Another productive month of reading. This set includes two fat classics and two Man Booker Prize winners.
Romola by George Elliot (serialized 1862-63). I thought this was the last of the George Elliot novels yet to read, it has set on our book shelf for about a decade. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The 1924 movie starring Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, William Powell and Ronald Coleman was a melodrama, and not a very satisfying one. However, the novel is much richer, with lots of explanation for character development and not very subtle psychology. The book ends differently from the movie, as well, which I welcomed. Many contemporary reviewers did not like this novel. Because it is historical (set in Florence during the late 15th century and Savonarola plays a large part), Elliot did a lot of homework into the era and the book was considered too scholarly. But, some of the characters, in particular the heroine Rom0la, seemed too 19th century. Plus, many reviewers seemed to miss Elliot’s main point, a comparison between Florence at that time when a liberal culture was in battle with a renewal of fundamentalist religion and Britain in its contemporary time.
Clearly, this was not her best novel, in fact, I would rank it last among the seven that I have read. But still, it was an interesting read and deserved better treatment in film. I have learned that she wrote one more novel, “Impressions of Theophrastus Such” – her last and her most “experimental.” I have downloaded it onto the iPad, but it may take another decade before I get to it.
Martin Chuzzelwit by Charles Dickens (1884) Can’t go wrong with Dickens. Even those that are not his best are an enjoyable read. And that’s a good thing as this was more than 1100 pages long. But who is the title character? The elder Martin Chuzzlewit is the spine of the tale as many act in reaction to him, and he has a change in character by the end. But his grandson is one of the main actors, goes off to America and returns a changed man as well. Perhaps Dickens was referring to both.
Everyone is a caricature, as is Dickens’ style, with delightful names and idiosyncratic quirks to their speech and personality. Only the “good girls” are boring. Some of my favorite characters were Mr. Pecksniff, who is so unctuous and hypocritical he believes his own lies; Mark Tapley, born to be helpful and jolly, but he keeps seeking circumstances that are difficult so he can get some credit for it; and Tom Pinch, with the least pinched of hearts and souls.
This book is full of coincidences, reconciliations, comeuppances, revenge and happy couples – all part of Dickens’ popularity and lasting appeal. He writes silly but appealing stories with a virtuous moral message and delightful (albeit, could use some editing) prose. But my first Dickens, The Tale of Two Cities, is still my favorite.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988) This novel won the Man Booker Prize in 1988, and like many other of those winners that I have read (my goal is to read them all), it is odd.
The cover of the book has Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett as they starred in the 1998 movie based on the book, and I cannot think of better casting. If the movie had been made in the 1960s (which would have been impossible considering when the book was written), Peter O’Toole fresh out of Lawrence of Arabia would have been the spot-on Oscar. In an even earlier period, young Kate Hepburn (if she could muster an Australian accent) would be dead-on for Lucinda.
The theme is how two misfits in England and then Sydney find each other and almost accomplish the impossible. He’s a crazy Christian who gambles and she is a proto-feminist in the 1860s. The book is full of good stories, interesting characters and the misfits are particularly well drawn, and despite (or because of?) their lack of social graces quite likeable. It was a romantic novel, except it does not have a typical ending for a romantic novel. In fact, I really disliked the ending and can think of dozens of better endings for these two deserving characters. I hope when I eventually get to see the film, they change the ending. Despite this the first 378 pages of the 432-page book makes for fine reading and I highly recommend it.
The Sea by John Banville (2005) Winner of the 2005 Man Booker Prize. Oscar and Lucinda, another Booker winner, had big action, in that it covered a lot of land geographically and a lot of time. This book has almost no action and all the drama is internal. The narrator has come to the Irish seaside, where he spent his summers as a child, after his wife dies. At about 60, he is reeling from her recent death and also remembering his first love at 11 and the traumatic events of that summer. The sea, as one can guess, figures heavily in a symbolic way. The details of the climax of his 11th summer are kept from the reader until the end (unless you read ahead) and that was part of why I read this book quickly and deep into the night. Also, Banville really cares about words, individual words, and has a huge vocabulary. By the end, I didn’t like the character of the narrator, or for that matter, many of the other characters, but that was O.K. At least he knew his own shortcomings.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome Klapka Jerome (1889) A jolly good read of three men (supposedly still relatively young) and a terrier taking a holiday by boating up the Thames in order to escape the hustle and bustle of London life. The narrator is full of wry comments, self-deprecatory humor, and historical information of the places they pass, and always has his tongue (or pen) in cheek. I believe it was as much my mood as the book itself that resulted in me not being particularly amused. On another day (and it can easily be read in a day or two), the book would have appealed to my funny bones.
Short Works by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1877
The Dance of Death is a prose poem that starts with Death talking to himself, and then to Satan. Next thing you know, Satan is talking to Nero. Romantic, as in big “R” romantic. Lots of wind and thunder and elemental elements.
The Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller. Julian loved slaughter – animal or human. He learns of a prophesy that he will kill his mother and father, and so he runs away as a young man. And of course, we all know what happens, which in its turn, transforms him into a saint. The story was inspired by a stained glass window in the Rouen Cathedral.
A Simple Soul. This is the life story of a servant who wasn’t all that bright and thus was able to be a simple soul. She was able to love fully, even when she was not loved back. A parrot plays a large, symbolic part in this long, short story. Full of loving details about a woman who made no difference in the world, but in that aspect, is probably more like most of us. Lovely to read.
Herodias was also inspired by art in the Rouen Cathedral, a bas relief. This is Flaubert’s retelling of the beheading of St. John the Baptist. I enjoyed the writing generally and particularly liked the description of Salome’s dance.
Efuru by Flora Nwapa (1966) Efuru is a Nigerian village woman – beautiful, intelligent, generous and a good business woman. But she is unlucky with marriages and children, which is a problem in a Nigerian village. The book is full of interesting characters and description. It was definitely not written by a European or from the perspective of a Nigerian who has lived abroad too long or is educated to the extent that she is “deracinated,” a term used by the Times Literary Supplement. It almost made me nostalgic for my Senegalese village of Koubanao, almost. Another book sitting too long on our shelves that we brought along. Recommended.