Wuthering Heights

by Emily Brontë

 

Though I tend to like so-called ‘classic’ novels, Wuthering Heights falls straight into a gap of Shit I Don’t Like. For some reason, I disliked Dickens, and Austen, and most of those authors from the 1800’s. (Calling Emma a comedy of manners doesn’t make it funny, or readable, especially when you’re under the gun, reading for school.) As for Victor Hugo, well, don’t get me started. Actually, when it comes to his books, I think the start is about as far as I got.

On the other hand, I liked Crime and Punishment, The Three Musketeers, and maybe a couple others, so perhaps I’m just unfairly lumping Dickens, Austen, and the Brontë sisters together because a) they’re English, b) they seem boring, and c) I hated being forced to read that stuff in high school. I’ve an open mind, though, and when Wuthering Heights was recently explained to me, it thought it sounded kinda dope. Plus, it didn’t look that long, so I went for it.

The novel follows two families living in two houses in the moors of northern England: the Earnshaws live at Wuthering Heights, while the Lintons live nearby at Thrushcross Grange. The master of the Heights, Hareton Earnshaw, one day brings home a boy named Heathcliffe, who becomes something of an adopted son to Hareton and befriends his daughter, Catherine. The narrative then follows the friendship/romance between Heathcliffe and Catherine, and their relationships to the younger Lintons, siblings Edgar and Isabella, as well as the next generation of Heathcliffes and Lintons and Earnshaws. (Don’t worry, there’s a family tree in the beginning of the book.)

While that’s pretty much the story of Wuthering Heights, it’s told in a somewhat strange way. The narrator is called Mr. Lockwood, whose name you don’t see in the above description. Wuthering HeightsHe’s renting Thrushcross Grange, decades later, from an old and bitter Mr. Heathcliffe. Lockwood wonders why the Heights is such a strange place, and his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, tells him the whole story. She’s been there the whole time, you see, either at the Heights or the Grange, and she apparently has a really, really good memory.

I enjoyed Wuthering Heights, once I got into it. I was definitely confused by the first few chapters (Who’s the narrator? Why does Heathcliffe only have one name? Are there really two characters named Catherine and two named Hareton Earnshaw?), but I think we’re supposed to be just as confused and curious as Lockwood, at least initially. And we have the benefit of the family tree, which serves as a framework for Nelly’s story. Once I’d read a good bit, it was pretty engrossing.

Pretty dark, too. It took me a while- maybe half the book- to realize that absolutely none of the characters were likeable at all. Heathcliffe, whom I initially viewed sympathetically, becomes a bigger and bigger dick with every chapter. Catherine, Heathcliffe’s only friend, pretty much tells Nelly that she’d totally marry Heathcliffe, if only he had more money! It seems like we’re not supposed to identify with these characters at all; we’re supposed to revile them. Heathcliffe, after realizing that his romantic aspirations would come to naught, sets out to destroy the Earnshaw and Linton families forever. I found myself wondering not only whether he would succeed, but whether the families wouldn’t somehow deserve what they got.

And Brontë makes it all seem incredibly personal; after all, there were really only two locations in the entire book, as well as a mere handful of characters (granted, many of those characters had the same names). She really gets across the isolation of the moors, and puts the reader in the bubble of these families’ lives. It’s pretty crazy to sit back and remember that the entire tragedy is taking place over the course of decades, and that it impacts literally nobody else in the world. Also, it’s fiction. But it feels so personally tragic, you just forget.

There is one problem I had with Wuthering Heights. Even though I got over the initial confusion, it still wasn’t easy to read. As I’ve said before, I ride the Metro to and from work, so a lot of my reading is done during my commute. Some books are easy to start reading in the middle of a chapter, or even in the middle of a paragraph; others are not. I call this quality ‘Metro Accessibility.’ (Because of the Metro… a joke about public transportation options… and the ease with which one can reach a location via the Metro? Okay. Nevermind.)

