The Canterbury Tales: 82%

I’m on track to finish Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales via my Serial Reader app in just about a week’s time, so this is likely my last post regarding the collection of 14th century stories.

It’s been a slog, I have to admit. Serial Reader contains all the tales, including several that were omitted from the paperback version Tim and I have been sharing. I can understand the choice to omit. One tale in particular, “The Tale of Melibeus,” felt particularly long and boring. The teller of this tale is the narrator himself, named, coincidentally (or not), Chaucer. The whole thing is a drawn-out dialogue between Melibeus and his wife, Prudence, as she tries to convince him to take her advice regarding a matter of revenge against his rivals. I swear, she has to mention Solomon at least a hundred times. Yes, the Solomon from the bible, the guy who advised splitting a baby in two.

The tales all seem filled with biblical and medieval religious references. Two particular ones were recently familiar to me, meaning, I’ve encountered them in the past year or so (and not during my own ancient school days). They are both from “The Monk’s Tale,” another story that’s not in our paperback. It’s basically a laundry list of mighty folks through the ages who have fallen when fortune takes a turn against them.

  1. In recounting how Belshazzar of Babylon met his fate, “mene, mene, tekel” popped up. I wrote about this in a post last year: The Writing on the Wall. A quick recap of that post — it’s about this phrase’s original meaning, how Belshazzar had been weighed and measured by God, found wanting, and his kingdom would be divided. And how the phrase is referenced in Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and, perhaps not surprisingly, in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
  2. There’s a bit about Ugolino, Count of Pisa, and how he and his children starved to death while imprisoned. But it gets more gruesome when Dante’s Inferno is referenced. Dante’s fiction puts Ugolino in the second circle of hell with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri, the one who supposedly caused his starvation in real life. In Inferno, Ugolino gnaws on Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity. I remember this reference in The Count of Monte Cristo, it comes up when Edmond Dantes is held at Chateau d’If, before he meets Abbe Faria.

So, bottom line, I feel like I’m getting a better understanding of a lot of ancient stories and their contexts. And that feels worthwhile. But I’ll also be happy to take a break from all this heaviness soon.

Maybe it’s time to watch A Knight’s Tale again.

206 Years Ago

Sunrise, April 13, 2020.

On April 11, 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne of the French empire, and was sent off to exile. The first time he was exiled, it was to the relatively accessible island of Elba in the Mediterranean. (Those seeking to be done with him would not repeat the mistake — the second and final time he was exiled, it was to the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. This place is exceedingly remote, even by today’s standards.)

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time with Napoleon in the past year. I read The Count of Monte Cristo in the middle of 2019, and that book is set in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s reign. And Napoleon’s all over War and Peace. I’m 89% of the way through Tolstoy’s epic, and currently in the story, it’s October 1812 and Napoleon is hightailing it out of Russia.

Napoleon’s doings seemed to be the cause of a lot of uncertainty back in the day. I’d never really thought of it that way before, I think because I tend to look back at history as a concrete thing. “This happened, and then this happened because of it, and these were the effects.” But reading War and Peace has put me right back in that time, as only good fiction can. I felt the uncertainty of the characters as Napoleon’s army came into Moscow, and I feel it as the French abandon a burnt-out city and country.

It’s hard not to draw parallels with our current level of uncertainty.

So on Saturday, when I read that it was the 206th anniversary of Napoleon’s abdication, it had a little more impact than if I had not spent the better part of this past 12 months in Napoleon’s world. It was like a reminder of the fact that the French really did leave Russia, and Napoleon was forced from public life, eventually. And, oh yeah, he’s been dead for almost 200 years.

The live oak pictured at the top of this post could have been around 200 years ago. It’s not far from some oaks that are believed to be between 750 and 900 years old. While it may not be too long before we can all say, “this is what happened as a result of our 21st century pandemic, and these were the effects,” that’s little consolation for our immediate anxiety. Thinking of what that tree may have been around for, and seeing it still standing strong, makes it feel like a beacon of hope.

Great Expectations: Thanksgiving Edition

So, I’m 53% of the way through Great Expectations. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured I’d focus on what I’m grateful for, regarding my reading of this work.

