Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

“When young Mark Robarts was leaving college, his father might well declare that all men began to say all good things to him, and to extol his fortune in that he had a son blessed with so excellent a disposition.”

In Framley Parsonage, the fourth book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire, Trollope gives us a lively romp through the lives of the inhabitants of East Barsetshire, introducing us not only to their whims and follies, but through their actions, the culture and society of a 19th century English town. 

Mark Robarts, a parson of the village of Framley, and a beneficiary of Lady Lufton whose son was his schoolmate, is married to Fanny, a genteel lady of respectable birth.  Yet his patroness is at times difficult to please, and Robarts must navigate the storms of friendship, duty, and financial matters, often muddying the waters that he is trying desperately to clear.  When his father dies and his sister, Lucy, comes to live at the parsonage, an unexpected complication develops that was unforeseen by all and upsets the carefully calibrated balance of societal acceptance.  Robarts encounters further obstacles when he embroils himself with a member of parliament, Nathaniel Sowerby, and his financial dealings.  His trusting, artless, clerical nature is in sharp contrast to the Machiavellian intrigue of men of enterprise, and it appears nothing good will come of the connection.

The Parsonage Farm, Rickmansworth (c. 1840)
John White
source ArtUK

In Mark Roberts financial dealings with Sowerby, one wonders if Trollope was offering a subtle indictment as to the interactions and associations of church and state.  The innocent perceptions of one is unable to account for the devious machinations of the other and, because of Robarts’ influence on those around him, they are affected by the imprudent alliance as well.  Add to that Lady Lufton’s displeasure at the Duke of Omnium’s vulgar societal group and a possible marriage between a peer and a commoner, and you have class conflict at its finest, a subject of which Trollope is most adept at exploring with a light-heartedness that often belies the deeper implications.

Trollope reintroduces characters from the previous Barsetshire books: The Warden, Barchester Towers and Dr. Thorne.  Miss Dunstable displays her wily financial prowess, Dr. Thorne his ability to be influenced, the Grantley’s are in top form with not one, but two suitors in their daughter’s wake, and even gentle old Septimus Harding makes a brief appearance.

The Houses of Parliament (c. 1844?)
George Chambers II
source ArtUK

Two years it took me to complete this novel.  Isn’t that ridiculous?  For some reason, the first part of it just dragged, but as soon as I hit the half-way point, I was completely hooked and drawn in to the characters and their stories.  Next in line is A Small House at Allington, which I’ve heard is excellent.  It won’t take me two years to read through this one, I promise!

Top Ten Books of 2016

Todd’s Warehouse, Stonegate, York
Henry Cave
source ArtUK

The last Top Ten Tuesday of the year from The Broke and the Bookish asks us to name our top ten favourite reads for 2016.  Of course, I thought I’d participated in this end-of-year meme every year but when I looked back, I could only find a post for my Top Books From The Last Three Years.  Sigh!  I guess it’s better late than never to start!

Reading A Book
James Tissot
source Wikiart

Sadly, I did not meet my reading goal of 60 books this year, reading only 45.  However, there is a silver lining in the cloud; I read more pages than last year and I have a number of HUGE books that I’m still working on (think, The Faerie Queene, Don Quixote, The Gulag Archipelago, etc.) so no, I’m not weeping tears of regret.

So without further ado, here is my top ten list for 2016, set up as Brona did, to build the suspense.

10.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

I think I’ve read this trilogy about 8 times.  I just love it!

or
The Man Born to Be King by Dorothy Sayers

I had to include this play and what better place than with Tolkien, Sayers friend and contemporary.  Her impeccable research into the life and times of Jesus, along with her detailed direction for this play was amazing.  An excellent read!

9.

While not technically a book, but a lecture, C.S. Lewis brings to light some unique ideas and questions with regard to a play that has been studied to death.  It’s also the top viewed post on my blog, quite a feat considering I only read it this year.
8.
The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore

Thanks to Cirtnecce for introducing me to Indian history and this most wonderful writer during her read-along.  I will definitely search out more of Tagore’s works.

7.
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton

I’ve read this biography now twice and loved it equally each time.  I’m continually blown away by Merton’s insight into life and the human condition.  Yes, I’ll read it again!
6.
The Oresteia by Aeschylus

Adultery, murder, betrayal, power, oppression, escape, judgement …..  What more could one ask for in a book?  The Oresteia delivers it all, yet with many lessons that are as applicable today as then.  Aeschylus is one of my new favourites.
5.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Ah, I just love this book!  Read for Hamlette’s read-along my enjoyment of it was stretched out over months and I enjoyed reading it so much as this measured pace.  My fifth read of it and just as good as my first!

4.

I don’t know why the brilliancy of Tolstoy amazes me.  I didn’t expect much of this short novella, but Tolstoy managed to capture the last days of Ivan with such poignancy …. his thoughts, dreams and regrets.  The message was universal with many insightful ideas to ponder, as well as touching the heart.  Tolstoy is a genius!
3.
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I hadn’t read this novel for decades and with this re-read I wondered how I could have been so short-sighted.  I absolutely loved it.  My wish is to read it every year.  Lee captured her characters, life experiences and the effects on their development so brilliantly.  I don’t think I could ever read Go Set A Watchman after this.

2.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Wow, I struggled while reading this book.  I felt like I was swimming in a maze of ideas and philosophies that were quite over my head.  Luckily I just kept reading.  It was only when I finished that everything started to come together and I could appreciate what a masterpiece this book is.  I know that I still haven’t grasped even half of what’s there, and I can’t wait to read it again …… and again, and again, and ……

1.

I almost gave The Brothers Karamazov number one position but surpisingly, even to me, I chose to give it to Ovid.  While Metamorphoses was shocking and at times gross, the effort and aptitude of Ovid’s work couldn’t be ignored.  His stories stick with you and somehow get into your soul.  Bravo, Ovid.  I wouldn’t want to know you, but your poetry is sublime!

