Terrible dating habits of War and Peace: An analysis

As you might remember, I’ve been on a bit of a Russian lit kick for the past couple of years. What’s funny to me is that this “Russian lit kick” is only made up of four books, but they’re so long that I’m still on the same reading trend after two years. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever finish this fourth book, but I’m slowly making headway.

I was inspired to read War and Peace after seeing the musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. The musical dramatizes part of Volume 2, Part 5, when several of the characters all meet in Moscow in the middle of Bonaparte’s invasion into Russia. Many men are off at war, Natasha’s being a classic teenage girl with a crush, and Pierre is depressed. The Broadway musical was my most magical experience at a theatre, but this post isn’t about the musical.

Epic novels like War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Les Misérables are all fascinating because their characters are so intertwined. You might need Wikipedia to figure out exactly who everyone is and what their family tree looks like, but they’re like teens at a small private school. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone’s related to everyone.

Basically, everyone in this book makes terrible decisions and really needs to date outside their circle.

Natasha/Natalya/Natalie is a beautiful and flirtatious girl who is quick to fall in love. She’s the girl with the bright smile that all the boys were enthralled with in middle school. Yes, she’s 13 when she’s introduced in the book, and she has a childish crush. She has several other suitors as she gets older.

Sonya is Natasha’s cousin, you know, the poor relation that 19th century families always take in. Her childhood sweetheart is Natasha’s Brother, which explains why she doesn’t flirt with anyone in the musical. At some point, she rejects a guy who gets super pissed at her, goes off into a dangerous part of the war, and then comes back a war hero. But who cares that she rejected a guy who’s now The Bachelor War Hero With The Rose, because she’s still in love with Natasha’s Brother.

Oh, and after Sonya rejects Bachelor With The Rose, he gambles with Natasha’s Brother and thus steals away all the family’s money. I haven’t actually watched The Bachelor, but this Bachelor War Hero is a pretty terrible person.

Natasha gets engaged to a Rich Widower Prince who’s crazy about her because she’s so bright and full of life, but then his dad won’t let him commit, and he leaves. While she’s lonely, a Hot Guy comes in and convinces her that this is what love is like. Oh, and Hot Guy is best friends with The Bachelor With The Rose.

By the way, Hot Guy is a total meathead, and he’s already married. He’s really into having affairs with married women, and his family runs in some of the same circles that Natasha’s does.

Prince Rich Widower Fiancé refuses to take Natasha back because she cheated (fair) and broke up with him (fair), so he goes off to war. I think he also meets Natasha’s Brother at some point? Honestly, it’s like there are only four officers in the entire Russian army, and they all know Natasha.

I’m just past the point in the book when the Russian army thinks that all might be lost, and Bonaparte might win. Rich Widower Ex-Fiancé’s family tries to flee their estate, but the serfs refuse to let them leave until Natasha’s Brother literally rides in on horseback and rescues the Princess in Distress. So of course she decides she’s in love with him.

I think the lesson of this novel might be ask everyone you gamble with if they once proposed marriage to your sibling. If they say yes, they’re probably going to rob you of your fortune.

Or it’s to find better love interests, because these people don’t make good decisions. At this point in the book, I’d say that they’re all around 20-40, so they don’t all have the excuse of youth.

I’m sure there are plenty more poor decisions left in this novel. Like any good soap opera, I can’t wait to see who actually ends up married to whom.

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Hello again

Well it’s been a while, hasn’t it?

So much for “My New Year’s Resolution is to blog more.” Though, technically, I started a new job about two months ago, and I’m writing some professional blogs for it now, so I kind of am blogging more.

Onto books!

I’m about halfway through War and Peace. It’s fantastic (and the battle scenes aren’t as dry as some other classic novels with war scenes). I am almost done with Candide, which I started reading about a week before my friend and I saw the operetta at the Kennedy Center. I’ve started reading a collection of William Blake poems. I was amazed when I read in the introduction that he was actually a pretty radical guy. The writers of the Romantic Era were the same ones rebelling against their governments and starting revolutions. I’m looking forward to getting to his later poems when his politics and hopes shine through, because they sound more interesting than simple poems about the seasons.

This month’s Vogue had a review of Caroline Weber’s nonfiction book Proust’s Duchess, which is, of course, about Marcel Proust. So now I’ve downloaded all the volumes of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. Seems like it could be an interesting read. Actually, I want to read Proust and Proust’s Duchess.

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment? What suggestions do you have for my reading list?

