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The Provincial Life

Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield

Initially, I was planning on reviewing Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Yet, I found it contained too much sexual content for my taste, and I decided not to finish it. Instead, I moved on to the next book on my list, the British author E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady originally published (according to my book) in 1931. Like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, this book is also on the list of books Rachel from the Book Snob says she “couldn’t live without”. It is also number 2 on the list of 50 books Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book believes “You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.” After I decided to read it, I found it on the list of books Nan from Letters from a Hill Farm has been “in love” with. Therefore, it seemed like a pretty safe pick.

The diary begins on November 7th, 1929 (Delafield 1), and ends on October 23rd, 1930 (Delafield 382), and chronicles  the life of a woman living in the English countryside. I don’t think her name is ever mentioned in the book. She is the wife of Robert, and she has two young children, Robin, who is off at school much of the time, and Vicky, who is at home and watched over and taught by Mademoiselle, her French governess. The provincial lady is in charge of running the household and has several servants to help her, Cook, a house-parlourmaid or house-parlourman who changes several times throughout the course of the novel (Delafield 127, 162, and 197), and a gardener. The diary mostly encompasses the general, everyday occurrences of running a household and taking care of children.

In her “Preface,”Mary Borden says: “She [the provincial lady] is so unegotistical that it would almost seem that she was contented in her cramped surroundings, and yet I believe that she hated the endless struggle to make two ends meet, was frantically bored with her tiresome neighbours and often longed for some word of encouragement from her silent, very British husband” (Borden xi). The provincial lady is not “so unegotistical” that she does not complain; she does grumble about her lack of funds (Delafield 28-29) and her irritating neighbours (Delafield 102). She also relates a scene in which Robert does not seem cognizant that what he says may make her feel bad (Delafield 87).

After reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in which the Nolans barely had enough to eat at times, I had trouble feeling sorry for anyone’s money troubles when they could afford to keep a cook, a maid, and a French governess; send her child to boarding school (Delafield 4); and go on a trip to London (Delafield 72-81). At the same, I felt that maybe I should get off my high horse and put myself in this woman’s shoes. Even though I am not married with children, I live a pretty comfortable life but want more than I have. I, myself, wish I had the money to buy those pretty silver flats I saw at the store the other day or take a train trip up to Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

Therefore, I thought that maybe I should feel some compassion for the provincial lady. Her neighbours are annoying (Delafield 84-85), and when it comes to her husband, the man is really unfeeling. On January 22nd, “Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold-which he has hitherto ignored-is better. I reply that it has gone. Then, why, he asks, do I look like that? Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat” (Delafield 87). I would feel terrible, too, if I started my day with someone saying things like that to me.

The truth is, though, that the novel does not have a whiny tone, and the provincial lady meets her life with a lot of humour. Mary Borden says in her “Preface,” “I think she was too intelligent not to rage at her niggling fate, but too sensible and too gallant to bemoan her lot” (Borden xi). Although I do not agree that her “fate” was “niggling,” she does not “bemoan” or whine about “her lot.” I see whining or bemoaning as a much more annoying and extreme form of complaining, and even though the provincial lady complains about certain things, she is not guilty of either whining or bemoaning. Largely, she sees the humour in her life.

The provincial lady, often, dots her diary with queries and notes to herself which are hilarious. For instance, after the provincial lady has had the measles, the Vicar’s wife visits and stays a long time talking; this scene ends the visit:

At twenty minutes to seven, our Vicar’s wife is again shocked [that she has stayed so long], and rushes out of the house. She meets Robert on the door-step and stops to tell him that I am as thin as a rake, and a very bad colour, and the eyes, after measles, often give rise to serious trouble. Robert, so far as I can hear, makes no answer to any of it, and our Vicar’s wife finally departs.

(Query here suggests itself: Is not silence frequently more efficacious that the utmost eloquence? Answer probably yes. Must try to remember this more often than I do.) (Delafield 209).

Then, she is prone to analyse her feelings and reactions to life quite often (Delafield 110, 139, and 229) which is very funny. Here’s one example: the provincial lady sends some of her clothes off to a place which will give her money for them; she adds a few of her husband’s items without asking him. She struggles to decide between informing him of her action and leaving him to find out for himself that the clothes are missing, and she decides upon the latter course. This action makes her feel guilty, but she does it anyways. She writes: “(Query: Would it not indicate greater strength of character, even if lesser delicacy of feeling, not to spend so much time on regretting errors of judgement and of behaviour? Reply almost certainly in the affirmative. [...].)” (Delafield 139).

Hilarious scenes can also be found throughout the diary. For instance, one of her many annoying neighbours, Miss Pankerton, drops in for a visit.

[...] Miss P. becomes personal, and says that I strike her as being a woman whose life has never known fulfilment. Have often thought exactly the same thing myself, but this does not prevent my feeling entirely furious with Miss P. for saying so. She either does not perceive, or is indifferent to, my fury, as she goes on to ask accusingly whether I realise that I have no right to let myself become a domestic beast of burden, with no interests beyond the nursery and the kitchen. What, for instance, she demands rousingly, have I read within the last two years? To this I reply weakly that I have read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is the only thing I seem able to remember, when Robert and the tea enter simultaneously (Delafield 320).

The whole diary is filled with funny scenes like this one which make it a fun read.

I struggled while reading this book to ascertain what my feelings towards it were. Because I was in a bad mood this week, I noticed the complaints of the main character even though she takes a humourous look at her life. Like I said above, I, too, complain, so I should have more compassion. Maybe, Mary Borden’s remark (already mentioned above) in her “Preface” made me notice the complaints, too: “She [the provincial lady] is so unegotistical that it would almost seem that she was contented in her cramped surroundings, and yet I believe that she hated the endless struggle to make two ends meet, was frantically bored with her tiresome neighbours and often longed for some word of encouragement from her silent, very British husband” (Borden xi). Regardless, I don’t think I would have noticed them as much if I had been in a better mood. Then again, maybe even in a different mood, I would still notice them; because of my bad mood this past week, I just couldn’t tell. Anyways, I think I will try this book again when I am in a better mood.

Overall, I didn’t dislike Diary of a Provincial Lady because of the main character’s humour, but I didn’t love the book because of my dislike of the complaints or my reaction to the complaints due to my bad mood. In the end, it was worth reading for its humour alone.

MLA Citation: Delafield, E. M. Diary of a Provincial Lady. Preface Mary Borden. Illustrations Arthur Watts. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2002.

