A Regency puzzle: Troy Chimneys

Margaret Kennedy, Troy Chimneys (1952)

I’ve just finished Troy Chimneys, and already I want to read it again. This is partly to try to puzzle out the chronology, which is confused by a complicated multi-layer structure of diaries and letters bandied back and forth between various generations of different families — but it’s also because the story at the heart of this maze was worth the effort to dig through to it, a touching portrait of one man’s moral struggles.

To add a further complication, this man, Miles Lufton, born to an English clergyman’s family in 1782, thinks of himself as two men: Miles, the part of himself that would be happy to live in Wiltshire and “listen to the nightingale,” and Pronto, the social-climbing MP whose only goal in life is to enrich himself. The title refers to a house that Miles buys with Pronto’s gains with the idea that it can become a retreat for his better self, but this does not turn out as he had expected or hoped, as with so much else in his life. As he writes his memoirs he reflects on how the split in his being arose and how it may be bridged — perhaps by the evolution of a “third man,” one who can witness and transcend the limitations of both Miles and Pronto.

Miles’s life journey is framed by two love stories, one that takes place in his ignorant youth and one that arises as he approaches middle age. Here Kennedy is working with much the same material that occupied Georgette Heyer in her Regency romances, but gives it a more melancholy, reflective spin than those lighthearted concoctions do. Miles is always failing himself and others, and yet I don’t see him as a failure. His struggles resonate with our own, his quest for self-integration is both highly modern and one of the most ancient, archetypal human experiences. The ending is not a conventionally happy one, and yet it is somehow not depressing. By gaining self-knowledge, Miles has also gained a measure of freedom, and so his suffering is not felt to be in vain.

Kennedy’s evocation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (with some Victorian interludes) is lightly and expertly done. She crafts her language carefully to locate us in the period without sounding archaic. She has no need to throw about Regency slang or refer to details of fashion or etiquette; her characters simply exist in the time that belongs to them, without undue fuss and bother. To appreciate how she does this is yet another reason for rereading.

These are just a few of the thoughts that arose as I read this complex, playful, insightful and challenging novel. I don’t want to give away too many details, because part of the fun of reading is to discover them for yourself. If you venture to do so, be sure to plough through the framing letters at the beginning, which can be rather tough going, and get into Miles’s first Journal. I hope you will be quickly drawn into his story, as I was, and not want to leave.

Back to the Classics – Romance Classic
Classics Club list #53

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A Dance with Tradition: The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1943)

makiokasistersI’m not very well-versed in world literature, and when I do read works in translation they tend to be from Europe. But I really want to do something about that, and as I looked for great novels from other continents to broaden my horizons, The Makioka Sisters kept coming up. As I started reading, it struck me as a strange mixture of familiar and foreign; the family of sisters, the marriage-centered plot, the importance placed on family and social class, all invited comparison to the novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope. But though the story is set in the 1930s, not the 1800s, these Japanese sisters are even more heavily bound by centuries of tradition than Austen’s heroines, who at least are allowed to marry for love.

The central dilemma is simply stated: of the four sisters, the older two are married, the youngest is champing at the bit, but the third sister has been unable to find a husband, and custom dictates that she must marry before her younger sister does. The proud but no longer prosperous Makiokas started out by rejecting candidates as unsuitable, but as Takiko ages she undergoes the humiliation of being the one rejected, and her next-oldest and closest sister, Sachiko, suffers with her. Takiko doesn’t protest the system of arranged marriage (unlike the youngest, Taeko, who is starting to cause scandal and unrest with her unconventional behavior), but stoically goes through the rituals of presentation and withdrawal, approach and retreat, as the years pass.

In spite of the superficial similarities there’s not a trace of Austen’s wit and humor here, or of Trollope’s biting satire, unless I’m missing something that was lost in translation. Instead, we have a narrative painstakingly constructed of small domestic details and everyday routines, with the occasional lyrical passage that evokes the Japanese sense of beauty: the annual cherry blossom pilgrimage, a firefly hunt in the country, a set of poems written to an absent sister. There are some major upheavals, including a devastating flood that really did hit Osaka, but mostly there are just small hopes and disappointments, a round of ordinary concerns that some might find dull, others true-to-life. (It’s telling that we are able almost to forget the impending war, as the characters themselves seem to do, seldom referring to it except in brief comments about “the China problem.”)

