Tuesday, January 25, 2011

382. The Master – Colm Toibin

History: This book was published in 2004.
Plot: The novel begins with the humiliating failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895. James visits Ireland (an excuse for a lightning sketch of late 19th-century British colonialism, a subject closer to Tóibín's heart than James's), reacts with horror to the trial of Oscar Wilde (its scandal carefully set against his own intense discretion), acquires Lamb House in Rye and has reluctantly to sack a pair of grotesquely incompetent servants (the novel's best-sustained comic episode). He returns to Italy after a five-year absence, falls in love with the handsome and egotistical young sculptor Hendrik Andersen, and makes his peace with his brother. He writes, among other things, The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, The Awkward Age, "The Figure in the Carpet" and The Turn of the Screw, and starts planning The Ambassadors.
The book recreates only four years of James's life and only a few of his relationships, beginning, and ending with his brother's stay, with his wife and daughter, in Rye, in 1899. In these four years, the author writes a portrait of Henry James as a public figure who feels humiliated in an unexpected way, not just in the public side of his writing career but also in a more personal way, in which all the precautions he had taken to carry on with his life as he wished it to be, come to a crisis.
We enter into James's extraordinary family life - his father's alarming search for spiritual perfection, his mother's protective care of her writer son, the illness and death of his caustic, brilliant, neurotic invalid sister Alice, his conflict with his overbearing older brother William. Henry's evasion of the American Civil War, dramatically contrasted with his brother Wilkie's injuries; his love for his dazzling and doomed young cousin Minnie Temple; his close, edgy friendship with the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, her suicide in Venice and James's clearing-out of her possessions.
Henry resolves to reduce his public life by buying a house in Rye and there he nurses his loneliness and is haunted by all the consequences his need to maintain a protected space in which to live and write has generated all through his life. He's in his fifties and he's very much aware of how he had to refuse the company of his ill sister, whom he adored, at some point, how he chose to stay away from his country and his family, how he felt to turn cold with a writer friend he had been very close to previously and becomes a bachelor with an unresolved sexuality, certainly close to homosexuality, living in a house with servants in the South of England and a daily visit of the stenographer to whom he dictates. Appalled by the Oscar Wilde case, the portrait of Henry is not one of someone who just represses his self and his sexuality but of something more complex and ambiguous, of somebody who copes with life exerting a control on how much he'd reveal, even to himself, and choosing to be a writer in order to achieve precisely that.
Review: At the start of the 1900s, Henry James produced three masterpieces in as many years: first The Wings of the Dove, then The Ambassadors, and next The Golden Bowl. The Master introduces James six years prior, in January 1895, on the eve of his great public failure, as "Guy Domville" premieres on the London stage and wholly, horribly, flops. "Nothing had prepared him for this," Tóibín writes. "For his friends, this night would be entered into the annals of the unmentionable, pages in which he had so studiously avoided having his name appear." Nothing could be worse than that, to be exposed. But they are mixed with scenes which Tóibín has invented or extrapolated from the fact. There is a suggestive argument with Edmund Gosse, soon to write Father and Son, over whether there can be repressed memories, locked in the unconscious. ("No", Henry said sternly, "nothing is locked within") There is an unspoken attraction to a manservant in Ireland. There is a sexy (but not sexual) night in bed, at Minnie Temple's house, with Oliver Wendell Holmes. There is the amazing scene (based on fact) of James disposing of Constance Fenimore Woolson's dresses, after her death, by going out on the Venetian lagoon with her faithful gondolier and dropping them into the water, where they balloon back like dark, giant, mushrooming ghosts.
At first I thought that the main point of the novel would be to expose the secrets of James's repressed homosexuality; and certainly Tóibín makes the most of James's long-ago feelings for the homosexual Paul Joukowsky and his mixed attraction and repulsion for Andersen. But the plot that emerges from The Master's crafty structure is more interesting, and less obvious, than the outing of Henry James. It becomes apparent that James, at least in this version, has repeatedly resisted demands, controlled intimacy and avoided commitment in order to do his writing. Tóibín's James is haunted by self-reproaches: did he abandon Minnie and prefer her "dead rather than alive", so that he could turn her into art? Did he fake his "wound" at the time of the war? Every human contact he makes must be measured against the imperative of "this quiet and strange treachery" towards the world, so that he can be "not available": "alone in his room with the night coming down... and pen and paper and the knowledge that the door would remain shut until the morning came and he would not be disturbed".
