Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 05, 2014

The Childermass (1928) by Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis, author of The Childermass, was also an important painter in the Vorticism movement, which is another branch of the area of modern painting that includes Cubism and the Futurists (Italian and Russian.)

Book Review
The Childermass (1928)
by Wyndham Lewis
Chado and Windus Publishers, original edition.

   It's easy to get hung up on the idea that one could read 1001 novels in a life time, without even realizing that even if you CAN, obtaining those novels could be ruinously expensive or time consuming or both.  For me, the 1001 Books project has broken down into four modes of acquisition:  Purchasing on-line/in stores (through 2009), obtaining free versions on my Amazon Kindle (through early this year), checking them out from the San Diego Public Library system and requesting them from other libraries and having them sent to the San Diego Public Library near my apartment.

   Of these, the most interesting category is books that have to be requested, usually from University of California San Diego or San Diego State University.  The Childermass is the most recent example of a book that would be essentially unobtainable without that last category.  Online, it will run you fifty bucks.  The there is no Kindle version of the text.  So I wasn't entirely surprised when the copy that arrived from the University of California San Diego Social Science and Humanities library appeared to be a first edition, that appears to have spent time in India/Pakistan according to a sticker placed inside the cover.

  All in all it's an arrival consistent with the 1001 Books statement that it is a "forgotten masterpiece of Modernism."  It's also book one of a trilogy, but the second two books weren't written for another thirty years.  The Childermass is literally incomprehensible without either reading about or having the text explained before, during or perhaps even after the reading.  The two main characters are English soldiers killed during World War I.  They are both in purgatory.  The authors description of this purgatory is reminiscent of science fiction/fantasy writing and represents a main reason for continued interest in the text.

  The two wanderers make their way to the court of the Bailiff, who rules over purgatory with a mixture of cruelty and sarcasm.  The last hundred or so pages take the form of play/philosophical dialog between the bailiff and a variety of supplicants.   Taken as a piece I could see why it is both considered a "masterpiece" and "forgotten" at the same time.  There is no plot, and much of the stylistic innovation is parody (Finnegan Wake era Joyce is singled out) or serves to obscure (lack of a narrator.)

  There are moments of interest though, the landscape descriptions, a strange interlude where the characters discuss the existence of "space-time" as a new dimension, and that's it really.   The Childermass clearly anticipates both the existentialist dramas of the 1950s and the sci-fi stream of consciousness of William Burroughs, but rather suffers in comparison to both.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Book Review: The Luminaries by Elanor Catton

The Luminaries by Elanor Catton

Book Review:
The Luminaries
by Elanor Catton
Little, Brown and Company, published October 15th, 2013

   The 1001 Books to Read Before You Die edition I own stops in 2005.  That is almost a decade of reading to account for.  The Luminaries caught my eye as the type of book editors might select based on it being a winner of the Man Booker Prize, and written by a 20 something author, who is female and is also from New Zealand.  If there is one thing I've learned from the 1001 Books series is that they are looking to incorporate diverse viewpoints in terms of race, gender and ethnicity.   The Luminaries is essentially an old-west detective story, set on the west coast of New Zealand in the 1860s.

   The detective novel itself was not invented, but popularized in 1868 by The Moonstone, written by Wilkie Collins.  Collins was a cohort of Charles Dickens and very much immersed in the same milieu: The Moonstone was published in serial form first, and bears many of the characteristics of the writing of that period: long digressions, a surplus of plot and character and a fondness for the Eastern/ Exotic/Spiritual/Supernatural.
    I'm not sure one would have to be familiar with the history of detective and horror fiction in the mid to late Victorian period to fully appreciate Catton's accomplishment, but I think the pull quote on the product page nails it: "Catton has built a lively parody of a 19th-century novel, and in so doing created a novel for the 21st, something utterly new." - New York Times Book Review.

   Thus, if you aren't familiar with this literary genre, you won't appreciate the parodic element of The Luminaries, and might be left with the impression that Catton is writing a straight forward, albeit accomplished, piece of genre fiction.  This world is explored in The Maniac in the Cellar, a book I read back in June- but the gist is that the world of the supernatural and detectives overlapped in the 1860s, and spiritualism was very much en vogue as well.   Thus, The Luminaries manages to avoid any kind of anachronistic plot points while also updating the style of prose to avoid the excesses of the mid 19th century sensationalists.

   The 800 page length might seem excessive, but again, by the standards of the mid 19th century novel, and the sensationalist genre, she has created something that would take well to the serial format of that period, which emphasized length and incident.  In other words she has created something along the lines of the best of both worlds, and done it so subtly that it is entirely possible to buy, read, enjoy, and publicly comment upon The Luminaries without even being aware of that level of development.

  In the sum total, The Luminaries is both a summer beach type page turner and a literary achievement, recalling many of the strengths of the pre-modern novel while incorporating a variety of tips and tricks from the modernist writers and their ilk.

Zeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo

Zeno's Conscience
 (Everyman's Library Classics & Contemporary Classics)
by Italo Svevo
Translated by William Weaver with an introduction from the translator and
a Preface by Elizabeth Hardwick
Originally Published 1923
First English Translation 1924
This Edition 2000

  The "sad guy being sick and mourning his fate" is the early 20th century equivalent of the 19th century marriage plot:  It doesn't describe EVERY novel from the time period, but does most of them:  Buddenbrooks and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, The Immoralist and Strait is the Gate by Andre Gide, Young Torless by Robert Musil, every D.H. Lawrence novel, Kokoro by Natsume Soseki, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses by James Joyce, Tarr by Wyndham Lewis, most of the male characters in Edith Wharton novels, Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, Amok by Stefan Zweig, everything by Franz Kafka, everything by Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc, etc, etc.

