Category Archives: classic literature

The Turn of the Screw, and faux-scary Halloween decorations.

I live in Australia; hence the British spelling, frequent bouts of spell-check rage at WordPress, and, according to an American friend, a distinct lack of sugary breakfast options. Even worse, we don’t celebrate Halloween.

I know, right?!

Apparently, a bunch of old people like whining about cultural imperialism and the Australian identity, but hello? Why wouldn’t you want to import a holiday with candies and costumes and faux-scary decorations?

(The one and only time I went trick-or-treating in my neighbourhood, I got a long lecture about how how we should be proud of our national history, yada yada, and was rewarded for my attention by a grudgingly presented muesli bar).

Then again, Australians barely celebrate Christmas as it is, or at least in comparison to our European counterparts, so anything extra is probably too hard to scrounge up.

Why would a 130 page book need to be abridged anyway??

So my version of celebrating Halloween Down Under is reading Henry JamesThe Turn of the Screw, first published in 1898.

A governess is hired for two orphans adopted by a rich guy who, incidentally, dislikes children (he and I have that in common). She then starts seeing ghosts that are supposedly trying to entice the kids away from their nice, safe existence? Or trying to make the kids commit some sin? Or existing only in her head all along?

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Le Morte Darthur can die a rather epic death.

Le Morte Darthur (The Death of Arthur) by Sir Thomas Mallory was my latest project.

The book was subtitled ‘The Hoole Book of Kyng Arthur and of His Noble Knythes of the Rounde Table’. Yes, I read it in Old English, or, apparently, an early form of modern English.

It was a terrible, terrible decision.

In my defence, I thought it would be neat to hold a little piece of history in my hands, i.e. one of the earliest written and most comprehensive collections of Arthurian legends. I’m uncertain if the book was representative of how people talked back in the days, or simply how books were written, but you may rest assured that I’m really glad I wasn’t living in 1469.

You see, actually reading Le Morte Darthur wasn’t difficult – it was the content that was absolutely excruciating.

Let me give you an example of a paragraph in part one, ‘Fro the Maryage of Kynge Uther unto Kyng Arthure that Regned Aftir Hym and Ded Many Batayles’. The following excerpt is exactly as it appears in the book, but with modernised spelling (courtesy of yours truly, I’m rather wonderful like that).

And so they went home and unarmed themselves, and so went to supper. And after supper the three kings went into a garden and gave praises to Sir Kay and to Sir Lucas the Butler and to Sir Gryfflet. And then they went into council, and with them Genbaus, brother to Kings Ban and Bors, a wise clerk; and also went Ulphuns, Brascias and Merlion [Merlin]. And after they had been in their council they went to bed. And in the morning they had Masse, and to dinner [breakfast] and so to their council, and argued about what was best to do.

You probably hate me now, right? I mean, it was like reading a story written by an eight-year-old – “and then this happened, and then this, and oh! What do you mean the details of how often meals are served aren’t vital to the tale?”

BBC's Merlin

I don’t know about Malory, but when I read a book, it’s mandatory for there to be some character development or, at the very least, characterisation. Also a few setting descriptions wouldn’t go amiss, and, while we’re at it, I prefer my plot to be more than a bullet pointed war chronology that happens to be written out in prose form.

I admit I only read about one third of part one and gave up – The Death of Arthur indeed. From now on, I’m going to stick to Wikipedia for my Arthurian legends, and to BBC’s Merlin for my regular hit of shenanigans committed by a prince and his secretly-a-sorcerer manservant.

Fun Fact: Sir Thomas Malory, or, at least, the man that academics seem to agree on as being the most likely to have written Le Morte Darthur, was actually a criminal. He went to jail a bunch of times, for stealing, raping, extortion etc. What I want to know is: how is it possible for a man steal 335 sheep in one day?!

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Six reasons why Voltaire is made of win … and two why he isn’t.

