Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Books

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.

Midwinter – Invincible, Immaculate

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The title is the opening line from Angela Carter’s short story The Snow Child. This is a dark beginning to my 24 days of posting, but there will be plenty of time for festive reading, I promise.

The story is the shortest in her collection The Bloody Chamber and is based on the Brothers Grimm version of the fairy tale. A Count and Countess are out riding when the Count conjures a child as white as snow, as red as blood and as black as a raven. I won’t give away the whole story though in case you want to read it for yourself.

Carter stays true to the traditional, dark fairytale and manages to capture a lot of gothic imagery (puddles of blood, anyone?). In just two pages, she also manages to provoke a lot of thought about the difference in male and female status. There is a real mix of passivity, aggression and desire.

Despite these heated things this is a winter story, and the cold prevails. The characters are riding through a frozen landscape where everything is blanketed by layers and layers of white. However, more chilling are the characters themselves: The Countess in her spiky boots and spurs is so cool she could crack. I could really picture her seething on the inside but showing nothing but a glittering and icy exterior.

The child is nothing more than the snow she is created from.

I Read, Much of the Night, and Go South in the Winter

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I have thought about you a lot, recently.

Winter has always had a special magnetic quality for me. When there’s a chill to the air on crisp winter mornings I want to set out for Netherfield. On misty afternoons when the leaves have left the trees sharp and bare I want to wander across the Moors. And, of course, when its dark in December and the lights are warm inside houses how do you stop yourself reaching for a Dickens?

The past few months I have been reading like I have fallen in love again. The books haven’t been Classics, but they have been devoured all the same. I went to a talk and signing by Donna Tartt last month and she said something that really stuck with me. She was talking about art and different ways of being personally affected by pieces of art, when she explained why books, in her opinion, are the greatest art form. Essentially because unlike looking at a painting, or watching a film, when you are reading you are experiencing something first hand rather than voyeuristically looking in on. This is why when you finish a book you are never the same person that chose to pick it up.

This is what I have missed about reading classics and talking about them with you. The reading is as fulfilling and passionate as ever, but I’ve really missed the community of bloggers – especially my fellow classics bloggers – to share life-changing books with… Remember when we all read Clarissa?

So now on December 1st, as homage to my years of classics blogging not to be wasted, I propose a literary advent calendar. Between now and Christmas Eve, I will post once a day (ambitious) with a quotation, a photo, a book jacket, a review – there will be something different each day.

I am finding my feet again: Please join me for my journey back.

Thoughtful Reading

So often when I pick up a book, I expect to finish it having learnt something. I anticipate starting at the beginning of a story, following its thread and eventually saying goodbye. Is this a Western idea? Is it the majority? There is a tendency to want a book to be more than ink and paper. Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars becomes obsessed with the idea that the characters in her favourite novel would have gone on to live their lives after the final page.

What if we don’t think of books and stories in this way? Or, more to the point, how do we read books that don’t follow this pattern? Last month I read Thousand Cranes by a Japanese writer called Yasunari Kawabata. Reading it made me realise the expectations I have about reading, because the story didn’t conform to them. Not in a crazy Ulysses way, I might add, just in an unsettling, slightly dissatisfying way. The lack of satisfaction wasn’t the book’s fault either – it just wasn’t written to be read the way I read. People collided and parted, formed relationships, led seemingly normal lives, but there was an air of impenetrability to the text: Personal history wasn’t explained and daily life was shielded by a culture so different to my own that I needed an interpreter.

Difficult reading, it seems, is not only composed of long, old, European texts. A challenging book (and Thousand Cranes is only a hundred or so pages) for me, turned out to be something that asked more questions than it answered. So I read a few books that aren’t Classics – teen fiction and more modern books. Side note: If you find yourself even a little bit tempted to read Heft by Liz Moore then do it, because it is excellent. Don’t, however, read Skios by Michael Frayn because it doesn’t deliver the Wodehouse-ian capers it promises.

This afternoon, huddled under a blanket and only occasionally braving to stretch a slippered foot into a beam of sunlight, I read Cloud Atlas thoughtfully, eagerly, and not pressured by its unconventional structure. This book is so clever, so inspiring, a real humanist feat of joy: The word and its history is huge, whereas people are small but never insignificant. 