I’ve realized this year, 2019, has turned out to be my introduction to several 19th century classics. All published within a 20-year span during the mid-1800s. The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, Moby Dick in 1851, and Great Expectations just ten years later, in 1861. Monte Cristo and Moby Dick are both relatively fresh in my mind, so I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the three in my “gratitude” list:

  • I’m enjoying Great Expectations more than the other two. It’s definitely funnier. Granted, I don’t think Dumas or Melville were going for comedy, but their stories could have withstood being a touch less self-serious.
  • Pip is certainly the most relatable character in the three novels. Written in the first person, it begins when Pip is just a child. So many of Pip’s experiences, as Dickens relates them, ring true and timeless. Check out this quote: “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
  • Speaking of injustice and timelessness, my ire hasn’t been raised as much with Great Expectations, as with the other two. There’s no getting around Melville’s racism, especially in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Or Dumas’s misogyny — in my numerous posts about Monte Cristo, I went on at length about how much I hated how Mercedes’s character and story line were handled. While Dickens is hardly a model of modern sensibilities — I’ve already read at least one dreadful depiction of a Jewish person — if I were to weigh the three works, I feel like Great Expectations has less to offend.
  • On a lighter note, I might be most grateful for the Serial Reader app. It’s reawakened my reading habit in more ways than one. I’ve found that I like reading on my phone so much, that I downloaded the Kindle app. I’m about halfway through Hugh Howey’s Wool series, all read on my phone. (Wool has been on my TBR list for years.)

I could go on, but I won’t. For everyone celebrating the holiday, have a happy Thanksgiving!

The Count of Monte Cristo: 100%

Count of Monte Cristo 2002
I’ve never seen the 2002 movie version, a deficiency I plan to correct soon.

Well, that was an interesting read over four and half months. I just (finally) finished The Count of Monte Cristo on my Serial Reader app. While I can’t say I loved the book, I definitely feel enriched by the experience.

Here’s my two-sentence review: Edmond Dantes is a likeable character, the Count of Monte Cristo is not. The set-up for his vengeance takes up a boatload of the narrative, and the final pay-off for all that plot building is a mixed bag.

Since the book is really about two people, Edmond Dantes and the Count of Monte Cristo (okay, two sides of the same person, but, I’m going for theme, here); and I just gave a two-sentence review, I’ll attempt to keep up with the “two” lists.

The two characters I liked the best:

  • Maximilien Morrel: dashing, brave, loyal — I loved this guy. Though his mopeyness toward the end was very off-putting.
  • Abbé Faria: Witty, warm, full of faith — I like to believe he would not have been so bent on revenge, had he made it out of the Chateau d’If alive.

The two scenes I liked the best:

  • Chapter XXIV: “Dazzled” — When Edmond Dantes finds the treasure on the island of Monte Cristo.
  • Chapter LXXI: “Bread and Salt” — When the Count and Mercedes talk at her summer party.

Hmph. Don’t get me started on poor Mercedes. I really like the character, but I hate how Dumas ties up her story line. There’s a line in V for Vendetta, when Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman) says, after watching the 1934 movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo with V (played by Hugo Weaving):

Evey: …it made me feel sorry for Mercedes.

V: Why?

Evey: Because he cared more about revenge than he did about her.

Now I totally get what Evey meant.

I’m off the “two” kick now, because there are a lot of thoughts spinning around in my head, many more than two, mostly revolving around the nineteenth century world of Dumas. Slavery was legal (although not in France). Women were second class citizens. Dueling was a thing. All these things factor into the book in some way. And not as a statement, as they might if the story were written today as historical fiction. It was all just part of the story, part of the culture.

Invaluable for gaining insight into an ancestral mindset. And very troubling when regarding the legacy of that mindset.

To conclude on a more positive note, I did find the ending pretty satisfying. Of course, Monte Cristo leaves Maximilien and his betrothed, Valentine, without saying goodbye. It’s just like him to be so annoying. But he at least leaves a letter, which kinda makes up for it. I’ll leave you with that letter’s last lines:

…until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘wait’ and ‘hope’!

 

The Writing on the Wall

A Knight’s Tale is one of those movies that I missed out on, for the first ten or so years of its existence. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to know and recognize some of its many charms.

Of course, I love the character of Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany). He’s a down-on-his-luck writer, who falls in with the rag-tag traveling crew of faux knight Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein (Heath Ledger). Geoff is able to concoct the papers Sir Ulrich needs to “prove” his lineage, and he also uses his mad word skills to hype up the crowds in favor of Sir Ulrich.

This imaginative portrayal of the author of the famed Canterbury Tales strikes me as a true depiction of #writerslife. Centuries before hash tags were a thing.

