Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged 󈥳th century literature’

Having no experience whatsoever with Sarah Orne Jewett I took her book off the shelf with only mild interest. I have a Dover Thrift edition, which weighs nearly nothing and could be easily mistaken for a bound short story. The evening I took the book down, I needed something I could move easily through from beginning to end and which would hold my interest through a predictably sleep-interrupted night. So it was quite fun to start reading and then find myself swept up in Jewett’s cheerful and loving descriptions of the New England she held close to her heart.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is not so much a novel as it is a series of portraits assembled into a detailed collage of coastal Maine at the dawn of the twentieth century – a rugged landscape, a reliance on fishing and the lobster harvest, the deep quiet of a typical Maine personality. I believe it was Jewett’s goal to record the way of life in this area as well as pay a sort of tribute to it. And she does this well, introducing the reader to a series of eccentric characters and describing the landscape with great precision.

The narrator is a writer who has come out to the area on retreat, spending her days either helping her landlady gather herbs or working diligently in an old school house a bit outside of the town. It is difficult not to imagine Jewett as the narrator, especially since the narrator keeps her own personality and internal thoughts so distant from the actual people she is describing. She reflects on them and interacts with them, although not to create a story between herself and them but, rather, to get at the heart of their own story, whatever that may be.

Each little chapter is a portrait of one of the townspeople or a related event and includes such gems as Captain Littlepage’s story of encountering a sort of limbo town where dead souls wait during one of his sea voyages to the Arctic, or a young woman named Joanna who, thwarted in love, rows out to a tiny island off the main coast to live out the rest of her days alone. Most of the sketches involve the narrator’s landlady or the landlady’s mother – two quaintly bizarre women – in some capacity, either introducing the narrator to another individual or providing a suitable event for description.

The Country of the Pointed Firs has no central event or interlaced plot, but each chapter is linked to the rest through its tone and the consistency of the narrator. There is also a harmony in the collage aspect of the book; each chapter fits to the rest like a separate piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The overall effect is pleasant and the book creates a vivid image of a tiny corner of the United States at a particular time in its history.

 

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Although it gets a bit baggy for about 150 pages in the middle (which is not much when you consider the overall length of this novel), Vanity Fair is one of the funniest novels I’ve read in a long time. What I find so remarkable about this is that the characters in and of themselves are not especially funny. In fact, most of them are pathetic or cantankerous or pious or frail. The story isn’t all that funny either, a bit too much of a silly marathon to be truly funny. But the narrator, the wonderful narrator is downright, laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Reading Vanity Fair feels like having a snarky conversation over a delicious glass of wine with a most amusing, most dashing friend with an incredible gift for dramatic representation. The kind of person who has so much fun relating the particulars of a given event that it is impossible not to laugh and snigger at the poor fools who were in this person’s vicinity when he or she chose to pay attention.

The narrator is what makes the book complete. Without this snide voice describing the events and making up detailed portraits of each character’s foibles, the story would actually be quite sad. Nice people get taken advantage of and made into pathetic jokes while clever, naughty people have all the fun. Well, at least until page 631 where I’m wondering if the tide is about to change.

Don’t tell me, any of you who have read this already, but I’m incredibly curious whether the narrator will be able to skewer his beloved Rebecca in the end. Until now, she’s gotten off each and every time for her dastardly behavior and it’s clear he loves her more than any of his other inventions. (I’m now freely taking the narrator for Thackeray himself. And if this is the case, if Thackeray was as wonderfully sarcastic and funny as the narrator of Vanity Fair, I’m very sad not to have had the chance to meet him or hear him speak in person).

