Tag Archives: Jane Austen

Tuesday Night Ramblings: all over the place, really

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I am listening to Chopin nocturnes up in my room and feeling kind of blah… I won’t start boring you my readers with the multiple causes of that. Just let me say that sometimes the many uncontrollable events that make up daily life start crowding me in a bit too much, and seem to down out my attempts at keeping up a happy, upbeat outlook on things.

So let me dive back into to my fantasy worlds for a bit and give you an overview of what is going in Sylvie’s World (the part that really matters here!). I finally dove into the latest Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last, an avatar of her online Positron project. It was published on September 29 in Canada, around the time I got back from vacation. I promptly got a copy but things got busy and it had to wait until the beginning of November. My impression so far? It’s got funny moments, the plot is coming along quite swiftly, but… I don’t like the amount of profanity in it, the language is less “crafted” than I would expect from Margaret Atwood, and the world she constructs in this book is no match for the complex, textured universe of the Maddaddam trilogy. So I am a little disappointed. I even miss the pigoons. I had not read the online Positron stories, so I went into the book with little prior information, and I think, no preconceptions, but certainly high expectations. So, there, blah… I think I will have to concentrate on the satirical aspects a bit more and get a sense of where this book stands as social commentary.

I’ve also been reading a small book of poetry called La plaquette cubaine, a collection of poems by three authors, José Acquelin, Bertrand Laverdure, and Yannick Renaud. I’ve run into José Acquelin at a few events in the couple of years (he was at the FIPTR last month) and he won Governor General’s Award last year. He will be one of the special guest at the Salon du Livre de Montréal next month, so I will most likely hear some more from him. La plaquette cubaine was written by the three authors following their participation in a Québec/Cuba cultural festival in Havana in 2007, and published by Le lézard amoureux (small publishing house that does poetry). I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore near UQAM in downtown Montreal on an evening I decided to walk part of the way back home after work. When I do that, I always end up walking into bookstores on the way. I did that tonight as well by the way, but did not buy anything (that requires will power). I have Acquelin’s book that won the GG, Anarchie de la lumière, but I have yet to crack it open. The other work of poetry I am been “sipping”, is Colin Will’s The Propriety of Weeding, published by a small house from Northumberland in the UK called the Red Squirrel Press. I find the name of small publishers quite fascinating, especially the ones specializing in poetry.

Jane Austen’s Emma is the other novel that has been capturing my attention of late, but I am not sure that is ideal reading for the noise level in the metro. I am finding it quite a challenge to follow the convoluted, wordy and sometimes totally illogical conversations that Emma gets into with her relatives and friends, not to speak of the ones she unsuccessfully tries to prevent.

I have been perusing the latest issues of Lire magazine that cover the “rentrée littéraire” in France for both French authors and foreign authors in French translation, looking for what will strike my fancy to add to the TBR pile. More on that later in the week!

So, yes, there is all this reading going on. And I have started the NaNoWriMo challenge. So far, the word count is just below target, I have an outline of sorts, but it is quite conceptual and there is not really a plot. We will see where that goes. The idea might take better shape as I write. If anything, I might be able to rescue some of the material into short story form… or not. Oh wait, maybe I’ve got it wrong, that makes it sound like short stories are just failed attempts at something else, when they are really an art form in themselves… My main objective is really to get me to write more continuously than I have been doing with the blog, as well as to change my daily habits. Instead of getting out of bed in order to get ready to go to work in the morning, I get up to write and I go in to work a bit later. That is part of my trying to actually live the principle that I work to live, rather than live to work.

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Ann Ward Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

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I was drawn to reading this book after reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey where the female characters are enthralled by it and compare it to other perfectly “horrid” books, other gothic novels that they are reading. Udolpho consists of four volumes that download as one book from the Gutenberg Project and they took me 27 hours to read. It took me a long time to read the first half but for the last half I could not put my Kobo down and read it all in the past week. It’s a wonder I did not miss my stop on the metro and only miss the bus stop at home once.

To the extent that the book is a true reflection of life at the time in which the story is set (late 16th century, two hundred years earlier than the time of publication), it shows an interesting picture of the lack of independence afforded to women as long as they had parents or family appointed as guardians. The book only shows the heroine, Emily, as an independent young women quite capable of taking her own decisions (in spite of a strong propensity to faint) once her guardians have died. She can then take possession of the properties that were already in her name and settle where she wants.

