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Archive for the ‘Read-along’ Category

I have wanted to read Cao Xueqin’sA Dream of Red Mansions‘ for a long time. I tried once but got distracted after reading 50 pages. When Di from ‘The Little White Attic’ invited a few of us for a readalong of the book, I couldn’t resist and jumped in.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ is one of the four great Chinese classics. It is an epic novel. The translation I have by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang runs into three volumes and a total of 1900 pages. If I finish reading it, it will be the longest book I’ve ever read, beating Vikram Seth’sA Suitable Boy‘ comfortably.

The book follows the fortunes of one family and their relatives and their near and dear ones. But the book doesn’t start like that. It starts with a goddess trying to repair a hole in the sky and using many big stones to do that. When she finishes it, one stone is left. She abandons that stone on earth. Across time over the eons, that stone becomes sentient, starts thinking and it feels depressed that it is alone and it is not able to experience the world. A Buddhist monk and a Taoist priest pass by and when they hear the stone’s story, they take pity on it and decide to place it in the middle of a human family so that it can experience worldly joy and sorrow. This is the reason why the book is sometimes also called ‘The Story of the Stone‘. What follows is the story of one family as the stone perceives it.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ is a very classically Chinese book. If you have read a Jin Yong book, you’ll know exactly what this means. That is, there are only three things in the book. The sentences in the story describe events in the story and move it forward, or they describe the physical surroundings and set the scene, or there is conversation between characters, lots of it. There are just these three things. There are no long monologues, or philosophical musings, or exploration of the inner worlds of the characters. Sometimes there are philosophical musings which are part of a conversation, in which the characters quote classical poetry and old Chinese proverbs to make a point, but that’s it. Everything contributes to moving the story forward. So once you get into the flow of the story, the pages fly. Atleast they flew for me. But there is one thing that might slow down one’s reading pace. There are lots of detailed descriptions. If there is a party, it is described in a lot of detail. If a guest visits home, we get a primer into Chinese culture on how a guest is received and treated. If there is a funeral, there is a description of every detail and ritual. The book depicts 18th century Chinese culture in rich detail and it is probably based on the author’s own experience. It is fascinating to read. It might also be overwhelming if you are not into details.

The other thing about the book is that there are lots of characters, hundreds of them. It is sometimes hard to keep up with who’s who. Sometimes the characters’ names are so close to each other that if you are not familiar with Chinese names it can get confusing. For example, there is Chia Cheng, Chia Chen, Chia Chiang, Chia Chian. At one point, I didn’t know who was who. One way of handling this is to make a family chart and include atleast the important characters in that. Another way of doing it is to go with the flow. I decided to do that. At some point, I discovered, for example, that Chia Cheng was Baoyu’s dad and the other three Chias weren’t that important. Then there are Hsi-feng and Hsi-jen who were important characters and their names looked close to me and so could be potentially confusing. But after reading for a while, I could recognize them properly – Hsi-feng is an important daughter-in-law in the house, and Hsi-jen was Baoyu’s maid. They were two of my favourite characters and so it was easy for me to remember. One more thing that was confusing for me was that the translation I read used the Wade-Giles naming system, while I am more comfortable with the modern Pinyin system. In some cases, translation of names between Wade-Giles and Pinyin was pretty straightforward. For example Pao-Yu in Wade-Giles was Baoyu in Pinyin, Tai-Yu in Wade-Giles was Daiyu in Pinyin. But at other times it was not that straightforward – for example, Hsi-Feng in Wade-Giles was Xifeng in Pinyin, Chin Ko-Ching in Wade-Giles is Qin Keqing in Pinyin. Sometimes the names were so far apart that I couldn’t guess the Pinyin names. This posed problems when I was discussing the book with fellow readalong participants, because I had to be sure that we were discussing the same character. There was a further complication here, because in a newer translation, the translators had changed the names of some of the characters – Hsi-jen was called Aroma in that. No one, of course, can make this leap from Hsi-jen to Aroma 😁 One has to consult the Wade-Giles to Pinyin dictionary frequently to get a sense of things. I hate doing that and so I just muddled along.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ has also been described as the love story of Baoyu and Daiyu. That is, of course, part of the book, and it is fascinating, but because it is an epic book, there cannot be just one story in it. There is Baochai who is as important a character as Daiyu and till now, it is not clear whether Baoyu likes Daiyu more or Baochai more. Both Baochai and Daiyu write beautiful poetry, but while Daiyu is deeply emotional and gets affected by the smallest happenings and bursts into tears, Baochai is more mature and more graceful. My two favourite characters till now though are Hsi-feng and Hsi-jen (or Xifeng and Xiren, if you prefer Pinyin). Hsi-feng is a strong woman who manages her relationships with her family members skillfully, takes additional responsibility when required, is tough when required. The way she handles the maids in the family is interesting to see – tough at times when they slack at work during important occasions (sometimes a bit too tough – on one occasion she gets a maid whipped for coming late, to set an example – I felt the punishment was too much and too cruel), and kind and friendly at other times during informal occasions. I am looking forward to seeing how her character arc develops. Hsi-jen is Baoyu’s maid and is almost like his best friend, governess and lover. She is the closest to the perfect character in the book – all nice and nothing bad. It is hard not to like her. I am looking forward to finding out what happens to her as the story progresses.

