The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

“Whan that April with his shoures soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;….”

Twenty-nine pilgrims and the narrator meet in Southwark, in Harry Bailey’s Tabard Inn, before setting off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, where they will behold Thomas Becket’s shrine.  On the journey each pilgrim will tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back.  A free dinner will be awarded to the one with the best story.  And so begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous poem, a medley of lively stories that gives the reader a captivating window into 14th century England.

Gateway at Canterbury
The Gateway at Canterbury (1889)
Childe Hassam
source Wikiart


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Classics Club List #2 ~ Here I Go!

With my first Classics Club list complete, it’s time for another.  This time it was easy, as I used unfinished books from my first one.  So without further ado, here is my second Classics Club List with 50 books to read from November 30, 2018 to November 29, 2023!


Ancients  (5000 B.C. – A.D. 400):

The Republic (380 B.C.) – Plato

Aristotle, Ethics (330 B.C.) – Aristotle

Lives (75) – Plutarch

The Twelve Ceasars (121) – Suetonius

Meditations (170-180) – Marcus Aurelius

Address to Young Men (363) – Saint Basil

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Classics Club List #1 – Finished! ….. and not finished ….

November 18, 2018 has come and gone and I can’t believe that my five year anniversary date with the Classics Club has come around so quickly!  It seems like only a year or so ago I was compiling my list and wondering how I was going to read so many books.  So how did I do with it?  Well, here’s what I accomplished ….

First of all, I went completely overboard and instead of choosing the recommended 50 books, I chose 170 books!  Eh, not particularly my most wise decision, especially considering the content of some of them. Needless to say, I didn’t finish my list but, on a brighter note I did manage to read 66 of them, which is better than 50.  I also had a few of them (The Histories, Paradise LostMetamorphosesHamlet and History of the Peloponnesian War come quickly to mind) where I posted by chapter/book/act, so that was a big task in itself and expanded my reading time.  I’ve also started Bleak House, City of God, Crime and Punishment and Dead Souls from my original list, I just didn’t finish in time. 🙁

So here is my first Classics Club list, which I will call complete!

My list:Ancients  (5000 B.C. – A.D. 400): (9 books read)

The Odyssey – Homer (end of the 8th century B.C.)  March 23, 2014
The Histories (450 – 420 B.C.) – Herodotus (because I love my Greeks!)  April 17, 2017
The History of the Pelopponesian War (431 B.C.) – Thucydides  (a very
interesting war.  I can’t wait to get Thucydides viewpoint) June 15, 2017
Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.) – Sophocles  (Sophocles is one of my favourite
Greek playwrights)  May 25, 2014
Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.) – Sophocles   June 24, 2014
Antigone (441 B.C.) – Sophocles  December 28, 2014
Apology (after 399 B.C.) – Plato   December 12, 2013
Defense Speeches (80 – 63 B.C.) – Marcus Tullius Cicero  (I’ve started this
and love it!)  August 20, 2014
Metamorphoses (8) – Ovid  (I will finish this!)  March 31, 2016


Medieval/Early Renaissance (400 – 1600 A.D.): (6 books read)

The Rule of Saint Benedict (529)? – Saint Benedict  December 2, 2015

The Canterbury Tales (1390s??) – Geoffrey Chaucer  (groan!  It intimidates
      me but I must overcome!)  November 15, 2015
The Book of Margery Kempe (1430) – Margery Kempe   August 1, 2014
Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) – Thomas Mallory  (this read is coming up soon!)  December 6, 2014
Utopia (1516) – Thomas More  (looking forward to reading a good Utopian
      novel)  December 15, 2014
Selected Essays (1580) – Michel de Montaigne  November 30, 2015Late Renaissance/Early Modern (1600 – 1850 A.D.): (17 books read)

Romeo and Juliet (1591 – 1595) – William Shakespeare   October 13, 2014
Richard II (1595) – William Shakespeare   November 30, 2014
Henry IV Part I (1597) – William Shakespeare  December 21, 2014
Henry IV Part II (1596 – 1599) – William Shakespeare  December 24, 2014
Henry V (1599) – William Shakespeare  June 22, 2016
Othello (1603) – William Shakespeare   October 28, 2014
Hamlet (1603 – 1604) – William Shakespeare  January 27, 2015
King Lear (1603 – 1606) – William Shakespeare  December 3, 2014
Paradise Lost (1667) – John Milton (time to use my guide by C.S. Lewis)  February 27, 2014
Gulliver’s Travels (1726) – Jonathan Swift  (I wonder if I’ll like it)   January 3, 2015
Candide (1759) – Voltaire   March 21, 2014
Sense and Sensibility (1811) – Jane Austen  January 25, 2015
Persuasion (1818) – Jane Austen (I have read every other Austen novel but
        this one.  For shame!)   February 21, 2015
Eugene Onegin (1825 – 1832) – Alexander Pushkin   December 1, 2013 & February 8, 2014
The Pickwick Papers (1836 – 1837) – Charles Dickens  (a fun read!)  November 5, 2017
Wuthering Heights (1847) – Emily Brönte   February 1, 2014
David Copperfield (1850) – Charles Dickens   January 15, 2014


