classic Literature

Three Unconventional Roads To Wodehouse

Mention PG Wodehouse in a conversation and most people will immediately think of Jeeves and Wooster.  That’s partly due to the success of the books and stories, but, I suspect, mostly because of the various film and TV adaptations.  Of course, the one with Hugh Laurie as Wooster utterly deserves to have that notoriety.

But there is more to Wodehouse than the butler and his hapless gentleman.  No less a writer (and polymath) than Isaac Asimov said that Wodehouse, on a sentence level, is one of the three greatest writers in the English language (the other two, if memory serves, being Austen and Dickens).

People often scoff at that, of course.  A mere humorist upstaging countless numbers of earnest, serious writers, some of whom are even politically committed?  Blasphemy.  My answer to that is simple: pick up any of Wodehouse’s books, turn to a random page, and read any sentence that is more than five or six words long.  If you know anything about literature or writing, the odds are that you will have to concede the point.  He is consistently that good.

The above means that it’s a bit of a tragedy that casual readers don’t always go beyond Jeeves and Wooster so, in order to address that failing, we present three other good Wodehouse books (and discuss the three very different editions we read).  Think of it as a Classically Educated public service (you can thank us by buying our mug)!

The Girl in Blue.  PG Wodehouse.  Paperback

The first is The Girl in Blue.  This is a fairly typical standalone Wodehouse novel, and is a good non-Jeeves primer.  As you can see from the cover illustration of the version we read, a policeman ends up in a pond.  This is a recurring theme in Wodehouse, and upon reflection, we feel that if it were only a recurring theme in other types of literature as well, the world would be a better place.  Of course, star-crossed lovers feature as well, another central tenet of the canon.  If you’re going to start, and have already read the Jeeves books, this is a good place to begin.

Mr Mulliiner Speaking PG Wodehouse

Unlike the above novel, which is unrelated to other Wodehouse tales the Mr Mulliner stories are linked together in various books.  The one we’ll be discussing here is entitled Mr. Mulliner Speaking, and is sheer happiness.  Mr. Mulliner is an older and wiser character, so he is usually above Wodehousian shenanigans but, to the eternal entertainment of his drinking buddies, he has a number of young, nearly brain-dead, relations who get themselves into ridiculous situations.  They always work out for the best, of course, but the way they do reminds us that in Wodehouse, as in life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  And few journeys are more rewarding.

We read this one in the original hardcover from 1929 (pictured above), and it was fun to experience it as pre-war readers would have.  But even though these are plentiful and affordable, there’s no real need to track one down, as 1929 is reasonably modern, so the book is just a book, not some artifact.

 

Utterly Uncle Fred PG Wodehouse

Finally, we reach the main course, a volume entitled Utterly Uncle Fred, which is quite possibly, the perfect Wodehouse.  The reason is that Uncle Fred is, perhaps, the most demented character in his oeuvre.  Age has not made this one wise, not in the least.  Instead, it sharpened his sense of chaos.  Of course, he is a kindly old man despite the propensity for landing his nephew in the soup, and his ability to get everyone in trouble is matched only by his knack for pulling them back out.  Once again, it’s the journey, not the destination that makes this book.

The book above is an omnibus edition (one of the nicest things about Wodehouse is the number of collections you can buy) containing three novels and one story, so it’s a meaty proposition.  We’d recommend buying it even if you’ve never read a line of Wodehouse in your life… but most people are too cautious with their money to do so, perhaps start with one of the other two.

Or just read some Jeeves and Wooster.  I’ve never heard of anyone going wrong with that!

BTW, apart from mugs, we also have a Facebook page.  You can like it if you like it!

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Beyond a Few Statues

Statue of Lenin Dropped

If you were alive in 1989, then you remember the end of socialism.  Millions of people decided that individual freedoms were more important than collective security and, defying humorless men with guns, brought down nearly every government in Eastern Europe.

One of the lasting images burned into the retinas of those of us glued to CNN was that of statues of socialist leaders being pulled down all across the region.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple.  The destruction of a few statues was not enough to destroy the idea of socialism, and, twenty years later, the world is awash with left-leaning ideas that cover the spectrum from slight sacrifices in personal freedom in the name of more equality for vulnerable populations to full-blown communism.  Socialism clearly isn’t dead.