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

An orphan child badly treated by rich relatives.  A grim and lonely school for girls where pestilence hangs in the air.  A Gothic mansion that houses a she-demon and a brooding and sardonic man who, underneath his caustic demeanor, hides a heart that waits to be awakened.  Who could resist such a story?

Well, not I, that’s for sure, and I jumped right into Hamlette’s Jane Eyre read-along that began in June 2016.  It was probably my fifth read of this enduring story, and this time it particularly captured my imagination and heart.  A tale of enduring love and a crossing of the class boundaries was particularly compelling in a time when no one seems to be getting along and division is rife between those would could easily be friends given more tolerance and grace for each other.

Richmond, Yorkshire
Edmund John Niemann
source ArtUK

My read along posts follow:

The Governess (1739)
Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin
source Wikiart

Chapters I & II
Chapters III & VI
Chapters V – VII
Chapters VIII – X
Chapters XI – XIII
Chapters XIV – XVI
Chapters XVII – XIX
Chapters XX – XXII
Chapters XXIII – XXV
Chapters XXVI – XXVIII
Chapters XXIX – XXXI
Chapters XXXII – XXXIV
Chapters XXXV – XXXVIII

We first meet Jane as an orphaned child, living on the charity of her relatives who heap upon her verbal abuse.  Finally, she is shipped off to a disreputable girls school, Lowood, and though the abuse continues from the head administrator, Mr. Brocklehurst, Jane forms a dear friendship with another girl, Helen, who teaches her quiet perseverance, mercy and forgiveness, while exemplifying a steadfast faith in God.  Upon reaching womanhood and taking a post as a governess at Thornfield, Jane encounters the master, a dark, taciturn, mysterious man, Edward Rochester.  Although her heart is awakened, Jane does not waver from her ideals, knowing with a certain wisdom that behaving with dignity and moral principles is the only way to inner peace and true happiness.

While the beginning of the book, chronicling Jane’s childhood, appears to have little to do with the later plot, it plays an important role in understanding the development of her character and her place in society.  As a reader, we are always reminded of her struggles to be treated with respect and dignity, to be treated as an equal, as a soul created by God instead of as a product of a social hierarchy.

“Do you think I am an automaton? — a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and drop of living water dashed from my cup?  Do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless?  You think wrong!  — I have as much soul as you —- and full as much heart!  And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.  I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet equal — as we are!”

My most treasured memories of Jane Eyre is Brontë’s amazing ability to make the characters so intrinsically human, instead of perfect, implausible characters.  While Rochester’s machinations can be rather shocking, you can understand how a man who has had little chance to develop a good steady character and is used to giving free reign to his passions could end up a slave to them.  His emotions drive him without finer moral values to guide him.  Jane, on the other hand, while falling deeply in love with the man she sees he can become, can clearly recognize the pitfalls of ungoverned behaviour. While her heart cries out for him, she is mature and sensible enough to see where wrong actions would take them.  Instead of increasing their love, they would be left with nothing but emptiness.  She would rather remember the depths of the love that they shared in its purest form than degrade herself by being guided solely by passion.

Once again, thanks to Hamlette for this most excellent and measured read-along that allowed me to soak up the story and to spend time with two of my most favourite characters in the pages of literature!

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner of our district, who became notorious in his own day (and is still remembered among us) because of his tragic and mysterious death, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall relate in its proper place.”

What a marvellously mysterious first sentence which brings all sorts of questions to mind.  Why was the Karamazov father only remembered because of his horrific death?  What else did he do in life?  Why has the narrator waited thirteen years to tell the story?  And why does it need to be told in its “proper place”?

The Brothers Karamazov centers around three brothers, Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha, each of whom appear to represent different aspects of human beliefs: sensual materialism, rational nihilism and faith.  Within the framework of their relationships with their father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov a harsh and unyielding man, their characters are illuminated and these philosophies highlighted. In the case of Ivan Karamazov, his worldview has been formed through the legends and mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, and Christ’s return to earth and his temptations by Satan.  On the other hand, Dimitry Karamazov is wrapped in the atmosphere of the Hellenism of Schiller and the struggles of the Olympian gods with the dark forces that proceeded them.  Father Zosimas embodies the beliefs and rituals of the Eastern Church, and likewise Alyosha Karamazov his protégé, yet doubt creeps into Alyosha’s faith and is only overcome by his realization of earth being linked to heaven.

The author brings into relief the struggle of reconciling a just God with a fallen and depraved world.  With Ivan, we see a mutiny against a Christian ideology that allows free will to cause suffering, and with the speech of the Grand Inquisitor, even an indictment against Christ.  Father Zosima answers Ivan’s torment with his insistence on a faith in God being the only way to express an active love for humanity.  We see each character struggling to make a leap of faith in consequence of their actions, a putting aside of “self” for something greater, a struggle for each to interact with his conscience in spite of outside influences. 

Dostoyevsky’s notes for Chapter 5
of The Brothers Karamazov
source Wikipedia

With his sparse expository setting and minimal action, Dostoyevsky’s story unfolds mainly through his characters and their thoughts, their internal monologues often being more revealing than any physical action.  With great acumen, he examines the breakdown of a Russian family from a social-psychological level, which itself points to a breakdown of moral values of society as a whole and the consequences arising from this underlying issue.  Values within the construct of faith are what make a healthy society and without them, a sickness pervades, culminating in tragedy.

Reason is set against the intangible mystery of human behaviour and an inexorable conflict is evaluated as reason encounters Christian faith.  Dostoyevsky sets about illustrating the limitations of reason.  At the end of the novel, even though reason points to an inevitable conclusion, it does not allow the people in judgement to discover the truth, and its failure is effectively apparent.

