Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kivi, Kivi, and Kivi

Hello! I hope you’re all enjoying the summer. Here’s a book that may make it more enjoyable:

The Brothers Seven, by Aleksis Kivi

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[Upon encountering an evil spirit in the woods]:

“SIMEONI. But let us first try to cast it out with spells.

JUHANI. Well said! First a spell or twain. But what should we say to him? Whisper to me, Simeoni; for at this moment I find myself stupefy’d. You whisper the words to me, and I ’ll hurl them in his face so the weald resounds.

SIMEONI. Follow my exact words, then. ‘Here we stand.’

JUHANI. Here we stand!

SIMEONI. ‘Like God ’s holy crusaders, fiery swords in hand.’

JUHANI. Like God ’s holy crusaders, fiery swords in hand.

SIMEONI. ‘Go thy way.’

JUHANI. Go to hell!

SIMEONI. ‘We are Christ’s soldiers, baptiz’d in the Blood of the Lamb.’

JUHANI. We are Christ’s soldiers, God ’s gallow-glasses, baptiz’d in the Blood of the Lamb.

SIMEONI. ‘Tho’ we can ’t read.’

JUHANI. Tho’ we can ’t read.

SIMEONI. ‘But we still believe.’

JUHANI. But we still believe and place our full trust in Him.

SIMEONI. ‘Go now.’

JUHANI. Go now!

SIMEONI. ‘Afore the cock crows.’

JUHANI. Afore the cock crows!

SIMEONI. ‘And hails the light of the Lord.’

JUHANI. And hails the light of the Lord of Hosts!

SIMEONI. But he pays us no mind.

JUHANI. But he pays us—aye, he ’ld not care tho’ I skrik’d at him with the tongue of a angel. Gorblimey, brothers! Naught else for it now but: now, boys!”

[They attack the spirit only to discover that it is their horse.]

There are many unexpected things about Aleksis Kivi’s The Brothers Seven, but the fact that it has seven brothers is not one of them. Before getting into the unexpectedness, here’s an overview of what it’s about:

Once upon a time in Finland, you had to know how to read to receive church confirmation and thus officially become an adult and get married. In the book, seven orphaned brothers—Juhani, Aapo, Tuomas, Simeoni, Timo, Lauri, and Eero—refuse to learn how to read. The person trying to teach them treats them badly, and so they run away from home and go into the woods. There, they build houses, burn things down, get chased by things, argue, go hunting, play hockey, get chased by more things, and so on. They also get redeemed.

One unexpected thing: the book was published in 1870, but it’s the first Finnish novel ever written. Why? It’s the first one written in Finnish and not in Swedish, which was the main language in Finland at the time. So people had probably been writing novels before that point, just not in Finnish.

Another unexpected thing: in its day, Finnish people wanted to be portrayed as idealized hard-working people. Kivi’s book portrays them as being reckless and head-strong mischief makers.

At first, the book was criticized for this unexpected approach. Then people began calling it the greatest Finnish novel ever written.

Here’s the most unexpected thing about The Brothers Seven: you hear the words, “greatest Finnish novel ever written,” and maybe you’d go on to expect it to be something like The Brothers Karamazov, with a tremendous page-count and somewhat-developed characters and lots of angst.

It has very little of that. The book’s only 300-something pages, the characters are flat, and the book reads more like a Shakespearian comedy than it does an “Epic Novel.” Literally—not just in content, but in language and format. The prose parts are written as prose, but the archaic-sounding dialogue is written out as in a play.

So it’s not the traditional type of “greatness.” That’s okay, though, because Kivi’s book has its own kind of greatness. It’s vivid and hilarious. Some of the comedy may seem cheesy, but that doesn’t stop parts of it from being funny.

In any case, it seems the unexpectedness of Kivi’s book makes it great. The beginning and middle are very funny and unexpected, but the ending is expected and actually disappointing.

For that reason, I would recommend reading up to the aftermath of the brothers’ encounter with bulls (Chapter 9—you’ll see what I mean), and then skipping to the final chapter (Chapter 14). That’s just my take, though.

Another unexpected thing may happen, which is that you enjoy chapters 10 to 13 even more than this review leads you to suppose.

