Only 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
John 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
After 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
I 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.]
Another reading blog announced a book club for The Trial by Franz Kafka, and since this book was on my list (and not too long), I decided to pick it up.
Put briefly, I did not like the book. The character were unrealistic and uninteresting, the main character especially did not invite any sympathy whatsoever, and the story does not seem to have any direction worth mentioning. This was my first time reading Kafka in 8 years, having previously read “A Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis”. It might have been my age when reading them, but I remember liking them more, if only because they seemed more true to reality. “A Hunger Artist” displayed the foolishness of priding oneself on some external characteristic or skill—something which may dazzle others one moment, but is just as easily forgotten the next. The “Metamorphosis” uses a mythical plot device to explore awkwardness of a difficult living situation. Both of these stories had a fable-like quality that made them enjoyable, despite their otherwise unpleasant themes. This quality is almost entirely absent in the The Trial. Continue reading
With the completion of Sense and Sensibility, I have now read all of Jane Austen’s major novels! Although it was the last of her novels for me to finish, my first exposure to Jane Austen was actually a 2008 miniseries adaptation of this same novel. Unfortunately, I think knowing how the book was going to end removed some of the excitement that the book would have had if I were hearing the story for the first time. This may seem obvious, but I was pleasantly surprised by how moving it was to read Pride and Prejudice, even though I had previously seen the 1995 miniseries. Continue reading
The Metamorphoses of Ovid is a collection of Greco-Roman mythological stories, from Creation to Caesar, weaved into a continuous narrative of epic dactylic hexameter verses. (My sister once accused Virgil of being an author of fan-fiction, having based his writing on the events of the Iliad and the Odyssey. If that is so, then Ovid is doubly a fan-fiction author, even recounting the events of the Aeneid.) Continue reading
Dame Rebecca West
My Disillusionment in Russia by Emma Goldman is certainly one of the lesser know books on my list of classics to read, so it is worth explaining how it got there. The first reason is Rebecca West (and this is not the first time she prompted me to read a book). After reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and loving it, I searched around the internet for short pieces of her writing, and one of the first things I found was her introduction to Goldman’s book. One line from it had stuck with me from reading this introduction a couple years ago: “We must let each people seek God in its own way.” (I had forgotten the less inspirational-sounding next line, “and refrain from persecuting it in its search by such indirect methods as interference with the natural flow of trade.”) Although the line sounds relativistic or indifferent, at the very least, West is making the bold claim that the Revolutionary project in Russia is a search for God. Continue reading
As I begin to explore different literary blogs, I have found that many of them have recently put together a “personal canon” of sorts. (Some examples: here, here, and here.) For many years, I looked to this list as something of a “canon” for myself, but I’ve found myself going back to a shorter list of books over and over. Below is a rough list of the books that come to mind as some of the most important to me. I attempted to divide them by genre at first, but I couldn’t make a clean divide between theology and philosophy, or even between theology and biography, and Rebecca West’s masterpiece does not sit easily in any genre. So I simply divided into “older” and “newer”, with a few added to the end. Continue reading
This novel is a fictional account of the life of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine. And what a delightful book! I feared it would be cheesy, but Evelyn Waugh draws on a wide range of sources, and where he fills in the gaps, he does so in a way that is plausible and entertaining. (Sometimes he is certainly making things up, but this is usually obvious and with great comic effect.) Coming from Evelyn Waugh, it has a humor similar in tone to Brideshead Revisited, but usually more obviously funny and without such long periods of melancholy in between.