Book guilt and the classics: how to get rid of that feeling.

book guilt

You must be familiar with that feeling that haunts you every time you’re thinking of starting a new book. The feeling that your choice means some other book will have to remain unread… The doubt whether you have made the right decision on how to spend reading time. It is pure book guilt and is paralyzing enough to make you give up reading altogether. The “so little time so many books” syndrome can either turn you to a compulsive reader or a non-reader at all.

How can we beat that fear of missing out and indulge in the reading process per se which is immune to what you’ ve read so far and what will follow? How about enjoying some book pride for a change and every time the toxic thought tries to settle we focus on the book we are reading and not on the others who line up and crave our attention?

It won’t happen overnight, if it is to happen at all. A true literature lover will always struggle between book choices and not-enough time, so, what I suggest is to be pragmatic, accept the fact as a… fatal condition and adopt an irreverent attitude even to the masters -and monsters- of literature.

What follows is a list of my alibis for not having read some 19th & early 20th century classics, for having read others instead and how I suggest we should cope with book guilt. The list is partial and conceals my true embarassment in not having read some important french classic literature (Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, De Maupassant) to the extent i would like. Any advice on that?

11 classics and how to deal with book guilt

Charles Dickens

You know the opening lines of “A tale of two cities” (1859) by heart “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…”, but this is as far you’ ve got. You’ ve read Oliver Twist  as a junior but then again you were only reading for plot. And you tried “Great Expectations” after you had seen the movie but Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke kept messing in the pages and you couldn’t feel the original characters. You can always discard him as too Victorian or too Dickens to buy you some time but your chances are you will read “Bleak House” to find its two volumes actually poor for its… 157 characters.

Jane Austen

“Pride and Prejudice” (1813), “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Mansfield Park” are such household names you can’t even remember if you’ ve read them as a child or seen them in film or have “met” them in every other genre they inspired. You can discard Jane Austen as too Georgian, too marriage-obsessed (although single herself); but can you really? Can you resist reading a novel which begins “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” and hosts the character of Mr. Benett, the father of the four daughters who, when his wife reprimands him “you have not compassion for my poor nerves” he answers  “you mistake me my dear, I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends”. So if you must settle with one of her books, go for “Pride and Prejudice”. But, chances are you’ll look for the rest.

George Eliot

It’s not that you didn’t try “Middlemarch” (1871). You did but reading Middlemarch is rereading some sentences for three times to grasp the meaning- and still having doubts. A book even Henry James who worshipped George Eliot called obscure and philosophical: “The author wishes to say too many things and to say them too well”. Of course, he loved it. But he didn’t have to wake up at 7.00 o’clock in the morning to go to work.

Mark Twain

You’ ve devoured his writing tips and witticisms but not much of his fiction. And then you have Ernest Hemingway naming “The adventures of Huckleberry Fin” (1884) as the definitive American masterpiece:“All modern American literature comes from that book. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Mark Twain was discarded as a humorist and definitely not a literary product by his peer critics but was soon  to be considered the ultimate American novelist. So not to have read Huckleberry Fin is one thing. But how can you defy Papa Hemingway ?

Henry James

I am afraid there is little one can say in your defense for not having read anything Henry James. “The Portrait of a lady” (1881) is unparalleled in making Isabel Archer such a vivid and three-dimensional character facing her destiny and James’s prose and rendering of detail, both scenic and emotional, is unique. And then, there’s the short novella “Daisy Miller” and the innocently sinister “The turn of the screw”, you shouldn’t really miss.

Edith Wharton

If you’ ve read Henry James then you can skip Edith Wharton, aka… masculine Henry James. Or is it that Henry James is a… feminine Edith Wharton? Still, how can you really miss “The Custom of the Country” (1913) and Undine Spragg, one of fiction’s most uncharming female characters- which is such a delight to read-, Countess Elena Olenska and her dilemmas in “The Age of Innocence” or the stunning but impoverished Lily Bart in “House of Mirth” and her emotional struggles?

