Back to the Classics: The Old Man and the Sea

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

I’ve never been drawn to reading Hemingway, never got pulled into the mythology around him. I’d heard his language was simple — some said to the point of being a simplistic sort of “he-man” utterance, even though others lauded it as a pillar of modernism. I wasn’t that interested in modernism, and I wasn’t made to read him in school, so I gave him a miss. But when I was compiling my list of Books for Adult English Learners, this one was frequently recommended (it’s also often taught in high school). And I decided to have a look. What was Hemingway all about, anyway? Was he worth reading?

The Old Man and the Sea is not a novel; it’s barely even a story. It’s more of an extended metaphor, based on a tale that Hemingway heard spoiler alert! about an old Cuban fisherman who went on an epic fish-hunt for a giant marlin that was then eaten to the bone by sharks on his way home.

Yes, that’s all that happens. There is little of external interest, unless you are very interested in deep-sea fishing. And at first I thought I would be bored, but the metaphor got a hold of me, through its very limitations. Though I knew how the story would end, thanks to an introduction from the publisher that gives everything away, I was still compelled to keep reading until the man had lost everything he set out for, all his hopes, all his dreams. Yet, “a man can be destroyed, but not defeated,” he says.

It sounds like a macho anthem, man fighting against a hostile world, but the old man also expresses respect and wonder for his fishy prey, and even for the sharks who devour it. They act only according to their nature, while he blames himself for “going out too far.” And there is a young boy who cares for him and admires him and who meets him on his return — without that boy, this would be a bleak and violent fable indeed. But with him, I think it turns into something more; a reminder that we all will be devoured by the forces of nature, down to the bone, and it is only the relationships we have made, the ties of love and connection, that will remain.

The language is indeed simple, but not overly so.  The old man expresses his thoughts (sometimes out loud, for no particular reason) in a sort of peasant poetical style that is not very realistic for a poor Cuban fisherman, but without it there would not be much of a book. I found it readable enough, and I would read Hemingway again — though I understand he can be very uneven.

Have you read Hemingway? What would you recommend?

Back to the Classics: Classic with Nature in the Title


Back to the Classics: Brideshead Revisited

Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited (1945)

This was a reread for me, and I was already familiar with the plot — I’ll be discussing it here, so please don’t continue if you mind spoilers.

Subtitled “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder,” the novel opens with the Captain and his army troop moving to another base within Britain during the Second World War. Gloomy and depressed by the ruin of civilization and the uselessness of army life, Charles gets an additional shock when he comes to the estate they are occupying and realizes he’s been there before. Brideshead Castle was the site of his youthful dreams and longings, as he became deeply involved with the family years ago.

He proceeds to tell us the history of this involvement, first with Sebastian, who is in Charles’s year at Oxford, and later with Sebastian’s sister Julia, with whom he falls in love when they are both married to other people. The Marchmains are upper-class, wealthy (though less wealthy than they think they are), and, somewhat unusually within this circle, Roman Catholic — at least the mother is; the father is living scandalously abroad with a mistress, and the children vary from devout to agnostic. Charles is enchanted by the family, by their extravagant lifestyle and by their great, elaborate house and its surroundings, which becomes an Arcadia to him.

The idyll is brief. Sebastian, hounded by his mother and her narrow expectations, becomes an alcoholic and loses himself in Morocco. Charles experiences a short time of happiness with Julia, but she decides their relationship is sinful and abandons him too. And so, with the flood of memories exhausted, we come back to the war, to the Baroque fountain that has been a symbol for Charles’s longings, now a repository for sandwiches and cigarettes. But a flame still burns in the chapel, and it seems to have ignited a spark within Charles as well.

There is much to be said about the book as a picture of the interwar period in England, of class consciousness, of sexual mores, and other sociologial and historical topics, but Waugh himself said it was about religion. What is he saying about it? What is sacred, in this collection of mostly very profane memories?