The book depicts Chinese culture of the 18th century in a realistic way – the good and the not-so-good together. Sometimes the not-so-good things are heartbreaking, like when someone is unhappy with a maid or a page and gets them whipped, or sometimes gets them dismissed from work. Getting dismissed was the worst thing for a maid working in a distinguished family, because it means she is disgraced and she has slid back into poverty. One of the maids in the story is so heartbroken after she gets dismissed that she commits suicide. It was heartbreaking to read.

There many beautiful scenes depicted in the story. There are frequent quarrels between Baoyu and Daiyu, and sometimes we feel that they are being silly, and at other times we feel that they are just spoilt brats from rich families who don’t realize how lucky they are. But sometimes their fights remind us of ourselves when we were young and being silly and fought with our partners or siblings or cousins and sulked for days and wasted lots of time which could have been spent in more pleasurable ways, and it makes us feel young again and we identify with our silly younger selves, and it makes us smile. Cao Xueqin captures the way young people behave towards each other quite beautifully and it is one of the wonderful parts of the book. In one of my favourite scenes, Daiyu feels heartbroken after a silly fight (or rather about something she imagined) that she composes a poem and recites it and the poem is beautiful and moving and heartbreaking and Baoyu who is hiding behind a tree, listens to it, and bursts into tears. It is such a beautiful scene. Another of my favourite scenes, or rather chapters in the story is when Baoyu’s sister tells him that they should all start a poetry or literary club, and all the young people get together and decide what they’ll do as part of the club, and they meet again and compose poetry and recite them and discuss their merits and decide whose poems are their favourites. This chapter comes out of the blue and almost feels like a digression from the main story, but it is very beautiful. Another of my favourite scenes is when Keqing is seriously ill and one day when Xifeng is deep asleep, Keqing comes in her dream and they have a beautiful conversation which is very moving. Of course, this kind of dream is almost always a dark premonition, but I won’t tell you more, you have to read the book to find out what happened next.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ was hard reading after the first few chapters. The hundreds of characters and the rapid succession of events and the infinite number of details was overwhelming and it nearly sunk me. But halfway through the first volume, at around 300 pages, the story acquired a life of its own, it started flowing smoothly like a serene river, I wanted to turn the page and find out what happened next and what my favourite characters were up to, and then I knew that the book had started to grow on me and I’d fallen in love with it. It took some time but it was worth it.

I have finished reading the first part of ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘ now. That is 40 chapters, 600 pages in. I’m loving it so far. Two more parts, 80 chapters, 1300 pages to go. Wish me luck 😁

Have you read ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘? What do you think about it?

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When Di from ‘The Little White Attic’ suggested to a few of us that we do a readalong of Cao Xueqin’sA Dream of Red Mansions‘, I was very excited. I have almost never seen anyone host a readalong of a Chinese classic or a week-long or a month-long reading event dedicated to Chinese classics or even Chinese literature in general, and so this made me even more excited. I have had this classic with me for many years. I got it during my Shanghai years when I used to go to the bookshops in Shanghai every weekend and buy Chinese classics. I built a small library of Chinese classics which I have dipped into occasionally and that I hope to properly read on a rainy day.

A Dream of Red Mansions‘ (or ‘Hong Lou Meng‘, as it is called in Chinese) is one of the four great Chinese epics. Some people would regard it as one of the two most important among the four, the other one being ‘Three Kingdoms‘. While ‘Three Kingdoms‘ is about war and peace and political struggle and statecraft, ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘ is about a family. ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘ has sometimes been compared to Leo Tolstoy’sAnna Karenina‘, because it is also about a family, it has many strong women characters, and is a tragedy, but it predates ‘Anna Karenina‘ by more than a century. There is a reason it is classified as an epic. The edition I have is in three volumes and runs to around 1900 pages – longer than ‘War and Peace‘ but shorter than ‘In Search of Lost Time‘. In China, ‘A Dream of Red Mansions‘ has legendary status and every kid knows the story and the characters, and it has been frequently adapted into TV series. But outside China, it is a classic by Mark Twain’s definition – often recommended but never read. It deserves more readers across the world.

Di said that there are no rules for the readalong – read as we please, read for however long we want, discuss the book in the way that we like, no structure, no rules, just have fun. That is the best way to read an epic and have fun, I think. I can’t wait to get started.

Sharing pictures some of the colour plates from inside – they are so beautiful.

