The Mystery of Cloomber

General Heatherstone is not an unfriendly person, really.  He’s just very, very nervous.  So nervous, in fact, that he has converted his new home, Cloomber Hall, into a fortress and keeps his family as veritable prisoners behind its walls.  His neighbor John Fothergill West has taken an interest in the Heatherstones, and John soon finds motives besides curiosity for uncovering the general’s secret enemies, who seem to have superhuman powers at their command.

I had high hopes for this novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I must give it an unfortunate 2 out of 5 stars.  I don’t ascribe to the opinion that Doyle’s non-Sherlock writings are inferior; in fact, I’ve enjoyed much of his other writing, which may account for my disappointment with this one.

There are some wonderful descriptions, a good dose of mysterious happenings, and a magnificent shipwreck scene.  I also felt that Doyle’s portrayal of the Afridis was a sympathetic one.

However, the book’s slow pace and final conclusion ruined the story for me.  Doyle is an interesting author in that he could direct a weird story towards either a supernatural conclusion or a scientific conclusion.  In the Mystery of Cloomber, many strange things happen that the narrator concludes act as evidence for occult powers.  Can the reader find scientific explanations for them?  Yes, easily, but that is not the ultimate theme of the book.

If you are looking for more Doyle to read, then by all means check out The Lost World or Brigadier Gerard, etc.  I can’t say I recommend this one.

The Trial

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A good book, a bad book, a “love it or hate it” book.  It takes some willpower for me to review Franz Kafka‘s The Trial as objectively as possible, but I must give it a mixed-feelings rating of 3.3 out of 5 stars.

I believe I began reading this book last fall, before putting it aside for months and then finishing it recently.  It’s the sort of book you can resume at any moment–because, apart from the beginning and the end, nothing happens.  I learned nothing and was intrigued.  It’s evidently deep but reads like light summer reading.  It’s a good book to read in public, because it will hold your interest despite distractions.

In a nutshell:  The Trial is about a guy who, one fine morning, gets “arrested” for unknown reasons.  And by “arrest”, it is not a “go directly to jail” arrest or even a house arrest–nothing so clear-cut and reassuring.  And “the Trial” is not about a trial in the typical sense, but about the trials Josef K. suffers just trying to get to the bottom of it.  Keyword:  trying.

Having been awed by The Metamorphosis, I am hesitant to write The Trial off as pure nonsense.  In both of these works, I believe Kafka exaggerated and examined the paranoia, corruption, and bizarre situations in real life to make a point, or to at least bring them to people’s attention.  The sudden, unexpected, strange moments of our lives when people are incomprehensible, when society seems ridiculous, aloof, vulgar, perhaps crazy–this is a huge aspect of the Kafkaesque, the meat-and-potatoes of Kafka’s themes in The Trial.  The oddities of everyday life and the mind-numbingly tedious, unbelievable processes that are necessary for things to be accomplished in a legal system (this is not entirely fantasy either–think of how many years, even decades, it can take for a person to legally become a U.S. citizen!).  Kafka appeared to be haunted by these things; how much of it arose from just his own perspective, I can only conjecture.  I think he emphasized many truths people don’t often think about, but you have to wonder at what point do the obscure truths stop and the imagination begins.

The other highlight of The Trial is what might be called “Kafka logic.”  In this book, it’s something like a mixture of math, Alice in Wonderland, and arguments.  Different characters ramble on and on and on about Josef’s case; my favorite was the lawyer’s monologue in Chapter 7, a prime example of how to optimistically give depressing news.  I personally enjoy reading about “Kafka logic”; again, it seems to me to depict some real-life truths in a very remarkable way.

Unfortunately, the protagonist “Josef K.” is the thorn in the side of his own book.  Like the “K.” of Kafka’s The Castle (which I have not finished yet), Josef comes across as an ultimately spineless, hypocritical, gullible loser.  Josef’s biggest enemy is his own anxiety–much like Richard in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House–and while I sympathized with him at first, it seemed to me later that he could have conquered his anxieties by simply trying to live a normal life and keeping busy with his work.  Instead, he drives himself crazy trying to outsmart the system, while still finding time to have romantic relationships with total strangers (despite condemning the judges as “woman-chasers”).  Josef doesn’t even have the guts to get out of long, boring, painful conversations with people who are unable or unwilling to help him.  Spoiler in white:  At the end, he is about to commit suicide, before he is murdered (or executed, depending on how you look at it).  His last words are to feel sorry for his hurt pride.  Pathetic. 

The other characters comprise one of the creepiest sets of characters I’ve ever come across.  There is “the whip-man”, the most blatantly sinister.  The others give the appearance of being nice, but most are conniving, hostile, or simply apathetic.  The majority are either realistically unpleasant or cardboard cutouts literally devoid of personality.

Due to Josef’s “love life” and the shocking ending, I would say this book is for older readers (17+).  I don’t recommend it necessarily.  Give The Metamorphosis a try, and if you dislike it, I can almost guarantee you’ll hate this book.  On the other hand, if you are fascinated by the Kafkaesque, you’ll find plenty of that in The Trial.

From Eyre to Onegin

After reading Eugene Onegin, it struck me that it shares several essential similarities with a more famous romantic classic, Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë).

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There’s the Gothic side, for example.  Jane Eyre is considered to be “Gothic”, and Eugene Onegin holds elements of it as well.  The letter-writing scene has a sense of gloom about it, but more eerie is the dream sequence, with its fantastical creatures and irony.  And Byronic heroes?  Enter Edward Rochester and Eugene Onegin.  Both are former socialites, now living out empty lives in empty ancestral houses.  Both despise the high society where they once distinguished themselves.  Both believe they’ve seen all there is to life and human nature.  

(Spoilers alert)

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Tatyana Larin and Jane Eyre are hardly less similar.  Tatyana is quiet and plain, keeping her feelings very much to herself.  So does Jane.  Jane expresses her feelings spontaneously, and so does Tatyana (though more elaborately).  They’re both of them reclusive, but they’re not ashamed of it.  And even when they are at odds with society and circumstances, they stay levelheaded and sacrifice their feelings to stay true to their principles.

Why do we still root for Edward & Jane, or Eugene & Tatyana, even when they seem like such polar opposites?  I guess everyone will have a different answer to this, but mine is summed up in a word: redemption.  Mr Rochester, at the weakest point of his life, repents and finds redemption (though not through Jane, it is important to note).  Eugene Onegin, on the other hand, has already gone through a slighter kind of reform before he meets Tatyana.  Unfortunately, he either doesn’t see it, and/or it’s not fully realised, being too obstructed by the lingering pride and old habits left in his life.  By the end of the story, Onegin hasn’t entirely changed, but his story goes farther than that, and we know he has the potential to change.

It’s this redemption that turns Edward into a man worthy to be Jane Eyre’s “Mr Right”.  Likewise, it’s the glimmering of this change that makes us hope Onegin will find peace someday.

That is one side of the conflict.  The other side is the struggle that the heroine goes through–following her conscience and not her heart.  In most other romantic classics, it’s the heroine vs. the anti-heroine, or the heroine vs. society, or the heroine vs. her Annoying Relations, etc…in each of these she is a victim.  But battling one’s own human nature is a much more difficult thing.  Jane and Tatyana both pass this ultimate test in their stories; they suffer for it, but they come out the blameless victor in the end.

I think this is the reason I like both of these stories so much.  Jane Eyre and Eugene Onegin are true-love romance stories, but just as much, they are about spiritual growth and spiritual strength, and as much about individuals as they are about couples.