Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Quicksand (1928) by Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen, significant novelist of the Harlem Renaissance.

Book Review
Quicksand (1928)
 by Nella Larsen

  The 1920s are the take-off point for the multiplication of literary genres.  First out the gate was experimental Modernism, but the Harlem Renaissance isn't far behind.  Experimental modernism may have more cache with grad students and literature professionals, but the works of the Harlem Renaissance are more enjoyable from the perspective of a casual reader.  Quicksand is the thinly disguised life story of author Nella Larsen, a writer of mixed Danish-American, African-Caribbean parentage who was raised in a white, lower middle class family in the Midwest during the mid to late 19th century.  She attended Fisk University in Nashville (did not graduate) and worked with Booker T. Washington's institute as a nurse before winding up in New York in the 20s, when she married prominent, and second ever, African American physicist, Elmer Innes, and they were a socially prominent couple within the world of the Harlem Renaissance.  Despite her succesful marriage, she as always an outside in the upper echelons of Harlem society because of here white and working class upbringing.

  Thus, her work, which includes a trip by the author/protagonist to Denmark and her experiences in mixed New York society, sits at the fault lines of several important 20th century fissures, but mostly at the intersection of race and class.  This gives some notable heft to what is otherwise a melancholy and dark tale.  Unlike Toomer's Cane, which is an aggregation of short stories, individual scenes and poetry, Quicksand is a classic novel, essentially a bildungsroman about a mixed race woman coming of age in the early 20th century.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Tarr (1918) by Wyndham Lewis

Johnny Depp as Wyndham Lewis in the biopic? JUST SAYING.

Book Review
Tarr (1918)
by Wyndham Lewis

  Portraits of bohemian life aren't particularly scarce in 19th century French literature aren't particularly uncommon:  Paris has been Parisian for a looooonggggg time.  However, analgous English language literature- either writers from the United Kingdom (and Ireland) and the United States are a distinctly 20th century phenomenon.

  In America it was the "lost generation" writers of the 20s.   In England and Ireland, writers like James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis combined experimental literary technique with a bohemian milieu to create  an enduring genre. Lewis, for some reason, used the "equals" = sign at the beginning of sentences in a kind of experimental punctuation, which I think is probably more popular in poetry than the novel.  Here is what wikipedia says about the move:

          The American first edition used a punctuation mark (resembling an equals sign: '=') between sentences (after full stops, exclamation marks or question marks). It has been claimed that these were an attempt by Lewis, an artist, to introduce 'painterly strokes' into literature. This has, however, been disputed by Dr. John Constable, who believes that they are nothing more than a German punctuation mark briefly adopted by Lewis. Lewis himself wrote to Ezra Pound about this when reconstructing missing parts of the manuscript for the U.S. edition: "Were those parallel lines = Quinn mentions kept going by the Egoist, or not? Could not they be disinterred, & used by Knopf?" (Lewis to Pound, October 1917). Evidently not all were disinterred, as large stretches of the book as published are without them. (Tarr Wikipedia)
   The other peculiar aspect of Tarr is the distinctly polyglot nature of the cast of characters- Kreissler, who figures prominently in the first 5/6ths of the novel, is a kind of 19th century German romantic who is out of place and out of time.  Tarr himself is a kind of peripheral figure and a stand in for the author.  Early 20th century Paris is another main character.  The combination of characters who are doing nothing with money and those who are doing nothing without is something that will be intimately familiar to fans of later generations of bohemian celebrating literature, i.e. the Beats.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Red Harvest (1929) by Dashiell Hammett

Red Harvest by Dashiell Harmmett

Book Review
Red Harvest (1929)
by Dashiell Hammett

   I looked up the authors Wikipedia page expecting dozens of novels- he is a genre writer, after all.  Instead I was surprised to find only five novels (but dozens of short stories.)  His major works were all published between 1929 and 1934, a five year period.  His short stories were scattered over a much greater span of time.  Hammett may have been one of the first genre writers elevated to literary status- I'm just speculating here. I'm talking about 20th century genre writers- science fiction and detective fiction.  This is just speculation, but I would imagine in 1929 many high end literary critics/professionals would have disdained detective/pulp fiction.

