classic literature

A Fleet Street Pratfall

As a writer, sometimes you read something and wonder why you even bother with writing.  You will never be as brilliant as *insert writer name here*, so why waste your time.  You can just tell everyone to go read *insert writer name here*..

I recently got that feeling (I’m here to tell you that what can be a joy as a reader can be agony as a writer).  The first thirty-five pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop are so good that I can replace the unknown writer from the first paragraph with Waugh and not feel in the least bit guilty.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Now, I’m no stranger to Waugh’s work, but Brideshead Revisited is a very different animal.  It’s a beautiful book, and a beautifully written book, but it’s not a brilliant book of the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder that someone can make words do what they are doing.

That feeling only comes once in a while.  Wodehouse is probably the guy who does it to me most often, but Waugh… well, the first thirty-five pages of this one are pure gold.

It can’t go on, of course, and once the story hits Africa, it loses a little momentum and becomes merely very good and very entertaining.  Also, the characterization of how things work in a third world country are spot-on.  Modern readers from the developed world might be offended at the generalizations about banana republic governments, but I’m writing to you from Argentina to say that it’s perfectly all right and you can read the book without guilt.  Waugh satirizes it perfectly.

And that doesn’t even touch on the central tenet of the book: Waugh’s masterful send-up of the British newspaper industry, its lords and ladies and hangers-on.  Though the misunderstandings in the plot are worthy of the Marx Brothers, it comes across as truth… and I’m pretty certain that there’s a central kernel of true story around which each of the anecdotes in the book accreted.  It would be fascinating to have lived back then to know which ones.

Like in Dickens, the characters are archetypical with the most predatory of all being “the girl” as in “boy meets girl”.  In Waugh, of course, boy certainly does not keep girl… and the reasons for it are spectacularly funny.

Also interesting is that Waugh was apparently conscious of the way this book’s style approximated Wodehouse’s.  He even named a character Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner in case anyone missed the point.  Two masters coming together in prose.

I’ve had my eye on the Folio Society edition of Vile Bodies for a while now, and my reading of Scoop has pushed it to the very top of my list.

Do yourself a favor and read this one.  It will make you happy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has recently launched a collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

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A Wonderful Escape into a Lost Era

On Thursday, I spoke at length about a fantasy book, or at least a book set in a world that never existed, which is as good a definition of fantasy as one might give.  The interesting thing about Gormenghast, though is that the book never felt as much like I was escaping the real world as it did that I was navigating a maze that never truly let me forget the outside universe.

When you think about it, it’s strange that a fantasy book of that stature finds it hard to create the escapist objective of literature while the very next book I read, a non-fiction work, immediately plunged me into fantasyland and made all my troubles disappear–for a time.

The Whispering Land - Gerald Durrell

Of course, a world where one is free to roam about and collect animals for one’s private zoo is actually much more of an escape than one that talks about mad rulers.  And, besides, Gerald Durrell was a better writer than Mervyn Peake (and most of today’s socially conscious genre writers are worse than both).

When you take both these factors into consideration, The Whispering Land is one of those books that transports you to the wonders of a simpler time.  Yes, it’s based on the assumption that the British Empire is a civilizing force, and yes, if you tried to create something as barbaric as a zoo today, you’d get lynched by the ecologists, but both of those realities, far from offending, make the book even better, as they are so gently couched as to be wonderful as opposed to antisocial.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one as much as the incredible The Bafut Beagles and A Zoo in my Luggage, mainly because the book was set in Argentina in the 1960s, which, to my mind is a much less interesting and exotic locale than Africa in the 1950s could ever be.  Though a bit far away to be familiar to most, Argentina is essentially similar to southern Europe, if the poor were a bit more poor.  It’s not a truly exotic locale.

