Review: Vanity Fair

Review: Vanity Fair

Vanity FairVanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The world is a looking glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

There seems to be little to say about Vanity Fair that is worth the time in saying it. This is an open book; its appeal is direct, its themes obvious, its interpretation unambiguous. It is an extended satire of Victorian England—what more is there to add?

I was prepared for the nineteenth-century prose; indeed, Thackeray’s unadorned style has aged uncommonly well. I had readied myself for its protracted length and copious cast of characters. I was even prepared for the strong authorial voice and frequent asides; in this, Thackeray follows Henry Fielding quite closely. But I was not quite ready for such a depressing novel. For the secret of Vanity Fair’s lasting success is not, I think, due merely to Thackeray’s execution—brilliant as it is—but owes itself far more to the novel’s triumphant immoralism.

Like many great novelist, Thackeray opens the book by introducing to us a pair of characters, Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley, who are to be foils for each other. Amelia is simple and good, while Becky is calculating and wicked. Following the standard conventions, we should expect Amelia to emerge triumphant and Becky to be foiled. And yet Thackeray consistently and persistently flaunts this expectation. Instead, he throws his characters into a world full of cowards, egoists, hypocrites, dullards, drunkards, gluttons, dandies, and every other species of vice—in short, Vanity Fair—and shows us that, in such a world, virtue is a luxury few can afford.

Indeed, the frightening thing about this novel is that Thackeray gradually pulls us into sympathy with Becky Sharp. The daughter of a painter and a dancing master, she hoists herself up from the lowest to the highest ranks of society using only her wit. In the process, it becomes clear that she is a sociopath in the proper sense of the word—seeing others as mere instruments, unable to care for anyone but herself. And yet we feel—we are made to feel—that she is not morally lower than those around her (who also only care for money and status), only cleverer and more determined.

In a word, Thackeray’s thesis is that, in our depraved world—where people care only for vanities, and where unjust accidents such as birth determine the distribution of these goods—the only logical course of action is to be ruthless. Thackeray completes this impression by showing how commonly virtue leads to misery. Amelia’s virtue, though genuine, is consistently made to look foolish. Her dedication to her husband is rendered ridiculous by her husband’s unfaithfulness, her dedication to her son rendered absurd by her son’s unconcern with leaving the house, and so on. For my part I found it very difficult to like her, and more often found myself rooting for Becky.

William Dobbin is the only character who is allowed to appear really admirable. Yet his virtue, too, is for most of the story ignored and unrewarded. And when he finally obtains his goal—by which time he has grown bitter with waiting—this is arguably caused, not by his action, but by Becky Sharp, the only effectively active character in the book.

The final result of this has been to leave me with a feeling of emptiness. Thackeray’s portrayal of Vanity Fair is convincing enough to leave the reader with a numbing sense of cynicism, scarcely pierced by the novel’s few tender moments. Despite this, I must recommend the book highly. Thackeray has, in many ways, aged better than his chief rival, Dickens. His prose is leaner and sharper, his characters more realistic, and his ethos free of Dickens’ dripping sentimentality. This is satire raised to a sweeping view of human life—which does not make it any funnier.

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Review: The Merchant of Venice

Review: The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of VeniceThe Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.

In my first review of this play I agonized over whether it was truly anti-Semitic or not. Now I am not unsure: this play is undoubtedly anti-Semitic. The plot is simply incoherent if Shylock is to be regarded as anything but a villain. Sympathetic as we may be to a man so mistreated, we cannot sympathize with someone so single-mindedly bent on material gain and bloody vengeance. No playgoer can conscientiously hope, in the trial scene, that Shylock is successful in fulfilling his bond. And Shakespeare does not allow us to suspect that Shylock is bluffing: he is prepared to cut out a man’s flesh and weigh it on a scale (a traditional anti-Semitic image) simply because “it is my humour.” If Shakespeare was trying to be slyly subversive, he did a very poor job.

What provokes audiences into sympathy with Shylock is the end of the trial, in which, aside from being denied his money, he is forcibly converted to Christianity, on pain of death. To us this seems such an obvious mockery of justice, such an undeniable outrage, that we assume Shakespeare must have felt the same way, and to have written the scene to undermine all the Christian talk of mercy. Yet I do not think Shylock’s fate would have provoked anything like this reaction in Shakespeare’s England, where anti-Semitism was taken for granted. To the contrary, that such a greedy and bloodthirsty Jew should be spared some of his fortune and accepted into Christianity might have been seen as wholly just, even merciful.

The final result of this—Shylock’s villainy and the play’s anti-Semitism—made the trial scene literally sickening for me. One man, mistreated and spiteful, is trying to legally kill another man for defaulting on a debt, and he is in turn stripped of his property, his identity, and his honor—humiliated, kicked, and spat upon. And all this is delivered as the denouement of a romantic farce, complete with cross-dressing ladies and a playful love story. I admit that I was in no mood to overlook or excuse the anti-Semitism, having recently stood in the Ghetto Vecchio in Venice, and seen the monuments to the deported Jews there. Even so, I think anyone must admit that the play’s dramatic coherence is seriously compromised, even destroyed, by the decline of anti-Semitism.

It speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s art that, even in such an obviously anti-Semitic play, which uses so shamelessly anti-Jewish stereotypes, and which so joyfully persecutes the play’s Jewish villain—even despite all this, we still read and stage this play. As often happens in life, charisma can deaden our moral senses; and Shylock is nothing if not charismatic. He is one of dozens of Shakespeare’s characters whose dialogue reveals a complete personality, a shifting mind whose depths we can only guess at, whose roving interior life extends into parts unknown. Somehow Shakespeare has conjured a character that embodies all of the negative Jewish stereotypes, yet who nevertheless is a believable and fully individual human. This is dramatically admirable and, in retrospect, morally reprehensible. For, as Harold Bloom said, Shylock’s very plausibility is why the play has been such a potent inspiration for anti-Semites.

I am not sure what conclusion to draw from all this. The play is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s stronger efforts. And yet, by the end, I felt little more then distress.

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Review: The Rural Trilogy (Lorca)

Review: The Rural Trilogy (Lorca)

Bodas de sangreBodas de sangre by Federico García Lorca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bodas de Sangre, or Blood Weddings, is an odd combination of the ancient and the modern. The story could not be more elemental: the conflict of love and duty, the tragedy of death. And yet the style is pure Lorca—symbolic, surrealistic, modern. The play is effective, not for any subtlety or refinement, but for the sheer amount of force that Lorca brings to bear on the main themes. The characters are nameless archetypes, whose speech is poetic passion. Lorca’s use of naturalistic imagery in his poetry—animals, trees, rivers, the moon—reinforces the primeval quality of the story, as if tragedy were a law of the universe. I am excited to read the other two plays of Lorca’s so-called rural trilogy.


La casa de Bernarda AlbaLa casa de Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second of Lorca’s “rural trilogy” I have read, and if anything I liked it even more than Bodas de Sangre. In form and theme the two are quite similar. Like a Greek tragedy, the plot is simplicity itself, with one obvious conflict and one calamitous resolution. Again, Lorca’s power as a dramatist comes, not from subtlety or wit, but from pure passion. The incompatibility between traditional values and human impulses, with all its tragic implications, is laid bare by Lorca, who shows us a culture whose religious mores and gender norms oppress women and deprive them of a fulfilling life. Strikingly, the cast of characters is entirely female, even though the conflict revolves around a male who is always offstage. This allows Lorca to focus on a side of life that was often swept aside, while maintaining an atmosphere of tension and constraint that makes the play so riveting. I am excited for Yerma.


YermaYerma by Federico García Lorca

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have enjoyed each play of Lorca’s rural trilogy more than the last. He is such a heartrending writer. Even on the page, the emotion of the play is raw and deeply affecting. He had an acute ear for dialogue, and could write as naturalistically as anyone; and when this naturalism is supplemented by his poetic gifts—at times surrealistic, at times pastoral—the language becomes electric with meaning. The word I keep coming back to is “elemental,” since the plays dramatize basic and timeless tragedies of human life.

In this play the tragedy is the anguish caused by being childless in a time when women were valued as mothers and mostly confined to the house. As in the other two plays in the so-called “trilogy” (they all have distinct plots), the basic conflict is between conservative, religious traditions and spontaneous human impulses. Lorca seems to have felt deeply the suffering caused by an uncompromising Catholic morality, and convincingly shows how it doomed people to lifelong unhappiness. It is fittingly tragic that this same moral code contributed to Lorca’s own death.

