Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Jacques The Fatalist by Denis Diderot


Book Review
Jacques The Fatalist
A New Translation by David Coward
Oxford World's Classics
written between 1762 and 1780
published in 1796
this translation published in 1999

    Diderot, along with Voltaire and Rousseau, is considered to be one of the three main philosophes of the French Enlightenment.  His cardinal achievement was his encyclopedia, the first of its kind in French.  In addition to being one of the most well known popularizer of Enlightenment era ideals, he also wrote fiction on the side.  Unfortunately, his fiction was "too radical" for the French public when he wrote it, and as a result there was a 20-30 year period when Diderot's novels were only read privately.

  With the exception of Marquis De Sade, whose books were not published in uncensored fashion until the 20th century, Diderot is the only writer on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list who has these kinds of publication issues until you get into writers who wrote under oppressive 20th century regimes.  Obviously, it's impossible for a work to gain an Audience if publication is forbidden.

  According to the introduction in this edition, Jacques the Fatalist, which tells the story of a master and servant travelling together on the road, was directly inspired by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, but both Diderot and Sterne were likely inspired by the earlier bawdy work of French author Rabelais, who appears on the 1001 Books list with Gargantua and Pantagruel.  All three works are characterized by digression and bawdiness, and all three anticipate the self-reflexivity of modern fiction.

 Other then the historical significance, there isn't much to recommend Jacques to a modern reader.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Absentee by Maria Edgeworth


Book Review
The Absentee
by Maria Edgeworth
p. 1812
Read on Amazon Kindle

  I'm writing this review looking over my shoulder at the specter of Jane Austen.  Maria Edgeworth's, The Absentee was published in 1812.  Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, and Austen had three other hits in the next five years (with two hits published after she died.)  The fact is, every single novel that Austen completed is a major, major, world-wide hit, and it is hard not to look at influences and contemporary authors without seeing the shadow that Jane Austen casts over the development of the Novel as an art form.  Austen def. counts as an Artist who "wasn't appreciated at the time."  Whereas Edgeworth was quite notable in 1812 as a result of 1800's Castle Rackrent.

  Thus, a critic/reader/audience member in 1812 or 1813 might have thought that Maria Edgeworth would be a writer "for the ages" and not have heard of Jane Austen.   While Austen was reeling off hit after hit, and not having an immediate Audience for her work, Edgeworth was also continuing to write additional novels, but these have no where near the level of Audience as ALL of Austen's books.

  At the same time, The Absentee was an enjoyable read for me, and I'm dreading each and every one of the six Jane Austen novel's I'm about to read, and that is because Jane Austen's books are all so familiar.   Writing a review of a Jane Austen book is like writing an album review about a Beatles record:  You can do it, but you won't be adding anything to the discussion.

   Maria Edgeworth was the daughter of a Jean-Jacques Rousseau reading English Lord who had an estate in Ireland.   Initially, Edgeworth wrote with/for her father, only gradually expanding into her own right as Author. It's clear that one of the main differences between Edgeworth and Austen is that Edgeworth was in innovator/radical, and Austen was a classicist- perfecting an already existing form.   Edgeworth and Austen read each other, and they both read Frances Burney.  Both purchased Burney's Camillia, published in 1796 by mail-order subscription.

  Personally, I found The Absentee to much more enjoyable, though perhaps less advanced in structure, then Castle Rackrent.  Although The Absentee takes aspects of the picaresque and marriage plot  from various sources, the social concern expressed is entirely novel, and the pacing and language is far more sophisticated  compared to that in  Camillia. In The Absentee we begin to see expressed some of the most critical themes of the Victorian novel as exemplified by Austen, Dickens and their cohorts:  social concern, and a heightened awareness of pacing and use of language- themes that continue to characterize the Novel as an art form.

  Edgeworth is a good Author to have in your back pocket in case you run into any serious Jane Austen fans in your life.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth


Castle Rackrent
by Maria Edgeworth
Originally published in 1800
Oxford World's Classics Series
published  1964,  edited by George Watson
introduction, bibliography by Kathryn J. Kirkpatrick, 1995
this edition published in 2008.

