Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The-LuminariesLet me start by remarking on how immensely large this book is. It is 832 pages long. In fact, it’s the longest book to have ever won the Man Booker Prize (it won last year) and Eleanor Catton is the youngest author to win that award (she’s 26). I’ve been working on my own novels for 4-5 years at this point, and if I added everything together, it might be 400 printed pages.  And I’m 33.  So…way to make me feel totally pathetic, Eleanor Catton.

Moving on from my jealousy, let’s talk about the book. It is set during the New Zealand gold rush during the mid-19th century. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in New Zealand before. I suppose the Lord of the Rings is the closest, only by its association with the movie locations. The New Zealand gold rush seems to have been very similar to the gold rush here in the US. When you have the chance to make a fortune, you attract all manner of people, and nearly everyone is from a different country. Some are high-born and wealthy, seeking to bring the civility to the frontier, others are rough workmen, bringing a distinctly not-civil attitude to their labors, others poor servants or slaves. And you attract all the things that survive and thrive in the periphery of these male-dominated, mostly lawless, harsh places in the world. Prostitutes, gambling halls, strong drinks, opium, and minority migrants (mostly Chinese and Mexican/Native Americans during the US gold rush, but Catton’s book features a Maori man and two ‘Chinamen’). The most unifying thing about these places, is that all manner of people who would, 50 years earlier, have never met, are occupying the same little patch of land and hoping to radically change their lives.  This is what Hokitika, the town, looked like during the gold rush:

Hokitika_township_2C_ca_1870s_2_m-1

Similar to most mid-19th century tales, The Luminaries features a long cast of characters. There’s a page in the front listing the character, their occupation, etc.  It’s a list of nearly 20 characters. That alone could make it difficult to hang onto all the facts of the story. But (again a common facet of Victorian novels) there are several people who go by false names, change their names, have several naming variations. It can be very complex to remember which descriptions, stories, and actions are attributed to which character. The book features a Maori man, Kiwis, Scots, Irishmen, Englishmen, Chinese men, Australian men & even a few women. Catton is extremely good at bringing each of these characters to life, of offering a perfect snippet of how and what they see in the world, and how those traits will motivate their actions. Trends have changed, throughout the last few hundred years of literature, in how much or how little to reveal about characters, but I think she strikes a perfect balance. Each character is almost immediately distinguishable, recognizable, but not so well known as to prevent a surprising turn of action or character.

The plot of the book revolves around a large fortune (£4000, which would be approximately £325,000 now), and how it passes from one character to the next. I think every character has their hands on it at one point or another.  It turns up as gold as fine as sand (if this statement confuses you, I recommend you watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre), as large nuggets of gold, as bricks pressed and measured. It is stuffed into a dress, in a bag under a bed, buried in the desert, stolen from a safe, hidden piecemeal throughout a dead man’s house.  It turns up everywhere, and it’s hard to keep straight who and where and why and how this gold passes through these states.

To add to the many characters and many incarnations of this fortune, the story is told through a series of parts, spanning forward and backward in time at will. It’s hard to keep track of who, what, when, and why. As The New York Times put it in their review, “it’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair”.  Very true.  I found it fun to read, because the storytelling was so good. But it’s a circular and confusing novel, and there were portions that left me confused.

The structure of the novel–as its title suggests–is based on astrological concepts.  I’m not a believer in astrology, so many of the allusions and illustrations of the different signs were probably lost on me. Each part opener identified the date, the astrological signs and their positions, but I can barely remember my own sign, let alone the other 11.

8657216However, I have it on good authority (Wikipedia) that each of the 12 main male characters involved in the ‘mystery’ of the gold corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs. The other 7 (living) characters correspond to ‘heavenly bodies’, i.e. the planets. Maybe to people more versed in astrology (or astronomy), this conveys some significance. But not to me.  I had a hard time finding my own sign in the little drawings, and I have no idea what the other scratches mean. Might as well be in cuneiform.

But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know or believe anything about astrology to enjoy the book. You do have to put forth some effort to pay attention to the shifting timelines, the ups and downs of each character’s journey, and everything said about the elusive gold. I really enjoyed reading this book. Most of the time, as Jane Austen said, “if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” This was not the case with The Luminaries. I enjoyed it as I read it, but at the end I felt a bit spent. I exerted a little more energy to get through than I got back in satisfaction, and that is disappointing. I think it could have done with a trim here and there. All of the book is well written, but more words are crammed in than the story needs to tell itself. Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, is under 400 pages, so I think that will be do-able.

They are discussing a TV miniseries, which I think could be excellent. This is the sort of sweeping Dickensian story that works fabulously in a 6 or 8 part miniseries, particularly if they actually film it in New Zealand.  If it ever plays in a format to which I have access, I will definitely watch.

 

 

The Canterbury Tales

Somehow, I managed to avoid having to read The Canterbury Tales in high school and at university.  So I decided to inflict that punishment on myself independently.

125381146First, a little background info might be in order, since few non-English majors would ever read something like this for fun.

