Tag Archives: Classic

Dickens in December (actually it’s January)

great_Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I read the Amazon kindle edition.

There is Pip, the orphan, “brought up by hand” by his sister and Joe the blacksmith, visiting his parent’s graves  on Christmas eve.  There is the young man in the graveyard. There is a young boy making a choice, the anguish and guilt that go with that choice, and the consequences that occur from it.

Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young, under terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.

Pip makes his choice, and it changes his history.  Later there is Estella and, of course, Miss Havirsham, and the fight with the “pale faced boy” in the over-grown garden.  (I cannot wait to see Helena Bonham Carter in that wedding dress).

Great Expectations is a coming of age story that covers the themes of family, class, greed and ambition, touching on human needs and human failing.  It is a story of friendship and of love.  Interestingly, the original ending was different then the one most of us are familiar with.  Charles Dickens changed it because he was told it was “too sad”.

Reading Great Expectations at the time it was first published must have been thrilling and exciting.  The serialization left cliff-hangers,  characterization and description brought the people, class differences and places to life.   Dickens, like Shakespeare, helped to fuel the idea of popular culture, entertainment made available to the masses along with the elite.  Then there is the question of the literacy of the time, how many people of that era could read?

A great book to reread, Great Expectations also has me thinking about the history of popular literature and class.  The next Dickens on my classics TBR list is Bleak House, a book I have not read.

 

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Goblin Market – A Classic Poem for R.I.P. VII

The theme for this month’s Poetry  Project is Classic Poetry, not my favorite, as I sometimes find it too dense and convoluted (this probably has something to do with a lousy high school English lit teacher).  Then I thought about R.I. P VII and got all excited.  There are several options, Poe being the most obvious,  then I remembered a poem I heard someone read it aloud at an All Hallow’s Eve party a long time ago.

Goblin Market
by Christina Rossetti

Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—

Goblin Market is  Rossetti’s  most familiar poem.  It tells a story that is similar to many folk and fairy tales.  Someone comes in contact with fabulous beings or crosses into a mythical land and, because they eat  food, or dance, or take a lover,  fall ill or are kidnapped.  Two sisters spy on Goblin merchants, who gather each evening and call out the wonderful qualities of their produce.  Both sisters  know that buying and eating this fruit will have deadly consequences but Laura is so enticed that she can’t help herself.

Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat’s face,
One whisk’d a tail,
One tramp’d at a rat’s pace,
One crawl’d like a snail,
One like a wombat prowl’d obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
She heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.

Of course, we all know where curiosity leads.  It falls on Lizzie to save Laura and she does so by enduring great suffering.  The images in this poem are very rich, very sensual, some are intensely sexual, but I won’t give any more away.

Rossetti used irregular meter and an uneven rhyme pattern in Goblin Market, building excitement and dread.  Critics tend to see this poem as an expression of growing feminism against Victorian social norms and of Rossetti’s possible sexual orientation.  There are elements of temptation, seduction,  and even the “fall from paradise”.  I prefer to see it as very dark enchantment, and the lengths to which one sister will go to save another.  You can read the entire poem here, thanks to The Poetry Foundation.  Please come back and tell me your thoughts.  And join the Poetry Project  in October for Halloween Poetry!

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The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

HarperCollins, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction.

A beautiful retelling of the events leading up to the The Iliad and the first ten years of the Trojan War, told from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’ close companion.  This is a tale of love and of the atrocities of war, just as relevant today as in Homer’s time.

Madeline Miller’s first novel has me wanting to reread both The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Maybe I’ll make that a reading goal for this coming fall and winter.  Another book I loved that is written from the point of view of a secondary classical character is Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin.

     Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions.  “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.”

“But what if he is your friend?” Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave.  “Or your brother?  Should you treat him the same as a stranger?”

“You ask a question that philosophers argue over,” Chiron had said.  “He is worth more to you, perhaps.  But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother.  So which life is more important?”

We had been silent.  We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us.  Now that we are twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.  From pages 298/299.

