5.14.2012

The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy

The Mayor of Casterbridge
The Mayor of
Casterbridge
I followed up reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles with The Mayor of Casterbridge. It's another tragedy, but the key difference here is what the protagonist's big mistake was. You could chalk Tess's up to youth and inexperience and a certain amount of sexual harassment. But Michael Henchard--the eponymous mayor--his mistake was unforgivable and inexcusable. On top of this, he's just as prideful and stubborn as Tess was, but without a lot of justification for his arrogance.

Michael Henchard is a putz. When we meet him, he's a drunken putz. In a fit of spiteful humor, Henchard holds an auction for his wife and small child. As a hay-trusser, he can't really support them and, since he only married his wife because of the child (I suspect), he doesn't love them. Both Henchard and his wife are shocked when a sailor takes him up on his offer. His wife is so angry at Henchard that she actually agrees to go with the sailor.

When Henchard sobers up in the morning and realizes what he's done, he swears a vow to not drink for 21 years*. Years pass and when we see Henchard again, he's doing very well for himself. He's become a grain merchant, rich enough to own a house, and was elected mayor of Casterbridge (based on Dorchester). He never married (because that would be illegal) and he lives in fear that his terrible secret will come out. So when his wife, Susan, and her daughter show up in Casterbridge, you know that things are shortly going to go to hell.

Henchard tries to solve his problems by remarrying his wife, but that's about the last thing that goes right for him. I can't help but think that if he had been nicer to people, if he had been willing to take his lumps, he wouldn't have had such a tragic end. But because of his arrogance and his harsh manner, most of his stratagems backfire on him.

As I've read Hardy, I've been struck by two things about his writing style. First, the language is elevated, erudite, and full of references to other works. Yet the people he's writing about are all salt of the earth types. Only a few of the characters--mostly seen briefly--are actually rich or in the upper middle class. Most of them are farmers, day laborers, etc. It would seem absurd. But Hardy manages to pull it off without sounding like he's mocking these people and their lives. Instead, his language raises up the story.

The second thing I picked up was a certain romanticism about farm life. At times, I would swear that Hardy admires their lives and labors. He is nostalgic about pre-mechanized farming. (There are numerous disparaging references to new machines like threshers and sowers.) I would have thought that Hardy did this because he'd never done hard labor. But his biography in Wikipedia says otherwise. His father was a stonemason. So I have to wonder where the romanticism comes from.

Hardy's books have given me much to think about. And I'm looking forward to reading more. (Except for Jude the Obscure. I read a summer of that one on Wikipedia and that one looks too grim even more me.)

* You'd think if he was really serious, he would swear to never drink again. But that's Henchard for you.

5.13.2012

Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Tess of the
d'Urbervilles
I didn't think I would enjoy Thomas Hardy as much as I did. All I had ever heard about his work before was that it was very, very depressing. But when I read Tess of the d'Urbervilles and then The Mayor of Casterbridge, I realized that what I was reading was real tragedy, in the full literary sense of the word. It wasn't just bad things happening to people. Both books were about people who made huge mistakes and because of their character flaws, just couldn't get their lives back together.

The eponymous Tess is really Tess Durbeyfield, a hardworking girl from a family of procrastinators and slackers. At the beginning of the book, her father learns that they are descended from a grand family--the d'Urbervilles. Her father fixates on this idea for the rest of the book. He clearly wants better for his family, but he isn't about to break the habit of a lifetime and get a real job. After an accident that ruins the family, Tess's father sends her to a rich relation in order to "claim kin" and get some financial assistance. Tess has her pride and is reluctant to go. But since the accident was her fault and because she's only solid worker in the family she goes.

Well, folly follows the accident and Tess makes her big mistake. Since the book is well over 100 years old, I don't mind spoiling it. You all have had plenty of time to read this book. Tess ends up sleeping with the rich relation's son. The son had an instant attraction to Tess and just would not let up until she gave in. I think she might have resisted him, so I suspect that Alex d'Urberville threatened to stop helping her family if she didn't give in. Tess ends up pregnant and socially ruined and heads home to make money by doing hard farm labor. Bad luck follows, but Tess is able to make a new start on a dairy farm far away.

