Classics Club #30: ‘Tortilla Flat’ by John Steinbeck ***

Originally published in 1935, Tortilla Flat – Steinbeck’s fourth novel and the first which he found success with – is purported to be ‘also his funniest’ work.  The premise of the novel – set during the Great Depression, ‘when friendship and wine meant more than money’ – intrigued me so much that I found myself immediately adding it to my Classics Club list:

To borrow from the official blurb, the main plotlines of Tortilla Flat are as follows: “Danny is a paisano, descended from the original Spanish settlers who arrived in Monterey, California, centuries before. He values friendship above money and possessions, so when he suddenly inherits two houses [from his grandfather], Danny is quick to offer shelter to his fellow gentlemen of the road. Together, their love of freedom and scorn for material things draws them into daring and often hilarious adventures. That is, until Danny, tiring of his new responsibilities, suddenly disappears…”.

The Penguin edition (pictured) is introduced by Thomas Fensh.  I find that often, Penguin’s introductions do tend to give an awful lot of the plot away, so rather than begin by reading it, I left it until after I’d immersed myself into the story.  Fensh writes that, ‘for many who read Tortilla Flat during the Depression, the novel was pure escapism and entertainment’.  Within the novel, Steinbeck begins to discuss ‘the poor and the downtrodden’, a group of people whom he focused upon in many of the works which followed.  In his own foreword to the 1937 Modern Library Edition of Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck ‘suggests the ecological principle that an organism will adapt to its environment: the paisanos are, he writes, “people who merge successfully with their habitat.  In men this is called philosophy, and it is a fine thing”.’

In his preface, Steinbeck sets the scene and tone of the whole in his distinctive manner: ‘This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house…  when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts of men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow.  For Danny’s home was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it’.  Tortilla Flat itself, in which both of Danny’s properties are situated, is ‘that uphill district above the town of Monterey… although it isn’t a flat at all’.  Characteristically, too, Tortilla Flat features rather a varied cast of characters, all of whom are held back by their circumstances, but who, largely, try to make the best of life.

Whilst Tortilla Flat is nowhere near Steinbeck’s best work, it is on a par with Cannery Row, and shares many of the same themes to boot.  Socially, the novel is of much importance; it gives us as readers a lens through which to view those affected by the Great Depression.  Steinbeck is adept at weaving in many different themes, and of particular interest here is his demonstration as to how easy it is to both take advantage of others, and to be taken advantage of.  The prose style is rather simplistic in places, but throughout it feels fitting, and the stories nestled within stories gives the whole a marvellous sense of depth.

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Classics Club #16: ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ by Thomas Hardy ****

The Mayor of Casterbridge, as well as being on my Classics Club list, is the second choice which the lovely Katie and I decided upon for our Chai and Sheep book club.  I adore Hardy’s writing, and very much enjoyed Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but had rather a few complaints about Far From the Madding Crowd (which, incidentally, was our first book club pick).

When I began The Mayor of Casterbridge therefore, I was dearly hoping that there were no Bathsheba-esque characters within it.  From the first page, I found it a lot easier to read than the aforementioned, perhaps merely because the story here interested me more.

To borrow the official blurb, the plot is thus: “In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper.”

I loved the beginning of the novel, and found the twists which it took throughout rather clever; there were certainly very few of them which I predicted.  It did get a little stale towards the middle, in my opinion, when it became a touch more involved in the less exciting elements of country life – the price of wheat, for example.  Yes, such details have importance of a kind, and I can definitely see why Hardy chose to include them to further sculpt the historical and geographical landscapes amongst which his characters stood.  Thankfully, such aspects are not overdone here, as I have found them to be in his other books (*cough* Far From the Madding Crowd *cough*).  The sense of place here too does not feel as rigid, and thus allows the reader to make up his or her mind a little more – an element which I certainly welcomed.  His use of colours and textures is quite often sublime.

It almost goes without saying that The Mayor of Casterbridge is incredibly well written and sculpted.  I love Hardy’s character descriptions particularly; some of them here are almost quirky: ‘with a nose resembling a copper knob, a damp voice, and eyes like button-holes’.  It feels as though he really did his female characters justice for the most part here; they were not as submissive as some of his other creations (yes, I am measuring everyone against dear old Bathsheba), and had some thoughts and opinions which had – shock horror! – not been moulded by their male counterparts from time to time.

The structure of The Mayor of Casterbridge is both thoughtful and a success; a particularly great element is the way in which he follows different characters from one chapter to the next without losing any threads of the story, or any of the immediacy of the piece.

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Classics Club #9: ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre Dumas ****

The ninth book upon my Classics Club list is a French classic, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.  Whilst never having read the book before, I have seen both the most recent film and used to occasionally watch the cartoon when I was younger, so I was relatively familiar with the story before I began.  I have wanted to read Dumas’ work for such a long time, and had high hopes for The Count of Monte Cristo, even ordering the book a good few years ago and thinking I’d get to it immediately.  The length of it sadly put me off, however, and I ended up plumping for one of his shorter novels first – something which I am very glad I did.

The Three Musketeers is the first volume in the d’Artagnan series.  In the novel, the narrator of the piece has chanced upon the memoirs of the former, and sets out his past in the following manner: ‘D’Artagnan relates that on his first visit to M. de Treville, captain of the king’s Musketeers, he met in the antechamber three young men, serving in the illustrious corps into which he was soliciting the honour of being received bearing the names of Athos, Porthos and Aramis’.

The Three Musketeers begins ‘on the first Monday of the month of April, 1625’ in a market town named Meung.  The town ‘appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it’.  Dumas goes on to set the scene of the various skirmishes which are in existence immediately: ‘In those times panics were common, and few days passed without some city or other registering in its archives an event of this kind.  There were nobles, who made war against each other; there was the king, who made war against the cardinal; there was Spain, which made war against the king.  Then, in addition to these concealed or public, secret or open wars, there were robbers, mendicants, Huguenots, wolves, and scoundrels, who made war upon everybody’.

A well wrought and diverse cast of characters have been considered here, and socially, the novel is incredibly interesting.  Dumas brings seventeenth-century France to life, his scenes becoming more vivid and his plots gathering speed as the book goes on.  His sentences are often long, but they are, without a doubt, wonderfully crafted.  As one who is relatively familiar with the tale would expect, it is filled with duels and mass sword fights, all of which add a touch of excitement to proceedings.  The Three Musketeers is rich, and well worth investing the long amount time which it takes to read into.

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Classics Club #49: ‘A Sicilian Romance’ by Ann Radcliffe ***

I am sure that the eagle-eyed amongst you are noticing a theme here, but I have wanted to read Radcliffe’s work for such a long time, and thought that placing A Sicilian Romance onto my Classics Club list would be a nudge in the right direction.  First published in 1790, the novel is firmly implanted within the Gothic tradition and veers toward the melodramatic almost from its beginning.

9780199537396As is often the case with my Classics Club reviews, the following blurb of the Oxford World Classics edition illustrates the story perfectly, without giving too much away: ‘This early novel explores the cavernous landscapes and labyrinthine passages of Sicily’s castles and covents to reveal the shameful secrets of its all-powerful aristocracy. Julia and Emilia Mazzini live secluded in an ancient mansion near the Straits of Messina. After their father’s return to the island a neglected part of the house is haunted by a series of mysterious sights and sounds. The origin of these hauntings is only discovered after a series of breathless pursuits through dreamlike pastoral landscapes. When revelation finally comes, it forces the heroines to challenge the united forces of religious and patriarchal authority.’

A Sicilian Romance is most engaging from the first.  I found myself immediately spellbound, drawn as I was into the Sicilian setting.  Radcliffe moves the plot along beautifully, and the whole has been so tenderly written.  Much emphasis has been placed upon the senses and the general feel of the whole.  Radcliffe’s descriptions are often sumptuous, and the way in which she weaves in the imagined history of the castle and the Mazzinis who inhabit it is a definite strength, adding another layer to the whole.  It certainly has shades of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (review here) about it.

As one might expect from a Gothic novel, particularly one at the relative beginning of the canon, A Sicilian Romance is rather dramatic, even to Shakespearean heights in places; characters are taken prisoner and confined to dungeons, ‘cruel fate’ awaits, there are elopements, and strange goings on prevail.  The story is rather predictable in places, particularly as it nears its climax, and it certainly relies heavily upon melodramatic incidents.  A lot of opposites manifest themselves within the plot, from bravery and cowardice to the disparities between rich and poor, and from a social perspective, I found this fascinating.

A Sicilian Romance is rich and well-paced.  The third person perspective and use of the past tense which Radcliffe has made use of both work well; it is so over the top in places that the two together do not really act as distancing devices.  Whilst I was not too enamoured with the convenient ending of this moral novel, I am most looking forward to reading more of her work in future.  Ann Radcliffe’s work is a wonderful choice for existing fans of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; her writing is just as rich and descriptive, and I feel that she should certainly be more widely read.

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Classics Club #11: ‘Medea’ by Euripides ****

The only Euripides play which I had read before compiling my Classics Club list was The Bacchae, an incredibly interesting work which I read as part of my undergraduate studies at University.  As much as I was coveting the Oxford World Classics edition of Medea (pictured), I downloaded an older Oxford University Press copy to my Kindle instead so that I could take it on holiday with me as a last-minute read.

9780199537969One of Euripides’ earliest plays, and one which was translated into ‘English Rhyming Verse’ by Gilbert Murray in 1906, the edition has a wordy yet thoughtful introduction: ‘The Medea, in spite of its background of wonder and enchantment, is not a romantic play but a tragedy of character and situation.  It deals, so to speak, not with the romance itself, but with the end of the romance, a thing which is so terribly often the reverse of romantic for all but the very highest of romances are apt to have just one flaw somewhere, and in the story of Jason and Medea the flaw was of a fatal kind’.

Jason met Medea when the Argonauts looked certain to be just days away from destruction.  She was ‘an enchantress as well as a princess’, banished with her two children by Creon, who ‘helped him through all his trials; slew for him her own sleepless serpent, who guarded the fleece; deceived her father, and secured both the fleece and the soul of Phrixus’.  Medea also ‘formed at the least a brilliant addition to the glory of his enterprise.  Not many heroes could produce a barbarian princess ready to leave all and follow them in blind trust’.

First acted in 431BC, and set in Corinth, where Creon is living, Medea is an incredibly absorbing play.  So many emotions are brought to the fore, and the whole is rather dark from its very beginnings.  Each of the characters has been beautifully and believably developed.  The Nurse says the following, for example: ‘Rude are the wills of princes: yea, / Prevailing alway, seldom crossed, / On fitful minds their moods are tossed: / ‘Tis best men tread the equal way. // Aye, not with glory but with peace / May the long summers find me crowned; / For gentleness – her very sound / Is magic, and her usages’.  Medea herself, in a later Act, gives the following, rather stirring speech, which exemplifies the position of women in Euripides’ world: ‘Women of Corinth, I am come to show / My face, lest ye despise me… / Oh we are drifting things, / And evil!  For what truth is in men’s eyes, / Which search no heart, but in a flash despise / A strange face, shuddering back from one that ne’er / Hath wronged them?’

The monologues within Medea are nothing short of exquisitely crafted, and the dialogue between various players is both striking and thought-provoking.  Each and every character, no matter the number of lines which they have to utter, has a distinctive voice.  The whole is well textured, both geographically and historically, and the social constructs within it are fascinating, particularly when seen from a modern viewpoint.  In Medea, Euripides successfully adds another layer to the myth of Jason and Medea, and probes their relationship in an engaging and absorbing manner.

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Classics Club #36: ‘The Rainbow’ by D.H. Lawrence ****

Lawrence is an author whom I have wanted to read since my A-Level studies began, but I have always been put off from beginning his work due solely to the things Id heard about the smuttier (for want of a better word) elements present in some of his novels.  I decided to add one of his novels, The Rainbow, to my Classics Club list to get the ball rolling, as he is an author whom I certainly feel I ought to have read.

Published in 1915, The Rainbow opens with the characters of Tom Brangwen, a descendant of a long-established Derbyshire family: ‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire.  Two miles away, a church-tower9780199553853 stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it.’  Lawrence goes on to beautifully describe the appearance of the family, building them immediately in the mind: ‘There was a look in the eyes of the Brangwens as if they were expecting something unknown, about which they were eager.  They had the air of readiness for what would come to them, a kind of surety, an expectancy, the look of an inheritor.  They were fresh, blond, slow-speaking people, revealing themselves plainly, but slowly, so that one could watch the change in their eyes from laughter to anger, blue, lit-up laughter, to a hard blue-staring anger; through all the irresolute stages of the sky when the weather is changing.’

Tom soon marries Lydia Lewsky, a Polish widow with a young daughter named Anna.  Lydia – or Mrs Lewsky, as she is known – is working as a housekeeper at the local vicarage.  The two soon find solace within one another.  The rest of The Rainbow is generational in its structure; it follows Anna and her siblings, and then Anna’s own children.  This particular aspect of the character study is fascinating, and each member of the Brangwen clan has been realistically built and wonderfully presented.  The character arcs, and the paths which each follows from early childhood to adulthood, are believable but not always obvious, which added another dimension to the novel.  The Rainbow is not overly plot heavy, and is more concerned with the family and the choices which they make, but it is all the stronger for it.

Lawrence’s grasp and understanding of the family is stunning, and I was put in mind of both Thomas Hardy and George Eliot at times.  His descriptions are beautiful, and I was absorbed from the very beginning.  The Rainbow is scintillatingly told, and one gets the impression that Lawrence has a piercing understanding for each and every one of his characters.  I feel so very foolish for leaving his work by the wayside for such a long time, but at least I have many more of his novels and short stories to enjoy in future.

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More Abandoned Books

It feels a little strange to be scheduling a list of reading failures on my birthday, but of late, I have had to abandon three more books which were originally on my Classics Club list.  The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (entry #83) was not at all what I was expecting it to be, and wasn’t quite to my taste.  It felt a little too involved with faith and politics rather than its characters.  It was rather flat and did not pique or hold my interest, so I decided to give up on it.  I was most excited by entry #82, Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, but the translation which I started to read on my Kindle was awful.  It is definitely a book which I will get to in the future, but hopefully not in such a jolting edition.  I had much the same issue with volume two of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (entry #17); it is a book which I definitely want to complete, but I was not entirely happy with the downloaded translation, and probably do not have enough time to get to it this year.


Classics Club #77: ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ by Leo Tolstoy ****

First published in 1889, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata is the 77th entry upon my Classics Club list.  Censored by Russian authorities upon its publication, the novella is a fascinating insight into the jealousy which love and passion can create.9780141032849

Not wanting to give too much away here, I shall copy the official blurb of the piece, which gives a nice overview but does not go into too much detail: “Pozdnyshev and his wife have a turbulent relationship. When her beauty blossoms after the birth of their children, men begin to flock around her, and he becomes increasingly jealous. Convinced his wife is betraying him with a young musician, his overpowering suspicion drives him to ever more dangerous lengths.”

Some interesting and rather complex ideas manifest themselves within the story, and despite its relative shortness, it is nevertheless an incredibly rich, thought-provoking and memorable read.  The first person narrator is a wonderful touch, adding a sense of immediacy to the whole, rather than the distancing effect which the use of a third person perspective would surely have brought to proceedings.

The Kreutzer Sonata is perhaps most interesting when viewed as a gender study.  Tolstoy rather bravely goes against the norm in terms of themes and the standpoint of females within Russian society as a whole.  As in many of his works, Tolstoy is rather profound at times, and certainly provides intrigue with regard to such ideas as generational gaps, the notion of parenthood (particularly with regard to maternal feelings), and with relationships forged between its adult characters.

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Classics Club #27: ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles ****

Sophocles’ Antigone is the third and final play in the Oedipus series, and the first of which I read.  I believed – quite rightly with regard to my out-of-order trilogy reading this time – that each play could be treated as an individual entity, as the outstanding elements of the plot which were of relevance were covered before it began.

A quick overview of the plot here is of importance.  Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the late king of Thebes.  In defiance of Creon, who has taken over his rule, she decides to bury her brother, who was slain during the attack upon Thebes.  Creon inevitably finds out about this and, not willing to listen to Antigone’s explanation, decides that she should be imprisoned within ‘a rock-hewn chamber’.  Haemon, Creon’s son, to whom she is betrothed, pleads for her life, and succeeds.  As is the norm in such plays, Antigone is quite unaware of this, and hangs herself.  Haemon is then found by her side after his own suicide attempt.


As a character, Antigone is incredibly well developed.  Her own musings about her impending death and what it will mean are the perfect balance of sensitivity and bravery: ‘Friends, countrymen, my last farewell I make; / My journey’s done. / One last fond, lingering, longing look I take / At the bright sun. / For Death who puts to sleep both young and old / Hales my young life, / And beckons me to Acheron’s dark fold, / An unwed wife’.

Antigone is rather a slim play, and accordingly has rather a select cast.  As is, almost without exception, the case in Ancient Greek plays, the entity of the Chorus set the scenes and backgrounds.  Here, they do so wonderfully.  They seamlessly move the story along, and place the action of the play within a very well-constructed whole.  The Chorus are an incredibly moral group; they are essentially overseers who add their own judgements and sense of right and wrong to proceedings.  This, too, gives the whole a wider scope.

The translation which I read, by an oddly anonymous translator, was rather old-fashioned in terms of both rhythm and the vocabulary used, but I very much enjoyed the way in which the text had been interpreted.  The rhyme scheme works perfectly, as does the urgency and intensity of some of the scenes: ‘Antigone, so young, so fair, / Thus hurried down / Death’s bower with the dead to share’.  Emotions have been well considered throughout.

Antigone is not my favourite play, but it is a most interesting and enjoyable one nonetheless.  In it, Sophocles provides us with a fascinating window upon the ancient world.

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Classics Club #19: ‘Death in Venice’ by Thomas Mann ****

Thomas Mann is an author whose work I have always wanted to read.  Rather than starting with one of his weightier tomes, I thought I would plump for Death in Venice, one of his short yet major works.  I found a lovely old Penguin edition of the work, bound up with two other novellas (Tristan and Tonio Kroger), whilst on a mini BookTube/blogger meet-up with the lovely Katie.

9780099428657Translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter and first published in 1912, Death in Venice flows just as well as it would had English been its original language.  Such thought and intelligence has been given to both the writing and translation processes.  A short work even by novella standards, the edition which I read runs to just 78 pages.

Death in Venice‘s plot, and the way in which Mann writes of it, veers toward the psychological.  It ‘tells how Gustave Von Eschenbach, a writer utterly absorbed in his work, arrives in Venice as the result of a “youthfully ardent thirst for distant scenes”, and meets there a young boy by whose beauty he becomes obsessed.  His pitiful pursuit of the object of his abnormal affection and its inevitable and pathetic climax is told here with the particular skill the author has for this shorter form of fiction’.  The craft of writing, and the way in which it can so utterly absorb one, has been woven in too: ‘… their creator could hold out for years under the strain of the same piece of work, with an endurance and a tenacity of purpose like that which had conquered his native province of Silesia, devoting to actual composition none but his best and freshest hours…  yes, even while his faithful following revelled in the characters he created, he, the young artist, was taking away the breath of the twenty-year-olds with his cynic utterances on the nature of art and the artist life’.

Mann conjures up the setting and protagonists so well from the novella’s very beginning: ‘Gustave Aschenbach – or Von Aschenbach, as he had been known officially since his fiftieth birthday – had set out alone from his house in Prince Regent Street, Munich, for an extended walk…  May had begun, and after weeks of cold and wet a mock summer had set in.  The English Gardens, though in tenderest leaf, felt as sultry as in August and were full of vehicles and pedestrians near the city.  But towards Aumeister the paths were solitary and still, and Aschenbach strolled thither, stopping awhile to watch the lively crowds in the restaurant garden with its fringe of carriages and cabs’.

His character descriptions are both striking and exquisitely rendered, and they build marvellously: ‘In his right hand, slantwise to the ground, he held an iron-shod stick, and braced himself against its crook, with his legs crossed.  His chin was up, so that the Adam’s apple looked very bald in the lean neck rising from the loose shirt: and he stood there sharply peering up into space out of colourless, red-lashed eyes, while two pronounced perpendicular furrows showed o his forehead in curious contrast to his little turned-up nose.  Perhaps his heightened and heightening position helped out the impression that Aschenbach received.  At any rate, standing there as though at survey, the man had a bold and domineering, even a ruthless, air, and his lips completed the picture by seeming to curl back, either by reason of some deformity or else because he grimaced, being blinded by the sun in his face; they laid bare the long, white, glistening teeth to the gums’.  Of Tadzio, the young Polish boy whom Von Aschenbach becomes infatuated with, Mann writes: ‘The lad had just reached the gate in the railings, and he was alone.  Aschenbach felt, quite simply, a wish to overtake him, to address him and have the pleasure of his reply and answering look; to put upon a blithe and friendly footing his relation with this being who all unconsciously had so greatly heightened and quickened his emotions’.

The scenes which Mann weaves before our very eyes are often gorgeous: ‘But evening too was rarely lovely: balsamic with the breath of flowers and shrubs from the near-by park, while overhead the constellations circled in their spheres, and the murmuring of the night-girded sea swelled softly up and whispered to the soul.  Such nights as these contained the joyful promise of a sunlit morrow, brim-full of sweetly ordered idleness, studded thick with countless precious possibilities’.

Many constructs, concepts and ideas are woven into Death in Venice, causing it to feel like an incredibly rich and almost intense read.  The way in which it has been written, with the use of an omniscient narrator, adds real texture to the piece, and focuses not just upon the protagonists, but upon society as a whole: ‘A solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels, has mental experiences which are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man.  They are sluggish, yet more wayward, and never without a melancholy tinge: sights and impressions which others brush aside with a glance, a light comment, a smile, occupy him more than their due; they sink silently in, they take on meaning, they become experience, emotion, adventure’.  The novella is well focused upon the concepts of beauty and art, and how they have the ability to affect every single one of us.  Death and illness, and the sheer power which they wield, are personified throughout, becoming just as important as the characters themselves.  Much Ancient Greek mythology has also been alluded to, and I loved this element of the book particularly.

The story here is well rendered, but the whole does not come across as plot heavy; rather, there is more of interest within the writing itself, and the sheer control which Mann has over the vocabulary which he has so carefully selected.  Death in Venice is almost worth reading for its exquisite descriptions alone.  Mann captures scenes and emotions perfectly throughout, and is continually aware of the influence of the outside world upon his characters: ‘With closed lids Aschenbach listened to this poesy hymning itself silently within him, and anon he thought it was good to be here and that he would stop awhile’.  Death in Venice is a tale which certainly deserves to be savoured.

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