Classics Club Spin #22/I’m Back?

Hello, friends, It’s been a while. This semester has been a long and hard one for several reasons, but things are settling down now, school is out, and I’m feeling ready to start digging into some classics again.

Conveniently, the Classics Club is doing another spin! You know how it goes: I post a list of 20 books here, the Classics Club announces a number on Sunday, Dec 22, and then I have to read that book by the end of January!

This is super perfect timing, because I don’t really know what I want to read next. I’m just listing 20 books from my Classics Club list that sound interesting at the moment, and hopefully I’ll get a good one!

The list:

  1. Romola by George Eliot
  2. The Mabinogion
  3. The Aeneid Virgil
  4. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
  5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper
  7. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  8. Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  11. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  12. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  13. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
  14. Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
  15. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsinay
  16. Histories by Heroditus
  17. Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
  18. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  19. Revelations of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
  20. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

 

Tristram Shandy: Review

IMG_3367.jpegI’ve been feeling like my review for Tristram Shandy is going to have to go one of two ways: I share what I liked about the book, or I write a 7,000 word academic essay. Fortunately for you, I don’t have time for the latter. So this might be a bit more casual of a review than normal.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a tricky book to review, anyway, because it doesn’t really have a plot. It was published as nine volumes over nine years, between 1758 and 1767, but this publication doesn’t have much to do with the meandering, digressive, and episodic form; plenty of books were published over multiple years, and they all had plots.

Okay, I admit, I’m still a little salty about the lack of plot. (Is salty still slang? Or have kids these days moved on?)

That’s my own fault, though, because I knew next to nothing going into the novel. In fact, I picked it up because last spring I worked on an early 19th-century diary written by a young American man who happened to love Tristram, and I was curious as to why he liked it so much.

Like my young diarist discovered more than two hundred years ago, it’s the novel’s very absurdity that makes it so charming. It invites us to laugh at the world, to see its comic aspects, to recognize that life is far too complex and random and strange to portray accurately in a traditional novel. And yet, it also refrains from descending into bitterness, instead remaining cheerful (but not saccharine) throughout. And once I realized that the plot was not simply forestalled but never arriving (and on purpose), I was able to enjoy Tristram much more. So don’t expect a plot. Just enjoy the journey.

The novel is not actually about Tristram, despite the very misleading title. While Tristram, as the vocal and active narrator, is kind of a character, we see very little of his life or opinions in the novel, and he almost never appears in the narrative. He isn’t even born until volume iv!

46201c899bc0e45596f544a6667444341514141.jpgInstead, the main  characters are Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, Toby Shandy, Tristram’s uncle, and Trim, Toby’s butler/valet.  These three men are delightfully quirky characters, and are drawn with wonderful complexity. Walter has strange opinions about noses and names, Toby was invalided out of the army and now researches battles by building models in his garden, and Trim is a kind, loyal, soft-hearted former subordinate officer and valet and friend who also happens to know more about the world than surprisingly innocent Toby. For example, Toby (my favorite character), despite his near-obsession with military campaigns, cannot bear to kill even a fly.

I should note that while the characters are complex, they are not necessarily realisticTristram is a comic, even satiric novel, belonging to the same family tree as Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and, later, Alice in Wonderland. Don’t expect Dickens or Richardson.

So, the characters are delightful, and if you let the narrator take you on a journey, you will find yourself delighted. Just don’t look for a plot.

Despite the seeming nonsense of the book, even a little contemplation of it will reveal that it has been very deliberately written and that Sterne knew full well what he was doing, even if Tristram doesn’t. It is bristling with literary allusions, allusions to (and quotations from) Sterne’s sermons, and a sharp awareness that this is a novel. Indeed, a lot of the book’s absurdity comes from Sterne showing us the limits of the novel form, which, it must be remembered, was still just a few decades old in the English tradition. One can try, like Henry Fielding does in Tom Jones, to be as realistic as possible, but a novel is still a written thing; its plot and characters imaginary.

Hepburn7_tp.jpg

Tied to this awareness of the limitations of the novel is a parallel awareness of the novel as an object. Sterne constantly reminds us that we are reading a book. His book is filled with quotations and paraphrases and copies of parts of books (real and made up). And Sterne will often use creative textual methods to make a point. When somebody dies, early in the book, there are two black pages following, which serve as mourning. Later, Tristram rips out a chapter he has written, and there is a corresponding blank page in the book. The font changes in the chapter headings to make a point. I found all of this fascinating, and would like to dig more deeply into that aspect of the book (but not here).