I can just picture Thackeray laughing over his manuscript, chuckling proudly at each scene and line of dialogue. Becky Sharpe is a fantastic heroine. Thackeray makes her so quick and witty, such a bald-faced liar and opportunist; it’s hard not to want to see her get away with it all. If only to keep the narrator in such jovial spirits:

It is all vanity to be sure: but who will not own to liking a little of it? I should like to know what well-constituted mind, merely because it is transitory, dislikes roast beef? That is a vanity; but may every man who reads this have a wholesome portion of it through life, I beg: aye, though my readers were five hundred thousand. Sit down, gentlemen, and fall to, with a good hearty appetite; the fat, the lean, the gravy, the horse-radish as you like it – don’t spare it. Another glass of wine, Jones, my boy – a little bit of the Sunday side. Yet, let us eat our fill of the vain thing, and be thankful therefor. And let us make the best of Becky’s aristocratic pleasures likewise – for these too, like all other mortal delights, were but transitory.

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Last week, after snatching it off the shelves of my favorite second-hand book shop, I sat down and read Jane Austen’s Emma in one sitting. I happen to like my Austen this way, in big healthy bites with very few interruptions. And reading Emma was no different, although the experience was heightened a bit since I’d never read it before and kept trying to figure out who Emma would end up with. To say I figured it out fairly early would be both true and a lie. I had my suspicions from the beginning, but all my recent Wharton reading put me on guard and I wondered if Austen wasn’t about to shock me with an unexpected twist of some sort.

Let’s see…what did I like about Emma? First and foremost, it was just plain enjoyable to immerse myself in Austen’s 19th century England. The vista she presents to her readers is so wholly complete, so detailed, that it’s difficult not to wish to have lived at this time period, or at least to be able to experience firsthand the world she describes. And Austen really is an expert storyteller, so just moving from one scene to the next and working through the various ups and downs of the story provides an all-around satisfying reading experience.

I also enjoyed the structure of the novel and the way it keeps the reader from knowing for absolutely certain which gentlemen the author has selected for her heroine. Compared to her other novels, I felt she kept the hints about Emma’s future husband decidedly subtle. With that looming story a bit more subdued than usual, she was free to construct a series of adventures to help Emma do some much-needed growing up.

So here is where I admit I found Emma a bit of an annoying heroine. I realize this is what Austen intended, that we get frustrated with Emma’s well-intentioned but hopelessly irresponsible manipulations. She serves us a good lesson – even clever people, when too-often indulged will lose their objectivity. In short, cleverness isn’t enough. Patience, empathy for others and honest self-reflection is just as important. To some extent I was happy to play along and then feel suitably proud of Emma for recognizing the gravity of her heedless meddling and then earnestly mending her ways.

And there was something about Emma’s perfect independence that worked against her. She is in no real danger, ever, of losing something she really cares about. Compare that to Elizabeth Bennett, Elinor Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Fanny Price or Anne Elliot – all of these women must come face to face with real, life-altering disappointment at some point in their stories. Emma’s realization that she is at risk to be disappointed is so quickly rationalized into existence and then her actual disappointment so wonderfully short-lived, that it was hard for me to work up any real concern about her well-being.

Finally, though it may have been my mood when reading the book, I found Emma to be much less funny than say, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey. Those three books had many moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, provided by a contingent of marvelously eccentric characters with either sharp tongues or oblivious blunderings. Emma’s father and Miss Bates provided some well-needed humor on occasion (both decidedly in the latter category) but that was about it.

All in all, Emma will never be my favorite Austen. But I’m very happy to have read it and I’m sure I’ll re-read it at some point. Perhaps it will grow on me with a second reading. Now that I’ve read them all, Pride and Prejudice remains my favorite with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion tied for second and Sense and Sensibility coming in a very close third. I love the characters and the story, but I believe the narrative gets a bit baggy around the edges in this one. I quite like the intellectual equality Austen gives to Emma and her eventual husband, so I think Emma will come next in line for that reason alone. Unfortunately, I’ve never been completely satisfied with the ending of Mansfield Park so Fanny and Edmund remain my least favorite Austen couple.

