Writings: Book Notes
First follow nature and your judgement frame
By her just standard, which is still the same.
- Currently reading notes for Autumn 2004 – Summer 2009 (Princeton)
- Go to notes for Autumn 2009 – Spring 2013 (Montréal & Toronto)
- Go to book notes for Summer 2013 – Spring 2015 (Vancouver)
- Go to notes for Autumn 2015 – Spring 2018 (Rome)
- Go to current book notes (Summer 2018 –)
I first started writing short notes on books I had read in 2004. The following are the notes from 2004 to 2009.
This is a page of thoughts on books I have recently read. Since I started this page, I have sometimes been tempted to return and alter previous passages which now seem to have hastily- or ill-formed opinions, but think it best to leave them as they are: simply amateur reactions to what I read.
- Death in Venice & Other Tales
- C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children
- The Religious Sense
- The Screwtape Letters
- Understanding Media
- Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare
- The Winter's Tale
- The Lost World of the Kalahari
- The Ministry of Fear
- Monsignor Quixote
- The Rainbow
- Long Walk to Freedom
- The Picture of Dorian Gray; De Profundis
- The Kite Runner
- Boy; Going Solo
- God in the Dock
- The Golden Age; Dream Days
- The Merry Wives of Windsor
- The Little Flowers of St. Francis
- Fathers and Sons
- In Memoriam A.H.H.
- Les Misérables
- Samson Agonistes
- Felix Holt
- The Beggar's Opera
- She Stoops to Conquer
- Brideshead Revisited
- The Meaning of Everything
- In the Skin of a Lion
- As You Like It
- The Communist Manifesto
- The Pilgrim's Regress
- Lady Windermere's Fan, et al.
- The Seven Storey Mountain
- Martin Chuzzlewit
- Notes From Underground
- Julius Caesar
- The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
- The First Jesuit
- Cautionary Verses
- David Copperfield
- Quo Vadis
- Peter Pan
- Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion
- Till We Have Faces
- The Merchant of Venice
- Poems by Wilfred Owen
- All Hallows' Eve
- Paris 1919
- The Good Earth
- Jane Eyre
- Favourite Father Brown Stories
- Out of the Silent Planet
- The Scarlet Letter
- That Hideous Strength
- Cry, The Beloved Country
- Astrophel and Stella
- Becoming Human
- The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays
- The Lays of Beleriand
- Women in Love
- The Lord of the Rings
- Gathering Blue; Messenger
- Letters of C.S. Lewis
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Echo of the Big Bang
- Crome Yellow
- Man and Superman
- The Places In Between
- Richard II
- Arms and the Man
- Across the River and into the Trees
- Ex Libris
- Dombey & Son
- Everybody's Pepys
- Selected Poems of Leonard Cohen
- Master and Commander
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Letters to a Young Poet
- The Children of Húrin
- Henry Esmond
- Ben Hur
- High Adventure
- A Nervous Splendor
- High Windows
- The Professor
- One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Barnaby Rudge
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- The Man Within
- Down and Out in Paris and London
- Burmese Days
- A Brief History of Lesotho
- Twelfth Night
- Christmas Stories, Vol. II
- The Life of Olaudah Equiano
- The Inklings
- The Iliad
- Sword of Honour
- Planet Narnia
- My Family and Other Animals
- Jean de Brébeuf
- Speak, Memory
- The Sentinel
- The Discarded Image
- Comus; L'Allegro and Il Penseroso
- Le Misanthrope
- The Song of Hiawatha
- Our Mutual Friend
- Memory and Identity
- The Origin of Species
- Dune Messiah
- Einstein's Miraculous Year
- Children of Dune
- Catholic Social Teaching
- I Henry VI
- II Henry VI
- III Henry VI
- God Emperor of Dune
- The Name of the Rose
- Little Dorit
- Venus & Adonis
- Jane Eyre
- The Defense
- A Christmas Carol
- Daniel Deronda
- The Lathe of Heaven
- The Arrow of God
- The Left Hand of Darkness
- The Translator
- Not for Publication
- Moll Flanders
- A Mathematician's Apology
- Scenes of Clerical Life
- The Man in the High Castle
- Too Late the Phalarope
- Ender's Game
- King Solomon's Mines
- The Old Curiosity Shop
Death in Venince & Other Tales [Top]
Thomas Mann, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (Penguin, 1999). First reading. 22 November 2004.
I was most struck by the pathetic and nihilistic aspects of the stories. 'Little Herr Friedemann' and 'Tobias Mindernickel' in particular evoke a strange mixture of sympathy and horror. 'The Blood of the Walsungs' was more cool and insipid (one feels the clammy grasp of the twins' hands).
'Gladius Dei' was the most different of the stories; I'm not sure that it works: it's one of those stories which is about an idea but has nothing else to substantiate it. 'The Starvelings: A Study', on the other hand, worked better, perhaps because it was shorter.
My taste is perhaps not cultivated enough to distinguish the quality of 'Death in Venice' — which is considered one of Mann's masterpieces — from the others stories in the book. While I generally find an author's long physical description of a character tedious and unhelpful, the description of Tadzio is indelible . . . perhaps because it makes up a good fraction of the story. An erotic element is certainly there, but it is interesting to ponder where the line between Von Aschenbach's erotic attraction to Tadzio and his artistic appreciation of unfettered beauty is drawn. Is it this tension which leads to his death? The impression of Venice with the white heat of the sun, the close streets and the putrid disease is vivid.
C. S. Lewis: Letters to Children [Top]
Ed. Lyle W. Dorsett & Marjorie Lamp Mead (Macmillan, 1985). First reading. 24 November 2004.
A good read for a Wednesday afternoon, when you should be studying the thermodynamics of phase transitions in binary mixtures, but instead find yourself browsing through the Firestone library. Took less than an hour to read and was quite fun. It seems a bit odd that reading letters as a third party can be so engrossing. C. S. Lewis recommends on more than one occasion that the Actus Apostolorum in the Vulgate be used as an accessible and simple text for keeping one's Latin sharp.
The Religious Sense [Top]
Luigi Giussani, trans. John Zucchi (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997). First reading. 28 November 2004.
This book was recommended to me by a classics student who took a class with Giussani in Milan and was greatly influenced by him. Other people also say great things about him. In the opinion of my esteemed friend David Elliot, Giussani is an `insufferably opaque writer, but admittedly deft theologian'. I would somewhat agree, at least on the first point — perhaps something is lost in the translation? The content is dense and one is bombarded with with too many fragments of poems and personal anecdotes.
On the other hand, there were certain ideas that struck me. In particular, he continually comes back to the point that reason, or rationality, is that which humans, by their very nature, do. It is not an abstract mental power: he rejects a dualistic view of the human person. `Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.' He also presses the idea of the necessity of pursuing fundamental existential questions all the way, and not being waylaid by preconceptions or ideologies. I could quote Pascal again on this, I suppose. In fact, much which impressed itself on me reminded me of Pascal; the latter's Pensées speak more forcefully to me, perhaps because they are shorter and more honed — and written in an inimitable style.
My overall impression is that I became engaged to what Giussani was saying here and there, but I didn't feel the force of the book as a whole. This might be due to my reading it over several nights, or not reading it closely enough.
At a certain point, Einstein said to him [mathematician Francesco Severi], ". . . he who does not admit to the unfathomable mystery cannot even be a scientist." (p. 50)
[Einstein again:] "I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life." (p. 124)
Picture yourself being born, coming out of your mother's womb at the age you are now at this very moment in terms of your development and consciousness. What would be the first, absolutely your initial reaction? If I were to open my eyes for the first time in this instant, emerging from my mother's womb, I would be overpowered by the wonder and awe of things as a "presence" . . . . Being: not as some abstract entity, but as a presence, a presence which I do not myself make, which I find. A presence which imposes itself upon me. (pp. 100-101).
The Screwtape Letters [Top]
C. S. Lewis (Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1944). Fourth (?) reading. 20 December 2004.
The kind of book you can read once a year and not tire of. I had not noticed before that it is dedicated to Tolkien.
Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see . . . . best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modern investigation". (p. 14)
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man [Top]
Marshall McLuhan (2nd ed., Signet Books, 1964). First reading. 2 January 2005.
Marshall McLuhan always stressed that in the electronic age it is increasingly important that we be "literate" in the new media. This book certainly drives that home, and makes one look at media from a different and perhaps more illuminating angle — at the medium rather than the content, of course:
For lack of observing so central an aspect of the TV image, the critics of program "content" have talked nonsense about "TV violence." The spokesmen of censorious views are typical semi-literate book-oriented individuals who have no competence in the grammars of newspaper, or radio, or of film, but who look askance at all non-book media . . . . Vehemence of projection of a single isolated attitude they mistake for moral vigilance. Once these censors became aware that in all cases "the medium is the message" or the basic source of effects, they would turn to suppression of media as such, instead of seeking "content" control. Their current assumption that content or programming is the factor that influences outlook and action is derived from the book medium, with its sharp cleavage between form and content. (p. 274)
I read this book quickly, but it would greatly reward a closer and more careful reading. Nevertheless, it is full of pithy points that struck me. For example, he claims (and I think he's probably right) that the importance an author's identity and his individual originality is a result of Gutenburg's technology. Or the following: `Ads are news. What is wrong with them is that they are always good news. In order to balance off the effect and to sell good news, it is necessary [for the press] to have a lot of bad news.' (pp. 188-189)
It is abundantly obvious that McLuhan was fantastically well-read. He quotes from a vast range of writers (mostly English), but the most frequent are Shakespeare and James Joyce. He loves quoting `Finnigan's Wake', and what's more, it is apparent that he actually understands it.
It was also a pleasant surprise to find that McLuhan is really very funny. My impression of him before was more of a solemn, wise guru. But his humour is very direct and playful. The chapter on ads is subtitled, `Keeping upset with the Joneses'. Then there's the awful pun which he manages to make somehow high-brow because you know he knows how bad it is: `The instance of the electric light may prove illuminating in this connection'. (p. 23) Or his suggestion that Shakespeare knew all about the medium of television: `But soft! what light through yonder window breaks? / . . . . It speaks, and yet says nothing [sic].' (p. 25)
Many of the predictions he makes about the future of society were right on the money. He claimed that information was becoming the most important commodity in western civilisation: no one would contest that today. And at a time when writers like Asimov and Arthur C. Clark were projecting that at the end of 20th century, technology would allow everyone to lead a life of leisure, McLuhan justly observed that new technologies create new work. Occasionally he's off mark though: he predicted that the automobile was in decline.
The New York Herald Tribune is quoted on the front cover: `The most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov.' That probably hasn't panned out, but I'd say it's not far off.
Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare [Top]
Ed. W. K. Wimsatt (Hill and Wang, 1965). Second reading. 8 January 2005.
I picked up this little gem at the Main Street public library about a year ago. It's got a couple of essays from The Rambler, his proposal for his edition of Shakespeare, his introductory essay to the edition, as well as tid-bits of commentary from the plays. The essay I find to be a real page-turner.
Other poets display cabinets of precious rarities, minutely finished, wrought into shape, and polished into brightness. Shakespeare opens a mine which contains gold and diamonds in inexhaustible plenty, though clouded by incrustations, debased by impurities, and mingled with a mass of meaner minerals. (p. 45)
I am now interested in reading Addison's Cato, which seems to have been highly regarded in Johnson's day and was greatly praised by Voltaire.
On Richard III: `This is one of the most celebrated of our author's performances; yet I know not whether it has not happened to him, as to others, to be praised most when praise is not most deserved. That this play has scenes noble in themselves and very well contrived to strike in the exhibition, cannot be denied. But some parts are trifling, others shocking, and some improbable.' (p. 93) I'm glad someone agrees. I always found Richard's wooing of Lady Anne wholly unbelievable. The best scene is the visitation of the murdered ghosts: `despair, and die!'
On the back cover, of Samuel Johnson: `Once we know him we may be trusted to ask, when baffled by a difficult passage, "What does Johnson say?"'
Rudyard Kipling. First reading. 9 January 2005.
I read this book over too long a period to get into it enough. I liked it best for the description of India at the time, with its mix of culture and religion.
I should try Kipling's poetry. The verses opening chapter XII (`Who hath desired the sea . . .') I found particularly good. I only recently discovered that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1907.
Jane Austen. First reading. 16 January 2005.
This was the last novel of Jane Austen's to be published, the last of hers for me to read, and, unfortunately, my least favourite. I found none of the characters particularly interesting or deep; many seem like poorer copies of characters from her other novels. The outcome of the story is obvious from the start. This is not a fault in itself, but a plot needs more than anticipation to support it, and this novel lacks the variety shewn in some of her other stories. The title theme, persuasion, is not fleshed out very much; contrast this to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility which live up to their titles.
This is not to say I didn't enjoy the book; on the contrary, I was compelled to read it faster than I have read any of Jane Austen's other novels. Her usual wit is there, and her unflattering portrayal of Sir Walter and Miss Elliot and the tedious machinations of the aristocracy are in top form. Her style is as wonderful as ever.
[Captain Wentworth:] `It is a sort of pain, too, which is new to me. I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed . . . I must endeavour to subdue my mind to my fortune. I must learn to brook being happier, than I deserve.' (ch. XXIII)
The Tragedy of Cato [Top]
Joseph Addison. First reading. 17 January 2005.
What a play! It would be wonderful to see it on the stage. The story is engrossing and the characters expressive. Addison's verse is noble and elegant while remaining unaffected and easy.
[Syphax:] 'Tis pride, rank pride, and haughtiness of soul: / I think the Romans call it Stoicism. (I, iiii)
[Portius to his brother:]
Marcus, the friendships of the world are oft
Confederacies in vice, or leagues of pleasure;
Ours has severest virtue for its basis,
And such a friendship ends not but with life.' (III, i)
The Winter's Tale [Top]
Shakespeare. First reading. 3 February 2005.
Why is this play not more popular or more widely performed? I saw it with my family over Christmas and was deeply impressed. The variety of emotions and moods makes it very engaging and the themes of repentance, suffering and redemption are powerful. The pastoral scenes are entertaining and well-paced. The ending, with all the happy endings following fast upon each others' heels, is overwhelming, but marvellously suits the play.
I cannot understand how later critics could be so taken with the rule of unity of place and time in drama when they had such a perfect example of a play that works — and indeed could not work otherwise — by by completely ignoring it.
[Polixenes:] `We were, fair queen, / Two lads that thought there was no more behind, / But such a day to-morrow as to-day, / And to be boy eternal.' (I, ii)
The Lost World of the Kalahari [Top]
Laurens van der Post (William Morrow and Co., New York, 1958). First reading. 5 February 2005.
Reading this book was a curious experience. I had previously read A Story Like the Wind a couple of times, which I consider a very fine book on the whole. A Far Off Place, is such an essential sequel that one must read it, but not nearly as good. A Story Like the Wind was compelling for me because it brought back memories of the veld and of the Afrikaaners in particular — though other African peoples figure strongly too.
So I was looking forward to a trip into the Kalahari — which I visited a couple of times as a child — with the careful and emotional prose of Laurens van der Post. But when I was a couple of chapters in, I learned from the wonderful world of the internet that since his death, it has become widely known that he was quite a teller of tall tales. Many of the incidents in this book are fabricated, or lifted from earlier books. The San nurse he claims to have had probably never existed.
Given this, I began to notice small things which disturbed me. He seems to have a dangerously romanticised picture of Africa: the `real Africa' for him was the `untouched' areas. He is often condescending towards black Africans, as though trying to preserve them in a child-like primitive state. He also writes with an element of pride, for example, when describes how he carefully held the morale of the camp together and was the only one who could bring down any game (his accuracy with the rifle must contain some hyperbole), or how he laboured hours administering medicines to poor natives.
On the other hand, it is still a good read. Even though it may not be based entirely on fact, it is entertaining and thought-provoking. We are to-day very conditioned to equate truth and fact in very black and white terms; and perhaps that is not what he was aiming at. His chastisement of everyone who was responsible for practically exterminating the San (bushmen) people is harsh but just.
The Ministry of Fear [Top]
Graham Green (William Heinemann & The Bodley Head, London, 1973). First reading. 15 February 2005.
Graham Greene considered this the favourite of his `entertainments'. His peculiar classification of his books into literary novels and `entertainments' is misleading. One could argue that his entertainments are marked by bizarre and dark humour, but all his books have these qualities to some degree. In general, both types of books have pathetic and endearingly fallible protagonists caught up in some sort of moral or psychological quandary.
The Ministry of Fear is certainly the most inventive his books that I have read. The theme of pity is presented but not sufficiently fleshed out. Like most of Graham Greene, worth reading and hard to put down.
Monsignor Quixote [Top]
Graham Green (Penguin, 1983). Third reading. 20 February 2005
This book was a present to me from Craig Burrell. I was planning on starting The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence, which is also on my shelf, but thought this would make for a familiar and enjoyable read.
My friend Fr. Guy Trudel once told me that he had read (or just browsed?) Jone's moral theology book. Graham Greene seems to have had a facetious fascination with it.
Monsignor Quixote has one of my favourite closing lines to a novel:
Why is it that the hate of a man . . . dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence — for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end?
No wine can be considered unimportant, my friend, since the marriage at Cana. (p. 14)
He prayed in his silence: "O God, make me human, let me feel temptation. Save me from my indifference." (p. 141)
The Rainbow [Top]
D. H. Lawrence. First reading. 12 March 2005.
This was another volume bought from the Main Street Library. It is a beautiful hard-cover book containing three novels of D. H. Lawrence, which I bought for a dollar a few years ago, and sat on my shelf for a while, waiting to be read. Last year I read Sons and Lovers, which greatly impressed me; I began Lady Chatterley's Lover but found it boring and abandoned it a few chapters in.
D. H. Lawrence's style is for the most part very well-done and he was obviously a careful writer. Occasionally he has passages which are too flighty and poetic for my tastes.
His spiritual fervour is admirable, especially as it is presented in opposition to the sterile intellectualism and mechanisation which emerged from the nineteenth century. A century later, he has similar concerns that the Romantics had before him. While I think he is right to reject a dualistic conception of mind-body, his spirituality is too sensualistic. (`Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.') One of the side-effects of this is that he only follows the youths in the story: as the characters age, they drop out of the story, and become flat and static characters. We only see the lives of the young, which is a pity given that this is a novel that spans four generations. On the other hand, the shifting of the narrative voice between different characters, especially between male and female, is well-paced and effective.
D. H. Lawrence rewards biblical literacy more than any other 20th century novelist whom I have read.
He too realised what England would be in a few hours' time — a blind, sordid, strenuous activity, all for nothing, fuming with dirty smoke and running trains and groping in the bowels of the earth, all for nothing. (ch. xv)
Long Walk to Freedom [Top]
Nelson Mandela. Second reading. 15 March 2005.
Nelson Mandela's biography is accessible and entertaining. As interesting as the exposition of his political life are the whimsical details, such as the debate amongst the prisoners on Robben Island that went on for years about whether there had ever been tigers in southern Africa.
Mandela's political philosophy during the struggle against apartheid seems to be to have been essentially pragmatist. He simply presents his view, without pressing too hard to justify it.
I began to suspect that both legal and extra-constitutional protests would soon be impossible. In India, Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and farsighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaaners in South Africa. Non-violent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.
I responded that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. (ch. 93)
The Picture of Dorian Gray; De Profundis [Top]
Oscar Wilde. First Reading. 1 April 2005.
Given that Dorian Gray is Wilde's only novel, the awkward style, dominated by too-often pedestrian conversation between the characters, can be somewhat forgiven. Perhaps he had difficulty removing himself from the literary form of drama, with which he would have been more comfortable. At any rate, it improves as the book progresses and does not end up being too much of a hindrance.
De Profundis, an essay he wrote while in prison, was also included in the volume. This is a beautiful exposition on suffering and Christian art. Let anyone who would label Wilde as an immoral libertine read this — as well as Dorian Gray. He describes his idea of Christ as the perfect artist, somewhat similar to Marshall McLuhan's succinct observation that `in Jesus Christ, there is no separation or distance between the medium and the message; it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.' Or as Wilde wrote, `Truth in art is the unity of a thing with itself.'
Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility. (De Profundis)
Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. (De Profundis)
Most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live. If any love is shown us we should recognise that we are quite unworthy of it. Nobody is worthy to be loved. The fact that God loves man shows us that in the divine order of ideal things it is written that eternal love is to be given to what is eternally unworthy. . . . Love is a sacrament that should be taken kneeling . . . (De Profundis)
A man's very highest moment is, I have no doubt at all, when he kneels in the dust, and beats his breast, and tells all the sins of his life. (De Profundis)
The Kite Runner [Top]
Khaled Hosseini (Anchor Canada, 2004), First Reading. 6 June 2005.
I note with dismay that it has been over two months since I have added to this list of books. I suppose that is due to busyness, as well as some false starts on a few books which I abandoned. Thankfully The Kite Runner came along.
It was recommended to me by my parents. In general I don't read recently published books unless recommended, and this one was certainly well recommended. The novel is set mostly in Kabul, Afghanistan, and follows the protagonist from his childhood to middle-age, as he struggles with his inherent flaws and runs away from the sins of his youth. Eventually, of course, he confronts them and seeks redemption.
The story is well-paced and the plot is intelligently constructed. The characters are realistic and three-dimensional. I find Hosseini's style slightly distracting — I'm not sure if it is the norm with contemporary novels, but the sometimes halting style is often annoying. Jarring. Irritating. Often containing sentences without subjects.
But overall this was a wonderful story with ideas and themes that I will be pondering for a while.
He gave me a pinch-faced look, as if I had just spat in his soda. `Thanks a lot, man,' he said, shaking his head and muttering something as he walked away. That was when I learned that, in America, you don't reveal the ending of the movie, and if you do, you will be scorned and made to apologise profusely for having committed the sin of Spoiling the End. In Afghanistan, the ending was all that mattered.' (ch. 25)
Boy; Going Solo [Top]
Roald Dahl (Puffin, 1984; Penguin, 1986). Sixth/seventh(??) reading. 20 June 2005.
I just picked these Roald Dahl autobiographies up for an easy and familiar read. They are entertaining and funny each time.
Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foot-hills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, they were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet . . . . It would seem that when the British live for years in a foul and sweaty climate among foreign people they maintain their sanity by allowing themselves to go slightly dotty. (Going Solo, ch. 1)
God in the Dock [Top]
C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970). 1st reading. 27 June 2005.
Kirk Doran kindly lent me his copy of this collection of essays. A number of them are the origins of his book Miracles and were a bit repetitive. "Religion Without Dogma?" was a good essay. Most interesting to me were his ruminations on how to communicate religious and theological ideas in contemporary language for non-intellectuals. At one point (in "Christian Apologetics") he compiles a glossary of words and how they were perceived by his audiences. E.g., `Dogma: Used by the people only in a bad sense to mean "unproved assertion delivered in an arrogant manner"' and `Spiritual: Means primarily immaterial, incorporeal, but with serious confusions from the Christian uses of pneuma. Hence the idea that whatever is "spiritual" is somehow better than anything sensuous: e.g., they don't really believe that envy could be as bad as drunkenness.' (pp. 97-98)
I had seen the title to this book before, and for some reason thought that `dock' referred to a mooring but never paused to think that this was strange. In fact, it is the kind of dock you get in a courtroom. (His point is that in contemporary times, people put God in the dock, rather than themselves, when inquiring about or investigating religion.)
`Praying for particular things,' said I, `always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn't it be wiser to assume that He knows best?' `On the same principle,' said he, `I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.' `That's quite different,' I protested. `I don't see why,' said he. `The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don't see why He shouldn't let us do it in the other.' (p. 217)
The Golden Age; Dream Days [Top]
Kenneth Grahame. 1st reading. 8 July 2005.
These are in The Penguin Kenneth Grahame (1983), another Main Street Library acquisition. I was surprised to discover that I was the first person to ever read this book — unless someone only read part of it — as two of the pages were still stuck together, uncut since printing.
Apparently The Wind in the Willows was coolly received by the public, and even rejected by a few publishers, since it wasn't perceived at the time to live up to these earlier works, which had been hugely popular. They were really the first books written from a child's perspective, and were very influential on all subsequent literature of that sort.
The stories are humorous and whimsical, and also strangely intriguing because the impression that they leave is deeper than one would expect from the short and simple narratives.
The Merry Wives of Windsor [Top]
Shakespeare. 1st reading. 13 July 2005.
Johnson writes in his edition: `No task is harder than that of writing to the ideas of another. Shakespeare knew what the queen [Elizabeth], if the story be true, seems not to have known, that by any real passion of tenderness, the selfish craft, the careless jollity, and the lazy luxury of Falstaff must have suffered so much abatement that little of his former cast would have remained. Falstaff could not love but by ceasing to be Falstaff. He could only counterfeit love, and his professions could be prompted, not by the hope of pleasure, but of money. Thus the poet approached as near as he could to the work enjoined to him . . .'
Falstaff is not in the same top form as in Henry IV in The Merry Wives: he manages to become a hilarious object of ridicule to the other characters again, but not much else.
The plot is easy and funny, but this comedy was to me no more than an entertainment, unlike the others of Shakespeare's comedies I have read or seen.
When I was in Stratford (England), I bought a beautiful edition of As You Like It. There were also copies of The Merry Wives for sale, but I was too miserly to buy both which I now regret. At least I chose the better play . . .
The Little Flowers of St. Francis [Top]
Trans. Raphael Brown (Image Books, 1958). 2nd reading. 29 July 2005.
And in a fervour of spirit St. Francis came out of the church and entered into a forest that was nearby. And there he gave himself to prayer. And praying and weeping and beating his breast, he sought Jesus Christ, the spouse and delight of his soul. And at last he found Him in the secret depths of his heart. And he spoke to Him reverently as to his Lord. Then he answered Him as his Judge. Next he entreated Him as a father. Then he talked with Him as with a friend. (p. 176)
Fathers and Sons [Top]
Ivan Turgenev, trans. Constance Garnett. 1st reading. August 2005.
The foreword to the edition I read (The Heritage Reprints, 1941; foreword by Sinclair Lewis) says, `Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have tenderness, too, but it is the savage love of a peasant mother for a sick child. One of their mottos, printed larger than life, is We are not amused; they feel simultaneously that Mankind must be saved and that it is not worth saving; and they never display Turgenev's ruling quality: gentleness.'
Now, besides the question of whether this is a fair comparison of these authors, I'll have Tolstoy or Dostoevsky any day over Turgenev — at least based on this novel, which is the only I have read by the latter.
This is not to say that I didn't enjoy this book. On the contrary, it was very engaging, and the theme presented in the title is well explored. The characters are well drawn, Bazarov in particular. The main fault with it, as far as I can see, is that it is simply too short. One feels as though so much more could have been done with the various and fascinating characters.
Death's an old joke, but it comes fresh to every one. (Bazarov, ch. 17)
Can it be that their prayers, their tears are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that great peace of `indifferent' nature; they tell us, too, of eternal reconciliation and of life without end. (ch. 18)
In Memoriam A.H.H. [Top]
Tennyson. 1st reading. 31 August 2005.
This work, in combination with his Idylls of the King, which I read a year and a half ago or so, makes me consider Tennyson one of my favourite poets. In Memoriam manages to be almost epic in its scope and themes, but at the same time remains intimate and spontaneous:
Nor dare she trust a larger lay,
But rather loosens from the lip
Short swallow-flights of song, that dip
Their wings in tears, and skim away. (XLVII)
C.S. Lewis wrote that `very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all. I cannot remember that any poem since In Memoriam, or any novel, has celebrated it.'
Tennyson's religion, it seems to me, retains what was best in the romantics, but is more manly and better grounded — and Christian:
He fought his doubts and gathered strength,
He would not make his judgement blind,
He faced the spectres of the mind
And laid them: thus he came at length
To find a stronger faith his own;
And Power was with him in the night,
Which makes the darkness and the light,
And dwells not in the light alone . . . (XCIV)
A nice echo of a stanza from earlier in the poem (and, presumably, chronologically):
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry. (LIII)
Les Misérables [Top]
Victor Hugo, trans. Charles E. Wilbour. 1st reading. 1 September 2005.
Apparently the subtitle `Designed to be Read as a Modern Novel' is code for `abridged'. Or so I discovered three hundred pages of small print into the copy of Les Misérables I had gotten from the library. So I found myself in a dilemma: do I continue with the last two hundred pages, and live with the shame of having descended (albeit unwittingly) into the world of abridgement, or get the real thing and reread half the novel, two-thirds of which I would already have seen? I chose the former. They say that the guilt goes away sooner or later.
Now, despite being deceived, this novel is a real corker! I especially liked the first few chapters with the good bishop and the variety of incident and characters.
We are never done with conscience. It is bottomless, being God. We cast into this pit the labour of our whole life, we cast in our fortune, we cast in our riches, we cast in our success, we cast in our liberty or our country, we cast in our well-being, we cast in our repose, we cast in our happiness. More! more! more! We must at last cast in our heart. (ch. XXXI)
Samson Agonistes [Top]
Milton. 1st reading. 24 September 2005.
Though before I had remarked the peculiarity of the story of Samson, with its grotesque and fabulous incidents that would seem more at home in the book of Genesis than in Judges, I had not before really reflected on what the whole story is actually about. Meeting him `eyeless in Gaza' in Milton's work makes one begin to consider the depths of the story.
But overall I was not enthralled by the poem. It has to me the flavour of an exercise in dramatic propriety, almost anachronistic, having being written less than a century after Shakespeare and his contemporaries had revolutionised the tragic genre. Aristotle's thought was rooted in observation, and I think it is a mistake to treat his Poetics as a prescription rather than a description.
That being said, Milton does a good job of translating the story into a Greek tragedy: the blindness of Samson is used to great and varied effect. The encounter with Delilah is particularly intriguing, and apprehension that builds with the approaching feast of Dagon is nicely paced.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a great admirer of Milton's rhythm — `Of this kind of verse [counterpoint] Milton is the great master and the choruses of Samson Agonistes are written throughout in it — but with the disadvantage that he does not let the reader clearly know what the ground-rhythm is meant to be and so they have struck most readers as merely irregular.' I confess to not being able to discern this quality; it would be good to listen to someone who knows how to read it properly.
I wonder whether anyone has breached Milton's intention and tried to dramatically stage Samson Agonistes. I think that it could be done successfully.
Felix Holt, The Radical [Top]
George Eliot. 1st reading. 29 September 2005.
The books (2 vols.) I read, which I got from the Aquinas House library, had no publication date, but looked to be at least eighty or so years old, and had never been read. They necessitated a penknife every few pages to cut some of the folio pages open.
I suppose this is not considered in the first tier of George Eliot's works, but I enjoyed it very much. The plot has a Dickensian flavour due to its twists and turns, but like a typical Eliot novel, the setting is static. The political aspects of the novel I found rather uninteresting, and I was afraid they would consume the novel, but in the end they were unimportant for my enjoyment of the book.
George Eliot's characters are always interesting, but this is the first time I have genuinely liked them since Adam Bede. Felix Holt — honest, hardworking and patient — reminds me of Gabriel Oak, but more intelligent and less pastoral. Esther is the most appealing of Eliot's female characters that I have encountered. She is, in the end, the least selfish and most courageous; she lacks the stifling angst of Maggie Tulliver and the strange mix of passion and introversion of Dorothea Casaubon.
Mr. Lyon is an interesting character, because although his grandiloquent style of speech is ridiculed and provides most of the novel's comedy, it is done warmly and gently. Among his many words is still found much wisdom and it is not for no reason that Felix passes so many evenings with him. Eliot still, however, has a touch of condescension about his scholarship; the same condescension, I think, which she applies much less sympathetically and with more blatant charicature to Rev. Causabon. What I would be interested in knowing is how seriously the German thinkers she was associated with, such as Strauss and Fuerbach, were taken a generation or two later. That is, was she herself caught up in a theology that was destined to die — does she become the object that she criticises in Causabon and Lyon?
If a woman really believes herself to be a lower kind of being, she should place herself in subjection; should be ruled by the thoughts of her father or husband. If not, let her show the power of choosing something better. (ch. X)
Your dunce who can't do his sums always has a taste for the infinite. Sir, do you know what a rhomboid is? Oh, no, I don't value these things with limits. (ch. X)
You are discontented with the world because you can't get just the small things that suit your pleasure, not because it's a world where myriads of men and women are ground by wrong and misery, and tainted with pollution. (ch. X)
The Beggar's Opera [Top]
John Gay. 1st reading. 16 October 2005.
It's probably better to watch this one on the stage.
This is a good antidote to any notion that the moralising of Swift, Pope and co. was removed or snobbish or disdainful. Here we see that they knew man `feelingly as he is'.
The word slut is used very loosely (pun intended) and almost affectionately in this play — when did it acquire its coarser and insulting connotation?
But Valour the stronger grows,
The stronger the Liquor we're drinking.
And how can we feel our Woes,
When we've lost the Trouble of Thinking? (III, xviii)
She Stoops to Conquer, or, Mistakes of a Night [Top]
Oliver Goldsmith. 1st reading. 18 October 2005.
This is the rare play that makes you laugh out loud, and not merely to yourself, when reading it. I should like to see it on the stage sometime.
It is an interesting commentary on class relations, though I am not sure how much of it was intended. I suspect much of it was. It seems foreign to us that the judgement of one's treatment of another should be based on the latter's social class, but this is where half of the comedy in this play comes from.
Miss Neville: Since his death, I have been obliged to stoop to dissimulation to avoid oppression. In an hour of levity, I was ready even to give up my fortune to secure my choice. But I'm now recover'd from the delusion, and hope from your tenderness what is denied to me from a nearer connexion.
Mrs. Hardcastle: Pshaw, pshaw, this is all but the whining end of a modern novel. (V, ii)
Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane
Memories of Captian Charles Ryder [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. 3rd reading. 2 November 2005.
For nearly ten years I was thus borne along a road outwardly full of change and incident, but never during that time, except sometimes in my painting — and that at longer and longer intervals — did I come alive as I had been during the time of my friendship with Sebastian. I took it to be youth, not life, that I was losing. (Book II, ch. i)
The theme that came through stronger on this reading of Brideshead than it did when I read it before was the confusion of youth and life. Charles initially thinks that it is his youth which is passing away; that his life was a year of Arcadian happiness and then a descent into gloom; but as he discovers, it is merely that he had a brief taste of life, which is not beyond his grasp if he recognises what his desires truly are.
Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us. (Book II, ch. iiii)
More familiar now with Waugh than when I read this novel before, I appreciate it more. Perhaps it is not his best novel (I might choose A Handful of Dust), but it certainly cannot fail to be anyone's favourite. It shows a courage in him to write a book like this when his native talent is black humour. While the humour remains, it is soft. The prose is full of imagery and ornament that would be gaudy from a less skilled pen, but here it is elegantly sumptuous.
`I have left behind illusion,' I said to myself. `Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions — with the aid of my five senses.' I have since learned that there is no such world . . . (Book I, ch. vi)
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford
English Dictionary [Top]
Simon Winchester (Oxford University Press, 2003). 1st reading. 5 November 2005.
An engrossing and delightful read, and, I notice, a rare non-fiction addition to my Book Notes. I consult the on-line OED at least daily, and have often marvelled at the vast amount of scholarship it represents.
What astounds me is how incredibly erudite the editors and contributors to the dictionary were. James Murray, the longest-lasting editor of the first edition, was fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Italian and German by the age of fifteen and five years later taught Alexander Graham Bell the principles of electricity; another editor, Henry Bradley, learned Russian in a fortnight. Are we less literate in the twenty-first century than our forbears a hundred years ago? One gets the impression that this may well be the case.
One decificiency is that this book devotes many pages to the first twenty or so years of the project, but hardly any to the later years. Arguably, once everyone had finally buckled down and the thing was moving along, things were less interesting, but it does feel a bit rushed in the last couple of chapters.
There is a veritable cornucopia of wonderful quotes in this book, but I will restrain myself to one which involves the inimitable Doctor:
In later years Murray liked to tell of a dream he had that illustrated Samuel Johnson's likely reaction to his appointment [as editor of the OED]. Boswell seemingly asked the Great Cham, `What would you say, Sir, if you were told that in a hundred years' time a bigger and better diciontary than yours would be compiled by a Whig?' Johnson merely grunted. `A Dissenter?' Johnson shifted, a little uneasily, in his char. `A Scotsman?' Johnson started, and began to speak: `Sir . . .' But Boswell persisted. `And that the University of Oxford would publish it.' `Sir,' roared Johnson, unable to contain himself, `In order to be facetious it is not necessary to be indecent.' (p. 93, footnote)
In the Skin of a Lion [Top]
Michael Ondaatje (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987). 1st reading. 12 November 2005.
I saw that Michael Ondaatje was coming to campus to do a reading. I thought it would be interesting to go, but that it would be good if I had read something by him first, so I picked out this novel. And as a result, I ended up not going to the reading.
There are some good passages — such as the rescue of the cow from the frozen lake, or the escape of Caravaggio — but I found that these stood in isolation. I didn't find Patrick to be an interesting character; much of the action was unbelievable, even under the cover of surrealism.
But most of all the writing style I found distracting and affected. The use of the present tense I find awkward; it perhaps gives a more vivid impression of the action, but a skilled writer should be able to convey that without being so intrusive. Half of his sentences were not complete sentences in any regular sense, but participial phrases used for description, which again I found intrusive and almost lazy. And finally, I found his imagery contrived and often imprecise. For example, of a match dropping: `Patrick sees it falling like a knighthood towards his shoulders'; or, of dyers washing, `And then the blue suddenly dropped off, the colour disrobed itself from the body, fell in one piece to their ankles, and they stepped out, in the erotica of being made free.'
As You Like It [Top]
Shaxpere. 5th reading. 14 November 2005.
Rosalind is Shakespeare's greatest female character. The Duke's speech opening Act II is very fine.
And so from hour to hour, we ripe, and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot, and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party [Top]
Marx & Engels (1888 English Edition). 1st reading. 22 November 2005.
To fully understand everything in the Communist Manifesto I think one needs a broader acquaintance of the history of Europe around the time of its publication, as well as the other writings of Marx and Engels.
It is perhaps always a mistake to say of the present that we live in exceptional times: it is too hard to have a true historical perspective, no matter how learned or wise one is. Much of Part I of the Manifesto describes conditions that do not seem as unique as they are made out to be. Consider the following:
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation . . . . It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production . . . . It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural . . . . it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.
Substitute `globalisation' for `the bourgeoisie', `third world' for `barbarians' and `South' for `East', and this could have been written by a contemporary writer. Nihil sub sole novum. I suppose a Marxist would respond that his philosophy is therefore still as pertinent as ever.
This is the one-year anniversary of this webpage. How curious that I should begin and end the year with German writers, and none in between. Two German books a year is probably a safe upper limit.
The Pilgrim's Regress [Top]
C.S. Lewis. 1st reading. 2 February 2006.
C.S. Lewis is better the closer to fantasy he writes. This work is not one of his more read books, but I would rate it as one of his best. His style falters at time but is not a serious detriment to the story, and it is a first-rate allegory. The layout of the land that John explores is ingenious, as well as the characters he encounters. It would richly reward rereading.
The worst part of the book is the poetry. C.S. Lewis was a terrible poet.
Lady Windermere's Fan; Salomé; A Florentine Tragedy; The
Importance of Being Earnest [Top]
Oscar Wilde. 1st reading. 2 February 2006.
It would be clichéed to remark on how adept Oscar Wilde is with words and wit, but I cannot restrain myself. I will restrain myself, however, from quoting anything here, as that could get out of control.
These are all very different plays. Lady Windermere's Fan has an elegant blend of humour and gravity. The exploration of morality and fidelity is well done. Salomé is a very engaging look at the famous story of Herod and John the Baptist, and Oscar Wilde gets all the characters pretty much right, I think, especially Herod. The voice of St. John off-stage could be quite chilling if the play were well-directed. A Florentine Tragedy is interesting as a dramatic study, but I read it too hastily to get anything else out of it. The Importance of Being Earnest, the most light-hearted of these four, is, above all, good fun. I'd be eager to see any of these on the stage.
The Seven Storey Mountain [Top]
Thomas Merton. 2nd reading. 2 February 2006.
`What you should say'—he told me—`what you should say is that you want to be a saint.'
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said: `How do you expect me to become a saint?'
`By wanting to,' said Lax, simply.
`I can't be a saint,' I said, `I can't be a saint.' And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that the must reach: the cowardice that says: `I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,' but which means by those words: `I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.'
But Lax said: `No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don't you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.'
A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing — and it is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.
The next day I told Mark Van Doren: `Lax is going around saying that all a man needs to be a saint is to want to be one.'
`Of course,' said Mark. (Book II, chap. 2.ii)
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit [Top]
Charles Dickens. 1st reading. 5 February 2006.
Chesterton wrote the introduction to the Everyman's edition I read, and he says that Martin Chuzzlewit is the `saddest' of Dicken's novels. I am a bit perplexed by this assessment. I might rather say that it is the most confused. It is sometimes described as picaresque, but in that regard I think it fails. The Pickwick Papers works as a picaresque novel because it does not pretend to have a plot; Nicholas Nickleby has more of a plot, but spends most of its time with its protagonist; Martin Chuzzlewit does neither: as a result, the plot feels drawn out for the middle half of the book, and we do not get to follow the (younger) Martin closely enough.
The satire on America I think also fails, chiefly because it is too superficial. It is often amusing, but rarely does it make one pause to think. It is easy to poke fun at something; but harder to reveal the true cause of the faults you are satirising.
The two great characters of this novel, in my opinion, are Mrs. Gamp and Tom Pinch. Mrs. Gamp is so well drawn that one feels one knows what she looks like and what kinds of faces she makes. Tom is impossible not to love; he is to me a more vivid creation than Martin himself, who seems rather wooden in comparison. Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of Dicken's most evil characters, along with Bill Sykes. Mark Tapley seems to be a poorer copy of Sam Weller.
G. K. Chesterton. 1st reading. 12 February 2006.
I have always wanted to like G. K. Chesterton, but have never been able to do so after slogging through one of his books and abandoning another. This is probably his strongest that I have read, but I still have reservations. It has good moments — shining moments, in fact, with a particular clarity and wit — but these are interspersed within long tracts of tedium and endless analogies.
And so let me concentrate on the moments of brilliance. His chapters on The Maniac and The Suicide of Thought are particularly good. He makes the observation that `the madman is not the one who has lost his reason; the madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.' From there he argues that 19th century materialism is a narrow dogma that cannot explain his sense of romance in the universe.
Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature, but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms forever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre, it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is the signpost for free travellers. (ch. 3)
The last two chapters are also good; he concedes that the agnostic's and the freethinker's reasons are logical, but that their assumptions are often groundless if you actually go and investigate for yourself. He points out that their dogmas are the last thing that should be called liberal, as they deny human freedom and God's freedom.
I have a far more central and solid ground for submitting to [Christianity] as a faith . . . . and that is this: that the Christian Church in its practical relation to my soul is a living teacher, not a dead one . . . . Plato has told you a truth, but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image, but Shakespeare will not startle you with any more. But imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture to-morrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. The man who lives in contact with what he believes to be a living church is a man always expecting to meet Plato and Shakespeare to-morrow at breakfast. He is always expecting to see some truth that he has never seen before. (ch. 9)
Notes From Underground [Top]
Dostoevsky. 1st reading. 26 February 2006.
The whole narration of this book has the sickliness of death and the despair of damnation about it, and I suppose that it is therefore apt that it should be from `underground'. Not a pleasant read, but a true portrait of the darker parts of our souls, that long desperately for love but are unwilling and incapable of receiving it. Thank goodness that in later books Dostoevsky showed us our redemption as well.
Julius Caesar [Top]
Shakspere. 1st reading. 28 February 2006.
I had read the first two or three acts of Julius Caesar before, but never finished it off for some reason. At any rate, they are acts worth reading more than once.
Marcus Antonius has several fine speeches, with beautiful imagery. Besides the obvious III.ii.78ff, III.i.254ff is particularly fine.
Cassius — Did Cicero say any thing?
Casca — Ay, he spoke Greek.
Cass. — To what effect?
Casca — . . . . for mine own part, it was Greek to me.
Is this the first instance of that phrase?
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Nelson Mandela and his fellow-prisoners on Robben Island had an anthology of Shakespeare in which they marked their favourite passages. When I came across this speech in Julius Caesar, I thought I remembered this being Mandela's passage. But after checking it, it turns out that it was actually Caesar's words of II.ii.33-38:
Cowards die many times before their death;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
My edition (Temple Shakespeare; London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1928) draws parallels between this play and Hamlet in the introduction, and the sentiment expressed in this speech is certainly one of them.
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency [Top]
Alexander McCall Smith (David Philip Publishers, Cape Town, 1998). 1st reading. 4 March 2006.
A delightful and entertaining little novel about Mma Ramotswe, a woman who runs a private detective agency in Gaberone, Botswana. The mix between whimsical slice-of-life and inconspicuous commentary and reflection on the country and its people is well-balanced.
The First Jesuit: St. Ignatius Loyola [Top]
Mary Purcell (Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland, 1957). 1st reading. 25 March 2006.
A rather old-fashioned biography, but I enjoyed it. The book includes a good amount of historical background information, which is very helpful and helps one enter the spirit of the times. Sixteenth-century Spain seems like another world.
Cautionary Verses [Top]
Hilaire Belloc (Red Fox, 2004). 1st reading. 30 March 2006.
My always concerned friend Vinai Bhagirath sent me this book of well-crafted doggerel with the following inscription written inside: `Dear Adam: I sincerely hope the lessons contained herewithin may serve to correct some of your more awful behaviours.'
Examples of some of the cautionary verses:
- Matilda, who told lies and was burned to death
- Lord Lundy, who was too freely moved to tears, and thereby ruined his Political Career
- Charles Augustus Fortescue, who always did what was right, and so accumulated an immense fortune
- Rebecca, who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably
- Maria, who made faces and a deplorable marriage
I have undertaken now to reform my life.
The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and
Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of
Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on
any account) [Top]
Dickens. 2nd reading. 7 May 2006.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
David Copperfield, about ten years ago, was one of the first Dickens novels I read (perhaps Oliver Twist was first), and I have not revisited it since. And having now an acquaintance of the immense range of his literary skill, I find that it stands at the pinnacle of his work. Little can compare to the exuberance of Pickwick, or the variety of Nicholas Nickleby, or the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, or the maturity of Bleak House, but this novel is a true portrait of the `discipline of the human heart', and as a Bildungsroman it has not been surpassed, at least by anything I have read.
Samuel Johnson said that `the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing', which Dickens achieves here in prose. This synthesis of instruction and pleasure is not forced, but still easily discernible; the characters represent different conditions of the heart, but are still alive and human; the plot is carefully structured, but still smooth. It is exactly as art should be.
When I first read David Copperfield, I thought the character of Uriah Heep was rather obvious, his grotesque appearance betraying too easily his villainy. But this time I saw the more careful shading of his character, especially the subtle progression of confidence in his behaviour and speech as he achieves more and more of his treacherous ambitions.
Two chapters which especially show Dicken's mastery at making scenes come alive are XXIV (`My First Dissipation') and LII (`I Assist at an Explosion').
When musing on In the Skin of a Lion, I mentioned the awkward use of the present tense. Any writer attempting to use the present tense elegantly and effectively should apply himself to the study of the `Retrospect' chapters of Copperfield.
I could continue to expostulate on the qualities of this most excellent tome of wisdom and delight, but anticipating that I could be inadvertently construed to be engaged in an egregious emulation of W. Micawber, I hereby terminate this entry.
Thomas Mofolo (trans. Daniel P. Kunene, Heinemann, 1981). 1st reading. 4 June 2006.
This little gem of a novel was written by a Mosotho writer at the beginning of the twentieth century and is regarded as one of the greatest works to come from his country. It seems perhaps strange that it should be about a foreign chief whose reign indirectly brought misery on the Basotho, but it is an effective moralisation of the corruption of power, without being clichéed or tedious.
I think a lot of the book's beauty must be lost in the translation. This is indicated by the translator, but is also evident from the tantalising idioms which are often directly translated.
Black is beautiful:
From his feet to his head he was without blemish, a truly handsome and dignified man. Even on the battlefield his men, when wounded and about to die, would request the king, as their last wish, to disrobe so that they might admire his body for the last time, and thus die in peace; and he would, indeed, do as they ask.
Quo Vadis [Top]
Henryk Sienkiewicz (trans. Jeremiah Curtin). 1st reading. 4 June 2006
In the back of the copy I read are advertisments for Sienkiewicz's With Fire and Sword in which one reviewer claims that he is `a greater novelist than Tolsoi'. Other reviewers liken him to Dumas. I will have to reserve judgement and read more, but these opinions do not seem out of the question.
This is an eminently readable novel. The action is always moving and the characters are real and engaging. The overtly religious themes that run through the novel are done well and with feeling; the historical characters such as Ss. Peter and Paul feel historical but the fictional element is not so intertwined as to cause confusion. (For example, when did Peter — or Paul, for that matter — learn Latin? Or perhaps they were supposed to be speaking Greek, which the latter would have known and as well as most educated Romans. Then again, it is Peter who utters the titular phrase, `Quo Vadis, domine?'.)
The description of the martyrdoms in the circus and on the pyres around the city are chilling and Philo's death is particular eerie.
The romance, which indeed is at the heart of the plot, is often too gushing, but not to the point of annoyance.
The translation is very well written, for the most part. The use of the antiquated second person is distracting at first but is soon forgotten.
Peter Pan (novel) [Top]
J. M. Barrie. 1st reading. 16 June 2006.
I was inspired to read Peter Pan after watching Finding Neverland — an excellent film, by the by. I also very much enjoyed the story as a young child, but never read any of the original stories. I had wanted to read the play, but was unable to find it in Firestone library and so settled for the novel.
I learned that Peter's land is properly called the Neverland (or the Never Never Land, in the play). I had also not realised before the semi-subjective nature of the Neverland, as the Darling children all recognise parts of it which had previously existed in their imaginations. And Peter Pan too is on one layer a representation of the desires of childhood in the children.
Given its violence — the pirates are killed without compunction and often with merciless glee by the Lost Boys — I wonder whether it would be accepted as a children's book by a publisher today.
Of the somewhat tense relationship between Peter Pan and Wendy, which cannot help suggesting Oedipal overtones to the modern reader, I will offer no opinion except to remark that it is handled well by Barrie and adds a wonderful extra dimension to the story. It is poignant when it easily could have been repugnant. The internal conflict Peter experiences about his relationship with Wendy is particularly well-shown.
Barrie seems to me to be on the mark about the nature of children. He represents them as both innocent and selfish:
Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked. (Ch. 11)
Another interesting aspect of Peter's perpetual childhood is that he has a terrible memory — he lives in the present, but never grows in wisdom. Wendy's growing up, on the other hand, is presented as natural (`she was one of the kind that likes growing up') but still tinged with tragedy.
[Wendy, grown-up, talks to her daughter:]
`Why can't you fly now, mother?'
`Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forget the way.'
`Why do they forget the way?'
`Because they are no longer gay and innocent and heartless. It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.'
`What is gay and innocent and heartless? I do wish I was gay and innocent and heartless.'
Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremor ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea . . . . Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, `To die will be an awfully big adventure.' (Ch. 8)
Amoretti & Epithalamion [Top]
Spenser. 1st/2nd reading. 21 June 2006.
There are some real beauties in Spenser's sonnet sequence, and the overall story is very engaging. The poetry is ornate and full of conceits but still heart-felt and intimate. Apparently (from the critical notes in my edition — Kenneth J. Larsen, ed., Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, Tempe, Arizona, 1997), the Epithalamion is novel in that the narrator is the bridesgroom, which affords us a trip into the bedchamber itself, instead of being regular spectators on the threshold.
It makes one wonder how much of the haughty and coy behaviour of Spenser's lover was real and how much was introduced for the sake of drama.
Spenser continually stresses that his bride's intellect and spirit are more attractive to him than her physical comeliness:
. . . but the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit,
and vertuous mind is much more praysd of me.
Bvt if ye saw that which no eyes can see,
The inward beauty of her liuely spright,
Garnisht with heauenly guifts of high degree,
Much more then would ye wonder at that sight . . .
But throughout, and especially in the Epithalamion, it is clear that the physical element is not forgotten — subordinate, yes, but still essential — e.g., Am. LXIIII, or the impatience of Epith. XVI. It is this holistic approach which allows him to celebrate chastity and erotic love together.
Spenser defies anyone who complains that English is a rhyme-poor language.
Till We Have Faces [Top]
C. S. Lewis. 4th reading. Canada Day, 2006.
There is so much to enjoy about this book: the alien feel of the ancient, pagan world; the careful construction of characters and the contrast between them; the intensely psychological first-person narrative; the heart-felt spiritual theme. It is a lesson in love, which needs to be purified and matured before it can be rid from the selfishness which would otherwise destroy it. This whole theme is set by the inclusion below the books title of the first line of Shakespeare's sonnet 151: `Love is too young to know what conscience is.' And I think that C. S. Lewis hoped we would recall the second line, `Yet who knows not conscience is born of love?' For it is when Orual begins recognising the pure love shown her by others that her conscience is pricked.
Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, `Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words.' A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter that speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces? (II.4)
The Merchant of Venice [Top]
Shaksper. 3rd reading. 4 July 2006.
Along with Measure for Measure, and perhaps A Winter's Tale, I would class this play as one of Shakespeare's Christian apologies, most obviously for the courtroom scene of act four, but also, somewhat more indirectly, for its exploration on the nature and depth of love, both in friendship and romance.
The courtroom scene is at the centre of the play, and I consider Portia's speech on mercy to be its climax. Of the abundant references to scripture in the play, the most potent are in this speech. The lines,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation.
is a neat summary of Christian redemption and has echos of Romans 3. In her subsequent words,
we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
we find a clear reference to Lord's Prayer, which the duke also alludes to when he asks Shylock, `How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?'
Shylock is a representative of the old law of the Jews, which he himself explicitly states, in response to the duke: `I stand for judgement.' But he is overcome by the new law of mercy and forgiveness, after he finds out that his own law is his undoing. He demanded the letter of the law, and that is exactly what Portia gave him. I get the impression that most people think that Shylock is treated badly at the end of the play. But consider the mercy that is rendered him: the duke spares his life; Antonio, whom he wanted to kill, declines to take half of Shylock's wealth which the law grants him; the state, to which is due the other half of his wealth, bequeathes it to his daughter. The requirement that he also be baptised seems cruel. Though dejected, he seems to freely consent to this. Of course, it is arguable that practically speaking, he has no choice; if so, this is an injustice against him. But taken at face value, I think that it is a symbol of the triumph of mercy over the law, and even more, it means that Shylock is admitted into Christian society and becomes a spiritual equal to his former enemies. I imagine that this is the message an Elizabethan audience would come away with.
I also believe that people are mistaken when they read Shylock's famous speech (`Hath not a Jew eyes . . ') as being sympathetic towards Shylock. True, it is demonstrated that he is also human, but Christ taught us not judge by exterior things, which is all that Shylock speaks of — his list of human characteristics is merely animal:
hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer . . .
He speaks nothing of the mind or the soul. It the end of Shylock's plea that is more revealing.
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
First of all, revenge is expressly forbidden the Christian, and moreover, these words turn out to be very ironic. There is no revenge shown him by any of the characters — only mercy. Though he is shown contempt it is generally not without instigation (except perhaps for Gratanio, who seems to enjoy taunting him). Antonio dislikes him for his usury, and everyone else for his vicious malice towards Antonio.
Now, all this being said, let me hasten to add that in my opinion the play is inherently anti-semitic, and if it had been written in modern times, inexcusably so. The reason is that one person, a Jew, is made to represent all that is contrary to Christianity. That Shylock's behaviour is to be attributed to his whole race is I think fairly clear in the play: an example is Tubal who is a villainous for no other reason than his race. None of the positive elements of Judaism are shown and the only resolution to the conflict is to obliterate all Jewish elements: Shylock by his conversion and Jessica by her marriage. I think that it is a mistake to excuse Shakespeare from anti-semitism, although he may be forgiven it given the environment he lived in (he probably never met a Jew in his life as they had been expelled from England) — as I have said, I do not think that Shylock is presented sympathetically at all. This is unfortunate. As a Christian apologetic — without mentioning its other beauties — the play is marvellous and it is a pity that it should be marred by such a blemish.
So how should the play be represented on the stage or screen? One can make Shylock a sympathetic character and try and place Jew and Christian on more even footing — and this is the approach I have seen and heard about, though it is probably viewed as an interpretation rather than a reworking of the play by directors who do so. A recent example of such an approach is the film with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, which I think fails at it, as the discrepancy between this `balanced' interpretation and what Shakespeare has the characters saying is too great. (But it was a good adaptation nonetheless, with fine acting and wonderful cinematography, well worth seeing. Only, why was only the first verse of `Tell me where is fancy bred' included? That I cannot understand.)
I think this has long since broken the record of longest post to my book notes, but I will briefly praise (though I could go on at great length) the other main theme of the play, which is the exploration on depth and devotion of various forms of love. Bassanio's speech before he chooses the leaden casket is profound and one of Shakespeare's greatest. The `bosom' love between Antonio and Bassanio is touching. The subplot of the rings is much more than a comedy on mistaken identities: the paradox of this incident, that the ones to whom Bassanio and Gratiano gave away their lovers' rings are their lovers themselves, allows the conflict between friendship and marriage to be resolved. Both loves find their fulfilment in the end; both suffer and undergo a kind of death before being triumphantly resurrected. The themes of mercy, justice and love finally come full circle; `Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.' As Lorenzo aptly says,
Fair ladies, you drop manna in the way
Of starved people.
Poems of Wilfred Owen [Top]
Wilfred Owen (ed. Siegfried Sassoon, 1920 edition). 1st reading. 13 July 2006.
In an unfinished preface recovered from his papers, Owen states:
Above all, this book is not concerned with poetry. The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
Though he was unconcerned about poetry, we are very fortunate to have gotten perhaps the best English poetry of the period; at the same time, he accomplishes his goal of transmitting the `pity of war'. Form and content are joined in a way that Robert Frost described as `moving easy in harness'. In his poems, though he cautions us that we can never understand it fully, he shows us the brutality of the war together with moving portraits of some human beings that endured it.
His command of rhythm is very good, and besides containing many subtle effects, it often controls the tone of the poem, such as in The Sentry. He shows great variety in his rhythms, from those that mimic colloquial speech, to those which stutter out the confusion of battle, to those which are poised and stately.
But his greatest stylistic achievement is his use of assonance, which never seems pretentious or stale. Arms and the Boy shows him at the height of his power, beginning with that chilling opening couplet:
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood.
Also of note is his vivid and inventive imagery — `Red lips are not so red / As the stained stones kissed by the English dead'; `Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle / Can patter out their hasty orisons.' There is always an image or idea that jars you into the horror of the war. All his poems are designed to shock in some way, to show us the extraordinary experiences that he had.
Horace's line, `Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,' will never be understood in the same way again. It is a mark of Owen's greatness as a poet, that he has changed the way we see war, honour and nationalism.
You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.
(Apologia pro Poemate Meo)
All Hallows' Eve [Top]
Charles Williams. 1st reading. 30 July 2006.
I think there is a reason that Charles Williams's books are not widely read to-day as his fellow Inklings, and it is because he was not as good a writer. To be fair, this is the only book of his I have read, but I found it wordy, over-blown and tedious, with badly written dialogue, and it is hard to imagine, especially as this was his last novel, that his other books are very different. He was obviously well regarded by his contemporaries; T. S. Eliot wrote the introduction to this novel. (But how can one trust Eliot's literary judgement after he panned Hamlet?)
There are interesting elements of the novel: I have not read many ghost stories (which is what this essentially is), and it is curious to read about the state of existence of the dead and their interaction with the living.
I also have a short volume of some of his poetry that I took out of the library at the same time. As I am away from home (in Vancouver working on the ACT telescope) and have limited reading, perhaps I will have to give it a go.
Paris, 1919: Six Months that Changed the World [Top]
Margaret MacMillan. 1st reading. 25 August 2006.
This very readable history chronicles the peace talks in 1919 in Paris, after the armistice that ended the Great War. It centres around the three main political figures, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau and Lloyd George, and has a great deal of information on their personalities and personal lives. Anecdotes taken from diaries of various dignitaries are sprinkled throughout and give flavour to the happenings of the conference, revealing the ambitions, suspicions, political machinations and even petty motivations that were behind the peace process.
The book's sequence is geographical rather than temporal: we move almost from west to east across Europe and the Middle East as boundaries are redrawn and regrouped into new and different states. I learned a great deal about Europe — the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman empire, the Adriatic — and the rudiments of the politics of the Middle East whose ramifications are still being painfully felt.
One of Margaret MacMillan's theses is that the terms of peace were not as onerous as some historians have led us to believe. True, they may have been somewhat vindictive, but on the other hand, there had been clear precedents in nineteenth-century conflicts for war reparations. She claims that it is hard to argue that Germany was not chiefly responsible for the awful devastation of the French and Belgian economy and infrastructure. Why then should they not have been responsible for aiding the reconstruction? Finally, she reasons that had the allies' victory been carried all the way to Berlin, the true sense of the defeat would have been better impressed upon the Germans, who were instead persuaded that they had been barely beaten and then forced to sign an unjust treaty. Hence, according to MacMillan's thesis, it is unfair to put too large a burden of the blame for the Second War on the Treaty of Versailles. There were many mistakes made in Paris, 1919; many were motivated by an unhealthy nationalism, which had by no means vanished; by colonialism, which was at its height; by economic gain; and even by personal pride; but its basic principle of self-determination (though tainted by some racism) and desire for a lasting peace still formed its backbone.
One thing that made me slightly uneasy about the book was Margaret MacMillan's apparent lack of hesitation to give her characters the benefit of the doubt. She frequently talks of one politician `hating' or `despising' another — strong terms to use about that which we cannot possibly know. There is a difference between writing of frustration at a colleague's stubbornness in one's diary at the end of the day, and holding a true hatred for him in one's heart. I am not convinced that she has made this distinction.
The Good Earth [Top]
Pearl S. Buck. 1st reading. 4 September 2006.
Pearl S. Buck's style of writing is sometimes described as biblical; rather one should say King Jamesish, which is not a slight, but a clarification. Her style is both simple and elevated: she is narrating about the great events in the life of a simple man and his family.
As a story, The Good Earth is extremely well told, but I found it nihilistic. I kept expecting, from a novel written with such an epic feel, something more profound about the meaning of human life, of family, of wealth and poverty. But all that I found was a vague philosophy of the interconnectedness of man and the land. This could have been more profound, but how can it be when Wang Lung seems to live a life devoid of reflexion, who does not even try to understand why he reverences the land, whose transient loves for his wife, his mistress and his children are hardly anything but selfish?
I also wonders how she can depict the debased existence of women without passing any judgement. Mind you, the judgement does not have to be preachy. She could have made O-lan's pathos firmer and more pricking to Wang Lung's conscience. Instead, she is to be pitied merely because her life was miserable, and then she is forgotten. There is no meaning in her tragedy.
Of course, Pearl S. Buck's intention is merely to relate the story and show us life at that time in China and bring out its universal qualities. The moralisation that I sought she had no intention of giving. And so, judged by what she meant the book to be, it is a masterpiece. But to me, what use is that? True, I was fascinated by the depiction of China and its people before and during the revolution, but what is left beyond that? A man whose life is nothing more than a vapid sequence of fatalistic events and passions, and a confused mystical connexion to his land.
I hope I have not been too harsh. It really was a pleasure to read and it is one of those books whose vividness remains impressed on the memory.
Jane Eyre [Top]
Charlotte Brontë. 1st reading. 4 September 2006.
Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth . . . . preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot. (Ch. 27)
This speech of Jane's, forming the climax and articulating the novel's main theme, sounds austere when isolated like this, but is surrounded by a story of such feeling and human understanding that when it is encountered mid-tale, it is thrilling.
The Victorian writers are often accused of being melodramatic. In the best case, however, I think this should be praise rather than accusation. When done well, melodrama is nothing to sneer at. The mix of melodrama, Gothic horror and romance are well fused. This is a truly great novel.
Favourite Father Brown Stories [Top]
G. K. Chesterton (Dover Thrift Editions, 1993). 1st reading. 4 September 2006.
Earlier I complained that I haven't found a book by G. K. Chesterton that I have really liked. Perhaps his fiction will please me better. These stories are well written and devoid of his tedious ramblings that I have found so annoying before.
Out of the Silent Planet [Top]
C. S. Lewis. 4th reading. 4 September 2006.
This is one of my favourite science fiction books of all time. Its anachronistic flavour, when it imitates H. G. Wells, is delightful. The `science' is inventive but does not dominate the story, which is the kind of science fiction I like best.
Ransom's translation of Weston's speech before Oyarsa is ingenious: a brilliant satire of the march of progress and the advent of the superman which is present in other science fiction. When translated out of grandiloquent English into simple words, one sees it for what it is.
He had read of `Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not know how much it affected him till now — now that the very name `Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it `dead': he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes — and here, with how many more! No: space was the wrong name. Older thinkers had been wiser when they had named it simply the heavens . . . (ch. 5).
The Scarlet Letter [Top]
Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1st reading. 4 September 2006.
At first I thought the plodding pace of this short novel would be tiresome, but it instead became engrossing. It is a simple plot told with attention to detail.
Hawthorne could have done what others have done and made his puritan ancestors one-dimensional and stereotyped: judgemental, unfeeling, aloof. Instead, while not uncritical of their attitude toward sin and their punishment of it, he does not deny the existence of sin and our need for redemption.
C.S. Lewis. 3rd reading. 14 September 2006.
I thought I might continue and finish up the trilogy, after having read Out of the Silent Planet again. One thing that struck me (again) is how different each of these books is from the others. Each has particular qualities that makes one want to claim that it is one's favourite, before one remembers an aspect of another book which makes one hesitate.
Perelandra is the most overtly theological of the trilogy but does not get tedious. The depiction of the demonic is sufficiently horrifying, but always feels real. Especially insightful is the idea that evil might at the heart be `nothing but a black puerility'.
This itch to have things over again, as if life were a film that could be unrolled twice or even made to work backwards . . . was it possibly the root of all evil? (ch. 4)
The inventiveness of this book matches the first — the floating islands, the creatures, the bubble-trees, the weird cave creatures — all his wholly original ideas are delightful.
That Hideous Strength [Top]
C.S. Lewis. 3rd reading. 14 September 2006.
Each time I have read this book I have liked it more. The first time, I confess that I found it slow-moving and tedious. The second time, I got caught up more in the drama and liked it very much. This time, I enjoyed it immensely.
Perhaps most brilliant is the pointed satire towards the evils that can be gilded over by bureaucracy in the N.I.C.E. corporation. Wither's dialogue in particular is a lesson in doublespeak and vagueness.
This reading it became apparent to me that Mark Studdock is quite an autobiographical character — the moments of his reformation are practically out of Surprised by Joy. For example:
He looked back on his life not with shame, but with a kind of disgust at its dreariness . . . . the hours that he had spent learning the very slang of each new circle that attracted him, the perpetual assumption of interest in things he found dull and of knowledge he did not possess, the almost heroic sacrifice of nearly every person and thing he actually enjoyed, the miserable attempt to pretend that one could enjoy Grip, or the Progressive Element, or the N.I.C.E. — all this came over him with a kind of heart break. When had he ever done what he wanted? Mixed with the people whom he liked? Or even eaten and drunk what took his fancy? The concentrated insipidy of it all filled him with self-pity. (11.3)
C. S. Lewis had a very broad sense of humour. Sometimes it is slipped into a sentence that could easily go unnoticed:
[On her doctoral dissertation:] Jane was not perhaps a very original thinker and her plan had been to lay great stress on Donne's "triumphant vindication of the body". (1.1)
One thing I had not been aware of before are the references to Tolkien's Middle Earth. It seems that C. S. Lewis intended his trilogy to exist in the same universe, for he mentions Numinor [sic] a couple of times. Also in the introduction, he writes:
Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) wait the publication of much that still exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J. R. R. Tolkein.
Cry, The Beloved Country [Top]
Alan Paton. 1st reading. 24 September 2006.
This is a passionate and beautifully written book. The style is poetic without being contrived. It is written by a man who loves the country itself, but its people even more. It is bold of a white man, especially in South Africa, to have a black man as the protagonist, and then to write so intimately about him. As far as I could tell, he does a superb job.
The cri de coeur of the novel is particularly interesting given when it was published (1948), on the cusp of the introduction of official apartheid. Alan Paton is obviously writing with a sense of urgency, and though the tone is hopeful, it is also tinged with a bitter-sweet realism that makes one realise that perhaps the book was more hopeful than the author.
The name of Kumalo's son, Absalom, is aptly chosen and the parallels with the Biblical story are well done and not heavy-handed.
Quotation marks are one of the great innovations of English punctuation, and make dialogue much easier to read than in, say, French or Spanish. That some writers chose to set their quotes off by a dash seems to me retrograde. It is arguable that Paton's use of the dash is a stylistic feature which makes the dialogue more fluid. But I still find it annoying and more difficult to read.
Astrophel and Stella [Top]
Sir Philip Sidney. 1st reading. 24 September 2006.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite;
Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart, and write. (I)
Thus begins Sidney's great sonnet sequence, which, as the excellent introduction my edition (John Drinkwater, George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., London, 1910) informs me, was one of the works responsible for giving modern English verse a native excellence:
As a pioneer Sidney makes an unanswerable claim to praise. He stands shoulder to shoulder with Spenser in the great movement of English verse . . . . Taking up a vehicle which was at the time experimental and lacking in any finality of polish, he imparted to it a sweetness which at its best has rarely been excelled.
In the sequence, which takes us through 110 sonnets, interspersed with 11 less regularly-metred `songs', we move from the throes of unrequited adoration for Stella, to the transports of a brief though restrained return of affection, to the despair and fury of rejection and finally to acceptance that his love must remain only as a platonic devotion.
The poems are, as advertised, sweet and melodic. The verses are elegant and rarely awkward. He sometimes falls prey to the Elizabethan excess of conceit and is often obscure in his syntax.
Did Jonathan Swift name his Stella after this one?
The final sonnet, somewhat abruptly, but not, I think, artificially, abandons Cupid and ends by a pledge instead to Providence:
Then farewell, world; thy uttermost I see:
Eternal Love, maintain thy Life in me.
Becoming Human [Top]
Jean Vanier (Paulist Press, New York, 1998). 1st reading. 9 October 2006.
Some people convey more meaning in how they say something than in what they say. Jean Vanier is such a person: his message is so sincere and unhypocritical that he can convey profound ideas with simple words. I had the privilege of hearing him speak once, and I know some people who heard him deliver the lectures from which this book was taken. He is one of the few people I have personally seen who, I believe, is among the `New Men' that C. S. Lewis describes in Mere Christianity.
Unfortunately, this all means that reading a book by him is a bit disappointing. The words are there, but the voice speaking them is absent: they are just plain words on a page. I did not come away with very much from this book. Perhaps it deserves re-reading. His meditation on the parable of Lazarus and Dives is good.
The heart is never `successful'. (p. 63)
The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays [Top]
J. R. R. Tolkien (George Allen & Unwin, London, 1983). 1st reading. 12 October 2006.
Besides the famous titular essay, this collection contains essays On Translating Beowulf, on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, On Fairy Stories, on English and Welsh, on creating one's own languages, and his valedictory address when he retired from Oxford.
The Monsters and the Critics is interesting — and important — because it was delivered at time when Beowulf wasn't necessarily accepted as a great work of literature in its own right: Tolkien is not preaching to the choir: he is trying to win academics to his own side. And for this reason, he dwells on the most fundamental parts of the poem. For this reason, it is an excellent primer for the amateur.
On Translating Beowulf contains one of the best descriptions of Old English metre I have seen. It is quite thorough but still concise.
His essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I enjoyed best. He brought out a number of points that I had not considered before. This lecture was delivered soon after he completed a modern verse translation, which, from the excerpts included in the essay, I judged to be superb.
The valedictory address seems rather bold. Instead of pleasant reminiscenes, it is a warning against the direction his department is taking — he was uneasy with the idea of research degrees, feeling that most students' time is better spent in pure learning than by conducting research at the post-graduate state of the degree. He also attacks what he perceives as a false dichotomy between language and literature.
Finally, Beowulf itself is like a line of its own verse written large, a balance of two great blocks, A + B; or like two of its parallel sentences with a single subject but no expressed conjunction. Youth + Age; he rose – fell. It may not be, at large or in detail, fluid or musical, but it is strong to stand: tough builder's work of true stone. (The end of On Translating Beowulf)
O felix peccatum Babel! (English and Welsh, p. 194)
. . . the so-called `post-graduate' activities, which have in recent years shown such rapid growth, forming what one might call our `hydroponic' department. A term which, I fear, I know only from science-fiction, in which it seems to refer to the cultivation of plants without soil in enclosed vehicles far removed from the world. (Valedictory Address, p. 226)
The Lays of Beleriand [Top]
J. R. R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1985). 1st reading. 5 November 2006.
There are two poems in this volume. The Lay of the Children of Húrin is written in the alliterative verse of Old English and follows the adventures of Túrin, son of Húrin. The Lay of Leithian is the famous story of Beren and Lúthien in rhyming couplets. Neither was completed, and of each there is more than one version.
In terms of poetic style, Children of Húrin is superior. Though Tolkien sometimes lets an iambic rhythm dominate the alliterative metre (especially with over-use of B-type half-lines), this fault does not persist as he gets further into the poem, and in particular, is not as evident in the second version that he attempted. It is a true pity that he did not complete it. It is probably the only serious attempt to use this ancient metre for modern English, and it shows that not only is it possible, but that it is still a fitting and beautiful form for the language, especially in a long and noble poem such as this. My ear soon adapted to the rhythm and reading it became easy and lucid.
On the other hand, Tolkien made a poor choice in the iambic tetrametre which he uses for the The Lay of Leithian. He was a good poet, but not good enough to produce consistently pleasing poetry from a form that has seldom been used for long poems, and for good reason. (In Memoriam is the only great poem using this metre that comes to mind, and it at least has a more interesting rhyme scheme.)
But the story in The Lay of Leithian was surely the favourite of all Tolkien's tales, and this does shine through, albeit not always. Perhaps it is best that it remain rough-edged, never completely finished and shrouded in the inevitable forgetfulness of the past. It makes for better legend, and then can shine out like a silmaril in the darkness as, for example, when Aragorn relates what he knows of it on Weathertop in The Fellowship of the Ring. (Interestingly, the story is told by one of the characters in the second version of Children of Húrin in a scene highly reminiscent of this one from The Fellowship.)
One delightful and judicious inclusion by Christopher Tolkien in the book is a critical response to a first draft of The Lay of Leithian by C. S. Lewis. It is an ingenious little review in which he plays a game and pretends that the manuscript is a pieced-together remnant of an ancient tale. All the parts he does not like, he attributes to ignorant scribal emendations, and for the parts he wants to praise, he he quotes imaginary 19th century scholars. For example, about one passage which he dislikes:
Only in PR [an imaginary alternate manuscript]. Almost undoubtedly spurious. `The latest redactors,' says Pumpernickel, `were always needlessly amplifying as if the imagination of their readers could do nothing for itself, and thus blunting the true force and energy of the Geste. Read: [he then suggests improvements to the passage]. (p. 323)
Or about a part that he enjoys:
The description of Lúthien has been too often and too justly praised to encourage the mere commentator in intruding. (p. 316)
It is really too bad that Tolkien did not finish his longer verse. I enjoy the snippets of poetry inserted into The Lord of the Rings, and besides these two attempts, they are all we have to enjoy.
Women in Love [Top]
D. H. Lawrence. 1st reading. 5 November 2006.
This is a sequel to The Rainbow but shares little in common with it except the characters. Women in Love is much more about ideas and, indeed, has many long portions where characters simply talk philosophy.
I am not sure at all that I have fully understood this book. Clearly, the centre of the book is in the relationship between Ursula and Birkin: how they come to understand the other: how they come to mutually understand love and freedom and how the two co-exist.
Of Gudrun and Gerald Crich, the story is less clear to me. It seems that Gerald never moves beyond being a fatally flawed man. The sickening thing is that it seems he has no freedom to do anything about it. The ending of the book was shocking but not out of place. Birkin's regret that their friendship could not blossom to its full potential is moving.
The scene of Gerald and Birkin wrestling is memorable and well-written.
Once again, I find D. H. Lawrence deeply absorbing, but unattractive. The great conflict of the novel is between abandonment to the intensity of emotion and sensuality — whether it it be pleasurable or painful — and naked, disinterested, clinical detachment from humanity. Both miss the mark. All the main characters are allowed to be selfish; they may safely ignore anyone who is utterly beneath their philosophy: there is a snobbery in this book much more marked than in The Rainbow or Sons and Lovers.
Nevertheless, the earnestness and feeling with which D. H. Lawrence writes makes this book still worth admiring, if not worth imitating.
The Lord of the Rings [Top]
J.R.R. Tolkien. 4th reading. 20 November 2006.
My father once said that The Lord of the Rings is one of those books that you wish never ended. I have come to hold the same opinion. It is perhaps the long closing of The Return of the King which achieves this. Or else it is the bittersweetness that is present throughout story which rings so true to real life.
Having read the books again, I fear that Peter Jackson's films have dropped lower in my estimation. Contrasted with the books they feel so much more like Hollywood. They were excellent movies in many ways, but failed in so many other ways to capture much of the heart of the story — demonstrated by the terrible decision not to include the Scouring of the Shire. The only part of the films that pleased me completely were the portrayal of the Rohirrim.
One thing the films left out almost completely is the importance of song and poetry in the books. When I first read them as a teenager I would hastily skim over any verse; now I linger on it.
Perhaps his best hommage to the poetry of Old English, the metre of which he uses for over half of the verse in the book, is his quasi-paraphrase of The Wanderer:
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
C. S. Lewis somewhere described myth as something which is definitely not allegory, but becomes, in a subjective way, allegorical to every reader. I think that this is how The Lord of the Rings operates.
Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know. (Celeborn, II.8)
[Eomer:] "The world is grown all strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?"
"As he ever has judged," said Aragorn, "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among the Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house." (III.2)
Gathering Blue; Messenger [Top]
Lois Lowry (Houghton Mifflin, 2000, 2004). 1st reading. 26 November 2006.
It was on an idle day browsing Wikipedia that I discovered that Lois Lowry had written two loose sequels to her book The Giver. I read this book when it appeared in the early 1990's and had recently very deservedly won the Newbery Medal. It is a superb work of juvenile science fiction — an original concept, profound themes handled masterly, written with good style in a suitable tone.
Unfortunately, the sequels, Gathering Blue and Messenger are terrible by comparison. I am confident that it is not the case that my estimation of the first book is tainted by the immature judgement of my childhood: I have come back to more than one book I enjoyed when I was young, and this, unlike some others, has always retained my highest admiration. These newer books I am sure would have been just as much a disappointment 12 years ago.
I think as a general rule an author should never write a sequel to a successful book if it had not been originally planned. The result is rarely good. Katherine Patterson is an example of a children's writer who has been more judicious in this regard.
Letters of C. S. Lewis [Top]
C. S. Lewis (ed. W. H. Lewis, revised Walter Hooper, Fount Paperbacks, 1988). 1st reading. 26 November 2006.
The born letter writer is quite independent of the material. Have you ever read the letters of Cowper? He had nothing — literally nothing — to tell any one about: private life in a sleepy country town . . . . And yet one reads a whole volume of his correspondence with unfailing interest. [To his father, p. 251]
Here C.S. Lewis could practically have been writing about himself: a bookish university don who spent his days reading and writing and whose idea of an eventful holiday was to take a walking tour of some remote English countryside. And yet I devoured five hundred pages of his letters without a moment of boredom.
The letters are selected and edited and so must represent a fraction of his total correspondence, which was apparently considerable. It rather reads the opposite way than Boswell's biography, where we spend more of the time on the latter years of Johnson's life: here, we spend almost half the book in and near C. S. Lewis's twenties. These early letters are almost exclusively to his father and his brother, and is an interesting glimpse into his domestic life and affairs. Later in life, we get a sampling of the tremendous variety of people he wrote to, including fans of his books, a few of which he corresponded with for years and years — interestingly enough, mostly housewives, many from America.
It is an interesting sort of biography, a book of letters. The main flow of the author's life is present, but only in the background behind the particular events of day-to-day life. In them I got perhaps the best picture of his experience during the Great War, but still that period of his life remains, for some reason, rather unimportant. Of his strange living arrangements after the war with Mrs. Moore and her daughter (the mother and sister of a friend who had been killed in action) there is a great deal of insight.
No one ever influenced Tolkien — you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism: either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all. (p. 481)
I only once detected a pupil offering me some one else as his own work. I told him I was not a detective nor even a schoolmaster, nor a nurse, and that I absolutely refused to take any precaution against this puerile trick: that I'd as soon think it my business to see that he washed behind his ears or wiped his bottom . . . He went down of his own accord the next week and I never saw him again. (p. 484)
I realise that I missed the two-year anniversary of this webpage (it was on Nov. 22). I also see that I have not read a single German book over the last year. Is this cause for self-reproach or for mirth?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [Top]
3rd reading. 6 December 2006.
I have had this edition (Everyman, 1976, ed. J. J. Anderson & A. C. Cawley) for years now, and it is really quite excellent (it also contains Pearl, Cleanness and Patience). It is well annotated, but not too intrusively, making it easy to read.
Recently I read an essay by J. R. R. Tolkein on Gawain which was always in the back of my mind as I read the poem. Tolkein sees the poem as an exploration of morality and courtly manners, and in particular, where the boundary between them is and how it is to be tread. When Gawain keeps the girdle back from Sir Bertilak, his offence is against the manners and not the morals.
I am not sure whether I wholly agree. Much of the weight of Tolkein's argument rests on the fact that Gawain makes a confession after receiving the girdle and is subsequently light-hearted, a sign of a sincere confession. However, this occurs before he withholds the girdle from his host. It can therefore still be a moral fault: one cannot confess a sin that has not yet been committed. Breaking a promise is a fault in moral virtue just as much as a breach in courtly etiquette.
I would rather say that the poet gives us Gawain as an exemplar of how virtue and etiquette are harmonised. In the temptation scenes, Gawain remains morally pure while at the same time maintaining gentle manners. But he is not a perfect exemplar: after all, the poem needs a plot and some suspense: after all, Sir Gawain is only human. And so, in the matter of the girdle he "lakked a lyttle". His failure, though slight, is real: by keeping the girdle to himself he sins against truth and offends his host by spoiling their game. But because it is slight Sir Bertilak takes it in good fun. According to him, Gawain's fault is against "lewte": if Gawain had trusted his host — who had on more than one occasion, after all, assured Gawain that he need not worry about finding the Green Chapel and told him to put it out of his mind — he could have avoided this small blemish.
It was good this time reading the poem to be more aware of this central theme of the book, which I owe to Tolkein. In the end, though, the poem is also so much more — the weird combination of gaiety and horror in the magnificent opening scene, the religious symbolism, Gawain's solitary journey on Gryngolet through the cold winter, the warmth of Sir Bertilak's castle, the exhilaration of the hunts, the lonely meeting at the Green Chapel, the bittersweet return to Camelot and, above all, the beautiful poetry.
Þe forme to þe fynisment foldez ful selden.
Start and finish seldom fold back on each other. (499)
Echo of the Big Bang [Top]
Michael Lemonick (Princeton University Press, 2003). 1st reading. 27 December 2006.
This popular science book chronicles the building of the WMAP satellite (my advisor Lyman Page was one of the scientists involved) and has an interspersed history of cosmology. I gave this book to my father for Christmas but thought I should read it to make sure it wasn't too boring or technical. I decided it wasn't.
Aldous Huxley. 1st reading. 27 December 2006.
It is easier to write a dystopia than a utopia. The only other book I have read by Aldous Huxley is Brave New World, which is far superior to this quasi-novel which is essentially a series of dialogues in which Huxley describes his utopian vision and philosophy of life.
The utopia — about to be destroyed by 20th century greed for oil — is on an island called Pala (hence the title), and being written in the 1960's, is centred around free love and hallucinogenic drug use. I do not think it is inaccurate to say that his society is centred around these two elements, but to leave it at that would make it seem more crass than it really is. Aldous Huxley was obviously a very well-read and intelligent man and he draws on many philosophical traditions, chiefly Buddhism, in shaping his utopia. (Incidentally, he is quite anti-Christian, particularly towards Calvinism, which he unfairly vilifies.)
There are two main problems with his Island. The first lies in many of his premises. His vision of free love and elastic family structures, while being well-intentioned, is a false freedom. The consequence-free drug use is also illusory — how much better was his depiction of soma in Brave New World!
The second problem, perhaps the more serious, is the implicit assumption that humans, given the right education and environment, will be happy. I do not say that he goes as far to say that behaviour can be perfectly conditioned — he does not — but his error is in assuming that people are not congenitally corrupted. Even given the best education, material possessions, spiritual guidance, friends and family, a person can still find a way to be miserable. What is most unbelievable about his society is that children do not rebel: they are happy to take up the life of their anscestors: they do not question authority or the norms of their culture. Island has somehow been freed from original sin.
It is this second problem which does not live up to the quote included before the book:
In framing an ideal we may assume what we wish, but should avoid impossibilities. —Aristotle
George Eliot. 1st reading. 14 January 2007.
It is only a poor sort of happiness that could ever come by caring very much about our own narrow pleasures. We can only have the highest happiness, such as goes along with being a great man, by having wide thoughts, and much feeling for the rest of the world as well as ourselves; and this sort of happiness often brings much pain with it, that we can only tell it from pain by its being what we would choose before everything else, because our souls see it is good. There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world, that no man can be great — he can hardly keep himself from wickedness — unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure and rewards, and gets strength to endure what is hard and painful. (Epilogue)
This novel surely belongs in the first tier of George Eliot's works and is perhaps even as great as Middlemarch. The city of Florence at the end of the 15th century comes alive in Romola: one feels as though one has almost lived in the city, with its colourful, lively characters and striking churches and piazzas. Woven unobtrusively and realistically into the story are some real historic characters, such as Machiavelli. Most prominent, however, is Girolamo Savonarola. In the background for much of the book, he is one of its most important characters, and the action of the novel is placed against the arc of his rise and fall.
Tito is one of the best-drawn villians I have come across. We see him slipping into evil by degrees, by no single wicked act, but by a serious of small, consciously selfish choices. This makes him a very effective character, as we are sympathetic towards him: we hope for him to reform, because we know his good and likeable qualities, and we react with horror when we realise that he has thrown them away.
As for Romola herself, we do not come to know her well until about halfway through the novel — at that powerful scene between her and Savonarola where he bids her return to Florence — and then it becomes clear why it is named for her. She is virtuous and good without being artificial, and the Marian references — intentionally unambigous — are skillfully done so as not to be heavy-handed.
An earnest, doting and learned, but hopefully disconnected old man is a common character in George Eliot's books. Here Bardo fills that role, and this time, it is lack of religion as opposed to a narrow religion that she criticises in him, among other things.
The touchstone by which men try us is most often their own vanity. (ch. xxvi)
Every strong feeling makes to itself a conscience of its own — has its own piety; just as much as the feeling of the son towards the mother, which will sometimes survive amid the worst fumes of depravation. (ch. xxxiv)
[Of Tito:] But he had borrowed from the terrible userer Falsehood, and the loan had mounted and mounted with the years, till he belonged to the usurer, body and soul. (ch. xxxix)
Crome Yellow [Top]
Aldous Huxley. 1st reading. 28 January 2007.
A few weeks ago I wrote an entry for Huxley's last novel; now I do so for his first. All-in-all, a much better book. Like Island it is more a series of essays (and in this case short stories as well) than a traditional novel, but the essays are less heavy handed and long-winded, and the short stories are whimsical and inventive. Particulary amusing is the story of the three sisters who seem to eat next to nothing without wasting away.
