The impression I get from this novel is that it is written by an incredibly gifted author whose talents, sadly, have left him. Yet there are flashes of brilliance here and there, and perhaps that's why Turgenev wrote the novel in the first place, perhaps he was overcome with a flash of inspiration that he eventually had to see to the bitter end, just like our 'hero'.
To read the novel in such a meta way would make this a brilliant novel, but after what I thought was a promising start, quickly becomes a bit tedious, empty of real feeling, and of not much consequence.
I think the biggest problem with the novel is that we never really know Sanin. Yes he's very good looking and this has quite the effect on the people around him (young women), and we know he's given to flights of quick passion that keeps the plot moving along, but aside from that he's sort of an empty shell. And of course that is exactly what Turgenev wanted to give us, Sanin is supposed to be a young, handsome, wealthy, and utterly shallow person. However, that does not make for the most interesting character to follow around through every page of a novel. So at the whim of everyone else around him is he that almost nothing really happens aside from total chance (his initial meeting of Gemma, the gust of wind, the meeting of Polozov; all chance).
Yet again, from a meta point of view, Turgenev must have known that this is exactly the story he wanted to tell. He wanted to take a shallow young landowner (one who owned serfs, otherwise known as slaves) and turn him into a fool and a slave. He wanted to turn social convention on its head; to have Maria marry a homosexual so that she can carouse about Europe with her fortune left solely to her from her peasant father. Turgenev was making fun of the young Russian landowners and their wealth. That's why so much of the novel revolves around the theater : everything is a performance (and not a very good one) and only the best actors can fool the audience.
However, even with all this subtext, Turgenev just didn't really have his heart in this one. Something was missing; he was an actor reciting his lines well enough, but his elbows were pointed straight to the audience as he spoke and the audience wished they were somewhere else.
And what of this ending? To America? After all that time? It's an interesting ending, I think, but we just don't know and feel attached to Sanin well enough to even care, let alone understand why after 30 years of apathy (money making apathy to be sure, but apathy none-the-less) why he'd run off to America to see Maria. Does he think he still has his looks? Is that what the photograph of Maria's daughter was hinting at? Did he think he could buy his way into favor? Seems to be the real novel should start at this point and follow him across the ocean and see what happens.
Oh well, I really wanted to love this novel, but I don't. It's good, for sure, but nothing very special aside from a few brilliant moments and the excellent writing. To bad too because this could have been quite the masterpiece (and there IS plenty of meat to chew on here), but Turgenev just didn't have his heart in it. 'Cele ne ture pas a consequence' indeed.
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.
For someone to sit down and write a novel they have to have a reason for doing so, be it to explore something in life that has troubled them, for financial gain or political motivations, for entertainment, or any number of reasons. A book does not just happen, at least some thought and effort goes into even the most current, vapid, ghost-written celebrity expose. And so what is the purpose of The Painted Bird? Why was this book written?What is its purpose?
In the afterword, Jerzy Kosiński goes into great detail to explain the point of his book and to defend his writing of it and the contents of its pages. He believes many people have misinterpreted his intentions and his words and that people with political motives have actively tried to harm him. He goes on to say that the terrors he writes about in his book are not even a fraction of the true events that went on in Eastern Europe during WW2. He implies he could have written an even more brutal, horrific, and savage description of what people did during that conflict. He believes he held back and others believe he went to far.
In the mini-series Band Of Brothers there is an episode which focuses on the medic of Easy Company. This medic, during his trip into town for rest and supplies, meets a young nurse who is treating the wounded and with whom he immediately forms a bond. Their relationship, though brief, is obviously deeper than an - infatuation they are two common souls who we can easily believe will spend the rest of their lives together. And she dies. And in that death, amid all the other deaths we have seen, the real tragedy of war is felt, the loss of someone who we cannot replace in our hearts and our lives, the loss of a unique and beautiful and important human being. A loss that is in part noble because of the work she was doing and also part pointless because of the whole reason why she would have to be there in the first place: a war.
I bring up this scene in Band of Brothers because that one scene, I believe, does a better job of showing us the tragedy of war than all the pages of Jerzy Kosiński's book. No amount of the brutal descriptions of torture, and rape, and cruelty going on for pages and pages and chapters and hours of reading can capture just the single image of a nurse's headscarf amid the rubble of a bombed church.
