Saturday, November 10, 2007

Daisy Miller by Henry James

Get it here.
This is quite a short work, but really got me thinking about sexual politics. On the face of it, Daisy is a beautiful, free-spirited American girl who falls foul of European standards of propriety, and simultaneously, by means of metaphor, its disease-laden miasma. I say on the face of it, because a little thought left me unconvinced. For a start, the gatekeeper to 'propriety' in the story is an American woman. As with many such people, she feels that she is never acting on her own initiative, but only trying to protect the reputation of an individual against the slanderous accusations of 'others'.
Daisy is the victim of her attentions, but does herself no good by ignoring all suggestions on how to conduct herself. This is portrayed as a great imposition on her natural, innocent freedom, but, to me, seemed to be little more than common-sense advice. If I decided to conduct the rest of my life completely nude, it might be expected to present me with certain problems. Anyone who cared about me would be duty bound to point this out. I would be free to ignore them, but might be considered a little naïve if I was then surprised at the way I was received.
If you want to be accepted by the 'right' people, they are going to make you jump through their silly hoops. So, either jump through their hoops, and compromise your true self, or reject their whole snobbish hierarchical system, and snub those who decide who is 'in' and who is 'out'. It won't kill you, unlike malaria or a broken heart (allegedly).

I am perhaps being unfair on focusing on the aspects of the story that jarred with me: it seems that Henry James had the ability to breathe life into characters as easily as he takes it away. My reaction to Daisy was as that to a real person - it was only afterward that I appreciated the skill that allowed me to consider the case without any of the barriers of fiction.
It made me wonder about the oppression of women in fiction, both here and in other authors, like Jane Austen. Women were indeed oppressed - but why so often by their own sex, the rule-makers, and executors of social excommunication? And why do women today hark back to these times as being so romantic? Surely a modern woman would find such conditions of life, with its hopelessly limited scope, unthinkable?

The Return of the Readear

If anyone is still reading this blog, hello. I have neglected it for the last few weeks, as more pressing adult matters have dominated my time. Needless to say, being adult matters, they are exceedingly dull, and they have not completely gone yet, but the end is in sight.
I therefore return. Huzzah. (Note ironic lack of exclamation mark. Subtle, but telling.)
Anyway, in my absence I have listened to Daisy Miller and the Turn of the Screw by Henry James, and the Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. I will review these in the next couple of days. I am listening to This Side of Paradise by F Scott Fitzgerald at the moment, not The Other Side of Paradise, as I told lots of people, to my great shame and embarrassment.
One thing I have been doing, as it is the perfect thing to dip into in fifteen minutes bursts, is the Librivox Translation Wiki, where we are trying to translate public domain non-English texts into English (or any language), using a combination of machine translations, and teamwork. Do pop by - - I will no doubt go on about this at greater length in the future. Me going on about things at greater length is something my friends have had to learn to tolerate.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Get it here
I recorded a couple of chapters of this, so was quite keen to hear the rest of it when it was finished. I was very impressed with what I had read, and was even more impressed with the whole thing.
This is a novel, in that there are some connecting characters, but really, its a collection of short stories. They all concern themselves with the life or history of one resident of the fictional town in the title, each of whom has his or her internal life revealed in merciless detail.
Each character seems to be trying to say something, striving to find the words to express their experience of life, or their love, or to connect with another person, but is always unable to make him or herself understood. And this isolation makes the words and deeds of the characters seem strange and eccentric. They all live in a small community, the rural sort which is often presented to us as an ideal, and which all the sane ones seem to want to leave.
This is not the point, though. The author himself is telling us that he is one of the people who cannot quite find a way to express exactly what he means. The stories rise up gently and then fall away, unresolved, often with a melancholy air - they seem to be leading somewhere, but ultimately we are left with more questions than answers, with suggestions of the great sadness that lives just below the surface of so many lives that seem to us so unremarkable,
The only false note in the work, for me, is the long central story 'Godliness', where the author seems to be trying too hard to point a moral. But even here, his skill makes every line worth savouring. William Faulkner seems to have borrowed his technique of defining things in terms of what they are not - a wonderful way of suggesting without stating. Anderson's style is much more spare though. At times he reminded me of Samuel Beckett.
I had never heard of Sherwood Anderson before, but am delighted to have found him. I will certainly be reading more. If my review makes you wonder whether he is your cup of tea, may I recommend that you start with the chapter called 'Tandy', which, in its few paragraphs, will tell you all you need to know.

