Saturday, September 29, 2018

Bram Stoker's Dracula

"...the world seems full of good men--even if there are monsters in it."
Maybe I shouldn't have been, but what did surprise me was how good a read this is. Why, I don't's not only a classic, but it's been a major hit for more than a century. That was kind of the only thing that did surprise me since, of course, I knew practically everything in the book.

How do I know the story? I couldn't even tell you. I'm not much of a horror person, and movies less than books, but somehow this book is such a force we all know what's in it.

The story is told in the form of interlocking narratives from the major participants, though not Dracula himself. Mostly diaries--everybody in this book is a diarist--but also lawyer's letters, newspaper accounts, and a ship's log. I suppose Stoker got the idea from Wilkie Collins, though I don't think he does it as well as Wilkie Collins: his diarists all sound alike, except for the bit where Van Helsing speaks his improbable Dutch accent into an early recording machine and calls it a diary. But it's still successful in delineating the different characters, and in creating suspense.

And, oh, the suspense! It's still there, even though we know SOMEBODY is going to end up with a stake through his heart. I especially liked the early part of the book where Jonathan Harker, young lawyer, is first traveling to Romania and Dracula's castle on what seems an exotic, but perfectly possible, business trip. The ominous warnings he receives from the locals, the strange portents, the schedule that puts him at his destination at midnight--it all works very well. Later, the fact that the various characters seemed occasionally to forget they were dealing with a vampire was a little harder to overlook. Of course it is improbable that there's a vampire. But for us, now, reading a book, or watching a movie, vampires aren't any longer as improbable as all that. In fact, it seems like they're everywhere...

The only other thing to note is this Penguin edition, pictured above. The photo is great. It's the Victorian/Edwardian actor Henry Irving as Mephistopheles, not actually as Dracula, but it looks right. And it's appropriate because Bram Stoker worked as the business manager for Irving's theater company. I got that from the introduction, by Maurice Hindle. But mostly I disliked the introduction which comes down, far too heavily I thought and a bit incoherently, on the psycho-sexual interpretation of Dracula. That's hardly wrong, or unthought-of. But it was a bit obvious and not well done. Also the notes explained more things than I needed and not some of the ones I wanted.

So, how about a feminist interpretation? No need to wait for Buffy. Our four strong and good men, and their leader Van Helsing, are the vampire-hunters, but every time they decide to hide the facts from the ever-competent Mina, something bad happens.
"...the very first thing we decided was that Mina should be in full confidence;"
If only they'd listened to their own advice...

Read for a whole bunch of challenges!

Though since I finished it before the Classics Club October Dare, I'm now dreaming of a (first) visit to Manderley...

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Dubravka Ugresic

"I admit my head's a bit muddled from the trauma known as Eastern Europe..."
Dubravka Ugresic came to Toronto's public library as part of its Appel Salon series on Friday. The Other Reader and I have been enjoying these events over the last couple of years, and though neither of us had read any Ugresic we decided to go. I assigned myself two books of hers as homework: Fox and Thank You For Not Reading.

I picked the two books at random. Since I had no real knowledge, but wanted to read them in advance, I chose books I could get right away. The Toronto Public Library has a half dozen copies of Fox, her most recent in English, from earlier this year; Thank You For Not Reading came out in English in 2003, and just happened to be available.

Ugresic won the Neustadt Prize in 2016, an author prize that has, I think, a pretty good track record. She's from Croatia, now lives in Amsterdam, and has a, umm, complicated relationship with her country of birth: she left in 1993 after she was harassed and threatened for being insufficiently 'patriotic' during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Thank You For Not Reading is a collection of what seem to be occasional essays. My Dalkey Press edition (tr. by Celia Hawkesworth) doesn't give any information about their source, though each of them has a date at the end, ranging from 1996 to 2000. The sections each begin with an epigraph from Winnie-the-Pooh featuring Eeyore, which gives you some idea of Ugresic' mood at the time. Though she does say in the introduction to this edition that were she writing them at that time (2002) she might be a little less Eeyore-ish.

She also says the book is half fiction, though she doesn't identify which half...The essays are about being a writer, the publishing industry, and particularly being a writer in exile. They're uneven. But many are quite funny, and the best are also successfully thoughtful, particularly 'The Writer in Exile.' Occasionally I thought her targets a little easy: did you know (or care) Ivana Trump has written a novel? Me neither. Though that particular essay did pack a double whammy. It seems the same issue of the New York Times that panned Joseph Brodsky's Watermark praised Ivana Trump's novel.

The other weird thing about this book was how badly it was proofread. It was so egregious, I almost wondered if there wasn't some subtle joke going on. Paulo Coelho's name was spelled three different ways, and the French theoretician was identified as 'HBL (Bernard-Henry Levy),' just like that, with the name and contradictory initials right next to each other.

Then I read Fox, her most recent and, I thought, the better book. In fact, a very good book. It's labeled a novel, though the narrator is very much like Dubravka Ugresic, and in discussion at the library, Ugresic simply said the narrator was her. It's divided into six sections and each section she meets or discusses somebody who may be real--or may not--or may be half real and half made up. These figures are all associated with the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century and range from the very real Boris Pilnyak, whom Ugresic went to Moscow to study before the fall of communism, to the somewhat real DoivBer Levin, a Russian avant-garde writer whose works were lost, to Levin's widow and daughter, who may never have existed at all. At the talk she said that's how it is with other people in our lives: they pass through, you know them only partly and wrongly, and then they're gone. We're all just footnotes to some convoluted, only partly understood story.

As I say, I liked this a lot. You have to like books about writers, books that are melancholy about things lost. But if you do, things like W. G. Sebald's, or Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, I highly recommend this.
"...if the spirit of the fox enters a person, then the person's tribe is accursed. The fox is the writer's totem."
In person, Ugresic is funny and a bit crotchety at things that deserve a good crotchet. About like she is in her books.

A note on spelling. Wikipedia wants to put a caron over the S and a grave accent over the C. Both the English translations I have drop those, though. By the principle of lectio difficilior I'm pretty sure Wikipedia is right, but I couldn't figure out how to type the S with a caron anyway...

This covers Croatia for my Europe challenge, though I'm pretty sure Ugresic would not be pleased. From Thank You For Not Reading:
"At literary gatherings I feel as though I were at the Eurovision song contest and am suddenly anxious that after my reading or talk I will hear a gong and a voice announcing: Croatia, five points. I dream that one day I shall remove the stickers that other people have assiduously attached to me and become just my name. Because that, just a name, is the greatest literary recognition that any writer can earn. For everyone else: Cyprus, five points; Poland, two points; Belgium, ten points..."

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death

Amusing Ourselves To Death (1985) is one of those books that's been around for years, that you (I) think you know, and think you don't need to read. I was wrong when I thought I knew what was in the book. Alas, I was right I didn't need to read it.

It's an attack on the shallowness of public discourse in the United States, particularly with regard to television. I should have been the target audience for this; my reason why I didn't need to read it  was because it would just reinforce what I already knew. I like to read long books and don't watch much television; I only signed up for Twitter a month ago, and limit myself to looking at it once a day; I figured this would be preaching to the choir. Well, no.

And its unneeded-ness is not just because television's moment has kind of already passed: television has had its forty years to destroy society; it's either done its job or it's failed; we're on to the Internet now.

There are real issues here: Twitter and Facebook have not improved the substance of public discourse, and we weren't at a high point before that. But Postman argues the telegraph and the photograph were already a bridge too far.

Now I don't know whether Postman was an idiot or just playing one in a book, but as an example, he quotes Thoreau, "We are in a great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate..." Now Postman treats that as if the two local communities have no issues in common, but that's not the reason Thoreau mentions Maine and Texas in particular; the two locales differ on the great issue at the time Walden takes place and is still the great issue when Walden is published: slavery and the expansion of slavery.

On photography, he writes:
"And just as 'nature' and 'the sea' cannot be photographed, such larger abstractions as truth, honor, love, falsehood cannot be talked about in the lexicon of pictures." 
He relies a lot on Susan Sontag's book On Photography, an interesting, but problematic book, but even Sontag would not be as flat-earth-y as that about photography.

But photography isn't the only art he seems to have no conception of:
"That is why a good reader does not cheer an apt sentence or pause to applaud even an inspired paragraph. Analytic thought is too busy for that, and too detached."
I would be horrified to meet such a 'good' reader, and horrified to be thought one. But Postman assumes that we all read books as if we were John Stuart Mill on one of his more serious days. But Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby, has an argument about the merits of northern boarding schools. It is not an analytic argument, though no less effective for that. Even John Stuart Mill didn't think that all books proceed analytically, only that by the conflict of ideas in the public sphere, some truth comes out.

If there's a thesis in the book, it's this:
"Every philosophy is a philosophy of a stage of life, Nietzsche remarked. To which we might add every epistemology is the epistemology of a stage of media development."
I might even agree with that around the margins, though I'd make the margins pretty narrow. Postman's margins are such that there are no letters left on the page. The shape of our knowledge of anything is determined by the medium through which we learn it. Postman is that proverbial man who has discovered a hammer and now everything looks like a nail. But really his argument is not analytic at all; it intends to catch attention by being shocking. Sesame Street is more dangerous than Cheers, etc., etc. Well, there are plenty of shock jocks in the world these days. Maybe Postman isn't so different.

I picked up the 20th anniversary edition at a remainder bookstore at the end of last year, thinking with, well, you know, everything, it might be interesting to read now. Just the other day I saw it cited by Dubravka Ugresic (post coming soon!) and somewhere else a mention of his preference of Huxley to Orwell as a prophet of now. Aha! I thought. That's what I've always said. But even this he gets wrong: Postman shallowly remembers nothing but the feelies from Brave New World. John doesn't want to read J. S. Mill, he wants to read Shakespeare. He doesn't want the right to be scholarly and analytic--he has that--he wants the right to be sad.

Oh, well.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Quote: Reading Stefan Zweig's biography of Romain Rolland

'The precondition of every true calling must be, not love for art, but love for mankind. Those only who are filled with such a love can hope that they will ever be able, as artists, to do anything worth doing."
In 1887, the twenty-one year old Romain Rolland has finished his classwork at the Ècole Normale of Paris; he reads Tolstoy's brand new What Is To Be Done, the book in which Tolstoy condemns all art as a pernicious slide into sensuality. But Rolland wants to be an artist, a musician or a writer! (or both: Richard Wagner was recently dead.) It was a crisis! He writes a letter to Tolstoy explaining his predicament and Tolstoy sends back a 38-page response to the at-that-time unknown Rolland that begins "Cher Frère." The above is Zweig's summary of the conclusion (tr. by Eden and Cedar Paul, 1921).

Thirty-eight pages...oh, that Tolstoy...

But I do like the quote. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

L. R. Wright's The Suspect

The Suspect (1985) is the first of Wright's Karl Alberg mysteries, set on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. Alberg is a staff sergeant of the Mounties, separated from his wife, and newly arrived in British Columbia.

But this is one of those murder mysteries where we know from page one who it was committed the murder. The question here is why? And will Alberg figure out the murderer and his motivation, and once he does what will he do about it?

In the first chapter we see George Wilcox, a man of 80 years or so, murder his neighbor Carlyle Burke, also of about 80. Wilcox bashes Burke over the head with an anti-aircraft gun shell casing. What's that all about? Gradually we learn.

I'm not usually a fan of the Columbo-style plot, but I thought it worked here. And like a Columbo mystery, you really need to like your detective to make this format work. Well, Peter Falk is very amusing. And here the character Karl Alberg is pretty likeable; it's OK to spend time with him. He meets the local librarian Cassandra Mitchell and cautiously they begin to become a couple. Both of them suspect Wilcox is the murderer, but it's also the case they both like Wilcox and begin to suspect he may have a good motive for what he's done.

It's the first of Wright's Alberg and Cassandra series I've read, but she wrote a total of nine of them before she passed away in 2001. I'd read another.

I've already completed my plan for My Reader's Block's Vintage Mystery Challenge silver card, but what the heck, I'll add another. How. Death by Blunt Instrument.

It also counts for my Canadian Book Challenge.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe [Interim #2]

In our last episode, Jean-Christophe was a teenager who had become the head of the family after the death of his father and grandfather, financially responsible for his mother and younger brothers. He's playing in the town orchestra and teaching piano, but what he really wants to do is compose. He's lonely and awkward in the way of a bright teenage boy.

That post covered the first three novels of the ten-novel series; this will take on the next four. The novels are fairly short, so those seven novels are about 1100 pages in my edition. Five hundred to go!

His awkwardness only increases in volumes 4 (Revolt) and 5 (The Market-place). Jean-Christophe gets involved in public debates about the relative virtues of the music of Brahms and Wagner. He manages to offend parties on both sides. As a young composer aiming to make his way, he's dismissive of the music of his fellow young composers; we're not really left in doubt about his correctness in this, but we're in a lot of doubt about his policy and even his manners. And he offends the prince of this principality, and so loses his job with the town orchestra. He manages to totally destroy his position in polite society. The narrator is sympathetic to his viewpoints, but not very sympathetic to his demeanor, and so are we. Young Jean-Christophe is a little hard to take in these two volumes. Even when an older musician likes his compositions, Jean-Christophe in his diffidence and irritability manages to make the occasion impossible.

There are two events that take place at the end of Revolt with significance for the rest of the series. First Jean-Christophe has tickets for a box at the opera, but has offended and is offended by everyone in town, so he'll have to go by himself. But he meets a young French governess who is used to better things and misses culture. Jean-Christophe offers her a ticket, and though she knows she shouldn't, she takes it and goes. Well, that a governess is seen alone in a box at the opera with a man is shocking enough, but that that man is Jean-Christophe! She is fired immediately. Jean-Christophe is at first unaware of what's happened, but when he discovers it, he immediately feels terrible, but there's nothing he can do: she's already on a train to France.

Jean-Christophe is now even more upset with the censorious Puritanism of his town; when he goes to a country dance, and the soldiers from the local barracks arrive, and start abusing the peasant girls, and Jean-Christophe comes to their defense. A riot ensues, and one of the soldiers is seriously wounded. Jean-Christophe has to flee arrest and is himself on a train to Paris by morning.

The Market-place is set in Paris, where the impoverished Jean-Christophe tries to establish himself. His abrasiveness makes it difficult to find and keep pupils; he has no friends who might form the basis of a claque the one time he has a composition performed, and it's booed; he can't even be nice to the person who keeps him alive by assigning him music-copying jobs.

Rolland uses this novel--and Jean-Christophe's ignorance--to conduct a survey of French culture around the year 1900. Well, I'm ignorant, too, and I'm afraid a lot of this went right past me. My edition has no notes. Music is naturally the most important: Berlioz, Debussy, and Satie, for instance. But there are also authors such as Anatole France and Maurice Barrès, as well as the Dreyfus affair. And that's the stuff I recognized.

In the earlier post I thought the narrative quite linear, but that changes. In retrospect, I suspect it was deliberate on the part of Rolland to match the simpler childhood time of our protagonist. Revolt has clear foreshadowing in the character of the young governess, and The Market-place has sections almost essayistic. At the end of The Market-place, Jean-Christophe becomes great friends with a young and still struggling French writer Olivier. Shades of Otto from the earlier books. The sixth novel Antoinette flashes back and tells the history of Olivier and that governess, who are brother and sister.

And in the last of the books (The House) I've read so far, Jean-Christophe and Olivier take top-floor rooms in a large house. With Olivier pushing for him in the public sphere, Jean-Christophe is beginning to have some success. But this novel also follows the stories of all the inhabitants in the house as well, their interactions with each other, and the influence of Jean-Christophe on their lives. Rolland sees Jean-Christophe as a great-souled figure; I want to say Nietzschean, but that word is so loaded it's dangerous, but let's say, Nietzschean in a good sense. But our hero is still just as disdainful of society now that it's beginning to celebrate him as he was when he was a nobody. Will he still manage to shoot himself in the foot? Quite possibly!

Stefan Zweig wrote a biography of Rolland that came out in 1921. I've got a PDF of the English translation still to look at. And apparently Rolland features in Zweig's The World of Yesterday, which has been on my hold list forever (I'm slowly moving up) because I've been interested in reading it for another reason. I may just have to buy a copy.

The reading chair. It's easier to make progress in an Internet-free zone:

Monday, September 10, 2018

Jennifer Uglow's George Eliot

George Eliot (1987) is the first of Jennifer Uglow's books, and also the first of hers I've read, but she's gone on to a notable career as a biographer of English figures. I got as far as the chapter on the writing of Romola before I started that book, and once I'd finished Romola, I read the rest of Uglow's biography.

Literary biography is always a mix of literary analysis of the author's works, and gossipy information about the author's life, and Uglow's definitely leans on the literary analysis side. Maybe it's just a marker of my essential shallowness, but I could have done with a bit more gossip.

Uglow came to this interested in defining the nature of George Eliot's feminism and it's here she's most interesting. As long as there has been feminism, there have been arguments about what that means: are women different from men, and do those differences need to be equally valued? Or are women, at least in their social and legal roles, to be treated the same as men? Of course, those poles aren't exactly in opposition, but they're often treated as such.

Uglow wants to argue Eliot is a difference feminist. (She doesn't use the term, which may not even have existed in 1987.) While at first I resisted her argument, she does make a pretty strong case, though in the end I do think she underestimates how much Eliot is emphasizing the limited options available to women, especially in a character like Gwendolen Harleth. But according to Uglow, Eliot's ideal woman has a more emotional, nourishing role than a man would have. (At the same time, Eliot sees herself as particularly a masculine figure.) I don't know that I entirely agree, but as I say she does present a good argument. Dinah Morris, Romola, even Dorothea Brooke could be examples.

She does quote a passage I copied out as well, and found to be the crux in Romola, where Romola decides to change her fate:
The law was sacred. Yes, but the rebellion might be sacred too. It flashed upon her mind that the problem before her was essentially the same as that which had lain before Savonarola--the problem where the sacredness of obedience ended, and where the sacredness of rebellion began. (Chapter 56)
I was going to build an argument around that for my review of Romola, but ended up going in a different direction. But you have to like somebody who sees the same things you do, right?

I wrote most of this before dinner, then went to cook, and finished up after dinner which included a half bottle of Chardonnay. That's my defense... Swiss chard and leek quiche, with a salad. The Other Reader grows 'em, and I cooks 'em.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

George Eliot's Romola

Romola is the least of George Eliot's novels. If you're reading this, you probably didn't need me to tell you that.

What you might hope to have some insight into is, should I read it? Probably you're a person who reads a lot, likes Victorian novels, you've read a few other George Eliot novels, and you're wondering, should I carry on and read Romola?

Well, my answer is, hmm, maybe, but probably not.

Of course, there's a certain charm in being completist, and this is George Eliot, so it's not terrible or anything, but I finished it and I thought, I would have been better off rereading one of hers I hadn't read in a while, say The Mill on the Floss in my case. Ah, well.

The events take place in late 15th century Florence. At the very beginning Lorenzo de' Medici has just died. This is in 1492. His son Piero de' Medici is unable to establish himself, and Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican priest, becomes the guiding hand of the restored Florentine republic, until his fall and death in 1498. The French king occupies Florence for a while. It's an exciting time, but the politics are complicated. Eliot gives you a lot of--perhaps too many--details, but it can still be confusing. The main events of the novel take place over these six years.

The two main characters are Tito Melema and Romola. Tito is a poor Greek-speaker from southern Italy who has acquired an education and is hoping to make it in Florence, a leading point of Italian culture at the time. Romola is the daughter of a renowned but aging humanist scholar in Florence; her brother has become a Dominican priest and has been cut off by her anti-clerical father. Tito comes to take the place of that son in the father's eyes, but Tito's ambitions will go beyond simple scholarship. But he does marry Romola.

It's Tito I thought the main problem in the novel, and Tito dominates the first half. He's a weak man, who wants to be liked, and can't make himself do the things he knows he should if it will be unpleasant in the short term. He's like Arthur Donnithorne in Adam Bede in this, except while we see Arthur from the side, we're constantly with Tito. It's not like Tito is unrealistic, we know the type, but it's painful and slow to spend time with him. And Eliot's great virtue I think is her sympathy; Tito is Arthur without the bit of redemptive uplift at the end. His fall can't be considered a tragedy. In the end he's just a villain.

Romola herself is more successful, though there were points where I was not convinced her psychology was appropriate to a fifteenth century woman. Of course realism is not required in a novel, but I think of George Eliot as generally a realistic writer and not a fantasist. Romola is given a happier ending with a constructed family.

There are a number of portraits of actual historical figures: the painter Piero di Cosimo has a minor but amusing and important role, a young Niccolò Machiavelli appears, the pro-Medicean politician Bernardo del Nero is Romola's godfather. But the other major character is Savonarola himself, of whom Eliot gives a fairly full portrait. Eliot, from the Methodists in her family background, is interested in reforming religious figures, and she's fairly sympathetic to Savonarola, and he plays a prominent role both in the history, but also in the lives of the characters. I don't know enough about Savonarola to comment on the accuracy, but he was interesting as portrayed.

Well, it was George Eliot on an off-day, or an off three years, it seems, even if it feels a bit hubristic of me to say it. But, in any case, that's still George Eliot.

From my Classics Club list and for the Back to the Classics challenge at Books and Chocolate.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Velvet Claws

"I told you what she was--all velvet and claws!"
That's Della talking about Eva, Perry Mason's very first client (as far as we know) in the first Perry Mason mystery ever from 1933. Della's got the hate on for the client:

"I hate everything she stands for! I've had to work for everything I got. I never got a thing in life that I didn't work for. And lots of times I've worked for things and have had nothing in return. That woman is the type that has never worked for anything in her life!"

Who knew Della Street had so many class resentments?

And that's not the only way in which the mystery is different from others in the series. Perry tells the client at one point, "I'll protect you, just as long as you pay cash." Would a later Perry Mason ever say that to a client? Now sure he was a more successful lawyer as he went on, but I seem to remember him taking a one dollar retainer on more than one occasion.

And there's no courtroom scene! And Perry slugs someone not once, but twice!

Still it's identifiably a Perry Mason novel. Sure, it's a little more noirish than later novels, but there was always a bit of noir to Perry Mason, and it's not just the TV show music. In addition to Perry and Della, Paul Drake, the private eye, is there; Perry bends the rules on behalf of his client to the point where he's potentially at risk himself. The client is innocent, though the misdirection on that point is very good in this novel. So most of the usual elements are there.

The basic setup is this: Eva (at first under a false last name) is caught with a man who's an aspiring politician when a holdup in a bar goes wrong. The local scandal sheet knows they were there. Can Perry manage to keep their names out of it? Then the owner of the scandal sheet is murdered. Well, it's a scandal sheet: there are plenty of suspects, and not just the client.

This usually shows up in lists of best Perry Mason novels and I would have to agree!

Vintage Mystery Challenge. Golden Age. How. Death by shooting.