Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Goodbye, 2013!

These are the last few hours of 2013, it's unbelievable! I'm very much looking forward to 2014, but 2013 has given some beautiful things, beautiful places, birds, books, people, and yes there's been some suffering, illness, sadness, but how could 365 days all be perfect? As I said in the last post I'm grateful for it all. 

And so it's time to look forward, enjoy these last few hours reflecting and anticipating. I know that 2014 isn't going to be a perfect start - I'm full of cold and have spent most of the afternoon lying on the sofa watching Harry Potter with a box of tissues, but such is life! There's a whole year to look forward to, not just a day. So, I'm thinking, planning, and yes, building some castles in the air (though some of my plans do have some more solid foundations). I was going to write about what I wanted to do, what my new year's resolutions were, and all the various challenges I was joining in with were, but I'm going to save that for tomorrow's post. I'm very sleepy, so I'm going to watch another Harry Potter and head to bed with a Lemsip. I can't wait for tomorrow, though! I think I'll very much enjoy writing tomorrow's first post of the year.

Until then, have a happy new year everyone! All the very best!

Monday, 30 December 2013

Looking Back.

This has been the fastest year I've ever known. We all say, "How time flies!", but I think judging from what other people have been saying, we all mean it more than we ever did. A month began, and in a flash it was over. The seasons stormed by. Was it really nine months ago I was impatiently waiting for snowdrops and daffodils? What a year!

This year, I read at a break-neck speed: too fast, far too fast. This is why I started my new blog, and yes, it does seem like yesterday! I'm pleased, though, that I made the decision to break with the old one, and this one is going very well. For one thing, as I have a post planned tomorrow, I will have managed 31 posts in 31 days. On the old blog, it took between the 12th July and 1st December to get to 31. And I've written six reviews:
I don't plan to keep up the 'post a day', ideally I'm aiming for three or four posts a week, but it does indicate quite how uninspiring I came to find my poor old blog. I think I've started this new blog well. And, even if 2014 shoots by, the books, hopefully, won't. 

I've already written a sort of statistics review of the books of 2013, so I don't need repeat that, all I will say is that 2013 was very focussed on books, but not just books. The highlights of 2013 were also birds and Paris. Ah, Paris! All my life I've wanted to go to Paris. I have seen the Eiffel Tower! I have bought a book from Shakespeare & Company (The Joy of Life by Émile Zola), and I have been to the Panthéon and visited Zola's tomb. One of my happiest moments was sitting with my boyfriend opposite Notre Dame drinking coffee. It was a truly happy time, every moment. Even getting lost. All that was February, ten months ago... But, I have very fond memories, lots of pictures, and various trinkets, and we still talk about it. I love Paris.

And 2013 was also the year of the hens! As soon as my camera is properly working I shall share their progress pictures, but for now you'll have to rely on my powers of description:

Charlotte (taken in September).
It was the 30th June when we brought our hens home. They came from a rescue centre in Scotland, they'd been there a week, and prior to that they'd spent 13 months in a battery farm. Emily hardly had any feathers: she was very scrawny, aggressive, and nervous. She had to be caught in a towel, and she made everyone's life very difficult. She was very disturbed, I suppose, and frightened in the new environment. I remember lifting her out of the box and her running away, but she quickly assumed the role of dominant hen, and for a while made Anne's life very miserable. Anne has always been a very affectionate hen, but she was also a very poorly hen. Most of the pictures I took were of her front or side, and of the three of them she looked the best, however her back and rear were entirely bald. Like Emily and Charlotte, her beak had been cut and she still has a slight burn mark from it. She was very pale and worrying lethargic, and in late September it looked as though she wouldn't survive for much longer. But she rallied round! She's no longer the smallest (oddly, it is the dominant Emily who is the smallest), and she has a red face and bright red comb. Her tail is always up, and she's very energetic and inquisitive. She's also very greedy and is spoiled shamelessly. Charlotte, whilst much improved, has been under the weather recently, but she's much stronger. She also had many feathers missing, but she was always the strongest and most peaceful hen. Emily, as I said, was aggressive - so aggressive we asked a neighbour to take her for a few days whilst we got Anne better, however within seconds Emily attacked his hens, so she had to be brought back. And Anne spent a lot of time either asleep or avoiding Emily. Charlotte happily existed with both of them and never picked a fight. That is still the case. Better still, Emily has calmed down a great deal. She is very cuddly, almost seems protective of the other two, and though Charlotte hates to be picked up, she does enjoy sleeping on my knee. 

I am, it's obvious, very proud of my hens. I think it's the best thing I've done this year. I knew getting ex-battery hens was a good thing to do, but I never thought they'd be so much fun: so loving, so playful, and so sweet. They're good hens with strong personalities and they've settled very well. I'm so happy with them, and I can't wait to share their progress pictures! Their feathers are beautiful - Emily is quite dark with cream speckles, Anne is bright red, and Charlotte has cream almost paisley patters on her back. They're very beautiful.

The budgies have also had a good year - Oliver went into the aviary for the first time in April and he never looked back! All of them love it, and was excruciating getting them back in at night. George has also been a very good bird, and has learnt a great many phrases, his favourite at present is either "It! Is! Cold!" or "It's! Not! Cold!" depending on his mood (and not the temperature). George will be fourteen next year (very young for a parrot), and the budgies will be two (technically Trotwood is probably two about now, but I judge it by when we got them, so March will be Trot's official birthday, Myshkin in August, and Oliver in October). 

And, finally, 2013 was also the year I saw a tiger! In June we went to see Anne Brontë's grave in Scarborough, and there's a zoo nearby. I think 2013 was also a good year for literary pilgrimages, seeing both Zola's tomb and Anne Brontë's grave. It was lovely there, and right next to a street called Paradise, oddly. I loved going, and I'm looking forward to revisiting Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall next year, as well as reading some of her poetry.

So, 2013 was a good year. Of course there were downsides, how could all of those days have been perfect? But I'm grateful for all of them. 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

Middlemarch: the seventh novel by George Eliot, published in serial form between 1871 and 1872, and then as a novel in 1874 (which means it is approaching its 140th birthday next year). And you have no idea how glad I re-read it. When I started this blog on 1st December I had decided to participate in Beth's readalong because Middlemarch has been a book of regret for me: I read it too quickly, I didn't pay any attention (I really do mean that literally) and the little time I spent with it was pointless. So many people seem to have an opinion on Middlemarch: Virginia Woolf, in her chapter on 'George Eliot' in The Common Reader described it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.", and Emily Dickinson wrote, "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?" Martin Amis and Julian Barnes both believe it is the greatest novel in the English language, whereas Florence Nightingale, on the other hand, referred to it as "odious reading" (and said much more, but it would give the plot away to share it - if you have read it, here are a few more quotes). Henry James is also recorded to have expressed his irritation at one of the plot developments.

