David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Dickens was an author who had not appealed to me in my teens so, in an effort to expand my horizons, I began to follow a book group that was reading through his works chronologically.  Since joining them, I have been able to read Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, and my most recent read, David Copperfield.

Fatherless, David Copperfield lives with his mother and their spunky and loveable servant, Peggotty, in quiet and amiable bliss.  When his mother decides to remarry to an irascible man named Murdstone, David’s life begins an upheaval that catapults him through a variety of circumstances, both beneficial and tragic, each of his decisions mirroring his persistence, bravery, suffering and loyalty, working together to build a quiet character of strength and reliability.

The story is so vast it is impossible to write a summary that would do it justice so let’s examine some of the wonderful characters that Dickens threads throughout the narrative:

Betsey Trotwood
by Phiz
(source Wikipedia)

Betsy Trotwood, David’s aunt, appears to abandon him and his mother at the beginning of the story, yet when David needs her, she becomes a stabilizing force in his life and an excellent example with her dry wit and generous heart.

Peggotty & Barkis
by Sol Etyinge Jr. 1867
(source Victorian Web)

Peggotty, his nurse, sees David as her own and often assists him in his endeavours; a cherished substitute mother.

Daniel Peggotty
by Frank Reynolds 1910
(source Wikipedia)

Mr. Peggotty, her brother, shows unwavering devotion and heart-wrenching unconditional love to his niece, Emily, after her flight with David’s nefarious schoolfriend, Steerforth, and her obvious ruin.

Wilkins Micawber
from 1912 edition
(source Wikipedia)

Mr. Micawber, a shady, bumbling fellow, appears like an odiferous fragrance throughout David’s life, and while good intentioned, only causes trouble whenever he appears; however he ends up helping to bring about a positive resolution to a quite dire circumstance at the end of the book.

David falls for Dora
by Frank Reynolds (1910)
(source Wikipedia)

Even Dickens’ other female characters were likeable.  In many of his novels he recurrently treats the feminine nature as sacchrine, helpless and perfect.  It can get very annoying.  Yet while Dora is all of these things, somehow Dickens makes her real; this time the characterization is for a purpose and works well within the story.  I loved Dora, as well.

Dickens appears to emphasis the idea of constancy and the value of tradition.  Copperfield’s childhood home is revisited at a few points in the novel, and his aunt Trotwood, while losing her home when her money is treacherously stolen, regains it again at the conclusion of the story.  Loyalty to his friends is paramount for David, and he ensures he maintains lasting relationships with most of them throughout his lifetime.  He sees good in everyone, from his child-wife who is clinging and rather dim, to his admired school chum who, while he plummets in David’s esteem after seducing Emily, is still regarded with compassion by David.  There is a lasting emphasis on family, familiar houses from his past and the desire to remain close to the people, place and things that have made him who he is.

The River by Phiz
(source Victorian Web)

David’s Aunt Trotwood wisely states: “We must meet reverses boldly, and not suffer them to frighten us, my dear.  We must learn to act the play out.  We must live misfortune down, Trot!” and throughout the book her words are played out in David’s actions as he perseveres through misfortune, scandal and tragedy to become a devoted husband, a friend of whom anyone would be proud, and a successful writer in his own right.

Claimed to be autobiographical in nature, the novel was clearly dear to Dickens, his words reflecting his affection for it:  ” …. like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child.  And his name is David Copperfield.”  A truly wonderful read!

Wuthering Heights Read-Along Week #3

Read-Along hosted by Maggie at An American in France

Chapters 18 – 26

Twelve years pass, for housekeeper Ellen (Nelly), a delightful time as, with Cathy’s death, the passionate drama has disappeared and she is only left to look after Catherine, the daughter of Edgar Linton and Cathy.  Within the realm of Thrushcross Grange, Catherine grows up very sheltered and protected.  In spite of being a caring and gregarious child, she exhibits her mother’s reckless willfulness and waits until her father’s has left to visit his dying sister, Isabella before sneaking away from home.  Inadvertently, she finds herself at Wuthering Heights where she meets Hareton, her cousin, the son of Cathy’s brother Hindley.  Shocked at this display of headstrong behaviour, Ellen drags Catherine home, yet imbedded in Catherine’s head is the idea of returning to meet the uncle whom she has never met.  Edgar returns home after Isabella’s funeral, bringing her boy, Linton, whom Catherine pets and cosets, yet Heathcliff will not allow him to remain and, reluctantly Edgar instructs Ellen to deliver the sickly boy to Wuthering Heights.  Years later Catherine and Ellen encounter Heathcliff on a walk and he encourages them to visit.  Catherine and young Linton get along well, in spite of his peevish nature, yet it is apparent that Heathcliff’s desire is for them to marry so his heir will become heir to Thrushcross Grange.   There is foreshadowing as to the deaths of both Edgar Linton and his nephew Linton.

