Book Review: Tolstoy’s Resurrection

The Story.

In Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, Prince Dmitri Nekhludov starts off as a sweet, thoughtful young man. On a visit to his two aunts, he meets a girl named Katerina Maslova (also called Katusha), whom they had taken in from a neglectful mother. She’s often referred to as their half-ward, half servant. They fall in love with all the sweetness of a teenage romance.

Nekhludov goes on to join the military, which changes him for the worse. He becomes more self-indulgent and picks up bad habits, which his companions and even his mother see as normal and encourage. The next time he goes to visit his aunts, his sweet, innocent love for Katusha has become lust, and he takes advantage of her. He gives her money and leaves for his military career with not much thought.

Years later, Nekhludov is engaged to one woman while secretly having an affair with a married woman. He’s called for jury duty and is stunned to find that the defendant is Katusha, now a prostitute who is accused of poisoning a client. His conscience is awakened to the truth he began her downfall, and he vows to help her all he can. The more he becomes acquainted with the prison system, the more injustices he learns of, the more dissatisfied he becomes with his own life. Yet finding the answers, not only for his own heart but for the wrongs of society, is not an easy feat.

Tolstoy’s beliefs

In talking with one of my sons once about a particular social/political issue, I commented that everyone agreed it was a serious problem, but no one agreed about the best solution for it. Tolstoy does a masterful job of calling attention to some of society’s worst problems, but his philosophies, to me, were a little off, especially in light of having heard he was a Christian. Here I am going beyond reviewing to processing some of these things for my own thinking.

This was Tolstoy’s last book. He had renounced novel-writing but wrote this last story to raise money for a religious sect wanting to immigrate to Canada. Some years earlier he had a crisis of faith, wrestling with the meaning of life. Many sources call this his conversion, but I am uncertain exactly what he converted to. Some of his beliefs seem to be moral and Biblically based. But in a scene where Nekhludov is listening to a preacher talk about salvation through Christ’s blood, Nekhludov leaves, “disgusted.” Tolstoy seems to take the passage “The kingdom of God is within you” to mean that, rather than a person needing to be born again, rather than being dead in trespasses and sins, he just needs the spiritual part of himself to be awakened or fanned into flame to have victory over the “animal” part of him (he has written other books about his beliefs in more detail, which I have not read: I’m just going by what he has Nekhludov undergoing here).

There were many Christian truths and principles in the book that I agreed with, but I found other beliefs in the book a little wonky:

  • He felt that public praying was a sin, but the passage about praying in secret in one’s closet was not an indication that one should never pray in front of other people or lead a group in prayer. Jesus did, Stephen did, others did in the gospels and Acts. The context of praying in secret has to do with praying for “show” so others will see and hear count us as spiritual, and that’s what was declared wrong.
  • He posits that no one has a right to judge (in a legal sense) or punish anyone. But Romans 13 tells us:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

  • He felt it was wrong to be a landowner because no one can own the earth. True, “The earth is the Lord‘s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). But owning land and leaving it as an inheritance for one’s children is not condemned in the Bible. In fact, one of God’s big promises to Israel was a tract of land, and they went through a detailed process of dividing it up between the tribes. The Biblical concept is that of stewardship, recognizing that God is the actual owner of all we have and we’re accountable to Him with whatever we “own” in a legal sense.
  • He indicated the kingdom of God can be established on Earth by obeying the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Well, life would certainly be better and a lot more like heaven if people did, but we won’t establish the Kingdom of heaven here that way: Jesus will establish His own kingdom when He returns.
  • When Nekhludov classifies in his own mind five different types of prisoners, he seems to believe they are all there because of bad or misunderstood circumstances. While that’s certainly true in some cases, he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that any of them are there because they had a sin nature and chose wrong just because they wanted to or took pleasure in it.
  • He doesn’t go so far as to say it is a sin to be rich, but he does blame class differences for many of society’s ills. It’s true that class differences do cause many problems. But the answer isn’t to even everyone out into the same circumstances. Only one person in the Bible was told to sell all he had and follow Christ. Timothy as a pastor is instructed to teach the rich, in 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

But the rich are not the only ones called to be generous. The Macedonians gave out of their poverty. The widow gave two mites. We all have something to give; we’re all better off than someone.

Plus even in this story, Nekhludov is able to go places, do things for people, see prisoners, etc., sometimes because of his stature as an aristocrat, sometimes because of bribes. The rich have not only wealth, but position and influence that they can use to help people.

My thoughts.

Tolstoy’s best writing in this book comes when he’s telling how Nekhludov and Maslova each arrived at their current position, and in his “showing, not telling” how so many authorities, especially the day of Maslova’s trial, were thinking about everything but being agents of justice and the lives they were affecting (the judge hoping things went fast so he could keep a tryst with a woman, the lawyer polishing what he planned to say so as to look and sound at his best advantage, etc.) If The Death of Ivan Ilyich was the anatomy of dying, this book is the anatomy of either a conversion (of sorts – I think that’s what Tolstoy meant it to be, as well as a diatribe of what was wrong in society), or at least an awakened conscience. And just as with Ivan Ilyich, there are perfect little true-to-life nuances, such as Nekhludov at first “with a sense of self-admiration…admiring his own remorse” until he eventually was “filled with horror” over what he had done. There are piquant bits of irony in places, such as one prison office being decorated with “a large image of Christ, as is usual in places where they torture people.”