  Maria Edgeworth is either described as "the Irish Jane Austen" or "the lady Walter Scott," two comparisons that show you what a killer Maria Edgeworth was in the Novel writing game at the beginning of the 19th century.   Edgeworth was the daughter of protestant Anglo landlord's who had been in Ireland since the beginning of the 17th century.

  The introduction written by Kathryn J. Kirkpatrick is a good argument for why you would buy this specific book rather then reading a public domain copy.   Edgeworth is certainly not as popular as Jane Austen, a taste for Maria Edgeworth is a little "inside baseball," if you know what I mean.   As Kirkpatrick puts it, "Innovative, prophetic and artistically masterful, the book both borrows from and originates a variety of literary genres and sub-genres without fitting neatly into any of them.  This protean quality may account for the novel's ambiguous status in the literary canon as well as its pervasive influence.  Combining the subtle wit of the French tale, the Gaelic cadences of Irish oral tradition, and Gothic intrigue over property and inheritance, Castle Rackrent has gathered a dazzling array of firsts- the first regional novel, the first socio-historical novel, the first Irish novel, the first Big House novel, the first saga novel."

  I know that female novelists of the 18th and early 19th century aren't generally thought to be subversive or counter-cultural, but I really see the emergence of Jane Austen/female novelists as a seminal moment in world cultural history, akin to the invention of the piano or the use of perspective in Renaissance painting.

  Edgeworth both precedes Austen and writes from the perspective of the literary outsider.  Considering the future history of the "local" novel- i.e. eventually dominating serious literature in the 20th century, Castle Rackrent being the first "local" novel is important.  Castle Rackrent is also less then a hundred pages, and when you compare her compact, descriptive prose to the sprawling digressive quality of a Frances Burney, the reader is much closer to "now" in Castle Rackrent vs Burney's Camilla:  EVEN THOUGH THE TWO BOOKS WERE WRITTEN WITHIN FIVE YEARS OF ONE ANOTHER.

  Edgeworth is on a different style planet then is Burney.   The hey-day of the Victorian novel is imminent when Castle Rackrent was published.  Castle Rackrent was, in fact, a direct influence of writers like Walter Scott and Jane Austen because not that many books were published back then- perhaps a little more then a hundred.  The fact that Castle Rackrent was published at all, meant that it would be noticed by people "in the scene."

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Justine by Marquis De Sade

The Marquis De Sade

Justine, Or Good Conduct Well Chastened
by Marquis De Sade
published 1791
Read on Amazon Kindle

  Let me tell you something, compared to the other book that Marquis De Sade placed on the 2006 edition of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die- 120 Days of Sodom- Justine is tame stuff indeed.  To call Justine tame in comparison to the 120 Days of Sodom is not to say that it is tame by 18th century standards (or even by modern standards) - it's simply tame in comparison to the graphic sex and violence of 120 Days of Sodom.
Justine by Marquis De Sade was mad into a film with Klaus Kinski and Jack Palance

  Justine is basically De Sade's take on Samuel Richardson's Pamela.  Pamela's subheading is "On good virtue being well rewarded." so De Sade is inverting that formula.  In Pamela, the titular heroine holds out against the rapey Master of the house until he marries her.  In Justine, the heroine tries to be good but is rewarded for her goodness with basically constant Rape and abuse.  The most telling parts of Justine are when her abusers justify themselves with high flown philosophical ideas while doing things like raping her repeatedly.  In that way, Justine can be read as a satire or parody of enlightenment ideology in a way that 120 Days of Sodom can not.

   With Justine finished I'm down to the last four novels from the 1700s left in the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die book.  As it turns out, I still have my copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's confessions that I must have read in high school, but I'm going to re-read it, because that's how I roll.  It also looks like I need to write reviews of four more books that I read but never reviewed.  But still, the end is near.  So close, I can almost taste it.

