52 Books in 52 Weeks in 2019

52 Books in 52 Weeks

 

I used to regularly participate in the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge.  It was one of my favourite challenges and was reasonably easy for me to accomplish.  Then life became busy and 52 books now seems almost impossible to read in a year.  But 2019 is a new year and I’m determined to make reading more of a priority.  So the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge is back on Classical Carousel!

For this challenge, all you have to commit to do is to read 52 books, 1 during each week of the year.  The rules are relatively broad and easy to accomplish:

  • The challenge will run from January 1, 2019 through December 31, 2019.
  • Our book weeks will begin on Sunday
  • Week one will begin on Tuesday, January 1st.
  • Participants may join at any time.
  • All forms of books are acceptable including e-books, audio books, etc.
  • Re-reads are acceptable as long as they are read after January 1, 2019.
  • Book may overlap other challenges
  • If you have a blog, create an entry post linking to this blog.
  • Sign up with Mr. Linky in the “I’m participating post” in the sidebar
  • You don’t have to have a blog to participate.  Post your weekly book in the comments section of each weekly post.
  • Mr. Linky will be added to the bottom of each of the weekly posts for you to link to reviews of your reads.

Already I have some books on my radar to read including Tom Jones, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, David Copperfield, Kidnapped and The Grapes of Wrath.

I’m excited to add the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge to my Back to the Classics, and Newbery Award challenges for 2019!  What challenges are you going to participate in in the new year?

 

 

Henry V by William Shakespeare

“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

Written in the Second Period of Shakespeare’s development, Henry V is the eighth of his dramas, and part of the Henriad, his historical tetralogy which also includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2.  The play is thought to be composed late in 1598, as it was produced between March 17 and September 28th of 1599.

The earliest known volume is the first Quarto printed in 1600, which was followed by Q2 and Q3, reprints of the first edition, published in 1602 and 1608 respectively.  The first Folio edition differs extensively from the Quartos, as it is twice the length of the latter, which omits the first scenes of Acts I and III, the second scene of Act IV, the choruses and the epilogue, as well as some of the characters.  Prose is also transformed into metrical form, it can only be supposed to effect an increased length of the play.

King Henry V
source Wikipedia

Set in 1415, immediately before and after the events at the Battle of Agincourt during the 100 years war, Shakespeare appears to have deviated from his promise at the end of the play, Henry IV, Part 2, where he assured a reappearance of the bumbling, comedic Falstaff.  Instead, the play echoes of tones of impressive military management versus French incompetence, and a king who is lauded as a hero.  The play shows technical weakness with an awkward chorus who speaks a prologue explaining the upcoming scenes in the drama, however with the sources drawn upon (Holinshed’s Chronicle and an old play, The Famous Victories of Henry V) and his own additions, Shakespeare has shown a legitimate constancy.

With very little constructive plot, the play ties in various episodes in Henry V’s leadership role before and after the Battle of Agincourt. As it begins, Henry appeals to the Archbishop of Cantebury as to whether he is justified in his claim of the French crown.  Supported by his conscience, he feels a duty towards his French subjects, but the French king has another view of the matter.  When the French ambassador turns up in the English court with an insulting gift of tennis balls from the king’s son, the Dauphin, Henry is incensed, but manages to keep control of his temper.

“We are glad the dauphin is so pleasant with us.
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.  
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chaces ……”

Henry will:

“…….. dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea strike the Dauphin blind to look on us,
But all this lies within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal.”

Yet soon after this honourable rhetoric is delivered, he learns that his friend, Lord Scroop and two lords, Cambridge and Grey, are plotting his demise and the king is forced to dispatch them in an execution.  The injection of this betrayal is quickly presented and appears awkward and unconnected with the whole, but it does afford us some insight into Henry’s character and the historical situation.

