The Ravishing of Lol Stein, by Marguerite Duras The Kellys and the O'Kellys, by Anthony Trollope Adam Bede, by George Eliot The Life of Mr Jonathon Wild the Great, by Henry Fielding Rocket to the Moon, and other Plays, by Clifford Odets Bel-Ami, by Guy de Maupassant Blizzard, by Phil Stong The Painted Veil, by W. Somerset Maugham Oil, by Upton Sinclair Islands in the Stream, by Ernest Hemingway
“I mean that there is a shadow of something colossal and menacing that even now is beginning to fall across the land. Call it the shadow of an oligarchy, if you will; It is the nearest I dare approximate it.” Jack London, The Iron Heel (1907)
“Be your Rubicon big or small, clear or foul, it is the same: you shall not return.”
I hate to bad-mouth modern culture—that’s not true, I spend half my time doing exactly that.
Anyway, here’s a thought: the more I enjoy a work of “classic” literature, the sadder I feel when I think about the general deterioration of modern literary taste and talent. And I very much enjoyed the book I just read: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, by George Meredith. I had wanted to read one of Meredith’s novels for a long time. Published in 1859, Richard Feverel was one of his earliest novels. Do you know, the Los Angeles County Library system, which is an excellent library system with millions of books, doesn’t have a single copy of any of Meredith’s novels. And he was one of the foremost Victorian authors. I ended up ordering a used paperback copy online.
Richard Feverel was a young, spoiled aristocrat who inherited his father’s bull-headed stubbornness. The book is a romance, a social commentary on parental methods, and an exploration of society’s losing struggle with Nature. It achieves all these goals through a rich, dramatic plot and finely-drawn characters. These basic elements are brought to life through prose that is pure and dialogue that is varied and lifelike, all sharpened to a keen brilliance.
Meredith’s style is not radically distinguishable from Dickens or Eliot, but it does demand more thought and concentration than most Victorian romance. Richard Feverel is laced with allusions to both Christianity and ancient classical mythology and literature. Most of the main characters are well educated and tend to converse at an impressively-high intellectual level. Moreover, Meredith is prone to metaphor. Not all readers appreciate metaphor, but he uses the device so artfully and so faithfully that it forms a distinct layer of meaning in the novel. The sum result is a novel that kept me interested from start to finish, introduced me to a whole cast of unforgettable characters, and gave my brain some much-needed exercise.
So why does this make me sad? It makes me sad because nobody writes like that today. Some people might say that’s a good thing. That’s like saying it’s a good thing that today’s furniture is made of plywood and plastic instead of solid handcrafted hardwood. A lot of novels come and go in my house and I open them and start to read, in good faith. Of these, if they were written in the last thirty years, they almost always prove disappointing, in style, in character development, in originality, and life is too short to spend it reading things that don’t measure up to even the basic standards of earlier eras. There are some exceptions, thankfully. But when most people, and that includes most fiction writers, are raised on a steady diet of mass-produced popular literature, we can’t expect anything better when they, in turn, sit down to write the great American novel. Libraries and book stores with shelves full of glossy best-sellers and not a single George Meredith will not tend to produce great writers. They will produce writers of glossy best-sellers.
“Gambling!” she murmured.
