Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)

Thomas Hardy must have been a little bit of sadist. He spent his life writing books that are fun and easy to read, full of characters that you can’t help caring about. And then he utterly destroys their lives, brutally and completely. Typically they suffer a bellyful of misery and then die. Usually they aren’t even immoral, but good, innocent people who are trying their hardest to get by, until the world destroys them. Jude the Obscure is no exception.

Jude Fawley has big dreams. From a young age, he has looked over at the neighbouring city – Christminster – and fallen in love with its lofty steeples enveloped in mist. Although born in meager circumstances, he dreams of moving there and becoming a scholar in one of its majestic Churches. In this vein, he takes a job as a stonemason, and studies the classics with every free moment he gets. Unfortunately, being a little naive, he falls into the clutches of Arabella – a devious and comely minx – who tricks him into getting married. It’s short-lived though, and they soon separate; prompting Jude to finally move to his beloved Christminster. Unfortunately, in a bitter blow, the city rejects him, and he takes solace at first in booze and then in his cousin Sue. Sue is a breath of fresh air – pretty, moral, intelligent, free-thinking but frigid and slightly eccentric. Soon Jude is fast in love with her, but she is pushed around on every passing zephyr of her moral whim, and that leads her to act rather erratically. At one moment pursuing her heart – and her love for Jude – and the next punishing herself for her own licentiousness. I won’t ruin the ending, but, since it’s a Thomas Hardy, you can be sure that Arabella pops back into the picture, and all the characters’ lives goes to hell in a miserable handbasket.

“You have never loved me as I love you – never – never! Yours is not a passionate heart – your heart does not burn in a flame! You are, upon the whole, a sort of fay, or sprite – not a woman!” 

My thoughts

Thomas Hardy has shown with this book that he is a fantastic writer. I often find that he writes books that wantonly tug on your heartstrings. His plots can seem quite crudely put together to try and make you cry. However, I found the first three quarters of Jude superbly subtle. The books gives a delicate treatment of the mental structures that people and communities make for themselves – and the damage they can do. Ultimately though, it seems Hardy can’t help himself, and the story descends into the usual quagmire of heartache. It’s a shame, because the suffering seems quite forced. The last chunk relied on an improbable run of bad luck, and a set of seemingly unrealistic actions by a main character, who suddenly acts capricious and cruel. I believed it all, apart from the doom. 

Reading Jude in the 21st century is quite a bizarre experience. The whole of the impetus for the plot – and people’s actions – is something that has so little relevance today. The driving force is the absolute rigidity of the institution of marriage. Marriage was quite different in Hardy’s time: the man was expected to be completely dominant with the women as his property.  Not only that, but the precepts of marriage – no divorce allowed, no sex outside marriage – (which a lot of people still believe in today) were so fixed that to break these covenants wasn’t just wrong, it was deeply evil. And evil to the point that communities would happily shun someone who broke them, driving them out of a job and a town. I was awestruck by just how much power there can be in a dead piece of paper.

So people in Hardy’s time let their mental beliefs about marriage have very large and often negative effects on their lives. People boxed themselves up in a set of very restrictive rules to live by. I think by describing this, Hardy gives a very salient demonstration of just how powerful the internal worlds we create for ourselves can be. Make no mistake, in the lives we live today we all have beliefs that are boxing us up; we just don’t know what they are yet.

I liked it

Jude the Obscure is a vivid hymn to internal struggle, to making the most out of the world, and simply trying your hardest to get by. But it’s more than that. It’s a subversive call to take arms against beliefs – and people – that disempower you. It’s a chronicle of the consequences of living a life based on what other people say. Ultimately, this is Hardy shaking the world by the shoulders and crying ‘for God’s sake, think for yourself’. And that’s deeply relevant today. Of course, the story is depressing. But then life is sometimes...

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Candide, or Optimism (Voltaire)

Oh what a wonderful book! The best possible book in the best possible world!

The story revolves around the unfortunate exploits of a young, thoroughly decent chap called Candide. He lives an idyllic life in a German castle belonging to the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh. Candide is much influenced by the teachings of a philosopher, the inimitable Pangloss, who tells him that everything in the world is perfect and happens for a reason. Unfortunately, after kissing the baron’s daughter in a fit of amorousness, Candide is booted out of the castle by the baron, and thereafter falls victim to a terribly calamitous and unfortunate series of events. He is forced into the army, whipped, lashed, beaten, and enslaved. He suffers an earthquake, a ravaging storm, and scores of malicious thugs. He sees his hero Pangloss reduced to a syphilitic invalid, and his love, the Baron’s daughter, raped and disemboweled. He travels the world, but everywhere rejects him until, finally in a turn of fate, he discovers the hidden city of El Dorado; a place that abounds in great riches and where everything really is for the best. But he foolishly decides to leave, and then promptly loses all his riches to a thief. These legion of horrors test Candide’s innate optimism, but whilst he sometimes questions himself, he never abandons his core belief - the Panglossian mantra that everything is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

