Murakami: Kafka on the Shore

I wanted to read Murakami’s books for a long time, even going as far as already carrying a copy around in the book shop, and then deciding against buying thinking about lack of time and money, and perhaps even motivation. As I was really thrilled to be back to reading after Harper’s mocking bird, I decided to give it a try straight away, and I must say that I am hooked. I actually read 3 books from Murakami in a row, and this is the third, and the most recent one. Having finished it just minutes ago, I’d like to share my first impressions.

Compared to the first two (Norwegian Wood, and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki), Kafka on the Shore is definitely very different and wasn’t at all what I expected. Started off reading about a 15-year-old runaway, I thought that maybe I would find it hard to take in – to understand the protagonist  because the life and thoughts of a teenager are beyond me. I also thought that probably, like in most of the books I seem to read about teenagers, this boy would also be pictured as a lot smarter and more mature than normal teenagers, which I normally find very far from life and quite annoying. There is something simple and honest about picturing them as they are, but for some reason it is also a little embarrassing to read – reminding yourself of the time you were that young and doing and thinking of all sort of stupid things that you are not proud of.

I think the book definitely did the second – showing Kafka more mature than he probably should have been, but as it seemed to me, he was also a little crazy, so I really enjoyed the book. The common theme in the three books seems to be the obsession about age. Staying fixed at certain age at least, for sure. Everybody wants to stay young, but I’m not sure that as compulsively as comes across in Murakami’s books. During the time I was reading the book, and was thinking over the fact how the plot was going, I was thinking of Japanese culture and tried to gather all that I know of it, and it made me all the more curious about that obsessive-compulsive reminder of age.

What I love about books is a bit of science fiction – something mysterious, out of place. In a way it really gets me curious and makes me want to read more to find out all the extraordinary and have some sort of a logical explanation to it all. The other part of me is thinking how absurd it all is, and that it’s not even worth reading it. I guess the book was really quite long, infused with theoretical, abstract, and METAPHORICAL talk and dwelling over all things in life. A lot about books, music, sex and loneliness. A bunch of philosophical talk, that started to bore me a little. However, this complex discussion was paralleled and contrasted with the simple life of an old man, who could talk to cats and wasn’t able to read. It created a nice harmony, and as the two seemingly different plots started to mix, the tension grew.

At some point, everything was so unreal that I felt like watching Twin Peaks. Entrance stone, “concept beings”, raining fish and leeches, talking to cats.. Then this Oedipus complex curse – killing one’s father and sleeping with the mother was just somehow disturbing. And of course, in the end, at least that was how I felt, there was a lot left up hanging in the air, free for interpretation.

So, what do we know? It seems that there are a couple of people who have been on the other side (is it heaven?). They have been there before and at least two of them have lost half of their shadows on their way back. Have they made a deal with the devil? Then who is this guy making flutes out of cats’ souls? Oh, I must say I hated reading the part when cats were killed. The way it was described, and the monologue of the evil guy were simply disturbing. So then, sorry but where were the cats’ heads when the police found the guy dead? He was a sculptor? Had the devil just crawled inside of him for the time Nakata met him?

Then how come Nakata gets those different gifts, but Miss Saeki only gets to be the 15-year old self every now and then? The story is so complex, that it’s difficult to keep track of everything.

OK, the evil thing must have been a devil or a shadow, looking for ways to get to the weird communal place, and therefore setting things to work by getting Nakata to kill him (protector of the cats, summoner of the flying sea creatures, however, naive like a child, always talking of himself in third person). What is Kafka’s role in all this? He is in the centre of all this, however, it seems that only to link together the supernatural. And what about Oshima’s brother, who apparently had also been on the other side, just casually showing up in the end? Needless to say, including a boy born in a girl’s body in the plot is just.. interesting? And also, a “sister” who is really out of the plot most of the time?

I’m really starting to think that Nakata was some sort of a god. On his mission, everybody tried to help him fulfill his prophecy (if you can call unconscious doing of things that). Then he gets a follower – a truck driver who just leaves everything and helps him out, maturing and getting more cultural during the journey, and finishing the mission (Jesus!). Then, there are theories, that Nakata is just the other half of Kafka, but how? Nakata lost his MEMORY which is an important concept, because Miss Saeki gives it up voluntarily after/before death. She could be Kafka’s mother? Apparently, she opened the entrance stone before, and regrets it now because she has been dead ever since. Nakata does not even meet Kafka – not on this, nor on the other side. He strictly has business with the lady. A bunch of nonsense.