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Over the weekend I read Chekhov’s only novel, The Shooting Party, which was originally published in 1885. What a strange and delightful combination of early police fiction with Chekhov’s incredible talent for description and emotional representation. The novel is also a piece of clever metafiction, in that it is about a writer reading and commenting on another writer’s manuscript. The story is quite melodramatic, but in an enjoyable way. I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

The basic story begins with a dashing young man barging his way into a literary newspaper, asking that his manuscript be accepted for publication. He specifies that what he’s written is a true story. The editor (who is a wonderfully sarcastic creature with the initials A.C.) tells him he’s very busy and won’t get back to him for three months. Some months later, the editor takes the story out and reads it. He can’t put it down.

The actual crime story is quite familiar – think ruined innocence, general debauchery, class conflict – and centers on a love quadrangle between a young woodcutter’s daughter, an investigating magistrate, an out-of-luck gentleman and a Count. Each of these men fall in love with the young girl, each have their way with her in one way or another, and eventually she ends up ruined and (to add injury to insult) murdered.

Something I enjoyed immensely in The Shooting Party is the narrative layering between the editor A.C., who annotates the manuscript while he reads, and Kamyshev, the author and main protagonist of The Shooting Party. As A.C. comments on Kamyshev’s character and his writing style, the reader gets to chuckle a bit at Chekhov’s pseudo-modesty as well as get an in-depth look at how Chekhov envisions character creation.

The editor’s commentary also gives the story away repeatedly, which didn’t bother me in the least, but I do wonder how his readers in 1885 responded to this technique. Especially because the introduction to my edition of The Shooting Party tells me that Chekhov wrote the novel as a sort of parody of the extravagant, sensational police thrillers which were all the rage at the time. Apparently, Chekhov couldn’t stand how badly these stories were written, and how horrific their characters were. So in that sense, Kamyshev is both a parody of the tasteless writer AND the reprehensible main character.

There aren’t many good, intelligent, kind-hearted people in The Shooting Party, except perhaps the local doctor (another wink from Chekhov, perhaps, since this was his day job) and another unfortunate young woman. The rest are mostly a bunch of alcoholic swindlers and moral reprobates. Which made for many colorful scenes. There were also some purely comic characters. Of these, I particularly liked Kamyshev’s manservant, Polikarp, who is reading The Count of Monte Cristo throughout the story and verbally abuses his employer whenever possible.

As I’ve made pretty clear here, much of the novel is fun or sensational, although I think there were some serious elements. The women, for example, are neither comic nor wicked. They are all mostly tragic. Especially the woodcutter’s daughter, Olga. What happens to her is quite her fault really (not the murder, but her gradual descent into depravity) in the sense that she sells herself readily. She’s beautiful, but horribly vain. And she’s a social climber, although not at all skilled at climbing. So she makes one mistake after another. She’s a pathetic figure with a tragic end.

All in all, a great weekend read!

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Silas Marner is so different from Adam Bede. I wonder if I had read them blind (not knowing the author, I mean) whether I would have been able to say they were written by the same person. My hunch is no. What’s interesting is that there was only two years between the publication of Adam Bede (1859) and Silas Marner (1861). In between George Eliot published The Mill on the Floss, so her stylistic change is remarkable.

Thematically, Silas Marner does something similar to Adam Bede in that it exposes the hypocrisy and moral weakness of a country squire. Like Arthur Donnithorne, Godfrey Cass is a gutless rich boy with too much free time and not enough real conviction.  Both men are portrayed as inherently good-natured, just spineless. I think this says a lot about Eliot’s view of character. It isn’t really enough to be kindhearted – being a good person requires courage and self-control.

And in both novels, Eliot pits her two male characters against each other (a bit less directly in Silas Marner) to highlight their strengths and failings. In the Adam vs. Arthur comparison, Adam is nearly superhuman – a truly exceptional character (minus his inability to see Hetty for who she really is). This seems fitting for a first novel. Eliot exaggerates a bit with Adam (and Dinah for that matter, can a woman be more angelic?) and I can only assume she was maybe overexcited about her first large-scale literary offering.

