Wednesday, November 30, 2011

455. Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

History:  First published in 1996, the novel is written in a poetic style with persistent layers of metaphor, often called forth via Athos Roussos. Roussos' paleobotanical research involves peeling back physical layers of archaeological strata as well as temporal layers of change and decay. The novel explores themes of trauma, grief, loss, and memory, as well as discovery both personal and scientific.
Anne Michaels, an accomplished poet, has already published two collections of poetry in her native Canada.
Plot: In the first part of the book, Jacob Beaer is a 13 year old child of a Jewish family living in Poland. His house is stormed by Nazis; he escapes the fate of his parents and his sister, Bella, by hiding behind the wallpaper in a cabinet. He hides in the forest, burying himself up to the neck in soil. After some time, he runs into an archaeologist, Athos, working on Biskupin. Athos secretly takes him to Zakynthos in Greece. Athos is also a geologist, and is fascinated with ancient wood and stones. Jakob learns Greek and English, but finds that learning new languages erases his memory of the past. After the war, Athos and Jakob move to Toronto, where after several years Jakob meets Alexandra in a music library. Alex is a fast-paced, outspokenly philosophical master of wordplay. Jakob and Alex fall in love and marry, but the relationship fails because Alex expects Jakob to change too fast and abandon his past. Jakob dwells constantly on his memories of Bella, especially her piano-playing, and they end up divorcing. Jakob meets and marries Michaela, a much younger woman but one who seems to understand him, and with Michaela's help he is able to let go of Bella. Together they move to Greece into the former home of several generations of the Roussos family.
The second part of the book is told from the perspective of Ben, a Canadian professor of Jewish descent who was born in Canada to survivors of the Holocaust. In 1954 the family home in Weston, Ontario is destroyed by Hurricane Hazel. Ben becomes an expert on the history of weather, and marries a girl named Naomi. He is a big admirer of Jakob's poetry and respects the way he deals with the Holocaust, when Ben himself has trouble coping with the horrors his parents must have endured. At the end of the novel, Ben is sent to retrieve Jakob's journals from his home in Greece, where Ben spends hours swimming in Jakob's past.
Review: In order to appreciate this book you have to surrender to it and let its poetry wash over you. It takes some time to build up, but if you let it, it will move you with its very unique images. The structure is rather unusual: for instance, you might be given a description of the banks of a river in Canada, strange in that artifacts of daily living such as knifes and spoons and dishes are imbedded in its banks. Only later does the reader understand the significance of this description when he or she reads about the flood that almost killed one of the main characters.
The story that Fugitive Pieces sets out to tell is easy to turn into a summary. A prefatory note tells us that, just before his death, a poet called Jakob Beer had begun writing his memoirs. The reader supposes that what follows is what he has written. Here is his first-person account of how, as a seven-year-old Jewish child in Poland, he is concealed behind a wall when the Germans come for his family. His parents are killed, his sister, Bella, taken away. He hides in nearby forests and bogs, where he is found by a Greek archaeologist, Athos, who is excavating the ancient Polish city of Biskupin. Athos manages to smuggle him back to Greece, where he keeps him hidden until the end of the war.
This is what has happened, but it has to be inferred, pieced together, from Jakob's fragmented, imagistic recollection. Jakob is not remembering things for the reader's benefit, but for his own. So the novel's opening section, "The Drowned City", is the most indirect.
His narrative eventually takes us to the present tense, "where I now sit and write this, these many years later"; he is recalling events from childhood, half a century earlier. But it is not just the incomplete comprehension of a child that the narration mimics. It is also an appalled flinching from what happened.
Later, shards of knowledge about the history that has destroyed his family enter his narration. "The facts of the war began to reach us." Michaels cannily invents a narrator who has not seen the horrors that obsess him. He is a survivor who only retrospectively begins to understand what he has survived. Hidden in Athos's remote home, he has not even directly witnessed the Nazi occupation of Greece.
Athos tells him how the Jews of Crete have been murdered by the Germans, and for the child it is like an enactment. "As he spoke, the room filled with shouts. The water rose around us, bullets tearing the surface for those who took too long to drown. Then the peaceful blue sheen of the Aegean slipped shut again."
Narration supplies what the narrator has not experienced. The fate of his sister is unknown. Over the years Athos tries and fails to find some clue. Bella's end can only be imagined, and indeed he cannot stop imagining it, feeding his visions with the terrible data of history.
The story is clear enough, but the telling of the story - the narration - is not. The process of narration mimics the influence of the past, which returns in flashback or imagined episodes. Jakob's memoir spans his whole life, yet omits most of what we would expect in an autobiography. Everything seems to happen inside his head: as a child, he hears others speak, but hardly speaks himself. Later, his five-year marriage to Alex passes in a few pages, and only a few reported words pass between them. Drawn back to a past that he cannot look at directly, the events of his own life seem to be happening to another person.
Then, two thirds of the way through the novel, Jakob is replaced by a different narrator. Ben is a young academic, living in Toronto, whose parents are Holocaust survivors. He meets Jakob, now an admired poet, and becomes obsessed with his story. Ben's narrative is addressed to Jakob, whose memoirs he is trying to find.
When his account begins, Jakob is already dead, yet exerting his magnetic influence on his narration. Structurally, Ben's account finds itself rhyming with Jakob's: the titles of its sections have already been used in the earlier narrative. But then events in the new world are narratively bound to the old. Ben recalls how, during a flood in Toronto, the authorities hammer on the front door to warn his family to leave, but his parents hide, unable to escape their memories of such a summons years earlier.
Both the novel's narrators rummage in the past. After Athos's death, Jakob finds the carbons of all the letters that Athos has written in his efforts to find out about Bella. The documentary evidence of his persistence seems "painfully innocent".
Going through his parents' belongings after his father's death, Ben finds a photograph of them as a young couple. Taken in 1941, before they were forced into the ghetto, it reveals a secret they kept from him. Finally, by chance, Ben discovers the notebooks that Jakob has left. Without him, these particular "fugitive pieces" would have remained unread. He begins reading, and the very first sentence - "Time is a blind guide" - is also the first sentence of this novel. The second narrative has uncovered the first narrative. Michaels's carefully uncertain ending of her novel leaves you to wonder whether it can also escape from it.
Opening Line: “Time is a blind guide.”
Closing Line: “I see that I must give what I most need.”
Quotes: “...when we say we're looking for a spiritual adviser, we're really looking for someone to tell us what to do with our bodies. Decisions of the flesh. We forget to learn from pleasure as well as pain.”
“I'm naive enough to think that love is always good no matter how long ago, no matter the circumstances.”
  Rating:   Poetic , Not good reading.

