Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

This book was written (and published in 1861) to inoculate northerners against southern sugar-coating of slavery. This passage exemplifies its purpose:

One day I saw a slave pass our gate, muttering, ‘It’s his own, and he can kill it if he will.’ My grandmother told me that woman’s history. Her mistress had that day seen her baby for the first time, and in the lineaments of its fair face she saw a likeness to her husband. She turned the bondwoman and her child out of doors, and forbade her ever to return. The slave went to her master, and told him what had happened. He promised to talk with her mistress, and make it all right. The next day she and her baby were sold to a Georgia trader.

Another time I saw a woman rush wildly by, pursued by two men. She was a slave, the wet nurse of her mistress’s children. For some trifling offense her mistress ordered her to be stripped and whipped. To escape the degradation and the torture, she rushed to the river, jumped in, and ended her wrongs in death.

Senator Brown, of Mississippi, could not be ignorant of such facts as these, for they are of frequent occurrence in every Southern State. Yet he stood up in the Congress of the United States, and declared that slavery was ‘a great moral, social, and political blessing; a blessing to the master, and a blessing to the slave!’ (pp. 135-136)

So attuned to hypocrisy, Jacobs takes special aim at the church, as in the following scene:

I well remember one occasion when I attended a Methodist class meeting. I went with a burdened spirit, and happened to sit next to a poor, bereaved mother, whose heart was still heavier than mine. The class leader was the town constable – a man who bought and sold slaves, who whipped his brethren and sisters of the church at the public whipping post, in jail or out of jail. He was ready to perform the Christian office any where for fifty cents. This white-faced, black-hearted brother came near us, and said to the stricken woman, ‘Sister, can’t you tell us how the Lord deals with your soul? Do you love him as you did formerly?’

She rose to her feet, and said, in piteous tones, ‘My Lord and Master, help me! My load is more than I can bear. God has hid himself from me, and I am left in darkness and misery.’ Then, striking her breast, she continued, ‘I can’t tell you what is in here! They’ve got all my children. Last week they took the last one. God only knows where they’ve sold her. They let me have her sixteen years, and then – O! O! Prey for her brothers and sisters! I’ve got nothing to live for now. God make my time short!’

She sat down, quivering in every limb. I saw that constable class leader become crimson in the face with suppressed laughter, while he held up his handkerchief, that those who were weeping for the poor woman’s calamity might not see his merriment. Then, with assumed gravity, he said to the bereaved mother, ‘Sister, pray to the Lord that every dispensation of his divine will may be sanctified to the good of your poor needy soul!’ (pp. 78-79)

“No wonder,” Jacobs writes, “the slaves sing, –

‘Ole Satan’s church is here below;
Up to God’s free church I hope to go.’ (p. 84)

The founding principles of our republic fall under the charge of hypocrisy too; yet despite their authorship by slave-mongers, they inspire. When Jacobs slips away from her tormentors, she resolves that, “come what would, there should be no turning back. ‘Give me liberty, or give me death,’ was my motto.” (p. 111) If Patrick Henry hadn’t meant for his declaration to be echoed by everyone, then he shouldn’t have blared it.

Instrumental as she no doubt was in helping to crystalize public opinion against actual slavery, Jacobs would not join in the mounting mid-century chorus against “wage slavery,” or bourgeois society, that was first voiced experimentally by Thoreau (“It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one”), developed heroically by Gandhi (“Formerly, men worked in the open air only as much as they liked….Now…their condition is worse than that of beasts….They are enslaved by the temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy”), and finally reprised in satire by Orwell (“Freedom is slavery”). On a trip to England after her escape, she observes:

I had heard much about the oppression of the poor in Europe. The people I saw around me were, many of them, among the poorest poor. But when I visited them in their little thatched cottages, I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the condition of the most favored slaves in America. They labored hard; but they were not ordered out to toil while the stars were in the sky; and driven and slashed by an overseer, through heat and cold, till the stars shone out again. Their homes were very humble; but they were protected by law. No insolent patrols could come, in the dead of night, and flog them at their pleasure. The father, when he closed his cottage door, felt safe with his family around him. No master or overseer could come and take from him his wife, or his daughter. They must separate to earn a living; but the parents knew where their children were going, and could communicate with them by letters….There was no law forbidding them to learn to read or write; and if they helped each other in spelling out the Bible, they were in no danger of thirty-nine lashes, as was the case with myself and poor, pious, old uncle Fred. I repeat that the most ignorant and the most destitute of these peasants was a thousand times better off than the most pampered American slave. (pp. 205-206)

