Friday, April 6, 2012

Life of a Good-for-Nothing

I just finished Joseph Von Eichendorff's classic romantic novel Life of a Good-for-Nothing.  It's a good thing it's spring, because I feel I'd dismiss Eichendorff's adventure as "bunk" and "humbug" in any other season.  It's definitely a novel to read in spring, preferably while reclining in an open field, and thinking about falling in love for no verifiable reason.
Now, I am certainly a romantic, but even while typing this between two pictures of my wedding day, cannot I reconcile the amusing, though clearly nonsensical, story with the total lack of real substance.  The Good-for-Nothing's love interest, referred to throughout as the "beautiful lady," only speaks at the end of the work.  Granted, she isn't required to, considering the nature of the work, but if we're looking for truly great art, shouldn't she offer something to the main character other than a pretty face?  I mean, he meets many pretty faces throughout his journey and seems to be clearly interested in each one, yet he remains ardently in love with this one.  It's a stretch of the imagination, though not as much as the twists at the end.  I feel like even Dickens would come to the end of this book and be dumbfounded by the  absurd ending, which seems to come out of nowhere.
Regardless of this main criticism, it's hard to not be enchanted by the Good-for-Nothing's adventures.  He's a genuinely decent fellow, and anyone who's ever had a desire to go traipsing across the countryside just to see what there is to see will find him hard to resist.  And there is the novel's staying power, I feel.  As one person put it, the Good-for-Nothing (who is never named) is the embodiment of the German spirit.  I would go one step further and say he is the embodiment of the human spirit.  He is generous, kind, foolhardy, selfish, ridiculous, devout, religious, and essentially all the adjectives each of us could use to describe ourselves.
And so, this short novel--just over an hundred pages--continues to attract readers close to two hundred years after it was published.  While not as artistically satisfying, I would put it in the same arena as Don Quixote, The Pickwick Papers, or On the Road.  There's just something attractive about an overly romantic character. Perhaps it's because so many of us let ourselves grow calous.  Well, I recommend that this Spring, whoever is reading this take the time to read Eichendorff's Life of a Good-for-Nothing.  Personally, I think we could all stand be a little more good-for-nothing.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tolkien Was A Racist?

Based on the evidence, we’ve got a writer creating villains, colored black, who oppose the pure-hearted white heroes, right?  Well, let’s just ignore for now the fact that most of the people who play that bullshit race card with Tolkien also claim that the Elves are supposed to represent Oriental Asians and the Hobbits represent the English, and explore the notion that perhaps he was going back to age-old idea that black represents evil while white represents good.  Going back to what many of these “Tolkien was a racist” enthusiast propagate, if I was determining what group of humanity Tolkien preferred based on The Lord of the Rings, I’d say it wasn’t his own people.  But these are the same people who say that The Lord of the Rings is a metaphor for either World War I, World War II, or Christianity in general—all of which Tolkien himself dismissed.  But what doesn’t authorial intent mean?  Nothing, apparently.
So was Tolkien a racist?  I don’t know, nor do I care.  He was a brilliant man who wrote a classic piece of fantasy.  Based on the evidence taken from that classic though, I’d say no.  Anyone who disagrees with me doesn’t fully understand literature or symbolism when dealing with color.  Like it or hate it, black is a symbol throughout literature for evil.  Tolkien wasn’t exactly a rebel when it came to literature.  He preferred the works that came before him and took much influence from them, especially Medieval literature.  If we read a Medieval “history” (read: fantasy) dealing with black invaders, we would assume the color was a symbol for evil, simply because most Medieval authors I’ve read, when referring to Africans or Arabs, called them either dark skinned or brown.  This is easily explained by saying, they are dark skinned or brown.  The fact that we call them “black” doesn’t change the fact that they are not, in fact, black.
Let me just finish by saying, I’m white (though, in actuality, my skin is more of a pinkish color), and I didn’t assume Tolkien thought I was a part of some master race simply because Aragorn was the same color as me.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford

"Quaint" is the first word that comes to mind.  I would almost describe it as one of Eliot's idyllic novels, if it had been written by Dickens.  I would say that, if it weren't a disservice to all the authors involved.  Jane Austen would be a more apt comparison, if Austen's works were more episodic.  Mrs. Gaskell has a sweetness and a wit throughout the novel, with a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards the inhabitants of Cranford, that brings to mind both the works of Dickens and Austen--especially the characterizations, which are quite good.  This is important, as with only a thin veil of a plot to tie to chapters together, the responsibility of drawing the reader in falls solely on the shoulders of her characters.  Moving from incident to incident, as was not uncommon in Victorian novels, the novel begs us to pay attention simply because the characters are worth giving our attention.  Obviously, a weak novel is one wants to study plot, but one could certainly choose a worth book to pick up to study the art of comedic characterization.  With less on it's mind than some of Gaskell's other works--from what I've read--Cranford is an easy, enjoyable read, but far from life changing.  It is simply a well-written, enjoyable read, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Reading Update