454. Melmoth the Wanderer – Charles Robert Maturin

History: This book was published in 1820. Charles Robert Maturin was Oscar Wilde’s Great uncle. Oscar Wilde, during his travels after release from prison, called himself Sebastian Melmoth, deriving this pseudonym from the title character in his great-uncle's novel and from Saint Sebastian.
The novel was cited by Karl Edward Wagner as one of the 13 best supernatural horror novels, and by H. P. Lovecraft as "an enormous stride in the evolution of the horror-tale". The novel also offers social commentary on early 19th century England and, throughout the novel, denounces Roman Catholicism while expounding the virtues of Protestantism.
Plot: The central character, Melmoth, is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for 150 extra years of life; he spends that time searching for someone who will take over the pact for him. The novel actually takes place in the present, but this backstory is revealed through several nested stories-within-a-story that work backwards through time.
The story opens in 1816: John Melmoth, a student in Dublin, visits his dying uncle. He sees a portrait of his namesake dated '1646' and catches glimpse of 'the Traveller'. His uncle eventually dies, and at the funeral, Biddy Brannigan tells John the family story. A stranger called Stanton arrived looking for the Traveller, and left behind a manuscript. His uncle leave John a letter in which he directs John to read Stanton's manuscript, which narrates as follows:
Stanton's story opens in Spain in the 1670's. Stanton encounters the Traveller laughing at the sight of two lovers who have been blasted by lightning. An old Spanish woman tells him the story of the Cardoza wedding at which the Traveller was an uninvited guest. The bride died on her wedding night and the bridegroom went mad. Stanton pursues and finds the Traveller in a theatre in London. The Traveller tells him they will meet again. Stanton's obsession with the Traveller is judged madness and he is tricked into a madhouse. There, the Traveller appears and offers to free him if he .... but Stanton refuses. Somehow, Stanton does eventually escape and goes to look for him in Ireland, but never meets the Traveller again. Following his uncle's wish, John burns the portrait, but later that night dreams he is visited by his ancestor.
The following stormy night, John witnesses a shipwreck and sees the Traveller looking on laughing and saying 'Let them all perish!' John tries to approach him, but slips and falls into the sea. John recovers from near drowning, saved by a Spaniard, the sole survivor of the wreck. Alonzo Monçada begins to tell him his story, set in Spain.
He is confined unwillingly to a monastery by his family.His appeal to leave the monastery is rejected, his brother Juan sends messages saying he will help him escape.He attempts to escape with the help of a fellow monk, a parricide. The parricide monk tells his story. They escape, but it is a trap and Monçada's brother is killed. Monçada is held and examined in the prison of the Inquisition. He is visited in his cell by the Traveller, who says he will help him escape. A fire breaks out, the prison is evacuated and in the confusion Monçada escapes.
He finds his way to the house of a Jew, but officers of the Inquisition arrive searching for him. The Jew helps Monçada escape through a secret trapdoor into an underground passage. He finds himself in a secret chamber with a venerable Jewish scholar, Adonijah. The chamber is decorated with the skeletons of members of Adonijah's family.
Monçada is almost out of his mind with terror, but Adonijah gives him food and drink, and says he must transcribe a certain manuscript for him. This contains The Tale of the Indians: an island in the Indies which has been devastated and depopulated by a storm is said to be haunted by a white goddess. A pair of Indian lovers discover the white goddess on the island and worship her. (The story is announced as 'The Tale of the Indians', but at its conclusion this is altered to 'The Tale of the Indian'.)
The Tale of the Indians. Immalee, the name the natives have given to the 'white goddess', encounters the Traveller. He tells her he comes from 'the world that suffers', but she is immediately fascinated by him. Immalee is again visited by the Traveller who starts to try to destroy her innocence, showing her the shortcomings of various religions. Immalee decides she will be a Christian. The Traveller returns and shows Immalee the failings of human societies and human relationships. Immalee despairs of her love for him. She reiterates her love for him and begs him to stay with her and not to go back to his world of 'evil and sorrow', but he will not. During a great storm, the Traveller and Immalee reach a crisis in their relationship. She falls senseless to the ground and the Traveller departs. Three years later in Spain: a young woman faints at the sight of a stranger (Immalee and the Traveller). The long-lost Immalee, now Isidora, has been restored to her family in Madrid. Melmoth appears beneath her window and once more attempts to seduce her. Melmoth continues to appear beneath Isidora's window, but loses patience and renounces her. Isidora is sanguine, knowing Melmoth will not abandon her for long. Isidora's father writes to her mother revealing he has found a husband for his daughter: Isidora and Melmoth plan to elope. Isidora's father is visited by his daughter in a dream, asking him to save her. Isidora and Melmoth elope by night, and he leads her to a remote chapel where they are married by a mysterious hermit, whose hand was 'as cold as that of death' (in a later chapter it is revealed that the hermit was already dead).
Isidora's father, traveling home, catches a glimpse of the Traveller, and encounters a stranger at an inn who tells him 'The Tale of Guzman's Family'.
'The Tale of Guzman's Family'. Guzman. a wealthy Spanish merchant, has a younger sister who marries a poor German musician, Walberg. Guzman decides to make them his heirs and brings them and their children, and Walberg's parents back to Spain. The Walberg family have got used to living in style and comfort when Guzman dies. His Will leaves everything to the church. A friendly priest tries to help them but the case is thrown out of court. The family sinks into desperate poverty, the grandmother dies, the son sells his blood, the daughter almost becomes a prostitute. At last, almost insane, Walberg decides to end it by killing them all, and thinks he has, when news arrives that the true Will has been found and the family is saved. Isidora's father falls asleep and wakes to find the teller of the Tale replaced by the Traveller. The Traveller shows him the corpse of the story-teller.
Isidora's father continues his journey, but again encounters the Traveller who tells him 'The Lovers' Tale', about the three grandchildren of Sir Roger Mortimer: Margaret (Sir Roger's heir), Elinor and John. 'The Lovers' Tale' continued. Elinor and John fall in love, but John jilts her at the altar, and Elinor flees to Yorkshire. Elinor returns to live near Margaret and John, hoping to regain his affections, but he remains strangely aloof. Elinor sees the hopelessness of her situation and returns to Yorkshire. Margaret marries John. Margaret dies in childbirth and John's mother confesses she invented a story that Elinor and John are brother and sister. John becomes insane with grief, and Elinor takes care of him. Elinor is tempted by Melmoth the Traveller, but turns to a local clergyman for help. John dies, and soon after Elinor also.
Isidora's father complains about the length of the Tale. The Traveller then tells him the tale of Isidora and her father, urging him to save his daughter. But Isidora's father, strangely distracted, is called away on business to another part of Spain.
Isidora is discovered returned to her family, but she is secretly pregnant with Melmoth's child. She has a presentiment that she will not live, and gets Melmoth to promise the child will be brought up a Christian. Isidora's father returns home with the bridegroom. In the middle of the wedding celebrations Melmoth appears and tries to abduct Isidora. Her brother tries to intervene and is killed. Isidora falls senseless and Melmoth the Wanderer escapes. Isidora reveals she is married. She gives birth to a daughter. Isidora and her baby are taken away by the Inquisition.
Isidora is examined by the Inquisition. They cannot break her so threaten to take away her child. When they come for the child they find it is dead. Isidora, herself dying of grief, remembers her island paradise. She asks if 'he' will be in the heavenly paradise.
Monçada tells John that he will relate the story of Adonijah's family, but they are interrupted by the appearance of the Wanderer. He confesses to them his purpose on Earth, and that he has never been successful in tempting another into damnation. 'I have traversed the world in the search, and no one to gain that world, would lose his own soul!' The Wanderer sleeps and has a vision of his own damnation, and of the salvation of Stanton, Walberg, Elinor, Isidora and Monçada.
John and Monçada approach the Wanderer the next morning, but he asks them to leave him alone for his last few hours of mortal existence. They hear terrible noises coming from the room, but when they again enter, it is empty. They follow the Wanderer's tracks to the top of a cliff. They see his handkerchief on a crag below them, and, 'exchanging looks of silent and unutterable horror', return slowly home.
Review: One hundred years after Jonathan Swift, Maturin takes up his Irish predecessor's gift for harsh, even malevolent satire against any and all offenders - organized religion, government, lovers, warriors - even making broad, devastating comments on humanity in general. Maturin and his characters are quick to point out that this is not 'Radcliffe-romance' gothic, in the direct style of works like "The Mysteries of Udolpho". They are right. Rather than the seemingly landscape-obsessed, rationalistic Radcliffe, Maturin takes his direct gothic influences from the claustrophobic psychological terrors of Godwin's "Caleb Williams," Lewis' "The Monk," and M.W. Shelley's "Frankenstein."
Unlike "The Monk," however, Maturin's novel does not rely heavily on Lewis' supernatural machinery (ghosts, demons, bleeding nuns, etc.). Instead, he offers several apparently unconnected stories that concentrate on families in desperate straits and individuals in extreme crises, pushing the limits of man's inhumanity to man. The connecting element, the wild card with the wild eyes, that pops up just when the characters most/least need him, is Melmoth the Wanderer.
"Melmoth" also draws heavily from Cervantes' "Don Quixote," which provides a great point of comparison for the main character. Where Don Quixote was a wandering knight, pledged to help the helpless, Melmoth is a wandering agent of evil, whose mission is to prey on the helpless. Melmoth has 150 years to tempt the indigent and desperate into selling their souls for wealth, power, or simple relief, and trading places with him.
Again looking backward to "Quixote" and forward to Stoker's "Dracula," "Melmoth" is also heavily concerned with it's own construction as a text. The various stories are pieced together by eyewitnesses, interviewers, and ancient manuscripts, often at several removes from their originals. There is even one gentleman in the novel who is collecting material to write a book about Melmoth the Wanderer.
Opening Line: “In the autumn of 1816, John Melmoth, a student in Trinity College, Dublin, quitted it to attend a dying uncle on whom his hopes for independence chiefly rested.”
Closing Line: “Melmoth and Monçada exchanged looks of silent and unutterable horror, and returned slowly home. “
Quotes: “There is no error more absurd, and yet more rooted in the heart of man, than the belief that his sufferings will promote his spiritual safety.”
Rating: Okay

