Thursday, October 15, 2020

Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is a very famous French novel. I thought that this book was an excellent literary work that dug in to all sorts interesting themes in complex ways. As far as I could tell while reading a translation, the  prose seemed distinctive and brilliantly crafted. The plot was also interesting. The novel was first published in 1856. 


The is the story of the title character, Emma Bovary.  The reader is initially introduced to   Emma’s future husband Charles Bovary, before he even knows her. Charles is a reliable but uninteresting doctor in a French village.  Charles’s domineering first wife dies. Simultaneously, Charles begins to provide medical treatment to Emma’s father and starts to develop a romantic interest in her. He begins to court Emma and the pair eventually get engaged and married. Though Emma is happy at first, she soon becomes bored with her marriage and what she considers a humdrum and unromantic country life.  She wants to live a more glamorous and materialistic lifestyle with a more interesting man. Emma proceeds to spend lavishly on clothing, furniture and all sorts of frills. After she has a daughter, Emma engages in affairs with other men. First, with a local land owner and later with a handsome clerk named Leon.   All this time Charles is oblivious to what is going on, even though Emma and her lovers are often indiscrete. Eventually Emma’s excessive spending catches up with her as debt collectors begin to move to sell the Bovarys’ possessions. All this eventually leads to calamity for the Bovarys. 


There are other important characters including the village pharmacist, Monsieur Homais. This man  supposedly befriends the Boverys but his friendship is eventually shown to be false. He is pompous and pretentious and ultimately very successful. He uses people for his benefit and abandons them when he no longer needs them. He is also a rationalist who likes to have philosophical arguments.


I would describe the  prose is this book as  both soaring but also intentionally pretentious. That sounds contradictory but the language sometimes seems sublime while at other times it seems to be very exaggerated. Sometimes it seems as if Flaubert is skirting the line between the two.  The over – the -  top language seems to be a reflection of Emma and her pretentious associates’ thoughts, personalities and feelings. Emma is often overemotional, phony and also sees the world in a kind of super - romantic state. Of course, I only read a translation of this book. I chose the Lydia Davis version because it seems to be very respected and multiple reviewers have commented that it is close to the original French. Thus, I feel fairly comfortable commenting on the language used in this book.  A good example of this language occurs when Emma’s lover Leon is waiting for her in a church.


At any minute now she would appear, charming, agitated, glancing behind her at the eyes that were following her, —in her flounced dress, her gold lorgnette, her thin little boots, all kinds of elegant refinements he had never tasted before, and with all the ineffable seductiveness of virtue yielding. The church, like a vast boudoir, was arranging itself around her; the vaults were leaning down to gather up, in the shadows, the confession of her love; the windows shone resplendent to illuminate her face; and the censers burned so that she might appear like an angel, amid clouds of perfume.


Despite the almost religious nature of the above, Leon’s hypocrisy and shallowness is illustrated when he fails to provide help or much support to Emma when she most needs it. 


The entire nature of Emma is at the heart of the book. She has the opportunity to live a comfortable life. Her husband, while not the most interesting man in the world, sincerely loves her, is hard working and is honest.  However, her actions, as well as her thoughts as reflected in the novel’s language, indicate that she has been seduced into believing that she needs to live in world of indulgence and a kind of faux depth. There are obvious connections to romanticism in her outlook. In fact, some have described this book as an attack upon romanticism. Others have described it as a scathing criticism on bourgeois values. I am skeptical of attacks by the elite on the bourgeois or middle class that have been leveled throughout history. However, I think that Flaubert is on to something with his criticism of a certain kind of over - the -  top, fake sophistication. With all that, though I did not live in the time and place that the author did, I suspect that, like today, many people lived life in a state of happy medium between materialism, over -  emotionalism and over - indulgence and more down to earth thoughts and pursuits. However, Emma has lost all sense of that balance. 


There is more complexity here however. The humdrum and unromantic life that Emma bristles over is also critiqued. Despite Charles’s virtues, he really is dull and hopelessly naive.  Monsieur Homais seems to represent much of what is bad about of the middle class “average life”. Perhaps, Flaubert is looking toward a happy medium or perhaps he is just being critical of multiples aspects of the human experience. 


There is more going on here. For instance, there is an ongoing and debate that spans several years between Homais and the village curate Bournisien. The two men engage in a classic argument between science and rationality on one side and  and spiritualism and faith on the other.  This debate concludes for the reader when both characters eventually fall asleep in the midst of their argument. Obviously, there is much to this conclusion. This also provides one of the best and most amusing passages in the book. 


The pharmacist and the curé plunged back into their occupations, not without dozing off from time to time, something for which each would reproach the other every time they woke.


 And then a little later. 


Homais did not challenge these superstitions, for he had fallen asleep again. Monsieur Bournisien, being more resistant, went on moving his lips very softly for some time; then, imperceptibly, he lowered his chin, let go of his thick black book, and began to snore. They sat opposite each other, their stomachs out, their faces swollen, both scowling, after so much dissension united, at last, in the same human weakness;


Flaubert seems to be mocking the over seriousness and repetitiveness of some of these discussions. At the same time, he seems to be illustrating how human commonality, even when it is in the form of weakness, is more important than these philosophical differences. 


