Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Quotes

The Nostos and the Chapter that Made it All Worthwhile

It is a drunken, sprawling night. It is the end of the day, everyone is a little bit worse for wear, and it is time to make tracks towards home.

Episode XVI –  Eumaeus, 1am, the Cab Shelter

As everyone is now quite drunk by this point, I didn’t pick up much of what was happening. I suppose these are the deep and seemingly meaningful conversations you have when you are drunk, that don’t stand up to the light of day. I had well and truly lost the thread of what was happening in this part.

The Odyssey: Eumaeus is the faithful swineherd in Ithaca who gives the disguised Odysseus shelter when he first returns home.

Episode XVII – Ithaca, 2am, the House

Reportedly Joyce’s favourite section. Perhaps because it is written in a weird question and answer format that reminded me of exam papers at school. Bloom is finally home for the night and goes through little routines that summarise the day’s events before he goes to sleep. A famous line I had heard before happens in this section:

  • For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?
    For a cat. 

The Odyssey: Ithaca is Odysseus’ home. When he returns, he arrives in disguise and doesn’t reveal his identity to everyone.

Episode XVIII – Penelope, 3am / unspecified, the bed

This chapter is SO GOOD. It is so good that it was worth reading all the preceding chapters – this was my reward. In fact, the episode of In Our Time I mentioned in my last post states that this is the best place to start. I would say that if you were going to read any snippet of Ulysses it should be this chapter. The last episode of the novel is a soliloquy from Bloom’s wife Molly. In other words, it is a five thousand word sentence. But in reading terms, it is joy.

  • first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

The Odyssey: Penelope was Odysseus’ wife. She waited for him to return, stalling her many suitors by saying she would wed again only after she had finished a tapestry she was making. She would weave the tapestry during the day and unweave each day’s work at night.

I’VE READ ULYSSES! Wrap up post to follow soon, and then normal reading shall resume.

Sirens, Circe and the Devil’s in the Detail

I’m determined to finish this now! I’ve read too much to just give up. I was feeling ready to stop after the last couple of episodes, but after listening to the In Our Time podcast about Ulysses (radio 4, originally broadcast on Thursday) I am feeling much more excited again. To any other flagging Ulysses readers I highly recommend it.

Episode X – Wandering Rocks, 3pm, the Streets of Dublin

I enjoyed this section after the trickiness that the previous episodes have been but only after I got into the mindset of not caring who I was reading about, and just enjoying each scene as just that: a tiny piece of action, a small incident that happens on a normal day.

  • Stephen Dedalus watched through the webbed window the lapidary’s fingers prove a timedulled chain. Dust webbed the window and showtrays. Dust darkened the toiling fingers with their vulture nails. Dust slept on dull coils of bronze and silver, lozenges of cinnabar, on rubies, leprous and winedark stones. I think this could be Miss Havisham’s house. I enjoy reading Joyce’s descriptive sentences, I think because these seem to be what I am most used to reading.
  • Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance. I just thought that quote was really funny to share with my fellow book bloggers!

The Odyssey: The wandering rocks are a group of rocks between which the sea is always violent. They are one of two routes home to Ithaca, Odysseus chooses to avoid them.

Episode XI – Sirens, 4pm, The Concert Room

More form to learn! This episode is to be read like a fugue, which is a technique in classical music where two or more voices sing and repeat a theme is introduced in the beginning. At first I thought this would be an awful chapter to understand (look at the first page!) but it has turned out to be my favourite so far. I went back and read the first couple of pages when I had finished and it made more sense. I liked it because of the direct parallel’s to the greek myths. I also started to feel sorry for Bloom and his knowing about Molly’s affair.

The Odyssey: Femme fatales that sing enchanting music to try to lure sailors onto the rocky coast of their island. They are only described as mermaids in folk-lore after The Odyssey, to Homer they looked like women.

Episode XII – Cyclops, 5pm, the Tavern

This section is written like an epic poem, with the actual plot mixed in. Is Joyce being ironic? He writes about things like a description of a handkerchief. Or is this part of the whole meaning behind Ulysses? Is the ordinary epic?

This section also made sense of the earlier incident (back in Lotus-Eaters, I think). Bloom meets a man called Bantam Lyons who asks for his newspaper. When Bloom says he was about to throw it away anyway, the man actually thinks he is being given a tip. Fun fact: A horse called Throwaway won the real life Gold Cup at Ascot on 16th June 1904. Thus proving that is must be pointless trying to read Ulysses without the help of the internet!