Yorkshire Autumn
Photo courtesy of Tejvan Pettinger
(source Flickr) Creative Commons License

Did this novel get darker during these chapters or does the black, wicked oppressiveness of Heathcliff’s corruption cast a shroud over the whole novel, leaving nothing but negative obscurity?  Will Catherine and Linton marry or will he even survive that long?  We pretty much know what will physically happen to her after her father’s death, but how will her new circumstances affect her character?  Yet the question that is screaming at me is:  Is there any hope in this novel?  Everyone, from the first character to the last, all seem pawns in Heathcliff’s lust for vengeance and what is most annoying is that everyone conveniently seems to play into his hands.  He drains the life from anyone he comes into contact with, yet with receiving life, only seems to move further from it.  I can’t imagine how this is going to end ……. well, I can imagine it, but I don’t want to think about it.

Read-along posts:  Chapters 1-9 / Chapters 10-17 / Chapters 18-26 / Chapters 27-34 / FINAL REVIEW


Paradise Lost Read-Along Books III and IV

Paradise Lost by John Milton – Books III & IV

Paradise Lost Read-Along Hosted by Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Book III

God gazes down on Adam and Eve from the Heaven, the Son at his right hand.  While demonstrating foreknowledge of their fall, he provides a defence that, for their behaviour, the blame cannot be shouldered by him; he created them as free souls and will not change the eternal:

“I formed them free, and free they must remain
Till they enthrall themselves; I else must change
Their nature, and revoke the high decree
Unchangeable, eternal, which ordained
Their freedom; they themselves ordained their fall.”

Paradise Lost
by Gustave Doré

There are a number of theological themes that could be explored here, one the concept of God in time, which Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy explains and Anslem in his work Cur Deus Homo, delves into the Satisfaction Theory.  Both are interesting, but since I am neither a theologian, nor equipped to deal with these ideas in an intelligible manner, I’ll leave it for braver souls to investigate. 🙂

While one of aspect of free will, is freedom to choose ill as well as good, I, personally, would rather be free to make bad choices than forced or coerced to make good ones.  But the main emphasis in these passages is clearly grace and mercy:

“By the other first:  Man, therefore, shall find grace,
The other, none; in mercy and justice both,
Through Heaven and Earth, so shall my glory excel,
But mercy, first and last, shall shine brightest shine.”

While justice is necessary for teaching, God is more concerned with giving mercy to the “first parents”.

Yet a transgression will be made and atonement must follow.  God asks who will redeem man his crime, “The rigid satisfaction, death for death.  Say Heavenly Powers, where shall we find such love?”

And the Son answers, breathing “immortal love to mortal men”:

“Behold me, then:  me for him, life for life,
I offer; on me let thine anger fall;
Account me Man:  I for his sake will leave
Thy bosom, and this glory next to thee
Freely put off, and for him lastly die
Well pleased; on me let Death wreak all his rage.”

Meanwhile, Satan prepares to descend to earth.  He first makes himself of comely appearance and then approaches the Angel Uriel, one of the seven angels nearest to God’s throne.  Presenting himself as a good angel while weaving a web of gross lies, he explains how he desires to visit earth to admire God’s creation and to praise the Universal Maker. Surprisingly Uriel believes him and sends him on his way to Paradise.

Book IV

Satan comes closer to Eden but despair and remorse trouble his thoughts:

“And like a devilish engine back recoils
Upon himself; horror and doubt distract
His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir 
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step, no more than from himself, can fly
By change of place.  Now conscience wakes despair
That slumbered, wakes the bitter memory
Of what he was, what is, and what must be
Worse; of worse deeds worse sufferings must ensue.”