Chaucer was born of fairly middle-class parents, but some good luck for his father and himself saw him rise to a more prestigious place in 14th century society. He could speak English, French, and Latin. At the time he wrote the Canterbury Tales, no one was writing in English. The clergy spoke Latin, and the court (society around the king) spoke French. English was the language spoken in daily life in London, and people were just beginning to think of writing it down.

Chaucer drew heavily from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a series of tales told by a group of young people hiding in the Italian countryside to escape the plague. And he borrowed very heavily from a lot of sources. I don’t think many people realize how similar many English classics of the 14-16th centuries are to other texts.  If there were copyright laws during that time, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chaucer (among others), would have been guilty of 100+ counts.  At the time, most stories were told orally. They were the same stories, told over and over, but the storyteller was judged not on his originality, but on his style in telling (and embellishing) the familiar tale. The copy of the Canterbury Tales that I have is a Norton Critical Edition with many of the sources included in the back of the book.  Sections are lifted word for word in a few places, and the plot of each one of the tales has a direct relationship with the sources.

So…the Canterbury Tales begins with a prologue, explaining that the narrator is among a group of pilgrims, about to set out on a voyage to Canterbury.  Canterbury was/is the head of the church in England–though at this time, it was the Catholic, not Anglican church.  Canterbury is also of extreme importance because Thomas Beckett, former archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in the church itself. He became a martyr and was canonized ‘St Thomas of Canterbury’.  Pilgrimages to Canterbury were very popular, quite common. Chaucer uses this journey to tell all of his stories, in the guise of many different levels of society, from the poorest to the richest, from the clergy, scholars, even women (gasp!). Each story is told in the style that each of these stations would give–the most educated tell subtle and well-crafted tales, the bawdier members tend to make quite a few vagina-related puns and tell more raucous and less moral tales.

The two most famous tales are the Knight’s Tale and the tale of the Wife of Bath. The Knight’s Tale features a very familiar plot to anyone who’s read Shakespeare. Two virtuous knights fall in love with the same woman, who is of course chaste and beautiful and untouchable, as all good women were supposed to be. Shakespeare borrowed the plot for The Two Noble Kinsmen. The Heath Ledger movie has very little to do with the first of the Canterbury Tales, but it did introduce the world to naked Paul Bettany as Chaucer himself.

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Where the Knight’s Tale is chivalrous and adheres to quintessentially medieval ideas about men, women, honor, and romance, the Wife of Bath embraces everything scandalous. She gleefully tells her shocked audience (before starting her tale) that she has been married 5 times. She talks about how she has controlled her husbands, marrying them for money, until she became rich. Then she could marry for love.  You’ll find a similar plot in the seminal classic ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna.

DVDcov_Madonna___Material_Girl_by_melliekinsThe Wife of Bath is pretty much the only female character in the Canterbury Tales that is a realistic portrait of a woman.  Some are bawdy and classless, others the silent and beautiful paragons that no woman has ever actually been. The Wife of Bath defends her own history (her 5 marriages) by challenging men to prove her own interpretation of the scripture wrong. She has her own opinions, and she won’t be bullied out of them.

On the other hand, she’s a pretty terrible person. She admits freely that she took advantage of her first 3 husbands, using her ‘charms’ to make them pay (monetarily and in other ways). She conforms to a lot of the bad stereotypes attributed to women by men, and she’s unapologetic about those flaws.

The wife of Bath aside, The Canterbury Tales is not a fun read for women. Almost every tale is replete with misogyny, often resulting in violence and/or rape. And there’s a big chunk of virulent anti-Semitism that really adds to the ambiance and makes you want to burn your house down.

When I first started reading it, the Canterbury Tales was sort of fun. The Middle English was like a puzzle. If you thought about it, if you read it aloud, it was like a game.  Here’s an example. Read it aloud.

How greet a sorwe suffreth now Arcite!

The deeth he feleth thurgh his herte smyte;

He wepeth, wayleth, cryeth pitously;

To sleen him-self he wayteth prively.

He seyde, ‘Allas that day that I was born!

Now is my prison worse than biforn;

Now is me shape eternally to dwelle

Noght in purgatorie, but in helle.

Readable, right? It’s actually really good for your brain to read something like that–a similar effect to learning a new language.

But as I kept reading, the rampant sexism and really truly awful antisemitism just got more and more and more tiresome and upsetting. By the time I finished, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m glad I didn’t have to study this in school, or to write an essay on it. Because all I got out of the experience was anger.  A lot of people debate whether Chaucer was a feminist or misogynist. The Wife of Bath is an independent strong woman…but she’s also a gold-digger and a manipulator. And the rest of the women are either whores or angels.  I’m inclined to think Chaucer a realist. And the reality of the time is women were given very little leeway, and many had to conform to the stereotypes to survive.  Is the Wife of Bath a bad person for taking advantage of her first 3 husbands? Maybe.  But on the other hand, she was first married when she was 12.  Can you blame her?

I would not recommend reading this unless you’re really interested in the time period, and can deal with some truly bullshit stuff that went down in the Medieval era.