Dog-Eared Pages

My favorite books, ideas, and a few plugs for whatever book I'm currently working on...


From the Vaults of the Imagination: The Forgotten Short Stories of Clark Ashton Smith

The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (Penguin Classics) Paperback March 25, 2014 - Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith is a name that exists at the periphery of science fiction and fantasy lore, a name often evoked but rarely read. He is sometimes dismissed as an imitator of Lovecraft; at other times, as a writer whose exotic, hot-house prose often carried him away from his subjects. Yet the titles of his numerous short stories are too tempting to leave to second-hand wisdom: works like “The City of the Singing Flame,” “The Dark Eidolon,” and “Ubbo-Sathla” remind me of long-lost AD&D campaigns and hidden, forgotten evils buried in the appendix of the Fiend Folio. There’s some truth to this, as without Clark’s stories, so much of the modern fantasy mythos would cease to exist. Along with Lovecraft and Tolkein, Smith’s stories were mined for their outlandish visions of Atlantean worlds and unspeakable terrors. What others left behind was Smith’s unique language—he is unparalleled as a crafter of prose in fantasy writing—and his ability to create tension and twist endings. Smith excelled at the short story, and a 10-page tale from Smith often contains more beauty, wonder, and mystery than many a thousand-page tome making lavish promises on its book jacket.


Smith emerged in the golden age of fantasy writing in America, at the same time as Lovecraft and many of the long-forgotten magazines devoted to weird and strange tales. However, he worked largely in isolation in California, ignored by the literary establishment and often rejected from the very magazines he read for inspiration and fellowship. Lovecraft, among others, recognized his talent and did whatever he could to promote his works (it helped that Smith often wrote stories in the Cthulu mythos—an early example of fan fiction). Yet Smith’s weakness (or strength, depending on your inclination) was his similarity to his closest literary precursor: Edgar Allen Poe. Like Poe, Smith thought himself primarily a poet, and his prose is often drenched in fantastic imagery and arcane—yet sensuously beautiful—wording. A typical example from his Gothic fantasy story, “The Dark Eidolon” illustrates Smith’s trademark prose:


In the wide intervals between the tables, the familiars of Namirrha and his other servants went to and fro incessantly, as if a phantasmagoria of ill dreams were embodied before the emperor. Kingly cadavers in robes of time-rotten brocade, with worms seething in their eye-pits, poured a blood-like wine into cups of the opalescent horn of unicorns. Lamias, trident-tailed, and four-breasted chimeras, came in with fuming platters lifted high by their brazen claws. Dog-headed devils, tongued with lolling flames, ran forward to offer themselves as ushers for the company...


To be fair, this is Smith in his headiest, hell-for-leather mode, which he employed in his most exotic tales of fantasy. It frankly put some editors off, and his stories were often rejected for being too slow and not having the right “punch” for their semi-literate audience. Like many fantasy writers today, Smith ended up self-publishing some of his stories, as he was only willing to compromise so much (though he did trim and re-write many of his tales, with the intention of restoring the originals in due time). Yet even in his most rhapsodic writing, his ability to play with the sounds of English and twist them into pure sound is astonishing. Like the Middle English of the Pearl poet or even Chaucer himself, Smith loves the fragrance of words and the pungent play of alliteration and assonance. Look, for example, at this dazzling sentence “Kingly cadavers in robes of time-rotten brocade, with worms seething in their eye-pits, poured a blood-like wine into cups of the opalescent horn of unicorns.” While it paints a wonderful (gruesome) picture, it is less about sense than sound, with the “k” sound of “kingly cadavers...brocade,” melting into the more soothing “s” sound of “opalescent...unicorns” It’s a painting in prose, resembling the shimmering medieval coloring of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, or the decadent orchestration of Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy (1908).


However, Smith was more than colorful writing and arcane turns of phrase; his storytelling ability is unparalleled among fantasy writers, even at times rivaling Tolkein in its ability to create character and wonder in a few short pages. Many of his stories have been either consciously or unconsciously borrowed by more famous writers, or pressed into use for The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. My personal favorite is the truly haunting “The City of the Singing Flame,” which begins with a 19th century frame narrative: the narrator introduces a journal by a man who has disappeared into a dimensional gate. As he/we read the journal, we learn about a fantastic land where creatures from myriad worlds come to worship a strange flame, one whose music rivals the mythical sirens’ song. The journal writer and his companion catalogue the strange beasts drawn to this light, only to find themselves haunted by its refrain—to their doom. The journal-writer narrowly escapes, only to live haunted by the music, and vows to return once more.


A simple tale, but it shows surprising restraint in the language, and a deep understanding of what divides knowledge from mystery. If the best horror movies rarely show the monster—burying it in the shadows so we can see it clearly in our minds—so Smith describes the wonders without making us see too much. As he writes of the fantastic world beyond the portal, “And the people of the city! How is one to depict them, or give them a name? I think that the gleaming entities I first saw are not the true inhabitants, but only visitors—perhaps from some other world or dimension, like myself. The real people are giants, too; but they move slowly, with solemn, hieratic paces. Their bodies are nude and swart, and their limbs are those of caryatides—massive enough, it would seem, to uphold the roofs and lintels of their own buildings. I fear to describe them minutely: for human words would give the idea of something monstrous and uncouth; and these beings are not monstrous but they have merely developed in obedience to the laws of another evolution than ours, the environmental forces and conditions of a different world.”


We can see these creatures through a dim glass, imagining much more than he ever tells us. Yet it fills us with wonder and a desire to know and see more. Fittingly, he soon draws the curtain on this tale as the journal ends and nothing more is known of the traveler’s fate. A novel would have to tell us more, explain everything to its gross anatomy; only in a short story can he hint and suggest but never make the dream a reality. A thousand novels could be born of such a story, none of them equal to the original. Perhaps that’s the true legacy of Smith’s work—as an inspirer, rather than an end in himself. He’s like a mapmaker who drew far-off worlds without exploring them himself, but inspiring an entire generation of sea-farers who traveled the world.


In an attempt to be marketable, Smith tried his hand at many genres: we find arcane sword-and-sorcery tales (“Xeethra), stories of contemporary magic and the occult (“The Devotee of Evil”) and the pioneering genre of science-fiction/horror also cultivated by Lovecraft (“The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”). Smith’s language adapts to the demands of each genre, becoming more laconic in contemporary tales, and more unbridled in those for the Conan crowd. To be fair, his fantasy tales sometimes veer into the ridiculous, becoming too ornate, too descriptive, too coy for their own good. Yet even then, some turn of phrase, image, or plot twist will redeem them—as in the ending of the occasionally tiresome “The Dark Eidolon.” Other stories are harrowing from beginning to end, such as “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis,” which is the ur-story that inspired The Thing in its various incarnations. The sheer imaginative variety of Smith’s work is staggering, as is the almost complete lack of commercial success he experienced in his lifetime. While Lovecraft commands more respect and name recognition, perhaps Smith is the better all-around writer.


Anyone interested in the origins of modern science fiction and fantasy, and who responds well to Tolkein, Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, or Arthur Machen should read a handful of Smith’s stories for reference. What began as idle curiosity and border-line research became sheer delight once I discovered “The Uncharted Isle,” a very unusual story of shipwreck that resembles—but excels—Lord Dunsany. Smith needs and demands a rediscovery, and thanks to the work of scholars such as S.T. Joshi, who recently published a Penguin Classics edition of his work, that time may come at last. Like Cthulu itself, his stories slumber in the depths of our subconscious, waiting to be called up by a stray memory or allusion. The uncanny familiarity of these stories attests to their quality—much more than “weird tales” to sell a magazine, but truly mythical tales of horror and wonder that belong on every bookshelf.


The Fiction of Real Life: Shostakovich's Testimony

Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich - Solomon Volkov

One of the most fascinating literary documents of 20th century music has to be the alleged memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich, known as Testimony in English translation. The book has inspired intense debate since its publication in 1979 (when the USSR remained firmly in existence) with a reputation that has waxed and waned ever since. The story is simple: Solomon Volkov, then a young musicologist in Leningrad, befriended the great composer Dimitri Shostakovich. Over  period of time they became more intimately acquainted, and according to Volkov, Shostakovich began reluctantly revealing details of his private life and thoughts. Volkov recorded these in succeeding interviews, until Shostakovich became more loquacious, eventually writing out long passages himself. Volkov smuggled the manuscript out of the USSR with the promise not to publish them until after the composer’s death. Shostakovich died in 1976, and Volkov found eager interest in the West for the uncensored memoirs of a much-loved and much-persecuted Soviet composer.


Soon after its release, Testimony was translated into some 30 languages—but not Russian, for obvious reasons—and set the musical world aflame. Musicians and musicologists gave a second look to Shostakovich’s compositions, which apparently were shot through with hidden codes that allowed him to condemn Soviet oppression and serve as “tombstones” for victims of Soviet and Fascist tyranny. Most shocking of all was the admission that his famous Seventh Symphony, which depicts the arrival of German troops to Leningrad with an insistent, banal march theme, was actually written much earlier to portray Stalin’s propagandistic mayhem (yet music can mean whatever the times demand, so Stalin’s massacre easily became Hitler’s). Testimony revealed the seemingly docile member of the Communist party as a sardonic, deeply insightful critic of Soviet institutions and much of 20th century musical and cultural life. A typical example of his anti-Soviet wit:


“I hear many mediocre musicians. A great many. But they have the right to live. It’s only song-and-dance ensembles like the Red Army chorus that drive me crazy. If I were suddenly to become minister of culture, I would immediately disband all these ensembles. That would be my first order. I would naturally be arrested immediately for sabotage, but they would never reorganize the scattered ensembles” (23).


Almost immediately upon its publication in the West, many Soviet musicians—including the composer’s own son, Maxim—condemned the book as an outright fabrication. Volkov, as a recent defector, was simply trying to make a name for himself and take a shot at the USSR by defaming its most celebrated modern composer. Russian musicians in the West, however, were less sure: Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist and conductor, who had left Russia in 1974 and knew Shostakovich intimately, felt it was a true portrait. Others who had contact with him, such as the pianist and conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy, concurred. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some detractors changed their tune, notably the composer’s son, who felt it was an accurate depiction of the times and the people, even if not wholly his father’s creation. In general, many who knew Shostakovich take this line of criticism: it is “based on” rather than “written by.”


Western academics have been savage in their attacks on the book, citing the lack of any kind of authenticity; where, for example, is the original manuscript which shows Shostakovich’s signature on several pages? Though Volkov deposited the original for safekeeping in a Swiss bank (and then sold it to a private collector) photocopies by the publisher exist and Laurel Fay, a prominent detractor, obtained one to examine. According to her, Shostakovich’s signature occurs almost nowhere on the manuscript, appearing only on a few pages which recycle previous published speeches, as if Volkov tricked him into verifying the memoirs. In articles and books, she claimed that Shostakovich barely knew Volkov, and would have never produced such a suicidal document or entrusted it into the hands of a mere acquaintance. This is the general tenor of scholarship today: Volkov is a clever fraud, offering a handful of anecdotes and authentic speeches into a fictional portrait of a famous composer. Which begs the question—is any of the work him? Can we read the book to gain any insight into Shostakovich’s life and works? Or must we dismiss (or enjoy) it as a fictional curiosity, much as Julian Barnes’ recent novel, The Noise of Time, uses Shostakovich as a fictional character?


Perhaps this is fiction, yet no culture has excelled in blurring the line between fact and fiction better than Russia. Russian literature is full of such artistic “forgeries,” from Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical novels to the veiled, code-like satire of Bulgakov and Zamyatin. Testimony reads like a masterful novel, reeking of the sharp, acid wit of writers such as Zoshenko (whom Shostakovich quotes freely in the work) and Bulgakov (Master and Margarita especially). Indeed, one of the themes of the work is how often people lie both in life and fiction, and how nothing official can ever be trusted (even a composer’s own music). If Volkov had presented this as a fictional work, it would have won wide critical acclaim—though few outside musicologist circles would have read it. Perhaps it’s as simple as that, a marketing ploy. Yet we also have to ask ourselves is Volkov had the skill and ability to create “Shostakovich.” The man in the memoirs is a true literary creation: consistent, yet contradictory, heroic yet bitter, defeated without being cynical. It is a portrait worthy of Chekhov and seems beyond the abilities of a man who wrote no novels or literary works—merely academic books and articles (he wrote another memoir-interview with the Russian violinist Nathan Milstein which proved much less controversial).


