Back to the Classics 2020

So I said no challenges this year. Right. Just call me a lemming, following the crowd, but all the posts about Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge, and I find I’m somewhat helpless to resist. Especially as there are some fun categories this year (I’m looking forward to “Family” and “Nature in the Title”). It also helps that I have one qualifying title read already and another half-done. So there’s that.

The categories this year, and some possibilities:

  1. 19th Century Classic.Whatever doesn’t fit into any other category and was published between 1800-1899.
  2. 20th Century Classic. Whatever doesn’t fit into any other category and was published between 1900-1970.
  3. Classic by a Woman Author. Too many choices to decide so early. Agatha Christie? Jane Austen? Elizabeth Gaskell? Willa Cather? Edith Wharton?
  4. Classic in Translation. Hmm….well, if I read something else for #11 (Abandoned Classic), Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges) could slot here. Most likely something translated from Spanish (knowing me), although it’s been along time since I’ve read anything from French. And I’ve never read any Russians (really!), so maybe I should try something there. I do have some Tolstoy on my shelves.
  5. Classic by a Person of Color. I have several possibilities on my Classics Club list: Native Son, Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), or Go Tell It on the Mountain (Or…Go Tell It on the Mountain could go for #9). I also keep seeing Nella Larson’s name, and it’s about time I finally read one of her novels.
  6. A Genre Classic. The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie. Already finished; I’ll be working on the post next!
  7. Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. Karen says plays are okay and I’m thinking some Shakespeare this year, so maybe finally King Lear or Othello. Or Henry VI or Richard III or… Or maybe Jane Austen’s Emma, because rereads for the win?
  8. Classic with a Place in the Title. Is this the year I finally read Cranford? (Why I haven’t yet, I don’t know. I love Gaskell.) Or I might reread Mansfield Park, which I’ve been itching to get to for a while.
  9. Classic with Nature in the Title. I really don’t know what I want to read here. From my shelves, there’s The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, which I could read as part of my Reading Ohio project as well.
  10. Classic About a Family. This will be a reread of One Hundred Years of Solitude. No debate.
  11. Abandoned Classic. I don’t actually have very many books I could choose from (and I do NOT plan to read both part of Don Quixote this year, even though Part 2 would count). Most likely Ficciones, although I could also finally read The Sound and the Fury (which only got away because of too many library books; I loved what I read).
  12. Classic Adaptation. Another fun category, I’m (currently) reading Far From the Madding Crowd for this. I also plan to watch the 2015 film once I’ve finished the novel, but that’s just for fun.

Of course, 2020 is very likely to be a year of lots of Agatha Christie (I’m on a roll…). She doesn’t count for every category, but I’m sure I could hit #s 2, 3, 7, 8, and 12 just with Dame Agatha alone. Last year, I even contemplated (but did not follow through on) the possibility of completing the challenge with only classic mysteries (I think it would be doable most years, although I’ve never abandoned a mystery, so #11 would be impossible for me this year). Which leads to other tantalizing list ideas…but more on that soon.

So many possibilities, but that’s half the fun of it! But will this be the year I actually read books for every category (and more importantly, write about them)? And do you have any votes for what I should (or shouldn’t read)? Community input always makes reading more fun!

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton
1905, US

(For the spoiler-averse, this post speaks in generalities about the trajectory/end of the novel.)

There was a moment reading The House of Mirth when I suddenly realized that I knew Lily Bart. No, I don’t mean that literally, of course, nor even that I know a wealthy-born, now poor New York Society young woman. But I know someone with some of the same personal characteristics as Lily, a realization which gave me new perspective on her character, pointing to the realism in which Lily is drawn.

I began the novel at the start of December as part of a readalong hosted by Cleo of Classical Carousel (though, true to form I a) started late and b) didn’t finish the least bit on time). It is the story of Miss Lily Bart and the turn of the 19th/20th century New York (old money) society she lives in. Lily is of this society, but lacks the money to maintain herself in it, the consequences of which form much of the drama of the novel.

