Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Tag: The Classics Club

Fields and Forests Bare: A Reader’s Update and Returning to Wildfell

IMG_0296-0.JPG

After a series of reading misadventures I return to old reading habits, revisiting the Brontës like you would old friends. This week I will be rereading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. When I last read it back in 2011 (how time flies!) I loved Anne immediately. I’ve since reread Wuthering Heights and continued to adore it, but have never returned to Anne Brontë until now.

I’ve read the first couple of chapters this afternoon and there has already been a subversive feminist Victorian discussion concerning male and female upbringing:

You affirm that virtue is only elicited by temptation; – and you think that a woman cannot be too little exposed to temptation, or too little acquainted with vice, or anything connected therewith – It must be, either, that you think she is essentially vicious, or feeble-minded that she cannot withstand temptation, – and though she may be pure and innocent as long as she is kept in ignorance and restraint, yet, being destitute of real virtue, to teach her how to sin is at once to make her a sinner, and the greater her knowledge, the wider her liberty, the deeper will be her depravity.

I couldn’t read this without thinking about poor Clarissa Harlowe. I look forward to judging the rogue in this novel, now that I have read Clarissa – the battle for the worst husband in literature begins.

In other reading news, I read The Castle of Otranto over Halloween and hated it. I was really surprised, with my usual love of the gothic novel. I had a particularly badly formatted edition which didn’t help. But if you’ve read it – please tell me what you thought of it. I have managed to find a couple of contemporary novels which I would highly recommend: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (the greatest twist, completely fascinating, best read if you know nothing about it) and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (WWII novel with utterly heartbreakingly beautiful writing).

Finally, the classics spin has come around again, this was my list:
1. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
2. The Monk, Matthew Lewis
3. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
4. The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Bosewell
5. Vilette, Charlotte Brontë
6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
7. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
8. La Regenta, Leopoldo Alas
9. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence
10. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett
11. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
12. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
13. The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling, Henry Fielding
14. Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome
15. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
16. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
17. Ivanhoe, Walter Scott
18. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
19. Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott
20. Pamela, Samuel Richardson

So I will be reading The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling by Henry Fielding by January 5th. What did you get in the spin? Does anyone want to read along with me?

Hope you have all had a great weekend, I spent today stomping around in the mud with my friend whilst wearing inappropriate footwear. For now, back to the ragged rocks of Wildfell Hall.

Advertisements

Bloom, Odysseus, Molly and Me

I put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.

I have journeyed through Ulysses and have lived to tell the tale! This book is nothing but filled with highs and lows. The beginning and ending of the book are amongst the best of any book I have read, but the middle was a winding, secret path full of language and styles that I couldn’t quite grasp.

Ulysses has been described as a modernist thesaurus of possibility which, I think, says it all. When I think of Modernism, I think of Joyce and Woolf striving to write individual subjective experiences. They aren’t like Austen or Eliot whose narrators understand and interpret the world for the reader. But modernism is also a break from past traditions of culture, as well as writing; sexuality, humour, frankness, city scenes, consumerism and so on. What a revolution reading this book would be, if you had never even considered the possibility of a book capturing someone’s thoughts and listening to those thoughts as they come sprawling through white noise. To be able to read a book that represented your own life.

I think what made Ulysses a scandal is the same thing that makes it readable (in parts). For every classical allusion, there is a joke. There are crude bits, bodily bits, bawdy bits, rude bits. It is frank, honest, and real. Whilst these are things today’s reader can appreciate – I suppose because we have conversations that are all of those things – early readers found the novel depressing and chaotic. I wonder what people will make of it in the future? Imagine Ulysses being quaint and outmoded!

The sentences I really loved were the descriptive ones: Joyce certainly is a master of language. I wasn’t expecting to find sentences like the ones I quoted from Telemachus in a book like this one. And I’ll just mention again how great Molly’s soliloquy is… just so you know I really mean it. IT’S WORTH IT. When I read that episode I wished there had been more of her in the book, but I don’t think the chapter would have had such an impact. It’s impossible to think of ways Ulysses would have been improved, because every little detail that I didn’t like makes the book the book it is. For example, I didn’t like some of the styles Joyce used because I found them confusing, but if you take the experimental parts away then it just wouldn’t be the same.

