Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book 31-The Red and the Black (book 45)

Huh...I don't really know what to say about book 31-The Red and The Black by Stendhal. I have found that the more French Novels I read the more I am left feeling a piece of me is always left on the outside looking rationally in at myself reading the novel. Not sure if that makes any sense, but I never really lose myself in these novels. As a fan of Russian literature for its real-to -life portrayals of both the beauty and the darkness in the world I have always found French novels slightly more pretentious. This novel was no different. I have given it a middle of the road rating because it was not the world's worst book I've ever read, but it was by no means the best. Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised that it was not a book about war like I first suspected it was....so at least there's that.

The novel follows Julien Sore, the son of a poor carpenter who sets out to live his life like Napoleon. He chooses to follow one of two roads to glory open to a young man of the times: the red (the military) or the black (the church). Despite his love of Napoleon he feels that the church is a much better fit for his personality. Julien is ambitious and everything he does including his two love affairs follows a cold, rational decision about furthering himself and following his ambitions. I think that is the part of the book that left me the most upset. I have always loved people that have dreams and that come alive  when they talk about following their dreams, but with Julien's dreams I felt like he was too cold and rational.to enjoy the process. He had some beautiful moments at the beginning of the book where you can tell that his heart is truly alive. He has a moment where he spent the night nestled in the woods in an alcove and this scene is mirrored at the end of the book almost like a redemption where he comes back to his true self that got lost along the way. Julien also has some beautiful moments nestled in the trees hiding away with a good book. Those parts of Julien I connected with...his ambitious society climbing, just made me mad.

The book had a lot of interesting things to say about the corruption in the priesthood/church. Despite being a Christian I agree that there are definitely those who pursue religion for selfish reasons. It also has a lot to say about true faith though and that despite all the corruption and mess in the church that there can still be a real beauty in true faith and also the idea of a loving, caring God.

"the priesthood that fine profession that opens all doors"

"I shall fear for your salvation if you go into the priesthood"

(this is actually more a reflection that being a priest was not a good fit for Julien's personality and less about the fact that priests don't believe in God)

"Why do priest and their hypocrisies matter? Can they  in any way detract from the truth and sublimeness of the idea of God?"

"...I mean a real priest. Then tender souls would have a meeting point in this world...we wouldn't be isolated"

"But how , when two or three are gathered together can you believe in the great name of God, after the terrible abuse made of it by our priests?"

Although Julien is a flawed character, he is a hero amidst the backdrop of the 19th century social hierarchy.

The book is an honest look at some of the flaws that Stendhal's society has:

"The normal course of events in the nineteenth century is that when a powerful member of the nobility encounters a man of generosity, he kills him, exiles him, imprisons him, or humiliates him so much that the other man is foolish enough to die of grief"

Julien takes advice from a Casanova-type man on the fringes of his social circle. Julien was always frowned upon by people everywhere he went because he wore his heart on his sleeve. This Casanova had this to say about the way things worked in the salons of the day.

"If you're miserable, there must be something you're wanting, something that hasn't turned out right...if you are bored, on the contrary, it's what's tried in vain to please you that is inferior"

Lastly, the book focuses on dreams and the role they play in our life and identity. Julien is an interesting character in that he never realizes the full potential of his dream to live a life worthy of Napoleon. Despite pursuing it consistently most of his life,  in the end he is left with nothing to show for it. Here are some of the things this book has to say about dreams:

"At twenty, the thought of the wide world and the impact you can have on it overrides everything else"

"I am the only one who knows what I might have done...for everyone else, I'm nothing more than a QUESTION MARK"

If you are a person who does not like loose ends this book would probably drive you nuts because Julien goes off on various tangents and strategies to pursue his goal. He uses whatever comes across to further his ambition to advance himself in the world. I was very confused by what this book was trying to say about having dreams since none of them really came to fruition in Julien's life and the main thing that caused his distractio was falling in love. I toyed with several theories as to what the point of the book was  (don't have dreams because they are vain, don't have dreams because you are just going to fall in love and be distracted anyways, don't have dreams because it will make it hard to live in society). I have decided that Stendhal would say that we should follow our dreams, but that they don't define our character. It is what we do with successes and failures in this realm that make us who we are. Julien shines the most when he is living from his heart and not his head. I guess that is what I didn't like the most about this book. I found Julien disingenuous 90% of the time and my guess is it is because he was a rational thinker and not a heart thinker. As someone who thinks almost exclusively from the hear,t I didn't relate as closely to his character as to some of the other  characters I have in the past.