How the books grow out of the life is the novel's deepest story. The phrase "I can imagine" crops up several times in the imaginary conversations. It irritated me, as it seemed so anomalous - but it's a clue to what Tóibín is doing. He shows us James's capacity for imagining his way in minute detail into, say, the state of mind of an abandoned child, his superhuman attention to "figures seen from a window or a doorway, a small gesture standing for a much larger relationship, something hidden suddenly revealed". Tóibín too "can imagine" his way into Henry James with exceptional attention - and, particularly, into the process of turning his own "personal store" of memories and relationships into fiction. Sometimes he allows himself simplistic biographical links, but at its best, the novel deals carefully and subtly with the complicated, mysterious process of how a novelist - above all, this master-novelist - goes about "masking and unmasking himself". What James mostly makes his books out of, Tóibín thinks, are his ghosts: the lost, the past, the dead. The book is suffused with longing and bereavement and the power of writing to cure and console. This emphasis means that we miss out, to a great extent, on the funny, worldly, satirical Henry James, whose novels can be read as comedies. But what we are left with is a powerful note of sadness, as the great novelist, working alone in Lamb House, hears the sound "like a vague cry in the distance, of his own great solitude, and his memory working like grief, the past coming to him with its arm outstretched looking for comfort".
Opening Line: “Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead – familiar faces and the others, half-forgotten ones, fleetingly summoned up.”
Closing Line: “He walked up and down the stairs, going into the rooms as though they too, in how they yielded to him, belonged to an unrecoverable past and would join the room with the tassle tablecloths and the screens and the shadowed corners, and all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held.”
Quotes: "His attempt to be earnest, hesitant and polite had not fooled women like her who watched his full mouth and the glance of his eyes and instantly understood it all."
Rating: Very Good.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

381. Daniel Deronda - George Elliot

History: This book was first published in 1876. It was the last novel she completed and the only one set in the contemporary Victorian society of her day. Its mixture of social satire and moral searching, along with a sympathetic rendering of Jewish proto-Zionist and Kaballistic ideas has made it a controversial final statement of one of the greatest of Victorian novelists.
Eliot used the story of Moses as part of her inspiration for Deronda. As Moses was a Jew brought up as an Egyptian who ultimately led his people to the Promised Land, so Deronda is a Jew brought up as an Englishman who ends the novel with a plan to do the same. Deronda's name presumably indicates that his ancestors lived in the Spanish city of Ronda, prior to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
As a psychological study of an immature egoist struggling to achieve greater understanding of herself and others through suffering, Gwendolen is for many Eliot's crowning achievement as a novelist and the real core of the book. F R Leavis famously felt that the novel would have benefited from the complete removal of the Jewish section and the renaming of it as Gwendolen Harleth. It is true that though the novel is named after Deronda, a greater proportion is devoted to Gwendolen than to Deronda himself.
In its day the Jewish section of the novel was met with bafflement by the non-Jewish reading public, which made up the majority of Eliot's readership. Looking at depictions of Jews in other novels such as Dickens' Oliver Twist and Trollope's The Way We Live Now, it is easy to understand why. In spite of having had a Jewish-born Prime Minister for many years (Benjamin Disraeli was baptised when he was thirteen years old), Britain's view of the Jews at the time comprised derision, revulsion and prejudice, opinions expressed by several of the British characters in one scene. The fact that Eliot makes a point of comparing the world of the Jews favourably with the society of the British could only have served to heighten the hostile reaction to this element of the book. Some readers felt that the Jewish sections of the book were its weakest, and there were even efforts to rewrite the novel by excising those portions, leaving only the sections pertaining to Gwendolen and deleting references to Daniel's Jewish roots.
Conversely, some Hebrew translations made by East European Zionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries concentrated on the Jewish-Zionist parts and excised or greatly abbreviated the other portions.
