Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find out when the time comes.


Along with millions of Americans, I was assigned to read The Sun Also Rises in high school English class. And along with (I presume) a good percentage of those millions, I did not finish reading it in time for the exam. But I do remember the teacher explaining that, for Hemingway, “the most important thing is grace under pressure.” At the time it struck me as very odd that this would be so important to someone. After all, aren’t there many other important qualities for a person to have? What about intelligence, education, kindness, wit?

My professor’s remark came back to me, with full force, as I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. This is a novel about courage—not just grace under pressure, but grace in the face of mortal peril. This idea is developed almost into a full moral system, where instead of sinners and saints we have the brave and the cowardly. Everyone is measured by this metric. At first glance there is a lot to criticize in this worldview. Can’t you fight bravely for a horrible cause? Can’t you put your life on the line for something truly ugly? Indeed, the sorts of situations that Hemingway fixates on—hunting, bullfighting, war—are ethically dubious, at least in my opinion.

And yet, the more I read, the more I found myself thinking of Albert Camus, of all people. The perspective espoused in The Plague seemed, though obscurely, to be mirrored in For Whom the Bell Tolls. The characters inhabit an absurd universe, where traditional notions of good and evil have broken down, where death is unthinking and meaningless, and can come at any time. Both Robert Jordan and Dr. Bernard Rieux are fighting a battle that they are unlikely to win. But they continue to fight, mostly out of a simple sense of duty.

Of course, Hemingway’s hero is fighting other people, whereas Camus’s had to face a faceless disease. What sets Robert Jordan apart from his enemy—at least in Hemingway’s eyes—is that he kills out of necessity, in order to ultimately save others, whereas the fascists kill because they think they have a right to decide who is worthy to live. Indeed, perhaps you can even say that, for Hemingway, cowardice and fascism come from the same impulse: the denial of death—or, rather, the denial of our powerless in the face of death. Cowards run because they think they can exempt themselves from the basic condition of life. It is a form of inauthentic egotism. And fascists kill for the same reason: they think that they can decide who lives and dies, rather than accepting that who lives and dies is not really up to anyone.

The only authentic way to live, for Hemingway and for Camus, is in the direct face of death, with no illusions. This is why the bullfighter is such a central symbol for Hemingway: it is the most literal image of a man facing his own death. Thus, rather than simply a novel about a mission to destroy a bridge, this book becomes a kind of meditation on how a small band of men and women behave when they know they might have only a few days to live. In some places, Hemingway even sounds downright Buddhistic in his ecstatic embrace of the ‘now’ as the only time we ever truly have.

What is not exactly Buddhistic is the way that loves comes into the story. Love, for Hemingway, is a kind of shorthand for the sweetness of life. Or perhaps it would be better to say that love is the ultimate expression of life’s sweetness. And in an absurd universe, the joys of food, of friendship, and yes, of sex, are the only real values we have. To be truly brave, then, means fully embracing the sweetness of life, since it is only by understanding how precious life is that one can understand how much we have to lose. Likewise, one can only love authentically in the face of death, as it is life’s inevitable end that makes it so sweet.

Clearly, I have managed to read a lot into what is, in truth, a fairly straightforward war novel. Most readers will likely not find it as profound. Even without the philosophy, however, I enjoyed it quite a bit as a story of the Spanish Civil War, especially as I have spent a lot of time in the Madrid sierra myself. (As a side note, I am fairly sure that there aren’t many caves up in those mountains. At least not deep ones.)

But of course, the book isn’t perfect. The love story, for example, is lessened by Hemingway’s tendency to make his women absolutely subordinate to his men. This tendency does not extend to (in his words) “old” and “ugly” women, however, as the character of Pilar is quite compelling. As for the love story itself, I have trouble deciding whether Hemingway is touching or simply sappy. At least the tender emotions form a pleasant contrast with the harsh world of war.

An odd decision was rendering the Spanish dialogue as a kind of literal translation into English. When a character says “menos mal,” for example, it is translated (nonsensically) as “less bad,” when it really means something more like “thank goodness.” I had mixed feelings about this, since sometimes I did feel like I could hear the Spanish, but at other times it just was distracting. I particularly didn’t like his use of “you” and “thou” to convey the difference in the Spanish “usted” and “.” Thou and just have such vastly different emotional registers. Also, to be pedantic for a moment, I noticed that Hemingway would sometimes incorrectly use “thee” in his dialogue for the subject (as in, “Thee blew up a bridge”), when it is really an object pronoun (as in, “I blew thee up”).

In the end, however, this book, like all of Hemingway’s, is dominated by his distinctive style. If you enjoy that style, you will enjoy the book; and if not, not. And all the absurdist philosophy in the world won’t change that.



