Monday, March 17, 2014

The Lost World, by Arthur Conan Doyle

"Did you think you could match cunning with me -- you with your walnut of a brain?"
 -- Professor Challenger, from The Lost World

I've been a bit bogged down in work and a few deadline projects lately, which has left me less time than I'd like. Anne Fuller's The Convent has been on my front burner, and that slowed me down too. At firft, its typography flowed me down fomewhat. It feemed quite diftracting. Now I'm fort of ufed to it, but the terrible quality of the "reprint" pages -- fome of the copies totally flanting and fome almoft completely illegible, has grown increafingly irritating. It's ftill a good ftory, and I plan to finish, but I really felt the need for a good, clean text, so I've taken a brief hiatus from the adventures of Miss Sophia Nelson. 

I turned to the straightforward adventure plot of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, which has given me less to sink my teeth into, review-wise, but it's been a revitalizing change of pace.

A young reporter, hoping to prove himself to a lady who's clearly not that into him, goes to interview one Professor Challenger, an eccentric scientist notorious for his violent temper, which is often provoked by the disbelief in his story about a journey to an isolated land he believes is full of surviving prehistoric creatures.

A near-riot at a scientific lecture ends with a plan to send another expedition, led by Challenger and his biggest skeptic, along with the reporter (our narrator, conveniently enough) and Lord John Roxton, a level-headed adventurer and big-game hunter. The men struggle through the jungle, and do indeed discover a nearly-inaccessible plateau that's home to all sorts of dinosaurs. Not to mention a whole society of "Missing Link" ape-men at war with an Indian tribe who got stranded there in bygone days, leading to a priceless commentary by stuffy anatomy expert Professor Summerlee: "I assure you that I little thought when I left my professorial chair in London that it was for the purpose of heading a raid of savages upon a colony of anthropoid apes." (p. 200)

Along the way, there is much lovely, lengthy (and I daresay wildly inaccurate) description of South American flora, and vividly imaginative descriptions of fantastic fauna.

While I never thought Doyle's Sherlock Holmes came off as misogynistic as his reputation sometimes makes out, there's an odd plot thread here about the fickleness of women, and I can't tell whether it's an attempt to throw in a little traditional human interest, or a jab he couldn't pass up. Either way, I enjoy a lot of books while still remembering they were written by people of their time, and I don't suppose Conan Doyle is any different.

Speaking of Holmes, he's actually a much subtler character than this book's Challenger; even that name seems awfully allegorically on-the-nose. His physique and personality are a bit over the top, but it's fun to hear him roaring insults at his intellectual inferiors -- which is, everybody. And his physical similarity to the "missing link" ape-men the expedition discovers is quite humorous, and also points out that greater and lesser intelligences exist despite commonality in anatomical make-up -- thus casually passing over any Victorian angst over the idea of being descended from apes and cave-men.

Obviously, Jurassic Park owes a debt to this novel (as seen in the title of Crichton's sequel), and I wonder what terms I'd have to Google to find out if Doyle gave us pop culture's first pterodactyl in a modern city (a la Torchwood and The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec). He certainly makes his pterodactyls into terrifying alien creatures, reminding us more of the sheer primitive strangeness of his survivals than a lot of modern special effects do. I'm definitely on board for reading more Challenger stories down the line.

Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Lost World. London: Vintage, 2011.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

"Time takes the ugliness and horror out of death and turns it into beauty."

 -- from I Capture the Castle, p. 102

 I borrowed a copy of this back when I was attending a Post-Jane Austen Book Club (started out as Austen, but then branched off when we ran out of books). I'd thought I would miss the meeting, so I didn't read it; when my plans changed, I showed up for the discussion after all, and afterwards, a friend lent me her edition. So, spoilers be damned, I already knew much of what happened, plot-wise, like the incident with the fur coat, and the locking-in-the-tower incident. Not that there's all that much plot to contend with.

This was a strange read for me, because while much of the prose is beautifully written, and there are descriptive passages I just wanted to roll around in, in the end, I found it kind of a slog. I've been on a kick with books in which love and marriage are major subjects, but in this one, once the romantic element kicked in, I felt like Mr. Beebe in A Room With a View, of whom that novel's heroine said "He will never forgive us -- I mean, he will never be interested in us again."

The novel is written in the form of a journal by teenaged Cassandra, who lives an isolated existed with her family in an ancient, rundown castle: a setting which allows for much romanticism, but punctured by the realities of its cold and dank, as well as the family's poverty.

Their fortunes look up when, in a self-consciously Austen-like turn, the local estate gets a new heir from America, who will be their new landlord. Simon Cotton and his brother, Neil, are more than willing to indulge them with free hams, and take notice of the spirited Cassandra and her beautiful older sister Rose, leading to those romantic shenanigans which somehow made it all less interesting to me.
As with Boswell's Journal, I was continually struck with the dramatically different way of life on display from what we could expect in modern times. For example, the idea of being three years behind on the rent, without anyone caring. But that must have been a pretty specialized situation even at that time, and is probably more a byproduct of the father's reputation as an eccentric genius than its setting in the 1930s (but published in 1949).

Unfortunately, that whole plot thread just irritated me. I lack patience with the idea of the coddled artiste. If the narrator's father can't write another book, maybe he could do something else to contribute in any way to his household, rather than forcing his cold and hungry children to take care of him: not only figuring out sources of income, but then doing all the practical work. Maybe the father could have helped boil the water for the freaking tea, instead of expecting them all to be his servants? When he says "God knows what's to become of you girls" (p. 52), I bristled, thinking: yeah, it's not like you have any responsibility whatsoever for your children.

Some of his shiftlessness rubs off some on Rose as well, who's rightfully angry with her father's behavior, and is willing to throw herself at a man she doesn't love to marry her way out of poverty. But at the same time, she makes sure she "isn't good at things like gardening and housework," (p. 27) leaving as much of the drudgery as possible to her sister, along with one unpaid servant, and Topaz, her long-suffering stepmother.

Topaz, a beautiful and once-famous artists' model, is a complete enabler of her husband, but balances that out as a character with her humorous pretentiousness, and a willingness to darn and scrub. It's always delightful when she's on the novel's stage. One of the funnier moments occurs right off the bat, when Rose declares that "for some time now, I've been considering selling myself. If necessary, I shall go on the streets," and Topaz replies that "you're the last girl to lead a hard-working immoral life." (p. 12, 13)

For almost everyone, though, the main draw of the novel is in Cassandra's narrative voice. She's full of introspection and wryly amusing observations -- for a random example, here she is on the joy of basking in the bathtub, which her father has compared to drinking: "The last stage of a bath, when the water is cooling, and there is nothing to look forward to, can be pretty disillusioning. I expect alcohol works much the same way. This time I spent my basking in thinking about the family and it is a tribute to hot water that I could think about them and still bask." (p. 61)

Author Dodie Smith, a playwright now most famous for having written The Hundred and One Dalmations, depicts the interior life and feelings of a girl just growing out of childish things and into adult life with great insight. Along the way, the reader can, well, bask in vivid pictures of life in the crumbling castle, the nearby village, and the beautiful countryside. Since I enjoyed the style of the book so much, I really wish the main story hadn't left me feeling kind of "meh."

Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. London: Red Fox, 2003.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Boswell's London Journal 1762 -1763, by James Boswell

"I think there is a blossom about me of something more distinguished than the generality of mankind. But I am much afraid that this blossom will never swell into fruit, but will be nipped and destroyed by many a blighting heat and chilling frost."
-- James Boswell (p. 161)

In one of Arthur Machen's beautiful memoirs, which I don't seem to have handy, he describes leaving rural Wales to move to London in the 1880s. He visits famous taverns and coffeehouses he's read about,  where he half-expects to meet the literary idols of the day and fall into their company ... then realizes what he's looking for is the society from a hundred years earlier.

Which makes me think of my experience in the late 1980s, lonely and broke, like Machen, reading at a Hardee's off an Interstate overpass because there was nowhere else I could afford to go, with absolutely no idea how to meet another writer, much less be mentored by one.

This passage doesn't seem to be in Machen's Far Off Things, the only one of the memoirs currently available through Project Gutenberg. However, he does talk there about how "I am often made quite envious when I see and hear how a young man, fresh on the town, drops so easily, so pleasantly, so delightfully into a quite distinguished place in literature before he is twenty-five. He enters the world of letters as a perfectly well-bred man enters a room full of a great and distinguished company, knowing exactly what to say, and how to say it; everyone is charmed to see him; he is at home at once; and almost a classic in a year or two."

Machen did, over time, join some London clubs, make good friends, and become a noted literary host in his own right. But the life he imagined as a young man, and the example of a literary career he described, was clearly much like the one led in reality by Samuel Johnson's future biographer, James Boswell, in 1762 - 1763 (and doesn't that sound like a school year?)

In rebellion against his father, a Scottish lord pressuring him into a legal career, the 22-year-old Boswell went to London in search of a commission in the Army (there's a lengthy introduction, but thank goodness to Jane Austen for giving me at least a vague background on the need to buy your way in). He's made friends with a few people who have connections, and while he waits for that to get off the ground, he goes to the theater, publishes a pamphlet lampooning a playwright, gets gonorrhea, and dines out like crazy.

Again, thinking of the young writer moving to a strange city in contemporary times: on almost every page, someone is inviting him for dinner, or for breakfast, or tea -- sometimes extending open invitations to drop in any time. Wouldn't THAT have been handy? When I start to feel mildly envious, I have to remember that, as a woman, the same doors wouldn't have been open in the same way, even in similar circumstances, and besides, odds are I wouldn't have been the one getting the dinner, but the one cleaning up afterwards.

Anyway, I wouldn't have wanted the gonorrhea.

It must be said: it amazed me how often, and frankly, he talks about prostitutes, and sex in general. Maybe it was reading two novels in a row about women in the 1860s, putting me in a relatively prim mindset, but a hundred years earlier, things seemed a lot more relaxed. Even new to high society, Boswell is pretty sure of his chances with even some of the noblewomen in his circle, although a seduction there is more of a long-term strategy, compared to picking up a strange woman in the park and taking her to a random alleyway. One of his later notes to self hilariously vows "Swear to have no more rogering before you leave England except Mrs. ____ in chambers ..." (p. 304)

According to the introductory material in the book, while this journal was a key literary preparation for Boswell to the writing of his magnus opus on Samuel Johnson, the racier material helped keep it out of print until 1950, as it was first squirreled away, and then forgotten, by his embarrassed family.

The book has a surprising element of narrative for reports of daily life, as Boswell gives up the idea of joining the Guards and eventually meets Samuel Johnson, which will change the course of his life for good. Along the way, although naturally "addicted to low jocularity" (p. 321), he attempts to remake himself in a mode that will be taken more seriously, and relates a lot of other great period detail that makes me want to get in a time machine and go to one of those dinners. For example, he buys "a genteel violet-coloured frock suit" (p. 53), which sounds awesome.

Department of Nihil Novum (nothing new under the sun):

He quotes a friend musing that "nothing will make me either happy or the reverse above a day. It is hard ... that we tire of everything" (p. 74), proving once again that times change but human nature doesn't. 

"The pleasure of gratifying whim is very great." (p. 80)

"Mrs. Sheridan said that this age was (as Henry Fielding styled it) a trifling age." (p. 91)

"I have thought a good deal upon education. I see so many difficulties that I despair of a good method. I take this state of being to be a jest." (p. 103)

He gets advice about friends who are fun but untrustworthy: "go to his house often, just as you would to a play." (p. 148)

"I returned ... in that sort of humour that made me consider writing as a dangerous thing and wish that I had never wrote and I think I would not write again." (p. 151)

That one's certainly eternal!

In the Preface, a scholar is quoted saying that Boswell's "chosen lifework" was "defeating the forces of oblivion." (p. xviii). If nothing else, that makes him a Friend to the Skull and Book Library.

Boswell, James. Boswell's London Journal, 1762 - 1763. Second Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

It Does Not Die, by Maitreyi Devi

"Life is beautiful; so is my sorrow." (p. 130, It Does Not Die)

Mircea Eliade's novel Bengal Nights was written with some degree of distance from its events, long enough for the narrator to revisit journals "written with the very blood from my veins," only to find them embarrassingly "cold and banal." (Bengal Nights, p. 150). But it still reads very much as a cri de coeur from a young man with a freshly-broken heart.

In contrast, the perspective of It Does Not Die, the book written by Maitreyi Devi in response to it (published in 1974, and translated by her into English), is more reflective, with memories of a long-ago love coming back to a mature person, who's had a full life and a happy marriage to a different man. As such, its subject is more Devi's whole life, including philosophy, her poetry, and her upbringing in a then-modern family that was breaking with convention, but not enough, than it is her ill-fated first romance.

When she's visited by a student of "Mircea Euclid," she's spent the years thinking of him as a coward: "If he really was so much in love, why did he run away at one snubbing from my father? Had he no duty towards me? Have you ever known of such cowardice?" (p. 14) He didn't listen to her about the obstacles in their way, and then, when faced with them, he left, never responding to her letters "He should be contacting me and sorting it out -- instead he runs off to the Himalayas! Fat lot of good will come of it!" (p. 130)

Then, of course, she feels slandered by the sexual material in his novel, saying "I am ready to accept the truth, but why should I accept the burden of a lie?" (p. 42) Euclid's student says "he took shelter in the world of fantasy" (p. 14), which is no excuse,  but Devi gets the last word in a confrontation scene when her former lover can't bring himself to look at her. "Why do you speak of putting me beyond time and space? Have I become a ghost? ... I belong to this real world. I am the Amrita of flesh and blood standing in your study -- this is the truth ... Fantasy is beautiful and truth is more beautiful, but half-truth is terrible ... I was no enigma. The mystery is your creation." (p. 253, 255)

I'm reminded of Kate Winslet's speech in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: "Too many guys think I'm a concept, or I complete them, or I'm gonna make them alive. But I'm just a fucked-up girl who's lookin' for my own peace of mind."

