Monday, 27 January 2014

Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol.

"No, no, what I want are not exactly peasants," said Chichikov. "It's the dead ones I want..."
Dead Souls (or, in Russian Мёртвые ду́ши) was the only novel of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, published in 1842. The full title: The Wanderings of Chichikov, or Dead Souls: Poema, and my edition was translated by Christopher English.

It was an odd one for me, this novel. So so many people love it, but I just didn't couldn't quite - but I did like it, which is better than not. It tells the story of Chichikov and his travels through the provincial backwaters of Russia in search of peasants, dead peasants that is, in order, he claims, to relieve the burden of tax on the owners, and, for himself, to increase (or appear to increase) his wealth, power, and social status (appearing to have power, I suppose, amounts to actually having power). Imagine, anyway, a macabre version of, say, Fieldings' Tom Jones, Dickens' Pickwick Papers, or Cervantes' Don Quixote. Through Chichikov we meet a variety of landowners, gentry, police commissioners, and in doing so we a little of the life in 19th Century provincial Russia.

Gogol himself describes this novel (in a preface which, rather irritatingly I must say, Christopher English has excluded from the Oxford World's Classics edition):
For in the book which lies before you, and which, probably, you have read in its first edition, there is portrayed a man who is a type taken from our Russian Empire. This man travels about the Russian land and meets with folk of every condition—from the nobly-born to the humble toiler. Him I have taken as a type to show forth the vices and the failings, rather than the merits and the virtues, of the commonplace Russian individual; and the characters which revolve around him have also been selected for the purpose of demonstrating our national weaknesses and shortcomings.
The rest of the preface may be read on Gutenberg, translated by D. J. Hogarth.

Dead Souls is not lacking in energy, satire, or attention to detail. Indeed, it is very funny in parts, and the beginning most memorable:
The room was of the familiar kind, for the inn was also of the familiar kind, that is to say, precisely the kind found in provincial capitals where for two roubles a day travellers are given a quiet room, complete with cockroaches gleaming like prunes in every corner, and a door - permanently blocked by a chest of drawers - leading to the adjoining room, which is occupied by another traveller, a taciturn and placid man, but exceptionally inquisitive, eager to learn every detail about his new neighbour.
It was intended to be a modern Russian take on Dante's The Divine Comedy - Part I represents hell, or crime, where we see Chichikov at his most sinful, using the dead only to serve his own purpose: in fact, largely, these souls are dehumanised: it is not until he sits with his lists and reads through the names that he sees them as people, albeit dead. Part II was to be the beginnings of Chichikov's redemption following his puishment, however it remains unfinished, and Part III, never written, was to be Chichikov's rehabilitation. I really wish it had been finished.

Nevertheless, it is believed to be the first great Russian novel and for that alone is worth reading. It is very surreal at times, with a hyper-attention to details; it is very good indeed, with much much more to it than I've written here. My only problem with it was I couldn't quite ease into it.

And I found a Zola connection, which I'll share for the Zola fans among us. In Dead Souls, Gogol writes,
Alas! The fat are so much better able to conduct their affairs in this world than the thin. Thin men serve mostly on special assignments or have jobs that exist only on paper, whilst they flit about from place to place; their very existence is somehow too light, airy, and totally unreliable. Fat men, on the other hand, never occupy peripheral positions, but only central ones, and if they do take a chair somewhere, they will do so firmly and solidly, so that it may well crack beneath them and cave in, and yet they will still remain firmly ensconced. They disdain outward sparkle; their tailcoats are not so smartly cut as those of their thin brethren, yet their coffers are full of God's plenty. After three years a thin man will not possess a single unmortgaged soul; but before you know it the fat man will have acquired a house at one end of the town, bought in his wife's name, then another house at the other end of town, then a little hamlet near the town, then an entire village, too, complete with serfs and all its land and amenities. Finally, the fat man, having served God and Tsar and earned universal regard, leaves the service, moves to his new home and becomes a landowner, a Russian country squire of the best kind, convivial and hospitable, and there he lives and prospers. But then, after his demise, his thin heirs gallop through their patrimony in the true Russian manner.
In The Belly of Paris, Émile Zola writes,
'Cain,' he said, 'was a Fat man and Abel a Thin one. Ever since that first murder, the big eaters have sucked the lifeblood out of the small eaters. They constantly prey on the weak: each one swallows his neighbour and then gets swallowed up in turn. Beware of the Fat, my friend!'
He relapsed into silence, still watching their shadows as they lengthened across the street in the light of the setting sun. Then he murmured:
'We're Thin, you and I. Just look and tell me if we take up too much room in the sunlight, with stomachs as flat as ours.'
Florent looked at the two shadows and smiled. But this annoyed Claude.
'It's not funny', he said. 'I know I suffer from being Thin. If I were Fat, I would paint happily, have a nice studio, and sell my pictures for their weight in gold. But, instead of that, I'm Thin; and I have to wear myself out trying to get the Fat to take notice. It'll kill me in the end.'
This will make for a good comparison when I come to writing about The Belly of Paris (I'll be re-reading this in February, a little later than planned).

Further reading:

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf.

I put Mrs. Dalloway on my 25 re-reads list, but it was Cleo's recent post that spurned me on to read it this week. And, today is Virginia Woolf's birthday - she was born 132 years ago today, on the 25th January 1882. It's a good time to write about one of my favourite books by her.

Mrs. Dalloway was published in 1925, Virginia Woolf's fourth novel. It tells the story of a day of Clarissa Dalloway, a character who first appears in The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf's first novel (1915), and is again seen in various short stories: Mrs. Dalloway's Party, Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street, The Prime Minster, The New Dress, The Introduction, Together and Apart, The Man Who Loved His Kind, and A Summing Up. It is a modernist novel, which would ordinarily strike fear into my heart, but not so with Woolf.

Yes, Mrs. Dalloway, like a lot of her novels, owe a lot to James Joyce, as Cleo points out, and also to Marcel Proust and various Russian authors and their perception of the 'soul'. In fact, whilst she disliked Joyce (Ulysses, in her eyes, was like a "queasy under-graduate scratching his pimples"), Marcel Proust could have ultimately silenced Virginia. The New York Times writes that she felt "swamped by his genius", and yes, as she herself wrote to Roger Fry having finished À la recherche du temps perdu, "Oh if I could write like that! I cry... what remains to be written after that?" In her diary, she noted, "It makes me suicidal. Nothing seems left to do. All seems insipid and worthless." Fortunately, she moved forward. She went on to write Mrs. Dalloway.

