On The Road by Jack Kerouac

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”

Having read Kerouac’s travelogue, The Dharma Bums a couple of years ago, I was really looking forward to this read, as On The Road is considered Kerouac’s finest work.  With great anticipation I picked up the book, began to read, and what did I find ……..???

A Roman a clef, with the characters acting as stand-ins for Kerouac and his buddies and their real life adventures, the novel traces their journeys as they travel back and forth across America between 1947 and 1950.  This Beat Generation, or post-World War II writers, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady are mostly drunk, high, stoned or looking for sex, throughout most of the novel. The rambling, sparse, uninteresting prose had me nearly catatonic about one-quarter of the way into the book and it was only with a supreme effort of will that I managed to finish.  Brutal.

So what was the difference between The Dharma Bums and On The Road? Why did I love one and hate the other?  Well, with The Dharma Bums, while there was drug use it somehow seemed more innocent and less destructive. The characters sincerely appeared to be grappling with the purpose of life. There was thought and philosophy and even some solid descriptions of the places visited.  On The Road related the meaningless conduct of a bunch of miscreants who had no concern for anyone but themselves, were too stoned to think most of the time, and when they did, it was often complete nonsense. In real life, most of the characters died before their 40th or 50th birthdays from either a drug or alcohol-related death.  Such a sad waste of life, with nothing romantically counter-cultural, or excitingly anti-establishment about it.

One interesting anecdote is that the manuscript for this book was typed on a continuous scroll of one hundred and twenty feet of tracing paper taped together, single-spaced without margins or paragraph breaks.  A quirky writing method from a very experimental author.

The “On The Road” Scroll
Boott Cotton Mills Museum 2007
source Wikipedia

The Journal of William Sturgis

The Journal of William Sturgis: “1799 – On the 13th of February at 7 in the morning we saw the land ahead bearing about N East distant 2 leagues, which we soon found to be the high land about Port Banks, and a Cape to the Southward and Eastward of us distant 3 leagues, to be Cape Muzon.”

In 1798, William Sturgis found a berth on the Eliza, a ship set to leave Boston harbour in the summer on a voyage to the Pacific Northwest to trade in the lucrative business of animal pelts. Sturgis had finished schooling at fourteen, afterwards being employed as a junior clerk in a trading office. With the unexpected demise of his father, Sturgis, knowing that he had to support a mother and sisters, decided to turn to the sea to make his fortune. He was only 17 years old.

Fur traders in Canada 1777
source Wikipedia

Because Sturgis had had experience in business, the captain of the Eliza asked him to be his assistant, and his quick adeptness at learning the native languages soon saw his rise in stature.  The Americans generally coped well with the Indians while trading, and there were few altercations, but the precautions on board ship to assure safety were stringent and followed closely. Because of these safeguards, relations between the two were relatively harmonious and as Sturgis noted years later:

“I believe I am the only man living who has a personal knowledge of those early transactions and I can show that in each and every case where a vessel was attacked or a crew killed by them, [the Indians of the region] it was in direct retaliation for some life taken or for some gross outrage committed against that tribe.  This is the Indian law, which requires one life for another, as inflexibly as we civilized nations exact the life of a murderer.  The Indian did not forget, but silently waited his opportunity, and retaliated because his duty and his law required it of him.”

Launch of the North West America at Nootka Sound 1788
C. Mertz
source Centre of Study for Pacific Northwest

With his faculty for the languages, Sturgis’ dealings and contact with the Indians increased.  He ensured he acted with complete honesty and openness to his Indian counterparts and, in consequence, often acquired more goods than your average trader, as the Indians were more amenable to people whom they liked.  In fact, Sturgis became a great favourite with some of the Indians, sometimes to his detriment.  One old Indian woman, to whom he gave the appellation, Madame Connecor, claimed, “All white men are my children,” and insisted on hugging him and kissing him in public, much to the horror of Sturgis, who had to submit to this uncomfortable display of affection as “her tribe had many valuable furs to sell ……. (I) had no escape.”

Sturgis became quite familiar with a Indian chief named Keow (or Cow), whom he quite admired and they struck up a perhaps unusual friendship:

“Keow was upon the whole the most intelligent Indian I met with.  He was a shrewd observer of quick perceptions —– with comprehensive and discriminating mind, and insatiable curiosity.  He would occasionally pass several days at a time on board my ship, and I have often sat up half the night with him, answering questions, and listening to remarks.  …. his comments upon some features of our social system, and upon the discrepancies and inconsistencies in our professions and practice as Christians —- particularly in relation to war —- duelling —- capital punishment for depredations upon property, and other less important matters, were pertinent and forcible, and by no means flattering to us, or calculated to nourish our self conceit.”