Henry V Discovering the Conspirators
Henry Fuseli
source ArtUK

The scenes move from England, to an English camp in Harfleur, to the French camp, contrasting English courage, fortitude and skill to the French forces and strength which threaten their much smaller contingent, but exemplify a bombastic and almost bumbling French confidence of an easy victory, that is obviously misplaced.  The eve before the battle, Henry is represented as not only a capable king, but as a man of the people, as he walks among them in disguise, learning of their thoughts and opinions of the coming war.  His responsibilities rest heavy on his shoulders and he asks God for strength in arms and His favour, in spite of the fault of his father’s taking of Richard II’s crown.  With the French more than confident in their strength of arms, and the English somewhat dismayed by their lack of soldiers in comparison, the battle begins.  With some of Shakespeare’s trademark humour, the fighting continues until the English, against the odds, claim victory and peace is negotiated.  Henry then woos Princess Katherine, daughter of the French king, bringing together the two countries with the bonds of love.

Lewis Waller as Henry V
Arthur Hacker
source ArtUK

As for characters in this drama, the principle one is certainly Henry V.  Henry’s motivations for ruling France do not lie in personal, monetary or territorial gain, but in a sacred trust for which he feels responsible.  He shows a marked similarity to his father, Henry IV, both sewing their wild oats when young, but extirpating their follies and irresponsibilities in time of need of their country.  Both become strong, forceful kings with a material sense of duty, to both God and their kingdom, and who successfully protect English identity and sovereignty.  Even in presenting the English forces, there is a unity in their soldiers as we are introduced to Captain Jamy, a Scot, Captain Macmorris, an Irishman, and Fluellen, a Welshman.

My enjoyment of the play somewhat fluctuated throughout my reading.  While it has a simple charm about it and Shakespeare’s heroic rhetoric draws the reader in, it is obviously not as clever, or elaborately structured as many of his other plays.  The reader can admire and rejoice in the honourable and admirable traits of the English king, the incarnation of England itself, but there is a definite lack of density and richness that imbues his other plays.  Nevertheless, it is enjoyable in its own right and a fine ending to the Henriad.

Further reading:

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 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.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

“My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
but since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes: may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world’s beginning to our day.”

Publius Ovidius Naso was born in Sulmo, east of Rome in the year 43 B.C.  As a son of an upper middle class family, his father sent him to be educated in Rome to distinguish himself in a career in law or government.  Ovid was known as an exemplary rhetorician and worked at minor magisterial posts before quitting his public career to pursue poetry. Immediate success followed his first published elegy and by 8 A.D., the year in which Metamorphoses was published, he was one of the foremost poets of Rome.

Suddenly, in the same year, the emperor Augustus Caesar banished Ovid from Rome, and the poet went into exile in Tomis on the Black Sea.  The only clues we have to his exile is from Ovid himself where he refers to his carmen, or songs, and his error, or indiscretion.  Speculations abounds as to these two causes.  His poem Ars Amatoria, or The Art of Love, was a poetic manual on seduction and intrigue, which Augustus may have viewed as corrosive to the moral structure of Roman society, and may very well be the carmen of his sentence.  Rome, at that time, was experiencing a period of instability and Augustus was attempting to re-establish traditional religious ceremonies and reverence of the gods, encouraging people to marry, have children, and making adultery illegal.  Ovid’s earlier poetry espoused extra-marital affairs and Metamorphoses is ripe with a very pronounced, and oftimes strange, sexual element in the myths recounted. The treatment of the gods is not reverential and perhaps it wasn’t surprising that Augustus wished to rid himself of the popular poet.  Lamenting his exile in his poem Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (letters to friends asking for help with his return),  Ovid died in Tomis in 17 A.D.

Ruins of Tomis
source Wikipedia

Along with O at Behold the Stars, Cirtnece at Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices … and Jean of Howling Frog Books, I began to read Metamorphoses in January and what a read it has been!  Here are links to my posts for all of the fifteen books of Metamorphoses:

Book I / Book II / Book III / Book IV / Book V / Book VI / Book VII / Book VIII / Book IX / Book X / Book XI / Book XII / Book XIII / Book XIV / Book XV 

In Metamorphoses (Metamorphōseōn librī), or Book of Transformations, Ovid relates over 200 transformations.  Composed in the epic meter of dactylic hexameter, as a whole, Ovid’s tales don’t appear to follow an obvious chronological order:  stories break off and are continued in other books; some stories wrap back around on themselves, there is a curious lack of important detail in some (which we know from other sources); and often there are stories nested within stories told in a media res format.  Even how Ovid relates his stories speak of flux and change.

