From the Archives: Le Grand Meaulnes

Kicking off “Summer in Other Languages” at my other blog, Entering the Enchanted Castle, I’m reposting a review in which I considered the problems of translation. I am planning to reread this book in French this summer (thanks to Emma of Words and Peace for hosting a discussion group!) so it will be very interesting to see what my thoughts are after that.

This post originally appeared on The Emerald City Book Review on October 3, 2014. Linked up in Throwback Thursday at The Chocolate Lady’s Book Reviews.

Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Alain-Fournier French novel

It’s been a while since I read a novel in translation. As I read Le Grand Meaulnes, one of the most acclaimed and popular novels that came out of the past century in France, I pondered the various aspects of the writer’s art, and how they can or cannot be translated from one tongue into another. There’s the basic plot and character framework, the general raw materials of fiction; this element, I think, can be translated, because it can be understood independent of the language used. Then there’s how these materials are worked with: how the plot is structured, how the narration works, what kinds of images are chosen, how description is balanced with plot development. This also can be translated to a certain extent.

But the third element, the actual sound-sculpture of the language, which gives color and emotional resonance to the story, is not translatable. A translator may come up with a new creation that has some parallel relationship with the original, hoping to evoke similar feelings and experiences through the second language, but they cannot ever be truly the same, because they live in a realm beyond intellectual meaning. The need to convey meaning on the first two levels hampers the translator, because it limits him or her in the words that can be chosen, and the ones that are available inevitably color the translated work in a new way. Perhaps the most honest approach would be to discard the original work altogether and try to create a new one, new in plot, structure, and diction, that approaches the essence of the original. But this is not what we call translation.

Given these limitations, how do we appreciate a novel that we are reading in a language not its own? I felt I could only judge Le Grand Meaulnes for its basic ideas and structure, which are no more than its bones, and that I was missing the most vital, intangible element, its animating spark of life. The result was a rather frustrating experience, like trying to see a scene of magical beauty through a thick distorting glass.

To summarize the “bones”: A young man, the Meaulnes of the title, wanders by accident into a mysterious domain where costumed revelers, many of them children, are preparing for the son of the house to return with his bride. Their celebration is abruptly ended without the expected wedding, but not before Meaulnes has met and fallen in love with the daughter of the house. He returns to school without knowing where the domain is, and spends the next months and years trying to find it and his lost love; he also becomes involved in the affairs of the other unhappy couple, which tragically intersect with his own.

All of this is narrated not by Augustin Meaulnes himself, but by a younger boy who was enchanted by “le grand Meaulnes” when he entered the country school run by his father. As he tells the story sometimes in his own voice, sometimes by piecing together his friend’s journals, letters, or narratives, he stands as the reader’s surrogate, trying to comprehend events that he cannot fully participate in, and make a whole out of fragments of experience.

The translation I read was by Frank Davison; a more recent one by Robin Buss exists, but I didn’t have access to it in full. I found a couple of examples, however, which provided some instructive contrasts. The Davison translation struck me as rather stiff and formal; the Buss translation appears to dispense with some of the elaborate language but in the process becomes more pedestrian and everyday. Which of these is more true to the French original I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that they are two different attempts at solving an impossible problem.

The advent of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding as it did with my recovery from the ailment, marked the beginning of a new life. (Davison
The arrival of Augustin Meaulnes, coinciding with my being cured of the disability, was the start of a new life. (Buss translation)

* * *

Meaulnes was in haste to find someone to give him a lift, in haste to be off. He had now a deep-seated dread of being left alone in the domain and shown up for a fraud. (Davison translation)

He was in a hurry to leave. Deep inside him, he was worried that he might find himself alone on the estate and his deception be revealed. (Buss translation)

I confess to not finding either of these treatments very artistically satisfying. With more evocative language, I might have been more easily captivated by the story of Meaulnes and his strange, restless journeying; as it was, I often felt a bit baffled. It was hard for me to become interested in the romantic yearning of Meaulnes and Yvonne, who exchange fewer than a dozen sentences from the time they meet to the time they marry, and the complicated mystification which parts them in the last section seemed to me unnecessary, when with some logic and patience the problem could be solved without all the agony. It’s all very French, I suppose — which is why if it were in French it might make more sense.

It seemed to me as I read that a cinematic “translation” might actually be more appropriate. (At least two films have been made of the novel, that I know of, though I have not seen either of them.) The heart-stopping beauty of the landscape, the relationships forged more through glance and gesture than through speech, the dreamlike nature of the lost domain and of the quest to find it again, all seem good candidates for a visual treatment. If the author had been born a bit later, or had not been killed so young in the First World War, he might even have found an artistic affinity to film-making himself.

