The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

I’m not a big one for nonfiction. I spend too much of my working day with nonfiction, so I don’t tend to want to see much of it when I get home. I’m also not a big proponent of Victorian ideals. A criticism of such isn’t likely to convince me of the flaws of the Victorian era much more than I already am. Still, I wanted to give The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler a look.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Percival Everett.)

I’ve seen this book described as autobiographical, but though Butler describes in the context of his own experiences, the center of the book is Ernest Pontifex, the great grandson of one of Butler’s neighbors when growing up.

Ernest’s grandfather was a good man, but Ernest’s grandfather was kind of a nasty and avaricious man. He browbeat his son Theobald into becoming a clergyman, and Theobald in turn became a nasty, hypocritical man. Well meaning as he may have been, he was still nasty and hypocritical. The way he raises Ernest stays well within this hypocrisy and nastiness:

“Ernest,” said Theobald, from the arm-chair in front of the fire, where he was sitting with his hands folded before him, “don’t you think it would be very nice if you were to say ‘come’ like other people, instead of ‘tum’?”

“I do say tum,” replied Ernest, meaning that he had said “come.”

Theobald was always in a bad temper on Sunday evening. Whether it is that they are as much bored with the day as their neighbours, or whether they are tired, or whatever the cause may be, clergymen are seldom at their best on Sunday evening; I had already seen signs that evening that my host was cross, and was a little nervous at hearing Ernest say so promptly “I do say tum,” when his papa had said he did not say it as he should.

Theobald noticed the fact that he was being contradicted in a moment. He got up from his arm-chair and went to the piano.

“No, Ernest, you don’t,” he said, “you say nothing of the kind, you say ‘tum,’ not ‘come.’ Now say ‘come’ after me, as I do.”

“Tum,” said Ernest, at once; “is that better?” I have no doubt he thought it was, but it was not.


I laughed, but Theobald turned to me impatiently and said, “Please do not laugh, Overton; it will make the boy think it does not matter, and it matters a great deal;” then turning to Ernest he said, “Now, Ernest, I will give you one more chance, and if you don’t say ‘come,’ I shall know that you are self-willed and naughty.”

He looked very angry, and a shade came over Ernest’s face, like that which comes upon the face of a puppy when it is being scolded without understanding why. The child saw well what was coming now, was frightened, and, of course, said “tum” once more.

“Very well, Ernest,” said his father, catching him angrily by the shoulder. “I have done my best to save you, but if you will have it so, you will,” and he lugged the little wretch, crying by anticipation, out of the room. A few minutes more and we could hear screams coming from the dining-room, across the hall which separated the drawing-room from the dining-room, and knew that poor Ernest was being beaten.

Ernest’s parents mislead and manipulate him his entire life, making him become a clergyman himself. He is so unable to think for himself and so incapable of interacting with the world, he ends up in prison due to a mistake. His parents are horrified, but ready to step in and manipulate him more later to guide him towards respectability again.

Luckily, there is also Butler and an aunt of Ernest’s who aren’t as caught up in the Victorian hypocrisy/nastiness. The aunt left Ernest a great deal of money, but Butler isn’t supposed to tell him about it until he’s 28. In prison and afterward, Ernest manages to separate himself from his parents and actually start developing as an independent human being. He still has missteps, but he eventually manages to live a fairly happy life.

Now, I can certainly see the criticism of Victorian society in The Way of All Flesh, but I’m not sure I entirely see the lesson it puts forth in opposition. The Victorian apparatus is definitely represented by some nasty and hypocritical people, but Ernest seems to end up coming right more by accident of fortune than anything else. If it weren’t for Butler and the Aunt, Ernest would still have been sunk.

Butler seems to present himself and the aunt as paragons of reasonableness and intelligence, and perhaps they are, but perhaps it’s easy to look at things that way since the money works out and Butler is the one presenting the story. It’s pretty easy to make oneself look good while pointing out the nastiness and hypocrisy of another. We just don’t know in this what Butler’s own problems might have been. Perhaps he didn’t have any, or perhaps he doesn’t tell us.

From The Way of All FleshI end up taking away that nasty people do harm and tend to raise other nasty people. I’m sure I should be getting more than that. I enjoyed the book, but I’m not as awed as I felt I should have been. I probably missed something.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I have to admit, I’m a little Nebraskan in my knowledge of Willa Cather. Now, this doesn’t apply to ALL Nebraskans, but there are a significant majority who think that Cather is summed up entirely by My Ántonia. It’s just what Nebraskans keep harping on, and I admit that I’ve suffered from that fault. This left me a bit unprepared for Death Comes for the Archbishop.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was for Percival Everett and for Paula Fox.)

After all, My Ántonia is such a small portion of Cather’s work and range. Death Comes for the Archbishop, detailing the exploits of two very different priests who take charge of the eventual diocese in the new American territory of New Mexico, is a very different book. Tougher. Harder. More spare.

Just take a look at this bit:

After supper Father Latour took up a candle and began to examine the holy images on the shelf over the fireplace. The wooden figures of the saints, found in even the poorest Mexican houses, always interested him. He had never yet seen two alike. These over Benito’s fireplace had come in the ox-carts from Chihuahua nearly sixty years ago. They had been carved by some devout soul, and brightly painted, though the colours had softened with time, and they were dressed in cloth, like dolls. They were much more to his taste than the factory-made plaster images in his mission churches in Ohio–more like the homely stone carvings on the front of old parish churches in Auvergne. The wooden Virgin was a sorrowing mother indeed,–long and stiff and severe, very long from the neck to the waist, even longer from waist to feet, like some of the rigid mosaics of the Eastern Church. She was dressed in black, with a white apron, and a black reboso over her head, like a Mexican woman of the poor. At her right was St. Joseph, and at her left a fierce little equestrian figure, a saint wearing the costume of a Mexican ranchero, velvet trousers richly embroidered and wide at the ankle, velvet jacket and silk shirt, and a high-crowned, broad-brimmed Mexican sombrero. He was attached to his fat horse by a wooden pivot driven through the saddle.

