I was never a fan of classics. They are thick, and often filled with words from ancient times that are beyond my vocabulary. And as a result, they are boring.
However, after beating around the bush with philosophical theories and modern novels for a while, I was pleasantly surprised that I had developed a liking for classics. Perhaps it is because I had started with these short books written by noble prize winners from not too long ago.
So if you shared my lack of enthusiasm for classics and but have a bit of time on your hands, I hope you would consider the following books that have brought me much delight.
IMPORTANT NOTE: some of the reviews may review the plot of the story
- “The Stranger” By Albert Camus, winner of the 1957 Noble Prize For Literature
If I had to describe my takeaway from this book with one word, it would be honesty. Brutal honesty with oneself, to be more precise.
Meursault, the hero of the book, may be many things. You could call him a killer, an atheist, a cold-blooded and indifferent animal unworthy of a place in society or even a robot, but you can not say that he is a hypocrite. He ate when he was hungry, drank when he was thirsty, slept when he was tired. He would not shed a tear just because the occasion (ie. his mother’s funeral) demanded it or people around him expected it. When asked by his girlfriend if he loved her, he said “No” flatly. He didn’t sugar-coat it, didn’t make up some excuse, didn’t avoid the question. He spoke his mind directly, simply and truthfully. Even when his own life was at stake in the court room and being asked to state the motive of his killing, he “blurted out that it was because of the sun”, which for all we know as readers of the book, is the whole truth. He didn’t beg for his life or try to portray himself to be anything but his true self. It is then not surprising that at his final hour, when confronted by the chaplain about God, he would say that it didn’t interest him, because it simply didn’t.
Meursault behaved in this truthful way naturally. It’s not as if he had a profound ideology or belief about being honest or truthful is good or bad, he just did it as a matter of course. It is who he is. But of course, he is also a killer, and that makes things more complicated. Should we as a society educate and encourage people to be true to themselves at the risk of them becoming criminals, or shall we make sure that everybody conforms to a social normal even if they are just pretending to be?
I felt a connection with Meursault, deeply moved by his brutal honesty and also, dare I say, his kindness towards people around him. Throughout the whole story, he did not blame anybody, not even when he knew he was to be hanged; and he thought about shaking hands with the magistrate. Perhaps all of this could be explained by the fact that he always lived in the present (and the future) and never found it useful to dwell on the past. As per his thoughts when blamed for the lack of remorse by the prosecutor, “I had never been able to truly feel remorse for anything. My mind was always on what was coming next, today or tomorrow.”
If he hadn’t killed the Arab, perhaps Meursault would have married Marie, learnt from her and developed a (stronger) capacity to love.
- “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, winner of the 1954 Noble Prize For Literature
The thing about classics is that, it has been sliced and diced already in a thousand different ways by people from all ages. Anything that can be said about it has probably been said already. It’s like in the movie “Truman Show” when the young Truman said to the teacher: “I want to be an explorer!”, and the teacher pulls down a map of the world and replies: “… you’re too late. There’s really nothing left to explore.”
Oh well. Then perhaps this is only relevant to people who are interested in what I thought of the book. For surely there hadn’t been another “I” before this?
My takeaway from the book is one about freedom. As a man grows old, he is less and less attached to materialistic things. The old man lived in a small one-room shack, a bed, a table and a chair was all it had, if you discount the “place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal”. He wore a shirt that had been patched so many times, and used his rolled-up trousers as a pillow and old newspapers as his mattress. He lived in such simplistic conditions without a hint of despair. He is a true minimalist without knowing what a minimalist is. He seems to have attained freedom from materialistic things.
Further, the old man seems to have freed himself from the desire for food – one of the hardest things to do for men. My favourite paragraph of the book was this: “The old man drank his coffee slowly. It was all he would have all day and he knew that he should take it. For a long time now eating had bored him and he never carried a lunch. He had a bottle of water in the bow of the skiff and that was all he needed for the day.” If it weren’t for the fact that he knew he needed it, he probably would have gone without the coffee as well!
Thirdly, the old man seems to be free from, though not completely, human relationships. He lived alone, fished alone, seems to have no real relationship with anybody except for the boy. He did have a picture of his wife though which is kept with his clean shirts. At sea, the boy was the only person he thought about, repeatedly. It seems to imply that, human relationships are harder to be free from compared to external materialistic things, and harder even than basic human needs such as food.
Lastly, the old man was faced with the hardest thing to be free from – one’s own physical body. He worked hard to command his own body as if he was separate from it. Pain and discomfort experienced by the body was not of chief concern for the old man, as long as the body was able to carry out whatever task the mind commands. Perhaps this is the reason people often describe the old man as “tough”. Toughness is not by measured by how much pain your body can endure, but how much your mind gives a damn about whatever pain your body experiences.
Was the old man a happy old man? I think so. With such freedom from materialistic things, from bodily desires, from human relationships and from his own physical form, he is probably happier than most of us.
- “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse, winner of the 1946 Noble Prize For Literature
(Review to come)