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.