The Classics Club

Review: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Tadeusz Borowski

This is a very short and belated review of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Thadeusz Borowski. I read this many months ago, and through a potent combination of procrastination and inability to actually talk about this book, late reviews happen.

I wanted to read more Holocaust literature, especially from voices who had actually lived and experienced the atrocities. Borowski’s work is translated from Polish and he survived both Auschwitz and Dachau. I’ve read Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, and I think I hold the somewhat unpopular opinion in finding more depth and interest in both Borowski and Levi over the better known Wiesel. It’s difficult to talk about ‘enjoyment’ of a Holocaust novel because you really shouldn’t, and I know I can’t, ‘enjoy’ these stories but you can still get something out of reading them. You walk away with a small fragment of understanding and a large slice of humble pie.

Talking from the historical point of view, these are interesting stories Borowski has put together, but we aren’t told if they are actual autobiographical accounts. You can’t be sure what is recollection and what is fabrication. Regardless of the amount of fictionalization, they are still important and illuminating vignettes of life in a concentration camp.

Borowski’s language is beautiful, thematic and dark. Thadeusz puts dark yet beautiful imagery in contrast with the atrocities of the Holocaust, creating some really haunting literature. There are a variety of stories in this collection, not just the title story, but besides having the Holocaust in common, they all discuss the idea of hope, or the subsequent loss of hope. Borowski describes people arriving in trains at Auschwitz, knowing that they were being led to their deaths, but hoping that it wasn’t going to come to that and following the instructions given to them by other prisoners – walking to the showers in the hope of being treated as human beings. An expectation I think we all can appreciate.

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen would have to be one of the darkest and most harrowing books I have ever read. It won’t leave me any time soon.

Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Norton Critical Edition (4th ed). First pub. 1899, 506p.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

It’s taken me a long time to actually rea Heart of Darkness. I was supposed to read it in first year of university, but I skipped it and wrote my assignments on the other novels in the course. I now regret that decision, because Heart of Darkness is a great short novel that would probably have helped me out in my history degree as well as my English studies.

It is interesting to read Heart of Darkness as a text in light of colonisation and post-colonisation. You really get a glimpse into how people were thinking about the ‘exploration’ of ‘new worlds’. Be prepared for lots of mentions of ‘savages’, and archaic language that is now interpreted as offensive, but was accepted vocabulary at the time. It is interesting that at the end of the story, the white people come off as much worse characters than any of the ‘savages’ featured in the story.

I was expecting an adventure text from Heart of Darkness and instead I ended up receiving something more along the lines of a supernatural ghost story. This actually disappointed me – I love action and adventure. However, I think that it makes Heart of Darkness more accessible for many of today’s readers because we’re exposed to supernatural content in books all the time. I wonder what people of the time took from the supernatural element of the narrative.

Heart of Darkness was not my first Joseph Conrad, in fact I read and reviewed The Secret Agent last year for the Classics Club (link to review). I enjoyed the plot of The Secret Agent, and I would say that overall I enjoyed The Secret Agent more than I enjoyed Heart of Darkness. The writing style in The Secret Agent is different, not as descriptive or as full of allegory. The language in Heart of Darkness is certainly more lyrical and beautiful than The Secret Agent but to me, the language makes it harder to get at the story. I enjoyed reading passages of Heart of Darkness out loud, the language is beautiful – if you like accomplished writing, then Heart of Darkness is for you, if you like plot driven and simple prose, maybe try The Secret Agent first, like I did.

I will be picking up more of Conrad’s works, I did enjoy Heart of Darkness, and I’ve heard that Under Western Eyes is related to The Secret Agent, and responsive to Crime and Punishment, which sounds interesting.

Review: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, Popular Penguins Paperback, 1930, 189p.

2.5 stars.

