This is a young woman’s book. The strongest parts are the road trip with her mother from Wisconsin to California, seeking a new life (for mother) and a possible television career as a child actress for (daughter). Sections are very interesting, moving even, but it just didn’t gel for me. Simpson gives us the story through four sets of eyes: Ann, in her preteen and adolescent years; Adelle, her mother, beautiful, amoral, manipulative; Carol, her midwestern aunt; Lillian, her grandmother. Ann’s voice — presumably the author as she recreates her own younger life — rings true. The rest seem a bit stagey.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” We all know those opening lines even if we don’t know anything else about A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Dickens’ “tale” is sentimental, overwritten (in places), and full of improbable coincidences — and its powerful story moves even the most skeptical reader.
We recognize A Tale of Two Cities as a “tale” and not a straight narrative like David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. The language prepares us for a fable with a moral outcome, not with “once upon a time….” but with “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” The fatality of events is foreshadowed early and repeatedly. When the wine cask breaks on the pavement of Saint Antoine, the people scoop it but one, at least, speaks of it as blood.
The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be read upon many there.
Meanwhile, in London, at Dr. Manette’s house in SoHo:
The summer light struck into the corner brilliantly in the earlier part of the day; but, when the streets grew hot, the corner was in shadow, though not in shadow so remote but that you could see beyond it into a glare of brightness. It was a cool spot, staid but cheerful, a wonderful place for echoes, and a very harbour from the raging streets.
No early character or incident is wasted, but held in reserve for the time when Dickens builds to his inevitable conclusion. Miss Pross has lost contact with a no-good brother? Keep him in mind, for he may appear. Jerry Cruncher is a resurrection man, a robber of graves? It may matter sooner or later. The woman raped by the evil brother of the evil Marquis had a sister? Look for her. No novelist writing today would multiply the connections and coincidences as Dickens does, and yet it works. It works because this is a tale, in which evil begets more evil, but goodness also has its descendants.
The mob which dances wildly through the streets of Paris is less wicked than demented, driven mad by years of injustice and cruelty. They repay in kind. Lucie Manette, probably the most uninteresting character in the book, is wholly good. Take her, not as a person, but as a model of what a daughter, wife and mother should be. She is an influence for good on her father and her husband, as well as the dissolute Sydney Carton.
Sydney Carton is the smartest, if not the wisest, character in the book. He can figure things out, whether for the barrister he serves, or the desperate Darnay family in Paris. In the Afterword to my edition of the novel, Stephen Koch calls Carton “the embodiment of its mingling of good and evil.”
Sydney constantly calls himself bad (and the novel lets him), but apart from the fact that he is drunk perhaps fifty percent of the time — in which state he still outthinks everybody — we never see Sydney perform a single act that any sane judge could possibly condemn. He is in fact among the best bad men in all literature.
Sydney’s sin is wasting his talents through lack of purpose. Knowing that marriage with Lucie — the one purpose he does pursue — is not possible, he bides his time. Then, confronted with the contrast in action of good and evil, he renews his purpose and acts, decisively.
Mohandas K. Gandhi (the Mahatma) has interested me for a long time, and I have led a course devoted to him. Some of the things about Gandhi that disturbed me — his extreme views on celibacy, his weird dietary and medical notions, his need to completely control his followers — I dismissed as my own misunderstanding of a different culture and his place in it. In fact, he was often not in agreement with his own people.
Joseph Lelyveld, in Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, explores a number of important events in Gandhi’s history and shows us a man somewhat different from the one I thought I knew. Single minded in his desire to shape the India he desired, Gandhi tick-tocked back and forth between political activism and social reform.They are mixed in his “four pillars” of Swaraj (self-rule).
Swaraj would come when India solidified an unbreakable alliance between Muslims and Hindus; wiped out untouchability; accepted the discipline of nonviolence as more than a tactic, as a way of life; and promoted homespun yarn and handwoven fabrics as self-sustaining cottage industries….
His views had grown out of his only partially-successful years in South Africa. There, he initially identified with the problems of the Indian traders and middle class, only coming later to assist the mass of poor and indentured Indian workers. The problems of the black natives he resolutely turned away from.
Trying to identify with India’s impoverished villagers, especially its mass of untouchables, Gandhi became a prisoner of the expectations he has raised. In 1921,
But the crowd at that one, now nameless, rail siding on the Gangetic plain hadn’t stayed on by the thousands through a long night to express its enthusiasm for Gandhi’s four pillars or its fellow feeling for Muslims or untouchables or even to enlist in his next nonviolent campaign. It had come to pay homage to the man, more than that, to a saint. The idea that he cared for them in a new an unusual manner had been communicated only too well. The idea that he had demands to make on them had gotten across in a wispy, vague, and incidental way, if at all.
One can read Lelyveld’s book as an account of repeated failures: failure to create a unified India of Hindus and Muslims, failure to bring self sufficiency to the villages, failure to shift cultural attitudes about untouchability. For all that, the man still moves us and the Indians who turned away from him 60 years ago.
In India today, the term “Gandhian” is ultimately synonymous with social conscience; his example — of courage, persistence, identification with the poorest, striving for selflessness — still has the power to inspire, more so even than his doctrines of nonviolence and techniques of resistance, certainly more than his assorted dogmas and pronouncements on subjects like spinning, diet and sex.
Tomofey Pnim is a Russian emigre intellectual. He has been in America for many years and now teaches in an American college, but he still carries Russia in his heart. His Russia is the one before the Revolution and the need to flee the Bolsheviks. Pnim also carries the Russian language in his heart, forced now to deal with the insufficiencies of English. Looking for a literary parallel, he finds one.
Of course! Ophelia’s death! Hamlet! in good old Andrey Dronenberg’s Russian translation, 1844– the joy of Pnim’s youth, and of his father’s and grandfather’s young days!
Unfortunately he cannot check the passage in the book of his youth.
Alas, “Gamlet” Vil’yama Shekspira … was not represented in Waindell College Library, and whenever you were reduced to look up something in the English version, you never found this or that beautiful, noble, sonorous line that you remembered all your life from Kroneberg’s text in Bengerov’s spledndid edition. Sad!
Pnim begins as a character of fun, and his colleagues mock his mispronunciations and misapprehensions. Through a series of incidents and scenes, Nabokov leads us to the gentle and innocent man behind the clown. We meet the Pnim who tries, in vain, to befriend his almost-stepson, the one who planned to buy a house but then learned he had been fired, as well as the one too proud to work under the Nabokov he never acknowledged. Sad!
I have not done much posting lately, or much reading for that matter, because we have been busy moving out of our house of 32 years.
This picture was taken in the early spring, before Connecticut became lush with warmth and rain. How do you like the classic TV roof antenna! It is no longer useful, but too much trouble to take down.
Wherever I live I need to have trees. I could sit on the front porch, with my book, and look to the right at the trees.
I could look up into the trees. When I do that I sense they are trying to tell me something. Perhaps what they say is “stay here” or “keep growing” or simply “look up!” I’m not sure what the message is, but I hope to keep listening.