On the other hand, at times the emotional fervor of the author breaks through the clumsiness of the English words, and one can catch a glimpse of what has become lost in translation.

She was asleep, so still and silent that she seemed not to be breathing. He thought: that’s how birds must sleep. For some time he stood looking at her sleeping, childlike face, so perfectly tranquil that it seemed a pity it should ever be disturbed. 

 * * *

At each step, with this burden on my breast, I find it more difficult to breathe. Holding close the inert, heavy body, I bend over her head and take a deep breath, drawing into my mouth some strands of golden hair; dead hair that has a taste of earth. This taste of earth and of death, and this weight on my heart, is all that is left to me of the great adventure …

“But how can a man who has once strayed into heaven ever hope to make terms with the earth?” Meaulnes cries at one point. Le Grand Meaulnes is an attempt to express something almost inexpressible, to give us a picture of the deepest longings of the human heart. Even though translation may dim its full radiance, its scenes and images still resonate.

It has been suggested that The Great Gatsby owes something of its genesis to Le Grand Meaulnes, with its parallel, pitch-perfect title construction (the French could not be literally translated without sounding like “The Great Moan”) and the use of a passive narrator on the sidelines of a great love story. Perhaps this is an instance of what I mentioned at the beginning, a “translation” that takes some of the essence of a work but re-creates it anew for a new language, culture, and sensibility. There’s no direct evidence of this — no record of Fitzgerald having read or spoken of Alain-Fournier — but now that I’ve met Meaulnes, I’ll be very interested to take another look at Gatsby.

Classics Club List #39
An appreciation by David Mitchell

Classics Club Spin: Don Quixote, Part I

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part I (1605)

For the last Classics Club spin book, I drew Don Quixote, which I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time. I did read an abridged version in high school, but I remember absolutely nothing about it except the Quentin Blake drawing on the cover. (Does anyone else have an amazing memory for book covers, as opposed to their contents?) I felt I had to make an effort to appreciate what is often called the first and perhaps the greatest modern novel, and the acclaimed new translation by Edith Grossman seemed a good place to start.

Given the kind of December that I had, there was no way I was going to make it through the whole 900-page tome, so I decided to be kind to myself and do it in two parts. These were in fact published 10 years apart, in 1605 and 1615, so I feel quite justified in treating them as two separate books.

Part I, as probably every semi-literate person knows, starts off with the titular Don of La Mancha being driven mad by reading too many books of chivalry, and deciding he’s going to go off and be a knight errant himself. Capers ensue in which he attacks the innocent and frees the guilty, insisting that wineskins are giants and a barber’s bowl is a magic helmet, while his hapless squire, the peasant Sancho Panza, trails along in hopes of being made rich by his noble master. There’s a lot of bawdiness and slapstick, as well as much rhapsodizing on the charms of his lady love, Dulcinea (a wench from a nearby village who never appears in person).

This was all more or less what I expected, and contained some interesting revelations of how long the “post-truth” phenomenon has actually been around; near the end of the book Don Quixote makes a fierce argument that whatever he thinks must be true, because he likes it that way, and he’ll pound anybody to a pulp who says otherwise. Yup, sounds familiar.

What surprised me somewhat was that about two thirds of the way through the Quixotic quest narrative comes to a screeching halt while Cervantes interlayers in a whole lot of boring romance plots with utterly flat, unmemorable stock characters (the wronged wife, the rake who is forced to go straight, the Moorish maiden who wants to convert, the loyal, lowborn lover of a noble lady…) These include a forty-page “interpolated novel,” derived from some random manuscript found in a chest at the inn where the main characters are staying — in a meta-fictional touch, this may have been left by Cervantes himself.

There are also a bunch of characters encountered while Quixote the madman has decided to pretend to go mad in a deserted place, in emulation of one of his chivalric heroes (one of the funnier bits). These end up tagging along for quite a while, and then there are some others met along the way who have to tell their backstory for another thirty pages,  plus another group that turns out to be related to the second bunch… At the very end, when I thought we’d gotten back to the main story, there’s a goatherd-who-is-really-a-wronged-lover-in-disguise, who has to tell HIS tale of woe for a whole chapter. I admit to cheering when Don Quixote gave him a good thumping.