The search for living substance, and the absence and failure of the symbolically feminine sources of nourishment, is the driving impetus throughout. The motherless Charles, arriving in Oxford fresh from an all-male boarding school and with a distant, insensitive father, has no experience of mature femininity or nurturing care. So when he meets the beautiful and charming Sebastian, who is wracked by a love-hate relationship with his “Mummy” that keeps him in an infantile state (complete with teddy bear), he is irresistibly attracted. But it’s when he glimpses Brideshead that his love is truly sealed.

“Brideshead” is a feminine name; it combines elements of the Church, the Bride of Christ, and of the fountainhead of faith, the springing up of life in the dryness of a profane world. Charles’s great love affair, arguably, is neither with Sebastian nor with Julia, but with Brideshead itself — significantly, in adulthood he becomes a fashionable painter, not of people, but of buildings. Though he considers himself an unbeliever, he yet yearns after the harmoniously ordered, consoling, and protective edifice, which faithful Catholics find in their religion, and which has a motherly, womb-like quality.

A building can be restrictive, too — it shuts out as well as encloses. And so in the end, in Julia’s rejection of Charles, the conservative author seems to be pointing to the importance of rules, of structure, order, and obedience to a higher will. When Lord Marchmain dies and the old reprobate appears to repent at last, Julia’s belief in the sovereignty of personal desire is shaken, and the marriage aborted. But is it really a tragedy?

I don’t believe that Julia was wrong to leave Charles, though I can’t agree with her that loving him would be “sinful,” or get in the way of her love of God. To withhold love from a suffering human being can never be the basis for spiritual evolution. But there are many kinds and degrees of love, and Charles’s love for Julia was still of an immature kind. For him, she was part of Brideshead, of his longing for something higher, deeper, more essential. Even as he added her portrait to his collection of pictures, one wonders if she ever really became a person for him.

Perhaps it was for his sake, not her own, as well as her own, that she needed to leave him, so that he could potentially find his way past the symbols to the reality of living water. The ending of the book subtly suggests that he has made a step in that direction, even in the lifeless desert of wartime. What exactly that means for him is left quite open, but it helps to bring about a conclusion that hints at further possibilities, a story that goes on past the final page.

That sense of “opening up,” of possibilities beyond the page, is a hallmark of true religion, as well as of a great novel. And so one can see why Brideshead has kept its hold on our imagination over the years, and how it points toward the sacred elements hidden in a profane world. Through its vivid memory-pictures of a vanished life, it asks what is eternal in all of it, and perhaps inspires us to do the same for our own lives.

Among many editions over the years, the 2018 Folio Society edition, which I included in a video review when it first came out, is to my mind a brilliantly satisfying interpretation. The two-color woodcuts by Harry Brockway capture Charles’s double consciousness perfectly, evoking the stylized aesthetic of the twenties and thirties, but with a restraint and economy that forecasts the austerity of the war. This time around, I was impressed all over again by Folio’s beautiful presentation, which incarnates an iconic work in such an appropriate form. If you love the book, this is an edition to add to your pleasure.

And as for other visual interpretations, the famous 1981 television adaptation would qualify this book for the Adapted Classic category of the Back to the Classics challenge…though in the end I opted for a different category. I haven’t seen the TV series in full, but the clips I’ve viewed are remarkably faithful to the book, with terrific acting and production values that still hold up today. A  film was also made in 2008.

Have you seen either of these, and/or read the book? What did you think?

Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic about a Family


Don Quixote, Part II: The End

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part II (1615)

Though I did not stick very well to my chapter-a-day intention, by reading in fits and starts I have finished Don Quixote. When I last checked in, I was in the middle of Part II; Don Quixote and Sancho Panza were being deceived by their aristocratic hosts, who wanted to encourage them in their role as knight errant and squire. This went on for a good while longer, and included Don Quixote having the opportunity to defend his virtue against a lovely young admirer, along with Sancho finally getting to be the governor of his insula.

The latter was one of the most successfully conceived episodes, I thought, with Sancho showing surprising acumen in his role, yet soon wisely deciding the responsibility of governing is not for him (largely because the doctor in charge of the governor’s health won’t let him eat anything he likes). He goes back to serving his master and they have a few more adventures which end in Don Quixote being sent back to his village, where he comes into his right mind at last.

