Friday, August 31, 2012

Greek Classics: August Wrap-Up

Hello there studymates, it's the end of the month; have you read any Greek literature to finish off your summer?  This month I tried to play some catch-up and so I read Plato's Symposium and four plays by Euripides.  I started Aristotle's Rhetoric, but Euripides was more fun, so I still have a way to go in that book.

How about you?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

She Stoops to Conquer

She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith

It's another perfect 18th century comedy!  Here we have a squire, his wife, a bumptious stepson, a lovely daughter, and a poor cousin.  Enter two handsome young men and watch the antics!  This one was a lot of fun; it's just as Georgian a piece as the Sheridan play, but it's in a country-squire flavor rather than London society.  If you enjoyed Tom Jones, this one is for you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Helen, by Euripides

Helen was performed in 412 BC and may have been a companion piece to Iphigenia in Tauris.  Their plots are virtually identical!

Helen, Queen of Sparta, was not carried off to Troy by Paris after all.  Hera gave Paris a magic phantom and spirited the real Helen off to Egypt, where she was placed under the protection of the king.  Helen has been waiting ever since for Menelaus to come and rescue her, and her time is running out; the old king has died and the new king wants her for his wife.  It's now been 17 years since she arrived in Egypt, so hope is fading, and she has taken refuge at the old king's tomb.

Menelaus, meanwhile, has been wandering for 7 years, trying to get home.  Shipwrecked on the coast of Egypt, he hides his companions and his (phantom)wife and arrives at the palace.  Once they recognize each other and Menelaus is convinced, Helen hatches a plan for their escape.  It is a very similar plan to Iphigenia's.

It's an interesting play, but it's also exactly the same as the play I just read, so that was kind of odd.  Either Euripides was stumped for new plots, or he meant for the two plays to be performed together to make a point.  Once again, homesickness for Greece is a major theme, and Euripides gives the innocent victims of myth happy endings.

I think my favorite part was the bit where Menelaus' servant comes running onstage to break the news about how Helen, hidden away in a cave, has suddenly disappeared.  The real Helen explains all, and the servant's reaction is entirely realistic--wait, 10 years of war and misery and 7 years of wandering around and all our friends dead...for nothing?? 

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Owl and the Nightingale, plus two more

The Owl and the Nightingale, Cleanness, St. Erkenwald, trans. by Brian Stone

I found a nice little Penguin Classics paperback at my mom's house containing three long medieval poems that serve as examples of genres in religious literature.  St. Erkenwald is a saint's legend, Cleanness is a Biblical epic, and The Owl and the Nightingale is a debate.  They are nice digestible poems and rather fun to read.

St. Erkenwald tells a story about how workers found an ancient tomb with the body still intact.  The bishop--Erkenwald--arrives and commands the dead man to speak; he turns out to have been a just judge back in pagan times.   Erkenwald's tears baptize the judge, at which point he sinks back into the grave and his miraculously preserved body disintegrates as his soul flies to heaven.

Cleanness is a poem about spiritual purity.  It tells several Old Testament stories and draws morals from  them:
Likewise, if you lay claim to the love of God,
And loyally love him with a liegeman's devotion,
Then copy the cleanness of Christ, whose purity
Is perfectly polished, like the pearl itself.

Both poems are alliterative and thought to have perhaps been authored by the same poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl.  

The last poem is a debate between the Owl and the Nightingale.  The birds hate each other and scream abuse as well as debating their respective places in nature:

       The Nightingale surveyed the Owl,
And reckoned her opponent foul;
Indeed all men declare with right
That she's a hideous loathsome sight.
"Monster!" she cried.  "Away! Fly off!
Simply to see you's quite enough
To make me lose the urge to sing,
You're such an evil, ugly thing."

They decide to take their case to court and debate it properly, but the poem is left without a verdict.  The reader has to judge, which I gather is unusual for debate poems.

The last time Penguin published this edition was in 1988, which is kind of too bad.  The original texts are of course available online, but many of us like to read modern translations if we're not prepared to spend days on the project.

Sunday, August 26, 2012


Now that I've covered three plays, let's learn a little something about Euripides.  He is the third great ancient Greek playwright, and younger than Sophocles and Aeschylus, though not by much.  More of his plays survive, partly because he stayed in fashion longer.  Euripides produced 92 (or perhaps a few more) plays during his lifetime, and we have 18 or 19 complete texts and fragments of quite a few more.

Aeschylus and Sophocles both made important innovations in Greek drama, expanding the number of actors onstage and so on.  Euripides built upon this and developed still more innovations.  His plays are more psychological and reveal more of the characters.  He played with form; some of his productions aren't really very tragic and can better be called comedies (in our sense) or problem plays.  He doesn't always put a chorus in.  His audiences must often have been shocked!  On the whole, his plays feel much more like modern plays--they are more familiar in flavor than the other ancient Greek plays I've read.