Why?  Well, because the statues weren’t socialism, and neither was the Berlin Wall.  Socialism is a collection of ideas about how society should be structured in order to achieve a certain number of goals.  These ideas range from making capitalism a little more “fair” to doing away with the capitalist system altogether.

And these ideas don’t live in statues.  Statues are about power, but ideas live in books.  That’s why socialism didn’t die when everyone thought it had: those books stayed on the shelves and eventually a new generation of activists and scholars rediscovered them.

The above seemed a timely reminiscence, as today’s review is about Gone with the Wind.  The book, not the movie.

Why timely?  Because, as I write, there has been a very recent series of high-profile removals of Confederate statues from public spaces in the US, mainly of General Lee.  These removals took place in a highly polarized climate, but were undeniably driven by a large number of people (although they were probably also opposed by an equal number… as one can imagine, reliable numbers in today’s media climate are hard to come by).  Protesters and counter-protesters clashed, with violent and even tragic results.

Perhaps the problem is that both sides seem to have forgotten the lessons of 1989.  No one cared about the statues until they became front page news; they were just part of the urban landscape, and I’d have been willing to bet that most could not have told you who the guy on the horse was until everything hit the fan.

But the ideas?  They exist.  In the case of the Confederacy there is a structured case for why it existed: broadsides, pamphlets, letters and even the constitution are in university archives.  But these documents are not the ones that keep the idea of the Old South alive for its proponents.  Popular media does that job.

Perhaps the most virulent example of propaganda in that respect is a film: Birth of a Nation.  It tells the story from the Southern side, and no matter where your sympathies lie, you end up feeling strongly for the characters.  Yes, time has passed it by and the premise of the “Ride of the Klan” is cartoonish and grotesque, but the film is very well done all the same.  In fact, it is considered one of the true greats of early film.

More subtle is Judge Priest, where folksy Will Rogers shows us how it’s done without beating anyone over the head with it.

Gone with the Wind Paperback

There are countless other examples, mainly from the twenties and thirties when mass media was working up some serious steam, but the biggest seller of the idea of the Old South was clearly Gone with the Wind.

The film… was just a Hollywood blockbuster, and not really a propaganda piece (despite never questioning the nobility of the Confederate cause), but I’d argue that the book is the Old South’s Communist Manifesto.  It’s impossible to read this brick and not feel truly moved by the plight of every single Southern character (except Scarlett–she’s unbearable), and feel a deep sense of loss for a way of life that ended in blood and fire.

I don’t read books with an eye to the politics, which meant that I approached this simply as a book (and a romance at that), which meant that, until I sat down to write this review, was only concerned with the story itself and the plight of the characters.  The fact that it also contains a good blow-by-blow account of what was happening in the war made it doubly interesting for anyone who enjoys history (and if you’ve read our manifesto, you know we do).

By the end of the book, I felt truly sorry for what the characters had to live through… and also pined for the society that existed at the beginning of the book.  Granted, it only takes a little bit of analysis to recall that the gentrified lifestyle existed on the back of a slave economy but I postulate that most casual readers will not do the exercise of analyzing this and will walk away with a deep sense of loss.

I’ll go one step further: I will categorically bet that no one who picks up this book purely for pleasure will do this analysis.  The people who are sensitive to the issues it raises will either avoid it or read it for study purposes, not for fun.

Perfect propaganda.

So what to do with it?  It’s still selling very well, so it’s not going to go out of print anytime soon (and the Kindle is bringing it to a completely new audience).

So, ban it?  Burn it?  Try to pressure the publisher into canceling the next huge print run?

Or perhaps just accept that ideas can’t–and shouldn’t–be killed?

Whatever happens, it should be an interesting battle to watch.

 

 

Plot Versus Divine Retribution – Two Very Different Horror Classics

I’ve mentioned before, most recently here, that I had subscribed to the Easton Press Horror Classics.  This series allowed me to read a good number of works that I’d not read before (but that every horror aficionado should read).  But it also allowed me the opportunity to replace some dog-eared paperbacks with better looking books and, much more importantly, to reread some classics that I’d last perused in high school.

Easton Press Frankenstein

Our first subject today is Frankenstein.  Talk about a seminal work.  Mary Shelley‘s little ghost story written for a challenge in which she was very much the junior writer among the participating trio not only established her as the most famous of the three (I challenge even the readers of this august blog to name a work by Bryce Shelley or even by Lord Byron without Googling it–and they were much more famous than 18-year-old Mary before the publication of Frankenstein).

