This is the second time I've read this magical novel and I like it even better this time than I did the first. A lot of what I love is just in the language Hughes uses - for example describing the ocean as a 'tissue of sensitive nerves' - you can feel the languid heat of the tropics, the wetness of everything, the riot of vegetation, the primitive danger of everything all around. This is a novel to just get lost in, to be held captive by like the main characters, so much so that I'm not particularly interested in analyzing the book to death.
I could talk at length about the theme of crumbling institutions (adulthood, piracy, plantations, the church, England), about childhoods that never end (John, through his 'martyrdom', and the pirates through negligence). I could compare it to Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' which is just as dreamlike, or to Peter Pan, or even Don Quixote.
However, I just don't want to pick this one to pieces. I'd rather play the role of Mathias and allow the book to surprise me, trick me, confound me with it's circus of near insanity, instead of turning it into a Margaret that's been violated by a bunch of dirty sailors (academics).
Some books I just want to enjoy and this is one of them.
When I was 10 or 11 my family became acquainted with a very old, and very wealthy lady named Mrs. Marsh. Mrs. Marsh lived in Duxbery Massachusetts all alone in a very beautiful English style home that looked out over the harbor. She had a fine garden, a library stuffed with books floor to ceiling, a large kitchen you could cook anything you wanted in for as many people as you knew (and all the people they knew, too), but she was blind and couldn't much take care of herself anymore since her husband had died many years before. So my family helped her out with taking care of the house, the shopping, and some basic work for the house. We also read to her since she loved books but because she could no longer see, requested that she be read to.
Upstairs, through a concealed passage connecting to a room above the garage, was a room set up as an old school room. There was a chalkboard and desks, and even books for children to read. The room hadn't been used in decades and was dusty and everything old, but it reminded me of the scene near the end of this novel where Toad sings his final song about himself to himself. One last act of selfish bravado before "growing up".
Just a year later I would find myself having to move out of the home I grew up in, having to leave the valley and the river I had played along everyday since I had been born. I remember doing what Elspeth Huxley did in her novel, The Flame Trees of Thika, and kissed all four walls of my childhood home hoping that would mean I would one day get to come back - but I never did. My childhood stopped (a little bit) that day, and I physically left behind the first part of my life.
After that was Jr High, bad grades, worse friends, and a steady decline in any innocent childhood until I was shipped all the way out to Colorado. In fact I haven't been back to Massachusetts except once since leaving - and that was over 20 years ago.
But this book reminded me of those days, of those comforts that you have as a child - those attachments to things, the attachments to people you cared about, the attachments to long, lazy days along a river, or laying under the sticky pines, or playing baseball in the spare lot. Days where friendships, and battles, and adventures where almost common, where everything was wondrous and sometimes even a little frighteningly mysterious.
Being a child is a lot like being one of the animal characters in this book. I think that's why the animals seem to occupy a world with real people in the book, even interact with them, because they are living side by side, yet seeing the world so differently. This is why Toad can operate a car and not operate it well at all just as a child would crash it into a lake at high speed. This is why they can spend all day on the river or have everything seem to be provided for them - because it is being provided for - by the parents. Mole, Ratty, Badger, Otter, and Toad - along with all the other animals, are the neighborhood kids and the only time we meet a person is when they are in positions of authority or responsibility. That's the only time we care about adults.
I think you could make a parallel between my interpretation of the animals here and how Richard Hughes creates his children characters in A High Wind in Jamaica. The kids in that book occupy their own world, and while not totally indifferent to the adults in their world, they see the adults as some distant land of foreigners, quickly forgotten and somewhat mistrusted.
And yet we do end with the growth of one of the characters, Toad, who sees that he will have to grow at least a little, become a grown up, think of others more often, and put aside his own foolishness and selfishness and pride. And it's a sad ending too because for as much of a pain Toad is, we can't help but not only like him, but want to BE him, too. Because we were all Toad once.
Though I'm not 90 and not blind like Mrs. Marsh, I do find myself having more in common with her than with my younger self as I think about this book. That wondrous world of willows and a magical Piper at the Gates of Dawn does not exist for me anymore, it's nearly as dim as it is to the blind. And the old schoolroom is just as empty for me, full of dust as it had once been full of children. The desks all lined up still, but not for me.
We all have to grow up, but we can at least remember.
This book is a very dark glimpse into a dying world that once existed through all of human civilization. Fairies and giants and ghost ships are as much a part of these people's real world as is God and the police who come onto the islands to kick people out of their homes.
I do wonder, however, what Synge's intention was to portray these people as being so simple. He does admire their skill with the boats but he spends so much time with old men who tell tales that have no point that it's easy to think the whole island lives and thinks as these old men do. Yet the young men, Michael in particular, leaves the islands to find work elsewhere because he knows there is no future on those grey, wet rocks. And the other danger is that we get pulled into a nostalgic portrait of the islands that never really existed outside of the imaginations of these old men.