Needless to say, in the Jewish community of Eliot's time, Daniel Deronda was greeted with enormous warmth. It was the first time the community felt it had been represented fairly by a major British novelist.
Plot: The novel begins in mid-story in late August 1865 with the meeting of Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth in Leubronn, Germany. Daniel Deronda is a young man who has a tendency to help others at a cost to himself. At the start of the novel, he has failed to win a scholarship at Cambridge because of his focus on helping a friend, has been travelling abroad, and has just started studying law. He often wonders about his birth and whether or not he is a gentleman. As he moves more and more among the world-within-a-world of the Jews of the novel he begins to identify with their cause in direct proportion to the unfolding revelations of his ancestry.
Gwendolen Harleth is the beautiful, spoiled daughter of a widowed mother. Much courted by men, she is flirtatious but ultimately self-involved.
Daniel finds himself attracted to Gwendolen, whom he sees lose all her winnings in a game of roulette. The next day, Gwendolen receives a letter from her mother telling her that the family is financially ruined and asking her to go home. In despair at losing all her money, Gwendolen decides to pawn a necklace and debates gambling again in order to make her fortune. In a fateful moment, however, her necklace is returned to her by a porter, and she realises that Daniel saw her pawn the necklace and redeemed it for her. From this point, the plot breaks off into two separate flashbacks, one which gives us the history of Gwendolen Harleth and one of Daniel Deronda.
In October 1864, soon after the death of Gwendolen's stepfather, Gwendolen and her family move to a new neighbourhood. It is here that she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man, who proposes marriage shortly after their first meeting. At first open to his advances, she eventually flees (to the German town in which she meets Deronda) upon discovering that he has several children with his mistress, Lydia Glasher. This portion of the novel sets Gwendolen up as a haughty, selfish, yet affectionate daughter, admired for her beauty but suspected by many in society because of her satirical observations and somewhat manipulative behaviour. She is also prone to fits of terror that shake her otherwise calm and controlling exterior.
Deronda has been raised by a wealthy gentleman, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Deronda's relationship to Sir Hugo is ambiguous and it is widely believed, even by Deronda, that he is Sir Hugo's illegitimate son, though no one is certain. Deronda is an intelligent, light-hearted and compassionate young man who cannot quite decide what to do with his life, and this is a sore point between him and Sir Hugo, who wants him to go into politics. One day in late July 1864, as he is boating on the Thames, Deronda rescues a young Jewish woman, Mirah Lapidoth, from attempting to drown herself. He takes her to the home of friends of his, and it is discovered that Mirah is a singer. She has come to London to search for her mother and brother after running away from her father, who kidnapped her when she was a child and forced her into an acting troupe. She ran away from him finally because she feared he was planning to sell her into an immoral relationship with a friend of his. Moved by her tale, Deronda undertakes to help her look for her mother (who turns out to have died years earlier) and brother and through this, he is introduced to London's Jewish community. Mirah and Daniel grow closer and Daniel, anxious about his growing affection for her, leaves for a short time to join Sir Hugo in Leubronn, where he and Gwendolen first meet.
From here, the story picks up in "real time," and Gwendolen returns from Germany in early September 1865 because her family has lost its fortune in an economic downturn. Gwendolen, having an antipathy to marriage, the only respectable way in which a woman could achieve financial security, attempts to avoid working as a governess by pursuing a career in singing or on the stage, but a prominent musician tells her she does not have the talent. In order to save herself and her family from relative poverty, she marries the wealthy Grandcourt, whom she believes she can manipulate to maintain her freedom to do what she likes, despite having promised Mrs. Glasher she would not marry him and fearing that it is a mistake.
Deronda continues his search for Mirah's family, meets a consumptive visionary named Mordecai. Mordecai passionately proclaims his wish that the Jewish people retain their national identity and one day be restored to their Promised Land. Because he is dying, he wants Daniel to become his intellectual heir and continue to pursue his dream and be an advocate for the Jewish people. In spite of being strongly drawn to Mordecai, Deronda hesitates to commit himself to a cause that seems to have no connection to his own identity. Deronda's desire to embrace Mordecai's vision becomes stronger when they discover Mordecai is the brother Mirah has known by the name Ezra and has been seeking. Still, Deronda is not a Jew and cannot reconcile this fact with his affection and respect for Mordecai/Ezra, which would be necessary for him to pursue a life of Jewish advocacy.
