4.30.2011

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield
David Copperfield
Summing up Charles Dickens' David Copperfield is impossible. It's a whole life crammed into 877 pages. I don't mean that sarcastically or ironically. When I started reading it on last Sunday, I met Copperfield when he was born. As I read during the week, I watched him grow up. I saw his triumphs and miseries, his loves and his hatreds. I wanted to give him advice and cheer him on. When I finished the book earlier today, it was like saying goodbye to a friend.

I normally don't read bildungsromans, because unless the character is really interesting, I'm usually more interested in the plot. But this book--while ostensibly about David's life--is crammed with subplots. But first: David Copperfield himself. David has a sharp sense of humor (another appeal for me), and his engaging voice pulled me right into the story. As I said, we meet David as he is born. The very first part of the book is about his early life, with his sweet mother and faithful nurse, Peggotty. But things start to go wrong for David when his mother remarries. His stepfather is a horrible man who tries to mold his new family and make them "firm." The first third or so of the book is about David's trials at a terrible boarding school and then at a bottle factory. Things get so desperate that David runs away to live with his eccentric aunt. The novel then starts to jump through time, and introduces two mysteries: the fate of Little Em'ly and the schemes of Uriah Heep.

You can see the book's origins as a serial as it's very episodic. Each chapter skips along to a new event or encounter. Characters like the Micawbers, the Peggottys, Heep, the Wickfields, and David's relations weave in and out of the story. They're all fully realized people, though for the most part more attention is paid to their flaws than to their virtues. The Micawbers are a good example of this. They are very entertaining people, loyal to their friends. But for most of the book they are incapable of living within their means. I forgot how many times Mr. Micawber was arrested for his debts and of how many fits Mrs. Micawber threw about her misunderstood husband. Until the very end, when Mr. Micawber manages to get his act together and become a magistrate in Australia, every time David runs into them its pretty much the same story all over again.

Some of these supporting characters are so interesting and entertaining that they threaten to steal the show. The real attraction is supposed to be David. It's hard to say what's special about David, now that I come to think about it. At first, he was notable for his naiveté. He couldn't be trusted with any money that came into his possession, because other characters with less scruples could instantly talk him out of it. It takes a long time for David to get wise to the ways of the world. In spite of the forces against him, David stays a good man. The only people he really hates he has reason to hate. Otherwise he's upright, but foolish in love.

There is so much going on in this book that schools of English majors could cheerfully pick it apart and find new topics for centuries. You could write about how marriage is portrayed, how virtue is rewarded and vice punished, society in Victorian England, and hundreds of other topics. Each characters could probably inspire whole seminars. This is a rich book. I almost feel bad for reading it in just one week. This is a book that's meant to be savored.

One theme that reached up and grabbed my attention was the importance of choosing the right mate. There are a lot of good and bad relationships in this book. David himself has both kinds. David's childhood is essentially ruined by his mother's choosing the wrong man. David's first wife had the maturity level of a child. Little Em'ly paired up with a philanderer. Over and over again, Dickens shows his readers what happens when you either don't take the time to learn your partner's character or if you listen to the lies of someone who wants to get in your pants.

And then, towards the end, Dickens shows you what can happen if you choose wisely. Incidentally, critics often point to David Copperfield as highly autobiographical. So I can't help but wonder if we also get to see what Dickens valued in a wife: steadiness, wisdom, and a loving and kind spirit. After reading the Brontes and Austen, where we get the woman's perspective on courtship and marriage, it's interesting to see the male perspective. David is as giddy as one of the younger Bennett sisters when young, but it's heartening to see him mature emotionally and realize that there's more to a wife than her looks and frivolous charms.

I'm glad I read this book. Up 'till now, the only Dickens I'd read and enjoyed was A Tale of Two Cities--and I loved that book because of the terrific plot and the heroism of Sidney Carton. David Copperfield I liked for the variety. There's something new and different in each chapter, with plenty to think about afterwards.

4.24.2011

The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane

The Red Badge of Courage
The Red Badge
of Courage
Somehow I managed to get all the way through high school and a bachelor's degree in literature without having read Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. But with this year being the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War, it seemed like an appropriate time to finally read it.