“They call it buying and selling,” he went on, “down there in La Salle Street. But it is simply betting. Betting on the condition of the market weeks, even months, in advance. You bet wheat goes up. I bet it goes down. Those fellows in the Pit don’t own the wheat; never even see it. Wou’dn’t know what to do with it if they had it. They don’t care in the least about the grain. But there are thousands upon thousands of farmers out here in Iowa and Kansas or Dakota who do, and hundreds of thousand of poor devils in Europe who care even more than the farmer. I mean the fellows who raise the grain, and the other fellows who eat it. It’s life or death for either of them. And right between these two comes the Chicago speculator, who raises or lowers the price out of all reason, for the benefit of his pocket. You see Laura, here is what I mean.” Cressler had suddenly become very earnest. Absorbed, interested, Laura listened intently. “Here is what I mean,” pursued Cressler. “It’s like this: If we send the price of wheat down too far, the farmer suffers, the fellow who raises it if we send it up too far, the poor man in Europe suffers, the fellow who eats it. And food to the peasant on the continent is bread—not meat or potatoes, as it is with us. The only way to do so that neither the American farmer nor the European peasant suffers, is to keep wheat at an average, legitimate value. The moment you inflate or depress that, somebody suffers right away. And that is just what these gamblers are doing all the time, booming it up or booming it down. Think of it, the food of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people just at the mercy of a few men down there on the Board of Trade. They make the price. They say just how much the peasant shall pay for his loaf of bread. If he can’t pay the price he simply starves. And as for the farmer, why it’s ludicrous. If I build a house and offer it for sale, I put my own price on it, and if the price offered don’t suit me I don’t sell. But if I go out here in Iowa and raise a crop of wheat, I’ve got to sell it, whether I want to or not at the figure named by some fellows in Chicago. And to make themselves rich, they may make me sell it at a price that bankrupts me.”
Frank Norris was born in Chicago. When he grew up he wrote “The Pit”, about the greed and speculation at the Chicago grain markets. It’s a powerful, epic novel. And just as wheat was an exploited and sought-after commodity, so was Laura, the protagonist of the novel, bid upon by the male speculators who knew her . . .
“Is he the only man that hath set his life against a stake which may be not worth the winning? Another risks his life (and his honor, too, sometimes,) against a bundle of bank-notes, or a yard of blue ribbon, or a seat in Parliament; and some for the mere pleasure and excitement of the sport;”
From Henry Esmond, by Thackeray
“And now, having seen a great military march through a friendly country; the pomps and festivities of more than one German court; the severe struggle of a hotly contested battle, and the triumph of victory, Mr. Esmond beheld another part of military duty: our troops entering the enemy’s territory, and putting all around them to fire and sword; burning farms, wasted fields, shrieking women, slaughtered sons and fathers, and drunken soldiery, cursing and carousing in the midst of tears, terror, and murder. Why does the stately Muse of History, that delights in describing the valor of heroes and the grandeur of conquest, leave out these scenes, so brutal, mean, and degrading, that yet form by far the greater part of the drama of war?”
From Henry Esmond by Thackerary
“Similarity, a virtue in peas, is a vice in books.”
BOOK? . . . The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade (1861)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical Fiction/Adventure/Romance
ABOUT WHAT? . . . Set in the late 15th Century, The Cloister and the Hearth is a kind of English Three Musketeers. Following the travels and adventures of Gerard, the hero and lover, from his home in Holland to various parts of Europe and back, it is a swashbuckling epic weaving historical background with fictional family saga. Charles Reade was thoroughly English, but the story itself is steeped in the culture and history of the Continent, and, if nothing else, is an encyclopedic travelogue of Renaissance Holland, Germany, France and Italy. But, the book is a great deal more than that. There is gallantry, there is villainy. There is suspense, there is intrigue. There is humor, there is irony. There is insight into Christianity as well as Greek and Roman thought.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . I call it a masterpiece. Cloister is 900 pages of unparalleled adventure, cleverly constructed and brimming with memorable characters drawn with an artist’s eye. The book is rich in factual detail; Reade was known for his painstaking research, he is said to have amassed thousands of notes and documents for many of his works. And what sets this work apart, also, is Reade’s style: he is a master of Renaissance-style prose. The book is almost Shakespearian in its wit and charm, in the lyrical quality of its language.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . It takes a mighty good book to keep me reading for 900 pages. If you like anything written by Alexander Dumas, then you would like this. If you don’t, you won’t.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . I would like to read some of Reade’s other works, just to see how they compare to his historical masterpiece.
“Upon which the other observed, that since the unfortunate man’s alleged experience could not be deemed very conciliatory towards a view of human nature better than human nature was, it largely redounded to his fair-mindedness, as well as piety, that under the alleged dissuasives, apparently so, from philanthropy, he had not, in a moment of excitement, been warped over to the ranks of the misanthropes.”
This is an actual sentence from the book I’m reading – The Confidence Man by Herman Melville. As you can see, the writing is complex, highly-punctuated, and awkward. It is also a very clever and witty book, full of social commentary and dramatic irony. I am about halfway through. I do not, in truth, expect to finish the book, which is not of inordinate length, anytime soon, given the limitations and, circumstances being what they are, stultification of my brain as the months flow by with no foreseeable deceleration of the aging process, inevitable as it tends to be despite our best efforts to hinder that implacable, albeit invisible, adversary.
A high fog covered the sky, and behind it the moon shone, so that the forest was filled with a gauzelike light. There was none of the sharp outline we think of as reality. [Tortilla Flat]
They are novels in that each one is a series of connected stories, occurring chronologically. Put together they only equal the length of one shorter-than-average novel. But in Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, there’s more heart, and soul, than just about anything before or since.
Light in tone and small in scope, these short works capture everyday humanity, its strengths and weaknesses, to a T, because that’s what Steinbeck did better than anyone. Together they paint a true to life picture of the Monterey that Steinbeck knew as a young man.
They should be read consecutively, Tortilla Flat and then Cannery Row. Tortilla Flat, set in the squalid outskirts of Monterey, charts the friendship and fates of a group of young men bonded by their mutual lack of opportunity and ambition. Cannery Row is the industrial shoreline of Monterey, and its inhabitants reflect all the earthiness of any Depression-era factory town or village. The reader begins to feel like Monterey is a place they know and understand.
The stories should be read with appreciation for Steinbeck’s language: spare, vivid, poetic, every word a key to something. The characters’ speech is unadorned, natural to the place, time and class of the speaker:
“He ain’t going to be what you’d call tender,” said Hazel. “You’d have to cook him about two weeks to get him tender. How old about do you judge he was, Mack?”
“I’m forty-eight and I ain’t as tough as he is,” said Mack.
Eddie said “How old can a chicken get, do you think—that’s if nobody pushes him around or he don’t get sick?”
“That’s something nobody isn’t ever going to find out,” said Jones. [Cannery Row]
Steinbeck wrote some weightier books, far more serious and larger in scope. But these two short works are American gems, they say so much so sweetly about what we’re capable of as simple human beings.
Apparently, when Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 there was criticism of the choice. I will never understand how that could be. While taste is a subjective matter, when you weigh the stories, the strength of the characters and their lives, along with the richness of the prose, I cannot see another writer more deserving of the award. In my school of thought, Steinbeck is the Dean of American writers.
First I read The Plutocrat (see prior post), and now The Magnificent Ambersons. I have spent my whole life (until recently) ignorant of the genius of Booth Tarkington. Am I solely to blame? Why didn’t English teachers and professors lecture me upon his deeply American (and Midwestern) wit and wisdom? Why didn’t friends or family members fold his books into my eager little hands? Why didn’t kindly librarians lead me to the correct shelf midway between Steinbeck and Twain and tell me that Tarkington is the third and central pillar of American letters?
Why? I don’t have time to worry about why, I have thirty-three Tarkington novels to read before my body or my brain turn to mold. Maybe reading them will work like an antiseptic and delay the moldering process.
The row is broken only at the perpendicular, identical crossroads, leaving just room enough to slip between the piles of ledgers and adding machines.
BOOK? . . . The Erasers, by Alain Robbe-Grillet (1953)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Nouveau Roman. Absurdist and/or realist mystery
ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a murder mystery. But IS IT a murder mystery? And if it IS a murder mystery, WHY is it a murder mystery? And eventually, finding no answers, you die of frustration. When you read a story by Robbe-Grillet there will be things that you will never quite be sure of. He will tell you things and show you things and you will want to believe them, even if they don’t make sense because he never actually explains the things that he shows and tells. But if you find yourself believing certain things other things will make you think that you were a fool to believe the first set of things and that there are an infinite number of sets of things that you might want to believe in except that there could only be one set of things. Or could there?
On a slightly more literal level, the story is about a political murder in a port city of post-war Flanders. A government agent arrives in the city and investigates the murder. At least he SEEMS to be investigating the murder. And he SEEMS to be a government agent. Or does he? Sorry, strike that. Force of habit. Anyway, one thing is definite: he’s not a very efficient investigator. He spends a whole day wandering the streets of the port city, which are like a labyrinth (in college we read Robbe-Grillet’s In the Labyrinth. I remember liking it because of its mysterious strangeness. That’s all I remember). He finally manages to track down all the witnesses but the manner in which he does that leads to an illogical, nerve-racking climax. Or does it? Now cut that out, Chuck! Okay, you’re right, strike that, too.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Uhhhhh. Life is a mystery? Yeah, the book is absurdist and questions reality. It uses experimental style and structure. He creates a cold bleak mechanical world. Even the people are strange and mechanical, going about their lives as though they have no personal will. This was his first novel, the beginning of a groundbreaking career in literature and film.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uhhhhh. Depends on your mood and your personality. Maybe not. But I’m glad I read it.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The universe is expanding. In case you need something to make you feel less lost after reading Robbe-Grillet.
Almost one hundred years ago, this was the young Englishman’s declaration of independence from The Mater:
“I don’t really want to have my bed choked with hot-water bottles whenever I sneeze, and be given whiskies and lemon last thing; or to have my suits forever reft away to be cleaned, and all that. If I want a whisky I can ask the butler for it . . .”
Ann Bridge, Illyrian Spring (1935)
“When we know all of whatever it may be, we can never do anything but forgive, madame. That is the profoundest religious truth that was ever written.”
BOOK? . . . Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini (1921)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical fiction, Adventure, Romance
ABOUT WHAT? . . . The French Revolution, what else? Andre-Louis Moreau (aka Scaramouche) is the kind of hero that silent movies were made about in Hollywood in the 1920’s. (That was even before the word “movie” was coined—they were called “photoplays” at that time.) There are also villains, swordplay, and beautiful damsels. There is rapier-like wit on the part of Scaramouche himself (he’s really a very clever guy), and his tongue keeps getting him in trouble in situations that would probably blow over if he held his tongue. He’s not the kind of guy to hold his tongue, though, or to make nice to bad guys just to avoid bloodshed. Hence, a very exciting, romantic novel written in stunning prose by Sabatini, who was only half English and spoke several other languages.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Nothing deep or significant, except that it does a good job of describing some of the chronology of the French Revolution and the complexity of the class struggle, from maybe a little more conservative point of view than we normally see.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yeah, it’s very well written and conceived, the plot is twisty and tangly.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . It would be weird if the novel was translated into French: a French translation of an English novel about the French Revolution?
It may sound like the LAST thing you’d want to read right now, but in a weird way it could be the feel-good novel of the year. The Plague, by Albert Camus, is the story of a major city under siege by a deadly virus. Set in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940’s, it’s a graphic portrayal of a city suddenly infested with Bubonic Plague, strictly quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world. With little outside help, the city and its stunned residents must cope with the unreality of their situation alongside its very real threat to their lives. With contagion and corpses around every corner, the moral fiber of the populace is tested to its limits.
As in all his major writings, Camus questions the fundamental nature of life and death. As hard as it is to define those questions, the answers are even more elusive. But The Plague is a beautiful, yes beautiful, frightening and inspiring study of human nature in all its imperfection. And while we all want to escape, somehow, from the sadness and fear that right now bombard us from every direction, perhaps a deep dark look into the mirror of literary fiction is a truer escape, one that might comfort us longer and reflect a bit of light upon our path.
” Upon the wine list the General discovered a red Beaune, a dear lost love of his, he said—and not only said, but copiously proved by wearing his lost love’s colours, ere long, as his own complexion.”
BOOK? . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington (1927)
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance, but tempered somewhat by a jaded irony
ABOUT WHAT? . . . A 1920’s Atlantic Ocean voyage and North Africa land tour embarked upon by a young playwright named Laurence Ogle (I had a high school math teacher named Miss Ogle. Probably doesn’t mean anything). Well, for Laurence Ogle, this is a case of first love. They are barely out of U.S. waters before he is unwittingly smitten by a co-voyager, a Frenchwoman roughly a decade beyond his years, but what young man cannot relate to Ogle’s puppy-like helplessness, to the torment, the humiliation, the splendor of his infatuation? Ogle is not a simple character but, seeing only her loveliness, he discovers much more complexity in Madame Momoro’s nature than he is equipped to understand. The most obvious obstacle for Ogle is the gregarious Mr. Tinker, who seems to be everywhere that he, and Madame Momoro, happen to be. A ship can be like a prison when there is a ruggedly-handsome Midwestern plutocrat on board who can’t be avoided. Even North Africa can feel pretty small.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . This book illustrates the difference between realism and romance. Not in literature. In life. Guess which one wins in the end. And guess what the book is really saying about class distinctions in America. And guess how many reversals of fortune you will encounter in its pages. And guess what mysteries will be presented and puzzled over. And guess how many other things you will see in the characters and the plot that I did not see.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uh-huh. Very funny, in parts, but that’s just the icing on the cake. There is sophistication, artistry and astuteness. The Plutocrat is a mislaid American gem of a novel, obscured and overshadowed by Tarkington’s other books only because it is not of very epic proportions. But you don’t find writing like this every day. Hardly ever, nowadays.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . I’m gonna get me some more books by this fella Tarkington because I probably shouldn’t even be writing little Two-bit reviews until I make sure I know what I’m talking about.
” 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. . .”
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.
” The bruise was deep, deep, deep…the bruise of the false inhuman war. It would take many years for the living blood of the generations to dissolve the vast black clot of bruised blood, deep inside their souls and bodies.”
BOOK? . . . Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence
WHAT KIND? . . . Novel
BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance plus philosophical and social themes
ABOUT WHAT? . . . An illicit and potentially scandalous love affair, described in intimate detail, and the emotional conditions leading up to it. The book portrays the sadness and emptiness of the generation that fought and endured World War I. It offers only a glimmer of hope that people so emotionally damaged can find fulfillment in their lives. Clifford, Lord Chatterley, who is left paraplegic from the war, physically personifies the emotional numbness that torments Connie, Lady Chatterley, and leaves her feeling that something is missing from her life and life in general.
The novel also describes the ugliness, the misery of modern industrial society, and laments the loss of pastoral beauty. At the same time the book deplores British class structure, which persists despite the social and economic upheaval all around it.
SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Most people think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a daringly sexual book that offended large segments of the public. Unlike other books (by Updike, Roth, Irving, etc.) that unfortunately add sexual content merely to shock or titillate, Lawrence’s novel is rich in sex because sex is a symbol and a symptom. It is there to convey serious feelings that matter to the characters. It is described with wondrous respect, and the love scenes place women and men on the same plane, in terms of desires and feelings.
SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. It may not be a great novel, standing head and shoulders about others. But it’s a very good one, with memorable characters, a lot of remarkable prose and deep disturbing thoughts about men, women, life, love and sex.
YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . Nope. I said what I gotta say.
I’m reading some stories by Guy de Maupassant and they’re all excellent but one in particular put a lump in my throat. It’s called “Mademoiselle Fifi” and it’s set during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), when Maupassant was about 20. He wrote it a few years later. That war actually changed Europe forever, because it prompted Prussia and various smaller German states to become a unified Germany. There is something very astute and foreshadowing in the story regarding the events that were eventually to shake Europe in the 20th Century. I don’t get the sense that Maupassant was anti-German per se, but simply that he was anti-war and anti-cruelty in any form.
You can read, online, the very edition of the story that I got from the library. The link is below this photo of the author as a young man. How often do you get to read a story with such distinguished credentials: story by Guy de Maupassant, translation by Mrs. John Galsworthy, and preface by Joseph Conrad! . . . .
“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.
What can beat bricks warming up to the sun? The return of awnings. The removal of blankets from horses’ backs. Tar softens under the heel and the darkness under bridges changes from gloom to cooling shade. After a light rain, when the leaves have come, tree limbs are like wet fingers playing in woolly green hair. Motor cars become black jet boxes gliding behind hoodlights weakened by mist. On sidewalks turned to satin figures move shoulders first, the crowns of their heads angled shields against the light buckshot that the raindrops are. The faces of children glimpsed at windows appear to be crying, but it is the glass pane dripping that makes it seem so.
Toni Morrison, Jazz