What the heck was Cervantes up to with all this? In terms of composition and structure, I can’t say that I would call this mess a great novel compared with Pride and Prejudice or The Scarlet Letter or even Ozma of Oz. I suppose he was still trying to figure out what a “modern novel” was or could be, and was just mixing in all kinds of narrative styles current at the time, without much rhyme or reason. (It’s not unlike a lot of Shakespeare plays mashed up together, actually.)

The result, for me, was that the narrative momentum was somewhat diffused and lost, leaving me dissatisfied that things were not tied together in a more conscious way. While the character of Don Quixote was brilliant in its comedic irony, and highly relevant, again, as a comment on our modern muddled thinking, these other threads failed to compel in the same way. I’m assuming this is largely what got abridged out of the edition I read earlier.

At any rate, I made it through, and Don Quixote has now returned to his village without having changed or learned anything whatsoever (another element one would find a failing in most novels today). I do wonder what will happen in book II, and whether during the intervening decade Cervantes will have figured out how to write a novel more like the ones I would call “great.” After a short break, I’ll look forward to returning to La Mancha and finding out.

Classics Club List #71


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


Classics Club Spin

It’s time for another Classics Spin!

What is the spin?

It’s easy. At your blog, before next Friday, November 17th, create a post to list your choice of any twenty books that remain “to be read” on your Classics Club list.

This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books by the end of the year (details to follow). Try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, re-reads, ancients — whatever you choose.)

On Friday, November 17th, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by December 31, 2017. We’ll check in here in January to see who made it the whole way and finished their spin book!

All right, here’s my list…what will I get? And are you participating in the spin?

  1. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – Penelope Lively
  2. Love – Elizabeth von Arnim
  3. A London Child of the 1870s – Molly Hughes
  4. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
  5. The Spire – William Golding
  6. The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
  9. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
  10. One Fine Day – Mollie Panter-Downes
  11. Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
  12. July’s People – Nadine Gordimer
  13. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  14. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  15. My Life and Hard Times – James Thurber
  16. The Seventh Raven – Peter Dickinson
  17. Dubliners – James Joyce
  18. Throwing Shadows – E.L. Konigsburg
  19. Martin Chuzzlewit – Charles Dickens
  20. Wise Children – Angela Carter

Classics Club: Excellent Women

Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952)

As I read Excellent Women, the best-known work by the once-neglected, now widely praised English novelist Barbara Pym, I was reminded of another acclaimed comic novel that I read not long ago: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. On the surface, Amis’s hard-drinking, buffoonish misogynist Jim Dixon may seem to have little in common with Pym’s un-effusive, church-going “excellent woman,” Mildred Lathbury. But the two books shadow and reflect each other in a fascinating way.

Jim is an exercise in how uncongenial one can make a main character, while still attempting to elicit our sympathy for him. An English professor who apparently despises English literature, he goes on epic benders when he’s supposed to be giving a lecture, leaves cigarette burns in the sheets when he’s a houseguest, and is unable to disentangle himself from a woman he doesn’t love or respect — she’s marginally better than no girlfriend at all, it seems, in his “woman-as-object” universe. Some readers find him so awful, he’s adorable; I just found him awful.

Mildred, meanwhile, is about as self-effacing as a character presented in the first person can be. Set in postwar London, the book opens with new neighbors moving in upstairs, and as Mildred becomes a witness to and sometimes participant in their disordered lives, so much more glamorous and seedy than her own, we find us asking ourselves what she really thinks about all this. Other characters in the novel are always eager to tell her what she should be feeling, seeming to find the sensibilities of an unmarried woman over a certain age to be public property; she quietly expresses annoyance at this, while baffling us with sideways expressions and half-uncoverings of her true self.

In both books, though, the opposite sex is a total mystery. The masculine Jim approaches this riddle with bluff and bravado, the feminine Mildred with puzzlement and a sort of understated obstinacy. And both stories left me with a sense of melancholy, a sadness that human beings must so often miss and misunderstand one another. This was in many ways the source of the comedy, as in a screwball plot where everyone is running in circles after each other, and yet there was an undercurrent of tragedy in spite of the guardedly optimistic endings. Can either Jim or Mildred ever find a satisfying relationship that gets beyond the surface differences which separate us? I’m not so sure.

Interestingly enough, the two authors had a friend in common — the poet Philip Larkin, who both provided the model for Amis’s antihero, and had a warm admiration for Ms. Pym, whom he called one of the most criminally underrated writers of our time. This connection seems most suitable, as she helped me to see poor old Jim in a different light, and maybe even forgive some of his excesses. I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her novels, continuing to ponder her subtle perspective on men, women, the gulf between us, and the fragile bridges that we try to build.


Classics Club: The Return of the Native

Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native (1874)

This was one of the first nineteenth-century classics I ever encountered in school — in my high school freshman class on British lit, along with Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (a rather odd assortment, now that I come to think of it). But my memory of it was dim — I remembered the lengthy descriptions of the heath, and the funny names like Eustacia and Diggory, but not much else. Definitely time for a reread.

As you are probably aware, Hardy is known for his plots which range from mildly pessimistic to incredibly tragic. On a scale of depressing-ness of 1 to 10, I’d give Native about a 7. Some of the main characters are still alive and functional at the end, and two of them even get to marry each other (though in a note Hardy says this was done against his will, due to circumstances of serial publication).

But none of these characters ever really change or learn anything. They’re like mechanical figures, set in motion by Hardy only to march inevitably over the edge of a precipice, while the reader watches helplessly as they do the very things they obviously shouldn’t. It’s a frustrating experience; though life is no doubt often like this, I usually look to literature to give me more hope for human agency and capacity for transformation, even if it’s only a glimpse at the end of a tragedy (as in Hamlet, for example). And yet, there’s a strange fascination in watching the story unfold, and marching with these people to their doom.

The background against which they operate — the ageless landscape of the south-western English counties to which Hardy gives the ancient name of Wessex — is in some ways more lively than they are. Barely touched by civilization, it embodies the natural cycle of birth and growth, death and rebirth that continues to bring forth life and regeneration in our decadent modern age. Old customs like autumn bonfires, a mummer’s play, and singing to a new-married couple, and less benign superstitions like the creation of a wax figure, show how human beings over the years have evolved their own responses to these cycles of nature. All of this is depicted in thoroughly observed, lovingly described detail, so that the heath becomes almost a character in itself.

The conflict in the novel arises between characters who appreciate and value this cyclical existence, and those who rebel against it and want something more: chiefly Eustacia Vye, the proud, beautiful woman who was raised in a nearby watering place and finds the heath an unutterable bore. Given the limitations of being female in her place and time, though, the only way to escape seems to be through attaching herself to a man, vivifying herself with the emotion she calls “passionate love.”

This so-called love is merely a form of self-love; any slight impulse of care or concern for the men she brings under her spell is far overpowered by her own wish to get away to a brighter, more artificial life. When she marries the “native,” a local man who has returned from the dazzling city of Paris, she completely ignores his express wish to re-integrate himself into the rhythms of the heath, and only sees him as her ticket out of there — a willful self-delusion that leads to the inevitable disaster.

It’s not amiss for one of the other characters to call Eustacia a witch, for though she doesn’t technically practice witchcraft, her self-centered use of feminine power is a form of black magic. She has not consciously given into the lust for evil power over others, however, only failed to realize that unless she herself quells her pride and reaches out beyond her narrow self, she will be imprisoned in that self forever. And so she is herself a victim of this magic, rather than truly its agent. This is aptly symbolized when the other woman maliciously creates and destroys a wax figure representing Eustacia, an act that accompanies and corresponds to her downfall. The only way out for Eustacia is not a flight to Paris, but dissolution into death, and that’s what she receives.

And so the heath rolls on its ancient way, after these puny human creatures have played out their small drama, leaving us to ponder on questions of power and love, fate and freedom. Can we truly say that we would be able to march differently, once set in motion?

Classics Club List #74

My Heritage Press edition features beautiful woodcuts by Agnes Miller Parker, some of which are shown above. For the source and more images click here.


Classics Club: The Fledgling

Jane Langton, The Fledgling (1980)

Although I read and enjoyed the first three books in Jane Langton’s “Hall Family Chronicles” as a child, I never ventured further for some reason. So when I saw book four, The Fledgling, on the Phoenix Award list, I wanted to finally catch up with it.

Like the first three books, this is a gently whimsical fantasy inspired by the setting of Concord, Massachusetts, and by its most famous inhabitants, the transcendentalist writers of the 19th century and their associates. Eleanor and Edward Hall, whose adventures occupied the first books, are still here, but the main protagonist now is Georgie, their young step-cousin.

Georgie is disturbing her family with her desperate wish to fly, which causes her to take unwise leaps and sometimes to bruise herself on the stairs. As she negotiates the difficult threshold between reality and imagination, childhood and growing up, Georgie finds a magnificent guide in the “Goose Prince,” a Canada goose who is visiting Walden Pond as his flock flies south for the winter. This noble bird shows Georgie how to truly fly, and in the process gives her a most precious gift, one that will survive her transition into the seemingly ordinary, adult world.

Thoreau is obviously the main guiding genius here, with the Walden location and references to his rapport with the natural world. (Interestingly enough, the main passage quoted from his work is about the joys of hunting — a pursuit that is not looked on very favorably by the book’s characters!) The lyrical passages about Georgie’s night flights will have young readers (and even some older ones) longing for a Goose Prince of their own. Providing comic relief are the villains who also appeared in the first books, Mr. Preek and Miss Prawn, who add a dose of silliness to the more serious themes.

I found it a bit of an unwieldy mix of philosophy and fable and satire, and sometimes the transitions were jarring, but to me it was worth reading for some passages of beautiful writing that captured how from a child’s point of view the world is full of wonder and mystery:

“It was because people had thick smooth outsides like the walls of houses. When you walked past houses in the street, you couldn’t see the people inside. And it was like Uncle Freddy’s wristwatch. Uncle Freddy had opened it up for Georgie, to show her how it worked. The inside was full of tiny springs and little wheels going back and forth, back and forth. Secretly. Quietly. There inside the watch where nobody could see. Like Eleanor. Just look at Eleanor! Eleanor had her book open on the table, and her hair was orange and her shirt was blue and she was glancing up at Georgie out of the corner of her eye. Eleanor was thinking something secret too, and Georgie didn’t know what it was. Inside Eleanor’s head the little springs and wheels were going back and forth and back and forth. Quietly. Secretly. Inside where nobody could see.”

I loved entering into Georgie’s perspective on such simple yet profound questions — a perspective that we can awaken in ourselves at any age if we have the courage to look at things afresh.

The Fledgling is not a perfect book, but it is an unusually thoughtful and imaginative one — with some wonderful images and language that certain young readers might just take to their hearts, as they are finding their own wings to fly.

Classics Club List #7
Phoenix Award Honor Book 2000


Classics Club Year Three

It’s been three years since I joined The Classics Club, and I’m on track for meeting my goal of reading 50 books in 5 years! Here are the twelve books I’ve read in the past year.

Ethan Frome
Lucky Jim
Three Men in a Boat
A Fugue in Time
Long Day’s Journey into Night; Ah, Wilderness!; A Moon for the Misbegotten
Something Wicked This Way Comes
The Makioka Sisters
Diary of A Provincial Lady
Troy Chimneys
My Cousin Rachel
Man’s Search for Meaning

It’s always hard to pick favorites, but I’d say Scaramouche was the most entertaining, My Cousin Rachel the most mesmerizing,  Three Men in a Boat the funniest, Something Wicked This Way Comes the weirdest, Troy Chimneys the most enigmatic, Ethan Frome the most depressing, Long Day’s Journey into Night the saddest, The Makioka Sisters the best window into another culture, and Man’s Search for Meaning the most thought-provoking and inspirational. I was not so fond of Lucky Jim, A Fugue in Time, or Diary of A Provincial Lady, but I’m still glad to have read them.

What’s next? As I mentioned in my last review, I’ve added some categories to my list and given myself some more “breathing room.” Helen’s recent review of The Spire has gotten me interested in trying William Golding again; I have Excellent Women and The Return of the Native on my Mount TBR list, among others; and I’d really like to do some more rereads from school, such as Herland (also brought back to my mind recently by Brian).

What’s on your list? Anything on mine you think I should check out in the coming year?

Classics Club: Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)

This year, I decided to add some categories to my Classics Club list. Though I’m still aiming to read 50 books in 5 years, there are now 80 books on my list from which I can pick and choose. This helps me feel a little less constrained.

One of the categories I added was “Rereads from school,” i.e. books that I first read as a school assignment, but now want to encounter again at a more mature age. Many of these are from a wonderful double-period honors class I took as a senior in high school called “Humanities Block,” which covered many of the canonical works of philosophy, drama, poetry, and fiction, from the ancient Greeks to the twentieth century.

This had the benefit of introducing me to many great books at a young age, which I would certainly not have picked up on my own, being more drawn to sword-and-sorcery fantasy at the time. On the other hand, it had the drawback of giving me the impression that I had actually read these books, when at age 17 I surely picked up only a fraction of their deep and complex significance. I’ve revisited some over the years, but there others that I feel I really need to give another go.

