classic literature

Groff Conklin Saves the Day

There are few experiences quite as disheartening as discovering that a genre you love had some growing pains.  Unfortunately, most things worth having suffered at some point, and science fiction, quite obviously, was not the exception.

The genres dark ages happened in the sixties and seventies.  Riding a wave of enthusiasm derived from the Pulp Era and the Golden Age, science fiction hit the days of hippies, pop culture and Vietnam with a resounding thud, and something called the New Wave.

Now, as someone who entered the genre in the 1980s, I was surprised to learn about this.  To me, science fiction was Clarke, Heinlein and especially Asimov, three men who dominated the field in 1987 or so, just as they did in the fifties.  To anyone joining then, it was as if the New Wave never happened.  It’s still kind of that way today, except that all of us recognize that New Wave sensibilities did give us one colossus of the genre, Dune, and another literary great, LeGuin.  Other than that, it has mostly been forgotten.

But the anthologies are still out there, places where one can see the atrocities perpetrated against the genre in all their unfortunate luridity.  Perhaps the greatest of the criminals against genre during the New Wave era was Judith Merril.  At the time a respected anthologist, her collections tend to be strings of empty stories that mainly paid homage to the times and have little lasting value.

Unfortunately, she was also quite prolific, and she compiled a lot of the era’s “Year’s Best” collections, so she’s the first anthologist you’re likely to encounter, and the one that will form your view.

The Best of Sci-Fi- 17 x Infinity - Edited by Groff Conklin

All of the above is just a very long-winded way of saying that when I picked up The Best of Sci-Fi 17 x Infinity, published in 1963, I was expecting more of the same.  Pop-minded crap where density of composition attempted to hide a lack of originality and ideas… boy was I mistaken.

This one actually covers much more ground than other anthos of the era, and includes stories by such colossi as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster.  And before you ask, these aren’t stories “considered” to be science fiction – these are straight SF yarns with no excuses given; cover the writer’s name, and you’d guess Golden Age Astounding.

When you add in more modern authors such as Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury Pohl and Sturgeon it becomes… well, quite simply, this was one of the best SF anthos I’ve ever read.  Perhaps not cutting edge by modern standards, it was a breeze to read… which is the way to know you’re enjoying something.

Favorite tale was probably Herbert’s, which was funny as hell and would probably cause a few interesting meltdowns if someone published it today… which is always a plus.

Track this one down and get a copy.  It’s probably only worth a couple of dollars at your friendly neighborhood used book store.  You’ll enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book – Timeless – was recently released.  You can check it out here.

Advertisements

For Those Who Like Extreme Science in their Science Fiction

Hal Clement - Penguin - Mission of Gravity

I’m on a bit of a science fiction classics binge, which is always an enjoyable place to be…  After not one but two issues of the old Astounding Stories, I moved on to Mission of Gravity, a novel which, fittingly enough, was published in Astounding in 1953.  Since then, it has appeared often in book form, and was even published by Penguin, which I have always found, albeit with a few exceptions, to be a harbinger of at least some literary merit.

This novel delivers a fascinating, if not particularly tense, tale of space exploration at the limits of known science, and takes place on a hugely massive planet spinning at a crazy rate, which does some very interesting things to the gravity.

The main characters are the inhabitants of that world, and it’s interesting to watch how they’ve adapted to the conditions prevalent on their planet and how they respond to the presence of human explorers who have a problem that they can’t solve themselves.  Making a scenario this alien believable is probably Clement’s strongest point in this book.

I’m also interested in the fact that the author doesn’t stop to explain the physics.  If you don’t know how to recognize the symptoms of high spin or the effects of high gravity, then you’ll miss a whole lot of this.  Perhaps the book was most interesting as an indictment of today’s more lenient and easier education systems.  Sixty years ago, authors assumed science knowledge that would cause a lot of genre readers to stumble and grumble today.  Ouch.

Anyhow, it does dive into science, so might not be everyone’s cup of tea in this slipstream and “soft science is just as respectable as hard science” day and age, but it’s certainly a shining example of the breed.  And unlike the character studies currently in vogue, I’ll actually remember this one in a few years’ time – that’s because SF is the literature of ideas, and the ideas in this one are actually kinda interesting.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest novel, Timeless is a thriller about a journalist.  You can have a look at it here.

