Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare, original pub 1594

3.5 Stars

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Book – Titus Andronicus

Known as the English bard’s most violent play, “Titus Andronicus” had all the foul elements to be right up my alley. As a lover of the horror genre in all its forms, a tale filled with dismemberment, filicide, abduction, murder, tongue-cutting, adultery, beheadings, throat-slashings, and regicide should have made me quiver with terror. While I enjoyed it, I was not moved by the ceaseless calamities nor by Shakespeare’s less than usually stellar dialogue.

As a youth I never appreciated Shakespeare as I should have. A well-meaning, but overly enthusiastic 11th grade English teacher’s glee turned me off him. I was a contrarian, hating things just because I thought it was cool. That was foolish, of course, and it wasn’t until years later that I could appreciate the unmatchable poetry of Shakespeare’s writing.

Alas, the writing in this play was not as exquisite as I have to come to expect from Shakespeare. I daresay even “Romeo and Juliet was better penned.

As usual in Shakespeare, “Titus Andronicus” is filled with unlikeable characters whose follies lead to their dooms. The title character is an arrogant General, stuffed full of foolish pride. The only players here that are wholly honorable would be Titus’s brother Marcus, and Titus’s grandson, Young Lucius.

A Villain to Die For

The most enjoyable role is the evil Aaron, a so-called “blackamoor.” One could decry the obvious racism in making the black character the greatest villain in this tale, but Aaron has the greatest lines. More importantly, as it is he who masterminds much of the villainy, in a way he’s the most powerful character of them all. Much like Wesley Snipes in “Demolition Man,” Aaron chews up the scenery with his unrepentant evil. And has a grand old time with it.

He is Queen Tamora’s secret lover, and when she births a dark-skinned child, her sons are aghast:

Demetrius: Villain, what hast thou done?

Aaron: That which thou canst not undo.

Chiron: Thou hast undone our mother.

Aaron: Villain, I have done thy mother.

BURN!

And at the finale, when Aaron is punished for his evil deeds by being buried alive up to his neck and left to starve to death, does he beg for mercy? Hell no!

Aaron:
O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

So unrepentant in his evil! How awesome! I wish more of the play had been like this! 🙂

The Bloody Conclusion

The beautiful Shakespearean poetry was lacking here, and the stage directions of brutality followed by brutality were as humorous as the Black Knight’s bloody dismemberment in “Monty Python & the Holy Grail.”

At the climax Titus serves a meal made up of Tamora’s sons to the unknowing queen which is quickly (and I do mean blink-and-you -miss-it, quick) followed by three hasty murders. It was so silly that it should have been written as a comedy.

In fact that scene was adapted to a comedic form hundreds of years later in the best South Park episode of all time: “Scott Tenorman Must Die” where a gleeful Eric Cartman makes a chili out of Scott’s parents and licks his enemy’s tears in delight:

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This would have worked SO MUCH better as a comedy. But hey, it’s Shakespeare, so it was still fun.

The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

The Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille, City Lights Publishers, 1928

Extreme seductiveness is at the boundary of horror.

THE EYE

4 Stars

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Carnality Beyond Sex

Written in 1928 and denounced as blasphemous, The Story of the Eye by French author Georges Bataille, straddles the line between horror and sex in a manner that would offend most readers, both 100 years in the past and in today’s modern era.

Although I devour trashy reads from horror to pulp to romance, I am not a fan of erotica. A vanilla erotic romance is ok, but pure pornography rarely moves me in a sensual manner. I was bored senseless by Anne Rice’s forays into erotica. It’s always the same repetitive theatrics in these books: sex in this orifice, sex in that orifice, put this object into this orifice, place that object into that orifice.

What is erotic to me in books, be it literature or trash, has always been the anticipation, the desire for the act, not the technical description of the act itself.

Books with no plot, just sex, remind me of a scene from “The Golden Girls”:

Rose: I hate to admit it, but my relationship with Miles is really getting boring. We even make love the same.
Blanche: How?
Rose: Well, first he says, “Let’s go watch TV in the bedroom.” And then I think, “Wait, he doesn’t have a TV in the bedroom.” And then he says, “Come lie down. I won’t try anything.” And then we have four hours of the most boring sex you’ve ever had in your life.
Blanche: Four hours?
Rose: I guess it could take less if I stopped playing hard to get.

THE GOLDEN GIRLS

The Depths of Depravity

While Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye is hardly sexually arousing, it was such a visceral work it was capable of creating deep emotions within me, whereas pure erotica bores me. Ok, the emotions were not arousal or lust, but revulsion, disgust, pity, rage, and yes, a bit of awe at the writing (which must be incredible in its original French.)