I've finally gotten to the point in my reading list for this year where I will make my first real volley into Medieval literature.  I'm starting it with three books that will perhaps help me understand the actual Medieval texts better.  First, Terry Jones' Medieval Lives by Terry Jones & Alan Ereira, which I am half-way through.  Next will either be C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image or 1066 by David Howarth.  These are all three decidedly English, though Lewis' work will be more cosmopolitan than the other two, I'm sure.  I would argue that most of the Medieval works I'll be reading are English, but only three are: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, History of the Kings of Britain, and The Canterbury Tales.  I'll be starting with The Consolation of Philosophy and going through Gargantua and Pentagruel by RabelaisBoethius is from the early Middle Ages--quaintly known as the "Dark Ages"--and his Consolation was widely popular throughout the entire Medieval period.  It was a personal favorite of Alfred the Great.  Rabelais wrote during the French Renaissance, but the 16th century isn't really that far off from the end of the Middle Ages, and it'll be good to see it's influence on such a prominent Renaissance writer.  Also, I really want to read it.
After Boethius I'll be reading Confessions by Saint Augustine, though I'm thinking of reading Augustine first, as he was the earlier writer.  I suppose I have two more books to read before I have to make that decision.  Part of me is a bit concerned I'll be burnt out on it by the end, and maybe I will.  Six or seven Medieval texts in a row can be straining, I suppose.  That's why I'll be reading something light at the end.  I mean, Rabelais is known as "scatological humor."  I've also heard Gargantua and Pentagruel referred to as the French Don Quixote, but I think that's an unfair comparison.
I hope to be updating more often with thoughts on what I'll be reading, but we'll see.  I've been spending less and less time on the internet lately.  I'm not sure why, but it just hasn't been as appealing as other things.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones 1934--2011

I think it would be remiss of me to go without mentioning the death of one of my favorite fantasy writers of the last century--Diana Wynne Jones, author of Howl's Moving Castle, the Chrestomanci series, and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Jones died on the twenty-sixth of March from lung cancer, which she had been diagnosed with in 2009.  I believe she left one book unfinished, but I'm not sure.  I did read that they will be releasing her last book, as well as a book of interviews and what-not sometime later on in the year.
I hope I have made it abundantly clear as to my tastes in this blog, but in case I have not, let me say again, I am not a fan on modern literature, with few exceptions.  Jones was one of those, being one of the few living authors I maintained a fondness for.  Now, of course, she no longer fits into that category.
She was born in London in 1934, the child of two educators.  She moved several times throughout her childhood, beginning with an evacuation to Whales right after the second World War was announced.  She studied at St. Anne's College in Oxford, where she attended lectures by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  She graduated in 1956, the same year she married John Burrow.
She was author of many different novels, spanning several decades and only ending at the time of her death.  She won the Guardian Award in 1977 for her book Charmed Life, the first in the Chrestomanci series.  Though, perhaps, she is most famous for her novel Howl's Moving Castle, which was made into an animated film by the brilliant Hayao Miyazaki, though it was a loose translation.
Her influence on fantasy can be seen in many of the writers who came after, most notably J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman.
At times like these many people like to say the literary community has suffered a great loss, but I feel differently.  Jones gave us many wonderful novels and while she will be missed, she led a very accomplished life.  While the fantasy community might not be better for the loss, I feel it would almost be a discredit to act as if her death was a tremendous blow.  Rather than focus on what she could've accomplished had she lived longer, I think it would be more to our benefit to focus on her vast achievements.  I do believe, however, that the fantasy community is sorely lacking in writers of such a caliber.
I highly recommend anyone who reads this that has not read Jones' works to go out and find some.  She is extremely enjoyable.  While not my favorite author by any means, she never disappointed.  I'm looking forward to reading more of her works next year.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Oh, yeah--I had a birthday too.