  • Your God was a jew. When the Citizen is abusing Leopold I liked the people he listed as jewish, with the final dig being God.

The Odyssey: Cyclops are a race of one-eyed giants, Odysseus meets one called Polyphemus who eats some of his men. Odysseus manages to escape by blinding the cyclops with a heated stake. Right at the beginning of  the chapter, the unnamed narrator says Did you see that bloody chimneysweep near shove my eye out with his brush?

Episode XIII – Nausicaa, 8pm, Rocks on the Strand

I liked this chapter – Joyce is writing in the style of a nineteenth century romance, and that is a style that I am familiar with! The scene is told from two different perspectives and they link up satisfyingly: The first is a young girl, Gerty, fantasising about romance, the second is a strange man watching her, who turns out to be Bloom. The first quotation is from Gerty’s thoughts, the second from Bloom’s.

  • No prince charming is her beau ideal to lay a rare and wondrous love at her feet but rather a manly man with a strong quiet face who had not found his ideal, perhaps his hair slightly flecked with grey, and who would understand, take her in his sheltering arms, strain her to him in all the strength of his deep passionate nature and comfort her with a long long kiss. It would be like heaven. For such a one she yearns this balmy summer eve. With all the heart of her she longs to be his only, his affianced bride for riches and poor, in sickness in health, till death us two part, from this to this day forward.
  • Say a woman loses a charm with every pin she takes out. Pinned together. […] Always know a fellow courting: collars and cuffs.

The Odyssey: Nausicaa is a young girl and possible love interest for Odysseus after she finds him washed ashore on her island.

Episode XIV – Oxen of the Sun, 10pm, the Maternity Hospital

I know Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus are in the hospital where Mrs. Purefoy gives birth to a son. I know that Joyce traces the history of the English language in this episode. I didn’t find either of these things out by actually reading the chapter. I read it, and it made no sense to me at all.

The Odyssey: Also known as the Cattle of Helios, they are the sun god’s symbol of fertility. Odysseus tells his men not to harm them, but they are too hungry to obey. Zeus punishes the crew by destroying the ship with a lightening bolt.

Episode XV – Circe, 12am, the Brothel

This episode is SO LONG! About 150 pages long! I thought it would be ok to read because it is written as a play, complete with stage directions. I foolishly thought knowing who was speaking would be easier to follow. It wasn’t. Sigh. But this section isn’t as slow to read as you’d think from looking at it.

The Odyssey: Circe is a goddess of magic, who turns Odysseus’ men into pigs after a meal. Odysseus protects himself from her potions, frees his men and they stay on the island for a year, feasting. Not really learning a lesson, it would seem.

So… I have read 522 out of 682 pages, I have finished Part II and am about to move onto Part III. The end is in sight…

Ulysses So Far

Episode IV – Calypso, 8am, Leopold Bloom’s House

This is first encounter with Bloom, the man himself, is quite ordinary.

The Odyssey: Calypso keeps Odysseus detained on her island for several years, trying to make him her immortal husband. Eventually, Zeus orders her to set him free because it was not their destiny to be together forever.

  • Ahbeesee defeegee kelomen opeecue rustyouvee double you. I just really liked the idea that if you are following someone’s train of thought, a lot of the time it’s just nonsense, background noise.

Episode V – Lotus-Eaters, 10am, Westland Row and Turkish Baths

The Odyssey: When Odysseus and his crew stop on the land of the Lotus-Eaters, they are given a drug that makes them forget their home.

  • Nice kind of evening feeling. No more wandering about. Just loll there: quiet dusk: let everything rip. Forget. Tell about places you have been, strange customs.
  • Rum idea: eating bits of a corpse why the cannibals cotton to it.
  • Penance. Punish me, please. Great weapon in their hands. More than doctor or solicitor. Woman dying to. And I schschschschschsch. And did you chachachachacha? And why did you? Look down at her ring to find an excuse. Whispering gallery walls have ears. Husband learn to his surprise. God’s little joke. Then out she comes. Repentence skin deep. Lovely shame.

Episode VI – Hades, 11am, The Graveyard

This chapter was really depressing, I suppose a compliment to Joyce’s writing the everyman’s thoughts about death. Accurate, but a bit much!

