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

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

moscowI just finished reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. The novel becomes dramatic within the first few pages, though it takes 100 or so more before it arrives at the central drama of the book.

He includes so many details of the moral life and illustrates them well: habits, virtues and vices; passions, joy, sorrow, anger; jealousy, bitterness, regret; emotions quick and enduring, reasonable and ungrounded; friendships and family relations; men and women, children and parents; the effects of work and of play; faith and doubt, divine and human faith, superstition, ritual; the importance of place, home; thought, intellectual ambition, intellectual despair; contradiction among persons, contradiction within oneself, contradiction with society; death and birth; money, luxury, necessity; the tension between physical beauty and moral goodness.

But when I finished the book, I was disappointed by how it ended. It seems it could have ended the same way much sooner, and it wouldn’t have made a great difference. (I would contrast this with Middlemarch by George Eliot, where I don’t think the novel could have ended anywhere else than where it actually ended.) I could say more about his approach to religion, which I found quite true to reality at the beginning, but a bit superficial and moralizing by the end. Beyond anything, Tolstoy excels at showing the effects of sin, both internally and externally, and in the effect it has on others. Perhaps I did not like the later parts of the book because he does this too well.

[This book is #9 on my Classics List.]