M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

"The Dead Alive" by Wilkie Collins

"The Dead Alive" by Wilkie Collins (1874, 15 pages-read on line)

Not to long ago I read and posted on Wilkie Collins (1824 to 1889-born in London)  master work, The Woman in White.  I liked it a lot, as did almost all of the many who have blogged on it in the last year, and knew I wanted to read some more of his work.   I am in the process of expanding my reading in the short story so I decided to read one of  the many short stories of Collins.    "The Dead Alive"  was originally published in a weekly publication run by his good friend Charles Dickens.   It is considered one of the first legal mystery stories, based on an actual case.   

"The Dead Alive" is told in the first person by an English attorney, Mr Lefrank.      He has just been advised by his doctor that he is headed for a complete breakdown from the strain of over work and needs a long rest away from his current enviorment.     At first he dismisses the advise but after suffering severe confusions while in court he comes to realize he does need a rest.   He has a distant relative in America, in New York State, whom he has never met but who has told him he is welcome at his farm.   

"It is merely a question of time," he went on. "You have a fine constitution; you are a young man; but you cannot deliberately overwork your brain, and derange your nervous system, much longer. Go away at once. If you are a good sailor, take a sea-voyage. The ocean air is the best of all air to build you up again. No: I don't want to write a prescription. I decline to physic you. I have no more to say."
As we can see, the style is straightforward Imperial British Empire Prose.

Mr Lefrank is met at the train station nearest the farm by Ambrose Meadowcroft, eldest son of the owner of the farm and a third cousin of the narrator.     The atmosphere at the farm is anything but relaxing.   The domestic management of the farm is left to the daughter of Mr Meadowcroft, the very stereotype of a bitter old maid.     Mr LaFrank   (something is made in the story of the families alteration of the name lessen its French origins)  is a lover of the work of Alexander Dumas (by the merest coincidence I will be posting on Georges by Dumas for the Classics Circuit on May 5)

Supper-time was still an event in the future. I lighted the candles and took from my portmanteau what I firmly believe to have been the first French novel ever produced at Morwick Farm. It was one of the masterly and charming stories of Dumas the elder. In five minutes I was in a new world, and my melancholy room was full of the liveliest French company. The sound of an imperative and uncompromising bell recalled me in due time to the regions of reality.
There are thinly veiled suggestions in "The Dead Alive" that American is a land of the insufficiently cultured.   The action of the story concerns various love triangles between a beautiful distant cousin, a farm hand, and the daughter and a murder mystery that comes from these relationships.  None of these affairs ever pass beyond a kiss.   This story is exciting and the ending is not  predictable so I will relay no more of the plot.   The story is very well told.   A complete believable world is created and we come to know the characters in the story, especially Mr Lefrank.    I would suggest that anyone who is on the fence about reading one of the long novels of Collins try a short story first.

I read this on line at  The Literature Network.   They have a lot of Collin's short stories on line as well as wealth of other reading matters.    There is no charge.   I personally prefer the format of Dailylit.com but The Literature Network is also a great resource.

I was motivated to read a short story by Wilkie Collins by the very good post on his story "Volpurno or The Student by Journey.


Mel u

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"The Tobacco Monopoly in the Philippines-1776 to 1880" by Edilberto C de Jesus


The Tobacco Monopoly in the Philippines:  Bureaucratic Enterprise and 
Social Change, 1876 to 1880 by Edilberto C De Jesus (1980, 228 pages, Ateneo de Manila University Press)

Edilberto C De Jesus of Ateneo de Manila University (PhD Yale University, 1973) is one of the leading historians on the Philippines in the 18th century.   Speaking strictly as an amateur student  of the 18th century, the history of the Philippines is very hard to really know.   For starters, the Spanish destroyed nearly all the precolonial writings.  The notion of a unified Philippines is also a colonial construct which is still causing unrest in the country in the south.     Up until after World War II, residents of the Philippines did not think of themselves so much as Filipinos but as residents of their region.    

In his preface to the book Prof. de Jesus says most histories of colonial countries, even after they are freed, focus on the colonial rulers.   A history of  Indonesia would focus on the Dutch East Indian company and give the reader little or no idea what it was like to live in Indonesian from the perspective of the natives.   (I do not care for the word "native" in this context but I will use it).   A history of Brazil will focus on the Portuguese.    Histories of the Philippines (I have yet to find a good general one and if any one has any suggestions please leave them in the comments) have tended to start with the Spanish Invasion and see the history of the Philippines in terms of the natives adopting to Spanish rule, religion, and customs.   Prof. De Jesus and a few other modern historians of the Philippines have tried to bring to life the exact ways the things functioned in past centuries in the Philippines.


The book begins with an explanation of the ways in which the Spanish ruled.   The book focuses on Luzon (the biggest Island where Manila is located) and begins with an explanation of how the Spaniards ruled the area.   The conquest of Luzon was relatively easy compared to the conquests in  Southern Philippines as the there were basically no governmental units other than small groups of at most 100 families.    There were no huge battles with giant armies like there were in Mexico and Spanish America.    Basically the Spanish simply demonstrated superior fire power and then offered to back up the authority of local rulers if they would follow the directives of the Spanish.   As this only made local leaders more powerful, the Spanish found easy acceptance of their rule.    The Spanish did not find the great riches in the Philippines that they found in the New World.     The only real economic value that the Philippines seemed to have at the time to European powers was its proximity to the China trade areas.   The Philippines proved to be an economic liability to the Spanish (but they could not abandon it to another power with out global lose of prestige).   The Spanish colony in the Philippines was treated as if it were part of Mexico and Mexican gold revenue was used to support the colony.    The only way to make a profit from the colony was by exploiting the consumer needs of the natives.  In 1782 the administration of the Spanish Governor Jose Vargas determined that the one crop which nearly all Filipinos of adult years would pay cash for was tobacco.   There were small scale tobacco farms throughout Luzon.    Making use of local leaders (it seems only the priests tried to learn the multitude of languages found) the Spanish declared a state monopoly on Tobacco.   All local rulers were responsible for selling a quota of tobacco to the central authorities at a fixed price.   The authorities would then set up cigarette factories who would sell the product through approved merchants for a fixed price.   Women were preferred as employees in the tobacco factories and in a way the tobacco factories were the beginning of an independent non-farm labor life for the Filipino women.  


The Tobacco Monopoly in the Philippines-1776 to 1880 goes into precise detail on how the monopoly did and did not work.  He explains native resistance to to the monopolies.   He lets us see how these monopolies required the cooperation of local leaders at many levels and locations to work.   One of the qualities of colonial rule is nearly always through the selection of local leaders who will do the colonizers work for them in exchange for privileged status.


