Thursday, 30 June 2016

Chapters IX - XI of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

June 1836 saw, among many other things, the fourth instalment of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. I am somewhat distracted by the thoughts of what Dickens would have made of June 2016 and the present state of things, but for now I'll wonder silently and press on with Chapters IX - XI.

Chapter IX
A Discovery and a Chase.

'The Break Down' by Phiz.
We left May's instalment with Mr. Jingle wishing to borrow £10 from Mr. Tupman and a promise from Dickens that what transpired between Jingle and Miss Wardle was of 
... sufficient importance in this eventful history to be narrated in another chapter.
And here we are, and it is of no surprise that the unscrupulous Jingle has eloped with Miss Wardle. At the news chaos ensues:
It was a beautiful sight, in that moment of turmoil and confusion, to behold the placid and philosophical expression of Mr. Pickwick's face, albeit somewhat flushed with exertion, as he stood with his arms firmly clasped round the extensive waist of their corpulent host, thus restraining the impetuosity of his passion, while the fat boy was scratched, and pulled, and pushed from the room by all the females congregated therein. He had no sooner released his hold, than the man entered to announce that the gig was ready.
Off they go at speed, hiring a chaise and pursuing the pair through the night, offering surely the greatest 'high speed chase' scene in literature (and they say it can't be done!):
The interest was intense. Fields, trees, and hedges, seemed to rush past them with the velocity of a whirlwind, so rapid was the pace at which they tore along. They were close by the side of the first chaise. Jingle's voice could be plainly heard, even above the din of the wheels, urging on the boys. Old Mr. Wardle foamed with rage and excitement. He roared out scoundrels and villains by the dozen, clenched his fist and shook it expressively at the object of his indignation; but Mr. Jingle only answered with a contemptuous smile, and replied to his menaces by a shout of triumph, as his horses, answering the increased application of whip and spur, broke into a faster gallop, and left the pursuers behind.
But then....
Mr. Pickwick had just drawn in his head, and Mr. Wardle, exhausted with shouting, had done the same, when a tremendous jolt threw them forward against the front of the vehicle. There was a sudden bump—a loud crash—away rolled a wheel, and over went the chaise.
Mr. Wardle and Mr. Pickwick are left to walk the rest of the way in the rain.

Chapter X
Clearing Up All Doubts (If Any Existed) of The Disinterestedness of Mr. A. Jingle's Character

First Appearance of Mr. Samuel Weller.
The scene opens in the yard of an inn in London. A man, quickly named Sam, is cleaning boots:
He was habited in a coarse, striped waistcoat, with black calico sleeves, and blue glass buttons; drab breeches and leggings. A bright red handkerchief was wound in a very loose and unstudied style round his neck, and an old white hat was carelessly thrown on one side of his head. There were two rows of boots before him, one cleaned and the other dirty, and at every addition he made to the clean row, he paused from his work, and contemplated its results with evident satisfaction.
He is soon approached by Jingle who asks for directions to the Doctors' Commons for a marriage license; Sam eventually gives him directions after sharing a brief anecdote about his father, and Jingle and Rachael depart to marry. Shortly after Mr. Wardle arrives at the inn with his solicitor Mr. Perker and Mr. Pickwick of course. Sam directs them to Jingle who has secured the marriage licence and Wardle, Perker, and Pickwick confront him. After an argument Wardle pays Jingle off (not without some considerable bartering), and -
Shall we tell the lamentations that ensued when Miss Wardle found herself deserted by the faithless Jingle? Shall we extract Mr. Pickwick's masterly description of that heartrending scene? His note-book, blotted with the tears of sympathising humanity, lies open before us; one word, and it is in the printer's hands. But, no! we will be resolute! We will not wring the public bosom, with the delineation of such suffering! 
Slowly and sadly did the two friends and the deserted lady return next day in the Muggleton heavy coach. Dimly and darkly had the sombre shadows of a summer's night fallen upon all around, when they again reached Dingley Dell, and stood within the entrance to Manor Farm.
Chapter XI
Involving Another Journey, and an Antiquarian Discovery; Recording Mr. Pickwick's Determination to be Present at an Election; and Containing a Manuscript of the Old Clergyman's.

Chapter XI is the longest chapter so far of The Pickwick Papers. It is now June, as Dickens tells us (corresponding with the month of the instalment):
A delightful walk it was; for it was a pleasant afternoon in June, and their way lay through a deep and shady wood, cooled by the light wind which gently rustled the thick foliage, and enlivened by the songs of the birds that perched upon the boughs. The ivy and the moss crept in thick clusters over the old trees, and the soft green turf overspread the ground like a silken mat. They emerged upon an open park, with an ancient hall, displaying the quaint and picturesque architecture of Elizabeth's time. Long vistas of stately oaks and elm trees appeared on every side; large herds of deer were cropping the fresh grass; and occasionally a startled hare scoured along the ground, with the speed of the shadows thrown by the light clouds which swept across a sunny landscape like a passing breath of summer.
The chapter begins with Tupman's despair over his love for Rachael and an alarming note, a suicide note in fact:
'MY DEAR PICKWICK,—You, my dear friend, are placed far beyond the reach of many mortal frailties and weaknesses which ordinary people cannot overcome. You do not know what it is, at one blow, to be deserted by a lovely and fascinating creature, and to fall a victim to the artifices of a villain, who had the grin of cunning beneath the mask of friendship. I hope you never may.
'Any letter addressed to me at the Leather Bottle, Cobham, Kent, will be forwarded—supposing I still exist. I hasten from the sight of that world, which has become odious to me. Should I hasten from it altogether, pity—forgive me. Life, my dear Pickwick, has become insupportable to me. The spirit which burns within us, is a porter's knot, on which to rest the heavy load of worldly cares and troubles; and when that spirit fails us, the burden is too heavy to be borne. We sink beneath it. You may tell Rachael—Ah, that name!—
But never fear - the Pickwickians leave Mr. Wardle and Dingley Dell to seek their friend and find him in an inn in Cobham (Surrey) "looking as unlike a man who had taken his leave of the world, as possible", enjoying a his meal. All is well, and the group go on to plan a trip to Eatanswill (thought to be Ipswich, Suffolk) to watch an election, but until then a mystery: Pickwick finds a stone with a mysterious inscription:
S. M.
The chapter is devoted to getting to the bottom of this mystery. Pickwick reads an old manuscript: "A Madman's Manuscript", which turns into a short story about a man who married a woman in love with another man. The marriage is a sham, an opportunity for the woman to marry a wealthy man, and the narrator, the madman, tries to kill her and fails (though she does die later), then fails also at attempting to kill her brother. He is eventually caught and locked in an asylum.

The Pickwickians take the stone back home to London and Mr. Blotton, a minor Pickwickian, successfully deciphers it - "'BILL STUMPS, HIS MARK'". Blotton however is expelled from the club for his efforts and the chapter ends,
But this base attempt to injure Mr. Pickwick recoiled upon the head of its calumnious author. The seventeen learned societies unanimously voted the presumptuous Blotton an ignorant meddler, and forthwith set to work upon more treatises than ever. And to this day the stone remains, an illegible monument of Mr. Pickwick's greatness, and a lasting trophy to the littleness of his enemies.
And there June's tense and somewhat dark instalment is complete. For July, Chapters XII - XIV. I must say I'm rather looking forward to it!

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Some thoughts.

I don't even know how to begin to describe how tumultuous June has been, both personally and politically. It's prudent to gloss over the personal for now, and besides the political has very much taken over! I have so many thoughts and I wanted to put them down, how things have altered, how I personally wish to alter things, and generally try and get a grip of what's happened and what is to happen. 

