søndag den 31. december 2023

Happy New Year 2024


Happy New Year 2024

It is New Year’s Eve again. I would have loved to have been able to say that the past was a great year, but, alas, it was not. Personally, I am doing alright, life carries on as it usually does, but the world looks bleaker than it has done for quite some time. It is no secret that my six years living in Israel make me take special interest in what happens there, but although it is hard not to, I try to keep politics out of the blog. Cannot say I am always successful at that, after all, my blog is my window to say what I want, but I want this to be about movies and books and not about politics.

This year was also the craziest weather I ever experienced, and I think most of us know what that means for the future. Let me just say that I have never felt this good about working in renewables. To actually be able to make a difference on something this important is special.

I could list up a lot of terrible things going on, but today is supposed to be a celebration, a good riddance to the old year and the best of hopes for the coming year. I do sincerely hope there will be good things in store for us all. If there is one particular wish for the new year from me, it is responsibility. That people, high and low, governments and organizations, take on responsibility themselves instead of blaming everybody else. Half the problems in the world could be solved if everybody took a hard look at themselves rather than blaming somebody else for their misery.

Anyway, during 2023 I watched and reviewed 62 movies, which is more than I have done in a while. 12 of these were off-List movies, leaving 50 movies on the List. I went from 1978 to 1982 and I am now well into what I consider the golden era of cinema: the eighties. The past two months I have been through a streak of classics that would please me any day and although I am looking into a series of more mundane movies, there are lost of highlights to look forward to.

On my book blog I have done 9 titles this year, which I consider an acceptable achievement, considering my target is just five books per year. I have gone through the period 1811 to 1822, a period known for romanticism and the post Napoleonic years. Jane Austen was a wonderful acquaintance and I really liked E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book about his cat.

I wish everybody a happy new year and all the best for the time ahead. May 2024 finally be a good year.

tirsdag den 5. december 2023

The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr - E. T. A. Hoffmann (1822)


The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr

“The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr” is one of the more bizarre books on the List, at least at face value. It pretends to be the memoirs written by a cat, Murr, but in the publishing process the manuscript got mixed up with a story about Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler with whom Murr was staying for a while. Amazingly, it is actually this second story which is the wild one.

The actual author, E.T.A. Hoffmann, uses the two stories both to tell an amusing tale, but also to make a thinly veiled satirical portrait of the world he himself lived in. The context is the fragmented world of the German mini-states after the Napoleonic wars. On the one hand there was the traditional polite society where noble birth and polished mannerism still survived from before the wars and on the other hand the upheaval and sense of opportunity in society, politics and science caused by war and revolution. The juxtaposition is a source of friction but also of hilarity and Hoffmann uses the latter to get to the former.

Murr is a very literate cat, staying as he is with the learned Master Abraham. He is also very much a cat, which means that he is absolutely convinced of his own brilliance and genius. Although he grudgingly has admit that not all his affairs have been the smartest, in fact more often than not he blunders abysmally, his self confidence is unshakable and he must be admired by everybody. I am very much a cat-lover myself and this description fits practically every cat I have ever known. With the exception that none of them were able to write. That I know of…

Murr tells his life story, how he was adopted by Master Abraham, his affair with Kitty, how he joined the brotherhood of cats and finally how he attempted to join the polite society of dogs. In this respect the cats represent the progressive liberals, students and artists and the dogs are the conservative society, the nobles and the police. Murr looks with scorn at the empty life of the poodles when they obey their masters and spend a life full of nothing, yet he is also drawn to it to get that flattering attention. The same with the brotherhood of cats, representing the revolutionary student fraternities of the time. The playing with fire is gratifying but also very dangerous.

The Kreisler story centers on a music composer, Hoffmann’s alter ego, who gets involved in the affairs of the court of a principality that does not even exist anymore, swallowed up as it is by the larger neighboring duchy. Yet, Prince Irenaeus insists on maintaining the illusion and pretense of a court although he rules nothing more than the lands of his castle. It is of course a mockery of the myriad and complicated German mini-states of the period and ridicules the strict adherence to past glories. Kreisler’s friend is Master Abraham (yes, Murr’s master), who taught him music as a child. Abraham is a man of mechanical arts and sciences which makes him a bit of a wizard, something the Prince is absolutely fascinated by having at his court.

Johannes Kreisler is a modern character, like Murr, but with much less confidence. Yet his presence at court as a music teacher and composer is a bomb to the stiff and ridiculous formalities there. His refusal to avert his eyes from the Prince’ gaze convinces him that he must be of noble birth which earns him the respect of the Prince. The court adder, Madame Benzon, is less impressed. Her schemes to control the court is thrown to pieces by Kreisler’s presence, not least because a romantic affair blooms between Kreisler and her daughter, Julia.