North and South and flawed lovers

I love a flawed character. I think that started around the same time that I started specifically looking for truth and authenticity in art. I loved Ed Sheeran’s first album because he wrote about the pain of losing a child (“Small Bump”) and a girl with a drug addiction (“A Team”). I love Once Upon a Time partly because classic heroines like Snow White and Belle are complicated and sometimes make bad decisions. I loved Disney’s live-action Maleficent because it reinterpreted the motives and history of a classic villain. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that goodness always wins, but I like when art reflects life’s messiness. If Snow White is still Snow White when she makes mistakes, then maybe it’s okay to stop pretending to be perfect.

Last year around this time, I wrote about the danger of waiting for a Perfect Mr. Darcy to come along. This year, I want to talk about another classic romance that I like more than Pride and Prejudice.

You might have heard of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel North and South. You might not. It was published around 40 years after Pride and Prejudice by a woman who was friends with Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.* Like her friends, Gaskell wrote novels about social problems. North and South was a story about industrialization.

The novel follows Margaret Hale as her minister father quits the Church of England and her family flees their comfortable Southern country home for a city in the North. Because he can no longer preach, her father begins to teach rich men in the city. One of these men is John Thornton, the New Money guy who rose to the top and now owns one of the major factories in town. Thornton falls in love with Margaret immediately, but she Does Not Like Him because 1) she sees him beat up a worker, 2) her best friend works in the mill, 3) she’s Old Money, and 4) both of them are proud.

It’s a story about social dynamics. Margaret’s family has always been middle class. She grew up with certain social customs and manners, and she’s disgusted by this man who doesn’t know how to respect her in the way that the other men from her class respect her. She’s used to her old standard of living, and it’s difficult adapting after her father publicly renounces his faith. She’s a sympathetic character, but she’s proud. She believes that she’s better than her father’s new friend Mr. Thornton because she’s educated and respectable and actually likes the working class.

North and South is a romance novel about social classes and a union strike at cotton mill. Actually, I don’t know that “romance novel” is the best description, but since I’m comparing it to Pride and Prejudice, I’ll use it anyway.

Pride and Prejudice and North and South are both novels about people disliking each other before falling in love. Both feature flawed characters. Elizabeth Bennet and Margaret Hale are both women who are, well, prejudiced against their respective love interests. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Thornton are both men who are proud of their circumstances. Everyone has to learn to look past their own noses and learn from each other.

I think it’s easy to forget that Elizabeth Bennet is indeed proud. We forget that she decided to hate someone because he said that she wasn’t pretty enough at a party. She only thought nice things and fell in love with him after he 1) revealed that her favorite flirt friend Mr. Wickham was a scoundrel, 2) said he was shy, and 3) paid off the scoundrel to stop shaming the family.

I love how North and South is so clearly a story about two flawed people. It’s hard to read it and not think, “Oh, they’re both wrong here.” I love how both characters have to grow. Much like reality, no one person gets to stay stagnant. They argue, they accuse each other of murder, it’s great. And they both get over themselves.

This Galentine’s/Valentine’s Day, instead of marathoning the six hour BBC Pride and Prejudice, marathon the four hour BBC North and South.

Here’s a fan trailer for the miniseries starring Richard Armitage and Daniela Denby-Ashe. It’s fan-made because the BBC hasn’t put an official trailer on Youtube, but it’s worth posting anyway just so no one gets this miniseries confused with the American show with the same name about the Civil War.

*Casual. I can only imagine their dinner parties.

Dickens’ festive bedtime stories

My original post for this week was an update on what I’m reading, but it didn’t seem quite appropriate for Christmas week.

As far as literature goes, Charles Dickens is nearly synonymous with Christmas. He wrote a ghost story that was adapted into roughly twenty different Hallmark movies. That ghost story was referenced in two Doctor Who episodes in the last 11 years.

Dickens wrote another seasonally appropriate work.

 

Actually, it’s not just appropriate for the Christmas season. You can read it any time of the year. But it begins with Jesus in a manger.

The Life of Our Lord is a short book written for Dickens’s children. It’s definitely not like his novels about poor kids and cruel Scottish boarding schools. It’s not a comment on the inefficiency of government. That’s what some reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon seem to have expected. It’s a children’s story that was never intended to be published.

The Life of Our Lord is basically an illustrated version of the Gospels, but without the pictures. Dickens uses simple language to tell the big stories: the shepherds and the wise men at Christmas, John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, the wine at the wedding, the calling of the apostles, healing of disease and demon possession, feeding the crowds, and the crucifixion.

Reading this warm fuzzies children’s book made so much of Charles Dickens’ novels make sense. It reveals something of his faith, and while it’s not quite theologically sound, it explains the motivations of the characters he enjoyed writing.

Children’s literature, and much of classic literature, aims to teach lessons about morality and the benefits of being kind. That’s a good thing. We want to raise our children to love others. It benefits society to raise children to obey the law and not to hurt other people. It is good and right to teach and preach that.

