Review: Henry IV

Review: Henry IV
Henry IV, Part 1

Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better.

This is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s strongest plays. In tone and atmosphere it is far more varied and naturalistic than its predecessor, Richard II. The scenes with Hal amid the low-life of London are fetching, and do much to alleviate the stiff and stuffy courtly atmosphere of some of Shakespeare’s histories. The comedy also helps; and this play contains some of Shakespeare’s highest and lowest comedy, both of which are embodied in the corpulent Falstaff.

Most readers will, I suspect, concur with Harold Bloom in deeming Falstaff one of the bard’s great creations—though we may not go so far as to put him on a level with Hamlet. Bloom is correct, however, in seeing one’s opinion of Falstaff as a defining fact in one’s interpretation of the play. There are those who see in Falstaff the spirit of carnival—the ecstatic embrace of all the pleasures of life and the total rejection of all the hypocrisies of society Others see Falstaff as a corrupter and a lout—a lazy and selfish fool.

For my part I vacillate between these two attitudes. There is no denying Falstaff’s wit; and his soliloquy on the futility of honor is wonderfully refreshing, puncturing through all of the political nonsense that motivates the bloody clashes. Still, I cannot help thinking that, if the Falstaffian attitude were embraced too widely, society itself would be impossible. Some social restraint on our pleasure-loving instincts is necessary if we are not to end up fat drunken thieves. On the other hand, a generous dose of the Falstaffian attitude can be a great antidote to the self-righteous nonsense that leads us into war.

In any case, Falstaff is not the only great character in this play. Hotspur is a mass of furious energy, an electrifying presence every time he is on stage. Prince Hal, though less charismatic, is more complex. From the start, he already has an ambivalent relationship with Falstaff, a kind of icy affection or warm disregard. Indeed, Hal holds everyone at a distance, and one senses a skeptical intelligence that is wary of committing until the circumstances are just right. It is hard to read his character’s evolution as that of a wayward youth who learns to embrace his identity. His actions seem far too deliberate, his timing too perfect. Was he hoping to learn something by keeping company with Falstaff and his lot?

Henry IV, Part 2

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Presume not that I am the thing I was.

Compared with Part 1, this sequel is significantly weaker as a stand-alone play. There is no antagonist to compare with Hotspur. Falstaff wanders about in pointless merrymaking, mostly separated from Hal; and unfortunately his wit is not nearly so sharp outside of his young companion’s company. The same can be said for Hal, whose youthful liveliness fades into a chilling uprightness. And the plot can be frustratingly meandering and abrupt.

The main drama of this play is the progression of Hal from prodigal son to the ideal young king. This transformation is apt to cause some misgivings. On the one hand, I found it genuinely admirable when Hal commends the Justice and bids him to do his work. And even if one loves Falstaff, it is difficult to wish that the King of England would keep such a lawless fellow around, much less lend him influence. On the other hand, the newly-ascended king’s rejection of his former friend and mentor is deeply sad. Perhaps he should have turned Falstaff away, but it need not have been with such cold scorn.

Again, there is a moral conflict here. Falstaff may best be described as amoral: uninhibited, pleasure-loving, devoid of both cruelty and rectitude. He feels no scruples whatsoever at dishonesty and robbery, and acknowledges no ideal as worth pursuing or even respecting. Hal, by contrast, is a moral creature: he wishes to uphold the moral order, but for him this may mean murder or bloody conquest. So one must ask: Which is better, to be a drunken pickpocket or to lead your country on an invasion? Neither the socially subversive nor the socially upstanding can be fully embraced, which is why Hal’s rejection of Falstaff causes such complex reactions.



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Review: The Decameron

Review: The Decameron
The Decameron

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… nothing is so indecent that it cannot be said to another person if the proper words are used to convey it…

I did not think that a collection of tales from the late Middle Ages would be so raunchy and ribald. While artisans were busy erecting gothic cathedrals—symbols of humanity’s insignificance before an omnipotent deity—Boccaccio was busy writing this most human of books. Indeed, the Decameron can be seen as the humanistic reply to Dante’s Divine Comedy: a celebration of our very worldliness. In Boccaccio’s world, the keystone virtue is not holiness nor piety, but cunning; and those who lack it are sure to be the victims of those who possess it.