Sketch of a Russian Village
Konstantin Alexseevich Korovin
source ArtUK

While the book is rife with questions about faith, strife, family disharmony and moral failings in a most human form, it also has echoes of positive aspects of life.  The monastery is a fortress of true faith and hope, and even the children in this story are able to overcome prejudices and act in a manner of love and reconciliation. Unlike some of his other novels, the author leaves us with a hope for humanity.

Dostoyevsky is a master of the psychological novel and I suspect that I still have not come close to penetrating the fascinating workings of his unique mind.  One finishes his novels, sits down to review them, and then wonders “where on earth do I start?”  The minute psychological details that embellish each character’s thoughts kept me in mental gymnastics from beginning to end.  His novels are not easy reads and the first read through it seems as if you only peal off a layer at a time, however the deeper that you slide into them, you find that they change you in a way that you never expected.

I’ve seen some reviews that express frustration with this book and Dostoyevsky’s treatment of the themes but I wonder if its presentation, to a certain extent, mirrors life with its disjointed narrative and its sometimes apparent dead ends which pick up later and lead to something revelatory.  The author presents mystery …. both the mystery of God and the mystery of human psychology —- and as 21st century intellectually influenced moderns, we simply have difficulty understanding this approach.  His works are certainly challenging, but as I sit with them and let Dostoyevsky’s narrative percolate within me, I know that I have much more to discover about, not only the novels but life itself.  I will, without a doubt, read this particular book again!

A View of the Solevyetski Monastery with its Founders
Saints. Zossim and Savatti
unknown artist
source ArtUK

Some favourite quotes:

We are responsible for everyone else in this world, apart from their sins.

” …. but first the period of human isolation will have to come to an end …….  the sort of isolation  that exists everywhere now, and especially in our age, but which hasn’t reached its final development …. For today everyone is still striving to keep his individuality as far apart as possible, everyone still wishes to experience the fullness of life in himself alone, and yet instead of achieving the fullness of life, all his efforts merely lead to the fullness of self-destruction, for instead of full self-realization they relapse into complete isolation.  For in our age all men are separated into self-contained units, everyone crawls into his own hole, and hides away everything he possesses, and ends up by keeping himself at a distance from people and keeping other people at a distance from him.  He accumulates riches by himself and thinks how strong he is now and how secure, and does not realize, madman that he is, that the more he accumulates the more deeply does he sink into self-destroying impotence.  For he is used to relying on himself alone and has separated himself as a self-contained unit from the whole.  He has trained his mind not to believe in the help of other people, in men and mankind, and is in constant fear of losing his money and the rights he has won for himself.  Everywhere today the mind of man has ceased, ironically, to understand that true security of the individual does not lie in isolated personal efforts but in general human solidarity …..  a man has to set an example at least once and draw his soul out of its isolation and work for some great act of human intercourse based on brotherly love, even if he is to be regarded as a saintly fool for his pains.  He has to do so that the great idea may not die ……”

I was quite surprised by the mysterious visitor’s revelation, as my thoughts had been percolating on the same ideas for a week or so before I read it.  Still in somewhat of a pensive, philosophical mood left over from my summer vacation, I wondered why we appear so engaged with people, when, if you truly gaze into people’s hearts, we are really very alone.  Why, when we think someone is suffering, do we feel sympathy for them and wish them well in our minds, yet walk away because we either do not have the time, or don’t honestly want to become involved in something that might require effort, or compassion, or sacrifice for someone other than ourselves?  We’re more connected with our work, or our possessions, or our own perceived needs than we are with people, blind to the personal connections and the deeper caring that will truly make us happy …. truly make us human.  It’s all very sad ….

“And what’s strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.” 


“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.  The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.  And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself” 


“What is hell?  I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” 


“Be not forgetful of prayer.  Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.” 


“Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it.” 


“Love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.  Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.” 


“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.  God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” 


“They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.” 


“Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand.  Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing.  If thou love each thing, thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it; until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.” 


“Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people’s sins.  Go, and do not be afraid.”

Further Reading:
The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank

The Well at the World’s End by William Morris

“Long ago there was a little land, over which ruled a regulus or kinglet, who was called King Peter, though his kingdom was but little.”

King Peter of Upmeads has four sons, Blaise, Hugh, Gregory and Ralph.  All resolve to set out to seek great adventures but the youngest, Ralph, decides to do so against his father’s wishes.  Encouraged by Dame Katherine, a newly married lady to the chapman, she gives him a beaded necklace of blue and green stones and inspires him to find the Well at the World’s End.

“Son, true it is that the water of that Well shall cause a man to thrive in all ways, and to live through many generations of men, maybe, in honour and good-liking; but it may not keep any man alive for ever; for so have the Gods given us the gift of death lest we weary of life ……

Of strife and of war also we know naught: nor do we desire aught which we may not easily attain to.  Therefore we live long, and we fear the Gods if we should strive to live longer, lest they should bring upon us war and sickness, and over-weening desire, and weariness of life.  …..

…. ye wear away your lives desiring that which ye may scarce get; and ye set your hearts on high things, desiring to be master of the very Gods.  Therefore ye know sickness and sorrow, and oft ye die before your time, so that ye must depart and leave undone things which ye deem ye were born to do; which to all men is grievous.  And because of all this ye desire healing and thriving, whether good come of it, or ill.  Therefore ye do but right to seek to the Well at the World’s End, that ye may the better accomplish that which behoveth you, and that ye may serve your fellows and deliver them from the thralldom of those that be strong and unwise and unkind, of whom we have heard strange tales.”


Ralph’s youth and inexperience are apparent at the beginning of the story, as he travels first to Bourton Abbas and then through the Wood Perilous, meeting up with various adventures and challenges on his journey.  He encounters two women, both of whom he loves, yet one whom he is not destined to keep.  Finally, with Ursula, his love, and with the help of the Sage of Sweveham, they manage to attain their quest, finding the Well and drinking of its bounty.  Their return home is also fraught with danger and intrigue, as Ralph learns the value of perseverance and the rewards of loyalty.

The Vision of the Holy Grail tapesty (1890)
Sir Edward Burne-Jones (design and figures)
William Morris (design and execution)
source Wikipedia

Born in Essex, William Morris had a number of accomplishments and careers during his life, including that of a textile designer, a poet, a novelist and a social activist.  Though classically trained at Oxford, Morris became an architect, and with his friends, the well-known artists Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and archtitect Philip Webb, they formed a decorative arts firm that became the rage of the Victoria era.  His renown as a poet followed, and he further exercised his literary talents as a novelist.    His interest in Marxism and concern for social issues developed an appetite for activism which lasted throughout his life.  He died in 1896 of tuberculosis at the age of 62.

The Merciful Knight (1863)
Edward Burne-Jones
source Wikiart

The Well at the World’s End is a very curious mix of fairy tale, adventure, and rather risque scenes and actions for the time period of Victorian England.  While it reminded me very much of Le Morte d’ArthurThe Faerie Queene, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morris was not reluctant to reveal the physical attraction between Ralph and the women he encountered, nor did he prevaricate about their physical relationship, however, he did so in rather a romantic knightly way.  Morris was a muse for writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who admired his pioneering work in the genre of fantasy fiction, and the names “Gandolf” and “Silverfax” which appear in The Well at the World’s End, are echoed also in The Lord of the Rings.

Danaë (The Tower of Brass) 1887-88
Edward Burne-Jones
source ArtUK

This book was a wonderfully rich and exciting read, full of heroic exploits, peril and satisfying resolutions.  Morris was indeed a talented writer and his love for the Medieval is apparent in every word of the story.  I own his book, The News From Nowhere, which I hope to read soon as a follow-up.  Being compared to Gulliver’s Travels and Erewhon, it’s a complete deviation from this story —an utopian novel of a libertarian socialist bent. In any case, his story telling abilities solidified themselves for me with this novel and I’m looking forward to exploring more works from Morris.

Lamia and the Soldier (1905)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

“Inside the great building of the Law Courts, during the interval in the hearing of the Melvinsky case, the members of the judicial council and the public prosecutor were gathered together in the private room of Ivan Yegorovitch Shebek, and the conversation turned upon the celebrated Krasovsky case.”

Wow!  My last Tolstoy novel read was War and Peace over two years ago and I’d forgotten the depth that Tolstoy could create within his stories with a clear, straight-forward narrative.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich appears to be merely a tale of the last days of a Russian court judge, yet Tolstoy brings the human condition into vivid and startling colours.

Ivan Ilyich has a typical Russian childhood, becomes a respected and accomplished young adult who manages to climb the social strata with aplomb and an admirable acuity.  He takes a wife who, though a nag, through his very avoidance of her, manages to give him a sharper focus to his work, and therefore her very shrewishness assists him in his social ascension.  They have the average and respectable number of two children, a girl and a boy, along with the typical infant deaths of that period, and Ilyich’s life is complete.  Except for one problem.  He is dying.

With Tolstoy’s astute and penetrating acumen, the reader shares Ivan Ilyich’s last days as he slowly sinks into the realization of his approaching demise.  In life, Ilyich was able to focus on the impermanent: his career, the appearance of a normal family life, his status in the community.  All his worth was embodied in these transient things, but suddenly in illness, these symbols fade into obscurity and death forces him, almost against his will, to view his life in stark reality.

Initially, Ivan is confused, and cries out to a God whom he had previously seen only as a inconvenient afterthought:

“Why has Thou done all this?  What brought me to this?  Why, why torture me so horribly?”

Yet slowly a “strange idea” begins to form in his mind.  He does not want to suffer, yet live.  But how does he wish to live?

“As you used to live before — happily and pleasantly?” queried the voice.  And he began going over in his imagination the best moments of his pleasant life.  But strange to say, all these best moments of his pleasant life seemed now not at all what they had seemed then.  All — except the first memories of his childhood …..  As soon as he reached the beginning of what had resulted in him as he was now, Ivan Ilyitch, all that had seemed joys to him then now melted away before his eyes and were transformed into something trivial, and often disgusting ……..  And the further he went from childhood, the nearer to the actual present, the more worthless and uncertain were the joys …..  

He was living ….

“…. as though I had been going steadily downhill, imagining that I was going uphill.  So it was in fact.  In public opinion I was going uphill and steadily as I got up it life was ebbing away from me …..  Can it be I have not lived as one ought?”

Death brings echoes of truth to him, but instead of accepting this burgeoning enlightenment, Ivan chooses to hang on to the mirage of the life he has lived and dismisses the idea.  The reader wonders if Ivan will die as he’d lived, merely existing, and if the true meaning of life itself will elude his grasp?

Death and Life (1908-16)
Gustav Klimt
source Wikiart

In spite of the title, much of the story is about Ivan’s life and through his life, we view his death.  With each sentence Tolstoy drives home the futility and meaninglessness of Ilyich’s daily actions, that brought material success but failed to feed the soul within the man.  It is only at the very end, with the touch of his son’s hand and a kiss, that Ivan experiences an epiphany that expands his whole world.

