Genre: Classic

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Posted August 9, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

Crash by J.G. BallardTitle: Crash (Goodreads)
Author: J.G. Ballard
Published: Harper Perennial, 1973
Pages: 185
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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I have always enjoyed transgressive fiction, not because it is controversial and it breaks free from the expectations of society, but because of its satirical nature. When exploring the darker side of humanity, you are always going to get some attention and let’s face it, controversy sells. I am drawn to transgressive fiction because it defies conventional literature. Where else do you get to explore addiction and antisocial behaviours in a safe environment? It is a philosophy in its self, a way to strip away everything and look at the act itself. In the essay “Preface to Transgression”, Michel Foucault described it as a place where, “…God is absent, and where all of our actions are addressed to his absence in a profanation which at once identifies it, dissipates it, exhausts itself in it, and restores it to the empty purity of its transgression.” To me, it sums it up more intelligently than I could, it is a place where morality and laws are stripped away, allowing us to explore the nature of the transgressive in detail.

The nature of transgressive fiction did mean that these novels got a lot of attention and many were banned or the subject of obscenity trials. Yet some of the classics in this genre helped explore the ideas found in psychoanalysis (a psychological theory dedicated to treating mental disorders by investigating the interaction of the unconscious and conscious mind) and psychosexual development (psychoanalytical field dedicated to sexual behaviour, in particular the Freudian theory of the five stages of sexual development). Behind all the controversy, I think of the underlying themes to be found in transgressive fiction is one of self-discovery in an unaccepting world. The term ‘counterculture’ comes to mind when thinking about transgressive fiction, but even before that term was penned, we had D.H. Lawrence exploring a love affair between two different classes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Georges Bataille taking an unconventional look at his relationship with his father in Story of the Eye.

When thinking about J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, I was having a difficult time working out how it fit into the genre. When thinking of it in relation to psychosexual development, Crash does explore symphorophilia (coined in 1984 to refer to a paraphilia in which sexual arousal involves staging and watching tragedies like car accidents), autassassinophilia (a paraphilia where an individual derives sexual arousal by the thought and/or risk of dying), and/or car crash fetishism. It is certainly controversial, one publisher famously said, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” about Crash, but what did this novel have to say about society? Just to give you some background about this novel, it originally was a short story in the 1970 book The Atrocity Exhibition. Written shortly after his wife’s sudden death, the book is a series of interconnecting stories that explores the idea of how mass media inadvertently invades and splinters the mind of an individual. Suffering a mental breakdown, the protagonist (a doctor in a psychiatric hospital) surrenders to the world of psychosis.

Knowing this, I was beginning to understand what J.G. Ballard was trying to explore in Crash. If you look at cinema and the impact the Hays Code had on movies you might better understand the drastic change to films in the 1970s. In 1968, the code was officially replaced with the MPAA film rating system, which lead to an influx of controversial movies full of sex and violence. I think some of the darkest and grittiest movies come from this era. So does that mean Ballard is exploring mass media sensationalising sex and violence?

The automobile has become a huge part of our lives, we rely and depend on it to get us around but the amount of car accidents that lead to death is extremely high. According to the Association for Safe International Travel (ASIRT), nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day, while an additional 20-50 million people suffer injuries from car accidents. Globally, a car crash is the 9th leading cause of death, but in the 1970s this statistic would be much worse. This means, a car accident will be one of the most devastating experiences in some people’s lives. So what is Ballard trying to say when he explores this idea of sexual pleasure from a crash? That, I will leave to the reader.

Another thing that stood out to me in Crash was the narrator was named James Ballard. Naming the protagonist after himself means that the reader has to ask some very confronting questions, because we cannot rely on the author to give us the answers. I think it was a brilliant move by J.G. Ballard, automatically we might think that this is a fetish of the author but this allows him to explore the “empty purity of [this] transgression”. We are confronted we a completely different perspective and in the words of Ballard about this novel “[he] wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit. I wanted to force it to look in the mirror.”

In the end, like all good transgressive novels, Crash did leave me with plenty to think about. I had a lot of issues with this novel, I think the repetitive nature really hindered my enjoyment. I am not going to write off J.G. Ballard completely, but I am unsure which novel to try next; I was thinking High Rise. I love when a book leaves me thinking, and even writing this essay, I think I have gained a great appreciation of this controversial novel. Maybe I will return to it in the distant future and see what I think.

