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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Themes in Magda Szabo's novels

Started reading Magda Szabo's early (1967) novel, Katalin Street, another smart New York Review Books publication, a publishing house that has done so much to restore, resurrect, and discover great works of known and lesser-known novelists. Szabo is one of the NYRB success stories; publication of The Door got wide attention and brought both NYBR and Szabo into the awareness of discriminating readers, and NYRB followed w/ Iza's Ballad and, now, w/ Katalin Street. (They're publishing her works out of sequence, as translations - from Hungarian - become available; not sure how many more are in the line.) From the first 50 or so pp of Katalin Street a few obvious Szabo themes emerge, themes treated in each of the 3 novels available in English: nostalgia or at least vivid memories about childhood homes and villages, now long gone (destroyed in WWII, change by Soviet occupation, "modernized"), complex family relationships in which a powerful daughter dominates a more passive mother or father or both, an adult's relinquishment of power and authority to either younger family member or hired help, professional classes edged out of their profession, anti-Semitism (under Nazi domination - never under Soviet domination, Szabo had to watch her step as there was little freedom of expression in Hungary during her lifetime), the difficulty particularly among the elderly of adapting to chnaged social structures under communist rule, especially the changes in housing - communal dwellings, tight quarters, multiple generations under one roof, and, finally, the surprising prosperity of life at least for some under communist rule - better health care, eradication of lowest levels of poverty, professional opportunities esp for women (in law, medicine) - we can see why the censors allowed Szabo to publish from the 60s through the 90s, though there are also subtle critiques of Soviet rule that the censors may have been too obtuse to discern. 

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

The marriages at the end of Framley Parsonage and what they foretell

Anthony Trollope concludes vol 4 of the Barchester novels, Framley Parsonage, in his typical wry manner; as noted in yesterday's post, AT is a "comic" writer, so we know that the outcome of his long tale will be wrapped up in a series of marriages, with perhaps a mild come-uppance for the evil-doers. That said, AT is no sentimentalist, either, so it's worth looking at his treatment of the marriages that conclude this volume. Most notably, the marriage of the beautiful Grisela Grantly to the wealth Lord Dumbello seems shaky from the start, clouded in rumors that Dumbello's sudden voyage to France may have been an attempt to get out of the marriage contract (along w/ rumors that he'd broken off a previous engagement). We know that GG's father went to France to pursue Dumbello (love that name!) - but we don't know what happened between the 2 men in France. Perhaps Trollope is holding that back for another novel? In any event, it's probably the inspiration for James's The Ambassadors, on a similar theme but with the added dimension of Anglo-American politics and mores. Of course the main marriage plot in FP is the marriage between Lord Lufton and Lucy Robarts, to which Lady Lufton has at last given her blessing. The marriage seems to have high promise for success - the 2 are clearly in love, and Lady Lufton has overcome (some of) her biases against an untitled woman as newest member of the family. And yet - has Lord Lufton really reformed in any significant way, or his he still just a dimwitted, spendthrift, titled, and entitled outdoorsman? And as to Lady Lufton, the very last lines of the novel have her expressing her opinion that in the Lufton household the nursery has always been in one particular room; she says that Lucy is free to decide where she'd like to place the nursery - and the last line of the novel assures us that Lady Lufton got her way. She has broadened in some ways for sure, but she's still a bossy, domineering presence, which bodes ill over time.

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Friday, December 29, 2017

How Trollope's endings differ from those of Hardy, Dickens

Trollope, at heart a devotee of romantic-comic fiction, will bring his characters around and ensure a happy ending, for most at least, consisting of marriage and inheritance - or so I think, nearing the conclusion of Framley Parsonage. Mostly, we were concerned about the fate of Lucy Robarts, off tending to the nearly mortally ill Mrs. Crawley following the curt dismissal from Lady Lufton, who refused to bless the proposed marriage of Lucy and her son, Lord (Ludovic) Lufton. What would happen in a Hardy novel? Lucy would contract typhus and would die, and Lord Lufton would break with his mother and spend the rest of his life as a hermit. Or in a Dickens novel? Lucy would die, but would offer a tearful pardon to Lady Lufton w/ her last breath, an mother and son would embrace. But in Trollope, Lucy recovers - and Lady Lufton visits her and apologizes for her earlier prejudice, she blesses the marriage and welcomes Lucy to the family, and the 2 embrace. What's truly remarkable here is that Lady Lufton is one of the few characters in literature, excepting heroes of true bildungsromans such as Tom Jones or Great Expectations, who truly changes, grows, evolves over the course of the novel: Her embrace of Lucy is the most emotional and touching moment in this long novel, and is a glimpse perhaps into a future in which birth and property will no longer be so determinant. But in Trollope's day, that was no more than a vision of hope (still the case), so even as we move toward the Robarts-Lufton nuptials we see another couple - the icy Griselda Grantly and her fiance, the wealthy Lord Dumbello (!) - heading toward a break-up. In a way, they both deserve better. But their break-up is a reminder that match-making on the basis of beauty (on her part) and wealth (on his) can be a folly that will lead to a hellish life for both.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Trollope vamping for cover until he can get back to his main plot

