The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki (translated by Arthur Waley)

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Image from Wikipedia

I chose to read The Tale of Genji as part of my quest to read classic books by  female authors from around the world for the Classics Club 2016 reading challenge (and yes I am slightly late in finishing it!) I chose this particular book as  it is one of the earliest novels in existence (written in 10,000 AD) and I have been interested in Japanese literature since I went there a few years ago, although I have to admit I didn’t realise how long the book was until after I had pledged to read it!

This is such a long book it is difficult to know where to start with a summary, but the plot loosely follows the fate of Prince Genji – a man of dazzling beauty and many accomplishments, who it seems seduces the whole of Kyoto. He is the son of the emperor and his concubine so does not have a direct claim to the throne, but nevertheless holds a high position in court which is accentuated by his other talents. He has several wives and so many relationships with other women that it is almost impossible to remember who is who. As Genji grows older and eventually dies – an event which happens well before the end of the book – the narrative follows his descendants and other characters related to Genji.

Genji himself I found an ambiguous character. On the one hand he is loved by almost everyone who comes into contact with him, mainly due to his looks but also because of his talents at calligraphy, poetry and musical ability (all of which seem to be what a person’s character at this time is judged by). He is nicknamed ‘the shining one’ and it is impossible to not admire him in some ways as his virtues are sung non-stop by the author. Yet, judging him by today’s standards he could be viewed as a rapist and a paedophile and, although I had to remind myself that today’s standards did not exist at that time, it was impossible for me to not judge Genji (and many other characters) for his actions towards women. Often his pursuit of women seems like a sport:

“As a matter of fact, he was not very desperately in love with her ; but her apparent indifference had piqued him and he was determined to go on till he had gained his point.”

The (un)fortunate women lose their reputation whether or not they give in to the men’s relentless advances, and seem to have little choice in anything once they have been singled out. Yet Genji does look after and provide for all the women he has made a conquest of, which is the feature I admired most about him.

I had mixed feelings about this book, yet the fact that I finished and never got particularly frustrated at it (at over 1100 pages) indicates that I did enjoy it overall. I found it a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and history, and the language of the book was particularly poetic (I think accentuated by the edition I chose) as well as being surprisingly readable. Although the plot meanders along without any cliff-hanger moments, there was plenty going on in the narrative and despite getting repetitive after a while I never felt as though I couldn’t go on. Despite this, there is no getting away from the fact that it is a very long novel and I am sure that many people will feel about it as I did about Don Quixote. It was impossible not to feel sorry for the poor women who did not seem to have a good time of it no matter what happened to them. The ending is abrupt and doesn’t finalise anything – one gets the impression that the author could have gone on and on without ever finishing had she the time to do so. After the umpteenth story of a man chasing after a reluctant woman and an account of all of the poems that are exchanged it certainly feels like the same story with different characters. Yet something kept me reading and, due to the beauty of the prose and the glimpse into a fascinating past, this is a book which I am glad I read.

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The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne Du Maurier


I cannot believe that, after reading and really enjoying Rebecca about eighteen years ago, I have never picked up anything else by Daphne Du Maurier until now. I absolutely loved these unsettling short stories, particularly the title story and one about a man’s ill-treated wife who dies and comes back to haunt him as a tree. All of the stories have a sinister and supernatural element to them and all of them were gripping and very readable.

The most famous story in the collection has to be The Birds, which I enjoyed as a film but preferred as a short story. Even before the birds begin to attack (which happens very quickly – Du Maurier dives straight in to her story), there is a sense of unease rapidly building:

Black and white, jackdaw and gull, mingled in strange partnership, seeking some sort of liberation, never satisfied, never still.”

I was amazed at how quickly Du Maurier builds tension from the first page and sustains it all through the story. The story is never gruesome – that is left to the reader’s imagination – but it certainly made me wary of flocks of birds for a while after reading it! The ending too was beautifully done, and this is definitely one of the best short stories I have ever read.