Then we see the Crow boy actually being a crow, and trying to kill the evil spirit in a sort of limbo space. The Crow really made me think Kafka was crazy. But it seemed to be the smarter, more reasonable side of him? Was Crow the part Nakata was missing?

Then Kafka waking up in bushes, having blood from Tokyo all over him (getting angry every now and then without being able to control it) – is it the part of devil inside of him who had to get out by Kafka forgiving to his mum? Was the devil Kafka’s father?

I think it’s time for me to read some theories and explanations of the book, because I am just plain confused.

Murakami says that the secret to understanding the novel lies in reading it several times: “Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.”

There we go.

 

 

Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird

I had completely forgotten about this blog until I started digging up in my old emails and found I had a few followers. I made the last post a little more than 2 years ago and I take it as a sort of celebration of the end of my undergraduate degree in English Literature.

With the start of spring and the end of my Master’s degree fast approaching, I am returning to my background in humanities, and starting this blog once again. Maybe not for long but right now I am on a reading spree, and I would really love to share my feelings about the books that I’ve read again.

I’ve read a few (much less than when it was compulsory, for sure) within the years, but it’s not worth trying to remember a faded memory of a book, so I will start fresh.

Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time. Firstly, because it has an intriguing name that, for me, as a non-native speaker at least, does not really reveal any of the content. Secondly, I’ve seen the book show up everywhere as if wanting to be read, and I’m happy I finally got round to it.

Although published in 1960 and the narrative taking place in the 1930s, the book seems extremely relevant right now. The small fictional town of Maycomb and their fears, the racial discrimination and the children’s fear of the unknown.

I felt angry and incredibly sad and touched when reading the passages that described the discrimination of black people. It seems that in around 80 years not much has changed in some people’s heads though. Racial discrimination has deep roots and I cannot help but thinking over the fact that a lot of people think they are better than someone else because of the colour of their skin. The protagonist and her family stand in big contrast with the common opinion and it seems almost impossible that there could have been such a family in that small town. Especially so because of the maturity the author has given the protagonist Jean.

When I started the book, I was a bit confused over whether the protagonist was a little boy or a girl. The attitude was definitely that of a boy, and the nickname only enforced this. For a while, I found myself looking for cues of the gender and thought that it really looks like the author is trying to hide it or trying to cheat the reader into believing something else. Throughout the novel, the sex discrimination appeared here and there, and although people stood against the racial discrimination, no one seemed to mind the sexist remarks every now and then. Even the protagonist herself kept talking about women with a mocking tone associating them with certain weaker qualities, and she definitely didn’t want to be like one herself. She did indulge in a romantic relation at her very young age, although innocent, with concrete plans to get married. She saw her limitations as a woman and thought a realistic plan was to get married as is the tradition. A contemporary reader could find it so strange how such a smart independent little girl could be so fixed to her role in the society, and while seeing the discrimination everywhere else, not recognising it at her gender.

The biggest shock for me was reading of how she was agreeing that women would not be able to hold court because they would just have too many questions and they would talk too much. In a way, she perhaps distanced herself from being that person or representing that sex by talking of “them” so liberately. She wasn’t exactly the kind of girl to enjoy dresses and Sunday tea parties. However, she knew how to please if she wanted to by behaving well in front of her aunt. One could say that she new the game.

The theme of fearing the unknown was perhaps my favourite theme in the book. Boo Radley, the neighbor who always stayed inside, was untouchable, unknown, a centre of horror stories and a strong symbol who was always there in the book – sometimes in highlight, as the children grew older not so much anymore, but stepping forward strongly in the end. The strong message in the end, Jean walking Boo home and discovering his perspective on the street, regretting never returning presents to him added a nice touch to the ending of the story. A revelation, a different perspective? A conclusion.

For me, there is always this borderline fight over what is acceptable in the current society and what is not. It is OK for the adults, that there is a grown suppressed man living in a house next to theirs, never seeing him, with the only proof of him being alive that he hasn’t been taken out of the house in a coffin yet. At the same time, it is also OK that there are families like these of the Ewells that nobody likes and would rather keep away, that people know are lying and using the social system, never having worked a day in their lives, and that these people are still preferred over people from another race for a principle.

