Tag Archives: Scrooge

Review: “A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time” #FranceBT

8 Aug

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My Review

A Very French Christmas: The Greatest French Holiday Stories of All Time is a joy to hold and page through, as it is beautifully produced–not surprising since it comes from New Vessel Press. This collection of fourteen stories derives primarily from the late nineteenth century, the heyday of Christmas stories, one might say, given the popularity of annual Christmas tales from Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and others. But A Very French Christmas feels very French, and also very fresh, owing to the inclusion of a long story by twentieth-century writer Irène Némirovsky and new stories by contemporary writers Jean-Philippe Blondel and Dominique Fabre, commissioned expressly for this book. Although these stories can be sentimental and heartwarming at times, many of them have a bracing quality, taking an ironic view of holiday celebrations, and exploring the way people’s desires and expectations for the season can be confounded.  This is equally true of the older stories.

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The collection opens with a new story, “The Gift,” by Jean-Philippe Blondel, who is known for his recent, well-received novel, The 6:41 to Paris.  Like that novel, this story presents another unexpected meeting between a man and woman, this time at a Christmas luncheon. Thomas, age 79 and divorced, is inwardly lamenting his feeling of abstraction from his family, gathered for their annual holiday meal at his son’s restaurant. They don’t really know him, he believes, but have erected a new identity for him as “grandpa.” Perhaps he doesn’t truly know them either, fitting each of them into his own pigeonholes.  While he is musing in this rather self-absorbed way, he is brought back to life by spotting a woman he knows seated at another table.

It’s at this moment she turns her head slightly toward me and our eyes meet.

I hear a faint explosion far away. It’s like a summer storm in the middle of winter, or the start of fireworks whose noise is muffled by the distance. I can’t take myself away from her gaze. My memory has turned into a crazy machine, searching all my internal libraries for the relevant novel, and in this heap of cards and photographs that we store inside ourselves, the information that I need is right there. Because I know her.

I’m sure I know her.

His reaction is nearly physical panic–blushing, heart palpitations, that feeling that one might die from the intensity of the moment–the reactions of a much younger man, and he is thrown back in memory to four decades ago when he made her intimate acquaintance. She was a co-worker in his company, but one night she became more than that to him. And here they are meeting again. Was it chance? The answer is surprising in this well-crafted story.

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After this fine start, we move back a century and a half to “St. Anthony and His Pig” (1880) by Paul Arène. But in reality, the story takes us back to the early centuries of the Christian era when St. Anthony lived alone in the Egyptian desert, fighting the battle for sanctity, with his only company being the devils who tormented him and his faithful pig Barrabas. Flaubert had recently written his novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874), so it was an opportune time for a Christmas story about the great saint’s trials. In Arène’s story, Anthony has just had six months respite from his regular temptations and prickings by a host of insidious devils. It was near Christmas, when who should visit him but a peddler of spits to roast pigs! The sly man suggests to Anthony how succulent Barrabas would be for Christmas dinner. O the torment! The mind’s imaginings are the greatest temptations, as the life of Saint Anthony abundantly proves. It is well worth following Arène’s delectable tale to the end to see what happens.

Portrait_of_Mr_Francois_CoppeeThere are three stories by François Coppée, all of the heartwarming variety and very pleasing. My favorite was “The Lost Child,” which begins with a portrait of its main character, a “millionaire banker” named M. Godefroy:

On that morning, which was the morning before Christmas, two important events happened simultaneously–the sun rose, and so did M. Jean-Baptiste Godefroy.

… And whatever opinion the sun may have about himself, he certainly has not a higher opinion than M. Jean-Baptiste Godefroy has of himself.

As director of a large bank and administrator of assorted companies, he also enjoyed the possession of many honors, including the Légion d’Honneur. This prosperous, important fellow had one son, Raoul, and no wife, because Raoul’s mother had died in childbirth. Each day, M. Godefroy devoted 15 minutes of his precious business day to a visit with his son, who spent the rest of the day with servants. Nevertheless, he loved his son and looked forward to this time with him. On this Christmas Eve morning, the son used his audience with the great man to ask, “will Father Christmas put anything in my shoe tonight?” His father answered, “Yes, if you are a good child.