Seen from the present day, Boccaccio’s masterpiece seems progressive in many respects. For one, he treats of nobles and peasants indifferently; and in the final (and incredibly sadistic) story he even asserts that these distinctions are of no importance compared with personal merit. More shocking is Boccaccio’s frank portrayal of female sexuality, something that would be taboo for much of European history. At times Boccaccio even seems like a proto-feminist: Women are central to the book, as Boccaccio frames the collection of stories as a diversion for women who have been forced into idleness by their social position. To be sure, there are many regressive and even alarming views about women mixed in with his more “advanced” ideas; even so, he does a better job than, say, Dickens often does.

Another surprising feature of these stories is Boccaccio’s open anticlericalism. The way he speaks of monks and nuns would be scandalous even now. There are many moments in the book in which he seems to be advocating a kind of hippy-ish tolerance for the pleasures of the flesh, condemning all opponents to sensual delight as hypocrites and fools. He even portrays homosexuality as an amusing foible rather than a deadly sin. Considering all this, it is difficult to imagine the reaction if it had been published considerably later. It seems that tolerance does not progress in a neat line.

Boccaccio’s chief virtue as a storyteller is his ability to manipulate plot. In this he is the exact reflection of Shakespeare (one of Boccaccio’s borrowers), who had every gift except plot. Boccaccio’s characters are never round nor indeed memorable; they can for the most part be interchanged at random. But each of these 100 tales, with very few exceptions, is thoroughly charming for having all the elements of a good story: a setup (inevitably involving a man and a woman), a problem (normally somebody trying to sleep with someone else), a clever trick to solve it (and a dunce to suffer as a consequence), a dramatic climax (the heroes are almost foiled), and a satisfying conclusion. All together, these 100 stories are a treasure trove which every responsible storyteller must pilfer mercilessly. If you are going on a camping trip, you could do much worse than to bring a copy of the Decameron along for the evenings.



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Review: Fathers and Sons

Review: Fathers and Sons
Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

He has no faith in princeeples, only in frogs.

Turgenev has a reputation of being a novelists’ novelist—admired by such fastidious readers as Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad—and now I can see why. Though quite different in temperament, he reminds me of Jane Austen or E.M. Forster in his seamless mastery of technique and his delicate touch. Apart from the epilogue (a 19th century staple), this novel makes do with very little of the cranking plot mechanics used by so many Victorian novelists. Rather, Turgenev weaves naturalistic scenes together in such a way that the plot, though orderly indeed, is tactfully concealed, like a skinny mannequin under a billowing dress.

But what is most impressive about this book is that, amid the sweetly flowing prose and the keen descriptions, Turgenev has inserted one of literature’s great characters: Bazarov, the nihilist (a term he popularized). On the one hand, Bazarov is the quintessential insufferable college graduate, pointing out the flaws in society without suggesting any remedies. On the other hand, unlike most of these brave young souls, Bazarov is actually a man of genius with an oddly compelling worldview. At the very least he has charisma. And history has only made Bazarov more fascinating. He is, by turns, a proto-Bolshevik and a proto-existentialist—calling for revolution amid the absurdity of existence. Turgenev must have been quite the observer to so effectively anticipate the political and intellectual revolutionaries of the coming century.

Turgenev’s winning touch is his ability to make the reader switch sympathies. At times Bazarov is little more than an arrogant lout; yet at other moments he is admirable and almost heroic; and at still others he is pitiable and deeply human. The same goes for every other character. Arcady’s uncle, Paul, is exemplary in this respect: a man of elegance, tact, and civility, who is at times commendable and at times an outrageous buffoon. Few novelists have such an prodigious ability to render complex yet believable personalities. In sum, the very fact that Turgenev wrote a novel about generational conflict that managed to deeply offend both fathers and sons shows the truth of his portrayals. This is a classic in every sense of the word.