As for me, I didn't love this book. Because of the aforementioned reasons I now have some affection for it, and I did enjoy it very much. But I didn't love it for one very unfair reason: it wasn't what I wanted. This is not a good way to evaluate a book at all, of course. George Eliot wrote about provincial life in (possibly) Coventry in the 1830s. It's about the village of Middlemarch, and the lives, the politics, the marriages, and the relationships of those who live there, and it even gives a snapshot health and medicine. I didn't want Eliot to do all that, but Eliot did and it is her book. I would have appreciated more focus (though not necessarily a shorter length) about the characters I was interested in. And that is why I didn't love Middlemarch completely, but as I say, that's rather unreasonable of me.

And now that's dealt with, moving forward...

"Middlemarch", according to A. S. Byatt, can refer to a quote from Dante's Inferno: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita [In the middle of the journey of our life]". In context,
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.  
[In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.]
"Middlemarch" may also refer to border: "march" or "marchland" may refer to the border of two counties. There is that sense of being "in the middle", or rather, in the midst of it all. The introduction is comparatively brief, as is the end: Middlemarch is the centre of the lives of the inhabitants of Middlemarch: Dorothea Brooke, Edward Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, Rosamond Vincy, Tertius Lydgate, Fred Vincy, and Mary Garth (and there are more characters, important ones too, but these are the ones who I took the most interest in). One of the major themes is marriage, which ties together many (but not all) of other themes. Education for example: that, very early on in the novel, Dorothea's choice to marry reflects not love, but a desire for the education that has been denied to her. This leads to disappointment, and her's is not the only bad marriage in Middlemarch. Some marry for social status, some on idealistic and romantic whims, all are ultimately destructive. The marriages based on careful thought have the stronger ground to build upon it success and happiness.

Middlemarch is a fairly subtle novel. I wouldn't go as far as agreeing with those who class Middlemarch as realism: events that harm or potentially harm the marriages can't be said to be "low key" exactly, however at the same time they are fairly believable. Middlemarch is social criticism, and Eliot is a remarkably wise observer who describes disappointment and hope very poignantly. Those who suffer are not those who necessarily "deserve it": they aren't bad people; they aren't hateful, cruel, or mean spirited. They make very bad decisions based on very poor judgement, but oh, we do wish them well. Dorothea, for example, and Lydgate, they are decent folk, ambitious and determined to make themselves and their lives and those around them better, or happy. They do their best. At first, I found Dorothea a little irritating: too pompous, perhaps, and certainly sanctimonious, I didn't quite believe in her, but that changed fairly quickly. Whether I loved Middlemarch or not (and perhaps I did a little), I did love her and will always remember her. Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's father, found Dorothea to have "a slight touch of stupidity". I don't think so. But she was incredibly earnest. Perhaps the two could be confused, but I think that comment from Stephen may say more about him than it does Dorothea. Is Dorothea too saintly? If so, saintliness and stupidity are frequently confused in 19th Century literature. I don't think it's fair, though!

This is a very complex novel, and at times I found it a strain. There are many other elements to it I haven't mentioned, but I would write reams if I was to try. The key to it, which I suppose I've admitted I truly failed to appreciate, is that it is a study on provincial life: that is, indeed, it's subtitle. Middlemarch is not the study of one element of provincial life, but the whole web: of people, politics, cause and effect, relationships, marriage, and intentions be they good or bad: society, in short. An almost anthropological fictional study of a microcosm of society. It is very valuable, whether it is the greatest novel ever written or not. It has to be read, and though it may not always be enjoyable, I do very much believe that it is deeply rewarding. And yes, perhaps I did love it.


My posts for Middlemarch 13:

Saturday, 28 December 2013

General, and Thoughts on Middlemarch Books VII & VIII.

The Festive Budgie Myshkin.
The wind here last night was incredible, one of the rare occasions when I've been frightened of it. And the hens were terrified: as it was getting dark I happened to look up as a great gust blew into the aviary and lifted up a bag of sawdust, and all three hens sprinted into the utility room (rather, the 'hen room'). It took about an hour to settle them, and Charlotte stood on my knee, leant against me, and cried more or less non stop for twenty minutes. This, the weather, any weather really, is still new to them. They left the battery farm during the height of summer, and our summer lasted for quite some time. I suppose it wasn't until around October that they began to feel the cold, and this past week with all the wind, rain, and hail must have been rather dramatic for them. But, they're good little things and they're doing their best. Poor little ones.

Meanwhile, as you can see, Myshkin has been having adventures. When I went to say good night to the budgies on Boxing Day she flew out the cage and sat on the Christmas tree (I spent many hours last Christmas trying to get one of them to pose by the Christmas tree, and the nearest I got was Trotwood walking away from it, but, a year later, I got my pose). They don't seem to mind the wind, and nor does George, so the inside bird brigade are all well! 

Other than that, all quiet. I'm very much into my re-read of Les Misérables, it's the only book I'm reading at the moment and everything's sort of revolving around it! It's even better the second time around, and I wonder if I've picked an even better time for it, or I prefer the translation, this one by Norman Denny, the last one by Julie Rose. Either way, I suddenly have very high hopes for Anna Karenina

And, as I said in my Boxing Day post, I finished Middlemarch on Christmas Day! I'm planning on writing a proper post about it on Sunday, but for now here are my general thoughts on Books VII and VIII. As with the previous posts, this is for those who are reading along, or who have read it. My 'proper' post on Sunday won't have any spoilers, though.

The wrap-up of Middlemarch was truly fascinating, and very rewarding. I suffered a little from my thankfully brief episodes of apparently glazing over (I don't think I did glaze over an awful lot, but I wish I had have paid a great more attention to Bulstrode and Raffles). I loved the last two books, I loved how Dorothea supported Lydgate, and the contrast with her and Rosamond was brilliant, I loved how Dorothea made Rosamond look even worse, and Dorothea was made to look even better, yet they did unite. She had my full sympathy probably from around Book II or III, and so did Lydgate, although the both of them made desperately bad choices in their marriages. And Dorothea marries Will! I loved that, how Will brought her back as it were. Casaubon stifled her, she almost turned into the ghost he was, but her very decision to marry Will showed that she was back to the rebellious woman she once was. And I also admired Mrs. Bulstrode's decision to stay with Mr. Bulstrode despite the scandal he'd brought to the family. I don't know if it was the right decision, as I say I wish I'd paid a little bit more attention to these characters, but in a way she showed strength. But, perhaps it wasn't strength at all, perhaps it was weakness, fear at being left alone without what she had always known. I wonder if that would have been a better reading of it.

