Sunday, July 20, 2014

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

My commentary contains major spoilers.

Framley Parsonage is the Fourth book in Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Once again we get an enormously enjoyable and fun, yet aesthetically strong novel. Trollope introduces a host of new main characters.  In this entry, however, we also see the return of lots of old characters from the previous books in both small parts as well as in moderately important supporting rolls.

This novel involves lots of complex, intertwined subplots as well as character interaction. There are two major plot threads. The first involves Mark Robarts, a young clergyman who becomes involved in politics as a way to advance his career and social standing. Roberts falls in with a bad character, Mr. Sowerby, who is a Member of Parliament. The politician takes advantage of Mark’s weakness and nearly ruins the clergyman and his family financially. Fanny Robarts is Mark ‘s wife whose wisdom and strength of character contrasts with Mark’s relative weaknesses.

The second major thread involves Mark’s sister Lucy. Mark’s sibling is wonderfully drawn persona. She lacks many popular but meaningless social graces but is intelligent and emotionally substantive. In a plot device somewhat common for Trollope, Lucy becomes the subject of romantic the interest of Lord Lufton. The young Lufton’s mother, Lady Lufton, opposes the match due to Lucy’s lower social class as well as her personality quirks.

A of the more interesting subplots involves the very unusual courtship between Doctor Thorne and Miss Dunstable. These two very interesting and offbeat characters, initially introduced in earlier books, reappear in this novel.

Once again we are treated to Trollope’s masterful creation of complex characters as well his creative and amusing metafiction. At one point the author actually seems to argue with himself and at another point his narration takes on the aspects of a Greek Chorus.

One might conclude that this work really does not break much new ground as Trollope covers a lot of territory that he has already trodden upon. On the other hand, another way at looking at the issue is to consider that is the author is taking a few situations with enormous literary appeal, and running different characters with different personality types through those situations in order to see how they develop and resolve themselves differently. It is these differences that make it all very interesting and entertaining. I will thus concentrate upon this aspect of Trollope’s work.

Take the relationship between Lucy Roberts and Lord Lufton. In many ways it is similar to the situation that developed between Mary Thorne and Frank Gresham (Two characters that appear in minor roles in this book) in Doctor Thorne. Both relationships involve young men from families belonging to the gentry, whose wealth has declined, and who fall in love with poorer women of slightly lower classes. Both young men have mothers who are opposed to and fight against the marriages. Both include young women, who though they are in love with the their suitors, are prepared to refuse marriage for honorable reasons. One certainly might accuse Trollope of repeating himself. In some ways he is. However, there are variations on the theme that lends one to suspect that the author was just trying to play out certain situations in varying ways.

There are indeed important differences between these predicaments. In Doctor Thorne, Frank’s mother, Lady Arabella, comes close to monstrous. She is overbearing, narcissistic, and hypercritical as well as a bully who dominates all who are around her. She is terribly cruel to Mary and shows herself to be the epitome of a hypocrite when she accepts her prospective Daughter – In – Law only when she finds that Mary is the heir to an enormous fortune.

In Framley Parsonage Lord Lufton’s mother, Lady Lufton is also difficult, somewhat overbearing and is very good at controlling the situation around her. She does not like it when things do not go her way. At first glace one may think that Trollope is really copying himself. However, unlike Lady Arabella, Lady Lufton is complex and shows humanity early on. When she unfairly picks an argument with her good friend Fanny Robarts, the matriarch initially banishes Fanny from her manor in anger. Within an hour however, Lady Lufton is terribly regretful of her treatment of her friend and makes a genuine apology.

Later, Lady Lufton schemes to arraign a marriage between Lord Lufton and the vacuous Griselda Grantly in order to achieve social and economic gain. When her son tells her however, that he could never love Griselda, Lady Lufton shows surprising sensitivity and immediately forgoes her plans.