This edition comes with a narrative by Harriet’s brother, John, which includes this pithy farewell note to his “master”:

Sir – I have left you, not to return; when I have got settled, I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours, John S. Jacob. (p. 248)

Book Review: Six Frigates, by Ian W. Toll

Although I read mostly novels these days, it’s good every once in a while to check in with an amazing history book, of which Six Frigates is a superb example. The story of the founding and early institutional history of the United States is easily as enthralling as any novel. Toll’s book is very nautically detailed, but it also includes thorough treatments of the Founders, the political parties, the leading issues facing the young republic such as Barbary piracy and French and British impressment of sailors (which seems to approach kidnapping and slavery in its straightforwardness), as well as quaint customs like dueling.

Among Six Frigates’ panorama of the early nineteenth century appears this early account of British anti-Americanism, which I read as early evidence of the social reaction that came to dominate thought by century’s end:

Hatred of America seems a prevailing sentiment in this country. Whether it be that they have no crown and nobility, and are on this account not quite a genteel power; or that their manners are less polished than our own; or that we grudge their independence…the fact is undeniable that the bulk of our people would fain be at war with them. (p. 276)

Readers of some of my other reviews will know that the tracing of such sentiments to the murderous genteel ideologies of the twentieth century is a pet project of mine.

Here is another private take from Toll’s book: As a Baltimorean, I read the whole work in dreadful anticipation of a cruel truth that finally emerges in a postscript:

1853: Constellation is broken up at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk. Some of her timbers may have been incorporated into a new sloop of war, also christened the Constellation. (The latter remains afloat in Baltimore harbor.) (p. 475)

In sum, there is a lot for me in this book (not all of it pleasant), and there is certain to be a lot for you too; but above all it is a gripping, epic story. It will capture (or should I say impress) your imagination, whatever your circumstances.

Book Review: A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter

James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is immersive and dreamlike. Much of it narrates car trips through bucolic cat-filled towns, and thus it seems “truly French,” although other books with different approaches could seem just as “French.”

In the composition of his dreamscape, Salter eschews action verbs and employs instead verbs of being, “there is” or “there are” (il ya) constructions, and the passive voice, as in:

There are tunnels of hay, mosques, cupolas, domes. Every house has its vegetable garden. The roads here are empty – a motorcyclist, a truck, nothing more. People are traveling elsewhere. Outside a house two small cages are hung for the canaries to get some air. (p. 7)

and:

That penetrating cold of France is here, that cold which touches everything, which arrives too soon. Inside, beneath the coupole, I can see the tables being set for dinner The lights are already on in the marvelous, glass consoles within which the wealth of this ancient town is displayed: watches in leather cases, soup tureens, foulards. My eye moves. Perfumes. Books of medieval sculpture. Necklaces. Underwear. The glass has thin strips of brass like a boat’s running the edges and is curved on top – a dome of stained fragments, hexagons, hives of color. Behind all this, in white jackets, the waiters glide. (p. 14)

When an action verb like “glide” comes along, it’s almost startling.

Most of these static vignettes appear at the beginning of the book, setting the scene. Action verbs creep in later, when the tryst between Phillip and Anne-Marie intensifies.

The sex scenes are OK I guess, although the words for parts of the body (like “prick”) and for coupling seem vulgar and unpoetic. I wonder if we’ll ever come up with better words for those things.

Apparently, I’m not the first person to note similarities with The Great Gatsby, as far as narrative point of view is concerned – although I thought I was the first person. If Gatsby’s protagonists trust Nick Carraway with the details of their story, then the unnamed narrator of A Sport and a Pastime takes things a step further by telling other people’s story whether he’s been entrusted or not. (I wonder if Sport refers to Gatsby, as in “Old Sport.”)

Narrative bombs like “None of this is true” (p. 11) lend the book its ponderability.

Book Review: Lord of Formosa, by Joyce Bergvelt

Lord of Formosa is well-researched, fast-paced, transporting, and enjoyable. Readers should not feel daunted by the book’s 440-page length: The story flies by. Asian settings and character names are also made easy to assimilate by use of maps and by keeping the players to a minimum. Also, this is a transnational story, so it’s easier to keep track of the Chinese, Japanese, and Dutch names than it would be if all the names were Chinese. (Another bit of good news in this regard is that the main character, Zheng Chenggong, ends up with a Romanized name, Koxinga.) It is everything a historical fiction book should be.

