Classics

This category/page will include my thoughts and “reviews” for books that have already been declared excellent. I will include things from the Classical Period, all the way to the Modern Classics. I also consider all “Nobel Prize Winners” to be classics. I am treating this page as my reading journal.

The Collector by John Fowles

18892522The Collector by John Fowles is about a man named Frederick Clegg, a lonesome person who recently wins the lottery. He is socially strange, and loves to collect butterflies. He develops an obsession for a young, blonde, beautiful, 20 year-old art student named Miranda. After he stalks her for a while, he decides to buy a cottage in the middle of nowhere preparing everything for her ‘arrival.’ One day he chlorophorms her and actually carries out his fantasy, keeping her a prisoner.

It’s easy to compare this with Lolita, which I will hold off on because I will write a proper analysis comparing Clegg to Humbert, Jean-Baptise Grenouille from Suskind’s Perfume, and to the main character in John Burnside’s The Dumb House. There is a thread running through these works, worthy of a closer look. This novel also made me think that this is what Beauty and the Beast would really look like in real life (perhaps another topic altogether).

Clegg is somewhat scarier than the other men in the novels mentioned above because he doesn’t have sex with his prisoner. In fact, he finds sex dirty, unnecessary, and dishonorable. I know this sounds like a strange thing to say, but I kept thinking of the Oscar Wilde line “everything in this world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” That in itself makes The Collector more perverse.

The interactions between Frederick and Miranda are absolutely chilling. She says to him

“you’ve gone to a lot of trouble…I’m your prisoner, but you want me to be a happy prisoner.”

Later on, she brings up the topic again:

“’There must be something you want to do with me.’ ‘I just want to be with you. All the time.’ ‘In bed?’ ‘I’ve told you no. …I don’t allow myself to think of what I know is wrong, I said. I don’t consider it nice.’”

She tries to sleep with him out of desperation, hoping he would let her go afterwards but he refuses her. One of the many times she tries to escape, he chlorophorms her and carries her upstairs. He writes:

“She looked a sight, the dress all off one shoulder. I don’t know what it was, it got me excited, it gave me ideas, seeing her lying there right out. It was like I’d showed who was really the master…I took off her dress…she looked a real picture…It was my chance I had been waiting for. I got the old camera and took some photos…The photographs, I used to look at them sometimes. I could take my time with them. They didn’t talk back at me.”

The next day he pats himself on the back, congratulating himself for not raping her, as any other man would (according to him). As much as Frederick is disgusted by sexual conduct, he’s very much immersed in it. Miranda tries to show him that being a scientist, and a collector of beautiful things isn’t as honourable as being an artist who dwells in the vices.

“You hoard up all the beauty in these drawers… Do you know that every great thing in the history of art and every beautiful thing in life is actually what you call nasty or has been caused by feelings that you would call nasty?…do you know that?”

“You can change…You can learn. And what have you done? You’ve had a little dream, the sort of dream I suppose little boys have and masturbate about, and you fall over yourself being nice to me so that you won’t have to admit to yourself that the whole business of my being here is nasty, nasty, nasty.”

I will draw a line here. I’ve read a few reviews accusing Fowles and this book of extreme misogyny. What I think is important is to examine how Miranda’s character has been written (by Fowles), and how Frederick’s messed up character views women. Miranda has autonomy. Despite being a prisoner, gagged, chlorophormed, and kept, Miranda is an educated adult. She also becomes quickly aware of the power she has over Frederick. She mockingly calls him Ferdinand (to her Miranda), but more often calls him Caliban. Caliban is so broken, and abused, but I don’t think Frederick gets the references. I think Miranda’s comments go over his head. They are her little inside jokes with us the readers. These references to the Tempest are scattered through the novel. She discusses high art, and in her portions tries to frame narratives from fiction to understand her situation, so that she may cope with being in solitary confinement, and a prisoner. The witty remarks she makes towards Fred shows that she is by far superior to his intellect. At the beginning she tries to understand him, more than to freak out. She even pull out a cigarette and discusses with him the situation like a beatnik art student in a bar discussing existentialism.

Frederick on the other hand does not understand women. He defensively admits that he is not “a queer” as if that thought also offended him, but women to him are these two dimensional characters that he bases on his aunt (who was a piece of work). He built up a fantasy about Miranda and hypnotized by her beauty the same way he is with his butterflies, he keeps her locked up. Once in a while though, Miranda will say something to him that he doesn’t expect from her, and he narrates:

“Her making criticisms like a typical woman … she was just like a woman. Unpredictable. Smiling one minute and spiteful the next.”

These “just like a woman” comments make you ask: what kind of women have you met? How can you possibly think of more than half of Earth’s population this way? But the key distinction here is how Frederick thinks of women versus how Miranda is actually written.

