Summer reading: Ishiguro, Zola, Nabokov

With six months since my last post, I will combine several titles under a few blog posts. Though I have not written lately, I have not stopped reading!

manuelKazuo Ishiguro: Remains of the Day. I picked up this book at recommendation of blogger, not having ever talked to anyone about this author. Ishiguro was born in Japan but raised entirely in the UK, and the novel reminds one of Downton Abbey with its setting in an upscale house. The story is told by a butler. In some sense, the novel takes place over a weekend as the butler goes to visit an old acquaintance; as he goes, he reflects on his life which turns into flashback that stretch over decades of his service. One of the constant themes is the notion of excellence—what it means to be a butler of distinction—and how this at times seems to conflict with human happiness. I myself wondered how anyone could take so much pride in being a servant without something higher in mind, something beyond this world. One of the sorrows that appears is the fall into disgrace of the master: What can this mean for a servant who has given himself entirely to the service of his master, perhaps without holding any higher ideal?

I enjoyed immensely how the book unfolded. Without any sort of ostentation, the reader arrives at conclusions along with the butler as the book goes on, though perhaps realizing before he does all of the opportunities lost. The emotion it produces is a heavy sort of sorrow, and yet a very quiet one that takes place under a polite smile. I could recommend this book to anyone who wanted a quick read.

degas interior

Émile Zola: Thérèse Raquin. What a wretched book! I was in an airport bookstore and saw this novel which appeared short enough to finish during my flights, and I was planning to read Zola eventually anyway. As far as morals go, I think it is straightforward and true enough: Guilt drives out the pleasure of sin and, indeed, one sin leads to another. Furthermore, when I say it is wretched, I do not mean that it does not accomplish its end well. Zola pulls off the horror well. There is a woman who knows of a horrible crime and is unable to inform anyone due to her inability to move or speak: you feel the horror of the guilty ones who dread the possibility of her divulgence, her despair at being unable to communicate, and the dullness of the persons who suspect nothing. Overall, I do not care for the book. It is too awful for the simple message it advances. As far as problematic literary elements, I found that there was nothing necessary about its ending—it seems the book could have ended just as well at many earlier places, and I don’t see why it could not have gone on. I have not yet recommended this to anyone.


Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire. This book was recommended to me about a year ago in a book store. In general, I have had little interest in Nabokov, finding the subject of his most popular work repulsive, but I happened to pick this one up in a book store. Looking inside, I surprised to find how the book was structured: it begins with a 999-line poem to which many pages of footnotes follow. And that is the book. That was enough for me to be interested! As I started to read the “footnotes”, I saw that there were three stories unfolding: that of the editor who is the author of the footnotes, that of the poem’s author, and that of the exiled ruler of Zembla who the editor wanted as the subject of the poem “Pale Fire”. Within a few pages, there was a reference to the foreword which I had skipped, so I flipped back before the poem and found that the foreword was also a fiction composed for the work! One of the things that kept the novel interesting was that each “footnote” could be entirely different: sometimes just explaining cultural reference, at other times giving a whole narrative about one or other of the persons involved. The book is funny as well. An example: Since the work is largely a commentary on the poem, the author recommends buying two copies of the book so that you can have one open to the commentary and one open to the poem—a silly recommendation when you can flip back and forth.

Nabokov’s mastery of language comes forth as well. The only evidence that English is his second or third language is the ease which with he makes jokes that cross the boundaries of different languages. To accompany his invented land of Zembla he constructed at least bits of a language called Zemblan, from which he gives occasional etymologies and a few times gives an English translation from the Zemblan version of a Shakespeare play he has lying around (it was either Timon of Athens or Titus Andronicus—I can’t remember, and my copy is on the other side of the world). There are a few needlessly perverse scenes in the book but these aren’t what one remembers after reading: it’s the language, the structure and the intersection of multiple narrative. I highly recommend Pale Fire to anyone who enjoys reading.

[These titles are #21, #22 and #23 on my classic reading challenge.]


Eugénie Grandet: My first Balzac novel

ibalzac001p1Reading Honoré de Balzac, I asked myself the same question I asked upon reading George Eliot, “How is it that no one ever recommended this author to me?” Balzac is one of the great 19th century French authors, considered one of the founders of literary realism, and known for his series of over 90 works called The Human Comedy (La Comédie Humaine). The works in this collection (mostly novels) are divided into sequences which focus on a specific sphere of French life, such his “Scenes of private life” or his “Scenes of Parisian life”. The volume I just completed, Eugénie Grandet, falls into his “Scenes of provincial life”. Upon learning this, I was instantly reminded of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which bears the subtitle A Study of Provincial Life. Continue reading

Mrs. Dalloway: My first Woolf novel

woolfOverall, I did not care for Mrs. Dalloway. First of all, I was surprised by the way it was written, not having read anything about Woolf’s fiction before now. After reading for some time, I noticed that I hadn’t quite taken in what was going on, and one minute we were watching Clarissa prepare for a party, and then without pause, we were watching Septimus and his Italian wife, and there was so much apparent nonsense in between. What was I reading? I had enjoyed A Room of One’s Own (a prose work of Virginia Woolf) but Mrs. Dalloway had none of that work’s clarity or ease. I considered quitting after 30 pages, but a voice encouraged me to continue.