One interesting facet of the book is Koxinga’s transition from protagonist to antagonist. It occurs abruptly in the “Physician” chapter, in which Koxinga is treated by a Dutch doctor. Seeing the volatile patient through the eyes of his caregiver effectively subjugates him to the latter’s judgement. For the balance of the novel, the narrative perspective – and the reader’s sympathy – remains with the Dutch, particularly with Formosa’s last governor, Frederic Coyett. A late-game discovery of restraint on Koxinga’s part salvages his appeal somewhat, and he winds up as an honorable antagonist though still an antagonist.

Author Joyce Bergvelt has done a great service in writing such a compelling book about Taiwan, which is such a uniquely fascinating place that it deserves a lot more books like this one.

Book Review: Tales of Ming Courtesans, by Alice Poon

Tales of Ming Courtesans is a freedom book. Utilizing an approach that is very different from Lisa See’s in her Peony in Love, Alice Poon has created characters that do more than make the most of miserable situations. Rather, they rail at the injustice of them and seek liberation. In one passage, Poon credits very liberal expressions to the Hangzhou merchant Wang Wei and includes a ringing endorsement from Liu Rushi, perhaps the most intrepid of the three Ming courtesans portrayed in this book:

‘Confucius was dead wrong to have classed women as inferior humans. Just think of all the female talent that has gone to waste over the past several millennia because of that stupid gender discrimination! Aiya, too tragic! And our society is so depraved to exploit girls from poor families and allow the thin horse [human trafficking and procurement] trade to thrive! Why aren’t learned men ashamed at just ignoring it and do nothing about it! Let me tell you this: [Qian] Qianyi and I have always shared the same view on this issue. We have even planned to jointly petition the Emperor to ban the slave trade. That’s why we are great friends!’

‘Ah, now I understand why you call your boat the “Untethered Villa”! You are a freedom lover, true? Wasn’t it the Song poet Su Shi who had used the term “untethered boat” to portray his freedom from the burdens of officialdom?’ (p. 183)

Such discourse was indeed atypical of old China, but it was not unimaginable in the late Ming dynasty, when traditional dogma came under bold scrutiny and received norms of gender relations were challenged. Of course, Liu Rushi and her sisters are not merely interested in “freedom from the burdens of officialdom” but are desperately seeking to escape from brutal chains of control and chronic abasement. As their desperation increases, idealistic talk of freedom fades, and only the struggle for survival remains.

Nonetheless, they fight the good fight. Tales of Ming Courtesans is compelling and very exciting – and hard to put down. Readers will be sorry when it’s over, and if they are like me, they will be eager to learn more about Liu Rushi and her extraordinarily forward-thinking times.

Book Review: Northwood, or Life North and South, by Sarah Josepha Buell Hale

Written in open anticipation of the Civil War, Northwood, or Life North and South (1852) posits basic differences in character between Yankees and Southrons. Some character traits are caused by geography and climate, as in:

The universal necessity for constant labor or application to business, which yet happily exists in the New England States, contributes, perhaps more than any other cause, to preserve the purity of morals which distinguishes the inhabitants of that section of our country. Had the Puritans and their descendants been fed with manna and fattened with quails in their wilderness, they would, doubtless, long before this, have spurned the hand that bestowed the unsought favors. (p. 240)

In some cases, the climatic factor gives way to the social:

‘Your cool climate keeps your temperament cool; and the perfect equality subsisting in your society makes the controlling of the passions more indispensable than with us, where the overflowings of wrath may be poured out on the heads, and bodies too, of unresisting menials.’ (pp. 205-206)

The novel’s protagonist, Sidney Romilly, shifts back and forth between New Hampshire and South Carolina and thus tries both halves of the experiment on himself. The results he relates in a letter to an English friend:

‘As a fair parallel I will mention Napoleon the Great. Like him I was taken from humble life, to be the heir of a sovereignty; make what exceptions you please to my use of the term sovereignty, the southern slaveholder is as absolute in his dominions, or plantation rather, as the grand seignior, and when I had become accustomed to command, and my mind was weakened by indolence and enervated by dissipation, I was suddenly thrown back to my former insignificance, and compelled to dig for my daily bread. “O, what a falling off was there!”…. [However,] the activity which we are compelled by our situation to exert…operates to dispel the gloom of grief. Employment is an excellent comforter, and fatigue the best opiate in the world. I never slept so soundly since my childhood, and my slumbers are most refreshing. I awaken in the morning without any solicitude save just the business of the farm. I have no appointments to keep or engagements to escape, no punctilios of honor or intrigues of love. In short, could I fairly forget the last dozen years of my life, I think I might now enjoy the best felicity of which mortal men can, on earth, be partakers.’ (pp. 324-326)

Northwood’s author, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, directly addresses the problem of slavery only toward the end of the book. While against the institution – as something that is bad for white people – she is equally against its violent overthrow and rather dreams, somewhat like Gandhi, of a swelling of (Christian) soul force that will compel slave-owners of their own accord to manumit their menials, educate and evangelize them, and then allow them to colonize and Christianize Africa. She holds no belief in racial equality (or amalgamation) and supposes black and white coexistence in America to be impossible.