After his business concluded for the day, he remembered his son’s words, and went to a toy dealer, where he bought a passel of costly presents, including a rocking horse and a box of leaden toy soldiers. But when he arrived home, the house was in an uproar and the boy’s governess was in tears because Raoul had gone missing. The story unfolds from there in a manner worthy of Dickens, and while M. Godefroy is not as miserly as Scrooge, events of this night will effect a Scrooge-like awakening.

Guy_de_Maupassant_fotograferad_av_Félix_Nadar_1888Two stories by the short story master, Guy de Maupassant, are both definitely of the confounding type, describing rather bizarre Christmas happenings. In “Christmas Eve,” a man explains to his friends his horror of Christmas Eve suppers. He recalled a night two years earlier when he went searching on the streets of Paris for a lady companion to share his supper. He preferred women with plenty of curves “a female colossus,” if possible, and he settled on a very curvaceous young woman who caught his eye. (Inevitably, this reminded me of de Maupassant’s famous story “Boule de Suif,” likewise concerning the misfortunes of a young lady of ample figure, and published just two years before this one.) By the end of the evening, the bewildered man would get a great surprise, and his reaction didn’t say much for his character! The other selection by de Maupassant, “A Miracle,” is a Christmas horror story about a strange blizzard and a woman’s possession by an evil spirit.

Anatole_France_young_yearsIn “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” by 1921’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Anatole France, an itinerant juggler named Barnabé was blessed with enough talent at his art to earn a shower of coins from the locals wherever he performed, but this was still insufficient to live on, and he often went to sleep hungry.

One night he met a monk on the road and they fell to talking and comparing their respective work. Barnabé was grateful for what he had, and declared, “I am a juggler by trade. It would be the best trade in the world if only one had something to eat every day.” The monk gently but firmly disagreed, warning his new friend to take care, asserting instead that being a monk was the most beautiful thing in the world, “for he celebrates the praises of God, the Virgin, and the saints, and religious life is a perpetual song to the Lord.”

Barnabé was a humble man and quickly confessed his mistake. Furthermore, he said that although he liked being a juggler, he would like nothing better than to the sing the daily office, especially to the Blessed Virgin, to whom he was specially devoted. The monk held the office of Prior at his monastery and he took the former juggler under his wing. In this way, Barnabé became a monk. His only regret was his lack of education and skills such as the other monks had, because he wanted to offer worthy service to the Holy Virgin.

The biography of Anatole France at the end of this collection compares this tale to “The Little Drummer Boy.” It reminded me of “A Simple Heart” in Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes. Both Flaubert’s story and this tale portray the emergence of unlikely saints.

The collection ends with a long story by Irène Némirovsky, who died in Auschwitz in 1942 at the age of 39. Her major fiction Suite Française was not published until 2004. “Noël,” the story included here, is written as a screenplay, giving directions for an opening montage of photographs, “the most conventional and unsophisticated images that accompany the idea of the Christmas holidays“–heavy snow, holly and mistletoe, a yule log, bright lights, voices of children, dinner parties. Snatches of song lyrics suggest the atmosphere: “Childhood…Innocence…Dawn of the world…Dawn of love…The most wonderful days...”

Although the older generation of parents is introduced, it soon becomes clear that the story will be about two sisters, Claudine and Marie-Laure, and the men pursuing them, or discarding them, at a Christmas party. A Christmas of love affairs and heartbreak and, as improbable as it might seem in this gathering of bright young things, perhaps real love? The modernity of Némirovsky’s approach sets this story apart from the tales of the previous century.

I have described so many stories, because they were all so fascinating, just as the book’s subtitle promises.  The Christmas themes are treated with a refreshing originality and variety, and I can imagine returning to reread this collection for many Christmases to come.

Stories discussed in this review:

“The Gift” (2017) by Jean-Philippe Blondel.

“St. Anthony and His Pig” (1880) by Paul Arène (trans. by J. M. Lancaster).

“The Lost Child” (1892) by François Coppée (trans. by J. Matthewman).

“Christmas Eve” (1882) by Guy de Maupassant (trans. by Frederick Caesar de Sumichrast).

