Monday, 31 March 2014

Russian Literature 2014: First Check-in.

We're almost a quarter of the way through 2014 (!), and, as promised, here is the first check-in post for the Russian Literature 2014 Challenge

I aimed to read 12 Russian classics this year, and so far I've read four and reviewed two (though one, Oblomov, is on the way for next week):
And, for good measure, I wrote a little about Virginia Woolf's essay on Russian Literature, 'A Russian Point of View', from The Common Reader: First Series

So, how is everyone else getting along? Anyone tackled War and Peace yet? If you've read or written anything about Russian Literature, let everyone know by leaving a comment to this post, linking your posts in the comments if you've managed to write any, or if you want, write a check-in post on your blog and let us know, again by linking it in the comments (either cut and paste the url(s) or use this code:
I hope everyone is enjoying this challenge! I'm thinking my next Russian novel will be August 1914 by Solzhenitsyn, which is also on my Classics Club list. I'm a little intimidated by this one!

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

New stash, and other things.

Barter Books.
Sunday was my birthday, and yesterday I had a birthday outing to Barter Books, where I spent my birthday money! Here's what I got:

  • The Complete Poems by Emily Jane Brontë. I haven't read much poetry at all by the Brontës, so it's time to remedy that. 
  • Kilvert's Diary by Rev. Francis Kilvert. A few years ago I read The Assassin's Cloak, an anthology of diarists including Kilvert (who was writing in the late 19th Century). I remembered particularly enjoying his entries, so I've been on the look out ever since. 
  • The Diary of a Country Parson 1758 - 1802 by Rev. James Woodforde. Seeing this in the biography section reminded me to look out for Kilvert, so that itself was fortuitous! But this one looks intriguing: it's remarkable for being rather unremarkable - Rev. Woodforde wrote in his diary almost every day for fifty years, and he chronicles his day to day activities. In a way, it's like finding an everyday relic from the past - it's always exciting to find treasure, but the treasure is untypical; one learns a lot more from the mundane. And, that said, it most likely isn't a mundane read, I think it will be fascinating.
  • The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. This was the only title on my Classics Club list that I didn't own or have access to. 
  • The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. I first read about this when reading an essay on Virginia Woolf's Orlando and I've wanted to read it for a while.
  • Praise of Folly by Erasmus. I've read next to nothing from the Renaissance period, and I think this will be a good start!
  • Germinal by Émile Zola, translated by Leonard Tancock. My copy of Germinal translated by Peter Collier is one of my most favourite books, but I'm interested to see how a different translation would fare. 
  • Electra and Other Plays by Sophocles. Sophocles is 32 in The Guardian Top 50 Literary Figures, and I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with him!
  • A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck. It's Steinbeck, need I say more? 
  • Against Nature by J.-K. Huysmans. Described on the back as "A key text for Wilde; for Zola 'a terrible blow to Naturalism'; and for the public, a work of alarming depravity" - it's hard not to want to read this!
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I wasn't greatly into Crime and Punishment translated by Jessie Coulson, yet I've loved the other "big four" (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, and The Brothers Karamazov) so perhaps I'll prefer this translation.
  • Esther Waters by George Moore. I've not read anything by George Moore, and this was described as being "one of the first English novels to defeat Victorian moral censorship", so I think it's an important one. 
  • Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane. The only German Literature I've read is Goethe, and this is described as "Possibly the most famous German novel of the ninteenth century", comparable with both Flaubert and Chekhov. I'm looking forward to this. Interestingly, Douglas Parmée, the translator, also translated Émile Zola's The Earth, which is one of the few Zolas I didn't like, so we'll see what I make of it.
  • Selected Letters by Madame de Sévigné. These were written between 1648 - 1696, and it will be good to get an insight into what was happening in France then.
Finally, on my birthday itself, my mother gave me Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst. Having planted about three or four plants in the garden now, I fancy myself as a gardener, so this will be some inspiration! It's a beautiful book, and I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

And - as I was putting these on LibraryThing, I noticed I now have over a thousand books! This has been a life-long goal! If you want to see what I've got, they're all here

So, there's my new stash!

This week is set to be intensely busy, and I may not be around so much. I finished Oblomov and I'm hoping to write a few words on it, and I do want to at least read The Warden before the month is out (I may have to leave off reviewing it until early April). So, I may not be around so much. Oh, and a word on The Odyssey - I'm still reading it, and I'm quite into it, but I won't finish it this month for sure, and again, it'll be April before I get to write about it. Hopefully I'll surprise myself, but it's unlikely!

Have a good week, everyone!

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Kiss, by Karolina Světlá.

