Saturday, November 23, 2013

Selected Stories by Stefan Zweig

I read this collection of novellas over the last two days.  I seldom read anything that quickly, giving myself up to reading for hours at a sitting, rather than just over meals or while my younger kids swim or attend scout meetings.  These kinds of stories are such  pure pleasure for me--set in the early 1900s, in European cities, and delving deeply into people's passions, heartbreaks, and life-altering decisions with clear-eyed sympathy.  Reminiscent of Dinesen's atmospheric, mysterious, heartbreaking, multi-layered tales within tales. 


George Eliot's Middlemarch examines the busy life of a manufacturing town in the north of England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  A great number of characters, storylines, happy and unhappy marriages, births, deaths, hidden sins, financial struggles, political movements, and societal changes fill its 838 pages.  I generally enjoy these massive, complicated stories of societies seen through the eyes of several families when they are told with humor and insight, as Middlemarch is. 

Two characters' stories get the most thorough treatment, and they seem almost to be male and female foils of each other.  Dorothea Brooke is an idealistic but naive young woman of good family, and Tertius Lydgate is Middlemarch's new doctor, ambitious to break new scientific ground in a research hospital.  They share some obvious similarities--both are careless of others' opinion of them, and filled with a desire to improve the world.  Both also make disastrous marriages which thwart their ambitions to do great good.  But one ultimately finds a satisfying outlet for those ambitions, while the other settles for a severely limited horizon.

What I couldn't quite get a handle on with Middlemarch, was the book's attitude toward women.  The author/narrator frequently makes asides on the weakness of women and the submissiveness of ideal wives.  I read these as tongue-in-cheek, coming from a female author.  And Dorothea has an interest in architecture--she draws plans herself for cottages for the poor.  But no positively portrayed female character, even Dorothea, seems to have, or want to have, opinions or interests or desires other than their husbands'.  They regard it as their highest good to subordinate their very thoughts to his, and their duty to suppress any thoughts or desires which conflict with his.  The only character to not only think, but act, contrary to her husband's wishes is the monstrously selfish Rosamond. 

But perhaps we shouldn't expect perfect consistency from authors.  Certainly the psychological insights of this author toward her characters in general are wonderful and one of the great pleasures of reading Middlemarch

Mount TBR Challenge
Chunkster Challenge
Classics Club

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Small Hand and Dolly

These two novellas by Susan Hill, The Small Hand and Dolly, come packaged in one volume by Vintage Books.  Susan Hill is the author of The Woman in Black, and also of a series of police procedurals.  I generally enjoy her ghost stories,  but I think I prefer The Woman in Black, which is a full-length novel, to these two.  All are the type of ghost story I love:  English setting and not extremely shocking or gory.  These two, while nicely atmospheric, are perhaps a little too tame even for me.  Worth a read, though, if you like the type. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Anna Karenina

I loved War and Peace, so I brought high expectations to Anna Karenina, and I wasn't disappointed.  Reading Tolstoy, more than anything, leaves me with a warm feeling toward Tolstoy.  I do try, when reading, not to assume too much about the author, but again and again found myself mentally nodding:  yes--he understands, about this or that character's thoughts, fears, frustrations, spiritual struggles.

Anna Karenina tells parallel stories about two couples, or rather, a triangle and a couple:  Anna, her husband, and her lover;  and Kitty (Anna's sister-in-law), and her husband Levin.  Anna's sterile marriage and disastrous adulterous relationship are contrasted with Kitty and Levin's marital and spiritual growth.

Tolstoy really does do a remarkable job of getting inside characters' minds--men, women, and children.  I caught myself wondering if he had asked his wife, for instance, exactly what it's like, physically and emotionally, to struggle with breastfeeding.  He seems to understand the mental exhaustion of a mother with many young children and an irresponsible husband.  And this is a man, writing in the 1870s!  He captures the stress and frustration of an introvert forced to spend large amounts of time with argumentative people.  He takes us inside the minds of all three members of the triangle--and I couldn't imagine any of them acting in any other way than they did.  Their choices all seemed inevitable outcomes of their personalities.  Even Anna's young son, the victim and onlooker, is fully realized.

Spiritual struggle is a major theme in Anna, as it was in War and Peace.  From this angle, too, I felt the skill of the characterization.  Levin is the character I would have expected to wrestle with questions such as the meaning of life and the existence of God.  His development from agnostic to believing Christian is treated in depth, and doesn't feel like prosletyzing.  Again, I wondered if Tolstoy was remembering his own experience, as it seemed to unfold so naturally.

Was Leo Tolstoy a warm, wise, and understanding man?  There's no way to know for sure, of course, but that's how I think of him now. 

Classics Club
Chunkster Challenge
Mount TBR Challenge