a blank slate

a blank slate

Tag: back to classics challenge

The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore – R.I.P. VII


Summary: Our unnamed narrator, an American grad student living in Paris, chances upon an old manuscript, and the reference to “luperal temples”catches his eye – “lupa” being Latin for wolf. The manuscript, which he calls “the Galliez report”, is the defense at the court-martial of Sergeant Bertrand Calliet, the eponymous werewolf. His research leads our narrator to the sad story of Aymar Galliez and his strange nephew Bertrand.

“The vast strides of our generation in the conquest of the material world must not mislead us into thinking that when we have plumbed the physical world to its depths we shall thereby have explained all there is to explain. The scientists of a former day strove mightily to fathom the depth of the spiritual world and their successes and conquests are all but forgotten.
If today the lonely traveler can walk fearlessly through the midnight shadows of the silent forests of France, is it because of the vigilance of our police? Is it because science has taught us to be unbelievers in ghosts and monsters? Or is not some thanks due the Church, which after a millennium of warfare succeeded at long last in clearing the atmosphere of its charge of hidden terror and thus allowed for the completer unfolding of the human ego?

The story starts with the ominous birth of a boy (on Christmas Eve) to a young servant girl, who has been raped by a priest. The woman is a maid in the house of Aymar Galliez. Aymar raises the boy as his own and soon begins to realize something is terribly wrong with him. With long curves fingernails, eyebrows that meet and hair on his palms, Bertrand resembles his father, the wayward priest Pitamont and is a descendant of the curse Pitamont clan, who spread evil wherever they went. As Bertrand grows up, he begins to have nightmares of running free in the wild, chasing and being chased and his step-uncle realizes with growing terror that the mystery behind the disappearing wayfarers and mauled livestock lives in his own house. Bertrand, in spite of his Aymar’s continued efforts to lock him up, escapes his home and runs off to Paris. The account follows Bertrand’s struggles to calm the beast inside him. Set in France, the story has its gory ending during the fall of the Paris Commune.

” When the body of a man weakens, the soul of that man begins to detach itself from the tentacles of flesh and prepares itself to fly off the instant the body dies. (…) It happens occasionally that the soul of a beast gains entrance into a man’s body while he yet lives. Then the two souls war with each other. The soul of this man may depart completely and leave only that of the beast behind. And that explains how there are men in this world who are only monsters in disguise, playing for a moment at being men, the kings of creation. Just as a servant plays with his master’s clothes.”

My Thoughts: This book is nothing like I expected. The great combination of horror and historical fiction makes it thoroughly engaging. Apart from being a very exciting read, the book gives a glimpse into this brutal time in the French history, with characters who were actually there then. It is hard to distinguish fiction from fact and the blend of fantasy and reality adds to the horror. The book is filled with endless horror, gore and gruesome death, but it is so much more than just another tale starring some supernatural creature. The book, with its social commentary and metaphors reminded me constantly of Stoker’s Dracula. We are shown, throughout the book, how inherent violence is in man. The werewolf is compared to the people of Paris who killed each other viciously right on the streets. The wolf appears more to be a victim of his own intrinsic and uncontrollable violent urges rather than a monster. The book is written in a very frank, precise manner, which was, for me, one of the best things about it. The narration does become incredibly gloomy at times, but it’s a short book and can be read in one sitting. The Werewolf of Paris is undoubtedly a great book and and I am sure I will read it again.

This was the first book I finished reading as part of the R.I.P. VII Challenge Peril the First! (Although, on a side note, I’m also considering it for the Back to The Classics Challenge.) I say finished, because I have been reading The Terror by Dan Simmons for the past week, but it’s just a really very long book! This is also the first time I have read any werewolf fiction, and I have to say, I liked it. Would you recommend any books on werewolves or similarly terrifying supernatural creatures?

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

I read this as a part of the Back to Classics Challenge hosted at Sarah Reads Too Much. This is a “classic set in a place you’re unlikely to visit” : Wessex, England, because it’s fictional 🙂

Summary: Earlier: Michael Henchard, a common hay-trusser, gets drunk at a country fair and sells his wife and daughter to another man for five guineas. Susan, believing the sale to be binding and legal, goes off with the sailor, whom she considers to be her new husband. The next morning, realizing his mistake, Henchard swears off drinking for the next twenty one years.
At Present: Susan, after the seeming death of her husband (the sailor) sets off to find Henchard. She is accompanied by her eighteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who still believes the sailor to be her real father. Reaching the town of Casterbridge, the mother and daughter find out that Henchard is now a wealthy merchant, and also, the Mayor of the town. The story progresses as Susan and her old husband plan to get together, without letting their daughter know their little secret.