This was a chance read: a few days ago I was going through some of my mother's books and I found Selected Czech Tales translated by Marie Busch and Otto Pick (published in 1928 by Oxford University Press). This morning I began reading them, beginning with The Kiss by Karolina Světlá, and I thought I'd write a little about the story and do some research into this author who, until this morning, I hadn't come across. I have to say - the majority of what I have read has been written in Czech and translated by Google, so there's every chance some of this may be inaccurate (I do hope not). If this is the case then my apologies, and I hope there's someone out there who can correct me if I'm wrong anywhere. Furthermore, not all of the titles I have mentioned could be translated, but where possible I have give the English translation. 

The Kiss, or Hubička in it's original language, is a short story which was written in 1871. It was written by Karolina Světlá (born in 1830 in Prague), who, before marrying Petr Mužák in 1852, was known as Johana Rottová (Karolina Světlá was a pseudonym). She was a part of the 'Májovci', or the 'May School', which published a year book titled Máj (May), and one of it's aims was to reintroduce Czech as a literary language and improve the status of their nation in the Austria-Hungary empire whilst fighting for liberty, justice, and democracy. Her sister, Sofie Podlipská, was the Czech translator of the French novelist George Sand (author of Indiana), and the two sisters greatly admired Sand's work. In 1871, Světlá founded the 'Ženský výrobní spolek český' ('The women's guild of Czech production') to help girls from poor families, and she wrote many articles on the status of women in society.

From what I've read about Světlá, it seems she wrote a lot about rural life, some of which (for example Zvonečková královna and Nemodlenec) are anti-Catholic. Marriage is a common theme: Vesnický román (1867), or Village Novel, is about a loveless marriage, and love and relationships feature also in Kříž u potoka (Cross at the Brook, 1868) and Upomínky (Reminders, 1874). In Kantůrčice she writes about problems women face in society. In Hubička, or The Kiss, which is the short story I read this morning, Světlá writes about Lukáš Paloučku, who is in love with Vendulku Palouckou and she with him, however he was unable to marry her as their great-grandfathers were brothers (this was legal, and the church did not object: the objection rested solely with Lukáš' parents). He marries another, and Vendulku refuses to marry, wishing to remain faithful to him, however (right at the very beginning of the book, this isn't really a spoiler) his wife dies and they are free to marry each other. Paloučku, Vendulku's father, has misgivings about the match and warns them that they would be incompatible owing to their stubbornness, however they pay no heed and Vendulku goes to live with Lukáš before their marriage. When they are alone, Lukáš tries to kiss Vendulku, but she refuses, and what ensues is a tale of a great battle of wills that quickly gets out of hand.

As I've said, I read the translation by Marie Busch and Otto Pick, neither of whom I know anything about. It's a fairly early translation first published in 1925, but really I'm in no position to comment on whether or not it is adequate (having struggled with Google's translations, any translation seems to me a masterpiece now). All I can say is I enjoyed it so very much, and I adored the opening - the descriptions of village life, particularly women in village life, and the gossip (and the pleasures of gossip) that takes place in these little communities. Světlá writes,
To whomsoever this may not be a repetition of a well-known feature, it should be known that gossip in and out of season is as indispensable to us mountain-dwellers, as water to a fish. If anyone ever were to stop out talking and chattering, he would condemn us to death. We who live around the Jeschken Mountain would rather do without daily bread and content ourselves with dry potatoes, that renounce our sweetest habit. We will never give up gossiping; it eases life's burdens, steels our coourage, keeps us healthy - in short, gossip is as important as going to confession.
I'm looking forward to reading a little more by Karolina Světlá when (if, perhaps) any more comes my way. It's very exciting to come across an author who is important to literature, but it's frustrating that it is so hard to come across much information in English. I loved the realism in it, the conflict, the questions raised, and the descriptions of village life. I'm so happy to have found Světlá. One to watch out for. And, of course, it's exciting to branch out from the traditional Western Canon and find new (to me) and important authors of the classics. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the short stories in this collection.

I'll conclude with this YouTube clip of the operatic version of The Kiss, composed by Bedřich Smetana and first performed in Prague in 1876.

Further reading:

Friday, 21 March 2014

Metamorphoses, by Ovid.

Now I have finished my work, which nothing can ever destroy -
not Jupiter's wrath, nor fire or sword, now devouring time.
That day which has power over nothing except this body of mine
may come when it will and end the uncertain span of my life.
But the finer part of myself shall sweep me into eternity,
higher than all of the stars. My name shall be never forgotten.
Wherever the might of Rome extends in the lands she has conquered,
the people shall read and recite my words. Throughout all ages,
if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my fame.
- Epilogue of Metamorphoses.
From January 1st to 6th March I have been reading Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso. The original title, Metamorphoseon Libri ('the book of transformations') comes from the Greek word μεταμόρφωσις, meaning 'to transform', and it has associations with magic, sorcery, or divine intervention. It was completed around 8 AD, 2006 years ago, and has influenced the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dante, Ted Hughes (Tales from Ovid is one of the best books I've ever read), and Émile Zola, as well as a great many painters such as the Pre-Raphaelites and Titian.