The intrigues and escapades reach new levels with the arrival of the playboy, Prince Hector of Naples and it gets both very confusing and immensely amusing.

I appreciate the unconventionality of the format and style of this novel, it is truly refreshing and while I can see the point of the cat biography, it is the Kreisler story that captivated me. It is fragmented so we never get any resolutions, but it builds up with mysteries and intrigues and absolutely hilarious characters throughout that I just wanted more. This may also be the biggest problem with the novel. It consists of two volumes and a third was planned, but never written as Hoffmann had the audacity to die before writing it. We will never know how it ends, if Kreisler gets his Julia, if Abraham finds his Chiara and if Madame Benzon succeeds in taking over the principality entirely. The book ends as each section ends, with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved, and we are left to just enjoy the ride. Fortunately, it was a very enjoyable ride indeed.


søndag den 22. oktober 2023

Melmoth the Wanderer - Charles Robert Maturin (1820)


Melmoth the Wanderer

It is entirely fitting, though also totally coincidental, that the book I am reviewing so shortly before Halloween is a ghost story. I did not plan it that way, but the timing is pretty good.

“Melmoth the Wanderer” by Charles Maturin is a gothic novel and very much so. It is a book that takes the genre tropes and gives them that extra push to top everything that came before. Yet, it is also a rambling, chaotic novel that only barely is tied together, almost as if Maturin wanted to tell five-six stories and wondered how he could fit it all together in one book. My opinion is that he was not very successful at that. The one thing that does (almost) tie the whole thing together is Maturin’s denouncement of the Catholic church.

John Melmoth is a young man in Ireland. His uncle is dying and as the heir to his estate, John is attending his uncle in his final days. Turns out his uncle is very much afraid of a family ghost, a member of the Melmoth family who has been wandering around for centuries, always a harbinger of disaster. When the uncle dies, John reads an old manuscript in a backroom of the house concerning a fellow called Stanton who once met Melmoth and spent his life looking for him, eventually ending up in a madhouse. This is followed closely by a storm during which John saves a shipwrecked Spaniard, Moncada, who proceeds to tell his story to John.

Alonzo Moncada was an illegitimate son of an important aristocratic family who was forced into a monastery against his will. We get a lengthy story about his futile attempts to escape the monastery with a clear, underlying tone that the Catholic church in their attempt at usurping the power and wealth of the Moncada family tries to pacify and get rid of the heirs. The suffering of Moncada takes no end and even his eventual escape lands him in the custody of the Inquisition. There he is tempted with escape by Melmoth. Ultimately, the prison burns down and Moncada gets away. He finds refuge with the Jewish community who lives a hidden life underground. Here he becomes a secretary, copying a story about a girl, Immalee, who has grown up, lonely, on a deserted island off the Indian coast. Immalee is befriended by Melmoth with whom she falls in love. Eventually, she is “rescued” from the island, and turns out to be the long lost daughter of a rich Spanish merchant. The life of a such in Spain is, however, not compatible with Immalee’s free mind. When Melmoth finds her, she resumes her love for him and eventually they marry in secrecy.

Immalee’s (now Isidora) father is finally on his way home, having never met his daughter. At an inn he is told a story about the Walberg family. A German protestant family cheated and plundered by the Catholic church, who at the cusp of dying from starvation is tempted by Melmoth. He then meets a stranger who tells him a story about the English Mortimer family who fell into ruin through inheritance schemes. On the brink of their ruin, they are also tempted by Melmoth.

At some point you would think that all these stories within stories will have to come together in some conclusion, but that is hardly the case. While we do learn the fate of Immalee/Isidora, we never learn how Moncada got out of Spain and ended on a ship. We do get a final rendezvous with Melmoth, but how or why the story ends for him here is entirely unclear.

The impression I am left with, reading this book, is that Maturin himself did not really know what was the idea with Melmoth the Wanderer. Not the character, nor the book. Maturin seems to have started in one place and then just wrote to see where it took him. He may also have had a number of separate stories that he somehow wanted to string together and badly needed some skeleton to carry it. Melmoth as a character is oddly diffuse. What I seem to understand is that he was a researcher of the occult who tried an experiment that would leave him physically dead, but give him 150 years as a ghost. This seems to have come with the price tag that he would be an agent of the devil to offer people in need a resolution at an unspeakable price, presumably at the expense of their soul. Still, the details are very unclear and although he is the recurring character, he seems strangely undeveloped. Except for the story of Immalee, he also only shows up at the end of the various stories.