 


The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Posted March 20, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Lover by Marguerite DurasTitle: The Lover (Goodreads)
Author: Marguerite Duras
Translator: Barbara Bray
Published: Pantheon, 1984
Pages: 117
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Marguerite Duras is best known for her novel L’Amant (The Lover), which was published in 1984 and won the Prix Goncourt for that year. Set in the colony of French Indochina (now known as Vietnam) during the 1920s, the novel explores the salacious love affair between a fifteen-and-a-half year-old French girl and a wealthy Chinese man. What makes this a literary masterpiece is the exploration into desire (and colonialism) and the experimental style that Duras adopted for this novel.

The narrative devices adopted in L’Amant allows Marguerite Duras to tell an autobiographical story while offering a form of self-reflection and way to analyse her own feelings. To do this Duras often switches perspective from first person to third person as well as switching from a current point in the story to a flashback. For me the effects of these literary devices offered an ideal contemplation into the emotions Marguerite must have been going through and also providing a meditation into the art of writing.

The Lover was published when Marguerite Duras was seventy, fifty-five years after she met Léo while traveling by ferry across the Mekong Delta from her home in the town of Sa Đéc, to her boarding school in Saigon. The depiction of love was so masterfully done in the novel, I knew exactly how Duras was feeling. The whole idea of a first love and then reflecting back on it many years later only to find that what you thought was a great love was merely an infatuation. I think this was what brought The Lover together and what stuck with me the most.

Since it is a love affair between a young French girl and an older Chinese man in Saigon, I think we need to talk about colonialism when reflecting on L’Amant. You can see the disapproving opinions playing out from her widowed mother but it was the wealthy father who had the biggest impact on the Chinese businessman’s relationship. I had thought that class struggle and colonialism would have played a bigger part in a book like this but I feel that Marguerite Duras handled the idea well with just how the characters interacted with each other.

I was thrilled by The Lover and the passionate love affair in this novel. Though I have to say it was Marguerite Duras skilful use of narrative devices that really made this a new favourite. I want to dip in and out of this book and I have only just finished it. I was even tempted to carry this novel around, just so I can read a passage or two while I had a spare moment. You may notice that I have been reading a decent amount of French literature lately and it is because of novels like this that I am currently obsessed. I hope to one day have the necessary skills to read L’Amant in French; I have been practising the language just for novels like this.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Posted January 23, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynTitle: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Goodreads)
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Translator: Ralph Parker
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 142
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the most important works of fiction to come from the Soviet Union was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was this novella that informed the world of the harsh realities of the gulag under Stalin’s reign. The reaction from the world even lead to Solzhenitsyn’s most important piece, The Gulag Archipelago, a seven volume exposition into the gulag; it was part oral history, part personal account and a political statement. The Gulag Archipelago has become an important piece of literature, and it is taught in Russian high schools, while One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is sometimes assigned reading in classrooms around the rest of the world.

The novella follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov for one day in 1951, exploring life as a prisoner in a Stalinist labour camp (known as the gulag). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sent to the gulag in 1945 for criticising Joseph Stalin in a private letter. He would have been left there to die but when Nikita Khrushchev became the first secretary of the Communist party after Stalin’s death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released in 1956 due to his poor health. Most of his writing is autobiographical in nature, in particular One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (about life in the labour camps) and Cancer Ward (which is about his battle with cancer that lead to his release from the gulag).

The significance of this novel is far reaching, not just on giving the reader an understanding on life in the labour camps but also as a political statement on Stalin. The book looks at the struggle to keep human dignity in such harsh treatment. From constantly being treated inhumanely to the removal of their identity by referring to everyone by a serial number (Shukhov being SHCHA-854). While the guards are constantly trying to discourage camaraderie, we still get a glimpse into the interactions between the prisoners. It is here that we get an idea on just how temperamental Stalin could be. Although getting into the tyrannical reign of Stalin requires more research, you get an idea of unjust punishment while reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

There is a lot to explore in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ranging from the constant struggle with privacy to the vivid descriptions of the cold weather. However, the one thing that stood out for me is the parcels that Tsezar was selling. Not just tobacco but a range of desirable items. For me he became a symbol of worldly pleasures in a place where everyone had nothing. This turns the novella into something so much deeper. You might notice that the name Tsezar is similar word to Tsar, in fact both are Russian words for Caesar. Keeping this in mind we now have a motif for the events that lead to the Russian revolution and it begins to explore the corruption of power under Stalin. Rather than working towards the socialist utopia that the Bolsheviks dreamt of, Stalin rewarded the people that had his favour while punishing everyone else. This idea stuck with me and I think it transformed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work into something far greater. Although this is what I have come to expect from this author.