And the whole drama of the book starts from this very dependence. After her parents’ death, Emily becomes the ward of her aunt, Madame Cheron, a wealthy widow, if I remember well. The aunt then proceeds to make an ill-advised marriage to an Italian noble, Montoni, who soon insist that they return to his home in Venice. It turns out that he is a gambler who has lost of fortune and married Madame Cheron for her money. He also attempts to marry Emily to some associates of his in order to gain access to their riches. When some of his plans fall through, he removes his establishment to the remote castle of Udolpho in the Appenines. Emily’s vows then become more severe as she is a virtual prisoner at the castle and has to see her aunt die as a result of Montoni’s mistreatment of her.

After some additional difficulties, Emily manages to escape and find her way back to France where she hopes to reunite with the man she had vowed to marry, whom she had met while her father was still alive. At the time that they meet, she learns that he had fallen victim to a number of vices, one of them gambling, and she concludes that he is no longer worthy of associating with her. This was in part due to a series of misunderstanding. In the end, this misunderstanding is resolved, and many mysteries encountered along the way (ghostly apparitions, strange musical phenomena, disappearances, and uncanny resemblances) are  all logically explained and Emily marries the love of her life and settles in the old home where she grew up to live comfortably and happily.

The novel features many trips on land and water, through difficult mountainous terrain where travelers are constantly threaten by the dangers of the landscape and the possible presence of criminals. The descriptions of the majesty of various locations (the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Appenines) are very vivid and provide a perfect backdrop to the adventures of the many lovable characters that Radcliffe develops in this book.

The author also describes in minute details the emotions and physical reactions of the main characters as they work through the elation of young love, the disappointments of perceived betrayals, and the many fearful moments they encounter throughout the novel.

This book was indeed very entertaining and I would very much like to read other books by Ann Radcliffe, if I don’t get buried by a mountain of unread books that threaten to topple over me as I write this note.

Tuesday Night Ramblings: I Am Not Being A Good Reader

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Being of a slightly competitive nature, I like to be “good” at what I do. Now, what does that mean when it comes to reading? Well… we could take into consideration how fast one reads, what one reads (something meaningful and challenging?), reading thoughtfully (engaging the text and learning from it?), and by extension, writing interesting blog posts about said books. I am having trouble concentrating on reading after finishing Madd Addam, maybe because of the focus I put on this book when I read it. It is just hard to get into something else heartily enough to read fast.

But who am I kidding, does anybody really care? Shouldn’t I just concentrate about having fun reading, learning something interesting by reading, enjoying writing about the books I read just for the sake of moving my fingers over the keyboard and seeing the words appear on the screen, having fun thinking as I write?

And enough navelgazing for now… Better concentrate on “novel” gazing. OK, bad pun…

I am currently about two thirds of the way through a book originally published in 2003 by Sofi Oksanen called “Stalin’s Cows” (in French, Les vaches de Staline). It appears in French translation in 2011 following the success of Purge. It does not seem to exist in English translation. Similarly to Purge, the recent history of Estonia features prominently in this book, but so does the issue of eating disorders, an issue that the author reportedly has struggled with. Other themes of importance include: Soviet society, Soviet occupation of Estonia, immigration, ethnic identity, handling difference in a mixed couple, being a child of a mixed couple, maintaining relationships with relatives in the home country, etc. A very rich book. I highly recommend it and I am already looking forward to the next one, Quand les colombes disparurent (“When the doves disappeared”), already waiting for me at home.

I am also about 30% through Mrs. Radcliffe’s book The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I said I would read after I was done with Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey which was a parody of the gothic genre. This is a very, very long novel which tells in details of the trials and tribulations of a young French woman, who’s aunt becomes her guardian after her father’s death. The aunt’s focus on getting her a wealthy husband (not a totally disinterested end) drags her into several uncomfortable situations and highlights the dire powerlessness of women in the years in which the story is set (late 18th century). I have yet to come to the part of the book which features the famous castle of Udolpho and so far, there isn’t much that is overtly gothic about this novel.

I am also travelling with some work-related reading: one book about the system approach to performance improvement, and a new edition of a Quebec book about the management of learning and development. Gotta try to keep up with the lit in that area somehow…

 

References

Oksanen, Sofi. Purge. Black Cat, Grove/Atlantic Inc., New York, NY, 2010. (originally published in Finnish in 2008)

Oksanen, Sofi. Les vaches de Staline. Éditions Stock, 2011. (originally published in Finnish in 2003)

Oksanen, Sofi. Quand les colombes disparurent. Éditions Stock, 2013. (originally published in Finnish in 2012).

Radcliffe, Ann Ward. The Mysteries of Udolpho.  (as published in Project Gutenberg, originally published in 4 volumes in 1794)

Sunday Morning Ramblings on a hot, sticky weekend

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This has been in blah weekend for reading… I cannot concentrate on anything, or not a single book I have tried to start in the past four day has really captured my attention, except maybe for Dany Laferrière’s L’art presque perdu de ne rien faire. This is a book of reflections about the world, often written based on childhood memories that tries to recreate the innocent way a child looks at the world, mixed with the incisiveness of the writer’s pen. It has Laferrière’s unmistakable style. While it is mostly written in prose, it contains some pages of poetry.

Besides that, I am trying to do some more serious reading, such as a book of sociology by Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy, L’esthétisation du monde. In this book, they analyze current trends in branding and design that are more and more embedded in mass consumption, which they called “artistic capitalism”, not that capitalism becomes more artistic, but that capitalism co-opts art to make money and uses art strictly for its monetary value.

I am also reading a book on change called Dangerous Opportunity. It defines three styles in which people react to change and the impact it has on how we can lead change efforts.

As far as fiction is concerned, I am slowly making my way through Mrs. Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, but there is nothing mysterious to it yet. Just the story of a man whose wife dies and who goes on a journey with his daughter in order to lessen the pain of their loss. On this journey, they meet a nice, helpful young man who joins them. They are travelling in the South of France, in Languedoc or Roussillon, near the Pyrenees. Since the references to this book in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey called it a perfectly horrid little book, one would expect at some point to be plunged in some gothic mystery involving malevolent spirits, but that is yet to come it seems.

I also started Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but I couldn’t get into it. I’ll just have to wait for the appropriate mood to come.

I have pretty much gone through all articles on interest in Le Magazine littéraire’s April 2013 issue on “L’écriture de soi”, or “Writing the Self”. The theme covered some issues such as the difference between fiction, autofiction, and autobiography. One key question is “When is a novel a novel” if it is based on events lived or witnessed by the author, and where is there enough detachment or distance from reality to claim that the any resemblance to known individuals or events completely fortuitous.  

As you can see, my mind is a bit of a scattered mess these days…

References:

Laferrière, Dany. L’art presque perdu de ne rien faire. Boréal, Montréal, 2011.

Lipovetsky, Gilles et Jean Serroy. L’esthétisation du monde : Vivre à l’âge du capitalisme artiste. Gallimard, 2013.

Musselwhite, Chris with Randell Jones. Dangerous Opportunity : Making Change Work. 2nd edition. Discovery Learning, 2010.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. From Gutenberg Project. 1794.

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. Random House, 2012.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and other things

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The week before last, I watched the BBC TV series version of Sense and Sensibility with my sister (the version with Hattie Morahan). My sister was going on about how much better this version was compared with the Hollywood version, which I remembered quite favorably. So, when I returned home at the beginning of last week, I set out to watch said Hollywood version all over. I still like it but there are certain aspects for which the BBC version is superior, such as the casting for Elinor. As much as I like Emma Thompson, she does look too old for the part, compared with Hattie Morahan. And Alan Rickman looks too gloomy even for Colonel Brandon; I much preferred David Morrissey. However, Willoughby in the BBC version is downright creepy and that does not quite work for me.

There were differences between the two versions that I will have to double-check against the book, such as the existence of an extra Steele sister. I have never read the book and it’s about time I do.

So, as I was in a Jane Austen kind of mood and since I did have some of her works on my Kobo (but not Sense and Sensibility), I started reading Northanger Abbey. It is interesting that the behaviors that Emma Thompson highlights in her commentary to Sense and Sensibility, that is the relative lack of status of women, their being left to wait to be noticed by men, and their lack of choices regarding their own futures, are very much present in Northanger Abbey. It may also be the case that I paid so much more attention because of her comments. The main character, Catherine Morland, describes herself as a reformed tomboy. At the age at which we meet her, she is quite ladylike and given to fret about her dress and beaux. Friends of the family, the Allens, offer to take her to Bath to enjoy the social scene and her parents agree she should go. Her brother goes as well. After some time spent without meeting familiar faces, the Allens encounter acquaintances, the Thorpes. Young Isabella Thorpe becomes friend and confident to Catherine. She had previously met Catherine’s brother James and renews this connection which eventually leads to their getting engaged. While in Bath, Catherine meets the Tilneys and becomes attached to Henry, the younger Tilney son. The father, quite impressed with the young lady, invites her to his country estate, Northanger Abbey, and she gladly accepts. Following a misunderstanding regarding her fortune (or lack of it), she is sent home. Henry’s stubbornness is instrumental in resolving the misunderstanding and they eventually marry.

The book is also a parody of gothic novels. Catherine has a preconceived notion of what an abbey should look like based on reading gothic novels so she quite expects something dark and frightening. Henry Tilney plays on her fears by describing his childhood home along the same terms. This leads Catherine to become quite frightened of objects she finds in her room and of the noises she hears at night. However, Austen means these reactions to be comical rather than seek to produce fright in her readers. Another way in which the gothic influence is obvious is in the conclusions made by Catherine about the relationships between Henry Tilney’s parents, when she finds out that the mother died suddenly some years ago. She is given very little information about this and yet, she starts imagining that the husband did not care about his wife and may have murdered her, or that she may still be alive but kept as a prisoner in part of the abbey she was discouraged from visiting. We eventually find out that the mother died from a recurring health problem and that the husband grieved very much for his wife.

A novel which had quite a bit of influence on Catherine is The mysteries of Udolpho by Mrs. Radcliffe. There are repeated references to this book thoughout Northanger Abbey; Cathering and her friend Isabella Thorpe are quite fascinated by it. I did find a copy of it on the web; it will be interesting to see if the book corresponds to the image I have of it based on Jane Austen’s description.

There is also a great deal of discussion of reading as a pastime. Novels are at one point described as unworthy of one’s time, as “trash”. Austen also refers to novelists as writers of low status, about whom “there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.” However, they also lead to people connecting based on similar interest and Austen has her narrator state that she cannot approve of novelists putting down the act of reading novels and refraining from showing their heroine enjoying “some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” So whereas, the heroines of Sense and Sensibility are entranced by the reading of poetry and the images of romantic love and its raptures, those of Northanger Abbey are fascinated by novels and the horrors portrayed by the gothic genre.

References:

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. First published in 1803. Web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

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Death Comes to Pemberley – A fun summer read

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After struggling through Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, I figured I needed something lighter for a change, so I got into some P.D. James. As I started writing this entry, I was thinking about how much more enthusiastic I was about this book and about writing about it, although on second thought, I think that in the end, the Hemingway i s more likely to stick with me over  the long term… There is an interesting contrast between a “fun read” and real “food for thought”…

P.D. James wrote in her introduction that Jane Austen would have done a better job of this book than she did, but I beg to differ. That was quite a good read, in the proper style for a continuation of Pride and Prejudice.  P.D. James does add that she owes “an apology to the shade of Jane Austen for involving her beloved Elizabethin the trauma of a murder investigation…”.

P&P ends with Elizabeth Bennet agreeing to marry Mr. Darcy. Death Comes to Pemberley finds them comfortably established at Pemberley, the Darcy family estate. They have been married for a few years and they have two sons. To my mind, Elizabeth still has the face of Keira Knightley, and her sister, Mrs. Bingley, the face of Rosamund Pike. The Bingleys live on neighbouring estate called Highmarten. Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, the hysterical brat who eloped with Wickham, is still living a trouble-filled life with her charming no-good husband. And so on with the other characters one comes to love and hate in P&P.

On the eve of Lady Anne’s ball, named after Darcy’s late mother, on a stormy autumn night, Lydia arrives uninvited at Pemberley. Her carriage had been driving through the woodlands on the property. Wickham and his friend Mr. Denny had alighted from the carriage in the middle of the woodlands and after hearing some gun shots, Lydia asked the driver to hurry to Pemberley. So, the two men are lost in the woods on a dark stormy night. Darcy and some house guests hurry to rescue them and find Denny dead of a terrible blow to the back on the head, with a Wickham covered in blood hovering over him and saying that it was all his fault. They bring back Wickham and Denny’s body and proceed to report the event to the authorities and to cancel the ball.

Wickham is subsequently arrested and tried for murder, and is found guilty though he was claiming his innocence.

The key questions on which the mystery centers are:

1)      What happened on the ride through the woods? Why did the two men leave the carriage?

2)      What were the gun shots that Lydia and the driver heard?

3)      What did Wickham mean when he said it was his fault?

In the end, all ends well: A man nobody could have suspected confesses, Wickham obtains a royal pardon, a friend offers him a job in America, and he and Lydia are eventually very happy with their move to the New World. We get there through some rather unexpected twists as should be the case for a good mystery novel, some which are the unfortunate and absurd consequence of both rigid social conventions and reckless behaviours. Not quite a social critique but an interesting portrayal of the times.

I have read very little by P.D. James, maybe one or two mysteries, but I am a great fan of her book The Children of Men. When the book came out, I was teaching sociology of aging and I found quite interesting the implications for the treatment of older citizens of a radically aging society due to widespread infertility. So I have read the book a few times and I am also a big fan of the cinematographic adaptation.

I picked up Death Comes to Pemberley by chance (it was on bestseller lists… not always a criterion for a good read) and subsequently found out it was related to Jane Austen, which would have been a better reason to buy it, had I known. So that was a good change of pace, and I will now be persevering with the pile of Swedish literature.

References:

James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.