The tales themselves offer a smattering of myths from Greek and Roman legend, including Cadmus, Perseus, Jason, Theseus, Hercules, the heroes of Troy and Julius Caesar, although the narratives can also include mortals and lesser deities.  Murder, rage, hubris, affairs, rape, and judgement of the gods abound in his tales, leaving the reader shocked, disgusted, enamoured, sad, engrossed, irritated, and often, conflicted; Ovid can provoke a myriad of emotions within the same story, evidence of the efficacy of his writing.

Ovid Banished from Rome (1838)
J.M.W. Turner
source Wikimedia Commons

While Metamorphoses is our primary source for some myths, such as Apollo and Daphne, Phaeton, and Narcissus, the playful and ironic tone of the work suggests that we can’t always take Ovid seriously in his delivery, and the myths themselves could have been subject to his alterations.  In addition, the work was set out in fifteen books, rather than the usual twenty-four of the common epic standard, and certain important names and actions are missing from very important narratives, such as Dido, queen of Carthage, Jason and Medea, the Trojan War, etc.  I can’t help but feel that Ovid was writing with an agenda.  Was he perhaps attempting to “metamorphoses” the traditional epic poem, the traditional myths and the traditional religious tenor of Rome as well?

Ovid Among the Scythians (1859)
Eugène Delacroix
source Wikipedia

Yet in spite of the speculation, the graphic description, the sexual inferences, the gratuitous narrative and even the confusion, Metamorphoses is unparalleled as a literary adventure.  Ovid’s work is certainly one that has a life of its own and its owner a share of its fame.  However, as the poem ends, Ovid reveals that fame and glory were his original intent.

” ….. But with the better part of me, I’ll gain
a place that’s higher than the stars: my name,
indelible, eternal, will remain.
And everywhere that Roman power has sway,
in all domains the Latins gain, my lines
will be on people’s lips; and through all time —
if poets’ prophecies are ever right —
my name and fame are sure: I shall have life.”

While Ovid’s works went out of fashion for a time, in the late 11th century classic literature gained a new life.  Ovid’s writings began to have a significant influence on culture, the 12th century often being called The Ovidian Age.  As cathedral schools flourished in the early Middle Ages, Ovid’s work was widely read as moral allegories, with added Christian meaning.  William Caxton published the first English translation of Metamorphoses in 1480, and the poet’s influence continued, imbuing Shakespeare with many of his comparisons.  In fact, the many Ovidian allusions within Shakespeare’s works are part of what makes it difficult reading for modern day readers, unless they are familiar with this work.  Ovid certainly has approached a fame and regard worthy of a great poet, and perhaps has vindicated himself within the realms of classic literature.

 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

While Northanger Abbey was the first novel written by Jane Austen and sold to a publisher by her brother, Henry, in fact it was repurchased by the author and not published until six months after her death in December 1817.  Austen’s parody of 17th century Gothic novels is told with a good-natured humour, but a valuable lesson lies beneath the surface of its narrative.

Catherine Morland, the daughter of a vicar, is given the chance to travel to Bath with a respectable family called the Thorpes.  Isabella Thorpe is her particular friend and the two absorb the delights of the town with an eager anticipation.  Yet Catherine’s sheltered upbringing has perhaps made her more artless than your average girl of her age, and her innocent and credulous nature allows for a manipulation of her desires by those with more experience in the arts of enterprise and self-interest.  Her steady diet of Gothic novels, combined with her somewhat protected existence, contribute to her highly erroneous perceptions of the motivations and behaviour of others.  When an answer does not immediately present itself, she speeds off in wild internal ramblings of imagination, that rarely represent reality.  Likewise, when she is faced with obvious circumstances, she fails to perceive them.  Her lack of discernment with regard to John Thorpe’s infatuation of her remains puzzling until her understanding is brought into context.  What experience does this young sheltered girl have to bring her presence of mind and an ability to discern attitudes outside of her usual element of a protected existence and romantic Gothic narratives?  With her uncritical naiveté and wild flights of fancy, initially one wonders if Catherine will be able to navigate through the pitfalls of her own mistaken perceptions to arrive at an outcome that will benefit her innocent, and yet misguided, nature.

source

In many ways, Northanger Abbey is a comedy, as Austen treats her character with a gentle type of humour. Catherine, while having admirable qualities, is living a delusion, cultivated by her reading material, yet her mistakes are of innocent intent due to ignorance rather than willful human folly. Her awakening, while somewhat arduous, is brief, and she soon demonstrates her innate ability to put into action the values instilled by her family and, with the guidance of the young gentleman clergyman, Henry Tilney, both her instincts and maturity grow, while her wildly unrestrained imagination is harnessed, and diminished into a sensible and mature culmination of happiness and contentment.  

