THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR

The Government Inspector

Author: Nikolai Gogol (1809 – 1852)
Translator: Edward O. Marsh and Jeremy Brooks
Publisher: Methuen (2005 reissue)
Borrowed from: National Library

Introduction

Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol is a dramatist and writer, best known for his plays The Government Inspector (1836) and Dead Souls (1842). Today, Russia and Ukraine lay claim to his legacy.

What is the story about?

A case of mistaken identity lays bare the corruption and hypocrisy in Tsarist Russia.

How is the book?

This is part of the Methuen Drama Student Edition. Nick and Non Worrall provide useful commentary and notes.

Finally …

Humorous.

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THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

The Canterville Ghost

Author: Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)
Downloaded: Project Gutenberg via iBooks

Introduction

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish journalist, poet, playwright and author. He was born in Dublin and read Classics in Trinity College, Dublin (1871 – 1874) and Magdalen College, Oxford (1874 – 1878). In university, Wilde became a strong follower of Aestheticism and he had Walter Pater, a leading figure of the movement, as a tutor in Oxford. Aestheticism started among artists and designers in the 1860s and expanded to include architects, poets, writers and philosophers. The movement argued that the arts (literature, visual art, music etc) should be enjoyed for its beauty alone and did not have any moral, social or didactic purposes. For some, the aesthetic ideal even became a way of life, manifested in hedonism and homosexuality. Aestheticism was a response to the morality and values of the middle class, the emerging mainstream of the Victorian Age.

Oscar Wilde is best known for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, revised 1891) and play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). The Canterville Ghost is one of his most famous short stories, first appearing in the collection Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891). It has been adapted for radio, television and even the cinema.

In 1895, at the height of his fame, Oscar Wilde (somewhat foolishly, with hindsight) sued the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. He lost the case and his liability for the Marquess’ legal cost bankrupted him. Worse, the trial uncovered evidence of his sexual relationships with the Marquess’ son and other men. He was tried and convicted for gross indecency for which he was sentenced to two years of hard labor. He was released in 1897, a broken man physically. He left for Paris and died a penniless exile three years later.

What is the story about?

An American family occupies Canterville Chase and comes face to face with the ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville, the first owner of the house.

Themes

Oscar Wilde comically satirised both the Americans (brash, commercialised) and the English aristocracy (out-dated, tradition-bound).

How is the e-book?

This e-book comes with illustrations by Wallace Goldsmith.

Finally …

Amusing.

A MODEST PROPOSAL

A Modest Proposal

Author: Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)
Download: iTunes via iBooks

Introduction

Jonathan Swift belongs to a select group of writers who contributed to the development of the novel as a form of English literature in the first half of the 1700s. The term Augustan is often used to described English literature from this period. Other notable novelists active during this period included Daniel Defoe (1660–1731), Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) and Henry Fielding (1707–54). As we will see, there was a strong connection between the lives and works of these authors with contemporary politics.

In 1688, fears over the rise of Catholicism had resulted in the Glorious Revolution. The Roman Catholic King James II (of the House of Stuart) was deposed following an invasion led by his Protestant Dutch son-in-law William (of the House of Orange-Nassau). The Whigs-controlled Parliament crowned him King William III (reign: 1689–1702). In 1701, the Act of Settlement was passed to disqualify any Roman Catholic from ascending the English and Irish thrones. With the support of the Whigs but against the wishes of the Tories, William led England to war against their common enemy, Catholic France. When William died childless, his sister-in-law Anne, who had been raised an Anglican, became queen. Her reign (1702–1714) marked a return to favour for the Tories and a continuation of the war against  the French. In the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the English general John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, led allied forces to a number of important victories. Formal hostilities ceased with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht (1710). When Anne also died childless, her closest living Protestant relative, George (of the House of Hanover) ascended the throne and brought the Whigs back into power. The reign of George I (1714–1727) and George II (1727–1760) saw the development of the modern cabinet government. This is personified in Robert Walpole, the Whig statesman who held key ministry positions from 1720 to 1742 and is generally considered as Britain’s first Prime Minister. In the meantime, the deposed James II and his followers settled in France under the protection of King Louis XIV. For the next 50 odd years, the Stuarts would their claim to the throne. Their campaign is known as the Jacobite Risings from Jacobus, the Latin form of James. The rebellion ended when Charles Edward Stuart (popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) was defeated by Hanoverian forces in 1746.

While these political events were unfolding, Britain was witnessing the start of its own version of the intellectual revolution that swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ideas that were developed during this period came to be called the Enlightenment because, according to the historian E. H. Gombrich, “the people who held them wanted to combat the darkness of superstition with the pure light of reason” (A Little history of the World, p 215). The giants who strode Britain from 1650 to 1750 included Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke  (1632–1704), Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713) and David Hume (1711–1776).

It was into this milieu that Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin to a Protestant English family. With financial support from an uncle and cousin, he attended Trinity College, Dublin University and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts (1686). When the Glorious Revolution broke out, Swift moved to England where he became an assistant to an English statesman who also funded his study for a Master of Arts from Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford University (1692). But Swift wanted above all a senior appointment in the Church of England. To this end, he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland in 1695 but had to settle for minor clerical positions in Ireland. He obtained a Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, Dublin University (1702). He travelled back and forth between Ireland and England and wrote pamphlets first for the Whigs and later the Tory governments of Queen Anne. However, the Queen herself appeared to have stood in his way having taken offence at some of his earlier works. When the Whigs returned to power with the ascension of George I, Swift returned once more to Ireland a bitter man and poured his energy into writing. Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is his most famous work from this period. He also wrote about England’s unpopular control over Ireland. In the essay A Modest Proposal (1729), Swift took his pamphleteering to a new high (low?).

What is the story about?

Swift proposed a solution to deal with the great number of children living in poverty in Ireland:

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

Themes

Generally, satire may be divided into 2 types:

… the one that makes you laugh, and the one that makes you cringe. The first one, called Horatian satire after the Roman satirist Horace, relies mainly on lighthearted humour and wit to, often self-deprecatingly, point out the silly notions or mistakes in a particular construct or agenda. In contrast, Juvenalian satire focuses on exposing an evil or a folly in the structure that results in mistreatment and cruelty. Juvenalian satire is, thus, much more direct and ruthless than Horatian satire.
(http://www.buzzle.com/articles/understanding-satire-with-examples)

A Modest Proposal is widely regarded as an exemplar of Juvenalian satire.

How is the e-book?

No frills.

Finally…

Swift was a shock jock before radio was invented.

THE IDIOT

SONY DSC

Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821– 81)
Translator: Ignat Avsey
Publisher: Alma Classics (2014 edition)
Borrowed from: National Library

Introduction

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (sometimes spelled Dostoyevsky) is a giant of Russian literature. He and Leo Tolstoy are the most famous novelists from the Golden Age of Russian literature (the 19th century).

In the 1800s, there was a struggle between two schools of thought for influence amongst the Russian intelligentsia. One school embraced the Western European culture and philosophy that first arrived in Russia during the reign of Tsar Peter the Great (1682 – 1725). The other school, called Slavophilism, emerged in the 19th century as a rejection of Westernism in favour of traditional Russian Orthodox values. The clash between these two ideologies spilled into Russian literature of that period, for example in works by Ivan Turgenev (a Westerner) and Dostoevsky (a Slavophile).

Dostoevsky was a young and up-and-coming writer when he joined a group of social reforms in 1846. He and several members of the group were arrested, condemned to death and, apparently, subjected to a mock execution in 1849. Pardoned at the last minute, Dostoevsky was re-sentenced to 4 years of hard labor followed by a term of military service in Siberia. He was discharged from military service in 1859 for health reasons.

Dostoevsky returned from Siberia a changed man. Physically, his already frail health worsened. Mentally, he rejected Westernism and embraced Slavophilism. He had actually completed a novel while he was in Siberia and on his release resumed his writing career. He was an inveterate gambler however and only escaped financial ruin thanks to the success of Crime and Punishment (1866). Dostoevsky isalso known for The Idiot (1869) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).

What is the story about?

The protagonist Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin returned to Russia after convalescing abroad. Although he was away for only 4 years, he came back totally alien to the Russian way of life. He was drawn to the violent Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin (his very antithesis). Completing the triangle was Natasya Filippovna Barashkov, a beautiful but bitter young woman who spelled trouble with a capital T (in the mould of Becky Sharp from Thakeray’s Vanity Fair; 1847–8).

Themes

Prince Myshkin was a Christ figure, returning not from the dead but an illness that had transformed him into an innocent child-like individual. He was overwhelmed by the people he met, who were all corrupt, greedy and/or self-centered.

How is the book?

This volume comes with a useful introduction to Dostoevsky and his works.

Finally …

Too long, too many characters and sub-plots.

SELECTED WRITINGS OF GUY DE MAUPASSANT

Selected Writings of Guy De Maupassant

Author: Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
Translators: (not clear but possibly Albert M. C. McMaster, A. E. Henderson, Mme Quesada et al)
Downloaded: iBooks

Introduction

Guy de Maupassant, full name Henri-Jean-Albert-Guy de Maupassant, was born near the town of Dieppe on the northern shores of France. At the age of 20, he enlisted in the army during the Franco–Prussian War (19 July 1870–10 May 1871). After the war, he went to work in Paris where he came under the wings of Gustave Flaubert, a childhood friend of his mother. The author of Madame Bovary introduced him to the leading writers of the day including Emile Zola, Henry James and Ivan Tugenev. Flaubert lived long enough to witness his protégé achieve national acclaim with Boule de Suif, a short story set in the Franco–Prussian War: Flaubert proclaimed it as “a masterpiece that will endure”. It remains Maupassant’s most famous work and its success launched a productive decade for Maupassant. In all, he wrote about 300 short stories and six novels.

Maupassant has suffered from syphilis since his 20s and it may have driven him insane. After he attempted suicide in 1892, he was committed to a private asylum in Paris where he died the following year.

Today, Maupassant is considered as a master of the modern short story, along with his contemporaries Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) and O. Henry (1862–1910).

What is the story about?

This volume includes The Horla, or Modern Ghosts, (1887), a chilling story about the physical and mental deterioration of the unnamed narrator. We do not know a lot about him except that he appears to be a man of means. As we only read his diary entries, we cannot even know for sure if he was suffering from some form of paranoid delusion or if he was indeed haunted by an invisible succubus which came to France on a three-masted vessel from Brazil, fed on him while he slept, and which drank water and milk without appearing to touch any other nourishment.

Themes

The late 19th century was a time of great scientific (and pseudo-scientific) developments. Maupassant referred specifically to Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) a German physician whose work (now largely discredited) led to the modern conception of hypnosis. Maupassant depicted the struggle between the narrator and the Horla in language that reflects the idea of survival of the fittest used by Charles Darwin in the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species (1869): “Ah! the vulture has eaten the pigeon, the wolf has eaten the lamb; the lion has devoured the buffalo with sharp horns; man has killed the lion with an arrow, with a sword, with gunpowder; but the Horla will make of man what we have made of the horse and of the ox: his chattel, his slave and his food, by the mere of his will. Woe to us … A new being! Why not? It was assuredly bound to come! Why should we be the last? We do not distinguish it, like all the others created before us? The reason is, that its nature is more perfect, its body finer and more finished than ours, that ours is so weak, so awkwardly conceived, encumbered with organs that are always tired, always on the strain like locks that are too complicated, which lives like a plant and like a beast, nourishing itself with difficulty on air, herbs and flesh, an animal machine, which is a prey to maladies, to malformations, to decay; broken-winded, badly regulated, simple and eccentric, ingeniously badly made, a coarse and a delicate work, the outline of a being which might become intelligent and grand. We are only a few, so few in this world, from the oyster up to man. Why should there not be one more, when once that period is accomplished which separates the successive apparitions from all the different species?” And later, in a passage that foreshadows H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897), Maupassant wrote: “There was no moon, but the stars darted out their rays in the dark heavens. Who inhabits those worlds? What forms, what living beings, what animals are there yonder? What do those who are thinkers in those distant worlds, know more than we do? What can they do more than we can? What do they see which we do not know? Will not one of them, some day or other, traversing space, appear on our earth to conquer it, just as the Norsemen formerly crossed the sea in order to subjugate nations more feeble than themselves?”

Finally …

This short story and Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (1898) are two of the most influential short horror stories of all times.

ORIGINAL SHORT STORIES – VOLUME 4

Original Stories - Volume 4

Author: Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
Translators: Albert M. C. McMaster, A. E. Henderson, Mme Quesada et al
Downloaded: iBooks

Introduction

Guy de Maupassant, full name Henri-Jean-Albert-Guy de Maupassant, was born near the town of Dieppe on the northern shores of France. At the age of 20, he enlisted in the army during the Franco–Prussian War (19 July 1870–10 May 1871). After the war, he went to work in Paris where he came under the wings of Gustave Flaubert, a childhood friend of his mother. The author of Madame Bovary introduced him to the leading writers of the day including Emile Zola, Henry James and Ivan Tugenev. Flaubert lived long enough to witness his protégé achieve national acclaim with Boule de Suif, a short story set in the Franco–Prussian War: Flaubert proclaimed it as “a masterpiece that will endure”. It remains Maupassant’s most famous work and its success launched a productive decade for Maupassant. In all, he wrote about 300 short stories and six novels.

Maupassant has suffered from syphilis since his 20s and it may have driven him insane. After he attempted suicide in 1892, he was committed to a private asylum in Paris where he died the following year.

Today, Maupassant is considered as a master of the modern short story, along with his contemporaries Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) and O. Henry (1862–1910).

What is the story about?

This collection includes The Necklace (sometimes translated as The Diamond Necklace) (1884), one of Maupassant’s most famous stories.

Themes

Maupassant’s literature was very much influenced by his mentor Gustave Flaubert, one of the founding fathers of Literary Realism. This movement is contrasted with the preceding Romanticism : Realism, as the term itself suggests, aimed to represent real life as it is, in all its ordinariness, without embellishment or idealisation. The focus is on the ordinary, not the extraordinary. Therefore, Maupassant’s characters are mostly ordinary persons dealing with the ordinary reality of their day-to-day lives.

Maupassant (like O. Henry but unlike Chekhov) often ends his stories with a twist.

The Necklace is a good example of the above styles. The central character Matilde, who reminds us of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, was “born … into a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no way of being known, understood, loved, married by any rich and distinguished man; so she let herself be married to a little clerk of the Ministry of Public Instruction.” The surprise ending is one of the most famous in literature.

Finally …

Easily digestible read.

ORIGINAL SHORT STORIES – VOLUME 1

Original Short Stories - Volume 1

Author: Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893)
Translators: Albert M. C. McMaster, A. E. Henderson, Mme Quesada et al
Downloaded: iBooks

Introduction

Guy de Maupassant, full name Henri-Jean-Albert-Guy de Maupassant, was born near the town of Dieppe on the northern shores of France. At the age of 20, he enlisted in the army during the Franco–Prussian War (19 July 1870–10 May 1871). After the war, he went to work in Paris where he came under the wings of Gustave Flaubert, a childhood friend of his mother. The author of Madame Bovary introduced him to the leading writers of the day including Emile Zola, Henry James and Ivan Tugenev. Flaubert lived long enough to witness his protégé achieve national acclaim with Boule de Suif, a short story set in the Franco–Prussian War: Flaubert proclaimed it as “a masterpiece that will endure”. It remains Maupassant’s most famous work and its success launched a productive decade for Maupassant. In all, he wrote about 300 short stories and six novels.

Maupassant has suffered from syphilis since his 20s and it may have driven him insane. After he attempted suicide in 1892, he was committed to a private asylum in Paris where he died the following year.

Today, Maupassant is considered as a master of the modern short story, along with his contemporaries Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) and O. Henry (1862–1910).

What is the story about?

This volume include two of Maupassant’s most famous stories. A prostitute takes centerstage in both these stories set against the backdrop of the Franco–Prussian War. In Boule de Suif (translated as Dumpling, Ball of Fat or Ball of Lard) (1880), Maupassant contrasts the selflessness of the prostitute against the avarice and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie and clergy. The Jewish prostitute in Mademoiselle Fifi (1882) quietly accepted physical abuse at the hands of the Prussian officers administering her town. She even swallowed their boast that “France and the French, the woods, the fields and the houses of France belong to us!” But she retaliated with unexpected courage when one particularly odious officer claimed: “All the women in France belong to us also!”

Themes

Maupassant’s literature were very much influenced by his mentor Gustave Flaubert, one of the founding fathers of Literary Realism. This movement is contrasted with the preceding Romanticism: Realism, as the term itself suggests, aimed to represent real life as it is, in all its ordinariness, without embellishment or idealisation. The focus is on the ordinary, not the extraordinary. Therefore, Maupassant’s characters are mostly ordinary persons dealing with the ordinary reality of their day-to-day lives. In Boule de Suif  and Mademoiselle Fifi the protagonists are two working girls doing the best they could in difficult times.

Maupassant’s writing style is simple and economical.

Finally …

Easily digestible read.