Classics Spin #24

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I don’t really have time for this. I have so many books already planned for the next few months, especially library books either to finish or already on hold, as well as a couple possible readalongs. I don’t have time to be adding any more books to my ‘immediate plans’ list. Nope, really should skip this one…so here’s the list. 🙂

  1. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  3. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
  4. Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls (U.S., 1940)
  5. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  6. Morrison, Toni: Beloved (U.S., 1987)
  7. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  8. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)
  9. Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man (U.S., 1952)
  10. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  11. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)*
  12. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)*
  13. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
  14. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  15. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  16. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  17. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  18. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  19. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  20. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)

A randomized list of my remaining classics club books I already have or are readily available from the library. Titles with an * are rereads.

Looking over the list, I’m reminded why I want to participate in the spin: I can’t decide which of these I want to read first! Even the long titles are appealing (I’m kind of hoping for 2666, actually, and I’m sure I don’t have time to read that, even with a September 30 deadline.)

Here’s to a good spin!

The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
Anonymous
c. 1200, Germany
A.T. Hatto, translator

We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors – of such things you can now hear wonders unending!

Thus begins the medieval German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied. The poet’s introductory description is indeed apt, for it is full of both brave heroics and great tragedies.

One of several sources for Wagner’s four-work cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Nibelungenlied tells us the story of the great hero Siegfried and his fair Kreimhild. As the epic opens, Kreimhild declares that she will never love, for she believes that if she ever knows such happiness, it will only come with great pain. Siegfried, for his part, has heard the tales of Kreimhild’s beauty, and vowing to make her his wife, sets out from his homeland for Burgundy, where Kreimhild lives with her three brothers, Kings Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. The tales of Siegfried’s great strength and prowess as a warrior go before him, and he is warily greeted, but the kings are won over to admiration and friendship for Siegfried by his great bravery and he soon joins them in battle. The reward for his success in battle is his first sight of Kreimhild–who he nevertheless was already in love with–and despite her earlier protests against love, she in turn loves him. Gunther and Siegfried soon agree: if Siegfried will help Gunther win the hand of the proud Icelandic queen Brunhild, Siegfried will be granted Kreimhild’s hand in return.

A series of great feats–and great deceptions follow. And from these deceptions, great tragedy will come. Brunhild’s mistaken belief in Siegfried’s status as an inferior to Gunther (rather than an equal) will spur a great fight between herself and Kreimhild, and Brunhild, publicly humiliated, will plot Siegfried’s death in revenge. This can only mean further plotting and vengeance, for due to Brunhild’s schemes, Kreimhild’s brothers have twice betrayed her, and so many years later, remarried to King Etzel of Hungary, Kreimheld will plot against her brothers and their vassals in return.

One point of interest for me–and some mild amusement–is the frequency with which the poet tells us what is going to happen. There is no doubt from the first chapter that this will not end well, for so we are told: “the maidens will have reason to weep,” or, “the knights will rue the day that…” What a contrast to our contemporary abhorrence of “spoilers”! But this poem was written for an audience that knew the stories being told; The Nibelungenlied is likely the formalization of an oral tradition already well established.

The Nibelungenlied is described by its translator and a heroic epic “surpassed only by the Iliad,” and while I have not read enough epic poems to know the justice of this assertion, I did note points of comparison between the two poems. In both, themes of honor and vengeance underline much of the action. Just as Achilles, smarting from Agamemnon’s insult to his honor, does not enter the fray until he has reason to seek revenge for his dear friend Patroclus’s death, so many of Etzel’s sworn allies will not entertain Kreimhild’s schemes of revenge against the Burgundians until they feel compelled to defend their own honor as warriors or to seek revenge for their own friends, slain in the Burgundians’ desperate attempts to escape fate. In the end, in both poems, we see great feats of battle, great tests of courage and honor–and many, many deaths. More deaths, in fact in The Nibelungenlied–this is a story in which is seems the cycle of violence cannot end until nearly all in its path are consumed, save a scant few to tell the tale. It reminds me rather of the bloody revenge drama Titus Andronicus, though here we are spared the cannibalistic feast.

There is some inconsistency in The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild, so important to much of the inciting action, nearly completely disappears in the second half, and we never learn her fate. Characters seem to be introduced more than once. Some actions or words seem inexplicable on their own. The translator provides helpful notes and Appendices that explain possible reasons for these seeming contractions, primarily being, it seems, the melding of multiple older sources and adapting certain scenes to the more ‘modern’ sensibilities of his audience (such as making Siegfried more chivalrous). These minor inconsistencies aside, it is a gripping tale well told, and a poignant reminder that injustice and violence beget too often only more violence.

