And here sits words, they together being both Milkman, and simultaneously number one prize winner in twenty-eighteen. It seems odd. Many have complained about their not-wanting-to-read-it feeling. ‘Challenging’ that it was: although the shiny pinkness it exuded might have made them feel safe, because that it was what they came to the pink book for, yes. That was my answer, and another answer is that perhaps the problem is not with the book, but with the readers’, the objectors’ literacy. Or their poor literacy. Not everything is limited to a monosyllabic nature, even if that is essential a twenty-first-century-mode-of-communication, headless of the need, or is it heedless, or is that the same thing now, that in real life people talk more and shout less than they do in that other place, the internet. Because, of course, there is still culture, somewhere in the world, although not in the maybe-hole-of-the-internet that everyone lives in now. The real question- the one we should be asking ourselves, and not only because asking questions is important, but because it allows us to feel like to have some autonomy in matters which really do not concern us, individuals- is will Author, the one who gave us the gift of difficulty and through Narrator reminded us that reading-while-walking is a dangerous activity, will Author be able to continue on her one long path down the halls of authors and poets who write Classics and become pictures of classical greatness. One good pink book is something, indeed, but another book in the same specific tone, about the sadness or the troubles or the difficulties in that warping nineteen seventies madness, and it could be jamais-vu. Today people might find tablets girl, a.k.a. girl who was really a woman, something to talk about, but if another maybe-boyfriend hoards superchargers in the same way but in another text, will the problems be limited to ‘over the water’ or will Author struggle to find her book land after the splash, quite a splash, that was made by this pink book? It is a good time to meet Milkman nonetheless. Well, no, it is never a good time to meet The Milkman, (not The Real Milkman, but) renouncer-in-state Milkman Milkman, because that is when Narrator becoming interesting. Becoming interesting is a problem. Eyes on you and beyond you, the rumours becoming truer than true and you sit here wondering well hell is this not our world, were those implicated for violences and celebrity rumours guilty of everything that they were told they deserved. Terrorism is a theme for today, being that people are terrorised today by everything because that is what they were taught, but not in the same way that people were taught not to be too sad if Somebody McSomebody’s brother’s head was in the road. And then there is being interesting, as aforementioned, but not in the way of flashing lights, also, either, but in the way that interesting manifests on trains and buses and lots of people pressed together and one single Milkman driving his white van alongside the road whilst you are reading-while-walking. Not having paragraphs is something strange, to be grappled with. Difficult it is, to be stopping, pulling away, because breaks are not clean and today we like a clean-break life, yes. Tell me, you like the clean-breaks but life is not like that, no, it is one long messy feed of pictures and noises and message you do not want to read but do because you are bored, and anyway: relevancy. Relevancy. We will read the pink book, winner of the big prize? Yes we will, reader-of-mine.
In the past, I have not been the most enthusiastic reader of Thomas Hardy’s work. Having read Tess of the D’Urbervilles for “fun” in the Summer, I had decided never to look at his work again, until, of course, I was set Far From The Madding Crowd as a text. Karma, thank you. The impression I was left with was not…great: the heavy and somewhat pointless descriptions of landscape dominating the novel just did not enrapture me. But you know all this! The real question is- am I glad that I had to study this, in the end?
It is obvious that I would never have chosen Hardy to study, which as someone who is enthusiastic about English literature, is problematic. Not only is he an acclaimed (although not hugely by me) poet, (I studied Neutral Tones at GCSE) but he is also one of the most acclaimed Victorian writers. Just like Dickens and Steinbeck, he is one of those white men whose work one simply must read if they are to consider themselves learnèd. Or so that was the impression I have been given throughout my schooling (so far), and really it is the only impression that matters considering that this is the institution which sets you up for the sadly all-important exams. So it was a book unwelcomed to my psyche, being both pastoral and Victorian, but ultimately I learnt 2 lessons:
Lesson one: Hardy has an excellent use of perspective
Often there is a sense of distortion in his work: in Oak’s first introduction to Bathsheba, a “small swing looking-glass was disclosed, in which she proceed to survey herself attentively”. Here, like in many other parts of the novel, the reader is viewing Gabriel viewing Bathsheba viewing herself, and it is this layering which creates an almost cinematic effect. All the attention is on her, but without fanfare or exclamation marks!!!! With writing, unlike film, the idea of selective viewing is not often touched upon. Here is why:
This film still, from Carol (2015) would be very hard to put into writing, due to the obscured nature of the model/ actress herself and the nature of the reflection. Thus for Hardy to be able to explore perspective in that way is admirable.