Don Quixote Consulting the Enchanted Head – Charles-Antoine Corypel IV, ca. 1714

If that sounds a bit anticlimactic, it is. Overall, I found the pacing of this part of the novel decidedly odd. Where the first part suffered from layers of interpolated tales, this part was full of false starts and red herrings, plot threads that Cervantes seemed to lose interest in and quickly abandon. For example, in one chapter Sancho gets stuck in a cave, which would seem to promise some trials or other escapades … but in the next chapter Don Quixote hears him calling and he is released without further ado. Ho, hum.

The promise of playing with multiple realities and points of view also dissipated. There were a few piquant observations — for example that the Duke and Duchess are as mad as their knightly guest, for taking so much trouble to deceive him — but otherwise I had the sense the author was getting bored and just wanting to wrap up. After a peculiar meeting with a man who has supposedly met the “other” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from the pirated second half of the tale (to which Cervantes is constantly referring in this part, as well as to the “real” version by a Moorish author), the Don just goes home and — dies? Perhaps this was an attempt to put an end to further literary piracy, but for me it was something of a letdown.

Don Quixote – Paula Modersohn-Becker, 1900

And what about Dulcinea? After being the subject of so much of the action and conversation within the novel, and after Sancho’s finally pretending to give himself the blows supposedly needed to release her from her enchantment, she never appears — which is logical enough, as she doesn’t exist. And yet I wish she could have been more than a figment, that there could have been some interesting clash with the reality of an actual woman. But as usual, it’s only Sancho and his wife who provide us with anything close to a real-life relationship in the novel.

This is all very postmodern, and I’m sure there is much to be drawn from the subverting of my narrative expectations, but in the end I was left with a sense of disappointment. Maybe another read-through, now that I have the overall picture, would grant me more insight into this famous story. But for now, I’m going to move onto other quests.

Thanks to Emma of Words and Peace for reading along with me. You helped me to get going, and I hope you reach your own goal!

Classics Club List #71


Early Christians: The Blood of the Martyrs

Naomi Mitchison, The Blood of the Martyrs (1939)

Naomi Mitchison, who died in 1999 at the age of 101, was a prolific writer who dipped into quite an astonishing number of genres. She wrote historical fiction based in both prehistoric and historic times, contemporary fiction, fantasy, science fiction, travelogue, essays, memoirs, biography, plays … is there anything left? If she’s not a household name today, maybe it’s because she refused to be pigeonholed and especially to follow the “rules” of writing and publishing. One of her early novels, We Have Been Warned, was repeatedly turned down on the basis of its treatment of sexuality and heavily revised before publication. It still caused a furor when it came out.

I haven’t read that book (not considered one of her best), but I have read the stunning historical novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen and the charming fantasy Travel Light, which both evoke a mythological past with beautiful language and powerful, vivid imagery. I’ve been wanting to read more of Mitchison’s books, but they’re not so easy to find these days.

One that is readily available, recently republished in paperback by Canongate, is The Blood of the Martyrs, another historical novel that takes as its subject the first persecution of the Christians in Rome under Nero. Written in the 1930s, it has clear parallels to the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, with Nero’s cult of bloodlust and violence sustaining a leader drunk on the vision of himself as a god. Contrasted with this state-sanctioned insanity is a small cell of Christians, who look forward to the coming of a “Kingdom” of brotherhood, equality, and freedom. In the meantime they attempt to practice the radical non-violence of Jesus’s teaching, loving one another and forgiving their enemies. The climax of the book shows how they try to do this even in the Arena as they’re being burnt and thrown to wild animals.

It’s hard to describe the book without making it sound like a pious treatise of some kind, but it isn’t. It’s not pious in any cheap sentimental way, and the person and deeds of Jesus Christ operate more as a kind of distant rumor than as an active presence. These Christians base their religion not on a numinous experience of the Godhead but on the bonds of kindness and mutual support that they experience with one another. Many of them are slaves, and the book offers, among other things, a pondering of what makes us slave or free. Is it the outer circumstances of our lives? Or is it a choice that we make in our attitude?