So I’ve just finished reading some short works by Voltaire:

  • Candide, or Optimism
  • What Pleases the Ladies
  • Micromégas
  • Plato’s Dream

I’m not going to sit here and type out my thoughts on each story, because they were all very good, but I will list a few of Voltaire’s most envious achievements:

  1. His name is Voltaire. I mean, how awesome would it be if you were named Voltaire? It’s a very suave and villainy name, and practically guarantees that you’d always end up with the girl. Most importantly, ‘Voltaire’ is as far from his birth name, François-Marie Arouet, as he could get. Congrats for having the guts to change your rather feminine name to something so spectacular, my dear!
  2. Instead of writing long essays in waffly academic-speak on all the ways in which certain persons were full of shit, Voltaire published short stories that parodied philosophers and rulers alike. Consequently, these philosophical tales were actually funny (something that hasn’t yet occurred to Paulo Coelho in his quest to moralise the world).
  3. Voltaire was a rebel – he got exiled, and had multiple stints in Bastille for daring to speak out against political and religious oppression. After he finished school, but before the church started whining about him, Voltaire lied to his parents and pretended that he was working respectably as a notary’s assistant. Whilst spending all his time writing poetry in Paris.
  4. He lived in a ménage à trois. Enough said.
  5. Thanks to Voltaire, children all around the world think gravity is awesome, albeit for the duration of time it takes to recount the whole apple-falling-on-Isaac-Newton’s-head anecdote, after which they begin (go back to?) cursing gravity for their inability to fly.
  6. Both Micromegas and Plato’s Dream were precursors to the modern sci-fi genre, with aliens! And since we’re on the subject, what are your thoughts on Voltaire being able to time travel? Or being reincarnated as Douglas Adams? Because Adams’ depressed robot, Marvin, is strikingly similar to Martin in Voltaire’s Candide. Just saying.

Voltaire

… and two fails by Voltaire:

  1. The main character in Candide. The story itself was about a naïve guy who learned that optimism (or, in particular, Leibniz’ theory of optimism: all is the best in the best of all possible worlds) wasn’t a very useful state of mind. At all. The guy got screwed over a bunch of times, and continued to get screwed over in the same ways another bunch of times. I mean, I know that his physical and mental journey was one of the main points of the story, but seriously?! I wanted to lock him up in a tower like a damsel in distress – for his own good, but also to spare the world any similarly unintelligent offspring.
  2. Voltaire was attracted to his niece. And told her.

Despite these two drawbacks, Voltaire was, clearly, made of win.

71. A convoluted tale of thieves, prostitutes and the Poor Law. Oh, & there’s also a kid named Oliver Twist.

Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress is what you get when you (or Charles Dickens) start publishing your yet-to-be-completed novel in serial format, whilst working on another unfinished serial (known as the Pickwick Papers) that you started earlier: a bit of a mess, really.

But no, wait! I liked it. Kind of. Maybe. Well, Oliver Twist was better than Great Expectations in any case, with the latter leaving me with such, ironically, low expectations of Dickens’ other work, that… Never you mind, the point is this – Oliver Twist is like reading two different novels put together by some demented, and possibly blind, Dr Frankenstein of the 1837 literary world.

"Please, sir, I want some more"

The beginning of the story follows Oliver Twist, an orphan cruelly mistreated by authority figures/ the workhouse/ other children/ employers/ aliens/ criminals/ mobs/ the government (pick whichever takes your fancy). Characteristic of this half of the novel is the strong satirical tone Dickens employs in order to say, whilst simultaneously jumping up and down and frantically pointing at everything around him, “Look here! And here! See this! This is what your amendment to the Poor Law did! Basing government policy on  Bentham’s Utilitarianism is evil! Also, I hate fat people!”

It was at this point, however, that Dickens realised that there are limits to satire if one wishes to avoid repetition. Dickens’ response was to make the story take a decidedly different turn midway, by a) the clumsy removal of Oliver to some nice rich people’s house, and b) using secondary characters to shoulder the entirety of the plot.

This story shift, sadly, doesn’t stop the reader from beginning to smell the ending from several miles away (if you were wondering, it smells like the musty odour of hidden inheritance, the sweet aroma of coincidentally found long-lost relatives, and the saccharine scent of Good triumphing over Evil). Oh, I’m sorry, did I just give the ending away?

