Tag Archives: English literature

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

” I think the Church Catechism has a good deal to do with the unhappy relations which commonly even now exist between parents and children. That work was written too exclusively from the parental point of view; the person who composed it did not get a few children to come in and help him; he was clearly not young himself, nor should I say it was the work of one who liked children. . .”

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpg

BOOK? . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler (1903)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Realism/Satire

ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a multigenerational family saga of 19th Century rural England, but it’s much more than just a story about a family’s historical struggles. The family is a typical one full of ordinary people who make the parish church their means of livelihood and the foundation of their self-identity. But, despite their ordinary lives, the insights Butler gives us about such families are extraordinary.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Thanks to its eloquent narration and its depiction of the traditional way the older generation raises and instructs the younger generation, The Way of All Flesh is one of the great novels exposing the cruelty of strict religions and other hypocrisies. The book dared to say things rarely, or never before, said about established religion and Victorian morals. The book was monumental in its impact on modern thinking. It was a work of humanist philosophy that used a fictional story as its vehicle.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. . . The plot is slow but it’s a slow-motion slap in the face. The characters are unremarkable but that’s how Butler needed them to be, and they’re as well-drawn and real as a portrait on a wall. The dialogue is sparse and the prose is unadorned. But Butler’s message is full of sympathy and kindness.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . The finished manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty years until Samuel Butler gave it to a friend and as a dying wish asked the friend to arrange for it to be published, finally. It was published a year after Butler’s death.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . “Lady Audley’s Secret”, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

“Circumstantial evidence,” continued the young man, as if he scarcely heard Lady Audley’s interruption—”that wonderful fabric which is built out of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man.”

BOOK? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . “Sensation” fiction, early detective novel or mystery

ABOUT WHAT? . . . An unarguably beautiful young woman (with a “Secret”) who marries into a wealthy English family, one of whose members, an idle bachelor solicitor named Robert Audley, is roused into amateur sleuthing by his unflagging loyalty to a childhood friend in trouble. Not surprisingly, Robert cannot help his troubled friend without boldly piercing the Lady’s veil of secrecy.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret was a popular novel in the early days of the detective or mystery genre (what they referred to as sensation fiction). Wilkie Collins was a better known contemporary of Braddon, although Braddon’s books were very numerous and successful. One of her mentors was Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night.”).

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yes, in terms of pure enjoyment it ranks high on my recent reading list. It’s an excellent detective novel. It does not deal with social issues or deep themes, it’s just for entertainment. But, its style, construction and characterization are on a par with many well-respected Victorian authors who concerned themselves with weightier matters.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The one oddity about the book is its frequent disparagement of women: both by the narrator and the protagonist. Certainly these critical views of women were not the views of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. My hunch is that she incorporated this attitude into the novel either as a sort of private joke, or as a way of appeasing male readers and reviewers who, in those days, often harbored strong prejudices against women writers.

Learning about love in Alexandria

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

Maybe I’m wrong, but . . .

Should I keep reading? 70 pages into the book and hopelessly intrigued by a neat and clever plot? Or should I dump the book into the return slot at the library first chance I get? That was my moral dilemma. After a brief soul-search, I decided to keep reading, and except for one detail the book is a bright little gem. The book is called Jacob’s Ladder, the year was 1921, and the author was E. Phillips Oppenheim. The detail that stopped me cold in the middle of a paragraph? The thinly-veiled indication that E. Phillips Oppenheim was an anti-semite.

I know nothing about the man except that he was an English writer who published more than 100 novels and dozens of story collections and thus was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. And it wouldn’t be the first case of anti-semitism in mainstream literature, by a long shot. What about The Merchant of Venice, or take a look at Oliver Twist. Of course, the Jewish characters in those classics were stereotyped candidly and directly. And, Shakespeare and Dickens both instilled redeeming qualities into the characters to somewhat offset the stereotype. The characterization that bothered me in Jacob’s Ladder was obliquely done and so insidious that it almost went by me undetected. I cannot, even now, be absolutely sure of my theory: it was a hint of racial prejudice, a descriptive word or two plus a stereotyped occupation.

So I would really like to know if others have read Oppenheim’s books and come away with the same impression. Maybe what I saw in Jacob’s Ladder was just a tiny moral hiccup in a vast body of otherwise creditable work.

100 years too late

We arrived early today for our relaxation class at the Wellness center, and when we walked into the communal kitchen I was instantly transported to an English teashop. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who has lived here in California for years, was sipping coffee and chatting with an elderly gentleman who looked like something out of Jane Austen. The scene reminded me profoundly of something I have felt for most of my life: I was born in the wrong century and probably the wrong hemisphere.

Where my heart really says I belong is England in the time of Dickens. I should have been born and raised in the English countryside, maybe in Hardy’s Wessex country, or somewhere along the route of Mr. Pickwick’s famous wanderings. Wuthering Heights might have been a suitable habitat for my taste. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I can’t help feeling that those places, those times, with their particular culture, customs, and values, are more my soulmates than these modern American times.

I don’t know whether our English friend or the elderly gentleman with the lilting accent have even opened a Victorian novel since their youth. But they certainly took me back to the world that I love to escape to more than any other literary landscape. I can’t alter my date or place of birth, but I can grab a good book and fantasize once in a while.

A book you can put down

I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her  by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.

It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!

If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.

Happy holidays, Happy reading, and PEACE to all.

Flush

I recently finished Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel.  It was actually a very fine book, beautifully written by one of our language’s finest artists.  Dog lovers would especially appreciate it, but any reader would enjoy the pathos, and the insights into the sensibilities of Flush, the cocker spaniel, and the life and character of Barrett Browning.  I give it, without reservation, two paws up.