Reading Testimony is like having a private conversation over late night drinks with a true sage of Russian music: Shostakovich was a living witness to history immediately before the Revolution, and watched its birth pangs to the rise of the mighty Soviet Union—and Stalin’s reign of terror. His ability to remember, to witness, and to authenticate details that most people willingly forgot is what makes the book such a riveting read (I almost said “novel”). Even if you have contempt for Volkov as a literary opportunist, it’s difficult to read the book without a fair amount of awe and enlightenment. In short, “Shostakovich” emerges as one of the greatest figures of the 20th century, enduring the crushing repression of a regime that tried to make all artists “engineers of human souls,” and all people mere cogs in a communist machine. Yet he emerged largely—if not completely—unscathed, able to write music that cut across borders and spoke to all peoples, at all times, and will certainly remain vital for years to come.


Below are a few passages which make Testimony sing and prove that something authentic and powerful exists in the book which belies its status as a fraudulent mockery. Perhaps this isn’t Shostakovich, and perhaps he is rolling in his metaphorical grave at the book’s very publication; yet the Shostakovich in the book would delight in the scandal that resulted, as he never wanted to be an establishment composer or a writer of two-bit propaganda. The composer wanted to be a contradiction, juxtaposing a noble hymn with a satiric jingle—yet all of it orchestrated beautifully and crafted in the best post-Mahlerian fashion. For better or worse, Testimony ‘sounds’ like Shostakovich’s music, and whenever I listen to late works such as Symphony No.13 “Babi Yar,” or the witty Symphony No.15, I hear the voice that admits, “I learned how to assess people, a rather unpleasant pastime, since it inevitably leads to disillusionment” (9).


“It’s so unfair. People suffered, worked, thought. So much wisdom, so much talent. And they’re forgotten as soon as they die. We must do everything possible to keep their memories alive, because we will all be treated in the same way ourselves. How we treat the memory of others is how our memory will be treated. We must remember, no matter how hard it is” (31).


“What I want to say is that what may remain “fresh and strong” may not be music at all, and not even creativity, but some other, more unexpected and prosaic thing, such as attentiveness toward people, toward their humdrum lives, filled with unpleasant and unexpected events, toward their petty affairs and cares, and toward their general lack of security. People have invented many curious things: the microscope, Gilette razor blades, photography, and so on, and so forth, but they still haven’t invented a way of making everyone’s life tolerable” (160).


“Glazunov [his teacher, a famous pre-Revolutionary composer] didn’t get on a soapbox or pretend to feel holy righteous wrath about [his beliefs/morals]. He didn’t demonstrate his high principles when it came to small and pathetic people. He saved this for more important people and more important functions. In the long run, all things in life can be separated into the important and the unimportant. You must be principled when it comes to the important things and not when it comes to the unimportant. That may be the key to living” (168).


“I think the greatest danger for a composer is a loss of faith. Music and art in general, cannot be cynical. Music can be bitter and despairing, but not cynical...If music is tragic, they say it’s cynical. I’ve been accused of cynicism more than once, and incidentally, not only by government bureaucrats. The Igors and Borises of our country’s musicologists added their two cents’ worth too. But despair and cynicism are different, just as ennui and cynicism are different. When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something” (175).


“Don’t believe humanists, citizens, don’t believe prophets, don’t believe luminaries—they’ll fool you for a penny. Do your own work, don’t hurt people, try to help them. Don’t try to save humanity all at once, try saving one person first. It’s a lot harder. To help one person without harming another is very difficult. It’s unbelievably difficult. That’s where the temptation to save all humanity comes from. And then, inevitably, along the way you discover that all humanity’s happiness hinges on the destruction of a few hundred million people, that’s all. A trifle” (205).


Rutu Modan’s The Property (2013): translated by Jessica Cohen

The Property - Rutu Modan, Jessica Cohen

“I know why you came to Warsaw, Regina. You came to tell me that our son is dead.”


This statement, made by an old man to a locked hotel door, is one of the most poignant moments from Ruth Modan’s stunning graphic novel, The Property. I’ll tell you the significance of this statement later, but first I need to give you a sense of the tremendous scope and intimacy of this novel. It concerns a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to Warsaw, ostensibly to go on a “survivor’s tour”—not only to see the infamous concentration camps, but also to revisit old towns and neighborhoods which were once thriving Jewish centers. Secretly, however, the grandmother (Regina) plans to visit a man from her past, a Polish lover with whom she had a son before fleeing to Palestine in the dawn of WWII. This man, interestingly, now lives in the apartment once occupied by her parents, possibly under dubious circumstances. Her granddaugher, Mica, knows nothing of all this, though assumes the purpose of the trip is partially to recover her property (a lawyer wrote the family a letter about it in the 90’s, but the grandmother refused to investigate—until now).


Once in Poland, Regina tries to steal away to meet Roman, her forgotten lover, while Mica decides to find the property herself. During her travels she meets Tomasz, a Ukranian artist/tour guide who conducts her through the city and becomes attracted to her—or perhaps her grandmother’s history.   Mica soon learns that Tomasz is sketching a comic of every story and character from Mica’s life, details she finds unbearably private. Rejecting him, she goes off on her own, mistakenly believing that the “property” is actually the current site of the Warsaw Hilton, which will make her family rich. Her search is complicated by the presence of Avram, her aunt’s fiance, who fears that Mica will get her hands on the property first. By dogging her steps throughout every frame of the comic, he learns of the true property and the man who owns it, and bribes him not to speak to Mica or her grandmother. Roman, meanwhile, is slowly piecing things together himself, and realizes that Regina bore him a son in Palestine, a boy he never met, who recently died of cancer. This, and not the property, is what finally prompted her to come to Poland and confront her past.


The novel ends with the Polish festival of Zaduski, the so-called day of the dead, where the entire city flocks to cemeteries to light candles and pay respects to the departed. Amidst the light and shadow of the festival (beautifully rendered by Modan’s artwork), Regina and Roman reconcile and share memories, Mica learns to trust Tomasz’s motives, and even Avram learns the truth about the property: that Regina’s parents sold it to Roman before the war to save it from Nazi possession. In the final pages, Mica learns that Roman is her grandfather, and her grandmother’s past wasn’t quite as buried as either of them thought. In short, the book lights its own candle for the past, showing the healing process which often takes decades and is sometimes attempted too late.

Of course, any summary of the story is flawed without appreciation of Modan’s artwork, which is the true voice of the narrative. The colors are light yet crisp, reminiscent of the turn-of-the-century Russian artist Bilibin, who sumptuously illustrated so many Russian fairytales. This gives the characters an almost cartoon-like characterization, which is belied by how realistically they move, express themselves, and interact with each other. According to the back of the book, each character had an “actor,” suggesting that she closely modeled the poses and expressions on real life. This shows in the book, which for all its stylization, gives us a “fly on the wall” approach—one of utter intimacy, almost like a documentary. Also, unlike some graphic novels, for which the setting is a mere hazy outline, place really matters: Warsaw emerges clearly in these pages, giving us a sense of its sights, sounds, and even smells. The cemetery scene, as discussed earlier, is most vividly evoked, as the characters piece together the past surrounded by a halo of red,

orange, and blue lights.


The Property is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in some time, and deserves mention with other family narratives such as Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, and Blankets. Check out of my review of her other novel, Exit Wounds, on my comics website:


Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style - Matt Madden

"Can a story, however simple or mundane, be separated from the manner in which it is told?" (Matt Madden) 

I often teach a short Intercession (2 week) course on Comics/Graphic Novels at ECU, and in that class I try to stress the limitless possibilities of the comic medium.  A simple story, with a slight shift in words, perspective, shading, sound effects, color, or frames, can gain hidden depth and purpose.  Or it can simply become another simple story.  We always do an exercise early on lifted from Scott McCloud's seminal book, Understanding Comics, where I ask students to fill in dialogue and narration for a basic 5-frame story.  Depending on what words the students add, the story either sticks close to the visual narration or becomes hilarious, tragic, or disturbing.  Matt Madden takes this exercise to a whole new level in his amazing book, 99 Ways to Tell A Story: Exercises In Style (2005), where he tells the same story 99 Ways.  These "ways" include everything from changing the style, the genre, the order, and even questioning what story is being told in the first place.  It's a clever, but surprisingly captivating read inspired by Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style which does much the same thing in words.  Yet the sheer range of Madden's technique and his profound imagination make this book more than a mere exercise; it's a story in its own right, and one that changes from page to page, even if you think you know the outcome.


The book is a particular delight to the comic lover, since he pays homage to his heroes and peers throughout.  After some virtuoso exercises in style (showing the comic through the eyes of a voyeur; showing the comic only in sound effects; showing the comic in flashback) he then filters it through the style of famous comic artists.  We get a brilliant parody/homage of Rodolphe Toppfer's style, followed by a hilarious--and astonishingly realistic--take on the story via the Bayeux Tapestry.  EC Comics gets a spotlight when the story becomes a thriller, though my personal favorite is his spot-on send-up of Winsdor McKay's zany, madcap style (Little Nemo).  He also throws in a wonderful homage to Jack Kirby, as well as a oddly appropriate demonstration of his technique by mimicking Scott McCloud's 6 Frame-to-Frame Progressions.  Also delightful is his use of "Cento" (composing a work completely from the words of others), where each frame tells the story from a frame of another artist--in this case, including Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, and Julie Doucet.  

However, even if you don't catch the name-dropping, you'll be blown away by how many "exercises" he can squeeze out of this 8-frame template.  He turns it into a series of advertisements, then shifts the perspective to have someone tell the entire story at a bar as a kind of pitch for a book or TV show.  The story becomes a metaphor for life itself in a few of the exercises, and in two, it becomes an audition ("Actors Studio I and II").  Some of my favorites are when he alters the style subtly, as in "Silhouette" and "Minimalist."  At the very end, he finally begins deleting small aspects of the template--first the refrigerator, then one character after another.  The point of all this is not simply to be clever (though he certainly is!), but to remind us that a story is not what happens but how it happens and who tell it to us (fittingly, he also throws in an Unreliable Narrator).  This book is a veritable treasure trove of narrative technique for anyone trying to understand how books tell stories, or how art communicates a sense of character and story through the simplest of means.  I'm astounded by the sheer diversity of story telling in this book, and wish students could read this at a very early age to help them read everything--from Peanuts to Pynchon.  I can't wait to thumb through this book again, and even though he promises that "there is [no] requirement to read every comic in one sitting (or ever)," you will want to read it as a bona fide book--and in a single sitting.  Enjoy!  


"I thought myself very rich in Subjects": Re-Reading Robinson Crusoe

Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe, John Richetti

Robinson Crusoe is a book everyone sort of knows, perhaps more for the man than for his book.  The central myth of the shipwrecked Englishman, forced to reconstruct society from the debris of a dashed vessel, appeals to a deep, secret well of childhood within us all.  For this reason, the 18th century virtually adopted it as a children’s book, with writers such as Rousseau suggesting it should be the first and perhaps only book in a child’s library.  Partly this was to inspire the imagination with bold, noble deeds of self-sufficiency, but also because the book spoke so clearly and directly to all men.  Writing in 1822, Charles Lamb noted that Defoe’s manner of writing “is in imitation of the common people’s way of speaking, or rather of the way in which they are addressed by a master of mistress, who wishes to impress something upon their memories, and has a wonderful effect upon matter-of-fact readers.”  For generations, this ability to speak to common people of a common man who did uncommon deeds assured its literary immortality.  Only later, toward the 20th century, did readers begin to draw back from its unrelenting “matter-of-fact” tone, and its inability (to paraphrase Dickens) to make readers either laugh or cry.  In a book that promised exotic landscapes, strange peoples, and the occasional scrape with pirates, Defoe merely gives us lists of seeds planted, gold discovered, and natives slain.  Pirates of the Caribbean it most decidedly is not. 