The Tobacco Monopoly in the Philippines-1776 to 1880 is a a very good book.   It gives us a detailed look at aspects of real life in the Philippines as seen through the operation of the Tobacco Monopoly. Prof. de Jesus documents well all he asserts and also gives us a lot of good reading suggestions along the way.   The only think in this book that did annoy me was his use of "Pagan" to refer to people in the Philippines who clung to older religions in the face of the attempts of the Spanish to require everyone to be a Catholic.    I do not think he means anything derogatory by the use of this term but I feel pre-conquest religions should be afforded greater respect.    


Mel u

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Diary of a Mad Old Man" by Junichiro Tanizaki

Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki (1961, translated  by Howard Hibbett, 197 pages)

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886 to 1965, born in Tokyo)  is on my read everything they have written (or in this case, has been translated) list.    This will be the 8th work of his on which I have posted.    I first discovered his work about nine months ago and now I look at any list of great novelists of the 20th century that does not include him as reflective of the Euro-Centric limits of the education of the list maker.  

I have written at some length in prior posts explaining why I feel as I do about Tanizaki.   I will keep this post short.    Diary of a Mad Old Man is the diary of a man in his late 70s who is in the grip of the illnesses of old age.   He lives with his wife, son and daughter in law.   Even now he can still feel sexual stirrings brought on by the presence of his daughter- in- law.    The daughter- in- law functions on occasion as his care giver.    She begins to allow him minor sexual favors such as allowing him to kiss her neck and advances to letting him see her in the shower and wash her feet.   In exchange for this the man buys her western consumer goods.   The old man is very self aware and conscious of the impropriety in his actions.   This does not stop him from enjoying it all a great deal. The daughter-in-law may protest a bit but she enjoys the power this gives her over her father-in law.    One of the themes of Tanizaki is sexual fixation and we see this treated  in very intelligent fashion here.   We also get a look at the dynamics of the family relationships.  Diary of a Mad Old Man seems to be Tanizaki's last published work.   He was 75 when it was published.    

I am well past the mid-point in reading all of Junichiro Tanizaki's work.  I will be sad upon the completion of this reading project.   I think he has a number of untranslated works and perhaps more will be translated.   


Monday, April 26, 2010

"The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe


"The Masque of the Red Death" by Edgar Allan Poe (1842, ten pages, read via Dailylit.com)


Edgar Allan Poe (1809 to 1949) is considered one of the early masters of the Gothic horror story.   He was one of the very first American authors to write broadly in the short story genre.   Wikipedia says he was the first well known American writer to make his living from the sales of his work.   He  lead a trouble life that ended far to soon.

"The Masque of the Red Death" is set at the home of Prince Prospero, a converted abbey.   We are not given the time of the story but it feels like the 1500s to me in Italy.

As the story opens a terrible disease is ravaging the land ruled by Prince Prospero.     The language of the story is rich and opulent.   The story has a decadent feel to it.   Here is Poe's description of the Red Death, as the disease is called:

THE "Red Death" had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.
The Prince decides to try to avoid the red death.   He summons all the nobles and gentry of his princedom to a grand ball which is to be held in the seven rooms of his abbey.   It is a masked costumed ball.    The prince is completely indifferent to the sufferings of his people and just intends to wait out the end of the disease behind his walls and in his great luxury.   Here is Poe's description of the party (I see  a dream like quality to the feel of the party):

There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust. To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams. And these -- the dreams -- writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet.
 I won't tell any more of the plot.   Dailylit.com and other places like it make it easy for us to read short stories.   There are allegorical and philosophical interpretations that could be put on this brief tale concerning the nature of death etc.    To me the very real pleasure in this story is in the rich prose rather than the plot.   "The Masque of the Red Death" is a classic American short story well worth the few minutes it will take to read it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

"The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy



The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997, 321 pages)

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize.    The setting is largely in Kerala in Indian.    The time frame for the work is from 1969 to 1993.   The central focus of the book is on two fraternal twins  Rahel and Estha who we meet at age seven.    The twins are separated and are reunited when they are thirty one.   The God of Small Things is not narrated in a straightforward fashion temporally.   We flash back and forth to different periods in the twins lives.   You have to keep your wits about you to follow the follow of the plot.   The plot is in fact quite complicated with many twists and turns.    Basically it is a story of dysfunctional families in post Colonial India.

The grandfather of the twins is a highly placed government entomologist.    He is very bitter because he discovered a new species of moth but a rival claimed credit for it and the moth is named after the rival.   This event essentially serves to ruin the life of the father and causes him to beat his wife, mother of the twins.   One day his brother in law returns to India upon completion of his education at Oxford.   He tells the grandfather to leave his sister alone.   The grandfather complies with this directive but he also never speaks to his wife again.   When the time comes he refuses to pay for the college education or provide a dowry for the mother of the twins.   The mother leaves home and goes to stay with an aunt in Calcutta.     She marries the assistant manager of a tea plantation.   He turns out to be an alcoholic and a wife beat.   She does give birth to the twins while married.   She leaves her husband and returns to her mother.   OK and now the plot begins to get even more complicated but it is very clever so I will not give any more of it away.    There is also a very large cast of characters.   This is not a simple novel on any level.   

To me the pleasure in this novel (though not necessarily its instructive value) is in the many exquisite turns of phrase and startling metaphors and the insight it gave me into Indian culture.    One of the things I have talked about before a few times is the effect of colonization on the psyche of the colonized.  ( Every day I see this here in the Philippines in the ads for skin whitening creams on TV.   I tell my three daughters that skin tone has nothing to do with the quality of a person but it is hard to fight the media on this.)   Colonization  creeps into the souls of the its victims and infects future generations long after the colonizers have left.

Our minds have been  invaded by a war.   A war that we have won and lost.   The very worse sort of war.  A war that captures dreams and and re-dreams them.   A war that has made us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves. ....Marry our conquerors is more like it.   
Here is a longer quote that shows the sheer beauty and genius of her prose

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dust green trees. Red bananas ripen.Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun. The nights are clear, but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation. But by early June the southwest monsoon breaks and there are three months of wind and water with short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with. The countryside turns an immodest green. Boundaries blur as tapioca fences take root and bloom. Brick walls turn moss green. Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across the flooded roads

The God of Small Things can be seen as having several political themes.   It is an attack on the caste system, it is a commentary on matters of contemporary Indian politics (Roy is very much a political activist and has been subject to harassment because of her advocacy of independence for Kashmir), a harsh critique on the state of marriage in India, the power of love and Eros,  the special bonds of twins,  and economic injustice.   The characterizations are very well done and I was quite interested in seeing what would happen to the twins and learning more of their story.   There are subtle echoes of Indian religious heritage throughout the work.   Ray also has references to the special relationship of Indians to the English language.

