Sonntag, 22. Januar 2012

End of term exa-LALALA, I can't hear you!

As it should be obvious for anyone reading this post's title my current state of mind is something between crazy and desperate. Almost one week has passed since my last post and, like Caro, I begin to think you might worry I'm dead. To reassure you: I am not, at least not quite, but there are those evil words hanging gloomily over my head like big black clouds. And, yes, you're right: they are END OF TERM EXAMS.
It's absolutely insane, my schedule consists of school, homework, piano practise and then studying until the small hours of the morning at the moment.

To prove that I'm not exaggerating, here's last week's test schedule:
  • Monday: Italian
  • Tuesday: Piano exam
  • Wednesday: Physics and Religion (hundreds of scriptures...)
  • Thursday: German and English
  • Friday: History
Not to mention the tons of homework I get every day...and it will continue like this for another week.

So in fact this is just my lame excuse very circuitous way of saying that I haven't read more than the first half of A Tale of Two Cities during the last ten days, which is especially frustrating since I'm loving it and can't wait to continue reading.
My ambitious plans of reading at least three Shakespearean plays have evaporated, but thanks to Allie's extension of time I think I'll be able to read at least Macbeth in case I suvive next week  once next week is over.
As for now, vector quantity is waiting for me! I hope you enjoy January more!

Montag, 16. Januar 2012

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Though ostensibly a children's book, The Little Prince is continuously appealing to children and adults alike.

This is not my personal opinion but a quote from Wikipedia and, honestly, my own verdict could hardly differ more from it. After years of successfully avoiding it, I finally had to get down to reading this well-loved classic.
Was it as horrible as I expected it to be? Not really.
Was my mind blown by this "tender tale of loneliness, friendship, love and loss" because I finally understood its deep wisdom? Definitely not. Really, I was happy when I could put it back on my shelf where it will rest for a long, long time now.

My feelings after finishing the novella were mostly those of conquest since I finished it in the small hours of the morning, just in time for my French test (I was tired all day long, but I suppose I'll get a good mark).
Anyway, since I am sounding exactly like the kind of ignorant high school stundent I hate, I also looked at it from a more serious and literate point of view, and I have to admit that the overwhelming feeling there was sadness.

I am sad because I do see why so many people love this book so much, and also because I feel as if I might have liked this book, had I read it five years ago. 
There is no feeling like the knowledge that one has not liked a book as much as one could have.
There were parts of Saint-Exupéry's story which I enjoyed, I really liked the ending for example, and not only because it was over then.The narrative style is very fluent and very French and it contains a subtle humour which I found quite amusing, sometimes in a bittersweet way. Also, there is a lot of more or less hidden social criticism which I as a Dickens worshipper appreciate highly.

How come, then, that I did not like this "masterpiece" at all?
I think the key to answering this question lies in the comparison beween the little prince and the heroes of books which have impressed me recently: Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities (which I am reading currently and can hardly force myself to put aside) for example, or Hamlet.
There it is: both of these works contain a lot of social criticism, but their heroes, who condemn the rotten ways of human character are human themselves, they make grave mistakes and stand not above their fellow creatures.
The little prince is impeccable, he is absolutely pure and in my opinion that makes him boring.
Also, during his visits of the other planets which each symbolise a different bad trait of human; in fact adult, nature, I get the feeling that Saint-Exupéry looks down on other people in general quite a lot.
People are not flawless, but I think their flaws are exactly what makes them interesting as characters in books, after all the virtue of man is that they can improve.

I wonder if I would like any of Saint-Exupéry's other, lesser known but more mature books?
In my opinion The Little Prince is a nice children's book and a pretty modern fairy tale, but it is a little too corny and naive to be anything else.
On the other hand: Maybe I am just saying this because I wish I could read it like a child again.
Who knows?

Mittwoch, 11. Januar 2012

Elephant-eating boas, talking roses and French grammar: My personal tour de force

Today I am going to destroy the result of fifteen years of extremely hard work for ever.
I spent all my life carefully avoiding  The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and miraculously I always got around reading it or seeing any of the hundreds of movie adaptations. Okay, not all my life, to be honest, only the last nine or eight years, but certainly every day since my mother gave this "masterpiece of French literature" to me when I was a little girl.
Even then I was reluctant to read it, simply because everyone loved it and I never trusted things which were said to be oh so great, but my six- or seven-year-old self made was curious enough to try it nonetheless.

Oh, how I hate this guy...
I made it through the first 20 pages, then I put the book back on my mother's shelf to never take it out again.
I know you will probably think I am lunatic now, but I never liked this worldwidely well-loved story and I used to avoide it like the plague, until today.