I would recommend reading The Odyssey first, or at least try looking into the incidents that Joyce names his episodes after. According to Joyce, Odysseus was the greatest character in literature and Charles Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses was a massive influence. This version of The Odyssey splits the story into individual tales, much like the structure of Ulysses itself. Leopold Bloom and Odysseus are, on the surface, very different people. The absolute ordinariness of Bloom’s day – and the book – meant (I think) that any man’s day is an Odyssey. The puzzles and enigmas referred to in the book aren’t always the classical, mythological, high brow references you might think – you can look those up, after all. The puzzles and difficult parts often occur from ordinary circumstances (like the horse race that confused me so greatly). To fully understand anyone’s life, any person’s thoughts is tricky.

All in all, its been good to read a book I was afraid of. I was taken on a voyage through Dublin, through the history of language, through style and thought and description. Reading Ulysses was my very own Odyssey.

Goodbye To All That: War Books [5/15]

I am so pleased to have finally read this book, I loved it, and reading it after All Quiet on the Western Front was perfect timing. Robert Graves’ autobiography is totally gripping and completely different to what I was expecting – Goodbye To All That covers the horrors of war in a really cold, detached way. The opposite of Remarque’s emotional prose, but just as moving. A real testament to how good this autobiography is: even the beginning was interesting. Normally, I’m not a fan of the first few chapters of biographies, but Graves writing made me interested in everything he had to say. His childhood seemed to be a quintessentially English upper class one, although a boys boarding school seemed to be not without its own problems! This was so readable because of the immediacy, his memories are very clear and honest.

Graves spent his army life as an Officer, mostly at the front, until he was wounded. There are the horrible scenes you would come to expect in a truthful account of the trenches but the part that separated this for me was his thoughts about the continuation of the war past 1916.

We no longer saw the war as one between trade-rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.

What has made this book stand out from the other war books I have read so far, is that the book continues after the war. I suppose because there was a future for Graves, although it wasn’t the one he may have thought about as a young man prior to his army life. I really enjoyed reading about his marriage to Nancy, a feminist quite ahead of her time! His life as a poet also meant he was meeting a lot of writers who we now regard as iconic, like Siegfried Sassoon, T. E. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. A really sad part towards the end is when Graves mentions losing his son in the Second World War. As his generation becomes the elders, his children suffer the same horrors.

A Farewell to Arms: War Books [2/15]

I picked A Farewell to Arms to follow Birdsong because I thought the two books would be quite different. Hemingway is writing in part from his own experiences as an American soldier in the Italian army who whilst fighting for the same side is likely to have faced different situations from an English soldier in France. There were great differences in the authors’ writing styles. Hemingway is cold and clinical with description whereas Faulks does not shy away from long descriptive passages. I thought both books were very moving, but for different reasons: I knew the characters in Birdsong, I was attached to them, and I was given a lot of sensory detail about their situations. A Farewell to Arms was completely different: The matter of fact way that Hemingway describes events makes reading them feel like you are being punched in the stomach.

What made this book stand out for me against other WWI novels was its portrayal of the relationship between Catherine and Henry. Unlike Stephen and Isabelle in Birdsong, romance was flesh and blood in this soldier’s life and not just a haunting memory. However, I’m struggling to work out what Hemingway means by writing women the way he does. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that Catherine was the weak link in A Farewell to Arms and I think I’m inclined to agree. She seems to be slightly unnatural, maybe a bit one-dimensional. What is she really like? I’ve no idea.

The last thing I picked up on when I read A Farewell to Arms was how many soldiers died outside the battlefield. They were shot by superiors, caught the flu, starved, or succumbed to medical complications. Death takes on a completely different meaning during wartime and the grim reality of dying seems to spiral out of control.

What makes this such a worthy war novel is the ending.

DON’T READ THIS LAST BIT IF YOU DON’T LIKE SPOILERS:

Catherine and the baby dying hammers home the message that no good has come of this war. No new life, no regeneration – what has been destroyed by war will always have been destroyed. If Henry had gone on to live a happy life with wife and child the book wouldn’t have been the same at all – you can’t un-see things, you can’t undo war.

Birdsong: War Books [1/15]

The reading project has officially begun: I am reading the WWI books first, and have started with Birdsong  by Sebastian Faulks.

Birdsong  is written with three story lines that intertwine: It begins in 1910 with a love affair, travels underneath the trenches over 1916-1918, and ends with a granddaughter in the 1970s. From reading around, this book seems to be one that divides opinion. However, I loved it and think it is a very accomplished modern story about the war.