“A Miracle” (1882) by Guy de Maupassant (translator unknown).

“The Juggler of Notre Dame” (1892) by Anatole France (trans. by Anna C. Brackett).

“Noël” (1932) by Irène Némirovsky (trans. by Sandra Smith, 2017).

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A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

on Tour

August 8-14

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Very French Christmas Cover

A Very French Christmas:
The Greatest French Holiday Stories
of All Time

(short story collection)

Release date: October 10, 2017
at New Vessel Press

ISBN: 978-1939931504
142 pages

Website
Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

A continuation of the very popular Very Christmas Series from New Vessel Press, this collection brings together the best French Christmas stories of all time in an elegant and vibrant collection featuring classics by Guy de Maupassant and Alphonse Daudet, plus stories by the esteemed twentieth century author Irène Némirovsky and contemporary writers Dominique Fabre and Jean-Philippe Blondel.

With a holiday spirit conveyed through sparkling Paris streets, opulent feasts, wandering orphans, kindly monks, homesick soldiers, oysters, crayfish, ham, bonbons, flickering desire, and more than a little wine, this collection encapsulates the holiday spirit and proves that the French have mastered Christmas. This is Christmas à la française—delicious, intense and unexpected, proving that nobody does Christmas like the French.

THE AUTHORS

Alphonse Daudet, Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France
Irène Némirovsky, Jean-Philippe Blondel, Dominique Fabre,
Paul Arene, Francois Coppee, Antoine Gustave Droz, Anatole La Braz

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The Ghost at Scrooge’s Door: “Jacob T. Marley” by R. William Bennett–A Review

18 Dec

Jacob T Marley cover

Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett. Shadow Mountain, 2011.

In this convincingly written pastiche of Charles Dickens’ classic novella A Christmas Carol, author R. William Bennett includes a Preface addressing his readers, whom he assumes are well acquainted with Dickens’ account of Scrooge’s visitations by three spirits on Christmas Eve, his repentance, and his chance to make amends and change his life. And why not? It is one of the most famous stories in the world, repeated, read, and watched on film by millions every year.  But Bennett wants to know more. He wants us to join him in inquiring further into the backstory of A Christmas Carol, in life and beyond. For him, it all boils down to one fundamental concern: “What of old Jacob?

Who was this man? Why was he so evil? Why did he in fact get to visit Scrooge and usher in the experience that changed first Ebenezer and then so many of our lives? Why did Scrooge get a final chance to change and not Jacob Marley?

Or did he?

Bennett’s novel offers answers to all these questions, and in the process considers the nature of redemption and forgiveness.  Can Scrooge be saved, and yet Marley suffer and rattle his heavy chains eternally, as Dickens implies? Perhaps everything is not as it seems.  An intriguing premise for a spinoff novel, but the success all depends on the quality of storytelling and control of language–Bennett rates highly on both counts.

The story is mapped out very well. First, it asks how did Marley become the man that he did. Unlike Scrooge, young Jacob Thelonius Marley is shown enjoying a happy childhood in a loving family.  This makes Marley, the wizened old miser, the merciless business partner of Scrooge, even more inexplicable. The author turns to the reader again, confiding that “we search for a particular event, the germination of a seed that, watered by some kind of cupidity, would take root in the pure-hearted young Jacob and find its flower in deceitful old Marley.”  He finds it in a particular incident in school when Marley’s pride and ambition are awakened by praise of his superiority in math and figures, without any tempering moral instruction.  That is the seed. The flowering comes when young Marley disowns the good example of an illustrious forebear, Thelonius Marley, whose sole distinction was an act of generosity and self-sacrifice. Jacob allows cynicism and calculation to replace his former admiration and he drops his own middle name honoring this kind man, finally expunging even the initial T., along with the memory of goodness it represented.  Is this really an explanation for Marley turning bad? Not exactly, because there is always a choice (that’s why this is a modern morality tale).  The rest of the novel plays out with close examination of Marley’s–and Scrooge’s–choices and their consequences.  The “Christmas magic” enters in when some of those choices lead to second chances.

