Friday, April 21, 2017

Claude's Confession by Émile Zola

Is this book really Zola’s most autobiographical novel? Maybe some of Zola’s hardcore fans have been curious about this. From the biographies I have read in books, introduction to Zola’s novels, or Wikipedia, I learned many similarities between Zola’s early life and the story plot of Claude’s Confession. Both Claude and Zola came from small rural village in very young age, and suffered from poverty and culture shock while living in Paris for the first time. But beyond that, I don’t know how many of the plot representing Zola’s real life or thoughts.

Like Zola, Claude must leave his rural life, and bunch of friends, to live alone in Paris. He felt lonely and out of place, that his only consolation is by exchanging letters with his friends. The main theme of this book is Claude’s passionate love over a tart named Laurence, whom he took in his place out of pity. At first he was disgusted of her vulgarity, and even determined to “purify” her. But from disgust came passion. Claude became passionately in love with Laurence. It was an unrequited love, though, since Laurence, who has been living in the street, has never known the pure love which Claude offered her. This ignorance made him extremely sick; then he began to lose senses.

This might be far away in plot and style than Zola’s more mature novels, but nonetheless, is quite interesting. I can sense Zola’s brilliant way of dissecting his characters psychologically, to study how it would react; exactly the way he would do later on in his Rougon-Macquart series. If you have been familiar with his books, Zola’s characters always have one extreme tendency (or madness). It could be the possessive love for money, sex, or even of land. In Claude, it was the obsession of purity and innocence. Claude’s ideal girl is one with pale complexion and virginal timidity (I have read somewhere that it’s also Zola’s taste of women—don’t know whether it’s true or not). And just the same as in his other novels, this madness is always ruinous. It’s as if, when you have this tendency, you would certainly go down into the bottom.

If you have interest in psychology, this novel will amuse you. For mere entertainment, it’s rather painful. But if you call yourself Emile Zola’s fan, well, I believe this novel would interest you to learn how Zola ever began his literary genius.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Max Havelaar by Multatuli

Multatuli is pseudonym of Eduard Douwes Dekker, a Dutch civil servant of The Netherlands during its colonialism in Indonesia (then Dutch Indies) on 19th century. He was an assistance resident in Lebak (the Bantam residency of Java—now Banten) when he began to see—and growingly disgusted by—the abuses of Dutch colonial system. Dekker began to openly criticize (and later oppose) his government, which ended with his resignation. But far from ending his opposition, Dekker began to publish his writings exposing the scandals he had witnessed. Not having enough exposure with the newspaper and pamphlet, he wrote a satire novel under pseudonym of Multatuli: Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company.

If you think this is a dull historical journal about coffee auctions and colonialism by a boring ex-civil servant, you are wrong! I have thought so in the past—hence have never considered reading it. But when I started reading, I found that Multatuli is really a talented and witty writer. Though implied by the title, this book is NOT about coffee trading; it is a satire about the injustice suffered by Indonesian people because of the colonial policy.

As an Indonesian myself, I was interested in how the colonialism have ever started, and why it took so long before the whole nation started to revolt. It only proved how clever the Dutch was at learning Indonesia’s archipelago and rich culture; to use the isolation of so many islands (with many different languages and cultures) to their advantage. Not only that, the Dutch knew one typical character of Indonesians: humble, obedient, inferior. And with our rich soil, no wonder any superior nation—if not Dutch, others would—could easily take advantage of Indonesia as their slave.

Back to the book, Max Havelaar (fictional character which is clearly representing Dekker) is a newly appointed assistant resident in Lebak. He was young, vigorous, brave, and honest. Soon after being appointed, he found out the practice of the regent (“bupati” in Indonesia) in employing local people or taking their animals by force, without paying, as a pretext to preserve his dignity. Instead of protecting local people to be burdened by these thieving, while they still had to pay taxes, Havelaar’s colleagues seemed to close their eyes of these injustices. They chose to please the regent to gain their support, and in the end to create an “all-is-good” report to the government. Other than that, the local people are also forced to grow coffee and sugar on their land, to be shipped to Europe, instead of growing rice for their food. In the end they became poorer and suffered more. Havelaar protested to Dutch government about these cruel treatments; writing many letters which eventually became a manuscript.

Interestingly, the book is narrated by two different persons with two different ways of thinking. The most dominant is a hypocrite, pompous coffee merchant named Mr. Droogstoppel. Max Havelaar’s manuscript accidentally came to his possession and—thinking that its coffee auction subject would be useful to promote his business—instructed his apprentice, Stern, to rewrite it into a book. Being a romantic young man, Stern, instead of writing about coffee trade issues, decided to take another course, that is Havelaar’s effort to fight the injustice done by Dutch government. It was really funny to read how Droogstoppel was furious and indignant of Stern’s romantic idea, while bragging about his hypocritical views. Finally, near the end, Multatuli took over the pen himself to write his own opinions, and closing it with sharp threats that he was going to expose every dirty detail if the government kept silent.

Max Havelaar might not be a great classic—in fact, if it’s not about my nation, I might have not picked it at first place—but we cannot ignore its big influence in Indonesian revolution in 1945 which ended Dutch colonialism, as well as colonialism at some other nations. It was such that the Indonesian greatest writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer called Max Havelaar as “the book that killed colonialism”.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The House of Mirth: The Second Reading

Reading your favorite book for the second time can sometimes be quite risky. You can end up either liking it the more, or disliking it. Because on second reading, you would be reading more thoroughly; examining the characters more closely, analyzing and calculating every cause and effect. Maybe you would still love it because the author wrote it beautifully, but most probably you would see the characters differently. Then you only focused on their fates, but now you might also see their flaws. It happened to me when giving Wharton’s The House of Mirth a second reading.

I still love it, yes, and perhaps even love it more now, as this time no curiosity on the plot obstructed me from savoring Wharton’s beautiful prose. But, as I delved more deeply, I began to question my (blind) judgment on a character I used to praise then. I’m talking about Lawrence Selden. Until last month he seemed almost perfect to me, now I began to see his flaw; that is his lack of trust in Lily when he saw her fled from Trenor’s house that night. But that didn’t make me dislike him; on the contrary, it made Selden more humane. Though I kept thinking how everything might have been different if Selden kept his plan.

On my first reading, my focus was on Lily Bart, whom I analyzed for WEM project. Now I had the leisure to take on Selden. I begin to feel that Selden is the motor of the whole story. It all begins and ends with him. Maybe Selden is Wharton’s own view of the society at that time. I haven’t had close study on her, but from wiki I learned that though growing up in upper class society, Wharton was one of its hardest critics. Selden, too, enjoys the privilege of being with the upper class, but he also ‘disgusted’ with them.

One of the most interesting things about Selden, is his theory of “the republic of the spirit”—the freedom of having choices to make; not being helplessly dictated by society. Wharton also rejected the standards of fashion and etiquette that were expected of young girls at the time, intended to enable women to marry well and to be displayed at balls and parties. She thought these requirements were superficial and oppressive [Wikipedia]. Instead, she was eager to have higher education. I think this is what Selden’s idea with his republic of the spirit—something that Lily Bart envied him for.

Another interesting point is, throughout the novel, there is a sense of ambiguity in Lily’s character. Lily Bart is introduced as an intelligent woman, who is able to skillfully read human characters to use it as a weapon for her advantage. She has maneuvered geniusly to attract Percy Gryce—though she failed in finishing it. Yet, she failed to predict her aunt’s reaction to her (rumored) scandal. I agree with Carry Fisher, that the cause of Lily’s fall is laziness and her longing of freedom and happiness (thanks partly to Selden’s influence!). In the Percy Gryce failure, it makes sense, but how can she be lazy when her whole life was depended on her aunt’s legacy? I just don’t get it.

All in all, I am grateful I have given The House of Mirth a second reading; I love it more now, and would one day revisit it again. Thanks to Adam for hosting the #CBAM2017, and to you all who have been reading this treasure with me.

For more about this book, you can browse my analysis and review on my first reading.


Monday, March 6, 2017

I am Doing it Again: #Zoladdiction2017 on April


If you haven’t been familiar with #Zoladdiction, it’s an addiction to any book by my favorite author: Émile Zola. It’s actually an event—one perhaps call it “challenge”, but if any Zola-ish thing could have been a challenge, NOT reading Zola is the real challenge to me, LOL! Anyway, for three consecutive years: 2013 to 2015, I have hosted #Zoladdiction during April. For me April is always the best month to read Zola. Firstly because April 2nd is Zola’s birth date; secondly because April always reminds me of Germinal—my all time favorite novel from Zola—thanks to this beautiful quote:

Now the April sun, in the open sky, was shining in its glory, warming the earth as it went into labour. From its fertile flanks life was leaping forth, buds were bursting into green leaves, and the fields were quivering with the growth of the grass. On every side seeds were swelling, stretching out, cracking the plain, filled by the need of heat and light. An overflow of sap flowed with whispering voices, the sound of the germs expanded in a great kiss. Again and again, more and more distinctly, as though they had come right up to the soil, the comrades were hammering. In the fiery rays of the sun, on this youthful morning, the country was pregnant with this rumbling. Men were springing forth, a black avenging army, germinating slowly in the furrows, growing up for the harvests of the next century, and their germination would soon overturn the earth.

Last year I have to skip #Zoladdiction because of my tight schedule. But I turned out to be reading few Zolas during April anyway, so I have decided to do another #Zoladdcition2017 this year. Busy or not, I can’t spend a year without reading any Zola, because of…yeah… the #Zoladdiction… ^_^

I would be very excited if any of you would join me next month. There will be no obligations at all, no rule, no linky, no date, no reviews required, etc. because the fun of #Zoladdiction is really in the bliss of reading Zola.

If you want to chat or discuss about #Zoladdiction2017, just drop by here, or mention me on twitter or instagram or goodreads, using the hashtag. I will be reading Claude’s Confession and The Earth, but you are free, of course, to pick any book you like.

Will you join me? :)


Thursday, March 2, 2017

My 2nd Round of The Classics Club

Yayy… I have successfully completed The Classics Club Part 1 (March 2012 – March 2017). It was really a huge commitment to read around 100 classics in five years. When I started it, I kept asking myself, what if I lost my passion in reading classics in the middle of those five years? But I was willing to try then; and now I am grateful I have taken this challenge, because now I can proudly say: I DID IT! I should give myself a nice reward…another (or two?) beautiful book? ^_^

Anyway, my successful first project has inspired me to do a second round. It won’t be as ambitious as the first; I only planned to read 60 books in five years, starting yesterday (1st March). Here is the complete list:


More than half of them (35 / 60) are from authors new to me. The rest is dominated by two of my favorites—Dickens & Zola—of course! ;) Apart from the list, I also planned to reread several of my favorites, or the ones I thought deserved a second chance. One of them is The Divine Comedy. I have read Inferno few years ago, and quite liked it, but failed with Purgatorio and Paradiso (the later was a total failure because I almost didn’t understand all the cantos -_-). I believe, to read and really appreciate Dante’s poems, one needs to dig deeper and work harder.

Then, two weeks ago, when I was googling for a more suitable translation of The Divine Comedy (previously I read Longsworth’s), I stumbled upon a Youtube video of open course on Dante in Translation from Open Yale Courses, given by Prof.  Giuseppe Mazzotta. I tried the Introduction, and enjoyed it. So, I decided to have a go with the course to reread Dante. In a couple of weeks I will also order Prof. Mazzotta’s translation of Inferno. I am aware that I have only very limited time for my literary activities; but I think I can squeeze this course at office hours when I have finished my works, usually 30-40 minutes before 5 pm. Hey, this can be a nice incentive to get my works done as effectively as possible, so that I can use the extra time to attend the course! ^_^

Other than Dante, I also planned to reread The Great Gatsby this year. To accompany it, two companion books have also been seating on my wishlist shelf: So We Read On by Maureen Corrigan and Careless People by Sarah Churchwell. And maybe, I will attend another Open Yale Course on Gatsby… Yeah, after the Dante’s, of course I’ve been searching for more literary open courses available… and found one on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Bingo! I did have The Sound and the Fury on my list, and maybe… I should have put To Have and Have Not into…. No. Wait. Remember, limited time! Just one book at a time, Fanda! @_@

I should stop here, or the list will swell to be 100 again…. So, wish me luck with my second round of The Classics Club, everyone! Have you done with the challenge? Will you go for 2nd round too?


Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Three Theban Plays: The Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles

For me, Greek plays always have their own charms. Compared to Renaissance’s or any modern plays, I find Greek’s is more intense in emotion. It always feels like I was in a theatre watching the performance live. I have actually never done this, but still….

If I remember correctly, the first play I have ever read years ago is Oedipus the King—I read Indonesian translation then—and have been mesmerized by it. One aspect I love in Greek’s plays is the chorus. It reminds me that I’m reading a play, not a story written as a play.

Oedipus Cycle begins with Oedipus the King, the most famous one. Reading it at much mature age made me realize a wider theme it covers than just a tragedy of a son who married his mother and killed his father—though unintentionally. It speaks a lot about destiny. Can we, mortal, avoid it? Oedipus had tried hard by fleeing from his country; nevertheless it happened without his knowing. And the blow becomes harder because, firstly, he has listened to the prophecy (and worked hard to resist his destiny), and secondly, he then insisted on having all the truth. I imagined, if he have never known the prophecy, he would still have stayed with the Laius; never have come to Thebes to become their King with pride, and to marry Jocasta… and so on. But speaking about destiny, one often comes to think also about free will. “Is destiny a real thing? That makes us like some puppet; don’t have control over our life? If so, does free will also exist?” So… when we are still thinking hard (without coming to a satisfying conclusion), we might want to move on to the second play: Oedipus at Colonus. And there… only there do we get the answer!

Oedipus at Colonus is the opposite of Oedipus the King, in term of the theme. Oedipus—in his old age and banishment—is now a more humble person. He admitted how he was dependent on his daughters’ loving care and Theseus’ generosity; that without them, he was helpless. He didn’t grudge against his bad fate; he could accept it and be peaceful with himself. Only after that, his life became meaningful by giving others better lives. How beautiful the lessons Sophocles taught us from these two plays; that Antigone—the last play—was almost felt like anti-climax.

All in all, Oedipus cycle is a very emotional, intense, engaging, and entertaining plays. My favorite is perhaps Oedipus at Colonus—I was happy for Oedipus’ reconciliation, and was fallen in love with Theseus’ calmness, generosity, and noble character.


Friday, February 3, 2017

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (and other writings)

First of all, Penguin Classics should put a subtitle “and other writings” after Metamorphosis for this edition. I have a habit of ignoring list of contents or notes, because chapters/part titles often reveal the story plot. For me, curiosity is part of reading excitement, thus I don’t like anyone to reveal anything before I read it myself. When I need a reference or anything to help me understanding a passage, I will consult the introduction or list of contents myself.

So, without any subtitle, I assumed that when I opened the first page of the story, it had to be The Metamorphosis. “The Contemplation—printed largely on first page—I assumed to be a part title (silly me! -_-). And so I read on, chapter after chapter, yet I could not find any thread. Every chapter seemed to be independent story, though it also felt incomplete. Until I finally reached the part of The Metamorphosis. Only then I knew there’s something wrong. I consulted the “note on the text” in the front pages, and found that “The stories in this collection were written…..” Oh OK! It’s a story/journal collection then, not a single novella!

The first collection was Contemplation, written in first person POV. All of them have one same tone: wary, dejected, and lonely. The Metamorphosis itself had the same tone. The protagonist (Gregor) feels alienated and burdened by his job. But what disturbed me most is the reaction of his father, mother, and most of all, his sister, against his metamorphosis. The disgust is one thing, but how can they not feel any affection about their son/brother, that they want to get rid of him? It was Gregor who has provided for them before the metamorphosis, how easy it is for them to ignore his sacrifices!

In the next stories/journals, lack of recognition theme came again. In fact, I have jotted down aspects or themes that are interesting and quite often appeared throughout the book, here they are:

Engineer
Businessman
Lack of recognition from authority
“Life is astonishingly brief”
Huge gap between superior and inferior
Lack of gratitude > slaving
Mechanical structure
Wary
Dejected
Lonely
Suicidal behavior
No way out
Metamorphosed to animal
Caged > helplessness

So I think, to better understanding Kafka, or the meaning of his writings, is to find the connecting thread. Unfortunately I am quite hectic at present to much analysis, but I think it’s safe to conclude that Kafka wrote this book out of disappointment of his own life and maybe, of the social condition. To what and why? I have still much to analyze… or do you know? Have you read the book? What is your conclusion?