I wanted to start by describing in a nutshell (as far as possible) what has happened in the United Kingdom for the benefit of those who do not live here and don't fully understand it (for some reason going over it all makes me feel a little better too). Before I do, and I hope this isn't seen as patronising, but if I could explain a few key names because I have seen them used interchangeably:
  • Great Britain: this is made up of three separate countries: England, Wales, and Scotland. It never fails to amaze me how some London journalists don't appreciate that Scotland is its own country. 
  • The United Kingdom: this is made up of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland, that is 'south' Ireland or Éire, is not part of the United Kingdom. It did not have a referendum and it will remain a part of the EU for as long as it sees fit. So, it was the United Kingdom who had a referendum, Éire did not.
  • Europe: Europe is a geographical continent. 
  • The European Union is a political and economic union of some 28 European countries. It comprises of but is not entirely made of countries within the European continent. Some European countries are not part of the European Union. Often, just to confuse things, when we say "Europe" now it's a short hand of the "European Union" but the two are actually different things.
And now back to the EU. In 2015 we had a General Election and all the polls before it indicated there would be a hung parliament, which would mean there would not be one political party in charge (a hung parliament is when a party fails to win at least 326 seats out of 650: 326 is just over half of 650 therefore a majority): this had happened in 2010 the Conservatives formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. So in 2015 it seemed that would happen again, however another party - UKIP - were doing tremendously well, it appeared. UKIP advocated leaving the European Union, and in the early days of campaigning only the Green Party offered a referendum to decide to stay or leave the EU (if UKIP got into power we would simply leave the EU with no referendum). UKIP is a right wing party, as are the Conservatives. The Labour Party was about right of centre (it's traditionally a left wing party but that changed in the Blair days; it's since changed again, and is about to change again but more on that later) and it was thought that Labour voters would never defect to UKIP. Conservative voters however would and did, which meant that whilst Labour wouldn't lose any votes the Conservative Party would, thus, as they said, a vote for UKIP was a vote for Labour. Furthermore a vote for UKIP would increase the chances of another hung parliament. As that warning didn't seem to work the Conservatives offered a referendum promise if they were to be elected, and elected they were with a majority (thus they are the ruling party). And thus we had a referendum. 

The campaign was dire. The Leave campaign (lead by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove of the Conservatives and Nigel Farage of UKIP) lied their way through it, and the Remain campaign was a mix of reason and threats. Remainers were accused of promoting "Project Fear" but it was an accusation I think that could have been levelled at both parties. My belief is on the whole they were campaigns fought theoretically with a healthy dose of lies, especially from the Leave camp. Yet, it must be remembered, the EU itself is fraught with problems. It doesn't help to look back and think it was an easy choice, a 'no brainer'; there were, indeed are, excellent reasons to leave the EU as there were to stay.

But leaving was never going to be easy and not everyone quite knew what they voted for, The campaign failed as there was so much confusion. The Leave campaign made promises all of which have already been broken, and the Remain campaign made the fatal mistake of believing it would always win on their premise that 'common sense would prevail', not engaging itself with the fact that leaving the EU could be a good thing and working on disproving that argument (assuming it could be 'disproved'). I say again - the campaign, failed, It was theory, spin, and fear that motivated it, little if any independent advice, and once more it was largely fought in the press. There were many theories and many commentators one could turn to, but to me it seemed to rely on one's existing beliefs and outlook. To use extreme examples for ease: one might feel 'European', love Europe, and love and respect how the United Kingdom is entwined culturally and intellectually with it, and so vote to stay in the European Union. On the other hand, there is a very racist faction in England: some people really believed voting "Leave" meant voting in favour of immigrants and refugees to 'leave' England. This, to me, is the fatal problem with the way we do politics: it uses spin and theory to appeal to people's existing preconceptions. Those aren't always challenged, merely shouted down and portrayed as ridiculous (the left are referred to as "the loony left" for example).

Pound tumbles to 30-year low as 
Britain votes Brexit | Financial Times.
And as everyone knows, in the early hours of Friday morning Britain voted to leave the European Union. Of all the alarming moments of the weekend, the first was when the early results were declared. Gibraltar, Orkney, and Newcastle voted to Remain, but quickly after Sunderland's results showed in favour of Leave. At this moment the Pound crashed dramatically to the lowest it has been in thirty years. To see further results in favour of Leave was so disturbing as the Pound kept on crashing was so depressing at this point I went to bed with the assumption that the Home Counties and London would all vote to Remain and save the day. But whilst London did vote to Remain, and Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales and England did not. The final result was that 17,410,742 (51.9%) people voted to leave, 16,141,241 (48.1%) voted to stay.

What was needed was some positive talk. We needed someone, a leader, to come out and reassure the country that all would be well. This did not happen. The Prime Minister, who wanted to remain, resigned and was on the point of tears. Several tense hours passed until Boris Johnson, the leader of the Leave campaign, appeared. He looked extraordinarily subdued too, something not many saw coming. No one felt reassured, and meanwhile people who voted Leave expressed deep regret (hence the term "Bregret" and the like). The Pound was rocky and there was talk of big businesses leaving the UK, which would make it worse (indeed the talk of it did make it worse). Two major banks, Barclays Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) even had to suspend their shares, RBS losing £10 billion of its market shares since Thursday.

After that, there was the inevitable: the talk of the breakup of the United Kingdom: Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), wishes to have another Scottish Referendum to leave the UK. Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland (Sinn Féin) has also expressed the wish for a referendum, and finally Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, Wales, has also called for independence from the United Kingdom. So the future of this historic union is under threat.

Worst of all, though, is that over the weekend following the Brexit hate crime in the UK increased by 57%. In some signs the Polish were referred to as "vermin" and there are countless cases of EU and worldwide migrants and refugees being told to "go back home". One of the fascist groups demonstrated in Newcastle with a "stop immigration start repatriation" banner. These racists and fascists use the Union Jack (British flag) and St. George's Cross (English flag) as a symbol of their agenda, leading many people to be ashamed of their flag and disgusted by those who wave it (the symbol of unity apparently seeming to be a symbol of division; never ever let that happen). Meanwhile the older generation were blamed - see the How old people have screwed over the younger generation - in three charts article on the i100 as an example. Divisions set in as the panic rose and there was even talk of the referendum result not being enforced (the result was never legally binding). Everything seemed to fall apart.

Larry outside 10 Downing Street
(Larry is Chief Mouser to
the Cabinet Office).
And on top of all that something else happened: Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected as the Labour leader following Ed Miliband's resignation in 2015, was never wholly welcomed. In fact, back then, I remember talk of a planned coup to force him out. That coup took place yesterday and Labour, the opposition party (it is always a dangerous thing not to have a strong opposition) has fallen apart. The gamble David Cameron took in holding a referendum to secure his election in 2015 and Boris Johnson's lies, said to be all down to the fact he wished to undermine the Prime Minister and be elected himself as the Conservative leader and so Prime Minister, are barely being discussed as Labour and their coup has effectively handed the next General Election (most likely as early as autumn 2016) on a plate to their rivals. Corbyn, so popular among the grassroots voters, is likely to run again for leadership and win, which could mean a split in the Labour party resulting in the formation of two separate political parties. Their inability to stand strongly as a party and offer reassurances to those worried about the Brexit will be something that will no doubt haunt them for many years to come and they have, I believe at any rate, undone all of their hard work over the past year and given the Tories yet another free pass. It is not the fault of all Labour politicians, however, that must be said, and for them I truly am sorry. Meanwhile the Conservatives will have their own leadership battle as, as I said, David Cameron has resigned and will only be Prime Minister for a few months. One does wonder who is completely and wholeheartedly focused on the Brexit.

Finally, with all this unrest, one of the more frightening things that had emerged: the Leave campaign told Sky News reporter Faisal Islam they had no Brexit plan:
There is no plan. The Leave campaign don't have a post-Brexit plan... Number 10 should have had a plan.
As Nicola Sturgeon began planning on Scotland's future inside the EU and the UK and David Cameron attended an Armed Forces Day event, George Osborne was no where to be seen, and Boris Johnson played cricket.

