Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Trial of God

I've been wanting to write this post for a while now, so I'm glad I'm finally taking the time to work on it.  The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel is an amazing piece of literature, one fully worth discussion.  Yet although my delay is partly due to the fact that I don't write on this as much as I'd like, there have also been a few other factors.  First of all, The Trial of God is a play, and I find that critically examining plays as literature can be more difficult than novels and short stories because the crucial element of performance is missing.  (I did write about a play once before, analyzing Brian Friel's Translations).  Secondly, the subject material is a bit sensitive and perhaps even controversial.  However, neither of these reasons are legitimate reasons at all, for they may in fact make this an even better source of discussion.

If you are familiar with Elie Wiesel, you probably know him as the author of Night.  Holocaust-survivor and Nobel Laureate, Wiesel is pretty well known in literary circles.  Part of a trilogy, Night is a remarkable book that I would also place in the Classic Literature canon, and I may come back to it later.  (I did!)  However, because The Trial of God is not as familiar, I'd like to bring some attention to it.  As the title suggests, a small group of tortured Jews put God on trial.  But in this case, the story is set in 1649 rather than the 1940s.  As Wiesel simply summarizes it: "In the first act the decision is made to hold a trial.  In the second act there is a problem; nobody wants to play the role of God's attorney.  In the third act we have the trial itself."

The Trial of God deals with many of the themes in Night and other Holocaust literature.  Primarily, where was God in suffering?  Why did he remain silent in horrific tragedy?  How can there be a good and just God in light of so many suffering people?  Understandably, many Jews who experienced this lost their faith or became angry with God.  One of the main characters in the play, Berish, demands that they put God on trial.  He is extremely angry with God and yet also afraid of him.  He has found that he ironically thinks of God far more through his anger after tragedy than before he witnessed human destruction.  He's fed up with feeling compelled to serve God and wants answers.  As he puts it: "Listen, either He is responsible or He is not.  If He is, let's judge Him; if He is not, let Him stop judging us."  When Berish aggressively prosecutes God's defender, he is able to unleash all of his frustration and anger.  Yet at the end of the novel, he firmly holds that he has not rejected his faith.

This entire play offers a fascinating look at one's interaction with God.  The trial itself is not meant to be heretical or sacrilegious; it's an exploration of God's relationship with humanity.  It should never be far from our minds that Wiesel experienced a much more horrific hell in Auschwitz than most of us could begin to imagine.  Thus, he does not approach the subject of suffering lightly or ignorantly.  He offers no solution or easy platitude; in fact, he throws in an extremely disconcerting twist at the end of the play.  Nevertheless, the struggle and emotion in this process is raw and compelling.  Regardless of religious beliefs, I think that many people could benefit from reading/watching this play.  There are no answers, but there are certainly a lot of questions worth pursuing.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Three Musketeers

I noticed that Allie at A Literary Odyssey is doing a read-along with Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers, so I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to throw in my two cents.  If anyone has "stood the test of time" in order to qualify as an author of Classic Literature, it's Dumas.  His stories are forever ingrained in society, even penetrating pop culture and common jargon.  In fact, the term "the three musketeers" has so successfully entered everyone's consciousness that we even have a candy bar named after it.  Moreover, The Count of Monte Cristo has come in a close second in our general awareness, inspiring many similar stories such as The Shawshank Redemption.  Yet rather than discussing this based purely on its popularity, I want to think about its literary merit.  I dare ask - Does it deserve the recognition?

Interestingly, the protagonist of The Three Musketeers is not a musketeer at all but a young man named D'Artagnan.  A true Romantic hero, D'Artagnan comes from a poor family and the only legacy he has from his father is a little bit of money, a very pathetic old horse, and a letter to the leader of the musketeers.  D'Artagnan thus leaves dear ol' mom and finds himself immediately overwhelmed in the big city.  His fiery temper quickly causes him to become enemies with the ominous "man from Meung," setting his destiny in motion.  Eventually, he arrives at the center for musketeers and meets our title characters - Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  In a series of unfortunate events, D'Artagnan aggravates all three of them individually and accepts challenges to a duel from each of them.  Yet when he proves his bravery and loyalty in an impromptu battle, he wins their friendship.

Ok, I admit that there's a slight mocking tone in my head as I write this.  The beginning is so full of cliches that it's almost cheesy.  However, I wonder if this storyline was actually original with Dumas and is now cliche only because it has become so popular.  I have no research or conviction to support this theory, but it does make me relax about the creativity of the plot.  The truth is, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.  It didn't feel overdone and silly because it's written so well.  The language is advanced and yet accessible, and the story - if cliche - is  nevertheless engaging.  Moreover, as the story develops, it takes a number of twists and turns I definitely did not anticipate.

So allow me to note the aspects of the novel that I enjoyed and didn't expect.  First of all, I love the diversity between Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.  They have very different personalities, and what really surprised me was their accompanying servants.  The three servants of the musketeers - Grimaud, Mousqueton, and Bazin - are just as critical to the story as the title characters.  They each represent integral components of their masters' personalities and carry significant influence in the story.  Fittingly, the three musketeers arrange for D'Artagnan to have a servant named Planchet, who is one of my favorite characters.  Before reading this, I had no idea that each of the main characters had a servant counterpart I would like so much.

I also loved the pure fun that fills the pages.  Like others in the read-along mentioned, I really flew through the novel and hardly noticed the pages turning.  I have to say that I love D'Artagnan's immaturity and short temper.  I think it gives him a unique character, and I find his flaws endearing.  I even like his foolish romantic obsession with Constance, who I believe has a lot of gumption for a Romantic-era damsel in distress.  I wasn't turned off by the "immorality" of the musketeers because they are the kind of adventure-seeking, high-flying action heroes that I love to love.  Granted, I am more invested in the characters who have moral depth and great integrity, (fellow Frenchie Jean Valjean comes to mind), but sometimes I revel in action-packed fun.  Early in my blogging, I confessed my guilty pleasure of "fluff literature," and I am tempted to label The Three Musketeers as high class fluff.

However, despite the appearance of cliches and simplicity, I do think The Three Musketeers can worthily join the ranks of Classic Literature.  I do not want to downplay the significance of its ability to connect with readers for almost two hundred years.  It's absolutely remarkable that the book has remained so popular throughout so many generations, which indicates that somewhere in the depths of the story, Dumas created a timeless connection with readers.  Perhaps this connection is not overtly emotional or intimate, but I believe there's a message about human nature within these characters.  The story might not be so effective if D'Artagnan had been more mature or if the musketeers had been more purely noble.  I can't pinpoint the reason for its success, but I loved the story and I think it deserves its worldwide recognition.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Blog Hop with Crazy for Books

Welcome Blog Hoppers!  I am joining the Crazy for Books blog hop for the first time today, and I am looking forward to reading your various entries.  This week's question is: "If I gave you $80 and sent you into a bookshop right now, what would be in your basket when you finally staggered to the till?"

Book Blogger Hop

I love this scenario!  I could spend hours in a bookstore, and I usually walk out with much less than I wish I could buy.  Used bookstores are particularly dangerous because I can never resist the good deals.  But if I had the money to spend, I would buy nicer editions than I currently have.  I would probably get a hardback copy of some of my favorite books, like Crime and Punishment.  But the books that are currently on my "to-read" list include: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Don Quixote by Cervantes, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence, and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Mishima.

Because I like blogging to be interactive, I'll take this opportunity to get your opinion.  Which of these do you think I should read next?  Or if not one of these, do you have another suggestion for me?  If this is your first time on my blog, you can check out some of my past posts to get a taste of the kind of literature I enjoy.  Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Waste Land

I hardly feel adequate to discuss T.S. Eliot's masterpiece, but I'm going to give it a shot anyway.  I haven't addressed poetry very much in my blog, and the truth is that I don't think I can always appreciate it.  When I first attempted The Waste Land by Eliot, I didn't understand it at all.  I read it quickly and finished simply with, "Huh??"  If you've read it, maybe you can understand the feeling.  But I later invested a lot of time and thought in the poem and grew to have a great respect for it.

When approaching this poem, I think it helps to view it from a Modern perspective.  Eliot was one of the founders of the Modernist movement in literature, and there are a number of features in The Waste Land which illustrate that. The poem famously opens with, "April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land." In much of poetry preceding this, the language was often filled with beauty and romance. Right at the start, Eliot takes the traditionally most romantic season and turns it into one of melancholy. He then drapes each line with an "ing" word at the end, creating a sense of hanging and incompletion. With the accompanying images of cruelty, death, and dullness, the theme of the poem seems to be a reaction against romanticized description.

Another thing that I find interesting in this poem is the repeated use of the word "nothing."  It pops up ten times and is always at the beginning or ending of the line, emphasizing its significance.  This concept of nothingness is crucial to the social despair he conveys throughout the poem.  Eliot doesn't allow any of his characters to form an impression on the readers.  He writes with an indefinite narrator and without any sense of an individual, which is often very confusing.  But the purpose of his poem was not to reveal the thoughts and emotions of one or two fictional characters; it was to create the sense of a disillusioned society in the modern world.  In one of my favorite scenes, Eliot describes a faceless crowd immersed in descriptions of death and despair passing over the London Bridge.  They all avoid eye contact, and the narrator is unable to break the group's anonymity.  This powerful lack of individualism creates a hovering isolation throughout the text.  In a way, it reminds me of some of the apocalyptic literature I talked about recently.

Adding to this effect, there is not a strict timeline in the poem, nor do the events appear to occur chronologically.  Moreover, at times it is difficult to even decipher whether the narrator’s thoughts and experiences are occurring in the present or the past. Eliot's frequent lack of specificity creates a new kind of emotion, one which is prominent in Modern literature. The sense of detachment and uncertainty becomes a writing aesthetic, one that is often known as stream of consciousness.  Many authors in the Modern period, such as Virginia Woolf, use this writing method in their work as well.

These are just a few of the things I picked up on in The Waste Land, and I am certain that there are many more levels of meaning I haven't discovered.  The poem is quite baffling and yet undeniably brilliant.  It amazes me that people can find so many different themes and techniques in this poem through careful examination.  Eliot included so much in such a small quantity of writing, and I believe that "genius" is just about the only word to describe it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Happy March!  I can hardly believe it's another month already.  This week, my selection breaks from many of my other posts in several ways: it is a non-fiction piece written by a non-white, female author.  The only other non-fiction book I've discussed so far is In Cold Blood, which I love intensely but is vastly different.  Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is a personal slave narrative.  Before I was introduced to this book a couple years ago, I had never even heard the name "Harriet Jacobs."  Although I had studied both African American and Civil War literature before, somehow Jacobs was left out of it.  Frederick Douglass is pretty well known, but Harriet Jacobs has become a somewhat hidden treasure.

First of all, I must assert right at the beginning that it is incredibly admirable to note that Jacobs wrote this narrative by herself.  It is remarkable that not only was she able to learn to read and write, but her writing style is also wonderfully skillful.  I loved the ebb and flow of her words and the nature of her storytelling.  And in the same way, it's also quite admirable that Jacobs was able to get the book published.

The content, as you can imagine, is pretty tragic.  Jacobs' parents die when she is very young, and she is eventually passed off to the cruel home of Dr. Flint.  Flint sexually harasses Jacobs for years, and she fears that she will not be able to keep him away for much longer.  In an attempt to avoid that, she engages in a sexual relationship with a neighboring white man, whom she considers a much preferable alternative.  One of the things I find interesting in this section is her defense of this decision.  Aware that many white Protestant readers may condemn her for this, she asserts that slaves cannot be held to the same moral standards because they lack the power to control their lives.  I was impressed with her personal strength to stand up for herself.  I think it requires a significant amount of courage and self-esteem to assert this in that time period.

After this, a lot of her narrative revolves around the great trials she endured to protect her children.  I had to constantly remind myself that this was not just a story; Harriet actually endured these horrible circumstances.  Likewise, her problems were not over at the time she published the narrative.  In the end, she is still owned by someone else, even though her present owner is much "kinder" than those of her past.  Moreover, she still does not have a home she can call her own to provide for herself and her children.  It's clear that this narrative is not just a method of highlighting the horrors of slavery but a personal plea for freedom.

I believe that Harriet Jacobs' narrative should be part of the Classic Literature canon for a number of reasons.  First of all, it does tell a captivating story.  She writes skillfully and fully kept my attention throughout the entire work.  In addition, it reveals a number of things about the human condition.  I think it shows just how much a person can endure with enough motivation and strength of character.  It is a message of overcoming obstacles, but it also realistically demonstrates that things don't always work out perfectly.  Harriet's journey is not over, but significantly, she has not lost heart.  For all these reasons and more, I think modern readers can still relate to her story today, even though slavery has been abolished.