Dienstag, 26. Juni 2012

The Sign of (the?) Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Say the name Sherlock Holmes and anyone who hasn't read the books or watched one of the recent adaptations which have somewhat corrected this image will automatically think of an old-fashioned, serious, brilliant and dignified pipe-smoking gentleman.

This general idea could not be more wrong, and in the second Sherlock Holmes novel Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wastes no time before showing us how far from a respectable, clever and boring detective his hero is:

The Sign of Four opens with a minute description of Sherlock shooting up cocaine, a habit he has apparently been engaging in for many months. But mind you, as the only consulting detective in the world he is not simply a common drug addict, but takes them when there is no demanding case at hand because he cannot stand "the dull routine of our existence".

I have to admit that I was a bit confused as to the time which had elapsed since the ending of the first novel, because Watson talks about the years he has already lived in Baker Street. Additionally Sherlock and he are on much more intimate terms, so it seems that there was quite a leap in time, but on the other hand they never even allude to another case except for the one featured in A Study in Scarlet.
That being said, except for this little muddle I liked the sequel even more than the first book.
Unlike A Study in Scarlet the focus in this is much more on emotion, and accordingly we see Sherlock wander from the blackest depths of depression, as Watson worriedly puts it, to desperate, restless ecstasy during the case. He is only happy when there is some obscure riddle to solve, and contrary to the first novel I faintly noticed an air of tragedy about him this time. Especially the last lines of the novel left me rather sad. Watson states that everyone got some personal profit out of the case and asks what remains for the only true detective since all the public recognition went to Scotland Yard. The answer is: "For me, there still remains the cocaine-bottle", whereupon Sherlock immediately starts injecting it again.

However, all this emotion must have a good side too, and that is incarnated in John Watson. While he and Sherlock already were good companions in the earlier novel, they are now absolutely heart-warming together: they tease and make fun of eachother and while there are no open signs of affection, there is this short paragraph which might well be my favourite scene in the whole book:

"Look here, Watson; you look regularly done. Lie down there on the sofa and see if I can put you to sleep.”
He took up his violin from the corner, and as I stretched myself out he began to play some low, dreamy, melodious air–his own, no doubt, for he had a remarkable gift for improvisation. I have a vague remembrance of his gaunt limbs, his earnest face and the rise and fall of his bow. Then I seemed to be floated peacefully away upon a soft sea of sound until I found myself in dreamland, with the sweet face of Mary Morstan looking down upon me."

Which neatly brings us to the next topic, for Sherlock's client, Miss Mary Morstan is a woman Watson takes particular interest in. His romance with her is very sweet and very kitschy, and I definitely cannot blame Holmes for making fun of them. It is surely good that Watson has found a sensible, loveable woman; sooner or later he would probably go insane with Sherlock as his only companion, but since marrying her means that he will have to move out of Baker Street and leave Sherlock all to himself I'm looking rather melancholy upon the whole affair.

So, I think I've covered everything I wanted to say now, haven't I? Oh no, as usually I forgot the case itself!
The only thing I'm going to tell you about it is that it is very complicated and intricate (which made it a lot of fun) and that there is a long, splendid background story set in India. Also, I have given up faith in Scotland Yard. Obviously London police is a bunch of incompetent wannabes. If there is a seemingly insoluble crime, Sherlock Holmes is clearly the only man to call!

Samstag, 23. Juni 2012

It's not always chocolate: Cravings of the literary sort

Usually I enjoy and cherish reading affectionately. Right now I am having a madly passionate love affair with it. During the last few days all my thoughts were centred on books, posts about books and authors I love, reading plans, movie adaptations and characters I've come to know so well that they sometimes seem more real to me than actual people. Of course I have also been reading and that at a speed which is incredible for me (but would probably still appear lame to everyone else). Perhaps it is because I hardly had any free time to devote to books in May and early June due to my finals, or it is because of the general enthusiasm for the Victorian Celebration and my love for Victorian literature, but fact is that I'm in a wild reading frenzy.

Everyone who reads for pleasure knows that reading one book leads you to others: books which are mentioned or treat a similar subject, books by the same author or from the same period of time, books which you know to have influenced this author, books which you already read and of which you are reminded again because they are written in the same style or feature the same setting or similar characters or simply touch you in the same way. And sometimes when you are reading a book ideas for what to read next drop down like seeds on the fertile ground of your 
mind, and as soon as you give in to one of those ideas, it develops into a full-grow tree; a tree which again immediately produces countless new seeds waiting for you to give them the light and attention they need to become trees of their own.

