Friday, August 25, 2017

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

I'll be digging back into Shakespeare's history plays in a couple of weeks, but by way of a break I decided to read Booth Tarkington's classic American novel The Magnificent Ambersons.

I'd heard a lot about The Magnificent Ambersons before getting around to reading it, but I was under the impression that it was an unpretentious comedy. I had no idea that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, and having read it, I can see why. Though it comes with plenty of gleams of humour, this novel is an earnest drama with an ambitious scope. 

When we meet them, the Amberson family is a prominent, wealthy, and aristocratic founding family of a small midwest-American town. They live in the biggest, fanciest house in the town, and everyone knows their name. Everyone also knows the only grandson, George Amberson Minafer, an engaging but spoiled child whom everyone agrees needs a sharp comeuppance. Time rolls by and the town expands, threatening the Ambersons' pre-eminence, but George (now a young man) continues to believe that his family is the centre of the universe. Will George get his comeuppance in time? Or will he sacrifice everything and everyone he loves to his own sense of self-importance?

There were a few things that I really liked about this novel, and a few that I really didn't. The main thing I didn't like was George himself. For most of the novel, I found him completely unbearable. I also got the impression that the author wanted me to find him charming despite his evident faults, which only compounded my exasperation with this character. At one stage I decided he was completely unredeemable. I'll try not to give away too much of the ending, except that Tarkington managed to surprise me - but not enough to obliterate the unbearableness.

George's mother, Isabel, was also a character I bore little sympathy for. Tarkington treats her with tiresome Victorian sentimentality - oh, what a noble saintly mother she is for bearing with him and loving him tenderly despite all his flaws. In fact, Isabel starts out by spoiling her son rotten and winds up letting him domineer over her and the people she loves to tragic consequences. She's actually culpable for her actions, and Tarkington wants us to feel sentimentally fuzzy about her. Well, I didn't. 

This, and the novel's rather loose plot structure, made the novel feel a little dated to me. That said, there were a number of things I actually did like in this story.

I thought that Fanny Minafer, George's rather pathetic old maid aunt, was probably the most human and realistic character in the whole book. You didn't like her, but you felt sorry for her. You realised that she probably didn't deserve anything better than what she got, but you sympathised with her desire for something better. Fanny becomes a pivotal character in George's character arc toward the end of the book, and I really loved what Tarkington did with her.

I loved the historical background to this story. Tarkington covers several decades in this book, his focus being on the changes wrought by the passing of time, on a personal scale with the fall of the Ambersons and on a grand scale with the rise of the city itself. I loved how these two threads compared and contrasted to each other. Using just a few repeated motifs - the automobiles, the town gossips, the Neptune fountain, and so on - Tarkington easily tracks the fortunes of new blood and old money, conveying information to us that the viewpoint characters themselves barely notice. Clearly this story isn't just about a selfish young man, it's primarily about an era in American history, and Tarkington does a terrific job of evoking this.

Finally, despite my impatience with some of the novel's most prominent characters, the second half of this book had me completely hooked. Tarkington pours on the drama, and it's oodles of melodramatic fun. 

I didn't love The Magnificent Ambersons. But I can appreciate why it would have made such a hit in its own day, as well as its enduring appeal. I imagine that the things I didn't like could easily be fixed by a good film or TV adaptation, and I might actually sniff one out.

Find The Magnificent Ambersons on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox!

Friday, August 18, 2017

Henry V by William Shakespeare

I'd never actually read Shakespeare's Henry V all the way through before. I'd read a couple of the scenes, for sure, and had seen the Kenneth Branagh film two or three times. So reading the whole play was rather an eye-opener.

Following the accession of hellraising Prince Hal to his father's throne as Henry V, he's shocked everyone by reforming himself into a competent, smart, and vigorous king. As his old companion Sir John Falstaff dies slowly of a broken heart, the new King Harry gets permission from church authorities to invade France, the crown of which he claims in right of his descent from the French princess Isabella. Once in France, however, the English find themselves dramatically outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Will they survive the looming battle at Agincourt? Of course they will, with the help of the most rousing speech ever given in the history of the world. Bask in the awesome:
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember├Ęd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, he'd already written most of his other history plays. He'd begun with one four-play cycle on the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III, and then went back through Richard II and Henry IV. Henry V is the last and probably the most beloved of these eight plays, and just as Richard III made a villain everyone already loved to hate, Henry V made a hero everyone already loved to love. This play is about a desperate foreign war, but it comes as a rather bright spot amidst a long and exhausting series about civil war. It's a bright, youthful, valiant play about a heroic young king on adventures in France.

Or is it?

Ambiguity is the word that has come to mind every single time I've sat down to write a review of these Shakespearean history plays, and lo, here it is again.

On the one hand, Shakespeare makes King Henry a thoroughly likeable character. Where Richard II was verbose, Henry V is simply inspiring. You wished Richard would shut up; you want Henry to go on. Richard had an over-inflated sense of his quasi-divine entitlement to the throne, Henry takes every opportunity to remind his men that he loves them and considers them his brothers. Richard treated his nobles like peasants, but Henry treats his peasants like nobles. Whether it's the rousing Harfleur or St Crispin's Day speeches, or whether it's Henry's conversations with his men in disguise the night before Agincourt where he argue's that "every man's soul's his own", or his soliliquy on how the only thing that makes a difference between himself and an ordinary person is ceremony, at times this play seems almost anachronistically democratic for Elizabethan tastes. Indeed, these English democratic ethics are implicitly contrasted with the French, who come around after the battle to bewail their dead knights and lords who are all jumbled up on the battlefield with peasants and commoners.

You like Henry in this play. How can you fail to like someone who treats his men so well, someone as adorably awkward around the French Princess Katharine as he is, someone who knows so well how to inspire others, someone who at times seems to act so nobly toward his enemies?

But you don't even have to look very closely to feel uncomfortable about Henry V.

One thing that began to bug me the second or third time I saw the film, and that became very clear as I read the play, was how constantly Henry shifts the blame for the war onto others. He clearly understands the cost in human lives, suffering, and resources that war exacts. In fact, he's constantly talking about it, sometimes in uncomfortably graphic terms. He warns the church officials not to sanction his invasion of France unless they're willing to bear the guilt for this. Later in the very same scene he blames the war on the Dauphin for insulting him. At Harfleur he intimidates the garrison into surrender by threatening a ghastly sack of the town, which he has the nerve to say will be their fault. Henry seems to be roughly on the same moral level as the schoolyard bully who (slap) wants you (slap) to stop hitting yourself (slap).

By the time of the night before Agincourt, when the king in disguise states, "I could not die anywhere so contented as in the king's company, - his cause being just and his quarrel honourable", and the soldier William responds, "That's more than we know", the line hits us between the eyes. It's more than we know, too. And we know much more than William does.

We know, for instance, that Henry IV's dying advice to his son in the previous play was to avoid civil war by busying his nobles with a foreign war. We know that corrupt church officials have offered Henry a huge bribe plus permission to go to war in France if he'll help them politically. We know that Henry is a foreign aggressor invading a peaceful country without any provocation whatsoever. We know that before Harfleur, Henry turns down the opportunity to make peace by taking Katharine's hand and a number of French dukedoms.

But this isn't the only dark side to Henry V. There's also a dark side to him personally. In my reviews of the Henry IV plays, I said that I thought Shakespeare didn't mean audiences to see Henry as treacherous for planning to abandon Sir John Falstaff and his other lowlife friends. I still think Shakespeare was trying to show that Henry needed to mature past Falstaff, but in this play he hints that Henry has treated Falstaff badly. The scene in Act 2, for instance, where Henry righteously unmasks and condemns three friends who have betrayed him to the French ("Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,/That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,/That almost mightst have coin'd me into gold") is bookended by scenes at Eastcheap in which Falstaff is dying: "the king has killed his heart." Henry has been betrayed, but he has also betrayed his own friends.

This is underlined, rather chiastically, in Act 4 when the Welsh Captain Fluellan compares Henry with Alexander "the Pig" (or the Great, misunderstood and comedically mispronounced). Fluellan gives us a list of completely irrelevant comparisons--both of them were born at places beginning with an M!--but finishes by saying that Alexander killed his best friend. Just like Henry turned away "the fat knight with the great pelly-doublet."

So in Henry V, is Shakespeare depicting a hero or a villain? I tend to suspect that he attempted, with surprising skill, to do both. Henry V is a genuinely charming character, with many genuinely heroic qualities, but he's also got a very decent helping of the villain in him. One feels keenly that he would not be half as taken by Princess Katharine if she didn't come with France thrown in, but one feels equally certain that having married her, he'll do his best to make her happy for the rest of his (perhaps deservedly) short life.

Henry V is a great play, containing some of the best things Shakespeare ever wrote, but it's not by any means a simple read.

I've seen two productions of Henry V. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version is definitely the one to go for. Despite its rather low-budget production values, it's wonderfully hammy in all the right places, with Branagh himself, Emma Thompson, Judi Dench and Ian Holm all providing great performances. This version plays the story fairly straight, with Henry as a hero, although the ambiguity is well and truly still present in the dialogue.

The Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Henry has a similarly low budget, but clearly tries to bring out a bit more of the ambiguity inherent in the play, although I fail to grasp the logic behind some of the directorial decisions (why include the slaughter of the French prisoners but not of the English baggage-train?). Hiddleston's performance is lower-key than Branagh's; he seems more self-aware, more doubtful of his own rhetoric. Which, actually, I don't think was the best decision for the play. Henry V can be portrayed as villainous or heroic and probably should be, but I feel that he only has power if he does believe what he's saying. I actually would have liked to see Hiddleston in full Loki mode as a charismatic tyrant; that might have been iconoclastic, but oh so much fun. Maybe someone else will do that one day...

Find Henry V on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

OUTREMER update!

Today, I'm really excited to bring you the latest news on OUTREMER!

As you know if you've been following me for a while, OUTREMER is the giant project that has been taking up the lion's share of my time for the last three years, an epic saga spanning the 200-year history of the medieval crusader states. Since committing to the project at the end of 2014, I've read more than 25 books on the history and geography involved, and written well over 400,000 words' worth of first-draft material.

I haven't given you an update on this project for nearly a year. A few weeks ago I realised that it's been nearly a year since I finished the OUTREMER first draft, and the realisation freaked me out a bit. Eleven months? What have I been doing?

But of course, I've been doing plenty. I've actually spent the majority of the last six months working on this baby of mine. It's been slow, and it's been the kind of planning, plotting, and sitting-still-and-thinking work that doesn't always look like work. In January and February, I undertook an evaluation of the characters and themes in the first draft. After a short break from research in the last few months of 2016, I returned to that and have burned my way through some very important research reads, including The Templar of Tyre, a primary source on the late thirteenth century which was worth every penny of its significant cost. In April I spent a lot of time thinking about the history itself, trying to crunch it through a Christian worldview to come up with some judgement calls for how I needed to handle various ethical questions. I then spent an exhausting month in May re-reading the first draft and doing some very intense brainstorming for new ideas, which included systematising the magic and coming up with some overarching symbols to express some of the themes I was seeing in the history. I took a couple of weeks in June to study each of my eighteen major characters, firming up their character arcs and motivations. Finally, in July, I found myself sorting through thousands of words' worth of notes, both handwritten and typed, in order to compile my decisions into a master plan for each level of the plot: the overall story, each protagonists' story, and finally, each book.

Yes, you heard that right: I have abandoned my fond and naive hope to tell this story within one volume. There's no way I can fit it into one book. That was a rather easy decision, but I had no idea whether to split the thing into two, three, or more books. At the beginning of this year, however, I was able to make this decision--a rather daunting one, but one which I'm confident is the right choice.

OUTREMER will be a series of nine books.

This is the most natural way to tell the story. As it is, the first draft was always structured in nine parts, as a sort of interwoven trilogy of trilogies following three different protagonists: John, Lukas, and Marta Bishara. So, nine books is really the easiest and most powerful way to tell this story.

Oh, and I've changed the protagonists' surname, for linguistic reasons that would be too tedious to explain here. Say goodbye to the Bisharas, and hello to the Bessarions!

Anyway, all this is really small beans compared to the big news I am here to share with you. Last month, I started work on the second draft of Book 1. My goal is to have that finished and hopefully ready for first-round beta reading by the end of this year, preparatory to publication, likely late in 2018. DV.

Book 1 is currently titled A Wind from the Wilderness, and it's set during the early stages of the First Crusade. It's coming along slowly, but steadily, and I'm already much happier with it than I was with the first draft.

Once that's finished, I also hope to move quickly on to Book 2, currently titled The Lady of Kingdoms.

Obviously I can't be more excited at how this story is coming together. The second draft--or second drafts, since I'll be writing each book separately--will bear surprisingly little resemblance to the first. I've barely even been consulting the first draft as I work on A Wind from the Wilderness. But I've gained an immense benefit in getting to know my characters, their history, the setting in which they interact, and the themes that will drive their plots. With all this planning under my belt, I couldn't be more excited to dig in and burn through this story. And I can't wait to share it with you!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

This week I continued exploring Shakespeare's history plays with Henry IV, Part 2. In the third part of Shakespeare's English-History Theatrical Universe (I'm sorry, couldn't resist), King Henry IV's illness worsens as second son Prince John of Lancaster mops up the rebels from the previous play.

In any series, duology or trilogy there are usually instalments that lack the quality of the others, and it's hard not to see Henry IV Part 2 as the obligatory filler episode, necessary to bridge the gap between the two hits of Henry IV Part 1 and Henry V. Putting on my own author hat, I think the main reason this play feels so filler-ish is that the central character, Prince Hal, evidently has so little to do. In Part 1, Hal struggled with his father's disappointment in him, and addressed it by seeking glory on the Shrewsbury battlefield. He did indeed prove himself - but only to himself, because Sir John Falstaff took the credit for the victory (no doubt a sly symbol for how his association with Falstaff has tainted Hal's reputation in other ways as well). 

But in Part 2, although Henry IV remains doubtful about his son, Hal has no plans to prove himself, at least not during his father's lifetime. Part 2 is a waiting game as the king sickens, and the most active role in the plot belongs to Hal's younger brother John, who presents a different kind of foil to him than Hotspur in the previous play. Where Hotspur was hot and chivalrous, John is cold and cunning. Hotspur was an old-fashioned medieval knight; John is a more up-to-date renaissance prince, achieving his goals through ruthless realpolitik. While Hal clearly has a dose of cool calculation himself, while he avoids Hotspur's splenetic idealism, he's very much more warm-blooded than his brother, and perhaps Shakespeare is positioning Hal between the two extremes as a way to comment on the ideal king. 

Whether this is so or not, it's fun, in this play, to see John so effortlessly put down the rebellion. The play presents him young and extremely competent, trusted by his father and as anxious as anyone else about Hal's impending accession to the throne. With this in mind, I'm surprised that Shakespeare didn't take this character further, didn't more clearly position him as a threat to Hal, which might have loaned more urgency to the plot. Then again, perhaps Shakespeare is saving him up for some juicy antics in Henry VI. We'll see.

The fact remains that Hal has little to do here, and even Falstaff's antics can't quite save the play. Part 2 finds the fat knight in financial distress, dodging the Chief Justice and taking shameless bribes on a recruiting drive through Gloucestershire, including from two fellows named (I'm not kidding but Shakespeare is) Mouldy and Bullcalf. 

But the play's power, and its somewhat doom-laden tone, derives from the fact that for everyone, time is simply running out. Henry IV, crushed by guilt and disappointment, is dying. Hal's days as a carefree prince are coming to an end, and he has no choice but to go on playing the carefree prince because no one would believe him if he showed his genuine grief. His brothers and courtiers await his accession with dread. And Falstaff's days as a petty thief and general sponger cannot continue, no matter how strenuously he denies it: his only hope is that Hal will become king in time to pay his debts.

The play is, rather simply, the story of how time runs out, and what happens when it does. After so long waiting and wondering, it's actually pretty exciting to see Hal become king. When he does, strangely enough, one of the play's most moving scenes has to do with a highly symbolic character whom we only see in this play: the Lord Chief Justice. We're told that the Chief Justice is trying to corner Falstaff the petty criminal, and that in Falstaff's defence, Hal once socked the Justice's juridical nose. When Hal becomes king, the Chief Justice expects disgrace at best and death at worst, but Hal, it turns out, is more than ready to cast aside Falstaff, the symbolic Vice, and replace him with the equally symbolic Justice. This is easy to understand, but it suggests other possibilities as well: Henry IV, we all know, does not himself have an easy relationship with the blindfolded lady; is Shakespeare hinting that Henry IV had to die before Hal could openly embrace Justice?

At any rate, it was nice to see that when Hal becomes king, he does, in fact, give Falstaff and his other old friends a decent pension. I feel that gets forgotten often.

As before, I introduced myself to this play by watching the Hollow Crown production with Tom Hiddleston as Hal, Simon Russel Beale as Falstaff, and the always excellent Jeremy Irons as Henry IV. It's a great production, though as in Richard II, I thought some important scenes were omitted. 

Find Henry IV, Part 2 on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg and Librivox.


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