In the centre of all this stands the father of the protagonist who is always reasonable, all tolerant and plain perfect. Raising two children alone, always understanding what they go though and giving just the right sort of advice while struggling with the society attacking him for his work protecting a black man in court against a white family. Both Jean and Atticus seem a bit out of this world for me. Jean with her a bit too intelligent mind of a child and Atticus with his overwhelming tolerance. I had huge respect for both of the characters but reading Jean’s story really felt like I was reading a story of a young hippy of the 21st century.

I loved the book from the beginning to the end, though. I just started thinking what would the book seem like to a person with a slightly different perspective. For example, that of a right-hand politician or a  nationalist or a conservative… Especially not now but also earlier in the 20th century. Such a powerful book to write, and still.. so amazingly relevant now.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: Roadside Picnic

Image

 

This time something totally different and outside my required reading for my English literature course. Something of another genre as well; Russian Science Fiction.

I cannot say that I do not enjoy sci-fi, but for some reason, after being away for it for a while, I start having sort of prejudices against that type of literature. A lot of people find that sort of books very liberating and enjoyable as you can simply relax into them and forget about the world around you – they are something completely ‘other’. What people enjoy, becomes mainstream, and mainstream often is oversimplified for literary, sophisticated people. There’s something about mainstream that does not appeal to some… 

What is true about mainstream is, that because so many people enjoy it – it must have something good in it! Well, cannot say the same about music, I think.

The brothers Strugatskys had quite a hard time trying to publish this novel. I feel like I can completely relate to the preface and afterword, when Boris is saying that the reader now wouldn’t probably understand the reasons behind why it was declined so many times, but having grown up in a post-Soviet Union era, in which people still clearly remember the regulations of the time, and your grandparents keep telling you about the injustice going around… you would definitely understand!

Finally published in 1972, it is yet to gain popularity in Russia itself, as Boris exclaims that his country is still a few decades back from the rest of the world.

What I really found funny were the reasons behind why the novel wasn’t actually published – the bad manners of the heroic characters who were to be the heroes of young Soviet kids, bad language, excessive drinking in the book, violence (someone punched someone else in the face, someone kicked over the table; PS, let’s not talk about the actual violence and killing in the Soviet Union itself during the time, right?). It is hard to imagine such an undemocratic world not so long ago.

The book itself is really refreshing when compared to all those zombie and vampire novels gaining popularity now. It is, indeed, of an alien visit, not having any aliens included, however. The aliens came, went, and didn’t make any effort to communicate with the humankind. The place where they landed has turned into a total war zone with poisonous items lying about and life-threatening weather conditions and et cetera not permitting humans to live there any longer. Their visit it compared to one of a picnic in a forest – we go, start a fire, have some beers, snacks, put up our tents, and leave… without noticing the life around us – the animals, the birds, their homes. Some people leave their trash hanging about, and the animals come by to see the cans and papers and smoke butts lying about, without really understanding what these things are.

This area trashed by the aliens in the book is called the zone, and there are people who know how to make use of it by taking stuff out of it and selling it. These people are called stalkers, and they risk their lives just to make their living. One of the main characters teams up with a science centre to help to understand the alien visit, but soon, after being guilty of one of his best friend’s death, gives up and goes back to stalking. Interestingly, the stalkers, the people who survived the alien visit and were affected by it and the area, and the stalkers’ families are mutating. The main character’s daughter is called the Monkey. It is never really that explicitly said how she looks like, except for the fact that she is really furry and that her eye irises basically don’t leave any space for white in the eye.

Such mutations cannot be explained because there’s no radiation in the zone. There’s also some supernatural things happening with the people who have been affected. Whenever they move and try to get away from the town that is just by the zone, bad stuff starts happening to the people around them. Therefore, there is a ban to leave the city.

The book is exciting throughout and leaves some ambiguity in the end. I actually wished there was something else, maybe a sequel.. It was really addictive and definitely worth a read.

Chang: Hunger

Image

Lan Samantha Chang (born 1965) is an American writer and professor in English. The Hunger book, in addition to the novel bearing the same name, contains many short stories, that Chang specializes in. However, I never had enough time to finish them all, as I had to borrow the book and only had a day to finish it before giving it back before the lecture. In any case, I am not very good at remembering the shorter stories, so I will only be reflecting on Hunger.