How is it that Proust, and Joyce, and many Russian authors fill me with fear, and yet Virginia Woolf, a modernist, an absolute genius, is perfectly accessible? (Because she is an absolute genius is the obvious answer). I am not saying Mrs. Dalloway is easy, but it is not hard to read. It doesn't require a build-up of any kind, and there is no need to have a grip on Virginia Woolf, her life and times (although I love finding Woolf hidden away in her own passages) to appreciate her work. Although, obviously, it can and is studied, for the casual reader there is no need to sit with a notebook and pen, or to try and get a hold of an annotated copy. It is a pleasure to read, Woolf doesn't try to trip up her reader (nor does she, although I will confess I struggled greatly with The Waves). There is great beauty in her simplicity, and, such is her insight, these streams of consciousness ebb and flow quite naturally. Of course there may be jumps and flits of thought that perhaps knock us about a bit at times, but we are not her character. This is natural. The only solution is to go with it, and with Woolf leading us, it is, as I say, simple and beautiful. She writes of the simmering of internal activity set against the backdrop of London: she intended to explore 'the self', or I should say 'a self', because perception and imagination is what preoccupies Virginia in Mrs. Dalloway and there is more than one character. For all, the self appears to be fluid and free: water and bird images pervade Mrs. Dalloway:
For this is the truth about our soul, he thought, our self, who fish-like inhabits deep seas and plies among obscurities threading her way between the boles of giant weeds, over sun-flecked spaces on and on into gloom, cold, deep, inscrutable; suddenly she shoots to the surface and spots on the wind-wrinkled waves; that is, has a positive need to brush, scrape, kindle herself, gossiping.
The 'truth', as postmodernists know, is relative. There is no one truth, as Virginia shows in the early part of Mrs. Dalloway when a car backfires. It is the Queen, it is the Prime Minister, it is the Prince of Wales - imagination influences perception. A little while later, an aeroplane catches everyone's attention, an aeroplane appearing to be writing out words in smoke, "But what letters?" "Glaxo", "Kreemo", "Toffee" - each person has a different idea of what the truth is.

And it is this scene that leads us to our first meeting with Septimus Warren Smith, crossing paths with Clarissa Dalloway, a man struggling with shell shock, or post traumatic stress disorder. His 'self' is deeply unstable; he is anxious and paranoid, and Woolf writes so well on this I feel the reader should be warned. He panics at the car back-firing.
Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys in bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated. And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thoughts, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose?
His treatment, those consultations with doctors, was useless. After all that terror, and preceding his paranoia of the messages he believed the aeroplane was sending him, and in awful brackets too, Woolf writes,
For Dr. Holmes had told her [his wife] to make her husband (who had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts) take an interest in things outside himself.
Readers of To the Lighthouse will already know that Virginia Woolf says great things in and with brackets. This is another example. And Woolf has sympathy with Septimus, there are shades of her in him. Like him, she heard, during her own breakdown, birds singing in Greek. She too was subject to useless treatment (the removal of three teeth, for example, to cure her mental instability). Her psychiatrist Dr. Savage, aptly named, was surely the inspiration for Dr. Holmes.

And then, back to Clarissa Dalloway. The book flits between characters, first Clarissa (that unforgettable first line, "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself"), then Peter Walsh, then Elise Mitchell, now Septimus, now Hugo Whitbread... It goes on, but it isn't the dizzying experience I'm suggesting. It simply just moves, it flows: I keep repeating these words, but they are the words for it. As with James Joyce's Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway has a set time frame, Big Ben punctuates the passage of time unnecessarily but definitively all the same (I say "unnecessarily" because there is already a constant sense of moving forward, but at the same time moving back: here is the impact of Einstein's theory of relativity on Virginia).

In Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, Lyndall Gordon writes,
Composing Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf resolved in a process of 'tunnelling'. She wanted to dig 'caves' behind her characters, to enter that silent life that the first three novels [The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and Jacob's Rooom] circle as unknown...
And so she does, and in these caves sexuality too is explored: Clarissa, in her youth, had a crush on Sally, and she thinks of the excitement of their kiss, "most exquisite moment of her whole life", never to be repeated, the kiss or the thrill of it: Mrs Dalloway feels no such passion for her husband, he who loves her but is unable to say the words. There is much going on in this short novel (much more than I've written about), but she writes so well the thought process of each character, this stream of consciousness, is on the whole very natural. There are surprises, there are twists and sharp turns as there is with life.

As Virginia wrote in 'Modern Fiction' (an essay in The Common Reader First Series),
Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? We are not pleading merely for courage and sincerity; we are suggesting that the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it.
In short, then, Virginia rises to her challenge, and achieves her goal in Mrs. Dalloway. No one should be afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Further reading
Virginia Woolf: A Study of Her Novels, by T. E. Apter
'Virginia Woolf's Strange Treatment to Cure Her Mental Illness', by Rebecca Beatrice Brooks
Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, by Lyndall Gorgon.
'Modern Fiction' by Virginia Woolf

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Eugene Onegin, by Aleksandr Pushkin.

1837 edition of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Pushkin Museum.
Eugene Onegin, or Евге́ний Оне́гин in Russian, was written by Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin and published in serial form between 1825 and 1832, before being published as a complete edition in 1833, and despite having been published over seven years, it's rather short - my edition (translated by Charles Johnston, Penguin 1977) is, without endnotes, 233 pages. What also surprised me was that whilst Nikolai Gogol subtitles his novel Dead Souls as a poem, Pushkin refers to his epic poem as 'a novel in verse'. I can explain Gogol (and indeed will when I come to writing about Dead Souls), but I don't quite understand Pushkin. 

Reading Eugene Onegin was supposed to be a readalong with Marian of Tanglewood, but it didn't quite work out like that for me: I didn't start until a week after everyone else, and once I began catching up I ended up finishing it that same evening. I did, clearly, very much enjoy it, but I do have a problem with it, namely the translation. About six or seven years ago I read my copy, which I do believe (but am not sure) was by James E. Falen (published by the Oxford University Press). I loved it, I loved it so much and I was incredibly moved by the end. Now, whether it be because of the translation (I had to buy a new copy because I leant someone my old one) or because I'm six or seven years away from that first read, I didn't have that same experience. It could be either, but it leaves me in a slightly awkward position of how I truly feel about Eugene Onegin!

Whatever the case, one of the elements I most liked was Tatyana, the heroine of the tale, and her love of reading, particularly Samuel Richardson.
Romances pleased her from the first,
Her all in all did constitute;
In love adventures she was versed,
Rousseau and Richardson to boot.
[Chapter II, canto XXIX]
And, referring to Richardson's Clarissa:
Dreaming herself the heroine
Of the romances she preferred,
Clarissa, Julia, Delphine,
Tatyana through the forest erred,
And the bad book accompanies.
Upon those pages she descries
Her passion's faithful counterpart,
Fruit of the yearnings of the heart.
She heaves a sigh and deep intent
On raptures, sorrows not her own,
She murmurs in an undertone
A letter for her hero meant:
That hero, though his merit shone,
Was certainly no Grandison.
[Chapter III, canto IX]
Eugene and Tatyana, by Lidia Timoshenko. 
Tatyana is about seventeen at the beginning of Onegin, and is innocent, romantic, and very influenced by novels, so much so she puts me in mind of a passage from Jerome K. Jerome's The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1896), which is too good not to quote!
Young ladies take their notions of our sex from the novels written by their own, and compared with some of the monstrosities that masquerade for men in the pages of nightmare literature, Pythagoras’ plucked bird and Frankenstein’s demos were fair average specimens of humanity.
But, back to Pushkin - this influence of romance on Tatyana is to her detriment, although, particularly in the third chapter, it produces some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever read. She creates Eugene as an idealised man, something he's not worthy of. In Chapter IV he rejects her; as Pushkin predicts, "Dear Tanya, you're condemned to perish". She listens,
... Almost dying,
blinded to everything about
by mist of tears, without replying
Tatyana heard Evgeny out.
It is heartbreaking. The whole thing is, but what will stay with me is Tatyana's growth, her passage from innocence to experience. She is, as I'm sure is clear, by far my most favourite character in this, and possibly one of my most favourite characters in anything I've come across, despite, as I've said, having some translation issues.