Sunday, November 27, 2011

453. The Interesting Narrative – Olaudah Equiano

History: Written in 1789, by Gustavus Vassa, a prominent African involved in the British movement towards the abolition of the slave trade. His autobiography depicted the horrors of slavery and helped influence British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade through the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Despite his enslavement as a young man, he purchased his freedom and worked as an author, merchant and explorer in South America, the Caribbean, the Arctic, the American colonies, and the United Kingdom.
Plot: Volume I opens with a description of Equiano's native African culture, including customs associated with clothing, food, and religious practices. He likens the inhabitants of Eboe to the early Jews, and offers a theory that dark African skin is a result of exposure to the hot, tropical climates. In so doing, Equiano hints that Africans may be the indirect relatives of Christian Europeans through their Jewish ancestry and argues against slavery as an affront to all humans: "Let the polished and haughty European recollect that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? and should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No".
Equiano's journey begins when he is kidnapped from his village with his sister, from whom he is eventually separated. He describes a long voyage through various African regions. Equiano is sold to the owner of a slave ship bound for the West Indies, and he goes on to describe the "Middle Passage"—"the journey across the Atlantic Ocean that brought enslaved Africans to North America. His descriptions of extreme hardships and desperate conditions are punctuated by his astonishment at new sights and experiences. The narration occasionally reflects the childish wonder of the young Equiano at the time of his journey, but it also highlights his culture shock at his introduction to European culture and European treatment of slaves.
Though he witnesses the sale of slaves in the West Indies, Equiano himself is not purchased, and he stays with the Dutch ship, traveling from the West Indies to North America. There he is purchased and put to work on a Virginia plantation, doing light field work and household chores. He is not in Virginia long before Michael Henry Pascal, a lieutenant in the British royal navy and captain of a merchant ship, purchases him as "a present to some of his friends in England". During their spring 1757 voyage to England, Pascal renames the eleven-year-old Equiano Gustavus Vassa, and Equiano forges a friendship with a white American boy named Robert Baker, which lasts until Baker's death two years later.
After the ship's arrival in England, Equiano is exposed to Christianity. When he asks questions about his first encounter with snow, he is told it is made by "a great man in the heavens, called God." He attends church, and receives instruction from his new friend, Robert . Equiano describes the various battles and ship transfers that take place after his return to sea with Pascal.
As his time with Pascal progresses, Equiano professes a growing attachment to his master and a desire to "imbibe" and "imitate" the English culture in which he is immersed. He can "now speak English tolerably well" and "embrace[s] every occasion of improvement . . . [having] long wished to be able to read and write". During stopovers in England, Captain Pascal sends Equiano to wait upon two sisters known as the Miss Guerins. They become, in a sense, patrons to Equiano, not only treating him kindly but also supporting his education and his interest in Christianity by sending him to school. The Guerins are also instrumental in persuading Pascal to allow Equiano to be baptized into the church.
Equiano continues his studies and his religious development independently whenever possible, but his visits to England are always temporary, as he returns to sea with his captain whenever Pascal and the ship are ready for a new voyage. The journeys are always fraught with danger, and he describes numerous skirmishes and sieges throughout the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and West Indian Oceans. Equiano faithfully serves Pascal for several years and, believing that Pascal's kindness implies a promise to free him, he is shocked at an abrupt betrayal during a layover in England, when Pascal has him roughly seized and forced into a barge. Pascal sells Equiano to Captain James Doran, the captain of a ship bound for the West Indies. Dazed by his sudden change in fortunes, Equiano argues with Captain Doran that Pascal "could not sell me to him, nor to any one else . . . I have served him . . . many years, and he has taken all my wages and prize-money . . . I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land no man has a right to sell me". After Doran tells Equiano he talks "too much English" and threatens to subdue him, Equiano begins service under a new master, for he is "too well convinced of his power over me to doubt what he said".
Dejected at the situation in which he now finds himself, Equiano begins to believe his new situation is a result of God's punishment for his sins and soon resigns himself to his new life. Doran takes him back to the West Indies, and Equiano is horrified at the sight of Montserrat, because he is fearful of being sold into this "land of bondage . . . misery, stripes, and chains". Instead, he is purchased by Mr. Robert King, a "charitable and humane" Quaker merchant who employs him in a variety of positions, from loading boats to clerking and serving as a personal groom, in addition to occasionally hiring out Equiano"s services to other merchants. One of King's boat captains, an Englishman named Thomas Farmer, relies heavily on Equiano and frequently hires him for voyages from the West Indies to North America.
At this time, Equiano begins buying and selling goods and fruit and starts his own side trading enterprise during each voyage. Although he faces setbacks and insults from white buyers who refuse to pay for goods, use "bad coin," or demand fraudulent refunds, Equiano acquires a small amount of savings and is "determined to . . . obtain my freedom, and to return to Old England". King encourages him in his entrepreneurial pursuits, proposing that when Equiano has saved enough money "to purchase my freedom . . . he would let me have it for forty pounds sterling money, which was only the same price he gave for me".
After briefly recounting a violent assault while trading in Savannah, Georgia, and his subsequent recovery and return to Montserrat, Equiano closes the first volume of the Interesting Narrative somewhat abruptly, noting that "This ended my adventures in 1764; for I did not leave Montserrat again till the beginning of the following year".
Review: Of all the firsthand accounts known to us as "slave narratives," Vassa's description is unique in many ways. To begin with, he takes his readers all the way back to his African roots, shedding historically-confirmed light on almost lost ancient traditions. His discussion of the harrowing and epically sad capture and separation of he and his sister are among the most moving in this genre.
 He then describes the despicable, inhumane conditions in the holds of the slave ships with a "you-are-there" writing style. Again, confirmed by other sources, these are some of the most often quoted accounts in historical texts. In this same chronological phase, Vassa also depicts the shared empathy among the enslave Africans, helping us to see how they collaborated to survive.
 His ongoing narrative offers one of the more balanced looks at slavery. Vassa clearly tells the horrors of this evil system and the people responsible for it. At the same time, he often shares accounts of Europeans and White Americans who befriended him. In fact, his positive statements about non-Africans lend further credence to his critique of the many evils of slavery.
 His narrative also contains unique elements in his descriptions of his path toward freedom and his life as a freeman. We learn that in his era, for a man of his race, it was barely more tolerable to be free, given the hatred that he still endured.
 Though some reviewers tend to minimize or criticize it, his conversion narrative is classic. In fact, it may well have been the standard from which later testimonies were crafted about how "God struck me dead." Perhaps the evangelical nature of his conversion turns off some. However, if we are to engage Vassa in his other accounts, we must engage him here. Further, coming as it did later in his life, it is easy to see how his account of his entire life is entirely shaped by his conversion experience. Clearly, Vassa sees even the evils that he has suffered as part of a larger plan. In doing so he never suggests that God condones the evils of slavery. Rather, he indicates that God created beauty from ashes.
Opening Line: “I believe it is difficult for those who publish their own memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity; no is this the only disadvantage under which they labour; it is also their misfortune, that whatever is uncommon is rarely, if ever, believed; and what is obvious we are apt to turn from with disgust, and to charge the writer with impertinence. “
Closing Line: “to those who are possessed of this spirit, there is scarcely any book or incident so trifling that does not afford some profit, while to others the experience of ages seems of no use; and even to pour out to them the treasures of wisdom is throwing the jewels of instruction away.”
Quotes: "The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship's cargo were confined together it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died, thus falling victims to the improvident avarice, as I may call it, of their purchasers."
Rating: Excellent

