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[823] Middlemarch – George Eliot


“It is troublesome to talk to such women. They are always wanting reasons, yet they are too ignorant to understand the merits of any question, and usually fall back on their moral sense to settle things after their own taste.” (Ch.10, 119)

Middlemarch is a slow, unfolding story of the lives and loves of one Midlands town as well as a reflection on the larger political issues and changes in mid-19th century England. The enormous array of characters might at first be overwhelming, but Eliot’s poised vision really helps flash them out and depict their inner thoughts. There’s Edward Casaubon, the pompous, egotistical pedant whose research had been disproven by peers; Nicholas Buldtrode, the vain banker haunted by a sordid past whose desires had been much stronger than his theoretic calling; Tertius Lydgate, the idealistic young doctor seduced by vanity. His wife Rosamond Vincy, the acknowledged beauty of the town, daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, is a snob critical of all MiddlemRch bachelors who looks to elevate her social position by the marriage to Dr. Lydgate.

Amid the intricate choreography of the many inhabitants who cross paths by associations, central to the plot and its underlying theme is young gentlewoman Dorothea Brooke, who has an ardent theoretic nature. She is an idealistic woman who desires for a substantial, rewarding, and meaningful life. She is naive and impetuous to marry a man, twenty years of her senior, whom she thinks has a mind above herself, and to whom she be the supporter and adorer. After his death, there remains only the retrospect of painful subjection to a husband whose thoughts had been lower than she had believed, whose exorbitant claims for himself had been blinding her.

The book on short is about self-deception: how everyone, regardless of social station, is deluded with a false vision of happiness–whether it is achieved by marrying, securing power, or gaining wealth. In fact, Eliot’s strength derives from her ability to analyze and to set dramatically into motion these circumstantial and intrinsic forces that one feels to be the sinew and bloodstream not just of the town Middlemarch but of any reasonably sophisticated society.

The book is continually interesting and engaging for its sheet breadth. George Eliot sets out to give a panoramic view of a provincial town and how traditions and provincial convention affect its massive spectrum of inhabitants. She gets into their heads and shows how they think and what motivates their actions.

908 pp. Penguin Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Dream of the Red Chamber x SF Opera

imageThe San Francisco Opera will premiere Dream of the Red Chamber, adopted from Cao Xue-qin’s epic 120-chapter novel depicting the story of the ill-starred lovers Jia Bao-yu and Lin Daiyue. The show is a collaboration with the Chinese Heritage Foundation, which aims to preserve and promote Chinese heritage, culture, and history and, at the same time, to encourage innovation in the arts.

Since its publication more than two centuries ago, Dream of the Red Chamber has become one of the most popular novels in China abd with Chinese-speaking people living in the overseas. Though it has been translated into English several times, the book is not commonly known among Western readers. The novel is an 18th-century saga, the tale of a noble family that falls from grace. It is full of incredible detail of the social, cultural and spiritual life of the time.

The book was written in dribs and drabs: each new chapter circulated among family and friends, often in exchange for a meal and a pitcher of wine. Its style is a derivation from the period convention, a vast sprawling narrative, surreal and poignant, full of songs and poems. The female characters are especially strong. As Cao himself said: “Having made an utter failure of my life, one day I found myself in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness, thinking about the female companions of my youth.” The book amounts to over 2,500 pages, more than double the length of War and Peace.

All that said and in light of the premiere on September 10, I shall at least review the story. I might not be able to complete re-reading all five volumes but a review of the poems and doublets would be welcoming prerequisite to the show.

Starting “Middlemarch”

906 pages! Finally starting on this cathedral of words that epitomizes Victorian fiction. The door stopper of a book is George Eliot’s masterpiece. Virginia Woolf once said this is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people, in spite of its few imperfections.

