In 2014 I Want To...

... read Tolstoy and Chekhov

O from Behold the Stars is hosting a Russian Literature Challenge. I will participate, but I'm not yet sure how many books I will read or what those books will be. I only know that I want to read Tolstoy and Chekhov. I will definitely read War and Peace next year (famous last words) and I thought I could perhaps try to read all of Tolstoy's major works. The last piece I read by him, years ago, was The Kreutzer Sonata. To say I hated it at the time would be an understatement - I despised it as I rarely despised anything in my life and it colored my view of its author ever since. It's time to read more and make up my mind. So 2014 might be the year I decide if I hate Tolstoy or not. Ah, the suspenseful life I lead.

As for Chekhov, all I know of him through cultural osmosis make him sound like someone whose works I'd enjoy reading. I confess part of it is that I've been a little obsessed with this beautiful passage from Katherine Mansfield's journal for a while now and it made me crave to read Chekhov.

“Ach, Tchekov! Why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you in a big darkish room at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside? I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one.” 

... read Henry James 

Remember that time when I thought reading the complete works of Henry James will make all of my problems magically go away? I have decided that the only flaw in that plan was my lack of follow-through, so I will be returning to my Know Your James project in 2014. I also plan to read Leon Edel's five-volume biography of HJ. It is the best thing I bought this year and so far I've only read half of the first volume, because I'm awful.

The books ❤

... read Ursula K. Le Guin 

My general policy in life is to follow book recommendations from Emily. It's a good policy, I'm happy with it. It made me read Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Michal Ajvaz and my first book from Ursula K. Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven (which I will review at some point in January). And since I liked The Lathe of Heaven quite a lot, my New Year's resolution is naturally to.... 

Read ALL the Le Guins!

...or at least as many of them as I can manage in a year. If you have any favorites, feel free to share them in the comments so that I know what to read first. (I don't think I'll be reading her backlist in chronological order. It seems a bit much to be doing that for two authors.)

... tell you all about it 

I haven't been very good at keeping track of my reading on the blog. I read some wonderful books this year that I didn't get around to reviewing: Winesburg, Ohio, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, Shirley, All Quiet on the Western Front, Native Son, The Golden Notebook. I will try to review some of these next year and try not to fall so far behind on my reviewing in general. It's not so much the sharing aspect of it that worries me - though I'm sure I missed a lot of great conversations by not discussing these books - as it is the fact that the posts I write are aids to memory (as Francis Bacon would call them) and boy, does my memory need them.

I think this is my last post for this year, so happy 2014! 

2014 TBR Pile Challenge
I'm signing up for Adam's TBR Pile Challenge for next year. For all two of you who've never heard of the challenge, this means that in 2014 I will aim to read and review twelve books that have been in my TBR pile for a long, looong time. I am allowed to list two alternatives, just in case some of the books from my list turn out to be too unbearable to finish. Here's my list, but promise not to laugh at me for not having read some of these sooner - just know that I could have put Lord of the Flies and The Scarlet Letter in there as well. My list went through several versions, but in the end I decided to only stick with new-to-me authors (with the exception of Tolstoy).

I will be updating this post with links to the reviews as I go, so keep an eye on this space if you'd like to know how it's going.
  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  4. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh 
  5. The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  6. If This Is A Man by Primo Levi
  7. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
  8. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
  9. White Noise by Don DeLillo
  10. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  11. Germinal by Emile Zola
  12. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Back-up options: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami.


Feminist Sundays: "It had to be uttered once in a life, to adjust the lopsidedness of the world."

This is going to be the laziest post ever, but, in our defense, we let Claudia read François Poulain de la Barre and she was sucked into the depths of early modern feminism never to be seen again with no chance of getting out in time to write this week's post. So instead you'll get one of the nicest ways to describe what's in essence a feminist speech we've ever encountered. Like most nice things on our blog lately, it comes courtesy of E.M. Forster. The speech was Margaret's speech to Henry in Howards End, a very satisfying cry against double standards. We will quote it here in all its glory, but it might be spoiler-ish,  so cover your eyes if you haven't read the book and plan to:
“Not any more of this!” she cried. “You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognise them, because you cannot connect. I’ve had enough of your unneeded kindness. I’ve spoilt you long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No one has ever told what you are—muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don’t repent. Only say to yourself, ‘What Helen has done, I’ve done.’”
The speech in itself was perfection. But the words Forster found to describe it were even better.

Review: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

I can't manage to write a coherent review for Howards End, even though I loved it and want to recommend it endlessly (or perhaps precisely because of that). So I will write about The Machine Stops instead, a sci-fi story by the same E.M. Forster. I must confess that I had no idea Forster had written anything that could be described as “sci-fi,” but I am glad I stumbled across this short story, because not only is it pretty compelling in its own right, but it also jibes unexpectedly well with Howards End.

One of the themes in Howards End is alienation in the modern world: the severed connection to nature; the city as a “tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity" encroaching upon nature; the motor cars traveling so quickly that one loses all sense of time and space after a drive; the oft-repeated notion that this progress of technology is unavoidable and one must simply adapt to it. The world as created by Forster's Wilcox family is not a pleasant place to inhabit, and this is not limited to England. Imperialism brings with it cosmopolitanism, so the quivering grey is to spread across the planet.
Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!
The Machine Stops takes place in the world that came to replace this civilization of speed. The human race has turned its back on nature, after one last effort to defeat it. The zenith of the civilization of speed was the attempt to “keep pace with the Sun” by flying high-speed airplanes westward in an attempt to neutralize Earth’s diurnal rotation. Once that failed, humanity lost all interest in nature and retreated underground, in a cocoon made possible by technology. Each individual lives in their own little hexagonal room within a huge Machine that fulfills their needs. They don’t go to things; things come to them. They never leave their rooms and rarely travel, for they have everything they could possibly want at their fingertips. They spend all their time discussing their ideas with friends from other cells, via the Machine’s communication systems. Being connected is the default:

Feminist Sundays: "Girls, forget what you've read. It happened like this -"