A fine novel that will be one of my top ten books for 2012.

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War and Peace Update #1

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Vintage Classic, New York, 2008

I own this one.  I am reading this for Winstonsdad’s read-along and the Books On The Nightstand/Facebook read-along.

The following is from the introduction to this translation of War and Peace, written by Richard Pevear.  This is a quote from an article entitled “A Few Words Apropos of the book War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy and published in the magazine Russian Archive in 1868.

It is not a novel, still less and epic poem, still less a historical chronicle.  War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.  Such a declaration of the author’s disregard of the conventional forms of artistic prose works might seem presumptuous, if it were premeditated and if it had no previous examples.  The history of Russian literature since Puskin’s time not only provides many examples of such departures from European forms, but does not offer even one example to the contrary.  From Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House, there is not a single work of artistic prose of the modern period of Russian literature, rising slightly above mediocrity, that would fit perfectly into the form of the novel, the epic, or the story.

I have finished Volume 1 and found it to be quite addictive.  I also found Tolstoy’s skill at observing the life around him and expressing those observations quite profound.  But we know that, that is why his novels, particularly War and Peace are considered classics.

Volume 1, Part One introduces the reader to the main characters and to the social scene in St. Petersburg and Moscow.  Tolstoy takes great delight in describing these parties and social gatherings and all the maneuverings among the wealthy and well-connected.  He also begins to explore the main characters of  War and Peace.

At moments of departure and change of life, people capable of reflecting on their actions usually get into a serious state of mind.  At these moments they usually take stock of the past and make plans for the future.  Prince Andrei’s face was very thoughtful and tender.  His hands behind his back, he paced rapidly up and down the room, looking straight ahead and thoughtfully shaking his head.  Was he afraid of going to war, was he sad to be leaving his wife — perhaps both, but, evidently not wishing to be seen in such a state, when he heard footsteps in the hallway, he quickly unclasped his hands, stopped by the table, pretending to tie the tapes on the strongbox cover, and assumed his usual calm and impenetrable expression.  They were the heavy footsteps of Princess Marya.  From page 105.

In Volume One, Parts Two and Three take place in the fall of 1805.  Prince Andrei, Nikolai Rostov and several others  join their regiments in Austria.  The Russian army and their allies hope to turn back Napoleon and his army.  The French have been cutting a deadly swath across Europe.  It begins to be clear that, even with the strength and willingness of the Russian and German troops, Napoleon has the upper hand.

Zherkov,  with his shoulders raised high,  a familiar figure to the Pavlogradsky hussars (he had recently quit their regiment), rode up to the regimental commander.  After his expulsion from the head staff, Zherkov had not remained with the regiment, saying he was no fool to drudge away at the front when he could get more decorations while doing nothing on the staff, and he managed to set himself up as an orderly officer for Prince Bagration.  He can to his former superior with and order from the commander of the rear guard.
“Colonel,”  he said with his gloomy earnestness, addressing Rostov’s enemy and looking around at his comrades, “there is an order to stop and set fire to the bridge.”
“An order of who?” the colonel asked sullenly.
“I don’t know of who, Colonel,” the cornet replied earnestly, ” only the prince told me: `Go and tell the colonel that the hussars must turn back quickly and set fire to the bridge.’ ”
After Zherkov, an officer of the suite rode up to the hussar colonel with the same order.  After the officer of the suite, on a Cossack horse that was barely able to gallop under him, fat Nesvitsky rode up.
“What is this, Colonel?” he cried while still riding. “I told you to set fire to the bridge, and somebody  got it wrong; everybody’s going crazy there, they can’t figure it out.”  From page 145.

This would all be very funny, if it didn’t mean that Napoleon’s army would appear with artillery, blow up parts of the bridge, kill and wound many Russians soldier and eventually cross the river.  Tolstoy makes it clear from the beginning that there was a level of ineptitude within the Russian high command and command structure that was deadly.

