Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri

"In my Book of Memory, in the early part where there is little to be read, there comes a chapter with the rubric: Incipit vita nova.  It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written under that heading ---- if not all of them, at least the essence of their meaning."

Beatrice was eight years old and Dante, nine, the first time they set eyes on each other. Instantly, he felt an abiding connection with her, even though it was nine years after that before he finally saw her again, and she greeted him, her words entwining through his heart.  Lovely Beatrice, who became Dante's love, his obsession and his Muse.   Never a conversation was had between them, only greetings, yet his life was filled with her presence, her goodness and grace, her being so angelic that she filled his heart until he wondered if it could contain her.  All thoughts revolved around his beautiful Beatrice; she was his life and through her, his poetry gained a new vitality.

Dante's three meetings with Beatrice
Elisabeth Sonrel
source Wikipedia 
Vita Nuova, or new life, chronicles Dante's first sight of Beatrice, his occasional casual meetings with her, his attempt to deflect his interest in her by pretending his poetry was for another woman, her disgust at his perceived behaviour, the death of her father, Dante's own illness and then, tragically, the death of the woman who had become the centre of his world ..... his lovely Beatrice ......

The book's structure is unique in itself, as it is organized into chapters (probably by later translators/scribes), but nearly every chapter follows an easily recognizable pattern:  first he gives an account of his life circumstances and events, almost like a journal; second he shares a poem where he again relates those circumstances, usually in the form of a sonnet or canzone; and third, an analysis of the poetry, describing his intent and the divisions of thought in each poem.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikipedia
The poetry is in the courtly love tradition, a form borrowed from French poets which emphasized chivalry, bravery and nobility.  It is important to keep this in mind while reading this story, as the intensity of Dante's emotions, the near idolization of Beatrice, the groans and sighs, the personification of Love and the professions of near despair can be somewhat hard to relate to in our unromantic day and age.

I found myself vacillating between two different emotions.  One one hand I wanted to say, "oh, you poor love-sick man", and on the other, "what a fool!"  Why would you have your entire life be built around the gaze and approval of one person?  Why would you wrap your whole soul around a being who was as transient as the wind?  As for Beatrice, would it be tragically romantic to be loved this much by someone, or would it be just downright annoying?  But then Dante's poetry began to speak through my cynical view, as his love and devotion to her was so apparent.  His descriptions and poetry to her rang with a tender regard, high terms of respect and an abiding love.  The vibrancy of his conflicting emotions, which were often buffeted by circumstances, won my heart.

Dante and Beatrice (1883)
Henry Holiday
source Wikipedia

Time and Again
Time and again the thought comes to my mind
Of the dark condition Love imparts to me;
Then the pity of it strikes me, and I ask:
"Could ever anyone have felt the same?"
For Love's attack is so precipitous
That life itself all but abandons me:
Nothing survives except one lonely spirit,
Allowed to live because it speaks of you.
With hope of help to come I gather courage,
And deathly languid, drained of all defenses,
I come to you expecting to be healed;
And if I raise my eyes to look at you,
Within my heart a tremor starts to spread,
Driving out life, stopping my pulses' beat.

Dante Alighieri
source Wikipedia
I was also struck my another aspect of the book, something perhaps Dante never meant to emphasis.  So many people go through life feeling small and insignificant, wondering how their everyday actions could possibly matter.  Well, they do matter and Dante illustrates quite marvellously how.  Just Beatrice's looks affect him for days afterwards.  He recounts how her gaze not only brings out his imperfections but challenges him to be a better person.  And it's not just his character that her actions work on; Dante emphasizes that her manner and virtue have an illuminating affect on the ladies who are in her company, and instead of being envious, they appreciate her qualities and feel joyful to be around her.  What a testimony to the importance of our every day actions.