Kate Chopin

Critics speak of “The Awakening” (1899) as being one of the model books for women’s emancipation. A woman not finding the purpose of her life in raising her children, -a taboo even today- in searching for other ways to find happiness and stimuli in her life… If you haven’t tried it, well, it’s a very easy book to read, you can do it overnight– but, no, it won’t spare you from reading “Madame Bovary” (1856), the… original first “desperate housewife”, written 50 years before.

Gustave Flaubert

It’s not only the subject, it is also Flaubert’s elaborate prose which made him a master among his peer novelists and his successors. His visual style, his fixation on style and the material world, the cadence of his sentences and the study of the human subject make it an essential read. If there is only one you had to pick from the French novelists of the 19th, make it his “Madame Bovary”. And, for a closer and more thorough look on the inexhaustible subject, go for “Anna Karenina” (1873).

Leo Tolstoi

You probably know that Anna Karenina committed suicide in a railway station, you must have quoted several times its opening line “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but still haven’t read the novel. Do, please. It’s a masterpiece. And don’t stop there. If “War and Peace” seems long enough (even Ernest Hemingway would argue: “I can write it like Tolstoi and make the book seem larger, wiser, and all the rest of it. But then I remember that was what I always skipped in Tolstoi”, don’t miss out on the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonatas”, outstanding tokens of what literature can do to describe the human predicament in death and love.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When it comes to the Russians, it’s difficult to lure the true lover of fiction out of their spell. Because the thing that best describes the relationship of an adequate reader  to them is… binge reading. Fyodor’s Dostoyevsky “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Idiot”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, “Demons” , “The Gambler”, “Notes form the Underground” are reference books on life and death dilemmas and moral issues written on paper and treated as literature for the first time. When you make the acquaintance with Dostoyevsky’s universe there is no coming back.

Anton Chekhov

And then again there is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The master of theatrical plays and short stories that has probably influenced every short story writer ever since. Binge reading is a common practice with Chekhov too. The struggle of his characters to come to terms with their incongruous desires and the mundane life that weighs on them are apparent even in his shortest stories. The doctor with a genuine passion for stories and talent for humanity is difficult to put down, so read at your own pace and risk.

20 reasons I love “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James.


It’s 1880. Henry James publishes ‘The Portrait of a lady” as a serial in a magazine to portray Isabel Archer, an American lady travelling in Europe to affront her destiny. The book has been considered a masterpiece ever since. Here are my top 20 reasons why this novel will always stay with me as a book of reference for outstanding fiction.

1. Its opening line:Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” Sets the tone. Englishness, aristocracy, leisure: a comedy of manners. Between the lines, though, you can’t fail to notice an implied sinister touch -or, is it just me?- putting “agreeable” into question.

2. The visual clarity of the description of a “splendid summer afternoon” in its “perfect middle”: “Part of the afternoon had waned but much of it was left and what was left was of the finest and rarest quality.” Henry James’s prose makes sure from the first sentences you know what you are about to experience: literary language of the rarest quality, just like his splendid summer afternoon.

3. The exchange of pleasantries between the characters. Witty, literary crafted, not minimal neither redundant, natural enough but not prosaic, lively indicators of the characters’ rank and complexity.

4. Isabel Archer’s description of happiness as “a swift carriage of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see-that’s my idea of happiness.”

5. The description of Madame Merle being “a woman of strong impulses kept in admirable order.”

6. The portraiture of Americans in Europe as free agents. Uninhibited, self-reliant and adventurous spirits, the new world in contrast to the old-established world, a cast of people their European peers feel inclined to look up to and shame at the same time.

7. Mrs. Touchett, being a “person of many oddities”, “a woman with an extreme respect for her own motives”, as Henry James would inform us early on. For having a way of her own “of which she was so fond, a way not intrinsically offensive- just unmistakably distinguished from the way of the others.And as Henry James would have Madame Merle describe her to her niece: “Having no faults for your aunt means that one’s never late for dinner-that is for her dinner. It means that one answers a letter the day one gets it and that when one comes to stay with her one doesn’t bring too much luggage and is careful not to be taken ill. For Mrs Touchett those things constitute virtue.”

