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.



View all my reviews

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.



View all my reviews

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

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Review: Howl and Other Poems

Review: Howl and Other Poems

Howl and Other PoemsHowl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

On my recent trip to San Francisco I was obliged to buy a copy of this book from the City Lights bookstore. Well, that isn’t the whole story. I visited the book store without knowing anything of its history, left with a copy of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, and then shamefacedly returned to pick up this book when my mother informed me, five minutes later, that it is famous for the “Howl” trial. I had heard recordings of Ginsberg reciting “Howl” many times, but I had never actually owned a copy of this poem. Now, thanks to the timely intervention of my mom, I am bona fide hip.

Like so many obscene books of bygone ages, “Howl” seems remarkably tame nowadays, and it is hard to believe any institution would go through the bother of banning and confiscating it. As in so many other cases of censorship, the attempt to suppress the work backfired, helping to turn poem and poet into icons. In our present, enlightened age, we have realized that, when anything can be published, nothing can be shocking or subversive; so oversaturation accomplishes in a stroke what censorship failed to accomplish in generations. But I am getting rather off the track of this book review.

It is difficult to evaluate “Howl,” since everything innovative about it has been thoroughly absorbed into the culture: obscenity, drugs, jazz, eastern mantras, free-form poems that follow the breath, and so on. Ginsberg’s voice is still with us; and you can hear it for yourself if you go to the right college campus—to pick just one example, New Paltz, in upstate New York, has many psychedelic, socially conscious, very enlightened free-form poets. This is not to say that this poem is no longer enjoyable, only that its appeal is more as a fossil than as a revelation now.

But it is a delightful fossil. For with Ginsberg’s “Howl” I hear the first grumblings of a new phenomenon in society: a group of disaffected youths becoming self-aware as a loose movement—as a counter-culture. Now, there have always been disaffected people who have turned to alcohol, drugs, sex, foreign faiths, and in general that peculiar mix of mysticism and hedonism that gives solace to those who feel they do not have a place in their own society. Yet it was not until the Beats, I believe, that this now quintessential experience was turned into art that defined a whole generation. The irony, of course, is that as soon as a counter-culture becomes faddish, its harmless aspects are absorbed into society, and its radical aspects swept to the side, until the revolt loses its teeth.

In both Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Kerouac’s On the Road I see young men, profoundly disenchanted and disconnected with their world, deeply disgusted with the values of their society, but without much to offer in the way of replacement. Instead they wander “starving hysterical naked” across the country, in search of some sort of epiphany that will clarify their predicament—an elusive truth, to be pursued on highways, in bedrooms, and in the altered states of the mind. Yet until they reach this truth, all they have to offer in opposition to “Moloch” is hedonism—which is exactly the same dilemma unsuccessfully faced by Babbitt.

Needless to say I do not find either alternative convincing, but that does not mean I cannot enjoy Ginsberg’s poems. Now, I do think the book format does not do Ginsberg justice, since the lines are organized by his breath and demand to be read, preferably by him. I will always remember laying awake in my bed in high school, listening to Ginsberg reciting “Howl” and “America,” and feeling strange stirrings of literary rebellion that I could not hope to articulate. A literary triumph, perhaps not, but an essential landmark on the country’s and my own maturity.

View all my reviews

Review: Don Quixote

Review: Don Quixote

Don Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés TrapielloDon Quijote de la Mancha: puesto en castellano actual íntegra y fielmente por Andrés Trapiello by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I know who I am,” replied don Quijote, “and I know who I can be…”

I bought this book under the sway of a caprice which, if it were not too hackneyed to say so, I would call quixotic. This was two years ago. I was in the royal palace in La Granja de San Ildefonso, near Segovia. I had just toured the palace—one of the finest in Spain—and was about to explore the French gardens, modeled after those in Versailles, when I encountered the gift shop. Normally I do not buy anything in gift shops, since half of it is rubbish and all of it is overpriced. But this book, this particular volume, called out to me and I obeyed.

It was a foolish purchase—not only because I paid gift-shop prices, but because my Spanish was not anywhere near the level I needed to read it. And at the time, I had no idea I would be staying in Spain for so long. There was a very good chance, in other words, that I would never be able to tackle this overpriced brick with Bible-thin pages. At least I left myself some hope. For this is not the original El ingenioso caballero don Quijote de la Mancha—written in Spanish contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s English—but a bastardization: its style diligently modernized by the writer Andrés Trapiello. Even with this crutch, and even with an additional two years of living in Spain, this book was a serious challenge.

Before charging headlong into the thickets of criticism, I want to say a word in praise of Trapiello’s edition. Cervantes’s Spanish is not as difficult as Shakespeare’s English, but it still foreign enough to prove an obstacle even to native speakers. I know many Spaniards, even well-read ones, who have never successfully made it through El Quijote for this very reason (or so they allege). Trapiello has done the Spanish-speaking world a great service, then, since he has successfully made El Quijote as accessible as it would have been to its first readers, while preserving the instantly recognizable Cervantine style. And while I can see why purists would object to this defacement of hallowed beauty, I would counter that, if ever there were a book to painlessly enjoy, it is El Quijote.

To get a taste of the change, here is Trapiello’s opening lines:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, vivía no hace mucho un hidalgo de los de lanza ya olvidada, escudo antiguo, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Consumían tres partes de su hacienda una olla con algo más de vaca que carnero, ropa vieja casi todas las noches, huevos con torreznos los sábados, lentejas los viernes y algún palomino de añadidura los domingos.

And here is the original:

En un lugar de la Mancha, du cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor. Una olla de algo más vaca que carnero, salpicón las más noches, duelos y quebrantos los sábados, lentejas los viernes, algún palomino de añadidura los domingos, consumían tres partes de su hacienda.

Now, undeniably something is lost in the transition. Cervantes’s “duelos y quebrantos” (lit. “aches and pains”), for example, is undeniably more evocative than Trapiello’s “huevos con torreznos” (eggs with bacon); but without Trapiello I would have no idea what Cervantes meant. It is also worth noting how similar the two are; Trapiello has taken care to change only what he must.

Onward to the book itself. But I hesitate. The more I contemplate this book, the more I think that a critic must be as daft as the don and as simple as his squire to think he can get to the bottom of it. Cervantes was either extremely muddle-headed or fantastically subtle, since this book resists any definite conclusions you may try to wring from its pages. Perhaps, like many great books, it simply got out of the author’s control. Just as Tolstoy set out to write the parable of a fallen woman and gave us Anna Karenina, and as Mark Twain set out to write a boys’ book and invented American literature, it seems Cervantes set out to write a satire of chivalric romances and produced one of the great works of universal art. It is as if a New Yorker cartoonist accidentally doodled Guernica.

The key to the book’s enduring beauty, I think, is Cervantes’s special brand of irony. He is the only author I know who can produce scorn and admiration in the same sentence. He is able to ruthlessly make fun of everything under the sun, while in the same moment praising them to the heavens. The book itself embodies this paradox: for it is at once the greatest rejection of chivalric romance and its greatest embodiment—an adventure tale that laughs at adventure tales. There is no question that Cervantes finds the old don ridiculous, and he makes us agree with him; yet by the end, Quijote is more heroic than Sir Galahad himself.

The central question the books asks is whether idealism is noble or silly. There is no question that the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance is a hilarious figure. But do we laugh at his expense, or at our own? Is his idealism pathetic, or is it our realism? The book resists both horns of this dilemma, until finally we must conclude that we are all—dreamers and realists alike—equally ridiculous. For we all reside in a social world whose rules only exist in our beliefs and in our actions, a world which we create but do not design. It is only Quijote who seems to realize (however unconsciously) that, by changing the script, we can recreate the world. And he does. By the time we get to Part Two, everyone is playing along with Quijote.

