I don’t usually review classic works for reasons I’ve spoken of before but which largely boil down to laziness. If I’m going to review classics it’s not enough to talk about how the story made me feel. I need to talk about the author and their lives, and how those lives reflect in their writing, what tools we can use to interpret their work and what, if any relevance do they still have today. If you want that sort of detailed analysis, then this blog isn’t for you. What you’re looking for is an English lit class. I’m going to review this book and its stories today because I don’t have anything else to talk about and I’m (still) avoiding talking about my actual writing.
To start with, this book introduced me to the writing of a few literary greats which I hadn’t had the chance to read yet: Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and John Updike. It also gave me a chance to form a firm opinion on some others whose work I’d read before: Rudyard Kipling, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Chinua Achebe, and Virginia Woolf. Happily, it also introduced me to some authors who I’d never even heard of and in many cases whose works were a delight to read. Below are my completely candid, unsophisticated and largely uneducated thoughts on these stories.
Bartleby the Scrivener
This was an infuriating story to read. Throughout the whole thirty pages of it I was tearing out my hair in the manner one does when watching a horror movie in which the stupid teenagers insist on investigating the suspicious sounds, completely alone, in the dark. “Don’t open the door!” you scream in frustration, flinging your bowl of popcorn at the television, spooking the dog and causing your spouse to roll their eyes at you. Similarly I found myself shouting, “Just turf his obstinate ass!”, throwing my bowl of popcorn at the book, spooking the bird and causing Alex to ask what the hell was wrong with me. I really couldn’t connect with the protagonist’s strange sense of charity toward Bartleby, which really probably says more about my quality as a person than the quality of the story.
Guy de Maupassant
I’m almost one hundred percent positive I’ve read this story before or if not it, then one very similar. It’s not a very unique story. O. Henry must have written dozens like them on his toilet paper. Chances are if you’ve sat through thirty minutes of any sitcom (I feel for you), you’ve seen this story. A financially strapped, yet high society minded woman borrows a diamond necklace from her friend, and then promptly loses it. She and her husband then work their asses off to buy a new necklace, during which time miss priss learns the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Finally she works up enough money to buy an exact replica of the necklace she lost. But when she returns it and confesses what had happened, her amused friend informs her that the original necklace was a fake and worth only a fraction of the cost of the real one (cue laugh track).
The Death of Ivan Ilych
I liked this one. In fact, I loved it. I’d read it again, just not when I’m feeling sick. Or depressed. Or really any sort of melancholy. I was excited to read it as lately I’ve heard so much about it, and I can now agree that Tolstoy does know his way around words. Like, damn. The whole story is an account of a man from the peak of his life until his death. With emphasis on the death and the dying part. He goes through all the stages of grief as he degrades on the pages right before our eyes. I could most acutely empathize with his growing malcontent with doctors and their high-minded thought that if they can’t find anything wrong with a patient then there must not be anything wrong with the patient. Puh. If only Ivan had had webMD this story may have ended very differently.
The Man Who Would Be King
I’m going to take a stab in the dark and assume, without any previous knowledge, that Kipling lived in early twentieth century India. Am I right? Yeah? Hot damn. I mean, I had my suspicions after The Jungle Book and The Courting of Dinah Shadd but after reading The Man Who Would Be King I got to thinking that there may just be a bit of a pattern here. Despite Kipling setting his stories in one of the richest cultural environments I can think of, his writing is as dry as plain, stale toast. Buried in sand. Even a story that features a crucifixion and a bloody beheading takes way too long and three too many naps to get through. Not my favorite story in the collection.
The Yellow Wallpaper
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
If this story were a person it would be of the sort that you back away from slowly while avoiding eye contact. I’m fairly certain it’s a commentary on postpartum depression, and the absurd way in which mental illness in women was treated back in the day, but damn. This story is just freaky. A lot of it calls up this quote from Jane Eyre:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: But women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.
Basically it’s a story of a woman who went a bit loopy and is taken to the country by her husband to recover, except he pretty much confines her to her bedroom and won’t let her do anything that he feels is strenuous. Anyone who has ever had to spend three or more days in bed with the flu knows that by the third day it’s a special kind of mental torture to not have anything to do all day. Eventually the protagonist figures that the wallpaper in her room is out to get her and loses it entirely. It’s a good story, is what I’m saying.
Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
If you look very closely at the last period of this story you can see M. Night Shyamalan winking at you. I’m serious, go see for yourself.
The Lady with the Toy Dog
Does the Chekhov’s Gun rule apply to items within a story’s title? ‘Cause if it does, I’m disappointed that the dog in this story didn’t shoot someone in the face. For someone who has such an energetic piece of story-telling advice attributed to him, The Lady with the Toy Dog is actually kind of boring, especially coming after The Fortune-Teller. It’s a pretty standard story of an adulterous affair between a jaded older man and a beautiful, naive young woman. They meet, have a few twists in the sheets and then she returns to her husband. Only then does the protagonist realize how unfortunate it is that he is actually in love with his guilt ridden mistress. He crosses the country to see her again where they continue their affair for a time before both of them realize that they can’t continue on in that manner, in secret. The last paragraph ends the story in chilling vagueness. On second thought, maybe the dog does shoot them both.
