A Tale of Two Cities

Cited as one of the top 5 best selling books of all time, [not including the Bible or the Qu’ran], Charles Dickens’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ is a stand-out seller at over 200 million copies world wide. Though exact numbers of book sales is debated, it is interesting that Dickens’ 1859 novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, is his best-selling work.

‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ranks only slightly behind Miguel Cervantes ‘Don Quixote‘ and Mao Tze-Tung “Quotations From Chairman Mao” [or the Little Red Book], to beat out any individual Harry Potter book, The Lord of the Rings and  The Hobbit for all time popularity stakes of fiction novels.

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What makes this novel, of all Dickens’ novels, so great?

Born in 1812 and living until 1870, Dickens was within his own lifetime a legend. Best known for his comedy, unique characterisations, and social criticism, his writing style is so distinctive, that the term Dickensian has come to be used to describe stories featuring poor social conditions and comically repulsive characters.

His fiction was so effective he shifted Victorian public opinion in regard to class inequalities.

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Karl Marx wrote that Dickens:

…issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.

A Tale of Two Cities, is unlike many of Dickens’ other works in that it is a work of historical fiction, less reliant upon comedy, satire, caricature and class idioms. He sides neither with the working class nor the aristocracy in his account of the bitter Revolution, telling the story of people on both sides caught up in the violence and turmoil.

It opens with famous lines describing its setting:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …

The story recounts the release of Doctor Manette from 18 years of imprisonment in the Bastille, the infamous Parisian fortress prison beloved by french nobles. Manette an old man, much broken by his years in prison, is reunited with his now adult daughter Lucie, and with the help of friend Mr Lorry, immigrates to London.

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In London, they are befriended by Darnay, a man who unknown to them is the nephew and heir of a French Aristocrat, the Marquis of St. Evrémonde, the very man who imprisoned Doctor Manette years ago. Darnay, disgusted by the cruelty of his aristocratic family had taken the name of his mother and sought a new life in England.

Here however, Darnay is accused of treason to the British crown for leaking documents to the French in North America. He is acquitted on the grounds that his appearance is strikingly like a Barrister present in the court by the name of Sydney Carton and so therefore cannot be irrefutably linked to the crime.

Darnay and Carton, while copies of one another physically, are entirely unlike in nature. Carton is a drunkard while Darnay is a man of integrity and character. Both love Lucie and confess their love to her, however Carton knowing she will not love him in return, promises to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you.”

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As the years pass, Darnay and Lucie raise a young family and Carton is accepted as a close friend of the family becoming a favourite of their daughter, little Lucie. Across the channel however, as the French Revolution sparks into flame, and the Bastille is stormed, Doctor Manette’s former cell is searched. A detailed account of his imprisonment at the hands of Darnay’s uncle, the Marquis de Evremonde is found hidden in the cell.

Throughout the countryside, officials and representatives of the aristocracy are dragged from their homes to be killed, and the St. Evrémonde château is burned to the ground. Darnay is summoned to France to aid his uncle’s servants who have been imprisoned by the revolutionaries. They plead for him, the new Marquis to help secure their release. Once there, Darnay is caught and put on trial for the crimes against Doctor Manette.

Manette, Lucie and Mr Lorry travel to Paris to seek Darnay’s release, however Doctor Manette’s own testimony discovered in his cell in the Bastille is used to accuses Darnay, the now Marquis de Evremonde.

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Carton, true to his promise to Lucie, arranges a secret visit with Darnay in prison. There he drugs Darnay, and then trades clothes, arranging him to be carried out. Carton has given his own identification papers to Mr Lorry to present on Darnay’s behalf and urges them to flee to England. In London, Darnay can live out his life as Sydney Carton. Meanwhile, Carton walks to the guillotine as the Marquis de Evremonde.

Carton’s unspoken last thoughts speak of the life he sees beyond the horizon of his own death:

I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more….

I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

The story reaches beyond social commentary and into heroic epic, touching on resonant symbols of sacrifice and redemption. Sydney Carton transforms from dissolute man to heroic saviour through his own death, and foresees the future lives of Lucie, Darnay and their children, yet unborn living free because of his sacrifice.

Carton, a scoundrel, goes to his rest a peaceful man.

 

Babette’s Feast

“An artist is never poor.”

Babbette’s Feast is a short story written by Isak Dinesen, the author of “Out of Africa.” Otherwise known as Karen Blixen, the Danish  author was a contemporary of and admired by many modernist greats including  Hemingway, e e cummings, Truman Capote and others.

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Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, Hemingway declared the prize really belonged to Isak Dinesen.

Babette’s Feast’ recounts how a fugitive of the bloodshed and revolution in late 18th century France arrives in a small and humble religious community in Denmark, seeking asylum. Unmarried sisters Martine and Phillipa, daughters of the elderly minister, are unable to pay the woman but accept her as their cook. The woman Babette, cooks faithfully for them for 15 years, serving the simple fare their religious community allows.

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Every year her friend in Paris enters Babette into the lottery and one day, when she wins 10, 000 francs her sole request is to cook a delicious meal for the small community in celebration of the minister’s 100th birthday.

Babette determines to cook a ‘real French dinner’ and begins to order the ingredients through merchants. As the unheard of fare begins arriving in the village, Martine and Phillipa discuss whether the feast will become a sin of sensual luxury to their small religious community. In compromise, the sisters and congregation agree to eat the meal but to never discuss their pleasure nor mention the food during the meal.

Although the attendees of the meal refuse to comment on the earthly pleasures of it, Babette’s gifts breaks down their distrust and superstitions, elevating them physically and spiritually. Old wrongs are forgotten between villagers, ancient loves are rekindled, and a mystical redemption of the human spirit settles in the community.

Once the meal is completed, Babette reveals that she once was the chef of Cafe Anglais in Paris and at this restaurant, a dinner for 12 people cost 10, 000 francs. Despite her winnings she is now still penniless.

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Martine in tears delcares:

“Now you will be poor the rest of your life”,

Babette simply replies,

“An artist is never poor.”

I wonder how many artists see their work as a gift to the world – a source of restoration to a community rent by distrust and superstition, a means of elevating them physically and spiritually, a source of love and mystical redemption?

Thank you Ernest Hemingway!

An earlier post, Pied Beauty,  touched on the sensory experience of language. Good writing lies in the authors’ ability to make the reader see, hear, taste, touch and feel. Unlike logic and rhetoric, the power of story is in its ability to make us feel, and so, to remember.

One such writer who has a genius for making the reader feel, is Hemingway.

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Ernest Hemingaway was born 1899 and was second of six children of a Chicago Doctor, Clarence and musician, Grace.  In his youth, he excelled at English and sports and spent his summers swimming and hunting with his father. He was a journalist before a writer, and  left school to work as a reporter for the Kansas City Star. The paper’s style guide informed much of his later style,

 use short sentences … use vigorous English. Be positive.

He worked only six months before volunteering for the Red Cross to become an ambulance driver in Italy. He left New York in May 1918 and by June was at the Italian Front.

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His experiences are recorded in several of his works. In Death in the Afternoon [1932] he recounts searching through rubble in Milan for fragments of bodies. His wounding by mortar fire and susbsequent convalescence in a hospital in Milan is recounted in his semi-autobioraphical novel Farewell to Arms [1929].

The young Hemingway fell in love with American nurse Agnes von Kurowsky. In his novel, the young solider and nurse, escape Italy to Switzerland overland and by boat where she dies in childbirth. However in reality, Hemmingway was discharged and returned to the USA in January 1919, intending to marry Agnes. By March she broke his heart by writing to him that she was to be married to an Italian officer.

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Back in the USA, Hemmingway worked again as a reporter and editor but he was restless. He met and fell in love with Hadley Richardson, the sister of a friend and they married in 1921.  Two months later he accepted a role as foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star and the pair sailed for Paris.

Post-war Paris was a cheap place to live, the American dollar being strong. There Hemmingway fell among a gathering of  “the most interesting people in the world”. Writers, artists and thinkers gathered in Paris to enjoy a golden age of intellectual and cultural fervour. Here Hemingway wrote some fiction and poetry while working as a reporter for the Toronto Star. He covered contienental politics and completed some travel pieces.

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The group of modernist artists and writers among whom Hemingway found solace in Paris is recorded in A Sun Also Rises [1926] his first novel.  These included Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and F Scott Fitzgerald among others others. In the novel he captured the feeling among his peers of the post-war “lost generation” but he qualified that he felt his generation was “battered but not lost.”

Disciple of the modernist set, particularly Gertrude Stein, Hemingway developed a minimalist style which delivered maximum sensory experience in a lean, pared back sentence style. So famed is he for this economy of style, that there now exists a Hemingway App which promises to

make your writing bold and clear.

