CanLit Challenge Book #38: Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies
Filed under: 20th Century,Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 12:55 pm on Friday, September 24, 2010

Book 38, Tempest-Tost (1951) – Robertson Davies
This is the first novel of Robertson Davies, set in the fictional city of Salterton (a stand-in for Kingston, Ontario). In this comedy of manners, various characters come together to put on a Little Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest but some have ulterior motives and other agendas on their minds.

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Robertson Davies

My thoughts:
Reviewing this book on its own merits is a bit difficult. Throughout the entire reading experience, I couldn’t help but evaluate it with Davies’ later works in mind, as the precursor of the Deptford and Cornish trilogies (I have yet to read either of the Toronto trilogy books). That’s always a danger when you get familiar with an author and their “mature”* work and then go back to read the early stuff.

Looking at it in isolation, I would say it was an enjoyable read with quirky characters and some description of Canadian life in a small Ontario city. There were a few rather humourous episodes and Davies’ wit was to the fore a number of times. This was not a book of either major tragedy or drama (the worst thing that happens, happens to a horse, though there was a point where the novel could have turned very grim indeed), just a glimpse into a community over the course of a couple of months.

Looking at it as the prelude to the rest of Davies’ novels, one can certainly pick out similarities to and differences from the latter. For example, it had the exposition of characters that is so intrinsic to Fifth Business and World of Wonders, but not to the same degree. It had a short description of Hector’s background and childhood that was reminiscent of the more thorough treatment given to Francis Cornish in What’s Bred in the Bone. From the prominent place of allusion in the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (e.g. Paracelsus in Rebel Angels and Arthurian myth in The Lyre of Orpheus), I was expecting a similar exploration of The Tempest, but didn’t get it. The play itself hardly figured at all.

*It seems a bit odd to characterise anything produced by Davies as anything other than mature–was he ever a young man??

CanLit Challenge Book #37: Armand Durand by Rosanna Leprohon
Filed under: Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 8:03 pm on Saturday, September 18, 2010

Book 37, Armand Durand (1868) – Rosanna Leprohon
Paul Durand, a well-off farmer living in the fictional seigneurie of Alonville on the bank of the St. Lawrence, has two sons, each by a different wife (he is made a widower twice). They go off to school in Montreal where one flourishes and the other wishes to be back working outside on the farm. Sibling rivalry and a bad marriage play out against the backdrop of village and urban societies.

From the introduction:
“Obviously this novel demonstrated new interests on the part of the author. It appeared in a period of innovation. Novelists in Britain, America, and Europe were experimenting with problem novels. Mrs. Gaskell’s sombre novels were supplanting Dickens’ more humourous accounts of family and class relations–but even Dickens had turned from his early Pickwick style to the darker tones of Hard Times–a novel about industrial strikes, drunkenness, and family breakdown. In the 1860s Turgenev and Flaubert, Meredith and Melville were opening new avenues in their fiction. Mrs. Leprohon’s 1868 story reflects the changing concerns of contemporary novelists.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Rosanna Leprohon

My thoughts:
Armand Durand was quite distinct from Antoinette de Mirecourt. Where the latter novel had a rather tight plot contained within a relatively short period of time and with no extraneous subplots, this one is meandering, biographical, and takes place over the course of two generations. As well, Antoinette was more in the style of the previous century whereas Armand Durand has a stronger sense of realism. I quite liked this novel with all of its character studies set against the backdrop of Quebec society. Armand is likable, Delima is annoying, but not as annoying as Mrs. Martel. Armand’s marrying the wrong girl followed by the right girl after the first girl made him a widower reminded me a bit of David Copperfield, though Armand never loved his first wife and the reasons why Delima was unsuitable were far different. The only difficulty I had with the characters was with Paul fils. It seems so odd for him to suddenly turn so jealous of Armand so as to manipulate his dying father to cut Armand out of the will and to try to fix it so that their father would die without seeing Armand again. It’s such a cruel thing to do and there was no real reason for it (I mean it’s not like Paul senior favoured Armand and neglected his other son). Though interesting, the little subplot about Genevieve and de Chevandier was a little strange. It was like a setup for a further story that was later dropped. I couldn’t help but think that may have been due to the original serialisation—in fact this could be a cause of much of the unevenness of the novel.

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Filed under: 20th Century,Book Reviews,Infinite TBR — Ibis at 7:20 pm on Saturday, September 11, 2010

From the back cover:
If on a winter’s night a traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambiance, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense. Together they form a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct, through which two readers, a male and a female, pursue both the story lines that intrigue them and one another. They are the true heroes of the novel, for what would writing be without readers?”

My thoughts:
In this metafictional masterpiece, Italo Calvino draws the reader (that’s you) into a bizarre novel that folds in on itself, lying on the page but beyond it. It is a communication between the author and the reader—mediated by the publisher, by the translator, by academics, by government censors, by political movements, by the other reader, and finally by the author and the reader themselves. It is the ultimate exercise in literary self-reflection.

I marvelled continually at Calvino’s genius and there were several passages I loved (including the famous opening chapter in which he anatomises the process of choosing one book to read among the thousands contained in a bookstore). I also had a feeling of discomfort (I don’t know any other way to label it), that is familiar from other Cold War period novels (I’m not sure that the cause has anything to do with the Cold War itself, it’s just a convenient shorthand for the post-WWII to the mid-eighties), like Next Episode and Pale Fire (and even The Fire-Dwellers and St. Urbain’s Horseman). Perhaps I’ll figure out exactly what that is at some point.

Though there is some humour here (mostly of the absurdist variety), this is no light-hearted puzzle. It’s a puzzle that requires considerable concentration and focus to absorb, and time to contemplate it afterward.

All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare
Filed under: Book Reviews,Infinite TBR,Reader of the Stack Goes Canonical — Ibis at 5:01 pm on Saturday, September 11, 2010

From the back cover:
“This play concerns a maid, Helena, who cures the King of France of a disease, then asks for Lord Bertram’s hand in marriage. Bertram obliges, then quickly flees to Italy to engage in war, hoping for death to avoid marriage. Helena is greatly hurt, and sets out on a pilgrimage, only to wind up in Florence, Italy, where she meets Bertram’s new young mistress, Diana. In a perplexing “bed trick,” Helena sleeps with Bertram, while Bertram believes he is sleeping with Diana. This act secures Helena’s bond to Bertram, and Bertram, matured by war, consents to happily love Helena and their future child.”

My thoughts:
Rather by coincidence, this play was much like Cardenio/Double Falsehood, the previous Shakespeare play I read. The finale finds itself with a marriage between two people who probably would have been better off never having met. In DF, a rapist is (sort of) forced to marry his victim when her less-than-virginal state would otherwise become a liability for her. In All’s Well, a man who had been forced to marry someone he considered beneath him (and then duped into consummating the marriage by means of a bed trick), must finally yield and submit to the unwanted union. (One could add to this group Measure for Measure and make it a trio.)

I very much enjoyed the folktale scaffolding of this play, with the poor girl healing the king who promises she can have what she wants without knowing what (or who) he’s promising away, the girl marrying the boy who turns out not to like her, the promise that he’ll be a true husband only when certain impossible conditions are met…

In real terms, he’s kind of a jerk and a snob. It would be different if he objected to any arranged marriage (i.e. the fact of not having a choice in who he marries) or if he objected on the basis of her character or what have you, but to object on the basis that she grew up a poor physician’s daughter seems rather haughty (especially since the king agreed to provide her with title and wealth so the match wouldn’t be uneven).

For us moderns, it might be difficult to completely get why Helena pursues Bertram so relentlessly once he proves to be so unworthy of her. But in reality she hasn’t got much of a choice. It’s either Bertram (with the hope he’ll eventually come around and get some sense of respect for her) or the convent.

As for Parolles, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy. A bit of a boaster and a rogue, but I don’t think he really deserved to be punked like that.

One more thing…that conversation in the first act about losing one’s virginity while the time is ripe was exquisite. All that word play put into service talking about something so timeless & universal. Ah, Will, I’m sure you could’ve talked anyone into bed in a minute or two.

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