The Odyssey: Hades is the greek god of the Underworld, who is quick to anger when someone tries to cheat death. In greek mythology, all the living people who went into the Underworld were heroes.

  • Thanking her stars she was passed over. Extraordinary interest they take in a corpse. Glad to see us go when we give them such trouble coming. Job seems to suit them. Huggermugger in corners. Slop about in slipperslappers for fear he’d wake. Then getting it ready. Laying it out. Molly and Mrs. Fleming making the bed. Pull it more to your side. Our windingsheet. never know who will touch you dead. Wash and shampoo. I believe they clip the nails and the hair. Keep a bit in an envelope.
  • They’re so particular. Lay me in my native earth. Bit of clay from the holy land. Only a mother and deadborn child ever buried in one coffin. I see what it means. I see. To protect him as long as possible even in the earth. The Irishman’s house is his coffin.

Episode VII – Aeolus, 12pm, The Newspaper Office

This chapter has probably been the most difficult so far, it was a real struggle (that I didn’t succeed in overcoming) to keep track of who was in the room, or even which room they were in, let alone what they were talking about.

The Odyssey: Homer’s Aeolus was the god of winds. He gives Odysseus a bag full of the captured winds so he could sail home. Unfortunately, his men open the bag, thinking it was full of riches, and the ship is blown off-course.

  • You pray to a local and obscure idol: our temples, majestic and mysterious, are the abodes of Isis and Osiris, of Horus and Ammon Ra. Yours serfdom, awe and humbleness: ours thunder and the seas. Israel is weak and few are her children: Egypt is a host and terrible are her arms. Vagrants and daylabourers are you called: the world trembles in our name. You = Jews Us = Egypt ???
  • Sophist wallops haughty helen square on proboscis. Spartans gnash molars. Ithacans vow pen is champ. I assume this section is one of the ones people mention about you needing to be a real academic to get all the references. I didn’t, these are a couple of quotes to demonstrate why!

Episode VIII – Lestrygonians, 1pm, Davy Byrne’s Pub

Again, this is all about the body, it made me chuckle that when we are hungry everything comes round to food.

The Odyssey: The Lestrygonians are a tribe of giant cannibals, who ate many of Odysseus’ men.

  • Flakes of pastry on the gusset of her dress: daub of sugary flour stuck to her cheek. Rhubarb tart with liberal fillings, rich fruit interior.
  • Let out to graze. Best moment to attack one in pudding time.
  • I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that kind of food you see produces the like waves of the brain the poetical. For example one of those policemen sweating Irish stew into their shirts; you couldn’t squeeze a line of poetry out of him. Don’t know what poetry is even.
  • Sad booser’s eyes. Bitten off more than he can chew. Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us. 
  • God made food, the devil the cooks.

Episode IX – Scylla and Charybdis, 2pm, The National Library

I take the bit about the newspaper office being the most difficult back, this is. What the hell is this about? I have no idea! Suggestions welcome!

The Odyssey: Being between Scylla and Charybdis is the ancient greek equivalent of being between a rock and a hard place. Scylla was a six headed sea monster, Charybdis a whirlpool, and Odysseus had to choose which was the lesser evil. Other than this chapter being a literary minefield, I’m not sure how this links together.

  • All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracled out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions of the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring. I imagine this is the nature of many great debates!
  • What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners. […] Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him? This is being said about the ghosts in Hamlet, although I quite like the idea of this being the ghosts in literature in general.

Tales From The Telemachiad

I have finished Part I of Ulysses, otherwise known as The Telemachiad. Surprisingly, it is great so far – the stream of consciousness parts are challenging but enjoyable, and the plot has been OK to follow. I get the feeling I’m being broken in gently but I have to say Joyce’s descriptions of the scenery are fantastic. I think his style of writing is great for capturing the essence of a place.

A quick note on the format of my posts whilst I’m reading: I won’t bother with chapter descriptions because I know lots of people are going to be reading Ulysses, but for my own reference I’ll give the place and time of each episode, a link to The Odyssey , and then I’m just going to mention all the bits I found interesting whilst I was reading.

Episode I – Telemachus, 8am, The Martello Tower

Photo by Alain le Garsmeur

As introductory paragraphs go, this one is not too daunting. Not as daunting as I had imagined anyway! You are immediately thrown into the landscape and the dynamic between the three men.