With Trimmed Edges

Astounding Stories August 1936

Last time, we looked at the January 1934 issue of Astounding Stories with an eye towards understanding what the transition between the old-time pulps and the Golden Age of Science Fiction actually looked like.

One of the hallmarks of the pulp age is, as its name suggests, the use of low-quality pulp paper with untrimmed edges.  The paper itself felt soft and of much better quality than, say the stuff used in 1970s paperbacks that turns brittle and brown (as opposed to the well-creamed-coffee color of the pulp stock), but there’s no arguing that the untrimmed edges give the publications a bit of an unfinished look.

In the two-and-a-half years between that issue and the other one I’ve recently read (August 1936 – pictured above), however, a major innovation occurred at Astounding: trimmed edges!  This complete break with pulp tradition makes less difference today than it probably did eighty-odd years ago on the newsstands.

Once more, I turned to the letters section, Brass Tacks, to see what reader reaction to the change had been.  As expected, the fans were enthusiastic with what they saw as a major advance, and the section also informed me that the change had happened only a few issues before the one I was holding.  But that wasn’t the only thing they talked about: the letters section had, by this time become a major concentration point for amateur literary critics.  The discussion of the merits of the various authors was quite heated… and the old argument about the pulp-style and Golden Age styles that we discussed last time was still alive and well.  Some of the readers were very vocal against the new, more literary and scientific style of story.

Interestingly, John W. Campbell, though not the editor, was already in evidence by this issue.  He wrote a science article about Mercury, apparently part of a series.  Also, this issue showed the return of two authors who’d been in the earlier edition: Nat Schachner and the great Jack WIlliamson.  Other famous names in this one were Murray Leinster and Stanley Weinbaum (who, the editor informed us, would no longer be appearing in Astounding – he’d died in December at the age of 33… and with an enviable body of work behind him).

With regards to the fiction itself, this one was a lucky buy, as it had the beginning of one serial (The Incredible Invasion – Leinster) and the end of another (The Cometeers – Williamson) which meant that I didn’t get stuck with the middle of anything which is always harder to draw conclusions from.  It was these two fragments plus the Schachner tale “The Return of the Murians” which stuck most in my mind.  There was nothing quite like the story “Colossus” which was the highlight of the January 1934 issue, but on the flip side, there were no real duds in this one either.

In general, we’ve definitely moved one step closer to the Golden Age here.  The style and names are almost all there, as are the trimmed edges.  It took one man’s vision to bring it all together… someday, I should probably read an early Campbell Astounding to see how it looks.  And when I do, I’ll write about it here.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book, Timeless, follows journalist Marianne Caruso as she investigates a mysterious author… only to run afoul of the very criminals the man writes about.  You can check it out here.

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

The Bookends of Doom

The Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis

It’s been popular in the past couple of decades to attack The Chronicles of Narnia for its excessive use of Christian messaging.  This is jus one unfortunate side effect of a culture that politicizes everything in the most infantile of ways, meaning that whatever is on the “wrong” side of the political divide must be attacked.  Cue the Marching Morons obeying the dictates of their political-dogma-spewing overlords.

Even though I’m an atheist and should have been shocked (shocked, I tell you!!) at anything which hints at preaching, I decided to read the books anyway.  Why?  Various reasons.  First off, I was lucky enough to have been a kid in a time when good books were just good books and not symbols of protest, so all the later mud-slinging really made no impression on me.  Secondly, generations of children have loved these, and I thought it would be nice to see what all the fuss was about.

Thirdly, I remembered having read, at least partially, one or two of the books when I was a little too young to appreciate them, and wanted to complete that reading.

Most importantly, perhaps, I hate having important gaps in my reading.  By important, I mean books that have stood the test of time, not books that are faddish today – I won’t be running to buy any recent Hugo-award winners unless they are still beloved in twenty years’ time.  But Narnia?  Yes, a must read for anyone who with the maturity to leave political silliness aside.

So… How did they hold up?

In order to answer that question, I need to talk about the order in which the Narnia series was composed vs. the order in which it was meant to be read.  The first four books written (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair) follow the adventures of two brothers and two sisters who initially discover the land of Narnia and have adventures there.  These are the solid core of the series and each is enjoyable and beautiful.

Is there Christian messaging in this core?  Yes, there is, but it’s pretty light, and any intelligent child, anywhere on the political / faith spectrum, will be the better for being exposed to it and getting to think about things.  Plus, they’ll enjoy these books enormously.

Then came The Horse and his Boy, which, in reading order, slots between Wardrobe and Caspian.  This one is a good little adventure as well, although it doesn’t really do much for the central story except to set up the final book.

The last two books to be written were where C.S. Lewis made his big mistake.  The Magician’s Nephew was written to be the first in the series in reading order, and The Last Battle, as its name indicates, was meant to close the series out.

These are the only ones that fall flat, for several reasons, but mostly because Lewis was attempting to make his message (and yes, it is a very traditional Christian message) obvious to everyone.  They are just there, in fact, for that reason, and the adventures are relegated to a secondary role–the books suffer for it.

Are these two unreadable?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  They just aren’t up to the spectacularly high level of the others.

I would recommend that anyone interested in this series read the first four (or five if you can’t get enough of it) books as written and ignore the rest.  And I recommend it to anyone at all.  If an atheist can enjoy it, so can you.

Just stay away from the last two books written.  They… don’t help.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fantasy novel The Malakiad is not a Christian novel. In fact, it offends every religion from ancient Greece onwards, and it offends atheists and the politically correct, as well.  In fact, if you are not offended by it, Gustavo will be extremely upset.  You can check it out here (ebook) and here (paperback).

Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

In Competition for the Best Novel of the 20th Century

Remains of the Day film Location

Sometimes it’s fun to join the argument.  The 20th century was an amazing time for the novel.  It was a mature form even as the century began, so practitioners weren’t having to make it up as they went along, so we didn’t get bogged down with things like the epistolary narrative in supposedly great literature.

This means that the century got off to a running start, but the truth is that it really hit its stride in the 1920s, which is where the lost generation comes in. Though Hemingway might not be in play for the greatest novel of the 20th century, Fitzgerald most certainly is, and prior to reading the subject of today’s post, I would have said that The Great Gatsby beat everyone else in the running by a few lengths.  It is, after all, a nearly perfect book.  It still has a partial lock on my vote.

There are generally a couple of other books that appear on every top ten list you can find: Lolita and Ulysses I’ve spoken about Ulysses elsewhere, so let’s discuss the Nabokov.

Lolita is an extremely well-written work, of course, but I do believe that the subject matter–a key part of its fame–lets it down slightly.  While most of us can relate to the characters in the Fitzgerald (in fact, other than the near-mythical Gatsby himself, it’s easy to imagine being any of the others), it takes a little more imagination to put oneself into old Humbert’s shoes.  Advantage Gatsby.

And then, after Lolita, the great works appear to have dried up.  Sixties rolled into seventies, rolled into eighties, rolled… wait a minute.  In 1989, a book came out that maybe, just maybe, could topple the king.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Folio Society Edition)

That book is The Remains of the Day, by Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro, which won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to the Booker, but man, this time they absolutely nailed it.

Half social commentary, half elegy for a simpler world, the story is absolutely taut and perfect. You feel for the character, feel for what he is going through, and understand that what seems monstrous to us is perfectly normal to the main character of this book, which acts as a multiplier to the emotional effect of the novel.

Where a book such as Brideshead Revisited (which, structurally is surprisingly similar–it looks back at many of the same things from approximately the same place in time) approaches the loss of innocence through the lens of youth, The Remains of the Day does so out of a place of maturity and by looking at a sense of duty and of the inevitable process of aging.  The understatement, the ambiguity and the fact that the writer lets us come to our own conclusions just makes the story all that more powerful.

The fact that I read the Folio Society edition of this one might have helped me enjoy it even more.  Some books require a beautiful edition while others–I’d put Neuromancer in that list–are better enjoyed in a smudged and broken mass market paperback.

Is it best of the 20th?  Only time will tell.  Gatsby has had nearly a hundred years to age, to consolidate its leadership and to fight off the Nabokov’s of this world.  Ulysses is a novel that defined its philosophical movement. The younger novel, on the other hand, ignores postmodernism to return to a more ancient state of the novel.  This makes it a stronger book, but it might also contribute to a failure to impress the critics as the last century fades further into the past.

It might be passed over, but I hope Ishiguro’s Nobel prize means that it won’t.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His book Outside deals with humanity and post-humanity in a world where almost nothing is quite what it seems.  You can have a look here.

 

 

Does it Have to Be Fair?