This is only my second Solzhenitsyn book (the other being In the First Circle) but I am constantly surprised with the depth he goes to in order to explore his ideas. His books were often published as samizdat (Russian for self-published but referring to the illegally published and distributed literature of the Soviet era) but he still has a unique ability to hide a deeper idea in his novels to avoid serious repercussions from the government. One of my favourite parts of Soviet literature is the way the authors often use satire, motifs and symbolism to explore their true message. I always get a thrill from these books, as if I am understanding some hidden secret. I do think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an essential read for anyone interested in Russian literature and I am a little ashamed I put if off for so long.


The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Posted January 9, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy CasaresTitle: The Invention of Morel (Goodreads)
Author: Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translator: Ruth L.C. Simms
Artist: Norah Borges
Published: NYRB Classics, 1940
Pages: 103
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Never have I read anything like The Invention of Morel, it is beautiful and yet left me somewhat confused. I have spent more time thinking about this novella than actually reading it. While the plot is straight forward, it is the bizarre and fantastical elements that left me perplexed. The novella tells the story of a man on the run, who hides on a deserted island (the fictional island of Villings which is believed to be part of the Ellice Islands, now known as Tuvalu). When people start to arrive on the island, things become a little more complicated.

This is the book that launched Adolfo Bioy Casares’s career, despite being his seventh book. He remains a little obscure outside of Argentina, even though his friend Jorge Luis Borges is known to sing his praises. While this book is sometimes categorised as science fiction or fantasy, for me it reads like a psychological adventure story. Rather than focusing on a plot which is common in genre fiction, he prides himself in making the book plotless and almost formless. This is a unique style for a novel like this but helps explore the inner psyche of the narrator.

The way the novella is written leaves you constantly questioning the reliability of the narrator. This is done in many different ways, from the disease that is apparently effecting the island (symptoms seems to be similar to radiation poisoning) to the hallucinations the narrator experiences from food poisoning and just the bizarre nature of the novella as a whole. I found this to be an effective way to explore The Invention of Morel and the main protagonist. It was these psychological elements of the book that I ended up appreciating.

The Invention of Morel was written in a time where radiation has a hot topic. I do not know much about the history of radioactivity but I know Marie Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anaemia, which is believed to be brought on by exposure to radiation, then in the 1940s there was a race to perfect the nuclear bomb. This I believe had an effect on Bioy Casares’s novella and helped him explore the idea of dying which leads to the theme of waiting for his soul to pass on.

I have to add that the reason Louise Brooks was put on the cover of the edition I read was because Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote this novella as a reaction to the demise of her film career. Take that to mean what you will, I do not know anything about Brooks to be able to draw any connections between her life and the book. Also the illustrations were provided by Norah Borges, Jorge Luis Borges younger sister. I am so please to have read The Invention of Morel, it was such an enjoyable experience and this novella is something I will contemplate for years to come.


Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Posted October 1, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

Doctor Zhivago by Boris PasternakTitle: Dr Zhivago (Goodreads)
Author: Boris Pasternak
Translator: Max Hayward, Manya Harari
Published: Everyman's Library, 1957
Pages: 512
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Hardcover

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When thinking about staples in Soviet literature, one book immediately comes to mind, and that is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. A novel in the vein of the Russian epics like War and Peace, Pasternak’s novel tells of a tragic hero, Yury Zhivago. The novel follows the life of a flawed character as he tries to control his life and his hormones. While trying to live a moral life, he is often a victim of his own desires and misfortune, while Russia changes around him.

I have mixed feelings about this modern classic and this is mainly due to the fact that some people refer to this as an epic romance. Doctor Zhivago is as romantic as Wuthering Heights as it explore romanticism rather than love. Russian Romanticism often has an emphasis on the metaphysical discontent of society and one’s self. In this way, yes, Doctor Zhivago is a wonderfully Romantic novel but if you are looking for love, you’ve come to the wrong book. I know translator Richard Pevear has called this a moving love story (which cements many issues I have with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) however, can you call the struggle with morality a tale of romance?

Let’s talk about the relationships found within Doctor Zhivago. The relationship between Yury and Lana is the main focus of this classic; a woman he has lusted after for his entire life. However he marries Tonya, a woman that Yury shows no real affection towards. This is not to say that Yury does not care for Tonya, just the whole idea of marrying someone while in love with someone else is just stupid. Now I know this is an autobiographical novel and it is a reflection of Boris Pasternak’s own relationship mistakes but the relationship between Yury and Lana was always doomed, especially since she shows no interest in him.

There is something to be said about the marriage of Yury and Tonya. Following the loss of his mother and the abandonment of his father, Yury is consistently seeking out a maternal figure. One may even call it an Oedipus complex and Tonya is more of a mother figure to him. This brings up a major theme in Russian literature not just Doctor Zhivago. In the case of this novel, the human desire for companionship plays out in context of the longing for stability. Russia has suffered a lot of tumultuous times and the desire for stability tends to be reflected in their literature.

What interested me the most about Doctor Zhivago was what it had to say about the political landscape. This is why the novel was refused publication in the Soviet Union and the story behind the book is just as interesting. I picked up The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée as soon as finishing Doctor Zhivago. This book is part biography on Boris Pasternak and part history of the novel.

Boris Pasternak was so passionate about writing Doctor Zhivago, he would continually return to it in-between paid translation work. He knew that it would never be published in the Soviet Union but wanted his story out there. Because the novel covered a time between the first Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Civil War. The reader is able to follow the ideological struggle that Pasternak would have had towards his much loved motherland, from the dreams of a socialist utopia to its grim reality. These themes, its criticism towards Stalin and mentioning the realities of the Gulag (covering this topic before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) were some of the main reasons this book was denied publication. It was the CIA who published the book and distributed it in the Soviet Union as propaganda, the story behind this an interesting one, which I learnt from The Zhivago Affair.

Doctor Zhivago was smuggled out of the country by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli with Pasternak asking him to help get his novel out to the world, who first published the book in Italian. Pasternak also gave the manuscript to George Kutkov in the hopes of a decent and faithful English translation. Katkov promised the best translation possible and settled on Max Hayward and Manya Harari for this task. According to The Zhivago Affair, “The pair alternated chapters and then checked each other’s work. Katkov supervised them both, ‘going over everything for accuracy and nuance.’”

Originally Katkov suggested to Pasternak to use Vladimir Nabokov for the translation but this idea was rejected. “This won’t work; he’s too jealous of my position in this country to do it properly.” I am not sure what the relationship between Pasternak and Nabokov is but he has been quoted in 1927 as saying “His verse is convex, goitrous and google eyed, as though his muse suffered from Basebow’s disease. He is crazy about clumsy imagery, sonorous but literal rhymes, and clattering metre.” When Doctor Zhivago was published in America it knocked Lolita off the number one spot on the best seller list. This lead Nabokov to call it “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences.”

Despite the criticism and while I do agree it is a little clumsy in its coincidences, I cannot deny Doctor Zhivago as anything but a masterpiece. I know Boris Pasternak wanted the novel to be accessible and simple, and I was surprised how easy it was to read. There is plenty to say about this novel and I would love to talk more about it. I know this will be a novel that will be read over and over again and I encourage others to read it not for the story but for what is says about the Soviet era. Doctor Zhivago is such a cultural phenomenon and at great risk to its author, in fact apparently when Boris Pasternak gave the manuscript to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli he said “you are hereby invited to my execution.”


Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Posted September 27, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

Pale Fire by Vladimir NabokovTitle: Pale Fire (Goodreads)
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 246
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire is a novel centred around a 999 line poem of the same name by fictional poet John Shade. It is primarily focused on a literary commentary by Charles Kinbote, an academic with an obsession with the poet. Starting with the poem in four cantos, then leading into Kinbote’s analysis, Pale Fire is a wonderfully complex novel on obsession and literary criticism. While Nabokov’s 1962 post-modern masterpiece might sound dense on the surface,  I found the novel itself easy to read, but difficult to unpack.

Before sharing my thoughts on Pale Fire, I feel it is important to point out Vladimir Nabokov’s academic career in America. While in America, Nabokov worked as a lecturer mainly in Russian and European literature, most notably at Cornell University from 1948-1959. The reason why this is important is the fact that this experience would have contributed the satirical nature of Pale Fire. I often found the novel to be a tongue in cheek look at literary criticism. On reading this, I found myself laughing at the leaps Kinbote often took to explain the Shade poem. I could not help but think this was a reflection of some of the assignments Nabokov read as a lit professor.

