Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far In 2015.

Incredibly, we're at the half way point of 2015. Summer has arrived in a way - right now it's very overcast, a few patches of blue sky, mainly white clouds but there's also a very heavy black cloud over the village, and it is 27 degrees. Exceptionally muggy. But my plants are all doing well in it!

And here we are, half way through. Accordingly, this week's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish is - 

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far In 2015:

Looking forward to what the next half brings!

Monday, 29 June 2015

Villette by Charlotte Brontë.

Villette is Charlotte Brontë's final novel and was published in 1853. Virginia Woolf referred to it as Brontë's "finest novel" (in The Common Reader First Series: '"Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"'), and George Eliot wrote, "Villette! Villette! It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power."

Sadly for me, however, I could never quite get into it. I first read it a few years ago, I think actually it was for Allie's last Victorian Summer, and I hated it. The second time around I felt I was always on the precipice of falling into it, in the first half I came oh so close but never quite, then suddenly without no discernible reason any hints of Brontë magic packed up and left and I spent the final 250 pages either praying for it to return, or just for it to finish. Last year The Telegraph published an article on Villette,
It is also an astonishing piece of writing, a book in which phantasmagorical set pieces alternate with passages of minute psychological exploration, and in which Brontë’s marvellously flexible prose veers between sardonic wit and stream-of-consciousness, in which the syntax bends and flows and threatens to dissolve completely in the heat of madness, drug-induced hallucination and desperate desire.
This is what I wanted, but I was left with the unfair conclusion that (for me), Villette's problem was Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is almost universally loved and is consistently in the Top Ten books on most lists. It is one of my all time favourites (top five, I'd say) and there's always a hope that the author of our favourite book will write just one more - just one more incredible book that spins our minds. Shirley (1849), I think, was outstanding but didn't quite get there either (far closer than Villette did, though) and that leaves The Professor, which, to be fair, people are very polite about but there's few if any who think it's great literature. So that left Villette. Had Jane Eyre not been written, Villette still wouldn't have made my top ten, but I would have loved it all the more. This is the nearest I can get to explaining why I didn't love it.

But enough of that, what of the plot? Well, it's about Lucy Snowe, a rather difficult narrator who reveals things not as they happened but as she deems appropriate (if at all). It begins in England (in the fictional Bretton, presumably West Yorkshire but there are a few Brettons in England) with Lucy staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton, her son John Graham Bretton, and another visitor - a little girl called Polly (her character I will never forget). When Lucy leaves she goes to live with and work for Miss Marchmont, however she dies, and so Lucy decides to quit England all together and go to Belgium in the fictional city of Villette where she works in a boarding school for Madame Beck. There we see her adapt to her life in a foreign country, fall in love, and sees others fall in love, though she never leaves her past behind - it very much stays with her with the reappearance of the early characters.

It's possibly Brontë's most autobiographical novel (Charlotte lived in Belgium for a time and fell in love with a married professor, M. Héger), it's very well done, and though there's a strong element of the Gothic, it's more (as The Telegraph suggested) about psychological realism. It is not an easy book, and by that I mean all the elements are not simply presented to the reader, it does involve more work than usual. It's full of twists and turns which later make sense but not so much at the time, and as I say Lucy Snowe is not always as forthcoming with facts as perhaps a reader would like. This is a good novel, and I enjoyed it more than is perhaps coming across, but it was painful and draining ,and I would quickly get tired of it as I read through it. I suppose what I felt was it wasn't quite worth it, and for that I feel bad.

On a lighter note - some illustrations! This first set are by the wonderful Edmund Dulac, but oddly enough they were not easy to track down. There are twelve illustrations for Villette however I could only find eight:

And the second set are by John Jellicoe and can be found in the 1906 edition of Villette (published by Andrew Melrose):

