Thursday, March 31, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing is about love, and by its own admission then love matters very little. The characters within take love very lightly: Chiefly Claudio, a hero of the Prince Don Pedro's army who falls in love with Hero, daughter of Leonato, Governor of Messina. It's not quite love at first sight, but it's close:

CLAUDIO: O, my lord,
When you went onward on this ended action
I looked upon her with a soldier's eye,
That liked, but had a rougher task in hand
Than to drive liking to the name of love.
But now I am returned and that war thoughts
Have left their places vacant, in their rooms
Come thronging soft and delicate desires,
All prompting me how fair young Hero is,
Saying I liked her ere I went to wars.

As lightly as Claudio falls in love, he falls out: He is easily convinced by a scene contrived by Don Pedro's evil brother, Don John the Bastard, which makes Hero seem to be having an affair with another man. Claudio and Hero are dull people who fall in love dully; the stakes are low.

Much more interesting is the relationship between Hero's cousin Beatrice and Claudio's fellow soldier Benedick, who can best be described as "frenemies." Their battle of wits is longstanding:

BEATRICE: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick, nobody marks you.

BENEDICK: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?

BEATRICE: Is it possible disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to disdain if you come into her presence.

But Beatrice and Benedick too--though they both declaim constantly against marriage--fall in love easily, when their friends contrive that they "overhear" accounts of how dearly each loves the other. This is sensible, not only because they clearly have a great affinity for each other behind their verbal sparring, but because Shakespeare subtly suggests that Benedick once jilted Beatrice. Still, if it were not for the machinations of Don John, love in this play would have very little to challenge it.

Don John's machination leads Claudio to cruelly denounce Hero on their wedding day, and then to one more contrivance: Hero and Leonato pretend that the grief has killed her, that Claudio might realize how much he truly loved her. Were it not for Beatrice, this might be a bland bit of Shakespearean silliness, but it casts a pall over her newly open love for Benedick:

BEATRICE: You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you.

BENEDICK: And do it with all thy heart.

BEATRICE: I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.

BENEDICK: Come, bid me do anything for thee.

BEATRICE: Kill Claudio.

Benedick is little deeper than his wit, but Hero's "death" allows Beatrice to exhibit a latent fury we would not have expected, and duel with Claudio becomes a condition of her marriage with Benedick. For a moment, she seems horribly like a young Lady Macbeth:

O, that I were a man! What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancor--O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace.

This is as close as Much Ado About Nothing comes to losing its lightheartedness; Hero's ruse is exposed before the challenge can materialize. I admit that this is one of my chief disappointments with the play (the other being the weak comedy of the chief of the Watch, Dogberry, who is always using words incorrectly--ha!), that we are not permitted to witness the result of this challenge. That would have been a different play entirely, one in which love is far from nothing, but a powerful force of questionable value. As it is, the play ends with a double marriage and all forgiven, except for Don John, who disappears as neatly as all evil must in comedy, and the first recorded instance of this rom-com cliche:

BENEDICK: A miracle! Here's our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee, but by this light I take thee for pity.

BEATRICE: I would not deny you, but by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.

BENEDICK: Peace! I will stop your mouth.

They kiss.

"The population of Topeka, Kan., today is roughly the same as the population of London in the time of Shakespeare..."

"...and the population of Kansas now is not that much lower than the population of England at that time. London at the time of Shakespeare had not only Shakespeare—whoever he was—but also Christopher Mar­lowe, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and various other men of letters who are still read today. I doubt that Topeka today has quite the same collection of distinguished writers.

Why is this?"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Another year, another time through Lord of the Flies. I read it in 2007 because I never had and in 2010 because I thought I was going to teach it; it turned out there wasn't enough time left in the semester. I thought I might be able to teach it this year to the sophomore class--but it turns out we're roughly fifteen copies shy of a full set. So, unless fifteen of my kids suddenly get suspended for the rest of the year (not unlikely), it's on to other pursuits.

What did I get out of it this time? Not considerably more. I am more comfortable with its flaws (the prose seemed more natural this time, perhaps because I am familiar with it) but less charmed by its charms. At its most significant level it still operates as a political allegory, and only afterward as a psychological novel, but the former--as it always does--tends to crowd out the latter. I did make some new observations about the nature of truth in the proto-society the marooned boys build on the island. Here is the passage that stuck out to me this time:

"What d'you want me to say then? I was wrong to call this assembly so late. We'll have a vote on them; on ghosts I mean; and then go to the shelters because we're all tired. No--Jack is it?--wait a minute. I'll say here and now that I don't believe in ghosts. Or I don't think I do. But I don't like the thought of them. Not now that is, in the dark. But we were going to decide what's what."

