VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Watt (1953) by Samuel Beckett


Book Review
Watt (1953)
 by Samuel Beckett

   My best guess is that the "mid point" of the 1001 Books project, with 500 books read and 500 to go, would be reached in the mid 1950s.  If you use the unmodified "core collection" of 700 books, book #350 is another novel written by Samuel Beckett, Molloy, published two years before Watt, in 1951.  What that means is that every ten years from 1955 on is worth roughly one hundred books on the list, and every decade prior to that is worth 20 books or even less per decade.   So, at the very least, the inclusion of so many books per year from 1955 onwards makes those titles more suspect.  Beckett, like most other English language authors from the 20th century, loses a ton of his eight titles in the 2008 revision.  Watt is gone, the Unnameable and everything that made the list after his mid 50s hey day.

  Considering how strongly Samuel Beckett stands for the continuation of the early 20th century modernist project, I think the exclusion of his titles after 2008 speaks to a change in the project of literature that was happening while the first book was being disseminated, namely the triumph of the quest for different voices over a preference for books which dived further into the language and meaning of the novel itself. The authors who replace Beckett's work on the list are those from underrepresented places on the world map, and many of them tell stories that are closer to the novel in the 19th century than what it was becoming in the western avant gardes from the late 1960s onward.

  While none of Beckett's novels are conventional- perhaps Murphy is the only title in the 1001 Books project that even approaches a conventional narrative-  Watt is "high Beckett"- with an almost total absence of "action" and page spanning paragraphs which literally involve taking several different clauses and working through every permutation allowed by the sentence.  As an example, Bob, Steve and Larry were in a room.  Bob looked at Steven, who couldn't see Larry.  Bob looked at Larry, who couldn't see Steve.  Steve looked at Larry, who couldn't see Bob, and so on and so on for pages and pages, with many different variations.

  Beckett also includes songs and music in the text.   I will confess that parts of Watt did remind me of Thomas Pynchon, and I think it's a given that in the mid 1950s and onward was hugely influential on writers in the same way that the Velvet Underground was on musicians, maybe people didn't buy the records, but people who made music bought the records.  I still have three more Beckett titles to go off the 2006 1001 Books List.  I don't look forward to them.  I think the three titles that are in the core collection is enough Beckett for anyone not working in theater or literature.

Inside Mr. Enderby (1963) by Anthony Burgess


Book Review
Inside Mr. Enderby (1963)
by Anthony Burgess

   I was surprised to learn that only two novels by Anthony Burgess made the original 1001 Books list in 2006, this one and Clockwork Orange.  Burgess notoriously hated Clockwork Orange because it was so different from the rest of his books, and that is certainly the case with Inside Mr. Enderby, the first of four volume series of comic fiction about the life of times of the misanthropic poet, Francis Enderby.

  When the curtain rises, Enderby is living in the English equivalent of an "SRO" on the south coast of Britain, where he subsists off of a small inheritance from a despised step mother and writes poetry.  His poetry is well regarded, but of course, doesn't pay the bills.   He spends most of the time in the bathroom because of chronic stomach distress, the description of which makes up a fair portion of the humor in this comic novel.

Enderby's life is turned upside down after he travels to London to receive a cash prize for his poetry, there he crosses paths with Vesta Bainbridge, a beautiful young widow.  She approaches him to write poetry for her women's magazine, called FEM.  Then, suddenly, he finds himself married to Vesta and whisked off to Rome for a honeymoon.  The honeymoon is, as anyone who has read the rest of the book could presume, a disaster and Enderby ends up fleeing in the dead of night back to London, where he is left destitute and creatively blocked.

  After a botched suicide attempt he is institutionalized and convinced  by the resident psychiatrist that his entire life has been an extended adolescence brought about by his unresolved feelings about his stepmother.  I'm recounting the plot to show what passed for an English "comic novel" in the mid 1960s.  Inside Mr. Enderby is just as tragic as any Thomas Hardy novel, but all the sadness is played for laughs.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The House in Paris (1935) by Elizabeth Bowen


Book Review
The House in Paris (1935)
by Elizabeth Bowen

   Any author who placed more than 5 titles on the 2006 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list is practically guaranteed to lose 50% or more of those titles on the 2008 list.  Elizabeth Bowen is no exception, losing three of her six entries on the 2006 edition.  The House in Paris is one of the lost titles.   All of Bowen's works combine modernist styles (use of the "free indirect" narrator, moving backwards and forwards in time out of sequence) but The House in Paris is the most modernist, with the action taking place within a single day and the use of lengthy imagined scenes (imagined by one of the characters) taking place out of the time sequence of the novel, as a flash back.