Onwards and upwards to the next list book: Tristram Shandy. I am excited to dive into this one.as I tried reading it in high school and gave up because it was "too weird" for me!We will see what I think of it now.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Book 30-Women in Love (44th book)

I read book 30-Women in Love by DH Lawrence during an interesting time in my life. My life got quite busy this last month thanks to starting a new dating relationship after years of singlehood. Thanks to this new relationship, I was also both resistant and open to the messages that this book had to portray.

Ironically enough, for a book entitled Women in Love the book had a lot of homoerotic undertones to it! The relationship between Birkin and his good friend Gerald had some interesting moments in it. Ultimately though, there relationship remained a close friendship and the two men took to pursuing the two sisters portrayed in the book, Gudrun and Ursula. Their  individual relationships each work out two possibilities of ways of being in relationship. One: to remain complete in yourself and join in relationship to another or two: for one person to give up who they are and symbolically die at the hands of another. At times both of these ideologies seem pretentious, but by the end I realized that Birkin and Ursula's relationship (two individuals remaining complete but staying in union) remained the more attractive of the two options and the one that has been more closely in line with the person I have become in the last 10 years.

Here are some quotes from Birkin's point of view in remaining a complete individual in union with someone else:

"What I want is a strange conjunction with you" He said quietly, " not meeting and mingling-you are quite right: but an equilibrium, a pure balance of two single beings-as the stars balance each other"

"Love is a direction which excludes all other directions. It is a freedom together, if you like"

"Why should we consider ourselves, men and women, as broken fragments of one whole? It is not true."

"He says...that you can find an eternal equilibrium in marriage if you accept the unison, and still leave yourself separate, don't try to fuse"

Ursula who marries Birkin has trouble wrapping her head around this way of thinking but eventually is able to accept it when she sees what his philosophy does for him. She had experienced passion from other men but never true deep intimacy until she shares a moment with Birkin in the moonlight.

"She wished he were passionate because in passion she was at home. But this was so still and frail, as space is more frightening than force"

There was also a lot of philosophical stuff that made the existentialist in me giddy with glee. I loved the sections on what made life worth living and also on whether there was a God out there and the idea of mystic connection with God, the universe and people.

On the purpose for living:

"What do you live for?"

"One needs some one really pure single activity-I should call love a single pure activity"

"What is mankind but just one expression  of the incomprehensible"

"every man was fit for his own little bit of a task"

"work and love are the two"  said of the important things to relieve boredom with life.

On God and mystic connection:

"The eternal creative mystery could dispose of man, and replace him with a a finer created being"

"To have one's pulse beating direct from the mystery, this was perfection"

"I believe in something inhuman, of which love is only a little part. I believe what we must fulfil comes out of the unknown to us, and it is something infinitely more than love"

"the world is only held together by the mystic conjunction"

"Really, something, must be left to the Lord, there always is an always will be."

"We want to delude ourselves that love is the root. It isn't it is only the branches"

There is also a great deal to say about how we know things and whether knowledge is good or not. For brevity sake I will leave out the quotes that I found. I was planning on rating this book a 3 out of 5 stars until the last 30 pages of it and then I changed my mind. It has all my favorite themes in it: love, work that makes someone tick, mystic/magic connection, existential questions, what makes people great and a lot to say about good and evil. I have moved it firmly into the 4 star category but only because when I look at my other all time favorite books, it doesn't quite compete. The more I read, the pickier I get. I think this list is turning me into a snob!!! Next up? The Red and the Black by Stendhal.