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I have wanted to read Alfred Döblin’sBerlin Alexanderplatz‘ for a long time, and when I discovered that there will be a readalong hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’, as part of German Literature Month, I was excited! This is the first of the readalong posts in question-and-answer and covers the first two chapters of the book.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth readalong of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. What enticed you to readalong with us?

I have always wanted to read ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’. When I discovered that there was going to be a readalong during GLM, I couldn’t resist joining.

Summarise your initial expectations. Are they being met?

I didn’t really have many expectations. I was thinking it might be a bit heavy and hard to read. On actual reading, it seems to be not as heavy as I expected, but there seems to be a kind of ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style thing in it. I am not able to articulate better, but this style makes the reading more challenging.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading? If you’re reading the original German, is there anything noteworthy about Döblin’s language?

I am reading the Michael Hoffman translation. I found it very interesting, because I was expecting long sentences and deep thoughts, but the sentences were short with descriptions and they moved the plot. In some ways, very un-German 😁

What are your first impressions of Berlin and Franz Biberkopf?

Very interesting. From the kind of themes covered in the initial two chapters, the book must have been ahead of its times and probably controversial too. Franz Biberkopf seems to be an interesting character, sometimes happy-go-lucky, sometimes complex.

Döblin’s original title was “Berlin Alexanderplatz” He added “The Story of Franz Biberkopf” at the publisher’s insistence. Why do you think the publisher intervened in this way? How does this duality of focus manifest itself in the structure of chapter 2?

I didn’t know this. Very interesting! Maybe it is the story of both Berlin and Alexanderplatz and Franz Biberkopf, and how they all evolved and changed during this period.

Do you any have any further observations or questions you’ll be looking to answer at a later stage?

Looking forward to finding out what Franz is upto.

Are you participating in the ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz‘ readalong?

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I had wanted to read Joseph Roth’s masterpiece ‘The Radetzky March‘ for a long time. So when I discovered that Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’ were hosting a readalong of the book, I was so excited! Here is the first post for the readalong which covers the first part of the book.

For those of you, who haven’t read the book, this post is filled with spoilers. Please be forewarned.

Welcome to the #germanlitmonth spring readalong of Joseph Roth’s more famous novel, The Radetzky March. What enticed you to readalong with us?

I love readalongs, especially German Literature readalongs. I have participated in many German Literature Month readalongs across the years. I also have wanted to read Joseph Roth’s ‘The Radetzky March’ for a while now. When these two things came together – a German Literature Readalong and Joseph Roth – I couldn’t resist joining.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?

I am reading the Michael Hofmann translation. The translation reads quite well. I have loved Michael Hofmann’s translations in the past and I love this one too.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?

I finished reading the first part and the novel is wonderful till now. The edition I am reading has an introduction by Jeremy Paxman and Paxman says this in his introduction –

“The challenge for writers of historical fiction is much more than capturing what things looked like : they have to show readers how the unchanging impulses, lusts and kindnesses of humanity felt in that context. Most historical novels are paper cups full of coloured water made from instant granules. Joseph Roth is a strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.”

I got hooked into the book from that passage itself. I am loving Joseph Roth’s strong black coffee on a Viennese sidewalk.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been ennobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)

I liked those first lines. It shows the diversity of the Austrian empire, by stating that the main character was Slovene in origin. It also shows that simple people could gain glory by performing great deeds during those times, by describing that Trotta was ennobled. It also shows a distinctive personality trait of Trotta – that he is uncomfortable with fame and prefers to be anonymous. All these things are hinted at in the first few lines and we want to find out more.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?

I admired what the hero of Solferino tried to do – removing the exaggerated story of the war from the textbook and making it more accurate. It sounds like nitpicking and most people wouldn’t do that, but it showed his scrupulous honesty that he even went to the extent of meeting the emperor in the service of truth. It is hard to imagine what were the ramifications for his descendants – if the hero of Solferino had continued in the army, he would have risen to a high position, his wife would have had a more comfortable life and his descendants would have had it easier. But I also liked the fact that, inspite of Baron Trotta leaving the army, the imperial favour continued to be bestowed on his family for generations – it showed the Emperor in good light.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?

Carl Josef joins the military because it was probably the in-thing to do those days. It was probably either that or the civil service. And with long decades of peace and with soldiers enjoying a more comfortable lifestyle than civilians, it was probably a preferred career. Is Carl Josef’s life honourable? From the perspective of his era, it seems to be. It is hard to define what honourable means outside the context of a specific time and a specific geography or culture. It means different things in different times and different contexts. It wouldn’t be proper to assess whether Carl Josef’s life was honourable when looking at it through 21st century eyes. But from the perspective of his time, it seems to be. It is not very clear whether Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant is platonic or romantic. It feels like Joseph Roth purposefully left that to the reader’s imagination, unlike Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Slama, which is clearly romantic. I personally think, based on what was described in the book, that Carl Josef’s relationship with Frau Demant was innocent.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?