While this book doesn’t necessarily showcase Austen’s usual brilliance, it is solidly developed and an engaging story until the last chapter. Then the book falls all to pieces. Somehow Eleanor Tilney, Henry’s sister, makes a brilliant match with a character, “a man of fortune,” who has never been mentioned by anyone, including the bride herself, until four paragraphs from the end of the novel; the General (Henry’s father), who has been somewhat gruff and stringent, yet ofttimes displaying a pleasant character, turns into a mercenary, blustering, (and may I add, foolish) tyrant; and Catherine and Henry’s success in love looks in jeopardy.  Yet all is tied up in a sentence or two, and the reader is left feeling like they just hit a brick wall.  It’s not Austen at her finest, yet the book is a charming experiment and an example of Austen at the origin of her art.

Ruin of Kenilworth Castle – a gothic-type building
source Wikipedia

Northanger Abbey has the unique distinction for being known as the novel that alludes to a number of Gothic suspense novels.  If you are a Gothic connoisseur, here is the list for your enjoyment:

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  • The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
  • Clermont by Regina Maria Roche
  • Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
  • Mysterious Warnings by Eliza Parsons
  • Necromancer of the Black Forest by Ludwig Flammenberg
  • Midnight Bell by Francis Latham
  • Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
  • Horrid Mysteries by Carl Gross (translated by Peter Will)
  • The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis

Spenser’s Images of Life by C.S. Lewis

Normally, I don’t read introductions or commentaries on books or poetry that I plan to read, until after I’ve finished the work.  I prefer to experience the art from a point of innocence (or perhaps, ignorance is a better word!), forming my own opinions without influence, even if I struggle with my first read through. However, this time I threw all my ideals to the winds and called for help.

In April I’m reading The Faerie Queene with OCirtnecce, JeanRuth, and Consoled Reader, and considering the length and complexity of this poem, I confess that it was wiser to admit my complete ineptitude and look for someone who was very familiar with this type of poem and era to give me a little boost.  Since C.S. Lewis’ expertise was in Medieval and Renaissance literature, I suspected that he would be a good place to start.  His book, Spenser’s Images of Life is a compilation of lectures notes, put together by Alastair Fowler, to give students a deeper insight into The Faerie Queene.

I’m not going to even pretend that I understood half of what Lewis was saying in these lectures/notes, but my lack of understanding emphasizes one of the many things that I respect about the man.  He is able to turn on his intellect and produce a brilliantly insightful and stimulating analysis of perhaps the most complex poem in the English language, yet he is also able to let his intellect “idle” and write children’s stories, sci-fi fiction or even a layman-type book such as Mere Christianity.  With Spenser’s Images of Life, I had to read it slowly and let it percolate.

A Beast (1456)
Paolo Uccello
source Wikimedia Commons

Lewis begins by stating that The Faerie Queene is the most difficult poem in the English language, a rather daunting claim for me, as I’m going to be reading it in just over a month.  He claims that the poem works on a number of levels and the mistake readers can make is reading it from only one perspective and thinking that is all it has to offer.  The simple aspect of the poem is that it’s a moral allegory, in that the story contains a moral, but the poem is more than a narrative, containing images that work on the mind.  We must not only read, but see the work.

Lewis believes that Spenser, like Botticelli, accepts “traditional images, he loads them with wisdom from the philosophers and disposes them in divine compositions ……… with a propensity of mingling the Christian and the pagan.”  Those of Spenser’s tradition would have regarded ancient poetry as a type of veiled theology, and the mixing of the worlds would not have seemed strange to them.  In fact, Lewis believes that “Spenser’s Nature is really an image of God himself.”