In this day when people abhor “preachiness,” I would have thought that few people would like this book, but the vast majority of articles and reviews I have scanned regard it favorably. Maybe that’s because many of the issues Tolstoy brings up we still deal with today.

I thought the story itself started out wonderfully but got bogged down in the latter chapters. Part of that was probably on purpose, as Katusha’s case goes through appeals, roadblocks, and setbacks. I’m sure people in such a situation feel bogged down during the process. But part of it was Nekhludov’s conversations with people, especially the political prisoners, and internal musings. I’m all for internal musings and a certain amount of philosophizing in a book, and it’s natural that in a story of this type, the main character is going to be wrestling within himself a lot. And I think the philosophizing was Tolstoy’s main point of the book rather than the story itself, but the story didn’t flow as well in the second half. I felt the ending of the story itself wasn’t adequately resolved, and felt that Nekhludov’s conclusions were right in some places but off in others.

But I do very much agree with Tolstoy that we’re responsible for how we treat people and that much in society is still flawed. I didn’t always agree with the actions and philosophies he espoused, but this book did get me thinking about some of these issues more than I had before, and that’s a good thing.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Neville Jason and read the introductory material and several passages in this Kindle version.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)



Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

I’ve been wanting to read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy ever since I saw it referred to in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

It begins with Ivan’s colleagues receiving news of his death. While some of express regret, most of them are glad that they weren’t the ones who died and concentrate on the opening of position to replace him and the “very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.” Even at the funeral, they are more concerned with the propriety of what to say and do and escaping to a bridge game afterward than with expressing genuine sorrow to the widow. Even Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, seems primarily concerned with how Ivan’s last sufferings affected her and how she can get more money from the government. Only Ivan’s son seems genuinely sorrowful.

The next chapters detail Ivan’s life. He was the middle son, “neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent polished, lively and agreeable man.” He attended law school and rose up the ranks of a law career. “Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.”

At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

He had not planned to marry, but when he met Praskovya Fedorovna, she was reasonably attractive and had a little property, and a good marriage was part of a respectable lifestyle, so he married. He strove for a life that was “easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous.” That word decorous comes up often.

Things went well until his wife became pregnant and, evidently hormonal, she began demanding more of his time and became very jealous, introducing “something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape.” He handled it by ignoring it, spending more time with his friends or at work.

At one point, during a particularly happy phase of life, he had a fall and injured his side. It seemed minor at the time, but it did not heal. The pain increased, became more constant, he developed a bad taste in his mouth. He sought various doctors, but they all had different diagnoses.

As he gradually grew worse, he began to think he might die. At first he refused to believe it. But as his condition worsened, he cried out to God wondering why this was happening to him. Eventually he began to wonder if this was all because he had not lived a good life…but of course he had lived a good life, he thought, so that must not be it.

As he realizes that he is in fact dying, he simmers with rage over the reactions of everyone else.

[The doctor] comes in fresh, hearty, plump, and cheerful, with that look on his face that seems to say: “There now, you’re in a panic about something, but we’ll arrange it all for you directly!” The doctor knows this expression is out of place here, but he has put it on once for all and can’t take it off.

Just as the doctor had adopted a certain relation to his patient which he could not abandon, so had [his wife] formed one towards him—that he was not doing something he ought to do and was himself to blame, and that she reproached him lovingly for this—and she could not now change that attitude.

His daughter was “impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness.”

Ivan just wants someone to be honest, to be real, to admit that he’s dying, and to empathize with him.

The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long.

The only person who seems comfortable with Ivan and his condition is the butler’s assistant, Gerasim, “clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright.” It was Gerasim’s job to take care of Ivan’s “excretions,” which terribly embarrassed Ivan, but Gerasim did his work in such a cheerful way that it comforted Ivan, and, when Ivan apologized, Gerasim continually said, “What’s a little trouble?”

Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master. Once when Ivan Ilych was sending him away he even said straight out:”We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?” —expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Ivan began relying on Gerasim more and more. His pain was most alleviated when Gerasim held Ivan’s legs on Gerasim’s shoulders, and he uncomplainingly supported him like that through the night.

As Ivan’s continues to deteriorate, he begins to question if perhaps he had not really lived a good life at all. The things which used to bring him happiness now seemed shallow and unimportant.

This might sound like a terribly depressing story. It’s sad, but it’s enlightening and moving at the same time. One of Atul Gawande’s points in his book was that we’ve become far removed from death. In former times, life spans were shorter, an agricultural society dealt with death of animals frequently, plagues happened more frequently, and people died at home rather than in hospitals. While we have much to be grateful for in the strides in health care that have been made throughout history, Gawande is right in that we have become so distanced from death that we don’t know how to handle it, are often surprised to face it, avoid dealing with it, and don’t know what to say to someone who is dying. Tolstoy’s book illustrates this abundantly.