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Review: Contact

Review: Contact

Contact by Carl Sagan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A couple of weeks ago, on June 25, the Pentagon did something rather unusual: It released a report on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), a subject that has long been associated with alien spacecraft. This was the culmination of the public and political interest piqued by the 2017 release of videos, taken by the United States Navy, of strange flying objects. The content of these videos was not especially groundbreaking—indeed, like all the amateur UFO videos before them, they feature grainy blobs—but their source was. It is one thing when the neighborhood loony says they were abducted; it is another when the most powerful military on the planet admits they cannot identify something in their airspace.

Opinions will differ as to whether report is interesting or boring. Of the 144 reported sightings (quite a lot), 143 remain unexplained. The investigators conclude, tentatively, that these objects are real (i.e. not optical illusions or sensory errors, since they were picked up on many different sorts of sensors, not to mention seen by eyewitnesses), but do not rule out technological malfunction in accounting for the remarkable flight patterns recorded in some instances. Of course, no rational person could conclude that any of this constituted evidence of a visitation by aliens, or even their drones. Still, it is difficult to watch the 60 Minutes segment on the sightings, for example, without one’s curiosity getting piqued. Even Obama seems interested.

In this spirit, I picked up Carl Sagan’s Contact, a physicist’s imagined version of how first contact with an alien species would play out. The book functions on two levels: as a novel and as a thought experiment. Considering that Sagan was no novelist, it is easy to imagine Contact being quite deficient as a work of fiction. Surprisingly, however, the story pulls its own weight. Yes, there is too much exposition and not enough characterization; and yes, the style is more akin to a work of nonfiction than of fiction. But the imaginative plot pulls the reader into the story quite effectively, making the book a pleasurable read.

As a thought experiment, the book is even more compelling. From the details of the message, to its decryption, to the assembly of the machine, to the social and political ramifications of the discovery alien life, Sagan has taken great pains to imagine how his scenario might realistically play out. Unlike so much science fiction, this book does not insult the reader’s intelligence by asking her to suspend disbelief or accept bizarre premises. And as the book is set in the (then) near-future, it is also fun to compare Sagan’s predictions with how events actually turned out. We have not, for example, made as much progress with commercial space flight as he thought we would. And our space billionaires are not nearly so enlightened as Sagan anticipated.

The main theme of the book is the conflict between religion and science: faith vs. reason. I cannot say that Sagan was especially insightful here, as he takes the fairly standard view that science is superior because it is based on evidence. What is more, if I am not mistaken, this issue has lost some of its teeth within the last few years. Nowadays, American conservatives are more concerned with preventing children from learning about racism than about evolution. And as the pandemic revealed, cultural resistance to science is just as likely, if not more so, to come from secular conspiracy theories, social resentment, or political affiliation as from traditional religions.

Above all, this is an immensely optimistic book. Sagan describes all of humanity coming together when faced with intelligent alien life, leading to the triumph of the better angels of our nature. I greatly admire Sagan for this hopefulness; it is one of his best qualities. Personally, though, I doubt that a message from outer space would prompt humanity to come together in the way he describes. A common threat—in the form of a virus—was not even enough to make Republicans and Democrats work together, much less Americans and Russians. At this point, I think even unambiguous contact from an alien race could be absorbed into our polarized politics.

As a last note (and warning, spoiler ahead), though interesting, I did not exactly follow Sagan’s idea of there being a message in π. If you were searching an unlimited string of random numbers—using arithmetic in multiple bases—then is it not inevitable to find a long string of, say, 0s and 1s? And even if a particular string is improbable, how could you rule out a statistical fluke? I suppose a message of sufficient complexity and length, with significant content (say, blueprints to make a Ford Model T), would be difficult to disbelieve. But being able to arrange a circle using 1s and 0s in base-11 arithmetic does not strike me as a clincher.

This is just a quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. Like Sagan’s series, Cosmos, Contact left me full of hope for the human future, and full of wonder for the universe. He was a treasure of a man.
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Sagan imagines billionaires living in luxurious space hotels, or chateaus. But as I learned from a recent story in the news, even now, astronauts in space do not even clean their clothes. They wear them until the stink becomes unbearable, and then throw them away. So it is not exactly opulence above the clouds.



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Review: Stoner

Review: Stoner

Stoner by John Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is among the class I call ‘Goodreads Books,’ because so many of my friends here have read the book, whereas nobody I know in the real world has even heard of it, much less read it. Among a certain niche of readers, this book is quite highly regarded; some have even gone so far as to dub it the ‘perfect novel.’ I would hate to be the dissenting voice in this chorus of praise; so I am happy to report that I liked the book, even if I did not find it ‘perfect.’