My French teacher (whom I hate because she's a horrible teacher and thinks there's nothing more important in the world than grammar) made my whole class read this children's book, but I somehow got around it again, except for some excerpts which we used as grammar exercise.
Unfortunately I am writing a huge French test on Friday and my techer came up with the great idea that it would be all about Le Petit Prince today (Two days before the test! I told you she was a bad teacher.)

So instead of curling up with A Tale of Two Cities or Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale I am now going to deal with the absurd vocabulary and brutal grammar structures of a surrealistic French children's book I already hated in German for the next two days.
When I am finished you can expect a proper review and I will try to be objective, although it will probably be angry cynical nonetheless.

Sonntag, 8. Januar 2012

The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

A great king, slain by his own brother to gain power over his kingdom and his queen.
A ghost who cannot find rest unless the truth is revealed.
Royal blood spilled and a sensitive, pensive young prince left alone in a dark world to take revenge.

One week and five pages in my notebook after reading the first lines I have finished what is widely regarded as one of the greatest tragedies of all time and to be honest I have to force myself to write this review, so empty of words am I.
I felt for Hamlet all the time and I loved to watch his journey from the sad, sophisticated, melancholy boy to a man who has the courage to stand up for what is right, even if it costs his own life.
Of course that doesn't mean that it was not excruciating for me to see how everything spiraled downward from the moment Hamlet killed Polonius without being able to interfere.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
This is a quote from the Player-King and I think it determines the course of the play very well: When Claudius killed the king he surely did not imagine to follow him so soon, nor did he expect the Queen to drink from the poisoned cup prepared for Hamlet, and Laertes did not know that he himself would die from his own venomed blade.
All those people; Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Claudius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and in the end Hamlet die because of one single deed, they are all doomed because of one greedily committed murder.

However, every death in this play has its meaning, poor Ophelia's innocent death which is reported exactly at the moment when the king and Laertes maliciously decide to poison Hamlet shows in a brutal contrast how these two have let go of all morality and by unknowingly killing Polonius Hamlet puts his son Laertes in the same position as himself. This is very important because from then on they are two persons with the same fate, their stories begin similarly but go on differently because they are different people, their personalities are not alike at all.
When Laertes hears that his father has been killed he storms into Elsinore, demanding revenge, whereas Hamlet prefers to hide himself behind imitated madness to gain time to think.

I loved the character of Hamlet, he is intelligent and possesses a dry sense of humour, and, most importantly, he is honest. Even when he hides behind his 'antic disposition' and presumably talks mere nonsense, there is often a deep wisdom in it: There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, for example. Though this be madness, yet there is method in't, as other characters remark too.
Strangely it was very easy for me to understand the doomed prince and it was not until I read the afterword of my edition that I found out how much controversy there is about his personality and how many riddles seem to be still unsolved.

In my opinion Hamlet is a thoughtful and sophisticated, but also witty and sometimes highly sarcastic young man. I place emphasis on the word young, because I understood him to be a student at heart: used to philosophising and pondering important questions, but not to having to make difficult decisions, having to act. His father's untimely death forced him to grow into the king he is in the end too soon, and Hamlet, trying to do his father justice, to fulfill his appointment is overstrained, the burden placed on his shoulders is just too heavy.

Hamlet struggles to understand the world and tries desperately to find what is right and what is wrong inside himself. While he is excellent in finding the truth in others and in seeing through their personalities he is unsure about himself, I think that is the reason he mirrors his conversational partners all the time.
He is trapped because he has no other choice than to revenge not only his father, but his king. There can be no doubt that Claudius deserves to die, and yet he is reluctant to murder him, out of two reasons.
Firstly, Hamlet simply is not the kind of person who commits murder as a way to solve his problems; his morality and conscience are too strong to kill someone bloodthirstily. After he kills Polonius in an outburst of fury he says:
For this same lord I do repent; but heaven hath pleas'd it so, to punish me with this and this with me.
Secondly, Hamlet is too intelligent to willingly throw his own life and probably even more his reputation away by openly killing the king. To kill the monarch is to commit high treason, no matter how justified his death is.
Anyway, this has not stopped Claudius from murdering his brother, so why doesn't Hamlet simply poison his uncle secretly?
Because doing that would be choosing Claudius' deceitful path of action and Hamlet is too noble to do so, he does not only want the kings' life, he wants the truth to be revealed, and ultimately it is, even if it costs the prince's life too.

Closing the book I asked myself what the eternal appeal of Hamlet is, after all it is a play full of blood and tears. I guess it is this: we see Hamlet, a young prince, and we see what he could have, what he should have been, had he not been cruelly betrayed. The sad, thoughtful prince is still beautiful although inside he is broken, and God knows we are all drawn to what's beautiful and broken.
So, to finish with the words of Horatio, the best friend I can imagine:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
The rest is silence.