This is when I think we start getting into the Victorian culture and morality that shaped Charles Dickens’s works.

At least in my experience, 19th century literature is a celebration of Being a Good Person. If you are nice and kind to people, your soul is nice and kind and good. If you are unkind, your soul is bad. Pip is a kind orphan, and Miss Havisham is a misandrist villain. Nicholas Nickelby is a giving teacher, and Ralph Nickelby is a wicked banker. To jump forward by a few decades, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is about an evil man who pretends to be good.

It’s a view that the purpose of Christianity is to be kind to people.

There is a child born to-day in the city of Bethlehem near here, who will grow up to be so good that God will love Him as his own Son; and He will teach men to love one another, and not to quarrel and hurt one another; and His name will be Jesus Christ; and people will put that name in their prayers, because they will know God loves it, and will know that they should love it too.

In The Life of Our Lord, this is the speech given by the angels to the shepherds in the field. It’s quite lovely.

I find myself throughout this book saying, “Yes, but…”

This children’s version of the Gospel is easy to understand, and it teaches lessons about loving your neighbor, but it doesn’t talk about the salvation that the angels announced to the shepherds. Sin is something a bit too heavy for Dickens’ “Jesus for Children.”

It’s a happy story to read, and if you’re looking for a nice little book to read before Christmas, I definitely recommend it. I think I understand a little bit more of the mentality of the Dickensian hero.

It’s a nice story.

And that’s all I’ll say.

Merry Christmas, friends.

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(I’ve been waiting to use this gif from Classic Alice. It doesn’t really go here, but I wanted to use it, so here we go.)

Lunch break Romanticism

It’s been quite a month, hasn’t it?

I’ve started reading a new book by Alfred de Vigny, a French poet and soldier. The original title is Servitude et grandeur militaires; I’m reading the 2013 translation entitled The Warrior’s Life (different translators have translated the title as Lights and Shades of Military Life, The Military Necessity, The Military Condition, and The Servitude and Grandeur of Arms). It seems hard to translate the entire meaning of the French title into English.*

de Vigny was a poet who was born just after the French Revolution ended and grew up in Napoléon’s empire. He was an aristocrat who went to military school so he could fight for his king… and then he didn’t actually get to fight. He belonged to a generation of men who dreamed of finding glory through valiant military acts, but didn’t get it because they were serving a king who didn’t want to expand territory.

It’s interesting reading a Romantic work of literature that’s not fiction. The Warrior’s Life reads like a novel. For comparison, it was published around the same time as Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The stories talk about love and beauty and honor and duty. They read like some of my friends’ post-election Facebook posts: “What’s the point? Here’s a story about someone else. What makes us human?”

I’m mainly reading this on my lunch breaks, so I’m only about halfway through the book, but there was one story that I haven’t stopped thinking about. A bride goes crazy after witnessing her husband’s execution. She isn’t supposed to see it. She isn’t supposed to see the gunshots. But she does. And then the executioner adopts her because she has no family and no way to get food.

It sounds like a scene from Les Misérables. It sounds like a sad story written in beautiful language that never happened. But it did. This woman, and many other women, watched their husbands die during the French Revolution. He died, and so did she.

Writing that summary makes it seem less powerful. I read that recollection, and then I returned to work grieving for this woman who died 200 years ago.

I realize now that the books I love are all Romantic works of literature. The writers muse upon the roles of governments, human kindness, love, fear, and fame. They look for beauty in nature. They search for the sublime.

This encounter revealed to me a side of man’s nature which I had not known – of which the country knows little and which it treats so badly. From that moment I placed it high in my esteem. Since then I have often searched round me for some man comparable to him, capable of such complete and heedless abnegation of the self. And, during the fourteen years I have lived in the army, it was in it alone, and above all in the ranks of the poor and despised infantry, that I found men of this antique character, men pushing the sentiment of duty to its final consequences, having no compunction about their obedience nor shame for their poverty, simple of manners and language, proud of the glory of their country and careless of their own, happily shut up in their obscurity, and sharing with the unfortunate the black bread they purchase with their blood.

One moment I’m reading a tragic story that sounds like fiction, and then I remember that it’s true. It’s beautiful and sad and maybe too philosophical for a Black Friday lunch break, but it’s too good to let go.

*Biographical information and edition titles come from Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge and facts on the internet.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child vs fanfiction

Now that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been out for nearly a week, it seems that it’s finally safe to start discussing the plot. A number of the articles that I’ve read were written by people who were upset because so-and-so did such-and-such thing. Other people were upset because they had expected a different kind of story.