Euripides' life is a bit hazy, having been obscured by folklore and embroidery.  He was probably born on Salamis.  Tradition gives him two wives and says that both marriages were terrible.  Euripides is supposed to have become a hermit and lived in a cave, where he composed plays, collected books, and meditated.  Eventually he went to Macedonia and died there.

Here is a picture of the cave of Euripides!  Archaeological studies show that it was used for worship in neolithic times, and evidence of offerings to Euripides have been found, but that doesn't mean he lived there.

We do know that Euripides was friends with Socrates and was something of a new intellectual type.  He was sometimes resented for this and considered destructive or decadent.  He won few prizes at the dramatic competitions, but that doesn't mean that people hated him, since it was an honor to compete at all.  But he did become more respected with time, as his plays reached 'classic' status (instead of the 'newfangled strange stuff' they may originally have been).

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Iphigenia in Tauris

Iphigenia, priestess, meets her brother
Iphigenia in Tauris, by Euripides

Hey, good news everyone!  Iphigenia was not horribly slaughtered by her father Agamemnon as a sacrifice after all!  At the last second, Artemis substituted a deer and whisked Iphigenia off to the ends of the earth (the Crimea), where she has been serving as a temple priestess ever since.  She has been pining for her Greek home for a good twenty years, it seems.  Now she is in mourning because she has had a prophetic dream that she believes tells her that Orestes, her brother and her one hope for rescue (however remote), is dead.

But Iphigenia is wrong!  Orestes is still being chased by some Furies and he has arrived in Tauris to try to get rid of them once and for all.  (Only some of them were pacified by the whole Eumenides maneuver in Athens.)  Apollo has let him know that if he can steal the image of Artemis from this temple and take it back to Athens, he'll be free.  He and Iphigenia meet, but of course do not recognize each other at first.  Then they hatch a plan to escape and take Artemis with them.

The plan is Iphigenia's; Euripides seems to have considered women to be naturally more cunning than men.  This is the third play I've read in two days, so it's really starting to stick out.

This play has homesickness as a major theme.  It's not just homesickness for the one area of Greece that you might happen to be from, either.  Orestes and Iphigenia are from Argos, so it gets mentioned a lot, but by this point Euripides was thinking a bit more pan-Hellenically (is that a word?) and much of the longing is for Greece as a whole.  It's a theme that also showed up quite a lot in Medea, for Medea can never go home and manages to get herself thrown out of wherever she goes.

It is not known when this play was performed, but there are some who think it was put on in 412, which would have put it in company with two other plays (Helen and Andromeda) that were also about escape.  If that is true, it would have a connection with recent Athenian military events.  Athens had tried to conquer Sicily, which resulted in a failure that crippled the Athenian military and eventually led to defeat in the Peloponnesian War.  Survivors had to escape overland, leaving hundreds of ships behind.

Friday, August 24, 2012


Medea escaping Corinth in her dragon chariot
Medea, by Euripides

This one is a real tragedy, with nothing but blood and horror.  Medea is a foreign princess from Colchis and a great sorceress besides; she is not Greek and seems therefore to be prone to violence.  Medea and Circe both must have carried many ancient nightmares about powerful and alien women, and black magic, and so on.  Medea is like a Greek man's worst nightmare: cunning, powerful, and vengeful, a womanly character gone horribly wrong.  (Alcestis, the ideal Greek woman, is her opposite number.)

The original audience would have known all of the backstory well: Jason arrived in Colchis on his ship the Argo, and Medea helped him get the Golden Fleece.  In order to escape with Jason, she killed her own brother and scattered pieces of him around the harbor to delay pursuit (as everyone had to collect the pieces for a proper burial before chasing Jason).  They went to Iolchus, where Jason's uncle Pelias cheated him out of the throne.  Medea "helped" by persuading Pelias' daughters to chop him up in hopes of performing a magic spell that would restore him to youth--which resulted in exile for Jason instead of kingship.  Now they've landed in Corinth, where the play begins.

Jason has the not-so-bright idea to put Medea away and marry the princess of Corinth instead.  He tries to persuade Medea that this is a great plan that will make them all financially secure, but Medea isn't buying it.  As you might expect from a clever and violent sorceress, she flies into a rage and enacts a horrific revenge; she gives the princess a poisoned gown that kills both her and the king, and then murders her own beloved children in order to cause Jason maximum pain before escaping.

I said that Jason had this idea that wasn't too bright, but on the other hand, he's got quite a problem.  He married a beautiful princess who helped him achieve his quest, and she turned out to be completely terrifying.  You never know who she'll dismember next.  It's no wonder he was hoping to get away from her (I wouldn't want to be close friends with her!), but really he is not an intelligent guy and is certainly no match for Medea.