But Durrell’s wonderful writing and uncanny knack for finding kernels of wisdom and wonder even in the mundane, combined with the fact that he was actually spending time well on the fringes of the country, in the cold, desolate, penguin-infested coasts of Patagonia and the northern jungles make this one nearly as good as his African classics.  Even the foibles of third-world corruption are cheerfully presented as facts, and become quirks to be smiled at as opposed to anchors dragging down nations.

Seen from the perspective of the twenty-first century, Durrell’s work becomes the preemptive counter-strike and perfect library partner to Notes from a Small Island, in the sense that Bryson looks and Britain from an outsider’s perspective while Durrell looks at the rest of us from a distinctly British point of view.  And yes, he is well aware that that point of view is eccentric as hell, made more so by his insistence on running a private zoo.

At the risk of gushing I’ll just close with my recommendation: buy anything by Durrell you can get your hands on and read it.  If something therein offends you the problem is yours (have a doctor check you for an over-inflated sense of outrage and underpowered capacity for whimsy), and if you can’t lose yourself in his mid-century world, then you need to try to remember what wonder feels like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose latest book is a collection of 22 short stories set in places far from the First World.  It’s called Off the Beaten Path, and you can check it out here.

Possibly the Most Unusual Book You’ll Read

As a writer, I read in many genres, but SFF is closer to my heart than, say, the Romance genre.  I’ve read more widely in SFF than in many others so when there’s a fantasy classic that I haven’t read sitting on a used-bookstore shelf, I will usually grab it without hesitation.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, Introduced by Anthony Burgess

Titus Groan was one such book.  Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast Trilogy is considered a classic, and the edition I bought was introduced by none other than Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame.

I was expecting the book to be ponderous and impenetrable, but I was surprised.  It’s not impenetrable in the least.  Unlike Lovecraft, who often laced his work with archaic or unusual language in an attempt to heighten the effect, Peake wrote in language perfectly modern for his day and age (1946), which makes the book much more of a pleasure for modern readers.

Of course, it’s still ponderous.  It’s ponderous in a way that few other novels would ever dare to be.  Peake was apparently convinced that you should never describe a person in one paragraph where four chapters would do the job just as well.

It’s hard to get used to but, to be fair, it’s this dogged insistence on creating mountains of words that gives the book its texture and which has established it as one of the genre’s classic works even without its having been widely read.  You get used to the pacing after a while, and what action there is is decisive enough that the story is also a satisfying read if you can stick with the pace.

Once you close that back cover on the completed book, you’ll find that the world around Gormenghast mountain is alive in your head and you miss it.  You might not immediately want to seek out the two sequels, but you certainly have a sense that, eventually, you will.

But that’s not what struck me most about the books, however.  What struck me most is that they’re not strictly fantasy.  If not for the fact that Gormenghast has never existed anywhere, Peake might easily have been writing about a lost kingdom in central Europe in the 19th Century, The Prisoner of Zenda isolated from the rest of civilization.  There is no science fictional explanation for the castle’s presence, and the only magic is a premonitory dream which might, or might not have been an actual premonition.

The literary world has classified it as fantasy, though I’m not sure whether Peake himself would agree with that assessment (I still need to read Gormenghast and Titus Alone, so they might clarify the situation).  He just needed a place where his characters could play out… and where it made sense to write seventeen pages describing the moss on a stone wall.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories from places that aren’t usually represented in genre fiction–from African gorges to South American ghosts–entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out here.

 

Genius Always Makes Things Better

If I spoke about a book written in the 19th century whose thinly-veiled message is that young women need to be respectful of their parents, appreciate the joys of a happy traditional home life and then added to that that the book also speaks of the love of God as the most important force in life, what would your reaction be?

Yawn?

Yeah, me too.  Except this book has become a classic.  It’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, and it’s wonderful.

little-women-louisa-may-alcott

It’s a children’s book, of course, or at least it was a children’s book when it was written… if published today, it would be firmly Young Adult or Even aimed at adults because children no longer read at a significant level.