I also thought the scenes between Rosamond and Lydgate were particularly well done - when they eventually made peace it was by Rosamond criticising his hair, and Lydgate's acceptance, even gratitude of it, that she was finally paying attention instead of sulking was rather poignant. 

As for Mary Garth and Fred Vincy - I'm sorry to say I really cannot bring myself to care at all. I have nothing to say. I suppose I should think about it a little more carefully, as well I might before my final post. 

Finally, back to Dorothea - the scene where Dorothea walks in on him and Rosamond was very painful. That she chose to go back to see Rosamond showed great strength. Of course, Dorothea never realises her independence: I wonder how happy her marriage would prove to be to Will. It can't be worse than her marriage to Casaubon, but that's a very unsatisfactory way of assessing the situation. And Lydgate's marriage... He and Rosamond got over their difficulties to an extent, but Rosamond was hardly a redemptive character so I wonder what storms were yet to be encountered before his early death. I wish he hadn't have died so young, or at least I wish he could have found his own Dorothea, because they could have also been a good match. That particular end was not a happy one.

Anyway, those are my thoughts / notes / reactions / however you wish to categorise them. Tomorrow I'll write my proper post, and I think I'll want to dwell a little on Virginia Woolf's reading of Middlemarch (she wrote a chapter about George Eliot in The Common Reader). I'm looking forward to writing it. I very much enjoyed Middlemarch, and I loved elements of it. One of my main feelings of happiness is that I am more familiar with this novel. As I said, I've read it before but it was a disastrous read. This time I feel at ease with it. I'm happy to have read it, and as I've said more than once now, I'm grateful to Beth for organising this readalong.  

Friday, 27 December 2013

Winter: A Dirge, by Robert Burns.

The wintry west extends his blast,
And hail and rain does blaw;
Or the stormy north sends driving forth
The blinding sleet and snaw:
While, tumbling brown, the burn comes down,
And roars frae bank to brae;
And bird and beast in covert rest,
And pass the heartless day.  
The sweeping blast, the sky o'ercast,
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:
The tempest's howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!  
Thou Power Supreme, whose mighty scheme
These woes of mine fulfil,
Here firm I rest; they must be best,
Because they are Thy will!
Then all I want - O do Thou grant
This one request of mine!
Since to enjoy Thou dost deny,
Assist me to resign. 

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Boxing Day.

It was such a lovely Boxing Day morning here this morning - a definite chill in the air, everything edged with silver, an almost cloudless sky, and bright sunshine. Outside smelled cold and slightly smoky and there was thick ice on all the paths. The little fountain, the bird bath, and the huge puddle that looked as though it would flood the house on Christmas Eve had frozen solid, and the hens quickly retired to what was once the utility room (I suppose I should call it the "hen's room" now), and they slept in their baskets. The budgies sang in full force, and George watched a Disney film. It was a very peaceful morning, much the same as Christmas Day. It was indeed a good day and everything went smoothly. I had no disasters with Christmas dinner, I remembered sellotape this time for the presents, and there were no power cuts (I was so sure there would be). And not only did I have time to finish Middlemarch (I'll post about this properly in the next few days), but I also managed to read a little of Les Misérables (the first time I read it I found the first part 'Fantine' desperately boring, even though ultimately I loved the novel. This time around, I've no idea at all what my problem was with the first part - I love Bishop Myiel!). It was a very good day.

I got some lovely Crhistmas presents, one of which ... well, I can't believe it's mine. It's a carte de visite belonging to Émile Zola with his handwriting on: he has written on the top, "Avec mes plus vifs remerciements", and also his signature on a seperate piece of paper. It's absolutely incredible - I still can't believe that what is mine was once in his possession. My camera isn't quite fixed yet, but the moment it is I shall post a picture! A wonderful present, and I've been making up various scenarios about what Zola might have been doing on the day he wrote on his carte de visite and signed his autograph. I know it's from 1875, which was about the time La Faute de l'Abbé Mouret was published, though perhaps he was already working on His Excellence Eugène Rougon (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon), which was to be published a year later. A lovely, lovely present.

And I also got a few other books - Zola and the Bourgeoisie by Brian Nelson, and an old copy of The Dram Shop (L'Assommoir) by Zola from 1903, which I'm happy to have because I did want to read a few different translations of L'Assommoir, plus I'm enjoying the romance of the book being 110 years old! I also now have a bibliography of Zola prepared by Brian Nelson, which looks to be very helpful (if not a little complicated), and, something I've needed for a long time, Roget's Thesaurus.

So now, I'm planning on an early night: a drop of Baileys and a few chapters of Les Mis. Over the weekend I shall post about the last two books of Middlemarch and then a general review, and then... And then it will be the wind down, the last few days of 2013. Such a very fast year...

Anyway, that was my Christmas, how was everyone else's? What books did you get? :)

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Christmas Eve!

It's Christmas Eve! I've been so looking forward to this day! As I type, there's very light snow (very light snow), the fire is on, the birds are singing, the hens are pottering about, and I've just finished icing the cake.

So, I'd like to wish you all a Merry Christmas, I hope everyone has a lovely day, and I leave you with my favourite Christmas quote from 'A Christmas Dinner', found in Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens (1846).

Christmas time! The man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused - in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened - by the recurrence of Christmas. There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be: that each succeeding Christmas has found some cherished hope, or happy prospect, of the year before, dimmed or passed away, and that the present only serves to remind them of reduced circumstances and straightened incomes - of the feasts they once bestowed on hollow friends, and the cold looks that meet them now, in adversity and misfortune. Never heed such reminiscences. There are few men who have lived long enough in the world, who cannot call up such thoughts any day in the year. Then do not select the merriest of the three hundred and sixty-five, for your doleful recollections, but draw your chair nearer the blazing fire - fill the glass and send round the song - and if your room be smaller than it was a dozen years ago, or if your glass be filled with reeking punch, instead of sparkling wine, put a good face on the matter, and empty it off-hand, and fill another, and troll off the old ditty you used to sing, and thank God it's no worse... Reflect upon your present blessings - of which every man has many - not your misfortunes, of which all men have some. Fill your glass again, with a merry face and contented heart. Our life upon it, but your Christmas shall be merry, and your new year a happy one!

Monday, 23 December 2013

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens followed 'The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton' (published in The Pickwick Papers), a tale about a sexton very much the same as our Mr. Scrooge. They are the ultimate Christmas tales but more so A Christmas Carol because Christmas could not be complete without a reading, or at least a viewing, of it. It was published on the 17th December 1843: one hundred and seventy years ago last week, to be precise. It is a part of Christmas now: a Christmas tradition. A tale of the redemption of Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge through the four spirits who haunted him: first his former business partner Jacob Marley, then the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. But what is frightening is not the ghosts, it's the fact that it is still relevant today.