Lesson two: it is actually unclear if he really was a feminist at this point, despite many fervent claims
This is concerning Far From the Madding Crowd, because of course in Tess of the D’Urbervilles he is does prove himself otherwise. But in this earlier context, it is uncertain if the plot actually supports Bathsheba taking on her own farm, and therefore the idea of “the women in the role of responsibility” that she represents. She is portrayed as, unusually for the context, a woman independent from the authority of men, by owning a farm. This ownership was given to her, not earned, through her uncle’s will, which means that Bathsheba’s use of this power is even more important. If she had bought the farm herself, and then failed, at least some merit would be given to her for being able to make the money to buy the farm in the first place. But here, she is simply being given an opportunity on a platter, and as it is clear to see, she squanders it. She almost lets all her sheep die from an illness, simply due to pride, and she spends the entire novel being swept away by various men than tending to her farm.
It is as if Bathsheba is incompetent, because when every time she checked the farm at night, Gabriel “almost constantly preceded her in this tour every evening, watching her affairs”. Whilst this may be attributed to devotion, there is also a sense of her lack of skill. As if Gabriel is also following her just in case she misses something, because that is what was expected of women. What is more, when Bathsheba is at the marketplace, instead of focusing on her work, Hardy portrays her as being purely vain and concerned that there is a “black sheep among the flock” because one man was not looking at her. It is this scene where Bathsheba had a chance to assert herself in the an all-male environment, and yet instead Hardy chooses to portray her as wasting her time, despite all the power and opportunity she has been given.
Even if that interpretation is wrong, the narrator is highly sexist, making claims like: “women are never tired of bewailing man’s fickleness in love, but they only seem to snub his constancy”, or how she was a “novelty among women- one who finished a thought before beginning the sentence which was to convey it”and also “the numerous evidences of her power to attract were only thrown into greater relief by a marked exception. Women seem to have eyes in ribbons for such matters as these”. It could be argued that the narrator does not reflect Hardy’s true feelings: that these harsh, sweeping generalisations are what Hardy expects the public want to hear. But this does not make sense. Nowhere else in the novel does the narrator explicitly express an opinion, or pass judgement in this way. Therefore the narrator is not a character, which means that the things they say are assumed to be true. Thus one cannot assume that Hardy included this bias consciously, and therefore that he was, at this point in his writing, still not the feminist that he is lauded as being today, in light of the casually sexist narrator and Bathsheba’s failure to handle the responsibility she has be given- which is normally only given to a man- thus suggesting that women as a group were incapable of labour.
Overall, although it was interesting to pull apart the themes of the novel in seminars and to make presentations upon the characters, reading Far From the Madding Crowd was an unsatisfying experience. The story was initially drab, and the plot finishes off incredulously, and although Hardy had the perfect opportunity to create a heroine, instead he makes a fool.
As Thomas Mann is a fellow German, I am glad that our nation -somewhat sidelined for engineering and precision- was represented in the literature-classics-to-be-read list. However having read Death in Venice, I now vote that it should be removed from said list, even if it means Germany is once again shunned.
Famously a short-story, I was expecting Death In Venice to be packed with electrifying plot twists and wildly unexpected turns. At 70 pages, there is plenty of room for a proper character arc and plot development, however it seems that Mann didn’t get the memo because he spent 47 pages just dwelling on the beauty and seeming greatness of Tadzio.