It's a terrible thing to see one's country so divided. But Britain has faced challenges before and no doubt it will again. This has to work. Overturning the referendum or holding a second one (though it was fraught with lies it was a democratic decision) sets a very troubling precedent. It is what it is. There is work to be done. Britain has fought against fascists before and it will fight again. The Union Jack and the St. George's Cross represent unity, we must never let the fascists take it away from us. The flag issue especially pains me: if the flag is seen, for example, on a car, odds are the car belongs to a football supporter celebrating his or her team: it is their prerogative to do so. We have got to stop allowing the British National Party, the English Defence League, Britain First, and whoever else using it as a divisive racist symbol. Celebrating England or the football team (forget, for a moment, the humiliation of last night!) by using the flag is not a bad thing. Seeing it as a bad thing worries me; we'll end up with no flag. We have always been strong and fearless, those racists do not represent us, they represent fear and division, and they are deluded in thinking the 52% of the country agree with them, but England, Britain, is stronger than that. In times of uncertainty we often look back and even glorify the past, but it's natural and it can give strength, and this country has done some great things in its time. We have to stand united against those who seek to divide us. One cannot claim to love ones country and wish or seek harm on those in it.

So then that's what happened this weekend in a nutshell; these are, to me, the most striking events. I don't know what will happen next but I do feel altered by it and exhausted by it. My post on Webster yesterday was a truly valiant effort believe it or not, but for now I'm going to have a very short break: I'll write a short post on Chapters 9 - 11 of Pickwick Papers (and I'm afraid it will have to be brief), and then I'll write something on 1st July as I always do write monthly posts, then I'll be back on Monday. I am going to make some changes to my reading plans - I do need to make these changes. I suppose it's a personal marking of a new way forward in the smallest of ways. It's hard to say how tiring and emotional these past few days have been but I'm sure everyone will understand that. I think in times of stress and turmoil it does one good to step back, make these changes which seem very insignificant, enjoy a new personal challenge perhaps, and let go of what has happened and simply move on forward and accepting the change. Writing this has cleared my head somewhat, and I hope it will be beneficial to anyone out of the UK who won't have followed it from the beginning :)

Monday, 27 June 2016

The White Devil by John Webster.

1672 edition of The White Devil.
The White Devil is a play by John Webster and was first published in 1612. This is my first Webster - as the title suggests it's a tragedy and I do tend to prefer Renaissance tragedies to comedies. It's roughly based on the murder of Vittoria Accoramboni in 1585; she was an Italian noblewoman who was very much admired. She married Francesco Peretti, the nephew of Cardinal Montalto (who would become Pope Sixtus V in the same year as her death), however Peretti was murdered quite probably by Paolo Giordano I Orsini, Duke of Bracciano (he had murdered his first wife Isabella de' Medici) who had fallen in love with Vittoria. Vittoria went on to marry him. After his death Ludovico Orsini, related to Bracciano, fell out with Vittoria and had her murdered (she was 28). He and his accomplices were later executed.

This story was, not surprisingly, big news at the time and it inspired Webster's The White Devil. The play begins with the banishment of Count Lodovico, accused of debauchery and murder. Vittoria - Vittoria Corombona in this play - is not introduced until later. She is married to Camillo, the nephew of Cardinal Monticelso, later to become Pope Paul IV. The Duke of Brachiano (husband of Isabella) however plans on seducing Vittoria, and he will be helped by her brother Flamineo who is looking to improve his social status.

Vittoria is easily seduced, and she seeks help from Brachiano and fears her life will be at stake, dreaming at one point she is buried alive, and so he arranges the murder of his wife Isabella and Vittoria's husband Camillo. Yet it is Vittoria who is tried for the murders by Francisco De Medici and Cardinal Monticelso whilst Flamineo pretends to go mad. In this she is referred to as a whore many times, Monticelso saying,
Shall I expound whore to you? sure I shall;
I'll give their perfect character. They are first,
Sweetmeats which rot the eater; in man's nostrils
Poison'd perfumes. They are cozening alchemy;
Shipwrecks in calmest weather. What are whores!
Cold Russian winters, that appear so barren,
As if that nature had forgot the spring.
They are the true material fire of hell:
Worse than those tributes i' th' Low Countries paid,
Exactions upon meat, drink, garments, sleep,
Ay, even on man's perdition, his sin.
They are those brittle evidences of law,
Which forfeit all a wretched man's estate
For leaving out one syllable. What are whores!
They are those flattering bells have all one tune,
At weddings, and at funerals. Your rich whores
Are only treasuries by extortion fill'd,
And emptied by curs'd riot. They are worse,
Worse than dead bodies which are begg'd at gallows,
And wrought upon by surgeons, to teach man
Wherein he is imperfect. What's a whore!
She's like the guilty counterfeited coin,
Which, whosoe'er first stamps it, brings in trouble
All that receive it.
Vittoria Accoramboni by Scipione Pulzone.
Vittoria however escapes and she marries Brachiano, meanwhile Monticelso is elected Pope, however the story doesn't end there. Monticelso and Francisco plot their revenge, and here we return to Lodovico from Act I. He, along with Francisco and Gasparo infiltrate Brachiano's court and the bloody murders begin. At the end Lodovico and Gasparo stab Vittoria and Flamineo to death, Vittoria proclaiming,
Yes, I shall welcome death,
As princes do some great ambassadors;
I'll meet thy weapon half-way.
Lodovico is later arrested and Giovanni (the son of the murdered Isabella) instructs,
Remove these bodies. See, my honour'd lord,
What use you ought make of their punishment.
Let guilty men remember, their black deeds
Do lean on crutches made of slender reeds.
It's a bleak and confusing play (though let it be noted: I am English, everything today seems to me to be bleak and confusing, there is no joy or clarity) but nevertheless an interesting one. Lust, revenge, ambition, plotting, and fear run through this intensely dramatic play, on the whole I enjoyed it, however depressing, and it was fascinating to see a 'ripped from the headlines' play from the 17th Century.

And that was my 26th title for the Deal Me In Challenge - I'm now half-way through. Next week: A Lover's Complaint by William Shakespeare.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf.

Congenial Spirits is a volume of the selected letters of Virginia Woolf edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks and was first published in 1989. As it happens, I own a very large and intimidating six volume collection of Virginia Woolf's letters but I haven't dared even began thinking about reading them, but Congenial Spirits is a far more concise and approachable collection, a great introduction to the letters of one of the 20th Century's greatest and most important authors.

It begins with letter '0', an undated letter most likely written before she was six:
Letter 1a was written after 1888 to her mother Julia Stephen (she would have been six years old or thereabouts):
My dear Mother,
We went out for a walk with Stella this morning up to the pond and there were a lot of big boats. We cleaned the little room out this morning and we cleaned up the silver things cos they were awfully dirty. It was awfully jolly at the stuffed beasts [Natural History Museum]. Edwin [Fisher, a cousin] came with us to them. Mrs Prinsep says that she will only go in a slow train cos she says all the fast trains have accidents and she told us about an old man of 70 who got his legs caute in the weels of the train and the train began to go on and the old gentleman was dragged along till the train caute fire and he called out for somebody to cut off his legs but nobody came he was burnt up. Good bye
your Loving Virginia
Aside from the horrendous tale of the old gentleman, I loved reading this, it's so very childish, so obviously written by a little girl, and the wondrous thing is that little girl was Virginia Woolf, author of Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and To the Lighthouse. I was very taken by it.

And on it goes, from before 1888 to 1941. We see Woolf as Adeline Virginia Stephen, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, historian, author, and critic, and Julia Stephen, a great Victorian beauty and sometimes model of the Pre-Raphaelites; we see her grow up, the bereavements she suffered in her adolescence (both her mother and her beloved half-sister Stella died in her mid-teens), and how that shaped her and her art. We then see the development of an artist, a politically aware widely read highly intelligent and intellectual woman who would go on to marry Leonard Woolf in 1912 and write novels that would help define the Modernist era. She had a wide circle of friends and in these letters we see the semi-private Woolf, not quite the private writings in her diary, and not the public author, but we learn who and what she was to her friends and vice versa. 

