Thursday, July 24, 2014

Crossing boundaries: Gender, race, and colonialism in Belinda

Maria Edgeworth by John Downman, 1807
"I have made up my mind to like no Novels, really, but Miss Edgeworth's, Yours, and my own.—"
—Jane Austen writing to her niece Anna Austen, Sept. 28, 1814 [1]
The narrator of Austen's Northanger Abbey famously praises Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (along with Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Camilla) as a work "in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." [2]

Austen was far from Maria Edgeworth's only admirer. Belinda, published in 1801, quickly went through two editions and was later selected for inclusion in Anna Barbauld's series The British Novelists (1810).

Anna Barbauld
Barbauld was a poet, essayist and critic who was approached by a coalition of booksellers to create what scholar Claudia Johnson has described as "the first novelistic canon." [3] The 50-volume series of what Barbauld calls in her introduction "some of the most approved novels" included 29 novels by 22 authors, for each of which Barbauld wrote a short critical and biographical introduction. [4] The series included Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe), Samuel Richardson (Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison), Henry Fielding (Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones), Samuel Johnson (Rasselas), Oliver Goldsmith (Vicar of Wakefield), and Tobias Smollett (Humphry Clinker).

But Barbauld also included a generous representation of women writers: Charlotte Lennox (The Female Quixote), Frances Brooke (The History of Lady Julia), Clara Reeve (The Old English Baron), Fanny Burney (Evelina and Cecilia), Charlotte Smith (The Old Manor House), Anne Radcliffe (Romance of the Forest and Mysteries of Udolpho), Elizabeth Inchbald (A Simple Story and Nature and Art), and Edgeworth (Belinda and The Modern Griselda). (That over the next few decades of the 19th century all of these novelists were eliminated from the canon is the subject of another post.)

A funny thing happened on the way to Belinda's inclusion in The British Novelists: the novel that was canonized was a different work from the one that was first published. Barbauld was something of a political dissenter, and in her view significant novels engaged with "systems of philosophy or politics" and had "some serious view." [5] This idea of the function of the novel may be, aside from Belinda's popularity and Barbauld's friendship with Edgeworth, what recommended it for inclusion in The British Novelists. But the revisions Edgeworth made to the novel in preparation for the new edition removed or toned down some of its most politically progressive elements.

In its earliest editions, Belinda treats questions of gender, race and colonialism with a surprising freedom. The eponymous heroine feels "esteem" and "admiration" for, and finally becomes engaged to, the "remarkably handsome" Mr. Vincent, a "Creole" from the British West Indies with a "manly, sunburnt complexion." [6] Kathryn Kirkpatrick's notes for the Oxford World's Classics edition of Belinda suggest that in the early 19th century "creole" did not necessarily mean someone of mixed-race parentage, but rather someone born and raised in the West Indies (whether of European or African descent). However, Mr. Vincent's racial status, like his "sunburnt complexion," is ambiguous.

Ultimately Belinda breaks her engagement with Mr. Vincent, but not because of his race. Instead, it is because he is a passionate gambler, a vice she feels can never be fully overcome. But even so, Belinda and Mr. Vincent's lengthy flirtation with the possibility of interracial marriage is remarkable.

More remarkable still is the courtship and marriage between two other characters, Lucy and Juba. Lucy, described as "a pretty-looking girl of about eighteen," is the granddaughter of a tenant of Lady Anne Percival, the novel's epitome of good sense and felicity. [7] Juba is the African-descended West Indian manservant of Mr. Vincent.

In some ways Juba is a stereotypical character—he speaks in dialect, refers to Mr. Vincent as "massa," is superstitious, and plays the tambourine and "banjore." But he's also described by Lucy's grandmother as "a most industrious, ingenious, good-natured youth." The grandmother tells Lucy, with Lady Anne's warm approval, that "the eyes are used to a face after a time, and then it's nothing...make a prudent choice, that you won't never have cause to repent of." [8] Lucy makes the prudent choice of Juba, and later in the novel they celebrate their marriage.

But when Belinda was chosen for inclusion in Barbauld's series, Edgeworth (apparently under pressure) radically revised the story to remove any hint of interracial romantic relationships. In the 1810 and subsequent editions, Lucy marries an Englishman named James Jackson, not Juba (although Juba remains a character in the book), and Belinda only becomes friends with, and is never engaged to, Mr. Vincent. Incidentally, it is the revised 1810 version of the novel that is available on the Open Library and Project Gutenberg free e-book sites.

