Thursday, November 27, 2008

Vanity Fair's Conclusion (Spoiler Alert!), plus More Alcohol!

I finished "Vanity Fair" today, and to celebrate I'm drinking a glass of rack punch, the drink that did in Joseph Sedley. More on this rack punch in a bit. But first, then end of "Vanity Fair"!

To start, I have to say that Thackeray is one hell of a writer. I just needed make that clear. There's a lot going on at the book's end and I'll just comment on a few things. First, old Dobbin finally grows a pair! Trying to warn Amelia of Becky's nature, Amelia gets pissed at him, and he says, basically, "I'm over it" and leaves Amelia. He gives up on the woman he's been trying to woo for years, realizing that it's hopeless and he's just wasting his time. And so what happens? Of course, Amelia starts realizing how great he's been to her. Yep, it's the old "they want what they can't have", also known as "playing hard to get". As soon as Dobbin tells her off and leaves, Amelia now wants him. Funny how that works. So finally Amelia writes Dobbin and tells him to come back and marry her. And at the same time, Becky actually shows some real emotion and tells Amelia that Dobbin is a great guy and she should go after him, and by the way, her (Amelia's) husband had wanted to run away with Becky and here's the note he wrote to her that proves it and maybe Amelia shouldn't be idolizing him so. Oooh, snap! So Dobbin returns, and Amelia is grateful and they get married and have a daughter and live happily ever after. Well, except Thackeray throws this little tidbit in:

Good-bye, Colonel - God bless you, honest William! - Farewell, dear Amelia - Grow green again, tender little parasite, round the rugged old oak to which you cling!

Parasite!?! OUCH! And yet, it's so true. Dobbin got what he always wanted, and maybe that's not so great. "Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?" God, I love this book.

And then there's Becky. Oh, Becky. I touched upon previously the question of whether she was guilty of not in having an affair with Lord Steyne. While this is an open question, she seems to get more and more evil as the book ends. Or at least, it's implied that she's evil, although again it's mostly hearsay. But something very curious happens at the end of the novel. Becky has taken up with old Joseph Sedley, not in a sexual way, but she has worked the situation so that Sedley is supporting her. Dobbin comes to Sedley's room and tells him he should just leave and not tell Becky, and Joseph says:
He would go back to India. He would do anything; only he must have time: they musn't say anything to Mrs. Crawley: - she'd - she'd kill me if she knew it. You don't know what a terrible woman she is.

Now here's the interesting part: Becky is not in the room, nor is she eavesdropping, when Joseph says all this to Dobbin. At least, that's not mentioned in the text. But Thackeray has an illustration called "Becky's second appearance in the character of Clytemnestra" where she's apparently hiding behind a curtain listening in to this conversation. And several months later Joseph Sedley is dead, and hey, that's a coincidence, Becky gets half the money from his life insurance. So are we to assume Becky killed Joseph? Clytemnestra, for those of you who might not remember their Greek mythology so well, was the wife of Agamenon who murdered him after he returned from the Trojan War. The illustrations (drawn by Thackeray himself) have so far been just illustrations of the scenes in the novel, and yet this one differs from the text. What are we to make of that?

And another curious thing, which, in order to really understand, I'd have to reread the novel, paying close attention to this, is the narrator. I find the narrator of this book quite fascinating. At the novel's beginning, Thackeray talks about being a puppet master, and makes his narrator seem like the all knowing guy who made this shit up. Yet, as the novel moves along, the narrator's voice changes, or maybe just becomes more complex. There are times when the narrator says he doesn't know what happens either inside someone's head, or behind closed doors (and damn it, I didn't write these instances down, so I can't cite them here). And then there's this passage, in Chapter 62, where Dobbin, Amelia, Sedley, and Georgey all go traveling to Germany, and to the town of Pumpernickle. The narrator states:
It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance.

Huh? If the narrator is the omniscient puppet master, how can he just make their acquaintance in an obscure German town? And how can he say every word is true when he's belied that before? I dunno. Maybe he's speaking in more metaphysical terms. Maybe "every word is true" means that his picture of humanity is all true. Or something like that. Or not. My powers of analysis fail me here. Or maybe that's just the rack punch kicking in.

