Monday, April 29, 2019

'War and Peace' by Leo Tolstoy

Whoa, what an epic! It's my choice in the Very Long Classic category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge, and at over 1300 pages, I'm very proud of myself. Now I'm among those people who can tick reading this behemoth off my bucket list. It's the size of a brick, but well worth reading. The story is set during the early nineteenth century, when Napoleon was leading French forces to invade Russia, and focuses on the lives of a few aristocratic families; the Bolkonskys the Rostovs and the Bezukhovs.

Readers with time on their hands have tallied over 600 characters altogether, which I believe we can whittle down to five major ones, including two brother and sister duos. There's Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, a disillusioned officer, and his pious sister Marya. And impulsive young Nikolai Rostov, off to war wet behind the ears, and his lively little sister Natasha. And then there's Pierre, the poor rich kid on the block.

It's a fair call to generalise that the two main families have opposite vibes happening. The Bolkonskys are cool, pragmatic, rational thinkers. Their crabby old dad, one of the most colourful characters, is a domineering former war hero who takes these cerebral traits to their unpleasantest extreme. On the other side, the Rostovs are reactive and passionate, driven by big emotions the second they feel them. Nikolai is a show-pony and tinder-box, ready to blast anyone who offends him. Natasha is unfocused, restless and falls for five guys within the course of the novel. Anyone in trousers, it sometimes seems. (In her defense, it is an extremely long novel.) The Rostovs are not lukewarm people but totally hot and cold, making some serious mistakes. It's a family trait, and their father is a great, pleasure-loving entertainer with the unfortunate fault of overdrawing on his estate, until he realises they're almost broke.

It's a really interesting read to see how two families poles apart in their thinking may influence each other, romantically and otherwise, and how the events of the plot stabilise and modify all of them.

I think my favourite main character is probably Pierre Bezukhov. He's a tubby and bespectacled young man who wants to understand all the ins and outs of life, but is swept around by every wind blowing. Even though he's shy and awkward, he still manages to make several social blunders, until he unexpectedly inherits his father's vast estate and becomes one of Russia's wealthiest men. Then people start overlooking his faux paus, to focus on his money.

I've never really pitied the recipient of an obscene windfall before, but Tolstoy really hones in on the dark side of Pierre's amazing luck. 'Coming as it did after a life of solitude and easy-going pleasure, now made him feel so hemmed in and preoccupied, the only time he could be alone with his thoughts was in bed.' This lovable nerd becomes the innocent target of wolves and sharks, and totally buys into all the scraping and fawning from people who never wanted to know him before. He tries hard not to be 'that guy' always on the verge of letting people down, and his guileless nature puts him in the position of a lamb on the chopping block. One of the things he's pushed into is marriage with Helene Kuragin, a ravishingly beautiful, but unscrupulous woman.

Part of what makes this saga special is the disillusionment and soul searching of our two main boys, Andrei and Pierre. Both are earnest seekers of something that seems elusive, no matter what they do and how hard they think (or overthink). Yet harsh circumstances brings each to his separate epiphany, which after a book so thick can be expressed in a sentence or two. Prince Andrei's is to do with the vital power of inclusive, divine love for everybody. And Pierre's is all about having the freedom to choose our attitude. The circumstances in which these two learn their lessons are epic.

Another really cool thing about the book is the inclusion of true, historical people as characters in the story. Tolstoy was one of the first authors to experiment with this, and I'll bet he thoroughly enjoyed writing Napoleon! He kept making the French invader come across like an absolute duffer. In real life, the poor guy's army was unexpectedly defeated by the Russians he invaded, and then later he was decimated by this Russian author's pen.

Whenever Napoleon stepped into a scene, I knew some unflattering portrait was coming. He was pompous, or arrogant, or having sneezing fits, or deserting his men, or getting his chest hair combed, or tweaking someone's ear, or singing his own praises, but often merely incompetent. Tolstoy slid in every dig he could, including the sort of play-on-words which likens his name to the state of his head (think 'Boney-Part'). I guess we have to take this with a grain of salt, considering Tolstoy clearly had an agenda. As my teenage son remarked, anybody in the position to have a shot at world domination must presumably have a few brains. But Tolstoy's Napoleon is very humorous to read.

One thing any reviewer is probably obligated to warn wannabe readers is that there is lots and lots of philosophical waffle, as Tolstoy airs his personal theories about the causes and nature of warfare, and the drawback of historians' way of making records. He does it over and over and over and over again. I don't object to the material itself so much as the fact that he deals it up within the pages of a novel. Seriously man, some people don't want their stories to keep being interrupted with major essays that would fit better in dry, historical journals. Maybe he thought it would be the only way some of us would get this sort of lesson (which is probably true). So although there are such very dry sections to drag our feet through, it's worth it for the good stuff.

The very last character to make an appearance is Prince Andrei's son Nikolai, who was born early on in the book, and has reached the age of 15 by the end. This teenager has just had a vivid dream, and lies excitedly in bed, thinking of all the ways he'll make his beloved Uncle Pierre proud, and become loved by everyone. I was actually sort of disappointed to have it end there, as if 1300 pages was not enough! I would have happily read on to see how he fared, and find out all about the next generation. That's proof that even though my hand was aching with the weight of holding it, Tolstoy did something right.

It's a five star read, without a doubt. In fact, when I turned the last page, I felt torn between wanting to keep a respectful, contemplative silence, or giving Tolstoy a standing ovation. I think I might even have some sort of 'Yay, I finished War and Peace' party for one.

It also counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge, as a selection from Russia. 
And you might also like to compare it to my thoughts on Anna Karenina, another Tolstoy masterpiece.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Moral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.

This is my choice for the Classic in Translation category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. It's one of those stories where I feel we can't help revealing aspects of the plot when we discuss the themes, but I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum. It's a great fable first published in 1943. The author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a pilot of small aircrafts who once found himself stranded in the Sahara just like the narrator of his story, but that's where the similarity ends. (Unless this really is his biography about a true encounter. Do we dare to believe it?) TIME magazine called Saint-Exupery 'the most metaphysical of aviators,' but tragically, he disappeared the very following year, on a wartime reconnaissance flight over Europe. His plane was discovered in the sea 60 years later, the only trace of the talented writer and illustrator, not counting this brilliant novella.

Here's how it all goes down. The narrator is a pilot whose small plane has engine trouble over the Sahara Desert, forcing him to land. While he's trying to fix his mechanical problems before dying of thirst, a small blonde boy approaches to engage him in conversation. He turns out to be an alien from outer space who has visited several other planets before arriving on earth. He's full of stories and puzzled questions about all that he's seen.

The Little Prince (who I'll call LP from now on) comes from a tiny asteroid known to earthlings as B-612, no bigger than the size of a house. It has three knee-high volcanoes and plenty of small baobab seedlings which he has to uproot before they grow big enough to cause major structural damage. There's also one strange and beautiful flower with four thorns and a wonderful fragrance, who believes she's unique in the universe. LP loves her, and works hard to help her flourish, but she's a vain and prickly attention seeker who annoys him sometimes, so he hitches a ride with a flock of birds to find out what else is out there.

It's one of those simple children's fairy tales on the surface with underlying parallels, making it the sort of allegory adults recognise themselves in and appreciate. The LP meets all sorts of archetypal and bewildering people who think they're carrying out roles of great consequence, although they strike him as ridiculous. They're too blinkered to look beyond their noses and appreciate the beauty that surrounds them, and dismiss his observations as frivolous chatter.

