Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Classics Club: about heroes...

For April, the Classic Club came up with a question that requires some thinking before answering: 

“Who is hands-down the best literary hero, in your opinion? Likewise, who is the best heroine?”

I had to think about this not because I didn't know which character I would look up to, but because it was not obvious why I feel that way.

Anne Brontë
My heroine is Helen Graham from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë.   Heralded by many as the first feminist work of literature, The Tenant has many elements that shocked society at the time and introduced "realism" into a world that was thought pampered and harmless until then.

Helen is a woman on the run - from her husband but also from society at large.  She needs to take care of her son, so that he does not end up like his father.  She turns her back on her house, her family and her social circle and flees somewhere where she can, once again, be the mistress of herself.  She will support herself and her son with her paintings and will remain reclusive, on the lookout for "well-wishers".

Helen of course is not a proper heroine.  On the contrary, I really regard her as an anti-heroine.  She has no grand vision when she undertakes all these major steps:  she is just a character of great spirit, and once she becomes disillusioned with her marriage, she revalues her autonomy, and she sees the vice all around her and she sees how her son is slowly sinking in it.  While she knows she's breaking English Law, she just wants to escape all this.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996)
Helen caused quite a stir  when she was first published.  Women until that time (ok, for a bit longer) were the property of their husbands and through the domestic bliss that everyone preached, they would very often find themselves "slaves" in their own houses.  Men had all the advantages they wanted, while women had no say in any decision made.  For the first time did a major character shine the light on what was really happening in life; had the courage to talk about the immorality witnessed in society, under pretence of virtue.  Helen was the first to take control of her life, and live to be happy again.  She has such passionate character, the only way to make her point properly made is to shut the door against her husband! (oh dear...)

Another trait I liked about her is that, despite the turbulence and the blows she receives from everywhere, she retains her humanity.  Even when her husband, who has caused all the pain she's experiencing is lying in his deathbed, she feels it's her moral duty to return to their house look after him and make him realise his sins. (Not to worry:  Arthur is so delusional, he actually wishes Helen could "come with him" and pray for his salvation...)

What I pick up from her character:  the strength to say no and not accept what I don't want -and to move on.  It's more than "when life throws you lemons, make lemonade" - I don't want the lemons in the first place.  However overwhelming a situation before me is, I have to find the strength to move ahead, and bypass the obstacles.  Should I collapse in the process,  I have to find the courage to get up, dust myself off and keep on walking...

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Zoladdiction: The Kill (La Curée)

This is the book I should have started my adventures with Zola.  It's just perfect!  The language, the oh-so-slight cynicism, the neutral description of not-so-neutral circumstances...

I cannot say enough about this book, and I don't intend to.  The superficiality of the nouveau-riches is a well-documented subject, but I have to give the laurels to Zola.  Especially when I read that he himself was penniless when writing this novel, and to get the information he went around the stately houses to witness the pointlessness of what he saw...

In modern terms, this would have been a soap-opera, but with a certain niveau... We are introduced to the family of Eugene Rougon's younger brother, Aristide - and here's the first twist already:  in order not to embarrass Eugene's political ambitions, Aristide is to change his family name to Saccard.  I just can't believe my eyes when I read this.  Our society then is transparent in comparison to this!  (This for some reason brings back to mind the story about Coco Chanel, who "invented" her origins when she became famous...).

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Recipe: meat with orzo in the oven ("giouvetsi")

When with friends for dinner, I always make it a point to cook something a.  in the oven, that can be reheated while I entertain my guests and b.  coming from a recipe that can easily be doubled, so as to feed crowds.  I cannot go wrong with this version of  the Greek "giouvetsi", which should be cooked in a special terracotta dish:  in this quantity, however, I doubt I could find any available...

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Zoladdiction: The Fortune of the Rougons - maybe...

I've never read Zola, and given the praise in Delaisse's posts, and the Zoladdiction organised with Fanda, I felt I had to make this acquaintance -  at last.  The problem:  where to start?