These are contemptible, loathsome people engaging in the most depraved acts. The perversity here can only lead to insanity, imprisonment, or death.

If Clive Barker was influenced by this short work, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s easy to imagine the Cenobites’ from the Hellraiser films delighting in the blood-and-urine-soaked orgies these twisted characters engage in.

The eroticism of the human eye plays a prominent, profanely obscene role throughout the novel. A woman comes to orgasm upon seeing a man being gored by a bull, the man’s eye impaled by the horn. Later, she sits upon a plate of said bull’s testicles, her vulva bare, and exalts in delight.

Orgies, necrophilia, madness, mayhem, and murder follow the main couple as they take part in one perverse adventure after another.

To others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness. They are never frightened by the crowing of a rooster or when strolling under a starry heaven. In general, people savour the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid.

THE EYE

Opinion of The Story of the Eye

This book is disgusting, nihilistic filth. However, it has no pretensions of being erotic. The Story of the Eye  is designed to engage the senses in an offensive way. It is transgressive, postmodernism, and being so, I should have detested this. However I found this to be a more honest piece of writing than many other books I’ve come upon. 

The Story of the Eye is a fascinating psychological study and more so on a metaphysical level. The author was an anti-religionist; even so, spiritual questions arise. Are these characters demonically possessed? Insane? Sane in a crazed world?

Bataille’s writing “transcends” erotica. There is literary merit to his art. It is up to the reader to decide what meaning to attribute to this tale, or if indeed, there is any meaning to it all.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories by Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (A Short Novel and Three Stories), Truman Capote, Modern Library, 1958

“She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes.”

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S

SPOILER ALERT ⚠

2 Stars

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Book – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (A Short Novel and Three Stories)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is actually Truman Capote’s collection of one novella and three short stories. As such, the book should be rated for all tales included, which were underwhelming. Over the years, I’ve lost my tolerance for pretentious writing, and despite Capote’s earthiness, never once did I shake that feeling of pretentiousness.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Here, a young writer looks back on the year or so when he lived near and loved a girl named Holly Golightly. Holly’s a beauty who runs around with wealthy men so they can take proper care of her.

The unnamed narrator whom Holly refers to as “Fred” (that’s her brother’s name, so Holly has clearly defined what kind of relationship they have, whatever his ambiguous sexuality may be) admits to loving Holly numerous times, but it’s not so much an erotic love as one filled with worship. “Fred” thinks to himself: “As I read each glimpse I stole of Holly made my heart contract.” Holly bathes naked in front of him, calls him “Maude” (I suppose “Nellie” would have been rude?). and the narrator readily admits to having been in love with women, men, and once an entire family. Here everyone’s sexuality is fluid; it’s all a matter of price.

On to the story. Really, there’s very little of it. Holly gets paid for her company, wears sunglasses indoors, and speaks French to impress. The players include an array of millionaires, models, wealthy diplomats, and mobsters. What a bunch of poser and phonies they all are. Oh, but Holly is a special type of phony, as one character says: “She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes.”

Holly Golightly is the forbear of the women of reality TV, fake, pretentious, and avaricious. She’s a good-time girl who insinuates she might dole out intimate favors for some cash, but most of the time pats her man on the cheek with a platonic “Goodnight, darling.” Capote himself wrote that Holly was “a modern-day Geisha.” No need to wrap it up in fancy euphemisms. I’d prefer a “prostitute” who’s honest with herself about who she is and what she does. Contrary to what Capote wrote, Holly is never honest with herself.

I don’t care if Hollywood toned down the story and made it into a sappy romance; at least that movie was charming.

Also, there’s a lot of rough talk that could be viewed in the modern perspective as hateful and loathsome. I can imagine shocked readers of “The New Yorker” (where the novella was originally published) being titillated by the sexual and racial references. I personally do not view 60-year-old works through a modern lens so I didn’t give a crap. The vulgar flavor bored me. Overlook the vulgarity and there’s not much else there.

2.5 stars, but I’ll be generous and add an extra half star for Cat who’s the best character in the whole novella and deserved better than that phony’s phony, Holly Golightly.

House of Flowers

This was notable for its Haitian setting, but not much else. A beautiful prostitute in Port-Au-Prince named Ottilie ditches her lifestyle after she meets her “one true love,” a handsome country boy. Capote really had an obsession with “hookers” didn’t he?