So, while I struggled a bit at the beginning, simply because Tristram was a creature I was not expecting, I ended up really loving it. I’ve used “delight” several times in this review already, but I’ll use it one more time, because that’s what Tristram Shandy is: delightful. It ended up being a pleasure to read, and left me with some rich material to ponder in the days to come. What more could you want?

Video review, in which I explore some of these ideas in more detail, here: https://youtu.be/JnClOiiIM7Y

 

 

The Woman in White: Review

Book: The Woman in White5890
Author: Wilkie Collins
Genre: Novel, Mystery
Period: mid-Victorian
Rating: 4/5 stars

I participated in the last Classics Club spin (#20) and it chose Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. This is my second Classics Club read. For more about the Classics Club, go here, for the background about the spin, here.

The Woman in White was published in 1860 after first being serialized the year before. It is kind of a mystery, and has strong gothic vibes. I say kind of, because unlike in Collins’ later work The Moonstone, which is trying to uncover a jewel theft, this novel begins by exploring mysterious circumstances and only really deals with solving A Mystery in the last third. The gothic vibes come from a gloomy estate home called Blackwater Park, mistaken identities, mysterious disappearances, and even more mysterious deaths, among other things.

Walking home in London from visiting his mother late one night, Walter Hartright helps a  young woman, dressed all in white, who has just escaped from an insane asylum, and where, she claims, she has been falsely imprisoned. He helps the woman to a cab and does not become further involved, but the encounter lingers in his mind, especially because the woman mentions Limmeridge House, and Hartright happens to be leaving the next day to become the drawing tutor for the ladies who currently live at Limmeridge. When he arrives in the country, Hartright asks one of the young women, Marian Halcombe, to help him try to identify the mysterious woman, and finds himself drawn into a mystery that involves not only the woman, but Marian’s half sister, Laura, and Hartright himself. There are secrets to uncover, lies to counter, lives to save. It’s hard to say more without spoiling things, but the story was very eventful and entertaining. I read about 300 pages in one sitting, over the middle of the book, because I just wanted to read “one more chapter.” You know how it goes.

Although I was eventually sucked in, I was glad to have a deadline while reading this book because it took me quite a while to get into the story. Very early on, Walter falls in love with Laura Fairlie, and she is of course blonde and beautiful and fresh and innocent and it had me rolling my eyes. Laura is engaged to someone else, however, and the story really gets going after she is married to Sir Perceval Glyde, one of the novel’s villains. Once I got to this part of the story, about 200 pages in, I was hooked.

Despite my initial hesitation, I ended up enjoying the major characters a lot. Laura actually demonstrated that she was a perceptive, strong woman, which I appreciated. Marian, her half sister, is another strong woman, loyal, brave, determined, resourceful, and clever, and I’m so glad I met her. Walter also improves on acquaintance. His loyalty to Laura and Marian and his determination to do whatever he can to help them, even if there is no gain for him, helped me get over his predictable love interest. The villains are excellent, particularly Count Fosco, who I will remember for a long time. He was actually very charming and likable, which made his villainy all the more terrible, and it was great.

The story is told in as a compiled narrative, with various characters narrating the portion of the story about which they had the most experience. The frame is that after everything was over, Walter wanted to tell the truth, so gathered material from those who were involved and then wrote about his own experiences and arranged everything chronologically. So, while Walter begins the story, when he is not with Marian and Laura, Marian’s journal continues the story. There are also letters and other memoranda that are used to give various perspectives and details. It’s kind of like a dossier. Collins also does this in The Moonstone, but there is more movement between voices in The Woman in White, and I think I enjoyed that better.

While I mostly read The Woman in White for entertainment, and wasn’t looking for themes, it does raise some interesting questions about mental illness, and particularly around the lack of freedom women had when it came to being committed by their male relatives. I just spent last semester taking a course on 19th century American representations of mental illness, so these themes really stood out to me. Also, after finding out that Dickens tried to have his wife Catherine committed during their very nasty break-up in 1858 (the family doctor/friend told him “Don’t you dare!”), this felt a little like Collins was digging at Dickens with the “false imprisonment” plotline. I don’t really have anything profound to reflect on, although if I were to ever revisit works that feature mental illness for a writing project, this book would be on the list.