The novel follows the life, from birth to death, of William Stoner, a farm boy turned man of letters. It tracks the few successes and many disappointments in his long and fairly undistinguished earthly career. What makes the novel special is not the character of Stoner—a rather bland and colorless fellow—nor anything that happens to him. Rather, it is the tone with which Williams narrates Stoner’s life—a sort of tender melancholy, searching for the beauty and sadness in ordinary things.

For me, the strongest parts of this book were the beginning and the end (which are very good parts for a book to be strong). We first see Stoner emerging from his drudging life of farm work into the halls of academe, and witness his discovery of literature. Any devoted reader will naturally appreciate this. The book ends with a striking narration of Stoner’s confrontation with his own mortality, and his acceptance of his deeply flawed life.

The middle parts of the book were dominated by a series of interpersonal conflicts, and I enjoyed these somewhat less. The dominant relationship of this novel is that between Stoner and his wife, Edith. Shortly after the marriage, it becomes clear that Edith has been emotionally (and perhaps physically?) abused, and is traumatized from this abuse, which turns her into an abuser. This makes the marriage hellish for Stoner; and the dynamics of a dysfunctional relationship are described quite expertly. However, I was frustrated by Williams’s portrayal of Edith, which is almost entirely without sympathy. As a character, she has no interiority, no real perspective, but is merely a kind of wounded automaton that goes on wounding. As a result, I found her actions incomprehensible and even unbelievable.

I would lodge a similar complaint about the novel’s other villain, Hollis Lomax. Stoner’s academic rival and eventual boss, he is possessed by a kind of vindictiveness that is never fully explained, or even investigated. The third major relationship in the book—the affair between Stoner and Katherine Driscoll—is far more sympathetic. Still, I was baffled by its eventual end. (Spoilers here.) Lomax threatens to have Driscoll fired, so Driscoll quits? Stoner ends the relationship to preserve his non-existent family life? This did not square.

It is fair to say that the only character granted interiority is Stoner himself. Judging from the reviews, many readers seem to have found in Stoner a certain nobility—seen him as a fundamentally decent man borne down by circumstances—and thus interpret this book as a tragedy of a good man in a bad world. And while I agree that Stoner is decent enough, I read this book as a case study of the pathetic man. To say this in a slightly more cultivated way, I interpreted Stoner as a prime example of what the existentialists call ‘bad faith.’

By that I mean that Stoner never seems to consciously choose what he wants from life. Even in the book’s beginning, when Stoner switches from studying agriculture to literature, this is narrated not as a conscious choice but as a kind of instinctual impulse. The same goes for his marriage, and for virtually everything else. Very often, Stoner seems hardly aware of what is happening, and most often he decides to simply go along with the current. The only time he really goes against the prevailing wind was in his attempt to prevent a bad student from obtaining a Ph.D., and even then he frames this decision as an attempt to defend the university from the world ‘out there.’ Indeed, Stoner’s whole attitude towards the university is that of a diver’s towards a shark cage. It is a shield from life.

My point is that Stoner is largely responsible for the way his life turned out. He could have divorced his wife, or have tried far more vigorously to have protected his daughter from his wife’s abuse. After Lomax decided to torture him, Stoner could have simply left the university and gone to another one. He could have eloped with Katherine Driscoll—why not? In each of these instances, Stoner simply did nothing, staying in a bad marriage, relinquishing his daughter to his wife’s power, bowing to Lomax’s schemes, and cutting it off with the only person he ever loved.

The best example of Stoner’s decision making may have been his refusal to enlist to fight in World War I. When it finally dawns on him that he would have to decide, for himself, whether to fight, he seems absolutely dumbstruck. He asks the people in his life to tell him what to do. And then, he does nothing, merely continuing on with his routine—not because he is against war, and not even because he is afraid of dying on the battlefield, but simply because it is the null choice. This, to me, is bad faith.

Now, all this is not to say that I did not like the book, or that I did not find any value in reading it. To the contrary, I think there is a great deal of value in exploring such a character. But I do not blame the world for Stoner’s problems.

Stylistically, I could not make up my mind whether I liked or disliked Williams’s writing. There were times when the prose swelled into beautiful lyricism, but mostly the narration is deadpan, often dreary, and occasionally even dirge-like—a kind of funeral procession for Stoner’s life. As for the story, I wish Williams had focused far more on Stoner’s relationship with literature, rather than simply narrating it from a distance. We never experience Stoner, say, savoring a poem; most of his energy is expended in rather dry academic work—though this, again, accords with his use of literature as an existential shield rather than a way of enhancing his life.

Regardless of one’s take on Stoner, or William’s prose, or the untapped veins in the story, it is evident that this book evokes strong reactions from its readers, some negative and mostly positive. And that, if anything, is a mark of a good book.



