Sunday, March 22, 2015

Burmese Days by George Orwell


Burmese Days is a fictitious novel based on Orwell's own experience while working with the Indian Imperial Police in the 1920s.  If E.M. Forster wanted to prick the British conscience in A Passage to India, Orwell wants to bludgeon it.

The story centers around a small group of British people living in a remote part of Burma, working in the jungle.  Their one venue for socializing and amusement is a country club where all the expatriates gather to get on each other's nerves and drink themselves blue.

There's only one woman, Mrs. Lackersteen.  She pompous and racist, refusing to learn the language other than the basic guttural Urdu she needs to order about servants.  Her husband is a drunken, lecherous lout who, when not drunk, engages in sexual escapades with native women.

Most of the British men there do, but Mrs. Lackersteen's greatest fear is to be raped by an Indian because she knows that is every Indian man's ambition.

The rest of the characters are just as odious with the exception of the ones that are pathetic. John Flory would fall into the latter category. Flory is the main protagonist of Burmese Days.

Not that he doesn't do things that are odious.  He keeps a Burmese girl, Ma Hla May,  that he doesn't love, doesn't even really enjoy sleeping with but else is there to do in the jungle? Then the Lackersteen's niece come to live with them.

Elizabeth is a young woman come from Paris where she was living with her mother until she died, her father having already passed.  Flory cannot contain his excitement to meet and befriend Elizabeth and kicks Ma Hla May, out.  He's callous about it but she doesn't leave without putting up a fight.

Ma Hla May knows no depths in which to debase herself to keep Flory from throwing her over.  She prostrates herself before him, cries, pleads, begs, cajoles and demands lots and lots of money.

Flory knows that Ma Hla May cares nothing for  him.  She even has her own lover, aside from Flory.  But she has told the village people she is married to him.  This gives her an elevated status.  She spends the money he gives her as fast as she can run from his house to the market to buy garish trinkets and sarongs that she adorns herself with and parades herself in front of the other villagers.  This is what she is pleading for.  Not love, position.

Flory knows he should put his foot down.  But he feels guilty.  So he continually plies her with the rupees she demands just to make her leave.

After that, he spends money on himself to look more like a gentleman.  Then he introduces himself to Elizabeth.  They go for long walks together, to the market, to native dances.  By her side, Flory talks continually, poetically, of his experiences in the jungle, the natives, the customs, culture all of which he appreciates and enjoys.  He is desperately lonely and this young woman is the life raft that he clings too.

Too bad Elizabeth is too close-minded to appreciate it.  Orwell makes a commentary on human nature.  Whether he believes this or he's simply trying to explain his characters' attitudes, I'm not sure.  He states that whatever happens to someone, albeit ever briefly, in their formative years, this will shape and color a person's thinking for the rest of their life.

Flory has an purple-blackish birthmark that covers one side of his face.  He was tormented for it when  a school boy and has allowed his disfigurement to determine his self worth.  It doesn't, however, deter him from pursuing Elizabeth, his loneliness overriding his usual diffidence.

For her part, Elizabeth spent two years in a school for rich girls.  Her parents weren't rich but lived extravagantly.  They weren't able to keep it up and soon sunk into financial straits.  Elizabeth spends the rest of her life comparing her circumstances and the people she meets to those two years around the privileged upper class.  Therefore, if one wasn't interested in sports, hunting and spending scads of money, you fell under her category of "beastly" and boring.

Flory is well read and a deep thinker.  Needless to say Elizabeth finds him uninteresting, even offensive.  His desperate need for a companion blinds him to this fact and while he perceives her displeasure he can't arrive at why.

But Elizabeth is out to get married.  Her aunt has made it very clear that her stay with them is only until she achieves this goal.  Since Flory is the only game in town, she determines to settle for him.  It all seems a cinch, although I can't imagine Flory being satisfied with such a simpleton for long.

It isn't meant to be, however.  A young hot shot Lieutenant and youngest son of a Lord has arrived with the Indian policemen.  Lieutenant Verrall is good looking and that's the only nice thing anyone can say about him.  He's cold, rude, offensive, prideful and anti-social. 

This doesn't stop Elizabeth and Mrs. Lackersteen from snubbing Flory and chasing after Verrall.  Verrall finally notices Elizabeth and they spend all their evenings together.  This almost drives Flory mad with despair.

Elizabeth and her aunt wait for the marriage proposal that is sure to come any day now.  It doesn't come.  It never comes.  Verrall loathes women.  Elizabeth was merely his temporary amusement.  When he's transferred, he leaves without telling anyone.

