The Sorrow of Young Werther – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Book #959

Reviewer: Arukiyomi  (first published June 2012)

Heard that this is one of the most accessible Goethe’s and so it made sense to start with it. I’ve not read any of the German classic writer before. How was it? It was okay, but my reading of it was somewhat tainted by having already read Armstrong’s Conditions of Love in which he illustrates archetypal romance and infatuation with reference to Werther.

That Armstrong would do this illustrates the legacy of this short novel. It’s depiction of the dramatic and extreme emotions that Werther goes through were a break with tradition at the time of Goethe’s Germany. If Werther’s behaviour seems extreme to us now, they probably seemed even more so to Goethe’s contemporary readers.

That’s not to say that his readers could not relate to the character of Werther in real life. After all, the novel is based, in part, on Goethe’s own romantic experiences. I think what made the book revolutionary was that someone was putting it down in print and being so frank about it. The literary age was dominated by a conservatism in feeling that made Goethe’s work a sensation. Even Napoleon loved praised it and we all know how hard a man he was to please.

The novel has definitely lost some of its original impact. Of that there is no doubt. Readers ignorant of its place in the history of the novel will be tempted to just say it is yet another overblown romance. I certainly was.

But the novel is worth reading more than simply for its place in history. Werther lives in all of us as we get caught up in feelings that make rational sense to us while all around us people think we’re off the wall. And his solution to the dilemma of unrequited love is something I think most of those honest enough to admit would say we ourselves have considered from time to time. If we haven’t, we’re either lying or not really allowing ourselves to experience life to the full.

And that’s where the novel makes an important contribution to our world, questioning as it does so, the notion that we are in control and that by attempting to be so, we are somehow able to actually live. I very much appreciated this challenge.


Gargantua and Pantagruel – François Rabelais

Book #995

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (First published May 2012)

Urghh… took me an age to read this. It was partly my fault and partly the book’s. Long ago, I realised during the first book of this five book tome that I wasn’t going to enjoy lengthy sections of this. I’ll explain why in a bit. But rather than bite the bullet and get it over with, I decided, somewhat subconsciously influenced by Rabelais himself, to not leave the toilet until I had read at least a chapter. Granted the chapters are tiny. But there are 299 of them. Sigh…

So, a combination of bowel movements and Rabelaisian prose meant that, a year later, I was still plodding through this and wishing that either I was dead or Rabelais had never lived. Time travel precluded the latter and so I had to content myself with the former. And it didn’t help that I felt the victim of some huge literary practical joke upon reading quotes like this:

If you say to me: ‘It does not seem very wise of you to have written down all this gay and empty balderdash for us,’ I would reply that you do not show yourselves much wiser by taking pleasure in the reading of it.

Well I didn’t take pleasure in the reading of it. So there!

The story, if there is one in this the world’s most rambling satire (please God let it be so), is that Gargantua and his son Pantagruel are a couple of characters who travel widely and meet as many different characters as there are chapters. Each of the episodes they end up relating are side-splittingly funny… if you’re a 16th century French polyglot playing fast and loose with the rules of monastic living. I’m not. Nuffsed.

Rabelais subjects everything to scathing satire: history, literature, politics, religion, philosophy, culture, medicine. The Roman Catholics get a particular spanking. And there’s an entire book (oh, that I spoke in jest) on whether or not a particular character should get married. Each chapter is an argument either way until, at the very end of that particular book 52 chapters later, they decide to leave the matter undecided. Aaaargh!

Yes, yes, satire is meant to be like this: a literary insider’s joke. But, and I’ve made this complaint before, that’s as feeble an excuse as a postmodernist painter telling you that his entirely black canvas is “Whatever you want it to mean.” Life’s too short. This is going on my list of 1001 Books You Don’t Have to Read but Should Know About.

At the Mountains of Madness – H.P.Lovecraft

Book #623

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (first published May 2012)

Having now read this, I can see the inspiration for at least two horror films. The first is The Thing which, in terms of its Antarctic setting, terror of the inexplicable and decimation of an expedition, is a simple copy of the book. The second is Alien with its terrifying depiction of another world which, to the detriment of those who discover it, is not quite as dead as it first appears. For such a short book, it wields some weight.

The narrator is attempting to warn a forthcoming Antarctic expedition of the annihilation that almost certainly awaits them should they venture where he himself has gone before. He has not spoken in detail of his horrifying experiences before out of fear, doubt and sheer unspeakability. But now, with his fellow explorers preparing for a trek to their doom, he feels he has to speak out and tell what befell all but a few of those who explored the Mountains of Madness.

Had this been written 50 years earlier than its 1931 publication, it would have been less convincing. But by the time Lovecraft wrote it, not only had the South Pole been reached, horror literature had shed a little more of its Gothic trappings. Of course, H.G. Wells should be credited with inspiring almost an entire body of literature with his superb canon, but Lovecraft writes with a lucid reality that evokes the very real terror you can feel in later horror writers with Stephen King’s The Shining a prime example.

Discovering inadvertently frozen alien beings and a mountain range surpassing anything hitherto known on earth, a forward party of the narrator’s expedition retires for the night. They are never heard from again. The narrator journeys to discover the truth: all have perished in mysterious circumstances. Exploring the mountains themselves, the narrator manages to cross the range via a pass in his aircraft. This brings him to what appears to be a deserted city the like of which he can barely describe. Exploring this brings him and his companion face to face with their worst nightmares…
I was prepared for something much more drearily verbose and mundane and was pleased to find that this was just about the right length and that Lovecraft had done an excellent job at telling just enough of the detail to keep me turning page after page. Very influential and highly readable. What’s more, it provided me with one of the most esoteric quotes I think I’ve ever collected:

“The penguins alone could not have saved us…”

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

Book #698

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (first published May 2012)

My sixth Woolf and I’m glad I read others before this one or it would have been wasted on me. Woolf is so complex that I’m sure many a reader has come and left confused and disheartened by the attempt. I found this quite similar in its style to the lesser-known Jacob’s Room, but less accomplished. I’m not sure why this novel is one of her best-known. Perhaps you can enlighten me in the comments.

Mrs Dalloway is planning a party which takes place the evening of the day which encompasses the timespan of the novel. In the morning she bustles about town, her mind both on the party and on images that surface from her past associations with various guests she expects. Woolf’s unconfined prose means that the novel, one continuous chapter of 150 pages or so, drifts from the thoughts of one character to another almost imperceptibly. While Mrs Dalloway thinks of a particular character, we often thus find ourselves in their mind having wandered there across the bridge of imagination and thought.

The great themes are class, the role of women and, what I found most interesting, an exploration of the lingering effects of WW1 combat on Septimus who eventually commits suicide in despair at anyone ever understanding why he feels the way he does.

The novel is, I found, quite claustrophobic. Despite the lack of structure to the prose, you never feel like you have a completely free point of view on which to gaze at the characters involved. And you are also left to work hard to make the connections between each phrase, sometimes each word, of a long and dangling sentence if you are to squeeze the full meaning from each. I’m surprised there were any commas left in the English language after she’d finished this!

So, it’s not an easy read, but, as with almost all Woolf, rewarding to those who make the effort. Her next novel was To The Lighthouse and I think this set her up to write something much, much more subtle and crafted with that.

Oscar and Lucinda – Peter Carey

Book #205

Reviewer: Arukiyomi (first published May 2012)

This was a wonderful book from start to finish. Carey writes with great insight into the vivid characters he has created and his use of metaphor is always insightful. While very beautifully evoking the themes of love and society, this is also a story of something I’m very familiar with: the struggle to overcome our fallen nature while trusting in a God who accepts that we cannot.

Set in the mid 19th-century, Oscar is born to a fundamentalist minister in rural Cornwall, England, Lucinda to immigrant parents in Australia. Both lose parents at a young age and both find themselves unacceptable to their surrounding societies. Although this hardship has quite a different effect on moulding the two of their characters, they both struggle with a passion which they carry as a dark secret: gambling.

For Oscar, this is at once the basis for faith and yet its crisis. He gambles, he believes, because God has instructed him to so that he can fulfil God’s plan. Lucinda gambles because she has the money to burn and because she finds it evokes preternatural tendencies she can barely resist. When the two eventually meet, it is gambling which cements their friendship and the greatest bet of all which is the consummation of their love.

This book is not short and yet Carey writes with an astonishing level of detail. The detail isn’t, as with Tolstoy or Hardy, in verbose descriptions of scenes or the human soul. The detail comes from metaphor. It’s everywhere and makes the novel worthy of a second, more patient, reading. Inanimate objects become alive: houses, buildings, modes of transport, whole countries – all of these are characters in the story. The humans themselves are also exceptionally well-crafted. Each of them is complex and you are never sure whether they are good guys or bad ones. And this is how it should be. Which one of us is, after all, wholly evil or wholly good? We are as varied a mixture of the two as you can imagine, and Peter Carey can imagine a whole lot more than most writers.

There are Booker Prize winners and Booker Prize winners. This one is up there with Midnight’s Children and The Siege of Krishnapur in my top three I think. Would it appear in yours?