Who applied the pressure on Edgeworth to remove from Belinda the romances between English women and West Indian men? A letter Edgeworth wrote to her aunt Margaret Ruxton on 9 January 1810 suggests that the pressure came from Edgeworth's father: "...Juba the black servant is not allowed to marry the country girl Lucy; because my father has great delicacies and scruples of conscience about encouraging such marriages." [9]

Another curious aspect of Edgeworth's novel is that it features multiple scenes of cross-dressing: another kind of crossing of boundaries, this time of gender. Harriet Freke (pronounced "freak," meaning idiosyncrasy), frequently dresses (and even more shocking in the context of the novel, behaves) as a man. At one point she jumps into her friend Lady Delacour's carriage while en travesti, and when she is challenged by Lady Delacour's male companion cries out, "'Who am I? only a Freke!'" [10]

But Mrs. Freke, though the most prominent, is far from the only cross-dresser in the novel. Lady Delacour and her enemy Mrs. Luttridge dress as men to fight a duel, a masculine privilege. And early on in the novel its hero, Clarence Hervey, tries to win a bet with Lady Delacour by putting on a hoop skirt and being introduced to her company as "Madame de Pomenars." [11] (Perhaps Edgeworth is suggesting that the ideal man combines the masculine virtues of courage, confidence, and "animal spirits" with the feminine ones of delicacy and sentiment.) The cross-dressing episodes survived the substantial revisions for the 1810 edition; apparently the transgression of gender boundaries was less alarming than racial ones.

So Belinda, although it espouses traditional strictures on women's behavior and demeanor, is also strikingly modern—and perhaps it was this modern, critical view of the society in which its characters must find their way that was part of its appeal to Jane Austen.

After its approving attitude towards interracial romance and its more equivocal stance towards cross-dressing and gender ambiguity, a third modern aspect of Belinda is its self-reflexiveness. Several of Edgeworth's fictional characters compare themselves to characters in fiction, as when Mr. Percival observes that "husbands may sometimes have delicate feelings as well as their wives, though they are seldom allowed to have any by these unjust novel writers." [12] Clarence Hervey's first love, whom he names Virginia after the heroine in a romance, is "spoiled by early novel-reading." [13] And the book concludes in Chapter XXXI, entitled "The Denouement," with an arresting metafictional conceit:
'And now, my good friends,' continued Lady Delacour, 'shall I finish the novel for you?'

'If your ladyship pleases; nobody can do it better,' said Clarence Hervey.

'But I hope you will remember, dear Lady Delacour,' said Belinda, 'that there is nothing in which novelists are so apt to err as in hurrying things toward the conclusion: in not allowing time enough for that change of feeling, which change of situation cannot instantly produce.'

'That's right, my dear Belinda; true to your principles to the last gasp. Fear nothing—you shall have time enough to become accustomed to Clarence. Would you choose that I should draw out the story to five volumes more? With your advice and assistance, I can with the greatest ease, my dear. A declaration of love, you know, is only the beginning of things; there may be blushes, and sighs, and doubts, and fears, and misunderstandings, and jealousies without end or common sense, to fill up the necessary space, and to gain the necessary time; but if I might conclude the business in two lines, I should say,
"Ye gods, annihilate both space and time,
And make four lovers happy."'

 1. Jane Austen's letters to her sister Cassandra and others. R.W. Chapman, ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1932, Letter 101, p. 405.

 2. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Ch. V

 3. Claudia Johnson, "Let me make the novels of a country": Barbauld's The British Novelists (1810/1820). Novel, Spring 2001, 34(2): 163-179, p. 166.

 4. Quoted in Johnson, p. 168.

 5. Quoted in Johnson, p. 172.

 6. Maria Edgeworth, Belinda, Chapter XVI.

 7. Belinda, Chapter XVIII.

 8. Belinda, Chapter XVIII.

 9. Quoted in "A Note on the Text," Kathryn Kirkpatrick, ed., in Maria Edgeworth, Belinda, Oxford World's Classics, 1994, p. xxvii.

