Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This post contains spoilers.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's fantastical tale of a man who stops aging. This famous novel is a philosophical and character-driven narrative.

Dorian is a young man who is described over and over again as beautiful and youthful looking.  He is also charismatic.   Basil Hallward is his artist friend who becomes obsessed with him. The artist creates a magnificent portrait of Dorian. Over the course of the book, as Dorian descends into immorality and malevolence, the portrait begins to slowly change as it manifests ugliness in Dorian’s image. Likewise, Dorian stops aging as the portrait takes on the toll of his passing years.

Lord Henry Wotton, another friend of Dorian and Basil, is a key to this story. Much of the book is filled with Henry’s observations on life and his philosophizing. Henry is a cynic. He rejects conventional morality. He values experience for experience’s sake and advocates for the seeking of sensation and pleasure, regardless of ethics or any consideration of others.

Early in the story, Dorian is portrayed as innocent and na├»ve. As the narrative proceeds, Henry begins to corrupt him. When the two first meet, they are in an idyllic garden. I do not think that I am stretching it to suggest that there may be an analogy a between this meeting and the Serpent’s encounter with Eve in The Garden of Eden.

At one point, Henry muses,

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”

Henry’s belief system is a key component to this story. His philosophy seems to be a sort of twisted form of Romanticism. He believes that one can only live through experience and feeling. He rejects the intellect at several points. He champions the seeking of experiences without regard to morals, however. At times he revels in experiences that involve great cruelty to others. When Sibyl Vane, a young woman engaged to Dorian, commits suicide as a result of Dorian’s cruelties, Henry only sees the great drama in her death.

He observes,

“There is something to me quite beautiful about her death. I am glad I am living in a century when such wonders happen. They make one believe in the reality of the things we all play with, such as romance, passion, and love." 

Henry’s musings, ghastly as they are, take all sorts of turns as he relates them to art, literature, philosophy, etc. Both his pontificating and the words and actions of other characters allow Wilde to explore many facets of art, aesthetics and morality, as well as other topics. In contrast, Basil, who becomes highly critical of Dorian’s descent into wickedness, provides a morally based counterpoint to all this.

Wilde was accused of a lack of morals upon the publication of this book. In his preface that was included in later editions of the book, Wilde even famously wrote

"there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book"

However, it seems clear that this book is a scathing indictment of the moral vacuity that Henry preaches and that Dorian practices. In the above quotation, I think that Wilde was defending the need for an author to portray pernicious behavior and to ask questions about the nature of morality. This fits in with the revolting way that Henry and Dorian are portrayed. Dorian’s depravity, violence, drug use, corruption of others, etc. is described in a series of ugly passages. Furthermore, Dorian is punished in the end.

There are a lot of aspects to this book that I have not touched on above. There are all sorts of themes at play. The character of Dorian is fascinating, and I could write a lot about him. The story is interesting. The writing and descriptions are often dark but brilliant.

Thus, this book is a philosophical feast for readers so inclined. It also has much else to recommend it. I highly recommend it for those who like philosophical tales, fantastic tales and nineteenth century English literature.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Relatability of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

I read the Joachim Neugrochel translation of this work.

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis was published in 1915. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young salesman who one morning wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into a monstrous, bug-like creature. The balance of the tale concerns itself with the way in which Gregor and his family cope with the metamorphosis.

There is something about this story that fascinates people. I find that people both in real life and online tend to become very interested when this tale is mentioned.  Many folks who have not read it seem to be familiar with it. There are so many popular culture references to this tale ranging from MTV shorts to Mel Brooks movies to serious musical compositions. There are many film versions out there.

Why is this strange and quirky yarn so famous? Why does it seem to fascinate so many people? I think that there is something in this story that many people find very relatable.

This is a narrative of a person facing inescapable and absolute horror; responding to it as best he can in stoic way. Gregor is living a nightmare beyond compare, yet he does not respond to it as such.  He has been transformed into something that elicits disgust. There is no escape from it. Making matters worse, his family, the only people that he can count on, begin to show hostility towards him and begin to neglect him. All this time, Gregor is inwardly calm, as he tries his best to deal with the situation.

At one point, he tries to contend with an itch and experiences something that might drive someone else to madness,

"Feeling a slight itch on his belly, he slowly squirmed along on his back toward the bedpost in order to raise his head more easily. Upon locating the itchy place, which was dotted with lots of tiny white specks that he could not fathom, he tried to touch the area with one of his legs, but promptly withdrew it, for the contact sent icy shudders through his body. He slipped back into his former position."

As the above passage illustrates, instead of succumbing to insanity, Gregor just continues on and tries to cope the best he can. He always remains calm. When his family begins to turn on him, he does not react with outrage or even despair. This is despite the fact that in the past he made great sacrifices for them.