Apart from sex, the narrator (and it's hard not to assume Devi by association) is clearly stung that people think of her as a tragic teenage Juliet, who life was "spoilt" by her father's prejudice. "I was astonished ... Who can spoil my life? My life is rich." (p. 14) She admits her life would have been different if she and her first love had been able to stay together, and the memory still has the power to move her, but she isn't defined by any experience she's moved on from.

As in Eliade's book, Devi's emotional reactions and conflicts are vividly described: "To whom was I praying? Only to myself. Oh, save me, save me from myself! Yet I did not want to run away." (p. 65) And: "I know what he wants -- the curtain is moving slowly and I am getting a glimpse of of the unknown mysterious world ... I am certain there is no sin in this. If there was, I would have surely known." (p. 66)

Later, she adds, "My body is so frail -- I have no power to exert my will -- the perfume of his hair has filled my breath ... I also want him -- if he again draws me to him, I certainly will yield." (p. 94) Her awareness of the passage of time is memorably poignant as well: "Who am I? I am also the same me. Indestructible is her sixteen-year old mind. You could seek her even now." (p. 252)

The novel contains an interesting thread about everyday life in India during the time of Gandhi, with the characters reading about events in the newspaper, but not being really involved in it. "What a myth we had created -- that the whole nation rose against the British." (p. 33) And I was amused by her complete obliviousness to the British: "We are not even aware of their presence in the country." (p. 87)

Indian literary icon Rabindranath Tagore, a mentor to Devi in real life, casts a long shadow over both books; in both of them, it's clear that the Eliade character is jealous of him, and thinks she must have romantic feelings for the older man. She shows some irritation that even the man she loves has regressive views on women: he thinks her parents wouldn't allow them to spend time together unless they were willing for them to hook up, and she fumes "to allow two people to catalogue together (in her father's library) is not to permit their betrothal; what was wrong in letting me mix with him?" (p. 84) Even though in case something romantic does develop, I still sympathize!

To finish where we started in Bengal Nights, with Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, this book is more clearly related to the film than is Eliade's. The incident with the peppers takes place on pages 101 - 102, although burning oneself with them is treated more seriously. It also contains a version of what will become a major part of the film: the husband who helps reunite his unwilling wife with her true love appears in a story Amrita's husband tells her (p. 170), which makes her understand that "if his friend was like this, certainly he also would be the same. No need to go into the past any more. I will never be able to hurt my husband." (p. 171)

Here's a musical clip of dramatic stuff that is totally not in the novel, but emotionally has the same effect.

Devi, Maitreyi. It Does Not Die: A Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Bengal Nights, by Mircea Eliade

"The sin was not in allowing our bodies to explore more and more of each other but in putting a limit on our physical love." -- Mircea Eliade, from Bengal Nights

You never know how one thing will lead to another. There was some chit-chat on Facebook about the movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (usually called Straight from the Heart in the US) -- much of it unhappy with the depiction of gender roles. Which I said just highlighted how shallow I really am, since my main opinion is that it's star Ajay Devgan at his yummiest. In the course of that, someone mentioned that the story was based on a real-life experience of anthropologist Mircea Eliade, famous for bringing shamanism to the attention of the Western world. He had lived with an Indian family as a young man, and he and the daughter had fallen in love, which ended about as well as the romance does in the film.

The best part of this information: he and the girl, respected Bengali poet Maitreyi Devi, eventually wrote his-and-hers roman-a-clefs about their love affair, Bengal Nights and It Does Not Die, which have been published in matching volumes by the University of Chicago Press.

Interestingly, in each book, the author changes his or own name, but gives the love object the name of the real person. So in Mircea's book, the lovers are Alain and Maitreyi; in Maitreyi's, they're Mircea and Amrita.

Devi's novel was written in direct response to Eliade's, in a mode of setting the record straight, and a mood of deep offense that in his fictionalized version, she was sneaking down to his room for a full-on sexual relationship. If it hadn't been so clear that the novel was based on real-life events, down to using her real name, none of this would be so problematic, but it is, and it is.

Which is very unfortunate, because as a novel depicting the contradictions of first love, and the devastating effect of first heartbreak, it's really good. A character in It Does Not Die will say "His suffering, his agony fall through that book like droplets of blood" (p. 13), and that's an apt description.

Bengal Nights (originally published in French, 1950), begins in 1929, when the narrator, a young European engineer, gets taken under the wing of his Indian boss, who invites him to live in his house, to help him "learn to love India." (p. 21) He's treated like a member of the family, and has a great deal of freedom to associate with Maitreyi, already an accomplished poet with a "rebelliously expressive" face. (p. 53). The two grow close, with a whole series of teasings, arguments, and misunderstandings between them before their attraction is openly addressed. Then, for a time, they revel in their secret relationship, until a chance mishap exposes them. (How that plays out, by the way, is very different from the film).

In the beginning, I was put off by the narrator's blithe arrogance and assumption of superiority, and he says some awful things, for example, about how Maitreyi's skin color is "unfeminine" (p. 2). He admits that "for a long time, I was to flatter myself by thinking of our relationship as that of civilized man and barbarian." (p. 32) However, he is contrasted from the start with the more open racism of the Anglo-Indians he parties with. He isn't alone in his ignorance, and his initial callowness is that of someone who's going to have to learn better.

Eventually, in an emotional moment of "heat and sincerity," he will proclaim "the white world is a dead world. I have finished with it," (p. 103) and ultimately, "The youth ... who had arrived in India believing he was bringing civilization with him, had long since died. All that seemed useless now, illusory and useless." (p. 158)

But let's get to those "droplets of blood." Here's a few examples:

"I had suddenly woken up alone in a cemetery, with no one to hear my woes or comfort me. I had been broken into a thousand pieces, my body nothing but a gaping wound, my soul destroyed." (p. 135)

"The apparent reality of my body, stretched out on the bed, the cigarettes I was smoking, seemed to me absurd -- because I was going to die, because I had to die." (p. 140)

"I could not accept that I was no different from the wretched thousands who love and who forget." (p. 170)

After their inevitable separation, the ficional Alain accuses Maitreyi of "mythologizing" him: her letters call him her "air" and "flowers," and "my sun, my life!" (p. 160) Let's keep that in mind when we continue our discussion, only focused on Devi's book.