Wuthering Heights, while difficult to put down, is not Metro Accessible. The narration is confusing and the language is archaic. If I had to get off the train in the middle of a chapter, it’d be pretty easy to entirely forget what was happening. Of course, there’s nothing I could really do about this; if you read during your commute, you read during your commute. But if I had to do it over again, I’d try to avoid reading it like that, and only take breaks between chapters.

Wuthering Heights is a classic, and definitely worth your time. It’s not a light or easy read, though, so be prepared.

The Book of Merlyn

by T.H. White

 

T.H. White’s The Once and Future King being my favorite book of all time (of all time), I’ve had its semi-sequel, The Book of Merlyn, on my list for a while. I say semi-sequel because White apparently wanted it included as the fifth and final book of his anthology, the published version of which has generally only included the first four books. You can check Wikipedia or whatever for more details, but for those of you who are unfamiliar with King, here is the breakdown:

  1. The Sword in the Stone–Arthur, known as the Wart, meets the wizard Merlyn, whose inept attempts to tutor the boy often turn out quit humorously.
  2. The Queen of Air and Darkness–The newly crowned King Arthur goes to war to secure his realm, while the Orkney boys come of age up north.
  3. King ArthurThe Ill-Made Knight–Arthur marries Guinevere, creates the Round Table by recruiting knights from all over the kingdom (including Orkney), and attempts to establish a just England. Lancelot comes to Camelot as the King’s best knight, although he kind of undermines everything by having an affair with Queen Guinevere.
  4. The Candle in the Wind–Arthur’s illegitimate son Mordred uses the affair as a wedge between Arther, Guinevere, and Lancelot, and starts a civil war in England. The book ends on the eve of what is to be the final battle between Arthur and Mordred.
  5. The Book of Merlyn (published separately)–The wizard reappears and takes Arthur to a council of animals, and the group tries to decide where Arthur went wrong and whether humans are even capable of goodness.

White’s tone grows darker in each book, concurrently with the progress of World War II. The Sword in the Stone, written just before the war in Europe began, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. The Candle in the Wind, by contrast, shows an Arthur who has essentially given up on peace and justice, having been forced to sentence his own wife to death and to wage successive wars against first his best friend and then his son. In the final chapter, as he prepares to do battle with Mordred, he wonders to himself whether Homo sapiens shouldn’t rather have been named Homo ferox. This is a powerfully ambiguous ending for Arthur, the idealistic youth who had become King to challenge the idea that might makes right. White leaves it up to the reader to piece together how it all went wrong.

Given what I consider to be King‘s satisfyingly open ending, only one thing matters to me as I reflect on The Book of Merlyn: Does Merlyn add anything to King, or is White’s intended ending inferior to the conclusion of what many- myself included- viewed as a complete work?

I’m a bit torn on the subject. After all, one of my favorite things about White is that he would not provide any panaceas for the problems that humanity presents. Meryln and Arthur and others would argue all day about war, but just when Merlyn considered his position beyond dispute, he would be confronted by a question which he couldn’t answer. I’ve come to see the wizard as a literary reflection of White himself, constantly grasping at straws in an attempt to form a coherent worldview. On the subject of World War II, White, through Merlyn, declares Hitler a monster, but he also expresses skepticism about engaging in even a ‘just’ war. It’s easy to imagine White hunched over a desk, pulling out his hair, despairing that he can’t make any sense of it, that he can’t say anything with any certainty.

So in Merlyn, I found it a bit frustrating that the wizard would go on and on about how terrible humanity was, and how collective property was the problem, as if White had decided that anarcho-capitalism was the only form of ‘government’ that he could accept. The Book of MerlynFor one thing, this made Merlyn the most depressing of the five books, which even the characters acknowledge; Arthur, indeed, sarcastically threatens to go drown himself, bettering the world by ridding it of a single human.

But of course, The Once and Future King was also very upsetting at times; the bigger problem with Merlyn is that it undermines the ambiguity in whether King Arthur’s reign had accomplished anything at all. The council’s conclusion seems to be that no, Arthur was a complete flop.