Like many good writers in diaspora, Chang seems to reflect a lot on her own experience. She herself represents the second generation of diaspora – her parents were Chinese migrants. She discusses the problems and conflicts arising between the first and second generations of diasporic members of the same family.

The novella starts with a Chinese woman who has moved to America and meets a violinist who she falls in love with. They marry and rent a small apartment, and her husband works in a music school but does not seem to get promotion that he has been seeking for many years. He is very talented, but there is something missing in him and he does not seem to fit in. The woman sees that but they never talk of it – there is still a sense of the man being a superior and that the woman’s duty is to keep quiet, give birth to a son etc.

She, however, fails to give birth to a son, and instead, they have two daughters. The first one is more of a mother’s daughter – she, too, finds it very difficult to fit in in the society and she is not very talented. The second daughter is talented as a musician but not interested in fulfilling her father’s hopes. She runs away, and becomes more of an American than Chinese.

The man has many regrets from the past, having run away from his family and therefore never being able to go back. The woman has many regrets because she never talked about their problems with her husband, and she feels that his regret is growing in her – literally it is, as she has cancer.

The first daughter is more of a Chinese rather than American, and decided to go and further study Chinese. After her parents’ death, she does not want to sell the apartment they had had, she cannot let go.

This is one of those books that talks about an experience that would be very difficult to describe if not familiar with it yourself. Coming from such a different place with different culture and understanding of life to live in America, the land of all the dreams and money, to be disappointed because not fitting in and not achieving what you hoped for, or what was advertised. Also, the notion, that you are leaving with such pride, thinking you would never look back, but when disappointed, you have burnt your bridges and have to stay.

The most difficult thing must be when your children’s mother tongue is different to that of yours – you barricade even the ones closest to you and make them not able to understand your world.

Diaz: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Image

Another writer from my course on diaspora is Junot Diaz (born in 1968), who is a Dominican-American. This wasn’t the first time I encountered The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao either. I previously read it during my first year in the university for the world literature course, but I guess I didn’t really enjoy it that much during the time, because, firstly, I didn’t even recognise having read the book when I first heard of it, and secondly, at some point when reading it, it didn’t seem familiar any more. The truth is, I didn’t finish it then.

It’s a very peculiar book and I think that you either love it, or hate it. Similarly to Cummings’ The Enormous Room, Oscar Wao is written using untranslated phrases and words from another language, in this case, Spanish. Truly, it really is annoying when you have to check every second word from the dictionary, but I really loved it. Not checking words from the dictionary, but the book. At some point I thought that once in my life I would do the reading properly and would check every word (including the English ones) I didn’t know, to make sure I fully understood the book. But I just lost interest in doing it, because I’m lazy like that.

I decided to write my essay on Oscar Wao as well, and I really put a lot of effort in it because I enjoyed the book a lot. I was really in a shock for getting a remarkably low grade for it, and when discussing the matter over during my quite unofficial oral exam, I did not find any consolation in my teacher who had a really bad level of English. What she didn’t like in the essay would really make sense when talking about any other book, but at times it really felt that she hadn’t fully got the idea. Fair enough, my style is often rubbish, but it made me truly sad to be given that low grade for what I, during the time, considered the most effort I’ve put into anything.

It is definitely one of my favourite books. It flows easily, and gets to you. The idea of something supernatural, a transgenerational fuku, which is left untranslated because it is a concept on its own, only known and understood in its own conceptual sphere. Once you finish the book, you feel like you understand what a fuku is. One can dedicate pages on defining it, but the easiest way to relate to it really is hearing someone’s, like Oscar’s family’s, story of how it has affected them.

In my own words, Oscar’s fuku was following the cycle of the exact same patterns that caused problems both to his mother, and grandparents. Ironically people in this novel were drawn to the most dangerous people, and sometimes, cheating themselves, they thought those people or situations better, or even iconic. Oscar’s mother fell in love with the Gangster, and although she was almost beaten to death, she still thought that that type of a man stands as a symbol of true masculinity. Wife-beaters, killers, robbers, and generally violence had destroyed her, but instead of trying to raise his son as an opposite, he saw the traits Oscar had as feminine. She failed to see that she herself suppressed Oscar’s ability to be what she thought was masculine, as she had suffered under such kind of characteristic her whole life.

Oscar and his mother were both very much influenced by the notion of diaspora; they couldn’t fit in in America and were drawn towards the Dominican Republic. In contrast, Oscar’s sister always opposed their way, and mother, and managed to break through, and have a real life somewhere else. All this trouble around fitting in and understanding another culture are certainly important themes in Oscar Wao.

Not trying to sound cheesy like one of those quotes stamped on every copy of the book stating on how incredible it was in opinion of so many newsletters, journals, celebrities, this story really was heart-breaking. You kind of feel like you have a lot to learn from it yourself! And the suspense and excitement to know what happens next really leaves the reader to wonder in the end.

Krauss: Great House

download

Above: a great illustration of Great House in http://articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/10/entertainment/la-ca-nicole-krauss-20101010.

Krauss (born 1974) is quite different from the authors I have mentioned in this blog before. Great House manifests the beginning of another series of books from a semester I spent in Belgium. The course was less organized than those I had taken before but provided a great change for me. I really enjoyed the topic of diaspora; even as much that I told my mother that I would probably be interested in writing something like a thesis on a topic qualifying under the theme in the future.

Krauss is a newyorker with Yewish roots: I guess her inheritance is a really big influence on her books, especially this one. She is more of a short story writer, and even this book could visibly divided into 4 short stories, that are loosely connected by some characters and items. Once you start noticing those re-occurring items, the novel gets more and more interesting – it’s a mystery, a puzzle of many pieces that the reader has to connect.

I remember sitting in a classy little café in Liegé with one of my course friends, trying to draw a plan on the clues and different connections, desperately trying to find the year numbers for different events, only to find that there is still a big massive gap left straight in between the story that Krauss is telling. The story is of a table.

The story starts with a ‘sub-story’, if you like, of a writer in New York who has been writing behind this big, threatening table that she got from a revolutionary Chilean poet that had gone missing after an encounter with the Pinochet’ police. She cherishes the table and believes that it gives her inspiration, although, her stories are very dark. One of them talking about a mother who burnt her children in a locked car, and the other one of her own father in a very embarrassing manner. The table is claimed by someone who calls herself the revolutionary’s daughter.

In London, a husband of a dying wife discovers a secret – the woman had had a son before their marriage who she had given away. She had never mentioned him before. She, too, had had the table at some point, but she gave it away to a certain Chilean poet, a man who was around the same age as her son could have been.

The third sub-story is of a grumpy father who is thinking back to how he mistreated one of his sons and never understood him. The son had come back after taking part in a war, getting an education and living his own life – just to take care of his father. But he had not come back the day his father wanted to ask forgiveness from him.

And the fourth sub-story is of a Yewish family. A father, who trades furniture. He plays on the fact that there are items that people really miss, and he goes around the whole world to find these items and bring them back to the original owners. Behind his doings is a motive to find all the items belonging to his father’s study in Budapest before the war. Only one item is missing – a table. His children are not making it easy for him to find it.

The stories are in two cycles. First, one of the parts of each of the stories is told, and then, the stories are told again. It is really fascinating and even addictive to find out where the table was, connecting so many different people who all found something in this piano for themselves.

It really makes you think of what people are really obsessed with or what they care about the most.

Alcott: Little Women, Good Wives

Image

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote the story of Little Women and the sequences basing on her own family. Although it is largely advertised as a children’s book, there is definitely more to the story than that. To be honest, I couldn’t imagine myself as a child reading such a lengthy book myself, or to get the full idea and emotions behind it. It is one of those books that you can read at different stages throughout your life and every time find something new about it.

Most of the time I found the book very patronizing, though. It reminds me of the times when someone’s mum (in films, series, books or whatever; don’t have any similar memories from my own childhood) comes and tells a scary story of how bad children go to hell, or how they have to do certain things such as putting their teeth under their pillows for the Tooth Fairy to pick up etc. The children were given a book to read by their father who had gone to war. The book was Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan, widely read author and familiar to the readers of the time. They were just children, but they already felt like they had too much fun or didn’t work enough, they would be bad and ungrateful, which really takes the fun out of childhood. Their mother didn’t seem to do much during the time the children were working to provide for the family. She went around and dealt with charity, as far as the reader is aware. A really strange idol to the children. They themselves were not far from being almost as poor as the immigrant family to whom they were donating food and clothing, but still, they were the ones giving away whatever they had.

