Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol (performed by Patrick Stewart)

 A Christmas Carol (Audiocd) - Patrick Stewart, Charles Dickens   A Christmas Carol

A “Christmas Carol” for the 21st Century

Part of my annual Christmas ritual – and since this year I’m indulging by way of Patrick Stewart’s splendid audio version and the TV adaptation it inspired, here’s my review of the latter … with the added note that my comments on Stewart’s performance in the movie also apply to his reading, where he also does a splendid job getting under the skin (or whatever it is that ghosts have) of all the story’s other characters.

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Given the enormous potential for failure, it takes either a lot of guts or a big ego to remake a classic and step into a pair of shoes worn so well by the likes of George C. Scott and Alastair Sim — you don’t have to have grown up in an English speaking country to take those two names and their portrayal of Dickens’s miserly anti-hero for granted as part of your Christmas experience. And I suspect a good part of both guts and ego was at play in this production; but let’s face it: after years of bringing Scrooge to the stage in a much-acclaimed one man show and after also having recorded the audio book version of “A Christmas Carol,” a movie adaptation starring Patrick Stewart was probably due to come out sooner or later. Yet, while it does sometimes have the feel of another huge star vehicle for Stewart (even without the self-congratulatory trailer and brief “behind the scenes” features included on the DVD), his experience and insight into the character of Scrooge allow him to pull off a remarkable performance, and to make the role his own without letting us forget who originally wrote the tale. From a “humbug” growled out from the very depth of his disdain and his audible desire to boil “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips” with his own pudding and bury them with a stake of holly through their heart, to the “splendid” and “most illustrious … father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs,” coughed up and spit out after years of having been out of practice, this is the Scrooge that Dickens described; and Stewart obviously has the time of his life playing him.

This made-for-TV production is sometimes criticized for its use of special effects; I don’t find those overly disturbing, though — in fact, they’re rather low-key and for the most part used to show nothing more than what Dickens actually described. (This is a ghost story, remember?) Scrooge really does see Marley’s face in his door knocker; we all know that Marley’s ghost does indeed walk through Scrooge’s doubly locked door … and last but not least Dickens himself describes the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come as “shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.” (Granted, no gleaming lights for eyes, though.) The script could have spared a modernism here and there, but again, mostly the lines are exactly those that Dickens himself wrote. Even where the characters don’t actually speak them, they are part of their reflections — such as Marley being buried and “dead as a door-nail” (which, after all, is the tale’s all-important premise) and Scrooge’s rather funny musings how the Ghost of Christmas Past might be deterred from taking him for a flight (where citing neither the weather nor the hour nor a head cold nor his inadequate dress would do). Richard E. Grant, known to TV audiences as Sir Percy Blakeney in the recent adaptations of “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” moves to the opposite end of the social spectrum in his portrayal of gaunt, downtrodden Bob Cratchit; and he is a very credible caring father and husband, albeit a bit too well-educated — unlike the rest of his family, who speak and come across as decidedly more cockney. Joel Grey, whose Master of Ceremonies in “Cabaret” stands out as one of those “one of a kind” performances that are few and far between in film history, is almost perfectly cast as the Ghost of Christmas Past, combining the spirit’s wisdom of an old man with his child-like innocence, frail stature and luminous appearance. A great supporting cast and solid cinematographic and directorial work round out an overall very well done production.

Many actors are remembered either for one career-making role or for a certain type they have cast. No doubt Patrick Stewart, who as a teenager had to face an ultimatum between a steady job and the theater and chose the latter, will go into film history as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Treck’s “Next Generation.” But I would not be surprised if the other major role he will always be remembered for will be that of Ebenezer Scrooge — on stage, in audio recordings and in this movie adaptation, which successfully brings Dickens’s timeless tale of bitterness, sorrow, redemption and the true meaning of Christmas to the 21st century, and which before long, I think, will attain the status of a classic in its own right. I know that I, for one, will be watching it again with renewed pleasure next Christmas.

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Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde“Beauty is a form of Genius.”

Oscar Wilde was one of the foremost representatives of Aestheticism, a movement based on the notion that art exists for no other purpose than its existence itself (“l’art pour l’art”), not for the purpose of social and moral enlightenment. Born in Dublin and a graduate of Oxford’s Magdalen College, he initially worked primarily as a journalist, editor and lecturer, but gradually turned to writing and produced his most acclaimed works in the six-year span from 1890 to 1895, roughly coinciding with the period of his romantic involvement with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, sixteen years his junior. Douglas’s strained relationship with his father, John Sholto Douglas, Marquees of Queensberry, eventually resulted in a series of confrontations between Wilde and the Marquees, which first led to a libel suit brought by Wilde against his lover’s father (who had openly accused Wilde of “posing as a sodomite” and threatened to disown his son if he didn’t give up his acquaintance with the writer) and subsequently to two criminal trials against Wilde for “gross indecencies,” based on a law generally interpreted to prohibit homosexual relationships. Sentenced to a two-year term of “hard labor” in Reading Gaol, Wilde emerged from prison in 1897 a spiritually, physically and financially broken man and, unable to continue living in England or Ireland, after three years’ wanderings throughout Europe died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis, barely 46 years old.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Wilde’s only novel besides seven plays as well as several works of short fiction, poetry, nonfiction and two fairy tale collections originally written for his two sons, is critical to an understanding of Wilde’s body of work and his personality primarily for two reasons: First, because it constitutes one of his earliest fully accomplished formulations of Aestheticism, and secondly because of its undeniable undercurrent of homoeroticism; an inclination which, after a six-year marriage widely thought to initially have been a true love match, Wilde had begun to explore more openly around the time of the novel’s creation (1890). The story’s title character is an exceptionally handsome young man who, both in the eyes of the artist tasked to paint his portrait, Basil Hallward, and in those of their somewhat older friend Lord Henry Wotton, epitomizes perfect beauty and is coveted by both men for that very reason. Seduced by hedonistic Lord Henry into believing that beauty can literally justify anything, including any act of immorality, Dorian sells his soul for maintaining his beautiful appearance, letting his portrait age in his stead. (In that, his character resembles Goethe’s and Marlowe’s Faust.) He then quickly turns from an innocent youth into a cruel and calculating man whom society, in its shallow adherence to appearances, nonetheless never associates with any of the results of his cruelty, never looking beyond the surface of his handsome exterior and assuming that a man so beautiful must necessarily also be good. Ultimately it is Dorian himself who brings about his own downfall when he is no longer able to face the manifestation of his evilness in Basil Hallward’s picture.