And so I have to put this book in the same category as Bastard Out Of Carolina, a disingenuous telling of a real tragedy, a book that explores real pain with dishonesty. Yes, every event Jerzy Kosiński writes about may have actually happened to any number of people during the war - I do not dispute the brutality he writes about, especially during a conflict which ultimately saw the extermination of millions of Jews and millions of others both during and then after the war in other countries. But what is disingenuous is the way he went about telling us this story.
When the book was first published it was believed to be basically a memoir, a true account of the author's actual experiences. Later it came out the book was a work of fiction whose goal was only to explore the brutality of the war and that the author was only writing about what he had heard or been told or, perhaps, imagined.
Does it matter if the book is true or not? Is that an important distinction?
Jerzy Kosiński goes to great lengths to show cruelty, especially the cruelty done to the main character at the hands of simple and uneducated peasants. They beat him, they torture him, they rape each other, they engage in the most incestuous and animalistic behaviors. To be blunt, he makes them all look like animals. In his afterword he's on the record as saying it was not his intention to be racist or discriminatory towards Eastern European peasants, that he was only showing what actually happened. And there is no denying that people who are superstitious, ignorant, fearful, oppressed, and uneducated allowed (or turned their backs to) the persecution of Jews and gypsies. History has shown, time and again, people of all races and cultures are more than capable of being tremendously cruel to each other, and the Eastern European peasants are no exception and their simple ignorance does not excuse them from terrible behavior.
But the detail Jerzy Kosiński goes into, the amount of savagery he writes about is so overwhelming, so gory, so awful that after a while it loses its potency and it just turns the very real human beings who are also Eastern European peasants into the most vile, wicked, and most horrible person's on earth. Every time we meet a new peasant for the boy to interact with we just start to wonder what sort of savagery will be unleashed on the boy and us as a reader. We are so beaten down time after time with how horrible the main character will be treated we no longer see anyone here as human.
In a way, through all this hammering of brutality, we start to understand how people can begin to look on a whole other race of people as animals, as less than humans who can be easily loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps to be gassed. And if that was what the author was going for then I suppose he succeeded.
But he did so at the expense of turning every Eastern European peasant into the very thing he had been persecuted for. He only turned that hate and fear and ignorance back onto someone else. He solves nothing and he implies his own people have never been guilty of anything, that he belongs to a race of people who are only ever persecuted, but always righteous. Add in the line of the main character remembering his family had servants (class distinction) and it's easy to believe the author was making a class judgment all around.
Now perhaps had the main character became a murderer, had he engaged in the most heinous evil himself, had he, unlike his fellow mute orphan friend, switched the railroad tracks and committed the crime himself, had he actually descended into the depths of cruelty, then maybe we would have been given at least a semblance of a character study of how all this hate and violence can turn a person to hate an violence.
Yet as a work of fiction (which is what Jerzy Kosiński insists this is), then we have to follow the rules of fiction and ask how much does the character change? Well, he changes very little. He's been through a lot, but other than being withdrawn and mistrustful, he's a paper thin character (surrounded by stereotypes) who is a victim from start to finish, a righteous whipping post at the hands of cruel, ignorant savages. His character teaches us nothing and he shows us nothing insightful.
Personally I think Jerzy Kosiński took advantage of many of the horrific true accounts from the war and thought he could turn them into a sensationalist book that would sell a lot of copies because of the sheer tremendous amount of savage brutality he could describe. I could never shake the feeling he reveled in the gory details and that he allowed his imagination to run with a morbid frenzy all the way across Eastern Europe. I never felt like I believed all this cruelty happened to just one little boy. Could it have happened to many different people cumulatively? No doubt, unfortunately. People can be awfully cruel. But for this one boy to have gone through trial after terrible trial, to have been through all he went through is just too much to accept in a work of fiction.
Had the book been true, well, then the book would have been genuine and maybe we would have learned something different because, after all, had it really happened to Jerzy Kosiński, then he would have had something different to say and think about those events because he would have lived through them. But not having lived through them means he can't actually know how that savage cruelty can actually effect a person.
He can't know what the real horror the real people who suffered during WW2 actually went through, and it's those people, the Jews, and the gypsies, and all the others who he does a disservice to. He can't know their agony and he can't teach it to us. Only an actual survivor who actually went through those events could know that. And my instinct tells me their stories, though also cruel, would have more moments similar to the nurse in Band Of Brothers: the personal losses, than anything the author here writes about.