Among others, there's a pompous king with no real power, a tippler who drinks to forget he's ashamed of drinking, a businessman intent on tallying stars in his ledger, and a geographer who never visits the places he records, because that's the work of an explorer. There's also a conceited man who wants to be hailed as the best person ever. LP gives him the positive feedback he craves, then wonders why the guy thinks he's any better off than before. LP can't understand the point of praise as an end in itself.

But LP learns enough during his travels to develop his own crushing case of disillusionment. Especially when he comes across a garden full of thousands of roses, and knows his special friend would be devastated, because they both believed she was unique. He's crestfallen because he set off believing he was rich and blessed, and is brought to see that compared to those on earth, his modest volcanoes and common rose may make others say, 'Meh, so what?' What do you do when you find out that you're just an Average Joe?

It takes my favourite character, the beautiful fox, to help him straighten his thinking. The fox asks LP to please tame him, because then they'll be meaningful to each other. Taking time to establish ties with others, working on relationships, listening, nurturing and understanding, is well worth the effort. It's what makes run-of-the-mill chance encounters into something far more valuable. This reasoning strikes a chord with LP. I believe a major insight for him is not to take our cues from self-appointed voices of consequence, because what is meaningful to us is so often brushed past by them.

'He was only a fox, like a hundred thousand other foxes, but I have made him my friend, and now he is unique in all the world.'

His new friendship puts him in the position to better grasp the significance of his old one.

'She alone is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses. It is she I have watered, she I've put under a glass globe, sheltered behind the screen, killed the caterpillars for and listened to when she grumbled or boasted. She is MY rose.'  

'The Little Prince' may bring different impressions to different people, because there's a lot crammed within its deceptively simple pages. For me it's a wake-up call to value those personal relationships in my life as the treasures they are. My husband, kids, extended family and friends are priceless just because they belong to me. As the LP and the narrator both agree, it should take only a little bit to satisfy us when we truly know what we are looking for. 'The men of the world can't find what they're looking for in a surplus of roses or huge bodies of water. And what they are searching for can be found in one single rose, or in a little water.'

I'm not always a big fan of parables and allegories, because their agenda sometimes seems shoved right in our faces, with highly predictable plots and cardboard characters. This is one of the best I've come across, because its weird, left-fieldedness really does make us use our own grey matter to ponder what Saint-Exupery might have been getting at. And without being over-sentimental itself, it has a way of drawing the best sort of sentimentality out of us.  So I'll finish off with a quote from the fox, who really is quite a guy.

'If you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow.'


Monday, April 15, 2019

Live Theatre - The Cursed Child Wrap-Up

I've just been to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with my daughter, at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne. As soon as we found out early last year that a production was headed for Australia, we were super excited. I'd read and loved the play script, but seeing it performed on stage by talented actors was the cream on top, and we failed to figure out how some of the magical moves were done. There's nothing quite like a day of live theatre, and I was in my happy zone the whole time. 

As with many stories involving time travel, it's possible to discover plot holes. But I don't even care, because the charm to me is the characters, and the poignant depth of many things never actually said. It's full of fodder for the sort of psychological character study I enjoy. So I set myself the task of analysing each of the seven main characters, figuring I might as well get as much mileage as I can out of a flight to Victoria. 

So here goes. I've made a big effort to give no major spoilers, but rather delve into some of the mixed-up mindsets that makes a crazy, convoluted plot seem not only possible, but almost inevitable. Here's how we find the Golden Trio and Co in their early forties. 

Warning: Proceed with caution. Although spoilers regarding the play itself are minor and revealed early in the script, they do divulge crucial info about where key characters find themselves at the end of the 7-book series. 

He's now the Man who Lived, and the head of Magical Law Enforcement. But it's no happily-ever-after scenario for poor Harry. The poor guy has been carrying loads of baggage on his shoulders for years, including a major case of survivor's guilt. It's particularly heavy because he was the lynch pin at the centre of the most recent wizarding wars. Unkind jibes such as, 'Look how many people had to die to save the boy who lived,' cut straight to his aching heart.