For this week's Feminist Sunday, we thought we'd share one of our favorite poems with you: Carol Ann Duffy's Eurydice. But first a few words on the remarkable volume this poem is part of: The World's Wife. The World's Wife relies on a simple but effective idea: it takes familiar stories of male heroes, from history or fiction, and retells them from the perspective of a female counterpart. The refashioned narratives range from Greek mythology to Freud's biography, and from Grimms' Fairy Tales to Hollywood blockbusters. In most cases, the woman whose voice we hear is the wife or mistress of the hero (hence the book's title), but there are a few stories retold from the point of view of a sister, and a couple that break the mold entirely, by relating two female perspectives and mentioning a man only indirectly (Demeter), or by exploring a gender-swapped version of the original narrative (like in the awesome Queen Kong).
You can easily see why we'd love this book. Our favorite stories are in there - and getting a new twist on them is always nice - but there is more to it than that. Giving a voice to a neglected female character, making her front and center and letting her give her take on the hero, is more than an addition to the original story - it's a vindication. And what is awesome about it is that we don't simply get the same old stories told by a different narrator. Duffy engages with these narratives by bringing women's experiences and women's concerns to the table, making us aware of the patriarchal conventions that underlay the originals. In most cases, getting her side of the story doesn't complete the story, it changes it altogether (in poignant, funny, raunchy ways).

One of the most satisfactory aspects of this book is the subversion of the idea that the hero's love interest is awestruck by him and happy to be part of his story. This is the central point in Eurydice, the poem we have unanimously settled on as our favorite. We've always suspected that if the muse talked back, what she'd say wouldn't be particularly kind to the poet. And it isn't. It's funny (a lot of poems in this volume are), it's biting, it's not without its beautiful moments despite this ("Please let me stay./ But already the light had saddened from purple to grey.") - it's, in a word, perfect and you should all read it below.

Who Would You Want To Be Written By?

Here's a silly little question for you, if you choose to engage it. Setting aside all the B-movie connotations of this scenario, if you were to be a character written by a (real, existing) author, who would you want that author to be and why?

For me, it would be Sherwood Anderson. In fact, this question first crossed my mind a few months ago, when I was reading Winesburg, Ohio. I was struck by the delicacy with which everything was handled in it, by the essential kindness underlying the narrative, and I realized that I wouldn't mind if someone wrote about me like that. This would be the kind of narrator who understands. One and one's silly dreams would not come out aggrandized in that narrative, but not be ridiculed either. What more could one ask for?

Oddly enough, I wouldn't like to be a character written by either of my two favorite writers (James and Faulkner), and the only other author who comes close is the E.M Forster of Howards End, who I think could describe all my actions and thoughts in clever sentences that make so much sense. (But I've no use for the Forster of A Room with a View or Where Angels Fear to Tread.)

So, who would do you justice?

Feminist Sundays: Books with Openly Feminist Characters

Hello and welcome to our very first Feminist Sunday! Feminist Sundays is a weekly meme started by Elena of Books and Reviews. It is supposed to be a space where we can discuss all sorts of things that might fall under the larger umbrella of feminism: from important female figures in history to the portrayal of women in fiction, and everything in between. We're very excited to join and we hope to participate every week (and perhaps have some of you join us as well). For now we thought we'd kick off this series by discussing - and hopefully getting some recommendations for - books with openly feminist characters.

What counts as an openly feminist character? 

We are not great readers of contemporary literary fiction. (And yes, that is a thing we are trying to fix.) We do know our media, though, and we are somewhat familiar with contemporary romance novels, too. Openly feminist characters are rarer in them than you might think, considering that feminism did change the world and in some cases made the plot of said books or movies possible. And much too often, when a feminist character does appear, she turns out to be a stereotype - the man-hating workaholic that needs to be tamed/defeated/abandoned by the hero or some variation thereof. (We say "she turns out to be" because there doesn't seem to be a parallel trope for male allies/feminist men.) So what are the features we are looking for in an openly feminist character?

"Give Mr. Bast money, and don't bother about his ideals. He'll pick up those for himself."

What's this?
You should know this one thing about me: I'm a sucker for books that touch upon 19th century and turn-of-the-century reform movements. It doesn't need to be the main topic of the book, it doesn't even need to be portrayed in a positive light, the simple mention of your typical socialist circle will have my ears perk up. I confess I don't know enough about these movements, either from a historical or from a theoretical perspective, and that's something I always promise myself I'll fix and never do. But, from the low perch of my knowledge, I feel that these people's questions are like my questions, and that exploring them will teach me something valuable.  

What that something will be, I don't know, I haven't reached it yet. But here's an example of the kind of discussion that gives me a jolt of recognition. You might have encountered variations of its modern version on the internet. How should we help poor people? Should we give homeless people money or just stuff we bought for them with that money? Should we impose restrictions on money people get from the government and, if so, what kind of restrictions? Should we force a set of values on them, along with our money? And now here is a scene from Howards End: a discussion at the group frequented by the progressive Schlegel sisters. (The quote is long, but read it through, the last sentence alone makes it worth it. All random bolding my own.)

On Beauty and Objectification

What's this?
Here's a thing I found interesting about On Beauty. As it is made clear at various points throughout the text, the novel owes some of its ideas to Elaine Scarry's essay, On Beauty and Being Just (an essay I discussed at length in these two posts). The connection between fiction and a theory that might inform it is interesting and horribly complicated, and I don't really want to go into that here. But what I do want to point out is one way in which Smith departs from this theoretical framework, namely the fact that she engages more seriously with the idea that there is a darker side to beauty than Scarry does. This is especially true when it comes to the way we treat people based on their physical beauty.

You might remember that this was a sensitive point with Scarry, because she felt that Objectification as a buzzword turns academics away from honest discussions of beauty. She pushed instead for the idea that the beholder has long been understood (and should be still) as more vulnerable than the person beheld, because the beholder is in a way bewitched and helpless before beauty. Scarry then argues that this first reaction (this "pleasure-filled tumult") is a catalyst for our bringing more beauty into the world, in the form of art, fair laws etc.

You first get a sense that that might not be the case in Zadie Smith's world from the poem she quotes as belonging to one of her characters, Claire Malcolm, and which functions as a sort of second, intra-textual source for the novel's title. (On Beauty (the poem) was actually written by Nick Laird, and I think its title is also derived from Scarry's essay, which does sort of plunge us into Title Inception.) Here's the first stanza (and here is the rest of the poem):

Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

The Oulipo poet Jacques Roubaud says that the poet is a rat who builds his own maze and then must find his way out. I'm afraid too often poets don't build mazes at all; they build corridors with well-marked entrances and exits; they proceed through the doors as quickly as possible and assume they've accomplished something.

D.A. Powell, (Mis)Adventures in Poetry 
I read that quote and suddenly I had the key to this review. It's not that On Beauty is not a good or clever book. It's that it is a book of painfully well-marked entrances and exits, a book that is not willing to trust its readers with a single idea without having about ten neon signs pointing at it. This way to The Idea. The first few times it happened it was fun. "Ooh, I see what you did there!" is one of the nicest feelings you can get as a reader. "Yes, yes, we all see what you did there," though? Not so much.

One may as well take Howard Belsey for an example. On Beauty is fashioned after E.M. Forster's Howards End, so it's built around the opposition between two families: one liberal, biracial, American - the Belseys; the other conservative, black, British/Trinidadian - the Kippses. Howard, a white Englishman married to an African-American woman and living in Boston, is the head of the liberal family. He teaches at the (fictional) Wellington College and He Rejects Beauty. The latter point is impressed upon us less and less subtly, as the book progresses.

The first stage of imparting this message is when we learn that Howard's academic work is in the "deconstructing beauty and showing that Rembrandt painted for money" vein, and also that the original 19th century windows of the Belsey house are too precious to be used as windows, so they are kept in a safe in the basement. This is not too bad as far as standard novel characterizations go. The second stage is when we learn that Howard accepts nothing but abstract art in the house, because of his "representational art ban," that he falls asleep at Mozart concerts, and that he denies his children even nominal Christmas traditions (most of the family being atheist). This is already veering into caricature, but then the novel does have a comic undertone to it. The third stage is when basically ALL of the main characters comment or otherwise reflect on Howard's inability to like things. This is too much.

Review: Factotum by Charles Bukowski

So, after Claudia, it is my turn to return to blogging. And I would have really liked to have something nice to offer to you people (I know I couldn't have topped crocodiles, but a  book recommendation would have been nice). It wasn't meant to be: the thing that set me in motion was rage. So I will give you not a recommendation of something I loved, but a warning against something I had a hard time finishing. 

I rarely skim books, but skimming was the only thing that allowed me to finish Factotum, and I have no regrets. The book exceeded my expectations in boringness and awfulness. The secondary characters are indistinguishable (from each other or from cardboard props). The diverse and varied world of working class America that the cover promised is really just a collection of class and race stereotypes, serving as a background for the same actions again and again and again, never shaping the story, never being seen as deserving of some in-depth investigation by the narrator. In fact, the only thing the narrator has any interest in describing is his own navel. Which gets old pretty quickly, even as he tries to spice it up with describing his cock.

On Beauty and Being Fair

If the first part of this essay had its redeeming features, the second managed to enrage me.

So why is it that we no longer talk about beauty? It is, Scarry tells us, because we wrongly believe beauty to contribute to social injustice in two main ways:

1. Our focus on beauty distracts us from other things, namely from the fight against social injustice.

2. Our focus on beauty harms the beautiful things we're focused on by objectifying them.

On Beauty and Being Wrong

A thing I hate with some degree of passion: when beautiful individual sentences or paragraphs are ruined by their context, that is to say, when the whole of a text prevents me from admiringly quoting its parts. This is the case with Elaine Scarry’s essay, On Beauty and Being Just, which I've been reading in an attempt to sort out my feelings about a Zadie Smith book that borrows half of this essay's title and, I'm afraid, some of its ideas. For what is more quotable than:
What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it. Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.
This willingness continually to revise one’s own location in order to place oneself in the path of beauty is the basic impulse underlying education. One submits oneself to other minds (teachers) in order to increase the chance that one will be looking in the right direction when a comet suddenly cuts through a certain patch of sky.

The Original Animal Face-Off: Dolphins vs. Crocodiles in Seneca's Natural Questions

What does one say after a long absence from one's blog? Presumably something exciting or witty, something that would make people go "Oh yeah, I remember that girl!" and trick them into thinking that they actually missed you, so that they stick around for the rest of your serially boring prose. But unless this cunning piece of marketing advice for book bloggers counts as such, I have nothing witty or exciting to share, and so I thought... perhaps talking about crocodiles a lot would do the trick?

You see, I am in the unusual (but surely enviable!) position of having not one, but two crocodile-related stories to share with the world. The first comes from Seneca's Natural Questions - which, by the way, is not a book I can recommend, unless you are:
    1. the kind of person that reads everything - in which case, yes, this contains words, go ahead and read them.

    2. really interested in (or amused by) the various ways in which people got things wrong in the past - in which case, this is an ancient natural history, so there is a lot of getting things wrong in potentially very interesting and occasionally very funny ways - enjoy!
      The fragment that tickled my own sense of humor, and provided a title for this post, was this:
      Balbillus, an excellent man, exceptionally refined in every branch of literature, tells of the following occurrence when he himself was prefect in charge of Egypt. In the Heracleotic mouth of the Nile, the largest of [the seven], he saw the spectacle of, as it were, a set-piece battle between dolphins coming in from the sea and crocodiles from the river moving against them in a column. The crocodiles were defeated by the gentle creatures with the harmless bites. The upper part of their body is hard and impenetrable even to the teeth of larger animals, but the underneath part is soft and tender. The dolphins dived and, with the spines they have sticking out from their backs, wounded this part, splitting it open as they pushed against it. When a number of them were torn apart in this way, the rest, as it were, about-turned and fled—a cowardly creature when faced with a bold one, though very bold when faced with a timid one!
      So in case you ever wondered who'd win in the battle between a crocodile and a dolphin - and the Discovery Channel did not come to your rescue - you now have Seneca to turn to. Of course, I suspect there is a bit of an anthropomorphizing, moralizing current running through this story - the "gentle creatures with the harmless bites" using their superior brain power to defeat the cowardly bullies etc. - but don't let it ruin a perfectly good battle scene for you.

