Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book 55- Petersburg

I thought I liked Russian literature, but with the last few novels I have read I have been proved wrong. It turns out I like a very specific era of Russian novels, or perhaps just two Russian authors: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. With the Russian novels on the Novel 100 list I have been highly disappointed. One of my friends sent me a highly amusing summary of Russian novels that is worth a read. I recognized quite a few novels on the list! It is interesting to point out that Petersburg by Andrei Bely is one of about 10 novels that does not also appear in the 1001 Books list that I am also reading.

One good thing about the list is that I am starting to draw parallels between the novels I have read and I found a few with this novel. The strongest correlation I found in this novel was to Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. The two main characters Abluekhov and Nikolai are at war with one another just like the father and son duo from Turgenev's novel.  I didn't like that novel either.  There was a Russian symbolist movement? Who knew. This novel also has a few comparisons to Ulysses and  James Joyce. In my mind, there is no comparison between the two, although this novel precedes Ulysses by nearly a decade. Having recently read Grapes of Wrath I also found elements of the weird poetic breakouts from that novel in this one. I didn't like those elements in Grapes of Wrath either. Generally, I like symbolism, and I imagine I am one of the few people who truly like Joyce. The movement loses something when you try to place it in the Russian context. All my favourite elements of Russian novels (the focus on the poor, the focus on the human condition, and a connection to the environment around you) get lost in this novel. The final novel I was reminded of, mostly because of the use of a bomb in the novel, was The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad.

I spent a large portion of my time reading this novel completely confused. It jumped around in time and and from several points of view. It retold incidents from several angles. I would eventually figure out what was happening, but not before floundering around helplessly. The one thing that this novel had going for it  is that it had elements of a nightmarish dream world. Reality and dream were intermingled in it and the feeling I was left with was one of impending doom. None of the characters in the novel are having a good time in life and we are viewing the world through their eyes. This leaves everything with a distorted feel to it. I don't think there is a single neutral narrator in the novel. They are all unreliable.

I am grateful to leave this novel behind and will probably not think of it again. I am still left mulling over Grapes of Wrath, however. Although I didn't love the entire novel it had a lot of really great things to say and I am constantly reminded of it when I think of the world today and the disconnect between the rich and the poor.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book 54- Grapes of Wrath (87th Book)

I was so excited to read book 54- The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck was one of my favourite authors as a teen. I devoured several of his books including East of Eden, Winter of our Discontent and several of his short stories before crashing and burning on his novels. I made the early discovery, which I made several times in my teens...if you read too much of the same author     you are struck with the fact that they really only have one main theme and all the books start to blur together.

This is one of Steinbeck's best sellers but it is by no means my favourite.  The first novel I ever read of his was East of Eden and it will always be my favourite. I love the angst in that novel and connection to the land and the deep things inside of each person. The Grapes of Wrath is great and I can see why it became a classic. I was silently filled with horror as I read the novel and completely uncomfortable the whole time I was reading. Why? I thought it foreshadowed a little too much about the direction we a going as a society.

I have always been a bit of a rebel and held very disparate views. While being a conservative in my faith, I am a bit of a radical in my political views. The novel tracks the Joad family as they travel west after losing their farm to the bank. The trip West shows a growing discontent in the poor population as they scramble for food, shelter and an identity for their family. The novel goes behind the sense to the political forces at play in time of the Great Depression. The farms out west need a few hundred workers, but send out a few thousand flyers, knowing that if too many workers arrive the price of labour will go down. It sounds eerily like what is happening in British Columbia right now. With the teachers strike happening I have had several conversations with others and the theme always seems to go something like this, " those damn teachers! Why do they think they deserve more money than me?" to which I invariably reply, " they don't, but they are willing to fight for their rights." I had a similar conversation with a friend when the minimum wage was increased. She works at a job which she has been at for 10 years and who valued her slight raises over the years. She was annoyed that now others would be able to have a wage that was dangerously close to hers. Rather than try to press her employer for a greater raise in light of the increase she was frustrated at the poor who we're trying to rise.

Poverty does horrible things to people and this novel shows the damage from both sides. The wounds to dignity inflicted on the poor are doubled by the fact that the wealthy direct their hatred and fear  towards those less fortunate. This cycle creates what the novel refers to as the "grapes of wrath". One of my favourite novels of Steinbeck, Cannery Row,  has a quote that I absolutely love:

 "It has always seemed strange to me...the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest' are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second."
That quote  is mirrored throughout the novel The Grapes of Wrath. The novel shows that the Joad family are willing to help others despite their limited means. The people they interact with on the road and in the Hoovervilles behave like family and lend a helping hand whenever they see a need. I have always felt that when I interact with poor. On my way home I pass a panhandler every day and he always has a smile on his face. Although he rarely gets money from the passersby he greets me everyday with " have a good day, dear". He warms my heart. When the Joad's cross a picket line and find themselves in a camp with a store that is overpriced Ma finds it is the equally as poor clerk who reaches out to her. She utters a quote that rings true to me " if you're in trouble or hurt or need- go to the poor people. They're the only ones that'll help- the only ones". Rich people have a reputation for being stingy. It's a sad but true fact.

This novel was an adventure for me. Everything within me made me want to fling the book across the room in anger and disgust. It was like staring at a very bad car accident or a horrible act of cruelty. History repeats itself they say... And I am scared that The Grapes of Wrath is foreshadowing of the worst kind. We have seen half hearted attempts in the 1% movement, but God help us if the poor ever do get frustrated with the way things are going. There is power in numbers when mass amounts of people are angry and it seems to me that the wealthy have oppressed the poor (and even middle class) for too long.

The Grapes of Wrath is a political novel. It will never be my favourite Steinbeck creation, but it is a masterpiece that sadly needed to be written. It moved me in a way that only a great novel can. I was sad, angry and horrified and yet kept reading. Like life, the novel really doesn't have a resolution but it seems appropriate given the content. I would be curious to know what others reactions were to the novel since my reactions were so strong.