I think many people can relate to Gregor’s predicament. Life is full of horrors and injustices. War, genocide, famine and poverty are very real horrors that affect so many people. Even those who are shielded from such misery must cope with things like the death of loved ones, pain, disease, petty injustices meted out by those around them, as well as many other ills.  Most people accept these things with relative calmness and try to go on. As is the case with this story, observing what other people endure sometimes makes us scratch our heads in wonder that others can accept such things. Even those who spend their time fighting wrongs, and stranding up for themselves make compromises. Even the most fractious of us pick our battle and end up accepting many of the world’s evils. In a way, there is a little Gregor is many of us.

There are many reasons, other than those highlighted above, that people are drawn to The Metamorphosis. This is a fascinating story filled with intriguing characters. It is full of meaning and symbolism that is open to varying interpretations. Even in translation Kafka’s prose style is quirky, creative and interesting to read. In addition to all this, I think that many people find something to relate to in its pages.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope

This post contains spoilers.

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope is the fourth novel in the Palliser Series. The book can be properly called a direct sequel to Trollope’s Phineas Finn. It can be read separately from the other Palliser books, but I would only recommend doing so after reading Phineas Finn, as the plot almost presupposes that the reader is already acquainted with the earlier book’s major characters and events. 

The last we heard about Phineas was that he had left English politics, married and settled down in Dublin. As this story begins, Phineas’s wife has died and he is being urged to reenter politics by his friends and former colleagues. Phineas returns the world of politics and begins to associate with his old friends and acquaintances. Lady Laura, one of the most interesting characters from Phineas Finn, is back and plays a major role in this story. Lady Glencora and Plantagenet Palliser (Planty Pall) from earlier books play a major part in this novel. Lizzy Eustace, the colorful main character from The Eustace Diamonds also plays a minor role here.

As the plot progresses, multiple threads involving multiple characters slowly unfold. The primary plot concerns itself with the false accusation and trial of Phineas for the murder of a political rival. The narrative also involves Lady Laura, whose husband dies mid - plot, and Madame Max Goesler, both vying for Phineas’s affections. The fact that there is a love triangle involving two women and man seems fairly unusual for Trollope and for Victorian literature in general. Because both women, while flawed, are essential noble and decent, the book ends on a very bittersweet note as one inevitably has her heart broken. 

Like Phineas Finn, this novel is also packed with political philosophy. There are pages and pages of politics and political machinations contained in this work. Elections, government meetings, Parliamentary debates, etc. are all described in great detail. Some readers, even those interested in politics, such as myself, may become a little bored with this. 

The political and legal philosophy within this book and its predecessors is complex and multifaceted. There are many subthemes explored. Trollope’s general view of both politics and the law is worth noting. He paints the picture of a world filled with corruption, unfairness and nonsensicalness. The political and legal professions are skewered.

At one point Phineas’s attorney is talking about how he plans to get Phineas acquitted. Even though the young man is truly innocent, it is not facts that are going to save him. Instead we are told, 

“Juries are always unwilling to hang…. They are peculiarly averse to hanging a gentleman, and will hardly be induced to hang a member of Parliament. Then Mr. Finn is very good-looking, and has been popular”

Later, Phineas describes how he has become disenchanted with the English Parliament,

“I doubt whether patriotism can stand the wear and tear and temptation of the front benches in the House of Commons. Men are flying at each other's throats, thrusting and parrying, making false accusations and defences equally false, lying and slandering,— sometimes picking and stealing,— till they themselves become unaware of the magnificence of their own position, and forget that they are expected to be great. Little tricks of sword-play engage all their skill. And the consequence is that there is no reverence now for any man in the House”

I find it interesting that the above quotation can be applied to so many twenty-first century democracies. This novel is full of examples of the above, all relating to politics and the legal profession.

However, Trollope is not a hopeless cynic. What shines through within both systems is the work of a few good individuals who are ethical, selfless and competent and who keep the world on the right track. Phineas, who is honest, principled and hard working is one of those individuals. 

Plantagenet Palliser, who is present in all of the books in this series, is another example. Though stiff, outwardly repressed and overly serious, at various points in the series, he shows that when it comes down to it, he is a person of decency and substance. In Can You Forgive Her? he showed humanity, love and made a great sacrifice for his wife when everyone least expected it.  In this book, he is shown to be honest, hard working, competent and willing to sacrifice for his country. When his uncle dies, he is to be elevated and will become the Duke of Omnium. However, this means that he must give up his vital, technocratic position as Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he believes he is doing great service to his country, 

"To him his uncle's death would be a great blow, as in his eyes to be Chancellor of the Exchequer was much more than to be Duke of Omnium, Planty Pall had  come to the throne, and half a county was ready to worship him. But he did not know how to endure worship, and the half county declared that he was stern and proud, and more haughty even than his uncle. At every "Grace" that was flung at him he winced and was miserable, and declared to himself that he should never become accustomed to his new life. So he sat all alone, and meditated how he might best reconcile the forty-eight farthings which go to a shilling with that thorough-going useful decimal, fifty." [The numerical references are an allusion a major financial project that he was spearheading]