Honestly, as “done” and “fanfiction-y” as the play feels, I loved it. I got into Harry Potter when I was in high school; the same friend who made me want to read the books was the same friend who introduced me to fanfiction in 2009. It’s safe to say that at this point in 2016, I’ve spent a few hours reading Harry Potter.

If you’re not a member of a fandom, you might not know what fanfiction is. Essentially, people start asking themselves, “What if this happened?” or “What if someone was slightly different?” and start writing stories. A few examples might include Fred surviving the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry becoming pregnant with Draco’s child, and Hermione discovering that she’s the long-lost twin of one of her Slytherin classmates.

The first Harry Potter book came out in 1997, while the last novel about Harry was released in 2007. Fans have had 19 years to write stories about Harry Potter. They’ve known the names “Albus Severus Potter,” “Scorpius Malfoy,” and “Rose Weasley” for nine. At this point, it’s unlikely that any Harry Potter sequel or prequel that Rowling writes will have stories or plot details that no one has ever thought of before.

I think J.K. Rowling gave us a preposterous story because she wanted to show her readers that their fanfiction does not work in the world that exists in her mind.

If you haven’t finished reading the book yet, go back now, because there are spoilers ahead. If you want to read my previous Cursed Child post that doesn’t have spoilers, click here.

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Shakespeare without supervision, part 2

At the beginning of May, I wrote that I was planning to read all three parts of Henry VI, plus Richard III, in preparation for my June trip to Yorkshire. My thought was that I should probably read some of Shakespeare’s histories before visiting Middleham Castle.

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Reading four plays in one month might have been a bit optimistic. But, I finished Henry VI, Part One and read the beginning of Richard III on my trip, so all is not lost!

Here’s what I have learned so far:

1. Footnotes are your best friend when reading something like Shakespeare. At home, I read a Signet Classics edition that had lots of footnotes and commentaries. On my trip, I read the free ebook on my iPad, which didn’t have those things. Google and Wikipedia were my friends when I didn’t understand the historical events.

2. Henry VI, Part One is about the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. I think.

Plantagenet: If he suppose that I have pleaded truth, From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.

Somerset: Let him that is no coward nor no flatterer, But dare maintain the party of the truth, Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me………. Ah, thou shalt find us ready for thee still, And know us by these colors for thy foes, For these my friends in spite of thee shall wear.

Plantagenet: And, by my soul, this pale and angry rose, As cognizance of my blood-drinking hate, Will I forever and my faction wear, Until it wither with me to my grave, Or flourish to the height of my degree.

3. Joan of Arc is a French heroine. She fought against the English. Shakespeare does not like her.

4. A significant part of the play is just kings talking about battles. I assume that’s why I don’t really remember many events in this 100-page play. The messengers talk about battles, aspiring kings debate who gets to be king…. and that’s about all that I remember.

5. You know when you’re watching a movie, and the villain goes off on a soliloquy or a monologue, and the prisoners sit and wait because they’re too polite to escape when their captor is talking? Absolutely no preservation skills. That’s how I feel about a scene near the end when the Earl of Suffolk has a captured Margaret of Anjou.

Margaret: Say, Earl of Suffolk, if thy name be so, What ransom must I pay before I pass? For I perceive I am thy prisoner.

Suffolk: [Aside] How canst thou tell she will deny thy suit, Before thou make a trial of her love?

Margaret: Why speak’st thou not? What ransom must I pay?

Suffolk: [Aside] She’s beautiful and therefore to be wooed; She is a woman, therefore to be won.

Margaret: Wilt thou accept of ransom, yea or no?

Suffolk: [Aside] Fond man, remember that thou hast a wife; Then how can Margaret be thy paramour?

Margaret: I were best to leave him, for he will not hear.

Suffolk: {Aside] There all is marred; there lies a cooling card.

Margaret: He talks at random; sure, the man is mad.

Suffolk: [Still aside, but more loudly] And yet a dispensation may be had.

Margaret: And yet I would that you would answer me.

Suffolk: [Aside] I’ll win this Lady Margaret. For whom? Why, for my king!

Seriously, Margaret, you could have escaped 15 minutes ago, and he still would have been trying to figure out who he could marry you off to.

6. The play ends with King Henry, who’s apparently an idiot, sending Suffolk back to France to “agree to any covenants” so he can marry the daughter of the guy he literally just fought in a war.

I’ve started Part Two, which begins with the logical result of “agree to anything they say because I want to marry this beautiful woman.” There’s quite a bit of a gap between the events in Henry VI, Part Two and Richard III, but Margaret seems to be the one character present in both/all. In a way, Shakespeare’s plays teach history, albeit a dramatized one that has puns and ghosts. They’re confusing, but entertaining.

Cheers to my first experience with a semi-historically accurate Shakespearean play! Once I finish the other three plays on my list, I’ll let you know how I feel.