It's been over a week since I hurt my back and went to the emergency room.  I moved out of my apartment on Monday, though I could do very little to help with the move.  I got a new job on Wednesday.  I'm not taking anymore prescription medication.  And frankly, I don't remember much of last week.  Everything is kind of in a haze, but to be fair, I was pretty doped up on pain killers the entire time.  I would be right now if I still had some.  Well, I do, but you aren't supposed to take ketorolac (toradol) for more than five days in a row.  It's the hyrdocodone I'm out of.  I've been taking ibuprofen, which does not work nearly as well.
Let me just say, I'm ashamed of how little reading I've gotten done considering how much time I spent in bed last week.  I've been reading, on average, about twenty pages a day, I'd say.  It's hard to comprehend what you're reading when you're essentially high, especially when what you're reading is written in the Queen Anne style.  I was thinking that Henry Esmond seems really hard to follow compared to Thackeray's other works, but it's probably the drugs.  Maybe I'll reread it sometime when I'm not constantly impaired.
I've been downloading more music than anything else.  Probably because I wake up extremely early.  Before everyone else, so I just look up music and wander the internet.  Eisley has a new album out that's pretty amazing, and I'm been listening to a lot of MC FrontalotNerdcore is the only hip hop I'll listen to.  I've downloaded about twenty-five albums in a week.  I have to say, just to get it off my chest, I've been listening to the new Hellogoodbye album quite a bit and it's rather good.  This maturer sound they've developed is refreshing.  It's poppy, but not in the dance punk style they used to have, which had long since grown stale.  It sounds more like The Format.  Hell, I even downloaded a William Shatner album.  I was surprised by how much I liked it.
All this staying up late and waking up early shit has got to stop.  Granted, two Saturdays ago--the day after my fall--I slept for nearly thirteen hours.  But I woke up at 5:00 in the morning and stayed up till around 1:30 AM, only to wake up four hours later in extreme pain.  It's been about the same routine since then.  No matter how good I feel during the day, I always wake up around 6:00 or 7:00 with my back feeling completely awful.  Right now is the worst my back's felt at night for a while, but that's probably because I haven't had a pain pill since 7:00 this morning.  Plus, I took a nap after work, and I always feel worse after sleeping.
This post seems in no way coherent to me.  That's the way I've been since the fall.  I have a hard time concentrating.  But maybe that's me blaming my accident for how I've always been.  I have had memory problems.  Not real issues.  Just not as quick on the draw as I usually am.  My wife says I should be back to speed in a little while.  Once I'm completely off of any medication, probably.  Hopefully in a weeks more time I'll stop pausing for two minutes trying to remember something I should have readily available in my mind, and stop filling my sentences with "uh's," "um's," and "I can't think of it right now's."  No brain damage or anything.  Don't worry about that.  I didn't hit my head when I fell, and my new job is at a hotel I worked at before and after three hours of refresher training I was running the shift on my own.  So, my mind is fine, just running a bit slow is all.
Hopefully this doesn't set me back on my reading list, esspecially considering I added a few books to it, I still plan on reading all five of Dickens' Christmas books in December, and I have another big move in five months.  We'll see.  I'm only on nine out of forty-one, and seven of those were in January.  I was hoping to have Henry Esmond done by the end of February, but "there's many a slip between the cup and lip" and all that.  I love that expression.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