During all this, a riot occurs.  This riot is no random act of frustration and gnashing of teeth by the natives.  It has all been orchestrated by U Po Kyin.  U Po Kyin is a local magistrate and there aren't enough words in the English vocabulary to describe what a two-faced, treacherous, hateful, spiteful, disgusting, overgrown, conniving weasel and hugely successful magistrate he is.

He is a master of destroying men's lives both Burmese and British.  Through blackmail, bribery, anonymous letters, thievery and betrayal U Po Kyin works his way up the ladder of political echelon. His adversary is Dr. Veraswami who is as kind and innocent as U Po Kyin is evil. 

Flory and Veraswami are great friends and enjoy debating over the virtues of the British Raj.  Ironically, Dr. Veraswami argues in favor of the English presence in Burma, and English people in general while Flory insists they are nothing more than a  blooding-sucking colonial power. 

U Po Kyin makes it his mission to destroy Dr. Veraswami and Veraswami knows this.  He pleads with Flory to elect him to the English country club because it would elevate his status in the community and immunize him against U  Po Kyin's schemes.

At first, Flory cowardly refuses to stand up to the other members of the club, but when a second riot breaks out -one not planned by U Po Kyin- Flory develops a temporary backbone, single-handedly quells the mob, and demands that Veraswami be elected as the token non white member to the club.

Everything seems to work out well.  Elizabeth has returned to Flory after Verrall's desertion and Veraswami is going to become a member of the club.  Then Ma Hla May makes an atrocious scene in the middle of a church service demanding money from Flory.  She purposely has made herself as hideous and terrible looking as possible and acts like a crazy person.  She has to be dragged out of the building.  Flory isn't up to the occasion.  To make matters worse, his face turns so pale that his birthmark stands out in dark contrast.

This is what Elizabeth cannot forgive him for.  Not having a mistress but for having such an ugly birthmark so grotesquely standing out.  She coldly dismisses him.  Flory returns to his house and shoots himself.

Because suicide is taboo in Burmese culture, Veraswami's reputation also sinks because of his association with Flory.  He is not elected to the club but is transferred to some remote hospital dump to practice medicine the rest of his life.

And you can guess who put Ma Hla May up to it.

U Po Kyin is elected to the club and eventually earns the title of Deputy Commissioner.  Everything goes according to his plan.  He cheats people, abuses young women, ruins people's careers and even causes the deaths of his fellow Burmese.  His wife chides him for his evil acts insisting that he will come back in the next life as a rat or snake.

U Po Kyin is not concerned.  He has been saving up money to build pagodas at the end of his life to earn his way up to Nirvana.

I find U Po Kyin's attitude very interesting.  Apparently he believes in the effectiveness of lip service.  He seems to think that it doesn't matter how black one's heart is as long as one performs the correct deeds he will be rewarded the prize of the virtuous.

He drops dead of a heart attack three days after being elected Deputy Commissioner, before he is able to build the pagodas.  One can form their own conclusions.  Is he scurrying around as a rat or a snake?  Can a rodent or reptile act in a way that would merit coming back as a higher life form after it dies?  I've never seen a virtuous snake or rat.  Or any animal. Certainly not my dogs. They'd be returning as roaches.

I'm reminded of Mark 8:36What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world just to lose his soul?

The other question is, how accurate a portrayal does Orwell provide of the British colonialists?   Is this a rather heavy slathering of the very worst in human nature or is Orwell being objective? 

I agree with Graham Greene when he criticized Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster for creating characters who "wandered like cardboard symbols through a world that was paper-thin...there was no sense of reality in their lose sight of 'the religious sense' was also to lose any 'sense of importance of the human act.'

Evelyn Waugh said, "Without God, an author could not give his characters reality and depth."  I believe this is the answer.  Neither Forster or Orwell create characters with much redeeming value and I've never met such a person.  

As Pierre discovered in War and Peace,  it is by first loving people one invariably finds things to love about them.

And yet, I found Orwell's characters fascinating even if they were types and caricatures rather than real.  He draws so well and with such logical precision.  If I disagree with his outlook, I appreciate his ability to express it.

This is the first of three novels by George Orwell that I will be reviewing.  The other two, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up for Air will be posted as soon as I finish reading them.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

It seems I'm reading and reviewing a lot of books lately that I was prejudiced against reading in my earlier days.  I've noticed that the last few posts begin with, "known about this book for years but didn't read it because...." or something like that.

Guess what?  I knew about E.M. Forester since college but had no desire to read him because the movies based on his novels, such as Howard's End and A Room With a View didn't interest me.  I enjoyed A Passage to India but didn't know it was by the same author.

Soooo...what was the impetus that impelled me to buy most of E.M. Forester's books?  Good question.  I will gladly tell you.