And let's not let him off the hook by saying since it's just a work of fiction that none of this matters, that he has no responsibility to the truth, that he's all within his rights to turn an entire race and population of Eastern European peasants into the most base savages just for morbid entertainment sake. Sure, maybe in one hundred years a person could write a book like this and not have it reflect at all on the people in it, but to write this book just 20 years after the war when it is still fresh means he has to have known that even if the book had been called "The Totally Made Up Fictitious Account of Horrible Things That Did In No Way Happen To Me, The Author", it would still have affected people's perceptions of the people in the book because there really are Eastern European peasants. You can't have it both ways. You just can't write a book that claims to be a tool to show people who horrible the war was and then also say it's all made up and the bad people in it are not actually bad people.
So, to sum up, the book is disingenuous. It teaches us nothing because it is not true and since it is a work of fiction it has to be held to the standards of fiction. And those standards show us the book is just an endless series of brutalisms over and over and with paper-thin characters who do not change and that gives us hardly any insight into the human character the author hopes to explore.
This is a bad book. The people who committed the crimes against the Jews and gypsies and all the others were human beings, not some vision of Dante's Infernal Monsters. But the truth is human beings did this to other human beings. The actual brutality Jerzy Kosiński tells us that really happened to people during this period in history is just a set piece for paper monsters and it lets the truly awful people who committed these crimes off the moral hook, so-to-speak, by turning them into something that is not obligated to be moral. We have to accept that human beings are cruel, that the worst crimes in our society are committed by people just like us. To soften the blow, to shift the blame by saying these people are not actually human in some vapid attempt to comfort ourselves, to keep us from looking into the darkness of our hearts, means these crimes will continue to happen because they will never be addressed and understood. If we keep blaming monsters for our own actions, if we refuse to accept responsibility, then we are doomed as a species.
When the main character of a story has little to no say in the events happening to them - when they are just swept along the with the story - it makes for a boring character. And a boring book.
And this is a very boring book.
Here's the problem: Claudius can only watch as events unfold around him, he rarely gets to participate in anything that is interesting and when he does it's usually to beg for mercy or play the fool. The people around him are interesting - or they would be had they been written better, anyway but he is not. He can only watch (and so we too can only watch) as we are told how one thing happened and how another thing happened.
What I don't get is Graves wanted to write a realistic story of what happened during Claudius' lifetime, he wanted to explore what life in Rome was really like and try to figure out how events really happened, yet he gives everyone the most wooden and stilted dialogue and has everyone running around making absolute statements. Everyone is certain of their actions and nobody ever stops to think that some issues might not be black or white. Nobody struggles with morality here and how someone could write an entire novel about the beginnings of the Roman Empire without giving us at least one character who spends more than an afterthought wondering if all this is a good idea isn't just a missed opportunity, it's just dumb.
I'll give Graves credit for creativity and for taking the old Roman stories and looking at them in a fresh light. He has some fun ideas here, but it's just poorly put together.
The biggest problem is a problem almost all stories like this run into : they have the wrong main character. Claudius is unable to really influence the events happening around him and to him so he's a terrible character to spend an entire book with. I get that he's a historian and that he's telling us this story, but you can't have it both ways, you can't update the stories of Rome to show modern audiences that people even 2000 years ago were just like us but then write the whole book as if everyone is stiff and antique and mimicking an old Roman history book. If the whole point of this book was to show us how Rome was a vibrant, modern place, then why make everything feel stuffy and have everyone act wooden? The whole purpose of this book is baffling.
Anyway, my biggest problem with stories like this, such as biopics, are that you should never make the character at the center of your interest the main character. In the film Amadeus Mozart isn't the main character, Salieri is. Salieri is much more interesting because he's much more like us - he's filled with rage and jealousy and he doesn't possess the genius that Mozart does. We can understand Mozart's brilliance better by looking at him through the flawed Salieri. In the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the main character isn't Jesse James, it's (the coward) Robert Ford. Ford is far more interesting and we learn about both men by following Ford around. Even The Last King of Scotland gets this right by not making Idi Amin the main character, but making the fictional Nicholas Garrigan our eyes to the brutality of that dictator.
