Category Archives: Blog

Under Western Eyes

Under Western Eyes (1911)
by Joseph Conrad
Overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars

By his comrades at the St. Petersburg University, Kirylo Sidorovitch Razumov, third year’s student in philosophy, was looked upon as a strong nature—an altogether trustworthy man. This, in a country where an opinion may be a legal crime visited by death or sometimes by a fate worse than mere death, meant that he was worthy of being trusted with forbidden opinions.

Forbidden opinions…those are precisely what Razumov wishes to avoid.  An illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman, Razumov lives alone and has no expectations in the world, nothing except what he can earn through persevering work.  Content with his life, he tries to ignore the revolutionists on campus and instead turns his energy towards earning “the silver medal”, by which he can better his academic standing.  But one day, he comes home to find an assassin hiding in his rooms, expecting aid in escape.  Razumov’s reaction ruins his life as he knows it, and drives him to insanity with his own hatred, fear, and conscience.

At a glance, one would say that Under Western Eyes is about secret agents and the Russian revolution, but taken as a whole, that’s not quite the focus of the book.  It is much more a ghost story than a story about revolution.  And the actual, intended point of the book seems to be to portray how Russians and Westerners perceived things–namely life and politics–during the times this was written.  As such, and with the characters’ abstract style of speaking, it’s not really written for 21st-century readers.  You’d at least have to know the Russian history concerning that time to fully appreciate this illustration; and as of now, I don’t know enough about the subject to say whether it’s an authentic portrayal or not. 

But intriguing, fascinating?  I’d say so.  As I’ve mentioned before, nobody writes about psychology/human nature like Conrad; and it’s through human nature–something that makes us all related–that he did a great job depicting different viewpoints.

Personally, I could hardly put the book down.  Conrad has the power all writers wish for–of pulling you along breathlessly through the story, even if it’s during an excruciatingly long dialogue between two rather boring characters.  His use of phrases, remarks, and word choice to achieve subtle but powerful effects is, I think, at its height here as well.

But to me, the greatest strength of Conrad’s style is all condensed in his protagonist, Razumov.  Razumov has the heart of a hero and the head of a villain; he is, in a sense, the worst and best character of the book.  More importantly, he’s human.  And not like the self-deceived characters of many novels, whose human-ness is usually unrepentant vice, self-justified and glorified by society.  But rather, Razumov is an honest human; whatever he does, good or bad, he is inwardly honest about it…there’s even an ironic sense of honesty in him when he’s up to his neck in lies.  His last journal entry (or confession, if you will) has got to contain some of the most brilliant and heartbreaking paragraphs in literature.  Spoilers in white:  As wretched as he is, I think he’s ultimately a hero.  There’s that verse about “the wicked shall prosper”; and, sure enough, Razumov had a chance at earthly happiness after all his deceit, hatred, and evil intentions.  But in the end, he chooses to repent.  Again he loses everything; but he accepts his punishment and miserable future.  While other fictional characters would give up, for even lesser reasons, Razumov did the right thing, and that takes real bravery.           

The plot is secondary to everything else in the book, but it’s still interesting and rather complex.  The first part follows Razumov, the second and third a young lady named Nathalie Haldin, and the last part ties everything together.  As for the minor characters, half of them are boring and the other half are the ghosts in the ghost story, resulting in some very chilling scenes.  Nobody thinks of Conrad as famous for his characters; but certainly, each one has their own voice and makes an impression on you.

The ending isn’t exactly what I’d call a happy one–“pure misery” was my mental note.  Yet it was also strangely excellent.  There was the very good and the very bad, all wound up together in a sort of poetic justice; and it left me convinced that, however depressing it seemed, there couldn’t have been a better ending written for it.

Round the Red Lamp

Round the Red Lamp, Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Round the Red Lamp is not a novel, but a collection of short stories.  Each is somehow connected with doctors and their work, of the late Victorian era; but beyond that, they hold few similarities.  Nostalgia, romance, horror, comedy, science-fiction, realism–the genres vary drastically from story to story, with plots ranging from the heartwarming to the nerve-wracking.  And oftentimes, the reader can only guess at what is Fact and what is Fancy.