What really annoyed me throughout the book was the attitude towards war and being a soldier. It was as if the most honorable doing one could imagine was going to war and dying. It almost felt like if you didn’t die in the war, it would not make you as honorable as that if you did. Nothing bad was ever said about the war; it was never cursed nor said that it would be better if there was no war at all. Altogether, I had the impression that those people were quite vicious and war was an inevitable thing.

I believe that a lot of people who read this book sympathize with the Jo character. She seemed to be the main provider for the family, she was calculating and smart, and she also had this ‘cool’ attitude towards life which let her not follow the standards and conform to what was expected from women during the time. She tried to find ways around restrictions and followed her will. Only in the end is the disappointment of her finally giving up and marrying. Didn’t seem at all like Jo.

It was a really easy book to get into, although some of the habits the protagonists had seemed alien and questionable. They did not really seem like children, rather than grown-ups. Their worries were real and even the little childishness preserved in them could come across in any of adults as well. Jealousy, anger, want.. no one is entirely free of those sins.

This was the first book of the Gilded Age course and provided a great introduction to the whole theme. As the books were organized in a chronological order, this started with a more distant tone from others and did not really talk about the whole chasing of the American dream, but just introduced the reader to an average family during the time of the Civil War, away from the actual war, but still affected by it.

Women had to ‘man up’ and take charge of the household while men were away, fighting, and therefore had quite a different role to that expected of them. The March family provided a perfect example of a loving, waiting family left behind.

James: Washington Square

Image

Henry James (1843-1916) is probably one of my favourite writers. This is not the first time I encounter his novels, and will probably not be the last either. He is seen to be one of the key figures in the 19th-century realism.

Washington Square is said to have been compared to Jane Austen’s books which James did not really like, as he wasn’t a fan of Austen. It seems that he didn’t really enjoy his own book either. It is said to have been based on a true story that his friend told him.

The main theme throughout the short novel is family relationships. It is about pride, stubbornness and misunderstandings. The protagonist Catherine, the only daughter of famous Dr. Austin Sloper, is of great disappointment to him because she does not stand out in neither in her appearance, nor knowledge. She loves her father, however, most of all, and respects his opinions.

When Catherine meets Morris Townsend at a party, and discovers that the latter takes great interest in her, and when they decide to marry, Dr. Sloper opposes that, seeing that Morris is only after Catherine’s money. He therefore decided to inform Katherine that if she marries Morris, he will leave her penniless. This seems to be like a plan of protection; surely, if Morris knew that, his plans would be revealed as he wouldn’t want to marry Catherine, but with the help of the most annoying character, aunt Lavinia, Morris devises a plan to change Dr. Sloper’s mind. Nothing seems to work, however.

Aunt Lavinia is keen on drama and indulges herself in thinking that she is playing a major role in bringing two lovers together in a war against her brother. She is not respected, and although Catherine treats her well, she does not like her crafty plans. Even Morris is annoyed, although, Lavinia thinks that he loves her for all the ‘help’ she provides.

She is a funny character, who really seemed incredibly ignorant and annoying at all times. Even just reading a passage of her plans makes the reader roll their eyes.

Catherine, torn between Morris and her father grows more and more miserable because neither of them seems to care about her, but just about what happens to the fortune. For Dr. Sloper, even on his deathbed, he asks Catherine whether she was going to marry Morris, because he had his will there, and was ready to change it any time. Such exercising of control over another on both sides desolates Catherine. Even if she has decided that she would never go back to Morris, she wouldn’t admit that to her father. He does not have the right to make the decision for her, just by manipulating her with the money.

I find this a quite sad story. First of all, if people always consider someone plain and even let them know of that, without loving them as they are, how can one love herself? Secondly, if fortune becomes more important than one’s own family member, and there’s only two of you in the first place – who can you enjoy this fortune with? Surely you cannot do it on your own.

This novel really gets to you. It really makes one feel either annoyance, fury, the absurdity of the whole situation, and perhaps even helps the reader to reflect on their own material needs and understandings, and how these affect the people around.

Wharton: The Age of Innocence

Image

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born a newyorker and saw the changes she describes in her book as she grew older and New York bigger. Critics have often misinterpreted her sarcasm when talking about the old-school habits and small communities; there is, however, some sentimentality when talking about what was in the past.

Even the title itself is one full of irony. The Age of Innocence could only be seen, by the descriptions of it, as an age full of pretence, superficial feelings and clinging to something that is long lost. What’s more, the ways in which the upper community members try to reserve the conservative manners and understandings, and eliminate those that threaten their mission, are far from innocent. Belonging to such a society was a dangerous game, and not everyone were aware of how their future was played with.