Maybe it means that time marches on, we all march to its beat, and war is never far away. I am looking forward to Roth telling us more about how the Radetzky March is related to the story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?

The military code of honour – I understand why it was there at that time, but when two good people die because of it, it feels silly. It would have been easy to apologize, shake hands, have a drink, slap each other on their backs, and make up. Two good people dying for nothing is a real shame and waste. I loved the way Roth describes it but doesn’t pass judgement on it – he ‘shows’ but doesn’t ‘tell’ and lets us make up our own minds. I also liked the way the difference in life, is portrayed, between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the normal person. When Carl Josef has an affair with Frau Slama, and later she dies and her husband Sergeant Slama discovers it, he doesn’t do anything but just returns the letters that Carl Josef wrote to Slama’s wife. But when there is a suspicion of a clandestine relationship between Carl Josef and Frau Demant, it leads to a duel and two people get killed. It appears that during that time, words like code and honour applied to the privileged class and not to the others. Is that a good or a bad thing? It is hard to tell. On one side two people from the officers’ class are dead because the code of honour was applied. On the other hand, someone like Sergeant Slama can’t do anything when a superior officer has an affair with his wife. He can’t take offence or ask for a duel. He has to just take it lying down. I love the way Roth’s depicts the social order and describes the contrasts between these two incidents.

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?

That is a very interesting thing about the book. There were very few female characters in the first part. I loved both Frau Slama and Frau Demant, but they had very less screentime. I also loved the depiction of the wife of the hero of Solferino, though she makes only a fleeting experience. There is also Frau Resi Horvath who runs a brothel, who seems to be a fascinating character, but she also makes only a fleeting appearance. I hope there is a female lead in the second part of the book.

Do you have any further comments on this section?

My most favourite passage from the first part of the book was this :

“In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in this book took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.”

I think it is a beautiful ode to the central theme of the book and a poignant poem to a lost world.

I also loved the way the father-child relationship is depicted throughout the story. There is the original Baron Trotta, the hero of Solferino, whose father doesn’t talk much and when he does, tries to undermine his son’s achievements. Then there is Baron Trotta himself, who is a nicer father, but still emotionally distant from his son. Then there is Franz, the original Baron’s son, who though a tough parent, is able to understand his son better and gives him emotional support through his letters and gives him good advice. I loved the way how Roth describes, how fathers change across generations, from being distant and aloof and not capable of real affection, to being able to give emotional support to their children. It was quite fascinating to read.

I can’t wait to read the second part of the book now!

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I have wanted to read Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ for a while now. I got a hardbound edition of the book as a present from a friend sometime back. When my friend Delia (from Postcards from Asia) also said that she wanted to read the book, we decided to host a readalong. After a lot of hardwork and many despairing reading moments, I finally finished reading the book. Here is what I think.

Lolita Readalong Badge 1

The story told in ‘Lolita’ is very simple. The narrator is a forty-something year old man who lusts after girls who are between ten and thirteen years old. He calls them nymphets. The story describes his affair with one such girl whom he calls ‘Lolita’.

Lolita By Vladimir Nabokov

Once when our narrator tries to move to a new town to work on his writing, he discovers a house for rent. He doesn’t like the landlady much. But when he discovers that his landlady has a daughter and he feels attracted towards her, he immediately rents the house. He plots and fantasizes about things. But things don’t happen according to plan. The mother – the landlady – falls in love with him. Our narrator doesn’t give up easily. He marries the mother. Now he believes that he will have the license to behave in whichever way he wants with the daughter. But the mother discovers the ugly truth. And she tries to expose it. But, unfortunately, she gets killed in an accident. Our narrator, Humbert, then takes his step-daughter Lolita out of school and the two unlikely companions go on a road trip which stretches for months, during which time they live in motels every night and become lovers. They finally decide to settle down in a town and Lolita goes to the local school. But Humbert is jealous whenever Lolita attracts the attention of boys of her own age. At some point he decides to move out of that town and they embark on a road trip again. During the road trip, Humbert has a suspicion that they are being followed by someone. But he is not able to find out the identity of their pursuer. Lolita also disappears briefly for a short while whenever they are making stops and seems to become friendly with a stranger. At some point Lolita disappears. Humbert searches for her, but is not able to find her. He spends the next few years just floating around with another woman. And one day he receives a letter from Lolita asking him for money. He tracks her down and asks her who kidnapped her and why she disappeared. What happens after that is the rest of the story.

‘Lolita’ was hard for me to read. For most of the first half of the book, Humbert tells us a lot about his fantasies and it was quite difficult to read those parts of the book. Many times I stopped and asked myself why I was reading the book. And precisely at that time, Nabokov would come up with a beautiful sentence like this :

If a violin string can ache, then I was that string.

It was sentences like these that kept me going.