For some reason, I have never seen this movie.

Make no mistake, the second half of the novel was brilliant and vivid in a way that the caustic narrator from the first half could in no way emulate. Yet, even to Dickens’ most hardened reader – and you’d have to be hardened to make it past the first few chapters of Oliver Twist – the sheer brutality reserved for the gang of thieves in the last part of the book was surprising.

To be honest, I really couldn’t see what Fagin had done that was so bad – sure, he stole stuff, forced kids to become part of his gang of thieves, and occasionally executed a plan to bring other criminals to the gallows – but the hatred Dickens afforded this man, both in Fagin’s description and in the thief’s ultimate, bloodthirsty, demise, is at odds with Fagin’s actions. Now, Sikes I can see; a horrid man who beat everyone around him for little, if any, reason, culminating in the savage murder of Nancy-the-prostitute. He definitely deserved what he got. But Fagin? I don’t buy it.

Charles Dickens

Regardless of my preferences on who should and shouldn’t have a homicidal mob chasing after them (actually, I think beating and starving a bunch of kids to death who were placed under your care is a far worse crime than stealing handkerchieves, but there you have it), the latter half of the book was fast-paced, full of suspense, and masterfully written. Unlike its beginning.

So now comes the time when I need to decide on a tag for this review; did I love or hate Oliver Twist? Did Dickens succeed in turning the story around? To answer those questions, I had to answer one other, perhaps the most important one of them all – would I read it again? Nope. Putting the awkward plot execution and conflicting morality issues aside, the story itself was pretty depressing. I’m sorry Dickens, it’s not my cup of tea at all.

Claudine à l’école

I am going to leave you to make my entry into the world; – I shall be very much astonished if I enjoy myself there [Paris] as much as I have at school.

So ends Claudine at School, and, I must say, Claudine is very much correct. The sequel, Claudine in Paris (which I reviewed here), features a decidedly less boisterous heroine, and is all the worse for it (to be fair, she no longer has her school’s petty dramas to amuse her). In this book, we are treated to Claudine’s frenemy (described as the “gawk” Anaïs), her very close friend (the masochistic Luce), her school’s skeevy District Superintendent, her formidable headmistress, and the headmistress’ smutty assistant Mademoiselle Aimée.

Yes, Claudine is often a manipulative bully in her interactions, but she bears no ill-will and is so charming that you can hardly fault her. The novel is written from her perspective (as a diary, but minus the angst) and follows her final year in school. Descriptions of everything around her are so French, and full of Claudine’s sheer love of life that I was quite sad to leave the late 1800’s town.

The book, as its heroine, is captivating and, set in a quaint town or not, quite delightful.

Claudine à Paris

I’ve been to Paris. On my way there, I tried to lower my hopes – surely the city can’t be as magnificent as I imagined it? To my utter surprise, I was right: Paris surpassed my daydreams (which is a fine feat indeed). To this day, I maintain that Paris is one of the few cities I ever felt at home in.

Claudine, the (chastely) titillating seventeen-year-old protagonist of the 1901 French novel, Claudine in Paris, disagrees. She finds the city boring, dirty and claustrophobic, and misses the leaves (or something) in the small town she grew up in. Luckily she makes friends with her gay (?) nephew, and gets the hots for his father. Yes, her widowed cousin-in-law.

Colette

The Claudine series (starting with Claudine at School, of which this book is a sequel) was born when the deliciously controversial French author Colette‘s ex-husband, Willy, asked her to write down what she remembered of her school years. Apparently, her skeevy ex-husband grew bored of country schoolgirls tales and requested that Colette “… hot these childhood reminiscences up a little?” Indeed.

