Saturday, November 11, 2006
Thanks all for your good service. We will meet again in January on the Street of Crocodiles. Now go and be free.
Friday, November 03, 2006
At any rate, there are three books I'd enjoy reading with the group: Bruno Schulz's The Street of Crocodiles; L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between; and Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika. I assume we're all considering taking part in the Classics Challenge in January and February, and any of these titles count would count toward that as a modern classic.
The Street of Crocodiles is a novella by a Polish writer who was killed by the Nazis during WWII. If you're a fan of Calvino or Garcia Marquez, if you like your stories Kafkaesque, if you're in the mood for something poetic and odd, then this appears to be your baby. I've wanted to read it since Nicole Krauss referenced it in The History of Love last year.
In July my father went to take the waters and left me, with my mother and elder brother, a prey to the blinding white heat of the summer days. Dizzy with light, we dipped into that enormous book of holidays, its pages blazing with sunshine and scented with the sweet melting pulp of golden pears.
The prologue to The Go-Between begins with a line I'm sure you've heard before: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
An old man looks back half a century to the adolescent summer that changed the course of his life. Proustian memories triggered by the unearthing of an old diary. The loss of innocence at the height of Empire. An Ian McEwan plot and an Evelyn Waugh setting. The Heinemann Foundation Prize of the Royal Society of Literature and an internationally successful film.
'Has the twentieth century,' I should ask, 'done so much better than I have? When you leave this room, which I admit is dull and cheerless, and take the last bus to your home in the past, if you haven't missed it--ask yourself whether you found everything so radiant as you imagined it. Ask yourself whether it has fulfilled your hopes. You were vanquished, Colston, you were vanquished, and so was your century, your precious century that you hoped so much of.'
Elspeth Huxley's family moved to Kenya when she was six to start a coffee plantation.
We were going to Thika, a name on a map where two rivers joined. Thika in those days--the year was 1913--was a favorite camp for big-game hunters and beyond it there was only bush and plain. If you went on long enough you would come to mountains and forests no one had mapped and tribes whose languages no one could understand. We were not going as far as that, only two days' journey in the ox-cart to a bit of El Dorado my father had been fortunate enough to buy in the bar of the Norfolk hotel from a man wearing an Old Etonian tie.
Have any of you already read this memoir? I can't remember. I read Huxley's novel Red Strangers a couple years back and loved it.
Leave your preferences in comments.
Monday, October 30, 2006
Sand's prefaces inform me that the novel is about societal oppression of the individual, the injustice of marriage laws, and can be regarded as a way of fighting against the public opinion that slows the modification of these. Well, yes. Indiana is sorely oppressed--she's had no education and she's married off to a much older man whom she detests-- and society turns against her when she attempts to leave her husband for the silver-tongued devil who's stolen her heart. But I evidently require my fictional victim of society to make more of an attempt to better her lot in life than Indiana can manage. Indiana's primary problem is she lives long before she can be prescribed a lengthy course of antidepressants. Her depression is the true oppressor, and it appears to be genetic in origin, since her cousin Ralph's solution to problems usually involves an attempt at suicide.
And since I've brought up the subject of suicide, may I just say how weird I found Ralph and Indiana's great plan to end their lives? They hit upon the notion in Paris, travel by slow boat to Bourbon Island, and it never once crosses either of their minds during all this time that the "angel of Abraham and Tobias" does not condone suicide, that the eternity they plan to spend together is not going to be "in God's bosom." I'm assuming based on the mention of Tobias that they are Catholic; depression is clearly preventing them from thinking the least bit clearly.
And sometimes I wonder just how clearly Sand was thinking. At times Indiana seems lacking in inner consistency. We begin the novel believing M. Delmare, Indiana's husband, to be very abusive and violent; she begs him not to kill Ralph's dog when he complains that the dog needs to be put outside in the kennel: "Had anyone then observed Madame Delmare closely, he might have guessed the painful secret of her whole life in the trivial, commonplace incident." Yet later much time is spent establishing that Indiana could have had total control over her husband if she'd made the least effort to do so. By the time M. Delmare finds and reads Indiana's cache of love letters from Raymon, I'd begun to feel rather sorry for him. He's gruff and possibly verbally abusive, but he's clearly never even had relations with his young wife (why couldn't she have her marriage annulled, by the way? Was this simply not done in France at the time?) and suffers from so many ailments of the old and afflicted, that I was rather inclined not to find his subsequent act of violence against Indiana nearly as horrific as I expect I ought to have done. Dementia patients aren't held accountable for their violent outbursts in the same way a younger person's would be, and when M. Delmare collapses and dies soon after, I felt a bit sorry for him. He'd been acting childish for quite some time.
Indiana is described as such a wet noodle that I was surprised when she's presented as an enthusiastic hunter: how can she gallop and presumably jump a hunter (an unknown one at that) when she's so weak and frail? And if she's such an expert, why ever was she so disturbed that her husband had killed a hunting dog (that she wasn't fond of) when it proved unmanageable? We learn a lot about the characters on the hunt, and M. Delmare's fall provides an opening for Raymon to ingratiate himself into the family, but this is the point when I really wanted to abandon the book--why couldn't Sand have established earlier that Indiana loved to ride, it wouldn't have taken more than a sentence or two to do so. I lost confidence in her here.
And why are we supposed to believe in the narrator, when it is finally revealed to us who the narrator is? Raymon's thoughts and motivations, the same as Noun's, could never be known by such a narrator, nor from the character who told the story to him. Much of the story we've been told is undermined by revealing who the narrator is, yet I don't believe we're meant to regard him as unreliable.
I don't believe I'll be reading any more George Sand, but I feel like such a philistine since everyone else liked this one!
(Cross posted at pages turned)
Sunday, October 29, 2006
To truly appreciate George Sand's novel, Indiana, I feel as though I need to have read at least some of Balzac's novels as well as some of Sand's later works, have some background knowledge of French politics and society ca. 1830, knowledge of realist French literature, and a basic understanding of Freudian theory (sheesh this man pops in literature all over the place...I must read up on him, I guess). Well, upon reading the introduction to the novel and some criticism, I feel that way anyhow. What you would think is simply a novel of romance and betrayal has so many undercurrents and themes running through it, it is leaving my head spinning. I wish I could say now I am going to annotate these various subjects to you, in easy understandable prose, but alas, I don't think I am entirely up to that. I couldn't even find a decent picture of Bourbon Island to snatch and share with you here (where part of the novel is set).
So, instead, let me tell you a little bit about this thin little novel. I will try not to give too much away, but if you plan on reading Indiana, beware of possible spoilers.
Indiana is a young woman, born on Bourbon Island and married off to a much older man (your basic loveless marriage). I'm not sure what happened to her mother or her father, but she has been raised primarily by an older cousin, Ralph. She also is very close to Noun, her maid, who was raised alongside her. Both are Creoles. When we meet Indiana she is living in France with her husband and the phlegmatic (as he is described in the book), Ralph. There is an intruder on the estate--M. Delmare (Indiana's husband) goes off to investigate and perhaps "do away" with the villain. The villain, wounded, is brought into the house--enter stage left, Raymon--our seducer. Not to worry. Surely he is no villain. He gives a rather corny excuse as to why he was there, but really he is their aristocratic and very attractive neighbor. Shall I tell you why he really was there? He doesn't just seduce Indiana, he has already done the dirty with her maid. Indiana doesn't know this, and by the time she finds out, it is already too late and she will be in love with him. It took me until the end of the novel to figure out (and later confirm in the introduction) that Indiana actually remains virginal all the way to the end.
What I found interesting about this novel was the "mirroring" of themes--(thanks to Litlove for the heads up). Indiana and Noun are almost twins/two parts of a whole.
"Noun was Madame Delmare's 'milk sister'; brought up together, these two young women loved each other tenderly. Noun was tall, strong, beaming with health, alert, and full of ardent, passionate Creole blood; her shining beauty eclipsed the pale and frail charms of Madame Delmare; but the goodness of their hearts and the strength of their mutual attachment eliminated all feeling of rivalry."
According from my extra readings that is not the only parallel. Indiana and Ralph are considered "doubles" as well. Ralph, M. Delmare and Raymon are considered a set and the mirror of them is Indiana, Noun and Laure de Nangy. How does an author fill one small novel with so much "stuff"? Do they set out to do this intentionally? Or is it the critics who later dig it all up pick it apart and infuse the meaning they think they see? Sand didn't have the benefit of Freud to know some of this stuff, but I guess whatever it is that we all have swimming around in our subconscious is there (we just don't know about it). I didn't like the idea that Indiana and Ralph's coming together at the end was considered incestuous. I know he was meant to be brother-like throughout much of the novel, but they weren't really, so I'd rather not go there. And I haven't even mentioned the whole theme of marriage and subjugation of women in this enterprise (I can't leave out the feminists). You see, there is simply too much to tackle in one short post.