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (1870)
Albert Bierstadt
source Wikiart

Yet, in spite of his good relations with the native people, Sturgis showed quite clearly that there was a careful balance that needed to be maintained in relations that often included lying, manipulation and trickery, a sort of dance practiced by both parties, accepted by both, and neither held in contempt or begrudged.  It was a meeting, or indeed a confrontation, between two different cultures and attitudes that required patience, skill, wisdom and ingenuity to lay a viable foundation.

Later in the voyage, when the Eliza came across two other ships the Despatch and the Ulysses, they found the Ulysses in a state of mutiny and the officers of the two other ships had to arbitrate the dispute. It was agreed that the captain (Lamb) should be reinstated, with Sturgis, only a few month’s previously an amateur sailor, as his second officer.  The appointment was an enormous boost for Sturgis’ career.  The Ulysses continued to trade in furs, but when it eventually met up with the Eliza in Macao, Sturgis was happy to rejoin his old ship as third mate.

Sturgis also shares some fascinating information on the Indian female and comparisons to his own class.

“The females have considerable voice in the sale of the Skins, indeed greater than the men; for if the wife disapproves of the husband’s bargain, he dares not sell, till he gains her consent, and if she chooses she will sell all his stock whether he likes it or not, or rather what she likes, he is obliged to approve of or afraid to disapprove of ………. In fact, the power of the fair sex seems to be as unlimited on this as on our side of the Continent …..”

Very intriguing that Sturgis sees his fellow women as having unlimited power ….. and this is 1799!

On his second voyage, this time on the ship Caroline, upon the death of its captain, all responsibility was turned over to Sturgis who returned the ship complete with profits from 3000 skins. When the ship return to Boston, he was officially made the master of it at twenty-two years old.

source GoHaidaGwaii

His third voyage was another success for Sturgis, and when he set out on the Atahualpa on his fourth voyage, it was not only as the commander of the fleet, but as a shareholder.  His status and wealth continued to increase and in 1810 he abandoned his nomadic life at sea to marry Elizabeth Davis and became a partner in a shipping business called Bryant and Sturgis.  From the years 1818 to 1840, their company directed more than half the business carried on from the United States to California.

Sturgis was seen as a laconic and somewhat stern man, but he was well-respected and lived life with a strong sense of duty and honesty.  He died at the age of eighty-one and his eulogies and obituaries speak to his character:

” ….. his cool judgement and his considerable action under difficulties, stamped him as an uncommon man; and his extensive knowledge and his judicious inferences from it, made him a useful one ….. Hi strong intellect and clear judgment made him a wise and safe counsellor.  Singularly independent and honest in the formation of his opinions; unswerving in fidelity to his convictions; of an impulsive temperment, guided by principle and made amenable to conscience, —- his character and career, honorable to himself and beneficial to others, leave his name to be held in remembrance as that of a wise, just, faithful and benevolent man …..”

In his final lecture, Sturgis expresses gratitude, that he had not caused any acrimony or bitterness in his dealings with the native population:

“I have cause for gratitude to a higher power —– not only for escape from danger, but for being spared all participation in the deadly conflicts and murderous scenes which surrounded me.  I may well be grateful that no blood of the red man ever stained my hands —- that no shades of murdered or slaughtered Indians disturb my repose —– on the reflection that neither myself, nor any one under my command, ever did, or suffered, violence or outrage, during years of intercourse with those reputed the most savage tribes, gives me a satisfaction in exhange for which wealth and honours would be dust in the balance.”

The integrity and honour Sturgis showed towards a native population, while being willing to alter his worldview to meet them on equal grounds, truly speaks to his character.  Sturgis is a man I would have certainly been proud to know.

 

The Ides of April

Author:  Mary Ray

Illustrator:  Gino d’Achille (cover)
Era:  62 A.D.
Published: 1974 (first publisher unknown)
Award:  None known
Age Range:  12 years old and up
Review:  ★★★★

Senator Caius Pomponius Afer is murdered in his bed and the household slaves are taken into custody to face the sentence of death if even one has perpetrated this crime.  Aulus, Pomponius’ valet and the first slave to happen upon his master after the assassination, is suspected, but when he dies in prison, who will prove his innocence?  Yet the slave list has been neglected and so, no one is aware that two of the slaves are missing. Where is Assinius, the Senator’s steward, who had not been seen days before the murder?  And Hylas, the Senator’s Greek secretary is not in the party.