The Odyssey: Telemachus is the son of Odysseus and Penelope, and the first four books of The Odyssey are about Telemachus searching for news of his father. Stephen Dedalus is linked with Telemachus: Whilst his father is gone Penelope has had plenty of suitors who try to usurp Odysseus and Telemachus. In Ulysses, Buck Mulligan is called a ‘usurper’.

  • Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Stephen is mourning the death of his mother. Joyce excellently describes grief and separates it from the love you have for the person before they die and after you have come to terms with their death.
  • The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting. I liked the association of the sea caught in the bay outside and his mother’s sick bowl. It is setting a tone of earthiness and the body. The image is continued across a few pages, as Stephen’s mood deepens and he becomes more introverted. A cloud began to cover the sun slowly, shadowing the bay in deeper green. It lay behind him, a bowl of bitter waters. Love the language, especially the last five words.
  • Memories beset his brooding brain. Her glass of water from the kitchen tap when she had approached the sacrament. A cored apple, filled with brown sugar, roasting for her at the hob on a dark autumn evening. Her shapely fingernails reddened by the blood of squashed lice from the children’s shirts. I like the visuals here, and the collecting of memories. It makes Stephen’s loss seem raw, that he has these images near the surface where he can recall them at a moment’s notice.
  • The nickel shavingbowl shone, forgotten, on the parapet. Why should I bring it down? Or leave it there all day, forgotten friendship? I have read somewhere that Joyce intended to make a departure from the greek epics by way of abstaining from grand themes like battles and heroism. Instead, he writes about incredibly ordinary things and makes them big.

Episode II – Nestor, 10am, The School

The Odyssey: Homer’s Nestor was a wise councillor who befriended Telemachus, seen by the Schoolmaster Mr. Deasy giving Stephen advice.

  • History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. 
  • – That is God.
    Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
    – What? Mr Deasy asked.
    – A shout in the street.  

Episode III – Proteus, 11am, Sandymount Strand

I think this is my favourite chapter so far, even though it is the first real stream of consciousness monologue. It struck me just how revolutionary this novel must have been when it was first published. I do find the style tricky but I think that is the nature of the beast. Can you ever fully understand someone else’s uncensored, unexplained thoughts?

The Odyssey: Proteus is a sea-god, and is named ‘The Old Man of the Sea’ by Homer. He is a shape-shifter and insightful about the future.

  • He had come nearer the edge of the sea and wet sand slapped his boots. The new air greeted him, harping in wild nerves, wind of wild air of seeds of brightness. Again, the language is fantastic, these are sentences to be read aloud. I read this part whilst sitting in a windowless room, so was overcome with wanting to go walking out on the sand with the wind whipping around. If there is lots of writing like this in the rest of Ulysses I’ll be really pleased.
  • His shadow lay over the rocks as he bent, ending. Why not endless till the farthest star? Darkly they are there behind this light, darkness shining in the brightness, delta of Cassiopeia, worlds. Me sits there with his augur’s rod of ash, in borrowed sandals, by day beside a livid sea, unbeheld, in violet night walking beneath a reign of uncouth stars. I throw this ended shadow from me, manshape ineluctable, call it back. Endless, would it be mine, form of my form? Hmmm….
All good fun so far. Who would have guessed?

All Quiet on the Western Front: War Books [3/15]

Now he is lying there – and for what reason? Everybody in the whole world ought to be made to walk past his bed and be told: ‘This is Franz Kemmerich, he’s nineteen and a half, and he doesn’t want to die! Don’t let him die!

All Quiet on the Western Front is a book that never loses force. Originally I was only going to read war books I hadn’t read before but why leave out the best? I have read this book before and am pleased to report that it is still just as devastating and worthwhile the second time around. I’m quite confident that by the end of this reading project I will still recommend this book as the one to read.

I won’t go into the plot, because I’m sure everyone knows the story: German soldier fighting on the Western front in WWI. The fact that the novel is about German soldiers highlights why we should commemorate all the soldiers who died in the war, not just the ones from our own country. The most important part of the book is that you could be reading about any soldier from either side. This post is heavy on the quotes because Remarque’s writing is somehow both horrific and beautiful, and puts into words what I couldn’t begin to articulate.