Medea really does love her husband and her children; she wants the same things any Greek woman would want.  She just has a really original method of achieving her goals...maybe that's what makes her so scary.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


Alcestis, by Euripides

This is the earliest known play by Euripides, but that's only because we're missing so much.  He had been producing plays for nearly 20 years by the time Alcestis was performed.  It was an unusual performance because this play was presented as the fourth of four tragedies, instead of three tragedies and a then satyr comedy. 

Alcestis is dying in place of her husband, the king Admetus.  This has been the deal for some years--Admetus was told that he could avoid death (for a while) by getting someone to die in his place.  His parents refused but his wife agreed, and today is the day.   Admetus is grief-stricken, wailing about losing the best wife in the world and blaming his father and mother for not stepping up in Alcestis' place.  Their reaction is about what yours would be--"Look, you could have just done it yourself like you were supposed to.  Alcestis' death is on you, not us."  Alcestis says:

I die, who did not have to die, because of you.
I could have taken any man in Thessaly
I wished and lived in queenly state here in this house.
But since I did not wish to live bereft of you
and with our children fatherless, I did not spare
my youth, although I had so much to live for. Yet
your father, and the mother who bore you you, gave you up,
though they had reached an age when it was good to die
and good to save their son and end it honorably.
You were their only one, and they had no more hope
of having other children if you died.  That way
I would be living and you would live the rest of our time,
and you would not be alone, and mourning for your wife
and tending motherless children.  Not, but it must be
that some god has so wrought that thing shall be this way.
So be it.  But swear now to do, in recompense,
what I shall ask you--not enough, oh, never enough,
since nothing is enough to make up for a life...

So Alcestis dies.  While the house is in mourning, Admetus' best friend Heracles shows up.  Admetus is so concerned with being a proper host that he lies to Heracles about who has died.  Once Heracles figures it out, he heads off to rescue Alcestis from the grave!  The tragedy thus has a happy ending as Alcestis returns as a reward for Admetus' hospitality, and she is rewarded too for her courage.

The attitudes about the situation are tricky to unravel.  There's no question that Alcestis is an ideal wife, extraordinarily courageous and loving.  Admetus, on the other hand, is a trickier prospect.  There are distinct hints that he comes up lacking; what kind of man asks his wife to die in his place?  This is not a Patient Griselda story, where the wife is put to a test of virtue given by a husband who is entitled to do so.  If this is a test, Alcestis passes but Admetus fails, though he repents and does better in the second round.

What struck me in this play was how much it showed about how Greeks felt about death.  All of these people fully expect to live for a relatively short time on earth, and then spend the rest of eternity underground as a shade, which isn't a happy fate at all.  They cling to life in the sunshine, wishing to spend as long a time as possible on the beautiful earth--although at the same time talking about how very difficult life is, with suffering and pain and loss.  Life in ancient Greece was short and full of suffering, but still better than the afterlife as a sad shade. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The School for Scandal

The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

The late 18th century London literary scene seems to have been quite a time for satire, light and witty repartee, and not a whole lot else.  Sheridan is famous for his plays satirizing the upper classes.  In this play, gossip gets completely out of control.

We have two brothers: one known to be a rake in debt, and the other with a reputation for high character.  Their wealthy uncle comes back from years abroad and decides to test them to see whether their reputations match their real characters.  Naturally, "one has all the goodness, and the other has all the appearance of it." 

LADY TEAZLE. So--so--then I perceive your Prescription is that I must sin in my own Defence--and part with my virtue to preserve my Reputation.--

SURFACE. Exactly so upon my credit Ma'am.

LADY TEAZLE. Well certainly this is the oddest Doctrine--and the newest Receipt for avoiding calumny.  

It's a fun play, and I'd like to see it performed.  It's always hard to tell the characters apart when you're reading it.  

I seem to be on a drama kick lately, so I'm going to read another play next.   I've also got a couple of very long books in progress.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Peer Gynt

Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen

Ibsen's play Peer Gynt is probably not as famous in the US as Grieg's suite of the same name, but apparently they were first performed together, with some of the music accompanying the play.  It is a fairly early play, and is written in verse--it was the last time Ibsen wrote a verse play.  The story is based on a hunter character from Norwegian folklore named Per Gynt (why did Ibsen change the spelling?  I must say I quite like the name Per, I have a friend named Per, but I don't like Peer), but it's set in the 19th century.

I peeked at the original text for a minute (I'll look at it more) because Wikipedia says it's written in "Dano-Norwegian," which seems to mean that it's not so much in what we would call Norwegian as sort of mostly Danish but not entirely.  Both languages have changed in the last 100 years so it's not easy for me to tell, since my Danish is pretty rusty anyway, but the online text was pretty readable for me. 

Peer Gynt is a rascally young man.  He doesn't help his mother run the farm, he tells tall tales, he steals, he's a mischief-maker and he has grandiose ideas about himself.  He's become unpopular, in fact.  After pulling a particularly rotten stunt, he runs off and has adventures all over the world.  The settings change from fairy-tale to reality and back again, as Peer spends his life cheating and procrastinating.  In the end, he returns home in a sorry state, but his true love Solveig has been waiting for him and he finds redemption in her arms.

