Since when had Sensei and I become close like this? At first, Sensei had been a distant stranger. An old, unfamiliar man who once upon a time had been a teacher of mine. Even once we began chatting now and then, I still barely ever looked at his face. He was just an abstract presence, quietly drinking his saké in the seat next to mine at the counter.
It was only his voice that I remembered from the beginning. He had a resonant voice with a somewhat high timbre, but it was rich with overtones. A voice that emanated from the boundless presence by my side at the counter.
At some point, sitting beside Sensei, I began to notice the heat that radiated from his body. Through his starched shirt, there came a sense of Sensei. A feeling of nostalgia. This sense of Sensei retained the shape of him. It was dignified, yet tender, like Sensei. Even now, I could never quite get a hold it – I would try to capture it, but the sense escaped me. Just when I thought it was gone, though, it would sneak back up on me.
I wonder, for instance, if Sensei and I were to be together, whether that sense would temper into solidity.Strange Weather in Tokyo, Hiromi Kawakami. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell.
And there are fools who talk of a dog as an inferior being to ourselves! This creature’s faithful love is mine, do what I may. I might be disgraced in the estimation of every human creature I know, and he would be as true to me as ever. And look at his physical qualities. What an ugly thing, for instance—I won’t say your ear—I will say, my ear is; crumpled and wrinkled and naked. Look at the beautiful silky covering of his ear! What are our senses of smelling and hearing compared to his? We are proud of our reason. Could we find our way back, if they shut us up in a basket, and took us to a strange place away from home? If we both want to run downstairs in a hurry, which of us is securest against breaking his neck—I on my poor two legs, or he on his four? Who is the happy mortal who goes to bed without unbuttoning, and gets up again without buttoning? Here he is, on my lap, knowing I am talking about him, and too fond of me to say to himself, ‘What a fool my master is!’Bernard Winterfield, The Black Robe (1881), by Wilkie Collins
What Providence willed, through HIS will, would happen.
There’s a time when I was perusing the pages with the sound of Keane’s latest album in the background. Not long after the track Chase the Night Away was on, there’s an indescribable feeling – a spontaneous connection between the lyrics of the Song and the protagonist of the Book. Not without mentioning the ethereal tunes which made my reading experience very atmospheric indeed. John Halifax is apposite as a gentleman being wonderfully portrayed by the Author to “see the beauty in a dirty rain-lashed street” and “make the town feel kind” in the 19th century England. This bildungsroman novel starts with two boys from their teenage years up to the age of fifties. The fraternity between John Halifax and Phineas Fletcher was unveiled instantly soon they first encountered. “On my sad, lonely life – brief indeed, though ill health seemed to have doubled and trebled my sixteen years into a mournful maturity – this lad’s face had come like a flash of sunshine; a reflection of the merry boyhood, the youth and strength that never were, never could be, mine. To let it go from me was like going back into the dark.” Phineas, the son of a tanyard tradesman and mill proprietor, saw himself living a motionless life and was confined in his abode for his frailty in health. John Halifax, on the other hand, was an orphan and homeless boy, whom Phineas first met seeing him staring out into the street under an awning in the rain. A robust youth, though poor, he owned a honest face with a spark of promise that was awaiting a chance to be fulfilled, and his looks brimful of hopes. Their backgrounds and lives were just as distinct yet two were almost symbiotic with shares of pure hearts and trusts placing upon one another.
“If they can,” said John, biting his lip with that resolute half-combative air which I now saw in him at times, roused by things which continually met him in his dealings with the world – things repugnant alike to his feelings and his principles, but which he had still to endure, not having risen high enough to oppose, single-handed, the great mass of social corruption which at this crisis of English history kept gathering and gathering, until out of the very horror and loathsomeness of it an outcry for purification arose.
Set as a historical fiction and published in 1856, there are a lot of past events and contemporary issues being mentioned and dealt with in the book. For instance, (1) witnessing the popularity of Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) and her spellbinding performance as Lady Macbeth; (2) the bread riots in 1800; (3) rotten boroughs and parliamentary reform; (4) uproars and unwelcome perception of Dr. Jenner’s with his vaccination of smallpox in a small provincial town. In this events, Mrs. Craik (the Author) cleverly links these events to illustrate the positivity and honest character of John Halifax. “There are few things which give a man more power over his fellows than the thoroughly English quality of daring.” His views and attitudes, for example, in the use of steam-engineering which he later adopted in his flour mill and his opinions of Catholic Emancipation, despite being doubting and daunting at first, his arising convictions and spirit were later reverently respected by the townsfolk (‘Cause I’m a boy with nothin’/Who came from nowhere/But today The people wanna hear what I say (Peter and Gordon – A Boy with Nothing :)). One can see the protangonist striving for advancement in different aspects without suffering his moral beliefs.