My thoughts

I absolutely loved this book. Perhaps my mental image of 18th century people is unjustly primitive, but I also found it astonishing how open Candide is about sexuality, violence, and, well, the real world. The Victorian’s generated a fair bit of good literature, and I think that skews my impressions of the past. I tend to think of everything before the last century as repressed and puritanical. But it just isn’t so - the Victorian’s, in that regard, were an odd bunch, and many of the books of the past freely discuss ‘the facts of life’.  Candide also surprised me with its working knowledge of the globe. For a book written in the 18th century, the narrative trots around the world as much as any James Bond film - even heading to South American countries like Peru. I don’t know why that should surprise me; the Spaniards discovered/invaded/pillaged South America 250 years before, but, in my experience, simply not very much 18th century European literature references Peru, why is that?

Candide reminded me a little of Don Quixote (which I also loved. As a quick aside - I feel that reading 50 of the best books without including Don Quixote to be a little remiss. It’s long been one of my favourites). The main characters in both books are optimists who befall terrible calamities. Don Quixote and Candide both, to a certain extent, live in a world in their head. And the tone of both books is similarly sarcastic and magnificent. Of course, there are many differences too.

Candide is such a joy, and yet there is so much deep thinking in it. The book, as its subtitle suggests, is written on the theme of Optimism. Pangloss is a die-hard optimist with the slogan ‘everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. In the beginning he clearly has this philosophy simply because everything in his world, in the castle of the Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh, is pretty perfect, so he extrapolates that everything must be. But then, things turn sour when leaves the castle, contracts syphilis, and gets hanged. Now things aren’t actually ‘best’ for him - in fact, they’re pretty terrible - so his optimism changes to accommodate his original axiomatic belief. Now, either things happen ‘for a reason’ - suffering is necessary to get you to the best place, OR it simply must be worse in all other possible worlds. I think Voltaire is trying to show that everything is not for the best. Because although optimism seems like a positive world-view, it’s actually quite pernicious. It means suffering must be ‘necessary’ or a ‘punishment’ or have some deeper purpose. When it doesn’t. Suffering is simply an unpleasant, ignoble, banality that we have to put up with, sometimes without any reason or cause. And that’s the human condition, it’s what makes us human.

The last word

The most important thing to note about Candide is that it is an absolute delight! The writing style is that of an adventure story, and the pace is incredibly fast moving. It’s a romp around the far-flung places of the globe, and its tone is sarcastic and full of fun. It is just an utterly great read. I think it’s a lot deeper than that too, but it is worth pointing out since the perception of classics is often of dusty, stuffy, tortuous tomes. Candide isn’t - it’s an adventure, a bawdy, funny, fast-moving, global, rip-roaring, dramatic roller-coaster of a book.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys)

I hated this book. Which is a shame, because I actually quite enjoyed reading it; I found it thought provoking and evocative. The hatred was insidious, creeping up on me after I had put the book down...

Wide Sargasso Sea tells the story of Antoinette, a girl brought up in colonial Jamaica in the 19th century. Her family used to own a plantation, but falls into poverty after the death of her drunk, lazy father. They are despised by the Jamaican’s living around them. One day, hostile neighbors storm Antoinette’s house, setting fire to it, and killing her brother. After spending the rest of her childhood in a nunnery, Antoinette marries a man, Mr. Rochester, in an arranged marriage. At first they seem intoxicated with each other, but he hears rumours that Antoinette’s mother was crazy, and fears madness is in her blood too. He becomes distant, capricious and cruel, and this precipitates the very thing he fears; Antoinette’s slide into madness.

This book was written as a prequel to Jayne Eyre. I think that’s a good idea, and the execution is quite clever – but since I haven’t read Jayne Eyre, I can only really judge Wide Sargasso Sea on its own.

“I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.”

Why I hated this book

So why did I hate Wide Sargasso Sea? I think there were four key reasons.

Firstly, I hated how complicated it made life seem. Wide Sargasso Sea suffers from the ‘literary delusion’. Moments in our lives are – fundamentally – fleeting and ephemeral. They are gone in a breath.  Literature, on the other hand, writes about a world whose essence is the opposite; sentences in books are permanent and re-readable. I think this creates an inherent tendency for fiction to overstate the complexity, meaning and importance of every day life. A real person might have complicated motives, but they are mostly instinctive, half-formed and transitory. In literature, too often, motives are fully formed, intricate and imbued with a wider symbolic meaning. Wide Sargasso Sea falls dangerously far down this hole. Everything is just so, clinically complicated. I felt like I was wading through treacle.

“I watched her die many times. In my way, not in hers. In sunlight, in shadow, by moonlight, by candlelight. In the long afternoons when the house was empty. Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what's called loving as I was - more lost and drowned afterwards.” 

