A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

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“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

We may be quite a ways from Christmas by now, but I did originally start this on its very last day. Most of the past five months was spent well away from the book in dread of having to finish The Haunted Man before it finally occurred to me that life is too short to suffer through boring stories – classic or not. So I picked this up again last night and read the rest.

Christmas Festivities: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The perfect amuse-bouche for this eight-course collection, Christmas Festivities captured the quintessential Christmas spirit so evocatively, it is no wonder that when Dickens died in 1870, a “London barrow-girl” exclaimed, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton: ⭐️⭐️

Not having known what a sexton was, I imagined green mini-Grinches stealing naval navigation instruments* and yes, saxophones. Why are they called sextons anyway? This story was – as the author of the introductory essay observed – an early version of what would become the insurmountable Christmas Carol. And being an early version, the miserable, miserly sexton’s redemption was rather rushed, and the goblins inspired more bewilderment than character-changing fear.

A Christmas Episode from Master Humphrey’s Clock: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

A cheering chapter on lifelong friendship, forged from shared solitude on Christmas Day.

A Christmas Carol: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ah, the belle of Fezziwig’s ball! Need I say more? Just as delightful as it always was, still is, and ever will be. God bless Us, Every One!

The Haunted Man: ⭐️

The one story I could not finish. The Haunted Man represents best the side of Victorian literature I simply cannot slog through. While Dickens’ ability to spin superlatively detailed descriptions of a single man’s appearance into a five-page-long portrait of the entire British Isles is impressive, to say the least, the slow, brooding nature of this novella was too much for me.

A Christmas Tree: ⭐️⭐️

Rather long-winded reminiscences of Dickens’ childhood Christmases. Intensely vivid, but lacking the vivacity of Christmas Festivities.

What Christmas Is, as We Grow Older: ⭐️⭐️

Another quaint – if quickly forgettable – rumination on the bittersweetness of Christmastime. A season of charity and compassion, unquestionably, but also an annual marker of unaccomplished aspirations, or time passed without loved ones now in “the shadow that darkens the whole globe … the shadow of the City of the Dead”. Dickens emboldens us to admit these remembrances “with tender encouragement” instead.

The Seven Poor Travellers: ⭐️

I dithered between one and two stars for this concluding story. On the one hand, I had no problems finishing it (although it is considerably shorter than the never-ending Haunted Man). On the other, despite the narrator’s impromptu generosity and the conviviality of the seven strangers, I finished it feeling hollow. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if the travellers’ stories were actually told. Or perhaps not; I was getting tired of the plot by the second page.


*In case it’s too obtuse, sextants, I’m referring to sextants.

Lance

“What I am thinking of is the man of imagination and science, whose courage is infinite because his curiosity surpasses his courage. Nothing will keep him back.”

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)I admit, genius though he is, this is my first work by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. After reading these three exquisitely-wrought stories – all from his Dozen and Collected Stories and each depicting obsessions of very different natures – I can only remark how unfair it is that Nabokov can write so expressively in both Russian and English. I, on the other hand, can barely read my ‘mother tongue’.

The Aurelian: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ah yes, the grim Russian short. I’m not sure I have read a single sunny story by a modern Russian writer. Either way, in The Aurelian, Nabokov (an aurelian himself, by the way) captured perfectly the damp, dark, dusty depths of middle-aged despair, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to the purgatory of unrealised youthful ambitions. A truly uplifting tale.

Signs and Symbols: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Upon first finishing this, I confess I was confused. What even was the point? But as I fruitlessly pondered and pondered again the descriptions of this and that offhandedly mentioned detail, I realised what a dull-witted fool I was. In our visceral desire to analyse and assign meaning, are we not, like the son, caught up in mild “referential mania” ourselves? And so, Nabokov sits back and says, checkmate.

“Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.”

Lance: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sheer, unbridled brilliance: his hallmark wordplay and wit were poured so viscously into this titular short story, it took some effort to slop through. While it did get rather pompous towards the end, this science-fiction satire of science fiction was still a dazzling display of literary dexterity.

“The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those ‘assorted’ cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade.”