WHY Solveig has waited for him all this time is a mystery to me, but it's probably symbolic or something.  There's a lot to dig out in this play, about selfishness, individuality, and forgiveness.  At the same time, it's often funny. Peer gets into scrapes all over the place, and mostly he does not behave the way he should.

I've been humming bits of the Peer Gynt music for 2 or 3 days now...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Periodic Tales

Periodic Tales: a Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams

I just love books like this, especially when they're about chemistry. (Also: such a pretty cover!)  Aldersey-Williams meanders around the periodic table, giving us history, cultural meanings and associations, and science in about equal portions, with the odd personal story thrown in for fun.  He divides the book into five sections called Power, Beauty, Craft, Fire, and Earth, and so there is a certain amount of coherence in the narrative.   Since everything is made of elements, elements show up everywhere and the book has a little bit of everything.  It's very fun.

Aldersey-Williams is quite funny as well.  I enjoyed his style and some of his stories made me laugh out loud.  In a section about the discovery of iodine, he talks about Humphrey Davy's trip to France, which was both a scientific trip and a honeymoon journey.  Davy thought science ought to bridge the animosity between England and France, but he couldn't quite bring himself to do it, and "Jane Davy, meanwhile, shocked passers-by in the Tuileries Gardens with her unfashionably tiny hat."

Just a few pages later, he decides to do some chemical experiments of his own and uses some carbon tetrachloride. "This sweet-smelling but unlovely chemical--carcinogenic and ozone-depleting--is practically unobtainable these days, but I have found some in my father's comprehensive selection of dodgy solvents."  That particularly tickled me as I have a father who probably has some dodgy solvents of his own hidden away.

This was a really great book.  I'm hoping that my 12-year-old will be able to read it this year, since she's studying chemistry in school, but it might be a bit above her.  The material is often a bit more complex than she's used to, but I hope she'll stick it out and enjoy it. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sufferings of Young Werther

The Sufferings of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe--translation by Stanley Corngold

This story of a young man's hopeless passion is a classic of Romantic literature, and I gather it was very influential.  Goethe wrote it as a young man and rather regretted it later on as a somewhat embarrassing work (and his best-known; it must have been a bit like being Harrison Ford in 2012 and having people still call you Han Solo).  It was semi-autobiographical and memorialized his love for a young woman named Charlotte Buff.  It's the sort of book you really ought to read when you're twenty years old, because if you wait too long you'll get old and just want to smack Werther instead of weeping over his doomed life.

Werther is an artistic and sensitive young man enjoying a spell of country life.  In letters to his friend Wilhelm, he talks about the wonderful joys of his pastoral lifestyle--until he meets the lovely Lotte.  He knows perfectly well that Lotte is engaged to a good man, but of course he falls in love with her anyway.  He spends all his time at her house, and Lotte (realistically enough) encourages him in forming a very close friendship.  The fiance, Albert, returns and Werther likes him too, but eventually realizes that three is a crowd and gets a job elsewhere.  That doesn't work out, and pretty soon Werther is back, but now Lotte is actually married.

Unable to take a hint, Werther visits Lotte constantly and torments himself with her unavailability.  He forms a hatred for Albert and generally obsesses over what he can't have, getting more and more unbalanced.  Eventually he crosses a line, and Lotte tells him to go--so he kills himself.

Werther is an intelligent and likeable young man, until he allows himself to become so obsessed that he loses his reason and his morals.  (Like Holden Caulfield, he needs a smack upside the head and a summer job in construction--though for different reasons.)  His fate is foreshadowed by his friendship with a local workingman, who has a secret crush on the widow he works for.  The peasant broods over his passion until he finally pleads for his employer to accept him as a lover, and when she refuses, he loses it and tries to take her by force.  Werther is nothing but sympathetic--even when the man stalks and then kills the woman he claims to love, saying that if he can't have her no one shall.  Werther defends him and tries to get him released from prison, believing that his passion excuses everything.  By this time Werther himself seems more interested in possessing Lotte than in listening to her feelings (if he ever was, this being 1774 and all), and eventually starts disregarding her wishes.

This new translation by Corngold is excellent.  Admittedly I don't really have much to compare it to, since I've never read any other translations, but it flows beautifully and is highly readable.  Corngold put a lot of effort into making the language natural, while also never using any English words that were not current in 1775.  I really appreciate the work that must have gone into that, and I think it pays off--it's always so jarring to read something historical and suddenly run into a modern word (like in The Shadow of the Wind, when a character deletes an entry from her office files--in 1935).