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Review: Twelfth Night

Review: Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelfth Night is a frenetic comedy of tomfoolery and excess. Everything is purposefully ridiculous—a satire of previously written farces, reveling in itself. While in As You Like It Shakespeare gives us, for once, a genuinely convincing picture of love, in Twelfth Night he is back to his old sardonic ways. Shakespeare was perhaps as cynical as Proust or Freud on the subject of love, since he seems to savor its arbitrariness. Olivia falls in love with Viola on false pretences, and then easily transfers her feelings to the (strangely willing) Sebastian. Duke Orsino, on the other hand, after pledging his undying love for Olivia, instantly falls in love with Viola once he finds out that she is a woman and not a boy. And this is not to mention that, as so often with Shakespeare, we end with a supremely strange match: the witty and lively Viola with the melodramatic and melancholic Duke Orsino. It would be depressing were it not so funny.

Shakespeare crosses the line from comedy to sadism in the subplot of Malvolio. While at first the unctuous prig’s comeuppance is wholly satisfying, his imprisonment and mockery cannot help but spark outrage from the audience—especially considering that his torturers are drunkards and fools, not half as compelling as Malvolio (insufferable as he is). On the other hand, Shakespeare gave us a perfect picture of wisdom in Feste, the fool, who brings a warmth and sanity to every scene he takes part in. Though neither Viola nor Malvolio nor Feste can compare as characters with the likes of Rosalind, the complete cast abounds in lively contrast. And then there is the abundance of memorable lines, scattered with Shakespearean generosity. In sum, then, I think that this is easily among the stronger of Shakespeare’s comedies.



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Review: Much Ado About Nothing

Review: Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much Ado About Nothing is generally held to be one of Shakespeare’s lighter comedies, as the title seems to indicate. Its plot is generally ridiculous—full of meaningless intrigues and manufactured drama—again, as the title seems to indicate. It survives through the charming story of Beatrice and Benedick, whose dueling wit evolves into antagonistic love, preserving all of the fire and (almost) none of the misogyny of Petruchio and Katherina from The Taming of the Shrew. The plot involving Hero and Claudio is silly stuff, and only maintains interest through providing a context for Beatrice and Benedick to further woo and war.

It is difficult to read much Shakespeare without coming to the conclusion that he was a hopeless cynic when it came to love. Both plots in the play reinforce this conclusion. Beatrice and Benedick are fooled into love through appeal to their self-love; they agree to wed without any romantic illusions; indeed, Benedick ends the play with a crude cuckoldry pun. Meanwhile, Claudio is ready to drive his beloved to suicide at the thought that she is not a virgin, and then is ready to marry anyone, even “an Ethiope,” to repent when he finds out she was falsely accused. If only more romantic comedies has such a saving touch of nihilism.



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Review: As You Like It

Review: As You Like It
As You Like It

As You Like It by William Shakespeare

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


As You Like It is unquestionably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. This is mostly due to the love story being, for once, rather enjoyable. In the majority of Shakespeare’s works I find the romantic relationships to be, at best, an easy engine to move the plot along, or a ready vehicle for the poet’s sallies. Seldom do I find myself in sympathy with the lover or the beloved, mostly because Shakespeare’s most lovable or fascinating characters—King Lear, Iago, Hamlet, Falstaff—are usually not of the amorous sort.

But Rosalind is a great exception, for she is both fascinating and lovable. It is very easy for me to sympathize with Orlando’s passion; and though Orlando is no match for Rosalind in wit or wisdom, he is brave, kind, and loyal. As in any Shakespeare play, the lovers expend their great verbal acuity upon one another; though here, for once, the barbs are purely benign, the relationship free of secret malice. For Rosalind and Orlando, raillery becomes a way of showing affection and of keeping attraction alive; and theatricality is not use to deceive or to ensnare, but to enchant.