The iron-clad tradition of the order of marriage is only one of the customs that define the sisters and their world. There are also lucky days and unlucky years that must be taken into account, funeral observances, subtle variations of dress, makeup and hairstyle, the finer points of arts like calligraphy and dance, and much more. To a western mindset, it feels extremely confining, but is also fascinating in its elaborate attention to rules and rituals. In my ignorance before starting the novel I had assumed the author was a woman — but Tanizaki’s gender doesn’t prevent him from creating a highly convincing and finely observed picture of a very feminine world. By the end, I felt as though I had truly experienced something of what it meant to be a Japanese woman in that time and place.

The contrast between traditional Osaka, where the Makiokas have their roots, and the brash new urban center of Tokyo, where the elder branch of the family has been obliged to relocate, is a major preoccupation for the Japanese that is somewhat lost on the outsider; the translator has to tell us when Osaka dialect is being used, for example, while a native reader would be able to simply experience the difference. One can’t help regretting the inability to appreciate such facets of the original language, but also appreciating how much Tanizaki in translation is able to convey the essence of Japan and its people.

Classics Club List #32
Japanese Literature Challenge
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation

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The Pleasure of the Journey: Three Men in a Boat

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (1889)

Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced courtesy of the artist
Unpublished cover design by Emma Block, reproduced by permission of the artist

This summer, I finally read the comic classic Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. As I had found references to its characters and incidents in several other books (notably To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis), there was much that was familiar to me, and I almost had a feeling of deja vu as I recognized them. The Hampton Court maze! The pineapple tin! The tow-ropes! Montmorency! They seemed like old friends, even as I was encountering them for the first time.

Yet there were still some surprises, chief among which was the fact that Jerome doesn’t always write in the same humorous vein. There are some lyrical and sentimental passages, which I was not sure whether to take as parody or as serious relief, so to speak, from the hilarity of other sections.

Indeed, the book as a whole was more digressive and varied than I had expected. The main narrative thread — the author and his two friends (to say nothing of the dog) are taking a restorative trip down the Thames — often serves merely as an excuse for Jerome to muse about matters large and small: earlier trips on the river, the peculiarities of one’s friends, canine habits, etc. I suspect that if the passages that relate to the actual “present-day” journey of the three-men-in-a-boat were extracted, they would occupy a very slim volume on their own.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s precisely Jerome’s free-associating, wide-ranging comic/lyric/philosophic ramblings that provide the pleasure of this reading experience. If you’re impatient to get to the goal, you’ve missed the point of the journey.

I’m counting this for the Adventure category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. And if you think boating on the Thames is not adventurous enough, just read the part about the pineapple tin.

Back to the Classics Challenge: Adventure Classic
Classics Club List #42

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Reading New England: Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

EthanFromeAfter reading one of the funniest books ever (according to multiple top ten lists, anyway), I moved on to what has to be one of the most depressing books of all time: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I am SO glad that I was not made to read it in high school, because that probably would have put me off reading Wharton for the rest of my life. In notes referenced in my Modern Library edition, she avows that her purpose is to counter the rosy picture of old-fashioned New England put about by lightweights like Sarah Orne Jewett, and show the grim reality of isolated farms, suffocating snowfalls, and grinding poverty.

It’s a story of excruciating hopelessness, which we know from the start is going to end in disaster, due to a framing device in which our narrator, an outsider to the town of Starkfield, Massachusetts, meets the crippled Ethan Frome twenty-five years after his “smash-up.” Curious about Ethan’s history, he pieces it together and presents it as a third-person narrative before coming back to the present day for a heartrending epilogue. We never learn exactly how he accessed all the intimate details of Frome’s life, or how from being an engineer he suddenly morphed into a skilled novelist, but never mind that; the pull of the tragic story quickly draws us in.

What is the purpose of this grim tale, other than to de-romanticize our notions of rural New England? It illuminates the inner life of a man who, though in regular interaction with people through his work, has no one with whom to communicate his inmost essence, and thus lives in terrible loneliness. With New England moral logic, as soon as he finds a true mate — forbidden, because he is already married to a pathological tyrant — they both have to be put to death, figuratively if not literally.

Yet through the magic of storytelling, we readers now possess the secrets of Ethan’s soul, his passion, his hopes, his despair, his moral choices, and his ultimate, fatal mistake. What are we to do with this knowledge? Does it make us more likely to rage against or calmly bear our own fates? How would we act when trapped in an impossible situation?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think that perhaps Wharton meant with Ethan Frome to make us ask them. Unlike Ethan’s, our stories are not over, and we do have power to change, if not our outer circumstances, the inner attitudes and intentions with which we meet them. Gratitude for even the smallest acts of self-determination is one lesson we can take away from this bleak tale, and perhaps Ethan’s suffering will not then be in vain.

