The Plague by Albert Camus

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

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

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

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

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

The Plague (1898)
Arnold Böcklin
source Wikimedia Commons

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

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

 

Plague in Ashod (1629)
Nicolas Poussin
source Wikimedia Commons

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

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


A Read-Along with Bookstooge – January 2015

 

The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

“There was, once upon a time …….”

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

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

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

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

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

    

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

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

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

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

Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

“He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fasion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.”

My experience with Woolf’s writing is limited yet expanding.  I loved reading To The Lighthouse for its somewhat dream-like qualities and was rather pleasantly lulled by its stream-of-consciousness style.  Mrs. Dalloway I enjoyed, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped and was left in a somewhat puzzled frame of mind at the end.  After reading Orlando, I was left with this same feeling.  What exactly did I just read and who was this Orlando?

Orlando is a young man born in the reign of Elizabeth I, and the novel follows him through his youth, as he has an affair with a Russian princess, cares for his ancestral estate, travels on diplomatic missions, etc.  The theme of writing is also explored, in his rejection by a famous poet and various other allusions. Finally he falls into a trace and, lo, awakes a woman.  This transformation does not seem  to surprise him, and she carries on her life as if nothing remise has occurred, yet upon returning to England she finds her estate embroiled in financial turmoil.  While remaining a woman, she fashionably switches between genders, eventually marries a sea captain, wins the lawsuit with regard to her property and that’s about it.  Woolf herself acts as an historical biographer and with her comic and satirical descriptions of certain people, I wasn’t sure if she was parodying herself as narrator, or taking a poke at a particular figure of her time and society.

Honestly I don’t have much to say about the book.  Twentieth century literature always does this to me.  I expect to be “informed and amused,” as books attempted to do historically (see my Gulliver’s Travels post for some extra information on writers’ intent) and end up somewhat disappointed when I’m only amused.  While I enjoyed the book, it would probably get only 3.5 stars from me.  In spite of my resolution to love it, 20th century literature always falls short.  Certainly the stream of consciousness writing is an interesting experiment, the disjointed prose perhaps a comment on the human psyche and the other artistic experiments are worth examining, but I’m always left with an empty feeling at the end.  What was the author really trying to say?  What did I learn?  What could I take away from the book that would change me in some fundamental way?

Yet, it turns out Woolf herself perhaps was not as satisfied with Orlando as she’d hoped.  Woolf wrote in her diary:

“I have written this book quicker than any; and it is all a joke; and yet gay and quick reading, I think; a writer’s holiday.”

“……… begun ….. as a joke: and now rather too long for my liking.  It may fall between stools; being too long for a joke, and too frivolous for a serious book.”

“Orlando taught me how to write a direct sentence; taught me continuity and narrative and how to keep the realities at bay.  But I purposely avoided, of course, any other difficulty.  I never got down to my depths and made shapes square up, as I did in the Lighthouse …… I want fun.  I want fantasy.”

And yes, Woolf wasn’t meaning this book to be serious at all:

“My notion is that there are offices to be discharged by talent for the relief of genius: meaning that one has the play side; the gift when it is mere gift, unapplied gift; and the gift when it is serious, going to business.  And one relieves the other.”

And so Orlando was a playful, frivolous fantasy that enraptures the reader, as Woolf captures your imagination with her wonderfully vibrant prose and light-hearted fanciful tone.  And I can enjoy it on that level.  Yet it is still only a wonderfully decorative cake, and I feel like I’ve missed the main meal.

O at Behold the Stars has an excellent review of Orlando, and with her comprehensive knowledge of Woolf, will be able to give you much more insight into the book than I have.

Back to the Classics Challenge 2015

For the second year in a row, Karen from Books and Chocolate is hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge.  This is probably my easiest challenge; as I read so many classics, my categories fill up quickly.

Here are the categories and rules:

1.  A 19th Century Classic — any book published between 1800 and 1899.
2.  A 20th Century Classic — any book published between 1900 and 1965.  Just like last year, all books must have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify as a classic.  The only exception is books that were published posthumously but written at least 50 years ago.)
3.  A Classic by a Woman Author.
4.  A Classic in Translation. As in last year’s category, this can be any classic book originally written or a published in a language that is not your first language.  Feel free to read it in its original form if you are comfortable reading in another language.  
5.  A Very Long Classic Novel — a single work of 500 pages or longer.  This does not include omnibus editions combined into one book, or short story collections.  
6.  A Classic Novella — any work shorter than 250 pages.  For a list of suggestions, check out this list of World’s Greatest Novellas from Goodreads.
7.  A Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title.  First name, last name, or both, it doesn’t matter, but it must have the name of a character.  David Copperfield, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote — something like that. It’s amazing how many books are named after people!
8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic.  Humor is very subjective, so this one is open to interpretation.  Just tell us in the review why you think it’s funny or satirical.   For example, if you think that Crime and Punishment and funny, go ahead and use it, but please justify your choice in your post. 
9.  A Forgotten Classic.  This could be a lesser-known work by a famous author, or a classic that nobody reads any more.  If you look on Goodreads, this book will most likely have less than 1000 reviews.  This is your chance to read one of those obscure books from the Modern Library 100 Best Novels or 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  Books published by Virago Modern Classics, Persephone, and NYRB Classicsoften fall into this category.  
10.  A Nonfiction Classic.  A memoir, biography, essays, travel, this can be any nonfiction work that’s considered a classic, or a nonfiction work by a classic author.  You’d be surprised how many classic authors dabbled in nonfiction writing — I have nonfiction books by Dickens, Trollope, Twain, and Steinbeck on my shelves. 
11.  A Classic Children’s Book.  A book for your inner child!  Pick a children’s classic that you never got around to reading.  
12.  A Classic Play.  Your choice, any classic play, as long as it was published or performed before 1965.
And now for the rest of the rules:  
  • All books must be read in 2015.  Books started prior to January 1, 2015, are not eligible.  Reviews must be linked by December 31, 2015. 
  • All books must have been published at least 50 years ago; therefore, 1965 is the cutoff date.  The only exception is books published posthumously, but written before 1965. 
  • E-books and audiobooks are eligible!  Books may also count for other challenges you may be working on.  
  • Books may NOT cross over categories within this challenge.  You may NOT count the same book twice for different categories in this challenge.  One book per category — otherwise, they won’t count.  
  • If you do not have a blog, you may link your review from Goodreads or other publicy accessible online format.  
  • Please sign up for the challenge using the linky below BEFORE MARCH 31, 2015.  If possible, please link to your sign-up announcement post, if possible or applicable.
  • You do NOT have to list your books prior to starting the challenge, but it’s more fun if you do!  You can always change your list at any time.  Books may be read in any order.
  • Please identify the categories you’ve read in your wrap-up post so that I can easily add up your entries for the prize drawing!  Adding links within the post would be greatly appreciated.
  •  The prize will be awarded the first week of January, 2016.  All qualifying participants will receive one or more entries, based on the categories completed, and will receive a $30 (US) gift card from Amazon.com or The Book Depository, as long as they live in a country that can receive shipment.  See herefor list of countries.  

As usual, I don’t have particular books planned for each category but I have a few in mind:

  1. The Plague – Albert Camus
  2. Orlando – Virginia Woolf
  3. one of Jane Austen’s works
  4. Ulysses – James Joyce (we’ll see — it makes me quake ….)
  5. Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. Framley Parsonage – Anthony Trollope
  7. Confessions – Jean Jacques Rousseau
  8. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

It’s entirely possible that my list will be completely different at the end of the year, but it will be fun to compare!

List COMPLETED!!!:

  1.  Persuasion – Jane Austen
  2.  East of Eden – John Steinbeck
  3.  Orlando: A Biography – Virginia Woolf
  4.  The Plague – Albert Camus 
  5.  Confessions – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  6.  Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
  7.  The Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass
  8.  Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift
  9.  The Club of Queer Trades – G.K. Chesterton
10.  Meditations – René Descartes
11.  The Adventures of Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi
12.  Hamlet – William Shakespeare

Back to the Classics Challenge Wrap-Up

I can’t believe that it’s already time to wrap-up for the year.  This challenge was probably my easiest by far and I actually finished it on August 25th.  Oh, if they all were so easy!

1.  20th Century Classic   The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
2.  19th Century Classic   David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
3.  A Classic By A Woman Writer  Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
4.  A Classic In Translation   Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon by Émile
                                                  Zola
5.  A Wartime Classic  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
6.  A Classic by an Author Who is New to You  The Warden by Anthony 
                                                                                 Trollope

Optional:

1.  An American Classic   The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
2.  A Classic Mystery/Suspense Thriller  The Big Sleep by Raymond 
                                                                        Chandler
3.  A Classic Historical Fiction Book  The Once And Future King by E.B. 
                                                                       White
4.  A Classic That Has Been Adapted into a T.V. or Movie Series  Othello
5.  Extra Fun Category – Write a Review of #4   Othello Movie Reviews 

This challenge was hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate (what a great blog name, huh?) and she did a wonderful job!  I hope the challenge continues in 2015!

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”

I had disliked Hemingway ever since I attempted to read The Sun Also Rises as a teenager, but when Hamlettte from The Edge of the Precipice  announced her read-along of The Old Man and the Sea, I decided to give him another try.  Perhaps we would get along better this time.

This novella was an unexpected surprise and delight that has, well, perhaps not made me a Hemingway fan, but at least has made me very open to reading more of this works.