Modern (1850 – Present): (34 books read)

Villette (1853) – Charlotte Brönte  March 31, 2016
The Warden (1855) – Anthony Trollope  (looking forward to starting The
Barchestershire Chronicles)  April 8, 2014
Madam Bovary (1856) – Gustave Flaubert  (just because)   April 4, 2014
Barchester Towers (1857) – Anthony Trollope   August 7, 2014

Doctor Thorne (1858) – Anthony Trollope  September 25, 2014

Framely Parsonage (1860 – 1861) – Anthony Trollope  December 8, 2016

Fathers and Sons (1862) – Ivan Turgenev  September 19, 2014

The Small House at Allington (1864) – Anthony Trollope  March 31, 2017
The Moonstone (1868) – Wilkie Collins  (for a light read)  January 1, 2016

War and Peace (1869) – Leo Tolstoy  (going on and on and on ……)  August 3, 2014
Erewhon (1872) – Samuel Butler  May 16, 2015
La Curée (1871 – 1872) – Emile Zola (continuing the Rougon-Macquart
series)  April 23, 2014

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) – Thomas Hardy (I dislike Hardy’s
        novels but should include one.)  June 23, 2016
Daniel Deronda (1876) – George Eliot   February 24, 2014
Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) – Emile Zola   January 31, 2014
A Doll’s House (1879) – Henrik Ibsen  July 27, 2016

The Brothers Karamazov (1880) – Fyodor Dostoevsky (I can’t wait for this
        one!)  November 10, 2016
The Black Arrow (1888) – Robert Louis Stevenson   November 20, 2013
L’Argent (1891) – Emile Zola  August 21, 2015

The Time Machine (1895) – H.G. Wells  January 11, 2016
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) – Oscar Wilde  September 18, 2014
The Well at the World’s End (1896) – William Morris  October 5, 2016

Dracula (1897) – Bram Stoker  (scary ….. not my favourite genre)  October 19, 2015
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) – G.K. Chesterton  (love Chesterton!)  August 20, 2014

Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories (1904 – 1911) – M.R. James
          November 13, 2013
Ethan Fromme (1911) – Edith Wharton  May 11, 2015
 The Great Gatsby (1925) – F. Scott Fitzgerald (double groan.  Since the
          first time I read this was in high-school, I need to do a re-read to
confirm that I despise it)   January 2, 2014
Mrs. Dalloway (1925) – Virginia Woolf   January 13, 2014
The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) – C.S. Lewis  (I think this is a more simpler
Lewis) {No – this was incredibly complex!} November 30, 2013
Out of the Silent Planet (1938) – C.S. Lewis  (love his Space Trilogy – a re-

          read)  September 19, 2014
The Great Divorce (1945) – C.S. Lewis (fascinating plot)  June 15, 2014
Seven Story Mountain (1948) – Thomas Merton  (looking forward to it)  March 15, 2014
East of Eden (1952) – John Steinbeck  (I hated Mice & Men but I will attempt
          to keep an open mind with this one)   February 17, 2015
To Kill A Mockingbird (1960) – Harper Lee  April 5, 2016

Where do I go from here …..??  I’m going to condense my original list to 66 and roll many of the ones I didn’t read into my second list.  Which I’m going to keep to 50.  See!  I do learn by experience!!  Stayed tuned for the second list which I’ll post soon!


The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sketch of a Russian Village
Konstantin Alexseevich Korovin
source ArtUK

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

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

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

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

Some favourite quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Well at the World’s End by William Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classics Club Spin #14

Sigh!  I usually get excited about the Classics Club Spin but this time, between my failures to finish my last spins and the load of books I already have on my plate, my enthusiasm is severely compromised.  I should pass …..

…….. however, if I can finish up some of my reads, I don’t have much planned after them, AND I’m always trying to concentrate on my Classics Club List.  So with these excuses in mind, I’m going to give it a whirl …..