Classics Club List #25
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic by a Woman Author
Reading New England: Massachusetts

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Put on a Funny Face: Lucky Jim

LuckyJim

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954)

LuckyJimLucky Jim came up recently as my Classics Club Spin book, and I was glad, because it’s a book I’ve tried to read a few times without success. Still, I was determined to find out why Amis’s debut novel has been hailed as one of the funniest books of all time (it regularly makes top ten lists, such as this one, and this) and hoped that the public challenge would motivate me to make it through.

The experiment was a success, for in hopes of meeting the August deadline I checked the book out and started right away, and a few days later I was finished. It turned out that once I became thoroughly involved in the adventures of hapless history professor James Dixon, I had to keep reading in order to find out what happened to him, and whether he did indeed turn out to be “lucky” in the end.

Was it a funny book, though? There were some screwball-comedy moments, such as when Jim inadvertently burns his bedsheets while staying at his senior professor’s house, and tries to cover up the damage by cutting off the soot marks. He then spends the rest of the book trying to avoid the professor’s shrewish wife, which gives rise to some amusingly Wodehousian situations. The loutish son of this same professor also provides both comedy and conflict, as Jim becomes interested in the girl he’s stringing along and who is clearly much too good for him. This pretentious family drags Jim into their “artsy” activities, forcing him to read French plays aloud and sing part-songs — he opens and closes his mouth and hopes that nobody will notice, which succeeds until his fellow tenor is diverted to another part. And there’s a famous scene in which Jim has to give a dreaded speech on the topic of “Merrie England” and ends up sabotaging his own career with drunken caricatures of his university superiors. . .

So I did chuckle quite a bit, but the comedy had a strong undercurrent of misery underneath. Jim is trapped in a horrible job that he hates but is terrified of losing, he’s stuck in a relationship with a woman he doesn’t love but can’t leave, and he lacks the will to do anything about either. His strange habit of making grotesque faces to which he gives special names indicates an almost pathological self-alienation. That we somehow find him likeable rather than merely pathetic is in large part due to the fact that most of the other characters are even more unpleasant. There’s nobody else to relate to, and Jim does at least have some human qualities.

“Woman trouble” is supposed to be one of the more relatable comic themes in the novel, and that might work for readers to whom women remain a category of creatures primarily defined by their attractiveness to men, for they’re not given much purpose or identity otherwise. This may be meant as a comment on Jim’s limited understanding and experience, but it still gave an off-taste to the humor for me. There’s a bitter, mean quality to Amis’s treatment of women; even the most sympathetic among them just happens to be “pretty” and “nice” and thus has the good fortune to be desired by Jim. Oh, hooray.

However, I’m aware that many would find such concerns irrelevant to this kind of novel. It’s a satire, and not a bright and sparkling one — bitterness and meanness come with the territory. I am glad that I finally read it, though I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed it, and I wouldn’t put it on my personal top ten list of funny books. Brilliantly, savagely humorous it was, but not in a way that left me with a smile on my face.

Classics Club List #41

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Classics Club: Year Two

It’s been two years since I joined The Classics Club, so here is an update on my progress. I’ve kept up quite well so far, with nineteen books checked off my list of fifty+. Here’s what I read and posted about in the last twelve months, all very interesting and worthwhile reads:

 

My favorites? Mrs Dalloway and Anna Karenina. These are the two I’m most likely to reread in the future. And I hope to see a production of The Matchmaker someday!

Things have slowed down now, because I’m focusing more on my own Reading New England challenge. I may find some books that count for both, but I’m not going to strain myself. I’m participating in the current “spin” challenge to try to get in at least one book from my list this summer.

In general, after a couple of years the list I originally made seems less and less appealing to me. I can (and do) keep tweaking it, but my heart is not so much in it. I’m thinking that if I just read an average of ten classics per year I’ll reach the same goal anyway, and be more free to take up what catches my eye at the moment rather than thinking “I must cross something off my list.”

How do you feel about long-term reading lists? Do they inspire or depress you?