Still, there are moments that are quite beautiful and telling as to how things really are on the Aran Islands. First is the priest, whom we never meet but are always told about braving the rough sees day after day and risking his life as he tends to his flock. Though we never meet this man, I couldn't get the image out of my head of a man dressed in priest's black, standing upright on a small boat tumbling upon the waves in a fierce gale. I would love to have heard his story. The other telling moment was for the funeral of the young man. This was a beautiful and very sad scene where they bury him in the same spot where his grandmother had been buried and they find her skull among the black planks on her coffin. This image, coupled with the young man having lost his head at sea, is a wonderfully confusing image where the nostalgic sensibility of the old is placed on the dead body of the young that can't carry it to any future other than the grave.
Perhaps this is why all the stories end with absolutely no point because life is, to them, pointless. Life is hard, the women wear out in childbirth before they're even 20, the men drink and fight and die at sea for a pittance of a catch, or the lucky ones move to America and never come back, their story unfinished.
Oh how I had hoped this would be so much more than it is.
I have to admit total confusion as to what Conrad hoped to achieve with this novel. What starts off as insight into how precarious and arbitrary life in Russia under the government was at the time of the novel, ends with the (almost) humiliation of the people who sought to revolt against it. Everyone comes out as a loser in the end. Was Conrad trying to say everything in Russia is bad, even the people trying to change Russia? Was he really that cynical?
Then again, seeing as how events turned out in the years after the novel was published (the rise of Communism) then maybe Conrad really was onto something. Yet the book never really attempts to address the broader issues of Russian social and political reform because its focus is only on a few characters, nearly all of whom are either misguided, manipulative, or are outright fools. I kept getting the impression Conrad wanted to damn all of Russia, past, present, and every possible future.
What I found most interesting, however, was the character of Haldin. Here was a young man who, though a terrorist (and murderer), understood whom he was fighting so well as to ruin the life of a perfectly innocent person long after he himself had been executed. He wanted to light a fire under the ass of the comfortable middle class who had gladly allowed themselves to be ruled over for just a few pieces of silver at a time. Haldin saw how it wasn't those in power who were the most dangerous, but those complicit in keeping them in power. The same could be said of our own times in our capitalist society that gladly allows the business class to rule over the rest of us. We just want our creature comforts and give them all the power. Never does it occur to us to start throwing bombs around to enact real change even though the situation probably calls for it at this point.
And that's the way I thought this novel was going to go. I assumed Razumov would wind up being forced into becoming a terrorist, too, that he would be 'woken up' and would defect from his comforts to fight a oppressive system. I assumed we would see the development of a character whose terrorist actions (like Haldin's) would be explored and sympathized with. Haldin was a total mystery to us and so it's easy to denounce him as a wicked terrorist, but to have followed Razumov's path that would lead him down the same road as Haldin's, to end the book where it began but with another character, would have been rather thrilling.
But where this book goes is instead to neutral Switzerland where Russian expats live comfortably and foolishly as they plot against the Russian government. These people are not heroic freedom fighters, but just a bunch of fools who will never change anything. Why Razumov would even be needed to spy on them seems like a total waste of time to me. In fact as the book went on I was not surprised Razumov grew more and more to dislike these people and that he was was glad to help out the Russian officials. But then we get another shift where he changes sides (too late) and winds up a cripple. I didn't buy any of it, to be honest.
I have to admit I was thoroughly lost by the end of all this. I have no idea what Conrad was trying to really say and can only really recommended the book on the strength of the characters and the overall story it does wind up telling. Granted, it's a cynical and depressing affair, but it feels realistic. The only thing going against it is that only a few years after the book was published another young man, Gavrilo Princip, managed to shake the entire world up with his own actions. I don't believe Conrad would have thought it possible that so much could actually change at the hands of just one individual and so real history seems to work against the point the novel was trying to make about everyone being ineffectual.
So I'll have to put this one down as my least favorite Conrad novel. I found half of it thrilling and well written, and the other half to be boring and limited of insight. Overall it is well written like all of Conrad's work and the language is always a joy to tangle with, but I just never got the feeling that this was a book with a solid foundation or plan.
One thing that struck me about this book was how structured it was. Like The Master and Margarita, no matter how outrageous the story got I never felt like it was going too far or not playing within the rules it had set up. A lot of this has to do with the magical quality of some of the characters. Ignatius' unique world view could recreate reality anyway he saw fitting to suit himself, and more subtly but just as importantly Jones who has no actual corporeal form: he's just a voice, a pair of sunglasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke. This magic flittering around the edges of each character played well into the theme of fortune, Fortuna, controlling all of our fate and it helped build this fictional world of New Orleans as a real place full of living, breathing characters whose fates are intertwined and dependent on each other.
Much like poor Mr. Levy, I too kept feeling depressed while reading this wonderful book. What made me sad was everyone seems to be suffering some degree or other of mental illness that hinders them from seeing the world as it really is, and also everyone's lives were miserable because of circumstances out of their control - which led to more delusional behavior.
The most interesting theme of the book was self image and how people see themselves and each other and how they present themselves to the world. Nearly every character goes through a physical metamorphosis, Ignatius through his various jobs and hot dog vendor costumes (not to mention his weight), his mother's bowling shoes she never takes off, Jones' shifting cloud shapes, Miss Trixie's new teeth and her always delusional 'I'm a very attractive woman', Mancuso's forced undercover wardrobe choices, Darlene's southern belle strippers costume, Dorian Greene's hat (who he got from Irene at the beginning of the novel), and even Mr. Levy's pant company which he changes to selling Bermuda shorts. Everyone is continually trying on new identities and it recalls how dangerously close to insanity some of the characters really are, Ignatius and Mrs. Levy, in particular.