Whatever the case may be, I can say one thing definitively: Pushkin translates passion in all stages wonderfully and believably. And fear, too - Tatyana's dream in Chapter V is absolute brilliance. I love, as I've said, the influence of art and literature on human character, and, in Eugene's case, society and convention. Both are victims, but as I've said, Tatyana has the majority of my sympathy. It is a very good book (how good, I suppose, depends on your translation), and is one of the most important Russian (world, even) works of fiction there is. I only wish I had my 'proper' translation!

Before I end this: tonight I learned that Eugene Onegin was turned into an opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1879. I've listened to as many clips as my internet connection allows and I thought I'd share a clip:

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.

They are les misérables - the outcasts, the underdogs. And who is to blame? Is it not the fallen who have most need of charity?
I started my re-read of Les Misérables on 22nd December, and early this afternoon I finished it. Whether it be because it was a second read, or because of the different translation (Norman Denny, 1982) to my first Les Misérables (Julie Rose, 2009), I loved it even more, which is saying something as I originally gave it five stars. 

I think, when I decided to re-read it, I was hoping to write more about the historical setting (1815 - 1832, the June Rebellion), and perhaps have Émile Zola (a Hugo fan in his youth) in mind. But it hasn't worked out like that: all I want to write about is just how damn good it is! 

There's no use saying with how awe-inspiring it is. Perhaps, on beginning it, or even before beginning it, it is awe-inspiring. It's very long, it's French, it's very clever, and it is widely regarded as a masterpiece. But, if you haven't read it yet, forget all that. One of my favourite features of this book is Hugo himself - he's almost his own character (although I read somewhere that Marius, one of the main characters in Les Misérables is loosely based on Hugo). As a narrator, he is sublime, and he's talking to you. In my mind, it's no good being filled with awe because if one is filled with absolute deference, it becomes intimidating and instructive, and that isn't the ingredients for reading for pleasure. Les Misérables is not an intimidating book. So forget that it's a French classic: it was written for the people, all people. As Hugo wrote to his publisher, 
I don't know whether it will be read by everyone, but it is meant for everyone. It addresses England as well as Spain, Italy as well as France, Germany as well as Ireland, the republics that harbour slaves as well as empires that have serfs. Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind's wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Miserables knocks at the door and says: "open up, I am here for you".
Forget, too, the length of it: it's divided into five parts - 'Fantine', 'Cosette', 'Marius', 'The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis', and finally 'Jean Valjean'. Each of these parts is around 300 pages or less, and that's not intimidating. If length puts you off, take it a part at a time. And so, therefore, not even the length of Les Misérable is intimidating. 

It digresses, as the best conversations do: Les Misérables is not just a novel, it contains essays as well, essays on Waterloo (I admit that one is slightly hard-going), Paris (this is my favourite one - it's at the beginning of the third part, 'Marius'), sewers, convents, and language. It's generally said that they do not have much relation to the plot. I can't see why people would say this - it is part of the scene, the action, or the milieu in which the events take place. I'm not saying they're essential to the plot, but aside from being very interesting and even, in parts, increasing tension and anticipation, they are as part of the novel as Paris is. It's a pity to dismiss them. 

Not that they are always historically accurate. In my edition, Norman Denny pointed out a few mistakes in Hugo's grasp of the facts, but that doesn't matter either. Hugo is not writing a history of Paris, he's writing about spirit, the human condition. He writes about love: "agape", from the Greek ἀγάπη meaning "unconditional love", which naturally extends to charity: it is this that matters above all else. This, agape, is the novel's heart and soul. As C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, agape is the highest love, a selfless love committed to the well-being of others. In Matthew 5: 43 - 44 (the Sermon on the Mount),
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love* thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which dispitefully use you, and persecute you. [KJV]
* 'Love' is written as "Ἀγαπήσεις": agape. Scriptural and theological knowledge of the Christian definitions of 'love' is not essential, I should add, just interesting, particularly having read Les Misérables.  

'Ma Destinée', by Victor Hugo (1867).
And it reads like the sea, imagine the waves gently lapping, building in intensity, rising, crashing, now at ease, now growing once more. It's length suggests that it is long-winded, and that's for each reader to judge, but know that Victor Hugo can give you a physical shock, a chill, a stomach-lurch of dread, with one very brief and very simple sentence. He does draw you in, and is imperfect which makes it all the more perfect, with this sense that he is, at times, chattering away to you, laughing sometimes, serious at others, sharing his own thoughts on early 19th Century France, Paris, the police, prisons, socio-economics, morality, and, as I've said, above all else, love. Love can transform - this is what Hugo tells us in Les Misérables. It inspires change, heroic acts, charity, and indeed love: love inspires love. One of my favourite characters appears right at the beginning, Monsieur Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, who showed true, selfless love. How different Jean Valjean, the hero of our book, might have been without his encounter with this great man.

It is, in short, a wonderfully inspiring, thoroughly engaging book written by a master novelist. It is not intimidating. It should be read. And, although I'm not qualified to say what the best translation is, I can say my preferred translation is by Norman Denny. But I have no doubt that if I come across a new translation at any point, I will buy it and read it and share my thoughts once more!

Incidentally, I said at the beginning of this post I had Émile Zola in mind at times of reading this. I'm not going to get into a compare and contrast section here, but I will say I did find something interesting. In L'Assommoir, Madame Boche says,
... children pushed up out of poverty like mushrooms out of manure.
In 'Paris in Microcosm', Book I of Part III ('Marius') of Les Misérables, Hugo writes of children born into poverty,
He is born of the rankest clay, but a handful of mud and a breath created Adam.
Something I'll keep in mind when I come to writing about L'Assommoir

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Hyde Park Gate News: The Stephen Family Newspaper, by Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and Thoby Stephen.

