classic Literature

An Unexpected Classic

We’ve all heard the premise that, if you were to perfect a time machine, the first thing you’d be obligated to do with it would be to go back in time and kill Hitler before he gained power (as always, the XKCD take on this is likely the greatest ever).  But that’s what people think in the 21st century.

But what about in 1939?  We know that a lot of Americans saw Fascism as a great thing, but how about the rest of the world?

Rogue-Male-by-Geoffrey-Household

Well, at least one British novelist was pretty clear on the subject.  In 1939, Geoffrey Household wrote a slim volume entitled Rogue Male which deals with exactly this subject.  It’s the story of a British gentleman hunter who braves the wilds of Europe to attempt to get the most dangerous game of all into his crosshairs: the most well-defended dictator in Europe.

Though Hitler is never named (remember, 1939 was pretty much appeasement-era Britain, and Household probably preferred not to be shot for treason), not much is left to the imagination.  It can’t really be anyone else.

So we have the answer to our question, at least in one very specific case.

The book itself is probably more significant because of the audacious and unsubtle way it deals with the Hitler issue, but otherwise seemed unremarkable to this modern reader.  I suppose, though, that such an iconic stand more than justifies its status as a classic.  And, of course, the fact that it literally starts with a cliffhanger…

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this one for me was, that as someone who isn’t an expert on the history of the international thriller (except for The Thirty-Nine Steps), I actually stumbled onto this one.  On the same day that I grabbed The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, I picked up a seventies paperback (see image) with the most lurid pink lettering ever.  Were it not for the cover blurb, I would have been convinced that this one was one of those suburban wife-swapping tales from the decade that taste forgot (“Rogue Male” would have worked rather well as a title for one of those)…  Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Recommended for students of the genre, for anyone interested in cultural expressions around WWII unsullied by modern revisionism or just fast-paced thrillers.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a tight thriller that deals with the coming issues of post-humanity.

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Papa Hemingway and Caporetto

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway - With additional endings

Today, we combine a couple of our favorite topics: great literature and war history.  Of course, the very best way to do that is by reading Hemingway.

Now, old Ernest has has a tough time of it lately.  In this kinder, gentler, postmodern world, he is often cited by sad, misguided individuals as everything from a macho dinosaur to the poster boy for toxic masculinity (a silly concept which seems to be in vogue today).

While I’ll be the first to admit that Hemingway was a product of his times, I can only conclude that the arguments against his writing (as opposed to his love of bullfighting, for example) come from people who have never read his work. Sentence by sentence and as the work builds up to a greater plot, even his most virulent critics would have to shut up and admit that the guy could just plain write.  Powerful.  Deep.  Meaningful–and no unnecessary frills.  The fact that it isn’t in the least bit a feminine writing style, and that his themes seem a bit masculine, does not mean it’s bad.  Honest reviewers will accept this and move on.

Having said that, I enjoy his writing on a structural level, but I’m not a particular fan of all his work.  I found The Old Man and the Sea a bit pointless, even if it was, like everything he did, powerful in its way.  On the other hand, his short stories, especially “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are entertaining and often brilliant.  And yes, though they ignore both modernist and postmodernist concerns to look at things that are much more relevant to actual humans, they pack a huge depth that isn’t apparent on first glance at the sparse prose.

Hemingway with a gun

A Farewell to Arms is arguably his greatest book.  Combining the First World War, a love story and some autobiographical bits, it is an excellent cross-section of what Hemingway is all about.  Even 90 years after it was first published, the book is still easy to read, still resonates with meaning and pathos.  While some of his contemporaries (Joyce, Woolfe) were experimenting with form and finding new ways to publicize their deepest neuroses, Hemingway was telling stories as old as mankind, and telling them well.

I think that’s probably the reason he is still read by casual readers while others, perhaps more celebrated by the literati, are only discussed in college literature seminars.

Was it the greatest book I ever read?  No.  I hated the ending (my question to his contemporaries is: after reading this one and The Old Man and the Sea, why wasn’t he put on permanent suicide watch?).  But it was a good one, and powerful, and the edition I had (pictured above) included a bunch of alternative endings – extremely interesting stuff for any writer: you can do much worse than to learn how Hemingway did it.

So, yes, this guy will still be read when the people today’s critics are gushing over are long forgotten.  He has a history of beating back the literary darlings.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose book Siege made him very popular for about fourteen seconds.

