Overview of 2018 Reading

Literary classics. I was able to finish 16 different classics this year, and each by a different author! I won’t go into detail here as I wrote a blogpost for each of them. The authors, in the order I read them, are: Virginia Woolf, Honoré de Balzac, Sigrid Undset, Evelyn Waugh, Willa Cather, Ismail Kadare, George Eliot, Chaim Potok, Kazuo Ishiguro, Émile Zola, Vladimir Nabokov, Aristophanes, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jane Austen, Stanislaw Lem, and Mikhail Bulgakov. (Clicking any of those names will direct you to my posts on them.)

Other literary books. Following recommendations from workers at a local bookstore in Rome, I read and finished a couple other literary works this year that I would not list among the classics. The first of these is Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, an autobiographical account of the author’s attempt to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence. I had previously heard of Dyer only from a lengthy article on Rebecca West, but the recommendation was strong, so I went for it. It was an unfortunate choice. Apart from a few amusing anecdotes about Italy (which eventually led to me watching spaghetti Westerns this summer), the books is basically just a cranky monologue. Another worker from the same bookstore recommended The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. In this case, the book was entertaining and clever at parts, but ultimately left me wanting to read the real thing.

michigan

Michigan. I have often thought: Spain, Italy and Greece have all produced great literature. But what do they have in common? They are peninsulas. Should not then Michigan have an even greater literature? For it is two peninsulas. Indeed, according to the barely-known and perhaps unfortunate 1972 Pledge to the State Flag, it is:

two beautiful peninsulas united by a bridge of steel
where equal opportunity and justice to all is our ideal.

And so I searched for the literary treasure that I expected to find in Michigan, and though I did not have time to search as thoroughly as I would like, I found a very helpful book for this journey: Michigan Literary Luminaries by Anna Clark. In this book, Clark brings forth the best Michigan has to offer: from the more literary Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Carol Oates to the more popular Elmore Leonard and Donald Goines. Anna Clark concludes with a much more hopeful estimation of Michigan’s literary output than I arrived at, but she does a great job telling the story along the way. I will continue my search once I am back in Michigan.

Odd coincidence: While talking with workers at a bookstore in my home town, I found out that Anna Clark once worked there! She was scheduled to give a talk there after I left, but I was able to meet her at another venue in Kalamazoo where she was presenting her newest book on the Flint water crisis. She seemed very excited that someone had found and enjoyed her book on Michigan’s literature!

Also on the subject of Michigan literature, I mention here Michigan author Jon Oldham’s project which I recently wrote a post on.

Books I did not finish. There are probably more books than these that I picked up an put down again, but these stand out. The first is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, an autobiographical work about a nurse in World War I. It was highly recommended on a number of blogs and had found a place among the Penguin Classics, but I just couldn’t do it after 200 pages. She struck me self-centered and I wasn’t given reasons to expect any improvement, so I decided to let that one go. Then next one was recommended by a lady working at Barbara’s Bookstore in the O’Hare airport, who said it was her favorite book: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. It starts with a boy discovering a forgotten book in a hidden library, and the drama goes from there. There were many things I liked about it early on, but the main character became less and less interesting with every chapter, and then I stopped. There are too many good books in the world to be spending time on ones that miss the mark. One last book I did not finish a was a collection of poetry by Cavafy, a modern Greek poet. This book is excellent! I dropped it when I went home for the summer and I hope to pick it up again in the new year.

Comics. Should I include this in my reading for the year? When I spent time with my family this summer, we often watched either Marvel movies or the recent sequel series to Dragon Ball Z. Inspired by the first of those and tempted by special offers for Marvel Unlimited, I ended up reading the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet comics on which the recent Infinity War film is at least partly based. This led to reading comics about Adam Warlock as well as his Infinity Watch, a group similar to the Guardians of the Galaxy, each member of which is entrusted with an Infinity Stone. These were fun, but I decided not to renew my month’s subscription—they’re almost endless and they make new ones every day! The other comic I picked up was Jaco the Galactic Patrolman, a recent work from the creator of Dragon Ball Z. It was short and fun, but I don’t think it would reading for anyone but fans of Akira Toriyama.

