“How To Be a Medieval Woman” by Margery Kempe

How To Be a Medieval Woman by Margery Kempe, org. published in the 1430s, Little Black Classic, Penguin.

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I love Penguin’s Little Black Classics. They’re pretty, they’re neat, they’re easy to bring with you everywhere. They recently released a new set of titles, about 20 I think? These new LBCs are longer, about 100+ pages compared to the 50 of the original bunch.

I only have one of the new set so far and it’s this one, How To Be a Medieval Woman. I got it because it sounded like fun. And because I thought it was something slightly different than it was. The back says this is a book of “Advice on marriage, foreign travel and much more“. That is not the case, which is unfortunate, because that’s the whole reason I thought it would be fun. You know, a woman writing about her experiences being a woman during a time where women were repressed like hell? I thought it was gonna be advice on how to avoid robbers, thieves, men with unsavory intentions, and keeping your virtue intact while still seeing the world! Amazing. I totally expected this to be Margery Kempe giving out rebellious and liberating advice on how to travel, marry and generally be a woman during a time where that was certainly not easy. I understand now I may have projected some things onto this book, that the description didn’t quite merit. Still, it certainly doesn’t describe what the book actually is about either.

It turns out this chronicles Kempe’s religious experiences and travels, with not even the shadow of advice. It’s pretty tedious, honestly. This is perhaps mostly due to the fact that I have absolutely zero interest in the subject of people with religious visions or Margery crying uncontrollably, constantly, because she loves God and Jesus speaks to her. I have nothing against religion, and I liked the comfort religion gave her, but this still wasn’t a fun read. Although, the whole idea of that kind of religious dedication and experience is foreign to me, so I almost hoped that would be enough to keep me interested, but I simply couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm. If only it hadn’t been so tediously written to top it off. I ended up struggling through it.

There are fun moments in it, though. Like how she’s constantly abandoned by her fellow pilgrims, because she cries all the time, how 90% of everyone she meets thinks she’s actually seeing visions of the devil and so on. But they’re mostly fun thinking about later, when you look at it away from the dry, redundant way it’s told. I think some of the blame for it being so tiresomely written is that, that’s simply how you wrote things back then, form and style didn’t factor in.

I’m not blind to the historical significance of this work, however. It is considered one of the first autobiographies, and written by a woman even! It’s an important document, not just about the time, but the female, religious experience etc. It’s just, as I’ve said, I have no interest in it. Really none at all. Of course this is merely an excerpt from the actual book, so maybe that would’ve been a more giving experience, but not one I’m likely to have now. This was enough Margery Kempe for me.

My expectations simply weren’t met, they were somewhat crushed, in fact, which is not  entirely the fault of Margery Kempe, rather the fault of Penguin for deceiving me into thinking this would be something it wasn’t. If they’d been more clear in their description I never would’ve picked this up and none of this would’ve happened. But I guess we’re all made stronger by our less agreeable reading experiences. And at least now I know who Margery Kempe is, which I’m thankful for.

This is the first Little Black Classic I haven’t liked, but I’m still a fan of the concept. Onward and upward towards different, better reading experiences.

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“Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Persuasion by Jane Austen, org. published in 1818, Amazon Kindle Edition.

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But I hate to hear you talking so like a fine gentleman, and as if women were all fine ladies, instead of rational creatures. We none of us expect to be in smooth water all our days.

Anne is perhaps the Jane Austen heroine who differs the most from the others; she’s old (by Austen-time standards), she’s estranged from her family, and she’s been decidedly unsuccessful in love, in fact she’s the author of a failed engagement. Austen heroines always have to go through hardship to win love, but in this case part of the hardship has already passed; her heart has been broken, by her own hand even. Anne fell victim to the manipulations of others, her (then) weak will and she sent her true love away. In contrast to other Austen novels this misunderstanding is not resolved within a short period of time, no, many years pass before the two heartbroken lovers meet again.

While Austen is known for writing romance novels, they’re always about more than that. There’s social satire, musings on family, friendship and marriage, there’s moral lessons to be learned and sense to be earned. For Anne, it’s independence she seeks. Having followed the advice of others before with disastrous results, she’s determined not to do so again. Even if it might not result in another chance at happiness: Captain Wentworth seems determined not to pay her any attention, having been burned in the past by her fickle nature. But few things mend as strangely and crookedly as broken hearts. Sometimes they hardly mend at all.

Honestly, and I just thought of this, Lady Russell mirrors Emma (the character from the Austen novel by the same name) in the way she tries to keep Anne from what she deems an inferior connection, and Persuasion then gives us the view from the other side. The view from the person who’s been manipulated, although Anne, in contrast to the ‘victims’ of Emma, seems more collected, and realizes her mistake almost straight after the fact – to no avail however; Wentworth is gone.

So what Anne sought, and is seeking, is independence, the chance to show the strength and loyalty of her heart, to not repeat the same mistake as last time. And it’s wonderful to see a character who’s already gone through character development and has arrived at who she is and who she wants to be, and watch her be that person. Persuasion is not the story of a mistake to be made and learned from – the mistake has been made, and Anne already learned from it. Rather it’s a waiting game. It’s Anne and Wentworth circling each other, one trying to prove he’s moved on, that she’s nothing to him, the other trying to lessen the pain of another heartbreak. It’s wonderful. It’s the story of two people who’ve hurt each other deeply, tentatively attempting to let the other go and finding instead they keep growing closer.

And I’m enamored by the musings on love presented in it. Reflections on who loves most ardently, most loyally, most strongly; men or women? Benwick and Anne discuss it at one point:

’But let me observe that all histories are against you – all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.’

‘Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’

God bless you, Jane. The conclusion, I think, that Persuasion presents is that both love equally badly or well depending on the situation and the person they love.

There’s a lot of layers to her representations of characters in this, and involving the navy automatically means involving a different type of character than usual. This is not merely the aristocracy vs the less fortunate, it’s the self-made man vs the inherited fortune. It’s title vs merit as well as appearance vs merit, the latter being what finally gets Anne her man; she is not the prettiest, not the most outspoken, but she is the more rational, responsible and mature of them all.

Which leads us to another reason I love Persuasion: the two characters are mature. They’re not young and in love for the first time, they’ve loved, they’ve lost, and they’ve come to know the value of finding someone who compliments you in all ways. Wentworth may put on more youthful airs and court women who are more lively, less serious than himself. But it’s skin deep, the same way Anne’s indifference is skin deep. They hurt (or have been hurt) too much to admit how ardently they still love.

They must learn to trust each other again, to open their hearts once more to the possibility of love.

It’s a great story.

Also there’s this gem:

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

Those who don’t love Jane Austen lead slightly less colorful lives.

“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, org. published in 2012, HarperCollins

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And perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone.

The Song of Achilles is a story of love, of the love between Achilles and Patroclus. While not explicitly stated in The Iliad that the two were lovers, such an interpretation is popular, and probably even more so after this book.

It’s both a beautiful retelling of events some of us know well (if you’ve read The Iliad (I haven’t, woops)) and the story of Patroclus and Achilles growing up together. If you’re looking for something like The Iliad, this is not it. If you’re looking for the story of two boys, then men, loving each other enough to make the skies tremble, this is it.

It’s always a little unpleasant to watch someone with fighting, death and glory woven into his destiny, into his blood, give way to that violence. To see him kill as if it were nothing, to see him accept that this is what he was born for; glory and honor in battle. It’s easy to make Achilles one-dimensional, but there’s a complexity to the character of Achilles in this, that we don’t often see. It’s as if he is somehow two people all at once; mortal, gentle, just and fair, but also a god, indestructible, angry, resentful and arrogant. Fighting comes easily to him, killing is what he was intended for, but through the eyes of Patroclus we see it is not so, that he is more than that. His glory is not that he is part-god, it’s that he manages to be both man and immortal and strike an uneasy balance. The balance topples, it breaks, but he manages to be both. Loving and deadly.

’Name one hero who was happy. […] You can’t.’

So much has been lost through the ages from Ancient Greece to now, when it comes to the subject of honor. I don’t cry for that loss. Honor is something else now than it was then. Someone risking their life, the lives of others, someone who willfully lets his brothers and kinsmen go to their deaths, because he feels he has been wronged (and he has, he isn’t mistaken), well, it’s far from life now. It’s far from anything we might see someone do today. But I felt Miller explained it in a way that made it less arrogant and foreign as it could’ve been. Patroclus does that, he’s our way into the story, and a very modern one at that. He represents a lot of “softer” values; he doesn’t like fighting, he’s a healer, he’s the perfect contrast to Achilles. I felt this was a little odd, I find it extremely implausible that he wouldn’t have wanted (or have been forced) to become a competent fighter, but making him such a character means he can help make a very different world understandable to us.

It’s detailed in its references and, I think, very well researched, but it’s not a subject I know a lot of, so I could be mistaken. Miller weaves a strong, atmospheric tale, that mingles myth, legend and realism very well. It drops names and titles, as such a novel should, but you never lose sight of the story or the important characters, it doesn’t drown in it, which is a strength. And the language is soft, clear and beautiful. Reading it is resting in a small sliver of sunshine, knowing nightfall is coming.

And more than anything, it makes you believe in a love that defies the gods, a love that cannot be quelled. The legend in this story is not Achilles, nor is it Patroclus, rather it is what they share. Achilles is the sun that everything centers on, but Patroclus grounds it, makes such a bright, shining presence tangible.

Soulmates, two halves of a hole. These two are, in this, the quintessence of such a thing.

I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.

“Steppenwolf” by Herman Hesse

Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, translator: Basil Creighton, org. published in 1927, Holt Paperbacks.

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In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

A novel that could easily be preachy and pretentious, but elegantly sidesteps either of those and becomes profound and complex instead. I’m not surprised it’s been read wrong by so many people, it’s easy to stop at the depressive tone and atmosphere, and not think to look deeper.

The pessimism of Harry Haller, our steppenwolf, seems to spring from a lack of introspection – not, that’s not right, a lack of a better sort of introspection. Haller looked within himself and saw the man and the wolf. The man belonging to society, having been brought up by the bourgeois and incapable of breaking away from that type of life completely; and the wolf, insisting on being wild, inappropriate, on being angry and resentful, longing for nature. But there is not a duality to man, we are more than two halves (unless for those who consider us a single whole being, they may also be right, perhaps this is the ultimate achievement), we contain multitudes.

You know the Walt Whitman quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”. This is the lesson for Haller, one he attempts to learn from a young woman who shows him the joys of dancing, drinking, sex, love, and everything he deemed too frivolous and shallow. Our multitudes can and should co-exist; it’s the only way to make life the least bit bearable.

The ending is ambiguous, to say for certain whether Haller ends up living a happier life than before? Who’s to say? All that’s left is the possibility, the hope that there may be more to life than we know. Even at our darkest, our most suicidal, the idea that we’ve seen, felt and experienced everything life has to give us, that we’ve somehow figured it out and can end it, because there’s nothing left? Steppenwolf shows us that is never the case. There’s always something new to find, a sliver of hope on the horizon.

It may be worth holding on for.

Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long.

The Proust Project

På Sporet Af Den Tabte Tid (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust, org. published: 1913-1927, various translators, Forlaget Multivers.

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I’ve reviewed every single volume on goodreads, so if you’re interested in those you can find them here.

I finished the first volume* (part one of Swann’s Way) of In Search of Lost Time in January, and I finished the very last volume (part two of Time Regained) on April 11th.

For the better part of three months these books have been my companions. I did my best to read them parallel to our lectures on each volume at uni. I was semi-successful (mostly I’d be in the middle of a volume when we had our lecture on it). I’ll be honest: going through every volume with someone who knew what was going on in it was immensely helpful. It made it easier and more interesting to read. I had to read it pretty fast (faster perhaps than I’d recommend), which caused some stress, because I felt like I should constantly be reading Proust, but I’m glad I did it. I think you gain a lot from having previous volumes fresh in your mind when starting the next one (as with all books).

But it was frustrating because you (well maybe some of you, but not me) can’t read much of Proust in one go without going a little mad. It’s too condensed, too heavy, simply too much. And yet I’ve had days where reading Proust was pretty much everything I did. I’ve never been so committed to a single piece of literature before. It’s been crazy; wonderfully, stupidly crazy.

I feel I’m coming out of a haze.

A few weeks ago I turned the last page and I still can’t quite believe it. Our professor told us that we should prepare for a Life Before Proust and a Life After Proust. I thought he was exaggerating. He was right. There is a difference, and I know that everything we go through changes us and we’re constantly evolving as people, but this change feels tangible.

Perhaps it’s the product of spending about 4500 pages with the same author, an author who is so intent on reflection; whether it be reflecting on life, memory, art, love, death, society, authorship, literature, sexuality, literally anything under the sun – Proust considers it.

The very final volume, very near the end, has the narrator talk about the book he’s been inspired to write (perhaps the one we’re reading) and his concerns if there’s enough time to write it, because he’s growing more and more ill. Here it gets complicated, because the book the narrator talks about writing is not really, of course, the book we’re reading. And yet, it’s hard not to consider is as such, and there is a duplicity in it. Marcel Proust did almost finish his work, we’ve just read it, but he died before he could finish editing the last volumes. He died before he could read his own complete work through from one end to the other.

While the narrator thinks about the book he hopes to write, he also addresses his readers (and Proust, the author, may be addressing his). He says that he hopes they’ll read his book, not to understand what he has gone through, not to understand who he is, but that they’ll use it as a tool to look inside themselves, to find themselves within the pages of his book. Not to find him; to find ourselves.

Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.

I nearly cried. Thinking about it now I want to cry.

Because at the end of my reading experience I did find myself in his novel, I found myself  all throughout reading, to be honest. But more than that: I changed. I became someone new. I’ve hated and loved reading this – and love wins, because it pushed me into considering so many different point of views, it taught me so many things. Some I disagreed with, some I recognized, some I’d never seen before, and always, always it made me reflect on my own views, on who I am.

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In Search of Lost Time contains immense beauty, incredible intellect and wit, it’s frustrating beyond belief, sometimes grotesque and provoking, sometimes brilliantly wondrous, and it’s meaningful through and through. I found myself bored and annoyed, but I kept on reading, not merely because I’d made a deal with myself to finish the goddamn thing, but because I knew it was getting somewhere.

And the final part, Time Regained, is what we’re getting at. It’s Proust vision laid bare, his vision for his novel, for memory, literature, art. For life. Among the many, many thoughts and arguments Proust presents, his final one, his conclusion, is worth staying for.

We are all, the narrator (and Proust) concludes, merely human bodies, taking up a point in space, but at the same time we transcend it, in each of us is stored memories, multiple people we’ve been throughout the years. We command an immense range in time; we’re mortal and eternal. Parts of us will last forever, and it’s these parts, this ideal essence that appears before us whenever we experience an involuntary memory. And it’s this ideal essence, this immortal part, that Proust attempts to capture in his novel. Time and life is not merely a series of moments following each other, it’s every moment stacked upon each other as well. Every moment, every you you’ve ever been, ready to come back to life, brought forth by the right smell, the sight of a pretty girl, a song. When we remember we are two people at once, we inhabit two moments: the present and the past, and we both live through the past moment and look at it in hindsight. We see the truth of it this way.

He does it well.

My soul is exhausted, full, and satisfied. I feel like I’ve been on a long journey, that I’ve walked and walked and walked and can finally rest for a moment. I’m ready to greet whoever I’ve become on the other side of Proust. Not a lot has changed, I look the same, I sound the same, I love the same people. But I see the world a little differently, so many things will reflect Proust from now on. He’ll never leave again. You don’t forget someone you’ve spend 4500 pages with.

For these 3 months everything I read, watched, talked about, I couldn’t help but view in the light of Proust. He was always there, he always had something to say. I honest to god kept circling back to him, regardless of the topic.

Anything has the power to transform you, as long as it finds you at the right time. But I think Proust has the power to transform no matter when you meet him – perhaps that’s simply because anyone you spend so much time with, anyone you freely choose to let yourself get submerged by, can’t help but move you. Or perhaps it’s that great art simply does that.

If I’ve learned anything it’s that Proust can always be found on my shelf, and in my memory; better, even, when visited by another me, in another time.

I’ll see you again.

 *Originally In Search of Lost Time is 7 volumes, but my edition has 13 as a lot of them have been split into two, I suspect for translation purposes.