Later, Mr. Chaffanbrass, another one of Phineas’s lawyers, expresses his dedication to the legal profession and his belief that everyone deserves an attorney, regardless of guilt or innocence. Furthermore, he begins to show real admiration for Phineas’s integrity. He comments, 

"I never did,— and I never will,— express an opinion of my own as to the guilt or innocence of a client till after the trial is over. But I have sometimes felt as though I would give the blood out of my veins to save a man. I never felt in that way more strongly than I do now.”

By showing decent and honest people working for the betterment of their country, society and individuals in a world of corruption, Trollope seems to be showing how he views the world. He is always a realistic writer. Here he realistically shows both the good and the bad. 

All of this fits in with Phineas’s emotional state. After he is acquitted of murder, he falls into despondency and depression. The hypocrisy and falseness inherent in so many of his fellow politicians and civil servants has dragged him down. However, by the end of the book, he tries to do what is right and stand on principle. 

The above points are only a small part of makes this book worthwhile. Like most Trollope novels, there is a lot going on in this book. It is a fascinating exploration of multiple complex characters and their interactions. It is full of both big and little insights about life. It is an entertaining story. I recommend that folks who have at least read Phineas Finn to read this book. It is a fine entry in the Palliser Series. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


Audiobooks are a controversial for some readers. The issue of comprehension is a oft cited reason for many serious readers to shun them. It is a fair question to ask. Is listening to an audiobook really reading?

I do listen to audiobooks. My number one priority when listening to them is to ensure that my comprehension and understanding is equivalent to my reading of physical books. To accomplish this goal I follow a set of rules when I read them. By sticking to these rules I have been successful. Thus, while perhaps not technically correct, I tend to use the terms “listen” and “read” when it comes to audiobooks interchangeably.

First, I only listen to audiobooks if I also have access to the written text. This allows me to go back and review in passages if I deem it necessary to do so. This also allows me to use quotations for my blog. This usually means that I either read books that are in the public domain, so that I can download a free copy on the Internet or I already own a copy of the book.

Second, I only listen to audiobooks when engaged in activity that does not require concentration. I run and use exercise machines a lot. Audiobooks are ideal listening when engaged in this type of activity. I do not listen to audiobooks when involved in activity like driving where my concentration is needed elsewhere. Listening to audiobooks only during repetitive exercise also allows me to rewind if I lose concentration or if I want to hear a passage again. The newest software for audiobooks also allows me to easily “bookmark” a place in the text if I want to go back to it for further examination. This is another feature that assists my blogging endeavors. 

There are many types of books that may not lend themselves to audiobooks, writers of difficult prose, philosophy, history books where map aides are helpful to name few.  I do not think that I would try to read Plato’s dialogues as audiobooks. Stream of consciousness and other forms of post – modern writing seem to not be conducive to this form of reading either, at least upon the first reading. Though I have not done so myself, I have been told that works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, which rely on stream of consciousness, word games, heavily accented dialog, etc. work very well, and are in fact enhanced, in spoken format. With that, I would not want to tackle such a work for the first time in audiobook form. However, I am intrigued by the idea of trying Ulysses or a similar work in a second or third reading in audiobook form. Thus, I may do so in the future.

By sticking to these rules. I believe that I lose nothing in terms of reading comprehension when listening to books. When I think back to books that I have listened to in the past, sometimes I have difficulty recalling whether or I listened or actually read the book. Sometimes I even think that because I prioritize comprehension, I think that my comprehension might be higher with audiobooks.

All the above rules lead me to read a lot of Victorian Authors via audiobook. They tend to be easy to comprehend, and all are available to download text in the public domain. I read a lot Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and similar authors this way. I find it interesting that Dickens spent a great deal of time reading his own works aloud and was an advocate of having his text listened to.  Some have speculated that he tailored his prose specifically to be read aloud.

I tend not to reveal in my commentary whether the book was via audiobook or not  as I feel that my comprehension of audiobooks has been just as good as the conventional form. When I blog, I think that a side discussion on the format might distract from the book itself.

Not everyone has the opportunity that I do to “carefully” listen to audiobooks. The fact that I run and use gym machines on a regular basis facilitates my ability to do so. But for me, audiobooks have worked. I have maintained a high level of quality reading when listening. They help fill my exercise time and even help keep me motivated.  I also am able to read more because the fact that I have utilized exercise time in this way. Audiobooks have worked well for me.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke is a reread for me. First published in 1973 this  novel is considered a classic work of hard science fiction. Though flawed, this book is one of the most plausible science fiction novels about first contact with an alien civilization ever written.