  Like much of her work, The House in Paris touches on issues of class and religion without being about those things.  Rather, The House in Paris is about a young boy, Leopold, learning about the tangled circumstances around his birth.  In the fine modernist tradition, none of this is spelled out for the reader.  You have to either work or pay close attention to really zero in on the story before the third act ties it all together.  Before then you might find yourself asking which character is which.  That is frequently the case with books that embrace early 20th century modernist technique, a disorientation, if you will, from the standard feelings obtained from reading a well written novel.

  Does anyone read Elizabeth Bowen these days?  Maybe in England.  The last American edition of The House in Paris was published in 1976.  I'd never heard of her before the 1001 Books project, now I would rank her as a middle of the table British (Anglo-Irish) author from the early-mid 20th century.  I think though, that three books is adequate to represent her proper status.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

A Day Off (1933) by Storm Jameson


Book Review
A Day Off (1933)
by Storm Jameson

  The depiction of loneliness in London is practically a genre itself within the 1001 Books project.  Urban anomie is often associated with the rise of existentialism in the 1950s, but English authors depicted this alienation, minus the heavy philosophical overlay, starting in the late 19th century.  Jameson's take on this fertile territory is that of a single woman, aging, with no children or spouse.  Out of work, she decides to take "A Day Off" to ease her mind, and while doing so she travels back and forth in time, remembering lost lovers and worrying for her future. The feeling of sadness permeates A Day Off, and if a reader has any inclinations in the area of loneliness and anxiety, this book will certainly trigger an interior dialogue with those emotions.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Drowned World (1962) by J.G. Ballard



Book Review
The Drowned World (1962)
 by J.G. Ballard

  J.G. Ballard is a huge loser in the ongoing process of revision to the 1001 Books project.  In the 2008 revision he lost five of his seven total titles, The Drowned World being one of the removed books.  It looks like a majority of the books removed between 2006 and 2008 came from authors who had three or more titles on the 2006 list.  Almost 100% of the titles added in 2008 were new authors with no prior representation on the list.  Ballard is associated with the so-called "new wave" of science fiction from the 1960s and 70s.  These authors incorporated new themes derived from environmentalism and technological innovation with a greater consciousness of science fiction as "literature" rather than pulp fiction.

  Although Ballard has become synonymous with dystopian fiction to the point where "Ballardian" has become a recognized adjective to describe his unique futuristic landscapes, his most famous work is the traditional World War II novel Empire of the Sun, made into a film in the US starring a young Christian Bale.  The Drowned World takes place in a 22nd century London where "solar storms" have led to irreversible global warming.  London, and all the other cities of the world are flooded an uninhabitable, and humanity, down to a total population of five million, lies clustered at the North and South Poles where the average temperature is a livable 80 degrees.  Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist attached to a long term mission to catalog the spiraling number of new animal and plant species, as the mission nears completion, he decides to remain, having come to the conclusion that the changes to the climate have created a kind of regressive "deep time" that precludes human efforts to combat the changes.

  This blend of hard sci-fi with abnormal psychology is the essence of what is meant by "Ballardian."  He has a direct influence on notable filmmakers like David Chronenberg (who adapted the Ballard novel Crash into a film) and David Lynch.  And while I understand and am sympathetic with the need to revise the 1001 Books list to reflect more diversity, I'm sorry to see a science fiction title go, let alone as dark as The Drowned World.

Story of 0(1954) by Pauline Reage

Story of O is the obvious inspiration for recent pop culture phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey 

Book Review
Story of 0(1954)
 by Pauline Reage

   Before there was Fifty Shade of Grey there was  Story of O, the original work of erotic fiction focused on the pleasures of being a submissive woman.  It is worth noting that BDSM depictions in literature go back centuries, most notably in the work of the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century author. Unlike de Sade, Story of O places the experience of the woman at the center of the narrative.  O is a very willing participant in the S&M activities of Story of 0.

  Certainly most if not all of the shock value contained in the pages of Story of O has been depleted by the "pornification" of our culture and the mainstream success of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Activities that were considered beyond the pale by mid-century standards (anal sex, group sex, oral sex) are almost vanilla by today's standards, leaving behind the sketch of a S&M love affair.   The library copy I checked out had a never-before-seen, "Keep behind the Counter" sticker on the binding, proof that the library system holds back "dangerous" books from the public.


Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Leopard (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The streets of Palermo, Sicly

Book Review
The Leopard (1958)
by  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa


     The Leopard is an outlier when considered against the neo-realistic trend of Italian art in the late 1950s and 1960s.  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa was Italian nobility, the last Prince of Lampedusa, a small island off the southern coast of Sicily, and he wrote The Leopard in secret after World War II.  It was published after his death in the late 1950s, and immediately became a world-wide publishing sensation, a reputation that persists today, see the 2012 Observer list of "10 best historical novels."