But in Silas Marner the two men – Silas and Godfrey – are much more nuanced, a bit fragile and both have significant faults. Silas’ faults, however, are a result of an earlier misfortune, and Godfrey’s because of a weak character. In that sense, Silas is easily forgiven.

But enough about theme, I really wanted to talk about style here, because this is where the two books were markedly dissimilar. Adam Bede, as I mentioned before, has a few too many tangents and what I would call an intrusive narrator. But in Silas Marner, the narrator rarely steps off the page to signal her presence. There is no, “dear reader”, no pointed asides, no overdone explanation. Just a smoothly-told story.

And yet Eliot does manage to fit in plenty of omniscient narrator discourse. What I mean by that are the moments within or following a scene, when the narrator “exposes” something about human nature, or “reveals” the greater significance of a particular moment. In Eliot’s case, this tends toward generally-applicable revelation. A good example is right after Marner is robbed and the narrator explains that his being forced to interact with his neighbors began to work some positive changes on his character, and then she goes on to make this statement:

Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us anymore than without us; there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.

Now that is a subtle, incisive narrator. In Adam Bede this reflection would have gone on just a line too long.

Looking at tangents, I did think the chapter where the old men are sitting around discussing ghosts could qualify as unnecessary, but since it’s the only one in the book (and quite enjoyable) I wouldn’t have even noticed it if I hadn’t just experienced a raft of similar departures in Adam Bede.

Moving forward, The Mill on the Floss should arrive any day now and I’m looking forward to seeing how it sits between these other two.

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When a very nice person from Oneworld Classics contacted me and offered me the chance to review one of the titles from their classics publishing program, I jumped at the chance to look at Swiss author Gottfried Keller, with whom I have very little experience.

I selected this title for two reasons. First, because the premise for the book reminded me of a novel that Jacques Chessex, a contemporary Swiss writer, recently published called Un Juif pour l’Exemple, a really devastating novel about a group of men in the 1940s from a small town who kill a Jewish man for no other reason than his being Jewish. Like Chessex’s novel, Keller took inspiration from a real-life event to create a haunting and poetic narrative of tragedy in a small Swiss village. And second, because the title, A Village Romeo and Juliet, was too interesting to pass up.

As I’m sure you can guess, the story concerns the suicide of two young lovers, pushed to the farthest reaches of despair by a long-standing family feud. Where this book differs from Chessex’s novel is that I believe Keller had no real first-hand knowledge of the actual event. He took the fact of their death and invented a story to justify it, tackling at the same time what I consider one of the greatest Swiss literary preoccupations – village psychology.

Switzerland, even today, is a vast countryside, dotted with small villages and towns. There are very few big cities. Zurich is the only agglomeration with over a million people, the next largest has less than 500,000 and there are only five cities in the entire country with more than 100,000 people. Village life is pretty much the norm and there is a particular psychology that goes along with village life, something Swiss writers and artists have been exploring forever.

My favorite Swiss writer, Ramuz, was a genius at getting to the heart of the villager mindset but I was equally curious to see how Keller, writing a generation before Ramuz, would go about the same project…and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

A Village Romeo and Juliet (first published in 1856 and translated from German in 1966 by Ronald Taylor) is a slim novella that reads very much like a fable – an idyllic opening, a fateful dispute, a slow decline and overall worsening of the situation and then a detailed dénouement. In many ways this is a very simple tale. But where the book truly succeeds is in how Keller positions these necessary elements within his particular vision of village life.

The fathers of the two feuding families begin as friendly neighbors and eventually fall into an argument over a piece of land. What Keller is quick to point out is that each man’s anger and behavior is not only a result of his flawed character but that the dispute becomes irresolvably entrenched, and both men morally bankrupt, because of the way the village reacts to the fight.