As Bob Cratchit wrapped himself in his white comforter and tried (and failed) to warm himself by a candle having been threatened with dismissal the last time he attempted to get more coal for the fire, David Cameron suggests putting on a jumper as Britain's energy prices soar, despite an estimated 31 000 deaths during last winter's freeze.

Meanwhile, our Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith refused to meet with the Trussell Trust, a charity who supplies food to food banks used by some 500 000 people (a much needed resource in our 'age of austerity' where benefits have been slashed). He accused them of scaremongering. When a charity that helped the impoverished approached Scrooge, they asked him, "What shall I put you down for?", he replied, "Nothing!" (I wouldn't want to suggest that Iain Duncan Smith refuses to support any charity, I should say that).

In this country, you cannot follow politics without hearing the phrase "hard working" every day. Our government rewards "hard workers", the official catchphrase of the Conservatives: "for hard working people". And Mr. Scrooge observes, when asked for the aforementioned donation, "I can't afford to make idle people merry".

It should be remembered (as I'm sure people do remember) that A Christmas Carol is not simply a heart-warming Christmas tale, it is, particularly with Stave Three's the Ghost of Christmas Present, an attack on the Malthusian economic system of the mid-19th Century. The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in An Essay on the Principles of Population (1798),
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world. 
This is known as "the Malthusian catastrophe", and is echoed by Scrooge's comment, "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population." Charles Dickens personifies this "surplus population" at the end of Stave Three:
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish, but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.  
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude. 
'Spirit! are they yours?' Scrooge could say no more. 
'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!' cried the Spirit, stretching out his hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!' 
'Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge. 
'Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses?'
And, how could we forget Tiny Tim, another one of the "surplus population"; as the Spirit urges Scrooge to discover "what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that, in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

Fortunately, the Spirits ultimately convince Scrooge to change his ways. By the Ghost of Christmas Past Scrooge is shown how he changed into a miser and what he gave up as a consequence, by the Ghost of Christmas Present his economic and social philosophies are torn apart, and by the Ghost of Christmas Future he is shown his legacy, which is compared to Tiny Tim's - that the poor boy, one of the "surplus population" invoked such love and tenderness, whereas Scrooge's death left behind bed curtains, bed clothes, and other inconsequential items, as well as some relief to those who owed him money. Those who were inclined to attend his funeral would only do so if lunch was provided.

This is a heart-warming Christmas tale because of Scrooge's redemption, but it is one with a very powerful and deliberate message. It is Dickens at his absolute finest.


Sunday, 22 December 2013

End of Year Book Stats.

The year is drawing to a close, and I cannot believe it's Christmas on Wednesday! As I promised on Twitter, I've been hugely productive today with the Christmas tidy, and I've also managed to put together this post - my 2013 reading stats! Let it be known: maths is not my strong point. Furthermore, I never imagined that this would take so long, so there may be some inaccuracies, however, below the jump, this is roughly how my reading stats for 2013 look.

Some of the Authors Read in 2013

Fiction: 135 | Non Fiction: 25

Novels: 111 | Novellas: 9 
Short Story Collections: 6
Plays: 2 | Poetry: 7

Longest BookA Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Shortest BookThe Lonesome Traveller by Jack Kerouac

New Authors: 63
Including Stendhal, Kipling, Bellow, Gogol, London, Maugham, Maupassant, Brown, Wilson, Chopin, Bunyan, Le Carré, Deborah Duchess of Devonshire, Butler, Collodi, Scott, Hall, Nesbit, Dundy, Wordsworth (Dorothy), Sterne, Smollett, Lewis, Clark, Burney, de Cervantes, Camus, Ellis, Seth, Mistry, Irving, Sewell, Copote, St. Augustine, Swift, Toole, Chatwin, Pasternak, De Bernieres, Hosseini, Rushdie, Boccaccio, Baldwin, Voltaire, Choderlos de Laclos, Kierkegaard, Spenser, Lee, Shute, Kingsley, Aksakov, Mitchell, Machiavelli , Albom, and Casanova. 
Favourite: Albert Camus (The Outsider).
Least Favourite: Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho)

English Authors: 50
Including Woolf, Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Winterson, Wodehouse, Forster, Austen, Milton, Orwell, Scott, Rowling, Hall, Sackville-West, Nesbit, Sterne, Smollett, Defoe, and Chaucer (among others).
Favourite: Virginia Woolf (Orlando)
Least Favourite: E. M. Forster (Where Angels Fear to Tread)

French Authors (translated): 11
Including Zola, Flaubert, Stendhal, Maupassant, Dumas, Camus, Balzac, Rousseau, de Beauvoir,
Choderlos de Laclos, and Voltaire.
Favourite: Émile Zola (Germinal)
Least Favourite: Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers) 

Russian Authors (translated): 5
Including Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Aksakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Pasternak.
Favourite: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov)
Least Favourite: Sergei Aksakov (A Russian Gentleman)

American Authors: 24
Including James, Tartt, Kerouac, Steinbeck, King, Dundy, Ellis, Wurtzel, Capote,  Wharton, Eugenides, Smith, and Fitzgerald (along others).
Favourite: John Steinbeck (Travels With Charley)
Least Favourite: Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho)

Norwegian Authors: 1
Jostein Gaarder - The Christmas Mystery

Danish Authors: 2
Søren Kierkegaard - The Seducers Diary 

Australian Authors: 1
Zusak, Mark - The Book Thief

Austrian Authors: 2
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch - Venus in Furs
Sigmund Freud - Deviant Love and Interpretation of Dreams

Canadian Authors: 1
 Yann Martel - The Life of Pi

Indian Authors: 1
Vikram Seth - A Suitable Boy

Italian Authors: 4
Casanova - Of Mistresses, Tigresses and Other Conquests
Carlo Collodi - The Adventures of Pinocchio
 Boccaccio - The Eaten Heat
Machiavelli - The Prince

Afghan Authors: 1
Hosseini, Khaled - The Kite Runner

Colombian Authors: 1 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Love in the Time of Cholera 
and One Hundred Years of Solitude

Spanish Authors: 1
de Cervantes - Don Quixote

German Authors: 1
Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank

Religious Texts: 3
The Qu'ran, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita

Children's Literature: 10
Including Nesbit, Sewell, Kingsley, Twain, Collodi, Kipling, Gaarder, and Wilde.
Favourite: Anna Sewell (Black Beauty)
Least Favourite: Rudyard Kipling (Kim)

Re-Reads: 12
Including Zola, Woolf, James, Moats, Eugenides, Delafield and Smart (among others).
Favourite: Germinal by Émile Zola.

OldestThe Bhagavad Gita
Newest: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Favourite Book of the Year: The Dream by Émile Zola.
Least favourite Book of the Year: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Total books (so far): 160

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Winter Solstice, and thoughts on Middlemarch Books V & VI.