He raised the conch for a moment.

"Very well then. I suppose what's what is whether there are ghosts or not--"

He thought for a moment, formulating the question.

"Who thinks there may be ghosts?"

For a long time there was silence and no apparent movement. Then Ralph peered into the gloom and made out the hands. He spoke flatly.

"I see."

The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away. Once there was this and that; and now--and the ship had gone.

This is surely a watershed moment for the young society. Ralph is right to have visions of the world crumbling, but he fails to understand that he is who delivered the blow. Ralph wishes to be democratic, and submit decisions to the democratic process, but he submits the very nature of truth to a vote, as if truth could be determined by majoritarian say. Truth has been devalued, become a thing of whim, and when Ralph's society struggles to maintain order whim shifts in Jack's direction. Not coincidentally, it is Jack's vision of society that benefits most from the devaluing of truth and the persistence of propaganda. Thus society, driven by human flaws, eats itself.

Let us note, then, that Ralph's democracy sets the stage for Jack's fascism. Ultimately, Lord of the Flies is bitterly pessimistic about man as a social animal; Ralph's mistake only hastens the inevitable decay into barbarism that is the result of barbarian hearts.

Other reviews:
So Many Books
Rebecca Reads
Buried in Print

Sunday, March 27, 2011

National Poetry Month Preshow

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

As all good readers know, April is National Poetry Month. We here at The 50 Books Project love poetry, and we'll be blogging about poetry throughout the month. For now, here's a great article on Henry Longfellow, the poet everyone knows but no one (cool) loves, and why that's stupid. Enjoy!

Other poetry related posts on 50B:

- 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman
- The White Goddess by Robert Graves
- The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan
- Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Some Do Not... by Ford Madox Ford

The gods to each ascribe a differing lot:
Some enter at the portal. Some do not!

It is the eve of World War I, and Christopher Tietjens is the "last English Tory"--a title with all sorts of political connotations that are mostly lost on me. But, apparently, it means that he holds sentiments like this:

This, Tietjens thought, is England! A man and a maid walk through Kentish grass fields: the grass ripe for the scythe. The man honourable, clean, upright; the maid virtuous, clean, vigorous; he of good birth; she of birth quite as good; each filled with a too good breakfast that each could yet capably digest.

Among other things he is a mathematical genius, working for the British government, and a cuckold. When the novel opens, Tietjens has been abandoned by his wife, Sylvia, who has run off to a German health resort with her lover. (In Ford, it seems, German health resorts are where you go to commit adultery.) Tietjens will not divorce Sylvia, because "no one but a blackguard would ever submit a woman to the ordeal of divorce," though he has cause, and she tortures him incessantly:

He felt a great deal of pain, over which there presided the tall, eel-skin, blonde figure of his wife...

Sylvia claims to hate her husband; calls him "the Ox;" at one point she yells "I'm bored!" and throws her breakfast at him. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, and Tietjens is savaged by the probability that their child together is probably not his own. And yet his sense of honor and duty prevails over his own misery.

His true affections lie with Valentine Wannop--the maid walking through Kentish grass above--a young suffragette and household servant who is devoted to her mother, a famous but impoverished novelist. Valentine is the opposite of Sylvia: deeply principled, humble in poverty, despising of cruelty. Tietjens muses himself on the difference between them:

If you wanted something killed you'd go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion, hope, ideal; kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you'd go to Valentine: she'd find something to do for it... The two types of mind: remorseless enemy, sure screen, dagger... sheath!

Tietjens and Valentine become close after he rescues her from an abortive (and very strange) demonstration for women's suffrage at a golf course. Though they have never met before that moment, insinuations that she is Tietjens' mistress are generated on the spot. These accusations dog Tietjens and Valentine throughout the novel, though the relationship is never consummated. In fact, this is is a reoccurring irony: though Tietjens acts with the utmost integrity, his reputation is ruined by accusations of adultery with multiple women, of fathering children out of wedlock, even of being a French spy! His sense of honor, however, limits his willingness to defend himself. In a way, he is the mirror image of The Good Soldier's Edward Ashburnham, whose uprightness masks deep character flaws.

