Saturday, October 31, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Justine

I had ambitious plans to read Lawrence Durrell’s entire Alexandria quartet for the challenge in 2020 but unfortunately, I’ve only managed the first book and don’t see myself tackling the other three in 2020. My blogging friend Major called it, when he commented on my January 3, 2020 opening post for the challenge, 

I found it impossible to understand, I was totally lost, I had no idea what the writer was doing. I was routed, utterly defeated. Not even Pynchon challenged me so.”

I’ve only read one book by Pynchon and it was pretty tough going, so I’m giving the point to Durrell here, BUT I do know what Major meant. Much of the dreamy, plotless, non-linear narrative of Justine was incomprehensible to me. 

Here’s what I did get: Everybody loves Justine. Justine loves no one but has affairs left and right, possibly because she was sexually abused by an uncle as a child, the book suggests. Justine has an affair with our nameless expat British narrator. He, in turn, is in a relationship with a tubercular prostitute with a heart of gold, Melissa. Justine’s husband, Nessim, is tolerant of his wife’s behavior, until he isn’t and then he takes up with Melissa.

Here’s what I think I got: Justine is supposed to represent the city of Alexandria. Or maybe all three of the main characters supposed to represent facets of the city: Nessim the Coptic Christian, Justine the Jew, and Melissa the Greek (The Arab and Muslim population are pretty much ignored by Durrell). 

Here’s what I did not get at all: At some points, Durell switches to the past…maybe the Napoleonic invasion of Alexandria or maybe the Persian invasion or the Ottoman invasion…all which were centuries apart from one another. Who knows? It’s all very dreamlike and enigmatic.

As a reader, I need a lot more plot than this book provided. I usually have a tin ear for gauzy, poetic writing.  But I think the biggest problem was that even when I did understand what was happening, I didn’t care a whit about any of these people or what happened to them.  However, I know and respect other readers who LOVE these books, so I do think this is very much a matter of “reader taste”.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 category “20th Century Classic”.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Evelina

It might be a stretch to include Frances Burney’s Evelina as a “Classic about Family”, but hear me out. 

Told entirely in letters, Evelina is the story of an abandoned child who is raised by her guardian, the Reverend Villars, who was also the guardian of Evelina’s deceased mother, Caroline. When Caroline came of age, Rev. Villars, against his better judgment, allowed her to join her rich but dissolute mother, Madam Duval, in Paris. Mme Duval, in her laxity, allowed Caroline to elope with Sir John Belmont. The product of that legitimate union was Evelina. But Caroline died soon after Evelina’s birth and Sir John refused to recognize the marriage publicly. So Evelina, now 17, has been raised in the country, far from wicked London or Paris and knows little about her true parentage and no one in society knows who she is.

But that all changes when Evelina is allowed to travel to London with family friend, Mrs. Mirvan and her daughter, Maria, who is Evelina’s closest friend. In London, because she grew up so sheltered, she puts her foot wrong many times. And, coincidentally, she also runs into her grandmother, Mme Duvall, who has decidedly questionable goals for her newfound granddaughter. 

Most of the letters are from Evelina to her guardian, the Reverend Villers. Villars most naturally worried about his ward’s ability to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and remain morally upstanding. Not only is Evelina exploited by her déclassé French grandmother and her middle class London cousins, there are also the boorish Captain Mirvan and the predatory Sir Clement Willoughby to contend with. Apparently, the book was favorite of Jane Austen, so let the name “Willoughby” be a warning to you, if you have read Sense and Sensibility

Take heart, however! All is not totally dire for Evelina.  Not only does she have the support of Mrs. Mirivan and Rev. Villars, she also meets and charms the rich and handsome Lord Orville. And the complications of her parentage are eventually sorted out to her advantage. That’s my stretch: this is a book about a naïve girl with essentially no family who ultimately is recognized by her family. Ta da!

It was an interesting book to read because, thankfully, Evelina does get wiser as the plot advances and I really enjoyed the tour through London’s 18th century pleasure gardens and other entertainments depicted in the first volume. And the book really underscored just how vulnerable a woman was in this society if she had no father or brother to protect her. But, ultimately, the book is a romantic comedy that used artifice to ensure the lovers are kept apart, which isn’t my favorite thing to read from any century and the “comedy” aspect of it was often too farcical for me to appreciate.  Many of the scenes meant to be humorous, came off as mean spirited and not funny to me. How much of this is my personal taste and how much of this is changes in society over the last 200 plus years, I don’t know.

I read the Oxford World Classics paperback which was annotated, thank goodness. The florid style of dialogue was hard for me to parse at times and the explanations of what was acceptable behaviorally as a young woman in Georgian England were immensely helpful in understanding the plot.