Though Robinson Crusoe has never been out of print since its first run in 1719, it is hardly a bestseller today, despite the Penguin edition ranking #59,000 in Books at Amazon.  I felt this change keenly the first time I encountered the book in college, which is pretty much the only place you encounter the book today.  While I liked the story and was fascinated with his manner of narration, I couldn’t understand the slow pace of the narrative.  At first it moves at a fair clip, stranding him on the island by around page 40.  But then you enter a virtual ocean of calm: nothing more than attempts at growing plants, or domesticating goats, or building canoes occupies his thoughts.  As a busy college student, I looked in vain for something to hold my interest, and my professor assumed spending a day on the entire novel was sufficient to plumb its depths (I honestly don’t remember a thing he said about it—I only remember struggling through the reading).  I felt guilty for not finishing the book, but set it aside to return to “one day.”  That one day was graduate school, when I found myself studying not only 18th century literature but gravitating toward the literature of travel and empire.  Well, I could hardly undertake such studies without reading Robinson Crusoe


However, this time, with more context and appreciation for the emerging novel, the class structure, and colonialism itself, I found the book a quick and captivating read.  I understood that Crusoe, far from being a hectoring moralist, is something of a starry-eyed opportunist, as much an unreliable narrator as Defoe’s other great creation, Moll Flanders.  Suddenly I understood why Defoe spent so much time showing Crusoe’s evolution on the island, all of which is dramatically swept aside when civilization returns in the form of a mysterious footprint.  By the time I finished the book it was not only one of my favorite novels, but a novel that I felt explained so much of British history and literature.  In this one book, it was all there…so many things I had read, or half-understood, now stared at me fully-formed, as if I had graduated from binoculars to a bona-fide telescope.  Yes, there was Jupiter—not a mere hazy dot, but a terrifying globe with murky bands and a fearful red eye. 


George Borrow, writing in 1851, commented that all modern prose authors had drunk deeply from the springs of Crusoe, as well as most educated men in general; because of this universal influence, he makes the bold claim that “England owes many of her astonishing discoveries both by sea and land [to Crusoe],” as well as “no inconsiderable part of her naval glory.”  Can a book really do all that?  Surely a mere novel—and one for children, as Rosseau would have it—could scarcely build up a navy and send it across the globe in search of discovery and conquest?  And yet, isn’t that the very goal of Crusoe, who, in defiance of his parents’ wishes, set out to discover brave new worlds, and in defiance of his class, become a gentleman from his riches?  Crusoe is merely following in the footsteps of other “common men” who became pirates and set themselves up handsomely upon returning home, such as William Dampier, the pirate who wrote a book of his travels (carefully distancing himself from the piracy) and was the first Englishman to set foot on Australia.  Crusoe goes from success to success (though he paints this as punishment in the novel) until he becomes a self-crowned emperor on his island.  Just before departing for home, he writes,


“My island was now peopled, and I thought myself very rich in Subjects; and it was as merry Reflection which I frequently made, How like a King I look’d.  First of all, the whole Country was my own meer Property; so that I had an undoubted Right of Dominion.  2dly, My people were so perfectly subjected: I was absolute Lord and Lawgiver; they all owed their Lives to me, and were ready to lay down their Lives, if there had been Occasion of it, for me.  It was remarkable, too, we had but three Subjects, and they were of three different Religions.  My man Friday was a Protestant, his Father was a Pagan, and a Cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist: However, I allow’d Liberty of Conscience throughout my Dominions: But this is by the Way.” 


Clearly, this is not “by the way” for Crusoe, but the very reason he wrote his book (which Defoe originally claimed was “written by himself”): Crusoe came to the island with nothing and ended as a king, with savages and papists following his every command.  Indeed, far from returning to England a gentler and wiser man, he spends all his time trying to shore up profits from Brazil, only to return to Brazil to oversee his plantation and go back to his island!  If the ostensible moral of the book is to heed one’s parents and obey the will of God to become a sober, middle-class merchant, Crusoe needs to re-read his own book.  Instead, Robinson Crusoe is almost a self-help guide to empire, showing how a “nobody” can find a deserted island and transform it—and the occasional savage—into a thriving colonial outpost.  Crusoe spares no pains on showing just how this is done, keeping a faithful account of every day and each labor.  Even when he scours wrecked ships for supplies, he makes a ledger of all the gold found, while in the same breath remarking how useless and vain riches are (of course, he ships them all back to his island!). 


His most fascinating appropriation is Friday, the Carib Islander whom he saves from being eaten by “cannibals,” and teaches his language and morals.  Like a canny imperialist, the first word he teaches Friday is “master,” and makes sure Friday is suitably terrified of his smoking God—his gun (Friday secretly talks to the gun and begs it not to kill him).  This is all shocking and racist to a 21st century audience, but Defoe is not content to merely show imperialism at its worst.  When discussing religion, Friday quickly poses questions which Crusoe cannot answer, showing his profound ignorance of the very culture he intends to import to the islands.  A strange friendship blossoms between the two, as Friday teaches Crusoe to know his own faith, and to question his own ideas.  Against his will, Crusoe is forced to recognize Friday not as a trained parrot (he already has one of those), but as a man capable of deep insight and profound humanity.  Thus, when Friday finds his father and hopes to return to his island, Crusoe is furious and can scarcely hide his jealousy.  In a book where the word ‘love’ scarcely appears, much less the sentiment it describes, Crusoe finally seems attached to something other than money. 


The ending is curiously disappointing, then, since Friday virtually disappears from the novel.  Once the mutineers wash up on the island and Crusoe frees the captain and launches a counter-assault, Friday becomes only a dim presence in the background.  Possibly this is because Crusoe becomes obsessed with civilization and doesn’t want to appear too attached to a “savage” (Crusoe earlier apologizes to the reader for his outlandish appearance, which makes him look more like a “Mahometan” than a true Christian).  However, we should note that Friday returns to England with Crusoe, and not as a servant (he hires a boy for this role), but as a companion.  Our last look at Friday makes him look somewhat foolish (and sadistic?) as he baits and finally kills a bear.  It has an uncomfortable air of “watch me, Master—look what I can do!”  Once the party escapes an ambush of wolves, Crusoe returns to England, and then sets off for Brazil, but we never learn how Friday factors into all this.  I imagine he accompanies Crusoe, but hopefully escapes the fate of Xury, his earlier slave boy whom Crusoe reluctantly sells into slavery for a tidy profit (Xury agrees to go, Crusoe assures us, but I can’t imagine he had a choice). 


While many might find this book boring, unpleasant, or even racist, the Crusoe I read is anything but.  Defoe was a complex individual, never more so than in creating the protagonists of his novels.  Crusoe, Moll, Roxana, and Captain Singleton present more than one face to the reader, and perhaps to themselves.  Crusoe honestly believes (I think) that he’s writing a moral reflection of his time on the island, though Defoe is careful to make him a somewhat incompetent writer.  That is, he can’t keep to such a learned subject, so he constantly detours to talk about the minutiae of his life—which is exactly what Defoe wants us to see.  Or perhaps Crusoe is like William Dampier, hiding his true intentions behind overtures of religion and nationalism?  Either way, following Crusoe’s story is an exciting and surprising experience, especially since it never goes the way you expect—even when you want it to veer in a conventional direction.  However, I think the fault lies with Crusoe than with Defoe; Defoe knew how to write a book and was a first-rate writer, withholding just those details that would make you sympathize with Crusoe too much, or lose yourself in his narrative.  First and foremost, Defoe wants Crusoe to be a narrator who exposes himself without meaning to, and for all his naive spirituality, remains a cunning mercantilist.  These are the men who are expanding England’s borders across the globe, Defoe suggests, the “true-bred Merchants” who will use anything, whether religion, ships, or their fellow man, to make a profit. 


The Book of White: Reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King

The Once and Future King - T.H. White


Most literary folk vaguely know the story of King Arthur: that he pulled a sword from the stone to become king of England...that the wizard, Merlin, helped him achieve power through various mystical lessons...that his wife, Guenevere, fell in love with the greatest knight in the land, Arthur’s right-hand man, Lancelot du Lac...that Arthur was seduced by his half-sister, Morgan le Fay, to give birth to Mordred, who became his implacable foe...and so on.  Yet no two stories of Arthur agree on all the specifics, so whether you read Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the anonymous The Quest for the Holy Grail, Chretien de Troyes’ Romances, or the Lays of Marie de France, you get a very different Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot.  That’s why T.H. White’s version of the legend is so welcome, since he takes bits and pieces from each and translates them from his own perspective to fit his own philosophy.  Simply put, the four books of The Once and Future King (or five, if you count the suppressed The Book of Merlyn) are one of the greatest fantasy epics ever written, and certainly among the most original.  There’s nothing quite like it in literature, though it shares a satirical heritage with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and a sense of the fantastic and absurd with Nikolai Gogol.  Those expecting a grim, fantasy epic in the vein of Tolkein or Marion Zimmer Bradley will be somewhat disappointed.  However, like all books, if you approach it on its own terms, and appreciate it as a wholly unique take on the Arthurian epic, you’ll be surprised, confused, delighted, and amazed by White’s achievement. 


The Once and Future King is composed of four books, the first three of which were published separately.  Only in 1958 were they finally compiled as the single-book epic White envisioned, though minus the fifth book in the series.  You can read them as separate books (though they are no longer sold as such), but perhaps the best way to read it is simply as one epic poem in prose.  Like most long books, earlier passages make much more sense as you progress, so a fair amount of head-scratching awaits the novice reader.  And it’s certainly not, as it is often billed, a children’s book.  The language and philosophy of the book is best suited for an adult, and even more so, an adult reaching middle age, as the themes of the work are deeply autumnal (particularly in Books 3 and 4) and would have escaped me as a ‘youngster.’  


There are four books in the series, starting with The Sword and the Stone, which creates an elaborate back story for Arthur—here called Wart.  As a poor squire to his half-brother, Kay, Wart expects nothing better in life than to serve Kay and train falcons.  Once he meets Merlin, the sorcerer who lives backwards (he already knows everything that will happen to Arthur, but keeps most of it under wraps), his life takes an unexpected turn.  The book is quite episodic, mostly concerning the strange people Wart meets, such as King Pellinore, a character more resembling Don Quixote than anything in Arthurian legend, and Robin Wood (not Hood, he insists) who commands a fierce band of Saxon warriors.  Merlin wants to train Arthur for the arduous task of becoming king of England not by instructing him in the affairs of a knight errant, but by challenging his understanding of Might and Right.  To this end, he transforms Wart into various creatures that are considered lower than man—ants, geese, falcons, badgers—to determine the true meaning of “humanity.”  A few of these adventures actually come from the fifth book in the series, The Book of Merlyn, which his publisher suppressed because they found it too philosophical; White quickly salvaged the better parts and inserted them into the first volume (so if you have a first edition of The Sword and the Stone, you may notice some startling changes from the final version published in the complete The Once and Future King). 


The second book, The Queen of Air and Darkness, is a thornier work, as it concerns the Lothian children: Agravaine, Gawaine, Gaheris, and Garteth, who are cruelly neglected by their mother, Arthur’s half-sister, Morgause (sister to Morgan le Fay).  Morgause is constantly scheming against the men in her world, yet as White explains, is a fairly incompetent sorceress (she bears a strong resemblance to his own mother, Constance).  Her one true power is over her children, from whom she demands unquestioning authority and affection—while giving none in return.  The children make various pathetic attempts to win her favor, such as trapping and killing a unicorn which they manage to pull to pieces in their attempt to drag it back to the castle.  Eventually, these children will become some of the greatest knights in the Round Table, though like any tragic hero, they will also become the means of undoing it.  While these children come of age, Arthur is learning (under Merlin’s tutelage) to distinguish Might from Right, lest he take too much relish in the Saxon business of kingship—battle, death, and sportsmanship.  After various adventures and some low-brow comedy including King Pellinore’s Questing Beast and four men disguised as its “mate,” Arthur is inevitably seduced by his half-sister.  The doom of Camelot has begun.