“Till pride and worse ambition threw me down,
Warring in Heaven against Heaven’s matchless King —-
Ah wherefore?  he deserved no such return
From me, whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none, nor was his service hard.
What could be less than to afford him praise,
The easiest recompense, and pay him thanks,
How due!  Yet all his good proved ill in me,
And wrought but malice …….”

Even though his existence in Heaven was easy, in his dark, rebellious, ambitious spirit there is no room for love or “praise” for his Creator.

“Be then his love accursed, since, love or hate,
To me alike it deals eternal woe.
Nay, cursed be thou, since aginst his thy will
Chose freely what it now so justly rues.
Me miserable!  which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.”

His self-hatred is like a blow and it is hard to catch your breath.  Hell is torment and Satan is a very tortured angel, filled with such conflicting emotions that you can almost hear a visceral tearing inside of him.

Leaping into the garden, he alights on the Tree of Life.  How effective; what creepy, nefarious images that fill the mind.  And another paradox:  Death and Life.  We get an amazing verbal painting of the garden of Eden, its lushness, richness and beauty alive to the senses ……. close your eyes and you are there.  Satan himself views the garden “with new wonder”.

Adam and Eve in the Garden
by Gustave Doré

Knowing Milton’s religious background, I did not take offense at his description of Eve’s “submission”, “subjection” and yielding to Adam.  The whole poem is saturated with hierarchy.  God, the Creator, over all; angels in submission to God;  Adam created by and subject to God; the fallen angels subject to Satan …… it is understandable and perhaps practical that Eve is in submission to Adam.  But it is not a negative submission when you read how Adam addresses her:

“Sole partner and sole part of all these joys,
Dearer thyself than all ……”

“To prune these growing plants, and tend these flowers;
Which, were it toilsome, yet with thee were sweet.”

However, while the lovers discuss Eve’s creation and God’s prohibition on them from eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Uriel has discovered Satan’s false disguise and flies down on a sunbeam to warn Gabriel, who is guarding the gate.  They send out guardian angels on patrol.  While Satan slingshots from remorse, despair, anger, and envy, his evil nature ever acts king and, he is found “squatting like a toad” by Adam and Eve as they sleep, whispering foul dreams into her ear.  When he is brought before Gabriel, he attempts deception to wiggle out of his predicament and another war between God’s angels and the fallen angels nearly ignites but, at a sign from God, Satan flees.


While I enjoyed these books somewhat less than the previous ones, Milton’s cadence and rhythm are still mesmerizing.  Satan’s character becomes even more intricate and fascinating. To get out of the realms of Hell and to find the Garden, Satan is guilty of fraud and treachery, interestingly the worst sins that are represented in Dante’s Inferno.  His internal conversations with himself remind me exactly of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, although his duplicity and malice are even more dreadful to hear.  I loved the visions of Adam and Eve and their relationship towards each other …….. harmony is the word that comes to mind, in perfect synchronicity with the Garden.  The Son’s gentle sacrifice for these first humans is very moving.

The Story of the Ancient World – Check-In #1

Part One – The Edge of History

In this part we are introduced to the Sumerian king list and the start of their civilization, in essence, how and why kingship was formed.  The various floods stories are covered and how cities grew and formed after this event.  Kings slowly earned the right to rule because of blood ties instead of based on their power and ability.  We learn about the two kingdoms of Egypt and the unification of the two by Narmer (and possibly earlier by The Scorpion King).  In India, around the Indus valley, villages grew into towns.  The first king we know about is wise King Manu, however there are also warnings that the civilization would go into a strong decline.  Around the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in China, rice was planted, houses grew into villages, establishing four main cultures in the area.  A number of kings invented helpful implements.  There is also evidence that rule here was not dependent on bloodlines, as kingship could pass to peasants or by-pass direct lineage.

Egyptian Pharaoh
source Wikipedia

I am so enamoured of Susan Wise Bauer’s style of writing.  Her prose perhaps lacks an academic finish yet it is so readable and she always inserts grains of interest that set certain historical events in the reader’s memory. Her thoughtful reasoning and dry wit also shine through with comments such as:

” …… historians too often tried to position themselves as scientists:  searching for cold hard facts and dismissing any historical material which seemed to depart from the realities of Newton’s universe …….. But for the historian who concerns herself with the why and how of human behaviour, potsherds and the foundations of houses are of limited use.  They give us no window into the soul.  Epic tales, on the other hand, display the fears and hopes of the people who tell them —– and these are central to any explanation of their behaviour.  Myth …….. is the “smoke of history.”  You may have to fan at it a good deal before you get a glimpse of the flame beneath; but when you see smoke, it is wisest not to pretend that it isn’t there.”

