July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

“You like to have some cup of tea?  —– July bent at the doorway and began that day for them as his kind has always done for their kind.”

In South Africa, the black South Africans have risen up against the whites, and the country is in chaos.  July, the servant of Bamford and Maureen Smales, secrets them out of the city and transport them to his village, in order to save their lives and the lives of their three children.  Nadine Gordimer’s novel was written before the end of apartheid in South Africa and is a fictional account of the beginnings of a civil war where the black South Africans have thrown the country into chaos as they attempt to abolish the apartheid system.

Honestly, I decided to read this book because it was on my Guardian’s 1000 best novel list.  In spite of having a few South African friends, I have only very cursory knowledge of South Africa or apartheid.  I was hoping to acquire a basic understanding of the country and its struggles in reading this book, but unfortunately no larger pictures of life or the people were revealed.  The narrative was somewhat choppy and disjointed, requiring effort to follow Gordimer’s train of thought, but also to follow in detail the action in the story.

Drakensburg Mountains
source Wikipedia

Obviously there is no question about racial inequality with regard to the issues in South Africa, but I thought this book portrayed it in an unexpected way.  July had been a servant in the Smales house previous to the uprising and, while he had been treated well, he had been treated as such.  However, once he rescues the family, the roles invert and July gradually assumes more control of the situation, as the Smales are dependent on him for their livelihood and survival.  At climax of the novel,  July takes command of their yellow bakkie without their permission, and you sense that now they are completely in his power.  Yet with July’s increase in authority, there was really no exhibition of compassion or understanding.  One would think he would be able to see parallels in their situations and treat the Smales with an equality that had been lacking in their original treatment of him.  I’m really not sure what Gordimer was trying to communicate by this portrayal …….. that human nature is universal and unchangeable and that exploitation from one group can infect the victims if the tables are turned?  Are we so devoid of any sort of empathy and so self-centered, that no one can care about the freedom and identity of another person, no matter what the circumstances?  Sigh.  For me, Gordimer was not very clear with her intent, but perhaps that was the point.  In any case, the novel ends with Maureen Smales desperately running towards an unidentified helicopter that could carry South African police or revolutionaries.  Was she running to safety and freedom, or a different type of captivity, or even death?  Or perhaps she was simply wildly and mistakenly trying to run towards the life she once knew.

I honestly I can’t say that I enjoyed this read.  It was interesting in the way it is interesting to examine a dead insect, but nothing in it really spoke to my sympathies.   There was nothing beautiful in the writing that communicated the beauty of the country or the peoples, and no goodness shone through in the hearts of any of the characters.  I do realize that the dire situation in the country at this time may not have encouraged such writing, but people need hope in those times, and perhaps art that exemplifies that type of hope is never more necessary.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

“O, Romeo, Romeo!  Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name
Of, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”

Of course, we all know the story.   In Medieval Verona, the Capulets and Montagues are feuding, their hatred spilling over into battles in the streets; revenge and killings abound.  Yet Romeo, the Montague, meets Juliet, a Capulet, and all thoughts of his former love, Rosaline, fly from his head as his heart is captured by her beauty.  Will Romeo and Juliet’s love survive the heated rivalry and secret machinations of the houses of Montague and Capulet?

Well, no, of course not!

Juliet
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

While Romeo and Juliet is certainly a story of young love, it is also a cautionary tale against letting one’s heart (and other body parts) rule one’s head with unhealthy intensity.  Friar Lawrence cautiions Romeo during his effusive praise of Juliet after only one glance of her:

“These violent delights have violent ends 
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, 
Which, as they kiss, consume.  The sweetest honey 
Is loathsome in his own deliciousness
And in the taste confounds the appetite.
Therefore love moderately.  Long love doth so.
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.”

Romeo and Juliet the tomb scene (1790)
Joseph Wright
source Wikiart

Later, when Romeo’s friend, Mercutio is slain by the Capulet, Tybalt, cousin to Juliet, love is forgotten in the passions of revenge and Tybalt’s life is forfeit under the steel of Romeo’s sword.  A sentence of exile is pronounced as the lovers’ hopes spiral into a well of despair.  A message gone astray, culminates in the deaths of these two lovers, echoing a tragic pathos that the reader can sense building throughout the play.  Right from the beginning, when you view their impulsive, forbidden love, blossoming amongst the fields of vendettas, discord and enmity, you know that it cannot last.  It’s like an explosion of fireworks that streak across the sky in a pattern of colours and textures and beauty.  But eventually these grand passions burn themselves out and in place of the awe-inspiring spectacle, darkness remains.

Yet while there is tragedy in the fateful story, Shakespeare also shines rays of hope.  With the deaths of the two heirs of both the Montagues and Capulets, all animosity melts away as the families share the pain of a double grief.  So instead of Romeo and Juliet’s deaths being merely tragic, the lovers’ demise turn out to be a kind of sacrifice, two deaths that culminate in the saving fate of the two families.  Is Shakespeare alluding to the belief that peace in society is more important than a passionate love of two individuals?  Who knows, but it’s a thought that resonated with me long after I turned the last page …….

Juliet and her Nurse (c. 1860)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope
source Wikiart

I read this play for my edX Shakespeare: On Page and Performance course, play 1 of 6.

Productions Watched:
         Romeo & Juliet – Shakespeare Stratford Collection    (★★★☆)
Audiobooks:
         Archangel Audiobook – Romeo & Juliet (★★★★★)                           

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

“Well, Piotr, not insight yet?” was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—–.”

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov’s influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov’s nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can’t quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia

Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don’t believe that Bazarov’s nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn’t just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev’s approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader’s head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett

 

“In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …”

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done?in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)



Trilogy:

 

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

“The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road.”

During a hike in the English hills, Elwin Ransom stumbles across a boyhood acquaintance, Devine, and his friend Weston, a scientist.  Secretly these two men drug Ransom and take him in a spaceship to the planet, Malacandra, known in earth language as Mars.  When he revives, Ransom overhears that he is to be offered as a human sacrifice for an alien race called the Sorns, and he plans his escape.  Finding himself alone on this strange planet, he eventually encounters creatures called the Hrossa.  Initially very simple and traditional in their ways, Ransom begins to realize that they have an intelligence that may surpass earthly intelligence.  Quickly he learns their language and begins to value their ways, yet all too soon he is sent on a mission to the Oyarsa, the ruling being of Malacandra.  His adventures not only throw him once again into conflict with Devine and Weston, where blind scientific ardour and unconscionable greed clash with humanity’s better nature, but Ransom is finally able to discover why Earth is considered the “silent planet”.

Malacandra is presented as a rather simple society, with the Hross being like shepherds and poets, and the Sorns the intellectuals, imparting wisdom to the community.  Yet, in spite of the obvious higher intellect of the inhabitants, Devine and Weston perceive them as being primitive and unintelligent because they do not have the scientific advances of Earth.  Weston, in particular, grasps onto his pre-conceptions like a drowning man, refusing to believe that such primitive appearance could ever understand or grapple with his vision of a new type of man.  His ingrained perceptions, that have been formed by science, make him blind to the beauty and intricacies of Malacandrian culture, and even worse, his grandiose plans for the needs of man, allows him to view the Malacandrians as sub-human and therefore, expendable.

source Wikipedia

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet as a deliberate critique of Evolutionism, in particular in response to two written works, one by Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men, and an essay by J.B. Haldane, published in a volume titled Possible Worlds.  Both saw men evolving into a divinity that could jump from planet to planet, a being stripped down to pure intelligence.  Lewis felt that each, while on one hand portrayed man as a fascinating and beautiful creature, nevertheless showed man’s littleness.  To him these views held a potential danger, opening the door to options of experiments on humans and animals. (Interestingly, Lewis was a firm anti-vivisectionist and he would never set traps for the mice who inhabited his rooms at Oxford.)  He stated that the trilogy was less a tribute to earlier science fiction than a kind of exorcism of some of its ideas.  At its heart, the trilogy is anti-Wellsian and to its conception, Lewis credited a one-of-a-kind novel, David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus.  To his friend, Ruth Pitter, he wrote:  “From Lindsay I learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures.  Only they can satisfy the craving which sends our imaginations off the earth.  Or putting it in another way, in him I first saw the terrific results produced by the union of two kinds of fiction hitherto kept apart: the Novalis, G. MacDonald, James Stephens sort and the H.G. Wells, Jules Verne sort.  My debt to him is very great.”  Lewis was trying something new!