I will mention that complex characters are not this novel’s strong point. Almost everyone from Emma and Charles to the villagers and Emma’s lovers are close to caricatures. I think that it is fair to describe them as symbols. Because we really get into the Emma's head, there may be hints that there is some real depth underneath, but there are only hints. With all that, the characters are enjoyable to read about. Despite her flaws, at times Emma seems sympathetic and I suspect that many readers want her to find a measure of happiness.


This has been called one of the greatest novels ever written. While I would not go that far, I thought that it was fantastic. The plot was engrossing. It bandies about all sorts of interesting ideas.  The characters, m while not all that nuanced were entertaining to read about. The language, even in translation, is grand in a kind of ironic way. For those who like Nineteenth Century literature, I highly recommend this one. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

George III by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black’s George III is a somewhat unusual look at the English monarch. This biography has a fairly unconventional structure and style to it. In some ways the book is a challenging read and seems to be aimed at a specific audience of people who already know something of its subject. With that, I personally found this work to be educational and interesting. Black is a Professor of History at Exeter University.This was first published in 2008. 

Though I am interested in many historical topics, my initial interest in George III stemmed from the fact that he was the British monarch who reigned during The American Revolution. The Revolution is the area of history that I am most interested in. Like any biography of this man, a number of pages here are dedicated to the Revolution. In fact, some versions of this book are subtitled America's Last King. I think that subtitle is a little misleading as this is a full biography that does not put special influence on the Revolution. I would guess that the subtitle is part of a marketing strategy as interest in the American Revolution is high in The United States. I am not complaining about this as I was looking to read a full biography. George was a generally interesting figure who is worth knowing about. 

This is the second biography of George that I have read. I had previously read George III: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert. My commentary on that book is here. Though I enjoyed Hibbert’s work and found it educational, I thought that, as that book is advertised, there was not enough detail about politics or national and international affairs in it. Black’s book, though very detailed in those areas, has its own quirks that I will talk about below. Thus, while I am glad that I read both books, I have not found a single, satisfying and comprehensive book on George III.

George was born in 1738 and reigned as King from 1760 until his death in 1820. Great Britain was a constitutional monarchy at the time, thus, while George wielded real power, he shared that power with Parliament and other components of government. George was King during both The American Revolution and The Napoleonic Wars.

There are many aspects of George’s life and reign worth focusing on. I cannot do any kind of comprehensive assessment within a single blog post. Instead, I will do what I am sometimes known to do and focus on a couple of things that I find interesting. One ironic point, in light of the fascination that so many people have about George’s mental illness, is how stable and balanced he was. He was also principled and ethical in comparison to most royalty of the time. In George’s time when almost all royalty had extramarital affairs, he fell in love with his wife, who he had married as the result of an arraignment, and had no affairs. At a time when so many members of royalty, including sovereigns, were known to gamble and drink to excess, he did no such thing. In a world filled with royalty and monarchs that had volatile tempers, were arrogant and petty he was known to be even tempered, not arrogant and often made an effort to put nervous visitors at ease. At the same he was almost never described as weak. Black writes,

George's personality as a mature man was already clear in some respects when he came to the throne. His sense of propriety, diligence and commitment had been honed by his upbringing. It was to be put under brutal pressure in the maelstrom of politics, and yet the personality that matured was an attractive one. King George was generally good-humoured, and a kindly, gentlemanly, often (but not always) generous, charitable, worrying person.

The above is consistent with other sources that I have read. 

I am not contending that George was perfect or saintly. This book, as well as other sources that I have read does not whitewash George. He was imperfect. For instance, he restricted his daughters’ freedom terribly, even by the standards of the time. He was known to be stubborn to the point where it caused him problems both politically and personally. He also supported some policies involving slavery and discrimination against Catholics that many objected to in his own time. However, he does stand out as a stable person who had a sense of ethics in a sea of bad characters. As for his mental issues, they occupied fairly brief periods during the prime of his reign. Unfortunately, they completely debilitated him during the last ten years of his life. These issues were probably caused by porphyria.

On policy George was something of a moderate conservative. When he took the throne the power of the British monarchy was waning in the face of Parliament and other aspects of constitutional monarchy. He endeavored, somewhat successfully, to strengthen royal powers. He also sought to eliminate waste and inefficiency in government. He made serious mistakes as Britain and America fell headlong into the American Revolution and George presided over the losing side in that conflict. However, he also presided over the Britain’s early wars and opposition to Napoleon with some success and it can be argued that he helped keep Britain stable in the face of worldwide revolution. 

