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.

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.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Help, Help! Another Day! by Hal Boyle

Hal Boyle wrote over 6000 columns for the Associated Press.  All of them were commentaries on the life he lived and what he saw around him.  He saw, he mused, he wrote and got published in the paper.  Most of us don't get that kind of audience for our opinions.

Because, really, that's all Hal Boyle wrote about.  His observations on women, children (his wife and adopted daughter especially), life in New York City, remembrances of his mid western upbringing in a large Irish Catholic family, dark times overseas during WWII...

We all sit around and talk about things but rarely put pen to paper (or fingers to computer nowadays), much less get published.  How did Mr. Boyle end up getting paid to be opinionated?

For starters, he's a good writer.  His style is personable.  The reader has never met him (and never will in this lifetime) but feels as though he is a good friend.  He's not arrogant but self-deprecating.  That's the type of writer the world at large enjoys reading, generally speaking. 

Hal Boyle is your friend next door.  When he tells you about his mother, you think "Yes, my mother was like that.  Well, maybe my grandmothers.  They were the ones the same age as Boyle's mother who gritted their teeth and slogged it through the depression, feeding and clothing children, burying the ones that got sick with no penicillin to heal them and never lost their ability to laugh.  

He married one woman and stayed with her until she died in her middle years of cancer.  His columns express his love and respect for her.  He never remarried.  The little girl they adopted amazed him and he announces to the world he never knew he could love anyone so much.

Secondly, he's funny.  One reads his articles while smiling.  The only stories that contained sadness were his years in Germany during WWII.  He wrote what he saw but with compassion at the suffering.  Not only of Americans but of the Germans learning to carry on in the aftermath of a wrecked, broken country.

Help, Help!  Another Day!  Is out of print but there are used copies on Amazon.  I bought the book because it was mentioned in one of my "how to be a brilliant writer" books that I'm a sucker for.  His writing is a good example of great writing and I'm emulous of it.