One starts from the beginning - or so I thought:  Off I went reading The Fortune of the Rougons (La fortune des Rougon), the first of Les Rougon-Macquart saga.

(picked up shamelessly from Delaisse's blog)

I've stopped about quarter-way and I intend to pick this book up again in the near future.  The wording is sublime - French at its best, with the descriptions detailing minutely the situations, the atmosphere, the background information we will need for the remaining volumes.  But after a 3-day period, I had witnessed nothing.  I'm still in the background frame and I begin to feel there will be no central plot...  I know that I should persist and  complete my challenge but I've just bought two other Zolas - La Curée and Nana.  And I want to give those a try, just to make certain that I'll come to discover Zola's genius soon enough.

So, I'm putting the Fortune aside for the time being, and I'm ready to be entertained by La Curée...

Monday, 15 April 2013

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

After a first disappointment with the James Bond novels, I knew I had to give this franchise another try.  A friend gave me Casino Royale to read, together with a very encouraging review.

Casino Royale is the first James Bond, written by Fleming over a period of two months in his favourite hideout in Jamaica.  It is primarily inspired by Fleming's personal experience in the diplomatic circles -- and I would say this is what distinguishes this from other spy-novels.

It is a beautifully written book.  The plot is nothing extraordinary, but the writing elevates the book to the great spy novel level, worthy of the name of Bond.  Already in the beginning I enjoyed Bond's description:

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Classics Club: As you like it, by W. Shakespeare

For this month's Let's read Plays, I read As You Like it by Shakespeare. 

A play that was intended as a comedy and which I, of course, did not get -at all.  I think I'll stick to Shakespeare's tragedies from now on...

A complex set of characters parade in this play, all with the same background story:

- siblings ostracising each other for the throne:  Oliver and Orlando, Duke Senior and Duke Frederik

- people assuming different identities: Rosalind a.k.a. Ganymede, Celia a.k.a. Aliena

- people desperate in unfulfilled love 

We find ourselves in France.  The beginning is rather sad, as two brothers, Oliver and Orlando, cannot stand each other, with Oliver, the first son and heir to everything, ostracising Orlando from all aspects of life.  Yet, Oliver cannot succeed:

I know not why, (my soul) hates nothing more than he.  Yet he's gentle; never schooled and yet learned; full of noble device; of all sorts enchantingly beloved/ and indeed, so much in the heart of the world, and espacially of my own people, who best know him, that I am altogether misprised

The dynamics between the two brothers come in stark contrast with two cousins, Rosalind and Celia, who are really like sisters.  A small point here that I didn't feel like they were lovers, something I read in several posts - but maybe that's me... Their fathers, the two brothers. are however exactly like Oliver and Orlando and even worse:  in this case, Duke Frederik has actualy driven Duke Senior away.

There are a lot of pastoral elements in this play that appeal to audiences in the past as well as today.  Unfortunately, not to me.  I would describe the play as a light romantic one, certainly not a comedy and a little bit on the boring side...

There is no elaboration of any of the characters and the Deus ex maquina seems to be the only way out of a difficult situation.  In a sudden whirlwind of events we will find ouselves with two girls who pretend to be boys, and one of these boys will pretend to be a girl... Too much confusion, with plenty of allegories for a good life in the woods, for true love, for superficiality

'Tis true, for those that (Nature) makes fair she scarce makes honest, and those that she makes honest she makes very ill-favouredly
The end is predictable, but even so:  the solution found is beyond plausibility - Frederik repends his sins and reconciles with his brother, all couples are straightened out and an epilogue applies the play to both men and women in the audience.

I just couldn't see Shakespeare's maestry in this play.  There was no wit that could showcase his genious.  It was an average work, a tried-and-tested little play, sure to please the audience.