As I read through each section, I would check in on Cleo’s posts and the comments, noting that many people have lots of feelings about/opinions of Lily – for better or worse. And indeed, she IS a fascinating character. Is she merely naïve? Foolish? Hopelessly optimistic? Incapable of truly facing (or perhaps understanding) reality? Returning to the novel, with these comments in mind, I realized that I knew her. And recognizing that I could see some of the same characteristics—I can’t even consider them flaws, necessarily, as the context can matter so much—in someone I know in my own life, I could see that while it’s so easy as a reader to condemn Lily for her failure to learn from her mistakes, her failure to understand, her failure to make better decisions, her failure to change (or change too late), the reality is that in Lily, Wharton is portraying a personality as realistic as the early 20th century New York set Lily inhabits. Perhaps the story depends on more chance and coincidence, for better and for worse, than real life does…but perhaps not.

I also find it fascinating that the social ills of which Lily is accused are not the ones she is guilty of. This then, suggests to me that more so than condemning Lily, Wharton is condemning her social milieu. Lily hasn’t really done anything wrong in the first half of the novel. Other than be a relatively poor, unmarried woman. Her mistakes are those of not fully playing the game, and of outspending her resources. The first is truly what she is punished for as the second might be forgivable had she obeyed the unspoken rules of the first.

It strikes me that perhaps she does not really belong in the society to which she aspires—perhaps she is more like Lawrence Seldon than she believes (and perhaps the mutual attraction?). Perhaps, as her beauty (which we are reminding of unceasingly) is more refined than any other woman in high society, is Lily also too refined for high society? Certainly, there seem opportunities for Lily to turn her fortunes around, which she declines out of moral reservation. Regardless, it seems a condemnation of the double standards of the rich (or perhaps “civilized society” in general) with one set of rules for the married vs. single, for men vs. women, for rich vs. dependent. For all her flaws and mistakes, Lily seems to me as much a victim as she is a participant in her own downfall. She has never been taught to see beyond the narrow confines of her world, and when she finally sees a glimmer of hope and life beyond herself it is too late. A devastatingly beautiful story.

Many thanks to Cleo for hosting, her insightful posts, and the encouragement to read along (even though I’m always behind)!

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Anonymous
c. late 14th century, England
J.R.R. Tolkien, translator (pub. 1975)

And so this Yule passed over and
the year after, and severally the seasons ensued in their
turn: after Christmas there came the crabbed Lenten that
with fish tries the flesh and with food more meagre; but
then the weather in the world makes war on the winter,
cold creeps into the earth, clouds are uplifted, shining rain
is shed in showers that all warm fall on the fair turf,
flowers there open, of grounds and groves green is
the raiment, birds are busy a-building and bravely are
singing for sweetness of the soft summer that will soon be on
     the way
and blossoms burgeon and blow
in hedgerows bright and gay;
then glorious musics go
through the woods in proud array. (Stanza 22)

If I recall correctly, my familiarity with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, prior to listening to The Great Courses® series The Western Literary Canon in Context, was seeing it listed as one of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. This was a misattribution–although he contributed to a scholarly edition of the Middle English text, his only other involvement in a Sir Gawain story was as a translator. But even with the Tolkien connection, chances are it very likely would never have made it onto any of my Classics Club lists were it not for the aforementioned Great Courses series–I have not yet read a large number of the titles covered by Professor John M. Bowers, and so have started adding them to my various “to read” lists. Thus it was with Sir Gawain.*

Although written in the late 14th century, making the anonymous author roughly a contemporary of Chaucer, unlike the more famous works by the London poet, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight stayed in relative obscurity for centuries, with only one manuscript–a scribal transcription rather than an original–surviving. Little is thus known about the author of Sir Gawain, although based on his dialect, it is believed that the author was from the West Midlands of England, perhaps Cheshire, and it is possible that his work lost favor for political rather than literary reasons (the author may have been a part of Richard II’s court, who was deposed by the future Henry IV). It is possible–Tolkien thinks likely–that he wrote a number of other poems as well, including Pearl, Purity (or Cleanness) and Patience, all of which were contained in the same manuscript. It is also possible that he was a clergyman (so Bowers speculates), though Tolkien suggests that his interest in theology may have been that of an amateur.