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Review: A Journal of the Plague Year

Review: A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It was a very ill time to be sick in…

My pandemic reading continues with this classic work about one of the worst diseases in European history: bubonic plague. Daniel Defoe wrote this account when the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction were looser. He freely mixes invention, hearsay, anecdote, and real statistics, in pursuit of a gripping yarn. Defoe himself was only a young boy when the Great Plague struck London, in 1664-6; but he writes the story in the person of a well-to-do, curious, if somewhat unimaginative burgher, with the initials “H.F.” The result is one of literature’s most enduring portraits of a city besieged by disease.

Though this account purports to be a “journal,” it is not written as a series of dated entries, but as one long scrawl. What is more, Defoe’s narrator is not the most orderly of writers, and frequently repeats himself or gets sidetracked. The book is, thus, rather slow and painful to read, since it lacks any conspicuous structure to grasp onto, but approaches a kind of bumbled stream-of-consciousness. Even so, there are so many memorable details and stories in this book that it is worth the time one spends with it.

The Great Plague carried off one fourth of London’s population—about 100,000 souls—and it was not even the worst outbreak of plague in the city. The original wave of the Black Death, in the middle ages, was undoubtedly worse. Still, losing a quarter of a city’s population is something that is difficult for most of us to even imagine. And when you consider that the Great Fire of London was quick on the plague’s heels, you come to the conclusion that this was not the best time to be a Londoner.

What is most striking about reading this book now is how familiar it is. The coronavirus is no bubonic plague, but it seems our reactions to disease have not come a long way. There are, of course, the scenes of desolation: empty streets and mass graves. The citizens anxiously read the statistics in the newspaper, to see if the numbers are trending upwards or downwards. And then there are the quacks and mountebanks, selling sham remedies and magical elixirs to the desperate. We also see the ways that disease affects the rich and the poor differently: the rich could afford to flee the city, while the poor faced disease and starvation. And the economic consequences were dreadful—shutting up business, leaving thousands unemployed, and halting commerce.

Medical science was entirely useless against the disease. Nowadays, we can effectively treat the plague with antibiotics (though the mortality rate is still 10%). But at the time, little could be done. Infection with the bacillus causes swollen lymph nodes—in the groin, armpits, and neck—called buboes, and it was believed that the swellings had to be punctured and drained. This likely did more harm than good, and in practice the plague doctors’ only useful purpose was to keep records of the dead.

Quite interesting to observe were the antique forms of social distancing (a term that of course did not exist) that the Londoners practiced. As now, people tried to avoid going out of their homes as much as possible, and if they did go out they tried to keep a distance from others and to avoid touching anything. Defoe describes people picking up their own meat at the butcher’s and dropping their money into a pan of vinegar to disinfect it. There was also state-mandated quarantining, as any house with an infection got “shut up”—meaning the inhabitants could not leave.

Ironically, though these measures would have been wise had the disease been viral, they made little sense for a disease communicated by rat fleas. (Defoe does mention, by the way, that the people put out rat poison—which probably helped more than all of the distancing.)

One more commonality is that the virus outlasted people’s patience and prudence. As soon as an abatement was observed in the weekly deaths, citizens rushed out to embrace each other and resume normal life, despite the warning of the town’s physicians. Not much has changed, after all.

So while not exactly pleasant to read, A Journal of the Plague Year is at least humbling for the contemporary reader, as it reminds us that perhaps we have not come so far as we thought. And it is also a timely reminder that, far from a novel and unpredictable event, the current crisis is one of many plagues that we have weathered in our time on this perilous globe.

[Cover photo by Rita Greer; licensed under FAL; taken from Wikimedia Commons.]

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Review: The Plague

Review: The Plague

The Plague by Albert Camus

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Officialdom can never cope with something really catastrophic.

As with all of Camus’s books, The Plague is a seamless blend of philosophy and art. The story tells of an outbreak of plague—bubonic and pneumonic—in the Algerian city of Oran. The narration tracks the crisis from beginning to end, noting the different psychological reactions of the townsfolk; and it must be said, now that we are living through a pandemic, that Camus is remarkably prescient in his portrayal a city under siege from infection. Compelling as the story is, however, I think its real power resides in its meaning as a parable of Camus’s philosophy.

Camus’s philosophy is usually called absurdism, and explained as a call to embrace the absurdity of existence. But this is not as simple as giving up church on Sundays. Absurdism is, indeed, incompatible with conventional religion. Camus makes this abundantly clear in his passage on the priest’s sermon—which argues that the plague is god’s punishment for our sins—an idea that Camus thinks incompatible with the randomness of the disaster: appearing out of nowhere, striking down children and adults alike. But absurdism is also incompatible with traditional humanism.
The best definition of humanism is perhaps Protagoras’s famous saying: “Man is the measure of all things.” In many respects this seems to be true. Gold is valuable because we value it; an elephant is big and a mouse is small relative to human size; and so on. However, on occasion, the universe throws something our way that is not made to man’s measure. A plague is a perfect example of this: an ancient organism, too small to see, which can colonize our bodies, causing sickness and death and shutting down conventional life as we know it. Whenever a natural disaster makes life impossible, we are reminded that, far from being the measure of all things, we exist at the mercy of an uncaring universe.