Since their entire case was corrupt, they both fell prey to the worse kind of trickster, who inflamed their perverted imaginations and filled their minds with the most despicable thoughts. Most of these enterprising gentry, for whom the whole affair was a gift from the gods, belonged to the town of Seldwyla, and in a short time the two enemies each had their retinue of mediators, scandal-mongers and advisors who knew a hundred ways of relieving a man of his money.

A number of years pass and both families fall into desperate poverty. It is at this point that the son (Sali) and daughter (Vrenchen) from either side of the dispute, who as children had been devoted playmates, meet again and fall in love. The story begins to build a new momentum. And again here, Keller throws the inner character of his protagonists up against the collective character of the village. The following scenes, which include a wonderful and otherworldly mock-wedding celebration, test Sali and Vrenchen’s integrity and their ability to break free of the stifling village atmosphere.

As the title announces, Keller’s answer to Sali and Vrenchen’s ordeal is pessimistic and the book can be read as a detailed critique of 19th century Swiss village psychology.

To wrap up, let me just mention Keller’s lovely writing. Except for much of the dialogue, which was unfortunately often melodramatic, his descriptions were simply beautiful. I marked line after line and passage after passage throughout the entire text, but I think my favorite passage comes from the very beginning of the book:

From a distance they looked identical representatives of the countryside at its most characteristic; to a closer view they appeared distinguishable only in that one had the flap of his white cap at the front, the other at the back. But this changed when they ploughed in the opposite direction, for as they met and passed at the top of the ridge, the strong east wind blew the cap of the one back over his head, while that of the other, who had the wind behind him, was blown forwards over his face. And at each turn there was a moment when the two caps stood erect quivering in the wind like two white tongues of flame.

One last quick note – Oneworld Classics is a lovely publisher with a fantastic catalogue of well-known favorites as well as lesser-known translations. Highly recommended!

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I sat down with Aristotle’s Poetics last night and had a good laugh when I got to his section on the best kind of tragic plots. Aristotle points out that in order for the audience to experience pity and fear (his criteria for excellence) the hero or heroine must not be of outstanding moral character, nor depraved. Both these extremes would be too difficult for the audience to identify with. We’re left with the ordinary individual. The kind of person who experiences just enough undeserved suffering for us to pity them but who creates just enough of the same kind of mischief we might feel inclined to dabble in ourselves to make us nervous about our own life.

 

The reason I laughed is because I just finished Madame Bovary. And I think Aristotle would have taken Flaubert out and bought him champagne. Both Emma and Charles (and Rodolphe and Leon, for that matter) are so perfectly mediocre. Just earnest enough for us to sympathize with but just selfish, just cowardly enough for us to want to keep a weary distance.

 

I first read Madame Bovary in college. I remember enjoying it. I remember feeling sorry for Emma. I remember disliking lunky Charles and thinking it was so unfair she couldn’t just run off with the men she loved. To put it bluntly, I think I kind of missed the entire point.

 

Reading the novel again was fun. I still feel sorry for Emma, for her silly selfishness and desperate scheming, but I think Flaubert did something much more than write a scandalous account of adultery and feminine ruin. He characterized the maudlin yearnings of a mediocre bourgeoisie while criticizing the superficial sentimentality of mass culture. Two very scathing social assessments, both still relevant to a contemporary discussion.

 

It’s hard to decide who is the more pathetic of the two – Charles or Emma. Charles seems unbelievably clueless for a long time, which is far less interesting, until just after Emma kills herself when there is an affecting scene between Charles and Rodolphe (Emma’s first lover) and it becomes quite apparent that he knew all along. I looked at Charles differently after that and it made me reconsider why Flaubert begins and ends the book with Charles.