The third work, and by far the best of the series, is The Ill-Made Knight, which explores the love triangle between Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot.  However, the book is largely a study of Lancelot himself, an “ugly” knight who has grown up worshipping Arthur.  His jealousy of Guenever quickly turns to love and the two begin a torturous, chivalric relationship that sends him off on various quests.  White had been studying the 19th century Russian authors just prior to writing this book, so something of the tragic romance of Anna Karenina and Vronsky hovers over this book.  Guenever, in particular, transforms from an initially selfish, slightly cruel woman to a deeply wise, sympathetic character—something White didn’t bother to attempt with Morgause.  However, even more than his love for Guenever, Lancelot wants to be loved by God.  He is constantly attempting the most foolhardy quests in order to prove his worth, which leads him to save a woman from boiling eternally in a tub prepared by Morgan le Fay.  This woman, Elaine, then expects Lancelot to marry her, which he is too gallant to refuse.  This causes a terrible rift between his ‘pure’ relationship with Guenever, all the more so when Elaine bears him a child.  Lancelot abandons both women, runs mad in the woods for two years, and finally returns to save Guenever from accusations of infidelity.  All the while, Arthur knows the two are in love, yet turns a blind eye, terrified to cast judgment.  However, his silence becomes a bastion for the injustice of his courtiers, most notably Mordred and Agravaine, who hate Arthur and Guenever respectively.  Lancelot is forced to come to Guenever’ rescue several times, while Arthur can only shrug his shoulders and hide behind the vague notion of justice.  In the end, however, Lancelot is given his greatest wish—to perform a miracle that only a holy man could accomplish.  God—or perhaps Guenever—has finally redeemed the “ill-made knight” and proven him worthy.


The final volume in the series, The Candle In The Wind, is fast-paced and doom-ridden.  Mordred has decided to publicly defame Lancelot and Guenever, and forces Arthur to set a trap for both in Guenever’s bedroom.  Arthur agrees, since he wants to be the ‘good’ father to Mordred (despite initially ordering him killed as an infant).  Lancelot ends up evading the trap, killing all the knights sent to capture him save Mordred, who limps away in disgrace.  However, Mordred soon finds a way to outright accuse Guenever of adultery, and she is set to be burned at the stake (again, with Arthur’s silent approval).  Lancelot arrives at the last second, saves her, and mows down dozens of knights—including, sadly, the Lothians brothers, Gaheris and Gareth (both of whom were devoted to Lancelot).  Gawaine, who had previously supported Arthur and Lancelot, now declares eternal war on Lancelot.  He forces Arthur  to invade Lancelot’s kingdom and pull down his castle.  Mordred uses this distraction to take over the throne and force Guenever to marry him—a way of getting revenge on the man who slept with his mother (Arthur’s half-sister).  Arthur learns too late of the deceit and returns with his armies to face Mordred.  And here the book breaks off, on the eve of the final battle, as Arthur realizes that his kingdom is doomed and that the great vision of Merlin will never be realized.  He can only die for an ideal and hope that one day, his legacy will live on in an age that can escape the petty wars of conquest and the sportsmanship of death. 


White wrote a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, which his publisher rejected and never saw its way into the grand tetralogy.  The book has Merlin return on the eve of battle and whisk Arthur away to another series of animal adventures, so he can learn the true nature of man.  The book was composed at the end of WWII, and found White at his most cynical and philosophic.  The book as a whole is very talky (one might say, preachy) yet it is a powerful document; for this reason, White removed a few striking passages and inserted them into the first book (the ants, as mentioned earlier).  For now, we have to read The Book of Merlyn as a kind of epilogue to the entire series, and perhaps not an altogether fitting one.  However, even without it, The Once and Future King stands as a monument to the human imagination, and in particular, its ability to shape our shared cultural heritage into something new and inspiring.  I learned more from this book than from dozens of others I’ve read over the years, and look forward to returning to it again in a few years, or perhaps even using in class in a semester to come. 


A few of my favorite quotes:


“The best thing for being sad…is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never

fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at

night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may

see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled

in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then—to learn.  Learn

why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can

never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never

dream of regretting” (The Sword and the Stone)


“Look at the decisive battle of Brenneville in which a field of nine hundred knights took part and only three were killed...Look at sporting etiquette, according to which Henry had to withdraw from a siege as soon as his enemy Louis joined the defenders inside the town, because Louis was his feudal overlord...Look at the battle of Malmesbury, which was given up on account of bad weather...the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt” (The Queen of Air and Darkness)


“Middle-aged people can balance between believing in God and breaking all the

commandments, without difficulty.  The seventh sense, indeed, slowly kills all the

other ones, so that at last there is no trouble about the commandments...The bodies

which we loved, the truths which we sought, the Gods whom we questioned: we are

deaf and blind to them now, safely and automatically balancing along toward the

inevitable grave, under the protection of the last sense” (The Ill-Made Knight)


“...human beings don’t go to war for private quarrels nowadays,  You need a national grievance—something to do with politics which is waiting to burst out...It must be against large numbers of people, like the Jews or the Normans or the Saxons, so that everybody can be angry” (The Candle in the Wind)


“Do you think they, with their Battles, Famine, Black Death and Serfdom, were less enlightened than we are, with our Wars, Blockade, Influenza and Conscription?...If it takes a million years for a fish to become a reptile, has Man, in our few hundred, altered out of recognition?” (The Candle in the Wind)





Download and Review This Book--Free!

The Astrologer's Portrait - Joshua Grasso

I'm looking for a few reviews for my new comic-epic fantasy novel, The Astrologer's Portrait.  As much as I love to write reviews, I literally/ethically/psychologically can't write a review of my own work.  So to entice the great readers on Booklikes, I've made it free to download on Amazon this Monday-Wednesday.  I might eventually offer a few copies as a Giveaway down the road as well, but the benefit here is that everyone wins a copy.  I just released the book a week ago, so it has no reviews and only a dozens or so confirmed purchases.  For those of you who love fantasy, YA fiction, folklore, magic, classic literature (not that mine is, but it's inspired by such greats as Austen, T.H. White, M.R. James, etc.) or simply an unusual tale, please consider downloading a copy.  As you all know, without reviews people tend to avoid books the way a certain Mr. Darcy avoided a partner who seemed "slighted by other men."  


Here's a quick blurb: Prince Harold has fallen in love with a portrait, which he much prefers to his real bride-to-be. However, the portrait may be a hundred years old, and only the greatest sorcerer in the land can verify her existence. Unfortunately, Turold the Magnificent is currently on trial for maliciously impersonating a person of quality and despoiling her family history. Harold gets him off on the condition that they locate his lady love before his wedding to Sonya, who vows to kill him on their wedding night. Along with his faithless Russian servant, Dimitri, the three steal off to locate the true identity of the portrait—only to confront a curse much older than the portrait. To dispel the curse the prince must lead a revolution, fall in love with his wife, and release the centuries-old hands of Einhard the Black, who are eagerly awaiting their latest victim.  


And here's the link to the book (where you can sample a few chapters):



Thanks for reading--and now, back to my own reviews!  

Heartbreaking, inspirational memoir of music and friendship

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations - Joanne Lipman, Melanie Kupchynsky

Beautiful double memoir of two women, a violin and a violist, as they remember their childhoods and young adulthood as shaped by their music teacher (which is one of the girl's father). It's at once a coming-of-age story as well as a meditation on the role of music, discipline, and art in our lives. The book is also about a friendship between two unlikely girls/women, charting how they become friends, grow apart, and then come back together through an unspeakable tragedy. Recommended for anyone who loves music, is an educator, or loves a well-written memoir.


(my shortest review to date!)

Oathtaker: Writing Fantasy From the 'Outside'

Oathtaker - Patricia Reding

Like books in any genre, fantasy novels are often bound to the very conventions that once made them unique.  Forbidding quests, fantastic magic, terrible secrets, and unspeakable evils kept readers guessing as they race from one page to the next, their imaginations scarcely able to keep up.  Now, however, with so many books—and films based on those books—the surprise has lessened somewhat.  Indeed, we often know exactly what to expect, and many authors take a certain glee in re-writing exactly those works they once delighted in (Eragon, anyone?).  Unfortunately, fantasy literature is supposed to transport to forgotten realms, lands that exist in the mist between history and the imagination, fantastic yet faintly probable.  To do this, the world has to seem realistic, lived-in, yet unlike any other world we’ve encountered.  The characters, too, have to be like us, share our own emotions and ideals, while at the same time being not like us at all.  This is a tall order for a genre which, like most genres, seems to exist simply by writing-to-order, giving us yet another dragon story, or yet another mythical quest narrative.  Not surprisingly, even the most eager fantasy reader approaches the latest release (especially by an indie author) with considerable trepidation.  I approached Patricia Reding’s Oathtaker in this exact frame of mind: optimistic, yet skeptical that I would read anything I hadn’t read a dozen times before.  What could possibly make this work stand out in a field crowded with the great and the not-so-great? 


To my surprise, Oathtaker succeeds because the writer seems to come from the fantasy genre from the outside.  By this, I mean Reding does not seem like a fan-writer, immersed in the legend and lore of all the books and supplements that came before her.  Rather, she seems to be using the possibilities of fantasy as a metaphor for the deepest quest of all: a human being in search of herself.  The earliest works of “fantasy” used the raw stuff of fantasy—dragons, magic, warriors, quests—in a mythical sense, as motifs upon which to develop the grandest themes of humanity.  Oathtaker uses fantasy in just this audacious—yet, as I argue, quite traditional—manner.  The very idea of an “Oathtaker,” one selected to follow a rigorous moral and intellectual path, is one of the great themes of literature itself.  Like one of the King Arthur’s knights, the Oathtakers are remnants of a fabled golden age, and roam the world in service to Ehyeh, the Good One, and his Select.  From this mythic premise, Reding unfolds a world full of mystery, majesty, yet simple humanity.  Too many fantasy novels fall into the trap of trying to be epic in every sense of the word.  Yet we can only stare at the heavens so long before we begin dreaming of earth.  From the first chapter, Reding parts the mists and introduces us to a flesh and blood human being, her heroine, Mara, who anyone could immediately identify with, even if we couldn’t possibly embody her spiritual devotion.  As the novel progresses, small human touches abound: acts of love, sacrifice, cowardice, and humor.  Reding doesn’t hide behind the conventions of the genre to give us a struggle in some never-never land.  Indeed, because it seems so real, so recognizable, it smarts all the more when someone is hurt—or, in a few instances, when the scope of her novel turns unexpectedly dark. 


Another great virtue of this work is how much seems at stake for the Oathtakers, as they try to protect the prophecy of the Seven (I’m trying hard to be vague here, to avoid spoilers!).  In many fantasy novels, the success of the quest seems a foregone conclusion; enemies are met and mowed down, challenges are quickly dispatched, and cliched drama is conjured up as a kind of smokescreen before the traditional denoument.  In Oathtaker, I was often shocked by the danger the characters face, and the horror of certain situations—including one scene that involves the removal of an eye as gut-wrenching as a similar moment in King Lear.  This also goes back to the humanity of the book: the villains are real, and they have very human—and therefore, very desperate—reasons for hounding our heroes.  Lilith, the great villain of the work, is complex, fascinating, and seems to play with the mythological associations of that name.  Yet far from being a cardboard cut-out, her role in the book is truly frightening and effective (but you’ll have to read the work to find out why). 


Reding’s writing is vivid yet spare.  She does not glory in words for their own sake, but uses them efficiently to create a landscape, a moment of intimacy, or a desperate battle.  Thankfully, she seems unaware of (or indifferent to) the linguistic cliches of so much fantasy writing, and chooses simple, evocative English to tell her story.  From the opening chapter, when Mara first confronts the gruts, you find passages that ring with drama and visceral excitement: “Repeatedly darting and withdrawing, teasing and taunting, the grut toyed with their captive. Its eyes wide in terror, it snorted, then screamed. Coming up on its back legs, it dropped down upon the beasts, but they continued their attack. They tore at the equine’s flesh, hideously delighting in their torture. In short order, a killing grasp brought the animal to its knees. It went still.”  Again, her prime concern is to tell a gripping human story, one where we feel the terror of accepting an Oathtaker’s vow.  The narrative moves swiftly, though with plenty of time for reflection.  At times, I feel that the flow is robbed of some of its momentum by a bit too much explanation, though again, this is a reasonable ‘sin’ for clarity’s sake.  She never wants to bury us in arcane lore or detail, instead choosing to be our guide in this fantastic realm.  The narrative most often appears as a teacher/translator in this work, helping us see the connections between this world and our own, lest we mistake this for a mere flight of fancy.