He's too guilt-ridden to balance these accusations with the reply, 'Well, look how many people survived because of me.' Only Harry himself knows what a run-of-the-mill, essentially un-heroic person he feels like deep down. It makes it torturous to deal with the knowledge that many worthy people lost their lives to his cause. He's a perfect example of the truth that hero status may bring with it a misguided sense of responsibility. No doubt it's also the key to why he gets so defensive about his son's antagonism.

To Harry, young Albus skirts dangerously close to placing his finger on something he doesn't want to face. That is the fact that Harry cannot make things okay for everyone. His load also includes buried resentment against Albus Dumbledore, a wizard he idolised, who failed to come through for him in many ways since his babyhood. He dreads becoming the same sort of person. And he doesn't want to bring the hurt out into the open, but it's festering there, compounding his own fear that he's inadequate for others. Poor Harry, what a mess of unacknowledged pain you're in. (You may also like Is Harry Potter a Bad Dad?)

At first sight, she's just like a mini Molly Weasley. Equally as bossy as her mother, her heart's cry is always, 'When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.' Ginny's son Albus is hurting deep inside, and she's immensely frustrated that she can't fix it at the source, which appears to be her husband.

She does lots of shouting throughout the play, which strikes me as the sign of a thwarted control freak. When our anxious efforts fail to launch and remain unheeded, raising our voices seems to be the last ineffectual stand we can take. Ginny has a history of frustration to draw from. The youngest sibling of seven, the only girl in a family of flamboyant boys, a young woman whose object of affection barely noticed her for years. Her desire for control seems to shoot out in various ways, such as banning sugar consumption for her whole family. (She has more success there than I would ever wield with my mob!) I do understand her.

But like the other characters, Ginny is forced into a crisis where her only option is waiting to see how it will all work out. That's anathema to all control freaks, and is bound to crop up time and again until we learn the lesson. I wonder if Ginny gets it this time.   

It's satisfying to see somebody brilliant moving into a suitable outlet for her skill set. She's the Minister of Magic! Hermione was a fantastic all-rounder, with a clever brain capable of swelling, just like her awesome handbag, with an infinite amount of material. The right person got the job. Her hard work and curious, ambitious nature came through, earning her the ultimate spot at the top.

Yet there's there's a flip side to the glory. Hermione's role in The Cursed Child reveals the huge sacrifice involved in the victory. Basically, her life is no longer her own. She's on-call 24/7, required to drop everything when sudden events knock the wizarding world off kilter. She's always the one in the firing line to have blame slung at her, often for actions taken by others. Dealing with flak and reproach is a way of life for her, because the buck stops with the leader.

Hers is the role of placating, announcing bad news, and trying in vain to inspire others. (For example, Harry is irritated when she tries to make him sort through his paperwork.) One of her lines proves what a juggling act a key leadership role is. She remarks that Ron thinks she sees more of her secretary than she does of him and their children. Ouch, proof right there that influence and prestige come at a great cost. A powerful person has to focus on one aspect of her life at the expense of others. Even in her student days with a time turner, trying to do it all made her crack at the seams. There's no doubt that those who are most gifted, perhaps with a burden to shape history, are often required to make the biggest sacrifices.

No way would I be a Hermione, but I take my hat off to her.

He was born in the shadow of talented, high-achieving family members, and has struggled with the pain of feeling outclassed by those closest to him for as long as he can remember. What irony that a boy with such deep hang-ups marries a girl who's destined to become the Minister of Magic. Enough to make us wonder if grappling with this issue is simply his destiny. Does the repeating cycle give you the feeling that he's meant to just deal with it?

