Book Review: The Professor by Charlotte Bronte

The Professor was Charlotte Bronte’s first book, written in 1845-6 but not published until 1857, two years after her death, and ten years after the publication of her most famous work, Jane Eyre. Although a new review of a well-known classic serves little purpose, it is interesting to put on record one’s views from a modern perspective. From the beginning of The Professor it is clear that the young Charlotte Bronte had an astonishing fluency and breath of vocabulary but she writes with a charming naivety and from a seemingly narrow breath of experience.

The principal character is a young man, William Crimsworth, and one must wonder immediately if the young female writer can create a realistic male mind. The author was obviously more successful with a female heroine in Jane Eyre. Though a heterosexual, William Crimsworth, has a particularly sanitised view of members of the fair sex. How much this is due to the conventions of the period and how much to the author’s inevitable lack of insight is impossible to say.

All the important characters in The Professor are described in detail with regard to physical appearance and demeanour but attention is paid to the interpretation of head shape by the pseudoscience of phrenology, which was popular in the period immediately before the book was written but has since been discredited. Miss Bronte’s tendency to discern nationality from head shape is also hard to accept in the modern world. However, this is not a harsh criticism, as all authors run the risk of their scientific knowledge being superseded in later years.

Some of the characters seem to be of such extreme nature as to be hard to believe. Could anyone be quite so unfeeling and cruel as William’s brother, Edward, or quite so detached, ill-mannered and omniscient as Mr Hunsden? Extreme caricatures can enhance the drama and intrigue, take Sherlock Holmes for instance, but there can be perhaps too many in one novel. Miss Bronte’s female characters, Frances Henri and Zoraide Reuter, are completely believable and can be taken on trust as the creations of a female mind.

William Crimsworth earns his living as an English teacher and although today he would need a TEFL certificate he appears to be well qualified for the job and successful in its execution. William speaks fluent French, and as much of the dialogue is reported in that language, Miss Bronte seems to expect her readers to have at least a sound basic knowledge. Presumably, her sophisticated aristocratic Victorian readers could cope with this amount of French, but many modern readers might find this substantial use of a foreign language annoying. However, it is remarkable how little the English language has changed in almost one hundred and seventy years and The Professor will continue to be read and enjoyed long after this, and most other reviews, are forgotten.

Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a classic American novel about life in the twenties. First published in 1925, it is still popular today and will remain a classic for years to come. The narrator of the story is Nick Carraway, a 29-year-old bond salesman from Chicago. The story focuses on the life of his mysterious neighbour, millionaire Jay Gatsby, and his search for wealth and happiness.

Although the book is set in 1922, the story really begins some years earlier. In 1917, Gatsby had fallen in love with a young woman named Daisy while stationed near Louisville. At the time, Gatsby was enlisted in the army as an Army Lieutenant and had to go away to fight in World War 1. While away, Daisy meets a new man named Tom Buchannan who she marries. When he returns years later, Gatsby has become rich and buys a luxurious house close to where Daisy and her husband lives.

One night during one of Gatsby’s parties, his neighbour Nick Carraway comes over and the two of them start talking. They soon become very close friends and during the rest of the novel Carraway remains his only real friend. The events that follow between Gatsby, Carraway, Daisy and her husband ends up changing their lives. In the end some live through it, while others don’t. What happens is a story of greed, betrayal, envy and even murder.

The Great Gatsby is a fantastic work of literature, and I highly recommend reading it. During the roaring twenties, American society enjoyed a high level of prosperity and life was good. The book is well-written and as a reader, you get a very realistic view of what life was like during those prosperous years after World War 1. The story is both exciting and sad, and although the novel did not receive the commercial success of Fitzgerald’s other novels it is by many regarded as his best work.

Book Review – Hemingway – A Life Without Consequences

Book Review: Hemingway-A Life Without Consequences

James R. Mellow ISBN 0-201-62620-9 Houghton Mifflin 1992

Until I read this three-dimensional biography of the American writer who taught the modernists how to write, I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Ernest Hemingway. It’s all in his literature; it’s all in the press and the archives, I thought. But I did not find the man I thought I knew in this biography by James Mellow. Eureka! Biographer James Mellow is as much an artist of life history as the artists he writes about.

For Hemingway buffs, “A Life Without Consequences” is the most enlightening portrait arguably of the most influential writer of the twentieth century. Much of what we already know about the man is documented ad nauseam. That he was and is universally disliked by some, adored and imitated by others can be found in letters to and from him, his four wives, publishers, editors and friends; not to mention his countless critics, “the maligning bastards” he likens to the hyenas of his Africa novels.

To understand this complex man who took his own life, the expatriate behind the legendary heroic war correspondent, newspaper man, big-game hunter, hard drinking, womanizing, openly bigoted, deeply romantic, envious of peers, foul-mouthed winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Print Journalism, and the Nobel Prize for Literature, you have to read this book. The extraordinary legacy he left of where he came from, what life did to him and why he did what he did with his life, pulsates in the real characters, places and events of this epic that reads better than a novel.

Born into an upper middle class late 19th century Victorian family in Chicago’s fashionable Oak Park suburb, the Hemingway that Mellow reveals may or may not have been greatly influenced by his musically talented mother Grace and his physician father Clarence. But most of his work appears autobiographical; his family, boyhood and adult friends and enemies are the basis for the characters in his stories. Sadly, his father, brother and granddaughter Margo all committed suicide.

The woodsy hunting and fishing scenes of his childhood, his first encounters with girls and sex, reveal wonderful glimpses into a simpler time. His tragic wartime experiences appear in the Nick Adams stories and in later novels. Everything he did as Ernest Hemingway is in his fiction. And of course so are Paris, Spain, Cuba, Key West and life and death. Old photos show Hemingway the boy dressed as a girl, which was common then. In maturity, Hemingway overcompensates for manliness by demonizing homosexuality. He exaggerates his masculinity by womanizing (my take) and in engaging in love affairs while “happily” married. Mellow includes photos of Hemingway’s family and the people he knew before, during and after two world wars, including his celebrated wives.

Hemingway belongs to the less is more class of literary noir that found its way to Hollywood’s money machine. Joining writers like Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), Hemingway’s “The Killers” and “To Have And Have Not” are the classic hard-boiled noir genre of a man who allowed no interruptions, no intrusions into his writing life. He worked from dawn to noon, and drank the rest of the day. His characteristic brevity, with plenty of space between hard-hitting dialog, finds its way into his novels. By asking the reader to question, to contemplate what the characters might be thinking but not saying, Hemingway is engaging the imagination. With some exceptions, I think this is why most motion picture screenplays are not as successful as his original books.

The famous post-Stalinist Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (now in his eighties) admired Hemingway. As a young man Yevtushenko wrote a poem about his chance encounter with “the old man” in a Copenhagen airport café/bar.

“The old man (Hemingway) moves with grim victorious determination … the earth seemed to bend beneath him, so heavily did he tread upon it. Rejecting a Vermouth and Pernod with a resounding ‘No’ he is served Russian Vodka, clearly more to his liking.”

Everything about Ernest Hemingway is bigger than life until he can no longer tolerate the myth he has cultivated and the expectations he has of himself. His body physically ailing from war wounds and plane accidents, his mental abilities fading, what else is left for Papa than to blow his brains out?