 

Madame Bovary isn’t really a tragedy (Aristotle would have figured this one out much more quickly than I did) – it’s a satire. Charles is an anti-hero, Emma a false heroine. It’s sad when she dies but not unexpected – and Charles mourns her, but it seems fairly dismal to mourn the woman who never really loved you. Like Revolutionary Road (a modern meditation on a similar theme) the real tragedy befalls Berthe – their daughter. Unloved, unwanted, and uncared for, she ends up an impoverished worker at a cotton mill.

 

I deliberately avoided reading the Nabokov essay until I’d written up my thoughts but I’m eager to get started and see what he has to say. There are also several film versions of Madame Bovary but two I am particularly interested in finding – a 1949 Minnelli with Jennifer Jones playing Emma and the most recent, from 1991 with the lovely Isabelle Huppert and an apparently outstanding performance by Jean-Francois Balmer as Charles. 

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The responsibilities of scientific discovery are a heavy burden. Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?

 

I think most readers are already familiar with the basic story of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein – Dr. Frankenstein gives life to a being he created, abandons that creation and then sometime later learns the being has committed a series of crimes. When Frankenstein and his creation meet up again we hear about the creature’s attempt at self-actualization and his subsequent rejection by society. He asks Dr. Frankenstein to create another being, a female, so he won’t be alone. Frankenstein ultimately refuses, thus setting in motion a deadly struggle between creator and created.

 

Dr. Frankenstein is a wonderful example of a scientist blinded by ambition and hampered by an incomplete grasp of what his research might occasion. He drives himself forward in the creation of this new being on the sole premise that “he can”, never once asking whether “he should.” This discrepancy alone fuels most of the book’s commentary on the risks of unchecked scientific discovery.

 

I found it fascinating that Dr. Frankenstein’s immediate reaction upon seeing life surge forth from the being he fashioned was disgust. Awe, I could understand, and fear, too, at the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment, but not disgust. This seems so counter-intuitive to human nature. We tend to be blinded to our own creations and forgive them their inadequacies. That he wasn’t more curious to understand what he’d actually done was such a surprise. He doesn’t even try to communicate with the creature, he simply abandons it. This act was so singularly irresponsible (from a humane standpoint but also from a scientific perspective) I lost all sympathy for Dr. Frankenstein at that point. I’m curious whether Shelley’s contemporary readers would have had the same reaction or would they have also instinctively hated the being in the way the doctor did.

 

The most powerful part of the novel for me was the story of the being, more precisely, what he went through after Frankenstein deserted him. Shelley asks some interesting questions about biological vs. social determinism. We’re led to believe he was “born” good and that his treatment at the hands of society brought him to commit horrible acts. This is a bit complicated by the fact that Frankenstein assembled him from parts of corpses so there is maybe an element of the occult to be considered; he wasn’t a blank slate so to speak although Shelley does a good job of presenting his intellectual development as such.

 

Also, this part of the story reminded me a lot of Wilde’s Dorian Gray in the sense that Shelley plays with the idea that society expects evil deeds from ugliness and goodness from beauty. It could be argued that the most evil (or at least the first evil) act committed in the novel is when Dr. Frankenstein abandons a helpless creature to his own fate. And yet Dr. Frankenstein is lauded for his goodness and sublime character for the entire book.

 

Shelley does a lot with Romantic ideals in the story – all that intense emotion and horror, the desolate landscapes and awe-inspiring nature. Man pitted against both society and himself. I’d love to do a close reading of the novel to try and determine which character Shelley pegged for her Romantic hero – Dr. Frankenstein or his creation. Or maybe they represent two sides of the same coin.

 

Knowing that Shelley wrote this novel when she was eighteen makes me want to look into her work further and see if she considered the same issues again later from a more mature perspective. I don’t mean to say I felt the novel was immature in any way, I just think that would be really interesting. I mentioned before that my husband and I read this book in tandem and it has provided some really good dinnertime discussion. I enjoyed how much the questions it raises are still relevant to modern issues. The writing style can be a bit over-the-top and each of the three narrators all pretty much use the same voice and vocabulary but its definitely a book I’m thrilled to have finally read.

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