This is something wonderful because it ensures that once you start reading you cannot stop again and it becomes a passion for life, but at the moment it is driving me crazy. I have simply too many seeds I'm impatient to develop, and with every book I read they multiply again. Then, there are these cravings: out of nothing I am suddenly in the mood to read a certain author or genre or even a special book. Right now it is romance for example. Don't ask me why, but I feel the burning desire to read a really romantic love story, as well as to re-read Jane Eyre. Now, firstly I refuse to re-read a book I read in March. Where is that going to lead? I can't start reading books again after only three months.

Secondly, can I truly afford to read books which I know will lead me far from the path I have chosen? Can I read Gone with the Wind on a pure whim when I originally wanted to devote the month to Dickens, Hardy and some other heavy Victorians?
I am afraid that without discipline I am never going to get anywhere and that means that I have to get a grip on these cravings. It's not that from now on I will be reading on a strict schedule, but after all I want to read those Victorians, I am curious for Oliver Twist and interested in discovering Trollope, even if my mood wants to tell me I'm not.

And hell, yes, the thought that there are more books in the world than I can possibly read in my lifetime freaks me out.

Anyway, perhaps you have noticed that despite my claim to be feverishly reading there have not been a lot of reviews here recently. I have finished both The Sign of Four (the second Sherlock Holmes novel) and The Awful German Language (an essay by Mark Twain which I have waited to read for ages) and I have much to say about them, but somehow I don't want to. While I am enjoying blogging as always, I am just not in the mood to write a proper review. Right now, I only want to read a story and then embrace it within me instead of discussing it as usual. Yes, at the moment I am peculiar in all my reading habits.

How about you, do you experience similar fits of (book-) craziness or am I a hopeless candidate for the closed ward?

Mittwoch, 20. Juni 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This book blew me away. Literally. Whenever I think that I finally know what to expect from a classic, a novel or even an author a book like The Picture of Dorian Gray comes along and changes everything. Reading this felt like spending a night at a glittering feast: the world becomes a haze of elaborate ball gowns, sublime music, exquisite champagne, fascinating people and seductive, dangerous ideas.
To quote the key-word of the novel; reading it was a pleasure and not only an intellectual but a sensuous one, that is probably why I feel unable to write a coherent review. Instead, I will try to record some of my rather intricate thoughts.

The Story

Dorian Gray's story has become such a cliché by now that I won't bother summing it up here. What surprised me, though, is that the story unfolds very slowly, with hardly anything dramatic happening during the first half of the book at all. In fact I got the impression that the plot was nothing but a frame for Wilde's study of his century and his society's moralites with a lot of attention dedicated to chracter development.
A very big subject of the book are sins - after all the infamous name of Dorian Gray has almost become a synonym for a careless and sinful way of living, but the extraordinary thing is that the vast majority of the sins he commits are never really mentioned in the book. As a reader you of course notice that his character is quickly becoming shallowly self-obsessed and ruthless because Dorian starts to choose "beautiful" actions which bring him pleasure over right or kind ones, which is very noticeable in his changing behaviour towards Basil Hallward and Sibyl Vane, but most of his actual sins are never revealed. Basil Hallward lectures Dorian on how immoral he has become and delivers a whole list of people, including Lord Henry's sister, who have come to ruin (several even committing suicide) because of his influence, but what exactly happened to them is never explained. In the afterword of my edition is mentioned that Oscar Wilde once said that "every man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray".

The Language

Wilde's language is a subject all of its own. In dialogue he is extremely witty, apparently never serious and immensely elaborate; in fact his phrasing becomes the more sophisticated the more trivial its subjects are. The conversation scenes reminded me a lot of The Importance of Being Earnest, especially Lord Henry's parts, but Wilde's prose is very different from that. The descriptions and the general style of writing are something to get lost in: they are very visual and again I felt as if they touched me on a deeper level than a merely intellectual one. It is curious, somehow this whole book has evoked in me a bunch of very vague but exciting ideas about what life and what literature should be like. I'm sorry that I'm expressing this so nebulously, but I hardly know myself what I'm meaning! That is also the reason why it took me so long to finally write this post, I already finished The Picture of Dorian Gray a week ago.