As I mentioned above, this book is somewhat unusually structured. It is only partially chronological. Multiple chapters focus on a specific part of George’s life. For instance, one chapter is dedicated to George’s family and personnel life, another chapter is dedicated to his mental illness. Some of the chapters do cover specific time periods such as the American Revolution and several Napoleonic Wars, however, even these chapters tend to jump around in time. In addition, the author focuses his concentration in unusual directions. He tends to delve into great detail when it comes to British politics but then ignores the big picture. For instance, Catholic Emancipation was an issue that continued to reoccur throughout George’s rule. This controversy arose because discrimination against Catholics was codified into law during George’s time. Many wanted to reduce or remove those discriminatory laws. There were moves within both Parliament and George’s ministries to relax these restrictions. George generally opposed emancipation. In various parts of the book the text goes into minute detail on the political wrangling behind all of this. Yet the underlying issues and history involving Catholics and discrimination aimed at them is skirted and never explored in any kind of comprehensive or satisfying manor. Likewise, unlike many other biographies that I have read, this book is very sparse when it comes to the background detail of people who were connected to George. There is a paucity of information about George’s family and associates. We get a detailed look at their interactions with George, but not much background. This is not to say that the book is not detailed. The work is comprised of 452 dense pages. It is just what Black concentrates on that is different. He is most interested in the workings of government and politics. When it comes to George personal relationships, as mentioned above, the work looks deeply into George’s actions and motivations, but reveals little about others. 

All this adds up to a book that almost presupposes that the reader is already knowledgeable about George and the time and place that he lived in. Black almost seems like it is trying to fill in and discuss details about knowledge that is already known by the reader. Personally, I have read other biographies and details about George’s life. I am also somewhat familiar with other details related to Great Britain and the rest of the world of the time. Thus, I was OK with this approach. However, I would have appreciated if more of this book concentrated on these omitted things. Also, this book would not be the first choice for someone who started off knowing little about George III or his times. In addition, Black’s writing style can also be a little challenging, his sentences are packed with information and sometimes worded awkwardly. 

This was a different kind of biography. I learned a lot from it. The book was well researched, and was interesting. Black appears to be a good and unbiased historian. I am glad that I read this. However, due to its odd attributes I would not recommend this to someone new to the subjects covered. I am still on the lookout for a more conventional and mainstream biography of George III.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Stephen King’s The Shining

Stephen King’s The Shining was a reread for me. I first read this a very long time ago, probably in the late 1980s. I decided to read this book again after many years because I rewatched the film and then saw the movie version of its sequel, Doctor Sleep. I decided to read Doctor Sleep for the first time but I wanted to reread this book first. I was surprised at how much that I liked this novel the second time around. I found this to be an effective combination of horror and character study. This was first published in 1977.

When I blog about a book, I do not usually like to talk about the film version as do not see much value in comparing books and movies. However, the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film is so famous and so many people have seen it that I need to share few thoughts about it here. King did not approve of that movie. While I thought that the film was brilliant, I understand King’s objections. This book, in addition to being a horror story, is also an effective character study. Much of the deep psychological insights that are present in the novel were only hinted at in the film. In particular, most of the complexity of the story’s adult main character, Jack Torrance, was lost. I think that movie version, like most Kubrick films was innovative, effective and is endowed with more positives then I could list here. It was not however, the deeply complex look into a person’s psychology that the novel was. There was a 1997 television miniseries version of the story that King was the executive producer of and that he approved of. I have not seen that version. 

For those who are unfamiliar with the plot, the story revolves around the Torrance family. There is Jack, his wife Wendy, and his son Danny. The Torrances are troubled. Jack is a young writer and teacher who still holds promise, but he has a drinking problem and has an issue with his temper. However, he is not a monster and is a complex mix of good and bad traits. Jack is a masterful creation as he is balanced between positive and negative. His drinking and temper have gotten him into trouble and he has lost a good teaching job as a result. He has let is family down in serious ways and their well - being is in jeopardy because of him. In one incident he inadvertently injured Danny when he was drunk. King gets into his head and he is sometimes, but not always, angry and cynical. He is also intelligent and perceptive. But he is not abusive and his wife and son do not fear him. In fact, he has a strong and warm relationship with Danny and an up and down relationship with Wendy. He has also quit drinking. He is self - aware and is never in denial and recognizes and acknowledges his problems and understands that he must overcome them. He is also wracked with guilt over his past behavior. He is a well - done and interesting mix of traits. 

Danny is not only gifted with intelligence and perception, but he also manifests psychic powers. The boy is able to know things, read minds and see the future. Wendy is intelligent and capable of standing up for Danny and herself. Her character is stronger and more competent then it was in the film.

Jack takes the job of the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in Colorado. The hotel is forty miles from civilization and once the snows begin the Torrances will be completely isolated from civilization. Before the family arrives at The Overlook, Danny begins to have horrendous and bloody visions about the hotel. 

On the last day that the hotel is open, as all the guests and staff are preparing to depart and the Torrances are settling in, the family encounters Dick Hallorann, who is the Overlook’s cook. Hallorann immediately recognizes Danny’s abilities which he also shares. The cook calls this these powers “Shining” based on old folk stories that Hallorann has heard from his grandmother. Hallorann also indicates that The Overlook is haunted and that there are bad forces at play there. He is headed off to Florida for the winter but indicates that if Danny gets into trouble, he may be able to psychically call out for help. 

