4 short reviews

Beowulf
Unknown
3.5 out of 5 stars

I feel almost guilty for rating this classic of classics so poorly, but I think it’s a book you either love, loathe, or feel lukewarm about.

Pros:  The historic setting, historic dialogue, underwater/cave battle, and Christian perspective.  Added 1/2 star for Beowulf‘s influence on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Cons:  Beowulf (the character) is much too flawless a fighter. He hardly seems human.  A more interesting character is Wiglaf, the underling whose courage outweighs his inexperience.

The Queen of Spades
Alexander Pushkin
2 out of 5 stars

A very weird, Edgar Allan Poe-esque story about gambling and ghosts.  It’s also super fast-paced, which doesn’t help.  Interesting concept, however.

A Tangled Tale
Lewis Carroll
5 out of 5 stars

One of the best books I’ve read in the last year.  This is a collection of math/logic puzzles, with continuing characters and storylines.  The dialogue is wonderfully witty and hilarious at times (“Equilateral! And rectangular!”).

As far as the puzzles themselves go, this is serious stuff.  Mathematically, pretty much all you need is algebra.  The logic is the tough part.  I tried solving several of them, but was only able to solve one on my own: “Petty Cash”.  Even this involved Victorian British currency and some convoluted systems of equations.

Needless to say, you will be staying up very late at night trying to solve these.  They look horribly simple, even on your second or third attempt.

A Personal Record
Joseph Conrad
5 out of 5 stars

Another memoir by Joseph Conrad, this book gives fascinating insights on what his early life was like, how he became a seaman, and how–comparatively late in life–he became a writer.  Highly recommended for Conrad fans and people interested in the lives of great authors.

Lensky’s Idealism, and Why Onegin Fought a Duel

Yevgeny Onegin by Repin
Last night I finished my first re-reading of Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin).  The plan is to use a different translation for each re-read–this time I used Henry Spalding’s, which you can find at Project Gutenberg.  While I didn’t stumble across any words like zen, I found parts of the translation to read awkwardly, as if a thesaurus had been referenced once too often.  On the positive side, it is overall a very readable translation, and it rhymes. 4.5/5 stars for the Spalding translation.

As for the re-read itself.  Much has been made of Tatyana’s bookish dreams, but I’m convinced now that the poet Lensky is the only idealist, the only dreamer in the whole book.  His last thoughts were what really stood out to me this time.  I understood better where he was coming from, and I actually felt very sorry for him.

(Spoiler alert)
After the ball–where Onegin childishly vents his anger by flirting with Olga–Lensky’s reaction goes from feeling hurt at his girlfriend’s behaviour to feeling determined to defend her from (whom he thinks is) his treacherous best friend.  In other words, his initial shock is riddled with jealousy, but it is actually truer than his second thoughts.  With his second thoughts, he forgives Olga, but romanticizes his situation to great extremes, driving himself unnecessarily to the “point of no return,” and placing his whole self-opinion in the hands of the callous, upper-crust society.  In a kind of poetic madness, Lensky lives his romantic ideals out to the ultimate end, so afraid is he of public humility and of not being taken seriously.  Not a single other character in the book goes that far.

To my mind, then, Lensky’s great faults are one, that he idolizes his own ideals, and two, that he lets public opinion dictate his actions.  But while I do not condone these things, or the action he chose to take, I do think that society was partly responsible for each of them.  In Lensky’s day, society’s shallowness provoked him to turn to his ideals, and an individual’s reputation hinged mercilessly on society’s opinion, which could be so easily altered by rumors.  And regardless if you were an idle “misanthrope” like Onegin or an aspiring artist like Lensky, there was no escape from aristocratic society.  Everybody knew everyone, whether they liked it or not.

So Lensky challenge Onegin to a duel, and we know Onegin accepted the challenge.

But why did he accept, anyway?

I have a theory that Onegin did it for Lensky’s sake.  Think about it.  We know that Lensky doesn’t really hate Onegin.  We also know that Onegin felt apologetic before the duel.  Furthermore he was psychologically tortured by its results.  He has also given up his social life, so while he might be partially interested in maintaining his honor and reputation, it couldn’t be the bulk of his reason for duelling his only friend.

One of Lensky’s fears was that Onegin would treat the duel as a joke, and I think Onegin knew that.  It seems strange to us modern-day readers, but I think Onegin, in a certain sense, was trying to make amends for his unkindness.  As he saw it, he could not apologize–that would be crushing to Lenksy’s pride and his own pride.  Instead, he agreed to the duel, as a way of saying “You were right, I was wrong, and I take you perfectly seriously.”  Probably Onegin, a believer in fate, even expected Lensky’s bullet to hit its target.

What Onegin didn’t factor-in was that, even if he were indifferent about dying, Lensky was not. Nor was Onegin prepared to be the one who killed him.