Reader, I finished Jane Eyre

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In high school, my precocious classmate Lourdes recommended that I read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. She had already made me read The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind so I could visualize two of her ideal men (Fr. Ralph de Bricassart and Rhett Butler, the male protagonists of these books), and she wanted introduce me to yet another one: Heathcliff. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to read the Gothic romance beyond the first few pages.

I’m happy, then, that in my forties I finished the equally famous Gothic novel of Emily’s sister Charlotte, who is celebrating her 200th birthday in a couple of days, on April 21. The protagonist Jane Eyre tells her Reader the story of her search for herself before she could find her true love. Her voice is so uniquely unconventional and convincing that I had the sensation of being the confidant of a living, breathing human being.

Jane talks about the challenges that she faced in life and the choices she made that shaped her identity. As an orphan at Gateshead, she was abused by her aunt and cousins. As a student in Lowood, she experienced cold and hunger and faced the risk of dying from consumption (tuberculosis). As a governess in Thornfield Hall, she went against the strict social conventions of Victorian England when she fell in love and gave her consent to be married to her “master” Edward Fairfax Rochester who was 20 years her senior. When she found out at the altar that Rochester already had a wife- albeit a crazy one– she ran away from Thornfield Hall without most of her possessions and lived for a while as a hungry beggar, until she found refuge in Moor House, the home of the pastor St. John Rivers and his two sisters. Later on, Jane found out that the Rivers were actually her cousins and shared the money she inherited from a long lost uncle with them, so that they all attained a measure of independence and financial security. St. John, he with the features- and apparently the heart- of a Grecian marble statue, proposed marriage to Jane so that she could be a “missionary’s wife” serving with him in India; intuiting that St. John didn’t love her romantically nor passionately, she refused it (though she offered to accompany him to India as his cousin and assistant, a scenario that he in turn found scandalous). Then, when she finally learned that Rochester was living in Ferndean, she found out that, because of the fire that burned down Thornfield Manor, he has lost his sight; one of his hands also had to be amputated (his first wife Bertha Mason leaped to her death during the fire).

“Reader, I married him,” Jane says in the last chapter of the book. This is supposedly one of the most famous lines in all of English literature. While many fairy tales end with the female protagonist marrying a handsome prince with a castle- Beauty and the Beast is one example- Jane Eyre presents an ideal of romantic love that seems to transcend the values that Victorian society held dear: physical beauty, class, wealth, and even religious zeal.

Jane says,

I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest-blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward’s society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character-perfect concord is the result.

There are many ways of reading Jane Eyre– I’ve encountered Jungian, Marxist and post-colonial readings of the book, all of which are compelling. While reading the novel, however, it was the strength of Jane’s personality, her detailed observations of people and places, and her choices that fascinated and sustained me until the last page.

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Online book club

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Last Tuesday, after returning from the beaches of Caramoan to Manila, I finished the last volume of Tristram Shandy. I didn’t want to bring my tablet into which I’ve downloaded the eBook because of the long bus journey. Instead, I brought a paperback copy of Ang Tundo Man May Langit Din which I finished reading by the sea. I’ll discuss this Filipino social realist love story in a future post.

Tristram Shandy was a difficult read because its 18th century British English is different from my 21st century Philippine or International English. Also, unlike the Penguin edition, my eBook doesn’t have endnotes that explain Sterne’s allusions and jokes. I was able to understand some of them however with the aid of SparkNotes online (back in high school, the popular albeit secret reading guides were by CliffNotes that I discovered are now also online). While reading the novel, I came to appreciate my mentors in literature, literary criticism, and creative writing- they introduced me to texts I probably wouldn’t have read on my own and, by fulfilling the role of intellectual guides, helped me interpret them.

My favorite part of Sterne’s novel- it shows this clergyman’s bawdy sense of humor- is one of the narrator’s many digressions: the tale of Slawkenbergius at the beginning of Volume 4. Slawkenbergius is a traveler with an exceptionally long nose who becomes the leading authority on noses. In the context of baby Tristram’s near-castration by Dr. Slop in Volume 3, however, “nose” could mean either the part projecting above a man’s mouth or that below his hip. When Slawkenbergius passes through Strasburg, its townspeople burn with curiosity about his “nose.” A woman says she wants to touch this “nose” so she can determine how hard it is. And nuns couldn’t sleep at night because its image is planted in their minds!

A 2005 film on the filming of a movie on the novel Tristram Shandy (it’s being self-referential like the novel) is here.

After finishing the novel, I decided to complete the yearlong project, so I finally enrolled in Slate Academy. I was able to post comments in the book club’s forum and see those in its private Facebook group (with 223 members and counting). Also I was able to read essays by various experts who had posted them over the past two months for the members’ private viewing:

  • Introduction: Which Edition Should I Get?
  • How Modern Is Tristram Shandy?
  • Tristram Shandy‘s Amazing First Sentence
  • Literature’s Greatest Mansplainer
  • In Praise of Uncle Toby
  • How Tristram Became a Bestseller
  • A Triumphant Failure

It’s like a large English class that’s being conducted online! Since there are no exams and work is not graded, however, it would take self-discipline and a self-imposed structure to complete the six novels this year.

Laura Miller and The Slate Group head Jacob Miller discuss the above four books in the podcast here.

Senior high readings

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  • Sophocles’ Oedipus the King
  • Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot
  • Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters
  • William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
  • Selected poetry of John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
  • Selected short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
  • George Orwell’s 1984
  • Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
  • Selected poetry of William Butler Yeats
  • Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes

These were the literary texts I read for my English class in senior year high school. I later got credit in the university for work in this advanced class taught by Mrs. Marilyn Velasquez. Looking back, that was a year in my life when I read lots of literature (I also read many of the “great books” in junior high and undergrad Humanities I). Whereas in Humanities I, my brilliant professor Carolyn Hau taught me how to deconstruct texts, Mrs. Velasquez helped build the foundation for such critical analysis by introducing me to the traditional or formal methods of studying “the canon.”

Just two weeks ago, I watched the film Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. This was my favorite Shakespeare play in high school, so it was great to watch its film adaptation at a time in my life when I’ve already seen the effect of power and ambition- the play’s themes- in real people and societies. I probably would not have watched the movie had I not been introduced to Shakespeare before.

My favorite novels in the list were García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes. They opened my eyes to the possibilities of language- that it could be florid, lush and maximalist as in One Hundred Years of Solitude or restrained, full of silences and minimalist as in Thousand Cranes. Through the years, I’ve experimented with both kinds of writing styles.

I feel lucky to have had great teachers who gave me various tools for the lifelong study of literature.

 

Orientalism

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I’m done reading Volume 3 of Tristram Shandy. For a couple of evenings last week, I also read Kevin Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend as a chaser to Shandy Volume 2. It’s fun to alternate between a classic and a contemporary bestseller: the latter makes me feel like a speed-reader.

Kwan’s second book in a planned trilogy is a continuation of the high-flying adventures in Asia of Chinese-American ingenue Rachel Chu. Whereas his first book Crazy Rich Asians represented Singaporean excess, this sequel trains its eye on the outrageous fantasies of mainland China (and Hong Kong).

One writer has described Kwan as a modern-day Jane Austen “because he is writing about the same pride and prejudices that consumed Austen 200 years ago”- pride and prejudices based on class, wealth, and family relationships. Kwan’s books remind me of Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot because of these themes. In fact, he quotes Balzac at the beginning of China Rich Girlfriend Part 3:

Behind every fortune lies a great crime.

Both Lawrence Sterne and Kevin Kwan intersperse their narratives with different kinds of texts that aren’t usually regarded as literary, using a fragmenting technique that I associate with postmodernism. Thus far, from Volumes 1 to 3 of Tristram Shandy, Sterne has inserted a convoluted legal document (the marriage settlement of Tristram’s parents), a Christian sermon on conscience, and a Catholic excommunication document. In China Rich Girlfriend, Kwan uses a cornucopia of texts to advance the plot: newspaper reports, a CNN report, email, text messages, voicemail, society pages, instant messages, a Cyndi Lauper song, a social impact (image) assessment, thought bubbles, GChat, blog posts, diary entries, a “Father of the Year” magazine article and notes.

Since I’m feeling “umay” or sated after a week of exposure to brand names, consumerism, and greed, my next chaser is a Filipino 80s novel that looks social realist: Andres Cristobal Cruz’s Ang Tundo Man May Langit Din (Even Tondo Has a Sky).

Messiness of life

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For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.

These first two lines of My Struggle Book 1 by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard caught my interest, such that I read the book over the holidays till the first week of January, when I stopped on p. 350- the scene in which the author and his older brother remove garbage and feces their recently dead father left behind in their incontinent grandmother’s house- after finding it too depressing to continue.

Here are some more lines that express the author’s worldview:

…but what I learned was that also our ludicrously inconsequential lives, in which we could not attain anything of what we wanted, nothing, in which everything was beyond our abilities and power, had a part in this world, and thus also in the supreme, for books existed, you only had to read them, no one but myself could exclude me from them. You just had to reach up.

One transcends the dreariness, pain and meaninglessness of everyday life by writing (and reading) about it, Knausgaard seems to say. And write about his life he did: My Struggle consists of six volumes or books, 2,600 pages all in all. Although described on the back cover of Book 1 as fiction, the author who is now in his forties has revealed in interviews that the series is autobiographical, filtered by memory but still based on actual people, places, and events in his life. He has said My Struggle is “kind of a midlife-crisis novel.”

Book 1 describes stages in his life that he develops in the subsequent five volumes: his late childhood, when he was cruelly teased by his father for a speech defect (not being able to roll his “r”s); his adolescence, during which he often got drunk on beer and experienced premature ejaculation while making out; his parents’ divorce (he suspected his mother was physically abused); college, when he felt he had no friends and followed his older brother around; and adulthood with the dissatisfaction caused by having kids to look after while trying to find salvation in writing.

Beyond the first person point of view, My Struggle is similar to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in the way it plays with the concepts of time and consciousness. Knausgaard doesn’t follow a strictly chronological narrative. He lingers over details of some events (such as his juvenile attempts not to get caught drinking alcohol one New Year’s Eve) and just briefly mentions others (like the time his mother kicked him out of the house after her divorce). The narrators of both books also claim to have written them quickly without much editing.

My Struggle seems to have gotten inspiration from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that Knausgaard mentions in Book 1.

Knausgaard’s vivid and easy-to-read descriptions of his external and inner worlds make up for his anxious, depressing tone. Take this description of the Betamax that transported me back to the 1980s:

He pressed STOP and then REWIND….

The video machine click-clacked a few times while emitting some tiny hydraulic whines until it was ready to start, and the tape began to whir backwards with ever-increasing speed and volume until it came to a stop well before the end, whereafter the last part rotated extremely slowly, in a manner reminiscent of a plane which after flying at breakneck speed through the air approaches the ground at reduced speed and brakes on the runway, and then calmly and carefully taxis toward the terminal building.

Perhaps when I’ve already achieved calm with two months of daily Zen sitting, I can finally sit down and read the last 90 pages of Book 1.