How Old Timofei Died with a Song
Rainer Maria Rilke
This one had a frame story so disconnected from the actual story that I forgot all about it by the end–and the whole piece itself is only four and a half pages long. It kind of reads like a fairy tale except without any magic or fairies or enchanted sticks. So not like a fairy tale at all I guess. I’m not entirely sure what this story is about. It’s a lot of events stitched together and none of them have more prominence than another so, yeah. It’s a fairy tale.
The Path to the Cemetery
Or Old Man Yells at Cloud, whichever you prefer. In this story an ugly old man walks down a path toward the cemetery to pay his respects to the family he lost, along with everything else in his life. Along the way, a strong, beautiful young man rides by on his bicycle and old man flies into an apoplectic rage because symbolism. He chases after the youth and knocks him off his bike. The young man, understandably pissed shoves the old man down, gets on his bike and rides away, leaving the old man foaming at the mouth and raving about the nerve of young people who dare ride their bicycles on the path to the cemetery. Yup.
The Prussian Officer
D. H. Lawrence
Good god, the homoeroticism in this story! I mean, I know it was written by D. H. Lawerence but wow! Every single scene between the Captain and the orderly is absolutely charged with sexual tension. Even the last scene between them feels like a great erotic release of frustration. I can’t be the only one who read it this way, can I? Can I? (Cue crickets.)
Oh, Joyce, but you take a long time to get to a simple point, don’t you? This story seems way, way longer than four pages.
Mrs. Frola and Mr. Ponza, Her Son-in-Law
Ok, here’s a nice little mystery for you: a frustrated man says it’s his mother-in-law who is mad, yet the old woman claims it’s the other way round. This curious state of affairs has the whole town divided down the gender line, and yet the only person who can shine light on the truth is the wife, who validates both stories. Honestly, I care less about who is insane and more about what the wife is possibly getting out of being so coy. Unfortunately, I get no satisfactory answer to either.
The Mark on the Wall
Much like The Yellow Wallpaper, this is a story about a woman strangely preoccupied with what is on her wall. I understand that they didn’t have Xbox back then, but you’d think these women would have something better to do than stare at a wall all day. Even needlepoint has to be more exciting than that. The narrative is annoyingly stream of consciousness, which makes it difficult to follow. If I wanted to listen to an ADD wandering of random thoughts vaguely connected, I’d go sit in a quiet room alone for an hour.
A Hunger Artist
As noted, this one is written by Kafka, so I’m tempted to interpret it as commentary on the starved state of the literary soul forced to comply with so many rules and conventions in order to secure the means to sustain a meager life–even though it knows it is capable of so much more if only given the freedom of the attempt. Or maybe Kafka just had a soft spot for circus freaks. I’m not a literature professor; don’t ask me.
So this is a bit of a depressing story. I read it last year in a different anthology actually, but I still remember the events pretty clearly. This rich family lives on top of a hill (the rich families always seem to live on top of hills) and they’re throwing this incredible garden-party. No expenses spared. I’m pretty sure there are elephants- Really? No elephants? Well, there could have been elephants, it’s that kind of party. As it happens, on the day of this party, one of the peasants living at the bottom of the hill has the gall to die, of all things–in a horrible accident, no less. It’s obviously a plot to ruin the party. Anyway, the only decent human in this story is Laura, who still has that innocent, child-like notion that holding a party literally a driveway up from where a man just died is kind of distasteful. Well, her mother needs to correct that sort of thinking right away, doesn’t she? Of course she does.
The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket
I’ve lived in Japan for four years now, and with that experience well ingrained into my being I can say with confidence that I sort of understand this story. The protagonist is watching a bunch of kids play in the woods at night (nothing creepy about that), looking for bugs when one of the boys announces that he’s caught a grasshopper, and asks if anyone wants it. All the kids rush forward with their bug-baskets out for what is apparently a rare catch, but the boy holds out until the girl asks for it, at which point he drops it into her basket and low and behold, it’s not a grasshopper at all, but a bell cricket, which is apparently higher on the bug currency scale than a grasshopper, I think? While the protagonist is watching all this, he notices that the light from the kids’ lanterns is shining on each others shirts, and the names written on the lanterns have imprinted on the other child. So he reflects a little while on the nature of the name reversal, and grasshoppers actually being bell crickets, and bell crickets actually being grasshoppers and one day the children will grow up and find other grasshoppers that they think are bell crickets and visa versa. Yup.
The Sacrificial Egg
This is pretty much Things Fall Apart from the other side of the fence. Told from the point of view of an African Christian convert, it paints the same struggle of tradition vs. western influence, though this time, arguably, tradition wins. I can’t say that it ends any happier than Things Fall Apart, however.
A & P
Didn’t I just review this one like, two months ago?
Borges and I
Jorge Luis Borges
Thanks, Borges. Now you’ve got all the people in my head standing up and shouting about the unfair treatment of imaginary characters. How do you expect I’m supposed to sleep now with, “Why’d you have to kill me” and “You don’t even remember my name” and “You promised me my own novella”, huh? Puh.