As Humbert says on the first page of his account :

You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

When I finished the first part of the book, I found it extremely hard to get started on the second part. That is when I read this piece about the ’51 Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature’. There was a quote from ‘Lolita’ in that article, which went like this : “And the rest is rust and stardust.” That sentence touched me deeply and gave me goosebumps. I wondered how Nabokov had taken the creepy narrator with his creepy story to the place where this beautiful sentence springs out of the story like a beautiful star. I wondered how that happened. I wanted to find out. That made me read the rest of the book. I did finally manage to find that sentence, but it didn’t have the same impact as part of the text. Outside the text, standing on it own, it shone like a bright beautiful star.

I have to say something here about Nabokov’s prose. There were passages and pages which were filled with Dickensian sentences and these were interspersed with passages and pages filled with sentences in our everyday, contemporary style. It clearly showed that Nabokov had one literary foot in the Victorian age and another in the modern era and he was trying to navigate between both these universes with easy felicity while trying to come out with one coherent unique style. I don’t know whether he managed to succeed in that, but I felt it was an interesting experiment. (I have seen some contemporary Australian authors do that – writing in a combination of Dickensian ornate prose and contemporary plainer style. One of my favourites, Elliot Perlman, pulls it off successfully.)

The book is littered with beautiful sentences and passages, like beautiful pearls. That is what kept me going. As someone said, how in life beautiful happy moments come only after long gaps and how we have to keep working hard during those dreary long gaps to reach those beautiful moments, I kept working hard to reach those beautiful sentences. They brightened my day of hardwork.

This is a spoiler and so if you haven’t read the book, please be forewarned.

Towards the end of the book, Nabokov pulls a rabbit out of the hat. He introduces a new villain who is even worse than Humbert. I don’t know whether we were supposed to feel sympathy for Humbert after that. At that point, Lolita is also portrayed as a not really innocent girl. I didn’t know what to make of that. If we look at it from an outsider’s neutral perspective, it looked like two grown up men used their considerable influence and power to exploit a young girl. Whether she was innocent or not was irrelevant. The fact was that she was young, she was a girl and she was exploited. When we look at it from this perspective, it is hard to like the narrator even if he is the one who is telling the story.

While reading the book, I remembered two things. One of them is a book by Yoko Ogawa called ‘Hotel Iris’. It has the exact same story as ‘Lolita’ – an older man lusts after a young girl. The difference is that in Ogawa’s book, the story is told by the girl. I found that narrator likeable. Also Ogawa’s book doesn’t spend time on fantasies and imagination, but describes events as they happened and in the end, the girl survives to tell the tale, while the man disappears.

The second thing is a Spanish movie called ‘La Flaqueza del Bolchevique’ (‘The Weakness of the Bolshevik’). It has a similar story – an older man and a schoolgirl have a relationship. But what the scriptwriters have done in that movie is that they have removed all the things which are uncomfortable to the reader in ‘Lolita’ and have created a beautiful love story. It is a convincing story, the main characters are adorable and it is one of my favourites. If you want to read ‘Lolita’ but are not ready to take the leap because it makes you uncomfortable, I would recommend this movie to you. If you have read ‘Lolita’ and decide to watch this I would love to hear your thoughts on they compare.

La Flaqueza Del Bolchevique

So what is my verdict on ‘Lolita’? I am not sure I can say that I liked the book. The first half of the book made me really uncomfortable. (I have read a few disturbing books in my time, but still…) It was impossible to like Humbert but it was equally impossible to resist knowing his insightful thoughts on different things. I felt sad for Lolita – she must have had a hard time with perverted older adults around. I loved parts of Nabokov’s prose and I will be reading some of those beautiful sentences again.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

There are two kinds of visual memory : one when you skillfully re-create an image in the laboratory of your mind with your eyes open; and the other when you instantly evoke with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors.

I now warn the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you have to do is keep an eye on the clues. In my youth, I once read a French detective tale where the clues were actually in italics; but that is not McFate’s way – even if one does learn to recognize certain obscure indications.

I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen ‘king Lear’, never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.

Have you read Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’? What do you think about it?

Other Reviews

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

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Today is the start of the ‘Lolita’ readalong. So, if you haven’t decided yet, you are welcome to join my friend Delia (from Postcards from Asia) and me and read Nabokov’s classic and join in some fascinating discussion and conversation at the end of the month. You can find Delia’s introductory post here and my introductory post here. You can comment on either of these places to let us know that you are joining the readalong. We will link to your blogs and readalong posts. In case you don’t have a blog, you can leave your thoughts on the book at the readalong posts either here or in Delia’s blog.


Here are the details of the readalong.

      Readalong start date – December 7th, 2014

      Readalong posts and discussions start from – December 27th, 2014

You can continue posting till the end of December.

 

Delia was kind enough to create a couple of beautiful badges for the readalong. You can use them while posting about the book. Here they are.

Lolita Readalong Badge 1

Lolita Readalong Badge 2

 

‘Lolita’ doesn’t need an introduction, but in case you are interested in it, here is the book blurb (copied from the inside flap of the edition I have).

“When it was published in 1955, Lolita immediately became a cause célèbre because of the freedom and sophistication with which it handled the unusual erotic predilections of its protagonist, Humbert Humbert, and his two principal interlocutors, the pre-pubescent Lolita, and the magnificently weird playwright, Mr.Clare Quilty. But Nabokov’s wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes it stature as one of the twentieth century’s classic novels not to the controversy its material aroused, but to the fact that its author used that material to tell a love story almost shocking in its beauty and tenderness.

Welcome to the readalong and happy reading

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I have never read a book by Nabokov. I had hoped to read ‘Lolita’ sometime as Nabokov connoisseurs have said that it is a great literary work. I have seen the Stanley Kubrick film adaptation of the novel and liked it, but the common consensus is that the book is better. So, this was where I stood on things when one of my favourite friends gifted me a copy of ‘Lolita’. So, now there was no excuse to postpone reading it any further. When I was discussing the book with fellow blogger Delia from Postcards from Asia, we thought it would be a good idea to do a readalong. So, like me, if you have wanted to read ‘Lolita’ for a long time but have procrastinated on it, and you would like to read it and discuss it with a bunch of bookish bloggers, you are welcome to join us. 

Here are the details of the readalong.

      Readalong start date – December 7th, 2014

      Readalong posts and discussions start from – December 27th, 2014

You can continue posting till the end of December.

If you would like to participate, do leave a comment either here, or in Delia’s readalong post, here. We will link to your blogs and readalong posts. In case you don’t have a blog, you can leave your thoughts on the book at the readalong posts either here or in Delia’s blog.

Delia was kind enough to create a couple of beautiful badges for the readalong. You can use them while posting about the book. Here they are.

Lolita Readalong Badge 1

Lolita Readalong Badge 2

 

‘Lolita’ doesn’t need an introduction, but in case you are interested in it, here is the book blurb (copied from the inside flap of the edition I have).

“When it was published in 1955, Lolita immediately became a cause célèbre because of the freedom and sophistication with which it handled the unusual erotic predilections of its protagonist, Humbert Humbert, and his two principal interlocutors, the pre-pubescent Lolita, and the magnificently weird playwright, Mr.Clare Quilty. But Nabokov’s wise, ironic, elegant masterpiece owes it stature as one of the twentieth century’s classic novels not to the controversy its material aroused, but to the fact that its author used that material to tell a love story almost shocking in its beauty and tenderness.

Welcome to the readalong and happy reading

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So now we have reached the end of the third week of the readalong. I had a bad reading week during the second week, but I am happy to say that I managed to catch up during the third week (I don’t think I have read so much in a week before) and though I am a couple of days late, I am happy to be posting my review today.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

Because I couldn’t read much of the second volume last week, I thought I will write about both the second and third volumes today.

 

In the second volume, Jonathan Strange and Arabella are married and move to London. Strange starts learning and practising magic on his own. One of his friends suggests that he become a student of Norrell. After thinking about it a bit, Strange goes to meet Norrell and after the initial hiccups Norrell is glad to accept him as his student. They have some wonderful times together discussing magic, trying new spells and helping the government. At some point Strange goes to Spain and stays with the English army and helps the army during the war using magic. His reputation grows. Meanwhile Stephen Black and Lady Pole get abducted each night and dance at a night-long magical party and they come back during the day to their regular homes. They are not able to complain about it to anyone because when they try, what they want to say doesn’t come out but they start describing some unrelated event or story because of a magical spell cast by the fairy which is abducting them. If I can make a long story short, at some point Strange comes back from the war, he and Norrell have a fallout and they part ways. The abducting fairy now starts eyeing someone else to kidnap to his party. And towards the end of the second volume one of my favourite characters dies. It was so unexpected and heartbreaking. (Susanna Clarke, how can you do this??)

 

In the third volume, Strange and Norrell start having a cold war of sorts and Norrell sabotages every attempt that Strange makes to take magic to the public and he also maligns Strange’s name at every turn. Strange writes and publishes a book on English magic and Norrell makes it disappear. At some point because of some things which happen (and about which I can’t write about, because I will be revealing spoilers), Strange and the fairy which abducts people, get into a war. Initially Strange is at the receiving end, but then he learns now spells and techniques and gives it back. And then the place Strange lives in gets enveloped by eternal night.

 

What happens to Norrell and Strange? Are they able to resolve their differences? What happens to Stephen Black and Lady Pole? Are they able to come out of the clutches of the fairy? Why did that favourite character have to die at the end of the second volume? And does Strange’s plan to take magic to the general public succeed? What about the Raven King? Does he make an appearance? Is the eternal night problem resolved? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the book.