“…… In any case, we should remember that all histories of ancient times involve a great deal of speculation.  Speculation anchored by physical evidence isn’t somehow, more reliable than speculation anchored by the stories that people choose to preserve and tell to their children.  Every historian sorts through evidence, discards what seems irrelevant, and arranges the rest into a pattern.  The evidence provided by ancient tales is no less important than the evidence left behind by merchants on a trade route.  Both need to be collected, sifted, evaluated, and put to use.  To concentrate on physical evidence to the exclusion of myth and story is to put all of our faith in the explanations for human behaviour in that which can be touched, smelled, seen, and weighed:  it shows a mechanical view of human nature, and a blind faith in the methods of science to explain the mysteries of human behaviour.”

” ……  I have chosen to use the traditional designations BC and AD for dates.  I understand why many historians choose to use BCE and CE in an attempt to avoid seeing history from a Judeo-Christian point of view, but using BCE while still reckoning from Christ’s birth seems, to me, fairly pointless.”

So far, an excellent approach and a good overall execution!  I am certainly taking notes!

Source Wikipedia

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

After reading Woolf’s To The Lighthouse I was excited to dive into Mrs. Dalloway.  Following the lead of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf used the same writing style, and, in a loose imitation of Joyce, chronicles a day in the life of a prestigious middle-aged woman in London. Woolf critiqued Joyce’s Ulysses, calling it “illiterate” and “under-bred,” finding the graphic sexual fantasies and the foul language base, and saying it reeked of a “queasy under-graduate scratching his pimples.”  Was Mrs. Dalloway Woolf’s attempt to get this style of writing right?

Using her signature “stream-of-consciousness” style, Woolf chronicles one day in the life of Mrs. Richard Dalloway, the wife of a respectable, wealthy gentleman.  Set in post-World War I London, on this particular day she is preparing for a party she will host that evening, an unusual party whose guests will span the ages of her life, past and present.  As she performs her tasks, her mind wanders back through days gone by, unearthing ghosts of earlier loves, regrets, irritations, ever-present worries and satisfaction.  The reader is also privy to the thoughts of many of her friends who will be present at this party, as they perform their daily business.

As a secondary plot, we meet Septimus Warren Smith, a surviving soldier of the war, yet a hollow shell of a man, his mind barely touching reality.  In spite of the persistent yet useless intervention of his wife and doctors, he gradually is sucked into a whirlpool of despair, seemingly of his own making, and suffers a very poignant and pathetic fate.  Or does he?

Julia Stephen
Virginia Woolf’s mother
source Wikipedia
Virginia Woolf, Age 20
source Wikipedia

I’m going to go out on a limb here and offer a very unusual interpretation of at least one theme in the novel.  Woolf’s treatment of Septimus, in contrast with Mrs. Dalloway and her social peers, was very intriguing.  If we examine the thoughts of Mrs. Dalloway and her friends and acquaintances, they touch upon parties, flower-shows, scholarships, the family business, Bartlett pears, gossip and cricket.  In comparison, Septimus’ musings revolve around human nature, the truth, Evans (his friend who was killed in the war), aloneness, meaning, and the beauty of words.  Septimus is presented on the surface as a character who is emotionally unbalanced, while Mrs. Dalloway’s circle is the respected rational group.  Has Woolf turned appearance on its head?  Is the perceived deranged person really the one who is sane, and are the ones who appear “normal” actually the group who is not?  It’s an irony that’s inescapable.

For Septimus, the only liberation from a world turned upside-down was death.  Is his escape from a materialistic world concerned with trivialities an heroic act?  Woolf makes it appear so:

“…… Death was defiance.  Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone.  There was an embrace in death.”

Ironically, sixteen years after the writing of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf followed Septimus into the murky fog of depression and, placing stones in the pockets of her overcoat, walked into the River Ouse near her home, drowning herself, a sad fate for one of the most respected female literary writers of the time.

