Review of Lord Jim

Image result for lord jim coversWhat was it about?

As first mate, Lord Jim abandons a sinking ship with 800 passengers on board. After being publicly disgraced for his cowardice, he meets Marlow who offers Jim a fresh start working for a friend. But Jim’s wounded ego is not easily healed. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad is one man’s quest to make peace with his past. The novel explores cowardice and guilt as well as the motivations behind British imperialism.

What did I think of it?

Joseph Conrad doesn’t have a rosy reputation today. His most famous novel Heart of Darkness has been condemned by authors like Chinua Achebe for its racism and imperialism. Despite his reputation, I decided to read Lord Jim because it is one of the few works of fiction in the English language that explores the psychological effect of guilt. The premise intrigued me.

Conrad writes some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. Rich imagery and psychologically-complex characters fill the pages of this novel. Jim’s story is told from the perspective of all the men and women Marlow met on his travels. Because the narrator is not omniscient, the reader can never know for sure what Jim felt and thought. Lord Jim is cited as one of the first psychological novels in the English language.

Jim’s character resonated with me. He has difficulty taking responsibility for his cowardice. He doesn’t want to be seen as a coward, so he invents a story to explain why he jumped. Jim desires Marlow’s affirmation, whatever the cost. Most novels look at guilt from the perspective of the victim, but this novel looks at the effect of guilt on the guilty. How do the guilty deal with their past? How should they cope? The second part of the book follows Jim’s adventures on a Malaysian island. The White Man’s Burden theme is balanced by a not entirely positive portrayal of British imperialism. Lord Jim may not bear well under post-colonial scrutiny, but it is a brilliant study of personal guilt. Conrad intended for Jim to represent all of humanity. In that regard, Lord Jim is a good companion to Moby-Dick.

Favorite Quote

“We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account. We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those whom we love, but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,- even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear consciousness.”

Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

What was it about? 

Image result for lincoln in the bardoWillie Lincoln, the 10 year old son of President Abraham Lincoln, has died. But while in the Bardo (a limbo-like state), Willie’s soul attempts to make contact with the boy’s living father. Two ghosts named Roger Bevins III (a closeted gay man who committed suicide) and Hans Vollman (a newlywed who died while lusting after his wife) narrate most of the story. They think they are only sick, so they refer to the coffin as a sick box. Bevins and Vollman have made it their mission to reconcile Willie with his father. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is experimental fiction that explores love, death, guilt, and war through the eyes of eccentric ghosts. Passages from the writings of Lincoln’s contemporaries are combined with the observations of outrageous-looking ghosts to illustrate one of the most intimate and tragic events in President Lincoln’s personal life.

What did I think of it?

If you have been following my blog for any length of time you know that I am a sucker for experimental fiction that explores large existential questions. After all the hype surrounding this novel, I expected Lincoln in the Bardo to become one of my favorite books of 2017. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations. An experimental narrative structure can help or hurt a story. It is usually employed to explore more abstract aspects of life. When evaluating experimental fiction, I consider how the style relates to the questions or themes the novel is addressing. Lincoln in the Bardo is about one of the darkest moments in President Lincoln’s life: the death of his son Willie. The chapters that deal with Lincoln’s grief were some of my favorite chapters. I enjoyed reading Lincoln’s most intimate thoughts. The passages from contemporary writers were also quite powerful because they placed the boy’s death in the larger context of the ongoing civil war. Seen from the perspective of the civil war, Willie’s death allowed President Lincoln to experience what thousands of parents around the country were already experiencing. Unfortunately, the Bardo itself felt like a distraction from the overall story. The ghosts reminded me of the monsters in Nightmare Before Christmas. As someone who has had personal experience with the death of a child, I expected the novel to cause me to revisit certain thoughts and events. The outrageous and at times vulgar behavior of the ghosts prevented me from feeling for Lincoln’s loss. Just when the ghosts began to discuss larger existential questions, the dialogue would be interrupted by an event that had nothing whatever to do with President Lincoln or Willie. If the Bardo was supposed to serve as comic relief, it was definitely overdone. Overall, I felt that Lincoln in the Bardo was all style and little substance.

Maybe it’s not entirely the book’s fault. I picked up the novel for very personal reasons. I may not have been the intended audience. I’m interested in knowing how other readers who know something about Lincoln’s grief felt about Lincoln in the Bardo. In general, I want to know what readers thought of the ghosts. What role do you think they played in the novel? Did you enjoy the narrative style?