  It's interesting to read Red Harvest because it essentially conjures into being our idea of Detective fiction: the private investigator, hard drinking, dames, guns, terse, clipped language. Hammett wrote much of his best stuff in San Francisco, but Red Harvest is set in a small Montana mining town- the main character references Butte as being nearby, and that squares with his description of the place, sooty, ringed by mountains, a mining town.  Hammett was a well known Communist- he actually went to prison for contempt of court during the 1950s era Communist witch hunt, so it's so surprise that one of the first characters introduced is the local IWW/Wobblie rep.  The Wobblies were a militant labor union, and them popping up in a 1920s piece of detective fiction is unusual on its face.

 The level of drinking and drug taking is shocking- the unnamed Continental Operative main character, drinks his liquor like he makes love to his women- hard and fast. The plot is convoluted as one would expect.  Many people die violent deaths.  The level of carnage/ over all body count approaches something you'd expect from a 1980s Schwarzenegger one-man army film.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in the 1941 John Huston directed film version of the Maltese Falcon

Book Review
The Maltese Falcon (1930)
by Dashiell Hammett

  The most interesting aesthetic phenomenon of the 20th century is not the parallel development of "high" and "low" culture, but rather the related event of specific works crossing from the "low" side of art to the "high" side.  It is a phenomenon that is not exclusive to the 20th century- you could argue that some of the earliest novels crossed from low to high art before such a distinction existed, but the 20th century, with an explosion of media and exponential growth of Audiences for all sorts of art and art products, really brought the movement from low to high (and vice versa) into focus.

 The Maltese Falcon is a strong, early example of something published as "low" art becoming "high" art over a very  short period of time.  Hammett himself made claims even prior to the initial publication of The Maltese Falcon in serial form (a year prior to it being released as a novel) that "future" critics and audiences would regard it as a great work of literature.  Hammett was assisted by the 1941 film version, starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, which turned out to be one of the greatest films of all time AND adhered relatively closely to the language of the actual book.

  Although Hammett worked in genre fiction, and inspired decades of sequentially released detective fiction paper backs starring the same detective in re-occurring episodes, he himself did not dillute his genius with successive sequels.  Perhaps some of the "high art" status accorded to The Maltese Falcon was due to Hammett having the biographical attributes of other famous novelists- he was sickly, had limited productivity, and didn't right much after the fertile period of the 1930s.

 In fact, the investing of the main character with a name and personality (Sam Spade) was itself something of a departure for Hammett himself, whose main character in his short fiction was a nameless man called "the Continental Op."   Hammett's work is, of course, a model of tight, economical prose and his influence is visible on several generations of artists working both inside of literature and outside, It's hard to even imagine film noir existing without The Maltese Falcon- novel or book.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Blindness (1926) by Henry Green

Book Review
Blindness (1926)
by Henry Green

  Oh yes Henry Green is what you call a "writers writer."  In other words, he didn't sell many copies, but had an outsize influence on young writers.  It's the literary equivalent of the famous (and false) saying that the Velvet Underground may have been unpopular, but everyone who bought the first record went on to start a band.  Henry Green was the nom de plume of Henry Yorke, an Oxford man and Etonian who quietly worked in his families' engineering firm and wrote novels in his spare time.  He was essentially forgotten in his life time, a 60s era revival brought him to the attention of a new generation of fans.  Herman Hesse was another author of the 20s who benefited from one of the many 60s era revivals of semi-forgotten literary figures.

  Blindness was his first novel and it's a delicate tale about an Oxford student who loses his sight in a freak accident (young boy throws a rock through a train window while the guy is sitting there, and the glass blinds him.)  Like other enduring Novelists of the 1920s,  Green incorporates stream of consciousness narrative with more conventional omnipotent third person narrative and a kind of early 20th century understanding of human psychology to create a character portrait that is unusually delicate.

  He also uses the third person in dialogue, "One simply can't bear it, can one." As a character talks to his or herself.  It's mannered to the point of being distracting, and I can't think of a single other novel where the third person is used so frequently by characters to refer to themselves.  Blindness is also notable for being a very early novel with a disabled character as the protagonist- it's also one of the first to give any kind of non-comic depth to a romantic relationship between classes.  Green's blind young gentleman is a far cry from the rakes and bounders that exercise their predatory wiles on women from the lower classes in every other novel of the period.

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