I'm not wild about this cover though.  The shiny teardrops are on the schmaltzy side, don't you think?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Back to the Classics Wrapup

Sarah's rules state that I must produce a wrapup post for her challenge.  I only get to be entered in the drawing for a prize if I submit this for her to inspect.  So:

  • Any 19th Century Classic-- Doctor Thorne, by Anthony Trollope, a Barsetshire novel.
I think this has been my favorite Barsetshire novel so far.
  • Any 20th Century Classic--Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. (two doctors!)
One of my favorite books of the year; I'm so glad I accidentally met it at the library.
  • Reread a classic of your choice--The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.  I loved it in college and remember almost nothing about it.
Wow, this is a strange book, and a great one.  Not easy to understand (and I don't claim that I did!), but very good.
  • A Classic Play-- The Tempest, by Shakespeare, read aloud with my daughter.
I've enjoyed reading some plays with my daughter this year, and I even got to take her and a friend to a broadcast performance of The Tempest--one of those things where you go to the movie theater and the performance happens somewhere else far more important than your dinky little town.  The production starred Christopher Plummer (most famous as Captain Von Trapp) and was part of a Shakespeare festival that is not in Ashland.  It was an excellent performance that we all enjoyed--it's a play that is much easier to follow if you can tell all the Italian guys apart.
  • Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction--Dracula, by Bram Stoker. 
I'd never read Dracula before and it was much better than I anticipated!
I think this is turning into my Russian year--this makes 3 in one challenge.  I'd always heard so much of the beauties of Pushkin and never read any.  I did enjoy the story of Onegin, but I sure wish I could read Russian.  There is no way to really translate poetic novels, is there?.  If I was going to pick one language to be able to read literature in properly, I think it would be Russian.
  I enjoyed this book so much.  It was just beautifully written and realistic too.  A wonderful portrait of a depressing subject.

I thought I'd better do some American literature, which is an embarrassing weak spot.  Now I love Edith Wharton and will certainly be reading more.  (My other American lit challenge, Hemingway, not so much.  Bleh.)
  • Read a Classic set in a Country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime - The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner.  Though I would love to visit Africa, let's face it--if I'm ever that lucky, the chances are slim that Lesotho will be the place.
 This was probably my least favorite of the challenge, but that's not to say that I didn't like it; it's just that I really liked everything else more!  It was, however, a good and worthy book.  Sad.

I am really pleased this year with my challenges, and how they have helped me focus my reading.  I feel like I'm picking more quality books, and not just whatever looks good at the moment.  I think I've read more classics this year so far than in the last two years combined, and I am really enjoying it a lot.  Of course I don't promise to only read classics from now on, but this has been great and I'm still in the mood.  Without Sarah's challenge, I'm not sure that I would have found the Classics Club either (though I really don't know now what the sequence was).  So, thanks Sarah, I owe you one!

Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

I really loved this book.  I picked it up at the library because I fell for the gorgeous cover (isn't that a beautiful cover??) and also it was on my list anyway, and then I started reading it and I didn't want it to end.  This is one of my favorites of the year so far.  Love love love.

It's the life story of Yuri Andreevitch Zhivago, who becomes a doctor and lives through the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian civil war, and the aftermath.  He loves his wife Tonya, but also falls in love with the beautiful Lara, whose husband disappeared during World War I.  She goes to the front to search for him.  Through long separations, all of their lives are intertwined with each others' and with the railway that stretches across Russia.

Pasternak took ten years to write the book from 1945-55, and knew perfectly well that he couldn't publish it in the Soviet Union.  He got the manuscript to an Italian publisher, which horrified the Soviet authorities and made for a world sensation when it was published; the book was the most anti-Soviet thing published since the Revolution. Pasternak knew he might end up in prison or executed for what he had done, but he considered Doctor Zhivago to be the work that justified his survival when so many others had been lost.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and had to refuse the award to avoid deportation and harm to his family.

So, if you are at all willing to read Russian literature, put this one on the list.  Buy the Vintage paperback because it's a joy to hold and look at as well as to read.  Also it has pretty good footnotes.   Yuri Andreevitch is a poet, and his poems are included in the back of the book, by the way--several are mentioned in the text, so now I kind of wish I'd gone and found them while reading instead of saving them for the end.

I'm counting this as my 20th-century classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge, which is the last one I needed to do.  Done!  Woot!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Until fairly recently I had never heard of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and suddenly he was all over my blog reader.  Two or three book bloggers posted about him at once, and I thought I'd try out the book that people were talking about.  One blogger can't stand him and I wish I could remember who it was because now I want to ask why, so if you know, tell me!

I read The Shadow of the Wind, which is the first of three books that center on the Cemetery of Forgotten Books--a giant secret repository for books, guarded by a keeper.  Once you select a book from the Cemetery, you become that book's guardian for life.

Daniel is ten years old when his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  He chooses The Shadow of the Wind, a novel by an obscure writer named Julian Carax.  Daniel learns that his is apparently the last copy in existence, since a mysterious person has been systematically seeking out and burning Carax's books for years.  As Daniel grows up and tries to learn more about Carax and his books, he finds a tangle of secrets, lies, and enmity.  It's all very Gothic.