breviaryPsalms. Back in June, I spent a few days the Benedictine monastery in Norcia, where I was at last convinced to switch to the older use of the Roman Breviary for my daily prayers. Instead of praying the Psalms over the course of a month (as the current Liturgy of the Hours does) the Breviarium Romanum (as it was prayed in 1962) moves through the entire Psalter each week. This takes a little more time, but one eventually gets used to the rhythm and the Psalms quickly become more familiar. Recognizing the how central the Psalms are to my daily prayer and how they are used at Mass every day, it seemed worth the effort to understand them better. I started with a commentary on Psalm 119 by St. Ambrose, and then started going back and forth between the homilies of St. Augustine and St. Jerome on various Psalms. Apart from these ancient commentaries, I read John Bergsma’s Psalms Basics for Catholics, a very simple but very helpful overview on the structure of the book of Psalms and how the entire story of the Old Testament is reflected in them. After that I read N.T. Wright’s A Case for the Psalms, which was not so much an argument for their usage as a reflection on his own experience praying and singing them. On a recommendation in that book, I started listening to recordings of Anglican choirs chanting the Psalms—truly something to work up to in our own churches. I didn’t get around them, but I had hoped to read reflections on the Psalms from C.S. Lewis and Girolamo Savonarola, and then a book recommended by Bergsma called Singing in the Reign.

Saints. I love preaching on the lives of the Saints. If there is a Gospel passage that is difficult to interpret, you can never go wrong by seeing how the Saints lived that Gospel in their own lives. The only life that I read in full this year was a small book on Blessed Margaret of Castello. She was born blind and crippled, was ignored and eventually abandoned by her wealthy parents, and attained to the heights of holiness. I highly recommend her biography by Fr. William Bonniwell, O.P.

State of the Church. With all the craziness in the news about goings-on in the Church, I read The Book of Gomorrah by St. Peter Damian, written about 1000 years ago. He writes about the awful lifestyles of clerics in his own day and about the heights of virtue which God demands of every priest. The other book I read, before any of the scandals this summer, was The Last Testament, an interview with Pope Benedict XVI. What a humble and intelligent man! Only time will tell us the full ramifications of his weighty decision to step down from the Petrine office.

tribunalCanon law. Though I don’t usually write about it on here, I would bet that over half of my reading in the last year was in one way or another related to canon law. In the first half of 2018, I was in a seminar on the power of governance in the Church and so I read many articles related to that, especially on judicial power and its delegation as this was the topic I presented in the seminar. This last semester, my focus shifted almost entirely to presumptions as a form of proof, and especially judicial presumptions, as this is the topic I have chosen for my license tesina. I have whole bibliography of textbooks, commentaries, articles, and original sources on this topic, but I’ll wait until it’s finished before I share a summary.

Books started. There are two books I am going through at very leisurely pace, which I do not think I will finish for a very long time. One of these is the Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which collects his many collections of short fiction. As finish each of these collections, I will write a post on it, but I am only reading a couple pages a day. The other book I am plodding through is the Disquisitiones Arithmeticae by Carl Friedrich Gauss. When I was reading Stanislaw Lem, there were many references to Gauss as if he were quasi-deity and, though I knew the name, I could not recall any of his discoveries or contributions off the top of my head. A couple searches later, I found that he wrote a textbook on number theory and sent away for it. It is an exact work and I never get through more than a page in a sitting, but it’s a pleasure to pick up something mathematical after nearly 6 years without anything of the kind. I intend to write a post on it soon, though it may be years before I actually finish it.

Jane Austen Miscellany

lady susanOnly smaller books are able to find their way into my schedule lately, but I am thankful that these have been excellent! The volume I most recently finished is a collection of Jane Austen miscellany: one short epistolary novel and two unfinished novels.

Lady Susan. My first question upon finishing this work: Why does no one talk about this one? Unlike the 6 major novels of Jane Austen, Lady Susan never comes up in conversations and yet it tells a story about the relations of a small social circle as well as any of her novels. What is especially impressive is that she does this all by means of letters which the characters write to one another, sometimes dissembling and sometimes manifesting their true intentions. Whereas Austen’s narrator are usually close to the mind of one character in particular, these letters have us going back and forth between two antagonistic relatives whose outward actions would not betray the extent of the drama so well as the letters. The titular Lady Susan also stands out as being perhaps the most seductive character in Austen’s novels, causing destruction and discord wherever she goes. Lady Susan is the only complete work in the collection and the only one that would appeal to all readers.

The Watsons. This incomplete work is the least interesting of the bunch, but still worth reading for an Austen fan. The characters and situations resemble those in her other works, though not matching any of them entirely. Because the novel only barely gets off the ground, it really doesn’t serve for much more than getting one more example of Austen’s writing.

