Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Not really. Actually Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith)

Me (Dave) again. Kim is taking the next two weeks.

Today I’m going to talk about Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Well, okay, not really. I’m actually going to talk about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

Why not? Pride and Prejudice may be my favorite Jane Austen novel so far (having read that one, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey thus far), but what would I really have to say about it that hasn’t been said already? Pride and Prejudice was on our list, but we’d already done two Austen novels. Though I think it is a moving story of how imperfect humans (in other words, all) fall in love fully of sparkling wit, manners comedy, and a wonderful depiction of English society at that time, that’s all been said.

So why not let that all stand and look at Pride and Prejudice and Zombies instead?

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen was 3rd for Kate Atkinson, 5th for Michael Chabon, 6th for Robb Forman Dew, 4th for Alice Hoffmann, 5th for Norman Mailer, 1st for Claire Messud, 6th for Iain Pears, 9th for Ian Rankin, and 8th for Adriana Trigiani.)

After all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies pretty much takes the original text and morphs it as it goes along, adding in zombies and such. It isn’t exactly a complete retelling, since so much of the framework is there. It’s more of a recasting, where it’s the background that has been recast as the English countryside overrun with zombies.

To give an example, let us compare the original Austen 3:16 (little wrestling joke there) from Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

with that from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a zombie in possession of brains, must be in want of more brains.

Little differences.

I enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies more than I expected. Grahame-Smith manages to keep enough of Austen’s work alive in this while still creating an interesting new imagining. The framework is pretty much intact, but still creatively done with the addition of zombies.

The zombies can get a bit gimmicky, but then there is the Austen framework to fall back on. Admittedly, it doesn’t quite hit the heights of the heart or wit of Austen’s original, but I don’t think that would have been possible and this certainly wasn’t intended to be that kind of book.

The references to China and kung fu are a bit repetitive and overdone, and Grahame-Smith tries to stick in some sexual humor that seems horribly out of place for the characters. Still, overall I enjoyed myself. I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies‘s interest is somewhat limited to those who know Austen, as there’s no joke otherwise, but who doesn’t to at least some degree?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies manages to hold a conversation with Austen, and most decent literature is a really conversation with the world in one way or another…particularly with the rest of the world of literature. Grahame-Smith manages in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to do something both interesting and fun.

A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Mr. Biswas wants a house (making the title of A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul pretty apt). He hopes for a lot of things, but mainly getting an even break. As an Indian born poor in Trinidad, that probably isn’t going to happen.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for both Heidi Julavits and Claire Messud.)

Mr. Biswas strives throughout the book, but the reader always knows that only so much is going to come of it. He’s born under very poor omens, and ends up being the unintentional cause of his father’s drowning death. His life becomes difficult, his mother shunting him around to different places trying to do something with him in life, usually with poor results. He yearns more and more to make a decent way in life and have a permanent home.

Then, somewhat intentionally but mostly by accident and machinations of others, Mr. Biswas gets married. He’s dependent on his wife’s family, which is not particularly pleasant. Still, he makes his way in life.

Now, before you get the idea that this is a ‘poor Mr. Biswas’ story, it isn’t really. Though his chances are pretty poor, he does a lot of things to himself. Arrogance, ignorance, stubbornness, and poor judgment, Mr. Biswas is instrumental in the way that life throws him around. And, for everything that others do to him, he mistreats someone (his wife, his children, and so on) himself.

Of course, not that he’s a bad person either. He’s just imperfect. It’s just life.

A House for Mr. Biswas is a happily tragic story. The details are thorough, vivid, and beautiful. I kind of felt the story was already told when things got started, but it was still a pleasure to read. In one man’s life, A House for Mr. Biswas manages to capture what seems to be the story for most. That gives the writing a great deal of power.

I hate to just give a giant block quote instead of mixing smaller pieces into a review, but the first section of the opener is such a perfect encapsulation of the book (perhaps it tells everything and makes the book a little unnecessary other than for the enjoyment of reading?). There is no other way that would convey the whole book better. Thus, the entire first section of the opener:

Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time. In less than a year he had spent more than nine weeks at the Colonial Hospital and convalesced at home for even longer. When the doctor advised him to take a complete rest the Trinidad Sentinel had no choice. It gave Mr Biswas three months’ notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper.

Mr Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. He had no money. His wife Shama had no money. On the house in Sikkim Street Mr Biswas owed, and had been owing for four years, three thousand dollars. The interest on this, at eight per cent, came to twenty dollars a month; the ground rent was ten dollars. Two children were at school. The two older children, on whom Mr Biswas might have depended, were both abroad on scholarships.

It gave Mr Biswas some satisfaction that in the circumstances Shama did not run straight off to her mother to beg for help. Ten years before that would have been her first thought. Now she tried to comfort Mr Biswas, and devised plans on her own.

‘Potatoes,’ she said. ‘We can start selling potatoes. The price around here is eight cents a pound. If we buy at five and sell at seven —’

‘Trust the Tulsi bad blood,’ Mr Biswas said. ‘I know that the pack of you Tulsis are financial geniuses. But have a good look around and count the number of people selling potatoes. Better to sell the old car.’

‘No. Not the car. Don’t worry. We’ll manage.’

‘Yes,’ Mr Biswas said irritably. ‘We’ll manage.’

No more was heard of the potatoes, and Mr Biswas never threatened again to sell the car. He didn’t now care to do anything against his wife’s wishes. He had grown to accept her judgment and to respect her optimism. He trusted her. Since they had moved to the house Shama had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children; away from her mother and sisters, she was able to express this without shame, and to Mr Biswas this was a triumph almost as big as the acquiring of his own house.

He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard, instead of being condemned, as before, to retire the moment he got home to the crowded room in one or the other of Mrs Tulsi’s houses, crowded with Shama’s sisters, their husbands, their children. As a boy he had moved from one house of strangers to another; and since his marriage he felt he had lived nowhere but in the house of the Tulsis, at Hanuman House in Arwacas, in the decaying wooden house at Shorthills, in the clumsy concrete house in Port of Spain. And now at the end he found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of the earth. That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous.

That is A House for Mr. Biswas. The next 562 pages really just elaborates on that perfect encapsulation…though you should still read it.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.