      As for my second crocodile story, it actually consists of a pretty striking picture that I stumbled across in yet another not very interesting book. (See a trend in my reading life?) It's a picture of a stuffed crocodile on a church wall. Fun fact: during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, churches would often feature suspended natural wonders (e.g. ostrich eggs, whale ribs and, yes, stuffed or wooden crocodiles) because these things could 1. attract more people to church and 2. inspire wonder at the diversity of the created world and put you in the mood to worship its Creator. 

      Stuffed crocodile in the sixteenth-century chapel of the Chateau of Oiron
      And this, people, has been your share of crocodile stories for the day and my coming-back-to-blogging offering.

      A Spontaneous Giveaway: You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack by Tom Gauld

      Dear internet,

      I will be away at a boring conference over the weekend and for the first part of next week, so you can expect blog silence and twitter-whining from me for a few days (business as usual, basically). But in the spirit of bringing positive stuff to the table to make up for all the whining I plan to dump on you later, I've decided to have a giveaway. I'm buying Tom Gauld's You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack for myself next week and giving away a copy to one lucky person. 

      Who is Tom Gauld? If you're a bookish person on tumblr, you're probably familiar with his cartoons. If not, fix that. One word comes to mind to describe them: relevant. They are smart, they are funny, they are whimsical, but, most of all, they are relevant in that way that makes you go "I didn't even know I needed it, but this is perfect." I especially love his panels about books and classic authors, because they manage to be so funny while showing understanding and love for their subjects. You can see a wider selection of cartoons from his book in this preview or on Boing Boing, but here are some of my favorites:

      Discovering Christopher Bram

      A few weeks ago, we received a review copy of Surprising Myself by Christopher Bram, from Open Road Media, which published 3 titles from him as ebooks this May, as part of their Pride Month Events. I had never heard of Bram before receiving the email from Open Road Media, but he sounded like an interesting figure, and I decided to give the book a try. I narrowly missed Pride Month, I know, but I'm glad I discovered this author.

      Surprising Myself is Bram's first book. It is narrated form a first-person perspective, by the main character, Joel Scherzenlieb. The book opens with Joel working as a counselor at a Boy Scout camp, reading Ayn Rand and being bullied by the other counselors for his perceived homosexuality. Joel is sure he isn't gay, and he's sure about what he wants to do in life: go back to his father in Switzerland, go to college, become a successful businessman (or lawyer, or something else respectable and ambitious), and live according to the objectivist philosophy of Rand. Of course, his life doesn't pan out this way. We follow him as he comes out as gay, and then through the ups and downs of his relationship with his boyfriend, Corey, and with his family. A lot of the external conflict is centered around Joel's relationship with his father (whose betrayal deprives Joel of the opportunity to go to college) and around Joel's sister's, Liza, marriage and her attempt to get away from her emotionally abusive husband, Bob. The inner conflict is about Joel's doubts and confusion regarding love, and his trying to figure out whether or not his relationship with Corey is True Love

      What About Philosophy?

      Let's kick off July with a discussion.

      I'm curious about the concept of well-readness and what it covers. Amanda of Dead White Guys & Book Riot had a post exploring this concept a while back. The takeaway seemed to be that you should read widely and thoughtfully to qualify as well-read. The conversation was recently rekindled by Jeff O'Neal's list of 100 books that will take you "from zero to well-read" and the debates over his post neatly illustrated how difficult it is to define and apply labels like "well-read." So far, so good. I admit that I'm not very invested in this debate as concerns literature, but I was wondering whether it should include only literature. 

      Quint Buchholz, Book Scales

      I sort of get why the sciences are not mentioned here. It's not only about the two cultures divide, about the way in which the humanistic and scientific worlds are constantly portrayed as apart and incompatible, and the ideal of the cultivated or well-educated mind is more often associated with the humanistic side (think of how not knowing who Shakespeare is carries a greater intellectual stigma than not knowing the Second Law of Thermodynamics). When it comes to sciences, there's also the fact that it is not very productive to read the original works as opposed to studying their main ideas from a textbook (I mean, good luck with reading Newton's Principia if that's what you want to do with your life, but still...). So the sciences are not easily-included in the well-read conversation.

      But if the goal of being well-read is to be able "to think and converse about the human experience intelligently," shouldn't philosophy qualify? Not as an afterthought ("of course, non-fiction is important too"), but as an essential part of the canon. After all, much of the world (and literature) we know now would simply not exist without philosophy. Whether you want to have an idea of the history of human thought, or to understand a piece of literature in context (sometimes to understand a piece of literature at all), you need to have some knowledge of philosophy. And this is not to talk about the tools and frameworks literary theory borrows from philosophy. 

      This raises the question of how far we should go, though. How much and what philosophy should you read to qualify as well-read? Most people would probably agree that Plato's Dialogues are indispensable (or, more accurately, a selection of them is). So is Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, but it's long and dense, so should you read it if you don't have a special interest in philosophy? Most people would probably agree that you should have some knowledge of Sartre and Existentialism if you want to understand the 20th century in literature. Fair enough, but what about other strands of philosophy? Should you be familiar with Carnap or Quine?

      So what do you think? Would you include philosophy in the endless stream of stuff you have to cover to be "well-read"? Do any particular works or criteria for selecting them come to mind?

      Book-themed Bloglovin' Buttons

      (Wow, that's a lot of B's in that title.)

      As you probably all know, by tomorrow Google Reader will be gone. This has prompted me to claim our blog on Bloglovin' a few days ago. If you know me at all, you probably know what came next: endless fussing over what icon to use for the Bloglovin' widget in our sidebar. I don't really like the Bloglovin' icon and I also wanted something with a bookish theme. So I came up with a bunch of options for custom Bloglovin' buttons before settling on the icon you now see in our sidebar. And since we didn't get to use all those other options, I figured that some of our bookish friends might find them useful, so why not share? You can see all the icons I made below, some of them after the jump (ignore the white margins, those are added by Blogger).

      How to use them: If you want to use one of these images as your icon, just grab it, resize it to your liking and upload it to Photobucket or any other image hosting service. (I recommend Photobucket because it's very easy to use AND it has editing options, so you can resize the picture, add rounded corners, add various effects etc. without having to re-upload.) Copy the direct link to your image and paste it instead of the link you now have after src=" in your Bloglovin' widget code. (See also instructions here.)

      If you want different colors, different fonts, different text or whatever, just leave a comment and I'll edit the image for you or send you the original file to modify to your liking.