Gwendolen, meanwhile, has been emotionally crushed by her cold, self-centered, and manipulative husband. She is consumed with guilt for the disinheriting of Lydia Glasher's children by marrying their father. On Gwendolen's wedding day, Mrs. Glasher cursed her and told her she would suffer for her treachery, which only exacerbates Gwendolen's feelings of dread and terror. During this time, Gwendolen and Deronda meet regularly, and Gwendolen pours out her troubles to him whenever they meet. During a trip to Italy, Grandcourt is knocked from his boat into the water and drowns. Gwendolen, who was present, is consumed with guilt because she had long wished he would die, although after some hesitation she jumped into the Mediterranean in a futile attempt to save him. Deronda, also in Italy to meet his Jewish mother (whose identity Sir Hugo has finally revealed), comforts Gwendolen and advises her. In love with Deronda, Gwendolen hopes for a future with him, but he urges her onto a path of righteousness in which she will help others in order to alleviate her suffering.
Deronda meets his mother and learns that he is the legitimate son of a famous opera singer with whom Sir Hugo was once in love. She tells him that she was the daughter of a physician and strictly pious Jew who forced her to marry her cousin whom she did not love, despite her resentment of the rigid piety of her childhood. Daniel was the only child of that union, and on her husband's death, she asked the devoted Sir Hugo to raise her son as an English gentleman, never to know that he is Jewish. Upon learning of his true origins, Deronda finally feels comfortable with his love for Mirah, and on his return to England in October 1866, he tells Mirah of his love for her. Daniel commits himself to be Ezra/Mordecai's disciple, and shortly after Deronda's marriage, Ezra/Mordecai dies with Daniel and Mirah at his side. Before Daniel marries Mirah, he goes to Gwendolen to tell her about his origins, his decision to go to "the East" (per Ezra/Mordecai's wish), and his betrothal to Mirah. Gwendolen is devastated by the news, but it becomes a turning point in her life, inspiring her to finally say, "I shall live." She sends him a letter on his wedding day, telling him not to think of her with sadness but to know that she will be a better person for having known him. The newly-weds then set off for "the East" to investigate what they can do to restore the Jewish nation.
Review: Daniel Deronda is composed of two interwoven stories and presents two worlds which are never completely reconciled. Indeed, the separation of the two and the eventual parting of one from the other is one of the novel's major themes. There is the fashionable, familiar, upper-class English world of Gwendolen Harleth and the less familiar society-within-a-society inhabited by the Jews, most importantly Mordecai (or Ezra) Cohen and his sister, Mirah. Living between these two worlds is Daniel, who gradually identifies more and more with the Jewish side as he comes to understand the mystery of his birth and develops his relationships with Mordecai and Mirah. In the novel, the Jewish characters' spirituality, moral coherence and sense of community are contrasted favourably with the materialist, philistine, and largely corrupt society of England. The inference seems to be that the Jews' moral values are lacking in the wider British society that surrounds them.
Daniel is ideological, helpful, and wise. In order to give substance to his character, Eliot had to give him a worthy purpose. However, Eliot had become interested in Jewish culture through her acquaintance with Jewish mystic, lecturer and proto-Zionist Immanuel Oscar Menahem Deutsch. Part of the inspiration for the novel was her desire to correct English ignorance and prejudice against Jews. Mordecai's story, so easily forgotten beside the glitter and passions of Gwendolen's, nonetheless finishes the novel. Partly based on Deutsch, Mordecai's political and spiritual ideas are among the core messages of the book, just as Felix Holt's politics are the core intellectual element of his novel. In a key scene in Daniel Deronda, Deronda follows Mordecai to a tavern where the latter meets with other penniless philosophers to exchange ideas. There follows a lengthy speech in which Mordecai outlines his vision of a homeland for the Jews where, he hopes, they will be able to take their place among the nations of the world for the general good.