Overall, The Woman in White was a great book. I would recommend it to those who like mysteries, Victorian fiction, Dickens’s novels, a good plot, or who want a lot of action in their classics (just be aware that it’s action heavy for a Victorian novel; there’s still a lot of talking).

 

Oresteia: Review

51C7XYdMalL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI’ve been meaning to read this trilogy of ancient Greek plays, by Aeschylus, for ages, and I was delighted when one of my classes this semester forced me to actually do it. This is one of the books on my Classics Club list; the first one I’ve completed! Click the link to see the whole list of classics I’ve committed to read in the next five years.

Aeschylus is the oldest example of Greek drama (and therefore western drama) that we have. His plays are quite different from contemporary ones, or even early modern ones, so I recommend finding an edition that has an introduction which discusses the ancient Greek theatrical tradition. Basically, these plays were written for a festival in honor of Dionysus.

The Oresteia is about the death of Agamemnon at his return from the Trojan War and the events that follow. Is it spoilery if I summarize the whole plot of a 2500 year old story based on an even older myth? Actually, I think this is one of those cases where knowing the story beforehand is helpful. If you don’t want to know anything, skip to below the line for my thoughts.

On his way to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to ensure safe passage and his wife, Clytemnestra, is understandably angry. While Agamemnon is gone for ten years, she starts an affair, and when Agamemnon returns, she murders him. Play 1, Agamemnon, focuses on Agamemnon and Clytemenestra’s, erm, marital problems, and ends with his murder.

6917129-M.jpgIn play 2, The Libation Bearers, Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, comes home from the foreign country where he’d been for a while, and meets his sister, Electra, at their father’s funeral and decides to avenge his father’s murder by killing his mother, even though this will bring the Furies, the ancient goddesses of justice, on his head for killing blood. Apollo has commanded him to do so, and promised protection. [side note, Orestes is where the name of the trilogy comes from]

In play 3, The Furies, Orestes flees to Athens and asks for a trial, defended by Apollo and arbitrated by Athena herself. Athena wins (of course) and the Furies become the Erinyes, the Kindly Ones, protectors of Athens.

On the surface, this play can seem very sparse. Each installment is short, about 40 pages of verse in my edition, and there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of action. Digging deeper, with the help of footnotes and good introductions, shows that there’s a lot of complex questions about justice, politics, and religion being discussed. The “eye-for-an-eye” revenge cycle represented by Clytemnestra and the Furies is the “old way,” which is remade into the new way of justice by fair trial.

9780199537815.jpegSomething else I found very interesting was the way Aeschylus used his chorus. If you’ve ever studied ancient Greek drama, you probably learned that the chorus is  supposed to be some anomalous group like “the people” or “the elders,” and this is how Sophocles (Oedipus Rex and Antigone) uses them. But Aeschylus uses his chorus much more complexly. They are the “elders” in play 1, but in play 2 they become the Libation Bearers of the title, and in play 3 they become the Furies. This shift from old men to old women to goddesses is very interesting to follow, especially when you factor in that these plays were performed on the same day, with the same group of people (all men, probably). Essentially, the chorus moves from being that more traditional group of commentators to being a major group of characters by the last play. It is also interesting to see how much power, both good and bad, women are afforded in this trilogy. While Agamemnon and Orestes are the main characters, their lives are both intensely shaped and influenced by the women around them.

Like a lot of Greek drama, the Oresteia has a lot to say about big topics that makes it still feel relevant today. It’s a pretty quick read for an ancient classic, and I definitely recommend it.

Recommended editions: Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Hackett

Update 5/29: I now have a video review up, where I go more in-depth into the history and backstory of the trilogy. Check it out at https://youtu.be/RSoZJDU9MAU

The Spin Number is. . .

19! (no clue what I’m talking about? Read this)

Which means I’ll be reading Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White by May 31 and posting a review.

5890.jpgI’ll admit, I was kind of hoping to spin a shorter book. I don’t mind long novels (see: my Classics Club list), but I can’t start reading until I’m finished with the semester on May 10th.  Also its one of the few books on the list I need to buy. Not that this latter is necessarily a problem….