      Oh, and do follow us on Booklovin'!

      Book-themed Bloglovin Button
      This is our current icon, but I suppose you can use it too :)

      Book-themed Bloglovin Button

       Book-themed Bloglovin Button

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      Book-themed Bloglovin ButtonBook-themed Bloglovin ButtonBook-themed Bloglovin ButtonBook-themed Bloglovin Button

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      3 Things About On the Road I Wish I Had Noticed on My Own

      When I dislike a book, I tend to read a lot about it. As a result, I read more than a few papers about On the Road last week. Some of them were absolutely terrible, but some of them were awesome. Here are three of my favorites and the things I wouldn't have noticed without them.

      1. Duke Ellington at the Metropolitan Opera

      The last time Sal sees Dean is when he and his new girlfriend are on their way to a Duke Ellington concert and thus cannot offer Dean a ride. To put this in context: towards the end of the book, Sal found his dream girl, Laura, and they plan to move across the country, with Dean's help (notice the contrast between this planned, purposeful "migration" and Sal's past road trips). Dean, however, arrives too soon, before they had time to raise money to buy a car, and so he is forced to return without them. The night he leaves New York, Sal and Laura have to go to a Duke Ellington concert at the Metropolitan Opera. Sal's old friend Remi, now turned "sad and fat" (read: bourgeois), bought tickets and is taking them to the concert in a Cadillac. Since Remi doesn't like Sal's friends, he refuses to give Dean a ride downtown.

      But what does Duke Ellington's concert have to do with anything? Well, it has to do with a sort of "gentrification" of jazz that mirrors Sal's own evolution. Sal's old life was associated with jazz clubs, where there were no rules and no separation between the band and the crowd; the band's energy was freely transmitted and magnified by the public. Sal's new life is associated with Duke Ellington's performance at the Met, as a symbol of the institutionalization of jazz, of how jazz was adopted by the "elites" and became highbrow, governed by rules, separated from the public. That is to say, both Sal and jazz have been tamed.

      I didn't notice it, but who did? Douglas Malcolm in “Jazz America”: Jazz and African American Culture in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (link leads to full text). If you want to read more about a) how these two attitudes towards jazz are both facets of appropriation or b) Kerouac's (mis)understanding of jazz in general, this article is highly recommended.

      Antonin Artaud and the Beat Generation

      I. The Persona

      Beyond all the mundane details, I place all my faith in Antonin Artaud, that man of prodigies. I salute Antonin Artaud for his passionate, heroic negation of everything that causes us to be dead while alive.
      André  Breton, A Tribute to Antonin Artaud

      It's easy to see why the Beats liked Antonin Artaud. Born at the end of the 19th century, moving in the French avant-garde and surrealist circles of the 20s and 30s, and dead by 1948, Artaud embodied a familiar figure in the history of literature: the poète maudit. Mentally ill, destitute, living in and out of asylums, addicted to opiates and experimenting with harder drugs, Artaud had probed the depths of human experience. He was the artist outside the system, the artist against the system, rejecting "everything that causes us to be dead while alive." He even rebelled against surrealism and left Breton's circle in 1927 (he rebelled against the rebellion, as Carl Solomon, who identified quite strongly with Artaud, admiringly put it).

      Artaud's works and lifestyle made him unlikely to appeal to the bourgeois and be recuperated into mass culture, the way Dali or Breton had. This was a point in his favor with the American literary circles, which despised the commercial appropriation of surrealism. But there was another aspect that might have made him attractive to Beat writers in particular: his emphasis on (rather woo-ish) spirituality, which, like in their case, came with a hefty dose of cultural appropriation. Before Kerouac and his friends made it to Mexico to wax poetic about the "Fellahins," Artaud was there, living with the Tarahumara people, eating peyote and denouncing Western civilization. (His experimenting with peyote, documented in his memoir, fueled Ginsberg's own.) His most famous book, The Theatre and Its Double, praised the virtues of Oriental theater, still based (according to him) on magic, spirituality and ritual. His reformed theater, the theater of cruelty, was designed to bring Western theater, tainted by the domination of words and psychology, closer to this model.

      Review: Three Blind Mice by Agatha Christie

      For our second installment of Novellas for Monday, I give you Three Blind Mice, a murder mystery by Agatha Christie. The story started as a radio play, in 1947, and was later adapted into a stage play, in 1952 (the stage version is called The Mousetrap, and is famous for having run continuously since the opening).

      Three Blind Mice is a rather typical murder mystery: several characters - Mrs. and Mr. Davis, Mrs. Boyle, Mr. Wren, Major Metcalf, Mr. Paravicini - find themselves isolated at a guest house during a snow storm; there is reason to believe one of them is a killer that plans to strike again; a detective shows up and starts investigating, suspecting everyone (and getting the reader to suspect everyone); new relationships form between the characters, old relationships are revealed; and, of course, there is a great unmasking at the end.

      I am a big fan of Christie and I am always amazed at how she manages to make this formula compelling. I am also a bit of a deductive geek, and I spend a lot of time while reading mysteries trying to figure out as much as possible before everything's revealed. The reveal in Three Blind Mice took me completely by surprise (I am not a very successful deductive geek, turns out), but even if I had figured out the killer, I wouldn't have been bored. The way suspicion creeps between Molly and Giles, revealing the tensions and doubts in their marriage, for example, is a really interesting character moment that stands on its own even after the mystery is solved. So does Molly's choice to share her backstory with Christopher, or Mrs. Boyle's dissatisfaction with life's dullness during peace, after the excitement and authority she had gotten used to during the war.

      There are two other aspects I like a lot: the use of weather as a narrative device, and the use of auditory imagery. The snow blizzard has a two-fold contribution to the story: it isolates the characters by having them snowed in at the guest house, and it creates suspicion, since everyone looks the same in heavy clothes.

