9

“Get out of my head, Charles Dickens!” A Tale of Two Cities and Other Annoying 19th Century Things

Ever notice how 19th century novels consist of extremely long sentences that seem to drag on interminably as the author demonstrates his or her skill in the use of subordinate clauses or timely semicolons in prolonging these unwieldly monstrosities while at the same time flaunting his or her unscrupulous avariciousness, keeping in mind that writers in those days were paid by the line?

I’ve always enjoyed reading 19th century literature, so it’s no surprize that some of that long-sentency style rubs off on me. Not only do I write in long sentences, but sometimes I even have that Charles Dickens narrator voice following me around in my daily life and narrating everything I do in an English accent, much like Emma Thompson in Stranger than Fiction.

stranger_than_fiction

Stranger than Fiction

This is perhaps cause for concern, especially since the novel I’ve just finished reading, A Tale of Two Cities, is one of the most boring and confounding sagas ever set down in writing.

First, there are many problems with the characters. Lucie Manette, a beautiful blond, blue-eyed young lady is portrayed as having a strange aberration plaguing her forehead. Professor VJ Duke of the Punchy Lands often points out less-than-skillfully executed descriptions by classic writers in his ripping book reviews. Usually, these blunders are quite subtle and hard to spot, but the one in Tale of Two Cities is a glaring example of grotesqueness:

…a forehead with a singular capacity (remembering how young and smooth it was), of lifting and knitting itself into an expression that was not quite one of perplexity or wonder, or alarm, or merely of a bright fixed attention, though it included all the four expressions…

So it seems her special super power is to make her forehead look older than it is as well as to convey this complicated expression through its walnut-like patterns. Later on, when Lucie receive some shocking news, we are informed that Lucie was

perfectly still and silent… with that last expression looking as if it were carved or branded into her forehead.

So the reader is forced to imagine some hideous aberration that makes this otherwise lovely young woman permanently look like a Klingon.

Aside from her weird forehead, Lucie is a very boring character. She has literally nothing to do but look and act angelic, as opposed to the evil Madame Defarge who is perfectly wicked and bad.

But if Dickens makes the female characters oversimplified, he compensates by making one of the leading male characters complicated beyond understanding. Who is this alcoholic lawyer creeping around and complaining about his own lack of achievement? Sydney Carton is the sort of character that would have been very appealing to my teenage self. He is quite mysterious, melancholy, and misunderstood. Instead of achieving great things in the profession of law, he chooses rather to help his friend, a particularly obtuse lawyer, rise to greatness. Nobody, perhaps not even Carton himself, knows why he is so messed up.

Indeed, he is almost as annoying as Heathcliff from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights…

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Comic strip from Hark, a Vagrant!

Instead of pursuing the angelic Lucie, whom he loves, he mopes around, while the highly accomplished Charles Darnay swoops in and steals her heart. Darnay is a former french aristocrat, but he wants to give up that life of spoiled indulgence, so he moves to England. He earns his living as a language tutor, just like me, so I would have liked for him to be the main character, but alas he is just a pawn in this political game…

[Spoiler alert!]

When Darnay nobly saunters off to Paris in order to save his former servant from the revolutionary hordes, he is immediately captured and is threatened with execution. Who will save him?

Of course, the brooding Carton now chooses this as a good time to cease brooding and start acting. Though the way he resolves the problem of the novel shows that he hasn’t changed one bit. He is still the same old Carton, willing to be self-effacing and self-sacrificing for the sake of others. When Charles Darnay is imprisoned, Carton devises an ingenious plan to free him. But ironically, his self-sacrifice will finally earn him some recognition.

In typical Carton fashion, instead of snatching Darnay from the Guillotine Scarlet Pimpernel-style, he enters the jail and takes Darnay’s place, thereby sacrificing himself and of course, forever ensuring that his memory lives on in his beloved Lucie’s heart. Isn’t that a bit manipulative?

ronald-colman-sydney-carton-tale-of-two-cities-1936Okay, so it is a very remarkable and moving ending. It almost justifies having to slog through the entire saga of Lucie’s angelic life. I have to admit, the book may have seemed extremely boring to me due to the fact that I had already seen the movie. This 1935 cinematic version was much more exciting and fast-paced as movies tend to be. Carton seemed like a nice, debonair sort of fellow who maybe had a bit of a drinking problem, but was otherwise very charming. Although the movie made everything more cute and bland, I think I prefer it to the original work.

So the final verdict? We shall not give Dickens the chop. Perhaps he can get away this time with a stern reprimand.