Looking deeper into Pale Fire and there is a lot to gain from the novel. What I noticed first seems to be a popular trope for Nabokov, and that is the unreliable narrator. I cannot help but comparing Charles Kinbote to Humbert Humbert from Lolita. Not only is he unreliable but the obsession with the poet John Shade feels very similar. His obsession towards the poet and the art leads to an artistic passion, however this turns into a struggle with desire exceeding creative capability. It is here we get an interesting idea of critical commentary verses the desire to creating literature.

As things progress the novel shifts to an exploration into reality. I found myself questioning the sanity of Kinbote and maybe he is actually King Charles of Zembla. He could in fact be the exiled king or far more likely, he is suffering from dangerous delusions. From what I know after reading Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading (the only other novels I have read) Nabokov likes to play around with obsession, in particular the dangerous realities it may lead to. It is here where I wished I had read Speak Memory or a biography on Nabokov, because I get a feeling of autobiographical elements in Pale Fire. There are moments that seem to parallel his own life, in regards to fleeing the Soviet Union and even teaching literature. Zembla resembles the Soviet Union but portrayed in a nostalgic way. Like Kinbote looks at the country through rose-coloured classes, not remembering the harsh reality.

Apart from the wonderful writing style to be found in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, you can expect to see plenty of allegories and references. One thing I love about Russian literature (and I call Nabokov a Russian simply because he was born there) is the way they often reference other novels; it is the same joy I get from reading books about books. Pale Fire is jammed packed with references from The Brothers Karamazov, A Hero of Our Time, James Joyce, Keats, Proust and even mentions Lolita. A better review could go into a lot of detail exploring the references and what they mean to the novel but I will not go into those detail.

Pale Fire is a book that will take a lifetime to read, there is so much here to explore and that is what appeals to me. The more I read from Nabokov the more I want to read, and re-read. I do feel like I need to learn more about this author before diving back into his novels. Speak Memory will be my next read from Nabokov but I am half tempted to crack open a collection of essays I have called Lectures on Russian Literature. I am excited to return to Pale Fire in the future and talk even more about the novel.


Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Posted July 5, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 8 Comments

Don Quixote by Miguel de CervantesTitle: Don Quixote (Goodreads)
Author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Translator: Edith Grossman
Published: Harper Perennial, 1615
Pages: 940
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Don Quixote is a staple in western literature, it ushered in the golden age of Spanish literature and it is also is one of the earliest examples of the modern (canonical) novel. The novel tells the story of a Spanish nobleman (Hidalgo) obsessed with the chivalric romance literature of the middle ages, who sets out to try and revive chivalry. With his trusty squire Sancho Panza, he sets out on an adventure to undo all the wrongs and injustices he encounters in the world. Claiming to be a knight. he gives himself the name Don Quixote of La Mancha.

From the very start, we get a sense that maybe Don Quixote is crazy. In psychology the term Quixotism relates to “over-idealism” and is often used in reference to someone with a naïve romanticism towards utopianism. The term “tilting at windmills” refers to a scene near the beginning of the novel where Don Quixote races off to fight giants that were actually windmills. If you consider that Don Quixote went mad from all the books he was reading and set off to try and fix the world, then this could be used as a metaphor towards Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra own feeling toward the same books, but rather than fixing the world he wrote Don Quixote. This brings to mind the quote from Toni Morrison “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Don Quixote, like many books of the time, was read to children; this is a novel I could never imagine being read to any child now. However one thing that makes this novel so great is that there are so many interpretations to be taken from the text. Harold Bloom (who wrote the introduction to my copy of the book) calls this a work of radical nihilism and anarchy, in the way it glorifies fantasy over reality. Calling him the Sorrowful Knight whose objective is that “He is at war with Freud’s reality principle, which accepts the necessity of dying.” The translator of the edition I read, Edith Grossman, has said, “When I first started reading the Quixote I thought it was the most tragic book in the world, and I would read it and weep”. However when she worked on the translation she remembered “sitting at my computer and laughing out loud.”

After the French Revolution a popular interpretation of the novel was that it was about ethics and righting the wrongs of society.  While later on it was a social commentary which always lead to the discussion of whose side Cervantes was on. You could even pull some religious or feminist themes out of this novel but for me, I read this as a Marxist text. The relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was a good representation of the class struggle. It is evident that Quixote needed Sancho Panza more than Panza needed him. Sancho Panza was there to rise the ranks of society while Don Quixote was be completely lost without his squire.

I cannot talk about Don Quixote without mentioning the way that Miguel de Cervantes played with intertextuality. This novel is split into two parts; the first part was originally published in 1605. In 1614 a second volume was released by an anonymous author. It is believed that Miguel de Cervantes started writing his second part after this and in 1615 it was released. While part one was a spoof of the literature that annoyed him, part two was more an attack on this unauthorised story of Don Quixote. It even made references to this scandal as Don Quixote explores the concept of someone writing about him.

This is the type of novel that deserves to be read again and again. Every reading will probably offer something different and this review is a reference point of what I got out of reading this book the first time around. If you get the chance, I recommend reading this with someone. I read this with Hilary from Yrrobotfriend and the discussions were the best part of this reading experience. While reading this novel I enjoyed part one the most but on reflection, I think part two offers more.


The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Posted May 23, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 4 Comments

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor DostoevskyTitle: The Brothers Karamazov (Goodreads)
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translator: Constance Garnett
Published: Dover Thrift, 1880
Pages: 736
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Written in the final years of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life (he died four months after it was published), The Brothers Karamazov is probably his most philosophical novel. It tells the story of four very different brothers who all got involved in the murder of their own father. While similarities can be made between this novel and Crime and Punishment as they share similar themes, they are still vastly different. Rather this book deals more with life, death and the meaning of life.

“The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

At the start of the novel we meet Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who fathers three sons during his two marriages and is rumoured for have fathered a fourth illegitimate son. He often makes the list when people talk about ‘the most disgusting characters’ in literature, or similar topics. This forms the basis of the plot and the brothers grow up with very different lives, separated from their father and each other. As a result these four brothers are very different; Dmitri is a sensualist, Ivan a rationalist (an atheist), Alexei is a novice in the Russian Orthodox Church and Pavel, well let’s just say, silent and sly.

The very different personalities of these brothers is what allows Fyodor Dostoevsky to explore all his philosophical ideas. One of the major themes in this novel is that of religion and while questioning faith is a common theme in modem literature at the time, in Russia it was considered big deal. In 987 Vladimir the Great sent out envoys to study the various religions of neighbouring nations in order to pick the right religion for Russia. Seems a little unorthodox (no pun intended) but eventually the nation adopted Orthodoxy. What became Russian Orthodoxy was embraced by all of Russia and had its own vision of creating a country of love and humility.

This is important because The Brothers Karamazov is not about questioning the existence of God but rather the role of the church when it comes to morality. It should be noted this was at a time where the Russian Socialism movement was gaining some traction and their goal was to create heaven on earth. With characters of vastly different ideals, Dostoevsky was able to explore the ideas he had floating in his head from different angles. Was Christianity simply a mask for the authority? In one of the most famous chapters Ivan talks about “The Great Inquisitor” which is a powerful argument of scepticism and against religious faith.

Other major themes found in the novel are that of fate and free will. This is closely connected with the ideas around religion. For Alexei, he has the freedom to commit to the order of the church, something that seems like a paradox to someone like Dmitri. Fyodor Dostoevsky explores the psychological makeup of control by society and authority. This plays into the Socialist debate at the time; do we have free will, when we are being controlled by the church or the Tsar. Or maybe we have the freewill but blindly follow the laws put in place by the church and the authority without question.

For Ivan, he lives by the philosophy that “everything is permitted”, which leads to another major theme, that of justice and morality. The murder of Fyodor Karamazov is at the centre of this theme, as well as the trail the follows. The Brothers Karamazov essentially wants the reader to question life, question their beliefs, and the roles of earthly or divine justice. The justice system found in the novel appears to be weird and problematic. The innocent are found guilty, the jury are manipulated by lawyers and the book even questions harsh punishments; like exile to Siberia. It is here we wonder about the different between morality and the laws imposed upon us.

