Friday, June 29, 2012

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE classic literature.  Yes, it takes a little more concentration than your average bestselling novel, but it’s always worth it.  Some books are easy to love: Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice for example.  Some take more effort, but pay off in the end.  The Count of Monte Cristo and Middlemarch are titles that come to mind.  Pilgrim’s Progress and The Warden are as comforting to me as teddy bears.  But Don Quixote is a bust.   After 328 pages I was still only mildly interested in the outcome.

If you’ve read G.K. Chesterton’s definition of a true fairy tale, you know that a good tale describes a sane hero in a world gone mad (with witches or dragons or what have you.)  Heroes are “brave, full of faith, reasonable, respect their parents, keep their word, rescue one kind of people and defy another kind, etc.” (quoted in Tremendous Trifles)

Quixote is described as a man with “an invincible heart and stupendous courage,” but the problem is that even though he is honorable, he is also insane.  And he doesn’t defy the right kind of people.  He defies windmills and folks who have done no wrong.  Most people know the story of the windmills because it’s one of the first in the book.   Maybe they read no farther because the dozens of additional stories are never quite as interesting.  Not only is Quixote’s ongoing silliness annoying, the story-lines (of mistaken identities and plots to get him home again) all begin to sound the same.  Cervantes must have recognized this because every once in a while he throws in an episode involving star-crossed lovers to regain the reader’s attention.   These were the only bright spots in the book for me.

I believe that classics endure for darn good reasons.  And I am willing to be proven wrong about this book.  However, since the purpose of my blog is to encourage the reading of the world’s greatest literature, I implore my readers to begin with some other book, one that will ignite rather than extinguish their passion for the best books.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Dragon's Grandmother by G. K. Chesterton (Part Two)

Continued from last post:

        I listened to what he said about society politely enough, I hope; but when he incidentally mentioned that he did not believe in fairy tales, I broke out beyond control. . . .  “Look at these plain, homely, practical words, ‘The Dragon’s Grandmother,’ that is all right; that is rational almost to the verge of rationalism.  If there was a dragon, he had a grandmother.  But you – you had no grandmother!  If you had known one, she would have taught you to love fairy tales.  You had no father, you had no mother; no natural causes can explain you.  You cannot be.”. . .

        It seemed to me that he did not follow me with sufficient delicacy, so I moderated my tone.  “Can you not see,” I said, “that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible?  Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels.  Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming.  The problem in the fairy tale is – what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world?  In the fairy tales the cosmos goes mad, but the hero does not go mad.  In the modern novels the hero is mad before the book begins, and suffers from the harsh steadiness and cruel sanity of the cosmos.

        In the excellent tale of ‘The Dragon’s Grandmother,’ and in all the other tales of Grimm, it is assumed that the young man setting out on his travels will have all substantial truths in him; that he will be brave, full of faith, reasonable, that he will respect his parents, keep his word, rescue one kind of people, defy another kind, etc.  Then, having assumed this center of sanity, the writer entertains himself by fancying what would happen if the whole world went mad all around it, if the sun turned green and the moon blue, if the horses had six legs and giants had two heads. 

        But your modern literature takes insanity as its center.  Therefore, it loses the interest even of sanity.  A lunatic is not startling to himself, because he is quite serious; that is what makes him a lunatic. . . .  A man who thinks he is a chicken is to himself as common as a chicken.  It is only sanity that can see even a wild poetry in insanity.”

        I saw him still gazing at me fixedly.  Some nerve snapped in me under that hypnotic stare.  I leapt to my feet and cried, “In the name of God and Democracy and the Dragon’s grandmother – in the name of all good things – I charge you to avaunt and haunt this house no more.” Whether or no it was the result of exorcism, there is no doubt that he definitely went away.

(End of chapter 16 of Tremendous Trifles)

The Dragon's Grandmother by G.K. Chesterton (Part One)

 I wrote an earlier post on Chesterton's view of fairy tales as metaphors for the supernatural. This chapter (slightly edited) from Tremendous Trifles highlights his thinking on that subject.

 I met a man the other day who did not believe in fairy tales… he did not believe that a pumpkin could turn into a coach… And, he was wholly unable to give me an intelligent reason for it.  He tried the laws of nature, but he soon dropped that.  Then he said that pumpkins were unalterable in ordinary experience, and that we all reckoned on their infinitely protracted pumpkinity.  But I pointed out to him that this was not an attitude we adopt specially towards impossible marvels, but simply the attitude we adopt towards all unusual occurrences.  If we were certain of miracles we should count on them.  Things that happen very seldom we all leave out of our calculations, whether they are miraculous or not. 

        I do not expect a glass of water to be turned into wine; but neither do I expect a glass of water to be poisoned with prussic acid.  I do not in ordinary business relations act on the assumption that the editor is a fairy; but neither do I act on the assumption that he is a Russian spy, or the lost heir of the Holy Roman Empire.  What we assume in action is not that the natural order is unalterable, but simply that it is much safer to bet on common incidents than on uncommon ones.  This does not touch the credibility of any attested tale about a Russian spy or a pumpkin turned into a coach.  If I had seen a pumpkin turned into a Panhard motor-car with my own eyes, that would not make me any more inclined to assume that the same thing would happen again.  I should not invest largely in pumpkins with an eye to the motor trade.  Cinderella got a ball dress from the fairy; but I do not suppose that she looked after her own clothes any less after that...

                The man had come to see me in connection with some silly society of which I am an enthusiastic member; he was a fresh-colored, short-sighted young man, like a stray curate who was too helpless even to find his way to the Church of England.  He had a curious green necktie and a very long neck; I am always meeting idealists with very long necks.  Perhaps it is that their eternal aspiration slowly lifts their heads nearer and nearer to the stars.  Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that so many of them are vegetarians; perhaps they are slowly evolving the neck of the giraffe so that they can eat all the tops of the trees in Kensington Gardens.  These things are in every sense above me.  Such, anyhow, was the young man who did not believe in fairy tales; and by a curious coincidence he entered the room when I had just finished looking through a pile of contemporary fiction, and had begun to read “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” as a natural consequence.

        The modern novels stood before me, however, in a stack; and you can imagine their titles for yourself.  There was “Suburban Sue:  A Tale of Psychology,” and also “Psychological Sue: A Tale of Suburbia”; there was “Trixy: A Temperament,” and “Man-Hate: A Monochrome,” and all those nice things.  I read them with real interest, but, curiously enough, I grew tired of them at last, and when I saw “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” lying accidentally on the table, I gave a cry of indecent joy.  Here at least, here at last, one could find a little common sense.  I opened the book, and my eyes fell on these splendid and satisfying words, “The Dragon’s Grandmother.” That at least was reasonable; that at least was comprehensible; that at least was true.  “The Dragon’s Grandmother!” While I was rolling this first touch of ordinary human reality upon my tongue, I looked up suddenly and saw this monster with a green tie standing in the doorway. 

(to be continued in next post)

Friday, June 15, 2012

Howard's End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

Call me a book skeptic.  I’ve read gazillions of books on books and the most recent ones contained more personal information than I cared to know.  Besides, I had never heard of Susan Hill and wondered if she even had a right to impose her opinions on me.  So in the midst of packing up for our move, I grabbed Howards End Is on the Landing and plopped on the couch with an air of self-resignation.  If it didn’t appeal to me within the first few minutes, I’d go back to sorting our stuff.

Fortunately, I was charmed from the very first page.  Hill (who I now know is a successful British author) tells of a day that she spent in search of a particular book.  Going from room to room, she rummaged through various bookshelves, noticing books she had always intended to read and others that she wanted  to re-read.  She decided to put a moratorium on book buying and spend a year reading forty choice books from her own collection.  Each chapter details the process of narrowing down the list.

She discusses everything from e-readers, to her favorite fonts, to famous authors she has known, to her dislike of Jane Austen, but she never gives you so many personal details that you want to squirm.

I liked her gentle sense of humor and her writing style even when I didn’t always agree with her point of view.  (How could I dislike an author who uses words like peripatetic and inchoate?)  Apart from one or two off-color comments, I thoroughly enjoyed my literary stroll with the companionable and articulate Miss Hill.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Plays are difficult to read, but Cyrano de Bergerac  is worth the effort.   You must make yourself “listen” hard to the voices in the opening scene as many characters are introduced.   As the play continues and the principal characters are highlighted, it becomes much easier to follow. The clever dialogue is a delight.

Cyrano is a French soldier with a reputation for wit and bravery.  And a very large nose.  He is in love with the fair Roxanne who likes him as a friend and who enlists his help to get the man she loves, Christian de Neuvillette.  Setting aside his own feelings, he agrees to help the two lovers.   His sacrificial love for Roxanne is what makes this an enduring classic.

Rostand’s play is both heartbreaking and hilarious.  My version was done by writer and poet Brian Hooker (1880-1946).  His free verse rendition was the best English translation for many years until Anthony Burgess published his more poetic version in 1980.  I read somewhere that Burgess’ version was used for the English subtitles in the 1990 French film with Gerard Depardieu.

Hooker’s translation may not rhyme, but it is wonderfullly lyrical:

All those [words] that blossom in my heart, I’ll fling to you – armfuls of loose bloom!  Love, I love beyond breath, beyond reason, beyond love’s own power of loving!  Your name is like a golden bell hung in my heart; and when I think of you, I tremble, and the bell swings and rings – Roxanne!  (168)

And what is a kiss, when all is done?  A promise given under seal – a vow – taken before the shrine of memory – a signature acknowledged – a rosy dot over the “i” of loving. (174)

Well – when I write my book, and tell the tale of my adventures – all these stars that shake out of my cloak – I must save those to use for asterisks. (187)

The most famous movie versions are (1) the José Ferrar film from 1950, (2) Steve Martin’s distorted version in 1987 called Roxanne, and (3) the French version in 1990 with Depardieu.  I was pleased to stumble upon an obscure 1946 adaption starring Hume Cronyn which is set during World War II.  It is called A Letter for Evie and it is fun and romantic.