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Review: King John

Review: King John

King JohnKing John by William Shakespeare

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And oftentimes excusing of a fault
Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse

King John is normally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s earliest and weakest history plays. The plot mainly concerns the king’s conflict with France over his legitimacy, since John inherited the throne from his brother, Richard the Lionheart, even though the late king’s son, Arthur, was alive and well. This leads to a rather silly confrontation between the two powers, in which they try to get the town of Angiers to recognize one of them as the true king, which the townsfolk resolutely refuse to do. The warring factions finally decide to just destroy Angiers—presumably for the satisfaction—until they receive the timely recommendation to marry the prince of France to the princess of England, thus uniting their houses. This is done, and succeeds in suppressing the conflict for about five minutes, until a Cardinal stirs up the war again (which leads to some notable anti-Catholic blasts from Shakespeare).

Compared to Shakespeare’s more mature works, the characters in this play are mostly stiff and lifeless, with far less individualizing marks than we expect from the master of characterization. As Harold Bloom says, at this point Shakespeare was very much under the influence of Christophe Marlowe, and follows that playwright in his inflated, bombastic speeches. I admit that the swollen rhetoric often had me laughing, especially during the first confrontation between the English and French parties. The pathetic and spiteful King John is somewhat more interesting, if not more lovable, than the rest, but the real star is Philip Faulconbridge (later Richard Plantaganet), the bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, and the only immediately recognizable Shakespearean character. As with Launce in Two Gentlemen of Verona, it is a relief and a delight whenever Philip appears onstage.

As far as notable quotes go, this play is the source of our phrase “gild the lily,” though it misquotes the play, which goes: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.” Also notable is this description of grief for a lost child, which many surmise expressed Shakespeare’s grief for his own deceased son, Hamnet, though this is pure speculation:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form

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Review: Rameau’s Nephew & D’Alembert’s Dream

Review: Rameau’s Nephew & D’Alembert’s Dream

Rameau's Nephew / d'Alembert's DreamRameau’s Nephew / d’Alembert’s Dream by Denis Diderot

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best order of things, to my way of thinking, is the one I was meant to be part of, and to hell with the most perfect of worlds if I am not of it.

With this book, I come to the third member of the triumvirate of the French enlightenment. While Diderot’s writing may lack the sharp wit of Voltaire and the soaring lyricism of Rousseau, Diderot is nevertheless just as interesting and perhaps more lovable than his two more famous contemporaries. For Diderot maintained a childlike curiosity and an excitement for ideas that makes his writing straightforwardly pleasant, without any of Voltaire’s satiric malice or Rousseau’s paranoid egotism. It is interesting to note that, though Diderot was a widely respected writer during his lifetime, his most daring and original works, such as these two dialogues, remained unpublished until well after his death. It takes talent to be both a conventional and an unconventional genius.

Rameau’s Nephew, in addition to its philosophical content, is remarkable simply as literature. It consists of a dialogue between a philosopher (who most assume to be Diderot) and the nephew of the famous composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, who is an eccentric, ne’er-do-well, moocher, bohemian sort of fellow, whose ostensible profession is to give music lessons, but who really makes his living by playing the fool and flattering rich patrons. The conversation takes many twists and turns, which gives Diderot the opportunity to include some barbs against his rivals and enemies. Indeed, it is difficult to say that any topic is the main focus of the conversation, since—as in reality—the speakers break off on tangents, bring up and drop points, interrupt each other and themselves, and so on. This veracity of Diderot’s representation, and the excellent portrait of a hedonist living on the edge of respectable society, give the dialogue a literary value independent of any intellectual considerations. On a philosophical level, what mainly interested me was the confrontation of a virtuous philosopher with a selfish nihilist.

D’Alembert’s Dream is a more strictly philosophical exercise, detailing Diderot’s materialistic theory of biology. His main contention is that all matter is sensitive, or at least potentially sensitive, and thus no mind or soul is needed to explain life, movement, memory, sensation, or thought. Though this hypothesis mainly consists of armchair theorizing, which may sound very facile in the light of serious research, Diderot does put forward a hazy idea of evolution in this dialogue. What is more, in his notion of characteristics disappearing for several generations, and then reappearing, he also hazily hits upon Mendel. Not content to simply write an essay, Diderot puts all this in the mouth of his fellow encyclopedist D’Alembert (who spends most of the dialogue talking in his sleep), Mlle de Lespinasse (a close friend of D’Alembert who hosted a famous salon), and a doctor that serves as Diderot’s mouthpiece. D’Alembert and Mlle de Lespinasse were understandably upset when they heard about this (especially considering that the dialogue ends with a ringing endorsement of masturbation), and even compelled Diderot to burn the manuscript, but another one (in the possession of Grimm) survived.

