Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (32 down 68 to go)

Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes the importance of a drunkard’s life!


This is the first time I’ve read Under the Volcano, or Malcolm Lowry. The book is a modernist novel, third-person narrative and stream of consciousness story of Geoffrey Firmin, the British consul in Mexico. With the exception of the first chapter, which is actually a prologue, the entire story takes place on the Day of the Dead, 1938.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As I said, this was my first time reading Under the Volcano, which is my favorite way to begin a book: no expectations and no idea of the plot. Well started, and then…Wow! What a miserable book. I don’t mean it is bad literature, I mean it is a miserable, miserable story. Les Misérables is less miserable than Under the Volcano.


Sorry, couldn’t resist. But it is.


The Consul, as the narrative usually refers to him, is a hopeless alcoholic. Hopeless!


I thought Hemingway’s characters drank a lot. The Consul could drink them under the table. He is in fact, a high functioning drunk. People can’t always tell when he is drunk. Though he does have conversations with, his “familiars” or recurring hallucinatory apparitions, and at other times passes out face down in the street.


On this fateful day, he awakes with a hangover from drinking the night before and then drinks non-stop throughout the story. You may think I exaggerate, but I do not.


The Consul is separated and divorced from his wife, Yvonne, who has been away for some time, and he’s been miserable. She returns this day, and the reader is hopeful, as are Yvonne and the Consul. The Consul tells Yvonne that his half-brother Hugh is currently staying with him. Yvonne is clearly not overjoyed at this news. Later, a previous affair between Yvonne and Hugh is implied. As good hosts and family, the Consul and Yvonne make plans for the three of them, the festival is going on after all, much to do. But Yvonne and Hugh do more together, while The Consul watches and drinks or wanders off alone, usually ending up in a bar.


Yvonne and the Consul still have several private moments, often at odds, but they also reach a desperate declaration of mutual desire to get away and start life together anew. Yvonne has quaint dreams of a secluded farm life, or better yet, life on an island where she gardens and The Consul writes his book.


The trio stop at a friend’s house, Jacques Laruelle, for drinks and a bite, before proceeding to the festivities. Hugh and Yvonne leave without The Consul who remains behind for another drink. At this point, Jacques yells at The Consul, something the reader has been screaming all along: 

Have you gone mad? Am I to understand that your wife has come back to you, something I have seen you praying and howling for under the table…really under the table…And that you treat her indifferently as this, and still continue only to care where the next drink’s coming from?


It doesn’t do any good.


A past affair between Jacques and Yvonne is also hinted at.


Eventually the trio reunite at the festival, which of course includes drinking. At one stop, Hugh and The Consul debate politics, and The Consul begins to rant about nations meddling in other nations affairs, and then he transfers this to Hugh and Yvonne, meddling in his affairs. He is convinced they want to change him, want to stop him from drinking, (they’ve made a pretty lousy intervention thus far by the way). He rants and leaves in a huff. Yvonne and Hugh spend the remainder of the day searching for The Consul, who has made his way to another bar, where the story reaches its cataclysm.


The Mexican village where this all takes place is in the shadow of, or under the volcano, two volcanos actually: Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl


The story is filled with symbolism and allusions. I’m sure I missed most of them. There is a snake The Consul sees in his garden, the number 7 and 12 are recurring, in fact Lowry insisted on 12 chapters, one for each hour of the day spent under the volcano.


Like the novel, I was unfamiliar with the author. My copy has a brief biography of Lowry and it quickly became apparent that Under the Volcano is semi-autobiographical. Lowry is such a cliché of the tortured artist it is hardly believable. Privileged childhood, shunned Dad’s fortune, went to sea, took to drink, married, troubled marriage, moved to Mexico, divorced, remarried, moved to Canada, died young, probably alcohol related.




And it’s written mostly in stream of consciousness, which I dislike. If you add the fact, that the main consciousness is drunk throughout, it's even worse. So, it’s a miserable story, written in a style I dislike. I should have hated it. Somehow, I didn’t. I didn’t love it, didn’t even like it, I just didn’t hate it.




I love you. ~ The Consul whispering to a bottle of whiskey.


You probably wouldn’t have expected a communist to have a dog named Harpo…or would you? ~ Hugh


The Consul describes some tourists as: "vandals in sandals" (I think this would be a superb name for a modern band)


Please let Yvonne have her dream…dream?...of a new life with me…please let me believe that all that is not an abominable self-deception. Please let me make her happy, deliver me from this dreadful tyranny of self. ~ The Consul in prayer


Allusions to other Classic Literature:


The narrative says: Darkness had fallen like The House of Usher 


The Consul’s thoughts: alas for the Knight of Sorry Aspect (reference to Don Quixote). There are further references to Don Quixote.


The Consul says he learned…the philosophical section of War and Peace by heart


Hugh responding to the question if he had profited by reading War and Peace: I profited by it to the extent of being able to distinguish it from Anna Karenina


Hugh has been reading The Sea Wolf and Valley of the Moon by Jack London


The narrative explains that Hugh had not yet read Melville, before he went to sea


Numerous books are named that The Consul sees in Jacques library, including All Quiet on the Western Front


The Consul in drunken thought to himself: "No one loves Scrooge and Scrooge loves no one."


The Consul makes reference to Robinson Crusoe


Film Rendition: 1984 starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset. A pretty faithful rendition, except a little added twist at the end. Skip the movie, read the book.




Friday, October 17, 2014

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (31 down 69 to go)

"Dread remorse when you are tempted to err, Miss Eyre; remorse is the poison of life."

"Repentance is said to be its cure, sir."

This was the first time I’ve read Jane Eyre or Charlotte Brontë. The novel is a Victorian era, romance/mystery. It is the third-person narrative of Jane Eyre, in late 18th, early 19th century England.

My rating: 4 ½ of 5 stars

The only way I could have enjoyed Jane Eyre more is if I did not know secret behind the eerie mystery at Thornfield Hall, spoiled by a film version I watched some years ago.

The novel opens during Jane’s orphaned childhood. She is taken in by a loving Uncle, but he soon dies and you know the rest of that story…evil aunt, evil cousins, etc. Evil is a strong word, and I use it only for affect. They were pretty horrible though. Jane is not at this point, quite the angel she will become, but she has a keen sense of justice and the reader suffers for her. I was relieved when she was sent off to a “charitable” boarding school for girls, though with trepidation, as Jane’s aunt, defames her to the schoolmaster.

In spite of this, life is still more pleasant at school, though not without hardship and privation. The schoolmaster is cruel and miserly, but fortunately seldom present. The kindly superintendent does the best she can for the girls, and Jane befriends a sweet girl, Helen Burns, who is older and sickly, and you might guess how that ends.

But Jane Eyre is anything but predictable from this point on. Helen is positively angelic, and she leaves an indelible mark on Jane, who grows to be a gracious, gifted young woman. She teaches at the school for a while, but longs to know more of the world, and takes a position as governess to Adele, the young ward of the wealthy lord of Thornfield Hall.

Jane is well paid, well treated, and very well liked, by her student and the other servants at Thornfield. She begins to truly blossom and settles into a contented, well ordered routine. But there is an eerie mystery at Thornfield that manifests itself infrequently. I would have found this maddeningly intriguing, except for the movie. I would dearly have liked to read it without knowing.

The master of Thornfield, Mr. Rochester, is not home for Jane’s first few months. When he returns, well there is of course the love story. The hopeless love story. So hopeless, by the difference in their stations and other impediments that neither Jane nor Mr. Rochester seem to know they are in love. But of course, the reader knows. And the reader is hopeful, because after all, silly British traditions of class and keeping to one’s station are…well…silly, and the reader is certain they will be overcome.

But, in context it wasn’t so silly, and it was probably a very big obstacle. Still, Brontë clearly approves of the match, so I think even in her time, she must have intended the readers to hope.

Hope bears fruit, glorious beautiful fruit, and then it is dashed, utterly, unalterably, hopelessly dashed.

What next? No spoilers.

I loved this book. There is a continuous contest between self-indulgence and moral piety, between situation ethics and immutable righteousness, between hypocrisy and sincerity. Brontë does a masterful job, indeed an uncanny job of making these dilemmas genuine. It is perhaps easy for you, dear reader, to read the words and think the choices clear. But reading Jane Eyre, and feeling her conflict, and longing for her happiness, there were times when I wanted to tell her: just be happy Jane, you deserve it. Jane was not so weak, though she did peer longingly over the brink on more than one occasion.

And finally….THE MOST GLORIOUS final line of any of the novels I have read thus far, or that I shall read.

Amen; even so come, Lord Jesus!

Other Quotations:

This was very pleasant; there is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow-creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort. ~ Jane

Mr. Rochester to Jane:
Is it better to drive a fellow-creature to despair than to transgress a mere human law, no man being injured by the breach?  

Jane’s thoughts in preparing her response: 
Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigor; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth, so I have always believed… 

The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter, often an unconscious, but still a truthful interpreter, in the eye. ~ Jane

To live amidst general regard, though it be but the regard of working people, is like sitting in sunshine, calm and sweet; serene inward feelings bud and bloom under the ray. ~ Jane

Glorious discovery to a lonely wretch! This was wealth indeed! Wealth to the heart! ~ Jane discovering she had living relatives

References to other classic novels: As a child Jane begins to read Gulliver’s Travels.

Trivia: Did you know there is a prequel to Jane Eyre? The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Movie Rendition: 2011 version with Mia Wasikowska as Jane, and Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester was very good. I thought Wasikowska was perfect as Jane. The rest of the casting was very good, as were the film locations. The movie was pretty faithful, but I was disappointed on two points. First, the mysterious presence at Thornfield Hall was inadequately portrayed. Secondly the ending was too abrupt. There was marvelous dialogue at the end of the novel, which was omitted in the film. In fact, make it three points. The brilliance of Jane Eyre is the dialogue, and too much was omitted in this film version. Skip the movie, read the book.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Recap of Novels 21 - 30

Average rating 3.9 out of 5 Stars

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ★★★½  
Brideshead Revisited ★★★ 
Atonement ★★★
Blood Meridian ★★★
Don Quixote ★★
The Brothers Karamazov ★★★★
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ★★★★
Anna Karenina
Gone with the Wind
Moby Dick

Favorite: Gone with the Wind

Least Favorite: Don Quixote

Best Hero/Heroine: Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind

Most Villainous: The Judge from Blood Meridian

Most interesting/Complex character: Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov. Honorable mention to Starbuck from Moby Dick.

Best Quotation: Father Zosima from The Brothers Karamazov, speaking of secular humanists: They aim at justice, but denying Christ, they will end by flooding the earth with blood. 

Best Subtitle: The Evening Redness in the West from Blood Meridian

Best film adaptation: Quite easily, Gone with the Wind. I just watched it on the big screen, for a 75th anniversary special event.

Worst film adaptation: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the 1960 version I randomly picked was pretty horrible.