My Name Is Aram

William Saroyan

1940

(An open and curious boy growing up in an Armenian community in California encounters the rich quirkiness of his family and neighbors.)

Crop of Future Master Builder (1972), by Armenian artist Ashot Melkonian (1930-2009). Visible at sputnikimages.com, and along with Melkonian’s other paintings at Por amor al arte.

 

Writing from the spirit of memory.

Not a record of specific memories, but effortless intuitive writing that naturally conjures the ethos, tinged with wistfulness, that can accompany the distant remembrance of simpler times.

This was the inspiration of William Saroyan as he sat down, and boom, suddenly there appears what would become his best loved book of stories. With all the intense effort I put into my other books, this one (I’m imagining he thought), the one that practically wrote itself, the one in which I warned readers that nothing extraordinary would happen, this is the one?! In his own incredulous (or perhaps disingenuous) words, he “does not believe this manner of writing is the way to get a message to go high-rolling down the ages”. Its greatest value, he thought (not without satire), would be to disqualify him for membership in prestigious literary societies. One can understand why he was thinking this way. In the second half of the 1930s, having risen to the top of the charts, so to speak, with his debut collection of stories including “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”, all eyes were on William Saroyan. Surrounded by the effervescing produce of Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, the pressure was on Saroyan to be likewise that great writer. And he did have such ambitions for himself. Yet, something drove him when starting My Name Is Aram to leave society’s gauntlet where it was thrown… or else maybe to find a different way to pick it up. My hunch (with hardly any evidence to back it up) is that he looked at this literary world he had entered, and decided that one helpful thing he could do right away is to center or root himself—to ask himself what had been important in making him who he is. Then, to search that out, or to convey it, he sat back and reminisced (pen in hand) about his humble early life in the immigrant Armenian fruit-growing community of the San Joaquin Valley, California. His goal was not to expose the suffering of the poor or rail eloquently against social ills, not to decry materialism or the threat of fascism, not to create a work of stylistic genious. Rather, his goal was simply to paint vignettes of the sorts of characters that were his family and neighbors in pre-Depression Fresno—to smile at them, to paint them in a sympathetic light, and to draw gently from them what practical wisdom and wit influenced his own development and might be worth preserving for others. Thus we have the young Aram Garoghlanian. And as the author says of himself, though he might not be Aram, he is certainly not not Aram.

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The Dream of the Rood

anonymous

7th-8th century

(In a vision, the cross of Christ reflects with awe on its part in the death of God.)

The beginning of The Dream of the Rood in Anglo-Saxon (Old English), in its only surviving manuscript, the 10th century “Vercelli Book”. It resides in the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, Italy, but can be viewed digitally on the British Library website.

 

“The most beautiful of the medieval religious poems”. This is often said of The Dream of the Rood. The first time I saw this written—I had never even heard of the poem—it was by the Anglo-Saxon scholar R. K. Gordon in the colorful old Everyman Library series. The description as beautiful captured my attention. And it is beautiful. The vivid imagery, the incorporation of heroic and mystical themes, the profound devotion, the ethereal vision, the very language. Seeing such a work called beautiful is gratifying, for it highlights a virtue that is often languishing in recent religious literature, and religious sensibility in general. In both East and West, the enjoyment of beauty has frequently been marred by a suspicion that it may tempt one to elevate the lower over the higher, or to submit to illusory or distracting pleasure. Calling a religious poem “beautiful” recalls a time and a place when beauty was a central value in the building of churches, in the composition of sacred music, in devotional images and writings, and even in the grounds for the faith commitment itself. There have been times and places when the contemplation and enjoyment of beauty was widely embraced, on the idea, as Aristotle said, that “Beauty is the gift of God.”

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Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert

1857

(An unhappily married woman pursues a lifelong quest for the fulfillment of her romantic desires, by any means necessary.)

Dolce far niente (Sweet Doing Nothing), by Auguste Toulmouche (1877). This painting is in a private collection, but can be viewed digitally on WikiArt.

 

When a novelist is said to rebel against romanticism, anyone with an imaginative, adventurous, passionate, chivalrous, or spiritual streak may be forgiven for wanting to give it a pass. Such a writer sounds staid and dry, shaking a finger at anything beautiful or enjoyable; or worse, morose—seeing the gray in everything and anxious to spend hundreds of pages sharing it with you. So who is this Flaubert, then? Flaubert with the beautiful descriptions, the engaging plot, the dramatic scenes, the fevered dialogue? With this great author’s help we should make a crucial distinction. Flaubert’s aim is leveled not at imagination or adventure or passion or chivalry or spirituality per se, but rather at the perverse attention romantics often pay to the emotional effects that these things have on us. Just as it is not money itself, despite frequent misquotes, but the love of money, that is said to be the root of evil, likewise it is the worship of imagination’s fancy-tickling effects, rather than imagination itself, that novels like Madame Bovary seek to dethrone. Emma Bovary ruins her life because, in Flaubert’s words, she seeks emotions, not landscapes. She has a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, meaning she wants to gobble up beauty rather than appreciate it. The romanticism Flaubert criticizes is selfish, subjective, emotivist. It is that attitude which confuses sensual appeals of luxury with the joys of the heart. It is what says “Give me that” rather than “That is wonderful”. Even a true romantic, a healthy romantic– perhaps especially such a person– can doff the hat to Flaubert for this.

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The Time Machine

H. G. Wells

1895

(A push on a lever, a blurry dizziness, a clap of thunder… and a veil falls away to reveal the world of our far distant descendants.)

Time Travel, by Sara Raber (2011), created using Apophysis. Sara’s artwork is available at FineArtAmerica.com.

 

Breaking the rule that you have to proceed constantly forward in time at precisely one second per second is as old as the human imagination, appearing even in ancient stories where a god or a bonk on the head could slip you to another point in history. Surprisingly enough, though, the idea of a device or vessel that can carry one through time in the way that wagons and boats carry us through space is apparently less than a century and a half old. Perhaps the backwards-running clock in an 1881 Edward Page Mitchell story is the first time machine in literature; or else, if you have to be able to climb into the thing for it to count, then Enrique Gaspar’s “anacronópete” of his now little-known 1887 novel of that name narrowly beats out H. G. Wells’ 1888 story “The Chronic Argonauts”. Evidently the hyperindustrializing and engine-happy Americans and Western Europeans of the late 19th century, inspired no doubt also by the first stirrings of modern physics, were beginning to let their minds wander as to what a precisely engineered assemblage of gears and rods and bolts might be able to do. The Time Machine is the quintessence of this concept in literature, and is one of the best science fiction stories we have, even given the golden age of that genre that followed.

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The Honorary Consul

Graham Greene

1973

(Argentinian revolutionaries abduct the wrong political figure by mistake, and one cynical acquaintance is the only one who cares… perhaps not even he does.)

 Film and TelevisionStill from the 1983 John Mackenzie film The Honorary Consul (later changed inscrutably to Beyond the Limit); Bob Hoskins plays the Argentinian Colonel Perez, who is suspicious of Eduardo Plarr (played by Richard Gere) of being too close to the revolutionaries. This image featured on Metro UK when Bob Hoskins died in 2014.

 

Graham Greene, though a writer of great variety, is known for his “seedy” settings (he popularized the adjective, much to his regret) and the moral dimension of his very human characters. In these respects The Honorary Consul is an enduring and typical example of Greene’s style. Early in the book the protagonist Eduardo Plarr criticizes the romantic novelist Saavedra by saying that “life isn’t like” the way that author writes. Here Greene crafts a novel according to the alternative strategy; to show what life is like, with real people encountering real difficulties. The characters’ frail humanity and the ambivalence of their commitments will encourage us imperfect readers to relate honestly to them. The author refuses to vault skyward into heroism, idealism, wonder, or joy, perhaps as these are short-lived and usually confused in the real world. The good guys are bad enough to prevent us from admiring them, and the bad guys are good enough to prevent us from demonizing them. No character has an entirely appetizing mixture of traits, but no character is thoroughly distasteful either.

Like many readers, my gut draws me towards works whose moral distinctions rise into sharper relief—I enjoy esteeming my protagonists. If we insist on this criterion, Greene will not fare well. After meeting the main characters and following them around for a while, we might question whether they are likable enough company. Such readers must take a step of faith throughout the first 100 pages or so, that Greene is telling us a story that we will really care to read. Embarking on the book was for me like hearing the first few sentences of a party yarn that we fear might not be worth the patience. However, may no reader give up before realizing Greene’s purpose! The first impression fades and becomes irrelevant as one reads onward. The grayscale characterization is not due to neglect or apathy on the part of the author. Far from it—the ambiguity represents a strategy conceived for a distinct moral purpose, as paradoxical as this seems. A novel need not be moralizing to be morally interesting.

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The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

(Notre-Dame de Paris)

Victor Hugo

1831

(Love for a young gypsy woman allows an ugly man to rise above the world’s hatred of him, and to show his inner beauty).

Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in the 1939 movie directed by William Dieterle. This and other stills can be found on the IMDB page for the film.

 

Beauty and beast stories are thousands of years old. Here is how they generally go: a beautiful maiden somehow must associate with a character of less-than-alluring appearance, such as an animal, a god in disguise, or a magically uglified human. The girl eventually sees beyond the grotesque exterior to the real person inside, and falls in love. Then very often the whole moral is promptly compromised by the male character’s transformation into the handsome prince. Ah—it’s really about outward appearance (and wealth) after all! I write this with a smirk, as in fact those stories are not claiming that outward appearance should have no importance, but just that love can be demonstrated to be rooted in deeper things if we remove good looks as an experiment. (By the way, we’re generally talking here about removing the man’s good looks. Removing the woman’s good looks is far rarer in literature, as any student of human behavior could have predicted.)

Victor Hugo, perhaps the wisest of the great French novelists, wrote the perfect beauty and beast story—indeed, could do so only because he was wise. He understood beauty and was true to it in all its manifestations; and he understood ugliness and was fearless and trenchant in portraying its effects and implications. The novel is fundamentally about beauty: of Notre Dame cathedral, of Quasimodo its deaf mutant bell-ringer, of Esmeralda the gypsy girl. The beauty is very different in the three examples, except in fragility, which they share—these three beautiful things, a building, a beast, and a belle. And their fragility is due to ugliness, which likewise takes diverse forms.

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“On Fairy-stories”

J. R. R. Tolkien

1938

(The realm of Faërie is no frivolity, but a place of profound enchantment, offering glimpses into deep mysteries and addressing fundamental human desires.)

Crop of The Gardens of the Merking’s Palace, by J. R. R. Tolkien (1927), an illustration for Roverandom. (Bodleian Library, Oxford).

 

“Lies, though breathed through silver”. It was September 1931. Little could J. R. R. Tolkien have guessed that this insult of myth, from the mouth of his hard-headed friend C. S. Lewis, would spur him to a rebuttal that would blossom into the most sustained and thoughtful argument for the value of fiction in the history of literature. And, while we’re at it, little could Lewis have guessed that Tollers’ argument, as they walked in a park behind Magdalen College, Oxford, would plant a mustard seed that would eventually transform Lewis into a myth-maker himself, not to mention the most celebrated writer on God (that myth of all myths) in the twentieth century. What was that argument? What path could possibly carry a wayfarer from the valley where myths are childish propaganda, to the hilltop where they are powerful elicitors of fleeting joy and hint at truths beyond our comprehension?

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Hippolytus

(Ἱππολυτος)

Euripides

429 BC

(Disaster follows when Phaedra falls for her stepson!)

Pierre-Narcisse Guerin - Phaedra and Hippolytus 1815Crop of Phaedra and Hippolytus (1802), by the French neoclassical painter Baron Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (Louvre, Paris). The painting manages dramatically to squeeze in several elements of the plot: the youth expresses his resistance to Phaedra, even as the nurse whispers in her ear; meanwhile Theseus clenches his fist in rage.

The gods will have their play, and we piteous humans must suffer in double jeopardy. First, vice will eventually bring destruction, and yet we are by nature weak and prone to vice. Second, everyone is subject to fate, which is not kinder to good people than to bad. So we are doomed—we cannot be virtuous as we want to be, and so we are in trouble; and yet even if we could be virtuous we would get smacked anyway by the vicissitudes of fate! Hence Euripides’ fist-waving at the gods… yet he manages to preserve some reverence. Artemis tells us that the pious are still much more highly regarded by the gods than the impious. When the impious person suffers, the gods nod “take that!”, whereas the faithful incur their favor, which can bring some benefit. So, given our sad lot in life, it is better to be suffering and good than suffering and evil. Or that is Euripides’ line anyway. In this play we see how this web of cosmic influences plays out in the life of a chaste and honorable man destined for greatness by rights, when (through no fault of his own) his stepmother takes an improper liking to him.

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The Little Prince

(Le Petit Prince)

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

1943

(A little man leaves his tiny planet to explore the universe, only to discover that the most important things in life can be found anywhere.)

ExuperyIllustration

Watercolor illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry from chapter 26 of Le Petit Prince. Original drawings, watercolors (though not this one!), and pages from the only known handwritten draft of the novelette are housed in The Morgan LibraryNew York. Saint-Exupéry wrote and illustrated this story in New York City and Long Island following the Nazi invasion of France.

As hackneyed as the term “gem” is in the description of short and delightful books, The Little Prince has got to be the epitome. What other modern story is so small, simple, beautiful, and valuable? It radiates purpose modestly, its convincing naivete managing somehow to soften sharp lessons within a sweet and personal story. An actual gem, however, can be valued by anyone, even the unworthy—those who value it only because they can use it to get something else. The Little Prince has no such utility. Its essence is a rebellion against the importance we tend to place on utility. If we find ourselves appreciating The Little Prince, it can only be because we see some light in the book’s countercultural perspective—because we love this small meandering tale according to its true worth.

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The History of Mr. Polly

H. G. Wells

1910

(A man of precisely 37.5 years of age can’t seem to find success or happiness in life… perhaps he has to do something drastic.)

 John Mills stars in the 1949 film version of the History of Mr Polly.John Mills as Alfred Polly in the 1949 Anthony Pelissier film.  Mills’ expression seems to capture Polly’s listless anomie.  This still was also chosen to head the description of the novel for The Guardian‘s list of the 100 Greatest Novels (Robert McCrum named it #39– but meant it to represent all of H. G. Wells’ work).  This photograph is in the Ronald Grant Archive

 

“HOLE!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “ ‘Ole!”  He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”

Thus begins an entertaining fictional biography of a man who really needs a whack upside the head– one of several greats in that odd subgenre– Tom Jones, Babbitt, and Updike’s Rabbit series, for examples. (H. G. Wells writing fictional biography? In a contemporary setting? This might surprise those of us, such as myself, who had equated him with science fiction and socialist nonfiction. But anyway…) Our protagonist is an endearing and vivid, if frustrating character, who hides his depression with funny one-liners and his poor education with deliberate mispronunciations. And, as with many colorful characters in real life, beneath the wit cowers a man who hasn’t a clue where he’s going. His path through life is that of a flat boat with untethered sails– he might as easily plummet to his death over a waterfall as drift into a homely port.  Or, to use Alfred Polly’s own metaphor, he’s in a hole.  And no amount of quaint phrasing and amusing epithet, no ability to make women giggle, and no success as a shopkeeper is going to hoist him out of it.

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