‘a page and a half of sublime prose based on Tadzio’s beauty—the purity, nobility, and quivering emotion tension of which would soon win the admiration of many’
Now I’m sure Aschenbach would have rejoiced at the modern era; Facebook and Instagram are the perfect tools for stalking certain individuals, and there would hardly be a millennial who would say that they weren’t guilty of this, but- an essay on Tadzio? The following of him around? The commitment to him even at the risk of death? It’s all very hyperbolic and excessive, which I understand is the point of Death In Venice so I cannot criticise that. What is problematic is the extent of time that Mann dedicates to the same scenes of wonder and adoration; of course content should reflect the feelings of the protagonist, but readers don’t need 70% of the book solely focusing on the description of a secondary character. It was unsurprising that Ascenbach would die in the end, as unfortunately Mann gave that away in the title, but I thought that the end still wouldn’t be so blindingly predictable? There are only so many ways that the protagonist could die, and dying cholera was the first and most probable on the list.
SUPPOSEDLY BRILLIANT WRITERS SHOULD NOT BE PREDICTABLE
If only Mann were alive to read this. He would learn so much. You see there is utterly no point in reading if the plot resolution can be visualised preemptively, otherwise the thrill and engagement aspects are eliminated, which are what makes the process so enjoyable in the first place. And as a short story, Mann has a particular duty to finish surprisingly or with a twist, but the death was obvious (again, title), so there was nothing to make up for the long drawn out descriptions. It is even difficult to find a climax at any point. So superficially, the book’s awful. It just blabbers on.
So, what are the deeper meanings? Can they save Mann and catapult him back into literary greatness? Clearly pederasty is a major theme and is ultimately what shot the story to fame. It is rarely discussed in a literary form now and even less then, and so many people are be fascinated by this notion of infatuation, and exploring this within the context of a book is a rather comforting way to deal with the problem. Paedophilia often haunts newspapers but is rarely spoken about as a society unlike murder or theft due to embarrassment or awkwardness, and so it seems that ultimately in the novella form allows people to see it and truly stare it into eyes, and sit by themselves and decide what they think of it and why, as discussion of the topic is somewhat limited. Fundamentally Aschenbach is a paedophile and it’s written from his perspective, but interestingly Aschenbach justifies his lust by comparing himself to the ancient Greeks, saying he was acting the warriors did then. Nice try, but the Greeks also forced women to wear veils and stay indoors, and I don’t Aschenbach endorsing that part of society. One cannot pick and choose parts of culture to emulate, if one is going to hold up that entire culture to form the basis as justification for what is a modern day crime.
The one redeeming feature of Death in Venice could be the cholera. Cholera was the sriracha to the otherwise bland bowl of rice the plot was. Ironically, in the opening Aschenbach longs for far-off countries with unconventional scenes and happenings. Guess what, Aschenbach didn’t have to go to India to experience the fun, India (in the form of cholera) came to him. (If cholera could be called fun. Who knows? Aschenbach lived a very sheltered life, so perhaps anything goes for the thrill-factor.) Cholera could even represent the way his lust for Tadzio consumes him, and even kills him; his emotions cause him to stay in Venice even when he knows it’ll eventually lead to his physical decline, just as chlorea actually leads to his death. It’s a double-edged symbol and rather fun once thought about. But Mann, there needs to be more than one turn per 70 pages. Come on now.
The secondary characters are worth considering, and although there is analysis, it’s not particularly mind-blowing. The man at the graveyard, for instance, is masculine with his bulging Adam’s apple and also hideous because of his ‘permanent facial deformity’. So he’s everything which Tadzio isn’t. This doesn’t mean that the Graveyard Man is a precursor or foreshadows the relationship, but if we’re searching amongst scraps for something to say to help merit Mann, then maybe it reveals that Aschenbach who is describing him, is only focusing the features which revolts him the most ? He craves youthfulness and beauty, so the antithesis of these attributes shock him and captures his attention. This line of argument applies to the man on the boat with the make-up, feigning adolescence whilst the ugliness part can be applied to the minstrel. Curiously, towards the end of the story, Aschenbach metamorphisms into that which he hates, and becomes more leering and even has that session in the salon to make himself seem younger, and then doesn’t seem like an imposter himself. Interesting.