I read about him in biographies of writers that I loved.  There's a whole school of British writers that attended  Oxford University in the first twenty years of the twentieth century.  Based on the recommendation of writers I like I am now reading authors I didn't like.

E.M. Forester belonged to the latter group but now belongs to the first.

A Passage to India is about British expatriates in the country of the title.  Forester draws characters from English, Hindu and Muslim backgrounds and the complicated relationships that arise when different cultural semantics collide.

I found the dialogue, especially between the Indians, to hold a delicate charm.  They are funny and endearing but also hold to certain prejudices against each other-especially the Muslims and the Hindus.

The British are snobby to all Indians indiscriminately although some are sympathetic and befriend them.

Basic storyline:  Two women, Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested come to India to meet Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop.  Adela is engaged to Heaslop who is a British official in India.  Presumably their married life will be spent largely in India.

Adela is excited and eager to tour the country and meet Indians.  She is naive and ignorant of the social boundaries that delineate her race from the natives.  Nevertheless, she and Mrs. Moore  are able to persuade Dr. Aziz, a Muslim physician who has befriended Mrs. Moore, to take them on a tour of the Marabar Caves.  An Englishman, Mr. Fielding, who is also friends with Aziz, is to accompany them.

 Fielding misses the train that takes the ladies to the Marabar Caves so Aziz and the women go alone. 
Aziz is an exuberant, emotional man and goes to great trouble and personal expense to make this an impressive tour for the ladies.  He hires servants, an elephant, and an incredible amount of food to take on the trip.  While Aziz feels warm affection for Mrs. Moore, largely because of the respect she shows him, unusual for a British citizen, he does not care for Adele and a lot of his generosity is motivated by personal pride and honor as it is out of genuine esteem.

 When they arrive, Mrs. Moore is too tired to walk further so Adela, Aziz and a servant tour the caves alone.  Adela innocently asks Aziz a question about his late wife, which he finds personal and offensive.  To hide his awkwardness he walks off into a nearby cave by himself and smokes a cigarette. 

When he returns, he finds Adela is gone.  He frantically looks everywhere for her,  running inside the other caves, asking the servant who knows nothing.  Finally he sees her down the hill talking to another woman, Mrs. Derek.  He runs down the hill calling to her, but the women get in the car and drive off before he can reach them.

Feeling his excursion is a failure, he rejoins Mrs. Moore, who hasn't seen Adela and can offer no explanation for her behavior and they return home.

When they get back, Aziz is arrested on charges of sexual assault against Adela.

This plot is merely the skeleton upon which Forster fleshes out his actual purpose.  He wants to show the tightly wound relationships between the British rulers over the Indian subjects in the 1920's, shortly before Indian independence.

What I admire most in Forster's writing here as well as in Where Angels Fear to Tread is his ability to switch narrating voices.  The three main voices are from the limited perspective of Adela, Mr. Fielding, Aziz and a third person omniscient narrator.  Because we hear their perceptions it is easy to sympathize with these characters and less so with the others whose thoughts we never learn and can only judge from their actions.

Forster switches back and forth between these voices so we can see and understand how they react to the words and actions of the other.  He shows how great misunderstandings occur, primarily because of how the English and Indian cultures process and express themselves.

There is a great deal of cultural prejudice on all sides, including between Indians of Muslim and Hindu religions.

Things come to a satisfactory conclusion and requires humility, repentance, and forgiveness for the main characters.  Adela eventually leaves India, admitting to herself she really doesn't love Heaslop.  After some gross misunderstandings between Fielding and Aziz created by their cultural differences, they eventually reconcile and resume their friendship.  

Fielding, although middle aged, visits England and marries Mrs. Moore's younger daughter.  Dr. Aziz also marries.  Even so, Forster implies that true love is not something anyone can attain.

It's apparent from the omniscient narrator that Forster himself believes in nothing and takes pains to show that, really, that is all life has to offer.  No one truly loves anyone else.  No one can know true love, romantic or otherwise.  Every potential friendship or marriage is tainted by an underlying ennui and emptiness.

Even so, I very much liked his characters and his story line development and if that's how Forster felt about life, too bad for him.

This is the second book I have reviewed of Forster.  I will be soon reading and reviewing more.

2.99 on Kindle

Sunday, March 8, 2015

As I Lay Dying (1930) and The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner

Back in the nineties, one of my sisters completed her Master's Degree in English Literature, boxed up all her books, stuck them in a closet in my parents' house and moved to France.  While she was away I took the boxes out and carried them to my apartment.  I read all of her books except those of a particular author.

