Friday, July 29, 2016

Roman Fever and Other Stories by Edith Wharton

One of the categories in the Back to the Classics challenge I'm participating in this year is "Classic Short Stories."  I hadn't read very many short story collections prior to this, but I'm always up for expanding my boundaries as a reader.  As July is my month to read works by my favorite authors, I decided that Edith Wharton's short story collection Roman Fever would fit in nicely here.  Wharton has been one of my favorite authors since I read Ethan Frome in high school.  This feeling was reinforced when I read The House of Mirth in college (still the only classic novel that has made me shed actual tears) and The Age of Innocence last year. I happened to pick up Roman Fever at a used bookstore a while back, so I figured that now was the time to dust it off, revisit Wharton, and cross a category off my classics challenge.  

Roman Fever contains 8 stories, starting with the eponymous "Roman Fever," followed by the wryly humorous "Xingu" and "The Other Two."  The stories take a rather serious turn after that with "Souls Belated," "The Angel at the Grave," "The Last Asset," "After Holbein," and "Autres Temps..."  Each story is a little snapshot of upper class American life in the later years of the nineteenth century, with a special focus on women's issues of the day.  All of the stories are masterfully written and thought-provoking.  I was surprised that I loved this little collection as much as I did.  I was expecting a group of short stories to be a bit of a throwaway read since they are only around 30-40 pages each.  I was pleased to find that despite their short length, the stories contained well-developed characters, interesting plots and complex themes.   

Edith Wharton is a remarkable person for many reasons, but she is probably best known for her ability to artfully lampoon the privileged, upper class society that she grew up in.  Through her writing, she points out the hypocrisy and inherent emptiness of the lives of the wealthy, and the plight of women who are trapped in its oppressive system of manners and morals.  The stories in Roman Fever are no exception to this. They may be short, but they still explore these issues and make the reader sympathize with many of the characters.

For example, Wharton tackles the topic of how divorce affects the lives of women during the late nineteenth/early twentieth century in several of these stories.  This was a bit of an odd period for couples seeking a divorce. Women had the right to get divorced relatively easily in a legal sense, but struggled mightily with the social ramifications of the practice.  Despite divorce becoming more and more common, women who actually obtained one were looked down upon and sometimes shut out of society, especially if they didn't remarry.  For example, in "Souls Belated," the heroine, Lydia, obtains a divorce from her husband because she has fallen in love with another man.  She doesn't wish to marry again; she wants to be free from the chains of matrimony for a while.  However, societal expectations force to to sneak around if she wants to spend time with her new love as an unmarried woman, which is exhausting emotionally for her.  As the story progresses, she realizes that her divorce has freed her from one cage only to send her straight to another.  She must marry her new lover if she wants a shot at a normal life.  She's trapped. 

In another story, "Autres Temps...", Mrs. Lidcote flees America after her divorce, as she can't bear being shut out of society and cut off from all of her old friends.  She returns to New York for a visit when her daughter, Leila, writes to tell her that she has divorced her first husband and is about to remarry.  Time has passed since Mrs. Lidcote left her country in shame, and public attitudes towards divorce have somewhat shifted.  She arrives in a city that accepts her daughter's situation, more or less. However, Mrs. Lidcote's old friends still won't forgive her for her past divorce, carried out in a time where it was less acceptable. Society won't revise their original opinions of her, and she leaves the country again, not wanting to harm her daughter's reputation.

I found these stories to be clever, ironic, and deeply thought-provoking.  I appreciate that Wharton, through her beautiful writing, provides a window into the trials that women living during this time period endured. An honest, realistic, female perspective is often missing from classic novels, as the writing of the past is so dominated by men.  While I enjoy reading old books, I often wish feminist issues could be explored more deeply in them.  This is what Wharton provides. Echoes of the sexism she writes about persist in American society to this day, of course.  It's interesting to step backwards in time and see the origins of these attitudes.

Roman Fever was a great collection of stories.  Each one was a little adventure back to the past and a moving look at how things worked for women in America at the turn of the century.  Wharton's writing feels honest and realistic, and she drew me in from the very first story (which contains quite a fun, shocking ending).  This novel was a joy to read and only further cemented my deep and abiding love for this unique and excellent writer. I can't wait to explore her other works.

Monday, July 25, 2016

This Side of Paradise by F.Scott Fitzgerald

For my first novel in my month of reading books from my favorite authors, I chose This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  This is also my "20th Century Classic" novel for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.  It's already July 25th as I write this.  Better late than never, I guess.

This Side of Paradise is an odd little book.  It follows the life of Amory Blaine, a wealthy young man coming of age in the years surrounding World War I.  The novel, which is broken up into three main sections and then further into shorter chapters, follows Amory through his privileged childhood, matriculation at Princeton, service in the military, and his life immediately afterward.  Rather than maintaining a straightforward narrative, the novel is presented in several bite-sized episodes from different moments in Amory's life.  The rambling and somewhat disjointed episodes reflect the aimlessness and ennui he experiences as he tries to find his place in a world that is rapidly changing.  As Amory explains, his generation is "a new generation...grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken."

This was Fitzgerald's first novel, and it feels like it.  While it was a commercial success for him, it doesn't come close The Great Gatsby in terms of simplicity, beauty, and theme.  Snatches of his future brilliance are buried in its pages, but as a whole, this novel feels underdeveloped and scattered.  It is successful at depicting the lives of a slice of American society from around 1910-1920 (namely, wealthy, white young men), but aside from that portrait, it isn't about very much.

As a character, Amory is less than likeable.  He is intensely self-centered, overly emotional and largely aimless in life.  He is clever and literary but struggles with mustering up the motivation to do anything.  He merely drifts between whichever friends, philosophies, and women happen to inspire him at the time, confident that his life will follow the same fairly straightforward path that all monied white men's lives do. 

This changes for him after WWI, when most of the money he was planning to inherit disappears into bad investments and the woman that he loves leaves him for someone with a more impressive income.  Amory is thrown into quite a state - uncertain of what to do next and how to go on now that the world around him is changing and he no longer has the means to continue on as he was before.  By the end of the novel he adopts some strong socialist points of view and heads back to Princeton, his alma mater, to try and be of some use to someone.  What exactly he will do when he gets there remains ambiguous.  It is generally accepted that Amory is a thinly veiled version of F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, so perhaps Amory's indecision mirrors Fitzgerald's own uncertainty as a young man at the beginning of a writing career.

The novel switches up formats throughout its sections and includes third person narration, poetry, letters, philosophical dialogues and even drama as the story progresses.  The drama, oddly, works fairly well, as Amory is an intensely dramatic and emotional being himself, but the poetry and personal philosophy grew tiresome. I wished there was more story to get into and less opining on the beauty and tragedy of everything, everywhere.  While these sections definitely characterized Amory, it eventually felt like a bit much.  It would be like if I was writing a novel about myself and supplemented sections of my life story with selections from my old Geocities poetry website.  Despite my intermittent boredom, however, I did appreciate that Fitzgerald was playing around with the typical novel format.

I found the examination of women in this novel interesting.  This was the time period between more Victorian sensibilities regarding women and the flapper era.  Women were just starting to become more bold with their sexuality, and the novel discusses how they were starting to kiss men (and presumably more that that) before marriage.  While the actual female characters in the novel were all just props to facilitate Amory's heartaches, I thought Fitzgerald's discussion of their evolving behavior and frustrations was interesting.  I wish he had gotten deeper into this idea.  In particular, Eleanor, one of Amory's loves, exclaims one night on a date:
"...oh, why am I a girl?...Look at you [Amory], you're stupider than I am, not much, but some, and you can lope about and get bored and then lope somewhere else, and you can play around with girls without being involved in meshes of sentiment, and you can do anything and be justified--and here I am with the brains to do everything, yet tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony."
Amory doesn't really pay this outburst much attention, because it's not in his personality to care about issues that don't directly affect him.  Sadly, this little bit of feminist frustration (and Eleanor herself, for that matter) disappear into the story without any further elaboration.  

When I reflect back and think about This Side of Paradise as a whole, I feel a low-key appreciation for it.  It is not going to be a treasured favorite for me, but it was an interesting look at the early work of a writer I love.  I look forward to eventually reading Fitzgerald's other novels to watch how his writing grew and changed over the years.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

*Caution - Spoilers in this review!*

I finished reading the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo and I feel like I've finished a marathon.  I'm looking around for someone to hand me a gold-plated medal with a book on it and the phrase, "I read all 1,276 pages!" engraved on it.  That's not to say that I didn't enjoy reading it, because I most definitely did, but it was a long journey. 

The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, and it's stuck around in our reading consciousness ever since.  Countless versions of the story exist, ranging from children's editions, to movies, to comics.  The plot concerns Edmond Dantès, a plucky young sailor on the verge of becoming captain of a ship and marrying his beautiful and virtuous fiance.  His life irrevocably changes course when he is framed for a crime he didn't commit and is thrown into prison for fourteen years before he manages to escape.  Upon regaining his freedom, he reinvents himself as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo and proceeds to take revenge upon the three men responsible for his imprisonment in incredibly intricate and destructive ways. 

This story is a true adventure, full of incredible coincidences and impossible feats scattered all across Italy and France. Dantès goes from being a rather naive young man who believes in the inherent goodness of those around him to being a nineteenth century version of Batman within the first quarter of the novel.  A buried treasure gives him unlimited wealth, and years of imprisonment with a wise tutor gives him the knowledge he needs to become the Count.  He manages to build schemes that are insane in their complexity in order to punish those who wronged him, and watching his enemies get the comeuppance that they so richly deserve is a treat for the reader.

But in the midst of all this fantasy and madness are human truths, and this is why the novel strikes a deeper chord than most adventure stories. While no one could ever replicate the feats that Dantès accomplishes in his quest for revenge, we can all relate to his motivations. Dantès is framed for no other reason beyond the jealousy and ambitions of others.  Danglars is jealous of his professional success, Mondego is jealous of his romantic success, and Villefort sees him as a convenient stepping stone to increase his prestige in society.  Together, the selfishness of these three men create a disaster for Dantès.  Their greed destroys his life.  Who among us hasn't experienced some measure of negativity from others simply because we were successful at something?  Nothing attracts ugliness like a human who is happy.  It's easy to understand Dantès' rage.  It's easy to see the raw unfairness of his situation, connect with his emotions, and cheer him on in his plans...and that's when you start second-guessing your feelings on revenge - because things get real really fast.

Dantès doesn't just make his enemies feel bad or one-up them.  He completely and utterly destroys their lives and the lives of most of their family members.  He ruins them financially, he ruins their reputations, he exposes everything they've done wrong in their whole lives, and he gives them the means to hurt each other, all while managing to remain on the outside of their calamities.  He sets up the dominoes and watches them fall with glee.  Some are murdered, some commit suicide, and some are driven insane.  Eventually, the reader has to stop and ask themselves, is it too much?  Is this all justified?  Has this crossed a line?

Even Dantès himself struggles with the morality of what he has done.  When a child is murdered as a result of his plans, he begins to seriously question his actions.  He has believed for most of the novel that he is acting as an instrument of God and punishing those who deserve it, but now the righteousness of his actions aren't so clear.  Is it right for the children of his enemies, for example, to suffer and die for the sins of their fathers?  The Bible says that they should, but seeing a little boy murdered in front of him casts serious doubt on that idea.  In fact, Dantès has to disguise himself as a tourist and visit his former dungeon cell to drum up enough anger to complete his quest.  He even ends up saving the life of someone he was previously going to let die to assuage some of the guilt he feels.

This question of morality is interesting to consider while reading.  The men who wronged Dantès destroyed his life.  By the time he escaped from prison, they were all fabulously wealthy and successful while Dantès' father had starved to death and his fiance had married someone else.  Dantès lost all of his wealth, his only living family member, the love of his life, and fourteen years.  Does that give him the right to destroy the lives of the men responsible for his misfortunes?  Does anyone have that right?  And if so, will getting this revenge truly make him feel better?  What if he had just taken the treasure and used it to live like a king somewhere far away, or to help others in need?  What was the right thing for Dantès to do?

There are no easy answers to these questions.  Matter of guilt, responsibility and punishment hang over everything that happens in the novel and the reader's initial glee at seeing Dantès' enemies suffer slowly turns into something more complicated as their suffering increases and extends to their wives and children.  Mixed into that jumble of feelings is admiration for the sheer ingenuity of Dantès' actions, pity for the characters that are innocent, and curiosity for what will come next.  It's quite the adventure indeed.

Dumas, in what may be a bit of a cop out, provides a happy ending for Dantès.  He achieves his revenge, helps out some people that were loyal to him, and literally sails off into the sunset with a new love and a new beginning before him.  I question whether he could truly find satisfaction after everything he has done in the course of the novel.  Were I in his place, I think I would struggle to justify my actions in my own head.  However, Edmond Dantès, and Alexandre Dumas, probably, are made of sterner stuff than I.   Maybe it's possible for some people to be completely satisfied with Old Testament style justice, but I think that a more realistic ending would have been at least a little bit darker.

While The Count of Monte Cristo was a long reading experience, it was worth embarking on.  There's a reason that this novel has remained popular across the centuries since it was published.  It's a great story.  Those never go out of style.