Saturday, 22 October 2016

Dewey's Readathon.

It's readathon day, and perfect reading weather. Last night was the lowest temperature of the season, just 1 °C, and it will no doubt get much lower as the days go by. Right now it's very misty, low cloud, quite smokey from people's chimneys, yet behind all this cloud the sun is fighting its way through, so the light here is a very beautiful pale gold (I wish I had batteries in my camera!). Temperature-wise it's pretty chilly, so I'm looking forward to sitting in front of the fire and reading.

All that said, I'll have to be an unofficial participant today: for one reason I can't stay up to late tonight, and another, if it does get a little more hospitable outside I will have to go out and plant some more bulbs. I wanted all my spring bulbs planted before the end of October and I still have a lot to go. I do think it's quite likely I'll have to break, as I type the sun is getting much brighter, though I still can't quite see it! 

Because of this expected interruption I have made an early start with reading today, though the readathon doesn't begin until 1 pm my time (8 am EDT). So far I've finished Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (I only had Act V to go to be honest), and I've read Nennius' History of the Britons, which is absolutely tiny (41 pages, large print, but I did like it however inaccurate it was!). As for other plans, I have a few lists: firstly, books I really really want to read today:
  1. The Song of Roland.
  2. La Vita Nuova by Dante.
  3. The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
  4. News from Nowhere by William Morris.
  5. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane.
  6. Symposium by Plato.
Other books, let's call them 'back-up books' or 'if there's time books':
  1. In Praise of Folly by Erasmus.
  2. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.
  3. The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith.
  4. Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey.
  5. Animal Farm by George Orwell.
  6. Ralph Roister Doister by Nicholas Udall.
Finally, books I'd like to at least start, but there's no way I'll be able to read the entire book in one sitting:
  1. The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope.
  2. The Devils by Dostoyevsky.
  3. Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
So, I shall press on, and I think I'll start with The Song of Roland. I'll update later today, and perhaps join in with a few of those questionnaires.

Good luck and have fun to all those participating! :)

Update: Despite not updating until now, 10 am, I have been reading a fair amount! Yesterday was on and off rain so I didn't plant my bulbs, instead I was able to read more or less all day. Here's what I read:

  1. The Song of Roland.
  2. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.
  3. Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.
  4. La Vita Nuova by Dante.
  5. News from Nowhere by William Morris.
  6. The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
  7. The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster.
There are three hours left, and if it were raining I'd say with confidence that I would read the Orkneyinga Saga in that time, but the weather is fine and sunny (though very cold) and I do need to plant those bulbs. So I shall do so, then later on today I'll have some time for more reading. I hope I'll read the Orkneyinga Saga and, if there's time, just one more little book, but I fear that might be a stretch! I could perhaps read a play, in which case I'd read Ralph Roister Doister. Having said all that I'll probably not even get to start anything! But I live in hope... 

I hope everyone is having a good time still! Well done to all those who have been up all night :)

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Masterpiece by Émile Zola.

The Masterpiece (L'Œuvre) is, in publication order, the fourteenth of Émile Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels, first published in 1886 following Germinal. In it Zola continues to follow the lives of the Rougon-Macquarts, a fictional family in the time of the Second French Empire (1852–1870). In this novel, set between 1855 - 1870, we follow Claude Lantier, the son of Auguste Lantier and Gervaise Coupeau née Macquart (her story is told in L'Assommoir), and the brother of Etienne (Germinal), Jacques (The Beast Within) and Anna (better known as the famous Nana).

In L'Assommoir young Claude is adopted by an old man in Plassans (the 'seat' of the Rougon Macquarts) during a period of extreme poverty for his mother and her new husband:
An old gentleman at Plassans offered to take the older boy, Claude, and send him to an academy down there. The old man, who loved art, had previously been much impressed by Claude's sketches. Claude had already begun to cost them quite a bit.
This is virtually the last we hear of him in L'Assommoir, save a brief comment towards to the end that his brother Etienne "never mentioned Claude who was still in the south". Claude Lantier also has a role in the third novel of the series The Belly of Paris (1873, the third novel in publication order) where we learn that he is now an artist but it is not until The Masterpiece we learn his full story. In itself it is an interesting one, but it's made all the more interesting knowing its inspiration.