 It's not that I didn't try to like William Faulkner,  I simply couldn't make head nor tails of what he was saying.  He was  so weird, obscure, and gruesome.

My sister hated Faulkner so I didn't receive any encouragement from the English Lit expert.

I don't know what motivated me to start reading him lately.  Could have been the book covers.  The Vintage paperback editions are particularly appealing.  Maybe it always ningled me that I tried to read a literary great and failed.

Anyway, I checked As I Lay Dying out of the library and found myself slowly sucked into the story the way a rodent is hypnotized by a snake.  I couldn't stop and, in a dark way, enjoyed the story.

As I Lay Dying is a grim, surreal story about a backwoods family in the deep South.  They are trying to bury their wife and mother in Jefferson, a town far enough away to make it a real journey.  Floods, overflowing rivers, dead mules, a decaying corpse... nothing deters this family from fulfilling the mother's dying wish. There's a zinger at the end but I won't tell you what.

Each chapter is narrated by a different character in the story.  It also jumps back and forth in time so that the reader sees a particular scene through various viewpoints.  This is helpful in understanding what is going on.  What is only peripherally understood by one narrator is made clear through the eyes of another. 

Of course, it's all perceptual.  Some of the narrators are young and don't understand what's going on themselves.  Others possess disturbed minds and see things through a filtered lens.  

One chapter is  told by the dead woman (back when she's alive-time is not concrete in this novel).  Apparently she hates (hated) all of her family members.  The reader isn't sorry she's dead and wonders why any of her relatives would be.

 Faulkner captures the spirit of a bygone South that I'm not sure exists anymore.  If it ever existed.  The characters, for all their diversity, were products of Faulkner's mind.  How reliable an observer was he?

My sister would call him an unreliable one.  What she learned about Faulkner was that he was bitter toward certain  families in his Mississippi hometown who thought they were too good for him.  According to her, his novels were his revenge against them.

It's not the plots so much that interest me in Faulkner's stories.  It's the way he tells the story.   It's like a puzzle.  Who is talking and what is it they're saying?  Faulkner refuses to help the reader out.  Here's how The Sound and The Fury starts out:

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.  They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence.  Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.  They took the flag out, and they were hitting.  Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit.  Then they went on, an I went along the fence.  Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

Any idea what's going on?  I didn't.  My smarty husband immediately guessed that the narrator was watching a golf game but that was not obvious to me.

Furthermore, the narrator, Ben Compson, is either mentally handicapped or autistic.  The first quarter of the book is narrated by him.  He is not an omniscient narrator.  He only says what he knows as far as he is capable of understanding what is happening. 

But he does accurately quote the other people around him.  This includes siblings, his mother, and the black servants that care for him.  Through Ben's concrete observations of what is happening to himself and what he see and hears, the reader is able to figure out character names and their relationships with each other.

Of course, Faulkner doesn't make it easy for you. Halfway through Ben's narration we find out that Ben's name was originally Maury.  His mother changed it for complicated reasons.  So when he's talking about Maury in the past he is actually talking about himself.  Except when he's talking about his uncle whom he was named after.  Insert a smile and a wink here.

Then there's Quentin.  First, Quentin's a he, then Quentin's a she, then back to he, etc... I'm thinking what in the blazes is going on here?!?  Finally in the last half of the book we discover there's two Quentins.  Quentin Compson is the brother of Caddie who ran off, got married, and named her daughter after him.  Since everything is from inside different people's minds, they simply think about what's going on, and what they think about what's going on, without offering the reader any information they don't have to explain to themselves.

There's only four chapters to the book.  At 321 pages, that makes for long chapters.  The first and last two chapters take place only a couple of days from each other.  Naturally they're not in chronological order.  That last two chapters are separated by one day.  That day belongs to the first chapter.  The second chapter is narrated by the brother Quentin eighteen years earlier. 

The storyline?  Not complicated.  An old Southern family, the Compsons, is in its final decay. There is quite a list of characters but they mostly exist in the narrators' minds because they're either dead or have run away. 

 All that's left is one brother, Jason, Quentin-Caddie's daughter, Ben and the mother.  The mother stays in bed most of the time demanding to be waited on hand and foot by Dilsey, the old family servant, and Dilsey's son, Luster, who also is in charge of Ben.  

Jason has a small business but he's about the nastiest and meanest of the whole bunch.  One thinks that Caddie and her brother Quentin escaped to get away from him.  Caddie gets divorced and sends her baby back home.  She sends money for her keep.  Quentin never sees the money because Jason keeps it squirreled away for himself.  