Until next time! Meanwhile, I hope you’re all healthy and safe and enjoying the summer.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Solzhenitsyn, Vian, and Madox Ford

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Hello everyone! I hope you’re all doing well. Here are two sad books I’ve read that I wouldn’t recommend to you now, and one funny one. The funny one is distinguished from the others via its color photo. See it? That’s the one I recommend.

 

A World Split Apart, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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“In today’s Western society, the inequality has been revealed between the freedom to do good and the freedom to do evil. A statesman who wants to achieve something important and highly constructive for his country has to move cautiously and even timidly; there are thousands of hasty and irresponsible critics around him, parliament and press keep rebuffing him. As he moves ahead, he has to prove that each single step of his is well-founded and absolutely flawless. Actually, an outstanding and particularly gifted person who has unusual and unexpected initiatives in mind hardly gets a chance to assert himself; from the very beginning, traps will be set out all around him. Thus mediocrity triumphs, with the excuse of restrictions imposed by democracy.”

Pictured above, the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is famous for his huge book on Soviet gulags called The Gulag Archipelago. If you don’t want to read that just yet, you might want to start out with A World Split Apart. This book is a transcription of the commencement address he gave at Harvard University in 1978. Like The Gulag Archipelago, this book contains profound ideas. Unlike The Gulag Archipelago, It’s a very short read.

Solzhenitsyn makes interesting points about how we’re facing spiritual decay in the face of modern life, and that without preserving our spiritual nature (like morality and so on), we’re doomed. It’s fascinating, because it makes you think about the nature of good and evil, and the role that both society and the individual play in promoting morals.

Basically, A World Split Apart is a good book to get a sense of Solzhenitsyn the thinker. It’s short, it’s accessible, and it’s not The Gulag Archipelago.

 

To Hell With the Ugly, by Boris Vian

To Hell With The Ugly

“To hell with the ugly.”

The reason for this short quote is because I took this book out from the library, then returned it, and now don’t have it with me anymore to quote from. If you want a sense of what it’s like, cross Holden Caulfield with Raymond Chandler, and throw in some sex for good measure.

Compared to Solzhenitsyn, To Hell With The Ugly is shallow. However, it’s very entertaining to read. Here’s the basic premise: Beautiful people are captured. Then they’re forced to reproduce with other beautiful people to create more beautiful people who are programmed to take over positions of high power in the government.

“Take over the government for what?” you might ask.

You’ll never know the true reason, because Vian doesn’t give it. Instead, you’ll get the idea that although beautiful people are beautiful, ugliness is needed, too, to provide a contrast to beauty, so ugliness itself can be a form of beauty. You’ll also get a lot of laughter.

So in the end, even though the book’s mystery is never really solved, it’s still worth reading for its humor.

 

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier

“She knew nothing—nothing of life, except that one must live sadly. That she now knew. What happened to her on the night when she received at once the blow that Edward wished her to go to her father in India and the blow of the letter from her mother was this. She called first upon her sweet Saviour—and she thought of Our Lord as her sweet Saviour!—that He might make it impossible that she should go to India. Then she realized from Edward’s demeanour that he was determined that she should go to India. It must then be right that she should go. Edward was always right in his determinations. He was the Cid; he was Lohengrin; he was the Chevalier Bayard.”

This book took me forever to read. I started it about a year ago, left it, then went back to it and so on. It’s about two couples who are friends. John and Florence are one couple, and Edward and Leonora are the other, and John tells the story about their lives. Some people live. Some people die. In the end, it’s a tragedy.

For some reason I went into this expecting it to be a murder mystery. Obviously, it’s not. Instead, it’s an interesting experiment in structure (it’s apparently “literary impressionism” due to its non-linearity). However, the language itself is stodgy, and doesn’t really bring the tragedy to life. This could be a good thing. You probably won’t feel sad reading it. However, it also won’t make you laugh. All in all, if this were a happier time, I would recommend that you read The Good Soldier. Not now, though.

Go read Boris Vian instead.

Until next time!

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Comedy in Tragedy and Yellows in Blues

Happy almost New Year! I hope you’re all enjoying the last few days of 2019!

I recently read this essay online (the Lehigh University link) about comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

The paper’s writer says that a lot of people focus on the pathos of the play–which I won’t spoil because you should read it for yourself–but don’t consider the role of comedy.

In “Long Day’s Journey”, the paper’s writer asserts that comedy serves to humanize the characters. This makes them, and their reactions to their tragic situation, more convincing and compelling.

This idea reminded me of how painters, in painting a picture, use a lot of colors. That sounds obvious. But they use them in such a way as to promote contrast. For instance, there’s a yellowish layer in Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “Boys in a Dory.”

It seems counterintuitive to use yellow in painting a nautical scene. However, when combined with the painting’s blue hues, the yellow serves as a contrast that gives the painting a new dimension and makes it more convincing and compelling.

Similarly, comedy serves to contrast with the tragedy in O’Neill’s play. This contrast gives the characters more nuance and makes them more realistic, which increases the compelling nature of their tragic situation.

In writing, comedy doesn’t just have to be comic relief–it can also play a key role in giving extra dimension to a work and deepening its power.

I hope I gave some insight into this technique. It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I Read, and Refuse to Consume Liver and Cabbage for Dinner

I have read three more books, and I have reviewed them below. One of them involves liver and cabbage, and I will leave it up to you to find out which one that is…

Native Son by Richard Wright

Favorite Quote: “He was too weak to stand any longer. He sat again on the edge of the cot. How could he find out if this feeling of his was true, if others had it? How could one find out about life when one was about to die? Slowly he lifted his hands in the darkness and held them in mid-air, the fingers spread weakly open. If he reached out with his hands, and if his hands were electric wires, and if his heart were a battery giving life and fire to those hands, and if he reached out with his hands and touched other people, reached out through these stone walls and felt other hands connected with other hearts—if he did that, would there be a reply, a shock? Not that he wanted those hearts to turn their warmth to him; he was not wanting that much. But just to know that they were there and warm! Just that, and no more; and it would have been enough, more than enough. And in that touch, response of recognition, there would be union, identity; there would be a supporting oneness, a wholeness which had been denied him all his life.”

This book is so great that it beat out all the other books on my top ten list aside from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

This book is about an African-American named Bigger Thomas who commits a crime in Chicago, and winds up confronting racism and the law.

This summary doesn’t really do the book justice. The reason Native Son is so good is because it unites emotion and ideas with this exciting plot. Also, whereas some authors make their books good just in the beginning, Native Son is uniformly excellent all throughout. It does not wimp out on any aspect of its premise and it forces its characters to deal with the harsh consequences of their actions. It does not shy away from itself, and is brutally honest, both in its situational outcomes and its portrayal of life.

It is not to be missed.

Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury

Favorite Quote: Every time you take a step, even when you don’t want to. . . . When it hurts, when it means you rub chins with death, or even if it means dying, that’s good. Anything that moves ahead, wins. No chess game was ever won by the player who sat for a lifetime thinking over his next move.”

Bradbury wrote this as a sequel to his book, Dandelion Wine, about a kid named Doug who experiences the wonders of summer. In Farewell Summer, Doug encounters old age and metaphorically goes to war with mortality. The book was okay, but you’d be much better off reading Dandelion Wine first. You get more invested in the characters and their story that way. Also, in the afterword of Farewell Summer, Bradbury even admits that this book is just a compilation of scenes and metaphors, while Dandelion Wine had more of a story. So, if you prefer more story, read Dandelion Wine, but if you prefer super-vivid imagery, try Farewell Summer.

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” by Neil Simon

Favorite Quote: “EUGENE: Oh, God! As if things weren’t bad enough…and now this! The ultimate tragedy…liver and cabbage for dinner! A Jewish medieval torture!… My friend Marty Gregorio, an A student in science, told me that cooked cabbage can be smelled farther than sound traveling for seven minutes. If these memoirs are never finished, you’ll know it’s because I gagged to death one night in the middle of summer.”

As you can see, this is a funny play. It takes place during the Great Depression and focuses on various plot lines in the family of a kid named Eugene Jerome. For instance, Eugene’s cousin wants to dance on Broadway, and his brother may lose his job because he stood up to his boss. The version I read contained pictures from the film with captions saying that Eugene “had matured from a boy into a man” but I didn’t really pick up on that so-called maturation from my reading. Perhaps he did mature. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself.

I hope you enjoyed my book reviews. Also, as it is summer, I am taking a hiatus to catch up with the real world. I will be back in September with more book reviews and writing advice. Stay tuned!