Paul Baumer is just about as experienced as you can manage to be for a front line soldier, which makes it easy to forget that he is only nineteen. During the battles he fights instinctively, acts compassionately, appears fearless. It isn’t until after the fighting stops that I remembered how young and destroyed he really is:

The trucks roll monotonously onwards, the shouts are monotonous , the falling rain is monotonous. It falls on our heads and on the heads of the dead men up at the front of the truck, on the body of the little recruit with a wound that is far too big for his hip, it’s falling on Kemmerich’s grave and it’s falling in our hearts.

That is the quote I remember best from reading this book a few years ago. It completely captures the sheer despair and futility of these soldiers prolonging their lives. Yes, they can survive one battle but in order to face what? Paul and his comrades occasionally talk about what they would do if the war finishes and the answers tend to revolve around satisfying the body; girls, food, alcohol, sleep. Any discussion beyond that is depressing; they are the lost generation and they know it.

We’re no longer young men. We’ve lost any desire to conquer the world. We are refugees. We are fleeing from ourselves. From our lives. We were eighteen years old, and we had just begun to love the world and to love being in it; but we had to shoot at it. The first shell to land went straight for our hearts. We’ve been cut off from real action, from getting on, from progress. We don’t believe in those things anymore; We believe in the war.

The absorption of young men’s lives into the war is something I don’t always consider when thinking about war novels. Yes, most of their time is taken up with fighting and whilst they get leave to see their families perhaps this isn’t the relief you might have thought it was. The soldiers think about home with nostalgia – firmly anchored in the past:

The [memories] are silent because that is something incomprehensible to us. There is no silence at the front and the spell of the front is so strong that we are never away from it. […] The quietness is the reason why all these images awaken in us not so much desire as sadness – a vast and inexplicable melancholy. These scenes existed once – but they will never return. They are gone, they are another world, a world that is in the past for us.

Surprisingly some of the most upsetting parts of the novel happen when Paul is at home on leave. The soldiers have an unspoken, unanimous decision to never reveal the reality of what happens at the front to their families. Consequently Paul has to see and do horrible things and never speak of them to anyone who cares about him, which makes for agonising reading. Is it better that his family didn’t know what his life had become? Does morale win wars or prolong them?

Can there ever be a novel that should be required for everyone to read? Are the World Wars a Western concern? Completely simplifying what could be a lengthy argument, my opinion is that war is war and everyone should know what it really costs.

Fish, he said softly, aloud, I’ll stay with you until I am dead

Designed by Chris Wharton

If you’d asked me to read a hundred pages about fishing, I would have laughed. But Ernest Hemingway’s hundred pages about fishing are like nobody else’s. The Old Man and the Sea is a literary work of genius where Hemingway shows himself to be a master of his craft. In A Moveable Feast he talks about the work involved in writing, making sure every word counts: this story is the proof of it. I can’t imagine anything that would improve it.

The old man is a fisherman in Havana who has gone eighty five days without catching a fish. A bit of a laughingstock, he sails in search of the ‘big fish’ he feels fated to catch. The story is mostly told by the old man speaking aloud to himself, and the fish, and is very descriptive about the tides, the lines, the bait. I was surprised at how interesting it all was – I love being by the sea but fishing is never something that has struck me as interesting before. I think it’s a testament to the skill of the storyteller. If you (like me) have never thought of fishing as beautiful before then imagine reading about it in language like this:

He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine. They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

A lot of his writing is informative, very matter of fact, so how does it come to be so beautiful? Perhaps it is the way the story becomes representative of grander ideas, like heroism and the grief that comes with destruction. The man and the fish are treated as equal and respectful adversaries. The old fisherman is quite philosophical:

It is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.

I really enjoyed this book because of its weightiness. Fishing is the old man’s life but also his burden. The struggle to kill the big fish is necessary but full of sadness. Nobody can write like Hemingway. NOBODY! Try reading this book and not being moved. This is my favourite part:

He no longer dreamed of storms, nor of women, nor of great occurrences, nor of great fish, nor fights, nor contests of strength, nor of his wife. He only dreamed of places now and the lions on the beach. They played like young cats in the dusk and he loved them as he loved the boy. He never dreamed about the boy. He simply woke, looked out the open door at the moon and unrolled his trousers and put them on.

Hemingway’s writing has a quality to it that really moves the reader, whether describing Paris in the 1920s or a Havana fisherman. I’m looking forward to reading more Hemingway to try to pin down the indescribable: I love his writing, I just don’t understand why.

Look at Me! The Author!

