A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is both predictable and unpredictable.  First, with any of her works she is not a writer that is easily deciphered or labelled, and conversely, one never knows when reading her works, precisely what one is going to discover.  In the short story, A Haunted House, Woolf delivers a narrative that is only 10 paragraphs long, yet manages not only to convey a story, but make it perplexingly obscure and delightfully poetic.

The story begins, “Whatever hour you woke, there was a door shutting.”  A rather conventional beginning for a ghost story, but Woolf soon begins to weave other nebulous possibilities into its framework.  Two old ghosts appear to be moving through this house, searching for something.  Hundreds of years ago, the woman had died and the husband had left the house only to return to it later.  A young couple sleeps while they hunt always for the treasure that appears either to be lost or just out of their grasp. The ghosts visit the narrator and her husband sleeping in their room and appear to find the treasure in their quiet repose, in their love, and all is “Safe, Safe, Safe.” ……..

The Haunted House
source ArtUK

Most analyses of this short story categorize it as juxtaposition between the dead and living couple, the dead couples’ loss of the “treasure” and their apparent finding of it again in the living couple, as the reader finally realizes the theme of love threaded throughout the story.  Well, yes, I’m certain that’s an accurate analysis, but I had another less discernible thought flit through my mind while I was reading:  some of the descriptions and tone reminded me of an author’s search for words or meaning to imbue their writing with a sense of life.  The ghostly couple could have represented the writer and the rooms of the house compartments in the mind.  Here’s an example:

“….. “They’re looking for it; they’re drawing the curtain,” one might say, and so read on a page or two. “Now they’ve found it,” one would be certain, stopping the pencil on the margin. And then, tired of reading, one might rise and see for oneself, the house all empty, the doors standing open, only the wood pigeons bubbling with content and the hum of the threshing machine sounding from the farm. “What did I come in here for? What did I want to find?” My hands were empty. “Perhaps it’s upstairs then?” The apples were in the loft. And so down again, the garden still as ever, only the book had slipped into the grass.”

The allusions to reading, pencil, margin, and book, and the references to the house being empty and the doors open and the search, reminded me of a writer struggling to find the precise words to bring his/her story to vivid life, to make something living from something dead.  Am I crazy?  Perhaps, but with Woolf, the very act of writing always seems to be a part of the writing itself, so closely incorporated that it is difficult to separate the two.  In any case, it was an interesting story, as only Woolf could make a story a page long.  The complete text of the story can be found HERE.

Next week, I’ve drawn a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart.  I remember reading this one in elementary school and being quite scared by it.  We’ll see how effective it remains from an adult reading.

Week 8 – Deal Me In Challenge – Nine of Clubs

The Life You Save May Just Be Your Own by Flannery O’Connor

Farmhouse and Car (1933)
Prudence Hayward
source Wikiart
Imagine a small town in the southern United States on a hot day.  An old woman and her daughter sit on the front porch of their house, the woman suddenly alert while the daughter plays vacantly with her fingers. Down the road, a man materializes, a young man but by his appearance obviously a drifter.  He has “a look of composed dissatisfaction as if he understood life thoroughly.” The woman and man greet each other, each eyeing the other with a hesitant speculation and a mutually concealed distrust.  After an introduction, the woman tries to find out more about Mr. Shiftlet but the man adeptly avoids answering, speaking of cars, hearts, lying and the definition of man. With more talk, it becomes clearer that the man is interested in the old car in the yard that had belonged to the woman’s deceased husband, and the woman is interested in a suitor for her mentally disabled daughter. Agreeing to stay on for board and food, the man begins to spruce the place up and soon it looks much improved.

As time passes, the woman continues to subtly bargain for a husband for her daughter, as Shiftlet counters, bargaining for the car.  Finally a deal is struck, the two marry and the car becomes his. Yet the material desire of his heart is at war with the obligation to his new unwanted wife.  Shiftlet finds himself with a choice and the struggle within himself is powerfully displayed.

