Fathers and Sons

7.31.2012

Axel Kulle 1846-1908-Den förlorade sonens återkomst
Arkady Kirsanov, recent graduate of the University of St Petersburg, comes home to visit his father Nikolai and uncle Pavel at the Kirsanov estate in the country.  Nikolai is anxious to give his son a warm welcome, even if it means putting up with Arkady's new friend, the arrogant Yevgeny Bazarov.  Bazarov has abandoned social conventions and traditions while expounding upon the virtues of nihilism, which causes growing hostility between him and the conservative Pavel.  Arkady goes on to visit Bazarov's parents and begins to discover that Bazarov is not exactly what he thought he was.

Ivan Turgenev's short novel is truly an underrated classic.  Fast-paced and witty, the plot's complexity is worthy of a longer book, while the setting gives us another perspective of Russian history--neither quite Pushkin nor Dostoyevsky.  Fathers and Sons came highly rated, but I didn't know it was going to be such a page-turner, hard to put down!

Set in 1859, this book is about the generational gap between "fathers and sons" (and uncle), but it is also about generational similarities.  Ironically, I found what Nikolai and Bazarov shared most in common was their immorality (stemming from pride), narrowmindedness, and male chauvinism.  Some things don't change, I guess.

My favorite characters were Pavel and Bazarov, the polar opposites.  Pavel is a Byronic/Romantic/Pushkin-era dandy and former ladies' man, who entered middle age with a broken heart and an old-fashioned sense of style.  Bazarov is different in every way--young, full of himself, could care less how he looks, and apathetically ambitious (he studies medicine, but he doesn't "believe" in it).  I like Bazarov's honesty, and I think Pavel is actually the most conscientious character in the book.

I also liked Bazarov's parents, Vasily and Arina.  They struck me as two people who--while not asking many questions or pushing many conventions--try to do their best where they're at.  Really, the book is full of realism and grey characters; if you like reading books about "real" people, then you would probably like Fathers and Sons.

I guess what disappointed me about this book was Bazarov himself.  Turgenev was about forty-four when Fathers and Sons was published, and I think the book reflects that.  Bazarov doesn't come across as very true to his cause, nor does he seem to live for anything or anyone but himself--his selfishness and arrogance, not his beliefs, are his chief attributes.  I do not promote/agree with the nihilist movement, but if a character is supposed to represent something, then their perspective should be examined clearly and not merely in vague expressions.  At least, the generational contrast/comparison would have been more effective if Bazarov had been more sincere, like Nikolai and Pavel.

4.5 out of 5 stars.  The plot is excellent (and the ending is tragic).  Recommended!

The Mystery of Cloomber

7.28.2012

General Heatherstone is not an unfriendly person, really.  He's just very, very nervous.  So nervous, in fact, that he has converted his new home, Cloomber Hall, into a fortress and keeps his family as veritable prisoners behind its walls.  His neighbor John Fothergill West has taken an interest in the Heatherstones, and John soon finds motives besides curiosity for uncovering the general's secret enemies, who seem to have superhuman powers at their command.

I had high hopes for this novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I must give it an unfortunate 2 out of 5 stars.  I don't ascribe to the opinion that Doyle's non-Sherlock writings are inferior; in fact, I've enjoyed much of his other writing, which may account for my disappointment with this one.

There are some wonderful descriptions, a good dose of mysterious happenings, and a magnificent shipwreck scene.  I also felt that Doyle's portrayal of the Afridis was a sympathetic one.

However, the book's slow pace and final conclusion ruined the story for me.  Doyle is an interesting author in that he could direct a weird story towards either a supernatural conclusion or a scientific conclusion.  In the Mystery of Cloomber, many strange things happen that the narrator concludes act as evidence for occult powers.  Can the reader find scientific explanations for them?  Yes, easily, but that is not the ultimate theme of the book.

If you are looking for more Doyle to read, then by all means check out The Lost World or Brigadier Gerard, etc.  I can't say I recommend this one.

The Trial

7.05.2012

Franz Kafka's signature

A good book, a bad book, a "love it or hate it" book.  It takes some willpower for me to review Franz Kafka's The Trial as objectively as possible, but I must give it a mixed-feelings rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars.