Lewis goes into detail about certain aspects of the poem, covering the following topics:

  1. The False Cupid
  2. Antitypes to the False Cupid
  3. Belphoebe, Amoret, and the Garden of Adonis
  4. The Image of Evil
  5. Mutability
  6. The Image of Good
  7. Britomart’s Dream
  8. Faceless Knights
  9. The Misery of Florimell
  10. The Story of Arthur

Heraldic Chivalry
Alphonse Mucha
source Wikiart

The last chapter is particularly interesting as Lewis examines Spenser’s letter to Raleigh about The Faerie Queene and, quite expertly, “prosecutes” his meaning, declaring that most of what he wrote is not supported by the poem itself.  Many of Lewis’ arguments make good sense.  He proposes that Spenser was not entirely aware of the depths of his own brooding and birth of the poem, that came from his experience with philosophers, poets and iconographers.  He also suspects that Spenser might have written the letter with someone at his elbow, massaging his words to make the poem fit classical (and possibly political) expectation.

In any case, this book was helpful as an introduction to the poem, but it will also be handy to read The Faerie Queene with it in hand.  Lewis’ points must be better understood in the context and framework of an already developing story, allegory or image.  As to what our expectations with regard to the poem should be, Lewis has a very straightforward answer:

“We should expect, then, from Spenser’s poem, a simply fairy-tale pleasure sophisticated by polyphonic technique, a simple ‘moral’ sophisticated by a learned iconography.  Moreover, we should expect to find all of these reacting on one another, to produce a work very different from what we are used to.  And now it is time to catch hold of one thread of the fabric, and pull…….”



Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

“It is difficult to make a dull garden, but old Mr. Wither had succeeded.”

Stella Gibbons writes rather odd books.  Cold Comfort Farm, her best known and highly acclaimed novel, follows an orphaned, pert young woman to a mucky, rural farm and observes while she neatens and tidies all the morose, lurking, and deranged occupants into their proper places, finding love in the process.  Gibbons has a knack for depicting rather unusual and sometimes bizarre characters, and this flair for the unique has continued in her writing of Nightingale Wood. The introduction to the story labels it as a “fairy tale” and it is, although not along the usual lines one would expect from such a tale.  Gibbons’ evil creatures often have angelic faces, and her happily-ever-afters can leave the reader uncertain of reality.  In playing with her characters, Gibbons appears to play with society and even the reader himself.  Her writing is not easily defined.

When Viola Wither finds herself a widow, parentless and very nearly destitute, she must accept the hospitality of her in-laws for her subsistence.  However, the Wither household is a quirky one, yet Viola, with her quiet and rather doe-eyed vacuity, manages to navigate the excessive expectations of her father-in-law, the ineffectualness of her mother-in-law and her two sisters-in-law, one who is a rather mannish, outdoorsy, opinionated woman, and the other a dull, thin, conventional woman with strangled hopes from an overbearing father.  Yet, in spite of the tedious country life she is forced to accept and Viola’s credulous and nascent view of the world, she somehow manages to find her Prince Charming in this unlikely place.

“It has been hinted that her nature was affectionate; now that it had received encouragement there was no holding it; she was in love, so much in love that she did not realize that it was Wednesday morning and the letter had not come; and that the man she was in love with was the legendary Victor Spring.  Victor had now become Him.  He was less of a real person than ever.  She never once thought about his character or his income or his mother.  She was drunk.  She wandered about like a dazzled moth, smiling dreamily, and running downstairs when the postman came, crying:  ‘Anything for me?'”

Right away, we notice that Gibbons fairy-tale has some rough edges, that will never be filed smooth.  It is romance, but romance with an uncomfortable twist.  While Viola’s Prince Charming is not only handsome, debonair and rich, he’s also engaged to be married.  And although he is physically attracted to Viola, he doesn’t even seem to remember her name.  His reaction to Viola after the ball is not one of an idealized lover:

“He was most strongly attracted to her, but not romantically.  The intentions of the Prince towards Cinderella were, in short, not honourable: and as we have seen, he thought it the prudent thing not to see her.

Sleeping Beauty
source Wikimedia Commons

However, this story is not only about Viola, and the Withers.  We have a number of other unconventional characters who populate the pages of this unique novel:  Hetty, Victor’s cousin who loves books and her family not so much; Saxon, the young, handsome chauffeur whose family has come down in the world, as he tries to manage his rather slovenly, yet sexually indiscriminate mother; the loud and dirty woodland Hermit who takes great delight in terrorizing the gentry with his insightful, yet indelicate observations; and many, many more colourful personalities.  It’s a kaleidescope of the English country life of the 1930s, but while the surface is nice and tidy, underneath there are swirling passions, undisclosed sentiment, and hidden resentment.