The first day of winter! And what a wintry day it was. I woke up early (not by choice, admittedly) and there was a thick mist hanging over the forest. Since about 9 o' clock this morning it's rained almost solidly, and there hasn't been a moment where I didn't need a lamp on. It's cold, too, very cold but not the brutal cold of last winter. And there's been snow, but the rain has washed it all away. Even so, I'm feeling rather festive - I've finished my Christmas shopping, just a few bits and bobs to get now (it would appear my Christmas tradition is to forget to buy sellotape. Last year both me and my boyfriend had to wrap presents with electrical tape). And I have my cake to ice, which I'll do tomorrow after (or perhaps during) my great Christmas tidy (I'm sort of looking forward to that!). I am very much looking forward to Christmas Eve. 

Meanwhile, I've not been reading Ulysses but I have been continuing Middlemarch. Before I get into that, there's a part of my wondering if I'm ready to re-read Ulysses or if it might not be better to wait until summer. I'm undecided: I'm going to pick it back up on Monday and see how I get on with it. 

As for Middlemarch: I've finished Books V and VI, and, as with the other two posts, the rest of this post is for those reading along, or those who have already read it...


I have to admit: my attention is beginning to wane a little. I'm in the habit of reading Middlemarch at the end of the week, usually from Wednesday to Saturday and that approach, I think, is very helpful. Middlemarch was published in serial form, and although I'm hardly reading it as it was published, these brief gaps seem to add something somehow. Clearly not enough, but I think if I decided to read a certain amount a day, it would be too tempting to rush ahead a bit.

So, then: The Dead Hand and The Widow and the Wife. I know that this novel is Middlemarch, a study of provincial life and not Dorothea, a study of her life and loves, but I rather wish that that was the case. I have nothing against the 19th Century 'chunkster' with the multi-plots and myriad of characters, but I'm struggling to take much more than a general interest in anyone other than Dorothea, Will, and the now dead Mr. Casaubon (awful, the way he died the day after asking Dorothea to promise 'something', which, rightly, she has to think about, but, oh, it's too late). It's all very melodramatic, but in a good way. I love this aspect of Middlemarch, the "will they won't they?" 

I'm also enjoying Celia and her obsession with motherhood. She's changed a lot, as I imagine one would with motherhood, and it's a bit of light relief.

Lydgate and Rosamond - all very interesting and very sad, and I do like Lydgate. I'm not quite into the descriptions of his professional life as perhaps I ought to be, but there it is. Rosamond has grown viler than ever, and it's well done by Eliot. I wonder how the situation will resolve, and if Rosamond will have some kind of epiphany. Her character is quite fascinating. Her miscarriage - should I hate her for going riding when it was dangerous for her, or think more of her being punished for refusing to stay indoors and "rest"?

The other characters? I am trying with them. Unfortunately for me I glazed over a little and am a little lost with Bulstrode, and I'm sorry about this because there's so much of Middlemarch that I love, and I think I wanted the book to be perfect (perfect in my terms, not universally and unachievable perfection). I'm even beginning to lose interest in Mary Garth and Fred Vincy (Mary is grating on me a lot). 

All that said, I am looking forward to continue - I'm not bored by it, the 'other characters' I mean, rather as I see those parts as a hurdle to overcome. It's not the best way of reading this type of novel.

Finally, a quote I very much liked from Book V:
But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost.

When I first started blogging in around 2005, every Friday a lot of bloggers used to post a poem they liked or was appropriate for their day or week. Usually, if I remember rightly, no explanation was given, just the poem. I used to like doing it, so I thought I'd try and revive the tradition, at least on this blog! So here's my first 'Friday Poetry Blogging'.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost.  

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.  
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.  
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.  
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

This could have been a ghost story.

As I was finishing my post on Émile Zola's The Kill, I heard my parrot George shouting, "Oi!" He's been very vocal this afternoon, as he usually is, and earlier had been shouting, "It's cold!" and whistling the various theme tunes of the various programmes I watch. Even though the "Oi!" became more persistent, I thought nothing of it.

Once my post was up, I went downstairs to check on him and make my dinner. I noticed a Christmas card was on the floor, but when George is out of his cage, as he flies around cards get knocked down. George was in his cage, but he could have knocked it down last night and I hadn't noticed, though probably, I thought, it had fallen down because of the draft I felt by the fireplace. 

When I squeeze George's beak, he makes a odd kind of "meep" sound; it's his favourite game. But he wouldn't do it this time. In fact, he was silent. I thought he was in a bad mood, so I gave him one of his treats (he threw it to the ground) and went into the kitchen to make my dinner. 

Once I left the room, he started shouting "Oi!" again, then "Oi! No!". Here I became confused: I realised then he only does that when he's being naughty (which he wasn't being), or when something's upsetting or annoying him. I went back into the room and he was pacing up and down his perch. I asked him what was wrong and he repeated, "No!", so I told him I was going to make my dinner then we could watch Law and Order (he loves the theme tune).

Back into the kitchen I went, and he shrieked. Still thinking he was in a bad mood, I whistled to him, but he kept shrieking. I went back and all the Christmas cards were on the floor. He kept shrieking and pacing, but I couldn't see what was wrong with him. I stood with him a while, stroked his feet, sung one of his songs, and gradually he calmed down and I managed to get a "meep" out of him.

At this point, the budgies, who were upstairs, seemed to be having some kind of battle, so I popped up to check on them. Oliver, not being very good at flying, had tried to fly from one window to the other but hadn't made it, so he was sitting on the floor calling me (he shouts until I pick him up). As I picked him up, George screamed.

As anyone experienced with parrots know, the parrot scream, the African Grey Parrot scream, is horrifying. They scream in terror: it is not a noise they've copied, and it's not the frustrated squawk for attention: it is a very rare, but very real scream of distress. I ran downstairs and he was sitting at the bottom of his cage, and this time, a small ornament had fallen from the mantelpiece and smashed. The Christmas tree was shaking. 

I opened up his cage to get him on my shoulder and take him upstairs, but he wouldn't come out. At this point, my heart was racing (the scream truly is bloody). George climbed up to his perch, but refused to move, muttering "No!" I didn't know what to do, so I just stood there, when suddenly a look of unholy terror came across his face just as I heard a kind of humming noise, and I felt a sharp draft across the back of my neck. George, once more, shouted, "Oi! No!"

I said out loud, "What the hell was that?" (to which George unhelpfully replied, "Want some?") and I followed the humming noise, which had passed behind me, but all I could see was the empty budgie cage with their cover on top. Nothing else. 