I think Ivan’s progression of spirit was well told. I’m thankful to Sparknotes for pointing out that the time progression of the book slowed down from covering several years of Ivan’s life, then a few weeks, then days, then his final moments, and his world shrunk progressively as well from a “man about town” to the confines of his room and then his sofa.

I think in some cases God allows a slow progression of death like this because that’s the only time some people would stop long enough to consider their ways and think about death and whether they’re ready for it. Tolstoy wrote this after a crisis of faith in which he wrestled with what the meaning of life was, and that is reflected in Ivan’s wrestlings as well. From what I understand, Tolstoy ended up with kind of an amalgam of beliefs, but Christian principles undergird the narrative here.

In some ways Ivan reaped what he sowed. He didn’t take time to understand his wife’s concerns in their early marriage, and she responded in the same way when he was dying – not on purpose or for vengeance, but she was just as out of touch as he had been earlier. There are almost parallel sections in how he treated people ion his career and how doctors treated him. But he does come to realize and acknowledge this over time.

Gersasim is a breath of fresh air in the novel. His empathy, balance between cheerfulness and sympathy, willingness to do whatever needed to be done to help, all make the reader hope for a friend like him when our own time comes.

I appreciated Schmoop‘s conclusions in their “Why should I care?” section. They can be pretty irreverent at times, but I thought they were spot on here:

The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to our attention the unpleasant fact that we all have to die, and that we might have to suffer a whole lot first. Our medicines might be better than those of Ivan’s doctors, but we haven’t gotten any closer to escaping mortality, and many people still die only after a long and painful period of disease. Perhaps Ivan Ilych, which is famous for its psychological depth, will help you understand what many people go through when they’re dying.

Perhaps Ivan Ilych will also get you thinking about what mortality means for you. Like Ivan, you might start wondering how you should live your life, and how you can find meaning in it.

I listened to the audiobook marvelously read by Oliver Ford Davies. Not only was the narration done well, but particularly Ivan’s voice and the changes over the course of his illness were masterfully portrayed. The text of the novella is here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)


Book Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

39 stepsThe Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan opens with thirty-seven-year-old Scotchman Richard Hannay bored with life in London in May of 1914. He had been a mining engineer in Rhodesia and came to England, but has no friends and nothing to do. He’s on the verge of finding something else to do with his life when he’s accosted at his door by an American from a neighboring flat pleading for his help.

He lets the man in, a Franklin Scudder, who tells him what seems a fantastic tale at first. Scudder has just faked his own death. He’s sort of a free-lance spy who had come upon a secret on international intrigue, a plot to kill the Greek premier, Karolides, when he comes to England, which will set off a series of negative political repercussions. When Hannay suggests Karolides can be warned not to come, Scudder objects that Karolides is needed for the meetings he is to attend. What Scudder wants to do is hide out in Hannay’s flat until June 15, when he can get to the appropriate authorities.

At first Hannay thinks Scudder must be insane, but the more he talks, especially when he brings up Karolides, whom Hannay had just been reading about, Hannay believes him and agrees to let him stay. Meanwhile Scudder changes disguises to look like a British officer.

Hannay enjoys having the company for several days and notices Scudder scribbling in a notebook from time to time. When Hannay has to go out for a meeting, he comes home to find Scudder stabbed to death in his flat.

And that’s just the first chapter.

Shocked and disconcerted, Hannay investigates his flat for clues and considers whether to call the police. No one knows him in London, and he knew little enough about Scudder to make the whole situation seem fishy, concluding that he would probably be suspected for the murder. It was three weeks until the June 15th meeting, and Hannay decides to take Scudder’s notebook and take on his task.When he leaves his flat he notices a face in a neighboring window watching him.

On the run both from the police and the men who were after Scudder, Hannay’s journey takes him into all sorts of places and situations.

I liked that Hannay is presented as a fairly ordinary man. He has a few talents that come in handy, but in general he’s just a “regular chap” trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He says he is “no Sherlock Holmes,” but he uses his wits and powers of deduction a fair bit.

I am an ordinary sort of fellow, not braver than other people, but I hate to see a good man downed, and that long knife would not be the end of Scudder if I could play the game in his place.

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. I don’t know if I can explain myself, but I used to use my brains as far as they went, and after they came to a blank wall I guessed, and I usually found my guesses pretty right.

The writing grabbed me early on and held me throughout the book. Hannay got into various scrapes, building up the suspense of how he would get himself out of them, whether he’d make it to the authorities he needed to in time, whether he’d get in to see them, whether they’d believe him. The suspense lasted right up to the last page. After I finished the book I went back over some of the political stuff to get a better grasp of it,  but even without that I had picked up enough to follow and enjoy the story. I also loved the Britishness of it and Hannay’s way of expressing himself.