Why was Eliot so interested in Jewish life? She was brought up an Anglican, but from an early age became interested in the history of religions, and in her twenties fell in with a group of freethinkers in political and religious matters. The differentiation or mingling together of human races was also a subject of interest to her in the wake of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
In the 1860s Eliot met Emanuel Deutsch, a Jewish scholar and early Zionist. Deronda's character of Mordecai - the Jewish scholar and mystic - seems to have been partly based on him. Eliot wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe after the publication of Deronda that "towards the Hebrews we western people who have been reared in Christianity have a peculiar debt and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment". She remained interested in Judaism throughout her life, publishing an essay against antisemitism three years later.
What does Daniel Deronda show us about the place of Jews in Britain in the late 19th century? First, that they were unpopular, suffering from easy, casual prejudice, even during the premiership of the Jewish-born Benjamin Disraeli. Eliot is keen to show us what she considers the typical view of Jews - from the upper classes (who superciliously refer to Mirah as a "little Jewess"), to the middle classes (Mrs Meyrick instantly presumes Mirah might have "evil thoughts"), to the working classes (the man in the pub who asks, "[If] they're clever enough to beat half the world - why haven't they done it?")
But Eliot is not above prejudice towards a certain sort of Jew herself. She assumes the reader will not take to the Cohen family, headed by a shiny-faced pawnbroker, and even apologises in the last chapter for allowing them to attend a key wedding. Meanwhile, her portrayal of the innocent Mirah swings the other way, so saintly it has shades of the noble savage. She is so childlike that when she finally finds romance it feels almost unsavoury.
Yet in her portrayal of Mordecai, the visionary intellectual who entrances Daniel, Eliot creates a complex character with both sympathetic and unsympathetic sides and reveals a sometimes overwhelmingly detailed fascination with the minutiae of Judaism, its religious practices, culture and literature. The fact that Daniel becomes Mordecai's disciple and agrees to carry on his work to seek a homeland for the Jews after his death - an idea presumably as baffling to Eliot's readers as it is to most of the book's gentile characters - also shows a real commitment to the subject by the author.
For those today who find Zionism difficult to understand, Eliot's depiction of its origins is evocative and powerful. Mordecai both describes and embodies the wandering Jew, forever an alien in a foreign land, never at home, "a people who kept and enlarged their spiritual store at the very time when they were hunted with a hatred so fierce as the forest fires that chase the wild beast from his covert".
But neither Eliot nor Mordecai acknowledge that Palestine was already populated; as such Mordecai's optimistic vision of a future Israel as "a new Judea, poised between East and West - a covenant of reconciliation - a halting-place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East" cannot help but read as grimly ironic today.
Opening Line: “Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning.”
Closing Line: “But it was some hours before he had ceased to breathe, with Mirah's and Deronda's arms around him.”
Quotes: “Gossip is a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of of those who diffuse it: it proves nothing but the bad taste of the smoker.”
"There's no disappointment in memory, and one's exaggerations are always on the good side."
Rating: Excellent

Monday, January 10, 2011

380. Arrow of God – Chinua Achebe

History: Published in 1964, Arrow of God is the third novel in Chinua Achebe's trilogy that explores Nigeria's history through fiction. The first novel, Things Fall Apart, details the period leading up to "pacification," the moment when British colonizers violently took control of southern Nigeria. The second novel, No Longer At Ease, is set at the brink of Nigeria's independence, some 60+ years later. This second novel vividly demonstrates the moral destruction colonialism wreaked on Igbo society and culture. Arrow of God is set in the period between pacification and independence. The novel pits one man, the chief priest of the deity Ulu, against colonial administrators, Christian missionaries, and, ultimately, his own people. Ulu, the villages of Umuaro and Okperi, and the colonial officials are all fictional. But Nigeria in the 1920s was controlled by British Colonial authorities, indirect rule was tested as a governing strategy, and many of the Igbo people abandoned their traditional beliefs for Christianity. The novel is considered a work of African literary realism. The phrase "Arrow of God" is drawn from an Igbo proverb in which a person, or sometimes an event, is said to represent the will of God.[3] Arrow of God also concerns itself basically with the Acquiescence of Traditional African forms to Western Influence.