10. Belinda, Chapter III.

11. Belinda, Chapter V.

12. Belinda, Chapter XIX.

13. Belinda, Chapter XXVII.

Monday, July 14, 2014

In the shadow of Lully: Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
A possible portrait of Marc-Antoine Charpentier
When Jean-Baptiste Lully accidentally plunged his heavy conducting staff through the top of his foot during a performance in December 1686, and died in agonizing pain three months later from gangrene, his fellow composers must have had mixed feelings. Fifteen years before his death Lully had purchased the exclusive privilege of producing opera (and other music) for Louis XIV's court. In effect, it was a lifetime monopoly on the production of opera and musical theater in France, and the quarrelsome Lully employed it ruthlessly against those he perceived as his rivals.

Jean-Baptiste Lully
Jean-Baptiste Lully
Lully portrayed himself as defending French musical values against Italian influence. Ironically, Lully himself was born in Tuscany as Giovanni Battista Lulli; and one of the composers whose "Italian" style he most fiercely opposed was the Parisian native Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

As a young man Charpentier had gone to Italy, birthplace of opera, in order to study music. But only a year or two after his return to France, Lully acquired the royal privilege. Lully's monopoly virtually closed off for Charpentier any possibility of producing a large-scale opera.

So Charpentier focused on other forms, particularly sacred music. Marie de Lorraine, the highly devout 'Mademoiselle de Guise,' brought Charpentier into her household to compose for her private orchestra and 14-voice mixed choir (Charpentier himself sang the haute-contre parts). He also composed a large amount of music for the religious institutions that she and her relatives supported.

While Lully's monopoly made it impossible for Charpentier to have operas publicly staged, the ban did not extend to private performances. Of course, private concert rooms lacked the size and stage machinery of an opera house, and so the works performed had to be reduced in scale. For his patrons Charpentier composed half a dozen chamber operas on Biblical, mythological and allegorical subjects.

And the chamber operas were not the only music Charpentier wrote for the stage during the time of Lully's monopoly. Charpentier also took Lully's place as the composer for Molière's theatre troupe, the Comédie-Française. In yet another irony, Charpentier had to write new music for many of Molière's plays; the music Lully had written for them was not in conformance with the restrictions he himself later imposed on the number of musicians and singers theaters could employ. (To add insult to injury, Lully also evicted the Comédie-Française from the Théâtre du Palais-Royal so he could use it as an opera house.)

But after Lully's death, the monopoly was finally relaxed, and Charpentier began composing large-scale music dramas. Celse Martyr (The Martyr Celsus, music lost; libretto published 1687) and David et Jonathas (David and Jonathan, 1688) were performed at the Jesuit Collège Louis-le-Grand, where Charpentier had recently become maître de musique. A few years later, Médée (Medea, 1693) was produced for the Académie Royale de Musique at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal—the royal opera company and theater formerly controlled by Lully. While Médée was praised by connoisseurs and by the king, it was not revived at the Académie, and Charpentier never composed another opera. In 1698 he was named as the maître de musique of the Sainte-Chapelle, where he spent the final six years of his life composing motets, psalm settings and masses for services at the chapel.

Eclipse and revival

After Charpentier's death in 1704, his music fell out of favor—in part because those loyal to Lully's style disparaged it, and in part because it was less widely available than Lully's: in contrast to Lully's compositions, the vast majority of Charpentier's works remained unpublished. Fortunately, after his death Charpentier's music manuscripts remained in his family and were kept largely intact. In 1727 they were sold to the king's library, which during the Revolution became the the core of the Bibliotèque Nationale.

There the manuscripts remained until the mid-20th-century revival of interest in the music of the Baroque. In the early 1950s Médée received its first performances in over 250 years. Three decades later, the rediscovery of Charpentier was accelerated when the scholar H. Wiley Hitchcock published the complete catalog of Charpentier's works, and in the early 1990s facsimiles of his surviving manuscripts began to be issued.

For a composer's work to truly flourish it must be performed, and conductor William Christie has been Charpentier's most important modern champion. Christie's period-instrument group Les Arts Florissants, founded in 1979, is even named after one of Charpentier's chamber operas. Over the past 30 years Les Arts Florissants and other early-music groups have performed and recorded a wide variety of Charpentier's music; I've listed a handful of recommended recordings below. The catalog numbers are for those who (like me) cling to the outmoded CD and DVD formats.

Sacred music

Canticum ad Beatam Virginem Mariam. Le Concert des Nations, directed by Jordi Savall. Recorded 1989. Astrée E 8713.