To my mind Melmoth is actually a minor element to this book, a necessity for tying it together. Maturin seems to have been a lot more interested in going after the Catholic church. In his stories, there is no end to the greed and viciousness of the Catholic church, and they come about as the very antithesis of what Christianity is supposed to stand for. Compared to their crimes, Melmoth looks like an amateur and by setting them up against each other just emphasized the depth to which the Catholic church will go.

This position of Maturin may be explained by him being a Protestant clergyman in an otherwise predominantly Catholic Ireland. Even today there is a festering divide there and two hundred years ago, this would have been even worse. This is very much a part in a religious feud.

Isolated, the stories work surprisingly well. Moncada’s plight in the monastery draws heavily on Lewis’ “The Monk” and Diderot’s “The Nun”, but takes the gothic elements to the next level. I would love to learn what further happened to Moncada, but Maturin ran out of steam on that story and left a lot of threads in the air. Until that point though, this is a really good story.

“Melmoth the Wanderer” leaves a mixed impression of moments of excellence, of a sharp wit, but also of a haphazard construction with little point except to shock and poke at the Catholics. It is spooky, but not so much because of the ghost, but from what people will do out of greed and in the name of their church.

søndag den 20. august 2023

Ivanhoe - Walter Scott (1820)



I grew up with “Ivanhoe”. That is, I grew up with the movie “Ivanhoe”. Danish television, back when we had only one channel, would have an afternoon showing of “Ivanhoe” every year on Christmas day. I also remember reading it as a child. Then it fell out of my scope, and it must be twenty or even thirty years since my last contact with the story, until now. The images I have are therefore scattered and confused, some clear, others blending into a mish-mash. Approaching the story again, so many years later, is a strange mix of a familiar and a new experience.

Scott’s “Ivanhoe” is a classic knight’s tale and in a British context there can only really be two such scenarios: King Arthur or Robin Hood. “Ivanhoe” takes place in the latter but manages to infuse it with a lot of the spirit and mythology of the former.

These are dark times in Britain. King Richard has disappeared, presumably imprisoned in Austria, and Prince John is contemplating usurping the crown. In the power vacuum, it is the jungle law. Feudal lords are abusing their power, and nobody is safe. In this environment, Scott introduces an additional conflict between the conquering Normans and the native Saxons, a conflict which historically would have ended at least half a century earlier. Cedric, the Saxon, is a minor lord who schemes to marry the heir apparent to the Saxon throne, Athelstane, with a descendant of King Alfred himself, his ward Lady Rowena and present this as a rallying point for a Saxon uprising against their Norman lords. To further this scheme Cedric has disowned his own son, Wilfred of Ivanhoe, who has gone into Norman service with King Richard in the Crusades and, his biggest crime, declared his love for Lady Rowena.

Now Wilfred is back in England, challenging the Norman lords at the grand tournament at Ashby and he will need all the support he can get from the outlaws in the Sherwood Forest and the mysterious Black Knight. Yet, his most important ally turns out to be the luckless Rebecca.

“Ivanhoe” can of course be read as a regular adventure story, the stuff boy’s dreams are made of, and this is presumably why this novel was a big hit in the nineteenth century. It can also be credited with an immense cultural influence, forming or shaping many of the public images of the entire scenario around Robin Hood, Richard the Lion-hearted and the despicable Prince John. As such a story it is quite readable even today, though fairly dated in places. Scott had a real issue with pacing, must blatantly in the storm of Torquilstone where we get the same scene played out four or five times from different viewpoints, a delay that was seriously taxing my impatience.

From my present point of view as an adult and modern reader, I find two different angles to the story that I consider more interesting than the simple adventure.

For Scott, turning to writing a medieval tale seems like quite a departure from his Scottish novels, until you dig into the Saxon-Norman conflict. The conflict Scott had repeatedly dealt with, and which I reviewed in “Rob Roy” is that of the Jacobite movement and the healing of it. It is not difficult to see a parallel between that and the Saxon-Norman conflict. An ousted elite trying to restore their former glory by overthrowing the new regime despite their claim being increasingly tenuous and futile. The solution, Scott suggests, is to give up the struggle and the division and instead accept that the future is a merger between the two groups, and only that merger will be the new Britain. Translated to Scott’s own time, the Scottish need to give up their Jacobite dreams of independence, while the English should abstain from lording it over the Scottish and instead embrace them as equals. Some might say that two hundred years later we are not quite there yet.