The second half of the novel is shown from Miranda’s point of view and we see how her thinking changes as the days of imprisonment take a toll on her. This half for me was lacking. Mainly because it’s the same plot told from her point of view, and as a reader, I inferred that already. I saw the despair and saw her thinking process without her actually saying it (for another 100 pages).

The ending, which I won’t spoil (regarding Miranda) was slightly disappointing, and a little convenient. The cliff hanger suggests that Frederick will continue to do this with a new woman. While this is the ‘creepy’ element, it made me wonder what he saw in Miranda. His “just like a woman” stabs did not match the fantasy that he made up about Miranda in his head, but that she was still somewhat special to him, that something about her was different. The end had me wondering if it’s just his own fantasy he falls in love with every time, and the girls are just vessels for it, without the girls themselves having a particular quality he likes.

Like I said, something about Clegg is creepier than the other literary kidnapper men, and because he kidnaps beautiful women, and keeps them so that he’s not alone, with no other intent, to me, he is perhaps the creepiest of them all. Like Lolita, I thought this book was by far more intriguing in the first half. While I understand what both authors were trying to achieve in these second halves, I think they both executed it poorly. Still, both really great novels! Should you read this? Yes.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

9781509827886journey to the centre of the earth_2_jpg_247_400A few days ago, I came across the Macmillan Collector’s Library editions of various classics. I think I’ll try to get all my future classics in this edition. They are small and portable, a pleasure to hold, have gilded edges, and are accompanied by the most beautiful illustrations. It was upon this occasion that I returned to this sci-fi classic (as I did not yet have it in my personal collection). I read Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) a really long time ago, and I think I was much too young to appreciate it. This time, I was able to compare it to contemporary science fiction and tease out its ‘Vernian’ elements.

The illustrations in this edition are those completed by Édouard Riou, who worked with Jules Verne on six of his novels and created illustrations for all of them. His illustrations were then engraved by Pannemaker, Gauchard, Maurand (1867).

Simplified Plot: Axel (the narrator) a young man, visits his uncle, Professor Otto Lidenbrock, who is an eccentric academic and adventurer. Lidenbrock has recently purchased a manuscript with Runic inscriptions which he and Axel decipher to be a cryptogram indicating  how one can reach the centre of the Earth. Axel is in love with Lidenbrock’s goddaughter Gräuben, who promises to wait for him and marry him if he returns. The two leave and find themselves a guide, Hans Bjelke, who helps them reach their goal. The journey leads them from Germany, to Denmark. In Copenhagen they take a boat for several days which gets them to Iceland where “the centre’s” entryway is located. Walking through the inside tunnels of a volcano the explorers find fossils, interesting rock formations, water, and many other wonders.

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Runic Cryptogram

The reason I’m writing on classics here, is not really for “a review” as they obviously do not need one, but I would like to use this platform to keep track of things I found interesting.

On Women

While the main three characters on an adventure are men, Verne wrote the character of Gräuben in a very interesting way. Gräuben and Axel have been dating for a while because she immediately assumes he came to visit her again. Even though she cares deeply for him, and wants to marry him, Gräuben doesn’t oppose him going on such a journey, which at this point no one really thinks of as dangerous, rather, they look at it as a potentially foolish undertaking. She doesn’t seem controlling, but she still cares deeply. I also like that in the 1800s, Verne portrays a young relationship as a mutual courship, rather than an obligation. We get right away that Otto Lidenbrock is the ‘old guy who is kind of a misogynist and doesn’t understand women,’ but we also see the narrator and/or Axel does not really stand for that. Lidenbrock says:

“Ah! women and young girls, how incomprehensible are your feminine hearts! When you are not the timidest, you are the bravest of creatures. Reason has nothing to do with your actions.”

To which Axel narrates:

“I was disconcerted, and, if I must tell the whole truth, I was ashamed.”

Verne uses Gräuben as a plot device often encountered in adventure stories: the “I’ll wait for you” girl. The way Rosie Cotton is “the girl back home” for Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings, and Penelope for Odysseus, Verne gives Axel a reason, and yearning to return to Hamburg. I think this device is really useful because it doesn’t allow the protagonists to give up hope if things get really bad, or to get too comfortable if the new place is too exciting that they might want to stay there forever.

The Vernian Element

Something that stood out to me reading this sci-fi classic, particularly after diving into many contemporary sci-fi works this year, was how much Verne wanted for everything to make sense, and for it to be believable. Verne didn’t drop you in a random world and hope you pick up clues as you go along, he explained everything with the utmost details in such a way that a skeptic would have scientific and/or academic proof that what he is narrating might actually be true. Then I remembered what Peter S. Beagle mentioned in his introduction to New Voices in Fantasy. He wrote:

“Jules Verne, who always considered himself a scientist, was distinctly put out by the work of the younger writer H.G. Wells. ‘Il a invente!’ the author of From the Earth to the Moon sniffed at the author of The War of the Worlds. ‘He makes things up!’”