This story was perplexing, and although I haven’t read any of O’Connor’s other works, I have a feeling that she regularly creates confusion with readers.  While reading The Life You Save May Just Be Your Own, I was struck with impressions rather than feelings, as if I was following an incohesive story.  The story is there, but O’Connor inserts so many phrases that are pregnant with meaning, that you simply can’t help analyzing them, wondering if there is some sort of secondary communication.  Let’s see what I can make of it.

The Farmer’s Daughter (1945)
Prudence Heward
source Wikiart

First of all, does Mr. Shiftlet’s name imply that he is a “shifty” character, or does it indicate a possibility of shift or change within him?  Or both?  Initially, he is presented swinging “both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross.”  There is definitely religious connotations here, but notice the “crooked cross.”  There is certainly something very imperfect about this man.  He is also a carpenter, which was the profession of Jesus — does that mean anything or not?  When the woman tells him that he must sleep in the car, Shiftlet answers, “Lady, the monks of old slept in their coffins.”  Here is another allusion to religion and death (although monks slept in their coffins so they would get used to not fearing death, but that’s another story).

O’Connor also employs colour imagery in profusion, from the bright colours around Lucynell, the daughter, indicating innocence, purity and happiness, to the black, brown and grey colours worn by the man and woman, from the sun shining forth at the beginning of the story, only to be covered by a cloud at the end.

Portrait of a Man (1911)
Albert Bloch
source Wikiart

There is much speculation as to what O’Connor wanted to convey with this story, and there certainly appears to be deeply imbedded layered meaning.  When writing, O’Connor applied a type of analogical technique that allowed to reader “to see different levels of reality in one image or situation ….. (having) to do with the Divine life and our participation in it ….. was also an attitude towards all creation, and a way of reading nature which included most possibilities and I think that it is this enlarged view of the human scene that the fiction writer has to cultivate if he is every going to write stories that have any chance of becoming a permanent part of our literature.”

For me, the impression that stood out was the subtle change in the man.  Initially, he is a tramp, someone who is disconnected to the material, content to wander and take odd jobs.  His exchange with the woman borders on the philosophical on his side and he is likened to a Christ-like figure.  Yet as soon as he espies the car, a possessive desire begins to simmer inside him, causing him to abandon his ideals, and he is satisfied to barter with the mother for Lucynell as if she were an animal or possession.  Because his attention is fixed on a worldly goal, Shiftlet becomes blind to simple pleasures and human empathy.

Portrait of a Boy
Albert Bloch
source Wikiart

If nothing else, O’Connor gives the reader a multitude of possibilities and honestly, this short story was a compelling and intriguing experience.

Next week, for my Deal Me In Challenge, I’ll be reading the short story by Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House.

Week 7 – Deal Me In Challenge – Six of Clubs

Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

I haven’t yet read enough of Orwell’s works to decide whether I like him or not, but one thing I have learned in our short acquaintance is that he’s not one to prevaricate or candy-coat his ideas.  If you don’t want his opinions, don’t read him, and if you do, get ready to duck!

Orwell begins his essay, Politics and the English Language, by speculating on the impending collapse of the English Language. Is its demise a mirroring of society’s cultural suicide, simply an innocuous descent that is only natural given the state of our world?  Yet Orwell believes that there is not just a natural cause, but more pointedly, political and economic ones, and even the effects themselves can become causes that reinforce the original cause.  For example:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.  It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language.  It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to us to have foolish thoughts.”

There is a remedy though: if we clean up our bad habits when applying language to thoughts, our thoughts will become clearer.

A Song Without Words (1919)
John William Godward
source Wikiart

Orwell now gives five writing examples exemplifying problems with how people use language:

  1. an essay by Professor Harold Laski (who uses 5 negatives in 53 words)
  2. a paragraph from Interglossa by Professor Lancelot Hogben (mixed metaphors)
  3. an essay on psychology in Politics (meaninglessness)
  4. a Communist pamphlet (stale phrases)
  5. a letter in the Tribune (words and meaning part company)

The two main problems in all these examples are a “staleness of imagery” and a “lack of precision”.  Modern English prose is ripe with these issues, but they crop up continuously in political writing.   Instead of sticking with concrete thoughts, the abstract creepy in, melting away the valuable meaning of ideas, instead consisting of a stringing together of hackneyed phrases.  He then lists examples of the ways that the adequate construction of prose is habitually avoided.

Dying Metaphors:  These are metaphors between the good and bad, a garbage dump of metaphors that have lost all expressive power and are used only to avoid the trouble of creating new evocative phrases.  Whenever inconsistent phrases are mixed or the original meaning is convoluted, it is evidence that the person is not particularly interested in what they are saying.

Operators of Verbal False Limbs:  Used to avoid choosing correct verbs and nouns but give the appearance of a harmony by expanding the sentence with the use of extra syllables.  Examples of such are: make itself felt, exhibit a tendency to, etc.  In addition, the passive voice is preferred instead of the active, noun constructions are employed instead of gerunds (by examination instead of by examining), verbs are cut down by -ize and de- formations, clichéd statements are presented as intelligent by the not un- formation, clean conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by phrases such as, with respect to, the fact that, etc, and sentence completions are made to sound mundane by such phrases as deserving serious consideration, etc.

Pretentious Diction:  Catch words are used to adorn simple statements to give biased judgements an appearance of scientific authority.  He goes on to describe specific words used in political writings, claiming the result is slovenliness and vagueness, to obscure the real issues.

Meaningless Words:  Passages with a complete dearth of meaning abound in many areas of writing, but principally in art and literary criticism.  Orwell gives a few examples, such as:

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far it signifies ‘something not desirable.’  The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another.  In the case of democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides.  It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.  Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.  That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

In an attempt to show that modern writing does not choose words for meaning nor does it evoke powerful images for clarity, Orwell gives first an example from Ecclesiastes, and then his own modern translation.  His experiment is quite fascinating:

Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, or yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Modern English:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

He then analyzes them to show the weakness of the translation and claims modern writing is lazy, borrowing ideas and phrases and “gumming” them together in order to use minimal mental effort; also there is often an attempt to convey emotional meaning without attention to detail nor the actual point.

Language is Not Transparent
Mel Bochner
source Wikiart

A responsible writer will ask himself the following questions when writing:

What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

However, Orwell says, most writers are contend to string together cliches, obscuring their meaning even to themselves.

In politics, the writing is particularly dreadful, all the literary mistakes converging and causing the viewers to feel that “one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy,” who is being transformed into a machine by the very words he speaks.  By the constant bombardment of meaningless jargon, people’s consciousness becomes sleepy and allows atrocities to be labelled as pacification, or transfer of population, or elimination of unreliable elements.  This particular phraseology has no metaphor content and therefore images are lacking, allowing the reader/listener to easily dismiss the human connection and thus controlling our emotional response to it.  Inflated euphemisms are used to justify cruelty.

The Treachery of Images (1948)
Rene Magritte
source Wikiart

Yet while thoughts are able to corrupt language, the reverse is also true.  You can catch this impoverished writing, like a disease, and have your mind affected by it.  Orwell admits that in his essay he has committed some of the literary crimes he is attempting to reveal.  The only way to avoid these faults is to continually be on guard against them. We can start by eradicating worn-out phrases and metaphors, but the change must go deeper.  He goes on to explain what these changes do not imply, then gives the reader rules to follow when intuition fails:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

By applying these rules, one could still write badly, but one could not write the drivel of which he has been speaking or using as examples.  His goal with his essay is not to consider “the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

For:

“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Young Girl Learning to Write
Camille Corot
source Wikiart

A very powerful essay by Orwell and one that requires time and deep thought to digest. On most points, I agree with him wholeheartedly, but there are a few minor claims that poke at my passion for words.  To use less words that have Greek or Latin roots, seems overly particular.  These words have been in use for centuries and add to the language instead of detracting from it.  And while Orwell didn’t directly say that he takes offence at larger more complex words, the appearance in his examples was to severely diminish them (sorry, if I misread you, George, but that was my impression).  While I certainly do not advocate using complex words to diminish meaning or cloak intent, I do think that they are valuable for enjoyment in reading.  Would one rather have a French seven course dinner, or MacDonald’s?  If one is discerning in the culinary arts, certainly the former.  However, just as the ingredients for the seven course dinner would have to be used with style and attention, so must complex words be, when writing.