A wonderful start to The Space Trilogy.  When I first read the trilogy, this book was my favourite, probably because it was the least complex.  Even so, Lewis weaves in views of how medievals saw the universe and angels, as well as sprinkling elements of classicism throughout.  The next book is Perelandra. Hang on to your seats because “you ain’t seen nothing yet”!

“The weakest of my people does not fear death.  It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.  If you were subjects of Maledil you would have peace”

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

“Before the reader is introduced to the modest country medical practitioner who is to be the chief personage of the following tale, it will be well that he should be made acquainted with some particulars as to the locality in which, and the neighbours among whom, our doctor followed his profession.”

Good, dependable Doctor Thorne, our esteemed doctor of Greshambury, lives with his young niece named, Mary.  Yet there is a secret around Mary’s birth that few people know; she is the illegitimate daughter of Doctor Thorne’s older brother and the sister of Roger Scatcherd, a former poor stonemason and prison inmate, who has amassed a fortune that makes him the rich owner of a large estate.  The ruling family, the Greshams, accept Mary’s company and she is friends with some of the daughters, but when it is learned that Frank, the only son, is in love with her, she becomes persona non grata and is ostracized from their company.  A lively plot begins as Frank is determined to marry Mary, Roger Scatcherd is determined to drink himself to death, an inheritance is unclear, and society struggles to maintain its traditional structure.

As much as I enjoyed this book, there were a few disappointments, as well. Because this novel was serialized, I found the pacing somewhat inconsistent, which took away a little bit of the enjoyment. After building up slowly with the characters and their situations, Trollope suddenly had nearly a year pass by, a declaration, and then another year was gone, all in the space of a few dozen pages. My second disappointment dealt with the plot itself. One aspect that I enjoy about Jane Austen’s writing, for example, is her ability to take a traditional situation and explore possibilities just outside of that tradition. Trollope lulls the reader into expecting the same, yet at the end of the tale, tradition wins out: Scatcherd is shown as an example of what can happen to those who try to rise above their station, Mary becomes an heiress, she marries Frank, and everyone is happy only because convention is followed.  Well, I say, “bah!” to convention!  While I realize departing drastically from societal norms wouldn’t be believable, one would think that Trollope could have challenged convention in a plausible way that would have made the story more intriguing. But ultimately money remains the commodity that is worshiped, everyone is happily kept in their social positions, with the same perceptions and the same prejudices, and with nothing unusual or radical to stir them out of their complacency.  Bah!

Perhaps you are wondering why I have barely mentioned Doctor Thorne, who bears the prestigious title of the novel.  Well, curiously, the tale revolves around many characters other than Doctor Thorne.  But while the action circulates around these characters, his importance in this tale is inescapable. He is the respected thread that holds the neighbours together, the good sense in the quandry, the steadying force in the chaos.  He is like the eye of the hurricane, a calm centre while everything else blows in a whirlwind around him.  His tranquil, composed demeanor and sincere warmth and compassion never falter.  In this I can agree with Trollope; he was certainly the hero for me.

The next book up is Framley Parsonage.  So far my favourite is still The Warden but, with three more to go, a new favourite is not out of the question!

The Barsetshire Series

Montaigne’s Essays – Part One

Oh, Montaigne!  What a character!  I’m reading a series of recommended essays, and my plan is to split them into three posts.  So far my introduction to Montaigne has been pleasurable, but taxing to the brain.  His language and progression of ideas, examples and testimonies are not for the faint of heart.  In hindsight, it was wise to take him in measured doses.