For the 21st Century reader this is quite an experience. The letters are first-hand accounts of a Victorian child, an Edwardian woman, and later the modernist writer. On the whole the letters are a joy to read, however voyeuristic one might feel, but at times they can be uncomfortable too. We know Virginia Woolf was at times very anti-Semitic despite being married to Leonard Woolf (who was Jewish), that she could be a snob, and that she could be caustic if not downright cruel at times. There is no hiding away from or glossing over these facts when reading Congenial Spirits. She can be harsh and sometimes very unlikable, and that is hard-going for a Woolf fan such as myself. I can read her essays and novels and her personality doesn't matter, but the flaws are very evident in her letters. To enjoy Congenial Spirits one must accept them.

One of the hardest aspects of all is, of course, the final letter. In the 400 or so pages we read the little girl who "SANG IN THT TRAIN", the letters to newspapers and periodicals, the love letters to Vita Sackville West, her friends, her husband, and many to her sister Vanessa; on a few occasions they are clouded with her mental illness but in the end she shines through; the letters are accounts of her loves, her enthusiasm and joy, and even a record of the births of her novels, but it all ends on the 28th March 1941 with a letter to Leonard Woolf (there are two different letters, this one is perhaps the less familiar):
I want to tell you that you have given me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. Please believe that.
But I know that I shall never get over this: and I am wasting your life. It is this madness. Nothing anyone says can persuade me. You can work, and you will be much better without me. You see I cant write this even, which shows I am right. All I want to say is that until this disease came on we were perfectly happy. It was all due to you. No one could have been so good as you have been, from the very first day till now. Everyone knows that.
You will find Roger's letters to the Maurons in the writing table drawer in the Lodge. Will you destroy all my papers.
We know what happened shortly after, we can read of how the letter came to be found, how her friends and family reacted, all that followed in short. But this is the last letter, there is no more after. Her writing ended here, and to read it after all the other letters is an emotional experience. 

In Congenial Spirits Woolf is charming, sparkling, bright, intelligent, but oh, so very flawed. It is, as I say, just a 400 or so pages and offers an excellent introduction to her letters complete with footnotes to explain some of the unclear references. It does make me want to go on to read my six volume collection (perhaps that would be my 2017 project!) and I do think Congenial Spirits is a must for Woolf fans. It's also an excellent read for those who simply love letters; Woolf was a master at it. It was this beautiful writing and vitality of spirit that defined Virginia Woolf; not her last letter, not her suicide, not her depression. Her life was not one steady march towards suicide (something, I think, some critics seem to believe, reading her suicide into her words); this is made very clear in reading her letters.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Zest for Life by Émile Zola.

Still Life with Bible by Vincent van Gogh (1885).
The small book pictured next to the Bible is Émile Zola's La joie de vivre.

Zest for Life (La joie de vivre) is the twelfth novel in Émile Zola's Rougon Macquart novels, was published in 1884 and is also known in English as The Joy of Living, How Jolly Life Is!, and The Joy of Life. In this Zola focuses on Pauline Quenu, the daughter of Lisa Quenu née Macquart, who herself is the daughter of Antoine Macquart and Joséphine Gavaudan and granddaughter of Adélaïde Rougon (Lisa and her husband Quenu's story is told in The Belly of Paris, 1873). Pauline has come to Bonneville in Normandy to stay with her father's relatives the Chanteaus following the death of both Lisa and Quenu, which we learn about early in Zest for Life.

Pauline Quenu is a remarkable Zola character in that she is far and away the nicest character Zola has ever created, and not the saintly fairy tale-like nice that Angélique Rougon would become in The Dream (1888), Pauline is a flawed but genuinely lovely character. It is she who embodies the 'joie de vivre' in the novel. She arrives at the Chanteaus aged ten and her enthusiasm and loving personality is a sharp contrast with the rather bleak household. Chanteau, the father, is crippled by gout, his wife Madame Chanteau gradually becomes corrupted by her access to Pauline's inheritance, and their son Lazare, a fan of Schopenhauer attempting to compose his Symphony of Sorrow, he could quite as easily been created by Dostoyevsky for his gratuitous pessimism and self-indulgent jaded outlook. Nevertheless as Pauline grows up and becomes a woman she falls in love with him, however he and his family knows he is far better off marrying the daughter of a rich banker, Louise Thibaudier. Pauline, whose only real trait she shares with the Rougon Macquarts is jealousy and some degree of stubbornness, must learn to live with her broken heart. Nevertheless her optimism and this zest for life sustains her (however difficult times get - this is not a Pollyanna story-line, far from it) and she learns to accept her lot in life as the household around her degenerates both morally and physically.

Zest for Life is, I think, Zola's most subtle of novels; an attack on the youth of France so taken by Schopenhauer and an exploration of a character who does not allow herself to become defined or consumed by the undesirable traits of her ancestors; Pauline is quite a contrast not only with the Chanteaus but with nearly all of the Rougons and the Macquarts. What also makes it unusual is the graphic but not gratuitous depictions of menstruation and childbirth (Zest for Life is famous for its childbirth scene near the end). It is a realistic, naturalistic portrayal of puberty, something Zola has done particularly well in this novel. When I first read Zest for Life a few years ago I didn't quite get into it, but this second read has made it one of my favourites of the whole Rougon Macquart series.

Orleanders by Vincent van Gogh (1888).
Again, the book in the painting is Zola's La joie de vivre: Vincent van Gogh was a great fan of Émile Zola.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Helen by Euripides.

Helen on the Walls of Troy
by Gustave Moreau (1885).
I'm still working through Euripides plays and I've now reached Helen (Ἑλένη) which was first performed in around 412 B.C. In this Euripides writes about Helen of Troy after the Trojan War, her escape from Egypt: this idea is based on Herodotus' Histories (440 B.C.) in which Herodotus claimed that Helen of Troy had never been in Troy - she had been in Egypt for the duration of the war.

The play begins with a prologue from Helen, who tells the audience of how Hera, Aphrodite, and Athene asked Paris to judge which of them was the most beautiful, however Aphrodite promised him he may marry Helen if he picked her. He did and so Helen was promised to Paris. Hera, however, intervened and produced to Paris an exact likeness of Helen, and Helen herself was taken to Egypt by Hermes thus preserving herself for her husband King Menelaus. After the prologue Teucer arrives (he has been exiled) and tells Helen Menelaus has been killed - drowned on his way home from Troy. His death would make her available for marriage, and the King of Egypt, Theoclymenus, does indeed wish to marry her.

However Menelaus is not dead - he too arrives in Egypt, however he believes Helen is hidden away in Troy and the woman he sees before him is a copy or phantom. However he finally learns the truth from an old woman that his Helen is indeed in Egypt and the story of Hera, Aphrodite, and Athene is told.

Now reunited the two must escape from Egypt, so Helen, exploiting the rumour that Menelaus drowned, tells Theoclymenus she is ready to marry him once she has gone to sea to perform the burial rites for her husband. Theoclymenus consents and so Helen and Menelaus use the boat to escape. Theoclymenus is furious and vows to kill his sister, the prophet Theonoe, for not telling him, however Castor and Polydeuces, the brothers of Helen and sons of Zeus, intervene and convince him to let her go. 

This is another play by Euripides that portrays the aftermath of war - the confusion, pain, and chaos. There are elements of the tragic in Helen even with the happy ending, and there are some mildly comic moments too. I enjoyed reading it, but again I'm not wildly enthusiastic about it. Out of nineteen I have six plays left and I still say my absolute favourite playwright of the 5th Century B.C. is Sophocles.


The Plays of Euripides

Ion | Helen | Phoenician Women | Orestes | Cyclops | Bacchae 

Monday, 20 June 2016

On Not Knowing Greek by Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf with Roger Fry in Greece.
'On Not Knowing Greek' is the third chapter in The Common Reader First Series, first published in 1925. It is not an essay on not knowing the Ancient Greek language - Virginia Woolf learned both Greek and Latin and was able to read the Ancients in the original language. It's more about not knowing the Greek culture, their nuances, and indeed how it was they spoke, how words were pronounced, and how words were delivered. 