A Classics Club achievement – another Wilkie Collins completed. After loving The Woman in White I moved onto The Moonstone and I now appreciate why Collins is accredited with being the father of the detective novel. It’s a little bit of a tie as to which was my favourite because there were parts of both books that I enjoyed. With The Woman in White it was the characters and the atmosphere that captivated me, but The Moonstone was completely plot driven.

The Moonstone is about an Indian diamond that goes missing after a dinner party, but it goes much further than a classic whodunit! There are some great characters, particularly the ones languishing away with unrequited love, but I didn’t get attached to them like I did with characters in The Woman in White. However, this was a really enjoyable book that kept me guessing  all the way through (I didn’t work it out).

Wilkie Collins is an author who always draws the reader’s attention to his purpose. The Dead Secret was an experiment in what happens to the reader when they are told the plot twists at the beginning of the book, before the characters are. In The Woman in White Collins wanted to ‘trace the influences of circumstance upon character’, whereas the purpose was the opposite in The Moonstone – how characters shape circumstance. I thought it was quite witty the way different narrators appeared as the ‘author’:

Here follows the substance of what I said, written out entirely for your benefit. Pay attention to it, or you will be all abroad when we get deeper into the story. Clear your mid of the children, or the dinner, or the new bonnet, or what not. Try if you can’t forget politics, horses, prices in the City, and grievances at the club. I hope you won’t take this freedom on my part amiss; it’s only a way I have of appealing to the gentle reader. Lord! Haven’t I seen you with the greatest authors in your hands, and don’t I know how ready your attention is to wander when it’s a book that asks for it, instead of a person?

I think the self-consciousness of the book makes reading it feel a bit like going to a murder mystery party: You and a group of people are dressed up and acting out parts and you have an influence over the outcome.

Even whilst writing this post I’ve been umm-ing and ah-ing about which I preferred… I think it is The Woman in White, but only just.

Little Dickens

Little Dorrit really was a book of two halves. I started Book The First: Poverty back in January. I got to the end, put the book down, and left it on my bedside table for two months. Then, earlier this week, I picked it up partly out of guilt and partly as a desire for spring cleaning. This was a winter book and it isn’t winter anymore. Actually I could have pretended this was the plan all along as it turned out quite nicely – Book The Second: Riches was a completely different read greatly improved by a change of scenery.

This is a novel  about the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, where Little Dorrit grows up after her father was imprisoned. Dickens was quite clearly against these institutions and is very sympathetic towards those in debt. Reading descriptions of people’s lives in there was quite touching, especially when there are so many comparisons with people’s situations today:

We are quiet here; we don’t get badgered here; there’s no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring a man’s heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man’s at home, and to say he’ll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money, to this place. It’s freedom, sir, it’s freedom!

I suppose parts of this sound similar to Bleak House, although that was concerned with poverty through inheritance, a lot of the events of the book were motivated by people’s chasing money. This isn’t the part of Little Dorrit that really grabbed me. Instead, it was the odd sensation of not quite understanding what was happening whilst being insanely annoyed about missing bits. A lot of this novel is about misunderstandings and being talked out of things. One of my favourite, heart wrenching kind of moments, is this:

If Clenman had not decided against falling in love with Pet; if he had had the weakness to do it; if he had, little by little, persuaded himself to set all the earnestness of his nature, all the might of his hope, and all the wealth of his matured character, on that cast; if he had done this, and found that all was lost; he would have been, that night, utterly miserable. As it was –
As it was, the rain fell heavily, drearily.

Starting Book The Second made me remember that there are many weird things going on in Little Dorrit. Instead of trying to understand them in the first book, I decided to ignore them. As a result of this, I spent a lot of time frantically turning pages trying to work out why it wasn’t making any sense. I’m intrigued whether this has happened to anyone else who has read Little Dorrit, or if it is just me (like I unfortunately suspect it might be): Did the dreams of Mrs. Flintwinch make any sense to you? Luckily, I had a kind friend to explain them to me but I fear it was too late! If you haven’t read this book think doppelgängers, secrets in boxes, hearing ghosts in old houses and alternate realities. But all wrapped up in a cloud of normality.