Queen of Crime: A Midlist Report

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

If you’ve never read a book by Agatha Christie, you’d be silly to begin with anything other than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express.  These are clearly the two “must read” Christies, and act in the same way that The Great Gatsby does for Fitzgerald: the rest of the books might be decent, but there’s a reason these two in particular stand out.

But, as witnessed by the fact that she is the best-selling novelist of all time, it’s pretty clear that most people don’t stop at these two.  They read on and on and on.  The questions we aim to answer today are: 1) why? and 2) is it worth it?

In order to make a run at these, I’ll use three Christie books I recently read: Elephants Can Remeber, Nemesis and Murder on the Links.  These three are a couple of Poirots and a Miss Marple, so a reasonable selection.

Before answering the question, though, I found something interesting: Nemesis was not set in a soft-focus prewar era, but actually in a much more modern milieu.  That ultimately made little difference to its effectiveness as a mystery but somehow, cozy mysteries are just that bit less cozy without some kind of Edwardian-ness about them.

Anyhow, with these three as the star exhibit (I won’t go into plots here – anyone aware of Christie’s methods knows it’s difficult to avoid spoilers if one gets into details) I’ll try to answer the quesions.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

1)  Why do people read more that one or two of the non-superstar Christie books.  I think there’s a couple of reasons for this one.  The first is the fun of trying to work out who the killer is alongside the detective.  Christie’s lesser work might not be quite as good as her best, but with her, you know that the mystery is going to be interesting and fair to the reader.  You’ll be given a chance to solve it.

Another reason is, I believe, comfort with the characters and scenario.  The grisly, life-shattering effects of any murder are glossed over to focus on the surviving characers and the detective.  No scenes of blood spattered bathrooms or bodies in excrement-filled sewers here, just a clean dead body that starts a process of deduction.  Also, the characters speak in familiar ways and plow familiar furrows.  They are books you can relax into.

Finally, they are entertaining.  Whatever their status as classics, you can certainly count on them to help you pass a pleasant two or three hours and, really, what else can you ask from a book of this kind?

The Murder on the Links

2) Is it worth it?  That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?  There are more books out there than any human can possibly hope to read, so why bother with anything other than an author’s best?

Well, the reasons above are a good start, but they clearly don’t work for everyone.  Many people will answer the question above with “Don’t bother with anything else,” and they’d have a perfectly valid point.

In my own case, I find that a little Christie novel is the perfect balm after reading something a bit more literary and dense, an Eco, maybe, or some Joyce.  I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next fellow, and these are pretty much always decent, if not necessarily brilliant, and I don’t have to worry about subtext and symbolism (the body was buried in a bunker on the eighth hole… is that symbolic of something?  Sand being the end of all life?).

To others, Christie is exactly the right level for all their reading.  Even very well-educated people might not feel like diving into Kierkegaard after a hard day at the office, and that’s just fine.  And some people can’t be bothered to read anything harder than this – which is also fine; at least their not watching a reality show featuring a Kardashian.  That counts for a hell of a lot in my book.

Whatever the theoretical answer, reality has already given us the real response: Yes.  To many, many people it certainly is worth it.  The illustrations above show the most recent editions of these books, but most, if not all, of them have been continuously in print since they were first published – and the most recent was released in 1975: 43 years ago.

Yeah, she knew what she was doing, and even the internet age hasn’t dulled that.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  The characters in his novel Outside face a 500-year-old mystery that has a completely unexpected resolution.

A Stained-Glass View into a Simpler Time

A Stained Glass Tour In Italy

In the early twentieth century, tourism was mostly an upper-class pursuit.  Due to the way the upper classes were (and to a certain degree still are) educated in those days, this made for a very different kind of tourism.  The mere concept of going to Coney Island for a Hot Dog Eating Competition would have been met with a mixture of derision and outright disbelief.

While you’re not really going to find too many equivalents of the glorious Grand Tours in the years just before the Great War, you still found erudite madmen going off on interesting expeditions.  Heirs to Victorian obsessions, these adventurers were hobbyists and diarists that make the people who dress up as Stormtroopers for Comic Con (or worse, science fiction writers) look like normal, well-adjusted human beings.

Many of them left books behind regarding the unlikeliest of subjects, I was delighted but unsurprised when a volume entitled A Stained Glass Tour in Italy appeared at the annual jamboree at our local Anglican Church.