Here is one of my favourite parts:

Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be tomorrow? Only Sonmi the east an’ the west an’ the compass an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ clouds.

Perhaps if I hadn’t started reading thoughtfully I would have missed out.

I’ll come back to you, classics list, I’m just coming back the long way round.

Eleven Days and Nothing To Read

It seems I haven’t written a post in almost two weeks. I shall remedy this immediately. After finishing all of John Green’s books (yes, all of them) I have been struggling to find the next book. Basically, if it isn’t immediately loveable, inspiring, jumping the queue straight into my HEART yet also amazingly witty then I’m not interested. And by the by, I have found John Green’s books to be all these things at once.

So, a list of books I’ve started reading and put down again in the last eleven days:

  • Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, page 24
  • North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, page 158
  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller, page 116

All will be finished at some point. All was not in vain, as I do have this quote to share from Catch 22:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

I know. Plus, what has surprised me is how funny this book is, whilst obviously being about an upsetting circumstance.

In other news, I have found the book to get me out of my slump. (Hence this post.) So: loveable, inspiring, emotional and witty… Yes, this is the book:

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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.

The Weekend When My Boyfriend Decided I Have Emotional Problems

I have had the best and most awful weekend. As previously mentioned I spent quite a bit of time on Friday weeping about Jean Valjean. A completely legitimate activity, I’m sure you’d agree. On Saturday evening, Apocalypse Now was on TV, which I accidentally also cried at. This is much less legitimate, but I will try to excuse myself on the grounds that (a) I haven’t seen it before and (b) I’m clearly still very upset about Jean Valjean.

But then came Sunday and I read this:

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And I felt ALL OF THE THINGS. I started off laughing out loud, quoting bits, being impressed at witty dialogue. Then I moved onto bawling. Yes, I knew it was coming – cancer teens falling in love is always going to end in tears. So many tears. And then I spent the next four hours watching John Green videos on youtube and now I must proclaim that John Green makes me feel like a teenage girl about how much I love him.

I read this in a few hours, it is clever, powerful, emotional and thought provoking about situations I don’t spend much time thinking about. Here are some snippets that (hopefully) might be interesting:

  • The Fault in Our Stars has a fictional epigram like The Great Gatsby
  • There is a hamster called Sisyphus (check your Greek mythology – I didn’t have to, my brother explained it)
  • The title is taken from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings”. This is interesting by itself as usually when people talk about a fault in the stars, they mean it as though there is some predestined flaw that prevents something from happening. Obviously the words with the rest of the sentence mean something else altogether.

So yes, this is a book technically for teenagers. However, when I was a teenager I found books with this irreverent, witty, Dawsons Creek style eloquent chatter unrealistic and a bit intimidating. I wanted to know about things and be able to talk about them profoundly and have original thoughts but instead, along with pretty much all real teenagers I was jumbled up and shy and read a lot of books. Luckily for me, I’m not a teenager anymore, I’m fully fledged into my mid twenties and whilst I am still shy, I can get my words out. (Plus I now have the option of writing them down and putting them on the Internet.) My point is that I enjoyed John Green’s punchy style because I know teenagers don’t really talk like that but I also know that they’d kill to be able to. If this kind of dialogue and typing in capitals when EXCITED  irritates you (an understandable opinion, but not one I share) then you probably won’t enjoy this book, even with its aforementioned cleverness and importance.

On a slight side note, if you were a teenager like I was and have retained a massive part of your introvertedness then I would also recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet. I read it towards the end of last year after reading Lucy’s excellent review and it is brilliant. I’m not sure why I never got around to writing about it in a separate post – perhaps I will. It is all about how introverts are sidelined in business and school environments because of our culture’s exaggerated worshipping of the gift of the gab. It is thoughtful, rang true and has encouraged me to be a tiny bit braver.

I won’t lie, I’m about to leave the house and I fully intend to come back with another John Green book. So as to not completely lose the tone of Charlotte Reads Classics let me assure you that I am currently reading The Great Gatsby (albeit because John Green mentioned it in one of the million videos I watched yesterday) and still have a post about Ethan Frome to write.

There will be classics again, I promise!