Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Links
Agatha Christie
1923, England
Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie’s third published novel brings us the second outing with Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings. This time, we are taken to northern France, whence Poirot has been summed by a potential client, Paul Renauld, on a matter of some urgency. However, by the time they arrive, Renauld is dead, and the great detective must turn his attention to murder. This is complicated by the presence of the French police, specifically Monsieur Giraud of the Sûreté, who has little appreciation or patience for Poirot’s more thoughtful methods. Hastings for his part is dazzled by Giraud’s activity and on more than one occasion expects that Poirot is out-detected. Of course, Hastings isn’t always the most reliable of observers, and true to form proves easily distracted by a pretty face, further muddling his observational skills.

Unfortunately, I read Murder on the Links about a year ago and didn’t take any notes, so I don’t really remember my response to it all that well, although the general plot of the story has stuck with me surprisingly well. It is a mystery full of twists and turns, questionable identities, and hidden secrets from the past; secrets that once identified, begin to help Poirot’s unraveling of the case. Hastings is perhaps a bit annoying in his obtuseness, and the inclusion of history that Poirot knows but the reader has no access to can be frustrating to the armchair detective. Nonetheless, an enjoyable diversion.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
Agatha Christie
1921, England
Hercule Poirot

Not only is The Mysterious Affair at Styles Christie’s first novel, it is the first Hercule Poirot mystery. Set in the countryside during the First World War, it is a wonderful coincidence–one that likely enables a terrible crime to be solved correctly–that Poirot happens to be a war refugee living in the neighborhood and that a friend from the pre-war days, Hastings, is staying at Styles House, where the crime occurs. Hastings will prove the Watson to Poirot’s Holmes – though I must say, he strikes me as quite the inferior Watson. He prides himself as an observer and yet he never quite seems to get it–not merely in the detection of crime (for which we could all be given fails, as clever as the mastermind is here), but he doesn’t even seem able to recognize the truth of ordinary interactions between people, including those involving himself. It can be a bit frustrating for the reader at times, although perhaps this is intentional, to allow us a little feeling of superiority even when we fail spectacularly at solving the crime (err…as I always do, at least!)

There are all the ingredients of a typical Poirot novel: a country house setting, a small cast of suspects, a difficult case that the police can’t get right, red herrings, even a set of locked doors posing difficulties. Poirot performs his typical work of genius in neatly uncovering the solution at the very end. And yet–it didn’t quite feel “right” to me. Somehow, I didn’t feel as at home at Styles as have with later Christie novels.  Perhaps this is the reflection of it being a “first” – Poirot didn’t feel quite fully “Poirot-like” to me, yet, though that may because I am not used to seeing him through the eyes of Hastings. But the novel also didn’t feel quite as tight in its execution, and although I am quite used to not actually solving the crime, usually there’s this feeling of “Oh, right…” that didn’t quite happen for me here. So not quite my favorite Christie, but it certainly does nothing to dissuade me from more!

[Read in early 2019….and just now finally posting! Part of my Agatha Christie reading project.]

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)!

Welcome 2020!

Happy New Year! Sitting here in NE Ohio, I know that it’s already 2020 in parts of the world – a rapidly growing list. This turn of year makes me happy; I’ve long had a fondness for even number years (and the repetition of “20” is particularly pleasing to my brain). Every new year brings with it a chance to reflect on what’s passed, an opportunity to create new plans for the path forward (that new leaf of a new year), and the hope of an unknown, blank slate. (Though in these often troubled, turbulent times, I am not blind to the reality that the new year could also usher in less optimistic options. I prefer to hope for and act to bring better.)

While we didn’t have a white Christmas this year, as I sit here typing, it seems we will have a white New Years—the snow is softly falling and cars are already covered in a fine layer. It seems appropriate; snow often brings with it a sense of newness. I look forward to curling up with a fresh new book tomorrow, starting the new year on literary note.

But what of 2019?

I had goals for the year, and although the blogging fell by the wayside, I never stopped reading.