The experience of several of these Roman slaves and freedmen is movingly depicted in the vignettes of the opening chapters, which describe the varying paths they take toward Christianity. These make it clear that the repression of the new religion was not based on its addition of a new god to the pantheon — Rome had no problem embracing all kinds of deities, from Isis to Mithras — but on the danger its values presented to the state. If people can strive for an individual, free relationship to truth, if they make love their highest ideal and motivating force, then they cannot be controlled by punishment or fear. That makes them anathema in a regime founded on the empty-hearted, unquenchable drive for power.

Most of the characters share the naive view that the Kingdom of which Jesus spoke is an imminent physical reality which will somehow suddenly overturn the world of their rulers. This does not happen, of course, nor has it come to pass in the intervening centuries — nor ever will, in such a crude, materialistic form. But the lives and beliefs of these early Christians still hold a mysterious power, showing how the Kingdom may come into being within the hearts of people who dare to live as though it were already here.

As Rudolf Steiner put it, we all as human beings bear the spirit within us, but we can decide to ignore and suppress and even imprison this spirit, or set it free. Which will we choose? Whether in the time of the martyrs, during the rise of Fascism, or in our own day, there is no more vital, more urgent question to be asked. I’m grateful to this brilliant, overlooked writer for bringing it up for me once more.


Beautiful Books: Uncle Silas

J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1864)

It’s yet another classic book review! I’ve been doing a lot of these lately as I try to plow through my accumulated TBR pile. But while on vacation I took a whole bunch of newer books along with me on the e-reader, so I hope to have something completely different for you very soon. Even though I do like reviewing classics, I don’t want to focus on them exclusively on the blog.

In the meantime, I’m going back to the Victorian era with a giant of the Gothic genre. I confess that it was the looks, not the content, of this book that initially caught my attention. It’s a Folio Society edition with illustrations by Charles Stewart, a fascinating character in his own right — a theatre enthusiast, collector, and artist who was obsessed with the tale for many years. He created some of the pictures for an edition that never made it into print, but these were eventually incorporated into the Folio publication along with a gorgeous period-style binding design.

The illustrations are also beautifully in tune with the Victorian aesthetic, and though done in pen and ink imitate the engravings that often adorned books of the period. These are plentiful and add marvelously to the brooding atmosphere. The typography is unobtrusively excellent as well.

But what about the story? (Spoiler alert here — I’m going to refer to some major plot points.) It’s narrated by a seventeen-year-old girl who inherits her father’s enormous estate and is sent to live with her Uncle Silas in his crumbling house. She wants to honor her father’s wish to believe him innocent of a horrible crime of which he was accused years ago, but this becomes more and more difficult as the ominous characters and events pile up …

Though I enjoyed the book overall, I was left with a faint sense of disappointment. Many elements seemed to me to have more potential than was actually fulfilled. There was a fantastically villainous French governess, for instance, but Le Fanu seemed to lose interest in her and her evil petered out into ridiculousness. Another character, a neglected girl with a wonderfully unconventional personality and manner of  speaking, had to be immediately smoothed out and made into a model of Victorian propriety, which was unfortunate. And there was a big build-up of the “Swedenborgian” view of spirits and angels, which would seem to presage some supernatural-slash-psychological crisis, but nothing came of this.

Most seriously, our heroine, Maud, was too silly and passive for my taste. I loved the theme of trying to break through deception to the true reality, but Maud spent far too much time clinging to her wish for Silas to be good, even when it was completely obvious that he wasn’t. She ignored her forebodings for so long that she deserved what came to her, and was saved not by her own awakened initiative and insight, but by some equally silly antics on the part of her captors.

These left me baffled, because they were trying to kill Maud very cleverly in secret so that nobody would know, but the whole point of killing her was to get her inheritance, for which purpose her death would need to be made public. Perhaps this was an indication of Silas’s disturbed mental state, but as a crime it made no sense.

Then there was the way her killer had to enter the murder room laboriously through a secretly contrived window, creating a locked-room mystery — but then Silas barged in to check on the murder through the door. Wouldn’t it have been easier for the murderer to just go in through the door and exit through the window?