The epigram "Some do... some do not..." appears throughout the novel, in differing contexts. Tietjens and Valentine, by their self-denial, are those who "do not," and as such are set apart from the rest of the characters, all of whom "do": commit character assassination, make moral compromise, and generally pursue self-aggrandizement. Their love resounds in a lower, quieter register:

On the surface the story of her love for Tietjens had been static enough. It had begun in nothing and in nothing it had ended. But, deep down in her being--ah! it had progressed enough.

I love this; it is the appeal of those who "do not": Tietjens and Valentine's romance is a communion of spirits, not a summary of actions or appearances, and needs no outward expression to be validated. Wouldn't it be wonderful to say that, when you meet the one you love, that:

Words passed, but words could no more prove an established innocence than words can enhance a love that exists. He might as well have recited the names of railway stations.

I loved The Good Soldier, but what minimal amount of true love exists in that novel is the source of endless anguish. Mostly, it is bereft of love. Some Do Not... shares similarities of time, place, and theme, but in it, true love is unassailable.

If it is a love story, it is also a war story--split in two, the second half takes place after Tietjens has returned from the front lines of World War I, where he has experienced a shell shock that has blunted his brilliance and clouded his thoughts. The novel ends just before (and the next in the series picks up, I think, just after) Tietjens is about to ship out again. But the war somehow always seems secondary, either to the love story or the sexual warfare between Tietjens and Sylvia. We are not permitted, in this novel at least, to see Tietjens at war; far more important are the effects of the war back home. In fact, the novel comprises only a handful of long set pieces, through which Ford carefully weaves flashbacks and a surprising amount of stream-of-consciousness.

If one of the measures of a great book is that it seems impossible to do justice to in a review like this one, then Some Do Not... is a masterpiece. Like The Good Soldier, its simple structure belies endless complexities, and it constantly forces the reader to reconsider earlier events and characterizations. And there are three more books to go!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In the post-Harry Potter world, it seems we may be condemned to an endless cycle of Next Big Things from the Young Adult world. Twilight was there to console us when we realized there were no more Potter books coming, and The Hunger Games has followed in that book's wake into the public consciousness. The film is already in production, of course. The loser in this new world order is probably Dan Brown, who will probably have to write a book for teenagers if he's ever going to be popular again.

I am a fan of Harry Potter but I have refused to read Twilight, which seems unbearable. One of my students asked me to read The Hunger Games, which is better written and more imaginative than Twilight, but a poor substitute for Harry Potter. Firstly, it cribs shamelessly from a Japanese novel/manga called Battle Royale: both are about teenagers being selected by a despotic government to compete in a brutal competition where the last survivor wins. In both books, this is depicted as a means of controlling the population through fear; in The Hunger Games it is also a punishment for a long-ago populist insurrection.

The protagonist of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (ugh), volunteers to go in place of her little sister, who has been chosen by lottery. As each "district" must send two competitors, she is joined by Peeta Mellark (ugh), a local baker's son, and assisted by a former winner from her district whose alcoholism renders him less than helpful. For a competition in which the competitors are chosen at random, the representatives from the other eleven district seem to be have unusually advanced combat skills.

The Hunger Games is characterized by its inconsistency, but occasionally exhibits imaginative flair. It flirts with social commentary by turning the Games into a kind of televised spectacle. The audience can contribute money to "sponsor" competitors, who receive helpful gifts by parachute; competitors from the wealthier districts naturally have an advantage. Katniss, Peeta, and their mentor Haymitch operate according to a peculiar game plan: If they pretend that Peeta and Katniss are in love, then the popularity of their televised romance will provide them with sponsors. And maybe, just maybe--spoiler alert--the "Gamemakers" will change the rules of the game so that two competitors from the same district can win.

I have two issues with this. The first is that it is stupid. Not only does it lead to an awful lot of teenage makeouts on the killing field, assuming that your romance would provide the leverage to force the hand of the all-powerful regime in the Capitol is a horrible plan. Unsurprisingly, it works.

The second problem is more significant: It thematically undermines the book. The Capitol controls the population through propaganda, of which the Games are a central part, and we are meant to be appalled by how willing people are to tune in to teenagers being murdered on their TV. But the love scheme (to the extent that it is a scheme and not the precursor of a real romance) turns Peeta and Katniss into propagandists. This dystopia is characterized by an obsession with appearances and media, why then are Peeta and Katniss' "stylists" depicted as guardian angels, who sympathize with their plight and help them win? Katniss wants to rebel against the brutality of the system, but her success in the Games looks conspicuously like a validation of that system's efficacy.