The second reading is that of the Jewish cause. Here Scott appears strangely ambiguous. He goes a long way to describe the Jewish moneylender, Isaac of York, with all the stereotypic and antisemitic libels available. He is avaricious of wealth and a sniveling coward. He has no concern for people outside his own wealth and is a usurer to everybody but his friends. You can almost hear the Nazi propaganda. Yet, the incrimination of the Jews is put in the mouth and actions of all the Gentiles around the Jews. Their antisemitic views and actions are presented by Scott as completely unjustified, based on religious superstition and bigotry. Add to this that Isaac’s daughter, Rebecca is the true heroine of the story. She is proud to be Jewish and is portrayed contrary to all the stereotypes as a generous, intelligent and courageous woman. This portrayal is not made as an exception but in defiance of prejudiced stereotypes, and Scott lets both her and Isaac and their plight take up a very large portion of the story. Rebecca with her character shames the proud templars and their bigotism and I cannot but read a lot of sympathy from Scott. At some point near the end Scott lets Rebecca say that her people will never be safe in the lands of other people. And this is seventy years before Theodore Herzl.   

Am I the only one who felt that Wilfred should have ended up with Rebecca rather than the bland and one-dimensional Rowena? Maybe that is the provocation Scott wanted to make, it his readers would have been up for that, challenging their prejudices.

Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” is both a bold medieval adventure and commentary on his own time. It is antiquated and modern at the same time, it had immense cultural influence and offers the reader something today. For all, and despite, these reasons it is still recommended reading.

tirsdag den 11. juli 2023

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley (1818)



Frankenstein is iconic. You say the name and what everybody thinks of is James Whale’s movie from 1931. The actual novel, I have now learned, is quite different from the movie, as in a completely different story.

Mary Shelley’s version is a bit of a babushka doll and starts somewhere rather unexpected. It starts as a series of letters from a Robert Walton to his sister. Walton is travelling to Northern Russia (Archangelsk) to embark on an expedition to discover the north-east passage to the Pacific Ocean. Whalton is starving for male friendship to the extent that he is likely gay and out there on the ice, his wish appears to come true. They spot first a mysterious sledge carrying a giant and then a second sledge with a frozen and starving man on it. This fellow they bring aboard and as he recovers, he tells a strange tale.

The stranger is Victor Frankenstein. As a young man he studied at the university of Ingolstadt and there discovered the key to life itself. He explored this to create a gigantic living being, the monster, but as it came alive Frankenstein turned his back on it in disgust and wanted nothing to do with it. Sometime later Frankenstein’s very young brother is killed and when Frankenstein on a mountain climb encounters his creation, we get the third layer of the story, that of the monster.

The monster woke up knowing nothing at all. Everything it had to find out by himself. By secretly moving into an outhouse of a family, he learned about virtue and all the good things in life only to find out that from his shear appearance people abhorred him and wanted to share nothing of the good stuff with him. He came to despise his creator and wanted to find him to hold him accountable. In their meeting in the mountains, Frankenstein is moved by the story and promises to make a female companion for the monster, but again he turns away, this time before the second creation is ready and now the monster is on the warpath. If he cannot have his support, he must have revenge.

There are so many differences to the movie version that it does not even make sense to compare the two. I do understand though why the story was changed so much. The novel as it stands would have been impossible to make into a movie.

There are many interesting themes here. The immediate message seems to be that science is dangerous and some knowledge should remain off-limits. As any scientist would know, that is nonsense, and such a sentiment could only come from someone outside science. Actually, it is the application of science that requires responsibility and without responsible application, it becomes dangerous. Think of nuclear bombs in the hands of madmen. I think that is also the actual message here. Frankenstein refuses repeatedly to take responsibility for his own creation and that makes it dangerous.

There is also the question of who is right and who is wrong. Depending on who Shelley makes the narrator the right shifts to that person. Frankenstein sees himself as a victim and his only responsibility is to kill the monster to save the world from its monstrosity. He is on a divine mission to clean up after himself when rescued on the ice. The monster on the other hand wants to be virtuous, but is met with only hostility and hatred from humankind. Is it any wonder it feels no gratitude towards people this prejudiced? And who is responsible for this gross injustice but Victor Frankenstein, his creator? Hence his reaction is natural and just and Frankenstein is the monster.

I have been playing with two ideas of additional interpretation. One is that this may be a story of man and God. Of the imperfect creation left alone to fend for itself in a cruel world by an uncaring God. Whose fault is it when life turns bad? Another idea is that the story of Frankenstein and his monster is actually a story schizophrenia, a personality split. Sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. That all this is Frankenstein battling with a monster inside himself. Unfortunately, this theory gets debunked when Walton sees the monster on the ship, but until then it would work. Maybe a little advanced for 1818 though.

