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.

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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