Plot: Arrow of God is set in rural Nigeria during the 1920s in a southern part of the country where the Igbo people reside. The novel begins with a war between two neighboring regions of rural Igboland: Umuaro and Okperi. Though we don't know the boundaries of Okperi, we do know that Umuaro is made up of six villages. These six villages are linked by their worship of a common god, Ulu.
The people of Umuaro start a war with Okperi over land they want to claim; they are encouraged to start the war by a wealthy man named Nwaka, who challenges Ulu. This war is launched against the advice of Ulu's chief priest, Ezeulu. The colonial administration steps in to stop the war and rules in favor of Okperi after discussing the matter with Ezeulu, the one man in Umuaro who tells the truth. Captain Winterbottom, a British colonial official who commands the local station, breaks and burns all the guns in Umuaro, becoming a legend. Meanwhile, the people of Umuaro become angry with Ezeulu because he didn't take their side.
Five years later, life in Umuaro has returned to normal. Sort of. Christian missionaries have made major inroads into society, establishing converts and trying to show that the old gods are ineffective. Ezeulu is sending his son Oduche to church, to be his eyes and ears, and to learn the ways of the white man. Animosity between Ezeulu and Nwaka and their respective villages has grown to the point called kill and take the head. In other words, things have gotten to the point where men in the two villages try to kill each other using poison. Nwaka is fortified and strengthened by his relationship with Ezidemili, the high priest of the god, Idemili. Though Idemili is a lesser god in comparison to Ulu, the competition between the two priests is dividing Umuaro, creating suspicion and ill will among brothers.
But the competition isn't limited to within the Igbo religion; the missionaries call the Chrisitan Igbo, including Oduche, to kill the sacred python. Oduche chickens out at the last minute, putting the snake in a box instead, but his family discovers the terrible deed when he's at church. Doing anything to the royal python is considered an abomination. The royal python belongs to the god Idemili, and as soon as the priest of Idemili hears about it, he sends a messenger to chide Ezeulu, and to ask what he intends to do to purify his house, (i.e., to make up for what his son tried to do). Ezeulu responds by telling Ezidemili to die (literally) and the matter rests there, uneasily.
The colonial administration has commissioned a new road to be built, connecting Okperi with Umuaro. They've run out of funds, but still need to complete the road, so Mr. Wright, the overseer, petitions to conscript labor. He receives permission and Umuaro is the unlucky recipient of the demand for free labor. One day, Ezeulu's son Obika is late getting to work. He had too much palm wine to drink the day before. But when Mr. Wright whips him, it stirs up the resentments of all the men. Why are they forced to work for free, when Okperi men are paid for their labor? What makes them different? Why should they be treated like this? Though they grumble among themselves, they are never able to come to a decision about what to do.
Because Ezeulu assumes that Obika has done something to deserve the whipping, he precipitates a crisis in his own household. Edogo, his oldest son, gets to thinking, and decides that the old man's propensity to choose favorites among his sons has created a problem. He believes that Ezeulu has tried to influence Ulu's decision about which son will be the next priest. By sending Oduche to learn the religion of the white man, Ezeulu has essentially taken Oduche out of the running. And Ezeulu has trained Nwafo in the ways of the priesthood, so he's clearly staking his claim on Nwafo as the one Ulu will choose. But Edogo begins to wonder what will happen if Ulu doesn't choose Nwafo, if he chooses Edogo or Obika. It will create conflict and division in the family and Edogo, as eldest son, will have to deal with it. He goes to Ezeulu's friend, Akuebue, and asks him to speak to Ezeulu.
Akuebue finds that Ezeulu is not receptive to a talk about the divisions within Umuaro, blaming the people of Umuaro for the white man's arrival. The people of Umuaro try to blame Ezeulu because he told the white man the truth when Winterbottom stepped in to stop the war between Okperi and Umuaro.
Ezeulu is also unreceptive to reports of divisions within his own household. He admits that he sacrificed Oduche, not so much to put him out of the running for the priesthood, but because he sees the threat to Umuaro and to the Igbo posed by Christianity. Such a situation requires the supreme sacrifice, that of a human being.
