Monday, December 31, 2012

Charles Dickens in Love by Robert Garnett


* * * * 1/2

The book's description from the publisher's website (Pegasus Books):

When Charles Dickens died in 1870 he was the best-known man in the English-speaking world—the preeminent Victorian celebrity, universally mourned as both a noble spirit and the greatest of novelists. Yet when the first person named in his will turned out to be an unknown woman named Ellen Ternan, only a handful of people had any idea who she was. Of his romance with Ellen, Dickens had written, “it belongs to my life and probably will only die out of the same with the proprietor,” and so it was—until his death she remained the most important person in his life.She was not the first woman who had fired his imagination. As a young man he had fallen deeply in love with a woman who “pervaded every chink and crevice” of his mind for three years, Maria Beadnell, and when she eventually jilted him he vowed that “I never can love any human creature but yourself.” A few years later he was stunned by the sudden death of his young sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth, and worshiped her memory for the rest of his life. “I solemnly believe that so perfect a creature never breathed,” he declared, and when he died over thirty years later he was still wearing her ring.Charles Dickens has no rival as the most fertile creative imagination since William Shakespeare, and no one influenced his imagination more powerfully than these three women, his muses and teachers in the school of love. Using hundreds of primary sources, Charles Dickens in Love narrates the story of the most intense romances of Dickens’s life and shows how his novels both testify to his own strongest affections and serve as memorials to the young women he loved all too well, if not always wisely.

Prior to having read Charles Dickens in Love, I'd had minimal knowledge of Dickens. I knew next to nothing about the person he was, and of the writer I knew only that he was prolific and a staple of literary talent and productivity (I have only ever read Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol). I am very happy that despite my seeming lack of interest in and a glaring lack of knowledge about Charles Dickens, I decided to read Mr. Garnett's book. Charles Dickens in Love became to me a perfect invitation to enter the author's life through his novels. Dickens was a fascinating and complex person. A person for whom to live meant to love and love he did.

Now, I usually do not read biographies. But if they are written in a way Robert Garnett wrote his book, I may have made a mistake by avoiding this non-fiction genre. Garnett's writing is crisp, approachable and very friendly for a person new to Charles Dickens especially, but for all readers in general as well. I appreciated that I was allowed to draw my own conclusions as to Dickens's life, conduct and personality. Yes, it is clear that Mr. Garnett cares deeply about Charles Dickens and has a detailed and extensive knowledge about that author's body of work as well as his personal life. Garnett's hope that we, as readers, would also come to care is also present between the pages of Charles Dickens in Love. But never once did I get an impression that there was some scheme contrived by the author to portray Dickens in as becoming light as possible and leave all infamous deeds of his in the background. No. As a matter of fact, I felt only indignation and deep dislike towards Charles Dickens for his treatment of his wife, for his egocentric attitude and clear love of himself. However, as the story progressed, so did my feelings thaw and in the end, I hope I can think about Charles Dickens in a more objective light, always keeping in mind that life is never, ever black and white.

I am so impressed with Charles Dickens in Love, that I have designated 2013 to be my year of reading some of his novels. Robert Garnett weaved books such as David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit and Oliver Twist into the narrative of Dickens's life and his loves so neatly that I simply cannot put them out of my mind. One small piece of waning to some: if spoilers of any kind ruin books for you, be prepared that you will encounter them when reading Mr. Garnett's book. I didn't mind them at all. I feel that what I read about in Charles Dickens in Love will instead enrich my reading experience when approaching Dickens's masterpieces.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Charles Dickens in Love from Open Road Integrated Media via NetGalley.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Best & Worst ~ My 2012 in Reading

As 2012 coming to an end, the list are popping up all over the place. Since I always go against the grain and don't really care for opinions of magazines' critics (a mixture of experience and instinct), my reading differed from theirs quite a bit. But I'm ending this year quite satisfied in the literary choices I made. Here's an overview of what I liked and didn't, if you care to know. Be warned that not all I include here were books published in 2012.

My Best Reads

Published in 2012

1. The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

2. Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey

3. Toby's Room by Pat Barker

4. We Sinners by Hanna Pylvainen

5. Marie Curie and Her Daughters by Shelley Emling

6. The Reckoning by Alma Katsu

7. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce

8. Wilderness by Lance Weller

9. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

10. A Hundred Flowers by Gail Tsukiyama

11. The Sadness of the Samurai by Victor Del Arbol

12. The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

13. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

14. Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear

15. The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

Published Before 2012

1. Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

2. The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

3. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

4. Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman

5. The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

6. The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

7. Maisie Dobbs & Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

8. The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler Olsen

9. Winds of War by Herman Wouk

10. The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller

11. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

12. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Unfortunate Disappointments 

1. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

2. Helen of Troy by Margaret George

3. The Replacement Wife by Eileen Goudge

Special Mention for an Outstanding Audio Performance

1. Holy Bible: Word of Promise New Testament

2. The Word of Promise The Gift of Psalms

Friday, December 14, 2012

Roman Tales by Stendhal, translated by Susan Ashe


* * * 1/2

The book's description from NetGalley:

Revered by key literary figures including as Balzac and Merime, Stendhal is best known for his novels, but his shorter works were just as powerful. In this brand new translation, Susan Ashe brings his greatest Italian stories to the modern reader, whilst staying true to Stendhal’s style and brilliance. 
The collection includes:
-    The Abbess of Castro
-Vittoria Accordamboni 
-The Cenci 
-Along with accompanying essays by Charles Dickens, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Stendhal himself. 
Together, these stories convey Stendhal’s love of Italy and admiration for the society’s honesty, sincerity, and above all, passion. ‘Roman Tales’ will reaffirm Stendhal as one of the great French masters of the 19th Century.
Stendhal is one of those authors that I have known of for a long time (his Red and Black was recommended to me by my Language Arts teacher in high school) but that I just never read and what's worse, couldn't even give myself a good reason why. I reached for this collection of short stories then, mainly because I figured it would be a good introduction to Stendhal and a way to decide whether I'd want to read more of him.

This collection turned out to be somewhat of a mixed bag. I loved The Abbess of Castro (the longest of the stories). Stendhal is witty there and his admiration for Italy and Italian people is evident. He didn't even try to disguise it in any hyperbolas or metaphors. His sharp criticism of the French (his natives) and biting comparisons to the Italians are quite fun to read whether one agrees with it or not. Here's a fine example of what I mean:

In sixteenth-century France a man could show his manhood and true mettle (...) only on the battlefield or in a duel. And as women love bravery and daring, they became the supreme judges of a man's worth. Thus gallantry was born. This led to the successive destruction of all passions, including love, thereby benefitting (sic!) that cruel tyrant whom we all obey - vanity (...)
In Italy a man could distinguish himself as much by the discovery of an old manuscript as by the sword (...) Passions rather than gallantry held sway. This is why Italy gave birth to a Raphael, a Giorgione, a Titian, and a  Correggio, while France produced all the brave commanders of the sixteenth century, each of whom slew numberless numbers of the enemy and yet today are utterly unknown. (loc. 149-57)*

Throughout that first novella as well as the remaining stories Stendhal doesn't hesitate to point out such cultural and national differences negatively contrasting his native country with Italy, Spain or even Germany.

Probably the most interesting aspect of Roman Tales to me is Stendhal revealing himself to be both a historical author and a translator. It presents a certain charm as well as a new perspective on history when learning about it from a figure to whom 16th century may have been long gone but nevertheless not as long ago as five centuries it is for us. Stendhal may have even had better resources in available texts and maybe even oral history that hadn't had a chance to become utterly diluted by outright fibs or myths. And again, Stendhal had an opinion or two on historians as well.

If anyone wants to know the history of Italy, the important thing is not to read the widely accepted authors. Nowhere has the value of a lie been better appreciated, nowhere better paid. (loc. 181-82)*

I don't know about others but I think those words spoken in the 19th century are astoundingly accurate to many historical writers of the late 20th & early 21st centuries.

Stendhal as a translator is yet another beast. He claimed that the stories within Roman Tales were not his creation but merely translations of the records put together from witness accounts of actual incidents. According to what Norman Thomas di Giovanni wrote in his introduction, the stories are Stendhal's own creation, albeit based on the records available to him, not an ad verbum translation. And I got the same feeling after the fourth or fifth time Stendhal reassures the reader about it. It's a clear case of 'Madame, thou protest too much'. The introduction however is fantastic and sheds a lot of light on who Stendhal was and his creative body of work. It will certainly make you all the more excited to begin reading the stories.

One thing that I could do without was "The Cenci" story. It was almost all narrative, without barely any dialogue and despite it being a short story, it still got pretty tedious. I admit to having skimmed it after about one third of the way.

A Note on Translation

The stories are translated  by Susan Ashe, who appears to be quite an accomplished Italian translator. This edition also mentions other translations done by her, in cooperation with Norman Thomas di Giovanni, also an Italian translator. The quality is evident in the stories, I don't really have a word of criticism to impart here. I greatly appreciated the fact that the translator decided to eliminate certain parts of the collection, even though the purists in the translating world would cry 'foul!' on this one. But Stendhal really seemed to be in love with long, descriptive passages and 'careless repetition of words and phrases that today we find only clumsy and annoying' (Di Giovanni, loc. 120-29) seemed to be right to be eliminated so that a contemporary reader may enjoy the tales. The process of translating this particular work is described nicely, even if not in length, in the introduction and explanations given are absolutely valid and shed a little bit of light into the world of translating.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Roman Tales by Stendhal from the publisher, HarperCollins via NetGalley.

*All quotes are from an unedited copy. Please verify against a finished one for any inaccuracies.