The Mysteries of Udolpho (Book Review)

41dl-y-0UHL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ann Radcliffe was one of the most popular and highly acclaimed authors of the 18th century. Although she wasn’t the first gothic novelist, her work was considered by many at the time to be the first mature works of that genre. While her novels might come off as melodramatic and superficial to contemporary readers (as a lot of older literature will, of course), they also bear many features which were not only were innovative for their time but have become standards in fiction today.

Radcliffe’s most well known work is The Mysteries of Udolpho. It also happens to be her most “gothic” gothic novel. It contains more ghosts, secret corridors and chambers, and horrors than any of her other novels. When I read Wuthering Heights in high school I was a bit disappointed by how retained the supernatural elements were and, although this did not negatively impact my appreciation for it, I was nevertheless happy to discover that Udolpho had everything I had longed for in a gothic novel.

One of the characteristic qualities of Radcliffe’s work is her use of the explained supernatural. Some readers cannot stand this but I love it. Radcliffe’s rationalization of the supernatural is crucial in how she creates and sustains suspense. Radcliffe frequently disappoints the reader’s expectations, revealing natural and often innocent causes to her seemingly supernatural events, but just as the reader is being to feel safe, Radcliffe’s rebuilds the tension Again, she disappoints the reader’s expectation for supernatural horror but this time the cause is genuinely horrifying rather than innocent. By frequently disappointing the reader’s expectation, Radcliffe’s intensifies these rare moments of real horror and makes then genuinely surprising.

The suspense is enhanced further by the first person perspective that Radcliffe’s uses throughout most of the story. We see everything from the protagonist Emily St. Aubert’s skewed perspective. Emily is not a believer in the supernatural yet when her rationality fails to explain strange event and phenomena, fear overtakes her imagination and distorts her perception of her environment. Unlike the protagonist of Jane Austin’s parody of the gothic, Northanger Abbey, Emily faces both real and imagined dangers. Her perilous situation and relative powerlessness render her expectations of danger all the more reasonable, even when the exact details of her exceptions are not always reliable.

Far from being merely a literary convention, Radcliffe uses suspence to explore the psychology of her protagonist, lending the story a depth of insight both powerful and sophisticated. This is why I am often surprised when people characterize Emily as one-dimensional, when in fact her characterization is anything but. Sure, Emily is very uncompromising, even uptight, about her morals and opinions but Emily’s psychological experience is incredibly dynamic. As I have argued in a previous post, Emily’s many fainting spells closely resemble panic attacks. These details may not be readily apparent to many but they are definitely present and demonstrates that there is more to The Mysteries Udolpho, and it characters, than its conventional gothic trappings.

For many contemporaneity readers, Radcliffe’s prose may be difficult to get through, as I myself found it nearly a decade ago, but her work easily rewards one’s effort with both fine storytelling and nuanced psychological depth. I would highly recommend it to those interested in the gothic, early women authors, romantic literature and, or, psychology. (I fit all these categories.) For those who might feel daunted by the length but still want to read Radcliffe, I would recommend beginning with The Romance of the Forest or The Italian, with the latter perhaps being the better of the two because its pacing is very much like a modern thriller film.

There are a number of good editions available but I would most recommend the Oxford University Press edition for their scholarly introductions and annotations. Be wary of digitized texts because they frequently aren’t of the highest quality! If you don’t like spoilers, do not read the introduction until you have finished the book; while it provides a lot of interesting history and insights into the novel, they often reveal important plot points and twists the reader might prefer not to know quite yet. Personally, I don’t believe in spoilers–there’s so much more to a story than its major plot points.


HA! (Book Review)

18210746Like a good joke, I will keep this review brief.

In Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why, Scott Weems explores the mechanisms of and motivations behind humor. His prose is concise, accessible, and at times quite amusing. The research he discusses is wide ranging and often fascinating. With a topic as elusive as humor, it is impressive how much Weems is able explain.

However, I felt he gave short shrift to he destructive potential of humor. Although he does discuss research regarding the relationship between prejudice and stereotype-based humor, he explains these jokes as representing conflicted feelings and not as an expression of prejudice. To bolster his claim, he refers the reader to the popularity of Polish jokes. According to him, these jokes cannot be expressions of prejudice because Polish people are not longer perceived as a cultural threat in the United States. Assuming that Polish jokes are indeed innocent (though I am inclined to think they are not), it would not explain the popularity of prejudice-based humor targeting groups people currently perceived as cultural threats.

Despite this one shortcoming, I think the book is well worth reading. Since this is the first book I have read on the subject, I cannot speak to whether it compares favorably or not to other books on humor. Weems’ arguments have definitely expanded my understanding of the subject and I am glad I had a chance to read it.

Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume II (Book Review)

41pTk89KEBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_About a year ago I began exploring my interest in ancient Egyptian culture and history beyond what I had already learned from various documentaries and museum exhibits. I started out with Nicolas Grimal’s history from 1988 and this in turn introduced me to ancient Egyptian literature. In particular, the Harper’s song from the tomb of Neferhotep intrigued me the most with its sensitive reflection on death and the afterlife. This and many other pieces relieved to me a dimension of the ancient world I was previously ignorant of but, in hindsight, should have expected. In many respects, we are not so different from our distant ancestors.

Choosing a collection of translations was difficult. I avoid E. A. Wallis Budge, despite his reputation, because his translations are not longer regarded as the most accurate. I paused several other collections, most of which of recent publication, but end up choosing a copy of Miriam Litcheim’s second volume of ancient Egyptian literature, fornicating on the new kingdom. It is the second of three volumes published in between 1973 and 1980 by the University of California Berkeley Press.

Over all I have enjoyed her translations, although I certainly cannot judge them in an kind of authoritative way, but I have come across what seems like a discrepancy in her translations. Several other collections of ancient Egyptian literature include the love songs, which are known for their evidently erotic content. However, the translations Lictheim includes of these songs are incomplete, whereas in other collections they are included intact (such as in the Yale University anthology of 2003). The excluded sections just so happen to be those containing the erotic passages. I am left wondering whether this was a conscious exclusion on her part, impelled by a prudish attitude towards sexuality. In her introduction to the love songs, she even refers to other translations including the erotic content as “so unfaithful to the letter and spirit of the originals” and dismisses them entirely (Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume II, pg. 182). If she had given alternative translations of the omitted sections, I might be able to deem her decisions as reasonable but without them I cannot tell; and with so many other authorities favoring the erotic content of these songs I am inclined to regard her choice as biased and unreliable.

Since I am not very familiar with Egyptology and am a newcomer to ancient Egyptian literature, I am posting this here to illicit thoughts from others who might possess more information on the subject.