V0012256 Humorous image of society ladies trying to swim, Brighton. C

Sanditon. How awful that this novel remained incomplete! From the first pages, this novel seemed different than any other work I’ve read from Austen. The characters are very eccentric: from a funny man obsessed with his town of Sanditon to his family of hypochondriacs to a literate buffoon in need of a wealthy marriage to the eventual heroine who is shocked by the vices and oddities of the people around her. The interior life of this character is markedly different from the more docile characters in Jane Austen novels. “The words  ‘Unaccountable officiousness! – Activity run mad!’ – had just passed through Charlotte’s mind – but a civil answer was easy.” And as she continues to interact with the other characters, we see her gently mocking those around while trying not to look too surprised by their irrational manners. If I had to compare this work to another of Austen’s, it probably comes closest to Northanger Abbey, but only inasmuch as it is not afraid to be a bit silly. It really is unlike her other works and might have become one of her most popular. The erudition of some characters as well as the attention to medical fashions looks to me like an anticipation of George Eliot’s novels, which is perhaps another reason I like this work so much.

In sum: I recommend Lady Susan to all, but can only recommend the other two works to fans of Jane Austen. Whereas The Watsons does not show us something different from her major novels, Sanditon indicated a major change from her other works that would have finished as something excellent.

[This work is #26 on my classics reading challenge.]

Adam Bede, my last major Eliot novel

Hetty Sorrel and Captain Donnithorne in Mrs Poyser's dairyWithout unveiling anything that happens in the course of the book, I will say it becomes a page-turner only about halfway through. Early on, whenever someone asked me what I was reading, the only descriptions I could give made it sound like a simple love story with little else to offer. But it picks up. Once I hit the middle point, I soon read through the rest before anyone else had a chance to ask me about it.

To sum up a moral for the story, it is how one brief bit of carelessness can lead to evils untold, for others and for oneself; consequences that can last far longer than the original act that set them in motion and can endure even to death, and even more. Of course, what does it matter if one is careless, so long as no one finds out? Again, this book demonstrates how great are the repercussions that follow on the smallest revelation—how much more when all things are revealed? Then it will only be those who have no secrets that will be at ease and without shame. Continue reading

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

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

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.]

Romola, another masterpiece by George Eliot

IMG_0384(My desire to have more people read George Eliot outweighed my desire to divulge all of my thoughts on this book. For this reason, I do not unveil any major plot points in Romola. Fear not to read the following thoughts on George Eliot, and take it rather as an exhortation to read on your own!)

I hesitate to write about George Eliot lest I say anything unworthy of one who I think may be the greatest novelist in the English language. My fascination with George Eliot began early last semester, when I opened the first page of Middlemarch and saw Eliot making conjectures about St. Teresa of Avila and what allowed her to accomplish so much in her time. As I continued and found the main character, Dorothea Brooke, to be modeled on the person of St. Teresa, I was instantly hooked. Upon finishing Middlemarch, I did not believe a novel could begin, proceed, or end in so satisfying a manner, but I continued to read anyway and soon had finished more of Eliot’s novels: Mill on the Floss, The Lifted Veil, Daniel Deronda, and I am now writing this post upon finishing Romola. In my opinion, none of these has outdone Middlemarch, and yet they have only confirmed my preference for George Eliot over every other English-language novelist.

(A quick note before continuing: “George Eliot” was the pen name of Marian Evans. Unlike Charlotte Bronte who initially wrote with a pen name, but is now always identified by her birth name, George Eliot continues to be referred to through her pen name, although always with feminine pronouns. This always surprises and distracts people who discover this in conversation, so I decided to omit pronouns in the first paragraph and then insert this note before continuing.)

By claiming for George Eliot the title of greatest English novelist, I know this requires an explanation for those who think Jane Austen deserves this title. As delightful as Austen is in everything she writes, “her works are but miniatures”, as one critic puts it. She concerns herself beautifully with a very small set of concerns. Whereas Austen typically ends her novels with a suitable marriage, George Eliot saves most of her story for what happens after the wedding and her characters have interests that reach far beyond domestic tranquility. There are also two elements almost entirely missing Jane Austen, which take center stage in the work of George Eliot: religion and the intellectual life. The closest Austen gets to considering these is in Northanger Abbey, when the narrator satirically derides the novel, and then in Mansfield Park, when there is a discourse on the usefulness of clergy and common prayer. To look at these elements in Eliot, it is necessary to take each in turn.

I already mentioned about how Middlemarch begins with an observation about the life and times of St. Teresa of Avila. Silas Marner, probably Eliot’s most widely read work, begins with the banishment of a man from a Puritanical community, and this sets the stage for everything that follows there. In another novel, she has a character discover the Imitation of Christ and change her life, and in another, the plot revolves around the meaning of Judaism. There is even a reference to a natural Manichaeism in Mill on the Floss! In Romola in particular, set in Renaissance Florence, Eliot depicts a radical (and even political) sort of Catholicism which she compares and contrasts with pagan elements existing in that time and place. She is meticulous in showing the causes and effects of the change of religious attitudes within her characters, and the great care with which Eliot depicts this is especially remarkable when one learns about the development of her own religious attitude. In a future post, I would like to consider more closely the religious history of George Eliot, who began as an evangelical, but later became more agnostic and even published translations of Feuerbach and an early historicizing account of the life of Jesus. Despite all of this, and partly because of it, she depicts the interior life of her characters in a most accurate way, keeping their freedom intact even as she shows all the motives at work. It is especially true of Middlemarch, but in all of her novels, one can hardly walk away without growing in sympathy for the lives and struggles of others.

IMG_0382In addition to the religious aspect of her novels, George Eliot displays an erudition wide and deep in all of her novels, and especially in Romola. Before writing any fiction, Eliot parodied the know-it-all heroines of her contemporaries in her essay “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” and satirically comments in many of her books that Greek is too difficult for the mind of a woman (George Eliot herself was proficient in Greek, Latin, French, German, and Italian). Eliot avoids the pitfalls that she criticizes, and many times over, as a trope common to several of her novels is the intellectually capable female becoming either obsessed or repulsed before a wider intellectual project. Since Romola is placed within the Italian Renaissance, the reader is constantly impressed by the learning of many characters in the book, which itself demands that the reader already have some background knowledge but at the same time encourages the reader to get more. One instance of this is a description of a back-and-forth early on between two scholars, one clearly superior to the other, each exchange of which contains a Latin poem, each one satirizing the last and including ever more obscure references to the classical use of certain words. It was not necessary, but I was so impressed, that I put down Romola for a week in order to work on my own Latin, attempting to read classics (Ovid and Quintilian) and eventually settling for the Vulgate, which I am currently working through at a slow pace. Romola also made want to read the Italian poets, reread The Prince by Machiavelli, study up on 14th and 15th century paganism, and look more closely at the controversy surrounding Girolamo Savonarola. I also need to go back to Florence. I cannot think of any other author that brings so much to the table in this way, especially without feeling artificial or stuffy.

Alongside her erudition in philosophy and literature, Eliot also shows herself an expert in describing painted works that she herself has invented. (I just learned that this is called ekphrasis.) I am thoroughly impressed when I find an author capable of using mere words to convey the effect of music or painting. This first stood out to me when I read The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse, and he describes a piano-violin fugue that occurs within an interview. It is the first time the child with the violin has ever played a fugue, and Hesse allows the reader to discover with him the effects of this form of music. Even in Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, a novel I did not otherwise care for, there is a beautiful scene where Hanno is rapt by his mother’s music, such that the reader almost hears the same. As for the description of painting, Homer can be credited as the first to do this with his lengthy description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad. George Eliot places a painter in three of her novels, and always gives such a description that the reader wants to see the finished project, though he has a fair sketch in his mind. These paintings are less essential in other novels, from the humorous sketch of Casaubon as Aquinas in Middlemarch to the mournful series about Berenice in Daniel Deronda, but in Romola they take on a more integral role, from the tabernacle adorned with Bacchus and Ariadne to the painted horror of Tito Melema, as well as a scene of the blind Oedipus with Antigone.

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One other distinctive aspect of this novel is the depiction of evil, and evil with a beautiful guise. In Middlemarch and Mill on the Floss, there is certainly cruelty and bitterness, and yet I do not think it ever quite arrives at malice. Daniel Deronda depicts some straightforward evil, but it is most striking in Romola, where Eliot makes the reader fall in love with a character who ends up beyond redemption, all in a desire to avoid whatever is unpleasant. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Eliot leads the reader right up to the moment when a choice has to be made, when one can choose the good or the easy, and envision the consequences both far and near. Besides the malice of one particular character, there are others who are almost like ghosts, haunting the imaginations and consciences of characters within the book. There is nothing quite like this in her other novels.

If I had to liken Romola to any other novel, I would point to The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Eliot, like Manzoni, beautifully describes life in an Italian city and seamlessly blends the historical and the fictional. Both authors manage to show both the most glorious and the most ugly manifestations of religion, especially when it is mixed up with baser motives. Her occasional use of Italian may be difficult for those less familiar with the language, but there is nothing essential that one would miss beyond a few jokes and some pleasant poetry (my Penguin edition even included notes to elucidate these bits).

Since I am unwilling to divulge any essential plot details, but always want to say more, let me know if you have read any of her novels! I am certainly willing to talk further about them, but not at the expense of “spoiling” the enjoyment of a first read.

[Romola is #2 on my classics reading challenge.]