452. Lost Illusions – Honore de Balzac

History: Illusions perdues was written by the French writer Honore de Balzac between 1837 and 1843. It consists of three parts, starting in the provinces, thereafter moving to Paris, and finally returning to provincial France. Thus it resembles another of Balzac’s greatest novels, La Rabouilleuse (The Black Sheep), in that it is set partly in Paris and partly in the provinces. It is, however, unique among the novels and short stories of the Comedie Humaine by virtue of the even-handedness with which it treats both geographical dimensions of French social life.
Plot: Lucien Chardon, the son of a lower middle-class father and an impoverished mother of remote aristocratic descent, is the pivotal figure of the entire work. Living at Angouleme, he is impoverished, impatient, handsome and ambitious. His widowed mother, his sister Ève and his best friend, David Séchard, do nothing to lessen his high opinion of his own talents, for it is an opinion they share.
Even as Part I of Illusions perdues, Les Deux poètes (The Two Poets), begins, Lucien has already written a historical novel and a sonnet sequence, whereas David is a scientist. But both, according to Balzac, are "poets" in that they creatively seek truth. Theirs is a fraternity of poetic aspiration, whether as scientist or writer: thus, even before David marries Ève, the two young men are spiritual brothers.
Lucien is introduced into the drawing-room of the leading figure of Angoulême high society, Mme de Bargeton, who rapidly becomes infatuated with him. It is not long before the pair flee to Paris where Lucien adopts his maternal patronymic of de Rubempré and hopes to make his mark as a poet. Mme de Bargeton, on the other hand, recognises her misalliance and, though remaining in Paris, severs all ties with Lucien, abandoning him to a life of destitution.
In Part II, Un Grand homme de province à Paris, Lucien is contrasted both with the journalist Lousteau and the high-minded writer Daniel d’Arthez. Jilted by Mme de Bargeton for the adventurer Sixte du Châtelet, he moves in a social circle of high-class actress-prostitutes and their journalist lovers: soon he becomes the lover of Coralie. As a literary journalist he prostitutes his talent. But he still harbours the ambition of belonging to high society and longs to assume by royal warrant the surname and coat of arms of the de Rubemprés. He therefore switches his allegiance from the liberal opposition press to the one or two royalist newspapers that support the government. This act of betrayal earns him the implacable hatred of his erstwhile journalist colleagues, who destroy Coralie’s theatrical reputation. In the depths of his despair he forges his brother-in-law’s name on three promissory notes. This is his ultimate betrayal of his integrity as a person. After Coralie’s death he returns in disgrace to Angoulême, stowed away behind the Châtelets’ carriage: Mme de Bargeton has just married du Châtelet, who has been appointed prefect of that region.
Meanwhile, at Angoulême David Séchard is betrayed on all sides but is supported by his loving wife. He invents a new and cheaper method of paper production: thus, at a thematic level, the commercialization of paper-manufacturing processes is very closely interwoven with the commercialization of literature. Lucien’s forgery of his brother-in-law’s signature almost bankrupts David, who has to sell the secret of his invention to business rivals. Lucien is about to commit suicide when he is approached by a sham Jesuit priest, the Abbe Carlos Herrera: this, in another guise, is the escaped convict Vautrin whom Balzac had already presented in Le Père Goriot. Herrera takes Lucien under his protection and they drive off to Paris, there to begin a fresh assault on the capital.
Review: The novel has four main themes.
(1) The lifestyle of the provinces is juxtaposed with that of the metropolis, as Balzac contrasts the varying tempos of life at Angoulême and in Paris, the different standards obtaining in those cities, and their different perceptions.
(2) Balzac explores the artistic life of Paris in 1821-22, and furthermore the nature of the artistic life generally. Lucien, who was already a not quite published author when the novel begins, fails to get that early literary work published whilst he is in Paris and during his time in the capital writes nothing of any consequence. Daniel d’Arthez, on the other hand, does not actively seek literary fame: it comes to him because of his solid literary merit.
(3) Balzac denounces journalism, presenting it as the most pernicious form of intellectual prostitution.
(4) Balzac affirms the duplicity – and two-facedness – of all things, both in Paris and at Angoulême: e.g., the character of Lucien de Rubempré, who even has two surnames; David Séchard’s ostensible friend, the notary Petit-Claud, who operates against his client, not for him; the legal comptes (accounts) which are contes fantastiques (fantastic tales); the theatre which lives by make-believe; high society likewise; the Abbé Carlos Herrera who is a sham priest, and in fact a criminal; the Sin against the Holy Ghost, whereby Lucien abandons his true integrity as a person, forging his brother-in-law’s signature and even contemplating suicide.
Opening Line: “At the time when this story opens, the Stanhope press and the ink-distributing roller had not yet come into use in small provincial printing-houses; and, notwithstanding its paper industry, that linked Angouleme so closely with Paris printing, wooden presses – of the kind to which the figure of speech “to make the press groan” was literally applicable – were still in use in that town.”
Closing Line: “As for Lucien, his return to Paris belongs to the Scenes de la vie Parisienne.”
Quotes: “This fine thing reputation that is so much desired, is nearly always crowned prostitution.”
Rating: Awful, couldn’t read.