Having seen the action-packed adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, I forgot how calm and academic Verne’s prose is. It made me feel safe, and  I actually understood what was happening (which was comforting). The first few chapters are full of details on the manuscript and runes. He makes sense of the way Otto and Axel decipher the code. Then, once they embark on this journey everything is planned out realistically. I even looked up how long it takes to get to Iceland from Copenhagen by boat, and it was exactly as long as Verne said it was. The man did his research properly. Once they descend below the Volcano, Verne uses many details from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology Vol 1. and 2, (which heavily inspired Charles Darwin as he himself read volume one on his Beagle Voyage). There are passages upon passages describing the sediments, the rocks, the way they look, feel, or smell. He takes you on a sensory journey along with the three protagonists.

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Illustration by Riou

There were also reminders throughout of the kinds of walkers and adventurers from back in the day, when walking miles daily was no big deal. I have to go out of my way to get at least 7,000 steps on my Fitbit every day. The things they do, and the distances they go by on horse, where Hans chooses to walk–and the character of Hans the guide altogether, was absolutely fascinating. He’s kind of a Thoreauvian or Native figure who knows the land and could walk forever. He is connected to all the elements in ways Otto and Axel are not. He can pick up signals from the land, and signs from the sky, wind, animals. I think this time around, Hans’s character was by far my favorite. I also could appreciate a lot of the references. For instance, upon their descend there are references to Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Inferno, which I probably wouldn’t have picked up on in high school.

I really enjoyed this work, if you haven’t read it, by all means give it a go! I must admit that my favourite Verne remains 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I still have to read a lot of his other works.

 

 

Walden | Comfort Classic | Journal

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”

 

Walden

Thoreau lived at Walden Pond from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. Walden was published in 1854.

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Pond near my house

For the last few years I’ve returned to Thoreau’s Walden many times. Sometimes I read it from beginning to end, sometimes I listen to the audiobook. Other times, I read only a chapter, or the things I’ve highlighted. Themes, excerpts, and the work as a whole especially come to mind when I visit my parents’ home and take a walk around the forest and the local pond. I am trying to figure out what is it about Walden that makes it what I call a “comfort classic”—a classic I re-read to make the world feel right again. This entry is really meant to read like a personal reading journey entry where I log notes and discuss them.

In the first section ‘economy’ Thoreau points out all that is wrong with society, which frankly has not changed, if anything it has only worsened (particularly discussing student debt from the Universities). He points out all that is wrong, and all that we should aspire to be. He writes:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”

The mass is quiet, that is what makes it awful. They have the natural consequence but they do not know how to express this quiet desperation.

ainting“What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be a falsehood to-morrow.”

“One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”

“Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me”

“Are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.”

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”

Thoreau also mentions how impractical the anxiety to be fashionable is (in terms of clothes, household furnishings and objects).

Earlier I mentioned that certain things have worsened since (like fees, rent, etc). I wonder how Thoreau would react or write about (in the middle class West) people spending the majority of their time on the Internet indoors.

“It would be well, perhaps, if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies…birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots…many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box.”

There is something in Walden, particularly in the beginning that strongly reminds me of things I’ve seen or heard recently but figured Thoreau said it first. Most of the discussion of your things owning you was strongly ringing of Fight Club (not the book but the movie).IMG_20170620_120942

I think what I like about his writing is that he goes from contemplative and philosophical writing to the mundane and every day speech all in the same sentence. Thoreau wrestles with social constructions that have ones seemed natural and a part of our existence.

I like imagining Thoreau walking, and thinking, and just tapping into some of his thoughts on literature and what he sees, to me, is a very idealized pastoral scene so Walden has become my comfort classic.

If you were to compare what some of today’s styles and trends are: eating organic, growing your own food, travelling and reconnecting with nature, hiking, etc. This sort of ‘hippy’ or ‘bohemian’ lifestyle is often divorced from the intellectual now. I realize that Thoreau did all these things back in the 1840s and combined it with the intellect. His chapters on “reading,” and “where I lived and what I lived for” are imbued with literary references and discussions. It is akin to books like Ex Libris or the genre we all love so much recently ‘books about books.’

“A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.”

His every thought is an allusion or a reference to a literary work from antiquity to his contemporaries. Through the voices of other literary giants and describing the sounds around the pond, Thoreau shows how you can be surrounded while completely alone in a contemplative state.

Every section of Walden has its own charm. There are so many YouTube channels for instance focusing on cooking, growing your own things, and budgeting. Thoreau writes about all those things explaining in detail how he did it. I sometimes imagine 19th century readers reading this the same way millions of us subscribe to channels online now. I enjoyed reading about his budget, savings, and spending when it came to building the house and investing in clothing, food, and farm supplies. It’s both personal and distant, it’s doable and also impossible. Most importantly it brings me to a good place mentally because I think about nature, and what the natural realm means.

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