My next choice for my Deal Me In Challenge is suppposed to be a children’s classic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aitken, but I’m having some trouble finding it (yes, those of you who know of my “issue” of losing my DMI choices can laugh at me), so next week might find a different post appearing.  Time shall reveal!

Week 5 – Deal Me In Challenge – Eight of Spades

Le Horla by Guy de Maupassant

“What a wonderful day! – Quelle journée admirable!”

What a lovely start to the story.  The narrator describes himself reclining on the lush grass of his yard under a gorgeous plane tree.  He loves his house and the region of his forebearers close to Rouen. The Seine flows lazily alongside his garden and in early afternoon he spots a parade of ships drawn by a tugboat, including an impressive Brazilian three-mast ship, gleaming white and he is filled with such joy at the sight that he salutes the magnificent vessel.

Five days later, he claims that he has been seized by a fever, a mysterious force that makes him feel rather sad more than sick.  His despair grows and in spite of seeing a doctor, it continues to worsen.  Finally, he decides to take a short trip to set him aright, visiting Monte St. Michel, and while he does return refreshed and certain that he is cured of his malady, he relates a curious experience that he had at the monastery.

While being guided by a resident monk, the monk tells him that at night the local folk often hear two goats bleating, one with a strong voice and one with a weak voice, and while some people discount the tale, fishermen have seen a faceless shepherd leading two arguing goats, one with the head of a man and one with the head of a woman.

Monte St. Michel
source Wikipedia

Our narrator is perplexed.  Surely if rational beings other than ourselves existed we would have encountered them by now.  The monk, however, gives a perceptive reply:

“Do we see even the hundred-thousandth part of what exists?  Take the wind, for example, which is the greatest force in nature, which knocks men down, demolishes buildings, uproots trees, sends up the sea in mountains of water, wrecks cliffs, and throws mighty ships against the shoals, the wind that kills, that whistles, that moans, that groans —- have you ever seen it, and can you see it?  It exists, regardless.”

With the sickness coming back upon him, the man agonizes with nightmares, and the unexplained consumption of water and milk from his carafes in the morning.  Escaping to Paris, he has an unsettling experience with a doctor, a clairivoyant, which further cements his mental exploration of other-worldly phenomenon.  Yet again when he returns home he experiences an increasing unease and a consciousness of an entity which has invaded his home, apparently from the Brazilian schooner that he glimpsed months ago.  He is distaught, deranged and we can only guess at the outcome as he attempts to dispose of this being who has not only penetrated his home but his soul.

“Woe to us!  Woe to man!  He has come, the … the … what is his name … the .. it seems as if he’s calling out his name to me, and I can’t hear it … the … yes … he’s calling it out … I’m listening … I cannot … say it again … the … Horla … I heard it … the Horla … it is he … the Horla … he has arrived!”

It may sound odd to say, but this was one of the more delightfully suspenseful short stories that I’ve read in awhile.  While I believe that we cannot control what happens to us in life, we can control our reactions to it, yet in this story, the man’s self will is appropriated to an extent that he loses part of who he is.  His mind, while not necessarily possessed, is subjugated by a force that is able to manipulate his thinking and apprehending.  What could be more terrifying? Complete loss of control.  It makes an extraordinarily creepy tale.

Next week, I have a children’s classic on slate, The Tanglewood Secret by Patricia St. John.  With my unexpectedly busy life that has left me little time for reading, I just hope I can finish it and review it in time!

*** Note:  I did read ¼ of this short story in French before my brain gave out and time began to run away from me.  An accomplishment nonetheless, but it made me realize that I need much more practice with this excellent language!

