Go Down, Moses

William Faulkner

1942

(Vivid tales from the deeply rooted McCaslin family of Mississippi explore the human desire to dominate others.)

BoydSaundersEtchingCropCrop of an etching by Boyd Saunders illustrating Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.  Courtesy of HottyToddy.com

 

Faulkner raises a novel, especially Go Down, Moses, like a mountain range.  A small peak here, another one some indefinite distance to the side but nearer to the viewer, another apparently between them but actually much further in the distance.  The slopes are irregular in grade, no shape is symmetrical, no sequence predictable.  The greatest of the mountains has flanking foothills—here at least is order and intelligibility!  One is prepared for the most gigantic landforms.  Actually all of them, though apparently haphazardly arranged, are obviously part of a single landscape, each part depending on those around it for its qualities and significance.  The suggestion that each mountain be viewed as an isolated individual, despite distinctions of personality and structure, is ridiculous.  One best realizes this, perhaps, by receding somewhat from the view.  For when close to it, when stumbling over craggy outcrops and struggling to circumvent gorges, the scene seems hopelessly chaotic and fragmented.  Such is Go Down, Moses, a challenging and awesome range of tales.

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The Catcher in the Rye

J. D. Salinger

1951

(He may not know what he wants to be in life, but he sure knows one thing he doesn’t want to be—phony! Unfortunately, the world doesn’t seem to agree with him).

the_catcher_in_the_rye_EdwardAaronCrop of The Catcher in the Rye by edwardaaronart on DeviantArt.

 

Holden Caulfield is a unique and precious personality in literature.  Although I surely would not want to be subjected in all my reading to the starkness of The Catcher in the Rye, the book is curiously invigorating and liberating.  Despite what one might call the main character’s cynicism, almost paradoxically the strongest draw of the novel for me is that he is refreshing.  Holden is thoughtful, genuine, unsettled, and uninhibited, and these qualities allow the author to portray our secret thoughts and the culture of our time, in the evident hope that we can be enlightened by them.

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Tom Jones

Henry Fielding

1749

(Tom really wants to be good for the sake of his love Sophia, but his nature keeps getting in the way!)

TomJonesMovie1963Albert Finney as Tom Jones, and Susannah York as Sophia Western, in Tony Richardson’s 1963 film adaptation. Courtesy of the British Film Institute.

 

It is prudent to be morally pure– there can be weighty unseen consequences to any moral failure.  Fielding’s signature novel has this ponderous theme, and yet manages not to be at all heavy-handed but funny, colloquial, at times bawdy, ironic, rollicking.  The theme is kicked here and there and tossed around like a ball, but it is pervasive nonetheless– throughout this History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, from his birth to the point at which he finally comes to the beginning of what promises to be a good and happy life with Sophia, all of Tom’s sundry dilemmas and anguishes are a result of his own moral weakness.  Although an otherwise upstanding and honorable individual, poor Tom cannot seem to surmount two kinds of temptation: to lust and to folly.  He repeatedly places himself into compromising situations with women that– even if Fielding’s presentation of them makes us smirk– only prove disastrous to him through his family or his beloved.  Also, to achieve his goals he often resorts to schemes that involve some deceit, and that always backfire on him in the worst way imaginable.  We see Tom, and rightly so, as a victim of Fortune throughout the book; but he lays himself open to Fortune’s whims by his actions, and so he has lured his own fate.  No elements of the plot of this book are foreign to this theme.

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The Romance of Tristan and Iseult

(Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut)

Joseph Bédier

1900

(A knight and a lady pursue their magical love through bloodshed and sorrow.)

JohnWilliamWaterhouse_TristanDetail from Tristan and Isolde with the Potion (1916), by John William Waterhouse. The philtre on the high seas cements their love for all time– a draught unto death.  This painting is in the private collection of Fred & Sherry Ross.  Read about this collection at the Art Renewal Center

When tales pass through centuries of retellings, they tend to become what of audio media we would call “overproduced”:  too many interpreters have slanted the story their various ways, too many embellishments and new episodes have been inserted, too many accommodations and updates have aimed at suiting the fancies of each audience.  In the process the story can lose some of its grip on our imagination and our romantic sensibilities.  It can be so cobbled and abused that we are left to distill the heart of it as best we can from a variety of sources.  The only way such a beautiful old tale could ever be told today in anything like its original form and spirit, would be for three literary virtues to unite:  a single author must be simultaneously an expert scholar, a great poet, and above all, modest.  Only a scholar will know the history of the work; will be able to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in elements of theme, characterization, and plot; and will sufficiently understand an ancient teller’s perspective so as to effectively reproduce it.  And only a great poet will be able to convey this perspective, and the story itself, with convincing unity and supreme skill—for expectations of quality and beauty are very lofty when we pick up a beloved and popular story.  And finally, many a great poet and scholar will have great pride as well, in which case there will be too much of the writer and not enough of the legend in the text.  Granted, we love our authors’ egos when it is them we want to see; but if the aim is to represent something of the original (or at least old) character of a romance, an author must exercise admirable self-control. We can thank Joseph Bédier for being this author for the legend of Tristan & Iseult.