A selection of motets dedicated to the Virgin Mary; the pieces for which dates can be determined were written during Charpentier's time as the composer-in-residence to Mlle. de Guise. A sample: "Salve Regina à trois voix pareilles," featuring John Elwes (tenor), Josep Cabré (baritone), and Gerard Lesne (haute contre), directed by Savall:

This recording is about to be reissued by Savall's own Alia Vox label in a deluxe 25th anniversary edition featuring two remastered SACD discs and a DVD.

Chamber opera

Actéon. Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles, directed by Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs. Recorded 2009. CPO 777613-2.

Acteon was a hunter in Greek mythology, who spied on the bathing goddess Diana and was punished by being turned into a stag pursued and torn to pieces by his own hounds. One of the chamber operas written by Charpentier when he was in the service of the Guise family, Actéon is given an excellent performance by the ensembles of the Boston Early Music Festival, and is accompanied on this recording by two smaller-scale secular cantatas. Aaron Sheehan (tenor) sings the role of Actéon:

Tragédie lyrique

Médée. Les Arts Florissants, directed by William Christie. Recorded 1994. Erato 2564 66035-7.

Médée has come to be viewed as one of the great achievements in Baroque opera, and it is hard to imagine this recording of it ever being surpassed thanks to the astonishing performance of Lorraine Hunt in the title role. Here is the end of Act III, in which she summons demons from the underworld to help her wreak revenge on her unfaithful husband Jason and his new lover Creusa:

Charpentier was left bitter by his long struggle to have his music recognized. As H. Wiley Hitchcock writes in his article on Charpentier in Grove Music Online:
To posterity he left an enigmatic and poignant Epitaphium Carpentarij (no. 474), a strange, semi-sacred dramatic cantata to a Latin text, its date unknown, in which 'the shade of Charpentier' speaks to two wanderers in the underworld. It includes this rueful assessment: 'I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant. And since those who scorned me were much more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honour and a heavy burden. And just as at my birth I brought nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death'. [1]

1. H. Wiley Hitchcock. "Charpentier, Marc-Antoine." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed July 13, 2014,

Monday, July 7, 2014

100 novels

The Best Hundred Novels. Which Are They? A Suggested List. From a Correspondent with Qualms.
From The Daily News (London), March 14, 1899
Discussed in this post:
"100 novels everyone should read," The Telegraph (UK), June 20, 2104:
"A hundred books to read for pleasure," in Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books by Wendy Lesser, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014
"A hundred novels," in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel by Jane Smiley, Knopf, 2006
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall, Universe, 2006
"Most of the numerous attempts to draw up a list of the hundred best books, or the hundred best novels, have been distressing failures; and it may be said that nobody has ever succeeded in this sort of thing to such an extent as to justify the belief that it would be possible to draw up a list which would satisfy anyone but the maker."
The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent Supplement (UK). April 22, 1899.

I'm in full accord with the anonymous Sheffield reviewer, who was commenting on the "100 Best Novels in the World," a list that had just been published in what was then The Daily Telegraph. I don't think I've ever read a literary list that I didn't disagree with in small or large ways. Matters aren't helped when "everyone" is invoked—"everyone" in the Telegraph's case really meaning only English-language readers (the lists developed by French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Urdu, or Japanese readers would undoubtedly be very different). Nor when superlatives and imperatives like "best," "should," or "must" are insisted on.

Which is why I appreciate Wendy Lesser's emphasis on enjoyment in her list of "books to read for pleasure." Isn't that why we read in the first place? At least since I graduated college, I've rarely picked up a book because someone else told me I had to.

Jane Smiley doesn't tell us why she's writing her list; they're simply "a hundred novels." But presumably she's recommending them as something more than just illustrations of thirteen ways of looking at a novel. Of course, it's that sense of personal endorsement that makes lists of this kind so irresistible for readers. And it's the dissatisfaction with other people's lists that makes creating more of them so irresistible for writers.

