Wednesday, April 27, 2011

997. Martin Eden by Jack London

Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: The Modern Library New York 2002

Martin Eden, a rough, uneducated sailor from a working class background, struggles to rise above his destitute circumstances through self-education. The main force behind his efforts is his love for Ruth Morse, a member of a bourgeois family, and his desire to be worthy of her. But is becoming bourgeois a worthwhile achievement? Is Ruth Morse actually worthy of his love? And is what he’s working for a dream?

First chapter:
What I got was the two sides to Martin Eden. On the one side he’s commonplace—he’s physically awkward and speaks badly—but this contrasts with his thirst for knowledge and beauty. There’s something admirable in him from the beginning and we see this through Ruth's eyes. He wants to improve himself: “I guess the real facts is that I don’t know nothin’ much about such things. It ain’t in my class. But I’m going to make it in my class.” (p12).

I wasn’t sure whether I’d like this book, but for the second time this year I found a book I couldn’t put down, a book I’d reread: it was accessible, it was real and I found myself admiring and connected to Eden’s struggle. What I particularly liked was the surface struggle by Eden to be a successful writer and in turn be worthy of Ruth Morse, highlighting the difference between the uncritical, machinelike nature of how “educated” people think versus the difference between education and ability to critically think and analyse.

Martin wanted to be educated for two reasons: he had an innate yearning for more and plus he wanted to win the girl. Both were important but for different reasons.

From the beginning it was clear Martin was more than a rough, uncouth working class sailor. He had potential despite his lack of understanding of art in thinking art painting was a trick: "He stared at what seemed a careless daub of paint, then stepped away. Immediately all the beauty flashed back into the canvas." (p5)

We hear of his yearning from him: "Into his eyes leaped a wistfulness and a yearning as promptly as the yearning leaps into the eyes of a starving man at sight of food. An impulsive strike, with one lurch to right and left of the shoulders, brought him to the table, where he began affectionately handling the books. He glanced at the titles and the authors' names, read fragments of text, caressing the volumes with this eyes and hands ..." (p5) And we hear it from Ruth who sees something special in Eden she shares with us: “The ill-fitting clothes, battered hands, and sunburned face remained; but these seemed the prison-bars through which she saw a great soul looking forth, inarticulate and dumb because of those feeble lips that would not give it speech.” (p24)

But even though this spark to learn and grow is within Eden, meeting Ruth gives him a vision of a woman from another world he wants to be worthy of. Love at first sight: “Never had he seen such a woman.” (p7) “He had met the woman at last—the woman that he had thought little about, not being given to thinking about women, but whom he had expected, in a remote way, he would sometime meet.” (p27) “But as the meet and lowly at the penitent form catch splendid glimpses of their future lordly existence, so did he catch similar glimpses of the state he would gain by possessing her. But this possession of her was dim and nebulous and totally different from possession as he had known it. Ambition soared on mad wings, and he saw himself climbing the heights with her, sharing thoughts with her, pleasuring in beautiful and noble things with her.” (p28)

At first Eden sees education as indistinguishable from being middle class. He admires them and thinks that becoming educated will result in him becoming one of them and thus win the girl. But Martin’s ultimate success in becoming a “thinking” man makes him neither working class or bourgeois, and one who no longer wants to live according to their maxims or rules. The primary rule he doesn’t want to live in accordance with is the obsession of paid work that comes from both the working class and the bourgeois; Martin’s sister Gertrude talking about her petty tyrant of a husband Bernard Higginbotham says: “Bernard does like to see a man at honest work.” (p348) Martin’s other sister Marian repeats her husband Hermann von Schmidt’s belief that "I think it would be much better if you got a job," she said firmly, and he saw she was sincere.” (p257)

This frustrates Martin because he sees the soul destroying dullness of it: “Get a job! Go to work! Poor, stupid slaves, he thought, while his sister talked. Small wonder the world belonged to the strong. The slaves were obsessed by their own slavery. A job was to them a golden fetich before which they fell down and worshipped.” (p 333) And it was frustrating because he’d also found his own reality; a reality of ideas and analysis and thought he never imagined existed and which found life in his writing: “And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write - everything - poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth.” (p77)

But this isn’t enough for Ruth because it’s not only the working class who demand he gets a job: Ruth, her brother, her father, her mother demand the same thing: “He had read her all that he wrote - poems, stories, essays - "Wiki-Wiki," "The Shame of the Sun," everything. And she had always and consistently urged him to get a job, to go to work - good God! - as if he hadn't been working, robbing sleep, exhausting life, in order to be worthy of her.” (p371)

The true heights of thought came with Eden’s friendship with Brissenden and his introduction to Kreis, Parry, Stevens, Andy, Harry and others. He only meet Brissenden’s friends once but the meeting was an epiphany for him; their ideas fed him and the nature of their conversation gave him hope that being a thinking person was a worthwhile aim: “The books were alive in these men. They talked with fire and enthusiasm, the intellectual stimulant stirring them as he had seen drink and anger stir other men.” (p308)

And what other place to end than the end of the actual novel; and it’s incredibly sad but still great and so wonderfully written. I’m torn about how I feel about it: I’m unhappy that Eden, as an individualist seeking self-improvement through hard work and education, is unable to cope with the ‘success’ he achieves. But I suppose Eden had nothing to live for, despite his success. Despite the constant attention to education it was love, and the love specifically of Ruth, that drove him: "Friends! Gossip! Newspaper misreports! Surely such things are not stronger than love! I can only believe that you never loved me." (p 336) Once Ruth’s broke off their engagement what he cared for most was removed from him, and all he had left was death.