Virginia Woolf – Romanian Stamp
Source Wikipedia

I just loved Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and I really wanted to like Mrs. Dalloway.  There are certain aspects I do like about it, such as the character of Septimus Warren Smith, the relentless passage of time, the allusions to various literary works of different eras, the exploration of the lingering impact of the first World War and the diminishing influence of the British empire.   The prose is lovely, light and lyrical, each sentence a candy you can pop into your mouth and taste a burst of spring.  Yet I found the story meandering and disjointed.  In To The Lighthouse, the stream-of consciousness  flowed towards one main character, Mrs. Ramsey, wrapping her in a warm glow, even while each character retained their own lively identity.  In Mrs. Dalloway, the streams flow out from Mrs. Dalloway and a host of other characters, at times to alight on each other, but many times to float out into the atmosphere, leaving the reader confused or adrift.  The lack of cohesiveness was like an irritating burr in my britches and no matter how much I tried, it was hard to ignore.  Yet, in spite of the persistent irritation, I will probably re-read this book sometime in the future.  Woolf’s books are like a deceptively packed suitcase where you’re never quite certain if you have even removed half of what is contained.

Eugene Onegin Read-Along – Chapters 3 and 4

Chapters 3 & 4

Chapter 3

Lensky takes Onegin to meet his beloved Olga, and Onegin voices his preference for Tatyana, complaining of Olga’s dullness.  The neighbourhood gossip, combined with Tatyana’s dreamy idealistic yearning, provides a spark to ignite her infatuation with Onegin.

“Tatyana listened with vexation 
To all this gossip; but it’s true
That with a secret exultation,
Despite herself she wondered too;
And in her heart the thought was planted …..
Until at last her fate was granted:
She fell in love.  For thus indeed 
Does spring awake the buried seed.
Long since her keen imagination,
With tenderness and pain imbued,
Had hungereed for the fatal food;
Long since her heart’s sweet agitation
Had choked her maiden breast too much:
Her soul awaited ….. someone’s touch.”

Retreating to reading books filled with dramatic love, Tatyana pines away for her unaware lover until, in the throes of passionate frustration, the innocent young girl decides to write a letter.  The narrator digresses briefly to comment on how the flexibility of Russian in writing has been lost with the trend of communicating in French.  How does this relate to the story?  Well, let’s wait and see.  Tatyana paints her letter with great emotions coursing through her, begging Onegin to relieve her romantic sufferings with an indication of his feelings.  When he arrives at the Larin estate, she attempts to hide in the garden but Onegin waits for her.  There is a confrontation BUT …… bless Pushkin, as he chooses at this point to play with the reader, stating he is too tired to go on and will tell us what happened later.  Cheeky guy!

A Sketch by Pushkin of himself and Eugene Onegin
lounging in St. Petersburg
(source Wikipedia)

Chapter 4

Onegin is very candid with his feelings, telling Tatyana that even if he loved her now, he would make her quite miserable later and bring her great grief.  He shows a surprising understanding of both their natures.  In spite of his cynicism, he has great depth of human understanding.  The neighbourhood is unhappy with his treatment of her and then Pushkin leaps off into a rollicking discursion on friends who abuse us and how one should trust oneself, the truest companion.  Tatyana descends deeper into apathy upon her disappointment.  We further learn how ga-ga Lensky is over Olga and the narrator sets up a mock debate with himself over poetic forms which mirror the arguements between the archaists and the modernists of his time (at least I think that’s what he’s doing).  Tatyana’s name day party approaches and Onegin is invited.  Curiously, he agrees to go.  Oh, what mischief will he get up to?  Why does he agree to further expose himself to Tatyana after his refusal of her love?  Does he care so little about her feelings?  Does he dare the neighbours’ disapproval?  Or is there another reason?

In these sections, I was struck by Onegin’s almost tender treatment of Tatyana.  His response was very gentlemanly and he appeared to have an honest regard for her feelings.  He exhibits similar consideration towards Lensky when he controls his cynicism and does not tarnish his innocent, romantic view of the world.

Something that also comes to mind is the comparison I have heard of between Onegin and Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice.  What????  I still don’t see it ……. but I will keep an open mind …….

Wuthering Heights Read-Along Week #2

Read-Along hosted by Maggie at An American in France

Chapters 10 – 17

The tension builds, a number of occurrences adding to the heightened drama.  Heathcliff returns after three years, apparently richer although he will not reveal how his fortunes changed.  On the outside he appears more worldly and dapper, as though he can now stand among equals, yet we can glean from certain clues that his character may even be darker and more perverted than before.