Week 3 – Deal Me In Challenge – Four of Clubs

A Little Woman by Franz Kafka

Young Woman Drawing (1801)
Maria-Denis Villers
source Wikiart

I can’t believe I have never read Kafka.  So with this surprising fact in mind I dived into this short story for my Deal-Me-In Challenge.  Perhaps I expected too much …

The narrator immediately makes the reader acquainted with his challenges with this “little woman”.  She has complete contempt for him and his life, and his perceptions appear wrapped up in her treatment of him.  However, he reveals that she is almost a stranger to him, yet nevertheless, she disparages and demeans him incessantly and with impunity.  She even goes as far as to ellict people’s compassion for her struggles to tolerate him, not by revealing them, but by exhibiting a demeanour of quiet suffering.

Landlady (1886)
Konstantin Makovsky
source Wikiart

I did not understand this story at all, nor did I find it the slightest bit compelling.  Given that the narrator reveals that the woman is nearly a stranger to him, one cannot even imagine her as a wife or sister or mother and so there it ends.  How can one be interested in a relationship that is not one, nor experience annoyance that is based on nothing tangible?  Apparently Kafka based the little woman on his landlady when he lived in Berlin-Steglitz.

In spite of this less than inspiring story, I am looking forward to reading more of Kafka with hopefully a different reaction to his works.

Next week, I’ll be reading the short story Le Horla by Guy Maupassant.  I’ll attempt to read it in French but it’s rather long so I’ll have to see if my skills are up to it.  Stay tuned …..

Week 2 – Deal Me In Challenge – Nine of Clubs

Vulgarity by G.K. Chesterton

Interior of a Tavern, Peasants Carousing (1635)
Master of the Large Jars
source ArtUK

I’ve been keen to read a Chesterton essay for awhile now, but have not drawn him for the Deal Me In challenge yet.  Luckily, this time, he’s my first draw of the year!

Wearing many hats, Chesterton is known for his poetry, philosophy, theology, orating, journalism, biographies, and literary and art criticism.  I haven’t read many of his essays, but of those I have, I’ve found his style entirely unique, a sort of meandering while at the same time being very pointed.  Reading this essay was similar to my previous experience.

Although more practical inventions such as telephones and aeroplanes have foreshadowings of their later inventions, vulgarity itself is so new that even its name is somewhat misleading.  The Latin word “vulgus” was generally used to describe “something that was not particularly common among the common people.”  In fact, the vulgar is not very common if one searches for evidence of it.  Farmers, peasants, the poor, and even savages are rarely vulgar.  This new “thing” requires a new name and definition and although Chesterton questions his ability to give it, because he has just been reading a book about love, he has a few ideas.  Curious ….. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.

Vulgarity consists of two elements: facility and familiarity.  The first means that a man may “gush”, that his words flow without any thought or self-control; they “stream from him like perspiration”.  He appears confident and admired but he “never need stop explaining himself, for he understands neither himself nor the limits of explanation.”  The second element can be defined as profanity, a “loss of holy fear and a sin against the mystical side of man.”  This man can “handle things confidently and contemptuously, without the sense that all things in their way are sacred things.”

“The point is that the fool is so subjective that it never occurs to him to be afraid of the subject.”  He can be both a Pagan fool and a Puritan fool, because each is so familiar with his subject that he becomes blind to the depths of it and loses his objectivity.  On the other hand, a man writing to the woman he loves or the saint writing of his sin, is able to view each with a clear perspective because he has a healthy respect for each and the complexities are clear to him.

Phew!  I certainly understood the gist of Chesterton’s points but following his train of thought can be challenging.  I suspect that I need more practice!

Next week for my Deal Me In Challenge, I’ll be reading the short story, A Little Woman by Franz Kafka, my first reading of Kafka ever.

Week 1 – Deal Me In Challenge – King of Spades

Deal-Me-In Challenge 2017

Woo hoo!  Jay at Bibliophilopolis has launched the 7th annual Deal Me In Challenge for 2017 and I’m can hardly contain myself!  It is one of my favourite challenges of the year. Why, you say, when I barely seem to be able to complete 25% of it? Well, it “encourages” me to read works that I otherwise would never get to, so even if I complete 10 off the list, I’m happy.