Shakespeare set his play in the fictitious forest of Arden, thus suggesting a kind of pastoral romance. But the mood of the play is subtly anti-pastoral. Silvius, the poor love-sick shepherd, represents the original pastoral tradition of pinning lovers in an original Eden; thus he speaks exclusively in nauseating verse. Rosalind, by contrast, expresses herself in prose; and her love is never pinning or pathetic, but playful. I would say that ‘play’ characterizes her whole attitude towards life. She does not, like Silvius, fall victim to her emotions; nor does she, like Jacques, cynically deny her feeling. Instead, she indulges in her feelings while staying one step ahead of them, turning every genuine drama into a game. In the process she gives us a model for how to be madly in love without being maddeningly dull.

What else need be said? The plot is absurd and flimsy, of course. Jacques and Touchstone are excellent counterpoises to Rosalind, though neither half so delightful. The music and the natural setting help to make the play itself, like the forest of Arden, a space of escape and delight—a transitional space, where the norms of society are inverted or suspended, and from which we return refreshed and subtly transformed. At the very least, it is impossible for me to watch this play and remain in a sour mood.



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Review: Le Morte d’Arthur

Review: Le Morte d’Arthur
Le Morte d'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table

Le Morte d’Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table by Thomas Malory

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It happened one Pentecost when King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table had all assembled at the castle of Kynke Kenadonne and were waiting, as was customary, for some unusual event to occur before settling down to the feast, that Sir Gawain saw through the window three gentlemen riding toward the castle, accompanied by a dwarf.

I fully expected to dislike this book. The prospect of five hundred pages of jousting knights struck me as endlessly tedious, and I only opened the book out of a sense of respect for its status as a classic. But immediately I found myself entranced. This is a thoroughly engrossing read. And I should not have been surprised, since it delves so heartily into the two staples of popular entertainment: sex and violence. Indeed, one of the most amusing aspects of this book is how completely out of harmony is the chivalric code with the Christian religion; the characters do nothing but mate and slaughter, while the name of “Jesu” is on everybody’s lips.

Sir Thomas Malory assembled Le Morte d’Arthur out of several pre-existing legends, some of which he translated from French manuscripts, with a few stories of his invention thrown in. His major innovation was to arrange these traditional tales into a semi-coherent order, beginning with Arthur’s ascension to the throne and ending with his death at the hands of his son. The result is a patchwork of stories nested within stories, all told at a pace which, to a modern reader, can seem ludicrous. Major developments occur on every page, one after the other, in a staccato rhythm which can make the stories appear bluntly humorous, even if it was not Malory’s intention.

The world depicted in these pages is so frankly unreal, the level of violence so constant and gratuitous, that its final impression is that of a cartoon: “They fought once more and Sir Tristram killed his opponent. Then, running over to his son, he swiftly beheaded him too.” Daily life is entirely hidden from view. There are no peasants, no merchants, no artisans; there are no friends or happy families. There are only questing knights, heavily armed men who are obsessed with challenging one another. And though they profess a knightly code of conduct, even the most chivalrous of knights are seen to be unscrupulous murderers and, with few exceptions, unrepentant adulterers. The hero of this book, Sir Launcelot, feels very few pangs of guilt for continuously sleeping with his liege’s wife, Gwynevere; and he is the best of knights.

But the characters are so flat, their actions so stereotyped, their lives so monotonously dramatic, that I found it impossible to view them as moral actors, praiseworthy or damnable. They are, rather, centers of this bizarre world that Malory constructs. And it certainly is an exciting place. Monsters, magicians, enchantresses, prophesies, curses, visions, and of course endless combat and manic love—the small isle of Britain can hardly contain it all. Sure, there are parts of the book that drag, particularly during the tournaments. Malory’s descriptions of combat are heavily stylized, consisting of the same basic elements over and over again; and, as in the Iliad, large engagements are pictured as a series of individual contests between heroic foes. But for the most part Malory combines his traditional motifs together dexterously, enlivening larger stories with innumerable episodes, creating a raucous forward momentum.

