Category Archives: literature

Middlemarch

Posted by Mike

It’s a comedy and a tragedy. The author’s subtle humor is seen on every page. She is generally making delicate fun of her characters’ very human frailties and foibles. George Eliot.jpgBut she displays a sensitivity to their feelings and private anguishes that reveals her own broad awareness of the varieties of human physical and emotional predicaments. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) published Middlemarch in 1871, but the incidents in the novel took place in a provincial English country town in the 1830’s.

Middlemarch has an ensemble cast of main and secondary characters; and unless it is read straight through, the reader might have the difficulty I had of being able to place exactly where Mr. Brooke or Mr. Trumbull and others fit into the tangled web of family, social, business and other relationships. Despite this, the main characters show up regularly enough that the reader can get at least their relationships reasonably clear. For me, in long narratives of this sort, I become personally involved in the hopes, affairs and entanglements of the characters, wishing for the best, while knowing that the author has the guiding hand, not Providence, and that resolutions remain with the author and not with my feeble desires and expectations.

I will say that the writing is complex. On virtually every page there are extended passages that I needed to reread if I were to understand the author’s meaning, and there were times that even then I wasn’t sure. Her frequent use of triple negatives and multiple qualifiers often left me gasping for clarity. But ultimately the charm of her style overcame my frustration–to the point that I suspect I have begun to incorporate elements of Evans’ obscurity into my own writing!

The novel is complex, brilliant, sensitive, and true to humanity at least as I see it today in my section of the provinces 150 years later.  Despite the author’s frequent but subtle mocking of the naiveté of her characters, her own humanity and sympathy for them as frail mortals struggling with the immensities of life is evident.

One of these characters is Dorothea. Of  her the author writes:   “…the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Evans is saying here that all of us whose lives are not particularly distinctive but who work at being decent human beings, despite what might be our baser inclinations at times, also contribute in our own small way to the betterment of the world. What a hopeful epitaph, for me and perhaps for you, too.


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Hesse Excessa

Posted by Mike

I first read Hermann Hesse a very long time ago. He was popular with the post-hippy college crowd back in the 70’s; they thought he was saying something to them about finding their way in the world, about individuation, being their own person(s). I read Steppenwolfe , Demian, and Siddhartha. This was a very long time ago. At the beach last month I was desperate to read something – besides the New York Times on-line. There were lots of paperbacks in the living room; most of them seemed to be the kind of romance novels that you see in the libraryin the paperbacks section . In any case, there wasn’t much to read at the beach house that appealed to me. So what did I come upon? A copy of Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund [Hesse, by the way, was the Nobel prize winner in literature in 1946]. Am I going to let this opportunity pass by? No. Of course not. So I picked it up and read it – over the course of a couple of days. What’s it about? It’s reminiscent of the earlier works I read by Hesse: there is a lonely protagonist. He is isolated and has only one friend, whom he quickly leaves, for twenty years of wandering the countryside. What does he do? Basically he womanizes – ad infinitum. Finally he becomes entranced by art and apprentices to a sculptor for a year and produces several fine works which reflect the inner spirit of the sculptor. He tires of the commercialism of professional sculpting, never becomes involved in any significant relationship or community, leaves sculpting and begins wandering again. He becomes ill, returns again to the monastery where he was raised after his mother’s death, and succumbs in the presence of his old friend, Narcissus, who has become the abbot.

In many ways the story is touching. Critics suggest that Hesse is contrasting the Apollonian versus the Dionysian spirit as described in Neitzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. That may be the case; however, despite Goldmund’s extensive philosophizing throughout the book, what I see is a description of a highly narcissistic personality, who takes advantage of virtually every person he comes into contact with, who is unable to establish any kind of relationship to which he makes a commitment or in which he must make any sacrifices, and who is completely unable to participate in an interactive, interrelated, committed community with others. Ironically, the other title character in the novel is called Narcissus; but it is Goldmund who is the narcissistic one. The picture that we have of Narcissus is a bit limited; we know, however, that he has embraced community his entire life and has committed himself to helping and leading others in a compassionate and understanding way.

If you’ve never read Hesse, N and G may be excessa, but find one of his classic novels and read it.