London’s management of Eden’s death was well written; as a man with Eden’s vitality he should have fought the whole way to the end up and he did, it wasn’t a silly or useless death: “His wilful hands and feet began to beat and churn about, spasmodically and feebly. But he had fooled them and the will to live that made them beat and churn. He was too deep down. They could never bring him to the surface”. (p403) Beautiful.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

1038. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Genre: Horror, Ghost
Rating: 3. Not bad
Read before: New read
Written: 1800s

A young lady becomes governess to two small orphaned children. But the job comes with strings; she is solely responsible for the children and she must never trouble the children's uncle, their guardian. She is charmed by the house, its location and above all the children but the governess believes the children at danger from supernatural figures ... or is there another explanation?

First chapter:
The Turn of the Screw reads like a traditional book, with Chapter 1 doing a reasonably good job of providing a number of hooks to grab the reader’s interest:
• Why does the children’s guardian not want to be bothered?
• What happened to the last governess?
• Who is Douglas?

If I was looking for a storywhere the loose ends are all neatly tied up at the end of the book, then this isn’t the book to read. James manages to weave his tale so that by the time I reached the end of the book I still had so many of my questions (2 of the 3 I had from the first chapter were never answered). But having said that I’m glad to have read this story since it stands so high in the list of horror/ghost stories. But would I read it again? Probably not.

It was a clever ploy to make the children’s guardian unavailable and force the governess (who is never named) to rely on her own judgement: "... she should never trouble him--but never, never: neither appeal nor complain nor write about anything; only meet all questions herself, receive all moneys from his solicitor, take the whole thing over and let him alone." (p 12) It seems pointless to point the finger at the selfishness of the children's guardian, who takes charge of children and yet take no responsibility for them. Not that he was a good judge of character anyway if you accept the housekeeper, Mrs Grose’s views about the unsuitability of his choices of Quint and Miss Jessel. But even this is suspect, as Mrs Grose never offers any proof of Quint and Miss Jessel's sexual relationship, forcing us to believe the gossip of an unsophisticated housekeeper and an increasingly hysterical governess. It may have been inappropriate for Miles to spend time with Quint but in the absence of a male guardian and his interest in male companions, as shown by his wish to return to school, Miles turning to Quint doesn’t appear unreasonable; and lets turn back to my opening comment of the guardian's disinterest in the children.

Why did the governess never resolve the question of Miles’ expulsion from the school, even if it was only to write to the school? This wasn’t well managed by her. I understand why she didn’t want to press Miles when he first arrived from school and over time it became difficult because of her suspicions, but they didn’t prevent her writing to the school and saying you can’t expel someone from school and not tell them why.

One unresolved question is whether the governess actually saw the ghosts of Quint and Miss Jessel—and on balance I don’t think she did. The only person who saw them was the governess herself; and it’s only conjecture as to whether the children saw them and kept that information to themselves. Certainly the only other person who was with the governess when she saw either of the ghosts was the housekeeper Mrs Grose, and it’s interesting that neither Mrs Grose’s loyalty or belief in the governess led her to admit to seeing Miss Jessel: "She looked, just as I did, and gave me, with her deep groan of negation, repulsion, compassion--the mixture with her pity of her relief ather exemption--a sense, toucheing t me even then, that she would have backed me up if she had been able." (p131)

Were the children good or bad? Likewise, this question is difficult to resolve. The governess arrives at Bly and is utterly charmed: charmed by the house and its situation, charmed by the housekeeper and charmed by little Flora. She could see no wrong with anything and this was how she started out. The governesses increasing hysteria and mistrust of the children makes it difficult to understand what the children were actually like when she met them; they could simply have been ordinary children and the governess hearing Flora’s coarseness may just have been her seeing the child for the first time: "...she was literally, she ws hideously hard; she had turned comon and almost ugly. "I don't know what you mean. I see nobody. I see nothing. I never have. I think you're cruel. I don't like you." (p 132)

What happened to Miles? It’s understandable that Flora doesn’t want to see the governess again (she’s seen as timid from the beginning of the story and the confrontation with the governess must have been confronting). But Miles’ death because his heart gave out sounds odd. Did the governess accidentally smother him in her hysteria in trying to save him?