Next Up: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Beauty in the Truth of Poverty

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

I think I started to read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn once years ago, but I never finished it. I decided to pick it up again because Rachel from The Book Snob listed it as one of the ten books she “couldn’t live without.” I am glad I did, because it might end up on my list of books I can’t live without.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first published in 1943 by the American author Betty Smith. The story is told by a third person narrator, mostly from the perspective of the child, Francie Nolan. She lives with her  younger brother, Neeley (Smith 6), her mother, Katie (Smith 10), and father, Johnny (Smith 31), in a tenement in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York (Smith 3). The book begins in 1912 (Smith 3) and ends in 1918 when Francie is 16 (Smith 474), but the story also reverts back to the pasts of her grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles. Mostly, though, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the story of Francie’s coming of age.

Smith is able to capture well the wonder with which a young child greets the world. Her family is poor, and there are problems in her life and her neighbourhood. Her father is an alcoholic (Smith 31), her Aunt Sissy has lost ten children (Smith 40), and her family only has money for fruit beyond an apple or the occasional banana at Christmas (Smith 42). Yet, Francie is just happy to be alive and lives life in the moment. For example, when she gets tired of eating the same thing all the time, she buys a pickle for a penny: “The pickle lasted all day. Francie sucked and nibbled on it. She didn’t exactly eat it. She just had it. When they had just bread and potatoes too many times at home, Francie’s thoughts went to dripping sour pickles. She didn’t know why, but after a day of the pickle, the bread and potatoes tasted good again. Yes, pickle day was something to look forward to” (Smith 43).  Francie has gratitude for the small things given to her in her life.

One of the ways Francie is able to deal with her hard life is through use of her imagination. A teacher encourages Francie to use her imagination; she tells Francie, a child prone to exaggeration and even caught in lying, ‘”You know, Francie, a lot of people would think that these stories that you’re making up all the time were terrible lies because they are not the truth as people see the truth. In the future, when something comes up, you tell exactly how it happened but write down for yourself the way you think it should have happened. Tell the truth and write the story. Then you won’t get mixed up”‘ (Smith 196). Francie proceeds to write stories and dreams of becoming a writer.

Francie grows up, though, and she can no longer always escape reality through her imagination. When they had no money and little food, Katie, Neeley, and Francie would pretend they were explorers on their way to the North Pole and were trapped in a cave with a limited amount of food. Once, when they had reached their destination and had money and food once again, Francie realized that they were not struggling for any greater good but just struggling (Smith 214-215). She reports her discovery to her mother, and Katie answers, ‘”You found the catch in it”‘ (Smith 215).

Reality hits hard in this book. The Nolans’ lives are not easy. Francie, though, sees the positive aspects of her life, and she brings out the positive points of her father, even with all his faults, in stories she writes for her school compositions (Smith 315). Her teacher, Miss Garnder, does not approve of them, telling her that stories should only be about ‘”beauty”‘ (Smith 315). Without knowing the reality of Francie’s life, this middle-class teacher informs her, ‘”Drunkenness is neither truth nor beauty. It’s a vice. Drunkards belong in jail, not in stories. And poverty. There is no excuse for that. There’s work enough for all who want it. People are poor because they’re too lazy to work. There’s nothing beautiful about laziness”‘ (Smith 316). This middle-class women does not believe that there should be poverty, so it is not truth. Yet, Francie lives with it every day and can still see the beauty in her life and those around her.

The Nolans’ are not ‘”sordid,”‘ (Smith 317) as Miss Garnder calls Francie’s stories. Katie tells neighbours who condole with Katie for Francie’s poor health as a baby, ‘”Everything struggles to live. Look at that tree growing up there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way”‘ (Smith 93). After they tell her that the tree should be destroyed, Katie replies, ‘”If there was only one tree like that in the world, you would think it was beautiful,” said Katie. “But because there are so many, you just can’t see how beautiful it really is. Look at those children.” She pointed to a swarm of dirty children playing in the gutter. “You could take any one of them and wash him good and dress him up and sit him in a fine house and you would think he was beautiful”‘ (Smith 94).

This story, though, is not one of poor Americans who do not see that life could be better. Katie recognizes that much in their life is not good, and she wants better for her children. She struggles to give her children an education, reading to her children a page from the Bible and the works of Shakespeare every night until they can read from them themselves (Smith 82-83) and ensuring that they graduate from grammar school (Smith 350). Katie wonders at how Johnny and the children can be happy in the small things: ‘”They can’t see that we live on a dirty street in a dirty house among people who aren’t much good. Johnny and the children can’t see how pitiful it is that our neighbors have to make happiness out of this filth and dirt. My children must get out of this. They must come to more than Johnny or me or all these people around us” (Smith 203). Katie works for better.

[Possible Spoiler Alert] A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an exploration of the “American Dream.” This novel recognizes that America does not always sell its dream at a price the immigrant or the children of immigrants, people full of flaws, sometimes ignorant, and faced with hardship, can pay. What America does offer the immigrant is hope. Mary Rommely, Francie’s maternal grandmother, explains to Katie that while Europe restricted people to the same place in society as their forefathers, America offers the chance for people to have more than the previous generation through hard work and education. As Mary says, it offers ‘”hope”‘ (Smith 81). This hope permeates the novel. Hope does not automatically provide what is hoped for, and dreams are not fully realized or even partially realized for all. At the same time, there is always the possibility of something better for the next generation.

I can understand why Rachel from the Book Snob listed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as one of her books she could not live without. The story is nuanced, and most aspects of it were satisfying. The writing is clear and straight forward. The descriptions brought the tenements of Williamsburg to life for me. More than all that, though, Betty Smith painted these characters so that I would love them. This novel has fully realized characters with good and bad points. Few characters are described as completely bad. I got to know them, heard humorous stories about them, saw them in their pain and sorrow, and watched them as they enjoyed good times. I followed them through their lives, learned their thoughts, saw them make mistakes, and read as they grew. I became very attached to these characters, and they jumped off the pages for me. It is rare that a book ever touches me to the extent that this one did; it even made me cry. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book full of hope, showing that the poor are not ‘”sordid”‘ (Smith 317) although aspects of their lives may be hard and terrible and that ‘”beauty”‘ (Smith 315) can be found in their lives while they are working for better.

An Added Thought (March 4): [Possible Spoiler Alert] The only unsatisfactory aspect of the novel for me was that most of the Rommely women fall in love with or marry men who are not worthy of them or are not able to give them full lives (Smith 59 and 65). When they first meet, Katie falls in love with Johnny, and she decides she would do anything for him: “Maybe that decision was her great mistake. She should have waited until some man came along who felt that way about her. Then her children would not have gone hungry; she would not have had to scrub floors for their living and her memory of him would have remained a tender shining thing. But she wanted Johnny Nolan and no one else and she set out to get him” (Smith 56). Johnny loves her (Smith 57); the responsibility of a family at a young age is too much for him to handle, though, and he drinks as a consequence (Smith 92). Even though Johnny is seen in a sympathetic light, the book recognizes that Katie should have waited for more (Smith 56). Yet, concerning another female character, through the words and thoughts of two of the characters, the novel gives this female character more latitude in regards to this issue than I am comfortable with (Smith 454). It was partially satisfying that not all of the women end up without more and do get what they deserve (Smith 406 and 460), but the novel could be clearer that waiting for better in relationships is just as important as working for better in our material lives (Smith 454 and 481-482).