‘But in this you lacked, sir, a little, and of loyalty came short.
But that was for no artful wickedness, nor for wooing either,
but because you loved your own life: the less do I blame you.’ (stanza 95)

Certainly, Christianity flavors the entire story, with references to Biblical stories and faith throughout. After introductory stanzas connecting the kings of Britain with Aeneas (of Trojan War and Aeneid fame)–apparently it was the thing to connect Britain to Troy–we enter a Christmastime scene at King Arthur’s Camelot court. It is a season of celebration, but King Arthur is also fond of a challenge, and is only too happy when the Green Knight–not merely dressed in green, but with hair and skin of a green hue as well, and towering over the knights at court–appears to challenge a courageous knight to trade blows. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge, beheading the Green Knight. Of course, this being a chivalric romance, the knight calmly picks up his head, reminds Sir Gawain that he has promised to appear before the Green Knight in a year to bravely take a blow from the Knight’s hands, and leaves. The remainder of the poem that follows is the story of Sir Gawain’s unplanned visit at Lord Bertilak de Hautdesert’s castle before his necessary departure to place his fate in the hands of the Green Knight. But the bulk of the poem–most of part II and all of part III–takes place at the castle, as we follow the games and temptations that ensue as both Lord and Lady Bertilak extract hasty promises from Sir Gawain who struggles to live up to the codes of Chivalry and courtesy in the face of temptations and the fear of his likely impending death. I can’t recall if it is ever directly stated, but even if not, it is clearly strongly implied that the codes by which Sir Gawain is expected to live and the courtesy for which he is known are considered not merely knightly virtues, but Christian ones, and by extension, the temptations he faces, are temptations to sin not merely against his host but against God.

The story is told over 101 stanzas of varying length, but following a poetic style known as the Alliterative Revival (revived from older Anglo-Saxon works). Unlike what we might think of as alliteration today, Sir Gawain’s alliteration is based on the sounds of words on the stressed syllable. To borrow an example from the Appendix, in the phrase “apt alliteration’s artful aide,” “alliteration” does NOT alliterate because the stressed syllable is “-lit-.” On the other hand, every word in the phrase “Old English art” would have been considered alliterative, because vowels alliterated with each other. Each line was divided into two halves, and the alliterative sound between the front and back half may not have always been the same (although, perhaps more so in the original than in translation). Interestingly, alliterating many (say 3 or 4) syllables in a half-line was not considered necessary. The stanzas ended with a device known as the “bob and wheel,” a five line structure of one very short (typically two to three syllables) line (the bob) followed by four more lines about half as long as the rest of the stanza (the wheel). In addition to maintaining alliteration in the wheel, a rhyme scheme, absent elsewhere, is added: ABABA. Amazingly, Tolkien is able to maintain all this complexity throughout his translation!

The language–dialect–of Sir Gawain is apparently even further from Modern English than Chaucer’s, and so Tolkien, in his introduction states that for any but the Medieval scholar translation is necessary. (A statement I easily believe based on snippets of the original in the Appendix of my copy as well as those I’ve seen online.) Reading it, I appreciate the availability of translation to bring us this gem, but is one of those many times when I have appreciated the difficulty of the translator’s task–and wondered how, with its poetic structure, it could possibly be translated into a language with completely different characteristics (as from a Germanic to a Romance language). Certainly, it seems it would bring a different reading experience–and makes me pause to wonder how different it is when translated into a descendant language. After all, there were times when I noted that the syntax seemed perhaps a bit Yoda-like: was this play of word order unique on Tolkien’s part in order to match the original’s alliteration as closely as possible, or is it a carry-over from the original? In his commentary on the verse form of the poem, Tolkien does note that at times he had to vary the alliteration more than the original, if for no other reason than that there were no appropriate equivalent-meaning words in Modern English that could alliterate with a key word that couldn’t change (a location name, for example)

(Source, Simon Armitage translation. Click either for full size)

It took me some time to decide on which translation I wanted to read of Sir Gawain. A decent number are available; the most recent by Simon Armitage is, I believe, the edition currently selected for the Norton Anthology of English Literature. However, when I read some bits as translated by Armitage, I was reminded of one of my particular translation preferences: when a work is old (especially very old, as with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), I prefer the translation to sound as if it is old as well–almost as if it is of the same era, just in English I can understand. Perhaps other translations may be of a better quality or more readable, or flow better, but Tolkien’s fits my own preferences. Sir Gawain  is old and sounds it. Of course, sometimes this means that Tolkien uses archaic (or for that matter, obscure armor-related) terms; fortunately there is a glossary. But overall, I was satisfied with my choice. It doesn’t hurt that the book comes with two other Tolkien translations as well, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. Guess what’s up next on my reading plans?