It is a surprisingly hard book to read. After the excellent novelists I have recently encountered this one I felt was written with less skill. It is easy to become impatient with the narrative, it just does not flow that well. But that aside, it is a book with a lot of interesting and novel ideas and in many ways feels very modern. 130 years before “Rashomon” we have an early unreliable narrator novel. And yes, it is science fiction even if the science is very toned down, but I think most of all it is a moral story. As most good science fiction really is.

søndag den 11. juni 2023

Rob Roy - Sir Walter Scott (1817)


Rob Roy

Before Sir Walter Scott wrote “Ivanhoe”, he had a hit with “Rob Roy”. While I am quite familiar with the former, this is the first time I encountered the latter.

In “Rob Roy” we follow Francis Osbaldistone, a young man who protests against training as a merchant in his father’s thriving business. Francis has romantic dreams and counting pennies has no place in those. Mr. Osbaldistone is not to be trifled with, so he disinherits his son and sends him up to his brother, Sir Hildebrand Osbaldistone, on the Scottish border, who in return is invited to return one of his sons to take over the inheritance.

At Osbaldistone Hall, Francis falls in love with Diane Vernon and learns that the whole bunch there are Catholic Jacobites. He also learns that the sons of the house are all imbeciles except for Rashleigh, the one sent south, who is a cunning, self-serving intrigant. Oh, and he meets a mysterious Scotsman, Mr. Campbell.

Soon enough Francis learns that Rashleigh has driven Mr. Osbaldistone’s business to the brink of ruin and has escaped with the only papers that may save the company. Diane instructs Francis to find the solution is Scotland and so he ventures there with a Sancho-like Scottish gardener, Andrew Fairservice in tow. Thus begins Francis’ Scottish adventure that takes him across the Highland line where the lord and master is Rob Roy aka. the mysterious Mr. Campbell.

“Rob Roy” is an adventure story in the form of an odyssey. It is a journey that takes Francis Osbaldistone to distant regions where people and customs are as strange and wild as the landscape. There is a romantic element, especially concerning Diane Vernon, one of the very few women in the story, but also in regard to Rob Roy himself. He is presented as a Robin Hood-like character, a gentleman thief in a rough outfit, a noble savage, who is fighting a noble but hopeless cause to protect the outlawed McGregor clan.

There is also an underlying narrative involving a Jacobite rebellion, not the famous one in 1763, but a just as ill fought uprising in 1717. According to Scott’s story, the Osbaldistones and Rob Roy had a hand in that.

Curiously, our hero, Francis Osbaldistone, is not very much involved in what is going on. He just happens to be there when it happens, observing but taking very little action. It is always someone else who is doing, fighting, taking action, so as a hero, he is rather impotent. Even in his most personal affair, involving Diane Vernon, he is unable to interfere with her destiny that will take her away from him.

Rob Roy, on the other hand, is a man of action, sense and courage, the image of everything Francis admires but fails to be. Next to Francis though, he is just a side character.

This kind of adventure has a natural appeal to the boy in me and I really wanted to like it. It is not bad, but it is not an outright winner for me. I found it difficult to follow the narrative. Of course, it involves mysteries that should remain mysteries until the reveal, but even then, I do not understand all that was supposed to happen, or rather, why these things led to what happened. For people around Francis, I sort of understand the story, except that I cannot entirely connect the McGregors and the Jacobite cause, but why Francis needed to be involved everywhere baffles me. It also does not help that Scott makes the Scottish dialects become visible and almost audible by using phonetic spelling. Sure, there is a glossary at the end of the book, but I soon tired of going there all the time and just accepted that I missed a lot of the meaning every time they spoke.

I can understand why it is “Ivanhoe” and not “Rob Roy” that has survived in the public consciousness. Where the themes of “Ivanhoe” are timeless, “Rob Roy” is far more rooted in its time. The Jacobites are long forgotten, if even known outside Britain, and the transition of Scotland from its wild past to being an industrial and mercantile powerhouse was very much in process when Scott wrote the book, but is now a thing of the past (unless lawlessness is still thriving on some outlying islands…). Today, “Rob Roy” works as an adventure, an exciting tale of travelling into the unknown to meet people and dangers unimaginable. I just wish it worked better at that.

Not to be confused with the movie of the same name from 1995…

onsdag den 19. april 2023

Mansfield Park - Jane Austen (1814)


Mansfield Park

“Mansfield Park” is the fourth and last of this round of Jane Austen novels. It is also the most tricky one to get a grip on.

The setting of Mansfield Park is the manor of same name. Sir Thomas Bertram has two sons, Tom and Edmund, and two daughters, Maria and Julia with his wife Lady Bertram. Lady Bertram has two sisters, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price. All three have their flaws: Lady Bertram is indolent and uninterested, Norris is… a terrible person and Price fell in love with a seaman and lives in quasi-poverty with a horde of children. The oldest of these, Fanny, arrives at Mansfield Park at the age of 10 to be raised by the Bertrams and she is our heroine.