Marley’s actions intersected with Scrooge’s life before they met because Marley was landlord to Scrooge’s sister Fan.  They met on the street during her funeral procession. But neither man would know of this connection until much later. As they saw it, a chance meeting had introduced each to his perfect associate in profit-seeking. Each man strengthened the worst qualities in the other, and their fortunes grew as their moral character withered: “For twenty-five years, the two men grew more mean, more selfish, and more aligned in their purpose.”

Were Scrooge and Marley friends? Marley did not think so, as he lay on his deathbed, and mutely received the cold, “perfunctory” visits from Scrooge each day. He could feel Scrooge’s impatience for him to depart so that Scrooge could get back to his own business. And yet–death is a crossroads, and no one can entirely predict how he might feel approaching the boundary that separates death from life.  Did Marley’s life pass before him in the long hours between Scrooge’s visits? Indeed. Marley saw the spirits of his wronged clients of a lifetime; he realized he had chosen to show them no mercy–it wasn’t inevitable. Perhaps even now he could muster the strength to say a few words to Scrooge. I won’t reveal those last words, but they have momentous consequences for the spirit of Jacob Marley.

Now the novel has arrived at the point where Dickens takes up the story.  As you might expect, Bennett will retell the crucial events from Marley’s perspective this time. Is the visit of Marley’s wailing, chain-rattling Ghost exactly what it seems to be? Perhaps there could be more to the story.  This time, Marley’s ghost will remain throughout, as an unseen witness to all that Scrooge sees when the three Ghosts of Christmas come to show him the hard truths of his past, present, and future and thereby awaken his remorse.  Marley can’t help but consider his own role in many of these events.  But will it be enough?  This book imagines some surprising twists that will affect the eternal fates of both Marley and Scrooge.

Like A Christmas Carol, Jacob T. Marley is a tale that examines the nature of redemption, forgiveness, and atonement, but Bennett’s book is more theological in its speculations and more overtly Christian in its symbolism than Dickens’ work. As pointed out recently by Michele Jacobsen of A Reader’s Respite (citing  Les Standiford, who wrote The Man Who Invented Christmas), the appearance of A Christmas Carol coincided with the beginnings of a shift toward a more secular society, one in which man had to depend on himself as much as on his Creator.  Scrooge’s path of redemption could be seen as consistent with that, although it clearly did not deny a supernatural world. As she puts it, “God was not being rejected, but man’s control over his destiny was gaining ground.” Scrooge’s choice one Christmas Eve has shaped our modern idea of Christmas.  Bennett’s book could be seen as an alternative interpretation of Scrooge’s choice and his salvation from that fearful afterlife so memorably presented to him by Jacob Marley’s ghost.

Related links:

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christmas spirit reading challenge 2014

The Christmas Spirit Read-a-thon 2014 — What did I read?

2 Dec
Hosted by Michelle Miller of The True Book Addict at her lovely Seasons of Reading blog--thanks, Michelle!

Hosted by Michelle Miller of The True Book Addict at her lovely Seasons of Reading blog–thanks, Michelle!

Time to wrap it up! What did I read all week? Some things I had planned and a few things that I didn’t.

  1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson. I finished this one, my second Moomin book, and I’m more and more sure that these fanciful tales by Finnish-Swedish artist Jansson are utterly charming and rather profound. In this one, Moomintroll (the sweet son in the family) has unaccountably woken up during his winter hibernation. How he makes his way through winter and finds friends who love snow and wintry pursuits is the premise of this book, but Jansson is too wise a writer to let her characters discover winter without also discovering more about themselves.
  2. The House by the Fjord by Rosalind Laker.  I finished this one too, and what a lovely read! It is a historical romance set in post-WWII Norway, and you can find my full review of this book at my other blog, Northern Lights Reading Project. I discovered this book while browsing my local library for one of Laker’s other books, The Venetian Mask, which I am reading for our Lit Collective theme of Venice. I have started The Venetian Mask too, and I’m liking it, but most of all, I am so glad I picked up Laker’s absorbing novel about a widowed war bride in Norway as well!
  3. Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett. I’m just getting started on this one.  I thought I would be focusing on it over the weekend, but I ended up staying in Norway a while longer. For the next leg of the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge (also hosted by Michelle Miller) I plan to hurry back to Victorian London to find out more about Ebeneezer Scrooge’s old business associate–his chain-rattling, ghostly conscience on one famous Christmas Eve. The book promises to reveal whether Jacob later found his own path to reforming his soul–I certainly hope so!  That would be a Christmas-spirited ending I could love.