I really enjoyed the writing and the complex story.  Especially the writing--even though it sometimes got a little labored.  As far as the story is concerned, there are only about ten or fifteen people in Barcelona, and they all know each other.  The shocking secret was kind of underwhelming, to be honest.  There was more sex than I like, and all the women seemed to be either incredibly beautiful or old and hideous (maybe because the narrator was a teenage boy?).  And by the end, everyone's lives were so relentlessly, unremittingly tragic that it got a little ridiculous, so it was nice to see a sort of happy ending.   OK, all that sounds like I didn't like it, but I did!

Friday, August 10, 2012

August Classics Discussion: Quotations

Katherine at November's Autumn has a new monthly question up:

I love coming across such a beautiful passage my eyes go back to linger once more on the words. Sometimes its deep and thought provoking other times a witty phrase that made me smile.

Rather than a question this month's prompt is to share a memorable


... or a few of them from what you're currently reading. Try to select one that are not so well-known but, of course, if you can't help yourself share it too!

I have just finished Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, and so here are two quotations from that:

    ...Newland Archer mounted thoughtfully to his own study. A vigilant hand had, as usual, kept the fire alive and the lamp trimmed; and the room, with its rows and rows of books, its bronze and steel statuettes of “The Fencers” on the mantelpiece and its many photographs of famous pictures, looked singularly home-like and welcoming.
    As he dropped into his armchair near the fire his eyes rested on a large photograph of May Welland, which the young girl had given him in the first days of their romance, and which had now displaced all the other portraits on the table. With a new sense of awe he looked at the frank forehead, serious eyes and gay innocent mouth of the young creature whose soul’s custodian he was to be. That terrifying product of the social system he belonged to and believed in, the young girl who knew nothing and expected everything, looked back at him like a stranger through May Welland’s familiar features; and once more it was borne in on him that marriage was not the safe anchorage he had been taught to think, but a voyage on uncharted seas.
    The case of the Countess Olenska had stirred up old settled convictions and set them drifting dangerously through his mind. His own exclamation: “Women should be free—as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore—in the heat of argument—the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern...

    “I want—I want somehow to get away with you into a world where words like that—categories like that—won’t exist. Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.”
    She drew a deep sigh that ended in another laugh. “Oh, my dear—where is that country? Have you ever been there?” she asked; and as he remained sullenly dumb she went on: “I know so many who’ve tried to find it; and, believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo—and it wasn’t at all different from the old world they’d left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.”
    He had never heard her speak in such a tone, and he remembered the phrase she had used a little while before.
    “Yes, the Gorgon has dried your tears,” he said. 
    “Well, she opened my eyes too; it’s a delusion to say that she blinds people. What she does is just the contrary—she fastens their eyelids open, so that they’re never again in the blessed darkness. Isn’t there a Chinese torture like that? There ought to be. Ah, believe me, it’s a miserable little country!”

And here is Lara speaking from Doctor Zhivago, which I am enjoying so much I don't want it to end:

   "Is it for me, a weak woman, to explain to you, who are so intelligent, what is now happening with life in general, with human life in Russia, and why families fall apart, yours and mine among them?  Ah, as if it's a matter of people, of similarities and dissimilarities of character, of loving and not loving.  All that's productive, settled, all that's connected with habitual life, with the human nest and its order, all of it went to rack and ruin along with the upheaval of the whole of society and its reorganization. All everyday things were overturned and destroyed.  What remained was the un-everyday, unapplied force of the naked soul, stripped of the last shred, for which nothing has changed, because in all times it was cold and trembling and drawing towards the one nearest to it, which is just as naked and lonely.  You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first human beings, who had nothing to cover themselves with when the world began, and we are now just as unclothed and homeless at its end.  And you and I are the last reminder of all those countless great things that have been done in the world in the many thousands of years between them and us, and in memory of those vanished wonders, we breathe and love, and weep, and hold each other, and cling to each other."

And finally, I'm not sure if this book counts as a classic, but I'm liking it right now.  This is Carlos Ruiz Zafon's book In the Shadow of the Wind, which is one of those stories about the mystery of books.  Here is a summary of a book, which sounded to me as if it would have to be illustrated in Gorey prints:

    The Red House tells the story of a mysterious, tormented individual who breaks into toyshops and museums to steal dolls and puppets. Once they are in his power, he pulls out their eyes and takes them back to his lugubrious abode, a ghostly old conservatory lingering on the misty banks of the Seine. One fateful night he breaks into a sumptuous mansion on Avenue Foch determined to plunder the private collection of dolls belonging to a tycoon who, predictably, had grown insanely rich through devious means during the industrial revolution. As he is about to leave with his loot, our voleur is surprised by the tycoon's daughter, a young lady of Parisian high society named Giselle, exquisitely well read and highly refined but cursed with a morbid nature and naturally doomed to fall madly in love with the intruder. As the meandering saga continues through tumultuous incidents in dimly lit settings, the heroine begins to unravel the mystery that drives the enigmatic protagonist (whose name, of course, is never revealed) to blind the dolls, and as she does so, she discovers a horrible secret about her own father and his collection of china figures. At last the tale sinks into a tragic, darkly perfumed gothic denouement....

