• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,081,857 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

[820] Belchamber – Howard Sturgis

1carered

“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]

Some Shakespeare-Coined Expressions

Shakespeare’s impact on everyday speech is extraordinary. He introduced around 1,700 words and a multitude of phrases to the English language. You probably find yourself quoting him more often than you realize.

“A dish fit for the god” (Julius Caesar) Spoken by Caesar’s murderer Brutus, who described how his father should be elegantly and respectfully killed instead of being butchered.

“All of a sudden” (The Taming of the Shrew) Taken from the context in which how a servant marvels at how his master has fallen in love.

“As luck would have it” (The Merry Wives of Windsor) Taken from the context in which the aspiring seducer is detailing his escape from the adultress’ house in a laundry basket at the arrival of her husband.

“Brevity is the soul of wit” (Hamlet) Cutting to the chase.

“Discretion is the better part of valor” (Henry IV, Part I) Used to explain how the tactic of playing dead on the battlefield has saved one’s life.

“The dogs of war” (Julius Caesar) A vivid image taken from Mark Anthony’s speech in the play predicting the bloody conflict that will follow his friend’s assassination.

“Fair play” (The Tempest) Originates where Mrianda accuses her lover Ferdinand of cheating at chess but admits she doesn’t mind.

“Good riddance” (Troilus and Cressida) The word “riddance” was used more widely in Shakespeare’s time and you could wish someone different kinds of riddance.

“Love is blind” This expression crops up in many plays.

“Wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet) Mercutio uses the phrase to refer to the fact that he and Romeo have been trading witticisms and one-upping each other in turn, a pastime clever, smart-arsed young men still enjoy today.

Reading King Lear

1carered

“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?” (III, iv)

King Lear is a tragic story but it’s also the most human plays of Shakespeare. No ghost, no devices, just plain humans and their vices and shortcomings. One of the major themes of the play is the inability to see things for what they are. The tragedy of King Lear is caused by his inability to recognize reality: (1) He believes Goneril’s and Regan’s lies about their love for him; (2) He falsely accuses Cordelia of being disloyal, when in fact, she is the only one of the three who loves him; (3) He banishes Kent for treason when he is the most loyal of Lear’s servants; (4) Lear falsely believes that he can abdicate responsibility without negative consequences. At this point in the play, Lear recognizes the plight of the poor in his kingdom and regrets not having done more to help them. At last, Lear recognizes his past folly, but it’s too late.

Eyesight and appearance. One who has eyes but is yet blind. It’s so much more relevant today in politics. One is blind to the intentions of cunning politicians. What about blindness to one’s responsibilities? The book is relentless about human vices and how being ignorant and blind to one’s shortcomings could doom him.

[749] The Hireling – L.P. Hartley

1hireling

” He saw life as a campaign in which there was no real cessation of hostilities; opposition whetted his nature and agreement blunted it. ” (Ch.6, p.50)

This lesser-known novel (published 1958) tells a rather quirky story of an improbable relationship between a cab driver and a bereaved young widow. Leadbitter, ex-army man, hides behind his dapper, faultless appearance and rather formal disposition a lonely self-sufficiency and a churlish bitterness. Son of a negligent and extravagant mother who haunted his childhood, he adopts a jarred view of women in general, rejecting all the qualities that are supposed to recommend them.

I felt that here was someone I could rely on absolutely, who responded to the true values of life, whose experience wasn’t spurious and self-induced, like mine. You were real and so was everything about you—your wife, your family, and the way you lived— (Ch.13, p.107)

Leadbitter is hired, at frequent intervals, by a rich Lady Franklin, a young, rather fragile widow who only exists in her grief and lives in the memories of her late husband. She has withdrawn herself from high society and shrouded in guilt. She hires Leadbitter to chauffeur her to cathedrals where she visits in an act of remembrance of her husband. As she takes a personal interest in him, he beguiles her with stories of his non-existent wife and children, thereby weaning her from her self-absorption, yet weaving for himself a dream-life with Lady Franklin at its heart.

Still obsessed by his fantasies, his double life, in his protective vigilance, as Lady Franklin prepares to marry a worthless artist, whom he overhears in his cab, Leadbitter contrives to stop her. The novel from the very beginning doesn’t forebode to end rosily; and the turn of events leads to a dramatic end. Like The Go-Between but even more pronounced in direness, the theme of foreignness, of the position of protagonist as outsider even in his life, lies at the heart of the novel. It’s a classic story of irony redolent of a sense of time out-of-kilter.