It is important to Aunt Norris that Fanny understands that she is inferior and that the Bertrams must always come first. She must also show gratitude, especially to Norris, for everything the Bertrams are giving her. As a result, Fanny, already a timid girl, remains a very humble and shy girl, more interested in the well-being of those around her than herself. When things start to unravel at Mansfield park, instigated by the two visitors from the city, Mary and Henry Crawford, siblings, Fanny finds herself in the center of a whirlwind challenging her moral compass.

“Mansfield Park” is very much a moralistic tale. Fanny represents good and moral behavior and the Crawfords, coming as they are from the city of vice, London, represent the challenge to moral behavior. With them as catalysts, the Bertram children are losing restraint and drift into vice. Even Edmund, the most “proper” of the four, falls in love with Mary and is tempted to participate in events he knows are wrong.

The challenge for the reader is to recognize right from wrong, something that is not made easier by two hundred years of moral evolution. When the Bertrams and the Crawfords want to set up a theater at Mansfield, this is considered highly improper, especially as the play is “Lover’s Vows”, a slightly daring piece. It is difficult to see how this should be the road to Hell, but there you have it. When Henry Crawford openly flirts with both Julia and Maria, it is easier to see this as problematic, especially since Maria is engaged to Mr. Rushworth, and his indifferent abandonment of both shows him as unreliable to boot.

For Fanny the challenge reaches its peak when Henry insists on courting herself and everybody pressure her into accepting his proposal. Only Fanny is not convinced and insists on refusing him.

I am torn on “Mansfield Park”. Fanny is often blamed as being the most boring and colorless of Austen’s heroines, but I do sympathize with her. A lot of her sentiments are things I can recognize in myself, her fears and her hopes and her finding refuge in a rich internal life. However, Fanny is a saint and I am not so there are limits, but I do feel I understand her. Similarly, I recognize the type of Mrs. Norris. Although she is intended as a caricature, I can see real people with many of her qualities and I understand how absolutely obnoxious they can be.

Where the chain jumps off is on two accounts. The distinction of what is proper and what is improper is exceptionally prudish. By any standards, the proper life, according to Mansfield Park is a very dull life. Anything resembling normal, youthful behavior is frowned upon and we are to think that a retired life of boredom is bliss. Austen simply goes too far here.

My other problem is that for all Austen’s insistence of doing the right and proper thing, apparently it is okay for cousins to fall in love and marry. The idea makes me gag, and it breaks some huge taboos of mine, but Austen seems to find no problem at all with that. Well, wait till she sees what sort of children this will produce…

The net result is a book I am not certain how to rate. There is so much quality Austen stuff here that it cannot be ignored, but also so much prudish moralizing that is difficult to accept. Reading felt like a curve, I loved getting into it, it was better than expected, but as it unfolds it gets increasingly difficult to take in. I am hesitant to endorse it, but how can you not recommend an Austen novel?


lørdag den 18. marts 2023

Emma - Jane Austen (1816)



The third Jane Austen novel in this marathon of mine is “Emma” (never mind I accidentally switched the order of this and Mansfield Park) and while there is a lot of familiar Austen here, it does feel like a departure from the previous two novels.

First off, the heroine of the novel is as usual a young woman, but not the lower genteel, almost impoverished girl I am used to from Austen. Neither is she the cynical observer to portrait gentility from the outside, the Austen alter ego. Instead, Emma is all that Austen is usually skeptical about:  Rich, unfocused, arrogant and busy running other people’s life. The only concession Austen gives Emma Woodhouse is that she is intelligent and at heart a good person. Austen famously mentioned that she had created a heroine that nobody would like.

Young Emma lives with the hypochondriac, but friendly, father at the Hartfield Estate in the fictional village of Highbury, south-east of London. This is a local community with a limited amount of people qualifying to be of interest to Emma. Regular farmers and tradesmen are simply below her interest. What she is interested in is matchmaking. She takes credit for the marriage of her former governess and friend with Mr. Weston and she spends a good third of the book trying to setup her friend Harriet with the vicar, Mr. Elton, rather than, God forbid, the successful, but not genteel, farmer, Robert Martin. It is no spoiler to say that this blows up spectacularly in Emma’s face, which indeed most of her schemes do.

When first the quiet Jane Fairfax arrives in the village to stay with her aunt and shortly after the dashing Frank Weston Churchill to visit his father (Mr. Weston from an earlier marriage), Emma gets more fuel for her imagination. Only the old family friend, George Knightly seems able to rein Emma in.