Classics Club Spin

classicsclub

I’m getting rather behind on my Classics Club list, so I hope this little challenge will get me going again. The idea is to choose 20 books remaining on your list, and when the “spin” number is announced, read that book by August. I’ve selected an assortment from all the categories of my list, including some that I find quite intimidating (Midnight’s Children, Don Quixote, Love in the Time of Cholera), and will trust to luck to give me the perfect one that I might not have chosen for myself!

UPDATE: And the spin number is 15, so I’ll be reading Lucky Jim. A campus novel for summer reading sounds perfect.

  1. The Fledgling – Jane Langton

    DonQuixote
    Will this be my summer reading?
  2. White Peak Farm – Berlie Doherty
  3. Dubliners – James Joyce
  4. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe – Penelope Lively
  5. A Sentimental Journey – Laurence Sterne
  6. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
  7. Martin Chuzzlewit – Charles Dickens
  8. Love – Elizabeth von Arnim
  9. The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki
  10. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
  11. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  12. July’s People – Nadine Gordimer
  13. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
  14. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
  15. Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis
  16. Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome
  17. Excellent Women – Barbara Pym
  18. Troy Chimneys – Margaret Kennedy
  19. The Rise of Silas Lapham – William Dean Howells
  20. Looking Backward – Edward Bellamy
  21. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Have you read any of these? Any on your list?

 

Reading New England: Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House

Eric Hodgins, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1946)

MrBlandingsThe tale of Mr. Blandings is briefly told: A successful New York advertising executive is suddenly seized with the wish for a country retreat for his family. He finds an old house he loves on a hill in Connecticut, but after paying far too much for it he learns it’s not worth fixing and that he’d better tear it down and build a new one. Costly misadventures with contractors, builders, bankers, lawyers, and other rapacious members of the home ownership business ensue, after which Mr. Blandings at last has the house of his dreams — and some new nightmares.

If you’ve suffered through much the same trials as Mr. B. — and even after 70 years, I don’t think they have changed that much — you may find them hilarious in retrospect, or unbearably painful. Drunken workers, missing equipment orders, mysterious “extras” on the contractor’s bill, expensive changes made in response to casual remarks by one’s unwitting wife…there’s not much on the “plus” side to balance out such disasters, so you’d better laugh if you don’t want to finish the book in tears.

from the film - found here
Construction scene from the film – found here

The main theme throughout is how much more everything costs than expected — about five times as much. In today’s money, a house that should have cost maybe $200,000 ends up at almost a million. This may seem incredible, but it’s exactly what happened to the book’s author, who nearly went bankrupt building his own “dream house” in New Milford, Connecticut, and had to sell it at a loss just two years later. That may be why the book’s humor is somewhat weighed down by an aura of bitterness.

I confess to finding this constant harping on finances to be somewhat annoying, coming from a very wealthy person who often as not had only his own extravagance to blame for his problems. I liked the book better when Hodgins got away from the money theme, as when Mrs B. tries to describe the paint colors she wants to the contractors (“If you’ll send one of your workmen to the A&P for a pound of their best butter and match that exactly, you can’t go wrong”) or when Mr. B. is assaulted by Republican canvassers while trapped in an unfinished bathroom. Such incidents are easier to relate to for those of us who don’t have millions to throw away on our dreams.

In a further ironic twist, after selling the movie rights for $200,000 (over $2 million today), Hodgins tried to buy his house back, but didn’t succeed. The house still stands, and the current owners are quite proud of its heritage, even preserving the butter-yellow dining room. The film, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, became a classic and according to many is better than the book; the house built in California for the movie set is also still there, used as the headquarters for the Malibu State Park. In a further metafictional twist, replicas were built around the country as a promotional gimmick — here’s one in Portland, Oregon. And so the dream lives on…

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Reading New England Challenge: Fiction
Back to the Classics Challenge: 20th Century Classic
Classics Club List #46

Reading New England: A Separate Peace

John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)

SeparatePeaceLike many other adolescents, I was assigned A Separate Peace to read when I was in my early teens. Adults seem to think that a novel about teenagers in a school must necessarily be good for teenagers to read in school. For me, however, the plan backfired — I retained almost no impression of the book other than that I found reading it an unpleasant experience, and certainly was left with no lasting sense of lessons learned. I might never have picked it up again, except that I knew it had a New Hampshire setting (based on Phillips Exeter Academy) and was curious to revisit it as part of my Reading New England Challenge.