My Thoughts: About a month ago we were having a discussion in drama class about Macbeth, and how it was his choices that led to his destruction and that he chose his destiny. Someone mentioned deus ex machina and that led to a conversation about Thomas Hardy. I read this book because we were supposed to compare Shakespearean tragedies with the tragic novels written by Hardy. I do believe in fate; rather, our inability to change it. But I also think that life gives us this illusion of control, the right to make choices. Whether these do affect/shape our fate is another point entirely, but I believe in accepting and exercising that right and making the correct choices. I don’t think our life is a haphazard network of incidents over which we have no command. I genuinely don’t believe our lives are like any of Hardy’s poor old characters.

Throughout the novel, any major plot change occurs only due to some supposed accident or a convenient death or disappearance. I think a plot should work itself out, develop from the inside. After a certain number of pages, the writer shouldn’t have to introduce any major events that aren’t controlled by his characters. I don’t agree with that very basic thing that the book tries to reinforce: that nothing, including redemption, is really in our hands – that “happiness (is) but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.” (Say it were true, which I don’t think it is, even then – I would like my books to provide me with an inkling of that happiness rather than a 300-page-long description of that pain that I apparently suffer all the time.) The idea is depressing and so is the novel.

None of the characters stood out or made any strong impression on me. Michael Henchard is a petty coward and there’s nothing pleasing about him whatsoever (though that was how he was supposed to be.) I was particularly annoyed by all female characters in the novel and the only words used to describe them: weak, plain, simple, dull. At one point, Henchard actually tells his wife that he doesn’t blame her for not understanding, that he knows that she can’t help being so simple – or something of the sort. I know I ought to put such things in context, relate them to the time when the book was written, but it is just too condescending and irritating to ignore. Ever Donald Farfrae, one of the better characters, was ultimately just a flimsy author’s puppet used to keep the story in motion.

The Mayor of Casterbridge was not too long and it was also easy to read. I actually loved the style of writing. But does that really even matter? I finally read Hamlet, and I do think that tragedy as a result of bad choices works much better than tragedy as a result of just plain bad luck. What do you think?

Re-reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


Would it be crazy if I said that two weeks into being an English major has changed the way I see books?
Well, I re-read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 today; a book which I had first read only last year. In my review, if I remember correctly, I had written: “Imagine a world where books are burnt…”; which is probably the last thing you should say about this book, the part about “imagining”. We live in a world where books actually ARE burnt, metaphorically, of course… um, for the most part. It’s not only about censorship, the book, it’s about how the world is slowly just drifting away from books, banned or not.
(Oh, by the way, this post might be Long with a capital L. I am just so tired of saying (and hearing) “powerful message” and “complex underlying themes” over and over again; I am going to write about the message and themes, not about how powerful they were.)

Let me just say I am not against technology, even though I am almost entirely incapable of using most of it, or development, and I don’t think the book is against that either. Bradbury mentioned in an interview of some sort (I guess) about how he saw a husband and wife walking their dog; with the wife listening to a radio and with the both of them completely unaware of the actual life surrounding them. Haven’t we all seen that some place or the other? Two people in a hotel, both busy on their cellphones? The world of Fahrenheit 451 is just a blown-out-of-proportions version of what we live in. A place where books are burnt, and people are just bland faces staring at TV screens. Our protagonist Guy Montag is a fireman, in a world where firemen don’t extinguish fires but start them. Speaking of great beginnings, how about this one: “It was a pleasure to burn.”

I mentioned in my earlier review, that I would have liked to know more about how they got to that world. This time around, I felt that what he’s written was enough. It started with the minorities tearing out pages from books, until tearing wasn’t enough. If you think about it, it’s already started. And that’s where the part about censorship comes in. I heard that Bradbury said somewhere that “the world will get madder if we allow the minorities to interfere with aesthetics.” I agree, to some extent. Book don’t have to show how the world should be. Most books that are censored, don’t promote the things they are censored for mentioning (see: To Kill a Mockingbird, I don’t suppose the person who banned it actually read it!). We have to get rid of prejudice in the real world, sure, but that doesn’t mean we have to pretend in fiction that it doesn’t exist.

