Catching up on Classics
This is a reading group based on key prose works of English, European and American literature. We read and discuss those classic novels that we feel we should have read, but have never got round to reading. We have used a chronological approach, beginning with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and are now almost halfway through the 20th century. Following requests from the group, we are now alternating 20th century and 19th century titles.
We meet monthly in the Group Leader's house.
This month we read an 18th Century epistolary novel by Tobias Smollett - "The Expedition of Humphry Clinker". Praised for its humour by Thackeray, Robert Burns and many others, we found it more gently amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but the descriptions of Bath and London and the difficulties of travel were vivid,. It was a fascinating look at everyday life in the 18th Century with some entertaining characters. The plot left a bit to be desired, but, as Scott wrote "what the deuce is a plot for except to bring in good things?"
We had a couple of short novellas this month - "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of the Four" both by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We felt they were both enjoyable, and an easy read, but they did not lead to much discussion. Doyle's attitude to race and to women were very much of his time, which was uncomfortable to read at times, though his descriptions of Victorian London were very evocative.
This month's book, "Brighton Rock" by Graham Greene, produced plenty of discussion. Although we agreed that it was not a particularly pleasant read, we felt that it was gripping, and raised serious questions about Good and Evil, and the possibility of redemption. Is it possible to be religious but have no moral compass? Or, alternatively, to lead an "immoral" life, yet have a strong sense of right and wrong? There were almost no likeable characters in this book, but they were all very vividly drawn.
This month, we discussed a very long book by Charles Dickens -" The Pickwick Papers". This was originally published in monthly instalments from March 1836 to November 1837; when Dickens was only 24 years old. It was extremely popular and made Dickens' reputation. Although most of the group enjoyed reading the book and found it amusing, we all agreed that it was much too long, and would have been more enjoyable to read as a monthly serial. The adventures of Mr Pickwick and his friends are entertaining, but the tone of the book becomes darker as Dickens wanted to draw attention to the condition of prisoners in the debtors prisons.
No meeting to allow time to read The Pickwick Papers.
A short meeting this month, probably because there was no dispute about "The Sorrows of young Werther" by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - we all found it a depressing read, and rather hard work, despite its great success at the time it was published. Published in 1774, this book was one of the first novels written during the Romanticism movement.
It depicts the obsessive love of Werther for Charlotte, and his eventual suicide, and gained an instant cult following throughout Europe.
There will be no meeting in January as our next book, " The Pickwick Papers" by Charles Dickens is over 700 pages long, and will probably take 2 months to read.
Another American classic this month - "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. Written in 1939, it is the story of the Joad family, Dust Bowl farmers from Oklahoma trying to make a living as migrant workers in California. Steinbeck was horrified by the treatment of the thousands of migrant workers in California, and wrote this book to bring attention to their plight. Unsurprisingly, it was not a cheerful story, but we were glad that we had read it. The characters were well-drawn and there were some beautifully written descriptive passages.
Half the group found this month's book impossible to finish. It was "The Charterhouse of Parma" by Stendhal, and was a picaresque novel about the experiences of Fabrizio del Dongo, a young Italian nobleman. Written in 1839, it was one of the first "realist" novels, and has been highly praised by novelists such as Balzac and Tolstoy. Written in 52 days, it is a long book that would have benefited from editing, and while the action moved fast, we found it difficult to empathise with Fabrizio. The scenes set in the Prince's court in Parma were entertaining, and the character of Gina, Duchessa Sanseverina, was one of the best things in the book.
September 2018 No meeting
We discussed an American classic this month - "The Unvanquished" by William Faulkner. Written in 1934, this is the story of Bayard Sartoris, growing up in the South during the American Civil war and Reconstruction. Life was very difficult for Southerners then and the novel raises questions about topics such as slavery, morality, duty and warfare. We enjoyed reading it, and it provided plenty of discussion
"The Mayor of Casterbridge" by Thomas Hardy was this month's book. Subtitled " A story of a man of character", it is the story of Michael Henchard, who started with almost nothing, rose to become the mayor of the town of Casterbridge but returned to nothing as a result of his own character traits. There is a powerful beginning to the novel, when Henchard sells his wife, and the plot doesn't lose momentum. We all really enjoyed reading it, and there were interesting discussions about the role of fate, and the different characters. One group member described it as "almost Shakespearean".
No meeting this month as a number of group members were away.
This month we discussed "Hard Times" by Charles Dickens. Dickens felt strongly about the hardships suffered by the poor, having suffered himself when he was young, and this novel was intended to point up the injustices endured by the workers in the factories and mills. Although some of the characters were almost caricatures, we enjoyed reading it, and there was plenty of discussion about it.
The books under discussion were 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Most of the group had completed both books and we had a fairly lively discussion on the major themes of the novels - power, language, violence, war, technology, manipulation of history, social manipulation and rebellion. Although several group members said they did not "enjoy" the novels there was plenty of thought provoking material for discussion.
The two books were roughly categorized as a post-war warning from history of the dangers of fascism and following Orwell's experience of the Spanish civil war and the rise of Stalin a warning about totalitarianism and total unaccountable power. Of the two books Animal Farm was preferred for it's clear structure and it's clearer parallel with the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism.
There was no Classics meeting in February as we were reading " The Heart of Midlothian" by Sir Walter Scott, which is over 500 pages long. When we discussed it this month, it was apparent that the majority of members of the group were discouraged by the length and the copious amounts of Lowland Scots dialect, and failed to finish it. However, those of us who did finish, enjoyed it, though we felt that it was rather too long. Scott was extremely popular in the 19th Century, writing "historical" novels about the comparatively recent past. where many of the consequences were still being felt in Scotland. His books were social commentaries, relating the lives of the lower classes to those historic events. The plot, starting with the Porteous Riots in 1736, and then following the story of Jeanie Deans and her trek to London to try to save her sister's life, is enjoyable, but there are also long passages about Presbyterian beliefs, which can be tedious.
We had some lighter reading over the Christmas period - "Cold Comfort Farm" by Stella Gibbons, published in 1932. it was written as a parody of the overblown rural melodramas by Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith, which were very popular at the time. Many of the characters have slightly odd names - Reuben Starkadder, Ada Doom, Adam Lambsbreath etc, and the cows, Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless. Gibbons also gave us the expression "Saw something nasty in the woodshed" It is not a book to be taken at all seriously, and we enjoyed it, though we did feel that the joke had run a bit thin and the plot was tied up too quickly by the end.