The 5th Annual Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge

21 Nov

christmas spirit reading challenge 2014I’m full of cheer in anticipation of next week’s kickoff of the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, graciously hosted by Michelle (alias The True Book Addict) at her beautiful blog page The Christmas Spirit. It’s decorated with gorgeous holiday images and even some tunes to play! So, do pay it a visit.

I’m planning to read four books (Mistletoe level):

  1. Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett.
  2. Scandinavian Christmas by Trine Hahnemann.
  3. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (who also illustrates).
  4. Old Christmas by Washington Irving, illus. Randolph Caldecott.

The novel about poor old Jacob T. Marley will give me a good reason to write something new about Scrooge and The Christmas Carol here this year.  My reviews for Scandinavian Christmas (a cookbook) and Moominland Midwinter (from Finland: a children’s book that adults love too!) will be over at my other blog, Northern Lights Reading Project. Old Christmas is just pure fun to re-read each year, with its descriptions of Christmas puddings, country dancing, and even a little romance in bloom at Bracebridge Hall, as gently satirized by Washington Irving, with the help of Caldecott’s masterful caricatures.

I’m sure I’ll be watching quite a few Christmas movies all during the challenge, since I already have a good head start with the Hallmark channel’s Christmas movie theme since the beginning of November. My favorite so far, and one that I’d never seen before, is called Fallen Angel (2003) starring Gary Sinise and Joely Richardson.

christmas spirit read-a-thon 2014The Challenge begins with the Christmas Spirit Read-a-thon. Its guidelines are a little different, so be sure to visit the Read-a-thon announcement for details.  Her biggest guideline is to HAVE FUN with it! I will!

“To Be Continued”: Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights (1)

10 Jul

Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights by Marina Warner, Belknap Press (Harvard University Press), 2012.

 

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If you have any interest in the history of fairy tale and magical narrative, in the transmission of stories from East to West, and back again, then you may find Marina Warner’s new book, Stranger Magic, as captivating as I did.  Warner is best known for her brilliant critical syntheses of fairy tales and their modern cultural expressions, as in From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), and I believe Stranger Magic is her best book since that one.  Here she seeks to open readers to the complex history that has produced The Arabian Nights, as we read them today, whether they are told in Arabic or in one of many diverse translations, whether they include just a few selected stories or collect a wealth of the Thousand and One Nights, culled from various sources.  Although she herself chooses to retell and comment upon 15 illustrative stories (including “The Fisherman and the Genie,” “Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Peri Banou,”  “Marouf the Cobbler,” and “Camar al-Zaman and Princess Badoura”), she resists attempts to identify The Arabian Nights only with a “core” of originals rather than with the whole evolving tradition of stories that have grown up around the Nights through an interplay of oral and written transmission.  For example, although she retells the most “authentic” Aladdin tale, “Aladdin of the Beautiful Moles,” she cites the better known tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp, most likely written and added by translator Antoine Galland, as a valid accretion to the cycle as a whole.

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As Warner says,  the stories themselves are “shape-shifters” but standing apart from the shifting dream world of stories is Scheherazade.  Whether her name is translated as Shahrazad, Shahrzad, Sheherezade, or Shéhérezade (I have seen all of these, and more), she holds a unique place as the still point from which the tales arise and connect. In the frame story, Shahrazad (Warner and others have settled on this spelling, and I will too) has amassed a vast bank of stories learned by heart from her teachers and from her father’s library–her memory is her first magical gift. Thus, as Warner notes, in the context of the Nights, the only truly new story Shahrazad tells is the story of Sultan Shahriyar himself, one whose outcome she herself is affecting.  Technically, her stories are classified as “ransom tales,” each one buying her life and staying her execution, upon the orders of her bitterly jealous husband, for just one more day. They can also be seen as amulets, specially crafted charms to ward off the evil of her husband’s cruel death sentence (hence Warner’s subtitle, “Charmed States and the Arabian Nights”). Finally, as a matter of discourse structure, her stories are “performative utterances,” doing what they intend–delaying her death–by the very act of speaking them and inviting Shahriyar to listen. He in turn changes his utterance from “kill her in the morning” to “wait, I want to hear the end of this story.” The power of speech is implicitly celebrated with every word of the Nights, a fearsome power and, from Shahrazad’s mouth, a transformative power as well, gradually healing the Sultan’s once-incurable heart.