As the winter sets in and The Overlook is cut off by snow, each of the Torrances begins to see ghosts and manifestations. These phenomena range from visions of past murders that occurred at the hotel to hedge animals that come alive. Both Danny’s psychic abilities and Jack’s character weaknesses stimulate and attract the evil spirits. The ghosts begin to play off Jack’s dark side encouraging him to drink, become angry, resentful and abusive towards his wife and son, and eventually to murder them. As things deteriorate Jack does become murderous, Danny attempts to call Hallorann for help. 

In think that the strongest aspect of this book is the nuanced and complex portrait of Jack. His drinking has been a problem for his family and himself. Jack walked into the Overlook on a knife edge between the positive and the negative, between good and evil. The evil that dwells at the hotel jumps right into Jack’s mind. Jack, who is at least self – aware, realizes, 

everything became clear to him. It was not just Danny the Overlook was working on. It was working on him, too. It wasn’t Danny who was the weak link, it was him. He was the vulnerable one, the one who could be bent and twisted until something snapped.

The dark spirits in the hotel proceed to push Jack over the edge. One wonders how Jack and his family would have made out in life had they never gone to The Overlook. 

As for the book being scary or chilling, King does write a few very effective passages. For instance, when the Torrances wake in the middle of the night, in the completely cut off and isolated hotel and they hear then elevator running,

The illuminated clock on his nightstand said it was five minutes to twelve. The humming sound again. Loud and steady, varying the slightest bit. Followed by a clank as the humming ceased. A rattling bang. A thump. Then the humming resumed. It was the elevator.

There are a lot of chilling and spooky moments in the book, but I found that them to be mostly laid back and moderate. Character takes center stage in this work. With that, the Overlook is a fantastic setting for all of this and the novel has a lot of atmosphere. 

I have always felt that King was not the most original novelist. At least for the books that I have read and films that I have seen that were based upon those books, his plots usually share a commonality with older works. Before this was written there were lots of stories about a person going to a bad place and being unduly influenced by that place. One strong influence here is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, King pays tribute to that other work as it is mentioned in the text. What I think that King does vey well, is to retell these older stories in a very effective way. 

I thought that novel was better than I remembered it. It is a superb character study that evolves into a battle between good and evil inside one person’s head. The setting of the Overlook is also a perfect place to set such a tale. Fans of this type of story who have not read this book will probably get a lot out of it. I should also mention that as the novel nears its end the plot deviates from the 1977 film so those who only know that story can at least expect a different resolution. I think that many non - horror fans might also find this worthwhile. I plan to move on to Doctor Sleep soon.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood. The novel looks into Esther’s life both before and after she experiences symptoms of mental illness. I found this to both an interesting character study as well as what can only be described as a realistic account of a person descending into mental illness. This is a short novel. My edition was only 189 pages long. This was first published in 1963 shortly before Plath’s death. For those who do not know, the tragic connection is that Plath committed suicide shortly after the book was published. Like Plath herself, the novel’s main character suffers from depression and makes several suicide attempts. 

The book is told from Esther’s first - person point of view. This is a semi - autobiographical if not a straight up thinly veiled autobiography. Esther is a young, intelligent and vivacious college student. The book opens with her spending time as an intern for Ladies' Day magazine. Early on, the narrative covers Esther’s social life, dating life and work life. Many of her experiences are comical. Esther wants to be a poet when she is not dreaming of other life paths. Esther is perceptive, witty and sharp and as she doles out personal and social commentary freely. Later on, she starts to descend into mental illness and depression and she undergoes therapy, including shock treatments. The “Bell Jar” refers to the confining and stifling place that Esther feels like she is trapped in due to her depression. 

Even during her mental decline, Esther is perceptive and poetical,

I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.

I think that the above is very lyrical.  The shadows are indicative of Esther’s melancholy tinged view of the world. Here they affect everything in a way that depression does for those afflicted.

In a way this seems like two stories. Before Esther begins to experience symptoms of mental illness the narrative is a bit cynical but upbeat. The entire mood and tone of the book changes with Esther’s condition. It turns darker. 

Esther has a cynical streak in her. She is also determined to retain a sense of independence and resists getting pulled in to marriage that will be limiting to her life. The world that is presented in the book gives Esther some fairly narrow choices as to who she is expected to marry. I understand her hesitancy. There is a sophomoric streak to Esther too. However, I think that this was realistic for a young person who is both intelligent and cynical. Her observations about the world are not exactly profound, but they are intellectually lively and often amusing. 

Here she is commenting upon, what at the time was new film technology,

I hate Technicolor. Everybody in a Technicolor movie seems to feel obliged to wear a lurid costume in each new scene and to stand around like a clotheshorse with a lot of very green trees or very yellow wheat or very blue ocean rolling away for miles and miles in every direction.