I fear that these problems are impossible to fix because the book is by nature contradictory. Yes, the system is brutal and the population bloodthirsty and shallow, but the pleasure we get out of reading about teenagers speared or burned or bludgeoned to death is uncomfortably like the pleasure the Capitol provides its audiences. If Collins were a better writer, this might be tempered by some grave reflection on death--not unheard of in children's fiction--but what minor guilt Katniss shows is fleeting and thin. Death in The Hunger Games is popcorn stuff, and will probably look spectacular on the big screen, but looking spectacular may be all it can manage.

Other reviews:


The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

“Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games”

The Hunger Games
, the newest YA literary phenom, is a dystopic young adult novel that plays like a mashup of Battle Royale, Stephen King's The Running Man and The Long Walk, and elements from pretty much every other dystopian book you can think of. That's not to be derogatory, just to let you know what you're in for: it's difficult to find a truly original element in the world of the Games.

The basic story is this: every year, the government chooses two children from each district, aged between 12 and 18, to compete in The Hunger Games. The winner is awarded wealth and comfort for the remainder of their life; the losers are dead.

The real centerpiece of the story is the narrator, Katniss, a 14-year-old girl who enters the titular games voluntarily, replacing her younger sister. She's a fairly complex character, with conflicting emotions and motivations that rarely feel less than genuine. She's smart and capable of brutality, yet tender and caring toward those she chooses. There's not a whole lot of romance, which is nice, but what there is feels a little silly compared to the rest of the story.

Calling the prose utilitarian is pretty accurate. Throughout the entire novel, I can't recall one memorable line or dialog. It's told in the first person present, which can be kind of annoying. I've read comments where people compliment the writing style as being no-nonsense or whatever, but it was probably the largest con of the book for me--I would have gotten as much out of a screenplay and it would have read even faster. Also, the ending was extremely anticlimactic, even taking into account that this is the first part of the trilogy.

I enjoyed The Hunger Games, although it might be hard to tell from this review, but I don't know if I'm going to be reading the rest. There just doesn't seem to be enough original content here to justify the hype.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. -- Ecclesiastes 7:4

It was indeed miserable to be poor, to look forward to a shabby, anxious middle age, leading by dreary degrees of economy and self-denial to gradual absorption in the dingy communal existence of the boarding-house. But there was something more miserable still--it was the clutch of solitude at her heart, the sense of being swept up like a stray uprooted growth down the heedless current of her years.

You might call The House of Mirth a riches-to-rags story. Its heroine, Lily Bart, is in the generally dreadful position of having friends who have more money than she does. Her beauty and her connections go a long way of installing her in the high society of 19th century New York City, but it is an awfully expensive place to stay, with its new dresses, high-stakes bridge games, and Mediterranean cruises. Lily's problems will go away if she can marry rich, but neither stupid or venal enough to pursue the meager pool of men that surround her:

She had been bored all the afternoon by Percy Gryce--the mere thought seemed to waken an echo of his droning voice--but she could not ignore him on the morrow, she must be follow up her success, must submit to more boredom, must be ready with fresh compliances and adaptabilities, and all on the bare chance that he might ultimately decide to do her the honour of boring her for life.

The first half of The House of Mirth is in this savage vein by which Wharton exhibits a great affinity for Jane Austen. Her skewering of high society can be quite funny:

The Wetheralls always went to church. They belonged to the vast group of human automata who go through life without neglecting to perform a single one of the gestures executed by the surrounding puppets. It is true that the Bellomont puppets did not go to church, but others equally important did--and Mr. and Mrs. Wetherall's circle was so large that God was included in their visiting-list.

Of course, it is impossible to imagine Austen calling anyone "the vast group of human automata." These quips nearly drop out entirely in the book's second half, where they would be unbearably vicious, as Lily's star descends and she approaches destitution. Ironically, it is her beauty that does her in: She accepts a stock "tip" from a friend, Gus Trenor, and collects and spends nine thousand dollars before realizing that the money she is given is not the dividends of her investment at all, but a gift from Trenor, who expects to collect his repayment in a "pound of flesh." The scene where Trenor lures her alone to his house so that he might confront her about her debt is one of the most horrifying scenes I have ever read, as it always seems a moment away from becoming a sexual assault.