Six Tuscan Poets
(Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti, Francesco Petrarch,
Giovanni Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino & Cristoforo Landino)

After the death of his love, Beatrice, Dante made a promise, to himself, and by writing the Vita Nuova, to the world.  He was going to write about Beatrice, not like he had been writing, following the pattern of a courtly love, but that he would write of her as no other woman had ever been written of before.  And twelve years later, the Divina Commedia, or the Divine Comedy was born, immortalizing Beatrice, not only in verse, but in the thrones of Heaven.  The Vita Nuova was certainly a new beginning ...... a new life ........

translated by Mark Musa

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

"Well, Piotr, not insight yet?" was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S-----."

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov's influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov's nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can't quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia
Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don't believe that Bazarov's nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn't just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev's approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader's head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett

"In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …"

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done? in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - Series I Want To Start

My brain is so fried from my courseload/bookload lately that my reviews are progressing a sentence at a time, so I thought I'd participate in another Top Ten Tuesday!

Well, when I first read the title post, I recoiled.  I do not like series because EVERYTHING is a series now, and because this format is so popular, it makes me immediately not want to read anything remotely like a series (do you sense a little stubborness in my character?  I prefer to call it non-conformity.  ;-)  )   In any case, I then started to remember some series from a time when series weren't a sheep-flocking event (don't worry, I do know that there are some worthwhile series out there), and when I started to add some children's series, my list started to form:

1.  The Barsetshire Chronicles by Anthony Trollope

I've read the first three books in the series and have three to go

2.  The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

a planned re-read for 2015.  I think that I've read this series about 6 times already!

3.  The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis

I'm reading it at the moment and trying my best to figure it out!

4.  The Pallisers by Anthony Trollope

I'll wait a little while after his Barsetshire series to read this parliamentary series.

5.  Finn Family Moonmintroll series by Tove Jansson

Finn Family Moomintroll was either my 1st or 2nd favourite children's book.  A great series!

6.  The Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome

Swallows and Amazons was my 1st or 2nd favourite children's book.  A series that takes you away!

7.  The History of the English Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill

I don't know when I'll get to this but I'd love to read it!

8.  Books by Alfred J. Church

Not actually a series but books for children set in ancient and medieval times

9.  The Mitchells Series by Hilda van Stockum

This series sounds like a fun one and comes highly recommended!

10.  The Musketeers books by Alexandre Dumas

I LOVED The Three Musketeers, so I'm looking forward to reading the others.

Hmmm ...... interesting how my bent has run to quite a few children's series.  I think that's proof that my brain is overloaded and needs a break.  Now to get through the next few months before that need can become a reality!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

"The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road."

During a hike in the English hills, Elwin Ransom stumbles across a boyhood acquaintance, Devine, and his friend Weston, a scientist.  Secretly these two men drug Ransom and take him in a spaceship to the planet, Malacandra, known in earth language as Mars.  When he revives, Ransom overhears that he is to be offered as a human sacrifice for an alien race called the Sorns, and he plans his escape.  Finding himself alone on this strange planet, he eventually encounters creatures called the Hrossa.  Initially very simple and traditional in their ways, Ransom begins to realize that they have an intelligence that may surpass earthly intelligence.  Quickly he learns their language and begins to value their ways, yet all too soon he is sent on a mission to the Oyarsa, the ruling being of Malacandra.  His adventures not only throw him once again into conflict with Devine and Weston, where blind scientific ardour and unconscionable greed clash with humanity's better nature, but Ransom is finally able to discover why Earth is considered the "silent planet".