In the true style of novel published on the installment plan, Trollope's Framley Parsonage takes a plot detour; just as he builds the tension and has Lucy Robarts jeopardize herself by agreeing to sit by the bedside of a woman dying w/ typhus, Trollope leaves that scene and gives us some long (and sometimes tedious) chapters about an obscure Parliamentary struggle between two parties - the gods and the giants, he calls them (very difficult for a contemporary reader to follow, and all that I really get out of it is that Parliament in the 19th century did not represent the people of Britain in any way - the seats, even in Commons, were awarded based on land ownership and the parliamentarians did nothing of value and were completely unprincipled - but that's the topic of another set of novels) - and further chapters about the marital status of Mrs. Dunstable, perhaps the most wealthy untitled woman in England. She had rejected a proposal from Sowerby, who was at least frank enough to communicate to her (through his sister) that he wanted to marry her for her money, and now she accepts a proposal from her long-time friend, Dr. Thorne - the eponymous protagonist of the previous novel in the Barchester chronicles. Thorne, who has no regard for materials possessions, will now be extremely wealthy. These chapters feel peripheral to the plot of FP, and it may well be that Trollope was vamping for cover before he could get back to the more interesting and central plot strand. Will Lucy die of her good intentions, and will she ever be able to marry Lord Lufton, and if so w/ or w/out his mother's blessing?

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Nursing the sick: A trope of 19th-century fiction, and its role in Trollope

Lucy Robarts emerges late in the novel (Framley Parsonage) as a strong and maybe too saintly and self-effacing a character, in particular in the great scene in which she tells the insufferable snob, Lady Lufton, that her son (Lord Ludovic Lufton) has proposed to her, that she first turned him down, and that she ultimately agreed to marry him only if she ( i.e., Lady Lufton) will bless the marriage. LL is so taken w/ Lucy's forthrightness and intelligence that she almost changes her mind, but still tells Lucy, no, she's a wonderful woman but not a suitable match for her precious son - and then has the temerity to invite Lucy and her family over for a nice dinner. Lucy is appalled. So she has failed to win over Lady Lufton, but she wins us over. Then, on her return to the parsonage, she sets off to help a nearby, deeply impoverished family: another parson, Mr. Crawley, with four children and a wife now sick w/ typhoid. Lucy has made an arrangement for the children to be brought back to Framely where they can live comfortably in quarantine, as she stays on at the Crawley's to nurse Mrs. C to health, if possible. The nursing of the sick is a trope throughout 18th- and 19th-century British fiction - and of course we 21st-century readers recognize that these nursing-to-health (hopefully) scenes were part of daily life (and death) in England at the time. Obviously these scenes are always a test, a trial by fire even, of a lead character's morality, and in this case to the extreme: Lucy barely knows the stricken family and, to make matters worse, Parson Crawley is mortified and insulted that someone is providing his family w/ charity and aid; he's a morally upright prig himself and a bitter man, angry about the failures of his life (a promising youth and now living in poverty in an obscure parish) and resentful of others who are more successful. Still, Lucy persists and gets the children away to safety and battens down the hatches for a long stay w/ the seriously ill Mrs. C. So she's proven her gumption and her commitment - more than any other character - to Christian values, but at what risk? We sense that there's a near suicidal recklessness in her behavior, and wonder how her death - or near death? - could affect the others in her life, including the cruel and morally oblivious Lady Lufton.