It would seem he's making progress in the right direction in middle age. Being Mr Mum to his kids and helping his brother George run the joke shop are seemingly humble roles, but they are good, valid life paths that need to be taken on by someone. So maybe that elevates them to greatness after all, because we all know there shouldn't be any lifework or calling hierarchy. For the most part, it seems Ron has accepted this in his forties, but those niggles of touchiness from the past still needle him on rare occasions. Our deepest gripes have a way of popping up when we least expect them. It's probably an unrealistic hope to shrug them off completely, but if we reach a stage where we recognise them quickly and deal with them on the spot, we're doing well.

This play's plot has chosen to emphasise one main aspect of his character, which is his humour. Ron is given an essentially comic role, which some fans hate about this play. They're disappointed that the brave and resourceful side of him is downplayed. But I say, hey, he's proven that he has loads of courage and resourcefulness when it's required, so why not just get off his back when it isn't? Life isn't about proving our worth each and every day of our lives. That's such a Ron Weasley theme, when you think about it. The man is a valuable contributor to society, just being there.

Since his late teens, his entire world concept has been turned topsy-turvy. In the intervening years, he's evidently been trying to find new, solid ground on which to stand, and doing a pretty decent job if the play is any measure.

All small children grow up thinking their parents are always right, so he naturally bought into the bigoted, cold-hearted, evil worldview of Lucius and Narcissa. Draco's goal was always to make them proud, but his dawning realisation that they were actually on the wrong side is fascinating to trace. Circumstances forced him to face up to the fact that pleasing them is impossible, and they aren't really worth impressing anyway. And he's had to build a whole new personal philosophy, even if the price he paid was deep loneliness and alienation from those he once called his own.

His theme in the play is a redemptive one, proving that it's never too late to start over. His life goal in middle age is no longer about hearing, 'Well done,' from his parents or the Dark Lord, but as he says, 'Choosing the man you decide to become,' and gauging his decisions on that choice. It's a daunting challenge to build a whole new identity from scratch, because you have to trust yourself, even when your track record isn't brilliant. He's managed it with a fair bit of Malfoy sass and flair. A pretty amazing achievement, for a guy who was brought up believing that bad was good and vice versa. Unfortunately, it's not an easy task to convince the world at large that you've changed. There'll always be haters even when you've kept your nose clean for 20+ years. His innocent son Scorpius is bearing the brunt, which is killing Draco. (You may also enjoy Bad Boys with Depth)

This brings us to two of the most interesting characters of all, the representatives from the next generation, who bear a legacy of weight from their parents on their young shoulders.

Albus Potter
Children who have to live under the shadow of famous parents often do it tough. They are forced to exist on a nightmarish carousel that won't stop. Any other Slytherin student of academic mediocrity might be left in peace, but Albus is singled out for teasing and criticism simply because his father is Harry Potter. And just to rub it in, he even carries the names of two hero wizards his father most admired. He didn't choose his heritage, and every part of it seems to emphasise how far short he falls. As far as he can see, his celebrated dad is incapable of grasping where he's coming from. Albus is too wrapped up in his own problems to sense that Harry is battling so hard with his own demons.

All the resentment, sarcasm, eye-rolling and belligerence shown throughout the play by Albus is easy to understand. He's built a protective wall of self-pity that's hard to penetrate. His parents have tried and failed to get through. It takes some vulnerable and heartfelt straight talk from his best friend to provide a possible way out. No way will I spoil the play by repeating the exact words, but it amounts to looking beyond his own plight to notice that others might be faring even worse, and hurting just as bad, in circumstances even more unfair. Empathy hasn't been a tool in Albus' arsenal, but there's a sense in this scene that it clicks in at last. And that brings us to arguably the best character in the play.

Scorpius Malfoy
At first sight, this awkward young geek isn't an integral part of the convoluted plot, but just along for the ride, to support his hurting friend. But he has to step up to help save the day on numerous occasions, and I'd go so far as to say that he becomes the glue that holds the play together.