My other Penguin Modern reviews:
Three Japanese Short Stories
Four Russian Short Stories
Of Dogs and Walls
The Distance of the Moon

The Distance of the Moon

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”

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Four flights of fancy, these selections from Calvino’s Cosmicomics “interweave scientific fact with wordplay and whimsy”. They tell the history of the universe, witnessed through the eyes of Qfwfq, an exuberant, always extant, chameleon-like figure. But the most extraordinary part isn’t the plot, or the prose, but the opening phenomena, which were once thought to have been real, scientific events. 🌑

The Distance of the Moon: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The first half was filled with delightful, phosphorescent imagery. But the hollow characterisations did little to endear the lovers’ sheer ridiculousness to me. In such a phantasmic setting, the narrator’s final proclamations ought to have been romantic, but instead just encouraged an eye roll.

Without Colours: ⭐️

Almost as bland as the colourless, “uninterrupted horizons”. The abrupt leaps of language were also too convenient to make the ending poignant. Inventive, certainly, but too insubstantial to sustain my interest.

As Long as the Sun Lasts: ⭐️⭐️

Published three years after the original Cosmicomics, there are subtle inconsistencies in Qfwfq’s recollections of his millennia on Earth. The story was still sweet though – a 12-page expansion on the archetypal bickering old married couple.

“Without which the history of the universe would not have for him any name or memory or flavour, that eternal conjugal bickering: if ever it should one day come to an end, what a feeling of desolation, what emptiness!”

Implosion: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Published 44 years after the original Cosmicomics, Implosion is an abrupt departure from the preceding stories’ conversational tone. Here, Qfwfq is philosophical – no longer enchanting children (or children at heart) by the fire. But while Implosion may be less exuberant and experimental, the introspective prose struck a chord in my introverted soul.

“To explode or to implode, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to expand one’s energies in space without restraint, or to crush them into a dense inner concentration and cherish them.”


My other Penguin Modern reviews:
Three Japanese Short Stories
Four Russian Short Stories
Of Dogs and Walls

Three Japanese Short Stories

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Nothing is better than homemade matcha on a rainy day.

I have been making an effort to read more non-English literature, and these new Penguin Moderns are great bite-sized tasters for new authors and unfamiliar cultures. I’m already halfway through my second one, Four Russian Short Stories!

Heroes have always been monsters who crushed sentimentalism underfoot.

Behind the Prison: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lethally sharp satire whetted against uncomfortably relatable truths. Behind the Prison is at once uproarious and unapologetically pessimistic.

“No, nothing in this world is as oppressive and debilitating as blood ties.”

“For her I would gladly ferry across the Sumida on the coldest winter day to buy her those sakura-mochi sweets from old Edo that she loved so much. But medicine? Not even on the warmest day would I want to go buy her medicine.”

Closet LLB: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The most personally terrifying of the three. Like Otsukotsu Sansaku, I had “embraced the unshakeable goal of becoming a novelist” as a child, and I, too, steep myself in literature while I have supposedly settled into (and here is the most obvious difference) medicine. Thankfully, studying medicine was my own choice, and I hope to become something of a Paul Kalanithi or Atul Gawande. But my goodness, may I never be reduced to a Sansaku!

“How much fun are you getting out of life?”

General Kim: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This last story fits the blurb best: “beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising”. A delightfully surreal parody of Patriotism with a capital P to round it all off.

“To any nation’s people, their history is glorious. The legend of General Kim is by no means the only one worth a laugh.”

Overall rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Have you read any Penguin Moderns yet? If so, which ones were your favourites?

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters is a leisurely, meandering forest path, with dappled sunlight pooling in the occasional fairy-tale glades – an expansive bildungsroman canvassing the untheatrical lives of Molly Gibson and her county neighbours, from the aristocracy to the servants.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl.

Mrs Gaskell’s final novel may lack the grit of my beloved North and South, focusing instead on the “old worn grooves of… the South”. It takes a certain mood for the lengthy examination of those grooves, and Mrs Gaskell’s voice has a beautiful, lulling, motherly tone. But potential readers are sorely mistaken if they think this novel is dull or blandly expository. No, Mrs Gaskell paints with her characteristic sensitive strokes, colouring her characters so convincingly that the stepmother and villain are sympathetic, if they cannot be likeable. As vain and manipulative as Mrs Gibson may be, she vows to be an impartial stepmother, and to love Molly as much as she does her own daughter. (That is to say, less than she loves herself, but we cannot expect too much from such a silly, self-involved creature.) The secondary characters are as charming; I especially love Lady Harriet, who used her rank to champion poor Molly when her conduct was unfairly subjected to the scandalous gossip of Hollingford. The squire too, although prone to tempestuous tantrums and exasperating pride, is as tender-hearted a friend to Molly as a higher ranked middle-aged man can be.

