Saturday, 4 July 2015

Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka.

Investigations of a Dog (Forschungen eines Hundes) is a short story written by Franz Kafka in 1922 and published in 1931 in The Great Wall of China (Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer). It's the short story I've been dreading for the Deal Me In Challenge since I dodged it in May! It's not that I didn't like it (and, as it happens, I didn't), but it's very much beyond my comfort zone.

The story begins,
How much my life has changed, and yet how unchanged it has remained at the bottom! When I think back and recall the time when I was still a member of the canine community, sharing in all its preoccupations, a dog among dogs. I find on closer examination that from the very beginning I sensed some discrepancy, some little maladjustment, causing a slight feeling of discomfort which not even the most decorous public functions could eliminate; more, that sometimes, no, not sometimes but very often, the mere look of some fellow-dog of my own circle that I was very fond of, there mere look of him, as if I had just caught it for the first time, would fill me with helpless embarrassment and fear, even with despair. I tried to quiet my apprehensions as best I could; friends, to whom I divulged them, helped me; more peaceful times came - times, it is true, in which these sudden surprises were not lacking, but in which there were accepted with more philosophy, fitted into my life with more philosophy, including a certain melancholy and lethargy, it may be, but nevertheless allowing me to carry on as somewhat cold, reserved, shy and calculating, but, all things considered, normal enough dog.
On the dog goes in its metaphysical and existential examination of his state: he shares his views and beliefs on the state of being and the question of his very own life and existence. But he is limited: he is a dog - he lives his life and cannot, or sometimes is unwilling to, grasp beyond that which exists beyond his own experience.

It is an interesting tale, and though complicated it seems somehow worth getting to grips with so I may well read this again one day, and I am willing at least to read more Kafka (I have Metamorphosis left on the Deal Me In Challenge, do want to attempt The Castle too, and perhaps re-read The Trial). For now, this inadequate summary is all I can manage! I am, I must add, indebted to the following posts to get some understanding:
Next week for Deal Me In: The Little Gypsy Girl by Miguel de Cervantes.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

1867 edition illustrated by George du Maurier.
North and South is Elizabeth Gaskell's fourth novel, following Mary Barton (1848), Cranford (1851–53), and Ruth (1853). It was first serialised in Household Words between September 1854 to January 1855 then published in novel form in 1855. And it is not only one of my favourite Gaskell novels (though Wives and Daughters, 1866, comes close), it is also one of my favourites of all time.

Like Mary Barton, North and South is a social novel, also known as a 'social protest novel', which means it addresses the "Condition of England Question", social unrest, poverty, and inequality, as Sybil by Disraeli (1845), Hard Times by Dickens (1854), and Shirley by Charlotte Brontë (1849) did before it. In North and South, Gaskell writes about a family, the Hales, and their move from the south of England, from a rural village called Helstone (which is, incidentally, the surname of the main character in Brontë's Shirley - Caroline Helstone), to the north of England - Milton, in Manchester.

The north of England was, in the 19th Century, very much the hub of the Industrial Revolution owing partly to favourable weather conditions for cotton (mild and damp) and natural resources including coal and limestone, and metals such as iron, lead, copper, and tin. But the rise in industry and it's many factories, and capitalism (that self-serving spirit) brought with it many social problems - a decline in standards of living; poverty, malnutrition, poor housing, and a population increase. There were hardly any health and safety regulations then, so factories were potentially a dangerous place to work, wages were often grossly unfair, and children were a cheap source of labour. Manchester, where North and South is set, saw its population increase from 10 000 in 1717 to 2.3 million in 1911 (more widely - in 1801 20% of the population lived in towns, by 1851 it was 50%, and in 1881 it was nearer 66%). and was at the forefront of the cotton and textile industry, earning it the nickname of the "Cottonopolis"; the peak number of cotton mills, 108, was reached in 1853. And, with inequality and deprivation comes unrest: demonstrations, riots, and strikes. For this growing rise in industry and inequality Manchester was the subject of Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England, written between 1842-44. And for Elizabeth Gaskell, who took a keen interest in the 'condition of England question', it was an ideal setting for her novel.