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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Round and flat characters in Trollope, and his portrayal of women

Though he doesn't go as far in this regard as his contemporary Dickens, Trollope includes many characters in his novels who are two-dimensional and intentionally so. That is to say, they exhibit only one trait and they do so to an extreme, usually a comic extreme, and they often bear a name that sticks on them like a label. The best example from Framley Parsonage would be the extremely wealthy aristocrat of limited intelligence, Lord Dumbello (my only quibble: Wouldn't it have been funnier and less heavy-handed had Trollope named him Lord D'Umbello?). That said, his lead characters tend to be "rounded," that is, exhibiting multiple personality traits, facing obstacles that test the moral strength, evolving over the course of the novel. To his credit, his "rounded" heroes do not always act heroically, and his rounded villains sometimes surprise us w/ a moment of reflection or introspection. In one of Trollope's many passages in which the narrator engages in direct address with the reader, he notes that his protagonist, Lord Lufton, may not always be acting wisely in regard to his courtship of Lucy Robarts, but the narrator asks if anyone, really, is true only to one person over the course of one's life (not talking about infidelity here but about having several romances before meeting and connecting w/ future spouse). Trollope's major female characters are somewhat less rounded, but none the less sympathetic for all that. Lucy Robarts, for example, is somewhat of a blank space - but when Lord Lufton proposes to her she shows a rare, shrewd intelligence - though she loves him and she believes he loves her, Lucy also recognizes that the marriage cannot endure w/out the blessing of Lady Lufton (Lord Lufton's mother), leading her to make a complex decision and proposition. Fanny Robarts, another lead character, is pretty much in full and slavish devotion to her husband, but she is remarkably practical and shows her devotion to their marriage even in the face of her husband's horrible decisions and behavior (by the way, does anyone understand these "bills" he keeps signing and why that puts him in debt? Are we even meant to understand that?). Also, Lady Dunstable - who inherited her fortune from her father's pharmacy and the sales of his Oil of Lebanon - though a minor character is one of the best - thumbing her nose at all of society's biases and expectations and turning down a proposal from the spendthrift Lord Sowerby, recognizing that the marriage would be preposterous, but still extending a hand to him in friendship: She doesn't need a man, or a title, to find her place in the world.

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Wordsworth, original sin, and the Beats

Reading further into Wordworth's poetry, I am struck by the strangeness of his perhaps most famous poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality - so different from all so-called nature or pastoral poetry up to that point. Wordsworth takes the ideas he'd put forward in Tintern Abbey (see yesterday's post) and other writings - the joy he had felt when alone in nature when he was a youth and his capacity to re-create that joy in a later visits to the sites where he had wandered when young - and now suggests that the capacity to enjoy nature is with us at birth and diminishes over the course of one's life. We are born "trailing clouds of glory" but as we age we become more dark, corrupt, cynical, removed from the beauty of nature: "Shades of the prison house begin to close/Upon the growing boy." This is the opposite of the Xtian ethos - birth in original sin. WW posits birth in complete innocence, the moment of birth being our closest approach to god, and the process of life consisting of increasing distance from the original innocence - "where ere I go/...there hath past away a glory from the earth." Therefore, he sees the purpose of his life and his work to be a conscious act of recovery of his original innocence, of taking joy in the beauty of nature - in a sense, a journey - with a nod to Blake - of experience to innocence. We have the capacity to regain the glory of birth, but doing so requires attention to the natural world, and what today we would call meditation, perhaps even mysticism - I don't think WW knew much or anything about Asian religious practices, but he would have admired them greatly if he did; it took more than a century but we can see what so many English-language writers and artists in the mid-20th century picked up on both Romantic poetry and Asian religion - Ginsberg in particular.

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Revisiting Wordswoth's Tintern Abbey

Wordsworth's 1798 poem, one of his earlier, Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, is famously about his return on a visit to a scene - the banks of the River Wye - that he had greatly enjoyed visiting in his youth. The poem sets the foundation for his life's work and for all of British romantic poetry as well - truly revolutionary poem, changing the course of English (and world?) literature: Through the 18th century English literature was in the classic mode, on grand themes - Paradise Lost, An Essay on Man, faith, the nature of beauty - but Wordsworth began the turn toward personal experience and observation. Echoing Wordsworth, I'm returning to his poem, which I used to know pretty well but have not visited in many years; if asked I would have said it was about the beauty of nature on the banks of the Wye and his remembrance of his "frolics" in the same landscape in his youth. What I had forgotten, but now see as essential to this poem and to WW's thought, is the darkness within: It's not only that he sees the beauty and remembers his youth but that he is restored and given solace from a world that he finds almost unbearable in its sorrow and suffering. The poem is infused with thoughts of death and isolation: the hermit's cottage, for example, or the body with blood and breath "suspended," a meditative state, but also a version of death. The poem is by no means a conventional "pastoral," though it does have the outlines of the pastoral - escape from the city into the "green world." WW's version of the pastoral, like Shakespeare's by the way, is populated: He reflects on how in his "thoughtless" youth he imagined himself to be at one with nature but now, re-visiting, he hears "the still sad music of humanity." This is a theme WW will push further in later poems; in Tintern Abbey he believes that his re-visiting the site of former pleasures he can recover his lost youth, in later poems - the Prelude - the emotions of his youth were formative (child is father to the man) but beyond his adult grasp. 