MLA Citation: Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

Next Up: Three Day Road: A Novel by Joseph Boyden

The Single Women Chronicles

The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell

After reading a novel about war, a biting satire, and a novel concerning spiritual crisis, I thought it was time I read something light and fluffy. I had recently seen PBS Masteripiece’s Cranford and Return to Cranford and enjoyed both, so at the library, I picked up The Cranford Chronicles by the nineteenth century British writer Elizabeth Gaskell.

The book is a collection of three stories: Mr Harrison’s Confessions (first published in 1851 and later revised and republished in 1855); Cranford (first published in 1851 and later revised and republished in 1853); and My Lady Ludlow (first published in 1858 and later revised and republished in 1859). Really, the collection should be called “The Chronicles of Nineteenth Century Single Women” because they are not all set in Cranford and do all concern genteel single women or “The Chronicles which Inspired PBS Masterpiece’s Cranford” because all of them did. Regardless, the collection is a fun read, and even though all the stories do not concern Cranford, they all hang together well.

The first, Mr Harrison’s Confessions, is a short novel. It tells the story of the young doctor, Mr Harrison, who arrives in the small town of Duncombe to act as a partner to Mr Morgan in his medical practice. Although the story is told from a masculine perspective, the town is full of ladies. Mr Morgan informs him soon after he arrives that, “‘”You will find it a curious statistical fact, but five-sixths of our householders of a certain rank in Duncombe are women. We have widows and old maids in rich abundance. In fact, my dear sir, I believe that you and I are almost the only gentlemen in the place-Mr Bullock, of course, excepted”‘” (Gaskell 11). As the only young gentleman around the place, he quickly becomes the object of some of the young or not so young single women’s attentions, and Mr Harrison finds that it is not so easy to woo one woman when so many are after him. It was an amusing read.

Cranford, a full-length novel, concerns a small English town in the nineteenth century, largely populated by genteel ladies, just like Duncombe: “In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women” (Gaskell 89). The book is told from the perspective of Mary Smith who visits Cranford’s ladies, entering into Cranford from the outside world. Cranford is certainly a world unto itself. The ladies dress very out-of-date because they only see each other, and rules exist for visiting very particular to the town. For example, one could stay at another’s house for only fifteen minutes on a call (Gaskell 90-91).

The novel does not really have a plot but, rather, consists of various incidents in the lives of the ladies of Cranford. It especially centers around the kind and indecisive Miss Matty Jenkyns, who thinks more of other people than of herself, (Gaskell 232-239) and her friends: her sister, Deborah; Miss Pole; Mrs Forrester; Lady Glenmire; Mrs Jamieson; Miss Betsy Barker; and various other characters. The incidents in the novel were amusing, and the lack of plot did not bother me at all; I found it light and enjoyable after the dark fiction I had been reading of late, and I did not feel I needed a climactic plot to keep me in suspense.

I especially enjoyed reading the story because of its amusing accounts of the doings of eccentric, elderly unmarried women and widows. Cranford was rather feminist in a way, showing how the women, especially the single women, of  the town really ran the roost. They were even able to take care of one of their number when she was in need (Gaskell 249-250 and 263). It makes being a single woman look like fun. The single ladies do not bemoan their unwed state but live life to the fullest, visiting and supporting one another. Although Miss Matty wistfully speaks of the vocations of wife and mother and her lost chance at matrimony (Gaskell 213-215), she tells Mary, “”God ordains it all, and I am very happy, my dear’” (Gaskell 214).

The last novel in this collection is My Lady Ludlow. It is narrated by Margaret Dawson, an old woman, who tells of how, at the beginning of the nineteenth century  when she was sixteen years old, she went to live with Lady Ludlow at her estate, Hanbury Court (Gaskell 283-284 and 298). Margaret’s father had died, and her mother did not know how to care for her nine children. Her mother wrote to many people, asking for help, and Lady Ludlow responded in a positive manner, offering to allow Margaret to live with her on her estate. She has other young gentlewomen living with her as companions, and Margaret joins them (Gaskell 282-284). The novel has much in common with Cranford and Mr Harrison’s Confessions since it concerns single or widowed women, but it is also different in that it mostly concerns Lady Ludlow and not the busy affairs of a town full of women.

Like Cranford, this story does not really have a plot, either. Margaret states, “It is no story: it has, as I said, neither beginning, middle, nor end” (Gaskell 281). Instead, it provides various remembrances of Lady Ludlow’s life in general and Margaret’s life at Hanbury Court. These memories are not always told in a linear fashion. Margaret will be in the middle of describing one thing when she goes into a long description of something else and then swerves back to the original subject (Gaskell 297). For example, at one point, a boy arrives on the scene who reminds Lady Ludlow of a person connected to someone she had known back in the days of the French Revolution. This memory occasions a story that lasts several chapters, and eventually, the audience is brought back to the original boy (Gaskell 332-397). I enjoyed the various stories and descriptions that broke up the flow of the text, so I will give Gaskell some latitude on this point.

If the novel does not really have a plot, it does have a theme: class. Lady Ludlow is of the aristocracy. She is continually conscious of her place in society and her duty towards those below her. She does not act arrogantly but, instead, treats all with kindness and gentleness. This kindness occasions those around her to treat her with reverence, and Margaret states, “that some most powerful bond of grateful affection made Miss Galindo [a villager] almost worship my lady” (Gaskell 433). This villager describes to Lady Ludlow the nature of her ladyship’s relationship to those of a lower class: “‘You yourself were born amongst them [the parishioners], and have been like a little queen to them ever since, I might say, and they’ve never known your ladyship do anything but what was kind and gentle [...]‘” (Gaskell 431).

The old order of England, however, is changing. Her steward, Mr Horner wishes to train a boy from the village, Harry Gregson, to become a foreman or clerk, and Mr Gray, the Anglican clergyman, wishes to give the village children a basic education in order that they may come to a better understanding of their faith (Gaskell 323-324 and 397-399). Lady Ludlow disapproves of both plans. Her ladyship does not believe in educating the lower classes, stating “‘[...] that education is a bad thing, if given indiscriminately. It unfits the lower orders for their duties, the duties to which they are called by God, of submission to those placed in authority over them, of contentment with that state of life to which it has pleased God to call them, and of ordering themselves lowly and reverently to all their betters’” (Gaskell 419). Lady Ludlow is of a dying breed, though, since all her children are dead (Gaskell 436), and the novel relates how she cannot hold out against the lower classes moving beyond their traditional place in society.

