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Posts Tagged ‘human nature’

If you’ve followed this blog for any time you know I’m a Margaret Drabble fan. At some point in the last year I came across the 1967 paperback edition of her 1963 debut novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. I read it over the past few days. It’s marvelous, and shows that she was already a powerful, insightful, beautiful, feminist writer at age twenty-four. It makes me both very glad she became a writer and very irritated with my own twenty-four year old self. I was still pretty silly at that age. And had certainly not come into my own thinking by then.

A Summer Bird-Cage is about two sisters. Louise, the elder of the two, who has been “down from” Oxford for a couple of years, and Sarah, who has just come down and then spent some time in Paris. She gets a letter summoning her home to be a bridesmaid for Louise’s wedding — a surprise, since she had no idea Louise was engaged. The rest of the book is comprised of Sarah’s reflections on that time and the months that followed, and what it’s like to be young, well educated, and female at a time when society’s expectations of women are still pretty limited.

At one point one of Louise’s friends asks Sarah what she’d like to do with her life, and she answers immediately, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis . . . .” But she goes on just a few lines later, after the friend calls her “a little egghead,” arguing the term but owning the sentiment and then protesting, “But if you think that implies that my right place is sitting in some library, you couldn’t be more wrong . . . .” But she immediately misses the library. All this after a page or two earlier she told her sister she couldn’t teach at a college because “You can’t be a sexy don.” Sarah is seriously conflicted, in other words. She and Louise talk about wanting it all — love, freedom, intellectual challenge, satisfying work, etc.

In addition to being a novel of social commentary, it’s also, as all of Drabble’s work seems to be, a gorgeous examination of relationships. There are Louise and Sarah, sisters who haven’t been close but come together as they begin to understand each other as adults in a way they didn’t when they were younger. And there is Sarah and her fiancee, absent the entire book, a fellow scholar who’s studying at Harvard. And Sarah and her close friend Gill, who she tries living with in London after Gill’s marriage of equals turns out to be drudgery and falls apart. And Sarah and her cousins, the boring and unattractive Daphne and her brother, the far more attractive Michael.

Drabble is so insightful about human nature. Take this passage, after Sarah and Gill have had a routine roommates’ quarrel about washing the dishes:

Sarah begins, “But I really wanted to tell you about Louise.” And Gill replies, “So you did . . . . You came in full of Louise, and I shut you up like a clam, and here I’ve been going on about you not telling me things. Isn’t it strange how in this kind of thing everything seems to be its own opposite? You know what I mean?”

Sarah thinks, “Again, I did know what she meant, and the joy of having had so many intelligible things said to me during one morning sustained me for the rest of the day. Odd, that one doesn’t mind being called insensitive, selfish, and so on, provided that one can entirely understand the grounds for the accusation. It should be the other way round; one should not mind only when one knows that one is innocent. But it isn’t like that. Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

Think of that, the next time you get into a spat with your roommate.

A delightful read, short but just lovely. The final page has one of those Drabble specialities, an anecdote one character shares and the other thinks something insightful about. I loved every word.

 

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As I wrote earlier this month, my church has started a 19th century British fiction book club. Our first book was Adam BedeIn August we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice. 

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least twice before, and have seen an adaptation. But I still throughly enjoyed re-reading it this weekend. I find Austen’s biting wit entertaining, but more than that, I enjoy knowing she was unafraid to assert her views at a time when women were often meant to be, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s younger sisters Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice, more interested in bonnets and balls than in independent thought. Austen approves of sensibility and goodness and doesn’t shy away from showing how silly it is to live a life of vanity and vacuousness. Eliot does this to some extent as well, for example showing Hetty in Adam Bede to be vain and foolish in believing that the young Captain Donnithorne, heir to the local squire, will marry her.

But Austen does it with humor, and allows the brooding but ultimately honorable Mr. Darcy to quietly come to the aid of the Bennet family when Lydia goes astray, while Eliot makes Hetty an object lesson, has her sentenced to death, and shows the good rector, Mr. Irwine, and the man guilty of causing Hetty’s disgrace, Captain Donnithorne, only able to spare her life, but not to rescue her. Hetty has to serve a sentence, Donnithorne goes away to do his own sort of penance. Both stories make for good reading, but I personally have a soft spot for Austen’s wit. In fact, regular readers of bookconscious will know that I often invoke Austen when praising contemporary books that employ witty social criticism as part of the story.