Another theme is security. I realized this when Dorian Greene grows paranoid about the safety of his rental when the three lesbians are kicked out. He makes sure the gate gets is locked against intruders (no doubt because he and all his friends living there are gay), but there are other issues of security. Ignatius only wants to stay safe in either his room, or more broadly New Orleans having only left the city once in his life. Mr. Gonzalez desperately wants to keep working at Levy pants, probably because his entire identity is caught up in that wretched hovel. Jones wants the security of employment, if only to stay out of jail as a vagrant. Miss Trixie wants the security of retirement and, literally, a check from social security. Even Miss Annie wants security, this in the form of peace and quiet from her insane neighbors. This security recalls people who are living close to the edge of society and could lose everything at any time. This in turn could easily feed into any sort of vice or eccentricity.
These two themes represent how lonely and sad living in a city can be. Wanting to stand out from the crowd just to feel somewhat alive keeps the soul alive but wanting security from the teeming masses of people you don't know, some of them dangerous, feeds your desire to hide away. These competing desires, to stand out and to hide, manifest themselves in various ways. Ignatius chooses to hide even though his personality makes him stand out, as does Mr Levy, and Jones. However, Dorian Greene, Claude Robichaux, Lana Lee, and Darlene all want to stand out - even if their actions mean they need to keep a low profile. Mancuso goes back and forth between hiding and standing out being he's the undercover cop who sees all sides of the city, good and bad, though mostly the bad.
But even at a deeper level, the feeling of individuality and security are primal needs and are tied to the spiritual, even cosmic nature of the book through Fortuna and her wheel. We are all bound together, we are not safe from each other, but we all need each other, too. This schizophrenic view, this back and forth between needing security and wanting individuality, manifests itself in Ignatius' world view that modern society is totally corrupt, perverted, and base. All of modern life's pleasures are wicked and debauched, but also necessary, too. He loves his Dr. Nutt (there has to be a pun in this), he loves his doughnuts and little luxuries. And he can't really reconcile these two competing ideologies, the battle between consumerism and survival (or at least spiritual). Other characters deal with this better - as most of us do - but even the most well adjusted of us sometimes feel that modern life is a bit silly and pointless and full of hypocrisy. We see and hate injustice, but we're not going to personally do anything about it, unlike Ignatius who though totally out of touch with reality, at least attempts to do something for the workers of Levy Pants.
The thing about Ignatius is that while I do not like him as a person - he's a liar, he's manipulative, he's selfish, he's lazy - is that I can understand why someone like that would exist. I mean, why wouldn't someone like that grow out of the insanity of modern life? Might as well meet insanity with more insanity! Live life on your own terms, even if it is crazy. And so I sort of forgive him a little, though I would loathe to even be in the same building as him. He's a great literary character, but a pretty awful human being. He had everything handed to him and though he did suffer through some traumatic events in his life - his father dying, and his dog dying - he's not suffering worse than, say, Jones who astutely shows us the people on the bus see him: as less than human and as a criminal. In fact the way people feel about Jones is how they should feel about Ignatius. Jones is a good person, he wants to work, he wants what modern life has to offer, even if it is as humble as a Buick and some air conditioning. He's even as smart as Ignatius - not book smart, but his mind is just as sharp and would have been as book smart had he gone to school; he is street smart like no other.
And I think a lot of the book hinges on these two characters, Jones and Ignatius. Ignatius is corpulent, Jones in non-corporal. Ignatius is lazy and slothful, Jones is willing to work, though no harder than he's being paid for; he's no fool. But they are both outcasts in society, as a lot of the characters in the book are, and that's what makes the New Orleans of the book a microcosm of all modern life. New Orleans here is a fishbowl where we can watch the crazy swim about and see how it acts, lives, and fights. And that makes Ignatius' escape at the end sort of frightening because he's now on the loose, infecting crazy wherever he goes, though his effect seemed to have a net positive impact on every single person he met. Everyone winds up the better because of him, either directly or indirectly, and whether they wanted it or not.
This was a great book and one of the funniest books I have ever read, though always with a twinge of sadness about it. And this is a completely unique book, too; I've never read anything like it. Like all great books it leaves you with much to think about and to unpack from each page and is a wonderful commentary on our modern age, even if it was written half a century ago.
By the way the narrator, Barrett Whitener is brilliant. At first I thought I would never get used to his near staccato delivery, but his character voices are the best I've ever heard. This book comes alive with his reading and his delivery adds a quality of calm to the craziness of the characters he brings to life.
I can't count how many times someone has told me to read The Shining because of how much better and different it is than the Stanley Kubrick film. For years I've wandered around with the memories of people saying how Kubrick ruined the book, how he changed everything that was important to the book to create a film that resembled the book in title only. "Oh, you'll understand so much more", and "the book is way scarier", and "there is good motivation for what Jack does in the book", people have said to me. And so I've been curious about this book for a long time. I've wondered what exactly it is about this book that causes people to, quite emphatically, state that arguably the greatest filmmaker in the history of motion pictures, not to mention one of humanity's greatest artists had someone botched the whole thing.
