Archive for the ‘Romance’ Category

Jane Austen – Mansfield Park

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Mansfield Park (1814) forms a change from Jane Austen‘s first two novels Sense And Sensibility and Pride And Prejudice. Of course it is still a “contemporary” romantic novel, the contemporary element being only recognizable by the social structures and behaviors in which the romance takes place. Characterwise and in the development of the plot and the situations the plot can be transferred to almost any time and place, which is, I think, one of the major reasons why these novels have such great popularity, at least among female readers, even today.

What is a great change in this novel are two things. The first, and most important one, is the main protagonist. As always it is a female one, but gone is the strongheaded, free-speaking and rather liberal-minded one. Austen this time took the challenge to center the story around a demure, passive, overly sensitive and very timid young woman who prefers not to speak and stay on the background.

The second change is the style. The first two novels had and extend of comedy to them. Austen created plenty of amusing situations where the males and females in the story got caught up in what one could say were minor conspiracies from different sides which led to misunderstandings and unexpected consequences.

The latter is not completely gone in Mansfield Park. The difference however is that the situations are not happy ones. Mansfield Park has more drama in the tragic sense. There is no happy undertone when something does not go right. One feels it can only get worse and the characters are not as friendly between each other.

Overall thus this novel had quite a different atmosphere. Austen’s strengthens this effect by keeping a lower pace and spending more time evaluation the thoughts and events of her characters, which as said have a more negative tendency.

When the novel was nearing the end I was almost expecting some very different ending as the unwinding of events were heading for a perhaps bad ending. Austen did not let it go that far. Later than in here previous novels she threw in a major twist near the end. It was not coming out of nothing but I had not expected it to happen. Austen had followed a different course, and perhaps she would handle this story differently. Of course reader satisfaction in those days was of greater importance so I did expect she would provide some positive turn, although I did not foresee she would shake things up so much.

Mansfield Park shows Austen’s progression as an author and her writing skills. It was not not as entertaining as Pride And Prejudice but it did show more of different parts of the society of that days than the previous two novels, which I consider to be rather positive as the whole romance developments are of less interest to me, being a male reader. I look for other things in the novel to enjoy myself. Although the main protagonist is weak Austen manages to develop her more strongly than any of her previous characters and provides great insights in her thoughts and behavior.

Personally I enjoyed Pride And Prejudice more, for as far as I’ve read Austen’s novels, but Mansfield Park holds more literary quality, although the plotting and the romantic developments keep it on a more moderate level.


Jane Austen – Sense And Sensibility

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

I usually don’t venture into the realm of women’s literature except by accident if the backcover of a book does not give away the usual stereotypical elements of the story. There are of course exceptions. Some works of women’s literature have survived the test of time and they are of an age they also represent and depict the times they are written in as they are contemporary novels of that period. I am not speaking in a negative way about these novels. Just like there are books that mainly men like, there are also books that only have female fans. Usually one sex does not cross over to the territory of the other sex. That’s just how things are.

Among those works are the novels of Jane Austen. I have a collected works edition which I purchased for a cheap price six and a half years ago. It thus took some time before I was in the right mood to give it a go. I have started with Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense And Sensibility (1811). It was different than I expected. First off was Austen’s prose which is easy to read. She does have a tendency to use certain words and phrases frequently but not too often. It’s not like other authors don’t do so, but the words Austen uses are rather different from the typical. Secondly the settings and events were much more mundane and not as dramatic as is more common these days. Yes there were some dramatic scenes but they were limited and Austen wrapped them in a proper wrapping in which the characters behave in a bit more constrained way.

Austen narrates the story from an all-knowing third person viewpoint. With this she also constrains the dialogue she uses. Much dialogue is unsaid and mainly summarized while these would often lead to an interesting interaction between characters. On a few occasions the dialogue became more extensive as a character started holding a long monologue which was more of a long rambling than making sense or a point.

Although the story is told by an all-knowing narrator most of the focus is on one female character. Secondary are her younger sister and a old matron with whom they spend much time. It are these three which we get to know best. There is a range of side-characters, most of which get very few lines of dialogue and of whom we learn little background. Opposite those three female characters are three male characters who take center stage and of whom we learn more. They are however not that often around but can be seen as the main side-characters.

The story itself is somewhat peculiar. We mainly get a view of the lives of English upper class women. They do not work and if they have children they don’t need to spend all their time on them. Much time is spent on gossiping, reading, handicraft or play cards. They also take many walks in the countryside if they reside there, or shopping when they are in a city. It depicts a rather leisurely life in which not much happens. One typical element is lengthy stays at other people as everyone tries to seek variation in companionship so they can introduce their guests to their own circle in society. Of the men we get to know very little as they are mostly out of sight.

The plot is very much about gossiping and possible engagements between men and women. Austen throws in some twists to provide some dramatic developments but she keeps these constrained so that the events are not deepened more than necessary.

Overall Sense And Sensibility was a much better read than expected. The main character was well chosen due to her great sense and composure and was very likable. The settings and many side characters however remained rather shallow. As relationships form the core of the story, anything that is not related to it is mostly ignored. There was thus a lack of detail which made the story not that contemporary. Many events are relatively timeless, despite the lack of quick communications and ways to travel.

I made quite some remarks but these do not make this a poor novel. I won’t really say it is a good novel. It is a decent one and the peculiarities depicted through the times it is set in allow for a different atmosphere. Together with the fine prose these make this novel a fine read.


Alexandre Dumas – Louise de la Vallière

Saturday, January 26th, 2013

After almost a year I finally picked up the second part of the so-called Ten Years Later trilogy by Alexandre Dumas. Ten Years Later is his third serialization of his famous the Three Musketeers saga. As this part was far too long (over 2000 pages in fairly small print) to publish in one novel, it is often split into three parts. The reason it took so long to continue was not because the first part, The Vicomte Of Bragelonne, was bad, but simply because a long serialized novel (over 600 pages) from the mid nineteenth century is somewhat an exhausting read. Serialization means that every week a chapter is published and that the reader has to be able to understand the story sufficiently to know what the situation is and that each chapter has to sell and push the reader onward towards the next chapter. This means each chapter has a certain amount of repetition. Dumas handles this expertly by extending dialogues and/or adding some quick short notes in the narrative to keep the reader up to date. Nevertheless the effect on the dialogues is such that they get dramatized and that one character goes into long ways to either avoid telling what is going on, forcing the other character to keep trying to slowly nibble all the details from the other, or tries to tell what happens in an elaborate way to avoid misunderstanding. This actually creates amusing and intricate dialogues which one rarely finds in novels these days, but after scores of such chapters one simply needs a break, no matter how entertaining the story itself is.

The second part of Ten Years Later, known as Louise de la Vallière (1847), had some peculiarities about it. As it is the middle part of the story there is no real beginning or end. The book pretty much ends in a cliffhanger. Luckily I have the third part so I don’t need to wait. If it was intended or not I don’t know, but cutting Ten Years Later in three parts is exactly the best way it can be cut. This I know now because I’ve already started with the third part. There surely is some overlap in events, but the moments chosen to cut it are actually the best to choose. One could of course cut it into smaller parts, but to have a better view of that I need to complete the last part, The Man In The Iron Mask, first.

Of the five Musketeer novels into which the serializations have been collected Louise de la Vallière stands out as the novel lacking musketeer presence. Less than a quarter of the novel includes one or more members of the famed musketeers. This also means that all of the action is only found there. The reason for this is that most of the novel focuses on romantic intrigues at the royal court. As such Louise de la Vallière can better be described as an historical romance instead of an historical adventure like the other novels. The intrigues are elaborate, border to silliness, but are also rather entertaining because the behavior of the characters often feels quite odd. I am still quite surprised how fast I have been able to complete this long novel while romance is not a genre I like. Of course the chapters that did contain musketeer action helped a lot to break the romance streak. There was a stark contrast between those chapters and it made me enjoy them to a far greater extend as Dumas made the chapter very witty and the development much unpredictable.

One of the things that saves this long romance is that Dumas uses every possible excuse to create a confrontation between characters. The developments do not always follow logic and often happen too quickly within the timeframe, but this is only noticed when one pays attention to it. Many novels often choose to make the characters avoid each other, creating tension because confrontations just miss or the characters try not to give anything away and create intrigue because the characters don’t know enough. Instead Dumas creates confrontations in which too much is disclosed through heartwrenching dialogues causing great drama and more intrigues and confrontations to follow. It’s great fireworks and in a way also exhausting.

Most of the characterization is done through the dialogues. Dumas only provides some motivational comments so that the reader can put the words of the character in the right perspective. As most of the approach in the dialogue is dramatic and most characters avoid saying things straightforwardly as they don’t want to be misinterpreted, this does make it hard to genuinely understand the character. Many choices are made because or for others and not for the character himself. Many characters are thus acting to provide the right impression and not their true nature. Of course this can be as a representation of the behavior of the people in these times.

Louise de la Vallière is not the best of the Musketeer novels, which is also proven by the fact that it has never been adapted for the TV screen (to my knowledge). It is quite different from the typical Musketeer novels as it focuses on courtly life, but the many silly romantic intrigues do have their perks and are a change from the regular fare.

Louis Couperus – Eline Vere

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

One of the great authors of Dutch literature is Louis Couperus. He wrote contemporary novels around the year 1900 which distinguished themselves as naturalistic, which means that the authors tried to write realistic stories, often with a tragic or not-likable main character which is controlled by his environment and the society he lives in. Nineteenth century Russian literature produced many great novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky who were also part of this literary movement. These kind of novels are interesting to read because the aim for realism leads to an analysis and accurate picture of the times the author tries to write about. Of course it depends on the author on how well this is done.

Eline Vere (1889) depicts the life of a group of young people from the upper class in the governmental city of The Hague in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century. I live in this same city so I am fairly familiar with the locations mentioned in the novel. Couperus also grew up in similar circles so one could say he used autobiographical elements, although non-personal, to create an accurate description of that society. The main character is the woman of the titular name. Much of the story revolves around her, but there are several other storylines, short and long ones, involving characters related to her in some fashion. This provides some variation and relief as the main storyline is rather tragic while the other storyline are relatively more uplifting.

Eline Vere is also very much a psychological novel as Couperus writes about the motives and influences for the behavior of his characters. They don’t have full self-control. In a sense they have to struggle to escape the confines they have created for themselves as they tried to follow their own twisted logic. Couperus spends considerable time on these elements. Fortunately not too much as this could lead to (too long) dreary monologues which would be boring reads. Obviously there is no lack of characterization in this novel, although the time spent on the different characters varies.

The storylines themselves are mostly of a romantic fashion. It is about relationships and each contains its own type of drama which the couple-to-be has to overcome to get together. It is because of this that I classify the novel as a romance as well, although it focuses on multiple ones and not just one.

As I’m a Dutch native I read the book in Dutch and thus in the original version. The prose is a bit old-fashioned, but in no way less readable. Couperus writes in a beautiful style. It is simple, avoiding complicated words and dramatic tendencies. When I first started reading I was quite blown away by it. Obviously I have read quite a bit of Dutch literature over time and I hadn’t crossed an author who was this skillful in using the Dutch language. It is a pity that any translation won’t be able to capture the same quality.

With such wonderful prose one would think this would have been an easy read. This was not the case. A tragic main character does not make an enjoyable read. One has to be in the mood for it. Besides that the fact that the plot revolves around romances is for a male like me is not something to enjoy all the time. Further the frequent time spent to explore the behavior of characters can make the reading tough at times. All this and the many storylines make this (as naturalistic novels seem prone to do) a long novel at 450 pages.

Nevertheless this novel is great literature of excellent quality, especially the magnificent prose and the vivid picture it paints of Dutch upper class society in the late nineteenth century.

Kazuo Ishiguro – Never Let Me Go

Monday, September 12th, 2011

I don’t pick up many recent novels from the contemporary modern literature section and even then there is often something odd about the work. I also usually stick to authors I like, for example Michael Chabon and Umberto Eco. I don’t know why I don’t do so more often. I know there is plenty of interesting stuff around. Anyways, to cut to the chase, I picked up Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro partially it has been adapted to a movie this year which provided some publicity that I noticed as it was mentioned that it contained some speculative fiction (a different word for science fiction in the sense that the story is not aiming for science fiction but using minor elements for the purpose of the plot; the definition of course leaves certain space to breathe). Just on a hunch I decided to try it.

First off I can state that the speculative fiction part is right and that the novel in essence is a romantic drama to which have been added some peculiarities. These were probably added by the author to give the novel some more weight and depth as the romantic drama is nothing out of the ordinary if it weren’t for the speculative elements.

The story is told from a first person perspective in which the narrator is recalling her life with the two companions who form the main characters of the story. Ishiguro tells the story in a first draft style. The narrator regularly infuses flashbacks to explain what she is talking about, thinking the background should be well explained. This creates a patchy structure which dominates in the beginning and slowly becomes less as the story turns into a more linear development. It is a nice concept to write the story like this, as if the narrator is recalling events for the first time, maybe even dictating them to a recorder. The downside of this concept is that it makes an uneasy read as the story never seems really to get started. You feel like you are just reading a collection of random flashbacks. The persistent reader will eventually get to a more regular story development.

The story itself, and the speculative element of it, is actually nowhere that original. I recall a movie from that same year telling a story in a similar concept, with a difference. In my afterthoughts on the book I confirmed my feeling that the speculative element was only used a tool with far too limited incorporation of the implications of the concept. I felt, and still do, that there were some weird situations created that didn’t make sense. The movie took the implications more into account to make it acceptable, but the book does not. The pretty much apathetic approach of the characters and other people felt just wrong and this is the greatest flaw of the book. Ishiguro managed to write the story in a conceptually well constructed and balanced way, but only as long as you don’t start thinking outside the boundaries of the framework.

It is this framework which, although it works well, made me decide the author could have written a far more powerful story if he had not only stuck to the romance but also reached out to the environment and society in which it takes place.

A different and minor flaw is the lack of dialogue in the book. The narrator is, especially in the first half, mainly telling about events and only sparsely putting in some dialogue. To me dialogue gives the characters their character and created a greater dynamic and drama to the story. This was certainly proven in last part of the story when the dialogue started carrying the story, giving it the impact which would make the reader think positively about the book. But this would only be because of the last part.

With the lack of sufficient dialogue I never got a good feeling for the two other main characters (with a first person narrator one at least gets plenty there). They remained as the narrator tells us about them, leaving little space for our own interpretation. Only a few of the side characters get some attention while most remain rather two-dimensional.

For its concept and construction this is a well written romantic novel, but with a somewhat wasted potential, certainly when the speculative fiction used is far from original, I’ve seen and read similar things before. Thus, the author could have used it in a different way, although that would have required changing the concept and construction. Overall it is a fine read but to me a bit overrated. Nevertheless it does not surprise me it would have done well within the niche it aims for.