Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"The Red and Black" by Stendahl

Post-Napoleonic France was no meritocracy.

Stendahl's ambitious and ambiguous protagonist, Julien Sorel, is a peasant with a great memory for Latin and Biblical passages. These academic talents are joined to a youthful sensuality that earns him the romantic admiration of two women, one a bourgeois and the other a titled aristocrat.

The young intellectual does well to depart the family run mill where his father metes out brutal beatings as reward for his lack of interest in the enterprise.

This unfortunate childhood means that Julien, like most people, has multiple dimensions, some of which are off-putting to those around him (and to the reader).

Sorel’s cold calculations, his toying with the feelings of smitten and repressed women, serve him well on the way up, but rampant internal dialogues and painful inexperience litter his progress with self-made obstacles.

Julien is a closet admirer of Napolean (Red) during the post-revolutionary restoration (Black) and opts for the life of an aspiring Catholic cleric to ensure his future, staining himself with the same hypocrisy he sees and loathes all around him.

As such, "The Red and the Black" sketches a panorama of what the social climber faced both in the provincial setting, where this “Bildungsroman” begins, and among the Parisian aristocracy, where it ends.

The novel is a confirmed classic with a compelling narrative that should hold a reader’s attention all on its own.

However, an interest in how young Dukes and Counts of the era conversed with, and considered, each other will increase the appeal of "The Red and Black." A curiosity about bourgeois comportment and France generally will help, too.

Diane Johnson, tapped to pen the introduction of the Kindle version review here, notes that Stendahl’s portraits of the two principal female characters, Madame to Renal, and the aristocrat Mademoiselle de La Mole, are deeper and more loving than those typically found in novels of the time.

The ladies are, like Julien, alternately admirable and flawed and therefore realistically rendered, chafing at the limitations of their classes and gender.

To give away the end is to give away the book so prospective readers will have to take the plunge content in knowing that “The Red and Black” maps a rake’s progress while exposing, via the author’s own experiences as a man of consequence and leisure, 19th century French society and its maladies.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"A Diary from Dixie" by Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut

If the Confederacy had survived Lincoln's invasion, Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut might be a household name in the literary world.

And that's pretty good when one considers that her oeuvre was written without the slightest whiff of literary pretension or ambition.

highwayscribery is not sure if a deep interest in the Civil War, from the southern side of things, is necessary for her scribbling prowess to impress. But if it's there, "A DIARY FROM DIXIE" is for you.

Chesnut was well-positioned to chronicle Dixie's misery both as a South Carolina lady intimate with Jefferson Davis and his wife, and wife to a Confederate officer whose competence is apparent in his upward trajectory throughout the book's (and war's) course.

The authoress succeeds in engaging the reader without any real structure other than the natural chronology of events as she lives them. The gentle lady moseys from one happening to another, recounting those things she witnesses, and those others have told her about, with nary a transition.

But the recounting is so casual, the prose so clean, the reader is niever tried, taxed or bored. Chesnut was a feeling, seeing person with the literary chops to put what she felt and saw into words, as in this passage describing the family plantation, Mulberry, in Camden, South Carolina:

"It is so lovely here in spring. The giants of the forest -- the primeval oaks, water-oaks, live-oaks, willow-oaks, such as I have not seen since I left here -- with opopanax, violets, roses, and yellow jessamine, the air is laden with perfume. Araby the Blest was never sweeter."

There are fascinating, first-hand insights in "Diary" as to the way slaves and masters interacted, and the ambiguous attitude of negroes in the south when freedom beckoned, but their familiar world crumbled.

Chesnut's tones are not the stark blacks and whites of Harriet Beecher Stowe's south, rather a wide array of grays.

The relations between the furiously independent member states are also depicted, with Virginians, and Kentuckians, and Carolinians both north and south, remarked upon for their peculiar, geographically bound traits.

In these times, as a single electronic culture inexorably engulfs humanity, it is interesting to read about the differences between neighboring communities and see how they celebrated those differences.

The book's tone morphs from light to dark as the northern noose tightens around the Confederacy's neck. Noteworthy is the early opinion, expressed by rebels in high places, that the South had no chance of winning the war.

"Diary" tells us that had clearer heads prevailed, the cataclysm might have been averted.

The dominant portrait is that of a small, agrarian society confronting a behemoth that will leave no stone unturned, no home unburned, and kill-off a generation of fine young men -- not all of them enamored with slavery -- so much as loyal to their homeland.

"Others dropped in after dinner; some without arms, some without legs; von Boreke, who can not speak because of a wound in his throat. Isabella said, 'We have all kinds now, but a blind one.' Poor fellows, they laugh at wounds. 'And they yet can show many a scar.'"

Chesnut is in the rearguard, her lofty status slowly reduced to a state of hunger bourn with ladylike dignity. Hers is the Confederate women's story, a dreadful enumeration of lost sons, sundered families, and mothers literally dying from grief.

"Isabella says that war leads to love-making. She says these soldiers do more courting here in a day than they would do at home, without a war, in ten years."

Perhaps most valuable are those anecdotes Chesnut recorded which give the war between the states, and the Confederacy in particular, a greater depth and richer texture.

Without her we might not have known that President Davis' little boy died at home, nor of the suspicions that a turncoat on staff, or a spy snuck into the house, actually killed him in a cruel effort to demoralize Dixie.

The tragic deaths of innocents stepping out from a cave for some air in Vicksburg during the Union siege might have gone unrecorded. We could not be aware that France's last Count de Choiseul had thrown his lot in with the south and died for it, too.

Without her desperate scribblings, we would have known only the winner's account, and been denied the terrible beauties associated with losing, which is so much a part of life.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mr. Sammler's Planet

"Mr. Sammler's Planet" (Penguin Classics) makes the case for sticking with an author's big hits before delving into their more exotic offerings.

Saul Bellow, of course, is/was a famous writer whose big triumphs were "The Adventures of Augie March" (Penguin Classics)and "Herzog." (Penguin Classics)

highwayscribery decided upon "Mr. Sammler's Planet," thanks to its being mentioned in a column by David Brooks of the "New York Times."

In "Children of the '70s," Brooks sought to put a damper on recent enthusiasms for 1970s New York as a dangerous, but freewheeling and artistically sympathetic urban landscape that, on balance, was much better than the white flight and capital disinvestment that characterized it.

highwayscribery, who grew up in that New York, indulged just such a flight of fancy in his post memorializing the recently deceased downtown poet, Jim Carroll.

Brooks noted in his piece that, when the city tried slum clearance on the upper West Side, "Crime did not abate. Passivity set in, the sense that nothing could be done. The novel, 'Mr. Sammler's Planet,' by Saul Bellow captured some of the dispirited atmosphere of that era -- the sense that New York City was a place of no-go zones, a place where one hunkered down."


"Mr. Sammler's Planet," to the extent that it is about anything, fleshes out the post-Holocaust relationships between Jewish folk in New York: their mutual aid toward one another and the friendships forged by their unique and tragic recent history.

It is, briefly, about a pick-pocket Sammler watches and with whom he later experiences an unfortunate encounter. It is about the pending death of a close friend and benefactor. It is about his wacky daughter and her personal quest to make a father whose claim to fame is a long-ago relationship with H.G. Wells relevant to fast-changing times.

But these story threads are a skimpy skeleton upon which Mr. Bellow hung a lot of issues swimming around in his mind. It almost works until he gets into a discussion with Dr. Govinda Lal from whom his daughter Shula has stolen a manuscript.

The exchange is characterized by long-winded discourses from both men on the nature of things, which, to their minds, cannot be described in elementary terms. The two gents hold court with only the rarest authorial interjections to remind us these are characters talking and not just a stream of raw, unplugged Bellow.

The author was a Nobel Prize winner whose thoughts are novel and well-expressed. There is certainly valuable currency in "Mr. Sammler's Planet," but less of a story than one might expect from someone quite so celebrated.

Bring on "Herzog."