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Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

1860-1861

(Pip tells us of his lifelong love, the unexpected rise and fall of his fortune, and the lessons he learned about what makes a gentleman.)

MissHavisham&PipDetail from an 1860s illustration by John McLenan, “‘Who is it?’ said the lady at the table. ‘Pip, ma’am.'” Courtesy of The Victorian Web

 

In describing a novel, everyone, myself included, seems to have as the central focus an explanation of what the book is about, whether plotwise or themewise. So it has always been a curiosity to me that such a description rarely lures me to a novel, or, if I have already read it, rarely captures what I loved about it. Tell me that Great Expectations is Pip’s life story where such and such happens, and I will probably not care too much. Tell me that it is a story of foolish desires and their detriment to our good and healthy existence, or of the confusion we often suffer between our expectations and reality, or of the functions and effects of guilt or love or human sympathy– tell me that the book is about these things and I am likely to nod in agreement, but I’ll not be for the sake of those things very much impassioned to read the novel. It is not because I do not care about these things. In fact, I loved the novel and these are precisely what the novel is about, and I loved it at least partially because of them. But I suspect that there are situations where our experience of reading the novel results in our loving the novel for what it is, as distinct from what it is about. I think Dickens is one of those authors for whom this is regularly the case. Another orphan novel? the uninitiated might ask, having read David Copperfield. And we would have to say “Yes, Dickens is returning to theme of our human condition being one in which we are as orphans, trying to find our way through a world filled with few safe people and places but many threatening people and places. We must learn life’s lessons for ourselves, for our parents are not here to help us.” Now, as true and interesting as this is, does this statement shake the cynic from his negativity towards Dickens? Or, for the person who has read Great Expectations, does it nail down what is so endearing about the book? Probably not.

 

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Whose Body?

Dorothy L. Sayers

1923

(A financier goes missing and a lookalike is found dead in a bathtub.  The easygoing Lord Peter Wimsey searches for the connection.)

wimseyIan Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey, from the 1970s BBC miniseries (www.popmatters.com)

 

As troubling as murder is in our society, more of them happen on bookstore shelves than anywhere else, and millions of apparently peaceful people pay plenty of money to read about them, as if it were a pity that they don’t happen more often.  I have casually wondered why.  Probably it is an example of entertainment by extremity: if conflict is the heart of any good story, surely lots of people will go for people killing each other, since you can’t get more conflictual than that.  This doesn’t really answer the question, though—it just passes the buck from fascination with murder to fascination with conflict in general.  But of course we humans are inherently scenario-building, personality-scrutinizing, lie-detecting social beings.  Human success has always depended on figuring other people out.  The fact that one of the characters in such stories is likely to be the murderer is probably a large part of the draw.  Trying to solve a murder mystery flexes the same mental muscles that we use for everyday social problem-solving and monitoring.  And a murder is, again, more likely to catch our attention than any other breach of social mores.  The authors make the stakes so high to ensure our attention.  Not everyone goes in for these books, of course, which is simply because our society provides us with a variety of different ways to address basic human concerns.  Take an EEG of a video gamer, sports follower, or romance reader at their respective hobbies.  I suspect they are scratching the same itches in different ways.

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July’s People

Nadine Gordimer

1981

(A white South African family in danger of racial violence flees to a village under the protection of their black servant.)

LukeKgatitsoe1986Luke Kgatitsoe, Magopa, South Africa, 1986 (photo by David Goldblatt)

 

You like to have some cup of tea?—

She runs.

This is the novel.  Rather, between these two lines lies the novel, and these two (the first and last lines of the novel) are the tail ends of two realities that rest on either side of the novel and overlap within it.  The pre-novel reality is a comfortable family in South Africa under apartheid, served by a black man July (I almost wrote “Friday”), “as his kind has always done for their kind”.  The post-novel reality is an unwritten future, a frenzied sprint to the unknown, where the white mother, in some ways the central figure of the family, flees either to her violent death or to her salvation.  Which of these she finds is not known, was not written, never came to pass.  The novel is not about an ending, and so this is not a spoiler.  The novel is about the boiling metamorphosis in process.  As the novel’s frontispiece quote by Antonio Gramsci indicates, the goal is to portray the “morbid symptoms” of a time when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.  The first line is the old that is dying, and the last line is the failing to be born of the new.  In a terseness and simplicity of prose not unlike that of her countryman Alan Paton, the eventual Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer unwraps the space between these two lines, guiding us through the development from one into the other.

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