As a result of all this, I greatly enjoyed Le Morte d’Arthur, even if it was not for the reasons that Malory intended. I found the book delightfully absurd, almost parody of itself, a sort of whimsical fantasy novel. What Malory hoped to convey with these stories—whether they are supposed to represent a model of heroism, an ironic comment on violence, or a response to the Wars of the Roses—I cannot say; but his book is better than any television show I know.



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Review: Howards End

Review: Howards End
Howards End

Howards End by E.M. Forster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is the little things one bungles at. The big, real ones are nothing when they come.


The last time I reviewed a novel by E.M. Forster, I wound up blubbering with praise; and now I find myself in similar circumstances. As with A Passage to India, I find Howards End exemplary in every respect: the themes, characterization, the prose, the pacing, the plot. I ought also to mention Forster’s versatility. Though rarely funny, Forster is capable of romantic lyricism, gritty realism, and flighty philosophy. Most convincing of all is his control. Nothing is overdone or heavy-handed—which requires a mixture of technique and taste. While exploring social problems, one never feels that the novel is being unduly interrupted; while constructing a character into an archetype, one never feels that the individual is lost; and the story, though carefully plotted, rarely feels predictable or contrived.

Yet Forster is not a great novelist for his skill alone. He is great because of his insight. More than any novelist I know, Forster is able to connect the inner with the outer life (which is the theme of this novel, and the source of its most famous quote: “Only connect”). Forster is able to show, in other words, how social and economic circumstances breed characters; and how even intelligent and well-meaning characters fail to escape the bounds of their class and nation. He shows, for example, how the money inherited by Margaret and Helen allows for their mental freedom; how Mr. Wilcox’s life of business molds him into a well-meaning shell; and how, despite his best efforts, Leonard Bast cannot help but be shaped by his poverty.

However, if the novel has a message, it is this: even if the inner life is powerless to change material circumstances, it is ultimately the more important aspect of life. This is because, when a tragedy strikes, and mere business acumen or worldly knowledge will not suffice, it is emotional fortitude that is required. Mr. Wilcox has a sort of false strength—a fragile ego he hides behind, a sort of masculine bluff which is easily shattered. Margaret, by contrast, is able to endure tragedies because of her self-knowledge. She is not afraid of the darker aspects of her mind; thus she can look with equanimity upon herself and others, accepting their flaws while seeing their potential. This is what Forster means by “connect”: connecting “the beast” with “the monk”—that is, admitting one’s desires instead of hiding behind a false screen of decency. Only so can we achieve self-knowledge.



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Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's DreamA Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen,
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Both times that I have encountered this play, it has failed to make much of an impression on me. I fear that I am insensitive to the atmosphere of enamorment and enchantment that so pervades this work. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the few of the bard’s plays whose plot he himself wrote. The result shows that, while brilliant in nearly every other dramatical ability, plot was not one of Shakespeare’s gifts. The play is a whimsical tapestry, a historically absurd mélange, a jury-rigged skeleton on which to hang his romantic poetry.

As is typical of Shakespeare, his lovers are mostly devoid of intrinsic interest. There is not much that allows the reader to distinguish Helena from Hermia, Lysander from Demetrius; their love-sick pinning all blends together into an impassioned monotony. This, of course, is wholly intentional; the farcical scheme of the love potion reveals that the lovers’ choice is wholly arbitrary—even random—and that the passions are due entirely to the lover and not the beloved. This is standard Shakespeare fare, even if it is spiced up with the device of the fairies.