A blow-by-blow is unnecessary, of course, as everyone knows the story (mostly from watching the numerous film adaptations), but suffice to say that, if you haven’t reread this recently (or have–shame, shame!–only seen the films) I highly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about a guy who builds a monster; it’s a tale of suffering and penance and retribution, and ultimately about justice.  It’s more of a sad tale than a frightening one, and the structure, another thing that falls into the cracks of memory, is interesting, couched as it is in epistolary format.

Of course, this one isn’t really a horror book; it’s the very first real science fiction novel.  It explains its creature via science that still makes a certain amount of sense today, as opposed to the handwavery that was so common back then and still is today.  Even more than the pathos of the creature, that is what I like most about this book.

There’s a reason the book is a classic, and it has little to do with what makes the film a classic – they are very different experiences.

Easton Press Phantom

The second novel I reread was Gaston Leroux‘s The Phantom of the Opera, a book that became much more interesting to me once I realized that Leroux, far from being a horror writer, was actually a writer of detective fiction.

Read back-to-back with Frankenstein, the overarching impression is that the plot is much more important in the Leroux than in the Shelley.  There is little insight into the mind of the Phantom (or the other protagonists, really) other than through his actions.  The upshot, of course, is that watching any of the film adaptations, or even (shudder) the Lloyd Weber musical* gives one a reasonable approximation of what the book feels like.

This one is basically a crime novel with a horror element, and it reads that way.  And that may also be what made it so popular in the first place.

Perhaps the main takeaway from these readings is that the eternal discussion about whether a focus on plot or character make a book “better” are pretty much moot and a waste of everyone’s time.  Only the passing of the years can establish a book as a classic, and these two are basically opposite in their approach to that equation (Frankenstein drags a bit while deep thoughts are expressed, The Phantom races along) and yet both have become parts of the popular consciousness by way of literary acceptance.

Just about the only thing they have in common is a memorable and menacing, yet somewhat pathetic monster as the antagonist…  perhaps that’s the trick.

 

*Honesty compels me to admit that, while musicals in general (except for the comedies from the London stage of the twenties and thirties) should be punishable by death, The Phantom is actually bearable.  One of the few that can say that.

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

The Classics Made Pretty

What is a book lover?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people who enjoy books. For some, the love of books has to do with their collectibility: tracking down an inscribed first edition of a forgotten work is more of a rush than winning the lottery (although winning the lottery might allow larger purchases of collectible books).  Condition is paramount with this kind of book lover, and they probably will never read their new acquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who only care about what a book actually says.  They’re fine with reading on their kindle or, if they utterly hate screen reading, a used-bookstore-bargain-bin paperback.

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle.  Physical books have an appeal that transcends mere content.  The edition, and yes, even the cover illustration, is often interwoven with the image that the book conjures in our mind years after the fact.

Also, there are some books that we just know we’ll read again and again, and that having a decent copy will make our lives easier in the long run.  Anyone who’s ever read the densely-packed type of a 1970s paperback will likely understand why I’m looking for a decent edition of Rebecca to replace the one I bought in a used bookstore bargain bin.

So today, I wanted to do a roundup of three books that I reread recently because I purchased new, better editions of them.  All three of the new editions are of that type that look impressive on a shelf but, more importantly, all three will last much longer than the cheap mass market paperbacks they supplanted.

On this occasion, I will be talking about the edition and not the content; they are three well-documented classics which need no further critical examination from me (not that that’s ever stopped me before…).

These three books represent three very different approaches to premium bookmaking (note that none of them costs more than about $40, so “premium” is a relative term).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The first, The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov is one of the B&N leatherbound classics series, although I have serious doubts about whether that is real leather on the covers.  Looks more like plastic to me, although it does a decent impression of it on the shelf.

The main pro to this one is clearly the price and easy availability.  I picked it up off of a shelf at a B&N in the US.  No mail, no hassle.  The cons are that, though much sturdier than your average hardcover, and containing a ribbon bookmark, it pales a bit beside the more beautiful options around.  Still, I’m delighted to have this one in my collection.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson

Our next volume is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Though the Easton Press seems to have discontinued the edition I have and replaced it with an even better (albeit much, much more expensive) one, you can still buy copies of the one I refer to very easily online.