Our very first book for the class was Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, the classic work by a concentration camp survivor who founded the “third Viennese school of psychotherapy,” which he called Logotherapy. You have very likely encountered it as well, as it’s one of the most-read, most-assigned, and most-influential books of all time — and it is well worth reading. In the face of so many forces that seek to degrade and dehumanize us, it’s an important chronicle of one who has truly been through the fire and come out not with despair, but with renewed faith in humanity and the will to heal what is broken in our world.

Frankl was convinced that the fundamental human drive was not for pleasure, nor for power, but for meaning; and his internment in four camps served only to strengthen this belief. Shortly after his release, he published a brief account of some of his experiences and of his resulting observations about the human soul and spirit, which formed the basis for his later therapeutic work. To this was later added a more thorough description of the principles and practices of Logotherapy, and even later a short “postscript” based on a lecture further summarizing Frankl’s world view. The e-book edition I read also adds a foreword by Rabbi Harold Kushner and an afterword by William Winslade that includes a biographical sketch of the author.

This collage of contents is valuable for the way it expands and elaborates on Frankl’s life and work, but the heart of the book remains the original seed-text, which in German was called “Say Yes to Life in Spite of Everything.” Adding scientific precision to a deep sense of compassion, Frankl vividly describes scenes exemplifying the extreme conditions of camp life, and draws from them observations of how paradoxically the inner core of the human being has the possibility to shine forth in such dark circumstances. That this happens only in a few cases did not matter to him; the radiance of what he observed was so powerful that its reality outweighed all the forces that were trying to hamper and obscure it.

Other than its basic premise, which has always rung true to me, I had almost completely forgotten the specific contents of the book in the 30 years since I last read it. I would not name it as a book that deeply affected me, and yet as I read it for the second time I had a strange, recurrent sense of familiarity. I had met ideas similar to Frankl’s in many places and many ways, and also confirmed them with my own life experience, paltry as it seems in comparison with his. Meeting them again was like coming home to a place I had never really left, as perhaps it must always seem when we find eternal truths in the ever-changing circumstances of life.

I’m glad I read it again, and that I can mull it over more consciously in the years to come. I’ll look forward to doing the same with more of my teenage reading.


The 1951 Club: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

The 1951 Club is the latest in a series of events put together by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which encourages us to read books published in a particular year. Please visit Simon’s blog for links to other 1951 books — this builds up a wonderful picture of a particular moment in time, through the combination of famous and obscure choices.

My Cousin Rachel is a masterfully ambiguous novel of psychological suspense, one that begins with the question “Was Rachel innocent or guilty?” It ends with the same question, but adds to it the question of the narrator’s own guilt and complicity in the final tragedy. Much more than a simple “who done it” in the external sense, this is a story that delves into the secrets of the human heart and that may make us think about the complex sources of our own motivations and actions.

That narrator is Philip Astley, who has been raised by his much older cousin Ambrose on their family estate in 19th century Cornwall. When the seemingly contented bachelor Ambrose ventures abroad and there marries another cousin, the half-Italian widow Rachel, Philip immediately is consumed with jealousy; later, upon receiving some cryptic notes from Ambrose, he becomes suspicious. He journeys to Florence but finds that Ambrose has suddenly died and his widow vanished.

Philip is determined to seek revenge upon Rachel, but before he can do so, she arrives in Cornwall and turns out to be nothing like the demon of his imaginings. In fact, he is soon completely entranced by her himself. As he descends further into passion, Rachel becomes even more of an enigma. What are her true intentions and feelings? Who is she?

Rachel may indeed be a manipulative and greedy woman; but what the first-person narration masks, and the reader slowly comes to realize, is that Philip may be more than a match for her. Having grown up without a mother, and even without a nurse — Ambrose sent the last one packing when Philip was three years old — and apparently never having recognized sexual love or desire, he has remained stunted in his own emotional life. (As a sign of this, he is incredibly callous and insensitive toward the neighbor girl who obviously is in love with him.) When Rachel bursts upon Philip with all her feminine wiles he is utterly unable to cope with them in a mature way, and the worst kind of unrecognized feminine qualities rise up within him: jealousy, possessiveness, pettiness, impulsiveness, and finally violence.

The result is to shatter them both, and leave Rachel a question forever, an image seen through Philip’s fractured mind. Who is the villain of this piece? Perhaps both, or neither. The Gothic shadows are never dispelled.

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The 1951 Club