8. THE kiss between Gaspar Goodwood and Isabel Archer. It had to be given some two pages before the end of the novel. And it had to be as passionately hopeless and helpless as ever. This is as overtly carnal as Henry James’s literary and puritan conscience and his restraints of prudery would let him go, concerning the depiction of love scenes in the book. “His kiss was like white lightning, a flash that spread and spread again, and stayed; and it was extraordinarily as if, while she took it, she felt each thing in his hard manhood that had least pleased her, each aggressive fact of his face, his figure, his presence, justified of its intense identity and made one with this act of possession. So had she heard of those wrecked and under water following a train of images before they sink. But when darkness returned, she was free.” An eloquent scene of cinematic precision from the master of psychological realism.

9. Pansy. That “diminutive”, fragile girl- one of the most gracefully passive and subdued literature’s female characters.

10. Chapter 42, Isabel Archer’s vigil. “Sitting by the fire in the soundless saloon and long after the fire had gone out, hearing the small hours strike but with no danger of her feeling the cold because she was in a fever”, Isabel Archer catalogues her unhappiness, thinking and rethinking her marriage and everything that led to it. During that thought and revelation process, she sees clearly for the first time, she reaches conclusions, reading all this “as she would have read the hour on the clock-face.”

Chapter 42 would serve as a template for the narrative technique known as stream of consciousness, a term coined by the philosopher and Henry James’s brother William James and would be pushed to its limits by Marcel Proust, Virgina Wolf, James Joyce and other essentially modern writers. Of course here we don’t have the sometimes incoherent line of thought, both in content and in form, of those writers but an intelligible mental process of bringing consciousness alive to take over all other forces in its presence and not stop until it has reached a sense of complacency. Or just because “the clock struck four; she got up she was going to bed at last for the lamp had long since gone out and the candles burned down to their sockets.”

11. Its engaging outdatedness, an implicitness that speaks louder than modern blunt descriptions. The creation of a universe where two persons can be “unconsciously and familiarly associated” just because they are seated in a way no one would even bother to take notice of today. “What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her.” And, indeed, her instinct was not to blame.

12. Poor Ralph Touchett, the hands constantly fixed in his pockets. Isabels’ cousin whose “state of health had seemed not a limitation but a kind of intellectual advantage; it absolved him from all professional and official emotions and left him the luxury of being exclusively personal” is a key character of the novel the reader both admires and feels sorry for.

13. The old English country mansions and castles and Italian palazzos highlighting the characters’ inner lives. Gardencourt’s, Lockleigh’s, Palazzo Roccanera’s and Palazzo Crescentini’s facades and interiors are not only the settings where the action takes place but they are also values in themselves, standing for the characters choices and motives.

14. Ralph’s death-bed scene and his wise words to his cousin Isabel: “There’s nothing makes us feel so much alive as to see other die. That’s the sensation of life- the sense that we remain.” Ralph and Isabel are never closer, never more sincere and open to each other than during his last hours. The words and passions they exchange have the rare and violent quality of confession, the riot of expression, that took too long to materialize. Hence, their last-resort tone.

15. Gilbert Osmond, both a palpable character and a concept. Isabel Archer admits during her stream-of-consciousness revelation that “she had mistaken a part for the whole”, a part being Osmond’s charming elements and the whole being its egotistical nature. One of literature’s most captivating villains, no wonder why Isabel Archer succumbed to that “nonentity” deliberately and against all advice only to find out that deep inside that person was full of hatred and contempt for her and her “too many ideas”.

16. The comic relief characters of Henrietta Stackpole, of whom Henry James himself in the preface of the novel admits we have indubitably so much of- and Countess Gemini. Both are given key roles in the book apart from their unique presence per se. Comic, absurd, even hysterical (more in the case of the Countess), they are nonetheless full characters and not caricatures-that’s why we really indulge in their company.