My other favourite was The Apple Tree, in which a man is haunted by his dead wife in the form of the story’s title. It doesn’t sound very sinister, but this story really demonstrates Du Maurier’s skill I think because of this and the ways in which his wife exacts her revenge as a tree are both enjoyably imaginative and superbly sinister:

“The martyred bent position, the stooping top, the weary branches, the few withered leaves that had not blown away with the wind and rain of the past winter and now shivered in the spring breeze like wispy hair; all of it protested soundlessly to the owner of the garden looking upon it, ‘I am like this because of you, because of your neglect.'”

Although these two were my favourites, the other stories in the collection were also superb and deal with a woman who joins a mysterious community, a number of sinister affairs, and a secretive old man. I will certainly be looking for copies of Du Maurier’s other short story collections after reading this one.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Shreiner

The Story of an African Farm is just that, a tale spanning many years which tells the tale of a farm inhabited by Tant Sannie, her step-daughter Em, an orphan called Lyndall an overseer referred to as the German and his son Waldo. In the first part of the book their lives are disrupted by the arrival of Bonaparte Blenkins – an Englishman who soon alters the lives of all the characters on the farm. And it is another arrival in part 2 which drives the narrative of the rest of the book.

There were many things I loved about this novel. Both the characters and the setting were wonderfully drawn, and the opening paragraph of the novel immediately transports the reader to Africa:

“The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.”

Shreiner paints the central characters with both sympathy and humour, and raises many universal themes such as coming of age, inequality, feminism, the meaning of life… This book really seems to cover everything. Despite some moments of despair, Shreiner always manages to balance this with hope in the same way that sadness is balanced by humour – and this I think is what raises this book above many others. No matter what happens to the characters, they always continue to hope:

“Nothing lasts forever, not even the night.”

I did find the second half of the book to be less driven by narrative and more reflective and, on occasion, I became less engaged with it as a result. However, the book is worth reading for the first half alone and, although I could say a lot more about it here, I will keep my commentary brief in order to allow you to discover this book for itself.

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Image from Wikipedia

Don Quixote: Part 1 by Miguel de Cervantes

When I began the Classics Club challenge, to read fifty classics in five years, my biggest dread was to find myself struggling through huge tomes and hating every minute. While most classics have justly earned their place in literary history, it is inevitable that not every person will enjoy every book and not all classics are equally enthralling. Up until Don Quixote I have encountered the odd challenge but nothing I couldn’t overcome. However, as you may notice from the title of my review I have finally been defeated!

I decided for my own sanity to compromise with this particular title, and have only read part 1 of 2 (but when I say only, I have spent months battling through the hundreds and hundreds of pages which make up part 1). I didn’t really know what to expect from this book before I began it, apart from being vaguely aware of the two main  characters – Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – and made it through the first hundred or so pages with relative ease. Don Quixote lives in the village of La Mancha, Spain but decides one day to become a knight errant and sets off without any worldly possessions save his horse Rocinante to promote chivalry through his courageous actions and win the heart of Lady Dulcinea del Toboso – a peasant woman from a neighbouring village upon whom Don Quixote bestows a grand name and his lovestruck affections unbeknown to her:

“it is impossible that there could be a knight-errant without a lady, because to such it is as natural and proper to be in love as to the heavens to have stars.”

In the interests of becoming a real knight errant, Quixote also recruits a squire – Sancho Panza – who blindly follows him through all his (mis)adventures on the promise of a kingdom of his own following the conquest of far off lands and giants.

Mostly ridiculous, Don Quixote’s quests see him battling real and (usually) imaginary foes in the interests of restoring chivalry and achieving glory in his lady’s name. He also meets many characters along the way who have their own story to tell and who are sometimes kind, sometimes cruel to our hero. And sadly, this is where I lost interest. I found the plot to meander so slowly that I groaned at every new, imaginary quest, and found myself skimming to get to the end of every story begun by a new character. There were redeeming features – plenty of humour (much of it toilet related that wouldn’t look out of place in a modern comedy), a parody of fantastical knights errant who gave no heed to how they would pay their way,the ridiculousness of the imaginary foes they battled, and a look at how chivalry is a dying value in today’s world (or indeed in the 1600s when this was published). All in all, it was just too long and too repetitive for me to enjoy it and so I will leave my review there.