An example of Lady Lufton’s complexity is illustrated here as she begins to be won over by Lucy’s strength of character,

“But, nevertheless, we may say that as Lady Lufton sate that morning in her own room for two hours without employment, the star of Lucy Robarts was gradually rising in the firmament. After all, love was the food chiefly necessary for the nourishment of Lady Lufton,— the only food absolutely necessary. She was not aware of this herself, nor probably would those who knew her best have so spoken of her. They would have   declared that family pride was her daily pabulum, and she herself would have said so too, calling it, however, by some less offensive name.” 

Eventually, though she has the power to stop the marriage, after enormous introspection, Lady Lofton relents. She recognizes not only the virtues inherent in Lucy’s character, but the value inherent in the happiness of the young people. One reason that I love Trollope so much is that he continually piles on levels intricacy. Even after Lady Lofton’s change of heart, she continues to display a certain degree of overbearingness.

There is also a difference between Mary and Lucy. Mary is outgoing, vivacious, is intelligent and posses a strong and courageous character. Lucy is just as intelligent, strong and moral. But unlike Mary she is quite and introspective. She does not play the social game well. People tend to like her only after they have known her for a time. Thus Trollope throws a different set of people into similar situations, almost as if he is experimenting.

A question for me is it worth to replay of these scenarios? Is this the same old same old with characters that are just a little different? My conclusion is that it is worth it. I find it to be both enjoyable and enlightening that we see similar social situations run through with different players. How often have I read a book and wondered how a different character would have handled the situation. Such an approach over a long series of books tells us a lot about people. Admittedly some readers might become bored with this and find it uncreative. For me however, I find that helps me to become engaged in a deep way with Trollope’s work. I have similar opinions on the works of Philip Roth that I expressed here.

Despite, or because of its repeated themes, this novel is full of the wonderful things that make Trollope such an enlightening but enjoyable writer. As I am known to comment, there is a lot more going on here then I have even mentioned. I will thus be posting at least one more entry on this book. As I am obsessive about reading series in order I will always recommend experiencing the earlier books first. However this novel can be easily be read as standalone. I am really beginning to love Anthony Trollope.

My commentary on the first book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, The Warden is here.

My commentary on the second book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Barchester Towers is here.

My commentary on the third book in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series, Doctor Thorne is here.

My commentary on Trollop’s unusual Pont of View is here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Books That Bugged Me

This post contains major spoilers concerning the books that I have listed below.

These are personal ruminations. That is, this is not a post about the books that are most likely to disturb or to bother the general reader. Instead, this is a very short list of novels that bugged me. If I were attempting to compile a catalog of books that are likely to disquiet the most people, this post would be very different. If I were constructing a list of works that should be universally disturbing, then I would look for common elements that should, in theory, trouble us all. Instead these are just a few novels that, due to idiosyncrasies in my own psyche, bothered the heck out of me. These works pushed certain buttons in my mind. They may or may not do so for others. 

Thus, this list seems little “wrong”. I think that this little compilation looks a bit like a list created by someone who is not well read at all. It seems to be an odd and too – short combination of books. A list that contains glaring omissions.  A list put together by someone who has missed some of the really powerful and moving works out there (Many of which I have, of course missed). There are many novels that I have read, that in theory should be much more affecting then those below. As I stated above, this is a list based upon my personal reactions only. I choose these books solely based upon gut reactions that I had to them. Though I may attempt to use reason to analyze and explain why these novels seemed so dark to me, reason and analysis have nothing to do with the choices.

When examining the list I notice some interesting commonalities: Three out of the four works are either science fiction or at least take place in a speculative and very dark future. Three out of the four involve the disruptions of a relationship, at least in part due to an invasion by outside forces. All four of these works were written in the twentieth century and were written in English. For me at least, all of the major events in these books, though at times highly speculative, seemed plausible.