The positive thing about that is that Little Women can be enjoyed by adults today without the feeling that one is reading something below one’s intellectual level.  Better still, the emotional punch this book packs hits across age groups.

Because Alcott’s genius is all about the characters.  Other than a couple of illnesses and a marriage or two, nothing that would make the plot of most other books even happens here.  It’s all about domestic life and tiny little squabbles, petty jealousies and completely plain-Jane friendships.  The acts of rebellion would have Holden Caufield, to take a name at random, scratching his head and wondering if anyone actually believes that a family could be so square (Holden’s word, not mine).

There is very little in the way of interesting events, yet you still find yourself reading, you want to know that it all comes out well for the characters, and suffer with them when it doesn’t.

Louisa_May_Alcott_headshot

It’s not easy to make commonplace events, of interest mainly to gossiping grandmother types, gripping.  Even hampered by 150 years under the bridge, Alcott pulls it off.  She was a literary giant, and I can’t even imagine what she would be capable of if she lived today, unencumbered by the worldview of her times and circumstances.  She was supposedly a feminist in her time… you could never tell unless they told you.

Modern feminists won’t enjoy this one but, if you are the kind of person who can look past a little bit of preaching of currently unpopular values and enjoy a beautiful book, you should pick up a copy.  Because looking past the obvious can show you a work which has aged remarkably well.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book The Malakiad takes place in a particularly unusual version of ancient Greece.  You can check it out here.

An Enjoyable Product of its Time

One of my pet peeves, as readers of this space have probably already noticed, is when modern readers or critics attempt to disparage a classic work because it doesn’t conform to present-day expectations.

Racist.  Sexist.  Colonialist.  They are all words used to attempt to deny masterpieces their rightful place in the canon.  So far, fortunately, this agenda seems to be failing, and one can still enjoy Heart of Darkness, to take an example at random, secure in the knowledge that one is reading a pillar of the twentieth century.

What needs to be clear is that these works are a product of their time, and they need to be enjoyed without our modern prejudices, in much the same way as we read the Greeks or Romans.  If you can do that, you will likely enjoy them quite a bit.

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu - Sax Rohmer

The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu is a glorious example of the type of thing I’m talking about.  It centers around one of the fears of nationalistic Europe in the early 1910s: The Yellow Peril, or the possibility that Asia would throw off the chains of empire and attempt to dominate the “civilized” world.

I’d love to see what kind of an effect tossing this one into a modern literature course would have–the fur would fly–but if you can turn off the modernity, it’s a brilliant story, well told.

It tells of the world’s smartest man: an Asian mastermind whose job is to undermine the Western powers so that a shadowy Chinese group can take over the world.  Pretty standard stuff so far.

But Fu Manchu isn’t just a criminal.  He’s a genius and a gentleman who honors his enemies and only kills when he must… even though, as an utter madman, he enjoys it when necessary.  It’s those contradictions which make him frightening and lead to this story, as anachronistic as it is, to remain in print to this very day.  Hollywood also took note and there were a couple of films.

The British heroes are, at all times, conscious of their inferiority, and yet struggle on regardless… perhaps a portrait of their own national characteristics.

I wasn’t familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work, but I liked this one, and will be purchasing more of them.  It’s the perfect antidote for today’s oh-so-offended world… an intentionally exaggerated reminder of what the same people who are now socially conscious used to consume by the truckload.  And a great story to boot.

Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside deals with the problems society will be facing in the near future.  You can have a look here.

 

Naughtiness through the Centuries

The language of love is probably French, or maybe Italian.  It’s no coincidence that so many of histories great romantic figures have had a Latin background.  Casanova.  Valentino.  Don Juan (all right, he was a literary invention, but you get the idea–he wasn’t Mister Jones or Herr Helmut).

But there’s also a tradition of erotic literature in English that might have become a bit of a “mommy-porn” joke on the literary side thanks to the antics of a certain Mr. Grey, (although I suspect that EL James is laughing all the way to the bank, because the books are big business).