I've been reading lots this week, however am not close to finishing any of my books, which makes blogging a little hard! I'm near approaching the beginning of the final book of Les Misérables, so I imagine I'll still be reading that into next week, I'm a tad behind on Onegin, and I've only just started Metamorphoses, so that's no where near completion. But, thankfully (for the blog's sake), this morning I finished Hyde Park Gate News: The Stephen Family Newspaper. It is a collection of what were weekly articles for the Stephen family newspaper, written by Vanessa Stephen (Vanessa Bell), Thoby Stephen, and Adeline Virginia Stephen (our own Virginia Woolf). The articles began in 1891, when Vanessa was about twelve, Virginia nine, and Thoby eleven, and ran until 1895. It is a very interesting work, very interesting indeed, but the question is why? 

There are different ways of reading it.
  1. It is a record of the Stephen family, headed by Sir Leslie Stephen, a very 'eminent Victorian' who, apart from many other things, was the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, as well as a biographer for Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, George Eliot and Thomas Hobbes. His wife, Julia Stephen, was a writer, nurse, and even a Pre-Raphaelite model. Their literary circle is so immense one hardly knows where to begin in describing it. 
  2. This is a record of an English upper middle class family in the late Victorian era.
  3. This is the 'juvenilia' of Virginia Woolf, author of Orlando, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One's Own (among many others).
Julia, Thoby, Vanessa, and Virginia (1894).
[Smith College]
It is very tempting to read this as the third option, which is in fact the option I largely took. How could I not? I love Virginia Woolf and have read as much as I can by her. For the Virginia Woolf fan, this is fascinating and so very exciting; it's hard not to want to draw comparisons with her later works. Take To the Lighthouse - Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey take their eight children to the Hebrides where they spend each summer. In Hyde Park Gate News vol. II, no. 19 from Monday 16th May 1892, 
But this blow [having music lessons twice a week instead of once] was softened by the fact that the Stephens were going to St Ives [represented in To the Lighthouse as the Hebrides] very much earlier than usual. This is a heavenly prospect to the minds of the juveniles who adore St Ives and revel in it's numerous delights and its close vicinity to the sea.
And, Adrian Stephen's disappointment at being unable to visit the lighthouse is recorded, echoing James Ramsey's disappointment in To the Lighthouse

Hyde Park Gate News also shows very early examples of Virginia's preoccupation with the 'self' and 'inner life'. For example, vol. V, no. 6 (Monday, 11th February 1895) she writes of a dream where she was God:
But were they real? And what was I? Why did I exist? Who made me? and who made my maker? Was everything a dream, but who were the dreamers? So I wondered in my dream, and the only solution I could find was by waking, and finding my self a person. 
It's hard, though, not to pick up on dates and dwell upon them too much. I know a fair bit about Mrs. Woolf, and so when I saw the article from 28th March 1892, I couldn't help but remember that this was the date of her suicide 49 years later, so it was with a little sadness I read about the 'juveniles' (as they called themselves) writing about the song "Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay". This has no relevance, and serves only to cast a gloom where there needn't be one. That said, a gloom already exists in the unsaid. But is this helpful to know? The dark side would never appear in this upper middle class family's newspaper, and those who know enough about Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell know the dark side of Stephen family life (the "abnormal" half-sister, sexual abuse, Jem Stephen, their cousin, and his madness and death from starvation, and the death of their mother and sister Stella), the events at the time and the events immediately after. I think it's perhaps best to consult other sources than this, although I think a psychological reading (which I'm unequipped to give) of Hyde Park Gate News may prove quite fascinating (however this is not for this blog!). Perhaps this is a book to take as one finds it.

And it is a very funny, charming, and highly energetic book, as well as shedding light on the family life of the literary late Victorians, designed to amuse and impress their parents (more so Julia's: "The anxious infants awaited her burst of laughter. At last it came. 'Ha ha ha he he he' laughed she with all the good-natured vehemence of her nature") as well as being a fun pastime. We learn of the "trials" of the juveniles, and their delight, for example, in missing music lessons:
Miss Mills who is teacher of singing to the young female Stephens is seized with a severe in disposition [sic] with [sic] prevents her giving her usual Friday lesson to them perhaps not to the great disappointment of the members concerned but doubtless to Miss Mills.
Vanessa and Virginia playing cricket.
We see the every day, and the special events: the cricket games, trips to the zoo, visitors, days on the beach, Christmases and birthdays, new pets, going to see pantomimes, going ice-skating, Stella's new camera, Leslie Stephen receiving his D. Litt from the University of Cambridge, and boat races, all written with great enthusiasm and wit. There are stories, one not unlike Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (1892, which first appeared in Punch, so I wonder if they saw it): 'A Cockney's Farming Experiences' and the sequel 'The Experiences of a Paterfamilias'. And there is the mocking of love letters, my favourite being, "As I never kept your love letters you can't have them back. I therefore return the stamps which you sent". We learn of Julia, too, the patient nurse, the 'angel of the house' in fact: "Mr. Adrian Stephen has caught a severe cold and is consequently being dosed with Mrs Stephen's indefatigable Amoniated Quinine and also with his favourite beverage Malt", and,
The Materfamilias of the Stephen family has been caused real anxiety by her second son's maladie, which was that horrible epidemic influenza. She is is now, her material enthusiasm being aroused and as many a heart has before felt in the words of the poet
"Life the vulture hovers
O'er the dieing [sic] horse
thinking ever thinking
that her boy is slowly sinking.
There is, in short, much going on in this book, so much so I wouldn't only recommend it to Woolf's fans. It's a historical document of sorts, and, as it's simplest, a funny record that will, at the very least, give readers a very pleasant three or so hours reading it. It does cast a light on Virginia Woolf's later works, and this increases an already valuable work.

Further Reading

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Hen Progress Pictures: the six month mark.

I've finally managed to get some new pictures of my hens! They've been out of the battery farm a little over six months now, and here is their progress!

Top: Anne
Centre: Emily
Bottom: Charlotte

I wrote about them in detail in this post, about the problems they'd faced, and how proud of them I am, but I never realised just how much progress they had made until I looked at these old pictures. I haven't looked at the early ones since probably the last time I did a progress report (6th September). I remember how bald Emily was, and how pale Charlotte and Annie was, and of course Annie's bad eye, but looking at them now... I'm so proud of them.

And they're such good good hens!

Friday, 10 January 2014

Metamorphoses Book I, by Ovid.

From 'The Flood'. 
So he put the lightening, forged in the Cyclops' workshop, aside
and chose a different method of punishing mortals, by massing
his storm-clouds over the sky and destroying the race
in a great flood.
All of the gales which scatter the gathering clouds,
and among them
the north wind Aquilo, Jupiter promptly imprisoned inside
the caverns of Aéolus. Notus, the wind of the south, he released/
Notus flew out on his soaking wings, his terrible visage
covered in pitchy gloom; his beard was a bundle of rain-storms;
water streamed from his hoary locks, his forehead a cushion
for mists; his wings and the folds of his garments were sodden and dripping.
He squeezed the bank of menacing clouds like a sponge, and a thunderclap
followed. Instantly rain poured from the sky in torrents.
Juno's messanger, decked in her mantle of many
Isis the rainbow, sucked up moisture to thicken the clouds.
The corn was flattened; the farmer wept for his wasted prayers;
and all the fruits of a long year's labour were gone to no purpose.
Jupiter's anger did not stop short in the sky, his own kingdom;
Neptune the sea god deployed his waters to aid his brother.
He summoned the rivers and, when they arrived at their master's palace,
he spoke to the meeting: 'No need for a lengthy harangue,'
he said;
'Pour forth in the strength that is yours - it is needed! Open
the floodgates,
down with the barriers, give full reign to the steeds of your streams!'
He had spoken.
1556 edition.
I've just finished Book I of Metamorphoses and I'm very much enjoying it, so I thought I'd share a few thoughts as I read it (I'll be saving the proper 'review' for when I've finished, so these thoughts are pretty unstructured!).