This idea is painful to contemplate. Nobody likes to feel powerless; and the idea that our suffering and striving do not, ultimately, mean anything is downright depressing. Understandably, most of us prefer to ignore this situation. And of course economies and societies invite us to do so—to focus on human needs, human goals, human values—to be, in short, humanists. But there are moments when the illusion fades, and it does not take a pandemic. A simple snowstorm can be enough. I remember watching snow fall out of an office window, creating a blanket of white that forced us to close early, go home, and stay put the next day. A little inclement weather is all it takes to make our plans seem small and irrelevant.

A plague, then, is an ideal situation for Camus to explore his philosophy. But absurdism does not merely consist in realizing that the universe is both omnipotent and indifferent. It also is a reaction to this realization. In this book, Camus is particularly interested in what it means to be moral in such a world. And he presents a model of heroism very different from that which we are used to. The humanist hero is one who is powerful and free—a person who could have easily chosen not to be a hero, but who chose to because of their goodness.

The hero of this story, Dr. Bernard Rieux, does not fit this mold. His heroism is far humbler and more modest: it is the heroism of “common decency,” of “doing my job.” For the truth is that Rieux and his fellows do not have much of a choice. Their backs are against the wall, leaving them only the choice to fight or give up. An absurdist hero is thus not making a choice between good and evil, but against a long and ultimately doomed fight against death—or death. It is far better, in Camus’s view, to take up the fight, since it is only in a direct confrontation with death that we become authentically alive.

You might even say that, for Camus, life itself is the only real ethical principle. This becomes apparent in the speech of Tarrou, Rieux’s friend, who is passionately against the death sentence. Capital punishment crystalizes the height of absurdist denial: decreeing that a human value system is more valid that the basic condition of existence, and that we have a right to rule when existence is warranted or not. To see the world with clear eyes means, for Camus, to see that life is something beyond any value system—just as the entire universe is. And the only meaningful ethical choice, for Camus, is whether one chooses to fight for life.

This book is brilliant because its lessons can be applied to a natural disaster, like a plague, or a human disaster, like the holocaust. Indeed, before the current pandemic, the book was normally read as a reaction to that all-too-human evil. In either case, our obligation is to fight for life. This means rejecting ideologies that decree when life is or is not warranted, it means not giving up or giving in, and it means, most of all, doing one’s job.



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Review: Sons and Lovers

Review: Sons and Lovers

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My reactions to this book veered from extremely positive to quite negative, so it is difficult to know how to begin. If you have an ear for prose, then Lawrence will seldom completely disappoint. At his best, Lawrence’s prose is lush, caressing, and aching. He evokes a kind of aesthetic tenderness that I have seldom experienced elsewhere—an intimacy between the reader and himself, a vulnerability that is disarming. In his strongest passages Lawrence is as meditative as Proust and as lyrical as Keats.

But this book is, unfortunately, not exclusively composed of Lawrence’s strongest passages. And as it wore on, I felt that Lawrence had exhausted his limited emotional range, and was overplaying his thematic material.

The premise of the book is quite simple: a woman in an unsatisfying marriage pours her emotions into her sons, who then become so dependent on her that they cannot form satisfying relationships for themselves. For me, there is nothing wrong with this (arrestingly Freudian) idea; but I did think that Lawrence beats the reader over the head with it. In general, I think it is unwise for any book to be too exclusively devoted to a theme. It does not leave enough room for levity, for spontaneity, for fresh air to blow through its pages. Sons and Lovers certainly suffers from this defect.

But the book’s faults become apparent only in the second half. I thought the beginning of the novel was quite astonishingly beautiful. Lawrence wrote of the sufferings of a young wife with amazing sympathy. He manages to bring out all the nobility and strength of Mrs. Morel, while avoiding portraying Mr. Morel in an unnecessarily harsh light. The miner is a flawed man in a crushing situation, and his wife is a resolute woman with few options. Their tragedy is as social as it is personal, which gives this section of the novel its great power.

When the focus shifts from Mrs. Morel to her son Paul, then the quality generally declines. Paul is not as interesting or as compelling as his mother; and his problems seem like sexual hang-ups or psychological limitations, rather than anything diagnostic of society at large. Perhaps our own social climate is just not ripe for this novel. Nowadays we are little disposed to care about the inability of a young man to find complete satisfaction in his relationships.