But there was a time when erotic literature was not a laughing matter, and publishers and authors could face real consequences for dabbling in the genre, anything from fines to imprisonment or, more recently, to literary ostracism.  But the pull was always there, and the books got written.

There are likely uncountable reams of bad erotica sitting on dusty bookshelves, but there are three books that, to me, have always been the landmark classics of English language lewdness: Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.

You’ll probably recall that I wasn’t terribly impressed by Lady Chatterley‘s erotic content, so when I picked up Fanny Hill, a book published nearly 200 years before the Lawrence.

Fanny Hill - John Cleland

Man, was I in for a surprise.

John Cleland, unlike Lawrence, doesn’t just describe sex as a mechanical activity, but actually brings eroticism to bear.  You can tell the author, even in the first half of the eighteenth century, took the time to research his subject exhaustively, and then went on to describe what he’d learned.

Free writing tip: if you’re writing erotica, this is probably the the most enjoyable approach.

As a piece of pornography, Fanny Hill is infinitely more successful than Lady Chatterley.  To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t just trying to write himself into obscenity law history but also to make a statement about class distinctions in Britain.  The reason the Cleland is a better book is because Fanny Hill is unconcerned with politics–pushing your politics as a central theme of your book is a sure way to soporific stultification (see what is happening in the science fiction genre today for a vivid example of politics making it difficult for literature to shine).

Is Fanny Hill a great book?  Simply put, no.  It’s a great bit of pornography, and I’m not surprised that it’s now considered a classic because it’s very good at what it does.  I think the next well-written pieces of literature to do it so well (at least in English) were produced in the middle of the twentieth century.  But like pornographic movies, it gets a little repetitive after a while because the underlying story is paper thin (despite the fact that Cleland was clearly a gifted writer).

Also, as a purely modern critic, there is very little sexual variety in the book, which, even if you updated the sometimes archaic language, would date the book to a less adventurous era.

Still, hats are off to the spirit of Mr. Cleland for setting the bar so high that it would take Henry Miller two centuries later to surpass it.  Of course, that’s an assumption that I need to get my hands on Tropic of Cancer to confirm.

I suspect I’ll enjoy that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who isn’t afraid to put a little heat into his books.  Timeless is an excellent example of this, and you can check it out here.

A Bit of a Relief

After my bad experience with Agatha Christie’s mystery set in Ancient Egypt, it was quite a relief to get back to the English countryside, and doubly so to find that the next Christie book in my TBR pile had the typical Christie mix of entertainment and intrigue with just enough character development to give the reader the information they need to try to guess at the murderer.

Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie

Sleeping Murder (which, according to the cover is Miss Marple’s Last Case) was published in 1976, but somehow feels a coupe of decades earlier… in my opinion, a good thing.  And yes, Agatha Christie died a few months before its publication.

Had she lost a step?  I really didn’t think so while reading it–it felt very similar to the work she did in her heyday but–and this isn’t necessarily conclusive evidence–I was able to guess the murderer at a very early stage, and none of Christie’s handwaving made me change my mind.  That’s unusual in the extreme, and I don’t recall doing it all that often (I’d say I guess in maybe one of five caes).

Of course, many of Christie’s books flirt with the concept of fairness.  They’re not murder mysteries in which all the clues are presented objectively so the reader can work alongside the detective, but they are usually veiled and incomplete.  They are more mystery entertainment than actual play-along-with-me kind of mysteries.

Nevertheless, once you know a little about how Agatha Christie works, you can often predict where she’ll go, and in this case it was particularly easy.

Even taking this into account, and despite being a Marple mystery (I personally much prefer Poirot), it was a very enjoyable quick read.  I guess it takes a slipup like the Egyptian thing to make one realize just how consistently good Agatha Christie really was.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s own take on the mystery / thriller genre is anything but cozy.  Timeless is a chilling transition from an intellectual literary mystery to a world of international criminals, violence and murder.  You can check it out here.