I believe we warm to Scorpius partly because he's such a great example of how to face rejection. He's grown up as the butt of hateful rumours and target of bullies, simply because of the family he was born into, yet he doesn't grow bitter or respond with nastiness in return. Although he lacks the esteem he deserves from his peer group, he does have a warm heart, and a unique way of buoying himself up by reading books, seeking knowledge and using his imagination. Those are the peaceable weapons that carry him through. Choosing to focus on good things doesn't put us in a position of power over our haters, but it does make us happier people in our own heads. And since our heads are where we view the world from, that spells victory. In his nerdy, unassuming way, this delightful boy offers us the secret of living well. He's presented as the person whose circumstances we'd least like to swap with, yet as events unfold, it turns out that perhaps he's the most enviable of all.

Maybe Scorpius is the reason why I'm happy to accept this story as part of the Harry Potter canon. Who would ever have expected a son of Draco Malfoy to enter the scene with his fresh philosophy and generous nature to redeem others and point us on the right track to conducting ourselves in the world? Yet life is all about remaining open to wonderful surprises from unexpected people.

My recommendation is to definitely read it, and go and see it if you possibly can. The mix-ups and near disasters are great fun to watch. And the ultimate take-away, to approach life like Scorpius as much as possible, may be well worth the money I paid for flight, accommodation and theatre tickets.    

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The problem with Lucy Maud Montgomery's heroes

Warning: There are no plot spoilers as such, but you may like to take my opinion expressed here with a grain of salt.

This lady is high on many 'favourite author' lists, including mine. I collected all of her novels when I was a teenager, and they are still a highlight of my shelf. I love the entire Anne of Green Gables series, plus stories about Emily, Pat, Jane, Valancy, the Story Girl and others. Tapping into the wealth of all that L.M. Montgomery wrote is a real treat. She left an incredible legacy when she passed away.

Anybody would agree that girls are clearly the target audience. I've never known a boy who's read one yet. But they're happy to let their girlfriends, wives, sisters and other females in their lives retreat into the sweet stories, which seemingly do nobody any harm. Just a simple indulgence, right? A bit of romantic fun in which the main character always marries her perfect match? If they suspected the truth, our young men might be far more worried. But they are deterred by the feminine covers from opening the pages, so never find that L.M. Montgomery is undermining them.

The stark truth is that her heroes raise the bar far, far too high for our normal guys to live up to. With each chapter, her fictional heroes gain more and more ground in their readers' eyes, until they're not even fully aware of it. Her magic works like this. The heroes often begin as humble, unassuming boys, but here is a sample of the super achievers they become over time.

Gilbert Blythe - beloved family doctor.
Teddy Kent - famous artist.
Perry Miller - upper echelon politician.
Hilary Gordon - award winning architect.
Barney Snaith - celebrated nature writer.
Andrew Stuart - brilliant novelist and historian.

Do you sense a pattern? I want to suggest that her sort of guy is a rarity in real life, but Montgomery creates the illusion that super-romantic, highly intelligent, sensitive, manly geniuses are common enough to be always within a stone's throw. Maybe there really was a surplus on Prince Edward Island in the late 19th century, but I doubt it. She somehow manages to divvy out their brilliance so that everyone in their lives gets the best of them; employers, clients, the public and their lovers alike. The women in their lives rarely feel as if they're missing out on quality time. If this is the sort of guy our young women expect to come walking into their lives, the poor, true life young men around them don't stand a chance.

As we read the novels, we may come across occasional digs at other young men who didn't measure up on the awesome scale. They are often former suitors who ended up becoming nothing more than shop clerks or pen-pushers. And our heroines breathe sighs of relief because they dodged a bullet. They could've ended up - horror of horror - marrying men of mediocrity!

Let's not succumb to the outrageously high expectations she's set;  both for our own sake and those of the poor guys who try to please us. Some readers might choose to go completely cold turkey on L. M. Montgomery books, but I would never recommend that. They are wonderful mood-lifters, great examples of excellent literature, and plain good fun. Just take care, and I have a few tips to recommend how to wisely approach the novels and avoid their pitfalls.