There is so much more you can get out of The Brothers Karamazov (for example family) but for me, this reading through was about questioning life in the lead up to death. I really liked how Fyodor Dostoevsky used the different brothers to explore the different angles and question his own beliefs. Dostoevsky often wrote about society, religion, politics and ethics, however in his final years while writing The Brothers Karamazov, we get the sense that he was thinking more about his own life and his legacy. In fact his tombstone is inscribed with the verse from John 12:24; “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it dies, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Most people know that I’m a fan of Fyodor Dostoevsky and I am so glad to have read The Brothers Karamazov however next time I plan to read it in the David McDuff translation, rather than this one translated by Constance Garnett.


We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Posted December 16, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Horror / 0 Comments

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley JacksonTitle: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Goodreads)
Author: Shirley Jackson
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 146
Genres: Horror, Classic
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

The Blackwood sisters, Constance and Merricat (Mary Katherine) try to live an idyllic life with their uncle Julian in their big New England house. The villagers surrounding them hate them and often chant hurtful words. The Blackwood family were once much bigger, but one meal changed it all. Arsenic in the sugar served with dessert killed the rest of the family, Constance never had sugar, Merricat was sent to her room before supper and Julian only had a little sugar and is now a shell of his former self. Despite the fact that Constance was arrested and then acquitted of this crime, the rumours still run wild and the Blackwoods live their life in seclusion, that is until Charles arrived and tried to steal the family fortune.

While We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the first Shirley Jackson I have read, it was in fact her final novel. I went into this book knowing nothing about the story and I found it the perfect way to experience the novel. An American gothic that is in part a haunted house story, in part a mystery, and as Jackson’s biographer Judy Opphenheimer calls it a “paean to agoraphobia”. A psychological story that explores the effects of rumours and public opinion, all told from the perspective of eighteen year old Merricat, who is an unreliable narrator.

There is a real mystery about the Blackwoods, but I was more interested in the effects the villagers had on the family. I know the isolation is a reflection of the author’s own agoraphobia and nervous conditions but I took it more as a look into social issues, essentially the effects of rumours and speculation. I cannot help but compare the book with Frankenstein. This is the beauty of fiction and the way people all have different perspectives on the same piece of literature.

I found both Constance and Merricat to be wonderful characters, they are both strong and at times unlikeable, while being mysterious and complex. Merricat has to be one of the best narrators found in literature; I never could fully understand her and she often surprised me. She is likeable but I could never trust her completely. She was an enigma and as the novel progressed and secrets revealed, I really appreciated the way Shirley Jackson crafted these characters.

There is a fine balance between the morbid and the whimsical to be found in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; it is poetic and haunting. Discovering Shirley Jackson came at the perfect time, I read this book during Halloween and I eagerly await next year to read another one of her novels. I know I could read Jackson at other times, but I do think her writing suited Halloween perfectly. I know The House of Haunting Hill is recommended, but I would love to know which of her other books should take priority.


The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

Posted December 14, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Horror / 0 Comments

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington IrvingTitle: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Goodreads)
Author: Washington Irving
Published: Tor, 1820
Pages: 96
Genres: Classic, Horror
My Copy: Audiobook

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
(or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Most people know the story of Sleepy Hollow, we have probably seen a movie or the TV show. But how accurate are these adaptations to the book? The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is probably Washington Irving’s best known short story. Appearing in his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent along with the story that is often a companion to Sleepy Hollow, Rip Van Winkle. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells the story of Ichabod Crane in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town and his encounters with the Headless Horseman.

There are many pop culture references to the Headless Horseman as well as adaptations. I remember Tim Burton directing a movie adaptation starting Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci and of course the more recent TV show. Although I cannot think of one reference or adaptation that seemed to get the story right. For starters, the TV show likes to portray Ichabod Crane as a gentleman (although a turncoat) but I got a very different experience in Washington Irving’s short story. I found Ichabod Crane to be a greedy character that wanted everything; from riches to notoriety.

The story is told as an investigation into the supernatural, trying to unlock the legend of the Headless Horseman. This worked really well, Washington Irving had a great ability in creating an atmosphere. As a reader I felt like I could picture everything he was writing and it really helped set the tension. Irving wrote beautiful words and combining this with the atmosphere, I felt myself fully immersed in the settlement of Tarry Town.

Having said that, the plot did not really go anywhere and it felt like it was over before it really got started. I think this story could have done with more pages, allowing to build the plot and characters in greater detail. There are some interesting themes of wealth, nature and truth but for the most part I felt it was lacking. I like the way Washington Irving wrote and I am glad that I finally know the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow now, even if it was just an average tale.