Arch of Nero (completed 62 AD)
Thomas Cole – 1846
source Wikiart

Hylas, as it turns out, escaped detection in the house and is working steadfastly to find out who committed the dastardly deed.  He is certain that it was not one of the servants, but who could have had the opportunity and motive to commit such a vile execution.  Enlisting the help of Pomponius’ son-in-law, Camillus Rufus, the nobleman and slave investigate, and unearth devious plots that could possibly rock the foundations of Rome’s political body and cost them their lives.

Ray included various historical characters in her narrative including Thrasea Paetus, a Senator and former consul, who lived during the times of three Roman emperors, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.  We also have a glimpse of Seneca and Emperor Nero whom Ray portrays in a realistic fashion.

The Cascatelli (View of Rome from Tivoli)
Thoma Cole
source Wikiart

The real life of Publius Clodius Thraea Paetus is particularly compelling. By his actions in the Senate and in public life, he exemplified a man of honour and convictions, often going against the status quo in favour of principles.  Upon Nero’s murder of his own mother and the Senate’s obsequious behaviour towards the Emperor, Paetus walked out of the Senate meeting, refusing to be part of it.  His opposition to Nero continued and eventually his admirable ethics caught up with him.  Nero contrived charges against him, accusing him of neglecting his senatorial duties and he was sentenced to death by his choice.  At his suburban villa, he elected to have the veins in his arms opened and died with serene dignity.

While the mystery aspect of the story suffers from some contrived plot manipulation, this disappointment is balanced by the rich description of Rome and the historical detail painted within the pages of the book.  It’s certainly a story by which any child would be captivated.

An extended summary of the book can be found at my children’s blog, Children’s Classic Book Carousel.

Deal Me In Challenge #8 – Four of Hearts

The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

“The sovereignty and goodness of GOD, together with the faithfulness of his promises displayed, being a narrative of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, commended by her, to all that desires to know the Lord’s doings to, and dealings with her.”

On February 10, 1675 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Lancaster settlement was attacked by Indians and Mrs. Mary Rowlandson was taken captive along with a number of other settlers, including other members of her family.  This short book chronicles the events of her capture, her travels with her captors and finally her release after 11 weeks.

For almost 50 years, the colonists and Indians had lived in relative peace, but increasing settlement and demand for Native land caused tension that eventually exploded in attacks on American settlements by the Indians and resulting retaliations.  Indian raids were often violent and by the attack on Lancaster, the comfortable life that Mary had known with her husband and three children, was abruptly torn apart.

Mary turned to God in her fear and suffering and instead of lamenting her situation, she looked for lessons to learn from it.  Her Puritan faith was rather rigid and the narrative comes across as very unemotional at times, but the religious and historical weight of her experiences are a valuable tool in understanding the people of those times.  The book follows the traditional framework of the captive narrative, focusing on suffering, exile and redemption.

For more extensive information, Ruth at A Great Book Study has produced an excellent review of The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson.    I had plans to write an extensive review but in the end, I just couldn’t.  Then I planned to answer the WEM questions as I did in my review of Saint Augustine’s Confessions …. but when I looked at them, I just couldn’t. I have only a basic knowledge of the Puritans and of conflicts between the Indians and colonists, so I hesitate to give even an uneducated judgement on Rowlandson’s narrative.  When I finished, I hadn’t really connected with Mary or her narrative.  Excepting what she communicated about her faith, there was an enormous gap in my understanding of her outlook and her judgements. This book left me feeling rather off-balance.  Normally I hate reading a book from a modern perspective and ALWAYS put myself, or attempt to put my mindset, into the times about which I’m reading.  For the first time, I had difficulty.

What I do know is that I need a “palate cleanser” with regard to Colonist-Indian relations, and so I’ve chosen to read The Journal of William Sturgis, a primary source document about a 17 year old boy who goes on his first voyage to trade furs with the Pacific Coast Indians.

Doctor Marigold by Charles Dickens

“I am Cheap Jack, and my own father’s name was Willum Marigold.”

And so we are introduced to Doctor Marigold, bestowed with such an unusual first name for a Cheap Jack in honour of the doctor who delivered him.  I did not imagine him in the appearance of the rather dandified peasant-gypsy looking gentleman on the cover to the left, but I suppose that’s beside the point.  In any case, Doctor Marigold, as you know, is a Cheap Jack. For those who don’t know what a Cheap Jack is (I raise my hand), it’s a hawker who deals in bargain merchandise, anything from plates to frying pans to razors to watches to rolling pins and everything in between.  Marigold has followed his father’s trade like a good son.

Doctor Marigold 1868
E.G. Dalziel
source Victoria Web

Soon Marigold marries a woman who is not a bad wife by his estimation, but whoa, does she have a temper!  She berates and torments her husband, and later beats their daughter, Sophy, while Marigold stands and watches.  Why doesn’t he intervene?  Because it causes more of a ruckus than observing, and then people suspect that he is beating his wife.  Wimp.