The essay begins,
For it is vain and foolish to talk of knowing Greek, since in our ignorance we should be at the bottom of any class of schoolboys, since we do not know how the words sounded, or where precisely we ought to laugh, or how the actors acted, and between this foreign people and ourselves there is not only difference of race and tongue but a tremendous breach of tradition. All the more strange, then, is it that we should wish to know Greek, try to know Greek, feel for ever drawn back to Greek, and be for ever making up some notion of the meaning of Greek, though from what incongruous odds and ends, with what slight resemblance to the real meaning of Greek, who shall say?
She goes on to write about how little we know of those ancient times compared to contemporary writers. Now we know more than perhaps we care to, but of the Greeks, just some snippets here and there, never enough to build a whole picture. "Fate," she writes, "has been kind there too. She has preserved them from vulgarity." Here our imaginations kick in; we can create an image of how we think life must have been using the words of these great writers, but, strangely enough, we British are at a disadvantage -
It is the climate that is impossible. If we try to think of Sophocles here, we must annihilate the smoke and the damp and the thick wet mists. We must sharpen the lines of the hills. We must imagine a beauty of stone and earth rather than of woods and greenery. With warmth and sunshine and months of brilliant, fine weather, life of course is instantly changed; it is transacted out of doors, with the result, known to all who visit Italy, that small incidents are debated in the street, not in the sitting-room, and become dramatic; make people voluble; inspire in them that sneering, laughing, nimbleness of wit and tongue peculiar to the Southern races, which has nothing in common with the slow reserve, the low half-tones, the brooding introspective melancholy of people accustomed to live more than half the year indoors.
She goes on to write of the eloquence of the Greeks -
In six pages of Proust we can find more complicated and varied emotions than in the whole of the Electra. But in the Electra or in the Antigone we are impressed by something different, by something perhaps more impressive — by heroism itself, by fidelity itself. 
These 'primitive emotions - rage, for example is so universal we recognise it even in its most bare constructions:
... but when thus stirred by death, by betrayal, by some other primitive calamity, Antigone and Ajax and Electra behave in the way in which we should behave thus struck down; the way in which everybody has always behaved; and thus we understand them more easily and more directly than we understand the characters in the Canterbury Tales. These are the originals, Chaucer’s the varieties of the human species.
Woolf then goes on to write of the Chorus, something the Renaissance playwrights largely dispensed of, however the function of the Chorus, which she argues allowed the audience to hear the author's voice, is still used in other ways. She then returns to the eloquence of the Greeks - how short their plays really were:
Aeschylus makes these little dramas (the Agamemnon has 1663 lines; Lear about 2600) tremendous by stretching every phrase to the utmost, by sending them floating forth in metaphors, by bidding them rise up and stalk eyeless and majestic through the scene. 
She adds,
It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us.
She later writes that the plays, therefore, concentrated on presenting the 'whole' rather than the details:
We have to stretch our minds to grasp a whole devoid of the prettiness of detail or the emphasis of eloquence. Accustomed to look directly and largely rather than minutely and aslant, it was safe for them to step into the thick of emotions which blind and bewilder an age like our own. 
The language, however, remains a barrier even to those who know it, and for those who don't know it reading the Ancient Greeks is a pointless endeavour - "Translators can but offer us a vague equivalent". She concludes,
Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.
As Woolf essays go, this one isn't the easiest to read. It does seem, dare I say, a tad stilted and we do see a little of the Woolf snobbery, particularly with regard to her remarks on translation. I would say that I do envy those who have learned Greek, especially at a young age, but reading translations is never pointless, and furthermore the art of translating has come along in leaps and bounds these past ninety years or so when Woolf wrote this essay. Nevertheless her admiration and love of Greek plays is a joy to read and, as ever, she sums up so easily that which I've always found awkward to express. This is a must-read for those who enjoy the Greek plays (be they translated or in the original), and the essay can be read in full here.

That was my 25th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The White Devil by John Webster.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Book III (Cantos I -VI) of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.

Another book, another knight, another theme. Book III of Spenser's The Faerie Queene is about Chastity as told through the story of Britomartis, or Britomart.

Book III is titled:
The Third
Booke of the 
Faerie Qveene.
The Legend Of Britomartis.
Of Chastitie.

It begins with the proem in which Spenser writes that the Faerie Queene embodies the virtue of chastity, something which no form of art is truly able to capture.
But liuing art may not least part expresse,
Nor life-resembling pencill it can paint,
All were it Zeuxis or Praxiteles:
His daedale hand would faile, and greatly faint,
And her perfections with his error taint:
Ne Poets wit, that passeth Painter farre
In picturing the parts of beautie daint,
So hard a workmanship aduenture darre,
For fear through want of words her excellence to marre.

Guyon encountreth Britomart,
faire Florimell is chaced:
Duessaes traines and Malecastaes
champions are defaced.

The first book begins with Arthur, Guyon and his Palmer meeting Britomart. At first they assume she is male as, dressed in her knight's armour, she quickly knocks Guyon off his horse. But she is indeed a knight and she seeks her true love having seen his image in a mirror -
... Whom straunge aduenture did from Britaine fet,
To seeke her louer (loue farre sought alas,)
Whose image she had seene in Venus looking glas.
After a brief argument she and Guyon reconcile and travel together:
Thus reconcilement was betweene them knit,
Through goodly temperance, and affection chaste,
And either vowd with all their power and wit,
To let not others honour be defaste,
Of friend or foe, who euer it embaste,
Ne armes to beare against the others syde:
In which accord the Prince was also plaste,
And with that golden chaine of concord tyde.
So goodly all agreed, they forth yfere did ryde.
They soon come across a dark forest and in it a woman -
All suddenly out of the thickest brush,
Vpon a milk-white Palfrey all alone,
A goodly Ladie did foreby them rush,
Whose face did seeme as cleare as Christall stone,
And eke through feare as white as whales bone:
Her garments all were wrought of beaten gold,
And all her steed with tinsell trappings shone,
Which fled so fast, that nothing mote him hold,
And scarse them leasure gaue, her passing to behold.
She is fleeing from a man, and Arthur and Guyon intervene whilst Britomart continues on her quest. She arrives at a castle outside which she sees six knights battling against one: this knight is Redcrosse, who tells her -
Whereto that single knight did answere frame;
These sixe would me enforce by oddes of might,
To chaunge my liefe, and loue another Dame,
That death me liefer were, then such despight,
So vnto wrong to yield my wrested right:
For I loue one, the truest one on ground,
Ne list me chaunge; she th'Errant Damzell hight,
For whose deare sake full many a bitter stownd,
I haue endur'd, and tasted many a bloudy wound.
The six knights explain themselves (they are later named as Gardante, Parlante, Iocante, Basciante, Bacchante, and Noctante), telling Britomart the castle is owned by a beautiful woman who demands that every knight who comes into the castle must serve her for the rest of his life. Britomart and Redcrosse go on to defeat the knights before Britomart enters the castle, the "Castle Ioyeous", which Spenser describes as sumptuous and sensual, decorated with art featuring the likes of Venus and Adonis. They then meet the lady of the castle, the "Lady of delight" (later named as Malecasta), who is unaware that Britomart is a woman ("All ignoraunt of her contrary sex"). She tries to seduce Britomart and is horrified to learn the truth. There is a scuffle and Britomart leaves the castle.

The Redcrosse knight to Britomart
  describeth Artegall: 
The wondrous myrrhour, by which she
  in loue with him did fall.

