in Darkshire (Lancashire) in the North.

There she encounters John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who, at the age of 30, has risen from low-paid employment as a draper’s assistant to the owner of a manufacturing business that does business worldwide, and Nicholas Higgins, a worker in Thornton’s factory, who is driven by poverty and need to organize a strike.

Thornton is handsome, energetic and articulate.  He could easily be a character in an Ayn Rand novel.  He feels beholden to no one, asks nothing of anyone and refuses to accept dictation or advice from anyone, including the workers in his factory, whom he regards as antagonists.

Competition from American factories causes him to cut wages—but he does not feel he needs to justify this to his workers or anybody else.

Inspired by Nicholas Higgins, the workers go on strike.  Most of the major strikes in the 19th century UK and US were, like this one, in response to wage cuts, not demands for wage increases.

Thornton imports strikebreakers from Ireland, with a priest to keep them under control and guards to prevent them from communicating with the strikers.

The strikers probably would have lost anyway, but some of the workers disregard Higgins’ advice to remain nonviolent and stage a riot in front of Thornton’s house, which gives him an excuse to call in the police.

The textile mill owners hire the strikers back, if they pledge not to join a union.  Higgins refuses to do this.

He asks Margaret to help him move to the South and get a job as an agricultural labor.  But she tells him this is not realistic.  Bad as conditions in the factories are, the plight of agricultural workers is worse.  They do nothing but eat, sleep and work, she says; they are incapable of the comradeship of the workers in the North.

The same is true of the servant class in the South.  The Hales find it difficult to hire servants in Milton.  Factory girls would rather work 10 hours a day and have the rest of their time free than endure the life of a servant, which means being on duty 24/7 with maybe one Saturday afternoon off every couple of weeks.

In the South, some servants find this endurable because they regard themselves as members of their families.  But this is not the spirit of the go-getting North, where everyone is out for themselves.

So far, so realistic.

But Mrs. Gaskell then veers from her realism in order to bring about a happy ending.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s takedown of heroism

November 21, 2018

Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s only play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, is about the homecoming of Harold Ryan, an adventurer, war hero and big game hunter, after having been lost on the Amazon rain forest for eight years, and how his wi.

The play was first produced in 1970 and revived many times, including this year.  I read it early this month as part of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

Ryan’s only moral values are competence, physical courage and strength of will.  He validates himself by killing and risking death on the battlefield and hunting ground, and by dominating women and weaker men.

Vonnegut’s play is a savage and hilariously funny critique of those values, which are now called toxic masculinity.

The wife’s name is Penelope, which is a reference to the homecoming scene in the Odyssey.  Odysseus has spent 10 years at the Siege of Troy and 10 more years wandering the Mediterranean, including several years marooned on an island having sex with a beautiful nymph.

He is the prototype of the action hero—brave, strong and resourceful.  He is able to deal with any situation no matter how perilous.  Homer gives no evidence, though, that he cares for anyone or anything but himself, his rights and his reputation.  All the men under his command perish.

When he arrives home, he expects to resume his role as patriarch as if he had never left.  He expects and gets deference from his wife, son and old servants, and, without mercy, kills not only the unwelcome suitors for his wife’s hand. but also the servants who had given him up for dead.

The Ryan character, fought in the Spanish Civil War and World War Two and was a big game hunter in Africa, is also based on Ernest Hemingway.  A quotation attributed to Hemingway goes, “There is no hunting like the hunting of men, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”

Hemingway was not actually a hunter of men.  He was an ambulance driver on the Italian front during World War One, and a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and World War Two.  There is no questioning his physical courage.  He was seriously wounded during World War One, and seriously injured in two successive plane crashes while on safari in Africa, leaving him in physical pain for the remainder of his life.  He was married four times, and was not a home body.

One recurring theme in Hemingway’s fiction is manliness and honor in a world that doesn’t value them.  Many men from the 1920s through the 1950s looked to him as role model of masculinity.

Ryan’s opponent in the play is the pacifist physician, Norbert Woodley, one of Penelope’s suitors.  He loves his mother and doesn’t believe in fighting.  His basic decency is contrasted with Ryan’s bullying.

He confronts Ryan in the final scene, and I understand there are different versions of what happens next.  In the version I read with my friend Walter, Woodley punctures Ryan’s ego by convincing him that people think his heroics are comical.

A synopsis I read on-line gives a more believable ending.  Ryan throws Woodley out the window while Penelope and Ryan’s son Paul walk out on him.

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