Later in the book Esther makes several attempts at suicide, gets institutionalized in a high - class facility and undergoes shock treatment. As Plath was writing from experience here, this part of the book seems very credible. As for Esther’s mental illness there are actually folks online today who try to do psychoanalysis. However, though this may not have been recognized at the time, the kind of issues that Esther has are clearly chemical in terms of brain function and the best treatment, though imperfect, now includes medication for most people. 

The Bell Jar is very famous. Based upon word of mouth and what I read on the internet, I am going to make few generalizations about its popularity. I lot of young people read it and say they like it because they relate to it. It seems more popular with women than men, but a fair number of men love the book too. Of course, not everyone likes the book. Based upon reviews on Amazon and Goodreads it seems that people who do not like the book strongly dislike it. This is the first time that I have read it. 

I thought that this is very much worth the read. We get a peek into a young woman’s mind and opinions that are interesting, lively and funny. The descent into mental illness is worth it if only for the realistic observations. Plath’s tragic death adds poignancy to it all. Though the book might not quite live up to its near cult - like status, it is a worthy character study. Tragically, do to the author's  real life experiences, the later parts of the book gain extra credence. I cannot help to wonder what other works Plath would have created had she lived.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

The War of the End of the World is the first book that I have read by Mario Vargas Llosa. This is a massive and sprawling novel that chronicles the real - life historical conflict known as the The War of Canudos which occurred in the last few years of the Nineteenth Century. The book is filled with interesting and complex characters. The plot is also compelling. The book plays with all sorts of ideas about ideology, fanaticism, violence, gender, religion among other things. My version of the novel was 750 pages long. Both the length and the nature of the story are epic. My translation was by Helen Lane. This seems to be the only English translation available. This was first published in 1981. 

I will summarize the events of the book here, not the real historical events. However, a little internet reading leads me to believe that the book follows fairly closely to the actual history. In the time that this story takes place, a coup against Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II had occurred a few years earlier. A republic under the influence of military interests has been set up. In the back – country, around the town of Canudos, a messianic religious leader known as The Counselor has attracted first hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, of followers. His group has a set of complicated set of beliefs. They are rooted in Catholicism and they are pro – monarchy. They reject many aspects of the modernity like the republic itself and secular marriage. They label the Republicans agents of the anti – Christ. The worship The Counselor as Godlike. Yet the also support a communal ownership of property and other radical beliefs. Even the characters in the book that hold differing belief systems from the rebels are a little befuddled by them. 

The Counselor’s followers are espouse lots of fanatical beliefs. Some of their ideas are shown to be harmful. However, most of the individual members, as is The Counselor himself, are portrayed for the most part sympathetically. Some have been turned away from violence and barbarism by The Counselor. Others have been rescued by him from abject oppression. Their behavior is far from perfect, but most of them act ethically and with humanity. For instance, despite the fact that the mutilate the dead bodies of their enemies, their leadership generally tries to avoid brutality towards living people. 

The Counselor attracts a very diverse group of people. In addition to the poor peasantry, he is joined by many ex - criminals and bandits, many of whom previously practiced savage brutality. When joining The Counselor, they have genuine religious epiphanies and renounce their past deeds. 

Throughout the novel the Brazilian government sends a series of military expeditions to crush The Counselor's group. The first three expeditions are thoroughly routed by the increasing militarized and competent forces of The Counselor, who set up a base and established control of Canudos. Even an enormous fourth military expedition meets skilled and fierce resistance. 

It is a difficult to write about the characters in this book because of their large number. The narrative also often goes into their backstories. There are too many of them to thoroughly cover in single blog post. The book focuses upon the Counselor’s followers, the military, politicians and landowners who are trying to navigate between the two sides, and neutral peasants. I will try to talk about just some of the more important individuals here.

There is a reporter who is only known as the nearsighted journalist. This man starts off covering the third military expedition but eventually finds himself in Canudos after the government’s defeat. 

The Baron de Canabrava is a local land owner. He is also conservative and anti – Republican like the rebels. However, he eventually finds himself in conflict with them and they eventually burn his estate. 

The Dwarf is a is a member of a traveling circus. Though his body is deformed, he shows empathy and humanity to others and is capable of establishing strong bonds with people. 

Galileo Gall is a Scottish anarchist, and an atheist who despite the fact that he has many conflicting beliefs, wants to assist the rebels. 

Jurema is a young woman who is raped by Gall who ends up helping the nearsighted journalist to survive. Throughout much of the book she is pursued by her husband who wants to murder her. 

Colonel Moreira César is a cruel general from the Brazilian republic who generality believes in a militarized form of Republicanism. He is known for acts of brutality against civilians and prisoners. This officer was real historical character. 

Rufino is Jurema’s husband. When Jurema runs off with Gall, he begins searching for the pair and becomes obsessed with killing them both. 