Now to be fair, Claudius isn't the center of Rome through most of the book; he's telling the stories of Augustus, his wife Livia, Tiberius, and Caligula, as well as a few other historical figures because he wants us to know how he wound up finally becoming Emperor, but we have to look at the first problem I brought up and that is Claudius is just telling us things he had no control over and played almost no part in.
Maybe it really was dumb luck that Claudius became Emperor, however, that makes for boring fiction. And besides I doubt the real Claudius had no influence and I'm sure he was more political than this book makes him out to be. Nobody is just handed the absolute rule of all of Rome just because a few senators are afraid of a few more Germans. I just don't buy any of it.
Anyway, like I said, I give Graves credit for undertaking an interesting project, and there are some interesting moments, especially anything with Livia or Caligula, but the overall book is stiff and Claudius is one of the most boring main characters I've ever come across. He's like little kid Anakin Skywalker in the terrible The Phantom Menace where he has no idea what's going on around him, and no power to do anything about what happening. He's boring, undeveloped, and the whole thing feels like a waste of time.
Oh, and do I feel like I understand Rome better now than when I started? No. Graves gives us some possible insight into how a few well-to-do Romans lives and some insight into the crimes and lavish festivals of the times, but none of the people here jump off the page as real human beings and Rome just feels like a collection of wooden sheep whose only function is to cheer at the games.
Poor Clau-Clau-Claudius? Poor us.
"The person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!" - Agent K, Men In Black
But let's face it, we're all, at one time or another, selfish, dangerous idiots. When we drive too fast on the highway we shake our head at all the idiots driving too slow as we pass them and then shake our fists at the lunatics passing us in turn. We give ourselves up to every degree of cognitive dissonance when we say, for example, we believe in nuclear energy ... but not in my backyard (remember Carlin's NIMBY?); let some other idiots deal with the mess. When we lose it's because someone else cheated but when we win it's because of our skill. Our children are perfect saints; your kids are spoiled brats incapable of even rudimentary biological functions. We might think everyone should pass a test to vote in an election, except us, of course, because we are reasonably informed and capable of rational decisions in all weighty matters.
We're idiots, every one, and this book makes the case for it.
There's a scene near the end of the book where they come upon the dead body of a woman whom, we learn, has killed herself because she has no prospects in life and cannot hope to provide for her child. All her friends and family have turned her out (why exactly we do not know) and so she drowns herself in the very same river our three idiot heroes drift along with not a care in the world. The scene serves as a stark reminder of our own callousness, even if we have no idea we are being cruel. Shūsaku Endō, in his novel Silence tells us “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”
The climax of the novel (if you could call it a climax in the traditional sense), is the literal shattering of a lie, in this case a trophy fish hanging on the wall that everyone claims was their miraculous catch. In the end we learn it wasn't even a fish at all, just a piece of plaster art.
Yet the novel, funny as it is (and it's very funny) is not just trying to make a point that lying is bad, either. Lying is good, too. Lying is good because it makes a story better, it makes life more enjoyable, more fun. If I told you I caught one fish that would not be an interesting story, however, if I say I caught 20 fish, and each one I battled with for over an hour upon a stormy sea, and they were all Sturgeons, then that's a story. Even if you know I'm lying, it really only matters how well I tell the story. Without a good story life would be boring, there would probably be no real art, no comedy, no fun.
So how do we reconcile the two: lying vs. fun?
Well, we can't really, at least not when we think about too much. We have to pick our battles, we have to be our own, as Einstein theorized, relativistic observer upon which everything else orbits. If we start looking at our lives through another person's eyes then we might see what total idiots we are, see how callous we are, how rude and hostile, too. But how can we possibly go through life self analyzing ourselves through other people's perception of us? We might as well toss ourselves in the nearest river!
The whole argument reminds me of what our parents always told us when we were eating dinner and hand't finished, "There are starving children in Africa; don't you know how lucky you are!"
Well of course I don't know how lucky I am because I've never been a starving African child. How could I ever hope to relate! How could that child possible relate the other way back to me living in a world where we have so much food in the refrigerator that it blocks our view of more food in the back that we forget it's there and it all goes bad. We have so much food it blocks our view of our food! It's absurd all the way around.
Now I'm not suggesting the author had all this immediately in mind when he wrote this wonderful book, however, it does answer why the book feels so contemporary because even though it's over a hundred years old, it speaks to that part of human nature that will never change, a selfishness we can't really help and an absurdity in all of modern life.
My God, this is a depressing novel. Every word Faulkner writes, every memory that is explored, every action in the novel is distilled into a lingering, oppressive, sadness that is as omnipresent as the honeysuckle Quentin so hated.
I started off enjoying the novel; I liked the experimental way Faulkner tries to convey the confused mind of Benjy. As someone who grew up with and spent years working with severely mentally disabled adults, I felt Faulkner honestly captured the state of mind of someone who is almost totally unable to experience rational and unselfish thought.
The second chapter, too, was quite beautiful but at times was nearly impenetrable. Pretty much only the scene with the little girl, when his mind stops wandering and he focuses only on finding her home, really seemed to have much of an impact for me. Everything else - the broken watch, his drunken father's philosophical ramblings, his time with Caddy - seemed ... distant. Distant is the best way I can describe it from a reader's point of view. I never felt like I was part of Quentin's experiences even though we spend so much time in his mind. He was no Bloom.
The final two chapters were straightforward enough. We learn many of the previously mysterious details that Benjy's and Quentin's minds could not clearly articulate (or were unwilling to articulate). And Jason was a wonderful character - the best in the book. Faulkner certainly has created one of the great characters in literature with Jason.
But what does this all add up to? Yes, the novel is about the south and the south's decline, but what South? Was there a time when people did not behave badly, were devious, cheats, liars, manipulators, and every other sin you can imagine? Maybe there were times in the Compson family when they were more outwardly respectable, but how do we really know those "better" people were actually any better? Is Faulkner so nostalgic for a long forgotten time that he actually believes we've all degenerated in our time?
I doubt Faulkner was so naive or sentimental. He write a book in which the main characters are all flawed and fallen ne'er–do–wells, who all long for a time when things were better and resent the present because it didn't turn out the way they wanted it too. Adults who haven't really ever grown up. In a way he wrote a warning against sentimentality, against seeing the past with thick rose colored glasses because if you keep trying to compare yourself against an impossible standard you will only disappoint yourself or, if you're smart, just run away from your entire family.
From that point of view, then, this isn't a "southern" novel bemoaning the end of one specific time and culture of Faulkner's love that will unfortunately never return, he's trying to warn us from falling into the cycle of always going back to the past. If your mind is always full of how things were and how things used to be then you will miss every opportunity to better yourself tomorrow. The Compson's totally fell apart because they could not come to terms with reality.
Yet even with such an analysis, I just could not get into this novel. I really wanted to, but you have to approach every work of art from the perspective of how it effects you personally and this novel just made me feel sad after having witnessed so much misery on every page.
I never was able to shake the feeling that there was something missing in this novel. Maybe it was a soul or heart it lacked? Hard to say because it was, at times, quite beautiful and the ending along the river was very well done, but I felt empty after I was done with the book.
One of the biggest problems I had with the book was that the characters felt very thin. Even Moon, who was written as a 'complicated man' never jumped off of the page and no amount of discussion between Wolf and Andy at the end about his mysteriousness was going to change that. And Moon was probably the biggest issue I had here; he seemed just too damn convenient as a character. His Plains Indian background never felt like more than an excuse to talk about how bad the native peoples of the Americas have been treated and how poorly we ever understood their cultures.
I would have been much more interested had the book been about his back story only.
I did, however, like Wolf, though I have to admit to always imagining him in my mind as played by Tom Waits from the film. Still, he was the only real character in the book and I really felt for him. He really was a very lonely man who acted tough (and could be tough, too) but he loved the people he let in.
Hazel would have been a great character, too but she was a serious missed opportunity. I could almost feel Matthiessen's hatred and judgment of a certain type of American mid-western Christian woman. She got off to a great start and seemed like she was going to be worth exploring, but she nearly ruined the entire book. The only thing I enjoyed her doing was when she hated her husband for being so good, for being so much like Jesus. That was a great thing for a missionary to say.
As for everyone else: Martin was painfully dull and boring, Leslie was thinner than water, and while Andy had the most potential, she never went anywhere. Even Matthiessen just leaves her sitting at a table staring into nothing at the end. Uyuyu, I'll admit was rather good, but he wasn't used enough and Father Xantes was just never tied down to anything I felt was relevant beyond an allegory for the Catholic Church in this part of the world.
The novel is well written and some passages are very beautiful - the opening scene of the airplane is stunning - but it never adds up to much more than a story that is supposed to be sad but just winds up being sort of flat.
And it's a shame, too because there was a real opportunity to explore some very interesting ideas, but perhaps this is material only Joseph Conrad would have known what to do with. And this novel does feel very often as if Conrad is standing over Matthiessen as he wrote it - the subject matter, the rough men as outlaws, the (sometimes here) very beautiful language, though Matthiessen's language never reaches the same depth as Conrad; he's no master wordsmith, but rather just a good putter-togetherer-of-words.
In the end I do not feel as if I learned anything insightful about Christian missionaries, about native Amazon Indians, about South American politics (the parallel story of Guzman reads like a bad Hollywood movie), nor about the larger issues of faith and acceptance. I felt like we never really left that plane in the beginning and we only ever saw glimpses through the jungle canopy.
Samurai films are my favorite genre pictures. Mainly what attracts me to them isn't so much that I love Japanese history or ever wanted to be a samurai, it's that I love how a good, proper samurai film teases out the action until the finale. Samurai films are about patience; the slow burn. Shots might linger on the rain, or cherry blossoms, or footprints in the snow, or the sounds of cicadas in the summer heat but the 'action' isn't until after two hours of build up.
For me anticipation is what I love, perhaps more than the resolution itself. I love waiting for something to happen but I never really was that excited for the thing itself. I suppose I just like having something to look forward to. Expectation and imagination is, typically, far more interesting than reality.
A samurai would spend his entire life training for battle yet, like the samurai in Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' not be victorious even once. There would be very little glory in a war; only the young and inexperienced would find it romantic while the old veterans would know there is never really any winning a war.
And that is what Moby Dick is for me: a samurai film set at sea where the warriors are all Nantucket whalers and the villain is a fish.
Melville, too, must have felt similar about anticipation as I do. His whole novel - though this is not a novel, it's really an epic poem - is imagination and anticipation and beautiful images of the sea and of death and of the whaling life. Yet in the end it's all so futile.
"Great God, where is the ship?"
One thing I hadn't counted on about Moby Dick is how even though everyone who hasn't read the novel is well aware of it and the events within, it's not a book you can really know anything about without reading. This is a book, like Ulysses, you have to experience. You have to live through this novel; it has to happen to you. This isn't a story to be told in the normal sense - in fact the book is almost everything but a normal novel after we set sail - this is a book whose art is in forcing you to live the events of the book as if you are on that cursed ship.
Something that really struck me is that our narrator who is so famously introduced to us in one of the great first lines in a book - 'Call me Ishmael' - slowly ghosts away as the novel goes on. What starts as a book about Ishmael's experience getting on the ship and learning about whaling (and the entire science of whales), he lets go of our hand and we begin floating about the Pequod like a disembodied spirit. We overhear everyone's conversations, even their private mutterings, and the point of view expands out to be in all places at all times. It's an unsettling sensation because Melville is physically enlisting onto that ship as a shipmate and after our initial training we are forced to watch the events unfold to their conclusion.
I also had no idea that the novel is not really a novel - not in the traditional sense. Moby Dick is, basically, postmodern but from the 1850's. I had expected a somewhat straightforward novel about the grappling with a whale, not 209,117 pages of epic poetry. I had not expected the novel to still feel so fresh as it must have been when it was written nearing on 200 years ago.
One last thing that I have to confess is that I don't believe Ahab was mad. Obsessed? yes, but not insane. He was a salty captain with 40 years of experience at sea and he knew what he was doing. I don't even think he had a death wish, I just think he saw an opportunity to be truly great and flew at it with everything he had. He was already a great whaler (how else would he have lasted so long?) so he knew he could defeat that fish if he really tried. And I don't see anything wrong with that, too. All those men knew what they were in for and if Starbuck was more of a man he might have stopped Ahab, but Ahab is the sort of person who winds up wither being great or being killed; he is no ordinary person.
He's very American in that way - he'll damn everything to get what he wants.
Overall and beyond all the great themes of the novel is just how damn well it's written. There is nothing like this book. The language is so seductive, the imagery so vivid, everything on that ship and the sea so perfectly realized that there were times I had to pinch myself that this was real. Some of the writing is so good that it almost doesn't even seem possible, as if it were written by some God.
Now that I'm done with the book I'm sad. I've now read Moby Dick and there are only so many great novels in the world worth throwing a harpoon at. But what a voyage getting there!
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