Overall, I enjoyed these fun stories of single women living life to the fullest in the nineteenth century, responding to changing circumstances as best they could. Mr Harrison’s Confessions, Cranford, and My Lady Ludlow were amusing and uplifting reads, and they all hung together well as a collection, although it could use a better title.

MLA Citation: Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Cranford Chronicles. London: Vintage Books, 2007.

Next Up: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

The Extent of Responsibility

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

I have recently discovered and enjoyed some of British author Graham Greene’s work: the films Brighton Rock and The Third Man (both are based on his novels by the same names and their screenplays are written by Greene) and his novel The Human Factor. Therefore, I thought I would try his novel The Heart of the Matter, first published in 1948. It is set in a West African British colony during World War II (Wood viii). It is written in the third person and is mostly from the perspective of two men: Scobie, a police officer, and Wilson, a British spy (Wood ix).

Scobie is a man who tries to gather the facts, to find the truth about people. Scobie wonders at one point, “If one knew, he wondered, the facts would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?” (Greene 111). At the same time, he is conscious that the truth can hurt: “The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being-it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and ties are worth a thousand truths. He involved himself in what he always knew was a vain struggle to retain the lies” (Greene 48).

The novel is not clear on whether he still loves his wife, Louise. At one point, at the beginning of the novel, his wife accuses him of loving no one, not even himself; Scobie, himself, cannot admit to her that he loves her until they are past the point in the conversation where they tell each other the truth, and he only says it to make her happy (Greene 47-50). Later, though, he does refer to the feeling he has for his wife as “love” (Greene 168 and 247).

What is clear is that he is burdened with responsibility towards Louise; he is a man who takes his duty seriously (Greene 49 and 109). Guaranteeing the happiness of Louise is his constant anxiety: “No man could guarantee love for ever, but he had sworn fourteen years ago, at Ealing, silently, during the horrible little elegant ceremony among the lace and candles, that he would at least always see to it that she was happy” (Greene 49). He knows that he cannot make her happy, but he still tries.  “If I could just arrange for her happiness first, he thought, and in the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him-that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness” (Greene 75). Scobie often confuses or replaces pity and responsibility with love (Greene 149), and this confusion may explain why it is not clear whether he loves Louise or not; he questions himself whether he loves Louise and someone else or just feels pity towards them (Greene 190).

Scobie hopes for peace:

He had nearly everything, and all he needed was peace. Everything meant work, the daily regular routine in the little bare office, the change of seasons in a place he loved. How often he had been pitied for the austerity of the work, the bareness of the rewards. But Louise knew him better than that. If he had become young again this was the life he would have chosen to live; only this time he would not have expected any other person to share it with him, the art upon the bath, the lizard on the wall, the tornado blowing open the windows at one in the morning and the last pink light upon the laterite roads at sundown (Greene 49).

Yet, when Louise leaves for South Africa, unable to bear any longer the gossip of the English colony, he is not freed from his burden. He must leave the town in which he lives to travel to Pende where the survivors of an English ship wreck (Wood x) are brought across the border from Vichy territory, and here, he feels the duty to relieve the “misery” (Greene 109) of others once again. “It was as if he had shed one responsibility only to take on another. This was a responsibility he shared with all human beings, but that was no comfort, for it sometimes seemed to him that he was the only one who recognized his responsibility. In the Cities of the Plain a single soul might have changed the mind of God” (Greene 109). When he sees a child die, he prays to God: “‘Father,’ he prayed, ‘give her peace. Take away my peace for ever, but give her peace’” (Greene 112).

And it is Scobie’s sense of responsibility (Wood x) for the happiness of other human beings that leads him to compromise his integrity. So that his wife could leave for South Africa, he compromises his professional integrity which leads him to further sin later on. While his wife is away, he enters into an affair with Mrs. Helen Rolt, a young survivor of the shipwreck who lost her husband during it. When Louise returns, he feels the weight of his responsibility to both of them. As a Roman Catholic, he feels compelled by his wife and his religion to confess his sin of adultery, leave Helen, and receive communion, but he also feels that by leaving her, he would be sacrificing Helen’s happiness (Greene 203-205). Scobie experiences a spiritual crisis in which he struggles between avoiding damnation (Greene 209) and maintaining the happiness of both his wife and Helen (Wood xi-xvi) (Greene 241-243).

Along the way, the narrator occasionally takes up the perspective of Wilson, an English spy working in the colony. He is a “romantic, humble, ambitious” (Greene 65) man whose accustomed to lie: “His profession was to lie, to have the quick story ready, never to give himself away, and his private life was taking the same pattern” (Greene 154). Scobie and Wilson are used as contrasts: “It seemed to Wilson that Scobie was still a novice in the world of deceit: he hadn’t lived in it since childhood, and he felt an odd elderly envy for Scobie, much as an old lag might envy the young crook serving his first sentence, to whom all this was new” (Greene 155).

Wilson falls in love with Louise, but Louise, unlike her husband, does not become an adulteress; she loves Scobie even though she knows that Scobie doesn’t love her (Greene 69).  Louise recognizes that Wilson’s love is not real but is only a romantic notion; he reads romantic poetry, and he believes he feels the same emotions the poets write about. She states that the love she has for her husband is not like Wilson’s love for her: “But it’s not the kind of love you want to imagine you feel. No poisoned chalices, eternal doom, black sails. We don’t die for love, Wilson-except, of course, in books. And sometimes a boy play-acting. Don’t let’s play-act, Wilson-it’s no fun at our age” (Greene 199). Even Wilson, himself, recognizes that his love for her might not be real; he uses words like “imagine” and “lie” when thinking to himself about it: “Why, he wondered, does one ever begin this humiliating process: why does one imagine that one is in love? He had read somewhere that love had been invented in the eleventh century by the troubadours. Why had they not left us with lust? He said with hopeless venom, ‘I love you.’ He thought: it’s a lie, the word means nothing off the printed page” (Greene 199).

Wilson is not open to anyone but Louise about his love for poetry (Greene 4 and 22), but the passion he has formed for her actually leads Wilson to be more true to himself, the romantic within him. “But if romance is what one lives by, one must never be cured of it. The world has too many spoilt priests of this faith or that: better surely to pretend a belief than wander in that vicious vacuum of cruelty and despair” (Greene 200). Wilson becomes true to the lie within himself, while Scobie begins to lie to the outside world, giving up his integrity, to stay true to his sense of responsibility.