In fairness, there are charming and insightful sections in this second part of the novel as well. I liked Miriam as a character and I thought the dynamic between her and Paul was compelling, if a touch implausible. (On the other hand, I disliked the reconciliation between Clara and her pathetic husband.) Even so, I thought that the writing became noticeably worse as the book went on, as Lawrence inclined more and more to repetition. The characters speak, desire, recoil, hate each other, relapse, and so on. It is tiresome and it begins to wear on the reader, who longs for someone to do something decisive and bring all this emotional dithering to an end.

I am hopeful that Lawrence’s later novels have more of his strengths (his sympathy, his lyricism, his tenderness) and fewer of his weaknesses (his lack of range, his lack of humor). As for this one, I will end where I begin, with a confused shrug.



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Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Review: Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


This book did not conform to my expectations, and this is often a cause of bitterness with me. I opened Winesburg, Ohio thinking that it would be a series of carefully-plotted, intersecting short stories illustrating the reality of small-town life in America. And I was excited for this hypothetical book, since it seemed like a wonderful concept. But Anderson had quite different ideas, and his were far less to my taste.

For one, the stories in Winesburg, Ohio have very little in the way of plot, and so they can hardly weave an intricate tapestry. The effect is not that of a carefully worked-out machine, but if a simple accumulation. What is more, this is hardly a work of realism in any meaningful sense. Anderson is not one for sensory details, nor for social analysis; his world is composed of individual souls residing in a shadowy world. The stories could have taken place just as easily in Winesburg as in Warsaw, since Anderson’s fundamental concern is something much more universal.

The insistent message of these stories is that people are bound up within themselves, their inner passions shut off from the world, and they have little idea how to rectify their situation. Thus, the stories follow a characteristic pattern: The protagonist’s frustrated dreams and desires are narrated, and then a crisis follows in which the character tries, unsuccessfully, to disburden herself of this frustration. This usually takes the form of a frantic encounter with George Willard, the young town reporter. The story ends as soon as the crisis is shown to be unsuccessful.

I have many criticisms of these stories. Anderson is as guilty as any author can be of telling and not showing. His stories consist almost entirely of narration. What is worse, I often found the narration unsuccessful, as Anderson seems allergic to the use of vivid, concrete details. We are never in the moment with a character, never able to watch a scene unfold in our mind’s eye. Someone extremely sympathetic to Anderson’s style may argue that this creatures a distance between the reader and the story which mirrors the emotional distance between Anderson’s characters. In my case, however, the result was often apathy or bemusement.

As an example of his style, consider this passage:

There was something biting and forbidding in the character of Kate Swift. Everyone felt it. In the schoolroom she was silent, cold, and stern, and yet in an odd way very close to her pupils. Once in a long while something seemed to have come over her and she was happy. All of the children in the schoolroom felt the effect of her happiness. For a time they did not work but sat back in their chairs and looked at her.

This passage is characteristic in its almost total lack of sensory information. Indeed it seems intentionally vague: “in an odd way,” “something came over her,” “felt the effect”—these phrases suggest that Anderson himself was not interested in really picturing to himself how this strange scene could actually play out. It also shows a kind of curious anti-realism when it comes to describing human behavior. As somebody who has worked as a teacher, I can scarcely imagine the reaction of young pupils to a mysteriously happy teacher being to simply look at her. Has Anderson ever been around a child?

Of course, an author is under no obligation to describe people as behaving realistically. Nevertheless, I think that this oddity is symptomatic of one of the paradoxes in these short stories: though they are about the innermost struggles of different individuals, Anderson seems rather uninterested in his characters as individuals. The persons in this book can hardly be called individuals, in fact, but are mere points of tension. They have problems but no personalities, and once their crisis is over they have no further interest. The way that Anderson writes dialogue is particularly infelicitous—unnatural to the point that it must have been intentional, but which nevertheless struck me as jarring. Luckily, there is not much of it.

What perhaps struck me most about these stories is how strongly they reminded me of a lot of contemporary writing. The idea that we are all silently suffering, or that, in Anderson’s own words, “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified”—and, most importantly, that emotional expression will fix this problem—this strikes me as a profoundly limited worldview. For my part, I do not think that emotional connection alone is enough to solve any problem, unless it is supplemented by a thoughtful empathy—the ability to see humans in the round and not as simply balls of frustrated passions.

Indeed, as Lionel Trilling argues in his excellent essay on Anderson, the paradox of this philosophy is that it can lead to a world just as cold and brutal as one of repressed desires. And yet, this is an idea that I encounter again and again: that all we need is emotional expression. Expression is easy, however, while understanding is infinitely more difficult.

