Monthly Archives: August 2013

#109 “Thursbitch” by Alan Garner (#16 on The List)


By Michael Niewodowski

“Early Monday morning, late on Saturday night, I saw ten thousand mile away a house just out of sight!

The floor was on the ceiling, the front was at the back; It stood alone between two more, And the walls were whitewashed black!”  

-From Thursbitch

To be honest, I was completely lost while reading Thursbitch.  The novel is an enigmatic riddle, and the language is intentionally dense and confusing.  The valley of Thursbitch in Northern England seems to be a mystical place in which the characters of the novel also lose themselves.

At least half the novel follows the story of Jack Turner, a jagger (salt vendor) in the late 1700s.  He leads a cult-like religious ceremony that involves hallucinations that may or may not be due to his mushrooms (I think).  Jack invokes a mystical bull from the heavens that inhabits his body during the ceremony, and the men and women attending the ceremony tear at his body, nearly killing him; Jack recovers by drinking his own urine (I think).  Besides the ceremony, Jack does inexplicable things like carrying a carved stone head from a cave in the valley to his home; consider the following passage for a glimpse into the language and mystery- Jack (carrying and speaking to the stone head): “Now then, old Crom.  How hast tha been this journey?  Did the light hurt thine een?  Never fret.  It’s done; while next time.  We shall burn bonny fires for thee.  And Jenkin shall hold stars right running…Eh dear.  We must look a pair, you and me.  But did you see at all your land and did we mind us ways?  I’ll take you down and put you in your bed, as soon as stones have done supping at the brook.  We don’t want to be trod on by them great lummoxes.  Hush now.” p. 74.  Later, Jack becomes a fire-and-brimstone Christian pastor, preaching to the people of the valley of Thursbitch (I think).  He dies, frozen to death, next to a single female footprint.

Like I said, I was lost while reading the book.

Sometimes it’s fun to be lost, though.  I lived in London, England for a year when I was in my early twenties.  I would often get intentionally lost in the city and attempt to find my way home.  The streets of London seem like someone had a perfect grid and then took an egg scrambler to it and added a couple cans of alphabet soup.  They don’t sell maps of the city; rather they have A-Z (pronounced A to Zed) books with page after page of maps referencing the names of the streets in the index.  After a night out or on a slow afternoon, I would take the tube or a bus to a far away part of the city I had never visited and wander my way to familiarity.  I guess I felt like I had something to prove.

Meanwhile, in Thursbitch, in modern times, a woman, Sal (short for Sally), finds her only solace in the valley of Thursbitch.  She is dying of a degenerative disease that causes her to lose her memories; she is becoming ‘lost’ in time.  The valley is the only place her memories seem to ‘stick’.  She also seems to have some preternatural connection to Jack from the 1700’s Thursbitch valley (I think).

The valley of Thursbitch plays a large a part in the novel; in fact, it is even more important than the characters.

I understand how important landscapes can be to a story.  I once visited Venice, Italy with my family (again, in my twenties).  One day, an incredibly thick fog rolled in over the city from the Adriatic Sea.  While my family stayed in the hotel wishing for a sunnier day, I went exploring.  Most tourists who visit Venice never stray far from the Rialto or the Piazza San Marco; I intentionally got lost in the depths of the narrow meandering pathways.  The memory of that walk is vivid: as I could barely see more than a few feet ahead of me for the fog, every few steps brought something new.  Ancient buildings on both sides suddenly gave way to modern apartments.  I reached many a dead end- either blocked by a building or one of the ubiquitous canals.  Lushly carved bridges sprung up abruptly; one led into a grove of olive trees.  I passed fishermen in their noisy boats coming and going on the larger canals, and on smaller ones gondolas would slip past silently into the mist.  I turned one corner and found myself walking behind a beautiful Italian lady.  She glanced behind her then slightly quickened her pace, while I self-consciously slowed my pace so as not to seem like a stalker.  She disappeared into the fog long before the sound of her heels clicking against the stone walkway faded away.  All the while, the water lapped gently against the stones of the tiny islands, buildings, and passageways.