Biographer Peter Ackroyd describes The Arabian Nights–to my surprise–as “arguably the most important of all literary influences upon Charles Dickens” (Dickens, p. 45), forming some of his most beloved childhood reading along with Fielding and Smollett. Ackroyd notes many direct references popping up in his novels, and Warner highlights a wonderfully subtle example in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge attempts to trap the first, bright Spirit who visits him beneath an enormous candle snuffer!  Warner sees the Spirit as a benevolent jinni, “intent on doing him good,” but Scrooge would much rather bottle him, so to speak, and go back to bed in peace. As the Nights show time and again, being visited by a jinni is always life changing, one way or another!

 

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[Scrooge extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits, illus. by John Leech, 1843; image scanned by Philip V. Allingham]

Sigmund Freud believed that elements of the unconscious were bottled up in his patients, making them ill.  One of my favorite chapters in Warner’s book is chapter 20, “The Couch: A Case History,” in which she interprets Freud’s psychoanalytic “talking-cure” as a symbolic instance of Shahrazad-in-reverse: “talking as a form of storytelling, with the roles reversed (it is the narrator who needs to be healed, not the listener-Sultan)” (p. 29, my emphasis).   As she says, “The Arabian Nights is a book of stories told in bed,” and Freud draped his “bed,” the famous analyst’s couch, with oriental cushions and a gorgeous Ghashga’i rug–a veritable magic carpet for patients to ride while free-associating, relaxing repressions, and liberating unconscious thoughts. This very carpet was moved from Vienna to London when Freud moved there, and the book includes a color photo of it in Freud’s reconstructed consulting room at the Freud Museum in London,  where it is exhibited.

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The parallels to the Nights are astonishing: “The seating arrangement Freud devised, still practised in analysis today, interestingly, set up a scene of eavesdropping, not conversation, which places the analyst in the position of the Sultan in the frame story of the Nights” (p. 419).  This refers to the fact that Shahrazad’s stories are not addressed directly to Shahriyar, but rather to her sister Dinarzad (or Dunyazad, in some versions) who has accompanied her sister on the wedding night for the express purpose of requesting a tale to while away the hours till dawn. Shahriyar’s ear is caught, then his mind and curiosity, and finally his heart, which, after the fabled 1001 nights, opens to a different view of women, or at least one exemplary woman, now his wife and mother to three children. In psychoanalysis, the analyst provides the recurring occasion and allows the stories to emerge–stories the teller is heretofore unaware of possessing inside herself.  Like Shahrazad, most of Freud’s patients were women.

What shall we make of the storytelling art as Shahrazad practices it? Besides its life-saving role within the story world, what is its role in our world?  Freud’s magic-carpet couch is only one possible answer. Warner writes with warm enthusiasm about the stories as instances of Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of “reasoned imagination” and she devotes much space to what she calls “flights of reason,” stories as “thought-experiments.”  She hopes to move discussion of the Nights away from the battleground of “Orientalism,” begun in response to Edward Said’s brilliantpolemical book about the reception of Arabic and Persian literature in the West, and edge it toward an alternative tradition of “the Nights as a genre of dazzling fabulism … the begetter of magical realism” (p. 24), which she traces to Voltaire (Zadig, or Destiny; Candide) and then more recently through Borges (Ficciones), Italo Calvino (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), Gabriel  García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children; Haroun and the Sea of Stories), and others.  She writes:

“the Nights inspires a way of thinking about writing and the making of literature as forms of exchange across time–dream journeys in which the maker fuses with what is being made, until the artefact exercises in return its own fashioning force. …draw[ing] away from the prevalent idea of art as mimesis, representing the world in a persuasive, true-to-life way, and emphasis[ing] instead the agency of literature. Stories need not report on real life, but clear the way to changing the experience of living it.” (Warner, p. 27, my emphasis)

She concludes with thoughts about the ongoing political changes and the voices being raised in the Middle East and North Africa–artists, writers, and filmmakers working in a new time, but in the age-old lands that inspired The Arabian Nights. What they will create still holds the potential “to lift the shadows of rage and despair, bigotry and prejudice, to invite reflection—to give the princes and sultans of this world pause. This was–and is–Shahrazad’s way” (Warner, p. 436).