Catherine has a break-down due to a conflict between her husband, Edgar and Heathcliff.  I had a hard time reconciling her stubborn willfullness to her fragile state of health and I really wasn’t sure what precipitated her collapse.  At one time she screams at both men that neither would listen to her and that nobody exhibited the proper concern for her, so perhaps it was simply spleen that she was not getting her own way.  In any case, her condition grows serious and the outcome is her death.  At times she appears to want it, to relish the thought, because of the effect it will have on other people.

Yorkshire View
Photo courtesy of Paul Stevenson (sourced Flickr)
Creative Commons License

Heathcliff himself is an enigma.  I had expected him to take a darker road, but thought that his descent would still be held in tension with his love and/or devotion to Catherine, however his behaviour belies an almost severing of his soul from humanity.  His seduction of Edgar’s sister, Isabella, is despicable, his intent only to torture and humiliate her, an act of deliberate vengeance upon Edgar.  His wild carousing with Hindley and dark prowling about, only serve to underline the depravity of his character.  His concern for Catherine’s health is evident, but he does not or refuses to exhibit any conception of how his actions influence her for good or ill.  I was actually quite perplexed by Brontë’s sketching of his character.

Where is this book going?  We have finished slightly more than half of it and Catherine is dead, so I have to question whether the main theme of the novel is enduring love, which you often hear people speak of when referring to Wuthering Heights.  To be honest, I’m finding Heathcliff quite repellent; I cannot find one glimpse of a redeeming feature or even something to draw from him that is a teachable moment.  Hmmm ……

Well, I shall keep reading …….

Once and Future King by T.H. White

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.”

The Once and Future King encompasses five books written by author T.H. White about the legend of King Arthur.  In The Sword and the Stone, we meet Wart, a young boy who is the ward of Sir Ector and who lives with his guardian and his guardian’s son, Kay, near the Forest Sauvage.  By an unexpected set of circumstances, he encounters the wizard, Merlyn, who becomes his and Kay’s tutor, although we can see from the beginning that Merlyn favours Wart and there is obvious foreshadowing that we should expect something extraordinary from him later in the tale.  This book concludes with Wart unknowingly pulling the sword from the stone, a clear indication that he is England’s next king.  The book The Witch in the Wood (re-written as The Queen of Air and Darkness and apparently with little resemblance to the original) follows, chronicling the establishment of Arthur’s court under the political idea of right instead of might, and, of course, the love affair between Lancelot and Guinever receives the most attention.  The third book, The Ill-Made Knight, gives primary focus to Lancelot, his quests to purge his thoughts of Guinever, his relationship to Elaine who bears him a son, the development of a odd love-triangle, the quest for the Holy Grail, and Lancelot’s fight to defend Guinever’s honour.  A Candle in the Wind waxes philosophically about the metamorphosis of England into its present condition and the ideologies of war.  The height of tension appears in this book as Lancelot and Guinever’s relationship is revealed by a dastardly plot of Arthur’s Orkney clan, a war begins and the throne is seized by a usurper.  The death of Arthur and his son, Mordred are foreshadowed.   The Book of Merlyn, published posthumously, is added at the end and sets an aged Arthur amongst Merlyn and his animal friends from Book I, as they discuss the evils of war, why men want it, and how can it be avoided.

Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn
(source Flickr)
Creative Commons License

I’m really stumped as to where to start with reviewing this book.  My idea of the Knights of the Round Table was woven with nobility, courage, daring, self-sacrifice, self-denial and chivalric actions.  While the Arthur of this tale professes to have started the Round Table with the idea that might does not equal right, White makes Arthur a rather weak character.  In his youth, he is quite simple; Merlyn plants the social and political ideas into his head and as a reader, I never got the feeling that Arthur intrinsically believed in them himself.  He knowingly allows Lancelot and Guinever to have an illicit relationship and is often paralyzed in moments when it is necessary for a king to show his strength and decisiveness.  He is a simple, loving old soul who calls everyone “my dear” but it is a hard task to imagine him as the legendary King Arthur.  Lancelot for a good part of the book is a brooding morass of insecurity and dark thoughts.