There are some religious issues being raised in the novel as well. One could read some passages about the general mistrust of Quakers, due to some of their “Quakerish notions”. The father of Phineas Fletcher was treated more of an unapproachable and reclusive person, with his reticence and tenacity in his beliefs and temperament. Curiously we still notice the unpopular public stance towards Protestant nonconformists, even the Tolerance Act was introduced in 1688. One also could see the Author encouraging the contemporary readers to look for the simplicity and single-heartedness ingrained in the Christian values and its faith in God. All religions in her case should not be laughed at and be respected. “John never smiled at any one’s religious beliefs, howsoever foolish. He held in universal sacredness that one rare thing – sincerity.”
His absence, too, might have done much: – absence which smothers into decay a rootless fancy, but often nourishes the least seed of a true affection into full-flowering love.
My favourite plot in the novel is the love story recalled by Phineas Fletcher between John Halifax and the heroine, Ursula March. There are around ten chapters spanning through the book and very emotional indeed. Who would imagine that John Halifax became restless, listless and being defeated in the name of Love! At this point I was listening to the songs of Peter and Gordon, the simplicity and beauty of the ballads are in tune with the characters’ limitless love towards one another. “And John stood, listening for her words, counting them even, as one would count, drop by drop, a vial of joy which is nearly empty, yet Time’s remorseless hand still keeps on, pouring, pouring.”(p. 187)”
What I really like about the Author is that she could import edifying messages in each aspect, and even in terms of the ideas of soulful connection and companionship – a quiet observance at the expense of a flit of passion and besotted love. I am deeply attracted by the personalities of Ursula March. She encompasses all the feminine qualities and on the other hand, she is neither weak in spirit nor a timorous character at all. In one scene, John Halifax, who was still a clerk of the tanyard business, was embroiled in a one-sided spiteful and vociferous humiliation by Richard Brithwood, the cousin of Ursula March. Ursula March was a lady with family inheritance and supposedly annual income from her late father and John was being aware of the gulf and difference in rank between himself and Ursula. But her steadfast admiration, respect and patience for John moves me. She at one point sententiously reprimanded her cousin and his wife in John’s presence,
“Madam,” she said, in her impetuous young voice, “no insult offered to a man can ever degrade him; the only real degradation is when he degrades himself.”
However I think her character is somewhat weakened and being indecisive after she’s later married to John Halifax, compared to the time at the Rose Cottage in Enderley when she was first being introduced in the novel.
The Author also expounds her ideals of marital and familial relationship – “Now I had all my life been proud of John’s face -that it was a safe face to trust in – that it could not, or if it could, it would not, boast that stony calm under which some men are so proud of disguising themselves and their emotions from those nearest and dearest to them. If he were sad, we knew it; if he were happy, we knew it too. It was his principle, that nothing but the strongest motive should make a man stoop to even the smallest hypocrisy” – the idea of a family without hidden secrets and there is always a need for consultation from one another, parents setting exemplary attitudes in a life of believing in God and fulfilling His Mercy, boasting their undying affection for the children. The plot and the ideas of parting and losing the loved ones also remind me of the tragic loss at one point of life in Josephine Butler (1828-1906), a Victorian social reformer. “Child” – and her father himself could not help smiling at the simplicity of her speech – “it is often easiest to lose those we are fond of and who are fond of us, because, in one sense, we never can really lose them. Nothing in this world, nor, I believe, in any other, can part those who truly and faithfully love.”
“I think most lives, if, while faithfully doing our little best, day by day, we were content to leave their thread in wiser hands than ours, would thus weave themselves out; until, looked back upon as a whole, they would seem as bright a web as mine.”