If you're at all familiar with it, The Red Badge of Courage is a very short book--not even 150 pages. Any yet the main character, Henry Fleming, seems to hit the absolute highest and lowest points possible for a soldier of his day. It wasn't what I'd expected, based on what I'd heard of Crane's work. I'd understood him to be of the Realist school of writing, but this book seemed to be an early form of stream of consciousness. The reader spends the whole book not precisely in young Henry's head, but we get to hear, see, and feel everything he does as well as get every single though that crosses his mind. After a brief introduction, we follow Henry to his first (unnamed) battles and the whole book takes place over just a few short days.

Summaries of this book are easy to come by, so I want to focus on what struck me most about the book. Believe it or not, what caught my attention was the language Crane used. First of all, Henry's thoughts are described in elegant prose--that's the best way that I can describe it. It's not overdone, but it's very poised and elegant. Even when Henry is in the thick of the fighting, I didn't really get a sense of how dirty, terrifying, and loud that I know the battles must have been. Second, I think Crane must have really captured how Americans used to speak in the mid to late nineteenth century. It reminded me a lot of the dialogue of Twain's books. There are consonants dropped all over the place and speeches are peppered with what sounds to me now as quaint expressions. I completely understand now why the writers of Deadwood updated the language, because we just can't take the authentic language seriously.

A lot of the books I've read that feature soldiers and war use a kind of shorthand about the experience, particularly lines about waiting and moments of absolute terror. But Crane expanded on ideas like that. I know this book was written well after the war. Crane wasn't even born until after the war. But in this book, it's as if you--the reader--are plunked right down into the thick of it. We get to watch Henry muse about camp life, rumors, and marching. One thing that Crane captures particularly well, I think, is the sense of confusion. Henry is at the bottom of the military totem pole, and can't give the reader any larger sense of what's going on. Once the fighting starts, it's particularly hard to keep track of what's going on. Though I will say that Henry seems to have the luck of the devil. Apart from being smack in the middle of the Civil War, he's pretty lucky considering what happened to the rest of his regiment.

Apart from the language and the history, I know other readers will agree that the important thing about this book is Henry's struggle with his courage. I wouldn't say that Henry is a coward. It's more as though he lets his (justifiable) fear get the better of him. That part I completely believed. But I had a harder time believing Henry after he started charging into fights. I could believe it better if it was clearer that Henry was just trying to ward off accusations of cowardice. But he seemed to turn into a nineteenth century Rambo towards the end.

I am glad I read this book. It was new and original for the time. I don't see similar attitudes about war in literature until the World War I poets like Owens and Sassoon were published. I see this book as good history. Reading impressively big histories about the Civil War won't transport you to the time as much as this book tries to do. Unless you read contemporary letters from the time, The Red Badge of Courage is the closest you can get to being there (if only for a few hours' reading time).

4.19.2011

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte

Reading Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series always gives me a hankering to read the classics--mostly so that I can get more of the jokes. The first book on the list of classics I should have read, but didn't, is Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I've read the books by the other sisters and was divided on my opinion. I loved Charlotte's Jane Eyre and I hated Emily's Wuthering Heights. I can now officially say, I love two-thirds of the Bronte sisters.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of
Wildfell Hall
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is, I'll admit, not the most skillfully constructed novel. It's written in an epistolary style and uses a lot of flashbacks. But the letters and diary entries often turn into long passages of novel, complete with dialogue and internal monologues. The structure's not the important thing about this book, its the subject matter. This is a surprising book for 1847, because at the center of the novel is a bad, bad marriage. Most of my knowledge of the first half of the nineteenth century comes from Austen, where it's all about getting that ring. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is refreshingly blunt and honest about what can happens after the happy couple says I do.

The novel begins with a mysterious woman arriving, with her son, to take up residence at the falling down Wildfell Hall. This part of the book is told from the perspective of one Gilbert Markham, who tells the reader of how the whole neighborhood is desperate to find out who she is and what her history is. When Mrs. Graham refuses to talk about her past, some nasty rumors start up. Gilbert, who has been falling in love with Mrs. Graham, finally gets her to share her history. She gives him her diaries to read, which takes up most of the middle of the book.

This is where things start to get interesting. The novel jumps back in time four years, to a young Helen Lawrence who is a lot more naive than the Mrs. Graham we meet later. Helen has her pick of a couple of different men, but she falls in love with an irreverent young gentleman with an excess bon homme. Arthur Huntingdon is not a good man, but Helen is convinced that she can improve him. At this point, I wanted to yell at her, "No, you can't!" Arthur behave himself until shortly after their wedding, at which point his true nature starts to reveal itself. Before long, Helen is spending all of her time at Arthur's manor, while her husband lives it up in London.