The Telegraph's "100 novels everyone should read"* smacks of list-making by committee, and it actually presumes to rank the books from #100 to #1. The list contains a high proportion of usual suspects, but it also contains some surprises, both in what's included (or excluded) and where books are ranked:
  • Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (#11) doesn't make the top 10, but J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace (#8) does.
  • P.G. Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters (#15) and Wells's War of the Worlds (#19) are, according to the Telegraph's editors, more urgent to read than Flaubert's Madame Bovary (#23) or Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (#68).
  • Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual (#29), an unusual (but excellent) choice, even more surprisingly comes in ahead of Nabokov's Lolita (#54) and Calvino's If On a Winter's Night A Traveler (#69).
  • Other unusual inclusions: Alain Robbe-Grillet's The Voyeur (#45), Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (#58) and J.G. Ballard's Crash (#68).
  • Less justifiable inclusions: Ian McEwan's Atonement (#30), John Updike's four-plus Rabbit books (#43), Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (#53), Martin Amis's London Fields (#59), Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie (#75), and Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy (#97). Are any of these really books that everyone should read? And all but Hitchhiker's Guide are, incredibly, ranked above Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (#78) or Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (#88).
  • Surprising omissions: To name a few authors picked virtually at random, where are Voltaire, Thackeray, D.H. Lawrence, or Faulkner?
Oh—at #1? George Eliot's Middlemarch. No argument from me there.

My tally:  I've read 55% of the Telegraph's 100—not very impressive, but the news will get worse with Lesser's and Smiley's lists.

Three books I'll be adding to my reading list from the Telegraph's 100:
  • Honoré de Balzac's Old Goriot, described as "a disillusioning dose of Bourbon Restoration realism. The anti-hero 'Rastingnac' became a byword for ruthless social climbing."
  • Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, an "epistolary adventure whose heroine’s bodice is savagely unlaced by the brothel-keeping Robert Lovelace." I confess, though, to being daunted by the 1500-page length of the Penguin edition (which has small print!).
  • Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, in which "Northern villagers turn their bonnets against the social changes accompanying the industrial revolution."
Lesser's "A hundred books to read for pleasure" and Smiley's "A hundred novels" attempt to defuse criticism at the start. Lesser orders the books alphabetically by author, while Smiley orders them chronologically. Neither author makes the Telegraph's sort of insupportable claims about the relative rank of the books they've chosen, or about the superior quality and significance of their choices.

Lesser's and Smiley's lists aren't quite comparable. Lesser's list includes short story, novella and poetry collections, as well as a few nonfiction titles: Edmund de Waal's story of the fortunes of his family and their netsuke collection, The Hare with Amber Eyes; Geoff Dyer's book on D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage; Alexander Herzen's memoir My Past and Thoughts; Norman Mailer's "history as a novel" Armies of the Night, about his participation in the 1967 March on Washington; Janet Malcom's savage portrait of renegade psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, In the Freud Archives; and George Orwell's exploration of the condition of the working class in Northern England, Road To Wigan Pier. Smiley's list is exclusively of novels (broadly defined for pre-18th century works).

Smiley's list is smuttier than Lesser's: she includes Boccaccio's Decameron, Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron, de Sade's Justine, James Joyce's Ulysses, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Nicholson Baker's Vox, none of which makes Lesser's list. Smiley also includes more pre-19th-century literature, while Lesser focusses mainly on 20th-century works. Smiley includes multiple titles for a few author entries, which leads to some odd imbalances: Nancy Mitford gets three titles, and P.G. Wodehouse four (!), while Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Vladimir Nabokov, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf are each limited to one.

There were definitely some surprises on both lists:
  • Lesser has a weakness for crime novels: she includes Eric Ambler's A Coffin for Dimitrios, Ross MacDonald's The Blue Hammer, Henning Mankell's Sidetracked, Richard Price's Clockers, and Highsmith's Ripley novels (but no Hammett or Chandler).
  • Smiley is evidently something of a horror fan, including on her list Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and Bram Stoker's Dracula.
  • Unusual inclusions: Lesser includes literary takes on crime fiction in Javier Marías's A Heart So White and on science fiction in Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Smiley includes highly self-conscious retellings of older narratives in T.H. White's Once and Future King, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and John Gardner's Grendel.
  • Most obscure entries: Lesser includes Der Nister's Family Mashber, while Smiley includes Jetta Carleton's Moonflower Vine, neither of which I had ever heard of before.
My tally: I've read 37% of Smiley's 112 titles, and 29% of Lesser's 100 entries.