But, before I talk about the book let’s talk about this church.  I’m not religious in the least (and certainly not Anglican), but I love the place.  It is a lovely stone building that looks like it should be situated somewhere in fictional Wessex in the early 19th century and not a block from my house in the middle of a heavily built up sector of one of the world’s megacities.  It was the perfect spot to find a book like the one above, my copy of the Stained-Glass tome.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

The book itself is a first edition, albeit worn frayed around the edges and well-aged, and probably the thing that I loved most about it was the fact that I was the first person in its over 100 years of history to read the thing completely.  How did I know this?  Because some of the pages were still uncut.  So, for two dollars, I purchased a journey back in time and the thrill of trying to separate pages with a steak knife (long story) without tearing them.

The book itself was a charming example of something that would never have been touched by a modern day publishing house.  A couple of wealthy friends go on a tour of northern Italy for the express and arcane purpose of viewing significant works of stained glass in the regions churches.  As they guide us through the towns they visit, the focus is on the glass and a brief history of the art form, but glimpses of life in the Italian countryside before WWI peek nostalgically through.  My lasting impression of this book is one of sunlight bathing dusty country roads and sand-colored buildings, slightly crumbling but once magnificent.

The book itself is interesting, too, with a number of laid in photographs and a strangely folded map, its production values would be dismissed as an amateur production today, but carries the stamp of the Bodley Head, a major publisher in 1911.

But it’s the writing which carries the day.  This book functions as neither a comprehensive guide to Italian stained glass nor as a reasonable tour guide for the era.  A labor of love, written – and likely published – with little or no consideration for any commercial value, in a tone that is as affectionate towards the subject as it is to any reader interested enough to open the volume.  It’s the work of a generalist who happened to love stained glass, a product of a polymath and a man of his time (Charles Hitchcock Sherrill – ambassador, athlete and stained-glassophile) that we like to think would be an avid reader of Classically Educated today.

We were definitely avid readers of his book!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  His best-known book is the science fiction novel Siege.

The Razor’s Edge

Our guest blogger today is Clinton A. Harris, a travel writer who also writes fiction. You can check out his blog, Getting Out More, right here.  He is the author of Song of the Cinder.

The Razor's Edge - Somerset Maugham

The Razor’s Edge.

I have tried to read this book. Yes, I have an English BA, I am a writer, I have read many of the classics with varying degrees of difficulty, subtext, and mechanical artistry that make them nearly opaque. But for whatever reason W. Somerset Maugham’s story of Larry Darrell begins with the author himself standing right in the way, like someone with a really big hat sitting in front of you at the theatre, and he just never gets out of the way. So, I’m going to talk about the Bill Murray version of the movie instead.

Decades before Lost in Translation, this was his first serious role. Rumor has it that Bill Murray held out on taking the starring role in Ghostbusters just so this movie could be made. I read it on Wikipedia, so it must be true. Larry Darrell (Murray) is a member of the Chicago aristocracy. He is engaged to be married to Isabel Bradley and everything seems great until war breaks out in Europe. Like many of his peers, Larry volunteers for the war effort and finds himself postponing his marriage so he can be an ambulance driver on the Western Front. There, we get to see the absurdity of war as well as the tragedy of how easily human life is wasted. At a pivotal scene, Larry is riding shotgun in his ambulance, as Piedmont (played by real-life brother Brian Doyle-Murray), sings a flat, monotone rendition of Frere Jacques to the dying men as the Germans lob artillery shells at them.

The Razor's Edge Film 1984

The World War I scenes are marvelous, and often echo the expatriate tales of disenfranchisement started by writers of the Lost Generation such as Hemingway, who himself was an ambulance driver in Europe during the war. The scenes of battle, loss, heartbreak and disillusionment are nearly cut and pasted from this film into the widely more popular film which launched Brad Pitt’s career ten years later: Legends of the Fall.

Piedmont’s cynicism is infectious and after his death and the war, Larry returns home changed. Isabel and his socialite friends haven’t missed a step, however Larry’s best friend, Gray, seems to have taken a liking to his betrothed, much to Sophie’s chagrin, as she was Gray’s fiancée herself. Larry seems indifferent to all this. Something inside of him has been lost since the war and so he decides to take some time to get his head back together. He goes to Paris where he lives in squalor, works menial labor jobs, and reads. Isabel makes a surprise visit one day and after seeing the state of Larry’s living conditions, she bolts and presumably gets more chummy with Gray. Larry is even more indifferent and so after being introduced to the Upanishads by a coal miner, he decides to go to India, then to the Himalayas.