The universality of the story echoes with a profound yet practical resonance.  Drawing from the narrative, Ivan’s life, though complete with success in business, a (on the surface) contented family life, and respect of his peers, it is really bereft of human relationship in all areas.  Tolstoy himself says Ivan’s previous life “was the simplest, the most ordinary, and the most awful.”   Ivan could be you or I and with his novella, Tolstoy prods us to examine the purpose of our existence.  We need to evaluate our lives ….. not only just skate on the surface, but to dig deeply.  What is truly important in life? What genuinely gives us life as soulful beings and not simply as materialistic creatures who live only for pleasure and business?  And a question that has been on my mind often lately:  How do we struggle against societal pressure to conform to the latter and find a meaningful existence, to live in the “now” yet reach beyond it?

All Rivers Run to the Sea by Elie Wiesel

“Last night I saw my father in a dream.”

Born in the town of Sighet, Romania in the Carpathian Mountains in 1928, Wiesel’s family of six was part of a thriving Jewish community. During World War II, murmurs of Jewish persecution by the Germans reached the town, but the villagers doubted the rumors and discounted anything they heard.  Even with the German occupation of the town on March 19, 1944, the Germans behaved correctly and no one was disturbed.  Months before their arrival, a man called “Moshe the Beadle” arrived in town with talk of his escape and stories of atrocities, yet his words fell like a barely noticeable rain:

“Messenger of the dead, he shouted his testimony from the rooftops and delivered it in silence, but either way no one would listen.  People turned their backs so as not to see his eyes, as though fearing to glimpse a truth that held his past and our future in his steely grip.  People tried, in vain, to make him doubt his own reason and his own memory, to accept that he had survived for nothing —– indeed, to regret having survived.”

Their own housekeeper, Maria, tried to convince the family time and again to seek refuge with her at her house in the mountains, but they were reluctant to abandon their Jewish community, still believing that all would be well.  Even when they were imprisioned in the ghetto, she would sneak through the barbed wire barricades to bring them food.  She figures prominently in Wiesel’s memory:

“I think of Maria often, with affection and gratitude.  And with wonder as well.  This simple, uneducated woman stood taller than the city’s intellectuals, dignitaries, and clergy.  My father had many acquaintances and even friends in the Christian community, but not one of them showed the strength of character of this peasant woman.  Of what value was their faith, their education, their social postion, if it aroused neither conscience nor compassion …. It was a simple and devout Christian woman who saved the town’s honor.”

Wiesel doesn’t examine in depth his time in the concentration camp —– his book, Night, describes this ordeal —- rather he shares questions which he had before and after the nightmare.  Why didn’t Jews in other countries do more for their suffering brothers? Why were there not more bombings to stop the transport of Jews?  Why did the world watch as six million Jews were exterminated?  There is a poignancy to the fate of the town of Sighet, as the Third Reich was already in disarray, and Hitler knew that his fight for world dominance had ended, yet he was determined to exterminate the Jewish people, making the deportation of Jews a priority over military convoys.

Wiesel comments on the Jewish passivity during the Holocaust:

“Today, as I write this, I think of all those who chided us for our passivity, our resignation, during the war.  ‘Why didn’t you resist?’  What about the Germans?  What accounts for their obsequious cowardice before foreigners after their defeat?  There were endless rumors about parents who sold their wives and daughters to the first American soldier for a pair of nylons, former high-ranking Wehmacht officers who would shine shoes for any corporal, bankrupt merchants who fought over cigarette butts flicked into the road by drunken solders.  Their strength was gone, their power dissipated, their arrogance a memory.  Yesterday’s supermen had become subhuman.  But no, I don’t like either of those terms, superman or subhuman; both victors and vanquished are no more, no less, than human beings.”

“Jewish avengers were few in number, their thirst for vengeance brief ……. the Jews, for metaphysical and ethical reasons rooted in their history, chose another path.  Later, this absence of violence among the survivors, this absence of vengefulness on the part of the victims toward their former hangmen and torturers was widely discussed.  Of course, the setting was a Germany barely able to breathe under the weight of its ashes, a nation humiliated as few have ever been.”

Yet within the tragic fate of so many of his people, Wiesel observed the quiet resolution and courageous determination that his fellow Jews exemplified.

“With hindsight I realize that it was in the ghetto that I truly began to love the Jews of my town.  Throughout the ordeal they maintained their dignity as human beings and as Jews.  Imprisoned, reduced to sub-human status, they showed themselves still capable of spiritual greatness.  Against the enemy they stood as one, affirming their faith in their faith.”

With the death of both of his parents in the camps, after his release Wiesel went to France where, under the children’s rescue society, he began schooling and reconnected with his Jewish religious roots.  He rather naively began his journalistic career working for a Yiddish news weekly funded by the Igrun, an Israeli resistance group.  Eventually, he found himself in New York as a foreign correspondent, and finally became a U.S. citizen.  He recounts his meetings with political dignitaries and writers such as Golda Meir, Ben-Gurion, Saul Lieberman, Yitzhak Rabin, Hannah Arendt, etc., as his travels took him between France, the U.S. and Israel.   Through his experiences, we get a first-hand view of Israel’s fight for independence in 1947, to its struggles up to the Six Day War with Egypt in 1967.

About claims that he renounced his faith, Wiesel responds:

“There is a passage in Night  — recounting the hanging of a young Jewish boy — that has given rise to an interpretation bordering on blasphemy.  Theorists of the idea that “God is dead” have used my words unfairly as justification of their rejection of faith.  But if Nietzsche could cry out to the old man in the forest that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot.  I have never renounced my faith in God.  I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it ……. my Talmudist master Rabbi Saul Lieberman has pointed out another way to look at it.  One can — and must — love God.  One can challenge Him and even be angry with Him, but one must also pity Him.  ‘Do you know which of all the characters in the Bible is most tragic?’ he asked me.  ‘It is God, blessed be His name, God whose creatures so often disappoint and betray Him.’  He showed me ….. God wept, His tears fell upon His people and His creation, as if to say, What have you done to my work? …… Perhaps God shed more tears in the time of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, and one may therefore invoke His name not only with indignation but also with sadness and compassion.”