In The Masterpiece we see Claude in Paris with his friends Louis Dubuche and Pierre Sandoz: oddly enough it was in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung, 1899) that I learned the significance of the name "Sandoz":
In the novel of an artist's life, L'Œuvre, whose subject-matter must have suggested itself to my dream-thoughts, it is well known that the writer has portrayed himself and his own family happiness in certain episodes, appearing in this role under the name Sandoz. He probably reached this change of name along the following route. If we were to reverse Zola (as children like to do), we get Aloz. That was probably not sufficiently disguised for him; so he replaced the syllable Al, which also introduces the same Alexander [or perhaps Alexandrine, the name of Zola's wife], by the third syllable of that name, sand, and that is how Sandoz came about.
Paul Alexis reading to Émile Zola by Paul Cézanne (1869–70).
Sandoz was indeed Zola's fictional counterpart, whereas Claude was largely inspired by Zola's old friend Paul Cézanne (as well as Claude Monet and Édouard Manet). Claude is a struggling artist, like his close circle of friends comprising largely of artists and writers. In the beginning of the book he meets Christine, a woman who combines modesty and sensuality, and they develop a relationship as Christine agrees to model for him, and eventually they have a son, Jacques. Claude's intense struggle to achieve fame and produce great art is partly owning to the clash of his style with accepted tastes of the age, something his friends suffer from too. Claude's obsession however takes over his very self, his mania reflecting patterns of behaviour seen in other members of his family such as the Rougon Macquart matriarch Adélaïde Rougon (The Fortune of the Rougons and Doctor Pascal), as well as Marthe Mouret (The Conquest of Plassans), Serge Mouret (The Sin of Abbé Mouret), Angélique Rougon (The Dream), and others (the theme of heredity is crucial in understanding Zola's Rougon-Macquart novels). He gradually dehumanises and objectifies Christine seems hardly to care of her suffering, only his own when the Salon finds him a laughing stock at the works he has produced, and he neglects his son with terrible consequences.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Paul Cézanne cut all ties with his childhood friend, his final letter he ever sent to Zola saying,
Gardanne, April 4 1886 
Mon cher Émile, 
I’ve just received L’Œuvre, which you were kind enough to send me. I thank the author of the Rougon-Macquart for this kind token of remembrance, and ask him to allow me to wish him well, thinking of years gone by. 
Ever yours with the feeling of time passing, 
Paul Cézanne
Other artists of Zola's circle were disgruntled: Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Guillemet wrote to Zola, "In your last book [The Masterpiece] I see only sadness or impotence... God forbid that members of the little gang, as your mother used to call us, should recognise themselves in your characters. Mean-spirited, they are of little interest." Claude Monet wrote more kindly,
Though you made certain that none of your characters should resemble any one of us, I am still afraid that our enemies in the press and in the public at large may sieze this pretext to call Manet and the rest of us failures - which, I must believe, was not your intention.
Zola's novel of the Impressionists portrayed them as mad failures, it was a risk that cost him a great deal. Though I did enjoy The Masterpiece and I greatly admire this portrayal of a man descending into madness, I can't help but feel it wasn't quite worth it. For that, I am always very uncomfortable with this novel. Nevertheless, not quite masterpiece, it is an excellent work.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Édouard Manet (1863).
This painting is fictionalised in The Masterpiece as Claude Lantier's Plein Air.
Further Reading

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is one of my favourite all-time books. It was only the second Dickens I ever read (the first being Hard Times, which I read for my A' Levels) and I wanted to revisit it, and somehow it does feel like a perfect autumn read.

Great Expectations was Charles Dickens' thirteenth and penultimate completed novel, first serialised from  December 1860 to August 1861 in All the Year Round, then published in three volumes in October 1861. It begins on Christmas Eve (around 1812) with one of the most famous opening sentences in literature:
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.
Young Pip, an orphan living with his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery and her husband Joe Gargery, is here in a graveyard where he has a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict:
A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
Miss Havisham played by
Helena Bonham Carter (2012).
The convict is soon captured and life goes on, and not long after Pip is invited to the mansion of Miss Havisham, for me one of the most memorable of Dickens' great characters, and her adopted daughter Estella:
She [Miss Havisham] was dressed in rich materials,—satins, and lace, and silks,—all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on,—the other was on the table near her hand,—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a Prayer-Book all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass.
Pip, after months of visiting Miss Havisham, begins to fall in love with the cold, cruel-hearted Estella, but his childish hopes of marrying her and becoming a gentleman are dashed when Miss Havisham arranges an apprenticeship for him, giving Joe money to secure his future as a blacksmith. As time passes Pip, with the help of Biddy, who has come to care for Pip's sister, recently attacked and now a mute invalid, he begins to read and write, until one day Mr. Jaggers, a lawyer, arrives and gives him the stunning news that a wealthy benefactor given Pip a very large sum of money, and he must go to London to be a gentleman:
"I am instructed to communicate to him," said Mr. Jaggers, throwing his finger at me sideways, "that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of that property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman,—in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations."
The first chapter of Great Expectations
All the Year Round.
Pip's life changes radically as he builds his new life in London and readjusts to his great change in circumstances. We see him grow from a young boy to a man, and it is not an easy road. Dickens, on the whole, is a pleasure to read, humorous, and with vivid though at times caricature-like characters (which is not a criticism), but there are some very serious underlying themes and Dickens presents a very keen psychological portrait of a young man thrust into a new world. Pip had always been an ambitious boy, learning to read and wishing he could better himself, but when the chance arises it there are many times he really lets himself down: one memorable scene is his snobbish embarrassment at the kindly Joe Gargery when the latter visits him in London. Pip describes his reaction to the news Joe will be coming to London:
Not with pleasure, though I was bound to him by so many ties; no; with considerable disturbance, some mortification, and a keen sense of incongruity. If I could have kept him away by paying money, I certainly would have paid money. 
He later describes feeling "impatient of him and out of temper with him". It is a painful scene, and just one example of Great Expectations not being a jolly account of a rags to riches story. Whilst learning to become a gentleman, Pip must learn humility, and acceptance too as his luck at times appears to be a curse. It's a wonderful book, one of Dickens' finest and most popular then as now.