(This is, by the way, the reason for my recent radio silence. I’m reading a lot of classics, but school has devoured all of my time. That will soon change!)

On the other hand, the shortened time limit may help me to sit down and actually finish the book in a timely manner. We’ll see.

Aside from the length, I’m excited to read The Woman in White. I read The Moonstone about six years ago and enjoyed it a lot. I also think The Woman in White will be a good classic to kick-start my summer reading, because although long, it’s a mystery that should be a page-turner (I hope!).

Did you participate in the spin? What are you reading? Or, if not, what’s the next classic you plan to pick up?

Classics Club Spin #20 (my #1)

Hello friends! I emerge from my school-induced blog hibernation to post my Classics Club spin list. If you’re not in the Classics Club (why not? It’s open to all!), the spin list is the 20 books below, selected from my larger Classics Club list. In a few days, the Classics Club moderators will post a number, and I will read the book which is that number on my list and post a review of it by May 31st.

There’s not a huge amount of rationale in this list. I essentially chose ones that I felt like I could read in two weeks, which is about how much time I’ll realistically have. I also only added books I already own or think I can easily find at my local used bookstore.

I don’t know if I’ll participate in every spin, but this one is timed well. My summer TBR is huge, and this will make choosing which classic to read first so much easier. I can’t wait to start digging into my personal reading/reading challenges again. Just a few more weeks!

4/22 Update: #19 has been spun! Looks like I’ll be reading The Woman in White!

The spin list:

  1. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  3. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  4. Troilus and Cressida by Shakespeare
  5. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
  6. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  7. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  8. Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning
  9. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Writings by Washington Irving
  10. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  11. Light in August by William Faulkner
  12. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (technically a re-read)
  13. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
  14. Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge
  15. The Mabinogion
  16. The Bostonians by Henry James
  17. Histories by Heroditus
  18. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  19. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  20. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

 

 

Adam Bede: Review

Adam Bede by George Eliot
4 stars

It is our habit to say that while the lower nature can never understand the higher, the higher nature commands a complete view of the lower. But I think the higher nature has to learn this comprehension, as we learn the art of vision, by a good deal of hard experience, often with bruises and gashes incurred in taking things up by the wrong end, and fancying our space wider than it is.

AdamBede1-420x620.pngThis story follows Adam Bede, a young carpenter who lives in rural northern England, and the people who form his community in this village where he lives. Adam is a diligent worker and a good friend, who often judges too harshly and responds to the faults in others with anger instead of mercy. As the story opens, he is working for a local business owner and is admired and respected by his community, but several circumstances in his life are preventing him from doing all he wishes to do. One of the things he wants to do is marry a girl named Hetty Sorrel, but he doesn’t feel like he has enough financial stability to do so. While Adam is working through his own life circumstances, Hetty meets and falls for Arthur Donnethorne, the young squire who is a friend of Adam’s. Conflict ensues.

This is not a story about a love triangle; Eliot is too complex for that, even in this, her first novel. Instead, this is ultimately a story about sin and sorrow. While a weaker work than Middlemarch, the things that I love about Eliot are still evident in Adam Bede. Her focus is always on character. What makes people tick? What are their flaws? How do those flaws impact their actions?

In Adam Bede Eliot is exploring the impact other people have on our lives. While in stories the main character tends to have to address problems that are due to their actions, Adam must work through problems that are caused by the actions of Arthur and Hetty. This is a less common kind of story, but a common human experience. If the people around you deeply wound you, how do you respond? And more importantly, how ought you respond? Adam’s initial responses are unhealthy (ahem, literal fistfight, actual hatred), but eventually, with the help of some friends, he shapes his heart towards forgiveness, and in doing so, helps Hetty and Arthur find repentance and forgiveness, too.

19426099176.jpgI continue to be amazed how well Eliot draws characters, how vivid and life-like they are. Even the minor characters, like Mr. Irwine or Bartle Massey, are so real. I do think the characters, generally, and Hetty, especially, aren’t as multi-dimensional as, for example, Rosamond Vincy or other figures later in Eliot’s career, but still excellently done. In addition, the plot was a little unevenly paced, and the action got rather dramatic at times. But as I want to emphasize, these are really only flaws in comparison to Middlemarch, which I think is one of the best English novels full stop, so they are minor flaws. As a first novel, especially, it’s marvelous. Eliot is a mature writer who rewards mature and attentive readers with an enormous feast of richness and truth.