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Review: The Ambassadors

Review: The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Henry James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

He had spoken in the tone of talk for talks sake, and yet with an obscure truth lurking in the loose folds…

One would think that, of all the people living on this good green earth, I would be especially prone to loving this particular work of literature. After all, it is about a young American who moved to Europe, fell in love, and then resisted his family’s entreaties to come back and make more money. If you know anything about me, you will know that this has a special resonance. I am also, as it happens, a lover of fancy prose and classic novels. Clearly, in my case, the book’s prospects were extremely favorable.

It is with mild surprise, then, that I report that my feelings are mixed. This is not a novel that one can easily love. It is, rather, a product of James’s infamous late style, which divided critics at the time and has continued to do so ever since. There are many ways to characterize this style—dense, laborious, obscure—but I think that the keynote here is vague. Both in his descriptive passages and his dialogue, James maintains a kind of studious vagueness that can be either delightful or infuriating, depending on your mood and taste. In everything from his sentence structure, to his dialogue, to his descriptions, to his plotting—vagueness reigns.

To indulge in highfalutin terminology, I would say that this is an aesthetic triumph at the expense of humanistic value.

First, the triumph. James, at his best, achieves something like that achieved by the impressionist painters. The strokes of his pen are suggestive rather than illustrative. He asks much of the reader; and this means that the reader becomes an active part of the story. Virtually nothing—not the book’s resolution, nor the personality of the major characters, nor even the meaning of some knotty sentences—is unambiguous, which means that each reader can make the book her own. In other words, James’s late style is quite like the Ostomachion of Archimedes: a set of puzzle pieces that can be assembled in a myriad of ways.

I say that this is an aesthetic triumph because James achieves an effect that is unique, distinctive, novel, and demanding. He creates, in other words, his own aesthetic realm. The cageyness, the uncertainty, the self-referential quirks of this book—we can clearly see, in retrospect, that James was paving the way for literary modernism. And like much of modernism, I think that this aesthetic triumph comes at a great cost to humanistic value.

To simplify matter somewhat, you can describe this loss at the emphasis of form over content. The novels of Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Elliot, Tolstoy—say what you will about them, but they have an awful lot of content. Putting aside whatever explicit messages these novels may carry, they introduce us to concrete places, to remarkable individuals, to unforgettable stories. They capture, in other words, a human reality; and in so doing they help us to come to grips with life itself. Now, do not get me wrong: all of these authors also have aesthetic merits. If they did not, they would not be artists at all—merely columnists. My point is that their artistic style was entirely compatible with a definite view of the world, a view that is communicated in their works. This I call their humanistic value.

My main criticism of this book, then, is that James’s remarkable aesthetic sense overpowered whatever message he wished to transmit. Based on a straightforward reading, the intended message is this: American culture is narrow and materialistic, and it leads people to give up enjoyment for superficial, conventional reasons. We are, thus, presented with a cast of characters who embody this difference. Strether and Chad are exquisitely sensitive to the charms of Europe, and improve under its influence; while other Americans, such as Waymarsh, insistently stay within their narrow horizons.

The problem is, again, the vagueness. James is insistently vague on every detail. How exactly is life in Europe more liberating than life in America? And how exactly have Strether or Chad improved? These may seem like superficial questions, but the entire weight of the plot hinges on them. We cannot come to any moral conclusion without knowing the details. Indeed, James is so impressionistic in his portrayal of the main characters that we can hardly come to any conclusions at all. Do we even like these people? Even the ending is veiled in vagueness. Will Chad return to America? And why does Strether decide to return? And is his return a failure, or a success, or what? It is simply impossible to answer these questions.

Perhaps I would have been able to stomach all of these irresolutions if I had absolutely adored James’s style. But I do not. Indeed, I confess to finding James’s prose quite ugly—laborious, convoluted, and dry. There is hardly a passage in this book that one can read aloud without sounding like an alien. The following is entirely typical:

Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then. It has begun in fact already upstairs and before the dressing-glass that struck him as blocking further, so strangely, the dimness of the window of his dull bedroom; begun with a sharper survey of the elements of Appearance than he had for a long time been moved to make.

A few sentences of this may be fine; but pages of it are painful. Granted, James is capable of quite lovely writing. I was enchanted, for example, by his description near the end, of Strether’s venture into the French countryside. Yet, all too often, the book is like this passage: opaque. His dialogue is only slightly better—readable, and yet still plagued by the strained and unnatural cadences of James’s prose. Besides this, James’s characters have the same tendency to vagueness as James himself, and never spell out what they mean.

Obviously this will come down to taste. I like things to be clear and unambiguous. That is my taste. James clearly did not agree. That I liked this book in spite of this divergence is a testament to James’s aesthetic power. He was an artist in the highest sense of the word.

