Friday, April 29, 2011

Jane Eyre

Yes, this is another one of those books that it seemed everyone but me has read. Since it's around 450 pages, I wasn't sure if I could finish it in a week, but I managed to join the ranks of the initiated. (Note: I read this the week of April 10-16. Once again, I'm abreast of the reading, behind on the blog) I was familiar with the plot from listening to other people's discussions, but I had purposefully avoided watching any of the films or miniseries until after I had read the book.
     Jane Eyre was not unique in having attained a measure of familiarity in my mind; I was already familiar with the plots of most of the classic novels I have read thus far in 2011 for the reason mentioned above: these are well-known books and I've heard other people discussing them.  But each week upon choosing and reading a novel, I am surprised that the aforementioned discussions revolved solely around the major plot events or characters (Wasn't Mr. X creepy? I think Ms. Y should have chosen Suitor 2 instead of Suitor 1. There were too many minor characters.) without touching on the themes of the books. Silas Marner isn't just about the love of an old man for an orphan; it's about betrayal, redemption, suspicion, greed, alchemy and love (among other things). The Pioneers isn't only about a small village and its wild and wandering hero; it's about the tension between wilderness and civilization (social and psychological as well as geographical), justice, intercultural relations, land ownership and environmental conservation. Should I have been surprised that Jane Eyre is more than a gothic romance? And why do people seem to forget the themes of books but remember the plots?
     Jane Eyre is indeed partly autobiographical, with many of the characters and places paralleling those of Charlotte Brontë's own experience. The novel is known for its exploration of class and gender relations, but it also addresses religion, God, morality, forgiveness, and the relationship (or lack thereof) between those ideas. Themes of fear, the supernatural and madness place the novel firmly in the gothic or gothic romance category. Having read Wuthering Heights a few months ago, I can see similarities between Emily's and Charlotte's styles, themes and characters. I can also say with certainty that the next time Jane Eyre comes up in conversation, I will think not only of the memorable characters, but also of the themes exemplified through the characters' thoughts and actions.

Byronic anti-hero (mandatory in gothic novels): Edward Rochester
Hypocritical pietist: Mr. Brocklehurst
Victim of consumption (also mandatory in gothic novels): Helen Burns
Madwoman in the attic: Bertha Mason
The guy who wrecks the wedding: Richard Mason
Devout-in-all-the-wrong-ways Calvinist: St. John Rivers
Lower class governess who survives the odyssey into selfhood: Jane Eyre
There was a lot of: fire, allusions to burning, mysterious bumps in the night, miserable living conditions, secrets, people trying to guilt Jane into bending to their will
There should have been more: lucky breaks for Jane...but that wouldn't have made a very good bildungsroman, now would it?
This book makes you want to: give an orphan a better life, observe others more keenly, learn to draw, put on a couple sweaters and eat a big dinner, rethink society's definition of mental illness and its treatment of people in that category
This book makes you glad you don't have to: dodge books thrown by hateful cousins, interact only with a narrow stratum of society, travel long distances by coach, narrowly escape bigamy

Sunday, April 10, 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, was a German WWI veteran who wrote honestly about war, drawing on his own experience in the trenches.  He was conscripted at age 18 and spent six weeks on the Western Front before being wounded. Remarque documented with great clarity the details of WWI as the world had never yet seen or heard them. All Quiet on the Western Front was banned in Poland for being pro-German, and also (ironically?) in Nazi Germany for its negative portrayal of war. This novel realistically portrays the conditions under which soldiers lived and fought, circumstances which led to their personal, intellectual and emotional undoing. 

The prose is spare, constantly moving the action forward, allowing the characters no time for reflection, for reflection is a luxury not to be found when all one's energies must be concentrated on the task of staying alive, preserving a life from which all meaning has been stripped, from which all future has been wrenched, from which all hope has been snuffed, life itself finally becoming a means to an end, a welcome end in the silence of death. That's the ultimate message in the ironic title: there is no quiet to be found in the front lines of war, not as long as life persists. Paul Baumer finds no solace outside of death.