The character of Ellen is scandalous at the time, and therefore, not fully accepted to the society. She is not invited to parties, and men only think of her as fit for being a mistress. Her situation is bad, but she thinks of herself more than that, and refuses to go as low as expected from her. In contrast to her, May is seen as innocent, following the rules of the community. However, as the community is not actually as innocent as first thought, so isn’t May. She knows how to use the ways and her position to get what she wants. Moreover, it might not even be what she wants, but it is something to survive with, to adapt and fulfil her role.

Ellen is wanting a divorce, and May is wanting a marriage. Once committed to a man, it would be scandalous to change plans – during the time, men were in control.

In this novel, however, it is not the protagonist Newland Archer who is in control. From the beginning he describes himself as an outsider, and sees himself even as on top of all the society members because he acknowledges the games they are playing, and the power relationships that have to be taken into account. He, however, fails to see how while trying to fit in, he himself is a victim of those same games. May, the innocent pride to be uses every possible method to stop him from seeing Ellen. Only years later does he find out that he has never been free to decide. The decisions have been made in the quiet chambers of the higher class.

To be very honest, I never actually finished this book, but seeing as I wrote a comparative essay on it, read most of it, and watched a film, I can say I am well aware of the techniques, style and narrative itself used in this particular novel.

I didn’t enjoy it. Maybe if I came back to it as some other time, because the plot itself was interesting.. But I guess as the time was restricted and my will not strong enough, for this time, I have to say that it just wasn’t not my cup of tea.

Dreiser: Sister Carrie

Image

Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) I shall probably remember as a naturalist. I wrote my first essay of the course on the comparison between his and Wharton‘s books to compare how they use the naturalistic traits in their novels.

The novels written in the Gilded age were mostly about the American Dream and about how people go about trying to accomplish it. Sister Carrie is an unorthodox story of how a young innocent countryside girl Carrie goes to Chicago to fulfil her dreams, which in due course prove insatiable. The novel plays on the human trait that the more we have, the more we want, and therefore, we are always in the process of trying to achieve more.

When I first heard the title of the book, I thought it would be of a nun due to the title ‘sister’. My second reaction was, that it might indeed be about a family and a particular member of it. Both of my guesses were wrong – Carrie started innocent, but she was no nun, and family plays little part in most of the novel.

When Carrie first comes to town, she meets Drouet,  which could be seen both as fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate because we can easily tell what could have happened to Carry if she had to work as hard as described in the beginning of her career – she would have had to go back to the countryside, because she was too poor and inexperienced to survive. Drouet, however, does not offer her much consolation either. First seemingly glamorous, Carrie soon loses interest in him, and chases after Hurstwood.

What happens between Hurstwood and Carrie is rather prompt and shocking. Things go very fast when he decides to lie to Carry to get her on the train and leave for New York, and that is when the fortunes are reversed.

A man of great reputation, as Hurstwood was before cheating on his wife with Carrie in Chicago, he is nothing in New York. He has no connections, no money, and in a sense, he is on a same level with Carrie, only with a lot of experience. Carrie, however, while lacking of experience, has will, which takes her much further. She becomes very independent and succeeds as an actor, whereas Hurstwood dies as a homeless.

Dreiser relies on the Darwinian principle, that the stronger will survive. The strongness is manifested in the ability to adapt to the environment. It can easily be seen how Carrie is adaptable, even when looking at different people that she is trying to please in order to move forwards. Hurstwood, who once has managed to succeed, cannot start from the beginning somewhere else. He is used to the luxury and comfort of her own home, and a secure job, and cannot break the boundaries in starting from a low position in another place. He, during the time, proves even too old to succeed once again.

It is strange how everything burns down to naturalism – the way both Carrie and Drouet are described and labelled in the beginning of the novel, even the titles of the chapters reveal of a destiny each character has to follow. Carrie is said to have only one of two options – either continue to be innocent, or fall into the hands of someone who ruins her. Hurstwood’s marriage is described as a tinderbox – insecure and ready to start burning at any point. All the characters follow naturalistic forces, it seems they have no self-will that matters at all.

It was a very easy and interesting read at the same time. However, probably not one of the books I would wish to come back to in the future.