Buchan wrote this while he was recovering from an ulcer. One day while visiting him where he was convalescing, his daughter counted 39 steps in the building, and Buchan decided to use that as a vital clue in the book. He wanted to write a “‘shocker’…where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” It’s one of the first “man on the run” type stories. He went on to write four more Hannay novels. This book was made into several films, one of them by Alfred Hitchcock, which I planned to look up until I read that all the films varied greatly from the book.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Robert Powell and read a number of sections in the Kindle version. I’d gotten the Kindle version on sale some time ago, but Hope’s review encouraged me to move this up on my TBR list. I quite enjoyed the story!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)



Review: Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac is a play written by Edmond Rostand in 1897 but set in 1640 Paris. It became an instant success and has remained so ever since. In one sense it’s a throwback to “France’s golden age—a time when men were musketeers, women were beautiful heiresses, and the wit flashed as brightly as the swordplay” (according to SparkNotes), represented in stories like The Three Musketeers, which was published 50 years before Cyrano. Cyrano even references The Three Musketeers in places. In another sense it’s a parody of such stories. Part comedy, part tragedy, the main focus is its title character, Cyrano.

Cyrano excels in almost every area. He’s witty, an excellent poet, a superb swordsman, and he commands the respect of almost all who know him. The one area where he lacks confidence is romantic relationships, and that’s due primarily to his extremely oversized nose. He thinks no woman would find him attractive or even give him a chance, especially his cousin, Roxanne, whom he confesses to one friend that he loves. When Roxanne sends him a message that she wants to meet with him privately, he begins to hope that perhaps she could love him, and he pours out his heart in a letter to her. But when they meet, he learns that she loves a handsome young man in his regiment, Christian, and she asks him to watch over Christian.

He agrees, and when he tells Christian that he is Roxanne’s cousin, Christian confesses that he loves her but he can’t approach her. Roxanne loves “flowing words,
Bright wit,” and Christian is tongue-tied and inarticulate. The men each lament their deficiencies:

Oh, to express one’s thoughts with facile grace!. . .

. . .To be a musketeer, with handsome face!

Then Cyrano hits on an idea: they can combine their talents. He can teach Christian what to say, and that will give him an outlet for his own heart. He gives Christian the letter he had just written to Roxanne but left unsigned and tells Christian to send it to her in his name.

What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

The rest of the play shows how they each progress and carries them through various scenes, but I don’t want to give away any more details.

Some of the comedic sections are priceless, such as a lengthy exchange with Cyrano and another man who is trying not to look at or comment on Cyrano’s nose and then is questioned by Cyrano (“Is there anything extraordinary about it?…Is it soft and swinging like an elephant’s trunk? Is there a wart on the end of it? Or a fly?…Is it a phenomenon?”) When Christian, hoping for a kiss, wants to speak to Roxanne himself and can’t seem to come up with anything except, “I love thee,” Roxanne responds, “‘Tis the theme: embroider it,” and later “Gather up your scattered eloquence.” Here are just a few more samples:

Tradesman: You are not Samson!
Cyrano: I will be, my dear sir, if you’ll lend me your jaw.

Cyrano: Whom I love? Come now, reflect. The dream of being loved, even by a homely girl, is one forbidden me. Forbidden by this nose of mine that precedes me everywhere by fifteen minutes.

I enjoyed the comedy and the swashbuckling, but most of all I enjoyed the more earnest parts, such as when Cyrano is trying to coach Christian when they’re half hidden in the darkness under Roxanne’s balcony (reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet‘s balcony scene). Getting frustrated with the process, Cyrano pushes Christian out of the way and then speaks from his heart. The last few scenes, when Cyrano goes to visit Roxanne some fourteen years after the action in the previous scenes, is masterfully written. The time of day, the season, the double meaning to Cyrano’s words, and the development of the conversation all come together to form once of my favorite sections of literature with one of my favorite lines (which I can’t tell, or else you’d know the ending!)

I looked at SparkNotes and Shmoop‘s analysis a bit, and disagreed with Shmoop’s especially. They seemed to think the main theme was Cyrano’s lack of self-esteem, that if he had not been hung up on his one defect, he could have had a life of love (see the Shmoop heading “Why Should I Care?” for more on this).

But I think the theme has to do with the self-sacrificial nature of real love. A couple of times Cyrano had an opening to confess his love, but he abstained, for the happiness and then the honor of another. All the characters grow in their understanding of love, finding that it goes beyond handsome faces, stolen kisses, and “embroidered” words, but Cyrano embodies it the most.

I did not investigate translations like I did before reading Don Quixote, and I wish I had. I looked around a bit afterward and learned that one by Brian Hooker is considered the best. I was primarily looking for an audiobook version that read the actual play rather than an audio performance of it, and found that here, translated by Howard Thayer Kingsbury, and enjoyed it very much. It says it is narrated by Flo Gibson, but it is actually narrated by Grover Gardner, who did an excellent job. I also got this Kindle version translated by Charles Renauld and looked around it and the Gutenberg version, and didn’t like either of them as much, at least, as far as I compared them, which wasn’t much. For instance, where in the audiobook Roxanne tells Christian to “embroider” his words, the Gutenberg version says to “vary” them, and the Renauld version just says, “Amplify!” I don’t know which is closest to the original, but “embroider” sounds a lot better to me. But I do appreciate Renauld’s introduction and preface detailing some of the difficulties of translation, not only from a different language, but from the poetry in which the play was originally written, and his reasons for making the choices he did, ending with the admonition that those who would be critical should “Try the task!” While looking up information on translations, I came across this fascinating discussion with some examples of how different translations handle one of Cyrano’s speeches and this great article.

