Saturday, 25 October 2014

Macbeth by William Shakespeare.


The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare was, I believe, the first Shakespeare play I read (at the age of 15), and it's one I've always enjoyed (sadly yet to see it performed, though). I read it last month and it's still one of the most ghostly, engaging, and exciting of all Shakespeare's works.

It was written somewhere between 1599 - 1606 when King James VI was the King of Scotland, and would become King James I of England in 1603 following the death of Queen Elizabeth I. This was not long after the North Berwick witch trials of the 1590s (today North Berwick is referred to as East Lothian, Scotland). King James was both fascinated and terrified of witchcraft, and in 1603 had published Daemonologie, a short treatise in support of witch hunting, writing,
The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchaunters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine ... to resolve the doubting ... both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished.
King James believed that Francis Stuart, 5th Earl of Bothwell (his mother's third husband), was in league with a coven of witches, plotting, among other things, to capsize the ship Anne of Denmark travelled in as she came to England to marry him. Furthermore, he found in the Earl's possession a wax doll labelled "This is King James the Sixth, ordained to be consumed at the instance of a nobleman, Francis, Earl of Bothwell". During this period, for reasons such as these, he oversaw the torture and murder of many women believed to be witches during this period.

This mood of horror and paranoia is captured perfectly by Shakespeare (who was also possibly inspired by the Holinsheds Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577-87). He tells the story of Macbeth, an army general and Thane of Glamis, who, with his friend Banquo, encounters three witches who prophecise that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor (a title currently held, incidentally, by the 7th Earl of Cawdor) and later King of Scotland, and that Banquo will beget a line of Scottish kings but will never be a king himself. Shortly after this prophecy, Macbeth learns that he has indeed been made Thane of Cawdor, and he wonders just how much of the witches' prophecy will come true. He tells his wife, and together their ruthless hunger for power leads them to murder, and consequently, to guilt and insanity.

It is a bloody tale (though I believe the bloodiest of Shakespeare's tales must be Titus Andronicus) about power and corruption, and it remains one of my favourite of Shakespeare's plays. It is framed in an unnatural, or supernatural setting, one which leaves people divided: should the witches have been left out of this play altogether? Had they have been left out, the element of Fate would have been removed and the corruption and resulting evil would have been all the more terrible, but, for me, it is the witches that set the mood of the play (that and the thunder and lightning). And if one removes the element of Fate but keeps the witches, it shows just powerful suggestion may be. I don't feel that I'm enough of a Shakespeare buff to debate this any further, but I will say I do love the witches!

I think this may be one of the plays everyone has already read, but if someone told me they'd never read Shakespeare this would be the one I would recommend. It's the most accessible, and I find it the most exciting. It raises so many interesting debates: is Macbeth really a victim? And if so, whose victim? Fate's? The witches'? Lady Macbeth's? She is one of the strongest of Shakespeare's female characters, I think, and, interestingly, is implied to be the most masculine of females. This is one of many of the conflicts in the play.

Finally, some illustrations: these are by Averil Burleigh and come from Macbeth: Told by a Popular Novelist (published in 1914 by John C. Winston & co).



*****
Further reading:

Burgess, Anthony - Shakespeare

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope (1864) is the penultimate part of the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, which I've been reading along with Melissa and Amanda since March. It follows The Warden (1855), Barchester Towers (1857), Doctor Thorne (1858), and Framley Parsonage (1861).

This is a novel endorsed by Virginia Woolf, who wrote in a letter to Hugh Walpole (28th February 1932), 
I think the Small House at Allington perhaps the most perfect of English novels along with Jane Austen - I cant explain now why.
And, in an interview with Sue Lawley for Desert Island Discs, former Prime Minister John Major said it would be the book he would take on a desert island (John Major is a notorious Trollope fan, and though he makes no mention of The Small House of Allington in his 1999 autobiography, he speaks very highly of Trollope's 'Palliser novels', 1864-79, particularly Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux). 

Unfortunately, for me, it was not a favourite; nay, it was not even a success. I believe I began reading it late August, gave up on it, began it again in the middle of September, once again put it down, then spent most of October just trying to get half way through. Had it not have been for the readathon on Saturday I wouldn't have finished it yet. It was certainly Trollope, Trollope with his typical dash of Jane Austen, but I couldn't engage with it, feel excited by it, or even feel anything from it: I didn't even hate it. Trollope himself acknowledged he had "created better plots" (mentioning also Can You Forgive Her?, 1864). I may be inclined to agree.