Since Dickens’ work inspired me to write this really long blog post complaining about how lame it is, I suppose he must have some merit as a writer. In fact, I regard one of his other books, Great Expectations, very highly. And now that I’ve recognized his genius, the least thing he could do is stop narrating my life!

2

A Swashbuckling Detox

 Let’s face it, Swashbuckling is an activity that requires a lot of energy. All that running around, fencing, and romancing… your body has to be like a finely-tuned machine. And while I have always pursued swashbuckling activities like fencing and other martial arts, there were times in my life when I lacked the energy required for the role and was often too fatigued.

About three years ago I found out I had a gluten intolerance which was causing the fatigue. So with the help of a holistic therapist, I started on a gluten-free and sugar-free diet. Three years later, I still tend to stay away from the gluten, and I replace sugar with stevia or agave syrup. And my energy level is now more than appropriate for swashbuckling activities.

The reason I’m telling this tale now is that I’ve recently started on an internship for The Master Cleanse website. (You can check out my contributions to the Master Cleanse Website here.) I write and syndicate articles for their website, and these articles are not just about the Master Cleanse lemonade diet but are also related to cleansing, detoxing, and other health matters. It’s been a great experience so far, especially since I get to write about alternative and holistic medicine, which is something that people often look at with a huge amount of skepticism.

However, as we can see from the quote below, taken from The Three Musketeers, there is a long history of swashbucklers resorting to alternative medicine, with great results…

On the following morning at five o’clock d’Artagnan arose, and descending to the kitchen without help, asked, among other ingredients the list of which has not come down to us, for some oil, some wine, and some rosemary, and with his mother’s recipe in his hand composed a balsam, with which he anointed his numerous wounds, replacing his bandages himself, and positively refusing the assistance of any doctor, d’Artagnan walked about that same evening, and was almost cured by the morrow.

The Musketeers, enjoying good health thanks to alternative medicine.

Obviously, these natural remedies go back a long way. Even in the 17th century there was “mainstream” medicine involving doctors juxtaposed with folk  remedies such as D’Artagnan’s mother’s balsam. Nowadays, the distinction is even more pronounced, and unfortunately much of our mainstream medicine involves chemicals that are often more dangerous than the diseases they treat. With pharmaceutical companies bribing doctors to sell their wares and consumers only trusting in so-called scientific approaches, alternative and holistic methods are in danger of being edged off the market. Who will save them if not this daring swashbuckler?

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Historical Book Review: The Elephant’s Journey

I haven’t actually finished The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago, but I couldn’t wait to blog about it because this is the best book I’ve read in a long time. I highly recommend it for anyone who is a fan of elephants or historical fiction.

It’s based on a true story of an Indian elephant given by the king of Portugal to the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as a wedding present. The elephant must make the journey from Portugal to Austria, accompanied by Subhro, his trainer (or Mahout) who has been with him since India, an armed guard of 30 people, and an ox cart with provisions. The elephant, however, is the main character, as the narrator specifically points out.

The narrator himself is very interesting. Apparently he detests capitalization and punctuation of any kind, so the entire narrative flows together with minimal friction, and the reader eventually gets used to it. He also has a coy habit of addressing the reader directly at intervals, (which is exactly what I did in my first yet-unpublished novel, and I had been criticized for it many times. Hmph!) As a fellow compulsive reader-addresser, I can’t help but appreciate such lines as:

The wolves appeared the following day. Perhaps they had heard us mention them earlier and finally decided to show up.

The narrator is happy to take frequent breaks and digressions from narrating in order to reflect on the story. There is an incredible amount of funny and quotable phrases, such as the following, which occurs when the king is inspecting the neglected elephant and finds that it’s covered in dirt:

The king muttered some inaudible remark, then said in a clear, firm voice, I want that animal washed, right now. He felt like a king, he was a king, and that feeling is understandable when you consider that never in his entire life as a monarch had he uttered such a sentence.

Overall, the novel gives the impression of someone looking at very distant history through a fuzzy lens, trying to sort out what actually happened. At the same time, the reader also feels very close to the characters, as we’re allowed a glimpse into their thoughts and feelings. It’s a very touching story, maybe because there’s an animal protagonist who is kinder and wiser than the people around him. As I said, I haven’t quite finished reading, so I don’t know whether the elephant survives the difficult journey, but I hope he makes it!

2

The Dostoevsky Blog?

Image courtesy of Maira Kalman, from her book The Principles of Uncertainty

A while back, I wrote about Dostevsky’s The Idiot, and it still remains my most popular post. Yes, contrary to all expectations, Dostoevsky is more popular than seagulls, Jim Butcher, and Socrates combined… not bad for a dead white guy! I briefly considered renaming this “the Dostoevsky Blog” but that would make it hard to promote my own writing, unless I pretended my name was Dostoevsky.