And so on. Such inconsistencies left me with a sense that Le Fanu was not quite in command of his material, in spite of the parts of it that shone. Influential as he was in the beginnings of the Gothic/thriller genre, there are others who have done it better — though for a dive back into those early days of the genre, you can’t do better than this beautifully rendered edition.

Classics Club list #68


Classics Club: Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Race is a topic I’m reluctant to even approach here on the blog. I’m mindful of my privileged status and hesitant to make any pronouncements about people whose experience I cannot truly share or comprehend. However, I do not think it’s helpful to isolate ourselves in separate racial camps and decide we can never understand each other. So through reading, I do try to understand, bit by bit. It’s one of the main benefits of reading for me — to be able to enter into the experience of another person who is profoundly different from me, and find our common humanity.

Today more than ever, were are confronted with the profoundly American dilemma of how the rise of one group of people to freedom and dominance has been intrinsically linked with the subjugation of another group. Complacent liberal “colorblindness” does not address this fundamental inequality, nor its persistent hold on our psyche. I’m so grateful for some of the books written out of the black experience that have helped me to have insight into this phenomenon and its implications for our present and future. It’s something we must all wrestle with in our own way, I feel.

Invisible Man is a novel that powerfully explores the rage and dismay and strange triumph that can arise out of such wrestling, making it a key text for our time. I never encountered it in school, somehow, though I saw lots of my friends reading it. To be honest, I would not have gotten much out of it as an adolescent, so I’m glad I waited until now, when it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin. I found it a highly suitable book to read at this time of questioning and searching for how our country’s racial wounds might finally, someday, find healing.

As he travels from his home in the South to New York City, Ellison’s unnamed narrator goes through a mythic, archetypal journey, from unguarded innocence to bitter experience to a hard-won, tenuous sense of integrity. But this modern hero has a harder foe than the dragons and monsters of old. The people around him, both black and white, create an ever-shifting panorama of idealism, deception, promise, betrayal, compassion, violence, suffering, and potential transformation that causes him to question the very nature of reality and of his own self. To all these other people he seems to be “invisible,” merely a function of their own wishes and desires — but can he discover some ground of reality within himself? What is lasting, what is true? And how can he live in a world that seems to only want to manipulate and destroy?

Though Ellison vividly describes many horrific scenes (a wrestling match pitting black boys against one another for the amusement of white men; experiments done on the narrator while in the hospital; the culminating race riot in Harlem) it’s the inner quest for meaning and wholeness that draws us through the nightmare. This is a universal experience, whether we find it in outer trials of segregation and discrimination, or in the inner struggle against such forces in our own being.

There may seem to be little hope or gentle, natural light in the book, which the narrator writes from a basement bunker he’s illuminated for himself with stolen electric power. But as he prepares to return to the world, he shares with us some extraordinary insights: “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many — This is not prophecy, but description.”

And nearly at the end, this:

The very act of trying to put it all down has confused me and negated some of the anger and some of the bitterness. So it is that I denounce and defend, or feel prepared to defend. I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes, say yes, and say no. I denounce because though implicated and partially responsible, I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of all I find that I love. In order to get some of it down I have to love. I sell you no phony forgiveness. I’m a desperate man — but too much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through division. So I denounce and I defend and I hate and I love.

This divided consciousness is our modern heritage, and so is the truth that the only way through despair is love. Our fate indeed is to become one, and yet many. By such contradictory, baffling paths as that traveled by Ellison’s invisible man, we may approach this distant goal and find that it is already here.

Classics Club List #64


Classics Club: The Shuttle

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Shuttle (1907)

The Secret Garden and A Little Princess were iconic books for me growing up, and I also read and reread Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Lost Prince. So when Frances Hodgson Burnett’s adult books began to resurface, some (like this one) gaining the kiss of approval from Persephone, I was delighted.

