Saturday, May 25, 2013

Project R.L.S. #2 ~ Discovering Stevenson

Whenever I explore Robert Louis Stevenson's work more deeply, I always feel a sense of gratitude. He is a constant joy to me and I can hardly imagine what my experience of literature would be like without him. Now that he's made such a big impact on me, I find it interesting to look back and trace how it all began.

My first exposure to Stevenson was, naturally enough, his Child's Garden of Verses. When we were little my dad would have me and my siblings memorize poetry, including several of the more famous selections from Child's Garden. I did not know anything about Stevenson at the time, of course, but already I began to associate his name with adventure, imagination, and wonder. One poem I remember in particular was "Pirate Story", in which three children roam the high seas of their backyard field. There was a certain line of description which left a permanent impression on me:

And waves are on the meadow like the waves there are at sea.
The image had never occurred to me before, but every time afterwards that I saw long grass rippling in the wind, I thought of that poem, and of the sea.

The only other experience of Stevenson that I had at the time I enjoy looking back and laughing at. We used to have an abridged illustrated edition of Treasure Island, one of those with pictures on every other page. I used to take out the book and look at all the pictures but not read a single word of the story. Later we acquired a real edition of Treasure Island, which I tried to read a few times, but somehow never got past the first couple chapters--complaining that I couldn't understand it. (I'm still not sure how I managed that, but the truth remains: I didn't read Treasure Island straight through until last summer!)

As the years went on I became vaguely aware that Stevenson had written two other books called Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde, but I had no interest in either of them, especially since I had barely any idea of what they were about. I was also probably too busy reading Brian Jacques' Redwall series. But our parents insisted that we read classics occasionally, so I remember one day finding Kidnapped on my brother's bed where my mom had left it. I skimmed the summary on the back cover, and under the strange impression that the story took place in the Americas, I idly flipped it open and read part of a chapter. It didn't excite me. I was also still under the strange impression that classics were boring.

So I'm not exactly sure what happened between then and a certain fateful day in February 2011. It was a chilly Sunday morning and I was looking for something to do before we went to Liturgy. In my brother's room I spotted a large book on his dresser--a collection of famous Stevenson novels. I have no memory of what prompted me to do it, but I decided to read Kidnapped.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Foils and Faith: Chesterton's "The Ball and the Cross"

My older brother and I recently made an agreement to swap some works of two of our favorite authors. I gave him R. L. Stevenson's Father Damien letter, and he gave me G. K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross. Each of us was blown away.

Chesterton is one of my favorite authors, Catholic or otherwise, but it's taken me a long time to warm up to his novels. His apologetics, like the classic Orthodoxy, and short fictions, like the famous Father Brown detective stories, are pretty straightforward, at least for Chesterton. But anyone who has read Manalive or The Man Who Was Thursday knows that his novels can get absolutely out of this world.

So either I was finally ready for Chesterton craziness--or I was just in the mood--but I absolutely loved The Ball and the Cross. It's the first book I've read in a long time that has swept me away long into the night. Beginning with a flying ship, ending with a miracle, and filled up in between with chases, duels, romance, lunatic asylums, and theology, this is a book that I wanted to read over again almost as soon as I'd finished it. So let me start from the beginning.

The main plot revolves around two men who seem dire opposites--James Turnbull, a fiery Lowland Scotch atheist; and Evan MacIan, a young, mystic Catholic Highlander. But they are similar in that they're both so fiercely entrenched in their respective beliefs that they're willing to fight for them--literally. So when MacIan smashes the window of Turnbull's London newspaper shop--it contained an article blaspheming the Virgin Mary--both men readily agree to an old-fashioned duel to settle the matter. Unfortunately for the duellists, the London police don't see it quite so simply. Thus the mortal enemies find themselves allies in a haphazard escapade across the English countryside, forever trying to find a spot where they can just kill each other quietly and be done with it. But as the story moves on and their plans are foiled with Providential consistency, the two men begin to realize that they are not so opposed as they thought, and that there is a greater Enemy than the police whom they must unite to overthrow.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thoughts on "Jane Eyre": Let the Classics Speak!

In the library of the public high school I attend for choir class, there is a poster on the wall depicting Shakespeare sitting in front of a laptop. The caption on the poster reads, "What are they saying about me now?"

Whoa. Back up a second. "What are they saying about Shakespeare"? Whatever happened to what Shakespeare has to say? But it isn't about Shakespeare anymore. No, now it's "how many social and political aspirations we can throw on Shakespeare"--or on any other great writer, for that matter. I have noticed more and more that today's literary critics and scholars--in an ironically narrow-minded approach--tend to construe the classics into our own modern, secular, materialist mindset. Invariably, the result is an ugly and sterilized re-visioning of a really beautiful piece of literature. 

I had a very interesting experience of this recently while reading Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. I had never read the book before. The copy of Jane Eyre that I picked up from the library (the same library, incidentally, that had the misled Shakespeare poster) was a Penguin Classics edition, "enriched" with a new introduction and endnotes. The summary on the back cover summed up the book thus: "A novel of intense power and intrigue, Jane Eyre (1847) dazzled and shocked readers with its passionate depiction of a woman's search for equality and freedom."

"A woman's search for equality and freedom"? That put me on my guard. I flipped open to the introduction, and my fears were confirmed--Jane Eyre was being put forward as a triumph of political and social rebellion, which spoke out against authority and convention. It was almost hailed for being feminist. My heart fell at once. I had wanted to read a good story, not a subversive feminist manifesto.

But I couldn't be sure yet what it was. In Bronte's own preface to Jane Eyre, written for her contemporaries, she admits that the book might seem radical to some. But, she retorts, "Conventionality is not morality....narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ." Somehow, this just didn't sound feminist to me. It sounded Christian.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Immersed in Shakespeare

Last week I participated in a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with a local homeschool drama group. I didn't have a very big part. In fact, by my calculations, my character of Philostrate, the Athenian "Master of Revels", literally had the least stage time of any character in the play. But I found, at the end of my experience, that although I had not been able to perform very much, I had gained something great anyway. I came to appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare like never before.

I'd read some of his plays for school last year, and thought I'd pretty much understood them (Shakespeare is not half as incomprehensible as people usually make him out to be). But I wasn't crazy about him. His poetry never thrilled me, as, say, Romantic poetry did. So I never bothered returning to it. I'd followed the plots; I'd figured out the language with the side-by-side notes. What else was there to appreciate?

A lot, as it turned out. During rehearsals for A Midsummer Night's Dream, I spent most of my time watching my fellow actors on stage. Our director did an excellent job of working through the language with us so that we could not only understand but also really care about what our characters were saying. I enjoyed performing the few lines I had. I enjoyed watching the black-and-white script come to life on stage in a rich and varied story. And, at last, I enjoyed hearing the poetry. After being "immersed", so to speak, in Shakespeare, for three months of rehearsal, I found to my surprise that listening to the same lines I'd heard week in and week out wasn't tedious or boring; it was fresher than ever. It felt as if I had broken into a new depth of Shakespeare--or he had broken into a new depth of me. The dialogues and monologues, exchanges and soliloquies, were no longer passages of fancy and quaint English to be analyzed, translated, and put away. They meant something. They sparkled with life, intelligence, humor, depth. For the first time, I began to grasp Shakespeare's genius.