    ...She added that, since its publication, The Red House had sold exactly seventy-seven copies, most of which had presumably been acquired by young ladies of easy virtue and other regulars of the club where the author churned out nocturnes and polanaises for a few coins. The remaining copies had been returned and pulped for printing missals, fines, and lottery tickets.

I mean, you can only imagine that in Gorey, right?  I love that last random touch about missals and lottery tickets.  The rest of the book is not quite like that, but it is Gothic and dark and so on.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Classics Club: August Meme

Jillian's Classics Club has taken on a life of its own, and now has a home to itself on the Web with all sorts of lists and suggestions and fun, and a whole group of moderators!  From now on they'll be hosting a monthly meme with a question to answer, and the first one is:

What is your favorite classic book?  Why?

Yeah, let's just make this first one easy, right?  Ha.  I'm not very good at coming up with favorites, except that of course Diana Wynne Jones is my all-time favorite ever.  You could certainly call her classic fantasy, but I'll try to come up with somebody else too.

Of course I love Jane Austen, and I think my favorite is Persuasion if I have to pick one, but all of them are high on the list, even poor unpopular Mansfield ParkJane Eyre and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are my Brontë picks.

I do have a thing for Arthurian literature, and have read most of the major works right up to T. H. White.  I especially love The Quest for the Holy Grail and all its crazy pseudo-Biblical history.  I had a professor who had us read Wace and Layamon, even...but I can't stand The Mists of Avalon.

I have many favorites among the minor classic authors: I just gave Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals to my older daughter, and that's one of my all-time favorite books ever, even though I don't much care for animals in real life.  Eleanor Farjeon, Elizabeth Goudge, P. G. Wodehouse, George Orwell, and C. S. Lewis are all favorites. 

Finally, I like Russian literature very much but have to move a bit slowly.  I'm absolutely loving the one I have going now.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

I've never been much for American literature, so I've never read Edith Wharton at all.  My loss-- I love her!  I'm going to read more, definitely.

The 'Age of Innocence' is the 1870s in New York; it's a city on the brink of total change, but for this moment, a tiny group of wealthy New Yorkers cling to traditions and standards that dictate impeccable behavior in public, and determined ignorance of anything unpleasant.  Newland Archer loves this society and lives by its rules unquestioningly, until he meets his fiancee's cousin Madame Olenska.  Knowing her makes him wonder about everything he's ever believed.

It's a wonderful book, so beautifully written, and the story doesn't quite take the predictable path.  Newland is in a prison of his own making, but he doesn't know it until it's almost too late.

Wharton published The Age of Innocence in 1920 and it won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature.  Therefore it counts as my 'prize-winner' selection for the Back to the Classics Challenge.  She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The First World War

The First World War, by John Keegan

I do not enjoy reading about World War I, which always seems to me to have been such a horribly avoidable and pointless war, fought for almost no reason at all.  But we have to learn about it, because the Great War created the modern world.  Most of what happened in the 20th century can be traced back to WWI, and of course that continues now.

John Keegan's book is an overview of the entire war.  It can't get into details or personal stories much; the perspective is from the heights.  I found it difficult to get into for this reason, though it's not a flaw in the book--that's just how it has to be in order to get the story told.  Still, it's a dense book about war tactics, which is never easy for me to read.  I've been working on it for months, bit by bit.

Keegan explains some on the reasons that World War I was such a mess.  For one thing, the state of technology at the time dictated the entire shape of the war, trenches and all.  They could produce incredible piles of weaponry--mainly shells of different sorts--but could not aim them all that well, so they shot unbelievable amounts of the stuff.  Artillerymen also invariably gave advance warning of an attack as they shot off trial rounds (for hours!) to adjust aim.  Communications technology, however, was not advanced enough to keep up with the military's needs; just a few more years of development would have made all the difference.  Radio and telephone did not yet work well enough for orders to be transmitted quickly--it was spotty at best and always broke down in a battle.  Commanders had to be well behind the lines in order to coordinate orders, and they tried to plan carefully for the lack of communication, but the result was always inflexibility.  Taken together, these two conditions helped to cause much of the pointless butchery that characterized the entire war.

One of the sections that caught my attention the most was about the navies and sea battles.  Battleship technology was developing very quickly, and Keegan does a great job of explaining how it all worked.  It was very interesting.