Arthur, it turns out, is a selfish, shallow, and cruel drunk. He plays with his wife's feelings, accusing her of not loving him when she tries to curb his behavior. He starts to giver her ultimatums. But the worst is when Arthur has an affair with a married woman, takes her money, and threatens to make Helen a prisoner in their house. Arthur teaches their son to drink and swear. It's clearly over by then. If the novel were set a hundred-odd years later, they could have divorced and been done with each other. But Helen has no legal rights and few allies. It becomes clear that something has to be done.

The diaries make it clear that Mrs. Graham is the runaway Mrs. Huntingdon and, moreover, that her husband is still alive and drinking away the fortune somewhere. Markham is still in love her and she with him. But they're stuck because of Arthur. The ending of the book is bittersweet and wonderfully satisfying. Bronte holds you in suspense all the way to the end.

Where Charlotte and Emily's books are the very definition of gothic, Anne's book is a tonic of realism. As I read it, I felt like I was getting a real glimpse of what life was like for women in the 1820s and 40s. It can't always be Elizabeth and Darcy or Jane and Rochester. There's happiness in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, sure, but the characters have to go through fire to get there.

The star of the book is Mrs. Graham/Huntingdon. Helen feels utterly real, even to the point of annoying me every now and then before winning back my sympathy. I wonder how many women of the Brontes' time were like her--certainly more than fiction would have us believe. It's depressing to contemplate, but on the other hand, this is a book with important depth. It sounds so simple when you try to summarize it; it's a book about a bad marriage. But it's more than that. It's about a woman in an impossible situation who actually manages to do something about it instead of pining away artistically. I don't understand why it's not more well known.

And I still don't understand why people seem to like Wuthering Heights so much.

4.09.2011

Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland

Company of Liars
Company of Liars
I continue to be amazed at the depth of the worlds that Maitland creates in her books. Not only can she take me back in time, but she can terrify me with the mysteries that she cooks up. Company of Liars is absorbing, educational, and frightening in the best way.

Company of Liars has been compared to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. But as I got deeper into the book, I started to think that it would be a lot like the Tales if Chaucer had been a horror or mystery writer rather than a bawdy comic. The first character we meet in this book is Camelot, a seller of fake relics (a cottage industry in the fourteenth century). Before long, Camelot reluctantly becomes a leader of a group of fugitives, a story teller, a mountebank, a pair of Venetian musicians, a Jew in hiding, and a seer. Though they travel to pilgrimage sites, they are not pilgrims. They're all on the run from something. Instead of sharing stories, the characters in this tale hide their pasts.

Without beating me over the head with historical knowledge, I felt like Maitland was building up the world of 1348 England around me. The paragraphs are wonderfully descriptive, but Maitland never goes overboard. And as I read, I started to pick up on the fear that people must have felt as the plague moved in from the coasts and up from the south. As if this weren't enough, historical records claim that 1348 was also the year that it rained every day from Midsummer until Christmas and the crops failed and the livestock got sick. It must have seemed like the world was ending to the people who lived through it, especially when they didn't know what was causing it all. The church and the pious claimed that it was god's punishment or a test. Others claimed it was the hand of the devil and demons. This the world that Camelot and the travelers find themselves in.

As if the setting wasn't perilous enough, Camelot's companions start to die. One murder might be dismissed--it was a dangerous world, after all. But you start to realize that something it out to get the travelers. In that sense, it reminds me of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None, except that it's the murderer who has the upper hand and not the potential victims of blackmail. It takes a while for the mystery part to ramp up. Because there are so many motives, it's hard to see the shape that it will take. The supernatural element is a delightful complication. And the twist at the very end...The solution and the twist are absolutely worth the wait.

Company of Liars has so much to recommend it. I'd recommend it to mystery fans and, especially, to fans of historical fiction. As I read it, I forgot about the twenty-first century around me. I swear that I could almost smell the mud as Camelot and the travelers made their way east towards the Fens. I could feel the hunger as they scrounged for food. And I wanted to warn them away every time they came upon a village. Excellent book. I can't wait to see what Maitland cooks up next.