What made the book thoroughly unenjoyable was the meaninglessness of it all and the general unlikableness of any of the characters (with a few exceptions). These are the same reasons why I found The Trial by Kafka or Buddenbrooks by Mann thoroughly unpleasant (again, with a few exceptions). Perhaps one might say that there is much meaning and cleverness in the work if one takes the time to tease it out, but whereas I have a divine guarantee that I will find some fruit in the difficult words of Leviticus or Zechariah, I have no such assurance from Virginia Woolf, and so I do not anticipate returning to the work, at least not until someone has helped me see more clearly what she is trying to do. Continue reading

Overview of 2017 Reading

George_Eliot_by_Samuel_LaurenceBack in April, I started my Classics Challenge—a plan to read 50 classic works over the course of 5 years—but that was not the start of my reading for the year. Here is a quick overview of the books I finished in 2017.

The author that stands out this year is George Eliot. Having discovered Middlemarch in 2016 and loving it, I continued to read George Eliot throughout 2017:

Apart from The Lifted Veil, I could recommend any of these excellent novels. Middlemarch remains my favorite Eliot novel, but Daniel Deronda and Romola are not far behind. In addition to those books by George Eliot, I read 11 other novels in 2017. Helena by Evelyn Waugh

Some of these were excellent:

Some of them were quite good:

Some were good, but not as enjoyable as I had hoped:The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić

And there were a couple that I did not care for at all:

Toward the end of 2016, a classmate started a Shakespeare reading group which gave me occasion to read Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III, as well as the Sonnets. This group continued into 2017 where we read Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1-2, and Henry V. Apart from these plays and poems of Shakespeare, I also read the classic Metamorphoses of Ovid and the modern Rosmersholm of Henrik Ibsen.

mass photo maxThe most momentous event of the year for me was certainly ordination to the priesthood on June 24th, and with this came further reading about the saints and the liturgy. I read the Letters of St. Cyprian, the Lausaic History (about the desert fathers), biographies of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, St. Dominic, Bl. John Henry Newman (both by himself and by another), and a handful of saints canonized in 1881. In the last month of the summer, having said Mass every day for a couple months, I wanted to read more about its history and how the prayers came to be as they are, and found the excellent Organic Development of the Liturgy by Alcuin Reid and Voice of the Church at Prayer by Uwe Michael Lang. Continuing my canon law studies, I have read all sorts of articles and books (in whole and in part) that I won’t list here. All the reading in canon law spurred my interest in other legal works, and so I read Cicero’s Republic and Laws, a huge chunk of Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, and the Qur’an.

This last month, I have almost exclusively read about the history of canon law, especially in the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic tradition. With Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather in my carry-on, I expect to read more literature as 2018 begins!

Felix Holt and the force of beauty

Reni HelenaOnly a couple years before Dostoevsky had Prince Myshkin say “Beauty will save the world”, George Eliot taught this same doctrine in her novel Felix Holt: The Radical. As two of the characters are sitting in leisure, one of them looks to other “very much as a reverential Protestant might look at a picture of the Virgin, with a devoutness suggested by the type than by the image.” He goes on to say:

“I wonder whether the subtle measuring of forces will ever come to measuring the force there would be in one beautiful woman whose mind was as noble as her face was beautiful – who made a man’s passion for her rush in one current with all the great aims of his life. […] You might be that woman I was thinking of a little while ago when I looked at your face: the woman whose beauty makes a great task easier to men instead of turning them away from it. I am not likely to see such fine issues; but they may come where a woman’s spirit is finely touched. I should like to be sure they would come to you.” Continue reading

Newman’s Apologia

newman picJohn Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua is an excellent book that I would not recommend to most people. If I had attempted it in high school, I would have failed. Even if I had tried in college, I suspect I would have received very little benefit from it. But having become acquainted with Newman’s writings and his life, I became very interested in the controversy surrounding his entrance into the Catholic Church, and was very eager to follow the path which eventually led him to Rome.

The work I want to compare the Apologia with right away is St. Augustine’s book of Confessions, and the circumstances occasioning these works are quite different. Continue reading

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

silent planetAfter the receiving many a recommendation and finding the first volume quite short, I finally decided to begin C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. And what an enjoyable read! I did not care for the first 40 or so pages, since they involved unpleasant characters and drawn-out descriptions. The one observation in this first section that encouraged me to continue was that space is not so much space—empty and void—but something full and bright, and that planets are more truly considered dark and void-like. This theme is revisited throughout the book, and I think makes it ironic that the series is called the Space Trilogy, and perhaps why some editions call it rather the Cosmic Trilogy. I am also not so sure I would call it science-fiction, as I would fantasy (or a fairy-tale as Lewis says in the third volume). There are certainly themes and tropes of science-fiction, but no one calls Dante’s Paradiso science-fiction on account of his visiting several planets. So many of the “scientific” bits of the book don’t hold in light of consequent space-exploration, but I don’t think they were all that important for the story anyway. Continue reading