There is a development of several characters in “Emma”, as there usually is in Austen’s novels, and good for that. The Emma of the opening of the story is really not that sympathetic. Far too conceited and busy arranging the lives of others. We all know the type who is trying to arrange your life, convinced they know better, and I frankly have very little patience for that sort. Maybe a gender thing. Emma, however, grows out of it. Not through an epiphany, but as a process, partly guided by the disasters her interfering causes and partly by the horrendous example of Mrs. Elton, when she is introduced. She possesses all the poor qualities of Emma, but a notch or two worse. For me, reading the novel, I believe the development of Emma into a more understanding and respectful character was what I took most pleasure in. Austen has a wonderful way of making the process natural and believable and the Emma of the end is truly likable.

Austen is also as usual an expert on drawing very distinct characters. Almost, but not quite caricatures. Sometimes amusing, sometimes to serve a point, but always types we recognize. The host of characters in Emma are very much alive and real to the reader and not two characters blend together. If there is a miss here, then it is the strong focus on a particular strata of people, while those below, especially the domestic, are largely ignored. Part of that may be due to Emma’s viewpoint, but it is common for all the Austen books I have read.

If there is a weakness to “Emma” then it is the lack of a progressive narrative. Both “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” had a story that went from A to B, but although “Emma” also ends in a wedding orgy, it feels through the most part as if it is not getting anywhere. Part of that can be explained by the storyline being the character development, but this happens so slowly that you only really notice it in the end (or I did). I lacked something to drive the story and that made it a slower read for me than the previous novels. Or maybe it is just that active matchmaking is does not serve as an interesting plot for me. A gender thing again, perhaps.

Still, it was a lovely read and I am actually sorry that I am now done with the life of Emma Woodhouse. It would have been interesting to follow her further adventures. Highly recommended.


lørdag den 11. februar 2023

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (1813)


Pride and Prejudice

This is supposed to be a re-read, I am positive I read “Pride and Prejudice” some 20 years ago, but except for recalling the names of the main protagonists, it turned out that I remembered absolutely nothing from first time round. So, this felt as a first read. I am a bit disappointed with myself, “Pride and Prejudice” is a good enough book to be recalled even that many years later.

In many ways “Pride and Prejudice” resembles the earlier “Sense and Sensibility”, but given that we are dealing with the same period, women from the same station in life and protagonists with similar traits, that is likely to be expected. Certainly, I can pour very similar praise onto the books.

Elizabeth Bennet is one of five sisters being raised by a very liberal gentleman father and a silly, emptyheaded mother from a lower station. Stations in life is super important in Austen’s worlds and the Bennet family is well enough off that they live in a manor with butler and maids, but not considered wealthy or important as such. Elizabeth is a smart and perceptive woman and her main difference from Elinor is that she is frank and independent minded. Traits that also sets her apart from women in general in this book.

The story revolves around her relations with a gentleman (from a higher station) called Mr. Darcy. When they meet early on, Darcy’s friend Mr. Bingley starts a relationship with Elizabeth’s sister Jane, Darcy feels superior to Elizabeth family and refuse any interaction (pride), and Elizabeth in her place forms an image of Darcy as a haughty and very unlikable character (prejudice). Although we as readers sense already in the early pages of the book that there is a similarity of mind between these two characters, in their heads they could not be farther from each other.

The development of the story is how these two sentiments are gradually broken down in a process where both of them learns to check themselves and get a better perspective on the both themselves and the world around them. The immediate agency may be a partiality, to use an Austen word, or love to be more vulgar, but that is way too simple. That is just what sets them in motion. The real agency is their interaction, how learning about each other and seeing more sides to the coin breaks down initial perceptions. I think this is the element that I like the most about “Pride and Prejudice”. Instead of taking the easy way (a love story) and some melodrama to form a crisis, this is about character development and not through magic and a friendly writer, but in ways we can relate to as real people.

This would not be Austen though if the world was not populated with curious characters. Like “Sense and Sensibility” all principal and quite a few of the secondary characters have traits so pronounced to be almost caricatures. This makes them highly entertaining, but Austen never goes so far as to make them unrealistic. Mrs. Bennet is the fussy and emptyheaded mother, Mr. Collins the pedantic and servile clergyman, Catherine de Bourgh haughty and arrogant, Lydia Bennet frivolous and stupid. My favorite character is Elizabeth father, Mr. Bennet who has decided to enjoy the entertainment value of all the ridiculousness going on around him rather than being rattled by it. He takes a slightly cynical view, but is entirely lovable.

