Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson

Spoilers below.

This experimental book takes place in one day in June 1923, as Clarissa Dalloway prepares for and then gives a very successful high society party. In parallel, we follow the story of Septimus Smith, who has shell shock after witnessing the death of his friend during the war.

This was a very difficult book to listen to in audio, and I suspect it is equally difficult to read. The problem is that it is omniscient stream-of-thought and since it jumps around from character to character it is not always clear who is doing the thinking. You have to guess from context which person is thinking, and even after you’ve guessed that it’s not always clear (due to pronouns without antecedents) whether one character is thinking, or the other character is thinking about the first character. I had to read a description of the plot before I was able to get a clear version of the story, and after that my listening went much more smoothly, and I was able to understand what was going on.

There are a lot of ways to analyze this book. I could analyze the (paleo)modernist philosophy which rejects realism and rewrites, parodies, and incorporates ancient classical literature. (For a definition of paleomodernism, check out lecture 1 summary of the Literary Modernist Teaching Company course).  But I’m not yet comfortable enough with the philosophy to give an accurate interpretation. (This month is dedicated to modernist literature for the Reluctant Romantic Challenge, hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey; however, I have not yet learned enough about the genre. This is my first modernist review.)

Another way of analyzing Mrs. Dalloway is more straightforward. Clarissa and Septimus are parallel characters who respond to their predicament with opposite actions. They are both very lonely and isolated people. Clarissa is lonely despite being surrounded by people. She recognizes the false sincerity of the friends she invites to her party. Her husband is unable to tell her he loves her. Her daughter is being “stolen away” by a religious fanatic. (That’s one thing I do know about modernism, they often reject religion.) During the course of the day, three former flames, all rejected by her, appear – seemingly out of nowhere. She spends a lot of time thinking about why she rejected them. In fact, she seems quite obsessed with the past and ignores the present. 

Septimus, on the other hand, feels isolated because he is suffering from a severe form of “shell shock” (now called PTSD) after losing a friend in the war. He, likewise focuses more on the past than on the present. Unlike Clarissa, who rejected people who could have been too consuming or controlling and thus ended up with insipid people in her life, Septimus is surrounded by control – mainly by his doctors who don’t understand what is wrong with him. Another difference is that Septimus commits suicide at the end. Although Clarissa has contemplated suicide, when she hears about the suicide of this young stranger, she realizes how much she loves life despite the loneliness. 

I imagine this contrast of parallel characters appears frequently in ancient classical literature, though I can’t think of specific examples since this, too, is a genre I am woefully under-read in. 

War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells
Narrated by Greg Wagland
Spoiler alert!

When a pod crashes just outside London, our intrepid observer (unnamed protagonist) is at first curious. He watches as a lid slowly unscrews itself, and an alien crawls out. He only makes a run for it when green lightening chases down the watching crowd, scorching them all to death. He runs home, takes his wife to an out-of-the-way town, and for some idiotic reason heads back home. The rest of the book is his adventures on the way back to his wife. It also contains a short couple of chapters about the adventures of his brother in London – just to add some greater perspective of the story. 


Despite the name of this story, War of the Worlds is about three pods that land in the London area it is not an en masse invasion. I think it’s interesting that yet again Wells wrote a book where the characters remain completely unnamed. Perhaps that’s meant to make the story more “autobiographical” or simply to say that events, not names, matter when something like this happens. I like to think of it as the second choice. 

If you’ve read past my spoiler alert, then you don’t mind if I mention that in the end of the book all of the aliens died from bacterial infection because they were not immune to disease on Earth. I think this ending was quite creative and forward thinking at the time. It also gives the reader a feeling of no control. No. We didn’t destroy the aliens with our brains and technology and sheer will to live. They were going to destroy us, and that’s that. But something completely out of our control is what saved us in the end. 

I thought this ending was quite fascinating when I read the book as a teenager. Then, when the Tom Cruise movie came out one of my friends told me “don’t see it, it has the stupidest ending, I’ve heard.” So I expected something really darned stupid to happen at the ending. When it ended, she turned to me to say “I told you so” when I pointed out that this is exactly how the book ended. She was like “it was based on a book?” That gave me a perspective that perhaps an ending outside of our control is too philosophical for most readers/movie watchers of the day? Perhaps we just want to see ourselves be in control of our own fate? 

I think it’s interesting to note that the ending to Independence Day also had a similar ending – a virus killed the aliens, but in this case it was technological warfare and not a biological infection that we had no control over. So metaphorical disease was there, just as in War of the Worlds, but the power was in our hands. 

I’m trying to think of some modern books (besides outwardly religious ones) where a similarly dire situation is turned around by something outside of our control. If I recall, there’s a very popular Stephen King novel that ends in a deus ex machina sort of way. 


Sons, by Pearl S. Buck

Sons (The Good Earth Book 2)
by Pearl S. Buck, narrated by Adam Verner

This second book of The Good Earth trilogy picks up exactly where the first book, The Good Earth, left off. Wang Lung, the protagonist of the first story, is on his deathbed and his sons solemnly promise not to sell this precious land. But as time passes, the men who have barely known the sweat and blood that went into that land begin to sell it off piece by piece. Meanwhile, Wang “The Tiger” has become a rising warlord. In distant parts of China, a revolution is gaining force. The story takes place in a time of warlords between between Imperial China and WWII. It focuses most of its attention on Wang the Tiger and his slow rise to power, though it jumps over to Wang Lung’s other sons frequently. 


This book was powerful – almost as powerful as the first. It was a story of disintegration and rebellion. It showed how dedicated sons of a hard-working land-owner can become soft and negligent with wealth. The sons of Wang Lung rebel against his wishes not to sell his land. Their sons become even softer and less willing to fight for the wealth they’ve been born into. And, of course, the seeds of revolution are rumored but never seen. 

Buck’s writing is as subtle as it is powerful. I found myself learning a bit of Chinese history while listening, even though there was no outright explanation of what was going on. It just became clear. What’s more, it made me want to read more about the fall of Imperial China, the time of warlords, and the subsequent revolution. To me, the fact that she can teach and make me crave to learn more shows what a fantastic author she is. I definitely recommend that everyone interested in classics pick up a copy of The Good Earth. And if they really enjoyed it, this is a fantastic sequel.


Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016

Women’s Classic Literature Event
Hosted by the Classics Club

Ok. I’ve broken down and decided to join the Women’s Classic Literature Event with the Classics Club. “Why do you say ‘broken down'” You ask? Because I’m trying to only join events that will supplement my personal reading goals or introduce me to bloggers with common interests. After thinking about it, I’ve decided that this challenge fits those needs. I’m starting today. 

I hate making lists of books to read, because I will not stick to it – in fact, writing my Classics Club list was stressful enough. But here are the books (8 of 54 – oh sad, sad day; I’m embarrassed) on my Classics Club list that are by female authors – I will try to focus on them this year as much as feasible. 

  1. Persuasion, Jane Austen
  2. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  3. The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath
  4. Ten Days in a Mad-House, Nellie Bly
  5. North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell
  6. Middlemarch, George Elliot
  7. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
  8. Cotillion, Georgette Heyer
Furthermore, Ali @heavenali is maybe hosting a Woolf-a-long through 2016, though its structure is still a little up in the air. I told her that the books by Woolf that I am interested in reading are: Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, The Waves, and Between the Acts.

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, by Alexander Heidel

This classic book published in 1946 begins with a short introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh, gives Heidel’s translation of the Epic, and finally provides a comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other Mesopotamian tablets with similar stories. Heidel’s translation is organized into tablet format, with fragments and unsure translations represented with an ellipsis and brackets.
Heidel begins his comparison with a chapter about death and the afterlife. In Mesopotamian literature, gods can die, evil was innate because humans were formed from the blood of a “bad” god, and there was an afterlife in which a person carried the objects buried with him into the afterlife. In Hebrew tradition, the one God can not die – he lives forever. However, there is a concept of original sin, similar to the Mesopotamian belief of innate evil. There seems to be some contradiction about whether Hebrews believed that there was an afterlife or not – most likely because of different beliefs of different sects.
The Mesopotamians partook in ancestor worship, which suggested that the ancestors could somehow intercede on behalf of their descendants. On the other hand, in Hebrew culture, there doesn’t seem to be any contact between the spirits of the dead and the living people.
The second, and final, chapter of Heidel’s book compares the Utnapishtim’s flood story that took place in the Epic of Gilgamesh with Noah’s flood story that took place in the Old Testament. There are obvious similarities. Utnapishtim and Noah both built ships to save them from a massive flood that the gods (or God) unleashed on the earth. They collected a male and female of every animal so that they could repopulate the earth. And at the end they released birds to let them know if the flood had subsided. Both the gods and the one God promised never to kill off humanity with such a calamity again.
But there were some interesting differences. First of all, Utnapishtim was not directly told of the flood. Nobody was meant to be told. But a god that favored Utnapishtim whispered to him through the wall of his home while Utnapishtim was sleeping. He told Utnapishtim to lie to the people around him – saying that one of the gods hated him, and that in order to save the entire community, he must leave in a ship. If the community helped Utnapishtim build the ship, they would be rewarded with a season of plenty, which would start with a “wheat-rain.” The community built the ship. Utnapishtim loaded on his family and his entire household of servants. At the end of the story, not all of humanity had died – just most of them. Some had survived the flood.
In the Old Testament, Noah was told directly by God to build a ship. He was asked to warn the community – telling them they must repent. The community did not repent. Noah built the ship and took only his family with him. All of humanity died.
Finally, Heidel discussed arguments of whether the Old Testament story had been derived directly from the Gilgamesh Epic, or if they had the same origins from a different source. He also wrote an interesting, though incredibly theoretical discussion about whether the flood really did happen, and what could have caused such a flood.
In the end, this book was very interesting, though I was hoping for a little more from it. However, I’m not quite certain what I expected, or why I expected it. After all, it delivered what was promised in the title. I think part of my higher expectations came from the fact that pretty much every list of references for studying the Gilgamesh Epic included this book.
Besides the rather silly overly-detailed theoretical discussions about the origins of the flood, one other thing I found annoying about this book was his over-use of the word “obviously.” These points were certainly not obvious to me, so why did he keep using that word? Perhaps his target audience was nothing like me.
3.5 stars for excellent research and being a classic reference book for Gilgamesh Epic.

Gilgamesh Translations

When I chose to read Epic of Gilgamesh, I had a difficult time choosing which translation to use. Did I want a prose translation which flowed freely instead of showing me all the sections that were questionable and fragmented? Did I want a translation which showed me how the tablets were separated and where the fragments were? Luckily, I had access to both types of translation, and read both of them. In addition, I also listened to an adaptation of the various translations. There were pros and cons of each approach. 

English version with an introduction by N. K. Sandars

This just happened to be sitting on my dad’s bookshelf, so I snatched it up. It’s a prose translation which separates the narrative into six “chapters:” Prologue, The Coming of Enkidu, The Forest Journey, Ishtar and Gilgamesh and the Death of Enkidu, The Search for Everlasting Life, The Story of the Flood, The Return, and The Death of Gilgamesh. In addition, this included a lengthy introduction. Of the written translations, I admit to enjoying this one more than the verse translation. Although it is important to some people (especially scholars) to see what portions of the text are questionable and where the fragments are, I don’t think that information is important to my enjoyment of the story. To me, the important part is to understand the meaning of the story. So this translation was quite enjoyable. 

The Norton Critical Edition
Translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster
This translation was in the “original” eleven tablet format – as it was discovered (in part) in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Like the translation by Sandars, this book had a lengthy introduction, but it also had footnotes and a lot of supplementary sources. There were several translations of related stories (also discovered in tablet format), and there were essays written by Gilgamesh experts. Thus, although I found the […] and question marks indicating fragmented and questionable translation disruptive, I found the supplementary information in this book well worth reading. So this book was just as valuable to me as the Sandars translation. 

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels
by Alexander Heidel

I wasn’t a huge fan of this translation, though it’s a classic that many scholars use as one of their base translations. It, like the Foster translation, is in fragmented verse. Only, it didn’t have the annotations. And the typeset in my book was difficult to read. I’d say the benefit of reading this book rather than the Norton Critical Edition is that it is a classic translation and includes Heidel’s analysis about Old Testament parallels. 