Until then, here's my review of the Hindi film Raat Aur Din, to explain why I cheered when the narrator mentions how we wants "to stop off at Firpo's on the way back and listen to its jazz with a cocktail in my hand." (p. 21)

 Eliade, Mircea. Bengal Nights: A Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Book Lottery

I'm going to try this exercise from the Classics Club -- they call it a Spin.  You make a list of 20 books from what you're planning to read, and then they assign a number, and you read that number and blog about it. "For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose)."
Somewhat trepidation:
1. Samuel Richardson: Pamela
2. James Thomson: The Speedy Extinction of Evil and Misery
3. Tales of the Elders of Ireland
4. Francis Godwin: The Man in the Moone
5. Thomas Browne: Pseudodoxia Epidemica

Looking forward to:
6. J.B. Priestley, Benighted
7. Anne Fuller: The Convent
8. George Gissing: New Grub Street
9. Eliza Haywood: The Adventures of Eovaii
10. Arthur Machen: The White People and Other Stories

Most outside my usual genres:
11. Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
12. Amos Tutuola: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
13. Herman Melville: Bartleby the Scrivener
14. Tang Xianxu: The Peony Pavilion
15. Petronius: The Satyricon

16. Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class
17. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
18.  Anna Murphy Jameson: Shakespeare's Heroines, or Characteristics of Women
19. Tacitus: Agricola and Germania
20. A. E. Waite: The Holy Grail

So I'll find out the lucky winner next Monday!

UPDATE: And the winner is: A. E. Waite, The Holy Grail. So I'd better get Interlibrary Loaning.

I am currently reading The Buccaneers, by Edith Wharton, at home, and I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, on my lunch breaks. With some breaks for Chester Hines.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

East Lynne, by Ellen Wood

"You will have the whole room gaping at you."
"I don't mind. I'll bring you word all about it. Let them gape."
-- Lord Mount Severn and his daughter, Lady Isabel, from East Lynne, p. 76

I'd heard of this book as the source of a popular, even archetypal Victorian stage melodrama, so it was one of the first "always wanted to read but never got around to it" selections for my Classics Club list. I swear to god, I had no idea that it features another nobleman dying deep in debt, leaving a daughter penniless and mostly alone in the world. Clearly this idea was really floating around in the late 19th-century zeitgeist. (See J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Willing to Die for the variation on the theme).

East Lynne (1860 - 1861) is a classic "triple-decker" novel, 624 pages of quick read, of the sort I'd describe as "hothouse" fiction: overflowing with repressed emotion. And while I would normally point out the "spoilers," the main one is the very first sentence in the blurb on the back of the Oxford University Press edition, so I'm throwing caution to the winds.

Like Wilkie Collins' Basil and Elizabeth Inchbald's A Simple Story, it takes us through a courtship and into the depths of the marriage that follows, exposing the damage that social conventions  and gender roles can do to a relationship. (Wood's reads as the most conservative of the lot ... but it can be hard to read the intention). The sinner is a sympathetic third-person-limited point-of-view character, more so AFTER her transgression than before.

The story kicks off when well-to-do lawyer Archibald Carlyle buys East Lynne, the impoverished Earl of Mount Severn's country estate (it's the only thing the Earl has that's not subject to the entail, always a point of interest to Downton Abbey fans). Along the way, Carlyle becomes acquainted and enamored with the Earl's beautiful, innocent daughter Isabel, completely oblivious to the fact that his lifelong friend, the also lovely Barbara Hare, is crazy in love with him. Barbara has bigger problems, though: her brother is a fugitive, the only suspect in the murder of a local flirt's father. (Significantly, the girl, Afy -- short for Aphrodite -- put on airs after being raised "above her station.") He swears to innocence, claiming the deed was done by a mysterious, aristocratic rival, whose description, the text makes clear early on, sounds just like the charismatic Captain Levinson who's been busy turning Isabel's head.

When her father dies, the creditors swarm, and poor Isabel is packed off to live with the new Earl, whose wife (who "carried her flirtations to the very verge of propriety," p. 112) bitterly resents having someone in the house who's the fairer in the land. Isabel's misery emboldens the smitten Carlyle to propose, throwing all their friends and relations into a tizzy: he's below her in status, and she's well below in material prosperity. Refreshingly, the bride-to-be tells her suitor upfront that "it has come upon me by surprise ... I like you very much; I esteem and respect you; but I do not yet love you," and his response is quite sensible: "I should wonder if you did." (p. 122)

But they make a go of it. Isabel has to endure the perpetual carping of her husband's miserly sister, who raised him like him a son, and occasional doubts about her husband's close friendship with Miss Hare, but otherwise they live a picture of wedded bliss, with three children, his thriving career, and general domestic harmony.

Eventually, of course, she's going to run into Captain Levinson again, but his presence isn't the primary cause of the turn in her life that's going to lead to tragedy and despair. I mean, their relationship is going to lead to all those things, but it's not like he just shows up one day and starts in on seducing her. She crosses paths with him because she's become obscurely unhappy in her seemingly perfect life, suffering what Betty Friedan dubbed "the problem that has no name," and has been sent off on an extended vacation from her family for her health. She'd been exhausted for no apparent reason, incapable of "rousing herself" (p. 197), which everyone thinks she could do if she'd just make an effort. Her attraction to Levinson isn't what causes her to feel dissatisfied with her life, but instead comes across as a symptom of her depression -- it perks her up to feel young and desired again, away from the sameness of her domestic life and the wearing sensation of never being good enough.

The story seems pretty conservative in many ways, with a woman being punished by fate for breaking the rules, but it does point out that those rules are often pretty impossible to follow. "Suffer in silence" isn't really much of an option. One social norm is made much of, that women are never supposed to declare their love, and even beyond that, "A woman may almost as well lose herself, as suffer herself to love unsought." (p. 181) So falling in love at all is disreputable from the start, unless it's in reaction to an honorable proposal. It was Carlyle himself, the love object, who had said the above, but the narrator will be more philosophical: "Love never yet came for the trying: it is a capricious passion, and generally comes without the knowledge and against the will." (p. 199)

Water-muddying also occurs in that Carlyle brought this up when trying to reassure his wife, to whom it's perfectly obvious that Barbara is in love with her husband. Nonetheless, he knows for a fact that Isabel is correct about that, following a dramatic outburst of candor on her rival's part. "There are moments in a woman's life when she is betrayed into forgetting the ordinary rules of conduct and propriety; when she is betrayed into making a scene ... A little self-control and Barbara would not have uttered words that must remain on her mind hereafter like an incubus, dyeing her cheeks red whenever she recalled them." (p. 163) She admits her love and expresses her pain at being thrown over for Lady Isabel, which leaves Carlyle "feeling extremely vexed and annoyed." (p. 164)

After this, Barbara, previously known as one who "displayed her own will" (p. 30), is softened and ennobled by her silent suffering, until she's finally deemed a fit wife for Carlyle after all. He tells his sister, "She has not angled after me: had she done so, she would probably never have been Mrs. Carlyle. Whatever passing fancy she may have entertained for me in earlier days, she has shown no symptoms of it of late years ... others have angled after me too palpably, but Barbara has not." (p. 373) So it's only because she repressed any sign of her love for him that he's willing to declare his love to her. Ohh-kay. That sounds like the basis for a healthy relationship.