17. Isabel’s assertion “I don’t wish to marry till I’ve seen Europe”. Innocent, child-like, american, modern, spirited at the same time.

18. Isabel Archer’s modernism. A lot has been written about Nora’s being the first modern woman in literary history when she slams the door in her family’s face to start all over again or Madame Bovary’s trying to break free from domestic entrapment but isn’t Isabel essentially modern in the face of her choices? It’s not only her decision to marry the man she wants against the opinion of the others but her choice to… live up to the original choice she had made although she can have it otherwise. Isabel Archer’s standing up to the choices she once committed to is at once modern, mature, tragic and liberating.

19. The culture of suitors, answering to missives, dressing up for dinners, having over guests, welcoming guests, showing guests out, the “awkward” waiting for the carriage and all that 1880 period drama stuff of the high-class which can only but make our imagination run wild.

20. For the sake of lines as “An Englishman is never so natural as when he’s holding his tongue” and “There’s no more usual basis of union than a mutual misunderstanding”.


Madame Bovary: a fairytale gone bad.

madame bovary

If we had to come up with literature’s top 10 narcissistic female characters, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary would have probably topped the list (with Edith Wharton’s Undine Spragg following her close- from the novel “Custom of the Country”). Self-centered, conceited and ultimately self-destructive, Emma Bovary is still a character we keep returning to not only for the pleasure of indulging in Flaubert’s unparalleled prose but because once exposed to the unbearable lightness of her romanticism, there is no going back.

Below are some random musings after rereading the novel which after its scandalous publication (1856) would become the template for all literary depictions of adultery and female struggle with conventional family life.

The love scene in the carriage

Flaubert seems to be doing cinema here, long before it was invented. You almost see and hear the carriage with Emma and Leon (her lover) that wanders about Paris’ streets for hours condemning the coachman to physical exhaustion. With hardly a description of what is happening inside that carriage-cab, you can experience its urgency, extremity, gravity and inescapability. This is perhaps the most underdescribed and insinuated love scene in classic literature which is so felt that once read, it gets under your skin.

The protagonist in this love scene is… the cab’s coachman who is at a loss to understand “what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him“. Through the coachman’s physical weariness we realize the advent of time and the character of the emergency that has entrapped the two lovers inside the cab: “Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralized, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue and depression”.

Flaubert’s cinematic virtuosity is unique in lines such as “that sight of  a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel” which “without any fixed plan or direction, wandered about at hazard“.

And then you have the last sentence of the chapter where the writer dispassionately, with an air of indifference, rings down the curtain on one of the most passionate private love scenes of literature: “At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down and without turning her head.”

The compulsion behind the woman

Emma Bovary was a shopaholic. A romantic novels’ devourer. A boredom enthusiast. A passion addict. With all her larger than life characteristics, Emma Bovary makes for one of the most hard to forget, vivid characters in fiction.

New dresses, new hats, new gloves, new lingerie, new furniture and decoration of the house: her consumerism as a compulsive tick takes all over her, using up all her healthy qualities- if there were any. This nervous compulsion to shop in order to exist, so relevant today, gives her another essentially modern allure and it’s difficult not to recognize some of ourselves in her insatiable need to possess.

A bad reader

If Emma Bovary was alive today and not just a fictional character of the 1860’s, she would probably be an avid consumer of beach reads, though all year-long. She would rather even find Anna Karenina a tiresomely long story and would hate the Russian writers. She would love most of Edith Wharton’s female characters but would have to look up many of her novels’ words in the Merriam- Webster dictionary. She would have liked Fifty Shades of Grey, but would have been appalled at its graphic language. Her favorite movie would be “Pretty Woman”- and she would deplore not having the chance to read its printed version.

The first desperate housewife

It seems the original desperate housewives that haunted last decade’s TV screens weren’t so original after all. Emma Bovary seems to have been the authentic “desperate” housewife who never came in terms with the dream of domestic bliss and invented a parallel universe to enact her daydreaming. A woman who romanticized herself to the last detail and acted out her fantasies to such an extent that they didn’t have a chance but to take place.

