Minute Marginalia

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Another reading challenge and list...

Since I missed the deadline for the Chunkster Challenge, which would actually have allowed me to list only The Name of the Rose (a title I'm determined to tackle), I'm going to try for the 2007 TBR challenge, which requires 12 (!) books be posted by 1/31. Here's my somewhat eclectic list (most of which won't be tackled until after the Classics Challenge):

summer reading
1. The Name of the Rose
2. Reviving Ophelia
faster fare (juveniles):
3. Black Duck (hasn't quite been on the TBR list 6 months, but will be by the time I get to it)
4. Tequila Worm (ditto)
5. A Certain Slant of Light
6. Love, Ruby Lavender
7. Hitler's Daughter
8. Reshaping of Everyday Life
9. Floating Girl
10. Stravaganza: City of Light (which will also entail rereading Stravaganza: City of Masks)
11. School Stories (19th century juvenile)
12. Larry (ditto)
alternates (because what's life without some flexibility?):
1. Scarlet Pimpernel (if overlap with the classics challenge is allowed)
2. Life of Pi

Friday, January 26, 2007

Mary Barton, pt. 1

I'm currently reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton for the Classics Challenge, and posting thoughts on the first twenty chapters. (Jill, have you started it yet?) [Correction: Make that the first ten chapters; must've been seeing double when I looked at the roman numerals in the chapter heading...]

Random thoughts: The preface makes it evident this is a novel of social justice, "to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulses [the Manchester factory workers]," to illustrate (and perhaps bring about some means to alleviate) their plight.

Oh! 'tis hard, 'tis hard to be working
The whole of the live-long day,
When all the neighbors about one
Are off to their jaunts and play.

The above, a Manchester song which serves as an epigraph for chapter 1, introduces two of Gaskell's techniques. Although her preface refers to the workers as "dumb," or voiceless, Gaskell incorporates songs and poems giving them a voice and reiterating (or baldly stating) their hardships. Her use of Manchester dialect adds verisimilitude and again acknowledges the distinctive voice of her subject.

As does the song, Gaskell frequently constructs contrasting scenes and situations. The opening paragraph even speaks of "the effect of contrast in these [. . .] thoroughly rural fields, with the busy, bustling manufacturing town [of Manchester]." The garden in this pleasant rural environment grows "in most republican and indiscriminate order" and all things flourish: "the young green leaves . . . almost visibly fluttered into life." The main characters (and first mention of moral dangers of factory life) are introduced into this happy setting, but death (of the first Mary Barton, the title character's mother) arrives almost as soon as they return to the city. This tragedy brings about more contrasts: after the death of his wife, John Barton is "a changed man," a situation exacerbated by economics:

At times it is a bewildering thing to the poor weaver to see his employer removing from house to house, each one grander than the last . . . concerts are still crowded by the subscribers, the shops for expensive luxuries still find daily customers, while the workman loiters away his unemployed time in watching these things and thinking of the pale, uncomplaining wife at home, and the wailing children asking in vain for enough of food, -- of the sinking health, of the dying life of those near and dear to him. The contrast is too great. (emphasis added)

The situation worsens after a mill fire: the employers have "happy family evenings" and pleasant leisure while the workers' "family music was hungry wails [and] the very closest bonds of nature were snapt."

Mary's aspiring suitors provide yet another contrast. They are Harry Carson, the son of the owner of the mill that burned, and Jem Wilson, the son of one of Carson's factory workers. Mentions of the former are frequently accompanied by authorial comments foreshadowing disaster from the relationship, an idea perhaps reinforced via the differences between Mary's two girlfriends. Margaret, friend of Jem's family, seems to embody all positive virtues, while the deceitful Sally, who helps Carson in wooing Mary, is "vulgar-minded to the last degree."

Stylistically, Gaskell occasionally adopts an intrusive narrative voice to reinforce her points ("And when I hear, as I have heard, of the sufferings and privations of the poor . . . can I wonder that many of them, in such times of misery and destitution, spoke and acted with ferocious precipitation?")

Miscellaneous connections to other works/situations: an early reference to "an acuteness and intelligence of countenance, which has often been noticed in a manufacturing population" calls up memories of the Lowell mill girls and their writings and interest in education; the movement for shorter work hours also parallels events in the Lowell mills; there's an intriguing statement -- italicized in Gaskell's text -- that "'far th' greater part o' the accidents as comed in, happened in th' last two hours o' work' when people were tired and careless" (which the editor's notes attribute to Lord Ashley "during the debate of the Factory Bill, 1844"), an argument I don't remember encountering in the Ten-Hour Movement in the US.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ithaca at last

Classics Challenge #1: The Odyssey

                        But come, my friend,
tell us your own story now, and tell it truly.
Where have your rovings forced you?
What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns,
what men themselves? Who were wild, savage, lawless?
Who were friendly to strangers, god-fearing men? Tell me,
why do you weep and grieve so sorely when you hear
the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy?
That is the gods' work, spinning threads of death
through the lives of mortal men,
and all to make a song for those to come . . .

-- Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey, 8: 641-51

It took Odysseus twenty years to return to Ithaca, so I suppose I shouldn't be dismayed that it took me thirty days to get him there and finish the book. Dorothy Parker once said, "I hate writing. I love having written," and, while "hate" is far too strong, The Odyssey is definitely a book that I'm happier to have read than I was to be reading it -- which is not to say that I didn't enjoy encountering some of the classic epithets ("Dawn with her [perpetually] rose-red fingers"; Hermes, "the giant killer" ...) and experiencing the source rather than a synopsis, especially for the famous clashes with Cyclops and Circe (both of which were far briefer than I expected).

The Fagles translation has been praised for its accessibility, and it is lively and easy to follow. (In his afterword, Fagles quotes Alexander Pope's "Homer makes us hearers," and his poetry preserves this; periodically, I read passages aloud to the cat just to hear the cadence.) Bernard Knox's introduction -- which, in true academic fashion, is more than 10% of a 500+ pg book -- warned me that Odysseus wouldn't show up for quite a while, and, indeed, it took more than 1/3 of the poem before he swept into the story, something else I hadn't expected, (especially having just seen the movie with Armand Assante, which emphasizes the travels along with the love story). Knox's comments also provided a framework for interpretation: I was anticipating a tale about a journey, but Knox suggests that hospitality (without which, he notes, travel would not be possible) is a recurring concept in the work; the different receptions given to travelers (especially Odysseus and Telemachus) provide continuity throughout the narrative. Focusing on that element was especially helpful during the last third of the story, when Odysseus was back in Ithaca but not yet truly home.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

From the Stacks #5: A. S. Byatt's Possession

Wow. Possession was such a magnificent book. My biggest regret is not reading it during the summer when there would be t i m e to double back and explore it at leisure. It's the type of novel where ideas are played out and interlocked on so many levels.

Random thoughts: The book begins and ends with the discovery of secret letters and with unlawful possession of same. The first letter starts the plot in action; the second resolves the remaining complications. (And neither letter ever reaches its intended destination.) The first letter also starts the chain of ideas associated with possession, some of which include:

  • physical possession -- of various letters (Roland's, Maud's relatives), of objects in collections (especially institutional, with limited access and restricted use of material), of women in the 19th century (and their limited rights of possessions, even of their own children, leading to Christabel's flight)

  • material possessions -- as in wealth: Cropper's excess, especially, contrasted with the more limited financial resources of the British institutions; in general, Americans seem to be presented as wealthier and more assertive than their British counterparts, leading to issues about national claims and about the marketability of artifacts, the struggle between collectors, scholars, and national heritage

  • intellectual property/possessing copyright -- controlling access to ideas, via copyright or related issues

  • obsession/possession -- with another's life (academically or romantically) -- or with any type of passion, actually (Cropper's desire to own all things Ash)

  • spiritual/seances -- being possessed by spirits, Ash's "Mummy Possest"

  • possessing knowledge -- again, multiple levels: Roland and Maud's desire to possess information about Ash and Christabel; Ash's continual quest to possess knowledge of the world; Swammerdam, the scientist Ash studied and wrote about, in search of knowledge of the microscopic world (and perhaps the other extreme, Christabel's desire to possess the type of knowledge gained from seances, of the other world)

  • sexual possession -- ("an outdated phrase," to quote Byatt, and the last direct reference to the word in the novel)

(Note: spoilers in this paragraph:) Another idea woven through the book is not quite the opposite of possession, but perhaps a tempering of it: openness rather than secrecy, choosing not to closet or close oneself or something else away. Maud opens herself to Roland, physically and emotionally, at the book's conclusion, one of the elements contributing to a happy ending. That, in turn, contrasts with the tragedy of Ash's wife, who kept herself closed too long, until she could neither open to Ash or write truly in her journal. Throughout the story, openness and sharing -- ideas, information, access -- lead to advances in knowledge. The sequence begins with Roland telling Maud about the letter (which has remained undiscovered partly because it's in an archive with limited access); only at the end, when everyone shares information (foiling a plot hatched in secret and planned for the dark of night), is there a satisfactory conclusion for all.

There's so much more I'd like to write, but the thing I don't possess right now is the time to do it. (I actually finished the novel two weeks ago and am halfway through The Odyssey for the next challenge, but finding moments to order my thoughts enough to comment about them has been almost impossible.)