The whole idea of this list seems a little absurd when I really think about it. After all, I have read a fair share of non - fiction that has illustrated some of the most horrendous aspects of the human experience. As someone who has read a lot of history, and a lot of dark history, I have encountered real life stories of murder, rape, and the most unspeakable tortures and sadism that can be imagined, on both an individual as well as on a mass scale. What is contained in these non – fiction works was indeed troubling. Some of it is the stuff of nightmare and depict hell on Earth. Thus, I have had similar reactions these books. However, since such things really happened, such reactions seem to be more understandable.

So why should anything of the non - fiction sort bother me much? Perhaps because by introducing the reader into the mind and the soul a character the way non - fiction does not, fiction sometimes creates a special kind of empathy for characters. Another reason may be the fact that three out of the four books are speculative fiction. Maybe this gave the authors a particular amount of freedom to set up situations that were so uncanny as to create the sense that something was abnormally twisted in the Universe.

I have heard it expressed that really great books have the power to bother people the most. Once again my list does not exactly meet expectations. Some of the below really are not novels that belong in the category of great literature. With that said, in my opinion, all of the below are very well written.

These books bugged me so much that I will never reread them and would stay away from other books that I think might elicit similar reactions. These novels chilled my soul. I thought about them for days after completing. Later, sometimes years later, thinking about them brings up unpleasant feelings. I am not delving too deeply into why these particular works perturbed me so much. However, I am willing to discuss further and in detail, in the comments section or through private correspondence with anyone who wants elaboration and is interested in further chat.

The list of books that bugged is as follows:

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

I first read this when I was very young. The famous story of Joe Bonham who is wounded by an artillery shell in World War I and wakes up with no arms, no legs, no mouth, no sight, no hearing, no smell and no taste. The book takes place almost entirely in the protagonist’s mind. Bonham cannot move, communicate or even kill himself. In the annals of literature, perhaps no other work has ever portrayed a soul trapped in such torment with absolutely no way to escape. This is a dark masterpiece of helpless horror and is truly the stuff of the darkest nightmares.

An argument can be made that this book rises to the level of great literature.

Rock band Metallica’s song “One” is about this book.

This is most obscure work on this list. While not great literature, it is a very imaginative tale of worldwide horror. Rival nations develop a chemical that can be easily introduced into water supplies and that is extremely effective in causing sterility in women. Various nations and rival factions use the toxin against one another in vicious cycles of attack and retaliation. In a few short years, ninety – nine percent of the World’s women are unable to bear children.

The true horror builds in the novel’s last chapters. The few remaining fertile women are sequestered into institutions and forced to become baby - making machines.  Julia, the wife of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister is one of these unfortunate women. Piling grim horror upon grim horror, her relatives, though initially helpful in attempted escape attempts, and visiting her in the institution, eventually slowly betray her in what seems to me, a particularly cruel way. Her husband and twin sister, gradually over the years, visit her less and less frequently. Eventually it is revealed that the two have married. By this time Julia is so resigned to her fate that she is only bothered a little bit. No happy endings in this novel.  I have not read since I was much younger and will not do so again.

This novel heaps three levels of agonizing horror one on top of another. First, a microbiologist’s wife and two young daughters are killed in a horrendous terrorist bombing. Second, the microbiologist, later know as “the madman”, goes completely insane and plots retribution upon the world. His revenge is a devastatingly effective synthesized virus that kills only women. Over the course of the book the plague spreads throughout the world and over ninety – nine percent of the Earth’s women succumb. When a cure is finally found the few women survivors emerge from quarantine. In the closing pages of the book a final horror becomes apparent as everyone is expected to accept, based upon the new realities, that monogamous relationships for the remaining women, even pre - existing ones, will not be tolerated in this new world.

I have read a lot of “plague wiping out humanity books.” None has affected me like this one. It is so very different from the others. It is stark and believable. In an odd way, the fact that the contagion affects only one gender makes it all the more grim.