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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Another strong New Yorker story, this one from Zadie Smith

Keeping up an unusually strong run of stories in the New Yorker (and I didn't even post on Kristen Roupenian's amazing story, Cat Person, in recent NYer, but let me weigh in here joining w/ the man fans of that story) Zadie Smith has an excellent short story in the current double-issue, The Lazy River. (Maybe the run of strong stories has occurred because of a new focus on actual stories rather than excerpts from longer fiction; also, the mix of established and emerging writers is welcome and encouraging). Smith's story is on the surface about a family vacation in southern Spain in what seems to be an all-inclusive resort whose main feature is the eponymous river - anyone who's visited a water park will understand, its a lane in a pool where the water circulates through a closed loop so you can float along with the stream doing endless circuits. She is shrewd enough to make conscious note of the metaphoric aspect of the "river": families on vacation essentially going w/ the flow, carefree. But what makes the story so smart are the few hints of trouble around the peripheries; for ex., the family on the nightly walk to an ice-cream stand for the kids pass by some refugees from Africa, who get by working in the local greenhouses, busking for tossed change, or at a small stand where two African women braid young girls' hair (in various Afro styles). In fact, ZS notes that the family on a clear day can make out the coast of Africa on the horizon. There are also subtle references to Brexit - will it be as "carefree" in the future to make travel arrangements to Spain - and to the Trump administration across the sea. So we see these families floating by, each in its own style (some even attempting, unsuccessfully, to swim against the current for exercise), sheltered from the world that is snarling at the gates, and aware that their temporary place of respite is as artificial as the swimming-pool river. She doesn't pound home any of these points, but by the end of this seemingly placid how-we-spent-our-vacation story we fee troubled and unsettled.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Trollope the novelist of comic romance, and the ultimate gossip

Realist, moralist, social critic, satirist - Trollope is all these things, and has the space and time to be all these things, as he works on such a vast canvas - several six-volume series, w/ each volume 500+ pp in itself! - but sometimes I think what he is most of all is one of literature's great gossips. That not only goes for all the dish he spills on British governance and church politics of his time but he's also a romantic: As w/ all British comic fiction, much of the the narrative is a marriage plot, and Trollope's good at this. In the Framley Parsonage, we get several marriage plots, foremost being the attempt to find a match for Lord Lufton: he is obviously in love with Lucy Robarts, kid sister of his best friend, and she w/ him, but the various "evil" social forces have persuaded Lucy that she must reject any overtures from Lord (Ludovic) Lufton, as he is too far "above her station." Meanwhile the various engineer a pact between LL and Griselda Grantly, who is wealthy, titled and beautiful - but cold (Trollope notes that no man wants to marry a statue, no matter how statuesque) and kind of stupid. She is smart enough, however, to realize the LL loves Lucy, so she pushes back against her mother's attempts at match-making. If this turns out to be a true British romantic comedy, in the end Lufton will marry Lucy and reform his profligate ways and GG will match with her appropriate wealthy suitor, the hilariously named Lord Dumbello, who's even more of a dolt that she, but much more wealthy. Meanwhile, the spendrift ne're do well Sowerby tries to marry up, which he sees as a way to pay off all his debts and live in comfort (fat chance, he would probably run through his wife's estate n no time); he enlists his sister to make a pitch for him, and it's quite funny, as she proposes for him to her close friend but in a pledge to tell her "nothing but the truth" concedes that her brother is interesting in the money, that he's not in love. This forthright approach might actually work. So these are some of the gossipy elements in Trollope's fiction, and he can have the various plot strands run alongside each other, parallel but related narratives. As I pass the halfway mark in this long volume, I'm suspecting I won't have observations to post on Trollope every day, so I may read some poetry "on the side" and post a few times on that art.

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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Is Trollope the most "realistic" novelist of all?