1) Look out for her older heroes.
These more senior men seem to have escaped the need to be as ultra-successful in the world's eyes as her younger ones. They tend to be mature men with warm hearts, sound wisdom, but more modest occupations. Men such as Matthew Cuthbert (from Anne) and Cousin Jimmy (from Emily) are both humble farmers working on land which has been in their families for generations. They are true gentlemen beloved by generations, the salt-of-the-earth type who are content to slide beneath the radar. As you admire them, remember that there are young men like them in real life too. And look out for them, because they don't flaunt themselves.

2) Remember that Montgomery might have been caught in her own vicious net.
Her personal history is worth researching, and if her biographers are correct, it's sadder than any of her novels. She ditched a guy she was genuinely attracted to because his credentials weren't quite impressive enough to be considered husband material. But she still considered him the love of her life in years to come. And she ended up marrying a respectable pastor who turned out to be a depressed, high-maintenance, hyper-guilty, over-thinking, fanatical mess of a spouse who made life a misery for her and their sons. It's a sobering piece of true life. Don't be like Lucy. (This article may be a springboard if you're interested. And this one highlights even more how tragic it was for somebody who made us so happy to be so depressed herself.)

3) Enjoy your reading, but never forget that you're messing around with an addictive substance like shopping or sugar.
The wonderful heroes Montgomery invented are swoon-worthy heart-throbs. You can't look at a list like that above without curiosity to discover more. But as you do, remember that they don't necessarily reflect reality in every way. And we're living in the real world, not the idyllic Prince Edward Island of Lucy Maud's imagination. (Of course it's a real place, but I'm just suggesting her writing may colour it even more.) Treat the books like chocolate. They can be a pleasurable part of your reading diet, but don't binge on them, and when you finish one, make even more of an effort to appreciate all the honest, nice friends and brothers in your real, flesh and blood life. And don't use Gilbert, Teddy, Barney and all the others as measuring sticks, but as simple prompts to dig around for your fellows' excellent qualities and regard them in the best light.   

Monday, April 1, 2019

'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger's classic novel of teenage angst and rebellion was first published in 1951. The novel was included on Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. It was named by Modern Library and its readers as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. It has been frequently challenged in the court for its liberal use of profanity and portrayal of sexuality and in the 1950's and 60's it was the novel that every teenage boy wants to read. 

This is a classic I've wanted to read for some time, and finally got a chance. I've also read Salinger's Franny and Zooey but prefer the Catcher by far.

Young Holden Caulfield has a problem. He detests phonies. Social climbers, fakes, name-droppers and try-hards of all kinds are everywhere, and he considers himself too honest to play the game. Since he hates the pretension of the school system, Holden won't put forth the effort to do any work. But his silent protest has caused his expulsion from three schools, and he's just been kicked out of a fourth. He knows it's all part of their showiness, since they won't tarnish their own image with under-achievers. But he hasn't quite figured out that playing the martyr role isn't hurting their reputation, but only harming his own future prospects.

The story takes place over three days, when Holden decides to walk out of Pencey Prep, his latest boarding school, half a week before his parents expect him home, and just hang out in New York City doing whatever takes his fancy. Holden makes a valiant effort to be a party boy, although he's a loner at his core. His first night is wild. The amount of activity he crams in between his last school dinner and waking up the following morning sounds physically impossible given the time frame. To sum up a little, he hits the town, writes an essay, tries to get some sleep, changes his mind and catches a train, dances in a ballroom, hangs out in another jazz club, walks 40 blocks back to his hotel, and and has a run-in with a couple of sleazy people, all under cover of the same never-ending darkness. But dawn eventually breaks, about ten hours after it should have, in my opinion. 