451. Joseph Andrews – Henry Fielding

History:   This book also was named The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams, and was the first published full-length novel of the English author and magistrate Henry Fielding, and indeed among the first novels in the English Language. Published in 1742 and defined by Fielding as a ‘comic epic poem in prose’, it is the story of a good-natured footman’s adventures on the road home from London with his friend and mentor, the absent-minded parson Abraham Adams.
The novel represents the coming together of the two competing aesthetics of eighteenth century literature: the mock heroic and neoclassical approach of Augustans such as Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift; and the popular, domestic prose fiction of novelists such as Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson.
The novel draws on a variety of inspirations. Written "in imitation of the manner of Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote", the work owes much of its humor to the techniques developed by Cervantes, and its subject-matter to the seemingly loose arrangement of events, digressions and lower-class characters to the genre of writing known as picaresque. In deference to the literary tastes and recurring tropes of the period, it relies on bawdy humor, an impending marriage and a mystery surrounding unknown parentage, but conversely is rich in philosophical digressions, classical erudition and social purpose.
Fielding’s first venture into prose fiction came a year previously with the publication in pamphlet form of Shamela, a travesty of, and direct response to, the stylistic failings and moral hypocrisy that Fielding saw in Richardson’s Pamela. Richardson’s epistolary tale of a resolute servant girl, armed only with her ‘virtue’, battling against her master’s attempts at seduction had become an overnight literary sensation in 1741. The implicit moral message – that a girl’s chastity has eventual value as a commodity – as well as the awkwardness of the epistolary form in dealing with ongoing events, and the triviality of the detail which the form necessitates, were some of the main targets of Fielding’s parody.
Plot: The novel begins with the affable, intrusive narrator outlining the nature of our hero. Joseph Andrews is the brother of Richardson’s Pamela and is of the same rustic parentage and patchy ancestry. At the age of ten years he found himself tending to animals as an apprentice to Sir Thomas Booby. It was in proving his worth as a horseman that he first caught the eye of Sir Thomas’s wife, Lady Booby, who employed him (now seventeen) as her footman.
After the death of Sir Thomas, Joseph finds that his Lady’s affections have redoubled as she offers herself to him in her chamber while on a trip to London. In a scene analogous to many of Pamela’s refusals of Mr B in Richardson’s novel, however, Lady Booby finds that Joseph’s Christian commitment to chastity before marriage is unwavering. After suffering the Lady’s fury, Joseph dispatches a letter to his sister very much typical of Pamela’s anguished missives in her own novel. The Lady calls him once again to her chamber and makes one last withering attempt at seduction before dismissing him from both his job and his lodgings.
With Joseph setting out from London by moonlight, the narrator introduces the reader to the heroine of the novel, Fanny Goodwill. A poor illiterate girl of ‘extraordinary beauty’ now living with a farmer close to Lady Booby’s parish, she and Joseph had grown ever closer since their childhood, before their local parson and mentor, Abraham Adams, recommended that they postpone marriage until they have the means to live comfortably.
On his way to see Fanny, Joseph is mugged and laid up in a nearby inn where, by dint of circumstance, he is reconciled with Adams, who is on his way to London to sell three volumes of his sermons. The thief, too, is found and brought to the inn (only to escape later that night), and Joseph is reunited with his possessions. Adams and Joseph catch up with each other, and the parson, in spite of his own poverty, offers his last money to Joseph’s disposal.
Joseph and Adams’ stay in the inn is capped by one of the many burlesque, slapstick digressions in the novel. Betty, the inn’s 21-year-old chambermaid, had taken a liking to Joseph since he arrived; a liking doomed to inevitable disappointment by Joseph’s constancy to Fanny. The landlord, Mr Tow-wouse, had always admired Betty and saw this disappointment as an opportunity to take advantage. Locked in an embrace, they are discovered by the choleric Mrs. Tow-wouse, who chases the maid through the house before Adams is forced to restrain her. With the landlord promising not to transgress again, his lady allows him to make his peace at the cost of ‘quietly and contentedly bearing to be reminded of his transgressions, as a kind of penance, once or twice a day, during the residue of his life.
During his stay in the inn, Adams’ hopes for his sermons were mocked in a discussion with a travelling bookseller and another parson. Nevertheless, Adams remains resolved to continue his journey to London until it is revealed that his wife, deciding that he would be more in need of shirts than sermons on his journey, has neglected to pack them. The pair thus decides to return to the parson’s parish: Joseph in search of Fanny, and Adams in search of his sermons.
With Joseph following on horseback, Adams finds himself sharing a stagecoach with an anonymous lady and Madam Slipslop, an admirer of Joseph’s and a servant of Lady Booby. When they pass the house of a teenage girl named Leonora, the anonymous lady is reminded of a story and begins one of the novel’s three interpolated tales, ‘The History of Leonora, or the Unfortunate Jilt’. The story of Leonora continues for a number of chapters, punctuated by the questions and interruptions of the other passengers.
After stopping at an inn, Adams relinquishes his seat to Joseph and, forgetting his horse, embarks ahead on foot. Finding himself some time ahead of his friend, Adams rests by the side of the road where he becomes so engaged in conversation with a fellow traveler that he misses the stagecoach as it passes. As the night falls and Adams and the stranger discourse on courage and duty, a shriek is heard. The stranger, having seconds earlier lauded the virtues of bravery and chivalry, makes his excuses and flees the scene without turning back. Adams, however, rushes to the girl’s aid and after a mock-epic struggle knocks her attacker unconscious. In spite of Adams’ good intentions, he and the girl, who reveals herself to be none other than Fanny Goodwill (in search of Joseph after hearing of his mugging), find themselves accused of assault and robbery.
After some comic litigious wrangling before the local magistrate, the pair are eventually released and depart shortly after midnight in search of Joseph. They do not have to walk far before a storm forces them into the same inn that Joseph and Slipslop have chosen for the night. Slipslop, her jealousy ignited by seeing the two lovers reunited, departs angrily. When Adams, Joseph and Fanny come to leave the following morning, they find their departure delayed by an inability to settle the bill, and, with Adams’ solicitations of a loan from the local parson and his wealthy parishioners failing, it falls on a local pedlar to rescue the trio by loaning them his last money.
The solicitations of charity that Adams is forced to make, and the complications which surround their stay in the parish, bring him into contact with many local squires, gentlemen and parsons, and much of the latter portion of Book II is occupied with the discussions of literature, religion, philosophy and trade which result.
The three depart the inn by night, and it is not long before Fanny needs to rest. With the party silent, they overhear approaching voices agree on ‘the murder of any one they meet’ and flee to a local house. Inviting them in, the owner, Mr. Wilson informs them that the gang of supposed murderers were in fact sheep-stealers, intent more on the killing of livestock than of Adams and his friends. The party being settled, Wilson begins the novel’s most lengthy interpolated tale by recounting his life story; a story which bears a notable resemblance to Fielding’s own young adulthood.
At the age of 16, Wilson’s father died and left him a modest fortune. Finding himself the master of his own destiny, he left school and travelled to London where he soon acquainted himself with the dress, manners and reputation for womanizing necessary to consider he a ‘beau’. Wilson’s life in the town is a façade: he writes love-letters to himself obtains his fine clothes on credit and is concerned more with being seen at the theatre than with watching the play. After two bad experiences with women, he is financially crippled and, much like Fielding himself, falls into the company of a group of Deists, freethinkers and gamblers. Finding him in debt, he turns to the writing of plays and hack journalism to alleviate his financial burden (again, much like the author himself). He spends his last few pence on a lottery ticket but, with no reliable income, is soon forced to exchange it for food. While in jail for his debts, news reaches him that the ticket he gave away has won a £3,000 prize. His disappointment is short-lived, however, as the daughter of the winner hears of his plight, pays off his debts, and, after a brief courtship, agrees to become his wife.
Wilson had found himself at the mercy of many of the social ills that Fielding had written about in his journalism: the over-saturated and abused literary market, the exploitative state lottery, and regressive laws which sanctioned imprisonment for small debts. Having seen the corrupting influence of wealth and the town, he retires with his new wife to the rural solitude in which Adams, Fanny and Joseph now find them. The only break in his contentment, and one which will turn out to be significant to the plot, was the kidnapping of his eldest son, whom he has not seen since.
Wilson promises to visit Adams when he passes through his parish, and after another mock-epic battle on the road, this time with a party of hunting dogs, the trio proceed to the house of a local squire, where Fielding illustrates another contemporary social ill by having Adams subjected to a humiliating roasting. Enraged, the three depart to the nearest inn to find that, while at the squire’s house, they had been robbed of their last half-guinea. To compound their misery, the squire has Adams and Joseph accused of kidnapping Fanny, in order to have them detained while he orders the abduction of the girl himself. She is rescued in transit, however, by Lady Booby’s steward, Peter Pounce, and all four of them complete the remainder of the journey to Booby Hall together.
On seeing Joseph arrive back in the parish, a jealous Lady Booby meanders through emotions as diverse as rage, pity, hatred, pride and love. The next morning Joseph and Fanny’s banns are published and the Lady turns her anger onto Parson Adams, who is accommodating Fanny at his house. Finding herself powerless either to stop the marriage or to expel them from the parish, she enlists the help of Lawyer Scout, who brings a spurious charge of larceny against Joseph and Fanny in order to prevent, or at least postpone, the wedding.
Three days later, the Lady’s plans are foiled by the visit of her nephew, Mr Booby, and a surprise guest: Booby has married Pamela, granting Joseph a powerful new ally and brother-in-law. What is more, Booby is an acquaintance of thejustice presiding over Joseph and Fanny’s trial, and instead of Bridewell, has them committed to his own custody. Knowing of his sister’s antipathy to the two lovers, Booby offers to reunite Joseph with his sister and take him and Fanny into his own parish and his own family.
In a discourse with Joseph on stoicism and fatalism, Adams instructs his friend to submit to the will of God and control his passions, even in the face of overwhelming tragedy. In the kind of cruel juxtaposition usually reserved for Fielding’s less savory characters, Adams is informed that his youngest son, Jacky, has drowned. After indulging his grief in a manner contrary to his lecture a few minutes previously, Adams is informed that the report was premature, and that his son had in fact been rescued by the same peddler that loaned him his last few shillings in Book II.
Lady Booby, in a last-ditch attempt to sabotage the marriage, brings a young beau named Didapper to Adams’ house to seduce Fanny. Fanny is unattracted to his bold attempts of courtship. Didapper is a little too bold in his approach and provokes Joseph into a fight. The Lady and the beau depart in disgust, but the peddler, having seen the Lady, is compelled to relate a tale. The pedlar had met his wife while in the army, and she died young. While on her death bed, she confessed that she once stole an exquisitely beautiful baby girl from a family named Andrews, and sold her on to Sir Thomas Booby, thus raising the possibility that Fanny may in fact be Joseph’s sister. The company is shocked, but there is general relief that the crime of incest may have been narrowly averted.
The following morning, Joseph and Pamela’s parents arrive, and, together with the peddler and Adams, they piece together the question of Fanny’s parentage. The Andrews identify her as their lost daughter, but have a twist to add to the tale: when Fanny was an infant, she was indeed stolen from her parents, but the thieves left behind a sickly infant Joseph in return, who was raised as their own. It is immediately apparent that Joseph is the abovementioned kidnapped son of Wilson, and when Wilson arrives on his promised visit, he identifies Joseph by a birthmark on his chest. Joseph is now the son of a respected gentleman, Fanny an in-law of the Booby family, and the couple no longer suspected of being siblings. Two days later they are married by Adams in a humble ceremony, and the narrator, after bringing the story to a close, and in a disparaging allusion to Richardson, assures the reader that there will be no sequel.
Review: The parallels with Don Quixote are readily apparent. First of all, the book consists of a series of humorous travel adventures; second, the travelers involved seem too innocent to survive in the harsh world that confronts them. When Joseph Andrews, the naive footman of Lady Booby, deflects the amorous advances of both her Ladyship and Slip slop, the Lady's servant, he is sent packing. Upon his dismissal, Joseph, along with his friend and mentor Parson Adams, an idealistic and good-hearted rural clergyman, who essentially takes the physical role of Sancho Panza but the moral role of Quixote, sets out to find his beloved but chaste inamorata, Fanny Goodwill, who had earlier been dismissed from Lady Booby's service as a result of Slip slop's jealousy. In their travels they are set upon repeatedly by robbers, continually run out of funds and Adams gets in numerous arguments, theological and otherwise. Meanwhile, Fanny, whom they meet up with along the way, is nearly raped any number of times and is eventually discovered to be Joseph's sister, or maybe not.. The whole thing concludes with a farcical night of musical beds, mistaken identities and astonishing revelations.
Opening Line: “It is a trite but true observation, that examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts: and if this be just in what is odious and blamable, it is more strongly so in what is amiable and praiseworthy.”
Closing Line: “The happiness of this couple is a perpetual fountain of pleasure to their fond parents; and, what is particularly remarkable, he declares he will imitate them in their retirement, nor will be prevailed on by any booksellers, or their authors, to make his appearance in high life.”
Quotes: “To whom nothing is given, of him can nothing be required.”
Rating: Okay