'Apollo and Daphne', by John William
Waterhouse (1908).
It was Ted Hughes that introduced me to Ovid with his Tales from Ovid, a collection of fourteen tales including Creation, Midas, Pyramus and Thisbe, Echo and Narcissus, Niobe, and Pygmalion. Ovid's Metamorphoses contains over 250 tales within its 15 books, in which he describes creation, establishment of a world order, the relationship of the gods and goddesses with humanity, the Trojan War, and recounts the stories of Medea and Jason, Venus and Adonis, Io, Apollo and Daphne, the Minotour, Icarus, Bacchus, Echo and Narcissus, and a great many other tales, a number of which may be familiar to the reader. It is vast, epic (though scholars argue that classifying it as "an epic" is problematic): around 12 000 verses of chaos, drama, mirth, violence, tragedy, everything. I can't help but feel that if one understands and really involves oneself in Metamorphoses, the bulk of the Western Canon will fall into place. For that, I will be re-reading Metamorphoses, possibly as soon as next year. It is one to be read a number of times: this is my first reading and so I am overwhelmed by it. It is impossible to review this in straight lines because there are no straight lines in Ovid. Metamorphoses leaps and crashes, it has a frenetic energy, and I allowed myself to be carried away by it, which was both thrilling and disconcerting. 

Jason and Medea, by John William
Waterhouse (1907).
The one thread that runs through, which goes without saying of course, is metamorphosis; change, transformation. Metamorphoses begins with these words,
In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas 
corporadi, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen! 
[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 by art), and spin me a thread from the
world's beginning
down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.]

Echo and Narcissus, by John William Waterhouse (1903).
Change manifests in different ways: sometimes, a character quite literally morphs into something else: Daphne turns into a laurel tree to escape Apollo, who is trying to rape her (Book I). Scylla is transformed by Circe into a monster (Book VIII) and is set opposite Charybdis (Scylla and Charybdis appear in The Odyssey by Homer and later James Joyce's Ulysses), Io is turned into a snowy white heifer by Jupiter, seeking to hide his infidelity from his wife (and sister) Juno (Book I), who herself turn punishes Echo (from the Greek "ἦχος", meaning "sound") by making her unable to speak, save repeating the words of others (Book III). Callisto (in Greek "Καλλίστη", meaning "most beautiful") is also punished by Juno, who turns her into a bear and sets her amongst the stars (Book II). In other examples, Ovid is more subtle; there are metaphorical metamorphoses as it were, and it isn't only humans that change: in Pyramus and Thisbe, for example, it is a mulberry tree that undergoes the transformation.

Thisbe, by John William
Waterhouse, 1909.
Ovid's Pyramus and Thisbe (Book IV) was a great source of inspiration for Émile Zola's The Fortune of the Rougons (the first of his Rougon Macquart series). In Ovid, the two are frustrated by only being able to talk through the small chink, they conspire to pass the guards and meet face to face:
… after
their tale of woe, they made a decision: when all was quiet
that night, they would try to elude their guards and steal out of doors;
then once they'd escaped from their homes, they'd abandoned the city as well.
In case they got lost on their journey out in the open country,
their rendezvous would be Ninus' tomb, where they'd hide in the shade
of a certain tree – a tree which was tall and heavily laden
with snow-white berries, a mulberry – close to a cooling fountain.
The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe ends with a kind of Romeo and Juliet tragedy: Thisbe is attacked by a wild beast, however survives, however Pyramus finds her blood-red cloak and plunges his sword in his side:
Mine is the guilty soul. Poor girl, it is I who've
destroyed you
by making you find your way at night to this frightening place,
without being there to meet you...
Thisbe finds his body and kills herself,
… then placing the tip of the sword close under her breast
she fell on the steely weapon, still warm with her Pyramus' blood
Those prayers, however, had touched the hearts of the gods and the parents:
the fruit of the mulberry tree, when it ripens, is now dark red;
and the ashes surviving the funeral pyres are at rest in the same urn.
Iin Zola, the two lovers are Silvère and Miette who meet when Silvère climbs the wall that divides their families' property. They open a door, which is part of the wall, which, on discovering this, brings back terrible memories for Silvère's Aunt Dide. Following this episode, Miette and Silvère resolve to meet elsewhere, in the old cemetery of Jas-Meiffren, Plassans. They climb up a mulberry tree and sit underneath (as Pyramus and Thisbe did before them) on the tombstone bearing the inscription “Here lies... Marie... died”, where, on the night of the coup d'etat, they wait to join the insurgents from La Palud and Saint-Martin-de-Vaulx.