The novel has surprised me.  I believed it would be dense and a struggle to read, but find that the hardest part is keeping all the characters straight.  The Pevear-Volokhonsky translation has a character list, french translations and many footnotes.  It is a highly entertaining and enjoyable read.  I am in awe of Tolstoy’s abilities as a researcher and an author, at his skill with discription and his observations of people, but mostly at his willingness to take risks and write exactly what he wanted to write.

It is a shame that the label “classic” keeps people from reading War and Peace.  There was an interesting discussion on the Books On The Nightstand podcast about this idea.  If you are curious, have a listen.

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Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell


Who Has Seen The Wind by W.O. Mitchell

McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronto, 1998

I own this one.

I learned about this classic Canadian novel that by reading other Canadian novels.

First published in 1947, this is a story about a boy growing up in a small town on the Saskatchewan prairie during the 1930’s.

Brian O’Connal lives on the edge of the prairie with his Mother, Father, Grandmother and younger brother.  He is surrounded by odd characters, his Uncle Sean, Old Ben and Saint Sammy who lives in a piano crate.

When we first meet Brian he is angry over all the attention his sick baby brother is getting. His mother and father ignore him, his Grandmother shoos him out of the house.  Brian’s thoughts and feelings, expressed in internal dialogue,  are so like a four-year old child’s.  This is one of Mitchell’s gifts.  He had an ability to let us into his characters thoughts.

As Brian grows up, sharing the town with his friends and his dog Jappy, we meet many of the people who live around him. He learns about life, faith and human failings from his experiences and the adults he interacts with.  He is always drawn to the Prairie and to a wild boy who lives there.

And all about him was the wind now, a pervasive sighing trough great emptiness, as though the prairie itself was breathing in long gusting breaths, unhampered by the buildings of town, warm and living against his face and in his hair.  From page 13.

But it is not just Brian that we follow in this novel.  We follow other characters, particularly the teachers and principle of the local school.  Mitchell give us this small community with all its strengths and weaknesses.  Small town prejudice and hypocrisy, the class system of  the ” right” and “wrong” side of the tracks, the devastation of the dust bowl years.  All placed in a landscape that holds it all together as if in a golden bowl.

W.O. Michell paints this place with words.  The language is pure and lyrical.  I kept seeing each scene as if I were standing in the middle of  the prairie.  It is magnificent, every color, every sound, every scent.  I can understand why Canadians love this novel, how it has become a classic.  It is a part of that vast and beautiful country.

The following poem by Christina Rossetti inspired the title of this book.  Several boys actually quote a few lines in the text.

Who Has Seen the Wind?

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

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The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

I am pleased to be part of the Spotlight Series, which is focusing this week on the NYRB Classics.  NYRB calls their classics  “an innovative list of fiction and nonfiction for discerning and adventurous readers.”  They also publish a Children’s Collection , which is how I first discovered them.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal.

NYRB Classics, New York, 2008

I own this one.

The Summer Book is made up of twenty-two brief chapters.  The story of the relationship between six-year-old Sophia and her Grandmother, spending summers together on a small island in the Gulf of Finland, is told in beautifully simple language.

Sophia is just discovering her independence, her Grandmother is realistic, wise and somewhat cranky.  Together they walk all over the small island, building an easy friendship, making boats out of  tree bark, discovering what has washed up onto the shore.  Grandmother carves animals out of driftwood and puts them in the magic forest. They build their own Venice.  In orbit around them, Sophia’s father works and putters, not speaking much, taking in the death of his wife, Sophia’s Mother.

One morning Sophia found a perfect skull of some large animal — found it all by herself.  Grandmother thought it was a seal skull.  They hid it in a basket and waited all day until evening.  The sunset was in different shades of red, and the light flooded over the whole island so that even the ground turned scarlet.  They put the skull in the magic forest, and it lay on the ground and gleamed with all it’s teeth.
Suddenly Sophia began to scream.
“Take it away!” she screamed “Take it away!”
Grandmother picked her up and held her but thought it best not to say anything. After a while Sophia went to sleep.  Grandmother sat and thought about building a matchbox house on the sandy beach by the blueberry patch behind the house.  They would build a dock and make windows out of tinfoil.  From page 16.

