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Welcome to The Once Lost Wanderer. The name is derived from two poems: Amazing Grace by reformed slave trader John Newton, and All That is Gold Does Not Glitter by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (87 down 13 to go)

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished. ~ narrative regarding Dorian’s thoughts

This is the second time I’ve read The Picture of Dorian Gray and it remains the only work I’ve read by Oscar Wilde; it is his only novel. The book is a gothic novel set in Victorian era England. It is the third-person narrative of Dorian Gray, and as you might guess involves a picture, painting to be precise, of the title character. The picture is mysteriously endowed with magical qualities that creates a strange and fantastic relationship between picture and subject.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
 


This novel satisfies 2017 Back to theClassics Challenge category #7 – A gothic or horror classic.

I was looking forward to this read, as I remembered liking this novel very much the first time I read it at least 10 years ago. I liked it even more this time as I realized a much more profound meaning.

Dorian Gray, an exceptionally beautiful (never described as handsome) young man, has his likeness painted by Basil Hallward: a friend of Dorian’s and an artist of moderate distinction. Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of the artists, is introduced to Dorian and the painting. Hallward and Lord Henry agree it is Hallward’s masterpiece, and they heap praise on the impressionable Dorian. During a philosophical discussion on the qualities of youth and beauty, Dorian uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished

I don’t suppose it is too much of a spoiler to tell you – Dorian’s wish comes true.

But it is a bit more profound than that. For it seems that not only time, but any sin, any vice, any unkindness that Dorian commits, has a defiling effect on the picture.

But neither the reader or Dorian realizes this until Dorian falls madly in love with a beautiful young actress Sybil Vane. After an uncharacteristically poor stage performance, Dorian is repulsed and rejects Sybil permanently, leaving her distraught and despairing.

Shortly thereafter, Dorian notices the first defect in the painting. He tries to convince himself it is his imagination, but eventually he cannot deny that it has changed and now displays a touch of cruelty in the mouth.

This physical revelation of the ugliness of his sin drives Dorian to repent.

One thing, however, he felt that it had done for him. It had made him conscious how unjust he had been to Sibyl Vane.

He is genuinely contrite and truly realizes the vanity and cruelty of his actions. He writes a long letter to Sybil begging forgiveness and professing pure and undying love.

But sadly, some things cannot be undone. The painting becomes an ever-present accuser in Dorian’s life.

For every sin that he committed a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness.

But here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls.

The portrait was to bear the burden of is shame: that was all.

While Dorian…had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world.

Though it did cause him to reflect…wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age.

The story fast forwards nearly 30 years, and the reader realizes that, perhaps in despair at learning of his inability to atone for his sin, Dorian has led a hedonistic and libertine existence. He still looks young and innocent, but secretly takes perverse pleasure in watching the increasing corruption of the painting, which is by new vile and hideous.

Dorian keeps the paining locked away in the attic where no one but himself can ever view it.

And then, he reveals the painting, and its incredible secret to one soul.

And then, Dorian commits his greatest sin. So great that his guilt drives him to once again avow repentance and atonement, only once more to learn his actions cannot be undone.

As I mentioned, I was more impressed with this second read. There are profound themes of sin, guilt, repentance, atonement, free will, and fatalism. I quite concur with Wilde’s apparent premise that our vices take their toll even in our physical frame, and I certainly agree that the consequences of some actions cannot be stopped.

Some readers might find Wilde’s story fatalistic and without hope. Dorian seemed unable to escape his fate, but me personally, I think Dorian was a grim lesson of the fine line that can separate despair from glory. Dorian came oh so close on several occasions to righting his course. I don’t take his failure to mean that Wilde was suggesting it is impossible to do so, but merely pointing out how fine the line and how horrible the consequence.

Dorian’s two friends: Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton are stark contrasts. Both adored Dorian, perhaps even obsessed over him. Lord Henry delighted in Dorian’s debauchery, once stating:  Dorian is far too wise not to do foolish things now and then, my dear Basil.

But Basil tried to disbelieve the evil rumors. When he is forced to face Dorian’s corruption he tries desperately, and almost successfully, to warn Dorian away. He implores Dorian that Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I [God] will make them as white as snow. Sadly, Dorian considers himself beyond redemption.

And finally, Sybil Vane: I found her name interesting and tend to think Wilde chose it intentionally. Sybil denoting a prophetess, and vane perhaps a play on vain. Dorian’s love was certainly quite vain, and turned out to be the harbinger of his doom.

Side note about cover art: One of the problems with any cover art for this novel is that the cover can never live up to Wilde’s description of Dorian. He is repeatedly described as extraordinarily beautiful – almost supernaturally so – no cover art seems adequate. They often fail to coincide with his physical description of gold hair, curls, blue eyes, and red-rose lips.

Other excerpts:

Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different. ~ Lord Henry

There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing. ~ Lord Henry

Each of us has heaven and hell in him, Basil, cried Dorian with a wild gesture of despair.


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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Sextus Textuscriptus Anniversarius (6th Blog Anniversary)


You may know it as a blogoversary, but – and I’m reluctant to be so dogmatic, but – blogoversary is wrong.


Literally blogoversary means turning of the blog, but it does not indicate an annual event. You could have a blogoversary daily, monthly, hourly, every second Tuesday of months with no R, etc.


To indicate the annual reoccurrence of the date a blog was started, and to do it in Latin, cuz ya know – Latin is cool, we need…


Sextus = sixth, textum = web, scriptus = script (record, log), annus = year, verus = turning.


Sextus Textuscriptus Annversarius = Sixth web log annual turning, or Sixth blog anniversary.


Trust me; everyone’ll be saying it soon. Jump on the bandwagon now and be one of the cool kids before all the hipster bloggers join in.


Cuz ya know, COOL is what book bloggers are all about.


Six years ago this blog started out as my quest to read The 100 Greatest Novels of all Time. More about the quest HERE. I’m not quite finished with the quest – currently on book 87. I expect to be done with the original quest sometime next year, but probably not by this date.


The blog’s grown into much more than just the 100 Greatest Novels quest. I’ve been sticking mostly to novels in order to complete the quest, but once it is complete I’ve got a little over 1200 other novels to read, and then over there on the right 
a bunch of other TBR lists for: Tolkien, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Short Stories, Plays, Poetry, Epic Poems, Mythology & Folklore, Graphic Novels, and Presidential Biographies.


No, I will not complete these in this lifetime. Next lifetime? Maybe. I don’t know what the celestial library is like.


Now, a little riddle for you. It’s pretty easy.


This blog was originally called The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time. I changed it to The Once Lost Wanderer when I decided I wanted something more creative. The new name is derived from two poems: Amazing Grace by John Newton and All that is Gold Does not Glitter by J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Newton, I once was lost, but now that I am found I still like to wander, and as Prof Tolkien asserts “not all those who wander are lost”. I like to wander – through secret places of Middle Earth, imperial courts of Russia, plantations of the antebellum South, the inner sanctum of a mad scientist’s laboratory, deepest seas, farthest planets, and the occasional insane asylum.

The Riddle – can you name novels to which these wandering locations refer? (more than one possible answer for most)


Cheers



The Wanderer

Thursday, August 10, 2017

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (86 down 14 to go)


All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

…what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of bad and the bad out of good, and the devil take the hindmost. ~ Jack Burden

This is the first time I’ve read All the King’s Men or Robert Penn Warren. The book is a modernist novel with existential themes. It is the tale of Jack Burden and Willie Stark, because as Jack, the first-person narrator put it...the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



Before reading All the King’s Men, I didn’t know it won a Pulitzer or that the 1949 movie adaptation won the Academy Award for best picture. I’m glad I didn’t know, as that would have set expectations high. I much prefer to have no expectations.

Jack Burden is a history researcher and aide to Governor Willie Stark – the popular and powerful governor of an unnamed Southern State in the 1930s (unnamed but most likely Louisiana). Jack is a crafty cynic, and worldly wise Jack-of-all-Trades for the governor.

In a flashback, the two meet when Willie is a petty county bureaucrat. Willie attempts to expose a crooked construction deal for a new school, but the old political machine is untouchable, until an inferior fire escape at the school gives way during a fire drill and kills several students and cripples others.

According to Jack:  It was a piece of luck for Willie. (cynic…I told you)

It launches Willie’s political career, and he runs for governor, or again as Jack put it: …he was running for Governor. Or rather, he was running in the Democratic primary, which in our state is the same us running for Governor.

In his initial campaign, Willie is naïve and politically inept. He is also initially a man of honesty and integrity, until he learns he is a stooge of the political machine, trying to split the support of another candidate.

Willie does not win that primary, but he does eventually become governor. He is wildly popular with the people, despised by political opponents, and feared by his stooges. His staff all call him Boss. Jack calls him boss, but is no stooge. Jack’s job included many things, such as digging up dirt on people that needed persuading.

Jack had other, less sordid, duties. He said: I was supposed to do a lot of different things, and one of them was to lift up fifteen-year-old, hundred-and-thirty-five-pound hairy white dogs on summer afternoons and paint an expression of unutterable bliss upon their faithful features as they gaze deep, deep into the Boss’s eyes. [photo-op at the old family farm]

The tale is about Willie’s growing political savviness – and slow corruption, and simultaneously about Jack’s philosophizing of the entire saga. I couldn’t and wouldn’t attempt to recapitulate Jack’s philosophy. The quotation at the top of this post is one example, and here are a couple more:

The end of man is knowledge, but there is one thing he can’t know. He can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got or because of the knowledge which he hasn’t got and which if he had it, would save him. There’s the cold in your stomach, but you open the envelope, you have to open the envelope, for the end of man is to know.

And…

If the human race didn’t remember anything it would be perfectly happy. I was a student of history once in a university and if I learned anything from studying history that was what I learned. Or to be more exact, that was what I thought I had learned.

As Jack implies, there are definite parallels between his story and Willie’s. Both are pragmatic and have no qualms with the seedier aspects of politics. Jack is able to justify his role because as a historical researcher – he loved truth. If it was the truth he dug up – so be it. The Boss did the dirty work with it. And even the Boss’ dirty work – well, they told themselves they were doing it for the greater good.

Several distinct but related violent events shake both Willie and Jack to the core of their beliefs. It comes too late for one, and perhaps just in time for the other.

I really enjoyed this novel. First, for the philosophical dilemmas, or moral ambiguity, or conflicted consciences, or situational ethics, or well you see – the complex business of life.

But secondly, Robert Penn Warren uses fabulous dialogue and narrative that is simply a lot of fun and entirely believable for his characters (examples in the excerpts at the end). Jack in particular likes to string together a half-dozen or more adverbs or adjectives in describing people and events.

There are several great tragedies in this novel – more than several, but in spite of them, there is a very satisfying ending.

Once more, in Jack’s words: This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story too. For I have a story. It is the story of a man who lived in the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way.

Have you read All the King’s Men? What did you think?

Excerpts:

There’s a reference to Moby Dick as Jack describes the alluring look a love interest gives him. [she]…sunk her harpoon deeper than ever Queequeg sunk it…

Then the boss spied a fellow, a tall gaunt-shanked, malarial, leather-faced side of jerked venison, wearing jean pants and a brace of mustaches hanging off the kind of face you see in photographs of General Forrest’s cavalrymen…

My god, you talk like Byram was human! He’s a thing! You don’t prosecute an adding machine if a spring goes bust and makes a mistake. You fix it. Well, I fixed Byram. I fixed him so his unborn great-grandchildren will wet their pants on this anniversary and not know why. Boy, it will be the shock in the genes. Hell, Byram is just something you use, and he’ll sure be useful from now on. ~ The Governor discussing how to deal with a corrupt bureaucrat

He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide.

That is what all of us historical researchers believe. And we love truth.

For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-filed pines encroach. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and the blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go.

The second day I was in Texas. I was traveling through the part where the flat-footed, bilious frog-sticker-toting Baptist biscuit-eaters live. Then I was traveling through the part where the crook-legged, high-heeled, gun-wearing, spick-killing, callous-rumped sons of the range live and crowd the drugstore on Saturday night and then all go round the corner to see episode three of “Vengeance on Vinegar Creek,” starring Gene Autry as Borax Pete.

I had seen three hangings and one electrocution, but they are different. In a hanging you do not change a man’s personality. You just change the length of his neck and give him a quizzical expression, and in an electrocution you just cook some bouncing meat in a wholesale lot.


I tried to tell her how if you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other, and how if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for only out of the past can you make the future.

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