As I put the book down, I find myself wishing I could spend more time in the company of Diderot, whose writing is warm and direct, witty but not showy, intellectual but not pretentious, daring but not wilfully provocative. It is amazing that one man could find the time to write literary classics while keeping his day job as the editor of the Encyclopédie and a popular playwright.

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Review: Two Gentlemen of Verona

Review: Two Gentlemen of Verona

The Two Gentlemen of VeronaThe Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives.

Two Gentlemen of Verona is usually grouped with A Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew as one of Shakespeare’s early comedies. I am inclined to see it as the earliest, if only because it is by far the least compelling. Whereas Shakespeare is rightly known for the depth of his psychological insight and the realism of his characters, the personages of this play are shallow and implausible creatures.

The two titular gentlemen are anything but. Proteus is a cad, a lout, and finally a monster, while his friend Valentine is a nincompoop. The women who capture their hearts are rather more compelling—especially Silvia, who sees right through Proteus—and yet their attraction to these unscrupulous airheads dims their stature as well. The final scene is the culmination of everything wrong with this play: after banishing his friend and lying through his teeth, Proteus tries to rape Silvia, and is then immediately forgiven by Valentine (note: not Silvia), in an ambiguous line that, at first glance, seems to mean that Valentine is gifting him his paramour Silvia. The scene could almost be funny if it were played as a farce, but the straight version I saw was sickening

The real heroes of this play are Proteus’s servant Launce and Launce’s dog Crab—a mutt who, despite having no lines, is better-realized than any of the protagonists. Now with Launce we have the real Shakespearean magic: a living, breathing, fully human character, immediately relatable and deeply compelling. His hilarious monologues are the jewels of this play, which does not deserve him. Other than this pair, the play is only interesting for prefiguring many of the themes Shakespeare would later explore with greater clarity and depth.

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Review: Lazarillo de Tormes

Review: Lazarillo de Tormes

La vida del Lazarillo de TormesLa vida del Lazarillo de Tormes by Anonymous

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One can imagine the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes sitting down to write in a mood similar to that of Erasmus when he penned In Praise of Folly, or of Voltaire when he composed Candide: full of the wry amusement of one engaged in a learned, witty, and irreverent literary exercise. And yet this book, like those other two, quickly became something far more than an elegant diversion. For with Lazarillo the author spawned an entire literary genre, the picaresque, creating a character and a story that have retained their charms long after the targets of the author’s satire have passed out of this world.

The most conspicuous target of the author’s derision is the church—which is likely why the author wished to remain unknown. Pardoners, priests, friars, and chaplains are exposed as hypocritical sinners—as gluttons, profligates, and fornicators, with a pious word for everybody. But the writer also takes aim at the inflated sense of honor that infected society in his day, which most famously compels a starving knight to go about town, pretending to be well off, preferring to suffer and even to die rather than have his poverty revealed.

We see all this through the eyes of Lázaro, a man of humble origins whose highest ambition is to have a full belly. This proves extremely difficult, however, as he goes from one master to another, each of them proving unable or unwilling to satisfactorily feed the ravenous rogue. Like all picaresque heroes, Lázaro is, at bottom, simple and good, with a robust and hearty humor, but who is nevertheless forced into cunning and trickery by hard circumstances. This formula—so successful in the age of television—was used to its full potential in its first historical appearance. Even through the difficult lens of old Castilian, Lázaro’s schemes to steal some crumbs of bread or some swigs of wine are still wonderfully funny.

But the novella is more than a slapstick comedy. The necessities of his belly and the earthiness of his mind allow Lázaro to penetrate all the hypocrisies of those around him—since, after all, hypocritical words cannot be eaten. Lázaro thus proves the ideal vessel for exposing the gulf between being and seeming. The reality he faces is bleak: full of sin, suffering, and poverty. And yet his society is in a state of constant denial, covering up this bleak reality with noble phrases and unheeded pieties. That this is more or less always the case in human life is why this book remains one of the jewels of Spanish literature.