Three books I'll be adding to my reading list from Lesser's 100:
  • J.G. Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur, a novel set during the 1857 Indian Uprising, and winner of the 1973 Booker Prize.
  • George Gissing's New Grub Street, featuring the "alarmingly modern young men" of the late-Victorian literary world.
  • Eça de Queirós's The Maias, a sprawling family saga that is a Portuguese literary classic.
Three books I'll be adding to my reading list from Smiley's 112:
  • Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron, an answer book to Boccaccio's Decameron.
  • Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote, whose heroine expects her life to mirror the plot of a romance novel.
  • Tobias Smollett's Expedition of Humphry Clinker, an epistolary novel in which different characters have radically different perspectives on the same events.
How they compare
So how do the three lists of "100 novels" agree? As it turns out, not very well:

Books on all three lists: (there are only 2—are these really the consensus choices for the most recommendable novels?)
E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Authors on all three lists represented by different books: (15)
Jane Austen, Persuasion (L, S); Pride and Prejudice (T)
Honoré de Balzac, Cousin Bette (L, S); Old Goriot (T)
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace (L, T); Foe (S)
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (L, S); The Moonstone (S, T)
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (S, T); Under Western Eyes (L)
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (L, T); A Tale of Two Cities (S)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (L, T); The Idiot (S)
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (S, T); Sentimental Education (L)
Henry James, Portrait of a Lady (S, T); The Golden Bowl (L); The Awkward Age (S)
Ian McEwan, Atonement (S, T); The Innocent (L)
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (S, T); Great Short Works (L)
Stendahl, The Red and the Black (S, T); The Charterhouse of Parma (L)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (S, T); War and Peace (L)
Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now (L); Last Chronicle of Barset (S); The Eustace Diamonds (S); The Warden (T) [as long as we're allowing series, I would have chosen The Chronicles of Barsetshire; if only one novel, The Way We Live Now]
Emile Zola, The Ladies' Paradise (L); Thérèse Raquin (S); Germinal (T)
Books on two of the three lists: (26)
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (S, T)
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (S, T)
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (L, T)
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (S, T)
Arthur Conan Doyle, Hound of the Baskervilles (S, T)
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (S, T)
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard (L, T)
George Eliot, Middlemarch (S, T)
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (S, T)
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (S, T)
James Joyce, Ulysses (S, T)
Franz Kafka, The Trial (S, T)
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (S, T)
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (S, T)
Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance (L, S)
Toni Morrison, Beloved (S, T)
Lady Murasaki, A Tale of Genji (S, T)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (S, T)
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (S, T)
Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (S, T)
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (S, T)
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (S, T)
Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience (L, S)
Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn (L, T)
Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (S, T)
Rebecca West, The Fountain Overflows (L, S)
Authors on two of the three lists, represented by different books: (18)
Roberto Bolaño, Distant Star (L); Savage Detectives (T)
Elizabeth Bowen, The Heat of the Day (L); The Death of the Heart (S)
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (L); As I Lay Dying (S)
Ford Madox Ford, Parade's End (L); The Good Soldier (S)
Nicolai Gogol, Collected Tales (L); Taras Bulba (S)
Graham Greene, The Quiet American (L); Brighton Rock (T)
D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers (L); Lady Chatterley's Lover (S)
Naguib Mahfouz, The Harafish (S); The Cairo Trilogy (T)
Alice Munro, Friend of My Youth (L); Lives of Girls and Women (S)
Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea (S); Under the Net (T)
George Orwell, Road To Wigan Pier (L); 1984 (T)
Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (S); Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (T)
Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh (L); Midnight's Children (T)
W.G. Sebald, Rings of Saturn (L); Austerlitz (T)
Muriel Spark, Loitering with Intent (S); The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (T)
Ivan Turgenev, Virgin Soil (L); Fathers and Sons (S)
John Updike, Complete Henry Bech (S); The Rabbit books (T)
P.G. Wodehouse, The Return of Jeeves (S); Bertie Wooster Sees It Through (S); Spring Fever (S); The Butler Did It (S); Code of the Woosters (T)
Virginia Woolf, Orlando (S); Mrs. Dalloway (T)
(If it's not obvious, in the lists above, L = Lesser, S = Smiley, T = Telegraph; the books are listed alphabetically by author.)

All in all, there are 30 titles and 44 authors in common between Smiley and the Telegraph, 8 titles and 25 authors in common between Lesser and the Telegraph, and 8 titles and 27 authors in common between Smiley and Lesser (we suspect that Lesser may have been deliberately trying to avoid duplicating titles on Smiley's list).