Yet throughout this book, the tragedy of his people lives within him, their suffering and memory never far from the surface of his thoughts.  It is as if their legacy lives inside him and his soul needs to shout their story.

“To write is to plumb the unfathomable depths of being.  Writing lies within the domain of mystery. The place between any two words is vaster than the distance between heaven and earth.  To bridge it you must close your eyes and leap.  A Hasidic tradition tells us that in the Torah the white spaces, too, are God-given.  Ultimately, to write is an act of faith.”

I really loved his biography, as Wiesel is very honest and forthright, yet we see compassion and understanding, not only for Jews, but for Germans and Arabs as well. There is no resonance of hatred in Wiesel’s narrative, only a cry for understanding.  He does not want vengeance, and not necessarily even justice, but more a soul-searching to prevent another atrocity such as the Holocaust, which would give some sort of meaning to the tragedy.  Wiesel tells his story with a quiet strength, offering questions that perhaps have no answers, but always has the Jewish plight speaking from both light and shadows.  Ultimately, a good part of life is made up of questions without answers and perhaps Wiesel exemplifies best how to live in that tension, and also to use it for good.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told to Alex Haley)

“When my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later, a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night.”

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on May 19, 1925.  He was the fourth of seven children, his father being an outspoken Baptist speaker.  The family relocated to Lansing, Michigan where they were targets of attacks of the Black Legion, a racist group led by whites.  Before Malcolm’s seventh birthday, his father was killed in a streetcar accident, but rumours of the Black Legion’s involvement were rife.  When a relationship with a man she was dating deteriorated, Malcolm’s mother had a breakdown and was placed in a mental asylum where she remained for 24 years.  At fourteen, he began to get involved in all sorts of illegal activity, from gambling, hustling, drug dealing, racketeering, pimping, etc in New York City.  He became a thug and a criminal, hanging out at music halls and smoking “reefers”, living a wild life on the edge:

“Looking back, I think I really was at least slightly out of my mind.  I viewed narcotics as most people regard food.  I wore my guns as today I wear my neckties.  Deep down I actually believed that after living as fully as humanly possible, one should then die violently.  I expected then, as I still expect today, to die at any time.  But then, I think I deliberately invited death in many, sometimes insane ways.”

Finally at 20 years old, an attempted robbery landed the young man in prison, where he finally discovered through one of his brothers, the “natural religion of the black man”, the Nation of Islam.  Through their prophet Elijah Muhammed, a new history of the black man was revealed:  600 years ago everyone was black but a “Mr. Yacub”, a scientist with a large head decided to break the peace.  Exiled to Patmos (the same island were the Apostle John lived when he wrote Revelations), Yacub, embittered towards Allah, made a race of “bleached-out white people” through his followers.  In two hundred years the black people were eliminated, two hundred more and the brown people followed, then two hundred each for the red people and the yellow people (yes, the math doesn’t add up, but I’m just repeating the story).  The new white people were like animals, walking on all fours and living in trees and it was two hundred years before they returned to civilization and made it a living hell.  All the black people’s problems stemmed from this “devil white race”.  History had been completely rewritten by the white man.  X also figured out that because the King James Bible was considered the ultimate in English and the King had poets write it, Shakespeare must have written it.  So in Malcolm X’s mind, King James used the alias of Shakespeare and wrote the Bible to “enslave the world”.   And thus, Malcolm X began to correspond with his siblings & Elijah Muhammend, read any book he could to support his position and to recruit for the NOI (Nation of Islam).  He was successful with converting some followers, but the majority thought their tenants strange, to say the least, and rejected his overtures.

Malcolm X before a press
conference (1954)
source Wikipedia

Malcolm X despised the white race, but he also showed extreme antipathy towards the black elite, or any black person who did not agree with him, calling them brainwashed by the white people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. whom he labelled a puppet of the white establishment.

“Why you should hear those Negroes attack me, trying to justify, or forgive the white man’s crimes!  These Negroes are people who bring me nearest to breaking one of my principal rules which is never to let myself become over-emotional and angry.  Why, sometimes I’ve felt I ought to jump down off that stand and get physical with some of those brainwashed white man’s tools, parrots, puppets.”

Yet with his evangelizing, NOI numbers slowly grew.  His met his wife, Sister Betty X, at his temple and after they were married, she became a good Muslim wife to him, caring for their children and supporting his ministry.  When questioned about his religious philosophy and its proclivity for spreading hatred, the people questioning him would immediately become “breathing living devils” and X would immediately go on the attack, claiming the white man was in no moral position to accuse anyone else of hatred, or he would accuse them of attacking his people because they were black.  As an artist might work in oils, Malcolm X worked in logical fallacies, painting his rhetorical and philosophical landscapes with circular reasoning, ad hominem attacks, red herrings, appeals to fear, tu quoque, and the straw man.

After years of working as Elijah Mohammed’s front man and “minister”, Malcolm X began to act more independently.  Praise was always given to Mohammed, but there were suspicions that his actions were not always pleasing to his superior and that the NOI head resented his subordinate’s popularity.  When Mohammed was accused of sexual impropriety with NOI secretaries, a serious breach of the rules of Islam, Malcolm X attempted to justify his behaviour.  However, with Malcolm X releasing inappropriate comments after John Kennedy’s assassination, in spite of a NOI ban on commenting, the leader felt X had become too independent and prohibited his public speaking for 90 days.  Malcolm X finally left the organization, founding Muslim Mosque, Inc. and in 1964 made a pilgrimmage to Mecca where he was astounded to see believers of all colours. It was the beginning of a change within the charismatic leader and when he returned to the States, there was tone moderation in some of his discourses.