On Strike by Hubert von Herkomer (1891).
It begins with a crisis of faith - Mr. Hale, a pastor in the Church of England, leaves the church and rectory no longer feeling he can believe or support their views. So, he, his wife and his daughter Margaret (the heroine of the tale) leave the idyllic, pastoral setting of Helstone in the south (New Forest) and head north to Milton, Manchester. There he becomes a private tutor to John Thornton, a factory owner and 'self-made man'. Margaret must learn to adjust to her new life and environment, and the clash between the old and the new, the south and the north, and Margaret's new surroundings on her own self and identity is essentially the crux of the plot.

The novel is partly a love story, but one of the things I admire most about it is that it is not primarily a love story. It is about a young woman facing great change and her own unrest in a turbulent and often very unpleasant environment; her growth from a child to a woman (although I use the word "child" loosely; she's 19 I think at the start of the novel, but a young, naïve 19), and the challenges to her social outlook - she begins as somewhat of a snob (though very much a likeable one). But, as one would expect from Gaskell, though often the characters are used to represent an element of society (John Thornton the capitalist, for example), it's all very believable; Gaskell does not pen the caricatures of Charles Dickens. There is much sadness in the novel; death, loss, prejudice, violence, and great unfairness, but there is hope as Margaret loses this snobbery and begins to see people as simply people, not divisions of class and intellect.

It is an outstanding novel, one of the finest novels of the Victorian Age. It's a curious meeting of Émile Zola, with the descriptions of poverty and poor living conditions that may perhaps be likened to L'Assommoir (1887, and based between 1852 - 1869), and Jane Austen - the themes of pride and prejudice of Margaret and John Thornton is reminiscent, of course, of Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813). Naturally too there are hints of Charles Dickens, but this isn't a mishmash of better writers, it is very much Gaskell's own and she proves to be a master once again. I very much admire this novel and I urge everyone to read it!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015


Wood Anemones.
July already - I can't believe it. We're now pretty much in the final half of the year. The first half of this year has been a pretty miserable affair but I hope very much things will start to turn around. It's a lovely day here - very hot, but with a warm breeze. There was some thunder earlier, but mainly blue skies, although  as I type this it is back to being overcast. I predict an epic thunderstorm quite soon! 

And, not only are we half way through the year, we're also half way through Allie's Victorian Celebration, and a third of the way through Cathy's 20 Books of Summer. The Victorian Celebration is going well - I've read about ten books so far. 20 Books of Summer, however, only five so I'm a bit behind. So far I've read - 
  1. Villette by Charlotte Brontë
  2. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  3. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  4. The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
  5. Linda Tressel by Anthony Trollope
Which leaves me with - 
  1. Agamemnon by Aeschylus 
  2. The Liberation Bearers by Aeschylus 
  3. The Eumenides by Aeschylus 
  4. Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov
  5. The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens
  6. A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy
  7. The Iliad by Homer
  8. Roderick Hudson by Henry James
  9. Poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  10. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  11. The Landleaguers by Anthony Trollope
  12. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  13. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
  14. A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
  15. Germinal by Émile Zola
Happily I've started a few - I'm half way through Edwin Drood and Poems by Tennyson, and about a third of the way through A Pair of Blue Eyes by Hardy, which I'm absolutely in love with. I'm also very much looking forward to starting Anna Karenina and I'm positive I'll enjoy it the second time around with a good translation. This I'll be reading for the 'Realism Month' for Fanda's Literary Movements Challenge, and as I'm not enjoying Edwin Drood so much I'm going to pause it for a while, finish Hardy, then begin Anna Karenina this weekend. As for the final title on the list - Germinal, I want to read this in August for the 'Naturalism Month' of Fanda's Challenge. August also brings Austen in August hosted by Roof Beam Reader, which I'm looking forward to but I'll wait until nearer the time to think about that! Mansfield Park will certainly be on the list, though!

Aside from working through the final fifteen books on the list (I hope to read ten or so in July) I also have one more book I'm excited about. For the Dewey's Readathon in April I won a prize in one of the reading hours and last week I received it - a copy of Terence's Comedies from the lovely Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm. I can't wait to start this in the coming weeks, so a massive thanks to Ellie!

And finally, later this week I'm going round some of my favourite second hand bookshops, so I'll see what that brings! I'm especially on the lookout for Ancient Greek and Roman titles. 

So, there are my July plans! This week I'll be writing something about North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, and The Investigations of a Dog by Kafka, and I also have a planned post on A Treatise on the Astrolabe by Geoffrey Chaucer, which I read last week. Lots planned, in short! 

Happy July, everyone!

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far In 2015.

Incredibly, we're at the half way point of 2015. Summer has arrived in a way - right now it's very overcast, a few patches of blue sky, mainly white clouds but there's also a very heavy black cloud over the village, and it is 27 degrees. Exceptionally muggy. But my plants are all doing well in it!

And here we are, half way through. Accordingly, this week's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish is - 

Top Ten Books I've Read So Far In 2015:

Looking forward to what the next half brings!

Monday, 29 June 2015

Villette by Charlotte Brontë.

Villette is Charlotte Brontë's final novel and was published in 1853. Virginia Woolf referred to it as Brontë's "finest novel" (in The Common Reader First Series: '"Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights"'), and George Eliot wrote, "Villette! Villette! It is a still more wonderful book than Jane Eyre. There is something almost preternatural in its power."

Sadly for me, however, I could never quite get into it. I first read it a few years ago, I think actually it was for Allie's last Victorian Summer, and I hated it. The second time around I felt I was always on the precipice of falling into it, in the first half I came oh so close but never quite, then suddenly without no discernible reason any hints of Brontë magic packed up and left and I spent the final 250 pages either praying for it to return, or just for it to finish. Last year The Telegraph published an article on Villette,
It is also an astonishing piece of writing, a book in which phantasmagorical set pieces alternate with passages of minute psychological exploration, and in which Brontë’s marvellously flexible prose veers between sardonic wit and stream-of-consciousness, in which the syntax bends and flows and threatens to dissolve completely in the heat of madness, drug-induced hallucination and desperate desire.
This is what I wanted, but I was left with the unfair conclusion that (for me), Villette's problem was Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is almost universally loved and is consistently in the Top Ten books on most lists. It is one of my all time favourites (top five, I'd say) and there's always a hope that the author of our favourite book will write just one more - just one more incredible book that spins our minds. Shirley (1849), I think, was outstanding but didn't quite get there either (far closer than Villette did, though) and that leaves The Professor, which, to be fair, people are very polite about but there's few if any who think it's great literature. So that left Villette. Had Jane Eyre not been written, Villette still wouldn't have made my top ten, but I would have loved it all the more. This is the nearest I can get to explaining why I didn't love it.

But enough of that, what of the plot? Well, it's about Lucy Snowe, a rather difficult narrator who reveals things not as they happened but as she deems appropriate (if at all). It begins in England (in the fictional Bretton, presumably West Yorkshire but there are a few Brettons in England) with Lucy staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton, her son John Graham Bretton, and another visitor - a little girl called Polly (her character I will never forget). When Lucy leaves she goes to live with and work for Miss Marchmont, however she dies, and so Lucy decides to quit England all together and go to Belgium in the fictional city of Villette where she works in a boarding school for Madame Beck. There we see her adapt to her life in a foreign country, fall in love, and sees others fall in love, though she never leaves her past behind - it very much stays with her with the reappearance of the early characters.

It's possibly Brontë's most autobiographical novel (Charlotte lived in Belgium for a time and fell in love with a married professor, M. Héger), it's very well done, and though there's a strong element of the Gothic, it's more (as The Telegraph suggested) about psychological realism. It is not an easy book, and by that I mean all the elements are not simply presented to the reader, it does involve more work than usual. It's full of twists and turns which later make sense but not so much at the time, and as I say Lucy Snowe is not always as forthcoming with facts as perhaps a reader would like. This is a good novel, and I enjoyed it more than is perhaps coming across, but it was painful and draining ,and I would quickly get tired of it as I read through it. I suppose what I felt was it wasn't quite worth it, and for that I feel bad.

On a lighter note - some illustrations! This first set are by the wonderful Edmund Dulac, but oddly enough they were not easy to track down. There are twelve illustrations for Villette however I could only find eight:

And the second set are by John Jellicoe and can be found in the 1906 edition of Villette (published by Andrew Melrose):

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