240 pp. Capuchin Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[747] Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens

1nickleby

” It seems but yesterday that we were playfellows, Kate, and it will seem but tomorrow when we are staid old people, looking back to these cares as we look back, now, to those of our childish days: and recollecting with a melancholy pleasure that the time was, when they could move us. Perhaps then, when we are quaint old folks and talk of the times when our step was lighter and our hair not grey, we may be even thankful for the trials that so endeared us to each other, and turned our lives into that current, down which we shall have glided so peacefully and calmly. ” (Ch. LXI, p.762)

Nicholas Nickleby is the quintessence of a melodrama with many turns. Dickens derives the central plot of this door-stopper novel from his own primal scene of childhood abandonment. Childhood neglect drives him to crusade against institutionalized forms of child abuse. In this book he depicts the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, which, despite the often extravagant claims, it offers little in the way of education. It is, instead, a convenient dumping ground for unwanted, illegitimate, or handicapped children. When his family is left penniless by the premature death of the improvident father, the protagonist, Nicholas Nickleby, referred to by his uncle, takes up a teaching job at Dotheboys, where he has been the unwilling witness of cruelty imposed on the children and the coarse and ruffian behavior of Squeers, the headmaster.

Some people, I believe, have no hearts to break. (Ch. III, p.42)

Nicholas decides to escape, taking with him the orphan Smike, one of the most abused young charges, and embarks on a series of picaresque exploits that bring him, eventually, comfort and joy. Nicholas is provoked to into thrashing Squeers, a money-grubbing sadist who is friends with his uncle, a money usurer. While Nicholas assumes responsibility for his family, his mother, vain and ignorant, with her snobbery and gullibility, nudges her daughter to the brink of sexual ruin. Nicholas wards off those lecherous suitors who are associated to nobody but his uncle. Ralph revels in Nicholas’s degradation, which he has engineered, and orchestrates a sinister scheme to marry an innocent girl to a disgusting old moneylender, Arthur Gride.

It is one of those problems of human nature, which may be noted down, but not solved;—although Ralph felt no remorse at that moment for his conduct towards the innocent, true-hearted girl; although his libertine clients had done precisely what he had expected, precisely what he most wished,…still he hated them for doing it. (Ch. XXVIII, p.367)

The novel, no doubt, is a social commentary; but more powerful than its social protest against injustice, is the exuberant and absurd comedy that suffuses its narrative. The main plot is no more than a stage melodrama; the subplots proliferate, linking disparate scenes and characters with a complex of bizarre echoes and resonances. The characters abound, but they seem to have taken refuge within the walls of a narrowly defined identity—each of them represents a human virtue or a vice. They are most remarkable, therefore, not for their realism or originality, but for their absurdity. The book culminates in a fulfilling and square manner in which justice is served and everybody is put in their rightful position. It’s an epic work that proclaims the theme of poverty engendering an honest pride.

810 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Nicholas Nickleby

1nicholas

June sees the beginning of my reading Nicholas Nickleby.

The writing and serialization of Nicholas Nickleby, during 1837 to 1839, overlapped with that of Oliver Twist, and encouraged by the popular success of that novel with its indictment of the workhouses of the New Poor Law, Dickens began with the idea of taking on another social injustice which he had learned of from press reports: the scandal of the “Yorkshire Schools” and in particular the notorious case of William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy in Greta Bridge.

Dickens decided that he would expose these schools in his new novel. Indeed, where Nicholas Nickleby is sent to teach, is one of those schools where unwanted children were incarcerated in squalid conditions, malnourished and tyrannized by brutal adults. The schools were often advertised in the London newspapers,

EDUCATION.—At Mr. Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall, at the delightful village of Dotheboys, near Greta Bridge in Yorkshire, Youth are boarded, clothed, booked, furnished with pocket-money, provided with all necessaries, instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry, the use of the globes, algebra, single stick (if required), writing, arithmetic, fortification, and every other branch of classical literature. Terms, twenty guineas per annum. No extras, no vacations, and diet unparalleled. (Chapter III)

Dickens’s painful experience of childhood neglect drove him to crusade against institutionalized forms of child abuse wherever he found them. Fresh from his devastating exposure of the sufferings of workhouse children in Oliver Twist, he embarked on Nicholas Nickleby with the express intention of attacking the notorious Yorkshire schools. Despite their often extravagant claims, these institutions offered little in the way of education; instead they were convenient dumping grounds for unwanted, illegitimate, or handicapped children.