Now this one is definitely leather-bound, and the edition looks handmade.  It has illustrations, and the paper seems to be something created for connoisseurs (in fact, it is archival-quality paper, so there may be something in that).  It is a truly beautiful book meant to last and to look classy on a bookshelf.  The wide spacing of the type also makes it a pleasure to read, so double goodness.

Cons?  Well, from a practical point of view, you don’t really need a big hardback of this book.  A 25,000 word novella is essentially fine in paperback form, and the large format of this one does seem like overkill.  If you’re buying books only for the content,  you will want to give this one a miss.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

The last one we’re looking at today is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the beautiful Folio Society Edition.  It seems to have gone out of print, but here’s a nice one for a good price.

If anything – and despite the lack of leather – this edition is even more lush than the Easton Press book above.  The paper is of a beautiful light cream, and the title page tells you everything you might need to know:  the type of font, kind of paper, materials and even where the paper was milled.  It has a slipcase as well.

And if you’re looking for content?  Well, in this case, the edition is justified as well.  There’s no justification for reading The Name of the Rose in a cheap paperback edition.  This is a book to be savored, enjoyed, and reflected upon, no one that should leave ink marks from cheap printing on your hands.

And if you’re reading a book whose introduction says “Naturally, a manuscript” on a Kindle… well, then you are just a philistine and have obviously reached Classically Educated by mistake while searching for pictures of Etruscans having sex.

For the rest of you, the best of the three is the Eco… but those Easton Press editions sure look nice… and for $20, the three Asimov books in paperback would cost you more than the nice edition.  So pick your poison.

Seminal Vampires

In A Glass Darkly

 

Of course, Bram Stoker is often cited (by everyone who isn’t a serious student of the genre) as the father of Vampire fiction.  With Stephanie Meyer’s popularity, I suspect that the group of people who aren’t experts but are giving their opinion anyway is pretty big.  Hell, for all I know, Meyer’s fans might think the genre started with Anne Rice…  or with Meyer herself, and that this Dracula guy is a character from one of her unpublished novels.

At the risk of adding another non-expert voice to the discussion, I will not attempt to trace the genesis of the vampire myth in eastern European folklore (there are people who have dedicated their lives to that.  Go read their work) but will simply limit myself to expressing my thoughts about an early exponent that I happened to stumble across in my readings.

I was never specifically planning to read Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darklybut it happened to be included in Easton Press’ Horror Library, which I had signed up for (as mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for pretty editions).  It’s from 1872, which means that it predates Dracula by over 20 years, and it contains at least one story,  “Carmilla” which foreshadows the sexual overtones of Stoker’s book but focused on a lesbian as opposed to heterosexual relationship.

Vampire tits - Sheridan Le Fanu Carmilla

Of course, in 1872, you couldn’t really make things too explicit, but savvy readers will have known what LeFanu was talking about.  In fact, the story (more of a novella than a short story) has been adapted several times for film, always with a view for its shock value.  There’s an excellent article dealing with the film versions here (slightly, not excessively, NSFW).

Despite its notoriety, Carmilla wasn’t, in my opinion, the most memorable story in the book.  That honor has to go to “The Room in the Dragon Volant“, another novella length tale where sexual innuendo and dark motivations combine in what is essentially a modern horror/thriller framed in a Victorian writing style.  It develops slowly, but is extremely satisfying once it does.  No vampires in it, though.

The rest of the book is composed of shorter tales, of which “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, a tale of divine retribution, is also better than “Carmilla” IMO.  Satisfying and brutal– everything one needs in a horror story!

So, without opining on things I have no first-hand knowledge of, I can safely state that, while Stoker might have popularized the form, the vampire story in English literature preceded him.  And LeFanu was much braver in the use of cutting-edge, controversial elements than Stoker would ever be.

All in all, a good book, especially for those who enjoy a good haunt.

 

Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.

 

The Synchronicity of Birds

It seems like this was destined to be a Hitchcock-themed week, even though we didn’t plan it this way.  Our Tuesday post and this one were planned completely separately, but there is no denying that Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock are inextricably linked, so it’s a happy coincidence for those who are fans of both! –Ed.