Evelyn Waugh’s second novel is a difficult book for me to review. I have little exposure to comedy texts, of either modern or classic authors, and so sometimes I was frustrated by Vile Bodies. I found some of the scenes to be overly short, and was interested in knowing more about the characters and annoyed when we were rushed onto the next scene. Some other scenes (most notably the day at the car races) dragged on for what seemed like eons. I understood that Waugh was setting up the plot and punchline, but found it unnecessary and boring – and the payoff did not warrant the tiresome build up. This would all come under issues of pacing, and I wonder if this was an identified critique of the book back in the 1930’s when it was first published – or if maybe I just need to read more comedy texts.

Waugh’s style is deceptively easy to read. He shies away from complicated sentences and words, but I found reading for longer than half an hour fatiguing, at least until the pace and tone changed about two-thirds through the book – I then powered through the last third in an evening. I had toiled through the first two-thirds over two weeks. I think the fatigue comes from the overuse of character names. Many scenes start with Waugh describing everyone in a room, and that’s annoying – especially because much of the book takes place with groups of people.

The characters in Vile Bodies were hard to keep track of. I found many of them to be similar and difficult to keep track of. My favourite character was Miss Runcible, who was the butt of quite a few jokes but was the most individual if you asked me. Adam Symes is the main protagonist, and much of the plot is centred on Adam’s attempts to marry Nina. The best thing about Adam is that he’s an idiot. I felt no sympathy for him at all, although he did make me laugh quite a few times. I loved when he started writing for the paper, and every visit he had with Nina’s father made me chuckle.

I read the Popular Penguin edition of Vile Bodies, which I find an enjoyable format. I like that the text includes notes on what was changed by previous editors in this text compared to the manuscript. The introduction (which I always read after the story itself) was informative and interesting – it actually illuminated quite a few of the issues/themes that I had felt but not quite understood.

I think that this is the last of Waugh’s works that I will be rushing to read – although if I find myself in the mood to read a comedic classic, I know where to turn.

Review: Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Penguin English Library Edition, 1760, 630p.

4 out of 5 sliced eggplants.

Tristram Shandy. I feel that the impression left on me is best summed up in emoji.

emoji tristram shandy

If you’re looking for a weird and wonderful classic that makes zero sense, Tristram Shandy is worth a look. If you like linear and sensical stories than avoid at all costs. Also, hobby horse.

Review: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, Penguin English Library Edition, 1905, 400p.

5 out of 5 stars.

House of Mirth is sensational. A true classic in every sense of the word, it immerses the reader deep into the world of Lily Bart and drags you down with her. I’m only just discovering Edith Wharton, I loved my read of Ethan Frome earlier this year, but felt like the style was a little sparse – looking back on my review, I noticed that I wrote,

I felt like I could have enjoyed Ethan Frome more if it was fleshed out into a fleshier novel, the novella length generally doesn’t satisfy me when there is so much potential for a good story.

House of Mirth answered my question brilliantly – Wharton does pen a truely singular novel, and the extra wordage, the flowing quality of her writing certainly does not take away from the plot – the plot in The House of Mirth is full, lively and engaging.

I really felt for Lily Bart. As far as female characters go, she would have to be one of my favourites I have read up to this point. I’ll avoid spoilers, but some of the things that she allows people to do and say to her are just appalling, but she seems to be out of her depth most of the book. The issue is that she thinks she’s able to cope with everything until her whole life comes crashing down around her. As someone who feels sometimes like life is conspiring to bring me down, reading about Bart’s trials makes me feel a little better about my own life. The way that Lily thinks about problems and especially, financial issues, is very close to the way that I myself consider these problems – I’m always anticipating the lucky event around the corner, always counting and spending money that I should be saving. It’s a problem that I’ve recognised in myself – one that I still battle with to this day, and watching Lily Bart come to the same realisations is painful but enlightening.

As far as male characters go in this book, I’m lukewarm on all of them. My least favourite would have to be Selden – and I feel like he was saved by Lily’s grace and love. I felt like we were meant to be rooting for them to get together, but that idea was repugnant to me, and I hoped that Lily would come around to living in poverty, despite it being so against her character. Rosedale was actually somewhat more to my liking – despite being crass and inelegant, I felt that he was most honest. The last scene with Rosedale turned me with disgust, but up to that point I kinda liked the guy!