Lily is not shallow enough to pay Trenor this way, but too shallow to reject the desire for society that led her to such a predicament. Caught between these two worlds, she wastes away, loses her inheritance, becomes a social pariah. She is in love with a man named Lawrence Selden, but he has cultivated what Lily cannot, an aloofness from society, and this becomes a barrier between them. She seems constantly to be on the verge of denouncing these misbegotten wants:

"Some women are strong enough to be good by themselves, but I needed the help of your belief in me. Perhaps I might have resisted a great temptation, but the little ones would have pulled me down. And then I remembered--I remembered your saying that such a life could never satisfy me; and I was ashamed to admit to myself that it could. This is what you did for me; that is what I wanted to thank you for. I wanted to tell you that I have always remembered, and that I have tried--tried hard--"

...But the moment never comes, or comes too late. Lily has tried hard enough, but Selden has not tried. That is his secret; he knows the task is impossible for the good and the free. Lily's ultimate ruin is the result of her trying to live in both Selden's world and in society, which is beyond any mortal creature, and the final catastrophe presages the horrible end of Ethan Frome (Carlton, Brent), though it lacks that novel's tidy sense of inevitability. Nor does it resonate as strongly as the final tragedy of The Age of Innocence, which is less "sound and fury" and more "quiet desperation."

Still, The House of Mirth is powerfully tragic. As with The Age of Innocence, it remains worth reading today, not least because there is no shortage of Lily Barts in the 21st Century. Like Lily, we remain aware of the shallowness of the game of wealth, yet we play it anyway because we don't like the thought of losing. The House of Mirth reminds us why it is that a camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle.

Other reviews:

Books and Movies
Rebecca Reads
The Mookse and the Gripes

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Henry IV, Part One

Henry IV is not the main character of Henry IV, Part One. He barely clocks in fourth--behind the impetuous rebel, Hotspur. But who is? Conventional wisdom would say that the center of the play is Hal, the future Henry V, who over the course of the Henry IV plays must learn to abandon his life of carousing in Eastcheap taverns, but Hal's drinking buddy Falstaff was perhaps his most popular creation, and according to Harold Bloom is one of the two greatest Shakespearean achievements (along with Hamlet).

The play opens with Henry IV wishing openly that his son were Harry Percy, or Hotspur, who within an act will be in open rebellion towards him:

Oh, that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine "Percy," his "Plantagenet,"
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

And yet, what strikes me is that from his very first appearance, Hal appears to have no qualms about leaving his life in the taverns behind in order to become more like Hotspur:

I know you all and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Both Hal and his father have a nasty streak of uncharitableness; Henry's toward his son and Hal toward his friends. In particular I find Hal's insistence that he is better than his surroundings to be both ignorant and distasteful, as if his entire life he were merely "slumming it," waiting for an opportunity to show his true colors. It only makes it worse that Hal's self-assessment is essentially correct, and that he takes to the battlefield with natural ease, because it is unclear that the "true" persona is more valuable or honorable than the counterfeit.

This runs afoul of many readings of Henry IV (and here it seems as good a time as any to mention I have not read Part Two) which depict Hal as struggling to transform himself into the capable ruler of Henry V and Falstaff as his obstacle. But on Hal's part there is no struggle, no inner conflict about leaving his friends. On the other hand, Falstaff seems to overflow with love for Hal. In one scene, Hal and Falstaff are play-acting at being Henry and Hal, respectively, when Hal-Henry upbraids his Falstaff-Hal for the company he keeps. Falstaff's reply--clearly and pathetically not true to Hal's sentiments--becomes an endearing self-defense:

FALSTAFF: But to say I know more harm in him than in myself were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity; his white hairs do witness it. But that he his, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked. If to be old and merry a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned. If to be fat be to be hated, then Pharoah's lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being as he is old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company. Banish plump Jack and banish all the world.

HAL: I do; I will.

Hal's banishment of Falstaff is completed in Part Two, and in the course of it he does in a way banish the world, as the pursuit of honor and glory is a lonely one by nature. Hal echoes this when he says to Hotspur before their final battle, "I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy, / To share with me in glory any more. / Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere." Hal banishes his doppelgangers: first Hostpur, then his Eastcheap self.

Falstaff, impressed by Hal into service, is on the same battlefield and fakes his own death to spare his life. Is this cowardly? Soliloquizing, he seizes upon the symbolism of counterfeiting that Hal has long been employing:

Counterfeit? I lie; I am no counterfeit. to die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit, but the true and image of life indeed.