Upon its initial publication in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was widely scorned as immoral by a public neither familiar with nor particularly open to the concepts of Aestheticism and its mockery of middle class morality, and repulsed by the thinly veiled homoerotic relationship of the novel’s protagonists. Wilde republished the work the following year, adding a preface designed to explain his views on art. Yet, it was that preface which, along with several of his other publications and his written exchanges with Lord Alfred Douglas, ultimately would play a devastating role in his trials, where Queensberry’s attorney would come to use an excerpt from that very preface – “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written” – to extract from Wilde statements to the effect that any book inspiring a sense of beauty (including, as implied in the attorney’s question, an “immoral” book, if “The Picture of Dorian Gray” could be qualified as such) was well-written and therefore commendable; that only Philistines, brutes and illiterates – whose views on art he considered invariably stupid and for which he therefore didn’t “care twopence” – could consider this novel “perverted,” and that the majority of the reading public would probably not be able to draw a proper distinction between a good and a bad book. It was testimony such as this, as well as the impending confrontation with a number of male witnesses ready to testify as to the nature of their relationship with Wilde, that not only caused the author’s attorney to convince his client to drop the libel suit against Queensberry but also opened the door for Wilde’s own subsequent prosecution.

If “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has a central theme besides the supremacy of beauty and the depiction of a society primarily interested in appearances, it is a call for individuality: Dorian’s cruelty is brought out only after he allows himself to be influenced by Lord Henry’s equally seductive and cynical hedonism; and similarly, Basil Hallward’s blind idolizing of Dorian eventually proves fatal for the painter. – Wilde’s only novel is one of the first and most poignant expressions of his own individualism; but unlike his protagonist, who ultimately pays a ghastly prize for selling his soul and giving up his individuality, Wilde paid as high a price for maintaining his. Like Dorian, he knew that “[e]ach of us has Heaven and Hell in him,” and although this novel’s preface ends with the provocative statement that “[a]ll art is quite useless,” it was the very fact that Wilde put his entire being into his art that ultimately destroyed him. But like beauty, which is finally restored to perfection in Dorian Gray’s portrait, Wilde’s works have stood the test of time; and not merely for their countless, pricelessly witty epigrams. They’re as well worth a read as ever.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton, Maureen HowardLove, Loneliness, and the Strictures of Society

Imagine living in a world where life is governed by intricate rituals; a world “balanced so precariously that its harmony [can] be shattered by a whisper” (Wharton); a world ruled by self-declared experts on form, propriety and family history – read: scandal –; where everything is labeled and yet, people are not; where in order not to disturb society’s smooth surface nothing is ever expressed or even thought of directly, and where communication occurs almost exclusively by way of symbols, which are unknown to the outsider and, like any secret code, by their very encryption guarantee his or her permanent exclusion.

Such, in faithful imitation of Victorian England, was the society of late 19th century upper class New York. Into this society returns, after having grown up and lived all her adult life in Europe, American-born Countess Ellen Olenska, after leaving a cruel and uncaring husband. She already causes scandal by the mere manner of her return; but not knowing the secret rituals of the society she has entered, she quickly brings herself further into disrepute by receiving an unmarried man, by being seen in the company of a man only tolerated by virtue of his financial success and his marriage to the daughter of one of this society’s most respected families, by arriving late to a dinner in which she has expressly been included to rectify a prior general snub, by leaving a drawing room conversation to instead join a gentleman sitting by himself – and worst of all, by openly contemplating divorce, which will most certainly open up a whole Pandora’s box of “oddities” and “unpleasantness:” the strongest terms ever used to express moral disapproval in this particular social context. Soon Ellen, who hasn’t seen such façades even in her husband’s household, finds herself isolated and, wondering whether noone is ever interested in the truth, complains bitterly that “[t]he real loneliness here is living among all these kind people who only ask you to pretend.”

Ellen finds a kindred soul in attorney Newland Archer, her cousin May Welland’s fiancé, who secretly toys with a more liberal stance, while outwardly endorsing the value system of the society he lives in. Newland and Ellen fall in love – although not before he has advised her, on his employer’s and May and Ellen’s family’s mandate, not to pursue her plans of divorce. As a result, Ellen becomes unreachable to him, and he flees into accelerating his wedding plans with May, who before he met Ellen in his eyes stood for everything that was good and noble about their society, whereas now he begins to see her as a shell whose interior he is reluctant to explore for fear of finding merely a kind of serene emptiness there; a woman whose seemingly dull, passive innocence grinds down every bit of roughness he wants to maintain about himself and who, as he realizes even before marrying her, will likely bury him alive under his own future. Then his passion for Ellen is rekindled by a meeting a year and a half after his wedding, and an emotional conflict they could hardly bear when he was not yet married escalates even further. And only when it is too late for all three of them he finds out that his wife had far more insight (and almost ruthless cleverness) than he had ever credited her with.

Winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize and the first work of fiction written by a woman to be awarded that distinction, “The Age of Innocence” is one of Edith Wharton’s most enduringly popular novels; the crown jewel among her subtly satirical descriptions of New York upper class society. By far not as overtly condemning and cynical as the earlier “House of Mirth” (for which Wharton reportedly even saw this later work as a sort of apology), “The Age of Innocence” is a masterpiece of characterization and social study alike: an intricate canvas painted by a master storyteller who knew the society which she described inside out, and who, even though she had moved to France (where she would continue living for the rest of her life) almost a decade earlier, was able to delineate late 19th century New York society’s every nuance in pitch-perfect detail, while at the same time – seemingly without any effort at all – also blending together all these minute details into an impeccably composed ensemble that will stay with the reader long after he has turned the last page.