Otherwise, Northwood is chock-full of little bits of wisdom I’m more prepared to accept. For example, it rebukes me for excessive romanticism by commenting favorably that a certain love-letter “was not an unmeaning rhapsody – alternately fire and frost; now breathing out his affections and now lamenting his destiny”… but rather addressed to the lady “as his friend and therefore entitled to his confidence – as a reasoning being and therefore able to understand his situation and assist him with her counsel.” (p. 207) It chides me too for my regrettable Machiavellian conception of respect, when it quotes Sidney’s report that “‘I am more respected and less feared; better, far better beloved, yet less flattered; have fewer followers and firmer friends.’” (p. 340)

In refutation both of Machiavelli and of the Chinese philosopher Han Fei, it supplies the Christian argument that love is superior to law: “Even God, reverently speaking, could not, by force, compel His rational creatures to be, in heart and soul, obedient to His law. Therefore, He sent His beloved Son to die for us, and thus, by His love, to move us to love, which includes obedience in return.” (p. 394)

Finally, the book has a few things to say about the general struggle between equality and aristocracy. On the one hand, it heralds the bitter reaction of the latter against the former that, in my humble opinion, has given rise to all totalitarian doctrine from Marxism to Nazism and that has constituted the chief driving force of history since the mid-nineteenth century:

‘Neither is it strange that the aristocratical spirit of the old world should be alarmed and revolt at the democratical influence which the new is so rapidly obtaining. We cannot expect those who pride themselves on an ancestry, whose pure blood has flowed through proud veins for many hundred years, will forget at once this fancied superiority, and look on what they call our plebian origin, without feelings of contempt.’

On the other hand – or perhaps on the same hand – these pages also note the development of a pseudo-aristocracy, arising among the plebians, that may, in spite of its origins, exemplify the reaction of the aristocratical spirit against the democratical one:

‘I do think the real English gentleman has more of dignity, and less of arrogance, than our purse-bound citizens. The Englishman is more proud, perhaps, but is free from that puffing consequence which is the most offensive part of the folly in our own countrymen. This may arise from the superiority of the former being established and acknowledged, whereas our own gentlemen are continually striving to maintain their precarious honors, and seem determined, by making the most of what they happen to possess, to indemnify themselves for the transientness of its continuance.’ (pp. 244-245)

It is ultimately the totalitarian, in his twentieth-century guise, who seeks to “maintain precarious honors” and indemnify himself against the transientness of democratical society by reimposing upon it a fixed hierarchial order, with himself at its apex.

In the meantime, the pseudo-aristocrats of Northwood, are described by Hale consistently as people of fashion. Examples of her use of the term are almost beyond counting:

His appearance, rank, and fortune, made his alliance a prize not lightly to be rejected by people of fashion. (p. 182)

Thus gently and almost imperceptibly, Stuart was loosening the chains which fashion had twined around our hero and restoring him to the freedom of that rational enjoyment which his soul was formed to appreciate but for which the Circean cup of luxury had nearly destroyed his relish. (p. 237)

Now he must put forth his own strength and depend on his own exertions. Yet strange as it may seem to those who connect felicity only with wealth, splendor, and distinction, he was never, in the proudest moment of his prosperity, when he was the star of fashion and minion of fortune, so cheerfully and equally happy as now, while confined to labor and living in obscurity. (p. 323)

He whispered to Sidney in great confidence that he fancied Miss Redington’s accession of wealth had already begun to make her dissatisfied with a residence in that unfashionable place and that he presumed she would soon depart for Boston. (p. 332)

I’ve always found fashion to be imposingly hierarchial, a ready means by which even Americans, who lack a true aristocracy, strive to concoct a false one. It’s therefore confirming to see how often Hale presents fashion as the antithesis of New England’s virtuous, egalitarian simplicity.