The last two chapters are mainly narrated by Jason and a angry little mind he has.  His whole life seems to be bent on domineering his niece and cheating her out of her money.  She knows this and finally breaks into his safe, steals the money, and runs off with a carnival hand.  Jason demands police intervention but it seems there are no secrets in this small Mississippi town.  The police chief insinuates that the person who may need to be arrested is Jason himself. 

Even though Jason is a nasty, spiteful person, his mental narration is the most interesting.  In all the venom, one hears the cry of despair over forsaken dreams, ambitions and frustrated plans.  He's the most real of all the characters and the most poignant. 

Well, not the most poignant.  That would be the servants.  Serving selfish people, having to care for a thirty year old man with the mind of a toddler, they show the most dignity and strength.  Faulkner in his end notes says, 

And that was all.  These others were not Compsons.  They were black:

Luster.  A man, aged 14.  Who was not only capable of the complete care and security of an idiot twice his age and three times his size, but could keep him entertained.

Dilsey (the housekeeper). 

They endured.

Should you read Faulkner.  For all the chaos, obscurity and grimness, I can honestly say I have found him to be a rich and rewarding read.  A guilty pleasure in fact.  I've only lately confided to my sister that I like reading him.

She doesn't approve. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forester

This is the first book I've read by E. M. Forster.  He's another author, like Thackeray, that I was never motivated to read, especially after seeing the movies Howard's End and A Room With a View, neither of which impressed me much.

As I said in a previous post, there are seasons to read certain books.  And this is apparently the season for me to read E.M. Forster as well as Thackeray (and Evelyn Waugh but more about him later).

Spoiler alert:  Don't read my review if you don't want to know how the story ends.

Lilia, the widow of the son of a upper crust family, the Herritons, takes it into her head to travel to Italy by herself.  Her primary objective is to escape the domination of her late husband's family.  While in Italy she meets an Italian and impulsively marries him.

Philip, the brother of Lilia's late husband, travels to Italy to retrieve her but finds that it is too late.  He meets the husband, Gino, finds him to be a working class regular fellow that is likeable, but, tragically, not English, hence the scandal.

Philip returns to England empty handed and for the first half of the novel we read about Lilia and her life free from the Herritons.

Except it isn't free.  She finds that Italian culture is not advantageous for women.  They are expected to lead largely confined lives.  Lilia finds herself stuck in a house, alone most of the time, friendless, and for the most part husbandless.  Gino, being a man, is not limited to staying at home but enjoys a robust social life with both men and women. And since he doesn't need to work having married a woman with money, his socializing is pretty much unfettered.

Half way through the book, Lilia has a child and dies in childbirth.  You feel relief for her that she finally has escaped.  

The rest of the book is about the Herritons.  They discover Lilia had a child because Gino has been sending postcards and photos of the baby to Lilia's young daughter whom she left behind with her husband's family (as a mother I will never, ever understand how anyone could do that).

The matron of the family, Mrs. Herriton determines that they must rescue Lilia's baby from the abominable fate of being raised Italian and sends Philip back, along with his sister Harriet, to negotiate terms  with Gino (aka bribe) to gain custody of the little boy who is now nine months old.

Philip and Harriet go to Italy.  Philip spends time with Gino, finds that he likes him a great deal and also realizes that Gino is never going to relinquish his baby.  He returns to the hotel to inform his sister of this.

At the hotel he finds his sister gone and frantically looks for her. He finds her in a horse and carriage on the way to the train station.  He jumps into the carriage to discover that his sister has kidnapped the baby and intends to rush back to England with it.

This never happens. The carriage runs into a ditch and overturns.  The baby is killed.

  Many observations can be made about this strange little story.  E.M. Forester, as in his Passage to India (which I've just started reading), is making a pretty scathing statement about his countrymen.  In the Herriton's effort to rescue a baby from the barbarity of a Mediterranean, Papist upbringing, they themselves commit a number of barbarities.  They attempt to buy a baby, and when that fails, one of them kidnaps the baby and commits manslaughter.

Now, not all the Herritons are presented so starkly.  Really just mother and daughter.  Philip is caught in the crossfire.  He  didn't want to rescue Lilia and neither did he want to buy Gino's baby.  But neither does he seem possess the strength to stand against the tide of his family.  

One other character of significance is included in this tale. A Miss Abbot.  Lilia meets Miss Abbot when she first arrives in Italy and is encouraged by her to marry Gino.  Later, Philip meets Miss Abbot in Italy and finds a contrite woman who regrets her part in Lilia's marriage.

When Philip returns to Italy he finds Miss Abbot there ready to fight Gino for the baby.  After meeting with Gino, she makes an about face and convinces him never to give up his baby but to never marry again either.

