Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Another title from my Cavalcade of Classics, Round 2, which is experiencing a Monty Python moment (“Not dead yet!”).

This novel is a gorgeous, depressing, incredible portrait of a generation coming of age between two world wars. The characters are so flawed, so lost as they confront a world that isn’t what they’ve been promised by society, family, or religion (but at least they have their money). I cringe at their missteps in part because I am not at all certain I would make any better choices (different maybe, but better?). Waugh’s description of the ridiculousness and tragedy of life feels very timely. It’s not that life is more or less ridiculous or tragic at any given time, but I think some periods of history just make it easier to see.

A favorite quote:

“What is it?”
“His heart; some long word at the heart. He’s dying of a long word.”

p. 288 of movie tie-in edition

The Art of War by Sun-Tzu

The Art of War is the first of the titles on my Cavalcade of Classics, Round 2 list that I’ve finished this year. Making progress!

Filled with guidance about war strategy that is surprisingly detailed, this book is more practical and less philosophical than I expected it to be. It provides interesting insights into warfare in China during the Warring States period, but I would hesitate to use it as a business or personal guidebook as some have suggested in recent years.

Some quotes/passages that were particularly interesting to me…

This one reminds me of the adage about putting one’s own house in order instead of worrying about someone else’s:

The Skillful Warrior

Can achieve

His own

Invulnerability;

But he can never bring about

The enemy’s

Vulnerability.

And this one sounded to me like a list of New Year’s Resolutions for an aspiring bad-ass:

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Playtime is Over: The Odyssey, Emily Wilson translation

My children are studying ancient history this year, and as part of that—and as part of my Cavalcade of Classics—we read The Odyssey aloud together.

Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey is awesome. Odysseus is such an arrogant jerk. He caused so many of his own problems yet Homer seems to love him all the more for it. My daughter said at one point, “This is a really Odysseus-centered book, isn’t it?” which is kind of an obvious statement given the title, but I get what she means. It’s not just a book about Odysseus, it’s a book that’s devoted to portraying him as a hero even when he makes really stupid mistakes or lies for no reason, although I suppose that those things just make him more god-like, at least from a Greek Mythology standpoint.

One of our favorite sections:

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My children and I laughed at so many parts of this book, but naked Odysseus jumping on the threshold to announce his killing spree really cracked us up. Playtime is over, indeed.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Reading this novel, I asked myself, why would the Nazis ban this book?

Because at first, it’s just a story of young men going to war narrated by Paul Bäumer. Boredom, irritation at rules, pulling pranks. What’s dangerous about this?

Soon it got more real, bodies and exhaustion and terror and blood. So, maybe this is what the Nazis, gearing up for a war and hoping to stir up young men enough that they’re willing to kill not only foreigners but their own countrymen. But don’t young men know what war is about? Killing and being afraid and dying? This reason seemed inadequate.

Later, though, came the passages that I think must have been the biggest reason this book was banned.

“It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces.” (140)

Remarque threatens the propaganda machine necessary to bring young men into service.

In Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of growing up in Germany between the two World Wars, Haffner describes how the government promoted in schools the glorification of World War I, getting young boys to focus on maneuvers and strategy (something in which my own son is very interested) rather than on whether Germany should have been fighting the war in the first place. By hooking them with strategy and numbers and warcraft, the government got these children fired up about war so that, in a few years, they would enthusiastically enlist. The government at the time needed these young men to see World War I in terms of strategy with a motive so black-and-white it didn’t even warrant considering. Remarque’s novel does the opposite. It questions the reasons for war and the things those making the war say about it.

The men, during a moment of quiet, are discussing the relationship between “home-country” and “State.”

“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home-country.”

“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it’s merely the rulers.” […]

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

All Quiet on the Western Front, pp 205-206, Ballantine Books Trade Edition, 1996

In order for these young men to kill, they have to see those in front of their bayonets and hand grenades as not human, or at least as not worthy of life. They must not reflect on similarities between those in front of their rifle and those behind because the necessary conclusion would either be that none of them deserves to be killed or that none of them is worthy of life.

“We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” (113) If they don’t believe their own lives are worth defending, there’s no need to keep moving forward against the enemy. But there’s a safeguard against that: If one man finds it difficult to see the value in his own life, there’s the comrade next to him to defend.

Upon hearing his friends’ voices when he was lost in the dark, Bäumer says, “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;—I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.” (163)


If the bonds of country and the instinct for self-preservation are insufficient to keep a person fighting, there are the bonds of friendship to fall back on.

Remarque’s Bäumer is stuck. He sees the human in those in front of him, but he also sees himself and his friends as human. To believe both and still fight is incompatible with sanity. And yet he has to keep fighting because that common man over there is trying to kill him and the only way out is to kill the other man first. His choices at this point are severely limited.

This is how war is set up. Those in power put into motion something that is self-perpetuating. They exploit the instinct for survival to get people with no real reason to kill each other to do just that.

This, I suspect, is why the Nazis banned this novel. Not because it describes the horrors of war, but because it lays bare the reasons the war is happening in the first place.

I’ve been trying to focus, when I read anything, on how the lessons in each book/article/poem can help me develop my own character. What in that piece of writing can I use to become morally and ethically stronger?

If I apply this question to All Quiet on the Western Front, there are a couple of takeaways, neither of which is particularly new to me.

One is that the way you get one person to kill another is either to make that other person seem not human or not worthy of life or get the other person to attack first, reducing the first person’s choices to “kill or be killed.” This applies to situations outside of war. It applies to Stand Your Ground laws. It applies to police killings, both those in which police do the killing and in which police are the ones killed. It also applies, I think, to domestic violence and sexual assault and human trafficking and other crimes that don’t necessarily end in the taking of life. It applies to border security and how to respond to a refugee crisis.

Related to this is the knowledge that seeing another person as human or not, as worthy of life or not, isn’t usually, or perhaps isn’t ever, simply a matter of the perspective of an individual. This dehumanizing is systemic, and it’s centuries, millennia old. Someone finds this structure useful to maintain. While there are those few whose benefit is obvious, we all share to one extent or another in the benefits of a system that dehumanizes other people. Because those benefits are so diffuse, it doesn’t work just to identify and remove from power those who obviously benefit, although this is a start. To reform the structure, we need to remove or neutralize the benefits themselves.

Having identified these points, I don’t really know what’s actionable in either of them. The development of character isn’t necessarily about action; it’s about readying oneself to make the most moral and ethical choices possible when the opportunity for action arises. But still, writing a book review or a blog post feels entirely inadequate, like maybe doing nothing is better.

“How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies or of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands.” (263)

Does the fact that this appears in his novel mean that Remarque is arguing that his novel itself is senseless or “of no account”? If this is true, where does this leave us? I suppose it leaves us—or me, at least—with an existential crisis, as usual.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics challenge.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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Perhaps as a mother I could read this as a story of children abandoned on an island and left to survive in any way they can.

I could read it as a story illustrating that children, unsupervised by adults, revert to a state of nature, which, because of the inherent violence of humanity, ignores all logic and reason for the allure of superstition, tribalism, and destruction.

I could read it as a story of how a crowd of children can be influenced to follow a despotic ruler, who offers chants and fun, and who jeers at those over whom the crowd would like to feel powerful rather than following the boring logic of democracy and the drudge of working toward a common, rational goal, while the majority, unnamed, unnumbered, and unconsidered, sit by without using their voices outside of mindlessly echoing the words of those in power, without action besides the basics of human existence.

I could read this story and think how tragic it is that children left to their own devices might act in a way contrary to their own self preservation.

I could wish that someone from a rational civilization that’s above the squabbles of a handful of boys on an island would come and save them.

I could wish that there were anything left to be saved.

I could wish that I believed in salvation.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics, Round Two.

The Epic of Gilgamesh

A bit of background: The Epic of Gilgamesh is old. It’s very, very old. So old, it’s more than a little amazing that any of it has survived, let alone enough to put together a cohesive narrative.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is also bizarre. A bizarre, old story. It’s got elements common to familiar creation myths—a flood, a descent from a state of nature precipitated by a wily female—and a really close friendship that seems to be based on the fact that both guys are the biggest and strongest guys around and on their shared interest in gratuitous deforestation.

Perhaps my favorite part is Gilgamesh’s journey after Enkidu’s death. After all of the wanton violence, I appreciate the self-doubt Gilgamesh shows and the wisdom of Uta-Napishti, which the sage delivers with just a little smugness.

I’ve not read any other translations of The Epic of Gilgamesh, but this one by Andrew George worked for me.

I read this as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This book was incredible. I listened to it on audio, and there were so many points at which I exclaimed audibly about an insight Baldwin had shared.

I’m not sure why The Fire Next Time struck me more deeply than Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which I also “read” on audiobook), but I do see a couple of big differences between the two.

One difference is the quality of the writing. Coates’s writing is fine and powerful at times, but Baldwin’s writing is something else entirely. It feels smooth and adept. Baldwin knows language, and he crafts it and wields it with a skill that I savor (and covet just a little). I haven’t read any of Baldwin’s fiction, but after my experience with The Fire Next Time, I’m inclined to move some of his other writing towards the top of my to-read list.