Certainly the novel has a fairy tale flavour to it, sprinkled with hyperbole, but Gibbons ensures that she imbues it with a healthy dose of realism.  In a lovely fantasy-style, Gibbons bestows on each character their heart’s desire, yet the outcome of their desires are firmly entrenched in the reality of the 1930s, and their desires can perhaps turn out not to be as desirable as first expected.  On one hand, Gibbons shows incredible insight by investigating human desires, and then showing us how capricious the hand of fate can be, and how indiscriminate human nature can be, yet sometimes she doesn’t seem to like her characters, almost manipulating and abusing them in a way that makes you wary of liking them, even if you wish to.  Reality descends on the characters, but often they seem to reject it, living inside a mental shell of their own making.  It’s sort of an odd experience.  I feel that I’ve witnessed an explosion of Dodie Smith meets Virginia Woolf and I’m not sure if I like it.

Having written over 20 novels, Gibbons was rather annoyed that none of her other works received the attention of Cold Comfort Farm, yet perhaps the criticism is somewhat deserved.  While I enjoyed this book, I felt that it was difficult to really get to know any of the characters.  Perhaps this mental barricade was due to the radical treatment that Gibbons gives her characters, pressing the loud pedal at one time, and the soft at another.  Just when you think you have a character sketched, they behave in a way completely unexpected and you have to start all over again with a likeness.  The characters themselves struggle not only within the definitions Gibbons imposes on them, but societal definitions and self-definition, so the read becomes somewhat unsettling.  A fairy tale, yes, but a splintered fairy tale, where actuality rears its ugly face and blows away the clouds of expectations.

Prince Charming (1948)
Rene Magritte
source Wikiart

Lysistrata by Aristophanes

“The War shall be women’s business …….”

Staged during the Peloponnesian War and a mere two years after the disastrous defeat of Athens during the Sicilian Expedition, Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata ( Λυσιστραταη), meaning “disbander of the army”, as a protest against the waste of both resources and lives caused by the acts of war.

The play begins in the year 411 B.C., the twentieth year of the Peloponnesian War between the city states of Athens and Sparta, and the women of the participating factions are becoming disaffected by the incessant fighting.  Lysistrata, a woman of Athens, gathers neighbouring women from the areas of Sparta, Bœotia, Corinth, Peloponnese, etc. in protest of this gratuitous war.

As the women assemble, they choose the two most effective means of protest imaginable.  First, they vow to withhold sexual favours from their husbands as long as they continue to fight, and, showing dynamic, yet persuasive initiative, they take possession of the Athenian treasury located at the Acropolis, thereby terminating the flow of money and support to the embattled troops.

Priestess of Bacchus (1884)
John Collier
source Wikimedia Commons

A chorus of old men arrive with the intent to force the women into submission but a chorus of old women repel them, and the reward for the men’s efforts is a good dousing with water.  A magistrate then censures the women for their unwomanly actions, however he takes time to question Lysistrata on her intentions.  Her response is a fascinating discourse on the strategy of women in the system of war.  Men, through their bumbling and entanglements, have made the war women’s business.  Not only is the war a wasteful loss of life, it is interfering with their social structure.  Athens should be organized as a woman spinning her yarn:  when the yarn is tangled it is untangled and now, Lysistrata demands, let this war be untangled by embassies.  Normally, the women would be pleased to remain at home with their work, but when the very fabric of their lives is unravelling and their existence threatened, action is imperative!

The magistrate is unmoved by her argument, Lysistrata returns to the Acropolis, and the old men and women continue their argument, until Lysistrata hears that there are already stirrings of dissent among her comrades, the women ready to disband because of the burden of a sexless existence.  Their leader argues them into submission, when Cinesias, a warrior, appears with his son, desperate for his wife, Myrrhine.  Myrrhine teases and taunts her poor husband with the promise of an encounter, then locks herself in the Acropolis with the other women.

