The Dream by Ivan Turgenev

The Dream, written by Ivan Turgenev in the late 19th century (the precise date is unknown), is a short story bordering on a novella and my first read of 2021. Turgenev is my favourite writer, which really doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, and I couldn’t imagine starting a new year with any other author. Over the past few years I have been making my way through his completed works and so far have read 20 of his books/short stories. It definitely will be something I will continue throughout this year. Although he and I are as different as two people can be I constantly find ways to relate to his stories time and time again.

The Dream is an experimental tale that isn’t what most people would think is a something written by a Russian writer in the 19th century. It has elements of the oriental and the supernatural which was a common theme in Turgenev’s later in life work and can only be described as the written word version of a mysterious fog. It is quite similar in tone to another of his short stories, A Song of Love Triumphant, which is also a slightly terrifying oriental story about two friends that he dedicated to his real life closest friend – Gustave Flaubert.

The Dream opens with the unnamed narrator giving the reader background about his life so far and his mother and their at times complicated relationship. His father passed away when he was 7 and he and his mother live a secluded life with two servants. The narrator has vivid dreams and dreams of a mysterious man in a dark cloak with black eyes who he thinks is his father (not the same man who he grew up with knowing as his father). It later is revealed there were dark circumstances surrounding his conception. The story doesn’t end with any sort of finality and is left rather open ended but I think that is where Turgenev excelled.

All in all The Dream is a great little story packed with mystery and suspense and charm. I’d definitely recommend it for anyone who likes Russian literature in general or short stories.

Ivan Turgenev later in life

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous / Old Review

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt) is a 14th century Arthurian chivalric romance, written by an unnamed writer who is often referred to as the Pearl Poet, which is split into four parts called FITS. In each fit there are many short stanzas which all end with a rhyming bob and wheel (the “bob” is a short line, usually not longer than two syllables and the “wheel” is made up of longer lines with internal rhyme). The poem follows Sir Gawain, one of the Knights of the Round Table, as he takes up a “beheading challenge” forced on him by the Green Knight, a mythic figure whom is said to be an allusion to Christ or a representation of the Green Knight of Welsh folklore. As said in another post last week I will be splitting up my Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reviews into four parts (Fit I, II, III, IV) and a general concluding post. This post will review FIT I. 

Continue reading “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous / Old Review”

The Song of Love Triumphant by Ivan Turgenev / Old Review

It’s not much of a secret that Ivan Turgenev is one of my favourite writers. I decided late last year that I would make my way through his novels, short stories and plays. I chose to start with one of his short stories, The Song of Love Triumphant, because I read somewhere he dedicated it to his dear friend (and another favourite writer of mine) Gustave Flaubert and it did not disappoint. It’s quite a different piece of writing compared to Turgenev’s other short stories, very experimental, but it’s a really fascinating insight into Turgenev’s state of mind later in his life.

The Song of Love Triumphant (sometimes referred to as the Song of Triumphant Love) was written in 1881 which was two years before he died. It’s a work that splits critics and the general reading public alike. Some think it’s a creative masterpiece and some dismiss it as a purely imaginative story with no real substance. I saw it as somewhere in between those two extremes. It’s not Turgenev’s best work but it is very moving and creative and different. The story is heavily based on his life long love for Pauline Vardot, an opera singer and their unique connection that spurned decades. Pauline was married at the time they met but it seems they all come to some arrangement as Turgenev followed them around Europe and lived close to them for a very long time. At one point he lived in a room in their house and at another point built a chalet in their garden and lived there for a while. It was even said Pauline’s two children were Turgenev’s children – a popular public theory that was never proved.

Louis Viardot after reading The Song of Love Triumphant

The Song of Love Triumphant is set in Ferrara during the Renaissance and is both a look into Renaissance Italy and the fascination in the West with Oriental culture. It follows the story of two friends, Fabio and Muzzio, who were a painter and a musician respectively and their love for the same woman, Valeria. Valeria eventually chooses Fabio and Muzzio travels around the East for five years to recover from the disappointment. When he returns he stays with Valeria and Fabio which is really where the story starts. Muzzio has aquired ‘supernatural’ instruments while he has been in the East and at night he plays a tune on his new violin ‘The Song of Triumphant Love’ which mesmerisies Valeria and she has an erotic dream which Muzzio has as well. The next night Muzzio plays the tune again but this time Fabio follows the tune and ‘fatal’ events ensue. Muzzio somehow survives the attack (its implied he was brought back to life by his attendant) and they quickly leave Fabio and Valeria to live their life peacefully. The story ends with Valeria feeling the “stirring of life” in her womb and the narrator ends the story with an unfinished question.

The Song of Love Triumphant is a funny little tale. It’s very experimental and not like Turgenev’s usual stories which is why I found it so compelling. As with all of Turgenev’s stories and novels I’ve read so far this story was exceptionally well written and the writing evokes emotion in you in a way that takes you back to a time or a person or a place in your own life. Turgenev was said to be a very gentle person, someone who was attached to nature and light, and you can really feel that in this story.

Ion, by Euripides // Old Review

                                        “When our oppressor is all powerful, where shall we fly for justice?” 

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Ion, an Ancient Greek play by Euripides, was supposed to have been written between 414 and 412 B.C and is defined as a tragedy, although it’s definitely not as tragic as a majority of Euripides plays. Ion shares common themes with other plays written by Euripides such as religious scepticism, the clash of God’s and men, the injustices suffered by women, and features Greek Gods (Hermes, Apollo) which is another common thread that is weaved into not just Euripides plays, but plays by other Greek playwrights as well.

Ion opens with Hermes, a Greek God, detailing how Apollo raped an Athenian woman named Creusa in a cave under the Acropolis. Creusa, not being able to live with what Apollo did to her, left her son (Ion) in a basket in the cave where Apollo raped her, expecting that the child would be devoured by beasts. I’ve been an avid reader of Greek Mythology for a long time, and I knew of this story, but I was still horrified with Apollo raping Creusa, and Creusa leaving her child to be eaten by beasts. Later in the play, Euripides put doubt in the mind of the reader/viewer that Apollo raped Creusa, and subtly suggests that something just as dark happened (Creusa being raped by another man) but he leaves it up to the reader to decide which of these events they want to believe.

After this opening, the play moves to Apollo’s temple in Delphi where the child of Creusa lives and works. Ion is sweeping outside the temple when Creusa arrives, having made the journey to Delphi with her husband to pray to Apollo to give them children. Creusa meets Ion, not knowing he is her son, outside the temple and talk about various subjects, including the injustices women suffer at the hands of men and God’s. Cruesa expresses her outrage to Ion about how women are viewed and judged:

“Life is harder for women than for men: they judge us, good and bad together, and hate us. That is the fate we are born to”

The injustices women suffer is a major theme in Ion, as well as several of Euripides other plays (Women of Troy, Helen, Medea). For an Ancient Greek play, it’s rather progressive for it’s time from a feminist standpoint. Euripides, oddly, has a reputation as a misogynist, but perhaps I just haven’t gotten to his misogynist plays yet. It’s a sad fact that, two and a half thousand years after Ion was written, women and minorities still suffer similar injustices as they did in Ancient Greece. Forget sad, it’s rather horrifying.

Another major theme in Ion is religious scepticism, which I imagine was rather controversial in Ancient Greece. Through Creusa and Ion, Euripides expresses his outrage at how hypercritical the Gods are and at how immoral they are, yet they hold humans to a high standard and punish men for committing similar acts:

“If you are to pay to men the lawful indemnity for every rape you commit, you will empty your temples to pay for your misdeeds. It is unjust for you Apollo, and Poseidon and Zeus, to call men bad for copying what you find acceptable.”
Although called Ion, this play is more about Creusa and her plight. I truly loved this play, and felt very sympathetic towards Creusa and her tragic life. It is, like all of Euripides’ plays that I have read, very well written and is packed full of raw emotion. I really felt what the characters were feeling and those kind of plays are the ones I love the most. The plays that make you feel right down to the marrow in your bones. I would definitely recommend this for anyone who loves the play form, Ancient Greek plays, Greek Mythology and texts about women and the injustices they suffer.

Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm [Old Review]

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Hansel and Gretel approaching the gingerbread house

Hansel and Gretel was first published in the two volume set of Fairy Tales Kinder- und Hausmarchen, composed by Jacob and Wilheim Grimm, in 1812. The Grimm brothers heard of the tale of Hansel and Gretel from a family friend but it’s certainly not an original tale. It possibly could have originated during the Great Famine in 1315 as there were reports of parents abandoning their children because they couldn’t afford to feed them and people resorting to cannibalism. Since then the familiar tale of Hansel and Gretel has appeared across different cultures and times. Tales by Charles Perrault and Madame d’ Aulnoy bear striking resemblances to Hansel and Gretel. The Grimm brothers themselves identified these two stories as being parallel stories to Hansel and Gretel. Hansel and Gretel was revised multiple times over the course of 40 years and the original story that appeared in 1812 is quite different from the final version published in the 1850s. Hansel and Gretel is one of the most recognisable tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm and has been adapted countless times for film, opera, plays, etc.

Hansel and Gretel opens with a description of a poor woodcutter who lived with his wife and children. They have always had little to eat and when a Great Famine strikes the land the woodcutter is unable to even supply their bread. The woodcutter’s wife, a selfish and horrible woman, comes up with the idea of giving Hansel and Gretel a small piece of bread each and leaving them in the woods to be devoured by animals. The father is extremely weak and agrees, although he’s not very happy about it. Unbeknownst to them Hansel and Gretel overheard the plan and Hansel quickly went outside and gathered pebbles so they could find their way home once they were left in the woods. When daybreak hits the family go out into the woods and the parents leave Hansel and Gretel next to a fire. They ate the bread quickly and fell asleep. When they awoke it was dark but the moon shone brightly in the night sky and they were able to follow the pebble track Hansel had left behind them. They eventually returned home safely much to the mothers chagrin.

A few days or weeks later (its not specified) they run out of food again and the mother decides they have to try and leave Hansel and Gretel in the woods once more. Hansel and Gretel overhear this plan again and Hansel decides to grab some more petals but the door is locked and he can’t get out. Hansel then decides to use the bread to leave crumbs behind. The next day the mother and father leave them in the woods again but when Hansel and Gretel woke up from their nap they discovered the bread crumbs were eaten by birds. They wander around the woods for three days until they come to a house made of sweets. Hansel decides that he will eat the roof made of cake and Gretel will eat the sugar windows. Suddenly they hear a voice from inside:

“Nibble, nibble, little mouse,
Who is nibbling at my house?”

Hansel and Gretel answer:

“The wind, the wind,
The heavenly child” 

A while afterwards an old woman appears, who is described to be as old as the hills themselves. Hansel and Gretel are frightened but the woman invites them inside and gives them a good meal and a place to sleep. Hansel and Gretel are immediately content and their worries disappear. However, the next morning the old woman (who is actually an evil witch) locks Hansel in a cage and makes Gretel become her slave. The witch had designed her sweet house to lure children so she could eat them. She feeds Hansel every day to fatten him up and only gives Gretel claw fish. Hansel realises what the witch is doing and sticks out a chicken bone every morning so the witch will think he hasn’t gained any weight. Eventually the witch grows impatient and decides she will eat Hansel anyway. She makes Gretel boil water so she can cook him the next day. When the day arrives the witch asks Gretel to test the oven out and see if it’s hot enough. Seeing what the witch has planned Gretel pushes the witch in the oven, lets Hansel out and they escape from the house just as the witch is being burned to death. But not before they take jewels so they’ll never be hungry again. Eventually they find their way home, with the aid of a swan, are reunited with their father and discover their mother had died. All’s well that ends well, right?