Like any other novel of comparable length, there’s an epic quality to Middlemarch and the origin is as complex as the growth is slow. Eliot expounds on her principles of humanity, and exudes lively Tolstoyan sense of individuals enmeshed in their society. In a larger sense, Eliot’s herpine’s fate dramatizes another of the novel’s major themes, the place of women in a changing but still patriarchal society.

[822]My City 《我城》- Xixi 西西


Set in the 1970s, My City is a lively novel riddled with allegories, local discursions, nursery rhymes that evoke the life in Hong Kong. Xi Xi never mentions Hong Kong, but the natives and those with keen eyes could easily discern from between the lines. Xi Xi spends much of the narration on the representation of the city. Communication at every step is at odd with alienation. To capture this inner struggle, of being overwhelmed by the city and at the same time wanting to embrace it, Xi Xi uses the means of communication to recognize shifts in values and social relationships.

Written in the perspectives of young people, the book follows Ah Guo (Fruit), a college bound student who upon graduation from high school becomes a telephone repairman. The various jobs involving installation and erection of poles take him all over the city. He meets Happy Mak at work who is a former park ranger. His sister Ah Faat (Braids) is a precious, observant teenager who writes to neighbor concerning the rooftop strewn with trash. Fruit’s best friend Ah Yau (Swim) becomes an electrician on a ship that sails around the world. His aunt Yau Yau (Liberty) is an avid reader and regards vegetables like artifacts. Their doorman Ah Buc (North) is a carpenter whose expertise is door making.

Together these common citizens form the collective “I” that contribute to the fluid narrative with ever-changing point-of-view. Their collective perception, observation, reflection, and reninuscence work the way into the narrative to create a magical realism of the city. What they see is what matters to them the most about the city. The trees. The garbage. The need for personal space. The ways of interaction, by letters, by phone call, by conversation. The flowing pictures, the vistas, the converging and the diverging of people, the sights and sounds, and how they perceive and interpret them—all intertwine in Xi Xi’s prose to construct for the contempoeary reader a fruitful and provocative reading experience. Even the language itself, sometimes brisk and succinct and sometimes lyrical, established a cultural context by which one reflects on the vicissitudes of landscapes and social relationships.

Xi Xi uses short, simple, almost childish sentences. Yet while her style is disarmingly simple, her stories afford incisive insights and uncanny observations. The crucial point is how imagination is sparked by the narrative, aesthetic forms and the multiple meanings irradiated from between the lines. The book is not plot-driven, but what drive the reader are the ever-changing perspectives from one person to another, imbued and woven with these voices are individual hopes and dreams.

265 pp. Hung Fan Books Taiwan. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[821] Ubik – Philip K. Dick


“Here’s what happened. We got lured to Luna. We let Pat Conley come with us, a woman we didn’t know, a talent we didn’t understand—which possibly even Hollis didn’t understand. An ability somehow connected with time reversion; not strictly speaking, the ability to travel through time . . . what she does . . . is start a counter-process that uncovers the prior stages inherent in configurations of matter.” (Ch.14, 191)

Set in the Northern American Confederation in time when interstellar commute is common, the book is largely told from the perspective of Joe Chip, who works for an agency of “anti-psis” that stops telepaths invading other people’s privacy. Society is such that every individual’s thought process can be monitored and that any thought can materialize in the mind. This prudence organization is run by a man named Glen Runciter with the assistance of his wife, who has died physically but is preserved in a state of “half life” in cryonic condition at a specialized moratorium.

Runciter’s agency dedicates to fighting a rival organization of telepaths, headed by Ray Hollis, that uses its psychic power to undertake corporate espionage and cause trouble. He lays a rat-trap for Runciter and Joe Chip in Luna where Runciter is killed by a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Those who survive the blast, upon returning to Earth, experience a curious deterioration process. But they realize they, and not Runciter himself, are the ones who are slowly perishing, by turning incredibly cold and drying up.