On Sadness:  I felt that Montaigne was saying that the deepest sorrows often could not be expressed with outward emotions.  But then he ended by saying that he is little bothered by such violent passions;  I then wonder what gives him the authority to speak on sorrow if he knows nothing of it.  Hmmmm ……..

Our Fortune Must Not Be Judged Until After Death:  Well, this was not an uplifting little essay.  Montaigne believes, drawing from the tale of Croseus and Solon in the stories of Herodotus, that a man cannot be judged as fortunate until his death, because various calamities and suffering can plague him until the end.  Your final day tells all.  Nice.  Fortunately he appears to have amended his views on this subject later in life.

The Death of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikipedia

To Think As A Philosopher Is To Learn To Die: Yikes!  Another death essay.  Montaigne emphasizes the need to learn to lose the fear of death.  Death is inescapable and it is a piteous error to try to avoid it by any means, as the hour is determined for everyone.  He tosses in Socrates rather wise and pithy remark:  to the man who said “The thirty tyrants have sentence you to death,” Socrates replied, “And Nature to them.”

Of The Powers of Imagination:  I’m somewhat perplexed as to where to begin with this one.  This essay is supposed to (I believe) explore the relationship of imagination to the mind and body, but Montaigne rather vividly gets into a discussion of the “male member” and “passing wind”.  I was laughing so hard I was crying at the end of the “passing wind” section.  I don’t think hilarity was intended by the author.  😉  Apparently though, people in Montaigne’s time wouldn’t have blinked an eye at these references, showing that they were much more mature and less sensitive than modern people. And since I was very surprised by his frankness given the era, it also demonstrates that our preconceived ideas can be less than accurate.

On Educating Children:  I have an interest in education, so this essay was perhaps the most interesting for me, if not the most amusing (see above).  Montaigne felt that an instructor of good moral character and sound understanding was much more valuable than one with founts of knowledge.  He emphasized the value of knowledge for its own sake, and was repelled by the thought that learning should be used to earn profit. The ancient Greeks would understand his dismay; only slaves were schooled to work, not free men.  Montaigne proceeds to say that he does not wish for an educational system that makes children parrot back what they have learned but rather that they are taught to make ideas their own.  He then expands his argument to suggest tossing out the classical education model in place of simply teaching children to philosophize.  He seems to forget that the classical model contains the building blocks that give the student the tools to be able to discuss topics philosophically, not to mention that young minds have to mature to be able to understand the abstract concepts which are required in philosophy.  He supports, as well, exercise and entertainment, but suggests training peculiarities and eccentricities out of people, as they are “a foe to intercourse and companionship of others”. Well, okay …….  I do understand Montaigne’s main point though.  He is advocating for the teaching of a virtuous character over that of intellectual learning.  In fact, this should be the goal of every teacher, however I believe that there should be a balance between the two, whereas Montaigne seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Bartolome Esteban Murillo
source Wikiart

On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children:  In this case, Montaigne means male children but he does share some good advice. A man should not marry too early and responsible thought should be given to the purpose of having children, realizing that they will owe you much more than they can ever pay back.  Instead of forcing the son to be dependent on him when he comes of age, the father should share his wealth and guide him in the use of it, teaching the son to run the estate.  Now Montaigne claims if this is not done, the sons have no other recourse than to become thieves, a habit that will be nearly impossible to break.  I’m not sure I follow his rationale in this case, and cannot agree with it as an excuse, but hey, it’s Montaigne, right?  It just doesn’t feel normal if he doesn’t hit you with some sort of idiosyncratic reasoning.

In spite of some peculiarities, Montaigne has a charm that cannot be denied.  Perhaps Madame de Sévigné characterizes best what his readers experience:  “I have found entertainment in a volume of Montaigne that I did not think I had brought with me.  Ah, the charming man!  What good company he is!  He is an old friend of mine, but by dint of being old, he is new to me. …….. Mon Dieu!  how full this book is of good sense!”

