Showing posts with label Miss Marple. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Miss Marple. Show all posts

05 July 2018

The Wrong Books


by Eve Fisher

I have a DVD set of the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, and I asked my husband if he'd like to watch it sometime.  He declined: "I'm not up for Tolstoy."  And what he meant by "Tolstoy" was War and Peace.  He'd tried to read it, decades ago, and stalled out pretty quickly, which I think happens to a lot of people.  A lot of people complain about its length, and at over 1,200 pages, it's long enough to complain about.  But then, Outlander is half that length, and then you've still got 7 more hefty books to go in that series.

But I think that reading War and Peace is a classic example of the wrong book.  I think one of the reasons why people avoid "great literature" is that
(1) they're told that it's great,
(2) there's this illusion that great = dull / hard to understand / heavy (ie., depressing), and
(3) they're started off with the wrong book.


L.N.Tolstoy Prokudin-Gorsky.jpgSo, with Tolstoy, start with Anna Karenina, and make sure it's the old Constance Garnett translation:  Anna, about to go into the major midlife crisis in literature, her cheerfully cheating brother Stepan, her pompous irritating husband Karenin, her soon to be lover Vronsky (a/k/a the man who isn't worth it), future soccer mom Kitty, bewildered Levin (only a few jokes away from being played by Seth Rogen), Countess Lydia (think Texas cheerleader mom), and other classic characters all presented with wit, verve,  heartbreak, and amazing insight. As the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold said, "A novel by Tolstoy is not a work of art but a piece of life."


George Eliot.  Forget Silas Marner, (ESPECIALLY in schools).  Start the kids off with Adam Bede, with its amazing portrait of Hetty Sorrel, whose beauty is "like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief—a beauty with which you can never be angry."
No one knows, no one can believe, that such an obviously childlike, innocent young thing like Hetty could be an egoist of the highest caliber.  And from that comes all the rest.
(NOTE:  My major problem with every production of Adam Bede is that the actresses cast as Hetty have been, so far, always sophisticated 20-somethings so that you can't get the essentially transgressive tragedy of Hetty:  it's the fact that she looks like a child that turns her seducer on.) 
Or Dostoevsky.  Don't start with Crime and Punishment.  Unless you're a huge Cormac McCarthy fan.

Start with The Brother's Karamazov, which is about one of the most dysfunctional families on the planet.  The Karamazovs are led by Fyodor, an absolute horror as a man and a father, whose constant womanizing and drunkenness never stand in the way of trying to ruin his sons' lives.  Dmitri's a sensualist, Ivan's an atheist, Alyosha's a novice monk, and Smerdyakov is illegitimate.  One of them kills Fyodor, and while we all say good riddance, the question is who and why and how...  Incredible writing, and even the saints are human.

Speaking of who killed Fyodor, what about mysteries?

Which Sherlock Holmes story should you try to start someone off with?  First off, a heresy:  I think the novels are inferior to the short stories.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, frankly, has too much padding for me, and as for A Study in Scarlet...

Me, I'd start someone off with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains "A Scandal In Bohemia", "The Speckled Band," "The Copper Beeches," and "The Red Headed League", among others.  The collection ranges from hilarious to deadly serious, and are what hooked me as a child.  After you read that collection, chances are you'll read all the rest.  I did.

Which Agatha Christie?  Personally, my favorite is Nemesis, which always seemed to have less mechanical plot (although the plot is very good) and more atmosphere.
"Miss Marple remembered saying to her nephew, who was standing her this Shakespearean treat, "You know, Raymond, my dear, if I were ever producing this splendid play I would make the three witches quite different. I would have them three ordinary, normal old women. Old Scottish women. They wouldn't dance or caper. They would look at each other rather slyly and you would feel a sort of menace just behind the ordinariness of them."  - Nemesis
And then Miss Marple looks around to the three Bradbury-Scott girls...