Isabel, too, had in her innocence (and the unconscious confidence of being to the manor born) been prone to her own willfulness (as in "let them gape"). This tends to happen in contexts where we're bound to admire her for it, and empathize with her high spirits and good intentions. The narrator also reminds us that her upbringing has left her "little more than a child, and as a child she reasoned," (p. 120) making clear that she's not to blame for the naivete resulting from her sheltered state. But the novel still has to remind us that the world won't allow her to get away with that sort of thing.

At the same time, it's no surprise that the wicked seducer uses the rhetoric of uncontainable emotion: "There are moments when our dearest feelings break through the rules of life, and betray themselves, in spite of our sober judgment." (p. 216) This reminds me of Percy Shelley's romances, where the sinister libertines and the idealistic heroes use similar lines about how their love is beyond all social conventions -- so it's hard for a girl to know what to think.

In the end, the narrator's final judgment seems to be that "Let people talk as they will, it is impossible to drive out human passions from the human heart. You may suppress them, deaden them, keep them in subjection, but you cannot root them out." (p. 590)

The murder plot is mostly a time-filler; it's not boring, per se, but it wouldn't be enough in itself to make me want to read the book. The most important thing about it is as a pretext to throw Carlyle and Barbara together. It does allow for some humorous byways, though, like how Barbara's unjustly accused brother "was not over-burdened with what the world calls brains. Brains he certainly had, but they were not sharp ones." (p. 50) The girl he'd been courting is also delightfully described, as someone who's "gay and giddy and very pretty, and would do nothing all day but read books." (p. 156)

There's also an elderly relative who mocks her granddaughter for pretentiously dropping French phrases in conversation: "I'd rather stick a printed label on my forehead, for my part, 'I speak French,' and let the world know it that way." (p. 14) So it's not all seriousness about marriage, or over-the-top melodrama.

Wood, Ellen. East Lynne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

"Thou hast loosed an Act upon the world, and as a stone thrown into a pool so spread the consequences thou canst not tell how far." -- from Kim, p. 220

It didn't occur to me to read Kim, serialized between 1900 and 1901, until a friend mentioned she'd read it recently, and that it was full of spy stuff. I never knew that! Nor did I realize that Kim himself wasn't an Indian boy, but an Irish orphan living by his wits on the streets of Lahore, a concept that allows Rudyard Kipling to have it various different ways.

Having always associated Kipling with the Raj -- for which I have no sympathy -- I was relieved that I wouldn't need to dread any "white man's burden" creeping into the depiction of a native character, and from the start I liked that the chameleon-like Kim, nicknamed the "Friend to all the world," is willing and able to associate with whatever different races and social classes he comes across.

 The plot of Kim is very meandery, as the character wanders about and meets people. He becomes the disciple of a wandering Tibetan holy man on a pilgrimage (mostly because he wants to travel, and to help  protect the old guy, whom he likes, rather than from any spiritual motivation). Along the way, he delivers a coded message to a British spy, which introduces him to the "Great Game," when Britain and Russia vied for power in Afghanistan and other areas of Central Asia, largely through subterfuge. Having read some books about Indian religions written in the 19th century, I was amused that studiers of ethnography are seen in the book as a front for spies. (p. 183, for one example)  

Once he's identified as a white boy, Kim is forced into an English school, where he trains for the Secret Service, but never gives up his loyalty to the lama, who he still considers his "master."

The novel's focus seems to be in a yo-yo between the epic and the everyday. The story is largely about complex international intrigues hidden behind mundane activities, taking place partly among Indians and partly among the British, and as such, "the Game is so large that one sees but a little at a time." (p. 178). In addition, the story ranges all over India, with characters from varied ethnic and religious groups, with so much variety that it certainly seems like a purposeful narrative strategy. Perhaps as an attempt to express some massive experience of India at a particular historic juncture -- but filtered through the life of one small person, who revels in the pleasures of ordinary life, and who becomes involved in bigger things, without really understanding them. Despite the largeness of everything, the most important thing in the book is Kim, looking for his next meal.

When he becomes self-reflective at the end -- "I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?" (p. 294) -- the question of identity comes to the fore. Kipling has monkey-wrenched his picture of life in India by creating a character who's neither an Indian or a white man, or who's both at once, and who defines himself as an individual, with individual loyalties.

If he's an Indian street urchin or a Sahib makes a huge difference to the rest of the world: he'll be treated differently, and will have access to different aspects of life. But the difference between those two identities can't be essential and meaningful if nobody can even tell which one he is.  If Kim lives in Indian society one minute, thinking in Hindi, and is suddenly identified as white, and whisked off to white society, it doesn't change anything about who he was, or who he is, although it might change who he will become ... which is the concern of the story.

The character definitely has a Huck Finn quality to him, saying of his integration into English ways: "This clothing grows no easier to wear." (p. 127) He also has an odd similarity to Kipling's Mowgli, from The Jungle Book, in that they're both about children raised apart from the world they would normally have been born into -- alienating them from their "hereditary" place.

Are these very different depictions of a similar nature vs. nurture argument? Kipling was born in India, taken back to England as a child, and then returned to India as a teenager, and one wonders how he felt his own identity as an Anglo-Indian. If he felt a part of both worlds as a young man, he might have created the character of Kim as an expression of that viewpoint. On the other hand, if he felt like he belonged to neither world, then his motive might have been a kind of wish-fulfillment, since Kim mostly feels he belongs wherever he is -- but least of all in the repressive English school, although he learns to take advantage of it to get what he needs for the future -- not a bad strategy.

So hey, kids: even though it sucks, put in your time, and learn -- not for THEM, but for yourself.

If I didn't always really follow the plot (especially the military stuff), I'm not sure it was  either my fault or Kipling's. I'm disappointed in Wildside Press, who've done better, for the "editing" in this edition: sentences break off at random points, punctuation is all over the place, and there's a world of difference between "the talk" and "the talc." (p. 34) When I felt like I was missing something, I might have actually been missing something.

Also, the Hindi transliterations sometimes confused me, as when they referred to "buts." I was pretty far along before I realized: ohhh! Bhoots! (which are ghosts or spirits). I did recognize old friends like "chor" (thief) and "chup" (be quiet!), however, which made me feel vair smart. Similarly, the town referred to in the novel as Umballa is more generally transliterated as Ambala, so if you want to find out more about the British were up to there, that's helpful to know. I suspect I'm also more familiar with the Sikhs, Jains, Pashtuns and Afridi, among other who are mentioned without much, if any, explanation, so some readers might be wondering even more than I did what was going on.