I would argue that Herbert wrote great literature when he created his Dune Series. This book, very different from Herbert’s more famous works, does not quite reach the level of greatness, but is very well written and effective. I have known several others who have read this book and were not so bothered. Thus, this one falls firmly into the category of “personally disturbing.”

I remember reading this when I was in my teens around the time that it was first published. I recognized the horror of it all this but thought that if it happened, I would be lucky to be male. In retrospect, I think that death would be preferable to living in a world that lost all of its women in such a terrible way. 

For me, this is the ultimate disturbing novel. It contains a unique set of horrors as the protagonists, Winston and Julia, endure mental, emotional and moral destruction at the hands of torturers in the service of the most oppressive regime imaginable. Their fate is clearly worse then death. There are two famous passages, one known as the Room 101 passage and the second that cumulates in last sentence of the book that hammer the horrors home. For me the worst passage was actually a third one, I call it the “Cold March Day,” where the protagonists are shown to be emotionally annihilated, their love for one another intentionally and effectively destroyed by the pernicious regime. I blogged about this one in more detail here.

Finally, there are a couple of books that I have not read, that I suspect, might elicit similar disturbing reactions for me, and thus, I will likely stay away from. One is The Road by Cormac McCarthy, which looks so very terrifying, grim and depressing in an ultimate and plausible way (I have not seen the film for the same reason). The second is Blindness by Jose Saramago. I have seen the film adaptation of that book. The movie contained a rape scene that I found to be unbearable. I have heard that the corresponding passage in the book is even more intense. As I like both McCarthy and Saramago and the plots of these books seem interesting, I would have read both in a heartbeat when I was younger. I am, however, getting squeamish in my old age.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham

James Madison: A Biography by Ralph Ketcham is a massively large and comprehensive work. My ruminations on its level of detail and why I chose to read it can be found here. Kethcham’s biography is not just filled with facts, but in my opinion it strikes exactly the right balance of analysis and commentary concerning Madison and the era in which he lived.

This is huge book. Its pages are large and the print is small. As I estimated in my previous post, had this book been conventionally formatted, I think that it would run over 1000 pages. I could not help but smile when in the introduction Ketcham apologizes to his readers for his lack of detail and refers those who want more to Irving Brant’s six-volume biography of the America’s fourth President.

First published in 1971, Ketcham’s book has become the seminal Madison biography for those interested in a detailed portrait of the man. Based upon a little Internet surfing on the work, it seems to garner great respect from both academics and lay readers and seems to eclipse more recent shorter biographies of Madison written by popular authors.

Born in 1751 to a prosperous Virginia family, Madison grew up exposed to the best education that the New World offered at the time. For his higher education, Madison attended The College of New Jersey, later Princeton University. This institution was a breeding ground for New Light Presbyterianism and Revolutionary thought in America. Ketcham devotes plenty of pages to explaining how Madison’s intellectual foundations can be traced to his time spent there.  

Beginning before the Revolution, throughout the war, and later in an independent America, Madison served in various State and Pre-Constitution Federal Legislatures. During this time, he gained a reputation as an extremely competent and even brilliant political theoretician and legislator. Ketcham dedicates pages and pages to Madison’s political theorizing, which borrowed and built upon classical and enlightenment thinking.

Madison was indeed a great political thinker. He really came into his own during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, which led to the creation of the American Constitution.  Many, including Ketcham, describe him as the Father of the United States’ Constitution. Though I have read other authors, particularly James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, who consider this a bit of an overstatement, he likely had a greater effect upon the final document than anyone else. Many of the most important features of his basic outline for the American Government made it into the Constitution. Madison pushed for a strong Federal Government as well as popular representation over what, at times, was vigorous opposition.  Madison’s blueprint for the American government has had a profound impact down through the present day.

In the fight to get the Constitution ratified, Madison co-authored the Federalist Papers. These works were landmarks in political theory that helped create and shape ideas that still represent some of the cornerstones of modern republics, balanced governments and political theory.