Secondly, I hated its attitude towards mental health.  In Wide Sargasso Sea, mental illness is described in an incredibly imprecise, wishy-washy manner. This book was written in the sixties, and I think its attitude has dated badly. It reminds me of a world of lobotomies, and ‘raving loonies’.  The book describes Antoinette acting a bit oddly, but to me seems to lack a real curiosity about anything real that’s going on in her head. What kind of mental illness is she suffering from? What logic is she using to justify her behaviour? How is she trying to cope with it? I understand it is supposed to be symbolic, but it just seems like a shoehorned, generic plot device to bring the drama to a crescendo. Even as symbolism, does it make any sense? A country might be dealing with a conflicting sense of identity, but where does madness come into it?

Thirdly, I hated its attitude towards men. The main male character, Mr. Rochester, acts emotionless, cold and almost pathologically towards Antoinette. Even in the beginning of their relationship, for example, he is described as being overcome with desire for her and fulfilling it ‘without even a caress’. As their relationship progresses, he calls her by the wrong name, stops speaking to her, and eventually sleeps with another girl within Antoinette’s earshot.  Since Mr. Rochester narrates large swathes of the book, there is a great opportunity to understand the motivations behind that kind of vindictive behavior and to get inside the male psyche. Except its squandered. Mr. Rochester simply describes himself acting like a bastard without any explanation. To me that expresses an astonishing lack of curiosity as to the motivations of the main character in the book.

Fourthly, I hated its attitude towards women. The plot in summary: a women with a troubled background grows up and marries a man who falls out of love with her because he thinks she’s mad. This causes her to turn mad. Is this great feminism? That could almost be saying ‘women are what men make them’. I don’t think that’s the message the author intended. But Antoinette Crosby is portrayed as a strong, independent women, who has managed to survive an exceptionally tough upbringing. And yet she goes mad because her husband falls out of love with her.

In Fewer Words

The following metaphor might seem below the belt – but I’ll let it stand. Wide Sargasso Sea is written in hazy language. Lots of the action happens in the gaps between sentences. The characters are driven into bizarre actions and illogical feelings for unclear reasons. When you sing in the shower, it sounds great partly because the water obscures your voice and lets your brain imagine it is hearing something operatic. Perhaps Wide Sargasso Sea is great in exactly the same way.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The short stories of Chekov

 I read a selection of Chekov’s short stories mostly because it was the last thing on a list of top writer’s favourite books that I had yet to read. Chekov, contrary to popular conception, was a plump, ruddy fellow who enjoyed a good time and a hearty laugh. I always thought him a sickly pale scholar, but not a bit of it.

Chekov is considered one of the world’s best short story writers. His style is utterly compact. The reader travels a long way in a few sentences, and a lot of the action is left ‘off camera’. All of his stories seem to zoom in on something very specific. He writes two different kinds of stories: little comedies that are often a raucous, acerbic criticism of high society, designed to show how ridiculous it all is. And his later ones, which are much more ‘serious’ and tend to have strong morality at their core.

The comedies were my favorite. One of them tells the story of an army corporal who accidently sneezes on a superior. He tries to say sorry, and the superior, with embarrassment, declares there is no need for apologies. The corporal thinks that he is being brushed off because his apology isn’t accepted, so he tries again, and again until he drives the senior official to irritation. Of course, the corporal confuses this for annoyance at the original sneeze, and going home, lays on his bed in complete resignation – and dies.

Another that I enjoyed tells the story of a man being driven home in a carriage on a deserted road. He talks himself into a paranoia that the driver is going to rob him, so he starts trying to make himself seem like a formidable foe. He describes how he has two guns with him and would shoot the driver without a second thought. The driver promptly deserts his carriage and runs off thinking he is being robbed.

 My thoughts

Some of Chekov’s stories have the kind of zinging pithiness of Zen Master tales. I didn’t always get the morality or purpose at their core, but I think sometimes that’s the point, to let us glimpse the meaningless of it all. I remember reading a beginner’s philosophy guide when I was a teenager, and it said that ‘meaning is in the mind, not in the world’. And that my blew my mind - things could mean anything then. Chekov did something similar for me.

I really liked Chekov’s stories, but I don’t think that they are up there with the greats of world literature. His stories are very concise little vignettes capturing a piece of information, emotion, or a comedic moment perfectly. But I didn’t find much else other than humor or poignancy. For example, I didn’t see much symbolism, plot, characters, deeper meaning, or fundamental truths about humankind. Perhaps I missed it. His stories are certainly allegorical – and the later ones are deeply moral. However, I found that the truths buried in Chekov’s stories, were actually more easily discovered in the world.

Chekov had great skill at writing; the succinctness of his sentences is fantastic. I can see why other writers would regard him as one of their favourite authors – his work is like a text-book for writers. And I could perhaps let him contend for the title of greatest short-story writer ever. But maybe I just don’t think short stories can ever be very good.  You put a lot of work in to understand a new fictional world, but the pay off is never really worth it. I love the idea of short stories, but try as hard as I do – I just don’t love them, the poor little things.