It might not all be Wildside's fault, though: politics do tend to make my eyes glaze over, so I do have Peter Hopkirk's book The Great Game on my to-read list (hopefully in preparation for a re-read of Robert E. Howard's excellent El Borak stories). I aspire to revisit Kim at some point, in an edition with proper footnoting.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Doylestown, PA: Wildside Press.

In Praise of Scribes, by Johannes Trithemius

"When we consider the care the ancients lavished on the collecting of books, our own efforts appear insignificant and childish." --In Praise of Scribes, p. 45

I came to In Praise of Scribes, first published in 1492, directly from a mention in Bibliomania in the Middle Ages. When I started looking for a copy, it was well over a hundred dollars for the English translation (an excellent, readable one, thanks to Roland Behrendt) from 1974. If I'd listened to King Alfred and kept up with my bygone Latin, things would be different. Anyway, when I got a copy through Interlibrary Loan, I was surprised to discover it had been put out by neighbors, globally-speaking, at St. Joseph's, in Collegeville MN.

Since the whole point of Trithemius' book is to address issues of reproducing and preserving manuscripts, the fact that it came from their "Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Library" (now the Hill Museum Manuscript Library) seems only too appropriate.

The author was a German abbot most remembered today for his writings on coded messages and occult practices, but this book is a defense of copying manuscripts by hand, despite the technological advances of the printing press and the creation of books as we know them. Since I am now in praise of books in the face of new technologies, I'm struck with how much I agree, at heart, with so much of what he says -- especially considering the relative rarity of this book, which I couldn't afford to buy -- just like a book in the middle ages! I could only get the translation through cooperative library lending, something that wouldn't, at this point, be possible if it were only available electronically, and not in print form.

At the end of the day, Trithemius was the abbot of a monastery, so there's a strong presumption of Christianity underlying everything he writes. He assumes that scripture first, then the teachings of church fathers, are the primary subjects of publishing and of study, although he does state pretty strongly that the classical, even heathen, writers, and the sciences shouldn't be neglected. So he's specifically talking about religious knowledge when he says "quia lumen eius a tenebris nunquam extinguitur" (p. 38) -- that is, darkness will never extinguish its light -- but it's easy enough to apply the sentiment to secular learning.

One of his main arguments is that copying manuscripts benefits future generations, by preserving learning and wisdom, and at the same time gives the copyists something worthy to occupy their minds. "He who gives up copying because of the invention of printing is no genuine friend of holy Scripture. He sees only what is and contributes nothing to the edification of future generations." (p. 65) I keep thinking of that phrase, "he sees only what is," in relation to the fast-paced, novelty-focused public discourse of our own age: only looking at what is, what happens to be in front of us, instead of thinking of what will (or should) last.

The author is equally impassioned about the need to preserve books, and the love of them in general. A few key quotes on the first point:

"The printed book is made of paper and, like paper, will quickly disappear." (p. 35)

"All of you know the difference between a manuscript and a printed book. The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years. Yet, there are many who think they can entrust their works to paper. Only time will tell." (p. 63)

And bit and bytes? Who knows, but again, time will tell.

A favorite digression of mine addresses the monks who claim they are unable to copy, or who prefer outdoor work to study: "Why then did you come to the monastery if you are not willing and ready to live as a monk?" (p. 85). If someone had the nerve to say that to college students decades ago, we might not see so many students who think of themselves as entitled customers who think they paid for a class, so they should get a passing grade. (I know, that's a sweeping statement, but it certainly contains a grain of truth).

Just to prove that some things haven't changed in the past -- geez, over 500 years -- Trithemius says, "There are some who reproach lovers of books for having many, or even too many, books ... They say to those who obviously have an attachment to books: 'Why do you bury yourselves under such a multitude of books? You cannot possibly read what you have now.' " (p. 89) Bwa ha ha! His response is that if it's wrong have so many books, it's an impious criticism of the church fathers who WROTE so many books. He adds, "You add to your gold and silver, you enlarge your lands ..." (p, 91), and those are material things, which don't help anyone gain knowledge or wisdom, so what right does anyone have to criticize the lovers of books?

 With all the resources we have today, it's frustrating that this book is out of print, but I guess there wouldn't be much of a market for it. Which does all seem to kind of prove its whole point.

Johannes Trithemius, In Praise of Scribes: De Laude Scriptorum. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1974. Translated by Roland Behrendt, O.S.B. Edited with introduction by Klaus Arnold.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Willing to Die, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

"I have bought my knowledge dear. But truth is a priceless jewel. Would you part with it, fellow-mourner, and return to the simplicities and illusions of early days?" -- Miss Ethel Ware, Willing to Die (p. 4)

I've been trying to purchase a copy of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's final novel, Willing to Die (1872), for years, but when the boom in fly-by-night publishing houses printing public domain works started up, I hesitated.  At first, the only copies were overpriced hardcovers, for god-knows-what kind of editing or lack thereof. Then some complete unknown-quantity paperbacks. But since, clearly, no Oxford edition is forthcoming, I finally gambled on a CreateSpace copy (ISBN 978-1479173334), and was surprised to find not so much as a misplaced comma -- although it's so bare bones that there isn't even a cursory title page. The text literally starts on page 2.

His heroine may baldly state "I hate suspense" (p. 39), but Le Fanu is a master of it. In the early part of the novel, things happen that raise suspicions in the characters, but when nothing comes of it, they forget about it and go on with their lives, as people do. Nonetheless, the foreshadowing remains ... so as I was reading along with the ups and downs of events, no overt threat to anyone, I began to feel the press of tension and anxiety, just from waiting for the ax to inevitably fall.

Ethel starts the novel in a reminiscing mood, establishing her wry and candid tone: "I am not an interesting person by any means," and "If I cared twopence how I looked, I should probably look worse than I do." (p. 2) She was a sheltered girl, tucked away at a country manor by her high-living and increasingly impoverished parents. In the background is an assortment of men, nearly all of whom seem vaguely sinister: the intimidating neighboring lord, who hates Ethel's father; a mysterious old man who accosts her kindly young governess on a walk; a coarse "friend of the family" who gives the young ladies the willies; a neighboring priest, who may be in love with someone or just trying to convert them; and a handsome but mysterious fellow who gets wounded in a dual.

Most important of these characters is another young man, who survives a shipwreck and, recuperating on the estate, promptly falls in love with Ethel, even as he tries to keep anyone from finding out his name. Everyone warns her that there's something unsavory in his past, but, quite realistically, "the more Laura Grey warned me against this man, the more I became interested in him." (p. 96) His air of potential villainy doesn't render him any less attractive, and probably makes him more so.

The suspense-novel quality, with various players being set in place, though, doesn't end up seeming like the point. Life is lived, with sprinklings of moral homily and some good old-fashioned Gothic scenery: Le Fanu writes a dramatic thunderstorm with a firmly eerie hand. But (spoilers, sweetie!) the real meat of the drama comes from an unexpected direction.