One common theme here seems to be that people become obsessed with causes, both personal and public, to the detriment of society and of themselves. The Counselor’s followers, though often portrayed sympathetically are zealots. Supporters of the government, such as Colonel Moreira Césarare true believers and are not hypocrites, but they are brutal as they murder and torture civilians and prisoners. Rufino’s quest for retribution descends into violent madness and leads to personal catastrophe. One of the most virtuous characters is Jurema. She  is fairly simple and avoids ideology. She also cares and sacrifices for others and shows empathy. A connection forms between Jurema, the nearsighted journalist and the Dwarf may be the most important connection in the book. These three characters are more or less untainted by ideology and do not follow causes, 

At one point the nearsighted journalist thinks about his relationship to Jurema and the Dwarf, 

How was it possible for him to feel such a great affinity, such boundless love for those two beings with whom he had nothing in common, whose social background, education, sensibility, experience, culture were in fact altogether different from his? What they had been through together for all these months had forged this bond between them, the fact that without ever imagining such a thing, without deliberately seeking it, without knowing how or why, through the sort of strange, fantastic concatenation of cause and effect, of chance, accident, and coincidence that constitute history, the three of them had been catapulted together into the midst of these extraordinary events, into this life at the brink of death. That was what had created this tie between them. “I’m never going to be separated from them again,”

There is a lot to the above quotation. I think that mention of differences between the individuals, as well as their chance connection is important. In the end, what is most important is the shared experience leading to love. 

I think about Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes where the ideology of all sides was shown to be poisonous and where genuine human compassion, charity and empathy was held up in high regard as being preferable to politics. In that way I think that in this way these two books are related. 

As mentioned above, the book describes monstrous brutality including murder, rape and sexual slavery. I found some of this disturbing. The narrative also includes descriptions of empathy as well as great acts of redemption. Sometimes the brutality is tied to the redemption as the former perpetrators of atrocities are changed and sometimes even come to terms with their former victims. Redemption is an important theme here and is connected with certain Christian beliefs in the narrative. 

Though I did not know anything about the conflict before, from the little I read online about the real War of Canudos, Llosa seems to have maintained a lot of historical accuracy here. It appears that much of the political and military maneuvering here is conveyed as it happened. I am a little uncomfortable with historical fiction that mirrors real life events. I am a stickler for history being portrayed as accurately and as objectively as possible and I think that novels are not the best way for this to happen. As historical documents, novels and history do not mix well and I always worry that people will try to learn history from fiction. In the end I am fine with these books as long as they are considered fiction and not history. I may eventually read a non – fiction account of this conflict.

I have only scratched the barest part of the surface of this book in terms of characters, relationships, ideas and even the plot. There is so much going on here. I really just mentioned a few points that I have found particularly interesting. 

This is an extraordinary and epic novel. It is complex. It is full of interesting characters. It has an engaging plot. It seems to have a lot to say about the world. Almost any reader is likely to find all sorts of things to think about  within its pages. This is the first time that I have read Llosa. I do not know what his other books are like but I will surely give them a try. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer

Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer is one of several novels that I have read over the past few years that center around fictional matriarchies. I had heard about this book and decided to read it as I find the concept behind these stories interesting. I also find it worthwhile to compare the different worlds that these various writers have created. One thing that I find intriguing about these books is that they allow authors to explore issues around gender and culture in unique ways. This was written in 2005. 

I found this novel to be a very good depiction of an alternate world. It had an engaging plot. It has interesting and occasionally complex characters. I disagree with one the book’s primarily underlying themes, which is based on what many are calling blank slatism. However, it is all presented in a thoughtful way. I am OK if an author has ideas that I disagree with. In general, I do not think that this mars a novel unless the ideas are presented in too heavy handed a way or if they are presented unfairly. 

The book seems to take place in an alternate reality Earth. Technological progress appears  to be on the level if the late Eighteenth Century. Most governments are monarchies. Governments have precarious control of the countryside as bandits and rebels are common. The key difference from our world is that female births outnumber male births by about ten to one. Thus, families try to have a lot of children in order to produce some males. Family structures are completely different from our world. Each man is married to a family of multiple sisters.  Usually a lot of sisters as families are large. When a boy comes of age, he is traded or sold by his family,  to another family in exchange for another man who will be a husband to the family trading a brother. Men have almost no legal rights. The world is complex however. Some men have a say on who they will marry and some do not. Some men are treated as near slaves, others treated as inferiors in a benign way, others are treated with reverence and have positions of power within families. 

The protagonist of the book is Jerin Whistler. His family is descended of heroic military women and still maintains martial qualities. They are mostly ethical women and Jerin is often treated as a near equal. However, economics and politics between families are complex and he fears that he will be traded to a family that he considers low class and who are violent. 

There is a dramatic change of events when the Whistlers rescue and shelter a member of the royal family being pursued by rebels. As the royal family and the Whistlers begin to mix, Jerin and royal family member Princess Ren begin to fall in love. Much of the balance of the novel involves the maneuverings of Princess Ren to arrange a marriage with Jerin  over some social objections, and the kidnapping of Jerin by a rebel family who want to forcibly marry him for political reasons. There is also a missing royal sister as well as some past crimes of a  deceased royal husband dredged up. It eventually all ties together. The plot is actually very engaging. 