There are places in this world in which the individual loses his sense of self in the infinite.  My experiences in London and Venice reflect this truth.  In Thursbitch, the valley is such a place.

I mentioned that I was lost while reading this book.  That is not a complaint; in fact I thoroughly enjoyed the confusion and space cadet glow.  How wonderful, sometimes, to be intentionally lost!Venice in the fog


Filed under Journals

# 108 “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo (#873 on The List)

Les Miserables

by Michael Niewodowski

#108 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (#873 on The List)

There is a LOT to say about Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  At over 1400 pages, the novel is a sprawling, detailed epic depicting the lives of the poor in the early 1800’s in France.  Set against the backdrop of the on-again, off-again French Revolution, the novel delves deeply into the historical and cultural aspects of the time period.  Hugo gives comprehensive descriptions of the battle at Waterloo, the history of the sewers of Paris, the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the revolutionaries, and the language (Argot) of the poor lower classes (les miserables).

The many movies, abridged versions, and Broadway play have made the story and characters of Les Miserables quite popular and recognizable in modern culture.  The characters are vivid and unforgettable.  Fantine, a single mother who sells her hair, her teeth, and eventually herself, has become the symbol for the self-sacrificing mother.  Javert, the police inspector, is emblematic of stringent law and order.  Enjolras is the consummate revolutionary.  Thernardier is a scoundrel; not necessarily driven to a life of crime by his poverty, rather, he embraces it willingly.  The most important and stunning character in the novel is the protagonist, Jean Valjean.

Jean Valjean is the noblest character I have ever come across in literature.  He stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family; for that, he spent nineteen years in the galleys (he attempted several escapes, prolonging his sentence).  Upon his parole, he is driven to a life of crime, as he cannot find work, shelter, or food.  When a bishop shows him compassion and mercy, he is forever changed, undergoing an incredible transformation.  From that point on, where he encounters anger, he shows compassion: Fantine is angry with him for not saving her job, leading her to a life of prostitution; Valjean rescues and raises Fantine’s daughter, Cosette.  When he encounters greed, he shows generosity: more than once, he is overly generous to the greedy scoundrel, Thernardier.  Where there is ignorance, he shows wisdom; although Marius doesn’t know that it was Valjean that saved his life and carried him to safety through the sewers, he doesn’t tell Marius for the sake of Cosette’s marriage and honor.  Jean Valjean is a truly inspirational character.

Reading this novel has inspired me to try to be more like Jean Valjean.  Throughout the novel, he attempts to improve the lives of others.  For nearly a decade, he is a businessman, and then mayor of a town, helping the economy and livelihood of the townspeople.  However, it is temporary; when Valjean must reveal his true identity and abdicate his position, the townspeople fall back into poverty.  Similarly, I attempted to help others when I was a teacher for nearly ten years.  Although I know I made a positive difference in my students’ lives, it was only temporary and fleeting; like Valjean, I had a propensity for civil disobedience, and I was forced to resign my position.

Jean Valjean found his true redemption and nobility as a father to Cosette.  As a debt to her deceased mother, he rescues her from the Thernardiers, and raises and supports her with every privilege and love a father can give to a child.  Likewise, my main focus in life is my six year old son.  Instead of a career-centered life, as I spent my early adult years, I now choose a family centered life to spend more time with my son; I don’t make a lot of money, but I spend lots of time with him.  I play with him, I read to him, I swim with him, I discipline him, I try to answer all his questions, and I volunteer in his classroom.  I tell him that I love him every day.  I try to remember that I am his first and most influential teacher.  I was never the best chef or the best teacher in the world, but I am the best father I can possibly be to my son.  Like Cosette was to Jean Valjean, my son is my life.  Jean Valjean inspires me to be an even better father.

Look!  I fail my inspirer already!  Jean Valjean never bragged or boasted; in fact he often denied his own good deeds.  He was much more humble than I.  Clearly I have a long way to go before I can consider myself to be on his level.



Filed under Journals