Sunday, June 19, 2011

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls after spending time in Spain as a news correspondent in the Spanish Civil War. The main character, Robert Jordan, is a professor from Montana who volunteers in order to live out his political beliefs. It took me many chapters to get straight in my head who was fighting whom, in part because the Republicans form the political left and are supported by the USSR, which is opposite of what I, a 21st century North American, expect from Republicans. But the other reason-and this is critical-that it was difficult to differentiate between the two sides, is that Hemingway doesn't portray them as good vs. evil dualistic opposites. Neither side is right; neither side is wrong. At first they fight because they disagree politically, and eventually they continue to fight because they're already fighting. Whether taunting their enemies or facing their own deaths, characters from opposite sides act in similar ways. The Nationalists have better technology and more highly trained soldiers, but neither that nor the reader's knowledge that they eventually win the war makes them correct.  We all know the saying that history is written by the winners, but Hemingway writes as a third person omniscient narrator who conveys his story before history has chosen a winner. Even though Robert Jordan fights for the guerilla resistance, the reader never gets the sense that they are more ethical or correct, or that the Nationalists are in any way morally inferior. Even the most villainous character, Pablo, is morally ambiguous and performs a few noble actions which shine in contrast with his frequent betrayal and violence. This leaves the reader with the message that, in war, neither side is right.
     The entire novel takes place over the course of a few days, but by the end, Robert Jordan has encountered the transformative power of love and has discovered something to live for. I especially enjoyed Hemingway's decision to begin and end the novel with Robert Jordan lying on the pine needle floor of the forest. Despite his having come full circle positionally, at the novel's close Jordan feels his heart beating against the forest floor, while the novel's opening contains no such observation.  During these few short days, Robert Jordan has begun to truly live.

Wise old crone: Pilar
Judas: Pablo
Grudge match: Nationalists vs. Republicans
aka: Fascists vs. Communists
Object of Jordan's affection: Maria
Sense of place arises from: the forest, the soil, the earth
Best scene: El Sordo's last stand
Hemingway's odd pseudo-swearing: "I obscenity in your obscenity." 
There was a lot of: hiding, planning, waiting, discussing,
There should have been more: discussion of characters' thoughts and beliefs
Jordan's thoughts on the transience of life: What we do not have is time. Tomorrow we must fight. To me that is nothing. Bu for the Maria and me it means that we must live all of our life in this time."
This book makes you want to: appreciate each day you have, be aware of the futility of war, have a life that you want to keep living
This book makes you glad you don't have to: engage in guerilla warfare, cook rabbit stew all the time, endure military bureaucracy, trust someone who isn't trustworthy

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, was first published in 1967.  Its chronicling of Esther Greenwood's coming-of-age intentionally corresponds to Salinger's treatment of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. The novel's frank and detailed description of mental illness was unusual for its time, although it does have some similarities to more current novels such as Girl, Interrupted and The Virgin Suicides; however, their styles are less literary.  Plath's talent for poetry was already recognized at the time of The Bell Jar's writing, and it comes through in her construction of prose as well.

So, is Esther Greenwood suffocating under a bell jar solely because of her mental illness, or is it partly due to her experience as a woman in the man's world of the 1950s?  She resists learning the secretarial skill of shorthand because, "the trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men...I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters."  Her observation that the other girls at her hotel "were mostly girls my age with wealthy parents... and they were all going to posh secretarial schools like Katy Gibbs, where they had to wear hats and stockings and gloves to class, or they had just graduated from places like Katy Gibbs and were secretaries to executives and junior executives and simply hanging around in New York waiting to get married to some career man or other" shows society's expectations of women at that time, as well as Esther's opinion of those expectations. Esther doesn't want to get married and have children; she doesn't want to exist solely as a function of her husband, but her efforts to write and to establish an identity as a writer are repeatedly derailed by her mental illness.

Some reviews state that The Bell Jar is very dark and can be difficult to read because it takes the reader on a journey into deep depression, but even as a person who has experienced long term depression, I did not find that to be the case. Perhaps that is because reading a description that takes up a few chapters of a book is far less depressing than being stuck in the real deal for months on end. Personally, I found it interesting to peer into another mind and see its similarities to and differences from my own.

Finally, I have to point out that those girls working at the magazine in New York with their shoes and purses and dates, chasing after money and status, were at least as crazy as Esther and me.  Maybe crazier.

depressed writer: Esther Greenwood
creep she finally dumps: Buddy Willard
relationship with mother: complicated, unhappy
father: born in a manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia (I love that line), now deceased
there was a lot of: being thwarted, inability to be the agent in one's own life, discordant relationships, superficiality, depression
there should have been more of: I would have liked to see the novel continue on to follow Esther as she becomes a writer, but it would have been more difficult to make a proper ending, and an epilogue would have been anticlimactic.
this book makes you want to: discover or revisit your life's goals, endure painful experiences knowing they lead to growth, allow all meaninglessness to fall away
this book makes you glad you don't have to: marry Buddy Willard or somebody like him, endure '50s style treatments for mental illness, eat 50s style meat and/or seafood salads

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Grapes of Wrath

What can I say about a book that won its author the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature after first being banned and burned?  Steinbeck was labeled a socialist and writer of communist propaganda, but now The Grapes of Wrath is required reading in many high schools and universities.  Not only does he take the reader on a journey from "I" to "we", but he does so by winding through pages of vivid natural prose.