      Kerouac on Spontaneous Prose (feat. Condescending T.S. Eliot)

      From the bunch of things I read about Kerouac and On the Road last week, here's a snippet from a 1968 Paris Review interview with him (and as always, thank god for Paris Review interviews and the eloquence they always seem to prompt). For the most part, this is actually a pretty nice description of the principle behind the spontaneous prose style:
      By not revising what you've already written you simply give the reader the actual workings of your mind during the writing itself: you confess your thoughts about events in your own unchangeable way . . . Well, look, did you ever hear a guy telling a long wild tale to a bunch of men in a bar and all are listening and smiling, did you ever hear that guy stop to revise himself, go back to a previous sentence to improve it, to defray its rhythmic thought impact. . . . If he pauses to blow his nose, isn't he planning his next sentence? And when he lets that next sentence loose, isn't it once and for all the way he wanted to say it? Doesn't he depart from the thought of that sentence and, as Shakespeare says, “forever holds his tongue” on the subject, since he's passed over it like a part of a river that flows over a rock once and for all and never returns and can never flow any other way in time?
      And then we got to this:
      I spent my entire youth writing slowly with revisions and endless rehashing speculation and deleting and got so I was writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no FEELING. Goddamn it, FEELING is what I like in art, not CRAFTINESS and the hiding of feelings.
      And, well, I couldn't help myself:

      Condescending T.S. Eliot
      Oh really? Tell me more.

      I am sorry, it's not that I am laughing at Kerouac and his shouty FEELINGS! vs CRAFTINESS! deal (although okay, I am laughing). It's just that Condescending T.S. Eliot really needs to be a thing on the internet.

      Review: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

      Kerouac’s vagrants are literate, self-pitying, afraid of women, and condescending towards Mexicans and African-Americans. No one will confuse them with Steinbeck’s displaced Okies, and no grapes of wrath are trampled out by them. Nor are they doom-eager dreamers like Gatsby, or monomaniac questers like Ahab, or benign wanderers like Huckleberry Finn. Comparing On the Road to the masterpieces of Classic American fiction is most unkind to Kerouac.
      Harold Bloom
      Whatever your opinion of old Harold Bloom (and my own cannot be described as favorable), that first sentence sounds about right. Kerouac's heroes belong to one of the nastiest species in the Western world's literary zoo: the dramatic young man (where "young" stands for a state of mind more than it does for a biological age - see also "man-child"). 

      What's the dramatic young man's story in a nutshell? It is the story of easily-frustrated entitlement. The dramatic young man knows the world was supposed to be his oyster. But, alas, his life is marred by an atrocity, usually war or school, autocratic fathers, prolonged stretches of peace, dead fathers, the bourgeois, saintly mothers, literary rivals, modern art, promiscuous mothers, dead brothers, live brothers, old art, emancipated women, that sort of thing. One of these horrors, or a combination of them, has put a dent in the lovely oyster, such that our hero is loath to even touch what should have been his for the taking. He channels his self-pity into some form of rebellion against the world, which usually turns out somewhat less glamorous than he'd hoped for and ends with him either self-destructing or conforming to the rotten old world he tried to fight in the first place.

      The beauty of this narrative is that it is essentially timeless, because everything in it apart from the young man at its center is a prop. To paraphrase one of the most famous passages from On the Road: "What did they call such young people in Goethe's Germany?" It almost doesn't matter when or where the story is set, the dramatic young man's drama is easy to recognize. (And for the record, I think young German hipsters at the turn of the 19th century were usually called "Oh, for Pete's sake, put that gun down, Werther was fictional!")

      Review: Ourika by Duchesse Claire de Durfort Durass

      Welcome to the first installment of Novellas for Monday, a series where we plan to highlight a novella every Monday (or, realistically, some Mondays now and then). These will not necessarily be full reviews, they may just be a nod in the direction of a novella we found interesting. Our first selection is Ourika, available here in the original French, and here in English.

      Ourika is a 1823 novella by Claire de Duras, inspired by the real story of a black girl from Senegal living in the Paris high society around the time of the French Revolution. The story is narrated in first person, by a young doctor who meets and treats Ourika (to the reader) and by Ourika herself (to the doctor).

      Ourika's entire family was enslaved when she was very young, and a French nobleman took pity on her and took her back to Paris with him. He placed her in the care of his sister, madame de B., who raised her with kindness and devotion, giving her access to the best society and education that noble girls could hope for. Ourika is told about her origins, but has no memories of her life before Paris and is fully committed to her life as madame de B's protegee. She grows up happy, friends with madame's sons, appreciated by the Parisian society for her wit and taste. 

      As a teenager, she becomes aware of the difference between her and her peers and of what this difference means for her prospects. She learns that, because of her skin color, she will never be accepted as an adult in the high society that found her entertaining as a child. As she realizes that she doesn't fully belong anywhere and sees as inevitable a life of loneliness, of never being loved, she succumbs to despair and becomes "sick with melancholy."

      The Revolution allows her to hope again: in the general chaos and turmoil, societal distinctions seem less important, and Ourika glimpses a world that would have room for her. During the Terror, solidarity in the face of death and loss brings Ourika closer to the family, and she even falls in love. Her melancholy fades and she has a vague indistinct vision of a happy future. But as the Terror winds down, Ourika must face the fact that society is rearranging itself.

      The Beats of Summer!

      I admit, I didn't imagine I'd be writing this post today. I've been a bad blogger and infrequent reader these past weeks and I had trouble imagining myself crawling out of my reading slump/procrastination hole anytime soon, so signing up for a reading event didn't sound like the wisest of ideas. But then again... Reading events are fun. Adam's reading events, especially so. So here I am, ready to try out some stuff from the Beat Generation for The Beats of Summer.

      This is where I tell you that I haven't read anything ever from any of the people associated with the Beat Generation. No Kerouac, no Ginsberg, no Burroughs, no whoever-else-might-be-associated-with-this-that-I-haven't-even-heard-of. So although I do have some idea about this group of writers through cultural osmosis, this will pretty much be a filling-in-the-gaps month (and a half) for me. That is pretty exciting and it's given me the opportunity to indulge in one of my favorite online guilty pleasures: looking up syllabuses from various classes and imagining I'll actually work through them on my own. (Yes, as far as online guilty pleasures go, this is a pretty sad one. What can I say? I am a tragic person.) 