 L'Art pour l'art: Aestheticism

However, something I do know is that I find the concept of Aestheticism, of which I was completely unaware until now, a fascinating way of thinking. The idea that sheer beauty is more important than morality, truth, honesty, love, friendship and everything else a society like the Victorian could possible stand for is a daring, but spellbinding one. Despite the fact that I don't regard The Picture of Dorian Gray as an immoral book at all, I can certainly understand why its publication caused such a scandal.
Although I could never imagine to live on the principles of the Aesthetic movement (and I don't really think that anyone completely could) I find it an intriguing gedankenexperiment. I'd love to read more on this subject and would be grateful for recommendations!
The main characters in Wilde's novel seem to regard their lives as works of art and all of their actions simply as small contributions to their grand magnum opus. They themselves become the artists and the objects of art alike, which forces them to centre all their thoughts on beauty and pleasure, a way of thinking that consequently eats away at their humanity. How far this goes is quite shocking, after Sibyl Vane's death Lord Henry states for example that:

“It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such
an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their
absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack
of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us
an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that.
Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of
beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the
whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly
we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the
play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder
of the spectacle enthralls us.”

Ironically the one character in the whole novel to whom this rule does not apply is the only one who creates real art: Basil Hallward. He is an artist and a good person. Somehow I knew from the very beginning that the story could not end well for him. But on the other hand, it does not end well for Dorian either, obviously it does not pay to choose beauty over conscience after all. Although I find it easy to imagine how shocked Victorian society must have been by this "poisonous" novel, I believe that the key to understanding Oscar Wilde at least partly lies in this definition of Lord Henry by Basil Hallward in the first chapter: "You are an extraordinary fellow! You never say a moral thing and you never do a wrong thing."

Mittwoch, 13. Juni 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

"I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever."
In my opinion Oscar Wilde himself would be the only one truly worthy of writing a review about The Importance of Being Earnest. For in this play he works the miracle of writing more than 70 pages and entire dialogues about - in fact - absolutely nothing at all. And how delightful this nothingness is!
Unfortunately, Mr Wilde's services as a critic are currently not at my disposal, so you will have to content yourself with my humble thoughts.

I said the play was about nothing at all, but that is not entirely true: it is a farce built upon the fact that two young gentlemen  (of course dandies, since we are reading Wilde) have both created a fictional alter ego to escape boresome social obligations. There is a lot of spontaneous love and confusion, and the characters are all the very opposite of earnest. This alone, especially if combined with Wilde's almost heavenly wit, would be enough to make a very enjoyable comedy, but the way it mocks Victorian conventions and hypocrisy
makes it downright hilarious.

We read the whole play aloud in English class and not only did every single student love it, but several teachers who heard us suggested that we should perform it on stage. It was amazing: I read the role of Lady Bracknell who is, to put it into Wilde's own words, a real Gorgon:
“Never met such a Gorgon . . . I don't really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair.”
Superficially she is the very picture of Victorian respectability, but in fact she satirises London society at least as much as the young men who openly admit how little they think of earnestness. For example, she states that:
"Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago."
Now that I think of it, she is not so very different from my real character at all!
The characters of Jack and Algernon who are, as I have heard is typical for Wilde, the very incarnation of the word dandy, I am glad to have rediscovered in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I will finish soon; especially Algernon reminds me a lot of Lord Henry. They take nothing seriously, except for pleasure.
"I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious."
"Oh, that's nonsense, Algy. You never talk anything but nonsense."
"Nobody ever does."

Honestly I think that everyone should read this play. It was the first work of Wilde I've ever read and while it is primarily profoundly entertaining, there are many universal truths about society to be found in it. My class has started with An Ideal Husband, so we'll see if he will be able to live up to my expectations a second time, but I am not too worried about that: relying on the words of my teacher, Oscar Wilde probably was the closest to God that ever visited our earth.

Montag, 4. Juni 2012

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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This book was, apart from a handful of short stories I read as a child, my first adventure into the world of Sherlock Holmes.It is more than that, though. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are household names even for people who have never read one of their stories nor seen a single movie adaptation. You just know them because they are legendary.
A Study in Scarlet is the beginning of their legend.

The novel is told largely from the reminiscences of a certain John Watson MD and tells the story of his meeting and purely coincidentially becoming roommates with a man called Sherlock Holmes who is introduced to us with the following, extraordinarily encouraging description.
"Holmes is a little too scientific for my tastes -- it approaches to cold-bloodedness. I could imagine his giving a friend a little pinch of the latest vegetable alkaloid, not out of malevolence, you understand, but simply out of a spirit of inquiry in order to have an accurate idea of the effects. To do him justice, I think that he would take it himself with the same readiness. He appears to have a passion for definite and exact knowledge."
I have made the experience that there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who love Sherlock Holmes and those who hate him. I readily confess that I certainly belong to the former category.
It may be a little bit due to the (brilliant) BBC adaptation which portrays him as a passionate Byronic Hero, but I think I would have liked him anyway. Yes, he is more than a little socially retarded, but nonetheless brilliant. At the crime scene in A Study in Scarlet he made some deductions which seemed so incredible that I was very inclined to believe he had simply guessed, but I was delivered a plausible explanation for everyone of them. This explanation, however, did not happen until the conclusion during the last few pages, so I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and making my own (poor, you wouldn't want to know how poor!) deductions.
Something I like very much about Sherlock is that he is a believable character even though he is so brilliant. He has his very own logic, and his intellectual flaws make it even more authentic:
“His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing... My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.” 

Sherlock Holmes is certainly one of the most fascinating characters in literature and while his arrogance and emotional distance can be annoying sometimes, his inhumanity is easily endurable because there is another man almost always by his side: John Watson, the very picture of kind-heartedness.
In a way I am even fonder of him than of Sherlock and I cannot help thinking that he may play a much more important role than only that of narrator and sidekick.

Curious as I am to see the famous friendship between these two develop (and heeding the advice of Sherlock creator Steven Moffat who wrote a lovely introduction for my edition) I decided not to read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes next, as originally planned, but instead The Sign of the Four. 
Mr Moffat claims that one notices the growing of their friendship much better if one reads the stories in the original order of publication. I don't know if that's true, but it cannot hurt to stick to the chronological order, right?

That being said, I was really surprised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's style of writing. It is so straightforward, so clean, so void of lengthy descriptions and so not Victorian. His writing sounds almost modern, which is not bad, but not what I expected at all. The story was absorbing yet not so very extraordinary, but since the focus of the novel is on the introduction of Sherlock Holmes as a character, it was secondary anyway.
When the narration suddenly jumped to the excessive background-story of the murderer halfway through the book I was a little irritated in the beginning, but it was interesting and I quickly began to care for these new characters too. I missed Sherlock and Watson, though. 

I know that many dislike A Study in Scarlet because of the portrayal of Mormons as polygamic, murderous savages, but since I was warned beforehand that Arthur Conan Doyle did not know anything about real Latter Day Saints, I simply regarded his creations as an exotic tribe sprung solely from his imagination.

I am really looking forward to reading more from the master detective. Somehow I'm sensing this wonderful feeling that I have found a new literary friend for life.

Freitag, 1. Juni 2012

Plans for June: A Victorian Celebration

Like every single other person around here on the bloggosphere I am taking part in Allie's Victorian Celebration this June and July (Allie: thanks for hosting by the way!).
I have been looling forward to it for months now, because what could be more awesome than a summer full of Victorian Literature?
Unfortunately I was quite disappointed with the result after having piled up all Victorian books hidden on my shelves: there are only five I haven't read yet! These are pretty basic titles, so please keep in mind that I never consciously read a single classic until last November before laughing at me. Let's start the list with Dickens who is an obvious choice but also an intimate friend of mine:

  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (I am a little afraid of this one because it is one of his best-known works and I usually tend to prefer those books of an author which are not so appreciated in general.)
  • A Study in Scarlet and
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Exciting because I love Sherlock)
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (this is technically a re-read because I once read a simplified version, but it had only 70 pages and I don't remember anything except for desperate love)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde  (Surprisingly, I have nothing to say about this one, but I am not especially looking forward to it.)
Additionally I have The Fall of the House of Usher and other Tales by E. A. Poe waiting on my TBR pile, but since some of these tales were written before the Victorian Era it will probably remain there.
I would like to finish all of these titles during the event because I really want to focus on Victorian Literature. If things go very well I will even make a huge Victorian Amazon order and post a new list at the beginning of July.

However, what I will not abandon during the Victorian Celebration is Les Misérables. I am finally on schedule with the readalong again and I am enjoying it. Also, the lovely trailer for the new movie just came out and motivated me extremely. 

Probably I will continue with the Divine Comedy too, so I would like to finish Purgatorio in June. That way I will always have something to turn to when corsets, street children and Victorian psychopaths start getting on my nerves.

Which Victorians have you chosen? Anything else on your nightstand for June?
I hope you all have a lovely month and better weather than in Austria!