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Review: Frankenstein

Review: Frankenstein

Frankenstein, or The Modern PrometheusFrankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mary Shelley was just eighteen when she wrote this iconic novel, which you might think is extraordinary; but considering who she was, it would have been even more extraordinary, perhaps, had she not done so. The daughter of William Godwin, idealistic philosopher, and Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist champion, she was wooed and conquered by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who then took her on a vacation with his good friend, Lord Byron, when a cold-snap caused by the ashes released into the atmosphere during the 1815 eruption of Mount Tamora forced them to stay inside for days on end, where they found entertainment by telling ghost stories. If she had not done something memorable in such circumstances, it would have been nearly obscene.

This book was the first “classic” I read on my own initiative. I was the same age as was Shelley herself when she wrote the book. I had just gotten to college, and the experience so impressed me that I thought I had better do something to cultivate my mind. My vocabulary was so feeble at the time that Shelley’s nineteenth century prose—quite overwritten—was like another language. Still, I pressed on to the end, and the experience was enjoyable enough that I immediately went on to read Dracula (which I preferred). Still, the impression lingered on afterwards that there was something not quite right with the book, like a dish that had been somehow botched. Now that I finally read it again I can say why.

What irks me the most is that I find Dr. Frankenstein absolute implausible as a character. If he earnestly thought that he was unlocking the secret of life—a noble goal—why would he keep his work such a secret? And how could such a cold scientific genius, who had just been sewing together corpse parts, be so overwhelmed by the ugliness of his creature’s face that he faints away? How could such a brilliant man not foresee that the monster’s threat about his wedding day was not directed at him? Time after time he makes decisions or has reactions that are, to me, inconsistent and unbelievable. Indeed, I recently read an adapted version for ESL learners which palpably improved the story, I think. Instead of Frankenstein fainting away and falling into a nervous fever for months at the mere sight of his monster, for example, the laboratory catches fire from the lightning and he falsely assumes the monster escapes.

I know, I know, I am supposed to suspend disbelief. But what jarred me was not the lack of scientific plausibility, but the lack of psychological plausibility of Frankenstein’s character. I could hardly believe that Frankenstein, who had unlocked the secret of life and death, did not even momentarily consider reviving his loved ones. I also had trouble believing that Frankenstein could complete 90% of the work on the monster’s bride, and only consider the dangers of doing so at the last possible moment. And a man who is supposedly in the depths of despair or thirsting with mad revenge, but who continually pauses to give loving descriptions of his alpine hikes and his travels through Europe, all the while professing not to have enjoyed them—it swerves into the absurd.

This psychological implausibility infected every other character. The monster’s long speech at the end about his tortured conscience rang more falsely than tin cans. And the bland goodness of Frankenstein’s friends and family made them impossible to mourn—pure white lambs prepared for the slaughter. The general impression is that the characters’ personalities are driven by the necessities of plot, not vice versa, which is never good. Frankenstein is a genius when the story need him to discover life, and an oaf when the story needs him to make a mistake; his monster is ruthless and demonic when tragedy is called for, eloquent and pitiable when things take a more plaintive turn.

But the book would not have become such an inescapable classic, and an integral part of pop culture, if it did not have compensating virtues. The most striking aspect of the book, for me, is its imagery. Many scenes are so vivid that they are always remembered. Shelley’s swollen prose is ill-suited to the quiet moments of the book, but flies free of excess in the novel’s many dramatic climaxes. And of course the novel’s premise was radically original and proved extremely influential. A ghost story without a ghost, a fantastic tale where technology provides the fantasy—it had not been done before. Its premise, too, has proven extremely rich and relevant, an allegory for humanity’s arrogance and the perils of creation. These virtues will ensure Frankenstein a place in English literature as permanent as Percy’s poems, which may indeed outlast Ozymandias’s statue and still be read when we are able to resuscitate corpses.

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Review: Persuasion

Review: Persuasion

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other’s ultimate comfort.

While reading Jane Austen my first and final impression, and the most constant sensation throughout, is of a keen intelligence. Her mind is like a rapier, sharp and graceful; and with this implement she needles and probes our mortal frame.

Austen’s concise novels explode with meaning; they can be read on so many levels. We see Austen the anthropologist, explaining and mocking the customs of her English countryside; Austen the moral philosopher, searching for the keys to human conduct; Austen the formal innovator, pioneering new techniques in fiction; and Austen the humorist, the Romantic poet, the psychologist, and so on.