I was surprised when the book began with a budding relationship but I think it helped to understand the characters before they were thrown into some very extreme circumstances. Giving an insight into people’s lives before the war helped me to imagine the sort of thing men might have been fighting for and I liked how Faulks included the men’s letters home. What separates this novel from others I have read before was the focus on the tunnels underneath no man’s land. There were miners on the British and German sides tunneling towards each other with mines to plant. Reading these parts of the book was so uncomfortable – Faulks is really good at making you feel completely claustrophobic.

There is a really moving paragraph written about the aftermath of Battle of the Somme:

Stephen had noticed nothing but the silence that followed the guns. Now, as he listened, he could hear what Weir had meant: it was a low, continuous moaning. He could not make out any individual pain, but the sound ran down to the river on their left and up over the hill for half a mile or more. As his ear became used to the absence of guns, Stephen could hear it more clearly: it sounded to him as though the earth itself was groaning.

‘Oh God, oh God.’ Weir began to cry. ‘What have we done, what have we done? Listen to it. We’ve done something terrible, we’ll never get back to how it was before.’

The book, like All Quiet on the Western Front, contrasts the fighting on the battlefields with elements of nature like the birds singing. I think this technique is so effective because it highlights war as an aberration in nature. It is these bits that stick in my mind as being particularly sad.

The only part of the book I wasn’t too keen on was the 1970s story. In it, Elizabeth is starting to learn about her family history around wartime. It seemed almost false, because Elizabeth seems to be pretty stupid – I mean, we learned about WWI at school, surely they did in the seventies as well? On the other hand, whilst I know bits about the war and have visited some of the battlefields in France and Belgium, I don’t know as much about what my own great grandparents did. This is something I would like to find out more about.

Next I am moving on to another WWI classic: A Farewell to Arms.

Now the Sun is Finally Shining, How About Some Books About War?

After my Tudor reading, I fancy a mini reading project based around War literature. There are obviously lots of brilliant books about a lot of wars around the world so I’ve narrowed my selection down to books written about WWI and WWII, as I find this period of history interesting.

I’ve picked eight books that are all on my Classics Club list. Two birds, one stone and all that, and this way I can also stick to my attempt to stop buying new books and read the ones I already have.

  • Faulks, Sebastian, Birdsong
  • Gibbons, Stella, Westwood
  • Graves, Robert, Goodbye To All That
  • Grossman, Vasily, Life and Fate
  • Hemingway, Ernest, A Farewell to Arms
  • Nemirovsky, Irene, Suite Française
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, Cat’s Cradle
  • Wells, H. G., The War of the Worlds

And will add to this list some novels written recently:

  • Beauman, Ned, Boxer Beetle 
  • Hollinghurst, Alan, The Stranger’s Child
  • Kerr, Philip, Berlin Noir
  • Littell, Jonathan, The Kindly Ones
  • Young, Louisa, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You

So, thirteen books, six about the WWI and seven about WWII. I could read them chronologically, I could read the modern novels separately, I might read the two science fiction novels together. I’m not sure I’ll manage to read all of these in a row – I have an unspecified timeframe, but as you know I chop and change what my reading plans are whenever I feel like it. But if this works, I have similar lists for projects that I could start. I’m looking at you, gigantic stack of Edwardian novels…

The books have been moved to their new home – in an oppressive stack next to my bed. I’m feeling quite enthusiastic – it’ll be brilliant to have read all of these books. I am also quite curious to see if any of them will replace my current (I’m not sure ‘favourite’ is the right word) most admired war novel: All Quiet on the Western Front. If any of them even come close, I’ll be onto a winner because that book is truly astounding. Actually, make that fourteen books because I’ll have to re-read this one too.

Edit: I’ve just managed to get hold of a copy of Regeneration by Pat Barker so now there are fifteen books!

Reading Schedules and Other Misadventures

I haven’t been posting very much because I have spent my time (productively) reading – probably one of my better excuses! I had three books to tackle for specific dates but I had forgotten how plans are more fun to make than to follow. The last eleven days or so have been working to this list:

  • Clarissa, Letters 81-160, by April 30th, so as to not get left behind
  • As I Lay Dying, for a book club meeting tomorrow
  • Wolf Hall, by today, ready for the release of Bring Up the Bodies tomorrow

I’ve done it! The April chunk of Clarissa was finished at about 11.30pm on April 30th, I finished As I Lay Dying exactly a week ago, and I finished Wolf Hall about half an hour ago. Hurrah, now some writing to wind down / wrap up. Please excuse the mingling of books: I can’t face writing three separate posts.