If it hadn't have been for George, I would have been out of that room in a second. Though, I have to ask myself, would I have been? because I was rather frozen to the spot. I looked back at George, who was puffed out and pacing again, this time mumbling, "Off there!" and the hum and draft came again. I quickly turned around and, as another ornament fell to the floor, I saw the ghost: it was a chaffinch.

So, all is almost well. The chaffinch is refusing to leave, but I've got it out of the living room and it's now on top of a cupboard. It's asleep, as is George and the budgies, and meanwhile I'm writing this and trying to recover. I'm going to go and read Middlemarch to settle my nerves.

The Kill, by Émile Zola.

A part of The Fortune of the Rougons, the love story of Silvère and Miette, was a sort of re-write of Ovid's 'Pyramus and Thisbe' (found in Book IV of Metamorphoses). The Kill also has references to Ovid, this time to the story of 'Echo and Narcissus' (Book III of Metamorphoses), however it not Ovid but Racine, and by extension Euripides, that partly inspired The Kill. Zola wrote in a letter to Louis Ulbach (6th November 1871) that The Kill was to be the "new Phaedra": Phaedra, or Phèdre, a play by Jean Racine (written in 1676 and first performed the following year), was inspired by Euripides's Hippolytus (428BC), with themes of incest, lust, jealousy, betrayal, and revenge.

In the letter, Zola wrote,
I must point out, since I have been misunderstood and prevented from making myself clear, that The Kill is an unwholesome plant that sprouted out of the dungheap of the Empire, an incest that grew on the compost pile of millions. My aim, in this new Phaedra, was to show the terrible social breakdown that occurs when all moral standards are lost and family ties no longer exist. 
And, in the preface,
In the natural and social history of a family during the Second Empire, The Kill is the note of gold and flesh...  
I wanted to show the premature exhaustion of a race which has lived too quickly and ends in the man-woman of rotten societies, the furious speculation of an epoch embodied in an unscrupulous temperament, the nervous breakdown of a woman whose circle of luxury and shame increases tenfold native appetites. And, with these three social monstrosities, I have tried to write a work of art and science that should at the same time be one of the strangest chapters in our social history.
The Kill, first published in 1872, is the second of the twenty novel series, Les Rougon-Macquart. It follows the story of Astride, who we met in The Fortune of the Rougons: son of Pierre and Félicité Rougon, grandson of Adélaïde. He had the rather unfortunate description in Fortune as being "short, with an unfortunate face like the knob of a stick carved in the shape of a Punch's head", and clearly has grown no better looking: in The Kill, he is "short and sly looking" and "bent and bowed like a puppet". The Kill sees him in Paris, having changed his name to Saccard, conjuring images of wealth: in French, sac d'ecus means 'bags of money', and saccager means 'to sack'. As his brother Eugène observes, "Yes, it's a name that will make you a crook or a millionaire". Throughout Fortune, Astride was unable to decide whether to support the Republicans or the Royalists, and in The Kill, "he swoop[s] down on Paris the day after 2 December, like a bird of prey scenting the battle from afar".
He came in a great and hurry, furious at having taken a wrong turn, cursing the provinces, talking of Paris with the ravenous hunger of a wolf, swearing that he would never be such a fool again; and his bitter smile as she said these words assumed a terrible significance on his thin lips.
His wife, Angèle, dies and he goes on to marry the beautiful Renée (this idea is discussed at length in earshot of Angèle as she lies dying). As with Nantas, Émile Zola's short story published in 1878, Astride and Renée's marriage is one of convenience: as a result of rape, Renée is pregnant, so the marriage saves her social standing (as predicted, she goes on to have a miscarriage), and her dowry gives Astride much-needed funding to invest and speculate in real estate, stocks, and shares. George Moore notes, in his introduction to The Rush for the Spoils (another translation of La Curée, or The Kill) - "He gives her everything but an interest in life".

The three social monstrosities Zola eludes to are Paris, society, and capitalism. Renée represents Paris, Maxime, the son of Astride and Angèle, represents society, and Astride represents capitalism. Astride is, effectively, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Prefect of the Seine and chief administrator of Paris. Haussmann radically transformed Paris, destroying the old Paris and rebuilding it, making it, as Nelson writes, "a phantasmagoria of capitalist culture". There is a part early on in The Kill which demonstrates this attitude of destruction rather nicely:
With his outstretched hand, open and sharp as a sabre, he indicated how the city was being divided into four parts. 
"You mean the Rue de Rivoli and the new boulevard they're building?" asked his wife [Angèle].
"Yes, the great transept of Paris as they call it. They're clearing away the buildings round the Louvre and the Hôtel de Ville. That's just child's play! But it'll get the public interested. When the first network is finished the fun will begin. The second network will cut through the city in all directions to connect the suburbs with the first network. The rest will disappear in clouds of plaster. Look, just follow my hand. From the Boulevard du Temple to the Barrière du Trône, that one's cut; then on this side another, from the Madeleine to the Plaine Monceau; and a third cut this way, another that way, a cut there, one further on, cuts everywhere, Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened, providing a living for a hundred thousand navvies and bricklayers, traversed by splendid military roads which will bring the forts into the heart of the old neighbourhoods." 
Night was falling. His dry, feverish hand kept cutting through the air. Angèle shivered slightly as she watched this living knife, those iron fingers mercilessly slicing the boundless mass of dark roofs.
By Arthur Sjögren, 1910
(Publisher: Fröléen & Comp)
In this "theatre of excess" (Nelson), as Astride frantically speculates, Renée lives a materialistic, luxurious, but deeply unhappy life. In the first pages, Zola describes her in Paris, Paris filled with "golden glints", "straw coloured edges", "brass buttons", "a thousand glimmering lights", "quick flashes", "sparks", "glitter", and "dazzle", where she announces to her stepson Maxime, "Oh, I'm bored, bored to death". Maxime observes that she has "bitten every apple", and indeed she claims, "I want something different.... there is nothing different". As fortunes are spent on the remaking of Paris, so too are fortunes spent on Renée's appearance: her make up, her clothes, her way of living. Her actions, her incest with Maxime, Astride's son, represent the immorality of modernity, and the breakdown in family and family ties. Goldhammer observes, "For neither the speculation nor the incest would be conceivable without the modernity that is Paris". There is a breakdown in the 'private' sphere: there's a description of Astride's home, which sounds more like a busy street, and then in public there is behaviour that really ought to be kept private. Other than money, nothing is sacred. Nelson quotes Marx's The Communist Manifesto, which argues,
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a more money relation.
Astride and Renée's marriage was profitable for them both, and Maxime and Astride calculate what they can gain from one another. Sins and betrayals are forgiven for the right price.

