Top Ten Tuesday—Awesome Classics

Today makes 11 years since I first properly heard All Things Must Pass all the way through! It’s still one of the greatest albums of all time, bar none.

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Favorite Classic Books (however you define classic) or Top Ten Classics I Want To Read <or spin it some other way…”classics” in a specific genre?>.

1. The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. I just can’t give enough love to this book, which was finished somewhere between 1351 and 1353. (You can check out all my Decameron posts here.) It’s held up remarkably well over the centuries, with the vast majority of stories feeling as fresh, modern, and relevant as they did in the 14th century. I even know my two favouritest stories almost by heart.

2. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. This is another classic which has stood the test of the centuries. It’s such a timeless story of a man going on an amazing otherworldly journey to get back on track with his faith and life, all inspired by the great unrequited love of his life. (You can peruse my Dante posts here.) The opening stanza is one of the poems I know by heart.

3. La Vita Nuova, by Dante Alighieri. It’s a shame more people don’t know about this lovely, much-shorter autobiography and poetry collection. Dante’s love for Beatrice raises the question about the line between love and obsession, but he never really crosses the line and behaves inappropriately. He’s man enough to conceal his true feelings as best he can. At the end of the book, we see the genesis of his idea for The Divine Comedy, his way of immortalizing this great love for all time.

4. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. I haven’t yet read the entirety of this book, but I’m really eager to find a good, full-length translation. It’s widely considered the world’s first novel, by a female author, and set during the Heian era of Japanese history. What’s not to love?

5. The Ramayana. This is one of India’s two great national epics; it’s a shame more Westerners aren’t as familiar with it as they are with Greco-Roman mythology. If I said something like, “I feel like Kaikeyi when her mind is confused by the gods,” I’m sure no one would understand what I were talking about. I’d also love to see a retelling from Sita’s POV.

6. The Mahabharata. This is India’s other great national epic, about ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, almost two million words. I got a condensed version of sorts when I read Devi Vanamali’s wonderful book The Play of God, and would love to find a good, complete translation. The sixth volume includes…

7. The Bhagavad GitaOn the eve of the major war between the five righteous Pandava brothers and their hundred wicked cousins the Kauravas (including their unknown older halfbrother), middle brother Arjuna gets cold feet. He wonders about how moral and ethical it is to have to kill good people, his own blood, all because of a petty feud that spun out of control. His charioteer Krishna, his best friend, delivers a sermon meant to lift his spirits and urge him to fight. At the height of this beautiful sermon, Krishna reveals his true identity as Vishnu, and delivers the famous line about how there are many paths to the same God.

Do NOT get the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translation, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. A better subtitle would be As It Is NOT!  This arrogant fool had the balls to say his was the only correct translation, and that everyone else hadn’t done it properly.

8. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu. This book has meant so much to me since I first discovered it in January ’96, at age sixteen. Every time I read it, I come away with something new. I have the awesome Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation.

9. The Hemptameron, by Marguerite of Navarre. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m hoping it’s as awesome as The Decameron. This book was posthumously published in 1558, and consists of 72 stories. It was meant to contain 100 stories in 10 days, just as its inspiration The Decameron has, but only got as far as the second story of the eighth day.

10. The Persian Letters, by Montesquieu. This book is so freaking awesome. So many great books came out of the Enlightenment, and the best ones seamlessly combined a good story with promotion of Enlightenment values. I think my favourite part is when it talks about what a great magician Louis XIV is, but that there’s an even greater magician. “This magician is called the Pope.” Montesquieu used the supposed naïveté of the pretended real letter-writers to criticise French society and the Church.

Secondary Characters Bloghop

Secondary Characters

Rachel Schieffelbein is hosting The Secondary Characters Bloghop in honor of the release of her book Secondary Characters. Winners will receive critiques from Theresa Paolo, Kelley Lynn, Jessica Salyer, Jenny Morris, and Suzi Retzlaff. Kelley and Cassie Mae will also pick a winner to receive either a signed copy of Kelley’s recently-released Fraction of Stone or an e-copy of Reasons I Fell for the Funny Fat Friend.

One of my favorite secondary characters is the Fool in King Lear. Everyone in my English AP class loved him, even the teacher, and none of us could understand why Shakespeare wrote him out midway through and didn’t do more with him. He was great comic relief in such an otherwise heavy story. Years later, when I was introduced to Akira Kurosawa’s incredible Ran, I was really excited to see that the Fool had a much more important role and didn’t just disappear without explanation.

I freaking love Monsieur l’Abbé T. in the classic French Enlightenment novel Thérèse Philosophe, which is classified as philosophical pornography in Robert Darnton’s Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. Basically, it’s an erotic novel advocating Enlightenment philosophy in between all the various forms of sexual activity, both coupled and solo. This priest is on fire in every scene he’s in! He’s got guts to utter lines like:

“Everyone agrees that God knows what will occur throughout eternity.  But, they say, even before he knows what the results of our actions will be, he has foreseen that we will betray his grace and commit these same acts.  Thus, with this foreknowledge, God, in creating us, knew in advance that we would be eternally damned and eternally miserable.”

“We read in the good book that God has sent his prophets to warn mankind and to exhort it to change its behaviour.  But God, who is all-knowing, knew very well that men would not change their behaviour.  The Holy Scriptures suppose, thus, that God is a cheat and a trickster.  Can these ideas be reconciled with the certitude we have of the infinite goodness of God?”

Monsieur l’Abbé T., however, never wins over Thérèse’s dear older friend Madame C. with his frequent arguments in favor of coitus interruptus. Madame C. almost died in childbirth and isn’t willing to risk that happening ever again. At one point she almost gives in, but then he’s the one arguing for abstention. Madame C. totally calls him on how one of his reasons involves self-flattery, saying he loves her and is too much of a gentleman to subject her to the risk of scandal! “Your second reason is so compelling you actually needn’t have bothered to flatter yourself with the first.”

Finally, I loved the gentle puppeteer Amici Enfanti in the late Ida Vos’s The Key Is Lost, one of her middle grade-level books based on her experience in WWII Holland. Amici Enfanti is a family friend of protagonist Eva and her little sister Lisa, and the girls are delighted to be taken to his house as their final hiding place. He tells them to call him Mr. Ami, since ami is French for friend.

Lisa lost her doll Freekie, whom Mr. Ami made for her before the war, and he was so upset to hear of this that he immediately set to work making Freekie Two. He tells the girls that puppeteers have a special kind of magic that protects children, which I’ve always remembered. Vrouw Vos’s books are among the most unforgettable I’ve ever read, able to recall so many details years later, but that’s one of the things that’s stuck out most to me.

During the brutal Hongerwinter of 1944-45, when the Dutch people were eating tulip bulbs and sugar beets to survive, Mr. Ami went hungry so the girls could survive. He had to be forced to start eating again when another adult discovered what was going on. And after the Canadians liberate Holland, he continues taking care of the girls till the railroad system is repaired and their parents are able to retrieve them.

Candide

This is the review of Voltaire’s best-known book which I wrote on my old Angelfire site probably in late 2003.

***

This is one of the funniest, most interesting, liveliest, most fascinating books I’ve ever read. It’s also an extremely quick read you can read in one sitting, over one day, or that you can start reading over part of one day and finish up the next day. I’ve read it at light speed the two times I’ve read it so far. It doesn’t hurt that it was written by the great Voltaire, one of my favouritest people, and the edition I have was translated by my brilliant Enlightenment professor, Daniel Gordon. He jokes in the introduction (which is also very good, and points out some of the innuendos you might not get from reading a translation) that if nothing else, this edition restores Candide’s true height to him!

The subtitle of this book is optimism, which is either ironic or funny, depending upon how you look at it. The name Candide means pure; it comes from the same root word as candidate, a word that has its origins in how candidates for the Roman senate used to wear white (pure) robes. Candide is very innocent and naïve, and remains so even through all his troubles over the course of the book. He doesn’t see or understand that he’s being lied to, robbed, or used, nor does he see his beloved Cunégonde as the whore she really is.

This whole book is a great example of Occum’s Razor. Everything goes wrong for poor Candide and his friends; they’re robbed, lose their riches, are exiled, endure a storm at sea and land in Portugal right at the time of a major earthquake, they’re taken advantage of and lied to right and left, have to constantly go on the run, get ugly and withered, catch syphilis, you name it. And Candide only goes through so many problems because he’s trying to reunite with his beloved Cunégonde, the daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Thunder-ten-tronck.

Candide lived in Westphalia with the Baron’s family, their maid Paquette, and the philosopher/tutor Pangloss, until one day the Baron caught him making out with Cunégonde and drove him out with many kicks in the ass. Thus begin all of Candide’s woes; he’s forced into the Bulgar army, endures a fierce storm at sea, and then arrives in Lisbon at the time of the great earthquake, before he finds Cunégonde again. He’s heard from Pangloss (who has since caught syphilis from Paquette, and become rather deformed on account of it) that the Bulgars invaded the Thunder-ten-troncks’ castle (which we know from the first chapter is little more than a hole in the wall!) and murdered the Baron, the Baroness, and their two children, as well as raping both Cunégonde and her brother.

Soon after this Candide and Pangloss are dragged before the Portuguese Inquisition with a few other people, some Marranos and a man who married the mother of his godchild. (Under Catholic law, people who shared a godchild were considered to be related even if they weren’t.) Pangloss is sentenced to be hanged (for his unrepentent philosophical views), but Candide gets away with only a whipping, since he only listened approvingly to what Dr. Pangloss was saying. “Candide was whipped in cadence with the chant.”

Meanwhile Cunégonde has miraculously escaped what Pangloss described, and is now living with a Jewish man named Issachar, as well as an ugly old woman who is her maid. (Voltaire was rather anti-Semitic, and this is one of the parts of the book that reflects his bad attitudes.) But an Inquisitor also loves her, and she’s come to an agreement to be with them on different days, though she claims she isn’t sleeping with them. (This claim is later contradicted by how the old woman says something to the effect that she was enjoyed sexually by both of them!) In a moment of panic, Candide kills first Issachar and then the Inquisitioner. Then Candide goes on the run with Cunégonde and the old woman, putting an entire ocean behind themselves and his crime.

They’ve gotten to South America when a local king asks Cunégonde to marry him. She decides it’ll be safest to stay there for awhile, since she isn’t wanted by the Inquisition, and makes Candide go on escaping with his new friend and valet Cacambo, whom they met in Cadiz before setting sail. Soon after this Candide is in trouble again because he’s killed a Jesuit priest who turned out to be Cunégonde’s supposedly dead brother. He gets in further trouble soon after because he kills two monkeys in the land of the Oreillons. Cacambo explains to him that the monkeys were the lovers of the two girls they were chasing naked.

They end up in Eldorado, a beautiful utopian kindgom untroubled by religious warfare, poverty, or a tyrannical despot. The banquet they’re served before meeting the humble king is truly fantastic, but their hosts explain to them that this is very poor humble food and they’ll eat much better in the king’s palace. They don’t even have to bow or kowtow to the king when they meet him. The land is littered with gold and jewels, but the locals don’t understand why these two outsiders love it so much and are picking up so much of it, since they consider these riches to be nothing more than mud. Nobody wants them to leave, but they decide they must to get Cunégonde back.

Candide’s troubles increase when he loses or is robbed of nearly all of his treasure-laden sheep on the way back to Europe. On the way there he befriends Martin, whom he picked as his travelling companion in a contest of the person on the ship who’d suffered the most. Martin’s story is far from the worst, but Candide picks him over all the others.

When they get to Europe, they undergo a whole series of adventures with many different people, but Candide never wants to stay too long even in a great place with wonderful hosts, since he must find Cunégonde, who’s somewhere in Europe. And when he finally is reunited with her and the old woman (and some other people), we know as well as he do that it was worth more trouble than it turned out to be. He should have stayed in Eldorado, or any of the nice places he was in in Europe for that matter, but is cornered into staying true to his word and marrying Cunégonde.

The main characters eventually eke out a happy life for themselves, philosophising, gardening, making pasteries, and wondering what might have happened differently if some of the things they went through hadn’t happened. But they’re reminded by Candide that all of that may be true, but “We all must cultivate our garden,” one of the most famous lines of this story. The other famous line is the one Pangloss is constantly spouting off and giving proofs for, “All events are linked together in this best of all possible worlds.”

The Persian Letters

This is the review I wrote in late 2003 for the Montesquieu classic The Persian Letters.

***

I’ve just read this great classic by the equally great Montesquieu all the way through, after originally having only read a total of 69 letters in it, as assigned by my brilliant Enlightenment professor. (We had to read 1-26, 37-8, 55, 59-60, 62, 64-5, 83, 102-7, 116-22, and 141-61; I think I read a few more that weren’t assigned but not the whole thing.) These letters not only touch on many aspects of religion, philosophy, morality, ethics, history, politics, relations between the sexes, differences between East and West, and economy, but also a compelling subplot of the events back in Persia in Usbek’s seraglio (i.e., harem). Usbek and his companion Rica leave Persia in 1711 and by the close of the book it’s 1720; they’ve really been away a long time, and things are going to Hell in a handbasket back home.

Usbek is a very powerful man (but not a sultan) in Persia, and has a large seraglio with many wives, concubines, slaves, and eunuchs. The exact number is never given, but we know he’s got a lot, including at least five wives, Fatme, Zephis, Zelis, Zashi, and Roxana. The latter three are the most important wives. So anyway, Usbek decides he wants to leave Ispahan, Persia, behind and set out for Paris so he can share in the events of the great Enlightenment. He takes along with him his dear friend Rica, and before long they’ve influenced another friend of theirs, Rhedi, to also leave Persia for the West, though Rhedi travels to Venice and doesn’t decide to go as far as France.

The book consists of letters back and forth between mostly these three, their friend Ibben in Smyrna, the Chief (or First) Black Eunuch at the seraglio, and Usbek’s wives. There are a few others, like Usbek’s friend Mirza, to whom he addresses the famous letters on the Troglodytes, as well as people whose names we don’t know (referred to as *** because the names are supposedly unknown by Montesquieu, who presented the letters as real instead of fiction).

In the midst of all of this delightful conversing and learning, the wives in the seraglio are becoming more and more impatient with their husband to come back home and resume his duties over them. And as the saying goes, while the cat’s away, the mice will play. (Or, as Stan Laurel said in Helpmates, “When the mice are away, the cats are always playing around with things…and doing something…If the mice…”) The wives begin to get used to Usbek’s long separation from them, and find more and more scandalous ways of finding their own happiness and pleasure.

Early on, Zephis is suspected by the Chief Eunuch of a lesbian relationship with her slave Zelid, but that’s minor compared to what goes on years down the road. Zashi is caught in bed with a slave, Zelis drops her veil on the way to the mosque and is seen by the people with her face exposed, Roxana and Zelis go to one of Usbek’s country houses and some of the eunuchs and slaves suspect them of hiding secret lovers in a hole in one of the walls there, strange men are caught in the seraglio, a mysterious letter is intercepted (though the Eunuch is unable to find out to whom it was addressed), and things generally are deteriorating. Even the slaves are becoming lax in their work in the long absence of Usbek. You’ll never guess who the guiltiest person is.

On the whole, these letters have held up over time, though naturally some of the things mentioned and discussed are now obsolete and seem dated and silly, things a modern person wouldn’t believe in. Letter 51 is also troublesome, from Nargum to Usbek, talking about how Russian wives love to be beaten (though this has supposedly changed, Montesquieu writes in a footnote), including a letter from a “desperate” young wife who’s furious and devastated that her husband never beats her, no matter how hard she tries to make him angry at her. Apparently the harder and more a husband beats his wife, the more he loves her. That’s just bullshit, and if it really was intended as a joke, it’s in very bad taste. That’s not something you joke about, wife-beating and how women love to be beaten by their husbands.

But overall most of the letters’ observations about human society are still true and interesting today. Montesquieu was even able to use the supposed naïveté of the travellers to bash Louis XIV (who dies during the book), the Regency of Louis XV, alchemy, Christianity, and even the Pope. Letter 24 is a prime example, talking about how great a magician Louis XIV is, but that there is an even greater magician than he. “This magician is called the Pope.” That letter is priceless.

It’s a philosophical work, but it’s couched in the form of letters and interwoven with eroticism. Unlike some works of philosophy, it’s readable and interesting because of the writing style. You can almost forget this book wasn’t primarily intended to be a novel.

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