Not bad, but then again not good.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The Classics Club: Xingu, by E. Wharton

When one is under a sick spell, one should stick to simple, short and entertaining stories:  when I found myself recently under a heavy bout of tracheitis I turned to Xingu, by E. Wharton to ease my pain.  It delivered:  a cynical but very, very entertaining little story, perfect for my predicament...

Here I have to admit I was slightly apprehensive:  I had started on the wrong foot with Wharton, and I knew this would not be an easy task.  I should not have feared:  I now know that Wharton is more than  one piece of literature.

What is Xingu?  well, we get to learn that at the very end of the story and this serves only to highlight the main point:  the superficiality of "good society"... Because the story is about a book club, where only the "chosen" ones get to belong to, where only the "wise" get to showcase their books and where those who belong to neither cast get to show their wealth.  It rang some bells with me, as I belong to two book clubs - and while there is nothing remotely similar to Xingu, I could recognise some instances I may have encountered myself (I'll leave it to this...)

The ladies of the book club are eagerly waiting the arrival of a famous author, to discuss her latest book.  We are given the characteristics (i.e. the vulnerable attributes) of everyone in the  group and we get an insight into their habits:  we get to know Mrs. Plinth, the distinguished member, in particular.  Looking down on everyone, she is the epitome of the "nerd-type" party of a literary group, a person who sees as their ultimate goal to make a name for a well-educated, industrious and valuable member (or a book club or society in general).   She declares:

"Amusement is hardly what I look for in my choice of books"

No, of course not.  One has to toil, or at least to make others thinks so.  Because when in another instance a question is posed, our dear Mrs. Plinth is revealed to utterly dislike

"...  being asked her opinion of a book.  Books were written to read; if one read them what more could be expected?  To be questioned in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her as great an outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom House"

Now, I have met such people, I have to admit.  And I have seen this struggle to pretend to being something more.   Something greater.  Something higher.  And it just won't work.  There will always be a black sheep (hello, Mrs. Roby), who will basically form part of this group by accident.  But she will never strive to prove her worth against her fellow members. She is content with what she is and does, and will not hesitate to show how well she knows the others by playing a nice little farce.  A farce so well executed, she will even fool the distinguished guest.  The guest who will recognise Mrs. Roby's genius and will leave the whole group to further engage in a discussion with her.  Double the trouble then:  the group agree it's time they let Mrs. Roby go.  They shan't be made to look like fools by someone who is not deemed suitable to "participate in the mental gymnastics of the club".

And so, order is back:  everyone in the group will have their distinct role to play, and there will be no more disruptions by "outsiders".  Yes, it's all coming back to me, I knew I recognised this story...

Xingu is available for free on Project Gutenberg.  This post will also be published on Project Gutenberg Project.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Classics Club: The Thirty-nine Steps, by J. Buchan

John Buchan is a well-known Scottish author who wrote The Thirty-nine Steps while recuperating from an illness.  The title of the book came from a flight of 39 steps found in this nursing home...

It is considered one of the first "shockers" - combining personal and political drama -, but I actually watched Hitchcock's film adaptation by the same name first:  though not one of his best and memorable, it was adventurous enough to let 1.5 hours pass by.   As I came across the book, though, I wanted to see whether the plot there would be "flat" compared to the film, or whether it would be just as thrilling...

Monday, 1 April 2013

Roast Beef, medium - by E. Ferber

Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber is simply a great read:  the compelling adventures of an independent woman, out to earn the respect she deserves, single-handedly winning over her male colleagues, while raising  her son on her own.  Simple, little story?  Absolutely not - this is 1913...

While this book could well make the case for being a feminist one, I did not feel this:  there is still a fine line between emerging feminist thoughts and nostalgia for the traditional roles in society expressed by Emma McChesney, our heroine.  I would just say it's a novel way ahead of its time:  Her "adventures" could well have taken place in modern times, which made me wonder:  if these descriptions apply today and the problems are still in existence today, what was the situation back in 1913?  How could Emma, any Emma, survive, when even today women can still fail facing such challenges?



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