It’s been over twenty years since I read My Ántonia, but this is a very different Cather than my memories of that book led me to expect.

The sparseness of the prose seems like it would dazzle Hemingway, and Cather still manages to convey highly evocative images and descriptions within it. I remember some of that from My Ántonia (though I might be remembering that wrong), but the tone and approach seems much less sentimental, harder even. Of course, they are very different books and the prose seems like it should be different in those ways.

I also think about some of the Spanish priests that Latour and his friend have to contend with in the wildness of New Mexico:

“I have the telling passages all written down somewhere. I will find them before you go. You have probably read them with a sealed mind. Celibate priests lose their perceptions. No priest can experience repentance and forgiveness of sin unless he himself falls into sin. Since concupiscence is the most common form of temptation, it is better for him to know something about it. The soul cannot be humbled by fasts and prayer; it must be broken by mortal sin to experience forgiveness of sin and rise to a state of grace. Otherwise, religion is nothing but dead logic.”

“This is a subject upon which we must confer later, and at some length,” said the Bishop quietly. “I shall reform these practices throughout my diocese as rapidly as possible. I hope it will be but a short time until there is not a priest left who does not keep all the vows he took when he bound himself to the service of the altar.”

The swarthy Padre laughed, and threw off the big cat which had mounted to his shoulder. “It will keep you busy, Bishop. Nature has got the start of you here. But for all that, our native priests are more devout than your French Jesuits. We have a living Church here, not a dead arm of the European Church. Our religion grew out of the soil, and has its own roots. We pay a filial respect to the person of the Holy Father, but Rome has no authority here. We do not require aid from the Propaganda, and we resent its interference. The Church the Franciscan Fathers planted here was cut off; this is the second growth, and is indigenous. Our people are the most devout left in the world. If you blast their faith by European formalities, they will become infidels and profligates.”

That isn’t something you’d find in My Ántonia.

I keep contrasting with My Ántonia primarily because that was my experience with Cather up until now. I really like that there is more to Cather. You should keep in mind that I liked My Ántonia, though I also liked Death Comes for the Archbishop.

I enjoyed the toughness of the prose and how spare Death Comes for the Archbishop is while still conjuring an interesting amount of description. I didn’t think much really changed for the main two priests throughout other than how the world around them changed, but I don’t think Death Comes for the Archbishop is that kind of a novel. Death Comes for the Archbishop was interesting in any case.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

I feel that I should begin any review of Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by indicating that there is very little inside regarding the actual life of Tristram Shandy. At least percentage-wise, the vast majority of the book relates to happenings outside of Tristram Shandy’s direct life, though bearing some relationship to it. In fact, Tristram Shandy isn’t even born until a few hundred pages in. There is a bit more about his opinions, but still. Mind you, this isn’t a problem. However, I just thought that should be clear at the start.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Paul Auster, 2nd for Peter Carey, 1st for Percival Everett, 5th for A. L. Kennedy, 9th for Jonathan Lethem, 8th for David Lodge, 2nd for Thomas Mallon, 7th for Jonathan Raban, 8th for Louise D. Rubin Jr., and 4th for George Saunders.)

I can at least confirm that Tristram Shandy is the narrator of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Beyond that, things get hazy.

As I mentioned, he starts out the book addressing his birth…something that does not actually occur for several hundred pages. In between that and the beginning is digression after digression, sometimes returning to the main action as a digression from a digression. His Uncle’s penchant for modeling battles, his father’s quirky approach to things based on ancient learning, direct examples of ancient learning, and so on; the digressions run the gamut. The main unifying force in all of this is Sterne’s wit, and he is witty.

Of course, we should not really be surprised. He addresses the digressions (on more than one occasion) himself. Since trying to provide an example of the digression structure would be too lengthy for this review, I’ll give you some of Shandy’s thoughts on his digressions direct:

For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master- stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader,–not for want of penetration in him,—but because ’tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression;—and it is this: That tho’ my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great-Britain; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.

I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby’s most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came a-cross us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby’s character went on gently all the time;— not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,—but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touch’d in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.

By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.

This, Sir, is a very different story from that of the earth’s moving round her axis, in her diurnal rotation, with her progress in her elliptick orbit which brings about the year, and constitutes that variety and vicissitude of seasons we enjoy;— though I own it suggested the thought,—as I believe the greatest of our boasted improvements and discoveries have come from some such trifling hints.

Digressions, incontestably, are the sun-shine;——they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,–you might as well take the book along with them;— one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it; restore them to the writer;—–he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All hail; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truely pitiable: For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—-then there is an end of his digression.

——This is vile work.—For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going;—and, what’s more, it shall be kept a-going these forty years, if it pleases the fountain of health to bless me so long with life and good spirits.

I realize that the digression I just provided is a long one, but that’s just in keeping with the spirit of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was a bit difficult to read. I admit that. However, I was downright astounded that it was written in the 1760’s. The characters and settings fit and all, but the structure is like nothing else I’ve seen from that time. I wouldn’t bat much of an eye at this and might even expect it modernly, but I’m floored that Sterne attempted this back then…even more that he got away with it.

I didn’t find The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to be the most enjoyable read, but it’s a landmark in terms of the development of the novel. It’s certainly well worth the look for anyone willing to sit through it all.