One may think from this review that the book is more a treatise on responsibility than a novel. In his “Introduction” to the novel, James Wood accuses Greene of not giving Scobie enough “depth as a character” in order that the reader can understand how he can be so divided between his responsibility for Louise and Helen and his responsibility towards God or how he can be an adulterer and yet be so religious (Wood xiii):

[h]e is that knowable type, “a policeman,” and has the temperament familiar to us now from a thousand television shows: work-obsessed, calm, controlling, repressed, bad with women, a grim solitary. He seems to have had almost no childhood, and to have no interests outside his work. Or rather, he has one great passion other than his work, and it is religion; but it is a passion that does not emerge as such until it is negatively provoked. (He feels, oddly, religious pain but no religious joy.) (Wood xiii).

Wood surmises that Greene resolves the inexplicable nature of the action which culminates Scobie’s spiritual crisis by leaving Scobie up to the mystery of God: “We cannot know, or even comprehend Scobie, the book tells us. That is God’s task” (Wood xv) (Greene 254).

Maybe, Wood is right; Greene does not provide much detail about the characters, and he uses the stereotypical police officer to convey an honest man gone wrong and a spy to convey a lier. I believe good character development is essential to a good novel, and I blast authors when they use their characters solely as vehicles for ideas. At the risk of being hypocritical and irrational, then, I still liked this novel. Even though he may not be a well-drawn character, I got a lot out of Greene’s exploration of Scobie’s spiritual suffering. Possibly, I am giving Greene more latitude than I should since I have not given it to other authors, but Scobie’s struggle made the book worth reading for me. Furthermore, the plot is excellent, keeping the reader in its grip, and the writing is exceptional. Greene is able to portray pathos with a few well chosen words. This novel shows how far responsibility can take us, and for its expert exploration of the subject, its gripping plot, and its beautiful writing, it is a must read.

MLA Citation: Greene, Graham. The Heart of the Matter. Intro. James Wood. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

Next Up: The Cranford Chronicles by Elizabeth Gaskell

Of Dead Souls and Verbosity

Dead Souls: A Novel by Nikolai Gogol

I want to explore more Russian fiction, and so I decided to try something by Nikolai Gogol, a nineteenth century author born in the Ukrainian portion of the Russian Empire. I chose Dead Souls: A Novel. I’m not glad I did; I didn’t enjoy its premise, the writing style, or the characters. Frankly, I was dragging myself to the end of this novel.

Dead Souls: A Novel, first published in 1842, is the story of Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a former civil servant, who arrives in the town of N. After winning over the town’s officials, he travels around the countryside to various landowners, convincing them to sell him their “dead souls” or peasants no longer living. He uses a different strategy with each of them, but this passage in which Chichikov is convincing Sobakevich, a landowner, to sell him his “dead souls” encapsulates his general reasoning:

And that according to the existing regulations of this state [Russia], unequaled in glory, the souls listed in the census, once their life’s path has ended, are nevertheless counted equally with the living until the new census is taken, so as not to burden the institutions with a quantity of petty and useless documents and increase the complexity of the already quite complex state machinery… Sobakevich went on listening, his head bent-and that, nevertheless, for all the justice of this measure, it was often somewhat burdensome for many owners, obliging them to pay taxes as if for the living object, and that he, feeling a personal respect for him, would even be ready to take this truly heavy responsibility partly upon himself. With regard to the main object, Chichikov expressed himself very cautiously: he never referred to the souls as dead, but only as nonexistent (Gogol 99-100).

We, the audience, are left just as clueless as all the characters as to why Chichikov is obtaining dead souls until over half-way through the novel, when not only his reasons but also the make-up of Chichikov are fully explained. He is a dead soul, a swindler, who works, brown noses, and flatters only to acquire money, often, in a way that twists or completely goes against the law. Chichikov is not the only dead soul here; almost every character in the novel is a dead soul in a way: “the lady agreeable in all respects” and “the simply agreeable lady,” who spread ridiculous gossip about Chichikov that is partly based on supposition; the landowner Plyushkin whose frugality turned to miserliness after the death of his wife; and the landowner, Nozdryov, a man who only knows how to have fun and is always lying even though he does not succeed in fooling anyone. Chichikov eventually moves on from N., and after some time has passed, he enters another locale where his adventures are again taken up by the narrator and made the subject of the second volume.

The reader is not only supposed to laugh at these characters but is supposed to identify with their failings; Gogol’s audience is Russia, and this novel is meant as a biting satire of provincial Russian society. Each character exhibits some aspect of the degenerate Russian character from the directionless Tentetnikov who has no drive to overcome obstacles in order to get what he wants to the completely impractical Khlobuev who has squandered his fortune on a lavish lifestyle. The author knows that many will not like this work, and those who call themselves “ardent patriots” (Gogol 251) will wonder why Gogol has to bring Russia’s most glaring faults before the world (Gogol 249). The novelist, though, believes he has a duty to “speak the sacred truth” (Gogol 251); he cannot turn away because of fear that nothing can be done and that others will discover its faults and insult his country (Gogol 250).

Gogol paints provincial Russia’s dead souls in a vivid fashion. His descriptions really give  the reader a feel for the town of N. and the surrounding countryside. In particular, Gogol has a habit of making interesting comparisons. Here is one such comparison:

The ladies managed to blow so much smoke in everyone’s eyes that for a while everyone, the officials especially, remained dumbfounded. Their position for the first moment was like that of a sleeping schoolboy whose comrades, getting up earlier, have put a hussar in his nose-that is, a rolled-up paper filled with snuff. Unwittingly inhaling all the snuff with all the zeal of a still-sleeping man, he awakes, jumps up, stares like a fool, goggle-eyed, in all directions, unable to understand where he is or what has happened, and only then notices the indirect ray of sun shining on the wall, the laughter of his comrades hiding in the corners, and the dawning day looking in the window, the awakened forest sounding with the voices of thousands of birds, the light shining on the river, disappearing now and then in its gleaming curlicues amid the slender rushes, all strewn with naked children calling others to come for a swim, and only then finally feels the hussar sitting in his nose. This was precisely the position of the inhabitants and officials of the town for the first moment (Gogol 191-192).

Such comparisons were funny and did paint a vivid picture in my mind; at the same time, they often took away from forwarding the plot.

The above is a good example of Gogol’s wordiness. I’m used to reading nineteenth century fiction where complicated and long sentences are the norm, but Gogol’s work is verbose to the extreme. His sentences and paragraphs go on forever. Gogol could not stop himself when he got going. I wanted to take a red pen and start crossing out some of the extraneous bits of his paragraphs and sentences. To give him some credit, Gogol had less of a problem with verbosity in the second volume. In all, though, Gogol’s novel was definitely not the easiest book I’ve ever read.