Even so, I am not able to go so far as Miguel de Unamuno, and consider Quijote a sort of messiah. I do not think Cervantes’s irony permits this. For Quijote truly is out of touch, and frequently gets pummeled for it. And even when his fantasy inspires others to play along, and to help him create his new world, they never do so for disinterested reasons. Some, including Sancho, play along for gain; others do so to control or to help Quijote; and most do it just to have some fun at his expense. This is the dilemma faced by all revolutionaries: they have the vision to see a better world, the courage to usher it in with their actions, and the charisma to inspire others to follow them; but most worldlings chose to play along for ulterior motives, not for ideals; and so the new world becomes as corrupt as the old one. To put this another way, Quijote’s problem is not that he is out of touch with the social order, but that he is out of touch with the human heart.

Much of the greatness of this book lays in the relationship between the don and his squire. Few friendships in literature are so heartwarming. Sancho, in his simplicity, is the only one who can even partially meet Quijote in his new world—as a genuine participant in Quijote’s make-believe. Of course, Sancho is not free from ulterior motives, either. There is the island he is to rule over. But the longer the story goes on, the more Sancho believes in his master, and the less he pursues material gain. We are relieved to see that, when finally offered his island, the squire comes running back to the don in a matter of days. As the only two inhabitants of their new world, as the only two actors in their play, they are homeless without one another.

It is useful to compare Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’s method of characterization. As Harold Bloom points out, Shakespeare’s characters are most truly themselves when they are alone, soliloquizing. When together, on the other hand, even close friends and lovers never seem to communicate perfectly, but talk past each other, or talk for their own benefit, or simply show off. But don Quijote and Sancho Panza are most truly themselves when they are with each other; they draw one another out and spur one another on; they ceaselessly bicker while remaining absolutely loyal; they quibble and squabble while understanding one another perfectly. When they are separated during Sancho’s sojourn on the island, the reader feels that each has lost more than half of himself. For my part, though I am not sure it is more “realistic,” I find Cervantes’s friendship more heartening than the bard’s. Though they begin as polar opposites, the squire and the knight influence one another as the story progresses, eventually coming to resemble one another. This beats Romeo and Juliet by a league.

What strikes most contemporary readers of this ur-novel is its modernity. Formally, Cervantes is far more daring than his Victorian successors. This is admittedly more apparent in Part Two, when Cervantes has his characters travel around a world where Part One has already been published and read widely, and where the spurious Part Two by Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda (a pseudonym) has just been released. This leads to self-referential tricks worthy of the coolest postmodernist: the duo encountering readers of the prequels and commenting on their own portrayal. Another daring touch was Cervantes’s use of the Arabic historian Cide Hamete Berengeli—whose Arabic book, found on the streets of Toledo, he is merely transcribing into Castilian—which allows him to comment on the text he is writing: praising the historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and skipping over boring sections in the “original.”

All this is done, not merely to be clever, but to reinforce the sense of infinite irony that pervades the text. The gap opened up by these tricks is what gives Cervantes room to be so delightfully ambiguous. As the authorship is called into question, and as the characters—who are imaginative actors to begin with—become aware of themselves as characters, the sense of a guiding intelligence crafting the story becomes ever more tenuous. The final irony, then, is that this self-referential irony does not undermine the reality of the story, but only reinforces it. In Part Two, especially, the characters leap from the book into reality, becoming both readers and writers of themselves—so real, indeed, that we risk repeating the don’s error of mistaking the book with reality.

Having said all this in praise of El Quijote, I should mention some of the book’s flaws. These are mostly confined to Part One, wherein Cervantes inserts several short novelas that have, for the most part, aged poorly. At the time there was, apparently, a craze for pastoral love stories involving shepherds and shepherdesses, which nowadays is soppy sentimental trash. One must also admit that Cervantes’s was a very mediocre poet, so the verse scattered throughout these pages can safely be skipped. On the whole, though the book’s most iconic moments are in Part One, Part Two is much superior and more innovative.

Part Two is also far sadder. And this is the last ambiguity: the reader can never fully decide whether to laugh or cry. Tragedy and comedy are blended so deeply together that no emotional response seems adequate. I still have not decided with any certainty how I feel or what I think about this book. All I know is that I wish it could go on forever—that I could read another chapter of don Quijote’s and Sancho Panza’s adventures for the rest of my life. To reach the end is unbearable. Don Quijote should live eternal life. And he will.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews
Sorolla-9

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

View all my reviews