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[820] Belchamber – Howard Sturgis

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“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]

[813] King Lear – William Shakespeare

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“LEAR. To say I and No to every thing that
said: I and No too was no good Divinity. When
the Rain came to wet me once, and the Wind to
make me chatter, when the Tender would not
peace at my Bidding, there I found ’em, there
I smelt ’em out. Go to, they are not Men ‘o
their Words. They told me I was every thing:
’tis a Lie, I am not Ague-proof.” (4.6.100-107)

Under the coating of Shakespeare’s poetic language, King Lear is a straight-forward allegory on the battle of good and evil and about the prevailing of justice. At first introduction, Lear is a real monarch—“every inch a king.” As the play progresses, the coils of evil spread and Lear deteriorates into madness. The tragedy that engulfs the king swallows nearly all those near him as well.

The main plot involves King Lear, who takes the unusual step of abdicating and sharing out his kingdom among his three daughters. When asked how much they love their father, the older daughters, Goneril and Regan, both give effusive responses. The youngest, Cordelia, refuses to say more than that she loves him an appropriate amount. Outraged and offended, Lear disinherits Cordelia, who marries one of her suitors, the King of France, and leaves England.

CORDELIA. We are not the First
Who with Best Meaning have incurr’d the Worst. (5.3.3-4)

A parallel plot that mirrors the action between Lear and his daughters unfolds. The Ear of Gloucestor is deceived by his bastard son, Edmund, into turning against his legitimate son Edgar. Edgar has to take up the disguise of a beggar. The Earl is also betrayed by Edmund to Regan and her husband, Cornwall, who would rid of the Earl and make Edmund the successor and invade England. Edmund and Cornwall pair up to wreak havoc on Lear and Gloucestor’s family. This evil duo, along with Regan and Goneril’s adultery, drive the play forward to its tragic end.

The book is bleak but reflective of human nature. It deals with issues of justice and honesty, power and responsibility, youth and age. While Lear is responsible for his “blindness” and unwise actions, Shakespeare gives a rather gloomy message: the real world holds no guarantee of justice or fairness, and death comes to all of us, good or evil. Lear’s tragedy is a result of his inability to recognize reality; but ironically, he recognizes the grave errors of his ways and see things as they are during his insanity.

LEAR. I am a very foolish fond Old Man,
Fourscore and upward, not an Hour more
Nor less; and to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect Mind. (4.7.58-61)

Which entwines the notions of honesty and deception. Truth is often suppressed and honestly devalued. The older daughters and the bastard rely on cunning deception. This is also reflected in the blinding of Gloucestor. Similarly, it is only after Lear loses himself in the literal darkness of the storm and the mental darkness of his madness that he finally comes to know his true self.

King Lear is bleak, sad, and relentless. But even in the final tragic scene it has beauty. The beauty of truth. The world can be chaotic, untamed and dangerous but the truth will reign, regardless of the subversion.

270 pp. Everyman Library. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Thoughts on English Pronunciation and Spelling

In 9th grade, I had a “study skills” class that reviewed the basics of English grammar and honed writing skills. Mr. Twegbe emphasized correct grammar and perfect spelling. Every class began with a spelling quiz that comprised of five words. It’s not until I read Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue that I realize no other language in the world has more words spelled the same way and yet pronounced differently. The one-to-one correspondence between sound and spelling does not hold true in English. Over a long period of time there is a tendency to compress and mangle words. Despite slip-ups and slurping, we are usually good at distinguishing between the most subtle gradations of sounds. Nut pronunciation does not often correspond to the spelling. Indeed spellings in English can be treacherous, and opportunities for flummoxing so abundant, that even the authorities themselves sometimes stumble. Is it millennium or millenium? Irresistable or irresistible? Despite anomalies, English language possesses three distinguishing features that offset its other shortcomings—the irregularity and anomaly Mr. Twegbe addressed. The consonants are fairly regular in their pronunciation, the language is blessedly free of the diacritical marks that complicate other languages—the umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, etc.—and, above all, English preserves the spelling of borrowed words, so many people of many nations are immediately aware of the meanings of thousands of words which would be unrecognizable if written phonetically.

[749] The Hireling – L.P. Hartley

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” 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

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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]

Reading Nicholas Nickleby

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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

[724] The Bell – Iris Murdoch

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” 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]

[689] Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

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” 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]

[667] Lord of the Flies – William Golding

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” Listen, Ralph. Never mind what’s sense. That’s gone—” (Ch.12: Cry of the Hunters, p.188)

After having missed this book in high school, I have deliberately deferred it because the story of a bunch of brats fending for themselves on an island (think the show Survivors but younger cast) just doesn’t appeal to me. But Lord of the Flies is more than a simple adventure story of boys on a desert island. In fact, the implications of the story go far beyond the degeneration of a few children. Set in an unspecified war period, a plane crashes, leaving a group of schoolboys stranded on an uninhabited island. It’s a dream come true that they are alone free from adults’ nagging—except now they have to sustain on their own.

In a moment the platform was full of arguing, gesticulating shadows. To Ralph, seated, this seemed the breaking up of sanity. Fear, beasts, no general agreement that the fire was all-important: and when one tried to get the thing straight the argument sheered off, bringing up fresh, unpleasant matter. (Ch.5: Beast from Water, p.88)

The fair-haired Ralph is elected the chief to ensure order is in place and chores are completed. Exemplary of his leadership skills, Ralph insists on the maintenance of a fire signal so passing ships might spot them. He also builds shelters for the younger boys, known as “littluns”, in the group. The geeky and resourceful Piggy is his think tank. He befriends a choirboy named Jack, who turns out to be kind of a devil incarnate, the antagonist of the story. Both boys grow to loathe each other as the days pass—until when Jack and his hunters kill a sow and believe their role of being hunters could exempt themselves from other duties. With Jack getting hungrier for power, what was initially thought of as a blissful escape from the adults develops into something more sinister and unsettling.

Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are? (Ch.8, Gift for the Darkness, p.143)

To say the least the book is about loss of innocence. To accentuate such grim loss Golding uses half-formed boys, not men, who are perched between civilization and savagery in order to embody the central conflict between good and evil. The symbolic and metaphysical figure of the Skull, the pig head impaled on a stick the boys sacrificed to the imaginary Beast, identifies itself as Evil. So the book is not about boys becoming independent, but delves into a deeper and more disturbing meaning: the moral shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not only any political system however apparently logical or respectable. Ralph’s respectable idea of parliament and brain trust must come to clash with Jack’s forces of anarchy and the leaning to violence. The basic instincts of a marooned band of children could be translated onto a worldwide scale. Paralyzed by their fear of an unseen creature they call the Beast, they only resort to ritual sacrifices of flesh to appease the Beast. This book is a powerful allegory that recognizes the human capacities for evil and the superficial nature of human moral system.

202 pp. Penguin. Mass Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

L.P. Hartley

L.P. Hartley

I was excited to see new editions Bd re-release of L.P. Hartley’s books. They are UK editions paperbacks. The Go-Between, a story of lost innocence, hypocrisy, and “Britishness”, got me hooked to him. Read in college, it has remained one of my most beloved novels. It’s about books as much as it’s about memory. It’s a good example of the importance of rereading, knowledge and innocence so much part of its structure as to make it a knowingly different book on revisiting. These other titles, completely new to me, will make the perfect reading reading. And of course, they are available at the amazing City Lights Bookstore in the city.