And it was not only Zola who was inspired by Ovid. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and there are other references in Cervantes, Dumas, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Edith Wharton.

Of course, there is a great deal more to say on Ovid's Metamorphoses. It is densely packed with tales that have been inspired and gone on to inspire a great many. Ovid raises humanity and lowers the gods and goddesses, he inspires, he shocks with tales of incest and rape; it's dark and light and everything in between. And, as I say, it is the kind of book to return to. I don't regret being carried along by it as I was, but I think it would be fascinating and very enlightening to read it slowly and dwell upon each and every story. Pyramus and Thisbe is certainly one of my favourites, but I loved the tale of Midas, who is cursed by Bacchus with the "golden touch" (Book XI). And Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor who falls in love with his statue (Book X) and Aphrodite, who takes pity on him, is a source of inspiration for Edward Burne Jones:

The Heart Desires
The Hand Refrains
The Godhead Fires
The Soul Attains
Metamorphoses is a remarkable work, and a must-read not least because of the impact it has had on the Western Canon, but it is also thoroughly engaging and very readable. For years I'd been intimidated by it, but that was completely unfounded! I'm looking forward to reading it again and learning more about Ovid, and really involving myself in each tale.


Thursday, 20 March 2014

Vernal equinox.

Spring is the time of plans and projects.
- Leo Tolstoy.

Equinox, from the Latin "aequus" meaning "equal" and "nox" meaning "night", simply means the time of year when night and day are about of equal length (sunrise was 6.04, sunset will be 18.13). In short, it is spring! The days are now getting longer! Quite possibly my favourite day of the year. For over a month the snowdrops have been out (surely the hardiest flower there is?), and here the daffodils are very close to coming into bloom, though I have seen them in bloom elsewhere. And the crocuses, they've been out at least a week now. Colour, warmth, and life, in short. The northern hemisphere is approaching "full glitter" (to use one of Ted Hughes' phrases). 

Yes, I've been waiting for this day. It seems to me more 'real' than New Year's Day - I can feel the change in the air, I can see it. The lengthening days are more noticeable, and have been for the past month or so, but this is the time when the day truly is getting longer. I've missed the colours and the smells of spring. It's lovely to cosy up in the autumn and winter, but now I'm ready to be barefoot in the grass. I'm very much looking forward to planting things in the garden, meandering through the forest and streams with the hens, reading outside, as well as feeling as though things are moving forward. 

In honour of this, I've decided on a new reading / writing challenge! This spring is set to be incredibly busy (and I may not have a vast amount of time for blogging - from next week I may be lucky to get out a post a week, although if I was a little bit more organised with my time it will be more), but by late spring things will have settled. By then, I hope to be a lot more focused on my Émile Zola website (not something I want to rush - it's an enjoyable process, but this winter has been so busy and at times so foul I've not managed to write anything). But, I digress. My new challenge comes from The Guardian - in their article "Who's the most significant historical figure?" they have, at the bottom, a list of 50 writers they deem most important. There's few on there I haven't read, but what I would like to do is read then write about a novel / poem / essay of each of these writers with a small paragraph on biographical detail. Here's the page where I'll link up posts.

And aside from that: I'm planning on doing a little catching up with Homer's The Odyssey for the next few days, however tonight (having just finished She by Rider Haggard - a strenuous book, perhaps I'll blog about it soon) I'm going to relax with The Warden by Anthony Trollope, which is part of the Chronicles of Barsetshire read-along with Fig and Thistle and Avid Reader's Musings, and I decided to wait until spring to start it. I have read this one (loved it), as well as the second, Barchester Towers (did not love it), but it's good to revisit those and move on to the rest.

Other spring plans: once I've finished The Odyssey, I want to re-read Ulysses by James Joyce (summer will be the season for Proust; it was going to be the other way around), and I'm very much looking forward to reading some Zola along with Fanda in April (and I urge everyone to join in!). I haven't been able to do any work on Zola and my website since early February, and although the next month or so are set to be extremely busy, I would like to return a little to Émile, with a view to returning fully to working on my website in the summer and autumn.

And speaking of autumn - I think (I think) I may perhaps finish my Classics Club list by then. I have 21 books remaining, and it would be nice to start autumn with a new list!

But first, let's see what spring brings! It's been a very good start, and I'm grateful for that (haunted by the memories of the bad start to 2014, and the horrible things that came after). It really is the time for moving forward. 

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Early spring.