Although the book contains all the requirements of melodrama—-secrets, coincidences, dramatic confrontation and bold declamatory speeches—cannot contain the exuberant comedy of the characters

Ali Smith

1accidental

I must have mistaken Ali Smith for another author who writes chick-lit. With much gratefulness for a friend who points me to her direction, I have been on a hunt for her books although luck hasn’t been on my side. The Scottish writer has a long roll of honors and merits. She has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, and winner of Scottish Book Award, Clare Maclean Prize, and Whitbreak Book Award.

To say that Smith plans her writings conscientiously gives the impression that she might be an over-deliberate, uninspiring writer, but this is very far from the truth. The themes she chooses to write about are ambitious: love, particularly but not only, that between women, death, loss, guilt, grief, illness, time and the chasms of misunderstanding between couples or the generations, where affection can become lost in impatience and incomprehension. They are themes that most writers touch upon, yet she seems to see them in a new, fresh light.

I will begin my Ali Smith journey with The Accidental, the story of the Smart family and Amber, the strange girl who comes into their lives one hot summer holiday. Her mysterious tales force each member of the family to view themselves in a new light.

[724] The Bell – Iris Murdoch

1bell

” He made her talk about herself, and quietly circumvented her clumsy efforts to make him talk about himself. Her unsuspicious and unsophisticated mind harboured of course no conception of his being a homosexual; and although Michael guessed Dora to be one of those women who regard homosexuals with interested sympathy . . . ” (Ch.26, p.316)

For a directly religious novel, The Bell is pleasantly readable and does not get too caught up with tedious pedagogical issues. The novel centers around Dora Greenfield, an erring wife who returns to live with her husband, an art historian conducting research in a lay community encamped outside an abbey. During her stay, it becomes obvious that her effort of reconciliation is futile. She’s plain that things were mostly her fault and that she should never have married Paul at all. She feels intensely the need and somehow the capacity to live and work on her own and become, what she had never been, an independent and grown-up person.

God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many cases, the very core of the personality. (Ch.16, p.211)

The Imber community is small, mostly male, and adjoins a Benedictine abbey of which the nuns are cloistered for life. The community is located on the land owned by family of Michael Meade, the leader, a homosexual who contrives to triumph over his vice and make another attempt at priesthood. The brotherhood is designed to allow laymen to have the benefits of the religious life while remaining in the world. The members are mostly misfits who have withdrawn from mainstream society. Together they tend the estate and cultivate a market-garden and observe daily worship activities. The community as a whole is looking forward to two significant events: the ceremonial installation of a new bell at the Abbey, and one Imber’s member’s planned installation as a cloistered nun. Both events have gone awry due to a contingency.

Although Dora has remained an outsider, she has “fed like a glutton upon the catastrophes at Imber” and they had increased her substance. The Bell sustains a continuous effort to create a dense, real world of feelings and behavior. It’s a novel about people and their thoughts—how their thoughts change their lives as much as their impulses and feelings do. It’s a novel about goodness, cruelty, and power. The people are neither bad nor perfect, and this is how Murdoch is ingenious. She understands the way in which our sense of our moral beings, the imperatives and prohibitions we desire, or agree, to accept, depend on a religious structure which our society as a whole no longer believes in.

329 pp. Vintage Classics UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[694] The Indian Clerk – David Leavitt

1clerk

” Human situations, on the other hand, are complex and multiform. To understand them you must take into account not only misunderstandings, occasions, circumstances, but the mystery of human nature, which is as rife with contradictions as the foundational landscape of mathematics. ” (Part 9, p.447)

I am not sure exactly what “fictive biography” is why it matters, but The Indian Clerk, like many novels in the genre of historical fiction, employs real characters to construct a story that shines light on the immense gulf that divides us culturally, intellectually, and emotionally. The book is dextrously wrought and deviously researched. The Indian clerk in the title is Srinivasa Ramanujan, the celebrated mathematics genius who fetched up at Trinity College, Cambridge, six months before the start of the first world war. Although a fair amount of the narrative is written in the third person, the author’s proxy is Ramanujan’s sponsor, a leading figure in mathematics at the time, H.H. Hardy, who receives the original letter from the Madras shipping clerk and who, with his colleague Littlewood, makes arrangements for Ramanujan’s arrival. The self-taught maverick, rejected by his own society, is trying to prove Riemann hypothesis, a formula for calculating the number of prime numbers. But interspersed with the prodigy’s mathematical feat and life in Cambridge are great issues, focused and rooted in on the human front that makes this novel a gem.