 At the very least, this points towards a shift in the Audience for the novel- more young men, both writing and reading, and probably reflects the fact that in the 20th century the idea that a novel could be "high art" was beginning to take shape thanks to the a rapid growth in literacy, college education and print journalism.  Svevo exists at the perphiery of this market, an Italian of German background, writing in regional Italian, but fortunately friends with Jame Joyce, who tutored him in English while Joyce lifted in Trieste.

 Self published and ignored by the Italian press/critical community, Joyce took a copy of Zeno's Conscience and showed it around London and Paris, securing publication and translation, and is probably more responsible for Svevo obtaining an Audience for his work than any other person.

  The Zeno of Zeno's Conscience is a wealthy but wish-washy businessman from Austria controlled Trieste prior to World War I.  The book takes the form of a recollection inspired by a request from his Psychoanalyst to remember the past.  During the course of his reminiscences, he gets rejected by the woman of his dreams, marries her sister, cheats on his wife, and has an unsuccessful business with his brother in law.  It's fairly conventional 20th century fiction, but I guess the fact that it was written in Italian in 1923 makes it notable.  And of course, the sponsorship of James Joyce is important.  423 pages!

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning

A political map of Europe in 1648, the beginning of the time period surveyed in The Pursuit of Glory by Tim Blanning.

Book Review
The Pursuit of Glory:  Europe 1648-1815
 by Tim Blanning
Viking Press, First American Edition 2007
674 pgs.

  Tim Blanning was a professor of Modern History at Cambridge University up until his retirement five years ago, and he turns out the kind of expert volume you would expect for someone writing within The Penguin History of Europe (General Editor: David Cannadine.)  The 2007 American publication date makes The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 practically a new release within the field.  Certainly, Blanning is well positioned to take full account to the revolution of historiography that has engulfed the field from the 1960s onward.  That revolution was the inversion of the concerns of traditional historians.  Instead of kings and diplomacy, you heard about the working class, farmers and minority groups. Although in America this focus is distinctly tied to the "politically correct" university culture of the 80s and 90s, the roots of this shift in Europe go back to Braudel and his "Annales" school.   The Annales school famously focused on the experience of every day life for normal people, and eschewed a larger subject specific agenda in favor of a history that operated largely without personality profiles or important human actors.
Political map of Europe in 1815, the end of the period surveyed in The Pursuit of Glory: 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning

  In 2007, this means that although Blanning gives his historical overview a very traditional sounding name, the actual progress of the book is from bottom to top, with the last hundred pages devoted to the wars and machinations that typically characterize past histories of this time period. Yes, Blanning has much to say about Louis the XIV, Napoleon and the rise of Prussia, but he also devotes equal space to the importance of the improvement in the ability to communicate over long distances, the lack of change for agricultural workers, the role of religion and a sparkling section on culture that is a must for anyone interested in cultural history (a roughly 70 page chapter.)
The Court Library in Vienna (now the Austrian national library) a high point of Austrian Baroque, designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in 1722.

  Through out The Pursuit of Glory, Blanning makes the case (or restates the case made by others) that the period of 1648 to 1815 was the birthplace of "modern Europe" making it the "early modern period" in European history.   Trends like improvements in roads and the efficiency of government cut across national lines and seems to represent the take-off point for the "rise of Europe" though Blanning is not so gauche as to make a lame superiority of Europe type argument.  Blanning is not blazing any new trails, I've already read many of the more specific studies that he uses to support his arguments, so in almost all cases he is condescending and summarizing work that may be unavailable to the general reader.
Bonaparte at Arcole in 1796, by Antoine-Jean Gros

  By the end, a clear picture of winners and losers from the period emerges.  The winners are England, Russia and Prussia.  The losers are  Sweden, Poland, the Ottomans and Spain.  Austria, France and Netherlands/Belgium occupy the middle, with gains and losses cancelling one another out.   An important fact to remember about this period is the hit that Sweden took.  During this period they challenged Russia and Prussia, got stomped by both of them, and that was it for them on the world stage, more or less.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Jacob's Room (1922) by Virginia Woolf

Book Review
Jacob's Room (1922)
by Virginia Woolf

  Probably the most important single thing for a lay person to know about Virginia Woolf is that she is the favorite Author of every single professor in every creative writing program in American and the United Kingdom.  Virginia Woolf is the modernist novel.  You could argue that Joyce and Proust are more formally innovative, but Woolf is loved. What does the popularity of Virginia Woolf in graduate level creative writing programs tell you about the state of the novel in America?

 I'm not really sure, though I was thinking about that very question as I strolled through the "New Fiction" section at the Central San Diego Public Library.  Mostly it looks like mystery novels (which have their own designation within fiction), romance novels, crime novels...genre stuff.  People don't buy many books where the writers are significantly influenced by Virginia Woolf in terms of form or content.  Her experiments with stream of consciousness duration and abrupt, non-denominated switches between points in time and narrator perspective signal the disorienting arrival of Modernism, and her novels must be read together to get a full sense of where she was coming from.

  I think also reading Lawrence, Joyce and Proust helps as well.  None of these books are particularly "fun" to read, and it is fair to say that a serious consideration of 1920s literature is what separates the literary kids from the literary adults.  Considering the present popularity of young adult genre fiction, such an observation is hardly in jest.

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