But because I love Anthony Trollope's novels I am forced to conclude that I simply did not read it at the right time. I am only now tenuously coming out of one of the worst reading ruts I have ever been in, so I would suggest that if ever I influence your choice of reading materials, do not let this be a time! I won't dwell on my personal feelings therefore, and one day, perhaps in a few years, I will revisit this novel and I hope I will have a similar experience to re-reading Barchester Towers, a novel I once hated and now love.

So, instead of paraphrasing other people's descriptions and pretending it wasn't nearly all lost on me, let me recommend a few reviews:
And, as ever, I'll finish with some illustrations, these by John Everett Millais (who also illustrated Framley Parsonage, Orley Farm, Rachel Ray, and Phineas Finn). I love Millais, and so did Trollope, writing in his 1883 Autobiography,
I do not think that more conscientious work was ever done by man. Writers of novels know well—and so ought readers of novels to have learned—that there are two modes of illustrating, either of which may be adopted equally by a bad and by a good artist. To which class Mr. Millais belongs I need not say; but, as a good artist, it was open to him simply to make a pretty picture, or to study the work of the author from whose writing he was bound to take his subject. I have too often found that the former alternative has been thought to be the better, as it certainly is the easier method. An artist will frequently dislike to subordinate his ideas to those of an author, and will sometimes be too idle to find out what those ideas are. But this artist was neither proud nor idle. In every figure that he drew it was his object to promote the views of the writer whose work he had undertaken to illustrate, and he never spared himself any pains in studying that work, so as to enable him to do so.  


Tonight I am looking forward to starting the final. The Last Chronicle of Barset despite this little blip!

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Dewey's Readathon.


Hurrah, the day has come! This is my sixth readathon, and today is perfect for it: sunny, but cold and rainy, and I have quite a bit of reading to catch up on! So, I'm going to put the fire on, make a cup of coffee, and begin, most likely with Stoner by John Williams (I'm about a third of the way through). 

Other plans? I don't want to commit this time, but - I would love and I dearly need to finish The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope. I think I've had this on the go since the beginning of September. I'm almost at the half way point with it, and to finish it would be grand. It has been my block for well over a month.

I'm also thinking I may finish The Mabinogion, and quite possibly Dante's The Divine Comedy. I love Dante and I've read it before, so it's no chore. And, finally, I would like to read Joris-Karl Huysmans Against Nature

So, I'm going to be brave and commit to The Small House at Allington, and aside from that I'll see where the mood takes me. I'm quite likely to read a bit of Émile Zola's The Conquest of Plassans, and I'm also considering Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Seriously, though - I'm considering everything right now. The mere mention of Northanger Abbey as opened up a whole world of Gothic Literature and.... Oh, I don't know! But I do know today will be great fun!

I'll update either every few hours or when I've finished a book.

(Shakespeare, maybe? I could read The Tempest? The Taming of the Shrew?)

(Maybe read some Keats?)

Have fun, everyone!

Update 1: Events took a rather unexpected turn this afternoon, and after I finished Stoner (which I loved) I wasn't able to read very much at all. But there's still many hours, so after my tea I'm going to try and settle back into and press on with The Small House at Allington.

Hope everyone's enjoying it so far :)

Update 2: Very happy to say that I've finished The Small House at Allington. Very happy indeed. It's a book that, in different circumstances, I possibly would have loved, but not this time. One day I'll try again!

Now I'm going to read Paradiso, possibly have a bath, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy listening to the rain. I aiming to keep going until at least 2 am (I don't seem to have the stamina for all-nighters any more - staying up for the Scottish Referendum results in September nearly wiped me out for a week!). I shall update again around midnight...

Update 3: This is my signing off update. It's been a long day and I need to get some rest. I've finished Paradiso, I've finished Stoner, and I've finished The Small House at Allington, and before I do go to sleep I hope to read a little of Against Nature. So this has been a good catch-up day.

Good luck to all of those who are going for the full 24 hours!

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Belly of Paris by Émile Zola.

The Square in front of Les Halles by Victor Gabriel Gilbert, 1880. Oil on canvas. A detail of this painting is
used for the front cover of Brian Nelson's translation of The Belly of Paris, Oxford University Press, 2007.
The Belly of Paris (Le Ventre de Paris), 1873, is the third of Émile Zola's Rougon Macquart novels and the second that is set in Paris (the first being The Kill, 1872). It is based on life in Les Halles, the central market of Paris (demolished in 1971) where wholesale fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish were sold, located in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, south of rue Montorgueil (on the right bank of the Seine and including the west end of Île de la Cité). The site itself dates back to the Middle Ages, but this 'modern market' was designed by Victor Baltard between 1854-74 (during the 'Hausmannisation' of Paris, which Zola describes in The Kill). Christopher Mead (author of Making Modern Paris: Victor Baltard's Central Markets and the Urban Practice of Architecture) writes,
... the markets marked a significant moment in the industrialization and standardization of architecture during the nineteenth century. At the same time, the markets were instruments of urban renewal, which turned a decayed medieval quarter of Paris into a rational, orderly grid of pavilions and streets. 
Modernity is a key feature to Zola's Rougon Macquart novels: Zola was the anthropologist of the 19th Century literary world and his goal was (as he described in the Preface of The Fortune of the Rougon, 1871) to explain,
... how a family, a small group of human beings, behaves in a given society after blossoming forth and giving birth to ten or twenty individuals who, though they may seem at first glance totally dissimilar from each other, are, as analysis shows, linked together in the most profound ways. Heredity, like gravity, has its laws.  
By solving the dual problem of temperament and environment, I shall attempt to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another. When I am in possession of every thread, and hold in my hands an entire social group, I shall describe the behaviour of this group as it plays its part in an historical period; I shall show it in action, with all its varied energies; and I shall analyse the aims and ambitions of its individual members along with the general tendency of the whole.
His "small group of human beings" are the Rougons and the Macquarts, two names and one bloodline united by Adélaïde Fouque, who married Rougon, and after he died (very very soon after she died), lover of Macquart. The Rougons are the 'legitimate' side of the family tree, the Macquarts the illegitimate side. This "given society" is France during the time of the coup d'etat in 1851.

Les Halles is the setting for the organised, structured, and symmetrical domain of Lisa Quenu née Macquart, daughter of Antoine Macquart and Joséphine Gavaudan (who we meet in The Fortune of the Rougons), sister of Gervaise Coupeau (of L'Assommoir, 1877) and Jean Macquart (The Earth, 1887, and The Debacle, 1892). She is married to Quenu, Florent Quenu's step-brother, the protagonist of this tale, and together Lisa and Quenu own and run a charcuterie. When Florent returns to Paris having escaped prison (Devil's Island, or le Bagne de Cayenne, 9 miles off the coast of French Guiana in South America: Florent was falsely accused for murder during Louis Napoleon's coup d'état) he goes to live with the pair, and their daughter Pauline (of The Joy of Life, 1884). Florent is a thin man, starving in fact, and his reluctance to eat has led some critics to suggest that he is anorexic. He certainly appears to be suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the events during the coup d'etat, where a young female was shot dead, her body landing on Florent, and his subsequent imprisonment. In contrast, Lisa and Quenu are fat, along with the other petite bourgeoisie of Les Halles (hence Henry Vizetelly's 1888 translation The Fat and the Thin, which, incidentally, led to his imprisonment for obscene libel).

Zola writes,
[Quenu] noticed Florent's emaciated, poverty-stricken appearance. 
'You poor thing!' he exclaimed. 'Your stay away hasn't improved your looks. I've grown fat, but so what!' 
He had indeed grown fat, too fat for his age. He was bursting out of his shirt and apron, out of the white linen in which he was swaddled like a huge baby. His clean-shaven face had grown longer, so that it now bore a faint resemblance to the snout of a pig, to one of the cuts of pork he handled every day. Florent could hardly recognise him. He had sat down now and was looking first at his brother, then at the beautiful Lisa, then at little Pauline. They were all bursting with health, solidly built, sleek, in prime condition; they looked at him with the surprise of fat people gripped by a vague feeling of unease at the sight of someone who is thin. Even the cat, whose skin was distended by fat, turned its round yellow eyes towards him in a glare of distrust.
The Fight between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1559)
referred to in a discussion between Claude Lantier and Florent
about 'the fat' and 'the thin' of Les Halles.
.
This is a physical example of the many conflicts within Les Halles, particularly regarding Florent. He brings disharmony in a well-ordered environment (though it is not without its existing conflicts). By the simple fact that he is thin he has become an object of mistrust:
A man capable of living without food for three days struck [Lisa] as a highly dangerous character. Respectable people never put themselves in that position.
Lisa embodies and represents Les Halles. Zola describes her as the "steady, sensible Macquart, reasonable and logical in her craving for well-being.... Prosperity and security were her great goals". It is thus of little surprise that when her small and tidy world is threatened, she seeks to rid it of potential and perceived hazards. Florent, struggling with his neuroses and his new life, attempts to live her life among these respectable petite bourgeois, but, as Zola writes,
He had ultimately compromised, angered, and upset a world that had previously lived in perfect peace and harmony.
His task, in short, is great. And I won't spoil it by saying whether or not he succeeds!

The Belly of Paris is one of my favourite of Zola's novels, possibly my absolute favourite of his earliest novels. It is, as I always emphasise, not necessary to read these books in order (though I would be inclined to read The Fortune of the Rougons first, and Doctor Pascal must be read last), but it's worth pointing out how neatly The Belly of Paris follows The Kill. Of the Seven Deadly Sins, gluttony follows lust, and The Belly of Paris is about gluttony and excess, an unhealthy love of food and comfort, and Les Halles is "the great daily orgy" (Zola, 1867). In Zola and the Bougeoisie, Brian Nelson writes,
Zola attempts to create the impression of a social class obsessed with food by establishing a symbolic equation between mountains of food and bourgeois complacency.
The descriptions of food The Belly of Paris may seem, on the face of it, mouth-watering, however a strong message lurks behind them, almost to the point whereby it grows grotesque, adding to the dark, unnatural nightmare that is Les Halles and the Second Empire. Both are worlds of paranoia and mistrust, and Les Halles is like a panoptican in which nothing goes unnoticed. Zola's descriptions are flawless, and his message as knife-sharp as ever. The Belly of Paris is one of his finest novels.

Les Halles by Jean Beraud (1879).
Les Halles by Leon Lhermitte (1889).
Les Halles and Rue de la Tonnellerie by Giuseppe Canella (the Elder)

Saturday, 11 October 2014

October (so far).

Recently I've been suffering from writer's block and a reading rut. A double whammy, yes. No fun for a book blogger: it feels as though my two beloved hobbies have been taken away from me. But I miss blogging very much, and for the past few weeks I've been waiting for the right time, waiting for inspiration to come, waiting for a new book to grab me, but these aren't coming as yet. This is not the right time (I need to tidy up and put the fire on, and it's already 7pm), and, unable to settle in to any new books I've been returning to old favourites: Zola (I've just finished The Belly of Paris and intend to write about it over the next few days), Dante (I read Inferno in one sitting, such is my love for it, and Purgatorio in two sittings. Paradiso I will start soon), and Donna Tartt. 

Donna Tartt, as I'm sure many of you know, is a blessing. I've been looking for a bedtime book for well over a week (The Small House at Allington is a source of vast frustration at present), and out of no where The Secret History popped into my head. I've been reading it all morning and I'm so looking forward to go to bed and read it again. 

And aside from this: nothing. I want to write about Macbeth still, but that's on the back-burner because I am most enthusiastic about writing about The Belly of Paris, so much so that I'm picking up the old Zola website project again. I think I last read Zola in May (The Dream), and honestly - it really was like coming home, starting The Belly of Paris for the second time. Florent on the back of a vegetable cart on the way to Paris, to Les Halles, remembering the Macquarts, La Belle Normande, those suffocating descriptions of the cheeses, and one of my favourite quotes in literature: "Respectable people... What bastards!". And Zola's style is so familiar: lots of Zola-feelings! There's a chapter in Zola: A Life (Frederick Brown) I want to read before I begin writing my review, then a page for my website (one day, one day it shall be public), but yes, tomorrow should be the day I begin writing about Zola again. 

Hopefully, then, this block will come to an end. Fact is inspiration doesn't often come, it takes a little work, and it's a shame that this blog post is "work", but it is an attempt to get back to normal. Besides, how could I be short of inspiration at this time of year? I love autumn, especially early autumn. I love waking up to mist and dew, and that lovely cool light that happens only in autumn and spring. There's been plenty of rain, too, which has been no fun for the hens, but it's amused the budgies. Zozo and Pepys, the baby budgies, are doing very well - they're starting to get their grown-up eyes: when we first got them they had huge black eyes, but now their irises are begin to fade to brown, and soon they'll be blue like Trotwood and Oliver's. Zozo has done particularly well with being tamed, but it's coming quite slowly with Pepys. He is starting to get the hang of it, though.

This, then, is October so far! I'm starting, finally, to come out of my malaise thanks to old favourites: Zola, Tartt, and autumn.

As for now, I did say I had to tidy and put the fire on - I'm glad I did this, but it's now pitch black and raining and I have to go outside to get the coal. 

But such is life.