I would love to hear anybody else’s feelings about this particular book – have you read it? Have I done this classic a huge disservice in dismissing it? Or is it just one of those books that could have done with being a lot shorter? Please let me know what you think.

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Image from The Baldwin Project

 

The Poems of Anna Akhmatova


I initially started to read Akhmatova’s poetry in August to celebrate the month of women in translation, but a house move and my preference to dip in and out of poetry collections rather than to commit to reading a large selection in one go mean that I have only just ‘finished’ (rather than the selected poems I got my collection from the library and ended up with the complete collection which I would never feasibly finish before it was due back). I had never come across Akhmatova before, but in my quest to discover more international classic women writers her name came up and I read her first three poetry collections: Evening; Rosary and White Flock.

Akhmatova’s poems deal mostly with love, that of the marital and extra-marital variety, but also with beauty, aging, loss and as time goes on war and politics. One of my favourite poems was ‘He Loved’:

“He loved three things in life:

Evensong, white peacocks

And old maps of America.

He hated it when children cried,

He hated tea with raspberry jam

And women’s hysterics.

… And I was his wife.”

For me these lines really stood out in their textual simplicity yet their ability to say so much about a relationship in that final line. I think the poems are partly autobiographical, yet I chose not to find out anything about the author until I had finished reading the poems (if anyone else is interested, I found The Poetry Foundation to have a good overview of Akhmatova’s life and works).

My other favourite lines were from ‘Imitation of I.F. Annensky’:

“Faces appear, are washed away,

Dear today and tomorrow far off.

Why did I once turn down

The corner of this page?”

What I loved about Akhmatova’s poetry were the contrasts and juxtapositions which made her images really stand out. I didn’t always identify with her subject matter – there were a lot of poems about longing for lovers or the end of an affair – but her language is beautiful and often striking and she manages to express her thoughts so concisely which is, I think, what sets good poetry above other forms of writing.

As the collection went on, her subject matter turned to more worldly affairs – understandably, as she was writing through the first world war in her collection White Flock. The poems remain personal, but the events unfolding around the poet are referred to more and more frequently.

I think my task would have been easier had I chosen a more manageable sized volume of poetry as in the selected poems, but I found myself enjoying discovering for myself some of the many gems in the complete collection. I do find poetry a lot harder to review than fiction, I supose because the way I read it is so different and spans a longer period of time, but this collection reminded me how powerful poetry can be and I vow to read more in the future.

 

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

 

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I am not sure why I have never read Villette until now but I have a vague recollection of starting it before as a teenager and, not finding it as immediately engaging as Jane Eyre, not getting far enough in to give it a fair chance. This time around I became engaged with it almost straight away and really enjoyed it, although it is a more difficult read than Jane Eyre – I think because the central character is more difficult to engage with than Jane.

Villette is set in a fictional French town where our heroine, Lucy Snowe, journeys almost by chance after her family and employer die. Lucy finds herself employment at Madame Beck’s boarding school and it is here that the majority of the novel is set. Lucy soon progresses from a governess to Madame Beck’s children to an English teacher in the school and the novel deals with her time at Madame Beck’s establishment as well as her, often complicated, relationships with those around her.

Lucy Snowe, as her name suggests, is outwardly quite a cold character although she confides in the reader that she lives “two lives – the life of thought, and that of reality”. It is this which makes her a fascinating protagonist, but also sometimes an unreliable and seemingly unfeeling narrator. Often Lucy admits that she has withheld information from the reader and she does not always share her feelings with anyone. Yet I found that this made the moments when she confided in the reader to be more striking:

“I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present it was better to be stoical; about the future – such a future as mine – to be dead. And in catalepsy and a dead trance, I studiously held the quick of my nature.”

I found that the moments when Lucy spoke candidly revealed more about her character for being rare and, although sometimes I became frustrated at her apparent lack of feeling and the iron control of her emotions, underneath I believe she was full of feeling which only occasionally found release. It also has to be remembered that at the time the novel was written heroines such as Jane Eyre were rare, and Lucy Snowe I found to be a much more life-like character in a way despite (or because of) her solitary nature. She is held back by her gender and class, finds herself in a foreign land full of people who distrust her because of her nationality and religion, as well as battling with depression.