A herald from Sparta arrives with an obvious “burden” under his cloak, announcing that he is seeking peace talks, and the exasperated magistrate agrees.  The Old Men make overtures to the Old Women, and the two choruses unite as one.  The Spartan and Athenian delegates call for Lysistrata, believing that she is the only one who can bring peace; she scolds them for their behaviour, appearing to put an emphasis on the Greek states fighting each other when the threat from Barbarians looms so greatly.  Finally, amid some squabbling, they agree to peace terms, and balance, both natural and societal, is brought to Greece once more amid much singing and dancing.

Bacchantes (1785)
Francesco Bartolozzi
source Wikimedia Commons

With Aristophanes’ characterization of Lysistrata and the mutiny and his emphasis on the war, the political posturing, the money wasted and the lives lost, rather than showing an empowered woman, he was attempting to show that the egregious irresponsibility of the behaviour of the men in charge was so ineffectual, that even a group of ungovernable women could be more successful in handling the problem.  However, in spite of the other women’s rather tenuous commitment to the cause, Aristophanes does show Lysistrata as a strong, decisive personality, immediately effecting peace and co-operation among the females of her fellow sister-states, organizing an orderly, yet believable, insurrection.  The women felt that they had as much invested in the war as the men, considering that they had been supplying the men for the war through giving birth to them and raising them to be warriors.  However, in the 21st year of the war, and the city devoid of most of the men of marriageable age, it is obvious that there is a serious inbalance not only in the natural order, but also in the social structures of Greek society.  While Aristophanes is perhaps not directly suggesting a remedy, he is certainly providing a compelling motivation to spur the leaders to action.

And, of course, Lysistrata cannot be mentioned without reference to its lewd content.  Well, perhaps I can gloss over it, not from a wish to, simply because I hardly noticed it.  Rather than pleading a certain disingenuousness, I blame my Dove Thrift Edition translation.  It claims an anonymous translator from 1912, and he must have sanitized his translation.  There are certainly references to “swellings of the groin” and “concupiscence” and “ardent longings”, but I didn’t notice a rudeness to any of the dialogue.  So I’m really not sure how much I missed or didn’t miss.

Gone, But Not Forgotten (1873)
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

Lysistrata is considered “Old Comedy” which generally adhered to the following structure:

Prologos:  a prologue that begins the play with a dialogue based on the focus or theme
Parados:  a song sung by the chorus when it enters, or the moment when it enters
Episode:  a scene in which the dialogue involves one or two characters and the chorus
Agon:  a debate between characters
Parabasis:  an ode in which the chorus addresses the audience to express its opinion on the theme or topic, which could include views on politics, social trends, etc.
Stasimon:  a scene or scenes in which the chorus sings a song uninterrupted by dialogue and usually when other characters aren’t present
Exodos:  the exit scene, or final part of the play. 

Yet while Lysistrata definitely fits into the Old Comedy form, Aristophanes deviates from the structure by employing a double chorus; departs from the conventional parabasis, and has an unusual structure for the agon, in that Lysistrata takes over the full debate herself to express her views, yet there are smaller agons within the double chorus.

All in all, Aristophanes has presented a well-balanced play where the comedy lightens the mood, but does not detract from the seriousness of prolonged war and all its wastes.  I liked this play much more than I expected to which seems to be a common theme when reading Greek literature.  I encourage all of you who haven’t read a Greek play, to read one.  You just might be surprised!

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus

“You citizens of Cadmus, he must speak home
that in the ship’s prow, watches the event
and guides the rudder, his eyes not drooped in sleep.”

Produced in 467 B.C. and winning first prize in the City Dionysia drama competition, this play is assumed to be the last of a trilogy of plays which dealt with the Oedipus cycle, the other two being called Laius, and Oedipus, both lost, as was the concluding satyr play, The Sphinx.  Driven mostly by dialogue, this play requires some background history to add some further insight.

Oedipus, king of Thebes, received exile for unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother.  In return, he placed a curse on his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, that they should divide the nation, each ruling in alternate years. However, after the first year of rule, Eteocles, enjoying his prominence, refuses to relinquish the throne to his brother, causing Polynices to raise a foreign force of Argives, led by the famous “seven”, to regain his inheritance.  It is at this point that the play begins.

