Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) by Octavio Paz

A young Octavio Paz




































Book Review
The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
 by Octavio Paz


   It is unclear why the 1001 Books project would entirely omit ALL non-fiction titles between the dawn of time and 1950 and then choose to include The Labyrinth of Solitude as the only work of non-fiction up to this point.  It's even more puzzling when you consider that Paz was primarily a poet and that there are no poems included in the 1001 Books project.  So here we have a book length essay about Mexican/Latin American identity, written by a poet, which is the only non-fiction title up to this point in the entire 1001 Books project.

  At the same time, it's easy to tie The Labyinth of Solitude into the emergence of Latin American literature in the mid 20th century.  Paz is a harbinger of an independent Latin American identity for writers and intellectuals.  Whatever ones perspective on the events of Mexican/Latin American history between independence and World War II, it was a tough time to be a scholar, thinker or intellectual.  The history favored men of action, landowners and activists working on behalf of the poor. Intellectuals and their natural audience of the middle class were in short supply across Latin America.

  In The Labyrinth of Solitude Paz takes a stab at defining Mexican and Latin American identity as being situated between the Spanish Empire of the Old World and the American Empire of the New.   The combination of disdain both for old and new, a defining characteristic of Latin American intelllectual culture is already present, fully formed, in the The Labyrinth of Solitude.  Paz spent time in America- he writes about his time in Berkeley, CA. and the opening chapter of Labyrinth concerns Pachuco youth culture, which is present both in  Mexico and the United States.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: I, Robot (1953) by Issac Asimov


The terrible Will Smith film I, Robot shares a title but little else with the Issac Asimov book.

Book Review
I, Robot (1953)
Isaac Asimov

  I think for many people, including me, science fiction represents a transition from children's literature to adult literature.  I grew up in a suburb in the East Bay of Northern California, and I wore out the science fiction section of the local public library near the end of grade school and throughout junior high.  I should say that I read widely in both science fiction and fantasy, once separate genres, today they both tend to be called "speculative fiction."  A major difference between science fiction and fantasy is in their treatment of time and space.  Fantasy almost entirely takes place in another time period other than "modern times" and almost entirely take place in a fictional place- another universe, etc.  On the other hand, science fiction is thoroughly grounded in the tenets of "realism" developed by 19th century authors in the western novel.

  Although Issac Asimov in no way invented science fiction, he became the figurehead of American 20th century science fiction authors in that he was first and he sold the most copies. I, Robot is important because it was his first hit in novel form.  Prior to that Asimov, like many genre writers in the 20th century started writing short fiction for periodicals.  Asimov also had a day job the whole time.

  I, Robot is really a series of previously published short stories.  Asimov wrote a framing narrative involving a main character in several of the stories- Doctor Susan Calvin, the chief robopsychologist for the fiction United States Robotics Corporation.  The framing takes the form of a near-death Susan Calvin being interviewed by a journalist writing a history of robotics.  I, Robot is a sort of template for modern science fiction in that the inelegance of the prose being subsumed by the breathtaking creativity of the ideas.   The amazing foresight that Asimov displayed is even more remarkable if you consider that the short stories were originally published prior to World War II.

   In addition to influencing future writers inside and outside of genre fiction, Asimov's vision has influenced reality itself.  Many technologists from Silicon Valley and scientists from the generation prior to Silicon Valley were directly influenced by Asimov's fiction.   It's almost impossible to recreate the novelty of Asimov's treatment of "robots" in 1940.  First of all, they didn't exist.  Second of all, the computer as we now discuss it did not exist.  In I, Robot, Asimov brings robots to life in  a way fully recognizable to anyone who watches television or goes to the movies in 2015.   Robots are ambulatory mechanical men with a computer powered brain.  Again, computers literally did not exist in the 1940s, when these stories were published.




Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene

Julianne Moore starred in the Neil Jordan version of The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.
Book Review
The End of the Affair (1951)
by Graham Greene

Graham Greene Book Reviews - 1001 Books 2006 Edition
England Made Me (1935)
Brighton Rock (1938) *
The Power and the Glory (1940) *
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
The End of the Affair (1951) *
The Quiet American (1955) *
Honorary Counsel (1973) *
* =  core title in 1001 Books list

   As I make my way into the 1950s, I'm beginning to recognize the literary landscape of my early education, both inside and outside the classroom.  Issac Asimov broke out in the early 1950s- I, Robot and the first Foundation novel, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Catcher in the Rye, Junkie by William Burroughs, The Lord of the Flies, The Lord of the Rings,  all books I read as a lad.  Finally, I am in terra cognita, simply filling in gaps rather than moving through entire decades where every book is a new surprise.

 One of the major advantages of the chronological approach required by the 1001 Books project is that you don't binge on a particular author, but rather get a chance to read each book in it's temporal context with an idea of what other books people (and authors) were reading at the same time.  For an author like Greene, who remained at the top of his game for decades, this is a particularly valuable approach.  

  You can tell that The End of the Affair was written well into his career because his treatment of Catholicism- almost a unifying theme for all of his serious work- is used here as a plot twist.  The story, revolving around an affair between author Maurice Bendix and the wife of his friend, Sarah Miles, appears to be Catholic free until the last 50 pages, when it is revealed that one of the characters may have been a Catholic the entire time, unbeknownst to the other characters.

  You compare this approach to his main characters in books like The Power and the Glory or Brighton Rock, where the Catholicism permeates the text, and you can see that Greene evolved in his approach to his faith and its role in his fiction.  Greene uses several novel (for him) narrative techniques- including a lengthy portion where one character reads the journal of another character- and we read along with him.    This is a variation from all of Greene's novels up to this point- which stick to a first person narration.