The novel was not just difficult to read because of its loquaciousness. A word here, a phrase or phrases there, and even pages are missing from the manuscript of the second volume, interrupting the story and leaving whole portions of the plot incomprehensible. Gogol had intended to write “two big parts” (Gogol 251) after the first volume but only left incomplete drafts of chapters of the second part and another incomplete later chapter that may have been the last one. The Works of Nikolai Vassilyevich Gogol Found After His Death, published in 1855, included these chapters (Pevear viii). I imagine that if these parts of the story could be found and placed back in the text, it would flow better. Yet, regardless of the missing parts, I felt that the story dragged; I did not see the point of it until the very end, but the ending did not make the novel worth reading for me.

I should have paid more attention to the premise of this novel when I decided to read it. First of all, being a twenty-first century girl, I don’t look too highly on the buying and selling of people, even if they are dead. Even if I make allowances for this book being one of its time, I just don’t not want to read about dead souls. The people are all comically drawn, and I found myself laughing at the situations; yet, most of his characters are not appealing in any way except for a few good characteristics here and there. For two examples, there was something to like in Kostanzhoglo’s work ethic, resourcefulness, and practicality, and Murazov seemed like a good man in the little that was shown of him. There was hardly anything for me to like in most of the other characters of this novel, though, except for small things here and there.

If Gogol could be here, his answer for me would probably be that he was describing the messiness of humanity that other authors just did not want to view. Gogol describes two authors: one who only writes about “characters that manifest the lofty dignity of man,” (Gogol 133) and another, most likely himself, that gives a different picture of humanity (Pevear xvi-xx).

But such is not the lot [praise], and other is the destiny of the writer who has dared to call forth all that is before our eyes every moment and which our indifferent eyes do not see-all the terrible, stupendous mire of trivia in which our life is entangled, the whole depth of cold, fragmented, everyday characters that swarm over our often bitter and boring earthly path, and with the firm strength of his implacable chisel dares to present them roundly and vividly before the eyes of all people! It is not for him to win people’s applause [...]. (Gogol 134).

Gogol showed the ignoble aspects of humanity which is just not enough for me. I don’t need to just read about valiant princes who ride on white horses, slaying dragons and saving princesses, because I do realize that most of life is messy. Most of us, though, have the capacity for something more, to be other than coarse and common. Usually, people are not solely saints or sinners but something in between.  I wonder whether it would have been more helpful to describe ordinary sinners who have risen above their failings, inspiring the Russian people rather than deriding them.

After reading Wikipedia’s article on “Dead Souls,” I will recognize that the second volume offered more likable characters like Kostanzhoglo and Murazov and was more enjoyable to read than the first for that reason. Although Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source, it states, “[...] Dead Souls was meant to offer solutions rather than simply point out problems. This grander scheme was largely unrealized at Gogol’s death; the work was never completed, and it is primarily the earlier, darker part of the novel that is remembered.” Maybe, it was Gogol’s intent to offer inspiring characters in the second volume to give Russians the courage to raise themselves from degradation; without giving away the ending, that does seem to be his intent at the end of the novel. Due to Gogol’s death, the second volume was not thoroughly developed, however, and it did not save the novel for me.

Because of his dead souls and his verbosity, Dead Souls: A Novel didn’t work for me.

MLA Citation: Gogol, Nikolai. Dead Souls: A Novel. Trans. and Annotated Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Next up: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

The Siege of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Last summer, I visited Sarajevo, and I saw the places on the streets that had been shelled during the Siege of Sarajevo (April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996), marked with red resin and called Sarajevo Roses. Picking up the Cellist of Sarajevo written by the Canadian author Steven Galloway and published in 2008, I hoped it would shed some light on the war which left such remnants in the city even today.

The novel has four main characters: a cellist; Kenan, a husband and father of three; Dragan, a man whose wife and child escaped the city before the siege; and Arrow, a sniper working for the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovnina, protecting the city from the Serbs of the  Republika Srpska and the Yugoslav People’s Army who are attacking Sarajevo. The cellist sees twenty-two people die from a mortar shell attack in front of his apartment, and every day for the next twenty-two days, he plays his cello in the same spot where the people were killed (Galloway xvii). He plays Albinoni’s Adagio, a work a musicologist reconstructed from a fragment he found in the Dresden Music Library which was firebombed during World War II (Galloway xiii). The cellist was actually based upon a real person, Vedran Smailović who played his cello for twenty-two days in the spot where twenty-two people were killed by a shell while waiting for bread on May 27, 1992 (Galloway 233). The other three characters become connected to this man in some way. This book seemed to have a great deal of promise, telling a story of hope in a time seemingly bereft of it.

I loved the descriptions in this novel. I felt like I could really walk through Sarajevo with the characters and revisit the sites that I’d seen just a few short months ago. At the same time, Galloway was thinking for me too much of the time. For example, on his way to get water, Kenan encounters a man fishing for pigeons, obtaining food from one of the few sources left in the city. I could easily see that the pigeons were like the people living in Sarajevo, always afraid of being an easy target for the snipers on the hills; the author has to make it clear for us, however: “But he [Kenan] can’t help feeling a sort of kinship with the pigeon. He thinks it’s possible that the men on the hills are killing them slowly, a half-dozen at a time, so there will always be a few more to kill the next day” (Galloway 54). The metaphor was great, but I could have gotten it on my own.

The author also described the characters responses to the siege well. I have never lived under siege or been through a war, so I do not know what it would be like. I can imagine, though, and the reactions of the characters seem legitimate to me. Arrow no longer goes to funerals because they cause her to feel intense anger. When she goes, she feels nothing because she has already come to feel too much pain. She becomes angry at the mourners for still experiencing grief, gets upset at herself for getting mad at them, and then, has intense hatred for the snipers on the hills for making her feel this way (Galloway 121). Dragan no longer has hope that the hospitals have the supplies and personnel to save the wounded and wonders whether it is better to be wounded or killed by a sniper (Galloway 107-108). Kenan feels like a “coward” because he does not work to save people after a shelling and does not help a man find his dog which has been lost during it (Galloway 148). Anger, fear, and a lack of hope all seem to me to be reactions many would feel living in a city under siege.

I did find the novel inspiring. The cellist inspires each character in different ways: to live again in the here and now; to turn from hate; to turn from the illusion that she does not have choices; to act in small ways for others. Above all, though, each is reminded of who he/she is, who he/she wants to be, and what Sarajevo is meant to be.