And speaking of rack punch, in honor of this awesome novel I have recreated the drink that kicked Joseph Sedley's ass. First, as I previously posted rack punch refers to Arrack punch, and a recipe for that can be found here. This recipe is from the classic cocktail book "How to Mix Drinks" by Jerry Thomas, written in 1862. It's basically the original bartender's guide. Since it's written just 14 years after "Vanity Fair", we can hopefully assume that the rack punch recipe in the book is the same as the one Thackeray had in mind. Anyway, to make this drink, I first had to find some Arrack. Fortunately, arrack is still available, although hard to find, and I managed to procure a bottle from my local BevMo. The arrack I bought, called Batavia-Arrack, is distilled from sugar cane (98%) and Java red rice (2%). It was distilled in Java, blended in Amsterdam (Java was the Dutch East Indies), and produced in Austria (not sure what "produced" means). It's 50% alcohol (100 proof). I tasted some neat, and it tastes very similar to rum, which you might expect since rum is generally distilled from sugar cane, but there's a definite non-rum taste in there as well, presumably from the rice. The rack punch recipe calls for mixing the Arrack with rum, lemon juice, simple syrup, and water, which I did. I shook the punch in a shaker with ice, and poured into a cocktail glass. The results are shown here:

The verdict: not bad. In fact, I can see how Joseph might have enjoyed a full bowl of this. It's lemony, and sweet but not too sweet, and you can definitely taste the rum and Arrack. But since it's cut with water, it's only about 20% alcohol, so it's pretty smooth and could be drunk at a quick pace. And it packs, no pun intended, a punch. Mmmmm.

One more alcohol obscurity pops up towards the end of "Vanity Fair". When the characters are in the town of Pumpernickle, they and the townspeople are noted at several points to be drinking "small beer". Fortunately, because I am living in San Francisco, I not only know what small beer is, but I have tasted it as well. Small beer is an English invention, dating from the 1700s. When a brewer made a batch of a strongly-flavored beer, they would use lots of malt, hops, and grains. After the beer was made, they would pour off the new batch of beer, and then add more water and yeast to the wort, or grain residue, and then brew a second batch of beer without adding new grain. Because the first batch of beer used up much of the flavorings and sugars in the grain, this second batch, called small beer, would be a more mildly-flavored beer, and would have less alcohol, since there was now less sugar for the yeast to ferment. There is only one small beer I know of that is still made today, and it's produced by the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco. I've only ever seen the beer sold here in San Francisco, but I have had it a few times, and I love it. Anchor Small Beer is very light, and also very bitter, but bitter in that great beer way. It reminds me of a bitter cask ale that one might find on tap in an English pub. Definitely worth seeking out and picking up a bottle or two. And in case you haven't figured it out by now, "Vanity Fair" is definitely worth picking up as well.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Fair Fight

Unbelievably, I am nearing the end of "Vanity Fair"! Just about 70 pages to go, so I should finish it this week. Oh yeah! I'm still enjoying it, but also still having a hard time trying to fit reading into my recent schedule. Ah well. Here are a few of the thoughts I've had while reading the last 100 pages or so:

1. There's a pivotal moment in the plot when Rawdon finds his wife Becky with Lord Steyne. Steyne has carefully gotten rid of everyone around Becky...shipping her son off to a good school, and getting rid of her housekeeper. He then arranges to have Rawdon detained in jail over his debts. Rawdon manages to get out, and comes home to find Becky alone with Lord Steyne. And then...The Smackdown!! Rawdon gives Lord Steyne a taste of his fist, knocking him down, leaving a scar, and acting all manly. And what's Becky's reaction...she's into it! She gets all hot over Rawdon, who she's been scorning for the last 200 pages. Unfortunately he leaves her, because he suspects, with good reason, that she's been going at it with Lord Steyne. But it's weird, her reaction. I guess she likes a good show of testosterone.

2. And another thing about that pivotal moment...was Becky really getting it on with Lord Steyne? Were they having sex or not? It's never clear. Naturally, we are inclined to think the worst of Becky. I said previously that I didn't think she was really evil, but her behavior was getting worse and worse. The other ambiguous thing was the final outcome of the Rawdon/Steyne conflagration. Rawdon is so angry at Steyne for putting the moves on his wife that he challenges him to a duel. Or at least he tries to, but is thwarted by a smooth talking second. And then Steyne makes Rawdon governor of some tropical colony. It's not clear to me if he planned this before The Smackdown or after. Either way, Rawdon ends up taking the position (which has a nice salary and perks) and seems mollifed by arguments suggesting Becky did not sleep with Steyne. Which seems kinda wimpy to me. Rawdon, after a ballsy show of manliness, ends up letting himself be bought out. Par for the course in "Vanity Fair", I suppose.

3. In reading "Vanity Fair" and reflecting back on "The Red and the Black", one realizes just what a big deal Napoleon was for Europe in the early 1800s. After World Wars I and II the Napoleonic wars can seem a little quaint. But they weren't.

4. I really want Amelia and Dobbin to get together. Even though Amelia is an idiot for pining her life away over George and for not appreciating Dobbin, and Dobbin really should have let go of Amelia a long time ago and moved on. But they better hurry...there's only 70 more pages to make it happen.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Still Here!

I am a bad, bad book blogger. I mean, the whole point of this blog is to plow through the greatest literature EVER, with occasional sips of whiskey and a full report of my activities. But unfortunately, my life lately has been mostly work and little literature, albeit still with the occasional sips of whiskey. I'm now a little over 2/3 of the way through "Vanity Fair". Reading a book this slowly is not as great an experience as reading a book quickly. The continuity of the book gets a bit lost; when I pick up the book after not reading for a few days it can take me a few pages to remember what the heck is going on. And this is a long book, so it's getting stretched out even longer. Ah well. I'm hoping my current slow progress through the canon will pick up its pace in the coming weeks, but we'll see.

Anyway, enough self-pitying and whining! Let's talk f$&king literature! Here are a few random thoughts I'm having while continuing my way through "Vanity Fair":

1. What kind of a guy was Thackeray anyway, I wonder? Did people like hanging out with him? Was he ripped off by a bunch of grifters at an early age? I mean, from this book it's clear he's a brilliant writer, and a sharp observer of human nature, and he's got a wicked sense of humor, but he's also got a way cynical view of humankind. It reminds me of the line from an Elvis Costello song: "I used to be disgusted, but now I'm just amused".

2. Finally in Chapter 50, we had an incident that I would describe as poignant. Amelia and her beloved son are living at her parents' house. Actually it's not her parents' house because the parents, since her father's bankruptcy, are living in someone else's house as renters, although they can't make their rent payments since their father is continually losing money through failed business schemes. Amelia realizes her son is not going to get ahead in life by living in poverty. Her dead husband's wealthy father, who hates Amelia's father, has suggested that he should raise the son in order to give him an advantage in life. Amelia is initially repelled by this idea, because her son is all she has left in the world to love since her beloved husband's death. (The husband was kind of a dick, by the way, who never really appreciated her). But as finances get tighter and tighter, she finally decides she has to do what is best for the son, and she lets him go live with his paternal grandfather. This is very touching, because not only is she completely devastated over her sacrifice, but her little boy is pretty psyched about it. He goes away happily, and is looking forward to living as a rich person. The child still has some good nature...he gives away money to a poor begging child who the adults tried to shoo away...but he's also part greedy money-grubber, just like many of the adults in the book. Vanity Fair starts at a young age, I suppose. Perhaps it's even genetic. I'll look into that.

3. Are we supposed to hate Becky Sharp? She cracks me up. There are two full chapters dedicated to explaining how she and her husband can live on no income. You go girl! Currently she's hanging out with Lord Steyne, who is helping her climb the social rungs into the highest levels of society. Becky has her faults, to say the least...she's manipulative, cold, doesn't seem to care at all for her son...but you also have to admire her spunk, her social intelligence, her wits. Her climb in society depends a lot on her natural beauty and talents. She would do quite well in contemporary America, where the class of one's birth matters far less than in Victorian England. If she were alive today I could see her being a major player in Hollywood.

4. This is a great book, and fun to read, so I hate to complain...and maybe it's just me taking way too long to read this book...but there are times I think Thackeray seems to ramble a bit. Of course, it was a serialized novel, so maybe he was just padding it out to fill each installment.

5. Some of the characters in the book drink alcohol mixed with water, as in gin-and-water and rum-and-water. I can't quite figure that out. It reminds me of General Jack Ripper in "Dr. Strangelove" who would only drink grain alcohol and rainwater. Are the characters drinking alcohol diluted with tap water? Or is it carbonated water like club soda, or tonic water, both of which would seem like more tasty options, at least to the modern palate? And did they have ice in the household in England in the very early 1800s? Or were the drinks all at room temperature? I need to look into this.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Fair Question

I hate it when I'm reading along in a book and I read a chapter and suddenly realize I have no idea what the f@#k is going on. This happened to me in chapter 29 of "Vanity Fair" entitled "Brussels". Our cast of characters, Becky and her husband Rawden Crawley, George and his wife Amelia, Captain Dobbin, and Amelia's brother Joseph all go to Belgium, since Napolean is back in France and it's clear a final battle will be coming. This in itself made me, war has sure changed in the past 200 years. All the soldiers were responsible for shipping themselves to Belgium, and many took their wives and families, with other hangers on, like Joseph Sedley, just dressing up in any makeshift uniform they could find and going along just for the parties. And party they did...arriving at Belgium, everyone hangs out drinking and going to fancy balls until the orders to march come down.

But here's the part I didn't understand. The two couples, Rawden and Becky, and Joseph and Amelia, have been good friends. It's true, Rawden and Jopseph gamble together, which usually results in Rawden taking Joseph's money, but still. But then there's this scene at a ball in chapter 29 where Becky and Joseph flirt massively, and Amelia is ignored, except when Becky comes up to Amelia and totally rags all over her. I don't understand where this is coming from. Why is Becky doing this? Is it simple lust? Not likely, because Becky is too calculating for that. Why does Becky turn on her friend like this? There has to be an angle, but I didn't catch it while I was reading.

Nonetheless, this new behavior of Becky's is quite evil, more than we've seen so far, so I take away some of my more benign assessment of her that I proclaimed in my last post.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fairly Slow Going

The corner convenience store at the end of my block closed its doors today. Apparently the landlord wants to put in an art gallery or something, so the store where I buy my newspapers, saltines, and beer got the boot. Yesterday I saw a sign in their window that announced a closing sale with 50% off on all their remaining liquor stock. Naturally, that caught my eye. But when I went in and looked at the shelf, I saw that all they had left were a few bottles of blackberry brandy, butterscotch schnapps, and Hennessy. Not being able to resist a good deal, but not wanting to make myself sick either, I sprung for a bottle of the Hennessy. At 50% off of the usual corner store inflated prices, I figure I probably got the equivalent of a 10% discount off the regular price at any discount liquor store. Nonetheless, as I blog tonight, I'm in a mellow mood, sipping on some fine cognac. Of course, I know nothing at all about cognac, and I don't know if Hennessy is actually considered a fine one or not. I mean, the ads look convincing, and all the hip hop artists drink it, so it has to be pretty good, right? Back me up here, because I really have no idea.

"What's the point of all this rambling?", you may be asking. "Why doesn't he stop this blathering on about store closings and booze and get back to the discussion of "Vanity Fair". He's distracting us from the issue at hand!"

Well, that's correct, and that seems to be my problem at the moment. You see, I've been reading "Vanity Fair" for like what, a month now? And I'm only 250 pages into this 678 page book. Why is that? Well, partly because I've been busy scouring the neighborhood like a vulture looking for boozy bargains at businesses that are going belly up. But partly because I seem to find myself getting distracted when I read this book. I'll sit down to read, and get 2-3 pages into it, and then my mind begins to wander. The next thing I know I'm leaping up off the couch to check on the latest election polls, or to google the name of that song that's running through my head to see who wrote it. And I'm not sure why this is happening, although as a scientist I have several possible hypotheses: (1) I'm losing it, probably due to early onset Alzheimer's, (2) I've got a lot going on in my life, and finding it hard to focus at the moment so just GET OFF MY BACK DAMMIT, (3) the book is boring me silly, or (4) something else. Upon reflection, aided by the Hennessy VS, a cognac which may or may cause cognac connoisseurs everywhere to laugh when they hear that I'm drinking it, I have to say that none of these hypotheses seem accurate except for #4, "something else". I like the novel, and I don't find it boring...not at all, in fact. I think it's more that the language that the book is written in, and by that I mean the sentence structure and the vocabulary, as well as the subtlety and sophistication of the thought, makes this the type of writing that has to be read slowly, and rolled around on the tongue and enjoyed like a fine cognac, in order to be appreciated. This book needs to be savored as well as read, and that takes time. It also tends to make my mind wander, though that's my fault and not Thackeray's. Anyway, it's slow going.

And what about the story? Well, just a couple of notes. First, the humor has changed since the first few pages. It's become more subtle, and frankly more biting. I have to wonder if Thackeray really likes any of his characters. They're all conniving, or money-grubbing, or just silly and oblivious. The only one who's close to being a good and admirable character is Captain Dobbin, who's secretly in love with his best friend George's girl, and convinces George to marry her when he sees that the girl is pining away for him. So he's noble, but he's also somewhat of a milquetoast. I find it interesting to think about the contrast between Thackeray's characters in "Vanity Fair" and Dickens' characters in "Bleak House". Dickens certainly lampooned some of his characters, and made some of them almost cartoon-like, which Thackeray does not do...Thackeray's humor towards his characters has more bite to say his humor is meaner is too strong, but it is more feels to me like there's a hint of darkness to it. Also, in "Bleak House" you have a sentimentality that is lacking, at least so far, in "Vanity Fair" (I'm particularly thinking of Jo's death scene...I can't imagine Thackeray writing that).

Having said all that, none of the characters in "Vanity Fair" are really evil, or anything like that. They're just more like buffoons. Except Becky, who is very cunning. But I can't even say she is evil, because she's merely opportunistic. She's smart and attractive, and she knows it, so she goes about using what she has to better her lot in life. Seems fair to me. Anyway, I seem to be rambling and distracted, so I might as well go back to my reading.