writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: Genre: Classic Literature Page 1 of 2

Review: Sons and Lovers – D.H. Lawrence

Sons and Lovers book coverI picked up Sons and Lovers as the next book to read from my 100 Books list, simply because I’m trying to cull my book collection at the moment, and years of hearing how much people dislike D.H. Lawrence – and this book in particular – led me to assume that I’d have a similar reaction. Really, I should’ve known better. After all, I like Conrad!

I find it fascinating that so many people have been bored senseless by Sons and Lovers, because I was interested and entertained from start to finish. It’s true that there is not a great deal of plot here. Rather, it’s a book that focuses on character and on family relationships. It’s slow-moving and slightly dreamy tale, and Lawrence holds his characters at something of a distance from the reader, but I was nonetheless ensnared very quickly in the piece.

Most of the characters here are awful. There are no genuinely likeable people amongst them. Annie is quite inoffensive and I found myself rather sympathetic to Walter Morel, despite his faults, possibly because of how keenly he was judged by his family for his lack of pseudo-middle-class airs. Or perhaps it’s just that Gertrude and Paul are just so utterly detestable that I feel a kind of solidarity with anyone they disdain. I feel a bit cruel saying so, given that Sons and Lovers is highly autobiographical, but Lawrence certainly didn’t represent himself in his best light when he took on the guise of Paul Morel. And I feel utterly sorry for Jessie Chambers, upon whom Miriam was based, because Miriam is portrayed with such disgust. Clara, too, is sneered at and the reader is left to wonder whether it is merely Paul Morel who has such a Madonna/Whore complex (to go with his Oedipus Complex), or whether that stemmed from Lawrence himself.

Despite the ghastly characters, however, I found Sons and Lovers itself thoroughly likeable. The writing is lovely – elegant but not overwrought – and I’m a big fan of these kinds of slow, intimate stories of family and human nature. I shall be very interested to see whether my enjoyment of Sons and Lovers extends to all of Lawrence’s work. In the meantime, this will not be joining the pile of books to give away!

Review: The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he has changed into an insect-like creature. Initially determined to make it into work anyway, he gradually accepts his new existence, becoming more bestial as his contact with humans is greatly lessened due to his abhorrent appearance. His family accept the responsibility for his care, but struggle with the burden of his changed presence in their lives.

The opening paragraph of The Metamorphosis is one of the most famous of all literary beginnings. I have read it many times in this guise, but have somehow neglected to read the story in its entirety up until now.

It’s hard to review a book that can be read in so many ways. Is The Metamorphosis simply a surreal or fantasy story that provides entertainment on a shallow level? Or is it a complex allegory, commenting on human relationships and the nature of disability and long-term physical or mental illness? The Metamorphosis works brilliantly on either level, which is something that few literary works manage to do.

Franz Kafka expertly depicts Gregor’s metamorphosis as a descent into something less than humanity. Gregor’s changes are juxtaposed with the more subtle changes that are experienced by his family members and the reader is left wondering whether it is Gregor or his family who are the true monsters in this story.

Kafka’s language (in translation) is elegant and unadorned. His matter-of-fact style and the dry humour that infuses The Metamorphosis lighten what might otherwise have been an overly-depressing read. As it is, the book remains sad in a quiet sort of way, its impact lingering long after the final page is turned.

The Metamorphosis is an excellent piece of writing that deserves its reputation as one of the most important works of twentieth century literature.

Review: The Decameron – Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron book cover“Nature proves it to us very plainly, for she has made [women] soft and fragile of body, timid and fearful of heart, compassionate and benign of disposition, and has furnished us with meagre physical strength, pleasing voices, and gently moving limbs. All of which shows that we need to be governed by others; and it stands to reason that those who need to be aided and governed must be submissive, obedient, and deferential to their benefactors and governors. But who are the governors and benefactors of us women, if they are not our menfolk?”

With Florence in the grip of the Black Death of 1348, a group of seven women and three men retire to the countryside to escape the sickness and spend time in relaxation and frivolity. While there, they spend much of their days telling each other stories, ranging from very moral to very bawdy and from devious to munificent. Over ten days of storytelling, one hundred diverse tales are told.

The Decameron is a daunting book to pick up, given that it’s over eight hundred and thirty pages of 14th century writing. What’s more, it’s an equally daunting book to review, as it’s essentially a collection of short stories and it seems insufficient to review the whole – but just plain foolish to review all hundred tales separately instead.

Boccaccio’s work is of great importance to the literary tradition, but for me, as a historian, it’s the social setting of the tales and their underlying belief system that is most fascinating. In a sense, the stories themselves are of no great excitement to the modern reader, beyond the fact that they prove that some things really are timeless. There is an abundance of romance, plenty of trickery, smatterings of sex and the occasional moral for good measure. Usually, the guy will get the gal, but occasionally the gal will get the guy or they’ll both die horrible deaths.

Indeed, the predictability and repetitiveness of the stories is The Decameron‘s main downfall. It’s not a book that is easy to read in one go. After a point, I made the decision to read it a day (or ten stories) at a time, reading other books in between sessions, and my enjoyment increased greatly once I put this into practice. Many of the days involve ten stories told around a single theme, which tends to highlight the similarities in the collected tales. This didn’t bother me when it came to the themes I particularly enjoyed – the two days’ worth of tales of trickery, for example – but made the less-interesting themes seem to drag even longer.

The historical value of The Decameron is utterly priceless, however. Through fiction, the modern reader can learn so much about the society and social mores of Boccaccio’s time. The way in which the clergy is described was fascinating – both in terms of corruption and active sexuality. There are descriptions of political hierarchies, occupations, social groups, marriage rites, leisure activities and family routines. Each one of these hundred stories contains so much excellent information about 14th century Italian life.

Most intriguing to me is the way in which Boccaccio portrays his female characters. The quote above is uttered by one of the seven women in the prelude to her ninth story, which is a strong encouragement to husbands to soundly beat their wives. It’s an uncomfortable piece of writing, made more so by the knowledge that it is a woman who has been chosen as the moral’s advocate. And yet, elsewhere, Boccaccio’s women act in surprising ways. Women are portrayed as being smart, brave, strong, witty, loyal and accomplished. They are shown to possess healthy sexual appetites, rather than the common extremes of animalistic urges or chaste disinterest. Throughout the book, there is an obvious conflict between the accepted boundaries for women and the actual diverse natures of women, who may just as easily laugh at bawdy tales of lustful nuns as they may assert their own virtue.

The Decameron may be a daunting book to pick up, but it is worth the time you’ll spend buried in its pages. As a work of fiction, it is witty, romantic and perceptive; as a work of history, it is invaluable.

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

I loved this book when I first read it (for school) in year ten. But I got so much more out of it as an adult. In a way, it almost seems wrong for it to be such common set reading in schools, because I think that we all end up reading it before we have the capacity, life experience and empathy to fully appreciate just what an incredible piece of literature it is.

Of course, the downside to re-reading To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult is the fact that it’s extremely difficult to read. Because, as a teen, you can live in your own little world and write the prejudices shown in the book off as something belonging to the oh-so-distant 1930s while, as an adult, it’s very obvious that humans are just as capable of perpetrating abhorrent acts of bigotry and injustice today.

A powerful book, made all the more so by the juxtaposition of the innocence of its protagonist and the reality of the world around her.

Review: The Iliad – Homer

I have a confession to make: I have a Masters in Ancient History but this is the first time I’ve read The Iliad in its entirety. And now for another confession: I really didn’t like it as much as I feel I should have.

I enjoy The Odyssey. Odysseus rocks and I’ve always had a major soft spot for Telemachus. So it’s not that I have anything against Greek epic… just THIS Greek epic. I don’t know how much of it was the translation and how much was the work itself, but I just wasn’t interested most of the time.

Ultimately, I think this just confirms something that I (and all those who know me) have known for years: Rome > Greece in my little corner of the Classics.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

If only all Dickens was so easy to read. Normally, reading his work is like chewing on language – lovely, wonderful language, yes, but time consuming nonetheless. A Tale of Two Cities is very different. There is still the elegance of writing that one expects from Dickens, but it’s tied in with what I like to call a Ripping Yarn, along with his usual, brilliant social commentary.

I picked this book up, expecting it to be a challenge. Instead, I couldn’t put it down.

Review: Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë

Loved it.

It’s funny, really. I adore books like this, when if they were modernised, I wouldn’t even dream of reading them. Essentially, Jane Eyre is a melodramatic romance novel, complete with implausible turns of fortune and a love interest who’s so obviously written by a woman for women. But the language and the artistry make it so much more than that.

Review: The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

I loved this. It’s made its way straight into my top ten. It certainly hit all the right buttons for me, in that it has all of the elegance and literary merit of classic British literature, yet manages to be an enthralling page-turner at the same time.

I really couldn’t recommend this book more highly, both for fans of the classics and those who generally stay away from them.

Review: Pierre and Jean – Guy de Maupassant

I read this because it’s on my 100 Books list, and found myself v.much enjoying it. The style (at least in translation) is both readable and elegant and I found the content pleasantly reminiscent of Zola, in that there is a strong focus on human nature and failings.

Review: Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

My thoughts on this are quite complicated. I very much liked the writing and the style, but the story didn’t grab me at all. I found myself utterly disinterested in Charles, the narrator, although Julia and Sebastian intrigued me a little more. In the end, I think it was like many other ‘classic’ novels are for me. I get great enjoyment out of the artistry, but that’s all, really. And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s still a bloody good book; it’s just wasn’t a page-turner as well.

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