The Epic of Gilgamesh

“The one who saw the abyss I will make the land know;
of him who knew all, let me tell the whole story
 ………… in the same way …….
[as] the lord of wisdom, he who knew everything, Gilgamesh,
who saw things secret, opened the place hidden,
and carried back word of the time before the Flood —
he travelled the road, exhausted, in pain,
and cut his works into a stone tablet.”

Gilgamesh, king of Uruk.  Two-thirds god and one-third man, he built the walls of Uruk, the palace Eanna, and is powerful and commanding.  There is no king like him anywhere.  Yet in spite of having many of the qualities that could make him an honoured king, Gilgamesh oppresses his people and they cry out for relief.  The gods create a wild man, Enkidu is his name. They fight and become fast friends, relieving the people of Gilgamesh’s despotism. Many adventures they have together, and many discoveries they make. Together they behead Humbaba who lives in the cedar forest and they also manage to kill The Bull of Heaven.  Yet one of them must pay for this transgression and Enkidu falls ill, dying even as he laments.  A heart-torn Gilgamesh, determined to find Utnapishtim and find the secret of everlasting life, travels through a number of trials to his journey’s end.  “Surely, Gilgamesh,” Utnapishtim tells him, “you can stay awake for just a week, if you are expecting to have eternal life.”  But Gilgamesh fails the test.  In spite of his near godly status, our hero cannot escape the mortality common to all men.

“My friend Enkidu, whom I loved so dear, who with me went through every danger, the goom of mortals overtook him. 

Six days I wept for him and seven nights: I did not surrender his body for burial until a maggot dropped from his nostril.  Then I was afraid that I, too, would die.  I grew fearful of death, so I wandered the wild. 

…. How can I keep silent?  How can I stay quiet?  My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  My friend Enkidu, whom I loved, has turned to clay.  Shall I not be like him and also lie down, never to rise again, through all eternity?”

Gilgamesh
from the Chaldean
account of Genesis
source Wikipedia

I found many paradoxes in this poem: Gilgamesh is a strong leader, yet he also abuses his power; Gilgamesh is two-thirds god, yet he is also doomed to die; Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight in order to bring peace to Uruk; women are portrayed as vehicles for pleasure, yet are also shown as being wise and having foresight; Enkidu is initially a wild-man, yet he is the one who “tames” Gilgamesh; and in spite of often not sleeping throughout most of the poem, Gilgamesh sleeps at the end, which prevents him from attaining immortality.

Yet in spite of the contradictions, the poet is clear that strength over reason is valueless. Gilgamesh learns that it is trust and integrity in the end that bring acclaim: valuing a friend’s life over his own, discovering the wisdom of accepting death as a part of life, and that being a true leader is about good character and responsibility to his subjects, rather than exercising tyranny, oppression and conquest over them.

And in spite of its ancient roots, the poem still resonates with us today.  Here is a video of Captain Picard from Star Trek the Next Generation giving a short summary of Gilgamesh, in the episode “Darmok” (my favourite episode, BTW!) 🙂

About the translation:  The Sîn-Leqi Unninni Gilgamesh story, found in the library of Ashurbanipal, is the most recent Akkadian version (circa 1200 BC), and is considered the “standard” version.  The editors used it as their fragment of choice and because it contained a number of books that had only a few recoverable words, they had to resort to notes and the Old Babylonian version, in order for the reader to get the gist of the story.  For my first read, in hindsight, I may have chosen a more fluid version, but this version was certainly adequate and scholarly enough that you got the full context of the poem.

Translated from the Sîn-Leqi Unninni version by John Gardiner and John Maier

The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

“The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.”

Why, oh why, does Chesterton confuse me so?  At first this book appeared to start as a mystery.  Two poets meet in Saffron Park, one, Lucian Gregory, a creative anarchist, the other, Gabriel Syme, a conservative poet and undercover police detective.  By his wit and resources, Syme infiltrates the anarchist’s group called the Central Anarchist Council, getting himself named one of its seven members, christened “Thursday”.  Yet can he stop the assassination attempt the group is planning and expose this dastardly anarchical organization?