Sophy grows up especially attached to her father and fearful of her mother — no kidding.  Yet with their vagrant lifestyle, she becomes ill and passes away.  One fateful day, the now childless couple come across a mother beating her tearfully pleading daughter, and with a shrill scream his wife tears away and drowns herself in the river.  Good riddance.

Lonely Marigold now roams the country alone, until one day he comes across a deaf and dumb child whom he purchases and calls Sophy.  They are devoted to each other for years, until, when she reaches sixteen, he decides to have her educated and puts her in an institution for two years.  When he returns she is thrilled to see him, but as they resume their lives, he learns that she has acquired a suitor.  Old generous Marigold decides he cannot stand in the way of their love —- although Sophy is willing to give it up to stay with her father —- and allows them to marry.  The couple then move to China and five or so years later return with Marigold’s granddaughter for a reunion.

Grandfather
E.A. Abbey
source Victoria Web

Again, Dickens is somewhat of a trial to read.  On one hand, his stories engage you for being overly maudlin and nauseatingly sentimental but I can never shake the feeling that he seems to think that as long as he uses affected emotional scenes and obscurely clever sentences, he can win adherents with such contrived effort.  I find it almost insulting. However, as much as the first part of the story really irritated me, I must admit, I somewhat fell for it in the end. Perhaps Dickens achieved his desired effect after all.

This short story, so far is my least favourite of my Deal Me In Challenges.  We’ll see what next week brings.

Deal Me In Challenge #7 – Three of Clubs

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.”

I usually don’t worry about giving warning about spoilers but I’ve discovered that’s because I normally read pre-1850-ish books and, while plot is important, there is much more from the book to be gained.  However, 20th century literature, seems to rely a great deal on the story, and so I’m issuing a warning that his review does contain a few spoilers, therefore, continue at your own risk.

Written in 1952, Steinbeck considered East of Eden his magnum opus.  At the time, Steinbeck was separated from his two young sons by divorce and he felt a need, not only to communicate with them through his creative medium, but to share family history in a manner that would make it a permanent record. Yet Steinbeck was also sensitive to his readers, aware that he would have to paint the well-known Salinas Valley of his youth with a vibrant brush of memories, in order to endow the people and the place with dynamic yet corporeal life. Writing in his journal on his first day of work on the novel, Steinbeck described his process: “But [I] try to relate the reader to the book, so while I am talking to the boys actually, I am relating every reader to the story as though he were reading about his own background …….. Everyone wants to have a family. Maybe I can create a universal family living next to a universal neighbor.” 

Rural Youth, Monterey California 1940
source Wikimedia Commons

As in any good history, the historian wishes to imbue the characters with personality and, in this case, the Valley itself is a character, merging with the people to form a unique examination of this time in history. Steinbeck uses the Salinas Valley as a microcosm to examine human nature, both its strengths and its frailties, its goodness and its evil.  As you read through the novel, you almost feel as if all the characters have a little of Steinbeck in their make-up.  It’s as if, through them, he was exploring not only family history, but also the history of man, the mutations caused by evil and the healing caused by goodness, set against the background of free will and choice.

With the use of the title East of Eden, Steinbeck brings in the biblical story of Cain and Abel, infusing both the relationship of the brothers, Adam and Charles Trask, and then Adam’s two twin sons, Aron and Caleb, with the jealousy, impulses and sinful passions of the former.  Both sets of brothers contend against each other, while still being bound by their ties of family and a rather strange type of love.  The story of Steinbeck’s own maternal family, the Hamiltons, parallels that of the Trask’s, beginning with his grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, whom one could describe almost as a philosopher-farmer, down to the brief appearance of Steinbeck himself in the work.  On the Trask side, Adam is the main focus, as are his two sons and their Chinese servant, Lee, who is himself a philosopher.

Salinas Valley 1940
source Wikimedia Commons

For me, much of the embodiment of the novel was contained in the grave prophecy of Samuel Hamilton, just before Adam Trask purchases his land in the Salinas Valley: “There’s a blackness on this valley.  I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it.  Sometimes on a white blinding day I can feel it cutting off the sun and squeezing the light out of it like a sponge …….  There’s a black violence on this valley.  I don’t know —- I don’t know.  It’s as though some old ghost haunted it with unhappiness.  It’s as secret as hidden sorrow.  I don’t know what it is, but I see it and feel it in the people here.”  This  “black violence” hovers over the story like a pall, and the characters are perpetually struggling to rise above it.  Charles Trask battles against an inner hatred that nearly makes him murder his brother, Adam Trask contends against guilt and indifference, Caleb against a perceived inner badness which warps his actions and mars his character, Aron, the good and favoured son, becomes tormented by thoughts and events that are too evil to be conceived by his goodness, and Cathy, the mother of the twins, is pure evil, a psychopathic sociopath whose pathological desire for revenge drives her every action.  There is an echoing of sins passed down through generations, and behaviours that resist change. While Lee and Adam discuss the story of Cain and Abel, they decide, quite wisely, that even though sins may be persistent, there is always choice:

