Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why I Wasn't an English Major

Unfortunately I've been quite busy with work this week, so I've only read another sixty pages of "Anna Karenina" since my last entry.  I may be with this book for awhile.

So I just re-read the famous opening sentence of this book, and I finally got it:

"Happy families are all alike: every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

When I first read this, on page one, I thought Tolstoy was just talking about Stiva and Dolly, since the book starts off with the description of their marriage falling apart after Stiva had an affair with the family's governess.  Yet, upon re-reading this line, I realized that there are several families in this book, and all of them are unhappy, and yes, they are all unhappy in their own way.  Duh.  It only took me a week and a half with this book to think of that.

Things aren't looking good for Anna at this point in the book.  Not only is she pregnant, but she's told her husband of her affair, and he's ordered her to stop seeing Vronsky and just pretend like nothing's happened, which she finds intolerable.  Also Vronsky appears to be having money problems, and is perhaps not the ideal young man that Anna (and perhaps the reader) thought he was at first.  Uh oh.  And also, speaking of that first page of the starts out with the words  (in italics) "Vengeance is mine: I shall repay".  Yikes...That can't be good.

Anyway, I'm off to read more, although it's late, and that's a problem.  I love reading before I go to bed, and I used to do that all the time as a kid, but now that I'm a middle-aged guy with one foot in the grave, I have a problem, which is that when I lie down on the couch at night and start to read, I find I'm falling asleep three minutes later.  Seriously, I get about 2 or 3 pages and I quickly fade.  I don't want to sleep, I want to read, but I lie down, hold the book up, read a page, and the next thing I know the book's hitting me in the face.  Maybe if I switched from rye whiskey to Irish coffee...?

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Book #8 - Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy)

Last weekend I started reading a very long book:  Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina".  This puppy clocks in at 930 pages.  And it's a Russian novel.  I worried it would take me about four years to read this one...slowly pondering deep, dark thoughts from the realm of mid-nineteenth century Mother Russia, and stopping every three pages or so to drink myself into a coma with deep gulps of vodka, in order to ward off the bitter cold of the Russian winter which would permeate the pages that rattled in my brain.  But actually the book is coming along nicely, and no vodka has been necessary...I'm 300 pages in already, and I'm finding it quite enjoyable.  The story does not move a long at a quick pace, but that's OK...the characters are all interesting, and Tolstoy spends the time with them to allow the reader to really get to know them.  Indeed that seems to be what this book is about...the inner lives and loves of its main characters.  

There are three couples that are the focus of this book, at least so far.  One is Stiva Oblonsky and his wife Dolly.  When the novel opens, Dolly has just learned of her husband's affair with their French governess, and she's inconsolable, while Stiva seems a little befuddled as to why all this should be a problem.  Stiva calls in his sister, Anna Karenina, to come and talk some sense into his wife.  Anna arrives, and indeed helps patch their marriage back together, at least for the time being.  Meanwhile, Stiva's best friend from school, Konstantin Levin, has decided to propose to Kitty, Dolly's youngest sister.  He does so, only to be rebuffed, as Kitty has fallen in love with a young officer named Vronsky.  But unknown to Kitty, Vronsky has just met and completely fallen in love with Anna Karenina, even though Anna is married.  The love is mutual, and eventually Anna and Vronsky begin to have an affair.  Complications ensue.  Lots of them.