The book is much more than a mystery, which readily becomes apparent as the reader makes his way through the entertaining yet confusing prose. There was an initial discussion about anarchy and art, yet I soon realized that the two poets were comparing anarchy and law.  As I read my way through, various questions arose.  Why were the council members named after the days of the week?  Does this point towards some sort of creation story?  Why do all the members who appear evil are not as they seem? What are they really fighting against?  Why is the subtitle “A Nightmare”?  And what was the point of Syme’s promise to Gregory? It is mentioned numerous times so it should have some importance.

Yet the big question that hangs over the characters and the reader alike is: Who is the leader of the group, Sunday?  The Professor, named Friday, reveals:

“I confess that I should feel a bit afraid of asking Sunday who he really is.” 

“Why,” asked the Secretary, “for fear of bombs?” 

“No,” said the Professor, “for fear that he might tell me.”

In one review, the reviewer claimed that Sunday represents Nature.  Well, perhaps.  He is both benign and frightening, as this description shows:

“You would not know [his name] ……  That is his greatness.  Caesar and Napoleon put all their genius into being heard of, and they were heard of.  He puts all his genius into not being heard of, and his is not heard of.  But you cannot be for five minutes in the room with him without feeling that Caesar and Napoleon would have been children in his hands.”

Sunday’s words about himself are even more chilling:

“Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf —- kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophers.  But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay.  I have given them a good run for their money ……….  There’s one thing I’ll tell you though about who I am.  I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen.”

After its publication in 1908, The Man Who Was Thursday came under a storm of critical approval.  Frighteningly complex, it has been  hailed as “amazingly clever”,  “shamelessly beautiful prose”, “a remarkable acrobatic performance” and “a scurrying, door-slamming farce that ends like a chapter in the Apocalypse.”  One reader declared himself “dazed” at the end of it, which perfectly described my puzzled demeanor as I closed the last page.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1909)
source Wikipedia

As you see, reading the book brought about more questions than answers, so instead I will leave you with a taste of what others have said about this novel:

“Roughly speaking, it’s about anarchists …… And roughly speaking, it’s a mystery story.  It can be guaranteed that you will never, never guess the solution until you get to the end —- it is even feared that you may not guess it then.  You may never guess what The Man Who Was Thursday is about.  But definitely, if you don’t, you’ll ask. “ 

                                                                     ~  Orson Welles  ~

“…… mystery and allegory take their turn in the scene.  Life, huge, shapeless, cruel and loving, killing and saving, full of antitheses, appearing to each one under a different aspect, measuring each man according to the strength of his soul, turns its strange face upon us.  Life, whose soul is law, nature, whose expression is law, confront the frantic lawlessness of struggling man —- and behold, those very struggles prove to be based on law again.  And when at the last you sit on the thrones with the Council of Days, you see the mad, miraculous world dance by, moving to a harmony none the less invincible because only half heard.”
                                                ~  Hildegarde Hawthorne  ~

I highly recommend this book to ……….. well, to anyone!  Read it as a mystery, read it as a commentary, read it as philosophy,  read it as a fantasy, read it as theology —- it has something for everyone. Perhaps it should be described as a mystery without end, a true symphony of brilliance by Chesterton, in which nothing is ever how it seems!

If you’ve read The Man Who Was Thursday, what do you think the story was about?

Further Reading:

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis

“I was born in the winter of 1898 at Belfast, the son of a solicitor and of a clergyman’s daughter.”

And so begins the autobiography of one of the most prolific writer’s of his time, C.S. Lewis.  While Lewis gives an engaging description of his life as a boy, first in Ireland, and then later in England, his main goal is to give the reader little windows into the experience that he called “Joy”, which one can equate with the German word, “Sehensucht” translated into English as an “intense longing”.  During his childhood, Lewis experienced brief yet keen feelings of this profound yearning.  If one tried to manufacture this emotion or hold onto it, it would simply remain illusive or slip away; it came of its own volition, which indicated to Lewis that this desire pointed to something beyond himself.