Today may be summed up by Charles Dickens,
It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.
Exactly it. We went for a little walk around a disused quarry in the forest - the puddles by the trees had one inch of ice over them, but the sun was delicious. We've been outside a lot today (no coats on!), and the sun was most welcome to our birds: today marked the very first day of the budgies being out in the aviary and the hens going out for a walk. I believe the day was enjoyed most by Trotwood.

Trot, who is 2 years old next Wednesday, flew directly out of his cage and straight on to the perch in the aviary, where he proceeded to dance for a full ten minutes. He's quite a serious sort of chap, though sometimes prone to extreme silliness, so seeing his with his little mohican right up, frantically running around all the poles, bobbing up and down, flying hither and thither and squeaking constantly was surprising to all. Myshkin and Oliver, marginally more reserved, also had great fun. I much prefer them to be out in the aviary, and it's quite large with lots of things to do in there, so they've had a great day (getting them back in, however, was no fun at all). As for the hens - we took Anne and Charlotte for a little wander, so they've been down by the river digging and sunbathing. Everyone is much happier in the warmer months. I saw the first bee today, and yesterday the first crocus. The daffodils are closer to showing their faces, too. It's so beautiful here!

Reading / blogging wise - I'm almost caught up with things, I think I've written about everything I wanted to write about except The Little Prince (which I didn't read that long ago), and The Phantom of the Opera, the latter I do have to admit defeat with. I did enjoy it, but I read it so long ago. It just hasn't stayed with me. All I will say on it (consider this my review) is that I read it in one evening after a very stressful day, and it managed to engage me rather well. So that's Leroux. Up next, that The Little Prince review, and, again hopefully before spring starts, a Metamorphoses review. Reading: I want to start reading Uncle Tom's Cabin again: I was very into it, but I had no time to read so I got lost along the way, and it's a shame to spoil any book, let alone this book like that. Finally, I want to finish reading I, Claudius (that has such good reviews, but I'll confess now: I'm bored and I want to get it over with), Dorothy Parker Collected Works (I am so happy reading through this book!), and Oblomov.

Now, I have a problem with Oblomov, which accounts for me sort of abandoning it: a week ago today I pulled a muscle in my back. It has been a very painful week, and worst of all, despite it getting better, it's all of a sudden got worse. Most of last week involved lying in bed. Reading Oblomov lying in bed... Well, if you've read it you'll know what I mean - I can't help lying around, but at the same time the comparisons are extremely uncomfortable! All the same, I was enjoying it, so once I, Claudius is "out of the way" (I feel bad about this as it has such good reviews) I'll return to it. And I'm hoping this is a mere glitch and my back will return to getting better again. 

So this is March so far. I love the warmer weather and longer days, and I'm desperate for my back to get better so I can get on with things. Still, I've been doing a lot of reading in the process (eight books so far this month)! 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

Ah, Shakespeare. In my previous post, I wrote about how I could not fathom how anyone could not at least like The Wind in the Willows, and now, with this post, I swap sides and join the ranks of the unfathomable. Everyone who loves classics seems to love Shakespeare, everyone that is except me.

I've tried several times since re-reading Hamlet back in January to write this post, and not managing to write anything at all has been at the back of my mind for a while. It's on my 25 re-reads list, and I wanted to write something about all the books I've read, and furthermore, most importantly, re-reading some of these books has changed my opinion on both the books I've revisited and the authors too. Pride and Prejudice is one of the most important books I've read this year: for over a decade I've had a strong aversion to most books by Jane Austen and I couldn't understand what it was that was so appealing, but in reading Pride and Prejudice again I suddenly saw her in an entirely new light. Austen is, all of a sudden, exciting. And Henry James - I love his novellas (not so much the novels, though), but I never got into The Turn of the Screw. But now I love it, and same with Middlemarch - that was one of the most rewarding re-reads of 2013. Finally, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway - I've always loved that, but re-reading it gave me a deeper appreciation. It made me love Woolf all the more. But Hamlet? I liked Hamlet when I read it for my A Levels in 1999, and I still like it. But "like" is as passionate as I get for Shakespeare. And how do I write about a book that I have no strong feelings for? But, it's the fact that I can't that makes me want to get on with it, so I shall try to write something, however I won't write about Hamlet, I shall write about Ophelia. 

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais. 1852. Oil on Canvas. Tate Britain.

Ophelia was a favourite among Pre-Raphaelite artists in the 19th Century, most famously portrayed by Elizabeth Siddal (1829 - 1862) in John Everett Millais' Ophelia (1861 - 1862), but there are several other paintings - here are my favourites:

by John William Waterhouse, 1889. Oil on canvas. Private Collection.
by Arhur Hughes, 1851. Oil on canvas. City of Manchester Art Galleries.

by John William Waterhouse, 1910. Oil on canvas.
Private collection.

by John William Waterhouse, 1894. Oil on canvas.
Private collection.