The standout character is, as so often happens, not a lover at all, but a jester: Bottom. He is the liveliest and most loveable character in the play, a thoroughly upright and decent man. His most striking feature is his imperturbability. Being transformed into a monster hardly phases him; and meeting the fairies of the enchanted world strikes him as no special cause for alarm. Also notable is his apparent indifference to the amorous advances of the fairy queen. Being so lauded and desired does not augment his ego one bit, nor does it prompt him to

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Review: Marianela

Review: Marianela

Marianela (Los mejores clásicos)Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Benito Peréz Galdós is yet another of those Spanish authors whose wide fame in their own language is equalled by their wide obscurity elsewhere. In Spain his reputation as a novelist is second only to Cervantes; and yet the English translation of this book, one of his most famous, is out of print. This is a shame, since Galdós was a writer of rare gifts, a fountain of stories written in beautiful prose. In many ways he is reminiscent of Lope de Vega: both a critical and popular success, whose celebrity did not get in the way of his output. For like the golden age playwright, Galdós was extremely prolific. Apart from his few dozen—and often lengthy—social-realist novels, he wrote five series of historical novels, forty-six novels in all, covering the 19th century in Spain. Dickens was a slug by comparison.

This book is about Marianela, called La Nela, an orphaned, “deformed” adolescent who lives in the mining country in Cantabria. She is described as having spotty skin, thin hair, a malproportioned face, and most notably an underdeveloped body for her age. She is the “lazarillo,” or guide, to Pablo, a blind young man from a rich family. The two fall in love, and share many passionate sentiments on their walks together. But then the brilliant doctor, Teodoro Celepín, comes to visit Pablo, examines him, cures his blindness, and, well, Marianela’s life gets considerably worse. It is a simple story with a tragic arc.

For me the outstanding quality of Galdós’s writing is his prose. It is elegant but readable, balanced but energetic. Though there were many words scattered about that I did not understand, I never felt lost; to the contrary, I read quickly, avidly, completely sucked into the story in a way that is rare for me with Spanish books. As with many novelists, there are two main registers of Galdós’s writing on display: scene-setting description and dialogue. Galdós excels at both. The conversations between La Nela and Pablo, though sentimental in a way that only enamored teenagers can be, was totally convincing. And his description of the desolate, charred, and barren landscape of the mines is an excellent example of how a scene can contribute to the narrative of a book:

El vapor principió a zumbar en las calderas del gran automóvil, que hacía funcionar a un tiempo los aparatos de los talleres y el aparato de lavado. El agua, que tan principal papel desempeñaba en esta operación, comenzó a correr por las altas cañerías, de donde debía saltar sobre los cilindros. Risotadas de mujeres y ladridos de hombres que venían de tomar la mañana [beber aguardiente] precedieron a la faena; y al fin empezaron a girar las cribas cilíndricas con infernal chillido; el agua corría de una en otra, pulverizándose, y la tierra sucia se atormentaba con vertiginoso voltear, todando y cayendo de rueda en rueda hasta convertirse en fino polvo achocolatado.

And in English:

The steam began to hiss in the boilers of the big car, which operated the workshop equipment and the cleaning machines at the same time. The water, which played such a principal role in this operation, began to run through the high pipes, where it had to jump over the cylinders. The guffaws of women and the barks of men who came to take the morning [drink aguardiente] preceded the task; and at last they begun to turn the cylindrical sieves with a hellish shriek; the water ran from one to the other, spraying and splashing, and the dirty earth was tormented with dizzy turning, rolling and falling from wheel to wheel until it became a fine chocolate powder.

Few authors could provide such a gripping description of an industrial process and also present us with a character as memorable as La Nela. She is self-contained but selfless, self-willed but self-abnegating, intelligent but ignorant, a person who was given nothing and so expects nothing, but whose isolation caused her to form a novel perspective. Her notion of the world is pagan; she sees things in mythical, poetic categories that lead everyone around her to chastise her for being unchristian. Her tragedy, like so many, is the plight of undeveloped potential; in other circumstances, she may have done remarkable things; but being born poor, orphaned, and “ugly” has confined her to being a guide.

I have said all this in praise of Galdós prose, his scene-setting, his characterization, but of course there is more to this story. Thematically, this book is also quite rich—the relation between inner and outer sense, between inner and outer worth, the relation between knowledge and love—but I will not get into that. This book was too enjoyable to belabor it with heady analysis. To conclude, this novel has convinced me that Galdós is a master of the craft. I am eager to devour more of his books.

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