I’m glad I did, as I found subtlety and depth that completely passed me by thirty years ago. In my own defense, I do think that a certain degree of maturity and life experience are helpful for appreciating this story of boys in their last precarious year of peace before they’re sucked into the maw of World War II. Some readers may have that maturity at thirteen, but I did not. I couldn’t relate to Gene or Phineas or their convoluted relationship or their conflicted feelings over the war. It was all too remote from my own experience, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t bridge that gap.

This time, though I didn’t find either Gene or Phineas very congenial company — the latter in particular annoyed me terribly, at least at first — I could sympathize more with their plight and see how it reflects basic human struggles. We all hurt one another in ways large and small; a tiny misunderstanding can be as devastating in our personal lives as a global war. I could also appreciate the elegaic beauty of the writing, and appreciate the perspective it gave me on both a particular time in history and a special place.

Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia
Phillips Exeter Academy, original of the Devon School. Source: Wikimedia

It’s notable that we gain almost no insight into the family lives or backgrounds of the boys; it’s as if they have sprung into being only for these few years that they attended the Devon School. This may be meant as symptomatic of the almost pathological dissociation caused by the impending war, but for me it still gave the reading experience a curiously remote quality. I do wonder what kind of adolescent will find something to connect or relate to in this book; to me it seems much more a book for adults, who have a certain amount of distance from the age portrayed already.

I’m counting this book for the Banned or Censored category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it has been challenged in several different school districts, mostly for strong language, but once as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” I find this baffling — did the challengers read the same book I did? I noticed almost no swear words (the letter F appears once with some dashes after it) and zero sex. In fact, there is a downright monastic lack of sex considering this is a book about seventeen-year-old males. Some readers have detected homoerotic undercurrents to the text but the author insists he did not put them there, and I agree that they are of the sort one could read into almost anything.

Be that as it may, there are many reasons to read A Separate Peace: for its language, its history, its insights, its achingly sad story of youth passing too soon. If, like me, you’ve read it once and rejected it as not for you, I hope you might also give it another chance.

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Reading New England Challenge: New Hampshire
Back to the Classics Challenge: Banned or Challenged Classic
Classics Club List #20

Living in the Mystery: The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse

Jack Zipes, editor/translator, The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse (1995)

HesseFTWhile Witch Week was going on, I was reading a collection of Hermann Hesse’s short fiction that in some way references the fairy tale tradition (doing double duty for German Literature Month). I loved The Glass Bead Game when I read it years ago, and remembered it as having a fairy-tale quality in its powerful language and haunting images, so I was interested to see what Hesse would do with the shorter form.

I found that translator/editor Jack Zipes had gathered many different sorts of tales, originally published between 1904 and 1918: early Gothic-style romances like “The Dwarf,” pieces that mimic traditional folklore like “The Three Linden Trees,” several surreal dream narratives, anti-war satires like “If the War Continues,” and symbolic quest stories like “Iris.” Few are retellings or variants of traditional tales, but they share the heightened, concentrated language and rich array of symbols that come to us from our fairy-tale heritage. As well as drawing on the past, they point toward the future: several of them struck me as reminiscent of science-fiction themes and ideas, and I wondered if Hesse had some influence on authors in that nascent genre.

There are wonderful flights of the imagination here: A poet whose poems have no words and cannot be written down; a mysterious stranger who comes to a city and grants everyone one wish, with surprising results; an isolated forest dweller who quests toward the mysterious world “outside.” Most of the stories were written under the shadow of the Great War, and in manifold ways they cry out for human beings to fight the forces of oppression and mechanization by cultivating the living forces within. Some are more polished, others more like sketches or preliminary drafts for more substantial works, but all offer a fascinating window into the soul of an artist striving to articulate his deepest feelings and thoughts in a turbulent time.

In the last story of the collection, “Iris,” I found a statement that could easily apply to the purpose and meaning of these very stories:

All children, as long as they still live in the mystery, are continuously occupied in their souls with the only thing that is important, which is themselves and their enigmatic relationship to the world around them. Seekers and wise people return to these preoccupations as they mature. Most people, however, forget and leave forever this inner world of the truly significant very early in their lives. Like lost souls they wander about for their entire lives in the multicolored maze of worries, wishes, and goals, none of which dwells in their innermost being and none of which leads them to their innermost core and home.

Hesse’s fairy tales are meant to remind us of what dwells in our innermost being and to guide us home. Close to 100 years after their original publication, it’s a message we still urgently need to listen to, and I’m glad this collection is here to help us.

Classics Club List #35
Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic in Translation

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