I read this for the Classics Club Spin #23.

Classics Spin #23

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It seems like I was just reading for a Classics Club spin, and there’s another one. For this edition, I pared my list down to only books that are already on my shelves (after removing books I’ve already finished/am currently reading), seeing as I have a ridiculous number of unread books on my shelves and the library doesn’t seem likely to be open soon. (Considering they shut down even before the stay-at-home/non-essential orders.) Some of these titles are a bit lengthy, so I make no promises as to finishing this spin on time!

1. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)
2. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
3. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
4. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
5. Anonymous: Njal’s Saga (Iceland, 13th century)
6. Anonymous: Nibelungenlied (Germany, 13th century)
7. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
8. Radcliffe, Ann: The Italian (England, 1797)
9. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
10. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
11. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
12. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
13. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)
14. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)
15. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
16. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
17. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
18. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
19. Steinbeck, John: East of Eden (U.S., 1952)
20. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)

Title I’m most hoping to spin: The Sound and the Fury, since I want to read it soon, and this would be a good incentive, or Wives and Daughters since I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.

Title I’m most “afraid” of spinning: Well, none of them, actually! They’re all on my Classics Club list for a reason, after all.

Here’s to a good spin!

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Vintage copy of Far From the Madding Crowd
My copy of Far From the Madding Crowd, which I believe to be over 100 years old. It was a delight to read from–the right size and weight, and the pages always lay nicely flat.

Far From the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
1874, England

Full of this dim and temperate bliss, he went on to fling the ewe over upon her other side, covering her head with his knee, gradually running the shears line after line round her dewlap, thence about her flank and back, and finishing over the tail.

[…]

The clean, sleek creature arose from its fleece—how perfectly like Aphrodite rising from the foam should have been seen to be realized—looking startled and shy at the loss of its garment, which lay on the floor in one soft cloud, united throughout, the portion visible being the inner surface only, which, never before exposed, was white as snow, and without flaw or blemish of the minutest kind. (Ch. 22)

It’s possible that I enjoyed Far From the Madding Crowd as much as I did because of the sheep scenes—the herding, the washing, the shearing, the sheep market. My inner fiber artist was drawn to and enchanted by this great sheep novel.

I joke, of course. At least in part.

After all, I did enjoy the sheep scenes, and in a sense, there would be no story without the sheep and the dramas (and traumas) of raising sheep, but it is primarily a human drama, in pastoral setting.

Far From the Madding Crowd is one of Thomas Hardy’s earliest novels, and was his first real success. It tells the tale of Bathsheba Everdene and the three very different men who woo her—Victorian love-quadrangle, oh, the scandal!—: the solid Gabriel Oak, dashing Sergeant Troy, and passionate Farmer Boldwood, all while set against the rhythms of the changing seasons and farming responsibilities. (Those names…Mr. Hardy, I see what you did there.) The novel is not merely set in the country, but rather the backdrop of farming is integral to the characters, their histories, their responsibilities (or lack thereof). How any one character responds to the demands of pastoral life illuminates the rest of their character and mind-set: thus we see that Gabriel is an honorable man worthy of great responsibility, while Farmer Boldwood’s growing obsession with Bathsheba is nowhere made clearer than in his neglect of his own harvest. And that is to speak nothing of Troy’s relationship to the pastoral setting;  I’m pretty sure he made an earlier appearance in Sense and Sensibility under the name “Mr. Willoughby.”

The citizen’s Then is the rustic’s Now. In London, twenty of thirty years ago are old times; in Paris ten years, or five; in Weatherbury three or four score years were included in the mere present, and nothing less than a century set a mark on its face or tone. (Ch. 22)

Of course, though an early Hardy, this is still Hardy, and as such, though I found it enjoyable, it is rarely lighthearted. Despite the appeal of the ideal of “pastoral,” the reality of farm life is difficult, hard work, and into this mix Hardy throws additional human drama—there is tragedy, both on field and at hearth. (Okay, has anyone else looked up “bloat” or “ruminal tympany” because of Hardy? I told you, I have a sheep thing…) But in the end I have to agree that this is an “accessible” Hardy and would recommend it as a starting place for someone wanting to try his novels out.

I read Far From the Madding Crowd for Classics Spin #22. It also qualifies as my adaption title for Back to the Classics, a classic that takes place in a country that I don’t live in for Reading the Classics, and is one of my Classics Club and Realists and Romantics project titles. Phew! That’s a lot of work for one book.

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)!