classic literature

Bright Young Things Satirized

My copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (I read the one in the picture) had an intro by Waugh that stated that, at one point in the writing of the book, he’d gone from gleeful to bitter–although he doesn’t say so, I assume it’s because of his divorce from his wife (it’s his own fault. When A dude named Evelyn marries a girl named Evelyn, it can’t end well).

That comment began to worry me about halfway through the book. You see, the first part of Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever. The description of aristocratic college life in the 1920s has always seemed to me to represent a perfect idyll (and if you want more of it, but from the academic side, I strongly recommend The Inklings of Oxford), while the second half, the “serious” half, dropped off sharply. I was enjoying the pell-mell anarchy of Vile Bodies, and I didn’t want that to happen in this one.

Luckily, it wasn’t possible–at least not for me–to easily separate Waugh’s biting satire of the “gleeful” part from the bitterness he says happened in the second section. Not on a first reading, anyway.

The book continues as it started, with the nuttiness of young people discovering their independence in a time just coming off the repressive age. While it can’t rival Gatsby as the ultimate expression of the Roaring Twenties, it does give you just enough reality beneath the exaggeration to give one a sense of what the London scene looked like.

As with Gatsby, it was a great time to be alive (as long as you were in the right set, of course).

The temptation here is to compare this one with Scoop, as they are both similar in conception: take an institution (journalism in Scoop, the Bright Young Things in Vile Bodies) and go to town on the satire. It’s a valid comparison, but Scoop is both funnier (unless you’re easily offended, in which case we pity you) and more chaotic, while Vile Bodies, though good, does fall a little flat at the end. It’s probably very symbolic, but I’m reading this one as a regular reader, for the fun of it, and have little interest in social commentary about stuff that happened almost a hundred years ago.

As such, it’s a good book, and I have yet to find a Waugh that I didn’t like, but it isn’t quite up to the wonderfulness (I was sure the autocorrector would clobber wonderfulness, but apparently it’s a real word. Who knew?) of the first half of Brideshead and the entirety of Scoop. Still better than most everything else, of course.

Read Waugh. Don’t let his books go out of print. If not for you, do it for future generations.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in the linked story Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Only the CIA Would Have Made a Film Out of Animal Farm

Animal Farm is yet another of those books you love to have read as opposed to loved reading. Orwell, as we all know, was a socialist, but what few people realize is that he was, first and foremost, a humanist. He refused to accept that any ideology, not even his beloved collectivism, was more important than the individuals it was to guide.

So when Stalinism took root in the Soviet Union, complete with all its excesses and de-personing of opposition, this avowed socialist became, ironically, the perfect spokesperson for the CIA. Both 1984 and Animal Farm are, essentially anti-communist books that warn of the dangers of totalitarian collectivism. They have since been used to attack the left and other populist demagogues by anyone with half a brain (those without brains sometime think it can be used to attack capitalist ideals, unaware that they are talking about two different things).

So the CIA commissioned a film of Animal Farm

While I’m not the right person to ask whether this is good propaganda or bad, I am eminently qualified to talk about the story and how it makes a viewer (or reader) feel. In this case, you feel like crap, because you just know how things will end as soon as a socialist utopia is mooted (utopias of any kind always end the same way, of course). You read the book because you want to understand the arguments and understand the Twentieth Century… but why watch a cartoon of this depressing stuff. Hell, if you want to be unhappy watch this one.

I can just imagine some poor parent, delighted with Disney’s offerings, taking their kids to see this little gem. It’s a wonder movie houses weren’t burned down by irate fathers (or their bawling children).

Of course, literate audiences will notice the major change in the film, which turns this into extremely obvious propaganda: in the end, the animals rise up against the rule of the pigs… which is very much NOT the message that Orwell delivered in his own book.

Taking the film by itself, it’s an unfortunate thing that would never have been made if not for political expediencies of the age. We should put it in the same category as things like Trimph des Willens (although this one is a masterpiece of filmmaking, Animal Farm is not), which is probably why it made the 1001 films list.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose passion is to extrapolate current trends and see which paths, hopeful and dangerous, they will eventually lead us down. A sterling example of this is his science fiction novel Outside, which will disturb anyone who lives in modern society. You can check it out here.

A Plodding Walk Through Legendary Wessex

I’m not averse to reading classics. In fact, a lot of the 19th century literary work I’ve read has been extremely entertaining, so when I encounter a classic of the era which is almost unreadable, I rue the missed opportunity.

Now, I’m not a stranger to Thomas Hardy. I’d read Far From the Madding Crowd before I started reviewing for CE, and found it uninspiring, if not awful. But I see that Hardy wasn’t content with uninspiring. The book that is arguably his masterpiece went for the truly unreadable.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the worst books I’ve read in ages. The writing, of course, is perfectly fine, but the plot is tear-out-your-hair awful. The first 400 pages of this 500 page book are completely predictable and when it becomes unpredictable, it’s a Hays-Code crime plot… which means that it gives us an unsatisfying ending.

This is one of the few cases, however, where I’d consider giving a book a pass because of the time that has passed since it was written. You see, in 1890, the subject of this book–a woman who is seduced and bears a child and then marries another man without telling him–would have been sensational stuff, and perhaps audiences in the day would not have been able to predict what was going to happen, simply because they weren’t expecting the author to tread forbidden paths.

This is certainly an argument in its favor, although it falls down if one loses that taboo. If you trust that the author won’t flinch, the book becomes utterly dull.

Some readers will find things to like, of course. The scenes of rural life are the best part of the book and show Hardy’s love for the subject. I get that, and it truly is well done.

Other readers will be moved by the plight of the wronged woman… but it was so boring, and so much of it would have been avoided by a person with a measurable IQ that I was unimpressed. She seems to me like those characters in a horror movie that, confronted with the chance of leaving the house or running up the stairs to be trapped and dismembered, choose the latter.

My advice is to read it and judge for yourself. This book has a huge following, which means that many people are going to have a very different opinion than mine.For myself? Well, I wish Hardy would just have described rural life. When he added plots to his novels, he ruined them.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work in the literary genre (as opposed to more fantastic work) can be found in his book Love and Death, which weaves together the lives, triumphs and tribulations of a series of people just like you and me. You can check it out here.

Writers’ Writers vs. Readers’ Writers

I used to think the phrase “so-and-so is a writer’s writer,” was just a way to indicate a writer that other writers would read and recommend. Hell, even after I became a writer myself, the same attitude prevailed.

It was only after my writing reached a certain level, and my consciousness of the art form became much less subliminal and much more specific that I began to realize why some writers are revered by their peers while others most emphatically are not.

Let’s take Dan Brown, for example. Writers will never, ever accept that there is any literary merit in his work. They describe him as a hack who writes awfully, an aberration that proves that, just because words are in a book, it doesn’t make it literature.

Though I don’t know Dan Brown personally, I imagine he is laughing all the way to the bank. You see, no one told the millions of readers of The Da Vinci Code that it sucked, and they kept right on reading.

In fact, I’ll admit to having enjoyed it enormously (especially the first half of it). I was on a plane and out of books and the only interesting English-language paperback they’d had in Madrid airport was this one. So I bought it and loved it.

Is it well-written in the sense that Brown focuses on the language and the currently fashionable tenets of literary expression. No effing way.

Is it good? Absolutely. It is a page-turner in the classical mold and, like it or not, these are the books that engage readers. No matter how many critically acclaimed auteurs sniff at it, readers are not stupid; they can tell when something is excellent… and they will ignore critics in droves to read it.

So who’s right.

Offhand, I’d say the readers, as they are the people that writers create for in the first place.

But it isn’t that simple. A more nuanced answer would be that both groups are right.

A book that keeps readers reading is good by the most important of all definitions: it gives pleasure, escape and entertainment to its target audience. That can’t be bad, and critics of everything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades are wrong to forget it. Great storytelling has to be an important part of any great book, and when postmodern critics sit down and disparage anything with a plot that people enjoy, they are doing a disservice to literature (modern critics had the same issue, BTW, this isn’t an attack on postmodernism per se).

Having said that, it’s possible to read for more than just the basic pleasure of finding out what happens next. The plot can be advanced in elegant as well as simple ways… and the texture of the writing can bring pleasure to readers as well. In that sense, arguing for more literary text is perfectly valid.

So why “writers’ writer” and not just “sophisticated readers’ writer”?

I think it’s because of the way writers react when they see a spectacular chunk of prose. While a reader might feel pleasure at the aesthetics, a writer will admire (or be jealous of) the mechanics. Writers, when they manage to turn off their inner reader, can feel awe at another writer’s craftsmanship.

In my case, I see it in Wodehouse, of course. While he is beloved by millions for the sheer sake of his humor and lovable characters, any writer exposed to his prose will leave with a sense of awe and inadequacy that will take a while to shake. There is no writer in the English language whose sentences are as beautifully crafted as Wodehouse. Don’t remember it that way? Then I challenge you to pick up any one of his books and prove me wrong. You won’t.