Imagine that you live in a small town in a simple hut and your life consists daily of fishing for a catch that will bring you your wages when you sell it in the market.  Now imagine going 30 days without a fish, then 40 days.  You lose your only helper, a boy, because you are now viewed as unlucky, and he is sent to work with more successful fishermen.  Day 60 passes but still you sail out as every other day, confident you will catch something.  By the time our story begins, most men would be worn with worry and care, but not the fisherman of this story, Santiago, who prepares his boat and sets sail as he has the previous 84 days that he did not return with a catch.  On this particular day, Santiago ventures into the Gulf Stream north of Cuba to set his lines and wait for his luck to change.  And does it change!  Hooking an enormous fish, Santiago begins his battle which lasts three days and pulls him out into the depths of the ocean, perhaps without the possibility of return. Yet return he does, but tragically his magnificent catch has been worried by sharks, and resembles nothing but a bony carcass.  Does this worry the old man?  Not one bit.  He makes the same climb to his shack that he has made the last 84 days, yet this time he is a different man.  Falling onto his bed, he dreams of lions and his youth.

While Santiago is fighting against defeat in the novella, at the end of the novel, instead of being defeated by the fact his catch returned only as a ragged skeleton, he returns a hero and his dreams of youth indicate the experience has given him life and vigor that had been missing before that day.  It was not the result of his struggle that mattered; it was the struggle itself and its purpose, that brought meaning back into the old fisherman’s life.

Ernest Hemingway and Henry (“Mike”) Strater
with the remaining 500 lbs of an estimated 1000 lb marlin
 that was half-eaten by sharks before it could be landed
 in the Bahamas in 1935.
source Wikipedia

Hamlette @ The Edge of the Precipice has given us some excellent questions that we can choose to answer for the read-along:

Some people say this story is full of symbolism, maybe even an allegory.  What do you think things like the old man, the fish, and the sharks could symbolize?

The book How To Read Literature Like a Professor states that The Old Man and the Sea is a “nearly perfect literary parable”, full of Christian imagery.  We encounter images of Christ in the story when, after grasping the line all night to hold the fish, Santiago made an exclamation that, as Hemingway tells us, is reminiscent of an exclamation “someone would have while having a nail passed through their hand into a piece of wood”.  After the completion of his voyage, Santiago stumbles up the hill, carrying his mast on his back, bringing the image of Christ carrying the cross to Golgotha, and when Santiago falls asleep in his house on his bed, are arms are spread wide, as if in the shape of a crucified Christ-figure.

source Wikipedia

Were these symbols intentionally put into the story?  Who can know for sure.  Hemingway, himself, when questioned, said:  “There isn’t any symbolism.  The sea is the sea.  The old man is an old man.  The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish.  The sharks are all sharks, no better or no worse.  All the symbolism that people say is sh*t.  What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”  Personally I think that Hemingway used these images to convey meaning.  He didn’t intend to make Santiago, Christ or a Christ-type figure, he simply used images that all readers would be familiar with, to help us feel the old man’s struggle, pain, and sacrifice, and to share his triumph when he returned with the experience of the catch of his life.

Thanks for this excellent read-along, Hamlette.  Here are some other participant reviews:

Back To The Classics 2014: Mid-Year Check-In

It is time for the mid-year check-in of my Back to the Classics Challenge 2014.  While it seems like this challenge started only a month ago, I can proudly say that I have managed to stay on top of it fairly well.  In fact, I have only one more book to go, before I’m finished it.  Here is my progress:

1.  20th Century Classic   
2.  19th Century Classic   David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
3.  A Classic By A Woman Writer  Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
4.  A Classic In Translation   Son Excellence, Eugène Rougon by Émile
                                                  Zola
5.  A Wartime Classic  Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
6.  A Classic by an Author Who is New to You  The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Optional:

1.  An American Classic   The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
2.  A Classic Mystery/Suspense Thriller  The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
3.  A Classic Historical Fiction Book  The Once And Future King by E.B. White
4.  A Classic That Has Been Adapted into a T.V. or Movie Series  The Great
               Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
5.  Extra Fun Category – Write a Review of #4  The Great Gatsby Review


So, you see, one more book and I’m complete!  If only I could say that I was doing as well on all my challenges.  My History Challenge is sadly lacking books, my TBR Pile Challenge is struggling and my Shakespeare Challenge …….?  Well, the less said, the better.  At least when I clear off this challenge I can concentrate on some others.

Have you joined Back To the Classics 2014 Challenge and, if so, how are you progressing?  If you didn’t join the challenge, how many classics have you read this year?

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

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

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

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

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

Betsey Trotwood
by Phiz
(source Wikipedia)

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

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

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

Daniel Peggotty
by Frank Reynolds 1910
(source Wikipedia)

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

Wilkins Micawber
from 1912 edition
(source Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

The River by Phiz
(source Victorian Web)

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

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

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Woolf – Romanian Stamp
Source Wikipedia

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

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

First edition 1925 (sourced Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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