Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Fiction

All the Charm, All the Beauty of Life is Made Up of Light and Shadow

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As many of you will have already seen, o is reading Russian Literature in 2014.

A plan I had for this year but made no progress with whatsoever, other than writing many many enthusiastic posts about Anna Karenina. At the moment the list I am considering is:

  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy, again, always
  • War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
  • Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov

There are some re-reads but mostly I’d like to read the fill some of the more obvious gaps in my knowledge. I do love this time of year when it comes to making reading lists, and plans, and lists, and piles of books stacked by the bed, and more lists, and ambition, and learning, and more and more lists of life changing books.

Legends from the Ancient North

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The house is halfway to Christmas. We have a tree standing only in its green glory, the house smells of baked orange slices and I’ve almost finished this year’s wreath. Everything is feeling wonderfully infused with tradition.

The connection between history and tradition is something I have been thinking about a lot recently as I prepared to return to blogging. This time of year makes me want to get on and make things; presents for friends, decorations for the house, food for my family. A big part of it is because it connects us to what people have always done. It is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago.

There was a documentary on last night about folk music and how we are starting to be less satisfied by what is manufactured and looking towards what can be hand crafted. A love of what is genuine and real, an interest in how things used to be made. This made me think about our oldest classic literature. Penguin have released a series of titles (all with beautiful covers) that inspired Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Out of all of the titles it was Beowulf that caught my eye. The oldest surviving work in English, it is definitely one that I am going to read in 2014. It is a work that is partly  a great story, but when read today it’s also about history, ancient customs and heritage.

We are all living on part of a larger timeline, and I can’t think of a better way of connecting to it than by reading the classics and by keeping traditions alive.

Good Morning, Middlemarch

 

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I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with the dead. My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes.

 

I started reading Middlemarch this morning and adored this quotation from the truly terrible catch that is Mr. Casaubon. I thought it was particularly amusing in light of yesterday’s post…

Time Regained

Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day tomorrow as today,
And to be a boy eternal.

– The Winters Tale

Reading classics inevitably means looking backwards. Our favourite times have been and gone, people have lived and died, and events have run their course. In some ways, each of our reading days could be the same as they were yesterday.

But we know, as a collective of  classics readers that our reading lives will never get stale. Each new book we find takes us to, quite literally another time. And are we not able to define ourselves in the contrast?

In this spirit and inspired by o I’ve put together a list of ten classics that I would like to read sooner rather than later. Five are completely new to me and five are re-reads.

Five classics to move forward:

  1. The Red and the Black, Stendhal
  2. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, Henry Fielding
  3. Pamela, Samuel Richardson
  4. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  5. The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope

Five classics of eternal boyhood:

  1. Middlemarch, George Eliot
  2. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë
  3. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  4. The Shooting Party, Isabel Colegate
  5. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James

Let’s travel the world together.

For What Do We Live, but to Make Sport For Our Neighbours and Laugh at Them in Our Turn?

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The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

Austen should be read in the winter, on dark evenings with warm lights on. Sitting in an armchair, with the glow from the lamp not so different from the light of a candle.

Good books and good conversation: It turns out we are quite Georgian in our evening occupations.

Queer, Sultry Summers

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It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

This morning I felt like reading The Bell Jar. The opening line has stayed with me, stuck in my mind, ever since I first read it standing in a book shop. I don’t know when or where (I would guess I must have been about fourteen, I could be wrong), but I haven’t read a book that has as memorable a first line since.

I suppose I read The Bell Jar three or four times as a teenager and I loved it for Esther’s voice. I loved the way she opened up, right down to her bones. When I read the book again this morning, I was struck by the tiny details I remembered as clearly as if I’d read it yesterday: the caviar and chicken slices, the author eating his salad with his fingers, the sheath dress, the clear vodka, the pocketbooks, the scene about ‘water-repellant coats’, the swimming, the interpreter.

I love the story she reads about the fig tree – each fig represents an opportunity, but instead of enjoying one, any of them, they wrinkle and rot before her eyes. Beneath the surface, particularly during the first half of the book, haven’t we all felt like Esther? Her fear about the future, her inability to pick one thing to be is something I think about too – and I don’t think I am the only one!

This is a book to grow up with, I read it completely differently to how I read it as a teenager and have enjoyed it all the more. It is nice on this quiet Tuesday to have something so unique yet so familiar to think about.

A Single Green Light, Minute and Far Away

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And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.

This is everything that is amazing about The Great Gatsby. I first read it in high school and haven’t picked it up since, but I always remembered how this one little light could come to represent all hope, nostalgia, melancholy and loss all at once. How remarkable is that?