Although Willing to Die is a well-written novel, and obviously a page-turner, at the rate I was turning pages, it was striking me as slighter, painted on a smaller canvas, than Le Fanu masterpieces like Uncle Silas and Wylder's Hand. But then, not long after Ethel goes to London and enters society, her father dies, and she and her mother are plunged into poverty.

"Young ladies, you live in a vague and pleasant dream. Gaslight in your hall and lobbies, wax lights, fires, decorous servants, flowers, spirited horses, millinery, soups and wines, are products of nature, and come of themselves. There is, nevertheless, such a thing as poverty, as there is such a thing as death ... When either lays its cold hands on your shoulder, and you look it in the face, you are as much appalled as if you had never heard its name before." (p. 214)

Later, "I saw young ladies get from a house opposite into a carriage, and drive away, as I once used to do. I hated them -- I hated every one who was as fortunate as I once was. I hated the houses on the other side with their well-lighted halls." (p. 224)

The loss of all their friends, hard work, and unceasing anxiety over money take their toll on Ethel, leading to a stark meditation when suicide occurs to her as an option: "There is nothing so startling as the first real allurement to this tremendous step. There remains a sense of an actual communication, at which mind and soul tremble ... Its insidiousness and power are felt on starting from the dream, and finding oneself, as I did, alone, with silence and darkness and frightful thoughts ... The temptation breaks from you like a murmur changed to a laugh, and leaves you horrified. I hated life; my energies were dead already. Why should I drag on, with broken heart, in solitude and degradation?" (p. 217)

The language blossoms into such vividness here that I almost feel like it's the reason the story was being told. As if the machinations of the suspense plot aren't motivated by formula, but by the fact that if this is going to be described, the character has to get into a position of loss and despair.

Just after this, there's an audacious and, to me, legitimately shocking plot twist, which still manages to seem plausible and motivated by the circumstances. (Again, spoilers). With her mother near death, and ill, almost delirious herself, Ethel comes across the man who may have manipulated her wealthy aunt into giving all her money to the church, rather than her family -- and her reaction is to stab him in the chest, and run.

Before long, the crisis has passed, and Ethel ends up in another secluded country estate, the ward of one of those early sinister figures -- actually a good-hearted man who loved her mother. When handsome Mr. Shipwreck, Richard Marston, turns up again, still in love with her, and apparently trying to atone for his previous crimes, it isn't long before they're secretly engaged: "I had passed under a sweet and subtle mania, and was no longer myself ... Wayward, and even wicked he might have been, but that I might hope was past." (p. 290)

By this point, we're no longer dealing with a Gothic-esque villain and his innocent victim: the two have become obvious foils, both of whom have sinned, and have to fear the consequences of previous actions.

Even though she has committed a violent crime, the benefit of first-person narrative, and Ethel's condition -- exhausted, heart-sick, and dangerously ill -- work to show what can happen to a decent person under duress. It's hard to judge her too harshly for her moment of madness. Of course, Marston also believes that his past crimes had extenuating circumstances as well, and doesn't think he's really to blame. His position early in the novel -- turning up in a place where people know his history, and are poised to condemn him for  it -- is a mirror of the danger Ethel will later find herself in, when she could presumably be arrested at any moment.

As Marston tells the priest, one of the people warning Ethel against him: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive, et caea- eh? I suspect you sometimes pray your paternoster?" (p. 241) In the end, Ethel is right that Marston's past doesn't mean he's beyond redemption, but redemption still depends on the willingness to learn from mistakes and, crucially, not continue doing wrong.

Random thoughts:

An earlier novel, Tenants of Malory, was set in the same fictional vicinity as the early section of Willing to Die, so now I'll have to read that one too.

There's a nice shout-out to "Schalken the Painter" on page 20: "The delicate features of the pale ecclesiastic, and Miss Grey's pretty and anxious face, were lighted, like a fine portrait of Schalken's, by the candle only."

Speaking of Miss Grey, the whole subplot about her mysterious past seems as if it was supposed to be a more important parallel storyline, that ended up getting forgotten about and then quickly wrapped up.

Early on, the penniless Marston is visited by Lemuel Blount, his uncle's scrupulously honest man of business.  He says, "I have made one great slip -- a crime, if you like --", with this response:

" 'Quite so, sir,' acquiesced Mr. Blount, with melancholy politeness." (p. 88) It would not be possible for me to see Jim Carter, Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson, any more strongly in the role!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans, by Jeanne deLavigne

"No sensible person believes in spooks." -- from "The Magic of Aga Bab"

"He can laugh at supernatural things all he wants, but they gits you, jest the same." -- from "The Fountain Woman"

It's hard to imagine there was ever a time when ghost tours didn't crowd the corners of the French Quarter, but according to Frank de Caro, the idea of New Orleans as a particularly haunted city was popularized when Ghost Stories was first published in 1946. Aided, of course, by the indispensable, WPA-produced collection, Gumbo Ya-Ya, with which it shares a few stories -- although deLavigne's are more lavish in detail, especially when describing scenery, fabrics, and, yummm, French pastries.

Plenty of people still believe in ghosts, to judge by all those paranormal tv shows, but spectral behavior seems to have changed over the years. Many of these stories feature past events and places superimposing themselves over the contemporary reality -- so the room is suddenly filled, say, with a dinner party from the past. Even assuming this is strictly fiction, the way the metaphors work is pretty interesting, with the past continuing to have a "real" presence in the present. Nobody needs to hunt it down with electronic EVP recorders, because it's right there, interacting, mostly fairly directly, with the people and places that currently exist.

It seems clear that the past doesn't have that kind of ability anymore. deLavigne could write with the assumption that her audience had a certain familiarity with old tales and local history, and the folklore she was relating (and/or embellishing) is all dated to the alleged time period of the original tales, from 1776 to 1927. New Orleans is a place that's hung onto its history better than most of America has, but still, I doubt we could assume most modern folks have that kind of easy knowledge with the lore and personalities of previous centuries.

Because of that, if reading the Life of King Alfred was a reminder of what we've gained from modern life, Ghost Stories is a poignant reminder of what's been lost. 1946 is pretty near to us in the scheme of history, and yet the world she describes has been almost completely swept away. The idea of "the old Creoles" still hearing the ghost of Pere Dagobert singing "between the church and the cemetery" (p. 15) seems incredibly bygone.

Fortunately, this new edition, from the Louisiana State University Press, may revive some popular interest in the area's history, since I was in two separate NO bookstores in November when customers came in and asked for it by name.

Readers should be aware that the book betrays its time period of origin in some uncomfortable particulars: casual ethnic slurs, racial dialects, and stereotypes, mainly of African-Americans, but Italians as well. (Just like the original Nancy Drew books, I couldn't help thinking).