The strength of this novel lies in its world building. Spencer has fashioned a detailed and complex society here.  Her universe is full of shades of grey. As mentioned above, the status of the men in the book is complicated. Many of the women characters, particularly the Whistlers and the royal sisters want to treat Jaren fairly, but sometimes political, social and economic concerns put them in positions where that is difficult or impossible. Some men, who are disadvantaged by the society’s structure, find ways to thrive and even exploit women. I think that this is a realistic refection of out real world with some of the social conventions flipped over. The author put a lot of thought around how the different standards of society might be turned around.  

At one point the royal sisters along with the Whistler sisters are confronted by the body of a raped and murdered man. They react with much more revulsion and then they react to dead women, 

They’ve killed a man.” It was not enough warning. Ren gagged at what they showed her. Arms tied  behind his back, his trousers down around his ankles to expose scrawny hairy legs, paunchy stomach—no dignity afforded him in death... Blood had clotted on his face and nose, had pooled in his eyes, and his ears…Her women had uncovered the grave, and they stood silent, staring at the body. The younger Whistlers hung back, their fierceness stripped by their shock, unable to even look at the man. Her eyes furious, Eldest knelt beside the corpse and covered his nakedness with her coat. Ren didn’t want to look at the body, even with it decently covered.

In the real world, this is reflective of how people will sometimes react more strongly and differently when atrocities are perpetuated against women. I should mention that most of the novel is not  this grim.  While the book contains some violence and brutality, it is mostly a mix of world building, adventure,  social commentary and romance. 

I mentioned that an underling theme of the book seems to be blank slatist. When it comes to gender, this view is that there is no difference in the behavior of large groups of men verses the behavior of large groups of women that is not caused by culture.  

In this book the women are much more violent then the men. Many women are sexually aggressive. A significant minority of women act like sexual predators who exploit and harass men sexually. The men tend to be coy and generally want to save themselves by avoiding sexual relations before marriage. Women tend to dress plainly where the men adorn themselves elaborately. 

I think that when it comes to many of these role reversals, while presented in an interesting way that the author thought about, the author gets some things wrong.  Evolutionary psychology, as well as the fact that certain differences between the genders manifest themselves universally across cultures and time, indicate that there are biological differences at the root of some of these behavior in the real world. Thus, it seems implausible that women would be so sexually aggressive while men behaved so modestly in this world. The same is true of violence. There are many good sources for this. I would point folks to books such as Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which I wrote about here, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which I wrote about here, Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox, which I wrote about here or Steve Stewart-Williams's, The Ape that Understood the Universe, which I wrote about  here. This is not to say that biology and genes are everything. If there was a situation where women outnumbered male births ten to one, then there would be some general differences in behavior, but I do not think that they would manifest themselves as a complete flipping of gender roles. 

I always feel that I must mention, that just because there is a biological difference in the behavior of large groups of men verses the behavior of large groups of women, this says nothing about individuals. The differences only manifest themselves in averages when large groups are compared. Some women are violent. Most men are not violent. Some women are promiscuous. This is all similar to the general tendency for men to be taller than women on average.  Regardless of that fact, some women are tall, some men are short. We cannot say anything about individuals.  Historically, some have used these average differences have been used as an excuse for sexism. Serotyping individuals is illogical and unethical.

I thought that this was a very good book. It is the sort of world building science fiction that relies upon playing with social conventions. It does that well. The characters are not super complex but they show some nuance and are interesting. Jerin is particularly well done. The plot kept my interest. The universe that is created here is very well crafted. My quibbles about blank slatism  did not distract from the book for me.  I recommend this one to fans of social science fiction as well as people who like fiction about gender. 

Other posts about fictional matriarchies.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad

Under Western Eyes is Joseph Conrad’s Russian novel. I found this to be another brilliant Conrad effort. As is typical of Conrad, this book is filled with complex characters, prose and themes. This work was known to be written as a response to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Conrad’s novel has some similar plot devices and characters. This book’s protagonist, Kyrilo Razumov even has a similar name to Dostoyevsky’s Rodion Raskolnikov. Among several objections, Conrad apparently beloved that Dostoyevsky was too sympathetic to the Russian State and Russian autocracy. However, like the Dostoyevsky book, this work is a scathing indictment of radicalism and revolutionaries. 

This novel, like many of Conrad’s works, is narrated by a narrator who interprets and tells the story. The narrator is an English teacher of languages who filters the story through “Western eyes” by reading and interpreting the protagonist’s diary. Thus, there is a lot here about the differences between Russian and Western European political systems, thinking and philosophy. 