What does all this comparison say? Only that consensus remains elusive about the novels we should, or at least might want to, read. As the comment in the Sheffield & Rotherham Independent indicates, there was significant disagreement about this question 115 years ago; and as the number of novels published in the intervening years has vastly increased, choices have only gotten more difficult.

Clearly, there is no list of 100 (or even 1001) books that will offer the same pleasures and joys to all readers. So what's the purpose of lists like these? Simply to alert others about the books in which we've found enjoyment, wisdom, a reflection of our common humanity, or a "shiver of artistic satisfaction" (Nabokov's phrase, from Lectures on Literature). And in the hope that among the books we've admired, others might also find something worthwhile. As Lesser writes in the introduction to her list in Why I Read, "Composing a list like this is one of those tasks that can be stopped but never finished, and now it is up to you to carry on" (p. 209). Even if you do so with qualms.

In that spirit, I offer 11 worthy authors and novels that didn't make any of these lists:
Mikhail Bulgakov, Master and Margarita
Fanny Burney, Cecilia
Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon
Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Unconsoled
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
Harry Mathews, The Journalist
Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel
William Thackeray, Vanity Fair
For some additional overlooked authors and titles, please see my post on 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


* All of these lists include more than 100 books, of course. The Telegraph list is 116 books long because it counts series such as Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Powell's Dance to the Music of Time, Updike's Rabbit books, Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as single titles. Lesser's list of 100 books includes collections such as Melville's Great Short Works (Billy Budd plus 19 short stories), Highsmith's Complete Ripley Novels (four novels) and Ford's Bascombe Novels (three novels). Smiley's list is not only 101 entries long, she includes both series (In Search of Lost Time) and collections (Updike's Complete Henry Bech), and occasionally includes multiple titles in an author's entry. So her list of "a hundred novels" is actually 112 titles long, or 120 if each volume of the Proust and Updike are counted as individual books.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Farewell to Figaro

On Thursday, July 3, our bold, demanding, and fiercely loyal companion of the last eight years passed away. We buried Figaro the next day in a park next to a waterfall (he liked the sound of running water, and always wanted to be with us when we were washing dishes or taking a bath).

He loved to preen us and our clothes, and nestle in our hands as we watched Bollywood. (Of course, it was our job to massage his pinfeathers and to make sure he got his daily almond on time—and if we didn't do our jobs properly he made sure that we heard about it.)

Figaro's absence leaves us with a sad void in our lives. He is very much missed; farewell, buddy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A question of decency: Sharafat

Hema Malini as Chanda in Sharafat
A father goes to visit the woman who loves his son, to carry out a painful task: he must ask her to end their relationship. The son's family is wealthy and distinguished; the woman is from the demi-monde of singers, dancers and courtesans:

I want you to remove him from your mind

And yet the father comes to recognize that her love for his son hasn't arisen from financial calculation, but from true emotion. Still, he has to separate them, or the family will be caught in a devastating scandal. In a heart-wrenching scene, he begs the woman to leave his son as the truest expression of her love for him.

Don't ruin our family for your love

Torn, the woman at first resists. But her growing realization of the ostracism and financial ruin that threatens to encompass her lover's entire family brings her to an anguished decision: she must give him up forever.

In La Traviata, Verdi built an entire opera around this scene. It is also at the core of the novel and play on which La Traviata was based, La Dame aux camélias (Lady of the Camellias) by Alexandre Dumas fils.* But in director Asit Sen's Sharafat (Decency, 1970), this scene is only the pre-credit sequence. It's like an opera in miniature: just a few minutes long, packed with emotional nuances and subtle shifts in power, and giving a hint of the wild ride that will follow.

The writers of Sharafat, Mahesh Kaul, Nabendu Ghosh, and Krishan Chander, add another twist to the story: the woman, Kamla, and the son, whom we come to learn is Jagat Narayan, have an infant daughter together; when Kamla agrees to end the relationship, she realizes that it will mean that their daughter will never know her father.

Twenty years later Jagat Narayan (Ashok Kumar) has become a leading politician. He is also the respected father of the beautiful Rekha (Sonia Sahni) and guardian of Rajesh (Dharmendra). Rajesh is an orphaned boy brought up in Jagat's home who has just earned his Ph.D and become a college professor.

Rajesh discovers that his students are sneaking out at night to visit the pleasure quarter and watch the beautiful dancer Chanda (the beautiful Hema Malini).