All Quiet on the Western Front can even be considered dystopian; after all, can you think of a more bleak and miserable existence than that of a soldier on the front lines of a brutal early 20th-century-style war, fighting for the losing side?  This was the complete opposite of utopia, and the story is even more powerful because it is essentially REAL. Many war novels glorify conflict (or at least winning), and hail as heroes those who risk their lives to save or help a fellow soldier, without asking why the "hero" was forced to come to another's aid in the first place. The entire war theater remains in the background, unquestioned, continuing to requisition young people from both sides and grind them against each other into oblivion. Not so for Remarque, who manages through narrative to question the very setting of the novel.

Main character: Paul Baumer
Loyal friends: die one by one
Jarring turning point: Returning home on leave, Paul realizes he'd rather be back at the Front than with his family. In giving up anything that he had to live for or come home to, he chooses his own fate.
Horrors: gas, amputation, tanks, barbed wire, rats, hand-to-hand combat
This book makes you glad you don't have to: be drafted
This book makes you want to: send copies of it to people who should read it  (I'll leave that open to your interpretation)
Quote: "Ah Mother, Mother! How can it be that I must part from you? Who else is there that has any claim on me but you? Here I sit and there you are lying; we have so much to say, and we shall never say it."

First Quarter in Review

We're three months into 2011, and here's the proof! From bottom to top, these are the novels I read and blogged about from January through March: Wuthering Heights, The Three Musketeers, The Scarlet Letter, Treasure Island, Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Silas Marner, Crime and Punishment, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Great Expectations, The Pioneers, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Mrs. Dalloway.

And, for those who are interested, I have acquired these books in three different ways: gift (do I need to explain that one?), thrift (bought it secondhand) or swift (the speed with which I forked over the cash-in person or online-when buying a brand new book).  From bottom to top: gift, thrift, thrift, swift, swift, gift, thrift, thrift, thrift, swift, gift, thrift, thrift. All of those works were already on my shelf when I began this blog on January 1, 2011, except the top two, which I picked up recently.

Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness novel follows Clarissa Dalloway through one day of her life, in which she prepares for and hosts a party. The reader enters into the thoughts of Clarissa and of several other characters, most of whom come in contact with Mrs. Dalloway at some point during the day, but a couple whom she never meets. Why does Woolf deem it necessary to show the reader not only Clarissa Dalloway's thoughts and actions, but also those of several others? She reveals her premise through Clarissa's musings as remembered by Peter Walsh: "She felt herself everywhere; not 'here, here, here,'...She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them, even the places."  In order to paint a complete portrait of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf must show the reader how Clarissa acts and sees herself, but the reader must also examine Clarissa's relationships with others.  The resulting novel is a composite view, a mosaic which, when viewed from a distance, reveals an intricate design.  The same can be said of any individual's life; upon closer examination a web of relationships reveals itself.

Throughout the novel, Clarissa is contrasted with Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked WWI hero who suffers from mental illness, and in many ways Septimus serves as Clarissa's alter-ego or double. The two never meet, but Septimus' eventual suicide is mentioned during Mrs. Dalloway's party. Woolf criticizes the treatment of mental illness and demonstrates how it can only be interpreted through cultural norms, thus combining her criticism of issues surrounding mental illness with her criticism of social structures. Both Virginia Woolf and her character Septimus struggled with bipolar disorder, and Woolf joins other writers such as Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen whose achievements are rooted in psychological distress.

In the end, the reader is left to decide whether Mrs. Dalloway is a shallow socialite, an everywoman trapped by social structures and gender expectations, or perhaps an alternative of mosaic-like complexity.

Main character: Clarissa Dalloway
Other characters: are windows through which to view Clarissa
There was a lot of: walking, thinking, remembering
There should have been more of: I could wish for more dialogue, but it would jar the reader out of the characters' thoughts, so Woolf was right to leave it out
This book makes you want to: read the minds of twenty people who have a certain acquaintance in common, in order to build a more complete picture of that person.
This book makes you glad you don't have to: hear the unending stream of another's thoughts. Woolf was right to confine the novel to a single day.

(Final note: I read this book the week of March 27-April 2. I am a week behind on my blog but am keeping up with my reading.)