The characters, and especially the ending of the book, are dreadfully pathetic, in a way that reminds me of Evelyn Waugh.
The library binders misspelled the title Chrome Yellow on the copy I read. I had seen it before in the library and it was only when I opened it that I discovered the true title.
David Brin (Bantam, 1990). 2nd reading. 3 February 2007.
This speculative science fiction novel is set in 2038. The plot revolves around about half a dozen main characters, who are in some way connected to a race to understand and control a micro black hole, which has mysteriously appeared in the earth's core, before it can suck in the whole planet.
It is not a hyperbole in this case to say that it is a novel of global proportions, as the story rapidly jumps around the world — and frequently into outer space as well — from character to character. This is both a strength and a weakness: a strength because it keeps the story moving but a weakness as some characters are underdeveloped, and ultimately unnecessary to the plot.
The ecological message of the book is handled quite well. While not being alarmist, it does soberly show what our world could be like after our abuse of the environment. The concept of creating indoor mini-ecosystems for preserving wild-life (called `arks') seems too far fetched, however. Besides the technological difficulty of such an endeavour, it does seem unlikely that in thirty years the major national parks of the world will have utterly failed.
The geo-political projections are somewhat unbelievable to me. It has always seemed like a pipe-dream that we can have a functional world government, at least in the near-future. To be fair, in Earth nation states still exist, but the U.N. is a far more powerful, influential and revered than it has ever been.
Finally, the portrayed culture seems the most off. While it is a mosaic of world culture, it is still obviously a mosaic created by a contemporary westerner (and a Californian at that). The neo-pagan Gaian religion, for example, seems like something that would not catch on outside of North America . . .
Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy [Top]
Shaw. 1st reading. 3 February 2007.
I found this to be a well-written, inventive and entertaining play, but the philosophy seems plain silly. Either it seems to relate mere common sense about reproduction and romantic relationships, or goes on and on about the Life Force and Supermen, which I had a hard time thinking about with a straight face. That being said, I would welcome the opportunity to see it on the stage, and plan to read more of his plays.
The insertion Don Juan afterlife episode in the middle of the play is really a stroke of dramatic genius.
The most interesting part of his "epistle dedicatory" was his criticism of Shakespeare and Dickens. First, it was new to me (and perhaps he is right) to lump these two authors together. And then that he should rail so against them! He does seem to contradict himself when he complains that their characters are motiveless without any external devices, and then later proclaims that `the true joy in life, [is] the being used for a purpose recognised by yourself as a mighty one . . . being a force of Nature.' But nevertheless he does present some interesting ideas about their work.
The Places In Between [Top]
Rory Stewart (Harcourt, 2006). 1st reading. 12 February 2007.
My roommate Philip read this book and I picked it up after he was done. Rory Stewart made the journey between Herat and Kabul in Afghanistan on foot in 2002, soon after the Taliban had been ousted from power in that country. It is a thoroughly engrossing travelogue, providing plenty of amusing and though-provoking detail and also giving a good overview of the country, with its great variety of culture and traditions. What is most impressive is the great hospitality shown to the author: at every village he stopped for the night he was given a meal and a place to sleep. Sometimes it was grudgingly given, but more often than not he was shown great kindness by people who were far poorer than he was. Such hospitality is a virtue we have lost in our Western culture, where we even refuse to pick up hitch-hikers, let alone take travelling strangers into our house for the night.
He would often sketch people, and sometimes buildings, in the places he stopped, and these are interspersed throughout. It is a nice touch to the book.
[The author speaks to his host in a small village:] `Why did you become a Mujahid?' I asked Seyyed Umar.
`Because the Russian government stopped my women from wearing head scarves and confiscated my donkeys.'
`And why did you fight the Taliban?'
`Because they forced my women to wear burquas, not head scarves, and stole my donkeys.' (p. 143)
3rd reading. 14 February 2007.
The imagery, passion, inventiveness and technical brilliance of this longish (1212 lines) poem are so ingeniously fused together that I consider it one of the most poetically perfect works in the English language: indeed, `I sette hyr sengeley in synglere'.
In Pearl we have the same longing and sorrow that Wordsworth once expressed, but while he concluded that `neither present time, nor years unborn / Could to my sight her heavenly face restore,' the author of Pearl teaches us better. Though he starts in despair, wallowing on the grave of his dead child he ends in the hope of the resurrection:
For I haf founden hym, boþ day and naȜte,
A God, a Lorde, a frende ful fyin. (1203-4)
Richard II [Top]
Shackspeare. 1st reading. 19 February 2007.
This has some of Shakespeare's most correct verse — in fact, it is rare in that the entire play is in verse, a good deal of it rhymed.
The dying speech of John of Gaunt is particularly moving.
The bishop of Carlisle's speech in IV.i is wonderfully ominous.
The famous scene where the gardener likens the kingdom to a garden I found to be somewhat contrived.
The nice ambiguities of motive in Bolingbroke and of sanity in Richard II make these characters particularly interesting.
Arms and the Man [Top]
Shaw. 1st reading. 19 February 2007.
A thoroughly amusing play. The satire is pointed but gentle; the plot is well-paced.
Typee: A Real Romance of the South Seas [Top]
Herman Melville. 1st reading. 13 March 2007.
For the first couple of chapters of this book I thought I was reading a fictional romance. In fact, it claims to be autobiographical account of Herman Melville's real-life escape from an insufferable captain on the ship he was serving to Nuku Hiva of the Marquesas Islands. He and a co-fugitive eventually stumble into a lush valley, half starving, peopled by the Typee tribe. Apparently, the general view to-day is that the story, while having its basis in real events, has a great deal of artistic licence and draws on other sources for some of its material.
Herman Melville is a master at description and at supplying detail; unfortunately his grandiloquent style — a trait he shared with his friend Hawthorne — is often a drawback.
His views on the "noble savage" and civilisation are an interesting balance between the ruthless imperialism of his day (he criticises the French very strongly) and the later self-deprecating attitude prevelant the West that everything it offered to native populations was evil. It is clear that he considers the Polynesians to be noble, innocent and happy, yet thinks that if done properly, they can benefit from the introduction of Western civilisation. However, he laments any such attempts to date, and is especially critical of the Polynesian missions. (Though his tone seems restrained by to-day's standards, these criticisms were excised from early American editions.)
Among the islands of Polynesia, no sooner are the images overturned, the temples demolished, and the idolaters converted in to nominal Christians, than disease, vice, and premature death make their appearance. The depopulated land is then recruited from the rapacious hordes of enlightened individuals who settle themselves within its border, and clamorously announce the progress of the Truth. Neat villas, trim gardens, shaven lawns, spires, and cupolas arise, while the poor savage soon finds himself an interloper in the country of his fathers . . . . The spontaneous fruits of the earth, which God in his wisdom had ordained for the support of the indolent natives, remorselessly seized upon and appropriated by the stranger, are devoured before the eyes of the starving inhabitants . . . (ch. xxvi)And yet he still maintains:
Let the savages be civilised, but civilise them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. (ch. xxvi)
Across the River and Into the Trees [Top]
Hemmingway. 1st reading. 13 March 2007.
Just as in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the title of this novel announces that the protagonist is headed towards his death. In this case the title is from the final words of General Jackson, "Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees." For myself, I was reminded of Robert Frost's poem about stopping by the woods on a snowy evening; the allure of the woods perhaps has a universal association to the approach of death.
This is not a great novel. It rambles, jumps o'er time in flash-backs of the Colonel's life, and lazily wanders through the streets of Venice, all without accomplishing very much. Sometimes I get a sense of nihilism in Hemmingway (very much so in this book) which is when I like him the least. There is no substance to the lover's relationship besides their endless and tedious declarations of love to each other.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader [Top]
Anne Fadiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1998). 1st reading. 27 March 2007.
This charming little volume was recommended to me independently by Natalia Petrenko and Catherine Abou-Nemeh in the space of twenty-four hours. Of course, I was compelled to read it and so I did. Catherine was kind enough to lend me her library copy to take to Chile.
The book is a series of short essays on books and reading. Most are whimsical anecdotes from the author's life, such as when she and her husband decided to `marry' their libraries into one. The quality of the essays varies, but there is enough wit and eloquence spread throughout to make this a very engaging — and probably memorable — collection.
Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale,
Retail and for Exportation [Top]
Charles Dickens. 1st reading. 19 April 2007.
This novel is Dickens at his Parnassian best, to use G. M. Hopkins's terminology. His style, well-established when he wrote it, is easy and commanding; his characters typically and wonderfully Dickensian; and the plot diverting.
In the brief preface, Dickens claims:
I make so bold to observe that the faculty (or habit) of correctly observing the characters of men, is a rare one. I have not even found, within my experience, that the faculty (or the habit) of correctly observing so much as the faces of men, is a general one by any means.
The implication, of course, is that he himself possesses this rare faculty (or habit). One is often tempted of his characters, while admitting that are certainly amusing and memorable, to dismiss them as grotesque or as mere caricatures. But perhaps it is because we are not as acute in our observations of real people. There really do exist people in this world (and they are not so rare) like Captain Cuttle and Mr. Toots and Mrs. Tox and (unfortunately) Mr. Dombey. These people are as comic, or simple, or simpering, or proud as the fictional characters, but they are also real, and Dickens does not fail to bring out the sympathetic and human qualities in their fictional representations.
Many of Dicken's contemporary readers were dismayed that little Paul should die only four serial volumes (or two hundred pages) into the story and apparently some critics have held the view that the novel does not recover from this stage and cannot engage the reader thenceforth. But it seems to me that such an analysis ignores the fact that it is, perhaps with the exception of Bleak House, Dicken's most orderly and unified novel, planned out from the beginning, as is described in his letters and, indeed, from simply reading the book. Little Paul was meant to die early, and the title is deliberately ironic, as the true story is Dombey & Daughter.
This is a very dark novel, for Dickens, at least. Only the little scenes that occur beneath the wooden midshipman afford some relief and sunlight, and these episodes are brief and infrequent. The rest of the time we must keep depressing company with Mr. Dombey or Mr. Carker or Edith and her mother; even among the characters which are not so confirmed in evil, as, for example, in the school of Dr. Blimber, or in the abode of John and Harriet Carker, there is gloom. And yet the story remains interesting and gripping.
Dicken's next novel was David Copperfield (which he never meant to be published on any account). There are foreshadowings of that novel in this one, especially in all the imagery of the sea, which is used to brilliant effect in Dombey & Son. Uncle Sol is like first draft of the Mr. Peggotty; and unlike little Paul, David will survive the call of the sea and grow to maturity.
The edition I read contained the original illustrations by Phiz. I have always enjoyed his pictures, but this time more than ever I was appreciative of their vivacity and detail.
Everybody's Pepys [Top]
Samuel Pepys (abridged & ed. O. F. Morshead; Harcourt, Brace and Co., New York, 1926). 1st reading. 10 May 2007.
Pepys's full diary, for the ten years he kept it, runs to about three thousand pages. This edition cuts it down to six hundred, making for very interesting reading.
Pepys's best qualities were his unbounded curiosity and inextinguishable energy. He may not have a particular genius for any one thing, but he has a keen interest in everything. In short, he is a prolific amateur. Theatre-going is a good example: he attends many plays and enjoys them in general, but his judgement is unrefined. Of Twelfth Night he writes: `Acted well, though it be but a silly play' (6 Jan. 1663); of The Tempest: `The play no great wit' (7 Nov. 1667); of A Midsummer Night's Dream: `It is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, and which was all my pleasure.'
We are lucky to have this diary, because it was so obviously never meant to be read: if he had written with us in mind it would not be as interesting. As the introduction to this edition puts it, `The Diary was not written with one eye on the reading public of the twentieth century — and it is safe to say that the reading public would not have read it had it been so.' In it we find a real human person, with all his foibles, hopes, idiosyncracies (especially amusing is his hodgepodge of French, Spanish and Latin when describing his extramarital flirtations), joys and despairs. Particularly touching are his frequent solemn oaths to improve his character or pecuniary situation — for example, cutting back on the number of plays he attends, which he has great difficulty keeping to and a great number of excuses to explain his breaching it.
Pepys records his very first taste of tea on 24 September 1660: `I did send for a cup of tee [sic] (a China drink) of which I never had drank before, and went away.' It seems strange that tea should be a novelty for an Englishman, but it had only been introduced to the country (from Holland) in about 1650.
In the introduction, the editor alludes to some of the salacious passages in the diary, `which it is safe to say will never be put into print.' Less than thirty years later, C.S. Lewis (who was a professor at Magdalene College, Cambridge, which had been Pepys's college and has the original copies of the diaries) was consulted as to whether these passages should be printed. He responds in a letter (17 June 1960) to the college:
To suggest that in a society where the most potent aphrodisiacs are daily put forward to the advertisers, the newspapers, and the films, any perceptible increment of lechery will be caused by printing a few obscure and widely separated passages in a very long and expensive book, seems to me ridiculous, or even hypocritical.
Which advice, of course, was taken.
The final entry of the diary (31 May 1669), terminated because Pepys was losing his eyesight, is very sad:
And thus ends all that I doubt I shall ever be able to do with my own eyes in the keeping of my Journal . . . and therefore whatever comes of it I must forbear: and therefore resolve from this time forward to have it kept by my people in long-hand, and must therefore be contented to set down no more than is fit for them and all the world to know . . . . And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave: for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!
Selected Poems, 1956-1968 [Top]
Leonard Cohen (The Viking Press, New York, 1968). 1st reading. 28 May 2007.
I rarely read `modern' poetry, and I rarely read Canadian literature. With this volume — drawn from the collections Let Us Compare Mythologies, The Spice-Box of Earth, Flowers for Hitler and Parasites of Heaven — I was able to do both at the same time.
All-in-all I enjoyed the poems. Leonard Cohen — with whom I was previously acquainted only as a musician — is an adept and versatile poet, with good rhythm, imagery and rich, varied allusion. My chief complaint is that many of the poems are somewhat obscure as they seem to draw on private experiences.
Of interest is the substantial Christian allusion and imagery, given that the author is Jewish — though there are perhaps more specifically Jewish references in total. His poem I am a Priest of God (which puns on his name, of course) is a nice little piece.
Reading Suzanne Takes You Down was a curious experience, because the song (which I have not heard in a very long time) slowly began playing in my head as I read it. I had not known the lyrics to the song, but somehow the rhythm of the poem recalled the melody to my mind. A very fine poem.
I almost went to bed
the four white violets
I put in the button-hole
of your green sweater
and how I kissed you then
and you kissed me
shy as though I'd
never been your lover
— Song (p. 68)
Master and Commander [Top]
Patrick O'Brian (J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1969). 1st reading. 15 June 2007.
I consider the film Master and Commander to be one of the best things that has come out of Hollywood this decade. Being in a sailing mood, I picked up this novel from the library. The film, in fact, is derived mostly from other books in Patrick O'Brian's series (he wrote twenty in total), so the plot was completely new: only the characters were familiar. Reading the book I appreciated how faithfully and accurately Russell Crowe performed the role of Jack Aubrey.
The two best authors of this sort of book are C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien, I have been told; and further, more than one person is of the opinion that Aubrey is better than Hornblower. I merely take their word. Master and Commander was an fairly entertaining book, but I am not clamouring to read the next one. Perhaps if again one day `I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can,' I will pick up the next in the series.
To-day is library day at Princeton. For some reason (for which I am not ungrateful) most books from Firestone library are not due until the end of the school year. This means I have amassed over the past year quite a number of library books. Here is a picture of them. (In the centre pile are books I read, in the left are books I read parts of or didn't finish and in the right are those I didn't read at all.)
The Catcher in the Rye [Top]
J. D. Salinger. 1st reading. 18 June 2007.
This is, as Tom Zanker said, the sort of book that if you don't read in high school you often don't get around to reading at all. And indeed that would probably have been the case for me had I had not gotten back in touch with Jeremy Woodward, an old friend from childhood, who reminded me of a letter I had sent him when I was eleven or twelve years old saying that no I had not read The Catcher in the Rye but that I would `get it out of the library'. It has taken more than twelve years to do so.
Though it is universally admired, I had still not expected this novel to be such a masterpiece. The portrayal of adolescent angst is superb. Holden Caufield is not a hero, but neither is he an anti-hero: he is simply a teenager, with all the good and evil of that age mixed together in a confused and contradictory bundle of rebellion and a yearning for authenticity. Salinger skillfully — especially given the first-person narrative — reveals Holden's character: the insecurities he tries to hide: the tenderness he has for his sister and others which he finds so hard to express: his profound loneliness and his isolation in a world full of `phonies'.
I do not think there is a deep message to the book. It is simply a portrait, holding `as 'twere, the mirror up to nature'. And in this it succeeds brilliantly.
Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft [Top]
Thor Heyerdahl (trans. F. H. Lyon, Rand McNally & Co., Chi
We saw no sign either of a ship or of drifting remains to show that there were other people in the world. The whole sea was ours, and, with all the gates of the horizon open, real peace and freedom were wafted down from the firmament itself. (p. 127)
This book is Thor Heyerdahl's account of his trip, with five other Norwegians, from Peru to the Polynesian Islands on a balsa wood raft, in order to prove that it would have been possible for these islands to have been populated by peoples from South America. An engrossing read.
Letters to a Young Poet [Top]
Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Stephen Mitchell, Vintage Books, New York 1986). 1st reading. 4 July 2007.
This little collection of letters is so full of experience and wisdom — exquisitely expressed — that it demands re-reading.
. . . the love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other. (p. 78)
The Children of Húrin [Top]
J.R.R. Tolkien (ed. Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2007). 1st reading. 13 July 2007.
Last November I read The Lay of the Children of Húrin, which Tolkien left unfinished. In this newly-published posthumous work, Christopher Tolkien has put together a remarkably coherent and smooth prose version of the story from various of his father's manuscripts.
After having read this version, I think it even more the pity that a verse version was not completed. Tolkien had conceived his poem on a grand scale — we have two abandoned versions, each about two-thousand lines, and neither gets very far into the narrative presented in the prose version.
If he had finished it, it would have been magnificent. And the fact is, we are lucky to have this recently-published book. The tale of Túrin was one of the three stories from the First Age of Middle Earth that Tolkien seemed to have developed in detail.
One striking feature is how ancient the story seems. It is set in the First Age, thousands of years before the end of the Third Age, when The Lord of the Rings is set. But one really does feel as though the story is one from ages back, and has only come to us through a long and weathered oral tradition.
I have often heard Tolkien accused of treating evil in black and white terms. Now, it is true that the servants of Morgoth (and later Sauron) are presented as wholly depraved; almost as faceless enemies (though a thorough reading cannot bear this out completely). Nevertheless, it is in the protagonists that the questions of good and evil are played out; one of the fascinating aspects of the First Age is the corruption of elves and men, in many ways and degrees. On the other hand, Tolkien does not seem interested in the morality of the enemy. Perhaps this is partly due to his experience as a soldier in the Great War, where the Germans were faceless combatants in distant trenches.
But Túrin, though certainly a hero — brave and mighty — has many serious flaws: he is proud, often ruthless, rash and headstrong. And while he does possess some virtues, they are not invincible. His justice is frequently marred by his wrath; his loyalty diminished by his thirst for revenge. He is indeed more like a Greek hero than anything else.
The History of Henry Esmond, Esq., Written By Himself [Top]
Thackeray. 1st reading. 23 July 2007.
Until now, the only thing I had read by Thackeray was Vanity Fair (and now that I dwell on it, half of Barry Lyndon, which I had to abandon because my borrowed copy of the book needed to be returned). Given that, along with Dickens, he was considered the greatest novelist of his time, and given the absolute brilliance of Vanity Fair, I thought it was high time I became furthur acquainted with him.
I would not say that this book ranks in the first tier of nineteenth century literature: the Brontë sisters and Dickens were producing superior works, to this novel at least. But if not in the first tier then surely it is near the top of the second. As far as historical novels go, it is excellent. It sticks to the story and never gets lost in the details of history, while at the same time making one more and more curious about the actual historic events. I knew very little about the so-called Glorious Revolution, and Thackeray does a good job at given an even-handed account.
Most delightful is the inclusion of Richard Steele and Joseph Addison as prominent minor characters. Swift and Pope also make brief appearances.
C.S. Lewis wrote of the quasi-worship which Victorian authors gave to domestic affection, mentioning Thackeray in particular. This was not unjust. Henry Esmond's devotion to his adopted family is at first touching; but the relationships that ensue, especially the love-triangle between Henry, Beatrix and "his dear mistress", are strange, to say the least.
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ [Top]
Lew Wallace. 1st reading. 13 August 2007.
Ben Hur was published in 1880. It soon surpassed Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) as the best-selling novel in America, and remained there until Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Therefore, for more than fifty years, this was the most popular novel in this country.
This seemed good enough reason for me to read Ben Hur. It is easy to see why it was so widely read: it is exciting, fast moving and generally well-written. Lew Wallace seems to have done a good deal of research into the culture and history of the region at the time the novel is set. His panoramic descriptions of scenes, which in any story have the danger of becoming tedious, in this case deftly help to immerse the reader into the story.
The novel starts and continues strongly, but ultimately I think it flags in the last couple of books. Ben Hur's flaws — chiefly centred on his thirst for revenge — are sensitively portrayed in their complexity, but the resolution is not as fleshed out as it could have been.
One thing it does do well is try to capture how the Messiah would have been variously conceived by his contemporaries.
The copy I got from Firestone libraries was printed sometime in the 1880's. On the flyleaf is written in ink with an elegant hand:
Dora W. Elev. [Or perhaps Elec?]
May — 1889.
On the back flyleaf this is repeated, with "50¢" written in pencil. I wonder if Dora W. Elev donated it to the library. It was last checked out in 1996, so I am the first to read it in eleven years, and the first this millenium.
High Adventure: The True Story of the First Ascent of
Sir Edmund Hillary (Oxford University Press, 2003). 1st reading. 13 August 2007.
A friend told me that I resemble Sir Edmund Hillary and then gave me his book to read. After looking at the photos of him, I am not inclined to agree, flattered as I am. The only connexion I do in fact have is that my grandparents once met him at a party.