There is so much going on in this novel that I could go on all evening writing this, but I think I need to reign myself in a little now! In short, The Kill, I think, is a tragic tale. As Hippolytus suffered at the hands of the gods, Renée suffered at the hands of modernity. The incest between her and Maxime was inevitable, and like Hippolytus she was punished. This is a very old and dark tale despite the backdrop of a new and sparkling Paris.


Further reading:
  • Introduction to The Kill by Arthur Goldhammer.
  • Introduction to The Rush for the Spoils by George Moore.
  • Introduction to The Kill by Brian Nelson.
  • 'The Remaking of Paris: Zola and Haussmann' by Brian Nelson in The Literature of Paris, edited by Anna-Louise Milne.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

2014 Challenges.

I think it's time I finally got my 2014 Challenges in order! That said, this isn't definitive - if anything pops up that is appealing, I shall consider it, but with all the Zola planned and various other projects, I do want to keep challenges to a minimum.

First is Adam's TBR 2014 Challenge. This is traditional. I couldn't not join in. My choices are:

  1. The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
  2. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.
  3. Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli. 
  4. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. 
  5. Ninety-Three by Victor Hugo.
  6. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
  7. Parade's End by Ford Maddox Ford.
  8. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. 
  9. The Wings of a Dove by Henry James.
  10. On Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.
  11. Metamorphoses by Ovid.
  12. Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope.
  1. Is He Popejoy by Anthony Trollope.
  2. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. 

Next, The Chunkster Challenge. Details are here. I plan to read at least ten books with over 450 pages. You don't have to list your books ahead of time, but I do aim to re-read Remembrance of Things Past in 2014. Summer, most likely. And, hopefully, if there's time, a re-read of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, which I imagine I'd want to read in autumn.

Then, my own challenge, Russian Literature 2014. I did say there was no need to list the books ahead, but I do want to read a fair bit of Dostoyevsky. I'm aiming for Level 3, 7 - 12 books.

So, there it is: my challenges laid out! I'm now off to do a little Christmas shopping (hence search an early morning post!). I can't believe it will be 2014 in two weeks today....

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Notes on Ulysses by James Joyce, Part I: The Telemachiad.

I've finished the first part of Ulysses, the Telemachiad (meaning 'the song of Telemechus'), which comprises of three episodes:
  • Telemachus, from the Greek Τηλέμαχος meaning 'far from battle'. Refers to Telemachus in Homer's The Odyssey, who searched for his father Odysseus when he fails to return home from the Trojan War.
  • Nestor, referring to Nestor of Gerenia (Νέστωρ Γερήνιο).
  • Proteus, from the Greek 'Πρωτεύς' referring to Homer's 'Old Man of the Sea'.
I will, when I've finished the novel, write a review of some kind, but for now here are some thoughts of Ulysses so far.

And, so far, so mixed. Telemachus and Nestor are actually a delight to read, but, hit Proteus and find the real work starts there.

Telemachus has great energy and a beautiful rhythm throughout. One of my friends drew my attention to this by reading the first sentence, which you must read aloud right now:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. 
And there are plenty more,
... and then covered the bowl smartly. —Back to barracks! he said sternly.
He added in a preacher's tone...
And then,
Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly. That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?
I love the first episode. As I say, it's high energy - set at 8am in the tower, Buck Mulligan in high spirits, pretending to perform mass whilst shaving, winding up the sombre Stephen Dedalus (in Telemachus we pick up his story from the end of Portrait of an Artist), who is in mourning for his mother, and who seems to take it all out a little on a third, Haines, an Englishman. They talk a little of history, specifically Ireland's, theology, Hamlet, and money. There's a lot going on, but, as my third read, I'm finding all kinds of details I'd never noticed, appreciated, or understood before. And, whilst in that respect it is quite dense, it's also very readable and does not require a synopsis, which is why I'm going to end here. But I do love it, it is rather wonderful!

Following Telemachus is Nestor, which follows Stephen into the classroom where he is teaching the victories of Pyrrhus. I like the description / thoughts of one of his pupils:
Ugly and futile: lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail's bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His mother's prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled underfoot and had gone, scarcely having been. A poor soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped.
There is repetition from the first episode, where Stephen is thinking of his own mother and a dream he had where she smelt of "an odour of wax and rosewood", but Stephen's thoughts are interrupted by the vile, anti-Semitic Mr. Deasy, who is largely preoccupied with money (though the history of Ireland is discussed). This part contains the famous quotes, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake", and "God is a shout in the street". In context:
History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
—The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All human history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
—That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
—What? Mr Deasy asked.
—A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.
Like Telemachus, it's dense, but very readable. There is hope and joy for Ulysses, but that is promptly thwarted in the third episode, Proteus, where Stephen walks on the beach, thinks thoughts, picks his nose, and urinates against a rock. And he does think lot of thoughts. Proteus is a shape-shifting god, so at least the naming of the episode makes sense. It did mark a shift; Stephen began to think of his father rather than just his mother. The whole episode is interior, there seemed to be some references to the outside world, but Stephen was on the whole preoccupied. It really was a very difficult chapter, but I'm not going to consult other sources whilst I write this post. All I'll say is I do, at some point, need a little help with it! It was somewhat frustrating.

But, I've moved on, and the next episode, the first of The Odyssey (the second part) is rather fun and much more manageable! I do intend to write a few thoughts on the second part, but the second part makes up the vast majority of the book, so it will be after Christmas. And I am enjoying it; Proteus or no Proteus, it's a good experience. 

Monday, 16 December 2013

Ulysses, and Literary Cluedo.

So we go on capping these resemblances, and each time we succeed, dipping now into the novel, now into the letters, a little glow of satisfaction comes over us, as if novel-reading were a game of skill in which the puzzle set us is to find the face of the writer. 
- Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader Series II
James Joyce wrote that in Ulysses, he "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant". Both long and exceedingly complex, Ulysses is one of the most alarming books in literature. It seems impossible to simply read it: I feel as though I need to be armed with Homer, a history of Ireland, a book on World War I, The Portrait of an Artist, several biographies on Joyce, and as many study guides I can possibly lay my hands on. Owing to time constraints, I've contented myself with reading the introduction to my silver Penguin, written by Declan Kiberd. Kiberd writes so apparently effortlessly, but I'm not reassured. Furthermore, he writes,
For a long time, criticism of Ulysses became little more than a detective game of literary Cluedo.
By Stuart Gilbert. Large version here.
Take from Dvnia Joyce.
Literary Cluedo is, I feel, the only chance I have with this, despite Virginia Woolf's warning in The Common Reader that this is no way to read a novel. Clearly, when my most favoured and familiar genre is Naturalism and Realism (Kiberd writes, "Farewell Zola, goodbye Flaubert"), Modernism is, at least, somewhat of a concern, despite my familiarity with Virginia Woolf. Every time I plan to read it, and it has so far left me defeated, I've had a hundred webpages open; all kinds of maps and guides. But that makes it so much worse: that table by Stuart Gilbert (here) is frankly horrifying.