As an artefact in the world, The Arabian Nights is still living and changing.  The stories still call out for new tellers, new Shahrazads who remember the old stories and add new ones, who reveal something new in the telling and retelling, who heal wounds and transform hearts. Warner says, “the book cannot ever be read to its conclusion: it is still being written” (p. 430). In my next post, I will consider a few examples of these retellings and describe how they add to and remake the tradition. To be continued…

Related posts:

Ghosts of Scrooges Past: Revisiting “A Christmas Carol”

13 May

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It’s a pleasure to join in the Austen vs. Dickens Dueling Authors tour. These two authors turn out to be very closely matched on the Fictional 100, which includes Austen’s Emma (70), and Dickens’s David Copperfield (72) and Scrooge (73). True, Dickens has two characters to speak for him, but Austen’s Emma pertly maintains her very slight edge in rank. Still they are all three nearly equal, in my estimation, in their breadth of influence. Emma and Scrooge, in particular, seem rather comparable in their recurrent popularity as subjects of film and in their adaptability to new settings and time periods. Emma has her “Clueless” and Scrooge has, well, “Scrooged”! (among many other versatile versions). David Copperfield ranks just ahead of Scrooge because, although “A Christmas Carol” is a perfectly crafted gem of a novella, David Copperfield has been called “the best of all Dickens’s books” (by G. K. Chesterton, for example) and it was Dickens’s own “favourite child.” David is the precursor of all “portraits of the artist” in their youth, including above all James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 

 


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Given that these characters seem to duel to a draw, why have I chosen to revisit Scrooge and “A Christmas Carol”? It is because I want to ask, and try to answer, a particular question: What shall we make of Scrooge’s turnabout–why does he change? If he is meant to be taken as an old sinner redeemed, he is an odd one, because Scrooge never asks for redemption–rather he resists it and it must be nearly forced upon him. His change of heart is brought about by being induced to review his life and change his perspective on it: He is made to see himself as others see him. Psychologically, this leads him to focus on his own character flaws.

How does this come about? “A Christmas Carol” is in truth a Christmas ghost story, in which Dickens shows what changes can be wrought in a man in one extraordinary night. The three ghosts of Christmas Past,  Present, and Future are nearly as familiar in deed and appearance as Scrooge himself. But I would like to suggest that it is the first ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past, who has the overwhelming burden of catalyzing change and repentance in Scrooge. If he were to fail in his task, the moving scenes of Christmas Present and Future would not be met with a softened gaze from Ebenezer’s hardened old heart.

Before we look again at each of the past scenes Scrooge must witness–the four Ghosts of Scrooges Past–I want to say a bit about how actors and observers look at the world differently. It is largely a matter of perspective. Imagine a man running to catch a commuter train and just missing it as it pulls away from the station. He is visibly frustrated and will have to sit and wait for the next train. How might he account for this event? As an actor in the situation, he has knowledge about the circumstances that led to his missing the train: perhaps there was a power failure and his electric alarm didn’t ring, or he was delayed by an accident on the highway, or he needed to spend extra time getting a child ready for school. All these aspects of his situation will be very prominent in his thoughts. Now consider another commuter standing on the platform who observes the man miss his train. What does he see, and what does he think? The running commuter is the most salient thing he sees, standing out as the focal point of his attention. Social psychologists (Edward Jones and Richard Nisbett) have shown that an observer in such a scene is much more likely to make character judgments about a person and ascribe traits in order to explain his or her behavior. In this case, the bystanding commuter may think the first man is habitually late for trains and judge that this tells something about him, rather than about the situation he finds himself in.