Although I'm not a big fan of some of the things he attempts to get up to, I greatly admire the boy himself. He's always polite to adults, easily imagines himself in other people's shoes, and never grumbles for nothing. There's always some well-formed reason to support his negative opinions, which he explains with a lot of original perception and humour. And surprisingly, there's hardly any profanity in my opinion, given what I'd been led to expect in the blurb. In fact, Holden goes out of his way to scrub rude graffiti off walls, so innocent kids don't have to see it.

To me, Holden's narrative proves the benefits of journal keeping. He takes a stream of consciousness approach, with one train of thought leading on to something quite different, including flashbacks and philosophical rants, that help reveal what's really ticking inside his troubled psyche. He notices some of those a-ha moments himself, but others are left hanging there for readers to latch onto if we're alert enough, which reveals details about us in turn. So it's the sort of novel where readers are invited to do some of the work, but we're rewarded for it, and may even come up with different, multi-layered themes.

Here's an example of one of mine. I believe Holden Caulfield shares with me an appreciation for sacredness and stability in a world of rapid change. We depend on some things remaining reliable, predictable, and certainly not phony. This drives his memories of good old school excursions to the museum, where all the exhibits are set up in a static, predictable pattern, even when the students themselves have undergone subtle changes between visits. We've learned by now that his younger brother died a few years earlier, which no doubt feeds Holden's phobia of change. The events of his life have been incorporated into the person he's become.

His story also tips us off to watch our own thoughts, because a plunge into deep depression can often be traced back to some simple germ in our mind that catches hold and shoots off. One of Holden's signature lines is, 'The more I thought about it, the more depressed I got,' about several simple catalysts. His thought life tugs poor Holden on a real downward spiral, which even begins to show up as physical symptoms. Dizzy spells, stomach aches, IBS and a lump in the throat which causes him to reflect, 'If you get very depressed about something, it's as hard as hell to swallow.' Considering that his story takes place in the 1950's, when not many people knew about such things as panic disorders, this book is a gem that's way ahead of its time.

Don't listen to voices out there urging us not to read it. It's been banned over the years, for 'glorifying a rebellious attitude', which sounds crazily shortsighted to me. It's a simplistic view that Holden himself would deplore. A delve beneath the surface reveals that his rebellion certainly isn't doing him any favours or giving him any fun, so there's not much 'glory' to attract other potential rebels. Taking it off the shelves just prevents others from taking the lessons Holden learns on board, who could really benefit from them.

Some of the more modern criticism leveled at poor Holden is to do with his identity and privileged position in society, which they believe makes him an ingrate for complaining. He's a young white male from a wealthy family (Dad a corporate lawyer) who do everything possible to give him a boost in life, including enrolling him at prestigious schools. These readers say, 'Suck it up, because there are people from minority groups everywhere with real problems who'd love to have yours, you entitled little git.'

Hmm, well since Holden Caulfield would be a very elderly granddad if he was still alive today, I'd like to have a try at addressing this sort of censure with his own teenage voice. I believe Holden might say something like, 'I get really irritated by people who get a kick out of guilt-tripping others who already feel bad. Why are minority groups the only people you'd readily excuse for feeling deeply blue about what they see in the world around them? Piling more shame on the shoulders of somebody who feels burdened is a pretty cruel move. You're using my gender, race, skin colour and economic status against me, in an attempt to put me down. Isn't that the same sort of discrimination you claim to hate? The more I think about that, the more depressed I feel.'

I'd urge anyone to give this book a read, and not write off this boy as the sort of person you couldn't learn anything good from. Besides, it ends on an uplifting note, as he experiences a sudden burst of happiness, during a moment spent with his kid sister. I get the strong impression that he's onto a breakthrough. Although those phonies and antagonists will never go away, we can dilute their influence by directing our own focus on the simple goodness out there. Even though Holden still has a long way to go, there are positive signs he'll make it through, a more peaceful and optimistic man. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and took a half mark off simply because of that impossibly long night. Maybe Holden should consider a career as a time management consultant, if he can stretch out the hours like that.