Clarissa, Letters 81 – 160, April 6th – April 30th

Clarissa is finally out of the house! She had been kept inside being a disappointment to her family since I began the book back in January, which is a claustrophobic kind of feeling that I think I would have missed if I hadn’t been reading along with the dates. I don’t think I’d have been a very patient correspondent though, her attitude towards Lovelace and her tendency to miss what seems (to the modern reader) incredibly obvious is frustrating to say the least. I’m actually quite pleased to have a scoundrel in the book because otherwise the sheer good-naturedness of Clarissa herself would be a little too hard to bear. I’m pleased that there is a bit more action, but I think I need to devote a little bit more time to this book before it turns into a chore. Maybe I’m just not cut out for two timing my books!

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

This is my second read of Wolf Hall: I loved it the first time, but I adore it so much more now. I’m really glad I read this book again, not just so I’ll know where the second book will be picking up from, but because I got so much more from it. Yes, there were still a bajillion characters called Thomas but I was ready for them. I knew they were hiding in the woodwork so they didn’t catch me unaware.

I felt I really got to grips with the detail of the book and picked up on parts that completely overwhelmed me during my first read. There was more humour, more memories, more texture than I remembered from last time. I could just ramble about how brilliant a writer Hilary Mantel is – she’s up there as one of my absolute favourites. Read her books! Read them now!

You can have silence full of words. A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shrivelled petal can hold it’s scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners have gone out, can still be loud with ghosts.

Sigh.

The wait is nearly over. Bring Up the Bodies is out tomorrow, I’m SO EXCITED.

In other literary news, I have recently read (although not a classic) The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, and was lucky enough to meet her last week! I solemnly swear to write about it properly very soon. But the book was great and M. L. was lovely and very interesting to talk to.

Umm, What?

I’ve just been reading As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner for a book group: I don’t get it, or particularly like it. This book appears on countless reading lists and William Faulkner is a much admired author and so on but I don’t understand why.

Calling all Faulkner fans! Tell me what I am missing!

I thought I had managed to come to appreciate stream of consciousness novels, but in this one I didn’t really like anyone and I wasn’t ever entirely sure what was happening. Without question, Faulkner dives completely into one character – they all have very distinct and separate voices – I just didn’t manage to catch up.

Things I did like:

  • The atmosphere: the hot days in the fields
  • Images like the buzzards circling over the coffin
  • Vardaman’s mother/fish narration
  • The descriptions of the divide between town and country

Perhaps I needed to read this paying it much more attention, to be honest I have been rushing because I want to get on with re-reading Wolf Hall before Bring Up the Bodies is released on the 10th. When it comes to reading ‘classics’ I have a tendency to think I should enjoy them, or at least be able to appreciate why other people enjoy them. They are classics for a reason, after all.

So if you’ve read this or any other Faulkner novels I want to be corrected! Tips for reading, what you love best about his writing, what you think I should pay more attention to… It will be very welcome.

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.

Madness Lies in the Woods

What a writer. This is the second novel by Shirley Jackson that I have read and both have left me completely chilled. Read this or The Haunting of Hill House if you can get your hands on a copy. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about two sisters (Merricat and Constance) living alone in their family home. The remaining family members are all dead, in circumstances unexplained. The house lies on the outskirts of a particularly unwelcoming village, bordered by woods. In this dominion the sisters carve out a ritualistic version of family life.

There is a hint of madness throughout the whole book which Jackson never fully explains, of course making the book all the more terrifying. Merricat tells the story with a sinister, matter of fact tone. She frequently mentions that she feels a change coming – in itself not a threat, but in context of the rest if the story it left me dreading what would come next. A lot of the story revolves around the ritualised way the sisters spend their time, described as though they were play acting: Constance was an all-round wife-mother-creator figure, whereas Merricat was a perpetual child-hunter-gatherer-protector. To give you an insight, something that stuck with me was the way Merricat makes a protective ‘charm’ around the house by nailing the treasured possessions of her deceased relatives onto the trees circling it.

I was talking to my Dad about this book and he offered an interesting insight. It was that woods in English and American stories serve a different purpose. In England we like trees; the countryside equals the good life, and woods are synonymous with life and vitality. In American stories woods are often something dark and disturbing, that often hold some ‘otherness’ that threatens everyday life. This is definitely one of those stories.

I can’t say that either of the two Shirley Jackson’s novels I have read would ever be one of my favourite books because they are so disturbing. But I would say she was one of my favourite writers, because she controls the reader like no other author. Enthralling, mysterious, fatal.