Hansel and Gretel was much darker than I remember. Cannibal witches, selfish parents who leave their children to be eaten by wild animals, etc. I absolutely love Hansel and Gretel and being older than when I read it the first and second times I can appreciate it for what it is. A story about two incredibly brave and smart children who outwit those who would wish them harm. They deserve the world and they eventually got it. A truly wonderful story that is quite inspiring.

Le Morte D’Arthur

Oh, Le Morte D’Arthur. I’ve been reading Thomas Malory’s take on the Arthurian legends for about four months now (it was my Classics Club Spin read back in June) but haven’t really been able to make it very far. I’ve read the first three books which totals about 117 pages but I can’t seem to get back into it. I actually have really enjoyed reading the first three books and have even typed up draft notes on the books I have read but for some reason I put it down and have never picked it back up. I’m determined to finish it by the end of this year, which is why Jean’s Le Morte D’Arthur group read-a-long couldn’t have come at a better time. Since I read the first three books a few months ago, I think I’ll start over so I can jog my memory.

*the copy I’ll be reading from is The Penguin Classics edition, edited by Janet Cowen, and is split into two physical books: Volume 1 and 2. Volume 1 covers Books 1-9 and Volume 2 covers Books 10-21.

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Top Ten Tuesday – Books This Year

Since it’s the start of June and almost halfway through the year (!) there couldn’t be a better time for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic, which I’m going to use as a kind of recap of this year in Literature. I’ve read a lot of great books this year so this Top Ten Books I’ve Read This Year list will be rather easy. Well, hopefully…

In no particular order my Top Ten are:

10.
Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev

9.
Poor Folk – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

8.
Rubicon – Tom Holland

7.
Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte

6.
Inferno – Dante

5.
The Plague – Albert Camus

4.
Animal Farm – George Orwell

3.
The Theban Plays – Sophocles

2.
The Book of Sand – Jorge Luis Borges

1.
Persuasion – Jane Austen

I won’t add descriptions since I did a major post about most of these but I will say that so far this year I have read books that I will carry with me for a lifetime. I’ve enjoyed every book I’ve read, some more than others, but I have enjoyed them all.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell

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“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Animal Farm, a widely read and loved Novella by George Orwell, was first published in 1945. On the surface it’s a simple tale of mistreated animals taking a farm from the hands of humans and building a new world order but once you look deeper it’s a very strong and crisp allegory of the Russian Revolution and the creation of the USSR. I’ve read a lot of books published over the last hundred years or so but none, with the possible exception of the Great Gatsby, is more deserving of the word classic.

For a novella, Animal Farm is actually quite dense and covers many issues/is set over a decade or so. The tale starts off with the death of Old Major who before he passes spreads the idea of the animals one day rising up and taking over the farm from the corrupt humans. Old Major’s death is followed by the quick expulsion of the humans, including the owner of the farm Mr. Jones, who ends up trying to come back but is driven away again. The main action of the story takes place after the original expulsion of the humans from the farm and most of the book covers the animals building a functional new order (led by two pigs Snowball and Napoleon) and the eventual corruption of their original communist ideals. The animals start off with seven simple rules but as time goes on Napoleon and his followers (mostly pigs and dogs) get a thirst for power the rules are changed and the “less intelligent” animals are manipulated into submitting to Napoleon.

As someone who has always had an interest in Russian history,specifically the Russian Revolution, the story was quite entertaining as I was able to spot the animal counterparts of real historical figures. Old Major represents either Marx or Lenin as the instigators of the Communist ideal (critics are still split over whether Old Major actually represents Marx or Lenin), Napoleon is Stalin, Snowball is Trotsky, Mr Jones is the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas I and other animals represent the workers and peasants of the USSR under Stalin.