The skull in Millais' Ophelia.
She was the daughter of Polonious, the sister of Laertes, and the love of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. She is virginal; she embodies innocence, and she is the victim of Hamlet's madness (or apparent madness). She intrigues me, but there is no real insight into her flat, one dimensional character. Her death is inevitable, and we can attribute her own madness and suicide to Hamlet, but if only it weren't so. It's wrong to dislike someone's writing because they did not write what you wanted them to write about, but at the same time I can't help but feel that. I wanted more. I wanted Ophelia by William Shakespeare, and perhaps others have wanted that, perhaps that is part of the reason she has become a kind of cult figure in art, although I can't help but feel the female victim of a man had, once, a certain kind of glamour attached to her. I wished for strength from a character who was weak (a weak character from all angles, it might be said), but then I have to wonder how old she was. I think she could have been so much more, but, well, I read Hamlet, not Ophelia.

"Oh rose of May!" (Laertes). From Millais' Ophelia.
The references to flowers were very interesting, however. Floriology, or the study of the meaning of flowers, is quite a fascinating subject. Ophelia is like a flower herself, and the flowers she hands out in Act 4 Scene 5, the flowers she gathers before her death, and the flowers at her funeral are all fraught with meaning. Indeed there are a lot of references to flowers and weeds in Hamlet, Hamlet himself refers to life as "an unweeded garden, / That grows to
From Millais' Ophelia.
seed; things rank and gross in nature" (Act 1 Scene 2), his love for Ophelia is described by Laertes as "
A violet in the youth of primy nature" (Act 1 Scene 3), and in warning Ophelia to remain a virgin, he says, "The canker galls the infants of the spring / Too oft before their buttons be disclos'd" (Act 1 Scene 3). In her madness, Ophelia says to Laertes, "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts."

From Millais' Ophelia.
To the King and Queen she gives fennel (strength), columbines (foolishness), and rue (sorrow; and a bitter herb known to cause miscarriages: Ophelia says, "there's rue for you; and here's some for me", which could be a reason why some scholars argue that Ophelia may have been pregnant). Then violets are mentioned (faithfulness and modesty), but "I would give you some violets, but they wither'd all when my father died". And, finally in this scene, daisies - innocence and purity. Perhaps this scene shows I haven't given enough credit to her, and that she was braver and stronger than it appeared. 

From Millais' Ophelia.
Soon after this scene, it is revealed by the Queen (in Act 4 Scene 7) that Ophelia has drowned. In one of my favourite speeches in Shakespeare, she says,
There is a willow grows aslant a brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up;
Which time she chaunted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indu'd
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
From Millais' Ophelia.

Willow - the weeping willow - for mourning and forsaken love, crowflowers (buttercups) meaning ingratitude, nettles to represent pain, daisies, as mentioned, for innocence, and long purples (the purple orchid) for love, beauty, and also lust (the word orchid comes from the Greek "ὄρχις" meaning "testicle").

Yes, I did enjoy the symbolism of flowers in Hamlet, and Ophelia is for me one of the most intriguing characters in Shakespeare's plays. As I say, I liked Hamlet, and I enjoyed reading it again. But I can never manage to love Shakespeare as much as others. I think I should follow one of my friend's advice, that is to watch Shakespeare, not read him. There's a lot to be said for reading plays, but I do wonder if I'd enjoy the performance more.

Further reading:

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame.

One does not argue about The Wind in the Willows. The young man gives it to the girl with whom he is in love, and, if she does not like it, asks her to return his letters. The older man tries it on his nephew, and alters his will accordingly. The book is a test of character.
- A. A. Milne
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (first published in 1908) is described by A. A. Milne as "a Household Book: a book which everybody in the household loves, and quotes continually." And he's right: a library cannot be complete without The Wind in the Willows, and, furthermore, it is one of the few, if not the only book I cannot understand people not liking. I can forgive people not liking Zola: I admit he's a bit grim at times ("a bit?", the haters ask!). Virginia Woolf is not for everyone, Samuel Richardson can go on a bit, and I don't mind at all if you prefer Charlotte or Emily Brontë to Anne, or if you prefer Jane Austen to all. But not Wind in the Willows. At the very least, one has to like it.

