Classic Lit Challenge: The Europeans

I’m back on my classics kick. Part of it is having read one too many contemporary novels that is way too formulaic. Same old tropes whipped out again and again. I don’t mean to knock them too hard. I’m guilty of the same sin. But sometimes you just want something different. And that involves going back a hundred years.

So here I am. With Henry James and The Europeans.

I’ve never read James before. I’ve heard of him (and his famous brother the psychologist William James). In my mind Henry was the stuffy writer of stuffy period slash costume pieces.

Not my thing.

But this book is short! Only a hundredish pages long, depending on what edition. I can handle a hundred pages. No problem.

Right?

Well, actually, yes.

The Europeans wasn’t nearly as painful as I thought it would be. In fact, it was kind of interesting.

Damning with faint praise? Not quite. Like I said, costume dramas about manners are not my favorite. What The Europeans served up, though, was a clash of civilizations writ small. Who doesn’t love a little war? (And Europeans, after all, perfected war, right??)

The basics: Eugenia (a baroness) and her brother Felix come to America to grift their American cousins, the Wentworths, a goodly Puritanish people in the Boston area. They don’t say out-and-out grift, but that’s basically what they’re doing. Seems Eugenia and Felix’s mother was Mr. Wentworth’s older half sister. She met some European dude, converted to Catholicism, and ran off to Europe. And here we are, 30 plus years later. Like many immigrants before them (my ancestors included), Eugenia and Felix are seeking their fortune in the new world.

Much is left out of The Europeans. Why did their mother leave? What was their life like in Europe? None of that seems to matter to Henry James, because he never tells us. What he does tell us, though, is details about what the Americans, and the Europeans, are thinking. If there’s one thing that Henry does excellently, it’s hopping from head to head to reveal what each character is thinking at any given time. Sometimes it’s interesting. Other times, eh. (I’m looking at you, Clifford Wentworth).

I expected a bigger clash. I expected fireworks. I expected a little inadvertent comedy. There wasn’t much of that. Instead what I got was an awkward overuse of the phrase “making love to” — used in a way VERY different from modern times. And a lot of first cousin love. Seriously. I guess first cousins marrying each other was a thing in the late 1800s.

I got through this “comedy” of manners fairly quickly, maybe because I was expecting more. That more never arrived. Still, it was fun to slip into the heads of these lightly scheming characters. A hundred pages I could handle. Four hundred I would have felt cheated.

At least Felix got his happy ending.

Classic Lit Challenge 3: All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months after my father was killed, my mother purged a ton of his books, so when I was at her house searching for something to read, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the bookshelves were as bare as a Venezuelan supermarket. All I found were a few All Quietreligious books, some non-fiction war books and…All Quiet on the Western Front.

I probably grimaced when I pulled it off the shelf. Not only because it was a boring war novel that you’re assigned in high school, but also because on the cover was John Boy from The Waltons TV show. That show bored me to death, as did the character, so I can’t dissociate the actor from the character, or the show.

Nevertheless, I took it with me. It was short enough to meet my classic challenge standard, and I love the history of Germany during the pre-WWII era. So I figured I’d just try to not look too long at John Boy on the cover and give it a try.

I was expecting Erich Maria Remarque’s classic to be boring. It wasn’t. I was also expecting it to be staid and mannered. I was wrong again. All Quiet on the Western Front is the story of Paul, a battle-hardened German soldier fighting along the western front in France during World War One. In his preface, Remarque clearly states that the book is not meant to be anti war. While it could easily be mistaken for a pacifist plea, it’s not. It’s just a detailed account of life as a soldier.

At times the writing is bawdy. He’s not adverse to throwing in a few fart jokes, of all things. In other episodes, Remarque, through the narrator, clearly relays the intense camaraderie that develops among soldiers. This falls just short of romanticization, which makes it even more effective.

One thing that kept coming back to me (which was in contrast to the thirtysomething actor on the book’s cover) was Paul’s age. He and his friends enlist just after high school. He’s 19 during the course of the book. More than once he comments on how disillusioned he and his entire generation have become because of the war, how lost they are, how much they’ve aged. This was one of the most powerful themes for me.

All Quiet on the Western Front is bursting with rich description. Unlike most modern novels, it’s not told in a traditional three-act structure. That’s because it was serialized during the 1920s. I found the episodic nature of the chapters compelling.

All Quiet on the Western Front didn’t go over too well once the Nazis came into power. It was a target of book burnings, and Remarque fled the country. The Nazis are long gone, but his book still persists.

Next up, my first failure.