And she just has such a way with words. Take this line, describing the moments after Mr. Bennet has spoken with his cousin, the bumptious clergyman Mr. Collins, who due to entailment will inherit Longbourn, the Bennet’s home. Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.” In one sentence, we can see understand how Mr. Bennet feels and how he is behaving, down to his expression.

And she doesn’t spare even her heroines or heroes from her sharp pen. Both Elizabeth and Darcy act with pride or prejudice or both, and it is only as the novel progresses that the two of them, independent of but in relation to each other, realize their errors and learn from them. It’s a credit to Austen’s keen observation of human nature that in her books there are often three types of character — those whose folly or unkindness never improves (mainly because they are unaware of their own faults), those who like Elizabeth and Darcy grow, often in order to be better people to those in they care about, and those who like Elizabeth’s older sister Jane are simply good people, able to maintain their equilibrium and to treat others with dignity even when they are silly or mean.

If you look around, we’re much the same today, and that’s the final reason I think Austen’s work holds up and continues to resonate with readers today. The things she observed were often “a universal truth” and still apply to our world even though so many social norms are different. For example, we still “make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn” — you only have to turn on a reality TV show to see that. If you haven’t re-read Austen lately, I recommend you spend a sunny summer Sunday afternoon with her soon!

 

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The Scapegoat is one of the purchases I made with my job leaving gift card. My book club ended up choosing it for our next read, and I am so glad, because I for one really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Du Maurier except Rebecca, which my grandmother gave me one summer when I was visiting her and I remember loving. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her if she’s read The Scapegoat.

The story is simple, and I realized many other authors have used this situation, including recently, Antoine Laurain in The PortraitUnlike in that novel, where the protagonist finds his exact image in a painting, in The Scapegoat an English professor of French history who is nearing the end of a holiday in France in the 1950s meets a man who could be his exact double in a bar. The first man, John, is having something of an existential crisis, leads a very solitary life, and is on his way to a monastery where he hopes to figure out what to do with his life. His French opposite, Jean, a Count with many responsibilities and a tangled family and personal life, wants to escape all that.

Unlike in The Portrait, where I didn’t really care for the man who went to live another man’s life, this time I felt great empathy for John. First of all, he doesn’t choose — Jean foists the switch on him. Secondly, John very quickly develops true feeling for Jean’s damaged and dysfunctional family and in his own way tries to be kind and helpful, despite the extremity of his own situation. It’s not that he doesn’t cause any harm, but that he is trying not to, that endeared him to me.

The book’s surprising (to me, anyway) ending left me wondering what in the world would happen to Jean’s family, especially his young daughter. And to John. Du Maurier’s writing is just the kind my grandmother loved — every word serves the book, powerfully. The descriptions of John’s discomfort as he fumbles his way through another man’s life, and the observations he makes, are packed with insight. Consider this passage, as he talks with “his” mother, and she takes his hands in hers: “Her hands neither gave confidence nor sapped it: they turned the assurance I had to a different plane. The faith she had in her son was so intense that even if she did not know his secrets, or share more than a small part of his life, it was as though he remained with her, bound and sightless as he had been before birth, and she would never loose him.”

There is so much to discuss in this book: the nature of being a human in relationship with others; the choices the characters make; the way WWII impacted every person, whether they fought or not, in France; the way our concerns with meaning and purpose in life are bound up with the people we are connected with; the fact that some people carry with them a strong desire to do what’s right for others and others, only a strong desire to do what’s right for themselves.

I’m grateful that Simon of The Readers and Savidge Reads is a Du Maurier fan and brought her back into my reading life! I intend to hunt down more of her work.

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Three years ago I wrote here about Life After Life, Kate Atkinson‘s brilliant puzzle of a novel which featured Ursula Todd, who seemed to be born again and again into the same life, lived a little differently each time. I’ve just finished the novel Atkinson calls a companion, rather than a sequel, the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy.

A God In Ruins, unlike Life After Life, is mainly concerned with the characters’ adult lives. There’s a chapter in which Teddy is a child, but most of the remaining 400 some pages are about Teddy’s WWII service as a bomber pilot, and then his postwar life. In 2012, he is dying in a nursing home.