All in all, Little Dorrit was really hard work. The first half didn’t leave me wanting more and the second half confused me beyond all measure. It was challenging, had really excellent characters and once the finer points were explained to me I could appreciate its cleverness. Having a two month gap in between parts might not have helped me pick up the subtler details but I think I would have hated this book if I hadn’t. The general experience, good and bad, can be summed up in this quote:

Affrey, like greater people, had always been right in her facts, and always wrong in the theories she deduced from them.

Wise, very wise, Mr. Dickens.

Clarissa, Letters 31 – 80

Letters 31 – 80, March 13th – April 5th

For had they not been imposed upon her by nature, when she was in a perverse humour, or could she have chosen her relations, would any of these have been among them?

I stuck to my guns and didn’t start a new book until I had caught up with some Clarissa. As long as the dates in the novel don’t overtake the actual date I’ve decided that means I’m doing alright. As ever, plot discussion and spoilers are limited to the next paragraph only.

This section contains the first of Lovelace’s letters. He claims extravagantly to be in love with Clarissa, but his previous character of a universal lover haunts him. We can gather that Clarissa is a prize rather than a wife and the pleasure of the catch is heightened by his dislike of her family and an opportunity to get one up on them. Clarissa tries to appeal to her uncles for help but they are a united front, rallying with her family. They assume she is rejecting their choice of husband as she only wants Mr. Lovelace. Clarissa claims to prefer Lovelace, but only because Solmes is such a bad match for her in terms of education and interests, she sticks to her previous assertion that she would rather remain single than marry either of them. After visits from various relatives, she is told she will be carried off to her Uncle’s house (complete with moat!) and married like it or not the following week. After offering to give up her inheritance, her parents then decide she can remain at home for a week as long as she spends one hour in Solmes’ company. Obviously this goes horribly, lots of shouting and weeping, for some reason Solmes thinks this is some kind of coyness and will continue his suit. Clarissa is to prepare for immediate travel whilst attempting to flee to stay with Anna Howe.

– Spoilers over! –

After such a long break from this book I initially had the same language struggles as I did at the beginning. But after some fair few pages, I got back into the swing of things. I find it difficult to compare Clarissa to modern novels, I suppose because writing letters to people is not the same activity it was in the 1700s. Considering it is a book filled with people writing incredibly long letters to (in many cases) people in the same house as them, it is actually quite exciting!

Now that I am a bit further into it, the characters are starting to gain more shape. As the tension increases, so does their passion, and the debates take on a more philosophical context. Richardson doesn’t shy away from discussing the different statuses of men and women or brothers and sisters. For a male writer in the 1700s when women were more of a margin, a commodity, his treatment of what marriage would be like for a young girl is surprisingly sensitive:

Once more, let me repeat, that this is not a small point to give up: and that it is for life. Why, I pray you, good sir, should I be made miserable for life? […] Marriage is a very solemn engagement, enough to make a young creature’s heart ache, with the best prospects, when she thinks seriously of it! – To be given up to a strange man; to be engrafted into  strange family; to give up her very name, as a mark of her becoming his absolute and dependent property: to be obliged to prefer this strange man to father, mother – to everybody: and his humours to all her own […] Surely, sir, a young creature ought not to be obliged to make all these sacrifices but fo such a man as she can approve. If she is, how sad must be the case! – how miserable the life, if to be called life!

Great paragraph, no? I’m certainly pleased I won’t be marrying an eighteenth century man.

In the last part of this commentary, I wasn’t enamoured with Clarissa herself: This has changed somewhat, as her arguments develop from the initial I just don’t want to. I have enjoyed the introduction of her Uncles, as they make me sympathise more with her parents views than I did at first.

Yes, I’m happy to have picked this back up. On a less serious subject of reading I have rewarded myself for all this Clarissa-ing by reading The Hunger Games trilogy. It isn’t a classic in a historical sense, but I may have to post about them because I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying them! Watch this space.

The Gospel According to Julian Barnes: What to do with Bibliomaniacs

Once the collector has grasped that ”completeness” is an illusion, that bibliomania is neither rational nor purposeful, and that your gentle hobby is a ruthless life’s quest, you may even be ready for a further timid step on the path to enlightenment. This consists of admitting that the volumes you have diligently acquired over decades do not logically, necessarily, morally or any other way have to stay acquired. This will seem pitifully obvious to outsiders, but not to many book-collectors.

– Cool, Calm and Collecting, Julian Barnes, The Sunday Times.

This was about to go in my next post, but in the end I felt it was so wise that it needed a page all to itself.