Clarke’s vision is set in the 2130s when humanity has moved out into the solar system. Various planets and moons are colonized. Travel between various objects in the solar system takes often takes months and is accomplished in sub – light speed spaceships.   The universe that Clarke has set up is believable and is based on real scientific and technological principles.

A fast moving object, first believed to be a large asteroid, is detected moving though that solar system. Astronomers name the object Rama. Robotic probes soon discover that Rama is no asteroid, but is instead a fifty - mile long cylindrical object that was obviously constructed by an alien civilization.

Due to the fact that Rama is moving so quickly and will soon exit the solar system, only one ship, The Endeavor, Commanded by Bill Norton is able to make a rendezvous. The narrative involves Norton and his crew’s exploration of the enormous interior of Rama. The explorers find that Rama is filled of strange and intriguing phenomena and creatures. 

There is no violence, little romantic interaction, and minimal action to this story. There is some suspense as the crew finds itself in various dangerous situations that develop both inside  and outside of Rama. Despite the minimal drama, as a chronicle of exploration and wonders, this book is a minor masterpiece. There is something to be said about this novel’s simplicity.

This book’s strength lies in its extremely realistic vision of future space travel, as well as a first contact with an alien civilization. Clarke’s universe, where humans have colonized the Solar System is scientifically literate, technically accurate and credible. First contacts with alien type of stories are by definition extremely speculative. Yet these events are presented in a believable way here. Silliness or cringe worthy passages that are so typical in this genre are absent from this book. This work, alongside Carl Sagan’s Contact, are the best fictional accounts of first contact that I have read.

This novel is extremely imaginative and describes a place filled with wonders. It is a mirror to the unrealistic as well as the post – modernist science fiction and fantasy that is fairly popular these days.  I am not criticizing those less realistic forms of storytelling, however I think realistic stories are also important and worthy. Furthermore, unlike so much unrealistic speculative fiction, the characters in this book act intelligently, and are scientifically and technically literate.

At one point, Norton encounters an alien creature,

"Ten meters away was a slender-legged tripod surmounted by a spherical body no larger than a soccer ball. Set around the body were three large, expressionless eyes, apparently giving 360 degrees of vision, and trailing beneath it were three whiplike tendrils. The creature was not quite as tall as a man and looked far too fragile to be dangerous. .... It reminded Norton of nothing so much as a three-legged spider or daddy longlegs, and he wondered how it had solved the problem— never attempted by any creature on Earth— of tripedal locomotion." 

Norton’s speculations about tripod’s biology emphasize the scientific thinking that characterizes the book.

Though written over forty years ago, in terms basics of science and technology, this book has held up amazingly well. Of course Clarke missed some things, such as the utility and ubiquity of mobile devices. However, much of the universe that the author created here still stands up to scrutiny.

This novel is not without flaws however. The characters are terribly underdeveloped. What is particularly frustrating is that as the backgrounds of the characters are presented, many of their attributes and relationships are fascinating and beg for further development. When characters are introduced the reader is given tantalizing details about them that never appear again. For instance, as the backgrounds of several characters are described, it is revealed that polygamous marriages for both sexes have become common. Several of the characters are initially described as being in such relationships along with some interesting twists. Unfortunately Clarke fails to develop these narrative threads.

We often hear that such lack of character development is characteristic of science fiction of this era. However, I would point to many other books and television series, such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, to name just a few science fiction books written around this time, that included interesting and sometimes complex characters.

There is also a common idea found in online reviews of this book, that the stripped down characters are part of this novel’s strength. The reasoning is that the spare character development allowed Clarke to create a lean story focused upon the wonders of discovery. I concede that there may be some truth to this assertion. However, Clarke sets up such interesting scenarios that it is shame he does not develop them.

This book can be categorized as optimistic science fiction. Clarke’s future is one where humanity has survived and thrived. Though common at the time that this book was written, such stories of bright futures are a bit out of fashion these days. Dark visions of humankind’s future, while always popular to some extent, seem to be much more popular as of late.  Once again, I am not knocking these pessimistic stories; humankind is facing threats that may be fatal to our civilization. Fiction is inevitably grappling with those dangers. Yet the possibility of a bright future where humankind “makes it”, is in my opinion, still a very real possibility.  However, my speculations on these matters are for another blog post.

I should note that there exist sequels to this book. They were written years after the original and involved other authors collaborating with Clarke. I have not read any of them. The reviews for these books are generally negative.

Though flawed and lacking in some ways, this work is a fantastic story of exploration. It reflects one of the best speculations about what an encounter with an alien civilization will be like. In its depiction of this encounter, Clarke has a lot to say about the Universe, Human Beings, our history and our civilization. For folks who enjoy such stories and  speculations, this book is highly recommended.