Perhaps it’s not too much to claim that Oathtaker teaches its story as much as tells it.  For this is a profoundly moral work, one that intends to model human behavior and relationships in an almost religious sense.  Wisely, Reding avoids any explicit mention of real religion, couching it in the more ambigious terms of the Oathtaker’s mission.  Yet the connection is unmistakable, and Reding makes sly hints to her true inspiration in names like Lilith, and even the Good One, Ehyeh, with its Old Testament connotations.  However, it would be too much to call this a work of Christian fiction.  Reding speaks of a spirituality much larger than any one faith or denomination, and her narrative never descends to preachy finger-waving.  Like the best literature, the clues are there if we see them; otherwise, they simply shimmer in the background like the moon and the stars, providing a backdrop to her enchanting tale.  Yet the narrative, if we listen closely, offers great lessons for the young, and I think Young Adult readers particularly will take a shine to this work.  Speaking of myself, I would have loved to follow the exploits of the Oathtakers as a teenager, and would have found solace and wisdom in their teachings.  Many works attempt to be wise and instruct us about human behavior, but Reding does this almost unconsciously, so it meshes with the tale and informs it.  It’s a rare quality in any work of literature, much less a work of fantasy and legend.


As I mentioned earlier, the strength of this work is its ability to look “from the outside in” to the fantasy genre.  Often the trend-setters in any field are those not to the manner born, so to speak, and this is certainly true of Oathtaker.  However, occasionally being an outsider tempts her into some anachronisms, which is almost avoidable in this genre at any rate.  To invest ourselves in any work of fiction, especially the fantastic, we need to accept Coleridge’s famous “suspension of disbelief.”  Anything that jars us out of this condition reminds us that we’re reading a story rather than an event, and this makes us unfairly aware of its flaws.  Reding does this chiefly with her names, which don’t seem entirely consistent for her fantasy realm.  She offers up some exotic sounding names such as the language of Oosian and Old Chiranian, and characters such as Zarek and Gadon; but the work is predominantly Anglo-centric, populated by Maggie, Wayne, Simon, Sherman, Cheryl, and most disturbingly, a Ted Baker.  Of course, this would be fine if it were more consistent, but the contrast of Ted Baker and Gadon breaks the spell, alerting us to the presence of a ‘wizard’ behind the curtain.  Using a wider range of names, more European, or simply more blends of the two worlds, might help disguise this more.  Other anachronisms creep into the story when characters use modern metaphors to explain their world, as when Mara talks about feeling the sounds of an “orchestra” within her.  Since the very word conjures up a body of orchestral musicians playing 18th-20th century music, we are again jarred out of the fantasy realm.  I understand why she does this, since it allows the reader into the minds of characters quite remote from him or her.  I might suggest she approach it as T.H. White does in his self-consciously anachronistic novel, The Once and Future King, where the narrator alone makes modern references to the reader, but explains this later by remarking, “It was not really Eton that he mentioned, for the College of Blessed Mary was not founded until 1440, but it was a place of the same mentioning [Eton] it is easier to give you the feel” (Ace edition, p.11). 


However, these are very minor quibbles, and merely explain how little of the narrative seems peep through.  Oathtaker is a fine work of fantasy, and a remarkably assured work of literature in its own right.  It’s a long read that goes quite fast, and being a first novel, I can only imagine how the second one will improve upon it—and be an even more astonishing literary debut.  


The Universal Particular: Turgenev's Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons - Ivan Turgenev

Sometimes a work is so much a product of its times that, for all its genius, it no longer translates beyond those times. I’ve read many works that are full of incredible satire, insight, and profound art, yet would be virtually meaningless to a modern reader. I think specifically of a great work like Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, which makes me laugh more than almost any book written; however, so much of the laughter comes from knowing the ideas and culture of the early 18th century, without which all the jokes at Colley Cibber’s expense fall rather flat. These books inevitably become the property of college classrooms, where a patient teacher can tease out the references so that the work, little by little, becomes enjoyable again. This is the Scylla and Chabrydis that any author must face: too topical, and the work doesn’t last a decade; too general, and the work speaks to no one at all. 



And then you have the rare work that is extremely topical, with up-to-the-minute detail, yet translates effortlessly a hundred years later. This can only work when an author realizes that all the modern fads and hip philosophy are so many antiquated knock-offs. Nothing is new under the sun, yet our experience of life is so narrow, that we can’t possibly keep all the permutations of fashion in mind. After all, when we love, it’s for the first time—and the world feels brand new again. So how to write of the world outside your window and yet make it recognizable to the world your great-grandchildren will see and experience? Ivan Turgenev, the great writer of thoughtful, Romantic novels, managed to do this throughout his career, but nowhere so brilliantly as in his celebrated novel Fathers and Sons (or, Fathers and Children—the literal Russian is “Otsii and Dyeti, which literally means the latter). This novel, published in 1862, documents the struggles between two generations—fathers and sons—in Russia in the ‘60’s (not so dissimilar from our own 60’s). The old landowners are facing a very new world, particularly in the form of their sons, many of whom have returned from university with modern ideas. Some want to liberate the serfs and create a land of universal equality; others want to abolish tiresome Russian customs in favor of more ‘enlightened’ ideas from the continent and England. Romantic literature is suspect; science, alone, can lead the nation to a golden age of wisdom and prosperity. Even in the 1860’s, the world of Communist Russia seemed close at hand. 


And yet, this is not a political novel. The revolutionary hero—in this case Bazarov, the self-styled nihilist who wants to throw a bomb at the Russian aristocracy—is not a didactic stand-in for liberal propaganda. The author remains aloof throughout, merely allowing characters to interact, pontificate, and despair without guiding them to this or that revelation. The best comparison to Turgenev’s novel is surprisingly Jane Austen, since both authors chose love and class conflict as their favorite themes. The story is simple, a mere frame to prop up a wealth of psychological detail that has no agenda other than to open a window on the human soul. Arkady, a young man fresh from university, returns home to visit his father with his best friend, the scientist Bazarov, in tow. Arkady is enthralled with Bazarov’s nihilism and adherence to science and logic (imagine Bazarov as a more cynical Spock). Arkady’s father, Nikolai, is a man who enjoys the simple pleasures of his estate and indulges in the mid-life indulgences of food and poetry. His brother, Pavel, is a man of society who had long lived abroad, and only reluctantly returned to Russia after a failed love affair. The two generations clash at once, with Bazarov condemning both men for their ‘medieval’ pursuits, and Pavel in particularly for his bourgeois affectations. Pavel, in turn, despises Bazarov’s presumption and finds in him a man without character or culture. A typical exchange illustrates this clash of fathers and children:


“Permit me to say, Pavel Petrovich,” said Bazarov, “here you are full of respect for yourself and sitting with your arms folded. What good’s that for the bien public? You’d be better off not respecting yourself and doing something.”


Pavel Petrovich went pale.


“That’s a completely different question. I don’t have to explain to  you now why I am sitting with my arms folded, as you are pleased to express it. I simply want to say that aristocratism is a principle, and without principles only immoral or empty-headed people can live in our time...”


“Aristocratism, liberalism, progress, principles,” Bazarov had already started saying, “just think what a lot of foreign...and useless words! A Russian wouldn’t need them if you gave them to him!” (Oxford World’s Classics ed., 58-59).


While this is torn out of the headlines of 1860, it is also astonishingly contemporary. What teenager doesn’t despise the ideals of his parents, finding notions such as character or principles so much outdated wallpaper? And what parent doesn’t shake his head at the unprincipled and often misguided pursuits of the young, who see action as a means in itself? Bazarov rejects anything with a tradition, since too many traditions become mere props to hang up a two-bit existence. As the novel progresses, Pavel ultimately challenges the bewildered Bazarov to a duel. This moment of honor becomes something of a farce, as Pavel follows the polite discourse of the dueling ritual (can I have the honor of killing you tomorrow; splendid, I look forward to meeting you, etc.), while Bazarov finds himself, for all his nihilism, unable to risk his losing his honor in the face of a foolish social convention. What both young men discover is that one cannot be 21 the same way one can be 45; maturity sneaks up on you, deepening your understanding of the world, as well as what you find meaningful, beautiful, and absurd. I had a conversation with another young Bazarov not long ago where he assured me that he would always feel the way he did, think the same thoughts, despise the same ideas, etc. He asked me, “how can you tell me otherwise, you’re not me.” And I could only say, “well, I’m not you, but I have been your age—but you’ve never been mine. Youth isn’t all that original, when it comes down to it, and neither is age. But one does inevitably lead to the other.”


As Bazarov attempts to spread his philosophy of...well, of negation, he finds himself ensnared in the most conventional cliche of them all: he falls in love. The object of his affections, Anna Sergeyevna, is a worldly beauty, charmed with Bazarov but unable to rouse her provincial boredom into bona fide affection. The rejection infuriates him, as he realizes he has a nice dollop of Pavel Petrovich in his makeup.  He decides that to be happy is to be conventional, so he has to throw it all aside and become a slave to his work—in this case, becoming an uncelebrated country doctor. He does this out of a perverse blend of condescension and self-sacrifice, yet the peasants for whom he suffers finds him a bit of a fool (much the way he dismisses the older generation).  In his folly he contracts tyhpus and dies in his parents home, two kindly, simple people of the older generation who could never understand their son’s indifference to life.


While Bazarov meets an end that would smack uncomfortably (to him) of a Romantic novel, Arkady embraces life. While initially captivated by Anna Sergeyevna, he quickly becomes friends with her younger sister, Katya, and this friendship flourishes through walks in the country, poetry, and music. Soon he is head over heels in love, and rather than reject it out of adolescent angst, he decides that this is the brave new world he always dreamed of. While other authors might have laughed at him for this, Turgenev never does; indeed, he is entirely sympathetic to the charms of growing old with love and beauty, even if he was keenly aware of the changes engulfing Russia. Like Austen, Turgenev realizes that the greatest struggle is one of character: how one finds one’s self, and who one learns to love—and what one is willing to sacrifice to achieve it. Arkady has to throw his hero worship aside to find his true identity with Katya, who is herself trying to emerge out of his sister’s shadow. Even Bazarov, in a sense, realizes that you can’t figure everything out in your 20’s. His last wish is to see Anna Sergeyevna before he dies, the most sentimental scene imaginable, and yet he no longer fears the scorn of others (or worse, himself). He realizes that when all is said and done, the only regret is not sacrificing your body and soul for happiness. Even Pavel Petrovich did this, the one thing Bazarov couldn’t bear to do until he was at death’s door, safe from the foolish consequences of falling in love. To quote Sappho, “for me neither the honey nor the bee,” meaning that either you fall in love and deal with the possible complications, or you are denied love entirely.



While a student of Russian history will find significance in every character and conversation, the student of human history (or the 19th century novel) will fall in love with this book. As translated idiomatically (with occasional British slang) by Richard Freeborn, the novel sings with Turgenev’s signature prose and sharp dialogue. This is a nice counterpoint to Austen’s novels on similar themes, such as Mansfield Park  or Emma, and a near cousin to Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.  However, what makes Turgenev unique is his understanding of nature, both of the natural world and the nature that resides in our hearts. I left this book feeling deeply attached to the characters, wanting to live among them for a few pages more, and feeling nostalgia for a world I never belonged to. Who wouldn’t want to be Russian after reading this book?  


"Neither for me honey nor the honey bee": Reading Sappho's Fragments

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho - Sappho, Anne Carson

Imagine if the majority of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry had disappeared long ago.  It’s not a far-fetched proposition, when you think about it; all of Shakespeare’s personal writing and manuscripts are missing, and several of the plays are missing (Cardenio, Love’s Labors Found, etc).  However, a few scraps would inevitably survive as references in noblemen’s letters, maybe a page or two of Hamlet on a quarto used for wrapping paper, or the odd actor’s prompt.  Imagine that all we had of the famous Sonnet 18 were the following lines:


Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? 
Thou art more lovely
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

too short a date: 
 every fair from fair
 summer shall not fade
fair thou ow'st;
  or eyes can see,
So long lives this


Would this be great poetry?  Would it be widely read and anthologized as the work of one of England’s greatest poets?  The first three lines are clever, since at least the idea of reversing the romantic ideal is present, and something of this sense is captured in “too short a date, every fair from fair, summer shall not fade.”  But these are only glimpses of the beauty and cleverness of the original, which goes point-by-point why the “my lover is a summer day” is a pathetic—and downright insulting—metaphor.  If the manuscript only survived as this, we would have to fill in the blanks and imagine what he might have written, left to scratch our heads at the “or eyes can see,/So long lives this.”  We would have lost the priceless ending: “Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade/When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;/So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”  Here the poet claims that he can rescue the beloved from the cycle of time through verse (his “lines”), which people will read forever—or at least as long as they think and breathe.  Even more slyly, the poem not becomes a love song to his poetry, not even bothering to name to beloved.  Almost as if it’s saying, “if you love me, I’ll insert your name here...but recognize my power first.” 