For me, the book’s main interest was in the particularly well-drawn and often eccentric characters. Madame Beck, the mistress of the school where Lucy teaches, was a particularly striking character in her surveillance of staff and pupils alike through underhand means. My favourite character was M. Paul – a eccentric literature teacher who suffers from ‘unreasonable moods’ and whom Lucy compares to Napoleon Bonnaparte. These two characters are wonderfully well-drawn and provide many instances of humour within the novel.

Although not as easy to read as Jane Eyre (sorry for the comparison but it seems an obvious one to make), there was so much that I enjoyed about Villette and the vivid characters made it an extremely engaging read. I also enjoyed the ambiguous ending, but my Penguin Classics edition had an excellent footnote and section of the introduction which dwelt on this for anyone who detests being left in the dark. I have recently started to note down passages and words from books that I found striking, so I will end my review with a few of those that I didn’t mean to fit into this review:

“…the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones.”

“Silence is of different kinds, and breathes different meanings…”

“I was full of faults; he took them and me all home.”_35

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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A Farewell to Arms follows the story of Frederick Henry (referred to by other characters as Tenente which, I learnt after finishing the book, means ‘lieutenant in Italian), an American who is serving in the Italian army in the first world war. Henry begins a relationship with a nurse who is working in a hospital close to where he is stationed, and the story follows the continuation of their relationship against the backdrop of the war.

For me, the real strength of this novel is in its depiction of the war. Unlike many war novels, this book does not try to shock the reader with numerous bloody descriptions of war wounds or atrocities, but is rather more subtle. The opening sentence of the novel could almost describe the view from a holiday home:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and plain to the mountains.”

It is only when the troops are mentioned passing by the house that we realise there is a war. At first it seems as though Henry has an easy role to play in the war. When he returns from his leave at the beginning of the book he realises “evidently it did not matter whether I was there or not”, and a lot of time is spent drinking and visiting women. Only later in the book does it become apparent that this laid-back approach is a way of dealing with the horrors and fear that the war has thrust upon him:

“Listen. There is nothing as bad as war… When people realize how bad it is they cannot do anything to stop it because they go crazy. There are some people who never realize. There are people who are afraid of their officers. It is with them that war is made.”

It is evident throughout the novel that Hemingway has had first-hand experience of war, but it is his understated style of writing that really gives this book its power.

However, there were some aspects of the novel that I disliked. I found Catherine, the nurse who Henry falls in love with, to be a very one-dimensional character and I did not find their relationship convincing. You could argue that this perhaps was Hemingway’s point, that Henry uses Catherine as an escape as an alternative (or more likely compliment) to his drinking, as he describes their relationship at first like a ‘game’:

“This was a game, like bridge, in which you said things instead of playing cards. Like bridge, you had to pretend you were playing for some stakes. Nobody had mentioned what the stakes were. It was all right with me.”

Despite Henry’s intentions to not fall in love, he does so and the pair have a very intense relationship and the stakes become very high. Without giving anything away, the other part of the book I disliked was the ending. I found it gratuitous and it made me come away from the novel feeling very hugely disappointed. Again, you could argue that Hemingway has chosen such an ending on purpose – after the subtle approach to describing the horrors of the war the ending certainly is a powerful one, and perhaps befitting to a novel set during war time. Yet I did not like it, and felt let down by this part of the book.

I remain undecided about whether or not I liked A Farewell to Arms, as some parts I loved but the others I cannot forgive. I have only read one other of Hemingway’s novels so far, when I was much younger, and I remember really enjoying it but I wonder how I would feel if I reread it now. It certainly has something to do with becoming older that a weak female character seems so grating, and that the ending of the book was so objectionable to me has a lot to do with my recent experiences. I think on reflection that my dislike of the ending is a personal one, but that Hemingway is at fault with his depiction of Catherine’s character. Either way, the book is one which will remain with me for some time and that is always a sign of a classic whether it was enjoyable or not.