So, when I start reading Ulysses later today along with Adam and a few others, I am going to do just that, and only that: read it. I may, it is true, consult Apollodorus (The Library of Greek Mythology) for a reminder of Homer's The Odyssey, and it is possible that, having read a section, I will do a little further reading. But Kiberd's introduction is my only prep, and only after reading a part will I seek further material.

And, Kiberd suggested it may help to read aloud - I may perhaps do this also, with the budgies as an audience. Not all of it, though. 

Adam suggests that we read about 40 pages or so a day. I looked at the different parts, and thought it best to read one part a day six days a week, however there are a few parts that could not be read and understood in a single day. I want to get ahead slightly today, and then follow his advice. 

Wish me luck!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James.

If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children - ?
I do like a ghost story at Christmas, and having finished Best Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens (review of A Christmas Carol to follow), I decided to pick up the second of my 25 re-reads, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The first time I read it was probably about fifteen years ago, and I found it frustrating and tricky to follow. And, indeed, the style is a touch awkward at first, but one soon gets into it. 

As for frustrating? No, I don't think it's frustrating. But, to paraphrase the governess, God help me if I know what it is! Is The Turn of the Screw a ghost story or a psychological thriller? I'm pleased, after a little further reading, to discover that this is indeed a debate - is the second narrator (our first narrator is a man reading a written account of the events at a gathering over the Christmas period) - the governess - insane? Or is she truly haunted? She's not an entirely reliable narrator, and why is that? Some details perhaps were forgotten as she came to write her account, or perhaps she was driven insane by the hauntings, or even, equally as convincing, she was mad all along. For the reader who likes to know what they are dealing with, the question is as horrifying as the story itself! My opinion is that it is the latter, and that The Turn of the Screw is less a ghost story, more a psychological thriller. I have good reason, as those who disagree with me will. 

Whatever it is, it is chilling: it's the most frightening ghost story I've read (not that I've read a great many, I should add). From the first paragraph I got goosebumps. It's difficult to say why very clearly, but here is what I'm referring to:
The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house as had gathered us for the occasion - an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also, the same sight that had shaken him.
How to explain why something is scary? Why did this make me uneasy? I think because of the certainty of the little boy, that he didn't wish to be comforted, he wished her to see what was very definitely there. Or was it? The terror was there, and terror is infectious. It could have been the howling wind as I read this, and the room that wasn't quite warmed up yet. But this, and the whole of The Turn of the Screw left me uneasy. The frequent references to the sea in this indicate a bumpy ride for both the reader and the narrator: the fact is, we can't really be sure about anything. The children - Miles and Flora - they appear almost angelic - are they? Perhaps this isn't a thriller at all but a fine joke played by at least one of them. The servant, Mrs. Grose - whose side is she on? Is she a true confident of our narrator, or is she allowing her to drive herself insane? Perhaps neither - the governess, as I've said, isn't a terribly reliable source. 

It is a fascinating read, and I was so drawn into it - it took hours to read this novella because I didn't want to miss a single detail in it. And the end - oh, the end! 

Henry James, I do believe, is the king of novellas. I very much recommend this!

And, one other thing I learned - a song by my favourite singer Kate Bush, called 'The Infant Kiss' is apparently inspired by The Turn of the Screw. I happen to have the French version on my Tumblr, and the English version is here if you want to listen.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Thoughts on Books III & IV of George Eliot's Middlemarch.

The Middlemarch readalong, hosted by Beth, continues: this week I read Books III and IV - Waiting for Death and Three Love Problems. I'm very pleased with how this is going: readers of old may recall the problem I had back in March '12: I read it, but I could not focus on it. As Dorothea says, 
When I want to be busy with book, I am often playing truant among my thoughts.
This time around, I don't have this problem thankfully. I can only say the last read was at the wrong time. That said, the style of Middlemarch isn't quite as easy as Eliot's other contemporaries. There have been a few times I've tripped up. 

So, last Saturday I wrote about Book I, Miss Brooke, and Book II, Old and Young, and, as with that post, this post is intended for those who are reading along, or who have already read it. This post contains spoilers for Books III and IV, and I and II come to that, so if you've not read it yet, read no further!

Mary Garth and Fred Vincy.
In Books III and IV, more characters from Middlemarch are introduced. At first, I had misgivings: I wanted to read about Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon, and was particularly keen to see the development of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw's relationship; in the last two books, I wasn't terribly interested in Rosamond Vincy, though I did like her brother Fred (I don't think I even mentioned Rosamond by name last week). But, that's changed - I am interested in her, though I'm not terribly keen on her, and I find Fred fascinating. He's so far pretty useless, but endearing in his love for Mary Garth, his childhood sweetheart. Meanwhile, Rosamond is anything but, and her relationship and engagement with Lydgate is anything but promising. All the same, it makes for exciting reading, though I have to say - the previous relationship with an actress that killed her husband on the stage - that was rather out of the blue! Seemed to belong more in a Radcliffe novel, not a George Eliot! And, whilst we're comparing novelists - the reading of Fred and Rosamond's uncle Featherstone's will - it was like a very genteel version of Zola's The Earth. A very, very genteel version. Yes, Fred, indeed the whole Vincy family, were very disappointed and the effects of this will will be very interesting indeed. 

Meanwhile, the Dorothea situation goes from bad to worse. Casaubon has a heart attack, though I can't bring myself to say "Good!" because, well, that would be unkind, but also because Eliot wrote a few pages from his perspective, and whilst he didn't come off well exactly, it made him a little more human, and less of the "ghost of an ancient". Even so, it's all thoroughly miserable, and the scenes describing Dorothea looking at a portrait of the ill-fated aunt of Casaubon are especially sad. The marriage is, of course, not what either of them hoped for or expected. It is as dull as the sky on their return.

Dorothea and Will.
What I did like very much, one of my favourite scenes, is a meeting between Dorothea and Will. Those descriptions of light: I wish I had have taken note of the page, and I have looked but I can't find it, does anyone remember? It's quite subtle, just a few references to light and to crystal. 

Aside from all this, there's plenty more happening that I haven't touched upon, but these are the bits that have stood out and I've enjoyed. I'm very much in the web now, and I'm looking forward to starting The Dead Hand, Book V, tomorrow! It's funny - those characters introduced in Book II that I wasn't very affected by are now of great interest, but I'm not bothered by, and indeed haven't mentioned, some of the new characters that have appeared in Books III and IV. I'm guessing I'll write about them with enthusiasm in the weeks to come!

Yes, these are my vague thoughts on the matter. I hope that by the end of it, when it comes to writing "something proper" I'll come up with something better. For now, these are just really notes.

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