 

Favorite Quote:

“The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”

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Isabella Beeton: Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management / Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

Well, one day I may well get around to writing proper reviews of these two iconic books (both in their own way) after all, too. But until then, quite unapologetically, my Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Review Elimination Tournament entry will have to do …

Felines at War, or:
Celebrity Death Match Review Elimination Tournament Review: Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (16) vs. War and Peace (17)

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (Oxford World's Classics) - Isabella Beeton    War & Peace - Leo Tolstoy, Anthony Briggs

Give a cat a fish...and he will come back every day expecting you to give him another fish.

With a satisfied flick of her tail, Mrs. B. groomed back into place two stray hairs that had come lose in her shining black fur during her foray into the pantry, then she snatched her prize – a delicious-looking fillet of salmon –, crossed the kitchen and made for the outside door. There, however, she stopped in her tracks, her every hair standing on end.

Assembled on the doorstep was the better part of the Russian emigré mob that had recently surfaced in the neighborhood, hungrily eying her salmon. Mrs. B. speed-assessed the situation and concluded that there was only one thing to do.

She turned tail and raced straight back into the kitchen with the Russians in hot pursuit, smashing through the heavy oak door and making it bang into the wall with the explosive force of a canon ball.

Breathlessly Mrs. B. made for the nearest counter where, in landing, she toppled a stack of plates and sent it clattering to the ground, which however only gave her a momentary respite as the Russians dodged the flat, flying missiles that splayed into pieces on the tiled kitchen floor. In passing she set spinning a large chef’s knife, which promptly buried itself into the sides of the most forward of her pursuers, an elegant Russian Blue female whose coat began to turn red as she remained behind with a gasp and a whimper. “Sweetest Natasha!” roared the leader of the mob, a bulky creature sporting scruffy fur of an indistinct color and the obvious bearing of the newly-rich, who now hefted himself to Mrs. B.’s hind paws. “I’ll make you pay for this, you dirty English tart – this means WAR!” He charged forward, careening into a sauce dish filled with melted butter which Mrs. B. had neatly sidestepped at the very last moment. The bulky Russian slithered through the pool of sticky yellow liquid that had spilled from the dish, straight into the hot iron thing that humans called a stove. Mrs. B. did not take the time to look back, but his momentous growl and the smell of singed fur told her that another one of her pursuers was evidently out of combat. Swiftly jumping down again from the counter, she ducked under the table in the direction of the opposite wall, now chiefly pursued by two sleek young males who looked like the brothers of the injured female Natasha, and by a meager, vicious-looking Donskoy. Scampering along the wall, Mrs. B. just barely managed to leap over a mouse trap which Natasha’s brothers, jockeying for position at her heels, noticed too late, and which promptly fastened itself to the first brother’s right front paw, making him go down with a yelp and causing the second brother and the Donskoy to tumble over him. This resulted in a momentary scuffle as the Russians disentangled themselves from each other with much clawing and screeching. Mrs. B. meanwhile leapt onto another counter and further up onto the spice rack above, from where she showered her reappearing pursuers (now reduced to the second brother and the Donskoy) with salvos of capers, flour, salt, pepper, and other assorted ground substances, sending earthenware containers flying right and left as she rushed forward, finally making a blind jump for the kitchen window ahead in the hope that it would not be locked.

The window was not locked. It nevertheless proved not to be a suitable exit route, either. For in it had appeared, seemingly out of nothing, another recent arrival to the neighborhood; a dark Chartreux who made up for his shortish legs by a ridiculously imperial manner. From day one, Mrs. B. had been as weary of him as she was of the Russian emigré mob.

The Chartreux graced Mrs. B.’s pursuers, who were sitting on the ground, squinting from pepper-burned eyes and busily cleaning large quantities of flour and spices from their fur, with a contemptuous sniff: “Leave this to me, you inept Russian peasants.” Then he turned to Mrs. B. “Madame,” he said, “I have come here to offer Peace. Indeed, I am offering you an entente tout à fait cordiale.” He eyed the fillet of salmon which, though slightly worse for wear, Mrs. B. was still holding firmly clenched between her teeth. “Now, if we were to divide this truly superb fish, and you were to give me half and you and those Russians were to split the …”

“Let me pass, Sir. NOW.” To actually voice this, Mrs. B. would have had to open her mouth and let go of the salmon, which was the farthest thing from her mind. But her demeanor and a determined growl made her point quite clearly enough.

“Tsk, tsk. Nobody sidesteps Napoleon.” As the Chartreux slightly shook his head, his claws burrowed into Mrs. B.’s neck, instantly drawing blood. Mrs. B. suppressed an unladylike squeak and relaxed her stance. Ridiculous upstart, she thought but this time tried hard not to convey by her manner, which instead she changed to utmost submissiveness. The flattery worked like a charm: slowly, the French male’s claws came out of her neck and he began to eye her curiously.

This was the moment she had been waiting for.

Suddenly tearing up Napoleon’s sides with her front claws and giving him as hard a push as she could, she turned and jumped onto the kitchen table, then scattered past the assorted copper pots, pans, bowls, spoons and ladles left to dry on a rack next to the sink. The quickly-recovering Chartreux hefted himself hard to her heels with a furious snarl. Misstepping ever so slightly, however, he upset the pile of pots and pans lying in his way, which left him scrambling for balance and ultimately landed him in the still half-filled sink. Before he had regained dry ground, Mrs. B. had at last made her escape through the kitchen door, leaving behind a field of destruction and barely in time to hear an angry human voice exclaim: “Now, what happened here, for Chrissakes? Dammed strays – get out of my kitchen AT ONCE! OUT, I said!”

A little later, lying on her favorite pillow and languidly licking a last drop of melted butter from her paw, Mrs. B. mused that collared salmon, lightly salted and with hot butter sauce on the side, actually made for quite a satisfactory dish. A piece of salmon, say 3 lbs., a high seasoning of salt, pounded mace, and pepper; water and vinegar, 3 bay-leaves …

She purred contentedly, curled up, and was soon fast asleep.

 :

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George Orwell: Burmese Days

Pukka Sahibs:  Pukkah Sahibs:  British colonial officers:
Pukkah sahibs

Burmese Days: George OrwellAn Assembly Such as This …

Though uttered in much more genteel circumstances than the setting of this book, Mr. Darcy’s timeless put-down of Meryton society in Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice can’t fail to come to mind when referring to the characters populating George Orwell’s first novel. Burmese Days is, down to the last man and woman, inhabited by a group of thoroughly disgusting characters: people who are, in the words of Darcy’s famous epithet, indeed so “insupportable” that the reader can’t help but conclude that they, each and everyone, richly deserve one another and everything that they are doing to one another. Reading Burmese Days feels much like watching a train wreck in the making and actually looking forward to the moment of the train wreck, without being able to muster the slightest bit of guilt about such a display of readerly Schadenfreude.

There is a truism to the effect that an author’s first book often serves the purpose of getting their personal feelings and experience out of the way: a personal involvement so strong that it cannot but be overcome by publication – that authors, in other words, first need to get over themselves before they can move on to bigger and better things. This of course doesn’t mean that a first novel can’t be a masterpiece regardless (indeed, these days in particular it often feels like anything short of a monumental masterpiece will fail to make an author even register in the collective conscience of the literary community), but there are plenty of examples, too, of first novels that primarily serve this personal purpose of clearing the way for the author’s true gift to emerge, and for that gift to be rid of any and all overriding encumbrances. Burmese Days clearly falls into the latter category: Stationed in Burma for five years as a British colonial officer himself, Orwell came to loathe the Raj, everything of which it consisted and everything that it stood for – and judging by the evil, almost cardboard caricatures that he created in lieu of well-rounded, three-dimensional characters (not least this novel’s bumbling, weak main character, Flory, who is not exactly hard to unravel as an exercise in ruthless authorial self-flagellation), he obviously also carried a boatload of guilt about having himself been part of the very system that upheld the Raj. Orwell, thus, had a lot to get over before he could move on to bigger and better things.

And yet … and yet. Even in this first novel, Orwell’s enormous talent as a writer already registers clearly and distinctly. What in upwards of 90% or even 98% of all other writers would have resulted in an unpublishable diatribe (or in the age of e-publishing, a self-published diatribe previously rejected by all respectable and established publishers), in the hands of then-barely-31-years-old Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell) became both a scathing criticism of the Raj and a mesmerizing portrait of Burma in the 1920s and 1930s. Burma clearly got under Orwell’s skin in more ways than one, and it will get under his readers’ skin precisely because this is George Orwell writing: The same powerful immediacy of language that makes readers of 1984 experience a sense of chill even at the mere thought of Big Brother also makes readers of this first novel suffer the sweltering, stifling heat, the lush, encroaching rainforest and the terminal boredom of colonial life in a remote outpost of the Raj as if we, the readers, were actually experiencing these same things alongside the characters. Indeed, this book’s masterful use of language and skillful construction alone probably make thousands of other first-time authors go green with envy – at the same time as they are going green with nausea at the novel’s characters.

Ultimately, however, Orwell’s overriding hatred of the system that he himself had helped to uphold in Burma is also precisely the thing that prevents this novel from reaching its full potential. As a piece of criticism of the Raj it certainly stands out; indeed, alongside E.M. Forster‘s Passage to India it is one of the few pre-WWII books written by an Englishman this harshly critical of the very concepts underlying the maxim of “Rule Britannia.” Small wonder, then, that Orwell’s British publisher feared a lawsuit for libel and insisted on numerous changes in order to soften the message (which in turn lead to a rather “ckeckered” publication history; it took decades for the text to be restored and republished as originally written). And of course, part of the roots of 1984 are to be found here as well: The oppressive society that Orwell experienced in Burma was quite obviously, in his view at least, not so very different from the totalitarian system that he later saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union – take class arrogance, the racist oppression that is at the very heart of colonialism, as well as totalitarian dictatorship, a boundlessly powerful and inventive secret police, and the self-enforcing mind control exercised by a society (and a government) operating on strict notions of what is “right” and what is “wrong” thought, blend and shake liberally, and you’ll have come up with the cocktail now known as the dystopian society controlled by Big Brother and Newspeak in Orwell’s final masterpiece. However, the analytical transition (“this sort of thing can happen anytime, anywhere”) only occurs in the later book. Burmese Days itself is too closely and precisely tied to Orwell’s personal experience and to Burma and the Raj to invite, in and of itself, the comparison with other forms of oppressive societies in general. (Indeed, even to the extent that other régimes are mentioned at all, they’re the same type of late 19th century / early 20th century colonial societies as that prevalent in the Raj, such as the German colonies in Africa.) Orwell’s first novel still has a place in literary history, of course, but these days, that place chiefly rests on the light which this book sheds on Orwell’s genesis as a writer and an intellectual, and on its nature as a (fictionalized) documentation of a blessedly now-defunct historical society and way of life.

Katha(r), Myanmar. The British Club Katha(r), Mynmar: Irrawaddy River Katha(r), Myanmar: Street near the river
Katha(r) (the novel’s actual location, though to avoid a lawsuit for libel, Orwell had to come up with a fictional place name – the town is called Kyauktada in the book): the British Club, Irrawaddy River, and a street near the river.

Map of Myanmar

Edna O’Brien: In the Forest

In the Forest: Edna O'BrienKinderschreck

A boy, robbed off his mother’s love at the age of ten. Refusing to believe she is dead, clinging to the idea that she was buried alive while she was sleeping, digging a hole into the ground near her grave in order to speak to her. A loner who, then and there, decides to become “a true son of the forest,” as his mother in a dream apparition has told him to be. (Or was that an early delusion?) An adolescent, locked up in juvenile homes, boarding schools, prisons and other institutions, abused by a priest, neglected, ignored, and locking himself off against the outside world in response. Putting to practice the one lesson he has learned from Lazlo, the boys’ schizophrenic leader in the first such institution; Lazlo who heard voices and who has taught him that the one thing that counts is to hate “them” (the grown-ups, those that stand for authority and society as a whole) with a worse hate than they have for him. A young man, unable to show any feeling other than that long-practiced hatred; acting out his suppressed emotions in violence whenever he is not locked up, unable to escape the voices now talking in his head more and more often, just as they were once talking in Lazlo’s.

And a young woman with long red hair. Maddie’s mother, raising her young son alone, breaking off all relationships with men as soon as they get to close for comfort. An outsider, only recently moved to the village. A teacher. An artist. Mistress of ceremonies at a Celtic festival, performing pagan rituals. Druidess. Mystery woman whom nobody knows with complete intimacy, maybe not even her sister Cassandra and her best friend Madge. Raped and murdered by a young man trapped between insanity and emotional deprivation, for whom she is the realization of everything he associates with the idea of the female – simultaneously fairy queen, virgin, angel, object of his sexual fantasies, whore, confidante and most importantly, mother.

This is the couple which, in the deadly dance at the heart of Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, is locked together by fate; a fate prompted by the murderer’s delusions and rage as much as by society’s inability to deal with him. And this first murder is only the starting point of a killing spree which will demand several more victims before the young man is apprehended. – Like two of her previous novels, Down by the River (addressing incest, abortion and society’s inability to deal with either, as expressed in the trial of a girl who went to England to abort the child conceived from her own father) and House of Splendid Isolation (inspired by the Irish “troubles”), Ms. O’Brien’s latest book is based on a series of real events which deeply shook the Irish society in the mid-1990s, and which occurred in the county which O’Brien, before moving to London, used to call her home. But here as there, the author is less interested in the hard, cold facts as such but rather, in the psychology involved and society’s response to the unspeakable horror of the crimes committed; in “man and the intentions of his soul,” as she said in a 1992 article, quoting Leonardo da Vinci. And like the great painter, with an unrelenting eye for detail she takes the reader into the killer’s mind; a mind inexorably spiraling, spiraling, spiraling into a dark abyss from which soon there is no way out. At the same time, the reader experiences the terror of the abduction felt by his victims; the slow and chilling realization that there is no escape, that this last walk into the somber depth of the forest is the way into certain death, to be preceded by a suffering dreadful beyond imagination. Yet, the tale is not solely told from the perspective of Michen O’Kane, the killer and rapist, the “Kinderschreck” and bogeyman who holds an entire county at gunpoint; nor only from that of his victims, Eily Ryan and her son, and the others that will follow them within a matter of days. Thread by thread, Ms. O’Brien weaves the voices of all those involved in the events – the vicitims’ relatives, the killer’s family, the police, neighbors, women of the community and the psychiatrist who treated O’Kane at trial – into a fabric of rage, helplessness, despair and desolation; symbolized by the vast, dark, threatening forest where the first murders have taken place, that “chamber of non-light” which “lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people” when a dead goat “decomposed and stank” in a wooden hut at the farthest entrance to the forest.

In her native Ireland, Edna O’Brien was severely criticized for In the Forest, even before the novel was published, and accused of exploiting a gruesome crime for the sake of selling a story. The families of the victims of the incidents on which the novel is based reportedly spoke out against the book. But while it is undoubtedly difficult for them to deal with those events, the reaction of others only demonstrates the accuracy of Ms. O’Brien’s analysis. Yet again, the woman who to many seems to be a literary “Kinderschreck” herself, whose first six (!) books were banned because of their daring stance on women’s role in the Irish society (and society in general), and who moved to London years ago to “escape from those fields, gates, trees, woods, winds, sleet, priests, nuns and family, all of whom seemed to overwhelm [her],” as she wrote in the above-mentioned article, has held up a mirror before her fellow men; and yet again, some do not like what they see. That criticism, however, reflects more on those articulating it than on the author herself or her book. In the Forest is as brilliantly written as it is necessary – as shown by nothing better than by the reactions it provoked. A deeply disturbing book, but under no circumstances to be missed.

Guy de Maupassant: Une Vie – A Woman’s Life

A portrait of meekness, brilliantly drawn.

Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant was born at Château de Miromesnil near Dieppe, Normandy, and educated in Rouen and Yvetot, likewise in that Northern French region bordering on the Channel and the North Sea. Introduced to Gustave Flaubert by his mother, an old friend of Flaubert’s, the creator of “Madame Bovary” soon became Maupassant’s mentor and in turn, introduced him to Émile Zola, Tourgeniev and other proponents of literary realism. And encouraged by Flaubert, the erstwhile volunteer of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 eventually turned to journalism and published his first book, a collection of poetry, in 1880. He soon became known as a masterful short story writer, owing the clarity and concise nature of his prose in no small part to the lessons learned from his fatherly friend. Normandy, the beloved land of his childhood and adolescence, plays a dominant role in much of Maupassant’s writing; both as a backdrop and as a means of highlighting emotions and plot developments.

In six novels, Maupassant condensed the motifs explored in his numerous short stories, which would ultimately count over 300. “Une Vie” (“A Life”) is the first of these novels, published in 1883. It traces the life of Jeanne de Lamare, née Jeanne des Vauds, only daughter and heiress to the fortune of a Norman aristocrat family, from the moment she leaves her convent school at the age of seventeen, to advanced age and grandmotherhood. Naive by nature and sheltered from the harsh realities of life behind the walls of the convent, young Jeanne’s outlook on life upon returning to her parents’ chateau on the Norman coast, les Peuples, which she shall eventually inhabit with her husband, is innocently optimistic. Only a few months after her arrival, she falls in love with the viscount de Lamare whom she marries in very short order. But from here on out her life changes rapidly, because once married, her husband drops any pretence at the charm he has displayed while wooing her. Jeanne, wholly unprepared by nature and education to adequately respond to her husband’s miserly attitude and multiple forms of abuse, nor finding forceful support in her parents, sees no other way than to passively tolerate his behavior; even when she stumbles into proof after proof of the extent of his transgressions against common decency and against his marital vows. And her son, in his childhood her one remaining pride and joy (and therefore, hopelessly spoiled), once grown to manhood turns out another major disappointment. Jeanne grows disillusioned and bitter, frequently complaining that life has treated her excessively unfairly.

“Une Vie” draws, inter alia, on themes developed in seven short stories published in the years 1881 – 1883. The critically acclaimed novel sold 25,000 copies within the first few months after its publication. It has all the features of the writing style for which Maupassant, by then, had already become known: a crisp prose very much to the point being expressed; a sharp eye for the heroine’s social context and the daily life of the Norman aristocracy; a vibrant tableau of Normandy’s sea, fields, woods, seasons and weather; wit, irony, and great insight into human nature. From the torrential rain storm which accompanies Jeanne’s transition from the convent to her familial château at the beginning of the story to a tranquil sunset several decades later when Jeanne finally makes her peace with life, nature is brilliantly used to highlight the heroine’s feelings, trials and tribulations.

In her passivity and weakness, Jeanne is not an easy heroine to like or at least, to emphasize with; nor does Maupassant make the point that she had no alternative to her inert tolerance of her husband’s and her son’s wrongdoings: the image of her bonne Rosalie, pragmatic and down to earth and ultimately much better equipped than Jeanne to deal with life’s uncertainties and deceptions, and the example of several other local noblewomen makes it clear that it is Jeanne’s character more than anything else that renders her unable to adequately respond to her situation in life and to the abuse she suffers. Yet, Maupassant was not interested in those other women – so little, in fact, that their characterization barely exceeds the level of a superficial sketch; including and in particular the portrayal of the one woman with whom Jeanne’s husband is involved in a lasting and profound affair and who claims, nevertheless, to be Jeanne’s friend. Similarly, Jeanne’s husband is almost two-dimensional in his boorishness. Nevertheless, from the first page on there is no denying that this novel was written by one of the master storytellers of his time.

Guy de Maupassant died at the age of only 43 years, of an illness which drove him to madness and alcohol abuse and rendered him unable to write during the last three years of his life, thus forcing him to leave only fragments of his last two novels, L’Âme Étrangère and L’Angélus. Émile Zola said at his funeral that future generations who, unlik––e Maupassant’s numerous friends, would only know him through his literary work, would come to love him for the eternal love song to life which he sang in his writings. Although given the pessimistic outlook to life taken by its heroine, “Une Vie” is an unlikely candidate to put these words to proof, and although it does not quite reach the brilliance of Maupassant’s short stories and later novels, particularly the piercingly accurate and sardonic “Bel Ami,” the writer’s first novel is the manifestation of a unique talent and, yes, a declaration of love to a life which is after all, as Jeanne’s bonne Rosalie muses, “never as good nor as bad as one believes.”

 

Favorite Quotes:

“One sometimes weeps over one’s illusions with as much bitterness as over a death.”

“She realized for the first time that two people can never reach each others deepest feelings and instincts, that they spend their lives side by side, linked it may be, but not mingled, and that each one’s inmost being must go through life eternally alone.”

Thomas Mann: Dr. Faustus

Doktor Faustus - Thomas MannA Reckoning

This review is dedicated, in friendship and grateful memory, to the late Bob Zeidler, one of Amazon.com’s best and brightest customer reviewers. It is partly inspired by an exchange with Bob, whose comments hereon are sorely missed.

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“Yes … we are lost. That is to say: the war is lost, but that means more than a lost military campaign, in fact it means that we are lost, lost is our substance and our soul, our faith and our history. It is over with Germany; … an unnamable collapse, economical, political, moral and spiritual, in short, all-encompassing, is becoming apparent, – I don’t want to have wished for what is looming, because it is despair, it is madness.”*

Thus, the narrator of Thomas Mann’s last completed and, I think, greatest novel sums up Germany’s fate after the barbarities of national-socialism. But this is no mere character speaking: This is Mann himself – the erstwhile self-proclaimed “Unpolitical Man,” condemned to watch the Nazi tyranny’s horrors from the distance of his Californian exile, taking up the mighty pen that had gained him his Literature Nobel Prize and, through the voice of a narrator named Dr. Serenus Zeitbloom (in itself, supremely ironic comment on Mann’s own circumstances) composing his final reckoning with the country he left when the Nazis came to power, and where he never returned to live, although he finally did leave the U.S. in 1952, driven out by McCarthyism.

According to his diaries, as early as 1904 Mann had the idea of using a composer’s temptation by the devil (and thus, updating the Faustian legend, the quintessential theme of Germany’s cultural history at least since the Middle Ages) to illustrate the corruption of art by evil. Seeing the country’s intoxication with the glorious promises of Hitler and his henchmen, seeing all of German society fall under the spell of evil, including the “Bildungsbürgertum,” the educated middle class considering itself guardians of Germany’s cultural tradition (and for whose acceptance the dark-haired merchant’s son without a university education struggled throughout his life, much as they bought his books), reviving that idea first conceived forty years earlier was a logical choice; now further inspired by the personalities of Arnold Schönberg, whom Mann met in exile and whose twelve-tone scale became that of his novel’s protagonist Adrian Leverkühn, and Friedrich Nietzsche, with whose writings and personal fate Mann had been fascinated early on. Philosophically and musically, the novel is also influenced by critical theorist Theodor Adorno, with whom Mann entertained an in-depth epistolary dialogue.

Blending together musical theory, the decline of humanist philosophy, the rise of fascism and the powers of black magic (most of which Mann had already explored in earlier works like “The Magic Mountain” and, very pointedly, in the 1930 short story “Mario and the Magician”), “Doctor Faustus” is thus simultaneously a comment on the political developments, a warning, an attempt to come to grips with Germany’s high-flying, yet so easily destructible philosophical and moral compass – and, masterfully construed though it is, a cry of despair in the face of utter madness. For while the novel is brimming with references to the better part of German (and European) cultural history, from the medieval “Faustus” tale to Goethe, Weber’s “Freischütz,” Martin Luther, Protestantism, and Thuringia and Saxony as focal points of all things German, Mann’s central point remains the parallel between his country’s fate and that of his novel’s protagonist, both ending in ruin and madness-induced stupor after their deal with the devil has run its evil course.

Unlike Goethe, who places his Faust’s temptation at his tragedy’s beginning, leaving no doubt about the event’s physical reality, Mann even narratively lifts Leverkühn’s temptation into the realm of allegory and imagination, by splitting it into two incidents, whose combined effect will only come to fruition in the novel’s final part. On neither occasion Zeitbloom, the narrator, is present; for both we thus have only Leverkühn’s own words. Yet, even the first account, a letter describing how the would-be composer is mischievously led to a brothel and falls under the spell of a prostitute, already intimates the evil to come, the venereal disease that will later constitute the outward cause of his madness; and not only does Leverkühn ask his friend to destroy that letter, he also closes it imploring him to pray for his soul.

Much later in the narrative – although indicating that it was actually written earlier; thus employing yet another level of (temporal) abstraction – Mann introduces Leverkühn’s transcript of his exchange with the devil; a dream-like sequence during which shape-shifting “Sammael,” in language hearkening back to Goethe and even the Middle Ages, promises Leverkühn nothing short of “the metamorphosis of a god”: that by his name a whole generation of “receptively healthy boys”* will swear, “those who thanks to [his] madness will no longer have to be mad themselves;”* and that, indeed, his name will live forever. Still, at this point we have already witnessed Leverkuehn explaining the foundations of his twelve-tone scale, only to be challenged by Zeitbloom’s question whether the strictness of his concept doesn’t deprive the composer of all freedom (which Leverkühn denies, rather seeing the composer as “bound by a self-imposed order, hence free”).* And when in an exchange laden with symbolism Zeitbloom then presses whether the formation of harmony wouldn’t be left to chance, Leverkühn’s response is, “Rather say: to constellation”* – thus squarely introducing, as his friend will quickly note, concepts of black magic, which in addition to the dialogue’s musical and political references again drive home Leverkühn’s exposure to the irrational and evil, long before the reader actually learns about his interview with the devil.

Doubtlessly among Mann’s most intimately personal works, “Doctor Faustus” is also among his most complex ones; and while hardly any of his writings make for a leisurely read, the sardonic “Felix Krull,” the near-humoristic “Royal Highness” and even his early masterpiece “Buddenbrooks” are foils to the seasoned master craftsman’s rapier that is drawn here. Demanding, certainly – but also highly recommended!

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* Translation mine.

Astrid Lindgren: Pippi Longstocking / Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina

Well, one day I may well get around to writing proper reviews of Lindgren’s and Tolstoy’s books after all, too. But until then, quite unapologetically, my Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Review Elimination Tournament entry will have to do …

Girl Power, or:
Celebrity Death Match Review Elimination Tournament Review: Anna Karenina (12) vs. Pippi Långstrump (21)

  

A countryside railway station in indistinctly northern surroundings. Count Vronsky and Anna Karenina are standing together, both looking into the distance but in opposite directions.

VRONSKY (contemplative): Now, look at that … a girl carrying a horse …

ANNA (turning): What’s that you said – a girl?

VRONSKY: … carrying a horse.

ANNA (talking over him): Of course, I should have known – you’re looking at another woman. Again. So what’s so special about this one, huh? (She takes a closer look at the figure in the distance and curls her lips in contempt.)

Her freckles? Those ridiculous reddish braids of hers? Or – or – her shoes? Oh my God, they must be at least two sizes too large!

VRONSKY (to himself): Here we go again. – (Soberly, to Karenina): Anna, please …

ANNA (still not listening): I bet you can’t wait to take those shoes off her and clothe her feet in some sort of delicate slippers. Silk, or damast, or something. Or velvet. Or nothing – and then just kiss them. And go on kissing her all the way up her legs, and then … and then … (She breathes heavily, unable to continue.)

VRONSKY: Anna, for God’s sake, she’s just a girl! She can’t be more than, what, nine or ten … or, well, at least she doesn’t look … (He casts a doubtful glance at the horse, which is now standing on solid ground again.)

ANNA: Ah, but you don’t know, do you? And I am sure you would love to find out …

VRONSKY (exasperated): Anna, please! Do you seriously think I’d be interested in a woman who can carry a horse?!

ANNA (pouting): Oh, so she’s a woman now to you already, is she? A few seconds ago she was still merely a girl … I should have known I would never be able to trust you! You’ll always find a way to betray me! I should never have followed you! Why, oh why did I ever abandon my beloved son for your sake? Oh, Seryozha … (She bursts into tears.)

VRONSKY (after contemplating her for a long moment): Look, Anna, I don’t think this is going anywhere. I …

ANNA (howling): You’re leaving me! (After a pause, with a baleful look at the figure in the distance): For HER!

VRONSKY (through his teeth, struggling for composure): I am going to my club.

(He turns on his heels and leaves.)

ANNA (sobbing uncontrollably): I’ve lost him. And after I gave up everything for his sake. I am nothing without him! Oh, what shall I do??

 A humming from the tracks, first gentle but with a steadily increasing volume, announces the arrival of a train. With a desperate sob, Anna Karenina throws herself onto the tracks. The sudden, harsh squeal of the train’s breaks alerts Pippi Longstocking, who up to now had been blissfully unaware of the scene at the station. She comes rushing over, placing herself in front of the train, and tries to stop it with her bare hands. All she manages, alas, is to slow it down; but not before it has severed Anna’s head, which rolls sideways and comes to a stop at Pippi’s feet. Pippi contemplates it with a half-sad, half puzzled expression.

PIPPI (bemused): It’s a pity she never knew my Pappa. He would’ve told her just to sing to herself. Whatever it is, there’s nothing so bad that it can’t be made right again by singing a song, he always said …

(Alerted by a monkey’s chatter, she looks to the roof of the station house.)

PIPPI: Mr. Nilsson! What are you doing up there? Come down at once!

Laughing, Pippi climbs onto the roof herself to retrieve her monkey, leaving Anna’s severed head and body behind on the tracks.

 

Favorite Quotes:

Pippi Longstocking

“But Nightshirts aren’t dangerous,” Pippi assured her. “They don’t bite anybody except in self defense.”

“You understand Teacher, don’t you, that when you have a mother who’s an angel and a father who is a cannibal king, and when you have sailed on the ocean all your whole life, then you don’t know just how to behave in school with all the apples and ibexes.”

“As the children were sitting there eating pears, a girl came walking along the road from town. When she saw the children she stopped and asked, “Have you seen my papa go by?”
“M-m-m,” said Pippi. “How did he look? Did he have blue eyes?”
“Yes,” said the girl.
“Medium large, not too tall and not too short?”
“Yes,” said the girl.
“Black hat and black shoes?”
“Yes, exactly,” said the girl eagerly.
“No, that one we haven’t seen,” said Pippi decidedly.”

“The girl hurried away, but then Pippi shouted, “Did he have big ears that reached way down to his shoulders?”
“No,” said the girl and turned and came running back in amazement. “You don’t mean to say that you have seen a man walk by with such big ears?”
“I have never seen anyone who walks with his ears,” said Pippi. “All the people I know walk with their feet.”

Mark Twain: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird

Well, one day I may well get around to writing proper reviews of these masterpieces after all, too. But until then, quite unapologetically, my Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Review Elimination Tournament entry will have to do …

Huck Finn vs. Atticus Finch, or:
Goodreads Celebrity Death Match Elimination Tournament ReviewThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (13) versus To Kill a Mockingbird (20)

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - Mark Twain, Guy Cardwell, John Seelye   To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

The scene:

On the banks of the Mississippi, early morning. Mist is rising from the river and spreading over the meadows. In a grove formed by a group of moss-covered trees, the people of St. Petersburg are gathered in a circle around a makeshift outdoor court setting jointly presided over by Judges Taylor and Thatcher. Atticus Finch has left his table on one side of the court setting and is pacing back and forth, addressing the jury that is sitting in a box next to the judges. At a table opposite to the one Atticus has risen from, Huck Finn is lounging back in his chair, slid halfway under the table, chewing and occasionally spitting out watermelon seeds. The case, it would appear, concerns the disappearance of a sum of money that Huck is accused of having “borrowed” from the Widow Douglas, who is now sitting at the table Atticus has left, looking at Huck with a supremely grieved expression (Huck having protested that he’d never borrowed anything other than cornstalks and watermelons in his life, and he’d even given up on the cornstalks considering that then borrowing watermelons wasn’t going to be so bad no more).

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal,” Atticus is holding forth. “That institution, gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve.”

“Oh, come to the mourners’ bench! come, black with sin!” is heard from a group of black spectators, standing in the back of the crowd, segregated from the white folks by a barrier. “AMEN!” answer others from their group. “Come, pore and needy, sunk in shame! (A-A-MEN!) come, all that’s worn and soiled and suffering!”

Huck lets out a yawn and exchanges a glance with Tom Sawyer, who is sitting in the first row of the audience next to Aunt Polly and Becky Thatcher, while Scout Finch is amusing herself somewhere in the distance, playing hide and seek with Jim.

“I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in the jury system,” Atticus continues. “That is no ideal to me, it is a living, working reality. Gentlemen, a court is no better than each man of you sitting before me on this jury. A court is only as sound as its jury, and a jury is only as sound as the men who make it up. I am confident that you gentlemen will review without passion the evidence you have heard and come to a decision. In the name of God, do your duty.”

Atticus makes his way back to his table, keeping his eyes on the jury even after he has finished addressing them, to emphasize the last point he has made.

“Come with a contrite heart!” echoes the chorus behind the barrier. “Come in your rags and sin and dirt! the waters that cleanse is free, the door of heaven stands open – oh, enter in and be at rest! (A-A-MEN! GLORY, GLORY HALLELUJAH!)”

At the words “the door of heaven stands open,” Huck exchanges another glance with Tom, who surreptitiously advances his left foot by just a few inches. Atticus (eyes still on the jury) stumbles and, with a shout, crashes into a hole that had been covered up by a makeshift layer of grass and dirt spread out over a blanket and secured by a few rotting planks. Chaos ensues, while Atticus is heard complaining that the hole is full of snakes, spiders, rats and the like. Under cover of the turmoil that is surrounding the crowd’s joint efforts to rescue Atticus from the hole, Huck makes his escape by way of a rickety boat moored nearby, courtesy of Jim who’d also been using that boat as his most recent hiding place in his game with Scout. Tom is prevented from following them by Aunt Polly’s iron grip on his arm and by a reproachful look from Becky Thatcher’s eyes, under which he turns bright red.

As the boat floats down the river, the judges squabble over whether to declare a mistrial or consider Huck’s flight an admission of guilt and convict him in absentiam. Atticus however, finally rescued from his hole, dusts off his clothes and, with the Widow Douglas’s grudging consent, resolves the issue by graciously admitting defeat to an opponent who has simply outsmarted him.

 

Favorite Quotes

To Kill a Mockingbird

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

“People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”

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http://themisathena.info/images/HarperLee-SillyKitty.JPG:
Err – no, there isn’t …