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.]

Advertisements

Theology in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

IMG_0489

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

A Personal Canon

IMG_0422As 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

Rosmersholm and new ideas poorly conceived

IMG_0395

Henrik Ibsen

My third classic is Rosmersholm, a play written by Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian writing in Danish. I only discovered this play after discovering that Rebecca West was only the pen name of the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of my favorite works of literature, and that she took this pen name from a character in Rosmersholm. She was born Cicely Isabel Fairfield, but she changed her name to Rebecca West while she was about 20 so that she could write articles in Freewoman, a feminist magazine, without raising suspicions in her mother who did not want her reading it. Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, her first published novel, contains themes similar to Rosmersholm: unhappiness in marriage, the impossibility of leaving it, and the suspicion of a feigned mental condition.

Continue reading

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.

IMG_0385

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.]

Classics List

IMG_0363Looking around various literature blogs, I saw a number who joined a so-called “Classics Club”. Those who join make a list of 50 books to read within 5 years, and then write a blog post on each book as they finish. I have been using Goodreads for a few months now, writing only brief reviews, but I think it would be worth the effort to deepen my reviews. Now to come up with the list…

  1. Romola. George Eliot. (#2)
  2. Felix Holt, A Radical. George Eliot. (#12)
  3. Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen. (#7)
  4. The Vulgate.
  5. The Qur’an. (#1)
  6. The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov.
  7. Out of Africa. Karen Blixen.
  8. Kristen Lavransdatter. Sigrid Undset.
  9. The Master of Hestviken. Sigrid Undset.
  10. Rosmersholm. Henrik Ibsen. (#3)
  11. Anna Karenina. Leo Tolstoy. (#9)
  12. Barchester Towers. Anthony Trollope.
  13. Doctor Thorne. Anthony Trollope.
  14. North and South. Elizabeth Gaskell.
  15. Metamorphoses. Ovid. (#6)
  16. Ivanhoe. Walter Scott.
  17. Loss and Gain. John Henry Newman.
  18. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. John Henry Newman. (#11)
  19. Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather.
  20. O Pioneers!. Willa Cather.
  21. The Cyberiad. Stanislaw Lem.
  22. Brighton Rock. Graham Greene.
  23. Nine Stories. J.D. Salinger.
  24. To the Lighthouse. Virginia Woolf.
  25. Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia Woolf.
  26. Waiting for Godot. Samuel Beckett.
  27. Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne Bronte.
  28. David Copperfield. Charles Dickens.
  29. The Idiot. Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  30. Demons. Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  31. Absalom! Absalom!. William Faulkner.
  32. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe.
  33. Italian Journey. Goethe.
  34. The Portrait of a Lady. Henry James.
  35. Life of Johnson. James Boswell.
  36. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edward Gibbon. (*)
  37. The Dubliners. James Joyce.
  38. The Trial. Franz Kafka. (#8)
  39. Moby Dick. Herman Melville.
  40. Swann’s Way. Marcel Proust.
  41. Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck.
  42. Il fu Mattia Pascal. Luigi Pirandello.
  43. Sei personaggi in cerca d’autore. Luigi Pirandello.
  44. Il Gattopardo. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.
  45. Delta Wedding. Eudora Welty.
  46. Pilgrim’s Progress. John Bunyan.
  47. My Disillusionment in Russia. Emma Goldman. (#5)
  48. The Count of Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas.
  49. Helena. Evelyn Waugh. (#4) (*)
  50. A Train of Powder. Rebecca West.
  51. Out of the Silent Planet. C.S. Lewis. (#10)

Well, there it is. I will probably not be super consistent in sticking to this. Most of these books are either sitting on my shelf, sitting on my Amazon wish list, or have come up in recent conversation. I first wondered if I could come up with a list of 50, and then I wondered how it could stop there! But it will serve as a reference (and at least encourage me to finish the books on my shelves!). I only put two George Eliot novels on the list, but I will probably continue to read whatever else I can find by her. The same goes for Anthony Trollope–I do not know how much I will like him, but I may end up reading far more than the two books I put on the list.

[Update, 7 May 2017: The numbers in parentheses indicate the order in which I read them. An asterisk indicates an extra post on the same book.]

[Update, 20 Nov 2017: When I read a classic beyond my original list of 50, I will append it to this list, starting from spot 51. The remainder upon reaching 50 will perhaps be the start of a future list.]

More information here: https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com

Projected completion date: April 22, 2022.