Monday, December 31, 2018

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan published 1678 is book twelve on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) - choose a classic travel or journey narrative.  Its author, John Bunyan, was a Puritan minister  who would spend twelve years in Bedford prison for preaching when he was repeatedly told not to by the Church of England.  It was during his time in prison that Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress which has been described as a religious allegory.  I have had this book stored in my kindle for some time and the Classics Challenge was the incentive to finally give it a read.

And so when The Pilgrim's Progress begins an unamed narrator, possibly the author, has woken up in his prison cell.  He has dreamt that a character named Christian who has been living in the City of Destruction (the earthly world) has become terrified that the town in which he lives is doomed and that fire and brimstone will reign down upon it in the not so distant future.  Christian begs his wife and children to flee with him to the Celestial City (heaven) but they are afraid to leave the world they know and face whatever dangers might await.  Christian's family and neighbors think he has gone mad and so he sets out on the journey by himself.

Along the way Christian will be accompanied by two friends named Faithful and Hopeful.  But the road leading to the Celestial City is not straightforward.  Christian will encounter many obstacles: depression, ignorance, fear, greed etc which have caused others pilgrims to lose faith and turn back.   One thing the book seems to stress is that if you are going to go on a journey of whatever kind it helps to have companions.  Had it not been for Faithful and Hopeful during key parts of the novel Christian would not have made it to the Celestial City.

John Bunyan is a remarkable writer although his view of religion is a harsh one, a great deal of emphasis on the hell that awaits if you stray from the righteous path.  Still this book is a major classic which has gone on to influence countless authors and since the day it was published The Pilgrim's Progress has never gone out of print.

And so completes my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge and I made it just under the wire!  It's been a worthwhile journey and I plan to do my wrap up review of the books I've read tomorrow and thanks so much to Karen K at Books and Chocolate for hosting the challenge.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte published 1848 is the eleventh book I have read for my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by a woman author.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall when it was first published was considered the most shocking of the Bronte novels (and that's saying something!) but I guess in Victorian times a woman fleeing her abusive husband and taking her young son with her to start a new life elsewhere was considered more scandalous than anything Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester could come up with. 

And so when The Tenant of Wildfell Hall begins it is 1827 and Helen Huntingdon and her young son have moved into Wildfell Hall, a run down mansion that has seen better days.   Helen has changed her last name to Graham so her husband, Arthur,  won't find her and she has let it be known to her new neighbors that she is a widow.  Helen keeps to herself and rarely ventures out to social gatherings.  One neighbor, Gilbert Markham (who narrates the book from the looking back vantage point of 1847) breaks through Helen's reserve. He takes a liking to her little boy as well.

Helen and Gilbert are growing closer but they have a falling out when false rumors about Helen begin to circulate.  She decides to tell Gilbert the truth about her prior life, handing him her diary.  The diary takes up a great part of this novel and it is a fascinating journal, drawing you in regarding who Helen was before she married Arthur Huntingdon, her Aunt's warning about marrying him, Helen's naive belief that she could change Arthur and his descent into alcoholism, unfaithfulness, emotional abuse and Helen's decision to leave.

I found The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to be an exceptional book and one theme running through this novel is that who you marry is serious business and not just for women.  Lord Lowborough,  for example, a character in the novel who falls in love with Annabella Wilmot who only marries him for his title.  He is a good husband and she betrays him at every turn.  Some have said that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may have been Anne's response to Jane Eyre in which Mr. Rochester is reformed after going through trials and tribulations.  That's not the case with Arthur Huntingdon who gets worse as the novel progresses no matter how hard Helen tries to save the marriage.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a very modern novel in many ways and yet all of what we have come to expect from the Brontes is there as well, most importantly the gifted story telling and so I heartily recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Trial by Franz Kafka

"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us" - Franz Kafka 

The Trial by Franz Kafka published 1925 is one of the great classics of world literature and Kafka one of the world's great writers.   I didn't find him an easy read though and the problem was not his writing style which I found very understandable but rather as with The Stranger by Albert Camus (and the resemblance between these two novels is uncanny),  I came to the end of The Trial disturbed and unsettled regarding what the author was trying to say.  This tends to be the case with many of the great modernist writers of the twentieth century, Kafka, Joyce, Camus, Woolf etc.  It's not all laid out on the table for you and as a reader you have to dig deeper.

And so as the Trial begins we are introduced to Joseph K who has just turned thirty.  He lives in a boarding house and works as a middle manager at a bank.  He leads a solitary existance.  No friends or family to speak of and on this particular morning he is waiting for his landlady to bring him breakfast.  Instead two men enter his room telling him that he is under arrest.  Joseph K is not told the charges, nor is he taken into custody.  He is simply told by these two officials to go about his daily life and the courts will be in touch with him:

"What kind of people were they?  What were they talking about?  Which department did they belong to?  After all, K had rights, the country was at peace, the laws had not been suspended - who, then, had the audacity to descend on him in the privacy of his own home?  He had always tended to avoid taking things too seriously, not to assume the worst until the worst actually happened  ... he could of course regard the whole thing as a joke, a crude joke his colleagues at the bank were playing on him for some unknown reason, perhaps because it was his thirtieth birthday".  

But it is no joke and its not long before Joseph K is told to report to the court.  He is  given the address where he is to appear but he is not told the time and so decides to arrive at 9:00 AM.  However, when he arrives he finds that the courtroom is housed in an old tenement building with so many rooms and stairwells that by the time Joseph K finds the right room he is late and berated by the magistrate.  This infuriates Joseph K and he goes on a tirade about the unfairness of the legal system.  He leaves the building and continues on as best he can working at the bank with his court case looming over him.