Nick Carraway compares Gatsby’s dream of Daisy from across the dock to the Dutch sailors that sailed towards the New World. A dream that was close enough to see but completely unattainable. I love the comparison between Gatsby’s all-consuming quest for wealth and status with the explorers. They saw some green, virgin earth but that only existed in their minds: The land had a history all of its own, just like Daisy has in the years Gatsby has been away creating himself. You can’t colonise innocently, just like you can’t achieve dreams that reinvent the past. Gatsby managed to reinvent himself, but he could never undo his own history.

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. […] No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.

Whist the force of Gatsby’s dreams is at times superhuman, Fitzgerald’s book is based around the incredibly human trait of never being satisfied and how that fits into the American ideal if you work had you can achieve anything.

The book is very firmly of the twenties but is timeless all the same. You can be seduced by these amazing parties which on the outside are dazzling and the people are witty with cocktails in hand, but getting closer it turns out nobody is really enjoying themselves. They are all racing, all the time, against each other to get more – to say more, to see more, to have more. No amount of glitter can hide the ugliness underneath. Is history on a loop? Did we ever learn from Gatsby?

I really enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby again because I had the luxury or reading with the intention of looking for the green light. The story was as good as I remembered from all those years ago but I had forgotten how slim a book it is. Surely a testament to Fitzgerald’s writing: He  says exactly enough in exactly the right words.

When the Beating of Your Heart Matches the Beating of the Drums

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Let us understand one another. Are we weeping for all innocents, all martyrs, all children, whether low-born or of high estate? Then I weep with you. But, as I said, we must then go back far beyond ’93 and Louis XVII. I will weep with you for the children of kings if you will weep with me for the children of the people.

The culmination of all my reading in 2013 ended at midnight, when I finished Les Misérables. I won’t lie, I was openly weeping. Finishing this book has managed to be both the highlight and biggest loss of January. Yes, there is always great satisfaction in completing such an iconic (and long) classic but I am devastated because book that hasn’t left my side in all this time is over.

Reading Hugo for the first time reminds me of Tolstoy because of the underlying philosophy that seeps through the story. From this book (and Anna Karenina) I think that their ideas are quite similar: The best you can do in life is to love other people and God, and being good and being happy are the same thing. Levin’s spiritual awakening is not unlike Valjean’s early encounter with the Bishop. This philosophy, whether it concerns the muzhiks or French peasants, at its simplest level should extend to politics. The suffering of the wretched all comes down to the government or the King not loving the people. This contrast of law and love is excellently and unpreachingly drawn between Jean Valjean and Javert. Both men are doing what is right, but one stands for human kindness, the other for duty.

A brief timeline of my reading experience would go as such:

  • Part I Fantine: This is really good, even the bit about the Bishop. Excited.
  • Part II Cosette: This is Anna Karenina style good. This book is amazing! Why do people not like it?
  • Part III Marius: I don’t like him, more Jean Valjean please.
  • Part IV The Idyll in the Rue Plumet and the Epic of the Rue Saint-Denis: Well, quite good but this is dragging on a bit.
  • Part V Jean Valjean: I CAN’T STOP CRYING

What makes Les Misérables so great? Jean Valjean. In my humble opinion, he is the greatest character in any book I’ve ever read and is definitely the benchmark for all literary greatness. Seriously, you should read this book just for Jean Valjean, an ex-convict whose journey takes him to represent the best values of humanity. I’m way too close to the end of the book to write about him properly because I just want to write in capitals and gush relentlessly. HE IS THE BEST MAN. During twenty or so years he overcame his hatred for the society that refused to see past his so-called crimes. His character is an amazing feat of writing, with a perfect ending.

The only aspect of this book, really, that prevents it from becoming an absolute favourite is that there is so much in it slowing down the action – when I really really really needed to know what was happening to Jean Valjean I found it hard to read twenty pages on Paris’ sewer system. The topical essay style sidelines were interesting, but the highlight for me was definitely the plot. Well, the plot involving Jean Valjean anyway.

Yesterday evening I went to see the film and I really enjoyed it. Sadly I had to leave for the cinema with thirty-three pages left unread but luckily I had pretty much read all the plot in the film. I love the songs from the musical (although a lot of the singing was far from perfect) but the main things that stood out were that the film was very beautifully shot and very well cast. However, despite being a good few hours long it was so shallow, compared to the terrifying depths of Hugo’s novel.

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Hats off to Hugh Jackman, who was totally what I wanted Jean Valjean to be.

I’ll just say it again: He’s so good, you should really read about him.

Clarissa, Or, The True Story of My Reading in 2012

Merry Christmas! I hope it was wonderful for everyone. Mine was a very relaxing couple of days with family and I enjoyed it immensely.

As Christmas seems a concluding event to the year, it seemed especially satisfying that on Boxing Day I finished reading Clarissa. Yes, ours had been a year long affair, but like her family I neglected her terribly in the summer months. Now it is all over I feel quite sad but luckily I have the sense of achievement for comfort. Clarissa is an excellent read. Yes, really. If you want to be convinced to buy it, this is o’s post that convinced me.