Dashiell Hammett:  The Maltese Falcon, of course, but Red Harvest is fast and furious.
Ellis Peters:  An Excellent Mystery (my favorite of the Cadfael Chronicles)
E. X. Ferrars:  Frog in the Throat 
Josephine Tey:  The Daughter of Time, with a special shout-out to Miss Pym Disposes
Rex Stout:  Death of a Doxy  
Dennis Lehane:  Mystic River 
Liza Cody:  Rift  

Oh, and if you want to try some poetry, try Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book - written in 1868-69, about a real-life Italian murder trial of 1698. Count Guido Franceschini, impoverished nobleman, despite professing his innocence, has been found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia and her parents. They were all stabbed; he's admitted he suspected Pompilia of having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi.  Each canto is a monologue from the point of view of a different character, including Count Guido and Pompilia on her death bed.  Multiple viewpoints, multiple voices, multiple excuses:  What's the truth?  Read it and decide for yourself.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Speaking of the Brownings, here's a story for you.  Elizabeth Barrett, of course, was a well known poet in Victorian times, perhaps the best known poetess.  Her father - a Jamaican plantation owner who'd made his money off slaves and sugar - raised his family in England.  He was a family dictator, micro-managing his children's lives, and disinheriting each and every one of them as they married.  Elizabeth and Robert's courtship had to be done mostly by letter and only occasional meetings, because Edward Barrett would never have approved it.  In fact, when the 40 year old Elizabeth married Robert Browning in 1846, she literally had to escape while Daddy was out.  It worked, and they were married and moved to Italy.  

There have been some theories about Mr. Barrett's possessiveness:
(1) There was African blood (from Jamaican slaves) in the family tree, and Mr. Barrett didn't want it perpetuated.
"For the love of God,
Montressor!"
"Yes, for the love of God."
(2) He was simply a control freak, who wanted to keep his children under his control forever, and almost succeeded entirely.  He certainly seemed determined to keep Elizabeth confined as an invalid for her entire life.  
(3) The Barretts of Wimpole Street flat-out said that he wanted Elizabeth, and perhaps her sister, to be more ( ahem ) than a daughter to him...

BTW: Edgar Allan Poe greatly admired Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poetry. Poe reviewed her work in the January 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, saying that "her poetic inspiration is the highest — we can conceive of nothing more august. Her sense of Art is pure in itself." In return, she praised The Raven, and Poe dedicated his 1845 collection The Raven and Other Poems to her, referring to her as "the noblest of her sex". 

I think that Edgar Allan Poe would have cheerfully made Mr. Barrett the object of my favorite Poe story, The Cask of Amontillado.  Who knows?  Maybe he did.  

Read the classics - it will take you to places you never thought you'd go.  Just make sure to start off with the right book.  

18 July 2013

The Road to Damascus - or Somewhere...


by Eve Fisher

Brian Thornton blogged a couple of weeks ago about the importance of both a strong plot and well-written characters.  Now I like certain characters straight up and traditional - Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, etc.  You learn more about them - Holmes' brother, Nero's daughter, Miss Marple's flirtation so deftly nipped in the bud by her mother - but the characters are there, fixed, sure and solid.  The down side is that they are done growing.  Luckily, I never tire of them as they are. 

But I also honor the authors who manage to transform their characters over time - who change and grow into something different than the person we first met.  They mature.  Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane both changed over the course of the 8 novels and 2 short stories Miss Sayers wrote.  The posh, flighty eccentric with a taste for flagrantly expensive, professionally beautiful women and old books became a man who wrestled - through his avocation - with his own PTSD and fell passionately in love with an intelligent woman whose main beauty was her voice.  And Harriet discovered self-esteem and freedom from her fear of a cage - both in marriage and in prison.

And then there are those who pull a 180, changing to their exact opposite to the point that it's unbelievable.  Except in real life, it happens all the time.

There are the obvious religious transformations, i.e., the roads to Damascus - Paul, Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Abba Moses (old black guy, used to be a professional thief/murderer, became a hermit monk in the Wadi Natrun back 150 CE), etc. 

There are those who were knocked sideways by sorrow:

File:Ary Scheffer - Franz Liszt.jpg
Young Liszt, Brooding and Burning
File:Franz Liszt 1858.jpg
Liszt, Older and Mourning

Franz Liszt (1811-1886), the famous composer and pianist, and a formidable womanizer, lost his son and one of his daughters (by the Countess d'Agoult) in 1859 and 1862, respectively.  (NOTE:  His surviving daughter, Cosima, a musician in her own right, would marry first Hans von Bulow- does anyone know if he's an ancestor of Claus? - and then Richard Wagner.) He became a Franciscan, received the tonsure, took the four minor orders porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, and from then on was known as Abbe Liszt.  His whole life style calmed down considerably, and he spent much of his time, outside of playing, in solitude and prayer.  

File:Liane de Pougy postcard.jpgLiane de Pougy (1869-1950) - infamous courtesan of La Belle Epoque, she ran through men at a merry clip, accumulating massive wealth and dominating the gossip columns along with her co-courtesans, La Belle Otero, et al.  She married the Romanian Prince Georges Ghika in 1910 and settled down.  But her son by a much earlier marriage(?) was killed in WWI, and she became a Dominican tertiary, devoting herself to the Asylum of Saint Agnes, which took care of children with birth defects.  A recent French biography of her has the subtitle "Courtesan, princess, saint..."  The last might be extravagant - I haven't read the biography - but her life definitely took a different turn.

Speaking of courtesans and such, there are many throughout history who decided that repentance became them.  Among my favorites are the rivals Louise de La Valliere and Francoise-Athenais, Marquise de Montespan:

File:Lely-Vallière-et-ses-enfants-Rennes.jpgFile:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
Louise de la Valliere and children on left; Athenais de Montespan on right

Louise was the first "maitresse en titre" of Louis XIV, bearing him four children, which was part of the problem.  Childbirth changed her fragile beauty and she was succeeded by her supposed best friend, Athenais, who held on to Louis' attention through seven pregnancies and innumerable side affairs (Louis never met a woman he didn't want to have, and, as king, he had most of them).  She was finally ousted from the royal bed by the combination of a huge scandal involving multiple poisonings - next time's blog alert! - and her own governess for HER royal bastards, Madame de Maintenon, who was trying to use God to embarrass the king into morality.  Louise retired to a strict Caremlite convent early in the game.  (My favorite part is that the abbess of this extremely strict convent agreed that Louise had already done much of her penance in court).  Interestingly, and entirely out of character, in old age, the almost heathen Athenais also turned to strict penance.  Louis and Maintenon were morganatically married, and Louis remained reasonably faithful (by now he was forty-five which, at the time, was definitely middle-aged) and, as always, convinced that he was God's favorite son.  (Louis would NOT be on the list of people who change over time.) 

There are also those who, apparently, get a burr in their butt, such as the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620).

File:明神宗.jpgThe Wanli Emperor came to the Dragon throne near the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).  He was 9 years old, but had an excellent chief minister who trained him well before dying when Wanli was 19.  The next 20 years were a golden age for China - Wanli was a vigorous, active, hands-on emperor who stopped attempted invasions by the Mongols, an attempt by Japan (under Hideyoshi) to take Korea, and a major internal rebellion.  China prospered.  And then - one day he stopped doing anything.  No meetings, no memorials, no signing things, nothing.  Government came to an absolute standstill until the day he died.  Why?  We don't know.  There are two possibilities given by most historians:
(1) he decided to spend the rest of his reign building up his wealth and his tomb, thus he had no time for work.
(2) he was angry because he wanted one of his sons by his concubine, Lady Zheng, to be the next crown prince, and strict court etiquette demanded that the office be passed to his son by his Empress (the future Taiching Emperor), thus bringing government to a halt was his revenge. 
Personally, I don't know that either of these pass muster.  I mean, for a while, but for 20 years?  What would explain something like that?  Depression?  Addiction?  A combination of both?  In any case, with government at a standstill, China floundered, and the last few emperors couldn't get it back.  The Wanli Emperor's dereliction of duty was one of the major reasons why the Ming Dynasty fell 24 years later to the Manchus. 

And there are those who appear to really grow and CHANGE:

File:NathanBedfordForrest.jpg
Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) enlisted in the Civil War as a private and rose through the ranks to become a field commander.  And he was brilliant.  My favorite story is from the Battle of Parker's Cross Roads, 12/31/1862, when he was surprised by a Union brigade attacking his rear.  Trapped between two Union forces, he told his troops "Charge 'em both ways!" - and they did, and he won.  It seems like every Civil War historian is fascinated by this military genius who never attended West Point or took any military classes.  But what makes Forrest fascinating to me is that he was an antebellum slave trader and millionaire, who in the 1860's was one of the founders (perhaps the first Grand Wizard) of the KKK.  But barely ten years later he repudiated the Klan, and went around giving speeches advocating reconciliation between the races to both white and black organizations.  In one of them, before a black organization, he said, "Go to work, be industrious, live honestly and act truly, and when you are oppressed I'll come to your relief. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for this opportunity you have afforded me to be with you, and to assure you that I am with you in heart and in hand."  Yes, it sounds a little condescending to modern ears - but this is the sound of a man who had changed profoundly...