The Best Books about the Struggle of the Individual in the Crazy World

The good people at Shepherd.com invited me to contribute this list to their site. Please enjoy.

Who am I?

“Whosoever shall promote himself shall be abased.” – Matthew 23:12

(I’m not in the mood to blurb myself at the moment. If you want to know who I am, please send me an email.)

[This is the version I wanted to use. I ended up promoting myself in the finished product.]

I wrote…

Southern Rain

What is my book about?

My book is about a carpenter’s son who rescues an apprentice Buddhist nun from an arrogant official, as China’s Ming dynasty falls all around them. Its main theme is – you guessed it – the struggle of the individual in the crazy world, but I hope it says a few things about men and women and freedom and power too. It’s set in seventeenth-century China, but it’s not about China. The story, I think, is universal.

The Books I Picked and Why

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

Young Milo, who doesn’t know what to do with himself, is teleported into a crazy world indeed: The Lands Beyond, where the Forrest of Sight contains an invisible city, where the Valley of Sound is silent, and where you have to take care to avoid getting lost in the Doldrums or jumping to (the island of) Conclusions. Milo’s quest is to find the princesses Rhyme and Reason and restore them to the realm. His sidekick is a watchdog named Tock (who ticks); the most loathsome demon in his way is a bureaucrat called the Senses Taker.

Works, by Thomas Malory

The “Knight Prisoner” Malory must have found the world a tough place to get along, and his collected work, which publisher William Caxton didn’t know what to make of, is a veritable bible of striving amidst chaos. From the early tale of “Balin or the Knight with Two Swords,” in which the hapless hero, involved in a fast-moving pursuit through a castle, unwittingly delivers the Dolorous Stroke, blighting the world, to the piteous tale of the “Morte d’Arthur,” in which the knights of the round table turn against each other, all is confusion. In between can be read “The Tale of Sir Gareth” and the story of La Cote Male Tayle, which seem identical – but are they? Why is everything so easy for Sir Gareth and so difficult for LCMT? The answer may very well provide the key to life itself. Be sure to read these stories in the original Middle English (edited by Eugène Vinaver), to enhance the sense of the arcane.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

For that matter, why is life a game for Tom Sawyer and a grimly serious struggle for Huck? Accompanied by the runaway slave Jim, the runaway Huck must live by his wits, sometimes by concocting frauds of the type that others employ for fun or profit. Huck’s quest is for freedom, as he and Jim float down the Mississippi River, into the heart of slavery. In addition to the smarts he needs, Huck possesses his own practical value system (“I couldn’t see no profit in it”) and a courageous morality (“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”), which explain better than anything else why he’s on the quest in the first place.

The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth

This is the funniest book I’ve ever read. The hero, Ebenezer Cooke, seeks to earn his estate in colonial Maryland, in spite of losing it by a misplaced act of justice (the Dolorous Stroke of the story). Nearly every important man he meets turns out to be his childhood tutor in disguise. Nearly all the women in the book are prostitutes. Pure mayhem.

The Eden Express, by Mark Vonnegut

The memoirist, son of Kurt Vonnegut, sets out with his girlfriend and his dog in a VW Beetle to establish a commune in Canada in the early 70s. Two things go wrong: First, society proves to be mostly supportive; and second, Mark begins having schizophrenic episodes. Aside from being a groovy hippie yarn and a guide on how to set up a commune, this book shows that sometimes, in the struggle against the crazy world, the craziness turns out to be inside us.

Review: Balin, or the Knight with the Two Swords, by Thomas Malory

Balyne le Saveage’s character can be gleaned from the following passage:

Than hit befalle so that tyme there was a poore knyght with kynge Arthure that had bene presonere with hym half a yere for sleyng of a knyght which was cosyne unto kynge Arthure. And the name of thys knyght was called Balyne, and by good meanys of the barownes he was delyverde oute of preson, for he was a good man named of his body. (Malory, Works, 1971 collection ed. by Vinaver, p. 39)

The two main points that emerge are 1) that Balin often kills when he shouldn’t and 2) that Balin is self-righteous (because “a good man named of his body” may mean “a man who esteemed himself good”). The latter defect may account for the former, but in any case the combination of the two defects isn’t promising.

Balin’s self-righteousness becomes evident a few lines later, when he draws the sword from the damsel’s scabbard (which no others had been able to do) and is overly glad to believe her claim (suspected by Merlin to be counterfeit) that only good knights could so obtain the weapon. He refuses her request that he return it to her and gazes upon the false proof of his goodness with immoderate pleasure.