As the title suggests, the book is about transformation (the Latin Metamorphoseon means 'the book of transformation'). In the Prologue, Ovid writes,
Changes of shape, new forms, are the themes which my spirit impels me
now to recite. Inspire me, O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art), and spin me a thread from the
worlds beginning
down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.
He goes on to write about The Creation, the Ages of Mankind, The Flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaëton. The Creation and The Flood (partially quoted above) are a sort of re-write of the Bible (I hadn't realised this when I began reading), and as I love a creation myth, the universe born out of chaos and all was a brilliant read for me. And I enjoyed the Ages of Mankind - gold, silver, bronze, and iron. Of course, the golden age will stay in my heart for ever;
Spring was the only season. Flowers which had never been planted
were kissed into life by the warming breath of the
gentle zephyrs;
and soon the earth, untilled by the plough, was
yielding her fruits,
and without renewal the fields grew white with the
swelling corn blades.
River of milk and rivers of nectar flowed in abundance,
and yellow honey, distilled like dew from the leaves of
the ilex. 
The golden age was an age of trust and love, an age I would like to believe in, myth or no myth! The Creation and The Flood are truly beautiful, full of warmth and light, airy almost (you can read it online here). It reads like spring; it makes me ache for spring. But, it was not to last. The Silver Age brings summer, autumn, and winter, and too the 'agricultural age' where the land is tilled, and the people and animals begin to suffer. Following that, the Bronze Age, "crueller by nature, more ready to take up menacing weapons / but still not vile to the core", and finally the Iron Age:
... the floodgates opened and all the forces of evil invaded
a breed of inferior mettle. Loyalty, truth and conscience
went into exile, their throne usurped by guile and
treacherous plots, brute force and a criminal lust for
"A criminal lust for possession": that I love. That I will remember.

After the Four Ages of Mankind, we see an argument between Jupiter and the gods, The Flood (instigated by Jupiter), the attempted rape of Daphne (who turns into a tree) by Apollo, the divine rape of Io by Jupiter (who then turns her into a cow so his wife doesn't get jealous), and then the introduction of Phaëton, who is determined to prove that the sun god Phoebus is his father.

This is, so far, a brilliant read - the drama of irrational, immoral gods, chaos and creation, the four ages, all highly enjoyable, and I do like the stories I haven't mentioned as well! It's fun and tragic; quite buoyant, then suddenly very dark. A wonderful book so far, and, happily, this is no where near as hard as I expected it to be!

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Top Ten Goals/Resolutions For 2014.

This week's Top Ten (hosted by Broke and the Bookish) is Top Ten Goals/Resolutions For 2014, and I'm glad to do this because the new year seems to have passed me by a little. I have thought about goals and resolutions, and I've blogged about them too, but I wasn't feeling the spirit of it at all. I still feel under the weather post-cold, which has spread to my chest, so that's not much fun at present, but I do feel much better and more inclined to feel excited for the new year. All that said, I can't help but feel that Vernal Equinox is something to really look forward to! A new year is fun, but it seems almost arbitrary. There is nothing arbitrary about Vernal Equinox: when spring starts, the year truly does start. 

  1. With that in mind, my first non-bookish resolution is to have the ultimate spring clean. I do like a good clear out in March, but I'm starting early this year: I have a habit of building up tasks and not starting them until a day I randomly deem appropriate, and most often it's very overwhelming. So, when my chest is completely better (I'm not starting before because adding dust into the equation isn't terribly sensible), I'm going to do one thing every day towards the spring clean, whether it be tidy out one drawer, one cupboard, one file, or one shelf, I will do one thing a day. Come March, hopefully what will remain is the standard clean and not a stupendous amount of organising. 
  2. Fix my camera. I miss taking pictures of the birds, and I will really miss having it come spring. Having no camera during spring and summer would not be much fun at all.
  3. Write more reviews and commentaries. I'm happy with the way this blog is going, and I've written more reviews and commentaries in one month than probably nine months of the old blog. I've very committed to this goal.
  4. Organise my time more effectively. This seems like a very clichéd resolution, nearly everyone says it (and who resolves to waste their time?), but I, like everyone else, do mean it. I take far too long on important tasks, I faff about before I start them, and often during them, and I drag things out more than I should. But this year I have a lot of things I want to read and write about, on and off blog, and my typical day doesn't allow for it. I won't actually be able to achieve what I want to achieve without effective time management (I detest how that sounds, like my conscience is dressed in a suit and standing in front of a power point presentation). 
  5. Join in with more readalongs. I enjoyed the Middlemarch readalong in December and found it very worth while, so I'm on the look out for more! This month I'm reading Onegin by Pushkin with Marian, so if there's any readalongs happening around February / March, let me know!
  6. Complete all my 2014 Challenges. Goes without saying!
  7. Finish my 25 re-reads list and embark on another one. I love doing this, it's the best and most favourite challenge I've ever set myself.
  8. Work very hard on my Zola things. It is this that makes me realise that I don't organise my time very well! But I do want it up and running, so I will work on it. I intend to start on The Belly of Paris this week. 
  9. Read more literary criticism. I've found it helpful reading the introductions to the books I read (after I've finished of course) and dipping into Virginia Woolf's The Common Reader, and I think I'd find it beneficial to see what other lit crit there is out there. I do want to be a better reader. 
  10. Read more non fiction. I have read a lot more recently, not entire books, but various chapters and articles here and there (mostly to do with Zola, whether it be about him, his novels, or about the Second Empire). It's a good thing to do, and I'm not sure I'll often read whole books in one go, but I will, as I say, read more chapters and articles. One of the non fiction books I do intend to read in its entirety this year is Das Kapital by Karl Marx.
For now, though, I'm returning to Les Misérables. I've just finished the first chapter of the third book, 'Paris in Microcosm': there are some fantastic comparisons with Émile Zola and I'm very eager to explore them. I shall write about them a little bit more later in the week, though it won't be a very detailed post, it will be a good starting point to organise my thoughts. Wonderful chapter, that one. Love Les Mis very much. Not sure I'll be finishing it any time soon, though!

Monday, 6 January 2014

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins.

Lord bless us! it was a diamond! As large, or nearly, as a plover's egg! The light that streamed from it was like the light of the harvest moon. When you looked down into the stone, you looked into a yellow deep that drew your eyes into it so that they saw nothing else. It seemed unfathomable; this jewel, that you could hold between your finger and thumb, seemed as the heavens themselves. We set it in the sun, and shut out the light out of the room, and it shone awfully out of the depths of its own brightness, with a moony gleam, in the dark.

The Moonstone was my first bookish surprise of 2014 (which bodes well - it's also only the second book I've read so far this year). I never thought I would hate it, and I didn't dread it the way I dread the fifteen or so books I sincerely regret putting on my Classics Club list, but I thought at best I might "quite like it". But no, I loved it very much - it was the only book I read on Saturday and made for a very fun readathon.

Published first in Charles Dickens' magazine 'All the Year Round' in the early part of 1868, then published as a novel in the summer of 1868, it is described by T. S. Eliot as "the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels". This is not a genre I favour, which is perhaps why it has sat unread for so long on my Classics Club list, but it really is very well done indeed. It is essentially an epistolary novel (in this instance based on a series of documents rather than letters or diary entries), so, like Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Bram Stoker's Dracula,  and many others, we see a variety of perspectives of one event; in The Moonstone, the very endearing Gabriel Betteredge (who is obsessed with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe), the awful Miss Clack (I believe Miss Clack surpasses any of Dickens' creations in absolute vileness! A very memorable character!), the solicitor Matthew Bruff, our hero Franklin Blake, the very compelling Ezra Jennings, Mr. Candy, and also Sgt. Cuff (another great character, whose analysis I dare say would make for an interesting exploration of the history and role of police detectives in the 19th Century). This construct is perfect for a mystery, and gives the reader a unique advantage; it allows the reader to play detective themselves, piecing together the information and attempting to reach their own conclusion before the mystery is resolved at the end (for what its worth, I managed to piece together some parts but not others, so I was very much hanging on until the end to see if I was right in what I'd guessed, and what actually happened regarding the parts I hadn't managed). 

It tells the story of the missing moonstone, a cursed diamond stolen from a shrine in India to the Hindu god of the moon. It is left to Rachel Verinder by her uncle, Colonel Herncastle, who stole it during the Siege of Seringapatam. Three Hindu priests had been trying to recover it ever since, and by leaving it to Rachel he (deliberately) exposes her to the curse, and to the priests who will, it is said, stop at nothing to retrieve it. She is given the diamond on the night of her eighteenth birthday, and it is stolen the same day. But who by, and why? - there is the mystery! 

The Moonstone has some incredibly well-drawn characters, aside from the ones I mentioned in the second paragraph. Rachel Verinder is of exceptional interest, and I very much enjoyed Collins' challenging of gender roles in his portrayal of her. Rosanna Spearman is another great character, but it is hard to explain why without revealing too much of the mystery. Really, it's hard altogether writing in detail about this book, so I'll have to bring this post to a close. All I will say is it is a truly remarkable book, with very vivid, giant characters. I worried that this novel might be a tad too long, and perhaps my interest would wane, but that was not the case - I couldn't put it down. What makes it so great is that it isn't just the mystery alone that is compelling; the characters and beautiful descriptions throughout make it such a thrilling read. Nothing is as one would expect (perhaps, in some parts, even more so for the 19th Century reader).

I'll end with one of these descriptions, that of the Shivering Sand:
The last of the evening light was fading away; and over all the desolate place there hung a still and awful calm. The heave of the main ocean on the great sandbank out in the bay, was a heave that made no sound. The inner sea lay lost and dim, without a breath of wind to stir it. Patches of nasty ooze floated, yellow-white, on the dead surface of the water. Scum and slime shone faintly in certain places, where the last of the light still caught them on the two great spits of rock jutting out, north and south, into the sea. It was now the time of the turn of the tide: and even as I stood there waiting, the broad brown face of the quicksand began to dimple and quiver—the only moving thing in all the horrid place.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë.

Image source.
Agnes Grey was the first of two novels by Anne Brontë . Published in December 1847, it is at once a novel, a polemic, a love story, an autobiography, and a documentary detailing the lives of governesses in the mid-19th Century. It is both sombre and witty, gently written, yet, in allowing the facts to speak for themselves, the fury is subtlety but undeniably contained in this relatively short and powerful novel. It is, I believe, one of the finest books ever written.

Brontë tells the story of Agnes Grey, a young woman like herself, with a modest upbringing in northern England; her father a minister, and her mother who, by marrying her father, was disinherited, and her sister, Mary, (the other siblings, like Anne's, died young) who is a skilled artist. Her father, feeling guilty at what his wife has forsaken in marrying him, makes an unwise investment in a merchant's sea voyage, however the ship sinks and with it what little money the family had. Mary is able to sell her drawings and paintings to increase the family's income, however Agnes, feeling that she has no other talent, decides to become a governess.
How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance, and something to comfort and help my father, mother, and sister, besides exonerating them from the provision of my food and clothing; to show papa what his little Agnes could do; to convince mama and Mary that I was not quite the helpless, thoughtless being they supposed. And then, how charming to be entrusted with the care and education of children! Whatever others said, I felt I was fully competent to the task: the clear remembrance of my own thoughts and feelings in early childhood would be a surer guide than the instructions of the most mature adviser. I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age, and I should know, at once, how to win their confidence and affections; how to waken the contrition of the erring; how to embolden the timid, and console the afflicted; how to make Virtue practicable, Instruction desirable, and Religion lovely and comprehensible.
–Delightful task!
To teach the young idea how to shoot! 
To train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day! 
Governess, Companion, and Housekeeper
adverts from The Times, 1845 - 1847.
Agnes is naive, the baby of the family who is treated like a child, but she wants desperately to help her family and make her way in the world, and so she seeks employment, working first for the nouveau riche Bloomfield family (based on the Ingham family, for whom Brontë worked in the late 1830s) with their over-indulged children Tom, Mary Ann, Fanny, and Harriet, and then for genteel, worldly Murray family (based on Robinson family, for whom Anne worked for in the early 1840s), Rosalie and Matilda (the boys, John and Charles, have been sent to school). Each family brings great trials for Agnes, suffering first under the abject cruelty of the Bloomsfields, then with the selfish, vain, and lazy Murrays. Throughout, Agnes is trapped in a world between ages and class, not a child but not treated as an adult, middle class, and yet not quite as she is working for the middle classes. This lack of ability to neatly categorise her means she is not at home with either the servants or the family, and thus she is effectively invisible. Anne Brontë writes,
As none of the before-mentioned ladies and gentlemen ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across; and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy–as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so. It was disagreeable, too, to walk behind, and thus appear to acknowledge my own inferiority; for in truth, I considered myself pretty nearly as good as the best of them, and wished them to know that I did so, and not to imagine that I looked upon myself as a mere domestic, who knew her own place too well to walk beside such fine ladies and gentlemen as they were - though her young ladies might choose to have her with them, and even condescend to converse with her, when no better company were at hand. 
Agnes Grey is described as a kind of bildungsroman, a 'coming of age' novel, though the character, owing to the circumstances, stagnates. Agnes in fact, through much of the novel, spends much time alone crying (the scenes of which are treated with resignation, though without self-pity, and sometimes even with a degree of humour). Agnes is isolated, oppressed, though ever hopeful. Indeed her character does not develop in her employment, this does not mean that it is not strong or likeable. It is not until she leaves her employment as a governess that she grows. Agnes is a beautiful character, kind, honest, and virtuous, but believably so, and without being irritating or stupid. She's defiant, she does not accept cruelty and immortality, nor will she stand by and watch it unfold in front of her. Like the prose style, she is gentle and she is honest, and to me she is one of the dearest characters in English literature.