But the one thing that kept bugging me the whole time I was reading the book (not re-reading) was why this! Why books? What is it about literature that makes it so powerful, so seemingly dangerous? I may have to re-read the book a couple of times more to entirely answer that. However, I think I finally know what it is about books that I love so much, personally, what I love about reading. A book is not like a movie, that stays with you for only a little over the ninety minutes that it actually lasts. A movie or even a song makes you wonder and be awed, but it doesn’t make you think. I cannot watch a movie a hundred times and get something new out of it every single time. I don’t really think anyone can, not as much as with reading. It is as if books have a life of their own. If you know me, you know how I always say that books leave a lot more to interpretation. I guess it is because those few words can lead thoughts to any direction. The same few words can form entirely different pictures in different minds; the characters can relate in completely different ways to different people. And you never know where they’ll take you every time. Read a book on a beach and you are transported some place else, read it in a moving train and you feel something else entirely; reading the same book when you’re bored and when you’re happy can make you experience things completely different. You cannot read a book without really thinking about it; analysing it, without even realizing what you’re doing. You may later even forget what actually happens in that work of fiction, but those thoughts stay with you forever. And every book, every single book, gives you entirely different thoughts, opens up doors to newer thoughts and feelings.

(…and so they went ahead and banned this book…)

If you have actually made it so far, you wouldn’t mind telling me what you think about the book, would you? (And if you haven’t made it this far, well… then, you’re not reading this, so I don’t really have to write anything for you…)

This review is a part of the Back to the Classics Challenge as a classic re-read. 

A Father’s Day Review of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee



“…but do one thing for me if you will: you just hold
your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you,
don’t let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change…”

I read To Kill a Mockingbird as part of the Back to Classics Challenge, but I didn’t write a review. A review doesn’t always have to be a summary + my thoughts affair. That is why, I’ve been saving my thoughts about To Kill A Mockingbird (by Nellie Harper Lee) for this day. It may not be my favourite book, but it is not a classic for no reason. This book is not just any bildungsroman, it’s a book of how two little kids, who initially think of their father as an old, gray, dull man; learn to see the world through his eyes. So, here’s a Father’s Day post about Atticus Finch, probably the best father figure in literature.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get
along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 
You never really understand a person until you
consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk
around in it.”
Atticus Finch, the father of Jem and Scout (from whose point of view, we learn the story) is a lawyer and a resident of the (fictional) town of Maycomb, Alabama. He is smart and just (a rare quality for a lawyer) and takes insults rather than hitting back. In a book that contains the most well-shaped, seemingly real characters ever, Atticus Finch stands out as a hero. A good father is not someone who deals with all the problems in his life, while maintaining a seemingly happy and warm bubble of ignorance around his children. I love the way Finch disciplines his children; lets them think for themselves, includes them  in everything, let’s them know things that are considered widely to be “wrong for kids” and becomes a hero in their minds as well. He keeps them safe, while making sure that they know, what they’re being kept safe from, and also making sure that they don’t need to be kept safe. He is the kind of father, who respects his children, and I loved him for that.
One of my favourite moments in the book is when Jem proudly announces, “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!”

Happy Father’s Day!

Reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina


I spent a little over a month reading Anna Karenina, hoping
and praying for the book not to end. It was my first Tolstoy, and I have to
say, one of the best reading experiences of my life. Tolstoy is known,
according to that little book analysis at the beginning of my edition (I can’t
seem to remember who has written it) for his ability to make fiction seem real,
and the characters do almost walk right off the pages. I am certain, that Anna
Karenina is one of the best works of literary realism.
Someone asked me a while ago what the book was about, and my
reply, “A love affair and the social and personal disasters it leads
to” just didn’t seem to cut it. It is a book about an entire Society, I
would now say. Religion, politics, marriage, happiness, insecurity, death,
aristocracy, social obligation and everything in between. I used to think it
was beautiful and amazing how writers can come up with a whole new world, a
bizarre, fantastic world; which is why fantasy was my favourite genre. I think
now, that it is much harder to come up with a world that so closely resembles
real life. To write an (almost) nine hundred pages-long story, with not just a
single one-directional plot, but a combination of the lives and concerns of
about fifty characters, strung together by the fact that they live in the same
society.
Tolstoy managed to keep me engaged the entire time, because
it was not just a world entirely new to me, but a world that might just have
been real once upon a time. Fascinating. The writing had an amazing flow to it,
and I would like to believe that little was lost in translation. The book was a
page-turner, but not in the sense that I wanted to find out how it ends, but
because I wanted to find out just what happens next. I loved that the book
wasn’t only about the charming Anna Karenina and her tragic love affair with
Count Vronsky. What wonderfully contrasted the story of Anna Karenina, was that
of Konstantin Levin, (possibly my favourite character) the socially inept
landowner, who is more or less a representation of every individual’s search
for some substantial meaning of life.
Ultimately, the one thing that hit me the most about the
book, is what Tolstoy has to say about family. It is a book about different
people, their lives intersecting by a matter of chance, coping with their
everyday problems, while their fates are decided by the already defined
society.
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is
unhappy in its own way.”
Tolstoy’s ability to describe even the littlest of things in
a way that you feel you’re actually there is commendable. You realize so much
about the characters just from the way they move, sit, talk. Throughout the
book, Tolstoy has described things from the outward social view as well as
given you a glimpse into the characters’ minds, their thoughts, opinions, their
seemingly unpredictable decisions. You also see, and this was the one thing I
really appreciated, the different characters from each other’s viewpoints. I
think that gives the most insight into the way people think, the quick
judgments we make, the small insecurities, envy, jealousy, anger. I was really
amazed at how precisely the author has displayed the emotions flowing through a
person at every stage, how well he has shown arguments and fights and little
bursts of anger.

The story gave me so much to think about; I have been
chewing my brain on the contents of this book since last night (when I finally
finished reading it.) In all probability, I have yet to grasp many aspects of
the book. Some things might strike me later, or when I read the book all over
again. But there’s one thing I am entirely sure of at this moment, (and it
isn’t just the post-reading excitement talking) this is the most amazing book I
have ever read and I would love to re-read and re-experience it!

(I have the Back to Classics Challenge to thank for, without which I would never have taken up the daunting task of reading this enormous book!)

The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts by Arthur Miller


About the book: The Crucible is a 1952 play by Arthur Miller. It is a tragedy, which draws a parallel between the Salem Witch trials (1692-93) and the McCarthy era (1950s). There are two film versions of the play, a 1957 movie with a screenplay adapted by Jean-Paul Sartre and a later Academy Award nominated 1996 version.


Summary: Set in the small town of Salem, Massachusetts, The Crucible is a fictionalization of the Salem Witch Hunt. When a group of teenage girls accuse the townspeople of witchcraft and association with the Devil, claiming to be their victims; the entire town falls apart in a mass hysteria. The superstition and paranoia combined with building guilt and vengefulness led to wrongful punishment of a number of people.


“The witch hunt was a long overdue opportunity for everyone so inclined to express publicly his guilt and sins, under the cover of accusations against the victims. (…) Long-held hatreds of neighbours could now be openly expressed, and vengeance taken, despite the Bible’s charitable injunctions. (…) One could cry witch against one’s neighbour and feel perfectly justified in the bargain. Old scores could be settled on a plane of heavenly combat between Lucifer and the Lord; suspicions and envy of the miserable toward the happy could and did burst out in the general revenge.”
My Thoughts: The Crucible is a powerful book. The dialogue is gripping and moves along at a nice pace. The characters don’t start out strong, but they do develop along the way.
Not used to reading plays, I appreciated the little snippets of information about the ‘original characters’ and explanation of the setting, which the author provides between the scenes. But I enjoyed the book even more, when the author stopped interrupting the flow of the play with ‘background info’ and the dialogue stood strong on its own.
The book gives you a glimpse at a society of an entirely different time. Yet from the underlying themes of wrongdoing under the guise of religion, blame, vengeful lies and irrational fear, you can draw parallels to your own society in so many respects. It’s a chilling story; a tragedy much more moving than I could have imagined.
The review is a part of the Back to Classics Challenge hosted at Sarah Reads Too Much.

(Image source – http://www.playbillder.com/show/vip/Baton_Rouge_Magnet_High_School/2013/The_Crucible_5665)