Last year (or was it the year before), I got around to Adler & Van Doren’s How to Read a Book, on recommendation of fellow homeschoolers obsessed with something called “classical education.” I never got around to it then – maybe I’d appreciate it more now? Turns out, it left me quite inspired. How to Read a Book didn’t only recommend historical records and philosophical dialogues. Fiction made the list, and lots of it. I’ve added some to my booklist and am never going back.
My year began in 19th century Russia with The Brothers Karamazov. A couple old tomes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had been sitting on the family bookshelf for a while (to this day no one knows where they came from) and my grandmother had already long regaled me of her college love affair with Russian novels. Its length was formidable and the only expectation I had was a general gloominess associated with the genre. I knew nothing of the topic, or the players, or whether it’d turn out a triumph or tragedy. There was no classroom setting to warn me which motifs to watch for or foreshadows on which to pounce. I simply opened the front cover and turned to the first page. The opening passage caught me completely off guard, with a shocking conclusion: “As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.” Well. I was not expecting that.
The first third of The Brothers Karamazov introduces you to a dysfunctional family. Its patriarch, Fyodor Pavlovitch, artfully, and almost-but-not-quite parodies, every alcoholic you have ever known and loved. After two marriages (the first wife runs off with another man, and the second dies after a marriage of (acausal) physical and emotional abuse), three sons (raised not by their father but cast off to others), and a life of indulgence, a somewhat well-off Fyodor is found settled and living with his three adult sons. To really drive home how utterly awful this Fyodor is, we are also told of an alleged fourth son, whose mother was a mentally disabled woman cared for by the community and who died in childbirth. If true, Fyodor is guilty of sexual assault against the most vulnerable and pitied member of the town.
These four sons turn out in different ways. The eldest, Dmitri, joined the military but falls into a licentious and indulgent lifestyle, perhaps starting to pattern after his father. Ivan and Alyosha, the sons of the second wife, are more stably employed but have different coping mechanisms. Ivan went to a university, and his educated ideas end up playing pivotal roles in the novel. Alyosha is remarkable in his goodness, and preparing to join a monastery. And the fourth son, Smerdyakov (it’s Russian for “smelly”) remains unclaimed by his father, adopted as an orphan by Fyodor’s head servants, and works as a cook in the household. He suffers epilepsy and is regarded as possessing subpar intellectual capability.
After getting the family history, we get to see them in action. The family plans a visit to the revered Father Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor at the monastery. Fyodor and his eldest, Dmitri, are currently locked in an ongoing battle (they each want Grushenka, a woman with a reputation as the local prostitute). Alyosha is concerned they won’t be able to put on their “Happy Family” faces for the Father and worries whether they’ll behave themselves.
Well, they don’t. Fyodor seizes the moment, going out of his way to make an spectacle of himself, at first in front of Father Zosima, and then in front of the whole monastery. He rambles on and on in absurd speeches, humiliating Alyosha, Ivan, and Dmitri. That night, he and Dmitri have a great blow out, and the eldest son storms out of the house, leaving Ivan silently stewing and Alyosha silently troubled. Then Fyodor starts drinking, a burst of rage silencing Ivan’s admonition that he’s had enough for the day. As the blood alcohol levels continue to rise, Fyodor goes on making more offensive speeches. When he stumbles onto the topic of their mother, the cruelty of his comments can be endured no longer. The endless verbiage Fyodor spews into the topic of his second wife, and his grown son Alyosha breaks down in tears.
He had been close to his mother, though she died when he was six, and he’d always been a sensitive kid. Now, he can’t stop crying, and his older brother Ivan is perhaps less lachrymose but plenty annoyed at their dad. Fyodor is too far in the fog of drunken stupor to realize what he’s done. “What’s going on? What did I say?” Suddenly his rage has melted into a sobbing emotionalism. “I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.”
At this point, the roller coaster of emotional outbursts from an alcoholic (from the “sober” stage of demanding more, to the utter mess of being too many drinks in) are all too familiar. Perhaps, painfully so. I’m not sure, at this point, whether one raised by alcoholics would find such a novel therapeutic (the helpful “I’m not the only one who’s dealt with this”) or triggering (we’re over a hundred pages and several chapters in, and we’re still on this one socially humiliating, emotional roller coaster of a day). Ivan has no patience with his drunkenly penitent father, and isn’t afraid to tell him that he’s been talking like a jerk. When Fyodor and Alyosha find themselves alone, Fyodor continues in this drunken childishness. “Don’t be mad at me. I’m sorry. You’re the only son I’d trust. Dmitri would kill me if he had the chance. I can’t trust Ivan either.”
(Please note – these “quotes” are purely demonstrative. I finished this book months ago and don’t have it by me; it’s all spit balling summary around here.)
Lest you think this day will ever end, plenty of other key events happen here. Dmitri’s storming out includes a threat, made in the heat of the moment, against Fyodor’s life. Smerdyakov listens closely to Ivan’s philosophical ramblings dismissing God and religion altogether. These both prove important later in the novel.
But the section closes with Fyodor waiting for his alleged prostitute – the same one Dmitri has his eye on. He waits, in his bedroom, finally alone in the house. And then, he is killed in the night. The rest of the book is the aftermath of his murder.
After giving you a grand tour of a day in the life of this dysfunctional family, The Brothers Karamazov turns into a real whodunnit. Dmitri is an obvious suspect. And when he is found stumbling through the streets with blood on his hands, how can the jury find him innocent? Meanwhile, Ivan is haunted by demons – demons of his own philosophical making, demons enlivened by a secret meeting with Smerdyakov. And when the abrasively cool Smerdyakov is found dead by suicide, Ivan descends deeper into madness. Alyosha, witness to all this and more as he becomes a touchstone for compassion throughout the community, finds it impossible to condemn his brother Dmitri. He also feels compelled to tell his oddly behaving brother Ivan, “You’re not guilty. God wanted me to tell you – it’s not your fault.”
Midway through the novel, you will get Ivan’s dissertation against God, as told in breathless speech to an Alyosha more troubled at his brother’s misery than his arguments. The entire dissertation is summed up by the all-too-familiar question: How can God exist if there is so much suffering in the world?
And suffering takes center stage in the novel. The abused, disabled woman at the mercy of her community. The trampled-on Smerdyakov. The discarded Pavlovitch children. The mistreated Pavlovitch wives. Other families and individuals make their appearance in the novel, with poverty and terminal illness playing a role. Ivan introduces even more examples. It’s enough to make one want to fast forward through the gruesome parts.
This blow against God’s existence is a powerful one, and Alyosha, his faith unshaken by it, but his heart moved to compassion, does not have an answer for Ivan’s desire to believe but inability to believe it.
Then, later in the novel, we are faced with a shocking possibility: For all his vices, Dmitri may be as innocent as he desperately protests. Smerdyakov privately comes clean to Ivan, and for what reason? He was convinced by his half-brother’s philosophy, and took it to it’s logical conclusion. Ivan has argued that suffering exists, so God doesn’t. Smerdyakov takes it a step further and argues, with his actions as well as his intellect, that God doesn’t exist, so suffering doesn’t. Laws don’t either. Nor morals. Nor virtue. Nor vice. In a godless world of endless suffering, murder and suicide are just random acts.
There’s so much more that happens in The Brothers Karamazov, much of it waxing and waning on this central dialogue. We witness to imperfect characters trying to carve out corners of happiness for themselves in a cruel world. And for all the dark themes it may draw on, it was not enough to turn me away – me, the chaser of jokes and slapsticks and happily-ever-afters. No, for all the depths this thing dragged me through, it’s characters were too real for me to close up the cover. Its concepts were too visceral for me to toss it back up on the shelf. How can this be? How can concepts, thoughts, ideas – such intangible ones pertaining to God, morality, and evil – be so real? By weaving thoughts of God in with the lives of recognizably messy people, Dostoevsky makes theology, philosophy, and ethics a household affair. Suddenly it’s something with impact – something that can drive and even halt peoples’ lives.
It was an breathtaking way to start the year.
The next on my list was another recommendation of my grandmother’s. This time, I turned not to a piece from her cerebral days as a literature major, but one that spoke to her as an outspoken, iconoclastic teenager. That’s right – I now turned to the epitome of teen angst, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
Here’s another one that surprised me. Again, I went into this book with no expectations, save Nana’s rave review (and of course, Mel Gibson’s obsession with it in Conspiracy Theory). When I opened it, what did I find? The cussing rants of a very troubled, very critical, very angsty teenager, Holden Caulfield.
Holden is a fairly well-off teenager whose parents keep sending him to schools he inevitably gets kicked out of. This book begins with his expulsion from the latest attempt, and consists mostly of how he decides to splurge his birthday money before he has to fess up to his parents that he ruined things again. Sure, Holden is a little melodramatic – insisting the whole time he’ll end up in exile, a hobo hitchhiking west and settling into a little backwoods homestead far away from the society he loathes (or says he loathes), but I’m mostly convinced this is simply his equivalent of PMSing a little bit during a very moody, hormonal time of his life. Holden insists on hating everyone and everything. He is annoyed by social niceties, convinced it’s a stupid way people lie to each other. Rather than consider the social stability that cultural norms provide (like small talk, which Holden absolutely reviles), he breaks them by willfully lying – with wild and ridiculous stories – to any stranger who’ll listen (and who “started it,” with a “lie” like “I’m well today, how are you?”)
Meanwhile, we learn lots about Holden throughout the long, rambling dramatic monologue that becomes the novel. Like how he is skeptical of friends and people in general, but is very close to his little sister. Or how he smokes and drinks about as much as you’d expect given the time and his age, but is still a virgin because, unlike his peers, he actually stops when a girl tells him to. These oddities are enough for a local gay schoolteacher to presume a kindred spirit in Holden. The unwitting teenager seeks refuge for the night in his house, only to experience symptoms I am fairly certain imply that he was slipped a date rape drug. Holden makes it out before anything happens – he is shocked awake by the teacher petting his hair – but the remainder of the novel involves the boy stumbling around feeling a bit nauseous and forming fewer cohesive thoughts. I’ve heard some interpret all this as Holden’s descent into madness culminating in a check into a mental institution, but when given a vague ending like that offered at the end of The Catcher in the Rye, I seize my opportunity to create more positive endings. I think the novel concludes with Holden merely in a pre-recovery state of stupor, a few lines in the last chapter implying he’s finally found help of some sort, likely in the arms of his well-off family. From what I can tell, Holden eventually has to face his parents again, break the bad news, and carry on life as usual, rule-breaking teen spirit, anti-social skepticisms, and all.
I didn’t have Holden’s childhood. I was never the rebel child. I accepted social norms for what they were, and, if they worked against me at times, figured I’d probably have to eventually learn how to work the system. A glimpse into the mindset of a very different teen was an intriguing one, and he strikes me as a good kid with well-intentioned parents whom he didn’t want to appease by going to college. As frustrating as that may be for parents like the Caulfields, kids like Holden are reaching the age where if they can’t quite do their own thing (yet), can figure out how to get away with just enough of it.
Salinger captures a few coming-of-age tensions nicely. Holden’s respect of innocence in the younger siblings he cares for (and can behave carelessly towards) reflects his own unconfessed naïveté as he tries to prove his maturity. Holden is certainly perceptive of his fellow man (and woman) – but the whole hotel room incident betrays the remaining innocence he still possesses, in his panic and refusal to go through with things, and then in his vulnerability to deception by the girl and her pimp. Holden is not quite mature enough to be an adult yet – or then again, maybe he is, and simply needs to realize that his maturity (as well as his masculinity) doesn’t depend on whether he steps into the ever pressing social norms of his peers.
While the Karamazov brothers grow up in poverty, neglect, and plenty of hardship, struggling to find meaning in a cruel pre-modern world, this Caulfield boy seems troubled by demons of his own creation as he struggles to grow up in a much more modern, privileged world – and with a childhood he doesn’t want to trade in for an adulthood that seems, with its social norms and practical responsibilities, a little bit ridiculous.
Now, at this point of the essay, you may be wondering what the point of it all is. I’ll tip you off: there isn’t any. This “essay” is a literature professor’s worst nightmare. I am not pontificating on some main theme woven throughout these connivingly picked classics I’ve read so far this year. You will find no thesis and no conclusion. I am simply talking to myself and sorting my thoughts on books I’ve read and enjoyed, because reading is fun and if you never stop to think about them, you miss out on half the joy of them.
Nevertheless the next book, by gracious serendipity, is another coming-of-age story, though of a very different sort. Northanger Abbey was the final Austenian full length feature remaining on my bookshelf, the only one I hadn’t gotten to in high school. I loved Austen then: I ate up Pride & Prejudice after my mom gushed over it; I took on Emma as a school assignment; I moved on to Sense & Sensibility because at that point I thought hey, I may as well read all of these and this looks close enough to P&P so should be fun; I trudged through Mansfield Park and became too distracted with the whole cousin thing to really enjoy it; I finished off with Persuasion, finding its introspective heroine, like S&S’s Elinor, painfully relatable to my own quiet teenage phase prone to far too many dramatic internal monologues.
And then, apparently, I went to college, swiftly running out of time to work through another lengthy Jane Austen novel. So, picking it up this year, I naturally wondered, “But can she really be as good as I recall?”
Oh, yes. Yes she can. Better, even. Now that I’ve matured a little (as Anne Elliot in all her faded-from-youth-glory) Austen may be more relevant than ever.
First of all, remember P&P’s Mr. Collins? The bumbling, awkward fellow who boasts that he never reads novels? Yeah. He thinks he’s being smart. But the result is that he doesn’t understand women at all. The chap is oblivious to the highs and lows of social interactions and relationships across both sexes. This is probably the best argument for reading fiction I’ve ever heard – don’t be a clueless Mr. Collins. Read a novel or two, and learn something about human nature.
Northanger Abbey, however, is not just one to be read by literature majors or die-hard Austenophiles. I’m convinced it should be read by every high school girl ever. There’s simply so much to learn from young Catherine Moreland, how easily she gets carried away by these silly gothic novels (Austen’s version of today’s sappy chick lit?), and it gets to the point where it affects how she interprets reality (because you know, no teenage girl has every done that before: let a sappy, sticky, oozing, gushing fictional romance color how she interprets an inconsequential comment from a male peer at school). Her friend, Isabella Thorpe, will be recognizable as well – if not a reflection of the reader herself, then certainly of a girl of the reader’s acquaintance. Isabella and Catherine become instant friends (bosom friends, as my childhood’s Anne Shirley would have it), until suddenly, Isabella meets Mr. Dreamboat. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say Catherine doesn’t really see or hear from her much for the rest of the novel. Their “friendship” is just completely ditched, despite Catherine’s patient (and oblivious) attempts to reconnect. Isabella promptly becomes engaged to the man of her dreams, who happens to be a brother that Catherine is closest to, and who’s heart has become completely entranced by this beautiful girl. Isabella then drops this fiancé like a hot rock when someone cuter – and richer – and, oh, he’s also more deficient in noble intentions – comes along. After that fellow turns out to be flirting for an ego boost rather than as a prelude to proposal, Isabella comes traipsing back into the life of Catherine and her brother. She shows no sense of remorse, acknowledges no wrongdoing (ignoring that completely broke the young Mr. Moreland’s heart), and has every expectation to be received with open arms.
I’m serious, how many people do you know like that? Like, let me come crashing through your life, disappear, and then return as though nothing happened and singing “accept me for who I am”?
I repeat: every girl in high school should read this. Don’t be an Isabella Thorp, ladies. Better to emulate the more level-headed Catherine Moreland, even if she gets a little carried away by the sensational stories she’s mildly addicted to, at least she learns from them. And she does get carried away: Catherine ends up reading uxoricide into the clearly tense (but not that tense) Tilney family dynamics. Not exactly a smart thing to do when you’re an extended guest in someone’s home. But hey, lesson learned.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few dated details in the novel – what, Catherine isn’t conventionally pretty? How dare you, beauty comes from the inside! or Ew. It almost sounds like Mr. Tilney is attracted to Catherine for being less smart than him. But if you know anything about me at all, at least as a reader, it’s that I tend to (over-generously?) give my author, and my characters, the benefit of the doubt. I recall Austen describing her most famous heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in less-than-flattering terms (the girl is tan rather than fair – a major beauty blunder in such a time!) only to overturn standards of beauty in Darcy’s renewed approximation of her, by virtue of her character, smarts, and sass. Perhaps, in some strange way, Catherine’s beauty by cultural standards doesn’t matter here either. Maybe even intelligence and “being accomplished” (every young lady’s goal in Austen’s day) doesn’t really matter all that much. Maybe what really matters is that a couple likes each other for reasons that transcend money, status, looks, and the various skills a girl was expected to catch a husband with. Then again, maybe Tilney’s amusement with being able to teach Catherine a few things is annoyingly sexist. It’s hard to talk yourself out of this one. But the book is still a good one, regardless of such dated themes. And anyway, now, I have got to return to more Austen again soon. If any are even a fraction as funny as Northanger Abbey was, I will be sure to enjoy myself. And probably pick up on more of inter- and intra-personal richness than I did as a teenager.
My high school literary experience did not consist of Austen ad nauseum, however. Another of my reads – recommended by a girl in my class – was a book by none other than the grand, the unmatchable, the wickedly clever, G. K. Chesterton. It was a slim novella by the name of The Man Who Was Thursday, though I didn’t see that at the time, as I found it gratis on Kindle.
Now, my current college town is home to more used bookstores than I have yet been able to make it to, and I have already been here a year (gahh am I a second year PhD student already?) Earlier this semester I stepped into one of the gloriously unorganized bookstores on Pearl Street – the kind with boxes for unsorted pieces where the shelves run out of space, and corridors bend in unexpected ways to provide the aimless wanderer with rewards of new and undiscovered realms. You can imagine my surprise when, in the fiction shelves under “C,” I found Chesterton’s name. And what infinite shock when I saw not only that, but a real-life paperback copy of my beloved high school Kindle volume! Yes, I had to get that, I assure you. All the more because I remember my teenage perusal of it to be beautifully bizarre and delightfully inscrutable.
But here, I must also warn you. Because this is the only book I will tell you of today in which spoilers actually matter. In classic literature, nobody cares about spoilers. You can know exactly how it turns out before you even begin. Classics are often famous enough that most of its readers do. But in the case of The Man Who Was Thursday, the book is a conundrum on every level. Part of its entertainment is that you have no idea what the next page will bring. Even I, reading it once before years ago, had forgotten enough to be stumped as to the purpose and surprised by the end. (It helps that I very likely missed the whole point of it the first time around anyway.) So please, if you haven’t read this book before, and have any sliver of a chance of reading it ever (it is a very short book, you probably should), skip ahead to the next topic and come back here after the fact.
The Place Where It It Not Safe To Read Yet
I am a sucker for storylines that present the bizarre in excruciating detail. That means that, in my opinion, the courtroom scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is hands-down the finest scene in all of British literature. Alice is swept up into a chaotic trial – Who stole the Queen’s tarts? And no one can make heads or tails of anything. Then the White Rabbit pulls up some irrefutable evidence revealing the culprit. He reads it aloud to the court.
They told me you had been to her,
And mentioned me to him:
She gave me a good character,
But said I could not swim.
He sent them word I had not gone
(We know it to be true):
If she should push the matter on,
What would become of you?
I gave her one, they gave him two,
You gave us three or more;
They all returned from him to you,
Though they were mine before.
If I or she should chance to be
Involved in this affair,
He trusts to you to set them free,
Exactly as we were.
My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)
An obstacle that came between
Him, and ourselves, and it.
Don’t let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.
Now there is a poem I can read without feeling stupid about my inability to understand it. It makes no sense. Forget Jabberwocky; here, Lewis Carroll really outdoes himself here with excessive pontification on absolutely nothing.
That’s not the impression of the court, however.
‘That’s the most important piece of evidence we’ve heard yet,’ said the King, rubbing his hands; ‘so now let the jury—’
‘If any one of them can explain it,’ said Alice, . . . ‘I’ll give him sixpence. I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.’
The jury all wrote down on their slates, ‘SHE doesn’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it,’ but none of them attempted to explain the paper.
If that doesn’t sum up hundreds of lectures you’ve attended, a dozen seminars, four classroom discussions, and a couple nights around the campfire with old friends, I don’t know what does. At first I think Carroll is very good at pontificating upon nothing, but then realize that humans in general are actually very well-versed in this art form. And it happens all the time – in political debates, in university halls, in dorm rooms, on Capitol Hill, and around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Does anything get done? No. But you spent an awful amount of time discussing all of it. And if you asked each interlocutor what “it” is, you’d get as many answers as you had interlocutors.
The Man Who Was Thursday first appears to be a really grand metaphor for something political or religious, or something like that. And then it very quickly descends into what looks like a trial in Wonderland led by sad little cardboard Knaves and Lizards named Bill. And then, near the end, you get the sneaking suspicion that it does mean something, after all. Chesterton doesn’t really give you the carrot, however, until the very last page (or something near it). But it’s ok, because throughout it all, you get to be entertained (even without the courtesy of a reasonable plot) by the author’s infamous wit.
The hero of this story is an undercover policeman named Gabriel Syme. He’s working in London at the turn of the century. Chesterton apparently lived in a time when anarchists were known to try to set bombs off around London. So he sets his policeman Syme against such anarchists, sending him into the inner circle of the enemy team. Led by a mastermind called Sunday, each member of the council holds a title given by some other day of the week. Syme, the man who is Thursday, sits in on a team brunch and to get the plans for assassinating some bigshot so-and-so. Then another member of the council stalks him after the meeting, until a remarkable conversation results in both realizing the undercover status of the other. The newfound allies-in-hiding then successively try and stop the assassination by stopping some other member of the council, one at a time. Eventually they realize they’re all undercover policeman, running about London trying to fight crimes that won’t ever happen, like idiots. It ends in a wild chase – the wicked mastermind Sunday escapes on an elephant out of the zoo, then in a hot air balloon, until the crew is met by none other than Sunday’s butler, who invites them all to dinner. Their wild, confusing, terrifying chase ends at Sunday’s dinner table, where he finally reveals his true identity: “I am the Peace of God.” Oh really? What the devil is that supposed to mean?
Then each of the members of the (presumably dissolved) Anarchist Council responds, in turn, to the Peace of God. And slowly, the wheels in my brain start turning. Monday is angry. How dare you put me through Hell like that, and then turn around and say everything is fine. Thursday is confused, bewildered – sure, everything is fine now, no hard feelings, but it’d be nice to know why. The other men say their peace, from the childishly simple faith of relieved contentment, now that it’s all over, to the childishly, heartbreakingly simple, “Why did you hurt me so much?” Then Syme’s archenemy, the only true anarchist left among them all, storms in, with his definitive, raging arguments against Sunday, by virtue of the needless suffering and confusion.
So that’s what this is. It’s just another turn to the question of evil, suffering, and the existence of God. With all the responses of people – faithful people like Alyosha who trust God through it all, even without understanding; wavering people like Dmitri who wonder at their suffering and whose questions bring doubt; hurt and confused people like Ivan who can’t get past the notion that in the midst of this madness, God must exist – but why does He allow it? I see Monday in Ivan, and Syme or Dr. Bull in Alyosha, and Gogol in Dmitri. Each is struggling with the Peace of God in his own way. Then the true anarchist comes in, shaking his fist in the first real disbelief we see in that room. And Syme asks Sunday, “Wait – can you suffer?” Can you even know what our suffering means? Can you know what we’ve been through?
And dreamlike, the nightmare comes to an end. Sunday grows as Alice did just before she woke up, and you hear a big, booming, tender voice: “Can you drink of the cup of which I have drunk?”
Like the Book of Job, The Man Who Was Thursday ends with questions, rather than answers – but also in the bigness of God. Given the age it was written in, comfort goes beyond Job’s credo, “I know that my Redeemer lives.” Chesterton knows that his Redeemer lived – and suffered – and died – to restore humanity, suffering and all, back to relationship with the God who created them. We may never know why, but we are offered a God who walks with us.
The Place Where It Is Safe To Read Again
I am not sure my final piece of fiction for this year counts as a classic at all. It’s an old book, to be sure, but it’s not really listed on any of the Great Books collections I’ve seen. Perhaps The Man Who Was Thursday doesn’t count either, but its Chestertonian authorship certainly counts for something, if his fans have anything to say about it.
But most recently, I was gifted a new addition to my personal collection of Arthuriana: Tristan, by Gottfried von Strassburg. The romance of Tristan is only tangentially related to Arthurian legend and literature, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make for a sparklingly good time. My most recent Arthuriana has been from the flamboyantly scatter-brained Chrétien de Troyes, an author I love dearly but who does not feel inclined to write in modern terms. And by that, I mean his tales are devoid of the introduction-conflict-climax-resolution format I’ve been taught from the cradle. Instead, his tales take all sorts of meandering turns, and unlike epic adventures today, these rabbit trails do not tie back in at the end or foreshadow anything. They serve no purpose other than adventure, making the entire thing feel like a jolt around Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Strassburg comes a tad after de Troyes, so while he doesn’t quite reach the standard Novel format, he comes much closer to it. That makes his book a little easier on the brain than his predecessor’s forays into random fantastical phenomena. It does not mean he’s not also steeped in a fascinatingly other-worldly culture, of course.
Tristan and Isolde are young lovers and victims of fate in a very Medieval way. The story begins with Tristan, a knight in the court of his uncle Mark. Tristan is a very gallant and chivalrous and noble knight, which means he very easily gets into scrapes. One day he gets into a fight with a wicked knight whom he bests, but who wounds him deeply in return. Tristan will not survive unless he can get to the medically gifted Queen Isolde and her daughter, Isolde. However, he must hide his identity; the knight he just killed was the Queen’s brother.
He manages to do this successfully (and leaves a good impression on the Isoldes), but, gallant knight that he is, continues to get into scrapes. This time, it’s a dragon. The King has promised to give his daughter Isolde in marriage to whoever can rid him of the dragon. At this point, Tristan and Isolde are nothing more than acquaintances, perhaps friends, and she and her mother have healed him at least once. This time, the reputation of the young Isolde has preceded her, and Tristan is fetching her to make her his uncle Mark’s bride. So he slays the dragon, cuts out its tongue (apparently that was the way to do things then?) and promptly faints away in a bog from his wounds.
Then this wicked steward guy comes along. He wants to marry Isolde too. So he finds a dead tongueless dragon, cuts off its head, brings it to the king, and demands his prize.
Queen Isolde, Isolde the Younger, and their maid Brangane will have none of this. They ride out into the fields and find Tristan, who again needs them to nurse him back to health. After restoring him, they’ll make him march up to the king and present the tongue, exposing the wicked steward as a liar and preventing their loveless marriage.
Then the young Isolde finds Tristan’s sword when he is in hospice, and notices it has been damaged. The edge matches a sword fragment plucked from her dead uncle’s head. Tristan is the knight who slayed her uncle!
In a rage, she storms into a room where Tristan is currently taking a bath. She wields his sword over him, and there are long speeches – hers, on her discovery and that she must kill him; his, on appealing to her gentle womanhood and begging her not to do this thing. Then her mother walks in. “Is this ladylike behavior?” So the one Isolde explains to the other Isolde Tristan’s guilt.
The ladies realize they are pressed with a moral dilemma. They must kill him to avenge Isolde’s uncle; they must preserve his life to rescue Isolde from the Steward. Finally levelheaded Brangane walks in, hears the gist of it, and has some advice: “Let’s leave and let the man finish his bath; we can discuss whether we kill him or not later.”
And that, I assure you, is why I love Medieval literature. Such an old, odd way of doing things.
Anyway they decide the Steward is bad enough to spare Tristan. So Tristan marches to the king with the dragon’s tongue, ordering the dragon’s head to be opened to prove who got to it first. Tristan is proved correct, he is forgiven, he presents his King Mark’s proposal, and he whisks Isolde and Brangane away across the English channel. Except, of course, hotheaded young Isolde still hates Tristan for killing her uncle.
Now, the Isoldes are skilled beyond the healing arts. The concerned mother mixes up a love potion, hands it to Brangane, and tells her to instruct her daughter and Mark to drink it on their wedding night. On the ship, Tristan and Isolde happen upon this love potion, mistake it for some harmless wine, and fall madly in love. Seriously. There’s no stopping these two. It’s romantic rendezvous left and right, and it keeps going even after Isolde has been married to the King (Tristan’s uncle), as promised.
Whoever looks Isolde in the eyes feels his heart and soul refined like gold in the white-hot flame.Gottfried von Strassburg
So the rest of the novel is exactly that – Tristan and Isolde sneaking around a suspicious king, the king’s advisors suspecting everything and urging him to test his wife, the astute Brangane keeping up on court gossip and instructing her mistress on how to respond to these interrogations. (Is a mastermind lady-in-waiting a theme of Medieval literature? I seem to recall one crafty Lunette who orchestrated the happiness of the leading couple of Yvain throughout all their prideful tantrums and hapless mistakes.) Anyway the story carries on like this until it has a very Middle Ages end. Tristan gets wounded in another joust. Isolde is the only one who can save him. Tristan dies waiting for his beloved to come; Isolde dies in grief upon finally reaching him. Somehow it seems like such a mundane ending to an incredibly soapy story.
There are certainly some interesting themes throughout the book, however. As mentioned, a mastermind servant plays a strong female role. Isolde – the elder and the younger – are powerful heroines, and Tristan in hospice is at the mercy of these three women who find, carry home, secretly heal him, debate whether or not to kill him, and ultimately use him as a pawn for their own political and personal aims. The men may do all the glory and gallantry, but it is women they turn to when their wounded lives are on the line.
Her beauty makes others beautiful, she adorns and sets a crown upon woman and womankind.Gottfried von Strassburg
There’s also a very Medieval sense of manhood and womanhood that pervades the story. A knight’s strength and prowess inspires a lady to love him; a lady’s beauty inspires a knight to love her. Don’t be fooled by a vapid word like beauty – no, this is not a word describing a skin-deep feature. A beautiful maiden is marked by virtue and honor. It inspires joy, virtue, and respect of womankind in general. The “heavenly vision” of a beautiful, virtuous woman is sure to make “exalted many a noble heart.” Speaking of Isolde, Strassburg writes, “Whoever looks Isolde in the eyes feels his heart and soul refined like gold in the white-hot flame; his life becomes a joy to live. . . . Her beauty makes others beautiful, she adorns and sets a crown upon woman and womankind.” (And no, I don’t remember which Isolde he’s speaking of when he wrote that.)
Lest you worry that this is a Medieval soap opera, a chick flick that drones on and on about the love affair between the ridiculously gallant Tristan and the gushingly beautiful Isolde, remember that its hero is a knight who slays dragons and engages in plenty of gory action scenes. Sometimes the gore isn’t even violence-based; early in the book, Tristan makes an impeccable first impression by meeting his uncle’s hunting party out in the forest, and stops to show them how to properly skin and gut a hart. Strassburg delights in telling this story in exquisite detail: Now you slit the skin down the stomach, now off with the head. Remove the lungs here, toss them away. Meanwhile the king’s party looks on, positively oohing and ahhing over this very noble youth before them, getting his hands bloodied in the carcass of a recently slaughtered animal. It may be a kissing book, but there are sports, too.
Tristan lost no time. He raced up at speed and plunged his heart beside the spear, all the way up to his hand. At this the dying monster let out a roar from its vile throat as frim and grisly as though heaven and earth were falling, and this death-cry echoed far over the countryside, and greatly startled Tristan.Gottfried von Strassburg, on the death of the dragon Tristan slays
And so I must close this account of my most recent adventures. Grad school may be almost overwhelming at times. Imposter syndrome may rage its head over every failed experiment. But the old books will always be there, winking their eyes and drawing you by the hand into their own little adventures and misadventures.
I apologize for any factual errors in the above. For example, I first wrote that a card brought the poem in to the King from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and that the King read it aloud. It was actually the White Rabbit who did both. Similar errors may persist; I wrote without the benefit of having the books next to me. Feel free to read them all yourself; in doing so you will have earned the right to yell at me on the internet, at least about them.