We learn of his time piloting Halifaxes out of a base in Yorkshire, the crews he serves with, and his several tours of duty. “Well, the job isn’t finished yet,” he writes in a letter when his family wonders why he went back to flying, instead of staying out of danger once he’d done his part. “The truth was, there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was.”

Just as Life After Life was, among many other things, about the wartime experience of civilians in England who risked their own lives to aid people during the Blitz, A God In Ruins is about the men who flew for England, carrying our raids that were, for the first time, targeting civilians, firebombing cities, in the name of bringing the German war machine to its knees.

Teddy meets Ursula in London on leave, and they have a conversation about this “area bombing.” She asks, “Indiscriminate attacks. The civilian population considered to be a legitimate target — innocent people. It doesn’t make you feel . . . uncomfortable?” Teddy responds defensively, pointing out that Germany started the war, to which Ursula says, “I rather think we started it at Versailles.”

Teddy sees her points. He is in a difficult position, walking a line, as so many people do, between day-to-day truths and “big T” Truth. And he knows it. He says he wishes he could go back in time and kill Hitler, and Ursula says, “you could keep going back, unpicking history all the way, until you arrived at Cain and Abel.” Teddy responds, “Or the apple.”

And that, I think, is one of the things this book is about. Could mankind really turn out differently? Or are we destined to wage war, and is that a struggle against our very selves at heart? What makes us turn away from innocence and beauty  (this book is full of lovely countryside, meadows, birds, and plants) and choose instead to destroy each other, and ourselves?

But these questions, about human nature and goodness, our capacity to be kind or cruel, to love or not in the name of gain (our own or some other, perhaps national) are all part of the story, and certainly a continuation of Life After Life, but are in a way subverted in the end by an even greater question. Atkinson says in the author’s note: “And of course, there is a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination . . . .” I can’t explain this without giving too much away. I had no idea what was coming, I must say, until the last fifty pages, and even then I wasn’t sure I was fully understanding what was happening. Atkinson gets at the heart of what is real and what is imagined, pushing the fictional envelope while also writing what is in many ways a much more traditional novel than it’s companion.

Teddy turns out to be every bit as marvelous a character as his sister, and the writing is also both keen and lovely. I wish I’d had a long stretch to really immerse myself in this novel, because it deserves to be read that way. Even in snatches before bed, it was a book I didn’t really want to end. And when it did I was left sitting, thinking, absorbing, and holding what I’d just felt. Atkinson makes clear the full marvel — for good or ill — of being human and the strange mixture of pleasure and pain that living brings. A God in Ruins is in a way a tribute to the capacity of the human mind. If you haven’t felt amazed by what you’ve read lately, this may be the book for you.

Should you read Life After Life first? I think this book could easily stand alone, but as a pair they definitely compliment each other.

 

 

 

 

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This short novel is from Europa Editions, a publisher I’ve praised on the blog many times for bringing terrific international fiction to American readers. When I ordered The Red Collar for my library’s collection I tagged it as a book I was especially looking forward to and it was just as I’d hoped. If you had to explain to someone what it means to be human you could give them this book.

Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. He’s also a diplomat, who served as France’s ambassador to Senegal and an accomplished novelist who has twice won the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s major literary awards. I’ve never read his work before.

The Red Collar is about Wilhelm, a briard sheepdog mix, who followed Jacques Morlac when he was mobilized to fight in the French army in 1915. When the book opens, Morlac is in prison and Whilhelm is outside “baying relentlessly.” Major Hugues Lantier du Grez is the officer investigating Morlac’s case. When he arrives in the village to question Morlac and determine his fate, Lantier is taken with the dog’s loyalty.

Through his interviews with Morlac, we learn that Lantier witnessed an extreme act of canine bravery and loyalty in his childhood, that predisposed him to admire Wilhelm. Rufin writes of Lantier, “He had joined the army to defend order against barbary. . . .It wasn’t long before war came along and showed him that the opposite was true, that order feeds off human beings, that it consumes them and crushes them. But deep down and in spite of everything, he was still bound to his vocation. And that vocation had its origins in the actions of a dog.”