In the end, though, I did not enjoy this novel because I felt that Galloway was guilty of using his characters as vehicles to discuss the war. Arrow exhibits how someone might be filled with anger in reaction to the war; Dragan depicts how someone can become disconnected from their environment in war time; Kenan shows how fear can affect someone living through a siege; and the cellist reveals how someone might give hope in such a situation. All of these reactions seemed legitimate, but the characters just seemed to be the vehicles of these reactions. I learned about their families, friends, and memories to a certain extent, but all these didn’t elucidate their characters but how they responded to the siege. I didn’t feel like I got to know them as people but just as their responses.

Recently, I was reading the Book Snob or Rachel’s book review of The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling; she finds that authors of historical novels do not realize that characters are not so mindful of the historical milieu in which they live. In regards to The Cellist of Sarajevo, Galloway is not guilty of this error. I can only imagine that war would be such a terrifying and overwhelming reality that it would probably dominate most if not all of the thoughts and experiences of those living through it. Yet, because he was so focused on depicting the characters’ reactions to the war, Galloway failed to write well-rounded characters.

I now have a better understanding of how people lived through the Siege of Sarajevo, but I need more from a novel than an understanding of how events impact people. That is what a history book is for. If you want to know more about the siege, pick up a history book; do not read The Cellist of Sarajevo.

MLA Citation: Galloway, Steven. The Cellist of Sarajevo. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

Next Up: Dead Souls: A Novel by Nikolai Gogol

Subverted Expectations

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I’m not sure why I decided to read this novel written by the British author, Dodie Smith, and first published in 1948. I think I’d heard of the 2003 movie I Capture the Castle with Romola Garai, and I may have seen the book in the bookstore recently.

The narrator is seventeen year old  Cassandra Mortmain who lives in England in the early twentieth century with her “nearly twenty-one” year old sister, Rose (Smith 3); her father, a writer who hasn’t written anything for years; her step-mother, Topaz, an artists’ model; her younger teenage brother, Thomas; and the son of their deceased servant, Stephen.

Cassandra is keeping a journal to improve her speed writing and to hone her writing skills in general because she wants to become a novelist. I Capture the Castle is that journal of Cassandra’s, and the author has captured the confessional voice of a teenage journal writer perfectly. It doesn’t always read like a journal, though, because Cassandra also describes the happenings in her life more like a novelist. Through her journal, I came to fall in love with the lovely, kind, and intelligent Cassandra and her funny, eccentric, and fallible family.

When I first began to read it, I thought the book would be a light, fluffy novel, suitable for adolescent girls. Cassandra’s environment is exactly like that of a conventional romance. The family lives in a castle that they’ve leased for forty years from nearby Scoatney Hall. Cassandra feels all the romance of their setting: “I have just remarked to Rose that our situation is really rather romantic-two girls in this strange and lonely house” (Smith 4). Then, two young men, Simon and Neil Cotton, with their mother come to live at Scoatney Hall, a situation which resembles another well-known novel. Rose asked Cassandra, ‘”Did you think of anything when Miss Marcy said Scoatney Hall was being re-opened? I thought of the beginning of Pride and Prejudice-where Mrs. Bennet says ‘Netherfield Park is let at last.’ And then Mr. Bennet goes over to call on the rich new owner”‘ (Smith 24). I thought when I was reading the beginning, “Oh, I would have loved this book when I was twelve. Girls living in a castle with young men to fall in love with them. I expect white horses with male riders to come up any moment and whisk them away.” I settled in for a light, enjoyable read.

That’s not exactly what I got. Because the narrator is light and innocent at the beginning of the novel, I expected lightness and innocence, but her life becomes much more complex. I should have expected it sooner; at the beginning of the novel, in answer to Cassandra’s remark that living in a castle is romantic, “She [Rose] replied that she saw nothing romantic about being shut up in a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud” (Smith 4). The family is pretty poor, not having enough to eat or decent clothes to put on their backs. Like Pride and Prejudice, money plays a key role here, and Rose is greatly concerned by her family’s lack of it. Then, not only worldly concerns come into play but also much more relationship centered problems. I Capture the Castle is not so childlike and romantic.

Because I was so attached to the characters, I got very angry at the author for giving the characters their problems, but I got over it. Cassandra does mature through them and comes to grips with some of the incongruities of her life, the mistakes she has made, and the sorrows she has faced. This novel is not the type to leave the reader without hope, drowning in the mire of meaninglessness in the face of these inconsistencies and difficulties. There’s even a bit of wisdom thrown in which I found mostly satisfying. I did thoroughly enjoy this book, and I highly recommend it.

Update: I finished watching the 2003 movie I Capture the Castle with Romola Garai today (February 3), and it was a beautiful movie. Movies are rarely able to capture the essence of books, but this movie did an excellent job. Little was changed from the book, and I was okay with most of the changes. The message and meaning of the book were conveyed well. Romola Garai was a bit too emotional at times, but I still liked her portrayal of Cassandra. Overall, the acting was good, and the scenery was spectacular. I definitely recommend it.

MLA Citation: Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003.

Next Up: The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Sherlock Holmes, We All Know You're Smart; Just Get on with It.

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Normally, I wouldn’t read two mysteries in a row as I like variety, but this book was the second selection for the book club I attended this month. Even though Sherlock Holmes is extremely well-known, I don’t think I have ever read any of the stories or novels about this detective before. I never had any inclination to read one, though. Sherlock Holmes never struck me as an appealing character, being a tad too conceited for my taste. Yet, I endeavored to give him a try.

Being the first Sherlock Holmes story written by the British author Arthur Conan Doyle and published in 1887, this novel introduces the relationship between John H. Watson MD and Sherlock Holmes. After becoming wounded and subsequently struck down with fever in the second Afghan war, Watson, an assistant surgeon with the British army, is placed on leave and returns to London in about 1882. Through a friend, Watson meets up with Sherlock Holmes; the doctor and Holmes, both in need of a flatmate, rent an apartment together. Sherlock Holmes is an amateur detective, and an article Holmes wrote describes his method thus:

‘So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. [...] By a man’s finger-nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent inquirer in any case is almost inconceivable’ (Doyle 18-19).

When the detective Tobias Gregson seeks Holmes’ assistance with a case, Watson and the reader, then, get a chance to see Holmes put these skills of deduction and analysis in action.