The subject of Victorian doctors may sound, at a glance, boring; but I found this book to be a real page-turner and excellent reading (with a couple of exceptions).  I especially loved the “day in the life” stories that seemed firmly based on reality (i.e. “His First Operation”, “A Medical Document”), and the hilarious “A False Start”, about a young doctor desperate for patients.  “Lot No. 249”–a creepy, Egyptian mummy story set in Oxford–is probably my favorite.  And “A Physiologist’s Wife” was another one that stood out to me, such a sad story.

As in the Sherlock Holmes series, Doyle’s writing style is particularly powerful in the short story format.  Within a few pages, you can go from disliking a character to liking them; and the action flows naturally, with plenty of witty dialogue and vivid, but efficient, description.  The characters, too, are very life-like, especially for a short story.  I don’t know how he does it, but it’s genius… 

Recommended for anybody who likes late-Victorian lit.

Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin's portrait by Pushkin

Eugene Onegin
by Alexander Pushkin
Edition:  Oxford World’s Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars. 

Bored by the dissipation and drama of his youthful life, Eugene Onegin withdraws from society to his inherited estate in the Russian countryside.  His only friend is Vladimir Lensky, a young, romantic poet who is engaged to Olga Larin.  Her older sister, Tatyana, is a plain, quiet introvert.  She takes more interest in books and the countryside than anything else, until she meets Onegin.  Onegin has shut his heart to true love and second-chances, but Tatyana doesn’t know this; and she writes him a spontaneous but sincere love letter, then waits feverishly for his response.

This is one of those books that makes you ask yourself “Why didn’t I read this years ago?”  Actually, I only heard about this story via Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin “Polonaise” and “Waltz” (excellent music).  The synopsis sounded great, so I got the most convenient library copy and started it soon after I finished Blithedale.

First of all, the translation–it was a little too contemporary for me (words like “girlfriends”, “zen”, and the overuse of “modish” were rather irritating).  But it was a good translation, so far as I can tell.

Now, the story.  Well, where to begin?  If popular “doomed love” stories like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, or Gone With the Wind left you *facepalming* in frustration, then you should give Eugene Onegin a try.  It’s got all the drama of those other ones, but it’s way more romantic, melancholy, and climactic in general.  The rhythmic, half-mournful, half-humorous poetry (in which the whole book is written) also helped make it a page-turner.  The story itself was very sad, but beautifully written–half fantasy, half realism.  And the ending!  It was one of those dramatic endings, but it felt realistic and complete.

The two protagonists were pretty flawed, but they were also likeable.  Onegin is the anti-romantic-hero–so disgusted by his previous experiences of love (in reality, just infatuation), that he’s converted his emotions to pride, and his life to solitude and idleness.  At the same time, he’s a grey character; in his selfishness there are glimpses of goodness, of a “better self”, so to speak.  We never get to completely see his better character, though Tatyana seems to.

Pawel Petrowitsch Tschistjakow 001

Tatyana is the real main character.  She is probably the best portrayal of a heroine that a male author ever wrote–her weaknesses, strengths, and personality were brilliantly written and very believable.  When put to the test, she’s a strong character who lives by her principles, putting duty and her parent’s wishes before her own.  But it’s not easy and she’s not perfect; half of her is “sense”, the other half “sensibility”.  She’s really a great, three-dimensional character.

Human nature, society’s expectations, and virtue make up the triangular conflict of Eugene Onegin; and there’s a lot in the story that’s open to interpretation, so whether you like it or not may depend on your interpretation.  I was literally thinking about the book for a week afterwards.  It makes you think about life and people’s choices; and it actually makes me grateful to live in a modern-day society.  And the book is a “tragic love story”, but in some ways, it’s also inspiring, because the tragedy isn’t the ultimate end.  It doesn’t have to be the end; and that was one point in the book that seemed very clear to me.

The Blithedale Romance

The Blithedale Romance
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Edition:  Oxford World’s Classics, paperback.
My overall rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

19th century New England.  A group of men and women set out to establish “Blithedale”, a community of farmers whose aim is to set an example to the world of their peaceful, profitable, and simpler life.  Blithedale is led by three celebrities:  Miles Coverdale, a poet and the narrator; Hollingsworth, a philanthropist; and the elegant “Zenobia”, an author and women’s rights advocator.  They are also joined by a strange, timid girl, Priscilla, whose very existence and loving personality changes their lives–or rather, it helps bring to light the true characters of those around her.

This book was not originally on my reading list; I chose it at random at the library, because I’d been wanting to read more Hawthorne and it looked very readable.  I really didn’t know what to expect.

As a work of American literature, I think The Blithedale Romance is hugely underrated.  Not only is it easy to read, but it gives some excellent glimpses of American life/culture during Hawthorne’s times.  The story, too, reads like a mystery novel, with a great climax and a heartbreaking ending.  Unlike certain other 19th-century American lit, this book is not lofty, verbose, or slow; instead, it’s fast-paced, concise, and elegantly readable.

The word  “romance”, though relevant also in modern-day meaning, would nowadays translates to “fantasy”.  Rather than describing life in detail at Blithedale, Hawthorne simply uses the “community atmosphere”, as well as a rather unlikely plot, to make a study of the four main characters.  They certainly make it an interesting read.

Miles Coverdale is a much more participating narrator than one would expect…mostly because he’s just plain nosy.  He makes it his business to delve into people’s secrets, then he feels all hurt when nobody wants to confide in him (ha!).  He’s certainly an unusual narrator and oddly likeable at times. 

Priscilla is a bit of a mystery.  Her personality is simplistic; at first she’s likeable, but later on she gets to be irritating. 

Hollingsworth may well be more of a mystery than anybody else.  He’s a man who has turned all his devotion to his philanthropic cause, leaving his personal life greatly drained of emotion, humanity, and conscience.  Not cool.

Last but far from least, Zenobia.  She’s an anti-heroine, but one can’t help but have a little sympathy for her.  Her story is as tragic as any Thomas Hardy book, only more subtle and very poignant.

As for the plot, there’s a sort of love rectangle going on, a couple appearances by the enigmatic Professor Westervelt, and some weird magic show subplot that isn’t ever explained.  Though ambiguous plots are fun to write, I wish Hawthorne had explained everything more–it’s a trifle frustrating.  The ending, too, was sad. One thing I did like about the book, though, was that it reads like a movie or a play–there’s a heavy touch of drama and mystery in it.  It would make an excellent costume drama!

Now, I subtracted 1/2 star for some of the plot elements and the fact that the narrator is very annoying at times.  Other than that, it was a good read, and I recommend it!

The Shadow-Line

The Shadow-Line, A Confession
by Joseph Conrad
Edition:  Oxford World’s Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars.  Recommended.

A young merchant officer finds his career taking an unforeseen turn, when he is suddenly promoted to becoming captain of his first ship.  What he doesn’t know is that its last captain died a deranged man; and the ship’s second-in-command, Mr Burns, is still haunted by the memory. And when the voyage starts to go very wrong, the new captain realises he must fight something different than physical hardships, if he is to lead the ship safely to port.

This is the third story by Conrad I’ve read, and maybe even the best.  It is only about 130 pages long and very readable, but Conrad’s signature style–full of eerie atmosphere, eccentric characters, and intense narration–was strong from start to finish.  At the same time, The Shadow-Line has a very youthful narrator with an entirely different “voice” than Marlowe (the narrator of several Conrad books).  Another thing that impressed me was the perfect flow of narration, which covered a lot of time but didn’t feel rushed or abrupt.  And he could depict each setting very clearly and poignantly, without wallowing in superfluous description.  I don’t agree with everything he says, but Conrad’s writing style is pure genius, in my opinion.

This book feels like a portrait of one event in the narrator’s life.  The title would confirm this–the “shadow-line” refers to the “line” which a person crosses as they go from youth to “grownup”.  This is the overall focus of the book, but unlike similar books, I wonder if there might be something else underlying this story.  There is certainly a strain of mystery–and even ghost story–in the whole thing, especially in the characters–what it is that Captain Giles leaves unsaid, what made the ship’s former violinist-captain go crazy (and no, it wasn’t the violin-playing, lol), what kind of person the ship’s steward really is, etc.  This is the brilliant realism of The Shadow Line…some things we’ll never find out.  

Another theme (foreshadowed again by the title) is the power of guilt.  Without describing this subplot, I will say that it’s very well-written.  I don’t get the impression that the narrator was self-pitying, and he didn’t run away from his responsibility. 

I loved the bittersweet ending, too.  Unlike Heart of Darkness, which ends in as much mystery as it began, the ending of Shadow-Line felt complete, and the themes of the story were pretty clearly defined.  So not only being a short, page-turner read, I think The Shadow-Line was a very worthwhile one.