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[747] Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens

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” 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]

“The Pillow Book”

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The Tale of Genji has been a slump for me, so I shift to The Pillow Book. Sei Shonagon was actually a contemporary of Lady Kurasaki. She was in her thirties when she was active as a writer and on a tradition that she died under difficult circumstances at an advanced age. Unlike Lady Murasaki, not much was known about Sei Shonagon, whose personal name was not known. Shonagon was only her title as an imperial lady-in-waiting. In fact, the sole mention of her writings of her contemporaries is an uncomplimentary remark by Lady Murasaki, who disliked Sei Shonagon’s arrogance. Like most people, she would quickly have slipped into the obscurity of the past, savefor her one stunning achievement: For a few years, exactly a thousand years ago (as of this writing), she kept a “pillow book” of random jottings about her life as a court lady that has enthralled and entertained readers ever since.

Sei Shonagon lived during the Heian Period (795-1085) and was raised in an aristocrat family. It was a period in which art, poetry, and literature flourished, persuaded by the faith that life on earth is both illusory and ephemera. The Pillow Book is not a novel but a book of observations and musings recorded by Sei Shōnagon during her time as court lady to Empress Consort Teishi during the 990s. She was perfectly placed to observe and record events at court, and to comment upon them. The “pillow book” in which she wrote at night probably consisted of loose leaves of paper; much later, the leaves were copied in essentially random order, leading to the topical and chronological disarray of the book as is now.

The Pillow Book owes its enduring fame to the personality of its author, who was refined, demanding, censorious, sophisticated, witty, accomplished, and very outspoken. She was an egotist and a snob, admired by some of her contemporaries but probably not much liked. For me her personality is most alluring, and the fascination of reading this book is the realization of how badly one would fare under her critical eye.

[727] So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell

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” What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. ” (III, p.27)

It’s 1921 in a small farm town in Illinois called Lincoln. The anonymous narrator, then a 10-year-old boy, plays on the scaffolding of a new house, which belongs to his father,a widower who is building a new home after his second wedding. In Cletus Smith he finds friendship that satisfies his yearning. Playing in the sketelal building they bond with the tacit, unquestioning camaraderie of kids sharing a game. Cletus Smith is a welcoming distraction for the narrator, who in inconsolable grief and loneliness clings to the memory of his dead mother.

There is a limit, surely, to what one can demand of one’s adolescent self. And to go on feeling guilty about something that happened so long ago is hardly reasonable. I do feel guilty, even so. A little. And always will, perhaps, whenever I think about him. (IX, p.135)

The tenuous friendship comes to an abrupt end after a murder of which the perpetrator is Cletus’s father. Clarence Smith has shot and mutilated a tenant farmer named Llyod Wilson. Two weeks later deputies drag Clarence’s body from the bottom of a nearby gravel pit, where he fell after shooting himself in the head. Cletus’s mother had been having an affair with Wilson, but in a divorce proceeding the judge grants her a decree of divorce against Clarence, on the grounds of extreme and repeated cruelty.

As an older man, the narrator reflects on the blows of grief, incomprehension, confusion, reproach, and violence sustained by his then 13-year-old friend. In the face of such tremendous deprivation—of family, of normal life befit a child, of stability, what is to become of a boy? The inquiry leads him to re-examine his childhood, to imagine the betrayal and infidelity that precipitated the murder-suicide and Cletus’s life amid it all.

The bulk of So Long, See You Tomorrow is a juxtaposition of experience and recollection, abound with visceral childhood memories excavated by an adult consciousness. Instead of a suspenseful linear plot with reconstructed events leading to the murder, the narrator finds himself revisiting the same subject from different angles, trying to fill in the emotional terrain that vanished at the margins of his boyish incomprehension. The book is contemplative and quiet; the cumulative effect is a delicate rendering of ineffable loss.

135 pp. Harvill Press UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

My Favorite Chinese Poem

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Born in 1036, Su Tung-po was a famous Chinese poet. He was also called Su Shih. Born in present-day Sichuan province, Su was from a literary family. During the Sung Dynasty he wrote very simple poems based on Buddhist Philosophy. Su occupied many official posts, rising to president of the board of rites (which regulated imperial ceremonies and worship). He designed the parks surrounding Lake Si in Hangzhou. Five emperors came to the throne during his lifetime.

Adopted from: 林語堂中英對照 東坡詩文選 / Selected Poems and Prose of Su Tungpo / Chinese-English Bilingual Edition by Lin Yutang

水調歌頭

明月幾時有? 把酒問青天。不知天上宮闕,今夕是何年?
How rare the moon, so round and clear! With cup in hand I ask of the blue sky, “I do not know in the celestial sphere what name this festive night goes by?”

我欲乘風歸去,惟恐瓊樓玉宇,高處不勝寒。起舞弄清影,何似在人間。
I want to fly home, riding the air, but fear the ethereal cold up there. The jade and crystal mansions are so high! Dancing to my shadow, I feel no longer the mortal tie.

轉朱閣,低綺戶,照無眠。
She rounds the vermilion tower, stoops to silk-pad doors, shines on those who sleepless lie.

不應有恨,何事長向別時圓?人有悲歡離合,月有陰晴圓缺,此事古難全。
Why does she, bearing us no grudge. Shine upon our parting, reunion deny? But rare is perfect happiness. The moon does wax, the moon does wane, and so men meet and say goodbye.

但願人長久,千里共嬋娟。
I only pray our life be long, and our souls together heavenward fly!

Bacchanalia

Bacchanalia came up in the reading of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The bacchanalia were wild and mystic festivals of the Greco-Roman god Bacchus (or Dionysus), the wine god. The term has since come to describe any form of drunken revelry. This really transports me back to my undergraduate days in which I minored in classics. The bacchanalia were rites originally held in ancient Greece as the Dionysia. The derogatory and potentially fallacious descriptions of the Bacchanalia that abound in classical materials (such as the writings of Livy) have caused the term to become synonymous with heedless corporeal excess—a connotation that may or may not be true to the original religious context. The term bacchanalia has since been extended to refer to any drunken revelry. In John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, the atmosphere of Jenny’s whorehouse is described as “tavern bacchanalianism”. In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens uses the words: “the law was certainly not behind any other learned profession in its Bacchanalian propensities.”

[443] The House Behind the Cedars – Charles W. Chesnutt

” For he had always been, in a figurative sense, a naturalized foreigner in the world of wide opportunity, and Rena was one of his compatriots, whom he was glad to welcome into the populous loneliness of his adopted country. ” (VII 45)

Published in 1900, The House Behind the Cedars focuses on passing, a social practice in which light-skinned African Americans would present themselves as whites. The novel begins with John Warwick’s return to his home to seek out his mother an younger sister. John Warwick was actually born John Walden; by some good chance he is of lighter skin and can pass as white. To further eradicate the vestige of his blackness, he changes his name to an old Anglo-Saxon one. He marries a southern white in South Carolina and on the strength of her family connection, he is admitted to the South Carolina bar. He becomes a prominent attorney as a white man.

‘You want to be a lawyer . . . You are aware, of course, that you are a Negro?’
‘I am white,’ replied the lad, turning back his sleeve and holding out his arm, ‘and I am free, as all my people were before me . . .’
‘You are black, my lad, and you are not free . . .’
‘A Negro is black; I am white, and not black.’ (XIII 113)

As a little boy, right off the bat John makes clear his sense of who he is racially. This dialogue is troubling because it says that being black is a liability; that blacks want to be white. (Remember this was 1900) When a business matter brings him within the proximity of his hometown, he feels compelled to visit his family. In his desire to rescue his sister from a “sordid existence” (19) and a life devoid of opportunity, we also see John Warwick’s apparent desire to be white (and thus disconnected from his family, his root, and his tradition) means something far different from what the words say. He would certainly not have opted to be white only; he wants opportunities and a level of life generally unavailable to blacks. The question that the novel addresses, therefore, is one of class and not simply race.

Such people were, for the most part, merely on the ragged edge of the white world, seldom rising above the level of overseers, or slave-catchers, or sheriff’s officers, who could usually be relied upon to resent the drop of black blood that tainted them, and with the zeal of the proselyte to visit their hatred of it upon the unfortunate blacks that fell into their hands. (XIII 79)

Rena is not as lucky passing as a white. Although she seamlessly makes entry into white social sphere and is soon engaged to a young aristocrat, George Tryon, the accidental revelation of her racial identity ruins her love and imminent marriage. Tron feels he has been a victim of a fraud in which “a negro gril had been foisted upon him for a white woman,” (96) and his courtship with her has been “an inpardonable sin against his race.” (86) As his love and yearning give way to anger and disgust, he rejects his betrothed and Rena falls gravely ill. The novel then takes a sentimental course to reach its tragic end.

The House Behind the Cedars is about a young woman who fights for love and opportunity against the ranked forces of a pernicious society poised on racism, against immemorial tradition, and against family pride. However sentimental it might read, it is a beautiful novel about someone, deep in the misery that her own race subjects her, fully realizes her racial consciousness. Rena is at first identified far more by reference to class and gender than to race, but her later obligation to further the well-being of her race shows that her compulsion stems from her realization of the connection between race and domesticity. Rena demonstrates a moral obligation thrust upon her by her realization that her racial identity is inescapable. The book might not resonate as much now as it did when it was published, but it’s significant in its cause all the same.

195 pp. Penguin Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

The Divine Comedy: Inferno Canto 1-7

I have started reading Dante’s The Divine Comedy, the Mandelbaum translation online and the Penguin The Portable Dante edited by Mark Musa. Both texts are fairly readable and I’m approaching the end of Canto 10 (Circle Six: The Heretics). I feel the need to re-read, starting from the very beginning today, since I was bogged down by the footnotes and editorial remarks. The second time around is so much smoother—I even read the lines out loud to hear the poetic tone.

From the very beginning, when Dante stumbles upon a dark wood where three beasts—the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf confront him, it’s obvious that Inferno is a fascinating and imaginative allegory, a depiction of the nature of damnation from the medieval Christian point of view. He is barred from reaching the mountaintop, which is the Divine Light, and is aided by Virgil, whom his lover Beatrice calls from Limbo to guide him through Hell. Canto 1 is about how Dante must choose another road because, in order to arrive at the Divine Light (which is the mountaintop) it is necessary first to recognize the nature of sin, renounce it, and pay penance for it. This arduous road passes through the place of eternal punishment (Hell) and then a place of lesser punishment (Purgatory); before reaching God’s city (Heaven). Encouraged by Virgil’s assurances, Dante sets forth with his guide.

Canto 2, which elaborates on how Virgil is summoned to be Dante’s guide, holds tremendous allure to me. The Lady, presumably Virgin Mary, takes pity on Dante the Pilgrim in his despair and instructs Saint Lucia to aid him. The saint turns to Beatrice because of Dante’s great love for her, and Beatrice in turn went down to Hell, into Limbo, and asked Virgil to guide her friend until the time when she herself would become his guide. Dante feels comforted to hear that his beloved Beatrice has gone to Heaven and cares so much for him. He praises both her and Virgil for their aid and then continues to follow Virgil toward Hell. Beatrice reminds me of Margarita in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, who cares more about the Master’s fate than her own. Margarita literally goes to hell for her lover. To Woland (Satan disguised as a magician) and his power she turns for salvation. Unfazed by memories of her time at Satan’s ball, Margarita’s soul is made perfect and her love for the Master fully sealed.

Canto 3 sees Virigil and Dante at the Periphery of Hell, from which emanates cries of the souls of those who did not commit to either good or evil but who lived their lives without making conscious moral choices. Therefore, both Heaven and Hell deny their entry. They are not subjected to any physical torment, but they must chase constantly after a blank banner. Flies and wasps continually bite them, and writhing worms consume the blood and tears that flow from them.n and Hell have denied them entry. The principal “shade” in this group is the man of the great refusal: Pontius Pilate, who happens also to be a main character in The Master and Margarita. Satan of course bridges the gap of time as well as the two intertwined narratives in the book because he was right there when Pilate, fearing to ruin his career, sent the innocent man to death. Pilate was the one who washed his hands off the business with Christ. In both Bulgakov and Dante’s books he has to suffer eternally because of his cowardice.

Starting Canto 4, the duo poets descends into the different circles of Hell. In the First Circle of Hell: Limbo (Canto 4), spirits from pre-Christian world who led honorable lives experience no physical torment, but live in desire, no hope of seeing God and salvation. Virgil himself is called upon by Beatrice to leave Limbo in order to be Dante’s guide. In this circle also are the Pagan poets Homer, Ovid, Horace and Lucan, as well as a skein of philosophers, historians, and writers. “Their great worth alone was not enough, for they did not know Baptism” (4.34-35) “In this alone we suffer: cut off from hope, we live on in desire.” (4.41-42) The Second Circle of Hell: Lust (Canto 5) consists in beings forever whirled about in a dark, stormy wind. Those who committed sins of the flesh live in incessant torrential rain. In the Third Circle of Hell: Gluttony (Canto 6), the shades are mired in filthy muck; eternally battered by cold and dirty hail, rain, snow, and sleet that make the earth stink because the gluttons must lie on the ground as the sewage rains down upon them. In this canto, Virgil points out that each soul will regain its flesh at the Last Judgment. To that Dante asks the question: without flesh how does it even suffer torment? These shades seem to be airy weights that adopt human forms. Canto 7 affords the sights of the Fourth and Fifth Circle of Hell. Fourth Circle of Hell: Avarice and Prodigality. The two groups (opposite in nature: one is hoarding and the other squandering money) push heavy boulders with their chests around a circle in opposite directions. When they collide, they clash and hurl insults at one another, turn back and repeat the never-ending jousting journey. It was said that those with the bald heads are popes, cardinals and priests within whom avarice works its excess (7.46-48). For all the gold that is or ever was beneath the moon could never offer rest to even one of these exhausted spirits. (7.64-66) In the same canto, the Fifth Circle of Hell: Wrath and Sullenness, the wrathful are mired in the bog, constantly tearing and mangling each other. They were so consumed in anger during their previous lives that the wrath outlived them in Hell. Underneath the slime of the Styx, the sullen shades cause the bubbles on the surface, for they are now gurgling and choking on the black mud of the swampy river.

Descending into Hell

It’s so true that one book can lead to another. After finishing Wolf Hall, I’m not only left with a craving for a sequel (which Hilary Mantel promises to deliver), but also a curiosity to explore more of hell. So deeply registered in my mind is this:

She would look out for my old master [Wolsey], on one of her excursions to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, and I offered to pay her traveling expenses on the occasion.

In college, I was a Classics minor. I read the abridged Divine Comedy with selected cantos in each of the three books. I have long been meaning to read the full text—until calling of this quote in Wolf Hall, and the mustering up of courage after As I Lay Dying.

In the Inferno, Dante wanders aimlessly through a forest feeling like a beaten man. Eventually, he comes across the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil (which is another reason I want to read this book); the two men then embark on a journey taking them through the nine circles of Hell. Never has Hell been so vividly captured in literature as it was by Dante. He detailed each circle in an attempt to distinguish each one from the other. As the men began to traverse deeper and deeper into the depths of Hell, the individuals which they encountered continued to get worse.

I will be reading the single-volume Oxford World’s Classics edition of Divine Comedy, translated by C.H. Sisson, for the plain, and highly readable English text. Would you join me on a trip to Hell and back?

[331] The Aeneid – Virgil

” We are fighting a misguided war, fellow-citizens, against unconquerable heroes and the sons of gods. Battle does not weary them, and even in defeat they cannot take their hands from the sword. ” [Book 11, Lines 306-309]

The Aeneid is so much more readable than The Iliad and The Odyssey. Whether it was the verse structure or the prose translation on which this review focuses, The Aeneid, startlingly similar to Homer, is very clear and straight forward even for a casual reader, without any obscure metaphors, owing probably to the fact that it’s a blatant work of propaganda, designed to give Augustus, Virgil’s patron, and Augustus’ Rome a mythic history to rival that of Greece. Despite the simplicity, the prose of Virgil’s epic is daubed with very vivid incidents: baby strapped to a spear and thrown across the river, an aged hero feasting his eyes on his old friend’s son, the grief of a woman when she meets the Trojan youth who is the same age as her son.

After the fall of Troy, the commands of divine destiny have driven Aeneas, the legendary survivor, his son and comrades to head to Latium (Italy), where they would ask for a little piece of land for his father’s gods. They have sailed desolate seas, taking refuge from the storm in Carthage (Libya), where he dallies on Dido, whom he leaves to die because Fate has forbidden the romantic affair. Jupiter has blocked his ears to all appeals of her love and reassures him his purpose: to lift his shoulder the fame and fate of his descendants.

Rumors flutter everyone’s feather, man and god. The one passage that I find myself savoring, over and over, but extramural to the main events, is an aside on Rumor:

[…] Of all the ills there are, Rumour is the swiftest. She thrives on movement and gathers strength as she goes. From small and timorous beginnings she soon lifts herself up into the air, her feet still on the ground and her head hidden in the clouds. They say she is the last daughter of Mother Earth who bore her in rage against the gods, a sister for Coeus and Enceladus. Rumour is quick of foot and swift on the wing, a huge and horrible monster, and under every feather of her body, strange to tell, there lies an eye that never sleeps, a mouth and a tongue that are never silent and an ear always pricked. By night she flies between earth and sky, squawking through the darkness, and never lowers her eyelids in deep sleep. By day she keeps watch perched on the tops of gables or on high towers and causes fear in great cities, holding fast to her lies and distortions as often as she tells the truth. [Book 4, Lines 176-189]

War ensues when recalcitrant Juno, Jupital’s sister, will not hear of Lavinia’s forthcoming engagement to Aeneas. “If I cannot prevail upon the gods above, I shall move hell.” [Book 7, Lines 313-4] Swathed in the cloud, she descends into the mortal land, throwing tantrum and provoking and instigating the players in the matter. In the queen she induces anger and disappointment. In Turnus she breathes deadly hatred for the Trojan visitor.

With these words the fearsome goddess flew down to earth and roused Allecto, bringer of grief, from the infernal darkness of her home among the Furies. Dear to her heart were the horrors of war, anger, treachery and vicious accusations. … She had so many faces and such fearsome shapes and her head crawled with so many black serpents. [Book 7, Lines 324-8]

Taking one of the snakes from her dark the goddess Allecto threw it on Amata’s breast to enter deep into her heart, a horror driving her to frenzy and bringing down her whole house in ruin. [Book 7, Lines 347-350]

As frequently the divine machinations interfere with mortal lives, and how people constantly live at the caprice and mercy of these finical heavenly creatures, Jupiter reigns over, reiterating that Italy should never clash with the Trojans. Belligerence ensues. The climax of the novel centers strongly around Aeneas and Turnus, with obvious parallels to Achilles and Hecktor. Despite the similarity of actions, and how successful Virgil had been in promoting his Roman virtues in the figure of Aeneas, the pair is drastically different from the Greek one. The epic closes in a very sudden, but suitably dramatic and visceral finish. The book is contemplative of human predicament, portraying human life in all of its nobility and suffering. West’s prose retains the formality which elevates key passages and preserves the flow of the original verse structure.

353 pp. Penguin classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[220] The Dialogue of the Dogs – Miguel de Cervantes

Dogs“But in you, my boy, experience tells me the opposite. I know you’re a rational person in the semblance of a dog.” [74]

Cervantes’s lesser-known, almost eclectic novella may be the ancestor of talking-dog story. Filled with humor and social satire, The Dialogue of the Dogs, which reads like an Aesop allegory, is a tale within a tale. Campuzano is a philandering man who is left with nothing but syphilis upon a deceitful marriage to Dona Estefania, who ropes him with chicanery. Late one feverish night at the Resurrection Hospital Campuzano overhears the guard dogs, Berganza and Scipio, telling each other their life’s story.

I’m not so ignorant that I don’t know animals can’t talk without some miracle. Even if mockingbirds, mynahs, parrots appear to talk, I knew they only repeat the words they’ve learned by rote, and only then because they happen to have tongues like ours to pronounce them. But they can’t talk, let alone talk back, with the thoughtful exchange of views that those dogs managed. [18]

Indeed, what ensues is a sermonizing exchange between two virtuous canines (who acquire a more solid sense of morality than humans in the book) who find themselves victim, over and over again, to deceitful and corrupt humanity. At one point, Berganza was being punished for not catching the wolf that attacked the pack of sheep. But the canine’s true enemy is the shepherd, who kills the sheep and devours it. The dogs’ encounter illustrates the finicky and capricious ways of the world and the inequities of fate. It’s not as plot driven, more of a catechism in the sense of morality.

God is literally impeccable, without sin, from which we can only conclude that we are the authors of our own evildoing, and we conceive it in our own intentions, words, and deeds. [80]

105 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]