I could probably go on about Chaucer, but I have another intention for this post. There’s a theme that comes up between Sir Ulrich (really, a peasant named William Thatcher), and his nemesis, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). A “real” count with the bloodline to prove it, and a true villain. Adhemar suspects Sir Ulrich is a phony. When Adhemar takes top prize in their first tournament match-up, he serves Ulrich the very ungracious insult:

“You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.”

This insult does eventually come around to bite Adhemar in the heinie. But again, I’m digressing.

The point I’m wanting to make: I hadn’t realized that “weighed and measured” was a biblical reference, until I encountered it both in Moby Dick, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s from the Book of Daniel, and the narrative account of Belshazzar’s feast. Apparently, everyone was enjoying themselves a little too much at this feast, when a mysterious hand appeared and wrote on the wall:

“Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”

Well, no one knew what it meant, not even Belshazzar’s wise men, and he was beyond freaked out. He sent for Daniel, who interpreted it as such:

  • mene — “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end”
  • tekel —  “you have been weighed. . .and found wanting”
  • upharsin — this one’s a little less clear to me, but, essentially, “your kingdom’s gonna be broken up, dude”

Melville uses “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” to foreshadow the fate of the Pequod. Dumas uses it in reference to the letter that denounced Edmond Dantes. That he eventually gets his hands on and uses in service of his vengeance.

Two big lessons I take from all this:

  1. “The writing on the wall” is literally mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.
  2. In fiction, (as in real life), karma can be a bitch.

The Count of Monte Cristo: 62%

Count of Monte Cristo
The unabridged, Robin Buss translation. Not sure this picture adequately conveys the massiveness of this volume. At 1,276 pages, this thing’s a door stop.

We’re almost halfway through 2019, and I have to confess, I’m pleased. Specifically, I’m pleased that I’ve “re-discovered” reading.

To be fair, I never really “lost” reading. But I definitely lost a regular reading habit. Many years ago, the advent of full-time employment delegated reading to those precious free hours tucked in and around the work week. Then when I decided to devote a fair portion of those free hours to writing fiction, reading for pleasure went out the window.

In my early days of writing, I was concerned about reading and unwittingly co-opting another author’s style or ideas. So overwhelming was the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing, I was afraid of confusing a process that was in a very primordial form.

I still might not know what I’m doing, but I’ve gained enough confidence to be able to look outside the confines of my own pages. Some part of me has always known that continued, deep, engaging, reading is absolutely necessary to any growth I hope to achieve as a writer. And I couldn’t be happier about finally arriving at that point in my writing journey.

So, a couple of quick observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, thus far:

  • While I’m still reading via Serial Reader, I discovered that there has been a recent translation, by Robin Buss, done in 1996 (I think). So the friendly folks at the Garden District Book Shop ordered the volume, and I picked it up from them. It’s been very helpful to refer to this huge paperback, when the public domain translation of a choice phrase has me scratching my head. I’m still an avowed fan of Serial Reader, though — because there’s no way I’m lugging around this rock with me. My phone is much lighter.
  • The plot reminds me of the soap operas I used to watch during the summer, when I was a kid. But the historical details make it a bit more educational.
  • I really want to see Tom Hiddleston play Edmond Dantes. All the capes, and the conniving behavior. . .it feels like a natural progression from Loki to the Count of Monte Cristo.

The thing about reading: it’s addictive. Moby Dick was like a gateway drug. Not content to just read one thing at a time, I just recently finished Benjamin Taylor’s The Book of Getting Even, a novel I began in earnest over a year ago. Loved it. “Literary” fiction that isn’t afraid to deliver a good story, and make you feel every last pang experienced by its brilliant protagonist, Gabriel Geismar.

And I’m more than halfway through Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. The observations about writing that keep coming up in this story are just devastating. In a good way. Like this bit, referring to D.H. Lawrence’s quote:

“But what about ‘Trust the tale not the teller,’ and how the critic’s job is to save the work from the writer? By ‘critic,’ you know, Lawrence did not mean self-appointed. I would love to see the consumer review that saved a book from its author.”

Okay, I haven’t been this long-winded in a while. That’s it ’til next week!

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 22%

Frioul archipelago
Frioul archipelago, Marseille, France. Near the Château d’If, where Edmond Dantes was imprisoned. Photo by Paul Hermann on Unsplash.