“The boy [Lancelot] thought that there was something wrong with him.  All throughout his life — even when he was a great man with the world at his feet — he was to feel this gap:  something at the bottom of his heart of which he was aware, and ashamed, but which he did not understand ….  We do not have to dabble in a place which he preferred to keep secret.”

 However after Lancelot’s quest for the Grail and his encounter with God, he at least develops into a man with a sense of what is important in life and an internal code of conduct that he believes is worth following.  Guinever is a moderately believable character, professing her loyalty and love to both men, but White puts her through a period of womanly jealously that is almost embarrassing to read and certainly not worthy of her.  With Arthur’s half-relatives from Orkney, the devious and twisted brothers who become not only knights of the Round Table but are the poison that festers inside Arthur’s kingdom, White does a satisfying job with crafting their personalities.  At times they can be quite appalling …… perfect villains to fit the story.  Also, King Pellinore and his Questing Beast should receive an appreciative nod, adding delightful humour to the first book.

Lancelot and Guinevere (1890s)
Herbert James Draper
source Wikimedia Commons

T.H. White was a rather tortured soul.  He was beset with fears of nearly everything, except, apparently, God.  After holding the position of head of the English Department at Stowe School, he retreated to a game-keeper’s cottage at Stowe Ridings on the Stowe Estate and, with hawks, owls and a setter bitch as his only companions, he began to write.  As war loomed over England in 1938, White’s fear almost choked him.  He declared himself a conscientious objector and in February 1939 found himself lodging in a farmhouse in Doolistown, Ireland, out of harm’s way.  He remained there for the next six and a half years.  In a December 1940 letter to L.J. Potts, a former tutor at Cambridge, he wrote: “….. [The Candle in the Wind] will end on the night before the last battle, with Arthur absolutely wretched.  I am going to add a new 5th volume in which Arthur rejoins Merlyn underground ….. and the animals come back again, mainly ants and wild geese.  Don’t squirm.  The inspiration is godsent.  You see, I have suddenly discovered that (1) the central theme of Morte d’Arthur is to find an antidote for war, (2) that the best way to examine the politics of man is to observe him, with Aristotle, as a political animal …….”

The above information perhaps explains White confusing re-crafting of the legend, and the plethora of social and political philosophical concepts that twist the characters into a means of furthering the development of these ideas.  Instead of White employing creativity to show the reader various themes in the novel, he simply tells us, which leaves a very weak effect.  As one of my reading buddies stated, instead of cleverly weaving his opinions into the story, White attempts to weave the story into his opinions.  The result is sloppy and, in effect, he actually strips these noble characters of the dignity they had been given by previous writers.

The Sword in the Stone, by itself is an appealing read, a nice story about the young Arthur and his upbringing.  By the second book, the story takes a turn for the worst.  I only have two words:  very disappointing.

Eugene Onegin Read Along – Chapters 1 & 2

This is my second reading in two months of Eugene Onegin, this time for Marian’s Read Along at Tanglewood.  For the read-along, I am reading the James Falen translation (the first time I read the Charles Johnston translation) and I really wish I had read this one first.  It is more readable and clear, its simplicity charming for an initial introduction to Onegin.

First impressions of Onegin?

The shallowness of Onegin is even more apparent the second time round.  He enjoys his rounds of the parties and, of course, his pursuit of women:

“I have no leisure for retailing
The sum of all our hero’s parts,
But where his genius proved unfailing
The thing he’d learned above all arts,
What from his prime had been his pleasure,
His only torment, toil, and treasure,
What occupied, the livelong day,
His languid spirit’s fretful play
Was love itself, the art of ardour …….”

Sadly though, in spite of his incessant pursuit of pleasure, its golden sheen soon begins to tarnish and Onegin not only gets bored, but completely disgusted with his manner of living:

“We still, alas, cannot forestall it —-
This dreadful ailment’s heavy toll;
The spleen is what the English call it,
We call it simply Russian soul ……”

I really enjoyed the description of his friendship with Lensky.  They appear complete opposites yet they are drawn together.  Does Onegin see his younger self in Lensky?  He observes him with an almost teasingly sceptical eye, a patient condescension.

In spite of the flawed nature of Onegin’s character, Pushkin presents him in a playful manner and you can’t help but feel he would be an interesting companion.  However, even when he tires of his pleasure-seeking ways, he still cannot seem to find this soul, in spite of a cursory search through books, endeavouring to “make his thoughts the thoughts of others.”  Interestingly, Pushkin turns this perception on its head stating:  “He who has lived as a thinking being Within his soul must hold men small; …..,” as if Onegin thinks he is too great — his mind or stature — to be fully appreciated by ordinary men.