Keegan's writing flows very well and he gets a lot of information into his space.   Here's a sample:

[Britain] had by the end of 117 enlisted every man that could be spared from farm and factory and had begun to compel into the ranks recruits whom the New Armies in the heyday of volunteering of 1914-15 would have rejected on sight: the hollow-chested, the round-shouldered, the stunted, the myopic, the over-age.  Their physical differences were evidence of Britain's desperation for soldiers and Haig's profligacy with men.  On the Somme he had sent the flower of British youth to death or mutilation; at Passchendaele he had tipped the survivors into the slough of despond.

Most of what I knew about World War I was patchy, gleaned from various historical fiction stories or history books that focused on one aspect of the war.  I'm glad to be able to fit all those little bits into a big picture.

I read this for the WWI Challenge, which finishes it off for me.


On my trip, I took along the Symposium, which is probably about the easiest work of Plato out there.  Before I get into that, let's find out a little bit about Plato himself--

Plato's name was really Aristocles; his nickname came from his broad shoulders.  He was a wealthy guy who belonged to an aristocratic Athenian family that descended from the old kings of Athens.  He was a talented young man--athletic, musical, clever, and brave (he won a prize for bravery against the Spartans).  A couple of his uncles were followers of Socrates, and Plato followed suit when he was twenty.

Plato learned to dislike Athenian democracy.  His uncle was killed in the civil war between the Athenian factions of aristocrats and democrats, and a few years later, he was present at the execution of Socrates.  He therefore left Athens and wandered for several years, once having to ransom himself out of slavery.

Once Plato returned to Athens, he bought a sacred grove belonging to the god Academus, which became his Academy.  There was no tuition, women could attend as well as men, and the students learned music, literature, law, history, mathematics, astronomy, and of course philosophy.  And as everyone probably knows, he is still known today as one of the most important philosophers ever.

The Symposium is a dialogue that takes place at a dinner/drinking party (symposium).  All the characters are real people, but this is a dialogue with structure and a point, so if it has any root in reality at all it is heavily fictionalized.  The characters are: Agathon (a poet and the host), Aristodemus, Aristophanes (the comic dramatist), Eryximachus (a pompous doctor), Phaedrus, Pausanias (a lawyer), Alcibiades (the soldier and politician) and Socrates himself.  Each member is required to give a speech in praise of the god Love.  What exactly Love means varies throughout the discussion; Socrates elevates Love to a spiritual phenomenon, which in its best and highest form has no physical component, but in the beginning of the dialogue it's fairly synonymous with infatuation and lust.  At no time does Love mean romantic love between a man and a woman; here, women are firmly relegated to the lowest animal sphere.  One must marry a woman and have children with her, but she is never a true companion (since Athenians hardly ever let their women out of the house, that may have had something to do with it).  In Plato, Love is only possible between men, who are the best people to love because they are manly.

Everyone takes turns describing what sort of a god Love is, and what Love is all about.  Aristophanes comes up with the comic interlude (I think?) when he tells a familiar 'just-so' tale.  But the real point of the dialogue is when Socrates takes the stage--and spends the whole time talking about how he learned the true nature of Love from a woman (!) philosopher named Diotima of Mantinea.  This is where we learn about Love as a lifelong companionship, a partnership of minds that is ideally without a physical aspect.  Thus our modern term, "Platonic love."

Later on I'll be reading the Republic, and I hope to read some Aristotle too.  I took Rhetoric on the trip, and started it while riding in the car, but after a couple of pages I realized I would need a pencil!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds

Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, by Jocelin of Brakelond

I actually finished a book!  Jocelin of Brakelond became a monk in 1163 and joined the Benedictine abbey that ran his hometown of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk.  He was not the recordkeeper for the abbey; he just wrote down stories of the abbey and his own life in a personal account which continues until 1202, which is probably when he died.

I don't know of many memoirs like this from the medieval era, and I don't think I've ever read a medieval account that was so straightforward and full of personal detail.  Jocelin mostly focuses on the abbey's leader, Abbot Samson, his actions, and the monks' opinions of his governance.  Samson seems to have been a very able administrator, but he didn't necessarily worry about making everyone happy.  Instead he dragged the abbey out of debt and made sure everything ran shipshape.  The monks argued over issues all the time, and that's pretty interesting.

There is an enormous, and very medieval, interest in business and legalities.  Throughout the chronicle, we hear about rents, rights, customs, and fees--from huge sums of £500 down to just a penny here and there, it is all carefully accounted for.  It's just the same with legal questions over lands and charters.  But once there is quite an exciting story about Henry of Essex (a crooked courtier) and how a legal suit against him came down to judicial combat!

Great names of the day show up quite often as well.  Bury St. Edmunds was a very important establishment with special rights, and Abbot Samson dealt with kings--Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, and John all appear in the chronicle, along with lots of other important personages.

It's a wonderful portrait of a large, important abbey that dominated a good chunk of Suffolk; unlike many medieval documents, it's easy to see everyone as real people engaged in everyday sorts of business.

This puts me at 8 titles for the Medieval Literature Challenge--the Purgatorio level.  I can't stay there, so I need 4 more books!