Hercule Poirot

If you were to ask a million people what makes a detective story good, you might get a whole bunch of different responses, everything from that the murder be nice and bloody and happen to someone who deserves it (or who, though undeserving of being murdered, perhaps is annoying enough that we enjoy it), to the fact that the detective is someone unexpected.

However, and this is pure speculation as I have no way to ask a million people a question (and if I did, this probably wouldn’t be the question I’d choose), I believe that there are two answers that would come up more than the rest combined.

The first is the interest factor.  If the butler did it with the revolver in the billiards room, no one cares.  It’s been done before.  So to keep people’s interest, the writer needs to get clever either in the method, the culprit or the motive.  So if the butler’s invalid mother committed the murder using a poison distilled from the teeth of a Venus flytrap, because she wanted to take the rear-view mirror from the victim’s antique Bentley, readers who like originality will be happy.

The second major preference in my utterly hypothetical scientific study would be those who want to have a chance to beat the detective at his or her own game.  These would insist that the keys to discovering the murder must be given to the reader, no mater how fiendishly disguised.  In fact, the more cleverly hidden, the better; true experts aren’t interested in the thrill of a hollow victory.  They want to earn it.  But to do so, there must be no ambiguity, and the clues must point to a single possible resolution.

The perfect mystery story would have both of these characteristics at the same time.  It would be both original and fair.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, which creates a Venn diagram with a couple of circles that do touch, but not as often as would be ideal.

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie

So where are we going with this?  Well, we’re looking at a specific book, and through it at a particular author.  The book is After the Funeral and the author is Agatha Christie.  I’ll try not to spoil it for anyone.

(By the way, we’ve looked at Agatha Christie before, but that was through the lens of what made her a megagazillion bestselling author–not looking at her as a pure specimen of a mystery writer.)

This is a typical Christie book in that everything, including the murder, is in doubt until the very end.  From a reasonably large sample size that also includes her more well-known titles, I’d have to say that this is a fairly typical showing.  If someone put a gun to my head and asked me where Christie falls on the spectrum discussed above (again, is that the question anyone would ask another person while threatening them with death?), I’d place her firmly on the “originality” side of the Venn diagram with one foot occasionally, but certainly not permanently in the “fairness” circle.

This isn’t to say that Christie doesn’t give certain clues, or that it’s always impossible to guess at what’s happening, but her objective, I believe, was more to make her audience say ‘coo, that was clever’ (she was British, the British say this sort of thing) than to slap themselves in the forehead and say ‘of course! That was why the goose swallowed the revolver!’

But, at the same time, there is certainly a soft focus to the clues in many of her mysteries.  While the resolution arrived at by Poirot or Marple or whoever might fit all the clues, there is always a fuzzy border in which the clues also fit other answers.  These are usually discarded by Poirot after he goes on an undisclosed trip to talk to someone off camera.

That’s fine, and I think half of the people who read these books will not be overly concerned with that… But the other half might, and considering Christie’s status, they might be put off mystery fiction forever.

Of course, as a writer in a different genre, I am not unduly bothered by this.  A failed mystery or a perceived unfairness in a Christie novel might simply drive them to one one of my books instead (hooray).  So I’m not complaining!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, an SF novel with a mystery at its core which may or may not be fair, but it will definitely both shock and surprise you.  You can buy it at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Controversy Isn’t What It Used to Be

Lady Chatterly's Lover - D.H. Lawrence

I’ve recently read a book that, in its day, and despite an utter lack of social media on which people could vent their anguished outrage, sparked a firestorm seldom seen in the literary world.  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, probably D.H. Lawrence’s most famous work, sparked obscenity trials and bannings across the globe, and on every continent.

As you can probably imagine, I approached this controversial book with a lot of curiosity: what kind of naughty, explicit, sticky and uncomfortable prose would cause such a stir.  Making it more interesting, the book was published in 1928… in the middle of the Roaring Twenties, an era described by our experts as the greatest epoch of partying ever.

So, how was it?