Joseph K reaches out to various people along the way, an attorney, a prison chaplain, a court painter and they all offer him advise on the best way to proceed with his trial but its confusing advise and no one will give Joseph K a straight answer about why he was arrested and what he did wrong.  Women play an odd role in The Trial as well.  Either Joseph K is trying to begin a relationship with them or they are making a pass at him but it never works out and for this I think we would need to know more about Franz Kafka's life.

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague, Czech Republic to a German Jewish family.  His father, Hermann Kafka, was a tyrant according to his son, emotionally abusive, mocking Kafka's interest in literature, terrorizing him as a child, disapproving so strongly of Kafka's engagement to Felice Bauer that their relationship fell apart.  We know all this because in 1919 Kafka wrote his father a one hundred page letter in which he laid it all out.  Kafka never sent the letter but critics have speculated that the oppressive legal system that Joseph K encounters in The Trial where he is found guilty but never told his crime serves as a metaphor for Kafka's relationship with his father, although some have pointed out that when it comes to Kafka and his father we only have Kafka's side of the story.

But the Trial can be read in many ways.  An indictment on the legal system,  a criticism of nameless faceless bureacracies and critics have also noted the prophetic nature of the Trial published in 1925, two years after Kafka's death.  Franz Kafka may have written The Trial  to work out his own sense of guilt, depression and self doubt but The Trial also foresaw the nightmarish world about to descend on the 20th century with the rise of Nazism and then Stalinism.  The Trial is not a beach read but as with The Stranger by Camus, I finished The Trial wanting to learn more about Kafka and his writings.

The Trial fulfills book ten on my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic by an author that's new to you.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth

For my 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge - choose a classic with a one word title, I chose Belinda by Maria Edgeworth published 1801.  Maria Edgeworth in her day was a very popular Anglo/Irish author who wrote books on education, children's stories and novels two of which are considered classics, Belinda and Castle Rackrent.  Jane Austen greatly admired this author and that is high praise.

Belinda begins at the turn of the nineteenth century in the town of Bath.  Mrs Stanhope a formidable woman in the matchmaking department has arranged for her youngest niece, Belinda Portman, to spend the winter season in London where she will stay with the fashionable Lady Delacour.  There will be parties, balls, theater events to attend but the ultimate goal as Mrs. Stanhope makes clear to Belinda is to find a suitable marriage partner.

Soon after arriving in London Belinda meets Clarence Hervey who she is smitten with but at a costume ball she is crushed when she overhears Hervey mocking both her and her Aunt to his friends.  Their relationship starts off with a number of obstacles the most serious of which is that Hervey may have a mistress.  As for Belinda she begins a courtship with a man from the West Indies, Mr. Vincent, who unbeknownst to Belinda has a gambling problem.  Meanwhile Lady Delacour is not up to the challenge of mentoring Belinda if anything Lady Delacour needs a mentor.  Her marriage to Lord Delacour, for example, is an unhappy union and in confiding to Belinda why she married him, Lady Delacour puts it as follows:

"I was a rich heiress ...I was handsone and witty ... Having told you my fortune need I add, that I, or it, had lovers in abundance  ...  of all sorts and degrees - not to reckon those, it may be presumed, who died of concealed passions for me ... any girl who is not used to having a parcel of admirers, would think it the easiest thing in the world to make her choice; but let her judge by what she feels when a dexterous mercer or linen draper produces pretty thing after pretty thing  - and this is so becoming, and this will wear forever ...the novice stands in a charming perplexity, and after examining, and doubting and tossing over half the goods in the shop , it's ten to one, when it begins to get late, the young lady, in a hurry, pitches upon the very ugliest and worst thing that she has seen ... Sad was the hour and luckless was the day I pitched upon viscount Delacour for my lord and judge".  

Lady Delacour is quite the character, witty, dramatic, funny.  Readers and critics have said over the years that she is actually the star of this book but Belinda is impressive too, like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice who would come after her, Belinda is very well grounded for someone so young, intelligent, rational and only willing to marry if she can find a husband she has affection for and  respects.  Belinda has been referred to as a novel of female development, a popular genre in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries which would end with the young woman married since the life of a woman in the early nineteenth century if she remained single was not a happy one as Mrs Stanhope grimly lays out in her cautionary advice to her neice.  Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Burney and of course Jane Austen are the most shining practitioners of the novel of female development.  Although the irony is that Edgeworth and Austen never married.

There is much to recommend about Belinda but I had a serious problem with the novel as well, the anti-semitism I encountered in the book, specifically in the creation of Mr Solomon who is not so much a character as a caricature.  This is a problem one gets into when reading some of the classics where you will be enjoying a novel and then come upon bigotry and it stains the book for you. 

But this story has an interesting ending.  In 1815 Rachel Mordecai a young teacher living in North Carolina and a fan of Edgeworth's novels and books on education decided to write the author a letter.  Rachel who was Jewish was hurt by what she was reading in Edgeworth's novels: "how can it be that she, whom on all other subjects shows justice and liberality, should on one alone appear biased by prejudices?"  Edgeworth upon receiving this letter was clearly moved and responded "Your polite, benevolent and touching letter has given me much pleasure, and much pain.  As to the pain I hope you will some time see that it has excited me to make all the atonement and reparation in my power for the past".  Edgeworth the following year wrote the novel Harrington which tackled the subject of anti-semitism and how wrong it is head on.  As for Maria Edgeworth and Rachel Mordecai they began a friendship and a lifelong correspondence which their families would continue well into the 20th century.