      My favorite syllabus/reading list so far is this one, although there are a lot of awesome resources online about the Beat Generation. (For example, this page provides a helpful list of other syllabuses and resources for teaching Beat literature. Adam has a list of writers, important works etc. in his post announcing the event.) But then I stumbled across something even better on Tumblr, and I think I will start with that: the Celestial Homework, aka Allen Ginsberg's reading list for his class "Literary History of the Beats." The first page of it is below, and the rest can be found here, as normal text, or here and here as pictures of the typewritten syllabus.

      Now, since, per Ginsberg, this reading list includes "suggestions for a quick check-out & taste of antient scriveners whose works were reflected in Beat literary style as well as specific beat pages to dig into," I think I will actually start reading before June 1st, when the official Beats of Summer event begins. In fact, I think I'll start reading today and hopefully cover a few of the classics on that list. So... grab your books and join me?

      Stalker versus Roadside Picnic

      I used to be very interested and invested in sci-fi, but in the last few years I grew weary of it – I think it’s mostly because I started to recognize the patriarchal bullshit that underlies so much of it. One of the things that survived, however, is my love for the Russian novel Roadside Picnic, by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I loved the book when I first read it in high school and that love has only grown with re-reads, so when I found out there was a movie based on it out there, I was thrilled. Completely ignorant at the time of Tarkovsky’s reputation, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill adaptation, with the usual pitfalls and merits of these things. But Stalker turned out to have a rather weird relationship with the book. They share too little for Stalker to be considered a movie adaptation of Roadside Picnic, but they share too much for them to be considered entirely different cultural products. 

      But as it happens, I think this relationship is perfect, because it makes them the best illustration of My Ultimate Division of Literature (tm), in which I am very invested these days, since I have exams and deadlines in an unrelated field. So, in the name of escapism and late night coffee rush, I hereby divide the world into narratives that treat the lives of the characters as ends in themselves, and narratives that treat them as means towards something greater. The criterion here is the perspective on what constitutes people's worth. I see two possibilities: (a) life as important by itself, with the characters' actions and choices being what's ultimately at stake and (b) life as a stepping stone that only makes sense in relation with something greater, where the characters' actions and choices are expected to amount to something that transcends them (or to actively fail to do so). 

      I hold that Roadside Picnic is the first, Stalker, the second. And they are particularly fit to illustrate the distinction, since they both attempt to make a point about human nature through the same device: humanity confronted with an inexplicable and powerful entity (the Zone). Of course, I will spoil both of them in analyzing this, so beware. 

      "But by and by they are buried in silence..."

      When you have news fatigue, or internet fatigue, know that early modern scholars were there before you. This is from Robert Burton's (wonderfully-titled) Anatomy of Melancholy:

      [E]very day almost come new news unto our ears, as how the sun was eclipsed, meteors seen in the air, monsters born, prodigies, how the Turks were overthrown in Persia, an earthquake in Helvetia, Calabria, Japan, or China, an inundation in Holland, a great plague in Constantinople, a fire at Prage, a dearth in Germany, such a man is made a lord, a bishop, another hanged, deposed, pressed to death for some murder, treason, rape, theft, oppression; all which we do hear at first with a kind of admiration, detestation, consternation; but by and by they are buried in silence.

      Believe it or not, the message of this is supposed to be grimly positive. Burton's lesson is that whatever bad stuff you pull, it will be forgotten, the way all things are, so there is no need to get depressed over it.

      The Double Standard of Aging by Susan Sontag

      I'm sorry to have missed out on February. Life got really busy, which is a shame, because I was (and am) very excited about both social justice and French literature. I suppose we'll just have to continue to discuss these subjects throughout March, since we got nowhere near completing our readings or exhausting our thoughts.

      The one thing I read was a very interesting essay by Susan Sontag: The Double Standard of Aging. I was pretty familiar with the argument through cultural osmosis, but I had never read anything by Sontag.

      The essay discusses the double standard in how society perceives and treats aging in women and men respectively. Sontag's conclusion is that there is a far higher pressure applied on women with respect to age, which leads to higher psychological costs for them. Old age is something no one is very happy about (from a social capital point of view, nevermind the biological aspects), since it involves a diminishing of one's sexual attractiveness, but in men these negative aspects are somewhat compensated by an increase in the respect they get, from being perceived as wiser or more interesting. For women, being older is being less attractive: there is no achievement that can compensate for wrinkles. 

      Review: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

      Furthermore, I shall pose the problem of feminine destiny quite otherwise: I shall place woman in a world of values and give her behavior a dimension of liberty. I believe that she has the power to choose between the assertion of her transcendence and her alienation as object (...).

      History gives to some works a value they probably wouldn't have in an atemporal lineup. I honestly can't say how much I would have appreciated this book without knowing that it was published in 1949 and believing that it was the first to draw a bunch of distinctions that needed to be drawn. Perhaps that belief is wrong, my knowledge of feminist history is not all that it should be, but it is what accounted for my enthusiasm every time I thought "Simone de Beauvoir gets it!" and, conversely, what tempered my annoyance whenever I felt that she was misguided. That is perhaps not giving The Second Sex the respect it deserves. But, you see, there was something tricky about this book, something that made it very hard to assess it as a whole.

      The question at the back of my mind while reading it has constantly been "Is this still relevant?". It's hard to answer that, for two reasons. First, because de Beauvoir's argument flows so directly from an existentialist philosophy that I'm not sure to what extent they can be separated. Second, because a lot of her claims about how women are and how women act are framed in such a way that I don't have the tools to evaluate them, not without doing some historical research. You'll see what I mean below, if you can suffer through me discussing existentialism as practiced by Sartre and de Beauvoir first. (I can't blame anyone who is seriously bored/annoyed by existentialism, but there is a picture of a cat below the fold, if that makes it any better.)

      Stendhal on Nature versus Nurture

      I'm reading The Second Sex right now and it's tiring and awesome and... tiring. But she quotes Stendhal about why "the eternal feminine" is bullshit and I wanted to stop and share the snippet because it made me happy:
      Pedants have for two thousand years reiterated the notion that women have a more lively spirit, men more solidity; that women have more delicacy in their ideas and men greater power of attention. A Paris idler who once took a walk in the Versailles Gardens concluded that, judging from all he saw, the trees grow ready trimmed.
      I think this is from Stendhal's essay On Love, which is clearly due a reread because I had no recollection of it. In fact, his section in The Second Sex makes him sound altogether awesome and worth reading and rereading. And I might start using this quote the next time I discuss feminism with someone.

