Book Review: The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

The masterful style of The Professor is reason enough to read it. Where it excels is in its unsentimental and unsparing treatment of human nature. Here is a withering description of students:

Most of them could lie with audacity when it appeared advantageous to do so. All understood the art of speaking fair when a point was to be gained and could with consummate skill and at a moment’s notice turn the cold shoulder the instant civility ceased to be profitable….Close friendships were forbidden by the rules of the school, and no one girl seemed to cultivate more regard for another than was just necessary to secure a companion when solitude would have been irksome. (p. 127)

And here is a blistering description of students or perhaps children in general:

Frances toiled for and with her pupils like a drudge, but it was long ere her conscientious exertions were rewarded by anything like docility on their part, because they saw that they had power over her, inasmuch as by resisting her painful attempts to convince, persuade, control – by forcing her to the employment of coercive measures – they could inflict upon her exquisite suffering. Human beings – human children especially – seldom deny themselves the pleasure of exercising a power which they are conscious of possessing, even though that power consist only in a capacity to make others wretched; a pupil whose sensations are duller than those of his instructor, while his nerves are tougher and his bodily strength perhaps greater, has an immense advantage over that instructor, and he will generally use it relentlessly, because the very young, very healthy, very thoughtless, know neither how to sympathize nor how to spare. (p. 160)

Maybe you should avoid The Professor if you’re a professor. On the one hand, it will serve as a prime example of excellent writing, one that you will want to impress upon your students; but on the other hand, it warns you that they will throw it back in your face.

The only other thing that occurs to me is that the prevailing rottenness conspires to paint the hero and heroine in an impossibly conscientious light. How can there be only two (or at most three or four) good people in the world?

 

Book Review: The Shakespeare Requirement, by Julie Schumacher

Julie Schumacher’s The Shakespeare Requirement is a spot-on spoof of academia and its many indignities and absurdities. I most enjoyed Schumacher’s passing but poignant satire of the gratuitous, labor-multiplying technology that has come to dominate professors’ lives. At Payne University, where the book is set, one vexation of this sort is the finicky P-Cal scheduling system, which never seems to work for the protagonist, Jason Fitger, who is chair of the English Department. At one point, when Fitger is trying to track down his nemesis, Econ chair Roland Gladwell, the latter’s secretary, rather than simply telling Fitger where Gladwell is, refers him to P-Cal. As is usually the case, Fitger’s only recourse is sarcasm:

“Here we are…two human beings, inches apart, and yet what you’re telling me is that I need to go back downstairs to my own office, to my computer – except that I don’t have a working computer – and spend thirty minutes searching for a website that will allow me to send a message that you could simply write down with a pencil on a piece of paper, right there on your desk. Do you find that strange?” (p. 64)

Of course, it’s not strange, or rather, it’s not unusual, and our only recourse, like Fitger’s, is sarcasm, or satire, of which this book is a fine primer.

 

Book Review: The Door, by Magda Szabó

A friend once obtained permission to tour a mental health facility. A therapy group was meeting. A woman rose and began to relate the terrible abuse she commonly received from her mother, which included belittling, manipulation, and hitting. When she was finished, another participant stepped forward and assured the first speaker that, however hurtful her mother appeared to be, the thing she must never forget was that “Your mother loves you.” Although he’d been conferred observer status only, my friend could not refrain from providing his diagnosis. “Whatever you do,” he addressed the hapless daughter, “you must never forget that your mother doesn’t love you.”

I thought of my friend’s story while reading The Door, Magda Szabó’s novel about the housekeeper Emerence and the theorem that might as well be named for her: that one’s love for a certain person is often inversely proportional to the kindness with which one treats that person. After hiring Emerence to take care of the housework while she writes, the narrator (Magda?) soon finds that Emerence’s love is of the toughest sort. “It was because of our mutual love that she went on stabbing me till I fell to my knees” (p. 157) is an observation that just about sums up the whole book.

The quality of the writing (and Len Rix’s translation) makes the details worth reading, just as a good sportscaster can make even the most brutal prize fight artistically meaningful. Here’s a lively scene involving Magda’s dog, Viola, and a deeply hurt Emerence, whose guest has failed to attend a meticulously-prepared dinner:

Like someone coming round from sedation, [Emerence] shuddered violently, then hurled herself at the happily munching dog and beat him all over with the handle of the serving fork. She called him everything – an ungrateful monster, a shameless liar, a heartless capitalist. Viola squealed, jumped down from the chair and lay on the rug, for her inscrutable judgement to be carried out upon him. He never ran when she beat him, never tried to protect himself. The horror, with all its unreality, was dreamlike. Viola cowered and trembled under the blows, so terrified he couldn’t even swallow the last mouthful. It fell from his jaws onto my mother’s favorite rug. The way Emerence went after him with the serving fork, I thought she was going to stab him. It all happened in a flash. I was so frightened I began to scream. But just then the old woman crouched down beside the dog, lifted up his head, and kissed him between the ears. Viola whined with relief, and licked the hand that had beaten him. (p. 63)