This is Falstaff's finest hour, a rejection of Hotspur's glories, which court death. Falstaff is a prophet of life; life is truth, and death a falsehood. In his war poem "Dulce et Decorum est," Wilfred Own would call it "the old lie," that there is value, or goodness, or sweetness in death on the battlefield. Falstaff's vitality is the overflowing of his insistence on life--"Give me life," he says--and he has no respect for the empty vanities of honor:

Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor has no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word "honor"? What is that "honor"? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. 'Tis insensible, then? Yes, to the dead.

We feel this deeply because we like Falstaff and want him to exist; for that reason Shakespeare wrote more total lines for him than any other character. Nothing is lost when Hotspur meets his end at Hal's hands, mostly because the two of them have been spent the entire play planning to eradicate each other. Falstaff values life and Hotspur values honor; in Part One at least they reap their rewards. I am suspicious of Bloom's desire to turn Falstaff into some sort of ubermensch, but if there is a choice to be made, I'll take Falstaff's worldview over Hal's.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

I was sunk deep in my middle age. All the same I laid my head against her breast. 'I have been happy,' I said, 'but I have been bored for so long.'

One of Graham Greene's most consistent peculiarities is that his heroes and heroines are irreligious types, or at best believers impoverished in their faith, confined to religious novels. Something in him seems to harbor a great sympathy for the unbelieving, and I have long thought his books were written in part of exorcise the demons of his own conflicted faithfulness.

Henry Pulling, the protagonist of Travels with My Aunt, is an interesting variation on this archetype, Greene's anti-Greene: a homebody. Greene's obsession with travel seems almost colonialist, and his books, like his life, flit back and forth between continents. Henry, on the other hand, is a creature of habit, confined to his home and his routine, whose only interests are in cultivating dahlias. His experiences are hand-me-downs:

One's life is more formed, I sometimes think, by books than by human beings: it is out of books one learns about love and pain at second hand. Even if we have the happy chance to fall in love, it is because we have been conditioned by what we have read, and if I had never known love at all, perhaps it was because my father's library had not contained the right books.

That sounds like something straight out of the Fifty Books Project Manifesto, but here it only serves to make Henry seem more like a naif. His routines are shaken when he meets his Aunt Augusta for the first time at his mother's funeral. They strike up a friendship, and soon Augusta convinces Henry to accompany her on her travels, stretching from France to Istanbul to Paraguay.

Unsurprisingly, Augusta opens Henry's eyes to the virtues of the adventurous life. This is less sentimental than it sounds, and less so in that it quickly becomes a typical Greene novel, wherein Augusta is endeavoring to find her old lover who just happens to be wanted by Interpol for collaborating with the Nazis. Travels makes no bones about the danger of international living--Henry is savagely beaten and imprisoned for thoughtlessly wiping his nose on a red handkerchief on Paraguay's national day--but also extols the value of danger and the hollowness of suburban living. One of my favorite passages follows Henry's train of thought on the train to Istanbul with a young girl:

She leant against me in the carriage. I liked the smell of her hair. I suppose if I had known more about women I could have identified the shampoo she must have had in Paris. Her hand was on my knee, and the enormous wrist-watch stared up at me with its great blank white face and its four figures in scarlet, 12 3 6 9, as if those were the only important ones to remember - the hours when you had to take your medicine. I remembered Miss Keene's minute gold wrist-watch like a doll's witch Sir Alfred had given her on her twenty-first birthday. In its tiny ring it contained all the figures of the hours as though none were unimportant or without its special duty. Most of the hours of my life had been eliminated from Tooley's watch. There were no hours marked for sitting quietly and watching a woman tat. I felt as though one night in Southwood I had turned my back on any possibility of home, so that here I was shaken up and down between two segments of Bulgarian darkness.

This is the orderly, conservative Greene's idea of stream-of-consciousness. It doesn't quite work as a whole, but I love the pieces themselves: Henry's need to cling to things as trivial and domestic as the brand of Tooley's shampoo; the missing hours from Tooley's watch, as Henry becomes aware of the dwindling of his own short life; the contrast between the ordered and the unordered life; the wonderful phrasing of "shaken up and down between two segments of Bulgarian darkness." What makes the darkness Bulgarian? Even without the ability to see what lies beyond the train window, Henry perceives the newness of his experiences: this darkness is different from English darkness.

In the end, Henry has to decide between following his aunt and returning home. Even if he embraces the new life, it confirms Greene's self-abnegation, forcing us to ponder the value of books as a substitute for experience, and risks the legitimacy of his own works. After all, aren't we indicted for living out Henry's experiences "second hand?"

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Stuck in a Book