The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I read The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter a couple of years ago, and it was such a good novel that I definitely wanted to read more by the author. Plus, as I was an English major student at the university, it is still important for me to get to know the work of such formative authors I only heard about as a student, but due to a lack of time or my different schedule did not have the chance to read their works.

Speaking about majoring in English, I must mention that after reading two of her books, I consider Angela Carter to be one of the most suitable authors for a course in English literature. Her books are full of literary and cultural references (of which, I guess, I only recognize about 1 percent); they can be read from a psychoanalytical, a feminist or a magical realist point of view; and whole courses could be filled with the analysis of her strong, often erotically charged words and symbols. Despite all this, Angela Carter doesn’t intimidate me, and I don’t consider her to be a writer whose work can only be appreciated and enjoyed if you happen to be a university professor of English literature.

The Bloody Chamber consists of ten short stories, and each one is the adaptation of a well-known tale or legend. Among them we find the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss-In-Boots and the Beauty and the Beast. In her foreword to the book English author Helen Simpson mentions that The Bloody Chamber is not the rewriting of these tales from a feminist perspective, instead (according to both her and Angela Carter) it is a collection of stories which bring the hidden contents of the old tales to the surface and use these contents to write new stories on their basis. And I agree with Simpson and Carter.

While reading these tales, I indeed felt that Angela Carter wrote new stories, and the fact that her stories are based on tales known to virtually everybody is ’only’ important as this way the stories are provided with an extra layer of meaning. This of course entails that you don’t necessarily have to know the original tales in order to understand the tales of Angela Carter. I, for example, was not familiar with the exact story of Puss-in-Boots, but I greatly enjoyed Carter’s tale of the same title.

Angela Carter also creates an interesting effect by featuring modern devices such as the telephone, the train or the bicycle in the tales set in an unidentifiable period. By using such out of place objects in her stories, she creates a distance between the original tales and her own versions of them (since in the original texts, naturally, no such objects appeared), and also emphasizes that the violence and the erotic content present in the original tales is also very much there in the lives of heroes living in an era of technical achievements.

The short stories of this collection are, by the way, rather oppressive, stifling and orgiastic texts. A reason for this oppressiveness could be that most of the stories consist only of descriptive passages, and contain no dialog whatsoever which would make the story easier to read and digest. Another reason could be that Angela Carter obviously enjoys her own writing and luxuriates in dark words suggesting decadence, animalistic feelings, perverseness and corruption. In her world, the sweet smell of roses always mingles with the dazing stench of decay, and even the purest virginity always foreshadows future promiscuity and cruel sexuality.

Because of all these, it must be a real challenge for any translator to translate the work of Angela Carter. It can’t be easy to render the poetic and erotic language of Angela Carter in another language without the result being kitschy and ridiculous, and it must also take a lot of effort and ingenuity to make sure that the motifs surfacing at different parts of the same short story or appearing in several stories (such as the contrast between the cold North and the seemingly warm, friendly South; the roses which appear all the time; or the not entirely human lovers) appear where they need to appear, and that the bizarre words appearing from time to time resonate throughout the whole collection, and constantly remind the reader of the context in which they previously appeared.

And simply reading Angela Carter is quite a challenge for me – but it’s a pleasure as well. I have to pay a lot of attention to it but it’s worth the effort. My only problem with Carter is that she is a bit too clever and conscious for me (and I’ve never thought that one day I will object to these qualities). If only she were a bit more spontaneous and human, I could easily become her greatest fan. But this way I only know and understand what a good writer she was and I will definitely read her other works as well, but she will never become my favorite.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

It happens to me quite often that I come across a book at random and it suddenly exerts an irresistible force on me. I don’t think there’s anything miraculous in this, I simply mean that a good title, a nice cover or a chance sentence I happen to read when picking up the book can awaken my interest so much that I feel I cannot live without knowing what’s in between the covers. Now, I don’t really know what exactly kindled my interest in Life of Pi, as usually I’m not particularly into novels featuring animals or overtly religious themes, and I had an idea that Life of Pi was such a novel. In retrospect, I think I was hooked by nothing else but the cover which I liked so much that I did not care about the themes of the novel at all. Anyway, I became interested, and then felt I must buy the novel and read it as soon as possible. This I did.