The Rules for the spin are:
  1. Go to your blog.
  2. Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club list.
  3. Post that list, numbered 1 – 20, on your blog by next Monday.
  4. Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1 – 20.  Go to the list of twenty books you posted and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  5. The challenge is to read that book by December 1st.

I used the random list organizer here to choose the 20 books from my master list.  Then I tweaked them, so my list ended up looking like this:
  1. We (1921) – Yevgeny Zamyatin
  2. Address to Young Men (363) – Saint Basil 
  3. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) – Jacob Burckhardt
  4. The History of Napoleon Buonoparte (1829) – John Gibson Lockhart
  5. The Well at the World’s End (1896) – William Morris
  6. The City of God (426) – Augustine 
  7. Ivanhoe (1820) – Sir Walter Scott
  8. Wives and Daughters (1864/66) – Elizabeth Gaskell 
  9. Dead Souls (1842) – Nikolai Gogol 
  10. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (1979) – Italo Calvino
  11. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and a Journal of a Tour of the Hebrides (1775) – Johnson & Boswell
  12. Tartuffe (1669) – Molière
  13. Twenty Years After (1845) – Alexandre Dumas
  14. Framley Parsonage (1860-61) – Anthony Trollope
  15. On the Social Contract (1762) – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  16. The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) – Ann Radcliffe
  17. The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) – Sigmund Freud 
  18. The Merchant of Venice (1596 – 1598) – William Shakespeare
  19. The Histories (450 – 420 B.C.) – Herodotus 
  20. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) – Jules Verne

Oh, Lord help me.  I left some BIGGIES on the list without changing them out.  I just hope the spin goes in my favour and misses them.  I’m sure I’ll be tense until Monday. 🙂

Best of luck everyone with your spin!

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was living ….

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

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

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

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

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

Classics Club Spin #13

I was going to resist the spin this time.  I have too many books on the go and too many of them are atrociously difficult, or inordinately huge.  But one of my goals for the year was to pare down my Classics Club list, so why on earth wouldn’t I participate in a spin?

With that said, I’m not shy to admit that I absolutely manipulated my list.  Well, perhaps not completely, but I did change out about seven books for ones that I’m either currently reading, are shorter novels, or projects that I am struggling with (Shakespeare, that’s YOU!).  Surprisingly, one of the manipulations was not The Faerie Queene.

The Rules for the spin are:
  1. Go to your blog.
  2. Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club list.
  3. Post that list, numbered 1 – 20, on your blog by next Monday.
  4. Monday morning, we’ll announce a number from 1 – 20.  Go to the list of twenty books you posted and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  5. The challenge is to read that book by August 1st.

I used the random list organizer here to choose the 20 books from my master list.  Then I tweaked them, so my list ended up looking like this:
  1. Ivanhoe (1820) – Sir Walter Scott
  2. Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) – Thomas Hardy
  3. Framley Parsonage (1860-61) – Anthony Trollope
  4. 1984 (1949) – George Orwell
  5. The Fairie Queene (1590 – 1596) – Edmund Spenser
  6. Henry V (1599) – Wiliam Shakespeare
  7. The Histories (450-20 BC) – Herodotus
  8. Richard III (1592) – William Shakespeare 
  9. Le Rêve (1888) – Emile Zola
  10. Tom Sawyer (1876) – Mark Twain
  11. The Good Soldier Svejk (1923) – Jaroslav Hasek
  12. The Silver Chalice (1952) – Thomas Costain 
  13. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and a Journal of a Tour
  14. The Lord of the Flies (1954) – William Golding
  15. The Red Bade of Courage (1895) – Steven Crane
  16. The Robe (1942) – Lloyd C. Douglas 
  17. The Twelve Caesars (121) – Suetonius 
  18. The Stranger (1942) – Albert Camus
  19. Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) – Thomas Hughes 
  20. The Merchant of Venice (1596 – 1598) – William Shakespeare

While my intentions are good, if I don’t finish by August 1st, I won’t be surprised.  But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?  And if I get a book I’m already reading, it will be more of a guarantee for success.  
So let the spin begin!

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.


Villette by Charlotte Brönte

“My godmother lived in a handsome house in the clean and ancient town of Bretton.”

What on earth have I just read?  This book simply cannot be written by the same author who wrote Jane Eyre!  The mind rebels!  The heart rebels!  It cannot be!  Am I sounding very dramatic and flourishing and vocal?  That’s because I’ve spent 572 pages being lulled catatonic.  What happened …..??