But life doesn’t give you a red carpet treatment just because… it’s you. Emma had to find it out the painful way. Her escapism would soon collapse to reality’s confinements while her sense of entitlement would only bring forward her sense of failure. A recipe than never fails.

The “i have a lover” quote

“She repeated, “I have a lover! a lover!” delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired. She was entering upon marvels where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. An azure infinity encompassed her, the heights of sentiment sparkled under her thought, and ordinary existence appeared only afar off, down below in the shade, through the interspaces of these heights.”

It’s easy to denounce Emma Bovary here as superficial, individualistic, self-righteous, insensitive to real love and only dragged to it for its cosmetic and external value. But still, there is a girlie essence in this delirium that enchants us and even makes us feel an affection for that woman who is lured to those feelings just because she must feel them no matter what – and because other women have felt them so why not her? Who can blame La Rochefoucauld who had the sharp eye to notice not so many years before Flaubert that People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.” Food for thought.

Flaubert’s lists

Flaubert, to a letter to his friend and French poet Louise Colet, mentioned that he wanted the reader to feel his universe “almost physically”. That’s a key word to get a glimpse of his craftsmanship, his fixation on detail, his almost listing of things on so many levels and in such a natural way that the reader gets the feeling first of the verisimilitude of the description and then of its uniqueness. It takes a literary master to produce such a result without letting the reader realize the struggle behind the sentences.

Fabrics, textures, upholstery, cosmetics, foods and colors of pantone-like accuracy are all rendered to their last details so that you feel it couldn’t have been otherwise. The material world in Flaubert is a key character in the novel surrounding Emma Bovary with its firmness and rooting her deeply by its voracious capacity.

The deathbed splatter

Flaubert doesn’t spare you the details of Emma’s slipping to death, granting her with one of the most blunt and certainly not romantic deaths in fiction (especially of that era). Irony at its best here for the woman who spent most part of her life living as the heroine of her own romantic novel.

“Her chest soon began panting rapidly; the whole of her tongue protruded from her mouth;  her eyes, as they rolled, grew paler, like the two globes of a lamp that is going out, so that one might have thought her already dead but for the fearful labouring of her ribs, shaken by violent breathing, as if the soul were struggling to free itself { …}As the death-rattle became stronger the priest prayed faster; his prayers mingled with the stifled sobs of Bovary and sometimes all seemed lost in  the muffled murmur of the Latin syllables that tolled like a passing bell {… }They had to raise the head a little and a rush of black liquid issued, as if she were vomiting, from her mouth.”

A naturalistic prose that throws you right in the middle of the scene, exposing the dramatic effect of realism in literature. Flaubert’s lens frames only the “technicalities” that result in a heartbreaking but not sentimental scene. He handpicks the details that highlight the tragic weight of the moment through blunt realism- always stronger than its romantic counterpart.

Charles, the husband: a good man is hard to find

He never lived to his wife’s expectations. Even from their honeymoon he let down his wife who wished they had never visited Tostes but a romantic chalet in Switzerland (Though he was fighting a lost battle here, how difficult it was not to fail Emma Bovary?) Emma was practically disgusted at the man who had idealized her to the extent of believing that her skin was giving its fragrance to her clothes and not the other way around, was shattered due to her loss and didn’t even believe his eyes when he read one of her love letters he found in the attic after her death. His transparent soul and his worship for her misread it to an innocent, platonic letter of no importance, incapable of altering his love for her.

Too prosaic for his woman’s refined tastes, he would have been the ideal husband for her, if only she was cut out to be a housewife.

Coining a term after her: bovarism

I quote from Merriam-Webster: Bovarism = domination by such an idealized, glamorized, glorified, or otherwise unreal conception of oneself that it results in dramatic personal conflict (as in tragedy), in markedly unusual behavior (as in paranoia), or in great achievement.

Too bad our girl, the authentic Emma Bovary after whom the term was coined, resulted in tragedy and not in great achievement.