All in all, John Halifax, Gentleman ranks top most in my books I have read in my life so far. The Author re-evaluates the essence of the term “gentleman” as the benchmark of a person’s personal honour, honesty and dignity rather than his or her flaunted ranks and wealth. “I – John Halifax – am just the same, whether in the tan-yard or Dr. Jessop’s drawing-room. The one position cannot degrade, nor the other elevate, me. I should not ‘respect myself’ if I believed otherwise.” Moreover, the ending – the everlasting beauty of friendships shared between John and Phineas in their fifties, with the backdrop of them sitting, staring out and lying on the meadow – resonates beautifully the beginning of the scenes; and more importantly, I especially like the didactic mission and approach throughout this novel apart from the plot, which makes it an invariable gem and an important classic.
- “Small beginnings make great endings,” observed Miss March, sententiously.
- Saying this he stopped – recoiled – as if suddenly made aware by the very words himself had uttered, what – contrasted with the unsullied dignity of the tradesman’s life, the spotless innocence of the tradesman’s daughter – what a foul tattered rag, fit to be torn down by an honest gust, was that flaunting emblazonment, the so-called “honour” of Luxmore!
- John walked home with me – a pleasure I had hardly expected, but which was insisted upon both by him and Ursula. For from the very first of her betrothal there had been a thorough brother-and-sisterly bond established between her and me. Her womanly, generous nature would have scorned to do what, as I have heard, many young wives do – seek to make coldness between her husband and his old friends. No; secure in her riches, in her rightful possession of his whole heart, she took into hers everything that belonged to John, every one he cared for; to be for ever held sacred and beloved, being his, and therefore her own. Thus we were the very best of friends, my sister Ursula and me.
- Something might have smote the old man with a conviction, that in this youth was strength and life, the spirit of the new generation then arising, before which the old worn-out generation would crumble into its natural dust. Dust of the dead ages, honourable dust, to be reverently inurned, and never parricidally profaned by us the living age, who in our turn must follow the same downward path. Dust, venerable and beloved – but still only dust.
- Maud and Mr. Ravenel were coming up the slope. I beckoned them to come softly, not to disturb the father. They and I sat in silence, facing the west. The sun journeyed down to his setting – lower – lower; there was a crescent, a line, a dim sparkle of light; then – he was gone. And still we sat – grave, but not sad – looking into the brightness he had left behind; believing, yea, knowing, we should see his glorious face again to-morrow.
From The Doll Factory, Elizabeth MacNeal
(Picture: A Martyr or The Violette Merchant, Fernand Pelez)
A clunk, a grind of iron on iron, a splintering of wood. The horse screams.
And in the moment of impact, as the hooves clatters his chest, as he is tossed like a rag doll under the churning wheels of the cart, in the quiet pause before the iron splits his skull as easily as an eggshell, before the little thread of his life is snipped short, he does not think of his sister. He does not think of love or his dream or even Iris, really. He just thinks of her finger, one day in the doll shop, sliding down the seam of a miniature skirt and cracking the back of a flea. It made such a sound – such a pop – and the bead of blood was so pretty.
From Wilkie Collins, Short Story: Miss Morris ad the Stranger, from Little Novels
“Sandwich is a melancholy place, miss.” He was so rapidly improving in politeness, that I encouraged him by a smile. As a citizen of Sandwich, I may say that we take it as a compliment when we are told that our town is a melancholy place. And why not? Melancholy is connected with dignity. And dignity is associated with age. And we are old. I teach my pupils logic, among other things – there is a specimen. Whatever may be said to the contrary, women can reason. They can also wander; and I must admit that I am wandering. Did I mention, at starting, that I was a governess? If not, that allusion to “pupils” must have come in rather abruptly. Let me make my excuses, and return to my lost stranger.
“Is there any such thing as a straight street in all Sandwich?” he asked.
“Not one straight street in the whole town.”
“Any trade, miss?”
“As little as possible – and that is expiring.”
“A decayed place, in short?”
My tone seemed to astonish him. “You speak as if you were proud of its being a decayed place,” he said.