On the other hand, Merlyn had always been kind of a windbag, always convinced that whatever new idea he had in his head would be the final word. He had seemed to be optimistic, if not entirely convinced, that making Arthur the King of England would bring peace and justice to the country. So in a way, White has come full circle, bringing the teacher and his pupil back to The Sword in the Stone, imagining yet again how they will establish a just society.

Viewing Merlyn as a bridge between from the fourth book back to the first makes sense to me in other ways, too. Merlyn includes two adventures, with Arthur transformed into an ant and then a swan, that were subsequently added into new editions of The Sword in the Stone. These experiences recall, and build on, Arthur’s childhood as the Wart, learning what he could about human nature by living as various animals. The humor of the first book also makes a return, and I again laughed out loud at Badger’s obsession with Marxism and Merlyn’s incessant windbaggery.

And if White did intend to take us back to the beginning, that makes me think that maybe he meant Merlyn to be a hopeful end note after all. Perhaps he wanted to acknowledge that yes, King Arthur may have failed, and whatever bullshit the wizard’s currently bullshitting about will probably fail as well, but that doesn’t mean it’s all pointless. On the other hand, this optimistic undercurrent is not readily apparent when reading the book, so I wonder if I’m not grasping at straws to come up with a happy-ish ending; still, I’m not completely convinced that Merlyn is a work of misanthropy, and that hope has lost out to cynicism in White’s worldview.

As to the question of whether I like the story better with or without Merlyn, I think I’d have to say without, but it’s a tougher call than I expected it to be. If you read and enjoyed The Once and Future King, you can decide for yourself whether or not you want to take a couple more hours to read the final book.

Cat Among the Pigeons

by Agatha Christie

 

Yea, I know I’ve been slacking recently. It shouldn’t take me more than a week to read a 200 page book, but I’ve been pretty busy lately- a lot on my plate, so to speak. I’ll try to do better in the future.

Cat Among the Pigeons is another one of those books my mom got me many a Christmas ago and I just never got around to reading. She used to read the Poirot books and I’d seen the show with her a couple times (in my youth), but I hadn’t ever actually read any. I therefore have no basis for comparing this to other Christie/Poirot/mystery novels.

Having said that, the first thing that struck me was that Poirot didn’t show up till the last third of the book. I thought he was going to be the main character, Cat Among the Pigeonsbut I didn’t learn anything about him, which is odd when the book proclaims itself “A Hercule Poirot Novel.” When he did show up, he seemed pretty tight, which makes me wonder why he wasn’t really in the book at all. I probably just stumbled upon the one book that he’s not really in, kind of like how James Bond isn’t really in The Spy Who Loved Me.

Anyway, the action here starts out in the Middle East. An Arab prince senses that a revolution is about to take place, and attempts to have his personal pilot, an Englishman, get his jewels out of the country safely. Both are killed, but the jewels disappear, presumably taken home by the pilot’s visiting sister and niece. After they return, the young girl heads off to Meadowbrook, a progressive all-girls school in the countryside.

At this point, a revolution had already happened, and I generally consider that a good start to a novel. This one, however, then went on and on and on about the girls, their families, the school, its staff, and all kinds of nonsense that I suppose is necessary to the setup of a mystery. Without a main character to anchor it, though, I was kind of confused about what I should be paying attention to, which also might be part of the point. As you can see, I’m not good at reading mysteries.

Anyway, before long, murders start happening, and then everyone turns on each other like it’s the end of Reservoir Dogs. It picks up again, and eventually someone has the clever idea to bring in Monsieur Poirot. I’d been telling them to call him for at least 100 pages, but nobody wanted to hear it. He comes in and Poirots the shit out of the mystery.

So yea, maybe the mystery novel isn’t for me. I never really knew what was going on, and I was frustrated by the fact that Poirot was able to solve the mystery and I wasn’t. It’s like watching SVU, except on the show the detectives generally follow the same hunches that I have, and the mystery is resolved within an hour. And again, it bothered me that this Poirot novel was so Poirot-less.

Cat Among the Pigeons wasn’t bad, but I expected better from Agatha Christie, who’s pretty much supposed to be the mystery writer. On the other hand, I’m also pretty sure I just don’t have the patience for mysteries in general.