Daphne Du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier

Most writers would probably kill to write a string of popular best-selling books spanning four decades and be created a Commander of the British Empire for their efforts, but it’s arguable that, in Daphne du Maurier’s case, she might have been better off having written just two books.

du Maurier will always be linked to one of the great novels of the 20th century, the brilliant Rebecca.  Despite modern covers that attempt to fool readers into thinking that the book is aimed at the 50 Shades audience, or possibly the crowd that prefers tamer romances, this one is not a piece of entertaining fluff.  It’s a mature, unflinching look at adults who are less than perfect, but who do what they must and deal with the consequences as best they can.

Rebecca also contains one of the most memorable (some people say the best) opening lines in literature:  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”… a haunting preview of what is to come and perfect for the novel.

It’s a bit sad that, while attempting to recapture the magic of her first hit, du Maurier focused on the romantic elements of the novel and produced a string of books that has since been completely dismissed by the establishment – with some justification – as mere time-passers not worthy of a second look.

birds-image

The Birds Film Still

The true tragedy is that the dismissal of her work often extends to Rebecca itself (which is both ignorant and unforgivable) and to her other noteworthy book: The Birds and Other Stories.

That du Maurier was a master of suspense is clearly evident from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock decided to film no less than three of her tales:  The Birds, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca – and it’s arguable that The Birds is Hitchcock’s most famous film (although, admittedly, he has so many that it could be quite an argument!).  Nevertheless, that’s not the way she’s remembered, and most people wouldn’t be able to connect The Birds with her at all.

It’s their loss.

Originally published as The Apple Tree, the title was changed and the book was reissued as a companion to the film in 1963… and it’s well worth reading.

It’s a book that clearly shows that du Maurier was wasting her time with romance.  While love interests were fine to sustain the plot, what she really, truly did well was a kind of weird suspense, a mix of slightly surreal elements that never let the reader understand whether events are caused by natural or supernatural forces, or even if, perhaps, the characters are imagining it all.

It’s a slim book, and has six stories in it, but, with a deft touch, explores everything from adultery to cults with much the same effect as Rebecca, but in bite-sized chunks.  Anyone wanting to learn how to write a modern suspense tale – or wishing to consume one, need look no further.  Even though they are well over a half-century old, they feel perfectly modern (if one overlooks technology, of course).  The prose is that good.

And the title story feels very different from the film… so even if you think you know the tale, you don’t (also interesting to read the original material as Hitchcock did, to see what inspired him about it).

Of course, this review is being written for Classically Educated, so we’d be truly remiss if we failed to mention that a beautiful edition of this one was Published by Easton Press, although we don’t know if it’s currently available (ebay should help if not…).

All in all, we strongly recommend you pop into the local bookstore, buy these two du Maurier books and make a comment to the clerk about how sad it was that she never wrote anything else.  It would be a small white lie, and who knows – you might possibly be starting the restoration of her reputation.

A Novel Point of View

You know what a novel is, right?

Of course you do.  It’s any one of those fat books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble that isn’t divided into short stories or something.  What a silly question.

Well…

Most people use a working definition of the word “novel” which is pretty similar to the one above, but scholars most certainly do not.  In fact a good way to amuse oneself if one were to be trapped in a college of literary pretensions during a hurricane would be to ask a random professor to define the term for you in the presence of other professors.  It is very important to be prepared for the little disagreements this will generate: bandages, iodine, and possibly a fully-equipped trauma ward would be good things to have handy.

The Theory of the Novel Edited by Philip Stevick

Just as an example of how hard the novel is to pin down, the book that started the mental process towards this article, (Philip Stevick’s The Theory of the Novel) is divided into sections that analyze the novel from different angles (Generic Identity; Narrative Technique; Point of View; Plot; Structure and Proportion; Style; Character; Time and Place; Symbol; and Life and Art), each filled with essays written by such luminaries as Conrad or Cervantes.

It’s quite an impressive piece of name dropping–and an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat dry read–but it would be hard-pressed to fit with the popular perception of what a novel is.

So let’s put that popular perception into words quickly, in order to have a rough working definition moving forward:

Novel: Any work of prose fiction longer than about a hundred and fifty pages or so that tells a story, and which has a beginning, middle, and end.

This clearly isn’t an academic definition, but it gives us the gist – the novel is longer than a short story or a novella, it tells one story, as opposed to being a collection of shorter works, and at the end of the thing, the reader knows how it turns out for the people involved – even if what happens next may be a bit open-ended as in more modern work.  Most people would agree with this definition.