Next: Daisy Miller by Henry James

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Get it here.
I am a big Jane Austen fan, but have never read this novella for some reason - perhaps I have always regarded it as a piece of juvenilia. It is fair to consider this an immature work, compared with her later novels, but an immature Jane Austen is still worth ten ordinary novelists at the height of their powers.
The 'Lady Susan' of the title is that rarest of creatures in Jane Austen: a completely evil character, whose only redeeming feature is that she is so funny. Elizabeth Bennet could have written this book, before she realised that there are two sides to every story. Also, she seems to have thought that marrying for the greater good of the family was perfectly acceptable, an attitude I have always noted in her later books as well. Hollywood prefers her romances to be all about the heart, but I suspect that Jane's readers took as much satisfaction in the neat financial arrangements, as in the couple being a willing match. Then again, I suppose Hollywood likes its modern heroes to have a healthy degree of financial independence as well, so perhaps nothing has changed.

This audiobook has a big advantage over the original text: it was written as a series of letters, and when I read such a book, I am always having to remind myself who is writing to who. With one voice for each correspondent, however, this recording has real added value, and frees you up to enjoy the story. Great idea!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Review: An International Episode by Henry James

Get it here.
In 'Something New' Wodehouse has Joan Valentine, the female writer,
say of the magazine she works for:

'It's a horrid little paper--all brown-paper patterns and advice to the
lovelorn and puzzles. I do a short story for it every week, under
various names. A duke or an earl goes with each story.'

One week, I suspect she chose the pen name 'Henry James'.

This story features the son of a duke, and seems to want to
justify its existence by reflecting on the difference between
English and American Society.

Really, though, its just a romantic yarn, with a will-they-won't-they
conclusion. Seeing that in Washington Square, Mr James would
not allow his lovers any satisfaction, he denies it them here as well.

And he repeats the idea of having the female lover be sincere but naive
and be advised by a cold cynical type, who treats the romantic
happiness of her younger charge as subsidiary to her own triumphs.

One wonders if a pattern is emerging here. Was Mr James a roaring hit
at parties? Did he have a fine line in comic songs?

Still, he certainly writes fantastic dialogue, but he does make you wait for it.
There are two conversations in this piece that justify the price of admission,
so to speak, but the rest is perhaps best read as a companion piece to Washington

Next: Lady Susan, by Jane Austen

Saturday, August 4, 2007

LibriVox Second Anniversary

I deliberately chose an early recording for this week, as the second anniversary of LibriVox will be celebrated (in some way, I am sure) on the 10th of August. It also almost exactly matches my first anniversary of downloading a Librivox recording. Strange to think that when I started this blog, I was anticipating a limited range of recordings to choose from. And I can remember lurking on the forum, watching people decide on the best way to do things. And wanting to join in, but dreading being encouraged to read! I was never going to do that...

Strange to hear the disclaimer with a 'blogsome' domain name. And some voices that seem unchanged - Kara still sounds like fresh toast, Gordon could still ask the Red Sea to part, and it would. And the PodChef! Does that take me back! He featured in so many of my earliest downloads - his chapter of The Secret Agent was a real favourite. Where is he now, I wonder? I never even thanked him...

Friday, August 3, 2007

Review: Something New by P G Wodehouse

I saw a video of a Rube Goldberg machine the other day, (called a Heath Robinson contraption in this part of the world), and was reminded of the plots of P G Wodehouse. Perhaps it was the other way around. Anyway, bear with me.
The point is, there are number of objects, the behaviour of which is perfectly understood, and is unremarkable. A marble, or a domino, say. And these objects are put together in an absurd and amusing way. A marble rolls, a domino falls over, exactly according to its nature, but the sum of these mundane and predictable acts creates a symphony of movement, leading inevitably to a predictable conclusion. But the destination is the least important part of the process. The journey is what makes it all worthwhile. And the more circuitous and torturous the route, the more wonderful the machine is.

And in this one, P G turns philosopher at the end: "Life is nothing but a mutual aid association." he declares, and I couldn't agree more. So thanks to Debra Lynn for making this recording, and adding to the great mutual aid society that is LibriVox.

Next: An International Episode by Henry James