Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Visiting the Hotel du Lac

The Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner is deceptively simple.  An author is vacationing in a Swiss hotel.  She observes her fellow guests.  She contemplates her own life.

Dolder-Grand-Hotel-Zurich-in-1902*Idyllic Switzerland*

The novel doesn’t sound very interesting based on the above description, but actually it is.  I found I could not put it down.  It is slowly revealed as the plot moves along just exactly why Edith Hope is staying in a remote Swiss hotel at nearly the end of the season, and why she feels as if she has been exiled.  But more importantly her brief respite from her daily life allows Edith to view both recent events and her life as a whole with fresh eyes.

Edith thought that she was content- she was a successful novelist of romance novels, had her own home, and a circle of friends.  Yes, her daily routine was a bit fixed and dull.  Yes, her friends (especially her neighbor) did fuss over her “lonely” state and try to fix her up.  We find out she is having an affair with a married man, but both seem content with their situation.

Edith (determining that she is just fine, thank you very much) chooses to focus her energies on the other hotel guests.  Her observations of the wealthy widow, her vacant daughter, a lonely old woman, and an exiled wife are sharp, perceptive, and cast with an eye searching for characters.  It is only gradually that Edith’s own character emerges.

The theme of the Hotel du Lac is love.  How important is love in your life- can you live with a lesser love, or perhaps none at all?  How much is love worth to you?  This ties into a secondary question that Edith begins to ask herself- after you have reached a certain age, should you settle?  If the whole passionate love thing doesn’t work out should you just take the lesser/loveless relationship?  Edith questions her legitimacy as a “woman of a certain age” that has not found love- is she complete without it?  Society says “no” (even in this day and age).  But Edith reflects on her own life, and the lives of the other women at the hotel- all “refugees” of one love or another- and decides that she doesn’t have to acquiesce to the demands of arbitrary society rules- she will forge her own path through the mess of love.

Hotel du Lac is sad, uplifting, quiet, brilliant.  Whether a woman is single, in a relationship, or an “its complicated” thing, all have asked themselves, at one time or another, the same questions that Edith asks herself.  Love is universal and questioning it, and ourselves living in its wake, is inevitable.

Science-y Books

Recently I have gone out of my genre-boxes (my personal favorite genres) and have read two “science-y type books” (as the experts would call them).  I found them both informative and in most parts interesting.

Confession time: I am not really a science/math person.  I enjoyed learning about planets and animals when I was younger (who doesn’t, especially the dinosaur sections of class?), but as I got older and things began to get harder I shied away.  I took extra history and art classes to avoid higher level math and physics.  I am sad about this now, although at the time I was massively relieved to be making ceramic bird baths instead of puzzling over laws of motion.  I want to fill in these education gaps, in my own small way.


The first book I read was an excellent intro-type book, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.  Bryson is not a scientist, and does not write like an academic.  The book is very approachable.  Bryson’s quest is similar to my own- to fill in the gaps in his education.  He gives overviews of a vast array of scientific subjects.  In other words- if you want to impress your friends or look smart at parties, then  read this!

The second science book I read was focused on one subject, geology.  Richard Fortey’s Earth: An Intimate History is about the history of the earth, as told through various examples found in nature.  For example, Fortey uses traveling around Vesuvius and Central Italy to illustrate the power of volcanoes and Newfoundland to illustrate how the collisions of the older continents created our current landscape.

Earth is really good- Fortey’s writing style is flowing and very readable, making this book a lot more entertaining than if it had been written in a someone else.  Now I find myself looking at those pretty pictures that everyone posts of natural wonders and I say to myself “I know how those rocks/mountains/formations got there”!  If you are not a geologist, but have always been interested in the subject like myself, than this book is a great read.