One place where translations differ greatly is near the end when Cyrano speaks of the one thing he can take with him when he dies that no one can take away from him. Some translations say “plume,” others say “panache.” The audiobook said “plume,” and I admit it didn’t make sense to me at first. Renauld says in his introduction:

Now, what is this panache upon which “Cyrano” sets such a high value? To understand it is to appreciate, to miss it is to miss the meaning of the play. An explanation of it is, therefore, not out of place in this introduction.

The panache is an external quality which adds colour and brilliancy to internal things already worth having for their own intrinsic value. Its main justification is personal bravery…The panache is literally a high plume, or bunch of plumes, that waves high above a commander’s head-gear…There is magnetism in the panache…Henry the Fourth said to his soldiers; “you will find it always on the path of honour and duty.” The panache, too, is essentially joyful. “Cyrano” is joyful, in spite of a life that would breed discouragement and bitterness in almost any heart but his.

That sheds light on this earlier speech of Cyrano’s when someone criticizes his clothes:

It is my character that I adorn.
I do not deck me like a popinjay ;
But though less foppish, I am better dressed :
I would not sally forth, through carelessness.
With an insult ill wiped out, or with my conscience
Sallow with sleep still lingering in its eyes.
Honor in rags, or scruples dressed in mourning.
But I go out with all upon me shining,
With liberty and freedom for my plume,
Not a mere upright figure ; — ’tis my soul
That I thus hold erect as if with stays,
And decked with daring deeds instead of ribbons.
Twirling my wit as it were my moustache,
The while I pass among the crowd, I make
Bold truths ring out like spurs.

And it also sheds light on one place where they are battling Spain, and a cadet comes in with “a collection of shabby hats spitted on his sword, their plumes bedraggled and holes through the brims,” “spoils of war” he gathered from the enemy’s camp.

So it does look like the theme has to do with panache, brave, magnetic, joyful flair. But I still think it has to do with love as well.

There are multiple film versions of the play – I’d love to check out Jose Ferrer’s, one of the most famous ones, if I can find it. I did find this scene of it:

I had seen this play at least once, maybe a couple of times, years ago, and remembered the basic story line, but I am so glad I read (or listened to) it now. There was so much to enjoy about it, and I feel sure I’ll read it again in the future.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)


Book Review: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Jeckyll and HydeIn a way it’s too bad that most modern readers know the premise behind The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. We miss a lot of the build-up of the mystery the other characters are trying to solve. But it’s still an enjoyable story.

It begins in Victorian-era London when a lawyer, Mr. Utterson, is taking a walk with his cousin when they pass a door that stirs a memory for the cousin, Mr. Enfield. Once Enfield was walking in the same area when he witnessed a young girl being trampled by a man. He and the crowd around them insisted that the man pay the girl immediately for damages, and the man went into the particular door they’re now passing to obtain a check written on the account of a reputable man in the city. Enfield describes the man negatively, saying he seemed deformed, though Enfield couldn’t put his finger on exactly what was wrong with him. When he mentions that the man’s name is Hyde, Utterson stops him, for he knows who Hyde is and wishes to avoid gossip.

But the incident increases Utterson’s concern. His friend and client, Dr. Jekyll, has just changed his will to leave everything to Hyde, and Utterson feels sure that the account Hyde drew on was Jekyll’s. He fears Hyde may be blackmailing Jekyll, but Jekyll says Hyde is no one to worry about.

Some time later, a maid witnesses Hyde killing a man in the street who turns out to be a member of Parliament and another of Utterson’s clients. Hyde seems to disappear after that, and Jekyll says he has cut off ties with him. But then all of a sudden Jekyll stops going out and receiving visitors. One day when Utterson happens to see him through a window and stops to talk for a while, Jekyll seems glad to see him at first, and then suddenly with a look of horror slams down the window. Then one night Jekyll’s butler, Poole, come to Mr. Utterson to say that something is terribly wrong: his master has been locked in his laboratory for days and now doesn’t sound like himself. Utterson comes with Poole, and they decide to break down the door. What they find I will leave you to discover, but a couple of letters left for Utterson explain what has been going on.

As most readers know (and if you don’t know and don’t want to, skip this paragraph!), Hyde and Jekyll are the same man. What’s perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book to me is Jeckyll’s reasons for his experimentations. He had struggled with the conflicting parts of himself wanting to do good or evil, and decided to see if he could separate them – not in order to filter out the bad and therefore conquer it, but so the bad side could do what it wanted without restraint and without consequences such as marring the good name of Jekyll.

I had learned to dwell with pleasure as a beloved daydream on the
thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities life would be relieved of all that was unbearable: the unjust might go his way delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path doing the good things in which he found his pleasure and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

When Jekyll becomes alarmed at how far Hyde has gone and resolves not to let him out any more, Stevenson masterfully describes incomplete repentance which isn’t true repentance.

It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.

Yes, I preferred the elderly and discontented doctor, surrounded by friends and cherishing honest hopes; and bade a resolute farewell to the liberty, the comparative youth, the light step, leaping impulses and secret pleasures, that I had enjoyed in the disguise of Hyde. I made this choice perhaps with some unconscious reservation, for I neither gave up the house in Soho, nor destroyed the clothes of Edward Hyde, which still lay ready in my cabinet.

