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widely respected writer during his lifetime, his most daring and original works, such as these two dialogues, remained unpublished until well after his death.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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Review: Blake’s Poetry

Review: Blake’s Poetry

Blake: Poems (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets)Blake: Poems by William Blake

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Angel that presided o’er my birth
Said, ‘Little creature, form’d of Joy & Mirth,
Go love, without the help of any Thing on Earth.’

As I’ve said before, I feel a bit uncomfortable reviewing poetry. I don’t have the proper tools; I lack the vocabulary. Critiquing poetry, to me, is like critiquing a human body. I don’t know why one face pleases me, and another pleases me not; I simply couldn’t say why I find one shape shapely, and another shape misshapen. When I see a pleasing face or an attractive form, I respond automatically; and the same might be said for my reactions to poetry.

William Blake makes this job even more difficult, as he was, in the truest sense of the word, an individual. How does one evaluate a totally idiosyncratic artist? It seems impossible; all evaluations, either explicitly or implicitly, involve comparison. But when somebody is so aloof and peculiar as was Blake, comparisons seem somehow inappropriate. Well, I’ll stop caviling, and on with it.

There is a childlike innocence to many of Blake’s poems. Some of them have the gentle sing-song rhythm of a lullaby; the words seem to rock you back and forth, lulling you into a dreamy peace. Blake’s early poems, in particular, are totally free of cynicism and disenchantment; rather, they are direct, honest, wide-eyed.

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Married to this total innocence, however, is an intense spirituality. Blake is a textbook mystic. Perhaps the closest poet to Blake that I’ve read is Whitman. Like Whitman, Blake is scornful of organized, traditional, Puritanical religion. Rather, he sees God in every blade of grass, and considers the body a source of delight, rather than of sin.

All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles, Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his energies.

In terms of pure poetic skill, Blake is no match for a Milton, a Donne, or a Whitman. Indeed, that sort of thing seems not to interest him. He has not a great talent for aphorism; he is not eminently quotable. The poems are not meant to be unraveled or chewed; you will not be left puzzled or bewildered. Verbal ingenuity is not, in short, Blake’s strength; and if Blake is read with that purpose in mind, you are sure to be disappointed. His aim is instead to disarm you, to make you let down your guard; his poetry is, in fact, almost conversational. Blake knew he was something of an oddball; but he was too wise to think himself any the worse for it. His poetry, then, is a kind of invitation into his personal world.

My mother groan’d! my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud,
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

And indeed, this world gets more odd and fanciful the longer you stay with him. Blake’s later poetry is considerably more obscure than his earlier work. He seems, in fact, to have invented his own mythology; and the poems from this period are little more than tales and visions of his personal gods and heroes and demons. It is certainly odd; but it is oddly alluring.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

Part of the reason books are so fascinating is because people are so fascinating. Right before reading this collection, I read a collection of Donne’s poetry. The juxtaposition is telling. Both men are mystics, both men are sensualists, both men are aloof individuals. Yet Donne is intellectual, anguished, and strained; Blake is direct, joyful, effortless. At least, this is my impression. It is odd trying to get to know somebody purely through their poetry; it is rather like trying to get to know somebody by rummaging through their trash. We are forced to guess at what’s locked inside by shifting through what’s shed.

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Review: A Farewell to Arms

Review: A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to ArmsA Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

If Voltaire had read Hemingway’s famous war novel, I’d wager that he would pronounce that it is neither about war nor a novel. Compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, the descriptions of war in this book are ludicrously tame. The vast majority of the time the narrator is not even at the front; and when he is, he is far behind the front lines, driving an ambulance. The bulk of the book is taken up, instead, by a love story. The war forms the backdrop—though admittedly a very conspicuous backdrop—and is not the main thread of the book.

What of the novel? Hemingway is a writer of conspicuous strengths and weaknesses; and the longer the book, the more apparent his shortcomings. Though the novel is slim, it still feels padded. Hemingway, for whatever reason, considered it dramatically necessary to narrate every time his characters ate or drank. Aside from telling us that his characters drank a lot (even while pregnant) and appreciated good wines, we learn very little from these frequent repasts, and the ultimate effect is to make the reader hungry.

The conversations, too, are repetitive—especially between the narrator and Catherine Barkley, his wartime sweetheart. While strikingly tender and frank, especially for Hemingway, the relationship between these two never sparkles with the interplay of personality. There is none of the mutual discovery we find in, say, Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Instead, the two of them talk to each other the way people talk to their dogs—asking cutesie rhetorical questions never meant to be answered.