It’s a long, sometimes unfocused book, and I’m not surprised to learn that Burnett worked on it in fits and starts over several years. During that time her own life was a fitting subject for a melodrama; having divorced her first husband, the 50-year-old married an actor ten years her junior, who apparently was only interested in her money and the advancement of his career. The marriage was in trouble immediately and only lasted two years. In 1907, the year of this book’s publication, she returned permanently from England to her native country, the United States.

During the period of writing Burnett spent time “shuttling” to and from her beloved Great Maytham Hall in Kent, whose walled rose garden was the model for the “secret garden.” Burnett had renovated the neglected garden herself, and wrote several books there. Though her 1911 children’s book is the most famous rendering, one can also see in this earlier novel similar themes of renewal and rebuilding, and of the garden as symbol of the feminine capacity for rebirth and healing.

Here, though, the accompanying manor house takes on even greater importance than the garden, as the rebuilding of a house goes together with the rebuilding of a woman’s life. The woman, Rosalie, is one of the hordes of American heiresses imported to Europe during this era, to bring their fortunes and vital young blood to impoverished ancient houses and lineage. Her husband, unfortunately, is a dastardly fortune-hunter who proceeds to abuse her in the most disgusting possible ways, and then abandon her, their son, and his crumbling house to pursue his own sordid interests. (Mrs. Burnett was perhaps working out some of her own husband issues here.)

He ensures that Rosalie becomes estranged from her loving family so that they can do nothing to help her, but her younger sister, Betty, won’t give her up. When she pursues her sister a decade later, she proceeds to expend her own fortune, and more importantly, her immense vitality, ingenuity, and compassion, to save Rosalie and foil the plans of her evil mate. In the process she meets her own perfect mate, a neighboring nobleman whose fortune has been lost by spendthrift ancestors, but who refuses to resort to such low tactics to restore it as marrying an heiress. Will Betty be able to overcome his resistance, and forge her own happiness?

The heroine and the villain are too perfectly good and evil for true artistic merit, but there’s a great deal of pleasure to be found in this modern fairy tale. As Betty showers her life force everywhere, we can also feel rejuvenated and inspired to look at parts of our life that might just need a little courage and gumption to get them moving in the right direction. And as America a century later seems to be descending ever further into the pit of selfishness, greed, and nationalistic paranoia, we can try to recover a different ideal: one of generosity and compassionate action.

It’s also notable that Betty is a shining archetype of the “new woman,” whose spirited self-determination would have been considered beyond the pale by many in 1907. She reminded me of the women in Herland, published around the same time. But while they developed their strength and intellect by virtue of living in a world without men, Betty grows by means of a sympathetic man (her father) to unfold the true power latent in the feminine, and comes into active relationship to both masculine strength and masculine weakness. This gives the story a different dimension than Gilman’s single-minded utopia.

Much as I enjoy her books, though, I have to admit that Burnett is not a truly great writer. Her style is often hackneyed, her characters stereotypical, and some of her sentiments cringe-worthy. (I could particularly have done without a subplot concerning a gung-ho young typewriter salesman.) But she had certainly had some ideas that powerfully tap into our collective unconscious, and out of this source created some memorable books. This is one that I felt could have been better, but was still worth reading. Whenever I think life is too difficult or depressing, I’ll just think of Betty, and strive to put my own feminine ingenuity to work.

Classics Club List #22


Les Miserables: The first three months

As I proceed through the Chapter-a-day Readalong of Les Miserables, I thought it might be good to check in every quarter or so rather than leaving it all till the end of the year (when I might have forgotten all about what happened in January).

These months took us through the first part, “Fantine,” which spends a long time setting up the main characters and conflict of the novel. First there is a thorough exposition of a character who plays a very brief role in the actual story, but who provides its moral compass: the Bishop of Digne, a saintly man whose goodness Hugo has the difficult task of making both interesting and fully human. To my mind, he succeeds brilliantly, painting a loving portrait from many sides of a truly compassionate soul, who never seeks to beat anyone down with his faith, but fills himself with its warmth so that he can give of its abundance to others. Hugo was criticized by some for creating such a positive image of a churchman, but the Bishop is only incidentally a man of the church; his religion is humanity, and thus a true Christianity.