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.
Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King (Οἰδίπους Τύραννος, 429 B.C.) is, in order of writing, the second of Sophocles' "Oedipus plays", however, in terms of the plays' chronology it is the first and is followed by Oedipus at Colonus (Οἰδίπους ἐπὶ Κολωνῷ, 406 B.C.) then Antigone (Ἀντιγόνη, 441 B.C.). It is the play that gave its name to Sigmund Freud's 'Oedipus Complex', which Freud describes (in The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899:
Being in love with the one parent and hating the other belong to the indispensable stock of psychical impulses being formed at that time which are so important for the later neurosis.
Freud goes on to invoke Oedipus:
I refer to the legend of King Oedipus and the drama of that name by Sophocles. Oedipus, son of Laius, King of Thebes, and Jocasta, is abandoned as an infant because an oracle has proclaimed to his father that his son yet unborn would be his murderer. He is rescued and grows up as a king's son at a foreign court, until he himself consults the oracle about his origins, and received the counsel that he should flee his home city, because he would perforce become his father's murderer and his mother's spouse. On the road from his supposed home city he encounters King Laius and kills him in a sudden quarrel. Then he arrives before Thebes, where he solves the riddle of the Sphinx as she bars his way, and in gratitude he is chosen by the Thebans to be their king and presented with Jocasta's hand in marriage. He reigns long in peace and dignity, and begets two sons and two daughters with his - unbeknown - mother, until a plague breaks out, occasioning fresh questioning of the oracle by the Thebans. At this point Sophocles' tragedy begins.
It begins rather like Shakespeare's Hamlet, "Something is rotten in the State of Denmark" (Act I): in Oedipus, something is rotten in Thebes:
The city, as you see yourself, is now
Storm-tossed, and can no longer raise its head
Above the waves and angry surge of death.
The fruitful blossoms of the land are barren,
The herds upon our pastures, and our wives
In childbirth, barren. Last, and worst of all,
The withering gods of fever swoops on us
To empty Cadmus' city and enrich
Dark Hades with our groans and lamentations...
The speaker is a priest and he is talking to Oedipus, the king, who has already asked Creon, his brother in law, to seek the answers. He swiftly returns saying,
Good news! Our sufferings, if they are guided right,
Can even yet turn to a happy issue.
... I will tell you what Apollo said -
And it was very clear. There is pollution
Here in our midst, long-standing. This must we
Expel, nor let it grow past remedy.
Oedipus asks what has defiled Thebes, and Creon tells him it is the murder of King Laius and his death, Apollo has said, must be revenged. Oedipus later consults a prophet, Tiresias, who is not forthcoming - "Let me go home!" he says, "It will be best for you / And best for me, if you let me go." But he soon tells him - "You are yourself the murderer you seek".

Remarkably, Oedipus appears to have no knowledge or memory of this murder. They argue - Oedipus believes that this is a plot hatched by Creon, and Tiresias finishes by saying,
... No frown of yours
Shall frighten me; you cannot injure me.
Here is my message: that man whom you seek
With threats and proclamations for the death
Of Laius, he is living here; he's thought
To be a foreigner, but shall be found
Theban by birth - and little joy will this
Bring him; when, with his eyesight turned to blindness,
His wealth to beggary, on foreign soil
With staff in hand he'll tap his way along,
His children with him; and he will be known
Himself to be their father and their brother,
The husband of the mother who gave him birth,
Supplanter of his father, and his slayer.
Oedipus tells his wife Jocasta and she dismisses it, telling him that a prophet once claimed that King Laius would be killed by his son however, as she relays, his son was cast out of Thebes and Laius was murdered by robbers. He then recalls once overhearing someone claim that he was not, as he believed, the real son of the king and queen of Corinth. He then remembers further - that when he asked the king and queen, Polybus and Merope, they denied this claim so he consulted an oracle that told him "I must marry my mother and kill Polypus / My father, who engendered me and reared me". On hearing this he left Corinth to avoid such a fate, and on his way he is involved in an argument on the road with Laius, who he killed whilst defending himself. Later consulting with the one survivor of the incident he is confronted with his worst suspicion - the truth was Oedipus did kill his father Laius. Jocasta goes on to hang herself, and Oedipus takes the pins from her dress and blinds himself. He begs to be exiled and, fulfilling Tiresias' prophecy, goes on to live as a beggar.

It is a bleak play on fate, inevitability, and prophecy - that that which is decreed by fate must come true, although whilst Oedipus appeared to have no control over most of it, he did perhaps fulfil Tiresias' prophecy consciously - he deliberately blinded himself. The prophecy came true, but the question of whether he was necessarily fated to do so is perhaps questionable. This is the subject of 'On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex' by E.R. Dodds (1966). He refers to Aristotle's interpretation of the play in his Poetics and the use of the word "άμάρτίά", which, roughly, translates as "sin" or "fault". According to Aristotle, Dodds claims, Oedipus' downfall was because of "άμάρτίά", which is an ambiguous term and it is assumed in this context it refers to a moral fault. Oedipus was never a perfect character even without killing his father and marrying his mother. He was proud and arrogant and for this he was punished by fate. However, Dodds claims that Aristotle used the word "άμάρτίά" as in "άμάρτημα", which means "mistake", which suggests that Oedipus was not being punished for anything, and this prophecy was completely unconditional - it will come true. Yet, conversely, Dodds suggests that this does not mean Oedipus was without free will: there is a difference between "fate" and "prophecy" - Dodds uses the example of a football game: a prophet may know Scotland will win a game, but it still depends on the skill of the Scottish team. There were various prophecies and Oedipus' determination to find their truth was not so much fated as his own choice to do so, despite those strenuously discouraging him. The temptation to take from this play that the gods and fate must be respected should be resisted, Dodds argues, because there is no way of knowing outside the play quite what Sophocles believed himself. Oedipus, therefore, is a strong and powerful character, undeterred to seek the truth and to live with the consequences, even when he suspects before it is revealed that these consequences are horrific. That Oedipus was fated to act has he did means this strength of character is lost and he becomes a mere pawn. This article of Dodds' is very interesting and persuasive, though very complicated: it was written for those with knowledge of both the classic plays and the Ancient Greek language (there are parts quoted in original language that are untranslated in the article, for example). I may need to read it a few more times but I hope I've summarised it adequately!