Philip, with his interactions with her both times in Italy finds that he has fallen in love with Miss Abbot.  They return to England together but it is not meant to be.  On the return trip, Philip realizes that Miss Abbot has fallen in love with Gino.

I suppose this novel, like A Passage to India, was E.M. Forster's call to the British to awaken their conscience to their own particular brand of racial superiority.  Today it seems rather quaint.  With our politically correct social boundaries, westerners bend over backwards to spine breaking contortions to persuade the world and themselves that they are inclusive and tolerant and pro diversity.  Which is fine as long as it's sincere and not merely for show.

E.M. Forster's writing style is fast flowing and I enjoy his dialogue and story developments.  I have since bought very nice hardcovers of A Room With a View and Howard's End.  You can expect reviews of them in the future.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

When I was in high school I saw a drawing of a beautiful young girl looking innocently out at the viewer.  The sub title read, "Rebecca of Vanity Fair with her claws sheathed."  That little comment kept me from reading Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray for the next thirty years.  I thought, "Oh, another story about some femme fatale who leaves a score of victims in her wake.  Blah."

The photo of Rebecca that accompanied the article that discouraged me from reading Thackeray

So why did I pick up the book now?  I was at a book fair and a copy of the book was available for a quarter.  It wasn't just the cheap price, although that always carries a seductive charm for me, it was something even less profound:  the book cover and the shape and feel of the book.  I cannot explain why I am tempted to buy books solely for their looks and texture but I am.  Usually I can successfully overcome the urge- especially if the book is by an unknown.  But I did know about Thackeray and something in me said, it is time to read this book.

I do believe that we read types of books in different seasons.  Probably I would not have understood or enjoyed Thackeray as a teenager.  I do now.

Vanity Fair is Thackeray's social commentary on British society.  He's not the only British author to do so.  The British upper class is a common theme among many if not most writers of the United Kingdom, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  What is interesting is how each good writer is able to stamp the same theme with their own imprint.

Thackeray achieves this.  Rebecca isn't much different than Lizzy Eustace in Trollope's novel, The Eustace Diamonds.  But yet the stories and the characters are still very different.  The only commonality is the stories' foundation.

In Vanity Fair, two young girls, Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp leave school to begin their lives as adult women.  For Amelia this is to return to the home of her well- to- do parents and wait for her fiance, George Osbourne-also from a wealthy family- to marry her.  For Rebecca, who is the daughter of a poor artist and French dance hall girl-both now dead, it is to become a governess to a family of aristocrats.

Before heading off to her job as a governess, Amelia insists that "her dear friend" stay for a while with her and her family.  Rebecca agrees to this and while there sets herself to the task of seducing Amelia's older brother and marrying him before her time to leave.

She almost succeeds because Amelia's brother, Joseph, home from India is a chubby buffoon with very little sense.  What saves him is Amelia's fiance, George Osbourne, who makes it clear that Joseph can't marry a girl, no matter how pretty and charming, who is low class.

So eventually Rebecca moves on to her aristocratic family, the Crawleys.  Here she absolutely charms everyone and succeeds in getting a nephew, Rawden Crawley, to marry her.

It's interesting because, on the one hand, everyone seems to be at Rebecca's mercy.  She's so mean and nasty and cunning and yet is able to win everyone over, often through backstabbing the others.  Yet she also fails so miserably because as much as the rich people enjoy her company, they never  forget that she is beneath them socially.

For instance, all the Crawleys spend a great deal of energy fawning and pandering to an elderly spinister aunt because she has all the money and they don't. Another point of interest:  being an aristocrat doesn't mean you have any money.

Rebecca completely ingratiates herself to this aunt who keeps her as a constant companion.  Rebecca amuses her by mocking all the other members of the Crawley family, whom the aunt detests. She only loves Rawdon Crawley, a hedonistic young soldier because he is a hedonist, and she plans to bequeath all her money to him.

This Rebecca knows, so she wins Rawdon over and they marry in secret.  Rebecca hopes to keep this a secret but is unable to when an elderly decrepit  Crawley, Sir Pitt, proposes to her after the death of his wife.  As much as the aunt enjoyed Rebecca's company she is outraged that she would presume to marry into her family and disinherits Rawdon.

And that is pretty much how the whole story goes.  Rebecca flirts and charms and seduces men, usually married men, of rank and importance, falls, gets back up and continues on.  On the one hand you'd like to see her get her just desserts, but on the other hand, one figures she's punished enough by having to live with herself.  There's nothing about Rebecca that would induce anyone to envy her.  Her whole life is consumed with being the center of attention, getting money, and hurting other women.