Razumov is a young student living and studying in St. Petersburg. He is intelligent but unlike Dostoyevsky’s main character, he seems destined for a bright future and does not harbor radical ideas. Early in the story his views on politics are more or less neutral. Razumov is a good listener and sometimes does not talk much. He tends to elicit the trust of those around him. Sometimes people mistake his way of interacting for sympathy for their own causes when in actuality he is neutral or hostile towards them. 

Razumov’s life is turned upside down when Victor Haldin, a young revolutionary, who has just assassinated a brutal government official, lands in Razumov’s room asking for help. Haldin mistakenly believes that Razumov is sympathetic to his cause. Razumov is beside himself and fears that he will be drawn into revolutionary activities. He secretly turns Haldin in to the authorities. The young revolutionary is quickly executed. The government is happy with Razumov’s actions and Haldin’s fellow revolutionaries erroneously believe that Razumov is on their side and helped in the assassination. The autocratic authorities decide to use Razumov as an agent to infiltrate the revolutionaries since the radicals trust him. They send the protagonist to Switzerland to spy on the community of Russian exiles there. The revolutionary exiles are capable of murder so Razumov is aware that he must carry on the deception in order to survive. All this time he is morally conflicted as to who or what he supports. 

In Switzerland Razumov meets various characters who he interacts with through the remainder of the book. Peter Ivanovitch is an older revolutionary who is famous and held in awe by the revolutionaries but also hypocritical and cruel. Tekla is a young woman who has joined the revolutionaries but who is abused by them. The hypocrisy of the movement is illustrated as the person who mistreats her the most is Peter Ivanovitch who is known to be great “feminist”. There are other revolutionaries of varying morality hanging about the story. 

Razumov also meets Natalia Haldin. She is the sister of Haldin. She is thoughtful and ethical. She has strong ideas which include are integrated with her tendency to be kind and charitable. Mrs. Haldin, who is Nalalia's and Haldin's  mother, is also present. Throughout the story she becomes further and further consumed with grief over her son's execution. 

Throughout the narrative the protaginist navigates between these various characters while trying to conceal the fact that he is actually working for the Russian government. He finds himself falling in love with Natalia who reciprocates the feeling. He begins to slide deeper and deeper into cynicism as he begins to understand the moral vacuity of both the government and the rebels. He also has difficulty coming to terms with the guilt that he feels for betraying Haldin. 

The connection with Crime and Punishment, which I also recently read, is interesting. For his part, though Conrad wrote in English and is considered an English writer, he was born in the Ukraine of Polish nobility. His family had connections with the Polish revolutionaries and ran afoul of Russian authorities. Obviously, this background influenced Conrad and this work. Though Conrad wrote this book as a supposed argument with the Russian novel, both books are biting indictments of radicalism. One way that Under Western Eyes differs, is that this work is also an attack on Russian autocracy. The sympathetic characters in this novel, seem to be caught between the two malicious systems.

The plot, characters and ideas that this book explores are, like other Conrad novels that I have read, complex. But its center, this is essentially a tale of of bad forces in conflict with good people caught in the middle.  Most of Conrad’s writing has a streak of cynicism in it. Here is savagely cynical towards both the autocratic Russian Government as well as toward the revolutionaries. Principled and humane people are stuck between the two. At one point the narrator thinks about Natalia, 

There was almost all her youth before her; a youth robbed arbitrarily of its natural lightness and joy, overshadowed by an un-European despotism; a terribly sombre youth given over to the hazards of a furious strife between equally ferocious antagonisms. 

Conrad does finds morality and good in the world. Here, virtue is found in the characters of both Natalia and Tekla, both are characterized as loyal, compassionate and self - sacrificing. Both are among several characters who have been hurt by the amorality practiced by both sides. The toll that malevolent politics has wrought upon Natalia and her mother, Mrs. Haldin, is spelled out, At the same time the young woman’s compassion shines through, 

Away from the lamp, in the deeper dusk of the distant end, the profile of Mrs. Haldin, her hands, her whole figure had the stillness of a sombre painting. Miss Haldin stopped, and pointed mournfully at the tragic immobility of her mother, who seemed to watch a beloved head lying in her lap. That gesture had an unequalled force of expression, so far-reaching in its human distress that one could not believe that it pointed out merely the ruthless working of political institutions. 

Razumov is a very complex character who is often unlikeable. In the end Razumov, though headed for material calamity, he finds moral redemption when he chooses to be honest with himself and with others. Thus, rising above the conflict between these forces. 

Like other Conrad works, the book is filled with long complex sentences. The characters often engage each other in long, meditative and philosophical discussions over life, morality, gender, politics and all sorts of other stuff.  This novel is full of ideas.

In regards to the Dostoyevsky connection, one does not need to read Crime and Punishment before reading this novel. However, being familiar with the Russian book made the this more rewarding for me. 

I have read multiple Conrad novels now. I have come to appreciate him as a writer. This book, like almost everything else that I have read by him, is filled with interesting and complex characters and ideas. The plot of tis also engaging. The novel also has the added interest of having some connection with the ideas and works of Dostoyevsky. Evan aside from that, this is just a great classic book.