As the first edge of my penitence wore off, the lower side of me, so long indulged, so recently chained down, began to growl for licence.

I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.

Elisabeth Elliot once wrote that she was dealing with guilt over something she had done and was astounded by it, thinking, “That’s just not me.” She was brought up short by the realization that it was indeed her fault, that she couldn’t blame it on provocation or circumstances. Even if she had been provoked, she could have looked to God for help to respond rightly. That jarred me, because I was too prone to blame my bad reactions on the circumstances that caused them rather than my innate sinfulness. It’s telling that Jekyll blamed Hyde’s wrongdoings on Hyde alone as if he were a separate being rather than actually himself. The first step in gaining any kind of victory over the Hyde in each of us is to recognize and own the fact that he is us.

I don’t know much about Stevenson himself. A quick perusal of the Wikipedia article about him says he grew up in a religious home but declared himself an atheist in his twenties. He recognized just how horrible what the Bible calls our “old man” or “flesh” could become, and seemed to realize that it couldn’t be reigned in just with conscience. I don’t know if he ever knew that we could be completely liberated from its penalty and power only through Christ: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-8:1a).

This is a short book: paperback copies are less than 100 pages, and the audiobook I listened to was only 2 hours and 19 minutes. So for those who might like to read classics but are intimidated by their length, this one might be good to try. Even though I knew the basic story, I gained much by reading the book. I started out listening to an audiobook, but though the narrator was fine in the narrative, he was terrible with the character’s voices, so I switched to the 99 cent Kindle version. I chose it for the horror/Gothic category of the Back to the Classics challenge. I’m not into horror at all and thought I might skip this category until I read Rebekah’s review of this book. I am thankful for both of those influences leading me to read a book that I would have been unlikely to pick up otherwise.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved)




Book Review: Don Quixote

The only thing I really knew about Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes was the famous tilting at windmills scene. When one of the categories for the Back to the Classics challenge was a classic published before 1800, as I searched titles, this was one of only a couple that I was interested in. I was dismayed to see that the audiobook was 36 hours! One paperback copy I saw was 992 pages! But I plunged in.

Don Quixote starts out as nobleman Alonso Quixano in Spain. He loves reading about tales of chivalry to the point that he loses his senses, believes the stories to be true, and decides to bring back knighthood by becoming a knight errant himself, much to the dismay of his niece and housekeeper. He chooses the name Don Quixote for himself (or Don Quixote de La Mancha in full) and finds an old suit of armor and cleans it up. When he discovers the helmet has pieces missing, he constructs them out of pasteboard. He renames his old horse Rocinante. Every knight has to have a lady love, so he chooses a farm girl from a neighboring village, unbeknownst to her, and renames her Dulcinea del Toboso (at the beginning it is said that he was once in love with her, but later he confesses that he has never even seen her).

Thus he sets off to seek adventure. But most of his encounters meet with little success. People think he is crazy, so some of them fight against him. Other times he mistakes what’s going on, like thinking windmills are giants or sheep are an army of invaders. Once he got so caught up in a puppet show that he began to think the action was real and slaughtered the villainous puppets. When confronted with reality, he concludes that some enemy enchanter changed things, like making the giants into windmills at the last moment.

Along the way he also encounters other people and hears their stories. My favorite one of these involved a well-to-do woman renowned for her beauty. All sorts of men fell in love with her, but she wouldn’t have them and went off to live alone as a shepherdess. She’s thought to be cruel since she won’t return anyone’s affection. Don Quixote comes upon a funeral of a shepherd who died over his love for this woman and her lack of love for him. While the other shepherds are telling the story, the beautiful shepherdess comes upon the scene and delivers what I have dubbed The Lament of Beautiful Girls Everywhere, saying, in the modern vernacular, “Look, I can’t help it if I am beautiful. God made me that way: it’s through no effort of mine. I can’t fall in love with someone just because he falls in love with me, so give me a break already!” One of the more famous of these is the tale of Lothario, who was unwillingly drafted by his friend to woo his wife, thinking that if she passed this test, he would be sure of her love. Lothario resists at first, then lies saying he has made attempts when he has not, and finally the inevitable happens and he falls in love with his friend’s wife, leading to a “lothario” in our day meaning a man who seduces women.

The book we have today contains two parts. Cervantes wrote the first and was in no particular hurry to write the second, until someone else wrote a book about Quixote. Then he wrote the second part in which he makes many digs at this interloper and his work and ends it in such a way that no one can credibly write any more about his character. Nowadays both parts are published in one book.

Quixote takes three journeys, or sallies, two in the first part and one in the second. He goes alone the first time, but for the second two he takes a farmer as a squire, Sancho Panza. Sancho goes back and forth between admiring Quixote in some ways, particularly his bravery, to wondering about his sanity. He stays with him, though, mainly because Quixote has promised his an island to govern at some point.

The story is told by a narrator as if studying the works of a Cide Hamete Benengalie and his research on Quixote, lending a supposed air of authenticity to the story.

My thoughts:

It’s obvious that the story is meant as a farce. Just the mental picture of what translator Ormsby calls the “unsmiling gravity” of Quixote in old banged up armor with a pasteboard helmet (and later a barber’s bowl for a helmet) on an old horse talking in lofty language like a knight of old is comical, as are Sancho’s lamentations over what Quixote is doing or wants him to do and Sancho’s constant stringing together of proverbs.Cervantes even pokes fun at himself: in one scene, Quixote’s friends are going through his books and getting rid of the books of chivalry most likely to cause the Don the most problems and come across one by Cervantes and comment on it. Then in the second part, he addresses some mistakes in the first part tongue in cheek (like Sancho’s mule, Dapple, being stolen and then appearing in Dapple with no explanation) by saying it was a mistake of the printer, and so on. I enjoyed this kind of humor.

I particularly liked some of the phrasing. Cervantes, in the scene above describing his book that Quixote supposedly read, is said to have “more experience in reverses than verses.” Quixote is often described as lean, even gaunt, and one line speaks of “cheeks that seemed to be kissing each other on the inside.” One girl “did not measure seven palms from head to foot, and her shoulders, which overweighted her somewhat, made her contemplate the ground more than she liked.” My absolute favorite line is: “With a blunt wit thou art always striving at sharpness.”

But a lot of the humor is not to my taste. For instance, in one chapter, Quixote and Sancho and another man are sleeping in something like a stable of an inn. The other man is waiting for a woman to join him. Quixote sees her come in and thinks she is there to test his virtue, so he sets her down beside him to tell her why he must remain true to Dulcinea. The other man sees the Don holding the woman there apparently against her will and starts fighting him. Quixote thinks it is an enemy and fights back. The woman is thrown onto Sancho’s bed, and he, being startled, starts punching her, not realizing she’s a woman. It ends up a free-for-all, Three Stooges style. In fact, there is quite a lot of beating up in the first part.

In both parts there is a lot of setting Quixote up for situations and then laughing at him behind his back, but it’s more concentrated in the second part. Just about all the major characters in the book, even Sancho and the Don’s closest friends, have no trouble deceiving him and laughing at him. In fact, when a friend comes to deceive Quixote into coming home for a year in the hopes that his “madness” might thereby be cured, he is told by someone else, “May God forgive you the wrong you have done the whole world in trying to bring the most amusing madman in it back to his senses. Do you not see, senor, that the gain by Don Quixote’s sanity can never equal the enjoyment his crazes give? … if it were not uncharitable, I would say may Don Quixote never be cured, for by his recovery we lose not only his own drolleries, but his squire Sancho Panza’s too, any one of which is enough to turn melancholy itself into merriment.” And this laughing at someone who is impaired plus setting him up for further laughs is not my kind of humor, either.

It’s a little crude in a couple of places.

Don Quixote seems pretty foolish at first, but by the end of the book I had grown quite fond of him. More than anyone else in the book, he maintains his integrity. He has his flaws, but he operates under the laws and ideals of chivalry unwaveringly, even when it costs him. As is said of him near the end of the book, he “was always of a gentle disposition and kindly in all his ways, and hence he was beloved, not only by those of his own house, but by all who knew him.”

So while the book will probably never go down as one of my all-time favorites, I am glad to have read it. I enjoyed much of the writing. It’s nice to know the full story now, especially as cultural references to Quixote abound. I’m listening to Cyrano de Bergerac now, and even that references Quixote. And then there is this recent cartoon from xkcd:

When I was trying to discern which translation would be best to read, I came across this discussion, which said that a newer one might be more accessible to the modern reader, but an older one like John Ormsby’s catches more of the nuances of the original language. And if I am going to read a classic like this, I want those nuances. 🙂 I found a Kindle version of Ormsby’s translation which I would highly recommend, especially his preface. He also gives a brief biography of Cervantes, telling how his travels supplied some of the characterizations and scenes and how he he was a captive in Algiers for a time, which comes out in the character of a soldier in the same situation in the book. He describes how even the geography of La Mancha, for those who know it, lends itself to the irony of the book with what he calls its monotonous landscape with “nothing venerable” about it as being an unlikely place for launching a glorious hero.

I primarily listened to the audiobook narrated superbly by Roy McMillan, with some dipping into the Kindle version already mentioned. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if it had been read with a Spanish accent – that would have enhanced the Spanish flavor of the book. But he did a wonderful job with the different characters’ voices and perfectly portrayed the “unsmiling gravity” of Don Quixote.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Carole’s Books You Loved)




Book Review: Lavender and Old Lace

Lavender_and_Old_LaceLavender and Old Lace by Myrtle Reed, written in 1902, opens with 34-year-old Ruth Thorne coming to occupy her aunt’s cottage while her aunt is away. She’s never met her aunt, Miss Jane Hathaway. Miss Jane has never forgiven her sister for running away to elope, but for whatever reason, she decides to establish relationships with her niece. However, she ends up having to leave before her niece arrives, so Ruth finds only Hepsey, the farm-girl working as the maid, at the house. Her aunt left a letter with various instructions, the most mysterious and inexplicable of which was to leave a light burning in the attic window every night.