Without going too extreme, I will see if we can have something of a semi-regular feature on Dostoevsky books. Also, if you have any questions about Dostoevsky or his writings, you can email me or leave a comment, and I’ll post the answers on this blog.

3

Thou shalt censor for the sake of manliness!

Unmanly Achilles?…

I’ve taught one of the funniest classes ever, and I can’t really take credit for it being funny. All the laughs came from  that well known stand up comedian Socrates, brought to you by Plato’s chef d’oevre The Republic. Now, you wouldn’t think that one of the cornerstones of Western philosophy is also outrageously funny, but my student and I were consumed with fits of giggling after discussing this masterful work of political thought.

Of course, it was not intentionally funny… At first, Socrates talks about his plan for designing the perfect city, to be ruled over by a Philosopher King, who would basically be a tyrant. Such tyranny, however, is justified because the philosopher obviously knows what’s best for the people. Among other things, he would ensure their moral soundness by censoring Homer’s poetry and other works that portray gods and heroes in a “negative” light. He is expecially concerned that heroes should not be depicted as weak and unmanly:

Then we shall be right in getting rid of the lamentations of famous men, and making them over to women (and not even to women who are good for anything), or to men of a baser sort, that those who are being educated by us to be the defenders of their country may scorn to do the like.

More specifically, he points out Achilles’ mourning of Patroclus as an outrageous example of unmanly behaviour:

Then we will once more entreat Homer and the other poets not to depict Achilles, who is the son of a goddess, first lying on his side, then on his back, and then on his face… now taking the sooty ashes in both his hands and pouring them over his head, or weeping and wailing in the various modes which Homer has delineated. Nor should he describe Priam the kinsman of the gods as praying and beseeching, rolling in the dirt, calling each man loudly by his name.

Very strange indeed… In our times, we censor things that are either too violent or too sexual, whereas in Plato’s times people were more interested in censoring out strong expressions of emotion because they were considered unmanly! One can only conclude that Socrates’ ideal man would somewhat resemble a screen persona portrayed by Clint Eastwood. Whether he has just seen his best friend killed or his favorite ice cream flavour sold out, the only hint we would get of inner turmoil would be a powerful glare of those piercing blue eyes.

Yes, it was funny to think of censorship being used in that way, but on second thought, maybe Socrates was on to something. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we had a Philosopher King who would censor out huge chunks of Jersey Shore? I had to suffer through a few episodes of this travesty because my former roommate was a fan, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that show is unmanly. Whether you use Socrates’ definition or a more contemporary one, of a man being someone strong, dependable, and not petty, it is clear that the men of Jersey Shore fall short of the mark. As far as I could tell, they are usually busy gossiping, cowering away from their problems, and when they’re not busy with drink and debauchery, judging others who engage in drink and debauchery. All of this should be censored out, leaving only the parts when the characters are either asleep or interacting respectfully with their Italian elders. And then the show would probably lose some of its appeal and people would stop watching it. So maybe censorship can be a force for good! What do you think, readers? Have you ever wanted to censor a movie, TV show, book, or anything else?

5

Dickens and Dostoevsky

I haven’t blogged in a while, being busy with my students, some of whom are studying Great Expectations and some The Idiot by Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, respectively. So I’ve been in the throes of reading both books, especially the Dostoevsky. He’s got very intense plotting, so one always feels “in the throes” of it.

I’ve realized a very important thing: that movie I saw recently, Our Idiot Brother must have been inspired by The Idiot, but it was a somewhat dumbed down version, which is kind of ironic if you think about it. In the movie, the main character is literally really stupid, whereas in Dostoyevsky’s novel he’s actually extremely intelligent but a very nice and sincere guy, so everyone thinks he’s an idiot. However, the movie wasn’t bad. I can see now how it hearkens back to the original novel. In the movie, Ned (played by Paul Rudd) is an innocent and impractical guy who loses his farm and his girlfriend, so he is taken care of by his mother and three sisters. Being extremely honest, Ned proceeds to turn his sisters’ lives upside down by inadvertently revealing the web of lies that they had built up. And interestingly enough, another movie version is in production. It seems it will be closer to the original, though I don’t know whether it will be set in 19th century Russia or whether it will be another modernized American version.

Anyways, reading them side by side made me wonder whether Dickens and Dostoevsky ever actually met in real life. I discovered that there is some uncertainty about whether they actually met. Dostoevsky describes it in his journal, but it’s quite possible he made the whole thing up. Such a meeting, however, has definitely taken place on my book shelf, and I think it’s having a very a good effect on me by making me more smarter and what not.