Jansson’s writing is deceptive, it is clear and precise, but contains a shimmering quality that I find ineffable.  The story is about loss, but a loss that is never spoken of, only felt in the depth of the language.   Jansson knew her characters  and expressed their deepest thoughts.

That’s strange, Grandmother thought.  I can’t describe things any more.  I can’t find the words, or maybe it’s just that I’m not trying hard enough.  It was such a long time ago.  No one here was even born.  And unless I tell it because I want to, it’s as if it never happened:  it gets closed off and then it’s lost.  She sat up and said, “Some days I can’t remember very well.  But sometime you ought to try and sleep in a tent all night.

* * * * * * * * * *

The nights were already long, and when Sophia woke up there was nothing to see but the dark.  A bird flew over the ravine and screamed, first close by and then once more far away.  It was a windless night, yet she could hear the sea.  There was no one in the ravine, yet the gravel crunched as if under someone’s foot.  The sheltering tent let in the night, as close as if she had been sleeping on the open ground.  More birds cried in various ways, and the darkness was filled with strange movements and sound, the kind no one can trace or account for.  The kind no one can even describe.
“Oh, dear God” Sophia thought “Don’t let me get scared!”  And immediately she started thinking about what it would be like to get scared.  “Oh, dear God, don’t let them make fun of me if I do get scared!”

From pages 80/82.

Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins, has written a wonder book for adults and young adults.  The Summer Book is beautifully translated, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys a quiet, well-told story.  I appreciate NYRB Classics for publishing it,, and now that I have seen their full list of titles I have created quite a long wish list for myself!

For more great NYRB Classic reviews visit the Spotlight Series blog!

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Penguin Classics, New York, 1996

Borrowed from the library for the 1930s Mini Challenge.

The title of this novel has been floating around in my head for a while but I’m not sure where I first heard of it.  Just one of those English novels I should get around to reading.  I am very glad I did.

Flora Poste, orphaned at twenty, well-educated and left with little inheritance, decides to move in with unknown relatives.  These relatives, the Starkadders, live at Cold Comfort Farm, the name itself calling up images of somewhere dark and dreary.  The Starkadders suffer all sorts of upsets, grief, depression, over active imaginations and budding sexuality.  Flora, ever the modern woman, decides to bring order into this chaos.

If she intended to tidy up life at Cold Comfort Farm, she would find herself opposed at every turn by the influence of Aunt Ada.  Flora was sure this would be so.  Persons of Aunt Ada’s temperament where not fond of a tidy life.  Storms were what they liked: plenty of rows, and doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and parting for ever, and misunderstandings, and interferings, and spyings, and above all, managing and intriguing.  Oh, they did enjoy themselves!  They were the sort that went tramping all over your pet stamp collection, or what ever it was, and then spent the rest of their lives atoning for it.  But you would rather have your stamp collection.  From page 57.

Flora, bright, smart and very direct, observes the Starkadders and manages, seemingly effortlessly, through gentle manipulation, to get them all pointed in the direction of futures filled with happiness and light.  She also find herself dealing with an unwanted suitor.

It can not be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug.  To begin with he was not really interested in anything but sex.  This was understandable, if deplorable.  After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness.  The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which were not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out, and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all,  Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested.  She was therefore obliged  merely to be polite, and Mr Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and though it was due to inhibitions.  He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited.  Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.

Gibbons is poking fun at a long line of British literary dramas from Wuthering Heights to the works of Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence.  Her introduction takes great pains to explain her concern with Literature and she even marks what she considers her “finer passages with one, two or three stars”.  Filled with dramatic and over-wrought language,  all perfectly tongue in cheek, Cold Comfort Farm great fun to read.

This is the only book by Gibbons that my library carries, so I am on a search for more of her novels and short stories.

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Filed under 1930s Mini Challenge, Classic, New Authors 2010, Review