Spenser begins by praising women, arguing that in the past they too were warriors until men suppressed them -
But by record of antique times I find,
That women wont in warres to beare most sway,
And to all great exploits them selues inclind:
Of which they still the girlond bore away,
Till enuious Men fearing their rules decay,
Gan coyne streight lawes to curb their liberty;
Yet sith they warlike armes haue layd away:
They haue exceld in artes and pollicy,
That now we foolish men that prayse gin eke t'enuy.
He then returns to Britomart and Redcrosse: Redcrosse questions her as to why she is a knight and she slowly begins to tell her story, that she had been raised to be a knight in Britain and had come to Faerie Land to serve the Faerie Queene. She then tells him she seeks Arthegall, who she claims has wronged her:
... But mote I weet of you, right curteous knight,
Tydings of one, that hath vnto me donne
Late foule dishonour and reprochfull spight,
The which I seeke to wreake, and Arthegall he hight.
Redcrosse defends Arthegall and she provokes his defence: she is lying about Arthegall and secretly wants to hear about him, for it is he she saw in the mirror, which Spenser goes on to describe - that she fell in love with the image, and her nurse could not cure her of her love-sickness, not even with magic.

Merlin bewrayes to Britomart,
the state of Artegall. 
And shewes the famous Progeny
which from them springen shall.

Britomart goes on to tell her story - growing desperate her nurse decides they must visit the man who made the mirror - Merlin. They go to his magical cave filled with little demons, and after a description of the cave and Merlin, the two enter the cave and find him there writing:
They here ariuing, staid a while without,
Ne durst aduenture rashly in to wend,
But of their first intent gan make new dout
For dread of daunger, which it might portend:
Vntill the hardie Mayd (with loue to frend)
First entering, the dreadfull Mage there found
Deepe busied bout worke of wondrous end,
And writing strange characters in the ground,
With which the stubborn feends he to his seruice bound.
They speak with Merlin, eventually telling him the problem (which he already knows) and he assures Britomart her suffering will benefit her in the long run: she will meet Arthegall and bring him home where they must defend themselves from an attacking Muslim army. They will have a child, however Arthegall will die before it is born, and Merlin goes on to describe their lineage and fate. Here, I believe, Spenser begins to describe some Northumbrian history mentioning King Oswald of Northumbria (now a saint), Cadwallin, who was Cadwallon ap Cadfan, King of Gwynedd (north west Wales) who defeated Edwin of Northumbria before being himself defeated by Oswald. He then talks of the Saxon invasion who are then defeated by the Normans (William the Conqueror). From this Saxon invasion through the Norman period Britain is ruled by foreigners, however Merlin tells Britomart, this period will end and the Britons will regain control ("So shall the Briton bloud their crowne againe reclame"). Thus, Britomart with Arthegall will begin this great royal lineage.

And so Britomart and Glauce part from Merlin and decide to disguise themselves as knights. Glauce tells Britomart of Angela, a valiant female knight who was defeated by Britomart's father, and so, inspired, Britomart secures Angela's armour and begins her quest. Here Britomart finishes her story.

Bold Marinell of Britomart,
  Is throwne on the Rich strond:
Faire Florimell of Arthur is
  Long followed, but not fond.

In the fourth canto Britomart and Redcrosse part ways and Britomart continues with her quest to find Arthegall. She and her nurse pause a while and she reflects whilst watching the ocean until she is interrupted by a knight - Marinell. They fight and Marinell is defeated, and Britomart leaves him wounded, ignoring the fact that the beach is bejewelled -
The martiall Mayd stayd not him to lament,
But forward rode, and kept her readie way
Along the strond, which as she ouer-went,
She saw bestrowed all with rich aray
Of pearles and pretious stones of great assay,
And all the grauell mixt with golden owre;
Whereat she wondred much, but would not stay
For gold, or perles, or pretious stones an howre,
But them despised all; for all was in her powre.
Here Spenser goes on to write of Cymoent, Marinell's mother who has heard of her son's defeat. She asks Proteus of her son's future, and Proteus warns her that a virgin will harm or indeed kill him -
... For of a woman he should haue much ill,
A virgin strange and stout him should dismay, or kill.
She returns to Marinell and, when he is revived, helps him home and curses Britomart.

Britomart, meanwhile, is unaffected by the curse thus far and she crosses paths with Archimago, who has previously been tormenting Guyon and Arthur. They, and Timias, are still in search of the woman. They have split up and it is Arthur who finds her however she continues to flee and Arthur is left alone wishing she was the Faerie Queene. He sleeps and awakes the next morning still tired and lethargic; Canto IV ends,
Thus did the Prince that wearie night outweare,
In restlesse anguish and vnquiet paine:
And earely, ere the morrow did vpreare
His deawy head out of the Ocean maine,
He vp arose, as halfe in great disdaine,
And clombe vnto his steed. So forth he went,
With heauie looke and lumpish pace, that plaine
In him bewraid great grudge and maltalent:
His steed eke seem'd t'apply his steps to his intent.

Prince Arthur heares of Florimell:
  three fosters Timias wound,
Belphebe finds him almost dead,
  and reareth out of sownd.

Spenser starts the canto by reflecting on love and how it affects each individual -
Wonder it is to see, in diuerse minds,
How diuersly loue doth his pageants play,
And shewes his powre in variable kinds:
The baser wit, whose idle thoughts alway
Are wont to cleaue vnto the lowly clay,
It stirreth vp to sensuall desire,
And in lewd slouth to wast his carelesse day:
But in braue sprite it kindles goodly fire,
That to all high desert and honour doth aspire.
Arthur's love has inspired great deeds, and in this canto we return to Arthur who meets a dwarf, also in search of Florimell. The dwarf tells him she is in love with Marinell who doesn't return her love having been warned a woman would be his downfall (told in Canto IV above). However Florimell has been told of his injuries and seeks him to help him. The two decide to search for her together however the previous search has led Arthur to become separated from his squire Timias who, in the mean time, has got into his own battle with a forester and his sons. He is injured but helped by Belphoebe, with whom he falls in love. Spenser closes the canto by writing how she is proudly chaste - a wonderful quality.
In so great prayse of stedfast chastity,
Nathlesse she was so curteous and kind,
Tempred with grace, and goodly modesty,
That seemed those two vertues stroue to find
The higher place in her Heroick mind:
So striuing each did other more augment,
And both encreast the prayse of woman kind,
And both encreast her beautie excellent;
So all did make in her a perfect complement.

The birth of faire Belphoebe and
  Of Amoret is told.
The Gardins of Adonis fraught
  With pleasures manifold.

In this Spenser goes in to write of Belphoebe, who he says, is naturally lovely and chaste - she has not been taught these qualities. He then writes of her family, her mother Chrysogonee (who was the daughter of Amphisa), and her twin sister Amoretta:
Her mother was the faire Chrysogonee,
The daughter of Amphisa, who by race
A Faerie was, yborne of high degree,
She bore Belphoebe, she bore in like cace
Faire Amoretta in the second place:
These two were twinnes, & twixt them two did share
The heritage of all celestiall grace.
That all the rest it seem'd they robbed bare
Of bountie, and of beautie, and all vertues rare.
Furthermore Chrysogonee was herself a virgin, impregnated by the sun's rays -
It were a goodly storie, to declare,
By what straunge accident faire Chrysogone
Conceiu'd these infants, and how them she bare,
In this wild forrest wandring all alone,
After she had nine moneths fulfild and gone:
For not as other wemens commune brood,
They were enwombed in the sacred throne
Of her chaste bodie, nor with commune food,
As other wemens babes, they sucked vitall blood.
During this time Venus was searching for her son Cupid, and on her search she encountered Diana. After a brief argument the two search for Cupid and come across Chrysogonee and her twins. It is decided Diana will take Belphoebe and Venus will take Amoretta. Spenser goes on to describe Venus' garden, "the Gardin of Adonis", a contrast with the Bower of Bliss, marred only by Time:
Great enimy to it, and to all the rest,
That in the Gardin of Adonis springs,
Is wicked Time, who with his scyth addrest,
Does mow the flowring herbes and goodly things,
And all their glory to the ground downe flings,
Where they doe wither, and are fowly mard:
He flyes about, and with his flaggy wings
Beates downe both leaues and buds without regard,
Ne euer pittie may relent his malice hard.
It was here Amoretta was raised and when she grew up she joined the Faerie Court where she fell in love with Sir Scudamore:
But she to none of them her loue did cast,
Saue to the noble knight Sir Scudamore,
To whom her louing hart she linked fast
In faithfull loue, t'abide for euer more,
And for his dearest sake endured sore,
Sore trouble of an hainous enimy;
Who her would forced haue to haue forlore
Her former loue, and stedfast loialty,
As ye may elsewhere read that ruefull history.
However, for now, Spenser writes that we must return to Florimell, Arthur, and Timias, ending Canto VI with,
But well I weene, ye first desire to learne,
What end vnto that fearefull Damozell,
Which fled so fast from that same foster stearne,
Whom with his brethren Timias slew, befell:
That was to weet, the goodly Florimell;
Who wandring for to seeke her louer deare,
Her louer deare, her dearest Marinell,
Into misfortune fell, as ye did heare,
And from Prince Arthur fled with wings of idle feare.
I'll go on to write about Cantos VII - XII in the last week of June. Until then, Walter Crane's illustrations for Cantos I - VI:

Book II (Cantos VII - XII)

Friday, 17 June 2016

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare.