The God of Small Things is very much worth reading.   It will require a bit of effort but I think it will more than repay your efforts.

Arundhati Roy  (1961)  is a very active politically in the  fight against colonialism and its after effects.   She has written several books on South Asia political issues.    She has been harshly critical of the American invasion of Afghanistan, she is a strong critic of the  Indian development of nuclear weapons and is active in women's rights movements world wide.   Many of her views on Indian culture call for radical reforms socially as well as culturally.    Salman Rusdie and others have been very critical of aspects of her attacks on Indian society.   To me Roy is a seeker of the truth.   Her primary focus politically is on justice for the disenfranchised in South Asia.   She is said to have began a second novel in 2007.   It is interesting to note that Indian males have called her "hysterical" in responding to her arguments.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Grotesque" by Natsuo Kirino


Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino (published initially 2003, translated 2007 by Rebecca Copeland, 530 pages)

Grotesque is the third book by Natsuo Kirino that I have read since starting my blog in July, 2009.   I first reviewed her work Real World which is a vivid look at the life of four late teenage girls and a boy that one of the girls becomes involved with.   The boy beats his mother to death.   I next read her Out, another murder story centering around the lives of four women who work the night shift at a factory that makes box lunches.    Kirino is known for spot lighting the dark side of modern Japanese life.   She writes about the people who do not fit into corporate Japan, people on the edge of breakdowns, people who do not feel quite comfortable in  lighted rooms  One of the things we can learn from her work is that a failure to succeed in society is not always a failure of intelligence, sometimes it comes from seeing through things we are not supposed to.

Grotesque centers on two women.    It is narrated by the sister of one of the women.    Yuriko, the sister of the narrator, is incredibly beautiful.   She is so beautiful she has never felt any need to cultivate any other attributes or develop any talents.   Yuriko's looks have always gotten her what she wants.   As the story begins, the narrator and her sister have begun attendance at the prestigious Q High School in Tokyo.   The narrator, a teenage girl of course, comes to hate and have contempt for everyone at the school.   She develops a special dislike for a classmate at the school, Kazue Sato.   Yuriko learns in High School how to use her body to get what she wants.    She progresses from "paid dating" in High School, to super expensive call girl when in her late teens and twenties down to horribly ugly street walker as she passes forty.   We also see the classmate, Kazue enter prostitution and its effect upon her.   

Most of the narrative is told in the first person by the narrator as she tries to understand the forces that pushed both of these girls into prostitution.   The two have another thing in common (this is not a spoiler, it is on the back cover).   They are both murdered by the same customer.   The narrator wants to understand how this could have happened.   She thinks deeply about the dysfunctional elements in the upbringing of her and her sister.   She also has found a journal  kept by her sister Yuriko and she shares that with us also.   I tried to understand the reasons behind the horrible decline of Yuriko from this journal.   We also read the disposition of the man that killed the two women, an illegal immigrant laborer from China.    We also are given an idea as to what motivates the customers of the women.    Most of the men are married so it is not a simple unfilled needed for sex.   

Kirino does a very good job in making these characters come to life for us.    Yuriko loves her work, she loves the power she has over men and she loves the sense of having a night as well as a day identity. She loves the feel of the streets at night.   Her life is not pretty and no details are left out in depicting her decline.   She  goes from a million yen escort (about $8000.00) for the wealthiest men in Japan  to a 3000 yen street walker (about $23.00) taking on the homeless in vacant lots.   There are no details left out and if made into a movie this would be x-rated in parts.   (In fact the USA publisher censored the translation by removing a section on male on male prostitution).    For better or worse we are along for the ride as Yuriko spirals toward a death she almost seems to  seek.   The classmate also has her own story to tell.   

Grotesque is an exciting book, sort of.   I say sort of as we do not really feel sympathy for the characters.   It also gives us a voyeuristic look at the business encounters of the women in the narrative.   Maybe these scenes are fun to read (somebody must like them as her books are million plus sellers in Japan) but our pleasure in this is not something to make us proud of our literary refinement!   The characterizations in this book are very good.   The descent, if it should be called that as this term assumes a value judgement, is very credible.   There a lot to learn about Japanese society in Grotesque.   

Here is what I would suggest on the work of Natsuo Kirino.     She is worth reading for her insight into Women, her look at the darker side of contemporary Japanese society.   This entry from Wikipedia on Noir Fiction describes the world of her novels well

In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics...are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hard boiled fiction.   

Change "he" to "she" and you have a great description of  Kirino's Work.   I would advise those new to her work to start with her shortest translated novel, Real World.   If you like that book a lot then in a few months read Out, then go on to her longest work Grotesque.   I liked Grotesque, I am glad I read it and when another one of her 16 or so novels is translated I will probably read it.   Some would say, and not be wrong, that her three books are very similar.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Nana" by Emile Zola


Nana by Emile Zola (1880, translated by George Holden, 471 pages)

This is my post for the Classics Circuit Paris in the Spring-Zola Tour.   I thank the organizers of this event for their efforts and welcome all to my blog.   I have chosen to focus on the corrupting and pervasive influence of prostitution in French society and  the effect of this on the life of French women of the period.

Nana by Emile Zola (1840 to 1904) is an intimate look at the effects of the pervasive prostitution of women in French society in the late 19th century.   The story begins in Paris at the Theater des Varietes as a performance of Venus is about to begin.   The audience is largely affluent men.   The central and really the only attraction of the show is seeing our central character, Nana, portraying Venus.   She is naked while doing this.   Zola describes her body in a very detailed and erotic fashion the way one might describe merchandise for sale.   When a fashionable gentleman in attendance at the show complements the owner on the quality of his theater the owner tells him this is not a theater it is a brothel.

Zola did a lot of research on the Brothels and nightclubs of Paris before he wrote Nana.  ( He was, according to George Holden in his introduction to Nana, not familiar with such places personally.  He visited a number of these places from the most expensive to the cheapest and took copious notes.)   The opening chapter of Nana is relayed in a wonderfully visual and sensuous fashion.   You really feel like you are in the audience.   The description given of Nana's body is near shocking in its power.   You are made to feel like you are a customer contemplating how much you would pay for her.  You then look over the girls of lesser quality trying to decide what you can afford.   One of the themes of the work is the reduction of women to their physical qualities and the corrupting influence of this.

There are many characters in Nana,  from Nana herself, to a lesser quality prostitute Satin, to the men who patronize Nana down to a large cast of upper class men fascinated by Nana.   There is no one really to like or admire in Nana.   Nana is not a "prostitute with a heart of gold".    Nana is a woman from the underside of Paris who through a combination of luck, good looks, sharp  management and a willingness to do anything for money has risen to the top of her profession.   Zola is a writer who likes to strip away false pretensions.   That is why the theater owner insists he is in fact a brothel owner.   The theater goers are not patrons of the art they are patrons of a brothel.   Some of the men are quite accepting of the fact that they are paying customers of Nana and the other women and see it as liberating them from having to care about  women..   Others among the men fall in love with Nana and become obsessed with having her only for themselves.   In the process they spend huge sums on her but she still has many customers.   She squanders all the money she makes on consumer goods.   If there is any love at all in this story Nana may feel a bit of love for a younger girl from the streets, Satin.  Zola gives us a very good idea what it would be like to be Nana.   There is a very high price to pay for the admiration and love of the men who know her.  Nana in fact becomes quite well known in society through her relationships with very wealthy men.   Nana never really loses the mentality of paid on the spot prostitute but she does act as if she is Mistress of wealthy men.  We feel also the excitement in her life.   We feel  the fear in her when she one day sees  an ancient seeming woman in the gutter only to realize she is the Nana of twenty years ago.   Nana's power will go when her looks go and in truth she is no better looking than a huge number of other French girls and the public could lose interest in her in the blink of an eye

As Zola makes clear  the services of Nana are paid for by the labor not of her patrons but by the vast underclasses of Paris who labor employed in factories and farms owned by her patrons.   Hundreds of women, men and children labor in horrible factories just so the owner of the factory can spend a few minutes with Nana.    Nana in turn throws the money away on completely idiotic purchases and has complete contempt for her customers (I decline to call them patrons).   Here is how the narrator describes Nana toward the end of her working days:

Like those monsters of ancient times, whose fearful dominions were covered with skeleton, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes....She had finished her labor of ruin and death.   The fly that had come from the dung heap of the slums, carrying the ferment of social decay, had poisoned all these men simply by alighting on them.   It was fitting and just.    She had avenged the beggars and outcasts of the world.
Nana is narrated in a very clear fashion and kept my interest throughout.  I would read another Zola for sure, but not real soon as from reading posts on his other books from Classic Circuit participants all of his works may be similar.   There are other themes in the book, of course, but everything comes back to paying someone to do something for  you in the world of Paris as depicted by Zola.


This is part of the Classics Circuit Paris in the Spring-Zola tour.   The rest of the tour stops can be found at the link.   On May 5 I will be posting on Georges by Alexander Dumas for the Dumas Classics Circuit.

Monday, April 19, 2010

"The Man With Two Left Feet" by P G Wodehouse

"The Man With Two Left Feet" by P G Wodehouse (1915, 20 pages, read via Dailylit.com

In my recent exploration of short stories I am finding them great for trying out new to me writers.   I read recently Kate Chopin's short story, "A Respectable Woman" and now I plan to read her classic work The Awakening soon as well as more of her short stories.

I just completed by first read of anything by P G Wodehouse (1881 to 1975, English).    P G Wodehouse was a very prolific writer, publishing over 90 books.   He had a interesting life that I will talk about a bit after a few remarks on the story, "The Man With Two Left Feet".

The central character of "The Man With Two Left Feet" is Henry Rice.   Henry is a detective and he lives in a modest boarding house.     He is single.   Henry is not Sherlock Holmes.   He does not solve cases that baffle Scotland Yard.    Insurance companies do not pay him huge fees to recover stolen art works.    If a lady wants to find out where her husband goes when he leaves his office at 500pm and gets home at 900pm she can contact the agency Henry works for and he will follow the man.   The open lines of "The Man With Two Left Feet" explain it very well and let us see the style of Wodehouse:


I must explain Henry early, to avoid disappointment. If I simply said he was a detective, and let it go at that, I should be obtaining the reader's interest under false pretenses. He was really only a sort of detective, a species of sleuth. At Stafford's International Investigation Bureau, in the Strand, where he was employed, they did not require him to solve mysteries which had baffled the police. He had never measured a footprint in his life, and what he did not know about bloodstains would have filled a library. The sort of job they gave Henry was to stand outside a restaurant in the rain, and note what time someone inside left it. In short, it is not 'Pifield Rice, Investigator. No. 1.--The Adventure of the Maharajah's Ruby' that I submit to your notice, but the unsensational doings of a quite commonplace young man, variously known to his comrades at the Bureau as 'Fathead', 'That blighter what's-his-name', and 'Here, you!'

One day Alice Watson moves into the boarding house.   She and Harry get along wonderfully.  Henry is surprised to find out she is an actress with a traveling theatrical company.  (Wodehouse wrote a number of musicals for the stage).   Alice is surprised to see Henry is a detective, a profession she sees as a sneaky one.   He asks her to marry him.  She says she would love to but she will only marry a man who is also in the theater as she loves her work.   There are some interesting twists and turns and I won't spoil them for you.

This story was fun to read.   The style is pleasant and well turned.   The entire story is told in prose just like in the portion I quoted.   The story could easily be turned into a cartoon feature.    (This is not meant as an insult to the story but if it comes out that way....)     This story is from the same era as Parade's End.   No one in the world of "The Man with Two Left Feet" would have ever heard of this book.    I am glad I read this story and when in the mood for some lighter reading I well might read some of his novels, or at least one.

P G Wodehouse is best known for his series of Jeeves novels (millions of people all over the world who have never heard of P G Wodehouse would tell you that Jeeves is an English butler even though he is a valet!).    In addition to novels and short stories he wrote a number of plays and over 200 songs for musicals.   He wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Bill" in the musical "Showboat.    He worked with Cole Porter and Gershwin.   He got himself in a bit of trouble in WWII.   He was living in France with his wife when WWII broke out.   He stayed in France because he did not think the conflict would be serious.    He ended up interned by the Nazis for a year.   While interned he entertained his fellow internees with amusing stories.  The Germans released him and asked him to go to Berlin to do a radio shows with amusing stories about his experiences and funny reflections on the war.   These broadcasts were aimed at keeping America out of the war.   After the war Wodehouse was investigated as a possible Nazi Collaborator.   Wodehouse basically said he did not realize the Nazis were bad people and he was just trying to entertain people.   The British public was not in the mood for this post WWII and many said he should be tried for treason and some libraries banned his books.   Upon investigation it was decided Wodehouse was not a traitor or a Nazi sympathizer.   George Orwell, a very  wise man in my opinion, said Wodehouse was just silly and naive.   Wodehouse moved to the USA, lived on Long Island in New York State, became a USA citizen and never returned to his native England.

I enjoyed "The Man With Two Left Feet".   I liked the story and might one day read one of his longer works. As I was reading the story of his radio Broadcasts for the Germans I was imaging a character in a Monty Python skit who had got involved with the Nazis and when asked why he was involved replying that he like the uniforms and doing the special salute but did not realize they were not gentlemen.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"The Yellow Wall Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


"The Yellow Wall Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892, 24 pages, read via Dailylit.com

Charlotte Gilman was a well known (1860 to 1835-born Hartford Connecticut) writer and theorist on women's rights and issues in the second half of the 19th century in the USA.   I confess not only have I never prior to reading the story "The Yellow Wall Paper" read any of her work I had never in fact heard of her.   As perhaps I am not alone in this I will quote from the Wikepedia article on her

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (July 3, 1860 – August 17, 1935) was a prominent Americansociologist, novelist, writer of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction, and a lecturer for social reform. She was a utopian feminist during a time when her accomplishments were exceptional for women, and she served as a role model for future generations of feminists because of her unorthodox concepts and lifestyle. Her best remembered work today is her semi-autobiographical short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper", which she wrote after a severe bout of post-partum depression.


"The Yellow Wall Paper" is a tale of a woman driven to madness by her loving very well meaning husband's (a physician) treatment of the narrator for post-partum depression.   The  prose is sparse and beautiful and you can feel her descent into madness.   


This is from the very opening part of the story:


John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage.

John is practical in the extreme. He has no patience with faith, an intense horror of superstition, and he scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures.
John is a physician, and PERHAPS--(I would not say it to a living soul, of course, but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind)--PERHAPS that is one reason I do not get well faster

If a physician of high standing, and one's own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression--a slight hysterical tendency--what is one to do? 


I admit I winced  a bit when I read  "John laughs at me, of course, but one expects that in marriage."   What is there or was there about marriage in those times (or now) that leads a woman   to accept that her spouse will laugh at her?   John calls her a "silly goose".   He is never harsh, never yells, never strikes her and is in fact very loving, kind and very solicitous.   John's sister takes care of her "There comes John's sister. Such a dear girl as she is, and so careful of me! I must not let her find me writing."


The narrator begins to be obsessed with patterns real and imagined in some very old yellow wall paper that is on the walls in which she comes to be confined.


Her husband begins to seem strange and alien to her.   She begins to have strange visions or hallucinations concerning a woman she sees in the wall paper.


And John is so queer now, that I don't want to irritate him. I wish he would take another room! Besides, I don't want anybody to get that woman out at night but myself.
Things get worse and stranger at this point.  I hope some will take the time to read this beautifully crafted story (it will just take a few minutes) so I will go no further into the plot.

Aarti of Booklust has a very insightful post on this story in which she talks about how this story relates to the issues of the Women Unbound Reading Challenge and the historical development of treatment for women's post birth depressions.   Gilman died from suicide after being diagnosed with incurable breast cancer.


Saturday, April 17, 2010

"Train Man" by Hitori Nakano-Some reflections on Japanese Literature

Train Man by Hitori Nakano (2004, 403 pages-translated from Japanese by Bonnie Elliot)

About six months ago I began reading Japanese novels.   I started out just buying what I could find in the book stores here in Manila, popular,  well known books.   I did it more or less to satisfy my curiosity.     Soon I discovered Japanese novelists to match nearly any European heritage writer.    I see now that I have to concede there may not be Japanese novelists to equal the very Pantheon of the western canon but there are numerous ones as good or better than western writers of the second tier and for sure third level.    I do not see this as controversial assertion.   I will say that Japanese novelists are in fact very much Euro Centered writers.  Many of the best of them have advanced degrees in French or English literature.   One of my goals now is to read all the available translated works of the best Japanese writers.   I have only just begun in this project.  Having done a bit of research (though I do need some more info and help on this) I think since WWII about 1000 works of Japanese literature have been translated into English.   Goodreads.com has a list of about 600 works in translation. (of course many are no longer in print.)   I also want to get to know better the Japanese novel as a whole.  To this end I have read a number of types of books:   historical  novels, existential novels, love stories, crime novels, pre-WWI classics, collections of short stories, magical realism, novels by Nobel Prize winners and best sellers you can read on the subway.    

With Train Man I have now read my first Internet chat room novel.   This novel was a million seller in Japan in just a few short months.   It was made into a movie and  TV series also and there have been several mangas based on it.  The lead character, known simply as Train Man is a self styled Geek with no experience whatsoever with women.   He seems to be in his early 20s.   One day while riding a train in Tokyo he sees a woman being harassed by a drunk.   He tells the drunk to leave the woman alone and the drunks runs  away.   The woman is so grateful she asks for the man's name and address so she can send him a token of her appreciation.    She send him an expensive set of cups.   The train man is shocked.   He is a regular in a message  room where all the participants seem to be young men like himself.   He posts his experience and he begins to be flooded with advise and questions.  What does the  woman look like, was she flirting with him etc.   Some how he works up the courage to ask her out for dinner.   He is very slow to move and he posts everything he does in the room along with constant requests for advice.   We see his messages and messages from numerous others.   Much of it is as completely inane, just like such places are.    We get to learn a bit of the lives of the train man as well as the woman, Hermes.   We see the advice his Internet friends give him-work your way into her life-make your self indispensable along with some silly advice about how to push her into a romance which it takes him a long time to figure out if she wants.   

In my recent post on Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford  I used a term of Edwardian era slang when I said it was not a work you should "lollipop your way through" (meaning read casually only paying half attention etc).   Train Man is a book that should be lollipoped through.   I thing it became a best seller as it is so easy to read and I bet it was read on many a train and subway and bus in Tokyo and left behind when finished.   I guess you keep going because we do kind of like the Train Man  ("train man" becomes his message room name) and we want to see what will happen next.   I guess it is OK escapist fiction for those interested in seeing how a message board novel works or who just, like me, want to read a lot of different types of Japanese novels.   I could see this book as a sold at the grocery counter check out or subway booth kind of item.   I am glad I read it but I see no reason for most people to run out and read this book.   A lot of people will see this book as just silly.   I could find almost no information on the author on line.   If anybody has seen some please point me to it.

In terms of future reading, I am looking for Japanese "chic lit",  science fiction, and good historical novels and would greatly appreciate any suggestions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"A Respectable Woman" by Kate Chopin

"A Respectable Woman" by Kate Chopin (6 pages, 1894, read  via Dailylit.com)

About two weeks ago I decided I needed to overcome my aversion to short stories.   I know why I am not really into the form (I like to move into the world of the novels I read and I cannot do this in short stories or so I thought) but as I read some wonderful stories by classic writers like Melville and Gogol as well as contemporary writers like Jhumpa Lahiri  I have decided I can find great short stories to read.   As an added benefit, a short story gives you the chance to sort of "try a writer out" to see if you like their style and subject matter.   

I have seen a number of blog posts in the last year on Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1889).   Everyone seems to really like her and she is often called a writer ahead of her time and place  (1850 to 1904-from Louisiana).  "A Respectable Woman" is very short, six pages.   It is told from the point of view of a seemingly happily married woman living on a plantation in rural Louisiana in the 1890s.   In just six pages Chopin is able to really portray the atmosphere of the plantation (you can see well the giant 100 year old live oak trees draped in Spanish moss and you can taste the mint julips).   The plot line is simple.   The narrator's husband invites a friend to visit, one of his best friends from prior to their marriage.   The wife has never met him before but the husband tells her she will really enjoy his visit and his personality.   At first the wife is disappointed in the man and finds him dull.   Then she sits outside on a bench under one of the oak trees with him.    She is shocked to feel drawn to the visitor:

Mrs. Baroda was greatly tempted that night to tell her husband--who was also her friend--of this folly that had seized her. But she did not yield to the temptation. Beside being a respectable woman she was a very sensible one; and she knew there are some battles in life which a human being must fight alone.

I love the style of this passage.   I loved the reference in passing to the fact that her husband was also her friend.    There is a lot of insight and wisdom in these three  simple lines.

I can now, thanks to this really beautiful short story, place The Awakening on my TBR list.   In most editions of that work there are also included a few short stories.

Mel u

Monday, April 12, 2010

"No More Parades" by Ford Madox Ford


No More Parades by Ford Madox Ford (1926, 212 pages-part II of Parade's End)


I am now a bit past the half way point in Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy set in   the WWI era in England, Parade's End.  No More Parades takes us a few years ahead in time.   We now see Christoper Tietjens in his role as a British Army officer serving in France.   His primary job is to prepare draftees for front line assignments.   He has normally about 2800 men under his command.   he tries to be a good compassionate commander but he also is a bit offended by having to deal directly with men whose class level is way below his.   Parade's End is very much a story of class distinctions.    Tietjens is under the command of a General to whom both he and his wife are very close personally.   There is a lot happening in this part of Parade's End.   A lot of the plot action and narrative line is carried through conversations.     Some time I had to read the conversations two or three times just to figure out who is speaking.   I know that pretty much that only those very interested in FMF or Parade's End will ever read  my blogs on the work so I will not try to convey too much of the plot action-the fun is in part in trying to figure it out.

I have some sort of random observations on the work so far.   Previously I had said that I thought Parade's End could be seen as a kind of Encyclopedic Narrative (in the meaning of the term coined by Prof. Mendelson).   I now no longer think this as it does lack some of the meta-qualities of such narratives, its scope is too narrow, Tietjens'  mathematical knowledge does not really provide us the outlines of the sciences of the times (as found in both Gravity's Rainbow and Moby Dick).   I think part of the deeper theme of Parade's End is that encyclopedic narratives are of necessity wrong  (remember the hobby of Tietjens in finding errors in the dominant encyclopedic of his time, The Britannica) and that truth is as much subjective as objective.   If you read Parade's End and come away seeing it as a straight forward work than you for sure understood you missed the point!   Perception is created by cultural and culture by perception deepened by reading and art.   History is a set of stories to make what happens seems morally right.    

The book is for sure very political and harshly judgmental in its treatment of the causes of war and the concern of leaders for the millions who will be killed.   (FMF went to war at age 41 and had what seems to be a nervous breakdown).    It is a very interesting study of the nature of marriages particularized through the marriage of Sylvia and Christopher Tietjens-they are at perpetually loggerheads and always on the brink of divorce but each one satisfies the needs of the other in some very deep and hard to quite fathom ways.   Parade's End finds Tietjens under arrest for striking a fellow officer who behaved in an improper way toward Sylvia.   I love the conversations in Parade's End, I know whenever Tietjens speaks there is a good chance it will be something  which I can learn from or marvel at at least.   Not all of his statements  in the conversations  about art and literature  are correct  and some are said mostly as the thought of the moment  and we need to catch his errors if we can.    This is one great way the internet has helped readers-any reference to something you have not heard of can be tracked down at once.   I am also starting to see the effects of the war on our characters.    

I will admit sometimes in reading this book I am reminded of The Monty Python Skit in which there was a contest for "Upper Class Twit of the Year" .   I do not say this as a reflection on the book but it did come to mind more than once.    

I will, I think, attempt a more grandiose summery of themes and methods and such in Parade's End when I have completed the work.   FMF famously said of Flaubert's A Sentimental Education that one should  not consider themselves well educated until they had read it 14 times.    Parade's End  does remind me a lot of A Sentimental Education.   Parade's End is a very edifying book as well as superb entertainment, what more can I ask from a novel?   

I strongly urge those interested in Parade's End or FMF to read the posts on the novel at  A Common Reader

There is really so much in this novel that I do find it hard to decide what to post on it.   I have noticed that FMF has a thing for magpies!    This is a very rich book.    I will not say that it is an easy read or that one could lollipop their way through its 830 pages with much profit.   I am willing to say it is a great work of art and all who seriously try to read it will be way over paid for their time.   It also really is a lot of fun.   Most would probably tell you to read his The Good Soldier first and I guess I would also.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"A Doctor's Visit" by Anton Chekhov


"A Doctor's Visit" By Anton Chekhov (15 pages)-read on line at Dailylit.com

I have recently begun to overcome my life time aversion to short stories.    My first answer as to why I do not like short stories is that they are  "too short".   By this I mean I want my reading to take me to another world sometimes and short stories did not seem able to do that by the very nature of the form.  I have found what is for me a great way to read short stories by a number of authors.   That is through Dailylit.com.   This is a very well known and highly regarded web page that provides, for free (you will need to register so they can have an E mail address) a great many literary works as well as a large number of non-fiction selections.  They will E mail you every day about 3 to 5 minutes of the work you have subscribed to (if you ask they will send the next section at once and you can also get the story in your Google Reader).   I do not really think I am inclined to read a very long work this way but it is great for short stories.   They have as one of their new selection in the short story category "Classic Shorts:  Eight Stories for the Summer".   Here are the selections

A Doctor's Visit by Anton Chekhov 



A Respectable Woman by Kate Chopin 



The Jelly-Bean by F. Scott Fitzgerald 



The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman 



Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville 



The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe 



Ivan the Fool by Leo Tolstoy 



Author! by P. G. Wodehouse
Of these stories, I have recently posted on Bartleby the Scrivener.   I have so far never read anything by Kate Chopin, Charlotte Gilman, or P. G. Wodehouse .   I will be rereading and probably posting on all these stories in the near future.


"A Doctor's Visit" by Anton Chekhov (1860 to 1904) seems for sure to be a Constant Garnett Translation.   (All of her translations are now in the public domain and her translation of Chekhov -considered her best work-can all be found on line) is the story of the visit of a Doctor who lives near Moscow to see the daughter of a very well of widow who owns a huge factory employing 1000s.   The daughter has an general complaint of not feeling well.   She cannot articulate exactly what is wrong.   The Doctor finds nothing physically wrong with her.      He finds out the factory doctor is treating her and he tells the Widow there is nothing seriously wrong with her daughter and the factory doctor can handle it.    He prepares to leave and the Widow insists that he stay for the night.  (Remember this is Russia late 19th century so the request is normal).   The power in this story is in the stream of consciousness of Doctor.   


The Widow and her daughter have become very wealthy and live a life of luxury through the labors of the factory workers.   The Widow thinks the factory workers (near serfs in many cases) are quite happy as they have festivals and such for them periodically.   She can in no sense identify with the workers,  this is a marvelous bit of pure Chekhov in which the Doctor reflects on the relationship of the Widow to the factory workers









"There is something baffling in it, of course . . ." he thought, looking at the crimson windows. 







Fifteen hundred or two thousand workpeople are working without rest in unhealthy surroundings, making bad cotton goods, living on the verge of starvation, and only waking from this nightmare at rare intervals in the tavern; a hundred people act as overseers, and the whole life of that hundred is spent in imposing fines, in abuse, in injustice, and only two or three so-called owners enjoy the profits, though they don't work at all, and despise the wretched cotton. But what are the profits, and how do they enjoy them? Madame Lyalikov and her daughter are unhappy--it makes one wretched to look at them; the only one who enjoys her life is Christina Dmitryevna, a stupid, middle-aged maiden lady in pince-nez."

He comes to see the complaint  of the daughter, of marriageable age and the Doctor feels the lack of a husband may be part of her problem, as caused by her guilt over the slavery of the factory workers with the end only of enriching her and her mother.   The Doctor sees her as new generation  of rich Russian beginning to see the injustices in their society.    Chekhov is the master of the small detail and this short story does really create a world we can enter.

The theoretical focus of my blog is the literary treatment of people whose lives are at least partially centered on reading.   The daughter in this story read all the time.    The daughter tells us this about her Reading Life:




"I am lonely. I have a mother; I love her, but, all the same, I am lonely. That's how it happens to be. . . . Lonely people read a great deal, but say little and hear little. Life for them is mysterious; they are mystics and often see the devil where he is not. Lermontov's Tamara was lonely and she saw the devil."

This is something to think about.    Maybe we will agree in part at least.

Chekhov is considered one of the great master of the short story.   He also wrote some plays and novellas.  I read last year his novella My Life.   Chekhov was a medical doctor and a  number of his stories center on doctors.   He was known for giving a great deal of free medical care to the poor.


Friday, April 9, 2010

"The Dance of Death" by Gustave Flaubert


"The Dance of Death" by Gustave Flaubert (1838, 12 pages)

Recently I decided I wanted to read more short stories.   For me Dailylit.com is a great way to do this.  They have maybe 200 classic short stories on line to select from (all free).   They will send you in e mail or RSS about 2 to 5 minutes (by their estimates most will read faster) worth of a work.   You will get the next installment next day or you can request it be sent at once.  If you do not like the work once you get into it you just cancel.    As a perhaps negative, the translated works are in older now in the public domain editions.   You can also read  lots of books here but personally I do not really want to read longer works in my PC but the short story versions work fine.  (Dailylit.com -there are many read on line type web pages, of course-is especially valuable for readers in places where there basically are no public libraries).     

Gustave Flaubert (1821 to 1880)   published his most famous work, Madame Bovary  in 1857 at age 37.   When I saw I could read a work of Flaubert's at age 17 I was intrigued.   "Dance of Death"  (translator not given) is almost a prose poem.  It is in part the lament of death over the cruel task God has given him.   Death engages in a dialog with Satan.    Death suggested Satan has the more enviable lot as his work will one day be done and he will have rest.    Nero then joins the conversation as one of the finest minions of Satan.      "Dance of Death" does read like the work of a very bookish young man in love with his own intelligence and beginning to feel his creative powers.   You can feel that he no doubt enjoyed the possible shocking effect of this story in Catholic France in the 1830s.  (As I read the laments of Death over his role in the world I was brought to mind that Death is the narrator of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, one of the very first books I blogged on when I began The Reading Life in July of last year)

The tone of the work and the topics seem to most resemble Salammb├┤, (1862-  set in Carthage in the 3rd century BC.)   In "The Dance of Death" you can also begin to see the erotic elements that will emerge in Flaubert's work.  Here is an interesting section of the conversation between Death and Satan

I must be everywhere. The precious metals flow, the diamonds glitter, and men's names resound at my command. I whisper in the ears of women, of poets, and of statesmen, words of love, of glory, of ambition. With Messalina and Nero, at Paris and at Babylon, within the self-same moment do I dwell. Let a new island be discovered, I fly to it ere man can set foot there; though it be but a rock encircled by the sea, I am there in advance of men who will dispute for its possession. I lounge, at the same instant, on a courtesan's couch and on the perfumed beds of emperors. Hatred and envy, pride and wrath, pour from my lips in simultaneous utterance. By night and day I work. While men ate burning Christians, I luxuriate voluptuously in baths perfumed with roses; I race in chariots; yield to deep despair; or boast aloud in pride.

In this we can see the perhaps overly florid prose of a young writer and of a young man imaging an exotic world of women, places, and sins he can only see, so far in his life, in his mind.    "Dance of Death"  is worth the 10 or 20 minutes of your time to read it.   It will let you see a great artist trying to feel his power.   It is in part a curiosity read just to see what the author of Madame Bovary  (a lead contender for best novel ever and a very strong bid for best French novel) could write at 17, 20 years before Madame Bovary.   Dailylit.com also has Flaubert's Three Tales on line.   The three short stories in this work are mature masterpieces and should be your second Flaubert.

Mel U

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"Parade's End" by Ford Madox Ford -Tietjens in the Trenches


Tietjens in the Trenches -Observations on Parts I and II of No More Parades (Part II of Parade's End)

No More Parades finds our man Christopher Tietjens in the trenches in France in the opening months of  WWI (1914).   He is charge of preparing a large group of Canadian Draftees to go into battle.   He is living in the trenches.   The trenches in WWI were often quite elaborate and included officers quarters and such.   They were not simply places to stand up and fire from.   Tietjens's commanding General is his late father's best friend.   At first impression Tietjens seems like a man who would not do well in the trenches as he has had a totally pampered life and he is not at all physical fit.    Tietjens is in command of a group of Canadian draftees (colonials in his mind), 2994 men for two months time during which they will be readied for combat, trained and fitted out.   Tietjens is of several  minds on these draftees.   He is, we must acknowledge, offended to have to listen to the opinions of some of the soldiers (he feels the lower classes should not have political opinions).    He also meets a Canadian draftee who seems nearly as erudite as he is.   Tietjens has a kind of near break down shortly into his command due to his compassion for the men under him.   One of the draftees asked for a day off, Tietjens thinking he was doing the man a favor for another reason, denied the request and this ends up putting the draftee in the way of enemy fire and he is killed.  Tietjens  cannot get over blaming himself.   Tietjens is very patriotic and as British as they come but he is no fool.   Here is how he sees the origins of war:

Intense dejection, endless muddles, endless frolics, endless villainies.   All these men given into the hands of the most cynically care-free intriguers in long corridors who made plots that harrowed the hearts of the world.   All these men toys, all these agonies mere occasions for picturesque phrases to put into politicians' speeches without heart or even intelligence.   Hundreds of thousands of men tossed here and there in that sordid and gigantic mud-brownness of winter...by God, exactly as if they were nuts willfully picked up and thrown over the shoulder by magpies...But men.   Not just populations.  Men you worried over there.   Each man with a backbone, knees..a home, passions..schemes of the universe, a milk walk, a slut of a wife, a brat..The Men:  The Other ranks.  And the poor--little officers.

Note on the reference to "Slut of a wife"-Sylvia Tietjens,  his own wife is never far from the action or his mind.   In fact Sylvia even shows up at the trenches.  (It was not unusual for officers wives (for those with some money) to show up in France at the front.   Sylvia begins to try to stage manage Christopher's military career via her family connections to his commanding general.   She feels he should have a more important job.  We learn more about the complicated dynamics of the marriage of the Tietjens and get more insight into the characters of our parties.  

As I read   the  parts of No More Parades dealing with trench war fare and Tietjens thoughts on the origins of war I could not help but think of General Pudding, a minor but thematically important character in Gravity's Rainbow, and his memories of trench warfare in France in WWI.   I know devotees of Gravity's Rainbow and Parade's End may each find this remark very odd,  but I see a lot of commonality in the two books.   I might post on this upon completion of Parade's End if I still believe it after I have finished the book.

There are a number of interesting references to the 18th century in this section.   Tietjens also makes another one of his wonderful literary epigrams in declaring that there  no English literature of value written subsequent to the 17th century.   Here is how his wife Sylvia described the head of her pet dog (which for her amusement and stress relief she just beaten for no reason with a rhinoceros whip after remarking that the white dog she was whipping remind her of her husband):

A great head, room for a whole British encyclopedia of misinformation.
There are a lot of good conversations between Christopher, his wife, her priest, the  general, Christopher's brother Michael and the men under Christopher.    We may be seeing the awaking of Tietjens to the many absurdities that unpin the Empire.   (the use of the bold characters above is my idea!)

There is a really a lot in Parade's End.   Great conversations, wicked epigrams that can take their place among the best in literature.   Many wonderful cultural references, some of them brilliant some more than passing strange.    The sentences are crafted beautifully and there are themes enough for 100s of posts.  

In a prior post I pondered the question as to whether or not Parade's End should be seen as an encyclopedic narrative summing up the culture and knowledge of England in the 1910s.  Maybe it is a kind of anti-encyclopedic work suggesting the building of encyclopedias is a fools errand.   I think this is  part of the reason for the great number of cultural references in Parade's End.   


As I said when I began my Reading Notes on Parade's End the very nature of the work means that our early perceptions could be all wrong and I accept that as central to the experience of the work.  

Parade's End Reading Notes and links to posts by others in the read along.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

"Heaven and Hell" by Jhumpa Lahiri


"Heaven and Hell" by Jhumpa Lahiri is from her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (2008).   She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies.    Dailylit.com has this story available in ten installments and it can be read there for free.    I read the first installment yesterday and was so taken into the world of the story that I read the other nine today.    The story seems like it would be about twenty pages long in book format.   I am grateful to Dailylit.com and Jhumpa Lahiri for making this story available for free.  ( It was a suggestion of Christina T of Reading Extensively that alerted me to look for work by Jhumpa Lahiri and I thank her for her great suggestion)

I voiced the "complaint" some time ago that I feel the reason I have not read more short stories in the past is that when reading I like to enter the world of the characters and the story.   It seems to me the vehicle of the short story was not suitable for this purpose so I over the years have not really read many short stories at all.   I now see that the vehicle of the short story can be used to to develop a complete world, in the hands of a master.   

Most of her stories are about Bengali immigrants adjusting to live in America while struggling to maintain their cultural identity as Indians.   There are five main characters in "Heaven and Hell".   Pranab Chakrobarty is a graduate student at M I T, a super prestigious technical college in Boston.   He is very homesick for India, especially the food.   One day he sees a Bengali woman and her little girl on the street.  He speaks to them and explains to the mother how home sick he has become.   The woman,  Usha, is homesick herself and invites him to join her and her husband for a meal.   Usha's husband is a research scientist, emotionally detached and interested in little more than his research.   Pranab becomes a regular visitor to the house and the little girl comes to see him as her uncle.   The mother falls in love with him  (her marriage to husband was arranged as is the custom among her social class).   Her husband is too involved in his research to see what is going on.   Lahiri does a great job of bringing  these people to life.   The use of food to convey a sense of culture is masterful.  (I read somewhere that an immigrant to a new country will give us his religion, his language, his culture, and other things but not his food!)   

The story covers about 25 years in the lives of the characters and we really do feel we know what is going on in their lives.   A lot of very interesting things happen and I do not want to give away any more of the in fact exciting plot.    Reading this story on line for free at Dailylit.com was a great way for me to sample her work.   I will for sure now buy her two collections of short stories and perhaps her novel, The Namesake (2003) also.  

Lahiri (Nilanjana Sudeshna is her real name) was born in London in 1967.   Her parents were Bengali immigrants and they moved to the United States when she was three.  Her father was a librarian in Rhode Island.   She has stated that she considers herself an American.    She had a PH.D from Boston University in Renaissance Studies.