Meanwhile, Captain Winterbottom has been under another kind of stress. "Indirect rule" is the ideology that rules the day and he is under direct orders to find a chief for Umuaro. He decides that Ezeulu is just the man for the job, and sends a messenger to fetch Ezeulu. Ezeulu refuses to come, saying that the Priest of Ulu doesn't leave his hut, and dispatches the messenger back to Winterbottom with the message that if he wants to see Ezeulu, he'll have to come visit Ezeulu. Winterbottom issues an order for Ezeulu's arrest and sends two policemen to fetch him.
The next day, after consulting with the elders and men of title in Umuaro, Ezeulu decides to set out for Okperi, to find out what Winterbottom wanted. His heart is angry because Umuaro continues to blame him for the white man's presence, and because they don't show Ulu proper respect. His archenemy, Nwaka, continues to challenge Ulu and the people do nothing about it. The two policemen sent to arrest Ezeulu pass him on the way, but don't realize it until they reach his compound and learn that Ezeulu has gone to Okperi.
In Okperi, Winterbottom suddenly becomes ill. The African servants decide that Ezeulu must have a lot of power because Winterbottom is struck ill only after he issues the warrant for Ezeulu's arrest. So when Ezeulu arrives, the servants are afraid. They don't want to lock him up as ordered; instead, they pretend that the guardroom is a guest room and try to make him comfortable.
On this first night in Okperi, Ezeulu has a vision and realizes that his real battle is with his own people, not with the white man at all. In his vision, he sees Nwaka challenge Ulu, and the people spitting on him (Ezeulu), saying he is the priest of a dead god. He begins to see that the white man has been able to take advantage of Umuaro's division to sow further seeds of destruction. He hopes Winterbottom detains him for a long time, so he can better plan his revenge.
Ezeulu is detained for a couple of months. First, Clarke decides to teach him a lesson by making him wait. Then he offers Ezeulu the position of chief, but Ezeulu refuses. Angry, Clarke claps him in prison, and Winterbottom commends him, saying he should keep Ezeulu locked up until he learns to cooperate. But Clarke begins to suffer pangs of conscience, realizing that he doesn't have a legitimate reason to keep Ezeulu imprisoned. He's relieved when he hears from Winterbottom's superior advising against creating new Warrant Chiefs. This gives Clarke the excuse to let Ezeulu go.
Ezeulu returns home. Everybody is glad to see him again and Ezeulu realizes that his anger was directed not against his real neighbors but against an idea that they were mocking Ulu and disrespecting Ezeulu. Nevertheless, he lays low and sets his plan in action. When the time for announcing the Feast of the New Yam comes, he fails to announce it. His assistants come to ask if he's forgotten his duties. He gets mad and sends them away.
Next, the elders of the village come and ask, gingerly, why he hasn't announced the Feast of the New Yam. Ezeulu tells them that he has three sacred yams left. He can't announce the Feast of the New Yam until he has finished all the sacred yams. He was unable to eat the sacred yams while imprisoned in Okperi, and now he has to follow the rules – one yam a month. The men are horrified. If they wait three months before they are allowed to harvest their crops, the crops will be ruined and the people of Umuaro will suffer widespread famine.
The elders tell Ezeulu that he should just quickly eat the yams and if there are any repercussions, they will ask Ulu to let it descend on their heads, not Ezeulu's. But Ezeulu is steadfast. Such a thing is unheard of. And anyway, no matter what their intentions are, as chief priest he will be the one to suffer the consequences of breaking the rules. He can't do it. They must wait.
The Christian catechist, Mr. Goodcountry, recognizes this as an opportunity. He says that anybody who wants to offer their yams to the Christian god instead, so they can harvest their yams, will receive the protection of the Christian god as well. As people begin to suffer, they do just that. Meanwhile, Obika – who is sick – is asked to help in the funeral preparations for Amalu, one of the elders in the village who had died some months back. He helps with one of the funeral rituals by carrying the mask for Ogbazulobodo, the night spirit, and chasing after day. He runs so hard and so fast, however, that he drops dead when he returns.
The people say it is a judgment against Ezeulu. His god, Ulu, has spoken: Ezeulu has become stubborn and proud, and the god has not sided with his priest against the people. But it was a bad time to humiliate the priest. It allowed the people to take "liberties." That year, many of the yams were harvested in the name of the Christian god; and the crops reaped afterwards were also reaped in the name of the Christian god. As Arrow of God comes to a close, it seems that worship of the Christian god has replaced that of Ulu.
