classic literature

The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…

No.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.

Hmmm…

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A Mad Scientist Primer

The Island of Dr Moreau

Well before the pulp era, the giants of the science fiction genre were writers of novels such as Verne and Wells (Mary Shelley, as well, of course, but it seems she was inserted into the SF canon years later, when the true significance of Frankenstein was understood).

Of these, Verne clearly wasn’t concerned with any of the bad things that progress might bring.  He seemed more of the kind of man who delighted in imagining what the future was going to look like.  The conflict in his novels is either man against man or man against the elements.  Man against progress didn’t seem to be his thing.

Wells,on the other hand, always gave his speculations a much sharper edge.  He had a brilliant imagination, more than capable of asking what if? but he was also willing to go that extra step and say… what if we took it too far?  And then answer the question to the best of his ability.

Today, mad scientists (and Bond villains) are expected to have their lairs hidden on isolated tropical islands, but when Wells wrote The Island of Dr Moreau, he was breaking new ground: creating a place isolated from society where that society’s nightmares and anxieties could be given palpable shape.

So Moreau, though less well-known than much of Wells output such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, is equally influential.  Perhaps more than the other two in many senses.

And it’s definitely this one that really shows Wells’ true colors.  Was he enthusiastic about science?  Probably.  But he was also deeply concerned about the possibility of abuse, and this novel is perhaps the most palpable expression of that fear.  If only for that reason, it’s a must-read.

Easton Press Island of Dr Moreau

A word about the edition that I read: it’s an Easton Press edition which is just as pretty as the ones we spoke of a couple of months ago.  We probably should have added this one into that post, but I already had an Easton book there, and it would have seemed like shilling.  Still, most used bookstores have these for sale at reasonable prices, so might not hurt to ask!

Three Unconventional Roads To Wodehouse

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

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

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

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

The Girl in Blue.  PG Wodehouse.  Paperback

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

Mr Mulliiner Speaking PG Wodehouse

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

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

 

Utterly Uncle Fred PG Wodehouse

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

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

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

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

Beyond a Few Statues

Statue of Lenin Dropped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone with the Wind Paperback

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect propaganda.

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

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

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

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

 

 

Plot Versus Divine Retribution – Two Very Different Horror Classics

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

Easton Press Frankenstein

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

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

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

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

Easton Press Phantom

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

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

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

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

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

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

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Seminal Vampires

In A Glass Darkly

 

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

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

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

Vampire tits - Sheridan Le Fanu Carmilla

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Novel Point of View

You know what a novel is, right?

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

Well…

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

The Theory of the Novel Edited by Philip Stevick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XKCD impostor

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

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

Tarzan of the Apes – Revisited as a Reader

Tarzan of the Apes book cover

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

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

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

Getting Deeply Classical

Aphrodite in the Trojan War

When one thinks about the Classics, Homer is usually among the first names that comes up.  Sadly, of course, if you say “Homer” to most people, they will immediately think of a yellow cartoon character with an affinity for Duff Beer – but that’s fine, the original probably wouldn’t do much for them anyway.

Homer, as we know, it the name given to the person who compiled two of the great masterpieces of Classical Antiquity: The Iliad and The Odyssey.  There has been much speculation regarding whether he was a historical figure or not, but we won’t get into that, now, as there are much more interesting things to discuss, especially with regards to which version of Homer should be read by anyone with truly “Classically Educated” pretentions and also the question of if any other work has had such a direct-line, continuous descent to modern times.

The first point is extremely interesting.  Assuming one doesn’t read ancient Greek (and yes, we should all read ancient Greek or at least change the name of this blog, as it used to be one of the requirements), and that your language of preference is English, there are many options available to you.  The first is to go with a prose translation.  This is the quick, easy way of becoming immersed in the glorious tapestry that is the mythology of the Trojan war.  It is a much more accessible way to to get a clear grasp on events, and is the best option for casual readers.

And by casual readers, we mean wimps.

Greek Text Odyssey

A true Homeric enthusiast will insist on a verse translation, and there are many, many available – from great poets to men and women that no one has ever heard of.  Poetic translations are evaluated on a number of criteria, the most important of which is fidelity to the original – and the tradeoffs: is it more important to be faithful to the meter or the rhyme or the meaning?  Hard to do, I imagine – plus, you need to be able to read ancient Greek.  Here’s a decent primer, if you’re looking into one of these.  They are not for wimps…

But they’re not for the true, died-in-the-wool elitist, either.

Homer

For he who must have bragging rights, there is only one option.  Chapman’s Homer.  This 1000 page block of epic poetry in Elizabethan English is the true test of an advanced reader (OK, OK, we’ll get into Finnegan’s Wake at some other point) who is not content with reading The Odyssey and The Iliad, but needs to read it in the first English translation, the one that influenced many of the great writers in the English language.  The challenge here, especially in The Iliad, is to avoid being drawn into the language, rhythm and rhyme and losing track of what is actually going on.  The Odyssey is much easier to digest, for some reason – possibly because it has more action and less talking (despite the battlefield setting of The Iliad).

It is a long, difficult read, but it is worth it.  After reading it, you will not feel a need to read another translation (unless you are a scholar, of course), as you will have ultimate bragging rights among people who’ve read this (and what is academia other than knowing more than the guy sitting next to you?).

This one gets our vote.

But what to do next?  Homer’s odyssey didn’t end with Homer.  There are a few books that come after that are direct-line descendants of the ones he actually (or mythologically) wrote.  In chronological order, they are:

The Aenid.  This is the poem that made Virgil a household name (well, if your household is composed of literate individuals).  There are several editions available, and it’s a significant piece of Roman mythology.

The Divine Comedy.  Clearly, Dante’s household was a literate one, as he had not only heard of Virgil, but chose him as his muse.  Even the deeply classically educated among you won’t be able to decipher the sneaky attacks on Dante’s contemporaries and political enemies in this one, but just chuckle at the fact that they’re still being tormented centuries later.  Most people never get past Inferno, which is clearly the best bit, but to earn respect, you’d best go through the whole thing.  This edition is recommended because it is a) cheap, b) contains illustrations by Gustave Doré, c) looks great on a shelf and d) is translated by Longfellow.

Ulysses.  If you’ve read it, you will have nearly supreme street cred among people who hardly ever go out into a street.  The only ones who will be able to look down their noses at you are the ones who claim to have understood Finnegan’s Wake, and you really don’t need to worry about them as whatever drug they’re on that gave them that illusion will soon finish them off.

– No credit is given for knowing the name of Bart’s teacher.

homer-simpson

Tough guys and gals, of course, don’t even need this post.  They pick up the original Greek, in manuscript form, and end up looking like the picture above.  We salute you.

Anyway, that is our Homeric lesson for the day.  We’d love to hear your experiences and recommendations.  We’d also love for you to tell us that we’re elitist jerks (this is a very validating thing to us).  Comments are all welcome!

 

Also, we have a fan page.  No one your mother wants you to hang out with has liked it…  so you definitely should (plus, it will ensure that you get our updates on your feed).