Tag Archives: Thomas Hardy

Hey Jude

Reading Jude the Obscure was, at times, like reading my own biography. Authors strive for that effect, to be sure, but Thomas Hardy hits close to home on this one. I don’t mean in the aspect of marrying the wrong woman and losing his true love, but rather in the sense of what Jude was meant to and couldn’t be. For any readers behind on their Hardy, Jude Fawley was an orphan who grew up with scholarly abilities but no connections to university folk. Teaching himself Greek and buying what books he can afford, he eventually moves to Christminster (Hardy’s version of Oxford) in order to begin his studies at the university there. His application is summarily rejected because he is a working-class nobody who would be happier not overreaching himself. He then decides to try to become a parson only to find that path blocked to him as well.

Okay, so that’s a bit brief for a 400-page novel, but you get the gist of it. Hardy, according to the introduction, added the university theme later since the novel’s main focus is on the hypocrisy of the church regarding marriage. Both Jude and his true love (and cousin) Sue end up marrying other people who make them miserable. They each separate and then live together and raise children until tragedy causes Sue to have a religious conversion and return to her first husband. Jude dies in obscurity, as the title warns. Hardy was famous for his anti-church sentiments and Jude the Obscure was one of his most criticized works. The university theme, however, was the part I just couldn’t let go.

Being from the working class you may not have any idea how higher education functions. Even with raw talent and ambition, there are so few places available that you can easily find yourself in the rejected pile. Jude fatefully moves back to Christminster, hoping on some deep level that he’ll be accepted. That never happens although his fellow stone-cutters know that he is just as learned as the professors who regularly parade through town. The author didn’t intend to write cheerful stories. The friend who first suggested I read Hardy’s work knew about that tendency. The world is a place of comfort for some and struggle for others. Like Jude, those on the outside just can’t see what’s wrong with their own earnest application to be counted among the educated. Like any country club, however, the real point of it all is to learn how to game the system. Like taking a sad song and making it, well, better.

Reading Preferences

How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?

Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.

For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.

Oxford Haunts

IMG_2007

When I travel, when I have time to plan, I like to visit the haunts of literary figures. It would be difficult to think of two more influential (or abbreviation-ridden) English writers than J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Both Oxford men, they liked to drink, I believe, at the Lamb and Flag. I stopped by to see, but just in case it was actually the Eagle and Child, I back-tracked to see it as well. Post-war Oxford was a place for an academic to write, and C. S. Lewis has influenced an entire generation of evangelical fans who overlook his penchant for drinking, and J. R. R. Tolkien seems to have invented the perfect fodder for CGI animators. Perhaps there was something in the air. Although no less of a literary talent, it may be less common to hear Thomas Hardy’s name. He is rumored to have written Jude the Obscure, appropriately, mostly in this pub. Good to know there’s someone else so obscure, by definition. It’s hard not to feel scholarly in Oxford.

IMG_2038

I have to confess, I dressed the part. I wore my Harris Tweed jacket and my Edinburgh school tie. It was a beautiful spring day, the like of which were extremely rare in Scotland some two decades ago. Not knowing that my business trip would offer the opportunities to explore the city a little, I hadn’t done much homework. A colleague suggested I stop into St. John’s College to look at the gardens. They’re only open from 1 to 5, and I timed it right to get there shortly before closing. Students wandering out in jeans, staring at their smartphones, could have been students at any number of universities I’ve known. The setting was, however, quite beautiful. There seems to be evidence that they don’t walk on the lawn. Tradition is treated with considerable respect here. Although, upon closer look, graffiti does make an appearance now and again.

IMG_2010

As I was stepping out the door of St. John’s, a family from eastern Asia was coming in. It was near closing time. The father asked me if this was Oxford University. I explained that it was part of Oxford University, but that the university was quite large and was all around the town. As he pressed me for more information, I wondered why he was asking an American who’d only been to Oxford once before about the place; I hadn’t done my homework, after all. Then it occurred to me. I was dressed rather like a prototypical professor. The tweed, the beard, the glasses, the consistently confused look on my face—I’d been mistaken for an university professor. I stepped outside and looked around. In a different time, perhaps it would have been true. And maybe Tolkien and Lewis would have lifted a warm pint in a cold pub and we all might have learned something.

Believe Eve

While NORAD has already begun to track Santa with DSP (Defense Support Program) satellites, and last-minute shoppers are being bombarded with Christmas carols to cinch out that extra dollar or two, it may be odd to consider the music Sine Nomine by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Better known as the music of the stirring hymn “For All the Saints,” Sine Nomine (“without name”) is some of the most inspiring music of the liturgical year. I remember a friend once leaning over after the hymn and whispering, “hard to believe it was written by an agnostic.” Vaughn Williams was an Anglican agnostic. At this time of year his piece “Hodie: A Christmas Cantana” may be heard in the households of anglophiles around the world. “Hodie” (“this day”) is an anthology of poems set to Vaughn Williams’ music. One of the poems, “The Oxen,” was written by Thomas Hardy. I really never paid much attention to it, until my wife pointed out the words and the liner notes by Alain Frogley on our CD of “Hodie.” Hardy’s poet recalls believing in his youth that oxen kneeling (as oxen do) was a reverential act on Christmas Eve. Now as an adult, the poet writes that if someone should invite him to see the kneeling beasts, “I should go with him in the gloom, hoping it might be so.” Frogley’s notes point out that Thomas Hardy, like Vaughn Williams, held a “complex agnosticism.” It is not the solid rejection of the divine that is all the rage these days, but a difficulty in believing something that is hard to let go. And Santa flies over Russia.

Faith can be a many faceted stone. We keep the myth of Santa Claus alive for our children, thinking it merely harmless fun. Then comes the moment of truth. Some prescient children at that point begin to extrapolate: what else have you been telling me that isn’t real? That the creator of an infinite, but expanding universe took time out of a busy schedule to be born in a cattle stall in Bethlehem two millennia ago? That a government might turn on its children and kill them rather than face a challenge to literal, kingly authority? That emissaries from the Middle East might come with rare and precious gifts? That Santa visits that homeless man I saw curled up on a corner of Seventh Avenue last night under a black umbrella as chilly rain pelted New York City? So much to believe!

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 6.59.21 AM

I once held a secure job in an anglophile seminary. The music of Vaughn Williams was often heard to echo through St Mary’s chapel, and many myths were propagated. Standing out under a frigid, clear Wisconsin night, it was almost possible to believe that Santa was up there somewhere, being tracked by North American Aerospace Defense Command. Yes, the oxen would be kneeling on such a night. This morning before dawn, I glanced at NORAD’s page. I saw the words “Secret Santa Files” and my mind flew to NSA. A government that keeps track of our personal emails and private phone calls even holds secret files on fictional characters whose motive nobody ever questions. Truth in advertising indeed. So, on this Christmas Eve, I imagine myself out among the free range cattle and sheep of first century Judea and there I happen upon two shivering artists in the dark, huddled around a campfire while others claim they hear angels singing. Vaughn Williams and Hardy exchange knowing glances, and Herod prepares to roar his decree from his one-percenter throne.