Some of the print editions of Trollope (I'm reading Framley Parsonage on an ibook) include a list of all the characters as an appendix, and that would be really helpful because ... there are so many! English-language readers sometimes have trouble with the great Russians because of the long names and the many unusual name shortenings, but I think Trollope is just as difficult, in part because of the vast array of his characters, all of whom bear an almost equal load of the plot weight, so to speak. So often I find myself mid-novel confronted w/ a character who sounds vaguely familiar to me but whom I just can't place - much like in life, sometimes! Who the hell is Gisela Grantley? Or Mrs. Crawley? Where did they come from and how did they find their way into this novel? And then, gradually, I seem to remember them - much as in life, really. This is another aspect of Trollope's realism, I would say - the way in which our social life beyond the immediate family consists of a vast, shifting network of friend, neighbors, and relationships; our lives are not "plotted out" and "bound" like a book. To enter into a Trollope novel - or even more so, into a set of Trollope novels such as the Barchester novels or the Palliser novels - is to enter into a community of lives, and in a sense his work is closer to realism than than of any other writer of his time. 


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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Trollope as realist and moralist

Thinking about the distinct qualities in Trollope's writing - and what first comes to mind is his focus on the ordinary, that is, the daily struggles of life rather than on the comical and tragic extremes. Comparing w/ his contemporary Dickens for a second: both writers were appalled by the poverty in their culture and by the harsh treatment of families and children in need and adults in debt, but Dickens dramatizes these concerns through examples of highly dramatic impoverishment (DC, OT), suffering (Hard Times), injustice (Bleak House, Little Dorrit, perhaps 2 Cities) - the closest he comes to the ordinary hardships of his time would probably be Great Expectations, though it's not truly about poverty but about class. Trollope, however, gives us more of the sense of diurnal poverty - the struggle to get by and pay down debts and purchase the necessities, food and medicine, on a tight salary: In Framley Parsonage, for ex., one of the strongest passages is his account of the hardship endured by the parson's family on a meager annual salary - and his implicit and at times explicit advocacy for fair wages for the working and lower professional class: He has a long passage about the inequities in salaries in the church, with some of the hardest working country parsons paid a pittance and others paid much more in more posh parishes. (He also advocated for better wages for postal workers - as he had been one before retiring to write full time.) Though we know that Dickens endured terrible hardship as a young man, in his writing we sense that Dickens imagines great poverty while Trollope observes poverty - he's closer to journalism at times, or an advance look at the style of French realists such as Zola. But that only touches a part of Trollope's work; he's also a great moralist, and his easy, conversational narration pulls us into the heart of the matter. Reading through the Barchester novels, for ex., I find myself wanting to jump into the text and tell the smug and self-centered Lords and Ladies - esp Lady Lufton - to just mind their own business. Similarly, you want to get in there and tell some of the more sympathetic characters - Mark Robarts and his younger sister: Don't be such pushovers. Speak your mind. In Forster's words: Only connect.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

8th Anniversary of Elliotsreading: Which authors have been the subject of the most posts?

Today marks the 8th anniversary of this blog, Elliotsreading, a daily record of what I'm reading and what I'm thinking about what I'm reading; this marks consecutive daily post #2924. As a way to look back for a moment, I scanned the index to my posts on this blog - you can see it on the web version of the blog, though not on the mobile-device version - to see which writers have been the subject of the most posts over the past 8 years. The # of posts provide a rough estimate of how many days I've spent reading any one writer (rough estimate because sometimes while reading one writer, usually a novelist, I'll include intermediate posts on topical issues or on other readings, such as short stories in magazines). So here is the top ten list of my most-read authors over the past 8 years:

1. Proust, with a total of 68 posts, meaning more than 2 months of reading Proust. I read (re-read, actually) the first 4 volumes in the new Penguin Classics translation of Search for Lost Time.

2. Karl Ove Knausgaard. 64 posts.The only living and actively writing author on this list. Read the first 5 volumes of his monumental My Struggle, and am eagerly awaiting the final volume.

3. Tolstoy. 61 posts, but he probably deserves some bonus points, as I was in the midst of War and Peace when I began the blog eight years ago today.

4. Henry James. 60 posts, thanks to 3 novels The Ambassadors, Portrait of a Lady, and The Princess Casamassima (which I'd never read before), plus some stories, which often represent his best work.