Some of the tales are also surprisingly gruesome. A lot of ghost stories and thrillers gloss over the fact that bodies decompose messily, but deLavigne sure doesn't. "Golden Slippers," for example, could practically be an episode of Tales from the Crypt, and there are plenty of ghost sightings accompanied by horrible stenches (in "The Twin Green Spirits," a bystander actually throws up from the smell), along with corpses that wind up "bloated and disfigured and horrible." (p. 162) 

On of my personal favorite aspects of these stories is that they're often set at very specific locations, sometimes down to the street addresses. Some are vaguer than others, and I was frustrated every time a cemetery was mentioned but unnamed, although I assume that the "Old St. Louis Cemetery" is St. Louis No. 1. And speaking of which, I'm particularly thrilled that the forward gives us photos of the author's tomb, in the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery No. 1.

At any rate, I may use this as a guidebook to my own personal ghost tour on my next visit to New Orleans.

de Lavigne, Jeanne. Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans. Illustrations by Charles Richards; foreword by Frank de Caro. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Life of King Alfred, by Asser

The Life of King Alfred is way shorter than I realized: I polished it off on a lunch break, what with skipping over the 100+ pages of footnotes. Much like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this is not a book full of rich, picturesque detail, but there is entertainment value in Assser's terse recitation of the facts -- like when he refers to "the Viking army of hated memory" (p. 78). Or the digression about the wicked Queen Eadburh, finally caught in her "debauchery," who was eventually reduced to starvation and beggary, with only "a single slave boy" to her name (p. 72).

Some details of Alfred's life seem peculiar to the modern eye, such as his praying for illness to help keep him chaste, and the incapacitating, but mysterious, lifelong ailment that first strikes him on his wedding day. If Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley made that happen to a character, most people would be like, hmmmm. However, Alfred does manage to father five children, not counting "those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death" (p. 90).

The fellow lunch-goers in the break room at my place of employment asked what Alfred was king of, exactly, and in the early portion I was all, "Well, they're in Wessex ... and talking about the Saxons ... but then there's Mercia ..." Fortunately, I was able to cry out, "Bingo!" when "in the year of the Lord's Incarnation 866 ... all the Angles and Saxons -- those who had formerly been scattered everywhere and were not in captivity with the Vikings -- turned willingly to King Alfred and submitted themselves to his lordship" (p. 97, 98). I'd thought he was the Anglo-Saxon king, which confused me -- since I didn't realize they weren't Anglo-Saxons yet until he came along. Impressive, considering it's always easier to divide people than it is to unite them.

Of course, the main thing that brought me to Alfred, and made him my first official Classics Club review, was his reputation as the king who promoted learning and literacy so much to the British. I appreciate his Preface to Gregory's "Pastoral Care," where he theorizes that the learned men of the past hadn't translated books into their own languages because "they did not think ... that learning would decay like this" (p. 125), to the point where educated people wouldn't be able to read them in Latin. Yup, education was already going downhill circa 890. 

In Alfred's time, "Alas, he could not satisfy his craving for what he desired most, namely the liberal arts" (p. 75). While I'm sometimes frustrated with the lack of respect for the humanities and the liberal arts in our profit-motive world, it's good to remember how much better we still have it. Our battles aren't more uphill than his, and what are the distractions of modern life compared with those of real live Vikings burning our cities down? I wonder what King Alfred would have given to acquire my library ...even if he couldn't make head or tail of all my Doctor Who episode guides.

Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. London: Penguin, 1983.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Classics Club

I've decided to join the Classics Club, which is a good reason to read some of the many books I've bought, many of which I've started, then gotten distracted and never finished, through no fault of their own (that I'm aware of). Plus a few this gives me an excuse to pick up.

My goal is to finish them by December 31, 2018. I'd say it would easily go much faster, but it depends on how distracted I continue to get, so I'm playing it safe.

Postscript: I have changed this list many times, which I feel guilty about, even though it's perfectly fair according to the rules. I had barely begun when fascinating classics began throwing themselves at me, and I could neither pass them up, nor resist reviewing them. There are so many amazing books! Rest assured that what I've bumped off the original list is now hovering on the follow-up list, just waiting for me to finish this one.

My List:
  1.  Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri: The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition 
  2. Grant Allen: The Type-Writer Girl
  3. Asser: Life of King Alfred 
  4. William Baldwin: Beware the Cat (etext link
  5. Honore Balzac: Lost Illusions
  6. James Boswell: Boswell's London Journal, 1762-1763
  7. Hall Caine: The Manxman
  8.  Ernest Cline: Ready Player One
  9. Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Coleridge's Notebooks: a Selection  
  10. Jeanne Delavigne: Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans 
  11. Maitreya Devi: It Does Not Die  
  12. Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son 
  13. Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist
  14. John Donne: Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions 
  15. Arthur Conan Doyle: The Lost World 
  16. Lord Dunsany: The Curse of the Wise Woman
  17. Mircea Eliade: Bengali Nights 
  18. Henry Fielding: Shamela 
  19. Masanobu Fukuoka: The One-Straw Revolution
  20. Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford
  21. George Gissing: New Grub Street 
  22. Francis Godwin: The Man in the Moone 
  23. Eliza Haywood: Adventures of Eovaii 
  24. Eliza Haywood: Anti-Pamela
  25. Frank Herbert: Dune  
  26. Yoshido Kenko: Essays in Idleness
  27. Frances Parkinson Keyes: Crescent Carnival 
  28. Rudyard Kipling: Kim 
  29. Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird 
  30. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise 
  31. J. Sheridan Le Fanu: The Cock and Anchor 
  32. J. Sheridan Le Fanu: Willing to Die 
  33. Gaston Leroux: The Phantom of the Opera
  34. Arthur Machen and A.E. Waite: The House of the Hidden Light
  35. Delarivier Manley: The New Atalantis 
  36. Kay Nielsen: East of the Sun and West of the Moon   
  37. Florence Nightingale: Her Diary and "Visions"
  38. L'Abbe du Prat: Venus in the Cloisters
  39. J.B. Priestley, Benighted 
  40. Pu Songling: Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
  41. Samuel Richardson: Pamela 
  42. Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton: Who Would Have Thought It?
  43. Charlotte Smith: Celestina 
  44. Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle 
  45. Snorri Sturluson: The Prose Edda
  46. Johannes Trithemius: In Praise of Scribes 
  47. Anthony Trollope: Can You Forgive Her?
  48. Edith Wharton: The Buccaneers 
  49. Ellen Wood: East Lynne 
  50. Emile Zola: The Ladies' Paradise

Intro to Bibliomania

"I am one of those who love to seek knowledge in the black lettered folio, and luxuriate in exploring the membraneous volumes of a monastic age -- who love to wander in quiet though among the ruined relics of other days, and delight to glean wisdom and content from the antiquities of a peaceful village sanctuary, and whose very soul is on fire when in thc midst of a library, rich with the literature of old."

-- F. Somner Merryweather, from his "Preface" to Bibliomania in the Middle Ages: or, Sketches of bookworms, collectors, Bible students, scribes, and illuminators from the Anglo Saxon and Norman Periods, to the introduction of printing into England