Ottilie moves in with him and his mother, who watches them have sex at night, brings Ottilie little gifts like a severed cat’s head in a box. Ottilie pays her mother-in-law back by serving those gifts as meals until mom-in-law suddenly drops dead.

The ending is odd because you don’t know if the mother’s ghost gets her revenge or if everybody in this story is mentally deranged.

Either way, 2 stars.

A Diamond Guitar

The most pointless tale in a book filled with pointless tales. An old man spending life in prison for murder laments the loss of his one true friend: a young, blond Cuban boy who was allowed to enter prison with diamond guitar. Mr. Schaeffer, the protagonist, is a decent enough sort–for a murderer—while the boy, Tico Feo, just uses his looks to get the old guy to do his bidding and fall for him. “Except that they did not combine their bodies or think to do so, though such things were not unknown at the farm, they were as lovers.

Tico Feo convinces Mr. Schaeffer to try to escape. Tico Feo gets away, but the old man doesn’t. He spends his remaining years caring for the guitar and feeling lots of pain and yearning.

Oh, the pain…and the yearning…the yearning…

Some yearn, others constantly crave.

1 star for this dud.

A Christmas Memory

This was just as plotless as all the other stories, but at least it’s the sweetest.

A 7-year-old boy bonds with his elderly cousin whom he refers to as his friend. Every Christmas, they make an elaborate fruit cake they send to only special recipients, like the President, or some missionaries, or a nice couple whose car once broke down near their home. Though they are very poor they work hard to make 30 exotic fruit cakes. They collect fallen pecans; kill flies for cash, barter with illegal alcohol vendors. Their time spent together is a magical one. Then the young boy is sent off to military school and the halcyon days come to an end.

3 stars just because it was so sweet.

Final Opinion

I found this compilation of short stories to be unimpressive. I understand modern literary writers are fond of character studies, not plot-driven tales, but if the characters are uninteresting then who cares? I didn’t.

I’m making myself read more literature, modern and classic, but this short anthology did not make me gaga for Capote. I’m hoping In Cold Blood is a better reflection of his talent.

2 stars overall for the entire collection.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

© Sourced from the British Newspaper Archive

5 Stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The Book – Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Tess of the d’Urbervilles is an exquisite work of art by Thomas Hardy. When it comes to media consumption, my tastes are hardly that of a cultural elitist. As far as novels go, I am more likely to favor lurid-covered pulp-fiction rather than the socially approved literature that marks one a reader of serious status. All the same, I am not a complete hairy-knuckled Philistine. There are classic works that have touched me intensely so that I rejoice in their splendid perfection.

“Meanwhile, the trees were just as green as before; the birds sang, and the sun shone as clearly now as ever. The familiar surroundings had not darkened because of her grief, nor sickened because of her pain.

She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly—the thought of the world’s concern at her situation—was found on an illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself.”

The Beauty and Sadness

Thomas Hardy was a maestro of prose, not overly purple, using his descriptors with care, each clause an effective addition to what words had come before. Like most Victorian authors, he is moralistic, but his morals differed quite a bit from the accepted norms. His themes were not as simplistic as “Be kind to the poor lest ye suffer for all eternity,” but much deeper ideas. What is love? What is marriage? What defines an honorable man or a virtuous woman? Has man set up impossible ideals that can never be obtained? Is the guiding hand of social norms more like a chokehold upon the innocent? And so much more.

To a people in an era defined by a rigid structure, Hardy’s works were blasphemous.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles tells the doomed tale of Teresa Durbeyfield, a possible descendant of the Norman raiders of old. But Tess is no noble lady, just a poor girl from an ignoble family, her father a drunkard, her siblings numerous. There is nothing particularly special about Tess, except for a rough, sensual type of beauty. Indeed, the “hero” of the story overlooks her the first time he sees her.

From Angel Clare’s decision to ask the wrong girl to dance with him, to Alec d’Urberville’s pursuit of Tess as she walked past his carriage in the dimming light, to the scene where Tess, all alone, baptizes her dying child, to humble domesticity with Angel and Tess, to the blood dripping from the ceiling in the hotel, to Tess’s fated, tragic end, all these visions together create a mesmerizing, yet, quite frankly, depressing, saga.

My Final Opinion

Why did this book stick with me? I’ve seen it in several forms, movies, miniseries, etc., so it must resonate with a lot of others. It is a heartrending book about a nobody who was never meant for anything more than a meager existence and yet her heart ached for so much more. It’s a story filled with “If onlys.”

As Tess says before her doom: 

“This happiness could not have lasted. It was too much.”