Review: Arrow of God is notable for a wealth of minor characters, including Ezeulu's wives, sons, and daughters and his rivals and friends, and for its ethnographic richness, describing the ordinary life, religious rituals, and social stresses of an Ibo village; it is the story of a community as well as of an individual. Achebe inserts us into this world naturally and without any direct explanation, however, to the extent that it is the British characters who seem strange and out of place. Nor is there an idealisation of traditional life, or any simplistic anti-colonialism.
Opening Line: “This was the third nightfall since he began to look for signs of the new moon.”
Closing Line: “Thereafter any yam that was harvested in the man’s fields was harvested in the name of the son.”
Quotes: “Who am I to carry this fire on my bare head? A man who knows that his anus is small does not swallow an udala seed.”
Rating: Good. I did have trouble keeping up with the names of the secondary characters. I like his style of writing.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

379. The Last Chronicle of Barset – Anthony Trollope

History: This book is the final novel in Anthony Trollope's series known as the "Chronicles of Barsetshire", first published in 1867. Trollope did not have to look very far for a real-life model upon whom to base his portrait: noble-minded, religious, arrogantly revelling in his poverty in a half-mad way, Josiah Crawley was partly based on the author's own father.
Plot: The Rev. Josiah Crawley, impoverished curate of Hogglestock, has been accused of stealing a check for 20 pounds. Confused about how the check came into his possession, he has no defense to offer. Mrs. Proudie, shrewish tyrant over her husband, the Bishop, is determined to hound Crawley out of his meager position. Also caught up in the problem is young Henry Grantly, son of the aristocratic Archdeacon, who is in love with the beautiful and intelligent daughter of the accused man--a match that his father bitterly opposes.
The novel is notable for the non-resolution of a plot continued from the previous novel in the series, The Small House at Allington, involving Lily Dale and Johnny Eames. Johnny continues be hopelessly in love with Lily, and proposes to her numerous times, and she continually says no that she is still in love with Adolphus Crosbie, who betrayed her in the previous novel.
Another storyline features the courtship of the Rev. Mr Crawley's daughter, Grace, and Major Henry Grantly, son of the wealthy Archdeacon Grantly. The Archdeacon, although allowing that Grace is a lady, doesn't think her of high enough rank or wealth for his widowed son; his position is strengthened by the Reverend Mr Crawley's apparent crime. Almost broken by poverty and trouble, the Reverend Mr Crawley hardly knows himself if he is guilty or not; fortunately, the mystery is resolved, a distant relative did send Mr. Crawley a cheque, and the real thief was determined.
Through death or marriage, this final volume manages to tie up more than one thread from the beginning of the series. One subplot deals with the death of Mrs. Proudie, the virago wife of the Bishop of Barchester, and his subsequent grief and collapse. Mrs. Proudie, upon her arrival in Barchester in Barchester Towers, had increased the tribulations of the gentle Mr. Harding, title character of The Warden; he dies of a peaceful old age, mourned by his family and the old men he loved and looked after as Warden.
Review: “The Last Chronicle of Barset” is one of the great novels in the English language, and yet it is not widely read. The reason for this is obvious: it is the LAST novel in the Barsetshire series of novels, and a relatively small number make it all the way through the previous five volumes. This is a shame, because while all the previous novels are quite excellent and thoroughly entertaining, the final novel in the series is a work of an entirely different level of magnitude. This novel is also one of the darkest that Trollope wrote.”
Opening Line: “I can never bring myself to believe it, John,' said Mary Walker the pretty daughter of Mr George Walker, attorney of Silverbridge.”
Closing Line: “That I have been induced to wander among them too long by my love for old friendships, and by the sweetness of old faces, is a fault for which I may perhaps be more readily forgiven, when I repeat, with solemnity of assurance, that promise made in my title, that this shall be the last chronicle of Barset.”
Quotes: “She understood how much louder a cock can crow in his own farmyard than elsewhere . . .”
Rating: Good.