Thursday, November 24, 2011

450. Dead Souls – Nikolas Gogol

History:  This book was first published in 1842, and widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th-century Russian literature. Gogol himself saw it as an "epic poem in prose", and within the book as a "novel in verse". Despite supposedly completing the trilogy's second part, Gogol destroyed it shortly before his death. Although the novel ends in mid-sentence (like Sterne's Sentimental Journey), it is usually regarded as complete in the extant form.  Plot:  The story follows the exploits of Chichikov, a gentleman of middling social class and position. Chichikov arrives in a small town and quickly tries to make a good name for himself by impressing the many petty officials of the town. Despite his limited funds, he spends extravagantly on the premise that a great show of wealth and power at the start will gain him the connections he needs to live easily in the future. He also hopes to befriend the town so that he can more easily carry out his bizarre and mysterious plan to acquire "dead souls."  The government would tax the landowners on a regular basis, with the assessment based on how many serfs (or "souls") the landowner had on their records at the time of the collection. These records were determined by census, but censuses in this period were infrequent, far more so than the tax collection, so landowners would often find themselves in the position of paying taxes on serfs that were no longer living, yet were registered on the census to them, thus they were paying on "dead souls." It is these dead souls, manifested as property, that Chichikov seeks to purchase from people in the villages he visits; he merely tells the prospective sellers that he has a use for them, and that the sellers would be better off anyway, since selling them would relieve the present owners of a needless tax burden.  Although the townspeople Chichikov comes across are gross caricatures, they are not flat stereotypes by any means. Instead, each is neurotically individual, combining the official failings that Gogol typically satirizes (greed, corruption, paranoia) with a curious set of personal quirks.  Chichikov's macabre mission to acquire "dead souls" is actually just another complicated scheme to inflate his social standing (essentially a 19th century Russian version of the ever-popular "get rich quick" scheme). He hopes to collect the legal ownership rights to dead serfs as a way of inflating his apparent wealth and power. Once he acquires enough dead souls, he will retire to a large farm and take out an enormous loan against them, finally acquiring the great wealth he desires.  Setting off for the surrounding estates, Chichikov at first assumes that the ignorant provincials will be more than eager to give their dead souls up in exchange for a token payment. The task of collecting the rights to dead people proves difficult, however, due to the persistent greed, suspicion, and general distrust of the landowners. He still manages to acquire some 400 souls, and returns to the town to have the transactions recorded legally.  Back in the town, Chichikov continues to be treated like a prince amongst the petty officials, and a celebration is thrown in honour of his purchases. Very suddenly, however, rumours flare up that the serfs he bought are all dead, and that he was planning to elope with the Governor's daughter. In the confusion that ensues, the backwardness of the irrational, gossip-hungry townspeople is most delicately conveyed. Absurd suggestions come to light, such as the possibility that Chichikov is Napoleon in disguise or the notorious and retired 'Captain Kopeikin,' who had lost an arm and a leg during a war. The now disgraced traveller is immediately ostracized from the company he had been enjoying and has no choice but to flee the town in disgrace.  
Review: It could be described as a linguistic phantasmagoria - full of people and things with a hallucinatory reality that rushes into the surreal. Nabokov, in a great, dogmatic essay on it, saw the book as a phenomenon of a peculiar "life-generating syntax", in which Gogol's sentences called up a world which could be capriciously developed or abandoned. Gogol called Dead Souls a "poem", and in some ways the English work it is nearest to is The Canterbury Tales, where rhyme and rhythm add to, even create, the satisfactory unexpectedness of the detail of people and things.  Gogol also resembles Dickens in the way in which everything he started to imagine transformed itself and began to wriggle with life. This is hard to assess in translation, but Robert Maguire has made a text which corresponds to Nabokov's excitement - from the moment when we meet Chichikov, "not overly fat, not overly thin" entering his room in a hostelry, "with cockroaches peeping out like prunes from every corner". He is accompanied by his servant Petruska, who brought in with his greatcoat "a special odour all his own that had also been imparted to the next thing he brought in, a sack containing the sundries of a manservant's toilet". I admire the way in which Maguire has kept his own brilliantly variegated vocabulary away from 20th-century phrases, without ever looking parodic or antiquarian.  The title, Dead Souls, must be one of the most evocative titles ever. It is to do on a superficial level (and superficies matter in this text) with the possibility in Tsarist Russia of owning "souls", which is how the ownership of serfs is described. Landowners were taxed on their payroll of serfs, which included those who had died between tax-assessments.  Chichikov has formed the  plan of buying the dead souls of various landowners in order to use his list of fictive slaves to buy real land to "resettle" them and to become a landowner himself. Chichikov himself is also of course, a dead soul, a man self-designed to be unremarkable, agreeable and acceptable, a smiling confidence-trickster whose plots, as Nabokov points out, are neither very clever nor very coherent. Gogol wrote an ironic apostrophe to the unpraised writer who observes "the dreadful appalling mass of trifles that mires our lives, all that lies deep inside the cold, fragmented quotidian characters with which our earthly, at times bitter and tedious path swarms..." "Equally wondrous", he claims, "are the lenses that survey suns, and those that convey the movements of imperceptible insects."
Opening Line:   “To the door of an inn in the provincial town of N. there drew up a smart britchka--a light spring-carriage of the sort affected by bachelors, retired lieutenant-colonels, staff-captains, land-owners possessed of about a hundred souls, and, in short, all persons who rank as gentlemen of the intermediate category. “  
Closing Line:   I invite those men to remember the duty which confronts us, whatsoever our respective stations; I invite them to observe more closely their duty, and to
keep more constantly in mind their obligations of holding true to their country, in that before us the future looms dark, and that we can scarcely. . ." 
Quotes:  “There are people that exist on this earth not as objects in themselves, but as extraneous specks or tiny spots on objects. They sit in the same place, they hold their heads in the same way and you are almost ready to take them for a piece of furniture..." 
Rating:   Horrible.  

449. Nervous Conditions – Tsitsi Dangarembga

History: Semi-autobiographical, it is set in the post-colonial Rhodesia of the 1960s. The title is taken from the introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth.
Plot: The story is told by and from the perspective of Tambudzai, a young Shona girl living in a small village in Rhodesia. Tambu was raised on her family's farm in Umtali where she was responsible for household chores, gardening, and caring for her younger siblings. ,Her education begins begins with the death of her brother, Nhamo. Nhamo is sent to live with his uncle (Babamukuru), a strict disciplinarian, and aunt (Maiguru), so that he may be educated by a mission school in the local city and later provide his family with economic support. He falls ill, however, with a severe case of the mumps, and dies suddenly, leaving his parents without a son to support them in their impending dotage. Tambu's dreams of getting an education are only fulfilled when her brother dies and she becomes next in line for school since she has no other brothers. Tambudzai, is also keen to be educated, so much so that she works on her own mealie crop in a bid to pay her school fees. An elderly white lady takes pity on her and parts with ten pounds, so Tambu is able to return to the school that her father cannot and will not pay for. The narrative's opening sentence is famously chilling. "I was not sorry," declares Tambu, "when my brother died." Her reasons, many and varied, but mostly to do with her brother's arrogance, interference — at one point, he steals her maize —, chauvinism and teasing, are expounded over the next three chapters, culminating in a cold description of his death. Tambu's uncle argues for her to go to the mission school after the death of her brother, for there are no other sons available. She is allowed to stay with her aunt and uncle while she attends school at the mission. While there, Tambu shares a room with her cousin, Nyasha and the girls teach each other many lessons. Nyasha spent most of her formative years in England while her mother and father were getting their education. When she comes back to Africa she realizes the vast differences between European culture and African culture--especially where women are concerned. She experiences inner turmoil as she tries to come to terms with being a woman in Africa. As we see Nyasha's struggles through the eyes of Tambu, we begin to understand the continuing devastation countries are experiencing as a result of colonization by another culture. The novel then shifts to Tambu's observations of the conflicts between her cousin, Nyasha, who was raised primarily in England and has no foundation of Zimbabwean culture, and her uncle, who is steeped in such tradition. Nyasha and her father spar with increasing frequency over her behaviour and the way that she talks to him. Nyasha eventually develops an eating disorder, which is tied strongly to her struggle to deal with the conflict between English and Shona society.
Review: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions highlights the struggle that individuals face in defining their personal identities within a multinational, multi-ethnic environment which emphasises hybridity. In Dangarembga's autobiographically-styled novel, the adult Tambu reflects back on her adolescence during Zimbabwe's changing political climate during the 1960s and 1970s. As the novel illustrates, an individual's changes are often directly related to social and national changes.
Opening Line: "I was not sorry when my brother died."
Closing Line: “It was a process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this story is how it all began.”
Quotes: "In those days I felt the injustice of my situation every time I thought about it, which I could not help but do often since the children were always talking about their age. Thinking about it, feeling the injustice of it, this is how I came to dislike my brother, and not only my brother but my father, my mother - in fact everybody."
Rating: Okay