But I can say I enjoyed this novel. I might have eventually read Sand, but then again I might not have gotten around to reading her anytime soon. I thought she would be a good choice for the Slaves to read and discuss, and it seems like there will be lots to discuss! I liked the character, Indiana, but why do women always fall for these jokers? I suppose he seemed decent enough. The reader got to see his other side, and every time I would just shake my head! I am glad that it didn't end badly, as I suspected in that last chapter. And I agree with Stefanie about poor Ophelia. I hate it when authors let bad things happen to animals! You can read more about Indiana here! And maybe there will be discussion here (not sure how we get a forum set up?)?
What a whirlwind of a book Indiana is! Illicit love, running away, suicide, silent suffering and more. The book is about a lot of things but what sticks with me most is the selfishness. All the characters are selfish in one way or another and they all suspect each other of it but never themselves. The only one who is honest about his selfishness is M. Delmare. He admits it pretty early in the book when arguing with Sir Ralph:
I'm selfish; that's well known. I've got used to not being ashamed of that any more and, after analysing all the virtues, I've discovered self-interest to be the basis of them all. Love and devotion, which are apparently two generous emotions, are perhaps the most self-interested of all, and patriotism is no less, you may be sure. I've no great love for mankind, but I wouldn't want to make that obvious for anything in the world; for my fear of men is in proportion to the little esteem I have for them. So we're both selfish, but I admit it and you deny it.M Delmare doesn't know how he has hit the nail on the head with this one. Sir Ralph has been secretly in love with Indiana since they were children. He considers his silent devotion all for her benefit. But Indiana describes Ralph's character to Raymon at one point as selfish. Raymon too is described as an egotist (selfish) on several occasions. His wooing of Indiana is nothing but selfish. He claims to love her but what he really loves is the conquest and is even called a "Lovelace" at one point.
The only one never considered selfish is Indiana, but I think she is the most selfish of all. She is not an educated woman but she is not stupid. She is nineteen, married to a man twice her age and supremely unhappy. She wants nothing more than to die so as to end her suffering. She is always ill and on the brink of death but makes a remarkable recovery when something of interest to her happens. Sir Ralph plays along with her illness which only encourages it. M. Delmare is highly annoyed by it, doesn't understand it but doesn't know what to do about it other than be gruff and force Indiana to do things she doesn't want to.
There is nothing more selfish than suffering unnecessarily, dragging all who are around you down with you. If Indiana is not suffering from illness she is suffering for the love of Raymon. She is pulled along by "the magnetic power of suffering." The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. Indiana makes herself suffer needlessly. If she showed as much spirit with M. Delmare as she does with Raymon, she'd have her husband wrapped around her finger, "but Indiana was disheartened by her lot; she made no effort to try and make it better."
Emerson says, "the selfish man suffers more from his selfishness than he from whom that selfishness withholds some important benefit." The story of Indiana seems to prove that. Ralph and Indiana end up with the best lot. Even so, they are still selfish, living like hermits and spending their money on freeing slaves as though that will atone for everything.
But I do recommend it if you haven't read it and are interested. It's a good story, and it takes up a lot of interesting ideas, chief among them, for me, about women's lot in a society run by men. Indiana doesn't get a great education and she doesn't have much experience in the world. A lot of what she learned about matters such as love and marriage come from novels -- always a sign of danger to come. It is a long and venerable tradition to use a novel to warn against novel reading.
She is married at 16 to an older man so she has no time to explore life and look around her as an adult. She lives in a time when emotional displays are valued in women, but rationality is not; Indiana seems not to have had the opportunities to develop her mind and the male characters seem lacking in the ability to value emotion. How is she to judge Raymon when he comes along? How is she to know she should stay far, far away? She has no real grounding from which to make sense of her situation.
And what an odd situation it is. She is married to Colonel Delmare, a jealous and violent man; she is watched over by the reserved and mysterious Ralph, a childhood friend; and she is pursued by the charming but untrustworthy Raymon. Her closest female friend dies early in the novel, leaving her quite alone. So the men vie for her attention and she falls for Raymon, not realizing that he is incapable of returning her love. The novel becomes the story of Indiana slowly making that realization -- that she is a much better, stronger person than the one she loves -- and dealing with the consequences.
I was shocked at the descriptions of Delmare's violence toward Indiana. This struck me as a harsher, more direct condemnation of men's power over women than I'm used to seeing in novels of the time period. Stefanie pointed out the horrifying scene when the dog Ophelia is brutally killed, and I think you can see this as an echo of what happens to Indiana herself -- she is portrayed as an innocent creature brutally struck down by a cruel world.
Ralph is an odd character, with his perfectly impassive face and his seeming heartlessness, although we learn by the end of the novel that seeing him as heartless is a mistake. But through most of the novel he hovers about, shadowing Indiana and rescuing her repeatedly, but not making clear his intentions or his role until the novel's end. And what makes Ralph an even odder character is his semi-incestuous relationship with Indiana. He's described as being her brother, her guardian, and her lover. In this sense, I'm not sure what it means that Indiana ends up with him at the end -- has she found her true love, or has she settled for something more familiar and calm and safe?
I understand that the novel's ending is controversial. The question seems to be whether we should see Indiana as subdued once again by the patriarchy -- she seems lifeless and spiritless at the end -- or whether this is actually a hopeful ending, illustrating how one woman escaped from the two men who caused her so much pain and established a comfortable life devoted to helping others. For she and Ralph decide to spend their time and energy and money buying the freedom of slaves.
I feel conflicted about this. It was my impression as I read that Indiana's voice and energy were written out of the text; in the final pages Ralph tells her story and all she seems to do is retire early to bed. This didn't seem like the Indiana of the earlier part of the novel. On the other hand, though, she has escaped, and, most importantly, escaped alive and she will live on to affect the lives of many people -- those slaves that she and Ralph are working to free. We are led through the novel to expect her death and to see death as her only option, but the novel's final word thwarts this expectation.
I'll be curious to see what others have to say about this.
Saturday, September 02, 2006
Stefanie tagged me to choose the next book that the Slaves of Golconda will be reading. I posted a few reading possibilities recently, and in the end drew George Sand's Indiana out of a hat. Of course I always agonize over decisions like this. It isn't just a case of I hope I will like the book, but I am choosing something that others will read as well. Will everyone like it? Will it be a good book for discussion? The only guideline is that we have been reading classics each time around. Since we have had a good share of male authors lately, I thought it was time to read a woman author, and I had wanted it to be an international author as well (non-American, and non-British--since we have concentrated on these types books).
So it is with some trepidation that I announce the Slaves will be reading Indiana by George Sand! According to 500 Great Books by Women (a wonderful reference book by the way):
"Indiana is the first of many novels written by George Sand, a woman whose
behavior was often considered more shocking than her writing. Seen as a
denouncement of marriage when it was published, the novel is the story of a
naive, love-starved woman abused by her much older husband and deceived by a
Shall we say posts will be due October 29? Of course anyone is welcome to read along. The text of Indiana is available online here and post about the book and discuss--please consider it!. There is still a lively discussion going on at The Metaxu Forum over our latest book by H.G. Wells. You can also read individual posts on the book at The Slaves of Golconda blog.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
He spent his first month in a neonatal intensive care unit across town before being transferred to the hospital closest to us until he'd gained enough weight to leave hospitals altogether. A NICU is, of course, a miraculous place of care and compassion, but it is also a place where much pain is experienced.
S. fought against a respirator that insisted on forcing breath in and out at a rate to which his body didn't want to conform; with his face contorting in silent screams, he was continually pricked and poked for blood samples, then transfused with fresh blood when he couldn't make enough to keep up with the amount taken (the scars on his wrists and ankles from the blood-taking did not fade away for more than a decade afterwards). Repeat.
Wired, tubed, and for several days blindered, he suffered. The painful procedures continued until eventually we--doctors, nurses, parents-- could tell that he was not only going to survive, but thrive.
Not all the babies did. There were those of two or three years of age, still in no shape to live outside NICU, abandoned by their parents, depending upon volunteers and scraps of time from the nursing staff for a bit of human contact. And there were several who lasted mere hours or days before they died.