      James Joyce's Ulysses: A Personal Odyssey

      I read Ulysses for the first time in my last year of high school. I had already decided by then that I wouldn’t go on to study literature, although it was my oldest love. Somehow this made reading Ulysses a “now or never” affair. I wasn’t going to stop reading fiction just because I’d study something else in school, but, to my 18-year-old self, Ulysses seemed like the kind of book I might never check out without the incentive of a required reading list. I was prone to bouts of self-pity at the time, so this quickly became the symbol of all those intellectual landmarks I was going to miss by not becoming a lit major. So it was decided: I had to read Ulysses. There was just one small problem...

      So, like many conscientious readers before me, I embarked on The Reading Ulysses Training Camp™. Mine was the abbreviated version. I figured I needed to be familiar with three things before tackling Ulysses: The Odyssey, modernism and Joyce’s previous writing. I was on reasonably good terms with the first two, so I moved straight to Joyce. (In retrospect, I really wish I had added some remedial Irish History to the list.) I read Dubliners and liked it. I moved on to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and there the problems started.

      Is Mr. Darcy's Pen a Metaphorical Penis?

      "You write uncommonly fast." Ahem.
      A couple of days ago, disappointed in some of the twists in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I started to read up on Jane Austen's sexual politics. It is a common theme lately to debunk the sanitized image of Austen as an asexual spinster who never left her house and replace it with the image of an Austen we'd all like to hang out with: world-savvy, cuttingly funny, and quick on the double entendres. I do not know enough yet to tell if this reconstruction is more faithful to her character than the last, but I admit that a part of me cheers for this 3rd wave Jane Austen. (A part of me finds it slightly problematic, though, but that part needs to read a lot more before opening its mouth.)

      Anyway, one of the articles I read this week is Jill Heydt-Stevenson's "Slipping into the Ha-Ha": Bawdy Humor and Body Politics in Jane Austen's Novels. Heydt-Stevenson argues that the racy elements some readers see in Austen's writing are not only there, but they are there for a purpose. They are a veiled - and thus acceptable - way of criticizing the patriarchy, of subverting its values. The dirty joke signals that the author sees through the patriarchy's game. Among other things, Austen uses this bawdy humor as a way of exposing the (rather crude) sexual and power dynamics behind the romantic ideal of courtship, as a way of "collapsing boundaries between prostitution and courtship."

      There were a lot of things I appreciated in this article - and it's well worth a read - but there were also places where I felt it veered into "literary criticism gone mad." Take, for example, this exchange between a desperately flirtatious Caroline and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, Chapter X:
      "I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well."

      "Thank you—but I always mend my own."
      For Heydt-Stevenson, Caroline's line is a "powerful metonymy of phallic power," while Darcy's reply, recognizing her sexual allusion, "playfully invokes autoeroticism." The more I think of it, the more I think this cannot be right. Mind you, this is not just an exercise in interpreting metaphors Freudian-style, where no cigar is ever a cigar and "all vegetation is pubic hair" (to slightly misquote Maud Bailey). In order for this interpretation to work, the characters themselves must be in on the joke. But if they are, how is Darcy's reference to masturbation a good or cutting reply to Caroline's (supposed) innuendo? "Thank you, I've never needed a woman for that"? Is Darcy really the ultimate Socially Awkward Penguin?

      But then again, perhaps I'm being naive and reading less into this than I should. (It happened before.) So I'm crowdsourcing this one. What do you think, internet? Is a pen just a pen? Is this pen a, erm, "powerful metonymy of phallic power" and its owner the Socially Awkward Penguin? Is there a third choice I'm missing?

      A Timeless Present Contemporaneous with Every Other Present

      Giorgio de Chirico, The Return of Ulysses
      Apropos Joyce and the Odyssey having the most beautiful, human, all-embracing theme of all, here is a quote from Gadamer's Truth and Method:
      The “classical” is something raised above the vicissitudes of changing times and changing tastes. It is immediately accessible, not through that shock of recognition, as it were, that sometimes characterizes a work of art for its contemporaries and in which the beholder experiences a fulfilled apprehension of meaning that surpasses all conscious expectations. Rather, when we call something classical, there is a consciousness of something enduring, of significance that cannot be lost and that is independent of all the circumstances of time—a kind of timeless present that is contemporaneous with every other present.
      I have this stupid habit of jotting down quotes I want to discuss in posts along with cryptic comments on them, and then never write those posts and forget what I was going to say and what those comments meant. In this case, I think I wanted to take advantage of the fact that, by his own admission later in the text, Gadamer's criterion applies to any kind of classic, not just those of the classical antiquity, and talk about the tension between being timeless and being historically bound in classic literature. 

      But I am unlikely to write such a post because I'm a. lazy and b. much more interested in "that shock of recognition" that Gadamer claims we get with contemporary literature (and how it applies beyond that), so... enjoy this rather nice quote about what makes a classic on its own.

      Scenes from Contes Cruels: Les Demoiselles de Bienfilâtre

      Constantin Guys, Demimondaines
      Constantin Guys, Demimondaines
      Contes cruels (Cruel Tales, sometimes also translated as Sardonic Tales) is a book that has been unexpectedly dear to my heart. I say "unexpectedly" because neither satire of bourgeois morality, nor horror in the style of Edgar Allan Poe have ever been among my favorite things, and this book deals in both. Moreover, it delivers them in the guise of short stories, a literary form I'm not exactly fond of. And yet my memory of Contes cruels is that of a book of exquisitely sharp and beautiful tales, a book that was a complete pleasure to read, made doubly so by the fact that it was discovered completely by chance. To test this impression, I am returning to it now for o.'s French February event (and I reading it in French for the first time, too). I will be writing here about the tales that strike me and I hope to find some time to discuss the author as well, Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste WHAT-were-my-parents-thinking de Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, who was a pretty interesting character in his own right.

      When it comes to Les demoiselles de Bienfilâtre, the first of the Cruel Tales (French version available here; English version available here), there are two things I appreciated. One is a turn a phrase that was so nice I felt the need to keep it - to write it down or memorize it, to carry it with me in some form. The other is the underhanded cleverness of its construction. Let me explain what I mean with this last point.