Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bifurcum Spirans Mammale

ManaliveManalive by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Similar to Thursday, but very excellent. So queer and living a man.

#3). I have to say, I really am fully convinced that Chesterton was married to a redhead. There's no other reason for all of his heroines to have red hair. I would also like to take this opportunity to laugh at Brooke--if Chesterton married a redhead, then redheads are obviously superior to every other hair colour.

This book is vintage Chesterton: characters that you meet every day with one that no one but he could dream up. The man is a fool, a genius, a man of tremendous size and athleticism, yet of childlike simplicity. Indeed, "childlike" is perhaps the only accurate way to describe him.

I don't really want to give too much away, in case there's anyone out there mentally deranged enough to read me before he reads Chesterton, but it's an extremely worthwhile read. About half of it takes place in an unofficial trial of the main character, Innocent Smith. Just a great book, light, frivolous, full of commonplaces (In short, he undoubtedly had brains; and perhaps it was not his fault if they were the kind of brains that most men desire to analyze with a poker), and very quick. It really is a very fun book, and this is my third (?) time through it.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

But Other Than That, How Was the Play Mrs. Lincoln?

At the Back of the North WindAt the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

How the hell? I have never been so deeply, so brutally betrayed. "Almost thou persuadest me to nihilistic despair."

"All these were rosy visions of delight,
The loveliness and wisdom feigned of old,
But now we wake. The East is pale and cold;
No hope is in the dawn, and no delight."

Or how about:

"Roland is dead, Cuchulain's crest is low,
The battered war-rear wastes and turns to rust,
And Helen's eyes and Iseult's lips are dust
And dust the shoulders and the breasts of snow.

The faerie people from our woods are gone,
No Dryads have I found in all our trees,
No Triton blows his horn about our seas
And Arthur sleeps far hence in Avalon."

Or maybe even:

"It's vainly we are praying. We cannot, cannot check
The Power who slays and puts aside the beauty that has been.

It's truth they tell, Despoina, none hears the heart's complaining
For Nature will not pity, nor the red God lend an ear,
Yet I too have been mad in the hour of bitter paining
And lifted up my voice to God, thinking that he could hear
The curse wherewith I cursed Him because the Good was dead.
But lo! I am grown wiser, knowing that our own hearts
Have made a phantom called the Good, while a few years have sped
Over a little planet. And what should the great Lord know of it
Who tosses the dust of chaos and gives the suns their parts?
Hither and thither he moves them; for an hour we see the show of it:
Only a little hour, and the life of the race is done.
And here he builds a nebula, and there he slays a sun
And works his own fierce pleasure. All things he shall fulfill,
And O, my poor Despoina, do you think he ever hears
The wail of hearts he has broken, the sound of human ill?
He cares not for our virtues, our little hopes and fears,
And how could it all go on, love, if he knew of laughter and tears?"

Honestly? Give me thirty-seven chapters of the magnificent, lovely, wholly beautiful deep comedy, comedy in the ancient sense, and then finish it off with the most desolate tragedy that could have taken place? How is this a children's book? Is Notes From the Underground a children's book? "Oh, as soon as you finish watching Disney's Sleeping Beauty we'll go ahead and start Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet? But this was worse: we've given Sleeping Beauty, but when the Prince kisses her, her lips are poisoned, so he dies, and she, waking and seeing him dead, kills herself. At the last moment, our magnificent dream is turned to a nightmare. Aslan returns, and He Is Tash. As Jewel (or was it Tirian? I think it was Jewel) says, it is as if you go to take a drink of water, and it is dry water. At least in The Last Battle we are given page after page of tremendous, heart-breaking glory which leaves us unable to mourn; in this we are left dumb and devastated next to the family members waiting on the platform (which Lewis doesn't even mention).

Perhaps I would not be so angry had Diamond not become so dear to me. Had I loved him less, I could far more easily abide his creator killing him. But the final injustice that so infuriated me, that of Jim and Nanny so fully rejecting Diamond as to condescendingly pity him, is never resolved, only has quick-crete poured on it, and then to fix it Diamond dies alone and unjustified, more horribly and unforgivably misunderstood by those whom he so deeply loves as he ever had been. Why could he not have been accepted? Why must there be this heart-breaking isolation? Why can there not be a final union, where Diamond is no longer the outsider but a true member, accepted as he is for who he is?

In my eyes, the only justification for this ending is if MacDonald wrote the book as a tribute to some child, quite possibly mentally damaged, that he deeply loved until their early death. If so, the tremendous tragedy is justifiable, although to put it in a children's book? I understand that he was attempting to remove the fear and horror of death with his last sentence, but he utterly failed, and he shouldn't have attempted it. Death is a horrible, unfair desolation. It cannot be made right. It cannot be made right with a lifetime, it cannot be so much as slightly mitigated with an offhand phrase.

Yet, this gives not a moment to the simple fact that this was one of the loveliest books I have ever read. The final disappointment was so tremendous only because it was set up for so great a glory. It was reminiscent (yes, only to my twisted, or should we call it unique? mind) of Pan's Labyrinth in how close it came to offering a glorious, true resolution--true the way that the dawn is true, the way a salt-wind rolls up a river and hits your face like a passing semi is true, that a niece upon each shoulder is true, that an arbor draped in clematis and rose is true--and how impotently I raged at the lie that was substituted in its place. It could have been the greatest ending I had read since Tolkien, Lewis, or Dunnett, but it ended up being the worst since Bierce.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Club of Queer Trades

The Club Of Queer TradesThe Club Of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How even to review this? And what exactly is the point? For that matter, what was the point of it being written? It certainly wasn't a necessary book. I don't believe the great Catholic ever sat down and said, "How to save England and the rest of the world? Ah, this will do the trick." And if I'm mistaken, if he did utter such a phrase, it wasn't about this book. Perhaps he simply needed to stretch the legs of his mind--indeed, I shall take that as the excuse (it will serve as well as any other), and now, allow me to invite you to accompany him in his hike, for the air has the smell of salt, yet there are mountains, valleys, dark close woods and expansive vistas unfolding as vast as the very designs of God.

How does one take words--I dare say he employed none that I am not on intimate terms with--and craft such glories as this book with them? I love words (and use them interminably), but they do not perform for me the way they do for him. I would give all I own to be able to see the world with the eyes of Chesterton—wait: no, this isn't true. I would not. Were I to receive his vision it would terrify me, and I would probably give all I own to be restored to my blind state. Indeed, what would a man give to restore the roof of the sky if it were at a moment rent away?

It is no wonder that we build house-boxes to enclose our souls so that the four corners of the world do not tear them apart. We build fences and post signs and do all we can to make the world a safe, a soft place, when there is nothing quite so suddenly savage or terrible as a dandelion or a daffodil, and a dragon is no more awesome (though grown somewhat less common) than a dragonfly. Yet we seek to finally and fully conquer nature through knowledge: we seek to tame the world with science.

But Chesterton did not. He wanted the world to be wild, and he rebelled at the tired, grey apathy of sin that disguises itself in the guise of respectability and wisdom. So, he carried a brace of loaded pistols, a dagger, a sword cane and a cape, and he laughed as loudly and often as a child. For the world was not a safe place, and he was not a safe man.

Indeed, Chesterton was a man, who, with N. D. Wilson, would not be afraid that he would fall off a cliff, but that he would jump.

(And the book was good too.)

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The Wise Man Builds His House of Wode

A Wodehouse MiscellanyA Wodehouse Miscellany by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This collection I found to be hit and miss. However, Wodehouse is hard for me to judge, rather the same way that I would have difficulty distinguishing between Zoltan Kocsis and Lang Lang (may God and Mr. Appel forgive me for mentioning them in the same breath): I haven't yet fully developed the taste for Rachmaninov that I shall one day have, and therefore I don't have sufficient authority, either as a professional or as a lover, to intelligently discern betwixt the magnificent and the technically correct.

All this aside, Wodehouse is hilarious. He can't help but be hilarious. When he describes his ears as being large and "attached at right angles" and his overall appearance as tending toward the ailing piscine, I have a very justifiable reason to giggle at the image. When he describes the seventh of his nine holes of indoor golf, I lose a solid half-pound in burned calories and discover exactly what new colours appear after abstaining from air for forty seconds. (Leave it to Psmith is still my all time favorite comic work, particularly the application of socialist principles to an especially fine umbrella.) So, perhaps my taste is still developing and I shall look back on this as one of his greater works. Also, the application of wax to a floor is not particularly conducive to the appreciation of nuanced dry humour, but I still fear that this collection was not exactly his greatest.

Still, even with my lack of palate, I cannot overemphasize the playful joy of his prose: "Moths had nested in his wallet and raised large families," or, "he was a tubby chap, who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say when," or, "he looked ever more like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow." Wodehouse is a necessary ingredient for a happy life. Just take care if you are reading him at the breakfast table that you take bites between sentences, and not in the midst of them, for his jokes be not of ruth and they enter the scenes as silently as Jeeves.

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Wodehousian Fun