Further Reading


N.B. For those participating in the Pickwick Papers Read-Along - I haven't forgotten about the 8th instalment, there'll be a post up next week!

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare.

In 2014 Hannah Furness, arts correspondent for The Telegraph, reviewed a recent production of William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus:
Members of the audience have been fainting during the play’s most violent scenes, with others reporting feeling sick and warning of sleepless nights.
The play, a revival of Lucy Bailey’s 2006 production, is publicised with a warning that it is “grotesquely violent and daringly experimental”, with a “terrible cycle of mutilation, rape and murder”.... 
A spokesman for the Globe confirmed five members of the audience fainted in a particularly gory five-minute scene, adding front of house staff are "very well trained to look after people". [The Telegraph: Globe audience faints at 'grotesquely violent' Titus Andronicus]
This is of no surprise. Titus Andronicus, most likely William Shakespeare's first tragedy written between 1588 - 1593, one of his 'Roman Plays' (along with Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Julius Caesar, though Titus is fictional), is breathtakingly brutal, violent, shocking, disturbing... A true Elizabethan horror, Quentin Tarantino meets Tobe Hooper meets, well, William Shakespeare, and not forgetting Ovid. It really is quite something.

The plot is largely based on a story within Ovid's Metamorphoses: in Book VI Ovid tells the story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela, itself one of the more shocking moments in Metamorphoses. Tereus, a Thracian king, and Procne, daughter of the King of Athens, are married, however Tereus takes a fancy to Philomela, Procne's sister. He kidnaps and rapes her, then cuts out her tongue so that she cannot tell anyone. However she does manage to tell Procne by weaving a tapestry telling what had happened, and Procne, to get revenge, kills her son and tricks Tereus into eating him. When he finds out Tereus means to kill the sisters, however they transform into a nightingale and a swallow. Tereus himself transforms into a hoopoe.

Shakespeare, no doubt trying to make a name for himself in his early days, manages to take this horror to the next level. S. Clark Hulse sums Titus up rather neatly:
It has 14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 of cannibalism--an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines. [quoted from 'I will have revenge on them all' by Jane S. Carducci]
The play begins with the end of a ten year war of the Romans against the Goths (I assume this is the Gothic War  of 376 to 382). Titus Andronicus returns from the war with the bodies of his sons as well as his prisoners - Tamora, Queen of the Goths, her sons Alarbus, Demetrius and Chiron, and Aaron the Moor. In accordance with Roman beliefs, Titus sacrifices Alarbus, and Tamora vows to get her revenge for the killing of her son (reminding me somewhat of Clytaemnestra). Titus is then asked to be the new Roman Emperor, however the recently deceased emperor's sons Saturninus and Bassianus argue between them over who should be the successor. Titus, not wishing to be emperor, names Saturninus as the new ruler (leading to a violent argument). He is then engaged to Titus's daughter Lavinia (who was betrothed to Bassianus), however quickly chooses Tamora as his empress. With her new power she schemes with Aaron the Moor, her lover, to get back at Titus. She begins by having Demetrius and Chiron murder Bassianus and rape Lavina, and they do so, first raping her then cutting out her tongue and cutting off her hands (a departure from Ovid). Titus's sons Quintus and Martius are then framed for the murder of Bassianus by Aaron, and when Lucius, another of Titus's sons, attempts to save them he is banished from Rome. Aaron then convinces Titus that, in exchange for his hand, his three sons may return to him. After Titus cuts off his own hand Aaron returns the severed heads of the sons (along with that severed hand).