Eteocles & Polynices (1725-30)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
source Wikimedia Commons

Unlike Aeschylus’ earlier plays, The Persians and The Suppliant Maidens, which begin with a lyrical introduction, Eteocles begins this play with a dramatic patriotic rhetorical speech, appealing to the men of the city to take up arms and defend their honour against the Argives.  A messenger arrives announcing that the Argive army is ready to attack and the Theban army prepares to meet them.  Yet a litany of Theban women’s voices rise above the spectacle, invoking the gods for protection and lamenting the possible repercussions of the battle.  Eteocles loses his patience. These women are unnerving the populous with their pleas to gods and images of doom.  Heaven deliver him from women’s excesses!  And so begins an exchange between them, with Eteocles counselling practicality and proper, balanced emphasis on divine guidance, and the women accentuating the importance of invoking the gods favour. Eteocles demands silence, but the women continue to speak, quite astutely, with regard to the situation, until finally they obey his command.

The messenger enters, and so commences a trialogue between him, Eteocles and the Theban women, the former announcing the Argive heroes, and Eteocles proclaiming the Theban defenders, while the women laud their warriors and invoke divine favour.  Of course, the Argive warriors are the “Seven” against Thebes and each of these attackers has an emblem on his shield.  Curiously, the Argive attacker at the sixth gate, Amphiaraus, is counselling temperance to his leader, proclaiming murder if they continue.  He expects to die a prophet in the land.

Argive                  Attacker’s              Gate                 Theban 
Attacker               Emblem                                           Defender

Tydeus                 Moon &                 Proetid            Melanippus
                                 Stars

Capaneus            Naked man          Electra            Polyphontes
                                   w/ Torch

Eteoclus              Warrior                  Neïs                Megareus
                                climbing
                                 ladder

Hippomedon      Smoking                Onca                Hyperbius
                               Typhon                 Athena

Parthenopaeus Sphinx eating      North               Actor
                                 a Theban

Amphiaraus       None                      Homoloian     Lasthenes

Polyneices          Justice                   Seventh           Eteocles
                               restoring
                               Polyneices

From Eteocles, there is an impious and sacrilegious glory in war, and an obvious antipathy towards the gods, instead proclaiming a complete reliance on men and their ability.  Eteocles does not discount the gods, but does not place an importance on them.  With a curse upon his family, the gods have turned their back on him, and thus, he does likewise.  Now brother will fight against brother, the curse culminating through human choice, although they make it appear as though they have been stripped of their free will by the curse.  The chorus of Theban women have not ceased their beseeching:

“O dearest son of Oedipus, do not
be like in temper to this utterer
of dreadful sayings.  There are enough Cadmaeans
to grapple with the Argives:  such blood is expiable.
But for the blood of brothers mutually shed
there is no growing old of the pollution.”

In the psychology of Eteocles, he cannot escape his fate, in spite of the women pleading for him to use his free will to choose, horrified at his willingness to shed familial blood.  As Eteocles goes to face his destiny, the chorus of women seem to reevaluate its outlook, focusing on the curse as a lament of fate.  When the messenger returns with news of the battle, his proclamation can be of no surprise.  Brother has, in fact, slain brother, and the curse is brought to fruition.  Even though the city is saved, there is no celebration.  Instead, the bodies are carried in, followed by Antigone and Ismene, their sisters, their lamentations of shivering intensity.  The tragedy is a “double sorrow”.

Eteocles and Polyneices (1799)
Giovanni Silvagni
source Wikimedia Commons

Finally, a Herald arrives to announce an honourable burial for Eteocles, since he fought for his city, upholding his ancestors, but in contrast, Polyneices will be cast out to the dogs for bringing a foreign force to attack his city, casting dishonour on his head.  With great resolve, Antigone proclaims that in spite of the edict, she will give her brother a proper burial.  They banter back and forth, the Herald laying her further actions as her own responsibility.  In the end, the chorus divides, half to bury Polyneices, and the other half going the way of Justice.

Originally, The Seven Against Thebes ended with a melancholy mourning for the two brothers, but with the popularity of Sophocles’ Antigone, the ending was re-written fifty years after his death to make a smooth transition between the two plays. While the Seven Against Thebes is not considered as refined or as seamless as Aeschylus’ masterpiece, The Orestia, nevertheless, it contains many wonderful components to its structure.

The battle for the city of Thebes is also presented in Eurpides’ The Phoenician Women.

Translated by David Greene