The ahah! Moment hits Larry as he is freezing to death on top of a mountain where he has been reading and searching for answers in himself. Bill Murray captures this moment perfectly, in such a subtle way that makes the 1946 version of this movie so melodramatic and heavy-handed. You truly get to see Murray’s genius in this moment. He lets go and just starts burning the pages of the book he is reading for warmth. He had lost himself in the quest to find himself and has come through to the other side.
Returning to the world of his old peers, Larry seems relaxed. He has learned that Gray and Isabel are married, Sophie is an alcoholic prostitute, well, really a flapper, but potato-potahto. He doesn’t seem bothered by any of it. He takes in Sophie, gets her cleaned up and begins a romantic relationship with her, which pisses Isabel off to no end. The film ends in more tragedy, and even though Larry is saddened by it, he continues on. The years of his life and the pain being so many pages going up in flames. He isn’t lost or ruined. Larry continues on in spite of the way things have turned out.

I would consider this movie to be more of a travelogue than anything else. In his travels, Larry realizes that the person he is has been with him all along, but in his journey, he has lost so much of what has burdened him along the way. I think it is a story of survival as well as revelation, and would put it in the same category as Laura Hillenbrand’s novel, Unbroken, about Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini who was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, and also Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is a story of overcoming addiction and self-destruction and finding oneself at the other end of a long, difficult journey.

Those stories, as well as The Razor’s Edge are played off as victories, unlike the narrative of Chris McCandless’s ill-fated, yet fairy predictable tale told by Krakauer in Into the Wild, which though fascinating, is much more suited to the sub-genre of something more like Titanic or White Squall. A car-crash in slow-motion we continue to watch, but cannot pull ourselves away. We are at first wowed by the wonders and then tradegy brings it all into focus, rather than emerging from the chaos to find a sort of truth.

Stories like these are cathartic. The climax of the story is often reached when the protagonist learns a vital truth about themselves or the world and is better for it. Why did I drag everyone through this analysis of a 1984 movie? Because as a person who wants to write about traveling to places, I want to convey the spirit of the experience. How in leaving the comfort of our own homes and regions, we not only explore these places we are seeing, but also how we fit into the large scheme of things. By being open to new experiences we often reach a moment of catharsis. We lose something of what we once knew or held as sacrosanct and it is lost, yet replaced with something new. A broader perspective.

In writing fiction, you often take a kernel of truth and surround it with a fictional universe, or at least one that is somewhat recognizable. In writing about travel, you are drilling down through the layers to find that kernel and bring it into the light. An “enlightenment” in a very real sense. Sometimes our adventures are a mess and sometimes they are a way to find peace. The reality of both is being able to look into these experiences and gain from them, rather than detract. Anyway, that’s what I’m going with.

The TD;DR is This is Larry. Larry went through some bad times. Now Larry is happy. Be like Larry.

 

Eco on Literature – An Acquired Taste

I love Umberto Eco’s fiction.  I believe The Name of the Rose is utterly brilliant (to the point where I actually bought a pretty edition of the thing.  And we’ve discussed Foucault’s Pendulum here before.

Eco’s essays, for me, were a different story.  At first reading, I found them a bit dry and boring.  Perhaps a little too philosophical for their own good.  They are certainly well thought out, but you need to be very awake to fully process them.  He was not a big believer in delivering easy to understand wisdom.

Umberto Eco on Literature Cover

So the first time I read Umberto Eco on Literature, I had to read it when I was fully awake and alert, despite finding the subject matter, for the most part, absolutely fascinating.

But then, I discovered the secret to unlock the full enjoyment of this volume.  The trick lies in undersanding that these essays were actually speeches that Eco gave in different elite literary places: universities, institutes and such.

They are meant to be heard, not read.

Therein, however, lies another problem: most of these aren’t on YouTube.

No matter, I disovered.  All you need to do is to watch any English-language interview with the great man – I recommend this one – to see what he sounds like, just before starting one of the essays and, magically, as you read, you will read them in his own accent. That makes them utterly perfect.

Umberto Eco shouldn’t be anything less than brilliant.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, will likely make a lot of Greeks angry, while making other Greeks laugh.  People from other nationalities will invariably enjoy it.

 

 

The Malakiad – Launched!

The Malakiad Cover Image

Every author on the planet loves book launch days.  That moment when people around the globe can (finally!) enjoy the fruits of all the hard work in writing, rewriting, selling the book, working with the publisher to edit and givin suggestions for cover art.

The Malakiad, my comic fantasy that takes place in Heroic-era Greece launched today.  You can buy it at Amazon right now.  Yes, right now!