The plan for this month was to press on with Shakespeare's histories and finish the Henry VI plays, but after what happened yesterday I don't feel it's wildly appropriate to be writing about political drama and murder so I think I'll leave those for now and pick them back up in July. Instead I turn my attention to another planned read, Much Ado About Nothing, a comedy by William Shakespeare (written around 1598-99). 

I decided to read this play for the Back to the Classics Challenge - 'Re-read a classic you read in school'. Well, I read this when I was 17 and I'm not only shocked at just how much I'd forgotten, but also how many inconsequential lines I seem to have committed to memory. For example, "But few of any sort, and none of name", hardly a line central to the plot or the finest line in the play, yet it jogged my memory. But enough of reminiscences, on with the play!

It is set in Messina in Sicily, and in it Shakespeare tells a complex story of love and lies. At the beginning of the play it is announced that the Prince of Aragon Don Pedro will return from battle along with Benedick and his friend Claudio. Claudio is in love with Hero whilst Benedick is in a perpetual war of words with Beatrice: Hero's father Leonato observes,
There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her:
they never meet but there's a skirmish of wit between them.
Both pairs' relationships go awry with confusion and rumour. Claudio and Hero agree to marry after Don Pedro wooed Hero on behalf of Claudio during a masquerade ball, despite Don John (Don Pedro's brother) claiming Don Pedro was merely trying to woo her for himself. Meanwhile during the ball Beatrice tells her dance partner just how much she dislikes Benedick:
Why, he is the prince's jester: a very dull fool;
only his gift is in devising impossible slanders:
none but libertines delight in him; and the
commendation is not in his wit, but in his villany;
for he both pleases men and angers them, and then
they laugh at him and beat him. I am sure he is in
the fleet: I would he had boarded me.
Of course her dance partner, unknown to her, is Benedick. He is furious, but nevertheless Don Pedro, for his own entertainment, decides to make a match of the two by making sure Benedick hears them talking how in love Beatrice is with him. As this goes on Hero and her maid Ursula, also wanting to unite the pair, make sure Beatrice overhears them talking of how much in love Benedick is with her.

Beatrice overhears Hero and Ursula
by John E. Sutcliffe (1904).
However Don John still nurses the desire to make everyone around him miserable so he tells Claudio Hero has been unfaithful (Claudio, it must be noted, is rather easily tricked). To prove this he arranges for him to see Hero with her lover, however the woman is not Hero at all but Margaret, another maid, and the lover is Margaret's lover Borachio. Claudio, on witnessing this, vows to humiliate Hero on their wedding day - "there will I shame her." And this he does in a particularly painful scene in which he says,
Sweet prince, you learn me noble thankfulness.
There, Leonato, take her back again:
Give not this rotten orange to your friend;
She's but the sign and semblance of her honour.
Behold how like a maid she blushes here!
O, what authority and show of truth
Can cunning sin cover itself withal!
Comes not that blood as modest evidence
To witness simple virtue? Would you not swear,
All you that see her, that she were a maid,
By these exterior shows? But she is none:
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed;
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
Her father is convinced too -
O Fate! take not away thy heavy hand.
Death is the fairest cover for her shame
That may be wish'd for.
Poor Hero fades away, apparently dead. Here the now united Benedick and Beatrice talk of the matter, and Benedick vows he will do anything for her. She replies quite simply "Kill Claudio." Eventually he agrees to challenge him to a duel.

This situation, we can agree, is quite a mess. Hero appears dead (a rumour which her father allows) and Claudio maintains he is the wronged lover. However two men, Dogberry and Verges, had witnessed the plot to spit Hero and Claudio and they reveal all to Leonato, who then demands that Claudio marries his brother Antonio's daughter. Though in mourning for Hero he consents, but on their wedding day this woman unmasks and it is Hero!
Nothing certainer:
One Hero died defiled, but I do live,
And surely as I live, I am a maid.
The two marry, as do Benedick and Beatrice, but not without one last witty exchange.

Much Ado About Nothing is quite a play! It is fun, however confusing and slightly tiring, on the themes of love, deception, marriage, and honour. Benedick and Beatrice are, for me, the stars (and apparently Charles II would agree with me) with their quickfire wit and sharp repartee. Hero is lovely, though perhaps on the dull side, and Claudio rather infuriating with his willingness to believe anything bad. Overall, it's a fun play, enough to make one forget about one's troubles however momentarily.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Ulysses by James Joyce.

Ulysses is perhaps the most famous under-read novel ever written. It is of course by James Joyce, serialised between 1918 - 1920 in The Little Review and the published in its complete form in 1922. And it's set on 16th June 1904, 112 years ago today, making today Bloomsday - the day when James Joyce and Ulysses fans celebrate the novel with readings, dramatisations, pub crawls, and even dressing up in Edwardian costume. I thought, then, it would be good to read it (I had a sudden urge in May) and say a few words today.

I'll start not with a plot summary but my general feelings. I have a long history with Ulysses - I first read it in 2006, again in 2012, and now 2016 (it took from 22nd May to 9th June). Between 2006 and 2016 I've tried unsuccessfully on several occasions to re-read it; I've always wanted to understand and appreciate Ulysses but have never managed it, but last month I decided to give up trying to understand it: I am not a James Joyce scholar and I haven't studied English Literature - why would I suddenly master a modernist classic after a few reads, after all? So I decided to accept my limitations and try quite simply to enjoy it, and that, I am happy to say, I managed. That's not to say it wasn't hard - much of it is very readable, but much of it isn't - the latter, of course, was lost on me, and I can't even say the 'readable' parts came easily, but this is not to say it wasn't a great reading experience. Perhaps having a little Virginia Woolf under my belt made it easier - I'm getting used to stream-of-conscious writing and going with the flow; this is what I did for Ulysses, just went with it, enjoyed it, and accepted that I will not be writing a thesis on James Joyce in my lifetime!

Bloomsday celebrations via Emma Walsh - A Beginner's Guide to Bloomsday.
It begins with one of my favourite opening sentences:
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of later on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.
In this first episode, Telemachus (this name came from Homer's The Odyssey: Telemachus is Odysseus' son), we meet Buck Mulligan, a cheery and almost hedonistic medical student, and then his opposite Stephen Dedalus (Daedalus was the father of Icarus - Ovid, among others, tells that story in Book VIII of Metamorphoses; his first name Stephen is a reference to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr) who we have previously met in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and its prototype Stephen Hero (written in 1904 - 1906, published in 1944). Stephen is Joyce's alter-ego; a teacher, rather serious, and has recently lost his mother (as Buck tells us, he refused to pray at her deathbed and is now haunted by her like a kind of Hamlet).