Most scholars would probably move to have anyone proposing such tripe burned at the stake.  Even Wikipedia, that supposedly democratic collection of worldly wisdom has a long, rambling article about novels that touches on every possible inclusion and ancestor, and even has a handy little chart on reading habits in England in the 18th century (and a bonus discussion on Dan Brown discussing whether The Da Vinci Code is an anti-Christian novel.  Don’t believe that? See for yourself).

This is one of those cases where a rigorous definition of the subject matter, and the obsession of academics of going beyond popular knowledge is counter-productive.  Sadly, however, it is clear that, other than Sociology, there are few branches of study quite as dominated by obsessive people who wouldn’t be able to survive in any other discipline than literary criticism.  Anyone who has ever heard of critical race theory and is aware that some people consider it a valid approach to literary criticism should be enough to convince you of the unfortunate state of literary criticism.  If that doesn’t convince you, simply pick up or browse your chosen newspaper – you will see that books are not judged based on their literary or artistic merit, but by the politics of their authors (try it, it’s fun – The Guardian is particularly unsubtle about it, which is sad because their cultural section is otherwise among the world’s best).

But if none of the above convinces you, here’s XKCD.  XKCD cannot be argued with.

XKCD impostor

(As always, you can see the original – with the mouse-over, at their site.  Plus, buy their t-shirts and stuff – anyone producing material of that quality and not charging others to use it deserves to be supported.)

But if you really want to start a fight, ask one of your captive professors what the first novel was.  You won’t even need the trauma room, as survivors are unlikely.

Tarzan of the Apes – Revisited as a Reader

Tarzan of the Apes book cover

Over the past ten or twenty years – and earlier, many novels that had been considered unarguable classics have suffered the indignity of revisionism.  Perhaps the clearest example of this is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is an obvious target for this behavior, because it is one of (if not THE) greatest pieces of prose ever written, but treads in places and attitudes that not even the bravest twenty-first century writer would approach, for fear of being crucified by special interest groups.

It is a work that, despite the efforts of well-meaning but intellectually misguided revisionists can only be truly analyzed and understood within the context of a) its time and b) human nature itself.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Another book that, despite not being quite in the same literary league, generates a similar response, is Tarzan of the Apes – one of Edgar Rice Burroughs three supremely successful fantasy milieus (the others being Barsoom and the Earth’s Core).  Though enormously influential in popular culture, the novel itself is seeing a backlash due to its supposedly problematical treatment of non-whites and women.

Now, it’s clear that a book written in 1912 will contain many attitudes that will leave modern readers scratching their heads, but that is part of what makes reading classics a worthwhile.

It’s hard for people to imagine just how much of modern society was created out of whole cloth and necessity in the years of WWI.  Everything from women’s expanded role in industry to the breakdown of class barriers got a huge boost by the harsh realities of a Europe that lost an enormous percentage of its young men to the conflict.  Reading books from the era immediately before it helps understand both what was gained and what was lost.

Tarzan falls into most of the traps the revisionists dislike, but, at the same time, it is truly an unflinching – if somewhat fantastic – view of what the wilderness would have been like, and is therefore valuable to modern readers.  To the revisionists, this is of no moment: they feel that anything which expresses certain attitudes needs to be suppressed – or at least not encouraged.  The prevailing attitude seems to be: watch the Disney version if you must, but avoid the novel.

And yet…

And yet, the novel, despite being a little bloodier and a little less pink-lensed than what a modern equivalent would be, is still FUN.  The archaic attitudes don’t really distract in the least from the adventure story unless you really, really make an effort to be offended.  The good guys and the bad guys are clearly defined, and one can immediately tell what is right and what is wrong.

So this is one that we at Classically Educated recommend with no qualms whatsoever.  Our readers – cosmopolitan, open-minded and educated – will be able to accept the anachronisms and enjoy what, 100 years later, is still a cracking good book.  If you haven’t already, get your hands on a copy!

As for the revisionists, perhaps we can just all agree to take the classics in the spirit in which they were written and be offended at something else*?  Please?

*We propose being offended at the discriminatory practice of painting all bulldozers yellow.  Surely that is sinister and hides a racist message of some sort that most people haven’t yet been able decipher.  Also, it is an important thing that people care deeply about – we’re not just trying to get you to go away.  Honest.