5. George Eliot, 45 posts, thanks to Daniel Deronda (never read it before) and Middlemarch.

6. Thomas Hardy, with 44 posts. Went on a Hardy binge and re-read Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Return of the Native, and Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

7. A three-way tie, with 39 posts each:

Trollope, whom I'll put first because I'm in the midst of reading Framley Parsonage right now; also read the first 3 volumes of his Barchester novels - and had never read any Trollope before starting this blog.

Philip Roth, including his first book (Goodbye, Columbus), his last book (Nemesis), his worst book (The Humbling), what he considers his best book (Sabbath's Theater), plus The Ghost Writer. 

Alice Munro, including her Selected Stories, Dear Life, Too Much Happiness, a re-read of part of Runaway, plus many stories as they appeared in The New Yorker and some notes of praise and appraisal when she received a Nobel Prize.

10. A tie at 35 posts, with a slight edge to:

Anthony Powell - as I was in the process of reading through his epic Dance to the Music of time when I started this blog, and have posted on vol 6 plus volumes 8-12 (read 7 out of sequence for some reason). Powell is tied with:

Flaubert, of whose works I read Madame Bovary, Sentimental Education, and his last work, 3 Tales. 

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Monday, December 18, 2017

A contemptible bunch of so-called dignitaries in Trollope's Framely Parsonage

After a spell of reading obscure, sometimes inscrutable European fiction I have plunged into the warm bath of Trollope, clasic 19-th-century British fiction with a wry, self-effacing narrator and lots of gossip about the happenings among the clergy and gentry of a small English countryside community (Barchester), starting (for the 2nd time - read the first chapter a few years ago but was Trolloped out so to speak) the Framely Parsonage (I'm cheating and checking on the names of tsoe of he characters - they tend to blend into one another), another, the 4th I think, in the Barchester series, which is loosely about the seemingly unenticing topic of church politics. Part of the fun is how much yardage Trollope can get out of this obscure, even antiquated topic. In short, this novel is about a young clergyman - Mark Robarts - who has a small parsonage thanks to his patron - the widowed mother of his childhood friend, Lady Lufton. Robarts has a "comfortable" income, a loving wife, two fine young children - but he's ambitious, would like to be a bishop someday perhaps, so he begins to play up to the established figures in the community, including a few members of Parliament, who bring him together with the current Bishop and who get him an invite to a weekend at the home of the highest ranking person in the region, the Duke - who is a totally self-centered sleaze but who, Robarts thinks, can advance him in society. His patroness, Lady Lufton, is outraged that Robarts is eager to spend time with the Duke - she's as much of a self-centered prig as the Duke is a self-centered libertine - and we begin to see that Robarts is caught between worlds. Worse, he inexplicable signs a note pledging 400 pounds - nearly half his income - to a completely irresponsible so-called friend, Sowerby - putting his own family in a financial bind. What's strike throughout the first 20 percent of so of the novel is how little these so-called churchmen and legislative leaders have anything to do with the families in their domain: they are indifferent at best and more often condescending to or even contemptuous of the working people, the farmers, the shopkeepers, etc. - all of whom make their relatively genteel and prosperous life possible. There's much time devoted to an absurd fundraising scheme to support missionaries in Borneo - the church people pretend to take this seriously but in private mock and jeer at the whole enterprise - but there's never a word about helping anyone in their community: They think it's a public service to invite the local folks to hear - for free! - a church lecture on Borneo (and keep them waiting a long time, to boot, while the assembled dignitaries socialize and have another drink or two) - what a contemptible bunch!

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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Jaeggy's boarding-school novel - minimlaism at the extreme

Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy's novel - doesn't it seem as if it might be an essay or a memoir? - of her year as a 14-year-old in a Swiss boarding school, Sweet Days of Discipline (1989), gets better and stranger toward the end as FJ moves ahead in time and we get glimpses of her boarding school friends and acquaintances in later life; I won't give anything away, but it's fair to say that none has fared well as a result of the boarding-school experience. Interestingly, despite the ominous title, there is no violence or abuse or any other form of mistreatment in this novel; there is a bit of cruelty but not the bullying that is often a feature of prep lit. The sorrow and isolation these young women feel in their boarding school isn't because of the school but in spite of it: It's the parents who are to blame - strange and distant, getting on w/ their jet-set lives while putting the kids pretty much into cold storage. This novel is so slight as to verge on minimalism - 101 small pages, to be precise. I appreciate a work that accomplishes its goals as efficiently as possible - most novels suffer from maximalism, writers enamored of their own voices, but in this case I think the novel could have used more "fleshing out." FJ's character sketches are not just minimal, they're really outlines, particularly of the narrator's 2 best friends in school - neither of whom comes to a happy ending. Couldn't she have given a hint of the troubled psyches and difficult family dynamics that ultimately damaged these seemingly A-list students? I don't need every blank to be filled, every T to be crossed - but I do need a few poignant scenes, some further details or observations or insights, that foreshadow the dark outcomes that lie ahead. 