Later Madison continued to serve in various capacities in the Federal Government, from Congressman to Secretary of State. During this time, he married Dolly Payne or Dolly Madison, a vivacious and dynamic woman whose distinctive personality contrasted with Madison’s somewhat socially awkward character. Dolly eventually became one of America’s most popular and famous First Ladies.

In 1809, Madison was elected President of the United States. Serving two terms, this Founder’s time in office was often contentious and was marked by the War of 1812, in which the United States once again came into conflict with Great Britain. Madison’s presidency was also characterized by innovations in finance and infrastructure development that impacted America for decades to come.  Ketcham does not pull any punches, and his picture of the Madison Administration is portrayed as a time of great mistakes that were balanced by some equally great achievements.

After his term as President, Madison enjoyed a long retirement spent at his home in Montpelier, Virginia. Here, like many of America’s Founders, he engaged in a constant correspondence with other thinkers of the time. He also influenced, and sometimes participated in, both Virginia and National politics and the debates that characterized this time.

Madison’s shortcomings are not glossed over. For instance, though he opposed slavery, he could never bring himself to actually free his slaves. He also, while popular with his family and friends, was a socially awkward man.

As I am known to do, I will focus upon just one of many important aspects of Madison’s life. Madison was a vitally important figure, both in terms of his actions and political philosophy. Even if we confine ourselves to just examining Madison’s political philosophy and theorizing, there are too many fascinating and important angles to examine in a single post. Instead, I will spend a few words on just one thread of his political thinking. That is, Madison’s belief in, and championing of, an abundance and diversity of ideas, opinions and interests, especially when those ideas, opinions and interests contradicted each other.

An integral part of Madison’s social and political belief system revolved around the concept that many diverse belief systems could come together to form strong and meritorious ideological governmental and social systems. Madison argued that these conflicting systems would at times counterbalance and at other times complement one another, leading to a strong society and a strong republic. Ketcham writes about this and analyzes this belief somewhat extensively. At one point he describes and comments upon Madison’s viewpoint on this stew of various interests and ideas,

“this would preserve freedom rather then threaten it, because no one interest would control government; each interest – economic, religious, sectional, or whatever – would be a natural check on the domineering tendencies of others. Madison made a virtue of human diversity and neutralized the selfishness of mankind.””

Ketcham details how Madison’s view on this matter grew over time. Madison initially made this argument in relation to religion only, when he advocated and helped to achieve religious freedom in Virginia. Madison believed a variety of groups, including various Christian denominations, Jews and non-religious thinkers should be free to exercise their beliefs without either interference or official support from government. He believed that such a separation of church and state, which was almost unheard of in Europe at the time, would actually strengthen society and religion.

Later, Madison extended these theories to encapsulate a multiplicity of views and interests in society as a whole. Such a variety of ideas would help to create and foster good ones. Even the worst tendencies of human nature would cancel each other out when pitted against one another. Hence, the “neutralization” of “selfishness” that Ketcham refers to in the above quote.

In analyzing modern democracy, we often hear political theorists and commentators observing the virtues of the “marketplace of ideas,” that is, the tendency for free societies to generate lots of ideas, both good and bad. Presumably, the good ideas will compete with the bad ones and win out. Though in my opinion this is not perfect and does not always work in the short and middle term, as some terrible ideas are very popular for what seems like long periods of time, this system does generally work in the very long run. It is indeed one of the engines that powers modern society. In his anticipation of this “marketplace of ideas” (this term actually precedes Madison’s time but in my opinion really achieved its full modern meaning in the twentieth century), as well as his role as an architect of a society that helped to foster such diversity, Madison displayed pure genius.

There is so much to Madison’s life that is included to this very big book. This is not a read for the faint of heart as the detail can be overwhelming, and those who are not as interested as I am may find it a little tedious. Folks who have a great interest in the period, the history of government or of Madison himself will, however, find this an essential and very informative, yet fun, read.