Another difference between The Fire Next Time and Coates’s memoir which it inspired is the focus. Like Coates, Baldwin writes about his personal experiences, but he doesn’t place them at the center of the work as they are in the chronological recounting in Coates’s book. I have a fairly high bar for memoir; I like it to do something more than just tell about one person’s life. In his book (or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a long-form essay), Baldwin uses his personal experiences to illustrate a larger point about American culture and its racial history. This was more powerful to me than reading the story of one life.

This should in no way give the impression that it was only the quality of the writing and the structure of the book that I enjoyed. The content was extremely powerful. Baldwin comes across as conflicted, angry, vulnerable, skeptical, wary, and, in some ways, weary. I was especially struck by what seems like Baldwin’s near-despair about how to proceed as a culture, racially segregated or not, without leaving behind the good with the bad. His reflections after his visit with Elijah Muhammad—juxtaposing the supportive community, the young women and their babies, with the rhetoric of violent segregation—present his internal conflict powerfully.

One thing I’m still seeking—and which I realized at the end of the book that I was unconsciously and unfairly hoping Baldwin would provide—is a picture of how a post-racial world might look. What does an integrated society, one in which there is a universally accepted assumption of the inherent worth of all individuals, look like? What is the right path forward knowing that we can’t make right the past? Can we make a reality something we can’t envision?

This isn’t something Baldwin or anyone can answer, but I still hoped for it. 

I read this book as part of round two of my Cavalcade of Classics. You can see all of the titles on the list here.

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

13784569I listened to this on audio, and I have to admit, the first few hours were pretty brutal. I listened to the first three hours while taking a long walk and nearly cried from the boredom (it wasn’t all the audiobook’s fault, though; I’d picked a particularly blah section of suburban sidewalk along which to amble while listening). But as I stuck with the novel (at 1.5x) it grew on me. Dreiser brought things together in a satisfying way towards the end, allowing Carrie to grow and change throughout the novel and dealing with his characters with compassion even when it was clear that he didn’t approve of their actions.

I kept forgetting that this novel was written before the stock market crash of 1929, before both world wars, even before the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. I need to look back at this time in U.S. history for more context.

I’m definitely getting this one in print so I can read more deeply—and underline. There are some parallels between themes in this book and other books I’m reading/have read recently, and I need the book in front of me to catch them.

This is another title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics. Here’s a view from my otherwise boring walk during the first hours of the audiobook. Not so bad when I look back on it now.

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

22890386A letter from an old friend and the opportunity for a road trip leads Mr. Stevens, a career butler of the Downton Abbey era, to reflect about his life and his actions both past and present, and Ishiguro brings us along on both this literal and figurative journey with skill and precision. Mr. Stevens may be one of the most authentic, realistically written characters I’ve read in a very long time.

I’ve never been a butler for one of the distinguished old houses of pre-war Great Britain, but I can very much relate to Mr. Stevens’s habit of revising and reframing memories of his actions that don’t fit with his image of himself. It’s the kind of story crafting that we all do, I think, whether consciously or not, as we try to assemble a narrative for our life that is consistent with how we want to view ourselves.

One thing that seems to elude many authors is the art of showing character development over time, but this is something else that Ishiguro does with quiet finesse in this novel. Mr. Stevens’s evolution is subtle but significant. At the beginning of the novel, he holds firmly to his accustomed way of remembering his actions in the best possible light, brushing aside the reactions of others that might provide evidence that his way of looking at the situation isn’t consistent with how it actually happened. As the novel—and the road trip—progresses, we see Mr. Stevens begin to question himself and to confront the inconsistencies and hypocrisy of some of his actions.

This is the first book in a long time that had an ending that felt satisfying to me. By the end of the novel, Mr. Stevens hasn’t sloughed off all of his old habits, but he’s much better able to look at himself more realistically and more holistically, admitting his shortcomings with fewer rationalizations and excuses. His transformation isn’t dramatic—there’s no Extreme Makeover for this butler—but it’s rather the kind of slow opening of the eyes that one hopes life has in store for us before night falls.

This novel I hope to revisit as a masterclass in character development and in the crafting of language that is subtle, economical, and powerful.

This is the first title from the second round of my Cavalcade of Classics that I’ve completed. I listened to this novel on audiobook during one of my weekly Epic Walks around San Diego. As a result, below is one of the sights I now associate with this novel. That and mountain bikers playing “American Woman” as they nearly mowed me down.

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Classics Spin #9 Lucky Spin Number

Today is the day!

The Classics Club announced the lucky Spin number and it’s…

2!

On my Spin list, that’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I think I’d actually have been more excited for #1 (Moby-Dick) or #3 (The House of Mirth), but it will be nice to cross this one off my list. And based on the reviews I’ve read, it might be better than I expect. One of the many benefits of low expectations is that I’m frequently pleasantly surprised.