Anne Brontë is one of the greatest novelists in literature. She died at the age of twenty-nine, too young, far too young, and her great talent that was so clear so very early in her novels could never develop and never realise its full potential. One of the tragedies of English Literature: that we can never see where this might have gone. I am deeply and eternally grateful for Agnes Grey, and for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I suppose they're made yet more precious knowing not only that there could have been more, but also because there could have been less. I love Anne Brontë's beauty, power, defiance, and clarity. Her pure vision seems almost effortlessly transferred to page. Her two novels are exceptional, but if you haven't read any Anne Brontë, I suggest that Agnes Grey might be a very good start.

Further reading

Saturday, 4 January 2014

2nd Annual Classics Club Readathon.

It's the second Annual Classics Club readalong! I have been looking forward to this! And I need it - my cold is much better, but what with all the coughing I've pulled muscles everywhere, so this is definitely a good day to relax in the warm and, well, read lots.

I've been thinking about what I want to read, and I have to conclude that today may perhaps be a day of not actually completing any books. Firstly, I can't manage the full 24 hours (part of the fun of colds is lying awake all night coughing!), and secondly, I want to read too much of everything! 

So, the plan is this: this afternoon, I'm going to start by reading the first book of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Then, I'm going to read some of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Early evening, I'm going to finish the first book of Kipling's The Jungle Books, and tonight I aim to read 'Marius', which is book three of Les Misérables. And, who knows, perhaps I'll skip The Jungle Books (which I am enjoying so far, so I can't say I will end up doing that) and finish The Moonstone, or perhaps I'll not get into The Moonstone and end up reading a lot more of Les Misérables. I'm not sure, but I will update this post! I'll check in about six o' clock. 

To all those participating - have fun! Let me know if you're joining in and I'll check in on your blog as well later today to see how you're doing :)

Update #1 - 20:39.

First, let it be said that my internet connection is horrendous tonight, which is why I'm not online so much today! I intend to be on as little as possible - so far it's taken five minutes just to open this page.

Secondly - all plans went out of the window! I forgot about reading Metamorphoses first and went straight to The Moonstone, and it's now all I want to read. Because it's taken until 7pm to find an entire hour uninterrupted to myself, I've only just finished the first part, but I don't foresee any further interruptions so I plan on either reading on until I finish, or else reading on until I fall asleep. But I do love this book, and I want to re-read The Woman in White and Robinson Crusoe very soon!

Hope everyone is having fun, and, internet willing, I'll update again, probably around midnight.

Update #2 - 01:23.

I'm keeping this brief because internet connection has gone from bad to worse! The Moonstone is ticking along nicely, I'm about half way through the second part, and Goodreads tells me I'm 72% through. It is so very compelling I may be persuaded to stay up until I've finished it, though I may not be able to update should I manage it!

Will post this now whilst the internet remains! Catch you all later or tomorrow, hope everyone's still having fun!

Update #3 - 11:23.

I finished The Moonstone last night at about 4.30 and I loved it! I shall blog about it next week (today belongs to Anne Brontë).

Hope everyone had a great time, and for those who have an hour or so left - I'm very impressed :)

Friday, 3 January 2014

A New Year's Message (To Joseph Mazzini) by Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Send the stars light, but send not love to me.
- Shelley.


Out of the dawning heavens that hear
Young wings and feet of the new year
Move through their twilight, and shed round
Soft showers of sound,
Soothing the season with sweet rain,
If greeting come to make me fain,
What is it I can send again?


I know not if the year shall send
Tidings to usward as a friend,
And salutation, and such things
Bear on his wings
As the soul turns and thirsts unto
With hungering eyes and lips that sue
For that sweet food which makes all new.


I know not if his light shall be
Darkness, or else light verily:
I know but that it will not part
Heart's faith from heart,
Truth from the trust in truth, nor hope
From sight of days unscaled that ope
Beyond one poor year's horoscope.


That faith in love which love's self gives,
O master of my spirit, lives,
Having in presence unremoved
Thine head beloved,
The shadow of thee, the semitone
Of thy voice heard at heart and known,
The light of thee not set nor flown.


Seas, lands, and hours, can these divide
Love from love's service, side from side,
Though no sound pass nor breath be heard
Of one good word?
To send back words of trust to thee
Were to send wings to love, when he
With his own strong wings covers me.


Who shall teach singing to the spheres,
Or motion to the flight of years?
Let soul with soul keep hand in hand
And understand,
As in one same abiding-place
We keep one watch for one same face
To rise in some short sacred space.


And all space midway is but nought
To keep true heart from faithful thought,
As under twilight stars we wait
By Time's shut gate
Till the slow soundless hinges turn,
And through the depth of years that yearn
The face of the Republic burn.

The Russian Point of View, by Virginia Woolf.

To start the Russian Literature 2014 event, I wanted to write a little about Virginia Woolf's 'The Russian Point of View' (a short essay from The Common Reader First Series which you can read here).

In 1912, Constance Garnett (the mother of David Garnett, who married Angelica Bell, Virginia Woolf's niece) translated The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was the first highly regarded translation (the very first translation was by Marie von Thilo in 1881), and in total, Garnett translated 71 Russian works, and she was also one of the first translators of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov as well as Dostoyevsky. The Hogarth Press, the publishers founded in 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, published many Russian works and Woolf reviewed thirteen between 1917 and 1927, so it's of no surprise that Virginia Woolf was well-read in Russian Literature. In fact, Woolf explored Russia through its literature and she went on to write several essays on the subject, such as 'The Russian Point of View' and 'Modern Fiction' (both published in The Common Reader First Series, 1925).

The Brothers Karamazov translated by Constance Garnett marked  a revival in interest in Russian Literature, and its publication date was around the time Virginia Woolf retrospectively remarked that "in or around December, 1910, human character changed". In fact, Russian Literature helped shape Virginia Woolf's own writing style, showing her preoccupation with the metaphysical; the 'inner life' and 'soul'. Such was Woolf's admiration of the Russian novelists, she came close to arguing the merits of Russian Literature far surpassed the English tradition, writing in 'Modern Fiction',
... if the Russians are mentioned one runs the risk of feeling that to write of any fiction save theirs is waste of time. 
Certainly she claimed in 'The Russian Point of View' that Tolstoy was the greatest of all novelists: "for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?" She believed that "Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded."