Holding the Cards (1876)
Mary Cassatt
source Wikiart

Of course, I change the challenge up to include short stories and essays, poetry and children’s classics to give me a smorgasbord of choices.

Last year, I compiled a new list with only a few of the works I didn’t complete in the previous year, but this year I’ll be boring and simply keep my old unfinished list, adding new titles in the open spaces.

Clubs – Short Stories
A –  Cabbages and Kings – O’Henry
2 –  Excellent People – Anton Chekhov
3 –  The Queen of Spades – Alexander Pushkin
4 –  Le Horla – Guy de Maupassant
5 –  The Tell-Tale Heart – Edgar Allan Poe
6 –  The Life You Save Might Be Your Own- Flannery O’Connor
7 –  The Honest Thief – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
8 –  A Little Woman – Franz Kafka
9 –  A Haunted House – Virginia Woolf
10 – The Birds – Anton Chekhov
J –  The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Gilman
Q –  Love – Leo Tolstoy 
K –  Signs and Symbols – Vladimir Nabakov
Spades – Essays
A – Milton – Charles Williams
2 – Doodles in the Dictionary – Aldous Huxley
3 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – G.K. Chesterton
4 – On A Faithful Friend – Virginia Woolf
5 – A Note on Jane Austen – C.S. Lewis
6 –  In Defence of Literacy – Wendell Berry
7 –  The Tyranny of Bad Journalism – G.K. Chesterton
8 – Politics and the English Language – George Orwell
9 –  An Apology for Idlers – Robert Louis Stevenson
10 – Sense – C.S. Lewis
J – Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community – Wendell Berry
Q – What I Demand of Life – Frank Swinnerton
K – Vulgarity – G.K. Chesterton
Diamonds – Poetry
A – A Sea Dirge – Lewis Carroll
2 –  Gesang Der Geister Über Den Wassern – Johann Wolfgang
               von Goethe
3 – Nothing But Death – Pablo Neruda (from Poetry Soup)
4 – Sonnett XXIII – Garcilaso de la Vega
5 – Love Sonnet XIII – Pablo Neruda
6 – Resolution and Independence – William Wordsworth
7 – Ode III – Fray Luis de León
8 – Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night – Dylan Thomas
9 – To A Mouse – Robert Burns
10 – Tears, Idle Tears – Alfred LordTennyson
J –  Easter Wings – George Hebert
Q – On His Blindness – John Milton
K – Phoenix and the Turtle – William Shakespeare
Hearts – Children’s Classic
A – A Triumph for Flavius – Caroline Dale Snedeker
2 – Three Greek Children – Alfred Church
3 –  The Story of the Treasure Seekers – E. Nesbit
4 – Detectives in Togas – Henry Winterfeld
5 – Finn Family Moomintroll – Tove Jansson
6 – The Tanglewood’s Secret – Patricia St. John
7 – The Wolves of Willoughy Chase – Joan Aiken
8 – Red Sails to Capri – Ann Weil
9 – Sprig of Broom – Barbara Willard
10 – Teddy’s Button – Amy LeFeuvre
J –  Call It Courage – Armstrong Sperry
Q – Just David – Eleanor H. Porter
K – Beyond the Desert Gate – Mary Ray 


A Young Man and a Girl Playing Cards
Rembrandt
source Wikiart

Can I make a confession?  The problem I have is that when I draw a card during the year, sometimes I can’t find the book that contains the short story, poem, or essay. Does anyone else have this problem, or it is just me?  Perhaps a more practical resolution is needed for the new year: to be more organized.

In any case, I’m excited to start this challenge and thanks to Jay for hosting again.  This year I’ll try to do better ….. really I will!

The Runaway by Anton Chekhov

I’m trying to get back on track with my Deal-Me-In Challenge, and I finally drew the first short story of the year, The Runaway by Anton Chekhov.