In the Garden (1885)
William Merritt Chase
source Wikiart

Lewis’ first glimpse of “Joy” was when his brother Warnie showed him a garden that he had built of moss and twigs on top of a biscuit tin. Lewis said, “As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.” Other experiences of joy appeared as he grew and Lewis felt that because our own natural world could not supply what our souls longed for, there must be something supernatural that could fulfill this Sehensucht.  Eventually Joy brought him face-to-face with God.

Magdalen College Oxford
source Wikipedia

What was especially refreshing about this biography was that Lewis didn’t treat his conversion as coming out of the darkness into the light, so much as presenting it as a recovery of the delights of childhood that he felt were pointing him in the direction of Christ.  In many ways, this is an Augustinian-type experience, yet while Augustine was definitely searching for a meaning to life, the “meaning” seemed to be pursuing Lewis, and he describes his conversion in startling terms, “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.  That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me.  In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”  But he then goes on to say, “I did not then see what is now the most shining and obvious thing: the Divine humility which will accept a convert even on such terms …….  The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”

Before I wrap up this review and somewhat off topic, Lewis made a curious reference to automobiles in this biography, which I found very insightful and profound.

“I number it among my blessings that my father had no car, while yet most of my friends had, and sometimes took me for a drive. This meant that all these distant objects could be visited just enough to clothe them with memories and not impossible desires, while yet they remained ordinarily as inaccessible as the Moon.  The deadly power of rushing about wherever I pleased had not been given me.  I measured distances by the standard of man, man walking on his two feet, not by the standard of the internal combustion engine.  I had not been allowed to deflower the very idea of distance; in return I possessed ‘infinite riches’ in what would have been to motorists ‘a little room’.  The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it ‘annihilates space.’  It does.  It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given.  It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from traveling ten.  Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter.  Why not creep into his coffin at once?  There is little enough space there.”

A very biting commentary but for me it rang with truth and made me wonder how much “Joy” has been robbed by modern conveniences.  Hmmm …….

In any case, this was a wonderful, uplifting biography that I fortunately get to read again for my WEM Project at some point in the future!

Ferdinandus Taurus – Munro Leaf

“Olim in Hispania erat taurulus nomine Ferdinandus.”

Well, right away I must confess that my Latin is not nearly good enough to read this book unaided.  I can read short paragraphs about Caesar fighting barbarians and Roman generals, but that’s about it.  However, the dictionary at the back of this book came to my aid as did other resources.  Honestly, I confess though, it took me ages to read this.

Almost everyone, I think, knows the Story of Ferdinand, the young bull who lives in Spain and would like nothing better than to sit in his meadow and to smell the flowers.  Yet when a bumblebee inopportunely stings him, just as some matadors are checking out bulls to take to Madrid to the fights, things go terribly wrong.  Ferdinand is mistaken for a magnificent fighter and is dragged off to the bullfights.  But our intrepid hero will not give in, no matter how many banderillos or picadores or matadores taunt him to fight. No, Ferdinand stays true to his placid nature and simply sits and smells the flowers. Finally he is sent back to his meadow and he is free.

And since this book is set in Spain, what better tribute than to read it in Spanish?  So that’s what I did after my foray into it in Latin.  “Había una vez en España un torito que se llamaba Ferdinando.”

This book was published in 1936, nine months before the civil war broke out in Spain, and was seen as a promotion of pacifism.  Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator condemned it as propaganda, as did Hitler, who banned the book in Nazi Germany.  In contrast, the book was lauded by the political left; Gandhi claimed it was his favourite book, and it was the only non-communist book allowed in Poland by Joseph Stalin.

I did a comprehensive analysis of The Story of Ferdinand in English on my children’s book blog.  The depth of this book is astounding.  You can find my review here.

Okay, I squeaked in one more book (well, actually two if you count both the languages) for my Language Freak Summer Challenge.  Yippee!