“Don’t you see?” he cried.  “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance.  The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin.  But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice.  It might be the most important word in the world.  That says the way is open.  That throws it right back on a man.  For if ‘Thou mayest’ —– it is also true that ‘Thous mayest not.’  Don’t you see?”

“Choice” is unarguably one of the most important words, yet healthy choice does not seem attainable by these characters, and the black violence of Hamilton’s perception clouds out the sun.  Throughout the novel, nearly every person, while occasionally getting a breath of fresh air, still appears to be drowning in it.

There were many parts of the book that were implausible.  A Chinese servant who can not only speak English and philosophize better than a university professor, can also turn into a Hebrew scholar when need be, and then later gain as much knowledge as a doctor specializing in diseases of the brain. The reader is introduced to the token crazy religious person, yet this person had appeared the most balance and grounded character of them all, up until his conversion.  And one of the main characters, while recognizing his sinful impulses, has absolutely no control over them, yet he is the hereditary son who remains to carry on the family name.  Lee’s discovery of timshel, or “Thou mayst”, at the end of the book perhaps has an affect on the father, yet the son is changeless throughout, merely experiencing a rollercoaster of undisciplined actions and regrets.

Watsonville, Salina Valley
source Wikimedia Commons

Yet in spite of the difficulties, Steinbeck attempted quite a feat with this novel and I can certainly appreciate his dream and his attempt to bring that dream to fruition.  Writing the novel was more of an outpouring of creative spirit for Steinbeck:  “I stay fascinated with East of Eden …. never has a book so intrigued me.  I only hope other people enjoy reading it as much as I am enjoying writing it.”  Yet he did not exhibit any naiveté toward the reaction that his work was destined to elicit.  Writing to his editor, he admitted:  “You know as well as I do that this book is going to catch the same type of hell that all the others did and for the same reasons.  It will not be what anyone expects and so the expectors will not like it.”   After publication, the critics remained curiously divided, the book being described as “one of Steinbeck’s best novels” on one hand, and on the other drawing disparaging comments such as, “a huge grab bag in which pointlessness and preposterous melodrama pop up frequently as good storytelling and plausible conduct.”  Yet in spite of sometimes vicious criticisms, many readers enjoyed what the critics discredited and the book has become an enduring classic in its own right.  As for me, I respect Steinbeck’s effort and love for his work, and perhaps that is good enough.

Notable quotes:

“And this I believe:  that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.  And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direciton it wishes, undirected.  And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.  This is what I am and what I am about.  I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system.  Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts.  If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan

“In this my relation of the merciful working of God upon my soul, it will not be amiss, if, in the first place, I do, in a few words, give you a hint of my pedigree, and manner or bringing up; that thereby the goodness and bounty of God towards me, may be the more advanced and magnified before the sons of men.”

John Bunyan was born in Elstow, a village near Bedford in Bedfordshire, and was baptized on November 28, 1628, the first son of Thomas Bunyan and his second wife.  In 1644, he joined the Parliamentary army as a soldier and was active until 1647.  The year 1655 saw him joining the congregational church at Bedford and the following year he was actively disputing with the Quakers, out of which was born his first book, Some Gospel Truths Opened.  With the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the restoration of the monarchy, the persecution of Non-Conformists began. Bunyan was given every opportunity to conform by the surprisingly tolerant Royalists, but he was staunchly resistant to a compromise of principles that could weaken the faith of his followers.  Prevented from preaching by various imprisonments, Bunyan turned to writing.  Grace Abounding is a record of his spiritual experiences from his first meaningful encounter with God to his life of preaching.

Bunyan admits to having a lack of religion in his upbringing and it was only later, with some the influence from his wife, that he came to entertain thoughts of spirituality:

“But I observe, though I was such a great sinner before conversion, yet God never much charged the guilt of the sins of my ignorance upon me; only he showed me I was lost if I had not Christ, because I had been a sinner; I saw that I wanted a perfect righteousness to present me without fault before God, and this righteousness was nowhere to be found, but in the person of Jesus Christ.”

After hearing a sermon preached from the Song of Songs, Bunyan was struck by the love of God and came to the following conclusions:

That the church and so every saved soul, is:

  1. Christ’s love, when loveless
  2. Christ’s love without a cause
  3. Christ’s love when hated to the world
  4. Christ’s love when under temptation, and under desertion
  5. Christ’s love from first to last

Birthplace of John Bunyan
source Wikipedia

Though Bunyan had moments of euphoric revelation and joyful epiphanies, his conversion was still fraught with doubts and fears.  Had he abused God too much for forgiveness?  Was forgiveness given to others but not to him?  Like Esau, had he sold his birthright and would never be able to regain it?  His agonies leapt off the page with a startling clarity:

“Yet I saw my sin most barbarous, and a filthy crime, and could not but conclude, and that with great shame and astonishment, that I had horribly abused the holy Son of God; wherefore, I felt my soul greatly to love and pity him, and my bowels to yearn toward him; for I saw he was still my Friend, and did reward me good for evil; yea, the love and affection that then did burn within to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ did work, at this time, such a strong and hot desire for revengement upon myself for the abuse I had done unto him, that, to speak as then I thought, had I a thousand gallons of blood within my veins, I could freely then have split it all at the command and feet of this my Lord and Saviour.”

Bunyan eventually is able to reason his way through his doubts and come to peace with his faith.  He realizes that while he prayed fervently when he was in the midst of troubles, he neglected to pray for himself to avoid the pitfalls and temptations.  The sense of being a sinner did not ever leave him completely, but as he grew, so did his understanding of the depth and breadth of the grace of God, and he was finally at peace.

Stained glass of Bunyan in prison
source Wikimedia Commons

At the end of the book, Bunyan explains the cause of his imprisonment, which appears to be directly related to his refusal to use the Book of Common Prayer.  When questioned by the justices, Bunyan stated that he would be pleased to use the Book, if the justices could so kindly point to him in Scripture where the particular book was referenced.  The justices, however, viewed the Book of Common Prayer as second only to the Bible.  Bunyan was stubborn, the justices unyielding, and so began Bunyan’s time in the gaol. When released from prison in 1672, on a declaration of indulgence issued by the king under a new wave of religious tolerance, Bunyan returned to preaching, this time legally, and continue as the pastor of the Bedford Meeting, a position he had been given while languishing in prison a year before.  In 1688, while visiting London, he contracted a fever and passed away on August 31st.

The title Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners comes from two Biblical scripture references:

“Moreover the law entered that the offence might abound.  But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”  Romans 5: 20-21

“This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”  1 Timothy 1: 15

My absolute favourite part of this book was when Bunyan realized the impact of conversion.  His fellow men and women were suddenly lovely to his eyes and he viewed them “like a people that carried the broad seal of heaven about them.”  What a transformative experience!  Instead of being irked, or disdainful, or petty, or indifferent toward our fellow man, if we could see them as beloved children of God, how differently we might treat them!

John Bunyan at the Gates of Heaven
William Blake
source Wikimedia Commons

I must say that while I liked this read, so far I’m finding the biography list rather quirky.  Taken separately, the books have been enjoyable, but when taken together, they don’t strike me as a concise, chronological order of biographies that perhaps expand ideas or give insight into changes in societies or thought.  Ruth, I’d love to know what you thought of the novel list as a whole.  The other remaining lists (plays, history and poetry) look much better, but I’m not that impressed with this one.

This book counts towards my Reading England Challenge and since Cat at Tell Me A Story has been doing such a wonderful job with educating us as to the English counties along with her novels, I thought that I should add at least a few photos of Bedfordshire, where the narrative takes place.

Elstow

Elstow Stream

Bridge and Promenade

Bedford Bridge

The Plague by Albert Camus

“The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194-, at Oran.”

Albert Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria.  His father was killed at the Battle of the Marne in World War I and he and his brother were raised by their mother in a state of poverty.  He became a journalist, and during World War II, moved to Paris where he worked for an underground newspaper, and it was then that he began to craft his “philosophy of the absurd.”  The Stranger, published in 1942, was followed by The Plague in 1947, and in 1957 Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Tragically he died in a car accident in the south of France at only 46 years old.

Often Camus is lumped in with the existential philosophy, but he rejected that appellation, claiming himself an absurdist.  What is an absurdist?  Well, I like to think of them as existentialists with hope.  Absurdism is an idea that man is longing for meaning and clarity in a world that contains neither.  The conflict between the search for a purpose and the lack of one, creates absurdism.  Yet while Camus felt a meaninglessness in life, he wondered if man could create his own morality and follow it, even though his achievements would be fruitless.

St. Macarius of Ghent giving aid
to the plague victims (1672)
Jacob van Oost
source Wikimedia Commons

The Plague is set in the town of Oran in Algeria, a town perhaps like any other, yet the citizens are so ingrained in their day-to-day activities, there is no real life or passion within its walls.  When the plague arrives, their lethargic outlook and self-centred actions initially prevent them from seeing the danger that is so obviously present, as evidenced by the number of rats dying throughout the town.  As the plague is finally realized and claims its victims, Camus employs a scientific and philosophical examination of how the people react to the pestilence, what emotions and actions are brought to the forefront and the significance of their struggle to survive, not only the plague but the day-to-day trials that they must face.

The Plague (1898)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikimedia Commons

Camus shows the futility of attempted comprehension of the events, when the priest, Father Paneloux, declares the plague a judgement from God on the sins on the people.  In reality, the plague is not a moral judgement, nor anything that can be explained rationally, and therefore it is futile to try to rationalize it; one must simply accept the circumstances.  The plague means death, no more nor less than any other death, and the only reaction should be to battle against it.  Another character, Grand, decides to write a story perfect in its execution, but finally realizes his hopes are impossible.  As we meet more and more characters in Oran, we see its paralysis in the life of these men and women who choose actions that are meaningless and therefore self-isolating.  Because perfection cannot be obtained, a type of helplessness is portrayed, yet in a few characters we see another option.  While some victims have quietly succumbed to the inescapable death, others choose to fight, which gives their struggle significance within the inevitable.

Each character plays an important part in Camus’ philosophy, almost like a symphony, as Camus presses the loud pedal with one, and the soft with another. I’m still not sure how I feel about this tactic.  On one hand, it really gives the reader the ability to scrutinize each person’s part in the plague and, of course, Camus’ philosophy, but on the other, the story perhaps suffers. With such close dissection, the humanness fades into the background as the emphasis is given to worldview over plot, and in some cases the plausibility of the character and his/her actions is sacrificed to communicate Camus’ pet beliefs.

 

Plague in Ashod (1629)
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikimedia Commons

With the existentialist worldview, the novel would have signified defeat in the face of a world devoid of hope and purpose, but Camus spurs us to vigilance and action. He may not believe in truth or God, but one gets the feeling that he wants to believe.  It is as if he is waiting …… waiting for a sunbeam in a storm or a flower in the desert, and while he waits, he fights for the right to hope in what he tells himself is impossible.

Ultimately Camus struggled against his own belief system.  When the Nazi’s invaded France, he actively worked against them.  He made a judgement that their actions were wrong and attempted to stop them, showing that he did indeed believe there was something worth fighting for in the world.  Unlike the existentialists that I’ve encountered, Camus confronted the implications of his unbelief — and ultimately offered a solution, or at least a compromise with regard to his dilemma: while he still held to the absence of meaning within life, that did not mean that the search could not be rewarding.  At the end of his book, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


A Read-Along with Bookstooge – January 2015

 

The Princess by Anton Chekhov

Portrait of Anton Chekhov (1886)
Isaac Levitan
source Wikiart

This short story is my fourth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

What happened to Narcissus when he looked at his own reflection in the pool? This beautiful hunter from Boeotia fell in love with himself, and in fact was so deeply infatuated, in his self-obsession he fell into the pool and drowned.  Not a very fitting end for one with so much promise.

Narcissus (1594-96)
Caravaggio
source Wikipedia

In Chekhov’s story we meet the Princess, a lovely young woman who arrives at an isolated monastery for a night’s stay.  She is so thrilled to be there, gushing effusively about the setting and the priests and brothers who have received her.  She wants to forget her life in the city and the monastery and its occupants give her the tools to do so.  But the reader soon realizes that her arrival, instead of being a moment of interest and delight, is instead looked upon with discomfort and even dread by the good brothers of the monastery, and one feels that the Princess, in spite of her outward joie-de-vivre and vivacious personality, is only noticing the benefits that she gets from her visit, without concern for anything or anyone around her.

Soon she meets Mikhail Ivanovitch there, a doctor whom she’d earlier employed in her service, but instead of a warm reception for her, the doctor’s replies drip icicles.  Our poor, puzzled Princess cannot understand ….. why the reserve, especially when she condoles with him upon the death of his wife, an event that is certainly sad, but of course, life must go on.  When she mentions the mistakes she’s made in life and the doctor agrees, she begs him to enlighten her.  Perhaps she should have been more careful in what she asked for.  Directly he begins to catalogue her offenses, taking her to task for her lack of sympathy, her greed, her complete disdain for the feelings of others ………. in fact, the whole system of life that she has built around her is false and cruel, breeding those traits, and choking out any love or caring.  She has replaced God with herself, and therefore is no longer able to understand the creation in which she lives.

