Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Decline and Fall (1928) by Evelyn Waugh

Without Evelyn Waugh there would be no ab fab.

Book Review
Decline and Fall (1928)
by Evelyn Waugh

  Decline and Fall is Evelyn Waugh's first novel. Waugh belongs to the "comic" strand of the novel, a strain of literature that is present in the creation of the novel itself and in a certain sense is a constituent element of the literary elements that preceded the novel proper.  Waugh draws from different comic sub-traditions: contemporary critics claimed that Waugh was simply aping Voltaire's Candide.  If you are looking for French inspiration closer in time, the characters of Guy de Maupassant in Bel Ami come immediately to mind.

 At the same time, Waugh is a quintessentially English writer.  Although his books are perhaps not particularly popular in 2014, his influence in mediums like television and film is omnipresent. The whole idea of a dry, sarcastic, archness in dialogue seems to originate with Waugh himself.  Compared to other "light" authors of the teens and twenties- Edith Wharton, I'm looking at you- Waugh's satire cuts with a knife and would not be considered "gentle."

  There can be no question that Waugh is NOT for everyone.  I'm sure J.K. Rowling has read everything Waugh has ever written, but I bet none of her Harry Potter fan base have even heard of him.  When you take Waugh's influence on other light lit franchises- Bridget Jones diary would be a not so distant grand child.  Television shows like Absolutely Fabulous- these are all made possible by Waugh.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Garden Party (short story)(1922) by Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield wore a strong blazer and had bangs.

Short Story Review
The Garden Party (short story)(1922)
 by Katherine Mansfield

  True confession: I despise the short story as an art form.  Example:  I've been reading the New Yorker since junior high and I have NEVER read a SINGLE short story in the New Yorker. EVER.  It's not a rational thing but I don't want to engage with a work of fiction that tops out at 20 pages.  If I'm going to read something 20 pages long, I'd rather have it be something challenging, not a story.  By the same token, I don't want to read a 500 page book on a challenging non-fiction subject, but I'll read a 500 page story all day.

  After reading 90% of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die published in the 18th and 19th century I was under the impression that they didn't include short stories, because there are maybe 5 out of 250 titles.  Like...there are no Anton Chekhov short stories on the 1001 Books list.  I've never read Chekhov, but I kinda thought that was the whole point of 1001 Books.  If you are going to include short stories, why not poems?  I mean, T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland seems like it really might be one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

  Mansfield got in because I don't think she has a novel, and she scores high on the diversity meter, not because she's a woman, but because she was born in New Zealand.  That makes her the first author from Australia OR New Zealand to make the 1001 Books list.  Virginia Woolf was a fan, but The Garden Party isn't particularly cutting edge in terms of technique.  It does combine the "Garden Party" title/plot with the prospect of a care free young maiden contemplating the horror of death in explicit fashion.

  The level of acuity in terms of the depth of psychological observation and the economy (obviously) of the prose are to be admired, but still it hardly seems worth the time to read.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mrs. Dalloway (1925)by Virigina Woolf

Virginia Woolf: Modernist icon

Book Review
Mrs. Dalloway (1925)
 by Virigina Woolf

   Fair to observe that the whole "1001 Books project" has been leading up to the great Modernist explosion of the 1920s.   To be sure, James Joyce was first out of the gate with Ulysses- fully published in 1922, but Woolf had actual hits.  She had a publishing imprint- one that published Joyce.  She had a literary circle in Bloomsbury inside London.  She killed herself in 1941.

  Woolf wasn't just a writer, she was an economic actor, a market maker, and a "rock star" in terms of the development of her public image.  All that said, I see Mrs. Dalloway as a triumph of narrative technique.  Mrs. Dalloway combines a fully developed stream of consciousness- for multiple characters- with seamless transitions to a more traditional third-person narration.  She also moves backwards and forwards in time.  The central events all take place during a single day, where Mrs. Dalloway is having a party and getting ready to have a party- buying flowers.  An old boyfriend of hers, freshly back from fucking up in India, is back in town.

  Other characters include a shell-shocked World War I soldier, Septimus Smith, married to an unhappy Italian woman, Mrs. Dalloway's younger sister and her husband.  It's hard not to compare Mrs. Dalloway to Ulysses- and I haven't even READ Ulysses.  The full development of stream-of-consciousness narration was such a seminal event in 20th century art history that it took several authors the course of decades to really understand the power and limits of this novel narrative technique.

   This is also the exact point where "high art" begins to distinguish itself from popular art by creating art with a limited or even no audience.   The successful trailblazers created works that are read today, but for contemporary readers the experimental techniques of the early modernists relegate them to the margins of public consciousness.

  It's possible that the high point for Mrs. Dalloway in terms of an Audience came only after The Hours film- based on Mrs. Dalloway, was released in 2002 and grossed more than 100 million world wide. It seems to me that no casual reader would get much out of the Mrs. Dalloway experience, whereas it essentially required reading for an undergraduate majoring in literature and maybe any undergraduate taking a survey course in 20th century literature.  After all, unlike Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway is only 200 pages long.  You know which title is going to get read as an example of narrative technique development in the 1920s.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Summer (novel)(1917) by Edith Wharton

Movie version of Summer by Edith Wharton. Lucius Harney, you such a cad.

Book Review
Summer (novel)(1917)
by Edith Wharton

   Besides the main character taking a trip to an abortionist, there's not much in Summer to distinguish it from a novel from the late 19th century. Summer does sound out from Wharton's other novels, in that it is set in New England, among "the little people" instead of dealing with Wharton's preferred set of upper-crust New Yorkers.  Charity Royall is the 18 year old adopted daughter of a lawyer living in a small town in rural New England.  She was rescued, at birth, from a colony of white-trash types who live "up the mountain."

  When the novel begins, she is working in the library in her small town, bored and dreaming of a bigger life.  At the library she meets visiting architect Lucius Harney, in town to sketch various buildings of interest. At the same time, Royall's ward and adopted father, Lawyer Royall, clumsily announces his intention to wed her.  She rejects his (somewhat creepy and definitely  incestuous) advances, and begins a sexual affair with Harney, which ends in a) her finding out he's engaged to a different girl in town and b) her getting pregnant. It's hardly an unpredictable plot twist.

In fact, I distinctly remember clucking my tongue on the very first page of the Harney/Charity interaction.  There are just certain things you KNOW will happen in ANY novel where a young, naive, "country" girl hooks up with a sophisticated guy from the city.  She will be seduced, and she will be abandoned.  The pregnancy/abortion is a 20th century twist to be sure (even for novels written in the 20th century but set in the 19th century) but the underlying pattern remains the same.

 Charity reacts to her dilemma by visiting a folksy lady abortionist, and then retreating to her ancestral home, where she discovers that 'her people' are just as degraded and vile as everyone said they were.  Wharton is hardly going to win any 20th century points for her depiction of the impoverished, she is thoroughly bourgeois in her outlook and sympathies.

 Yet, Summer remain memorable among her work simply because, like Ethan Frome and The Bunner Sisters, of what it isn't: A novel about New York society bitches.

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