  The Leopard is based on the life of Lampedusa's grandfather and his family during the Italian unification process of the mid 19th century (called Risorgimento in Italy.)  Much of the pleasure of The Leopard is not derived from the plot, but rather the description of this lost way of life, the life of the nobility of Sicily in the period immediately after the beginning of the "modern period" in Italian history.  Lampedusa's aristocrats are mild and inoffensive, and much of the book is about the compromises that the Prince needs to make to accommodate modernity, notably the marriage of a favorite nephew to the beautiful daughter of a wealthy local bourgeois.

 But I'll tell you, if this book doesn't make you seriously consider a visit to Sicily, nothing will.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Herzog (1964) by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow in the mid 1960s, two decades into his literary career and on the cusp of canonical status in his lifetime.
Book Review
Herzog (1964)
 by Saul Bellow

 Saul Bellow is a huge loser in the revisions to the 1001 Books list which have been published after 2006.  In 2008, the editors dropped Henderson the Rain King (1959), Seize the Day(1956),  The Adventures of Augie March  (1953) and  The Victim (1947), leaving only three Saul Bellow titles in the core group of 700 books.  So in other words, in the space of two years, Saul Bellow lost more than half of his titles in the 1001 Books list.  This change points to the major dynamic in the 2008, 2010 and 2014 editions, the removal of American and British authors in favor of more diversity from underrepresented literary traditions.

  But let us enjoy Bellow's robust presence on the original, 2006 edition of the 1001 Books list.  After all, Bellow is an American, well North American anyway (he was born in Canada), he's Jewish (I'm Jewish) and he's the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and more National Book Award than any other Author.  Bellow is an example of an author who had both commercial and critical success during his lifetime.  Since then, his reputation has suffered, but now perhaps, he is experiencing a revival in conjunction with the publication of a multi-volume biography by Zachary Leader (the first volume was published in May of last year.)  

  The accompanying essay says that Herzog was Bellow's first "literary" success, i.e. the book that won him the respect of serious critics, rather than a mixture of popular and critical acclaim where sales were driving the positive notices.  Moses Herzog, a neurotic, cuckolded, Jewish, Professor of Romanticism is the kind of character who became especially prominent in the 1970s in books by Phillip Roth and the films of Woody Allen, a kind of walking New Yorker article.  He is also Bellow's most memorable creation.

Ragazzi di vita (1956) by Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini loved his hustlers.
Book Review
Ragazzi di vita AKA "The Hustlers" (1956)
  by Pier Paolo Pasolini

     Pasolini loved his street-wise hustlers.  He was famously beaten to death by one in the prime of his career.  At a time (1950s) when Italian culture was hitting on all cylinders world-wide, Pasolini was a dark prince.  Famously controversial, he devoted his career to depicting the dark side of human nature, like in his 1975 movie version of the Marquis De Sade's, 120 Days of Sodom, updated to include Nazis instead of French aristocrats.  The young male hustlers in Ragazzi di vita are "street toughs" instead of being members of a specific working-class youth subculture.  Their days consist of stealing scrap metal, picking pockets, pursuing sex with prostitutes, drinking, sleeping outside and very rarely gay sex with older men.  They are pursued sporadically by the cops, and they are all on the cusp of contracting tuberculosis and dying.

  Pasolini does nothing to glamorize their petty criminal life style, but it is clear that he has a fondness for these characters and that he is sympathetic to their plight.  At the time of publication, Pasolini said that he was trying to help remember the forgotten.   The city of Rome is another major character in Ragazzi di vita.  Anyone who has been there for a weekend will recognize the locations of the center city, from the Via Veneto, to the Villa Borgese, to the area around the Coliseum. Other locations are less familiar to a tourist, but are vividly drawn.

A ghost at noon (1955) by Alberto Moravia

A ghost at noon by Alberto Moravia is better known by its film version, called Contempt, which was directed by Jean-Luc Godard and starred Bridgette Bardot in one of her iconic roles.
Book Review
A ghost at noon (1955)
 by Alberto Moravia
 
     Contempt (1963), directed by Jean-Luc Godard is one hell of a movie.  That film is based on A ghost at noon, the 1955 novel by Alberto Moravia.  Riccardo Molteni is a struggling film journalist with a new wife, living in a rented room in post-war Rome.   In short order he falls in with Battini, a larger-than-life producer who wants to hire Riccardo to write film scripts.  Based entirely on his new found employment, Riccardo makes the down payment on a larger flat, only to be immediately informed by his young wife that she would rather sleep in a separate room.

  The relationship spirals downward from there, with events coming to a climax at Battini's remote Capri villa, as Riccard and a German director are set to collaborate on a movie version of Homer's Odyssey.   This joining of the project of literary adaptation with a personal relationship drama is one of the go-to moves of smart mid to late 20th century narrative story telling.  You can think of the large genre of "movies about making movies."  A ghost at noon is the first of these sort of stories.  

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