* Context information from the Introduction and Appendix to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1975 (HarperCollins) and from The Great Courses® course, The Western Literary Canon in Context, taught by Professor John M. Bowers, 2008 (The Teaching Company).

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for the 20th Classics Club Spin. It also slots into the “translation” category for Back to the Classics 2019.

Completed: The Woman in White

Is anyone as shocked as I am to find out that it’s the end of April already? I’m really not sure where the past month went. And alas, my reading seems to have vanished with it–despite a readathon earlier this month, I haven’t finished a single book since mid-March. Guess what my plan is for May? But at least I still have a small pile of drafts to post here–it makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, even if I also wrote these up over a month ago. Sigh.

Cover: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White
Wilkie Collins
England, 1859

I was determined to finally read The Woman in White last autumn as a suitably seasonal read, and although I only write it up now, I did more or less succeed in reading it during the appropriate season.

I’ve long been a Collins fan, having found The Moonstone unputdownable when I read it in high school, but somehow or another I’d never managed to read his other famous mystery. While I didn’t fly through it the way I did The Moonstone (a fault, perhaps, of me as a reader), I found is surprisingly engaging considering that the mystery seemed slight, with much of the outcome well-foreshadowed.

It is a story told through the narration of several different pens, and it begins with a long section of narration by Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who firsts meets the mysterious woman in white on his way home one night. In his recollections, he seems unexpectedly affected by the brief encounter, though perhaps this is to be expected when only days later he discovers a strong physical resemblance between the woman and one of his new pupils. The idea of a woman in white conjures up the idea of a ghost, and indeed, this flesh-and-blood woman proves to have a sort of ghostly presence throughout the rest of novel, turning up again and again, whether in person or in conversation. The mystery of her past and her present will prove to have unexpected ramifications for the remainder of our cast of characters.

And yet, it does not seem at first as if the existence of this mysterious woman should have any true impact. Walter is to teach Laura Fairlie and Marion Halcombe drawing in the months before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival Glyde. The marriage was sanctioned by Laura’s father shortly before he died, and there seems nothing sinister in the arrangement, at least not at first. But time, money problems, and Laura’s unfortunate affection for Walter, will prove that all is perhaps not as it first seems with Sir Glyde or his friend Count Fosco.

No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace–they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship–they take us, body and soul, to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?

An early example of the mystery genre, The Woman in White remains a classic of the form. It is full of suspense and mystery and memorable characters, none of whom are extraneous to the plot. And although it sits well with the realm of Victorian sensationalist novels, I found it surprisingly feminist–it seems that Collins was not a fan of the institution of marriage, or at least the ways it could harm women. It is not merely that he gives us Marion, a strong, intelligent woman, but the undercurrent of criticism of the limitations which Laura faced as a married woman, unable to control her destiny. And although Laura may at first appear to be the prototypical Victorian lady, she has her own sort of inner strength as well, disturbed though it may be by her husband’s harsh treatment.

Suspenseful and full of great characters–Count Fosco is a fascinating study–it is no wonder that The Woman in White endures. I imagine I could read it again and get something yet different out of it. Now I’ve only to wonder why it took me so long to read it in the first place?

And the Spin is…

Lucky number 19!

Sir Gawain first page 670x990

It never fails – the book that I get for a Classics Club spin is never one of the ones I had my fingers crossed for–or even one that the comments discuss! No one mentioned Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at all – apparently not very popular? Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of my own, so it’s translation selection time. As I’ve been doing some quick research, I’m becoming more excited about this title, though–can’t wait to have it in my hands!

Did you spin? Are you looking forward to–or dreading!–your selection?

Happy reading!