In terms of ease-of-reading, this first episode is very straightforward and very enjoyable too. Of all the people who have attempted to read Ulysses I'll wager every one of them finished this chapter! From here there are 18 other episodes, which I'll list and try to say a few words:

Part I: The Telemachiad - the title suggests 'the story of Telemachus'.
Episode 1: Telemachus - As described above. Time: 8 am.
Episode 2: Nestor (10 am) - This title recalls Nestor the Argonaut, associated with age and wisdom. In this episode we Stephen teaching history (Pyrrhus of Epirus), then visiting the headmaster and discussing Irish history and the economy with references to Jews. A great quote from this episode from Stephen - "history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake".
Episode 3: Proteus (11 am) - Proteus refers to he who Homer called 'The Old Man of the Sea'. Stephen walks to Sandymount Strand and ponders some of life's greaqter questions whilst also picking his nose and urinating behind a rock. For me, this marks the episode when Ulysses begins to get rather difficult.
Part II: The Odyssey - referring to Homer's Odyssey; the journey of Odysseus, now also meaning simply 'a journey of sorts'.
Episode 4: Calypso (8 am) - Calypso is the daughter of Atlas; she offered Odysseus immortality, which he refused, and she kept him prisoner for seven years. In this episode we meet Leopold Bloom, the novel's protagonist, and his wife Molly. He makes her breakfast, reads a letter from their daughter, and is tormented by the thoughts of Molly having an affair with Blazes Boylan.
Episode 5: Lotus Eaters (10 am) - The Lotus Eaters are a people who live in an island with Lotus plants; eating them brings the people a sense of general well-being and apathy (the plants are a narcotic). In this Bloom walks to the post office to get a letter from a woman with whom he is having an affair, buys soap for Molly, meets a few acquaintances, ogles at women, and ponders the Catholic faith.
Episode 6: Hades (11 am) - Hades refers to the Underworld. Bloom, Stephen's father, and a few others attend Paddy Dignam's funeral and so reflect on death.
Episode 7: Aeolus (12 pm) - Aeolus is the ruler of the winds. The episode takes place at a newspaper office (Freeman's Journal). Bloom leaves then Stephen arrives, and he and the editor go on to a pub. The concept of rhetoric is the theme of this episode.
Episode 8: Lestrygonians (1 pm) - Laestrygonians refers to giant cannibals. In this we see a very hungry Leopold Bloom (the chapter is full of references to food). He eats a gorgonzola sandwich and ponders on the state of his marriage.
Episode 9: Scylla and Charybdis (2 pm) - Scylla and Charybdis refer to sea monsters, a rock and a whirlpool (see The Odyssey and Book VIII of Metamorphoses). Stephen goes to the library and discusses his theories on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Bloom also go to the library and the two cross paths.
Episode 10: Wandering Rocks (3 pm) - The Wandering Rocks (Planctae) are barely navigable rocks: only Jason managed to pass through them (see The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes). Here we see various characters on the street and an account of the cavalcade of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, William Ward, Earl of Dudley.
Episode 11: Sirens (4 pm) - The Sirens were beautiful sea creatures who would lure men to their deaths with their songs). Bloom has dinner with Stephen's uncle and ogles at the barmaids whilst Molly meets with Boylan.
Episode 12: Cyclops (5 pm) - Cyclops is a giant with a single eye. In this episode Judaism is discussed by Bloom and an unnamed narrator.
Episode 13: Nausicaa (8 pm) - Nausicaa is the daughter of King Alcinous, her name in Greek (Ναυσικάα) means 'burner of ships'. We meet Gerty MacDowell who contemplates love and marriage and what it is to be a woman. She is watched by Bloom and it is uncertain if her thoughts and actions are in fact Bloom's masturbatory fantasies.
Episode 14: Oxen of the Sun (10 pm) - The Oxen of the Sun, or the Cattle of Helios, appear in the Odyssey. Harming one of the creatures will bring about Helios' wrath. In this episode the characters celebrate the birth of Mina Purefoy's child. Language is the theme of this episode, beginning with a kind of Latin ("Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus. Deshil Holles Eamus.") and changing and parodying language from early Anglo-Saxon through to Elizabethan, 18th Century (Sterne, for example) then Dickens and other 19th Century writers and ending with a strange slang - "Come on, you winefizzling gin sizzling booseguzzling existences!"
Episode 15: Circe (12 am) - Circe is the sorceress of Ulysses and this episode is by far the hardest thing I have ever read. It's in the format of a play and is set in a brothel, and it includes hallucinations and dream-visions. I cannot stress enough how painfully difficult these 100 odd pages are.
Part III: The Nostos - Nostos alludes to the idea of a hero returning home by sea.
Episode 16: Eumaeus (1 am) - Eumaeus was Odysseus's friend. In this Bloom attempts to sober Stephen up and they converse with a sailor (also drunk). It's a very confused chapter, reflecting the nervous exhaustion of all characters following the 'Circe' episode.
Episode 17: Ithaca (2 am) - Ithica is the home of Odysseus, and in this episode Bloom and Stephen return home, talk about their differences (culturally, largely) and then part ways. Bloom goes to bed where he awakens Molly who questions him about his day. The tone of this episode is scientific and mathematical.
Episode 18: Penelope (after 2 am)- Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, and this episode is a long monologue by Molly Bloom. In these 60 or so pages there are only three sentences, no punctuation (the sentence ends are marked by a new paragraph), and Molly, in a meandering stream-of-conscious, reflects on past lovers and Bloom's proposal. It's a very difficult episode indeed but is my favourite, and it ends with the famous "...yes I said I yes I will Yes". This episode, incidentally, was the inspiration for Kate Bush's 'The Sensual World'.

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce.
That, then, is a very bare basic not-quite-skeleton of Ulysses. It does achieves what the modernists wished to achieve - to capture life, the physical and the psychological, from walking in the street, meeting, talking, through to urinating, masturbating, sex, and even (in one memorable episode) Bloom on the toilet: every day life, all summed up in a day's action - 16th June 1904. It is no surprise, that Ulysses has been banned - there was a struggle to get it published in the first place (Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Comany, Paris, was the one who dared do it in the first place; Virginia Woolf and the Hogarth Press refused claiming it was too long, but in reality she and Leonard feared prosecution). By this point The Little Review had already been prosecuted for the Nausicaa episode in 1920; it was declared 'obscene' and banned in the USA, burned on various occasions by the US Post Office, and not legalised until 1933 following a trial (United States v. One Book Called Ulysses). Aside from the aforementioned descriptions of urinating and defecating Joyce also works in some swear words through wordplay (as well as explicitly in other chapters), for example the famous -
If you see kay
Tell him he may
See you in tea
Tell him from me.
"If you see kay" - F. U. C. K." and "See you in tea" - C. U. N. T. Rather like Britney Spear's If You Seek Amy in fact! Shakespeare did something similar in Twelfth Night (1601 - 1602) too (though less subtlety) -
By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her very C's, her U's and her T's and thus makes she her great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.
And of course in Hamlet (1603) - "Do you think I meant country matters?"

And so Ulysses wasn't published in Britain until 1936 (it was never banned in Ireland, though) and, as I say, in 1933 for the US. Happily, though, we can read it now. But what makes Ulysses such a daunting read it that despite how difficult it is, it is possible. Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939) is a remarkably freeing read in that one simply has to get through it to receive great praise, no one expects anyone to understand it. I read it (Finnegans Wake I mean) and felt no pressure to say anything even vaguely intelligent on the matter (I even plan to re-read it at some point). But with Ulysses there isn't quite that excuse and it is that that makes it scary. There are characters to enchange with, episodes to decipher, and the code of the references to Ancient Greek literature. However: if, like me, you are 'the common reader' I say just read it, and I think people get more than they think out of it. It does help, I would suggest, to have read The Odyssey first or even Metamorphoses just for an introduction into Greek literature. Also, perhaps a little practice on other modernist writers or at least a general grip of what the modernists hoped to achieve (I'd suggest Virginia Woolf's essays 'The Russian Point of View' and 'Modern Fiction' for that). Letting go of the pressure to understand it, and not feeling bad about struggling, skimming, or glossing over the desperately hard bits ('Circe' for example) is the key for me. It takes people years to really understand it by studying it - one's first read of Ulysses will not bring that deeper understanding. But that does not make it any the less enjoyable, and in fact I've actually come to love it.

Further Reading 

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