Imagine, then, that these lines are all that survive of the brilliant cycle of 154 Sonnets.  Not a single word or line, other than the few above, escaped the carelessness of man or the ravages of time.  What would we think of Shakespeare’s Sonnets?  Would we even know he wrote poetry outside of the plays?  Indeed, we might assume it was a speech in one of the plays, even a misplaced song from an early comedy.  Now let’s pretend all the major tragedies and comedies were gone, leaving only 3 mangled, but roughly complete, works: Titus Andronicus, Pericles, and All’s Well That Ends Well.  No Romeo and Juliet, no King Lear, no As You Like It.  Just his ghastliest revenge tragedy, a strange late Romance, and one of his most cynical problem plays.  Would we still call him the Bard?  Would there still be Shakespeare festivals around the world?  Would he still form an intractable part of the English canon? 


Clearly the answer is no, though even these fragments would afford us glimpses of genius and wonder.  So enough with abstractions: now imagine what really did happen to Sappho, greatest poet of the ancient world, called the “Tenth Muse” by her contemporaries.  Renowned men of letters, kings, historians, grammarians—all of them quoted Sappho with awe, drawing on a body of knowledge that seemed imperishable.  So where did it go?  According to the Greeks, there were nine collected volumes of Sappho’s poetry, the first of which boasted approximately a thousand lines of poetry.  It’s all gone.  All, that is, save a few fragments, barely enough to fill a 30-page book of poetry.  One complete poem comes down to us, but the rest is no more than a stanza, a line, a metaphor, and in many cases, only a word.  The tragedy is compounded when we realize Sappho was also a musician who composed music to her poetry—indeed, intended her poetry to be sung, often by a chorus.  No Greek music of any kind exists.  This situation is similar to Shakespeare’s songs, all inserted into his plays to provide musical delight; they merely exist as words now, complete, but oddly silent. 


Fans of conspiracy theories will enjoy this next part: what happened to Sappho’s work?  We can’t blame time alone, since two complete epics of Homer have come down to us.  Many of the Greek tragedies remain, complete, to read and perform thousands of years after their composition (though many, of course, were lost).  So why not Sappho?  From what we know of her life, she lived on the island of Lesbos where she presided over a close-knit group of women (despite being married herself).  There she wrote songs of love in all its forms, though many of them centered on the love between women, and the sadness of watching a lover inevitably married off to a young man.  Here the Shakespearean connection is even more apt, since the Sonnets celebrate the poet’s love for a young man, ostensibly convincing him to marry and reproduce, but clearly more interested in that absolute (platonic?) love that they alone can share.  Sappho was exiled to Sicily between 604-595 B.C.E., for reasons we can only guess at.  After her death, her political disfavor could only have deepened; there seems to have been a concerted effort to make her go away. 


While many who appreciated art preserved her work, others would have destroyed her writings, perhaps even her own family who was ashamed by the association.  Private copies would survive here and there, but the greatest storehouse of her work—the famed library of Alexandria—was posterity’s last hope.  Once that went up in flames, destroying countless literary treasures, Sappho’s legacy was reduced to a footnote.  If she had been a man writing of male love (as Plato and many others did), something of her works would remain.  But women in general had no voice in the ancient world, surviving as a glimpse here and there in the shadows, given the catch-all name of Anonymous (as Woolf reminds us, “Anonymous was a woman”).  In short, her works were simply too dangerous to survive; her beauty touched too many people, enflamed the hearts of men and women alike.  Like a sacrifice she was offered to the gods, who (unlike men)  gratefully accepted the tribute. 


Yet her ghost remained, haunting the peripheries of history and literature.  The few hoarded scraps have been collected and translated time and again, some muting the poetry through Victorian prudery.  Others, such as Anne Carson’s magnificent translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, suggest not only what was lost but what can be found through sensitive reconstruction.  The poems she restores to us are bold, sensitive, humorous, yet frustratingly incomplete.  Carson purposely uses a lot of negative space on the page, the graphic equivalent of corruption and silence.  You can read the entire 396-page book in an hour or two, including the footnotes.  However, far from being an artsy gimmick, the space forces us to read even more carefully, and appreciate the poignancy of the voice that was swallowed up by time—yet stubbornly refuses to be silenced.  In one of my favorite poems—a mere sentence—the poet writes:


“neither for me honey nor the honey bee” (295). 


That’s the only thing printed on the entire page (though the original Greek is printed on the facing page).  I can only imagine where the poem went from there (if indeed this is even the first line!) but even without the poem, the line hits its mark.  Here is a woman (whether Sappho or a character of her own invention) who has been separated from the joys of life.  Perhaps this is Sappho, lamenting the loss of her homeland, and realizing that at her age, love is a distant prospect.  This could also be the thoughts of many a young woman, married off to a man she scarcely knew, divorced from her childhood friends (and lovers?) in patriarchal Greek society.  We get the same sense from another fragmentary poem, “if only I, O goldcrowned Aprhodite,/could win this lot” (67).  The sense of unbearable longing, of tortured waiting and rising jealousy informs almost every poem in the book.  Perhaps the best way to read such fragments is to read them one after another, as one great, unfinished epic. Though the poems seem to gravitate around love (often unrequited or lost) and marriage, they have incredible range and retain Shakespeare’s power to invoke just the right image to make even the most cliched sentiment sing. 


Another brief example, “Eros shook my/mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees” (99).  The metaphor is fresh and evocative: the mind, sprouting leaves and sheltering our emotions (with reason), is shaken to its roots, the shaking leaves becoming a ‘reed’ of love (just as the poem is a song of love).  The more of these fragments we read, the more we hear the voice of the poet, building upon and refining earlier ideas until we get to the heart—or the root—of a lover’s experience.  In a sense, all of her poems are a variation on this incomplete lyric: “I don’t know what to do/two states of mind in me” (107). 


In the more complete poems, Sappho has room to create a more ambiguous experience, with humor creeping in to mock the very emotions that inspire the poem.  Take the most famous—and complete—poem of all, “Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,” which spans a remarkable page and a half.  In this poem, the speaker—named Sappho—begs Aphrodite to hear her song and strike down her lover with longing.  Cleverly, Aphrodite never actually comes, but the poet imagines what will happen when, and if, she arrives:


...And fine birds brought you,

quick sparrows over the black earth

whipping their wings down the sky

through midair—

they arrived.  But you, O blessed one,

smiled in your deathless face

and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why

(now again) I am calling out (3). 


Carson admits that the parenthetical “(now again)” is a slight invention based on the syntax of Sappho’s original.  However, the idea is priceless: the pathetic lover sues for Aphrodite’s favor, and when the goddess descends in all her majesty, she is laughing at her.  “Who is it now, Sappho—again?   Didn’t you just do this last week?”  As the poem goes on,


...Whom should I persuade (now again)

to lead you back into her love?  Who, O

Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.

If she refuses gifts, rather she will give them.

If she does not love, soon she will love

even unwilling (4). 


Aphrodite/Sappho mocks the lover’s apparent ignorance of how love works.  Play coy and she will come for you; lovers never say what they feel, never act as they want.  Are you really giving up so quickly?  Like Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130 “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” Sappho is mocking the very language of love itself.  Lovers are forever play acting, comparing their love to the gods or threatening to die of a broken heart.  It’s all love play, all nonsense; real love comes with time or not at all.  The last stanza of the poem reverts to Sappho, again entreating Aphrodite to be her ally, as if brushing aside what she knows to be true.  Like the wind of Eros shaking the oak tress of the mind, love cannot sit still and wait.  It knows, yet it despairs.  Nothing is rational, nothing makes sense.  Only the lover itself makes sense and can restore thought and equilibrium, as a later poem explains: “you came and I was crazy for you/and you cooled my mind that burned with longing” (101).


Also Shakespearean is her belief in the power of words and their bid for immortality.  Of course, not everyone was convinced of her place in the literary firmament.  In one of the cattiest poems, she strikes down the pretence of a rich woman who (as the notes explain) did not care for art in general. 


Dead you will lie and never memory of you

will there be nor desire into the aftertime—for you do not

share in the roses

of Pieria [home of the Muses], but invisible too in Hades’ house

you will go your way among dim shapes.  Having been breathed out (115).


Ouch!  Yet this resembles so many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets where he threatens the lover with extermination for not returning his love.  Yet beyond the jealousy and hurt feelings is something much deeper: an indictment of wealth itself, of the idea that any man or woman can truly be superior to another.  “Dead you will lie,” she reminds the noblewoman, and no one will remember you—you’ll just be another shade in Hades.  However, without anyone to sing your song, you will be anonymous, unloved in either realm, and thus doubly forgotten.  Art, alone, is the source of memory, since it goes far beyond an honor roll of heroes and princesses.  It makes these people live in our hearts, makes them us, so we can share in their story.  But this woman will fade completely, her last breath extinguished into the ether, never to be reborn on the wings of song.  In this poem we hear the anger of Mozart, fighting against the pompous Viennese court or even J.S. Bach writing a pathetic dedication to the Archbishop of Brandenburg (who never even bothered to play the Brandenburg Concertos—the only way we ever remember his existence!).  This also suggests a factor in the disappearance of her work; not everyone was a fan, clearly, and some might have been quite offended by her audacious remarks on love and authorship. 


Yet Sappho expected to be remembered, even if the honey of authorship would be denied in this life.  In yet another fragment, she writes, “someone will remember us/I say/even in another time” (297).  As we read these poems, we get a sense of how she wanted to be remembered; less for herself, perhaps, than for all women of her time, whose songs and loves went unrecorded.  In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf asks us to imagine all of history and literature if men were merely peripheral characters, never the movers and shakers.  What if they were merely the lovers of women, the servants, the invisible fathers and brothers?  In Sappho’s poems, this is literally true: there are few men, and those that exist, are predatory forces, marrying off the young women of Lesbos and robbing them of friendship and virginity.  In these fleeting glances, we see what women experienced among a world of women; how they re-imagined Helen (the epitome of a faithless wife) as a doomed heroine, forsaking home and family for a taste of love.  The women of Sappho’s time could not imagine such boldness, and those that did—like Sappho herself—were swiftly exiled.  Perhaps this explains one of the most poignant fragments in the book,


“I would not think to touch the sky with two arms” (109). 


What woman would dare to reach for the sky—the stars—with her two weak, mortal arms?  That was the world set aside for men, for the heroic exploits of kings and conquerors.  Yet, in her own quiet way, Sappho touched the sky and hoisted herself into eternity.  Though the greater part of her work has been amputated, these few, scattered lines linger in the memory and evoke a world forgotten by literature.  A world where women told their own stories and even men stood breathless with wonder. 


Science Fiction as Metaphor: Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

All fiction is metaphor.  Science fiction is metaphor.  What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors…science, all the sciences, and technology….The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.  –Ursula K. LeGuin


Despite being a subtle, ‘literary’ work from the Booker Prize-Winning author, Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is a book for young people.  Even, dare I say, Young Adults (though I define Young Adults as literally just that—young adults, teenagers, those about to be adults, not 8-12 year olds, as some dumbass agent once claimed). Young adults should read this book, even if they don’t quite understand it, for three important reasons:

  • * It shows the relevance of science fiction as a metaphor for modern life (instead of mindless escapism)
  • * It shows that prose can be as supple and transformative as poetry
  • * It discusses the most powerful theme in all literature: what makes us human, and what the purpose of a human life truly is


This last one, particularly, is something I needed to read/encounter when I was coming of age.  I had no idea what I was doing or why.  I barely graduated high school and had no real interest in college—though ironically, I loved learning and reading.  I felt I had no options since what I wanted to do (read, write, think) had no real place in society.  For a time, I basically gave up.  I have trouble now understanding why I thought this, or why my life seemed so pointless and without hope.  But it’s an important revelation for a teenager to make: that there are choices to be made, and success or failure isn’t the ultimate benchmark for achievement.  I felt I had failed in life already, so what did I need more failure for?  Never Let Me Go takes the existential dilemma of a teenager to a science fiction extreme: what are we doing here?  Are we being prepared for something important?  Something useful?  Or are we simply marking time until the inevitable, disappointing end?  If our education is really moving us inexorably to a single, prescribed existence, what makes this existence meaningful? 