Wharton’s writing style is lyrical and flows naturally, the plot seeming to meander along as a slow pace, but when you look back, you see that it’s actually been close to breakneck. It’s an interesting feeling, one that I’ve rarely noticed in early 19th century books, but as I read more from this era I feel like it might come to me more. Wharton’s descriptive style is interesting – there’s little description of landscapes, clothes and houses and more description of people’s thoughts, motivations and actions. I find other descriptive authors, like Dickens, to be weary and dull, but I think that is because his style is more about things that to me do not further the plot.

I will be adding the rest of Wharton’s work to my next classics club list – I’m not even half way through this one and I’m already considering what will be on the next one!

Review: The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Dover Thrift Kindle Edition, 1899, 195p.

4 stars

I had no idea what to expect going into The Awakening, I’d heard that it was a feminist novel and quite different for its time, but I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. I’m not sure if I would class this as a full blown novel, as it was quite short and seemed more like a novella in structure and tone, but that’s certainly not a detraction from this amazing book.

Chopin’s style is crisp and easy to understand – this is one of those novels that reads easily and without struggle. I read three quarters of this novel in ebook format, and listened to ten chapters in audiobook format. The audiobook seemed slower, while the ebook was much easier for me to follow. That’s most likely because I’m accustomed to reading as opposed to listening, but it was nice to be able to read while doing housework.

There was an amazing building of tension in The Awakening, after the first half I was constantly on tenterhooks waiting for the main character, Edna, to do what we were all waiting for her to do. Edna was sympathetically written and interesting, if at times seeming cold. Her descent into the ‘evils’ of lust and obsession is interesting and poignant. What I really loved is the way that this book is quite honest about emotions and the expectations of the time. While The Awakening is not erotic, it is honest about what is happening, and that this woman who was expected to be the perfectly proper woman was having these feelings that were not readily admitted to during these times. Edna is a brave character for Chopin to have written, and is wonderfully different from most of the other characters from the late 19th century (although Sybella from My Brilliant Career was also breaking stereotypes, but in a completely different way.)

I would have loved for The Awakening to have been a little longer, maybe for the affair to have developed more before the devastating ending occurred. Also, while talking about that ending – how heartbreaking! A more astute reader could have come to understand what the ending of the book would be half way through, but I was delightfully unawares and did not expect or suspect it! Which lead to me freaking out and yelling to the significant other what had just happened. Heartbreaking. Uh. Chopin – you brilliant writer, you completely trampled my emotions and now you’re returning them worse for wear. I’m not giving you back your deposit.

Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, Penguin Classics Edition, 1847, 251p.

4 out of 5 stars

So… this is a very belated and short review of Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. I read Agnes months ago, enjoyed it, but never got around to my review. Usually, I wouldn’t bother reviewing so late, but I am making an effort to review all my Classics Club books.

This is my favourite work from the Bronte sisters that I have read so far. Jane Eyre was enjoyable and interesting if long winded, while Wuthering Heights nearly drove me to suicide. I was a bit worried when approaching Aggie, but I dove in headfirst.

There’s something intriguing about Agnes’ character. I identified with her, and thought she was very well written. She is certainly a product of her time, and reading this book as a historical text is really interesting. I think that I will take the time in the future to reread this text and try and dig a little deeper into the social context that is so interesting.

As a commentary on religion at the time, Agnes Grey is really telling. It’s so different from how we regard religion in common times, and as an atheist, seeing how religion is disseminated into all aspects of life is interesting and slightly scary. The romantic interest is deeply entwined in the church and that is strange because I don’t think you see that in mainstream modern novels.

I enjoyed Agnes Grey, but I wasn’t blown away by it. I will be looking for other works by Anne Bronte, because I enjoyed her writing style.