Hemingway’s writing is peppered with his love for drink and for women and for food. His work is a sensory feast. As his words amble, so do his feelings – the way a drink makes him feel, the meal he eats as he waits for his son to be born, the feeling for a woman he cannot have, his disgust for his compatriots behaviour, the weather, the feeling of the weight of a fishing line, the methodical rthyms of a day, the passions a man gives to his work.

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Everything is recounted in a beautiful spare style, the writing takes the reader along on a sensory journey through experience, without judgement. Hemmingway does not moralise. There is no right and wrong in his world, no good and bad, just feeling, feeling for the women he loves, feeling for his sons, feelings for his friend and colleagues, feelings for his work, feelings for the nations he encounters and the people along the way, feelings for the drinks that transport him into a sense of wellbeing, the meal that caps off the day.

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Between trips to Paris, Spain and Africa where he love game hunting, Hemingway published Farewell to Arms [1929], Death in the Afternoon [1932], The Green Hills of Africa [1935], To Have and To Have Not [1937] and other short stories.  For Whom the Bell Tolls [1940] was written during World War II and between 1942-1945 Hemmingway took a break from writing to act as foreign correspondent in Europe. After this time Hemingway began to struggle both in health and heart as his literary friends began to die one by one. In the 1950s, now with his fourth wife, he began The Old Man and the Sea [1952] . Of this he saidit was,

the best I can write ever of all of my life.

It won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1952.  In 1954 he suffered a series of accidents while in Africa and newspapers prematurely published obituaries of him. After these injuries caused him much pain and his heavy drinking turned into alchoholism.

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In October 1954, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, a prize he is reputed for declaring belonged to Isak Dinesen and other writers. His health deteriorated greatly from here.

In 1956 he traveled to Europe and discovered a trunk of notebooks in the Ritz which had been left there from his Paris days. Excitedly he began the memoir of the time,  A Moveable Feast [1964], and completed Garden of Eden [1986] and Islands in the Stream [1970]. By 1959 he had slid into a depression from which he did not recover.

In the morning of July 2, 1961, shortly before his 62nd birthday, Hemingway shot himself with his favourite gun. A heavy drinker he likely also suffered from a genetic condition causing an inability for the body to metabolise iron, resulting in physical and mental deterioration.

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Hemmingways’ writing is poetry. Poetry to life and all the senses. His existence in the early 20th century was something magical and something lost; free from social constraints life was filtered through the senses, fully experienced without judgement. His drinking and poor health perhaps took the better of him, or perhaps his sensitive heart could take no more of life.

Nevertheless, his life is an essay to his philosophy of being. A song to his generation, who had jettisoned the certainty and moralism of the 19th century and lived adrift and alive, experiencing the shocks of wars, of loves and losses. What a piognant full stop to his life is his suicide and death. Hemingway seemed to not care about the end, only the living.

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Subsequent generations have moved beyond modernism into post-modernism and we currently experience an awakening of spirituality in arts and culture. Thoughts again are given to death as well as to life, to morality beyond immediate sensory experience.

Nevertheless, Hemingways’ writing remains a lovely collection of impressions,senses conveyed through word and syntax.

Thank you Ernest Hemingway.

Narrative of Identity

In mid January this year,  hundreds of thousands of marchers and numerous world leaders took to the streets of Paris to support freedom of expression.  The slaying of 12 journalists in their Charlie Hedbo headquarters, for its polemical pieces and mocking illustrations of the prophet Muhammad, raised the issue of religious intolerance as well as freedom of expression.  France, the heartland of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, would not stand for censorship on this issue and the magazine lives on.

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How does culture work like that? How does a nation spill half a million people onto the streets simultaneously to fight for an idenity? This phenomenon is not infrequent in times of upheaval, but what makes larges masses of people move as one?

In Queensland, we stand this week between Australia Day, 26th January and our State Election, 31st January. Much of the discussion and polemic in the media concerns,  “what it is to be an Australian”, our heritage, our ethos. How does our state collectively make a decision about what political party to choose? How do we move as one when it comes to decisions to go to war? How can a crowd of spectators at a match simultaneously break into laughter or cheer at once, except when something strikes a chord in their heart, a memory, a shared value?

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How else do we achieve national untiy at all except through story telling, repeated, iterative, gradual story telling. From school onwards, we are told the story of our nation, our struggles, our journey, our coming of age, our national icons, our spirit. Slowly we believe, we are more than just residents of an address but citizens of a national village, who share a common bond, who belong together more than we belong apart.

While much of this narrative can be murkied propoganda, we need these stories to function as unified whole. Let us examine what stories we are telling ourselves! What is shaping our knowledge of right and wrong? What are we telling our children about the future?