Favorite Quote

“What I mean to say is, we had been considerable. Had been loved. Not lonely, not lost, not freakish, but wise, each in his or her own way. Our departures caused pain. Those who had loved us sat upon their beds, heads in hand; lowered their faces to tabletops, making animal noises. We had been loved, I say, and remembering us, even many years later, people would smile, briefly gladdened at the memory.” 

Personal Canon

Note: These are the books that have had a lasting impact on me. The ones numbered 1, 2, and 3 are my three favorite books in descending order. After the third book, the rest of the books are in no particular order. This list is pretty specific. I consider everything I read that’s any good (4 or 5 stars) as important for my personal and/or intellectual development, and therefore a part of my personal canon. These are the best of the best.

Fiction
1) Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
2) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
3) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman (both) by Harper Lee
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate) by Alain Fournier
Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (The Diary of a Country Priest) by Georges Bernanos
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
Don Quixote by Cervantes
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw
My Antonià by Willa Cather
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Molière
Le Petit Nicolas a Des Ennuis (Little Nicolas Gets in Trouble) by René Goscinny (the first French stories I ever read)
La Tristesse du Cerf-Volant by Françoise Mallet-Joris (the first French novel I ever read by myself. I read it on my own time. There’s no better way to learn a language. It’s also a great piece of literary fiction)

Spiritual (You knew that would be a category)
Ecclesiastes and the Gospel of John in the Bible
Confessions by Saint Augustine
Revelation of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich
The Life of Antony by Athanasius of Alexandria
Works of Love by Kierkegaard

Studies (Also mostly related to religion)
The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter
Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown (excellent biography)
Sacred Violence by Jill N. Claster (best study on the crusades)

Go Set a Watchman and Prejudice

Image result for go set a watchmanWhat was it about?

Jean Louise returns to Maycomb County after living for years in New York. Her father Atticus is now in his 70s, and she is courted by her childhood friend Henry. Jean Louise is still rambunctious and independent, but it looks like her family has changed. One day she finds evidence that her father and uncle have been attending the Maycomb County citizen’s council. Atticus speaks out against the recent Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation. He only defended that black boy for professional reasons. The Supreme Court overstepped its boundaries. Atticus must continue to defend black people, otherwise the NAACP will.

Jean Louise is horrified. Her father had been her role model, but she had been deceived. He had deceived her. How can she ever love her father again? Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee’s controversial sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. For the first time, Jean Louise (and the reader) has to face the unpleasant truth about the character of a beloved lawyer and father.

What did I think of it?

I put off reading this book for a long time because of all the controversy surrounding the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. I also admired Atticus Finch like so many other Americans. But in the past year, I have become increasingly interested in the dark side of humanity (evil, prejudice, and guilt). I knew that I needed to read GSAW. 

Even though it was very poorly edited (I believe it was only a first draft), GSAW will probably be one of my favorite books of 2017. This is the only book that I have ever read that explores prejudice from the white perspective. Growing up, I was taught that racism was something that existed 50 years ago, but is no longer an institutional problem in America. We were so wrong. Like Jean Louise, we thought of Atticus as the exception to the rule – the white savior who represented the “good” white man. Unfortunately, this image of Atticus has prevented us from having a serious discussion about prejudice. GSAW is so hard to read because it is clear that Atticus is not an entirely bad person. As long as we assume that only “bad” people are capable of prejudice, institutional prejudice will continue to exist in America.

Atticus is an educated man. He justifies his prejudice with reasoned argumentation. Prejudice is so hard to combat because the person who is prejudiced thinks his/her beliefs are reasonable. The “white trash” image of prejudice is so convenient because it allows the rest of us to wash our hands of the problem. As long as we pretend that only “uneducated” people are capable of prejudice, we will keep pretending that America is colorblind, and people of color will continue to face oppression. Jean Louise might think she is innocent, but a closer look at her character reveals that she too is guilty of racism.

I may not be white, but facing my own personal prejudices in the past year has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. For very personal reasons, I am so glad I read GSAW. In general, I strongly believe that TKAM and GSAW should be read together.

Favorite Quote

“A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.”

Review of Two Plays by Marivaux

Since the two plays I recently finished were in the same collection, I will review them both in the same post.

Note: While the name of the characters are the same in the last three plays I’ve read, the characters play different roles in each of the plays. So, the beginning of one play does not spoil the ending of another play.

      1. La double inconstance (Double Inconstancy)

La double inconstance suivi de Arlequin poli par l'amourWhat was it about?