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Cover: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna ClarkeJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Susanna Clarke
2004, Britain

He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought, was worth the loss of forty books. (Ch. 29)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell has been on my shelf, and my to-be-read list for quite some time. It sounded just my thing: a tale of two magicians, set in Regency England. A sort of Harry Potter-Jane Austen mash-up. It took me some time to get to it, however, as I find so often with books I own rather than books I’ve borrowed.

It is a deliciously slow read, not the brisk jaunt through magic and manners that one might expect of a genre novel. Rather, it unfolds its tale gradually, taking us from York and the Society of Magicians–more a social dinner group, than anything–to the bustle of London, the battlefields of the Iberian Peninsula, the remote English countryside, and beyond. As the story opens, neither title character is anywhere in sight, and one wonders at first if the first magician we encounter, John Segundus, will perhaps morph into one of the titular characters. He is rather our introduction to this magical world–someone who believes in magic, but doesn’t know how to yet do it himself. It is not long, however, before Mr. Norrell comes on the scene and so begins the long, winding build-up to the great climatic battle of magic and wits. All in good manners and taste, of course.

There is an interesting tension in the world that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell inhabits, between a reality that impresses upon the reader the idea that this is almost a pure historical fiction tale–the Regency era is rendered so fully–and the wonderous magical environment overlaid upon the history. King George III and the Duke of Wellington are characters, but so are the magical Raven King and the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. More fully rounding out the depth of the invented world are the delightful footnotes, complete with (fictional) citations to historical and magical books, telling tales of the (fictional) history of English magic and folklore.

I found Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell a delightful and immersive, if slow, read (though how much of that is one me?), and I could see myself returning to its magical world again. After reading it, I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation, and was equally charmed, though I really see the TV series as a complement, rather than replacement for the novel.

Completed: Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle

Cover: Many Waters by Madeleine L'EngleMany Waters
Madeleine L’Engle
(1986, US)

Dennys raised his face to the stars, and their light fell against his cheeks like dew. They chimed at him softly. Do not seek to comprehend. All shall be well. Wait. Patience. Wait. You do not always have to do something. Wait. Chapter 12

There were over two decades between the publication of A Wrinkle in Time and Many Waters, the fourth book in the loose “Time Quintet.” And in a way, it feels it. The magic that I felt with Wrinkle and its second sequel, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, seems to be gone.

The ties between Many Waters and the earlier books are by way of the Murry twins, Dennys and Sandy, who compared to the rest of the Murry family, are “normal” and more skeptical than their siblings: Meg and Charles Wallace may believe in unicorns, but they don’t. And yet it is these two who, whether through accident or divine intervention, find themselves in a pre-flood world, sharing a tent with (Biblical) Noah’s father, Lamech, and befriend Noah, his wife, his sons and their wives, and his daughter, Yalith. The Genesis story doesn’t give names to the women, nor does it tell us if Noah had daughters–or any other living family, for that matter–and so this becomes an interesting exploration of a familiar story: what is the story of the unnamed women? What would it have been like for Noah and his sons and their wives to know that others they loved and cared for would die in a devastating flood? What if Noah had a daughter?

It is a strange book, in a way. One part Bible story retelling, one part fantasy, one part sci-fi time-travel – I’m not sure what to make of it. There seems a disconnect between fleshing out the story of Noah and his family, pre-flood, while also introducing unicorns and manticore of later European story-telling and adding in time-traveling boys from centuries later.

Additionally, while the earlier novels seem to focus on the emotional growth of the main characters–learning to defeat darkness by overcoming their own flaws or learning to love and share love–here, it seems that the twins’ story is more about their sexual awakening rather than any emotional growth. Indeed, the sexuality seems so frank, that I would be inclined to classify this as YA, while still thinking of the earlier novels as mid-grade books. Though, to be fair, I first read this in elementary school and anything that might have been more “grown up” went straight over my head!

I was a bit disappointed in this novel compared to the earlier books–I was hoping for more of the magical world I found in A Wrinkle in Time. I still have one book left in the series, but knowing that it was written after this last one, I admit, I’m approaching it with a bit of trepidation – will it be a return to form, or will the magic be gone?