Good horror is created by not knowing all of the pieces of a dangerous puzzle: "What's around the corner?", "Who's screaming in that graveyard on this stormy night?", "Is there a killer alien with acid for blood on-board this old mining ship?". Combine not knowing important information with the chance of death (or worse) and you've got the basic formula for horror. And often a thing ceases to be scary when we see it, when the lights come on, or when we understand it - fear is born of the unknown.
In this novel, King attempts to create fear and terror by setting us up in a fancy hotel with a mysterious past for a few months of winter isolation; it's basically his take on the old haunted house story. The problem, however, is that he really does wind up explaining too much or tries too hard to give us two plausible interpretations of what is going on - are they just hallucinating, is Jack just going through alcohol withdrawal, or is the hotel really haunted. And if the hotel is haunted, who is haunting it? Old Hollywood mobsters and a rich old lady who killed herself?
I can see why Stanley Kubrick was attracted to this book because there are a lot of good ideas, but Kubrick trimmed all of the fat and turned a fairly shaggy book that, frankly, isn't that scary into one of the greatest horror films ever made. And all Kubrick did was not explain everything that King went into great detail about. Kubrick pretty much went through the book, crossed out everything that even smelt like an explanation, reconfigured a few scenes to be more efficient (having Hallorann give them the full tour instead of it being broken up into two parts like in the book).
Now I'll admit that in a book where we are supposed to live inside the character's heads King couldn't just give us limited information otherwise the book would have been about 150 pages long, at best. And King is at his best when he's creating characters and having them interact, though this book largest weakness is that there are so few characters that it sort of goes against King's strength as a popular writer. Books like The Stand, Tommyknockers, and It work well because the characters have a lot to do and it wasn't until later with Misery and Pet Cemetery that he could do more with fewer characters because by then he'd become a better writer.
So in a way this book really can only ever be a good template for a great film because it just doesn't work that well as a book. The characters a thin, Wendy in particular is useless and flat - in fact she's so bad that not even Kubrick could do anything interesting with her outside of making her life miserable in the film. Danny is pretty good, as is Hallorann, but they don't feel very fleshed out, they exist only to keep things moving or to make things weird. I do, however, much prefer King's Stuart Ullman to Kubrick's. Why Kubrick made Ullman so likable was a missed opportunity because Ullman is our introduction to the hotel, it's spokesman so-to-speak, and Kubrick should have made him more menacing.
My biggest gripe I reserve for the hedge animals. In small doses they would have been fine, but by the end I just could not take them seriously. The second you actually try to visualize a hedge animal attacking someone the image is just too comical to be scary or to even be taken seriously. Kubrick was wise to carry on with the European flavor of the hotel by using a hedge maze instead.
One thing I did find odd is that so many people have told me that the alcoholism of Jack is far more played up in the book and is a possible central cause to his insanity. Yet this is also true in the film. The scenes with Lloyd are almost identical, Kubrick changed almost nothing for those scenes and it's quite apparent Jack has a drinking problem and that the hotel is using that against him to drive him more insane and to control him. True the film isn't about a alcoholic losing control, Kubrick's film is more supernatural, but the themes are still there and one could easily say that the hotel (right down to the film's neuron receptor carpets) is a manifestation of Jack's drinking issues and abuse. For King (and audiences who prefer King over Kubrick) to claim Kubrick messed this up is idiotic and says more about King's (and his fan's) inability to contextualize theme.
I also was scratching my head about the whole side-story with Jack's drinking friend, especially the part where they thought they killed a child on a bicycle. What was that all about? That whole idea literately goes nowhere. Yes it scared them both to stop drinking, but why didn't King tie that into the rest of the book? And speaking of missed opportunities, why didn't King include Grady's dead wife and, more importantly, dead little girls? Kubrick immediately took advantage of this to create what is arguably the most iconic image in the film: the Diane Arbus style twin girls holding hands. The hotel had all the other ghosts of people past, why not them, too?
I did like that Hallorann played a more important role in the book. Kubrick just kills him off the second he gets to the hotel and that was only used in that he needed a way to get Danny and Wendy out. King used Hallorann more, but that character dipped so dangerously close into a "black man" stereotype that I cringed more than once.
All in all the book isn't bad, but the last quarter is just a lot of grunting and screaming and inane dialogue with too much pleading and yelling. The Shining is a shaggy ghost story that isn't nearly as well crafted as King's later, and much scarier books (Pet Cemetery being my personal favorite because it's also a little goofy) . I really was let down because not only because I didn't find it all the scary, but also because the book and Kubrick's film are far more similar than I was led to believe - I had been hoping for something much different.
"I thought I could do it quietly without upsetting anyone."