Balin’s tendency to kill too much – to kill at least one person too many – is evident throughout the rest of the story. First, he kills the Lady of the Lake, whom be holds responsible for the death of his mother (his righteous excuse). Then, he slays Sir Launceor, who indeed had it coming, but wrongfully watches when Launceor’s paramour kills herself out of grief. Later, he shows Sir Garnyssh the infidelity of his paramour, causing Garnyssh, likewise, to kill himself. These latter two deaths, among many that occur wherever Balin goes, are deaths of love, which, if God is love, can perhaps be described as sacrilegious. Of course, the ultimate unfortunate blow is the Dolorous Stroke, a stab at good King Pellam collateral to the justifiable killing of the evil knight Garlon, which results in the blighting of three kingdoms.

I hypothesize that Balin’s “two swords” are not swords at all but the representation of his penchant for excess, especially excessive self-regard. One sword should be enough for any knight. Readers of the story may try to count the swords Balin carries at any given time, and unless there is an unnamed sword or swords in his valise, it never amounts to two. The meaning of the story might be that all faith in oneself is misplaced (for it belongs with You Know Whom) and can do tremendous damage in proportion to its strength – or in proportion to the strength of its possessor.

Book Review: The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

The Tale of Genji, which some might dismiss as a tale of serial rape, is in fact a Buddhist tragedy, in which the seducers are slaves to their desires, with miserable results.

Throughout this time Genji was constantly reminded of his separation from Oborozuki at the time when she became Consort of the Emperor Suzaku. She too was Lady-of-the-bedchamber; she too was carried away and locked up in a place whither it was impossible for him to pursue her. He remembered being very unhappy then, but nothing like so miserable as he was now. Was it that he was becoming more and more sentimental, he asked himself, or merely that the sufferings of the moment always seem more acute than those which we conjure up out of the past? But whether or no the miseries of today were really worse than those of yesterday, of this much he was sure, that from none of his divagations had anything but torment and agitation ever ensued. (pp. 586-587 of 1935 one-volume Arthur Waley translation)

It is inconceivable to me that any of the subject matter in this book is being treated dispassionately. Its author is surely acting as social critic. Lines such as “In this life rank is everything; it’s no use pretending the contrary” (p. 965) very effectively advocate the contrary. As for women’s issues,

“Girls without a father or brothers to protect them cannot expect to be treated with much consideration.” (p. 970)

“Perhaps her worst misfortune, poor soul, is to have been born a woman at all; for we none of us, high or low, seem to be given much of a chance either in this world or the next.” (p. 973)

“The Governor said that in the long run it was always the woman’s fault when such things happened.” (p. 1032)

naturally imply unfairness. That the author of Genji was a woman, or whether or not her work is “feminist,” makes no difference.

Otherwise, the most interesting aspect of the novel is the division of Genji’s personality between Kaoru and Prince Niou. The former inherits Genji’s sensitivity and the latter his rakishness, causing remarkable differences in performance.

Book Review, Midst the Wild Carpathians, by Mór Jókai

Upon finishing this intriguing book, I turned back to page one and began reading again, in the hope that the intricacies of its plot might become clearer the second time around. One dimension of this intricacy relates to the complex political situation of seventeenth-century Transylvania, where Ottoman Turks retained some influence despite the country’s nominal independence and where the word “Hungarian” could refer not only to the native ethnic stock but also to emigres from Hungary proper. Another relates to author Mór Jókai’s inexplicit treatment of cause and effect in the storyline, his disinclination to comment on how certain actions proceed from others. At any rate, my second reading was well worth it, as familiarity built on itself, yielding greater comprehension.

One obvious theme of the book is womanly influence over men. A typical sentence reads, “The chair of state was large enough to accommodate them both. It is true that the pretty wife had to sit half upon her husband’s knee, but that certainly did not inconvenience either of them.” (pp. 75-76) Another runs, “The women, like so many Bacchantes, ran in search of weapons, and mounted the ramparts by the side of their husbands, whom the determination of their wives had turned into veritable heroes.” (pp. 174)

However clever and strong the women of this book may be, though, they operate only through men. They are not independent.

Also intriguing to me is the hero of the last part of the book, Denis Banfi, who seems a typical representative of the gentry in the ease with which he shifts from grandiosity to viciousness. “The traces of noble enthusiasm and of unbridled fury are impressed upon his face side by side just as they are in his heart.” (p. 157)

In short, I enjoyed reading it once and more than doubly enjoyed reading it twice.