Monday, April 4, 2011

One Hundred Years of Solitude

"Our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."  -Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Don't worry if you had to read that quote a couple of times; you're just preparing yourself for the experience of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.  The translation is well done and not difficult to follow, but the plot is very circular and at times you will have the feeling that you are re-reading a paragraph or page, only to realize that your deja vu stems from a very similar section earlier in the book. The translation is smooth and easy to read, but the storyline repeats itself and sometimes you feel like you have already read a certain section, but then realize that you are actually remembering a previous section that was strangely similar. That is one of Garcia Marquez' points: even if history doesn't repeat itself exactly, it is certainly a series of variations on a theme. I am not extremely familiar with Colombian history, so I had to peruse a couple articles online in order to understand how Garcia Marquez structures the history of the fictional town of Macondo as a metaphor for the history of Colombia.

The story follows the birth, development and death of the town of Macondo as seen through the eyes of seven generations of the Buendia family.  Purposefully repetitive plot devices include members of each generation having the same names as their various ancestors, as well as the same personality tendencies and similar character flaws. There is also a slightly disturbing (to me) recurrence of familial marriage and romantic relationships: cousins marry cousins, nephews marry aunts, adopted brother marries adopted sister. Garcia Marquez did not go so far as to pair a parent with a child or two siblings with each other (not to my recollection anyway...there were seven generations and only about six different first names, so it was difficult to keep them straight. I should have sketched a family tree at the beginning and added to it throughout the novel. The Wikipedia article also includes a family tree that I could have used as a cheat sheet.)  The Buendia family represents the Colombian aristocracy and embodies many of its distasteful elements,  which of course would include aristocratic people only marrying within their socially approved group. Perhaps Garcia Marquez takes this cliquish habit to an extreme in order to make a point. Selfishness and solitude (not solitude in general, which is necessary for human development, but in the sense of refusing to engage in any real relationships) are other vices that the Buendia family must reckon with. Interpreting the author's social and historical commentary isn't always easy, and this is one of those books that one could read five times and come away with a different understanding of it each time.

What is magical realism and how does One Hundred Years exemplify it? Butterflies follow a man everywhere. It rains for four years without stopping. A patriarch is tied to a tree in the courtyard after going insane. An orphan carries the bones of her parents in a bag. When milk in a cooking pot turns to worms, it signifies a man's death. A dead man smells of gunpowder, even after being enclosed in a concrete vault. Women live to be 150 years old, maybe more (they tend to lose track after that). Songbirds won't stay in the town; they all migrate elsewhere. Military men massacre a crowd of hundreds and send the bodies out of town on a train, but nobody remembers it afterwards.  This is different from fantasy in that a realistic setting and plot are laid out, and then magical elements are inserted in a matter-of-fact way, with no attempt to explain or justify them.  Just as an author feels no need to justify the idea that a field can be planted in May and harvested in August (it's part of the natural order, everyone accepts this as fact), the author of magical realism presents fantastic elements as though they are part of the normal schema.  In fantasy, the author will explain strange happenings as being the result of spells, other dimensions, communication with a parallel world, etc. In magical realism, it's just there. It's obvious. This style makes for a dreamlike, even psychedelic, reading experience.  It seems that this style is most strongly associated with Latin American authors, and there are a plethora of articles written on why that is (or isn't) so.  Feel free to google for your further reading enjoyment.

Endlessly recyclable first names: Jose Arcadio, Aureliano, Remedios, Amaranta, Ursula
Endlessly recyclable themes: selfishness, insanity, illness, obsession, wandering, jealousy, intra-family marriage
There was a lot of: see above, then multiply times seven
There should have been more of: Garcia Marquez thoroughly explored his themes. However, I prefer a little more dialogue and a little less stream of consciousness.
This book makes you want to: hire an exterminator, clean the house, break your family's unhealthy tendencies, hide money in humorous locations, forgive and forget, build real relationships
This book makes you glad you don't have to: marry your cousin, work for a banana company, participate in a revolution (I hope you don't, anyway), relive the mistakes of past generations