PS I love that I understood the references to other books at the beginning of Chapter IV (p33): "Was there a 'secret' at Bly--a mystery of Udolpho or an insane, an unmentionable relative kept in unsuspected confinement?"
1. I haven't read The Mysteries of Udolpho but it's mentioned so often, even in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which I have read. Another of the novels I must read.
2. The unmentionable relative can only be Mr Rochester insane wife kept locked in the attice, a reference to Jane Eyre, my favourite book. Jane Eyre is also a governess with a mystery, but in this story is mystery to be unravelled the governess' madness?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

111. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb

Genre: Autobiography
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Faber and Faber 2001

Amelie, a well intentioned and eager young westerner, goes to Japan to spend a year working at the Yumimoto Corporation. Returning to the land where she was born is the fulfilment of a dream, but her working life quickly becomes a comic nightmare of terror and self-abasement. Disturbing, hilarious and totally convincing, Fear and Trembling displays an elegant and shrewd insight into the differences between the "East" and the West.

First chapter:
The novel doesn't really have chapters, and I think the first two sentences (or paragraphs) neatly offers an insight into Amelie Nothomb as part of a huge machine, and a very small and powerless part of that machine: "Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one." (p1).

I was going to treat Fear and Trembling as a light read; the kind you can while away a train journey with your hand over your mouth to muffle your laughter. And it’s so very funny at times; after a month of not being able to do a simple arithmetic task Nothomb's supervisor asked her: "Are there many ... people like you in your country? I was the first Belgian she had met. I felt a rush of national pride. (p52)

But any ideas about treating Fear and Trembling as nothing more than a humorous read about ‘them’ and ‘us’ (and this makes me think immediately of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold a few weeks ago) flew out the window after a chat with a colleague about the book’s insights into women. Sure I could have walked away full of superficial thoughts about the rigidity of the Japanese, conservatism, the hierarchical nature of their society and the sublimation of self to society’s expectations but that’s far less interesting than exploring the “we” of women the world over.

I'll admit up front that I didn’t see the “we” until it was pointed out to me. I work in the public service, (a huge sheltered workshop really), where inappropriate behaviour is ‘policyed’ out of existence: sexual harassment might occur (sexual harassment policy), people should be promoted on merit (promotion on merit policy). So the behaviour exhibited by Fubuki Mori against Nothomb isn’t high on my radar. But my colleague arrived recently from the “dog eat dog” world of a law firm and she saw parallels between the female lawyers she left behind and Mori:
• the need to work harder than a man to achieve promotion,
• the knowledge they were never respected quite as much as a man,
• jealously guarding any promotion or advantage accrued by them, and
• ruthlessly ensuring other women didn’t achieve more.

That’s not to say that Japanese women don’t have it harder than Western women, which I think they do. Nothomb exposes the expectations placed on Japanese women to work hard and be beautiful but also to be married and sublimate themselves to husband and family. Western women experience these expectations in a far subtler way than Japanese women, and at least we have an out; we can choose to say ‘up yours’ and define our ‘success’ on our own terms.

However, Nothomb presents a world in which there is only one form of ‘success’ for Mori, but which is also a contradiction: Mori must work hard competing against men to achieve professional success but she must also be beautiful, submissive and compliant towards men, and marry by the age of 25: “There was something contradictory in the rules laid down for women.” (p74) And how difficult it was to achieve these conflicting aims is shown in Mori’s dedication (at age 29) to finding a husband: when she met any unmarried man, including a Westerner “She would suddenly become so studiously sweet that it almost veered toward aggression.” “Something nearly comic about watching her sucumb to these antics, which I felt demeaned both her beauty and her position.” (p75) My personal reaction to this behaviour was more humiliation than embarrassment. I thought it was awful that an otherwise intelligent person should be reduced to such absurd behaviour because her ultimate success in life was reduced to whether she could secure a husband.

Mori felt this humiliation, and it was interesting that her world provided her with the power to take that humiliation out on others. In this case, the increasingly severe and outrageous persecution of another woman and Mori’s subordinate, Nothomb, which culminated in Northomb reduced to cleaning the men’s and women’s toilets.

To my eyes Mori’s behaviour was out of line, and in my sheltered workshop steps would have been taken to stop things before they arrived at the point they did (or at least I hope that’s the case). But the society and culture we’re dealing with is different. Not being an individualist and supporting the hierarchy, coupled together with not actively addressing issues creates the circumstances where people have a level of personal power unseen by me. This in turns leads to the increasingly severe methods used by Mori to punish Nothomb, and ensures no-one will call Mori on her behaviour.

And this power certainly isn’t limited to Mori and her subordinates, but arises more than once with Mr Omichi and any subordinate close enough to scream at. subjecting Mori to the most extraordinary public humiliation: “You could not imagine a more humiliating fate for any human being—than this public pillorying. The monster wanted her to lose face; that was clear.” (p83) And Mori wasn’t the only person subject to a verbal dressing down: “The delivery explained much about Japanese history. I would have been capable of anything to stop the hideous screaming—invade Manchuria, persecute millions of Chinese, commit suicide for the Emperor, hurl my airplane into an American battleship, perhaps even work for two Yumimoto Corporations.” (p29) I got exactly how bad it was; and the question of whether this overt pressure goes any way to explaining generally how pressured the Japanese feel to conform?

The book was an interesting insight into a world I know nothing about, and one that leaves me interested in reading more of Nothomb’s work.