It is the perfect book for this time of year, when spring is in the air but winter is still fresh in our minds. The opening lines:
The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.
Mole looking for home (Thames Television
production,  1984).
"... divine discontent and longing" - that is spring. And from then we move to spring, through summer and autumn, to winter and see the lives of the Mole, Toad, Rat, Badger, Otter, and many others. The constant themes are home and travel - "sweet unrest", to quote the "second swallow" in the novel - Mole, Toad, and Rat experience a kind of wanderlust at some stage, a yearning for adventure and experience (in some ways The Wind in the Willows may be read as a sort of junior Odyssey), but they always return home. One of the chapters is titled "Dulce Domum", referring to the Winchester College song - 
Domum, domum, dulce domum!
[Home, home, joyous home!]
And, as says the second swallow,
First, we feel it stirring within us, a sweet unrest; then back come the recollections one by one, like homing pigeons. They flutter through our dreams at night, they fly with us in our wheelings and circlings by day. We hunger to inquire of each other, to compare notes and assure ourselves that it was all really true, as one by one the scents and sounds and names of long-forgotten places come gradually back and beckon to us. 
Pan, by Arthur Rackham.
This is a rite of passage, a call of nature, and nature has a mystical element. The Wind in the Willows is an old book, the themes within it are ancient, with the references to Homer (the final chapter is titled "The Return of Ulysses") and the Greek God Pan (in Greek "Πᾶν"), whose name derives from the Greek "πάειν", meaning to pasture. He is associated with nature, first appearing in Pindar's Pythian (5th Century B.C.), and in some traditions he is believed to be the son of Penelope, wife of Odysseus. And of course, the animism and anthropomorphism in it: the belief that animals, nature, even inanimate objects have life, sometimes human life, in them (very popular in children's literature, the ultimate animist / shamanistic novel being The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett). It is not just the animals who have the human element; the river and the moon, for example, are living things - during the search for Otter's lost cub Portly, the moon "did what she could, though so far off, to help them in their quest". And as for the river - it's a major character. Here is Mole's first encounter:
Never in his life had he seen a river before--this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver--glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

The River Pang, Berkshire,
thought to have inspired Grahame
The Wind in the Willows is itself a living entity, so very full of life and spirit. It is pastoral with its romanticised descriptions of nature and, more specifically, harmony with nature, like that of Roman poets Virgil and Ovid, harking back to the Golden Age, which Ovid describes in Metamorphoses -
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.
This, the Golden Age, is before the reign of Jupiter, described by Virgil as when
Fields knew no taming hand of husbandmen
To mark the plain or mete with boundary-line.
Even this was impious; for the common stock
They gathered, and the earth of her own will
All things more freely, no man bidding, bore.
But in The Wind and the Willows modernity does threaten. In the same year as the publication of The Wind in the Willows, Henry Ford first produced the Ford Model T, the first "affordable" motor car, and in the novel Toad himself buys a motor car, abandoning a previous obsession with gypsy caravans, and this car gets him into a lot of trouble - an awful lot of trouble. But - well, I won't spoil the end if you haven't read it.

Such a beautiful book. It is, as I say, inspired by the Greeks, and it portrays this gentle, earthy Golden Age to perfection. Time barely seems to exist, save the changes in the season. Nostalgia is the word. So gentle, with loving portrays of the little animals. I cannot recommend it enough!

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Despite not being terribly keen on Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite books. It was first published in 1813, following Sense and Sensibility (1811), and is one of the most popular novels in the English language. Most people can quote that opening sentence, and it seems almost everyone has affection for it, and I certainly do - it was one of the only pleasant things during February. It even made me laugh, which was no mean feat. 

Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Austen, "she never trespassed beyond her boundaries", and yet, "Whatever she writes is finished and turned and set in its relation, not to the parsonage, but to the universe" (The Common Reader First Series). There are indeed elements of realism in her works, perhaps owing to the fact that she did not "trespass beyond her boundaries": for example in the introduction to my Wordsworth edition, it is said that "she never reports a conversation between men when there is no women present" (Virginia Woolf concluded her essay on Jane Austen arguing that, had she have written another six novels, "She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust" - perhaps she already was). Austen wrote parodies, comedies (some place her in the category of "comedy of manners), and romances, but there's certainly more to them, I don't think any of her novels fit neatly into one niche. Pride and Prejudice has all of these elements: the realism, the satire, the attention to manners, etiquette, and society, all within a fairy tale romance. Lizzie Bennet is one of my favourite characters; the second of the Bennet sisters, intelligent, sociable, and lively, she can see through social class and is aware of the hypocrisies within it. She, and too Mr. Darcy (I feel that Pride and Prejudice is so well known and loved I needn't even give a plot and character overview) overcome their personal flaws or failings, and through Lizzie's gradual understanding of herself (or her "self", I should write) she finds happiness. Pride and Prejudice is about this search, and overcoming her prejudice (and pride, I dare say, though that is the realm of Mr. Darcy).