So there is Oedipus Rex. It's the first Sophocles play I've read and it's certainly a tough one but very satisfying all the same. I'm now very eager to get to Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone.


And that was, incidentally, my 26th post for the Deal Me In Challenge, which means not only am I half way through that but also, frighteningly enough, half way through the year! I have another three plays by Sophocles left on this list - Ajax, Electra, and Women of Trachis, and, on the Ancient Greek theme, The Poet and the Woman by Aristophanes. Next week however, rather unfortunately, is the short story I'd previously avoided a month or so ago - Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka.

Next: Oedipus at Colonus

~ Sophocles' Plays ~

The Theban Plays: Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) | Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) Antigone (441 B.C.)
OthersAjax (450 - 430 B.C.) | Women of Trachis (440 - 430 B.C.)
Electra (410 B.C.) | Philoctetes (409 B.C.)

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith.

"...it’s the diary that makes the man. Where would Evelyn and Pepys have been if it had not been for their diaries?"
The Diary of a Nobody is one of the finest pieces of comic literature of all time, written by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith (and illustrated by the latter) and published first in Punch (1888-89) and then in book form in 1892. 

It is the diary of a Mr. Charles Pooter, a lower middle class clerk working in the city London and living in Holloway (London Borough of Islington). It begins on his move to his new home, The Laurels on Brickfield Terrace (see Harry Mount's article 'Finding Pooter's House' for The Spectator) in Hollway, which Pooter describes in the introduction to his diary:
My dear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house, "The Laurels," Brickfield Terrace, Holloway—a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour. We have a little front garden; and there is a flight of ten steps up to the front door, which, by-the-by, we keep locked with the chain up. Cummings, Gowing, and our other intimate friends always come to the little side entrance, which saves the servant the trouble of going up to the front door, thereby taking her from her work. We have a nice little back garden which runs down to the railway. We were rather afraid of the noise of the trains at first, but the landlord said we should not notice them after a bit, and took £2 off the rent. He was certainly right; and beyond the cracking of the garden wall at the bottom, we have suffered no inconvenience.
He goes on to keep his diary for about 15 months (from April 3rd to July 10th the following year, presumably around the late 1880s when this was written) and we learn of his daily life, his friends and associates (particularly Gowing and Cummings), his work, his wife Carrie and son Lupin, his numerous failed attempts to rise from the lower middle class, his frequent battles with servants and local tradesmen (and his son, come to that), and his obsession of finding the perfect joke. He is quite frankly an awful snob, but a very likeable one - somehow, when reading, I always wanted Charles Pooter to succeed and do well. And above all else, it's funny - this gentle observational comedy of the late Victorian middle class life, Pooter with his snobbery, and this collection of sketches of both the mundane and the extraordinary, is a outstanding read and puts it very close to the class of Jerome K. Jerome. I can't speak highly enough of it!

George and Weedon Grossmith
Here are a few of my favourite parts:

On dry rot:
Aᴘʀɪʟ 12th - I took a walk round the garden three or four times, feeling the need of fresh air. On returning Gowing noticed I was not smoking: offered me another cigar, which I politely declined. Gowing began his usual sniffing, so, anticipating him, I said: “You’re not going to complain of the smell of paint again?” He said: “No, not this time; but I’ll tell you what, I distinctly smell dry rot.” I don’t often make jokes, but I replied: “You’re talking a lot of dry rot yourself.” I could not help roaring at this, and Carrie said her sides quite ached with laughter. I never was so immensely tickled by anything I have ever said before. I actually woke up twice during the night, and laughed till the bed shook.
The 'paint episode':
Aᴘʀɪʟ 25.—In consequence of Brickwell telling me his wife was working wonders with the new Pinkford’s enamel paint, I determined to try it. I bought two tins of red on my way home. I hastened through tea, went into the garden and painted some flower-pots. I called out Carrie, who said: "You’ve always got some newfangled craze;" but she was obliged to admit that the flower-pots looked remarkably well. Went upstairs into the servant's bedroom and painted her washstand, towel-horse, and chest of drawers. To my mind it was an extraordinary improvement, but as an example of the ignorance of the lower classes in the matter of taste, our servant, Sarah, on seeing them, evinced no sign of pleasure, but merely said "she thought they looked very well as they was before."
Aᴘʀɪʟ 26.—Got some more red enamel paint (red, to my mind, being the best colour), and painted the coal-scuttle, and the backs of our Shakspeare, the binding of which had almost worn out. 
Aᴘʀɪʟ 28th Went home early and bought some more enamel paint—black this time—and spent the evening touching up the fender, picture-frames, and an old pair of boots, making them look as good as new...  Also painted Gowing's walking-stick, which he left behind, and made it look like ebony. 
Aᴘʀɪʟ 27.—Painted the bath red, and was delighted with the result. Sorry to say Carrie was not, in fact we had a few words about it. She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red. I replied: "It’s merely a matter of taste."
Aᴘʀɪʟ 29, Sunday.—Woke up with a fearful headache and strong symptoms of a cold. Carrie, with a perversity which is just like her, said it was "painter’s colic," and was the result of my having spent the last few days with my nose over a paint-pot. I told her firmly that I knew a great deal better what was the matter with me than she did. I had got a chill, and decided to have a bath as hot as I could bear it. Bath ready—could scarcely bear it so hot. I persevered, and got in; very hot, but very acceptable. I lay still for some time. 
On moving my hand above the surface of the water, I experienced the greatest fright I ever received in the whole course of my life; for imagine my horror on discovering my hand, as I thought, full of blood. My first thought was that I had ruptured an artery, and was bleeding to death, and should be discovered, later on, looking like a second Marat, as I remember seeing him in Madame Tussaud’s. My second thought was to ring the bell, but remembered there was no bell to ring. My third was, that there was nothing but the enamel paint, which had dissolved with boiling water. I stepped out of the bath, perfectly red all over, resembling the Red Indians I have seen depicted at an East-End theatre. I determined not to say a word to Carrie, but to tell Farmerson to come on Monday and paint the bath white.
On being invited to the Lord Mayor's party:
Mᴀʏ 4.—Carrie’s mother returned the Lord Mayor’s invitation, which was sent to her to look at, with apologies for having upset a glass of port over it. I was too angry to say anything.
Following an argument:
Dᴇᴄᴇᴍʙᴇʀ 21 ... I left the room with silent dignity, but caught my foot in the mat.
I could go on, but I'll leave it with a selection of illustrations by Weedon Grossmith (these are in most if not all editions; these I've picked from the 1921 edition published by A.A. Knopf):

Finally, cartoons of the authors by Spy (Leslie Ward) for Vanity Fair:

George Grossmith.
Weedon Grossmith.
Further reading

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe by George Eliot.

Silas Marner is George Eliot's third novel (following Adam Bede, 1859, and The Mill on the Floss, 1860) and her shortest novel, and was published in 1861. She described it as "a story of old-fashioned village life" (indeed most of her novels are set in the past - only Daniel Deronda, 1876, was set around the time she was writing), and to Blackwood (her publisher), she said she doubted that it would interest anyone "since Wordsworth is dead", but, "it sets in a strong light the remedial influences of pure, natural human relations."

In it she tells the story of a weaver, Silas Marner, who had left his town in Northern England having been framed for a crime he did not commit - stealing from a deacon from the Calvinist congregation in Lantern Yard as the deacon lay seriously ill. Having been excommunicated from his church and rejected by his fiancé Silas moves to pastoral village of Raveloe in the Midlands where he lives as a recluse, spending all his time working as a weaver, and having only his savings to give him comfort. And there he lives for many largely uneventful years, attracting either suspicion or indifference. When his gold is stolen by Dunsey Cass, the son of the local squire, he falls into a deeper depression.

Meanwhile, Godfrey Cass, the elder son of the squire, is in love with Nancy Lammeter however he has previously secretly married a young woman called Molly Farren, an opium addict with whom he has a daughter (only Dunsey knows his secret and he constantly blackmails Godfrey). Molly has resolved to ruin Godfrey however her plan goes badly wrong and she dies having got lost one snowy night. Her little girl Eppie wanders into Silas' house and he adopts her, quickly growing to love and care for her. By doing so he becomes more sociable, the villagers respect and wish to help him bring the girl up and he in turn consults them and so makes friends as time passes. But the question must be asked - for how long will Godfrey's secret remain a secret?

This is a wonderful book, as realistic as a fairy tale could get I would say, and one of my favourite Eliots. It's incredibly satisfying; like all good fairy tales, bad deeds don't go unpunished and goodness is rewarded. It's beautifully written, believable, and very touching - the life of Silas Marner and his progress is very moving. I've read Silas Marner before a good few years ago now and never forgot him or Eppie. This strongly bound community and the ties of the individual to the social is very Eliot, and though I think perhaps now old fashioned, it is perfectly nostalgic. A very good novel indeed.

To finish, here are the illustrations by Hugh Thomson for the 1907 edition of Silas Marner.

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