The 1920′s- The End

My entire 1920′s literary journey can be summed up by a line from Point Counter Point.  Philip Quarles laments the current state of education; how children are taught by art and then expect real life to match- but it never quite lives up to the artistic ideal;

“We’re brought up topsy-turvy, ” Philip went on.  “Art before life; Romeo and Juliet and filthy stories before marriage or its equivalents.  Hence all modern literature is disillusioned.  Inevitably.  In the good old days poets began by losing their virginity; and then, with a complete knowledge of the real thing and just where and how it was unpoetical, deliberately set to work to idealize and beautify it.  We start with the poetical and proceed to the unpoetical.”

This was the 1920′s.  Everyone wanted life to be as beautiful and aesthetically pleasing as literature and art, but had found out through bitter experience (usually living through WWI was enough) that this was impossible.  Disillusionment on a national level ensues.  All of the characters in Point Counter Point have their diversions, although most do nothing of significance.  Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise moves from self-absorbed youth to lost-soul wandering the Jazz Age landscape.  In general, people begin to live for the cheaper pleasures that are brought by partying, spending money, and having some intellectualized conversations that they know will come to nothing.

This Side of Paradise- A Romantic View

In the last post I aired my grievances on the character of Amory Blaine (unfortunate man!).  But there is another way of looking at his character- and the book as a whole.  The whole plot of This Side of Paradise is a bildungsroman for the 1920′s- it is the coming of age for both Amory and a new American culture.


Amory is self-centered and has an inflated sense of entitlement- however he eventually realizes this and tries to grow beyond it.  There are many instances where Amory the person glimmers beneath the superficial surface; whether he finally has emerged by the end of the novel as he claims is less certain (to me at least).

But really- can the reader blame Amory?  He is born into a rich family, his mother Beatrice is indulgent and self-centered to a T and young Amory bases his own behavior and outlook on hers.  Everyone around Amory treats him as special because he is wealthy, charming, and attractive.  This is compounded when he comes of age in the high-flying Roaring 20′s.  In an era where people don’t want to think too deeply, but just want to have fun, Amory is a perfect fit.

An example of how jaded the young of the era are is a quote from a conversation between Amory and a friend at Princeton; “We want to believe.  Young students try to believe in older authors, constituents try to believe in their Congressmen, countries try to believe in their statesmen, but they can’t.  Too many voices, too much scattered, illogical, ill-considered criticism….  For two cents the voter buys his politics, prejudices, and philosophy.”

Amory is not pressured to be anything but superficially charming and entertaining, and it is only his own realization that there must be more to life that makes him eventually want to stretch himself to find it.  The two catalysts for this are a friend’s death in a car accident and the failure of a romance (because although Amory did have money it still wasn’t enough).  Amory expresses his frustration at life not working out exactly as he thinks it should; “There were days when [he] resented that life had changed from an even progress along a road stretching ever in sight, with scenery merging and blending, into a succession of quick, unrelated scenes…”

Who has not felt as Amory did?  Fitzgerald captures more than just an era of the remote past, he is talking about every era and everyone’s experience growing up- how we want to be part of the group, but still feel as if we are (secretly of course) the most-est special-est person there.  How we want success, but may not always have the drive to run after it.  How we struggle to connect with others, but so often fail.  How we make up who we are and what we believe in, based on a thousand different ideas, experiences, influences- and how our image of ourselves doesn’t always match reality.  Amory’s frustrations were Fitzgerald’s own, and our own too.

This Side of Paradise – A Cynic’s View

I have always been drawn to This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  By this I mean the concept of it- the Jazz Age, glizty picture one gets of the 1920′s.  The pretty title taken from poetry.  Since I am still sort of on the 1920′s theme it fit right in.  Without knowing anything about the book except its reputation I was willing to be drawn in.

By the writing you can tell it is Fitzgerald- there are glimmers of the style and way of wording every sentence that will very soon make him famous.  There are also some unique add-ins, such as writing a few chapters in play form instead of prose- you can tell he is playing with form and different styles of storytelling.  The synthesis of the “Great American Writer” is occurring- but it is not yet complete in this work.

The work is obviously semi-autobiographical.  Fitzgerald tells his own story of growing up through Amory Blaine.  The problem is this- Amory Blaine is not always interesting and even occasionally annoying.  He is spoiled, lazy, and has an inflated sense of entitlement.  Sometimes when he is confronted by these facts it is amusing, sometimes it is sad, but what is really frustrating is that so often he learns nothing at all from it.  His development (the focus of the entire books) is often thwarted by his own unwillingness.  Fiztgerald spells it out for the reader very early on by describing his hero; “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.  This… was quite characteristic of Amory”

Throughout Amory’s school days he continually takes the path of least resistance.  He is not academically successful, either in prep school or Princeton.  He sees these places as avenues of influence, not education.  He believes he is going to be successful in life simply by attending and meeting others with more ambition or money, not through any work or initiative of his own.  He admires the gifted students, befriends them, and even has surprising profound discussions with them about the world, their generation, the future, etc.  It is clear that Amory has the brains for success and the artistic talent to perhaps be a very good writer/poet one day.  The only thing holding him back is himself; his lack of any ambition, and his feeling that the world will automatically present him with everything he wants on a silver platter just because he is Amory Blaine.

Amory’s romances are usually of a quick and passionate sort; he fairly falls into them and, with the exception of Rosalind, cares very little whether they continue or end, although he feels as if he ought to care.  His affair with Rosalind is only the second time that the universe Amory thought was so rosy and made things happen just for him showed him that it may not be on his side after all (the first instance was a friend’s death in a car accident).  Eventually his own abhorrence of work makes him quit his job and fritter away what little inheritance he has left.  Amory at the end of the novel is searching for that certain something; he knows that his life is vapid and incomplete, but doesn’t have sufficient drive to really knuckle down and start anything.  Amory becomes the ultimate drifter.

Even to the very end he plays the ultimate arrogant youth and gives a long and awkward diatribe for two older men who were kind enough to pick him up when he is hitch-hiking.  The subject of this lecture?  How his generation is a mess (very true), and then some rabble against “the Man” (I use the term loosely to mean ones in authority), and some speech championing Socialism.  Seriously?  Amory Blane- a product of rich parents, influential prep school, and Princeton who, when he suddenly wakes up to find himself with no job and little money, is so lost as a person his only goal is to sort-of wander back to Princeton (the location of his last successes).  To suddenly grasp at Socialism is just one more way for Amory to be trendy (it was the philosophy du jour among the intellectuals of the day) while not really thinking in depth about anything in his own life- the ultimate lazy cop-out.

As you can tell, Amory frustrated me to no end.  He was charming enough to love, but self-destructive enough to hate.  This is a rather cynical view of his character but, now that I have gotten it off my chest, in the next post I will show the opposite end of the spectrum with a Romantic’s view of This Side of Paradise.

Only Yesterday

Only Yesterday is a “popular” history of the 1920′s written by an historian, Frederick Lewis Allen, who actually lived through the era and wrote on it very soon after it occurred.  As Lewis was not only an historian, but also a magazine editor, he was used to observing political and economic events as well as contemporary cultural  movements and writing cohesive and entertaining articles on these subjects.

This book is a great introduction to the 1920′s.  This is an era that is often looked back on with great interest- there is a post World War flowering of freedoms  and economic prosperity, but at the same time there is political scandal, cynicism, and uncertainty.  Women get the right to vote, and fashion emphasizes a burgeoning sexual freedom.  There is also the ghastly government experiment of Prohibition- the one that caused an explosion of organized crime.  In short, it was not the rosy picture of flapper’s, elegant parties, and everyone winning off the stock market that is so often shown- or at least that is not the full story.

There is so much in the 1920′s that has influenced our current country.  Yes- that can be said for every era of history, but the 1920′s offer so many striking similarities to our current era that sometimes I felt the pull of the past- and inevitably conclude that more people should pay attention to history or we will continue to make the same errors.  Examples follow;

- The “cult” of success developed after WWI- business began to be elevated to an almost mystical status and success in business was worshiped by the pious and envious alike.  Businesses can do no wrong- as long as they show a profit.

- Along with the cult of success an idea of wealth as an American “right” emerged- it could be earned, but the quicker and easier, the better.  This led to economic turmoil within the decade, caused by endless real estate speculation bubbles and the continual up and down of the unregulated stock market.  These problems, largely glossed over during the time, coalesced into the stock market Crash and the decade of depression that followed.

- A new poplar trend developed in the 1920′s that had rarely been seen previously- the increasing focus on a series of trifling and unimportant concerns.  This includes the passing obsessions with various sports figures, stunts, and sensationalized news stories.

- Along the vein of pop trends; both advertisers and the larger media begin to pander to their audiences instead of simply being vehicles to inform about news or products.  Lewis calls it “A carnival of commercialized degradation”.

- “Mass culture” develops- media and advertising enterprises created a culture that catered to the many over the few.  Minorities (ethnic, philosophical, or intellectual) were singled out and compelled, by either law or peer pressure, to conform to the accepted cultural norms.  In the beginning of the era there was an increase in intellectual inquiry and a call for political reform, but these groups were largely marginalized by the decade’s end.

Also, this book ties in very well with Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point.  Although in England instead in America the feelings of the characters are the same- having just fought a World War, going back to their lives as if nothing has happened was impossible.  They are cynical.  They dabble in several new philosophies and forms of governments, although many reveal only a passing interest in real, fundamental change.  They question art and literature as too formulaic or rosy compared to harsh reality.  They are perpetually bored, and continually seek new out new experiences, fads, and interests; only the novel creates any enthusiasm, and then only briefly.

Clara Bow

*Clara Bow in Arabesque Costume*

In short the era of the “Roaring 20′s” was a proverbial roller coaster ride for those that lived it; economic highs and lows, cultural flowering and political repression, new freedoms for certain groups but restrictions of other rights.  Allen’s book is a great overview that let’s the reader feel the highs and lows of an intense decade.

Profundity is the Point

Two of my favorite quotes from Point Counter Point reflect the theme of dichotomy that runs through the entire book.  Huxley continually sets up two, often disparate, ideas and plays one off the other, using his characters as sort of philosophical mouth-pieces.  Discussed are; love vs. singularity, animal passion vs. reasoned thoughts, art vs. life, ideal vs. reality, religion vs. modern philosophy.

As stated previously, much of the novel is conversations between a set of characters.  Obviously, some of these conversations are more profound and meaningful than others.  One of the young dilettante’s, Spendrell (a cynical war vet who seduces women to degrade them- truly the bitterest character in the novel) waxes philosophical on the phases of the night as he convinces his companions to join him in his continued revels;

“Still young,” was Spendrell’s comment on the night.  “Young and rather insipid.  Nights are like human beings- never interesting till they’re grown up.  Round about midnight they reach puberty.  At a little after one they come of age.  Their prime is from two to half past.  An hour later they’re growing rather desperate, like those man-eating women and waning middle-aged me who hop around twice as violently as they ever did in the hope of persuading themselves that they’re not old.  After four they’re in full decay.  And their death is horrible.  Really horrible at sunrise, when the bottles are empty and people look like corpses and desire’s exhausted itself into disgust.  I have rather a weakness for the death-bed scenes, I must confess,” Spendrell added.

Very clever, but not much point other than to convince others to join him in seeing the night “die”.  Contrast with another Spendrell scene- this is one with Philip Quarles (another Huxley avatar)- as they puzzle out the events in a person’s life, how certain things seem like fate while others seem like pure chance (good or bad);

“And that’s the sort of thing one’s life hinges on- some absolutely absurd, million-to-one chance.  An irrelevance, and your life’s altered.”  Philip disseminated more politely.  “But many people can be influenced by the same event in entirely different and characteristic ways.”  “I know, ” Spendrell answered.  “But in some indescribable way the event’s modified, qualitatively modified, so as to suit the character of each person involved in it.”

So- are we all the products of a certain chain of events and chances, or do we encounter certain chances because of who we were to begin with?  Or should we just throw our hands up to the capriciousness of fate?

The Point

I was supposed to write this post much earlier but i distracted myself by baking (and eating) hazelnut brownies.  But onward into the decadent world of post-war Britain!  Don’t look too closely at the gilded fixtures…they are a bit tarnished.

What is the point…of Point Counter Point?  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  However, a reader could really be thinking this at first.  This is not a singular story with a strong plot that moves in a straight line, like Huxley’s Brave New World.  This is a novel about characters, and about a certain time in history.  It is a novel of ideas.

The novel follows a group of characters in 1920′s England.  They are considered the “elite”; they are intellectual, educated, and almost all of them are wealthy.  All of the characters are connected, either through acquaintance or family ties, and much of the story is moved along by long (sometimes drunken) conversations they have on every possible subject that has at least a breath of “intellectual” merit.  Sometimes they remind me a bit of the Schlegel’s in Howards End- there is much talk of social problems but, unlike the Schlegel sisters, the characters in Point Counter Point know that they are only at leisure to discuss these injustices because they have money and education- this makes them bitter and cynical.

The characters have just fought (or have been brought up during) the “Great War” and, now that it s over, they find that their world is changed.  The poverty and injustices that were supposed to be ended are still very present.  Politics is entering a period of flux and fascism is on the rise.  Traditional religion is on the decline and psychoanalysis and more esoteric philosophies have been recently introduced.  Many feel that art and aesthetics have to be changed after seeing so much death.  These characters are supremely disillusioned; they see no point in meaningful pursuits and so spend much of their time at parties, having affairs, talking but not doing.

In a really funny passage Walter, one of our young “heroes” (and one of Huxley’s alter-egos), is working at a literary magazine.  He and one other colleague are responsible for sorting the mountain of writing sent to the magazine by those that consider themselves artists and writers.  His disgust with the current state of literature is clear;

“It was the day of the Shorter Notices.  Between them, on the table, stood the stacks of Tripe.  They helped themselves.  It was a Literary Feast- a feast of offal.  Bad novels and worthless verses, imbecile systems of philosophy and platitudinous moralizings, insignificant biographies and boring books of travel, pietism so nauseating and children’s books so vulgar and silly that to read them was to be ashamed of the whole human race- the pile was high, and every week it grew higher.  The ant-like industry of Beatrice, Walter’s quick discernment and facility were utterly inadequate to stem the rising flood.  They settled down for their work “like vultures”, said Walter, “in the Towers of Silence.”  What he wrote this morning was particularly pungent.”

Spin Number Joy!

So the Classic Club lucky spin number is 14!  (Proof).  That means that per the list on my previous post I will be reading This Side of Paradise.

This is actually the perfect book for me to read right now.  I accidentally stumbled into a mini 1920′s lit bubble- first with Point, Counterpoint (which I have finished but not posted about yet) and The Remains of the Day, then with beginning to read Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920′s, so a Fitzgerald from the same time period fits.  Be aware, all of this 20′s era history + lit + Downton Abbey may evolve into some sort of rambling thesis on 1920′s culture.  Because that is what unemployed historians do.

Classic Lit Spin Challenge!

The Classics Club Blog has issued a challenge- a classic spin!  Basically, I list twenty books that I have yet to read on my “50 Classics” list (tab at the top of the page).  The blog will choose a random number between 1 and 20 and then I will read the book corresponding to that number.  So- completely random selection!

My 20:

1. North and South

2. The Prose Edda

3. The Age of Innocence

4. A Moveable Feast

5. My Name is Red

6. Madame Bovary

7. Ivanhoe

8. Villette

9. Death in Venice

10. The Bell Jar

11. Pale Fire

12. Jude the Obscure

13. Le Morte d’Arthur

14. This Side of Paradise

15. Balthazar (part 2 of the Alexandria Quartet)

16. Heart of Darkenss

17. Little Women

18. The Wings of the Dove

19. Franny and Zooey

20. The Count of Monte Cristo