In The Russian Point of View, Woolf wrote,
... it is the soul that is the chief character in Russian fiction. Delicate and subtle in Tchekov, subject to an infinite number of humours and distempers, it is of greater depth and volume in Dostoevsky; it is liable to violent diseases and raging fevers, but still the predominant concern... The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.
It is this, which she called "a new panorama of the human mind" that excited her, and within it dichotomies were broke down: there was no "good" or "bad", no one or the other, but the two merged together,
Men are at the same time villains and saints; their acts are at once beautiful and despicable. We love and we hate at the same time.
Social barriers are broken down also. Referring to Dostoyevsky, she wrote,
It is all the same to him whether you are noble or simple, a tramp or a great lady. Whoever you are, you are the vessel of this perplexed liquid, this cloudy, yeasty, precious stuff, the soul. The soul is not restrained by barriers. It overflows, it floods, it mingles with the souls of others.
Russian Literature was markedly different to the pre-modern novels of the 19th Century, which was why Woolf suggested,
Perhaps that is why it needs so great an effort on the part of an English reader to read The Brothers Karamazov or The Possessed a second time. The “soul” is alien to him. It is even antipathetic. It has little sense of humour and no sense of comedy. It is formless. It has slight connection with the intellect. It is confused, diffuse, tumultuous, incapable, it seems, of submitting to the control of logic or the discipline of poetry. 
And there were further problems: it wasn't just 'the matter' that would confuse the English reader, but also the style.
Our first impressions of Tchekov are not of simplicity but of bewilderment. What is the point of it, and why does he make a story out of this? we ask as we read story after story.
Stories remain, from our English perspective, unfinished. There is no tidiness, no neat conclusions.
We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing, we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic — lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed — as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony. 
Furthermore, Russian Literature presented the insurmountable problem for the non-Russian speaking reader, that is the language barrier. Virginia Woolf attempted to learn Russian, but, despite collaborating on a few translations, her endeavour was unsuccessful, and so she worried about this barrier.
What we are saying amounts to this, then, that we have judged a whole literature stripped of its style. When you have changed every word in a sentence from Russian to English, have thereby altered the sense a little, the sound, weight, and accent of the words in relation to each other completely, nothing remains except a crude and coarsened version of the sense. Thus treated, the great Russian writers are like men deprived by an earthquake or a railway accident not only of all their clothes, but also of something subtler and more important — their manners, the idiosyncrasies of their characters.  
Today, even without being greatly familiar with modern writers such as Woolf, Joyce, or Proust, I don't think the difficulties Russian Literature presented to the English reader in the early 20th Century are quite as great, and Virginia Woolf, despite her doubts, shows that English translations of Russian Literature may still inspire and change a reader or writer's direction. I wrote a few weeks ago about intimidating literature, and the Russians fall into that category partly because they're so unfamiliar, and it feels as though one has to prepare oneself somehow before opening the book. This is why I wanted to host the Russian Literature 2014 event: to overcome that fear or unease, and to move forward. Virginia Woolf, in 'The Russian Point of View' proves that whatever doubts or problems there may be, the attempt is certainly worth it. Sign ups are still open, so if you decide to join leave me a comment on this post!


Wednesday, 1 January 2014

January 2014.

A new year, and by coincidence a new moon. It's pouring down here, has been all day. Four o' clock and it's getting dark, with a heavy mist, and a wind that's getting stronger. It's a perfect day to curl up with a hot drink and a good book, which is what I shall be doing this evening. I'm still full of cold, but it's getting better I think. Coffee, a biscuit, bed, and Agnes Grey is what I'm most looking forward to in the next hour! There's only so much hot lemon I can drink...

2013 went by so fast, I'm almost nervous to make resolutions for 2014. On the first day of the year I always think of things I want to achieve however am not yet inclined to work for, but I think motivation is bound to come at some point in the following 365 days. Now I feel forced to be realistic!

That said, I do want to at least start to read Das Kapital by Karl Marx. I've been meaning to for quite some time, but I do think I'm ready. 2015 will be election year, so I imagine 2014 will be the beginning of the battle between Labour and the Conservatives to gain favour. I want Marx to help me bear it! Another 'big' one for me will be Ovid's Metamorphoses, which I think I'll love, I know it will be greatly beneficial, and since reading Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes, it's not quite as frightening (that said, I read Tales from Ovid in April 2012, so something must have put me off!). Émile Zola refers to Ovid here and there, which I hadn't appreciated the first time I read the Rougon Macquart series, so I imagine there's a great many other authors I love who may do the same. 

And speaking of Zola (which I often do!), I plan on working on my Zola website a great deal in 2014. It's very time consuming but I love every part of it. Perhaps I'll even make it public! It's a long way off, though. 

I've got lots of other challenges on the go this year, and I seem to be quite focused on my 25 re-reads. As I say, I'm reading Agnes Grey today, and I've also got Les Misérables on the go, and I'm very much drawn to all the others on my list so I can't decide what I'll pick up next! I'll certainly read Hamlet this month for the Classics Club Shakespeare month, and possibly Macbeth. Furthermore, I'm planning on re-reading Eugene Onegin by Pushkin as a readalong with Marian, and that starts next week. 

But, I do have some new-to-me reads planned for January and the year ahead! I have The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins on my TBR pile, which is also on my Classics Club list and Penguin English Library list. I hope to make good progress with both of these this year, perhaps even finish them, but I can't commit as I'm so in to re-reads at present! My goal was to finish this Classics Club list by March 2015, and I'd say I'm on track - I have now read 142 out of 180, so it's promising. As for the Penguin list - I'm on 73 of 100. 

And this year I'm hosting Russian Literature 2014! I'm very excited about this, and I'm planning a post tomorrow about it. As I said in the initial post, I plan to do 'check ins' at the end of each quarter, and I'll get the ball rolling tomorrow. My final challenge is reading the novels of Dostoyevsky, so this will help enormously! 

And, last but not least - the 2nd Annual Classics Club readathon! I'm very much looking forward to this! I shall post nearer the time with my choices, but yes, very very looking forward to it!

But, for now, back to Agnes Grey. I'm hoping I'll be over my cold very soon, so lots of water and hot lemon etc. Not now, though - I do need a coffee! I'm very excited for the year ahead, but I feel as though 2014 will properly start on Friday. This is for two reasons: one, I'm full of cold so surely it will be over by then, and two, most importantly, my boyfriend will have a day off! He works all day every day through the Christmas and New Year season apart from Christmas Day, and it's been, as it is every year, rather difficult being apart so much. I'm desperately excited to have things back to normal! At the moment we're still 'in the season' (for want of a better term), but the light is very much at the end of the tunnel! 

Happy 2014, everyone! 

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