Friday, January 21, 2011

Recalled To Life

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoled Boots
Volume 11, Number 1

My quest for self-improvement, and the list of books I hadn't read, led me to this Dickens classic. Written in 1859, it deals with the French Revolution - specifically, with the Terror.
Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning's chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the cook.
Book I, Chapter 7

Dickens can be a tricky author to read. Some of his works tend towards the grandiose, in language as well as in plot ambition. Two Cities, though, is beautifully stripped down - has an urgent tone that matches its setting, and events in the plot. It seems incongruous to call it "refreshing", but that's how I felt afterwards - as if I had been plunged into something and brought back out again.

It's a pretty scary book. For me, the French Revolution is almost a theory rather than an actual event: so far removed as to be more "a force in European history" than anything else - an event that led to other events, and a thing that I viewed as part of a whole. Two Cities brought this remote past back to life - clamourous and sweeping, crying, gasping, and bleeding. It was awful.

Every day, through the stony streets, the tumbrils now jolted heavily, filled with condemned. Lovely girls; bright women, brown-haired, black-haired, and grey; youths; stalwart men and old; gentle born and peasant born; all red wine for La Guillotine, all daily brought into light from the dark cellars of the loathsome prisons, and carried to her through the street to slake her devouring thirst.
Book III, Chapter 5

I suppose if I had thought much about this book before reading it, I would have given a list of words such as "classic", "literature", and "grand". Maybe "prosy". Definitely "wordy". I knew vaguely that it was about the French Revolution (thanks, I'm ashamed to say, to a game of Trivial Pursuit I played when I was about 19 years old), but was not interested in finding out more about it. I, like everybody in creation, knew the first part of the first line: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times..., and that was more or less enough for me.

But when I finished A Tale of Two Cities I sat there, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mum with a Bachelor's degree in European History on the wall behind me, Googling "causes of the French Revolution" for two hours.

And, really, that's what this whole exercise is for: to push my boundaries outward, and find out what it is that I've been missing all these years.

The National Razor shaves close.

I've been thinking about my reading schedule, and I've decided that I should have a "classic" on the bedside table at all times. There's something different about reading literature - there's a reason these books are still in print one (or two) hundred years later. In a word, they're good. I also have a theory that reading classics broadens my mind and improves my English.

As a side note, I used a different edition than I normally would - the Penguin or Signet style. I am a fan of annotated works, with footnotes that expand on the text, and help place antiquated phrases or vocabulary in their context. This time, I read the "Collector's Library" edition, a small format, which contained gilt pages, the original set of illustrations (by "Phiz"), no modern introduction and no footnotes. I LOVED it - it felt wonderfully current, not in the least as though I was studying something 'old'.

I think next I might try "The Scarlet Pimpernell" - may as well carry on with the French Revolution while I'm thinking of it.

I wholeheartedly recommend that you read A Tale of Two Cities. The first couple of chapters are a bit bewildering - you are introduced to a complete stranger and immediately asked to care a lot about what he's thinking during a long night drive - but if you can get to page 120 you're all set. The rest of the book will go by all too quickly.

Vive le Boz!


kate said...

Cool new look on the blog.

I started this book once, and it got lost amongst other books. I think I should pick it up again, you make me want to.

I think reading for me is always about learning, devouring, enquiring, thinking and feeling. For me, a book is at its best when, no matter the topic, it leaves you wanting to know more.

A friend was telling me how she is re-reading all the children's 'classics' to share with her kids: Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson, Jungle Book, and such. A totally different experience, she says.

Carolyn said...

You'll LOVE the Scarlet Pimpernel! (Hope I haven't jinxed anything by saying that.)

We seek him here,
We seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere...

I need to re-read it.

Suelle said...

I read this book about 12 years ago now. I remember feeling scared while reading it--I'm always frightened by humanities capacity to kill eachother for no reason whatever. I ought to read it again, thanks for the great review!

Dave Hingsburger said...

I've worried about it. It's woken me up at night. Now that it has happened, I cry in despair. Shannon has finally gone to the dickens!

Kim said...

I was delighted to read your review on Tale of Two Cities, Dickens. My friend, Kate, referred me to your blog, knowing how I'm a HUGE Dickens fan.

TofTC's is frightening, yet compelling. After I've thought about this amazing book for a few years, Madame DeFarge still haunts me. She was the creepiest!

Are you now a Dickens fan? Hope so! What's not to like? It's a huge thrill for me to read how he turns a phrase (genious), his accurate descriptions (is like I'm there), his story-telling. I've read several other Dickens novels, even wanting to read all of his stories chronologically. So far, so good, but I jumped into David Copperfield, and Our Mutual Friend (both great stories, too).

I've also been wanting to read The Scarlet Pumpernel. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as Dickens.

Have you read War & Peace, Tolstoy? As you may already know, it also speaks of the French Revolution. It was great!

Shan said...

Hi Kim! Your email address didn't show up in my inbox with your comment, so I have to reply here.

I have not read War and Peace, but my good friend just read it last year, and told me it's a page turner. She lent it to me, and I hope to read it this year. She also loved Anna Karenina, which is on my shelf. She told me that these particular Russian novels, though, have a lot of characters and so take a bit to get into them - they don't grip you from page one.

I'm looking forward to War and Peace!

Anonymous said...

Hey Shan,
Thanks again for lending me A Tale of Two Cities. I loved it. I absolutely had the same feeling of refreshment as you. Even though I had been sobbing over it for half the morning...using my sweater sleeves to wipe the tears that kept welling up and blurring the pages (I was too enthralled to pause and get a kleenex) still when it was over I felt ...great, not at all how I felt after reading Great Expectations, then I was brooding and melancholy. If I hadn't given your copy back already I would quote some of my favorite parts. I thought it was so funny when Jerry would get mad at his wife for 'flopping'. Like I was saying to you today, it didn't seem very dickensish. It felt more like Georgette Heyer without the banter. The uncle Monseigneur especially.
I've got The Scarlet Pimpernel if you want to borrow it. I didn't love it, I mean I like the story I just don't like the way Baroness Orczy tells it. -K.

P.S. I too have embarked on a course of improving reading in an attempt to keep my brain from atrophying.

WashingtonPharmGirl said...

Reading Mansfield Park. Ugghh...having such a hard time getting through it. Maybe I should start over with this one.s