There are other writers who use language wonderfully (Fitzgerald), or incorporate erudite concepts effortlessly (Eco).

So, yes. There is another level in writing, and these are the books that authors will gravitate to.

But don’t discount readers’ opinions. That a book is straightforward in no way makes it a bad book. You have my permission to ignore the critics who tell you otherwise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books (he hopes) are long on both storytelling and language. In an attempt to prove it, he cites his collection of literary fiction, a novel in short story form, entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Mona Lisa Overdrive: Cyberpunk Mysticism Explained… Sorta.

I’ve spoken about William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy here before. Last time, we mused at just how much influence the books had on The Matrix film series (basically it’s impossible to overstate).

Now that I’ve finished the trilogy by reading Mona Lisa Overdrive, I can give my final thoughts.

First off, this book is fun. It’s structured like a multi-string crime book or a thriller in the modern mold, with different characters showing us different threads of the action, which then converge at the end. While it’s a little short to be quite as effective in this treatment as a contemporary (1988) Tom Clancy book, it’s still an entertaining way to structure the novel.

This is probably the one where the cyberpunk elements are woven into the tale most skillfully, possibly because Gibson understood them better or maybe because he assumed that the readers who’d gotten that far also understood everything much better. Either way, I think this book would not really work at all for people who hadn’t read the first two in the series.

Having said that, the best part of this book is that it actually explains the mystical aspects of the earlier novels, which, like the mystical aspects of the Matrix trilogy always annoyed me. They were a jarring note in an otherwise hard-science-y universe of hardware and software.

Though the explanation isn’t very deep or detailed–this book is much more about completing character arcs and telling its own unique set of events–the fact that the spiritual explanations are closed off helps reestablish the hard-edged nature of the series.

These books aren’t perfect–not many seminal books are–but they do transport you to an alternative and noir world, which is always welcome.

And seeing that a lot of modern science fiction seems more concerned with diversity and inclusivity than with actually telling a cool story, this is a welcome change of pace for those who’ve become saturated with the modern stuff. (I don’t want to be unfair–there’s still plenty of good, story/tech/adventure-driven SF out there. But you have to wade through it).

So there’s a reason Gibson has taken his place among the canonical writers.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside explores, as Gibson’s work does, the limits between humanity and technology, and the consequences of too much reliance on the latter. You can check it out here.

A Different Look at Early Feminism: The Bostonians

Back when I did my review of A Room of One’s Own, I commented that political discussion seemed to be much more intelligent back then and, in consequence, less annoying than our present day state in which people on the other side of the argument need to be unfriended, because politics.

Apparently, I spoke too soon.

Henry James is probably best known for A Portrait of a Lady, but in The Bostonians, he ridicules the political obsessives of his own day, which in this case was the late 1870s. That he choses the female emancipation movement is probably not representative of James’ own political leanings, but more that he needed a political movement that made itself utterly obnoxious for an extended period of time. Feminism appears to have been that movement on that day.

Despite Virginia Woolf’s well thought out and beautifully delivered speech that formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own, we were naive in stating that this was an era of intelligent political discussion. Woolf did not represent her movement’s rank-and-file, or even the day-to-day organizers. She was a superstar in a different field brought to impart wisdom… and she succeeded.

But that daily membership was just as subject to ridicule as your friend who wears the MAGA hat and drinks bleach to kill microbes or your communist buddy who insists that the Soviet Union wasn’t “real socialism” and that all historical evidence of the failure of socialism is caused by either aliens or corporate conspiracies.

Here, the victim of Henry James’ satire is a young fanatic feminist who may (or may not) be a lesbian. She lives and breathes for the movement to such an extent that she ends up hating all men… which is no less adolescent in 1870 than it is today.

Making things even more delightfully ironic, her antagonist is a southerner, a man who recently fought on the losing side of the Civil War… and whose views are decidedly conservative–and who James also satirized and turns into a caricature.

The stakes are the heart of a woman who is the most original and persuasive feminist speaker the movement has yet discovered and, unlike others, is young and beautiful to boot. The Southerner wishes to win her hand, while the feminist wants to keep her in the movement (which she will abandon if she becomes the Southerner’s wife).

I won’t spoil this one by telling you who wins, except that no one comes out smelling like a rose… and that it paints a portrait of the politics of the time which allows us to see that even the suffragist movement, which managed enormous good was, at its core, populated by the same sad fanatics we see today.