In Jane Austen's own words, Pride and Prejudice is "light, and bright, and sparkling", though she did not intend on complimenting herself. It isn't as fluffy as she believed it was, though. She wrote, as Woolf suggests, on universal themes, love and marriage of course, family conflicts, society, and the self amongst all of that. But, as I say, I think everyone knows this even if they haven't read the book. Perhaps that is why I love it so much - it's as familiar and warm as a Sunday evening, though I think time has made it more gentle than it was originally intended to be. Wrongly, I think, it is a kind of escapism, there is beauty and light in it, and as I say comedy, the end is predictable though the journey to it may not be. But, ending aside, that was not a gentle journey by any stretch of the imagination. For some characters it was a harsh one (though they may not have had the intelligence to realise it, their family members certainly did), and prejudice, not necessarily Lizzie's own, but that which she and her sister suffered, is never a beautiful thing. There's ugliness in Pride and Prejudice, and had I read it with more of a critical mind instead of using it to relax I would have looked deeper. An unsuitable marriage, for example - Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are entirely wrong for each other and another writer would have portrayed this as a tragedy. But this is Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, not, say, William Shakespeare's or Anne Brontë's (I'm thinking of Helen Graham in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). The fate of Lizzie and her sister Jane could have easily been dull and dark.

Thus, I can't help but feel there's a slight myth surrounding it: it is not so airy, and the reality is I would have died to escape the stuffy society the sisters were often surrounded with; the florals, the soft lace, and the pastels were often merely for show. This doesn't make it a lesser work, far from it; the opposite in fact. Pride and Prejudice is a great book, but I believe it is even greater than commonly portrayed in film, the media, and those genteel front covers. Pride and Prejudice has a sharp edge.

Further reading:
'Jane Austen', by Virginia Woolf (from The Common Reader First Series, 1924)

Jane Austen's Major Works
 Sense and Sensibility (1811) | Pride and Prejudice (1813) | Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815) | Northanger Abbey (1817) | Persuasion (1817)

Saturday, 1 March 2014


It's been a very sombre week, but today, for the first time in weeks, I worked so very hard. I had let things slide, so today was catching up, housework, gardening, various other things, and I have the righteous ache in my muscles that is rather satisfying. February was a bleak month in many ways, and I want to move forward, away from it, forget it in short, so it was good to wake up early, a new month, the first day of meteorological spring (though personally I recognise the official first day astronomically, which is on the 20th), and begin working on the plans we have for the garden. Much digging, and hours of heavy lifting, once done (half done, actually, it was getting dark), I tidied the house, then finished Brighton Rock in the bath (least said about that book the better. Three stars on Goodreads was extraordinarily respectful of me, I really must be in a better mood).

One of the consequences of February is that I'm very behind in my reading, so I'm thinking less of March plans and more of end-of-winter plans. There are things I want to write about before spring, February books mainly - Hamlet, The Wind in the Willows, Pride and Prejudice and The Phantom of the Opera, as well as answering the February Classic Club question (I liked that question: I was looking forward to answering it, but made the odd decision to wait until mid-month, which was when things went rapidly down hill). I would also like to finish and write about Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe - I was enjoying it, but I didn't have the energy to give it the attention it deserved. So, there (hopefully) are six posts that are on their way in the next two and a half weeks! And, one last catch-up read - I'd like to finish Poor Folk by Dostoyevsky for my Russian Literature Challenge, though, sadly, I can't see me reviewing it: I can't settle with it. But, I'm not yet half way through, so maybe something will make me love it. It's Dostoyevsky's first novel so I still love him! Other than that, because January was a good reading month, I'm not behind on any of my 2014 challenges. Which is good!

As for the new: well, there are two books I'd like to finish before spring: Ovid's Metamorphoses (which I may well not finish, I don't want to rush it for the sake of ticking it off), and The Odyssey, which I'm reading as part of a read-along. I am very much behind - by now I should have finished Book VIII, however I've only just finished Book II. I would very much like to catch up with it, and I'm thinking reading a book a day should do the trick. Also, the 1st March is the first day of the Chronicles of Barsetshire read-along, starting with The Warden, which whilst I've already read I'm looking forward to re-reading and re-reviewing. Finally, I still have Frenchman's Creek to read for my Classic Club Spin.

A lot of reading ahead! And March is set to be an extremely busy month as it is, but I'm hoping with some organisation I shall meet my goals. I'm focussed more on the next two weeks, just catching up a bit will be good, and I may leave the new challenges until after the 20th. I've missed blogging, so I'm looking forward to writing some reviews, particularly Pride and Prejudice

For now, I'm off to bed. I'm supremely tired. I'm intending to read, but I think I could easily be asleep in the next half an hour! March has started well - happy birds, a very productive day, and I've finished my 150th book on my Classic Club list!

Happy March, everyone!

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