A prince and his servants try to break up the relationship between Silvia and Arlequin. The prince wants to marry Silvia, but she is just too devoted to Arlequin. Unfortunately, bribery does not work because neither of the two cares for courtly life. It’s all flattery and hypocrisy. Still, the prince tries his best to deceive the lovers. Double Inconstancy is a slapstick comedy about love and fidelity.

What did I think of it?

While the comedy is less complex than in A Game of Love and Chance, it’s more immediate. Arlequin carries a baton, which he uses to strike at the prince’s servants. This must be the first slapstick comedy I have ever read, so I was initially horrified by Arlequin’s actions. We are conditioned to find abuse in comedy off-putting, especially in domestic comedies. That’s understandable, and probably good. But I quickly overcame my horror, and began to appreciate Arlequin’s witticisms. While I preferred A Game of Love and ChanceDouble Inconstancy was still quite clever.

    1. Arlequin poli par l’amour (Harlequin Polished by Love)

What was it about?

A fairy kidnaps Arlequin while he’s sleeping the woods. But he seems completely oblivious to his kidnapping. The fairy tries to force him to love her, but Arlequin is only concerned about food. The wizard Merlin is already engaged to be married to the fairy, but the fairy does not care about her own reputation. She will get Arlequin to love her by hook or by crook. Harlequin Polished by Love is one of the magical slapstick comedies in Marivaux’s Commedia dell’arte – inspired repertoire.

What did I think of it?

In comparison to the two previous plays I read, Harlequin Polished by Love is the least complex, but it is highly entertaining for a one-act play. I would love to see a performance of this play. Fairies, goblins, and a magic ring make this a very engrossing comedy. I’m sure the stage design would be more elaborate. Arlequin is also the most ridiculous in this play. This may be my favorite Marivaux play so far.

Bloomsbury has published a collection of Marivaux’s plays in English: http://www.bloomsbury.com/us/marivaux-plays-9780413185600/

Review of Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard (A Game of Love and Chance)

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "le jeu de l'amour et du hasard"What was it about?

Sylvia is betrothed to a man whom she fears may be a hypocrite like other men. She She knows women who are married to men who pretend to be virtuous in public but are abusive at home. With her father Monsieur Orgon’s approval, Sylvia disguises herself as her servant Lisette to put her suitor Doronte to the test. Lisette disguises herself as her mistress. But what Sylvia and Lisette don’t know is that Doronte has had the same idea. He too has decided to disguise himself as his servant. Doronte’s valet Arlequin now has the difficult task of passing as his master. Only Monsieur Orgon and Sylvia’s brother Mario know the truth. Each party in the drama does not know that the other is pretending to be someone else. Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard by Marivaux (1688-1763) is a comedy that explores the role of social class in love.

What did I think of it?

I first heard about this play through the French film L’Esquive. The teenagers in the film were performing Marivaux’s play in school. Their own personal struggles mirrored that of the characters in the play. I’m interested in social class, so I was immediately excited to read Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard.

While I enjoyed the play, it was quite challenging to read. Whenever Sylvia was speaking I had to tell myself that she was disguised as Lisette. Lisette disguised as Sylvia might be speaking to Arlequin disguised as Lisette, but the play merely said that Lisette was speaking to Arlequin. I had to fill in the rest in my mind. It was even more challenging when there were three characters in a scene. I found a performance of the play on YouTube. The performance is much easier to follow than the book.

Still, I do not regret reading the play. It is brilliantly constructed. It is not only an exploration of social class but also a commentary on performance in general. The audience of the play knows that it is watching a performance, but do we realize that we are acting in our everyday lives? Sylvia and Doronte insist that people wear masks in public to hide their true selves. Everyone knows subconsciously that the whole world is a stage. By disguising themselves as their servants, Sylvia and Doronte try to profit from the system. Ironically, their disguises only reinforce what they want to knock down. Sylvia disguises herself to see Doronte as he truly is, but Doronte isn’t who he truly is.

Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard is the play you return to time and time again because of its brilliant construction and universal themes. I look forward to reading more Marivaux soon. I own two other of his plays: Double inconstance and Arlequin poli par l’amour. There are English versions of A Game of Love and Chance available.

Favorite Quote

Lisette : Venons au fait ; m’aimes-tu ?
Arlequin : Pardi ! oui. En changeant de nom, tu n’as pas changé de visage, et tu sais bien que nous nous sommes promis fidélité en dépit de toutes les fautes d’orthographe.

[My Translation]:

Lisette: Let’s get to the fact; do you love me?
Arlequin: For heaven’s sake! Yes. In changing your name, you have not changed your face, and you know well that we promised fidelity to one another despite all spelling mistakes.