Interesting stuff, and a good way to immerse oneself in the day and age.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the range from literary fiction to historical fantasy. His most mainstream novel is a thriller entitled Timeless which combines a fast-paced international-crime-driven plot with the inherent sexuality of a young globe-trotting journalist to create something unique and absorbing. You can check it out here.

More Fine Books

As I’ve mentioned here before, I love Fine Books & Collections. I used to be a subscriber but, unfortunately, the postal service they use to mail magazines overseas just isn’t arriving in Argentina for some reason. And no one seems to have any clue as to where they are going missing.

So I buy them when I travel to the US, if I happen to spot it at a B&N newsstand. Which I did on my recent mid-pandemic trip to Washington and Philadelphia.

It appears their distribution issues are not just limited to Argentina, because the only copy I was able to snag was the Spring 2020 issue… in October. Still, I grabbed it without hesitation and, unlike the rest of the reading material I bought on the trip, I read this one immediately.

Totally worth it, even if a good chunk of the magazine dealt with the New York Rare Book Week (I assume that got cancelled due to Covid).

Even so, this one represents immersion therapy in a world of classic editions of beloved books, old maps, beautiful craftsmanship and art. Along with my visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum, which had some unexpected highlights in its holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern art, this was my cultural break during my trip since the Smithsonian museums I am interested in–Air & Space, Art and American History–were closed on the dates I was in town.

My head spends a long time in the future because I’m in the middle of a science fiction novel, my kids ensure that I spend a good chunk of the day very much in the present (with both the joys and the annoyances that come with it), so just stopping everything and enjoying beauty and wonder created decades or centuries ago and seeing into minds who appreciate that sensation just like you do is a way to relax and just let go for a bit. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that these magazines are probably among the things I most enjoy reading.

In this one, there are the usual great articles and columns, but two, about the photography of Danny Lyon and the book listing high-tech inventions of the renaissance really stood out. I always leaf through these mags when I have a desire to be transported… and I still haven’t found one that disappoints on rereading.

Recommended (and maybe if enough people buy it, they’ll be able to fix their distribution problems!).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. You can check out his literary fiction in Love and Death a narrative that comes together out of several short pieces to tell the story of a group of individuals who never quite realize how closely they are linked. You can check it out here.

The Allure of Beautiful Libraries

Those of you following along at home are probably aware by now that I have a thing for libraries, particularly beautiful ones. My home bookshelves are an eclectic mix of fine editions and ancient destroyed paperbacks, with most of the better books being “keepers” of which I bought a decent copy to replace a paperback that was falling to pieces.

Besides my own book buying tendencies, I also love reading about libraries, especially when it’s a lavishly illustrated book about them.

So it should come as no surprise that one of my dreams in life is to own a truly spectacular walk-in library with hundreds of meters of shelving. Those familiar with the Abbey Library at Saint Gall will understand the concept, but I never did like the aesthetics of these cold–albeit imposing–abbey libraries.

For myself, I much prefer the coziness of an English country house style library and study. It just seems a better kind of surrounding for a modern polymath. All right, it might be a bit of an antiquated concept, and the gentleman scholar a bit of a cliché, but I find that it fits my self-image better than most everything else. I’ve been accused of being a little elitist, but I maintain that I’m a gentle example of the breed.

CMC 39

So if I ever get one of these, you’re all invited to discuss literature, art and pretty much anything else that comes to mind in the feast of reason.

You’ll certainly find me happy.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Ice Station Death is a look at what could happen if prehistoric creatures resurfaced in Antarctica and encountered an expedition. It’s a fast-paced romp where enemies take many forms: monsters, weather and, perhaps worst of all, other people. You can check it out here.

Inspector Morse and Oxford, the Perfect Combination

Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that few other genres offer the immediate escapism that a good murder mystery does. I’d never really thought about why, but I’ve come to think that it’s because the setting plays such a huge part in a crime novel.

Whether it’s one of Agatha Christie’s books set in the English countryside, or a slice of noir decadence, the shady lanes and mean streets are another character in the book.

But the master isn’t one of the ones I’d read before. It’s one that came to me through the screen.

Like many people, I discovered Inspector Morse through the 90’s TV series. A wonderful creation, it is essentially the only non-sports or non-sitcom TV content I have any patience for. I watched the entire original series recently, and it’s an amazing piece of work, transporting the viewer to the pace and sights of Oxford.

But I’d never read any of Colin dexter’s Original books. This, it turns out, is a stupid omission.

I’ll assume The Daughters of Cain is a typical Morse book and say that… it’s absolutely wonderful. If the rest of the series is as good as this one, I’d say that Dexter was another of the worthy successors to Agatha Christie. In fact, I’ll say that, though the psychological complexity of the characters might not be at the level of others, these books are better.

Why? Because of what I said at the beginning. The setting becomes a character, and no setting is better suited to the role than the city of Oxford. It’s history, architecture and the interaction of town and gown is perfect to lose oneself in…

But it takes a special kind of writer to do it justice and Dexter fits the bill wonderfully. Erudite and knowledgeable, he brings the city and Morse’s fraught relationship with the university to vibrant life and you, as a reader, find yourself transported.

When the book finished, I wanted more, but not more of the characters, necessarily. I wanted more of the world they moved around in. And I think that’s the magic of these books.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His fast-paced thriller Timeless follows a journalist on the track of a big story only to find herself involved with international smugglers and East-European drug dealers. If she wants to survive, she’ll have to ally herself with a man who knows the ropes… and that means a criminal. You can check it out here.

Gaskell’s Brontë, a Controversial Piece of Hero Worship

Choosing a favorite among the three universally accepted colossi of the 19th-century female writers is supposed to be an exclusive proposition.  You can only like one–Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë or Jane Austen–while being severely critical of the rest.

Of course, that only applies to superfans, the kind of personality who will force perfectly normal people to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek, or between Twilight and Harry Potter.

If forced to dance to this music, I’ll go with Austen, followed by Emily.  Charlotte would be close… but third.

Even among the Brontë’s themselves, I have gone on record as preferring Anne to her more famous sisters.

Elizabeth Gaskell, were she alive, would disagree.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë - Elizabeth Gaskell.jpg

A famous novelist herself (North and South), Gaskell was friends with Brontë while Charlotte was still alive.  She was therefore perfectly placed to write the authorized biography of the author of Jane Eyre.  In fact, she was so perfect that Brontë’s father was the one who asked her to write it.

Being that close to the subject brought very many advantages–the knowledge of the people and places really brings the resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, to life.  Unfortunately, it also means that Gaskell withholds important information and pulls her punches somewhat.

The basics are well covered.  Gaskell’s style paints an incredible picture of the six motherless children growing up in an isolated village, and you cry with them as they lose the two eldest sisters, leaving probably the greatest concentration of literary genius every gathered under a single family’s roof in the persons of the three surviving girls (the one boy, Branwell, was never able to get it together and was basically an anchor and a source of anxiety, nothing more).

If you wrote a fictional account this poignant, no one would believe it, and you’d be laughed at.

But it’s real.  One by one we watch the women of the generation drop in the clutches of tuberculosis, fortunately after producing immortal masterworks.  Emily is the one felt strongest in this particular book.  The personality we guess at from Wuthering Heights appears fully present here, walking the moors.

In fact, this book reinforced my thinking that, if I had a time machine, I would probably go back and give Emily a TB vaccination as an infant.  I would really want to see what she, the genius of a family full of them, would have done with a little practice under her belt.  She’s the one I’d save if I could only save one.

On the debit side of the ledger, the Life completely conceals the episode of Charlotte falling in love with the (married) owner of the school she studied and worked at in Belgium.  That is because Gaskell had a hero worshipper’s view of Brontë.  She considered Charlotte a model of Christian mores and suffering, and this view was inconsistent with any possibility of that kind of inappropriate behavior.

In fact, had it been any other life, I’d say the suffering angle was way overblown by a natural dramatist… but when your mother and siblings drop like flies out in the moorlands, I’m inclined to give Gaskell the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, some people didn’t, and despite the care to omit names, the publishers were threatened with lawsuits, most notably by the owners of the school that killed the eldest siblings through unsanitary conditions and the woman who was Branwell’s (the brother) lover, and also the wife (later widow) of one of his employers.  Fortunately, the first edition went out unexpurged, and we can record her name here for posterity: Lady Lydia Robinson Scott.  We do this not because we think she did anything wrong in taking a lover, but because she lawyered up when caught.  Yawn.

There have been more factually accurate biographies of the Brontë’s, but I doubt there will ever be any more powerful.  Gaskell could write, and the material in her hands was dramatic indeed.  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is fascinated by how the human mind responds in emotionally charged situations.  One of his books explores this in great depth, and is, unsurprisingly entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.