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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Henry VI Part Three by William Shakespeare

Thus are the Henry VI plays concluded. Having thoroughly enjoyed the second part of this trilogy I was quite looking forward to the conclusion of the story. I find myself kind of confused by it. There will be spoilers for Henry VI Part Two

Having read an adaptation of Richard III into comic form, I couldn't help but think of this as a prequel to that play. While this play isn't bad, it seemed a bit odd from a dramatic standpoint, as the end of this play is largely the same as the end of the second. Granted, this is probably due to the adherence to overall historical events, but it still felt odd. The only major differences between the two are the death of Richard, Duke of York, in the first act and the set-up of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, as a thorn in the side of his brother's ambitions. Otherwise, it is a similar mix of political intrigue and outright war that was showcased in Parts One and Two. 
As for the BBC's adaptation, I must commend Julia Foster for her performance as Queen Margaret: she manages to be both sympathetic, as she fights to win back the throne that she believes to lawfully belong to her husband Henry as well as her son, yet at the same time she is genuinely unpleasant as she taunts and curses her foes. The rest of the cast turn in very good performances and I can't fault the production overall. 

Overall, this is a fairly simple review to write. If you enjoyed the first two parts, you will enjoy this part. I would also recommend this trilogy to those who enjoyed Richard III. 3.5/5 

Next review: ZOO by Otsuichi 

Signing off, 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Scarlet and Black by Stendhal

This is another of those books that I pretty much picked up on a whim. Since I bought Scarlet and Black at a used book stall, I've had an opportunity to learn more about its author, Stendhal. As I knew at least a little bit about the author's life, and sympathised with his low self confidence amongst other things, I was looking forward to reading this more, so that I could see how my initial impressions of the man measured up to against his work. For that reason, this review could get awkward.

Scarlet and Black follows the life of a young man named Julien Sorel as he tries to make his way and be successful in Romantic-era France. As he is a peasant by birth, he can rise in the ranks in one of two ways: that of a soldier or that of a priest. He is enamoured by the success and the politics of Napoleon, and would love to follow in his footsteps by becoming a soldier; unfortunately, this is post-Napoleonic times, so the would-be conqueror of Europe is not in vogue. Thus Julien decides that the life of a priest will have to do if he is to achieve his ambitions. That as a story isn't a bad basis to start from, and indeed, it is written very well; there are just a few things that just bug me overall.
My main problem with the story is Julien himself. I just couldn't bring myself to liking him, for two simple reasons. Firstly, he didn't seem to be a particularly consistent character. It seems more like his emotions are devices that move the plot along, as opposed to examples of genuine feeling that people might have; for example, there is a point at which a girl who is in love with him asks him to climb up to her window in the middle of the night. He climbs up to her window because he doesn't want to seem like a coward, not because he has any feelings for her that are anything more than platonic; so far, a motivation that is not particularly nice, but it does make sense. Skip to a couple of days later, and he is head over heels in love with her. I'm sorry, but feelings don't work that way. If you've known a person for months and felt nothing romantic towards them thus far, it takes more than two days for those feelings to do a 180 degree change. Secondly, he just seems generally selfish and callous to those around him. By the end of the novel, all I could think of that he achieved was to completely break the spirits of two women through his seduction, and create turmoil within both of their respective families and social circles. I don't know what part of that I am supposed to like. The worst thing is that there are enough similarities between Julien and Stendhal's backgrounds that you just sort of instinctively realise that Julien is supposed to be Stendhal's idealised version of himself; at least that's what it feels like, and it's really uncomfortable.
The other things that bugged me, to a lesser extent anyway, were parts of the plot that I think could have been shortened or just cut completely. There are two instances that immediately spring to mind. The first involves that rendezvous in the middle of the night that I mentioned earlier. In the hours preceding the meeting, Julien tries to figure out whether she is genuinely in love with him or whether the meeting is a trap to humiliate him among her aristocratic peers; this question, the answer to which the audience is already privy, takes up an entire chapter. It did not need an entire chapter to itself, maybe a paragraph or two; any longer and it just seems indulgent. The other instance that springs to mind involves a political intrigue that Julien acts as a messenger for. The ultimate purpose of it, in terms of the plot, is for Julien to meet an old friend, who he asks for advice in love. With that in mind, I see no reason why the reader needs to know the exact details of the entire intrigue, considering that it doesn't actually have an effect on the plot other than Julien's need to travel out of Paris; Stendhal himself even admits that politics in a novel is both tedious and dating, so why include it?
On the positive side, this is written very well, and is actually fairly interesting if you look at it as a kind of portrait of France in the era during which it was written. I was much more taken by the descriptions of society and the intricacies of etiquette than I was by Julien's struggles, which were, in my opinion, largely brought on by himself.

Overall, I couldn't help but read this with a measure of disappointment. Despite the fact that Scarlet and Black is well-written, I just couldn't bring myself to like the main character and so I ended up dissecting most of what I read in my head. I almost had a review pre-written about fifteen chapters before it ended, which tends not to be a good sign for me. It may be of interest to people interested in Romantic-era France. 3/5

Next review: Henry VI Part Three by William Shakespeare.

Signing off,

Friday, 8 June 2012

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

I knew the ending of this novel before I started reading it. As a book widely considered to be a classic, it suffers from having a plot that is known to anyone who makes even the vaguest of inquiries. So, if I knew the ending, why pick it up? To put it simply, I like to read about clever people outwitting other, not-so-clever, people. It's perhaps a pleasure that can be considered mean-spirited, but it works for me none the less. If that was all I was reading for, did it deliver?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is constructed from the letters of various members of French aristocratic society as their personal lives mingle in such a way that can only create disaster. Key amongst the many figures who get a moment in the spotlight are the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, two libertines intent on corrupting and ruining several people within their wider social circles. For the Marquise, this involves the corruption of a young girl, Cecile Volanges, in the lead-up to her marriage to one of the Marquise's enemies; this corruption is helped by the presence of the Chevalier Danceny, a young member of high society who has taken a shine to the innocent Cecile. The Vicomte's plans revolve around the complete seduction of Madame de Tourval, the virtuous wife of a judge, to prove once and for all his skill with women. These two plots converge in such a way that each libertine is working to help the other, until their personal feelings for their partner in crime lead to outright war between them. With a set-up such as this, I was given my train-wreck. It was glorious. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I was enjoying their machinations so much that I didn't actually want Merteuil and Valmont to fail; but, of course, wits such as theirs are not often paired with humility, so those looking for a "happy" ending, where the bad people meet their proper ends, will be satisfied. What I wasn't expecting from this set-up was insight, of a sort, into the sexual dynamics present in relationships and how these dynamics are perceived by society according to gender. This is most obvious when considering Madame de Merteuil and her relationship with Monsieur de Prevan, an unfortunate noble who convinces himself that he can ruin her pristine reputation by seducing her. When Merteuil decides to play Prevan at his own game, Valmont warns her to say that Prevan has successfully seduced and ruined three women at once before. Despite this story being fairly common knowledge, Prevan's reputation hasn't suffered for it; the only way that Merteuil can damage his reputation is to make it look as if he were about to rape her. The ideas that society has regarding male and female promiscuity has always seemed absurd to me: if a woman is labelled a slut for her promiscuity, why is a man congratulated, or at least not punished in the same way, for the same offence? It's not something that I was expecting to come up, especially considering that this was published in 1782, so it was nice to see both Merteuil and Valmont portrayed in similarly negative fashion for their similar conduct.
Unfortunately, this isn't utilised fully, and women seem to get the short end of the stick here more often than not. A particular gripe for me is the relationship between Mademoiselle de Volanges and Chevalier Danceny. I knew from his first letter that I deeply disliked Danceny. I considered his behaviour to be generally dreadful, yet he comes out of the novel the least damaged. First, his tactics in persuading Cecile to return his feelings come off more as him taking advantage of Cecile's inexperience and guilt; if your main tactic is guilt-tripping your object of affection, then there is a serious power balance issue. Second, when he is taken away from Cecile, it takes very little time for Merteuil to seduce him herself once she makes up her mind to do so; this is made worse by his decision to hide his affair from Cecile once he has access to her again, in order to "spare her feelings". Finally, once her relationship with Valmont is revealed to him, he seems to spare her no sympathy, just allowing her to seclude herself in a convent and suffer for her infidelity; ignoring the hypocrisy there, she's something like 15 years old and utterly clueless about sexuality, due to having grown up in a convent. To say that I was horrified by Cecile's ultimate fate would be an understatement.
The other aspect that has interested me especially about Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the huge amount of ambiguity that Laclos includes regarding motive and feelings between characters. I am referring in particular to the relationships that Valmont has with Merteuil and with Madame de Tourval. Throughout the novel, it is unclear whether Valmont is treating Madame de Tourval with the same callousness that he has done with countless other women, or whether he does actually possess some genuine form of love for her. At the same time, it is unclear whether the love affair that Merteuil and Valmont had in the past is impacting the events of the present story: does Merteuil still have feelings for Valmont, or is she merely referring to the past in order to bait him? They're questions that cannot be answered definitively, but I like to think that genuine feelings are present in both cases; even though they don't really affect the machinations overall, it is more interesting for me to consider Valmont and Merteuil as capable of love in some capacity, if only to introduce a point of mental weakness that can be exploited.

As you can probably gather from that lengthy discussion that I had with myself about this novel, I enjoyed Les Liaisons Dangereuses enormously. It is a difficult book to recommend to those who like a traditional happy ending, as no-one escapes this unpunished, regardless of their crimes. I can, however, recommend it to those who enjoy following intricate manipulation by masters of social convention, such as myself. It's also interesting to read the odd mix of libertine and traditional values of the time that this book presents. As a book that is also superbly well-written, I can think of few reasons to outright dislike it. 4.5/5.

Next review: Scarlet and Black by Stendhal.

Signing off,