How much of life do you lose if you never impose on anyone else? How much selfishness should you indulge in, drag others into? Can you ever really be alive by always being polite, never being a bother, letting life carry you along like driftwood? These were some of the questions, and hard truths I had to face while reading this remarkable novel. And I use the word remarkable not because I want to toss a superlative around, but because the book is remarkable. In fact I think a case could be made for this almost forgotten novel to be considered in the conversation of Great American Novels.
Stoner is a unique literary 'hero'. He is an American mid-western farm boy from a hardworking, moral farm family. In a Steinbeck novel the Stoner's would be backdrop, the sort of family he'd mention in passing as being one of the unspoken for millions America is made up of: the hard working, quiet, self sufficient, good and decent Americans who are the salt of the earth. Yet William Stoner is different; he's a man apart. Though he knows farm life, he's not particularly attracted to or interested in it, he only does it because life has, until yet, not offered him anything else. But when he's given the chance to go to college he discovers he has a passion you wouldn't normally attribute to the farm: a love of literature. He discovers he is not a man meant to bend his back all day, but to use his mind instead.
This discovery occurs suddenly, without warning and from a man long dead. It is William Shakespeare who almost literally speaks to him. "Do you hear him?" Professor Sloane asks him in class. Shakespeare speaks to you across three centuries. Shakespeare has imposed himself on Stoner, has grabbed hold of him, and changed his life.
But this is not the story of a man necessarily bettered by the experience of discovering education and art. Though Stoner decides to pursue a life of education and teaching, you sometimes wonder what his life would have been like had he not made this discovery. Would he have wound up like his parents, perhaps, but when WW1 broke out he may have gone over to France and not come back, or come back a changed man. There's a lot of potential 'what ifs' at the beginning of one's life.
And this book is all about potential.
That's why it's so startling at the end of the novel when he realizes he's 60 years old. Though we've lived his life through the course of the novel through all his failures, and modest successes, we are hit with the cold reality that there is just not anymore time left. He's made all his choices and, as he keeps repeating "What did you expect?"
Yet this is not a cynical or angry novel. Even in moments of quiet, suffocating despair, of years of a failed marriage, failed relationships, failed career opportunities, this is not a book about a man who is just a sad case for us to pity. William Stoner is like so many very real people, he's a person trying to get by in the world, trying to do some good, but not quite able to bridge the gap between his own internal passions and heat with other people's heart and their warmth. He's closed off, he lives in his own mind, and he always looks for reasons why he can't act, why he shouldn't say or do a thing because he doesn't feel it's right, or his place to do so. He is not a bold man, but rather a man who works hard, does the best he can with what he has, and then, in the end, must accept those choices.
Artistically the novel is a marvel. From the sparse and clear writing, to the near meta-fictional exploration of how literature and books can help us explore the human condition while at the same time needing to withdraw from humanity to experience these books. In the end he holds his own book in his hands and though the contents of that book might not paint a clear picture of the author, it does, as least, offer proof that he existed and contributed even just a little bit to the human species. Or in the dedication of Katherine's book, the initials W.S. are all that is left between the two of them, a fragment, but at least something.
There is continually subtle word play, the use of a line such as "He felt a distant closeness to her", distant closeness in opposition but right next to each other, or him describing his marriage as a stalemate, is he the mate who is stale, is she, are they both? There is the repeated imagery of masks and mask like faces, which in less talented hands would have been a bit heavy handed, but here fits the characters and the tone. Even when the novel pushes the boundaries of imagery, such as with his description of the poignancy of a lone grave enhanced by the vastness of a desert, it never feels out of place or forced. Every word is necessary.
And structurally the novel is near perfect in that this is a first person account written in the third person. We are close to Stoner but never too close, we are always kept at a distance. The narrator is most likely Stoner himself since only twice do we ever get a POV shift, both times with his wife in acts of self discovery, as if their will and imposition spills over into the narration and forces us to have to come to terms with another human being.
This is the true art of the novel, the life we live with Stoner, the slow wearing down upon him, his reasoning for acting, or more often not acting, and the understanding we get of this person who to an outsider would seem a cantankerous and impossible man to know. We learn a little about what it means to be William Stoner, and perhaps, to better see the world through the intentions of the people around us.
The novel is sad but never pessimistic - it's realistic in the best possible use of the word. This is the sort of book a writer like Raymond Carver would immediately relate to and even write about. William Stoner is a sort of mythical American every-man, a man of the earth who is also educated, a man of many faces whose expression never changes, a man never quite sure of his place in the world but is willing to work damn hard to keep what he does have. Stoner was remarkable in that he was completely unremarkable.
We even get in the end the book's, and perhaps our own culture's unspoken philosophy about the meaning of life when he is with the doctor, "it was foolishness, he knew, but he did not protest, it would have been unkind for him to do so."
Stoner is very much a book that will appeal to people who love books and love book learning, however, there is a warning here I believe, and that is the more we learn, the more we try to know, the more we will discover how little we actually known and understand and that there will never be enough time to read and to learn all we need to know because the rabbit hole never ends. Perhaps we would be better off putting the books down and going outside and imposing ourselves on the world. Perhaps Stoner could be read as the great anti-book, or, at least in a meta sense, a slight nod towards American anti-intellectualism; too much knowledge could be bad for you.