In many ways Persuasion is the mirror image of Emma. Whereas Emma Woodhouse is young, beautiful, and immature, Anne Elliot makes her appearance as a poised woman past her prime. Emma is vain and silly, while Anne is the maturest and wisest character in the book. Thematically, too, the two novels are opposite. Emma, as Gilbert Ryle observed, is primarily concerned with influencing other people. When is is beneficent, when is it egotistic, and when is it mere meddling to involve oneself in another’s affairs? Persuasion, as its name implies, tackles the opposite problem: Under what circumstances should we yield to advice, and allow ourselves to be persuaded?

As usual with Austen, the social world her characters inhabit is the pinched life of the country gentry. Modern readers cannot help finding the dictates of manners and the demands of politeness to be harsh and constraining. If it were only more socially acceptable to speak one’s mind—or, God forbid, to engage in some form of romance without marriage—then the plots of the books would fall apart, as with so many other classic novels.

What makes it tolerable is Austen’s often wry lampooning of the social order. This is especially sharp in Persuasion. Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, is a contemptible baronet who prides himself in his looks and cannot manage his estate. Anne’s relation, Lady Dalrymple, is a viscountess with no charms, mental or physical, whom Anne’s father and sister nevertheless slavishly follow for her rank. The Royal Navy serves as the foil to these exalted oafs, a true meritocracy that allows young men with talent, but no birth, to make their way in the world.

On a formal level I found the novel interesting for its dearth of dialogue. Instead, Austen employs her technique of “free indirect discourse,” a kind of mixture of dialogue and reported speech. The result is that we see the world filtered through the narrator’s understanding—and in this book, this understanding is almost identical with Anne Elliot’s, Austen’s only character who is almost as intelligent as herself. This creates some interest effects.

Normally, characters in novels know somewhat less than the audience. We can, for example, immediately see that Emma Woodhouse’s schemes are ill-conceived, while she remains ignorant. But in Persuasion, Anne figures things out just as fast as we do; and her actions are consistently well-considered. What is more, while in most novels the character must undergo some change before the end—Emma must swear off her meddling ways—Anne Elliot’s challenge is to stay absolutely constant to the same good impulse that guided her eight years earlier. She begins the book wise, and remains so throughout.

The final result of these elements—indirect discourse, the stability of Anne’s character, as well as some clumsiness in pacing and plot—makes Persuasion a somewhat less exciting read than other Austen novels. But this lack of excitement is more than compensated by the wealth of interesting questions posed by the text. Jane Austen was an artist of the highest order, with a mind that would put many philosophers to shame.

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Review: Complete Short Stories (Hemingway)

Review: Complete Short Stories (Hemingway)

The Complete Short StoriesThe Complete Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One time there was a bull and his name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers.

Hemingway’s reputation precedes him: a misogynistic, alcoholic, macho author whose maximum sentence length was five words. Given all this, it is difficult to understand why feminist, vegetarian, and highbrow folks often end up reading and enjoying his work—as I’ve seen happen. Clearly there is more to Hemingway than his myth; but separating the man from his reputation is especially difficult in his case, since the myth, however simplifying, has a substantial grain of truth.

The best place to begin this disentanglement may be his short stories. Hemingway was an excellent writer of short stories, perhaps even better than he was a novelist, and these stories display his style in concentrated form. More than that, the succession of tales allows the reader to see Hemingway in all his favorite attitudes, which makes this an ideal place for the critic to set to work.

The most conspicuous aspect of Hemingway’s writing is his style. He was, above all, a stylist; and his prose has probably been the most influential of the previous century. He uses simple words and avoids grammatical subordination; instead of commas, parentheses, or semicolons he simply uses the word “and.” The final affect is staccato, lean, and blunt: the sentences tumble forward in a series of broken images, accumulating into a disjointed pile. The tone is deadpan: neither rising to a crescendo nor ascending into lyricism. One imagines most lines read in a monotone.

On the level of story and structure, too, Hemingway is a stylist. He developed characteristic ways of omitting material and splicing scenes to disorient the reader. Between two lines of conversation, for example, many minutes may have elapsed. Characters typically talk around the issue, only eluding vaguely to the principle event that determined the story, thus leaving readers to grasp at straws. The most famous example of this may be “Hills Like White Elephants,” a sparse conversation between a couple in which they make (or don’t) a decision to do something (or other).