There were many beautiful quotations in this section; here’s one of my favorites:

“What more could an old man need when he divided whatever spare time his life allowed, he who had so little spare time, between gardening of a day and contemplation of a night? Surely this small enclosure, with the sky as a ceiling, was enough to enable him to worship God by regarding his loveliest works and His most sublime works, one by one? A little garden to amble about in, and infinite space to dream in. At his feet, whatever could be grown and gathered; over his head, whatever could be studied and meditated upon; a few flowers on the ground and all the stars in the sky.”

Then we go to the seeming opposite, a recently released convict who seems completely hardened in his evil and will stop at nothing to get revenge for his perceived wrongs. This is of course Jean Valjean, the novel’s protagonist, who has a life-altering encounter with the Bishop and turns to a new path of helping others. But his past still pursues him in the form of Inspector Javert, who is so hardened in his righteousness that in him good turns to evil. He is the true opposite of the Bishop, rather than Valjean, who represents our human struggle between extremes. Brought together through the fate of the pathetic Fantine, who has been abandoned by her lover and fallen on hard times, the two come to a crisis in which Valjean’s hidden past comes to light and he has to flee again.

There the first part ends — and after this absorbing, dramatic and character-rich tale, we abruptly switch to an extended essay about the battle of Waterloo, the famous “digression” that Hugo completed at the very end of his work on the novel (just in time for part two to be published). I’m struggling with the descriptions of battlefields and military leaders and tactics, which make my eyes cross, though sometimes Hugo’s vision of this event as the turning point of the nineteenth century breaks through and I see something of its significance. Once we get back to the main story, which takes place 50 years later, I’ll be interested to see how Waterloo still continues to play a role.

Until this section, I had no problem reading my chapter a day, and was always eager to find out what happened next, to meet a new character, or to read some of Hugo’s evocative descriptions and rich meditations on human nature and society. Though I’m sorry I can’t read in the original French, I find the Julie Rose translation to be gorgeously written. I may try reading another translation at some point for comparison.

If you’re reading along, how’s it going? Or if you’ve read Les Miserables at some point in your life, what did you think? Any thoughts about different translations?

Classics Club: The Ghost of Thomas Kempe

Penelope Lively, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)

When I read Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger, I was underwhelmed. Unfortunately, I can’t remember quite why. I think it was because I could not connect emotionally with the main character, and found the novel ultimately empty and dull in spite of the literary skill of the author. This happens to me a lot with acclaimed novels of the last century or so.

However, given that Lively is an anointed Great Writer, I wanted to give her another chance. So I decided to try a very different book, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. And this time, I could see Lively’s greatness, not so self-consciously occupied with War and Betrayal and other Deep Adult Subjects, but put at the service that most fundamental, most formative of literary forms: the tale for children.

Thomas Kempe is the ghost of a seventeenth-century apothecary whose resting place has been disturbed by renovations when a new family moves into his home. His violent manifestations and messages become a serious problem for ten-year-old James, who inevitably gets blamed for everything by the annoyingly modern-minded people around him. With the help of a local builder who takes a more sensible view of the issue, and a diary from the boy previously visited by this supernatural nuisance, he must find a way to put Kempe to rest once more.

It’s a simple narrative trajectory, but it’s the way Lively treats it with such lovingly crafted detail that makes this a special book. James perfectly captures the essence of Preadolescent Boy, and has the perfect sidekick in Tim, a Disreputable Dog (the only character in the book, Lively explains in a preface, directly taken from life). The intrusion of a spirit from the distant past, causing havoc and upsetting the usual order of things, allows her to explore the mind of a child on the threshold of adulthood, and the way our past selves both pass away and remain forever in some eternal bubble of time.

Funny, finely observed, and written with an unfailing sense of the music of language, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe demonstrates the power of story as embodied idea. Rather than making some dry, intellectual statement about the nature of time and memory, Lively has crafted her thoughts into living pictures that leave the reader free to draw deeper meaning from them … or simply enjoy an entertaining tale. To me, this is the best kind of fiction, lacking the preachiness and snobbery unfortunately often found in so-called “adult” literature (including, I’m afraid, Lively’s own).