Science and Charity (1897)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart

After a long journey, young Pashka and his mother wait at the hospital to see the doctor. Pashka has a boil on his elbow, but the mother has waited too long and the doctor scolds her, declaring that the wound is infected and the boy may lose his arm.  A stay is required, about which Pashka is not thrilled but he is lured by the doctor’s promises of seeing a live fox and eating sugar-candy.  After a sumptuous dinner of soup, roast beef and bread, the boy awaits the doctor to honour his commitment but when he doesn’t come, he explores the wards, finally returning to his own where he hears the patient, Mikhailo, coughing and wheezing.  When he wakes late in the night, he finds three people at the dead Mikhailo’s bed, yet when they leave, the old man’s chest wheezes again.  Terrified, Pashka screams for his mother, leaps out of bed and tears through the wards and into the yard, intending to run home but a graveyard looms ahead, and Pashka is intensely relieve to spot the kind doctor through a window in a building.  When he burst inside the doctor’s words echo:  “You’re a donkey, Pashka!  Now aren’t you a donkey?  You ought to be whipped ….”

The Runaway (1958)
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart



Well, what to make of that?  There is the danger of infection, the tension of being separated from his mother, the doctor’s promises that manipulate (for good or ill, who knows) yet come to nought, the wards of sick people and the boy’s terror, perhaps at hearing a dead man who appears to still live.  It’s curious, especially since Pashka’s condition appears serious, yet the reader never has a whisper as to its outcome.  Chekhov himself spent most of his life in the medical profession, so one wonders if he is also exploring the psychological methods physicians might use on their patients.  Through the boy’s eyes the doctor is “kind” but is he really?  The boy has a serious medical condition yet no one seems to be rushing him to surgery, and the doctor has promised many delights for Pashka and is delivering none of them.  What is behind Chekhov’s tale?  Is it a simple tale or a story with a deeper meaning?

Birthhouse of Anton Chekhov
source Wikipedia

Deal Me In Challenge #11

 

 

Different Tastes in Literature by C.S. Lewis

Art and Literature (1867)
William-Adolphe Bouguereau
source Wikiart

Is there good literature?  Is there bad literature?  How do we make the determination, and do we even have the criteria to judge?  In his essay, Different Tastes in Literature, if Lewis does not directly answer these questions, he at least gives the reader criteria that makes it easier to judge, and challenges us to examine our reading experiences.

First, Lewis investigates the notion of “tastes” and indicates a determination between good and bad literature is complicated by the fact that there are no objective tests.  But the error people make is in assuming that people like bad art in the same way that they like good art.  Instead, Lewis proposes, bad art does not succeed with anyone.

Lewis defines bad art as very low art, such as novels, and popular music that are read or sung and then forgotten soon after.  When it goes out of fashion, it is never thought of afterward.

Geniuses of Art (1761)
Francois Boucher
source Wikiart

Yet while bad art itself is not so easy to describe, the consumer of bad art is more easily targeted:

“He (or she) may want her weekly ration of fiction very badly indeed, may be miserable if denied it.  But he never re-reads.  There is no clearer distinction between the literary and the unliterary.  It is infallible.  The literary man re-reads, other men simply read.  A novel once read is to them like yesterday’s newspaper …… It is as if a man said he had once washed, or once slept, or once kissed his wife, or once gone for a walk.  Whether the bad poetry is re-read or not …. I do not know.  But the very fact that we do not know is significant.  It does not creep into the conversation of those who buy it.  One never finds two of its lovers capping quotations and settling down to a good evening’s talk about their favourite.  So with the bad picture.  The purchaser says, no doubt sincerely, that he finds it lovely, sweet, beautiful, charming or (more probably) ‘nice’.  But he hangs it where it cannot be seen and never looks at it again.”

With bad art, there is no question of the ‘joy’ that good art brings. “The desire for bad art is the desire bred of habit: like the smoker’s desire for tobacco, more marked by the extreme malaise of denial than by any very strong delight in fruition.”