A nurse caught me finger-stroking S.'s tiny arm on one of my first trips to the NICU. Did I not realize how much pain I was causing him? she snapped. Because he had no fat stores, the lightest touch was an assault to the nerve endings just underneath his skin. She taught me to cup my hand around him and to keep it still.
A couple weeks later I saw a new mother stroking her baby the way that I had. I waited for a nurse to correct her, but no one said a word. I knew then that her baby was going to die. No one was going to deny her the bit of comfort she could gain from touching him, even if her touch caused him distress, because these moments with the baby were going to be all that she had.
As you've maybe gathered by such an introduction, I responded to The Island of Doctor Moreau on a very personal level. If a person, if an animal, is to suffer by someone's hands in a House of Pain, it had better be for a damned good reason.
Moreau, well regarded in scientific circles in London prior to the publication of a pamphlet that exposed his cruel methods of vivisection, left England for a private island in the Pacific where he could continue his experiments outside the strictures of society. By cutting and mutilating and grafting he molds an assortment of animals into a tribe of Beast People, teaching them rudimentary language and a form of religious law designed to keep them under his control even after he has turned them out for retaining undesired animal characteristics. Imperfection really bums the man out.
Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say: this time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.
Moreau isn't driven to mold animals into human shapes out a desire to help either man or creature, but merely because he wants "to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape." Ethics are not of interest to him: "The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature," he claims. Pain is immaterial; it is animalistic; intellectual desire transforms others into problems to be solved, nothing more or less.
Doctor Moreau is, in short, as psychopathic as they come despite the god-like appearance and demeanor that Wells has given him.
Edward Prendick, our narrator, is no match for him. Because Prendick, a shipwrecked gentleman taking shelter on Moreau's private island, has dabbled in natural history and studied biology under the famed T.H. Huxley, Moreau eventually reveals the truth about his experiments to someone he assumes can appreciate them and will henceforth stop hindering his work due to silly behavior. Instead Prendick is horrified, but offers weak and minimal objection. He reminds me of a journalist who lands an exclusive interview and then is afraid to ask any follow-up questions to the canned nonsense he's given. Time and again I wished the narrator were someone like Patrick O'Brian's Stephen Maturin, someone who both understood the science and was willing to argue the ethics of a situation, to insist that being human means behaving humanely toward those not on your level. Someone who could at least read the Greek and Latin classics shelved near his hammock instead of revealing yet another skill he's lacking.
Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the hands. But now that seemed to be the lesser part. Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me.
Had Moreau had any intelligible object I could have sympathized at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even had his motive been hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless. His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on, and the things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer; at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves, the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another, the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.
In these days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear of Moreau. I fell indeed into the morbid state, deep and enduring, alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau by his passion for research, Montgomery by his passion for drink, the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.
I'd like to read more H.G. Wells and I intend to return to this one again as well, possibly in a few weeks with S. My response to it next time may not be quite as visceral. Perhaps I'll see Prendick in a more appreciative light; he does makes an excellent narrator even though his passive nature infuriated me on my first reading.
(Cross posted with pages turned)
- Indiana by George Sand
- All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (this might be a bit harder to find--she is also known as an essayist)
- Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
- Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskill
- The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
I had thought about adding Marguerite Duras to the list, but most of her fiction appears to be out of print here (except The Lover, which is a very slender book and would be quick to read--I had thought of The Vice Counsel with The Lover being extra credit, but oh well).
Originally I was just going to choose international women authors, but was I not looking in the right place? I can't seem the find many foreign classics by women (not contemporary authors)--is not that much translated. There seem to be plenty of male authors out there in translation. Any thoughts?
I was talking to my father the other day about invention. From the beginning of history, people conducted their lives in similar ways. For thousands of years, news traveled the same way, wars were fought the same way, food was cooked the same way. Then in the mid-1800s, the world changed. People went to sleep one dreamfilled night in what could have been 1625 and awoke to a world that they didn't recognize. Trains, the telegraph and later indoor electricity. The Victorians were on the doorstep of the modern world. They were the first through the door. And the advent of modern science was the umbrella that covered their contemporary lives.
Yes, Darwin changed the way people thought of humans and therefore thought of themselves. His studies allowed for people to begin experiencing life like never before. Dimensions to worlds unknown opened up. Seances and spiritualism became common. Victorians were expanding their spiritual and religious realm. If what they thought about themselves had been altered by science, then maybe what they thought or knew of the dead and the soul, was different as well.
But it was writers like H.G. Wells, that uncovered hidden truths in them all. Writers like Wells made readers and the public rethink what it was to be human. Not just how they thought, but how the felt. The emotional turmoil pervading society had to be a sort of shell shock. If humans came from apes, then what does that do to our sense of who we think we are? Do we feel like humans? What does that even mean? Or could we be nothing more than wild creatures that wear clothing? What truly distinguishes us from 'them.'
Reading The Island of Dr. Moreau, these were the questions I was dealing with, repeatedly returning to. Rationalization is not the only thing that seperates us. Neither is knowledge or conscience. It must be all.
The narrator of Moreau, Prendick writes, Yet I felt an absolute assurance in my own mind that the Hyena-Swine was implicated in the rabbit-killing. A strange persuasion came upon me that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had there before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form.
These animal-human hybrids are humans in Prendick's estimation. Their ability to reason has changed them and has made them all too human like. However, I wonder if it was their strange mutation into human like beings that gave them reason or if they had always had reason and were now only able to communicate it. I fall into believing the latter in this case. Moreau had partly succeeded in his dungeon of science.
Prendick's experience on the lost island of mutation and vivisection, changed his way of feeling. It certainly changed the way he thought and what he thought about. Everything he thought he knew before, was turned upside down. He was left grasping.
I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island.
A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels. But this condition did not come all at once...I think indeed that I anticipate a little in speaking of it now.
This sentiment still reverberates today. I hear it echoed in Ginsberg's infamous first lines of Howl: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. There's something primitive in Ginsberg's feeling of desolation and I sense the same in Prendick's lament.
As a society, we cope with watershed changes in a myriad of ways, but we have to deal with them nonetheless. But what does it mean to feel this way? Can we always change things for the better? Should we leave life, science, nature, better left untouched? I don't know.
I leave Dr. Moreau with more questions than answers...but I prefer literature that way. It is the discoveries I make on my own that validate my experiences.
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
For extra credit, in addition to the selected title, we also read The War of the Worlds (the translucent review concerning which has previously been posted) and The Time Machine. This second novel began its existence as early as 1888, and reportedly evolved from three distinct ideas into the final form, in 1895, we know today. The distinctive elements we recognise right away are the theory of time travel, the experiences of a Time Traveler, and a future vision.
Wells begins by laying out the theory of travel through time plainly and believably by comparison to travel through space. The experiences of the Time Traveler follow, recounted to a group of friends, though as an uninterrupted narrative for the reader. The vision comes at the end, when the Time Traveler goes back to the future, and beyond, millions of years hence. Instead of the great technology-driven worlds of microchips and interstellar life, Wells discloses a shrouded desolate landscape inhabited by monstrous crustaceans that, we are led to believe, has come about by some withering of man, first into placid leisure, and then into extinction. Having progressed to conquer all challenges and losing the ability to adapt, mankind doomed itself to atrophy.
In The Island of Dr. Moreau, first published in 1896, when Wells was thirty years old, we find the contemporaneous controversy of vivisection mixed with the future controversy of gene splicing; questions in morality of experimentation on animals; the hazards of sea travel; the evils of empire; evolution and creationism; and we also find the more broader issues of religion and existence. There also is the theme of transformation similar to another of his novels, The Invisible Man. The common thread in all Wells' writing seems to be a sort of debunked utopian outlook. Is the striving to reach beyond ourselves worth the trouble?
Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau's cruelty. ... Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau--and for what?Prendick, the man whose discovered narrative makes up the tale, is considering the creatures that have been born of Moreau's experimentation; yet he may also be addressing Moreau's condition: as a man, Moreau was perfectly adapted to his station in life, but in trying to understand something he could not--creation--he now faced constant fear, of his own handiwork.
The novel has much of the flavor of a writer at odds with religion. Dr. Moreau is referred to by his creatures as Him. We also watched the film version of the novel, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, in which the point is taken even further, as the creatures call Moreau Father. Prendick even thinks Moreau has hypnotised the creatures into believing he is their god. For humans today who do not understand, are they not the beasts to God's Moreau? Is God nothing but a mad scientist? The screenplay makes a few adaptations to the novel, most notably the addition of a love interest for Prendick (who is also renamed), a young woman he tries to save from reverting to beasthood, a subplot which adds nothing of substance to Wells' story. In the film, Moreau uses electical implants to control his creatures, while in the book they are heeled only by the whip and the Law--a set of rules unnatural to their beastly instincts, as precarious is the Bible and other religious tracts in restraining
men from their most natural instincts of survival: fear, flight, and fight.
At the end of the novel appears a lifeboat of the ship from which Prendick had been cast off. Inside he finds dead the captain and another man from the ship. The irony is, if Prendick had not been cast off the ship and suffered the horrors of Moreau's island, he would have died. Perhaps there is a message there, that only by facing up to the darkness of men can we hope to survive. Though Prendick has seen the worst, he also nows sees hope. Wells realised much that was horrible in human nature, yet the world's worst conflicts were still far in the future. In this and other stories, he reveals the darker shades of humanity, with hope just a glimmer of possibility. That hope is fragile, as if he wishes a better fate, but has little faith in civilization. The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine are works of doomsday fiction.
Though not transcendent works, these novels are interesting and thought-provoking, and in many ways remarkable when considering the time during which they were written. For a reader of broad interests ploughing through two thousand pages of A la recherche du temps perdu, some other of Wells' novels, like The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon, and The Food of the Gods might be quick intermissions between Swann in Love and Within a Budding Grove. We will keep those books at hand confident of a good story for when the need arises.
Cross posted at A Work in Progress
For all my talk of the romance of seaside villages and deserted islands, there is one place I would not like to visit--Noble's Island. H.G. Wells created a horrific place when he wrote The Island of Dr. Moreau (as a small side note, Penguin is reissuing many of Wells's works in lovely new editions with very helpful and detailed introductions).
The story of what happened to Edward Prendick when the ship he was in collided with another and sank, and the events that followed are written down in narrative form for us to read. And a dire story it is from beginning to end. How much shall I tell you? Was Edward lucky when after many days in a boat, starving, he was picked up by the Lady Vain? And what cargo was she carrying? Poor unfortunate creatures. Edward is saved by Montgomery and nursed back to health. When the ship drops Montgomery and his animals off, Edward is forced to go with them, much to his chagrin.
He isn't going to like what he finds there. And as in every story or movie where you know there are nasty things happening, what does our trusty narrator do? For sure he goes off to investigate. Actually what initially sets him off are the cries of utter pain from an animal behind closed doors. Edward cannot take it any longer, and who can blame him. However he is in for more of an education than he bargained for when he sets off across the island in search of peace and quiet. There are the most unusual people inhabiting it. Who are they and how did they come to be the way they are? What he doesn't know is that they are not humans who have been tampered with. They were once animals that have been reconstructed in man's image.
Vivisection. It is one of those words that I have heard and imagined that I knew what it meant.
viv-i-sec-tion (viv-uh-sek-shuh n) - noun.
1. the action of cutting into or dissecting a living body.
2. the practice of subjecting living animals
to cutting operations, esp. in order to advance physiological and
I was actually enjoying this book, frightening though it may be, up until when Dr. Moreau explained and tried to justify his actions.
“But,” said I (Edward), “I still do not understand. Where is your justification
for inflicting all this pain? The only thing that could excuse vivisection to me
would be some application—”
“Precisely,” said he. “But, you see, I am differently constituted. We are on different platforms. You are a materialist.”
“I am not a materialist,” I began hotly.
“In my view—in my view. For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick; so long as your own pains drive you; so long as
pain underlies your propositions about sin,—so long, I tell you, you are an
animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels. This pain—” I gave an impatient shrug at such sophistry.
“Oh, but it is such a little thing! A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that it is a little thing. It may be that save in this little planet, this speck of cosmic dust, invisible long before the nearest star could be attained—it may be, I say, that nowhere else does this thing called pain occur. But the laws we feel our way towards—Why, even on this earth, even among living things, what pain is there?”
As he spoke he drew a little penknife from his pocket, opened the smaller blade, and moved his chair so that I could see his thigh. Then, choosing the place deliberately, he drove the blade into his leg and withdrew it.
“No doubt,” he said, “you have seen that before. It does not hurt a pin-prick. But
what does it show? The capacity for pain is not needed in the muscle, and it is not placed there,—is but little needed in the skin, and only here and there over the thigh is a spot capable of feeling pain. Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us. Not all living flesh is painful; nor is all nerve, not even all sensory nerve. There's no taint of pain, real pain, in the sensations of the optic nerve. If you wound the optic nerve, you merely see flashes of light,—just as disease of the auditory nerve merely means a humming in our ears. Plants do not feel pain, nor the lower animals; it's possible that such animals as the starfish and crayfish do not feel pain at all. Then with men, the more intelligent they become, the more intelligently they will see after their own welfare, and the less they will need the goad to keep
them out of danger. I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later. Did you? And pain gets needless.
“Then I am a religious man, Prendick, as every sane man must be. It may be, I fancy, that I have seen more of the ways of this world's Maker than you,—for I have sought his laws, in my way, all my life, while you, I understand, have been collecting butterflies. And I tell you, pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven or hell. Pleasure and pain—bah! What is your theologian's ecstasy but Mahomet's houri in the dark? This store which men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them,—the mark of the beast from which they came!Pain, pain and pleasure, they are for us only so long as we wriggle in the dust."
And then it made me a tad bit sick. You should be careful what you do in life, sometimes it comes back at you and (well, to be blunt) bites you in the ass. I won't tell you about the demise of Dr. Moreau, or what happens when everyone is dead save Edward and the Beast Folk. You'll need to read the book yourself to find out and fill in the details. And I do recommend this book. While it wasn't always pleasant reading, it was a very good and a very sort of--edge of your seat story.
For a slim, little volume, and a very quick read, this book is packed with ideas. But then Wells, himself was packed with ideas. I would love to read more about him. Last year I read his The Time Machine, which was just as bleak, and now I will have to follow up with War of the Worlds (they were written in this order). This is a book that screams for discussion, which you can follow here (once the forum is set up), and you can read all the Slaves's posts here.
What a horrible book! That's horrible as in causing horror, not as in the glib way we use it to mean something is bad. The Island of Dr. Moreau made my stomach turn at times. The cries of the puma being vivisected, "such and exquisite expression of suffering," almost made me stop reading, so clearly could I hear them in my head. Prendick's reaction, to escape the cries rather than to do something to stop the animal's suffering, made me so angry I wanted to do something to hurt him, after, that is, I stormed Moreau's fortress, set all of the suffering animals free, and hung Moreau by his toes from the highest tree. What a horrible, excruciating, gut-wrenching book!
The book has a sort of Heart of Darkness feel to it for me. But instead of Kurtz being worshipped by the natives, Moreau makes his own to worship him. Moreau is God on his little island, molding animals into the semblance of humans, giving them The Law, and meting out punishment to those who break The Law. Moreau's level-headed explanation to Prendick of what he is doing is seductive in its cool, scientific reasoning. That Moreau thinks he can, by "dip[ping] a living creature into the bath of pain [...] burn out all the animal" and be left with a rational creature reveals his madness. What is even more frightening is that Moreau has no purpose for his work other than personal. His intentions are not to improve the lives of animals or humans. He wants, but I am not entirely sure what he wants, maybe only to marvel in his own power. He is the scientist we all fear, the one who lives in a self-created, self-driven universe where ethics and morals do not have a role. He is the doctor we are afraid will experiment on us just to see what happens; the scientist who would clone a human being or create a toxin without an antidote. This being a book, we have the satisfaction of Moreau getting what he deserves. The book plays on our fears of science in such a way, however, that I am left with a creepy feeling that there are real-life Moreaus who are, at this moment, far away from justice.
Wells's writing style is reporterly and unadorned. Here are the facts and just the facts. We are not told how we are to think or feel about what is going on. It is like the reader is a jury and the text presents the various sides of the case for our consideration. Everyone gets a turn to speak, Moreau, his assistant Montgomery, Prendick the narrator, even the "beast people." We do not get to decide their fates, they take care of that themselves. We only get to decide their guilt.
The book also asks us to think about what is human. When the book was written, Darwin's theory of evolution was turning society upside down. No longer could we be so certain that we were created by God. Nor could we say for sure that we were not animals. Even in the twenty-first century the repercussions of Darwin continue to play out. What is animal? What is human? When once we were certain we were the top of the pyramid, with evolution we are only one more step in the development of the species and we don't know what is in the future. So what do we do? Do we abdicate, and become animals? Or do we become Moreau-like and attempt to turn ourselves into gods? Wells does not try to suggest an alternative to either and I am glad he didn't, it would have given the novel a false note and tempered the horror. Instead we are forced to look in the mirror and try and answer some tough questions.
Everyone is welcome to joine the Slaves of Golconda discussion of this book at MetaxuCafe
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be posting on this today or tomorrow, but I figure that if it’s supposed to be tomorrow, you all can come back and read this then. I’m also not going to do this book justice, since I read it in a rather distracted state of mind. I felt as I was reading that I should re-read in order to fully appreciate it, but I didn’t have the time.
At any rate, I enjoyed the novel very much. This is my first experience of Wells, and I’m tempted to read the two other novels in my edition, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. I’m curious what people make of the frame narrative – is there something complicated going on here, or is it simply by way of explaining and setting up the narrative to follow? Wells participates in an old tradition of frame narratives, whether it’s the frame story of escaping the plague in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or the multiple frame narratives that encircle the creature’s narrative in Frankenstein, or the explanation Defoe gives at the beginning of Robinson Crusoe that the narrative is a true one that Defoe had stumbled upon and decided to publish. Wells’s use is certainly not as complicated as Mary Shelley’s was, but the frame does give the reader a sense of the mysteriousness to come in the main narrative, and it tells us the interesting fact that Prendick “subsequently … alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment he escaped from the Lady Vain.” Did he find that his attempts to explain what he saw on the island were so impossible that he gave it up and simply said his mind was blank to avoid explanations entirely?
I’m reminded of Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” where Brown journeys into the woods, discovers the horrors that (supposedly) exist in the human heart, and returns home a changed man, unable to live at peace with his family again. And also Gulliver, who after his travels becomes a bitter, cynical man. In both of these books, and in Wells’s novel too, one of the central questions is about what it means to be human: are humans like the houyhnhnms or the yahoos, or neither? The ending of the novel is moving; Prendick lives in fear and horror of his fellow humans and isolates himself from people, devoting his time to scientific studies. He writes:
They say that terror is a disease, and anyhow, I can witness that, for several years now, a restless fear has dwelt in my mind, such a restless fear as a half-tamed lion cub may feel. My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark and then that.
At the heart of the novel, I think, is the conversation between Prendick and Dr. Moreau where Moreau explains the nature of his experiments. This dialogue is all about the relationship of human beings and animals – a topic that has fascinated writers since the time of Gilgamesh, another work that tries to define humanity by considering how people differ from the gods on the one hand and the beasts on the other. The question in Wells’s novel centers around pain – what it means to be able to feel pain and how we should respond to our own pain and that of others. Moreau says:
For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels … A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that [pain] is a little thing.
Pain is an aspect of animal experience, not human, according to Moreau; as humans separate themselves from the animal world, pain will carry less and less significance. That he brushes aside Prendick’s objections to his cruelty shows that he has lost something essential to his humanity and has become much less than an animal, which would never behave as cruelly as he has. By working so horribly on animal bodies and denying the significance of the pain they experience, Moreau shows his abhorrence of bodies in general – he desires to leave the body and all its weaknesses behind. But in denying the body, he perverts human nature into something it’s not – the body is as central to human experience as the mind.
Moreau cannot succeed in turning animals into humans to his satisfaction because he misunderstands what it means to be human and animal both. He says of his animal/human creations that:
Least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch – somewhere – I cannot determine where – in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear.
He wants to drive what he sees as the beast out of the human, and yet what he considers “beast” – the body that feels pain and experiences instincts and cravings – is inseparable from the human. Prendick separates himself morally from Moreau when he recognizes the humanity of one of Moreau’s creations:
It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact --, but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.
This is a redeeming moment for Prendick, who, rather than allowing this creature to enter Moreau’s torture chamber once again, shoots it. This is an act of mercy.
Okay – there is so much more going on in this novel, but I’ll leave it up to my fellow Slaves to point those things out.
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Crossposted at Bookworm
I wonder what Darwin would have thought of The Island of Dr. Moreau? That giant of science who showed, among other things, that humans share a common ancestry with "lower animals," might have been interested in a novel about the boundaries between ourselves and our animal cousins. As a nature-lover myself, the idea of being akin to all the wonderful animals on this planet is far from disturbing. I see no malice in predators, as Prendick the unfortunate castaway does, and no shame in an animal's fear of pain, as Moreau the pitiless vivisector does. But reading this book makes me think that a generation after The Descent of Man, English society was still deeply troubled by the thought that they might be of the same substance as creatures they had thought of as soulless, inferior, and created solely for our own use and benefit.
The book gives us three different perspectives on animals. Dr. Moreau, the real monster of the story, clearly possesses a deep hatred for animal qualities, so much so that he is willing to endure exile to continue his horrific experiments.
Each time I dip a living creature into the bath of burning pain, I say, This time I will burn out all the animal, this time I will make a rational creature of my own.
Montgomery, Moreau's right hand man, represents the other extreme. He does not try to control his urges, he befriends and sympathizes with Moreau's creatures, and in the end destroys himself by instigating a sort of anti-human Bacchanalia. Prendick observes:
I felt that for Montgomery there was no help; that he was in truth half-akin to these Beast Folk, unfitted for human kindred.
Prendick represents the middle road between having contempt for animals and becoming one. He shares some of Moreau's scientific curiosity and is not categorically against animal experimentation but, English gentleman that he is, he has his limits. Though he feels the animal in himself rise up in moments of crisis, he is still disgusted by the mixture of animal and human in Moreau's experiments. He does develop some sympathy for the plight of the Beast People, and ends up living with them for a while, but is never truly comfortable around them. He doesn't try to dominate them as Moreau did, but neither does he see them as fit companions for a man, as Montgomery did. When he finally escapes the island and returns to England, he is haunted by the irrational fear that the people around him are not entirely human, especially those of the lower classes. If anything, he clings to the distinction between human and animal even more strongly after his experiences on Dr. Moreau's island.
And what are those distinctions? Two aspects in particular, one mental and one physical, are prominent in the book. The mental distinction is, not surprisingly, rational thought. Though the Beast People do achieve a certain level of intelligence and culture, they eventually revert to their animal nature and instinct reclaims their minds. The physical hallmark of humanity in this book is the human hand. Moreau's only, and surprisingly willing, deference to the pain of his subject is with regards to hands:
…often there is trouble with the hands and claws—painful things that I dare not shape too freely.
Only the Ape Man naturally has five digits, a fact which he takes great pride in as proof of his humanity. Moreau is described as having long, dexterous fingers, with which he performs his surgeries, and which are part of the Beast People's religious litany:
His is the House of Pain
His is the Hand that makes
His is the Hand that wounds
His is the Hand that heals
When he is finally killed by one of his creatures, one of his hands is found nearly severed at the wrist. His companions hands are mentioned too. Montgomery is described as dexterously bandaging Prendicks's arm after it is broken by the escaping Puma Man. Later, Prendick gains respect among the Beast People with the weapons he wields in his hands—a hatchet and stones. They have a deeper bite and longer reach than their natural weapons, teeth and claws. Finally, after returning to England, Prendick takes solace in books, objects that are completely and unalterably human, the work of human hands.
I have withdrawn myself from the confusion of cities and multitudes, and spend days surrounded by wise books, bright windows, in this life of ours lit by the shining souls of men.
Though I don't share the book's views on animal nature, I greatly enjoyed the book itself. This was not my first acquaintance with the story—I saw the 1996 film adaptation recently—so I was not in suspense about the general outline of the story. [MOVIE SPOILER WARNING!!!] There was a significant thematic difference between the book and the movie version I saw. In the film, Moreau's goal is not "to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape" but to improve the human race by splicing in strong, animal characteristics. This was done more by biochemical than surgical means, as befits today's technological environment. This shifted the story's concern away from the fear of the animal in us to the ethical aspects of genetic engineering. In the film, Moreau's abomination was not miscegenation but playing God. It actually left me with more to think about than the book did. [END OF SPOILERS]
I greatly enjoyed Wells' clear, precise, evocative, and impeccable English. I suspect many readers might find it a bit dull, but it is a natural fit for my scientific mind. Only on one occasion did I find a sentence that didn't just roll off the page. For those who haven't read the book, here is a sample of his style, describing the moment when Prendick fully appreciates what Moreau has done:
Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspects of Moreau's cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau's hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed the lesser part. Before they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence began in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau—and for what? It was the wantonness that stirred me.
I haven't read any other Wells so I don't know if he adopted this style because the narrator was an amateur scientist, or if that is always his way of writing, perhaps reflecting the fact that he himself had studied biology for a time. I shall find out as I intend to read more of his work. For now it's off to the Slaves of Golconda blog and the MetaxuCafé forum to see what other readers thought of this scary little gem.
By the way, did anyone read the 1996 Modern Library edition of the book? Isn't it lovely? This is for colophon fans (I know you're out there!):
The principal text of this Modern Library edition was set in a digitized version of Bembo, a typeface based on an old-style Roman face that was used for Cardinal Bembo's tract De Aetna in 1495. Bembo was cut by Francisco Griffo in the early sixteenth century. The Lanston Monotype Machine Company of Philadelphia brought the well-proportioned letter forms of Bembo to the United States in the 1930's.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
My first real memory of War of the Worlds was a vague impression of a probably made-for-television version of the 1938 Orson Wells radio dramatization of the book. I remember Wells wrote his script as a series of "Breaking News" interruptions of a fictional musical entertainment, and a great number of people, who had missed the introduction at the top of the program, thought the Martian invasion was real. Stefanie's selection gave me reason to pick up the book and discover the story for myself.
The context of this novel is important. Today astronomy is full of the likelihood of existence beyond our planet, as well as the possibility that life on earth is of extraterrestrial origin. But try to imagine a time before space travel, even before winged air travel. Much science was still just coming into its own, becoming something people could trust and rely upon. England was at the height of its empire, with colonies across the world. Mars had only recently been mapped, and some theorised the linear features of the planet were not naturally made. Wells combined these ingredients--Martian life, hostile colonisation, and flight--into a novel of social commentary that was ahead of its time in plot and treatment.
He begins and ends the book with stunning narrative passages that set the tone and deliver the setting and the message. Between these points we are given the first-hand account of a man who encounters and then must survive the Martian invasion. We are told that humans go about their daily lives without a care and with an air of superiority. When the capsules from Mars crash into England, people are curious but not nervous or wary or frightened. Even when men begin to die, they do not seem to take the threat seriously. Finally the Martian tripods appear and begin their takeover of the country. The narrator goes into hiding, avoids, runs away, and generally survives the ordeal to tell us about it. And when nothing particularly gripping is happening to him, he tells us about how his brother hid, avoided, and ran away. The English war machine is destroyed, and the Martians begin their colonisation of earth by growing a red weed. Imagine, if you can, that England's destiny is not to rule over other peoples from pole to pole, but to be subjugated and overthrown by another life form entirely unknown--the despair of this novel was unprecedented entertainment. Then, just when all hope is lost and total annhilation is imminent, the Martians are suddenly brought down by a germ or virus that they have no tolerance for, but which has ever lived symbiotically with man.
For me, the climax was a bit anticlimactic. This novel has never been out of print, yet I doubt it would be published today as it is written. However, let us remember the context, and the amazing (for the time) possibility that something we cannot even see could save us from certain doom when all our weapons and survival skills and superiority fail. Germs are obvious to us now, but this must have been quite a little twist to Wells' Victorian audience.
To round out my experience, I viewed the 1953 and 2005 films based on the novel. Both took liberties with their source material. In place of a priest who accompanies the narrator for some time, the early film has a helpless screeching woman, and the recent film has children. This change seems to me meant to address the lack of an active hero in the story, for now the narrator must protect the woman or save the child. It doesn't make it, though. Like so many big disaster movies that ultimately disappoint, the main character doesn't actually fight back and defeat whatever threat exists, he simply survives it. Would we ever have applauded Bruce Willis if he had merely hidden and run away from the terrorists in "Die Hard" instead of fighting back? Not bloody likely.
Sunday, July 09, 2006
My copy of The Abbess of Crewe notes it is "a wicked satire of Watergate." The novel opens with a discussion between Alexandra, the newly elected Abbess of Crewe, and Sister Winifrede, "land of the midnight sun." Alexandra cautions Winifrede that their conversation in the avenue of meditation is not private. Winifrede pauses, then speaks.
'You mean, Lady Abbess,' she says, 'that you've even bugged the poplars?'
Very little is private at the Abbey, which Alexandra oversees with a bizarre mixture of medieval religious practices combined with the study of "modern" electronics. Surrounded by her cronies Walburga and Mildred, and advised at a distance by the deep-voiced, traveling Gertrude, Alexandra was not suprised to be elected the new Abbess. She had worked hard to ensure it would be so. Alexandra's rival was Sister Felicity, and a scandal has erupted in the outside world due to the election, and something about a missing thimble of Felicity's. Like other books of Spark's, the story begins near the end, then loops back and forth in time, layering new details until a whole picture is achieved.
I assumed I would dislike tall, attractive Alexandra, who serves fine food and wine to herself and her inner circle, while the rest of the abbey dines on other, less attractive, things:
...a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk.
But short, homely Felicity, who is having an affair with a Jesuit and preaching free love to the other nuns, is pathetic, rather than sympathetic. By contrast, Alexandra is sharp and darkly funny, and so wickedly adept at obfuscation, that I couldn't help but root for her as the book progressed.
The Abbess of Crewe is dated, both by its subject and the electronic equipment it references. Spark nevertheless made her story timeless by setting the power struggle in the removed culture of an abbey, and expanding it far beyond a one-to-one analog to Watergate. It is filled with snarky one liners, and is much funnier than the other three Spark novels I read: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Driver's Seat, and The Finishing School.
Monday, July 03, 2006
Better late than never, I suppose! The June 30 due date for Slaves of Golconda submissions coincided with an influx of new work (yay!). As well, I have to confess I didn't find either of the books all that compelling. Gushing or panning, I can do. But what do you say when you just don't have much reaction at all? Part of the problem was my fault, the same problem that led me to abandon My Life as a Fake: the problem of not having nice long stretches of time available for reading, the problem of trying to read and simultaneously care for an energetic three-year-old.
First, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I'm sure by now y'all know what the story is about. Miss Jean Brodie is the schoolteacher, the charismatic schoolteacher with "advanced and seditious" teaching methods, at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh. She has carefully selected a "set" (isn't that such a better word than clique?) of girls with whom she spends much time, carefully feeding them the manners, opinions and ideas that will make them the "crème de la crème." She has an affair with one of her colleagues and she tries to engineer an affair between another teacher and one of the girls. Eventually one of the other girls in the set, Sandy, secretly "betrays" her and she loses her job.
The most interesting aspect of this book is the characters, particularly Miss Brodie and Sandy. Miss Brodie: is she for real? Why does she try to set up one of her students to have an affair with a teacher? I mean, it's explained in the book ("Sandy looked at her, and perceived that the woman was obsessed by the need for Rose to sleep with the man she herself was in love with") but why does she actually do it? And Sandy: why does she betray Miss Brodie? I assume Sandy is the autobiographical character here; she has the storyteller's imagination (her flights of fancy are the best part of the book) and later converts to Catholicism, like Spark herself, and becomes a nun.
Second, Memento Mori -- a soap opera about old people! A very funny idea. A group of men and women in their 80s keep getting prank phone calls: a voice intones, "Remember, you must die!" This group of people are
all interrelated a set. They're all either the spouses, the illicit lovers, or the maids of each other. As they react in their various ways to the prank calls their moldy old secrets are revealed, including love affairs, blackmail, bigamy. Pure soap opera!
Overall, Memento Mori was a bit disappointing, especially given the spectacular premise. I had trouble keeping track of the characters. I wish Spark had done in this one what she did so nicely in Jean Brodie, cueing the reader with a repeated detail (Rose, who was famous for sex; Mary Macgregor who was stupid and died a gruesome death, etc.). And although one or two characters surmise that the prank caller might actually be Death I wish the idea had been explored more fully.
I will go out on a limb here and complain that Muriel Spark has a way of treating big subjects too lightly. I find it hard to believe that she was a religious person. I know she became an R.C. and was obsessed with Cardinal Newman. Obviously religion must have been important to her, and the themes in her books reflect this (life, death, moral choice, truth, etc.) but she comes across as so callous and cynical. For example, "everyone likes to visit a nun, it provides a spiritual sensation, a catharsis to go home with, especially if the nun clutches the bars of the grille." Yuck! Though I suppose it's also possible that this nice Jewish girl with a not-so-secret infatuation with the Catholic church takes this stuff a just wee bit too seriously?
My other complaint is that none of the characters are particularly likeable. I've now read three books by Spark (here's what I wrote about Loitering with Intent last year) and out of all three books there was a grand total of one (1) character that I actually liked. That would be Fleur from Loitering, whom I liked immensely. Maybe I'm just not one of the crème de la crème, but it's hard for me to appreciate a book when I don't like any of the characters in it.
Sunday, July 02, 2006
I had originally hoped to write some more regarding this fine book, but so far, because of network connectivity problems for the last week, I've only been able to post on my 'extra credit' book: The Only Problem. I have been reading along when I could steal a few minutes at work, but posting/commenting wasn't an option. The individual posts and the discussion in the MetaxuCafe forum has been great.
Saturday, July 01, 2006
To take on the book of Job is a monumental task. To refute the book of Job -- or at least to challenge some of the conventional thinking regarding the work, even suggesting that it shouldn't be part of the Bible -- is an equally daunting task. Yet, Muriel Spark, in The Only Problem does just that.
The Only Problem is a short novel (about 130 pages) about Harvey, a wealthy, self-proclaimed student (as opposed to 'scholar') who is writing a treatise on Job. He has abandoned his wife, Effie, about a year before the narrative begins, and can't be persuaded by either his brother-in-law Edward or sister-in-law Ruth to provide a cash settlement in a divorce that both he & his wife want. Ruth travels to France with Effie's illegitimate child Clara to convince Harvey to do the moral thing, but, instead, separates from Edward and becomes Harvey's lover. Soon, all are caught up in events beyond their control when Effie joins a terrorist group that incites violence throughout the region where Harvey & Ruth are living. Harvey can't reconcile the idea of the wife he used to love with the terrorist she has become; nor can he admit that while he doesn't want to live with Effie, he loves her and while he doesn't love Ruth, he wants to live with her.
Ruth flees the police surveillance and media-frenzy and returns to live with Clara's father. Retreating from the scholarly, intellectual discussions common in her life with Harvey, Ruth adapts to the environment of her new lover, Ernie, even taking on his distinctive lower-class accent. Without Ruth or Effie, Harvey's thoughts about Job become more obsessive, his perception of being tortured more pronounced. In the end, Ruth, about to give birth to Harvey's child, moves back to France to raise Clara and the new child with Harvey. A year after the narrative begins, Edward comes to visit them, Harvey has finished his work on Job, a sense of harmony in the lives of all seemingly has been restored. With his writing on Job completed and his acceptance of Effie's political actions having resulted in her death, he states he will live a 140 years with his 3 daughters -- just like Job.
In the opening pages, Edward has a theory that "people have an effect on the natural greenery around them regardless of whether they lay hands on it or not; some people, he would remark, induce fertility in their environment, and some the desert, simply by psychic force" (p 323-24). Like the comforters in Job, Edward believes that one's actions affect one's fate. Harvey, on the other hand, struggles with the 'only' problem -- how can a loving omnipotent God also be the author of suffering? Why would such a Creator allow his faithful followers to suffer through no fault of their own? It is only Job's faith that redeems him, despite the beliefs of the comforters and Job's wife, that he should turn his back on the god who has abandoned him. This is the antithesis of Edward's view: individuals don't make their environment. As much as we seek to control it, it is out of our control.
Harvey does not 'suffer' in the same way that Job suffers, but he is a 'tortured soul'. Harvey is very wealthy, yet chooses to live with only basic comforts. While he sees injustice in the world, he doesn't take action to prevent it. He regrets losing his wife, yet he is the one who walked away -- literally, on the autobahn -- from his marriage. He doesn't want people to be around him, yet cannot live completely as a hermit. He seeks to control others -- telling Edward to cut his hair; telling a maid that it is her fault that he will not bring his guest to the lunch she has prepared; wanting to be alone, but unable to tell Nathan, an unexpected guest and unknown conspirator of Effie's, to leave. Yet, the more Harvey seeks to control, the more the situation with Effie -- a situation he has no power to control at all - gets out of hand. The fallout from Effie's terrorist activities take over his life with everything from property searches, suspicions of wiretapping, constant police surveillance, lengthy interrogations, and a treatment by the media that makes him look more villainous than his terrorist-wife.
And, yet, Harvey could have controlled some of it, or at least influenced it's effect, if he had taken different actions. If he had simply granted his wife a divorce, the media and police attention would have been different. If he wasn't as self-centered as he is, he might have seen the harm he caused Effie and Ruth. He would have cared less about trivial things like the length of Edward's hair, and would have cared more about inadvertently hurting Anne-Marie's feelings by destroying a bouquet that was meant to cheer him up. If he had talked about Effie and distanced himself from her in a press conference, he wouldn't have been portrayed as he was because he chose to talk about his scholarly work on the book of Job instead of terrorism. As a result, he not only harms himself, but Ruth and Clara as well.
It is difficult for the reader to see Harvey as suffering like Job. He does suffer, but not nearly as much as he thinks he does. But, maybe that is the point -- one's sufferings are one's own. They may not be mythic like Job's, but one's miseries are one's own to endure. And that is where faith comes in.
Spark, a convert to Catholicism, does not hit the reader over the head with her thoughts on Job and religion. Harvey struggles to engage most people he meets in discussion about Job. Mostly, this fails. As Spark often does in her work, she includes in the narrative a clever bit, so brief it almost could be missed, that the French do not understand who Job is. "It was difficult to get across to them what the Book of Job was. Harvey's French wasn't at fault, it was their knowledge of the bible of which, like most good Catholics, they had scant knowledge" (p 359). Elsewhere, there is a discussion regarding the correct translation of the Bible to understand whether Job's wife admonished him to 'bless' or to 'curse' God. What Spark subtly does by including this, is to set up the difference between faith and reason. Harvey tries to figure out the 'only' problem by reason. Others don't understand because of their faith, a belief in things not seen. One can choose to believe that one's actions predetermine or influence one's fate. Or, one can choose to believe that, despite a loving God and one's faith in him, bad things can happen. The solution to the 'only' problem may be to not use Job as a moral yardstick. Rather, be ignorant of Job (or, at least ignore him), of the 'only' problem. Instead,choose to do what is right and moral, and choose to be content with it. As Harvey states at the end, he will live 140 years, like Job. He stated earlier that Job probably continued to suffer. Harvey will too, despite the sense of harmony in the final chapter.
One of the marks of a great book is the extent to which it bears rereading. I was bowled over by Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie on first acquaintance many years ago. I’m now on my fourth read, and my admiration for and appreciation of it increase each time.
Having recently spent three weeks in Edinburgh, it’s no surprise that on my latest read through I was particularly struck by the sense of place that Spark evokes in the novel. You don’t have to know Edinburgh to appreciate The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but knowing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie certainly helps one to more fully appreciate Edinburgh. It’s set primarily in the 1930s in the Morningside district which boasts respectable schools full of middle and upper class pupils whose mothers dress not too ostentatiously in tweed and address their daughters as “dear” rather than “darling” in clipped Edinburgh accents. Yet just a short walk across the Meadows, the squalor of the Old Town slums serves as a counter point, so distinct as to offer Sandy Stranger “her first experience of a foreign country, which intimates itself by its new smells and shapes and its new poor.”
Miss Jean Brodie, we are told, though an arresting presence at the Marcia Blaine School, is not unusual for her time and place:
There were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art or social welfare, education or religion.
These progressive spinsters co-exist with other legions, for example, the unemployed men waiting for the dole that Miss Brodie and her girls encounter on their walk through the Old Town:
A very long queue of men lined this part of the street. They were without collars in shabby suits. They were talking and spitting and smoking little bits of cigarette held between middle finger and thumb.
This trip through the Old Town has an enduring impact on Sandy at least:
And many times throughout her life Sandy knew with a shock, when speaking to people whose childhood had been in Edinburgh, that there were other people’s Edinburghs quite different from hers, and with which she held only the names of districts and streets and monuments in common. Similarly, there were other people’s nineteen-thirties.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie doesn’t just invoke these multiple Edinburghs of the 1930s; it also situates it in the distant past, the immediate past, the immediate future, and years hence. We get a sense of Scotland’s romantic and dark history (at least the popular version thereof) in Sandy’s references to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped and also in the kinship that Miss Brodie claims with the infamous Deacon Brodie, a historical figure and also the model for RLS’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This Edinburgh is shaped by the recent experience of the Great War and by the current experience of the depression. It is an Edinburgh tied to Europe (“We are Europeans,” Miss Brodie proclaims) where the rise of fascism is evident. We also get a peek at a future Edinburgh from which the Old Town “slums have been cleared.”
This brings me to the second aspect of Spark’s writing on which I want to focus here. There was an interesting discussion recently on Dorothy W.’s blog about what qualifies as experimental writing. I don’t know whether Spark is lauded in the critical literature as an experimental writer; if she isn’t, she ought to be. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, first published in 1961, Spark breaks many of the conventions of the novel to brilliant effect.
I’ve already hinted at the way Spark plays with time. In 1963, Frank O’Connor wrote: “[T]he element of Time is [the novelist’s] greatest asset; the chronological development of character or incident is essential form as we see it in life, and the novelist flouts it at his own peril.” Spark flouts it in dramatic fashion in this novel. The girls of the Brodie set are sixteen when the novel opens, but soon we move back to age ten when they first encountered Miss Brodie. Their ten-year-old selves are continually illuminated by what comes later (the various things that they are said to be “famous for” at age sixteen). At intervals we move forward again to sixteen, and still further forward into the girls’ adult lives. For example, as early as page 15, we learn how the entire life of poor Mary Macgregor (“whose fame rested on her being a silent lump, a nobody whom everybody could blame”) unfolds. There are various moments when suspense seems to be building (for example as to the identity of Miss Brodie’s eventual betrayer), then the ending is abruptly given away. Spark swoops back and forth through time at will and it works.
Spark similarly plays with perspective. The third person narration moves in and out like a camera with a zoom lens. The novel begins with wide-angle shot (simply boys and girls talking outside the Marcia Blaine school), zooms in a little closer (the girls in question are revealed to be the Brodie set), then closer still (to deal in turn with the individual girls by name). This is not an uncommon progression at the opening of a novel. But having thus honed in on the individual characters, Spark doesn’t stay there, but continues to move in and out to dazzling effect. To the extent that we get inside any one character’s head, that character is Sandy Stranger. But the novel doesn’t unfold simply from Sandy’s perspective. The effect of the constant shifts is to give us the opportunity to view the characters, foremost among them Miss Brodie, from multiple angles, through the eyes of different characters at different moments in time, as well as from the perspective of a distant omniscient narrator. Consider, for example, these sentences:
This was the first winter of the two years that this class spent with Miss Brodie. It had turned nineteen-thirty-one. Miss Brodie had already selected her favourites, or rather those whom she could trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust not to lodge complaints about the more advanced and seditious aspects of her educational policy, these parents being either too enlightened to complain or too unenlightened, or too awed by their good fortune in getting their girls’ education at endowed rates, or too trusting to question the value of what their daughters were learning at this school of sound reputation.
With each qualification, yet another perspective is opened to us.
Given Spark’s penchant for very short novels, it's tempting to describe her writing as spare or minimalist. Certainly she gets a lot of mileage out of a very few words. But the effect is not one of spareness or minimalism. On the contrary, she manages to accumulate an extraordinary level of detail. One of the ways that she does this in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is through repetition of key words or phrases: “the boys and their bicycles,” what each of the Brodie set is “famous for,” Miss Brodie’s “prime,” the “crème de la crème.” Each time these words and phrases are repeated, they serve to conjure up again all that has gone before and somehow add to it. The repetition gives Spark’s prose a wonderful rhythm, and also gives the novel great depth and richness.
In a 1996 interview, Spark expressed some frustration over the extent to which the success of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie had overshadowed her other novels. She did not consider it her best work. I won’t venture to rank it against her other novels. But I have no hesitation in describing it as a masterpiece that is entirely worthy of all of the attention it has been accorded.
Friday, June 30, 2006
So begins Muriel Spark's last novel, The Finishing School,
a satiric look at a private progressive institution that Miss Jean Brodie in her prime would have been quick to deem a “crank” school and would have been loathe to be associated with.
Rowland Mahler and his wife Nina Parker operate College Sunrise, a school where parents with “dire wealth” consent to send their teenagers for a year or two to get them out of the way. College Sunrise could not in any way compete with the famous schools and finishing establishments recommended by Gabbitas, Thring and Wingate in shiny colored brochures. Indeed, College Sunrise was almost unknown in the more distinctive educational circles, and in cases where it was known, it was frequently dismised as being rather shady. The fact that it moved house from time to time, that it seldom offered a tennis court and that its various swimming pools looked greasy, were the subject of gossip when the subject arose, but it was known that there had so far been no sexual scandals and that it was an advanced sort of school, bohemian, artistic, tolerant. What they smoked or sniffed was little different from the drug-taking habits of any other school, whether it be housed in Lausanne or in a street in Wakefield.
When the novel opens College Sunrise is in operation on the lake at Ouchy after previously being located in Brussels and Vienna. Nina conducts “casual afternoon comme il faut talks” with the school’s eight students ("'Be careful who takes you to Ascot,' she said, 'because, unless you have married a rich husband, he is probably a crook.'") while Rowland teaches creative writing. In fact, one of the students, 17-year-old Chris Wiley, red-haired, handsome, annoyingly self-assured, has enrolled in College Sunrise specifically so that he can write his historically inaccurate novel on Mary, Queen of Scots.
Rowland reads the opening pages of Chris' novel, finds them "quite good," and then experiences a debilitating case of writer's block where his own novel is concerned. Most of Spark's novel is thereafter concerned with the uneasy relationship between Rowland and Chris: Rowland's jealousy at first amuses Chris, who taunts Rowland with his hidden-away work-in-progress and thrives on reports that Rowland has been searching his belongings in a desperate attempt to find it. Later, after Nina is finally able to convince Rowland that his obsession with Chris' novel is bordering on insanity and he seeks a cure by temporarily checking into a monastery, Chris finds he requires Rowland's presence or else he is unable to write. Clearly, the madness goes both ways.
Nina wants Chris gone but realizes his tuition is needed less the school go under. She begins an affair with an art historian who lives in a neighboring villa. Rowland knows and doesn't care; he's busy attempting to sleep with the servant who is sleeping with Chris.
Nina, her lover, and the students all speculate whether Rowland's obsession with Chris' novel is actually a case of misplaced homosexual desire.
Finally, two of the publishers Chris has sent his novel to come to Ouchy and begin to offer a bit of perspective on Chris's talent and prospects. Chris' confidence is momentarily shaken, but he's quick to once again manipulate those around him, especially when he sees Rowland's chances at literary success wax considerably. I won't say who or how, but someone almost dies.
Now, while I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I remained largely indifferent to The Finishing School. I read it twice to see if I could put my finger on what kept it from being a more enjoyable, a more memorable read. The best I could come up with is that Spark’s natural inclination to omit all but of vital import undercut her efforts here. Chris and Rowland discuss whether they feel their characters take on a life of their own; Chris maintains that his are firmly under his control and can do nothing he does not will. Spark’s characters here definitely fall under strict authorial control; she pushes them about to advance her story without bringing them fully to life. And why she chose to have the character whose writing is called "actually a lot of shit" by a prospective publisher, who recognizes that Chris' approaching success is based on his youth, not his talent, be the one whose methods most mimic her own is definitely beyond my understanding.
I also thought that the use of flash forwards, which I am, in general, exceedingly fond of, and found most effective in Jean Brodie (and in The Driver's Seat, which I read last month), undercut my concern in The Finishing School. While knowing that Miss Brodie is to be betrayed, that Sandy will become a nun, that Mary will be killed in a fire (or that that strange Lise is going to be murdered before morning comes), heightens the suspense and keeps me engaged with how future events are to come about, foreknowledge here deflated my interest. Why should I care now about the state of Rowland and Nina's marriage when I know she's going to be much happier as an art historian married to someone else? Why should I care now that Chris' novel is no good if he's still going to manage to get it published? Why should I care now about any of the students at the Sunrise School when I know they all have enough money or family prestige to take the rough edges off their years to come?
Based on these two books, I'd have to say that if an author can't or isn't willing to vary her style and technique from book to book, she ought to take care that the stories she has to tell will work with her style rather than against it.
I'm late getting this posted compared to everyone else, so I'll wait to discuss Jean Brodie in the Metaxu Cafe forums. I will say I'm glad this Slaves of Golconda reading gave me reason to read it again--I read it back in high school and retained very little--and that I do intend to read more by Spark. I'm going to chose titles for the most part, though, from the first half of her career when her style is economical, but not yet miserly. I don't have a problem meeting a writer halfway, but I'm not willing to do more than that.
(cross posted at pages turned)