The one weak point in the story, I felt, was Thomas Kempe himself, who didn’t fully come to life for me — and not just because he was a ghost. An abrupt turnabout in his character at the climax of the story lacked sufficient motive, and added to the sense of his being a mere narrative device rather than an actual person. A bit more attention to this aspect would have made an excellent novel even better; I couldn’t help thinking that Diana Wynne Jones would have made a better job of it.

In the preface to the Folio Society edition, Lively appears a bit baffled by the success of her early book, and admits that “writing for children left me long ago.” This seems sad to me, and makes me wonder if some spark of vitality had vanished by the time she got around to Moon Tiger. I’m interested to read more of her fiction, and see if I can again be inspired by the creative energy that impressed me here.

Have you read any of Lively’s other novels? What can you recommend?

Classics Club List #18



Classics Club: East of Eden

John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)

East of Eden is one of those books that I’ve seen mentioned by many readers as an all-time favorite (though there are a few haters as well). When the Folio Society did a poll to gather suggestions for publication, it was at the top of the list … and they duly published their beautiful edition this year. Somehow I had never gotten around to reading it earlier in my life, but now seemed to be the perfect time.

And so it proved to be. In this time of chaos and confusion, Steinbeck’s exploration of the mystery of evil and the transforming nature of love is rich, complex, and powerful. It’s also simply a compelling story, which one can enjoy without thinking much about the deeper layers. But even if these do not come fully to consciousness, they will reverberate in the soul and have their own transforming effect.

Steinbeck weaves together many elements into this tapestry: a snapshot of a particular time and place, the Salinas Valley in California at the turn of the century; people and tales from his own family history; images and themes taken from myth and religion; invented characters including a terrifying psychopath; and commentary directly expressing the author’s philosophy. It’s a big, ambitious novel, and though there are weak points and a certain loss of narrative energy toward the end, for me Steinbeck succeeded in his stated goal of making me feel as though I were not reading a book, but living it. The people and places he created will continue to live within me and play their part in the drama of my own life. What greater claim to immortality could an author have?

A fascinating companion book is Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. As he was writing, Steinbeck simultaneously wrote a journal in the form of unsent “letters” to his editor and friend, Pascal Covici, on facing pages of the manuscript. It’s an unusual and perhaps unique glimpse into the writing process, into the usually invisible realm where an artist struggles to grasp and give form to what wants to be expressed through him. In many ways this struggle remains obscure — Steinbeck often tells Covici that he’s trying to do something without saying clearly what it is — and there are also passages that are repetitive and dull, such as recurring musings about pencils and pencil sharpeners. But even this is interesting in what it reveals about how the mundane and the extraordinary combine in a writer’s mind, and how he negotiates that balance in the heat of creation.

A few times, Steinbeck states in the letters that the creation of a novel is everything to him; once it’s finished it’s like a dead thing, and it’s time for him to move on to the next. This seems to me to express so well the sacrificial role of an artist, who gives all his mind and heart and soul to the process of creation, shaping a work that represents both something universal and something of its creator’s unique perspective, and then must leave it free to have its own life — which it does, within us.

And it’s clear to me from certain passages that Steinbeck and I are “kindred spirits,” as Anne Shirley would say. Here for example is his response to the contemporary trend towards pessimistic and misanthropic writing, which many would still consider the only serious kind:

If the written word has contributed anything at all to our developing species and our half developed culture, it is this: Great writing has been a staff to lean on, a mother to consult, a wisdom to pick up stumbling folly, a strength in weakness and a courage to support sick cowardice. And how any negative or despairing approach can pretend to be literature I do not know. It is true that we are weak and sick and ugly and quarrelsome but if that is all we ever were, we would millenniums ago have disappeared from the face of the earth… — Journal of a Novel, p. 107

His credo is amply demonstrated in East of Eden, which unflinchingly portrays the depths of evil and misery to which mankind can descend, without ever losing hope in our ascent. This is the kind of book it always gives me joy to discover, and that indeed gives me strength to carry on living. I truly don’t know what I would do without these beacons on the way.

Classics Club list #30