Beside the character development theme, there are a lot of currents going through “Pride and Prejudice”. Again, we have a window into the world from women’s perspective which from my point of view appears frustratingly limited. Elizabeth however is a pattern breaker, the beginning of a rebel, simply for forming her own mind and acting on it, but ever so often the women are left to sit back and worry, leaving the acting to the men. I sense Austen feels this confinement, but the rebellion starts from a very repressed point. We also get a lot of insights into the do’s and don’t’s in the Regency world of gentility. So much is said and done by hints and mutual understanding of the codes and we are not even talking about the Victorian era. We get insights into what forms the ultimate in humiliation and degradation when Elizabeth’s sister elopes with the scoundrel Wickham.

“Pride and Prejudice” feels slightly more mature than “Sense and sensibility” but ticks all the same boxes. I had a great time reading it and can absolutely recommend it, although I may be the last person in the universe to discover it.

fredag den 20. januar 2023

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (1811)


Sense and Sensibility

One of the major milestones on the book list is to get to Jane Austen. Her books are among the few classics that are still widely read and the sort of books most people are supposed to be familiar with. To my embarrassment I believe I have only read “Pride and Prejudice” prior to the book list, mostly I think because the world of Austen has never been my go-to literature. Now, though, I am getting the chance with four Jane Austen novels back to back. First up is “Sense and Sensibility”.

Right off the bat, let me say that I enjoyed reading “Sense and Sensibility” a lot more than I expected to. Austen does everything Fanny Burney did, but better. Austen is witty and clever, but treats her characters with respect. It is a comedy, not because of a comedic theme or outright silly characters, but because of that special angle Austen uses when she describes her characters. She nails their character traits for better and worse and I sit back with a chuckle reading about them.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood belong to the gentility, somewhere between lower nobility and upper middleclass. When their father dies, the wealth of the family fall on their half-brother John and they are forced to leave the manor with their mother and little sister Margaret. A distant relative, Sir John Middleton, offers them a cheap rent at Barton cottage, close to his own manor. Soon the girls are involved with the Middletons and the people that come and go at Barton Park.

The overriding theme of the novel is that of marriage and the relationships that lead up to marriage. Elinor, who represents sense, formed a relationship with Edward Ferrars, the brother of John Dashwood’s wife, Fanny, while they still lived at Norland, but at Barton she learns he has been engaged for the past four years to a Lucy Steele, a girl with no money to speak of and poor education. Proper conduct is to respect such an engagement, but can Elinor control her emotions enough for that?

Marianne, who represents sensibility, has a chance encounter with the charming John Willoughby and falls head over heels in love with him. In a matter of days everybody is convinced they are engaged, but then Willoughby suddenly leaves, not to return. When next Marianne sees him, he is about to marry a wealth girl in London. Can Marianne learn to control her emotional roller coaster and learn to love men who are not deucebags?

Each of Austen’s characters have some very dominant character traits. John Dashwood is obsessing over people’s wealth, his wife is greedy beyond belief, Edward is dutiful but meek, John Barton is a sportsman, Colonel Brandon is consciousness incarnate, Mrs Jennings is the ultimate gossip aunt and Willoughby is a certified deucebag. These traits are painted sharply, maybe too sharply for realism, but most, if not all of them end up revealing softening character traits that spoils the image of one-dimensional characters. Mrs. Jennings actually care about the people under her wings, Colonel Brandon has sensibility as well as sense and Willoughby does feel remorse.

I cannot read this book and not feel sorry for the women of Austen’s world. Their entire being seems to be reduced to a question of who to marry and whether to marry for love of money. While the men do seem to have a larger agenda, the women’s is rather insipid beyond the marriage question. Austen seem to agree with me. Through the eyes of Elinor and Marianne the thoughtless chatter and idle pastimes are almost painfully thoughtless and pointless. Their only duty is to look pretty and be respectable and I sense a rebellion in both Marianne and Elinor and maybe even an urge to actually do things. So, while Austen delves into the forms and practices of the gentility of the period, she also exposes the narrowness of that world with pointed remarks and a sense of claustrophobia.

A reflection of this is also in how narrow a world she describes. The only mention of characters outside their class are a few remarks on their servants. The village children are sweet to look at and there are actually people working in the shops they visit. But that is about it. There is nothing about politics of the period, economy is only how many thousand pounds each have per year, not where they come from, and there is absolutely no mention of the societal evolution Britain was going through in the Regency period, something I find immensely interesting, but Austen’s women clearly are entirely ignorant about. Design or flaw, I do not know, but it emphasizes the isolation of these women.

“Sense and Sensibility” is a wonderful read nevertheless. I love Austen’s characters and I cannot wait moving on to the next three novels. Highly recommended.