 

I enjoyed reading ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’. Though the thickness of the book (big) and the size of the font (small) are intimidating, it is an even-paced read and the story moves quickly. There are beautiful sentences and humour sprinkled throughout the book. I loved the historical references and the way Susanna Clarke weaves fact with fiction. I was particularly interested in the Duke of Wellington who commands the English army in the peninsular war. When I discovered that his second name was Wellesley, my curiosity was piqued, because there was a British governor general in India during colonial times called Wellesley and I wondered whether it was the same person or whether they had a connection. (My dad is a big fan of the governor general because of the way he developed public infrastructure in India. I discovered that the Duke of Wellington was Arthur Wellesley and he was the younger brother of the Governor General Richard Wellesley. Quite interesting!) I also loved the scenes where some of the other real life characters made an appearance in the book. There is a scene which describes the meetings between Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley and Doctor Polidori, during which Polidori is supposed to have written the first ever vampire story and Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and read it out. Many nice things happen at the end, but the ending is also open-ended and all the loose ends are not tied up. There is a promise of happiness but that lies outside the time-period of the story, there are some surprises which make the reader happy and there are some problems which are still unresolved. It makes one wonder whether a sequel was planned and one can’t resist pondering what happened to that. I would be particularly interested in whether the Raven King makes a longer appearance (someone who is probably the Raven King makes a brief appearance in the third volume) and whether Strange is able to solve the eternal night problem.

 

Many thanks to Delia from Postcards from Asia for co-hosting this readalong with me and for inspiring me to read this book. Many thanks to all the participants for joining in the fun.

 

Here are the links to the thoughts on the third volume by the other participants of the readalong :

 

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

TJ (My Book Strings)

Fleur (Fleur in Her World)

Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

 

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This is my second post in the ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ readalong. 

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

I have some bad news. I couldn’t read for most of the week because of a family emergency. I thought I will be able to catch up during the latter part of the week, but, unfortunately, it was not possible. I thought I will read atleast half of the second volume of the book and post on that, but I couldn’t even do that. I could read just fifty pages in the second volume. I apologize to fellow readalong participants for not being able to finish reading volume 2 and letting you down. I promise that I will catch up with you during the coming week.

My favourite parts of the second volume till now were the re-appearance of Mr.Segundus and Mr.Honeyfoot, the magic that Jonathan Strange did – the subtle one where he interchanges a book with its image in the mirror, so that the image is outside while the book is inside the mirror and the story told in the long footnote on the Master of Nottingham’s daughter. I also liked the references to Mr.Lewis (Matthew Gregory Lewis who wrote ‘The Monk’) and Mrs.Radcliffe (Ann Radcliffe who wrote ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’). I am looking forward to reading more.

Two of my favourite passages from volume 2 till now are these :

A great horse-chestnut leant over the road and made a pool of black shadow, and when the two riders reached the shadow it swallowed them up so that nothing remained of them except their voices. 

If we measure a magician’s success by how much magic he does, then Absalom was no magician at all, for his spells hardly ever took effect. However, if instead we examine the amount of money a magician makes and allow that to be our yardstick, then Absalom was certainly one of the greatest English magicians who ever lived, for he was born in poverty and died a very rich man. 

 

Here are the links to the thoughts of other participants of the readalong on volume 2.

 

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

TJ (My Book Strings)

            Fleur (Fleur in her World)

         Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

For more information on this readalong, do visit here or here.

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This is my first post in the ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ readalong. I finished reading the first volume, ‘Mr.Norrell’ today. Here is what I think about it.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell By Susanna Clarke

Story

 

It is the autumn of 1806. Jane Austen is still around. She is 31. And she hasn’t yet published her first book ‘Sense and Sensibility’. That will have to wait for five more years. The Napoleonic wars are in full swing. Admiral Thomas Cochrane (the inspiration for the character of Jack Aubrey in the novel ‘Master and Commander’ by Patrick O’Brian) is the captain of a ship in the British navy and Captain Frederick Marryat (author of ‘The Children of the New Forest) works as a midshipman in the same vessel. The British navy is busy engaging and fending off the French navy in battles at sea. And England is a land where magic has long disappeared. There are societies of magicians in different cities in Britain who meet regularly and discuss the history of magic. Their members call themselves theoretical magicians. Nobody practices practical magic. No one knows how to do it. Then one of the members of the York society of magicians discovers an enigmatic magician who avoids people, and who is believed to be a practical magician. Two of the society members travel to this magician’s place to investigate. They learn that this gentleman is a practical magician. His name is Mr.Norrell. And one day he demonstrates his magical skills in a very impressive way. His fame spreads far and wide. Mr.Norrell feels that he can do good for his country in the war, if he moves to London. He does that. But, as a person, Norrell doesn’t look very interesting. He looks like a scholar and he talks like one. People are easily bored with him. One day a potential patron of his, Sir Walter Pole, suffers a big tragedy. His fiancée dies of illness. Mr.Norrell’s friends request him to use magic to bring back the young woman from the dead. After a lot of cajoling and convincing, Norrell agrees to do that. And he does it quite impressively. Norrell becomes a superstar among the London elite and is frequently invited to the London salons of famous patrons. Even the government takes his help in fighting the war with the French and Norrell uses magic impressively to do that. This is what most of what the first volume is about. Towards the end of volume 1, we are introduced to Jonathan Strange, who has inherited a big fortune after his father has passed away, and the woman he loves, Arabella. And a street magician reads out a prophecy that two great magicians will come out in England.

 

Impressions

 

I have been intimidated by the size of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ and so have avoided reading it for years. After starting it, I discovered that inspite of its size and tiny font, it is quite fast-paced and the story flows smoothly. Not fast-paced like a modern day crime novel, but fast-paced in a leisurely way like a Victorian novel. Susanna Clarke sprinkles the story with sentences filled with Victorian style humour which enlivens the reading experience. (If you are nitpicky about such things, the Victorian era started in 1837 and lasted till 1901. The period in which ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ is set is the Georgian era. But for purposes of this post, I am calling the whole 19th century as the Victorian era.)  

 

Susanna Clarke’s prose style is quite modern but it is also Victorian and reflects the period in which the novel is set in. How Susanna Clarke managed to do that – make a sentence look Victorian and modern at the same time – one will never know. It is magic, if you ask me.

 

As could be expected in a novel of this size, it is sprinkled with dozens of characters. Some of them, of course, are major characters (for example, Mr.Norrell) while others are minor (for example, John Segundus), but all of them have interesting roles to play. One of my favourite minor characters is Perroquet, the short servant of the French Admiral Desmoulins. He is smart and intelligent, uses his reasoning skills to telling effect and teaches the French naval officers a thing or two. Unfortunately, it looks like he is destined to play a role in only chapter – unless he makes an appearance again in the second part of the book. Another of my favourite characters is Stephen Black, the African butler of Sir Walter Pole. He is handsome, smart, intelligent and is admired by real people and fairies alike. I am hoping that Stephen Black will have a major role to play in the latter part of the book. On Arabella, the young woman whom Jonathan Strange loves – I wonder whether Susanna Clarke named (probably) her heroine Arabella to pay homage to the original Arabella from Rafael Sabatini’s ‘Captain Blood’.

 

I liked the way Susanna Clarke fleshed out the essence of a character through a few broad brushstrokes. For example, she says this about Mr.Segundus :

 

Mr.Segundus was one of those happy gentlemen who can always say whether they face north or south, east or west. It was not a talent he took any particular pride in – it was as natural to him as knowing that his head still stood upon his shoulders.

 

And this about Mr.Lascelles :

 

Mr.Lascelles was one of that uncomfortable breed of men who despise steady employment of any sort. Though perfectly conscious of his own superior understanding, he had never troubled to acquire any particular skills or knowledge, and had arrived at the age of thirty-nine entirely unfitted for any office or occupation.

 

And this about Mrs.Wintertowne :

 

Mrs.Wintertowne, whose character was so forceful, and whose opinions were handed down to people in the manner of Moses distributing the commandments, did not appear in the least offended when her daughter contradicted her. Indeed she seemed almost pleased about it.

 

There are also beautiful sentences in the book. Like this one :

 

A great old church in the depths of winter is a discouraging place at the best of times; the cold of a hundred winters seems to have been preserved in its stones and to seep out of them.

 

And this one :

 

Three tall windows open on a view of English countryside which is tranquil in spring, cheerful in summer, melancholy in autumn and gloomy in winter.

 

And this one :

 

According to Mr.Drawlight, Mr.Norrell’s company was like seasoning : the smallest pinch of it could add a relish to the entire dish.

 

And this one :

 

A bleak, white sun rose in a bleak, white sky like an allegorical picture of despair…

 

The book also has an interesting feature which was prevalent among many novels published in the early few years of the 21st century – a profusion of footnotes. It appears that that fad has died away now, but it was fun while it lasted. There were some ‘giant’ footnotes in this book – for example the ones on Tubbs versus Starhouse and Simon Bloodworth – which spanned multiple pages and pushed the actual story to a distant corner of the page. I love footnotes and so enjoyed reading these giant ones, but some readers might find them distracting. There is also a nod to Mrs.Radcliffe (Ann Radcliffe, who wrote ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’) a couple of times, which I liked very much.

 

The first volume of ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr.Norrell’ sets the stage for the rest of the story by introducing us to the setting and the historical period and to many of the characters and showing us a part of their lives. I can’t wait to continue the story and read the second volume and find out more about Jonathan Strange and Arabella.

 

Here are the links to the thoughts of other participants of the readalong.

 

Delia (Postcards from Asia)

TJ (My Book Strings)

            Fleur (Fleur in her World)

         Yasmine (Yasmine Rose’s Book Blog)

For more information on this readalong, do visit here or here.

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