God had nothing to do with it. Proof was what connected you to the truth. (Part 1, p.33)

The Indian Clerk is a study of differences, of oppositions, of human kindness. Hardy and Ramanujan are completely different people. One from west and the other east. Imperial homeland and infiltrating colony. God-disdaining atheist and a Hindu goddess-relying observer. Mathematics is what draws Ramanujan away from the social awkwardness conjoins him with Hardy. Despite his genius, he remains a studiously enigmatic presence in the book, uttering only conventional pleasantries and suffering repercussions of the intolerable situation at home, between his tyrant mother and recalcitrant wife by arranged marriage.

And so when the Hindu adheres to certain prohibitions and strictures for the sake of propriety and decorum, rather than because he accepts the doctrines of his religion as literally true, he is not acting as a hypocrite . . . (Part 4, p.202)

The interaction between Hardy and Ramanujan is on center stage, but the many peripheral characters give the book its social texture and periodical background. Many aspects of the book are very nuanced: the misanthropic, homosexual Hardy’s dealings with his bluetstocking sister Gertrude, his membership in the secret society of which many members are gay, the insularity that the math contest embodies, the don’s wife Alice Neville’s secret passion for Rmanujan, Littlewood’s affair with Ann Chase who would not divorce her husband, and Bertrand Russell’s loss of college fellowship for opposing the war, and a visit by D.H. Lawrence who offers grim opinion on marriage,

The fictionalized account is like a fairy tale in which a Westerner recognizes an undiscovered talent and seeks to unearth and display his luster. But at heart it’s revealing the unlikely but deep friendship of two men and their struggles, rooted in their upbringing and inveterate traditions.

485 pp. Bloomsbury. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[689] Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

1bodies

” Anne, it appears, was a book left open on a desk for anyone to write on the pages, where only her husband should inscribe. ” (Part Two, II p.383)

Bring Up the Bodies picks up what was left off in Wolf Hall, in which Thomas Cromwell, secretary to the king, helped erase his queen, Katherine of Aragon, cancel his inconvenient daughters and edit those chapters in the narrative which were getting tedious. Working diligently on Henry’s divorce both in the courts and politically behind the scenes, Cromwell brings before the Parliament a number of acts that recognize the king as the head of the church, thus finalizing the break with Rome.

Now at 50, Cromwell wields so much power that affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ears, and all parchments pertaining to state business are pushed across his desk. He only has privacy in his dreams as he is always under the obligations of a servant and an official.

Cromwell wonders exactly how much you’d have to leave on the table for Anne. She’s cost Henry his honour, his peace of mind. To him, Cromwell, she is just another trader. He admires the way she’d laid out her goods. He personally doesn’t want to buy; but there are customers enough. (Part Two, I p.207)

It’s at Wolf Hall in 1536 that the king encounters Jane Seymour, who to Henry represents a source of future sons, as Anne Boleyn has yet to give him a heir. He also suspects whether she had been debauched before being queen. The king wonders if there is some flaw in his marriage to Anne Boleyn, some impediment, something displeasing to God. Cromwell, having heard these concerns all along, is ordered to conclude the matter of Anne Boleyn, and to do it swiftly. The subject of Bring Up the Bodies concerns the downfall of Anne Boleyn, whose flaw is infidelity and the guilty men, though “perhaps not guilty as charged,” are Mark Smeaton, a musician, Henry Norris, the chief of king’s privy chamber, the aristocrats Francis Weston and William Brereton, and the Queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.

No one need contrive at her ruin. No is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old. (Part Two, II p.309)

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Anne Boleyn is beheaded. While it is in the nature of historical fiction that one knows what happens next, the genius of Bring Up the Bodies is that Thomas Cromwell, opaque, labyrinthine and vengeful, despite controlling the fates of so many, doesn’t know the outcome of these events that are narrated through his consciousness. On top of his acumen and perspicacity, Mantel suggests that it’s Cromwell’s origins, together with his almost total absence of friends and family that allows him to play the role he does. He has nothing to lose. This is how he can join with Anne Boleyn’s enemies to overthrow her. The ambiguous Cromwell fits well with Mantel’s agenda, because someone who is too good or too evil does not fit into the intricacy of the plot, as there are hordes of people lurking around in Henry’s court, all of them on the make or trying to sidestep the axe. This book explores the nature of the border between truth and lies. This border is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumor, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales.

409 pp. Fourth State London. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]