A War Book for Adults

Alistair MacLean

Alistair MacLean is no stranger to anyone who’s ever read a thriller.  He wrote The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, for Christ’s sake (that last bit should be read in a tone evocative of a writer who is jealous of another writer).  Let’s ignore Ice Station Zebra for now because I may have recently riffed off that particular title.

But not many modern readers will be familiar with his debut novel, HMS Ulysses, and that’s truly sad.  This may be his best book.

HMS Ulysses by Alistair MacLean

It’s not his most imaginative, by any means, nor does it involve intricate plots or undercover agents.  It’s just the story of an Arctic convoy on the Murmansk run, one of the most dangerous routes of WWII.

What makes it amazing is that it’s utterly and completely real.  Fictionalized, of course, but a true description of that particular piece of that particular war.  The horrors perpetrated on men’s bodies and, more importantly, on their minds, during combat in arctic conditions is described without holding any punches.  It’s a book that can convince anyone that war is hell.

It hits you like a hammer, right between the eyes.

And yet, it won’t put you off war books or turn you into a raging anti-war demonstrator.  MacLean had been in some of the worst conditions ever faced, but he didn’t shy away from the subject, and instead treats it in an adult way.

It’s refreshing.  Instead of whining and moaning about how awful war is, he shows it to us, and then lets us take our own conclusions from the book.  My own thoughts are that his intention was that we take due note about the harsh and awful things… and then realize that the men who lived through it were tough enough to take it.  Heroism and nobility, he seems to be saying, are not destroyed by a true depiction of conflict but heightened.

This is refreshing.  Most war books cater to either the adolescents who want to paint war as nothing but a display of the worst of mankind or to the children who think it’s just a big game of cowboys and indians.  MacLean is actually writing for people with a little more depth to them.

He sold a ton of copies and launched a career (mainly writing the cowboys and indians type book, admittedly) on the strength of this book… and all of it was well deserved.  Find this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is Ice Station Death.  You can check it out here.

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

Philip K. Dick Debut

OK, we’ve all seen Blade Runner.  Most of us have also watched the sequel… I remember liking it when I watched it.  The thing is that the movie, in my mind, is more of a collection of sensations, generating the same kind of feeling that noir film of the thirties did, than something I analyze as a piece of science fiction.

Now, I’ve read every major SF writer out there, in depth and in detail… except for Philip K. Dick.  Why?  I’m not sure.  I’ve had the Library of America PKD collection in my shopping cart for about a decade, but it always seems to get bumped out by something newer and shinier.

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

But on my birthday a year ago, a friend gifted me A Maze of Death, one of his novels.

Let’s be clear, this book is not the conventional door into Dick.  That would probably be the novella that engendered Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Additionally, this is a dark book, whose central theme–as foreshadowed by the title–is the human propensity to cause other people’s deaths.

So what did I think?

This boy has potential.  If even one of his minor works is so intriguing, I can’t help but think that his classics must be amazing indeed.

So let’s have a look at this one.  Without being overly spoilery, this one has three separate layers of reality all transpiring concurrently, of which one, in what, from what I’ve read online, is a typical display of Dick’s sense of humor, is only evident in the chapter list.

The book is interesting more on an intellectual level than as a typical literary enterprise.  The characters are, to put it mildly, unlikable, and they die in mostly uninspiring ways.  Nevertheless, the reader is always kept engaged by the underlying mystery.

The style–perhaps intentionally, I won’t be able to judge fully until I read more of the man’s work–reminds me more of the work of the fifties than the seventies.  It’s reminiscent of A Case of Conscience, or even Mission of Gravity.

So, as a corporate boss might say, this is a good start.  I still need to get my act together and read the meat of his output in order to give my loyal readers a better picture.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own exploration of the human psyche is strongest in his novel Outside.  You can check it out here.