Art Critic
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart

On experiencing good art, it is not like moving from one type to the next, but more like “when you opened the door, to lead to the garden of the Hesperides ….”  However, we must not say that some men like good art and some bad, rather that the term “like” is not the proper word for good art, and the response towards good art, has never been produced in bad.

Is it too simple to say that bad art does not ever have the same effect on a person as good art?  What about those books that captured our imagination in youth but that we now consider bad?  Might this simply mean that the reader’s imagination was superior to the author’s, but lacking both maturity and discernment?  In effect, we would not have been enjoying the book for what it was, but for what it was not.  But this “mirage” is quite different from the actual liking of bad art.  Bad art is “tepid, trivial, marginal, habitual.  It does not trouble them, nor haunt them ….. No one cares about bad art in the same way as some care about good.”  It is only when we eliminate the bad art that the discussions about the superiority of one work of art to another can have some value.

The Disquieting Muses (1916-18)
Giorgio di Chirico
source Wikiart

In this essay, Lewis more distinguishes what is not good art than what is, however his insights, as always, are invaluable.  We have so little time on this earth.  Life comes and goes in the blink of an eye.  Don’t we want to be discerning about our literary choices and choose to read works that add perspective, wisdom and purpose to our lives, instead of reading words that pass through us in the blink of an eye?  I do.

Deal Me In Challenge #10 

The Morning of Life by Victor Hugo

My ninth choice for my Deal Me In Challenge comes from “diamonds,” my poetry section.  I have completely avoided my short story section so far, not out of design, but out of fate.  I just haven’t chosen a club yet.  In any case, for this choice we move to France and the poetry of Victor Hugo.

Le Voile du Matin
by Victor Hugo
Le voile du matin sur les monts se déploie.
Vois, un rayon naissant blanchit la vieille tour ;
Et déjàdans les cieux s’unit avec amour,
Ainsi que la gloire àla joie,
Le premier chant des bois aux premiers feux du jour.
Oui, souris à l’éclat dont le ciel se décore ! –
Tu verras, si demain le cercueil me dévore,
Un soleil aussi beau luire à ton désespoir,
Et les mêmes oiseaux chanter la même aurore,
Sur mon tombeau muet et noir !
Mais dans l’autre horizon l’âme alors est ravie.
L’avenir sans fin s’ouvre à l’être illimité.
Au matin de l’éternité
On se réveille de la vie,
Comme d’une nuit sombre ou d’un rêve agité.
Skylark
source Wikipedia
The Morning Of Life (an ode)
by Victor Hugo
The mist of the morning is torn by the peaks,
Old towers gleam white in the ray,
And already the glory so joyously seeks
The lark that’s saluting the day.
Then smile away, man, at the heavens so fair,
Though, were you swept hence in the night,
From your dark, lonely tomb the owlets would stare
At the sun rising newly as bright.
But out of earth’s trammels your soul would have flown
Where glitters Eternity’s stream,
And you shall have waked ‘midst pure glories unknown,
As sunshine disperses a dream.

This is a beautiful poem, but this was the only English translation that I was able to find, and the poem really suffers in the translation.  From the French (keeping in mind, my French is adequate, but I’m certainly not fluent),  the reader is assailed wtih images of newness and light and birth and song, but there is also a reference to an old tower.  Yet in the second stanza the poet mentions that though he may be found in a coffin (I suspect that he is the “old tower” from the first stanza), the sun will continue to shine and that same bird will sing on his tomb.  And should the reader be saddened by his death?  The third stanza indicates not, as the poet will have an endless horizon as he awakens in the light of eternity.  The first life now appears as a dark night or restless dream in comparison to this new everlasting life.

Ai-ya!  I was able to pull very little of that explanation from the English translation.  The French says “mon tombeau” (my tomb), not your tomb, and with the English second person pronouns in the third stanza, it is very confusing as to who is speaking.  Anyone with more adequate French skills than I have, is welcome to comment.

For those of you who didn’t know that Hugo was also a recreational artist, producing more than 4000 drawings, I’ll leave you with one of them:

The Wave of My Destiny (1857)
Victor Hugo
source Wikiart

Deal Me In Challenge #9