Malacandra is presented as a rather simple society, with the Hross being like shepherds and poets, and the Sorns the intellectuals, imparting wisdom to the community.  Yet, in spite of the obvious higher intellect of the inhabitants, Devine and Weston perceive them as being primitive and unintelligent because they do not have the scientific advances of Earth.  Weston, in particular, grasps onto his pre-conceptions like a drowning man, refusing to believe that such primitive appearance could ever understand or grapple with his vision of a new type of man.  His ingrained perceptions, that have been formed by science, make him blind to the beauty and intricacies of Malacandrian culture, and even worse, his grandiose plans for the needs of man, allows him to view the Malacandrians as sub-human and therefore, expendable.

source Wikipedia

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet as a deliberate critique of Evolutionism, in particular in response to two written works, one by Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men, and an essay by J.B. Haldane, published in a volume titled Possible Worlds.  Both saw men evolving into a divinity that could jump from planet to planet, a being stripped down to pure intelligence.  Lewis felt that each, while on one hand portrayed man as a fascinating and beautiful creature, nevertheless showed man's littleness.  To him these views held a potential danger, opening the door to options of experiments on humans and animals. (Interestingly, Lewis was a firm anti-vivisectionist and he would never set traps for the mice who inhabited his rooms at Oxford.)  He stated that the trilogy was less a tribute to earlier science fiction than a kind of exorcism of some of its ideas.  At its heart, the trilogy is anti-Wellsian and to its conception, Lewis credited a one-of-a-kind novel, David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus.  To his friend, Ruth Pitter, he wrote:  "From Lindsay I learned what other planets in fiction are really good for: for spiritual adventures.  Only they can satisfy the craving which sends our imaginations off the earth.  Or putting it in another way, in him I first saw the terrific results produced by the union of two kinds of fiction hitherto kept apart: the Novalis, G. MacDonald, James Stephens sort and the H.G. Wells, Jules Verne sort.  My debt to him is very great."  Lewis was trying something new!

A wonderful start to The Space Trilogy.  When I first read the trilogy, this book was my favourite, probably because it was the least complex.  Even so, Lewis weaves in views of how medievals saw the universe and angels, as well as sprinkling elements of classicism throughout.  The next book is Perelandra. Hang on to your seats because "you ain't seen nothing yet"!

"The weakest of my people does not fear death.  It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.  If you were subjects of Maledil you would have peace"

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Dante's Similes - In Preparation for a Visit to Hell

In preparation for starting my MOOCs course, Dante's Journey to Freedom Part I, I thought it might be a good idea to do some pre-reading about Dante, his world and the poem itself, and it took me less than a second to decide who I wanted to take me there.  In spite of being known for his children's and theological books, C.S. Lewis' specialty was actually Medieval and Renaissance Literature.  In fact, his knowledge was so respected that Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge created a chair especially for him.

I'm not sure how interesting this post will be for people who aren't interested in Dante, but I thought it would be a good reference for myself as Lewis' lecture contains some very detailed information.  If anyone makes it to the end you win a prize of a virtual pat on the back and my enduring gratitude! ;-)

Dante’s Simile’s

by C.S. Lewis

The simile is a poetic device that is used for illustration.  It can fall into three categories:
  1. Homeric type - the simile of Tennyson, Arnold, Wordsworth, Milton and Spenser which is derived through Virgil from Homer
  2. the unhappily named 'metaphysical' simile
  3. the Dantesque simile, which warrants a category of its own, being surprisingly almost confined to Dante

Dante’s Similes

four classes

1.  Virgilian or Homeric Similes

         >  straight similes built on ancient principles
         >  a state or action in the story is compared to a state or action that can
                    be observed in external nature, whether animate or inanimate
        >  short by Virgilian standards

2.  Pictorial Simile

        >  illustrations of a traveler
        >  introduced in plain, business-like manner, simply in order to make the
                  meaning of the writer as clear to the reader as it is to himself
       >  a vividness that produces the maximum of illusion
       >  immediate impact on the senses
       >  connections purely pictorial
       >  eg.  "  As frogs confronted by their enemy, 
                   the snake, will scatter underwater till
                   each hunches in a heap along the bottom." 
                      Inferno IX, line 76 (Mandelbaum)

3.  Psychological Simile

       >  one emotion is compared with another
       >  Homer and Virgil rarely used this form (Homer only once)
       >  eg. #1  "so-and-so feels in this situation just like I would feel in that
                            situation in ordinary life"
       >  eg. #2  "  At that he turned and took the filthy road
                        and did not speak to us, but had the look 
                        of one who is obsessed by other cares" 
                        Inferno IX, line 101-103 (Mandelbaum)
                   ** illustrates psychological and pictorial simile combined **

4.  Dantesque Metaphysical Simile

        >  things are linked together by a profound philosophical analogy or even
        >  "like" in these similes turn into "same"
        >  relation between things is one of response or correspondence, like that
               of a mirror image to a real object or, (as Dante says) of shadow to
        >  "... in the greatest Dantesque similes, the longer you look the greater
                  the likeness becomes and the more fruitful in thoughts that are
                  interesting as long as you live." p. 72
        >  eg.  In Paradiso, Beatrice gazes at the sun and Dante, who was gazing
                     at Beatrice, imitates her and also gazes at the sun.  The process
                     whereby Beatrice's gaze produces Dante's is compared to the
                     process of reflexion by which one beam begets a second.  And
                     this second beam is in its turn compared to a pilgrim desirous of
                     return.  Dante and Beatrice are literaliter [literal] to the sun (and
                     allegorice [allegorical] to God) what all reflected beams are to the
                     original source of light and what Dante is literaliter to Beatrice
                     and the human understanding allegorice to Wisdom and the
                     whole universe is to the Unmoved Mover.  The whole of
                     Christian-Aristotelian theology is brought together.  The image
                     reverberates from that one imagined moment over all space and
                     time, and further.

Other interesting notes:

  • Anglo-Saxon poetry uses no similes
  • popular song uses about the same amount of simile as ordinary conversation
  • Homer's similes are not poetical, used more to convey or illustrate information than for an emotional response
  • Virgil at his best uses simile for purposes both good and new
  • Dante's similes are "less poetical" than Virgil's, because Virgil's could not exist outside of poetry

   ectype - copy from an original


"There is so much besides poetry in Dante that anyone but a fool can enjoy him in some way or other ...." p. 75

"If bees were associated only with honey and not with stings, I should say that Dante every now and then wakes up a whole beehive, by giving us some image which seems to focus all the rays of his universe at a single point or touching some wire which sets the whole system vibrating in unison." p.73

On the Virgilian simile:  "Clearly, when it has reached this stage, the original purpose of illustration has become a mere excuse, though an excuse still necessary to lull the logical faculty to sleep, and the real purpose of simile is to turn epic poetry from a solo to an orchestra in which any theme the poet chooses may be brought to bear on the reader at any moment and for any number of purposes" p. 66

"It is hard for a translator to ruin the great passages in Dante as every translation ruins Virgil." p. 76

"I think Dante's poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read:  yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do.  There is a curious feeling that the great poem is writing itself, or at most, that the tiny figure of the poet is merely giving the gentlest guiding touch, here and there, to energies which, for the most part, spontaneously group themselves and perform the delicate evolutions which make up the Comedy." p. 76

" ..... I draw the conclusion that the highest reach of the whole poetic art turn out to be a kind of abdication, and is attained when the whole image of the world the poet sees has entered so deeply into his mind that henceforth he has only to get himself out of the way, to let the seas roll and the mountains shake their leaves or the light shine and the spheres revolve, and all this will be poetry, not thing you write poetry about ..........  We are made to dream while keeping awake at the same time." p. 76-77


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Le Morte d'Arthur Read-Along: Update #1

Books 1 to 5 are now read and I'm on track, but only because I'd started this book ages ago and had already read to Book 4.  I may fall behind but I'll do my best not to.

Merlin Taking Away The Infant Arthur
N.C. Wyeth
source Wikiart

I may have said before in some of my comments that this book was not what I expected.  And what did I expect?  Well probably something more similar to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where there is a quest, but an element of seriousness to it.  Arthur's knights seem to meander around looking for a quest, often stumble onto some odd happenings, hack and stab and kill some other knights or perhaps spare their lives.  I'm not sure what has unsettled me about this read.  Is it because Malory tells and tells and tells, but never shows? Is it the very ignoble behaviour mixed in with the gracious knightly behaviour? Is it because the story is related in a very serious tone but somehow it metamorphizes into something that is somewhat comical?  I'm not really sure yet.

In any case, the story begins with Uther Pendragon coveting the Duke of Cornwall's wife, Igraine.  Pendragon makes a bargain with Merlin that if he will give him Igraine, he, in turn, will give over their first born child to Merlin.  Of course, that child is Arthur, the one who pulls the sword from the stone and becomes King of all Britain, and also creates the order of The Kings of the Round Table.

" ... and when they came to the sword that the hand held,
King Arthur took it up ..."
N.C. Wyeth 1922
source Wikiart

What follows is the various adventures of his knights, with Arthur making appearances here and there.  Other knights, especially wicked, dark knights, grumpy knights and average day-to-day knights, play prominent roles in the tales, where Arthur's knights usually kill, maim or become friends with their opponents.  Various ladies make appearances as well.

The Beautiful Lady Without Pity
Arthur Hughes 1863
source Wikiart

It was rather disturbing when Sir Gawaine managed to behead a lady while she was trying to protect her knight, but perhaps more shocking was Arthur's slaughter of the innocent children born on May Day because of a prophecy that one born on that day would be the cause of his death.

Encouragingly, the plot began to pick up in Book 5.  Emperor Lucius of Rome has come to demand tribute from Arthur.  After a long and bloody battle, Arthur is victorious.  As he prepares to send the bodies of Lucius and many of his senators back to Rome, his words to them sent shivers down my spine:

And I suppose the Romans shall be ware how they shall demand any tribute of me.  And I commend you to say when ye shall come to Rome to the Potestate, and all the Council and Senate, that I send to them these dead bodies for the tribute that they have demanded.  And if they be not content with these, I shall pay more at my coming, for other tribute owe I none, nor none other will I pay.  And me thinketh this sufficeth for Britain, Ireland, and all Almaine, with Germany.  And furthermore I charge you to say to them that I command them upon pain of their heads never to demand tribute of me ne of my lands.

Just thrilling!

Sunday, 12 October 2014

What Ho! For a Lunatic!

Yes, I am insane.  I have so many books on the go now, I can hardly remember my own name.  I have two MOOCs courses that I've recently started, I'm leading a two book discussions on Goodreads, trying to keep afloat on my WEM Project because I'm participating with others, and am desperately trying to participate in a discussion in another group, which I'm certain I'm going to fall behind in.  And I'm taking deep breaths ........  So, in order to see how I'm desperately in need of professional help going to get all these books completed on time, let's take a look.


For my Shakespeare On Page and Performance course (2 of the 6 plays that need to be read by December)


For my read along.  Yes, I'm doing okay with this so far, Jean!


I'm leading the discussion in my Dead Writer's Society group.  It's great fun, but it takes some research.  And research takes time ........


For my WEM Project.  I was not looking forward to this book, but have been pleasantly surprised!  Montaigne is certainly an interesting character.


I just love this book.  If I had the time I'd read it once per year.  I'm reading it with someone at the moment and am having to rush a little so it's not the best reading experience.  You can't rush this epic.  Like a good wine, it must be sipped, tasted, swallowed, enjoyed, and then ruminated upon, before taking another sip.  Pure bliss!


A buddy read with my Dead Writer's Society group.  It is so interesting!


For my MOOCs Dante course.  I've just found that I need to read the complete book before the course begins in one week.  Help!  Anyone?


Someone would like me to read this book with them as part of the Well-Educated Mind novel list.  So I said, "yes".  Is that the right answer ........... yes ..............??


I'm reading this book with another group on Goodreads, just to help me get through it.  So far I hate it.  Hate, as in I want to tear it into tiny shreds and trample on it and use if for the bottom of my rabbit's litter tray.  Yet, I'm persevering.  I know I'm going to fall behind the read, but I figure that if I can read at least 10 pages a day, eventually I'll get through it.  After all, I don't want to miss one of the greatest and most ingenuous novels of all time, do I?  Excuse me, while I make choking noises .......


In spite of the childish cover, this is an ancient Roman novel and the only one to survive in its entirety!  I want to read it ......... or do I?  Yes, I do ............ no, I don't ............ yes, I do ............ no, I don't ............ yes, I do .................??

Just let me know when the little men will arrive with the white jacket with the joined arms.  At least this post is a reminder to keep focused and keep reading.  I can do this, I must do this .......

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

"Before the reader is introduced to the modest country medical practitioner who is to be the chief personage of the following tale, it will be well that he should be made acquainted with some particulars as to the locality in which, and the neighbours among whom, our doctor followed his profession."

Good, dependable Doctor Thorne, our esteemed doctor of Greshambury, lives with his young niece named, Mary.  Yet there is a secret around Mary's birth that few people know; she is the illegitimate daughter of Doctor Thorne's older brother and the sister of Roger Scatcherd, a former poor stonemason and prison inmate, who has amassed a fortune that makes him the rich owner of a large estate.  The ruling family, the Greshams, accept Mary's company and she is friends with some of the daughters, but when it is learned that Frank, the only son, is in love with her, she becomes persona non grata and is ostracized from their company.  A lively plot begins as Frank is determined to marry Mary, Roger Scatcherd is determined to drink himself to death, an inheritance is unclear, and society struggles to maintain its traditional structure.

As much as I enjoyed this book, there were a few disappointments, as well. Because this novel was serialized, I found the pacing somewhat inconsistent, which took away a little bit of the enjoyment. After building up slowly with the characters and their situations, Trollope suddenly had nearly a year pass by, a declaration, and then another year was gone, all in the space of a few dozen pages. My second disappointment dealt with the plot itself. One aspect that I enjoy about Jane Austen's writing, for example, is her ability to take a traditional situation and explore possibilities just outside of that tradition. Trollope lulls the reader into expecting the same, yet at the end of the tale, tradition wins out: Scatcherd is shown as an example of what can happen to those who try to rise above their station, Mary becomes an heiress, she marries Frank, and everyone is happy only because convention is followed.  Well, I say, "bah!" to convention!  While I realize departing drastically from societal norms wouldn't be believable, one would think that Trollope could have challenged convention in a plausible way that would have made the story more intriguing. But ultimately money remains the commodity that is worshiped, everyone is happily kept in their social positions, with the same perceptions and the same prejudices, and with nothing unusual or radical to stir them out of their complacency.  Bah!

Perhaps you are wondering why I have barely mentioned Doctor Thorne, who bears the prestigious title of the novel.  Well, curiously, the tale revolves around many characters other than Doctor Thorne.  But while the action circulates around these characters, his importance in this tale is inescapable. He is the respected thread that holds the neighbours together, the good sense in the quandry, the steadying force in the chaos.  He is like the eye of the hurricane, a calm centre while everything else blows in a whirlwind around him.  His tranquil, composed demeanor and sincere warmth and compassion never falter.  In this I can agree with Trollope; he was certainly the hero for me.

The next book up is Framley Parsonage.  So far my favourite is still The Warden but, with three more to go, a new favourite is not out of the question!

The Barsetshire Series

Monday, 6 October 2014

Montaigne's Essays - Part One

Oh, Montaigne!  What a character!  I'm reading a series of recommended essays, and my plan is to split them into three posts.  So far my introduction to Montaigne has been pleasurable, but taxing to the brain.  His language and progression of ideas, examples and testimonies are not for the faint of heart.  In hindsight, it was wise to take him in measured doses.

On Sadness:  I felt that Montaigne was saying that the deepest sorrows often could not be expressed with outward emotions.  But then he ended by saying that he is little bothered by such violent passions;  I then wonder what gives him the authority to speak on sorrow if he knows nothing of it.  Hmmmm ........

Our Fortune Must Not Be Judged Until After Death:  Well, this was not an uplifting little essay.  Montaigne believes, drawing from the tale of Croseus and Solon in the stories of Herodotus, that a man cannot be judged as fortunate until his death, because various calamities and suffering can plague him until the end.  Your final day tells all.  Nice.  Fortunately he appears to have amended his views on this subject later in life.

The Death of Socrates
Jacques-Louis David
source Wikipedia
To Think As A Philosopher Is To Learn To Die: Yikes!  Another death essay.  Montaigne emphasizes the need to learn to lose the fear of death.  Death is inescapable and it is a piteous error to try to avoid it by any means, as the hour is determined for everyone.  He tosses in Socrates rather wise and pithy remark:  to the man who said "The thirty tyrants have sentence you to death," Socrates replied, "And Nature to them."

Of The Powers of Imagination:  I'm somewhat perplexed as to where to begin with this one.  This essay is supposed to (I believe) explore the relationship of imagination to the mind and body, but Montaigne rather vividly gets into a discussion of the "male member" and "passing wind".  I was laughing so hard I was crying at the end of the "passing wind" section.  I don't think hilarity was intended by the author.  ;-)  Apparently though, people in Montaigne's time wouldn't have blinked an eye at these references, showing that they were much more mature and less sensitive than modern people. And since I was very surprised by his frankness given the era, it also demonstrates that our preconceived ideas can be less than accurate.

On Educating Children:  I have an interest in education, so this essay was perhaps the most interesting for me, if not the most amusing (see above).  Montaigne felt that an instructor of good moral character and sound understanding was much more valuable than one with founts of knowledge.  He emphasized the value of knowledge for its own sake, and was repelled by the thought that learning should be used to earn profit. The ancient Greeks would understand his dismay; only slaves were schooled to work, not free men.  Montaigne proceeds to say that he does not wish for an educational system that makes children parrot back what they have learned but rather that they are taught to make ideas their own.  He then expands his argument to suggest tossing out the classical education model in place of simply teaching children to philosophize.  He seems to forget that the classical model contains the building blocks that give the student the tools to be able to discuss topics philosophically, not to mention that young minds have to mature to be able to understand the abstract concepts which are required in philosophy.  He supports, as well, exercise and entertainment, but suggests training peculiarities and eccentricities out of people, as they are "a foe to intercourse and companionship of others". Well, okay .......  I do understand Montaigne's main point though.  He is advocating for the teaching of a virtuous character over that of intellectual learning.  In fact, this should be the goal of every teacher, however I believe that there should be a balance between the two, whereas Montaigne seems to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Bartolome Esteban Murillo
source Wikiart
On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children:  In this case, Montaigne means male children but he does share some good advice. A man should not marry too early and responsible thought should be given to the purpose of having children, realizing that they will owe you much more than they can ever pay back.  Instead of forcing the son to be dependent on him when he comes of age, the father should share his wealth and guide him in the use of it, teaching the son to run the estate.  Now Montaigne claims if this is not done, the sons have no other recourse than to become thieves, a habit that will be nearly impossible to break.  I'm not sure I follow his rationale in this case, and cannot agree with it as an excuse, but hey, it's Montaigne, right?  It just doesn't feel normal if he doesn't hit you with some sort of idiosyncratic reasoning.

In spite of some peculiarities, Montaigne has a charm that cannot be denied.  Perhaps Madame de Sévigné characterizes best what his readers experience:  "I have found entertainment in a volume of Montaigne that I did not think I had brought with me.  Ah, the charming man!  What good company he is!  He is an old friend of mine, but by dint of being old, he is new to me. ........ Mon Dieu!  how full this book is of good sense!"