I quite respected him; this was such an intelligent remark to make. We do enjoy our decay: it is our chief distinction. Progress and prosperity everywhere else; decay and dissolution here. As a necessary consequence, we produce our own impression, and we like to be original. The sea deserted us long ago: it once washed our walls, it is now two miles away from us – we don’t regret the sea. We had sometimes ninety-five ships in our harbor, Heaven only knows how many centuries ago; we now have one or two small coasting vessels, half their time aground in a muddy little river – we don’t regret our harbor. But one house in the town is daring enough to anticipate the arrival of resident visitors, and announces furnished apartments to let. What a becoming contrast to our modern neighbor, Ramsgate! Our noble market-place exhibits the laws made by the corporation; and every week there are fewer and fewer people to obey the laws. How convenient! Look at our one warehouse by the river side – with the crane generally idle, and the windows mostly boarded up; and perhaps one man at the door, looking out for the job which his better sense tells him cannot possibly come. What a wholesome protest against the devastating hurry and over-work elsewhere, which has shattered the nerves of the nation! “Far from me and from my friends” (to borrow the eloquent language of Doctor Johnson) “be such frigid enthusiasm as shall conduct us indifferent and unmoved” over the bridge by which you enter Sandwich, and pay a toll if you do it in a carriage. “That man is little to be envied (Doctor Johnson again) who can lose himself in our labyrinthine streets, and not feel that he has reached the welcome limits of progress, and found a haven of rest in an age of hurry.”
“Will you tell me, Miss Stanley, how you can possibly contrive to unite so perfectly the literary with the domestic characters? I have watched, but cannot find you fail in either – how is this?”
“Simply, Sir Dudley, because, in my opinion, it is impossible to divide them. Perfect in them, indeed, I am not; but though I know it is possible for woman to be domestic without being literary – as we are not equally endowed by Providence – to my feelings, it is NOT possible to be more than usually gifted without being domestic. The appeal to the heart must come from the heart; and the quick sensibility of the imagnative woman must make her FEEL for others, and ACT for them, more particularly for the loved of home. To WRITE, we must THINK, and if we think of duty, we, of all others, must not fail in its performance, or our own words are bitter with reproach. It is from want of thought most failings spring, alike in duty as in feeling. From this want the literary and imaginative woman must be free.”
“This is the reason, some say, that horror stories are popular. Because it’s through such disturbing tales that we confront our fears and our greatest fear is not the death of our loved ones, which is heart wrenching in itself, but our own finite time on earth.”
“Each Story is like my own child, brought to life from the musty dark chambers in my mind, draped in cobwebs where grotesque creatures merrily creep.”
“It’s best late at night when we won’t be disturbed. Find a quiet corner. Let a single light bulb burn. Let the rest of the room be shrouded in darkness and all is quiet outside but for a faint howling, almost mewling sound, in the distance.
Start turning these pages.
Then you and I, ah, we can be such good friends again.”
Horror Stories, Tunku Halim
Our faculties are never more completely at the mercy of the smallest interests of our being, than when they appear to be most fully absorbed by the mightiest. And it is well for us that there exists this seeming imperfection in our nature. The first cure of many a grief, after the hour of parting, or in the house of death, has begun, insensibly to ourselves, with the first moment when we were betrayed into thinking of so little a thing even as a daily meal.
“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said. “I hunt chickens; men hunt me. All the chickens are just alike, and all the men are just alike. And, in consequence, I am a little bored. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the colour of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat…”
Journeying reality in your unique way and being reminded of the characters from this book through different points of life feels great, don’t you think? 🙂
When the train moved off, he flung himself back into his corner, and shut his eyes, with an appearance of resolution, as though his own restlessness had finally begun to irritate him: as though he had decided to sit still. Helen looked out of the window by her face, into the lights and darkness of the disappearing town. In one piece of glass she could see the reflection of his face, and she watched it, quite confidently aware that he would not be able to keep his eyes shut, and after a few minutes he was leaning forward in his seat once more, his elbows on his knees, staring at the ground. Then, even as she watched, she saw a thought strike him: she saw the conception of the idea, she saw him reach into his pocket and take out a pack of cigarettes and a box of matches, and abstract a cigarette, and light it, all with the dreamy movements of a habitual smoker, and yet with a kind of surprise, for the truth was, as she could so clearly see, that he had even in his abstraction forgotten the possibility of such a trivial solace. As he drew on the cigarette she could see his relief, his gratitude toward his own recollection. The smoke consoled him, and she could feel in her the nature of the consolation: for she herself, when tormented by love, had found comfort in the repetition of small and necessary acts, in washing cups and emptying bins and fastening her stockings and remembering that it was time to have a meal. It seemed clear to her that it was love that was tormenting him: she knew those painful symptoms of disease. (A Voyage to Cythera)