“Yes —- I wrote a letter from Mecca.  You’re asking me ‘Didn’t you say that now you accept white men as brother?’  Well, my answer is that in the Muslim World, I saw, I felt, and I wrote home how my thinking was broadened!  Just as I wrote, I shared true, brotherly love with many white-complexioned Muslims who never gave a single thought to the race, or to the complexion, of another Muslim …….  In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people.  I never will be guilty of that again — as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man.  The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against black ….. (it) was the first time I ever had been able to think clearly about the basic divisions of white people in America, and how their attitudes and their motives related to, and affected Negroes.”

He finally saw that it wasn’t “the American white man who is a racist, but … the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourished a racist psychology in the white man.” His inclusion now did not only cross the boundaries of race but also religion and political philosophy.  Suddenly Malcolm X began to get an inkling that his previous experiences which formed his views might have been based on ignorance, and he strove for a change.  Finally, we see a man struggling with new ideas that perhaps are trying to kick the old ones aside, as he tried to merge his new identity with the old one.  And we get a glimpse of some perhaps insightful self-examination:

“For the freedom of my 22 million black brothers and sisters here in America, I do beliee that I have fought the best that I knew how, and the best that I could, with the short-comings that I have had.  I know that my shortcomings are many.”

Malcolm X defends his house
Photo from Ebony magazine
source Wikipedia

In spite of his new outlook and more moderate thinking, Malcolm X’s rhetoric did not noticably change, other than the added sprinkling of more impartial comments.  It would have been interesting to see where this new-wakening would have taken him but it was not to be.  He knew his time was running out, as his divide with NOI had stirred a pot of vipers.

“Every morning when I wake up, now, I regard it as having another borrowed day.  In any city, wherever I go, making speeches, holding meetings of my organization, or attending to other business, black men are watching every move I make, awaiting their chance to kill me.  I have said publicly many times that I know that they have their orders.  Anyone who chooses not to believe wht I am saying doesn’t know the Muslims in the Nation of Islam …..  each day I live as if I am already dead …..”

In an epilogue added by Alex Haley, we learn of Malcolm X’s demise.  At a conference in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, while addressing the Organization of Afro-American unity, Malcolm X was shot multiple times by three men rushing the stage.  He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital with 21 bullet holes in his body. The three men, Nation of Islam members, were arrested and imprisoned for his murder.

✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥ ✥

This book is brutally appalling and without encouragement from Ruth, I would probably not have finished it.  The vicious hatred and counter-disease of racial prejudice was so palpable it was nearly unbearable, being very similar to Hilter’s discourses in Mein Kampf.  Personally, while I could never condone hatred, I could at least understand animosity against a person who had perpetrated an horrible act against him.  But I couldn’t understand the savage hatred against people who had never done a thing to him but only shared the same colour of skin as those who had oppressed his people.  As I read his speeches and invectives, I did not feel like Malcolm X was speaking for his people; he was simply mentally creating a situation that he wanted to believe and acted on it, his own philosophy being more important than the people he was trying to vindicate.  It was only in the latter part of the book that his views began to be adjusted, and it would have been interesting to learn if they would have become even more moderate and inclusive with time.  Sadly, we will now never know.

The most interesting part of the biography was the epilogue written by Alex Haley. Through him we get a sense of Malcolm X, a man who was distrustful of everyone around him, including himself.  Even his friends were seen a partial enemies and his whole life was spent like a hunted animal, either from his own internal expectations, or real threatening circumstances.  Constant drama surrounded X and he appeared to need to feed on it, as one would food for sustenance.  His moods would swing from jubilant to sullen and back again.  Haley had often to lead and coax the black leader to tell about himself, luring him away frominstead of resorting to diatribes against whomever he felt conflicted with him or his views.  Yet even with the often unbalanced raving tirades and untenable attacks, there is no doubt Malcolm X had a compelling magnetism that garnered attention.

The violence through which Malcolm X lived and appeared to advocate, did not only culminate in his death but resonated throughout his family.  In 1995, his daughter Qubilah was arrested and tried for plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan, then the leader of the Nation of Islam whom she felt bore the responsibility for her father’s murder.  Two years later, her twelve-year-old son set fire to his grandmother’s house (Betty, Malcolm X’s wife) which caused burns to over 80% of her body and caused her death.  In his 28th year he was found beaten to death in Mexico.

Perhaps Malcolm X did give a type of pride to black Americans but the stain of violence he contributed and left in his wake cannot be seen as a value to anyone as far as I’m concerned.  If those who are advocates for the oppressed act exactly the same as the oppressors, no one benefits and the prejudices and hatred are simply perpetuated.  If it is simply a matter of anger and revenge, we learn nothing.

Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

“I might as well tell you —– this affair of Emil’s was a great surprise to me.”

As part of the Children’s Classic Literature Event hosted by Amanda at Simpler Pastimes, the read-along for this year is Emil and The Detectives. I’ve been wanting to read this German translated children’s book for years, so I was very glad when it was chosen.

Emil lives with his widowed mother in the small town of Neustadt.  As the story opens, he is bound for Berlin to visit his uncle, aunt and grandmother who live on 15 Schumannstraße. His mother works very hard as a hairdresser and has saved 140 marks, which she entrusts to Emil to give to his grandmother.  Emil is a good boy and determined to carry out his mother’s request, but little boys can get tired on long train rides and Emil falls asleep.  When he awakens, the money he’d pinned inside his pocket is gone!  At first distraught, Emil spies the thief and takes off after him.  Thus ensues a riotous romp through the city of Berlin with Emil, the thief, and numerous boy detectives, all of whom are determined to help Emil with his plight.  Will Emil recover his stolen cash, or learn a valuable lesson instead?