Chanda is, as we suspect, Kamla and Jagat's daughter, who has been forced to take up her mother's profession.

Rajesh goes to Chanda and urges her to turn his students away; they are the "innocent children of decent families," he tells her, and are the "future of the nation."

For the sake of decency

But these "decent" young men spend their time drinking and carousing. They have no interest in learning; they are marking time until they graduate and move into jobs arranged for them by their rich fathers.

Chanda, though, is hungry for the education that she was forced to give up when her mother died and she was taken in by the brothel keeper Kesarbai.

After Mother died my destiny changed

So she agrees to do as Rajesh asks—if he will teach her the same things he's teaching the students. And although he's suspicious of her motives, and she's angered by his prejudices, a pact is sealed between them.

Rajesh begins visiting Chanda every day to give her lessons. At first Chanda uses her professional wiles on him, teasing and flirting as she reads erotic poetry (the only books in the house). Rajesh is not amused:

But this act of yours is cheap

But soon Rajesh and Chanda realize that they've misjudged each other: she is really sincere in her desire to learn, and he is really sincere in his desire to help. They strike up a true friendship—which slowly begins to deepen into love. This was perhaps the first film of this famous jodi, and their famous chemistry is already apparent.

Rajesh discovers that Chanda's only hope for learning her father's identity is Kesarbai, but the brothel keeper refuses to reveal it: that knowledge, which she constantly promises to tell but then never divulges, is her only hold over Chanda. Kesarbai is aware of the growing affection between Chanda and Rajesh, and, recognizing it as a threat to her livelihood, tries to warn him off:

You don't get love at the steps of a prostitute

One day, after Kesarbai has refused again to tell Chanda her father's name, Chanda shows Rajesh the only memento she has of her father: a signet ring. Rajesh is stunned—he recognizes the swastika it bears as the symbol of the Narayan family. He immediately realizes that her father must be Jagat, the second father to whom Rajesh owes everything.

Jagat has his own plans for Rajesh. His daughter Rekha has long been in love with him, and Jagat wants them to marry:

I know you'll never say No to me

Rajesh recognizes that the stakes are very high for everyone involved, but his sense of sharafat demands that he ask Jagat about Chanda. But when he shows Jagat the signet ring, Jagat is dismissive:

Such kind of girls weave such stories to gain sympathy

After Rajesh leaves, though, we see that Jagat is haunted by his guilty memories:

The next day Jagat goes to the temple. There he encounters Chanda, although neither of them knows who the other one is. The temple singer (Indrani Mukherjee) sings, "Giver of life, you are the father of the entire universe [Jagat]...I am your child":

The excellent music of Sharafat is by Laxmikant-Pyarelal, with lyrics by Anand Bakshi; Lata Mangeshkar is the playback singer.**

Jagat is touched by Chanda's obvious distress at the song, and by her devotion. He strikes up a conversation with her as they are leaving the temple. But as they descend the steps, they meet Rekha. Jagat asks where Rajesh is, and mock-scolds Rekha for leaving him behind.

Will you do the same after marriage?

As Chanda's face reveals all too clearly, this is the first she's heard of Rajesh's engagement. She flees the temple, and Rajesh, in tears. The next time Rajesh goes to visit Chanda, he discovers that she has gone back to performing for customers, and is about to be sold to a rich merchant:

Chanda sings, "I have seen what decent people are like, so I have rejected decency...I have seen what happens to people in love, and so I have rejected love."

In a world in which Rajesh and Chanda must run a gantlet of hypocrisy, intolerance, and, ultimately, violence, and in which the "decent" people include the rapacious rich, corrupt politicians, and their dissolute, loutish offspring, Sharafat asks an uncomfortable question: who is really decent?

For an additional perspective, see Memsaab's typically insightful and entertaining review of Sharafat.


* Here is a still from the equivalent scene in Camille (1936), based on the Dumas stories, starring Greta Garbo as the courtesan Marguerite Gaultier and Lionel Barrymore as Monsieur Duval:

Please give him up

This scene is also a key moment in Anthony Trollope's novel The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867), in a chapter which was likely written after Trollope saw a performance of Verdi's opera; see The Victorians and opera: Trollope meets Verdi.

** Apologies for the hideous Ultra icon. Where possible I link to versions of songs that don't disfigure the image, as Ultra routinely does.