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Saturday, January 21, 2017
Observations from my weekly wanderings, usually in Northern Virginia (NOVA).
I began reading Les Misérables; I’m only about 100 pages in, of 1300, but it’s very good so far.
But I must say that title is a terrible misnomer. Why Victor Hugo named it Less Miserable – silly French spelling aside – I’ll never know. I can’t imagine anything MORE miserable. It’s the story of poor Jean Valjean and I definitely think More Miserable would have been a better title.
Nevertheless, I’m using NOVA this week to display my Christmas gift from my son and daughter-in-law:
A two-volume, 1938 Heritage Press, Heritage Club edition of Les Misérables, illustrated by Lynd Ward and translated by Lascelles Wraxall. It is in nearly new condition and has the original slip case. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I have a hardcover edition of every book I’ve read on my quest, but this is now one of my most treasured.
(stealing the fateful loaf of bread)
(People don’t always get my sense of humor, and I’m sure it’s less obvious in print – so, I know the title is not Less Miserable.)
Monday, January 16, 2017
The Tempest was one of Shakespeare’s final plays, believed to have been written 1610-1611. It is the tale of Propspero the rightful Duke of Milan, who was supplanted by his brother Antonio, with help from the King of Naples Alonzo, and the King's brother Sebastian.
Prospero, along with his infant daughter Miranda, are set adrift at sea. Uknown to any of their betrayers, they land on an enchanted isle, where Prospero learns sorcery, and is aided by airy spirits on the island and the deformed and treacherous son of a witch who previously inhabited the island.
Some years later – I’m sure it gives the specific time span but I’ve forgotten, Miranda was three when they were exiled and is now a beautiful young woman – some years later fate brings a ship bearing all the betrayers close to the island, and Propsero conjurs – a tempest – to drive them ashore.
Now, you had to know, since I mentioned Miranda being a beautiful young woman that someone is going to fall in love with her. Indeed, none other than Ferdinand the son of the king.
Propspero, with the aid of his chief spirit, Ariel, separates the castaways into various groups and adventures.
This is a comedy, not a tragedy. In the end, Prospero forgives all his betrayers and all sail for Naples, anticipating the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand.
I’d like to see this performed – you know, as plays are meant to be experienced. Still it reads pretty easy, once you have the characters memorized.
As in most of Shakespeare’s works, there are phrases taken from this play that have made their way into 21st Century vernacular.
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows
We are such stuff as dreams are made of
And of particular note, when Miranda sees all the handsome young men, a sight she has never seen before, she remarks: O Brave New World that hath such people in ‘t!
From which Aldous Huxley derived the name of his 1931 novel.
From which Aldous Huxley derived the name of his 1931 novel.
Sunday, January 15, 2017
When Milly smiled it was a public event – when she didn’t it was a chapter of history.
This is the second novel I’ve read by Henry James and the first time I’ve read The Wings of the Dove. It is a third person narrative, realist novel, set in London, England and Venice Italy, turn of the 19th century. Milly Theale, an American heiress, is a central person, but the main characters are truly Merton Densher and Kate Croy – two English lovers who are secretly and hopelessly engaged – hopeless due to lack of fortune and family demands.
I didn’t like this novel, for the same reasons I didn’t like my other experience with Henry James, (The Ambassadors): pretentious dialogue, insipid characters, and failure to captivate with the magnificent setting: Venice in this case, Paris in The Ambassadors. I’ve been to both cities, and had hoped to be swept back there, but no. The greatest disappointment though was a poor telling of an intriguing premise.
My rating: 2 1/2 of 5 stars
This novel satisfies item #9: A classic that includes the name of an animal in the title, of the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.
As I say, I thought the premise was promising. First, there is Kate Croy, from a family of some distinction, ruined by the indiscretion or ineptitude of her father. She is taken in by her Aunt Maude Lowder if she will but have nothing to do with her father.
Well, that is not the only condition. Aunt Maud as benefactress is now entitled to meddle and she does not approve of Kate’s love, Merton Densher, a newspaperman of no distinction and little means.
Enter Milly Theale, a charming American heiress who is smitten with Mr. Densher. In spite of this, and because Kate must keep her love for Merton secret, Milly and Kate become fast friends. Milly confides, vaguely, of a serious illness. Kate is convinced Milly is going to die – and
And – terrible wheels start turning in Kate’s desperate head. She intends to encourage Milly’s affection for Merton, and encourage Merton to encourage it – in hopes that – well Merton put it quite simply when he finally caught on…
Since she’s to die I’m to marry her?
Merton reluctantly agrees, but only after obtaining a pledge from Kate that she give herself to him. She does, so Merton acquiesces.
Merton’s a sap by the way. He actually has four women helping him make love to Milly: Kate as I’ve explained, Aunt Maud because she thinks it takes him out of Kate’s prospect, Milly’s companion Mrs. Stringham who thinks love may save Milly, and of course Milly herself. Merton describes his situation:
He was glad there was no male witness; it was a circle of petticoats; he shouldn’t have liked a man to see him.
Then, there was this awful, poignant moment for Kate:
…her eyes…half-filled with tears from some source he had too roughly touched. “I’m taking a trouble for you I never dreamed I should take for any human creature.”
And the awful plan begins to unfold. No spoiler, but you know an awful plan must have some awful consequence.
I didn’t dislike this novel, because of the awful plan or consequence. Indeed, I thought it was an intriguing dilemma. I enjoy reading about moral ambiguity, moral dilemma, and what decent, desperate people can be driven to, and the consequence. I just think this was a promising story, badly told.
I hate to say it, after all, who am I to critique Henry James, thrice nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature.
But I’m sticking to it. My main complaint, just like in The Ambassadors, James loves to use his characters to tell us how fascinating the other characters are – but the narrative does not make them fascinating at all.
For example, Mrs. Stringham describes a fairly minor character:
He’s not like any one you’ve ever seen. He’s a great beneficent being.
I read this as James pleading with readers – “trust me, he’s really fascinating!”
At other times, James’ narrative is pretentious and nearly indecipherable. The opening to one chapter:
A prime reason, we must add, why sundry impressions were not to be fully present to the girl till later on was that they yielded at this stage, with an effect of sharp supersession, to a detached quarter of an hour – her only - with Lord Mark.
Couldn’t just say – Milly did not immediately understand the situation because she was distracted by her one brief conversation with Lord Mark.
The ending saved this a little. It wasn’t what I expected and it wasn’t happily ever after, but I thought it fitting.
If not for my quest, I’d probably be finished with Henry James. I’m still holding out hope though. I’ve read that he has three distinct styles, from three different writing periods, and so far I've only ready his later works.
We’re doing our best for her. We’re making her want to live. ~ Kate Croy to Merton Densher
Naturally I can but try. Only, you see, one has to try a little hard to propose to a dying girl. Merton Densher to Kate Croy
In the narrative, Henry James makes several references to other authors: Guy de Maupassant, William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, or specific characters from other novels: Nicholas Nickleby, Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Micawber. I like it when authors do that.