Donnerstag, 5. Januar 2012

A note on taking notes

But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.
These are the first words in my new notebook, written on the first page, directly under the headline Hamlet.
Yes, I chose Hamlet to be my first read in 2012, of course in regard of Allie's Shakespeare reading month and I will probably finish it the day after tomorrow. Anyway, the focus of this post lies not on the poor prince of Denmark but on a simple word in the second line: notebook.
I am, for the very first time in my life, taking notes on a book (a play in fact, but since I am reading it I am going to count it as a book).

My infamous notebook
Never before have I bothered to do this, not even for the books my literature teacher made me read, I thought it would be enough to read and ponder them and now I find myself questioning the reading habits that served me well for many, many years.
After all I have already filled four pages with notes on Hamlet, and I am only halfway through Act IV. But back to the beginning: I decided to try and take notes for once because it is Shakespeare, the master of masters of literature. His plays cover so many aspects, their content is so diverse and facts which seem obviously true in Act II are often more than questionable in Act III. That's why I thought it would be a good idea to keep track of my impressions by writing down excerpts from the play which seem important to me and commenting them.
The concept behind it was the aim to truly get everything out of Hamlet: to understand every monologue and all the characters's intentions.

A noble aim perhaps, but of course doomed to failure.
Trying to do something perfectly never brings anything good, and while I feel that I am diving deep into Hamlet and understand a great part of it (at least I hope so, because as far as I am into it it's marvellous) I definitely do not understand every facet, there are undoubtedly motives in the play which I do not even notice.

Some of my notes on Hamlet

Anyway, the idea of taking notes was a good one nonetheless because taking notes forces me to pause in my reading and think about what I've just read. This may sound obvious but it isn't, as I experienced when I reached the famous: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy".
I wanted to write this down because it is so famous and also because it sounds beautiful, but the context took away all its magic. In fact this sentence is just Hamlet's way of telling Horatio that his father actually has returned as a ghost: it is a simple explanation, of no special importance to the play.
In the end I wrote it down nevertheless because out of context the quote is mysterious and carries only the distant echo of some heavenly knowledge, and there is little human beings seem to like better than something that is heavy with an indecipherable meaning.

Ultimately I think that excerpting important passages helps me to understand Shakespeare better, but I cannot say if I will keep this new habit up when I read novels again: it slows my reading down and is sometimes a little uncomfortable, as far as having to think can be uncomfortable; after all I can only take notes if I understand everything.

How about you? Do you ever take notes when you are reading?

Dienstag, 3. Januar 2012

Literature? Dickens!

I grew up surrounded by an invisible man: I knew the sound of his voice, I knew the stories he told me, I knew what made him smile and what made him angry, I knew what he smelled like (rainy days, smoke from chimneys and sometimes snow) and, more than anything, I knew what he felt like.
He was not so much a person to me as he was a feeling, a part of myself and an undeniable part of the world around me. I only learned his name when I was ten, long after I had first met him, but I can remember that Charles Dickens sounded so right to me, so familiar, that afterwards I would be puzzled by every other child who did not know this great name.
I am afraid my classmates in primary school did not particularly like me...

I did not know so many stories by Dickens, actually only Oliver Twist and the Mickey Mouse adaption of A Christmas Carol, but these two I knew as if I had written them (I have watched the Disney Christmas Carol every December for the last 12 years).
Anyway, I always had the feeling as if Mr Dickens and I understood each other, as if we were like-minded people, and so I made up stories that I thought could come from his feather too all the time.

Typical Dickens-Weather
There were some times of the year when I was especially caught up in Dicken's (in fact mine, put I pretended that it was his) story world: Christmas, of course, but also whenever the sky was grey and heavy with clouds. I don't know why I never associated fine weather with him, probably because a) he was English and for my ten-year-old self there was no sunshine in England and
b) because I had the feeling that big, important things always happen when it's rainy; which tragical story ever started on a beautiful summer day?
On stormy days I always thought I could hear his voice murmuring in the wind.

Also there were some places connected inseparably with my strange imaginary friend, this church in my neighbourhood for example:

I cannot explain to you why, but up to this day I have to think of the famous novelist everytime I pass it. I have always felt as if the architect had somehow captured the quintessence of Dicken's stories in this building, and perhaps you can understand what I mean?

As I grew a little older I became more interested in education, it seemed very important to me and I used it as a tool to judge people. Still Dickens occupied a special position for me: The name Charles Dickens was the incarnation of literature, and whoever had read his books could not possibly be a bad person. I am convinced that I would have regarded a prison inmate as the best human being in the world, as long as he quoted Dickens. Mind, I still had not read a single one of his books, but it did not matter to me because I felt I knew this famous writer better than any literature professor.

And today? I have let go of my childish naïvety and read Great Expectations but not more, I had other things to do and other writers to explore, and I am very sorry about that. This year Oliver Twist and A Tale of two Cities are on my reading list and I am looking forward to reading them very much.
It's about time I returned to my old childhood friend!