I believe I began reading this book last fall, before putting it aside for months and then finishing it recently.  It's the sort of book you can resume at any moment--because, apart from the beginning and the end, nothing happens.  I learned nothing and was intrigued.  It's evidently deep but reads like light summer reading.  It's a good book to read in public, because it will hold your interest despite distractions.

In a nutshell:  The Trial is about a guy who, one fine morning, gets "arrested" for unknown reasons.  And by "arrest", it is not a "go directly to jail" arrest or even a house arrest--nothing so clear-cut and reassuring.  And "the Trial" is not about a trial in the typical sense, but about the trials Josef K. suffers just trying to get to the bottom of it.  Keyword:  trying.

Having been awed by The Metamorphosis, I am hesitant to write The Trial off as pure nonsense.  In both of these works, I believe Kafka exaggerated and examined the paranoia, corruption, and bizarre situations in real life to make a point, or to at least bring them to people's attention.  The sudden, unexpected, strange moments of our lives when people are incomprehensible, when society seems ridiculous, aloof, vulgar, perhaps crazy--this is a huge aspect of the Kafkaesque, the meat-and-potatoes of Kafka's themes in The Trial.  The oddities of everyday life and the mind-numbingly tedious, unbelievable processes that are necessary for things to be accomplished in a legal system (this is not entirely fantasy either--think of how many years, even decades, it can take for a person to legally become a U.S. citizen!).  Kafka appeared to be haunted by these things; how much of it arose from just his own perspective, I can only conjecture.  I think he emphasized many truths people don't often think about, but you have to wonder at what point do the obscure truths stop and the imagination begins.

The other highlight of The Trial is what might be called "Kafka logic."  In this book, it's something like a mixture of math, Alice in Wonderland, and arguments.  Different characters ramble on and on and on about Josef's case; my favorite was the lawyer's monologue in Chapter 7, a prime example of how to optimistically give depressing news.  I personally enjoy reading about "Kafka logic"; again, it seems to me to depict some real-life truths in a very remarkable way.

Unfortunately, the protagonist "Josef K." is the thorn in the side of his own book.  Like the "K." of Kafka's The Castle (which I have not finished yet), Josef comes across as an ultimately spineless, hypocritical, gullible loser.  Josef's biggest enemy is his own anxiety--much like Richard in Charles Dickens' Bleak House--and while I sympathized with him at first, it seemed to me later that he could have conquered his anxieties by simply trying to live a normal life and keeping busy with his work.  Instead, he drives himself crazy trying to outsmart the system, while still finding time to have romantic relationships with total strangers (despite condemning the judges as "woman-chasers").  Josef doesn't even have the guts to get out of long, boring, painful conversations with people who are unable or unwilling to help him.  Spoiler in white:  At the end, he is about to commit suicide, before he is murdered (or executed, depending on how you look at it).  His last words are to feel sorry for his hurt pride.  Pathetic. 

The other characters comprise one of the creepiest sets of characters I've ever come across.  There is "the whip-man", the most blatantly sinister.  The others give the appearance of being nice, but most are conniving, hostile, or simply apathetic.  The majority are either realistically unpleasant or cardboard cutouts literally devoid of personality.

Due to Josef's "love life" and the shocking ending, I would say this book is for older readers (17+).  I don't recommend it necessarily.  Give The Metamorphosis a try, and if you dislike it, I can almost guarantee you'll hate this book.  On the other hand, if you are fascinated by the Kafkaesque, you'll find plenty of that in The Trial.

From Eyre to Onegin

7.02.2012

After reading Eugene Onegin, it struck me that it shares several essential similarities with a more famous romantic classic, Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë).

Lord Byron 1804-6 Crop

There's the Gothic side, for example.  Jane Eyre is considered to be "Gothic", and Eugene Onegin holds elements of it as well.  The letter-writing scene has a sense of gloom about it, but more eerie is the dream sequence, with its fantastical creatures and irony.  And Byronic heroes?  Enter Edward Rochester and Eugene Onegin.  Both are former socialites, now living out empty lives in empty ancestral houses.  Both despise the high society where they once distinguished themselves.  Both believe they've seen all there is to life and human nature.  

(Spoilers alert)