This part of the overall story focuses on Claudine’s ruthless and witty observations on her glamourous new life in Paris. In fact, I’m quite surprised such biting commentary can originate from a small-town character, but Claudine’s rough mannerisms only lend her charm. Example being the time she threw water on a servant that loudly beat her dog outside every morning:

Five minutes later, enter the portress, a dirty, long-winded woman who had once been handsome. Papa being absent, she stared with some surprise at this pale, arrogant little girl. ‘Mademoiselle, the Breton girl has said someone eptied a pail…’ – ‘I did. What of it?’ – ‘She says as how it’s a reason for her to put up a complaint …’ – ‘My nerves can’t put up with her. Besides, if she starts beating the dog again, she’ll get something worse than water. Do I tell her employers that she spits in the breakfast-cups and blows her nose on the table napkins?’

… Moreover, you know, I’ve never seen her spit in the cups or blow her nose on the  napkins. But she looks perfectly capable of doing so. Besides, as we say at home, she repulses me. Isn’t that what’s called a ‘generous lie’?

I like Claudine a lot less, however, when she insists on falling in love with the aforementioned cousin. After several days of our illustrious protagonist floating on a pink cloud, Claudine tells the love of her life that she would rather be his mistress than his wife. At this stage, I had settled back to wait in eager anticipation for the return of the old Claudine. I was disappointed, however, as Sir Womaniser has decided that Claudine is, indeed, the love of his life and he must marry her at once. Cue annoying, giggling Claudine.

The story is marvelous aside from the above transgression, although I can hardly fault the author for my own aversion to reading anything resembling romance. If Disney couldn’t make me excited about princes running around saving princesses for happily ever afters, I doubt anyone could.

Nevertheless, I’ve still got Claudine at School to read if I want to avoid part three: Claudine Married. If anyone was wondering, I blame my choice for reading the sequel before the first book on my weak will and the tempting delights of Paris. This is because of the direct juxtaposition of the first few pages of the first book, which describe the exact charm of Claudine’s country town, with Paris. Need I say more?


Edgar, A Poe-t

I like detective stories – it’s like playing a game whilst you read.

So with not inconsiderable excitement, I picked up The Murders in the Rue Morgue and it’s sequel The Purloined Letter. This was the first detective story ever written, and it introduces the genre beautifully. Cue:

  • first-person narrative
  • the all-knowing civilian detective (although the term had not been invented then)
  • shoddy police work due to questionable brain power
  • the solution being presented, with an explanation of why anyone (excluding the narrator, the above-mentioned police, and every other character) could have come up with it

Both stories built up the anticipation for the big reveal and, in The Murders in the Rue Morgue’s case, what a spectacular reveal it is! Seriously, who in their right mind (save for people smoking weed and watching animal documentaries) would have guessed the murderer?

Unfortunately, Edgar Allan Poe insists on including long treatises about the difference between calculating and analyzing and how chess players are not as intelligent as they think they are. He rounds out his tirade in The Purloined Letter with proof(!) that poets are far smarter than mathematicians and why it’s so unfair that mathematicians make everyone think they’re brand of intelligence is the only one to have.

I can almost visualise Poe standing in a crowded mall trying a little too hard to get people watch his PowerPoint presentation (complete with diagrams) about why he’s a genius, damn it! At this stage, I’ll stroll up to him, give him a little pat on the arm and tell him:

Poe darling, we appreciate your contributions to the fields of gothic literature, detective novels, and poetry. You’re already a literary great! Now go and enjoy a scotch on the rocks and smile smugly down at anyone that tries to second-guess the totality of your stories.”

All in all, both were thoroughly enjoyable reads.

What I found to be far more enjoyable, however, was The Tell-Tale Heart. At only four pages long, the narrator jumps out at me as he/she plots the perfect murder due to the (quite common) motive of “the old man’s eye scares me.

Whereas the previous stories closed all the gaps (as detective stories should have), this one, like Poe’s other work, leaves us with questions that resonate with us for far longer than it takes to read the story. Who is the narrator? Who is the old man to the narrator? Is the old man’s murder justifiable if, in fact, his eye was evil? Why didn’t the police get suspicious when the narrator started prancing around like a lunatic? Finally, how on earth is staring at a sleeping old man every night for a week conducive to planning the perfect murder?!

Ah, Poe: a genius I tell ya.