Stephen Mitchell’s adaptation of Gilgamesh Epic –
adapted from several translations in English
Read by George Guidall
Wow. This reading was fantastic. I want to get every audiobook ever read by Guidall – and he’s narrated a lot. What’s interesting about this book is that it is not a translation of Gilgamesh. Nor does Mitchell claim to be a Gilgamesh scholar. He simply wanted to bring to life the story in powerful language rather than stilted precise translation. Therefore, he used every English translation he could get his hands on, and adapted them into a powerful verse epic. No changes were made to the story. Trust me. I would have noticed after reading two different translations of the story. There were only a few times where I felt that the language was unfitting to either of the translations I read – he tended to use more shocking (rude) words than the other two translations. 

I read a criticism of this adaptation which complained that it inappropriately made the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu homoerotic – but the possible implication of homosexual love between the two was present in both of the other translations I read. I think it may have been more evident in this adaptation because of the powerful language Mitchell used. But it was not inappropriate given the context. He was just taking the story that was there and conveying it with powerful words rather than exact translation. 

So which of these books would I suggest you read? Depends on what you want to get out of it. Do you want to just read and get the gist of the story? I’d go with the Mitchell adaptation – audiobook if possible, but that’s not necessary. The Sandars translation is also quite readable. If you want precision in fragments or a lot of analysis essays, go for the Norton Critical Edition. 

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: 

Carmilla, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Carmilla, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, narrated by Megan Follows

Spoilers. Sorry. 😦 It’s hard to discuss a book well without spoilers.

Despite the very modern look of this cover, this novella is one of the first vampire books, predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 26 years. It was a serial story published in the magazine The Dark Blue from 1871 to 1872. Carmilla is narrated by a sweet, lonely girl named Laura, who is stuck with her father in a castle far from any company. She is eagerly expecting the arrival of a new friend, ward of her father’s friend General Spielsdor. Just before their expected arrival, a letter informs Laura and her father that the girl has died suddenly, and the General is on a quest to discover the murderer. 

Almost immediately upon reading this letter, there is a carriage accident involving a lady and her young, amazingly beautiful, daughter. The mother says that she must move on immediately, but the child is sick so she’ll have to leave her in the next town. Laura’s father insists that they keep the child as a ward – she will make a fine friend for Laura. 

Sure enough, Laura and Carmilla become tight friends – in fact, creepily tight. Carmilla is almost homosexual in her adoration of Laura. It would be easy to discount such female-love because in the era in which this book was written lesbianism wasn’t really considered an open possibility. I could easily shrug it off as intimacy which was acceptable at the time the book was written. But even Laura is a little creeped out by Carmilla’s love for her. 

Soon, lower-class girls in the neighborhood start dying of a strange wasting disease. Meanwhile, Carmilla mysteriously locks herself in her room at night, and doesn’t descend until afternoon. Laura is haunted by terrifying dreams of monsters at night, and begins to waste away herself. 

Just in the nick of time, General Spielsdor arrives, telling a strange story of a young, strikingly beautiful, girl who was left in Spielsdor’s care after the mysterious mother needed to leave town suddenly. Spielsdor was convinced that the child was a vampire and had murdered his sweet ward, and then had left town after he’d tried to impale her with his sword. The similarities in the stories were discovered, and Carmilla was henceforth dispatched.

I think the parallels between this story and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are quite striking. They both have a vampire hunter tracing the movements of the abomination. Both vampires sneak in at night and attack the victim several times before death occurs. Carmilla turned into a large cat instead of a dog, as in Dracula, but both vampires slept in coffins. On the other hand, it’s been a while since I’ve read Dracula, but I’m pretty certain he was unable to withstand sunlight, whereas Carmilla moved freely throughout the day. The parallels are likely due to use of the same primary sources of Slavic vampire folklore.

Some consider this book to be the prototype for lesbian vampires; however, as I said above, lesbianism was considered impossible at the time – Queen Victoria declared it so in 1885 when lesbianism was about to be criminalized. So clearly lesbianism could not have been implied. (Though, I suppose, this story was written before lesbianism was royally decreed impossible.)

I enjoyed this book a lot. The narration moved along quite nicely, and the book was short and to-the-point. I would recommend it to anyone who find vampire folklore to be interesting.

References

Le Fanu, J Sheridan. (2010) Carmilla: A Vampyre Tale [BBC Audio Version. Follows, Megan (na).] Retrieved from audible.com.