Lavina, however, is able to reveal the names of her attackers. Titus then kills Demetrius and Chiron, but, not content with that, he tricks Tamora, Saturninus, and their guests into eating them. He then kills Lavina, wishing an end to her "shame", then reveals to Tamora and Saturninus that they have eaten Tamora's sons. He then kills Tamora, Saturninus kills him, and by the end of it it's only really Lucius left standing. He becomes Rome's new emperor and buries Aaron alive.

In Shakespeare's day Titus (which is more complex and bloody that I've made it look) was one of his most popular plays though today it is not so highly regarded. T. S. Eliot described it as -
... one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all, a play in which the best passages would be too highly honoured by the signature of Peele.
Harold Bloom later wrote of it "I can concede no intrinsic value to Titus Andronicus". Truly, it's an awful play, very foul indeed, yet entertaining in a way one doesn't like to admit to, passing the time in the same way that Wes Craven's Scream or John Carpenter's Halloween might. Truth is, to me it's more like Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Jack Bender's Child's Play 3, both of which have been banned in the past. Texas Chainsaw Massacre goes too far, and so does Titus Andronicus. It's foul, but has so many classical allusions that basically saves it. It's not a stupid play, far from it, and its themes of bloody revenge remind me very much of the Ancient Greeks, especially Aeschylus. It is a great play on revenge, political order or lack of, and the barbaric acts of a so-called civilised race. Unforgetable in short, but one to approach with caution. I would read it again, but I would never dare to see it on stage!

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Need for General Knowledge by Samuel Johnson.

The Need for General Knowledge, also known as The Necessity of Literary Courage, is the 137th essay in Samuel Johnson's periodical The Rambler and was first published on 9th July 1751.

It begins,
That wonder is the effect of ignorance, has been often observed. The awful stillness of attention, with which the mind is overspread at the first view of an unexpected effect, ceases when we have leisure to disentangle complications and investigate causes. Wonder is a pause of reason, a sudden cessation of the mental progress, which lasts only while the understanding is fixed upon some single idea, and is at an end when it recovers force enough to divide the object into its parts, or mark the intermediate gradations from the first agent to the last consequence.
Johnson goes on to write that whilst wonder is the effect ignorance, conversely that ignorance is the effect of wonder is also true. Without the "labour of inquiry", one may end up merely contenting oneself "with the gaze of folly". With general knowledge, one is able to see the whole picture and not wonder at it, knowing how things come together to produce an entirety. Johnson first uses the analogy of machinery to illustrate this point, and then with intellect:
Long calculations or complex diagrams affright the timorous and unexperienced from a second view; but if we have skill sufficient to analyze them into simple principles, it will be discovered that our fear was groundless. Divide and conquer, is a principle equally just in science as in policy.
He goes on to cite the English philosopher John Locke, offering what I think is some excellent advice:
The chief art of learning, as Locke has observed, is to attempt but little at a time. The widest excursions of the mind are made by short flights frequently repeated; the most lofty fabricks of science are formed by the continued accumulation of single propositions.
Johnson adds,
To expect that the intricacies of science will be pierced by a careless glance, or the eminences of fame ascended without labour, is to expect a particular privilege, a power denied to the rest of mankind; but to suppose that the maze is inscrutable to diligence, or the heights inaccessible to perseverance, is to submit tamely to the tyranny of fancy, and enchain the mind in voluntary shackles.
Such learning of such skills is not limited to the universities, but may be found in the world, of which Johnson reminds the academic they are a part of -
He that can only be useful on great occasions, may die without exerting his abilities, and stand a helpless spectator of a thousand vexations which fret away happiness, and which nothing is required to remove but a little dexterity of conduct and readiness of expedients.... No degree of knowledge attainable by man is able to set him above the want of hourly assistance, or to extinguish the desire of fond endearments, and tender officiousness; and therefore, no one should think it unnecessary to learn those arts by which friendship may be gained. Kindness is preserved by a constant reciprocation of benefits or interchange of pleasures; but such benefits only can be bestowed, as others are capable to receive, and such pleasures only imparted, as others are qualified to enjoy.
Johnson concludes,
By this descent from the pinnacles of art no honour will be lost; for the condescensions of learning are always overpaid by gratitude. An elevated genius employed in little things, appears, to use the simile of Longinus, like the sun in his evening declination: he remits his splendour but retains his magnitude, and pleases more though he dazzles less.
This is a very short essay indeed, and can be read in its entirety here. It is brilliantly Johnson, succinct, strong, and confident, and now one of my favourites. I do love Johnson, and I don't know why he isn't read more these days. A great writer, and this is an excellent example of his work.

And that was my 42nd title for the Deal Me In Challenge. So hard to believe there's only ten titles left, and I'm astonished there's only ten weeks left before the end of 2016!

Next week, a play: Exiles by James Joyce.


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