Very well read.

Very well read.

When I started reading it back in January I was overwhelmed. The language was tricky and dense and despite my enthusiasm not a lot was going on in terms of plot. I read a few pages here and there until April, when I put the book down. And it stayed down. From time to time I would look at it sitting on my bookshelf and feel a bit guilty, but I started my War Books project so I wasn’t inspired to pick it back up. I knew that to finish it, I would have to read nothing but Clarissa until the bitter end and I wasn’t in the mood. Then came November and the awareness that I would have to start now or never if I didn’t want to be dragging my old reads into the new year. Funnily enough, I had managed to stop at just the moment Clarissa gets exciting. (Clever, me.) I made my schedule and stuck to it – actually I beat it slightly – and here we are.

Clarissa has got to be the ultimate classic: One of the very first European novels and one of Jane Austen’s favourite writers. I’m not quite sure why it is so neglected. Yes, it is incredibly long but that doesn’t stop us reading War and Peace or Les Misérables. Rather amusingly, in the Author’s Note at the end Richardson justifies the length of the novel by claiming that the details are what makes the story realistic and enjoyable, therefore why would you complain about getting a complete picture? (Incidentally on the Jane Austen note, there is a clergyman who is sent to check up on Clarissa who I’m sure must have been a basis for Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.)

I wasn’t sure I would warm to Clarissa herself in the early stages because she’s so virtuous. I completely did, though. I fell for her hook line and sinker. I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone still ploughing through it, but what other end could there have been for her? And for Lovelace? The way the family separates and takes sides is so convincing and so much more interesting from only getting it through odd perspectives. I took sides too – I was always pleased when I turned the page and the next letter was one from Miss Howe or Mr Belford. The presence of Richardson at all was slightly mystifying because it really, honestly felt like I was reading real letters. Perhaps an obvious comment to make, but the characters are like Tolstoy’s – genuine people who change and adapt over time.

For a lot of this book I was only looking forward to finishing: I was counting pages and scheduling time. However, when I realised I was onto the final ten pages, I was gutted. I was so sad that something I had been carrying around and thinking about all year was leaving me. Read Clarissa for its characters and richness, for it’s often surprising plot, for its family drama, for its place in history, for its descriptions of a world far removed yet not so dissimilar from our own.

Just make sure you read it.

All Summer Long: Letters 219 – 381

December so far has been a great month for me. Last weekend we decorated our Christmas tree, drank mulled wine and watched Muppet’s Christmas Carol (yes, that was all in one glorious day) so I’m definitely feeling festive! Work is hectically busy but whilst I’ve been madly tired, I’ve enjoyed sitting around reading Clarissa in the evenings whilst it is dark and cold outside.

I am ever so slightly ahead of schedule and am now into the August letters. I’ll do a quick summary of June and July and then I’ll write more non-spoilery things afterwards.

In June: She is still prisoner in the house, which catches fire (a bit) and in the ensuing chaos Lovelace gets into Clarissa’s bedroom and attempts to seduce her. Clarissa manages to run away to Hampstead, but Lovelace manages to find her. He tricks her back to the original house in London (this is a real spoiler so I’ll give you another warning to skip over it) makes her lose her senses and then her honour. After a while she manages to escape again and the month ends with her finally getting back in touch with Miss Howe.

In July: A lot of the letters between Clarissa and Anna are working out that Lovelace had been forging their letters to each other. Clarissa is really ill from her massive trauma and is unsurprisingly incredibly depressed. Really annoyingly, when Anna, Mrs Howe and several of Lovelace’s female relations find out what has happened to Clarissa they think the best solution is still for Clarissa to marry Lovelace. Clarissa has to write millions of letters saying she never will. Lovelace has sent his friend Belford to find things out about Clarissa and what she is up to. He doesn’t seem to think he’s done anything wrong (bastard) and that he can still win her over. Belford, however, is more sympathetic towards Clarissa. At the end of July Clarissa has written to her sister and has hinted in her letters that she would like to be if not forgiven by her family, then at least not hated.

Making myself go back and give Clarissa proper attention is what this book needs. Where I was once stalling, I can now wholeheartedly write that I LOVE THIS BOOK. And also, finally, I love Clarissa herself. Initially I wasn’t sure  because she seemed virtuous and not much else. Now I realise that she is less one-dimensional when you pay attention to what is unspoken. I mean, you don’t  as an eighteenth century woman write about how much you desire a less than virtuous man in your letters. But equally, you don’t run away with a man you find repulsive. So yes, she’s virtuous, but she is tempted too. And as more unpleasant things happen, her strength of character really shines.

After the first few months of letters, I never thought Clarissa would become so compelling, I can’t stress more that if you’ve started it you should pick it back up! You won’t regret it.