Now back to Scrooge. Scrooge has been living his life for decades thinking that his miserly ways make perfect sense. He sees the world around him according to its economic rules and he works to win as much for himself as he can. He understands very little about the poor except that they are poor and need to impinge as little as possible on his aims. Enter the Ghost of Christmas Past who makes Scrooge undergo a radical shift in perspective. Now he must visit four shadowy scenes from his own past, but this time as an outside observer.

First, he sees himself as a “solitary child” left at his school when the other boys had gone home to warm Christmas holidays:

…a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.

Who could imagine that Scrooge would weep? To show that it is more than self-pity, Dickens shows the first inkling of repentance by having Scrooge recollect the boy who had come caroling at his door earlier that night; rather than turn him away harshly as he did, now he “should like to have given him something.” When Scrooge’s own loneliness is made to stand out in such high relief for him, he can suddenly see and feel the loneliness in another boy like himself.

Next, the Ghost shows Scrooge a later scene at school, this time with his sister Fan, who would die young, leaving one son, Scrooge’s nephew. Beholding himself, Scrooge cannot help but see how much he loved her, and she him, and he is shamed to realize how cold he has been to his dead sister’s son. Later, spying upon Fezziwig’s ball, Scrooge sees and recalls new traits about himself–that he is capable of merriment and friendship, and he sees old Fezziwig’s open-hearted generosity and good spirits–the chief traits of his employer at Christmastime. Scrooge must observe himself as one kind of man then, but now such a different character.

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The last shadow from Scrooge’s past reveals a tragic moment of transition, when ambition and greed had begun to take hold of him and he had allowed his fiancée Belle to release him from his engagement. At the time when he let Belle go, he thought only of her poverty, but as he observes his life replay before him, he can see his own greed, his own cruel mistake.

The Ghost of Christmas Past has caused a shift in Scrooge from a very unself-conscious actor to a witness, painfully observing himself. He is already different when the Ghost of Christmas Present comes to show him Bob Cratchit’s family, his nephew’s merry party, and some families of miners where the spirit of Christmas was yet dwelling. Closely observing their daily circumstances, he begins to see them as more than just the “surplus population,” but as people struggling with hardships and deep sorrows, enough so that he resolves to change them if he can. Even in Christmas Present, he is forced to observe the echoes of himself:

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

While Scrooge is shifting from being solely an actor to being an observer of himself, we, the readers, make the opposite shift, from observing Scrooge, with all his abominable traits, to greater identification with him as an actor in this very absorbing redemptive drama. Whereas we first observe him in his counting house, turning away carolers and tormenting Bob Cratchit, confirming our first impression of his miserliness and cruel temperament, by the end of the “Carol” we feel as though we have been visited by three spirits, and given a second chance, and our own hearts are opened, now ready to rejoice with Scrooge at his conversion and reprieve. The annual visitation of Scrooge at Christmas time may work upon us as the three ghosts worked upon him: spurring us to imagine the long-term consequences of our actions and the latent possibilities inherent in our lives–alternative, better universes that we might choose to inhabit.

Both Dickens and Jane Austen were particularly adept at bringing their readers in close to identify with a character, as if they were actors in the scene themselves, or at holding them back at a distance to observe and judge. Understanding this “social psychology” that exists in the encounter between readers and characters is, for me, a big part of trying to appreciate the novelist’s art.

References

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Bantam Books, 1986. [First published in 1843]

Jones, E. E,  and Nisbett, R. E. The actor and the observer: Divergent perceptions of the causes of behavior. In E. E. Jones, D. E. Kanouse, H. H. Kelley, R. E. Nisbett, S. Valins, and B. Weiner (Eds.), Attribution: Perceiving the Causes of Behavior, pp. 79-94. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press, 1971.

Nisbett, R. E., Caputo, C., Legant, P., and Maracek, J. Behavior as seen by the actor and as seen by the observer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 154-164 (1973).

Pollard-Gott, Lucy. Attribution theory and the novel. Poetics, 21, 499-524 (1993). [This article analyzes some  interesting implications of the observer-actor shift for readers of Pride and Prejudice, A Passage to India, and War and Peace]

Pollard-Gott, Lucy. The Fictional 100: Ranking the Most Influential Characters in World Literature and Legend. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2010.

 

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