  • I managed 29 books for the year, short of my goal of 36. Interestingly, I read 19 of those in the second half. There are various reasons why, including which books I read when, but I suspect I simply spent more time reading in the least 6 months than in the first (more time off work in the time frame helps!).
  • Seven of the books—and some of the best—I read this year, were non-fiction. This is down by (1) from 2018; I may have to reconsider my mental image of myself as “not a non-fiction reader.”
  • I also read a novel completely in Spanish for the first time ever! Sure, it was a kid’s book that I’d previously read in the original English (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, translated as Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal), but I read the entire thing and understood it, learning some new words along the way. I hope to build on this success going forward; after all there’s a small stack of books on my shelf in the original Spanish.
  • Other than that, I only read two works in translation this year—and they were also the oldest books I read, Iliad and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Interestingly, also both poems.) Iliad I struggled with, finding it very slow, but Sir Gawain I quite enjoyed: if I hadn’t been trying feverishly to finish three other books this past week, I probably would have reread it for the Christmas season. (Which I guess technically doesn’t end until the 6th of January, so there’s still time!)
  • Both books were read for my Classics Club list, as was House of Mirth, which also doubled as one of the two readalong titles that I read. (Both hosted by Cleo of Classical Carousel.) Alas, I only just finished House of Mirth, two weeks late, and I never wrote anything (though I finished it on time) for The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis). However, regardless of my level of participation/lateness, I always find readalongs great for pushing me to read books that I might not get to otherwise.
  • Most of the books I read this year were by women: I count 20 books written or co-written by a woman and 11 written or co-written by a man. (Two books I read had a M/F author combo.) This only represents about 14 different female authors—I read a lot of books by the same authors!
  • I also read a lot of books from the past decade, including two from 2019, which skews my reading “younger” that it might typically be. This is in part because most of the nonfiction I read was from the last few years. But also because I decided to toss all other plans aside and read both sequels to Crazy Rich Asians (so much fun!) and books 2-4 of the Comeron Strike series (when’s the next one out?!). Unsurprisingly, mysteries turned out to be the second-largest category for my reading this year (six), after non-fiction.
  • Although the bulk of my reading was by US authors—far and away, with 16 different writers—I did travel  a bit, with books set in Canada; Ancient Troy (Turkey); Scotland; London; as well as hotspot hopping with the characters of China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, most notably Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

In the end, I finished the year with several new favorites (listed in order read):

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Anonymous – I really need to read more Medieval lit.
  • Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates – which as Toni Morrison is quoted as saying, should be required reading. I want to read more of Coates’ writing.
  • The Comoran Strike series – Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) – I simply enjoy these so much.
  • How to Do Nothing – Jenny Odell – A very thought-provoking extended meditation on resisting the “attention economy” of social and traditional media.
  • The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton – it took me a while to get into it, but definitely a finely drawn portrait of a specific time and social milieu.

What I did NOT do this year was complete any of my challenges/goals. Only three books for Adam’s TBR Challenge and five for Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge. And the only book I posted about at all for either was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oops.

So what does this all mean for 2020?

Just keep reading. Specifically, average 5 hours of reading time a week. (It doesn’t sound like a lot when you know a week is 168 hours, but based on everything else on my schedule, is realistic. And better than nothing.) And write about anything I might read for Classics Club or readalongs.

That’s it. My only hard and fast goal/challenge for 2020.

Sure, I have other ideas of what I might read. Tentative plans. More mysteries. Some Shakespeare, I think. Some books I’d like to clear off my shelves. And of course, I’d like to join in on readalongs that catch my eye:

  • Cleo has a The Odyssey readalong planned for April-May.
  • I’m also tempted by a March-April readalong of One Hundred Years of Solitude planned by Ruth and Silvia (it would be a reread, if I join in).
  • Richard is hosting “Argentine Literature of Doom,” which fortunately just means read something Argentinian (see his post for the “doom” explanation). I’m planning to join in so that I finally read Jorge Luis Borge’s Ficciones (in English).

I’ve also signed up for Erica’s Reading Classics Books Challenge, but it’s designed to be low-stress and fun, so honestly, I’m hoping it acts more as a way to choose which book I’m reading next rather than a challenge to conquer. The first book for it will be my Classics Club spin title, Far from the Madding Crowd.

But as the old year turns to new, I’ll be starting here, with a small library stack tying in to my 2019 reading – more mysteries and non-fiction. A good place to start, I think.

What are your 2020 plans?

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.