In spite of the Emil’s adventurous exploits and suspenseful situations, he also shows a deep understanding of human nature:

“Emil had known for a long time that there are always people who say, “Ah, well, things used to be much better.”  So he paid no attention when anyone announced that formerly the air was much more healthful or that the oxen had bigger heads.  Because usually what they said wasn’t true, and they belonged to the sort who refuse to be satisfied with things as they are for fear of becoming contented.”

Emil also notices the differences in a large city with regard to the lack of closeness of community:

“The city was so big and Emil was so mall.  And no one cared to know why he had no money and why he didn’t know where he had to get off.  Four million people lived in Berlin, and not one of them was interested in Emil Tischbein.  No one wants to know about other people’s troubles.  And when anyone says, “I’m really sorry about that,” he usually doesn’t mean anything more than, “Oh, leave me alone!”

Here are a few of the places Emil visited in pursuit of the thief and justice:

Nollendorfplatz
source 
Motzstraße
source
Schumannstrße
source
Alexanderplatz
source
This book was absolutely delightful.  Being translated from the original German, it had a somewhat different tone, but the action and the repartee from the characters leaves the reader both in suspense and laughing.  There are wonderful contrasts of the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the young and the old, and the importance of loyalty, duty, perseverance and family.  It is a clever and adventurous tale, both endearing and diverting.

The author himself appears in the story, as an unidentified man who assists Emil with money, then he later returns to take part in the mystery.  Erich Kästner was a poet, author, screenwriter and satirist, and when he wrote Emil and the Detectives in 1928, the book sold two million copies in Germany and was translated into 59 different languages.  With the advent of the Second World War, Kästner opposed the Nazi regime but chose not to go into exile.  He was interrogated many times, and personally watched Goebels book-burning of May 10, 1933, his books being part of the kindling.  His home was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944, and finally in 1945 he obtained permission to travel to the Tyrol for a fictitious moving filming, instead managing to avoid the Soviet assault on Berlin.  He was still in Tyrol at the close of the war; when he returned to Germany he moved to Munich where he lived until his death.

The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway

“The Western Plains of New South Wales are grasslands.”

Imagine a desert, dust from eroded topsoil, heat making images like a blurry glass as it bakes the ground.  Succulents dot the landscape like drops of batter on a cookie sheet, while bushes eek out a meagre existence on the landscape.  Earth meets sky, the rays of the sun unrelenting, yet there is life, animals and birds, and what’s more, land, where a settler could come to scratch out a modest existence.  Into this landscape came the parents of the author, the Kers, her father’s investment in 18,000 acres of drought-stricken land taking their every penny.  With no surface water, and only a few clumps of eucalyptus, they began their married life.

Jill Ker, the narrator, was the youngest of three children, with two older brothers named Bob and Barry.  Together they worked on their parents’ farm, Coorain, an Aboriginal word meaning “windy place”.  When the boys departed for boarding school, Jill, was left as the only child on the farm, but her life was filled with meaningful work, and many consolations:

“All in all, what might on the surface appear like a lonely childhood, especially after the departure of my brothers, was one filled with interest, stimulation, and friends.  It lacked other children, and I was seven before I even laid eyes on another female child.  Yet this world gave me most of what we need in life, and gave it generously.  I had the total attention of both my parents, and was secure in the knowledge of being loved.  Better still, I knew that my capacity for work was valued and that my contributions to the work of the property really mattered.  It was a comprehensible world.  One saw visible results from one’s labors, and the lesson of my mother’s garden was a permanent instruction about the way human beings can transform their environment.  My memories of falling asleep at night are to the comfortable sound of my parents’ voices, voices which conveyed in their tones the message that these two people loved and trusted one another ….. It was an idyllic world.”

However, Ker’s contented and peaceful existence was soon to be shattered. Unremitting drought hit the area —- years of it —- and she had to watch the struggle of her parents as this calamity threatened to overwhelm them.  Finally, a tragedy occurred that sent her and her mother from Coorain into the city of Sydney, where Ker finally was able to attend school.  Misfortune still followed at their heels, as Ker watched her mother diminish from a confident, capable woman, to a bitter, dependent widow whose expectations of her daughter were not only unrealistic, but burdensome.  The last part of the book was filled with Ker’s attempt to break free of the domination, and forge her own way, not only as an adult, but as an academic woman in the world of male Australian academia.  When she finally applied for a position in the more liberal United States, Coorain was still in her blood, the attachment to it never waning.

Coorain
source The Age

Ker uses such lyrical, melodious language when describing Coorain and her childhood there, but upon leaving her home to begin a new life in the city, the narrative becomes more closed and technical and certainly more psychological.  Her struggles with the dominance of her mother and her attempts to carve out an identity as a female scholar become the primary focus and the book loses much of its charm.  Ker is quite forceful in maintaining that academics are the source of her life.  She becomes oddly annoyed with one boyfriend who wishes she would spend time with him, rather than her studies.  It’s only when she meets a man who realizes that he’ll come second in their relationship and supports her in her studies, that she feels she can accept him as a partner.  With the valuable relationships within her own early life, it is puzzling how Ker can put a “thing” before personal relations, but perhaps the tragedies in her life numbed some of her initial healthy human emotions.

On a note of interest, Coorain was still being run as a farm until at least ten years ago.  I found this article, where the recent farmer revealed that as of 2006, the farm had been in the throes of a drought that was the worst in 60 years, causing him to wonder if he could continue.  He did say that Jill Ker Conway still showed an interest in the farm, calling him regularly for updates:  “Once you have lived this life, it is in your blood forever.”

In any case, I’m quite happy to be whizzing through these last biographies.  The initial biographies in this project were often focussed on people — even the semi-reclusive Montaigne had a deep interest in them —-, whereas these last biographies emphasize ambition, personal success, revenge, and have a very empty echo within their pages.  I am not left with a very uplifting feeling.