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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

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.

(more…)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe

1852

(Two slaves struggle mightily: one for her liberty, the other for his integrity.)

Group of SlavesCrop of A Group of Slaves leaving to Work in the Field on James Hopkinson’s Plantation in Edisto Island, New Hampshire, circa 1862 by Henry P. Moore. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).

 

This novel, the best selling book in the nineteenth century besides the Bible, is a remarkably forceful argument against the world’s most blatant form of widespread institutionalized violation of human rights. It is a collage of slave lives and lifestyles assembled with a thin glue of plot, all combining to urge our sympathies with the slaves and our antipathy to the injustice of their condition. It is an effort to bring free people to the realization that slaves are real persons who have the same sorts of spirits and minds as their masters, and yet they are and will always be subject to all sorts of anguish, suffering, and torture until slavery is abolished. “It is a comfort to hope,” Harriet Beecher Stowe writes in the Preface, “as so many of the world’s sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.” We can be thankful that the author’s hope came true– the book served phenomenally well the purpose for which Stowe designed it. Testament to this are its enormous sales, the several hasty rebuttal “slavery isn’t so bad” novels, and, perhaps more than anything else, the comment of Abraham Lincoln when he met the author, calling her the “little woman whose book started this big war”.

(more…)

Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

1973

(Little do a frustrated writer and a troubled car dealer realize, that their impolite author is using their journey to meet each other as an excuse to mastermind a deconstruction of modern values!)

RaboKarabekianTheTemptationOfSaintAnthonySort of The Temptation of St. Anthony, sort of by Rabo Karabekian, 1950. Sort of Sateen Dura-Luxe acrylic wall paint and day-glo tape. 20 x 16 feet. This can sort of be seen in the Midland City Art Gallery, to which it was sort of sold by the artist for $50,000.

 

A Vonnegut novel grows on you… like an exquisite acquired taste… or else a nagging corn on the foot. All three experiences are underestimated at first, and with time a realization dawns that there is something here that cannot be ignored. Some deride Breakfast of Champions as one of his “lesser”, although more popular, novels. For my part, I think that here we have a wine that is initially very peculiar on the palate, and its apparent confusion will conceal the vibrant undertones if one is not careful to taste it slowly and carefully. Or else, here we have a blasted gadfly of a corn that starts insidiously in a part of the foot’s ball that is unlikely to feel it until the thing has incubated for a mighty long time, insinuating deeply into one’s tissues. And when finally noticed, ouch does that root go deep!

(more…)

Cimarron

Edna Ferber

1930

(The Oklahoma land rush of 1889 gives Yancey Cravat an opportunity to rescue his wife from civilized mediocrity, and head west for the untamed life of the pioneer.)

XiangZhangOklahomaLandRush1893Oklahoma Land Rush 1893, by contemporary Chinese-American painter Xiang Zhang.  This painting can be found in his online gallery.

Yancey Cravat is the Cimarron—the wild one, like an aimless river or a jousting bighorn sheep. He may tote legal volumes as easily as a gun, and be as quick with a Shakespeare quote as with a trigger; and yes, he’s a lawyer and the editor of a socially active newspaper… but this is no milktoast city boy. This is Buffalo-Head, the tall, gruff, steel-eyed pioneer for whom three years in the same place or a single day without some sort of risk or conflict is evidently his idea of hell. And, no doubt, the wife of such a one is bound to be some kind of woman: Sabra, a sharp, spirited, strong, self-sufficient saber of a woman. In fact, although most assessments of this book will tell you that its permanence lies in its presentation to the world of the unforgettable Yancey Cravat, who is it that ties the book together? Whom does the narrative follow, when Yancey’s itchy traveling bone takes him to Alaska or the Spanish-American war? Not him, but the determined, toiling Sabra. Granted, she lacks the explosive flash of her husband–her way is much too pragmatic to put her in much danger or make her many enemies.  But she is really the central character of the book, the one who grows, the one who succeeds in adapting herself to the various jolting cultural shifts that get thrown into her path by the errant Yancey, or by her son, or by the discovery of oil.  At first entry into the fledgling land rush town of Osage, Oklahoma, fresh from the overprotection of her family the proper Venables of Wichita, she breaks into sobs when kissed by a stranger on the street. But give her eight or nine years, and she’s riding in the middle of the night into an Indian reservation during a mescal ceremony and demanding that her unconscious son be thrown onto her cart so she can bring him home. But of course, yes, we do want to hear about Yancey, despite… or maybe partly because of… his refusal to stick around. He’s idealistic, imposing, and indomitable. Take one particular tent meeting, for instance: in the course of giving a sermon, he manages to work in a self-defense killing—yes, the actual killing, not the story of a killing. And when warned that his pro-Indian editorials are going to get him killed, his reply is simply the unearthly death-scream of the Cherokee.

(more…)

One of Cleopatra’s Nights

(Une nuit de Cléopâtre)

Théophile Gautier

1838

(A young hunter is willing to die to be with queen Cleopatra for just one evening.)

AlexandreCabanel_CleopatraPoisonsSlavesAlexandre Cabanel’s 1887 painting, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Those Condemned To Death (Cléopâtre essayant des poisons sur des condamnés à mort).  It can be seen at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA), Antwerp.

 

Word for word, this little novella (three times the length of a typical short story at about 12,700 words) probably paints the most vibrant description of ancient Egypt in all of literature.  This is my favorite aspect of the work, though for others it might be the engaging romantic plot, or the typical though attractive take on the queen’s psychology.  It is a simple tale, but richly set and beautifully told.

(more…)

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar