§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: April 2007

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Emma by Jane Austen

I reread this for an online book group and it was an absolute joy to do it. I’ve seen recent film versions so the plot was clearly in my head before I started and I was able to observe how Austen worked it out. No wonder this one is seen as the epitome of Austen’s canon.

Initially Emma is not as appealing a young woman as Elizabeth Bennett of Price and Prejudice and the novel doesn’t have the quite the comic relief, but the character strengths which bring Elizabeth and Darcy together are shown again in Emma, but this time we see the working out of the character traits. We see Emma make mistakes, recognize them, and attempt to redress wrongs. We see her misunderstand clues and then figure it out. We see her learn to know herself and those around her.

So what’s different from P&P, you say? Elizabeth is also portrayed as stubborn and misunderstands cues from other people, but Austen gives us Elizabeth ready-made. It’s clear from the beginning that she’s the “right kind of person”. Emma we worry about. She does dumb things. She takes a protégé whom she wants to help to move up in the world and encourages her to refuse a marriage proposal from a good man and to believe she’s got a change to marry the clergyman. In fact, it’s Emma the clergyman is after, as the reader sees pretty clearly, and he’s no great catch anyway as the reader also sees. Emma’s looks and charm aren’t focused on to the extent they are with Jane and Elizabeth Bennett. That she’s charming is clear from her flirting with Frederick Churchill, but the reader worries at first that she’s getting herself into trouble and then worries that she’s playing a game that will come back to bite her.

The comedy inherent in Austen’s brand of social commentary is there still. The chatter of the uppity clergyman’s wife previews some of Dickens’ pretentious social climbers. Miss Bates, the aunt of Jane Fairfax, who talks incessantly has been made the most of on film by actresses like Prunella Scales. But the focus in Emma is the development of character in a young woman.

Emma is almost a perfect novel. The plot is clever. The characters believable. The theme is important. The writing is exquisite. The social criticism is ageless and handled with delicate irony and humor. The only "problem" I see for contemporary readers is that a stratified society is assumed and people are assumed to be most fulfilled in the strata of society to which they by birth belong. Even though Emma is chastised for some of her assumptions about people's place (the Coles made their money in trade; Harriet Smith is probably the natural daughter of a "gentleman"), the value system of the novel does not allow for the kind of equality among humans that we tend to value today.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is fast becoming one of my favorite contemporary novelists. So far I've liked everything I've read by him (though I didn't like his most recent, Never Let Me Go, quite as well). I love the narrator in his books. He's a master at imagining a really complex character into being (Stevens in Remains of the Day, Christopher in When We Were Orphans, Kathy in Never Let me Go, and Ono in this one) and then writing the whole book from that point of view, following the character over a period of time and never missing a beat. All are at least somewhat unreliable narrators which allows Ishiguro to project multiple points of view. There are two earlier ones I haven't read (The Unconsoled and A Pale View of Hills) and I plan to find those soon. In many ways he's the contemporary British writer who's stood up best for me over a number of works.

The Artist of the Floating World is told entirely from the point of view of a Japanese artist after World War II. The artist used his art for propaganda purposes during the war and recognizes that he's looked down on in some ways because of that. He lost his wife in a bombing and his son in the war and now lives with one unmarried daughter. At first he was worried that his reputation for complicity in the war effort would adversely affect his daughter's marriage chances. It seems already to have caused one marriage negotiation to have been called off. Ono writes (or narrates) at four different times between 1948 and 1950, with several forays into the past as he recounts his version of events. Like all Ishiguro narrators, Ono is somewhat unreliable and the further into the novel you get, the more you see more going on behind his apparently open and honest narrative. That's partly because of the formal nature of Japanese personal interactions, partly due to Ono's ability to deceive himself, and partly due to his fear that he's implicated in war crimes or that other people think he is. We hear about some actions of his that are at least suspect—when he caused a student and colleague to be questioned (and some torture may have been the result). He may even see himself as more guilty than those around him do.

When the daughter’s second marriage negotiation concludes successfully, Ono’s daughters, who were reluctantly bringing up the past because it was possibly impinging on the present, retreat into a formal relationship with their father in which he is not challenged. His friend from the war years, with whom he can talk about the past honestly, dies, and we see Ono isolated by experiences that his country as a whole just wants to forget.

By the way, "the floating world" is the world of pleasure—geishas, drinking, carousing till all hours—that artists before the war were associated with. Ono carefully characterizes pleasure zones of the city then and now in the novel and the reader sees his nostalgia for the "floating world" of the past which further isolates him in the present. "The floating world" may be another casualty of the war. I suspect it’s not just the carousing that is curtailed in the present, but the talk about art and ideas the artists occupied themselves with.

Friday, April 13, 2007

The Night Watch by Sara Waters

I don’t seem to have been as enchanted by this novel as others have been. In fact, I probably would not have finished it had I not been reading it for a group. That said, I’m glad I did because it got better as it went along and there were a number of things I liked about it.

First I liked the setting, wartime in London—one of those times in history that was probably horrible to have to live through, but which in retrospect seems very romantic. There’s a scene in the book where two characters go wandering at night, from Bloomsbury into the City, and because I’ve walked a lot in London, I recognized the streets and the churches mentioned. If time travel were possible, I’d want to take a walk just like that—there could be raids going on as long as they weren’t too close. Waters’ research on the period works but doesn’t stick out.

Second, I liked the structure. The novel is divided into three parts, each labeled by the date, in reverse order: 1947, 1944, 1941. It follows four main characters and their relationships with each other and with others, so you see the effects of the past before you actually know what happened. It’s a neat way to create suspense and it works in this case.

What I didn’t like was that the novel focused so minutely on the relationships between characters. There was virtually no exposition. Everything was a detailed scene focused on people interacting. If there was a description of a scene, it came out because a character noticed it. A huge portion of it was dialog or the narrator reporting what a character was thinking. It was exclusively a novel about the psychological interactions among the characters. So early on I was bored. They weren’t terribly interesting people to begin with and besides I like novels with more than just character and psychology.

Nevertheless, it’s extremely well done. The suspense builds slowly and the explosive scenes (near the end) are effective. The characters become interesting by virtue of the time spent with them.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Dancing with Strangers by Inga Clendinnen

This is a new kind of history, where the writing is borrowing a page from the anthropologist’s notebook and using first hand accounts as sources for enthnographic study. In the wrong hands, that could be disaster, but Clendinnen uses all her skills to tease out information without ever presuming a complete understanding.

Dancing with Strangers is a study of the relationship between the whites (government administrators, military personnel and convicts) of Australia’s First Fleet (1788) and the native peoples that they encountered when they settled what eventually became Sydney. Interestingly—and significantly—Clendinnen called those native peoples “Australians” while the settlers were “whites” or “the British”. [It occurs to me that the term usually designating Australian natives, Aboriginals, is far more “damaging” as a term than is the term usually used for American natives, “Indians”. “Indians” was just plain wrong, but wasn’t inherently demeaning while “Aboriginals” suggested some prehistoric people who really might not be fully human.]

Clendinnen wanted to study the relationship between the British and the Australians in the “first instance” of European settlement on the continent. Obviously the Australians left no documents or records—at least none recoverable now, but the British did and she relies on the journals and letters of a number of administrators, military personnel and visitors to the colony, several of whom made an effort to describe what happened accurately even if they couldn’t or didn’t understand it. The first governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, set the tone by his determination to understand and make allies of the native peoples rather than to battle against them. That was clearly a practical decision but, on his part, also a philosophical one.

The book is like no history I’ve ever read. There’s no focus on historical narrative per se, though obviously there are “touchstones” like dates and well-known events. There’s a relatively minor focus on the purpose of the colony as a prison. The focus is not even entirely on the whole journals or letters, but on the places in those documents where interactions between the British and Australians are described. In other words, what came closest to a transcript of an informant. (I should point out that she used paintings of the period as well, some of which are included in the text.) Then she examines the “transcript”, attempting to understand what was going on independently of the interpretations made at the time. Obviously she’s not successful, or not completely successful, in every case, but she does an excellent job of stripping the journals and letters of assumptions and prejudices of the time and attempting to understand, from a human point of view, what might have been the attitudes—as well as the ideas, assumptions and practices—of the Australians.

The example of Phillip makes this particular encounter between Europeans and natives a productive one, because unlike many in charge of white settlers, Phillip had a stated philosophy of cooperation and a genuine desire to understand what make the Australians—and their society—tick. Phillip is even speared by natives at a gathering which the British assumed was both formal and friendly. He was hurt badly but not mortally, but more interested in why he was attacked than in retaliation. It may possibly have been a ritual retaliation for wrongs done, surmises Clendinnen who knows the dangers of her methodology and makes every effort not to overreach.

Clendinnen is an Australian, of course, but her major work before this was done on the Aztecs in Mexico. Interestingly several individuals who read this book in one book group with me also read Philbrick’s Mayflower in other book groups and commented on similarities and differences in the author’s description of first encounters with native peoples. First of all Philbrick did not put major focus on the Indian point of view but he by no means ignored it—making the comparison especially interesting. Several facts though made the comparison productive—the American Indians had had more encounters whites before the Mayflower landed than had the Australians and the characteristics of the native societies were very different.

If you're interested in history, especially the history of those peoples without the "civilized" skills to write and reflect on their history, I especially recommend this book and its methodology.