The book, as anyone who has read it or seen the movie, is about a group of children who grow up at the Halisham school, where they undergo a rigorous curriculum of art, history, and literature.  The best of their work is entered in the “gallery,” a mysterious exhibition that no one talks about, but is supposed to be a great honor.  The three main characters, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, form a love triangle of sorts, as Kathy forms a strong bond with Tommy, while Ruth, the more domineering of the three, quickly decides to step between them and claim Tommy for herself.  So they grow up, leave Halisham, and continue their ‘education’ at the Cottages, a kind of farm where they basically do odd jobs, have sex, and discuss finding their “possible.”  For it turns out that the children are all clones, and sooner or later, will have to start donating their vital organs to ‘normal’ people who need them.  Nevertheless, they all harbor the secret hope that their lives can amount to more than a simple donation; there is talk that the Halisham kids are special, that they can get a coveted “deferral” if they can prove they are more human than the rest of them…if they can prove that they have fallen in love. 

The rumors of deferrals seem to be exactly that, and gradually, most of the clones stop believing in them.  But Tommy, who never took art seriously in school, suddenly blossoms as an experimental artist, hoping to prove his ‘soul’ to the Guardians of the gallery.  Ruth quickly figures out who has inspired this—namely, Kathy—since his art will be further evidence of their mutual humanity and compatibility.  She steps between them and ruins their budding relationship, betraying the deepest secrets of both Kathy and Tommy in the process.  The triangle breaks and all three go their separate ways: Ruth and Tommy to donations, and Kathy to become a carer, someone who helps the donors into their inevitable “completion.”  Yet a chance encounter, years later, leads Kathy back to Ruth, who wants to make amends for her former conduct.  She gets the gang back together and suggests it’s not too late for Kathy and Tommy to get a deferral based on true love; indeed, she even has the address for Madame, the director of Halisham (now defunct) who must be in charge of such things. 


What happens at Madame’s apartment may be expected, but it’s easily the most profound ‘science fiction’ part of the book.  Madame basically informs them that all the rumors are simply that, rumors and false hopes concocted by young people who saw the future slipping through their fingers.  Clones are clones, and their role is to donate and complete.  Yet Halisham was created to offer a more humane approach to the business of ‘spare parts,’ and Madame and the other Guardians wanted to prove—if only to themselves—that the clones were capable of great beauty and humanity.  As she tells them,


You see, we were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that particularly by sheltering you…Very well, sometimes that meant we kept things from you, lied to you.  Yes, in many ways we fooled  you…But we sheltered you during those years, and gave you your childhoods…You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you.  You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourself in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you?  You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? (268). 


This is a powerful passage, since just a few pages earlier, Tommy asks, “Why did we do all that work in the first place?  Why train us, encourage us, make us produce all of that?  If we’re just going to give donations anyway, then die, why all of those lessons? Why all those books and discussions?” (259). On the one hand, it was a waste of time; why teach clones doomed for the scrap heap to write poetry or draw pictures?  Why teach them about literature and history when they can’t meaningfully appreciate/contribute to either one?  Both Madame and the other guardians pat themselves on the back at this point, since they claim “Look at you both now!  You’ve had good lives, you’re educated and cultured” (261).  This smacks of the worst excesses of liberalism, since they have an education which is worthless (much as conservatives accuse liberalism of endorsing at universities around the country), and which blinded them from the “real world.”  What should we think of their education, which again, neither of them can ‘do’ anything with since they’re not seen as human beings?


This moment hit home for me, since all of us are, in a sense, destined to “complete” (indeed, I’m even an organ donor!).  We’re all going to die, sooner or later, and no matter what we accomplish in this life, death will rub it all out.  Maybe people will remember us, maybe not.  Maybe we leave a legacy, maybe not.  In a certain sense, though, it’s all much ado about nothing.  Why do we spend 12 years plus college studying, writing papers, getting degrees when most of us don’t get a chance to use them?  In our society, not everyone can pursue their dreams, get their ideal job, or even feel fulfilled in any meaningful way.  Someone has to be at the bottom, keeping society together, serving those at the top.  College itself is a kind of lie, since it promises everyone a chance to better their lives and achieve happiness.  It can happen for many, but not for all (for a variety of reasons).  So would it be better to drop all our illusions and simply prepare people for the worst?  To make children aware of the bitter realities—“you can’t be anything you want to be, honey”—and let the chips fall where they may?  Is that more merciful or honest?  Needless to say, Kathy and Tommy are crushed and end up separating, mostly since Tommy doesn’t want Kathy to see him slowly die away as his carer.  All their hopes are smashed—as are Ruth’s, who sacrificed herself (in a sense) to gain their deferral.  In short, it didn’t work, they weren’t successful, and their quest is at an end.  


And yet, at the end of the book, Kathy gives up her role as a carer and looks forward to becoming a donor herself.  She reflects that “Once I’m able to have a quieter life, in whichever centre they send me to, I’ll have Halisham with me, safely in my head, and that’ll be something no one can take away” (286-87).  This is a complex moment, since I don’t entirely agree—nor are we meant to—with the philosophy of Halisham.  They wanted to prove the humanity of the clones without really changing their lives.  By giving them culture, they wanted to prove that the Clones were capable of appreciating it.  Even so, the Guardians are terrified of the clones, and look at them as spiders, or other slithery unmentionables that roam in the darkness.  Yet this passage hits at the chief metaphor of the work: what do we accomplish in our lives?  What do we take away, especially if we all ‘complete’ at the end?  Kathy and the others have not only proved their humanity, they have carved out their own kingdoms in the raw material of the imagination.  Their hopes and dreams forged friendships, created art, and gave them an unblemished look at the world.  Like the prisoner in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, they emerged from the subterranean picture show into the light, which they didn’t dare look at with naked eyes; only by glancing at its reflection were they slowly, by degrees, able to look up at the sky.  The expanse of the world showed the pitiful contrast of the underworld/Halisham.  And yet, was the illusion a sham?  If not truth, did


it not still reflect truth and lead to a form of enlightenment? Madame claimed that “You see, we were able to give you something, something which even now no one will ever take from you, and we were able to do that particularly by sheltering you.”  The cave shelters and blinds, but it also teaches us how to see.  These memories and friendships forged from love and hope, however illusory, led them to the light in the first place.  Madame’s point was that other clones weren’t even given the chance to dream.  Perhaps Halisham was a dead end, and their motives, however altruistic, remained biased by what the clones truly were (to them, not entirely human).  The title of the novel, “Never Let Me Go,” suggests that much of our deepest loves and hopes are born in our early years, in the primitive, “cave” of our subconscious mind.  We naturally grow out of this and see with unsheltered eyes.  Yet those dreams are what sustain us even when we become ashamed of such naïve hopes.  Behind every serious writer is a comic book.  Behind every artist is a Crayola set.  Behind every musician is a toy piano.  We need to be sheltered before we try to ‘defer’ death and seize fate by the throat.  And if we fail?  Well, don’t we all?  But failure doesn’t have to be the death of hope.  In the book, Ruth learns to believe in something larger than herself that she can’t possibly live to enjoy.  Tommy withdraws from Kathy to embrace his life as a donor (selflessly, too, since he doesn’t want her to witness it).  And Kathy, at the end, realizes that her memories of Halisham are more important than any life, however romanticized, in some conceivable future.  A depressing end, and one that doesn’t make us rejoice in their fate.  Of course, their fate is our fate; how do you make a life meaningful when it has to fail, when it has to end? 


In short (or perhaps, in long!), a powerful book that everyone should read, especially those young adults just emerging out of the cave into the half-light of true existence.  Your childhood is nothing to be ashamed of, however sheltered it was from the harsh rays of existence.  Indeed, childhood is the most precious gift we bestow, and corrupting the young is the most barbaric form of evil.  Never let go of your dreams or your foolish, idealistic hope.  You may fail—indeed, you probably will fail, to some degree—but that doesn’t make your life any less sweet or fulfilling.  Life is lived in the attempt, not in the resolution.  For a few glorious moments, Icarus flew higher than any man on earth—and then fell to his doom.  But what do you think sustained him in Hades?  

Sunny, Beautiful, Dazzling Book

Claude Monet, 1840-1926 (Basic Art Album) - Christoph Heinrich

I recently taught this book on Monet by Christoph Heinrich to my Humanities II class as way to introduce Monet's life and philosophy into his paintings.  Now I can't say the students unanimously loved it--or hell, even read it!--but the book charmed me right to the core.  What makes this book so wonderful is the author's ability to paint Monet's life and culture within the context of his works, since the paintings are why we read the book.  However, unlike many an art historian, the text helps us appreciate what he painted, why he painted it, and the cultural forces that led to the birth of Impressionism.  Heinrich is very skilfully in analyzing art with an expert's eye, yet without drowning us in jargon or specialized wisdom.  My students were able to follow the text quite well, and it challenged my own ideas about Monet's accomplishments.  Here are a few great passages that made this book 'sing' for me:


"What Monet was to call l'instantaneite became his life's work, and time and again reduced him to despair, for there is an intrinsic and irresolvable contradiction in the aim to preserve in permanent form the passing moment" (32).


[On Monet's decision to paint at the Gare Saint-Lazare station when he was still relatively unknown]: "I am the painter Claude Monet...I have decided to paint your station.  For a long time I was undecided whether to take the Gare du Nord of yours, but I now feel yours has more character."  Monet got his way in everything.  Trains were stopped, platforms closed off, the locomotives fired full of coal so they belched out steam in the way Monet loved.  Tyrannically he set himself up in the station and for days, amidst universal awe, he painted, then left again with half a dozen pictures done" (40-41).


[On the painting Vetheuil in the Mist]: "Jean-Baptiste Faure, a celebrated baritone at the Paris opera and one of the first collectors of Impressionist art, bought it from Monet but quickly returned it, saying that although he himself liked it his friends never tired of poking fun at him for buying a painting with nothing on it.  Monet kept the painting till he died, and would not have resold it for the world" (47).


[On the death of his wife]: "I found myself at daybreak at the beside of a dead woman who had been and always will be dear to me.  My gaze was fixed on her tragic temples, and I caught myself observing the shades and nuances of colour Death brought to her countenance.  Blues, yellows, greys, I don't know what.  That is the state I was in.  The wish come upon me, quite naturally, to record the image of her who was departing from us forever.  But before it occurred to me to draw those features I knew and loved so well, I was first and foremost devastated, organically, automatically, by the colours.  Against my will, my reflexes took possession of me in an unconscious process, as the everyday course of my life took over.  Like a draught animal working at the millstone.  Pity me, my friend" (48).


"At times, Monet imagined what it would have been like to be born blind and then suddenly be able to see, and to paint, without knowing what the thing one saw actually was.  He felt that one's first clear look at a subject was the most honest, because least sullied by preconceptions and prejudices" (55).


"For me, the subject is of secondary importance: I want to convey what is alive between me and the subject" (57).  


"Monet was never an artist meticulous in his botanical detail.  What he was after was the harmony of the whole, the overall impression.  For Monet, flowers were bearers of light, and a feast for the eyes" (73).  


[On his waterlilly paintings]: "The sky was only a reflection now and no longer appeared at the top of Monet's paintings.  His water pictures were landscapes shorn of horizons.  However small the section viewed, it might still include the countryside, trees, the sky, or clouds--but of course these were not landscape paintings in the usual sense; Monet himself called them reflected landscapes" (83).  


"It was as if Monet's broad, chalky stroke were itself becoming an alga or waterplant.  His brushstrokes no longer ran horizontally or vertically, but coiled like mysterious tendrils, and began to dance.  It was this freedom and daring in Monet's technique, together with the distance his colours moved from faithful representation, and his audacious use of outsize formats, that made his waterlily paintings so important for future artists" (84).  


These are just highlights, of course, but they suggest the luminous perspectives that Heinrich gives to this famous--and to some, overexposed--artist.  Reading this book is seeing Monet with new eyes as if one were blind and had never seen a Monet before.  It makes Impressionism new and daring once more, and certainly helps underpin the debt that later symbolist and abstract painters such as Kandinsky, Pollock, etc., owed to his example.  The beautiful writing is coupled with so many gorgeous, full-color images, some I've never even seen before.  A wonderful introduction or re-appreciation of Monet's work and well worth reading--or teaching in class!  