The novel is a chance for Doyle to showcase Holmes’ powers of observation and not a chance for the reader to become involved in the solving of the crime. As noted at the book club, unlike Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the reader does not have all the clues at his/her fingertips to figure out the mystery. Instead, Sherlock Holmes has all the cards, and the reader is left to either marvel at his intellect or get highly annoyed with him for not telling what he knows. Like Mr. Gregson, I wanted to say to him, “‘[W]e are all ready to acknowledge that you are a smart man, and that you have your own methods of working. We want something more than mere theory and preaching now, though. [...] You have thrown out hints here, and hints there, and seem to know more than we do, but the time has come when we feel that we have a right to ask you straight how much you do know of the business’” (Doyle 63-64). This statement from the detective shows that the reader is supposed to find Holmes annoying, but that doesn’t make me any less irritated.

Yet, even after Mr. Gregson makes this statement, and the criminal is caught, the reader does not find out how the murderer killed his victims or how Holmes’ caught him for another 44 pages, having to sit through a whole passage of back story about Utah. There is no lead in to this back story, and it just starts up at “PART 2: The Country of the Saints.” I actually liked this part more than the primary story in London, but like others at the book club, I did find that it didn’t flow with the rest of the work.

In the end, after all this complaining, I did enjoy the story. The writing is excellent, and the story is gripping; and as much as I was annoyed by Holmes, he is an interesting enough character to keep me enthralled. Do I like him enough to run out and pick up another Sherlock Holmes mystery? No. Am I glad that I read A Study in Scarlet? Yes.

MLA Citation: Doyle, Arthur Conan. A Study in Scarlet. Ed. Owen Dudley Edwards. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Next Up: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

An Amusing Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Hercule Poirot Mystery by Agatha Christie

I decided to read The Mysterious Affair at Styles because it was listed for a book club I’m interested in attending. This book is not my first encounter with the British author, Agatha Christie, though. I grew up watching adaptations of her books on PBS’s Mystery! (now Masterpiece Mystery!) and read some of her novels when in junior high or high school, so I was not upset to see an Agatha Christie mystery on the book club list.

This particular novel stars Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective with an extraordinary attention to detail and to his dress, and Hastings, his not so intelligent assistant. At the beginning of the novel, Hastings is on leave from his service as a soldier during World War I, and he has been invited to stay with his old friend, John Cavendish, at John’s stepmother’s house, Styles Court. The house contains a slew of characters. During Hastings’ stay, a murder occurs, and who isn’t staying in the nearby village but Hercule Poirot, a refugee from the war and Hastings’ old acquaintance. Hastings elicits his help to investigate the mysterious death.

This mystery is an amusing read. Hercule Poirot provides some laughs due to his eccentricities; he is always conscious of his dress, and at one point, Hastings observes him “carefully brushing an imaginary speck of dust from his sleeve” (Christie 97). The relationship between Hastings and Poirot is even more enjoyable, though. At the beginning, Hastings is sure that he is a better detective than Poirot which he definitely is not. After disagreeing with Poirot over whether a substance contained poison, Hastings thinks, “The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him some one of a more receptive type of mind” (Christie 49-50). Mysteries can be so ominous and depressing what with the murder and the mayhem but not this one. Oh, no, they have characters like Poirot and Hastings to lighten the mood.

The book also contains some good twists and turns; I suspected, at one point, certain individuals, but like Hastings, was dead wrong. Poirot set me straight in the end. I enjoyed reading this mystery, finding the characters entertaining, the writing easy to follow, and the plot containing sufficient suspence. If you are looking for a good light read on a winter’s evening, pick up The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

MLA Citation: Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. Doylestown, Pennsylvania: Wildside Press, unknown year.

Next Up:  A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

Being versus Becoming

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

I decided to pick up Henderson the Rain King because a friend of mine had mentioned it on his blog.  It was written by the Canadian American author Saul Bellow and published in 1959. I have to admit that I didn’t like it at first. Eugene Henderson, the protagonist, is a rich man in his 50s, living in post-World War II America. His heart is always saying ‘I want, I want, I want, oh, I want [...],(Bellow 12), and he is  impatient with the life that it is not providing for his heart’s desire. He is crude, rude, and aggressive.  I didn’t find Henderson to be a very appealing character at all.

I am glad, though, that I persisted with this book. It is one of those books that makes you think more deeply about life, about why we’re here, that makes you feel like you’re a better person after having read it. At it’s heart, it’s about being. Henderson is not content with being; during his conversation with King Dahfu of the African Wariri tribe, he thinks,

I might have added, as it entered my mind to do, that some people found satisfaction in being (Walt Whitman: “Enough to merely be! Enough to breathe! Joy! Joy! All over joy!”) Being. Others were taken up with becoming. Being people have all the breaks. Becoming people are very unlucky, always in a tizzy. The Becoming people are always having to make explanations or offer justifications to the Being people. While the Being people provoke these explanations. I sincerely feel that this is something everyone should understand about me. [...] And if I had really been capable of the alert consciousness which it required I would have confessed that Becoming was beginning to come out of my ears. Enough! Enough! Time to have Become. Time to Be! Burst the spirit’s sleep. Wake up, America! Stump the experts (Bellow 160).

Henderson travels to Africa to ‘burst the spirit’s sleep’ and encounters people of being. When speaking of the goodness of the Arnewi, a tribe Henderson encounters, King Dahfur says to Henderson,

“They say,” he went on, “that bad can easily be spectacular, has dash or bravado and impresses the mind quicker than good. Oh, that is a mistake in my opinion. Perhaps of common good it is true. Many, many nice people. Oh yes. Their will tells them to perform good, and they do. How ordinary! Mere arithmetic. ‘I have left undone the etceteras I should have done, and done the etceteras I ought not to have.’ This does not even amount to a life. Oh, how sordid it is to bookkeep. My whole view is opposite or contrary, that good cannot be labor or conflict. When it is high and great, it is too superior. Oh, Mr. Henderson, it is far more spectacular. It is associated with inspiration, and not conflict, for where a man conflicts there he will fall, and if taking the sword also perishes by the sword. A dull will produces a very dull good, of no interest. Where a fellow draws a battle line there he is apt to be found, dead, a testimonial of the great strength of effort, and only effort” (Bellow 168-169.)

Henderson learns about being, goodness, truth (Bellow 212), nobility (Bellow 214-215), and fear (Bellow 258-260) from several people in Africa but especially from the king of the Wariri, Dahfu, and Atti, his lion. Henderson changes. Through his trip and his transformation, I came to really like him. I was won over by his attempt to come to terms with life. I began to sympathise with his yearnings and his dissatisfaction with life, and I gave him credit for doing something about it and not just giving up. In the end, I admired Henderson, and I, too, felt changed by his experience, his trip to learn how to stop becoming and just be.

MLA Citation: Bellow, Saul. Henderson the Rain King. New York: The Penguin Group, 1996.

Next Up: The Mysterious Affair at Styles: A Hercule Poirot Mystery by Agatha Christie