Hermann Hesse Der Steppenwolf 1927.jpg

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Catcher in the Rye

Posted by Mike

So Linda and Jenny raved about The Catcher in the Rye. Jenny had read it three times. Linda said the writing was spectacular. I guess it’s kinda hard to live up to superlatives all of the time. So since Linda was reading it for two book clubs I thought I’d give it a try, having neglected it the first time around. I did. I read it. What’s the big deal, I said. Another coming of age story; had enough of those. Linda said it wasn’t a coming of age story at all. I thought about it and sort of agreed with her. It’s more of an adolescent tragedy; though come to think of it, it’s sort of like a coming of age thing, except that you don’t have the great outcome that you’d expect from that kind of story. The outcome’s a little uncertain – to say the least. Guess I wasn’t in the mood for an adolescent tragi-comedy; or maybe I’m so far past “coming of age” that it’s positively ludicrous; or maybe the life of a maladjusted rich kid from New York City in the 1940’s is just something I can’t understand or relate to.

Linda said to me, “What’s wrong with Holden?” I really couldn’t answer that on the spot. I thought I should be able to. You know, my being a psychologist and all that. So I vamped. I know; it was dishonest; but at least I’m telling you the truth now. Then I thought about it for a while. A couple of things came to mind. First of all Holden had no adult whom he could really confide in – someone who truly seemed to understand him and that he could talk to.  Certainly not his parents, who were too preoccupied with parties and their position in society and in doing things the right way – although to tell the truth we really don’t get a clear picture of what Holden’s parents are like. Then I thought that there really isn’t anything wrong with Holden; but what’s wrong is society and everyone and everything else. Salinger really makes a pretty good case for society being the problem. Holden clearly has issues: his younger brother dies of leukemia; he witnesses the death of a fellow student who was being traumatized by other boys at school. He doesn’t fit in. He sees the phoniness of the society that he is a part of; he can’t and won’t adjust. He fails in school after school – and finally has a breakdown.

Not a pretty story. It’s really a testament to the superficiality of the upper-middle class values of the Eastern establishment in the 1940’s or 1950’s, at least as Salinger saw it. Have things changed since then? I don’t know since most of my experience has been in the provinces. I expect the same kind of phoniness goes on; I just hope that there are more redemptive opportunities available now for kids like Holden Caulfield than there were when he was in school. Do I recommend your reading Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye? Well, it’s considered an American classic.  It’s a comic tragedy; but it’s also an indictment of some important aspects of our culture. We need to heed what it’s telling us about ourselves.

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Huck Finn

Posted by Mike

I’ve just finished reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I honestly don’t know if I’d ever read it before. What’s clear is that if I did I didn’t remember any of it. I didn’t read any of the critics’ comments in the preface prior to reading the novel; I didn’t want to be influenced. As you probably know it’s a picaresque novel, a series of adventures and misadventures, held together by a tenuous story. The central theme is that Huck is accomplishing two things at one time: he’s helping the escaped slave Jim to find his freedom at the same time that he is obtaining his own freedom from a life of convention with the Widow Douglas. Some of the adventures are pretty realistic; some are downright silly and so exaggeratedly over the top that this reader was put off by them. I’d call it a comic romance. The comedy part comes from the humor inserted by the writer into the situations and speech; the romance is falling in love with freedom, with the open road in a sense – in this case, the big wide, slow-moving, inexorable superhighway, the Mississippi River.

Like a lot of today’s readers I’m sure, I had some problems with Clemens’ frequent use of the “N” word. The review I read concluded that Clemens very definitely wasn’t a racist, and I’m convinced of that myself. Despite his upbringing as a poor white Southerner, Huck was out to help save Jim; that was apparent from the beginning, and his attitude toward the outcome confirmed that. In his ruminations, Huck vacillated regarding whether or not he was doing the right thing, but this was the writer’s way of reflecting to the reader the ingrained learnings of the white Southerner re race relations. If it had been a tragedy, which would have been a more realistic outcome of the events, given the time and place, when the two finally would have been caught, Jim would have either been returned to his owner or sold again into slavery – or worse. And Huck would have taken his licks, too. But we don’t have a tragedy, do we, so such a dark, more realistic ending wouldn’t do.

I don’t read novels very often. If you’ve read my earlier postings, you may remember what I said about reading Of Human Bondage last year. That’s a really long novel that reads like an autobiography, which it is to some extent. I got so involved that I was terribly worried about the protagonist when he was having some rough times. Well, can you believe, it happened again! Towards the end of this story, when Huck and Jim were nearing the end of the road, which would have been New Orleans, I began to worry: “What’s going to happen to Jim. There’s no way out, now.” That would have been the tragic ending. Clemens couldn’t do that, so he injected kind of a deus ex machina to help wind things up. Also, at the very end of the story, Tom Sawyer (yes, he’s there, too) is trying to lure Huck into another hair-brained romantic fantasy scheme of his. I practically said out loud, “No Huck. Don’t listen to him! Get away. Get away!”

If like me you’ve never read Huckleberry Finn, or you did but it was long ago, take it up again. It’s a good read.

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