Ruth worked for a newspaper in the city, but has six months off to house-sit for her aunt. Bored and restless, she explores her aunt’s attic, the first “real attic” she’s ever been in, until she comes across her aunt’s unused wedding dress and some newspaper clippings about a couple’s wedding and the wife’s death. At first Ruth thinks the couple had been friends of her aunt’s, but then surmises that the man was Aunt Jane’s lost love who married someone else. Feeling she’s intruding into her aunt’s privacy, she leaves the attic and vows to stifle her growing curiosity.

She visits her aunt’s best friend and neighbor, Mary Ainslie, who is thought a little odd by the community because she never leaves her home. But Miss Ainslie has a reputation for being kind and sending things to people who need help. Ruth finds her gracious and beautiful, and they soon become friends. Miss Ainslie also leaves a lamp burning in her window at night for unknown reasons.

Soon Ruth has unexpected company: a young man named Carl Winfield looks her up at the recommendation of his editor. Carl works for the same newspaper as Ruth but has developed a problem with his eyes and is ordered not to read or write for several months. He’s staying in town, and their excursions eventually blossom into romance.

In fact, there’s a lot of romance happening in the book:

  • Ruth and Carl
  • Hepsey and a young man, Joe
  • a long lost love recovered
  • a long lost love forever gone

Ruth comes across as somewhat prickly at first, easily offended and angered. Carl is laid-back and merry-hearted, and once they got to the point where they expressed their feelings for each other, I enjoyed their banter and their relationship.

There is a bit of a mystery with one of the characters having an unknown connection with another that, to me, was pretty easy to put together, but no one in the book did until they came across evidence of it. The one person who did know of it, for some reason, never tells anyone else. There’s also the mystery of the lights in the windows and why Miss Ainslie never leaves her home. There’s one odd section where two people have the same dream of an old man saying the same thing to them.

The title comes from Miss Ainslie, who has dark violet eyes, always wears some shade of purple or lavender, and scents all her things with lavender. She often, if not always, wears lace as well. Various types of lace are mentioned often in the book: “Ruth was gathering up great quantities of lace—Brussels, Point d’Alencon, Cluny, Mechlin, Valenciennes, Duchesse and Venetian point.” I think in those days it was a precious commodity, possibly made by hand.

The emotions in the book seem a bit overwrought sometimes:

Ruth was cold from head to foot, and her senses reeled. Every word that Winfield had said in the morning sounded again in her ears. What was it that went on around her, of which she had no ken? It seemed as though she stood absolutely alone, in endless space, while planets swept past, out of their orbits, with all the laws of force set suddenly aside.

The earth trembled beneath Ruth’s feet for a moment, then, all at once, she understood.

That may be due to the author’s being twenty when she wrote the book, or it may be due to the times.

But quite a lot of the writing reminded me of Lucy Maud Montgomery, though her first book, Anne of Green Gables, was published six years after this book. The relationships and romances and quarrels are similar to hers, as are some of the descriptive passages:

Have not our houses, mute as they are, their own way of conveying an impression? One may go into a house which has been empty for a long time, and yet feel, instinctively, what sort of people were last sheltered there. The silent walls breathe a message to each visitor, and as the footfalls echo in the bare cheerless rooms, one discovers where Sorrow and Trouble had their abode, and where the light, careless laughter of gay Bohemia lingered until dawn. At night, who has not heard ghostly steps upon the stairs, the soft closing of unseen doors, the tapping on a window, and, perchance, a sigh or the sound of tears? Timid souls may shudder and be afraid, but wiser folk smile, with reminiscent tenderness, when the old house dreams.

The rain had ceased, and two or three stars, like timid children, were peeping at the world from behind the threatening cloud. It was that mystical moment which no one may place—the turning of night to day. Far down the hill, ghostly, but not forbidding, was Miss Ainslie’s house, the garden around it lying whitely beneath the dews of dawn, and up in the attic window the light still shone, like unfounded hope in a woman’s soul, harking across distant seas of misunderstanding and gloom, with its pitiful “All Hail!”

That night, the gates of Youth turned on their silent hinges for Miss Ainslie. Forgetting the hoary frost that the years had laid upon her hair, she walked, hand in hand with them, through the clover fields which lay fair before them and by the silvered reaches of the River of Dreams. Into their love came something sweet that they had not found before—the absolute need of sharing life together, whether it should be joy or pain. Unknowingly, they rose to that height which makes sacrifice the soul’s dearest offering, as the chrysalis, brown and unbeautiful, gives the radiant creature within to the light and freedom of day.

One of my favorite lines occurred after Ruth and Carl profess their love, but he has to return to the city for a doctor’s visit: “She had little time to miss him, however, for, at the end of the week, and in accordance with immemorial custom, the Unexpected happened.”

The ending was bittersweet – in fact, one character’s whole story was mostly shaded that way – but overall the book was a sweet, clean read.

I listened to the free audiobook at Librivox, which was, unfortunately, read with almost no expression. I enjoyed going over some passages at Project Gutenberg, where one can read the whole book online. I had thought that a movie was made of this in the 40s, but the only movie of it I found mention of was made in the 20s. I may have been confusing it with Arsenic and Old Lace, another classic film and book I’ve not yet read or seen.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday)