Night by Elie Wiesel

December 28, 2010

This is a book of humbling power. Reading it changes a person. Like Cynthia Ozick’s short story The Shawl, Night feels like a portal into the abyss. Among the cruelest things the Nazis managed was to show how any of us can be broken, how unimaginable cruelty can force a mother to scream into a shawl while her baby is thrown into an electric fence or a son to wish, if only for a moment, that his father would die so he, the son, can focus only on his own survival.

As in Ozick’s short story, the writing in Night is spare. The focus is not on evoking place, though you will shiver with cold. Elie Wiesel does not try to unmask the tormenters, rather he bears witness to the moral failings of humans placed in inconceivable conditions. Most of us who have been spared such cruelty comfort ourselves with the notion that, if ever tested, we would pass. But no one passes.

The basic story is that of fifteen year-old Elie Wiesel. He and his family live in a small town, Sighet, in Transylvania, Hungary. The story picks up in 1944. Nazi Germany is being pushed back on all fronts and, so, the Jewish community in Sighet believes they have been spared the worst. They are wrong. Elie is transformed from a studiously religious boy who wants to study the Kabbalah into a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the greatest concentration of evil Europe has ever seen.

Many books are called essential. Few truly are. This one is.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children who bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The edition of the book on our shelves reproduces Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. I do recommend reading the speech after (or before) the book. The book itself is not about redemption or even survival. There is only horror. Elie Wiesel’s speech is a welcome counterbalance to the despair inherent in reading Night and it is an impetus to a more involved, more caring, more decent life.

[O]ne person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

The take away for me is not how I would have lived as a Jew or a German or a Frenchman or a Pole or any other race, religion, or nationality during the Holocaust. The question is: how do I live this moment and the next.


The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

December 14, 2010

Edith has been, quite rightly, popular around the literature-loving blogosphere this year. The Classics Circuit featured the works of Wharton in January. While not technically part of the Wharton Classics Circuit, Kevin from Canada re-read Custom of the County that same month and loved it all over again. He enjoyed it so much, in fact, that it made his “10 Best” for 2010. In May, The Mookse and the Gripes reviewed Wharton’s Ethan Frome which turned out to be one of his Ten Twelve Best. A Rat in the Book Pile also read Ethan Frome and drew out in her post interesting observations and quotes regarding the narrator. Where KfC opened the year with Wharton, Kevin from Interpolations (KfI? K2D2?) closed it out (November, close enough) with that same Wharton, Custom of the County. He has also read in 2010: Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.

Who doesn’t want to read what all the cool kids are reading? And, yes, if these bloggers jumped off a literary bridge, I would follow. But I have my own reasons for reading Wharton. Ethan Frome is one of my favorite novellas of all time. I first read it at university roughly twenty years ago. I have re-read it since, but, frankly, have been a little frightened to pick up another Wharton for fear another of her works would not live up to the genius of Ethan Frome. I cannot say I will have the same love for Age of Innocence, but it is an outstanding work of literature and a pleasure to read.

I highly recommend A Commonplace Blog, where D.G. Meyers has posted a “reconsideration” of the novel which is a more insightful and thorough review than I could manage, so I direct you there in lieu of an attempted review here. This year, (2010, the year of Wharton), he also used The Age of Innocence to illustrate his hypothesis regarding the function of plotting in novels. I highly recommend that post too.

Spoilers ahead.

Wharton is brilliant as any of the above reviews/posts will confirm. She has incredible insight into human motivations and the sorts of psychological foibles that so often tether her characters to tragedy. D. G. Meyers does a great job of discussing how The Age of Innocence is a response to and refutation of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I have not actually read The Portrait of a Lady, so cannot comment on the comparison other than to say Meyers makes a convincing case. In Meyers’ capsule summary of that work, he says:

“Isabel Archer consciously decides against rising above her daily level and agrees to be buried alive in marriage to a moral monster, sacrificing the long windings of her own destiny to the duty of protecting her stepdaughter.”

This interplay of concern for others and feminine strength is also present in The Age of Innocence, though Newland Archer does not see it until the end. Like James’ Isabel Archer, Newland believes that he is the one calling the shots, making the moral choices. Whether Isabel is correct, and it seems perhaps not, Newland definitely is mistaken. He is condescendingly concerned with women’s lack of freedom:

[Newland Archer’s] exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of argument – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them. Such verbal generosities were in fact only a humbugging disguise of the inexorable conventions that tied things together and bound people down to the old pattern.

This superiority of attitude extends, of course, to his fiancee May who has “been carefully trained not to possess” “freedom of judgment”. He is pleased that he is not so clueless as May because, if he were, “they would have been no more fit to find their way about than Babes in the Wood”. And, yet, by the end, it becomes obvious that May and Ellen have been playing the game of life at a level so much deeper that his own that he managed not to be much more than a pawn in their game. They are the ones who contrived to allow Newland his freedom, but he was too arrogantly thick-headed to see the choices he was given. One of the beauties of this early Twentieth Century novel is how devastatingly it undermines the masculine notions of superiority of intellect and wordly understanding.

Newland is too hemmed in by convention and unwilling to deviate from custom to realize when May offers him freedom. He laments Ellen’s lack of freedom even though, history proves, she is the one that ultimately achieved it and lived it. For Newland, women are weak and imprisoned by societal rules while good men are wise and protective. Wharton brilliantly subverts these prejudices by demonstrating the depths of delusion upon which they depend. The reader is sucked into Newland’s mindset which makes the final revelations so devastatingly pleasurable.

If I read another Wharton, I will expect a twist in the tail of the story that turns everything that has gone before on its head. Just as Ethan Frome was about the tragedy of romance, rather than the seeming conflict between true love and marital duty, The Age of Innocence is about the power of women and the cluelessness of men rather than the tragedy of women’s subjugation.

Wharton is delightful. 2011 should be the year of Wharton too.


The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale by Joseph Conrad

July 15, 2010

This is only the second book by Joseph Conrad that I have read. The other was the novella Heart of Darkness and that was close to twenty years ago in university. I only have a vague recollection of my reaction to Heart of Darkness and, I am quite certain, my reaction now would be entirely different. As a practical matter, Conrad was a new author to me.

The Secret Agent is a deceptively simple tale. I kept expecting a bigger twist than ever occurred. The key events of the book are well set up, nicely foreshadowed, and brought off with a sure hand. The simplicity of the tale provides stark relief to the complexity and the horror of Conrad’s subject. With a little research, I discovered (after reading it) that it has been reported as being the most widely cited novel in the period just following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a huge fan and identified strongly with one of the characters. The events of the novel revolve around the planning and aftermath of the bombing of an English landmark, the Greenwich Observatory.

There was an actual attempt to bomb the Greenwich Observatory in 1894, only a little over a decade before this book was published. Conrad explained in his author’s note that the genesis of this novel was a conversation he had with a friend (apparently Ford Madox Ford) regarding that bombing.

[W]e recalled the…story of the attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory; a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought…..[My friend] then remarked in his characteristically casual and omniscient manner: “Oh, that fellow was half an idiot. His sister committed suicide afterwards.”

From that simple remark by his friend, Conrad developed a story that explained the bombing as the inane result of defectively logical processes on the part of a cast of characters, from high-ranking officials to a backwards boy. His story has definite and bold political facets. He portrays politicians as morally vapid, the police as either ineffectual or corrupt, upper class socialites as powerful but dangerously naïve, and organized anarchists as inert speechmakers. It is hard to think of anyone who is portrayed in a positive light. Stevie, the dull-witted boy, has the best heart of the lot, but that gets him no farther than you would expect it to get a compassionate but slow young man.

The book is connected with 9/11 and likely gained the attention of Kaczynski for speeches like this one, by the anarchist, Karl Yundt:

”I have always dreamed,” he mouthed fiercely, “of a band of men absolute in their resolve to discard all scruples in the choice of means, strong enough to give themselves frankly the name of destroyers, and free from the taint of that resigned pessimism which rots the world. No pity for anything on earth, including themselves, and death enlisted for good and all in the service of humanity – that’s what I would have liked to see.”

The character that steals the show, at least with respect to terrorism, is the Professor. He is a small, intelligent, unsightly man. He grew up in a strictly religious home with a strong belief in morality and in the right of the talented to succeed. Life has proven the world otherwise. A lesser or perhaps better man would have reacted differently, perhaps.

The Professor had genius, but lacked the great social virtue of resignation.

He is the most ominous of the players in this drama. Conrad plays this character masterfully. It may be true that:

[I]n their own way the most ardent of revolutionaries are perhaps doing no more but seeking for peace in common with the rest of mankind – the peace of soothed vanity, of satisfied appetites, or perhaps of appeased conscience.

According to this line of thought, most “revolutionaries” are simply misfits. They never made it into the enviable cliques, so they rebelled. Undoubtedly, this explains the appeal of radicalism for some. Maybe even all. But even if that is the motivation, the individual can still be dangerous. Most are not. Most talk the game, but do not play it.

The Professor is different. His bruised ego has made him truly reactionary. He walks about fingering the trigger of a bomb he wears. He is dangerous. This keeps him safe, as he explains:

”In the last instance, it is character alone that makes for one’s safety. There are very few people in the world whose character is as well established as mine…..I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore, I am deadly.”

His role in events is both more powerful and less obvious than the reader initially expects. Conrad is rightly renowned as a storyteller and as a writer.

Another aspect, which goes to craft more than anything, is Conrad’s subtle play with time. He does not tell the story in a strictly chronological fashion. Instead, he alternates timelines. The story begins at the beginning, more or less, and proceeds. Soon, however, Conrad begins switching between events before the bombing and events after. The shifts are not abrupt, nor signalled by any especially obvious markers. However, this braiding together of before and after allows the climax to be the revelation of the identity of the bomber. It is a softly understated detail that elevates the novel above a simple mystery or thriller. I find it hard to express exactly how and why this timeshifting is so critical, but it is. In some ways, it feels like two storylines racing to the climax from opposite directions. The reader can see the crash coming well before the crescendo, but it is all the more powerful as a result.


The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

June 28, 2010

I read this book before reading Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. I am only writing this review now because I had not been entirely what to say on finishing The Good Soldier. It is an outstanding work full of memorable quotes, intense scenes, and engaging characters. I hesitated to write anything, then ended up reading What I Loved which contains so many parallels to this work that I lost confidence that I could separate my appreciation of the two works.

The two books involve entangled families in which the story is related by a male protagonist trying to make sense of what went wrong in the families’ intertwined histories. The non-narrating male lead is a charismatic good guy who, nonetheless, remains emotionally remote from, if not everyone, at least the reader. The narrator seems more able to relate the emotions and significance of his counterpart’s wife than his own. And both involve psychological intrigue of a darkly disquieting nature.

Other than these points of contact, however, the novels are completely different. Well, nearly so.

John Dowell is the narrator of The Good Soldier and tells us early why he is telling this story:

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unkown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; of, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The tragedy is the dissolution of the small coterie made up of the two couples and the lesser satellites they trap into orbit. Almost immediately in his narratirion, John tells us that there will be no unscathed survivors. Everyone is either dead, insane, or irrevocably broken. As for John, he tells us:

I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking-room will ever be other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths.

And John is the one that gets off somewhat easy. Three others are dead.

The whos, hows, and whys of the trio of deaths leads the reader into a labyrinthian social circle from which there is no safe escape. Captain Edward Ashburnan, the “good soldier” of the title, provides the central gravitational pull of the group.

Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear [his regally charming appearance and abundant carrying cases] was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier….How could he arouse anything like a sentiment in anybody?

…Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists – all good soldiers are of that type. Their profession, for one thing, is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy…..He would say how much the society of a good woman could do towards redeeming you, and he would say that constancy was the finest of the virtues. He said it very stiffly, of course, but still as if the statement admitted of no doubt.

What John Dowell does not see, the reader can see almost immediately. Captain Edward Ashburnham has a suave bearing and an understated instensity that women adore. Once they have fallen and Edward has caught them, he is loathe to let them go. This sort of fidelity is, of course, immensely attractive to the opposite sex. And, as if to retain his mistresses’ hearts with secure permanence, Edward worships his wife.

John is a somewhat dull and impotent character who does not understand why Edward is so compelling as he, John, remains a steadfast friend even after Edward’s death and the revelation of painful truths. In circumstances which will make the average reader cringe with revulsion at Edward’s conduct, John gives him a pass. Edward is that kind of man, he has that sort of effect. And, in the end, he may have that effect on the reader too.

The alternatives to Edward are John, in his drab guilelessness, the conniving and disgusting Jimmy, or solitude. Edward is a respectable man, a man to emulate, to envy. The others are only to be pitied. Of course, John does not realize this. He gropes through life unable to decipher the quiet maneuverings of man. His naivete is the tool through which Ford promotes the central theme of the novel, which, if it is not the ephemeral quality of truth, is the duplicity inherent in civilization.

Through a narrator who is constantly having to revise his understanding of the world and the people around him, Ford demonstrates the contingency of knowledge. By the time the story is finished, as John tells us early on, other people begin to appear to John as “incalculable simulacra among smoke wreaths.” The theme is driven home with beautiful language and an intricate plot, much as in Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The strength of this work relative to What I Loved is that The Good Soldier relies on a naively trusting narrator observing more worldly wise companions to demonstrate the fragility of truth. Hustvedt’s relies on an pathologically deceptive character for similar purpose. Thus, The Good Soldier is more powerful in demonstrating that ordinary social intercourse undermines the childlike view that appearance is reality, whereas What I Loved relies on the extraordinary to do the same.

This is not to say that What I Loved does not have its strengths as well, but I believe this review has helped me determine what it is about What I Loved that did not quite work for me. Or maybe it did work, but I took less pleasure in it. In important ways, the works are not similar, but opposites.

But finally, what I have to say is this: If you have read and enjoyed The Good Soldier, you should pick up What I Loved for a delightful comparison. If you have read and enjoyed What I Loved, or if you have not, but have yet to read The Good Soldier, I highly recommend you do. This book is a classic for a reason.


The Twelve Chairs by Ilf & Petrov

June 18, 2010

Several years ago, I took a trip to Ukraine and, along the way, met a young veterinarian, Misha. We struck up a friendship and exchanged e-mail addresses. We e-mailed sporadically, sometimes in a flurry and sometimes a month or more would pass between messages. After a particularly long pause, Misha sent an e-mail indicating that he had arrived in the United States. I had not known he had any definite plans to come. He had found a job in the United States and had moved to within an hour’s drive of my childhood hometown (where most of my immediate family still live). It was quite a pleasant coincidence, because now I can see him fairly regularly and I have had the opportunity to show him where I grew up.

On one of my visits, we discussed literature (my Ukrainian is actually very, very poor Russian, but his English is good). We talked about Bulgakov, Nabokov, and some other authors. I asked Misha for a book recommendation. He suggested “The Twelve Chairs” by Ilya Ilf Fainzilberg (Ilya Ilf) and Evgeny Petrovich Kataev (Evgeny Petrov). He told me it was extremely funny, that I would certainly enjoy it. I promptly ordered it.

When I showed it to him (before I had read it), he looked at the back. The very first line of the publisher’s description is:

Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Russia.

Misha gave a small snort of derision. Ostap Bender is an unemployed con artist living by his wits in postrevolutionary Soviet Ukraine, you see. Ukrainians dislike their country being called “The Ukraine” (instead of the accurate “Ukraine”) and they also dislike being confused with Russia. The Soviet Union was made up of fifteen Soviet republics, one of which was the Russian SFSR and another of which was the Ukrainian SSR. Westerners, in my experience, have tended to make little to no distinction between the Soviet Union and Russia, which is as baffling as it is annoying to Ukrainians (and, I presume, citizens of other former Soviet states). Anyway, American publishers (Northwestern University Press, in this case) are writing for Americans and, unfortunately, gloss over distinctions of Soviet geography that are on a Texas/Oklahoma scale.

But what a book. Northwestern University Press published The Twelve Chairs as part of their “European Classics” series. The series itself is outstanding. The entire thing is on my wish list, both the known and the (to me) obscure. However, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one as an entry point.

As The Twelve Chairs begins, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov is going through an ordinary day in the “regional center of N.” “Life in N. was extremely quiet.” Ippolit lives unhappily with his mother-in-law, Claudia Ivanovna. Before the revolution, Ippolit and Claudia were wealthy aristocrats. She rues her relative downfall in life and how poorly her son-in-law turned out. In the opening pages, she has a dream of ill portent. Ippolit waves it off as the superstition of an old woman. He carries on as usual.

Unless I begin quoting liberally, I cannot convey the humor of this first chapter in which the proprietors of the rival funeral homes “Do Us the Honor” and the “Nymph” play an amusing role and Ippolit goes to his job as the clerk in charge of registering births, marriages, and deaths. Trust me, the skewering of Soviet life is delicious and translates perfectly well. We (in America) do have the DMV, after all.

Claudia Ivanovna has an attack of some sort, prompting Ippolit Matveyevich to dutifully rush to her bedside. He is rewarded when Claudia tells him a secret she has been keeping. Before her property was confiscated by the state, she sewed her family jewels into the seat of one of Ippolit’s twelve dining room chairs. She did not have time to retrieve them before they had to flee and Ippolit’s chairs were taken as well. Ippolit spends the remainder of the novel trying to find the chair with the jewels sewn into it.

His task is complicated at every step. To begin, Claudia also made a deathbed confession to Father Fyodor Vostrikov in which she disclosed the story of the jewels in the chair. Father Fyodor sees his opportunity to finally realize his “cherished…dream of possessing his own candle factory.” He only went into the priesthood to avoid conscription and, so, still covets material things. He is “tormented by the vision of thick ropes of wax being wound onto the factory drums.” Father Fyodor becomes determinedly fixated on locating those jewels to sate his thirst for a candle factory.

Father Fyodor walked up and down the room for half an hour, frightening his wife by the change in his expresssion and telling her all sorts of rubbish. Mother could understand only one thing – for no apparent reason Father Fyodor had cut his hair, intended to go off somewhere, and was leaving her for good.

“I’m not leaving you,” he kept saying. “I’m not. I’ll be back in a week. A man can have a job to do, after all. Can he or can’t he?”

“No, he can’t,” said his wife.

Father Fyodor even had to strike the table with his fist, although he was normally a mild person in his treatment of his near ones. He did so cautiously, since he had never done it before, and, greatly alarmed, his wife threw a kerchief around her head and ran to fetch the civilian clothing [for Father Fyodor] from her brother.

Ippolit’s biggest obstacle, however, is not his rivalry with the mildly ruthless Father Fyodor, it is his ally. Ostap Bender is a con artist and quickly convinces Ippolit to share Claudia’s secret. Ostap immediately requests a sixty percent share and manages to negotiate to an even split of the proceeds. The numerous renegotiations throughout the novel are a running joke as the new split is always to Ostap’s advantage.

Ostap Bender does have the necessary shadiness of character and intelligence to make progress on their quest. At first, it seems things will be easy as they are able to find a record of the twelve chairs which all were sent to the same place. Through missteps on Ippolit’s part, they lose the opportunity to purchase the whole lot, the chairs are sold individually, and end up spread all over the Soviet Union.

[T]here cannot be less than twenty-six and a half million chairs in the country. To make the figure truer we will take off another six and a half million. The twenty million left is the minimum possible number.

Amid this sea of chairs made of walnut, oak, ash, rosewood, mahogany, and Karelian birch, amid chairs made of fir and pinewood, the heros of this novel are to find one Hambs walnut chair with curved legs, containing Madam Petukhova’s treasure inside its chintz-upholstered belly.

The heros persist, locating and searching the chairs one by one. Ostap must continually devise new plans to raise proceeds for the quest, from charging tourists to view a landscape to marrying a woman. Ippolit helps out in ways always inept and sometimes degrading.

Aside from nicely rendered comic set pieces, the novel has excellent references to both high and low culture from all over the world. For instance, Ostap makes a reference to O’Henry’s stories about Jeff Peters and Andy Tucker and Ippolit tries to disguise himself with “Titanic” hair dye which, of course, ends disastrously. Hilariously, a Soviet debutante (Ellochka) has a rivalry, in her own mind, with “the daughter of the American billionaire, Vanderbilt” after seeing the latter’s picture in a magazine.

A dog skin made to look like muskrat was bought with a loan and added the finishing touch to the evening dress….

The dog-trimmed dress was the first well-aimed blow at Miss Vanderbilt. The snooty American girl was then dealt three more in succession. Ellochka bought a chinchilla tippet (Russian rabbit caught in Tula Province) from Fimka Sobak, a private furrier, acquired a hat made of dove-grey Argentine felt, and converted her husband’s new jacket into a stylish tunic. The billionaire’s daughter was shaken, but the affectionate Daddy Vanderbilt had evidently come to the rescue.

The latest number of the magazine contained a portrait of the cursed rival in four different styles…

Ilf and Petrov get laughs not only from Ellochka’s rivalry with Miss Vanderbilt, but, after pointing out William Shakespeare’s “estimated” vocabulary of twelve thousand words, also from her ability to “manage[] easily and fluently on thirty.”

Another comic set piece brings to mind Monty Python’s dead parrot skit and yet another, involving an argument over whether Tolstoy ate sausages while writing War and Peace seems a precursor to Seinfeld’s Tolstoy reference (“War, what is it good for.”). The novel is a belly shaker.

I will only quote one more passage, this one on official Soviet humor:

Iznurenkov manged to be funny about fields of activity in which you would not have thought it was possible to say anything funny. From the arid desert of excessive increases in the cost of production Iznurenkov managed to extract a hundred or so masterpieces of wit. Heine would have given up in despair had he been asked to say something funny and at the same time socially useful about the unfair tariff rates on slow-delivery freight consignments; Mark Twain would have fled from the subject, but Iznurenkov remained at his post.

Fortunately, the comedic duo of Ilf and Petrov remained at their post for one more novel which, Misha assures me, is better than this one. I strongly urge you to snag a copy of this quick and enjoyable read if any of the above has made you smile.

If you need a literary reason, the Complete Review gives it an A-.

If you like movie tie-ins, Mel Brooks made a film version.

If you want to make the earth a better place for our children, the 1960s introduction will assure you that, by reading this book, you are doing your part to mend “strains in Russo-American relations”.

Promote world peace, read The Twelve Chairs.


The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

May 8, 2010

While I had heard of Angela Carter through various lists and from a number of blogs (for instance, here, here, and here; not all on The Bloody Chamber), I had not read any of her work. This collection of short stories, however, seemed perfect for my wife. I gave it to her as a gift. After reading it, she called this collection of gothically re-imagined fairy tales a “must read”, wonderfully written, and brilliant. The exact words are lost in the abyss of the past (or abysmal past, I am not sure), but she praised it lavishly. Well, most of the lavishing was directed at the title story, but she enjoyed the others too. I scored a hit. (Pat, pat, pat.)

You see, I was confident Marky would like these “dark, sensual, fantastic” stories because she likes dark, sensual, fantastic stories. Joyce Carol Oates’ The Beasts is one of her favorite books. There is less fantasy in that work, but it is certainly dark and sensual. So, I knew the subject matter could entice. And Angela Carter is a literary goddess. How could things have gone wrong? There was a way, but it was only a minor problem. The title story was only a story rather than a novel. I share the disappointment, as “The Bloody Chamber” is phenomenal, but I know Angela Carter has a number of novels waiting for us.

If you do not know, these are fairy tales with a darkly feminist twist. The female protagonists step out of their timid, helpless gender-cast roles and turn expected events on their heads. Carter sometimes retells the same fable several different ways, each to good effect and each with its own pleasing surprise.

“The Bloody Chamber” tells of Bluebeard from the perspective of his fourth wife. At the start of the story, she is seventeen and recently betrothed to Bluebeard who, in this telling, goes unnamed. He is mysterious and wealthy. The corpse of his last wife has only just cooled, but the girl is poor and has taken her chance to escape. She bats away her mother’s questions about love, she has learned better than to rely on gossamer threads of feeling as a bridge to happiness:

For my mother herself had gladly, scandalously, defiantly beggared herself for love, and, one fine day, her gallant soldier never returned from the wars, leaving his wife and child a legacy of tears that never quite dried, a cigar box full of medals and the antique service revolver that my mother, grown magnificently eccentric in hardship, kept always in her reticule, in case – how I teased her – she was surprised by footpads on her way home from the grocer’s shop.

The young bride tries a different route. Lessons learned from mere anecdote are more often false than true and always incomplete. The groom allures, but he is as frightening as charming.

I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curlved out of flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum.

The bride has gone too far to turn back by the time she would consider it. As wife to a powerful man with criminal secrets, there are obstacles to a successful flight.

The imagery of lilies continues throughout the story. The lilies and portents of horror. Angela Carter slowly builds the tension from “[a] choker of rubies…like an extraordinarily precious slit throat” to the narrator’s sense in herself of “a potentiality for corruption that took [her] breath away.” The narrator is a naïve young girl, but she has made a very calculated bargain. Things cannot, of course, be quite so easy. This is not a happily ever after fairy tale, nor is Carter’s re-telling. Carter builds the tension to plateau after plateau, until the final riveting climax that feels entirely satisfying and not at all inevitable.

In each of the stories, including this one, Carter deftly manages the psychology of the characters and the setting in which the action takes place. Everyone has an original take, even when Carter reworks a classic twice or more. The story of the beauty and the beast is twice told. In one, “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon”, the father of a girl gets stuck in bad weather. He happens on a mansion where he receives shelter and assistance. The trouble in this story begins when the father is on his way out:

But still, because he loved his daughter, Beauty’s father stole the rose.

The minor theft leads to the conflict and intrigue, the meeting of Beauty and The Beast.

The second re-telling is no less original and begins very differently:

My father lost me to The Beast at cards.

Familiar touchstones from the original provide a strange reassurance despite the reader knowing twists are coming. And the collection has a nice coherence to it. The multiple re-tellings of “The Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Red Riding Hood” mysteriously pulls you more deeply into the experience despite the obvious signal of a re-telling that these are only stories. The stories themselves are linked in other ways too, both to each other and to fairy tales generally. In the first story, the title story, the groom responds to his bride’s objections to going to bed in daylight with: “All the better to see you.” The final story is “Wolf-Alice”, a nice conclusion to the arc of the collection. In another story, the narrator notes that things get “curiouser and curiouser”. In other words, these stories are not just mashed together, but do constitute a cohesive work of art that fits comfortably in the larger body of literature. The collection is so well-conceived and written, it feels essential.

As engaging as the stories are, as surprising as they each are, as snugly as they fit together, it was the prose that knocked me over. Carter writes sentences as pleasing as anyone. The lilies in “The Bloody Chamber” do recur and provide one of my favorite passages:

And I began to shudder, like a racehorse before a race, yet also with a kind of fear, for I felt both a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers’ lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in tumeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

May 4, 2010

Lord Henry Wotton has to be in the running for the greatest fictional dinner guest. He is incredibly charming, provocative, and sharp. I am half-inclined to believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray was conceived as a vehicle for Harry’s witty persona. Comparatively, Dorian and his picture are rather drab.

“What of art?” she asked. [Gladys, Duchess of Monmouth]

“It is a malady.” [Harry]

“Love?”

“An illusion.”

“Religion?”

“The fashionable substitute for belief.”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”

“Give me a clue.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.”

The book is full of delicious exchanges like this, and I’ve cut this one short. While, in some ways, Harry is the villain of the story, he is the most pleasant character with whom to spend time, in this or any other novel that comes to mind. “Harry spends his days in saying what is incredible and his evenings in doing what is improbable.”

Among Harry’s “incredible” sayings are some enviable zingers:

[S]he is a peacock in everything but beauty.

[S]he tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.

“You must admit, Harry, that women give to men the very gold of their lives.”

“Possibly,” he sighed, “but they invariably want it back in such very small change.”

While Harry is busy entertaining, Dorian descends into a darkness without conscience. I was taken by the extent to which Wilde anticipates Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall:

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

Camus builds his novel around this insight, while for Wilde it seems to register as little more than one of Harry’s provocations. Or, maybe Wilde just examined the proposition from another angle. Dorian Gray could be put forward as a counterexample to Clamence. Clamence avoids the judgment of others through self-reproach, but Dorian is unable to do so.

The overt message to the story is that, after all, one cannot escape the consequences of action, even with the help of a supernatural painting. As I am learning about Wilde, he likes to put forward in his writing both a proposition and its opposite, perhaps the better to inoculate himself from criticism. It could be that, instead, his proclamations, as in the introduction to this work, that he has a love of artistic beauty above everything are the true key to his work. His “no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” gives him license to make a well-written book without answering for any deeper meanings within. I believe that his warning that “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” is apt.

I am not sure what I pull from the work other than a delight in Wilde’s dialogue and playfulness. Dorian could serve as a warning against vanity, lack of conscience, or the destruction of art. But I do not think he is a warning. I think that Dorian’s ultimate punishment is not for his vanity, but for his effort to try to destroy art.

There are other possible readings. Wilde, of course, was a homosexual at a time it was dangerously illegal to be openly so. Like Dorian and his painting, Wilde necessarily kept a portion of himself hidden from prying eyes. But that part, like Dorian’s painting, could not be destroyed without obliterating Wilde himself. This view seems a little too convenient and too focused on Wilde to be convincing to me, though the theme of duplicity and split-selves is certainly recurrent. My point is only that there is a wealth material for speculative (half-baked, in my case) interpretation if one is so inclined.

Wilde, of course, says it best: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

There is an abundance of shiny surfaces in which to gaze. Harry’s goading statements should stir readers:

The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.

or

I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.

And, so too, will the beauty of the prose and the construction of the narrative. There is an early passage in which Dorian Gray focuses on a bee as a distraction from Harry’s “strange panegyric on youth.” Later, a bee returns.

A bee flew in and buzzed round the blue-dragon bowl that, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, stood before him. He felt perfectly happy.

Dorian picks up the thread of the thought ignored many pages before. It is excellent craftsmanship on Wilde’s part and something I had not noticed until re-reading the quotes I had marked (I love the Kindle for this) while on my first time through.

Remember, Wilde’s highest praise is that a book is well-written. This one is and exquisitely so.

(Sarah reviewed this same work recently at her blog, A Rat in the Book Pile. I definitely recommend a trip over there for another perspective.)