Saturday, 25 January 2014

Life, Byronic Heroes and Haruki Murakami

It's finally snowing
I can't believe it's been two weeks since I last posted something! Time has flown, mostly because the last weeks were packed with exams. Needless to say I didn't really have time to read or blog, my daily rhythm consisted more or less of school, lunch, study, repeat.
However, the worst is over now and the good thing is that not blogging for a while gave me the chance to really think about where I want to go to with this blog and with my reading in general.
And because my life has been rather boring apart from integral calculus and acid-base balance I have been pretty pensive on the whole, thinking about life and the future, but that is something for another day to discuss.

Concerning my reading a new project has appeared on the horizon, although I still have to work out the details. Ironically it was inspired by school. The Austrian school system requires every student to write a scientific paper and present it as part of our final exams and I chose to write about the Byronic Hero, his literary origins, characteristics, pervasiveness of popular culture and so on. It is an absolutely fascinating topic because the idea of these dark, passionate, world-weary, rebellious and attractive characters is as captivating to me as it has been to most since around the time of the French revolution, and also because supreme examples of Byronic Heroes can be found in many great books. Just think of Mr Rochester, Heathcliff, Sydney Carton! While I have thoroughly read some of the books I mention in my paper I have only skimmed others, especially those dealing with the roots of this archetype, which include for example Paradise Lost. This is why I am bringing the Byronic Project to life. Details should be up soon, hopefully.

On a different note I actually did read something during my study breaks, a rather special book even.
Haruki Murkami, whom I have loved ever since reading Norwegian Wood, published a new book in September.
Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is supposedly his first book after Norwegian Wood that is not surrealistic and it sold more than a million copies during the first week of sales in Japan. As soon as I heard of it I googled the book and found out that the English translation will be published towards mid-2014... Can you imagine my surprise when I went by my local bookstore by chance and saw the German version already sitting there in the window display?
Of course I bought it immediately and I was not disappointed. Although it was far from flawless the book had this special Murakami feeling to it that I'd been missing since Norwegian Wood and I could barely put it down (which severely endangered my Chemistry mark). The story follows 36-year-old Tsukuru Tazaki who leads an ordinary, boring and anonymous life in Tokyo. In school he was part of a group of five friends who meant everything to each other and lived in total harmony completely in their own world, until one day the other four told Tsukuru that they never wanted to see him again. The reason? He should know. Sixteen years of loneliness follow. But when Tsukuru finally manages to connect to another person again and even sees a chance to win love, he has to deal with the pain of his past in order to reclaim the life that would have been his if not for that great tragedy. So he goes on a journey to visit his four old friends, to solve the mystery of his past and to finally discover himself before his time is over and it is too late.

This is ultimately a book about life, how we live it and about how we use the time given to us. It is about all the things that perish in the flow of time and, most importantly, about finding those which don't. A strange melancholy beauty that is so much Murakami's signature pervades the novel and at the end you really feel none the wiser about the great mystery of life, you only sense an elusive wisdom that cannot be put into words. There are several loose threads in the book which are never really resolved and often you have to accept vague allusions as the only conclusion you get, but that is another signature of Murakami.
His books are never easy and always very complex, but if they weren't they would only be half as beautiful.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie... From a Feminist Perspective

Peter Pan is one of these stories everyone knows. Written as a highly successful play it was adapted by J.M. Barrie into a novel in 1911 and later followed by countless other stories about the boy who would not grow up. Understandably, like most other children's classics it is dear to the hearts of many and of course the idea of staying a child forever without ever having to face the disillutionments of growing up carries an eternal appeal, but reading the novel for the first time I could not help noting some aspects that genuinely astonished and bothered me.

First off, the story is very surrealistic and symbolic in ways that cannot be explained by its fantasy world. There are many passsages such as this description of Mrs Darling which cannot be targeted at children (only).

“She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner. ”

However, more than anything the novel contains some surprisingly dark parts. The Lost Boys, who are after all children less that twelve years old, go into battles and even kill pirates without thinking twice. It reminds me of Grimms' Fairy Tales where the most brutal things happen to the villains but don't bother children listening to them at all. As Barrie writes, children are indeed "gay and innocent and heartless".

Still, all of this might have surprised me but it is not where my problem with the book lies. The problem is this: amid all his beautiful ideas and poetic descriptions J.M. Barrie gives his female characters only one-dimensional, boring and ultimately worrisome narratives.
While Peter is cocky, playful, selfish and sometimes cruel, in short a typical child, Wendy is brought to Neverland as a "mother" for the boys and then immediately assumes the role of a miniature housewive (with the exception of those times when she is portrayed as a damsel in distress waiting for the hero to save her).
Although she is no older than Peter Pan he automatically expects her to care for him and the other boys and to often do housework while the Lost Boys have fun and go on adventures.
For Wendy Neverland is no childhood paradise because even there she already has to act as a grown-up little woman. Shaped by her society's expectations, she is happy to embrace this domestic existence.

There are several hints of romantic feelings Wendy might possibly have for Peter, although she is too young to really fall in love with him and probably only imitates the adults she knows by making Peter the "father" of the Lost Boys and therefore her husband. However, Peter resists this idea. He says his feelings towards Wendy are "those of a devoted son" and wants to stay a careless child, unwilling to burden himself with the responisibilities of an adult even in play. This does not keep Tiger Lily, Wendy and Tinkerbell (who even tries to kill Wendy) from being jealous and hating each other over him though. I think I do not have to explain how harmful a narrative is in which the only way women interact is in their struggle to "get the man".

While I liked some parts of the book I would not want my daughter, should I one day have one, to read it.
I want her Neverland to be happy and exciting and full of possibilies beyond marrying and domestic bliss.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

A very late Readathon Wrap-up

I know, I know, I am tremendously late in reviewing the Classics Club Readathon which ended three days ago, and I should have known that I would not have time to write a wrap-up post in time because it was exactly the same last year.
But in my defense school started for me on Monday, meaning that I again have to endure endless hours of boredom during the day and work through dangerously high piles of homework in the evening.
Oh, the sweet joys of education.

Anyway, back to the Readathon! Here is the ending questionnaire:

1. What book(s) did you read during the event?
    Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Siddharta by Hermann Hesse
2. What book(s) did you finish?
    All except Siddharta, that was too much theologic philosophy for the early hours of the morning.
3. What did you like about our event?
    It was a really great way to start the year with a lot of guilt-free reading.
4. Do you have suggestions for future Readathons through The Classics Club?
    Maybe make them semi-annual? It would be great to have such a big Readathon in the summer as well!
5. Would you participate in future Readathons?
6. Anything else you’d like to share? (Favorite quote from your reading? Funny anecdote from the event?)
    I loved The Great Gatsby and there are many beautiful quotes in it, but my favourite is this one about          Gatsby from near the end of the book:

"He put his hands in his coat pockets and turned back eagerly to his scrutiny of the house, as though my presence marred the sacredness of the vigil. So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing."

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Classics Club Readathon

It is already 2 pm in Austria and after a busy morning I'm ready to start The Second Annual Classics Club Readathon! I am more than excited and thankfully I've got the living room all to myself, I love reading next to the Christmas tree. Supplied with chocolate, Christmas cookie leftovers and plenty of coffee I feel properly prepared for reading through the night.

The books I've chosen are Siddharta by Hermann Hesse because I am trying to overcome my unpatriotic dislike of German literature, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie because I need a break from growing up and finally The Great Gatsby because I am apparently the only person on earth to not have read it yet.

I'll probably start with Peter Pan which I hope to finish today. Updates will be added to this post every few hours.
For now, good luck to everyone participating and happy reading!

First Update - 8.30 pm
I have finished Peter Pan and it was quite different from what I expected. Not bad, but very surreal, especially in the beginning which rather dragged. For a children's book I found it pretty grown up though, and it took me longer than expected.
Now I'll have dinner and make a minimum of civil conversation with my family before curling up with The Great Gatsby.

Second Update - Midnight
I am halfway through Gatsby and very captivated by it so far, although I'm starting to feel a little melancholy. All the loneliness of the Jazz Age's party people seems to be creeping into my room... 
Surprisingly I'm not tired at all yet, but I suppose the morning hours are going to be tough.

Third Update - 4.30 am
I've just finished The Great Gatsby and right now I'm almost overwhelmed with feelings and ideas. I know for sure that this is one of the books I'll be reading many more times throughout my life, hoping to uncover all its meanings.

I'll sleep a little now - not so much because I'm tired but because I simply cannot imagine reading another book right after this! But if I can get out of bed I'd like to read Siddharta in the morning before the readathon ends. It's only 100 pages long and I've got time until 2 pm so it should be manageable.
Good luck to everyone who is reading through the night!

Fourth Update - 11 am
I slept for six hours and had weird dreams of people dancing in dresses from the Twenties, thanks Gatsby!
However, I am wide awake now and ready to tackle the last 3 hours of the readathon with my duty read, Siddharta.

Fifth and Final Update - 2 pm
That's it! 24 hours are over and I have to say they passed really quickly. I am not quite finished with Siddharta because I found it too complex and philosophical to read it in my exhausted state, but I am still very happy with all the progress I've made during the readathon.
I've read around 500 pages, which is gigantic considering my slow-motion reading pace! Sometime later today or tomorrow I'll write a wrap-up post, but I need a little rest and time to sort my thoughts first.

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Frozen Deep by Wilkie Collins

Sometimes people have strange, inexplicable, menacing presentiments that seemingly come out of nowhere. There is no sound reason for it, but at the same time it is not possible to shake off the certainty that some nebulous threat  is waiting in the shadows of the future. This is the tone that dominates most of Wilkie Collins's novella The Frozen Deep.
Maybe it is just me, but I think even the title already carries the sense of gloom and of the foreboding of tragedy.

Based off Franklin's doomed Arctic Expedition of 1845 which disappeared forever during their search for the Northwest Passage,
The Frozen Deep was written as a play by Wilkie Collins for the annual Christmas performance at Charles Dickens's house in 1856 and later reworked into this novella.  Dickens apparently altered it so much that critics claimed the play should be ascribed to him rather than to his friend, but in the story his influence isn't directly noticeable.
The writing style is definitely Wilkie Collins's (which is great!), even though it is obvious that the novella was adapted from a play because at the beginnings of chapters there are only thinly veiled play-like scene descriptions. However, my only real criticism is that, with less than a hundred pages, the story was too short. I wanted to read more scenes set in the desolation of the eternal ice. I was captivated by their atmosphere of abject loneliness and doom, and I think that, had Wilkie Collins only adapted his play into a proper novel, it would have both enjoyed immense success and turned into one of my favourite books.

As it is, the novella tells the story of Clara Burnham, whose lover Frank Aldersley is about to leave as an officer for the Arctic expedition when she meets her childhood friend Richard Wardour who is just coming back from another expedition and madly in love with her. Through a misunderstanding he believes Clara to be engaged to him, and when she refuses him he vows to make the man who "stole her from him" regret the day they met. Weary of life, he then signs up to join the Arctic expedition without knowing that Aldersley is his rival. But Clara, who believes she has the Second Sight (a belief which interestingly is neither outright confirmed nor refuted during the story) is afraid for Frank Aldersley's life nonetheless. And she is right: Richard Wardour really finds out that his comrade is the man he has sworn revenge and eventually the two end up drifting on an iceberg in the ocean, completely alone in a desert of snow.

As I've said the chilling atmosphere is magnificent and the sense of threat stems largely from Richard Wardour. He is an extremely interesting character, and although he provided the inspiration for Sydney Carton from Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, I was surprised to learn that there are significant differences between these two men. Richard Wardour is more respected in his position as a gentleman than the drunkard Sydney Carton, but completely different to him he appears as very dangerous, at least in the beginning. I wonder what it must be like to read The Frozen Deep without knowing beforehand that Richard Wardour is in the end the neglected, tragic hero of the story.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


I'll need a new hobby to fill all the time I currently spend
dreaming about this place
Obviously I am immensely susceptible to psychologic manipulation. From two days ago to now virtually nothing has changed in my life and yet my cosy laziness of then has been replaced with busy excitement, all because of the new year. I have finally realised that it really is January, and although the first day of 2014 is in fact just a day that is hardly different from the one before, everything feels different. I am thrilled for everything this year will bring: graduation, my entry into the world of adults on my 18th birthday and university. This morning I filled in my new calender and now the dates of my final exams are hanging on the wall in red ink. What a weird feeling!

It is a little intimidating, especially since I have no idea where in the world I will be next September. Cambridge is supposed to send me their answer during the next few days and of course I am excited, even though I try not to be. Rationally I know that it can only be a rejection because while my interviews were okay (but not great), my performance at their critical thinking test was underwhelming, to put it nicely. Overall I did my best, I just can't imagine that it was enough for Cambridge, there were almost 900 brilliant applicants for just 200 places. So in order to not be disappointed I am trying to crush my hopes, but you all know how obstinate hope can be.

On a brighter note, I have started reading again! When I was standing in front of my shelves yesterday a small book I have had there untouched for over a year basically jumped at me. The Frozen Deep was written as a play by Wilkie Collins for the annual Christmas performance at Charles Dickens's house in 1856 and later reworked into a short novel. It tells the story of Franklin's doomed Arctic expedition of 1845 and, although written by Collins, Dickens apparently altered it so much that critics claimed the play should be ascribed to him rather than to his friend. Having read both authors I am curious if I can notice their separate influences. However, the reason why I am really interested in it is that The Frozen Deep inspired Dickens to write A Tale of Two Cities by creating the character of Richard Wardour who later became Sydney Carton, the most tragic byronic hero of all time. So I am excited to see where this fascinating character originated and also because no, I can't get enough of Sydney Carton.

Hopefully I will finish this short book before the readathon on Saturday, which starts at 2 pm for me thanks to the time difference. I have had a few ideas as to what to read for it, but I'll probably decide spontaneously at my whim. Right now I am mostly concerned with hiding the last Christmas cookies so that I'll have something to snack on during the night!