11 October 2014

Read the classics

I do more than teaching and going underground! Honest. I sometimes read before going to bed. And I've been focussing on classics. I figure they became classics for a reason, and they tend to be referred to in contemporary culture, and it would be nice to properly get the references. On the ship I read Doctor Zhivago, and I started Catch 22. And I just finished To Kill  a Mocking Bird. I think I might next start Terug naar Oegstgeest! And it's been good.

I liked Doctor Zhivago. I knew little about the Russian Revolution, and I tend to like Russian Classics (like War and Peace, Anna Karenina and the Brothers Karamazov). So this was my chance! And of course I got confused about all the characters, but it was a spiffing book. And I thought it was interesting how it ended. (Spoiler alert!)

I had noticed the Russians have a habit of not being fooled by high romantic ideas. Think, for instance, of the relationship between Levin and Kitty in Anna Karenina; it starts out all Bronte-esque and swoony, but as soon as they get married reality kicks in. It never does with a Bronte or an Austen! So here too; Zhivago has a rather happy marriage, and then he gets to add a very nice affair to that. And then the revolution happens. Which separates him from his wife and child, and, finally, reunites him with his lover. Bliss! In many a novelist's work. But not in Pasternak's. Zhivago feels he has to choose between his family and his lover, and what does he do? He leaves his lover in the gentle care of her long-time molester, has a half-hearted attempt at reuniting with his family, and then just gives up and starts a new family with a woman he does not seem to care particularly about. A brave end! And it makes one think. In case of indignation, does one have a clean slate?

And then Catch 22. Quite a different book! It's fast, it's funny, it's painful and kicks the world as it still is hard in the shins. An excellent change from the gravity of Zhivago! But one thing I found deeply disappointing: in the entire book, women are just things you shag. Consent optional. Payment likely. The entire book! Come on. I won't suggest it's not possible that if you plonk a whole lot of twenty-something males in a camp of sorts and subject them to a lot of stress some occasions of a consumerism approach towards women would not occur, but the entire book? Not good enough. It reminded me of the Trial by Kafka. Also an undisputed classic. And again: women are just things you shag. Maybe less downright forceful molestation and less payment, but still, a woman is not a person. The Discovery of Heaven (by now also 22 years old) is like that too, except that there women are also good for cleaning. Yay! I hope you would struggle to get that sort of stuff published nowadays. And anyone who finds that censorist nonsense: try imagining a book like that with black people or jews in the place of the women. Would that be acceptable? Of course not. And of course plenty of books have been written in which either of these population groups have been written away as inferior creatures, but it's good we're done with that. And we should be done with doing that with women too.

And then I get to to Kill a Mockingbird. That was rather spiffing! People are people. And the issues this book addresses are elegantly presented. I'll keep going with my classic quest! Although it's become clear that classics, being sometimes rather old, come at a price. I quite appreciate the progress society has made in the past decades to centuries, and it can be painful to glance back into times with less of that. But well, it might help me appreciate how far we've come. And reminds me of how much there still is to do! So I'll just keep going. And now I know why that eighties band was called the Boo Radleys...


Jeroen said...

A belated recomendation for a classic: I read 'In Cold Blood' by Truman Capote after I read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee. (Capote and Lee were friends in case you didn't know.) In my opinion a classic deserving of the title. (As 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is also.)
Another recommendation: I recently finished 'Stoner' by John Williams. Quite a sobering story. 'Recognizable' is another term I'd use to describe it. Once called "the greatest American novel you've never heard of" and that may not be far besides the truth.

Margot said...

Ah, I'll put "In cold blood" on my wish list! I've not read that yet. Shouldn't be too difficult to get my hands on either. And I read Stoner; my eldest sister gave it to me for my birthday! And yes academic politics have not gone away yet. Luckily, society's view on marriage has changed. So no need anymore for people to end up like that! By the way, "Terug naar Oegstgeest" is not going to keep me busy very much longer; maybe "Remains of the Day" comes next, because I already have that one! I'll report back. Thanks for the tip!