  Two different movie versions of The End of the Affair- on in 1955 and the other in 1999 ensure that modern audiences remain vaguely familiar with this text, if only by being able to recognize the title.  The description of London during World War II, and a passage where Bendix actually has a v2 rocket fall on him are another reason to check out this title.

  

The Third Man (1949) by Graham Greene

Orson Welles played Harry Lime in the Nelson Reed movie, The Third Man.  The script was actually written before the novella, making this a "novelization" of sorts.

Book Review
The Third Man (1949)
by Graham Greene

Graham Greene Book Reviews - 1001 Books 2006 Edition
England Made Me (1935)
Brighton Rock (1938) *
The Power and the Glory (1940) *
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
The End of the Affair (1951) *
The Quiet American (1955) *
Honorary Counsel (1973) *
* =  core title in 1001 Books list


  The Third Man is the first title in the 1001 Books project that started as a screen play for a movie.  That movie, also called the The Third Man, is a classic, a career highlight for director Carol Reed and an acting highlight for Orson Welles, who plays anti-hero Harry Lime.  If Greene himself didn't state the movie first, book second order of things in the preface, it wouldn't be hard to figure out.  Unlike Greene's other books, The Third Man has a loose, flowing style and an emphasis on action.

  The final scene of the book, with the English police in occupied Vienna chasing the not-dead Harry Lime through the sewers has a visual quality that almost exactly matches the final scene of the film.  Greene himself distinguished his spy fiction from his more "serious" (read: Catholic) novels by calling the spy stuff his "entertainments."  From this you can tell that he wrote before the collapse of the high/low art distinction that began in the late 1950s.  The modern reader is likely more familiar with the "entertainments" than the serious stuff, and while the film The Third Man is an unmitigated triumph, I frankly question whether this book, essentially the novelization of a film, is indeed one of the "1001 books to read before you die."

Monday, September 21, 2015

Professor Unrat/ The Blue Ange(1905)l by Heinrich Mann


Marlene Dietrich starred in the film version of Professor Unrat, which was called The Blue Angel- the name of the cabaret in the book.

Professor Unrat/ The Blue Angel(1905)
by Heinrich Mann

  I was reading other books from 1905- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, anyone; in November of 2013.   As it turns out, in America, Professor Raat/Unrat is known as The Blue Angel, after the movie, based on the book, starring Marlene Dietrich in her first starring role.   The version I got ahold of actual had photographs and a screen play of the movie and the novel is introduced as the inspiration for the, "Joseph Sternberg film, starring Marlene Dietrich."

  The word "Unrat" translates as mud or filth, and that is the nickname given Unrat by his unruly Fifth Form students at the school where he is teaching in a smallish German town.   Professor Unrat has a fraught relationship with his students, all male, and is obsessed with catching them misbehaving, which leads him to The Blue Angel, what we would call a burlesque club, in pursuit of three particularly precocious youths who have been consorting with the dancer/singer Rose (LuLu in the movie.)

  His purported interest in the welfare of his students quickly becomes an unhealthy obsessions.  For a while, he balances his scholarly duties while falling further into dissipation.  He ends up unemployed and married to Rosa, serving as her husband and a pimp of a sort, beholden to her ability to extort gifts from her many admirers and her career as a performer.  You get the sense that she is also a prostitute, but I guess that would have been beyond the pale for literature in early 20th century Germany.

  The atmosphere anticipates the decadence of the Weimar period, though set (presumably at the turn of the century) 20-30 years before that period.  Based on the photographs of the movie, it seems like there Unrat is further degraded by being forced to himself perform at the night club.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Book Review: The Adventures of Augie March (1953) by Saul Bellow

A young Saul Bellow.  The Adventures of Augie March was Bellow's break-through novel.  It won the National Book Award and was significant in the later decision giving him a Nobel Prize for literature in 1976.

Book Review: 
The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
by Saul Bellow


   The Adventures of Augie March was a break through for Saul Bellow, it sold tons, won the National Book Award and firmly put Bellow on the path towards his eventual status as a literary lion.  Augie March is what you call a picaresque; an episodic coming of age novel about the "life, times and adventures" of the main character, one Augie March.  His adventures last from childhood in the 1920s, in the ethnic neighborhoods of south Chicago, to married life in post World War II Paris.  Identifying Augie March as a picaresque vs a bildungsroman requires taking moral lessons out of the question.   In the picaresque, the main character doesn't develop morally, whereas in the bildungsroman the character generally emerges at the end having learned a life lesson or two.

  Both forms involve the same kind of a story, a first person narrative that starts when the character is a lad and ends with him (usually a dude) as an adult.  The picaresque actually precedes the novel as a literary form- the Spanish were writing picaresques in the 17th and 18th century, and along with the romance they were highly influential on the development of the novel as an art form, but they also continued to be a category of novel.  Eventually, the bildungsroman surpassed the picaresque in popularity, part of a general 19th century trend towards morality in literature.

   Bellow was prescient in freeing March from tiresome late Victorian moral attitudes.  In this he wasn't exactly a trail blazer, after all, Hemingway and Fitzgerald both specialized in characters who detached themselves from conventional morality.  Augie March is different from the usually wealthy, upper class or trying to be so protagonists of the lost generation.  He is an amoral everyman, intellectual but not well educated, curious but not cynical.   Augie March takes his life as it comes, and whether he is ferrying his barmaid neighbor to her back alley abortion or trying to teach an eagle to hunt Iguanas in the mountains of central Mexico, he emerges similarly unscathed and unreflective about his experience.

   March anticipates the great anti-heroes of 1960s American books and film, and it no wonder that this book was such a hit.

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