As is happening more and more with classics, at first it took me a little bit to get into this book, and I read it casually around other things for a couple of weeks. I enjoyed it, but was okay with putting it down for a few days. And then I read the last 150 or 200 pages in one sitting. I kept telling myself “one more chapter” until I realized I was just going to finish the book. I think classics in general invite a longer settling in, they spend more time introducing and developing characters before diving into the plot. And the result, at least here, is that afore-mentioned richness.

Related to that reaction of mine, another aspect of the book I loved is that although we neither see or are told about some of the central actions in the book, Eliot manages to make us aware that they’re happening anyway, through small details that I think make those actions feel weightier (the little pink handkerchief — !!). Her choice to withhold details creates tension and a sense of dread in a very subtle and sophisticated way. There was a moment near the end where I actually gasped out loud, and then realized I’d been holding my breath, because the tension in that moment was so acute and so subtle. I thought I knew what was going to happen and had accepted it; turns out I hadn’t.

I identified a lot with Adam, being similarly good at doing the right thing, but sometimes struggling to be merciful when people don’t meet my own standards. The next time I read the book, I’ll be paying more careful attention to his development, because I know I’ll be able to learn a great deal from him. However, of all the major characters, it’s Hetty that I think about the most. I do think Eliot was right to name the book after Adam, because the book is ultimately about him, but Hetty plays a large role. Poor girl.

51UfiU57zXL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg(The next paragraphs flirt with some spoilers, so if you don’t want to know more, look away!). Eliot shows us that Hetty is a vain, selfish, and empty-headed young woman. She wants nothing more than to be admired and liked, but doesn’t actually like or care about other people very much. She literally spends hours in her bedroom looking at herself in the mirror and daydreaming about getting pretty dresses and basking in the attention she gets from men.

This shallowness of character means she can’t really imagine how others think or feel, or see the world in a perspective outside of her own very limited one. And she can’t think complexly enough to anticipate potential consequences of her actions, or to recognize social realities that might deflate her daydreams. She really doesn’t see why Arthur will never consider her seriously as a potential wife. I compared her to Rosamond Vincy earlier because I think she is an early version of the kind of character Rosamond is, too. But while Rosamond has some redeeming moments, Hetty really doesn’t, although she does have a moment of repentance. Her poor character leads her to make bad decisions (it’s true her experience is not only her fault, but she’s certainly not a victim, and definitely makes things worse than they could have been), and then to not know how to deal with the consequences, leading to even worse decisions. While there were plenty of people from whom she could have sought help, and indeed who invite her to come to them if she needs help, her desire to be liked is stronger than anything, and so she is too proud and not imaginative enough to see these avenues that are open to her. And this leads to some pretty tragic consequences.

One of the reasons I wanted to think about Hetty more in this space is because I think her plot and character arc are one of those circumstances where it is all too easy to read with modern eyes and miss what the author is trying to say. Would things have been different for Hetty now? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that she would have had a better story; she would simply have made different kinds of mistakes, because it’s her character that Eliot is concerned with.

What Hetty has to learn is that her actions have consequences, not only for her, but for those around her who care about her: her cousin, Dinah, her aunt and uncle, and Adam, who loves her. This ripple effect also offers Adam the opportunity to grow; he realizes he didn’t know Hetty like he thought, and must work through his anger towards forgiveness. I think the fact that Adam has enough depth to recognize his flaws and choose to do the difficult personal work required to become a better person (and it is genuinely difficult – he suffers) is what makes him the protagonist of the story.

I definitely recommend reading Adam Bede, although I think it wouldn’t be the best introduction to Eliot — start with Middlemarch or Silas Marner. In addition to being a little weak (for Eliot), the country folks speak in a dialect that takes a little getting used to.

But as a discussion of sin, sorrow, anger and forgiveness, I think it’s a marvelous book and one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

As a side note, while searching for the images I’ve included here, I stumbled on a very excellent analysis and discussion of Adam Bede. I recommend reading it.