Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Watt (1953) by Samuel Beckett

Book Review
Watt (1953)
 by Samuel Beckett

   My best guess is that the "mid point" of the 1001 Books project, with 500 books read and 500 to go, would be reached in the mid 1950s.  If you use the unmodified "core collection" of 700 books, book #350 is another novel written by Samuel Beckett, Molloy, published two years before Watt, in 1951.  What that means is that every ten years from 1955 on is worth roughly one hundred books on the list, and every decade prior to that is worth 20 books or even less per decade.   So, at the very least, the inclusion of so many books per year from 1955 onwards makes those titles more suspect.  Beckett, like most other English language authors from the 20th century, loses a ton of his eight titles in the 2008 revision.  Watt is gone, the Unnameable and everything that made the list after his mid 50s hey day.

  Considering how strongly Samuel Beckett stands for the continuation of the early 20th century modernist project, I think the exclusion of his titles after 2008 speaks to a change in the project of literature that was happening while the first book was being disseminated, namely the triumph of the quest for different voices over a preference for books which dived further into the language and meaning of the novel itself. The authors who replace Beckett's work on the list are those from underrepresented places on the world map, and many of them tell stories that are closer to the novel in the 19th century than what it was becoming in the western avant gardes from the late 1960s onward.

  While none of Beckett's novels are conventional- perhaps Murphy is the only title in the 1001 Books project that even approaches a conventional narrative-  Watt is "high Beckett"- with an almost total absence of "action" and page spanning paragraphs which literally involve taking several different clauses and working through every permutation allowed by the sentence.  As an example, Bob, Steve and Larry were in a room.  Bob looked at Steven, who couldn't see Larry.  Bob looked at Larry, who couldn't see Steve.  Steve looked at Larry, who couldn't see Bob, and so on and so on for pages and pages, with many different variations.

  Beckett also includes songs and music in the text.   I will confess that parts of Watt did remind me of Thomas Pynchon, and I think it's a given that in the mid 1950s and onward was hugely influential on writers in the same way that the Velvet Underground was on musicians, maybe people didn't buy the records, but people who made music bought the records.  I still have three more Beckett titles to go off the 2006 1001 Books List.  I don't look forward to them.  I think the three titles that are in the core collection is enough Beckett for anyone not working in theater or literature.

Inside Mr. Enderby (1963) by Anthony Burgess

Book Review
Inside Mr. Enderby (1963)
by Anthony Burgess

   I was surprised to learn that only two novels by Anthony Burgess made the original 1001 Books list in 2006, this one and Clockwork Orange.  Burgess notoriously hated Clockwork Orange because it was so different from the rest of his books, and that is certainly the case with Inside Mr. Enderby, the first of four volume series of comic fiction about the life of times of the misanthropic poet, Francis Enderby.

  When the curtain rises, Enderby is living in the English equivalent of an "SRO" on the south coast of Britain, where he subsists off of a small inheritance from a despised step mother and writes poetry.  His poetry is well regarded, but of course, doesn't pay the bills.   He spends most of the time in the bathroom because of chronic stomach distress, the description of which makes up a fair portion of the humor in this comic novel.

Enderby's life is turned upside down after he travels to London to receive a cash prize for his poetry, there he crosses paths with Vesta Bainbridge, a beautiful young widow.  She approaches him to write poetry for her women's magazine, called FEM.  Then, suddenly, he finds himself married to Vesta and whisked off to Rome for a honeymoon.  The honeymoon is, as anyone who has read the rest of the book could presume, a disaster and Enderby ends up fleeing in the dead of night back to London, where he is left destitute and creatively blocked.

  After a botched suicide attempt he is institutionalized and convinced  by the resident psychiatrist that his entire life has been an extended adolescence brought about by his unresolved feelings about his stepmother.  I'm recounting the plot to show what passed for an English "comic novel" in the mid 1960s.  Inside Mr. Enderby is just as tragic as any Thomas Hardy novel, but all the sadness is played for laughs.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The House in Paris (1935) by Elizabeth Bowen

Book Review
The House in Paris (1935)
by Elizabeth Bowen

   Any author who placed more than 5 titles on the 2006 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list is practically guaranteed to lose 50% or more of those titles on the 2008 list.  Elizabeth Bowen is no exception, losing three of her six entries on the 2006 edition.  The House in Paris is one of the lost titles.   All of Bowen's works combine modernist styles (use of the "free indirect" narrator, moving backwards and forwards in time out of sequence) but The House in Paris is the most modernist, with the action taking place within a single day and the use of lengthy imagined scenes (imagined by one of the characters) taking place out of the time sequence of the novel, as a flash back.

  Like much of her work, The House in Paris touches on issues of class and religion without being about those things.  Rather, The House in Paris is about a young boy, Leopold, learning about the tangled circumstances around his birth.  In the fine modernist tradition, none of this is spelled out for the reader.  You have to either work or pay close attention to really zero in on the story before the third act ties it all together.  Before then you might find yourself asking which character is which.  That is frequently the case with books that embrace early 20th century modernist technique, a disorientation, if you will, from the standard feelings obtained from reading a well written novel.

  Does anyone read Elizabeth Bowen these days?  Maybe in England.  The last American edition of The House in Paris was published in 1976.  I'd never heard of her before the 1001 Books project, now I would rank her as a middle of the table British (Anglo-Irish) author from the early-mid 20th century.  I think though, that three books is adequate to represent her proper status.

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