Sunday, November 20, 2011

448. Three Lives – Gertrude Stein

History: Published in 1909, this was Gertrude Stein's first published work. The book is separated into three stories, "The Good Anna," "Melanctha," and "The Gentle Lena." The three stories are independent of each other, but all are set in the fictional town of Bridgepoint.
Plot: "The Good Anna," the first of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, is a novella set in "Bridgepoint" about Anna Federner, a servant of "solid lower middle-class south german stock."
Part I describes Anna’s happy life as housekeeper for Miss Mathilda and her difficulties with unreliable under servants and "stray dogs and cats." She loves her "regular dogs": Baby, an old, blind, terrier; "bad Peter," loud and cowardly; and "the fluffy little Rags." Anna is the undisputed authority in the household, and in her five years with Miss Mathilda she oversees in turn four under servants: Lizzie, Molly, Katy, and Sallie. Sometimes even the lazy and benign Miss Mathilda feels rebellious under Anna’s iron hand; she is also concerned because Anna is always giving away money, and tries to protect her from her many poor friends.
Part II, "The Life of the Good Anna," fills in the background. Born in Germany, in her teens Anna emigrates to "the far South," where her mother dies of consumption. She moves to Bridgepoint near her brother, a baker, and takes charge of the household of Miss Mary Wadsmith and her young nephew and niece, who are orphans. Little Jane resists Anna’s strong will, but after Anna has provoked a showdown becomes "careful and respectful" and even gives Anna a green parrot. When after six years Jane is finally married, Anna refuses to follow Miss Mary in the new household. Mrs. Lehntman, a widow and midwife who "was the romance of Anna’s life," helps Anna tell Miss Wadsmith that she cannot accompany her. Anna then goes to work for Doctor Shonjen, a hearty bachelor, with whom she gets along. Previously Shonjen has operated on her, and Anna’s general health remains poor: she has headaches and is "thin and worn." When Mrs. Lehntman, who has two careless children, adopts a baby without consulting Anna, the latter is offended and spends more time with another large working family, the Drehtens. She also visits her brother the baker, but has trouble with her sister-in-law, though she eventually helps with her savings when her god-daughter niece is married. Mrs. Lehntman rashly decides to open a boarding house, and Anna despite her misgivings lends her the necessary money, for "Romance is the ideal in one’s life and it is very lonely living with it lost." Having been once defeated in the matter of Johnny’s adoption, she can no longer impose her will in the relationship. ("In friendship, power always has its downward curve.") When Dr. Shonjen marries a "proud" and "unpleasant" woman, Anna seeks a new position. Encouraged by a fortune-teller, she goes to work for Miss Mathilda, and these are her happiest years, until finally her ailing favorite dog Baby dies and Miss Mathilda leaves permanently for Europe.
Part III, “The Death of the Good Anna”, chronicles her last years. Anna continues to live in the house Miss Mathilda has left her and takes in boarders, but charges too little to make ends meet and has to dismiss her help Sallie. She is still happy with her customers and her dogs, but works too much and weakens. Mrs. Drehten, her only remaining friend, convinces her to be operated. "Then they did the operation, and then the good Anna with her strong, strained, worn-out body died." Mrs. Drehten writes the news to Miss Mathilda.
The story is written in Stein’s straightforward and sometimes repetitive prose, with a few notable digressions, like the discussion on power and friendship in a romance, and the description of the medium’s dingy house. Stein portrays brilliantly the tense confrontations between Anna and her (female) adversaries. At one point she describes Anna’s quite elaborate costume. One theme is female bonding, since the narrator insists on Anna’s "romance" with Mrs. Lehntman. Anna likes to work only for passive and big women who let her take care of everything, otherwise she prefers to work for men, because "Most women were interfering in their ways."
"The Good Anna" is indebted to Gustave Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (the first of the Three Tales), which is about a servant and her eventual death (in both stories a parrot figures). But Stein’s Anna is much more determined and wilful than Flaubert’s Felicité, and, though generous to a fault, gets her way in most things.
Gertrude Stein’s “Melanctha,” the longest of the Three Lives stories, is an unconventional novella that focuses upon the distinctions and blending of race, sex, gender, and female health. Stein uses a unique form ofrepetition to portray characters in a new way. “Melanctha,” as Mark Schorer on Gale's Contemporary Authors Online depicts it, “attempts to trace the curve of a passion, its rise, its climax, its collapse, with all the shifts and modulations between dissension and reconciliation along the way." But “Melanctha” is more than one woman’s bitter experience with love; it is the representation of the internal struggles and emotional battles in finding meaning and acceptance in a tumultuous world.
The main character Melanctha, who is the daughter of a black father and mixed-race mother in segregated Bridgepoint, goes throughout the novella on a quest for knowledge and power, as she is dissatisfied with her role in the world. Her thirst for wisdom causes her to undergo a lifelong journey filled with unsuccessful self-fulfillment and discovery as she attaches herself to family members, lovers, and friends that each represents physical, emotional, and knowledgeable power. She visualizes herself in relation to those around her, but is consistently unable to meet their expectations. And yet, for all the colorization and gendering of the characters, color and sex are incongruent to social and romantic success. “Melanctha” depicts each of its characters into racial degrees and categories, but their fates often run counter to what the audience would expect to see.
Thoughts of suicide are often appealing to Melanctha who finds herself “blue” and in despair. The last betrayal and Melanctha’s final blow, the abandonment from her close friend Rose who shuns her from her home, leaves her broken and ill. At the culmination of the novella, Melanctha is consumed not by the physical illness that overtakes her, but by the despair she has felt all throughout life. She often complained of feeling “sick,” of being “hurt,” and of having “pain,” perhaps this physical pain included a deep mental pain that stemmed from her experiences in life. Melanctha’s death from “consumption,” often believed as tuberculosis, concludes the story.
Werner Sollors boldly declares: "Stein's merging of modernist style and ethnic subject matter was what made her writing particularly relevant to American ethnic authors who had specific reasons to go beyond realism and who felt that Stein's dismantling of the 'old' was a freeing experience….Strangely enough then, 'Melanctha' - which was, as we have seen, the partial result of a transracial projection - came to be perceived as a white American author's particularly humane representation of a black character."[1] Ultimately, “Melanctha” is an experimental novel with complex racial, gender, and sexual constructs that leaves plenty of room for literary interpretation.
"The Gentle Lena," the third of Gertrude Stein's Three Lives, follows the life and death of the titular Lena, a German girl brought to Bridgepoint by a cousin. Lena begins her life in America as a servant girl, but is eventually married to Herman Kreder, the son of German immigrants. Both Herman and Lena are marked by extraordinary passivity, and the marriage is essentially made in deference to the desires of their elders. During her married life, Lena bears Herman three children, all the while growing increasingly passive and distant. Neither Lena nor the baby survives her fourth pregnancy, leaving Herman "very well content now...with his three good, gentle children."
Review: These stories reveal a young Gertrude Stein, who has begun to experiment with language but is still rooted to some extent in traditional narrative. The repetition and musical cadence that characterize her later style are quite clearly present. In fact, these stylistic experiments--although fun to read at first--compromise rather than enhance the psychological portraits the author is attempting to paint.
Stein had dropped out of Johns Hopkins Medical School before graduating, but not before completing her third year clerkships. She was particularly interested in psychology and had been a student of William James when she was an undergraduate. These three stories are extended personal and psychological characterizations.
"Melanctha" is of particular interest. The introduction to this edition of Three Lives notes that "Melanctha" may well be the first American fiction in which a black person is portrayed sympathetically. That statement seems incorrect to me, both in terms of "first" and also in terms of "sympathetically." "Melanctha" contains lots of negative "Negro" stereotypes.
It appears, in fact, that one of Melanctha's best attributes (according to the omniscient author) is that she is half-white and her skin is light tan. Perhaps that is why her thinking is so subtle--she is always searching for something, although it is never clear what she is searching for.
From a clinical perspective, Melanctha suffers from neurotic depression or, in DSM IV terms, dysthymia. She is chronically unhappy, ruminates a lot, and is never clear about what she really wants to do. Toward the end of the story, she probably has an episode of major depression and considers suicide, but goes on to die (anticlimactically) of tuberculosis.
Three Lives was Stein’s first book, and is composed of stories about three women: Anna, Melanchta and Lena. The bulk of the book is given to Melanchta’s story, and maybe it’s a sign of my impatience and blah blah blah that I found this longest story (it runs over half the length of the book) so painful that I seriously considered giving up reading for good, and also fell asleep every time I started reading it. (Three Lives is a book that must be read in the upright position, preferably in the least comfortable chair you own.)
The lives Stein writes about are constricted in their view and scope. The first story, about “the good Anna,” sets this tone of small and relatively quiet lives. Stein doesn’t develop her characters in any traditional way I can think of describing, but uses repetition to set the terms through which we see her characters. So, “Anna led an arduous and troubled life”, and repeatedly we read, “Anna Federner, this good Anna, was of solid lower middle-class south german stock.” “The Good Anna” is concerned with Anna’s movements from employer to employer, a little with her private life and her tendency to be overgenerous with the money she has saved, about the collapse of her friendship with a woman who takes advantage of her money. There’s one description in this story that I love, when a dog Peter, “would retire to his Anna and blot himself out between her skirts”. Other than that and a vague interest in the way Stein used repetition (which maybe was revolutionary at the time, but now seems pretty standard), I didn’t find much of note in this story and I was vaguely relieved when Anna died and I got to move on to the second story.
That relief was pretty short-lived though. What can I say about “Melanchta”? This is the only story in the book about a black woman (or a “mulatta”, more exactly) and it made me so uncomfortable in its tone and the stereotypes it throws around. I am uncomfortable even writing about this, so let me just quote a bit and put this subject to rest:
"Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled. […]
Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine. Rose was never joyous with the earth-born, boundless joy of negroes. Hers was just ordinary, any sort of women laughter.
Rose Johnson was careless and was lazy, but she had been brought up by white folks and she needed decent comfort. Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose had the simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people."
Just, oh my god.
Add to this that Stein went truly nuts with the repetition, and you’ve got yourself a painful read. Again, Stein doesn’t develop her characters so much as she tries to create a lasting image of them through repetition, but here the repetitions are so extensive and unrelenting that I spent most of the story praying the characters would die soon so I could stop reading the same goddamn lines over and over again. (Also, about every other word in this story is “certainly”.) Let’s do another quote to kill this subject:
“I certainly don’t rightly understand what you are doing now to me Jeff Campbell,” wrote Melanchta Herbert. “I certainly don’t rightly understand Jeff Campbell why you ain’t all these days been near me, but I certainly do suppose it’s just another one of the queer kind of ways you have to be good, and repenting of yourself all of a sudden. I certainly don’t say to Jeff Campbell I admire very much the way you take to be good Jeff Campbell. I am sorry Dr. Campbell, but I certainly am afraid I can’t stand it no more from you the way you have been just acting. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you act when you have been as if you thought I was always good enough for anybody to have with them, and then you act as if I was a bad one and you always just despise me. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell I can’t stand it any more like that. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you are always changing. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell you ain’t man enough to deserve to have anybody care so much to be always with you. I certainly am awful afraid Dr. Campbell I don’t ever any more want to really see you. Good-by Dr. Campbell I wish you always to be real happy.”
Imagine, if you will, an entire novella written like this. Every sentence loops around on itself and when my reading wasn’t putting me to sleep I found myself entering a sort of trance that made it impossible for me to recall what characters actually said or did, though the knowledge that it probably wasn’t a whole lot was comforting. Towards the end Stein uses a little repetition that I find more effective, when she recalls passages from early in the story and circles the reader through time back to the opening pages of “Melanchta”, but the bulk of this story I found dull and impossible. Melanchta’s dealings with men, which is what the story concerns itself with, end only with her death. I am not sure I have ever been so relieved to see a character die.
The book’s final story, “The Gentle Lena”, is a return to the form of “The Good Anna”. Still repetitive but it’s a breath of fresh air (Stein goes in for repetition, I go in for cliches) after “Melanchta”. Like “The Good Anna”, “The Gentle Lena” is about a German girl, this time a young women who’s brought to the States by family. She works for some time, then is married to a German-American man, bears him three children, and dies while delivering the fourth. “The Gentle Lena” is the shortest story in Three Lives, and if you’re looking to read something by Stein I’d go for this story above the others because, well, it’s short, and fairly painless, if not particularly distinguished.
Opening Line: “The Tradesmen of Bridgepoint learned to dread the sound of “Miss Mathilda”, for with that name the good Anna always conquered.”
Closing Line: “Herman Kreder was very well content now and he always lived very regular and peaceful, and with every day just like the next one, always alone now with his three good, gentle children.”
Quotes: “Anna led an arduous and troubled life”
“Melanctha these days wandered very widely. She was always alone now when she wandered. Melanctha did not need help now to know, or to stay longer, or when she wanted, to escape.”
Rating: Awful.