(from stephaniesbookreviews): The Count of the Living Death

Reblogged from 100 Pages A Day...Stephanie's Book Reviews:
The Count of the Living Death (The Chronicles of Hildigrim Blackbeard) - Joshua Grasso

I am so glad that I read this book, adventure, love, dragons, magic and outwitting death are all woven together in this fantastic tale.

Count Leopold has a strange locked chest that is calling to him...literally.  He listens to the voice in the box and unlocks the first two locks, but hesitates on the third and decides to call upon the magician who locked the box in the first place, Hildigrim Blackbeard.  Hildigrim must release Leopold's fate and risk his life, the life of his love, Lady Mary and Leopold's half brother, Ivan the terrible in order to outwit death itself. 

My favorite part of The Count of the Living Death is Mary's character, she is an intelligent, quick-witted female character who is fighting for love but making sound decisions and fending for herself-even in front of a dragon.  it's very refreshing to have a strong female lead in adventure story.  I was also intrigued by the character of Death itself and enjoyed how Death functioned in the living world as well as the world Death had created for itself.  Overall, the story is very well written and keeps the reader entertained through enough twists, turns and magic.  While Leopold and Mary are 19 year old, this is a good book for Young Adult and Adult readers alike.


What the $##$#!!#$#$ Is Young Adult Literature, Anyway?

From my blog, a rant about my philosophy about YA books, no thanks to the many agents and publishers who try to convince me otherwise:



On Sitting Down to Read Pride and Prejudice Again

Pride and Prejudice (Oxford World's Classics) by Austen, Jane unknown Edition [Paperback(2008)] -

In John Keats’ famous short poem, “On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again,” he remarks that “When through the old oak forest I am gone,/Let me not wander in a barren dream,/But, when I am consumed in the fire/Give me phoenix wings to fly at my desire.”  Obviously art is not life, so in some respect we look to books (among other things) as a kind of escape.  Not, I hope, merely to bury our heads in the sand or even to indulge in voyeuristic fantasies; instead, it is a kind of leave-taking of the earth by trying on new forms—an entirely new identity.  Thus it is not a “barren dream,” but a way to kindle our fiery passions into new life, rising on the “phoenix wings” of an author’s thoughts.  The best works of art, such as King Lear seduce us out of our workaday world and offer us visions of new worlds which seem tantalizingly close to home.  Many a book lover would jump at the chance to live in his or her favorite book, even as a minor character; these worlds are not necessarily ‘better’ than our own, but the presence of the author assures us they are observed and shaped by a loving hand (even if Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out and Cordelia is hanged!).  Ultimately I think we identify with the creator, and want him/her to guide our own lives, welcoming us home from exile and marrying us off to our Fitzwilliam Darcy or Elizabeth Bennet.  Which brings me to reason for writing this post, as I recently sat down to read Pride and Prejudice once again—so many times now I’ve frankly lost count. 


In a certain sense, this is a difficult book to re-read.  After all, there are two very famous adaptations based on the book that imagine every particular, and the plot has been so much discussed and appropriated that there are no longer any surprises.  Even Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey have moments where you forget a certain detail or conversation and nearly fall over backwards in surprise.  Not so Pride and Prejudice, where one conversations leads seamlessly, but predictably, to another, and the inevitable union of Elizabeth and Darcy is nowhere to be contradicted, much less by Elizabeth’s doubting—and often clueless—narration.  In some sense, it reminds me of Jerry Seinfeld’s quip against people who keep books at home—roughly, “why keep them around, are you really going to read them again?”  Indeed, why read Pride and Prejudice again when you know everything about Darcy, about Wickham, about the contents of that fateful letter which unmasks them both?  Is it merely to relive familiar haunts, or indulge in the sheer romance of a well-told love story? 


Ironically, Keats never really tells us anything about King Lear—what brought him back to it, what his favorite scenes are, his favorite characters, his favorite lines.  What emerges from his poem is the sense of beholding a sublime moment in art, like watching an advancing thunderstorm roar in the distance.   We’ve seen thunder, rain, lightning, even hail dozens—perhaps hundreds of times.  Why see it again?  Because it’s a powerful, visceral experience: it lives and breathes, and seems quite capable of flicking us out of existence.  True, the experience of reading King Lear is quite different from Pride and Prejudice, but in the end both are sublime in exactly this way.  I never get the feeling I’m reading a work of ‘art’ fashioned by a writer consciously shaping characters and situations to conform to an overall theme.  No, this is as natural as the wind and as musical as the ocean.  While in the presence of such works you are at once awed by the power that dared to conceived it, yet consoled by the reality that it does exist and that you can be part of it, even if only for as long as it takes to read the book.  And the book is never quite the same book you picked up before, even if you know the plot and can recite all the dialogue verbatim.  You are older; you are wiser; you are sadder; you are more content; you are looking for solace; you are looking for inspiration; you are reveling in Austen’s syntax the way you sit back and bask in the melodies of a Mozart piano concerto.  In short, it’s not the story or the characters—however divine these are—but the sheer pleasure of being swept away by something larger than anything we can dream into existence.  Even if she could. 


And yet, there are many surprises when you re-read Pride and Prejudice.  The most obvious one for me is the sheer audacity of Austen’s prose.  By audacity I mean her fearless ability to be witty at everyone’s expense—no small task for an unmarried spinster!  Not that wit was something new (Congreve and Fielding had that market cornered several generations earlier), but to see a woman doing it—and doing it so artfully—is a marvel to behold.  Take, for example, the hilarious (in a darkly comic sense) letter Mr. Collins writes to the Bennet family upon learning of Lydia’s elopement:


“I feel myself called upon, by our relationship, and my situation in life, to condole you on the grevious affliction you are now suffering under…No arguments shall be wanting on my part, that can alleviate so severe a misfortune; or that may comfort you, under a circumstance that must be of all others most afflicting to a parent’s mind.  The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this…[Lady Catherine and her daughter] agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all others, for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family.  And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect with augmented satisfaction on a certain event of last November, for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.”


In his usual tone-deaf way, Collins says exactly the wrong things in a letter meant to console.  Yet he goes much further by his sheer stupidity in claiming to know what a parent would feel—and then suggesting that it would be better if Lydia had died!  What parent would think or feel so?  In classic satirical fashion, Mr. Collins invokes his duty rather than his love, and then goes on to thank himself, more or less, for not marrying Elizabeth; otherwise, “I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.”  That Austen could even devise this speech is a testament to her genius.  This idiot of a clergyman is too concerned with his own position and prosperity to ever think of another’s feelings, even for the few minutes it must have taken to write this letter.  Invoking Lady Catherine as his unimpeachable authority, he reminds the family that they are ruined socially and that this may well be the last letter he writes them (unless he really takes pity on them!).  What kind of response did he imagine from such a letter?  Hilariously, I’m sure he expected them to be deeply moved and appreciative of his “condescension.” 


Now imagine Austen writing this: an unmarried woman, the daughter of a clergyman herself, who dared to write saucy novels lampooning the pretensions of her wayward society.  It was not for nothing that her nieces and nephews took great pains to excuse her conduct posthumously, reminding readers that “She did not rank any work of Fielding quite so high.  Without the slightest affectation she recoiled from everything gross.  Neither nature, wit, nor humour, could make her amends for so very low a scale of morals” (Henry Austen, Biographical Notice).  Certainly, too, such a deadly satirical portrait was never drawn for life—goodness no!  And we know this for a fact, since Henry Austen also reminds us, “She drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals.”  Of course not! 


The satirical humor in this novel is so extensive and varied that an entire encyclopedia could scarcely do it justice.  It ranges from the dark humor above to a more gleeful, self-satisfied mockery, as in the case of Caroline Bingley’s attempts to mock Darcy out of love with Elizabeth:


“I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, ‘She a beauty!—I should as soon call her mother a wit.’  But afterwards she seemed to improve upon you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.”

“Yes,” replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, “but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

He then went away, and Miss Bingley was felt to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.” 


Like Fielding (who we know she did read, as her letters mention her reading Tom Jones with Tom Lefroy, her one-time beau), Austen is able to dissect society to its mean artifices and petty triumphs.  Yet what makes this novel more than an exercise in 18th century wit is her deep compassion for all her characters, even the ones who seem on first glance to be trivial buffoons.  Mrs. Bennet comes in for great mockery in the novel, and yet once Elizabeth is made to realize her own prejudices against Darcy, she also realizes how rashly she has judged her own mother.  On the same hand, she has given her father all too much license to be wise and discerning.  As Austen writes,


“Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which you and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.  Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown…She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.” 


This is a sober moment in the book, when the satirical ribbing of Mr. Bennet becomes more sinister than the obsequiousness of Mr. Collins and his like.  No wonder Elizabeth is Mrs. Bennet’s least favorite daughter (as she, herself, reflects before trying to marry her off to Mr. Collins); Elizabeth had grown up largely despising her small-minded obsession with getting husbands.  However, one could just as easily argue Mrs. Bennet was being more of a realist than her husband, who seems to have washed his hands of all five daughters long ago.  That she cared to provide for them—even in her crass, misguided way—says a lot about her character, as well as Elizabeth’s inability to read parental affection. 


Elizabeth’s character, too, moves remarkably and believably from an eager, satirical ‘wit’ to a more cautious woman of feeling, suddenly aware of having to read people as people—not as characters in this or that romantic novel.  As a great reader, she naturally sees the world in novelistic terms—all the more so when characters take their cue from fiction (Wickham, Collins, and in some aspects, even Darcy).  But no romantic hero is spun from whole cloth, and we only discern character by re-reading, much as Pride and Prejudice itself is better appreciated once the plot is known and we can read for character, rather than plot.  Ironically, it is Darcy’s letter that teaches her to stop ‘reading’ and truly look.  It is a lesson learned previously by Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, who imagines herself in a Gothic novel, and Marianne Dashwood, whose beau seems to have skipped right out of a Walter Scott novel.  Yet Elizabeth is a step removed since we see how she changes much more gradually and artfully.  Catherine is thrown out of the Abbey and Marianne takes to her sick bed—all very convenient, in some ways, to affect a grand transformation.  Nothing actually happens to Elizabeth other than a proposal which she refuses.  What makes her change is not the plot; it is herself.  She decides to change based on emotion and reason (or sense and sensibility, perhaps). 


The same, of course, is true for Darcy; he teaches her to read just as he, himself, learns the importance of being read.  As he remarks after his second proposal,


“I cannot be so easily reconciled to myself.  The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me.  Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’  Those were your words.  You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;--though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.”


As a proud and dignified man, he had no interesting in what ‘those people’ thought of him.  He ruled himself—quite well, if he dared say so himself—so the opinions of a Mrs. Bennet or even an Elizabeth Bennet reflected more on their own meager abilities.  For Elizabeth, however, he realizes the pain that a single glance, a single misplaced word can bestow.  Few people want to consciously cause pain, yet few realize how easily pain is dispensed upon the ‘underlings’ of the world.  Not surprisingly, Darcy changes the way most of us change: we fall in love with one person, and through that person we begin to see the world.  Initially he wants to be kind to her, to protect her, be civil to her aunt and uncle, and then to her wayward sister, and then…well, he’s become something of a decent human being.  This is one of the few novels I can think of where education is the means of romance.  They learn to be people before they fall in love, which is the polar opposite of almost any other novel or movie that even flirts with romance.  Is education sexy?  Not surprisingly, Jane Austen can make anything sexy. 


I could go on and on, obviously, but I’ll end here with the observation that Pride and Prejudice should be revisited, and often.  When Austen initially wrote the book it was an epistolary novel entitled “First Impressions.”  She drastically re-wrote the book to reflect more Romantic tastes (I imagine the first version might have sounded a bit more like Lady Susan or her unfinished novel, Catherine), though this central idea, how we read and misread the world, remained intact.  All reading is a mixture of pride (I’m too good to read those sorts of books!) and prejudice (oh, I know where this is headed!) yet this invites all sorts of confusion and misdirection.  To be truly educated, the novel suggests, is to read yourself before you read others.  To listen before you pronounce.  And to fall in love with the person who most captivates your intellect, regardless of their class, background, or parents(!).  I fell in love the first time I read Pride and Prejudice at 17 or 18 without even knowing why, and later felt almost embarrassed for doing so (it’s a chick book, isn’t it?).  Good books, however, and neither ‘chick lit’ nor ‘Young adult’ nor ‘world’s classics.’  They are simply there, waiting to be read, and waiting to bear us off on the “phoenix wings” of desire.  Until our next reading…


Currently reading

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