At the very least, the book is pretty clear about never being able to ever understand another human being by just reading books about them. Stoner read his whole life away and barely made an impression on any human he ever met aside from his wife, Finch, Lomax, and Katherine Driscoll. Perhaps if he'd found a place to put down his cap and gown from his college graduation he might have lived more.
Yet in the end these are the choices of his life and we are reminded of our own choices, our own mortality and our potential. It would be easy to feel a bit defeated at the end of the novel, to think life is just sort of pointless and full of misery, and in a way it is, but it isn't, too. In the final pages we watch Stoner hearing the teenagers laughing as they walk across his lawn, barely touching the ground, and we long to be with them, not him. We long to live better, but we also understand our limitations.
One of the major undercurrents of classic Russian literature is the exploration of freedom vs. the constraint of society. While this theme is by no means unique to the Russians (or even the Western 19th century), Russia's society at the time under Tsarists rule was far more restricted, far more smothering, routine, and conservative than most other nations. Perhaps these constraints are why Russian literature has enjoyed such success in and out of that country because the rules of society are well defined and easily learned by the reader and so all a writer must do is create a character who decides to break one (or more) of these rules and they instantly have a story with drama.
I kept thinking about constraints and restrictions during this novel whenever the rhyme scheme was particularly clever or when the main characters would attempt to remove themselves from society: either Eugene whiling away his days in isolation or Tatyana immersing herself in books. The entire structure of the novel, the AbAbCCddEffEgg scheme, never ceases or breaks form - it is, in a sense, Russian society itself: unbending and regimented, yet beautiful in its own way if you can learn to accept the structure. And of course this is where the drama for our heroes derives from, from the desire to break from that structure.
Eugene is bored with everything. Nothing in society interests him because he believes himself to be better than society. He is vain and shallow, he has only a topical knowledge of what's going on in the world. When he's given the chance to escape society he's equally as bored in the country with all the provincial customs and less than cultivated neighbors. His fault is that he's a combination of banality and self-important individuality. He knows how to play the game, he knows the rhyme scheme of society, but he's not creative enough to break the rhyme.
Tatyana, too, is apart from society. She spends all her days reading books, but they're all terrible romances that can teach her nothing about how the world really works. She believes she's being cultivated by immersing her self in the books of the English at the expense of her own country - a language she can't even read or write in. She believes she has found something superior to the Russian ways of doing things, when in reality she's only fooling herself. She is Russian and her fate, like the rhyme scheme, is structured and preordained for her.
In fact everyone in this novel eventually has to settle for what Russian fate has in store for them. Lensky is literally killed by the rules of the game. Tatyana's mother long ago accepted her lot, her nanny, too, had long ago at the age of 13 been married off. And while their emotions about their lack of control over their fate is complicated (we never really get her nanny's true feelings about this though I get the suspicion Pushkin was attempting to show the perverse treatment of peasants), when it comes to Olga, we get a character who is more than happy to play within the rules. In fact Olga may be the only happy (or at least happier) character in the story. She knows the game, accepts it, and tries to make the best of it for herself.
And so Eugene and Tatyana are just as doomed as the nanny. They are both forced, one way or another, to abide by the rules, to give up and give in and play the endless game of banal society with its silly rituals and traditions and empty conversation and vapid personalities.
Perhaps this is the best insight we as foreigners can have into how Russian society really thinks. All through Russian history their society has been strongly regimented, either under the Tsars or under communism or now under Putin's neo-authoritarian control. The Russians always seem to have to contend with the fact that Russia is too large, too powerful, too unforgiving to fight against and that all would be better if you just gave yourself up to the comfort of the controlled society and do the best for yourself within those rules, vapid and insipid as they might be.
And in some ways there is a lot of appeal for living under such structure because you can always know what to expect, there are no surprises and you do not have the stress of having to forge your own path anew as you do in other more democratic countries. The Russian society will provide the rhyme for you, whereas in the West you have to figure out a rhyme for yourself. (as an aside the documentary My Perestroika deals with this loss of comfort from the regimented rules of communism quite wonderfully).
But I don't believe Pushkin is making the case that a strictly rhymed Russian society is the best, highest, and most noble of options. Eugene and Tatyana are quite miserable in the end for having tried to forge their own path. They both love each other but she will not break the rules anymore and he, through his own vanity and self righteous, has managed to pretty much exile himself from society. They both fought and they both lost.
Pushkin does not offer any solutions but he does clearly show us what is going on in Russia at the time, something nobody else had been capable of doing before. His genius was exposing Russian society for what it was - a regimented, stifling and controlling environment nobody can escape happily - which later writers and artists were able to use as the blueprint for affecting change. After Pushkin came Gogol who in Dead Souls was able to subvert the conception of how landowners used their serf labor, later still was Tolstoy who in Anna Karenina explored many of the same themes to show how little in Russian society had changed, especially for women, but that it was possible to escape by turning back to nature. Dostoyevsky explored how corrupt the society was, how infected man had become with sin and that the only solution was personal revolution - though what he envisioned and what really took place were the exact opposite of what he had hoped for.
Aside from Russia, however, can we learn anything about our own society in our own time - close to 200 years later - from this book? Does Pushkin speak to any universal themes larger than just Russia? While I, as an American, have a wildly different set of experiences than a Russian my same age, I too can relate to the idea of what it means to either take part in the rules of society or be pushed away by them. My culture may be very different, but I must still go along to get along, I must be able to find happiness within the rules or else be miserable because there is no escaping society, not though living in the woods or in books or by travelling abroad. None of us are special enough to not have to take part in society, none of us are better than anyone else. We must all take part in society and the harder we fight against it the more likely we will be doomed by it.
A funny saying these days is 'Don't be basic' which means we acknowledge there is a lowest common denominator to our society but we should always be looking for a way to do better, too.
I wonder what inspired Dostoyevsky to write this novel? During the trial it is mentioned that there was a woman in St. Petersburg who had given birth and then killed the infant, hiding the little body and then later it was discovered she had done this numerous times. I wonder if, assuming that story is true, Dostoyevsky began to wonder about how difficult it would be to forgive someone like that, to see into their heart and find something good. This novel is, after all, about that very idea, the idea of never being able to know what goodness really lies in another persons heart and how difficult it is, or even how inappropriate it is, to judge anyone, no matter how evil they have been.
The novel ends with a promise, a promise that all the boys and Aloysha will never forget each other, never forget little Ilyusha, and never forget the goodness of their childhood memory together. Even, if later, they grow cynical or do many terrible things, Aloysha asks them to always remember this one good moment in their life because it may save them someday, just as an onion almost saved another sinner. Those small moments of goodness could, at least in the eyes of God, be the one link to salvation for even the most terrible sinner.
The novel also deals with the questions of faith and belief and it is these parts I found most fascinating because Dostoyevsky makes the strongest case I've yet heard that counters the scientific arguments of logic and reason. And while I think Dostoyevsky was too hard on science and too opposed to the good science can do for humanity, he does show how logic and reason can absolutely condemn an innocent person. At times I wondered if Dostoyevsky was trying to tell us it would be better just to forgive all criminals and then let God figure it all out later.
And that's the real issue here: forgiveness. How difficult is it really to forgive someone. Not just any regular sinner either, but a person who has done something horribly terrible. And what sort of world would we live in if we did, in fact, forgive everyone easily? A world where we forgive a terrorist or the rapist of a child? Can we even imagine such things? In the character Smerdyakov we have someone who is cunning and ruthless and who takes advantage of the people around him, but we never really know why he does what he does. Smerdyakov is the closest character to the 'main villain', but we never get his own thoughts, we only see him through the eyes of others. He is difficult to forgive because we don't know him, yet this is exactly they point Dostoyevsky is trying to make: we MUST forgive Smerdyakov, he is in the greatest need of it as Father Zosima alluded to earlier in the novel.
Dostoyevsky is not foolish enough to think that we can always forgive, however. He knows we will always be carried away by our emotions and passions. He knows those passions will lead us to do terrible things and to also condemn others, too. He quite clearly sees the onion layers that make up human interactions, the dual nature of all people who can be both good and bad at the same time. He knows how complicated people really are. But he also plants that seed of doubt in our mind while reading this novel as to if we really are qualified to pass judgment on any person. He wants us to know that nothing is what it seems and even when we are positive we know a person we might very well be wrong about them. He's showing us the danger of gossip, of judgment, of not walking in another person's shoes. And he's also showing us how we are all conflicted, how we ebb and flow between goodness and sin and even how what we perceive in others as sin might actually be virtue as in the case of little Ilyusha and his father, Captain Snegiryov, or even the Grand Inquisitor who though his actions go against God he is actually doing so because he is for God.
Then there is the faith question, the tricky nature of how faith works. Here he shows us that if God himself showed up at our doorstep and said "I am God, here I am", we would actually doubt the existence of God even more. But the lack of any proof of God, the absence of proof is the very thing that is needed for their to be faith. If we know for certain there is the possibility of salvation at the end of life then what point would life have since that would take away our own free will? We would already know beforehand if we are saved or doomed so why bother going through the motions?
The book even goes so far as to make me want to be a better person. I found myself questioning my own opinions and judgments of others while at work and out and about town. I started wondering what sort of life each person I saw was really living, how good or how bad, what tragedy or joy they were dealing with. I started to wonder if perhaps you could just do away with all the different religions in the world and have everyone read this novel instead.
And even as I write this it does sound rather absurd and I can imagine anyone reading this saying "Well clearly this person has a religious agenda", but that's not the case. In fact there is no way I could convince you that I don't have an agenda because you can't see into my own heart and know how I really feel about this subject. All I can say is that I was sincerely moved by this novel and that it makes me want to look at the world differently and that I had a better understanding of belief and faith than when I began the novel.
This book is not some "depressing Russian tome", but aside from its philosophical and theological nature it is a well plotted family novel and murder mystery. Like all of Dostoyevsky's other works it's wordy and characters seem to speak in long speeches, but it's never boring - even when it is. Dostoyevsky also makes a great counter to Tolstoy in that Tolstoy allowed you to see into a character's mind where Dostoyevsky is always more interested in looking into his heart.
This is a novel of great compassion and is one of my favorite reading experiences I've ever had.
Not too long into this book I started to wonder if perhaps Tuchman was going to cover the life and events of every single person who was alive on this planet during the 14th century. Tuchman covers so much ground, introduces so many events, writes about so many people that by the end I felt as if the entire 14th century had fallen on top of me.
This isn't a bad book by any means - the fault lies entirely with myself. I'm not cut out to enjoy an endless parade of peoples and events that have no clear narrative. And while Tuchman does attempt to frame the century through the life of one man, de Coucy, I never felt like had a clear enough picture of him or how all the events she talks about truly effected him. And I suppose had she drawn a clearer picture then this book would have become more speculative and less factual which would have been counter to her purpose of recounting the events of this tumultuous century.
I should have known what I was getting into because the title uses the word 'distant', as in remote, 'mirror', as in a lens, and '14th century', as in the entire century and every single event that took place during those 100 years. Yet what I've come to realize about myself as a reader is that I prefer the personal over the grand informative, the mundane over the 'calamitous', and the microscopic over the macro. I'm far more interested in learning about how events effected just a few people and not the broad, sweeping strokes that effected all of a society. That's why I prefer literary fiction over this type of nonfiction.
However, Tuchman has produced a supreme work of knowledge and she is an excellent writer. She speaks with humor and wit and is ever lively - even mischievous such as when talking about the pointy shoes - so any failing to not be engaged my this tremendous work is all on me. Yet I still wish I could have gotten a more personal, more minute look at the people who were alive during this century. I felt that after awhile I was watching a parade - Danse Macabre - of tragic life after tragic life. And while it would be unreasonable for me to think many close personal accounts from the century remain (if they ever existed at all), I should look harder to find something that would engage me more than this book was able to.
I wanted to fall in love with this book, but it was far too academic for me, too distant, not nearly personal enough, and overwhelming in scope. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about the 14th century on the grand scale, but aside from a few points she makes about how religion and death and economics played a role in how people viewed themselves, I don't feel this book is able to (or was even attempting to) paint a clear picture of what it was to be an individual at the time.
Were someone were to write about the 20th and 21st century 600 years later and only wrote about the major headlines of those times I don't think we would have any better idea of what it was to actually be alive at the time than what Tuchman does here. Yes we would learn all about the major historical events of the day, but for me (and this is a matter of personal taste) I'm not interested in that sort of thing, I only care about the individuals and how they lived day to day. Most people do not live their lives according to the headlines.
But the failing is all mine. This is a work of historical nonfiction and not a novel and it attempts to show us the entire century. In that regard it is brilliant, it's just that it's so much information that it's hard to keep it all together. So while I can only critique the book that is and not the book as I want it to be then I have to admit this is a wonderful book and an excellent reading on a very distant time. Yet as as an engaging work that speaks to me as an individual, then I have to admit I failed this book because I'm just not cut out for it.
This is one of the most beautiful novels I've ever read and it's also somewhat unnerving because of how often it forces you to confront your own life, your past, and your mortality. Each time the Prince recalls his past or observes the world he currently lives in, I felt myself having to take a deep breath and press on towards what I knew was going to be some vaguely uncomfortable realizations about what it means to get older.
I kept thinking about King Lear as the novel went on, however, where Lear set in motion the engine of his demise by dividing up his kingdom, the Prince here is at the mercy of the times. He lives in a world - Sicily - that instead of being divided and carved up is in the throes of consolidation. Sicily's unique identity, and thus the Prince's, is being taken from him and being absorbed. And he's powerless to do anything about it.
So in a way his story hits even closer to home than Lear's because of how little control even a powerful man like Prince Fabrizio has over the events around him. And some of this lack of control is not always external, but internal as well. Though a large, powerful man, he's also a little lazy, and not as smart as he would like. He never seemed able to really manage his estate and solved his problems by selling off tracts of land when he got in a bind. Slowly he whittled his own life away.
Yet it's not all sad, either. He seems like a man who, though he doesn't believe it, really did live a full life. He may have spent most of it being indulgent and not working towards any greater good for society, but he did at least enjoy his life, unlike his daughter who realizes much to late she spent her life believing something that was not true - just like her relics.
And when the Prince dies we never get these sense he wasted his life, rather he just wasn't able to hang onto it. And who can, really? Some families may have long branches that extend for generations, but the tree eventually dies. And what can we do when we are confronted with the fact that life will get away from us all? Well we could try to enjoy it, we could be more like the Prince's dog, Bendicò, that mischievous doggy who even long after death manages to give one last taste of playfulness about him.
There is no optimistic or pessimistic message here. The novel has no answers, it only explores a life and what it means to confront your own life. That's why I found it vaguely unsettling at times because these are thoughts I'm not eager to spend much (or any) time dwelling on - better to just live than think about living. Yet there will come a time where everyone has to look honestly at their own life and reckon with their own sense of worthwhile. And we shouldn't worry so much about the past or about events around us we cannot control, the world is going to change if we like it or not no matter how much we are able to control.
Yet hopefully we'll be remembered even just a little bit, even if it is just in a small way, the way the image of the leopard is worn by the priest at the end of the novel who carts away the useless old relics.
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