These two examples are just part of a larger fault: Hemingway’s tendency to get carried away into nostalgic, atmospheric descriptions. At his best moments, admittedly, he creates that wistful, bittersweet, melancholic tone that he is known for, and that forms such a beautiful part of his work. But too often the book becomes pointlessly autobiographical. Hemingway is, after all, one of the strongest proponents of the “write what you know” school of fiction. Though wise advice, there is a danger to this method: Since everyone’s life is interesting to themselves, it can be difficult to know which parts may be interesting to other people. This book definitely suffers in this way.

Of course there are many strong bits. Some scenes are unforgettable—the narrator’s injury, the long retreat, rowing across the Swiss Lake, among others. I also really loved the conversations between the narrator and Rinanldi. Unlike the love story, that friendship has true chemistry. Indeed many episodes, taken by themselves, are remarkable. But do they add up to a coherent book?

I ask this specifically in regards to the ending. Since I had just read A.C. Bradley’s book on tragedy, in which he insisted that tragedy requires that a hero create his own downfall, I was struck by how un-tragic was the end of this book. The fatal stroke is not the inevitable result of any personal flaw or a misguided decision, but pure misfortune. The final effect, therefore, is not tragic, but pathetic. In Hemingway’s novel, the universe itself is malevolent, even sadistic, and humans just confused defenseless creatures caught in its maw.

Thus I am a bit perplexed that some people see this as an anti-war novel. The narrator’s crushing blow is not caused by the war; indeed it is something that could have happened to anyone. You can argue that the novel’s bleak atmosphere reflects the fatalism and the pessimism engendered by the war: a nihilistic perspective that is carried over into every phase of life—even love. Yet the narrator himself is not pessimistic—at least not most of the time; if he were, he would not have embarked on his love-affair. It is neither his perspective nor the war, therefore, that dooms the narrator, but some mysterious malevolency of the world itself that makes lasting happiness impossible, in war or in peace.

Thus, aside from a few explicitly anti-war passages in the book, the general tenor has little to do with pacifism or any other political reflection. Instead, to paraphrase the book’s most famous passage, the final message is: Everyone gets broken in the end no matter what. And I don’t think this notion has any truth or value.

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Review: Shakespearean Tragedy

Review: Shakespearean Tragedy

Shakespearean TragedyShakespearean Tragedy by A.C. Bradley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost
Sat for a civil service post
The English paper for that year
Had several questions on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered very badly
Because he hadn’t read his Bradley

Analyzing great works of art is always fraught with danger. Whether the critic sets her sights on a portrait, a sonata, or a play, the task is always that of turning poetry into prose. The critic, in other words, must extract content from form—and making content and form inseparable is one of the goals of art. Insofar as art is great, therefore, the critic’s task will prove difficult; and criticism thus reaches its most acute challenge in Shakespeare. His works have eluded minds as powerful as Coleridge and Freud, Goethe and Joyce. The man worthiest to the challenge was not anyone so famous; he was, rather, a retiring Oxford don who published a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies in 1904.

Bradley’s method has been attacked and dismissed as overly literal, treating Shakespeare’s characters as real people: “How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?” was the derisive title of one critical article, implying that the question (which Bradley never asked) was ludicrous. But I am convinced that Bradley’s method is, on the whole, the right one. For Shakespeare’s tragedies are incomprehensible unless we set our sights on character—the plays’ personalities. If you try the experiment suggested by Bradley himself, you will see this: attempt to narrate the plots of any of these stories without any mention of personality, merely recording the events, and the plot becomes weak and baffling.

The extreme example of this is, of course, Hamlet, whose endless ruminations and procrastinations have been a stumbling block for generations of critics. But the central importance of personality is apparent in all the tragedies. Indeed it must be, as Bradley explains, since a tragedy is tragic only insofar as the events result from a character’s personality. To fall off a building, to catch a deadly disease, to be conscripted into the army—all of these, while remarkably sad, are not tragic in the strict sense because they might happen to anyone. A tragedy may only happen to one person, because it is caused by that person. It does not result from circumstance, accident, or any overwhelming external force. To confirm this, try mentally switching the characters in these tragedies. Othello would have solved Hamlet’s problem in an hour, and Hamlet would have seen right through Iago’s trickery—the plot disappears.

The existence of tragedy, as Bradley also makes clear, seems to suggest a certain sort of universe. The characters must be capable of free action, since the consequences must flow from their personalities. Along with divine determination, the idea of a Christian afterlife is incompatible, too, since if every character ultimately receives their just desserts then the feeling of dreadful finality is lost. For tragedy, as Bradley tells us, always involves the idea of irrecoverable waste—wasted lives, wasted talents, wasted goodness. But the universe in Shakespeare’s plays is not indifferent. Indeed, although good and evil qualities are deeply mixed in all of his most memorable characters, we are never in doubt which is which. And though the hero is inevitably defeated, evil never triumph.