Alexandrinsky Theater, St. Petersburg
photo courtesy of Edmund Gall (sourced Flickr)
Creative Commons License

What do you make of the narrator’s commentary?

I’ve always found that the commentary sounds almost split.  It’s as if Puskin is speaking, yet also another, perhaps wiser, soul.  You sense a playful teasing tone at some times and a more mature introspection at others.  It’s something I’m trying to make note of and examine as I read.

Thoughts on the characters sketched out in Chapter 2?

I really enjoyed meeting Lensky in this translation.  His youthful joie-de-vivre and idealism really shine through.  Strangely, I think he made me like Onegin even more.  Perhaps it was due to Onegin’s restraint towards him.  He did not attempt to destroy Lensky’s untarnished view of life, which was certainly a possibility as it would have given Onegin something to do.

As for Tatyana, so far she appears to be a sheltered country girl, who lives in her books.  She has too much idle time on her hands and the time she spends staring out the window only seems to serve to increase her illusions.  I found it perhaps telling that, in my translation, it says that she never learned to show affection.  I wonder if this will be pertinent in an occurrence coming up in the poem??

Olga, Tatyana’s sister, seems quite one-dimensional but perhaps this is deliberately done, since the spotlight is not meant to shine upon her.

While I prefer the Falen translation over the Johnston translation, I bought it on my Kindle and the fact that it contains no stops between chapters is driving me nuts.  A small price to pay for increased enlightenment, I guess.  😉

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

First edition 1925 (sourced Wikipedia)

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

Decadence, adultery, narcissism, vast wealth, idealistic love, betrayal, death, revenge, murder; a vast array of scope for a novel, and Fitzgerald delivers an impacting tale in The Great Gatsby.  Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest, begins to form a relationship with his neighbour, the wealthy Jay Gatsby and eventually learns of Gatsby’s connection to his cousin, Daisy.  Daisy, who is married to Tom Buchanan, while casually enduring her husband’s adulterous relationships, has led a very vapid and frivilous life amongst the society scene of the 1920s.  When Gatsby reappears in her life, their rekindled romance sets off a series of tragic events, the repercussions reverberating through the lives of all the characters.

Gatsby, the created man; Gatsby, the idealist, a man who is love with an image that formed five years earlier, and that he has nurtured through time.  Did I understand his infatuation with Daisy?  No, but I sympathized with it.  He had grown up isolated, broke relations with his parents reasonably early on and had no one in his life to set a good example that he could draw from.  Daisy was perhaps the only person whom he had loved, and so he loved her passionately, unrealistically and terminally.  And he realized, that he would need money to keep her love.  When Nick Carraway says to him, “She’s [Daisy’s] got an indiscreet voice …. It’s full of —-“, Gatsby answers, “Her voice is full of money.”  Even though he knows what she is like, and has known from the beginning, is he desperately trying to hold on to his fantasy of her —- this illusion of perfection — because he has nothing else?  Gatsby fails to examine any of the decisions he makes in his life ……… perhaps he truly believes that money can buy him happiness and cannot see the superficiality of the life and people with whom he surrounds himself.  His life is built on illusion and throughout the novel we hear the faint ticking of the bomb that will shatter his misperceptions.

The Plaza Hotel in the early 1920s
(source Wikipedia)

As for Nick Carraway, I felt uncomfortable with him as the narrator.  He went to unusual lengths at the beginning of the novel to establish his credibility with the reader, and if his observations are to be believed, he was the only one in the novel with any compassion, discernment or standards.  While the society he moves in is portrayed in a harsh, decadent, unforgiving light, he is the angel that hovers above it, the star that shines through it.  He is the only one who cares for Gatsby, the only one with a moral compass.  I had a difficult time buying into his golden-boy image.

The tragedy of this novel is a wasted life.  In spite of the grandeur, in spite of his fame and money, Gatsby left no real lasting effect on anyone, other than perhaps Nick Carraway.  He buried himself behind a persona, only emerging to be drawn towards the flame of Daisy and then perishing, as his wings brushed the heat of her consuming light.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”