Osborne ransacked the hothouses for flowers for her; Roger had chosen her out books of every kind. The squire himself kept shaking her hand, without being able to speak his gratitude, till at last he had taken her in his arms, and kissed her as he would have done a daughter.

The plot may seem mundane, but before the reader’s senses are so much as piqued, the narrative slips into a wry comedy of manners. It dissects Truth, family tensions, female adolescence, nationalism, religion and women’s position in Georgian society. Like North and South, profound power shifts are woven into the deceptively humdrum fabric of everyday life: the aggressive expansion of the middle class, the reinstatement of the South as the economic capital, “the emergence of a scientifically led intelligentsia”.

I only give four stars because at times, Molly and Cynthia are more akin to two halves than individual wholes. The latter is the fatherless, ‘bad’ counter to the motherless, ‘good’ former. Molly is the “steady sun”, and Cynthia the “inconstant moon”. I also almost wish Molly’s romantic hero were someone else. Their tacit understanding and easy friendship are heartwarming, but their relationship began when the hero took her under his wing and deemed her his favourite – but frail and ignorant – pupil, whom he must shelter and protect. Molly gradually steps away from her wide-eyed role as Telemachus, but readers are much less privy to the hero’s changing perception of his pupil, then his sister, then his love and equal (I assume there was this change – I cannot have him still considering her a frail young thing). Indeed, we are not sure exactly how he came to love her either, especially after his fervent infatuation with her sister. Perhaps Mrs Gaskell intended to reveal all this, but she sadly passed away before she could write the final chapters.

Wives and Daughters is a delicate union of humour and depth – a moving magnum opus, a cautionary fable, a penetrating illustration of the individual, inner life, inescapably entangled in the fine-spun web of perplexing relationships and outward appearances.

Favourite quote: “I won’t say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.”
Rating: 4/5

One of my favourite reviews, most lovingly written by B0nnie in the form of a perfect extended metaphor.

North and South

‘He may care for her, though she really has been almost rude to him at times. But she! – why, Margaret would never think of him, I’m sure! Such a thing has never entered her head.’

‘Entering her heart would do.’

I struggled for a ridiculous length of time trying to articulate the fullness of my admiration for this masterpiece, and I still fear I do not do it justice. A novel significant enough to be included in the Penguin English Library, North and South has already been the subject of countless critics’ and academics’ far more eloquent and perceptive analyses. But since it is arguably my favourite book of all time, and since I have yet to speak to a single person who has heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, I will flatter myself into believing that this review is somewhat meaningful.

It is sometimes said that where Austen ends, Gaskell begins. And in Margaret Hale (whom Penguin very rightly calls “one of the most original and fully-rounded female characters in Victorian fiction”), I can certainly see the same study of restraint, propriety and unconventional elegance amidst an unsympathetic supporting cast. But North and South is so much more than an industrial Pride and Prejudice. No, it is an incredibly ambitious portrait of the class, economic and religious upheavals of Victorian England, intricately examined through multiple characters and relationships spanning all social strata. Individually, they offer refreshingly diverse perspectives, but together, they masterfully mirror and augment each other to illustrate the sheer profundity of the shifts in the turbulent (an understatement) social landscape. (To be clear, none of this is achieved with any dull, expository dialogues. Mrs Gaskell simply shows.)

The tone is also more serious – Margaret’s trials are far more devastating than Elizabeth Bennet’s silly sisters or obnoxious acquaintances. The characters are less excessively frivolous, so even though Gaskell injects just as much cutting irony, readers are more inclined to shoulder Margaret’s hurt and disappointment than to dismiss her acquaintances with a laugh.

And of course, there is the central relationship: Mr Thornton and Margaret Hale. Their differences are so much more entrenched, so heavily written into their very cores, and so sympathetically elaborated on either side, that their “antagonistic friendship” (as Margaret calls it) is also much more intriguing than the superficial misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. Not only were they raised in polar environments (physical and social), Thornton’s paternalistic, almost callous commercial attitude disgusts Margaret’s compassionate nature. She astutely points out that the masters are just as dependent on the workers as the workers are on them, but Thornton refuses to show them more than the minimal respect they secure by contributing to his profits.

But what Margaret cannot glimpse is the heart beneath his frigid veneer. So when we finally witness the profound changes in our hero and heroine – the slow unravelling of their pride, their tentative steps into the other’s perspective – the effect is incredibly moving. Where Austen is laugh-out-loud hilarious, Gaskell grounds her wit in poignant shades of grey (allusion to Milton wholly intended). But Miss Austen’s fans will also find witty repartee and literary references – all very apt for the Southern daughter and her father’s favourite student.

The main criticisms confuse me, but I believe both can easily be refuted. Some are exasperated by Miss Hale’s ‘selfishness’. Others want her to stop acting so ‘self-righteously’ and to grow a spine. For the former, I presume the ‘selfishness’ was observed in her disapprobation of Thornton (since in all other aspects of the novel, the latter complaint is perhaps the more accurate interpretation of Margaret’s temperament). I argue that this was entirely the point – although ‘selfishness’ is not quite the right word. Neither Thornton nor Margaret understood where the other was coming from (figuratively and literally), and yet they made dismissive comments about each other’s ways. Their dispositional clashes are precisely what makes their relationship one of Mrs Gaskell’s many nuanced explorations of “what divides people, and what brings them together”.

‘It is no boast of mine,’ replied Mr Thornton; ‘it is plain matter-of-fact. I won’t deny that I am proud of belonging to a town… I would rather be a man toiling, suffering – nay, failing and successless – here, than lead a dull prosperous life in the old worn grooves of what you call more aristocratic society down in the South, with their slow days of careless ease. One may be clogged with honey and unable to rise and fly.’

‘You are mistaken,’ said Margaret, roused by the aspersion on her beloved South to a fond vehemence of defence, that brought the colour into her cheeks and the angry tears into her eyes. ‘You do not know anything about the South.’

And for the latter, righteousness and having a spine simply are not mutually exclusive. In fact, Margaret’s outspoken disapprobation of Thornton is already proof of her independent spirit. But more importantly, I think Margaret always had an iron spine from the very first page. She agreed to leave Helstone not out of weak-willed compliance, but because she could not bear to think her father a hypocritical church leader much more than she could not bear to leave her picturesque, romanticised country home. Likewise, her other decisions to obey her father were carefully weighed, practical choices to limit the pain to herself (as she wisely knows she can bear it far better than her mother), rather than let her father butcher the job and exacerbate the collateral damage, even if it meant shielding him from his cowardice. Sacrifices can be symbols of strength as much as signs of weakness.

The 2004 BBC miniseries (four episodes) is also my favourite adaptation of a British classic, which stays remarkably true to the original novel (thank goodness!). Sinéad Cusack is the most formidable, domineering, incredible Mrs Thornton (not to mention her perfect Yorkshire accent). Richard Armitage’s brooding Mr Thornton is already a classic (forget Colin Firth – not that I ever considered him remotely attractive enough to play Mr Darcy). And Daniela Denby-Ashe makes a perfect Margaret. The changes that were made actually added to the plot’s richness, at least in the context of the small screen. But do only watch it after you have read the book! Although I think North and South is one of those rare novels that are just as engrossing even after watching an adaptation first (because so much of the delight is in the execution, not merely the concept), it becomes much easier to appreciate the details and subtleties of the miniseries.

Favourite quotes: Her mouth was wide; no rosebud that could only open just enough to let out a ‘yes’ and ‘no’, and ‘an’t please you, sir’.

‘I don’t know that you would ever like him, or think him agreeable, Margaret. He is not a lady’s man.’ Margaret wreathed her throat in a scornful curve.

He was in the Charybdis of passion, and must perforce circle and circle ever nearer round the fatal centre.

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Side note: It breaks my heart that there is no Clothbound Classics edition of North and South. If anyone knows where I can find a beautifully bound hardcover edition, please tell me!

For more quotes, notes and my running commentary, please check out my Goodreads reading activity (only on desktop computers).