Most difficult to articulate is the odd mixture of inevitability and avoidability that permeates the atmosphere in these tragedies. One is never in doubt that the characters are, in every sense, free and responsible for their destiny; and yet their unhappy fate seems certain. This feeling is caused, I think, by the way that circumstance bleeds into personality. The behavior of Shakespeare’s characters is the reaction of their personality with their environment; and in tragedy this reaction is always fateful. The events correspond exactly with our heroes’ fatal weakness—a weakness which, in any other situation, would not have doomed them. In this sense their personality becomes their prison. They cannot but act otherwise because it is who they are. The final impression is one of cosmic misfortune—by some twist of fate they have been thrown into a predicament which dooms them, and they participate in creating this situation every fateful step of the way.

To fully illustrate this view of tragedy, as springing from a character’s personality, Bradley must analyze Shakespeare’s heroes and villains. And these investigations are absolutely masterful. His dissections of Hamlet and Iago in particular—my two favorite Shakespeare characters, and the two most resistant to analysis—were spectacular. Ever since I first read those plays, I have been beating my head against them in the attempt to make sense of these bottomless personages. The plots of their respective plays are determined by the actions of these two, and yet their motivations are famously difficult to ferret out. What motivates Iago, and what prevents Hamlet from acting? They are mysterious, and yet extremely coherent; one is always sure their actions are of a piece with their nature—and yet their natures are so subtle and complex that they evade understanding. Indeed for some time I was ready to say that the challenge was impossible; but Bradley’s exegesis has convinced me that I was wrong.

This book was, in sum, a revelation: a model of literary criticism that left me thoroughly convinced. And to complete the triumph, Bradley accomplishes his analysis with brevity and charm. There is nothing stifled or academic in his approach; all technical matters are reserved for footnotes and endnotes. He is, rather, a frank and plainspoken man. Nothing could feel more natural than his tone and approach, and no guide could be more friendly and tolerant. However the intellectual winds may blow in the halls of academe, ordinary lovers of Shakespeare will always cherish Bradley, for he performs the office of the critic: to enhance our enjoyment of a work while being true to its spirit.

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Review: Meditations on Quixote

Review: Meditations on Quixote

Meditaciones Del QuijoteMeditaciones Del Quijote by José Ortega y Gasset

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the varnish on a painting, the critic aspires to put literary objects in a purer atmosphere, the high mountain air, where the colors are more vibrant and the perspective more ample.

Ortega published this, his first book, in 1914 when he was 31 years old. It was meant to be only the opening salvo of a continuous barrage. According to his plan, this book was to be followed by nine other “Meditations”: on Azorín, Pío Baroja, the aesthetics of The Poem of the Cid, a parallel analysis of Lope de Vega and Goethe, among others. But, like so many youthful plans, this ambitious scheme was soon abandoned and this brief essay now stands alone.

As is the custom, Ortega fashions himself a follower of Cervantes; but he distinguishes his “quijotismo” by asserting that he worships, not the character Don Quixote, but the book. Ortega sees in this novel a repudiation of an earlier form of literature. By having his titular character rattle his brains by reading romantic tales of knights and adventure, only to go out into the world and make a fool of himself, Cervantes condemned all literature based on unusual people and events, replacing it with the literature of realism.

This is most dramatically portrayed in the episodes involving Maese Pedro, a picaresque character whom Quixote frees in the first part, and who returns in the second part to put on a puppet show for our hero. Unable to distinguish the puppets from his reality, the knight promptly charges and destroys them. This little episode demonstrates that romantic characters, such as Maese Pedro, reside in an imaginative space clearly delineated from the reality we know; but for Don Quixote imagination and reality are one seamless blend.

Apart from this discussion of the novel, Ortega roams far and wide in this essay, comparing Mediterranean and German cultures, discussing the epic form and Charles Darwin, and also including a germ of his later philosophy: “I am myself and my circumstances.” This collection also includes a long essay on Pío Baroja, which I could not properly appreciate since I have yet to read any of Baroja’s novels.

Ortega is his usual charming self. His prose is fluid and clean; his sentences sparkle with epigrams. He scatters his thoughts here and there with youthful zeal, not properly developing, clarifying, or defending any of them, but pushing joyfully on to the next point. I have heard some people describe Ortega as “dense,” but to me he is remarkably readable. Indeed I would describe Ortega as more of an intellectual essayist than a disciplined thinker. And the more I read of him, the more I am impressed.

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