Thackery shows human weakness on every level but he is not devoid of humor or compassion which saves the plot from becoming drab.  Rebecca never changes, she never repents, who knows what'll happen when she grows too old to attract anyone.  Probably she'll have to settle on being a Madam at a house of ill repute.

The other characters that surround Rebecca, however, do change.  And they change for the better.  Rebecca seems to be the refining fire that burns off the slough.

Amelia turns from being a simple-minded naive girl to one who finally understands true love and devotion.  But not through her husband who gambled away his fortune plus lost it after his father disinherited him for marrying Amelia.  

What, you say?  Wasn't Amelia part of the privileged class?  She most certainly was, until her father lost his money through a series of bad investments.  Amelia's family lost their wealth, their social standing, their friends, everyone.  

George's father was in favor of the marriage until Amelia became poor.  The sad part is that Mr. Osbourne's investments caused Mr. Sedley's misfortune. This is doubly sad as Mr. Osbourne's wealth is due to Amelia's father's initial financial help.  Because Mr. Osbourne knows this, he runs from his guilt  by demonizing Amelia's father.

The story shows how fickle life is when one's identity is wrapped up in how much money you make or your aristocratic name.  There are many other plots of this nature throughout the novel.

The biggest change comes from Rawdon who, after being falsely imprisoned by the Marquis Steyne, is able to free himself and return home to find Rebecca dancing and flirting with the Marquis.  His eyes are finally opened and he leaves and returns home to his family.  Rebecca is left with nothing.  No money, because she and Rawdon had none.  They were living on credit, much to the disadvantage of their creditors, which cause at least two of them to go bankrupt.

That was another interesting point.  How, if one has a name,  can one live as a rich person without any money?  Who gets the shaft?  The people renting to you, supplying you with groceries, and everyone else you hire.

Rebecca finds herself alone, penniless, in a house owned by someone she financially destroyed.  The house servants now mock her and refuse to help her.  Why should they?  She owes them over a years' salary.

Rebecca disappears for awhile from the story and we get to witness the transformation of the other characters who all have fairly happy endings.

Except for Joseph, Amelia's brother.  He ends up on the continent where he discovers Rebecca again.  This time he is completely seduced, financially destroyed and possibly even murdered by her through poison.

I have not mentioned our hero, William Dobbin (even though Thackeray insists there is no hero).  He is the backbone to the whole story.  He is the strength, the moral hero, the one man who always sees through Rebecca, the only man not tempted by her.  The one who truly loves Amelia and cares for her and her son after George is killed in the war.  

It would take too long to portray him.  Know that he weaves in and out of the whole story and touches each character in a way that causes them to rise above themselves.  I won't call him a Christ character, but certainly one with Christ like attributes.

At 753 pages, Vanity Fair is not a short read, but definitely a worthwhile one.  I can only sum up the story line.  I can't imitate Thackeray's wit and insight.  You have to read his story for that.  I especially enjoyed how Thackeray would insert himself into the story.  His characters are so strong that they become real from the first page.  You forget that they are fictitious.  Thackeray knows this so he playfully makes little comments throughout the novel to remind you that he is only making the story up ("For novelists have the great privilege of knowing everything.")

And Thackeray is very playful and funny.  My outline makes it look a pathetic story indeed and one really can't help hating Rebecca, but Thackeray takes a light-hearted approach while making serious observations about a society that can be merciless to its citizens. This allows the reader to enjoy the book without becoming depressed.

I'll end with the final words on page 753:

ah! Vanitas Vanitatum!  Which of us is happy in this world?  Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?-Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.

On Kindle for .99

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun: an Anthology of Medieval Poetry and Prose edited by Pamela Norris

This is a little gem of a book that I got through Paperback Swap.  As I've mentioned before that is a site that allows people to trade books on an honor system.  

Not all the books are paperback, and while some of the books I've received have obviously been used, many of them arrive in mint condition.  Through The Glass Window is a hardcover and in excellent condition.  

Pamela Norris, the editor, specialized in Medieval Literature at Bristol University and has a master's degree in Renaissance Studies.  She compiled excerpts from many medieval books and also a great deal of contemporary art.  Each page contains either a poem or excerpt from a story or legend with a painting on the page next to it.  

Authors include Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Geoffrey Chaucer, Giovanni Boccaccio, Sir John Mandeville, Margery Kempe Sir Thomas Malory.    A good half of the poems are by that ever famous author, Anonymous.

The book is divided into four sections.  The first is devoted to "The Queen of Heaven", Mary the mother of Jesus.  The second is about earthly love between men and women.  The third section are writings about life during times of peace and during times of war and the last is titled "Marvelous Tales". 

That really sums up this book.  If you are a fan of this time period, it's a delightful little book to own and enjoy.

I'll include one poem of each section with the painting accompanying the poem.

I Sing of a Maiden

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless:
King of all kings
To be her son she chose.

He came also still Where his mother was,
As dew in April 
That falleth on the grass.

Mother and maiden 
Was never none but she:
Well may such a lady
God's mother be.

The Bride's Song

The maidens came
When I was in my mother's bower.
I had all that I would.
The bailey berath the bell away;
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And through the glass window shines the sun.
How should I love, and I so young:  
The bailey beareth the bell away;
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.


A Song for St. George

Enforce we us with all our might
To love Saint George, our Lady's knight.

Worship of virtue is the meed, 
Ad follow him ay of right;
To worship George the have we need,
Which is our sovereign Lady's knight.

In his virtue he will us lead
Against the Fiend, the foul wight,
And with his banner us over spread,
If we him love with all our might.


Jerome and the Lion

One day towards evening, as Jerome sat with his brethren listening to the holy lesson, suddenly a lion came limping into the monastery.  When the brethren saw him, at once they fled, but Jerome went towards the lion as he would approach a guest, an then the lion showed him his foot, which was hurt.  Then Jerome called his brethren and commanded them to wash the lion's feet and carefully to seek out and search for the wound.  That done, they found that the pad of the lion's foot was sorely hurt and pricked with a thorn.  Then this holy man set himself diligently to cure the foot and healed him and the lion abode ever after as a tame bast with them.

From Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Haiku Inspirations by Tom Lowenstein with Victoria James

This New Year's I went to the Gulf Coast to visit my parents and sister's family.  Needless to say we spent a lot of time on the beautiful beaches of Destin and Grayton Beach.  What can I say?  Miles of blinding white sand, sand pipers, sea one but us because of the cold season-except a few crazy northerners braving the frigid water.  In the winter the sun takes an hour to set on the horizon and the colors are so brilliant.

I always like to go to Barnes and Noble afterward, which is on the way back home.

We arrive at the store. Derek, my son immediately loses himself in the aisle of graphic novels.  After I look at the bargain books, I treat my mother and myself to coffee where we visit.  This is our tradition every time I come home.  I tell her as I tell myself that, other than the half price Christmas cards, I'm not buying anything.  Nothing.  Nada.  I don't need any more books.  My mother laughed and sipped her coffee.  She knows me too well.

I almost made it.  I almost spent a pleasant couple of hours in a bookstore without buying any books. We were walking towards the exit when I saw it.   A beautiful hardback about one of my favorite forms of poetry:  Haiku Inspirations by Tom Lowenstein and Victoria James.  I left the store with it  (and a  hardback of Robert Frost's poems, but that's another post.)

On the way back to Texas I let Derek drive so I could read my treasure.  Even when we stopped at a Denny's for dinner, I brought the book in to read.  Haiku: Inspirations was even more than I originally thought it was.  Yes it is a book of Haiku but it contains even more.

 Lowenstein and  James divide into brief chapters the history of Haiku, the original authors of Haiku, and their different styles, the Buddhist and Shinto beliefs that inspired the art form, and the different reigning families  that supported and developed art and literature in Japan.

 From the Tale of Genji: Court Life

They also give a concise history of Japan, from their Chinese influences to where they eventually broke out into their own uniquely Japanese style.  We learn about Society and Court life, the symbols and different beliefs such as Zen, Koans, about suffering, transience pilgrimage and how these different beliefs affect Haiku writing.

They describe the development of arts and culture such as calligraphy, ink painting, Japanese gardens, tea ceremony and music, dance and theater.  

The chapters are accompanied by paintings and photos of Japan as well as Haiku.  The introduction gives a brief description of the structure and form.  For instance, Haiku can only use "essential words" and 17 syllables.  Classic haiku is three line long, with 5-7-5 "syllables".  Of course, some of the structure will necessarily be lost when Japanese is translated into English. 
Another attribute is "kigo".  This means "season word" which "suggests the mood and atmosphere governing the poem."    Sometimes the name of the season is included in the Haiku, other times it is implied when a seasonal attribute is mentioned, such as a flower that only blooms in summer or the rainy season, implying spring etc.

Here are a couple of samples:

Hazy morning:
as in a painting of a dream
the people passing.

Moon behind the grasses.
Wind blows through.
The cry of a cuckoo.
Come to me:
let's play
little sparrow orphan!

The book is a delight both to the eyes with the paintings and photos and the ears and mind with its descriptions of Japanese history and culture and, of course, the Haiku which includes authors from different philosophies and time periods.