We also learn that Morlac feels respect for Wilhelm but no particular affection, even though the dog followed him all the way to Macedonia and is responsible for the events that led to Morlac’s Legion of Honor, the highest military commendation in France. Lantier finds out that Valentin, Morlac’s pre-war love and the mother of his child, has not seen him since his return from the war, and has a connection to Wilhelm as well. Through these three lives, and Wilhelm’s, Rufin compares human and animal nature, explores the hopes and disillusionment of the people sent to fight in WWI and the civilians they left behind, and most of all, dissects the concepts of faithfulness and pride.

This compact, beautifully written book is a gem. Rufin manages, in a very entertaining story, to distill the human heart. He gets to the essence of human experience as manifested in philosophy, politics, and love. And he pays tribute to dogs’ faithfulness. All in 150 pages. A terrific read.

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This weekend I finished the very unusual novel (one of two with this title released last month) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’d only ever read a short story of Atkinson’s, in an anthology called Earth. I enjoyed this book not only because it’s incredibly original — more on that in a moment — but also because it melds interesting characters, compelling ideas, and rich writing.

Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, is born over and over. Not into different lives, not reincarnated into new existences, but as herself, in her family and place and time (a moderately prosperous British family in the early 1900’s — she’s a child when her father goes off to the Great War and a young woman when WWII begins). Her life(ves) turn on circumstances that she can recall or sense, so sometimes she manipulates events to prevent untimely death. Sometimes things are beyond her control but still turn out differently. As she lives longer and grows up she begins to sense the nature of her strange reality.

Readers never get a sense that she completely grasps it, nor are we ever sure exactly which existence trumps the others; right up until the end, this novel is a puzzle. At least for me it was — I found it endlessly fascinating but was never sure I’d got it assembled in my mind perfectly. If you require a novel with a straightforward chronological narrative, or at least easy to digest flashbacks, you may be befuddled. But if you’re willing to let those trappings go, this is a really intriguing book.

Ursula is a great character — bright and capable and mostly quite brave and independent-minded. Different, marked not only by her strange deja-vu lives but as her father Hugh describes her, “watchful, as if she was trying to drink in the whole world.” And its a world in the throes of change: the world wars, the ushering in of the modern era’s new moral, cultural, and political realities. Atkinson mines all of that rich historical context and also plumbs Ursula’s relationships and her emotional life from various angles: Ursula as daughter, sister, niece, friend, lover, aunt. In this regard Atkinson reminds me of Jane Gardam.

This is a book you will likely want very much to discuss when you finish. Beyond the obvious questions about how much we control our own fate, Atkinson also looks closely at human nature. What makes a person act horribly to those closest to him or her? Why do we insist on labeling each other and boxing ourselves into social roles and expectations? Why are there dictators? Wars? Why are some people driven by ambition and others by purer motives? Does love ever exist in its purest form, and what is it exactly?

As I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the questions and quandaries of Ursula’s fictional world I had our own very much in mind. At one point in the novel Ursula is a warden in an Air Raid Precaution unit. It’s a diverse group of volunteers from different walks of life, different ages and backgrounds, who come together to keep the people in their small sector of London safe, making sure everyone observes the blackout, takes shelter during raids, and is properly identified in case of injury or death. They respond to the horrors of the Blitz night after night. Ursula’s senior warden in a retired hospital matron and WWI nurse veteran, Miss Woolf. She’s unflappable and she keeps them focused on the higher moral ground at one point noting “it is intolerance that has brought us to this pass.”

It’s easy to think that was a different time, that there’s nothing comparable to such selfless service today — except there is. A Holocaust survivor, Irene Butter, spoke in Concord last week about her life, and the Concord Monitor noted, “Ten years ago, she also helped found the Zeitouna Project,” a group of women, Jews and Arabs, who are “refusing to be enemies.” In the UK, Faith Matters is working “to reduce extremism and interfaith and intra-faith tensions and . . . develop platforms for discourse and interaction between Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities across the globe,” responding this week to the anti-Muslim backlash after the extremist murder of a British soldier.

And of course, people are still working to assist the Boston bombing victims, people impacted by the Oklahoma tornado, and in quiet, less newsworthy ways, people in their own towns and cities every day who need help: homeless people, the elderly, those afflicted with cancer or mental illness or other health challenges, victims of abuse and violence, and others who need a helping hand. I’m grateful for people who are willing give of themselves to do what’s right. And for literature that helps us understand and discuss human nature at its best and worst.

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