     In Steinbeck's depiction of the farmers' connection to the earth, their sense of place and the horror of their forced separation from their homes, his kinship with Dickens (Hard Times) and Hardy (Tess of the d'Urbervilles) is apparent. We hear echoes of Dickens' labor uprisings in "The line between hunger and anger is a thin line," and Hardy's ache of modernism is manifest in "The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses."  Steinbeck is a link in a chain that continues to the present in people like Indian environmental activist and proponent of alter-globalization Vandana Shiva.

Compare Steinbeck:
And at last the owner men came to the point. The tenant system won't work anymore. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don't like to do it. But the monster's sick. Something's happened to the monster...The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It's the monster. Men made it, but they can't control it...We can't depend on it. The bank – the monster – has to have profits all the time. It can't wait. It'll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can't stay one size

with Shiva:
The World Bank has historically used its clout to promote undemocratic processes ... They have pushed India to violate the laws of the tribals and the farmers, because once they settle on a certain line of investment, then no law that supports the democratic rights of the people can survive - if they finance a superhighway that highway gets built, if they finance a mining project, that project happens no matter who or what it destroys in the process.

main characters: the Joad family, the land
oddly enlightened former preacher: Jim Casey
slow but steady: land tortoise
growing heavy for the vintage in the souls of the people: grapes of wrath
there was a lot of: dust, heat, loss, separation, hunger, illness, violence, people taking advantage of others, loyalty to friends and family
there should have been more: bacon, coffee  (those poor people ate biscuits all the time)
this book makes you want to: make a family home that will last for generations, cultivate friendships and family relationships, see the wonder and beauty around you 
this book makes you glad you don't have to: drive a thousand miles without knowing what's at the end of your journey, suffer from malnutrition, owe your soul to the company store

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

Published in 1891, Tess is a nineteenth century novel that anticipates the twentieth century.  Thomas Hardy is known for his portrayal of the ache of modernism and his ambivalence toward the Industrial Revolution. Hardy's description of the grain thresher at Flintcomb-Ash as an ominous monstrosity which severs humans from their rightful place in nature foreshadows Steinbeck's discussion of tractors in The Grapes of Wrath. This reminds us that the ache of modernism was not unique to those residents of nineteenth century Britain and America who watched their traditional ways of life being steadily ground down by mechanical progress. The unfortunate Okies of the dustbowl 1930's saw their farms repossessed and consolidated by banks in the name of efficiency, a plague currently sweeping through India as farmers and residents lose property to government seizure for construction of paved highways, despite the fact that only 0.7% of Indians are car owners.
    Some Westerners are now reconsidering whether a highly industrialized lifestyle truly brings the greatest happiness, as can be seen by the American back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s and its current echo in the 2010s, as well as the huge trend in DIY projects as people learn now to do everything from making cheese to cutting hair, just like Grandma did.  For those interested in more extreme challenges, YouTube features many videos on how to fill your own cavities and do sutures (stitches). I don' t know if Thomas Hardy would have made his own soap, but he did create the idea of Wessex (southwest England) as a separate, cohesive geographical and political identity, and is thus indirectly responsible for the birth of the secessionist Wessex Regionalist Party.  So take heart, aspiriing writers: you too may someday spawn minor political parties which garner 62 votes in a national election...but first please take steps to assure your notoriety by writing something controversial enough to be sold in brown paper bags and burned by a bishop
     But I digress. Back to Tess. Tess herself appears in many ways as a personification of nature; lovely, fertile and easily exploited. Tess is connected with the earth, soil and vegetation; she spends her life on farms and often appears in conjunction with animals (throughout the course of the novel she rides horses, tends chickens, works on a dairy farm and encounters wounded pheasants). She participates in land-based and pagan-influenced events such as harvest and May Day celebrations. Tess is nature, and she is spoiled by the son of a nouveau-riche merchant, which brings Sorrow (the name of their child) into the world.
     Besides presenting anti-industrial themes, Hardy explores the shortcomings of societal mores, particularly the sexual double standard which identifies Tess as a fallen woman despite the fact that she was a victim of force, while her attacker is not judged and suffers no loss of reputation, let alone legal consequences, for his actions. In fact, he eventually becomes a pietistic preacher, securing a place for his soul in heaven, while Tess stoically muses that she will likely suffer an afterlife of condemnation.  Even Angel Clare, who is enough of a freethinker to reject the liturgical trappings of the state church, still spites Tess for her circumstances even though he himself had exhibited far looser moral behavior than she in the past. Unfortunately, Hardy's readers did not agree with his designation of Tess as a pure woman and begin to socially emancipate women. Rather, the 1890s saw more burnings of Hardy's books than of corsets.

A pure woman: Tess Durbeyfield
Vaudeville-esque villain: Alec d'Urberville
Free-thinking prude (oxymoron?): Angel Clare
Dour Calvinist preacher:  James Clare
19th century groupies: Izz, Retty and Marion
Setting which is practically a character: Wessex
Unappetizing vegetable: swedes (rutabagas)
There was a lot of: descriptions of nature and its wildness and pagan-ness, moustache-twirling villainry, pietist ethics, unfortunate circumstances for the heroine
There should have been more of: rational thinking by Angel
This book makes you want to: milk a cow, build connections within a small community, visit Stonehenge at sunrise
This book makes you glad you don't have to: live as a woman in the 19th century, walk 30 miles to your new job, dig up frozen rutabagas all winter

p.s. I read this book three weeks ago, and followed it with The Grapes of Wrath and The Bell Jar.  This week is For Whom the Bell Tolls. On deck: Bleak House, East of Eden and The Brothers Karamazov; not necessarily in that order.