There is plenty of Freudian analysis of Aschenbach online and in books, which will be doubtless more absorbing that what I can say because I have no interest whatsoever in investing that sort of time into a story I find dull. But what is captivating is the notion that Aschenbach is a queer contemporary icon. Of course, throughout history literature has not been exactly kind to the LGBT community, so icons are taken as they come, but Aschenbach is a problematic choice. He may claim pederasty at the best of times but morally his actions are perverse and ought to be treated as such, not exalted because of his sexuality. And in some ways, it does seem like Aschenbach is not actually gay, but more is in love with the concept of divine beauty, in whatever form that may be. Tadzio just happened to be extremely beautiful, and so Aschenbach craved the look and the form of Tadzio more than his personality or character, just like a sculptor admires a figure for the shape and dimensions as opposed to any emotional attributes. In many ways Tadzio could easily have been female, without any qualms to the plot, and then the plot would be relatively unchanged, but leave the world with one less icon.
Steinbeck said that ‘everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this’ novel, and he was certainly correct in saying that East of Eden was the literary finale compared to all his previous works.
At a hefty 602 pages, it may seem daunting at first, but unlike many of other long novels (like Tess of the D’Urbervilles), the content deserves to sprawls across hundreds of pages. In fact, sprawl seems to the wrong word. Each word seems to be carefully chosen, like Steinbeck was a gardener picking only the best fruit that the English language could offer. It is remarkable to think how Steinbeck could even begin to plan a novel of this magnitude; in no places does it, like an under-baked pie, sag under the need to get to the next exciting event. All of the plot is gripping and thought-provoking, and the meanings span across so many levels. Although I may indeed regret saying this, (the old adage being careful what you wish for!), it seems that in spite of its length, this novel would be a joy to study as there is just so much to unpack.
The first thing to comment on is obviously the book’s namesake, East of Eden, referring to how the plot loosely links to the story of Adam and Eve and ultimately Cain and Abel. Adam is both Adam from the Book of Genesis and Abel; Charles is Cain. This makes sense because if Cyrus, their father, is God, then Cyrus’ rejection of Charles’ pocketknife and adoration of Abel’s stray puppy mirror wonderfully God’s praise for the lamb and hatred for the crops offered by Cain. Following this cruel dismissal from God, Cain famously kills Abel, and so Charles beats Adam almost to death, before running off to get a hatchet to finish Adam before he eventually escapes. Again Cain becomes marked by God to prevent others from killing him, and so Charles becomes scarred when working in his fields. Lastly Cain didn’t have any descendants whilst Adam did, which can be a direct parallel to the lives of Charles and Adam. The interesting thing about the way Steinbeck did this was that it was never glaring obvious that the two stories paralleled each other, nor was the next chapter ever predicatable, whilst still holding true to the Bible original.
Furthermore Adam and Cathy can be interpreted as Adam and Eve from the Bible. When considering the original sin, it can traced entirely back to Eve, as she was responsible for all the acts of wrongdoing in Eden due to the loss of the pair’s innocence. In this way, Cathy can be regarded as a solely evil character because of all the ‘monstrous’ manipulation, lying, cheating and murder she carried out in her lifetime. Scholars believe her to be a representation of a debased form of Eve, as she seduces men at every opportunity for her own means; for example, from framing her parents’ death without remorse, to using the whoremaster to engineer a better circumstance to herself, to her betrayal of Adam and ultimately her own kin. The list of the other devious happenings she organised goes on, but essentially it’s clear that Cathy is undeniably a gruesome and perhaps hyperbolic version of Eve in the context of the Book of Genesis.
The important thing to remember when reading East of Eden, too, is that it’s not necessarily meant to be realistic. The narrator even mentions that Cathy has a ‘deformity’ within her soul, meaning that she is crueler and harsher than an average person. Cathy is an exaggeration of humanity’s worst qualities and yet she is still somewhat plausible, in a twisted sort of way. It’s worth mentioning this just because many critics at the time of the novel’s publication argued that the characters were unruly and unimaginable, making this not such a fantastic read after all, but then again these same critics did believe a certain man to walk on water, and so these contradictions in what is plausible and what isn’t make their arguments rather hypocritical.
All in all, although I was initially quite unenthusiastic about taking the plunge into East of Eden, when I did I was amazed by the vivid characters and plot that lay before me. So come join me! The water’s lovely…