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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stories

Mark Twain

1865-1890

(A champion of common sense and nonsense casually delivers his colorful yarns, witty satires, and twisty dramas.)

KolmanRosenberg_lodi-farmhouse-porchCrop of a photograph of the front porch of a 200+ year old farmhouse in Lodi, Ohio, by Kolman Rosenberg.  Such a setting is perhaps the most agreeable for the telling of Twain’s rambling tales of American life and human foibles.  This photograph can be found on Kolman Rosenberg’s blog Photography Unposed.

 

Sitting with Mark Twain when he’s in a storytelling mood, we get to know the man—or at least he leads us to believe we get to know him. He lets us in on private jokes; he talks to us freely and without affected polish, perhaps puffing on his pipe in the middle of a sentence; and he doesn’t mind making clever offhand remarks about even the touchiest of matters. And, to reciprocate the casual friendship, we allow him to wander on tangents, even if it prevents him from ever getting to his point; and we don’t let on that we mind when he decides not to tell us the end of a story, or when he makes fun of something that we happen to like; and, especially, we just don’t get too critical with him in general.  Since Twain’s favorite literary pastime is to smirk at people who take themselves too seriously, when we take him too seriously the joke is on us!  Besides, the path of his narrative, though unpredictable, is as organic and spontaneous as a stream– who can criticize a stream?

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

Arthur Conan Doyle

1902

(The scientific minds of Holmes and Watson are tested by howls on the moor, the legend of a fiery hell-hound, and a giant pawprint next to a dead nobleman.)

The Hound of the Baskervilles bCrop of The Hound of the Baskervilles, an illustration by Matthew Stewart commissioned for the Easton Press edition of Doyle’s novel.  It is accompanied by the following quote from the book: “Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined with a flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face.”

 

A novel-length Sherlock Holmes mystery!  The readers of the Strand Magazine must have been delighted.  They must have vigorously discussed with each other the prospects of the case between installments.  Releasing a detective story by degrees has got to be risky, since the readers have so much time to figure everything out.  There are enough threads interwoven in this story, though, and enough minor details that must be incorporated into a solution, that I suspect almost everyone will be surprised at something in the denouement.  Besides, we would need a healthy dose of luck to solve the riddle ourselves, for there are crucial elements about which we can only guess during the narration.  These are revealed to us only after Holmes has discovered them and solved the case in his mind.  In this way, Doyle all but ensures that competition with the sleuth is beyond our grasp.

Although the most haunting aspect of the typical Sherlock Holmes case is nothing more than the dense fog of pipe smoke around the detective’s chair, Doyle did have an interest in spiritualism, and wrote a few books on the subject. In The Hound of the Baskervilles he combines these two interests by infusing the tale with a strong atmosphere of macabre otherworldliness. Probably more than the facts of the case or its solution, the damp darkness and chilling moans of the moor are likely to remain with us long after we have finished reading the book.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

1886

(The fortunes of a strong-willed hay-trusser prove to be as volatile as he is.)

HardyCasterbridgeHenchardAndSusan“Hay-trussing–?” said the turnip-hoer, who had already begun shaking his head. “O no.”  The first of Robert Barnes’s 20 illustrations for The Mayor of Casterbridge in the 1886 weekly magazine The Graphic, where the novel appeared between January-May 1886.  Here the protagonist, Michael Henchard, is asking whether there is local work available.  All 20 illustrations can be seen on The Victoria Web.

 

Michael Henchard is an unemployed field laborer who, under the influence of rum at a fair, impulsively starts to auction off his wife and baby daughter, to much laughter.  His wife stands.  A hush falls as a sailor actually puts five guineas on the table.

“Now,” said the woman, breaking the silence, so that her low dry voice sounded quite loud, “before you go further, Michael, listen to me. If you touch that money, I and this girl go with the man. Mind, it is a joke no longer.”

But Henchard will not be shamed or threatened.  When he says something he means it!  And so minutes later he sits there blinking away his disbelief as Susan, with little Elizabeth-Jane, walks away with a stranger.  Thus begins The Mayor of Casterbridge: The Life and Death of a Man of Character.  Here we see how a person’s destiny is shaped by the interaction of external forces and internal qualities– the world and the self.  Take one part circumstance, add one part decision, repeat continually towards success or failure.

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The Oregon Trail

Francis Parkman

1848

(Horses, rifles, and knives see a party of adventurers through the land of expansive plains, craggy mountains, buffalo, and the Sioux.)

AlfredJacobMiller-FortLaramieCrop of Fort Laramie, by Alfred Jacob Miller (1858-1860), painted from memory, as Miller had joined an 1837 expedition along the Oregon Trail.  This is the only painting of the fort, as no other artist had trekked there prior to 1840 when it was torn down.  Fort Laramie lay at the junction of the east-west Oregon Trail and a north-south Indian trail.  The Cheyenne and Sioux would camp outside the fort for trading purposes.  This painting can be found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

“Shaw! Buddy!” Imagine a young, spontaneous Yankee calling out to his friend, both of them just out of college. He proposes that they leave the effeminate comforts of the East, and spend a summer adventuring westward into the untamed lands where life is dangerous and fascinating. Francis Parkman explains (ch.II):

“The restlessness, the love of wilds and hatred of cities, natural perhaps in early years to every unperverted son of Adam, was not our only motive for undertaking the present journey. My companion hoped to shake off the effects of a disorder that had impaired a constitution originally hardy and robust; and I was anxious to pursue some inquiries relative to the character and usages of remote Indian nations, being already familiar with many of the border tribes.”

So they did it. In 1846. Francis was 23. And the recollections of that journey, The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, remain with us as one of the best treatments of the early West that we will ever have. Parkman’s prose has the feel of a chronicle—it is obviously nonfiction, a travelogue.  But it is not a ponderous journal of trivia and redundancy through which we must wade for hours to find the few interesting episodes; nor is each sunset a springboard for a forced flight of sentimental fancy in poor imitation of Byron’s Childe Harold or other Old World sketches.  Rather, it is an engaging selection of vignettes, personalities, and anecdotes that admit us to the ranks of the “ragamuffin cavalcade” that was Parkman’s expedition.  Parkman’s writing is like Parkman himself—the stereotypical American at his best, one might say: direct yet perceptive, practical yet romantic, hearty yet insightful.

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