From a literary and sociological point of view, it was a great book which probably deserves its current status as a classic in its own right which just happened to get off to a rocky start.  Lawrence was a good writer whose characters are motivated by realistic forces and who struggle against class restrictions that, though they no longer exist, are easily relatable by the reader.  In fact, this, not the sex, is the focus of the novel: Lady Chatterley’s “bit of rough” as Mellors is described in the book’s introduction is, you can tell, an object of sneers and knowing looks.  That sets a brilliant tone, and will likely be the book’s enduring legacy.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Interior Illustration

The supposed obscenity, on the other hand, is essentially a non-issue today.  Yes, there is sex, explicitly described, in this book, but it isn’t remotely erotic sex.  Mechanically described, and with only the kind of overwrought and unrealistic wording one might find in the words of a pre-Raphaelite poem it’s the weakest part of the book.  The prose style there was more suitable, perhaps, to a medical journal.

That isn’t to say that the sex scenes aren’t important.  They are.  Editions in which the sex have been omitted are worthless, because of the supreme importance that they have in the character’s development, and because Lady Chatterley’s actions during and reactions to sex are paramount to the story.

So what happened?  I think it’s a conjunction of two things.  The first is that Lawrence knew he was breaking all the taboos when he wrote this.  One thing is to poke a socialist finger into the holes in the unraveling British class system… quite another to talk openly about intercourse in the way of the lower classes.  Lawrence knew it perfectly well.

The second, and the impression I get when reading, is that Lawrence himself had a complicated relationship to both women and sexuality.  I might be wrong on that score, but it’s certainly the sense a modern reader has when laboring through his descriptions of what is supposed to be illicit pleasure.  Of course, compared to his contemporaries, Lawrence was a regular Hugh Hefner, so maybe that is just a modern impression.

Nevertheless, it’s the lasting impression I left with.  As a writer, I’ll write erotica if either the market or the story calls for it.  The main thing one strives for is that the sex actually be sexy, provocative and, if possible, titillating.  One can fail spectacularly, of course, but that is the aim.  If your readers are reading one-handed, you’ve succeeded.

Lawrence either wasn’t aiming for this, or simply missed his mark.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose popular novel, Siege, has no sex in it (but people liked it anyway).  If you’re curious to see what he does when sex is involved, please check out Sinisterotica, an anthology that contains his story “Top of the Food Chain” and has one of the greatest covers ever created (and do you imagine the stir that one would have caused in Britain in 1928?).

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

Paradise Lost by John Milton - Airmont Edition

You’re reading a blog called Classically Educated.  I suppose that an appearance by Milton shouldn’t be much of a surprise…  Also, we’ve done poetry before, too…

Of course, even those of us who’ve never read John Milton’s epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, know about Milton’s Satan.  He is often pointed at as one of the great characters in the history of literature, and used as the prime example of how villains are so much more interesting than the good guys.

And it’s true, he is.  Not particularly sympathetic, perhaps, but definitely interesting.

But I often wonder how much of the character’s sympathetic nature has been created by modern readings of the poem.  Would a 17th century reader have been captivated by Satan’s cleverness or perseverance or have seen it as a warning and a danger, kind of the way modern people might see the industrial might of a military rival?

Most readers of that time, I believe, would have read the poem as a cautionary tale, and heeded the implied warnings against pride and arrogance contained within.

Milton's Satan by Gustav Doré

Nevertheless, the more interesting question of what Milton intended still persists.  We need to remember that, before composing his opus, John Milton was an official of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and, as such, the Christian paradise he refers to might be a symbol of the political one he feels was destroyed by Oliver’s death–although it would be really, really hard to place Cromwell in Satan’s role in this case.

Viewed in a different light, the poems (Lost and Regained) might have been written more in the way of a Shakespearian tragedy: the virtuous, albeit flawed protagonist struggles to the best of his ability, only to be crushed in the end.

Contemporary critics appeared to take the poems in the same light as his readers.  They were much more astonished at his skill than offended at the positive portrayal of some of the devil’s characteristics…  so no light got shed there.

I suppose the truth went to the grave with the author.  That hasn’t stopped seas of ink flowing into analysis later… but I can’t give the answer.  What I will say is that, unlike Chapman’s Homer, this one is an easy, often riveting read that holds up well in modern times.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts about what old Mr. Milton intended.

If you haven’t, don’t do what I did.

I made the mistake of taking this one along as reading material on an international trip…  Not a good idea.  When you’re on a trip, you want something that can immediately, effortlessly, whisk you away into a plot.  This one requires concentration and effort.  Not airport reading material.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short-story writer.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, has one major advantage compared to Paradise Lost: it is not in blank verse.  You can check it out here.