Hemingway’s most typical plot strategy is to fill a story with atmospheric descriptions and seemingly pointless conversations until everything suddenly explodes right before the end. My favorite example of this is “The Capital of the World,” which is hardly a story at all until the final moments. His protagonists (who are, to my knowledge, exclusively male) are most often harboring some traumatic memory and find themselves drifting towards the next traumatic event that ends the narrative. The uncomfortable darkness surrounding their past creates an anxious sense of foreboding about their future (which the events usually justify)—and this is how Hemingway keeps up the tension that gets readers to the end.

Hemingway is certainly not a writer of characters. An experiment will make this very clear. Read the dialogue of any of his protagonists out loud, and even Hemingway fans will have difficulty saying who is doing the talking. In short, all of his protagonists sound the same—like Hemingway himself. You might say that Hemingway had one big character with many different manifestations. Luckily this character is compelling—damaged but tough, proud but sensitive, capable of both callousness and tenderness—and, most important, highly original. A much underappreciated aspect of this character, by the way, is the humor. Hemingway had a dry and occasionally absurdist comedic sense, which can be seen most clearly in this collection in “The Good Lion” (a story about a lion who only eats Italian food).

His stories circle tightly around the same subjects: war, boxing, bullfighting, fishing, hunting, and desperate love affairs—with alcohol ever-present. Without doubt Hemingway was attracted to violence. But he is not a Tarantino, an aficionado of the aesthetics of violence. Rather, violence for Hemingway is not beautiful in itself but a kind of necessary crucible to reduce life to its barest elements. For with life, like prose, Hemingway was a minimalist and a purist. And the essential question of life, for him, was what a man did when faced with an overpowering force—whether this came in the form of a bull, a marlin, a war, or nature itself. And the typical Hemingway response to this conundrum is to go down swinging with a kind of grim resolve, even if you’d rather just not bother with the whole ordeal.

Nature plays an interesting double role in Hemingway’s fiction: as adversary and comforter. Sometimes characters escape into nature, like Nick Adams going fishing. Other times they must face it down, like Francis Macomber with his buffalo. Yet nature is never to be passively enjoyed, as a bird watcher or a naturalist, but must always be engaged with—as either predator or prey. Of course you always end up being the prey in the end; that’s not the question. The question is whether these roles are performed with dignity—bravery, resolve, skill—or without. Writing itself, for him, is a kind of hunting, a hunting inside of yourself for the cold truth, and must also be done bravely or the writer will end up producing rubbish. And even the writer ends up prey in the end—eaten by his own demons.

This, as far as I can tell, is Hemingway’s insistent theme—the central thread that ties his other interests together. And one’s final reaction to his work will thus rest on the extent to which one thinks that this view encapsulates reality. For me, and I believe for many, Hemingway at his best does capture an essential part of life, one that is usually missed or ignored. But such a universally cannibalistic world is difficult to stomach in large doses.

Even within the boundaries of his own style, Hemingway has some notable defects. He most often gets into trouble nowadays for his portrayal of women. And it is true that none of them, to my memory, are three-dimensional. What most puts me off is the cloyingly subordinate way that many of the women speak their partners. But what I found even more uncomfortable was Hemingway’s racist treatment of black characters, which was hard to take at times. And as I mentioned in another review, I can also do with fewer mentions of food and drink.

These criticisms are just small sample of what can be lodged at him. Yet even the harshest critic, if they are a sensitive reader, must admit that he is a writer who cuts deeply. When Hemingway’s story and his style hit their stride, the effect is powerful and unforgettable. My personal favorite is the paragraphs in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” when the narration switches to the lion’s point of view:

Macomber stepped out of the curved opening at the side of the front seat, onto the step and down onto the ground. The lion still stood looking majestically and coolly toward this object that his eyes only showed in silhouette, bulking like some super-rhino. There was no man smell carried toward him and he watched the object, moving his great head a little from side to side. Then watching the object, not afraid, but hesitating before going down the bank to drink with such a thing opposite him, he saw a man figure detach itself from it and he turned his heavy head and swung away toward the cover of the trees as he heard a cracking crash and felt the slam of a .30-06 220-grain solid bullet that bit his flank and ripped in sudden hot scalding nausea through his stomach.

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