As a special bonus for Classically Educated readers, I’d like to tell you about the genesis of this paticular volume.

It begins (as many of my writing adventures do) in the late 1980s when I read Another Fine Myth by Robert Lynn Asprin.  That was my introduction to humorous genre work, which eventually led to my love for Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.  I devoured each book by these guys as soon as I could get my hands on them.

Unfortunately all three are now gone, having died much too young.

Worse, I am unsatisfied with the current crop of humorous genre writers.  The problem isn’t their talent–I believe most aretop-notch writers–but the type of humor they attempt: watered-down, milquetoast and nowhere near as funny as their precursors.  The problem, I believe, is that genre humorists today are genre writers first, humorists second.  So, like most people in SFF, they are extremely aware of the sensibilities around them and write in such a way that no one at all could ever be offended.  Punches are being pulled in unforgivable numbers.  The books are set aside with a sigh.

That method isn’t particularly funny.  As Seth MacFarlane or Mel Brooks would tell you, the secret isn’t to offend no one, but to offend everyone equally.

And that’s why I wrote this book.

The Malakiad won’t offend too many people.  It’s meant to make you laugh, not to make anyone unhappy.  But it does poke fun at human foibles and it does ridicule things that are open to ridicule.  I wrote, in essence, the book I wanted to read, hopefully the kind of book that the great writers of the past wrote.

Is this one as good as its predecessors?  That’s for readers to say.  Critics, of course will be fed to the nearest large carnivore (unless they like the book, in which case they are extremely intelligent people who should be celebrated).

For now, all I’ll say is that, if you miss Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett or Robert Asprin, you could do much worse than to give this one a go.

Enjoy!!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

Remembering Why We Love Poetry in the First Place

Dead Poets Society - Oh, Captain My Captain

Poetry.

To some, the word conjures images of inspiring speeches made by Robin Williams in The Dead Poet’s Society.  To other – dare I say a much larger number?  Yes, I dare – it calls to mind incomprehensible readings by pretentious twits (or should that word have an “a” in it?) in smoky bars in front of six (never more) equally pretentious twits.

As a writer, I fall somewhere in between.  While I’m well aware that postmodern poetry often descends into the deepest realms of obtuse navel-gazing and its practitioners include many people who might stop speaking to you if you inadvertently did something as accessible as rhyme the ends of two lines (or use recognizable meter, god forbid), I also have a soft spot for Poe’s poetry among others.

I’ve even invited guest posters here to discuss speculative poetry, which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t fallen prey to the postmodenists yet.

Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to conect with the greatest hits of the past.  Back in 1996, my wife was given a volume entitled The Best Loved Poems of the American People as a prize in school (she went to a bilingual school).  When I discovered that she owned this item, I tossed it into my TBR pile and eventually, it cycled to the top.

The Best Loved Poems of the American People

This is exactly the kind of volume that, if it were published today would a) sell millions of copies and b) come under severe critical fire for all sorts of reasons.

There’s many reasons for this one getting lambasted.  From a purely academic point of view, the poems are in forms and meters that have fallen out of favor.  Blank verse and incomprehensibility rule the roost.

The second reason they would get themselves attacked is that in many if not all cases, these works reflect their times.  They don’t address or even care about diversity or race or even, really, politics of any kind.  When attacking the big issues of life, they leave these considerations aside.  Poetry has become a political vehicle in many cases, and critics would not allow someone to backslide on this “progress”.

The final criticism, and perhaps the only valid one is that the poems themselves have become clichéd, victims of their own success.

That’s true.  And there’s a good reason for it: they’ve been quoted, referred to and have brought happiness, comfort and solace to countless generations.  The word “Loved” in the book’s title is spectacularly apt.

I thought the book would be a slog, but it wasn’t.  It was a trip down memory lane and a reminder that accessible, non-angry oetry isn’t a crime, and that the great human emotions are prety much the same today as they were 150 years ago, no matter how many shrill voices try to tell us that anything from that age must necessarily be racist (or whatever) and therefore no longer valuable.

It is a book to dip into as opposed to reading straight through, of course, but even reading as a single exercise, I enjoyed it enormously.  I truly wonder whether any of today’s poetry will be read a century hence.  I seriously doubt it.

There’s a reason these values (and these words) have a lasting effect and anyone reading these verses will remember why. In such a cynical age, perhaps it’s a good idea to reflect on more simple things every so often.  I know I enjoyed it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who has published exactly one poem in his life.  Perhaps that doesn’t make him the greatest expert on poetry, but his novels are pretty good.  Outside, for example, is about what happens when humans escape the harshness of reality to live in simulated worlds.