On another occasion, Emerence presents Magda and her husband with an appalling quantity of tchotchkes and then flies into a rage when they are improperly displayed. “‘God knows what I love about you [Emerence says], but whatever it is, you don’t deserve it. Maybe, as you get older, you’ll acquire a bit of taste.’” (p. 81) This rebuke comes after Magda attempts to excuse Emerence to her husband. “I tried in vain to explain to him that the old woman expressed herself through means determined by her own interests. Everything here – he had to accept – was motivated by love. This was her peculiar was of demonstrating her feelings.” (p. 75)

While reading The Door, I often found myself saying, “With love like that, who needs hatred?” and I’ve indeed tried to avoid that kind of love whenever possible. (I recall an NPR report on American gang violence, in which someone explained that people seeking to leave gangs were frequently beaten by their former peers because “There’s a lot of love there.”) Maybe I’m just being naïve, though. “Emerence Love” certainly exists; not only does it form the main subject of The Door, but it also characterizes God’s love as it is found in the Old Testament, as opposed to the New. Emerence is the jealous God of Exodus 20:5, yet to be recast as the God that is love (1 John 4:8) and the love that is never jealous (1 Corinthians 13:4). There’s actually a religious undercurrent in The Door, with Emerence expressing skepticism at Magda’s Catholicism and having a history of helping Jews in the Holocaust.

Questions of religion aside, we all know on a psychological level that some of the most violent human feelings can be twisted mutations of love, the results of love’s wounding in youth. It’s clear in Szabó’s novel that Emerence was an abused girl; hence the love she expresses is of a tortured and torturing kind. Emerence is shown to have loved her pets and to have had them taken away from her. It is quite plausible that her ability to metabolize love suffered at least partly as a result. My not terribly amiable grandfather once told us the story of how his parents once served him his pet rabbit, and the recitation, I feel, spoke volumes.

The Door, at any rate, is such a volume.

Book Review: Amadis of Gaul, Books III & IV

I read the Place and Behm translation, which puts Books I and II in Volume One and Books III and IV in Volume Two. I waited over a year between volumes. As a result, I forgot what had contributed to the main conflict narrated in Volume Two, and I also forgot many of the characters, especially the many whose names begin with G. I would advise readers to tackle the whole thing straight through, if possible.

Volume Two drags. There is a lot of preparation for the Big Battle, and the pacing is quite slow during the preparation. The beginning, covering Amadis’s eastern adventures, and the end, covering a couple of extra adventures, are the most exciting parts.

One thing that continues to strike me about chivalric literature is the paucity of emotional narration accompanying dialogue (or action). One example is:

“Beware, sire, for you are committing great cruelty and a great sin, and very quickly you could receive such a lashing from the Lord on high that your great brilliance and fame might be greatly obscured….”

“Good uncle,” said the king, “I well remember all that you have said to me before, but I cannot do anything more….”

“Then, sire,” said the count, “I ask of you permission to leave for my own estate.”

“God be with you,” said the king. (p. 281)

One might have expected the king to “redden” or “bristle” as he is reprimanded and abandoned by one of his vassals (his own uncle, no less), or for the narration to spare a phrase or two to convey his feelings. However, the sixteenth-century text, like many others of the time, remains minimalist and leaves the psychoanalyzing to the reader. Perhaps the emotional narration is absent when the emotion should be obvious.

On the other hand, when emotion is not discernible from a character’s speech or behavior – as usually occurs when the character’s speech is counterfeit or his behavior ironic – the omniscient narrator does intervene. For example, after a certain knight loses a battle and is then treated cordially by his former foes, he dutifully returns the cordiality; but he is inwardly angry, for, as the narrator explains:

He was not satisfied in his desire, because all this honor and gain had come to him after being overcome and reduced to dire straits….He consoled himself and dissimulated as a man of great prudence so that no one might perceive that his thought was concerned with anything other than considering himself the lord and superior of everyone, and believing that with great honor he had won it. So with this pretended joy and with a very complacent appearance he came to where the queen was. (pp. 565-566)

In sum, the omniscient narrator only appears when there is a mismatch between appearance and reality. He is a guide only to what is hidden. If nothing is consciously being hidden, then his services are unnecessary. Unless otherwise stated, then, all is as it seems.