His book details the British expeditions in the summers of 1951 through 1953 to look for an approach to Everest, climb various other Himalayan peaks and finally conquer Everest itself. Hillary is not an extraordinarily gifted writer, but he does pretty good job. The book never ceases to be engaging.
There were two things about the expeditions that impressed me. The first was how remote Everest is. I had, for some reason, imagined that one could just drive to the foot, unpack the truck and start on one's way. In fact, it took many days on foot, with locally hired porters (or "coolies" as he quaintly but non-pejoratively calls them) carrying all of their equipment. The heat is often oppressive, the monsoons frustrating and many swift and dangerous rivers need to be forded.
The other thing I had not realised was how much of a team effort the final expedition up Everest was. It is not at all an understatement to say that Hillary and Tenzing could not have made it to the top without the help of dozens of others. Also interesting is how they had to keep zig-zagging back between the various camps up the mountain. First a couple of men would explore ahead for a day or two and establish the safest route. Then a few more would go and make a small camp. Finally, a group of hardy Sherpas guided by experienced mountaineers would carry a few hundred pounds of provision to the new camp. This process was repeated several times, all the way up to the ninth camp at 27900 feet.
I was amazed that they — both Sherpas and British — were carrying up to fifty pounds at this altitude, usually with oxygen, but not with a very large flow. Often to preserve their oxygen reserves they would do descents without it. Having worked on a telescope at the comparatively paltry altitude of 17000 feet, and hiked up a further 1300 feet to the summit of the mountain it rests on, I can say that this is no mean feat.
[British hardiness:] Life was pretty grim when we settled down for the night. All our clothes were wet and so were our sleeping-bags . . . . But nothing seemed able to disturb Shipton. Sitting in his sleeping-bag, with his umbrella over his head to divert the drips, he puffed at his pipe and read a novel in the flickering light of a candle. He couldn't have looked more contented in an easy chair at home in front of a cosy fire. (p. 27)
A Nervous Splendor [Top]
Frederic Morton (Penguin, 1980). 1st reading. 2 September 2007.
What is the convention for reproducing titles — or quoting someone, for that matter — if it is spelled in a different system? I almost wrote A Nervous Splendour and then decided to write the title as it actually appears on the book's cover.
At any rate, this is a fluffy, erudite and captivating look at Vienna in 1888 and 1889, ending with the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf and its aftermath. The book interweaves incidents from the lives of prominent Viennese citizens: Brahms, Bruckner, Freud, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Klimt, Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Arnold Schönberg, Johann Strauss, Hugo Wolf, and, of course, the Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, and their fey son Rudolf. Interspersed in these vignettes are newspaper clippings, excerpts from gossip columns and a miscellany of contemporary tidbits, like the fluctuating price of sugar.
The book starts rather unevenly and I was not fully engaged until I was about a hundred pages in, at which point I started enjoying it very much. Recurrently, however, the episodic style feels rather affected.
It was a good introduction for me to that period of history, and to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in general, of which I am pretty ignorant. For example, I had somehow (despite having studied this in school), not realised that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was, after Rudolf was killed, the crown prince of the empire.
Reading this book made me want to watch The Illusionist again.
High Windows [Top]
Philip Larkin (Faber and Faber, 1974). 1st reading. 5 September 2007.
My friend Tom Zanker loaned me this last volume of Philip Larkin's poetry. I had never heard of him before, but it did not take long for me to recognise his talent. These are very fine poems indeed.
The title poem, High Windows, is superb. Its theme was reminiscent to me of Blake's The Garden of Love. But while I find the theme attractive, the freedom of `free love' which Larkin grasps for is false and illusory. The desires in Blake's poem are described more vaguely and hence are more general: this ends up making his poem more universal. Blake speaks to what we all have in our hearts: Larkin's poem is distilled into a more specific vision what it means to be free to follow our desires. And in the end, the imagery of the high windows and the long, never-ending slide, collided incongruously with the pair of teenagers fumbling through their fornication.
The Trees is a simple but beautiful piece; Sad Steps and Solar were also favourites.
The Professor [Top]
Charlotte Brontë. 1st reading. 12 September 2007.
This novel was Charlotte Brontë's first to be written, but was only published posthumously in 1857. The copy I read (from Firestone Library) must have been from one of the first American printings as it has the date 1857 in it. In the back among the advertisements is one for Grote's history of Greece, which, for something like a dollar, could be mailed to anyone within 2000 miles of New York.
This is definitely inferior to Jane Eyre, the only other novel by Charlotte Brontë which I have read. As a simple love story it succeeds, and the characters are interesting, but there is something lacking. More troubling, however, was what I perceived to be a current of racism and religious bigotry through the story. The constant praise of England and the stereotyping of various European ethnic groups one might excuse as Mr. Crimsworth's homesickness and France's fantasy; and the pervading attacks on `Romish' religion could be put down to Brontë's ignorance; but somehow it left a bad taste in my mouth.
It was still an engaging novel, but give me Jane over Frances any day.
One Hundred Years of Solitude [Top]
Gabriel García Márquez (trans. Gregory Rabassa, New York, Harper & Row, 1970). 1st reading. 29 September 2007.
Clearly there was some design in my choice to read this novel just in time to be the one-hundredth entry on this page. And I admit that I started reading it almost solely for this reason, but in truth I did not long continue reading it so. It gripped me right away and it only took a few pages to realise why this is one of the best-loved books of the last century.
I began reading this on the train to Newark Airport on my way to Chile; by the time I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama I had devoured more than three quarters of it, and a couple of days later I had finished it. I found that it flagged near the end, becoming a bit repetitive. Naturally, this is part of the book's structure and intent, but I thought it could have been slightly shorter.
I found the fantastical and magical elements of the narrative novel and delightful.
This brings up the total of Spanish novels I have read to exactly two. But rounding out Don Quixote with One Hundred Years of Solitude is not, I dare to venture, a bad start.
Barnaby Rudge [Top]
Dickens. 1st reading. Remembrance Day, 2007.
Dicken's only other historical novel was A Tale of Two Cities. In most regards, A Tale is the superior novel: it is tighter, more carefully crafted and generally more profound. But what it lacks, Barnaby Rudge supplies: humour. This is not to say that Barnaby Rudge lacks seriousness or is solely farcical, but it does have Dicken's inimitable humour, ranging from the outrageous Mrs. Varden and Miss Miggs to the grotesque and almost macabre Mr. Dennis.
This novel is criticised for taking a long time to get to the main action, which are the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of the 1780's, and justly so. But the first half of the book doesn't drag; there is action, but it is domestic rather than public. When the riots do begin, the characters and plots are well-established and everything fits nicely together — with the usual Dickensian plot-twists.
Hugh is one of Dicken's weaker villains, lacking a solid character. He is a coarse ruffian and nothing more. Sir Chester, Dennis, and Stagg, on the other hand, are more carefully drawn. Mr. Tappertit is like an early form of Mr. Guppy.
Barnaby Rudge's participation in the riots is an interesting study of innocence and evil.
Once again, Dickens does not fail to please.
A Streetcar Named Desire [Top]
Tennessee Williams. 1st reading. Remembrance Day, 2007.
I had not seen nor read this play before. Now I am eager to see the film.
The Man Within [Top]
Graham Greene. 1st reading. 13 November 2007.
This was Graham Greene's debut novel, which, apparently, immediately brought him to attention as a novelist. For my part, I found it very uneven. It starts weakly, has a pretty strong middle section (the courtroom scene in particular) and ends weakly. Much of it is unbelievable — the relationship between Andrews and Elizabeth, for example — and the psychology seems amateurish compared to Greene's later work.
In his autobiography, Graham Greene noted what he considered, in retrospect, the deplorable metaphors he used in his early fiction, and they are in full force here. Always arresting, to be sure, they are sometimes effective, but usually contrived and self-conscious.
For the fan of Graham Greene, this novel ends up being most interesting simply as a record of his development as a writer. Much of his style and thematic treatment is here, semi-developed, and occasionally shining through the improbabilities and clumsiness with a brilliant, promising glimmer.
Ian McEwan. 1st reading. 19 November 2007.
This book was recommended to me several years ago by the wise and learned Mrs. Christina Attard, and has been in the back of my mind ever since. But it was only when I saw the trailer for an upcoming film adaptation that I finally got it out of the library.
The story has all the elements of a gripping yarn: childhood, family, forbidden love, crime, betrayal, war. And Ian McEwan is a gifted writer. The device used in the first part of the novel where every event is told twice, through the perspective of different characters, is used very effectively.
Ultimately this book should have been longer. The main theme — atonement — could have been more deeply explored. In the first part of the book we are given detailed psychological insight into the characters' actions: in particular, we are made to understand, and perhaps even sympathise with, the motives for Briony's crime. This introspection is lacking in the rest of the novel. As a result, the actual process of atonement seems almost (I am reluctant to say) trite.
The epilogue, of course, throws a different light on half of the book. It is a very clever and interesting twist, which somewhat makes up for the lacklustre finish which I critique above. I found it too morally ambiguous, however, to be fully satisfying.
The best scene in the book is where Briony sits with the delirious, dying French boy.
Down and Out in Paris and London [Top]
George Orwell. 1st reading. American Thanksgiving, 2007.
[This book] is a fairly trivial story, and I can only hope that it has been interesting in the same way as a travel diary is interesting. I can at least say, Here is the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless. (Ch. XXXVIII)
Though it calls itself `a novel', Down and Out is clearly largely autobiographical. It begins in Paris, with the author out of work and running out of money. After pawning all his clothes except those he is wearing having gone without food for several days, he finds a job as a plongeur — a dishwasher and general gofer — in a hotel and later in a newly opened restaurant. After a couple of months of this, he makes his way back to London. His promised job there is delayed by a month, so once again hard up for money, he adopts the life of a tramp for two weeks.
Although a description of it may sound mundane, this book is very hard to put down. Everything is related with a particular energy and intensity, which is not lacking from time to time in humour. His descriptions of life in the Paris hotels and restaurants, and as a tramp in the London area, are fascinating. He has a gift for being able to describe everything in exacting detail without becoming tedious.
I certainly hope that conditions in Paris restaurant kitchens have changed since this was written. They are described as absolutely filthy — everyone was working sixteen hour days and still had no time to clean anything properly. The heat, the long hours and the exhausting work sounded absolutely oppressive. In his second job at the restaurant, he did not even have time to shave or wash his teeth.
Never be sorry for a waiter. Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not. He is not thinking as he looks at you, `What an overfed lout'; he is thinking, `One day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man.' He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires . . . . [Waiters] are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial. (Ch. XIV)
Burmese Days [Top]
George Orwell. 1st reading. 26 November 2007.
Even if he had not written Animal Farm or 1984, this book, as well as Down and Out, should secure George Orwell's place in the rank of great twentieth century novelists. It is an outstanding novel.
Set in Burma during British rule, Burmese Days is a stern and powerful indictment of colonialism. The racist slurs and opinions bandied around in the English club are painful to read, but they are based on his own experiences in Burma, and in fact, some of these racist characters are drawn from real life with little but their names changed. But through it all is Orwell's firm insistence that any of the rhetoric of progress, building of infrastructure, or the `white man's burden', is merely an excuse, or justification, for the fact that Britain was, put simply, stealing from their colonies.
Though the novel is a protest, it is in the end also a tragedy. The protagonist is conflicted, cowardly and impotent. Presumably this reflects a certain pessimism in Orwell's projections for the future.
There are similarities in tone and theme in this novel to some of Graham Greene's books — The Quiet American, for example.
A Brief History of Lesotho [Top]
Stephen J. Gill (Morija Museum & Archives, Morija, 1993). 1st reading. 28 November 2007.
I remember when this book was published — it was written by Steve Gill, a family friend, and my father helped read the manuscript. I was eleven years old, and at the time wondered why a book of such girth could be called `brief'.
This was the first time I actually read it, and now I see that the title is, contrary to the callow judgement of my youth, aptly chosen. Eight thousand years of history, (though most is devoted to the last two centuries) are compressed into about two hundred fifty pages. But the compression is done deftly, resulting in a book that is easy to read but also not lacking in depth and interesting detail.
The early missionaries and subsequent churches have played a big role in Lesotho, and the author has not given this aspect of her history short shrift. This is a refreshing change to the almost militantly secular outlook of the West, which will practically ignore religion's role in history, which is so often integral to the lives of the people who constitute it.
The last chapter, which covers the history up until the time of publication, is rather unorthodox in that it includes many editorial opinions and definite judgements about the direction in which the country should be moving. However, it is done in a way that manages to remain, as far as I can tell, even-handed, reasonable and fair. It is a very interesting approach which I think succeeds.
Twelfth Night, or, What You Will [Top]
Shakespere. 5th reading (?). 15 December 2007.
The Princeton Shakespeare Society put on a production of Twelfth Night last weekend, which I had planned to attend, always enjoying their performances. Then I was summoned to Chile, and so I packed the book instead.
Twelfth Night is a pleasant read every time. It probably has more puns per square inch than any other Shakespeare play.
My edition (Signet Classics) is clearly meant for beginners because practically every other word is annotated. This becomes distracting after awhile since one's eyes are unwittingly being constantly drawn to the footnotes, interrupting the rhythm of the reading. Who needs to be told what is meant by, "You must needs yield your reason, Sir Andrew?" My edition, however, feels the need to inform the reader that "yield" means "give". Apart from this annoyance, these editions do contain good supplementary material — essays by Johnson, Hazlitt, Lamb and some modern critics. These are nice to have.
Christmas Stories, Vol. II [Top]
Charles Dickens. 1st reading. 5 January 2008.
I didn't realise when I checked it out of the library that this book was the second of two volumes. I will have to read the first volume next Christmas. In this volume were: "The Haunted Man", "The Wreck of the Golden Mary", "Seven Poor Travellers" and "New Stories by the Christmas Fire". My favourites were "The Wreck of the Golden Mary" and some of the tales from "Travellers" and "New Stories". "The Haunted Man", while it explores an interesting idea, is badly executed.
It occurred to me that for all his variety, Dickens never told wrote a seafaring novel. "The Wreck of the Golden Mary" shows that he at least had the ability.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,
or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Written by Himself. [Top]
Olaudah Equiano. 1st reading. 5 January 2008.
Olaudah Equiano (better known in his time by his European name, Gustavus Vassa) was born in Western Africa in the eighteenth century and kidnapped by slavers when he was still a boy. A couple of years later he survived transportation in a slave ship to the Carribean. After several years working as a slave under a few different masters, during which he distinguished himself by his intelligence and resourcefulness, he saved enough money and made enough influential friends to buy his freedom. He continued sailing around much of the world as a free man, and eventually married and settled in England. He never returned to his homeland.
The Interesting Narrative is his autobiography, and it had a big impact on popular support for the abolitionist movement in Britain.
His account would be interesting even if it had nothing to do with slavery. He travelled widely on dozens of ships, going as far east as Turkey and joining an expedition of exploration to the arctic, among the other more mercenary trips. One interesting detail was the fact that he personally met an important figure in Canadian history when he was on his way to Lower Canada:
We had the good and gallant General Wolfe on board our ship, whose affability made him highly esteemed and beloved by all the men. He often honoured me, as well as other boys, with marks of his notice; and saved me once a flogging for fighting with a young gentleman. We arrived at Cape Breton in the summer of 1758: and here the soldiers were to be landed, in order to make an attack upon Louisbourgh. (Ch. III)
But of course, the narrative is primarily about slavery, and is probably the most valuable first-hand account we have of it from a slave, at least from this period of history. After he had gained his freedom, he continued to experience debasement. Several times pernicious slave owners would falsely claim that he was a runaway slave of theirs and try and kidnap him. He would also frequently be cheated since, practically speaking, he had no recourse to the law.
His style is sometimes plodding and pedantic, but in general, he writes with a fluency that makes this book by no means a struggle to finish.
The edition I read (ed. Joanna Brooks, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, 2004) is very handsome, having a multitude of interesting figures and maps accompanying the text, many in colour.
The Inklings [Top]
Humphrey Carpenter. 1st reading. 5 January 2008.
This is a sort of corporate autobiography of the informal Oxford literary club, The Inklings, whose most prominent members were C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Many of their books, including The Lord of the Rings, Out of the Silent Planet and All Hallows' Eve, were first read in drafts to this group. The lives of these three men are skillfully woven together, focussing on C. S. Lewis, who was the essential ingredient in the group. For those who are fans of these men, perhaps an essential book. For those who are not, there would be little of interest.
The Iliad [Top]
Homer. 1st reading. 18 January 2008.
This had far too long been a gap in my knowledge of Western literature and culture in general. A few years ago I read the first nine books or so in Pope's translation, but for some reason was forced to stop (I think it was due back at the library).
Now that I live with a classics scholar (the inestimable Tom Zanker), there was even less excuse. When I mentioned that I had read some in Pope before, he winced. Perhaps Pope was a great poet, in Tom's opinion, but his translation is dubious. So he gave me his copy of Lattimore, which he considers to be the best and most reliable to date. (I should give a nod here to Dan Bader, who also knows Greek and speaks highly of Fagles, who happens to be a professor emeritus here at Princeton, and hence a colleague of Tom's.)
Lattimore cites Matthew Arnold in his preface, who said that a translation of Homer should be `rapid, plain and direct in thought and expression, plain and direct in substance, and noble'. Lattimore claims to strives for the first three of these qualities but says that the nobility must be judged by the reader. This reader judges that indeed he has achieved this; it may be hard not to be noble when translating Homer, but the fact that he is also `rapid, plain and direct' is a great aid to this fourth quality.
His choice of metre, however, is not as happy. He wrote not with a conventional metre, but `a free six-beat line . . . . to be read with its natural stresses'. The problem is that unless one makes unnatural stresses, many lines fall into five-beat patterns. Moreover, there appears to be no attempt to regularly include caesurae in the lines. The consequence of all of this is that it is usually like reading prose, and besides the poetic diction, only the mechanical action of the eyes scanning the verses gives a recollection of poetry.
Of the Iliad itself, what can I say that has not already been said before? There is a simple reason that we still read him: as Johnson puts it:
The poems of Homer we yet know not to transcend the common limits of human intelligence but by remarking that nation after nation, and century after century, has been able to do little more than transpose his incidents, new-name his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.
I myself would probably not go so far, but the idea is in the right place, I believe.
My favourite books were iii, vi, xiii, xviii and xxiiii.
Sword of Honour [Top]
Evelyn Waugh. 1.33rd reading. 6 February 2008.
This is Evelyn Waugh's `final version' of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. In the introduction to Sword of Honour, he calls their purported independence from each other when they were originally published `less than candid' and says that it was `dictated by commercial interest'. Consequently, he made some alterations and bundled them together into a single eight-hundred page tome.
I ended up enjoying this more than I had expected. I had previously read Men at Arms (hence, 1.33rd reading) and didn't have any distinct memories of it, apart from Apthorpe's precious thunder-box. This part of the plot I found once again very amusing, as I did most of the first part of the novel.
What I had not expected was for the tone of the novel to become more serious as it progressed. I was expecting the comedy of the first part (which had comprised Men at Arms) to continue. Viewed as a whole, this section of the novel is on a certain level also serious. But later in the book themes dealing with duty, meaning in life and service are all aptly and sensitively explored. War ceases to be an opportunity for Guy's personal progress and becomes the evil that it is; for the reader it changes from being a subject for comedy to being an illustration of human weakness, futility and vacuity.
The development of Virginia's character was unexpected — and unexpectedly moving.
Planet Narnia [Top]
Michael Ward (Oxford University Press, 2008). 1st reading. 21 March 2008.
Michael Ward, the author of Planet Narnia, gave a talk at Princeton in February. I only decided to go at the last minute, partly because the title of the talk was C. S. Lewis on Love and Loss and I was more interested in hearing about his book. However, it turned out that the talk actually was about Planet Narnia. I'm still not sure what the title of the talk was about, as it was only tenuously related to the content.
The thesis of the book is that each book of the Chronicles of Narnia is intended to convey the personality of each of the planets in the mediaeval planets: the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, the Sun, Jupiter and Saturn. At first this sounds rather far-fetched, but his lecture was interesting enough to make me read the book, which continued to make the argument compelling and, I believe, probably correct.
C. S. Lewis was a scholar of mediaeval and renaissance literature and had a life-long interest in the planets. He wrote an excellent introduction to the mediaeval cosmos called The Discarded Image. It is not surprising that he would introduce elements from this cosmology into his fiction — and indeed he does so somewhat more explicitly in his Space Trilogy. What is interesting and surprising is how intricately and intimately they are included in the Narnia books (or Narniad as Michael Ward calls them).
This is a scholarly work with a copious number of endnotes and a long bibliography. (It is actually based on his doctoral thesis.) This necessarily makes it not as casual a read as some might like, but I appreciated its impressive depth and breadth. The author clearly knows his subject very well.
I would now like to re-read The Discarded Image.
I once commented that I though C. S. Lewis's poetry very poor. His poem The Planets, in the alliterative metre, which is referenced frequently in this book actually looks quite good, and I should take a look at the whole thing.
My Family and Other Animals [Top]
Gerald Durrell. 1st reading. 21 March 2008.
This is a charming little book by the conservationalist Gerald Durrell about his childhood memories from the island of Corfu in Greece. Though probably best styled as autobiographical, it is obviously embellished, and facts are massaged to make the story more entertaining.
The story is split between his family and `other animals' about half and half, although these two aspects are often combined. It ends up being a good ratio.
One thing that I did not like was the selfishness frequently exhibited by the family. It is always presented in a humorous manner, though in such a wry and matter-of-fact way as to leave a bad taste in my mouth.
Jean de Brébeuf [Top]
René Latourelle (Éditions Bellarmin, Québec, 1993). 1st reading. 21 April 2008.
Jean de Brébeuf. Qui est ce géant au physique d'athlète, au visage et au coeur si doux, mais d'un zèle si dévorant qu'on dirait une flamme qu'arrache le vent et qui saute par-dessus les mers? (p. 3)
Most Canadians (I would hope and assume) have heard of Jean de Brébeuf, the Jesuit missionary who lived with the Huron near the Georgian Bay for about twenty years until he was martyred by the Iroquois, who were at war with the Hurons, in 1649. Seven other of his companions were also martyred between 1646 and 1649.
I knew very little about him before I read the book. What was remarkable about him was his patience. The mission endured failure after failure. The Huron, while curious, were cautious with these missionaries, or "black-robes". When an infection began taking many Huron lives, a faction managed to convince most of the people that the Jesuits were sorcerers who were deliberately propagating the disease, and almost had them lynched. But this was an extreme episode. Most of the time their relationship was ambivalent, if anything. However, by the late 1640's, thousands of Hurons had converted to Christianity and the mission began seeing success.
But the Iroquois, jealous of the success of the Huron trading agreements with the French, and willingly armed by the Dutch with modern guns, went to war against them. The Hurons, already diminished by disease, were almost obliterated. The few survivors dispersed and the original nation was no more.
Jean de Brébeuf, whom the Hurons called "Echon" (probably a corruption of "Jean"), was a key part of the mission's late success. Physically huge and robust, he could handle a paddle in the canoe as well as any Huron. But he was also renowned for his gentleness, and won the affection of many. His knowledge of Huron culture and religion was extensive; having lived with them for so long, he had a great love and affection for them. Above all, he was a saintly man and his voluminous writings show that he was a profound mystic.
His skill with the Huron language was excellent. Some of his brothers struggled so much with the language that they had to return to France. But Brébeuf, though not without application, mastered it relatively easy and began teaching it to his brothers. The popular Huron Christmas Carol was written by him. My friend Tom Zanker, who studies classics, did not know anything about him except that apparently he recorded a Huron story that bears a striking resemblance to the legend of Pandora's Box.
His death, which involved scalding in a mock-baptism, a collar of red-hot hatchets placed around his neck, various parts of his body being dismembered, in addition to other gruesome tortures, was, needless to say, horrific. His relics, including his skull, are kept at the Martyr's Shrine in Midland, Ontario.
One thing that this book made me appreciate was the nature of the French colonisation of Québec. Often we tend to think of the Spanish conquest of the New World, which was large-scale, swift and often brutal. The French, on the other hand, had a much more humble colony. They were primarily interested in trading. Their settlements — even Québec City — had only a few scores of inhabitants. Champlain, by Latourelle's account at least, seems to have been a prudent and relatively enlightened man.
L'entreprise de colonisation s'est effecuée suivant un style diamétraliement opposé à celui de l'Espagne et du Portugal. Jacques Cartier et Champlain ne se présentaient pas comme des conquérants qui s'imposent par la force des armes. Ils n'ont ni volé, ni pillé, ni torturé, ni asservi, ni tué. Ils ont agi par voie de conciliation et de bons procédés commerciaux . . . . À la différence des Espagnols qui considéraient les indigènes comme des animaux sans âme, la France voyait en eux candidats à l'Évangile et reconnaissait les Indiens baptisés comme d'authentiques chrétiens et d'authentiques sujets du Roi . . . . Bref, tandis que la politique espagnole asservissait ou anéantissait les Indiens, et que la politique anglaise les méprisait, la colonisation française les accueillait et s'en faisait aimer. (p. 28)
This was a fascinating book. It made me, for the first time, genuinely interested in Canadian and First Nations history.
Speak, Memory [Top]
Vladimir Nabokov. 1st reading. 21 April 2008.
This was my first foray into the works of Nabokov. It is probably an unusual choice for a first book to read, but then again, it was a birthday present, so the choice was made for me.
Speak, Memory is an autobiography, but a rather unconventional autobiography. The organisation is thematic rather than chronological; in one chapter, for example, he recounts his love of lepidopterology, beginning in his boyhood and continuing to manhood. Then he will return to childhood for another theme or topic of his life and trace its way through the years.
It was an engaging book, very well written, but would well-deserve revisiting once I have read some of his novels, as many of them are purportedly semi-autobiographical. Speak, Memory, would probably be more engaging in retrospect.
The Sentinel [Top]
Arthur C. Clarke (Berkeley Book, New York, 1983). 1st reading. 21 April 2008.
Arthur C. Clarke's death last month was a mild influence for me choosing this book out of the library. I have read much of the more popular science fiction of the twentieth century, and I never liked his books quite as much as his contemporaries. Even Childhood's End, which many believe to be his greatest achievement (C. S. Lewis enthusiastically described it as `a real corker!'), I did not think that good.
After reading this collection of short stories, I think that the reason is that he is often more concerned with presenting an idea than with the plot or characters or themes. In an introduction to "The Songs of Distant Earth", he says:
I like fantasy every bit as much as science-fiction — its literary standards are usually higher, too — but I recognise the distinction between the genres . . . . Fantasy is something that couldn't happen in the real world (though often you wish it would); Science Fiction is something that really could happen (though often you'd be sorry if it did).
I think this is revealing. In each of the stories in this volume, he presents an interesting or novel idea — showing us something that `really could happen' that we might not have expected. But this seems to be the only motivation for many of them. And then the question becomes: why present it as fiction at all? Why not as an essay?
I don't think you can take this criticism too far. It is perhaps more an inclination with him than a consistent literary vice. I was not bored by this book, but I never found it as satisfying as I would have liked.
The Discarded Image [Top]
C. S. Lewis (Cambridge University Press, 1964). 2nd reading. 21 April 2008.
The `discarded image' is the cosmology of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It was discarded, of course, because of the new cosmology introduced by Copernicus and Galileo. But as the subtitle suggests ("An Introduction to Mediaeval Literature"), the purpose is to give a background to the literature of the period, which was imbued with this cosmology, or as he calls it, this Model (with a capital "M"). From Dante to Donne, this cosmology left its mark.
I will not summarise the Model here; those curious should read the book, especially chapter five, on "The Heavens". It is worth reiterating a couple of points, however, since most people to-day seem ignorant of them. First, in this model, which is geocentric, the earth's size is completely insignificant. The stars themselves were all believed (correctly, as it turns out) to be larger than the earth and a vast distance away. Second, being at the centre of the universe was not a privilege; in fact, it was less noble to be stationary, and the sub-lunar regions are fraught with mutability and chaos. Anyone who has read The Divine Comedy should appreciate this: Hell is located at the very centre of the earth (and therefore the universe), and the blessings of the heavens increase as Beatrice and Dante ascend to higher and higher spheres (and therefore further from the centre).
In fact, C. S. Lewis points out that one should almost think of this Model inside-out: the further up into the heavens you go, the closer you are getting to the primum mobile and the first cause. The inside is bigger than the outside, rather like at the very end of The Last Battle — a clear parallel that Michael Ward seems to have overlooked.
One of the more interesting aspects of this topic is the relationship between cosmology and culture. How we view the universe is given to us not only by science (and we must not forget that the geocentric model did have some basis in science, albeit primitive), but also by the world-view of our culture. And of course, the relationship works in the opposite direction too. We often forget that much of our conception of modern cosmology is a result of modern thought rather than pure astronomy — the vastness and loneliness and darkness are psychological rather than objective qualities. Pascal's exclamation about `le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis' springs more, I think, from modern scepticism than from the Copernican Revolution.
You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement. As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Mediaeval Model is vertiginous . . . . To look up at the towering mediaeval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The `space' of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic, and theirs was classical.
If you ever read this book, you will come across the following snippet: `. . . Plato's ur-Freudian doctrine of the dream as the expression of a submerged wish.' Then, you might go to the Oxford English Dictionary to see what `ur-' means. And there you would find that, in addition to the definition (`denoting "primitive, original, earliest," as ur-Hamlet, -origin, -stock, etc.'), you would also find that they quote this very line from The Discarded Image as an example.
Comus; L'Allegro and Il Penseroso [Top]
Milton. 1st reading. 28 April 2008.
Love virtue, she alone is free,
She can teach ye how to climb
Higher than the Sphery chime;
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heav'n itself would stoop to her.
Comus is a masque in praise of chastity. In the above lines, Milton seems to equate this particular virtue with virtue in general. This seems perhaps narrow sighted, but I think there is reason for it. The catechism very succinctly defines chastity as `the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being.' And this integration is what allows us to see with temperance and, in a sense, enables the other virtues. As the Lady of Comus puts it,
And that which is not good, is not delicious
To a well-govern'd and wise appetite. (704-705)
The beatitude, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God," might also be seen to identify chastity with clarity of vision. Obviously all of this goes beyond the simply sexual; for the Lady it also means a rejection of gluttony and intemperance in general. The lesson of the poem seems to be, though, that chastity in the narrower sense — `the Sun-clad power of Chastity' — is constitutive of the virtue of temperance and virtue in general.
I am not sure whether Herrick's To the Virgins, to make much of Time was written after this work, but there is a couplet that for me was reminiscent of it:
If you let slip time, like a neglected rose
It withers on the stalk with languish't head. (743-744)
A much sterner warning than Herrick's.
Of L'Allegro and Il Penseroso I have little to say except that they are worth reading and re-reading: they are at the pinnacle of pastoral verse. I really think that the Italian allegro and penseroso do much better than mirthful and melancholy — especially the latter. But I suppose that our use of the word melancholy to-day is much different than in the seventeenth century.
Le Misanthrope [Top]
Molière. 1st reading. 12 May 2008.
I read four acts of this before going to see a production by a campus group called L'Atelier, which puts on a few French plays every year. (It was interesting to see that Princeton has a French subculture, which occupied the first two rows of the seats.) The play took place in the middle of a gallery in the Princeton Art Museum, which was a nice setting.
The fifth act I did not have time to finish before the play, so I read it afterwards.
This was my introduction to Molière. A diverting play.
The Song of Hiawatha [Top]
Longfellow. 1st reading. 16 June 2008.
How did I miss out on Longfellow for the first twenty-six years of my life? I happened to casually pick up a volume of his complete poetry at the library and by chance soon arrived at the page containing the poem beginning,
I heard a voice, that cried— the lines which struck C. S. Lewis like a lightning bolt when he was a boy. It is a very fine poem indeed. On the next page began The Song of Hiawatha, of which I had such a vague knowledge that I was under the impression that it was by James Fenimore Cooper and somehow related to The Last of the Mohicans. I suppose if I had had an American education I would have known better.
`Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!'
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.
At any rate, I was captured from the very beginning, with the story of the four winds. I presume that Longfellow drew on existing mythologies, both aboriginal American and classical European, but much credit must surely be given to him for such a successful and sustained power of imagination — only canto xvii ("The Hunting of Pau-Puk-Keewis") I thought really flagged in terms of invention.
His choice of iambic tetrametre is well-tempered by the use of repetition, which he manages to keep fresh, melodic and varied. His most unhappy choice in the poem is the epithet "the very strong man" for Kwasind. There were many other words that would scan and sound less flat: even off the top of my head "the mighty, strong man" is better. But a small blemish.
Our Mutual Friend [Top]
Charles Dickens. 1st reading. 2 July 2008.
This was the last novel that Dickens completed; his subsequent work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood was left incomplete upon his death.
Our Mutual Friend itself has many qualities of a murder mystery, so perhaps Drood was a natural successor. It also has one of his best plots; in particular, John Rokesmith's hidden identity (he is the `mutual friend') and the consequences of this choice make for many dramatic opportunities which Dickens does not neglect to use. Chesterton believed that he originally intended the miserly turn of Mr. Boffin to be genuine, and then changed it to a ruse when he was hurrying the last part of the novel. Perhaps he is right, but I do not think this is certain; Dickens must have had some idea how the strands would all be resolved and this twist does not seem forced in the end.
In the postscript Dickens defends against criticism that the plot is contrived:
There is sometimes an odd disposition in this country to dispute as improbable in fiction, what are the commonest experiences in fact. Therefore, I note here, though it may not be all necessary, than [sic] there are hundreds of Will Cases (as they are called), far more remarkable than that fancied in this book; and that the stores of the Prerogative Office teem with instances of testators who have made, changed, contradicted, hidden, forgotten, left cancelled, and left uncancelled, each many more wills than were ever made by the elder Mr. Harmon of Harmony Jail.
This novel does have its flaws; the worst, I would say, is simply the tiredness of it. All of the elements for a great novel are present, but a certain freshness and exuberance is lacking. It is as though Dickens had begun exhausting his powers.
Jenny Wren is one of Dicken's most curious characters: grotesque, eccentric and pathetic all at once.
Frank Herbert. 2nd reading. 22 July 2008.
A better novel than I remember from my first reading. The ecological component is fascinating: living here in New Jersey where one pours with sweat in the summertime makes the desert setting, with the scrupulously parsimonious conservation of water, almost surreal.
There is a suspicious odour of California in the mystical side of this novel. However, where other authors might have made the spiritual elements just plain silly, Herbert handles them competently: though not profound, they are interesting, and add an essential element to the story.
Perhaps I will read the whole series this summer, unless they sharply decline in quality. I have only read the first two books.
Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a
Pope John Paul II (Rizzoli International Publications, New York, 2005). 1st reading. 28 July 2008.
This book grew out of a series of questions posed by two Polish philosophers to the late John Paul II in the nineteen nineties. In the book, published a few years ago, he expands on the original conversation.
Nevertheless, his responses are still pretty much sketches of ideas which would require more exposition and argument. Much of this he did in his many encyclicals. This work, however, is more political in nature, as he is asked to comment on the events of the twentieth century, particularly focusing on Europe and Poland. One of his basic theses is outlined pretty early in the book:
The cogito, ergo sum radically changed the way of doing philosophy. In the pre-Cartesian period, philosophy, that is to say the cogito, or rather the cognosco, was subordinate to esse, which was considered prior. To Descartes, however, the esse seemed secondary, and he judged the cogito to be prior . . . . After Descartes, philosophy became a science of pure thought: all esse—both the created world and the Creator—remained within the ambit of the cogito as the content of human consciousness. Philosophy now concerned itself with beings qua content of consciousness and not qua existing independently of it. (p. 9)
It is written in his usual writing style: learned and persuasive, and occasionally tangential in its logic. A pleasant and thought-provoking book, it is not particularly difficult and was a quick read.
One document to which he repeatedly returns is Gaudium et Spes, which he rightly recognises as one of the most accurate and prophetic analyses of our age.
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or
the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for
Charles Darwin (1st edition). 1st reading. 28 July 2008.
I decided to read this book not only because the discovery of the evolution of species is easily one of the most influential in the history of human inquiry, but also because the book itself has been lauded for its readability, even for the non-expert like me. It frequently appears on publishers' lists of classics: in the current Everyman's Library it is number two hundred and fifty eight.
And what can I do but add to the throng my own profound admiration? I found the book very engaging and easy to follow; perhaps only the chapter on "Hybridism" is too full of technical details. There are two related things which are remarkable of this book: one is the calm, clear and honest progression of Darwin's argument, and the second is the incredible amount of research and thought that was behind it. He was a true scientist, taking interest and delight in all the plants and animals he observed. Though his particular specialty seems to have been pigeons (and I now know much more about pigeons than I did before), he had a keen fascination in the breeding of many other animals, the instincts of bees and in the cultivation and cross-pollination of plants, domestic and wild. I was expecting to hear more of his travels at sea, but I suppose I will have to read The Voyage of the Beagle to sate that curiosity.
The relation between knowledge and imagination, for the scientist in particular, is interesting to me. I have often thought that Einstein was mistaken when he said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Darwin, I believe, is more correct when he writes:
He who will go thus far . . . ought not to hesitate and to go further, and to admit that a structure even as perfect as the eye of an eagle might be formed by natural selection . . . . His reason ought to conquer his imagination; though I have felt the difficulty far too keenly to be surprised at any degree of hesitation in extending the principle of natural selection to such startling lengths. (Ch. VI)
Of the relationship between natural selection and religion, the whole thing has been most tiresomely and endlessly debated. Cardinal Newman's sentiments on the subject, which he recorded in his private notebook, seem most sensible and succinct:
It is strange that monkeys should be so like men with no historical connection between them. I will go the whole hog with Darwin, or dispensing with time and history altogether, hold not only the theory of distinct species, but also of the creation of fossil-bearing rocks.
And indeed Darwin writes:
To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator, that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual. When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled. (Ch. XIV)
It is a curious fact that no form of the word "evolution", now bound so intimately with the person of Darwin, is found until the very last word of the book:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Dune Messiah [Top]
Frank Herbert. 2nd reading. Feast of the Assumption, 2008.
Though much of the novelty of Arrakis, the Dune planet, wears off after Dune, Frank Herbert introduces enough plot intrigue and character development to make this an excellent sequel. It is shorter, more compact and, in a way, less ambitious, but it makes up for this in focus and clarity. The climax (which I had completely forgotten from my first reading, perhaps a decade ago) is thrilling.
Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers that Changed the
Face of Physics [Top]
John Stachel, ed. (Princeton University Press, Centenary Edition, 2005). 1st reading. Feast of the Assumption, 2008.
This volume contains English translations of Einstein's five papers of 1905, which all appeared in the German journal Annalen der Physik:
- A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Zurich);
- On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in Liquids at Rest Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat;
- On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies;
- Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on its Energy Content?
- On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light.
That all of these papers were important and profound need not be stated: this is, as the saying goes, "the obvious". Of the third and fourth papers I will say nothing except to remark that their content is remarkably similar to the pedagogy used in modern undergraduate courses on Special Relativity — a testament to the clarity with which Einstein was able to write these seminal treatments of the subject.
His work on the atomic hypothesis (the first and second paper) is less known than his other work, but had perhaps the biggest contribution to experimental physics in the years that immediately followed. The predictions he and others made were painstakingly experimentally measured, and provided the first concrete evidence of the existence of atoms. One fascinating thing about these papers is his heavy reliance on the new statistical approach to thermodynamics. He devoted much of his early years to its study, and it is interesting, a hundred years later, when it is an established and commonplace theory, to see him treating it as a novelty, handling it almost gingerly.
The magnum opus, if one would have to choose one, is the last paper, which is his first presentation of the quantum hypothesis. Where as the first papers are classical — arguably the culmination of classical physics — this is the only of the five that can be included in what might be called "modern" physics. He cuts to the chase with the opening sentence:
A profound formal difference exists between the theoretical concepts that physicist have formed about gases and other ponderable bodies, and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic processes in so-called empty space.
From there he bridges the gap between the two, using, again, statistical thermodynamics to show that many unexplained radiative phenomena could be explained by postulating the exchange of light-energy in discrete quanta. In brief, he proposes treating blackbody radiation as being transmitted in quanta proportional to its energy, and then applies Boltzmann's description of entropy, as the logarithm of the number of accessible microstates. It is interesting that the application of this approach to the photoelectric effect is only a small part of the paper, near the end, which could almost be mistaken as an afterthought. In reality, it was this result in particular which the Nobel committee cited for Einstein's prize.
Besides the papers themselves, this volume contains introductions to each of them with useful contextual information. There is also a good general introduction, and, with the centenary edition, a rather more mediocre and pedantic early biography of Einstein, by the same editor.
Children of Dune [Top]
Frank Herbert. 1st reading. 9 September 2008.
This is definitely the weakest book so far in the series, but still worth reading. The first half drags a little too much, but the story picks up in the second half.
The Challenge and Spirituality of Catholic Social
Marvin L. Krier Mich (Sowers Books & Videos, Louisville, Kentucky, 2005). 1st reading. 9 September 2008.
This two-hundred-odd page book is a pretty good introduction to what is an almost overwhelmingly vast field, to which the past century has contributed an abundance of papal encyclicals and bishops' statements, and more importantly, people both putting them into practice and inspiring them. It is intentionally written from an American perspective, which narrows the field a bit; so, for example, there is no indication of what is going on in Africa, Asia or even Europe. But that would perhaps be too ambitious for such a work and I was content with what I got.
The book is structured around seven themes: life and dignity of the human person; call to family, community and participation; rights and responsibilities; option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God's creation. I certainly learned something about each of these topics.
The First Part of Henry the Sixth [Top]
Shackspeare. First Reading. 9 September 2008.
It is safe to say that this play, and its two sequels, are not foremost in the hearts of those who read, watch or produce Shakespeare. Indeed, it is the sort of play which is only produced at a place like Stratford, Ontario, which has a kind of obligation to cycle through the entire corpus every few years.
But nevertheless, it is still a good play. Though by no means an expert, I would have to agree with the general consensus that this is by a young and more inexperienced hand, but like another of his early plays, Love's Labour's Lost, it has moments which outshine the worser parts of his more mature productions. The authenticity of the play's authorship, and the question of whether it was a collaboration, have apparently been an issue; I for one would side (who would dare not?) with Johnson, who simply asked, `What author of that age had the same easiness of expression and fluency of numbers?' To me, only a couple of scenes from act four, telling of Talbot's downfall, sound un-Shakespearian.
Joan of Arc is a character in this story. I know very little about her, truth be told, but it is pretty clear that there is are some serious English prejudices which have gone into her character in the play. But forgetting the inaccuracy of her historical portrayal, she is a fascinating dramatic figure.
I think this is the first of Shakespeare's plays I have read where the reigning monarch or leader does not have the last line of the play (in this, it is given to Suffolk). But browsing through them I see that this is really not the case.
The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the
Good Duke Humphrey [Top]
Shakspeare. First Reading. 21 September 2008.
Johnson thought this the best of the Henry VI series; I have not yet read the third, but I would place it about equal with the first part. As with the first, the verse sometimes flags, and the real quality of the play is in its plot and pacing.
But the characterisation is not completely subservient to the plot, and is just as compelling. King Henry, in particular, is subtly presented. He is doubtless a weak king, but a decent man. His piety is at times more innocent than it ought to be, but is still presented as genuine and admirable. The scene with the man feigning a miracle brings out this trait of his character nicely. Additionally, his seeming obliviousness of his wife's frustration with his poor leadership, and her marital infidelity, is a good touch. As for Queen Margaret, her ambition and leadership and are a perhaps meant as a kind of foil to Joan of Arc's character in the previous play. Finally, it is interesting to see Richard, of the house of York, becoming a more important figure in the story, as he will be the protagonist in Richard III.
The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, with the death of the
Duke of Yorke [Top]
Shaxberd. First Reading. 22 September 2008.
The most interesting character, for me, was Richard of York. A pretty good play. The verse in this one seemed the best of the three.
God Emperor of Dune [Top]
Frank Herbert. First Reading. 5 November 2008.
Here ends my reading of this series, at least for now. A dreary book of pitifully amateur philosophy.