But this is where the mystery of time-slippage thickens. There seems to be an underlying, vicious force that aims for their death. The story takes a rather mind-boggling turn to a state of confusion that suggests it was actually Chip, not Runciter, who almost died in the explosion on the moon. But it’s this confusion, or deception, in a sense, that makes Ubik shine. Like reality, what we see as reality, anyway, does not make much coherent sense. The unease, the difficulty, the contradictions, the multiplicating realities, are partly the point. It’s about realizations that are not what they seem.

I find the plot less interesting than the characters, the theme, and the virtuosity of the writing. Dick’s explications of his fractual reality look easy to accomplish, but they really aren’t. It questions whether this thing we call reality might be just a collective hallucination.

224 pp. Orion Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

First Thoughts on “Ubik”

Philip K. Dick’s Ubik is set in a world warped and regressed in ways which suggest that the inhabitants’ own time is running out. It deals with multiple and multiplicating realities. The reading can be strenuous at times as both characters and readers alike are tortured by the changing topographies of worlds.

If anyone has a coherent summary that wraps up all the conflict in the novel, I’d love to hear it, but I suspect the task is impossible. Not, I should stress, through any fault on the author’s part. This is a book that gives real meaning to the cliche “defies explanation”.

Like reality – what we see as reality, anyway – Ubik doesn’t make much coherent sense. The unease, the difficulty, the contradictions are partly the point. It’s all about the realisation that things aren’t as they seem – that everything you thought you knew is wrong.

[820] Belchamber – Howard Sturgis


“He had an almost painful intuition of her sacrifices, her hopes, her frustrate ambitions for him, and of the disappointments he must inevitably be to her; he probably read into her not very complex emotions fine shades of sensibility from his own consciousness . . . It was this habit of deference to her lightest wish they sent him off against his wish . . . ” (V, 55)

Set in 1890s England, Belchamber is a novel of aristocratic life told in the perspective of a misfit. Its originality lies in how the protagonist, a high-minded, high-born weakling, slightly effeminate heir to a marquisate, is at odds with what the high society expects of a gentleman. Born Charles Edwin William Augustus Chambers, the Marquis and Earl of Belchamber, he is commonly known as Sainty. He has no taste for games, girls, or money; he dislikes sports and hunting but adores gardening and interior decoration. Another eccentricity that shows his unfitness for his social status is his exaggerated propensity for work. He has a genuine aptitude for scholarship and loves erudition for its own sake. In short, he is a loner content in his own world.

And he launched out a tirade, . . . on the barbarism of the English upper classes, their want of education and refinement, their inability to appreciate intellectual pleasures, their low standard of morality, and, above all, their entire self-satisfaction and conviction of their own perfect rightness. (VII, 87)

The great moment of Sainty comes early on, when he becomes friends with his tutor Gerald Newsby in Cambridge. Then his life is shaped, or shattered to pieces, by two powerful women if very strong will. His mother, Lady Charmington, with her severe morals and puritanical obduracy, exercises a tight reign over him. Lady Eccleston, a tireless schemer who constructs the marriage plot to ensnare him. Cissy herself, though also in a way a victim of her mother’s deceit, is a fortune-hunting girl who makes the most of her situation. She despises Sainty but spends his money with insolent abandon. She’s a heartless monster, an adulteress, who epitomizes the very vices of high society that Saint renounces. All the sympathy one might feel for her would quickly desiccate as the novel nears the end.

The book portrays a series of betrayals against Sainty and his spinelessness to fight back, for the sake of preserving appearance and avoiding scandal. He is crushed by the race for luxury, since he himself is rich enough to absorb his losses and quite indifferent to his possessions. There’s a ponderous, contemplative quality to the writing, often supplying psychological stings after a plot narrative. Despite being a misfit, Sainty remains an aristocrat; he is bored and repulsed by his class yet never ceases to belong to it. It’s a story about individualism thwarted and innocence deceived, and, after all, virtue is not its own reward.

334 pp. New York Review Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]


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