Let me mention right here that the novel was a bit disappointing for me – though this probably has more to do with my irrationally high expectations than the quality of the book. My final disappointment was all the more bitter as the novel has an exceptionally good start which satisfies all my needs: it features multi-layered narration, jumps between past and present, a lot of delightful philosophy and an immensely likeable protagonist, Pi.

The story starts out with the narrator, a Canadian writer travelling to India in order to make his little money go a long way. There he meets an old man who tells him about the strange story of Pi Patel. When Pi was sixteen years old, he survived a shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and then he drifted in a lifeboat for 200 days in the company of a huge Bengal tiger and a couple of other animals until he finally arrived at the shores of Mexico. The old man suggests that the writer visit Pi, now a mature man, when he gets back to Canada and ask Pi to share the whole story with him, because this is a story which has the power to turn even the most incredulous person into a believer in God.

The narrator takes the old man’s advice and contacts Pi when back in Canada. Pi agrees to recounting his story to the writer – and from this point, we mostly read Pi’s own narration, except in a couple of short chapters where the writer shares his impressions about Pi and his family with the reader.

In the first part of the novel, we jump to and fro between present-day Canada and the India of 25 years ago, and we learn about Pi’s childhood and the origins of his unique relationship to animals and religions. Pi’s father happens to be the owner of a zoo, so Pi has the chance from his early childhood to learn how to live together with animals and how to respect the ways of animals. Apart from animals, religion is the other important driving force in Pi’s life. Though he comes from a Hindu background, as a teenager Pi discovers the beauties of Christianity and the Muslim religion as well, so he becomes a young man with three equally important religions.

This part of the book is entertaining and philosophical at the same time, and I truly enjoyed Pi’s ruminations on as diverse topics as the difficulties of running a zoo, the needs of animals, the human mistake of believing animals to be anthropomorphic; the importance of belief, or the idea that man can doubt, but no good comes out of making permanent doubt a life-philosophy.

The thoroughly enjoyable first part of the book ends with Pi’s family deciding to close up the zoo and emigrate to Canada. The second part starts with the sinking of their ship. Pi is the only one to survive the tragedy, and from this moment on, the novel becomes something of a standard castaway story – though one spiced with a couple of dangerous animals, unbelievable difficulties and magical elements. I won’t divulge more details as I don’t want to spoil your pleasure.

Let me just add something regarding the end of the novel. As the story is told in retrospect, we know from the beginning that Pi managed to survive, so I think it comes as no surprise that after several days, Pi ends up in Mexico. And this is here that he first tells the story of his survival to two doubtful Japanese gentlemen – and suddenly everything is (or can be) seen in a different light. If we decide that we want to see things in this new, cruel light. Anyway, as time passes, I’m beginning to feel the end to be more and more tricky and multi-faceted. And I feel that perhaps one day I will want to re-read the novel so that I’ll be to interpret everything in at least two different ways throughout the whole novel, and not only at its end.

As a matter of fact, Life of Pi was a really good read. It was uplifting, tragic, funny, witty and dramatic at the same time, so I definitely don’t regret buying it. The only thing is that I didn’t turn into a believer simply by reading it. Of course, this is not a huge problem for me – all that happened is that now I feel that the novel promised more than it could deliver (to me). And perhaps this failure has more to do with me than with the novel itself.

Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I never used to like Hemingway’s writing. I read a couple of his books as a high-school student, but I could never learn to like his spare language, his macho protagonists reeking with testosterone, and the whole masculine, brutal world in which his novels are set. Then as a university student I had the good luck to attend a course on the American literature of the 1920s, and besides other things, here I encountered the first Hemingway novel I could love. This was Fiesta, which amazed me when I first read it, and which still amazes now, after reading it for the third time.

It’s a mystery even for me what I love about this book, as it seems to be a typical Hemingway novel just like all the others, full of masculine activities which I don’t care about a bit. I’m not interested in bullfights, and I don’t care about trout fishing (except if it’s going on in America) or the number of bottles of wine two or three healthy men can drink in the course of a hearty Spanish meal. But still, there’s something in this novel which makes my heart sink and which makes me want to re-read the book again and again.

One thing is certain, though. The strength of this novel doesn’t lie in the story, as the story is virtually non-existent. Fiesta is about a bunch of American people living in Paris or traveling in Europe who try to live a good life first in Paris, and then in Pamplona, Spain, during the fiesta. For them, living a good life means that they drink all day, wander aimlessly about the city, obsessively cling to one another’s company, break their hearts in the most diverse ways over the only important female character of the novel, the irresistible, unfaithful, unhappy Brett Ashley, and finally drink some more.

The story itself is not a big deal then, but the way Hemingway presents the events and the feelings of aimlessness and meaninglessness permeating the world he depicts is. He writes in such a simple yet colorful language that I have no trouble at all imagining the beads of water glistening on the wine bottles as they are taken out from the ice-cold water of the stream; I can see and feel the smoke meandering in the cafés and taverns; and I can also understand what makes a bullfight so attractive to many a person, or why every man wants to possess Brett. And from all the evocative descriptions I get a feel of the sad hedonism of all the characters, and of the whole era when a wealthy American expat in Europe could do absolutely anything, but of course the fact that they could do anything didn’t necessarily entail that they were happy as well.

The two main organizing forces in Fiesta are waiting and yearning, and perhaps these characteristics make the novel so heart-wrenching. The characters of the novel are constantly on the road, and they are always waiting for something: a fishing together; the beginning of the fiesta; the dinner; the next round of drinks; the arrival of the others; a bullfight; or, most of all, Brett’s presence and love. Due to this constant waiting, they can never enjoy what they are doing, because no matter what they do, the elusive spirit of Brett seems to haunt and make fun of them.

The novel, by the way, very much reminds me of two novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Just like Fiesta, these two novels also deal with desires which didn’t come true, with a search for happiness, and with the sadness and disillusionment necessarily following the days of manic experience-seeking. The similarity is, of course, not an accident, since Hemingway and Fitzgerald must have had some common experiences as both of them belonged to the lost generation after World War I, but still, it’s very interesting that two writers of such different styles, ways of life, and language usage created works with highly similar atmospheres.

Though I’ve never liked Hemingway, I’ve always loved Fitzgerald, and perhaps I only like Fiesta this much because it is a novel which could almost have been written by him. And even though Hemingway is a Nobel winner, while Fitzgerald is not, I still don’t consider this comparison offensive to Hemingway; and I would definitely recommend Fiesta to anyone who is not overly enthusiastic about Hemingway and doesn’t like any of his other works: read this novel, because it may well become the only novel by Hemingway you’ll love.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

I came across this novel on a blog somewhere, though I can’t recall exactly what I read about Frey’s book that made me want to read it immediately. Anyway, I asked my sister to get the book for me from the library – and not buying my own copy proved to be a good idea, as this novel (or memoir? who knows) is not as good as I expected. Before I begin, let me warn you that this post will contain spoilers – if there’s such a thing as a spoiler when talking about an autobiographical, supposedly non-fiction book.

A Million Little Pieces tells the story of how James Frey became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and then how he quit drinking and taking drugs. James was admitted to a world-famous rehabilitation center at the age of 23, when he was already in a life-threateningly dangerous bodily and mental condition. The institution where James was cured is one of the most successful such institute in the world, with a success rate of around 15%, meaning that approximately 15% percent of the patients treated there remain sober one year after the end of the treatment, which is a world record. James is, therefore, in good hands, and he has everything he needs in order to quit doing drugs, but this is not easy at all, given his decade-long substance-abusing habits, his rage and his self-hatred which all make it seem much easier for him to continue drinking and die. Finally, of course, James manages to quit drinking – otherwise this book wouldn’t have been written at all.

The book deals with the period James spent at the institution, but we get flashbacks about his past, and slowly get to know his family background, the roots of his deviant behavior and the worst deeds he committed during his decade of substance-abuse. This whole lot of background information is necessary because James needs to confront the memories of his past, and needs to face himself before he can even hope to attain sobriety and start a new life. By the way the motif of facing ourselves is the most beautiful and poetic image in the book, it surfaces again and again both in its literal and metaphoric sense, and finally becomes the symbol of James’s recovery.

As you might imagine, James’s life and the story of his recovery is full of horrible events, and the book contains several sufficiently dreadful, brutal and dramatic details of the suffering James went through before he attained sobriety. However, despite all the shocking and cruel scenes I consider this book a bit too much like a fairy tale, and it is far from being the most authentic book I’ve ever encountered in the topic of addiction.

Even though the credibility of the novel was questioned, and finally the author admitted to changing and over-emphasizing several elements in the story to make the book more dramatic, A Million Little Pieces is not inauthentic because it contains a number of fictitious elements, but because if paints too bright a picture of James’s wonderful recovery.

First, James poses as some kind of lone hero who manages to get through all the difficulties of giving up a drug habit because he is infinitely obstinate and has superhuman self-control – what’s more, he can tackle these obstacles even though he doesn’t give a damn about following the rules, in fact, he breaks all of them continuously. This in itself is a fiction of the most incredible order. James is by no means alone: he has a loving, caring, supporting family, and he undergoes the best possible treatment imaginable. Without these advantages, it would have been virtually impossible for him to recover, or simply to stay alive.

Second, despite the fact that James supposedly almost destroyed his body (there’s a detailed account in the book of the massive damage virtually all his vital organs suffered on account of his continuous alcohol and drug abuse), I think he recovers relatively easily. Of course, at the beginning of his rehabilitation, James feels rather bad, he could die for a drop of alcohol, and can hardly keep any food in his system, but suddenly, without any obvious transition he can eat and drink normally, his craving for alcohol disappears, and it’s sufficient for him if he can poison himself with coffee and cigarettes. I may have dozed off while reading certain passages and missed some vital information, but I still don’t consider James’s recovery credible. He simply recovers too quickly and too easily. It seems unimaginable to me (though may be true for all I know) that someone with a decade-long, serious drug habit gets up one day with the philosophy that „from now on I will simply say no” – and manages to live accordingly ever after.

It seems that this simple solution worked well enough for James – good for him. But this memoir is definitely not about the screwed up life of the average junkie. It’s a fictionalized personal success story, which is fine, but don’t expect too much authenticity and broader real-life relevance from it.

All the Names by José Saramago

Although José Saramago appears to be quite popular in Hungary, I consider All the Names to be one of his lesser-known works. I have several acquaintances who read Blindness, or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but relatively few who read All the Names. But as it happens to be one of my favorite novels (not only by Saramago, but generally and all-time) and I re-read it every two or three years, I hope I might promote this wonderful book with this blog post.

All the Names tells the story of Senhor José, a fifty-something, indistinct employee of the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths who lives alone in a small house attached to the side of his office building, which has a half-forgotten door leading directly into the office. Senhor José leads an uneventful life, but he has one innocent hobby which one day changes everything. Senhor José collects newspaper clippings and biographical data concerning the most famous people of his country, and he likes to take advantage of the unique position of his flat, and steal into the office during the night to find and copy the exact biographical information pertaining to the famous people in his collection.

One night, however, he happens to grab the papers of an obscure woman together with the papers of the famous people, and he is at once seized by a philosophical hunting instinct. Although he never used to be a person prone to useless, metaphysical musings, a strange sensation overcomes him now, and he starts pondering about the unknown woman. He realizes that the life of the woman is in fact no different and no less interesting than the life of any arbitrary TV star, sportsman or bishop who are only famous because of the momentary whim of their fans or their flock. Consequently, argues Senhor José, the unknown woman deserves just as much attention as any world-famous personality. Senhor José therefore decides to find the woman – albeit it’s not at all clear for him why he wants to do so. The rest of the novel is the story of his search for the woman. During the search, he is greatly assisted by his strict, sarcastic boss, and he meets several people who sometimes help him and other times hinder him in his undertaking – an undertaking which ends in quite an unusual way.

I try to find a good way to sum up what makes All the Names such an exquisite novel, but it’s not easy, as I feel that the overall effect of the book is much too subtle to be put into simple words. First if all, the story of the novel is a very good one: it’s the archetypal story of a search, and as such, it abounds in symbols and allusions. We have a labyrinth here with the corresponding Ariadne’s thread, several obstacles to overcome, and a fearless detective, Senhor José. Apart from all these, the novel also features absurd elements (such as the graveyard scene, of which I will not tell you anything as it’s one of the most entertaining and philosophical episode in the novel and I don’t want to spoil your pleasure), and these go nicely hand in hand with the trivial details of the everyday life of Senhor José – and the way the incredible and the bluntly uninteresting details are mixed provides the novel with a unique flavor.

Then of course I must mention Saramago’s style and language usage. The story is told by an invisible, omnipresent, omnipotent and exceedingly ironic narrator, who, during the course of actions frequently engages in conversation with Senhor José. In these conversations he either provides Senhor José with instructions as to the best ways to conduct his search, scorns him for the mistakes he made, or simply talks to him about the theories of life and death. I consider these philosophical conversations the best parts of the novel, as they also make me think about topics such as what makes a person alive or dead.

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with José Saramago, I have to add that his language usage can be a wee bit distracting or frustrating at first, as instead of inverted commas, he only uses capital letters to indicate that a dialog is going on, moreover, he lets his sentences and paragraphs flow through the pages with hardly any breaks. This way every chapter seems to be a long, curvy, boundless river in which it’s easy to get lost. However, once you get the rhythm, the text is immensely enjoyable, and just as before, I could hardly tear myself apart from the novel.

But even if it might be somewhat difficult to grasp the meaning of Saramago’s long, periodic-style sentences, reading the novel would still be worth the effort, if only for the pleasure of the perfect, epiphanic last couple of paragraphs. Saramago has a unique talent of writing unforgettable story endings. I remember I had the same sensation earlier, while reading one of his other novels, Baltasar and Blimunda. The final paragraphs were so overwhelming, creepy and enthralling that I wouldn’t have regretted reading the whole novel if there hadn’t been any other sources of pleasure in it, only those magnificent sentences in the end. And it’s just the same with All the Names: though it’s immensely beautiful and enjoyable from the very first page, the last paragraphs make it even more perfect for me.

Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham

This novel was one of my favorites when I was a high school student. I borrowed it more than once from the library, and I longed to own my own copy but I was unable to obtain one. I have no idea what might have first drawn me to this book, as the cover of the Hungarian edition is an eyesore, and the blurb doesn’t make up for the ugliness of the cover either. Anyway, somehow I came across this book in the library, borrowed it, read it, and was immediately fascinated by it. I was enchanted by the unique atmosphere of Paris lingering in the pages of the novel, and I loved the way Maugham contrasted the sheltered and happy English life of Charley, the naive, kind, childish protagonist with the life led by the other characters in Paris. Moreover, I absolutely adored the character of Charley’s disagreeable, ruthless, cynical friend, Simon, who is planning to conquer the world.

I’ve been planning to re-read the novel for a long time to see what I might find in it as an adult reader, but when I finally I got around to re-reading it, it was with some apprehensions. As it turned out, I still find Christmas Holiday a rather good novel, but my teenage enthusiasm is gone, and now I see many faults in the novel that escaped my attention ten years ago. But before I go into this, let me write a couple of words about the story and the characters.

The protagonist of the novel is young Charley Mason who leaves a loving and caring family behind in order to spend the Christmas holiday in Paris and while there, visit his childhood friend, Simon. The trip to Paris is a coming-of-age present from his parents, and it is the first opportunity in Charley’s life when he can try out what it’s like to be a man. However, as you might have guessed, the trip doesn’t turn out as expected. Simon mostly ignores Charley, and when he doesn’t, he goes on to fill the head of the innocent (ignorant) Charley with angry and cynical expositions of his political and other views. When he is not with Simon, Charley spends most of his time with Lydia, a prostitute of Russian origins who gradually lets him in on the story of her past and her tragic marriage.

The characters, stories and views of Simon and Lydia of course all serve to disrupt Charley’s happy, quiet, complacent and boring life which he’s been living for 23 years, and to make the young man question the meaning of the life he’s been living up until now. Christmas Holiday is a kind of rite-of-passage and bildungsroman, in which the initially naive protagonist catches a glimpse of a life hitherto unbeknownst to him, and this makes him re-evaluate and rearrange his own opinions and priorities in life.

I don’t have any problems with this idea as such, but I don’t like the way Maugham handles his material as much as I liked it ten years ago. There are novels which contain several dated elements but still don’t feel dated as a whole. And there are novels – and Christmas Holiday is one of these – which seem to belong to a world so very much different from mine, and deal with this old world in such a musty way that I cannot help but feel that I no longer have anything to do with that particular book.

And I feel the same in connection with Maugham’s characterization, which is much too 19th century style for my current taste. As nowadays I’m a reader of mainly contemporary fiction, reading descriptions of a character’s physical appearance and eye color feels strange and a bit irritating for me. Charley may well have a pair of playfully shining blue eyes, but this fact doesn’t tell me anything about his personality, and I find it superfluous that Maugham keeps repeating such small, irrelevant details throughout the novel.

Fortunately, however, I managed to find several elements in the novel which were more to my liking. In fact, these are exactly the things which I probably didn’t notice ten years ago but notice and love now. First of all, I really enjoyed the way Maugham mixes the different viewpoints and pieces of different stories: the stories of Simon and Lydia sometimes complement each other nicely, and at other times contradict each other, therefore it’s a job for naive young Charley to decide whom of the two unreliable narrators he gives credit to.

Here let me mention a small and virtually unimportant, but for me beautiful and hugely satisfying episode of the novel. At one point Simon is telling a story to Charley about Lydia’s husband, and he mentions a detail which can only be known to someone who was present at the event Simon recounts. Well, Simon was definitely not there. Charley also notices this, and mildly reproves Simon for freely embellishing the story and not sticking to the truth. Of course these sentences really don’t count for much in the novel as a whole, still, I appreciate this kind of self-reflection and irony to a great extent.

Apart from the interesting characteristics of the narration, I still consider the way Maugham contrasts the innocent joviality of Charley with the unhappiness, cynicism and world-weariness represented by Simon and Lydia magnificent and rather beautiful. And the last couple of paragraphs of the novel still give me the creeps and make me forget about all the faults and old-fashioned style of the previous pages.

Stuart – A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters

Alexander Masters first met Stuart Shorter in Wintercomfort, a Cambridge institution for helping the homeless. Stuart was an ex-convict, a junkie and an alcoholic; he suffered from borderline personality disorder and muscular dystrophy; he was prone to self-mutilation and outbursts of anger; and earlier he lived the chaotic life of a homeless man. The Cambridge social workers considered Stuart’s case a great success story as they more or less managed to turn him into a ’normal’ person: they provided him with a council flat so that he could finally live a regular life free from the strains of homelessness, and Stuart even stopped doing drugs.

Alexander (whom I will mention by his first name, as he also appears in the book as Alexander) wanted to dig deeper into Stuart’s story and find out where his life went off the tracks, so he decided to write his biography. The book took him years to complete, and during this time he conducted countless interviews with Stuart and his family, and he also managed to become friends with Stu: he tasted Stuart’s famous prison curry; lent him some money every now and then; accompanied him to his court hearings; and based on Stuart’s idea he organized a big campaign in order to have the authorities release the leaders of Wintercomfort who were arrested on less than just charges.

After several years, Alexander finished the biography, which is in fact not only a biography as it also contains the story of its own creation, and the story of the friendship between Alexander and Stuart. Among the biographical chapters proper, we find the chronicle of the events of Stuart’s and Alexander’s present days, and we can also read about the difficulties Alexander faced while writing the book.

At the beginning of the book, Alexander admits that Stuart found the first version of the biography excessively boring and recommended that Alexander write the events in a reversed order, in the manner of a crime novel, so that the reader can keep guessing as to what might have happened in Stuart’s childhood which turned him into a dangerous misfit bound to live a chaotic life. Alexander listened to Stu’s advice and I’m glad he did. Even though the outcome (or rather: the beginning) is predictable, I was keeping my fingers crossed and kept anticipating what might surface in the subsequent chapter, and kept hoping that it wouldn’t be what I expected.

Despite the constant shifts between past and present and other such ’literary’ things in the book, Alexander doesn’t turn Stuart into a romantic hero. He writes about Stuart in an honest, often rather ironic way, doesn’t try to make his actions appear in a positive light, and doesn’t depict him as a poor misunderstood man. And even though Alexander considers himself to be a friend of Stuart, he readily admits that sometimes he is absolutely fed up with Stuart’s behavior, way of life, unpredictability and constant chattering, and that he often thinks that the best solution would be to lock up Stuart in some safe place where he wouldn’t be able to harm anyone – least of all himself.

By the way, it’s very interesting how Stuart himself withstands even the most feeble attempt on Alexander’s part to turn him into a tragic hero with a hard life. As I mentioned before, Alexander tries to pinpoint the event which turned the lively and happy little Stuart first into a teenager constantly running away from home and sniffing glue, and then into a thief and drug-abuser who was bound to end up in prison. And even though Stuart claims that his life changed forever the day he discovered violence, he immediately adds that a lot of kids with a similar background grew up to be normal adults. Therefore even though Alexander may think (and with every reason I’m sure) that a childhood such as Stuart’s can wreck someone’s life forever, Stuart himself is not willing to blame only others for ruining his life, he refuses to make a melodrama out of his life, and this indeed makes him rather special.

Finally I must mention that I had the misfortune to read the Hungarian edition of the book, which is of a very low quality. The translation is full of mistakes which often make it really hard to understand a sentence, and sometimes even suggest a meaning totally different from the real meaning of the sentence. So I wasn’t even surprised to see that the name of the author is three times written as ’Alexanders’ instead of ’Alexander’ on the book cover. It’s a pity that mistakes (or rather negligence) of this kind make this book seem a cheap pulp book, when in fact it is everything but cheap and pulpy.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I read an extensive and exquisite post on the sequels to Jane Austen’s novel not long ago, and I immediately got a craving for one of Ms. Austen’s books. Although my all-time favorite is Pride and Prejudice, this time I chose Persuasion for some reason. I only read this novel once so far, and I did not like it very much that time, but I was curious how it might strike me now, reading it for the second time. Moreover, I could not really recall the story of this novel, while I know Pride and Prejudice almost by heart, and even though the story of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth never ceases to fascinate me, now I wanted something else.

I will not dwell for long on the story, on the one hand, it can be found all over the internet, and on the other hand, Persuasion is set in the same limited world where all the other Austen novels are set, and it depicts the same intricate relationships existing among the noblemen of the countryside that can be found in every Austen novel. So just as in Ms. Austen’s other books, in Persuasion we get to know all the games, intrigues, strengths and weaknesses of every character, with a special emphasis on their attempts to catch a husband or a wife. In the meantime, we also get a clear and quite ironic picture of the everyday life and insurmountable problems of the country gentry.

I assume it comes as no surprise that after tackling the necessary number of obstacles, the hero and heroine of Persuasion are successfully united, but it seems to me that the mere fact of the protagonists’ marriage is the least important part of the novel, and in fact Ms. Austen gets done with the big reconciliation and all the usual explanations in a couple of pages. In comparison with this, it is much more emphatic that the protagonists need to go through a long series of difficulties which provides them with ample opportunities to get to know their own and their lover’s personality, to learn to think in an independent and mature way, to regret their previous mistakes, and finally, to become really deserving of a sensible marriage based on similar ways of thinking and similar virtues.

Still, the process during which the characters acquire the self-awareness and maturity necessary for marriage is in itself but a small part of the novel. Much more important is the way Ms. Austen depicts contemporary society, and the way she proves her opinions with several witty, often sarcastic observations. Sometimes I felt as if Ms. Austen bothered with coming up with a plot only for the reason that hiding behind the façade of a light, romantic story she could freely indulge in irony and write down her opinions of everything she considered tiresome or ridiculous. Of course my heart is not made of stone either, and I shed some tears at the relevant parts of the novel, however, the fact that in the whole book we find around 5 pages of romantic love as opposed to 250 pages of realistically depicted vanity, selfishness, intrigue, vacuousness and weakness, seems to indicate that Ms. Austen was not the author of silly, lovely stories for romantic girls.

The relative unimportance of the plot itself was also made obvious to me by the fact that Persuasion reminded me of Pride and Prejudice in several details. For instance, when the heroine, Anne learns at the beginning of the novel that there is a good chance that her former lover will come to the neighborhood again and will tread on the same paths she used to tread on, she emits the same big sighs as Ms. Eliza Bennet does when she arrives at Pemberley as a visitor, and contemplates that Pemberley is Mr. Darcy’s home and she is now walking on the same ground as her beloved does at other times. Of course it is possible that the heroines of a given novelist are in the habit of reacting to similar situations in a similar way, but I can also imagine that, when writing Persuasion, it was much more important for Ms. Austen to express her opinion than to create absolutely unique heroines, reactions and scenes.

And I believe that she succeeded very well in writing a highly ironic and critical novel. Apart from creating a series of strongly caricaturistic character (such as Anne’s father, the exceedingly vain Sir Walter; her sister, Mary, who always imagines that she is being trodden on by the others; or the slimy Mr. Eliot), she also strikes out at the everyday airs and social graces. For a 21st century reader of Ms. Austen, it may seem at once funny and pathetic how many things depended on such politeness formulas as making a sufficiently low bow for the other person, keeping up a conversation for the right amount of time, or being the winner in the “who is the most polite” competition of two equally courteous ladies – and Ms. Austen also knows very well how ridiculous this is. As a matter of fact, it is quite a wonder that despite all the obstacles and the general ignorance of the majority of the characters Ms. Austen is optimistic enough to let all her heroines be married at the end of her novels and to go as far as to imply that their marriage will be a success.

And to answer the question implied in the first paragraph of this post: I liked Persuasion much better now than for the first time, and I am sure that in the future I will not omit it from my regular Austen re-reading sprees.