William Makepeace Thakeray: Second isn't Always the First Loser

William Thackeray had his nose broken twice by two different boys.  That's why his nose looks the way it does in pictures.  But how many men can say they had their nose broken by a friend of Tennyson?  Of course, George Stovin Venables wasn't Alfred Tennyson's friend at the time.  Nor was he yet a Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge.  He was a fellow student with Thackeray at Charterhouse School, the third school he had attended.
Venables described Thackeray as "a pretty, gentle, and rather timid boy."  My response to that would've been, "So why did you break this timid boy's nose?"  We don't know if his broken nose was the result of a swift punch in the face or came about after a fight between the two boys, but we do know that before the first broken nose was finished healing, it was broken again by another boy whose name is unknown to history.
So why all the violence towards this "pretty, gentle, and rather timid boy"?  Knowing what we know about Thackeray today, it's easy to assume he was a sharp witted youth who perhaps made statements his fists couldn't back up.  But if Thackeray was anything like the title character from his novel The History of Pendennis, which he most likely was considering it's autobiographical nature, it is very likely that Venables and this mystery boy were defending themselves against an easily provoked youth.  (Interestingly enough, Venables is said to be the basis for George Warrington, the bosom buddy of Arthur Pendennis.)
We can make some fair assumptions about an author based on their body of work.  For example, only using his works to study him, we can assume Dickens was a sentimental, enthusiastic, compassionate, optimistic, and often ridiculous man.  Thackeray, on the other hand, it would be safe to assume, was abrasive, intelligent, witty, pessimistic, and perhaps a bit of a rascal.  I'd also say he had a strong appreciation for justice and morality, a characteristic he shared with Dickens.  I think it is ever so likely that he quite possibly deserved a punch in the face and possibly gave as good as he got.
In a scene early on in Pendennis, Arthur strikes down a boy for making a rude comment to him regarding an attachment he had made to a low-bred actress.  Hobnell Major is surrounded by his friends, but Arthur, not standing for any jokes at his expense, leaps upon him and knocks him down into an open grave and turns upon Major's friends to see if any of them will have some of the same.  They decline.  It is a very intense scene, and in all likelihood is nothing more than wish fulfillment.  Of course, history doesn't record how many times Thackeray was the one breaking noses, so I suppose we'll never know.
Thackeray, age 2, with his mother Anne
We do know that this timid boy was also a mamma's boy.  Born in Calcutta in 1811, Thackeray can never really claim to have known his father, who died in 1815.  His mother, however, outlived Thackeray by a year, dying in 1864.  She returned to England in 1819, remarried to an old flame, who Thackeray admired and used for inspiration in his novel The Newcomes, narrated by Arthur Pendennis.  From Pendennis alone, we can see something that goes beyond merely a deep appreciation for the matronly figure.  Thackeray's mother would serve, for him, as the prime example of the best in womankind.
When he came of age (twenty-one), he received his inheritance, which he quickly squandered away on gambling as well as funding two unsuccessful newspapers.  He was rather idle in his youth, and after his money was nearly wasted away, he began to consider art a viable source of income.  It was not until after his marriage in 1836 to Isabella Shawe that he seriously turned to writing, which, as history clearly shows, he did pretty well with.
His wife "went mad" in 1840, after the birth of their third daughter.  He spent less time at home after this so he could get work done, but after feeling guilty, he went back to take care of her.  In hopes of curing her, he took her on a trip to Ireland, but while on the way, she threw herself overboard.  She was rescued.  It's easy to assume this was postpartum depression, but considering that she eventually detached from reality altogether and never recovered, confined to a home in Paris for the rest of  her life, it's possible it was something else.  Thackeray looked eagerly for a cure, but never found one.
Being essentially a widower, he did pursued two women after this, one a married woman named Jane Brookfield, whose husband barred him from seeing her, and another named Sally Baxter, an American twenty years his junior, who married someone else in 1855.  Of course, we cannot assume Thackeray was as virtuous as his fictional self, though I will not presume to say if he had a physical relationship with either Mrs. Brookfield or Miss Baxter.  His wife died in 1893, outliving him by thirty years.
Thackeray's caricature of himself
Thackeray's interest in the feminine character is shown throughout his works.  Perhaps this understanding of women is due to his unique relationships with them, as well as the fact that he had three daughters, though the second born died after eight months.  His mad wife might also explain, in part, his interest in Jane Eyre, which he said he read in one sitting.
Thackeray was not unfamiliar with illness.  One such illness struck him in the middle of writing Pendennis and, as he indicated in the dedication to that novel, nearly ended the novel prematurely.  Despite this, he went on to produce several novels afterwords, most notably The Newcomes and his personal favorite The History of Henry Esmond, a novel George Eliot called "the most uncomfortable book you can imagine."
His health began to deteriorate more noticeably in the 1850's, when he was stuck in bed for days at a time.  Much to be expected from a man like Thackeray, rather than help himself, he over ate and drank, as well as got little exercise.  To top things off, he refused to give up spicy peppers, which only worsened his digestion.
On the 23rd of December in 1863, he died of a stroke while getting ready for bed, after coming home from a dinner, where you can be sure he eat and drank his fill.  But it seems to me, if he had given up the drink, the peppers, and the abundance of food, if he had gotten more exercise, we may have gotten a few more years out of him; but it wouldn't seem like William Makepeace Thackeray to me. The savage satirist went out in pure Thackerayan style: stubborn and irascible, just like his most famous characters.
Seven years later, the only writer of the era rated higher than Thackeray would also die of a stroke in his home, Gad's Hill Place, ending what some consider to be the greatest days of the novel.  Today, that man--Charles Dickens--is better known and more appreciated, but there is a reason why Thackeray was second only to Dickens in his day.  They two were distinctly different animals from the other novelists of their day.  In a way, they are two sides of the same coin: Dickens the optimist and Thackeray the pessimist.  But to truly understand the Victorian period, it is necessary to read both, and thoroughly.  Sure, there are other Victorian authors ones need to read--when studying the era--but I deride an Academia that can award someone a masters in Victorian literature without requiring them to read a word of Thackeray.