By way of comparison, Thomas Malory, who was active a full century earlier than Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (the compiler of Amadis), did not, I recall, employ omniscient narration in such a way. In fact, Malory’s more consistent disinclination to explain his characters’ actions leaves a great deal of very pleasant work in the hands of the reader, as he is compelled to supply motives and draw lessons from Malory’s often mysterious, bare-bones narration. My conclusion is that Malory is more of a puzzle than Montalvo, more challenging and perhaps, therefore, more rewarding.

Book Review: Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave, by William Grimes

This book makes it clear, for anyone who needed to be convinced in the early 1800s, that slavery was cruel and violent, for Mr Grimes is repeatedly beaten, mostly for offences he didn’t commit, as his word is routinely disbelieved by his oppressors. It also proves that slavery was a poor way to maintain the purity of the races, were that an object, because Grimes himself was born of a slave mother and a white father.

A few other things stand out. First, whenever wages are mentioned, they often seem to have been higher in the unfree South than in the free North — but then again, it is unclear how much Grimes’s masters deduct for letting him out to work for wages. After escaping to the North, it seems that Grimes is scrambling to work for less money — but then again, he is able to amass a four-figure savings. Second, although he changes masters at least ten times while a slave, the white people involved usually ask his approval for each transaction; I can’t recall if he ever withholds it. On one occasion, he asks to be sold, and his master is offended and angry but complies. Third, after reaching the North, Grimes seems constantly to be in court, to claim wages, to clear himself of libel, and otherwise to gain redress against people who misuse him. The litigiousness of life in Connecticut, and Grimes’s ability to avail himself of the courts, is striking.

The writing is pithy. In a preamble addressed “To the Public,” Grimes asserts that “The condition of the slave…is painful and unfortunate and will excite the sympathy of all who have any.” (29) Toward the end, Grimes attempts to deal with slavery in the abstract, starting with the question of comfort in bondage vs. desperation in freedom: “To say that a man is better off in one situation than another, if in the one he is better clothed and better fed, and has less care than in the other, is false. It is true, if you regard him as a brute, as destitute of the feeling of human nature.” (101) A few lines later, his position becomes ambiguous: He advises slaves against escaping, for the danger and for the apprehension of recapture (Grimes was finally relieved of the latter, when his last master manumitted him in exchange for most of his accumulated money and property); but he then states that, in spite of being “cheated, insulted, abused, and injured” in the North, he has been able to “get along here as well as anyone who is poor and in a situation to be imposed on.” (101-102)

The integrity of the family seems to fare as badly in freedom as under slavery, for Grimes mentions that his wife joined the gold rush in California, leaving him in Connecticut.

Book Review: Inheritance from Mother, by Minae Mizumura

Inheritance from Mother is a two-part novel: Part I is almost entirely a flashback, describing protagonist Mitsuki’s mother’s prolonged decline and intercutting scenes of their relationship; Part II takes place at a resort hotel, where Mitsuki has gone to figure out what to do about her unhappy marriage (and it also contains many flashbacks). Part II was more pleasant for me to read, since I like hotel settings and internal dialogue in which characters figure out what to do.

The latter part contains one of the best portraits of relationship disappointment I’ve ever read:

As she sang, she felt enveloped in the peculiar bliss of singing – the sense that, at least for that fleeting moment, the world is in harmony.

She was halfway through the first verse when Tetsuo quietly left her side and walked slowly off to the pier.

The ship’s whistle sobbing, a flutter of cherry petals.’ She sang on alone, watching his figure grow smaller.

Why?

That was the first ‘why’ of her married life.

She herself was fond of hearing others sing at the chansonnier. Her past boyfriends had enjoyed hearing her sing. And Tetsuo was her husband – shouldn’t he listen gladly? This precise thoughts had not come to her at the time, but she had felt a voiceless cry tear through her, like an echo from the bottom of a deep well. (275-276)

Like Haruki Murakami, Mizumura includes copious references to Western music and literature, yet she also, without becoming nativist or reactionary, expresses resentment at the general degradation and sense of trauma that has accompanied Westernization.

Of course, culture flows both ways, and for every Mizumura character reading Madame Bovary, there is a Westerner like me reading Mizumura. On the subject of world literature, it seems to me that Japanese writers best capture the essence of modern bourgeois life: culturally amalgamated, materialist, and reflective, if not spiritual. Perhaps I am reading different literatures in search of different facets of the human experience in time. If Japanese novels are the best representations of the present, it is in European (especially Hungarian) literature that I find the most homesick remembrances of the past. American literature is where I turn for liberating visions of the future – which seem, ironically, to have been most vivid in the past.

(Maybe this last observation explains why I set my great American novel in seventeenth-century China.) At any rate, I will enjoy reading all of Mizumura’s books.

Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai

This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.

In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”

I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.