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Review: A Room of One’s Own

Review: A Room of One’s Own

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is quite wholly unlike what I expected it to be. Judging from its reputation, I expected a fiery tract, an impassioned plea, a manifesto. But this is, rather, an exquisitely calm, delicate, and delightful work of writing. Considering that these adjectives also serve to describe Woolf’s fiction, maybe I should not be so surprised after all. Woolf was above all a writer; and it is the extraordinarily fine quality of its writing that makes this essay a classic work.

Woolf’s fundamental argument is simple: Writing literature requires education, experience, time, privacy, and independence. Historically, women lacked access to all of these things; so it should be expected that there are comparatively few classic women writers. Woolf regards this as a shame—not because of the human suffering involved, but because of the aesthetic privation. Women simply write differently than men, Woolf thinks, and by depriving women of the means to write, we are depriving ourselves of a wholly different sort of literature. Thus, Woolf frames women’s emancipation in rather materialistic terms (“a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year”), and gives an ultimately aesthetic ground for doing so. It is a curious argument.

For any lovers of reading (and I assume there are lots of us here), it is compelling to think of the many poems, plays, and novels that were never written because huge portions of the population were deprived of the appropriate means to write them. Woolf brings this out with the famous example of Judith Shakespeare, the Bard’s equally talented sister who was never able to write a word.

As poignant as this example is, however, ultimately I do not think it is wise to ground an argument for women’s emancipation along aesthetic lines. If the premise to Woolf’s argument were correct, then we should be simply swimming in masterpieces nowadays. Yet I frankly doubt that the 2020s will, in 100 years, be considered a better decade for literature than the 1920s. After all, Woolf herself lived in the 1920s—and I doubt we can match her.

In any case, I do not think this essay stands or falls on the merit of Woolf’s arguments alone. Better yet, I do not think it should be evaluated as an argument at all. It is, rather, a sort of literary clarion call; and if it has inspired even one woman to take up the pen, then I think it has accomplished its purpose. Personally, I found the writing so intoxicatingly good, and Woolf’s sense of aesthetic value so overpowering, that I was myself driven back to the writing desk. Lucky for me, I have a room of my own, too—though it is rather small.



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Review: Don Juan

Review: Don Juan

Don Juan by Lord Byron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let us have wine and woman, mirth and laughter,
Sermons and soda water the day after.

The legend of Don Juan appears to be one of the most productive stories in all of literature. After its first setting by Tirso de Molina—still a classic of the Spanish stage—it has been adapted innumerable times. Molière’s powerful version may be the most famous for the theater, and Mozart’s opera is considered to be among the greatest works of music even sounded. After speaking in French verse and singing in mellifluous Italian, the infamous seducer of Seville lived on—though much altered—to speak iambic pentameter in Lord Byron’s comedic epic.

Nonetheless, Lord Byron’s use of the legend is free to the point that it may as well have been discarded entirely. The protagonist is, indeed, an attractive young man from Seville with a formidable sexual appetite. Byron’s Juan, however, is usually the seducee rather than the seducer. He does not lie to get his way, he does not have a wisecracking servant, he does not kill the fathers of his victims, and he does not meet his end at the hands of a living statue. There is none of that here. Instead, Don Juan is an attractive young boy with a good heart who runs into a lot of trouble, mainly because every woman who sees him wants him. It is a pleasant twist on an old tale.

Though a member of the Romantic age, Byron does not strike me as a Romantic poet. His poetry is witty, snappy, sharp, irreverent, and lean. There is nothing sentimental, meditative, or wistful in this long poem. Indeed, the verse is so prose-like that it is hardly even poetical. His most obvious literary forebear is not Milton or Donne, but Pope—another witty versifier. It seems strange, then, that of all the great English Romantic poets, it was Byron who was arguably the most famous and influential. Perhaps tastes did not change as much as we are prone to believe.

This epic poem has a loose and baggy structure. That is to say that it is full of holes and an awful lot of wind blows through it. Byron appears to have begun with a fairly concrete idea in mind, and the first three or four cantos are brilliant fun. Soon thereafter the poem falls apart, however—dissolving into an endlessly long aside, in which the main action is lost. The poem ceases to be the comic epic of Don Juan and instead becomes a vehicle for Byron’s own endless editorializing. This is still mostly worth reading, for Byron’s wit if not for his logic, but it is not exactly a work of high art.

Poor Don Juan is left in the lurch, and never does get to meet his final end—whatever that may have been. Byron met his own end before he could give one to Don Juan. If not for that, this poem may have gone on for twenty cantos more. But at the rate the story was progressing in the final cantos, twenty more may not even have been enough to bring this sprawling story to a satisfying conclusion. So let us be thankful for what we have. The parts that are weak are readable, and the parts that are strong are delightful.



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