Free Gifts = Happiness

We’ve written about the Folio Society‘s beautiful books here before (I should probably ask them to sponsor me for plugging them so often…), but I’ll say that one of the nicest things about them are the free gifts that arrive with most purchases.

The first couple of times I bought from them I received totes, which were cool and are paticularly useful in Argentina where stores are prohibited by law from giving people bags (which is probably the dumbest new law I’ve seen in a long time, and illustrates once again how good intentions pave roads to hot places).  I’ve also timed a couple of purchases to ensure that I receive the Folio Diary (in fact, last year, I actually bought a book I wasn’t necessarily planning to purchase just to receive this one).  The diary is usually illustrated with plates from books, and organized as a weekly agenda, with the week’s activities on the odd side and the illustration on the even. It is a beautiful thing and my wife loves them.

Folio Society magazine march 2014

My own favorite gift is the Folio Society magazine, Folio.  This onesometimes arrives with the books and, since it isn’t advertised, you never know if you’re going to receive one or not.

They’re a treat because, in much the same way as how you don’t know you’ll get one, you also won’t be able to guess what’s inside until you read them.  Of course their main function is to get one interested in other Folio titles but they also include a lot of content unavailable elsewhere.  I own the March 2014 and September 2016 issues (as I said, prety random) and can report that  they are the product of extremely thoughtful collation.  I think there’s something in each for any book lover – I myself enjoy them a lot.

Folio Society magazine September 2016

They’re not big – you can probably consume each in a lunch hour – but, as little bite-sized breaks from routine that remind of why we enjoy books so much, they are wonderful.  The March 2014 issue is especially nice because it discusses book arts and speaks to the artists.  Fun stuff.

Anyway, thought I’d share.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer and an all-around lover of books.  He is the author of the well-received Siege.

Stripping the World to its Bare Bones

Albert Camus L'Etranger First Edition

It’s amusing to wonder what the Wehrmacht censors thought when presented with Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger for their approval in 1942. One can imagine them getting together in a smoke-filled meeting room, looking into each other’s eyes to see if any of them had taken any particular offense (or even any particular meaning) from the book and then, with a collective shrug, approved it for lack of any better idea.

After all, a book about the world’s indifference to someone completely outside of all its rules–Nazi, Allied, Polynesian, it makes no difference–can’t be framed as a political tract or even particularly subversive.

And, in that light, they were correct.  The books subversiveness is aimed at a much deeper level of existence than mere politics.

But let’s talk about the politics for a second.  The Nazis–the freaking NAZIS–let it pass and yet in the post-colonial world a sequel was written where the arabic characters were given a life of their own. Talk about completely missing the point and making a fool of oneself.  This is why so many post-colonial movements are derided: they put anger ahead of brains, and it shows a little too strongly.

Albert Camus Philosopher

So what does it subvert if not the social and political structure of its day, which it accepts without question?

It goes after the very core of what it means to be human.  By looking at the world through the eyes of the ultimate flatliner and alienated outsider, Camus questions the botom layer of the fabric of society.  Family.  Friends.  Lovers.  The very existence of a possible connection between two individuals besides shared interests and shared pleasure.

In that sense, it’s a brilliant exercise and flinches away from the end consequences only a couple of times that I was able to spot.

Of course, it’s also a dead end.  The reader is left feeling very little for the character at the end of the book.  Perhaps a vague sense that it would have been a happier ending if someone had recognized his right to be different… but also that it probably wouldn’t have made all that difference after all.  The nihilism is a bit contagious.

It’s also a dead end because it doesn’t really deal with the human condition except at one extreme, and that extreme, though valid as an argument–why can’t humans be allowed to live within their own moral codes–is still not a discussion (seventy five years after the book was writen) that humanity is mature enough to have.  People who deviate from the social establishment (be that a small group such as an office, a medium-sized group such as a political party or a large one such as a nation-state) are treated badly and metaphorically put to death.

I’ll leave others to attempt to link this one to the modern world (try analyzing a school shooting through this lens and you’ll come up with a disturbing and different take), but I do recomend giving it a read.  It’s one of those which sets the borders of human thought, and that’s always valuable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argetine novelist and short story writer.  If you enjoy reading about outsiders, check out his novella Branch, which explores what might happen when humanity splits into distinct species.