Brönte begins with introducing the reader to Lucy Snowe, an unassuming educated young woman, who is left alone after the death of her family, with only her godmother, Mrs. Bretton as a familiar contact.  In the house of her godmother, she knows her son, Graham Bretton, and on one visit meets a lodger, a little girl named Polly who is quick-witted, yet bordering on rude and displays an unusual attachment to the Bretton son.

As Lucy returns home, this story is left hanging and we follow Lucy to a job as a companion and then, at the death of her employer, Lucy decides to set out for the country of Labassecour (thought to be modelled on Belgium, where Brönte herself taught at a girl’s school) to search for work.  Miraculously, she is immediately taken on as a teacher at a respectable school in the town of Villette.  Through Lucy’s eyes only, we meet the headmistresses, Madame Beck; teachers at the school, in particular the fiery M. Paul Emmanuel; Polly’s cousin, Ginevra; and finally an astounding secret about the local doctor, Dr. John, is discovered.  Coincidence piles up on coincidence, until one no longer puzzles but simply must move on.  Two important relationships occur in Lucy’s life, yet nothing seems to truly touch her as she remains the passive and faithful narrator, except when it comes to the collision of Catholicism and Protestantism, one of which she attacks with a vitriolic vehemence and the other which she lauds as the only way to heaven.

School for Peasant’s Children in Verkiai(1848)
Vasily Sadovnikov
source Wikiart

The writing meanders all over the place and the characters appear chiselled with a hacksaw.  Polly who is mean-spirited and selfish as a child, suddenly appears, not only in a completely different city but in a different country and, as a young woman, is now pleasing and thoughtful and wise.  And she has developed this warm and winning character in spite of having a father who is rather petty, obtuse and slightly vindictive. Her great love for him appears to be the only explanation as to her transformation. Characters are often described by Lucy as having certain traits and then later are bestowed with either oppositie traits, or the original ones are highly magnified in melodramatic fashion to serve authorial purposes.  The process is problematic, to say the least.

Astraea, the virgin goddess of
Innocence and Purity (1665)
Salvator Rosa
source Wikipedia

Lucy herself is our greatest conundrum. She is like a wraithful spirit who hovers over the drama in the story and participates in narration and judgement but barely with action.  Like the Greek goddess Astraea, she pronounces moral, religious and ethical judgement on each character, yet in her zeal, often appears to forget that she is on the same level as those around her.  Nevertheless, she is a complex character and while her sentences can often be harsh, we also at times sense a softening of her manner and a deeper generosity in her character.

Brönte does display some fine writing in parts of the novel and there is a peculiar weaving of a wild, melodramatic narrative into a character who is quiet, aloof, reserved, and very nearly lifeless.  Brönte also employs contrasting themes but I would have enjoyed them more if I felt that they came from superior writing aptitude instead of displayed prejudices.  I also was irritated with her penchant to play with the reader.  She seemed to be saying, “oh, so you’d like to see this scenario play out?  Well, too bad, I’m deliberately going to give you this.”  Quite frankly, I finished feeling rather offended, as if someone had just been rude or discourteous.  An excuse for her approach may be found in the successive deaths of three members of her family within eight short months, five years before Villette was published, and there is some suggestion that Brönte was struggling with depression. With this fact in mind, I honestly tried to stick with this novel and find some sort of redeeming feature, but the inconsistencies and coincidences were simply too insurmountable, and the meek yet God-like character of Lucy too unpalatable.  Certain reviews claim that this book is a psychological masterpiece, and as I said, Brönte certainly seems to play with psychological aspects of both the characters and the readers’ perceptions of them.  Yet this experiment is conducted in an unnatural way, one that is ripe with preposterous manipulations and improbable fluctuations in both personalities and circumstances.  I was psychologically exhausted after finishing the novel, not for its fine crafting, but in an effort to grasp its implausibilities.  If that brand of psychology is admirable, I would rather treasure the simplicities of Jane Eyre.

Woman Reading (1894)
Henri Matisse
source Wikiart

I must say the only benefit gained from reading Villette is perhaps the personal insight it gives into Wuthering Heights.  The raw, wild, startling prose of the latter, while not necessarily obvious in the former, exists in echoes, while the ghostly apparition and the darkness in the souls of men stand out in stark relief.  Villette was an unsettling novel certainly, but more importantly it was unsatisfying, and I was left with a sense of emptiness and time wasted.  Fortunately there are rumours of read-along of Jane Eyre coming up at the end of May, hosted by Hamlette at The Edge of the Precipice.  Thank heavens!  I will be able to cleanse my palate with one of my all-time favourite novels and hopefully regain some of the deep respect I had for its author.

Further Reading: