Monday, April 11, 2011

A Hero of Our Time

First of all, I need to give a big shout out to Ingrid of The Blue Bookcase.  Way back near the beginning of my blog, I made a list of great Russian authors of the 19th Century.  Ingrid noticed that I did not mention Mikhail Lermontov, so I added him to my lengthy "To Read" list and picked up a copy of A Hero of Our Time at a used bookstore.  Little did I know that I had a magnificent Russian treasure sitting on my shelves, which I absolutely devoured once I opened its pages.  So Ingrid, thank you for the suggestion!  This is exactly why I love the book blogging world, and I hope any of you who may read my blog can likewise send recommendations my way!

To quickly summarize, A Hero of Our Time can be divided into two parts.  In the first part, the narrator listens to a third party, (Maxim), talk about his experience with the protagonist, Pechorin.  In short, Maxim tells the narrator how Pechorin kidnapped a young girl for a bit of fun, enjoyed the challenge of winning her affection, and then promptly lost interest in her.  Then, the narrator has a brief encounter with Pechorin himself and offers a direct description of him.  In the second half of the novel, the narrator has turned over Pechorin's personal journal, and we read about three of his experiences.  Now we get an inside perspective of Pechorin, which reveals a largely depressed man who is utterly listless about life.

A Hero of Our Time is delightfully Russian.  Lermontov writes in the typical Russian-style narration, in which the narrator frequently interjects in his story with humor, irony, and ample commentary.  Even as I sat in public, I couldn't help but chuckle at some of the narrator's comments as he directly addresses his readers.  Of course, this only occurs in the beginning of the novel before we reach Pechorin's journals.  (If you're curious, Gogol, Goncharov, and Turgenev all write in a similar fashion.)

Another prominently Russian feature of the text is the subject of the "superfluous" hero.  Pechorin is a young, handsome, and wealthy citizen who has tired of the various social engagements and romantic flings he encounters and succumbed to the dreaded ennui.  He's bored.  Repeatedly in his diary, Pechorin laments his lack of feelings and his inability to get excited about things in life.  Many Russian characters display similar problems, and it seems that Lermontov was the first author to create a protagonist like this.  However, I think that Pechorin has many more layers than this.  He frequently contradicts himself, particularly whenever he interacts with his former flame, Vera.  I think these various interactions are really important for understanding the character.  In another contradiction, Pechorin claims that he enjoys having enemies because it makes life more interesting.  However, when he overhears people talking about him negatively, he is shocked and hurt by their remarks.

I liked A Hero of Our Time because it's written well, with an intriguing design to the story and an interesting and multi-dimensional main character.  If this weren't enough, the novel's even more remarkable for its innovation.  Lermontov was one of the leaders of the flourishing 19th century in Russian literature, greatly influencing those who followed him.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

As I Lay Dying

I find it a little hard to believe that I've come this far along and have yet to discuss William Faulkner.  I whole-heartedly include Faulkner in any list of brilliant authors, and he is often picked out as one of the best American authors of all time.  In fact, I had the opportunity to attend a short lecture series on American literature while I was in England, and the professor focused primarily on Faulkner.  And if you have a sense of my taste in literature so far, you will not be surprised to hear that I find his dark material irresistibly fascinating.

As I Lay Dying is the first Faulkner novel I ever read.  This was also my first exposure to stream of consciousness in writing, although I didn't know it by that term yet.  Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, and their myriad writing styles reflect the dramatic differences between them.  The story follows the eccentric and dysfunctional Bundren family as they carry their dead mother's body in a wagon pulled by mules across a number of towns in the south to bury her in Jefferson.  The story is bursting with dark humor and biting satire, as they experience a series of misadventures that hardly honor the dead.  Yet behind the quirkiness, Faulkner compels readers to reflect on the significance of death, the relativity of sanity, and the meaning of family.

Without question, my favorite thing about this novel is the diversity of characters.  I love the way he takes turns unveiling their perspectives, such as little Vardaman associating his mother's death with killing a fish.  There are fifteen different narrators in all, and even Addie, the dead mother, gets a chance to speak beyond the grave on a chapter.  The most frequent narrator is Darl, whom I find to be the most fascinating character.  For much of the novel, he appears to be the most sane and level-headed of the siblings.  It is easy to notice the father's faults, Cash's obstinateness, and Dewey's selfishness.  Darl, on the other hand, assumes a leadership position among his siblings.  At the same time, he demonstrates a level of sensitivity that the others seem to lack.  Moreover, because the rest of the family speaks with improper grammar and elementary descriptions, Darl's elegant prose and intellect convince readers of his superiority and reliability.  However, as the novel progresses, our perspective of Darl spirals out of control as we eventually realize that he may actually be the least sane of them all.

As I Lay Dying is stylistically innovative, insightfully astute, and generally entertaining.  Faulkner masterfully balances humor with social critique, making this both a fun and stimulating novel.  He also pioneers the stream of consciousness movement, inviting us into the radically diverse minds of fifteen different characters.  I highly recommend it to everyone and happily stick it in my "Classical Literature" shelf.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Blood, Guts, and War: The Iliad

Lately, I have allowed more time for reading and less time for blogging.  I found myself in a mess of a reading pile, trying to complete four completely diverse books at once without making any real progress.  So I put my nose to the grindstone and polished them off one by one.  I hope I did not lose any of you followers while I was doing this, but it needed to be done!

One of these books was Homer's epic poem, The Iliad.  This book was my inspiration for starting a "To-Read" list about seven years ago, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've only just completed it.  When I read The Odyssey, I promised myself I would read the other epic because I had enjoyed Odysseus's adventures so much.  Thus, I wooed it in bookstores, settled it on my own bookshelf, and stroked it longingly to no avail for these past seven years.  Somehow, it became this ominous text floating on my To-Read list that I never quite approached.  There's no logical reason for it; I've read much more challenging and lengthier books in place of it. I wonder if any of you have a book like that on your mental checklist, or maybe I'm just a little crazy.

Anyway, as I finally settled in Homer's meter, I realized that this epic poem was nothing like I anticipated.  The whole scope of the story takes place in the heat of battle.  When it begins, the war has already been raging, and when it ends, the war is not yet complete.  All of those famous stories about Paris seducing Helen and Odysseus creating the Trojan horse are not to be found in The Iliad itself.  Instead, the poem is devoted purely and unabashedly to gruesome battle and bloodshed.

I get the feeling that people in today's society believe that our sense of gore is much more heightened than ever before.  However, these people have clearly not encountered Homer, who wrote somewhere around the 8th century BCE.  His descriptions are so graphically full of gore and fighting that every film version I've ever seen of it now appears paltry in comparison.  So for fun, I thought I'd pick out some of the most wonderfully awful descriptions he uses.  Amazingly, I think Homer manages to kill people in a different and creatively gruesome way every time.  But I should warn you - you might not want to read them if you are faint of heart.

"When Meriones, giving chase, caught up with him, he lunged with his spear, and the point went in the right buttock, under the bone, and into the bladder beneath." (Bk V)

"Phyleus' son Meges, renowned as a spearman, drew near and hurled his sharp spear through the nape of this man's neck.  The point cut off his tongue at its root and lodged between his teeth, and Pedaeus fell in the dust and bit the cold bronze." (Bk V)

"Then bringing his huge sword down on the collarbone of the other, he sheared his shoulder clean off from the neck and back." (Bk V)

"Not without great effort could a man of our generation, no matter how young or strong, so much as lift it with both of his hands, but Ajax raised it up high and hurled it down, smashing the four-hornet helmet and crushing the skull of Epicles, who pitched from the wall like a diver, as spirit took leave of his bones." (Bk XII)

"But not in vain did Deiphobus let the lance fly from his powerful hand, for he struck Hippasus' son in the liver under the midriff, and immediately unstrung his knees." (Bk XIII)

"But Meriones came at him hotly and hurled his spear in between his privates and navel, where Ares is cruelest to suffering mortals.  Deeply he planted it there, and Adamas leaned toward the shaft, writhing about it like a stubborn bull that herdsmen rope in the hills and drag away resisting.  So Adamas twisted and writhed for a while, but not very long - just until the warring Meriones came and wrenched the spear from his gut.  Then darkness enveloped his eyes." (Bk XIII)

Well, I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  And if you want to explore 400 pages of this, just check out the book.  :)