447. A Tale of a Tub – Jonathan Swift

History: This is the first major work written by Jonathan Swift, composed between 1694 and 1697 and published in 1704. It is arguably his most difficult satire, and perhaps his most masterly. The Tale is a prose parody which is divided into sections of "digression" and a "tale" of three brothers, each representing one of the main branches of western Christianity.
In the historical background to the period of 1696–1705, the most important political events might be the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Test Act, and the English Settlement or Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. Politically, the English had suffered a Civil War that had culminated with the beheading of the king, years of the Interregnum under the Puritan, Oliver Cromwell, and then Parliament inviting the king back to rule in 1660. Upon Charles II's death, his brother, James II of England took the throne. However, when it was alleged that James was Roman Catholic and married to a Roman Catholic, the English parliament invited William of Orange to rule in his stead, forcing James to flee the country under military threat. Parliament decided on the way in which all future English monarchs would be chosen. This method would always favor Protestantism over blood line.
From the point of view of the politically aware Englishman, Parliament had essentially elected a king. Although officially the king was supreme, there could be no doubt that the Commons had picked the king and could pick another instead. Although there was now a law demanding that all swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the church, it became less and less clear why the nation was to be so intolerant.
Religious conflict at the time was primarily between the Church of England and the dissenting churches. The threat posed by the intolerant dissenters was keenly felt by Establishment clerics like Jonathan Swift. It was common enough for Puritans and other dissenters to disrupt church services, to accuse political leaders of being the anti-Christ, and to move the people toward violent schism, riots, and peculiar behaviors including attempts to set up miniature theocracies. Protestant dissenters had led theEnglish Civil War. The pressure of dissenters was felt on all levels of British politics and could be seen in the change of the British economy.
The Industrial Revolution was beginning in the period between the writing and publication of A Tale of a Tub, though no one at the time would have known this. What Englishmen did know, however, was that what they called "trade" was on the rise. Merchants, importers/exporters, and "stock jobbers" were growing very wealthy. It was becoming more common to find members of the aristocracy with less money than members of the trading class. Those on the rise in the middle class professions were perceived as being more likely to be dissenters than members of the other classes were, and such institutions as the stock exchange and Lloyd's of London were founded by Puritan traders. Members of these classes were also widely ridiculed as attempting to pretend to learning and manners that they had no right to. Further, these "new men" were not, by and large, the product of the universities nor the traditional secondary schools. Consequently, these now wealthy individuals were not conversant in Latin, were not enamored of the classics, and were not inclined to put much value on these things.
Between 1688 and 1705, England was politically unstable. The accession of Queen Anne led to a feeling of vulnerability among Establishment figures. Anne was rumored to be immoderately stupid and was supposedly governed by her friend, Sarah Churchill, wife of the Duke of Marlborough. Although Swift was a Whig for much of this period, he was allied most nearly with the Ancients camp (which is to say Establishment, Church of England, aristocracy, traditional education), and he was politically active in the service of the Church. He claims, both in "The Apology for the &c." and in a reference in Book I of Gulliver's Travels, to have written the Tale to defend the crown from the troubles of the monsters besetting it. These monsters were numerous. At this time, political clubs and societies were proliferating. The print revolution had meant that people were gathering under dozens of banners, and political and religious sentiments previously unspoken were now rallying supporters. As the general dissenting position became the monied position, and as Parliament increasingly held power, historically novel degrees of freedom had brought an historically tenuous equipoise of change and stability.
Plot: A Tale of a Tub is divided between various forms of digression and sections of a "tale." The "tale," or narrative, is an allegory that concerns the adventures of three brothers, Peter, Martin, and Jack, as they attempt to make their way in the world. Each of the brothers represents one of the primary branches of Christianity in the West. This part of the book is a pun on "tub," which Alexander Pope says was a common term for a Dissenter's pulpit, and a reference to Swift's own position as a clergyman. Peter (named for Saint Peter) stands in for the Roman Catholic Church. Jack (named for John Calvin, but whom Swift also connects to "Jack of Leyden") represents the various Dissenting Protestant churches such as Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Congregationalists, or Anabaptists. The third brother, middle born and middle standing, is Martin (named for Martin Luther), whom Swift uses to represent the 'via media' of the Church of England. The brothers have inherited three wonderfully satisfactory coats (representing religious practice) by their father (representing God), and they have his will (representing the Bible) to guide them. Although the will says that the brothers are forbidden from making any changes to their coats, they do nearly nothing but alter their coats from the start. In as much as the will represents the Bible and the coat represents the practice of Christianity, the allegory of the narrative is supposed to be an apology for the Anglican church's refusal to alter its practice in accordance with Puritan demands and its continued resistance to alliance with the Roman church.
Review: If someone wants to make a person laugh, he must be put down among the merry-makers, comforters and entertainers.
This is what Swift wrote about himself: “I do not wish to entertain, but to irritate and insult people.”
From its opening (once past the prolegomena, which comprises the first three sections), the book alternates between Digression and Tale. However, the digressions overwhelm the narrative, both in terms of the forcefulness and imaginativeness of writing and in terms of volume. Furthermore, after Chapter X (the commonly anthologized "Digression on Madness"), the labels for the sections are incorrect. Sections then called "Tale" are Digressions, and those called "Digression" are also Digressions.
The digressions individually frustrate readers who expect a clear purpose. Each digression has its own topic, and each is an essay on its particular sidelight. In his biography of Swift, Ehrenpreis argued that each digression is an impersonation of a different contemporary author. This is the "persona theory," which holds that the Tale is not one parody, but rather a series of parodies, arising out of chamber performance in theTemple household. Prior to Ehrenpreis, some critics had argued that the narrator of the Tale is a character, just as the narrator of a novel would be. Given the evidence of A. C. Elias about the acrimony of Swift's departure from the Temple household, evidence from Swift's Journal to Stella about how uninvolved in the Temple household Swift had been, and the number of repeated observations about himself by the Tale'sauthor, it seems reasonable to propose that the digressions reflect a single type of man, if not a particular character.
In any case, the digressions are each readerly tests; each tests whether or not the reader is intelligent and skeptical enough to detect nonsense. Some, such as the discussion of ears or of wisdom being like a nut, a cream sherry, a cackling hen, etc., are outlandish and require a militantly aware and thoughtful reader. Each is a trick, and together they train the reader to sniff out bunk and to reject the unacceptable.
Opening Line: Whoever has an ambition to be heard in a crowd must press, and squeeze, and thrust, and climb with indefatigable pains, till he has exalted himself to a certain degree of altitude above them.
Closing Line: Where the pinch lay, I cannot certainly affirm; but having employed a world of thoughts and pains to split my treatise into forty sections, and having entreated forty Lords of my acquaintance that they would do me the honour to stand, they all made it matter of conscience, and sent me their excuses.
Quotes: He made it a part of his religion never to say grace to his meat.
Rating: Could not read.