I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo via my Serial Reader app on April 1. It’s split into 208 issues, compared to Moby-Dick‘s 79, so I will be at this for the duration of spring and well into summer. But thus far, I find it a much easier read than Melville’s classic. The narrative is straightforward and the language is simpler.

This might be a good time to address my motivation for reading these two particular classics. Or for choosing these two as the “first in line” as I attempt to rekindle my reading habit. My motivation feels, to me, pretty layered, and I don’t want to bore you with all that unpacking. So I guess the simplest way to state it is: there are themes in both these stories that seem to tap into a very rich vein in our collective unconscious, to borrow from Jung. And I’m seeking a deeper understanding of those themes and how those storytellers managed to mine them so successfully.

Or maybe even simpler: I want to improve my ability to write interesting stories with some meaning, and I realize that while some of the best teachers are long gone, their lessons live on through their work.

Some particular observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, so far:

  • Napoleon: It’s been interesting to read a story written when Napoleon’s imprint on the world was still quite fresh. Napoleon’s former reign, and his attempt to reclaim the throne, are pivotal parts to the early part of the story. Since I live in the one U.S. state with a legal system still largely based on the Napoleonic Code, learning some of this history seems like a wise thing to pursue.
  • The south of France: Marseille, France has been the focal point of the story. Dumas’s depictions of the areas around the coasts of France and Italy are very evocative, and have sparked a new longing to see that part of the world, Marseille in particular. I’ve flown into Nice multiple times, and have spent considerable time in Cannes (in a former work life), but I have never made it to Marseille.
  • V for Vendetta: Going back to my motivations for reading The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta is one of them. It’s one of my favorite movies, and Monte Cristo is a recurring reference in it. It felt like high time to see what those references are all about.
  • Speaking of serials: Wikipedia tells me The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in 18 parts, over a period of about 18 months.

I’m on track to beat that time by far. I’ve upgraded the Serial Reader app so that I can receive multiple issues in a day, if I choose. My goal is to finish Monte Cristo in under five months, instead of the nearly seven months it would take me at a “one-a-day” pace. At any rate, this is not the last you’ll be hearing from me, regarding Edmond Dantes!

In the Past Month

Peggy Martin, my climbing rose, is one thing that has burst forth in the past month.

Writing-wise, 2018 was a blur. Here’s the best way to sum it up: my ambitions definitely overshot my capacity. I was so worked up about re-writing my second novel, and finishing a draft of my 3rd, that I put a lot of other things on hold. And that accumulation of other things continued into the first 2 months of 2019.

But on the first of March, I finally turned over a draft of number 3 to my editor. And I’ve spent the past six weeks. . .doing. . .well, I haven’t really accomplished anything, but I’ve done a lot of thinking. About how I want to write and publish moving forward. And about how I can go about balancing my day job with my writing vocation with my family and life in general, while carving out space for the pastimes I really enjoy.

For one thing, I’ve been reading a lot more. And I’m realizing just how much I missed it. The kind of reading that pulls you in for a nice, long, story and opens your eyes to the world and its history. I can’t downplay just how much I’ve relied on the Serial Reader app for my renewed reading habit. After I finished Moby-Dick, I read H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” by Ida B. Wells, and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

In terms of quick reviews: I was mostly put off by H.P. Lovecraft’s writing, but liked his descriptions of Cthulhu. I’m a new fan of Ida B. Wells, and can’t fathom the courage she possessed to write so plainly about the terrifying reality she lived. And the 2,500-year-old The Art of War has really held up. Though I kept thinking Sun Tzu might have invented the listicle: “There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army,” “There are five essentials for victory,” etc.

I started Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo on April 1, but it’s a long one, and I’m going to be reading it for the next several months. It’s been an easier read than Moby-Dick so far, though. I’m sure there will be some future posts on the tale of Edmond Dantes.

Outside of my phone, I’ve been reading a hardcover version of The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. I’m almost halfway through, and I love it. A blurb on the back by author Cathleen Schine calls it “a novel about loss and the loneliness of writing and imagination. . .” More apt descriptions: “intense and elegant,” “gorgeously spare.”

I only read it at home, on the weekends, because it was loaned to me and I don’t want to mess it up. So I feel a bit guilty for having it so long. (I promise to return it to you soon, Mel!)

So that’s it for now, about me getting reacquainted with my pastimes. And I haven’t even touched my Netflix viewing yet. 🙂