Tess manages to find love with a genuinely good man. But her mistake follows her and she isn't permitted to enjoy her new happiness. At this point, I think we enter the realm of real tragedy. Tess has a stubborn pride, but it's hard to fault her for it. She only takes charity when she has no other choice. She doesn't feel above performing even the hardest, dirtiest work as long as it means she can live honestly. (Of course, this doesn't mean that she goes blabbing about her past to everyone. She keeps her secrets.)

Like Othello, a lot of the misery in the book could have been avoided if all the main characters had had access to a good mediator or counselor and talked it all out. Instead, the characters continue on their trajectories. Tess still hopes for reconciliation with her husband, but she won't beg. Her husband can't seem to get past Tess's history. And Alex d'Urberville...well, there's no changing that man. Once a lech, always a lech.

But because Hardy draws his characters so clearly and gives them real, believable flaws, you can't help but sympathize with them (except for Alex--the jerk). You want things to work out for Tess and her husband, Angel Clare. And this makes the ending just that much more tragic and heartbreaking.

This book was an incredible read. I don't know why Hardy doesn't get more credit for his books. They are so much more than depressing farm novels. They're Shakespeare-level tragedies. I don't know if anyone has done so well since Hardy.

5.07.2012

The Midnight Mayor, by Kate Griffin

The Midnight Mayor
The Midnight Mayor
Kate Griffin continues her highly original Matthew Swift series with The Midnight Mayor. It begins some time after the events of the first book, in which Swift is resurrected and seeks revenge on his murderer. Swift is in trouble again in this book when he is nearly killed by a terrifying pack of specters. Even though the book is over 500 pages long (paperback version), it only covers a few frightening days in Swift's life as he tries to unravel a curse that might destroy the city of London.

Swift, in both his lives, is a sorcerer and attracts more than the usual amount of trouble for his kind. But there's an innate goodness in him that leads him to right wrongs, correct injustices, and generally protect those who can't protect themselves. He might sound like nothing more than a do-gooder, but he's got a wonderfully sarcastic way of thinking about things and he's not afraid of shooting his mouth off. Even in the plots of these books weren't so good, I would recommend the books just because of Swift.

After Swift is attacked (again), it becomes clear that something is trying to destroy London. The ravens in the Tower of London are killed and the Stone of London is broken. In our world, these are bad enough. The myths say that if either of these events happen, London will fall. In Swift's world, they mean that it's up to the last protection London has: the Midnight Mayor. Except that the previous one was murdered and Swift has just been elected to the position. Swift spends the rest of the book puzzling out what happened, working out how to fix it, and trying not to die. The 500+ pages really fly by.

Apart from the highly original narrator, what really sets this book is Griffin's style. She has an unusually baroque way of written. The metaphors are intricate, funny, and profound. The descriptions are equally elaborate. Griffin creates a gritty, magical, dangerous London that still manages to stay true to the real one. I will admit sometimes it seems like she lingers a little too long and that the characters speak in speeches every now and then. But this didn't really detract from the book for me, and it didn't bog down the pace at all.

The third book of the series is out, so there's another one for my book store list.

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

Anno Dracula
Anno Dracula
When you hear about a book with the premise that Count Dracula marries Queen Victoria, you just have to read it. And when you find out that the sequel features a vampire Red Baron, that's just further inducement. So that's how I came to read Kim Newman's newly republished Anno Dracula.

The premise alone was sufficient enticement, but as I started reading, I started to notice a whole host of literary cameos. I spotted Dr. Jekyll, Daniel Dravot, Mina Harker and Jack Seward, Fu Manchu, Hawley Griffen (not actually invisible here), and a bunch of others. There are historical cameos, too. Since the plot involves the Ripper murders, the book features almost every key member of the London police.

To return to the plot for a moment: this book begins in late August of 1888 with Seward committing what, in our history, are the Jack the Ripper murders. This isn't a spoiler, by the way. The killer is revealed near the beginning of the book. The tension comes from whether or not he's going to be caught. Meanwhile, London and England are adjusting to being ruled by Count Dracula. The city is swamped with vampires, creating all kinds of interesting sociological and criminal problems.

This is not a deep book. It's purely entertainment. And, since I'm going to try and read Theodore Dreiser and Thomas Hardy in the near future, I need a little pure entertainment.

...but before I dive into the heavy stuff, I need to go to the book story and get the next book in this series.