Monday, April 30, 2012


Samuel Richardson


Clarissa Harlowe; or the history of a young lady
comprehending the most important concerns of private life.
and particularly shewing, The Distresses that may attend the misconduct both of parents and children, in relation to marriage
by Samuel Richardson
Produced by Julie C. Sparks
Read on an Amazon Kindle
published 1748

         This review contains spoilers but I'm just going to assume that everyone who reads this review has either already read Clarissa or never will, because Clarissa is the longest novel in the English language. When I say longest novel in the English language I mean nine volumes of 300 pages each in "KINDLE SIZE" pages. It took me approximately 2 hours to read each volume, so I spent 20 hours, more or less, reading Clarissa. I am positive that I never would have read Clarissa before the adoption of the Ereader- either Amazon Kindle or Apple Ebook. First of all, it doesn't come in an edition that contains less then four volumes. That makes Clarissa an unpopular classic for would-be publishers. Second of all Clarissa is an epistolary novel, which is the literary equivalent of a Dinosaur: Perhaps interesting for nerds to study and talk about, but non-existant in the present. Third, the subject matter and resolution of Clarissa: The courtship, seduction/rape and eventual death of the titular Clarissa are treated in such a fashion as to exclude Clarissa as an apporpriate book for school age children. Let's be honest: Children are the number one Audience target for literary classics because High School and above age children are FORCED to read classics. No ONE is reading Clarissa "for class." What teacher/class combination is going to take the time to read a 2000 page 18th century English novel?

            I certainly question Clarissa's inclusion on the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list. I especially question Clarissa's inclusion in the 2006 edition because that was before the widespread adoption of the Ebook/KINDLE electronic book format, so the editors are essentially saying, "Yes- track down the four volume set and read it." It's impractical to expect people to read Clarissa, simply because of it's extraordinary length. The enduring success of Clarissa tells me that it must have been, essentially the only hit to come out in 1748 and it basically obtained 100% of the potential market for a novel- because people bought this and just devoured it and passed it around. Like they literally had nothing else to read. It just shows you the amount of time the Audience in 1748 devoted to reading books.

      If you are talking about comparable ways people spent their time on leisure activities today, someone would spend an equivalent amount of time playing World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, or perhaps "power-watching" Star Trek: The Next Generation on Netflix. It is important to recognize that the Epistolary novel technique is, by Richardson's own words in his Postscript; where he essentially engages his critics- a Realist technique. One of the main ways that the Novel as an Art Form differed from Literary predecessors was the accumulation of specific, verifiable detail in a way that over-lapped with similar developments in the field of Journalism. Thus it's fair to describe the Epistolary novel, as exemplified by Clarissa as a primitive but important step towards the realist technique that would dominate 19th century literature.

             The only predecessor that Richardson has in terms of the Rise of the Novel is Defoe, and it was interesting to see how the characters inside Clarissa were aware of Defoe- but only Defoe- as an example of behavior fit for Novelization. A sort of self-awareness, if you would? The 18th century equivlaent of a television show actor "breaking" and directly addressing the camera. It's also interesting to see how the story is influenced by/shares common influences with, Defoe's Moll Flanders (published in 1722) and Roxana (in 1724) being the most obvious inspirations for Clarissa. Yet another interesting sub-category is the relationship of Clarissa to Samuel Richardson's earlier epistolary novel, Pamela. I'm not positive, but I believed in Pamela Richardson had alot of overlapping letters- describing the same events with no major differences. In Clarissa, these parts are elided or summarized by the unnamed narrator. Pamela, published in 1740, had a happy ending, Clarissa, on the other hand, is a tragedy through and through- instead of a marriage, the deaths of the two lovers, one by "heart break" the other in an duel with Clarissa's kinsman (in Italy, of course.)

There is so much and so little going on in Clarissa at the same time: so little in terms of character development or plot advancement, and so much in terms of secondary themes and depiction of social interaction that reading Clarissa is an exasperating experience, and it points to the fact that I, like, all other readers today, have more options then did Clarissa's Audience- this being a time when there around a 100 books a YEAR published in England.

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