As I said, the book really focuses on the characters.  When Anna and Vronsky finally consummate their relationship, the narrator looks away, not describing the scene directly but merely alluding to it.  And what characters they are.  They are all unhappy, in some way or another.  Anna and Vronsky are tortured by their illicit love.  Levin despairs of Kitty's rejection, and has decided never to marry anyone.  And Stiva and Dolly's marriage seems in constant danger, as Stiva proves to be serially unfaithful to his wife, whom he loves as the mother of his children but is no longer attracted to.  The whole thing could be like a soap opera in a lesser writer's hands, but Tolstoy gives the characters such depth and humanity, that it never goes that way.  Also he takes a good long time in getting to where he's going, which is quite enjoyable.  The novel is long, and moves along slowly, but one never gets bored with the pacing or the intricate world that Tolstoy creates, which is a great achievement.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Book #7 - Silas Marner (George Eliot)

I have to admit, I'm a sentimental f@#k.  Always have been.  I can remember as a kid, sitting on the couch with my mom and watching "The Waltons" on Thursday nights, both of us crying at the end of every show.  And yes, I cried at the end of "Titanic" and "Sleepless in Seattle".  And, most embarrassingly of all, I cried at the end of "Air Bud II: Golden Receiver" (hey, I was drunk and stuck on a cross-country flight...surely that counts as some kind of excuse.  Back me up here).  So why am I admitting to all this?  Because (sigh) it happened again.  F&#king George Eliot and her "Silas Marner".  It's a weeper.  But in a good way.  In a "Sleepless in Seattle" way.

This is the first book by George Eliot I've ever read.  And after reading it, I have to conclude that she's a genius.  This book is almost perfect.  The good guys are rewarded and the bad guys get their due.  All the threads of the story prove to be interwoven, and all are neatly tied up at the end.  The tale is a ripping good one.  And the writing itself is frickin' amazing.  I mean, some sentences are so rich and creamy that reading them is like taking a big bite out of a stick of butter.  Check out the novel's first sentence:

"In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses - and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak - there might be seen, in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race."

Woah!  Now that's good writing.  Or check out this sentence, from page two:

"To the peasants of old times, the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery: to their untraveled thought a state of wandering was a conception as dim as the winter life of the swallows that came back with the spring; and even a settler, if he came from distant parts, hardly ever ceased to be viewed with a remnant of distrust, which would have prevented any surprise if a long course of inoffensive conduct on his part had ended in the commission of a crime; especially if he had any reputation for knowledge, or showed any skill in handicraft."

Wow!  I need to read a sentence like that a couple of times, just to suck all the nuance out of it.  And that whole thing is just ONE sentence!  Who writes like that anymore?  How many people ever did?  I could never write anything like that.  I am in awe.  Plus, hey, two semicolons and a colon IN THE SAME SENTENCE!  I remember in the sixth grade my English teacher, Miss Brand, had us diagramming sentences...well, it would have taken me two days to diagram that one.  The language is so beautiful, and complex, and yet it all fits.  Eliot is a master.  I raise my glass of fine, single-barrel bourbon in her direction.  You go girl!

This book's got it all...class conflict, love, betrayal, death, opium addiction.  I hate to go into plot details in case you haven't read this one, so I'll be brief.  Basically, Silas Marner is member of a dissenting Protestant sect in a small English village.  He's respected by the community and is in love with a woman he hopes to marry.  But his best friend frames him for a theft he didn't commit, and he is cast out of the town, conveniently allowing his friend to marry his now ex-girlfriend.  He moves to the isolated country town of Raveloe and becomes a weaver.  Flash-forward 16 years.  Silas lives in a backwoods cabin in Raveloe, leading a solitary life as a weaver.  He has minimal contact with the townsfolk.  His only joy is the money he has made from weaving, which he hoards beneath the floorboards and carefully counts at night when the weaving is done.  But then BAM, the delinquent son of the local rich man steals his money one night when Silas is out of the cabin.  Silas is inconsolable.  He seeks help from the townsfolk, but they're not much help.  Then one night, the secret wife of the brother of the son of the local rich guy (who stole Silas's money) dies in front of Silas's cabin in a snowstorm, and her two year old daughter wanders in to Silas's cabin and falls asleep by the fire, unbeknownst to Silas who's having one of his catatonic fits.  He awakens, sees the child's gold locks, and thinks his money has returned (he's got bad eyes due to all the weaving).  He quickly realizes it's not his gold, but a child!  His gold has mysteriously disappeared, and this child has mysteriously appeared!  Hmmm.  So he adopts the child, and through her he is forced out of his solitude and into the community.  He is redeemed.  The good guys are rewarded, and the bad guys (the sons of the local rich dude) are punished.  All is right in the world.  If the reader is of the sentimental type, (s)he cries.  The End.

One could easily compare this story to something like "Sleepless in Seattle".  All works out in the end despite terrible things that happen in the middle that convince one that maybe all is doomed.  This is not a tragedy.  It's not even real life.  It's almost like a fable.  Yet while "Sleepless in Seattle" is a fine movie, and is better written than most movies of it's genre, no one would claim it's a work of genius.  "Silas Marner" is, though.  The word "craft" comes to mind.  The plot may be highly improbable, and it all works out a bit too neatly, but the writing and the craft of the story make up for it.  Everything fits together.  This is a moral tale, a fable almost, and a hell of a good read.  If you've never read it, I strongly recommend you crack it open, and spend a couple of evenings with it.  Seriously.  Enjoy this brilliant piece of writing.  But make sure you have some tissues handy.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Still More Red and Black Thoughts

Mulling the book over one thought has struck me:  Julien's just a kid!  He does some dumb, crazy, hypocritical things in the book, but he never lost my sympathy, and I think that's in a large part because he's young and naive and just doesn't know any better.  He tries to be the Machiavellian figure, all manipulative and controlling, and yet he can't keep up the facade for very long before his emotions come crashing through (examples: collapsing in tears at Madame de Renal's feet when he can't figure out how to seduce her (and oops, this is exactly the move that works), and his shooting of Madame de Remal).  And I think part of his attraction to Madame de Renal is as a mother figure, in a way.  She's older than him, and at the end he refers to their bond as "filial" (at least in the translation I read).  Like many young men, he's full of bravado and bluster, but short on the worldly knowledge to pull his ambitions off in the end.  Poor kid

And does anyone in this book come out looking good in the end?  I can't think of anyone.

But enough about Julien, I'm on to the next book.  Next up:  Silas Marner.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Red, The Black, The End (Spoiler Alert!!)

I finished "The Red and the Black" tonight.  If you haven't read the book, and don't want to know how it ends, then stop reading now.

OK, you're still here, and don't mind me discussing the end of the book?  Great, here we go then.  HOLY F*#$&*#%!!  Man, I did NOT see any of that coming!  Wow!  The last 100 pages or so of this book were really awesome.  I said before that this book didn't get to me the way some of the others had.  Well, screw that...Stendhal really came through in the homestretch.  Way to go, dude!

Julien's plan to make Mathilde jealous by pretending to be falling for another woman worked like a charm.  She goes completely nuts for him.  He holds out, keeping her at arms length, and it drives her even more wild.  Finally he gives in and they go for it.  But then, oops, she's pregnant.  (And as an aside, Stendhal just sort of mentions this abruptly, in an off-hand way, which cracked me up).  Mathilde decides to tell her father, which freaks Julien out, but he agrees there's not much choice.  He could easily ruin both of them.  Well, of course, dad freaks out bigtime, but calms down after awhile, and decides to get Julien a title and an army officer post.  Julien goes to his unit, and expects to marry Mathilde, and get lots of money from Monsieur de la Mole...all will be awesome, and his ambitions will be filled.  But meanwhile, dad wants to check to be sure Julien isn't just a golddigger, so he makes some inquiries into Julien's past, and gets a letter from Madame de Renal, saying Julien is indeed a seducer and corruptor of women, and is only in it for money and power.  So naturally, Monsieur de la Mole calls off the wedding and vows Julien will get nothing.  Mathilde tells Julien what happened, and Julien rides off on his horse.  Two pages later, he shoots Madame de Renal while she's in church.  That was a shocker.  I think it's interesting that he shoots her in church...the whole military vs. church thing (red vs. black) is a constant theme in the book, and this fits right in with that.

Anyway, Julien turns himself in, says he's guilty and it was all premeditated and they should kill him.  He keeps saying this even after he learns Madame de Renal is OK, just wounded a bit in the shoulder.  He goes to trial, is found guilty, and awaits his execution in prison.  But lots is going on while all this is happening.  Both Mathilde and Madame de Renal visit him frequently in prison.  Mathilde is crazier than ever about him, especially because this whole thing fits into her romantic fantasies of an ancestor of hers whose lover was beheaded.  She's eating this up.  And Julien, suddenly sobered up, realizes he does not care for Mathilde.  In fact, he realizes he's been an ambitious, hypocritic fool, and that he's loved Madame de Renal all along.  They have some scenes together, and are reconciled.  Then he's executed, and Mathilde buries him.  Madame de Renal dies a few days later of heartbreak.  Heady stuff (no pun intended).

So much happens in the last few chapters, it's hard to catch my breath.  But here are a few observations and thoughts:

1.  Stendhal really rips into the church.  A priest is the one who told Madame de Renal that she must write the letter to Julien that leads to his downfall.  Indeed, the priest actually writes the letter, and Madame de Renal has to cut out some of it because it's too much.  Another priest camps out by the prison until Julien will let him take his confession, and it's shown that the priest is only out for fame and money.  There is a concerted effort to bribe officials into releasing Julien, by both Madame de Renal and Mathilde, and much of the bribery and political machinations have to do with getting people positions as bishops and other high posts in the church.  And on it goes.

2.  Julien goes through a lot in the last 30 pages or so.  In fact, I need to read these pages again to try to make sense of it all.  But Julien really seems to come clean...he admits he's been hypocritical, he renounces his ambition, and he realizes his true love was for Madame de Renal.  He'd done some pretty crazy stuff, especially at court in Paris, and I started to hate him...but he changes at the end.  He even puts down Napoleon, saying he resorted to "charlatanism" at Saint-Helena...I'm not sure what he means here, but for Julien to be putting down Napoleon is a big deal.  And Julien is resigned and accepting of his fate.  Indeed, he does nothing to try to appeal, or to escape (which Stendhal hints was possible).  I'm not completely sure why, but I'm guessing he sees this as some kind of based on personal character, not on class.

3.  A commentor on one of my previous posts notes that Julien has a certain charisma.  I wholeheartedly agree, and this again comes out in full force at the end.  Previously, he shows his charisma by attracting the attentions of Madame de Renal and Mathilde (even though he really doesn't know what he's doing with them, and succeeds in seducing them almost in spite of himself), and with devotion from the priests who are his mentors, as well as from Monsieur de la Mole.  At the trial, hordes of young women come to watch and weep over him in the courtroom.  One feels like it's the 1830 version of a modern media event, like the OJ trial or the Lacy Peterson case.  Napoleon supposedly had a great personal charisma as well.  But his gave him a better ride than Julien's.

Well, I need mull this all over some more.  But what a great ending.  I think I'll go have some fine rye whiskey to calm me down.  And think about which book to read next...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

More Red, More Black

I've got about 80 pages left to go in "The Red and the Black".  Some thoughts I had while reading today:

1.  Stendhal is funny.  The book is written in the third person, but every once in awhile he'll jump out and make some comment or so on the action or the characters.  At one point Monsieur de la Mole's daughter (Mathilde) is doing something scandalous, and Stendhal adds a sentance saying "Hey, chill out...I know she's crazy but she's just a fictional character".  This guy cracks me up.  And it's weird that he wrote this in 1830...that seems like such a post-modern thing to do.

2.  Julien has fallen crazy in love with Mathilde and is behaving quite recklessly.  Now he's trying to make her jealous by pretending to woo another woman.  I thought he had figured out she was crazy.  What is it about the craziness of love?  Although the situations are quite different, I'm reminded of "Of Human Bondage".  Is "crazy love" a common theme of great literature?

3.  There's so much about class in this book.  It makes one realize that even though there's class in America, it's so not like it was in 1830 France.  The class system described in the book is so rigid that it's hard to comprehend.  Class in America today, while it exists, is potentially very fluid...One always has the potential to move up, or down.  It's easy to take that for granted.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Red, The Black, The Few, and The Proud

I was on the east coast most of this past week for a science conference, so I haven't been able to spend as much time as I would like with "The Red and the Black".  I'm now about 3/5 of the way through it.  The story so far: Julien Sorel is a French working class youth in a small provincial town, the son of a carpenter (and this is emphasized a few times...wasn't Jesus the son of a carpenter too??).  He's ambitious and proud.  His hero is Napoleon, who was born to the lower classes yet rose to rule France due to his abilities rather than his birthright.  Julien gets a job as a tutor for the children of the wealthy mayor of his town.  Antics ensue, culminating in Julien's seduction of the mayor's wife.  They have a passionate affair, until they are discovered.  They manage to convince the mayor that nothing is happening between them, but for the sake of appearances with the townsfolk, Julien must leave.  He goes to a monastery to become a priest, and is hated by all the fellow students...he's smart and he's proud and he doesn't fit in.  Through the head priest, who has come to respect him, he gets a position as the personal secretary to a real upper class French aristocrat, Monsieur de la Mole (love the name!) in Paris.  So Julien leaves the provinces and heads to Paris to seek his glory, but not before sneaking back into the mayor's house for one last quickie with his wife.  He is caught, and almost gets shot, but escapes.  In Paris, he lives in the de la Mole mansion, and becomes a favorite of his boss.  Lots more antics ensue...mostly antics of manners as Julien tries to fit in with the upper class salon society where he now finds himself.  His natural intelligence and his learning carry him far, but he's still pretty much of a rube in many ways.  And in the last few pages I've read, he's starting to develop a mutual attraction for Monsieur de la Mole's daughter, who is bored with her high society existence.  She is attracted to Julien's pride and intelligence, and to the fact that he's different from the well-bred society folk.  He is deeper, and has actual aspirations.  We'll see where it goes between the two, but I have a bad feeling about all this.

Julien is a fascinating character, although as I said before, there are many instances where he does and thinks and says things and I'll have no idea where he's coming from.  I'm not sure if he's odd, or if the writing is odd, or if it's just that people had different motivations back then.  Probably a combination.  Still, you can't help but like the guy...he's clearly very intelligent, and he's very ambitious, but he's also young and very reckless and doesn't really have a plan on how to get ahead in life as he'd like to.  In fact, while it's clear that he's ambitious, it's unclear as to what he's ambitious to do.  Does he want to be another Napoleon?  Seems unlikely, especially as one of his motivations for joining the church is to get ahead in life (he doesn't join it out of religious devotion, that's for sure).  Does he want money, or power?  No, I rather suspect that this is more of a youthful "I want to change the world" thing, and he has no idea how to change the world nor even what changes need to be made (except maybe bring back Napoleon or someone like him).

One fun aspect of this book is the description of the life in the court of Monsieur de la Mole.  The evenings are filled with aristocratic guests, many of whom are sycophants, and many of whom don't seem to be particularly bright or witty.  Everyone is unfailingly polite, even as they are putting one another down and cutting one another to pieces.  It sounds pretty awful.  I was impressed, though, that when a Parisian baron throws a ball, the guests don't arrive until midnight.  Reminds me of the New York club scene.  Some things never change, I suppose.  Seems surprising though, since they didn't have electric lights back then.  Maybe there's some gene in humans that makes partying seem better late at night.

Anyway, this book's not as easy a read as the previous ones, but it's quite interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out.  But the combination of Julien's inherent recklessness while inside the court of a powerful aristocratic family does not bode well.