Although I loved the story itself and the not-so-subtle allegorical hints, the discussion of the many issues (corruption, communism, how to build an equal society/how to sustain it, power and control) that the Animal Farm faced was definitely the most interesting. I live in Australia which is a first world, capitalist, multicultural, economically stable and secular country that is governed by a very conservative party. Australia is a contrast to the USSR in almost every area but I found some of the issues discussed in Animal Farm are the issues that my country is facing even now. Recently the liberal government released the Federal Budget which put forward the idea of raising the age of when the elderly could retire and have access to the aged pension to 70 years old. This is a parallel to Napoleon raising the pension age on Animal Farm and taking away certain benefits for animals who had reached the age to retire, such as the hard working horse Boxer. It’s quite alarming that even sixty years later our progression as a society isn’t much improved.

Yes, Animal Farm is a book very of it’s time but due to the discussions of society, government and the corruption of socialist ideals it will always remain relevant no matter which country or time period you’re living in.

The Professor, by Charlotte Bronte

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“In sunshine, in prosperity, the flowers are very well; but how many wet days are there in life—November seasons of disaster, when a man’s hearth and home would be cold indeed, without the clear, cheering gleam of intellect.”

The Professor, Charlotte Bronte’s (pen name Currer Bell) first novel, was published posthumously in 1857 and at first wasn’t well received mostly because of it’s similarity to another of her novels, Villette. It’s Charlotte Bronte’s least known novel but it’s valued because you can see her promising talent laced throughout the work. As well as the fictional elements it has shades of the autobiographical due to Charlotte Bronte’s own experience teaching in Brussels when she was younger.

 The story itself is quite simple. The Protagonist, William Crimsworth, is a poor orphaned Englishman who by chance is offered a place as a professor (teacher) at an esteemed boys boarding school in Brussels. This later turns into a second teaching placement at the all girls school next door. William isn’t a handsome man, he doesn’t have any considerable talent for trade and he’s certainly not rich but he does have moderate intellect which is his only weapon against a world that largely doesn’t care for him. He is determined to work for what he earns and mentions constantly that he doesn’t want to be given a single thing. Charlotte Bronte mentioned in the preface that she wanted to tell a real story, a story about a man who is average and plain who has to work for everything he has. In that respect she succeeds. I was quite enchanted by his character throughout the novel.

The secondary characters are memorable too. There is Frances Henri, a student of William’s, who at first is a reserved and guarded but sweet girl, but then transforms into a strong and smart young woman who is determined to pay for her own way in life. There are the two antagonists of the novel, Francois Pelet and Zoraide Reuter, who are ambitious and cunning but I found them simply delightful. And there is Hunsden Yorke Hunsden who befriends William early in the novel and who pops in now and then to offer his interesting take on where William’s life is heading and who ends up being a dear friend to both William and Frances.

This novel had a lot of promise and it did hold my attention throughout but the  prejudice against Catholics (at one point Bronte called them Romish Wizards and people who lacked integrity), the French and Belgians prevented me from completely enjoying the novel. The prejudice and racism was laced throughout the work and at points I had to take a breath and force myself through because of the strength of Bronte’s venomous hatred.

All in all I enjoyed parts of the novel but much like Northanger Abbey I highly doubt I’ll visit this one again.

Dirty Hands – Jean Paul Sartre

Dirty Hands, an existentialist play written by Jean Paul Sartre, is by far the most engaging and thought provoking play I have read. Admittedly, I’m not a reader of plays as I have always found them sharp and brutal and out of touch with my interests.  I have read Shakespeare as well as his contemporaries and Oscar Wilde but beyond that I have never felt the need to broaden my readings of the play form. Dirty Hands has given me the motivation I needed to search for plays, both modern and ancient, and to soak them up like I normally would a novel.

Continue reading “Dirty Hands – Jean Paul Sartre”