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Prep-school novels and one that never gets off the ground: Sweet Days of Discipline

Sweet Days of Discipline (1989) - not a tale of bondage or anything of the sort - is a short novel (100 small pages) by Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy about her year as a 14-year-old in a Swiss boarding school; the time is never firmly established but seems to be perhaps the 1950s? The novel seems like a mashup of Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and My Brilliant Friend (to which it would be an antecedant), and there are probably a lot more boarding school novels (e.g., Prep, Separate Peace) to constitute a genre unto itself. In this novel the unnamed first-person narrator establishes that there is a caste system or pecking order in the school: Younger girls try to attach themselves to an older student who will be their protector of sorts and in turn the younger girl will perform various services, such as cleaning the room. Sounds like an American prison system, in fact - though in this instance there's not even a hint of sexual favors nor even of physical abuse. In most of the prep-novels the protagonist has a powerful relationship with either fellow student or a teacher; sometimes the relationship is brutal and oppressive, sometimes worshipful and inspirational (sometimes both). Jaeggy does a good job w/ the set-up - the narrator develops a worshipful relationship w/ the top student, a year older and much more "experienced," Frederique, and a contemptuous relationship w/ her German roommate, whom she considers such a nonentity that now, writing in retrospect, she can't even remember the girl's name. Once she's done the set-up, however, FG doesn't bring the novel anywhere; she's a writer who seems indifferent to plot. What happens to these characters, how do the interact and change one another, is there a point of crisis, any violence, misbehavior, anything? I'm now 60 pp in and so far nothing: The teachers and the headmaster are just sketches, there are one or two peripheral characters (an African girl whose father is president of his country and who has become a favorite of the headmistress - but FG makes little of this). There's a bare hint that the German roommate may have had some family connection to the Nazis, but again - so far at least - Jaeggy hasn't playing out this string. Short novels are great - some of my favorite works fall into this form - but if the writer doesn't build in at least a semblance of plot the writer might as well call the work a memoir and be done w/ it. 

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Friday, December 15, 2017

The depiction of homosexuality in Dorian Gray

Finished reading Oscar Wilde's (only) novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), as well as Jeffrey Eugenides's insightful intro to the Modern Library edition and concur w/ JE that it's an entertaining and provocative novel if not a great one (JE first read it as a teenager and it impressed him at the time w/ its decadence and artistic splendor - less so today he notes). What strikes me above all is how much it's a novel about homosexuality (which JE actually hardly mentions, though he talks about it as a novel of gender identity). As is well known, Wilde lived a "double life," married w/ children at the time he wrote the novel, later moved into the Savoy and had a long, committed relationship with another man - and was convicted on a morals charge because of this, imprisoned and assigned to hard labor, survived that amazingly, and in his later years was an advocate for prison reform (I'm not sure whether he was also an advocate for rights of homosexuals - I don't think he was, though; I think he advocated on behalf of all prisoners re treatment and conditions rather than about civil rights). Dorian Gray is infused with veiled references to a homosexual culture: the three main characters are men, who rhapsodize about Gray's beauty and talk with cutting disparity about marriage (one of the men, Lord Henry Wotton, by far the most visible character in the novel and obviously a version of Wilde, is married at the outset, but the marriage breaks up for no explained reason). Wilde includes a lot of writing about Dorian's immorality, his corrupting effect on others, plus Wotton's evil influence on Gray, Wotton's successful attempt to break up Gray's brief engagement to a naive young actress, Gray's "Faustian bargain" to maintain his youthful beauty but at great expense, lots of excursions into clubs and "dens of iniquity" but no there are sexual encounters w/ women throughout; Wilde does everything he can to create an aura of debasement and immorality w/out making any direct reference to homosexual relationships - much like Proust's indirect treatment of the sexuality of his narrator. Why is this? Obviously, given the cultural and legal climate of the time Wilde would never have been able to publish, at least in England, a novel about homosexual relationships (France was ahead of the cultural curve on that). More important, it may have been better to depict the homosexual culture by indirection and omission: Just as homosexuals had to live "in the closet" (along w/ the eponymous portrait, as a matter of fact), literature about homosexuals had to be hidden, coded, and subterranean; Wilde's novel, though it never directly addresses the theme of homosexuality, captures in some way the nature of the culture in Edwardian England: speaking in code, arranging assignations in the dark, disparaging marriage, adopting a pose of indifference, making a fetish of art and decor, disappearing. 