Oh!  The Princess is hurt, she is distraught, she is devasted!  That cruel, uneducated, ill-bred man!  How could he speak so to her, to HER, a princess?!  She must use her only defence against these horrid accusations, and so she begins to cry.  The doctor is immediately contrite and leaves her.  When they meet the next day, the princess is once again herself, gay and blithe as she prepares to leave, expecting everyone to admire and entertain her even as she promises to come again soon.  The unpleasantness of the day before is blotted from memory as once more she strives to be the centre of the world.

The Unsmiling Tsarevna (1916-26)
Niktor Vasnetsov
source Wikiart

In spite of the inclination to laugh at the princess’ stupidity and complete self-absorption, this story is quite a tragic one.  Her character is certainly one of a narcissist, and anything that exists around her, merely exists for her alone.  She is devoid of the character traits that make one truly human and, therefore, is not much better than a beast.

On November 15, 1888, Chekhov wrote to his publisher, stating that he was writing a story about a “vile woman”.  Three days later Chekhov wrote, “I want to write protest stories this season ——  I must learn the knack, but it bores me because I’m not used to it,” which makes one wonder if the doctor’s social protest was supposed to be the hub of the story.  In any case, both character’s roles offered a ripe opportunity for social and psychological examination.  This was an excellent story that certainly makes me want to read more of Chekhov’s works.

Deal Me in Challenge (#4) – Six of Clubs


The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

“There was, once upon a time …….”

The Adventures of Pinocchio was originally serialized in the two years prior to its publication in 1883, and was written by the Italian children’s writer Carlo Collodi.  Initially Collodi had Pinocchio die a rather gruesome death at the end of chapter 15 (which is rather reminiscent of Hilaire Belloc’s instructional children’s poetry), but his editor urged another ending, so the reader was finally treated to an extra 21 chapters and a wise addition it was!  The book has been translated into 240 languages and remains an icon in children’s literature.

Pinocchio begins as a talking block of wood that is given to a woodcarver named Gepetto, who carves him into a puppet and tries to teach him sense, responsibility and moderation.  Yet instead of being grateful to his creator, Pinocchio follows his own selfish inclinations and calamitous adventures are the result of his self-indulgent, thoughtless decisions.

From being defrauded of his money by a Cat and a Fox, nearly roasted in a fire, hung by his neck on a tree, arrested and thrown in jail, turned into a donkey, and eaten by a fish, one wonders why Pinocchio doesn’t learn his lesson and become a good boy. But through these disastrous adventures, we see changes in Pinocchio that are like small flickering lights in the inky darkness of his character.  Initially his zest for fun is nearly uncontrollable but, while it can seem doubtful on the surface, he steadily learns from each adventure, and at each temptation, he is able to put up more resistance.  Pinocchio wants to be good, but his conscience is at continual war with his boyish enthusiasm and his childish lack of forethought and discipline.  The blue fairy, who is like a mother to him and attempts to aid in his moral development, is harsh in her instruction, but Pinocchio benefits from this treatment, knowing she is looking out for his best interests.  And in spite of her firmness, love is always in her actions:

“I saw from the sincerity of your grief that you had a good heart; and when boys have good hearts, even if they are scamps and have bad habits, there is always something to hope for: that is, there is always hope that they will turn to better ways …”

Eventually Pinocchio learns how dangerous it can be to follow your impulses of the moment, and that responsibility and hard work bring a maturity that is rewarded in a way, that fun and pleasure can never match.

    

Was I imagining it, or were there a number of Biblical allusions in the story? When Pinocchio buried his money, it reminded me of the parable of the talents, where the servant chooses selfishly to bury his money instead of making good use of it.  With the large fish swallowing Gepetto, of course, this alluded to Jonah and the whale.  And finally, all Pinocchio’s catastrophic adventures that come about by his poor life choices and his eventual change of heart, are on parallel with the story of the prodigal son, who finally returns home to the one who truly loves him and has his best interests at heart.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)
Pompeo Batoni
source Wikipedia

In spite of some of the more bloodthirsty episodes, this was truly a heart-warming story.  That sentence sounds odd, I know, but I really appreciated the reality of Collodi’s message.  The company we keep has an enormous influence on the character that we will develop, and each of our decisions in life carry an import, sometimes with consequences that are not easily realized. For me, the most shocking part of the story was the episode where the Cat and Fox hung Pinocchio in a tree expecting him to die, but honestly in some bad decisions the outcome could be death, and it’s important to realize that.

Finally, I’ll share a few pictures by illustrator Fritz Kredel from my 1946 edition that are rather fun: