Saturday, October 31, 2020

A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft is a polemical work; it tries to convince. Nowadays if you have a non-zero chance of reading the book, you will already agree with the argument it's trying to make: that women should be given a good education, the equivalent of anything given to men; that both the women themselves and society at large will be better off for women having a good education; and that anyone educated to be silly and manipulative, well, will be silly and manipulative.

"Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is built on this simple premise, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice."

Maybe in 1792 there were people who might read this book and learn from it. It's not that there aren't people now who could to stand to learn these things--I could name a few--but they won't be reading this book. Alas.

I enjoyed it. It's always flattering to be told things you already believed are in fact true. 😉 

Wollstonecraft has a few targets in writing this. There's a couple of Scottish moralists that I had to look up to find out who they were: Dr. John Gregory, James Fordyce. I suspect nobody would read them now except for Mary Wollstonecraft. The big target--and the one she spends most of her firepower on--is Rousseau. Well, Rousseau's idea of female education, given at the end of Émile is pretty awful, and Rousseau is a bit weird about women in general--cf. The Confessions, fascinating though that work may be--or in his relationship with Thérèse Levasseur. Wollstonecraft gets the better of this argument by far. 

I learned that the first English translation of Émile is titled Emilius, and it's the version Wollstonecraft quotes. Sophie becomes Sophia. 

At several points I thought Jane Austen knows this book well. Wikipedia tells me Austen doesn't ever mention Wollstonecraft, but it seems I'm not the only person to have decided Austen liked the book.

A few quotes:

"I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour."

"Happy is it when people have the cares of life to struggle with; for these struggles prevent their becoming a prey to enervating vices, merely from idleness."

"Strength of body, and that character of countenance, which the French term a physionomie, women do not acquire before thirty, any more than men."

"From the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind."

"I know not what is wanted to render this the happiest as well as the most respectable situation in the world, but a taste for literature, to throw a little variety and interest into social converse, and some superfluous money to give to the needy, and to buy books."

This post has been in draft mode for a very long time now. (It was the last spin book & I finished the book on time.) There's a print copy (a Penguin) somewhere in the house, but I couldn't find it when I was about to start reading the book, so I grabbed a copy from Project Gutenberg. I finished it on the eReader. I started writing this post, but then thought I should read the introduction before posting.

I still haven't found the Penguin so I'm just publishing this post anyway. I'm sorry to report this is the sort of house where books can get lost among their brethren and then are impossible to find... 


Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Suitable Boy

"'You too will marry a boy that I choose,' said Mrs. Rupa Mehra firmly to her younger daughter." 

A Suitable Boy is Vikram Seth's massive novel (1474 pages in my edition) about life in India in the early 1950s. It first came out in 1993. 

With that many pages there are, of course, a couple of interlocking plots. They're spread out across four interrelated families. 

The one that gives the novel its title is Lata Mehra's search--or maybe more her mother's search on Lata's behalf--for a husband. Lata's family is Hindu, of the Khatri (a merchant) caste, middle-class, but after the death of her father, a bit impoverished. Lata herself is a college student majoring in English. There are three main candidates. In order of appearance: Kabir Durrani, a fellow student of Lata's who's a Muslim; Lata's brother-in-law, Amit Chatterji, a well-known poet in English, and a Brahmin of a well-to-do family; and Haresh Khanna, an up-and-coming manager in the shoe industry, of the right caste. This has the fun of a rom-com plot, with various parties scheming for and against, while Lata tries to decide. It ends in a marriage, and probably even the right one. (Though, if you've read it, did you think so?)

Another plot is political: Lata's older sister married Pran Kapoor. Pran's father Mahesh is a member of the Congress party and at the start, the Minister of Revenue for the (imaginary) state of Purva Pradesh. Mahesh Kapoor is the author of an important land reform bill that has only just been passed, but is still under legal challenge when the first national election since Partition and the independence of India is taking place. There are machinations between wings of the Congress party that catch up Minister Kapoor.

The third (the last major, but not entirely the last) subplot involves Maan Kapoor, Minister Kapoor's other son, who is living a dissipated life and has fallen in love with an older (Muslim) singer of ghazals, Saeed Bai. Maan's best friends are the twins Firoz and Imtiaz Khan; Saeed Bai has other connections to the Khans, a Muslim family.

The Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans. Whew. Got all that?

At fifteen hundred pages with a marriage plot, it's a clear nod to Victorian triple-deckers; and, of the various attempts to recreate a Victorian novel in modern times, I think it's a pretty good one, better than, say, The Bonfire of the Vanities or Palliser's The Quincunx. By setting it in the 50s, in India, Seth has got more opportunities for drama in his marriage plot than a contemporary North American story. (Which might run--"Should we get married?"/"Yes, let's."--and our story is done.)

The space allows Seth to go full Dickens on us, looking at classes from the well-to-do urban sophisticates, like the Chatterjis, to poor, rural peasants, though I did think he was more convincing with the former. Politics are important. For the most part he gives all the good lines to the partisans he likes: secular, liberal. Hindu nationalists, in particular, come across as villains. Well, we knew what Dickens' party line was, too. 

It's pretty enjoyable. Is it a masterpiece? Mmm, possibly not. 

Seth is pretty good about not telling us what to think most of the way through. That breaks down a bit at the end, though. There are more authorial intrusions like:

'The events involved Maan; and as a result of them the family was never the same again.' [1262]

'...the poor ignorant grieving fool...' [1332]

I don't think this added. 

Also Seth's pretty easy on his characters, probably too much so. Some bad things happen: Muslim-Hindu riots, people crushed by crowding at a religious ceremony. But the main characters are snatched from danger by the authorial hand. Now Tolstoy likes his characters; Dickens likes his characters. Still Prince Andrei dies, Anna dies, Little Nell dies, Sydney Carton is actually guillotined. If you're writing a vast social novel larger than a romantic comedy, something bad probably needs to happen to at least one character. In A Suitable Boy, the fairly minor character Rasheed, Maan's Urdu teacher dies, but 1.) he is minor, 2.) the moment of his death is avoided, and 3.) the madness that leads to his suicide didn't really convince. 

Still, I don't want to leave you with bad thoughts about the book. It entertains. It's funny, informative, engaging, serious where it needs to be. This is the second time I've read it. The first time was twenty-five years ago when it was fairly new. It's interesting the things I remembered: I had pretty good recall of the rom-com plot, and I remembered the hilarious banter of the Chatterjis, who are always spouting off in couplets. Though the best (😉 ) bit of poetry is this triolet from Mr. Nowrojee, the founder of the Brahmpur Literary Society:

Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
   At the soft age of twenty-two.
The casuarina tree was cut.
Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
No bulbuls haunt its branches but
   Her poems still haunt me and you.
Fate snatched away sweet Toru Dutt
   At the soft age of twenty-two.

This gives Twain's 'Ode To Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec'd' a run for its money.

Also I wondered, how did we read things like this back in the day? It was 1995 when I first read this, and when I looked back, I see it I read it on an airplane or in a hotel room in Dubai (where I was working.) So I was particularly unable to look anything up. But Seth has really done his homework, though he wears his learning lightly. But it's only now I can plunder Wikipedia and learn about the Khatri caste, co-respondent shoes, A. L. A Schechter Poultry Corp vs United States, or, indeed, that Toru Dutt was an actual poet who died at, well, twenty-one, in fact. (The latter in particular was a surprise. With a name like that, I assumed she was made up.) Did I need to know these things to enjoy the novel the first time? Clearly not. Do you read books with a tablet in reach to look things up? I'm not 100% sure that's actually an advantage but I do now. And it's interesting to discover things.

I reread it because there's a new mini-series version, directed by Mira Nair. It's already been shown on the BBC, and it was the closing night film at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. Well, the film festival was challenging this year. We had thoughts about seeing it, but I hadn't finished rereading the novel and we would have had to stream six hours of video in a twelve-hour window, which is a little too much binging for us. But I do hope to see it soon. It looks like fun:

This is now a ridiculously long post, but well, it's a long book, too...

Monday, October 19, 2020

Stevie Smith


I'm suffering the usual difficulty with saying much about poetry...well, umm, among many, I liked this one:

Sunt Leones

The lions who ate the Christians on the sands of the arena
By indulging native appetites played what has now been seen a
Not entirely negligible part
In consolidating at the very start
The position of the Early Christian Church.
Initiatory rites are always bloody
And the lions, it appears
From contemporary art, made a study
Of dyeing Coliseum sands a ruddy
Liturgically sacrificial hue
And if the Christians felt a little blue --
Well people being eaten often do.
Theirs was the death, and theirs the crown undying
A state of things which must be satisfying.
My point which up to this has been obscured
Is that it was the lions who procured
By chewing up blood gristle flesh and bone
The martyrdoms on which the church had grown.
I only write this poem because I thought it rather looked
As if the part the lions played was being overlooked.
By lions' jaws great benefits and blessings were begotten
And so our debt to Lionhood must never be forgotten.

That opening rhyme would have made Ogden Nash happy, and I read where Nash wrote an introduction for one of Stevie Smith's later books. That probably implies at the time Ogden Nash was more famous and Stevie Smith less; now I suspect that's reversed. Anyway, there's some similarities, but Stevie Smith is way darker.

The introduction to my edition, by James MacGibbon, suggests that Stevie Smith was a believer, though not a very orthodox one. You might guess that from this poem...

I'd read a few Stevie Smith poems before this, but not many, and this was a nice and generous selection. (280 pages). She died in 1971. I haven't read the biography, nor seen the play made from it. This edition includes some of Stevie Smith's drawings. 

The one on the cover is by her as well.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Ed McBain's Cop Hater (#1956Club)


Cop Hater is the first of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. Somebody is killing cops: first Detective Mike Reardon is shot outside his house on his way to the precinct; then his partner David Foster is killed. The fact that the two were partners results in the investigation pursuing their previous arrests, particularly any recently out of jail, but when a third detective Hank Bush is killed and he doesn't have any particular connection to the first two, maybe there's just somebody out there who hates cops.

I thought this was nicely setup. We see just enough of Mike Reardon to humanize him before he's killed; Steve Carella and Bush are beat detectives who catch the case; they crack wise with the homicide detectives on the scene before they turn the body over and realize it's their colleague who's been killed. McBain's a pro with a crisp prose style. All that's in the first fourteen pages.

My edition is a reprint with an introduction by McBain from 1989. McBain, under his legal, though not birth name, of Evan Hunter, was already a successful author: he'd written Blackboard Jungle, the basis of the 1955 movie. The introduction is fun. McBain touts himself as the originator of the police procedural. Perhaps that's not perfectly true--John Creasey/J. J. Marric's first Gideon novel came out the year before--but it's close to true in any case, and McBain envisioned from the start a sort of collective hero, with different detectives of the 87th Precinct taking the lead in different cases, in different novels, which is pretty unique. He talks about the research he did to start the series, pestering actual New York City cops before deciding--with delight--he would just make up the city of Isola where the series takes place. 

McBain's grittier than the cozies and even most of the PI novels that preceded him; still it's not giving much away to say that the culprit is neither some recent release from the state pen, nor (though Savage the newspaperman promotes this theory) some cop-hating gang member. Those are both red herrings and the solution is more mystery-novel-ish than either of those possibilities. I've read 8 or 10 out of the 55 in the series and I'd say that's generally true of McBain.

But no spoilers. I wish I could say the same of Wikipedia, though. I might have expected (and didn't read until I finished the novel) that the article on the book would include spoilers; I was a little dismayed though that the general article on the 87th Precinct series, which I did look at halfway through, gave away the solution. Grr. Still it was fun, even if I did know--before I was supposed to--whodunnit. 

It was also fun to see the series at the start. Cotton Hawes and Meyer Meyer don't feature in this one but Steve Carella does; he goes on to appear in a number of them. We see him courting Teddy and the marriage is planned, but hasn't yet taken place, before the end of the book. 

It's the week of #1956Club! Thanks to Simon and Kaggsy for hosting.