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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Now that I'm reading Wilde: What's the most significant work of literary fiction I haven't yet read?

As noted in an earlier post, I'd considered Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) as the most significant work of literary fiction that I hadn't read; now I'm 3/4 of the way through the novel - so what replaces it on the list? Before even taking on that question, a few points: There are a vast # of books that I've "read," but so long ago - sometimes even 50 years! - that I remember little or nothing about them (though they're still part of my consciousness, as are all experiences whether we remember them or not, right?). Second, I take "credit" for a # of significant, even great, books that I started but just could not or chose not to finish, notably: The Old Testament, Canterbury Tales, Gravity's Rainbow, Finnegans Wake, Man Without Qualities. That said, here are a few of the other significant works of literary fiction that I haven't (yet) read: 

Balzac. Unless I want to take "credit" for reading some of the "Comedie Humain," I'd have to say I've never read Lost Illusions and probably won't.
Twain. At one point in my life I went through virtually all of Twain's works; I have a pretty full collection. Oddly, I had, and read, all of the major novels, but I didn't have a copy of Connecticut Yankee so I didn't read it and to this day still haven't, for some reason.
Nobel Prize Winners. Not all books by all Nobel winners are necessarily "significant," and some have obviously faded in significance over time, one of which is Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. Still, it was a major work in its time and one I haven't read and probably never will.
Historically significant fiction. One novel that had a huge impact on American life in the 19th century was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Is it worth reading today as anything other than a curiosity? I don't know; never read it.
Mega-best-sellers of our time: I guess you'd have to say that the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are significant literary works and that have shaped the literary taste of millions. Haven't read them, though (did read The Hobbit).
Scifi, which remains a blank spot for me, w/ a few exceptions. Some would put Bradbury and Philip Dick on lists of significant literary authors, but I've read little or nothing of their work. 
Great works of Asian and African fiction? I know I've missed many, but I know little about these fields. 
And probably the book I would now consider the most significant literary fiction I've never read: Richardson's Clarissa, considered one of the foundational works of the novel in English. It's now on my list!

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

3 thoughts on the significance of the eponymous portrait in Dorian Gray

About half-way through the novel we get to the "reveal" in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which everyone by now knows, but in any case: Gray comes home after crudely rejected the sentiments of his former beloved/fiancee Sybil (who later kills herself); when he looks at his portrait, which Basil has presented to him, he sees a maligned expression and the first sign of age lines and scowling - he's quite sure that the portrait had mutated, aged somehow, though he cannot fathom how this could be (nor can we). Extremely disturbed by this development, he drapes the portrait in cloth coverings and calls on some workmen stash the portrait away in an attic storeroom (he flatly refuses Basil's request to show the portrait in an exhibit). OK, so the motif of the novel is that while Gray retains the beauty of his youth the portrait ages - not just with the years, as I'd initially surmised, but in sync with the growing bitterness and cynicism that Gray experiences as he ages. Other than that this is a clever narrative trick, what do we make of this aging-portrait phenomenon? First, as OW's take on art, hes going against the idea that beauty is eternal and unchanging (Ode on a Grecian Urn, e.g.) art itself changes as we age - the experience for example of re-reading a work that had a certain meaning when first encountered and later in life seems different. Second, OW's sense art in some manner protects us or shields us from life: Yes, our bodies inevitably fail us as we age and we suffer the torments of life as we are battered and hardened by experience (the innocence of use, Wordsworth, Rousseau, q.v.) but art helps us endure, preserves us in a way. Third, covering up the portrait and hiding it away, in a "closet" no less, is an analogue for the enforced secrecy around the lives of homosexuals in the Edwardian age (note all of the emphasis on male beauty, the homoerotic flirting and competition and jealousies among the 3 protagonists, Lord Henry's loveless marriage of convenience, the sense that Gray's "engagement" is just a cover, a beard, not to be taken seriously), these 3 men and Gray in particularly seeming to live a socially conventional life but hiding the truth away in a closet - and perhaps this novel is the origin of that phrase?

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