The Name of the Rose [Top]
Umberto Eco. First Reading. 5 November 2008.
A completely engrossing book, perfectly paced. The ending — eating Aristotle's words — is a stroke of genius
The novel's chief defect, which does not substantially detract from its brilliance, is its focus on logic and the intellect. The best fruits of the scholastic period are portrayed as intellectual — no Dante, or even St. Francis, oddly enough, in Eco's story. The heart is not sufficiently represented. Brother William is a logical animal: we are not given any admirable characters who also show feeling.
Adso's amorous encounter with the village girl, despite being central to the plot, was unconvincingly portrayed. There was not sufficient motivation for her interest in him.
Brother William's glasses:
William slipped his hands inside his habit . . . and he drew from it an object that I had already seen in his hands, and on his face, in the course of our journey. It was a forked pin, so constructed that it could stay on a man's nose . . . as a rider remains astride his horse or as a bird clings to its perch. And, one on either side of the fork, before the eyes, there were two ovals of metal, which held two almonds of glass, thick as the bottom of a tumbler. William preferred to read with these before his eyes, and he said they made his vision better than what nature had endowed him with or than his advanced age, especially as daylight failed, would permit . . . . So the Lord was to be praised since someone had devised and constructed this instrument. And he told me this in support of the ideas of Roger Bacon, who had said that the aim of learning was also to prolong human life. (First Day, After Nones).
Little Dorrit [Top]
Charles Dickens. First Reading. 6 November 2008.
Apparently, this book converted Bernard Shaw to socialism. I am not quite sure why that was so, for it does not seem to speak in that way to me.
What I would say comes through forcefully in the book is the constancy of human character despite the vicissitudes of material fortune. None of the Dorrits really changes when Mr. Dorrit is released from the debtors prison; rather, we see their virtues and vices in a different light: Fanny's silliness and Tip's irresponsibility are amplified with their riches; Mr. Dorrit's concern for the family honour becomes ridiculous and even offensive. Little Dorrit, on the other hand, retains her goodness, just as Arthur Clenham, at his own reversal of fortune, retains his generosity and sense of responsibility.
This constancy of character at times feels very fatalistic. No character really undergoes a substantial transformation in the book: a rare thing for Dickens: indeed, I cannot think of another of his novels so devoid of character development. I should be careful here, however. The characters in Little Dorrit are certainly developed, but in the sense that their unchanging characters are slowly revealed and more clearly exhibited as the novel progresses. This I think makes the novel weaker. On the other hand, if this is truly a story of society as a whole, rather than its constituents, then it is probably intentional, though I am not sure whether I like the approach.
Arthur Clenham is one of Dickens's most solidly decent characters. His presence is missed for many of the first chapters of part two.
Little Dorrit is at heart a good character, but she has so much of that timid, Victorian, waif-like femininity that Dickens so idealised that I cannot quite make myself like her completely.
Despite these flaws, still an excellent novel, and in good company with his other latter works, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.
Venus and Adonis [Top]
Shackespeare. First Reading. 12 November 2008.
Is there a moral to this poem? At its close, Venus, prostrated on Adonis's lifeless body, gored to death by a boar, proclaims:
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend;
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end. (1136–1138)
But is it a poem about love or about lust? I think we must agree with Adonis in 769–810, who upbraids Venus before departing, `Call it not, love, for Love to heaven is fled / Since sweating Lust on earth usurp'd his name,' scorning her pleading by pointing out that her `reason is the bawd to lust's abuse'. It is curious that the mortal should seem more heroic and noble than the goddess, who comes across as merely pathetic.
If there be any confusion as to what the purpose of the poem is, it is made up for in the rich imagery, closely packed with inventive and delightful similes. From the very first line, we are told to picture the "sun with purple coloured face", "the moon in water seen at night", the "deadly bullet of the gun", "the fleet-foot roe", "the snail, whose tender horns being hit" — any image to excite our imagination to the author's end.
C. S. Lewis complained that Venus was `a very ill-conceived temptress', and expands by explaining, `Certain horrible interviews with voluminous female relatives in one's early childhood inevitably recur to the mind.' She is perhaps not an ideal temptress (and certainly unsuccessful), but then again, her lust is perhaps not meant to be appealing.
Venus uses an argument that is repeatedly used in the first part of Shakespeare's sonnet sequence, though with a different intention:
Upon the earth's increase why shouldst thou feed,
Unless the earth with thy increase be fed?
By law of nature thou art bound to breed,
That thine may live when thou thyself art dead.
And so in spite of death thou dost survive,
In that thy likeness still is left alive.' (169-173)
Jane Eyre [Top]
Charlotte Brontë. Second reading. 30 November 2008.
I recently watched a new adaptation of Jane Eyre, which was pretty well done despite a few flaws. But it made me want to read it again, which I did, a couple of years after I read it for the first time.
A couple of things struck me the second time around. The first is the foreshadowing which is apparent only when the plot is already known. This is particularly pertinent when Jane and Mr. Rochester have their first few interviews and when Jane has her fortune told.
The second aspect of the novel I appreciated more is how important the episode with St. John and his sisters is. Without this part of the plot it would have been a far inferior novel, for the choices she makes in this part deepen the moral and psychological themes. Her rejection of Mr. Rochester is a matter of principle: her rejection of St. John one of prudence:
I was tempted to cease struggling with [St. John] — to rush down the torrent of his will into the gulf of his existence, and there lose my own. I was almost as hard beset by him now as I had been once before, in a different way, by another. I was a fool both times. To have yielded then would have been an error of principle; to have yielded now would have been an error of judgement. (Ch. XXXV)
The order is important. Only after Jane's will triumphs in a matter of principle can it be tested in a matter of judgement: the freedom to reject the good for the better is discovered only after the freedom to reject evil has been asserted.
Indeed, I think St. John is, after Jane herself, the most fascinating character in the novel. That he is a good and admirable man is made clear by Jane herself: she even chooses to end her narrative with a warm tribute to him, closing with the ancient prayer marana tha, an appropriately eschatological finish. But St. John's personal struggle remains hidden to us, because it is not Jane's struggle. Their paths in life are different, and both of them have the will and the courage to pursue them.
The Defense [Top]
Nabokov (trans. Michael Scammell). First reading. 30 November 2008.
That Nabokov was a master of prose and description is clear in this book, even in translation. But the idea of the novel I did not find as compelling. Consequently the first part of the book focusing on Luzhin's childhood held for me the most appeal; it was also the least surreal.
[One reason to play chess:] a means of decently preserving silence in the company of a person with whom conversation kept petering out. (Ch. 4)
A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of
Dickens. First reading. 31 December 2008.
I have heard a dramatic reading of A Christmas Carol, and seen a stage adaptation, but never read it. Of course I knew the story, but it is well told, and one forgets the details. It has a powerful, hopeful moral message which no amount of cynicism or accusation of melodrama can lessen.
Daniel Deronda [Top]
George Eliot. First reading. 2 January 2009.
Daniel Deronda suffers from one of the fundamental mistakes an author can make: we are told things instead of being shown them. Too much of Daniel's, Mirah's and Mordechai's characters are revealed through dry recountings of their histories: we are simply told who they are without supporting evidence, so to speak. In contrast to this, Gwendolyn's story is conveyed much more convincingly, with plenty of incidents, conversations, supporting characters and first-hand examples of her behaviour.
In a lesser writer, this flaw would perhaps be overlooked, but not in George Eliot. The book has very interesting themes, and the plot is engaging, but it would not have suffered from the addition of a couple hundred more pages to sufficiently flesh out the characters mentioned above.
The book picks up in the final third — in fact, the edition I read came in three volumes. At first, however, I thought there were only two, and as I was coming to the end of the second thought it was going to be a most ill-conceived, abrupt ending. But in the third volume, however clumsily its groundwork may have been laid, the story finally gained some momentum and began pleasing.
I suppose much ink has been spilt about the role of Jews and Judaism in the novel, so I will not comment extensively here. George Eliot is rightly praised for her sympathetic portrayal — the only other Victorian example of this in a novel of which I am aware is Our Mutual Friend.
The Lathe of Heaven [Top]
Ursula Le Guin. Sixth (?) reading. 14 January 2009.
This is perhaps my favourite of Ursula Le Guin's books. I have always found the novel's concept — about a man whose dreams alter reality — fascinating, and of course Le Guin executes it superbly. There is much Taoist inspiration for the book. (The title is taken from an (apparently mistranslated) quote of Chuang Tzu: `To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.') Like a good writer, Le Guin explores this philosophy through the plot and the characters' actions than merely having the narrator expound upon it or the characters spout it.
Reading this after having let it lie dormant (pun intended) for so long, I noticed a couple of things I had missed before, including the significance of the role the song With a Little Help from my Friends.
A major theme of the novel is ends and means. While there is dabbling in relativism, I think it generally hits the mark.
The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means. (Ch. 6)
. . . pique, umbrage, and ennui. Oh, the French diseases of the soul. (Ch. 7)
The Arrow of God [Top]
Chinua Achebe. 1st reading. 27 January 2009.
I have had Things Fall Apart in my mental list of books to read for a while now, but when I went to the library to get it out, there wasn't a copy, so I got this instead. It was an enjoyable and though-provoking read. I must confess that I sometimes found it difficult to keep the characters unconfused in my mind. Many — perhaps most — novels would benefit from having family trees or a list of characters in the front.
The Left Hand of Darkness [Top]
Ursula K. Le Guin. 2nd reading. 6 February 2009.
Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way. (Ch. 16)
Perhaps Ursula Le Guin's most admired novel, it synthesises many of her favourite topics: social anthropology, Eastern philosophy, varieties of politics and so on. I think it is curious that some call this a "feminist" novel. I find nothing ostensibly feminist about it. As I understand it, the androgynous inhabitants of Gethen are not meant to be an exploration of "gender roles", but rather, because of the alien nature of their existence, a foil for human sexuality. We are not supposed to conclude that maleness and femaleness are superficial categories, but, in contrast to the Gethenian physiology and psychology to which Genly has so much difficulty relating, that they are integral to human personhood.
A major theme is the relationship between journey and destination — similar to the study of means and ends in The Lathe of Heaven. One of Le Guin's most oft-quoted sentences is found in chapter 15:
It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
As it stands this is surely a heresy. It is like saying that the answer is not important as long as there is a question, or that water is not as important as thirst. In fact the story really doesn't advocate a view this black and white. Genly and Estraven do have a destination which is important. What is brought out is that journeys and destinations are often not as neatly separable as we might like to think, just as is the case with means and ends.
The Translator [Top]
Daoud Hari, D. Burke & M. McKenna (Doubleday, 2008). 1st reading. 11 February 2009.
My parents gave me this book for Christmas after my father had read it and thought I would also enjoy it. Of course, he was right.
The book is a partial autobiography of Daoud Hari, a Sudanese man who, knowing English, Arabic and his mother tongue Zaghawa, acted as translator for many prominent journalists covering the conflict in Darfur. Posing as a Chadian in order to be able to work, he made several dangerous excursions back into Darfur with various news reporters. Eventually his luck caught up with him, and he, the American Paul Salopek and their driver were seized by Sudanese authorities. They were only released after much mistreatment and heavy pressure from American authorities.
It is a fast-paced, gripping story, giving a broad picture of the Darfur conflict but also providing plenty personal anecdote to make the narrative human. Much credit should go to the ghost writers who have synthesised everything into a coherent structure.
One of the striking features is the author's deep faith in God in the face of the unspeakable crimes he witnesses. This faith seems to be common with his peers, like the Chadian driver who is captured with him at the end. It is somehow telling that atheism and the rejection of theodicy is something which occurs among comfortable academics rather than those who actually suffer — perhaps the latter don't have the luxury.
Not for Publication, and Other Stories [Top]
Nadine Gordimer (The Viking Press, 1965). 1st reading. 15 March 2009.
This was an enjoyable collection and served as my introduction to Nadine Gordimer. I realised that I rarely read short stories, and consequently, that I don't understand the medium as well as I might have expected. Here is a sentence on each story:
- Not for Publication — a nicely subtle examination of how good intentions are not in themselves enough;
- Son-in-Law — a pathetic tale told in a very matter-of-fact manner;
- A Company of Laughing Faces — a very concise and well-crafted coming-of-age story;
- The Worst Thing of All — a reminder of the endurance of past relationships, whether we will it or no;
- The Pet — another pathetic tale, but told with more feeling;
- One Whole Year, and Even More — both about the exploration of the young, and the ambiguous desire for youth of the middle-aged;
- A Chip of Glass Ruby — a look into the domestic effects and divisions, even the mundane ones, of political activism;
- The African Magician — civilisations clash on the Congo River, not dramatically, but rather clumsily;
- Tenants of the Tree-House — another coming-of-age story with a neatly executed ending;
- Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants — the first-person narrative is used to good effect;
- Vital Statistics — a potent morality tale about the vapidity of the unexamined life;
- Something for the Time Being — nice juxtaposition of two scenes relating the same story;
- Message in a Bottle — a simple look on a slice of someone's day with unexpected depth given its brevity;
- Native Country — another morality tale but with more poignancy;
- Some Monday for Sure — the inglorious aftermath of political activism.
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll
Flanders, &c., Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of
continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood,
was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her
own Brother) Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported
Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a
Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums. [Top]
Daniel Defoe. 1st reading. 29 March 2009.
There is a directness to this book which is refreshing in many ways. It was written when the novel was just being introduced in English and perhaps this is a contributing factor. There is no expectation that there be descriptions of scenery or expositions of character: the plot pushes forward without ornament, and the only reflexions we get are the brief moralisations from the narratrix, the reformed Moll Flanders.
Is it a book that could have been written by a modern author now that the novel is established? Perhaps yes, but it is hard to say. Defoe's genius in this story is very much in his inexhaustible imagination. One gets the impression that any episode of Moll's life could have been strung out with endless adventures of infinite diversity, but that eventually Defoe realises that she must keep growing older, and with little ceremony, she moves from being a wife to a mistress, or a mistress to a thief, or a thief to a convict.
Moll is a curious mix of easy-go-lucky innocence and calculated wickedness. She rarely hesitates to commit some crime or injustice on even the slightest pretext, but on the other hand, she is naive in her judgement of her fellow creatures, taking them at face value. She schemes endlessly on how to improve her situation in life, but reflects little on its meaning. She is both shrewd and simple.
The ostensible claim made in the preface is that Moll Flanders is supposed to serve a moral purpose to dissuade its readers from vice. We have hardly been better entertained along the way.
A Mathematician's Apology [Top]
G. H. Hardy. 1st reading. Easter 2009.
This was a (belated) birthday present from my brother, arriving in a carefully home-wrapped cardboard package in my mailbox quite by surprise: a more pleasant trip to the mail box than usual. Hardy was a preeminent Oxford and Cambridge mathematician of the twentieth century who was asked in his declining years to write an apology for his work: this is the result. It has been praised as eloquent and insightful. I quite enjoyed it myself, although my own assessment would be a bit more muted: it was well-written, intelligent and soundly reasoned, but I did not think it was either very profound nor original.
The real pleasure in this book—and my brother shares this opinion—was the foreword by C. P. Snow, an intimate friend of Hardy's. It is an excellent mini-biography of Hardy, written with great affection and warmth after Hardy had died and his Apology already famous. It provides a real, living portrait of a man whom I had never heard of before, but whom I now feel that I have met.
Henry David Thoreau. 1st reading. Easter 2009.
Reading this book is a meditative experience. It moves slowly and serenely. If you are prepared to sit back and enter into its pace, it is rewarding and not dull.
Thoreau's thesis, argued persuasively but not forcibly, is that man needs to simplify his life, to rid himself of the pointless fetters created by human society. His life by Walden pond may have been in some ways radical, but I do not think he nor his message is essentially radical: it was for him a two-year experiment and he explicitly says that he has no desire that all men should live as he lives. As a philosopher I think he is uneven. He is prone to eccentricity, which sometimes yields interesting insights, but just as often inane ones.
Much of the pleasure of the book comes from his descriptions of nature and of the simple activities he performed around his cabin.
On the virtue of chastity (from a passage showing a Hindu influence):
The generative energy, which, when we are loose, dissipates and makes us unclean, when we are continent invigorates and inspires us. Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. (Higher Laws)
Scenes of Clerical Life [Top]
George Eliot. 1st reading. 5 May 2009.
Thus I complete the canon of George Eliot's novels by finishing with her first published fiction—although this is not really a novel but three novellas.
The introduction of my copy (Penguin 1973, David Lodge) rated The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton highest, but I disagree. (His whole introduction I thought was weak, hiding its mediocrity behind a veneer of scholarship.) I found that they improved sequentially. In Amos Barton Eliot was still finding her muse. She descends often into that type of ironically overblown prose which in Dickens, who also used it in an attempt at gentle humour, is often only barely tolerable: here she is obviously imitating, and fails. (Dickens apparently praised the Scenes quite highly.)
But in Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story she already shows a remarkable command of her art. Consider the following vivid and vigorous passage:
The inexorable ticking of the clock is like the throb of pain to sensations made keen by a sickening fear. And so it is with the great clockwork of nature. Daisies and buttercups give way to the brown waving grasses, tinged with the warm red sorrel; the waving grasses are swept away, and the meadows lie like emeralds set in the bushy hedgerows; the tawny-tipped corn begins to bow with the weight of the full ear; the reapers are bending amongst it, and it soon stands in sheaves, then presently, the patches of yellow stubble lie side by side with streaks of dark-red earth, which the plough is turning up in preparation for the new-thrashed seed. And this passage from beauty to beauty, which to the happy is like the flow of a melody, measures for many a human heart the approach of foreseen anguish—seems hurrying on the moment when the shadow of dread will be followed up by the reality of despair.
Janet's Repentance was the strongest of the three, and my favourite. It most successfully combines the provincial setting and sketches of its inhabitants with personal histories of the main characters. It is interesting that in many of George Eliot's stories the heroine needs to turn to a strong, virtuous male character for guidance and even approval. Dorothea, Romola and Gwendonlyn (the latter particularly) all share this trait. I am curious how this has been perceived by feminist criticism.
Blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another! Not calculable by algebra, not deducible by logic, but mysterious, effectual, mighty as the hidden process by which the tiny seed is quickened, and bursts forth into tall stem and broad leaf, and glowing tasseled flower. Ideas are often poor ghosts; our sun-filled eyes cannot discern them; they pass athwart us in thin vapour, and cannot make themselves felt. But sometimes they are made flesh; they breathe upon us with warm breath, they touch us with soft responsive hands, they look at us with sad sincere eyes, and speak to us in appealing tones; they are clothed in a living human soul, with all its conflicts, its faith, and its love. Then their presence is a power, then they shake us like a passion, and we are drawn after them with gentle compulsion, as flame is drawn to flame. (Ch. 19)
The Man in the High Castle [Top]
Philip K. Dick. 1st reading. 18 May 2009.
Since I have enjoyed the various film adaptations of Philip K. Dick's books I thought it might be time to read one of them; this one was chosen somewhat at random from the library bookshelf, and later I found it was one of his most acclaimed.
As a work of imagination it is quite good: it is the nineteen-fifties and the Axis won the war: America is controlled by Japan on the west coast and Germany on the east. The `story within the story', in which the characters ponder a book which hypothesises what the world would look like if the Allies had one, is a very clever inclusion, especially as even in it he presents an alternate reality, though closer to our own.
As a novel it is thin on plot, even though that is not necessarily its focus.
Philip K. Dick's use of language here is adept, especially the dialect he has invented for the Japanese.
The imperial Japanese come off looking better than the National Socialist Germans, for some reason; I am not quite sure exactly why. I suppose it's rather a toss up.
Too Late the Phalarope [Top]
Alan Paton. 1st reading. 18 May 2009.
I quite enjoyed this book, although it is quite heavy and psychologically intense. It immerses one in Afrikaner culture in, I suppose, a fairly realistic and sympathetic way. The racial themes are much more subtle here than they were in Cry, The Beloved Country, and Paton does not even seem primarily interested in them in this case.
Pieter's father is a most successfully realised character.
The choice of narrative voice is original and used very effectively.
Endo Shusaku. 1st reading. 7 June 2009.
A difficult, challenging book. The conclusion, where it could have been facile, is profound.
Ender's Game [Top]
Orson Scott Card. 2nd reading. 3 August 2009.
I finished reading this over a month ago, but have neglected to write about it here.
As an adventure book, it is top rate. But overall I did not enjoy it as much this time around as when I first read it. The exploration of the destructive nature of man (or boy) is interesting, but there is something too fatalistic about it. Is this novel really saying that war is a necessary evil?
The subplot about the realpolitik practiced by Peter and Valentine I find somewhat amateurish, but it is a minor part of this novel. In some of the sequels (which I have also previously read) it becomes much more burdensome.
King Solomon's Mines [Top]
Rider Haggard. 1st reading. 3 August 2009.
I found this novel only mildly entertaining. This is somewhat surprising since it is ranked among the best adventure stories to come out of the Victorian era.
Any racist elements of the book are not prominent, but one can certainly see from it that the doctrine of apartheid was just as English as Afrikaaner.
The Old Curiosity Shop [Top]
Dickens. 1nd reading. 3 August 2009.
With the completion of The Old Curiosity Shop, I come to have read all of Dickens's novels, if the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood is omitted.
I must admit that the pervasive accusations of saccharinity kept me from this novel for a while, but upon reading it I find that they are highly exaggerated. My edition (Penguin from a couple of decades ago, I think), went so far as to say that Nell is not an interesting character but that the book is still worthwhile because of other characters of interest, such as Dick Swiveller and the Brasses. To be sure, these other characters are excellent, but the story of Nell and her grandfather is also good. The latter's gambling addiction is portrayed very finely. Nell's courage and resilience are admirable; her sufferings are not over-dramatic but rather altogether too realistic in many ways. The flight of Nell and her grandfather from London and their subsequent journey is a refreshing return to the picaresque after having spent more time recently with Dickens's later novels.
Quilp is an ingenious invention. He is gross and devilish, but from a distance his bizarre, perverse sense of humour has a strange power of attraction. He is the kind of villain with whom we would never like to associate but about whom we very much enjoy reading.